hiring a replacement before someone is fired, I accidentally sent a dirty message to my friend’s work email, and more

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

1. Is it wrong to hire a replacement before someone is fired?

I’ve been at my current job for 2-1/2 years and have gone through three grandbosses in that time. Each new grandboss has done “house cleaning” where they’ve let go quite a few long standing employees in management and brought in their own people. Crappy, but not unusual I guess. Recently I’ve noticed that literally within days of announcing a person was gone (and I confirmed they were fired without any type of notice), their replacement started work. It is obvious to me that they recruited and filled the position before letting the person currently in that position go.

I suppose that this is … practical? But it feels so slimy! They’ve done this secret recruitment, not advertising the position in their normal ways so no one sees that it’s open and figures out what’s happening. It also prevents anyone internally from applying for these positions because they obviously don’t advertise them internally so the person being fired doesn’t find out.

It all feels sneaky and gross to me. It leaves a bad taste in my mouth when it comes to our new grandboss and really lessens my trust knowing my replacement could be actively being recruited and I have no idea my job is in jeopardy (the people who were fired were blindsided, no PIP, performance conversations, etc, which is another bad practice of course).

Am I overreacting? Is this just one of those facts of life that is less than ideal but just is the way it is?

Nah, it’s sneaky and gross, particularly as a routine practice. It’s one thing if you’re working with someone on performance issues and it seems pretty clear they’re not going to be able to make the improvements needed and so you start discreetly talking to possible replacements so you’re not starting from scratch if you do need to let the person go, and even then it’s still not ideal for all the reasons here.

But they’re not working with people on performance issues. They’re just firing them with no warning whatsoever — something that’s really only appropriate if someone has done something truly egregious (punched a coworker, embezzled money, etc.). All of it demonstrates that they’re not managers you can trust to operate fairly or with transparency, and you’re right to be alarmed.

2. I accidentally sent an inappropriate message to my friend’s work email

I sent an email to a friend’s work email instead of their personal email where the attachment was something they actually requested that was harmless but as a joke I made the subject line “DILDO RECEIPT.” I realized what I’d done and reached out to the friend, who said it never came through to their inbox, junk or even quarantined/spam folders. She works for a very large corporation (50,000+ employees). What are the odds someone flagged it and will see this and confront my friend about it? What are the odds the friend gets fired?

The odds of her getting fired are extremely low. Someone may have an awkward conversation with her about it, but even that probably won’t happen. But if it does, it’ll be clear she didn’t send it and she can say, “Yeah, my friend has a weird sense of humor, meant to send it to my personal address, and I’ve already told her not to do it again.”

3. How much does an executive forwarding a resume to a hiring manager matter?

I recently gave my employer notice. I’m a reporter moving to follow my partner, who recently got a job across the country in Big City where we’ve been hoping to move. My editor sent out the customary company-wide email to announce my departure and it included some compliments, as have all of the “this person is retiring/quitting emails” at this company.

One of my colleagues (who I’ve never actually met before! What a saint!) forwarded the “she’s quitting” email to his old friend who is now a high-level executive at a company that publishes a big newspaper in Big City. The executive asked for my resume and examples of my work and sent that to the editor-in-chief and head of HR at that paper.

Of course I’m really excited. But I also don’t know how much weight, if any, editors might put in this kind of thing. I can imagine it might even be annoying to them if they don’t want an executive to get involved in their hiring process. For more background, I have three years of experience and their current open positions require five years experience. I’m also not sure if I should apply to their open positions separately through their website so I can also get a cover letter in or if I should wait to hear back.

If you received a resume this way, would that stand out to you in a good way or would it be basically meaningless or annoying? I’d also love to hear from AAM readers who have been in similar positions as I am. What came of it?

It varies. When the executive doesn’t know you personally, it’s usually not “you must interview this person” but rather “hey, take a look at this person and see what you think.” Sometimes it is “you must interview them,” but more often it’s just “have a look” and you’ll probably get a slightly longer look than you would have otherwise (which doesn’t guarantee an interview, but does usually mean more care with your application). Do go ahead and send in a formal application too; it might turn out to be unnecessary but you can’t know for sure, and it’s better for them to have it than to not.

It’s not usually seen as terribly annoying; candidates come in from all sorts of avenues and that’s fine. (It has a higher risk of being annoying if you cold-emailed the executive rather than just using their normal application process, but it’s less so when someone else is recommending you.) Good luck!

4. I asked the magic question and it backfired

I’ve been a big fan of asking interviewers the question you recommend, “Thinking back to people who have been in this position previously, what differentiated the ones who were good from the ones who were really great?” and have done so successfully in the past! However, I had an interview yesterday where this question completely backfired, and I don’t know whether it was my fault or not. I had an interview for admin work in academia, and interviewed with the boss (1) and the boss below her (2).

At first, I was met with silence. Then I tried clarifying with, ”Like any particular skills…?” And then Boss 2 gave me a long answer on how she could but wouldn’t proclaim any skill superior to another. It felt like she was really offended by the question, and she kept going about how sometimes they need people with expertise in area X and sometimes Y and she couldn’t give me an example of how someone would be great overall. Which is, you know, excellent points! But I don’t understand the question ended up being something that she felt she had to defend against me. She also made a remark about how they are a group who complete each other, which is a good thing but in context was probably a jab towards my individualism? Or something? Boss 1 said that the ability to listen to the organization is good, but agreed with Boss 2.

The thing that might have come across as something (egotism? rudeness?) was maybe that I added, “thinking back on people that have had this position before, or maybe who have it now” (since there were 50 other employees with the same title at the office). Did I screw up big time, or was this a red flag?

That question isn’t just designed to impress interviewers (although it often does); it’s also designed to help get you better insight into the job and whether it’s a good fit for you. And I’d argue it succeeded — because it revealed some really weird info about the person who would be managing you! When someone reacts that oddly and defensively to a normal question, that’s useful info for you to have.

So no, I don’t think you screwed up. I wouldn’t have referenced the person who has the job now since some managers won’t want to say anything that could sound like performance commentary on specific current employees (although with 50 people in the same job, that’s less of a worry) but that’s not a big enough deal to have produced the reaction you got. Something is weird there, and it’s not you.

5. I keep getting rejected for jobs I already declined

This happened three times in the last few years, and I am very confused about this behavior. I had interviews for various positions, decided to not take them, and informed the interviewing companies of this via email/phone. Then, weeks later, I get an email from them saying that they are no longer interested in pursuing the application with me.

The well-meaning interpretation of this would be that they just lost my message and wanted to make sure things are cleared up from their side.

But this feels rather insulting, and makes me wonder if I now have a negative remark in their interviewing systems, and if it would even make sense to write back, “No, you are mistaken, I cancelled with you on March X.”

Nah, leave it alone. It’s just sloppy application tracking — most likely they’re sending rejections to everyone who applied and didn’t get hired, and you’re technically in that group even though it doesn’t make any sense to send you that message. But even if you’re recorded as having been rejected for the job, that’s not a black mark against you if you apply there in the future. (And even if you did respond to correct their records, they’re very unlikely to actually change anything in their system to reflect that.)

If you were getting these messages within a couple of days of the interview you’d canceled, I’d be more concerned — like did they think you no-showed and so they’re rejecting you based on that? Because that’s something that could be held against you in the future. But you’re getting the messages weeks later, which says they’re probably just doing a mass rejection of all applicants they didn’t hire.

{ 382 comments… read them below }

  1. Beth*

    OP4: Academia is really prone to weird little cultures developing. Most of us involved don’t have a choice, so we learn to put up with it. (The head admin in my department is super quirky, in very not ideal ways, to the extent that we grad students basically pass down “how to handle her” tips to each incoming group; it’s a pain, it’s not very professional, but what am I going to do, quit my program over it?)

    You do have a choice, though! You asked a reasonable question and got useful information back—namely, that this is a place where people will jump all over you for asking a reasonable question and may read a lot of weird stuff into completely benign comments. Assuming you don’t want to deal with that—I wouldn’t want to, if I got to choose—I’d say you dodged a bullet by getting it out in the open now.

    1. MK*

      I actually think the answer to the OP’s question is veyr reasonable: there are plenty of jobs where there is more than one way to be “great” at it, and if you have multiple people with the same position, it makes sense to hire a skills-diverse team. But neither the question or this answer are anything to be weird about.

      1. Beth*

        It’s not the answer itself that strikes me as weird; flexibility and cooperation are absolutely skills that one could reference in answering this question. What strikes me as weird is the tone and the vibe that OP picked up on when the question was asked. It’s very weird for an interviewer to seem offended in response to a normal question!

        1. Willis*

          I kind of understand how they could have felt weird answering if they mainly perceived the question as asking them to comment on existing staff with that job title. I know that’s not really what the question is about, but if they’re hearing it for the first time and answering off the cuff, eh, I can see the awkwardness. They’re don’t want to mention some easily identifiable skill or qualification as inherent in a “great” employee, and then have the OP know who they consider the best employees. Or they interpreted it like asking “of your existing employees with this job, what would I have to do to be in the ‘great’ group?” and thought it was kind of competitive. Even if their staff does have diverse skills and talents that complement one another, surely there are some traits that are particularly important across the board (ability to collaborate? timeliness/organization? strong work ethic?). But, it sounds like in the moment, they just didn’t hear the question the way it was intended and it got their hackles up. I don’t know that I’d consider it a screw-up on the OP’s part OR a red flag on theirs…it sort of just sounds like a miscommunication to me.

          1. MK*

            Actually no, my point was that in plenty of jobs there aren’t traits that are important across the board. And I don’t see the value in that question if the answer is some generic quality like work ethic or timeliness, which are important in all jobs.

            1. BethDH*

              Because there are lots of skills that are useful in all jobs, but few that that makes someone stand out in a role if they are unusually good at it or not everyone knows are needed from the job description. The things you suggest are pretty predictable, but could be useful answers if the explanation is given. A useful answer about timeliness might be something like “this job rarely has explicit deadlines and it’s easy for things to get backed up. A standout in the role figures out how to estimate reasonable turnaround time and prioritizes work by importance rather than deadline.”
              I bet part of the problem was focusing on discrete skills, and that changes depending on the project. A good answer might be more like “they figure out who has expertise in what and proactively ask for help and get cross-training on their own initiative” — behaviors or attitudes rather than “skills.”
              Wouldn’t be surprised if the interviewer was flustered because she hadn’t really thought about what made people good at the role. Academic environments often don’t include much training in this kind of thing (though it’s changing!) and I’ve seen people in academia who wanted to hire based on basically checking off the items in the job description and giving it to whoever met them all first.

              1. Krabby*

                I was going to say this too. People who are flustered frequently come across as defensive, and that’s the type of question that can really throw people off if they’ve never heard it before (I know it threw me off the first time I was asked it, and I’d seen it plenty of times before on this site).

                I still think that says something about the interviewer, that she comes across as defensive when she’s struggling to answer something, but I don’t think it’s that big of a red flag.

                1. Wisteria*

                  Or it could say something about the OP, if they interpret fluster as defensiveness, which is equally likely.

          2. RebelwithMouseyHair*

            To me it read more like the boss didn’t care much. They have 50 of these minions and none will ever be considered for promotion because they’re just minions. So long as the work gets done, they’re not bothered.

            Like my boss at the cowboy outfit language school who was asked to make an organisation chart. A lot of new roles had been created and it wasn’t clear who had to take orders from who. He drew up the chart, but forgot to include the teachers. In a school. It was very telling.

        2. Your Local Password Resetter*

          I don’t think they really answered the question though! They went on a tangent, but never really explained which skills or behaviours turned out to be the most valuable in their past employees. OP wasn’t asking for a definitive ranking, but why the higher-rated people were considered better.

          And if the manager genuinly thought that all their employees were just as good… Then they probably don’t analyse their performance very much.

          1. MK*

            Very often the answer essentially is that there is no simple answer to the question, and is basically “it depends, it’s complicated”.

            Of the best five people in my department each of them has a combination of traits, which are not the same for each person. Of the ten next- best each also has a combination of traits, some of which are the same with the top people, just not at their level, others more wide ranging skills, others in an unusual combination, etc. Some of them have a traits that is not crucial in itself, but one not usually found in the top performers in the field, which makes them a great asset. A real answer to the question would need a long and indepth analysis that I wouldn’t be willing or able to answer on the spot during an interview. It’s not about ranking, which would be easier to do, it’s that “great” can mean a) that you are a leading expert in X or b) that you have a working knowledge of X, B, D, F, I, L, N and O or c) that you are very good at Z and W, when few people do both, etc.

            I get that in many jobs you can just say “The best people are the ones who can pay attention to detail under time pressure”, but my point was that it’s not always the case.

            1. hbc*

              I don’t think it would be hard to give a short version of that answer in response. “There’s no one skill–you have to be a guru at one of the skills listed in the job description, pretty excellent at a couple, or good at all. Think of it like a high average.”

              Though even then, I bet there are some traits that are true of, say, 90% of the stars in that role. An ability to intensely focus, an ability to figure out what the customer actually needs from what they say they need, skill at multitasking, highly organized, etc..

              1. MK*

                I think that’s pretty close to what they said though: that they wouldn’t proclaim any skill superior to another and that sometimes great people are good at X and sometimes at Y. The substance of the answer is reasonable, it just seems that they found the question weird for some reason and possibly fumbled the answer for some reason.

                And, look, this is the third comment of someone saying that, no, there must be a simple answer to the question, there must be some trait or two that spells success. That’s simply not true always. And generic qualities like being organized and focused are a non-answer in my opinion: one could argue that 90% of all successful people are organized and focused, but it’s not really what makes them great in all cases. There are plenty of people with those qualities that are just pretty good instead of excellent.

                1. WellRed*

                  I think we should trust the oP that it got weird rather than implying the question was the problem.

                2. commonsensesometimesmakessense*

                  Well, you seem to really be focusing on the answer while dismissing the hostile and defensive tone, so that is one issue. If that were removed from the equation, I think it would be less concerning.

                  Also, most managers should be able to say certain qualities they think are important in the job or, at the very least, they should not react negatively to the question and just say that they like different team members to bring their own unique skills to the table. Inability to say what qualities they want should spark a bit of concern about how well expectations are communicated by management, but it would not be entirely alarming. But the defensiveness suggests that they are not in the habit of giving any positive feedback or acknowledging their employees’ strengths.

              2. Sans $$*

                It doesn’t even have to be skills, although that seems to be what the comments are focusing on. I asked this at my most recent (successful!) interview, and one of the answers I received was “I want to work with someone who makes me excited to come back to the Llama Grooming Resource Center” – that’s not a skill, that’s a vibe. But I know, as the person who would be running the LGRC, that it likely means they want someone personable, someone who asks follow up questions, someone who’s proactive with helping with research, etc. etc. etc.

                Obviously that’s an answer that would help the interviewer more than OP, but it might also help anyone else reading this who might be asked!

            2. Your Local Password Resetter*

              That makes a lot of sense. Maybe it’s just their phrasing that’s tripping me up then, because I would consider your explanation a perfectly good answer.

          2. MassMatt*

            I agree, LW asked a really good question about how to succeed in the job and both bosses were flummoxed and fumbled for an answer. Asking about skills only came up after they met the initial question with silence, as a possible example.

            If you are a boss and grandboss for a large group of employees (LW says 50 people have this job title) and cannot say what makes some of those people great vs: good then IMO you really don’t have clear criterion for success and probably either haven’t thought about the roles much or use very arbitrary standards for evaluation.

            The “no one skill is more important than any other” answer reeks of “everything is a priority”, a sure sign of bad management. And if the team members “complete each other” (weird wording, but ok, I’ll assume they mean “complement each other”) with different strengths, then what strengths are needed for THIS a specific position? The way they worded this makes me think they hire people with no idea what their strengths are and just expect them to fit into a jigsaw puzzle of people with the same job title and different skill sets.

            I’d say they sound like poor managers, and this even without their oddly taking offense to being asked a really useful question. I wouldn’t want to work there.

            1. Zephy*

              I think you got it. If a company has 50(!) people with the same job title, nobody’s keeping close enough track to anyone’s performance to answer the magic question in any meaningful way.

              1. 10Isee*

                Or at least, not the people interviewing. I’ve worked as a behavior interventionist among 60-70 other behavior interventionists at a company, because we worked directly with clients 1 on 1 and a whole lot of us were needed to cover all the clients’ hours. Each of my case managers would have had an answer for their specific teams and cases, but they weren’t doing the interviewing. Our CEO, who did the interviews, probably wouldn’t have.

              2. ampersand*

                Yep, that was my read on it, too. The interviewers were caught off guard because they don’t know the answer, which led to defensiveness about not knowing the answer.

                1. Yorick*

                  If they don’t know the answer because they’re bad managers, that might explain why they were defensive. It might imply they know they’re bad managers and they’re sensitive about it but they don’t wanna change. Those people are awful to work with.

              3. pleaset cheap rolls*

                Yes. But even so, a good answer is “We have a lot of different people in the role and they succeed in different ways, so I really can’t say.” Or even “I don’t know – never thought about that.”

                Not being offended by it.

            2. Andy*

              > with different strengths, then what strengths are needed for THIS a specific position

              In my experience of working in teams, you bring in whatever you have and team to large extend adjusts around it. Ideally, they take advantage of your strong points and fill in weak ones. And you learn from them whatever they are good at.

              But, many different kind of people could successfully fill that one single position. Unless we desperately need, say, database expert or something. But in most cases, you need an additional person and could do with variety of them.

            3. Smithy*

              This is my read of being unable to answer the question – they don’t have a clear criterion for success and haven’t thought much about evaluation.

              I’ve been flagging this a lot in my own sector, but that if we don’t invest in language and metrics around what success looks like – then we just call onto phrases like “rockstar” or “impossible without them”. That’s all certainly complimentary, but it doesn’t help anyone assess how they’re actually doing, where they can approve, what’s needed to advance in their career, etc.

              Where this can become really problematic is when it comes to raises/promotions. What actually distinguishes Rockstar Staff from Impossible Without Staff? And if Rockstar is promoted above Impossible Without, how can Impossible Without be stronger next time? Because it’s very often impossible for someone to answer those questions, raises/promotions can happen in far more opaque manners to prevent those discussions.

              So yeah – if someone can’t answer the question, I’d see that as a HUGE red flag.

              1. NotAnotherManager!*

                I agree with this assessment. I manage a large team and have a good population of people with the same title but do very different things day-to-day that use a variety of skills, many of which do not overlap. There are still four overarching things that I find everyone who’s excelled in the position has and can articulate to a candidate (and also measure in reviews). How those core things manifest specifically in each sector assignment is different because they deal with different clients or use different technology in their work — but the four core factors don’t really change and I can give an example for each sector of how proficiency in each core factors is demonstrated.

                To me, if you can’t do this, it’s very hard to hire, train, and evaluate effectively and means that the job descriptions need to be shored up or the interviewers don’t understand the position very well.

              2. Elizabeth West*

                I’ve wondered about that myself. I’ve asked the magic question and gotten similar weird rambling, or a silence/huh? response. In fact, that’s happened more than once, and I’m quite sure I asked it exactly the way Alison wrote it in her interview guide and at a time when it felt natural to do so. Of course, it could be that I just hit on a bunch of managers who don’t know how to do this stuff.

                I get better answers when I ask a version of something a recruiter suggested to me: “What are the characteristics you’re looking for in the person you want to hire for this job?”

            4. RebelwithMouseyHair*

              I don’t think they care much about these 50 people, like they’re all interchangeable, it’s just grunt work. What they want is people who do the work and don’t make waves.

              1. MassMatt*

                Could be; certainly there are entry-level jobs with a lot of turnover where this is common. But in that case I’m surprised grandboss is even attending the interview.

            5. Kayla*

              Yeah, I think the response they give indicates that they probably don’t even know which employees are good or great, let alone what traits or skills make them good or great. And that they’re embarrassed or feel called out for not knowing.

      2. tra la la*

        Yeah, this is actually not a question I ask in interviews because it wouldn’t really get me the kind of information I want. In my field there are lots of different ways to be good, and very often positions are reconfigured when someone leaves — so interviewers just may not be able to answer this question. And what I need to know is what they’re hoping the new person will bring to this position as they’re defining it *now*.

        I wouldn’t have a good answer either if I were on a search committee and a candidate asked that question. (I’m in higher ed if that makes a difference)

        1. TassieTiger*

          Those are super interesting points! Do you think there’s a particular job/type of job the question would fit better to in interview situations?

          1. tra la la*

            One where the position is more consistent over time I’d guess? My first question is always along the lines of “why is this position open?” and I often hear “this is a newly configured position, person X retired (or whatever) and now we want to focus more on Z.” Then I’ll ask what things X brought that they’d like to see continue, and what they’re hoping the new person would bring. It’s so common in my field for positions to be reworked when someone leaves that the “magic question” would be awkward.

            1. Tau*

              The funny thing is that I’ve always felt that the question isn’t a good fit for my role either, but that’s because the positions are consistent over time. Basically: what makes for an excellent $ROLE (in my case, software developer) doesn’t really vary from one company to another, so at my level I should already know what it requires. Needing to ask would probably be concerning for the interviewers.

              1. londonedit*

                It’s the same for me. The nuts and bolts of my job are the same throughout the industry, and what makes someone great at the job is ‘getting top quality books out on time with a minimum of fuss’. I would worry that by asking ‘the question’ I’d come across as if I wasn’t aware of the requirements of the job.

              2. Blaise*

                Same here. I’m a teacher, and I feel like asking this question would raise red flags about me, because if I don’t know what makes a great teacher after ten years of teaching… well, yikes.

                1. Washi*

                  Do you think it would work if you rephrased it as “besides solid teaching skills of course, what makes someone not just meet basic expectations but really thrive at this school?”

                  I am a hospice social worker and the job description is pretty much the same across agencies because it’s an insurance benefit, but I rework this question a bit to make it clear I’m asking more about agency culture and expectations.

                2. Daisygrrl*

                  I think Washi makes a good point, and that’s how I view the question. What kind of attributes are common to people who thrive in this setting? Culture and expectations can vary significantly, even if the hard skills are common across the industry or role.

                  For example, I work at a place where there is significantly more ambiguity and lack of structure than is typical for our type of work. Much of this is a result of the culture set by management high above me, so it’s not going to change. I interviewed a candidate yesterday, and spent a fair amount of time describing what this means in practical terms, and stressing that this is not the kind of workplace where people who need clarity and predictability will thrive. On the other hand, people who thrive on challenges and don’t want each day to look the same will have a great time here.

                  While the hard skills I’m seeking might change based on the current team’s composition, I want to ensure that anyone who works here is aware of the culture and is equipped to succeed within these parameters.

                3. Forrest*

                  Yeah, I really think there are a lot of setting where the question needs to be re-formulated as, “what are the characteristics of someone who really thrives in this culture?” rather than “…in this role?”

              3. Stephen!*

                I’ve asked that question and have it backfire. Because the roles are consistent, what this particular position really wants experience and longevity, and me asking the question as someone trying to break into the field highlights my lack of experience. It’s not magic, it just works in certain situations. And sometimes you learn the hard way when it isn’t for your particular situation!

              4. Andy*

                Imo, the answer vary for software developers depending on company, but industry is not used to think in those terms.

                As in, a developer who succeeds in small projects is different then one who is good at working on big projects. Also, some companies gives developers a lot of autonomy and others don’t. The type of person happy in the former is completely different. Sometimes software development is routine and repetitive, other times you need to solve puzzle with each requirement. Some people are unable to work without deadline, others crack under time pressure. Sometimes there is tons of politics to deal with with every step. Sometimes you are heavily team based, other times you work completely alone.

                But I would expect the interviewer to be confused about the question, because we don’t talk about positions that way normally.

                1. Tau*

                  Yeah, I thought about this more during the day and… I do agree with you! Now I’m trying to put my finger on why my gut feeling is so sure that the “magic question” would go over like a lead balloon. Maybe it’s because another part of being experienced is knowing about these differences and being able to ask questions tailored to identifying them. If I interview for a senior position I’ll definitely be trying to identify the level of collaboration they’re expecting, how much independence people have, how much of QA/infrastructure/product work is handled elsewhere and how much is in the development team, etc… although it’s not that a general question to try to get them to identify things that are particularly unusual about their company culture would necessarily be out of place either…

                  actually, now that I think about it I wonder if part of it isn’t that I’m thrown off by the phrasing due to cultural differences. The talk about being “great at the role” is a very, for lack of better words, American way to phrase it? I’m in Germany and we tend to be a lot more… subdued, shall we say, in our positive descriptions. There’s also something about immediately jumping to “what would I need to do to really exceed expectations!” that IMO doesn’t work well in this cultural context. Usually I do some degree of culture-correction automatically when I read Alison’s suggested scripts etc., but I took this particular one literally.

              5. Mimi*

                Not necessarily. I also work in IT, albeit more infrastructure than software, and asked a variation on this question when applying for my current position. The answer I got was something along the lines of “Communication skills are really important, especially written communication, because it used to be that ~75% of our communication happened via writing, and with the pandemic it’s more like 90%.”

                There are plenty of people with my job title whose communication skills are GARBAGE, who arguably do their jobs very well. That answer told me that collaboration was important on this team, and that that’s recognized and acknowledged and valued. It told me that my priorities and strong skills are a good fit here, and also that it would behoove me to highlight the ways in which I share information with coworkers.

                There are software dev jobs where the most important part of the job is “code to the requirements,” others where it’s “teach and learn from colleagues,” or “review other peoples’ code really well,” or “communicate with stakeholders to figure out what they actually want and then write the requirements yourself,” etc, and that’s just what I can think of off the top of my head.

            2. Mockiingjay*

              You need context before asking. For Current Job, when I inquired whether this was a new or existing position, they volunteered that the person leaving had been there for 11 years and was highly thought of. So with that context, the magic question was very fitting.

              Much of interview prep is focused on answers to specific questions. But the actual interview itself should be a fluid conversation. You’ll know when/if these questions apply. I used Alison’s guide for Current Job, but only asked 2 or 3 of the questions. Didn’t need the rest because it was a very dynamic and engaging discussion on both sides. I interviewed at another place prior to Current Job and didn’t ask any at all, because right off the vibe was “meh” and very flat.

            3. Lalaroo*

              Then I’ll ask what things X brought that they’d like to see continue…

              It’s so interesting to me that you say the “magic question” wouldn’t work for you, because this question strikes me as almost the same thing.

              1. tra la la*

                Because there’s context to it — I’m not asking about past performers in a general way. If it’s a new position, I’m not going to ask about past performers, because there aren’t any. And with my question, I’m asking about one specific person usually — “what did that person do that you want to see continue?” is quite different from “what distinguishes a great performer from a good performer?” I also always pair that question with “what are you hoping the new person will bring?” which is really what I want to learn, because so often a job has been reworked after someone’s left.

                So to me those are different questions, because the “previous person” I’m asking about is a specific person — it’s not a general “what makes a person in this role good vs. great” question. If the job has changed significantly, there won’t be a clear answer to that. If it’s a new job entirely (which is not infrequently the case), the past performer question is irrelevant. The only time I’d ask anything touching on previous workers in a more general way is if the job didn’t change much — otherwise, to me anyway, it would look like I didn’t understand that jobs often get reworked and it would be like asking them to compare apples with oranges.

          2. John Smith*

            I’m going to go out on a limb and say some public sector jobs may be less suited to this question (at least in its current form). Some jobs are very much ingrained – they’re just there – the role is pretty much well defined, functional and not really “competitive” in nature. (I’ve probably not explained myself well here sorry!)

            Don’t get me wrong, I think it’s a great question, but if it was asked in an interview for my job, I think it would be a struggle to answer. That may or may not be a bad thing!

            1. John Smith*

              Ooooh hang on. Just thought about my employer (or rather my department). The question assumes that management takes a vested interest in the performance (and wellbeing) of employees, their roles, job satisfaction etc…. which doesn’t happen in my department. Hmmm!

              1. Zephy*

                I think, as Washi points out above, that the “magic question” isn’t actually about hard skills or job duties, but rather about more squishy cultural stuff – which is also not something a lot of managers probably take the time to think about and conceptualize in a way that’s easy to describe. There’s also probably a lot of bias at play, some of which the hiring manager may not even be consciously aware of – like, if someone asked a given manager what separated the good llama groomers from the great ones, it’s possible that all of the “great” ones will have had a trait in common that has nothing to do with the job (like, for instance, somehow all the “great” llama groomers turn out to have been straight white men, like the hiring manager, hmmmm…) So it’s a tricky question – worth asking for sure, the answer you get will tell you something even if it’s not directly what you asked.

              2. RebelwithMouseyHair*

                So if an applicant asks, they’ll get a weird answer too, and that tells them a lot!

            2. Ace in the Hole*

              I have a hard time imagining a job that’s not suited to this question, but I can think of a lot of managers who aren’t likely to come up with a good answer… even if they’re otherwise okay managers.

              I’m in the public sector also. Even though our jobs are well defined, rarely change, and not at all competitive, there are definitely things that differentiate okay employees from awesome ones, and those things change depending on the role. For example, in one department a great employee will enjoy working under pressure and being super busy without getting stressed out. In another department, great employees are the ones who aren’t bothered by doing a lot of repetitive tasks but are still able to react quickly and creatively in a crisis. In yet another role the golden ticket is “gets along well with Jim” since you’ll be the second half of a 2-person team and Jim’s a permanent installation.

          3. Forrest*

            I think it works where a) it’s the only job of its title in the team or b) there is a very clear set of skills that all the people doing that job share, but not when there are a group of people with the same overall job title who all bring different things to the team and that’s the magic.

            So in a), you can easily say, “Our last office manager was very organised, very good at communicating, and really cared about people’s needs — she set up all sorts of systems that made things work better and flow more smoothly without creating any extra admin burdens for the rest of the team, it felt like we hardly noticed them but things just worked better!” In a sales team with four members with different regions, you can say, “Well, Nat is super organised, and Ann flies by the seat of her pants and we have no idea how she gets everything done, but what they share is a really deep commitment to good relationships with their accounts, a really deep product knowledge, and the willingness to go an extra mile to close the sale.”

            But it’s very hard to go, “Well, there are a dozen Librarians, and they all business partner with different areas, and, uhh– well, Leslie’s our digital guru, you always go to her if you want to know about the new features in MS Teams, or for some creative ideas– Elaine has been here forever and knows everyone, if you want to know who controls the noticeboard outside the toilets in the Carpenter building, or which supplier does the yellow widgets on the ends of the shelves, Elaine’s your woman!– errr, Joe’s always very well connected with the rest of the profession, he shares loads of great articles from the professional organisation and can always tell you what the new developments in the field are– umm, well–” In that kind of team, by the time you get to “qualities that everyone shares”, it’s so generic that it’s basically, “be a librarian”.

            I can actually kind of see why this came across as a bad question for an academic interview, to be honest! It really is asking the kind of thing that you’d expect every candidate to know– “how do I excel as an academic?” — “do shit-hot research and get great teaching evaluations”, basically. Unless you’ve got a very switched-on interviewer who can really talk about what makes their department and culture specific, it’s not a good question because it sounds kind of naive and like you don’t really know the field as well as you ought.

            1. Forrest*

              (And if you do want an answer that tells you, “What kind of person succeeds in the llama psychology department of University of Alpaca, as opposed to any other llama psych department?” you really need to ask that question specifically.

              LW4, have you reflected on what you wanted to get from that question that you didn’t already know? What kind of answer would actually have been helpful to you, and how would you re-formulate that question to get a better answer in the future?)

            2. Forrest*

              (aargh, just realised this was an academic admin interview, not an academic interview! In which case, ignore what I said, this was just bad prep on the interviewer’s part.)

            3. Sans $$*

              I’m an academic librarian and I’ve used this question very successfully! I’ve had people compliment this specific question after I start the job. Copy/pasting what I typed above:

              I asked this at my most recent (successful!) interview, and one of the answers I received was “I want to work with someone who makes me excited to come back to the Llama Grooming Resource Center” – that’s not a skill, that’s a vibe. But I know, as the person who would be running the LGRC, that it likely means they want someone personable, someone who asks follow up questions, someone who’s proactive with helping with research, etc. etc. etc.

              Obviously that’s an answer that would help the interviewer more than OP, but it might also help anyone else reading this who might be asked!

              1. Sans $$*

                Actually I want to add – I learned about this question before finding this column, so I don’t use Alison’s phrasing. I tend to say “what for you will differentiate excellent service from adequate service” which might make a difference – good vs. great can be fuzzy in academia, but this is more along the lines of what’s the bare minimum to get the job done vs. what gets you excited about my work.

              2. Forrest*

                Ha, ok! I picked a profession that’s quite similar to mine in my organisation. I think it really would be pretty difficult for someone to answer for our team. HOWEVER, I also think it’s a weakness of our organisational structure that we have 8 very similar roles with nothing to really differentiate them, so maybe my answer partly reflects that!

          4. Mallory Janis Ian*

            I’ve worked in admin roles in a few different departments at the same university, and the vibe of each department has been so different, that my fit in each one has been different as well, even for the same role. For example:

            One college’s attitude toward university purchasing and travel policy was “Where is the line, and how much autonomy can we exercise without breaking any rules, but we might bend them or push the line a little (or a lot)”, so my role there was to be flexible and find out from upper purchasing and travel administration how to accomplish this or that unusual thing.

            Another college was very proud of never seeming to even approach the line where some purchasing or travel policy might be iffy, so my role was to abide by a set of strict rules that I knew were open to a more liberal interpretation by the upper purchasing and travel administration.

            I asked The Question at my interview with the stricter college, and their answer was that the most successful people in this position are task-oriented (which I’m not, but I thought I could make myself be). In my previous role with the more liberal interpretation of the rules, an associate dean remarked that she had never seen a more correct fit of department and admin, and I know about myself that a more “maverick-y” department is a better fit for me, to a point.

        2. Snailing*

          I think a candidate could still ask a variation of this question in your situation, though, because some employers may be more open to tailoring the position to the person than others. At my previous job, we also told candidates that we had a basic position (customer service in a specialty foods store) but depending on your goals and strengths, the side jobs may be different – you might end up being in charge of logistical stuff like tracking dates and catering orders, or you might be in charge of more visual stuff like product facing and displays.

          I feel like a good interviewer would be able to take a beat and figure out a way to answer this question that makes sense for the role versus getting weird about the question altogether. Like someone else said above, it seems all about the energy of their answer and not the content.

        3. Loredena Frisealach*

          I’m a consultant, and I’ve also found the question doesn’t really give me good responses. I think because generally there are a lot of people in the same role, and needing the same basic skills, and the interviewer hasn’t thought about differentiators. I tend to get answers like a willingness to take on things like participating in interviews, or running lunch and learns – not core to the job, but add-ons. Which doesn’t really tell me much about the company or team culture.

          1. Wisteria*

            It told me a lot about the company culture! It tells me that their culture values the add-on work as much as the core work, from which I infer that I should be able to talk about my skills outside the ones that address the core job function. I also infer that I should think about my willingness to perform add-on work and what factors impact that willingness and ask about those before I take a job with that company bc promotions and raises are probably impacted by my willingness to perform those add-ons.

            I don’t know how that would apply to you as a consultant, though. Perhaps you need to ask the question in a different way that is more tailored to the consultant role. Or, maybe it’s a question that doesn’t apply to your role and not asking it is right strategy.

        4. Retired Prof*

          I am also in higher ed and I’ve done quite a bit of hiring and no one ever asked this question in an interview. But I’d be pretty intrigued if they did. Thinking about the set of positions that I hired for, I can pretty easily identify a couple traits that make for a great employee in each position, and those traits aren’t the same across positions. But these are all positions that I was responsible for evaluating, and so I have had to think a lot about what is good or poor performance in those positions. I’m wondering if these interviewers were actually the evaluating supervisors. If so, I’d be worried as a candidate that if they don’t seem to know what they want now, how would that play out when you’re being evaluated.

        5. Koalafied*

          I’ve weirdly interviewed for more newly-created roles than recently-vacated existing roles in my career, so the “magic question” doesn’t make sense there, but I do ask a related one. First I ask how success in the role will be measured, which (usually/hopefully) will get an answer about how the individual duties or tasks are graded – I’m in digital marketing, so it’s usually some financial metrics. Then I follow that question by asking, “Thinking back to when you decided to create this position, in your ideal vision for the role, how do you see your or the department’s day-to-day being improved by having someone to do this work compared to now?” That usually gets me at squishier things that aren’t necessarily what the job’s duties are, but why those duties are important.

          The answers tend to fall into two camps – 1) right now this work is being done in someone (or a few someones)’s spare time, and the main driver of the role’s creation was a desire to remove that burden from other team members, either to address a too-high workload or to allow the other employees to focus more narrowly and deeply on their primary tasks, or 2) right now this work isn’t getting done, and our hope is that everyone else’s performance will get a boost when they have, e.g., a deeper understanding of marketing data that they don’t currently have when making decisions, more capacity to test what they’re doing, a higher volume of leads coming in, and so on.

          To me those are pretty significant – camp #1 is more likely to have a internal expertise and internal processes already developed around the work, and are looking for someone who can come up to speed on The Way We Do Things quickly, and (whether they would say it this way or not) will be perfectly happy just to have someone who can keep the work running seamlessly without any noticeable interruptions or breakdowns in the process during the transition, so that nothing is fundamentally changed in the department, but everyone is a little bit happier and less stressed in their job. If that person is also a whiz who can do the work at a better or higher level, that’s icing, but continuity of process is the cake. Some on staff might bristle if the new person coming in tries to make too many changes too quickly, preferring improvement to start coming after you’ve taken six months or so to become familiar with why things are done in a particular way before changing them. In that case, I’ll likely want to ask more questions in the interview to learn more about The Way I’ll be expected to do things, and if I take the job I’ll be keeping in mind that my job is initially going to be about making people’s lives easier, not upending them, and that peers will be happier with me if I keep that goal in mind.

          Camp #2 often (but not always) doesn’t have anyone on staff who really understands work but knows from looking at other companies and reading industry blogs etc that they really should be doing the thing to be successful. They’re looking for someone who will take initiative to create processes where none exist currently, who has extensive experience in their field and will be able to succeed without having a senior coworker who can teach/mentor them. They want you to transform the department’s work and basically be able to point to a chunk of the increased revenue they’re seeing and say, “That money is because we finally have someone doing X.” Because they don’t have a person doing that work already, it’s possible they’re overestimating the impact to the bottom line, or how much X-type work a single person can do, or at what level of sophistication, or what tools someone doing X-type work needs to succeed, so those become things I want to probe more about at interview and be prepared to navigate on my first day if I take the job.

          1. Rocky*

            Brilliantly said. I just moved into a Camp 2 role and it turns out I love offering process improvements.

        6. AnotherLibrarian*

          Yes, this has been my experience. I tend to take it with me as an option and in the academic librarian job interviews I’ve had I’ve found it is useful if I phrase it a little differently. I tend to use this language- “Thinking back to people you’ve observed in this position previously, or positions like it at other places you’ve worked, what differentiated the ones who were good from the ones who were really outstanding?”

          Otherwise, I find the tend to get odd answers or people are dumbfounded, especially if the position is new or been extensively restructured. I also save it for the person supervising the job or another high level person.

        7. Sunny*

          I used to ask this question and I don’t any longer, for two reasons. The first reason is that I think a lot of other people are asking it, especially in my field (hello fellow librarians!) and half the time, I feel the interviewer see this as a trend and kind of roll their eyes. The other is that it hasn’t yielded any particularly helpful information. One manager said “they show up on time!”

          I did ask a somewhat tactfully rephrased version of this. Someone was retiring and I asked what was one skill that the former employee was great at, and what would the hiring manager like to see more of in that role. She stated that she wanted someone with a more outgoing personality to do more outreach and I was able to demonstrate ways that I had done outreach in the past.

      3. Yorick*

        But specific skills aren’t the only way to be great at your job. Maybe people who are really great at this job have a similar outlook, or a certain subset of people skills, or whatever. The fact that the person wouldn’t even try to think of something seems weird, especially that they were defensive about it.

      4. commonsensesometimesmakessense*

        Well, the hostile tone and attitude to the question was not very reasonable. And honestly, I do not think it is a very reasonable answer. Most employers do have an idea what skills and qualities they prefer in their employees, and very few jobs are one size fits all. I mean, it is good to say that you value people for their different skills and qualities and everyone brings their own unique special insight to the job. But the flustered and hostile response to the question, and their inability to verbalize any good skills at all (I mean even the basic and obvious ones like “ability to work effectively in a team, good time management skills, eagerness to learn, etc.” leads me to the conclusion that they honestly do not know what they need and what they find important for the role, which is big red flag, because they probably do a poor job of advising their employees of their expectations or providing useful and consistent feedback.

    2. Isle of Dogs*

      Also in academia and the management culture here is very, erm, let’s say, threadbare, so it could also just be that they have never considered that question before and generally aren’t in the habit of thinking about employee performance or development unless big (BIG) issues arise.

      1. ecnaseener*

        Yeah my impression was that this boss just doesn’t think about employees’ overall performance that much, and whatever flaws he might notice he staunchly ignores. Not a good manager to work for!

      2. Heidi*

        It’s also possible that the boss who answered the question is not one of the high performers themselves, i.e. they’re good but not great. The question sort of assumes the person answering is able to recognize who is great at this job, which might be difficult if they’re not.

      3. pbnj*

        My 1st thought is some people get defensive when they don’t know how to answer a question.

      4. Rock Prof*

        This is a great point. I recently was in a meeting for the performance evaluation for the admin who works with the department I direct. It was with the chairs of 3 other departments, with a rotation every year of one of us serving as the person who officially supervises the admin. It took us 3 weeks to just schedule a (virtual) meeting. The professor in charge basically just used her self-evaluation numbers with little deviation and almost no feedback. We ended up a little more substantial in the end, but it was like pulling teeth.
        That said, I could definitely tell you what makes an excellent admin working with my program. Our admin is really great, but some other programs have had admins with who are less so. One example of what not to do: don’t order motorcycle engine blocks to be ordered to your employer for your personal rebuilds.

      5. commonsensesometimesmakessense*

        which means that employees there can be assured that they will not be clearly advised of management’s expectations of the role, they cannot expect clear and consistent feedback, they can count on constantly changing mileposts, and they can expect that their managers will blame them for issues that actually are a result of their own poor management! Yay! Sign me up!

      6. AnotherLibrarian*

        That’s such a nice way to put this… much more gracious than how I usually phrase it. I love working in higher ed, but man, it has major issues with like actually managing humans.

    3. Well...*

      So I recently interviewed for a faculty job and put this question on my list, but in the end I decided against asking it. Mostly because (except for rare cases) anyone in this job who was good or great would still be working as faculty, so it’s like asking who among the current faculty is good vs great. And if someone failed to get tenure, that’s kind of a dark thing to bring up. You have to treat questions about tenure success/failure more carefully.

      I did get a lot of the info I needed from, “what does a successful first year in this role look like?” They were clear about expectations, but also told me things they’d wish they’d done better in their first year as faculty.

      1. wanda*

        Yeah, seconding. I asked this question when I interviewed for a faculty development job, where they thought it was a really great question, but not for faculty jobs. I mean, everyone knows that really great professors publish a lot, get high teaching evals, and do a lot of meaningful service. I think your first year question is great! Wish I had done something like that- it tells you a lot about the institutional priorities and the attitude towards developing new faculty.

        1. Well...*

          I also got that question from this site! There’s a post somewhere with a list of questions you can ask interviewers. Super helpful.

    4. Asenath*

      I think I would have interpreted the response OP4 got as something like “We’re all totally collaborative here and work together as a team and don’t want anyone who wants to be excellent at the work if that means they stand out from the team”, and I’d see it as a red flag indicating that there probably is a lot of variation among the work ethic and/or abilities of the team members, but no one dares mention it or deal with the subsequent problems, because that would indicate they aren’t a Team Player. I’d see a non-red flag response as something like “We work together collaboratively, and an excellent worker not only performs duties X, Y and Z to a high level, but also is able to collaborate with the rest of the team, providing them with their results in a timely manner and dealing professionally with any difficulties.” That’s a more polite way of saying “An excellent employee won’t simply complain that they can’t get their work done when another team member is sick/out/uncooperative for some reason/whatever, but will work with the other team member in a professional manner to get the job done.” And they might have, or have had, a poor employee who didn’t try to work out difficulties with the rest of the team, and just complained, or didn’t do the work at all, blaming it on the rest of the team.

      1. Forrest*

        I could easily see it the other way around— it’s the kind of team where we like people to play to their strengths as much as possible, and whilst there’s a core 40-50% of the role that everyone needs to be able to do, what you excel at and take on beyond that will really depend on the things you’re good at it want to develop in.

      2. Librarian in a Library*

        Having spent my entire career in academia–this is likely what is going on.

      3. commonsensesometimesmakessense*

        Based on the defensive tone and the badly articulated response, I would interpret it as, “We do not have the ability to communicate clearly and effectively regarding our expectations or to provide clear and consistent feedback, but boy will we go off on you if you ever suggest you see all the gaps in our management style!”

    5. oes*

      When I interviewed for my current job (25 years ago) as higher ed faculty in the U.S., I asked the big boss, “what do you want the llama grooming department to be?” His reply, after a stumped moment: “the best llama grooming department it can be!” (much obviously false enthusiasm). The red flag was a true signal of the utter disconnect between faculty & administrators that characterizes my institution. So I’d say this response probably is pretty typical in academia but also a sign of potential problems.

    6. Selena*

      Without any further information i am inclined to give them the benefit of the doubt and say they misheard the question as ‘how can i be your special bootlicker’.
      That LW was less interested in working in the team and more interested in falsely portraying themselves as *the perfect employee* to higher-ups.

      I think the problem is that the question isn’t all that great with 50 people doing the same work: they do indeed all have slightly different talents, and there isn’t really a *perfect employee* which everyone should strive to be.

      1. NotAnotherManager!*

        That’s a really uncharitable interpretation, and if that’s what OP4’s interviewers heard, she’s better off without them. Most people want to do a good job at work, even if it’s just so they get paid more or get promotions or to avoid being fired. Knowing what that looks like at a potential employer is helpful to decide if you’re interested in the job. It’s not about being perfect, it’s about not ending up in a job where the things you have to do to be “successful” their metric don’t make you miserable or don’t fit with the skills you have.

        If someone wants “excellent customer service” and, to them, that means making a minimum 50 cold-calls a week or hassling already-busy people for new orders, I don’t want that job. If “excellent customer service” means you want me to take amazing care of your existing customers and solve their problems, I’m your person.

    7. Sparkles McFadden*

      I think the interviewer did not know how to answer the question and felt put on the spot…hence the defensiveness. So, really, the question did its job, because the point of the question is to see if the job would be a good fit. The LW now has lots of information on the workplace and can move along to a job opportunity that doesn’t involve defensiveness over a simple question.

      I once asked the magic question in an interview for a job about which I was fairly ambivalent. The answer was: “The most important thing for someone filling this position is that the person be happy, upbeat and positive every day.” The interviewer went on for quite awhile, stating that people currently on the team agreed on everything so they wouldn’t want to deal with someone “negative” who couldn’t agree with them on…well…everything. She also stated that she couldn’t understand why some people didn’t get that work was so much better when everyone was always happy, so they were only looking for “happy, upbeat” people. People who couldn’t be happy every day had no place in that department. That pushed me directly from “on the fence” to “off the fence and running in the opposite direction.”

      So…yeah…it’s a really good question to ask in an interview.

    8. Springtime*

      I’ve worked in academia, and I have to say I don’t love the “magic question.” I don’t think I’d be offended by it, but depending on the context of the person asking it, it could make me wary that the candidate prizes competitiveness. I’ve always worked in environments that prize cooperative values and new employees who come from more competitive environments can really get everyone’s back up.

      It’s also possible, if the position has had low turnover, that your interviewers were thrown because they haven’t had opportunities to compare multiple people doing this one job.

      1. Springtime*

        Replying to myself to say, I think wanted I wanted to say here was not exactly “prizes competitiveness,” but “views other employees as competition.”

      2. NotAnotherManager!*

        That’s interesting – I don’t read competition into this question at all. When I took over my department years ago, it was very competitive (dysfunctionally and counterproductively so), and I spent several years getting it the full 180 into cooperative and collaborative, mostly by eliminating the internal drivers where people felt they needed to compete against the people I needed them to work with rather than against. I love this question, get it a lot in interviews, and have not seen an increase in intra-team competition. In my experience, most people are looking for information about how we’d be measuring their success, not comparing them to others, but examples of how others have demonstrated success gives them a clearer example of what they could do than the nebulous bullets in job description.

        Frankly, if people don’t ask me this question, I tell them what characteristics (plus examples) constitute success in the role and in the sector in which they’d be working specifically. It’s the same ones they’re going to be evaluated on annually, and I think it’s important for them to know.

      3. MassMatt*

        “It’s also possible, if the position has had low turnover, that your interviewers were thrown because they haven’t had opportunities to compare multiple people doing this one job”.

        LW says there are 50 people with the job description. They can’t all be equally stellar. If they haven’t compared people doing the job and what makes them good vs: great then that speaks volumes

      4. tra la la*

        The interviewers might also be relatively new and just not have the kind of institutional memory to be able to speak to previous performers.

        I would wonder about competitiveness, too, having seen the same thing. To me the question works better if you take out the part where you’re asking people to compare/rate previous performers. You want to know what they’re hoping the new person will bring, you can talk about that without referring back to previous or current employees.

    9. meyer lemon*

      I think this question may fall into the “know your industry” category. I tried asking it a couple of times for publishing jobs and got a very nonplussed response each time. One person just said, “When the employee is good, books happen?”

      1. fhqwhgads*

        See I really think the question is about expectations. When a HM can’t answer the question at all or seems stumped by it, it tells me they do not have clear expectations for the role. Defensiveness makes it worse. If someone answers nonplussed, it would still answer the question for me because it might mean they’re not really focused on good vs great. Good is good enough for them. That’s one useful piece of information.

        For me personally the question did backfire, but not in the way the OP described. The answer I got was something like “oh you have nothing to worry about, you will be great”, which was nice? And encouraging? But also didn’t get me the info I was looking for, so in the moment was a bit frustrating because I didn’t ask to be, I donno, assuaged…which is how it seemed to be taken, I genuinely wanted to know.

  2. Pikachu*

    #2 – There is not a chance anyone in the IT department of a 50,000 person company cares about that email. They have seen far worse.

    Like the printers.

    1. WS*

      Not only have they seen worse, it probably got caught by the spam filter and nobody ever saw it.

      This can be a problem if you work in pharmacy and you *want* to see the offers for certain medications that are often caught in spam filters and you have to get an elaborate whitelist set up with IT!

      1. nnn*

        That’s what I was thinking. A large organization likely filters out common spam themes before they reach anyone’s inbox. (I’ve never gotten a single piece of phallic-themed spam at my publicly-listed work email address even though the spam folders of my private personal addresses are full of it.)

        Added to that, if some bizarre reason someone saw the email and asked your friend about it, she could say something like “Looks like spam. I’d delete it if I were you.”

        1. Selena*

          My thoughts too: the most likely scenario is the spamfilter threw it away and no person ever saw it.
          And even if a person in IT did see it most would assume it was spam based on the subject line and ignore it.

          LW may have panicked in the moment, but it is extremely unlikely there’ll be any problem over this.

      2. Anonny*

        I work at an LGBT+ organisation that is headquartered in a college (16+). We’ve had to call IT so many times because we were looking up queer sex ed stuff and it got hit by the porn filter.

        (It uses a generic school filter designed for everything from primary schools to futher education, so… yeah.)

        1. Ginny Weasley*

          I work at an elementary school and often teach biography research. A student was searching for information about Babe Ruth and got caught up in our filters. Apparently “babe” was a blacklisted search term!

          1. NotAnotherManager!*

            I had to intervene with IT on behalf of an employee who was blocked from accessing government information pages for a Middlesex County. I politely suggested they may want to reconsider some of their block terms or at least whitelist .gov URLs.

            I also got a panicked call from said employee who was concerned that they were going to be reported to HR for looking at blocked sites. (Never would have happened, but, if it had, the HR director would told IT to filter better and not bothered the employee at all.)

          2. Cooper*

            I got tangled in the filters while trying to research the cotton gin in middle school.

        2. JustaTech*

          Yeah, between the HIV vaccine lab I worked in, and the prostate cancer lab I work at now, both IT groups have had to make some adjustments to our filters for specific keywords.

          (This didn’t stop my email for suddenly barring all emails from France, which led to some testy interactions with a vendor who was irked I wasn’t answering their emails.)

      3. kittymommy*

        Yep, this would automatically be tossed by our filters and wouldn’t show up anywhere.

        LW, you’re good.

      4. Pwyll*

        This. At my megacorp, this e-mail would have hit the domain spam filter that isn’t even tracked meaningfully, far before it got to the individual spam filter that you (and IT) could review. That word in the subject is just an auto-trash.

    2. Cranky lady*

      Yup. There probably is an automated system that filters out all the phishing and egregious stuff. No one even looks at what gets caught unless there is a problem (e.g. emails blocked that shouldn’t be, why a phishing email got through the filter)

      1. Peg*

        “Here’s your dildo receipt from the dildo store.” Yup that’s exactly how it works.

        Seriously the worst thing this did was make some IT person’s day, if anyone even saw it.

      2. Queer Earthling*

        I’m a professional sex toy reviewer, so my work emails actually look like that sometimes lmao. (“Hi, Affiliate Manager, I received the [item x] and [item y] but there’s a problem with [item z]”…and no, we don’t euphemize the items.)

        But yeah, any decent company is discreet about your purchases. Your email subject *might* name the store, but not the products.

        1. Wisteria*

          How did you get that job? I am genuinely curious, not asking in a “I’m asking for a friend, wink wink nudge nudge” sort of way.

    3. lailaaaaah*

      Also, if someone’s doing something dodgy at work, the place we’ll notice is in the firewall, not the spam filters.

      (I work at a school. The number of students who don’t realise we can see what they do on the school wi-fi/devices is sadly non-zero. Always a fun conversation to have, that one.)

    4. Well...*

      When I first read this I was imagining people printing photos of dildos and for some reason it being the IT person’s job to somehow be responsible for auditing those printed images.

      1. LifeBeforeCorona*

        Dildo is the name of a real village in Newfoundland so hopefully, they get lots of picturesque photos.

        1. EmKay*

          It is and I have a picture of my best friend standing there pointing to it while giving a thumb’s up, à la Buddy Christ in the Kevin Smith movie Dogma.

          It’s an amazing photo and I love it so much.

        2. AnonInCanada*

          In fact, if I right-click “Dildo” and then click “Search Google for “Dildo,” the first result is the Wikipedia page for Dildo NL. Where you can learn all about this picturesque village, and how they got their proverbial 15 minutes of fame when Jimmy Kimmel had some fun sending his security guard sidekick Guerriero there a couple of years ago.

    5. londonedit*

      Even the fact that it came from OP’s personal email address probably wouldn’t raise any flags – I’m always getting spam emails that look like they’re from people I know, but it’s just the email address being spoofed.

    6. MsClaw*

      Plus, it was an email she *received* at work. Not one she sent. I get all sorts of garbage sent to my work email. I’m not responsible for what someone else sends me.

      It probably did get caught up in their filters before it even got to her and no one will care. It’s probably one of 1000 emails an hour, conservatively, that they filter out.

      1. Captain dddd-cccc-ddWdd (ENTP)*

        I get all sorts of garbage sent to my work email. I’m not responsible for what someone else sends me.

        I do know of a case at a previous company I worked where someone received an email with explicit pictures (I didn’t see it!), opened it and was fired for “displaying” (i.e. having open on their screen) the said images in the office..

      2. Momma Bear*

        Agreed. And definitely not egregious enough to warrant being fired even if the boss saw it.

    7. AnonInCanada*

      …or the websites some of those employees tried to access, but got blocked by the porn filter :-\

    8. STG*

      Absolutely. A RIDICULOUS amount of spam gets automatically blocked behind the scenes at every organization that I’ve worked for. IT people aren’t just sifting through it either.

      I’d bet that nobody even notices it.

    9. Rp44*

      I work at a company of 1,000. Our filters prevent over 40M “harmful” emails reaching our inboxes every year. Multiply by 50 for your friend’s company and I don’t think they’re going to find your email amongst the 2bn other emails.

    1. ecnaseener*

      Why? They closed the loop by declining to continue the process. They don’t need another response.

      1. Sola Lingua Bona Lingua Mortua Est*

        Because that response is more than most job applications get.

        1. ecnaseener*

          But…they said no. They withdrew. I get that if they *hadn’t* withdrawn, they would be waiting for a response…but they withdrew.

    2. Dr. Rebecca*

      Might we turn this around so it doesn’t sound quite so disparaging to the OP? Like “I’m happy when I even get a response.” That way the OP gets to feel what they feel, and we can still highlight the crappy practices of SO MANY companies these days.

  3. MissGirl*

    OP 4: I asked the question in an interview and it didn’t really land well. They weren’t defensive or anything; just didn’t have a clear answer and didn’t know how to respond. I took that job because the rest of the interview went well. Some questions don’t incite a good discussion with some people. Same goes for when they’re asking you questions. Some might throw you a bit while others you land.

    Move on to the next question and weigh the interview as a whole.

    1. Eye roll*

      IDK. If someone who will be managing you can’t tell you the difference between a good employee in your position and a great employee in your position, that seems like a recipe for frustrating reviews and missing feedback going forward.

      1. MissGirl*

        I have an awesome job I’m thriving at with great pay and benefits. I just don’t think they’d thought of it in those terms and didn’t have a ready answer. It doesn’t mean they can’t tell the difference because they didn’t have a clear script to read from.

        If they got defensive or angry then that would’ve been one thing but they simply stumbled over it. I’m not telling the OP it’s not a red flag (it may be); I’m saying weigh it with everything else. I’m also saying she didn’t do anything wrong in the way she asked it. Like all questions, sometimes it leads to a good discussion; sometimes it doesn’t.

        1. Myrin*

          Your first paragraph is exactly the reason for why I’ve never really found this question to be a particularly great one (sorry Alison!) – it just seems like something that’s not very well suited for ad-hoc answers but is something where someone had to really have sat down and thought about it clearly, under that specific viewpoint, and then articulate their findings accordingly. So if and interviewer has encountered the question before or they supervise people where it’s really important to select the creme of the crop or whatever, then they could easily answer it, but other than that, it seems incredibly hard to do so in a satisfactory manner in the moment.

          Also, like – I know why I’m excellent at both of my part-time jobs but I’m 95% sure that neither of bosses realise that; I’m willing to bet they’re just mentally lumping me in with the good ones. In fact, I am the unofficial team lead at one job and everyone refers to me as such. This is not a position that usually exists and technically, I do the same work as the other stockers, but I’m also the one who organises everything pertaining to our work, who teaches the newbies, who knows how to work the computer, its system, and the handheld device, and who talks on behalf of the team when something concerns all of us. But when the topic recently came up in passing with my boss nearby, she was surprised and the whole thing was definitely news to her – I know that she finds me particularly trustworthy and sometimes approaches me when she wants on opinion, so she must realise that there’s something there, but she very definitely hadn’t ever really thought about it. And I bet that many managers are the same.

          1. ecnaseener*

            But seriously, if you’re HIRING for an open position and you haven’t sat down to think about what your ideal candidate would bring to the role — or you have, but it didn’t occur to you to think about previous people in the role and what traits corresponded to the best performance — then what the heck are you even doing?!

            1. Myrin*

              I’d guess the complicated part is the “good vs. great” thing. I’d assume hiring managers generally have a good grasp of desirable traits in a candidate but it’s harder to differentiate between “people who do X are always good in this role” and “people who do X are always outstanding in this role”.

              1. BRR*

                I also think that’s what makes it difficult to answer from the hiring side (although I’ve only been an interviewer, not a hiring manager). I know what we’re looking for in candidate and what we’re hoping they can achieve In a position. But I wouldn’t be thinking about what separates a b+/a- candidate from an a+ candidate.

                But I also think a good chunk of people only ask the question because it’s held in such high regard here but aren’t actually interested in the answer or the question isn’t as applicable to the position they’re interviewing for.

                1. commonsensesometimesmakessense*

                  I do not think I would phrase the question the way Alison suggests. But I actually like the general question because I DO care about the answer. I have been in jobs before where it was a poor fit and it was not because the employer was terrible and it was not because I was doing anything wrong. It was more a case where the job as they set it up involved changing focus quickly and constantly and that was not communicated to me. I have ADHD (though I did not know it then, but I did know that I am not good in situations where I have to constantly switch focus or “multitask”), and if I do not function well in these environments. I had to sty late or come in on weekends to get any quiet time to focus enough to do my more complicated projects because I knew I would not be able to do them during the working day. If I had known to ask a version of the question then, I think they would have communicated the need to be able to constantly change focus and it would have been a major consideration for me in whether to accept the position. So yeah, after that experience, I have found that the answers to questions of this type (again, not necessarily the same as Alison’s verbiage) are valuable for me in considering if I am the person suited for the job.

              2. commonsensesometimesmakessense*

                That is a fair point. Maybe it should be phrased a little differently. But in OP’s case, the tone they took is what sets it into red flag territory. In MissGirl’s example, I definitely see why she did not see it as concerning.

            2. Snailing*

              I think it’s worth asking precisely for this reason – it can show a good vs great hiring manager! A good manager may stumble over this answer and say something general, while a great one will have thought about these things in the process of recruitment prep.

              1. Guacamole Bob*

                I may just be a mediocre hiring manager – I’m still fairly new at it – but part of the issue in my line of work is that there are a lot of different ways to be great. People come in to our junior roles and learn and grow in different ways and end up moving up through a variety of different paths. What we’re looking for in a candidate may differ among rounds of hiring even for the same job title, based on the existing strengths of the team – but it’s a little subtle and flexible. If we’re looking for A, B, and C, and we think what we need on the team is more depth in B but one candidate has enough B but blows us away on C and also has D that we hadn’t prioritized but which would be useful, that may make them someone who would excel in the role.

                Given a few minutes to think about it, I could come up with a good answer. But I might well stumble a little trying to think of the right emphasis and phrasing on my feet.

                1. SomebodyElse*

                  I think if you thought of it in terms of what are the characteristics of my team members that make them great/rockstars/rock solid dependable/that ‘go to person’ in the role you might see some similar traits.

                  -It might be less “has to know X and Y really well” instead “The ability to be a SME in different areas”
                  -Or instead of “Needs to be able to do A, B, or C” it’s “Can switch between specialties with ease”

                  I mean, the real answer is that yes as a hiring manager you know the skills and experience you need, but you should be open to the skills and experience that you hadn’t thought of or didn’t know was available, so you keep your mind open as you interview candidates.

                2. OhNo*

                  Ah, but I think being willing to acknowledge that fact, and explain the reasoning, is the sign of a good hiring manager. I’d rather have a manager who can frankly say, “I don’t have an answer to that off the top of my head – give me a moment,” or, “Well, there are a few different things that have led to people being great here, let me give you some examples to see if that answers your question,” rather than someone who gets super flustered because they hadn’t thought about it at all before.

            3. RebelwithMouseyHair*

              For some jobs, the boss just doesn’t value the role enough to bother. Typically for admins: a good admin will know how to think ahead, will know they have to fill that thing in straight away or she’ll have forgotten what to put when she “has a moment”, she’ll have got the documents ready for your meeting before you’ve even thought you might need to prepare a bit. But the boss will think they just need someone who knows the alphabet well enough to get the filing done properly, and who’ll be there on time to man the phones if ever the others are late.

            4. commonsensesometimesmakessense*

              Honestly, I think the response combined with the defensiveness is a sign that they do not put much time or energy into thinking about what the good aspects are of their employees work and that they are not in the practice of providing any positive feedback.

            5. Kayla*

              Honestly, for some jobs, they’re hiring in the hopes of getting “adequate” and “reliable”, and probably aren’t thinking about or evaluating for “great”. A lot of entry-level customer service jobs are like this… their ideal candidate is someone who comes in to work on time, doesn’t steal, isn’t obviously intoxicated at work, and is reasonably friendly.

          2. Chef Casey*

            As a hiring manager I love it when an applicant asks this question. It has regularly spurred an informative (for both of us) conversation.

          3. Machiamellie*

            But isn’t this the point of behavioral interviewing – to have the person you’re interviewing answer questions in detail that they didn’t know about ahead of time? IMO the managers should be prepared to do so as well.

            1. Myrin*

              I don’t think I said anything to the contrary?
              I just think that, given how I likely (to me! others report great success with it!) it seems an interviewer won’t have a satisfactory answer at the ready, I might as well not ask at all because it won’t yield any results.

          4. commonsensesometimesmakessense*

            But if you are hiring someone for a position and you will be managing that position, and you have a current group of about 50 people in that role that you are managing, surely you should be able to say what qualities are particularly helpful. I mean, you are the manager. You are responsible for setting and communicating clear expectations for your employees, for assessing and providing useful feedback on performance, and ideally, for providing positive feedback for your employees at least some of the time. The managers LW was interviewing with came across as if they did not even know what they thought was good about their employees and probably never bothered to recognize anything that is good, just address the bad. And they were defensive too.

            That said, MissGirl had a different experience since her interviewers were just caught off guard, but not defensive. Their answer was not strong to that one question, but she says the rest of the interview went well. I think an employer not being able to come up with a great response on the spot is not a deal breaker either, but … it is weird when an interviewer, especially one who will be the manager and is not new to the management position themselves, cannot articulate what qualities they find important for the role.

            1. tra la la*

              But the question is SO focused on asking about other people’s performance. If an interviewer is asked straight out what qualities they find important for the role, and they can’t answer that, then yeah, that’s a problem. But if you’re asking the manager to think back to previous people’s work and describe who was good vs. who was great, you really *aren’t* just asking about what qualities they want, you’re asking them to think through a whole bunch of other stuff that they don’t really need to think through in order to articulate what qualities they want from a candidate.

              If I’m on a hiring committee, I may or may not have the institutional knowledge or the history at the organization to go through a whole internal “hmm, Suzi was great at X, Howard was only good at it” thing, but I will know what we are hoping to find in a candidate for a current position.

        2. Smithy*

          I do think that perhaps this is a question that’s going to have more/less weight depending on what the job or sector is. I’m in nonprofit fundraising and certainly there’s always the metric of how much money is brought it. However, in order to get to that point there’s a lot of work that can be prioritized or de-emphasized, and I want to know how different managers/organizations view that.

          Therefore, in asking that question if someone is unable to give a thoughtful answer, that’s a huge red flag. We will always be evaluated by the money, but if no one knows anything else that will contribute to good vs great performance – I’d have some serious follow-up questions.

          I also know that is a unique to my sector. So while I can see this question not having equal appeal across jobs – for anyone in my sector, if your hiring manager/grand boss can’t answer this question – ask a lot more questions. And maybe get worried.

          1. Yorick*

            In nonprofit fundraising, the organization should know about things that tend to work well with their particular donors. So the interviewer should be able to speak to those, at least, when asked this question.

        3. commonsensesometimesmakessense*

          yeah, the defensive tone though really does make a big difference. It is a potential concern that they cannot answer that questions readily at the interview stage because it may signify that they do not or cannot articulate their expectations clearly or provide clear and consistent feedback. But I agree that if everything else went well, it should just be something to consider, but not a glaring issue. But the defensive attitude is what turns their inability to answer it into a huge red flag.

      2. Cambridge Comma*

        Telling the difference in day to day life and being able to explain the difference off the top of your head with examples suitable for an external person are not necessarily the same skill, though.

        1. Guacamole Bob*

          Yes, this. I think my team is great and people are generally happy here, but thinking back to the last couple rounds of hiring I’ve been involved in, my answer to the question would probably not be that helpful. I’d say something about a really great person working more independently, showing more initiative, having the ability to take on larger projects with ease – and it amounts to “the really great people came in with 5 or 6 years of experience, or acted like it, when the job only requires 2.”

          Or maybe hearing that it was often about soft skills and not more advanced technical skills actually would be useful for candidates (these have been analyst roles)? But I wouldn’t have a concise answer at the ready.

          1. Lana Kane*

            I mention soft skills when I get this kind of question. People with solid soft skills on top of solid hard skills, in my experience, are usually the ones who distinguish themselves. I’d mention it if you’ve found that to be the case.

        2. MCMonkeybean*

          Yes, exactly. I think it’s worth asking because they may have a helpful response, but I don’t think it’s a red flag if they can’t think of anything immediately (though if they act weird and defensive about it like in the letter here then that might be).

    2. Seeking Second Childhood*

      Many people seem defensive when they are asked something unexpected.
      So I think it’s a new question to these interviewers.
      Maybe a followup question would help. “Let me try reword in that– what are some things that would earn someone an excellent performance appraisal?
      If they can’t answer that either, I’d worry that raises & promotions will be based on who the manager happens to like. Or that there’s a rule that no one can exceed expectations in more than one category and everyone MUST need improvement in at least one.

    3. Lacey*

      Yeah, I’ve asked that question in a few interviews. In one interview I had clearly said the secret password. The interviewer was delighted with me and delighted to prattle off all the right things about what made a person great in that position. That job was hell. Everything in the interview was just about saying the right thing. I said the right thing, so they said the right thing. But in the job, none of that was real.

      My current boss didn’t even seem to understand what I was asking. But the job is delightful and I’ve never had so much appreciation for my work.

    4. Weekend Please*

      Some jobs have more fluid parameters and it can be difficult to say what makes a great employee in general since the job changes so much. That can be a good data point.

  4. Raine*

    RE: LW #4: That answer you got sounds like the one I used to get from managers who bought into the idea that “we’re all a team here! you’re going to pull your weight and then some because we’re a team and it all rolls down to you!” Which, y’know, is not a great thing when you’re the admin and everyone dumps their shit on you in the name of “teamwork”. I would hesitate and get clarification if you were to get a second interview as to what the expectations for “teamwork” are, what kind of resources you have when you get slammed with requests, and how much the manager expects any admin to “just handle it” when requests come their way.

    I wouldn’t say it’s a deal breaker, but it’s one where you should weigh the oddness of the response you got against your experience and skill in navigating the unknown in a role where the manager didn’t want to define what “successful person in this role” looks like.
    – Signed, the ex-senior executive administrative assistant

    1. GammaGirl1908*

      In addition, people really need to be careful about thinking of this as a “magic” question. It’s a great and thoughtful question, and often will net you good information, but it’s one of several good questions you could and should ask in your interview.

      It’s not a magic hack to win the interview to ask this question, just like it’s not a job-getting hack to be pleasant to the receptionist or to arrive 10 minutes early or to customize your resume and materials or to be enthusiastic in expressing your continued interest or to send a follow-up note.

      It should be part of the overall package you are presenting, just as — in this case — their answer should be part of the overall package you are considering.

      1. June*

        Yes. And I don’t know why, but the question has kind of an arrogant tone to me. Maybe it could be rephrased. Idk. Just me.

        1. AnalystintheUK*

          It comes off kind of arrogant to me as well – it’s as if the expectation of the interviewee asking this question is that they can then give examples of what would make them outstanding.

          The reality is that most people are not outstanding at their jobs and that is 100% fine and good – if everyone were outstanding then nobody would be. As long as you can perform the role competently and within the expectation of your employer that should be all that’s required.

          1. SomebodyElse*

            It is a bit like asking for the answers to the test. But it can also give you a lot of the intangible information as a candidate. I’ve been asked as a hiring manager and use it as a good opportunity to talk about things like; being a meeting heavy org and I’ll mention that a very successful person can roll with constant priority changes, autonomy, etc. (I’ll also mention things specific to the role and individual team dynamics).

            I’ll sometimes rephrase my answer to answer the question to “What parts of the job will make a person happy in the role” This is my way of giving candidates the opportunity to self – select out if they don’t think they’d like the environment or different aspects of the role.

            Really the bottom line is most of could be good at a variety of jobs. But it’s the ones that we enjoy and are comfortable in do we really thrive.

        2. Selena*

          I feel the same.
          Most employees are good but not great and suggesting that you WILL be great feels like people who think they have no negative traits or weakness.
          And if you already seem to have put yourself in the 99%th percentile of high performers i wonder if you feel the job is below you.

          1. SuperDiva*

            Yes. I would never ask this question with this specific phrasing because it feels awkward and unnatural for me. But I think there are other ways of getting at the information, like asking about skills to excel in the role, or things like that.

        3. Smithy*

          I’ve used this question and find it really helpful, but to build on what GammaGirl said – all of these tips/hacks aren’t so much magic as suggestions that are often best utilized when personally incorporated and use someone’s own voice. When I’m getting interviewed, I often have a few questions about KPI’s and evaluation, so this has always fit in with those pretty naturally.

          In my view a manager not being able to articulate a good and great direct report often indicates discomfort in articulating their own expectations and also how they evaluate soft skills. All of which I’m evaluating of whoever is interviewing me.

        4. OhNo*

          I think it’s easy to read tone in a written statement that wouldn’t be there in a real interview. There are lots of different ways that tone of voice, body language, the rest of the conversation, etc. would change how this question comes across, even with the exact same word choice and phrasing that is presented here.

      2. Sparkles McFadden*

        It’s “magic” not because it will impress anybody or get you the job, but that it opens the door to a conversation that should be happening in an interview but often doesn’t.

        Most people do not think of an interview as a two-way street. The candidate mindset is often “I must find out what will get these people to hire me.” Too often the approach by the interviewer is “Tell me about yourself” leaving what the role really demands as a mystery. The best interviews are ones where it’s an open conversation about what the role demands and what the candidate can bring to the role.

        I mentioned upthread that I asked the question during one interview and got the answer of “We only really want people who can be happy, upbeat and positive every day.” Upon further discussion, “happy, upbeat and positive” really meant “agreeing with everyone all the time and never asking questions about anything.” I seriously doubt that would have come up without the initial question.

        1. NotAnotherManager!*

          I agree with this so much, and it’s why I answer the question even if they don’t ask it. I also interview a lot of new graduates, and part of my opening introduction in an interview is to say that they’re also interviewing us and that it’s important to me to answer their questions, too.

      3. PT*

        With all due respect to this blog and Alison, a lot of the advice here is really specific to a certain type of workplace. Some of it is applicable to all workplaces, some of it needs to be adapted around the edges to be more broadly applicable, and some of it just has to be considered on a field-by-field, workplace-by-workplace basis.

        It can be good advice and still not be the correct advice for where you are interviewing or working.

      4. DyneinWalking*

        I agree. The most important job interview is not getting the job (though desperation is definitely understandable!), it’s correctly assessing the fit. After all, not every person is cut out for every job, even if the basic qualifications and requirements are the same! There’s different specializations, interests, and personalities, different specific requirements, company culture… There is no “magic” question that will impress to the point that these differences don’t matter.
        In fact, a good interview question should be able to accentuate those differences, so you can make a truly well-informed decision!

        Instead of simply applying “magic” questions to impress, you should approach interviews with the general frame of mind of “Is this REALLY a job that fits to my specializations, personality, goals, etc? Is this a company I’d REALLY like to work at?”. Ironically, being super discerning and critical about your ability to excel in the job is going to make you look even better (to healthy workplaces, at least, though probably not to unhealthy ones – which isn’t a bad thing!)

        1. JustaTech*

          Right! I think part of the “magic” of the question is that it gets at some of the “fit” questions that might be hard to approach otherwise. So if you’ve got say, a very strict time schedule due to commute or family care or something like that, and part of what makes a person “great” at the position you’re interviewing for is being able to stay late on short notice, then that tell you that this job might not work out for you.

          For example, my job is a weird combination of rigid (heavily regulated industry) and changeable (our job is to fix the problems that pop up that no one expected, while also working on expected problems). I’ve had coworkers who worked really well with the rigid framework parts but had a hard time switching to a new thing, and I’ve had coworkers who were great at running with a new project but had a hard time staying in the guidelines. If someone asked me what makes someone “great” at this position I would explain just that, that you need to be able to pivot quickly but within this framework. And I would hope that would give the interviewee a better idea of the kind of work we do. (I try to explain this anyway, but the “magic” question would be a great jumping off point.)

  5. Aspen*

    OP#4, a similar thing once happened to me when I asked about turnover in the job. (It was a valid question, considering I’d been told I was replacing someone who was only there for 2 weeks.). HR rep got visibly sniffy and offended, “I wouldn’t say this job has unusually high turnover.”

    Well, I got the job, and said boss was a hell boss, and when a temp working for someone else complained to another peer that she had been summarily fired from the job and said “she had gone back to her agency, and the agency said she heard (my firm) had someone incredibly picky and difficult to please who went through assistants like water”. It was a tossup, the assistant pool agreed, whether it was the guy who she worked for or the guy who I worked for. (The HR rep was also generally incompetent and made me the assistant-pool scapegoat; but that’s a story for another day.)

    1. AndersonDarling*

      I once had an interview with the director of a department seeped in challenges. There were acquisitions, departments being added, communication issues, technology problems, knowledge gaps, and just every problem imaginable. I asked what her goals were for the coming year since there were so many priorities. She told me she had never considered it before. The director of over 500 employees and 1000 contractors, at a major telecommunications company, had never thought about prioritizing the challenges or setting goals.
      I asked because the interview was information overload and I was just trying to figure out what was important, but the question really showed how disorganized the company was. I was grateful that I wasn’t offered the job.

      1. RebelwithMouseyHair*

        You do know you could turn them down if they offered you a job don’t you?

    2. Just Another Manic Millie*

      I never asked about turnover in the job. I figured that if there was a high rate of turnover, the interviewer would lie about it.

      That’s also why I never asked why the previous person who had the job I was applying for left. There wouldn’t be any way for me to figure out if the interviewer was lying to me. When I was interviewed for one of my jobs by the owner of the company, she volunteered the information that the previous person had quit because she wanted to work for a big company. After I started there, the owner told me that she had fired the previous person because she did no work and spent all of her time shopping online. After that, a co-worker told me that the previous person had been an excellent worker, but when she found another job and wanted to give two weeks notice, she found out that the owner would be away for several days. Even though the co-worker told her to email the owner to give two weeks notice, she decided to wait until the owner got back to the office to give notice (even though it was only one week’s notice by then). The owner was furious at being given only one week’s notice and threw her out and said that if anyone called for a reference about her, she would say that the previous person had been fired.

  6. goducks*

    LW 2- there’s practically no chance anybody will ever say anything to the friend. Not only do these filters catch a ton of junk per user and friend works at a large org so thousand and thousands a day, but even if some IT person happened to notice one questionably titled email among the many, they still wouldn’t know it was sent by a friend and not some spambot or random creep.

    1. LKW*

      Exactly. Filters do the first screening and at this point, they may even have rule-based robots do a second screening for things that are questionable but not clearly spam. You and your friend should sleep soundly.

    2. MassMatt*

      Also, firearable misdeeds are or at least should be things YOU do, not things someone else does. You can’t control what someone else emails you. If you and a friend are sending lots of dildo-related emails back and forth that would be another issue.

      By the same token, my job has strict rules about not emailing confidential data to customers without encryption. We are expected to discourage customers from doing the same, but if a client emails their form back to me without encryption it’s not a violation on my part because I can’t control what someone else does. The problem comes in if I then respond and the email string has the unencrypted material in the history—now I’ve just violated the secure data policy. It makes for some awkwardness to have to start new email strings or delete account numbers etc from replies but it’s important.

    1. it me*

      Same. OP2, know that you gave some internet strangers a good laugh on a Friday morning. Bless you.

    2. Sleepless*

      Me too! Of course, I can be kind of childish that way. I had a friend who wrote a check to another friend (back in the day), and Friend was depositing it at the bank when he realized the guy wrote “BLOW JOB” on the memo line. The bank teller snort-laughed.

      1. Sparkles McFadden*

        When I was getting my mortgage, my broker called me and asked for a new check because “the people at the main office don’t like what you wrote on the memo line.” This was in the early 90s when pretty much every mortgage lender required points for a decent rate. The check was for the 1% I had to fork over to get the best rate. So, I wrote “Bribe for bank to give me a decent rate” on the memo line. Apparently, they did not care for that.

    3. Peg*

      OP2 is a good friend as well–mistakes happen but it’s sweet that they were so worried they wrote in.

      1. RebelwithMouseyHair*

        yes, you’re a great friend OP2, you have a great sense of humour and you care about your friend too.

  7. Eye roll*

    OP #1, you’ve been through 3 grandbosses in 2.5 years? And each time has come with a housecleaning of management and a round of new management hires? How on earth does any work happen? That sounds like a completely non-functional workplace.

    1. Myrin*

      Yeah, it sounds like this whole “secretively hiring and firing” practice is the one thing this company seems to be consistent in. In fact, I was somewhat surprised by that – by the fact that all three grandbosses (who are probably three different people and not just the same person wearing a new wig and glasses every time) operated like that, I mean. Is there another layer between the grandboss and the restructured management which is responsible for that or is this somehow a super secret industry standard OP isn’t aware of?

      1. EPLawyer*

        Well now I need to clean off my laptop after “not just the same person wearing a new wig and glasses every time.”

      2. EmKay*

        “not just the same person wearing a new wig and glasses every time”

        Desperately giggling, send help.

      3. OP #1*

        Grand boss #1 had actually been with the company for years so not all 3 of them were short-lived, granted that’s not much better. But yeah, not much good is getting done around here.

    2. Cat Tree*

      It makes me think someone higher up is trying to drastically change the workplace, but is doing it in a haphazard way with now oversight or follow-through.

      1. OP #1*

        That… makes perfect sense. They *are* desperately trying to make changes and it’s been going very poorly, hence the 3 grand bosses in my short time.

        1. Sara without an H*

          OP#1, there’s really no need to hang around and get the last possible twitch of agony. Why not just update your resume and LinkedIn profile and discreetly let your network know that you’d be open to other opportunities? If your firm can do clandestine recruiting, you can do clandestine job searching.

          1. Selena*

            There may be good things about the job, but i wouldn’t be able to do my job when genuinly worried that every day there may be my last. Said good things may be a reason to not jump ship immidiately, but it’d sleep a lot better knowing my resumé is doing the rounds with recruiters and a new job is on the horizon.

            1. Marzipan Shepherdess*

              Good points!

              I once turned down a job offer because the interviewer said that she was planning to fire the person who currently had that job and that she’d deliberately scheduled the interview for a date when that person would not be in the office. The agency had no intention of telling that person that she was out until they’d lined up a replacement for her. Mentally thanking the interviewer for telling me exactly how they treated employees (and thus how they’d treat me if I took the job!), I crossed that position off my list, and went on to take a job at an excellent agency where I worked for the next 27 years.

              “When a company shows you how they treat their people, believe them!”

              1. RebelwithMouseyHair*

                Ha! my boss didn’t bother to hide the fact that he was hiring my replacement, he was doing it openly as a way to make me scared (except I wasn’t, I was hanging in there only because I wouldn’t get unemployment benefit if I resigned).
                Then it turned out he couldn’t fire me after all, refusing to do unpaid overtime was not a valid reason for firing someone, and if I took him to court over it, he’d end up having to pay me for the overtime I did before realising I would be shafted. That was sweet.
                Also, the woman he hired was great, we got along really well, and it was wonderful to share the workload with an in-house colleague instead of sub-contractors I never saw.

        2. Cat Tree*

          There’s also a strategy that some places use where upper management wants to clean house so they hire a scapegoat to do the firing then fire that scapegoat in turn. That way the remaining employees are mad at a person who is no longer there. This happened at a place I worked that announced an entire plant closing. The guy from corporate who announced it was gone a year later. I don’t know if he was in on the plan from the beginning and got paid extra for it, or if he was duped like the rest of us. That toxic company wouldn’t surprise me either way.

          1. Junior Assistant Peon*

            I worked at a place that did exactly this. A new GM got parachuted in from another division of the parent company, closed two plants, and was widely hated. We were all delighted when he was fired a few years later. Several years later, I came into possession of some departed managers’ electronic files, and I learned that these plant closures were planned prior to the hated GM’s arrival, and he was just set up to be the scapegoat.

      2. SuperDiva*

        Yes, the turnover in grand-bosses is already a yellow flag, but then the slash-and-burn firings every time are a huge blaring red flag that this company is rife with dysfunction. This didn’t happen three times in less than three years by coincidence! There’s a leadership culture that is allowing (or encourages) these awful practices, and they either don’t know or don’t care that it’s likely counterproductive for the company and definitely toxic to the staff.

    3. Workerbee*

      Reminds me of my old workplace, come to think of it. In the 10 years I was there, we had three different grandbosses in sales and three different grandbosses in IT. (And I heard about others preceding me.) And yep, each time, with each of them, they’d get rid of people and magically bring in people whom they’d worked with before so they were surrounded by cronies. These grandbosses also never really bothered to work with what was already working well, preferring to wrench procedures and practices over to what they were used to or had implemented in the past. Lot of money spent and important meetings had! Lot of widespread chopping! The C-suite managed to remain oblivious as to why morale was down, people not fired were bailing…

      1. Sola Lingua Bona Lingua Mortua Est*

        Yea, to me, the grandbosses clearcutting institutional knowledge came across as Tall Poppy Syndrome in addition to the cronyism. Frankly, that would push me away more than having the new hire ready to go when the outgoing person is fired–I can understand the need for continuity, especially if the department is (truly or effectively) understaffed.

    4. A Cat named Brian*

      We’ve been through 4 leaders in one year. Last (current) one is making sweeping changes. It’s total chaos. People I used to call for information or help are gone, moved or duties changed. Everyone at my level, division heads, had to reapply for their jobs (except me). I’m still waiting for the shoe to drop because no one knows what I going to happen to my division.

    5. WellRed*

      Yeah I’m guessing Op is early career and has nothing to judge this clusterfk by. Three bosses in two years AND they all do house cleaning? Polish up that resume.

      1. OP #1*

        Oh no, I’m not new, there’s a ton of clusters fcks going on here. It’s been chaos since grand boss #1 got ousted. But in reality the job market is hell right now and I don’t see getting out during the pandemic.

        1. SuperDiva*

          This sounds dumb but really, you won’t know until you try! Even if you just apply to one job a week, it will give you a sense of what’s out there and what your prospects are. And it helps to brush up your interview skills if you haven’t changed jobs in a while.

    6. Nicotene*

      I guess if each round was hired to be a cadre to the new boss (as in political stuff, and some fundraising things) then of course they’re going to be summarily fired if the boss changes; I would *hope* that, similarly to politics, there’s a class of sort of political appointees and a class of non-political staff roles that keep the main stuff moving. But if it’s not the same roles being hired and fired each time, that especially sucks.

    7. A Poster Has No Name*

      I was thinking the same thing. That many grandbosses in that short a time ALL who do this scummy stuff? It’s really not that common a practice, so the fact that you’ve had 3 in a row clean house like that is…not good. This speaks to larger cultural issues/dysfunction and I’d be looking around to see what else is out there.

    8. Alton Brown's Evil Twin*

      Sounds like a dysfunctional pro sports team. When they fire the coach, he brings in “his guys”. And you’re getting a new coach every season.

    9. Been there*

      I was hired as a backfill for someone being fired–and I actually met her in the lobby when I came for my interview! It wasn’t great, but it ended up being a one-off and not a pattern.

    10. The Starsong Princess*

      Yeah, it sounds very toxic. In a more functional workplace, you get a new grand boss about every 3 to 5 years. Say they have six managers reporting to them. One may be a low performer and the grand boss comes in with a mandate to deal with that person. They are usually gone within a few months having seen the writing on the wall with a performance improvement plan. Maybe one more is moved to a job they are better suited for or is swapped for a manager in a different area. There are no secret hiring or firings.

      1. Joan Rivers*

        The policy of a “clean sweep” is pretty cruel. Sometimes it’s probably wanting the “loyalty” of their own staff, which sounds insecure.
        BUT — if I had to fire a housekeeper or gardener or nanny due to poor work or bad attitude, I’d want to have someone else lined up, for continuity. So that part doesn’t bother me, it’s normal to get your ducks in a row.

    11. commonsensesometimesmakessense*

      I have worked in environments that are … not as bad as this, but pretty dysfunctional in a similar way. They restructure everything, everyone has to adapt to huge changes, and that makes everything very inefficient as they adapt to the new system. Then, just when everyone is finally getting the swing of things, they do it again. And they wonder why things aren’t becoming more efficient.

      Big corporations do this a lot because people in upper management, who do not really know anything about the realities of what the real workers do or have to deal with, make decisions without having any idea how the job actually works (like the time I worked for a company that was bought by a major corporation, and things go fine for a couple years, and then some new to the corporation upper manager came on board and restructured the company, laid off all our billing staff, and then was shocked to learn that we use an entirely different billing system than the rest of the corporation and the only people who know how to use and operate it were ousted by the nitwit who did not know how the company operated).

      1. commonsensesometimesmakessense*

        I also think there are unrealistic ideas on how quickly people and businesses adapt to changes. It is hard to learn whether a new system is more or less efficient until it has been around for a while (I mean, years, plural, probably more than two). Most companies do not wait long enough to find out before they topple the system and replace it with something new.

  8. Marsupilami*

    I kept getting rejection mails for an internship for which I was actually hired for 3 years after completing it… that was for a huge company. Some HR systems are just really bad.

    Perhaps it only stopped since at some point I wrote back “you are not even allowed to store my application data for that long.” more politely. (European data protection laws) Otherwise maybe I would still get that yearly email 10+ years later?!

    1. NYWeasel*

      I applied to Position A and B at Current Employer. On A, I was told by the hiring manager (who was a friend) that it was far too junior for me, and that he already was filling it. On B, I went through two sets of interviews, and after the second one, I was told “We aren’t considering you for B, but we think you are right for C. Another interview process later, and I was offered C.

      Three months after starting C, I got an email at my personal address from Current Employer HR. It turned out to be a rejection for A…the job that had been filled 6 months earlier!! I never got a rejection for B…the job that had gone to an internal candidate a few days after I’d come in for the second interview. It turns out that the HR team was always running behind on their work so they were very inconsistent in closing out positions. Thankfully, that has no bearing on what it’s like to work there!

      1. Not playing your game anymore*

        Our ATS was designed by trolls who have never hired anyone in their miserable lives and also, who have never worked in any sort of a time crunched office. We have about 20 responses we can give to any applicant. Hired, interviewed- not hired (with about 10 different shades of not hiredness)i.e. not hired-not available (for the shift, or not able to start when we need them to) not hired – qualified (they meet the qualifications, but weren’t the top candidate) not hired – not qualified (then you need to specify why they weren’t qualified – lacked the number of years of relevant experience, or a relevant degree or certification. Then there is not interviewed, with all the reasons we didn’t interview them and so on. You have to do the same basic process for the phone screen, then do it again for the in person interviews for the folks that move on. In a tough job market we might get 75-200 apps.

        It probably only takes 3-5 minutes to reject each candidate if you keep up with it every day, but for many of our searches, that’s not very doable because we might talk to or see say 5 candidates in a day and maybe we are only SURE we want to reject 1. All of the others hang around. If you are diligent about rejecting the obvious NOs you still have a bunch of maybes you want to keep just in case you don’t get a better fit. Some searches drag on for months or get placed on hold, and some hiring teams aren’t so great at dealing with the ATS and know that eventually HR will step in and close out the search (this is especially true if the position gets frozen) So, yeah that’s why you might get rejected for a job you quit two years ago. ATS sometimes suck and most people dealing with rare or occasional openings don’t use them well.

        1. Marple*

          I currently work for a company that must have limited responses to applications – I declined an interview, and got an email saying that I was not selected to move on to the next round. I think the choices of how they can categorize me are slim. My guess is that the OPs situation is the same.

    2. Virginia Plain*

      Yeah it’s just an HR spreadsheet fail in all likelihood as Alison says.
      True story; one morning I received a rejection email from HR re an internal campaign for promotion. I raged a bit, told my boss (who had supported my application) and as I had a sideways move agreed, told that boss I’d be joining them and started planning leaving drinks. Six hours later I had another email from HR saying, so here are the details of the post we want to put you in at your new promoted grade.
      I literally yelled WTF in full at the mercifully sparsely-attended-that day open plan office.
      Turns out that there’d been a glitch with the paperwork about my interview so they put me on the No spreadsheet, then although it was quickly rectified they forgot to take me off. So I was on both spreadsheets; the one of People We Are Promoting and the one of People We Will Try To Let Down Gently.
      It was annoying but the end result was that I did get promoted. It’s still on my long list of reasons why wouldn’t trust HR as far as I could throw them; they’ve screwed up with me too many times.

    3. reject187*

      Yup. I recently got a “this position has been filled” email for the job I was hired for! I was like, of course the position has been filled! It’s filled with me!

      1. Princess Trachea-Aurelia Belaroth*

        I had this exact thing. And sadly, I had not yet been contacted to be told I had the job! I was pretty sure, based on what I was told in the interview (essentially that they would not let the people at another branch have me for another job I applied for), but I was following Alison’s advice of forgetting about jobs until I get an official offer. So I thought I hadn’t gotten it for a couple days. Luckily I didn’t accept any other offers in that time, because it was a great job that got me some excellent references.

    4. elle*

      I did actually have a real problem once. I applied for a job and had been communicating with two different people – sometimes info would come from Person #1, sometimes from Person #2. A few days after the final interview, Person #2 emailed me a job offer which I politely turned down. A week or so later person #1 sent me a very angry email about my “unprofessional behavior” in not giving a timely response to their job offer and how awful I was. They were very sheepish when I explained that I had in fact responded to the emailed offer and their coworker had just not mentioned it.

  9. Email Admin*

    OP #2: Having to go through the Spam folder of a company an email server (the emails flagged as so obvious spam that do not make it into people’s spam folder they can see) is an experience. Your subject line is one that would get ignored since it, like the majority of spam emails, mention sex products. Those are not the emails that the IT person would be looking for when going into those folders.

    For shear scale of this folder: A company with 50k employees would be getting hundreds of thousands spam messages a day. Unless there is an unlucky series of events, no person in the IT department would ever notice your email existed.

    1. lailaaaaah*

      Can confirm; I just did a quick skim of our spam filters (we have ~200 employees). We have 100 emails in there just from *today*, and it’s not even 9am yet. A single email with dildo in the subject line is not going to stand out, I promise!

  10. AlwaysAnEditor*

    OP3: Former journalist here. The approach you described is how I obtained all of newspaper jobs—used my network to advance to bigger and better publications during my 11 years in the field. This field is extremely different from corporate jobs, so your approach works.

    1. Knope Knope Knope*

      15 years in the field here. This is not annoying and a great way to get jobs! Good luck op!

    2. Sparkles McFadden*

      Publishing gets flooded with applications. Having an executive forward your information means someone will actually look at the material.

    3. JustHereToWork*

      Caveat: not a journalist

      I’ve landed jobs and then had this work for and against me. Both were pretty obvious right away. Managers seemed to think I was either going to get them an in with the higher-ups or spill all their dirty little secrets.

  11. learnedthehardway*

    OP #1 – confidential searches are definitely a thing. They’re hard to do, and it’s tricky to balance the needs of the organization vs. being fair to the individual currently in the role vs. team morale.

    Sometimes, though, these confidential hirings are necessary for business continuity. Eg. your company’s controller isn’t really doing a great job, but getting a 60% effort / success rate in the role is better than nothing, at least until you can replace them.

    1. commonsensesometimesmakessense*

      Possibly, but based on his post and some of his comments above, I think this place is just severely dysfunctional. What you are describing sounds like the sort of thing that would be a rare occurrence, and OP 1’s workplace seems to be doing this rather a lot!

  12. 2horseygirls*

    OP4: It is not you. Academia is full of precious people who believe to the tips of their toes that are Spencer Reid-level geniuses, and they get not only EXTREMELY defensive but also carry grudges worse than my grandma when they are asked anything they do not have a prepared answer to, as it makes them look bad to have to actually critically assess a question and put together a real off-the-cuff answer.

    I asked this exact question of an academic dean when my position was reorganized, and because of the union environment, I was eligible-for-and-all-but-guaranteed any open position at my grade or below, but I was still taking the process seriously, and I knew the person I was replacing had been a bit of a train wreck, so I genuinely wanted to do better, and wanted whatever I could get from the dean.

    The dean was completely floored by the question, and the vibe I got was that I should have just been 72 kinds of grateful that they were deigning to consider me, when in reality they had zero choice – I could have done an interpretive dance during the interview and still gotten the position – and the dean was FURIOUS at not having ultimate control over who got the position, and how DARE I have the utter impertinence to even think of asking them a question?

    Bless their heart.

    It just went downhill from there, but it was an interesting 17 month run while it lasted.

    And yes, I am still a little salty about it because I had worked in the non-academic side of the institution for 5.5 years, had stellar annual reviews, and had excellent working relationships from the facilities staff to the president’s office, and I still got terminated because the dean was pissy about having to take me.

    1. Sara without an H*

      After 30+ years in Academia, I can confirm. Academic people are either the salt of the earth, or its scum. There is no third category.

      1. Junior Assistant Peon*

        Agreed! Former grad student here, and academia was the one place where I could have sorted everyone into Good and Evil buckets.

      2. Paulina*

        Yes, and even the salt of the earth types often aren’t any good at management when they’re put into those positions. There is a chance those ones will learn, but the others don’t care to, and large research grants can be used to excuse pretty much everything.

        The mindset also can get applied to senior non-academic positions. IME these people are essentially immovable from their fiefdom once appointed.

        1. Sara without an H*

          Frankly, I think good management practice actually goes against a lot of what people are taught in graduate school. I’ve known a lot of admins who amassed considerable power by being able to keep Extremely Brilliant Scholars organized and on track.

    2. commonsensesometimesmakessense*

      Upvoting this big time! Academia is a strange environment and often has a strange collection of personalities. It is also a rather isolated little world for many disciplines, and I honestly think they sometimes lose or never develop an idea of what is normal and/or professional outside of that little bubble. Granted, there are many great personalities in the mix as well, but you definitely get a lot of personalities that contribute to a dysfunctional workplace!

      Also, I think on the academic side of things, tenure can result in some people being allowed to remain in a job when they should be terminated!

  13. Cant remember my old name*

    #4 – This was definitely a strange response, but here is what I think might be happening. The LW mentioned that there are like 50 people with the same role. Some employers like to stir competition among these groups, and other employers see that type of competition as distracting and toxic. I’d guess that this employer is in the latter group and misinterpreted the LW’s question as them being competitive in nature. Just a guess based on the details provided!

    1. Cant remember my old name*

      To clarify, I think is the combination of the “good vs great” and “other people in this role” language that could have led to the misinterpretation of the LW’s intent. It’s not the LW’s fault to be clear. I think the interviewer just focused on the wrong details.

    2. bluemoon*

      That’s where my head went, too. I interpreted their respone alongs the lines of “Wait, we don’t want you to try and compete with and out-do your colleagues, we want you to work with them! Everyone brings something unique to the table and it’s important to us that our employees recognize this and collaborate.”

      1. commonsensesometimesmakessense*

        That is true. Their response as they worded it does support this explanation. The only thing that gets me is the defensiveness. But maybe if the lower level boss in the interview had a previous challenge managing some employees who had engaged in this type of behavior, they could feel sensitive about it and this question triggered something for her.

    3. Liz*

      This is exactly what I was thinking. I pictured my bosses being asked this and I could just imagine them responding right away with “well they’re ALL great!!” possibly in a slightly offended tone like you’d asked them to identify their preferred child. Particularly my grandboss. (My direct manager quietly thinks our team is the best, but he probably wouldn’t admit that to anyone but us.)

      There are industries and orgs where being a cohesive team who fill in one another’s skill gaps is a significant part of the culture. We are one of those. We have one site that has been in operation for 25 years and many of the staff there are veterans who have worked there for much of the time. A few years ago, the organisation was awarded a new contract, and the nature of their roles changed significantly. Our site was set up specifically for the new contract, and staff hired accordingly. We have very different skillsets, and odds are if many of our veterans applied afresh for the jobs they do now, they probably wouldn’t be hired. But they have industry knowledge and soft skills that make up for it, and so we call them for advice on how to handle a difficult client, and we help them out when it comes to computers. I don’t even think the area manager could bring herself to start picking apart which of those skills are more valuable, as to do so would mean rating employees against one another, which sort of goes against the ethos of the organisation. It’s not that we don’t have conversations about areas for improvement, but they just don’t get discussed outside of that individual’s supervision.

      1. Washi*

        Yes!! I’m a social worker and the “choose a preferred child” really describes how some managers would respond to the question. I de-personalize it by dropping the previous roles language and ask what distinguishes someone who just meets basic expectations from someone who really thrives in the agency.

    4. June*

      Yeah. I think the question could have been interpreted as arrogance. No matter the intent. Sorry it happened OP.

      1. ecnaseener*

        How is it arrogant? It’s not “how I can I best show MY greatness,” it’s asking what traits help people excel in the role.

    5. londonedit*

      Yes – I think the ‘magic question’ has merit along the lines of ‘what makes someone really excel in this position’, but I can see how framing it as ‘which previous employees have been good and which have been great’ might make interviewers think you want them to start critiquing their previous members of staff.

      1. hbc*

        I agree. The question just lands differently when it’s more “What would you love to have from the person who has this position?” versus “What separates your current great employees from the merely good ones?” It would be similar to asking someone on a date about what their ideal partner is like versus asking them to describe which of their exes were awesome or just okay.

      2. Kimmy Schmidt*

        Which can be an especially fraught interpretation in academia. Past employees stick around the university as volunteers, event attendees, patrons, or donors.

    6. Quite Anonymous*

      Pretty much where my head went, too. My thought was that this could just be a position with very little natural pathway for moving up. Even though the intent was to show a desire to succeed in this role, if the interviewers read it as intent to climb a ladder that doesn’t exist, they may have been wary. Who knows, maybe they’ve been burned in the past by people in this role not having their ambitions met and are extra sensitive.

    7. Van Wilder*

      I agree. I think they were thrown off and incorrectly read into the question because of the reference to people who work there now. Even though I’m familiar with this question, I think I would still be thrown off and thinking “why do they want me to rank our current employees? Are they going to be super-competitive?”

    8. commonsensesometimesmakessense*

      I can see your point, but they should be professional enough to take note of it themselves and answer the question as well as they can without a defensive tone. I mean, I can understand an initial taken aback reaction, but really, just keep the interview rolling with a plan not to consider OP for the role, or ask OP to clarify why she is asking. So I do think the interviewer’s reaction was a red flag, regardless. Plus it makes me question if this manager interviewer is quick to jump to conclusions or to suspect bad motives rather than calmly probe for more information.

      The other reason I am not so sure about your interpretation here (though it is a good one, and it would explain a lot, and the more I am reading here, the more I think the “magic question” needs a bit of revision to the wording) … OP felt the interviewer’s tone and attitude was defensive. Not just upset, or thrown off, or weird, but defensive. Granted, OP may be wrongly interpreting what she observed, but I usually think it is pretty easy to recognize defensiveness for what it is. And your explanation does not really seem like one where the employer would feel defensive. Alarmed, possibly, and even a bit wary, ok.

      Still, overall, this is a good explanation of a very real way this question, as worded, can backfire.

  14. Shan*

    Now I’m sitting here, after midnight, thinking about how many emails from the various businesses and organizations of Dildo, N.L. likely get caught in spam filters every day.

    1. Ashley*

      OMG I live and work in Atlantic Canada and in my job, I have dealt with businesses from there. In my Outlook, it’s configured to send a separate email as soon as I get one with the offending word saying “This email may contain offensive material” or some such. I was talking to someone else in the industry who lives in the vicinity of Dildo, NL and they said their email is so strict that they’ve had to refer to it as D-town or some other nonsense like that in order for emails to come through! Which, to my immature little self sounds even funnier! lol

      1. Shan*

        I am so happy to have this further information! This was a perfect example of “lying in bed, contemplating the logistics of this random and completely irrelevant to my life situation instead of falling asleep like I should.”

    2. Virginia Plain*

      I’ve heard that the town of Scunthorpe in the U.K. has has a few similar issues…

      My friend’s old workplace had a robust firewall for certain words they deemed unsuitable. This would probably have been fine in many industries but having the word “breast” blocked when you work for a pharmaceutical company whose main product was a contraceptive pill was distinctly suboptimal.

  15. lailaaaaah*

    OP1 – I have experienced/heard of two places doing the same thing your org is doing w.r.t firing people and not telling them, and hiring their replacement before they’re gone. In one case, the directors essentially took over the organisation by populating it with all their friends (who were terrible at their jobs, to the extent that the guy they replaced the IT manager with crashed the whole email system for two months). In another, the manager in question was later found to have been embezzling money, and was essentially setting up the outgoing employee to take the fall for him. In both cases, the company shut down within a year.

    tl;dr: I’d start job hunting now.

    1. HR Exec Popping In*

      This probably won’t be popular…

      I have learned over the years that often people claim to have not received any performance feedback when in fact they have – even in writing. So I would caution you from jumping to the conclusion that it hasn’t happened just because the person denies it and the people around them don’t think it happened. Generally this is something that should only be know about by the manager and the direct report. It frankly is no one else’s business.

      I also wonder what the level of these positions are? In some organizations it is understood that at an executive level you serve at the full discretion of the CEO and the Board of Directors. When you are an Senior VP you don’t a PIP. You know what your objectives are and you are supposed to accomplish them. You know if you haven’t. I’m not saying I agree with this, but this is not unusual and when you advance to that level you know this.

      All of that aside, I still don’t like the idea of actually hiring the replacement prior to the person being fired. I don’t necessarily have a problem with doing a confidential search (generally with a search firm) recruiting candidates and even have an accepted offer out there with a candidate to start after the current incumbent is terminated when it is an executive level role to help maintain business continuity – there are times when you just can not have a vacant General Counsel or Chief Operating Officer position. A company does not need to post the position internally, especially at that level.

      So, yes I do understand that it can seem ugly and gross. But the rules can be different at the most senior level. With more responsibility comes more rewards and more risk.

      1. OP #1*

        It’s not that senior. It’s department/team managers, one director, and then grand boss #2, who was a lower level executive so I do get that one by your logic.

      2. The Other Dawn*

        I agree with you. As a manager, there’s no way I’d share performance information with anyone other than the employee, my own boss and HR. It’s no one else’s business. And if I were the one on a performance plan or had been given poor feedback, I wouldn’t be sharing that at work. I’d be pretending everything is just fine.

      3. commonsensesometimesmakessense*

        I think it is a bad idea to jump to the conclusion that they were not warned just because the person claims they were not warned. But if it is happening a lot, and multiple people are saying they had no warning or idea, it is reasonable to consider it a real possibility, and that alone is enough of a reason to feel insecure.

    2. Momma Bear*

      If this happened often enough to be a pattern, I’d be dusting off my resume. Strike before they do. It is one thing for it to happen once, but for multiple people to be caught by surprise indicates really bad management at minimum. I once had a job where it was like we worked under the Finger of Death – the client could at any point demand our replacement (we didn’t necessarily get fired from the company, just their contract). It made everyone nervous. I was happy to get off that project.

  16. June*

    I never give my work email to my friends or relatives. Not with my nutty family. It’s work only.

    1. Asenath*

      That’s the only way to keep the two sides of your life separate. I always had all my personal email go to one address, and all my work email to (obviously) my work email address. I discovered early on if someone in the “personal” group got my work email address, or vice versa, guaranteed they’d start sending emails to the wrong one.

      1. Mental Lentil*

        I actually have several personal email accounts for different things. It helps to keep my life sorted out.

    2. Red Reader the Adulting Fairy*

      Yeah, I don’t know why one would give their work email address to friends. A spouse or partner MAYBE, but even that I can’t think of any actual reasons for.

      1. mreasy*

        I have a lot of friends who work in my industry, and we have “work” reasons to email each other and “non-work.” I cannot stand having work emails in my personal inbox (plus, my work email has tracking and spam filters etc) so I try to keep those separated. Not sure if this is common. But yeah, my family and my non-industry friends certainly don’t know it.

      2. Marsupilami*

        One reason: Cell phone reception in my office is really bad. That is why my partner has my work email and phone number for emergencies.

      3. EvilQueenRegina*

        When my cousin was in his first job after graduating from university, our uncle Googled him and managed to find his work email address and emailed him something silly to it. I can’t remember now what was sent, but I know his boss wasn’t very happy.

      4. Katefish*

        For what it’s worth, my spouse’s business has a tangential relationship to my day job, so I forward him all sorts of industry news from my work email. However, he has very good judgment and would just call or text if he needed something personal, so…

      5. Lyudie*

        I have several friends who were originally coworkers, so I have their work and personal emails on my phone (and vice versa). It’s easy to not notice which address was autofilled when you send an email.

      6. Queer Earthling*

        My metamour makes sure our shared partner and I both have his work email, because his place of employment doesn’t allow cell phones or access to personal emails, and he works about 9000000 hours a day, though much of it is downtime. So, that’s how we discuss what’s for dinner or how he asks if we can do a load of laundry for him or whatever. I’m definitely a friend and not a spouse or partner, though I suppose my situation is different since we share a house and a spouse.

  17. Cambridge Comma*

    I think the magic question has to inevitably lose its power when it’s on a very popular site like this for years and for sure comes up in many searches that people might use during interview preparation. Perhaps the reaction was because the interviewer is an AAM reader or because you’re the fourth candidate to ask that exact question.
    I tend to use the magic question as a starting point to brainstorm new relevant questions of my own, rather than asking it as is.

    1. ecnaseener*

      That doesn’t explain the defensiveness. No one gets defensive when you ask any other common question.

      1. Joan Rivers*

        They may not have had any good examples to cite and were embarrassed. Some jobs have a bad history and it may not be due to those hired as much as the company itself. Training, job description, management, etc., could all be a mess.

    2. MassMatt*

      The question isn’t good due to rarity, it’s good because it’s likely to get good info about the role and show that you care about succeeding.

      And due respect to Alison and this site, but I doubt a mention of it here is going to make the question become ubiquitous. I don’t know how many hits the site gets per day but there are literally millions of job interviews happening all the time, the world is vast, even a site like CNN a is not going to reach everyone.

      1. Heidi*

        Agree with this. There are reasons that questions like, “What are your strengths?” get asked over and over. They actually get at the information people want to know. How to excel at a job is what interviewees want to know. I once asked this question in a meeting of program leads, and they all had different answers; it generated a great discussion because there is no one right answer that applies to every job.

  18. Green great dragon*

    #1 ‘Recruited’ here looks an awful lot like ‘brought in their mates’. I’m not sure there was any formal recruitment process, so internal candidates (or anyone else) were never going to have a chance. That would worry me more than the (crappy I agree) short notice firing.

    1. Just Another Manic Millie*

      ITA. It appears to me that whenever a new grandboss was hired, they asked, “Is it okay if I bring along some people that I know to work for me?” and they were told okay, so they told their co-workers or friends, “Hey, I was just given a job at XYZ Company. Would you like to work for me there?” And their co-workers or friends said yes, so all of them became new employees at XYZ Company, and current employees at the company were fired to make room for the new grandboss’ former co-workers or friends. I don’t think that any genuine recruitment went on. So not only were internal candidates denied a chance to get those jobs, the current job-holders were denied a chance to keep their jobs.

      1. MassMatt*

        This is probably pretty much exactly what happened, but it’s odd that it happened 3 times in 2 1/2 years. It suggests there are more problems even higher up.

    2. HR Exec Popping In*

      Sure, this is possible. But it more likely that as a new leader at a company you want to have a strong team to achieve what are probably aggressive targets and it might be a turn around situation. So you are going to naturally want to bring in outside talent and you often start thinking back to whom you have worked with in the past that you trust and know has the capability to add value.

      Might someone want to bring in a bunch of unqualified buddies? I guess, but it won’t help you be successful so I highly doubt it.

      1. MassMatt*

        Honestly I think your comment illustrates the problem. Yes, someone wants a strong team (who doesn’t?) but why does that mean you “naturally want to bring in outside talent”? That this was done 3x in 2 1/2 years indicates it’s unlikely the new grandboss had much if any idea who was good or bad at their roles when they cleaned house.

        People very often confuse knowing people (and even more, liking them) with being qualified. Bad managers especially place inordinate value on loyalty over competence. Really bad managers like mediocre reports because anything better is a threat to them.

        1. HR Exec Popping In*

          I agree that is the case with bad managers. But not all new managers are bad managers. Sometimes you do actually need fresh perspective and new skills when you are trying to change things.

          1. MassMatt*

            True, but in the context of this letter it’s happened 3 times in 2 1/2 years, and people were let go suddenly, with no notice, and replacements already lined up. My money is on mediocre grand bosses at best.

          2. commonsensesometimesmakessense*

            new managers are often great, but ones who jump in, oust the entire management team that actually knows how things work, and just start doing the job without really knowing any of the nitty gritty details on how things are done and why … they may be well meaning, and they may be good, but they will inevitably cause some chaos and make some major blunders as they go.

      2. commonsensesometimesmakessense*

        Yeah, but then you essentially have a senior management team with no real knowledge of the company and its day to day operations, none of whom know the staff members, day to day operations of the company, or the history and background of how the problems came about. Also, it tells the employees that remain that you do not trust them.

        I once worked for a company that was acquired by a large corporation (I did not start working there until after they had been taken over by the corporation). Two years after I started, a new senior exec was hired to take over the management of our company. She knew nothing about us, what we did, how we did our jobs. As soon as she started, she announced that all our managers were being laid off, along with a few other individuals. She decided this plan and implemented it before she had any idea how things worked, and she took out all the managers who could actually help her understand why we do things the way we do. But the part that makes me laugh – she laid off the entire billing department. It was only after they were gone that she discovered that we use an entirely different billing system than the rest of the corporation and she had just ceremoniously dismiss everyone in the company who had access and knew how it worked! (and trust me when I say, for what we did, that definitely caused a giant mess, but I left for a new job before that hit the fan!)

    3. OP #1*

      That has been the case frequently but not always. But yes, especially with grand boss #2 he brought in a ton of friends/former longtime coworkers.

      1. Momma Bear*

        We have a lot of people who worked together prior. Some worlds are very small. I’m not so opposed to reaching out to friends/associates. You know their work, and you want to work with them again. It’s the firing someone to place your buddy in that role that doesn’t sit right.

  19. Oska*

    LW5: This happened to me once, recently. It was also the most automated application process I’ve been through, with forms to fill in online, a portal for uploading your cover letter and CV etc. (I think this is pretty common, it was just the only time I’ve done it; most jobs I’ve applied to have been of the “send your application and CV to this email” type.) I was offered the job but declined as it was only a two-year contract and no guarantee that this company would ever do work near where I live again. A while later I received a rejection by email, and just assumed that it had been generated by their system when they removed me from the applicant pool. A little silly, but if it’s a generic message I’d assume it’s just that their system doesn’t discriminate between rejected applicants and applicants that rejected them.

  20. Czhorat*

    For OP 4 – I agree with everyone else that it was an entirely weird response, but one bit in the heading gave me slight pause – there is no “magic question” and if you ask something you think would help you have to do it in a manner that fits your style and the tone you’ve had throughout the interview.

    This *is* a good question and good advice from Allison, but the idea that there’s a _magic_ question to unlock a +1 chance at the job is the same kind of bad thinking as all of those terrible career advice blogs offering a shortcut to an interview or being hired.

    I can’t emphasize enough that the tone and style are SO important. If you’re more casual in your answers and questions then “”Thinking back to people who have been in this position previously, what differentiated the ones who were good from the ones who were really great?”” could feel jarring and give the (accurate) impression that you’re asking something you read about on a blog. If you want to ask it, make it your own and use words that fit the circumstance and yourself.

    1. Snailing*

      I think Allison writes the headers, so that’s likely more a reference that it’s a specific interview question that appears often on this site. It didn’t seem to me in that actual question that OP4 thought this question was her magic ticket to the job – rather that she’s had good experience with the question in past interviews and it got her good answers.

      But agreed on style and tone – especially with the more common interview questions, it’s always best to tailor it to both yourself and the position you’re trying for!

    2. Smithy*

      Agree with this, essentially that every individual should know why they’re asking that question and what an answer means to them. I very often answer this question, but it’s more about getting a sense around how the role is evaluated and the expectations. So personally if I encountered someone who didn’t know what it meant, my follow-up would be to ask more about how the role and the team overall was being evaluated.

    3. commonsensesometimesmakessense*

      I agree, but especially to two points. The style and tone need to be natural and the wording should be adapted to your circumstances, because it will sound rehearsed otherwise. Also, do not ask the question to make a good impression, but rather because you genuinely do want to know the answer (that is what is great about the question – the fact that it is a chance to learn more about the role and what the priorities and work environment are like to assess whether you are the right fit).

      That said, even if you are asking the question for the right reasons, using a scripted version of the question gives the impression that you got it from a job finding advice forum and that you are not actually interested in the answer. So if you plan to ask the question, ask it in your own way and in a style and tone that makes sense for you.

  21. KK*

    LW4 – I spent my life in academia (until recently). My take:

    Boss 1 has never before given the concept of success in this role a lick of thought, so they started thinking out loud in order to cover for it. The defensiveness is embarrassment and terror at being caught without knowing the answer to something. AKA, it was just BS.

    Boss 2 probably zoned out a little as Boss 1 was flailing, and then, not wanting to appear smarter than Boss 1, gave a weak tea answer but agreed to help Boss 1 save face.

    1. LKW*

      This explanation could apply to a lot of managers, especially those who work for small companies or got their positions through nepotism or seniority versus merit and capability.

    2. ecnaseener*

      Yep, that was my thinking too. “Good vs great performers? Do I have any great performers? Uhhhh…I love all my children equally, how dare you!”

    3. Manchmal*

      haha, my experience in academia is that no one ever passes up on a chance to sound smart.

  22. Bookworm*

    #1: I went through something like that at an internship–had been led to believe I was on track to be hired in a full-time, formal job. Boss hired a guy, let me finish the internship and told me I wasn’t going to be hired because of my poor performance (never mind I was never formally trained and no one ever told me there was a problem with my work). It happens and it happens at orgs that suck.

    #3: It may have been just a stroke of luck, especially if you’ve never met the person who passed on your credentials (maybe your reputation precedes you in a good way?). So far I’ve found that the stronger the relationship is (work, personal friendship, etc.) can *really* help for networking, recommendations, etc. It’s definitely not an “in” (as I have also found) but it can be a big boost over a rando candidate who applies via the website. Good luck!!!

    1. OP #3*

      Thanks Bookworm! I hope it works out. Seems like the executive sending that email can’t hurt but I won’t be holding my breath for this job!

  23. Hiring Mgr*

    It’s a good question overall and it sounds like they certainly overreacted, but I’m not sure why OP refers to this as a “magic” question. Sometimes the answers are kind of mundane like “they worked harder” . Also, depending on the role, seniority level etc it might be an odd question to ask because you should already know

    1. Sleepless*

      “The magic question” is the term the AAM readership uses for this question. It’s just a custom that has evolved.

  24. Judy*

    OP4. A similar thing happened to me except – as soon as the question was out of my mouth – I realized how wrong it had come out. It sounded more like “What would you change about the last person who had this job?” The interviewer looked uncomfortable. I nervously tried to reframe it but couldn’t unring that bell. Luckily they just mumbled something about wishing the person had been more open to new technology and let it go. Fwiw, I still got the job but felt horrified at how my question came out!

    1. Pocket Mouse*

      I was thinking this too. Using the past tense may get the interviewers thinking about the specific people who have been in the role, which can be uncomfortable. Phrasing it in the present or future tense allows for more conceptual reflection and thinking about possibilities.

  25. LifeBeforeCorona*

    There is a small village called Dildo in Newfoundland, Canada so you can reference that in your explanation. :)

  26. The Other Dawn*

    RE: #4

    If a candidate asked me this question I wouldn’t necessarily see it as impressive or a “magic question.” I’d be happy they’re at least asking questions, though. I’ve had lots of people who don’t ask any questions at all, or they do ask but it’s nothing other than benefits. Which are valid questions, of course. But I find it odd when people don’t ask about the culture, workload, and things like that. As to how I’d answer, I’d probably be caught off guard the first time and might stumble a little. But after that I’d make sure to have a ready answer.

    1. ecnaseener*

      I’m surprised by the number of people saying this question would be so difficult to answer without preparation. If you’re hiring, haven’t you spent time thinking about what your ideal candidate would be like? Aren’t you at least partially informing that thought process by thinking about the previous people you’ve seen hold the position?

      You might not have an eloquent answer ready to recite, but if you haven’t thought about it before the interview I’d wonder what you’re hiring based on.

      1. The Other Dawn*

        It doesn’t mean I haven’t thought about it all. I just meant that no one has ever asked before. And if they did, I’d need a minute to form an answer that’s a little more eloquent than “for the love of god please take notes!”

      2. SnappinTerrapin*

        I first encountered that question several jobs ago, as an applicant. The manager asked me what I thought set a good employee apart from a great one in the industry.

        He apparently like my answer. I got the job, and a promotion shortly afterwards.

      3. Minerva*

        The difference between good and excellent – that may not be something easy to define. It may take a lot more than a quick question during a 5-10 minute questions at the end of an interview to get into how to advance.

        They’re hiring because they have work to be done. “Good” means they’ll be able to contribute to getting the work done. Maybe the person hiring doesn’t actually know what skills are needed to get the work done, only that it’s work that they can’t do, and are hiring on evidence similar work was done before. Maybe there’s a lot of work and a lot of ways to be excellent. Maybe they are looking for good enough, and don’t have a clue how someone could be excellent. Maybe they don’t know how they want to split between good and excellent, because those are fuzzy subjective words and they just need _more_ of the same skills to be more than good enough. Maybe they are hiring for juniors and and are trying to figure out how to answer when they they don’t want to hire someone who thinks they’re excellent right now, they’re hiring on an expectation they’ll need supervision and develop.

        And maybe they’re trying to figure out how to answer when really it is “Definitely not you, you’re not moving forward, but we try not to let people know right away” and they’re irritated because they think you should have got that impression too.

        1. Smithy*

          Personally, if the take from a hiring manager is that the question is hard because it’s just about filling a need, looking for good enough, or don’t know what “excellent” looks like – that would still give me a lot of information.

          It might be that my hiring manager doesn’t know my job/sector and so I need to be certain I can do the job without a subject matter mentor and I’m really confident that the expectations are achievable. It might also be that they don’t have a great evaluation system and that it’s likely that advancement happens in a more ad hoc/personal fashion than based on knowing what good/great is.

          Not answering the question well or at all isn’t immediately a red flag, but it does mean I’m going to have a lot more follow up questions.

    2. AvonLady Barksdale*

      I usually save it for later in my list of questions for just that reason. I prefer to hear about the details of the job, how it fits in the hierarchy, what the workplace is like, etc. And then I can get into the “what does success look like” stuff.

      For what it’s worth, every time I have asked this, the interviewer was not “prepared”. But because I only ask after building up a rapport and getting job details, it’s not a roadblock, just a pause.

  27. Lacey*

    Yeah, I’ve tried it in a few interviews. In the first it went over REALLY well. The grandboss was so impressed. I’d clearly said the secret password. I got the job and it was hell. Nothing she said about who would be successful there was true.

    In other interviews people seemed confused. My current boss thought a moment and said, “I mean… they should be able to keep up with the work…”

    But, he wasn’t offended either.

  28. Jane*

    OP4 – you can never tell how an interviewer is going to react to any question you ask, so you may as well ask them and use their response as part of your information gathering.

    I had an interview (also in academia) where I asked how much of the job would be spent on x and how much on y, and the interviewer went off about how it was a senior post and I would need to be able to work independently and decide these things myself. She was very dismissive of my question and aggressive in her answer. I didn’t get offered the job, but her response would have made me pause and reflect before accepting.

  29. Liz*

    I’m just sitting here boggling at the idea that RECEIVING an email with the word “dildo” in it would get someone FIRED. It would be like firing someone because someone else walked up and said “dildo” to them in the street. I do not understand this question asker’s thought process.

    1. Lunch Ghost*

      I think the concern is that, since it said ‘receipt’, it would sound like the friend ordered one with her work email as the contact info. Which could still be a mistake but is definitely more of an issue.

    2. Stephen!*

      In this analogy, it’s more like a person they invited into the office said dildo. Except the LW is picturing it as their friend screaming dildo in the middle of the office, where in reality it’s more like someone saying dildo behind a closed door.

      1. MassMatt*

        Still, the more important thing is it’s someone else saying it.

        And I wouldn’t assume email is like a meeting behind closed doors, you might be surprised how many people have access to your work email. In my business supervisors are required to review employee emails for violations so a minimum number are read each month.

    3. TWW*

      I think a lot of people have a miscalibrated sense of what will (or should) get you in trouble at work, especially when it comes to slightly scandalous things on the internet. Remember the letter the other day from someone fretting about what to do after discovering that their new boss follows a sexy model on Instagram?

    4. Cat Tree*

      I’m imagining that the LW is young and new to the workforce. There’s a common trope in TV and movies of the no-nonsense boss who will fire someone for small reasons. That paired with general anxiety about being new to the system can make some people really overthink everything.

      I work in a large department at a huge company, and we frequently have interns and entry-level employees fresh out of college. This type of nervousness has come up more than once. It’s not *common* but it happens enough that it doesn’t surprise me. It can be hard to explain to this new person that great-grandboss frankly just doesn’t care about them enough to even notice every little faux pas.

  30. So unbelievably anonymous*

    Once upon a time, I was the person hired to replace someone who was being moved out of a position. While I was in the waiting room before my interview, various people walked through on the way to the copier. One person stopped to chat.
    Person: Do you work here?
    Smart mouth me: Not yet!
    Person: What position are you intro for?
    I told Person, who smiled and left.
    About a week after I started, a colleague told me Person went straight to the supervisor to find out why another person was being hired, and found out they were being moved to another position to finish out the year. By the way, they were being moved for some very valid reasons, but it was still a bit awkward to see Person around the office occasionally.

    1. The_artist_formerly_known_as_Anon-2*

      That happened to me once. I wasn’t aware I was replacing someone else. When I encountered that person, it was cordial but she let me know that I was her replacement.

  31. thatoneoverthere*

    OP5- Its likely an internal application system. They probably have to go through and essentially check off each candidate, to remove them and then it auto-generates an email. This has happened to me several times when I job hunted. My current place of employment sort of has a system like this as well. There is likely not much the company can do to prevent this, as its probably a built in feature to their application system.

  32. Zuzu*

    OP5 – I’m one of those recruiters who is probably sending you a weird rejection email, and I’m sorry! It’s definitely a system thing. My goal is to close people out right away if we’re not moving forward (for whatever reason) but the system sends an automated email regardless of the reason. So if I mark you as “Decline – Candidate Withdrew” or “Decline – Skills Don’t Match” it’s going to send out a similar email for both of those reasons. There’s a “Decline – Other” that doesn’t send out an email but then I’m not capturing the reason we’re not moving forward. I work for a company with tens of thousands of employees, and there’s no way for me to get this changed. My best practice is that when I’m on a call with someone who isn’t moving forward, I let them know they may receive an automated email, it’s just a system thing, they can basically ignore it. It can be challenging to close people out right away when we’re swamped, and sometimes there’s a delay between our conversations and when they get the email. Anyway, ramble to say I know recruiters/systems can be annoying, but we’re trying our best!

    1. ecnaseener*

      How frustrating! Someone built that system with different buttons for “withdrew” and “rejected” but didn’t think to enable two different email templates for them?!

    2. The_artist_formerly_known_as_Anon-2*

      Not just annoying, but insulting. And that could hurt your company down the road. It’s one thing to decline employment with a company, another to get what seems to be a petty “Well we rejected you. SO THERE!”

      The candidate that was on the receiving end of this “oh, it’s just routine” letter MIGHT remember it if he or she has to do business with your company.

      Think about that for a minute.

      1. MCMonkeybean*

        I don’t think it’s insulting, I think anyone who receives this email should probably realize there is a 99% chance that what Zuzu is describing is what happened.

  33. Ellen*

    OP5: A few years ago, I applied for a job, was offered it, turned it down (we couldn’t come to an agreement on salary/benefits), and six months later got a rejection email from the company when they finally filled the position. I was pretty amused, but chalked it up to a system thing.

  34. Dust Bunny*

    LW2: I’m sure my bosses and IT *can* see our emails but they don’t look at them unless they have specific reason to think they should. Nobody would even see this. They definitely wouldn’t fire me for it if they did.

  35. cat lady*

    I had the magic question backfire on me once, too, though not so drastically– I forgot that it was a new position, so no one had actually held it before. It was just momentarily awkward, though, and they answered it as if I’d asked the more generic “what would make the person in this role successful.”

    1. ecnaseener*

      Oof. Alison’s phrasing (in all things!) is so excellent, it’s easy to forget that you can’t always just recite it ;P

  36. I Wrote This in the Bathroom*

    #1 An OldJob did this after our small company was acquired by a mid-size one – first day back after New Year, Midsize Company fired the CIO who’d built our department from the ground up. Two days later, we had an all-hands meeting, where the new CIO was introduced to us, and we were told that he’d relocated from the opposite end of the country for his new job. Meaning, they were interviewing him and searching for a replacement months before they let go of our old CIO. That to me said a lot about our new owners and I started looking. Took several years and eventually I was hired by Old CIO, who’d started a new company. But that incident was a dead giveaway that the workplace had become toxic beyond redemption, and a lot of people started planning their exit after it happened.

  37. Machiamellie*

    #1 happened to me! And I unknowingly recruited my own replacement!

    I was a recruiter for a small company, and the GM was a very type-A micromanager. By March I’d already hit my recruiting target numbers for the year, but hadn’t filled the positions he wanted me to fill yet. He said he wanted to start recruiting for a 2nd recruiter since we were getting busier, and I would be the “Lead Recruiter.” Made sense to me.

    I had recruiter friends from previous jobs so I reached out to anyone who might be interested, and brought in a few of them for him to have conversations with by himself. He hired one of them, and she and I worked together for a couple of months.

    Then one day in May he brought me in his office and fired me. Said he wanted to “go in a different direction.” It turns out that one of my former friends wasn’t ready to make the move two months earlier when he offered my job to her, but now she was, so he got rid of me to hire her. And she never told me. The 2nd recruiter he’d already hired knew about my firing a week before he did it, and she never told me either, he made her promise not to.

  38. Ann Perkins*

    OP2 – I work in an industry where emails are required to be monitored, retained, and supervised. This would 100% not be a fireable offense. At most, if an email like that gets flagged for me to handle, I would remind the employee to not have personal emails go to their business email. It’s not so much because I’m worried about impropriety for the business but just so the person realizes that their emails to their business account aren’t necessarily private and they may wish to not have the company be capable of seeing their personal emails.

  39. Littorally*

    #5 – this is probably something like what happens in my firm when someone applies for an account and later asks us to cancel it. We only have one letter for “your application has been permanently cancelled” and everyone gets it regardless of whether they initiated the cancellation or we did. Depending on the exact circumstances, it can read kind of weirdly, but it isn’t worth the extra manpower it would cost to have a customized letter for each cancellation/rejection rather than an automated one.

    I wouldn’t sweat it. You withdrew, they confirmed you’re no longer in the running as you asked, it’s done.

  40. singlemaltgirl*

    i have actually run a ‘secret’ recruiting process when i had a particularly toxic, retaliatory, and crucial person in a key financial role. i couldn’t be without that role filled for weeks or months in trying to find the right person. the person i needed to replace had been on a pip for about a year – starting 6 months after i got there. she hid info, kept info, wouldn’t share info, and she was a disaster in the role. we did try professional development and support but she did not have the competency and in order to ‘protect’ her job, she kept everything to herself.

    i felt icky the whole time i ran this process (there weren’t internal candidates – she was the key financial officer for the org) but it paid off. my new person was great and cleaned things up in less than 2 months (something i had been trying to do for over 18 months). i don’t regret having done it – it was the right call for the org.

    and i always feel bad about firing someone. but we gave her a soft landing – much softer than she deserved given where she left the org. but i think we’d placed her in a role way above her head and she didn’t know how to say that or couldn’t say that or admit it.

    the process itself? not my go to. i would say it’s a last resort thing and not something i would rely on or turn to every time. the hiring ‘cronies’ is a bad idea. i have tapped people i’ve worked with in the past to apply for open roles and at times, as much as they were known quantities to me, there were sometimes way better candidates that i ended up hiring. no hard feelings with the people i tapped – they knew it was an open competition. i would personally tell them when we wouldn’t be going with their app as i felt that was professional courtesy.

    but it sounds like they’re trying to find a magic solution rather than listening to the whole team and working with them to make the structural changes necessary. that usually takes a min. 1 year and usually about 18 months. they sound like they’re trying to ram it through. that usually doesn’t work, imho.

  41. Anya Last Nerve*

    I’m going to disagree with the answer to #1. Part of the reason those at the more senior management levels get paid more is because there is a much higher likelihood they will be terminated due to political reasons only. I’ve worked at large publicly traded companies for the last nearly 20 years, and it’s very common for senior people – say C suite or one level below – to come in and pretty quickly replace many of their team members with others. This isn’t about Bob having performance issues; this is about Bob being brought in by Old Chief to execute on Old Chief’s vision. New Chief doesn’t know Bob and wants to execute on New Chief’s vision so New Chief pushes Bob out and brings in Cheryl. 9 times out of 10, Cheryl had this same role for New Chief at their prior company – so New Chief is bringing in a known commodity. Also when there is turnover in the upper ranks, it’s usually because management wants to see change – hiring internally would not bring about that desired change.

    1. Richard Hershberger*

      I wouldn’t be concerned about new Grandboss bringing his own people in, but about this being the third Grandboss in two and a half years.

      1. Anya Last Nerve*

        Agreed – but OP was more concerned about the secret recruiting processes than the management turnover.

      2. twocents*

        Agreed. The lack of stability in the role is way more concerning than New Grandboss doing a change in the ranks.

    2. MCMonkeybean*

      “Part of the reason those at the more senior management levels get paid more is because there is a much higher likelihood they will be terminated due to political reasons only.”


  42. The_artist_formerly_known_as_Anon-2*

    #5 – yeah, I had that happen to me once or twice. Some companies think that “we’re the cat’s (rear end) and NO ONE REJECTS US. We reject them.”

    Some companies also have a pig-headed policy = “If we reject a candidate, or he turns us down – we BLACKLIST HIM internally and we will never consider him for any position, ever again.” This is, IMHO a “let’s shoot ourselves in the foot” procedure; a candidate may have been qualified and a hiring manager had to make a difficult decision but had to reject a very viable second choice.

    Ever have two candidates that are great? Agonize over which guy or gal you hire? And have to make a painful phone call when the one you do hire accepts the position?

    Then instead of calling the rejected candidate back – for an equally suitable position – HR says “NO. We rejected him once, he’s dead to us, forever and ever!”

  43. T. J. Juckson*

    I was rejected four? five times for a single job. The first, by email. Fine. Then I got a letter. THEN, a couple of weeks later, I got a notice I was receiving a package, and the package contained my writing sample (offprint of an article, so not like it was a hardcover book or anything of actual value). I think there was another email a few months later, but I might be misremembering.

    And the kicker: a letter, about a year later, asking me “to celebrate our new hire.” WAIT, you mean you’re not still considering my candidacy? How could I have known?!

  44. animaniactoo*

    LW1 – It is only slightly better than the schtick where they hire an *assistant* for you…. and then fire you 2-3 weeks later after the assistant has learned all the important things they need to know in order to relatively seemlessly take over your job.

  45. Anne of Green Gables*

    #5: The system that we use for applications will automatically send “this position has been filled” notifications to every applicant except the successful hire as soon as the hire has been finalized. This means that candidates who pulled out of the process for whatever reason will still get those “this position has been filled” auto message. So it could be something like that. Boring answer, but also not malicious in any way.

    1. uncivil servant*

      Yup, I work for a huge bureaucracy and that’s how it works. Several times I’ve had nice chats with the hiring manager when we decided it didn’t make sense for me to proceed with the application, no hard feelings, etc. and two months later I get an email rejection. It’s just a feature of the faceless HR system that has nothing to do with the actual people doing the hiring.

      1. So they all rolled over and one fell out*

        Frankly it’s nice to get ANY followup from a company.

  46. Chilipepper Attitude*

    Ooh, #4, I got a similar response to asking the “magic question.”
    I got blank stares and crickets and then a very awkward answer.

    I think it told me a lot about the people doing the interview.

    1. Just Another Manic Millie*

      “I think it told me a lot about the people doing the interview.”

      Not necessarily. At one interview, I was asked if their company was the only company that I had applied to. I said no. (People have told me that I should have said “That’s none of your business,” but I never thought that that would help get me the job.) After I said no, I was asked the company’s “magic question,” which was “Why didn’t any of those companies want you?” I awkwardly said, “I don’t know.” Not the right answer! Because it wasn’t the right answer, they didn’t want to hire me. But I wouldn’t say that my answer told them a lot about me. I still think it’s possible that if I had been hired, I would have been an excellent employee.

      1. Nanani*

        “Why didn’t any of those companies want you” is a nonsense interview question though?
        Most of time, you have no idea. Maybe someone else was a better fit. maybe they did want to hire you but you couldn’t come to an agreement on pay and benefits. Maybe needs changed.
        If you did know, that would be -weird-.

      2. Chilipepper Attitude*

        You had no way of knowing the answer to that ridiculous question. People doing the hiring should know what they expect from a position when they are hiring for it – they are the only ones who know the answer.

        So yes, it told me a lot about the people hiring and the workplace – they did not really have their act together.

        1. Just Another Manic Millie*

          “So yes, it told me a lot about the people hiring and the workplace – they did not really have their act together.”

          I’m not sure. Upthread it was suggested that maybe the interviewer didn’t like being put on the spot to come up with a thoughtful answer to Alison’s “magic question” and got defensive and took it out on the applicant. So maybe TPTB at the company that I applied to asked me their “magic question” and were surprised that it put me on the spot and I couldn’t think of something that I could say immediately and fluently and smoothly without a pause. (But see above – I eventually learned what I should have said.)

  47. anon4this*

    OP #4- Beware that not all positions have had someone previously in them or have some sort of elaborate work history attached with it.

    This “magic question” is purely situational, because it implies multiple people have previously held this position, or the last person/people in it were “great” with straightforward examples or “not great/good” with specific instances.
    Also…the last person who held this job could have been hired in the 1990s, with “fax machine” knowledge as a plus, whereas none of that translates today.

    I would internally roll my eyes at defining “good” vs “great” past employees in an open position to a candidate. IMO there are better questions to ask specifically about the position, culture, and people.

    1. Shelly574*

      I don’t think it should ever be the only question you ask, but I have found it helpful to figure out what people are really “looking for”, especially in newly created jobs. I ask it after I’ve asked several other questions, especially if they still haven’t really highlighted what they are actually trying to hire. I phrase it differently. I say this, When you fill this position, what do you think will differentiate a person who is generally successful at this role vs a person who is outstanding at this role?

      And then after asking, you must not use this as a chance to pitch yourself as the best candidate. The whole point is to learn more about what they are imagining. I often use it as the last question before my standard, What is the timeline? inquiry.

  48. Ben Marcus Consulting*

    I was using a recruitment system that had three buckets (interested, questionable, rejected). If an applicant pulled out, rejected was the only way to stop tracking that application.

    Unbeknownst to me, placing a candidate in that bucket would automatically send them a rejection message. I did this for years until one candidate reached out to express how petty this felt to them (and honestly, I agree with that perception). I gave feedback to the platform on this, but to my knowledge they’ve still built the interface around the idea that candidates will not excuse themselves from consideration.

    I have since created an in-house system for application tracking. I still post on the big-name platforms, but everything is directed to my ATS. Not only does this let me keep that issue from happening, it also let’s me create dynamic messages. e.g. If a candidate isn’t right for a specific role or practice, I automatically connect them to one I think is more appropriate.

  49. Roja*

    OP1–I had that happen to me, replacement hired and everything. Only after I took the job (unfortunately) did I learn that the organization had a history of firing people out of the blue for bogus reasons. It was an awful experience, and my best advice to you is to job hunt asap because whatever you find will surely be better.

  50. lookie loo*

    I’ve also asked “that question” and the interviewer focused on how their office is *not* competitive and therefore did not give a concrete answer. It seemed to have a negative effect on the conversation, honestly.

  51. IT Guy*

    OP3 – part of my job is being the person that checks and releases emails caught in spam filters.

    I would estimate there is a 99.9% chance it was automatically filtered out and no one went or would go looking for it. We only dive into filtered emails to look for specific ones to specific emails on that person’s request, we don’t have time to go through every email to check if it’s really spam or not

  52. Raxhel*

    Op5 – I work with a highly automated hiring system and have definitely applied to jobs with a similar style of system. You can mark the application on how it’s passing through the process and (perhaps unsurprisingly) there’s no difference in rejected (by company) or rejected (by applicant). You can stop the emails going out but I suspect what you’re seeing here is the people who forgot/don’t know how/don’t care enough to make the effort.

  53. ThankYouNotes*

    Can the AAM hivemind calm my thank you note nerves?

    Earlier this week I did a first round interview with one manager. I guess it went well (yay!) so now I have a round of interviews next week 1-1 with the larger team. The same manager is part of one of those.

    I’m assuming I should save a thank you email for after the group interviews? I feel like sending a thank you note to the original manager with an air of “see you again soon” would be email clutter but my nerves are causing me to double guess myself over stupid small things.

  54. Pickaduck*

    Re: the Magic Question, I asked this near the end of a fourth-round panel interview for a job I was very excited about, and it was met with confusion. The interview stopped soon after that, and they completely ghosted me. I’ll never ask it again.

  55. David Levine*

    In the case of a new top boss coming in and replacing people , they are just bringing in their team. These are not people the boss has interviewed, but people the boss knows.

  56. Astra Nomical*

    LW $2: It’s highly probable ‘Dildo’ is a word automatically flagged in her company’s email system by your IT guys and wasn’t even seen by a real person anyway :)

  57. A commenter!*

    OP3 – usually at a big place you need to be in the system to get an offer, so you would have to apply down the road anyway. You should apply in the system now too so that you’re formally considered

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