my boss keeps telling me to clean up my office, carpooling with someone I manage, and more

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

1. My boss keeps telling me to clean up my office

I work in a non-teaching position at a large university. I accepted my current position mid-pandemic, at which time the department was streamlined down to just my supervisor, “Angela,” and myself. Angela is exacting and stern but excellent at her job and I can generally roll with her quirks as I enjoy my work and the school is an amazing employer. I’m trying to decide how to handle one of the areas where I struggle with her. Angela determines which of us will work on specific projects and creates a shared spreadsheet with these tasks, noting the due date, who will be completing it, and any details. This is fine except that twice now, she has listed under my tasks: “clean and organize your office space.”

I’ll be the first to admit that I’m not the most organized person, but my office is exactly that — mine. No one goes inside it except me and the night cleaning crew. We have several meeting spaces for use when we need to speak with students or faculty, as well as a large public-facing desk that we share. No one else ever has any reason to come inside my office. I contain any clutter to areas that only I use. In addition, my mess isn’t piles of garbage or rotting food. It’s stacks of paper on my desk that I keep procrastinating organizing and a book shelf that doesn’t isn’t up to the standards of the Bodleian Library. I can understand being asked to clean if I were creating a health hazard or piling my things in shared spaces, but this is simply papers in my own space. Last time she put this on the spreadsheet, I half-heartedly shuffled some things around. This time I’m tempted to simply pretend I didn’t see that particular assignment on the spreadsheet.

How would you approach this? If it matters, I feel like I do an excellent job. I’ve gotten consistently glowing evaluations from university administration and lots of positive feedback from the students and staff I work with. Angela largely expresses positive feelings about my work, but I have to be careful to catch her in a good mood if I want to discuss anything work-related… or anything else, actually.

Talk to her. She clearly has expectations about your office that you don’t agree with, and the way to handle that isn’t to ignore them or try to do the bare minimum you can get away with; that’s just going to guarantee that each of you ends up annoyed.

It’s fine to push back with your boss on something like this, but it needs to be in the form of an explicit conversation — not in the form of just not doing what she asked.

So raise it head-on! Tell her that the way your office is set up works for you and no one else comes in, and you’re wondering if there’s a concern she’s seeing that you’re missing. Go into the conversation open to the possibility that she might have a legitimate reason so that you don’t sound defensive — and because she really might. (For example, if she ever needs to find things in your office when you’re out, she might be reasonably concerned that she won’t be able to.)

Read an update to this letter here.

2. Can I offer to carpool with someone I manage?

I’m a supervisor. I just moved and now live extremely close to one of my employees; we live in a suburb that’s a pretty far drive from the office. Would it be appropriate to see if they want to carpool occasionally? On the one hand, it seems ridiculous for the earth and our wallets for us to drive separately, and I think they would appreciate the offer. On the other hand, I wouldn’t want them to feel compelled to ride with me, and I wouldn’t want the other employees to feel like they’re not in the secret carpool club.

My gut says no, but then my other gut says I’m being ridiculous. If it helps, it’s a congenial office where people generally get along. Though I would say that — I’m the boss.

Because you’re the boss, I don’t think you should set up a regular carpooling situation; that would risk making other people on your team feel that one employee is getting daily bonding time with you that they’re not getting. It also risks setting up a situation where your employee wants to stop carpooling but doesn’t know how to get out of it.

But sharing an occasional ride shouldn’t be a big deal if you offer it in a way that makes it very easy for them to decline. In fact, do it in a way where they could get away with never mentioning it again if they’d rather not — like, “We live so close to each other, let me know if you ever need a ride to or from work.”

3. Employer won’t accept that I’ve said no to their job offer

I have been interviewing for jobs over the last few months and received a job offer last week. After my interview with the person who would be my supervisor, I got a vibe that wasn’t settling right with me (think, very abrasive; I was told by this person that they’ll offend me on a regular basis, and I’m to get over it). I asked for a day to think about the offer, and to determine if I could work with that style of management.

During that day, we found that one of my parents has a very serious medical condition and will need on-going treatment and surgery for at least three months. As I’ll be needed to help with care, transportation, medication, etc., I withdrew from the position with a nice email, explaining my reasons (ill parent, not wanting to start a new position by asking to take three months off, that I have FMLA protection at my current job, and that I’m not the best fit for that management style), thanking them, and wishing them the best of luck finding a candidate for the role.

I’m now receiving phone calls and emails about talking with them more and trying to make arrangements. While I appreciate the offer, I am truly not interested in the position any longer, and I keep repeating that. I don’t want to be completely rude and just ignore the them (small town, people talk a lot), but I have personal matters that need my attention. How do I get them to understand? Do I just stop answering? I don’t want to ghost anyone, but I don’t know if repeating myself is helping.

I’m going to assume that you’ve been clear about your no and not softened it to the point that they think you would welcome their help in making the job work out. Assuming that’s the case, they’re the ones being rude by ignoring your answer At this point, it wouldn’t be rude for you to stop responding — you gave them your answer and you’re not leaving them hanging. But if you want to respond one more time, say this: “I am formally declining the position. I’ve got my hands full with a family situation right now so I won’t be able to respond to further messages, but best of luck filling the role.” And then stop responding — they won’t keep trying forever.

4. Half our internships are awarded by nepotism

I work in a large company that strives to be progressive and equitable. We have full health benefits for domestic partners, paid parental leave for birth or adoptive parents of any gender, and a diversity task force that aims to ensure all employees feel welcome and valued.

This is all great, but my beef is this: my department frequently gets the child/friend/niece/neighbor of some executive gifted to us as an intern. We usually hire our own intern as well, meaning we have two interns total. The hired intern must undergo a rigorous process that includes multiple rounds of interviews and submitting work samples. The nepotism intern still needs to submit a resume and do an interview, but those are just formalities.

My sense of equity and fairness grates at how the company says it wants to promote equity and social justice and yet engages in this practice. Our department VP is unlikely to challenge it because the intern is free for us (i.e. their pay comes out of someone else’s budget) and we’re understaffed so frankly we could use the help. My question is, do I point out how this practice contradicts our stated values or do I just keep my mouth shut and don’t look the gift horse in the mouth?

For what it’s worth, I’m a manager who reports to the department VP. I don’t supervise the interns directly, but they work on my team. My team’s general attitude toward the situation is a mix of resignation, annoyance, and gratitude for any help we can get. They are professional and treat both interns equally, but there is a lot of sighing and “ugh, why” behind closed doors.

You’d be doing a good thing if you pointed out to your diversity task force that awarding half of your internships by nepotism perpetuates the privilege pipeline where students with connections get more opportunities than students without them, and that it directly contradicts the values your company professes.

5. What’s up with employers checking references after they’ve already made an offer?

My partner recently got a job offer for a field he’s more interested in and with a nice raise, as well, which we are both very excited about! However, HR asked for his references after offering him the job, making the offer conditional on the reference check. Why do companies do this? This happened to him for the job he’s currently in, as well as to me in my current role!

The frustrating part is that despite having received the offer a week ago, he still hasn’t been able to give his notice at his current job. You never know if a reference will unexpectedly burn you, or just say something that the reference checker doesn’t love and suddenly, the job offer is rescinded. But the longer he waits to give his notice, the more likely it is he’ll need to push his start date, but he won’t know what start date works for him until he can give his notice!

So why do companies do this? Wouldn’t it be easier for everyone to do the reference checks before sending the job offer? That way the candidate isn’t in this weird gray zone where they need to figure out a start date before knowing when they can even leave their current job! I understand that it’s maybe easier for HR, since that way they’re only contacting references if the candidate is interested in accepting, but on the other hand they’ve already had to draft up a new job offer with an adjusted start date, so it seems like more of a hassle for them, too.

Yep, it’s a terrible practice. Typically employers that do this see the reference check as a rubber-stamp where they’re just checking to make sure you didn’t misrepresent your experience — they’re basically looking for a thumbs-up or a thumbs-down rather than the more nuanced discussion that a thorough reference-checker would do. They’re treating it as similar to a criminal records check or degree verification, which is not what it actually should be.

It’s a bad practice because it means the offer could still be yanked so it’s not a real offer at all but candidates don’t always realize that, and also because it denies hiring managers the ability to include insights from references in their decision-making before they settle on a candidate.

Your partner is absolutely right to wait to resign until the contingency on his offer is cleared, and if he does need to push the start date back because of that, it’s okay for him to explain to the new employer that he’s not comfortable giving notice until the offer is a final one.

{ 501 comments… read them below }

  1. Viki*

    LW 1, as someone who has different versions of what messy is than my partner, maybe do a quick gut check with a coworker or someone to make sure you’re not mess blind.

    Then decide how much capital this is worth fighting for. If it’s literally a pile of papers on your desk, is this really worth going to the mat for?

    Years ago, when I had a messy desk/weird hybrid of admin and tech writer and my boss complained, all I did was put colour coded sticky notes on the papers in piles by department. Lowest level of an organization system I could make, got her off my back because she could see/find what she needed by a quick desk glance.

    1. Semi-Anon*

      I’ve encountered some really incredible office messes that weren’t health hazards, so I do think it’s worth a sanity check with a reasonably tidy colleague. If your office is in a shared space (ie, it’s not you in a single office with a door) and other people can see it, it’s reasonable to expect a certain level of tidiness, because working next to a disaster area is something that a lot of people find stressful, even it it’s not actually attracting roaches.

      Other possible reasons for someone else to concern themselves would include making it difficult for the cleaning staff to clean, blocking emergency exits, or stacked paper at a level that would cause a fire hazard, or stacks that are in danger of falling over. And, of course, if other people might need to go in and find stuff.

      1. Russian Red*

        I completely agree with this. There are a lot of reasons for having a tidy space, and our office require sit because it houses less germs.

        Also, it’s very easy to keep a space a little cleaner and more organized. I would be embarrassed if my boss constantly kept seeing a space that was gross and unorganized. I think the boss is in the right here to ask OP to clean it.

        1. ecnaseener*

          Okay, maybe back up a little with the “it’s very easy” part. It’s not very easy for everyone, that’s the root of the whole problem. I agree it’s probably worth it for LW to put the necessary effort in, but don’t discount that it may be a significant effort (especially to sustain it)

          1. TMZ*

            Yes, this is something that people who are naturally tidy, or have learned how to be tidy, don’t really understand. It would be a huge effort for me, and would detract from other things (I once tried to do Inbox Zero and found that I was totally failing to do anything else with my email other than file them!). It’s like for some people it’s easy not to overeat, some people don’t procrastinate, find it easy to be on time, etc. If you are trying to help someone who struggles with it, saying slowly “just don’t eat so much” or “have you tried not procrastinating? That’s what I do. It’s really not that hard” or whatever isn’t going to be helpful.

            1. JBI*

              I think one thing that happens is that people don’t have the priorities… my wife will announce “we really need to do something about rearranging the basement”, and my view is I can live with it vs other things to spend time on. Probably annoying for her
              On the other hand my wife is woefully unpunctual for very identifiable reasons 1) She doesn’t know off the top of her head when something is happening 2) she’s not very good at estimating how long things take 3) She doesn’t have a good internal clock or check time frequently 4) She will add tasks at the last minute and spring them on us 5) She doesn’t get the difference between “basically ready”
              and “I can walk out the door now” 6) Being late to things just things just doesn’t bother her the way it does me.

              1. Nicotena*

                True, it’s what you prioritize but also habits of thought (which can contribute to what you prioritize). There are some things that I just learned as a kid and don’t take up any mental time and energy for me to do successfully, so that also doesn’t make them difficult for me to prioritize because it’s an easy five minute thing; there are other things I struggle mightily with and which I know will take me lots of mental time and effort to complete, so that sometimes bumps them down the list.

              2. Been there, done that*

                OMG, you just described my husband. To him, “I’m on my way” means “I still have to hop in the shower, get dressed, let the dog out and find my keys…phone…wallet.” Which drives me (who feels like I’m late if I’m not 15 minutes early) nuts. With my urging (nagging) he can try to plan better, manage time better and sometimes he is moderately successful but he always falls back into the same basic pattern. I think some people are just hard-wired certain ways and tidiness/messiness probably fits into that as well. Adults have the responsiblity to try to accommodate the other people in their lives (employers, spouses, whomever) to some degree but people are gonna be people and everyone will not always conform to your standards of punctuality, time management, organization, tidiness, etc. And like you said, everyone will have different priorities and that’s okay.

          2. Insert Clever Name Here*

            Agree with ecnaseener — just because something is easy for you doesn’t mean it’s easy for others.

            Also disorganized =/= gross in a health sense, and this is from someone who would struggle with a disorganized office mate because I’m an Automatically Tidy The Things person.

          3. Turtle*

            Or that’s just not how you think…I have piles of papers everywhere and know exactly where everything is. I keep all of my emails in my inbox (over 30,000) and that is where I go to get them. I’m a senior level executive and do excellent work. I have colleagues who spend SO much time color coding and working on organizing. Seriously, if no one is in that office except the OP, just let them work the way they work.

          4. Nanani*

            Having to keep -your- space to someone else’s standards is something that needs a higher bar than “the other person prefers it that way”.
            It’s extra effort that doesn’t come naturally to LW1 (or else their desk would already be the way the boss wants it)

            I think the boss is overstepping and have to wonder if there are other micromanager habits in play.

          5. Perfectly Particular*

            Really easy – hahahahaha. It’s so hard when you move roles and you have no idea what your filing system should look like. I’m 7 years in, and don’t really have a system. Papers stack up on my desk until they can be scanned and/or shredded. Not tidy, but does the job, and meets retention requirements.

          1. nope*

            Absolutely! I can find anything on my computer because I remember words and numbers to search. Paper makes me so anxious and I can NOT organize it.
            My 16 year old son is very similar to me and, when he was in middle school, he was called to the guidance department to “help organize” his binders. He came home, so frustrated, and said “Now I don’t know where my stuff is! I do it my way!” And…I totally got it.

            1. Old, but techno savvy*

              SO much agree with this! My sister is a BO (born organized) – I am NOT, but I can tell you how far down in which pile to find XYZ. She and I share the house – I can keep my stuff tidy enough, but when she puts away the common things, I have to ask her where things are.

            2. Rach*

              Me looking at my son’s room: Why is it so messy in here?!
              Me looking at my (messy) room: Oh, right.

              Isn’t it funny how that works? We both have ADHD and it is all I can do to keep the living areas tidy, lol.

            3. A Feast of Fools*

              Gah, I still remember — with trauma — the two times my mom decided to “gift” me organizing tools and organize all my stuff while I was out.

              The first time, I was in junior high. She bought peg boards and things to hang belts / handbags on, shoe trees, clear storage boxes, etc. There were things of mine that I couldn’t find until I moved out when I was 19.

              The second time, I was in my late 20’s and at her home because I’d just moved back to my home state and needed to sort out a job and solo living situation. She did a similar version of the junior high stunt, except she had to go into my [still-packed] moving boxes and pull out some of my stuff in order to “organize” it. I was *livid*.

              Oh, wait. I just remembered a third time. She moved in with me ~12 years ago. I woke up one morning, in a rush to get to work, only to find that she had REARRANGED MY FURNITURE AND WALL HANGINGS while I’d slept. I put everything back the way it was and raced to the office. When I came home that day *she* was livid! It felt very, very good to be able to tell her that if she wanted to live in a place where she had final say over how things were arranged and organized, I’d help her pack her stuff and get settled into her new digs.

              For the record, back in the days of paper, I could tell you where a document was in my stack of papers if you could tell me about how old it was. I also still keep my expensive, pro-grade tape measurer in the round, carpeted cat house that’s in the corner of my living room because that’s where I first put it shortly after buying it. Same with my plumber’s key. It’s in the same cat house. (The cats have never used that house). So anyone else would have trouble finding things in my house / on my desk because they aren’t where they’re “supposed” to go. I, personally, am fine with this. :-)

              1. banoffee pie*

                Moved your wall hangings? Wow. I’m now counting myself lucky my mum is even more relaxed about ‘neatness’ than me lol

              2. Candi*

                First time -you were still a kid. While I don’t think it was the right thing to do, I can see where she’s coming from.

                Second -nope. It was her house, but you were an adult. She can use her words and tell you she wants stuff organized.

                Third -NO. Nope nope no to the H-E-double-hockey-sticks NO. Your space, your place, Emperor Kuzco rules in place -no touchee! She deserved whatever you handed her.

              3. TrainerGirl*

                My mom had eye surgery and because the hospital was near me, she stayed with me for about 6 weeks post-surgery. I was in grad school at the time, and as this was before everything was online, I had printed out a lot of material, which I kept in a few piles on the floor while I was working on projects.

                One day, she said that I need to pick those papers up because they were messy and shouldn’t be on the floor. I told her I knew exactly where everything was, and when I needed something I could go right to it. I also let her know that when she was paying the mortgage, she could decide how things were done. I didn’t know how that would go over, but she laughed. I’d been waiting years to say it. Once that semester was over, the papers were recycled and she was happy.

        2. AnonHere*

          I’m sure you don’t mean it this way, but the “it’s very easy” assumption reads as ableist for me. It’s something I face a lot, even when I was in a residential mental health program! I’m chronically disorganized and it very much is a mental health issue for me. I would love to be able to maintain an organized environment.

          At residential, I was working on it with the behavioral therapist. I had to be more vocal about that than I would have liked to get certain people off my back about my collection of things in the shared areas.

          I will be forever grateful for the one person who saw how hard it was for me. They asked respectfully if they needed me to clear a specific space. And even came to me with a suggestion about how I could do that in the least stressful way. It is hard to explain how much it means to be approached with compassion and respect.

          It really is seen in society as a whole as just not trying. And that may be true for some people! But I’d guess it’s not for the majority of people who are disorganized enough for others to call them on it.

          I feel a lot of shame about this issue. It’s embarrassing that I can’t hide this symptom. I know I’m being judged. So publicly calling attention to this is in a shared document? That’s the wrong approach. Even if it is a necessity for that particular workspace, please don’t call people out in public.

          1. Megabeth*

            Thank you for speaking up, and for sharing your experience. That is a very brave thing to do, and I just wanted you to know I hear you and appreciate you.

          2. Kella*

            Agreed! I’ve got executive dysfunction AND chronic illness which zaps my physical and mental energy, plus I grew up in a chronically messy home so I am very used to tuning out messes. Keeping stuff organized just can’t always be my priority. Taking care of my body is.

            Also, I think the “It’s very easy” attitude is often accompanied by the idea that there is a certain way you organize and everyone should do it that way because it’s the best way. If you have any kind of executive dysfunction, this likely won’t work for you! Like, I realized that a lot of my mess was packaging I needed to throw away or recycle and I just didn’t have the energy to sort through it. I finally reduced this mess by putting a trash and recycling bin RIGHT NEXT TO MY BED so that I was more likely to just put it straight there when I opened a package. I didn’t start being able to keep things clean until I organized my space around how *I* tended to use it, and made it easy for me to find and put away things. If I notice an area keeps getting messy, I try to rethink how it’s set up and what is making it hard for me to keep it clean.

        3. Selina Luna*

          I know you mean well.
          However, I have an executive function disorder that makes keeping a tidy desk incredibly difficult for me. I’ve worked to put accommodations for myself in place to combat this. For example, I generally conduct all of my business electronically rather than with paper. Neat labels and file folders are unsustainable for me, whereas stacks that I understand, even if it looks somewhat messy to others, is the only way I’m able to function.
          Please try not to assume that something that is easy for you is just easy. I’m not lazy or unclean; I’m doing my best to make sure that I know where everything is so that I can find it.

        4. Candi*

          It’s not easy for a lot of people. My adult kid is possibly ADHD (lockdown f’d up getting their diagnosis, they’re working on sorting that out) and their room is a disaster zone. Since they’re living with me, I draw the line at food being in their room too long and their room being a safety hazard -other than that, their space, their place. Just don’t migrate it into other parts of the apartment.

          Plus, variable levels of “messy” reflects how people think and do their work. Some people can not work effectively in a tidy environment -their thinking process means things are going to be out, available, and usually somewhat messy.

          I’m this type, incidentally. I can pack up neat as a pin, but when I’m working, things are rather jumbled. (And if you don’t want messy, don’t look in my drawers.)

      2. HB*

        I came to say this – after a couple of months in my old office we were sent an email from the office manager that we needed to clear our desks as much as possible before we left on Friday. This happened several weeks in a row – and my desktop was organized, but certainly had stuff on it – until finally she explained it was actually a request from the cleaning crew. Since it was a tax office, they didn’t want to touch any documents on our desk to move them for cleaning purposes since it could be confidential, but that made dusting, etc harder. Once we all had the context, and we understood what was actually wanted and why, we were able to accommodate.

        1. NoMoreFirstTimeCommenter*

          This is a great example on how explaining the reason for things makes life so much easier. Also I think it’s pretty common that cleaning staff isn’t supposed to move any papers on desks, even if there wasn’t anything particularly secret about them. Papers could get lost and in the wrong order, and also it would just be a lot of extra work that isn’t mentioned in the contract with the cleaning company, and therefore not paid for. If a desk is full of stacks of paper it’s difficult to clean much of it and as a result, there will be dust. Lots of dust can affect air quality etc. so it’s very understandable that a boss cares about this.

        2. Where’s the Orchestra?*

          I think this is a fair point. Going in with an open mind and checking to see in the cleaning crew is asking for this so they can do their job more completely is a possibility.

        3. MusicWithRocksIn*

          True. Due to Covid, my office has a crew come in once a month to do a deep-deep clean. We all have to totally clear off all our desks. It’s possible cleaning crews are being asked to do a lot more sanitizing then they used to be.

        4. Yvette*

          I worked at a law firm and the cleaning company would not discard anything that was not physically in a trash can. You could have a stack of papers right next to it or even a pile of old newspapers (pre-recycling days) and it would not be touched.

          1. NotAnotherManager!*

            Same – you had to write “trash/basura” on anything that needed to be discarded that was not in a trashcan, which makes sense – given how some attorneys kept their offices (and sometimes the hallway outside their offices), you would not want the poor cleaning crew trying to decide what was trash and what wasn’t.

      3. getaway_girl*

        My colleague has had a messy desk for years and it includes papers that could have been discarded/shredded long ago. It didn’t used to be a problem. Now, however, they’ve dealing with cognitive impairment and it’s creating problems. Either projects are falling through because they think they’ve already done them, or they’re duplicating work they’ve already done. Watching them struggle has made me rethink my own system of organization and how I can streamline things more efficiently.

        1. ACM*

          As someone who was cleaning staff in a building with confidential and even classified papers around, I be reasonably confident in my assertion that the cleaning staff doesn’t care and doesn’t pay any attention to the pile of paper. I like a good read, but internal e-mails and forms and whatnot do not constitute my idea of “a good read” and I had neither the time nor the inclination to try to shift through piles of paper to find any spicy ones that hypothetically might exist, I had work to do.

          Add in office workers’ tendency to blame cleaning staff if they lose something or gets stolen, and we were all pretty clear on avoiding any piles of paperwork because we did *not* want any room for anything to stick to us for someone else’s mistakes or crimes.

          1. NuttyWalrous*

            I don’t think its a matter of seeing staff in a negative way but its just a good practice to not leave confidential papers around. I imagine this could be a bigger issue if the confidential papers are student’s personal data.

          2. Observer*

            Just the tendency to blame cleaning staff is a reason to keep that from being a possibility as much as can be.

            More importantly, just because YOU had zero interest in reading the papers on people’s desks that doesn’t mean that NO cleaning staff ever have an interest. And, not to be hyper dramatic, sometimes cleaning staff is not just indulging in idle curiosity.

            1. Bibi*

              And then those eeeeevil cleaning staff members SELL YOUR SECRETS TO THE GOVERNMENT!!
              Seriously. I don’t think anyone gives a hoot.

              1. Observer*

                Except that it does happen. Not just in spy thrillers.

                It’s the same thing as people going through the trash. For most people the idea is just weird. Like why would anyone care about what’s in your trash? But it happens. Enough that companies that have sensitive stuff that needs to be discarded shred their paperwork.

                The same thing applies here.

                1. DANGER: Gumption Ahead*

                  Not going to lie, back in the day when I was a baby hacker in HS, I would totally hop onto cleaning shifts as a day-labor/fill-in cleaner to snoop papers for social engineering. Never did anything malicious with the info, but definitely used it to snoop where I didn’t belong just because I could. My friends and I also dumpster dived for info

              2. Candi*

                Enough government organizations and businesses dealing with secret stuff give enough of a hoot that the janitorial staff has to pass in-depth background checks and be given security clearances in order to access where they’ll be working.

                Janitorial, housekeeping, maids, and more -many, many, many down through the years have been found to be involved in chicanery, from theft to spying to planting information. Sometimes it’s classist attitudes, others it’s thinking they don’t have the brains to understand the information they see, others that there’s no reason for them to be interested.

                Sheer curiosity is enough of a reason for interest. But information is valuable, and the right information at the right time is worth more than gold. And housekeeping is usually a badly paid job -minimum wage or slightly above. Even the honest will have thoughts flicker across their mind, and for the dishonest? Leaving information available may as well be printing money for them.

                I was a housekeeper. First round was in a mall. My young self settled for occasionally swiping toilet paper. But I often got the job of cleaning the big office -not the public access one, the other one- and the things that got left out! They’re damm lucky my conscience would never let me rest.

            2. EmKay*

              what, exactly, do you think the cleaning staff is going to do with your super secret information that you’ve left out on your desk?

              please be specific.

              1. ForeignLawyer*

                Won’t apply in most cases, but some professionals do work with confidential information about people who are public figures and whose personal info can therefore be sold to tabloids etc. Like, a friend of mine is a lawyer whose confidential papers could tell you which famous actors have accused with other known industry people of sexual harassment/assault.

                Also, Corporate espionage is a thing, for example if you work with patent applications or in defence contracting/telecommunications/etc.

                Likely nobody is going to care about most info companies deem “confidential”, but it’s not an unreasonable concern. And it’s also not directed at cleaning staff in general, but really just leaving that kind of information where ANYONE who’s not supposed to see it could find it.

                1. EmKay*

                  I agree with everything you’ve said here. The thing is, if OP worked in the kind of field where this is a legitimate concern, they would know.

                  The boss wouldn’t be telling them to “clean up” their desk if that were the case. They’d be screaming about confidentiality instead.

                2. Observer*

                  @EmKay The thing is, if OP worked in the kind of field where this is a legitimate concern, they would know.

                  Not necessarily. I’ve been shocked numerous times at the gaps in people’s understanding of how to keep information secure and what needs to be kept secure.

              2. Information management matters*

                Sometimes just having the information, not doing anything with it, is the harm. If an unauthorized person accesses patient charts, the harm to the patient is that someone else knows their private information, without their being a clear benefit to that patient.

              3. Jenny20*

                I’ll give you an example. I work as a stock analyst, and changes to our ‘buy’ and ‘sell’ ratings can move share prices. Since we started working from home, we were warned not to print and discard any work-in-process drafts in our municipal recycling because someone could go through our garbage to learn about our ratings changes in advance. Never would have occurred to me in my suburban house that this could have been an issue until we got the warning.

              4. Friendly Neighbourhood IT Person*

                This is a significant concern in most information security standards, ISO27001 for example and it’s totally standard practice for any company who is accredited to have a clear desk policy of some nature as part of their adherence to the standard and honestly it makes sense, if you aren’t controlling data you can have no idea how a breach happened and if that’s the case then insurance companies aren’t keen to pay out. It protects the company and employees, most data breaches aren’t caused by people being malicious, they’re caused by carelessness or lack of knowledge.

          3. Emilia Bedelia*

            The concern is not necessarily that cleaning staff will actually read confidential/sensitive papers – even the most top secret tax documents probably don’t have all that much interest.

            If the company works in a regulated industry or works with sensitive data, there are likely some rules/procedures around document retention and control, and there also may be some rules about who can access it, and what level of training/access they must have. If your document control system specifies that a person must have a certain type of training to do X task that uses Y confidential document and no one else can have access to it, but those people leave all those Y documents all over their desk all the time, that’s clearly violating the policy and the intention of keeping those documents secure. No matter who it is (cleaning staff/person in next cube over/CEO), if they aren’t authorized to view the documents they should be kept secure.

            All this to say that “but, the cleaners…” is wrong and overly simplified, and I think it’s definitely classist to jump to thinking of the cleaning staff, when literally anyone at the company could present a risk if confidential information is left out. “What is my company’s document control policy, and am I compliant to it?” is the real question.

            1. 3co*

              Good point—and academia is a field with a lot of regulated data.

              I just had to complete a FERPA training and some trainings for social science researchers working with human subjects. In both cases, it can be quite important not to leave stuff lying around your office. Even if the LW isn’t working with anything that’s subject to those regulations, it might still be something that shapes their supervisor’s general expectations about how people’s offices ought to look.

            2. Observer*

              All this to say that “but, the cleaners…” is wrong and overly simplified, and I think it’s definitely classist to jump to thinking of the cleaning staff, when literally anyone at the company could present a risk if confidential information is left out.

              Sure. The point is that if people as unrelated to the documents as cleaners can have access, then it’s just to accessible. Also, as others have noted corporate espionage is a thing which means that either someone takes a job as a cleaner to get access or (more likely) they pay someone. And given how poorly people like cleaners are paid that’s not an unreasonable concern. (If you also mistreat your cleaners, that also increases your risk.)

              It’s not just cleaners, of course. I think that it was T-Mobile that recently had to clean up a mess because some of their people had been paid off to allow SIM swaps. The bottom line is that people CAN be paid off, and the lower paid someone is the higher the probability. Not because lower paid people are less honest! But because they have greater need, therefore greater temptation.

            3. Kitty*

              This, very much. I’ve only ever worked at highly regulated financial institutions and clean desk policy is a big deal and even a fireable offense. I don’t know how that translates into academia but we routinely have desk checks where an anonymous employee will come in at 10pm and check to make sure drawers are locked and no sensitive info is visible or even internal trainings or memos. Write ups directly impact your year end review and 3 result in disciplinary action. I look my desk even when I’m going to a quick run to the bathroom. We use VPN when WFH and can’t print anything. I can’t even send external emails or access websites that have a chat function like LinkedIn.

              For the record, I wouldn’t have a clue what to do with someone’s social security number but that doesn’t mean I should have access to someone’s private information, particularly when that person or company provides that info on the basis that our FI is adhering to privacy requirements stipulated by our regulators. I don’t think we need to single out cleaning staff. The problem is that anyone who walks into your office can see that info even if they do nothing with it or don’t care. This is assuming that your work requires that kind of confidentiality but I would assume even if it doesn’t officially, if you’ve got students’ data and info it should be under lock and key.

          4. LinuxSystemsGuy*

            You’re right, but also really wrong. I would guess that 80-90% of cleaning staff would have exactly the same attitude, but there’s always someone nosy on any given team. More importantly, depending on the nature of the work being done and the information being handled, there’s always someone willing to pay for information. In the annals of espionage history, more than one overworked, underpaid office cleaner has been subverted by spies or criminals to steal valuable information.

            Based on LW’s comments, it seems unlikely that any of their papers contains anything of value, but who knows. Even if, as we assume, there’s no valuable info on the LW’s desk, the cleaning staff may have standing orders not to touch papers because they also clean areas that are likely to have such info. Maybe LW’s office is right next to HR or something.

          5. K*

            It’s more that confidential documents should be kept out of sight of anyone who doesn’t need to see them. I blame the people whose documents they are. It’s their responsibility to protect the confidentiality

      4. Anon for this*

        I concur about the sanity check. We’ve got someone here who has a private office with a lot of stacks of paper. The fire marshals go through here pretty regularly and we’ve been cited repeatedly because of it.

      5. Merry and Bright*

        There may be other reasons the manager is requesting a clean desk. For example, I’m on my office safety committee, and we do have people clean up loose/stacked papers on their desk area because it is considered a fire hazard.

    2. allathian*

      Yeah, I’ll freely admit that my desk in my WFH space is a mess, but it’s one that nobody ever sees, not even my webcam. But at the office, I leave a clean desk, because our cleaners aren’t allowed to move stuff on the desk to clean.

      That said, our office is 99.9% paper free. I haven’t been to the office for more than a year, and only once in total during the pandemic, and we use secure printing, so it’s only possible to print things at the office. We aren’t allowed to send documents to our home computers for printing, either. The advantage of going paper free is that the number of things you need to organize decreases dramatically, and there’s no need for anyone else to look at my stuff, even in theory, because everything that’s work-related is done on the computer.

      1. Smithy*

        I do wonder if part of the mess has something to do with this weird middle ground between our work lives being mostly paper free, but with the occasional documents we find relevant to hold onto – but not to the point where we develop quality organizational systems.

        When I first started as a fundraiser, my institutional donors each had a physical and digital folder for all materials (grant agreements, receipts, reports, etc.). There was a formal system and then trays for loose items that could get formally filed at quite times. In subsequent jobs, the digital folder were really everything and so less and less investment went into any physical filing system. And so papers from conferences, meetings, etc that were worth holding onto had fewer official places to go and ended up in weirder places/piles.

        The ultimate answer is that yes, those piles do make dusting hard and as the piles get bigger the dust grows. But I do think the emphasis on digital makes having more obvious systems dissipate.

        1. Nanani*

          Oh yes, the never ending contradiction of paperless! green! office! vs the reality that x y and z are still on paper for whatever reason. Often a good reason.
          But you can’t have a cabinet because we’re a paperless office. And also you need to tidy up those papers. That don’t exist.

          1. Smithy*

            I wasn’t even in a paperless office, but in my last job we got cubes with one personalized cabinet and then my desk came with desk top filing trays nearly full of “stuff worth saving”.

            Now should you want to use that cabinet for anything personal to have in the office and not in open view….that would take up nearly all of that space. Then going back to the “stuff worth saving”, again – that was left to individual staff member’s perspectives more so than a genuine filing system of “these items are important because X, and can be found this way”. It’s become a strange economy of scale situation. Because there isn’t enough physical paper for many teams to store, they don’t have systems to store it, and then things become messy.

    3. rudster*

      I was also a tech writer and had the same thing happen to me! The only clutter on my desk was very neatly arranged, closed binders of manuals/OEM documentation packages in progress (our products had long lead times, so different parts of the package ready at different times), and this was after they had taken away the out-of-the-way workspace I usually used for this! I wasn’t even in an area that saw any customer traffic. The boss was toxic anyway and drove a lot of good employees away – I left soon after.
      Re. this letter, though – I don’t think I’ve ever seen a university instructors that didn’t have piles of paper and books on their desk!

      1. Nicotena*

        Yes, I had a prior boss who was also obsessed with our “ugly” manuals and wanted them out of sight for the office aesthetic (damn you open offices). I thought it was a weird thing for her to spend capital on. They didn’t quite fit in a regular drawer but you could slide one sideways in the hanging folder drawer if you didn’t have anything else in there. So we all had to have totally-empty drawers just to hide one work-necessary item. Kinda nuts.

      2. After 33 years ...*

        In the past, yes, but most student work is submitted on-line, and most journals and texts are digital. Even prior to COVID, my paper accumulations were dropping rapidly and steadily. A quick scan of the office reveals no hard-copy student papers, and no memos.

    4. Junior Assistant Peon*

      I worked under a manager who believe housekeeping was a magical cure for everything, and it was hell. Long after he was gone, the equipment and documentation we chucked out during cleaning frenzies bit us in the butt.

      5S (housekeeping / throwing things out) became a fad in manufacturing plants because it makes sense for shared tools and equipment to be kept in a designated location and easily findable. When it got applied to offices, it didn’t make sense because you don’t share your desk (unless it’s a hotdesking office) and you aren’t likely to misplace your mouse or keyboard.

      1. Nicotena*

        Yeah, I used to have a boss that got really finicky about mess, so we all had weird systems of shoving papers into boxes that we kept under our desks or whatever. It was not at ALL better organizationally but we went from immoral slobs to suddenly Godly tidy people now that we had done this.

      2. Cold Fish*

        On the other hand, I work with a manager that doesn’t throw ANYTHING away and throws a fit when someone else does. About 8 years ago another coworker went thru and got rid of some old catalogs and samples. Everything thrown away was more than 10 years old (and most older than that, going back to early 90’s). Manager still complains about “we used to have a catalog for this but So-and-so threw it away”. Like we are supposed to remember and reference an obsolete catalog from 20+ years ago and that said catalog would be of actual help. Sometimes those cleaning frenzies are a good thing.

        This manager also refuses to organize or delete emails and then complains when it takes 10+ minutes for Outlook to start up because she has so many emails.

      3. Tiny Soprano*

        Ahhhhh this is my mother. She frequently throws things out on a cleaning spree that she later goes on to need. It’s almost like a phobia of having excess things.

    5. doreen*

      There is someone at my office who does not acknowledge what a mess her cubicle is. She has so many boxes and shopping bags of paper under her desk that she cannot sit a comfortable distance from her screen and keyboard . There are so many old papers ( including months-old newspapers ) piled on her desk that no one can find anything when she is out. When she was once forced to get rid of some of this stuff, the boxes under the desk ended up containing toys and books for her granddaughter that had been buried for years. (like the toys/books were suitable for a 5 year old and the granddaughter was 11).

      Nobody at at all would care if the only papers she had on her desk were papers she actually used for work but the paper she needs on her desk to do her job is maybe three folders – the rest is there because for some reason, she needs to print nearly every email and phone directory and keep them on top of her desk forever along with the previously mentioned newspapers.

      1. Lady_Lessa*

        Sounds like they are close to being a hoarder.

        3rd generation pack rat, but even I go through papers and either discard or shred.

      2. MusicWithRocksIn*

        When I was a teen I did some work for my mom, and her boss’s office was wild. I had to use his computer a few times and it always took a few minutes to locate his computer mouse – and sometimes his keyboard. I could never understand how they weren’t at the top of the pile. You were just as likely to find a wadded up hundred dollar bill as a ketchup packet hidden under all the papers. Also, as an adult looking back, I’m fairly sure I was casually shifting through a ton of drugs with no idea I was doing it, because there were little pills in there and at the time I was all “He is so careless with his medication”. He also had one of those little decorative cans of fake paint that looks like it is spilled and it was the most on point decoration ever.

      3. Autumnheart*

        I have a coworker who also had a TON of crap in her cube. Toys, books, candy (she was the keeper of the office candy jar), a bag of potting soil for the office plans, just…a ridiculous amount of junk.

        We had to clean out our cubes over the summer for COVID cleaning and take everything home with us, and I wonder how long it took her. We’re on a huge campus so our desks are seriously about a quarter mile from the parking lot. I have a strict rule for personalizing my cube—everything has to fit in one box. So for me, it was a matter of 20-30 minutes of cleaning, then taking my one box to the car. I’m pretty sure I heard that she had to make multiple CAR TRIPS because all her crap wouldn’t even fit in one car load.

        Maybe that experience taught her something. Guess we’ll find out when we’re back in the office next week!

      4. New But Not New*

        This is what I call an office hoarder. I have known several of those. No matter what they said, their cubes were nasty and no they didn’t know where everything was.

    6. Dust Bunny*

      I’m a “stacks of paper” person by nature so I make a point, between major projects, of cleaning out the stacks of paper periodically. One, it keeps my bosses (whose expectations are not unreasonable since patrons can sometimes see my workspace) happy and two, it ensures that I’m not losing things in the stacks. Plus . . . if you can “file” stuff in piles you can file it for real and then not have to live with it all the time. You’ve already admitted you’re procrastinating, which suggests there isn’t a reason for this beyond you just haven’t bothered to do it yet. You probably don’t need to clean up everything, but meeting about halfway would probably satisfy your boss enough to buy you some grace.

      1. Thistle Whistle*

        I was taught that you needed your work to be organised (but not necessarily overly tidy). Basically if you were “hit by a bus” (or won the lottery or anything else big that would take you away from the office for an extended period of time) your work should be organised enough that a well trained colleague should be able to come in and pick up the basics after 20-30 minutes of getting used to your system. That means papers grouped and labelled (even if just in loose folders or piles) for current work and older worked filed away.

        Worked well for my old office and carried it onto other places since. However, data security concerns these days means everything needs locked away overnight (and if away from your dwsk) and so it’s a moot point now. Really surprised if anywhere would allow any sort of papers left out even in a private room. In Europe GDPR means means companies are really strict about any personal data being left out “in public” these days.

      2. DANGER: Gumption Ahead*

        I had a fastidious boss and am a “stacks of paper with closest to computer=current work, father away=reference/background” person so we met in the middle. I set up trays that I would label with the name of the project/subject and put my stacks there. It ended up working for both of us

    7. STG*

      I had a coworker whose boss would clean his office every year when he took vacation. I thought this was very overboard.

      That being said, you had to use gloves to do it and it wouldn’t have been surprising AT ALL if critters were living in his office. I never understood what led to that particular setup (boss cleaning his employees desk) but I worked there for 6 years and it happened every single year.

      Doesn’t sound like this is the situation at all but I like the idea of confirming with a coworker whether it looks unreasonable.

      1. Observer*

        That being said, you had to use gloves to do it and it wouldn’t have been surprising AT ALL if critters were living in his office.

        If it was that bad in the office, then the manager cleaning up was NOT overboard at all. On the other hand, the boss should have pushed the coworker much more forcefully to clean up.

        1. STG*

          Oh, I thought it was overboard to secretly plan cleaning while he was on vacation instead of just telling him to clean his office.

          The coworker would come back pretty pissed off about it every year as well.

    8. Ann O'Nemity*

      Our university cleaning crew wipes down our desks with sanitizer nightly, but they’ve been told not to touch any papers. At the end of the day I usually just stack up any loose papers and put it in my desk drawer so the cleaning crew can do their thing; it’s easy enough to pull the papers back out the next morning.

    9. Wandering*

      At one job I figured out that my boss complained about the state of my desk when she found things were too sloppy at home. That explained why there didn’t seem to be a pattern of how my desk looked & her concern.

      At another job, the boss would sometimes come in hours early & reorganize things – as in go through the filing cabinet & regime things by topic instead of client, or in straight alpha order, etc. He’d sometimes do this every day for a week. We couldn’t find a thing (& neither could he) when this happened. Turned out he had a drinking problem; when he couldn’t sleep he’d come in & “get you people organized” without being able to remember what he’d done.

      Sometimes a “messy desk” is just a messier desk than someone else would like, sometimes it has little to do with what’s going on at work.

    10. The New Normal*

      As a person with ADHD, I struggle with the Tidy Desk principle because Object Permanence is a thing that doesn’t exist in my world. If it is not in front of me, it doesn’t exist. So documents that I refer to frequently need to be front and center or I forget about it. I’ve learned that the best way to pretend that I am more tidy than I really am is a folder system – one folder for what I have to do, one for things that I am waiting on others for, one for items that have been submitted/processed, and a final one for things that are completed and ready to be filed. That one folder is huge because I hate filing and typically pass that to my TA, but I have no TA this semester. This system looks organized and I can put papers wherever they need to be, but I don’t lose them in my mind because my pile is still where I put it.

      1. CB212*

        Yeah, when I very occasionally clear off my desktop, I do feel that relief that people talk about, of ‘ooh a blank space, wow, I could do anything’ —

        And then I do nothing! Because all my projects are gone! How on earth am I supposed to know what I want to do, if I can’t see it?!

    11. Quinalla*

      Agreed with a gut check with a peer first, but also, talk to your boss and clarify what she is looking for. It might be something very simple (I need to be able to find X & Y if you are out) or like below examples of needing all papers put up on Friday for the cleaning crew. Clarify what your boss needs and if it is unreasonable for your situation, push back if you can. And don’t let her just say “Oh, just more organized.” get to the root of what she wants. Ask stuff like “Do you need to be able to find something specific when I’m out?”, etc. until you understand.

      And LW1, I am 100% a paper stacker myself and occasionally a boss will comment and for me that is when I know the stacks have gotten too big/messy and I need to take an hour or two to throw stuff away/file/etc. I found the GTD method helpful for me on this, but there are a million organization methods out there. I still have piles of paper, but they are more organized and I have a system to deal with the piles now when they get too big. Would my super neat mother be happy? No, but I am miles ahead of my Dad who has several feet tall stacks of papers, magazines, etc. on his desk and my desk (which is in an area others see – well not right now cause working from home still) just looks like someone works there, not like a spot someone decided to stack all the papers in the office.

    12. Essentially Cheesy*

      I had a coworker at my current job (he’s now retired) whose desk was so messy, it was atrocious and it ended up being an office-wide joke, to the point that people wondered what was wrong with him and it was a big discredit to his career reputation. He had been sent to a Stephen Covey seminar for organization and it seemed to help, for a while, until there was a huge project and his office exploded with papers. (There’s clutter, and there’s ridiculous mess and he was definitely ridiculous, sadly.)

      I used to think that our boss would do something about it but he never did. Turns our our boss had over 30 years of paperwork crammed into his six five-drawer cabinets and just organized it enough to ‘fool’ everybody.

      I’m just sharing experience I guess and now I’m going to organize my desk a bit …. but I will still have a couple stacks of things …

    13. singlemaltgirl*

      do people not get sick/take vacation/do leaves of absence/quit/die in the academic world? b/c that right there is why those papers need a better system than one person who knows it. i get people know ‘their’ system but if they don’t work for themselves or own their own biz, their ‘system’ needs to be one that can be accessed and understood by other people. it’s almost like they’re trying to ensure they can’t be fired or something.

      and there’s ‘reasonable’ and ‘unreasonable’ levels of tidiness. it may be impossible to have a spotless desk but if you have piles of paper that are meant to be filed, file them so others can find them and don’t need to ask you. if you need time to do this, which presumably, if the boss is putting it on the work chart, you can ask for, then get it done. the lw indicates procrastination so if your boss is telling you to do something and giving you the time to do it, what are you doing in that time instead?

  2. AnonACanada*

    OP 1 – I used to work with a person who had a desk that we affectionately called “organized chaos”. When they were sick or on vacation trying to do their work for them was very difficult because it took us forever to find what we needed. Maybe you don’t have anyone who covers for you when you’re out but emergencies can happen. Desks/offices shouldn’t have to be spotless, but I think they should be fairly organized just in case.

    1. A.N. O'Nyme*

      This. And even if the LW cleans their desk (whatever that means)…that still doesn’t mean anyone else will be able to make sense of LW’s filing system (assuming needing to find things is boss’s concern, of course). Just because it looks clean and tidy doesn’t mean it’s easy to navigate (or even that the mess isn’t just in the desk now rather than on top of it).

    2. anonaccountant*

      Just a tip as it relates to being out, if that’s actually OP’s boss’s concern. As a very organized person, even I keep instructions that address my filing system. Obviously if there’s just papers everywhere this wouldn’t work, but if you just have a chaotic filing system, this might help mitigate worry about finding things. In my job manual, I include a section on organization- how I sort my emails, files, and computer files. I have a general page that describes my system and where main things are, and any time I reference a file in my instructions, I also reference the location, either by a link for the folder location on my computer or a physical description (e.g. filing tray on credenza). If you keep current projects in a stack by your monitor, you could just say that. It helps ensure that when I come back from a vacation I can find everything and it makes it so much easier for anyone to step in. If your boss has a reference she could look at, it might help. My coworker’s 4-tier, unlabeled letter tray looks like chaos to me, but if I could look at her OOF instructions and see that the bottom tier was reference only, middle was in progress, top was inbox, etc., I would know what I needed to address and where I could find things that related to current projects. (I’m not saying don’t tidy things up, but this can bridge the gap between very organized and somewhat messy people.)

    3. J*

      I had a coworker pass away and had to be the one to try and identify their work progress and important documents (newest, therefore less emotionally impacted). It took me weeks because she had 20 years of chaos. I ended up with a sinus infection from the dust and my coworkers were convinced I had messed up something because I couldn’t find documents they swore she would have but honestly most of it was lunch receipts from decades. I really wish someone would have intervened over the years so it didn’t have to get so bad.

  3. jms*

    I really disagree with Alison’s response to LW1. Keeping your office neat and clean is a reasonable expectation, regardless of who else needs to go in there. Pushing back is a waste of time and social capital. Just do it.

    1. Zelda*


      For me it would mean huge changes to the way I work– I tend to have multiple projects going on at once, and stacks of papers relevant to each spread around my desk. There’s internal structure in those stacks that does actually have meaning and purpose, even if it just looks like “mess” to anyone who isn’t me. (Nothing that anyone else needs; the one fair point here is if LW1 is the keeper of files or documents that others need to be able to find.)

      I don’t go over to other people’s desks and insist they work the way I do. Why should I have to change a perfectly functional system that helps me and doesn’t affect anyone else in the slightest?

      1. allathian*

        Yeah, that’s a fair point.

        People have the right to develop the sort of filing system that works for them, no matter how messy it looks to others, as long as it’s not an actual hazard, and provided nobody else needs to find any of the material.

        1. Cafe au Lait*

          Yes, and no. I worked in a department where there was a strict file name format and what types of documentation was allowed on your personal computer versus the staff intranet. It was a pain in the butt but it kept the work transparent. There were no secrets.

          When I moved to a workplace whose-name-you’d-recognize, I discovered that it was everyone for themselves. For all the talk of diversity and equity here, some of the simplest solutions are discouraged because it’s more important to “own” a document/process than make sure the workflow is transparent.

      2. Quoth the Raven*

        I’m the same; I know where everything is, even if it can look cluttered or messy to others. I’ve had others organise my work and living spaces, and I lose a lot of time because it’s a system that is not natural to me, and now I have to spend spoons keeping up with it.

        Which also begs the question, whose standard of cleanliness and order are we going to go by? My sister is extremely tidy and organised, and I’m quite the opposite (though my space is never dirty or dangerous); trying to live up to her standards would drive me insane, and having to live by mine would be an exercise in frustration for her.

      3. I need cheesecake*

        Is this your desk at home or in an office though? Would it be ok left out for months in a pandemic?

        Now that I’ve had to try to find my work materials in an office nobody entered or cleaned for 18 months, I have a different idea of whether desks should get that messy.

      4. HB*


        Weirdly, I got diagnosed with ADHD and went on medication a little over a month ago. Without medication, I had to rely on stress and anxiety in order to get myself to focus – so the result was a desk that was definitely on the chaotic side of organized chaos. On the one hand it was just part of the nature of my job (I work in tax so I will be working on anywhere from 1 to 15 returns at any given time so there are lots of folders with documents that have to be accessible), and I also needed the visual cue that I had a LOT of stuff going on in order to basically induce a feeling of near panic.

        But once I had medication that helped me focus when I wanted to rather than being tricked into it, that desk setup no longer worked. The resulting stress of the visual mess was just that – stress – and unhelpful. But now I can focus when I need to, so I don’t need it. But seriously – when people say organized chaos works for them BELIEVE THEM. Brains are weird and what works for you doesn’t work for everyone.

      5. Lacey*

        Exactly. I’ve never worked a job where other people needed to be able to understand what was happening with my files or stacks of paper.

        At the one job where people occasionally needed some specific documentation I had a little tower organizer I put those types of papers into. My coworkers repaid that small piece of organization by returning those papers to any slot they thought was convenient, instead of the clearly labeled slot it belonged to.

      6. I'm A Little Teapot*

        Except the OP states: “It’s stacks of paper on my desk that I keep procrastinating organizing and a book shelf that doesn’t isn’t up to the standards of the Bodleian Library.” So, stop procrastinating organizing the stacks of paper and clean up the bookshelf. This is not crazy, its stuff the OP needs to do anyway, and rather than trying to find time to get it done it’s helpfully put on the task list.

        I understand having neat stacks of paper related to current projects. This isn’t that.

        1. banoffee pie*

          Why on earth would the boss care about her bookshelf though? Isn’t that a bit over the top? In her own office? I’m not trying to be harsh or shout at you in particular, but to us ‘less neat’ types, it seems nothing is ever good enough for the neat people ;) I’m looking at my bookshelf now and the books are in any old way. Half of them are horizontal. I can also see a car sponge, a mirror, christmas tree lights, a phone, a torch, cloths, a hole-puncher, loads of paperclips and who knows what else in there. To be fair it’s in my house though ;)

          1. Tiny Soprano*

            And the extremely neat can have very unrealistic expectations sometimes. I’m moderately neat. If I have stuff I’m working on, it’ll be out. My bookshelves are always a certain level of lightly cluttered because I use them. My mother is a hyper-neat person and thinks I am Messy. Everybody less neat than her (which is everyone) is Messy. I would not want to work for her.

        2. Nanani*

          Except no, it’s not.
          It’s her office, not a public one or a shared one. Nobody else needs access to that bookshelf or to that desk.

          Boss needs to stop wasting time and effort micromanaging spaces like this.

          1. I'm A Little Teapot*

            It is not her office. It’s the companies office. This is not private property. You can have your bookcases at home however you want. In an office, you need to comply with whatever standards are set, however formally or informally. Don’t like it? Quit your job and be self employed.

            1. Nanani*

              Jokes on you, I AM self employed :)))
              And even when I wasn’t, the layout my desk at the company was not for people higher ranking to decide on.

              Enjoy your gold star for shinyest desk, the rest of us have work to do.

        3. Cold Fish*

          I was wondering if OP had made comments before about not having time to file, procrastinating organizing the bookshelf, her desk was so messy, etc. The little throw away comments someone doesn’t always remember making. However, manager heard and remembered, thought they were a little slow, and decided to add to task list as a “helpful” thing so OP could do a little spring cleaning without stressing about what else needs done.

      7. Turtle*

        I’m the same. I don’t “organize” anything, I just know where everything is.
        Messy desks are a sign of genius…lol, but seriously there have been studies on very intelligent people who can function well in a mess because of their intelligence. :)

        1. Well...*

          As a messy person I don’t believe this. I think people society labels as genius get cut more slack and never learn to clean up after themselves.

          1. quill*

            This, with a high crossover of people in demand at their job being too overscheduled to do their own work of living.

          2. Oakenfield*

            Yup yup
            all anecdotal for sure but my stepfather is a bona-fide genius and his desk is spotless

      8. banoffee pie*

        I’m a bit surprised that some people think you have to leave everything in its place at the end of the day, even if no one else uses your office ever. I didn’t realise some people felt like that! They definitely shouldn’t look at my stuff lol. People have different ways of working, and this kind of thinking could actually make some people less efficient at their jobs, just to live up to someone else’s ideas. Why should they have to penalise themselves?

        1. Nanani*

          For some people putting everything back in one true correct spot works, for others it is a waste of time and energy.
          Either way, making everyone fit the same mold -absent an excellent actual-work-related reason- is not something the boss should be doing.
          Angela needs to manage the actual work.

      9. L'étrangere*

        There is a difference though between a filing system that works for you, and random piles of paper strewn about. Some kind of box/drawer system to separate the projects? Labels! If you got hit by a bus, how hard would it be for someone to figure out what these piles were about?

    2. Expiring Cat Memes*

      I tend to agree with you. I might’ve said something different pre-pandemic noting that we all organise our work materials differently, but I feel that now, in general, attitudes to desk and workspace “ownership” are shifting. Even if LW’s situation is not driven by shared desk arrangements, the cleaning crew still have to sanitise the desk and having lots of papers out make their job unnecessarily difficult.

      I think it’s fair for LW to ask their boss the question if it really bothers them that much, but they should be mindful of how they do it and how much they push back. There’s too big a risk of them coming across like a huffy teenager being told to clean their room.

      1. jms*

        Totally agree. You don’t “own” your office or workspace, it belongs to your employer. You’re a guest there and it’s more than reasonable to expect the desk they are lending you to use to be clean and at least somewhat neat. I’m not saying every single piece of paper needs to be neatly filed. Just keep it from being a total disaster. If it’s messy enough that people are commenting on it (especially your boss) that’s your cue to clean up.

        1. Warmond*

          I tend to agree with this as the general approach to keeping the workspace clean. You can probably have a bit more leeway if your office is closed off and you are usually the only user, but…it still isn’t technically your space; it’s your employers.

          Story time:

          I once shared a space with 3 absolute grubs; this was when I just entered the workforce. They left bits and pieces everywhere, including leaving fruit on the table overnight (and one time over the weekend…the ensuing gnats were not fun). It was disgusting and I have never hated going into work more than when I was on a team with those guys. The best part? It wasn’t even in our home office; it was the contractor room at our client.

          Unfortunately for these 3, one of the client controllers stopped by our office for some questions. Her leaving comment when she left the room was whether she should be concerned about rats! It went completely over the heads of my team members, who had a good laugh, but I physically sank down into my seat and wished the earth would swallow me whole. Sure enough, we received an impromptu visit from our Manager that afternoon who ordered the immediate cleaning of the room, along with some shaming.

          The thing is, if you had asked anyone one of my 3 co-workers about the cleanliness of the workspace, none of them would have seen anything wrong with it. I remember them talking about the Manager feedback around the watercooler in a state of shock and how he must have had some other issue and was using this to take it out on them. They were completely nonplussed and the room was back to its unsanitary state within the day.

          OP – from your description, it doesn’t sound like there’s a problem with your workspace (unlike with my former co-workers). However, like some other commenters have mentioned, it helps to do an objective “check” of the cleanliness level, just in case! As you can see from my story, some people just don’t perceive a mess.

          1. Artemesia*

            in my long life people who claim their space (or home) is ‘messy but clean’ are always wrong about the clean part.

          2. Zelda*

            Food clutter is a whole other thing– for stacks of papers, I am completely pro- “work however is most effective for you personally,” but nobody is going to defend failures of sanitation.

        2. anonymous73*

          Messy is subjective though. Some people may find that even 1 random piece of paper on your desk is messy. Context is important here.

        3. Observer*

          You’re a guest there

          It’s REALLY not that simple. Of course the employer owns the space and can set any rules they please, reasonable or not. But to some extent the use of a desk is more akin to renting than lending. Also, in either scenario, not every expectation is reasonable. Which means that it IS reasonable to push back in many cases. Is this one of those cases? Possibly.

        4. Piles of Paper*

          To LW, the office is hers alone. Supervisor’s mindset is that LW organize it.

          LW says: “… but my office is exactly that — mine.” Well, technically it’s not. It’s school property. LW also states she’s relatively new and the department was streamlined to just LW and Angela. As an employee of about a year, is this the attitude you want to take with a mildly annoying boss in a job with an amazing employer?

          Suppose Angela laid off multiple employees in that streamline, some of which left piles of paper and unorganized space(s). And there was the stress of being high strung, the pandemic, deciding who gets laid off, working alone for ½ the year, etc. She might be hyper-aware of the massive undertaking of sifting through employee unorganized spaces and cleaning up when they leave, and by herself as the only person left. Perhaps she doesn’t want to deal with that again. Managers left behind when employees leave, for whatever reason, must deal with those piles and disorganization.

          Bite the bullet and talk – or comply. Talk to her about where this is coming from and if there is a concern, what she expects, see about a compromise. Or, let it go and clean it up. Decide soon. Ignoring it won’t make it go away. As a manager, I’d consider it insubordination if not addressed at all. I wouldn’t fire LW for this alone, but it would go into a pile – so to speak.

      2. I'm just here for the cats!*

        I fought the cleaning crew is sanitizing private spaces. I work at a large university and the . sanitizing is for shares and highly touched areas. They won’t even sanitize department conference rooms. Only classrooms, stairways, bathrooms. I don’t even think they did the student study rooms. Typically a cleaning crew will just take the garbage and maybe vacuum (my school.doesnt). A cleaning crew isn’t a maid.

        1. Expiring Cat Memes*

          Yeah I’m sure there’s a big variation across workplaces. At my workplace since COVID, the cleaning company has a highly-specific contract that includes disinfecting every desk, every night. If they don’t or can’t clean to the agreed standard then there’s all sorts of OHS flow-on. It’s legitimately a big deal.

          I often work late, so I know the cleaners and I know that when people leave a mess it stresses them out because they’re damned if they move it and damned if they don’t. Not to mention them being stuck working even later and not getting paid more than their agreed contract fee.

      3. Dust Bunny*

        Also: Your office is your workspace, not your living space. You borrow it more than you own it. If your boss were telling you how to keep your house I’d tell you to tell her to go fly, but your workspace is never 100% yours and, yes, they can set expectations for its level of neatness.

        I do tend to accumulate paper stacks but as I finish projects, the stacks are sorted and put away so it’s not a constant level of clutter–it’s temporary clutter than gets (visibly, to my bosses) cleaned out on a regular basis and is eventually but still temporarily replaced with new clutter. If stuff is living in stacks in your office because you never do get around to putting it away, then your boss is allowed to be kind of annoyed.

    3. I need cheesecake*

      It’s not social capital – it’s a more important kind. Whether or not you think your desk is or should be messy, it’s not going to go well if you keep just ignoring what your supervisor asks you to do or assuming positive feedback from other people means her opinion doesn’t matter.

      I get that you don’t feel your desk needs tidying, and that your supervisor is maybe not the best personality match for you – but she is your supervisor, and it is worth deciding how to spend your capital. Is this worth all of it?

      1. Need a better user nane*

        It took me years to realize that my messy desk, months worth of outstanding filing and leaving projects only 95% completed was a symptom of my ADHD. If you are resisting change because part of you actually ENJOYS the distraction the mess provides there might be a bigger issue at play.

        1. Nicotena*

          Yeah, I really fall prey to that ‘out of sight, out of mind’ thing, meaning that if I want to get some piece of paperwork handled, it needs to be staring me accusingly in the face. It sucks for my organization and neatness.

          1. Charlotte Lucas*

            I read a description of that as “visual organization.” It’s not always being messy. Some people need to actually see their files/materials for it to even register.

            I like color-coded folders for this reason. But I also recycle any unnecessary paper as soon as I can. And most of my files are on my computer.

            I’m a naturally messy person with papers, but my co-workers would never guess.

          2. Fabulous*

            if I want to get some piece of paperwork handled, it needs to be staring me accusingly in the face


            1. Slow Gin Lizz*

              SAME. Is this a symptom of ADHD? I do not have a diagnosis and have never really considered that I might have it, but maybe I should get checked out. A friend my age (early 40s) was just diagnosed, so it’s not outside the realm of possibility.

              1. Koalafied*

                It can be. The core of ADHD is having difficulty self-regulating what you pay attention to, according to the relative priority/importance of all the possible things you could be paying attention to in the world. One way this can manifest for someone with untreated ADHD is procrastination, because the closer you get to a deadline the more anxiety you’ll feel about the work hanging over your head, and eventually the anxiety will be bad enough to draw your attention to the thing that’s giving you anxiety as opposed to whatever else you were or would be paying attention to if/when that project wasn’t making you anxious.

                It can also manifest as hyper-focus on unimportant tasks that happened to stimulate your brain in just the right way to capture your attention, which you often don’t realize is happening until you’ve already sunk 3 hours into a data hygiene clean-up that is only tangentially related to what you’re actually supposed to be doing – without treatment (whether medication or coping skills you’ve learned) it’s hard to recognize the moment when you transitioned from “working on Project ZZ, which may occasionally involve running into problems that need to be solved to finish the work” (appropriate focus) to “getting mired in a problem that popped up while working on Project ZZ, even though there was an interim solution that would allow you to proceed with Project ZZ without solving the entire systemic problem first” (wrong focus).

                And, it can also manifest as not really knowing how to create a system to keep track of things that need their attention – not being able to determine what criteria you would use to rank things in importance order, not being able to accurately estimate how much time things will take, not knowing where or how to record those determinations/estimations in a place where you’ll actually see/use/update them. Most of us have tried to come up with systems at least once if not ten times over, and occasionally we do stumble on something that works and immediately realize it needs to be something we do – like putting a note/reminder about anything important in a place you know you will look because you know you’re unlikely to remember it otherwise.

          3. banoffee pie*

            yep if everything is away in a file, it actually makes me feel like I can’t get to it to handle it and I feel less organised. If that makes sense.

            1. Spencer Hastings*

              I sometimes feel like getting the thing back out again is an additional unpleasant task that’s been added onto the existing task…

            2. Olivia Mansfield*

              For me the file system is an archive for when I’ve completed a task and may need to refer back to it at some point. If I’m actively working on something, it can’t be down in the file drawer; it has to be on top of my desk where I can see it. If I put it down in the file drawer, that means ‘case closed’ and I’ll never look at it again.

      2. banoffee pie*

        OP also said she has to catch the boss in a good mood to discuss…anything. That didn’t sound great to me. Boss might just be impossible to please, and if it isn’t the desk, it’ll be something else. It’s hard to build social capital with someone who is trying to keep you in your place. I feel for OP

    4. James*

      The problem is, everyone has a different definition of what constitutes “neat”. I mean, I remember my wife’s mother coming to visit and complaining about how messy our kitchen was because she couldn’t find anything. The counters were immaculate, everything was put away where my wife wanted it–but not where my mother-in-law wanted it, so it was obviously a mess. I’ve also had people complain about my desk being messy since I had a few books and papers on it. Thing is, I was actively using them–cross referencing multiple sources for a client–and had just gotten up to get a cup of coffee. The person stated that they expected desks to be completely bare whenever someone wasn’t actually in the cubicle. (This was only one of many issues this person had.)

      There are also certain jobs and tasks that are messier than others. Ever see a kitchen halfway through a dinner service? It looks like a bomb went off in a grocery store–but everything is exactly where it needs to be. Attempts to “organize” that chaos never go well. And some office tasks are the same. If I have to cross reference 6 hard-copy documents with five electronic ones, my desk is going to have a lot of paper on it. Making me “organize” it will only waste everyone’s time–it’ll get organized when I’m done.

      I’ll grant that if you’re in a client-facing role you need be more clean-cut, in dress, comportment, and organization. But there’s still a lot of room for individuality, and it’s not unreasonable to suspect that maybe the boss is the one with unreasonable expectations.

      1. Gothic Bee*

        Yeah, I mean the fact that the LW says the bookshelf isn’t up to library standards makes me think maybe the boss is a little unreasonable here, even if LW could do with at least taking care of the papers that they no longer need out. I mean, I know people who think my bookshelves at home are absolute chaos because I don’t use any sort of standardized system to organize them, but I do know where all my books are and I can typically find a book really quickly despite owning so many and having stacks all over the place in addition to the ones on my bookshelves.

        I feel like LW might want to talk this over with the boss and see if there’s some middle ground. Like, it may be that the boss is primarily bothered by one particular thing and is just harping on cleaning and organizing in general because of it.

    5. Not So NewReader*

      I tend to agree with “just clean it”.
      The energy spent arguing the point will probably be three times the energy it would take to clean it.
      It could be that even a modest attempt would appease the boss.

      Embedded in the OP’s letter is probably the exact problem that concerns the boss: procrastination. The boss is probably very much aware of the procrastination that is going on and by saying “clean your space” she figures OP will have to handle matters in a more timely way.

      I have an extreme story of a person who let stuff pile and pile. They were told to clean it many times. And nothing happened. So finally after one long holiday weekend, this person when back to their office and found someone had cleaned it for them. Long, long story made very short this person ended up spending the night in MHU because of the level of upset by this transgression. (And I do think that it was a transgression to clean the space for them.) But the person had repeatedly refused to take steps to address the problem, they had many chances to at least begin to clear things up a little bit. It was their total refusal to even do the tiniest step that pushed the situation over the top. Please be sure to understand, that I do NOT think having others clean the office was the right thing- no, it was the wrong thing to do. But in my story my person was incredibly stubborn about cleaning the office. When people encounter that level of stubbornness sometime they make poor (lousy) judgement calls on their next steps.

      It’s not your space, OP. You don’t own it. She’s the boss and insubordination is a real thing. At bare minimum, start to make small YET noticeable differences in how your space looks. In reality, you may not actually do any of the procrastinated work, rather you may end up tidying the space and organizing things into boxes or files. Aim for a visual difference. And for the longer term, know that you might be known for procrastinating and you may need to address that overarching problem some how.

      I spend five minutes every night straightening my desk before I leave. My bosses tell me my desk looks neat. No, it is not neat and no it does not even come close to ideal at all. All I am doing is putting things back in their designated spaces. I have a tray for work in progress, staplers etc go in the drawer, notebook goes in the standing rack and so on. Visually the desk looks the relatively the same each night. My desk can look like a paper bomb went off on it during the day. But when I leave at night it looks the same as it did the previous night.

      My opinion is that this is not a hill to die on. The changes she is asking for will only benefit you in the long run.

      1. Butterfly Counter*

        I disagree. I also work in academia and my desk is lightly cluttered. My office space IS my own and I’m doing good work. If I was asked to clean my desk just for the sake of being clean, I’d not see that as a great use of my limited time in the office. (If they said the cleaning crew was actually going to do some dusting or disinfecting, then, sure, I’ll move things into a drawer temporarily.)

        If I was fired for “insubordination” for my clutter… I don’t even know how to end that sentence. For one, I’m unionized, so that would be interesting. Further, I’d be interested to see how other people in academia would respond to threats to their job because they had piles of paper on their desk. “Sorry, students. You don’t have access to this person who was helping you graduate for X days because of some papers on their desk.” Just no. Obviously, it’s up to OP to know whether they have the social capital to say no, but it’s also up to the supervisor whether or not to accept the consequences of firing a person over clutter.

        I think Alison’s advice is perfect. Talk to the supervisor. See if its a particular quirk on her side or if there are legitimate reasons for a pristine desk. And then push back or not as necessary.

        1. After 33 years ...*

          I concur with the advice.
          We also are unionized, and no-one would get even reprimanded for having a “messy” desk. Faculty offices are inspected for Occupational Health and Safety, and by fire marshals. Unsecured floor-to-ceiling bookcases are a concern, both for fire safety and fear of toppling. As a senior professor on the OHS committee, I’ve had to tell colleagues that their bookcases will be bolted to the walls.
          It’s interesting to think of how things have changed. Over 7 years, my office has gone from 8 full filing cabinets, 3 full floor-to-ceiling bookcases, lots of boxes on the floor, and piles of student papers to only 1 partially full bookcase. Almost everything that was hard-copy is now digital or on-line. When I retire, my journals and books will go to the shredder – no-one else wants them- and I’ll leave with perhaps two medium-sized boxes of hard copy stuff.

      2. banoffee pie*

        Your boss is your boss, though, not your parent. It reminds me a little of telling your slobby teenager to tidy their room lol. Unless the boss actually needs to be able to find things in the employee’s office herself, or there’s some other good reason, like helping out the cleaning people, I don’t think it’s the boss’s business. It’s impossible to tell what’s going on without more info and it’s possible the boss thinks it’s affecting her work. But it’s also possible the boss just likes throwing her weight around. Some people just like telling people what to do.

      3. not a doctor*

        FWIW, the letter says that OP was procrastinating on the *organizing*, not the work itself.

    6. Observer*

      Keeping your office neat and clean is a reasonable expectation, regardless of who else needs to go in there.

      “Neat and clean” is a relative term. Which means that depending on what is actually going on the OP’s office, it could be that the boss is being reasonable or unreasonable. I think that the people saying that they should do a sanity check with a third person before talking to the boss are right.

      1. JustaTech*

        Exactly this. What is “neat and clean” to me is an utter disaster to my mother-in-law, and what is “neat and clean” to my mother-in-law is sterile and unoccupied to me.

        Neither is wrong or bad. They’re just different. And as long as you can acknowledge that and try to work with it, it doesn’t have to be a source of conflict, especially if a neutral third party can define the minimum bar of “neat and clean”.

    7. Koalafied*

      It’d be a waste of capital for you, but maybe not for LW. They need to know 1) what pushing back looks like and 2) whether they’re willing to spend capital on it. We can help with #1 but only LW knows the answer to #2.

    8. Archaeopteryx*

      The idea that you should keep your own private workspace tidy-looking is on par with the idea that getting up/going to bed early is more virtuous than getting up/going to bed late. It’s the performance of vaguely productive-flavored actions, but doesn’t have anything to do with productivity/responsibility.

      1. Tiny Soprano*

        I too feel like there’s a certain degree of moral value being assigned to being tidy. Obviously a dirty or slovenly workspace is unprofessional, but a kind-of-messy one is not morally inferior to an extremely tidy one. Plus it’s really evident from this thread how subjective the terms “messy” and “clean” are in the first place.

    9. RagingADHD*

      There’s a widespread misconception that surface neatness = organization.

      I have known & worked with plenty of people who had pristine desktops because they threw everything away (including important, needed documents) or shoved everything haphazardly into drawers and cabinets.

      If the boss wants LW to work more efficiently, or leave things where they can be found by others, then they need to ask for that.

      A neat appearance means nothing about usefulness or coherence.

      1. JustaTech*

        Yes to this. When my office was renovated to an open office concept the person in charge ran a group that had moved to a paper-free system years ago. So they genuinely had very little need for paper or paper storage.

        However, my group is required by law to do a lot of things on paper and to keep them for many years. But the person in charge didn’t know/care about this, and we had our cubes of ample storage taken away and replaced with a desk with a single file cabinet and one, shared, half-height file cabinet along one wall. A file cabinet that did not fit either binders or our standard bound lab notebooks. Where previously we’d had many full-height bookcases. Because we are required to do and keep this work on paper. I *still* have a cardboard moving box of papers and stuff at my desk because I don’t have anywhere to store them.

        So it’s not reasonable to deny people storage space and then complain that their desks are messy with unfiled papers, but also insist that they keep that paperwork because it has to be referenced periodically. I could look very tidy, if no one cared that I’d thrown out important documents.

      2. banoffee pie*

        Yep, the ‘everything must be thrown away by the end of the day, even if it’s still needed’ brigade.

    10. HereAnon*

      Yeah no. The “just do it” attitude is dripping ableism. It’s something I personally face a lot, even when I was in a residential mental health program! I’m chronically disorganized and it very much is a mental health issue for me. I would love to be able to maintain an organized environment.

      At residential, I was working on it with the behavioral therapist. I had to be more vocal about that than I would have liked to get certain people off my back about my collection of things in the shared areas.

      I will be forever grateful for the one person who saw how hard it was for me. They asked respectfully if they needed me to clear a specific space. And even came to me with a suggestion about how I could do that in the least stressful way. It is hard to explain how much it means to be approached with compassion and respect.

      It really is seen in society as a whole as just not trying. And that may be true for some people! But I’d guess it’s not for the majority of people who are disorganized enough for others to call them on it.

      I feel a lot of shame about this issue. It’s embarrassing that I can’t hide this symptom. I know I’m being judged. So publicly calling attention to this is in a shared document? That’s the wrong approach. Even if it is a necessity for that particular workspace, please don’t call people out in public.

    11. Esmeralda*

      OP’s office isn’t dirty, it’s just not up to (the boss’s) standard of tidiness.

      If OP has work-in-progress, records, files etc that need to be easily accessible, then that’s a reasonable request. Anything else — what difference does it make? particularly if it enables the OP to do her work and to do it well?

      For my job, paramount are notes and information about my student caseload; after that, it’s teaching materials and reports, communications materials, work related to various teams and committees. Everything like that is online and accsesible by my boss; team/committee stuff is accessible to the team leader and often to all the members of the team.

      In the dark ages when everything was on paper, I had scrupulously well kept student files, teaching files, committee files…Open the (labelled) file drawer, put your hands on what you need within three minutes, even if you were not me lol.

      My desk? many students have said, there’s so much interesting stuff to look at! My bookshelf? the principle of organization is, fits here. (At one point I was the keeper of certain training manuals — that shelf was at eye level and logically organized and neat, so that someone could come in and grab the needed manual.)

      I know where everything is. The stacks of paper make sense to me, and since no one needs anything from them, it’s no one’s business that I do have stacks. An antiseptically clear and tidy office makes me feel sad; it’s actually distracting to me.

      (BTW, I do recognize that some students don’t like untidiness; I offer students a choice of seating — letting them know that my desk may be distracting, so we can swap seats and they can look at the empty wall. Colleagues who don’t like it? yeah, that’s too bad. I don’t diss their Felix Unger-ish offices, they can keep their dislike of my space to themselves too).

    12. Quinalla*

      It is so interesting seeing all the comments on this. Goes to show how many different ideas there are of neat and clean. My husband and I have learned each other quirks on this, but it still gets me sometimes the things he focuses on that I don’t notice and the things obvious to me that he doesn’t see. Seriously, there is not some one true way to be neat and organized. I think there are certain things you can draw the line at, but there is A LOT of gray area in between especially when not in a shared and/or client facing space.

      This is why I think telling someone to organize their desk is fairly useless feedback. Specific requests (all papers off the desk at the end of the day, all items X & Y filed this way so anyone can find them, etc.) are the way to go!

  4. Heidi*

    For Letter 4, this situation kind of stinks for both interns if everyone knows that one of them is “the merit intern” and the other is “the nepotism intern.”

    1. Anonariffic*

      It does sound like the entire team is fully aware of what’s going on- I know OP said everyone acts totally professionally when working with the interns directly, but I’d be shocked if none of them have ever figured out ‘I’m got this spot because Uncle Bob is the CFO but no one here wanted me or has any respect for me’/’I busted my butt to earn this spot and I have to keep working hard because I’ll need the reference but Bobby over there can spend his whole summer on Facebook because his uncle is the CFO’

      1. Artemesia*

        I think it depends to some extent if children of employees are given special access to internships as a perk of working there OR if they are just children of the C suite. Lots of places try to give children of employees access to summer work or internships as a benefit to parents working at the company. If the janitor’s kid can get an internship, it is different than if only the children of Board members and VPs get that access.

        1. Charlotte Lucas*

          Depends. I worked somewhere that both would have access, but the child/grandchild/neighbor/family friend of the C-suite exec was a shoo-in for the job. Others just got the slight boost any family or friend reference got. And we all knew it. (Same for hiring for permanent positions.)

          1. Foreign Octopus*

            To be honest, it all depends on whether or not the intern is in possession of the patronage of the esteemed lady Catherine deBourgh.

            1. Marthooh*

              What if both interns attended university, but one of them merely kept the necessary terms without making any useful acquaintance?

    2. John Smith*

      It does suck. I’ve had the “do you know who my uncle is?” line from an intern whose uncle was a director. And boy did he let you know it. He was assigned to me for a few months, and that line was literally the first thing he said to me. Not even “hello”.

      “Yes, I do. He’s the brother of one of your parents and the person who assigned me specifically to manage this project and everyone working on it, you included. ”

      The self-entitled little shit complained to HR and unilaterally decided he’d be the project manager. He didn’t last long.

      1. Despachito*

        I applaud you for the great response.

        For the entitled brat…wow. It must have been a pain to work with him afterwards, however short it was (but I secretly hope that “did not last long” means “was fired on the spot”)

        1. John Smith*

          I’ve no idea, and tbh, I don’t really care whether he ended up chief paper clip counter or vice president. He got moved to a different office and he was their problem as far as I was concerned. I left a few months later following some negative vibes from senior management. What I do know is that the organisation is now very much on its way out, so I’d guess he made VP after all.

    3. Unidentifiable Poopin' Shoes*

      Yep, my thought too – not all of the nepotism interns will know to hide it, and the merit interns who figure it out will be rightfully pissed off and let their peers know. OP’s company may be actively poisoning their graduate recruitment well (and general reputation locally/in the industry) with this system of favours.

      1. Khatul Madame*

        In many cases it’s pointless to hide it. You look up the intern in the company directory and boom, his fancy-title mommy or daddy is right there in the next line.

        1. One of the Spreadsheet Horde*

          We used to play “spot the nepotism intern hires” game every summer. The obvious names were the easy ones. The neighbors and friends of the officers’ children were more of a challenge.

        2. Observer*

          Still not pointless. There is a real difference between the person who you are never allowed to forget that they are RELATED TO IMPORTANT PEOPLE and people who just do their thing and you only find out that they are related to “important” people by looking at the org chart and comparing names.

          If nothing else, the latter know how to behave themselves like decent human beings and have the beginigns of an understanding of professional norms. The former? Not so much.

          1. UKDancer*

            Definitely. About 10 years ago I was working in a part of the company with a young trainee who was pleasant, and polite and leant to be good at his job. I only found a while later that his father was someone who had previously been very senior in the company before moving on. The trainee never mentioned it and it was not an unusual surname so we didn’t clock it either.

    4. Golden Bootstraps*

      I’ve worked with several versions of the “nepotism intern” and none have ever been self-actualized enough to actually admit they did not get where they are by their own bootstraps. They all think they got where they are solely on merit, maybe a touch of luck, and nothing to do with private school, tutors, test prep, college connections, internship connections, belonged-to-the-same-fraternity and daddy-made-a-call.

    5. ShowTime*

      I was the merit intern, and “my” nepotism intern was inappropriate, talked loudly all day, didn’t produce anything, and made working alongside him a miserable experience. Not only did it impact my time at the internship, but it colored my perception of the leadership who brought the guy on and then let him act like a boor without consequence. These practices undermine the integrity of the employer, and they’re extremely demoralizing to those who genuinely worked hard to get in the door.

  5. Tsunade*

    LW 1: Is your office visible to the public? I know it’s private and no one else has any reason to enter it, but perhaps your supervisor is on your case to straighten up because your mess is on display to passers-by. Maybe she’s getting heat from her supervisor. I’ve worked in academia before and it is its very own brand of weird/highly political.

    Regardless of the situation, your supervisor has brought it up to you multiple times and you keep ignoring her. This might be one of those hills it’s not worth dying on… just my two cents!

    1. csj*

      I agree. I’d also add that it is not OP’s office, it’s the universities. As well as all the other reasons already raised (your boss told you to tidy it, other people may need to look for things, people walking by, cleaners inhibited from cleaning properly etc etc) no one has yet mentioned the most important one – confidentiality & data protection.

      I’ve been working in companies for many years now where a clear desk policy is compulsory & is a KPI. All documents must be placed in locked drawers or cupboards at the end of each day – even if you can lock the office door.

      When this first started becoming a thing, lots of people were complaining that, it’s just the way I work, it’s how I organise etc (I was one of them). I took a very short time to get used to the new rules and led to an unexpected boost to my productivity.

      1. Warmond*

        That’s an excellent point about clean desk policy. We have this at my work as well for data protection and privacy.

        1. A.N. O'Nyme*

          While data protection and privacy is an extremely good reason for boss to ask this, wouldn’t the boss mention the security risk and be a lot more forceful about the clean desk policy? So far it seems like there’s no real consequences that LW might face, other than annoying the boss.

          1. Warmond*

            Who knows? It wasn’t in the letter; it may exist at LW’s workplace or it may not. That’s why csj and I are sharing one of the reasons that we have a clean desk policy in our office, just in case she reads the comments and discovers that such a policy may be relevant to her situation.

    2. Koalafied*

      Lw, one thing that may be an easy solution is to ask for a few filling supplies/equipment if you don’t already have any. For instance, one of those wire racks that sits on top of a desk and holds folders with the open side facing up. If you currently have 8 different piles, you could instead have 8 different folders. If you have related piles that you try to cluster together or stack at right angles, those could be two or more folders that sit in the same slot in the wire rack, or you could binder clip groups of paper together in one folder, or use the same color folder for related piles – whatever makes the most sense to you and doesn’t feel like it disrupts your existing workflow. In other words, you probably don’t have to actually change anything about how you sort your papers. Just changing the presentation of them so they look neatly contained in a set of nicely arranged folders may well be enough. I’ve found that trying to keep a space organized is much easier with the right supplies – not so many folders and color coded post-it’s that it becomes a chore in itself to use them, but not so few supplies that you’re trying to find a way to make loose paper look neat and the only organizing tool you have is, “should this go in the same pile or a different pile, and should I turn it 90 degrees to separate from other things in this pile?”

      1. Retried Prof*

        This. I moved from stacks to vertical files, then to a hutch with cubbies so the files were off my desk. It also helped me pare down the amount of paper because I could easily get to the bottom of the “stack” once it was turned on its side. But everything was still in view – if I can’t see it, it doesn’t get done.

    3. Jennifer*

      Agreed. I can’t imagine being asked by my boss multiple times to do something so simple and just…refusing. It honestly sounds a bit entitled. Just stick it in a drawer. As mentioned below, a lot of places have a clean desk policy for security reasons. I’m an unorganized person but it wasn’t a big deal for me to put notes and other paperwork in my desk when clients were going to be touring the building for that reason.

    4. Miss Elizabeth*

      I once worked for a manager who considered a messy desk as to how busy you are and that it is a good thing! If there wasn’t much on your desk, then he would assume you were twiddling your thumbs.

  6. Budgie Buddy*

    What is going on with LW 1’s bookshelf that it in particular has attracted the ire of the manager?? I’m kind of fascinated to know how it’s possible to mess up a bookshelf that badly, but being fairly attached to books I also don’t want to know…

    1. Artemesia*

      I’m guessing they are used as horizontal surfaces to stack more stuff. I am not sure the owner of a messy office is a reliable narrator (I say that as a pretty messy person who had trays on my bookshelves near my desk for papers, and lots of piles on my desk. I think I would have argued that it was ‘just the wya I organized’ but I am guessing some of those piles stayed there for months and then became piles on the bookshelves. Maybe the boss is concerned about a neat row of project folders currently being worked on, but I think the OP needs to really consider that the boss might be right here.

    2. Lacey*

      Honestly, it just sounded like the books were organized the way the boss wanted them to be, but probably in a way that makes sense to the OP.

    3. AvonLady Barksdale*

      Oh, I have seen some nasty bookcases, full of papers and horizontal books, sometimes with books tossed in and standing spine-in. Our bookcases at home have some horizontal stacks and a few tchotchkes as well as books, but it looks neat– I fight hard against the inclination to just toss things there.

      I had a colleague whose bookcases were gnarly and every time we were on a call I just wanted to reach through and straighten those books. It’s definitely possible.

      1. Esmeralda*

        It’s funny that you say “nasty bookcases” and then describe…an “untidy bookcase”.

        A “nasty” bookcase would have old cheese sandwiches with bites taken out, unrinsed toothbrushes, candy wrappers, and a dead bug with dust on it.

        If OP’s bookcase is truly “nasty”, then of course clean it up. If it’s just untidy, then what’s the diff? (as long as…it’s not in a public location, it’s not holding books or materials that other people reasonably need to be able to get at, it’s not so overstuffed that it’s in danger of collapse)

    4. Bookish Person*

      As others have pointed out, you totally can have a messy bookcase with haphazard horizontal stacks, more books than will fit so they’re stacked in ways where you can’t easily see all the titles, papers mixed in, etc.
      My hilarious example was my college roommate who was pretty messy/didn’t clear clutter, whose mother would always comment on how neat (not really but I guess in comparison?) my desk/side of the room was. Mother’s comment once went something like this: “Look at Bookish Person’s book shelf with books on it! (my 7-10 textbooks plus 2 novels set vertically above my desk) And yours…with stacks of papers and notebooks (horizontal, messy piles, maybe a textbook mixed in), did I fail to teach you how bookshelves work?”
      I found it funny since I’ve rarely been called neat, but roommate did not. But hey, if your mom doesn’t call you on your mess, you’ll just go off to the workforce someday and think your boss or coworkers are overly sensitive.
      Not that I think that’s what’s going on with LW. I think there’s a very good chance LW’s boss is a very neat person who “just can’t handle” LW non-perfect office. I’d definitely get 3rd party gut check to make sure I wasn’t mess blind like Alison suggested just to be sure.

  7. Gelie Fish*

    For LW1, you say stacks of paper-do those need to be filed so others can use or just you? I tend to have piles that make sense to me, but they are only things i need and I’ve learned to go through them once a week.
    I also used to work with someone who wouldn’t file stuff that the whole department needed access to. Maybe ask you boss to be more specific so you are on the same page

  8. Dodubln*

    Ugh. I feel for LW #1 and I feel for me! While I get that the LW feels their space is their own, and they can handle how it is, and it isn’t in public view, etc…there is the OCD part of me that just cringes reading this, but I realize it is MY issue, and no one else’s. As a manager, I have an employee who has a work space that just makes me want to freak out every time I walk past it. I have learned to just avert my eyes when I walk past her desk. It is complete chaos, but it is out of sight for our patients, which is important. Should that employee go out on sick leave, or whatever, the rest of us could handle how her desk is, but I would be hard pressed not to throw out 99% of what she has there, as it just isn’t needed. All of that said, this particular employee has flourished since our grand boss retired, in part because the grand boss did not let the employee keep her desk as she wanted to, she was more OCD than I am, and was super rigid about this kind of thing
    So there is something to be said for letting shit go, I will admit.

    1. Harper the Other One*

      Sorry, I know this is off topic, but as someone with a loved one with OCD, please use the phrase “meticulously organized part of me” or something similar. I know this colloquial usage is common but it can be hurtful to see.

      1. Broadway Duchess*

        Thank you for saying this. It can be a debilitating condition and it hurts to see the term OCD tossed about so flippantly.

      2. bowl of petunias*

        Yes, this – OCD is not an adjective and if you don’t actually suffer from obsessive compulsive disorder then you don’t have ‘an OCD part’. Love, the person who actually lives in a pretty disorganised home because I am exhausted from spending enough solid hours meticulously checking one thing that I forgot to eat meals, let alone have a general tidy up.

      3. Don Q*

        Huh? You all have or know someone with OCD so someone else can’t use the (correct) term? The logic here is hurtful to my eyes.

    2. Not So NewReader*

      My husband had many, many binders filled with wiring diagrams and other tech info. There were at least 50 probably more and each one was 3-4 inches wide. His boss came to collect my husband’s tools and machine parts. When the boss saw the binders he said, “Toss ’em.” The reason was because of age and handling the binders were no longer reliable. Pages could be missing/lost and updates may or may not have been inserted. It was cheaper to toss it all than it was to have someone go through it and make sure all the pages were there. Some parts got tossed for the same reason, cheaper to throw it than to salvage it. My husband was the only person on earth who knew what was there and what was in correct working order. No one else would have known that.
      In order to get rid of all the binders I had to find someone with a dumpster- there was that much there.

      1. Oakenfield*

        Binders can be donated to Youth On Their Own charities and paper can be recycled. It hurts to think about that going to the landfill.

    3. James*

      I’m of two minds on this.

      On the one hand, after something is no longer needed, yeah, toss it. Clutter for the sake of clutter just means someone else will have to deal with it. And the digital age makes this easier. Scan it, save a local copy, put a copy on a server, and toss the hard copy (unless it’s needed for some reason, like it’s a legal document).

      On the other hand, the number of times I’ve been able to save money because I found the person with the one last existing copy of the paperwork for some obscure thing is high enough that I do see value in keeping the paperwork. Computers are great, but they’re not always reliable.

  9. John Smith*

    #1. As an organised chaos desker myself, I fully sympathise. I’m wondering whether your manager is looking at this from a “clear desk” point of view or is applying a university wide policy to you also? My organisation bans the leaving of paperwork (or anything) on desks for security reasons and also because we operate a hotdesking environment (with exceptions for those at the top, funnily enough). Even those lucky enough to have their own office that no-one else is allowed in have to follow this rule. But you do need to talk to your supervisor to see where she is coming from and if there’s wriggle room.

    My university lecturer had literally walls of paper piled high around her to the point you couldn’t see her behind it. We used to call it the Great Wall of Sarah.

    1. Brief anonymity*

      I used to have an academic colleague known as Fire Hazard Bob due to the truly unprecedented level of paper chaos in his office. There was a complaint, some building authority made him clear a bunch of things out, and it immediately became total chaos again. He later moved to another university where he had staff assistance and a much bigger office – same result. He had no apparent mental health issue or dysfunction driving this; he was a cheerful, energetic, and productive person, just horrifically messy. I once photographed his office (with his permission) just to commemorate his accomplishments in chaos.

      1. James*

        I wonder if you were in the same university as me–I knew a guy exactly like that! Brilliant, energetic, willing to bend over backwards to help a student, but the clutter on his desk was measurable in pounds, not papers. He knew exactly where everything was, it was just….everywhere.

        I almost had him agreeing to a study of messiness. He was a minerology professor, and I reasoned that nature tends towards lowest free energy, so there should logically be a lowest-energy state for a desk. Ergo he should refuse to organize it as an experiment. He actually looked up some papers on it, but ultimately and sadly decided against it.

        1. Perfectly Cromulent Name*

          I worked with a Fire Hazzard Bob and he was a nightmare. He was a literal hoarder, as in the literal mental illness that deserves compassion- but it was very stressful to share space with him. We did not have offices- just cubes. He somehow talked someone into giving him a closet years before, which was crammed from floor to ceiling. He filled his cube. He would ask people to let him put stuff under their desk in space they were not using their cube. He and I were professional with each other, but he did not care for me because I would not let him take over a cabinet I had that he thought had lots of space for his random assortment. It had space because I kept it organized. I literally had to lock it to keep him from sneaking stuff in. He retired a few years after I left, and a friend who was still there said that the company had to rent a rolling dumpster to clear out his stuff, and that there was a ton of drama around it because they had given him a cleaning deadline after he left and he freaked when they threw out the stuff after the deadline passed.

          I’m not saying that the letter writer is like my personal Fire Hazzard Bob, but I will say that if you asked Bob about his space, he would have described it *exactly* like the letter writer did, and he was also very defensive about how it was HIS space and that nobody ever needed to be in it but him, and while he admitted that it was not as organized as it could be, it was not really anybody’s problem except for his. I have no idea what went on between him and his boss or if were ever asked to clean it or whatever. I am ALWAYS on high alert when people say that a boss or others want them to clean up a mess but that the mess was not really a problem because of this experience.

    2. miss chevious*

      I had a professor like that, too! He was lovely, and terrifyingly smart, and I could not reconcile his very organized mind with his very disorganized office. Then one day we were talking and he said “oh, there’s an article about that” and reached into the middle of a three foot high pile of papers and pulled out exactly what he was looking for. Okay! No more doubts here!

      He kept a copy of the OSHA violation he was given in a frame on the wall.

      1. JustaTech*

        I had many professors like that in college. To the point that the students developed a joke system based on “the more organic your area of study is, the messier your office is”. Like, the P-chem profs? Very tidy. Organic chemistry? Neat stacks of paper, but so many there wasn’t anywhere to sit in his office. The ecology professor? Like a bomb went off, but also with a time machine, because there were computer boxes from the early 90’s in there. And 6 pairs of shoes. But if you needed a paper he could just pull it out of a stack.

      2. John Smith*

        I’ve known people like that, and people say the same thing about me. Personally I don’t see it, but at the same time, sometimes… I do.

        Someone can put an idea to me and I will almost instantly have hundreds of scenarios in my head with pros and cons of each scenario. Yet ask me to plug in a lightbulb and there’d be absolute mayhem and possibly a need to call the fire brigade and a first aider at some point in the process.

        I’m generally not trusted to do handyperson things.

  10. They Don’t Make Sunday*

    I just came to thank you, OP 2, for your “my gut says… my other gut says” framing, and I will be stealing it.

  11. Talula Does the Hula From Hawaii*

    I am formally declining the position. I’ve got my hands full with a family situation right now so I won’t be able to respond to further messages, but best of luck filling the role.” And then stop responding — they won’t keep trying forever.

    I really like this wording.

    1. EPLawyer*

      I do too. OP by giving a lot of information you gave the company a chance to push back. Oh you need FMLA, we can give you that. Oh, you need a flexible schedule to care for a sick parent, we can do that. If you just keep the details to a minimum with a firm no, then they have less to push back on. With less to push back there is no reason to keep emailing you.

      1. Person from the Resume*

        I agree. Since the first and most of the reasons are about caring for family during the emergency the company is trying to remove that obstacle. It sounds like the company didn’t notice and aren’t giving enough weight to

        I’m not the best fit for that management style


        And I think that’s the strongest reason. (It’s a damn good reason.) The family emergency is something of an excuse because the company is offering ways to accommodate it.

        That said the LW needs to stick to final nicely worded “I won’t be accepting the job and I won’t be talking to you about it any longer.”

      2. The OTHER other*

        I agree, I think the best way to decline a job offer is to keep it short and simple, without giving specific reasons. We’ve seen several letters where pushy employers (or worse, pushy recruiters) seem to treat the reasons given for declining a job as the opening gambit of some sort of haggling session where if they shift the schedule or whatever you will say “yes”. Be vague, like “It’s not the right fit for me”, wish them well, and move on.

    2. I'm just here for the cats!*

      For LW1 everyone is talking about the mess but can we talk about how the boss is handling this:
      “Angela determines which of us will work on specific projects and creates a shared spreadsheet with these tasks, noting the due date, who will be completing it, and any details. This is fine except that twice now, she has listed under my tasks: “clean and organize your office space.”

      The boss is not having a conversation with her, she is putting this task on a shared document with other coworkers, so basically shaming the OP. Given this I wonder how messy the office really is. It sounds like this is more cluttered than actual messy.
      Plus this is a university and every professors office I ever visited was ful of papers on the desk and.a bookshelf overflowing. I think the boss and op need to actually talk and stop this passive aggressive stuff

      1. Observer*

        Given this I wonder how messy the office really is. It sounds like this is more cluttered than actual messy.

        It’s easy to argue the reverse – the the problem is so much worse than the OP realizes that the boss wants everyone to know that she’s trying to deal with it.

        I’m not saying that this IS the case, just that it’s really not possible to draw any conclusions based on how the boss is handling it.

        I’d be willing to bet that the problem is worse than the OP realizes (based on what they say), but not terrifyingly bad and the boss is just bad at having conversations and also thinks that people “need” to know that the OP is going to have some of their time taken up by this task.

      2. Former_Employee*

        “I accepted my current position mid-pandemic, at which time the department was streamlined down to just my supervisor, “Angela,” and myself.”

        There are no other coworkers.

  12. Frapperia*

    Just FYI Alison, here in the UK 99% of employers make the offer conditional on the reference check.

    1. I need cheesecake*

      The difference is that this usually mainly involves a reference from your current employer, which they wouldn’t ask for without making an offer.

      It’s different for the civil service though. Then you only get a formal offer after all reference checks and security vetting are complete.

      1. MsSolo (UK)*

        Yes, this is one of the big differences between the UK and US – you’re almost always expected to provide your current or most recent employer as a reference, because part of reference checking is confirming you’ve been truthful about your current employer and employment dates (and, if you’ve left, whether you’ve been truthful about resigning vs being fired) rather than a ‘how is this person at their job’.

        1. sunglass*

          A friend of mine moved to the USA from the UK and at first he had issues with a couple of places he interviewed at, because his UK employers would only give the standard “John Doe was employed from 2011 to 2015 as a Senior Chocolatier” reference, rather than discussing his work. The assumption was that something bad had gone down at his job, and this was the only thing they could say about him.

          1. Lester*

            Because in the US, we wouldn’t call that a reference. That’s just confirming employment history.

        2. Lester*

          But you can confirm that a job candidate is being truthful about their current employer and employment dates without getting a reference. That’s how it works in the US. For my last few jobs, I provided documentation (hire letter, payslips with dollar amount blacked out, etc) to prove my current employment. No need to contact the current employer and put my job at risk.

          1. Lacey*

            Yes and if they do contact the employer to confirm employment it’s really not a big deal unless they say it’s for a job app, because employers also get those kind of calls when you’re filling out a rental application or a loan application.

        3. bamcheeks*

          part of reference checking is confirming you’ve been truthful about your current employer and employment dates (and, if you’ve left, whether you’ve been truthful about resigning vs being fired) rather than a ‘how is this person at their job’

          The main part, I’d say– it’s pretty rare for references to be used as part of the decision-making process rather than as a final confirmation of probity after the decision has been made.

    2. ScotLibrarian*

      Yes, I’m in the UK and we (council) always make our offer conditional on a reference check. It means that I can make a decision on the people I interviewed that day, then phone them that afternoon or the next morning and ask them if they would still like the job as we would like to offer it to them subject to references. I then specifically tell them not to hand in their notice until all the ref and health checks come through when we will send them a formal offer. That’s completely standard. It means that I can then tell everyone else that they weren’t successful straight away as well and I don’t have a bunch of people hanging on and hoping. If the refs come back awful, then I would reach out to our 2nd choice and then do the same with them.

      1. Nicotena*

        The difference to me is the tone of the reference check; if it’s “Did Jane work as X title from Y date to Z date” then sure, that’s fine because it’s within the employee’s control whether or not they’ve been truthful. In the US a reference check can be much dicier; I’ve had reference checkers call people I didn’t list or ask my supervisor if they could speak to someone else there who has worked for me (more than once actually) and then they dig in on subtleties and try to get a general “sense” of the person, whether they’re easy or hard to manage, what’s the biggest mistake they ever made, etc. If that’s the level of discussion, an offer is not final before you’re satisfied, as someone could mention some stray anecdote that doesn’t sit right and now I’m not getting hired on.

        1. bamcheeks*

          My experience is that nearly all references here are written, and they vary from “X was employed by us between Y and Z” at the most basic end, to a slightly longer, standard letter of recommendation which would probably be kept on file and not amended to a specific employer, and then at the most detailed end, the new employer sends out a form asking the referee to comment on 6-8 specific areas. But it’s still a written form, and most people fill it in fairly conservatively– “jane’s time-keeping was fine, we never had any problems”– out of a combination of not wanting to say anything that might hurt Jane, a bit of laziness, and a vague sense that even if Jane’s timekeeping wasn’t great you don’t want to put anything down that wasn’t documented at the time in case it comes back to bite your arse.

          I am sure there are some sectors where this isn’t the case, but generally references are much more of an, “Everything cool?” “Yeah, everything cool!” here. And because we all know that, there isn’t much incentive to spend a huge amount of time on references: there just isn’t really a good reason to spend hours on a really detailed, positive reference for Anna and how amazing she was, but equally, there isn’t any point to writing a scathing one for Prince Hans unless you are completely sure that you don’t want the new company to hire him, and that’s pretty ususual.

      2. The OTHER other*

        I was going to say It sounds as though the UK practice is not really a reference check, but a confirmation of employment. But then you say unless “they come back awful”, so clearly there is something qualitative going on in the call. IMO it makes more sense to get that work done before making the offer rather than afterwards, but who am I to argue with a system whose attorneys wear black because they are still mourning the death of Charles the 2nd?

        1. bamcheeks*

          The standard is sort of, “has this person worked for you and are there any documented issues with their performance that you want to let me know about?”

          It would be pretty unusual for a job offer to be pulled because the reference says Elsa is a wonderful artist, but just doesn’t have the great person skills that you need for customer-facing work. The expectation is that that will have come out in the interview process, and if it doesn’t, well, bad luck, get better at interviewing. But if Elsa was formally disciplined for creating a scene at a major company event by losing her temper and shooting people with ice, that’s the kind of thing that would be included.

      3. ForeignLawyer*

        Don’t forget that in the UK people tend to have employment contracts and some level of protection from termination. That changes the calculus a lot re: how risky it is to the employee to provide a current employer reference compared to the US, where most people don’t have contracts and can be fired on short notice for almost any reason.

    3. Ina Lummick*

      Also I think most UK employers are more wanting a “did they work in X job for y-z timeframe?” type of reference.

      1. B*

        Yeah, and that’s the most that most employers will tell you anyway. Although I agree that is makes references pointless and does mean it’s hard to set a firm start date when references don’t respond promptly.

      2. Isobel*

        It probably depends on what field you work in. I’m always intrigued by the idea that you can’t let anyone at your current employer know you’re job hunting. When I applied for a new job pretty much the first thing I did was check that my senior colleagues would be happy to give me a reference. So they knew I was job hunting and could start thinking about looking for my replacement. The key difference I guess being that I had a contract and had to give three months’ notice.

    4. Recruited Recruiter*

      My prior employer made all offers contingent on a reference check. When I started, I found out that the company didn’t even do my reference check for 3 weeks after I started.
      What are they going to do in that case? They’ve already seen my work, and as long as I didn’t lie about anything, are they really going to fire me over a less than glowing reference if they didn’t already have concerns?

    5. Eco-Logical*

      The reason this is different in the UK from the USA I think, is to do with employment law. References must be fair and accurate, and if a worker thinks the reference you’ve given is unfair or misleading, they can take you to court. If you haven’t documented every warning about lateness etc, then they’ll be more likely to win their case. This has led to a widespread assumption that in the UK it’s illegal to give a bad reference (it isn’t), and most big companies cover their backs by refusing to give anything more than a ‘X worked here from this date to that date’ reference. That said, because this is well known, people do tend to ‘informally’ pick up the phone a bit more if there’s something they want to dig into.

  13. BeenThere*

    OP#2 Don’t do it, your staff will resent you and any success the person you carpool with has will be attributed to the carpool time.

    I was in a department where multiple experienced developers were only given the time of day by our director when he explicitly wanted to use them to get something ridiculous across the line. The minute the project was done he’d be done with them, they go from being the shining star to toilet paper stuck on his shoe and shifted to whichever engineering manager wanted to claim them next. We had a support engineer come across to development team who was definitely all talk and rarely delivered any work himself. He started driving our director to the airport on a weekly basis and well don’t you know it the very next engineering management position went to the directors chauffeur. I hear most of the experienced engineers left the chauffeur’s team within a year.

    1. LifeBeforeCorona*

      I often wonder if people like the director’s chauffeur have enough self-awareness to realize when most of your team departs shortly after they take over they might be the problem.

    2. Sandi*

      It sounds like your workplace was highly dysfunctional, and the director wasn’t carpooling. Yours isn’t a valid example of occasional carpooling impacting a workplace.

      I have worked in a healthy place and would occasionally get rides from my management. I took public transit and some days they would offer to take me home. They tended to make the offers when the weather was bad. I also carpooled with a manager a couple years ago. None of my coworkers cared, as my managers have an open-door policy and anyone would have been welcome to the same offer of carpooling (in fact three of us carpooled together) or coffee chats. I agree that it is likely better for the LW to use Alison’s wording and make it infrequent, as my managers never decided on my promotions (a small group decided for everyone, to try and make the system more equitable) so in my workplace there wasn’t much opportunity for managers to show favoritism.

      1. Simply the best*

        Same experience as you. I take public transportation and live close to my boss. She has given me a ride many times. Nobody sees it as favoritism.

  14. Michael*

    #4 I despise nepotism. At a former employer, the boss’s son applied for a promotion and a member of the interview panel told him all the confidential interview questions in advance and explained what the panel’s ideal responses would be. They did this in a crowded office in front of the team the boss’s son would end up supervising (thereby completely undermining the authority he would need to do the job effectively).
    In this case, I’d start referring to the 2 interns as “The Competent Intern” and “Daddy’s Special Little Intern”. Give the 1st one all the interesting and challenging tasks and projects. Give the 2nd one some pencils to sharpen.
    If #2 complains, tell him that #1 has shown that they are ready for this responsibility by passing the full selection process; #2 skipped that so you have to treat them as a completely unskilled worker until they are able to prove otherwise. Maybe it will teach them a lesson about the value of merit over family connections.

    1. linger*

      From LW4’s description, though, they actually need to get as much useful work as possible out of both interns, so make-work isn’t a viable option; it’s more a matter of first determining what tasks are at or beyond each intern’s initial level of competence, and then attempting to train them further. This probably means initially assuming some level of competence for Daddy’s Special Little Intern and then stepping down if proven otherwise.
      (And part of the pipeline problem is that the nepotism hire may have more of a skillbase, even without that being documented, simply through upbringing and educational access. Whether they have the same level of motivation is another matter.)

    2. MK*

      So, instead if taking the issue to the people responsible for creating the problem and with the power to change it, you propose bullying the poor kids, who may or may not be entitled brats, but who also may just not know that they are a nepotism hire and accepted the internship in good faith? Wow.

      And from a practical point, if these interns are actually entitled brats, treating them badly is unlikely to go well for the OP.

      1. fueled by coffee*

        Yeah, barring some egregious behavior/attitude from the nepotism intern, the issue here is the system, not the kid.

        After all, the intern has no real way of knowing they weren’t fairly considered — after all, they submitted an application and participated in an interview.

        Obviously I assume no one wants to lose their social capital by taking this up with the execs, but I wonder if there could be a process for distinguishing these roles (like, having “volunteer intern” vs. “Team X Intern” as titles, with nepotism hires being called volunteers), as a way of signaling the difference in the rigor of the selection process.

      2. Starbuck*

        Yeah, I don’t really blame any young person starting out in their career for using their family connections/network – isn’t that what we’re all told to do anyway? Taking it out on them is just adding more unfairness to an already unfair situation. I get that it’s satisfying to fantasize about but does not solve the problem and just makes you look unprofessional too.

    3. Cthulhu’s Librarian*

      And you expect this to end well for you? Sure, maybe some of the nepotism hires would swallow it, and some of their relatives would be sufficiently hands off that you could get away with it, but if you get one scenario where both of those situations aren’t true, you’ll be out on the streets, with a tanked reputation for how you treated the director’s relative, if you’re lucky.

    4. Roscoe*

      I feel like that is extreme. Like, its not the interns fault they were given something.

      Frankly, if they were offered this and didn’t take it, that wouldn’t be very smart. (I also think a lot of people who claim to hate nepotism would happily take advantage of it if offered, yet have a problem with others). Fact is, if they can be useful and aren’t walking around with a sense of entitlement, they shouldn’t be treated differently because you don’t like how they were hired.

      1. MK*

        As far as I can tell, if the nepotism hires didn’t take the internships, the OP’s company would have half the number of interns. And given that the OP says their department isn’t paying them, I wonder if these are unpaid internships.

        1. MCMonkeyBean*

          The letter seems to indicate that they are paid, but that the pay for the nepotism hires doesn’t come from their department’s budget.

        2. JB*

          LW explicitly says that another department (presumably the department the relative works for, or maybe HR if this is a company-wide initiative as others have mentioned) is paying the nepotism interns.

      2. UKDancer*

        Yes definitely. I mean if they’re nice people then it’s a crummy thing to do to treat them worse than another intern, and they might complain. If they’re arrogant and entitled they might complain anyway.

        Either way I think the best thing to do is to treat the interns all fairly but raise concerns about the process if you have the personal capital to do so.

        1. NoviceManagerGuy*

          Right, the LW’s department should have equally high standards for all interns and equal procedures if some don’t live up to it.

      3. Hiring Mgr*

        Also, it may not be fair that they got the job, but nepotism hires particularly for an internship aren’t necessaarily worse workers. All interns should be treated equally poor, like a marine just entering boot camp

      4. Spencer Hastings*

        I think if I were in that position, then yeah, I’d be doing my damnedest to find another internship fair and square, and only take the one at Uncle Bob’s firm if literally no other one would take me.

    5. SeattleSue*

      Are you trying to win internet points for being a badass? You wouldn’t and shouldn’t do that. Many companies offer summer employment to the kids of their employees, and it really isn’t a big deal. Growing up all the manufacturing plants where I lived did that. My friends whose dad’s worked the line got to intern there just like a VPs kid. Many received scholarships, too. You don’t know the ends and outs of the situation

    6. Emilia Bedelia*

      Most interns are completely unskilled workers. That is kind of the point of interns. I’ve worked with a lot of interns, including nepotism hires, at varying levels of competency, and I’ve never seen a correlation either way. Frankly, a lot of “so-and-so’s kid” interns do better than others, because they know that they have their parent to answer to. OP doesn’t actually say that the nepotism hires are unqualified or bad at doing the work. Internship programs are often very competitive (more so than full time employment) so it may be the case that the “merit interns” need to have a 4.0 GPA, previous intern experience, years of research, etc just to get in the door… while a candidate with a 3.7 GPA and a lot of retail work experience has no chance whatsoever. Both interns would probably do a decent job, but if you have 100 qualified intern applications for 3 spots, you have to decide somehow.

      I agree that who you’re related to should not outweigh competence, but frankly, a lot of “merit based” internship programs reward the exact kind of people who would be benefitting from nepotism/classist hiring practices anyway (ie, people who went to fancy private schools, people who could afford to do unpaid research over paid jobs, people who could afford to not work and study instead, people who could afford expensive extracurriculars or clubs). I think LW should consider whether there are ways to make their “merit” process more equitable, and as part of those improvements, they can suggest doing away with nepotism hires as well.

      1. Eden*

        > Most interns are completely unskilled workers. That is kind of the point of interns

        That sounds very industry-specific! It’s absolutely not true in my field (software engineering). They’re not expected to be anywhere near as useful as a more experienced employee but they absolutely require some specific basic skills that not everyone has or can master.

        1. Emilia Bedelia*

          That’s kind of my point – Michael advocated for calling the nepotism hires “completely unskilled workers” until proven otherwise, which OP’s letter does not indicate at all.
          In my field, interns are all somewhere in the middle of an engineering degree- so, they have some knowledge, but they’re certainly not ready to hit the ground running with a real project. The whole point of an internship program is to help students develop raw skills/knowledge and use them in a workplace environment.
          If they need interns to have a specific ability and there is a clear difference in that ability between merit/nepotism hires, then that’s one thing, but at least in my experience, even the best interns are not really “fully skilled” either, so it’s a little unfair to pit them against each other when both groups are supposed to be there to learn and develop.

        2. Clisby*

          Agree. I worked for years Tin computer programming, and the interns I interacted with were the opposite of unskilled. They weren’t as skilled as I was, but they definitely had basic competency the job required.

      2. Caboose*

        I was a nepotism intern at a completely non-competitive place. They had no formal program for hiring interns (which meant that my experience was a bit haphazard)– they’d interview you if you just sort of…asked to be an intern. Being the nepotism hire meant that I had a lot of extra knowledge of the office politics than the merit hire– and you best believe I kept her in the loop as much as possible! Obviously your mileage may vary, but there were a couple of situations where me being a nepotism hire allowed me to directly help the merit hire when she was floundering. It’s hard to feel like you can bother the permanent staff when you’re an intern, but asking your fellow interns is a lot less stressful. (The third intern was…less helpful. My dad was an engineer at the company, the other intern’s dad was an executive of some sort, so do with that what you will.)

    7. RagingADHD*

      Why are the students the ones who need to learn a lesson about the value of merit? They didn’t perpetrate the nepotism. They have no more power in the situation than any other intern. I wouldn’t be surprised if a significant number of the nepotism interns don’t even want to be there, but are putting a good face on it because of family expectations.

      You need to go deal with this resentment somehow, because it has totally warped your perspective.

      1. Jennifer*

        I mean…they do have more power than other interns because of their connections within the company, but I agree that it wouldn’t solve anything to be rude to them. They do also need to learn to recognize their privilege and that a lot of people don’t just get things handed to them because of who they know. So, no, it’s not the intern’s fault that they were put in that role, but there are lessons to be learned here by everyone, not just the people in charge.

        1. MK*

          They may have more power than the other interns in an abstract way, but they don’t have more power in the situation, and it’s unlikely they have power in the company. Even if they recognize their privilege, what do you expect them to do, go to the CEO and demand change? They could quit, I guess, or not take the internship, but that won’t lead to change.

          And while everyone should recognize their privilege, I hardly think it’s a coworker’s place to teach them that via calling them Daddy’s little intern, I have yet to know anyone learning a lesson by contempt.

          1. Jennifer*

            I said in my original comment that being rude solves nothing.

            Recognizing privilege is important because for one thing there wouldn’t be so many people in this comment section not understanding why this is a problem, or maybe understanding the advantages they have had over people who were less privileged.

          2. American Job Venter*

            Being effectively un-fireable is a pretty powerful place to be in any company. As to what interns who are nepotism hires can do with their privilege? Here’s one scenario.

            We have two interns, Brad and Janet. Brad’s uncle is one of the C-suite, and he let Brad know about the internship. Janet has a 4.0 GPA, a 25-hour-a-week campus job, and hasn’t bought any new clothes since she stopped growing two years ago.

            We also have Accounts Manager Frank. AMFrank likes to make crass jokes at Janet, rub her back, boing her curls, tease her with a cruel edge about her clothing and so on. AMFrank’s supervisor is also Brad and Janet’s supervisor and he thinks Frank’s treatment of Janet is hilarious.

            Brad can go to his uncle and say, “I think one of the people I work with is harassing another person and our supervisor isn’t likely to do anything about it. How do I get in touch with someone who can help?” Because Brad is a 20 year old intern and doesn’t know how to contact HR, but he knows he knows someone who knows the company well and will give him good advice — his uncle.

            And thus AMFrank is fired and Manager is reprimanded for letting Frank harass Janet, and Janet is no longer being harassed and doesn’t quit her internship.

            Yes, this is a story, but is it implausible?

            1. American Job Venter*

              O for an edit button (yes I know there are good reasons why there isn’t one). Janet hasn’t been able to afford any new clothes since she started college, which was also when she stopped growing. (I realized that bit might be unclear.)

        2. Observer*

          They do also need to learn to recognize their privilege and that a lot of people don’t just get things handed to them because of who they know. So, no, it’s not the intern’s fault that they were put in that role, but there are lessons to be learned here by everyone, not just the people in charge.

          And exactly what lessons do you think that Michael’s jerkitude is going to teach them? Certainly nothing about the value of merit because what he’s suggesting actually has nothing to do with merit or lack thereof and everything to do with exerting power over someone with more perceived privilege than him.

    8. Where’s the Orchestra?*

      Yeah – don’t do this if you need this job or even just want to maintain you ability to work in the field. Yeah the situation isn’t great, but taking it out on the powerless interns just makes you look horrible.

      1. Observer*

        but taking it out on the powerless interns just makes you look horrible.

        It’s not just a matter of how it LOOKS. It’s just a genuinely awful way to behave.

    9. Autumn*

      22 year old me would have tried her confused and ignorant best had I been able to land any kind of office internship via connections.

      I saw my similar aged cousins getting office internships this way and just buckling down to do their best at whatever they were handed. I knew I was missing out, but had no clue in the world how to secure such internships. My college was useless, that is unless I could go to NYC/Long Island.

    10. Bluephone*

      Maybe we just let the people who actually manage employees answer this LW? Instead of foisting our weird “I pretend my cats are my interns” fantasies onto the website?
      Hurray for you being a jerk to random people, I guess, but the rest of us are here for feasible workplace advice which usually begins with, “don’t be a jerk especially for no reason”

      1. Former_Employee*

        Try giving the cats some pencils to sharpen. That is likely to teach someone a lesson; it won’t be the cats.

    11. Well...*

      I think the problem is that the work isn’t hard enough to justify the rigorous selection process (for most internships at least). Plenty of people competent enough to do the work don’t get selected for the job. It’s more a supply/demand issue.

      It seems like squandering the nepotism intern’s time just to make a point isn’t in the best interest of the company.

    12. Observer*

      I’d start referring to the 2 interns as “The Competent Intern” and “Daddy’s Special Little Intern”.

      I hope you don’t manage people, or you’re just trolling. That’s incredibly gratuitously nasty. And it’s not doing the merit intern any favors either.

      Give the 2nd one some pencils to sharpen.
      If #2 complains, tell him that #1 has shown that they are ready for this responsibility by passing the full selection process; #2 skipped that so you have to treat them as a completely unskilled worker until they are able to prove otherwise.

      Really? And expose yourself as an incompetent and vindictive manager? You only give someone pencils to sharpen and then complain that they can’t prove themselves? You “have” to assume that someone is an incompetent moron just because they didn’t get properly vetted? You can’t actually have a conversation? Give them some lower stakes work to see how they operate? Especially in a situation where the organization actually needs the work these interns are supposed to be working, it’s a classic example of cutting off your nose to spite your face.

      I would NOT want to work for you and I would CERTAINLY not want someone new to the work world work for you, as you would be imparting really ineffective and ugly ideas to people. The worst actually being that you “have” to act like a jerk because something you don’t like is happening. The judgemental and incompetent response is only the second worst aspect of this.

    13. Nancy*

      All this shows is that you are an awful person who shouldn’t have interns.

      Interns getting positions due to connections is not new, and not limited to “Daddy is the CEO”. My school’s career office even told us to use connections as a way to find internships. I don’t think many at that age would have turned down an internship at that age because they got it through a family/friend connection.

      Yes, there are many who don’t have access to a career office, but that is not the fault of the intern who has that advantage, and they do not have power to change anything.

      If you don’t like the system, complain to the people in charge of the system.

  15. Despachito*

    LW 1, I’d go for what Allison suggests – telling Angela that you created a system that works for you and enables you to be highly efficient. I’d then try to find out what exactly she would want you to do to be satisfied (to get the papers off your desk? to have the papers labeled so that if you fall ill your coworkers are able to find stuff)? and then see how much of that you’d be actually able/willing to do without compromising your system.

    But there is something in your letter what makes me think that Angela is possibly not completely reasonable (the problem of catching her in good mood), and there is a possibility that her answer will be tainted by that (and then I would be at my wits’ end).

    1. short'n'stout*

      yes, the comment about needing to catch the boss in a good mood jumped out at me, too. Not necessarily as part of this specific issue, but a red flag for her overall management style.

      1. BatManDan*

        Personally, I’d quit over either issue – being told to clean my desk, or realizing that I had to “catch my boss in a good mood” to discuss anything. Probably why I’ve been self-employed for 33 years (47 years if you start with the lemonade stand at age 6). Only had 7 jobs (as in, I was formally employed) in my life, and 6 of those were before I was 20. (After-school and summer jobs; none were meant to last, lest any of y’all reading think the number of jobs indicates my ability to do the work or get along.)

    2. Tiny Soprano*

      Yes I noticed the “needing to catch the boss in a reasonable mood” thing too. Which makes me suspect the LW’s desk may be a more garden-variety state of messiness (I empathise, this is me as well) rather than egregiously so.

      1. Tali*

        Yes, everyone jumping on the LW assuming the desk is a mess. It sounds like the boss is very particular and the LW works around it. I also agree that it’s passive aggressive to put on a document with no conversation about it. If the system works for them it’ll be a pain to change it.

        1. Where’s the Orchestra?*

          I think it’s possible to see a middle ground here.

          Yes, others should be able to find things they need is OP is out in an unplanned/emergency situation. So maybe looking at your system and making sure that is the case is warranted.

          But, the boss doesn’t seem to be stellar in that they are assigning this via spreadsheet (with no mentioned conversation), and that people have to catch them in “a good mood” to accomplish things.

    3. Nicotena*

      Yeah, a lot of people reference the “my boss / coworkers might need something off of my desk” line of inquiry (this has never happened to me but I guess if you’re in accounts payable or something it might) but if it’s purely that the boss doesn’t want to see clutter, using a banker’s box to store papers out of sight or putting them in drawers or whatever might be sufficient. Sadly, these systems are probably less organized than keeping piles on your desk, but if the boss doesn’t care that’s her prerogative I guess.

    4. BigHairNoHeart*

      Completely agree with you here! I get the vibe that boss has something particular that she’s after but is being vague about it, so it would benefit OP to figure that out first rather than try to ignore the problem. The “catch her in a good mood” comment also caught my eye. I had a boss like that once, and also was inclined to just quietly ignore the occasional weird comments like that (for me it was that I wasn’t dressing professionally enough), but all that did was give him the opportunity to fester on it until he blew up at me. Bad call on my part, and I’d hate for someone else to make the same mistake.

    5. anonymous73*

      The catching her in a good mood AND her passive aggressive way of getting her to clean up her office. If boss sees it as a problem, she should have a conversation with OP and set expectations. One person’s messy is another person’s normal, and adding a line to her to do list that is seen by others on the team is NOT the way to manage your employees.

  16. Rooty*

    Question related to #2: would it be appropriate for a supervisor and an employee they supervise to be in a vanpool together (a vanpool is a carpool for 5-15 people run by a transit agency)?

    1. linger*

      Good question! I think it does change the power dynamic if a third person is in charge of the travel arrangements.

    2. Allonge*

      It would be really strange if either could not use the vanpool. There is a big difference in setting up a carpool and making use of something that is already there for multiple people.

      I would think of it like this: nobody would blink if boss and employee would come with the same train, right? The solution there is not to decline using a transport opportunity, it’s to not use the entire commute for conversations on work and other bonding points, and that’s for the boss to regulate.

      1. UKDancer*

        Yes, I’ve worked somewhere where (due to antisocial hours and shift working) they ran a minibus for staff from the city centre to the office. I’m assuming that’s what you mean by a vanpool? People of varying levels of seniority used it and it was never a problem. It was just a perk that the company provided to make things easier.

        At present I sometimes get the same train as one of the big bosses (although they live nearer work in a nicer suburb than I do). Sometimes we see each other and make small talk, and sometimes we don’t. I don’t think there’s a problem with people using the same train as colleagues or managers. We all live where we live. Personally I like to zone out or read a book on the train so I don’t tend to be very chatty.

      2. MK*

        Well, I think people would mind if the boss and a coworker met on the platform every day and spend the train ride together. I think in these situations you need to keep a distance: don’t sit together every day, don’t have long conversations, etc. It can be difficult because the natural thing to if you meet am acquaintance during the ride is to sit together,and it feels so rude to only exchange a few sentences during a long commute. But spending your commute together every day would be just as bad in a train as in a car.

        1. Despachito*

          But there would be no witness, would there?

          I mean, if I commute on the same train with my boss, we can assume there is no other employee present (or else they would possibly participate in the talk as well).

          So no coworker would probably see what I am actually doing on the train with my boss – whether we happily chat away throughout the ride, or sit in opposite corners and read. They will possibly see us getting off the same train, and if they are drama-prone, they can assume anything they can think of, including that we are having an affair, and there is not much to be done about that.

          Frankly, I’d think that commuting in a public transport should not raise any reasonable brow, as well as “vanpooling” as described here. Carpooling, on the other hand, would feel strange for me, unless there are some special conditions (boss and employee live in two lone cabins high up in the mountains, or there are two or more employees carpooling with the boss).

          1. EPLawyer*

            It’s not whether there are witnesses or not. And you can bet there will be witnesses. If the train goes to your work place, with probably other stops, there’s a good chance others at your work take the same train. Or coworkers will se you always exiting the train together. Or someone will mention, oh yeah when Boss and I talked about this on the train we decided to we would do X rather than y. completely innocently but the cat’s out of the bag.

            The solution is to be careful. Don’t sit with your employee. Keep your conversation to the minimum and then only non work things. But still not a lot. Because you don’t want the unconsciouis bias of man Jack hasn’t seen his family in forever, I better make sure he gets Christmas off this year so he can go see them.

            1. Despachito*

              I rather meant that there will probably be no witnesses of your entire interaction boss-employee on the train, and that those who tend to gossip will gossip anyway if they see you exiting the same train, so even if you sit apart the whole time and behave, there can always be somebody who will assume the opposite.

          2. MK*

            Eh, the goal is to avoid forming a closer relationship with one employee over the others, not to avoid getting caught.

          3. Colette*

            The issue is that if the boss has an hour of two of conversation outside of work with the same employee every day, they’re going to build a closer relationship and it’s going to affect the working relationship. And it would also be difficult for the employee to say “hey, I really need my commute time to read/think/listen to a podcast and don’t want to commute together.”

        2. Allonge*

          This is why I wrote the “to not use the entire commute for conversations on work and other bonding points, and that’s for the boss to regulate” part of the sentence. The solution is still not for either the boss or the employee to get a car or take an earlier train, it’s to not use all that time for work.

          Which, as a manager, would be my response to this: while commuting, I am not yet working. Let’s say hi and do our own thing.

          1. Lily Rowan*

            Yes. I once had a commute where there were often several coworkers on the bus together in the morning, and we almost never talked to each other at all. Maybe — MAYBE — we would nod hello, but otherwise, we were all in our own commuting worlds until we got off the bus. It was great!

            1. Where’s the Orchestra?*

              Yup – used to take the same train as one shift lead and another co-worker. At most we would nod to each other while reading a book/listening to music/finishing up something on the phone before we got to work.

          2. UKDancer*

            Yes. This is my preferred approach. I don’t consider my commute to be work time so I prefer not to have to be sociable. I will usually smile and nod if I see someone on the train but not really want to have a longer conversation. London being a big place with a lot of stations I very rarely meet anyone I know on the train.

        3. Clisby*

          Well … I disagree that the natural thing if you meet an acquaintance on transit is to sit together. For me, the natural thing would be to sit apart so I wouldn’t have to carry on a conversation, and could just read a book, zone out, or whatever.

    3. Rooty*

      Just to clarify a couple of things: the biggest difference between a vanpool and other types of public transit is that people affirmatively join them, so you’re with the same people every day in a minivan, 12 passenger van, or 15 passenger van. As a general rule, the expectation is that your quiet and doing your on thing on the commute (sometime there is surface street chit chat in the afternoon, but everyone is quiet on the highway).

  17. LDN Layabout*

    #LW1 – if any of those piles of books and papers are on the floor vs. a desk? A cleaner will have to deal with them and quite frankly probably has enough work without having to dance do-si-do with clutter. Even if it’s confined to your desk, if it’s particularly bad you’re going to have them worried they can knock something over or have it fly off into the ether.

    PSA for ‘no one goes into my office’, especially if you’re at a large institution: Facilities staff do, it might just be when you’re not around. They’re still your colleagues and you need to consider how you’re treating them even if you’re not there at the same time.

    1. Gracely*

      They did say in the letter that the night cleaning crew goes in there, so LW1 is aware facilities goes in.

      1. Observer*

        They are aware, yet they say “no one”. Which is to say that they don’t see the facilities people as people who might be affected by the mess. I think that that’s what @LDN Layabout is addressing. Now, it could be that the facilities people are not affected, but it’s possible that they are. It depends on what the mess actually looks like and how it intersects with what the cleaner are being expected to do.

  18. LDN Layabout*

    #LW1 – if any of those piles of books and papers are on the floor vs. a desk? A cleaner will have to deal with them and quite frankly probably has enough work without having to dance do-si-do with clutter. Even if it’s confined to your desk, if it’s particularly bad you’re going to have them worried they can knock something over or have it fly off into the ether.

    PSA for ‘no one goes into my office’, especially if you’re at a large institution: Facilities staff do, it might just be when you’re not around. They’re still your colleagues and you need to consider how you’re treating them even if you’re not there at the same time.

  19. EventPlannerGal*

    OP1: as an “organised chaos” person I COMPLETELY get where you’re coming from (I hate being told to tidy too), but I think you should try to take a step back and look at the space with fresh eyes. Being blind to your own mess is a real thing and it can make anyone feel defensive to be called out on it, but I suspect that there are different levels of mess between “covered in rotting food and garbage” and “the Bodleian Library” that your boss is looking for. Definitely don’t just ignore her!

    1. Artemesia*

      The first test might be ‘when was the last time I used this pile here — this pile, the piles scattered on the bookshelves?’ Maybe the boss just doesn’t like clutter but maybe the boss is right and this isn’t a series of folders of current projects that are being worked on right now.

      1. EventPlannerGal*

        Oh yes, that’s a good test – I’m very susceptible to being like “oh I’m working on that” when I actually haven’t worked on it in months. Similarly, “oh I might need that”/“I can’t throw that away, it could be useful” – for what?

        1. bamcheeks*

          For me, it’s always the bits of paper you get given at conferences and events where I feel like I SHOULD keep it for reference, but really, why??

          1. EventPlannerGal*

            I hoard business cards, and I can’t explain it even to myself. We have a database! When I get a business card, the info goes in the database! But when the exact same info is written on a little piece of card it is *different* and *precious* and cannot be thrown away, according to my brain. I have to make myself regularly commit to a ceremonial Binning Of The Business Cards.

          2. Nicotena*

            Ugh for me it’s meeting notes / agendas / whatever. I’m seriously unlikely to need these again and usually end up just recycling them all when I leave, but … I might need them, right?? Why else would I have taken them ?? (throw them out Nicotena).

            1. Guacamole Bob*

              Yes, this! Like with conference materials that bamcheeks mentioned above, meeting materials are in an awkward category where I might want them within the next few days as I follow up on various things, but won’t need them after a week or a month, depending on the project. So if I stick them in my file drawer, that gets bloated with unnecessary papers, but I don’t want to just leave them sitting around on my desk. I’ve gotten better about recognizing which I can toss immediately, but for some projects it’s been a pain – new printouts of slide decks or drafts of working documents each meeting, with my notes scribbled on them, but which I will soon supplant with newer versions and never reference again.

              Fortunately my office is now pretty good about sharing meeting materials electronically, and I take my notes for everything in a single notebook at a time and save them when I’m done (I go through one moleskine every… year or so? So saving them is fine), so it’s kind of resolved itself. But yeah.

  20. Tomorrow Never Comes Is Soon Enough*

    I’m also saying this with all sympathy to OP#1, because frankly I am you! But this did stick out: “It’s stacks of paper on my desk that I keep procrastinating organizing.” I would assume my procrastination about anything work-related would definitely be in my boss’ purview to oversee and thereby be a KPI.
    I got a world of insight from the recent update from the OP who wrote in about her procrastination issues. I know mine have that inner voice saying , “you can’t make me!”– but to me. If you are saying that to your boss (even non-verbally)?– not so much.

    1. MCMonkeyBean*

      I agree, that piece I think is a bit separate than some of the other parts of the discussion. And I similarly say this as a messy person and procrastinator.

      Because the boss keeps adding this to the list without talking about it, I do think it’s worth having a discussion about whether she has particular concerns and that maybe she could talk to you about them rather than assigning you to clean your space like a child (probably don’t use those exact words though lol)

      But it sounds like this is not entirely a case of “organized clutter” or “this is the system that works for me” if you specifically note that some of it is something you have been meaning to tidy but just haven’t gotten around to it! So maybe until you have that talk with your boss, you should also take advantage of this moment and do carve out the time to finally clean up the papers you have been procrastinating on.

    2. C in the Hood*

      I noticed that too. Maybe the boss is thinking, “if only she’d clean up her desk, it would be easier to find things to get them done!”

  21. Commenter 113*

    LW #5- I had a job offer for what I thought was a lateral move to a different agency, but the pay would have been far less than I could have accepted. The new agency HR said “We’re offering you the position, contingent on your reference check.” I politely declined the job after they weren’t able to negotiate a new salary, so I really appreciate they didn’t bother my references if I wasn’t going to take it.

    I’ve been in the opposite boat too. A different job/agency was negotiating salary with me, but before they did that they called my references. Then I had to explain to my references why I didn’t accept the job, and felt bad for taking up their time.

    1. OP5*

      Fair point! I think the issue my partner had was that not only was the offer contingent on references, but they gave him a start date 3 weeks from the offer date (and it took more than a week to contact references.) It feels like employers are trying to have their cake and eat it, too… I feel like you should either do reference checks before the offer, or give a conditional offer with a start date 6 weeks out to ensure enough time for references to come through and allow for two weeks notice.

      With my partner, the conditional offer plus the short time frame meant that he had to push the start date back multiple times, which can be nerve-wracking when you really want the job and don’t want to upset the person offering it to you. And of course, he didn’t want to give his notice until he knew it was a sure thing. I could imagine some cases where someone feels compelled to give their notice, and then has the offer rescinded (which I’m sure people have written in about multiple times!)

      I had tried to encourage him to push the start date (and also explain to HR that he couldn’t give his notice until he was sure there references came through), but I also wasn’t sure if that was good advice. I’m glad Alison answered my question since I’ll be better-armed the next time this happens!

      1. Manchmal*

        What did the new office expect your partner to do?? Like, really give notice when there was no firm offer? It seems very straightforward to say, “I will be happy to set a start date when the references come back and you’re able to extend a firm, non-conditional offer.” Do they really expect people to risk their jobs and livelihood for a maybe?

        1. OP5*

          That was exactly what we were wondering! They had sent an offer letter and wanted him to sign it pretty quickly, and they had to draft another one a few times with the adjusted start date! I think the concern on my partner’s end was that if he waited to sign the offer letter at all, they’d think he wasn’t serious and move on to the next candidate.

          I like the wording you provided though! Definitely keeping that in mind for next time.

      2. Lily Rowan*

        This sounds like my current employer, and it’s honestly the only thing about them I have a huge problem with. But I’m still kind of annoyed that I ended up not taking more than a couple of days between jobs, between their conditional offer and start dates that only come every two weeks. On the other hand, the offer was conditional on talking to my current manager (which, from reading above, sounds like SOP in the UK, but this was in the US), so setting that up was basically the same thing as giving notice.

      3. anonymous73*

        Wow that’s terrible practice on the part of the company. I would have responded that I could agree to a start date once I had a full, non-contingent offer, but I understand not wanting to rock the boat if you really want a job. Although it could mean the company itself is unreasonable in other aspects so your partner needs to pay attention.

  22. Anon for this*

    I think the advice to LW2 to make it easy for the employee to refuse is crucial. They might feel uncomfortable, particularly depending on their age/personality to have that sort of long drive with someone who has power over them at work. I once had a supervisor who came close to demanding I drive an older man at my company who was in management (who had done things such as sleep with a bunch of coworkers and expose himself to people when drunk but despite that was well liked and rising in the company) because he lost his license for drunk driving. Being in a car with him for an hour was not a situation I wanted to be in even if he’d always been appropriate around me and I was put in a situation where I felt the only way to refuse was to cite my very conservative father who would have found it inappropriate— not a situation I particularly wanted to be in at work.

  23. Despachito*

    LW2 – I would not do the carpooling.

    But I would not do it even if we were peers – I’d hate the obligation it would create for me outside of work. I’d rather either bear the costs or use public transport.

    Also with the not-yet-resolved situation with COVID, it might create other issues.

    So if I were youm I’d go with your first gut :-)

    1. Fulana del Tal*

      Yes my problem with LW2 is that they’ve assumed their employee would want to carpool if the first place. I don’t want to carpool because it’s creates an obligation that I then have to plan around. So either don’t bring this up or use Alison’s script only once.

    2. Me*

      Oh me too. Coworkers are just like regular people in the sense that as you get to know them more you may decide you really like them or you may decide they’re insufferable.

      The problem is, you can’t just decline to interact with your coworker. I can name a handful of coworkers through the years that even at work became people I really wanted to keep my distance from. I can’t imagine if I was stuck commuting with them every day.

      I prefer general pleasantness with those I work with. Same with neighbors. I like nice firm boundaries in place with people I have to (not chose to) interact with.

  24. Holly*

    LW1 – we had a coworker with a very messy desk, towering piles of paper.
    It worked for them, and we could find info when they were out as the electronic files were up to date.

    But they were told by their boss that the mess was unacceptable.
    Turned out, boss’s boss had seen the mess and assumed coworker was disorganised, possibly verging on incompetent.
    That is NOT what you want to get seen as.

    I see my desk as an extension of the office dresscode.

    1. rl09*

      Yes, exactly! I am kind of surprised at Allison’s answer and several comments here…In almost every office I’ve worked in, having a messy desk will draw attention to yourself for the all the wrong reasons. It’s almost always perceived as being unprofessional, unorganized, unprepared, etc.

      1. Butterfly Counter*

        It sounds as though their office isn’t a cubical in public space.

        And as someone in academia, a messy desk doesn’t always carry the same connotations. Piles of paper are pretty commonplace, even with many things moving online. Just now, I have a stack of graded exams on my desk that will stay there for a few more weeks in case students come by wanting to double check their answers. I also have a stack of books that haven’t made it to my bookshelf yet plus some post-it reminders and memos I haven’t tossed. My office is more on the “spartan” side of what I see from others in my department. Granted, OP is not a teacher, but the same standards for businesses don’t hold for academia.

      2. Twisted Lion*

        Yes this. While you might not be disorganized, the appearance is that you are. The fact it keeps being brought up means its become a flag against LW1.

  25. Piling higer and deeper anon*

    WRT “messy” desks. I’m a piler of things (I’m the only employee in my elem school libraries, so no one is sharing my desk/searching my papers). My favourite “I don’t think she meant it as a compliment” was from a former principal at my previous school, who was one of those empty desk at the end of the day people: “I don’t understand how someone so organized can be so messy.” I didn’t tell her it was a special talent as she didn’t have the sense of humour for that. I think she was surprised that I could find papers I needed quickly in whatever pile they were in. I will say that in the five years I worked with her, she never told me I had to clean my desk. And there were teachers who had worse desks than I did.

    My mess is mostly papers and books–I often don’t have time in the middle of class to do much more with a book that needs attention than to set it on my side desk. Papers often are the same way–if it’s something I need to deal with later, I set it aside. I do try to go through my piles on a regular basis and I’ve gotten into using small bins to try and wrangle the piles a bit better. My main desk is usually pretty clear, with maybe a few books and papers to one side–but I do book transactions there, so it kinda has to be–my side desk is my piling desk.

    I agree with Alison to check with your boss but also maybe think about finding time once a month/a couple times a month to address the piles of stuff . I’ve trained myself into that and still have piles of stuff, they’re just not as big as they used to be. Wishing you good luck.

  26. NoviceManagerGuy*

    Could the stacks of papers instead go into a filing cabinet? They’d be equally accessible but tidier that way, right?

  27. Lynca*

    Where I work there’s either “organized chaos” offices or highly organized offices. What you describe is pretty tame compared to what I’ve seen or had to help clean up when someone left.

    But I would advise you not to just ignore the problem just because you view it as your work space. Not being able to easily find papers without checking multiple unorganized stacks is a legitimate work issue. Similarly there is a perception issue with a messy office regardless of whether it is public facing with more people than you think. And in general, even if this is a difference between what you consider messy and what your boss considers messy, it’s better to engage in a discussion to find a compromise than to just dig your heels in. This is really not worth it. I say that as someone who intensely struggles with this as part of her ADHD.

    What Alison has advised is what I’ve done in the past. I struggle with keeping my office from being overrun with paper and the key issue was having too many stacks of paper. The solution wasn’t to take everything off my desk but to keep the stacks to a minimum and use a desk filing cabinet for things that were still active but not something I was immediately working on.

  28. Percysowner*

    LW5 The one time I can see a reference check after an offer is one that is contingent on contacting their current employer. That is only because I got burned. I came into a situation where a new employee had been hired prior to my taking the job. One reference was glowing although she had acted as an independent contractor. The second was a small accounting and her employer had died. She claimed she had been with that firm for 10 years and her current employer for 10. The previous boss hired her. As it turned out, she hadn’t been with the “current employer” for 10 years, she didn’t even have a current employer. She had been fired for behavior that I eventually had to fire her for, although lying on her application meant I didn’t have to do a PIP or any other remedial training.

    1. JohannaCabal*

      Sorry that happened to you. I got burned by a bad hire at a job where I was not allowed to contact references (was told that references only say nice things about candidates but I think it was more that the startup was trying to be “a cool company” as opposed to one of those “traditional companies” *eyeroll*).

      Still, even a thorough reference check can’t totally prevent a bad hire. Alison has had a few letters from people who’ve even had candidates’ employers give them positive references to get rid of them, something I’ve heard has happened within some government positions. Plus, you can get someone who’s really good at covering their tracks (fake paystubs, getting a friend or family that owns a business to pretend they worked there, using a friend as a reference, etc.).

      Sometimes bad hires happen no matter what. But what’s important is making sure they are removed from their roles before they can do further harm, which is why probationary periods can be your friend.

  29. A Pinch of Salt*

    LW3. You’d be my absolute hero if you declined because you don’t agree with bullying as a management style, because that’s exactly what “I’ll offend you and you have to be cool with it” means.


    Someone who didn’t have the guts to decline for the same (but did emphasize it in my exit interview)

    1. Slow Gin Lizz*

      Right??? “I’ll offend you on a regular basis, and you should just get over it” is really really rich coming from a boss or potential boss. UGH. Congrats, LW for not accepting a job with that ridiculous person. Write that email Alison suggested and don’t look back, unless the company gets in trouble publicly, in which case consider yourself under orders from the AAM commentariat to report back to us *immediately.*

    2. fluffy*

      I’m guessing that this employer is having trouble actually getting anyone to accept an offer and they’re getting desperate to hire anyone, and not understanding that maybe the problem is with them.

  30. OtterB*

    LW2 The company president of a startup my husband used to work for lived near us. They carpooled occasionally if there was a need, usually something like car in the shop, but it wouldn’t have tried to do it regularly.

    1. The Rural Juror*

      Same here. The only time I’ve carpooled with my boss is because one of us needed to get some maintenance done on our cars. Public transportation in our city is awful, so it’s been nice to have the comfort level to ask if I can catch a ride. That’s not something I would want to do too often, though.

  31. I'm just here for the cats!*

    #4. So how is an intern knowing someone at the company any different then other networking? As long as they are qualified and it sounds like they have to submit a resume and interview. How would this be any different of it was a regular job and they knew someone.
    I could see asking the diversity team to look at the process and make sure all interns are treated fairly in the interview process.

    1. Roscoe*

      Exactly. It happens at all levels. People get a foot in the door or maybe even hired because they know the right people. I’m not sure why people are so much more upset that its an intern. Hell, doing it for interns actually seems less of a problem, since they are only there for a short time and aren’t really expected to be experienced. It would be far worse to get a new permanent coworker who sucked and got the job because of who they know.

      1. Nanani*

        “Everyone does it” doesn’t magically make it okay, for one thing.

        For another, they state that the connected interns are NOT being held to the same standards. That’s the whole problem.

        Also, please don’t categorize people discussing inequality as “upset.” Just don’t. It’s often used to diminish issues as being all about somebody’s emotional reaction rather than the actual problem. And it’s most frequently done to people with less relative privilege.

        1. Roscoe*

          I’m not saying it is or isn’t ok, just that its kind of how things often work. But getting mad about it on the intern level seems like a weird place to direct the anger. Again, interns are fairly low stakes. And them getting it because they know someone doesn’t magically make them less qualified. But I’d be lying if I said my connections never have assisted me in getting a job. I think people often use connections to help with things.

          1. Nanani*

            And again. Stop characterizing people identifying problems as being angry.
            Pointing out a problem (that you apparently benefited from, curious that) is not “anger” or “jealousy”. Don’t make people’s legitimate points into an emotional issue.

          2. Spencer Hastings*

            If Jane and I volunteer for the SPCA together and then I hear about my next job opportunity through her, that’s still wildly different from getting a job just because of who my parents are.

    2. bamcheeks*

      >> make sure all interns are treated fairly in the interview process

      I think it’s exactly that. If it’s an internship, the standards for “qualified” is probably more subjective than for a substantive, experienced post– you aren’t looking for people with a certain level of experience, but people with the right aptitudes, potential and attitude. If one half of the candidates are going through a competitive process to decide which of the ten suitable candidates are the absolute best and the rest are being checked against the bare minimum and waved through, that’s a major no-no.

    3. Heidi*

      Based on the letter, it doesn’t seem that the nepotism intern really needs to be qualified. OP says that the resume and interviews are formalities, which I take to mean that they don’t need to have anything meaningful on the resume and they don’t need to do well on the interview. It’s possible that the nepotism intern is qualified (especially since internships are usually entry level), but it doesn’t really sound like they have to compete for the position the way the other intern does.

      1. James*

        “OP says that the resume and interviews are formalities, which I take to mean that they don’t need to have anything meaningful on the resume and they don’t need to do well on the interview.”

        I’ve seen this work one of two ways.

        1) The interview and resume are ignored because the interview panel doesn’t care about quality, they just care that you’re Jack’s son. This tends to go badly.

        2) The interview and resume are ignored because the team only bothers to interview those candidates that they know are going to pass, based on their experiences with the person. This tends to work out fairly well for the company.

        The issue isn’t really the interview process, it’s what happens once the person is on the job. Nepotism gets you in the door; the question is, can it KEEP you in? In the second situation I’ve found that it really doesn’t. And usually the person in the company that knows the new hire or vouched for them is harsher on the new hire than anyone else. After all, it’s not just his career on the line, mine is as well–if he screws up it reflects badly on me. And in most cases, anyone high up enough in the company for nepotism to be a concern has a job where building relationships and knowing who to trust are major parts of the job.

        (As an aside, ever notice how no one cares about nepotism in low-status jobs? I’ve known a lot of driller’s assistants and laborers who were hired solely on the basis that they were Jack’s cousin, or on his softball team, or knew his son. I got my first job as a fast food cook because my sister worked there. No one says a word about this. It’s only once you get to management that people start complaining.)

        1. Roscoe*

          Your last point is so true. There seems to be very particular fields where people care about nepotism, and others where they don’t. As you said, people don’t seem to be mad at more “blue collar” type of jobs having nepotism, but if its a corporate job, people are up in arms.

          1. bamcheeks*

            Well, yeah. The problem of nepotism isn’t simply about who can do the job well, it’s about who gets to fill jobs which have a significant influence on people’s lives. Management and professional roles almost always have more influence, not just within their own companies, but in terms of the work product.
            If the people designing services and products, writing laws, implementing policies, teaching and educating, creating media etc all come from the same backgrounds they are going to keep reproducing a society that excludes and others large numbers of people.

            1. James*

              “…it’s about who gets to fill jobs which have a significant influence on people’s lives.”

              First, this depends on who you talk to. We all have our personal value hierarchies, after all, and our own definition of how to best have a significant influence on people’s lives. I would say that someone literally cleaning poison out of drinking water aquifers (a common task for drillers–a LOT of drillers from the oil field came into environmental) is making an impact. Similarly many of those jobs you’re so dismissive of have recently been called essential–food service, grocery store workers, truck drivers, and the like. Our civilization shut down and we still needed those people to keep working. That’s direct, objective, and irrefutable evidence of the impact these jobs have on people’s lives.

              Second, money is a concern. A driller can make more money than the vice presidents at their companies. It’s based on compensation–if you’re paid straight rate hourly wages, and you work 12 hours a day, 6 days a week, you make a nice chunk of change. This is why I said status, not income. This is not insignificant for disadvantaged people. Many of the disadvantaged people I know were less concerned about the world at large than they were about the people depending on them to earn a living. It’s not that they don’t care, it’s just that when your kid is crying from hunger or your mother is going without medicine so you can have food on the table, taking care of them dominates your priorities.

              Also, you said, in essence, “Nepotism doesn’t matter because those jobs don’t matter.” Ignoring the tremendous impact many of those jobs have on our lives–that’s a pretty privileged viewpoint. You have to be pretty high up on the socio-economic ladder to not see the tremendous impact that these people have. I started near the bottom, and used to help my grandfather do maintenance and my grandmother clean her client’s house, so got to see first-hand just how something as simple as cleaning a trashcan can (in machine shops not doing so is a fire hazard, for example). The reality is that we all have jobs, and no one pays for jobs that don’t matter; margins aren’t that loose! The reality is I couldn’t manage my projects without the janitorial staff and the grease monkeys and the day laborers.

              The idea that these low-status jobs don’t matter is hurting our society, in measurable ways. It’s keeping them from joining the trades, from becoming plumbers and carpenters and electricians. And this is having real impacts on our society. See Mike Rowe’s body of work on this topic, for example.

              1. bamcheeks*

                OK but, impact is different from influence. I didn’t use the words “importance” or “matter” at all, and I agree that all the jobs you’ve mentioned are both impactful and important, and that it is important that they are done well. I apologise if I suggested otherwise!

                But my point was that the danger of nepotism (and any other system which discourages diversity of intake) isn’t just about whether a job is technically done well. If you can fill all your roles nepotistically with very talented, capable people, and those jobs are the kind of roles where those people have power over other people– either directly as managers, or indirectly, by determining where resources should be placed, how systems should be designed, which products should be prioritised, all those kind of legal-social-political-financial-strategic decisions– they are going to make bad decisions if they are all the same kind of people from the same kind of backgrounds, even if they are all technically very smart competent people. Because they will make decisions based on what they know and believe, and they don’t know how huge numbers of people live and what their priorities and needs are. They will shape society based on their perceptions of what’s important.

                So yeah, if you’re talking about the kind of nepotism that means that people get qualified and paid to do a job they’re not able to do, I agree that that’s bad at every level. But at senior levels there’s another kind of nepotism that’s bad even if the people being admitted to the profession are technically able, because their sphere of influence is much greater and so is their potential to harm *even if* they aren’t incompetent or doing stuff wrong.

              2. American Job Venter*

                This is not insignificant for disadvantaged people. Many of the disadvantaged people I know were less concerned about the world at large than they were about the people depending on them to earn a living. It’s not that they don’t care, it’s just that when your kid is crying from hunger or your mother is going without medicine so you can have food on the table, taking care of them dominates your priorities.

                1) It isn’t just fate or coincidence that many disprivileged people have had their priorities arranged this way. That society keeps certain demographic groups of people impoverished enough to preclude more powerful career tracks doesn’t make it okay that those demographic groups are underrepresented in terms of societal power.

                2) This argument is very similar to “in other countries women can’t vote so shut up about feminism, US women” argument. Less inequality is better than more inequality, and no inequality whatsoever may be an asymptotic goal, but that doesn’t mean there’s any level of inequality where we should stop and say “this is fine now, stop complaining.”

          2. Nanani*

            If a blue-collar job is letting bob’s nephew get a job without meeting the same qualifications, it’s a problem.
            If bob’s nephew had to get the same training but just happened to find out about the job opening through bob, it’s fine.
            A lot of blue collar jobs -do- have training requirements and qualifications that aren’t so easily waived, probably because the impact on the job is more immediate. If you dont actually know how to use the equipment, being bob’s nephew won’t fix that.

        2. Temperance*

          Well yes. Because generally speaking, fast food and gas station jobs are abundant and you don’t need a leg up to get hired. But easy access to internships and corporate jobs builds wealth and resumes in a way that has a lifelong impact on earnings.

      2. I'm just here for the cats!*

        I’m wondering though if the OP is even aware of what the interns go through. They are not the interns direct manager. So maybe they are just projecting that the family/friend interns aren’t going through the same process?

        1. MCMonkeyBean*

          That would be a very specific thing to “project.” I would assume if they are giving us that level of detail about the process that they are aware of how it goes rather than just… making it up?

    4. Nicotena*

      Honestly my take on that one was that you might want to lower the bar for the other intern. It seems a bit unfair to create a very rigorous process to select the One True Intern of your heart when there’s a second intern not going through multiple levels of review.

      1. Alldogsarepuppies*

        But if you have more applicants than spots…. You are going to find the best ones someone’s not the first x that apply

    5. Bethany*


      I’m reminded of an alumni who warned us to network while in college because “if it comes down to two equally qualified people, I’ll pick the one I know over a stranger.” How is that any different?

      Or Jane gets invited to interview because John, her former coworker, works in the company she’s applying and puts in a good word.

      All networking is nepotism, just in different degrees.

      1. Despachito*

        “all networking is nepotism, just in different degrees.”

        I was thinking about that along these lines as well.

        As I am quite bad at networking, and at the same time afraid of ever happening to be “the CEO’s niece”, what is the appropriate way to handle it?

        I got my first job because of someone I knew, and it did not feel as nepotism for me (he asked me to work as an external contractor first, and when they had a vacancy he offered me that). I feel that absolutely earned the position but the initial step was because he knew me.

        Was it networking/nepotism or not? On the one hand, I was qualified for that position and I think I did it well, on the other, I had the advantage of being offered the job because I knew him.

        So where is the line with networking, if you want to be honest to yourself and to others ( if we are strict enough and consider all networking a sort of nepotism, it would not make sense to network)?

        1. Nanani*

          It is definitely a good reason to cast a skeptical eye over anyone who says “it’s not what you know, it’s who you know” like its a GOOD thing.
          There’s no magic bullet to erasing unfair advantages, but everyone definitely needs to keep this sort of thing in mind and design hiring processes to minimize it as best they can.

          1. Despachito*

            yes, but (and I know this is more of an philosophical question), should we then, to be fair, refuse all positions we are offered through someone we know?

            (I am not referring to obvious cases when we are not qualified enough or lack a prerequisite to do this job, but to cases such as “I used to work with Fergus, then Fergus changed jobs, and when there was opening in his new company he let me know/offered me the position because he knew I am a stellar performer and a good team player)”?

            On the one hand, this gives me an advantage over all other potential applicants which may be even better, on the other, if Fergus gives me the job, he immediately knows what he is getting, which can benefit him and his company (the other potential applicant might or might not turn out well).

            If the answer is that it is unfair for Fergus to offer me the job, then it means all networking would be basically unfair, but is it really so?

    6. Me*

      Because you are dealing with, typically, young people and some of those young people are at a distinct disadvantage.

      It’s an unequal playing field. Alison has addressed these issues before with student workers and interns and people new to employment.

      It’s essentially rewarding people for things they have no control over, ie privilege that you are born into. It’s not networking like in other situations. It’s my mom/dad/uncle/neighbor happen to know someone. No one earned that. THAT is nepotism and that is what the issue at hand is. Just because it happens doesn’t mean it’s right.

      1. Me*

        I should have added that nepotism in these situations typically affects already disadvantaged populations. People of color, immigrants and children of immigrants, etc.

        It actually disappoints me how many people seem to think it’s ok. Inclusivity and diversity strengthen companies and communities.

        1. MCMonkeyBean*

          Yes, and that seems to be specifically OP’s concern! The occasional “nepotism” hire would probably not be a big deal but this seems to be practically a formalized process that, if upper management is not a particularly diverse group, would inherently result in a lack of diversity in the intern pool.

    7. Nanani*

      According to the letter, the nepotism interns are NOT being held to the same standards as the normal interns. The interview is a formality and they don’t have to have the same qualifications to get that interview in the first place.

      Knowing someone at a company is fine if its how you heard about the opportunity and then you go through the same process as someone who saw a job ad online. It’s not fine when knowing someone at the company gets you to skip most of the application phase, and that’s what’s happening here.

    8. OP4*

      LW4 here. The difference is that one intern goes through our formal hiring process, including multiple rounds of interviews, and must beat out other applicants. The other intern is given to us and we are told “CEO/VP says to find something for Fergus to do.” We still ask Fergus to submit a resume and do an interview just because, but Fergus is already hired at that point. His merits are not taken into consideration and there is no competition. (We once had a nepotism intern who wasn’t even studying our field. Think English major in an IT internship.)

      I should also note that this doesn’t happen every summer. We are only budgeted for one intern. So essentially a new intern position is created just for Fergus, because the CEO/VP asked.

      1. Maggie Moo*

        I am concerned by several of the comments up the thread that do not understand how nepotism and “networking” disadvantage those from marginalized communities and why it is a DEII issue. Thank you for further explaining what is happening at your org. Has there been any conversation about referring the “connected” interns to the formal intern hiring process? So Vp says find something for Fergus and someone says hey Fergus nice to hear you’re interested in our work here is the link to our intern application.

        1. OP4*

          No, nobody redirects them to HR because that would mean contradicting an explicit order from not only our VP but also our division president—who has to report back to the CEO on whether or not Fergus has been hired. Nobody is willing to go against direct orders. I think the only way is to prevent the order from coming down from on high, which means speaking up to the CEO and calling him out. Gulp.

    9. Jennifer*

      Because they are all friends/relatives of executives at the company. Do you really not see an issue with that, considering that most top executives tend to be white and male? How many top executives at this company were also former interns who got their foot in the door this way? This is the problem with all of these companies that tend to preach diversity but don’t really put it into practice.

  32. GermanGirl*

    #2 I wouldn’t offer to carpool with any regularity, but Alisons language around offering to drive them if they need it occasionally is good.

    I was the employee in that situation – more specifically, about half of my team commuted by train from different cities and when we would have a late dinner or other late work event, making train commuting difficult, the train commuters would get a ride home with the car commuters. The closest one to me just happened to be my boss – no big deal. And once when the train drivers went on strike. All in all, this happened maybe 2-4 times a year.

    I’d also be ok with occasions like “my car blew a tire / is at the mechanic today and tomorrow, could you take me” type stuff – things that just happen and where a ride saves a lot of hassle.

    And I think if they offer the same to you, you could take them up on it, too, but try to use it less than or equal to how often they use it.

  33. Delta Delta*

    #1 – Everyone seems to have overlooked the fact that the boss’s “clean your desk” mandate shows up on a shared spreadsheet. While OP1 might legitimately have a messy desk (or organized chaos, or whatever level of mess), and while it may need to be organized, this is getting routinely focused on OP in a written document accessible to multiple people. OP says Boss isn’t a reasonable person, and it makes me wonder what other kinds of sniping may be happening on this spreadsheet (to OP and to others), and when OP finally cleans the desk, which flaw of hers will become the next spreadsheet target.

    1. LDN Layabout*

      I could be wrong, but my reading of it was a shared spreadsheet between the two of them, because there’s no one else in the department. The spreadsheet being a resource for just your manager and yourself is a very different vibe to ‘multiple people have access’.

      1. Delta Delta*

        Interesting. I read it as a multiple-user sheet. Definitely a different vibe if it’s just the two of them using it.

        1. LDN Layabout*

          I guess it depends on your view on those spreadsheets. We have demand management processes which are similar but no one outside of our department would need to have access to them…especially not the people asking for the work!

      2. I'm just here for the cats!*

        I missed that too. But still a spreadsheet where one of the project tasks is clean you office? That’s not the right way for the boss to do that.

        1. MCMonkeyBean*

          Yes, even if it’s just the two of them I don’t think that’s an appropriate way to talk about that. It shouldn’t be an “assignment.” If the boss has a concern about it then it should be a discussion.

    2. bamcheeks*

      It didn’t sound to me like the spreadsheet was accessible to multiple people beyond LW and her manager, but it does sound like a heck of a passive-aggressive way for a boss to operate. The appropriate way to raise “your desk is too messy and you need to devote some time to tidying it” is to say that in a meeting, not to sneak it into a list of tasks associated with “create the 2022 llama outreach schedule”.

      1. BigHairNoHeart*

        I got that vibe too. Even if this is the way the boss would normally delegate tasks, there are some things that should be a conversation, and I think this is one of them, just because asking someone to do something particular with their personal offices space feels, well…personal! No wonder op is bristling at it.

    3. BeckyinDuluth*

      My read was that the department is just those two right now. I think “shared spreadsheet” is between LW and the boss only.

    4. Kelly L.*

      I’m also wondering if maybe this isn’t specifically targeted at OP but is instead on everyone’s sheet, as a general thing the boss encourages everyone to keep up on when they have downtime. Depending on whether OP can see other people’s task lists, they may or may not know whether others are getting the same instruction.

    5. Anonymous Hippo*

      That’s the main thing I noticed. I thought it was a department sheet. Regardless of pushback on the actually organization of the desk, I think it is inappropriate to put that on a shared tasks file and I would say something about it.

  34. Roscoe*

    #4. So do you not want interns at all, or just not the ones who you think don’t deserve it? I feel like if you don’t want them at all, then fine. But if you are just sighing and not wanting the ones who are a niece/neighbor type person but are ok with the others, then that isn’t great either. I feel like bringing this up is a good way for your department to not get any or get less in the future. And if they are helpful, I’m not sure that is the way you want to go.

    I know sometimes interns can me more trouble for current employees than they are worth, but it sounds like you guys need the help, so I’d just want to be sure you aren’t losing out on extra hands by raising this concern.

    For me, its not something I think I’d bring up, but you do what feels right to you.

    1. MCMonkeyBean*

      My understanding is that they want both interns, but they want the company to extend its apparent interest in supporting diversity initiatives to this area as well. Which is a valid concern and a discussion worth having! …But I do agree that it seems a possible outcome may be that they just end up with one less intern in the future.

      1. Casper Lives*

        OR they can get two interns that went through the rigorous process. Sure, COO’s nephew can apply. If he doesn’t qualify, then he won’t make it.

        1. MCMonkeyBean*

          That would certainly be the ideal outcome! But since it sounds like their department is only actually budgeted for one intern and the nepotism hires are essentially a “bonus” for their team… I’m not sure how likely that outcome would be.

    2. American Job Venter*

      LW #4 mentioned in a comment above, “I should also note that this doesn’t happen every summer. We are only budgeted for one intern. So essentially a new intern position is created just for Fergus [the nepotism intern], because the CEO/VP asked.” So I see no reason except punishment for the LW why not giving them an extra nepotism intern should require depriving them of the hiring-process-hired intern they budget for.

  35. CaseRace*

    I used to carpool with a person I managed. Where we worked it was common for people to live over an hour drive at highway speeds from work and carpooling for most mixed levels and departments was accepted. There was also no public transit option. Only the big bosses and those who didn’t care for it avoided it on a regular basis but still did on occasion. There were definitely favoritism issues that came up occasionally BUT my great manager taught me how to address them and reflect to ensure that I wasn’t giving benefits to my carpool partner. AND more importantly company wide the complaints were addressed with the consistent message that we take unfair treatment seriously and if it’s clear that the relationship is unprofessional it would have to end (the carpooling). It helped that it was just such a part of the culture though and that managers knew to be aware of and actually address issues that may arise.

  36. Ann Onymous*

    I’m all for LW #1 talking to their boss about this. So far the boss has added “clean your desk” to a task list rather than just talking to the LW about why they want the desk kept differently while the LW has tried to avoid changing anything rather than just talking to their boss about why their current system works. It seems like this all could have been avoided by either person initiating an actual conversation. This is a really good example of why it pays to be direct about what you need from somebody. Don’t just drop hints and assume people will get it.

  37. Baron*

    I needed #5 today! I’ve been offered a job pending references, and they’ve asked to talk to two specific people who I know are going to be lukewarm if it’s a real reference check. Now I’ve been waiting for a week, and it’s driving me crazy: did I fail the reference check? Have they moved on to someone else? Or are they just taking their time? An earlier reference check would have saved me some stress.

    1. OP5*

      Tell me about it! Good luck, and hopefully things resolve soon! It took about 2 weeks for the references to come through for my partner. These things just take more time than anyone expects, it seems.

    2. The Rural Juror*

      Ugh, same! This question was very timely for me as well. I actually only had one reference to put down who wasn’t my current employer, but I sent a separate email to the HR personnel to explain that I didn’t keep in touch with my previous employer from 10 years ago. It was a pretty toxic place and I didn’t even want to keep in touch with anyone I worked with from there.

      They knew I was working for a tiny company currently, so they were very understanding that it would be difficult to provide a reference from there without tipping anyone off (before I was ready to give notice) that I was job searching. They were very understanding and made me feel like it wouldn’t be a big deal to only speak to the one reference, but it still makes me nervous.

      I got the formal offer on Friday, but I haven’t heard from the reference that they’ve been contacted yet.

  38. BeckyinDuluth*

    LW1, I am someone who generally has a clean desk, but as I get stressed by work and life it gets messier, until I make myself clean it up (file/toss papers, return tech to the storage/recycling, etc; not food garbage). I’m wondering if it’s possible your manager operates like this too, and/or thinks you might as well, and is trying to “help” you by assigning it?

    Either way, Alison’s script is great. This was just an angle that I wondered about that puts the boss in a more compassionate light than “is trying to control my organization style when it doesn’t impact them.”

  39. learnedthehardway*

    OP#5 – I’m going to disagree with Allison on this one. The company checking the references AFTER putting the offer in front of your husband is being fair to him – they’ve got “skin in the game” too, now. Start dates can be negotiated or altered, if necessary, and companies that do references after putting an offer out on paper usually account for this. What the company is doing – at least where I live – is putting themselves at a bit of risk in order to show your husband that they’re not just tire kicking.

    A lot of times when references are done ahead of offers (esp. if you’re actively job hunting), that means your references get contacted multiple times on multiple different positions, and within a short time. References get fatigued, and it is disrespectful of companies to take up the references’ time if they haven’t already made the decision to hire the candidate.

    Also, doing references before the offer often means that references are made to be part of the hiring decision – and that’s not necessarily the best way to do things. The company knows its own business, roles, and requirements best. Their hiring process ought to be strong enough to figure out whether the candidate is a good fit in all respects. References should be confirming this, not making a significant contribution to the decision, because references generally do NOT know the company, its needs, culture or requirements very well.

    eg. I once gave a glowing reference re a former colleague – who was a total misfit at the company to which he was hired. Neither he nor the company nor I realized that while my former colleague was amazing at his prior role, his way of working was incompatible with how the new company did things. That was a failure on all fronts, but my telling them that he was great only compounded their bad decision to hire him – they should have interviewed him enough to know that his methods and theirs wouldn’t work (nothing wrong with either approach, but his was just NOT what the company needed, and I didn’t know enough about either his approach or the companies needs to warn either one of them.)

    1. OP5*

      That’s all fine and good, but unfortunately, references ARE still a big part of hiring, and could make or break a job offer. I see what you’re saying in that it isn’t always helpful, but not many people believe that. As I mentioned in response to another comment above, I think the issue my partner had was that not only was the offer contingent on references, but they gave him a start date 3 weeks from the offer date (and it took more than a week to contact references.) It feels like employers are trying to have their cake and eat it, too… I feel like you should either do reference checks before the offer, or give a conditional offer with a start date 6 weeks out to ensure enough time for references to come through and allow for two weeks notice. Although companies now have “skin in the game”, as you said, the individual still needs to make sure the job offer is for real before giving their expected two weeks notice. I’m glad Alison answered my question since I’ll be better-armed the next time this happens and know how to navigate the situation!

      1. NJ*

        I have always preferred having a conditional offer before getting to the reference stage so that my references aren’t contacted if it turns out the offer isn’t strong enough that I’d consider accepting it. I’ve never had an issue telling companies I won’t be giving notice at my current job until they’ve cleared all checks on their end (reference, background, etc.) and adjusting tentative start dates as a result (I’ve probably had to change initially-proposed start dates 2-3 times in the past). I’ve found that if you keep an open and honest dialogue, it tends to go pretty well. It can also be a good litmus test for an organization — sometimes there may be valid reasons a start date needs to be on or before a particular date, but most of the time companies will have room to be flexible, especially when there is a hold up on their end. If the start date isn’t tied to anything important but the company still isn’t willing to be reasonable, it can worth considering that stance when evaluating the offer as a whole. (If they’re unreasonable now before you’ve even started, what will they be like as an employer?)

      2. Baron*

        learnedthehardway, I agree that your second-to-last paragraph is how I would like things to be. But in practice, references really *do* factor significantly into a lot of employers’ hiring decisions – i.e., I’ve been in OP5’s partner’s situation many times, and had several job offers rescinded over mediocre references. (I’ve worked for a couple of big names in my industry, and of course that’s always who employers want to talk to – both will happily confirm my employment and that I did well at those jobs, but both have misgivings about me taking on more senior-level roles.) It’s frustrating to be offered a job, to make plans to take the job, and then still be at peril of not getting the job.

    2. Colette*

      Of course the business should do its own evaluation – but references are part of that. Sometimes candidates lie; sometimes they can’t properly evaluate their own competence. We’ve all worked with someone who thought they were great at something they were poor at and people who claim credit for work they didn’t do; those people go on interviews, and the best way for employers to figure that out is through references.

    3. MCMonkeyBean*

      “doing references before the offer often means that references are made to be part of the hiring decision – and that’s not necessarily the best way to do things. ”

      …what? Then why even check references at all? Do them before the offer so they can be part of the actual hiring decision, or else if they’re *not* part of the hiring decision than don’t do them at all and just extend a non-conditional offer.

      1. OP5*

        Exactly! That is why I’m so confused by this process. If you’re checking references, is means they have bearing on hiring, so don’t extend an offer while you’re still going through the process?

    4. Starbuck*

      Interesting, I approach reference checks pretty differently.

      When we’re interviewing and hiring, often someone will stand out as the obvious top pick, but sometimes we’re lucky and have 2-3 candidates that all seem like they’re a great fit for the role. If we have a top pick, we’ll check their references and if everything sounds good then they get the offer and once they accept, we notify other candidates and of course don’t bother with their references.

      We definitely need to check references before making a hire because while someone may interview well, that doesn’t necessarily reflect the quality of their work since it’s such a different setting. We work with kids, so I definitely need to ask questions about how they do with that since you can’t observe it in an interview.

      If we’ve got 2-3 people to decide between, we do try to check all their references before making our decision. I’ve definitely gotten feedback (positive and negative) that’s helped me make a decision in the past. We’re typically hiring people that are coming in with experience in similar roles in our same industry, so I do expect people who have worked with them and supervised them to be able to evaluate their ability to do the same basic tasks that we need done.

      I’ve never seen the point in making someone an offer before checking their references, because it isn’t actionable information for them if our decision isn’t firm yet. If we’ve got a #1 pick, we’ll usually send them a note after the interview letting them know that they are our top pick at this point but we need to check references first and expect to update them either way by X date and request that they please let us know if their situation changes in the meantime (i.e. if they have another offer to consider with a deadline). That’s worked pretty well for us.

  40. Dino*

    LW 1: I am also a paper piler and one trick I’ve found for not procrastinating AND tiding up

    Grab an entire stack and fling it into the air.

    Then I HAVE to go through the pile and organize along the way. Sounds silly, but it is satisfying to watch them all fall and then be forced to deal with them.

    1. Archaeopteryx*

      That’s what helps me get things off the dining table / coffee tables – take it all off and put it on the floor. Then it all goes back to the best place for it, not just the easiest unused surface.

      1. Jackalope*

        Hah! I can see how some people could find that totally effective, but for me it would just mean having piles of stuff on the floor for weeks until I decide what to do with them. I do wish I were joking.

  41. Art3mis*

    #5 – My husband’s company recently rescinded an offer like this. The new hire was due to start on a Monday and the week before one of his references came back as basically “don’t hire this guy” but they let him start. Then pulled the offer Monday afternoon and basically fired him after a few hours. I thought it was a really crappy way to handle it. They have a lot of turn over on that team and it’s not a big company to start.

    1. OP5*

      Oh that’s awful! This is exactly what our concern was (not the explicit “Don’t hire him,” but you never know what a reference will say about you!)

      1. Art3mis*

        I get that. I felt bad for the guy and I wasn’t even involved. I don’t know if he’d been unemployed or quit a job for this one or what. But it’s a crappy way to handle it if you ask me. My husband is the IT guy so he’s setting up the laptop and shipping stuff out since it was a remote position. Luckily he wasn’t the one doing the hiring/firing.

  42. NervousHoolelya*

    LW#1 — You mention that Angela added the “clean your desk” task to your shared spreadsheet twice. Any chance that it’s just a quarterly or semesterly rotation reminder? When I maintained a department schedule, I had things like that on there as a reminder to me/us (“Straighten up student lounge”) that popped up on a regular schedule even when they weren’t actually needed.

  43. I'm just here for the cats!*

    Everyone is talking about the messy desk and how it may or may not need to be cleaned up. But can we talk about how passive aggressive this boss is being:

    “Angela determines which of us will work on specific projects and creates a shared spreadsheet with these tasks, noting the due date, who will be completing it, and any details. This is fine except that twice now, she has listed under my tasks: ‘clean and organize your office space.'”

    So the boss is not having a conversation with the OP about cleaning up their space, but is putting it in a shared document with other coworkers as part of a project of tasks. This is not right. She is calling out the OP and publicly shaming them for having a “messy” desk.

    OP I would go back to the boss and ask to have a conversation. I think you should take a good look at you space and make sure there’s nothing super bad about the space. But if it’s literally just you have piles of papers and maybe an overpacked bookcase I don’t see the problem. I bet if your boss walked into a professors office it would look the same way!

    1. Observer*

      The thing is that it’s not the boss who wrote in, but the OP. So, I agree that the boss is not being great in the way they are handling it. But the OP is being equally ridiculous. AND they have a very simple first step to take. If the boss were writing in, I’m sure Allison would say the same thing – Have a straightforward and clear conversation laying out your concerns and what you need to see. But since she’s not writing in, the OP needs to do that.

  44. Governmint Condition*

    For #2, where I work (government), our employer strongly encourages carpooling. Our bosses would not be happy if the reason a carpool ended was because of a power dynamic like the one Alison describes.

    We are in an area where the traffic has become exponentially worse as compared to pre-virus traffic, and they want us to do whatever it takes to help reduce congestion and set an example for the private sector. My boss does commute with one of her employees (not me), and I have yet to see a problem with it. (Though I do realize that government workplaces often have a different atmosphere about power dynamics.)

    1. Turtle*

      I would HATE to have to commute with my boss everyday. What a morale killer – especially if stuck in traffic a long time.

    2. Observer*

      Our bosses would not be happy if the reason a carpool ended was because of a power dynamic like the one Alison describes.

      In a government office? Seriously?! That honestly shocks me.

    3. Observer*

      My boss does commute with one of her employees (not me), and I have yet to see a problem with it.

      Which doesn’t mean that it’s not a problem. In fact, it is almost certainly a problem – and the fact that no one will ever acknowledge it makes it worse.

  45. learnedthehardway*

    LW1 – I am on the side of “clean your office”. I suspect that (if you’re in the office), your manager is concerned about security and confidentiality of all those documents on your desk. That was a big thing for companies I’ve worked for – doesn’t do much good to have a computer that locks out, if the document you’re reviewing is sitting on your desk.

    That said, if security isn’t an issue, you could get an “in box” and keep your papers in there, out of sight. It’s amazing how a couple of boxes makes things look so much neater (says as I look around my office and realize that there’s a difference between neat boxes of papers, and bankers boxes of odds and ends).

  46. Kathryn*

    Having a neat and organized workspace can have a positive impact your reputation at work! I naturally keep my desk and office space tidy just because that’s my preference. The side benefit from this is that other people in my company, even people who have never worked directly with me or have only worked with me a little (people from different departments or people several levels above me), have an impression of me that I have it together and that I do good work. They don’t really have any way of knowing whether that’s true, it’s just based on the presentation of my office space!

    I would encourage you to clean up your office space and see what benefits you can reap from it!

  47. Chilipepper attitude*

    I’m in the same position as OP#5 (I hope to write a good news update soon!).
    I wrote an email checking in with the hiring manager about me watching the calendar re the start date they asked for. It was nice to check in and they were able to let me know they would check with HR and would be flexible on the start date.

      1. Chilipepper attitude*

        Thanks! Just got the news the background check is done and I’m fully hired! I’m quitting in about an hour.

        1. OP5*

          CONGRATS! What an exciting day for both of us! (Getting my letter published here was truly exhilarating hahaha)

  48. banoffee pie*

    Lol I thought letter 1 would really divide people. It’s the never-ending war between neat people and messy people again. They’ll never understand each other. I think I’m neat because I’m not the worst in my family…then other people see my stuff and tell me I’m definitely on team messy ;)

  49. anonymous73*

    #1 – before talking to you boss, be honest with yourself. Has the disorganized mess in your office ever delayed you when completing a task because you weren’t able to find something? This happens to everyone sometimes, but if it’s a pattern, it’s a problem. As long as you can honestly say that the state of your office doesn’t cause issues with your work productivity (or affect anyone else that you work with/for), then a talk with your boss needs to happen. I used to work at a company where one of the C level employees had an office that looked like a bomb went off in it, but if you needed something from him he could find it in 10 seconds flat. So while it wasn’t the most attractive office, people let it go because his office wasn’t customer facing and it wasn’t affecting the work product.
    #3 – definitely send one last email of rejection. And I think you need to reframe your thinking of “ghosting”. If you were clear in your initial rejection, discontinuing contact wouldn’t be ghosting. It would be fair and reasonable.

  50. Messy Desk Writer*

    LW #1 here. Thanks for the feedback, everyone. I hadn’t thought about the fact that the cleaning crews might need a clear space for sanitizing. You’re also totally right that I need to be more mindful about my procrastination and how it might impact others. I realize that my wording may have made me sound belligerent or childish. I promise I’m a nice person who works hard and just struggles with organization :-)

    To clarify for some of the comments I’ve seen, I never leave confidential documents out. I very much respect the students and staff I work with and would never risk their personal information. The papers in question are more like fliers for upcoming events, old reports (of the not-at-all-confidential variety), and handouts from meetings. They’re all on either my desk or the top of my bookshelf. My office is oddly shaped and positioned behind our shared public-facing desk. It can only be seen if someone is standing directly in front of it, and I usually keep the door shut when I’m not inside. I can’t think of a time when my supervisor would need anything from inside my office as any documents we’d both need to access are available digitally.

    I admit that while I’m not trying to be passive-aggressive, it could certainly come across that way. I find my supervisor a bit difficult to approach and she doesn’t respond well to what she perceives as pushback. She has previously seen my explanation for why I performed a task a certain way or an honest question about why a particular system was used as excuses that bordered on insubordination. These depend on her mood, though. I’ll try to catch her on a day when she’s in a good mood and ask her about it. I know I need to work on being more upfront with people. I struggle with social anxiety and I try to avoid confrontational situations.

    1. Lady_Lessa*

      Are you sure that you aren’t working for my previous boss? I had some of the same problems with one who went through the hoops to get me terminated.

      I’ll be honest, I was just hanging in there until retirement. Found a better job, and am loving it. (In spite of all of the supply chain issues)

    2. LDN Layabout*

      It does sound more like your manager is being petty vs. it being an actual issue, however it also sounds like she’s not someone you want to get into it over desk tidiness.

      Can I recommend having a misc. stuff drawer? It worked for me for things like this and around once per month I went through it and 99% of the time went ‘wtaf am I keeping this for? Bin time’.

    3. Eldritch Office Worker*

      “I struggle with social anxiety and I try to avoid confrontational situations.”

      This is a great, low stakes issue to practice those skills with.

      1. Reba*

        Normally I totally agree on using small issues to practice assertiveness. But OTOH, the stakes here are low enough that it may not be worth the conflict that seems likely to follow. Signs are all pointing to the Boss not being reasonable about it. It sounds like *anyone* would struggle with interacting with this boss, since she reads “difference of opinion on process” as “insubordination”!

        In other words, the LW could decide that since pushing back on her Boss’s ideas is costly and difficult in general, and the discussion of her desk is going to be more expensive in terms of office capital than is proportional to the issue, she might choose to go along on this and save up her pushback capital for other problems.

        I do think it’s worth talking about the reasons the Boss wants this, for clarity, and you could maybe even ask that it not go into the group spreadsheets (because that’s weird and demeaning). BTW I am completely in the LW’s camp as far as desk management!

    4. I'm just here for the cats*

      If the problem is truly just the papers, i would try getting either a paper tray (the kind that stack up) so that you can stick papers in there. You would be surprised how much nicer it looks. Or possibly a nice looking document box. These could maybe go on the bookshelf and you could just plop the papers in there. Maybe even a collapsible storage box would work. You could probably find some nice fabric ones relatively cheep.

      I wonder if you jut put the papers away and keep it away for a while if that fixes the bosses problem.

      In the long term, you may want to look at creating a system that works for you to deal with the paper. I would recommend looking on Youtube for some inspiration. Keep in mind that you wont be able to recreate someone’s exact system because everyone is different. Find something that works for you.
      Check out the clutterbug gal. She has great tips and has a show on HGTV.

    5. Observer*

      I think that a conversation when the boss is in a good mood is a good idea. But also, I think that it’s pretty clear that the boss does have a legitimate issue. Yes, it’s your office and not a disaster zone, but what you describe isn’t really “organized chaos that makes me work better”. And what you described in your letter as “isn’t up to the standards of the Bodleian Library” is much more than that.

      I think it’s much harder to see that because your boss doesn’t sound like a good manager at all. So it’s hard to see past that to the potential real issues that my be going on.

    6. CraftyGirl*

      Given the type of paper, I wonder if you could just throw them all into a tray or folder and satisfy your boss by getting rid of the piles.

    7. The Rural Juror*

      I felt for you when I was reading your letter. I’m definitely a person who embraces organized chaos. I had a boss once who would walk past my office and stop to chide me about its messiness when she was in a bad mood. To me it didn’t seem messy, and I wasn’t customer-facing at all, but it irked her when she was already sour about something else. I would usually stop what I was doing and take a few minutes to make things look a little neater just to keep the peace. I worked there for about 4 years, but was constantly job-searching and left once I found something worth leaving for. Her moods and passive-aggressiveness weren’t worth it.

    8. Sea Anemone*

      Just toss the flyers, etc. in a drawer and call it a day. They are clearly non-crucial. If you haven’t emptied the drawer in six months, toss it all in recycling.

    9. CB212*

      I think the comments above show how clearly the “neatness is easy and important” and the “but I like to see my things!” people can never, ever understand each other. Unfortunately sometimes you just lose the battle because your manager is on the other team. I like to put tasks on [paper] sticky notes so I can cross items off as I go and clear the paper when all its subtasks are done, for me it’s super helpful. and I’ve had two managers who thought that sticky notes on a desk were on a par with, like, smearing jelly all over my face, just an abomination. They had to go, and it sucked, and imho it was a stupid complaint but while I worked for them I didn’t have a good tracker.

      If this were me, I’d ask for a bulletin board to put up all the event fliers, and a barrister’s box for the past reports, then keep meeting handouts at hand. Maybe in colored folders (which for me is also helpful but reads to the other team as a respectable system). But honestly it sounds like your clutter may be more about not caring to spend the time doing triage on all this stuff, rather than actually wanting to keep it at hand? Maybe what you actually want to ask for is a shredder. :)

    10. MissCoco*

      Especially with more details about your supervisor, I’m wondering if there’s an aspect to where she’s subconsciously seeing the mess as you “overstepping” your role because your space looks like a space that would typically be seen from someone with more seniority. At least in the circles of academia I’ve run in, there is a definite seniority aspect as far as who is considered a brilliant eccentric when they build a maze out of banker’s boxes in, and who is considered disorganized with an office that looks half as bad and has far less interaction in their office.

      All that to say, hopefully you can get a clear answer on what she wants changed, or find some changes that are relatively easy for you that make her happy!

      Learning more about these specific papers also makes me wonder if a bulletin board and/or a vertical accordion folder would be helpful for you. In my experienced, neat people don’t seem to mind vertical papers as much as horizontal ones.

  51. Thin Mints didn't make me thin*

    OP#4, if you do bring this up as a diversity issue, you might see if your city has YearUp or a similar program to promote the skills of young inner-city people. The program gives the young people some training in professionalism and office norms, as well as supporting their schooling, and then connects them with companies who need interns. The interns are paid a fair wage and get a chance to prove themselves in a corporate environment. We did this at a former employer and many of the young people went on to successful careers.

    Connecting with a program like this might make it easier for your employer to invest in proven interns, reduce the nepotism factor, AND invest in diversity.

  52. Salad Daisy*

    I once worked at a law firm where the attorneys used what is euphemistically called a “flat filing system”. There were piles of folders covering every surface in their offices, the floor, the desk, the chairs. Looked like a scene from that show Hoarders. But because they were the lawyers and we were just the support staff, we couldn’t say anything. We just had to pick our way around the piles and hope none of them toppled.

  53. HigherEdAdminista*

    When I first started my job, I felt like if I filed anything away, then I didn’t have access to it and I felt out of control. As a consequence, I had a desk space that was overflowing with papers.

    Rightly or wrongly, people do judge you for this. Even though it is organized for you, it gives people the impression that you aren’t on top of things. This is a hard impression to change, and it definitely made some people feel a certain way about me. Now, were they right for jumping to a conclusion and holding it against me? No, they weren’t. But there is a difference between what might be morally right and what people tend to do, and you can’t control the way someone thinks about this.

    It is my experience that if your boss keeps bringing this up, it could be something that is hurting your reputation with them even if it shouldn’t. I think having a talk about it and finding what compromise you can is helpful, but I also think that you have to find some balance here. You admit that some of the mess is from papers you have delayed in filing. Again, I can speak from experience when I say that the more you delay, the bigger that stack gets. People might randomly want something that is in it and then you or they will be scrambling to find it. Plus again, the perception might not be that filing is boring but that you can’t be bothered to do it.

    My advice is to figure out what kind of organization systems you need. Do you need an inbox or a bigger inbox? Do you need organizational dividers? Anything that can make your active projects for which you might need papers organized will help. Then, go through those inactive documents that need to be filed and separate them by type for filing. Clip them together with binder clips and take 30 minutes a day and file as much as you can. You will likely finish quicker than you expect. Then moving forward on your slowest day each week, take 30 minutes to do any filing you have for that week so the pile doesn’t build up again.

    It would be great if people could judge us based on our intentions or knowing our feelings about things, but they can’t, and it sounds like in this case people are drawing the wrong conclusion and it is hurting your reputation. This isn’t worth it. It is work, but you can learn to be more tidy and organized. I started off messy even at home, but now I have learned to let go of things and to organize, and honestly I am a lot more comfortable… even though I would have sworn to you when I was messy that I had a system and needed to be that way to function.

  54. Bluephone*

    LW1 this isn’t worth bad blood with your boss or maybe even hurting your career prospects down the road. Clean up your office.
    And maybe this is my own experience with friends and family talking, but I’d wager that your office isn’t nearly as clean/neat/organized as you’re claiming. Clean it up.

    1. Nanani*

      How about read the actual letter? Their desk is clean, its just not how the boss wants it.
      Boss neesd to stop micromanaging.

      1. Observer*

        Actually, that’s not what the letter says. Furthermore, the OP clarifies – and it turns out that the boss probably has a point, although she’s being pretty obnoxious about it.

  55. Pan Troglodytes*

    Alison’s answer to OP5 confused me.

    Every job offer I’ve had has been before reference checks, and they have always said ‘we’d like to make an offer, conditional on reference checks’. They literally have told me it’s a formality to make sure I’m telling the truth about my experience, character, and dates.

    They also have wanted to check my interest in accepting the job before contacting the references, and said ‘are you ok for us to move to referencing?’ The approach has been so standard I assumed this was the norm.

    It also seems completely sensible since if they checked my references whenever they want, and especially before I’ve accepted their conditional offer, they might alert my employer to my job hunt, and I definitely don’t want this- it would put me at a lot of risk. Especially if I’m not sure whether I’d accept an offer.

    I also think having long chats with ex-employers gives them far too much power over your future job prospects. It should be sufficient for a company to judge for themselves who you are and then check the basics of veracity with the reference. I don’t think they should chat at length about me and sway my future prospects for good or bad- that just seems a great way to entrench bias. There’s also a major conflict of interest in current employers giving references.

    Alison has also said future employers have the right to contact whoever they want about you- not just your listed references. Again, I don’t get this because they could contact someone of bad character who might use the knowledge of your job hunt against you. Surely you’re entitled to a degree of privacy and caution around something as sensitive as a job hunt, something that has huge life implications? Shouldn’t the hiring organisation be expected to take on a degree of risk by taking you at face value and just checking a few fundamentals with references?

    It’s possible I’m very sensitive to this since I work in a sector that has a lot of leaders who are very personally invested in their organisations and take resignation as a personal offence, but I still think the approach I’ve seen is fairer than the approach that I see described as ideal in AAM.

    I must be missing something about the right process, because in general Alison’s advice is in favour of employers not knowing that you’re job searching before you’re ready to tell them, and facilitating a fair balance of power.

    1. Reba*

      Usually in the ideal scenario, the new company does not ask for a reference from the current job, or at least not the current supervisor, so that the job search is not exposed until very late in the process. Of course, for people without many jobs in their history this is harder. It also sounds like you don’t agree with the in-depth references that Alison usually advocates, but rather more of just a basic check on the dates and titles after the decision making is done.

      And to be fair, Alison has castigated employers and reference-givers who blow the job seeker’s cover!

      A major issue with the conditional job offer is that some employers expect YOU to take risk — i.e. give notice and set a start date — while they are not taking a risk, as they can still take back the offer. There was recently a letter about this situation where the person was really left in the lurch. “My job offer was rescinded — after I already quit my old job”

      The older letter “we made a job offer contingent on references — and the reference was bad” also addresses the power dynamics in this scenario.

  56. CupcakeCounter*

    So my old employer had something like LW4 but it wasn’t just the executives friends/relatives/neighbor…it was any employee of the company. I once had a fantastic intern who was the daughter of one of the manufacturing line workers. She never would have qualified for one of the “merit” internships because of the school she attended (2-year vs 4-year) but she was by far one of the top 5 interns the company had ever had – bright, a great work ethic, punctual, and really interested in learning “office norms” since her family were all blue collar workers. I left the company before she graduated college but I know she was invited back the next year as well.

  57. Forrest Rhodes*

    #4 “perpetuates the privilege pipeline” — nice alliteration. I’m setting that phrase aside for future use.

  58. Mental Lentil*

    Regarding LW#1: This office isn’t really theirs. It belongs to their employer and their employer has the right to make reasonable requests about how it should be kept.

  59. Ugh Mondays*

    For LW3 – Would it be worth expending any additional professional capital to add a gently worded sentence to Allison’s script explaining that their management style is a deal breaker for you regardless of other accommodations they could make for you? This would not benefit you in any way but maybe (this is a great big ole maybe) it will get through to them in a small way that their management style has driven away at least one potential employee. If they receive similar feedback from someone else in the future it could start a small chain reaction of self reflection (this is wishful thinking, but I do believe people are capable of change if they are given the tools and necessary information). Again, you will not benefit from this, but you could consider it paying it forward.

    1. ecnaseener*

      I was thinking the same thing. The convenient excuse of not being ABLE to take the job seems to have muddied the waters, and the company needs to hear that LW doesn’t actually WANT the job.

      You do sort of need to fudge the timing to explain why the family issue even came up: “I appreciate you being willing to work around my personal delay, but in fact if this personal issue hadn’t come up I’ve realized I still would have decided the job wasn’t for me” or something along those lines

  60. lost academic*

    A lot of us are really focusing on the specifics about messiness, but it doesn’t seem that granular to me. Some of it is fairly clear – a manager asked for something that’s not off the wall and the LW is deliberately avoiding. That’s really a bigger problem and not probably just about the specific ask but sounds a bit more about the relationship. A conversation about the ask is probably going to be really useful. The other thought I have about the concept of messiness being polarizing is that there’s an issue of optics – without a lot of good communication and understanding it’s easy to read messiness as a lack of attention to detail and connect it with a weakness in actual work. The solution is generally all about more communication.

    1. Aspiring Chicken Lady*

      To me the issue is that a manager put a task on the list without defining it to the staff member, and the staff member has no context about what’s going on, and may be dealing with the “mom’s telling me to clean my room” auto-reflex.

      Manager should have provided context and definition. Staff should ask for it. How else will anyone know if the task is completed?

      1. lost academic*

        Well, exactly my point. Make it a conversation with back and forth – default to asking more questions. not a juvenile avoidance reaction. The management relationship needs dialogue.

        Like 90% of Alison’s advice, the answer always includes “talk to the person”!

  61. Rachael*

    I had a supervisor tell me that, at first, she hated that my desk was so messy with my “piles” but then she realized that I was the only one who, when asked where something was, knew exactly where is was on my desk. Because of this, she allowed me to keep my “system”. It still drove her crazy, but let me “do me”. LOL

  62. Office Pantomime*

    On #1, I take issue with a manager putting “clean office” on a work task list. If I were OP, that would be my issue. You can bet that I would be having a conversation about that with my manager, no matter how reasonable it is to expect a clean office. I’d want my manager to talk to me in person or at least privately about work habits, attitude, personnel issues. And yes, a tidy office is a reasonable and normal expectation. But as a manager, I’d want to ask my employee what prevents her from being organized. Is it just her being disorganized or is there an accommodation I need to consider, such as I might adjust for someone in other ways with OCD or other challenges. The OP did update to say disorganized, so yeah, tidy up. But that task doesn’t belong on a shared spreadsheet, wow.

  63. L. Ron Jeremy*

    My last job did an extensive background check after offering me my job that took over 3 months. I finally got the all clear and started my job on the last day of the year on December 30th.

    One month passes and I’m settling into my new job and then HR calls me to say they need to contact one of my references that they were not able to contact to complete the background check. WTF!

    I blew the off and worked there iver 4 years.

  64. Filosofickle*

    I struggled with it too. I appreciate the freshening up of the graphics but the line spacing was bigger and required SO MUCH scrolling. (Saw lots of complaints about text being too small but it was larger on my laptop, and way more line spacing.) At one point there was a series of one-line comments and I counted a mere 7 lines of actual comment text on an entire 15″ laptop screen!

  65. Just a name*

    LW1. My boss isn’t organized chaos, it’s complete chaos. He was told by the fire marshal that he had to clean but he keeps stacks of newspapers on his conference table, with a small cubby of clear space where he eats his lunch. Piles of condiments everywhere. Stacks of newspapers on the floor. Not work related. He has piles of papers on his desk that are not organized. He prints everything and piles it up. Today’s emails are dumped on top of yesterdays. Whenever he can’t find something that I emailed or handled, he comes to my office and asks me to resend so he can print it again. I’m very organized and can find just about anything he asks for but I can’t imagine working that way. I loaned him a reference book from my office and now it is missing somewhere in his. I followed him from a different office. When he left that one I was stuck cleaning out his old office. I had a admin staff person sort it into 3 piles and it still took weeks to decide what we needed to keep and could toss. Legal papers mixed in with newspapers and old notepads just tossed into piles under the desk. There was a dead mouse! Please don’t leave a mess for the next person.

    1. ugh*

      This sounds like a completely different situation to what LW1 describes her office as, and it is also a very extreme example.

  66. Ariadne Oliver*

    I totally sympathize because my desk usually looks like it’s been hit by a cyclone. I need a certain amount of chaos to work effectively (though even I have limits). Unless your boss needs to access your papers and it’s only a visual issue, I would shove everything into my filing cabinet at the end of the day. However, if she does have to look for things on your desk, I would maintain a basic orderliness. IMHO, this is not a hill to die on and lose goodwill with your supervisor.

  67. Katie*

    LW#2 – I agree with Alison’s recommendation to offer an occasional carpool, but not to make it a regular arrangement. A previous manager of mine used to carpool everyday with our VP and would half-jokingly tell the rest of the team about how he had a one-on-one everyday in their commute. This made it seem like he was getting special access to the VP (which he was) and caused some resentment. My boss was also not a good manager, but our team felt like our VP was never going to do anything about it and we couldn’t bring issues up with him because of this carpooling situation.

    Eventually people above our VP required him to fire my manager. Our VP had to make up an excuse about an off-site meeting one day so they wouldn’t carpool and then turn up at the office anyways to let him go. All this to say, while carpooling is definitely better for the environment, there are all sorts of workplace dynamics that make this a bad idea to do on any sort of regular basis.

  68. Anonymous in PDX*

    I was interviewing for a company once that would include relocation. They went as far as checking my background check. Knowing what’s in my background check, i was setting up my housing needs. THEN they yanked the opportunity away. I was young/dumb enough not to push back and ask why.

    1. Caboose*

      Ugh, that’s so miserable, especially when background checks can fail for really stupid reasons!

      I had one come back wrong because the application system didn’t let me enter my last name correctly. I’ve got a space in my legal last name (NOT a hyphen) and their system wouldn’t allow that, so I entered something like “EggBasket” instead of “Egg Basket”. But “Caboose EggBasket” doesn’t exist in any system, because it’s not my legal name and one of my last names is fairly unusual. They did at least email me to check my information, but I could’ve easily wound up in your same situation.

  69. Gotta Be Anon*

    LW5, my current job does this and every offer they make is contingent on a reference check. Granted it’s a formality but I really wish they wouldn’t do it. I don’t think anyone should be offered until all checks are done. I know that I wouldn’t give notice until all contingencies were cleared. I have spoken out about it but nothing’s been done.

  70. zebra*

    LW2, I agree with Alison and your first gut — if I were you I would avoid setting up any kind of regular carpool. But I think it would be fine to say something direct about it. Like “I really value my solo commute time to decompress from work, but we live so close together now that it might make sense for us to carpool together occasionally! I wouldn’t want to make it a regular thing so I can keep my normal routine, but if you ever have car trouble or something, feel free to give me a call and we can go in together.”

    (For context: pre-covid I used to carpool twice a week with a coworker, not a superior, for about a 45-60 minute drive. We are good friends and really like each other but even that was a LOT of togetherness time. There were some days where I really wished I could just drive myself and not have to talk to anyone without upsetting our routine. Better to keep this as an ad-hoc option you can use when you need it rather than set up any kind of expectation of spending that much time together!)

  71. Jennifer Juniper*

    OP1 can end this whole drama by simply apologizing, asking their supervisor what expectations for a clean office look like, clean the office, and keep it that way. Otherwise, this could be seen as insubordination for something trivial.

  72. Lobsterman*

    LW3: You can bother with Alison’s script, but I guarantee it won’t be heard. You’re gonna have to block the email addresses and phone numbers.

    I guarantee you, the people contacting you are so furious that you created a boundary that it is now a major priority for them to defeat it. You’re just going to have to make it physically impossible for them to reach you.

  73. Susana*

    LW1, the problem isn’t that Angela wants you to keep your office cleaner – it’s that she’s putting this on a SHARED spreadsheet, like she’s your mom, coming to yell at you to clean up your room while you’re out with your friends. She’s the boss and if she likes the offices tidier for whatever reason, you’ll probably just have to do it. But she should have taken you aside and told you so, not shamed you in front of the office. Jeez.

  74. Piles of Paper*

    To LW, the office is hers alone. Supervisor’s mindset is that LW organize it.

    LW says: “… but my office is exactly that — mine.” Well, technically it’s not. It’s school property. LW also states she’s relatively new and the department was streamlined to just LW and Angela. As an employee of about a year, is this the attitude you want to take with a mildly annoying boss in a job with an amazing employer?

    Suppose Angela laid off multiple employees in that streamline, some of which left piles of paper and unorganized space(s). And there was the stress of the pandemic, deciding who gets laid off, working alone for ½ the year, etc. She might be hyper-aware of the massive undertaking of sifting through employee unorganized spaces and cleaning up when they leave, and by herself as the only person left. Perhaps she doesn’t want to deal with that again. Managers left behind when employees leave, for whatever reason, must deal with those piles and disorganization.

    Bite the bullet and talk – or comply. Talk to her about where this is coming from and if there is a concern, what she expects, see about a compromise. Or, let it go and clean it up. Decide soon. Ignoring it won’t make it go away. As a manager, I’d consider it insubordination if not addressed at all. I wouldn’t fire LW for this alone, but it would go into a pile – so to speak.

    1. ugh*

      Suppose Angela laid off multiple employees in that streamline, some of which left piles of paper and unorganized space(s). And there was the stress of the pandemic, deciding who gets laid off, working alone for ½ the year, etc. She might be hyper-aware of the massive undertaking of sifting through employee unorganized spaces and cleaning up when they leave, and by herself as the only person left. Perhaps she doesn’t want to deal with that again. Managers left behind when employees leave, for whatever reason, must deal with those piles and disorganization.

      I mean no disrespect, but that is all part of the manager’s job. Unless you treat an employee badly, they will clean up themselves before they go. And even if they don’t, it is still not enough of a reason to play parent with your team members who are not identical copies of their “tidy” manager.

  75. ugh*

    People like LW1’s manager drive me bonkers. Who CARES about the tidiness level of someone else’s desk that you never see and are not impacted by? Unless it is a literal health and/or safety hazard, and/or things that other people need to use are not easily able to be found (eg: a document or book that is not available elsewhere, such as on a server), it is literally no one else’s business.

    One of my most toxic ex-managers “tidied” my desk and office (which no one else ever needed or used) when I was off sick once. She threw out all my to-do lists and numerous important books and documents that were not available on the server (mostly due to a server failure). Of course, this was a total disaster and, naturally, it was apparently all my fault.

    For goodness sake, people. If the person with the “messy” desk gets their job done, and that “mess” doesn’t impact your desk, it is not your concern. Leave them alone. Argh.

  76. Sylvan*

    OP 1: If you decide to clean your office more, here’s two tips from a clean-desk-haver who’s naturally messy. Clean when you have not-quite-free time, like when you’re waiting for something to load or when you get back from lunch a few minutes early. And pick one weekday to clean for 10 minutes after your work is complete.

  77. BR*

    I wouldn’t want to carpool w a friend, let alone a co-worker. Adding superior/ subordinate to the mix would be even worse.
    If the subordinate felt obligated to ride w you because of positions, that’s just going to make it weird. Don’t make it weird.

  78. HR Here*

    OP 5 – I used to work for a company that did this. They also asked me to fill out an application with references and pay history after I accepted the position (yes, this is insane). I was actually replacing the former HR person, so I stopped the practice and checked references before making offers. My predecessor was also in the habit of requiring official transcripts and PAY STUBS from current employers! Although a lot of processes made me cringe and quickly change them, she was roped into HR duties and was just doing her best. She took much of her lead from the CEO, and he had a deep lack of trust in employees along with a host of other toxic issues. I didn’t stay very long!

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