updates: the loud neighbor, the pyramid scheme, and more

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

1. My neighbor plays loud porn while I’m on work calls

I didn’t have a good way of communicating with the other building (i.e. no building management). After a few more occasions of hearing porn, I snapped and wrote a note that I posted through the front door of that building, which basically said I lived next door and could hear adult entertainment playing very audibly, and I realised they might not be aware but could whoever it was please turn it down or use headphones in future? I didn’t get a response, but a couple of days later it was back very loudly, so either they didn’t see the note or didn’t care. That was frustrating, but fortunately it has not happened very much since then, and never when I’ve been on a work call. If it had happened, I would definitely have tried to stay muted or if impossible apologised for generic background noise.

Also, having lived here for 7 years, my partner and I have just bought a house together in a different part of the city, so soon we’ll have moved and this neighbour won’t be a problem anymore! Here’s hoping our new neighbours are a bit more considerate…

2. I’m working for a pyramid scheme

I wanted to write in and give you a one-year update on this letter.

I decided to give my notice almost as soon as I sent you my initial question – I realized if I had to ask, I probably already knew the answer. But before I could give my notice, I tested positive for COVID (due entirely to the “sales” job’s lax safety policies). I spent my last two weeks of the job stuck in my apartment, the sickest I’ve ever been, but it was better than spending any more time scamming people.

I was picked up by a local temp agency after a few weeks of job hunting, and spent most of 2021 in various short-term office contracts. I knew I wanted to find something more permanent, so when I was between contracts in August I started really pouring myself into the job search, and I just started in an admin/support role with a major financial services company! I have a salary! I have benefits! I have so much support in this role, and the training and processes are systematic enough that I actually enjoy the “mandated fun” morale-building events – I feel like they have a point and are coming from somewhere genuine, rather than being part of a carrot/stick setup. There are a lot of options for potential growth in this role, and none of it relies on me finding five people who can find five people, etc. etc.

Thanks to you and the comments section for confirming that I wasn’t exaggerating how bad my situation was last year. I feel a million times better about my new role than I ever thought I’d feel.

3. How can I navigate office politics when I hate hierarchy and authority?

I’m the OP who had the question a few years back about hating hierarchy and authority and worrying about how that would play out in a more white collar profession. I was worried about my feelings being an impediment in such an environment. Well, it looks like my worries were unfounded, because I just found out yesterday that I got a HUGE promotion!

I excelled at that former position for two and a half years, setting records and growing the sales territory larger than it had ever been before. In fact, in the 2.5 years I was working the route, I never missed quota. I quickly became known as the top performer on the team and developed AWESOME relationships with not just my buyers but also all of my colleagues – I really like the culture where we work and everyone is supportive and kind. I developed a great reputation with suppliers, colleagues and managers which ended up really working in my favor.

A few weeks back, my former VP announced she was leaving to work elsewhere in the industry, and that led to a total restructuring of our department. Essentially, we merged with the California team, becoming one large west coast division, and a new position was created a level up from my previous role. The new leadership is FANTASTIC and for the first time I felt like everything was right: the right timing, the right role, and the right people to work under. I also felt confident that I would be successful given my track record and the management style of the new VPs. So I threw my hat in the ring.

As soon as they heard I was interested, they tapped me immediately and fast tracked me through the interview process. It only took about a week, and finally yesterday afternoon my new boss called to offer me the job, with a 33% increase in salary, a large bonus, and incentives/commissions available as well!

I am so happy! It really is just about finding the right fit. I giggle now remembering the “rawr hierarchy,” as I myself move up in it. But with the right people who view management as merely a tool to get things done (as you say), it’s really not a problem. I’m very glad to be growing with them.

4. I just started a new job — and then got a PhD offer from my dream school

I wrote in February 2020 and as you can imagine, my whole situation changed radically about three weeks after I sent in my email!

We lived in a state with a very strict and long shelter-in-place, so:

No meeting contractors; no campus visit; no vacation.

Given how uncertain everything looked in March, April, and May of 2020, I wasn’t even sure if my PhD was going to exist come fall. In June, I took the advice of some commenters and talked to my boss about two months ahead of the start of my PhD program. For reasons still unclear to me, the PhD program required that I live near campus, even if I was attending class remotely. My workplace stayed 100% remote, so I was able to keep my job with somewhat reduced hours. I *barely* maintained the workload for both, and was only able to do so because work responsibilities were very light due to the pandemic.

As things have started to normalize, the demands and workload for both work and school increased to unsustainable levels. Additionally, work is returning in a hybrid mode in the spring and I won’t be back in the area for at least 3 1/2 years, so I’ve had to (with deep regret) give up the job. In spite of the world briefly falling apart, I feel like I got the best situation I could have and was so grateful to be able to do both as long as I did.

{ 52 comments… read them below }

  1. Egmont Apostrophe*

    “I’m the OP who had the question a few years back about hating hierarchy and authority and worrying about how that would play out in a more white collar profession. I was worried about my feelings being an impediment in such an environment. Well, it looks like my worries were unfounded, because I just found out yesterday that I got a HUGE promotion!”

    So I guess you’re good at office politics and ascended in the hierarchy as a result.

    1. LinuxSystemsGuy*

      I mean, in their defense they make the same joke in the update, so they aren’t unaware of the irony

      1. Twenty Points for the Copier*

        Also, reading the original letter, it seemed like the LW’s previous place of work was pretty dysfunctional with a lot of high level stakeholders who could not be corrected or challenged even when they weren’t the subject matter experts. Hard for most people to function in that sort of environment without a lot of frustration and resentment!

        1. GreyjoyGardens*

          I think this is a really good point. I wonder if the LW didn’t hate “hierarchy” so much as “underlings must be seen and not heard.” There is the type of hierarchy that helps things run more smoothly, and is considerate of all levels of people (good) and then there is medieval style hierarchy with lords and serfs (bad). LW sounds like they found out that all hierarchy isn’t the medieval kind.

    2. Aquawoman*

      I think when people think of office politics, they think it’s like Game of Thrones. And some places are! But in decent places, not being an asshole is at least halfway there.

      1. Be kind, rewind*

        Yeah, it sounds like OP’s place actually rewards people for doing good work… which is how it’s supposed to be!

      2. GreyjoyGardens*

        And to be absolutely fair, most people who are not Lannisters would find a Game of Thrones hierarchy hard to deal with.

        I think that when a lot of people say “grrr I hate hierarchy! – they mean “grrr, I hate shark tank type politics where you always have to watch your back and know whose rear end to osculate and who is the office pariah who will give you cooties if you are nice to them.” Nobody who is a reasonable human being is going to function well in a place like that. I don’t especially hate “hierarchy” per se but I would hate, hate, hate that. I do very badly in a shark tank.

        1. Sasha*

          There’s also the “I don’t like being held accountable for poor work” anti-hierarchy (the “how dare my boss challenge me about anything, I should be able to do exactly what I want with no consequences” attitude).

          I was concerned in the original letter that OP might be one of those. Great to find out they are not like that at all!

          1. Gray Lady*

            I was once hired at a small company for a short term job helping them adapt to the new order fulfillment system, after I had been employed by the company that developed and installed the system. The amount of resentment I incurred from some of the people who resented “being told how to do their jobs” or “checking upon their work” was surreal.

    3. Julia*

      Yeah, this is what I came here to say. It’s pretty uncomfortable to see a person buy into the concept of hierarchy as soon as it starts to benefit them.

      In general I think this blog is too comfortable with the idea of workplace hierarchy. It may be a tool for getting stuff done, but it’s also the reason that your only option if your boss is bad is to change jobs. That’s not particularly efficient; it’d be better if you could just get your boss to change his behavior through group pressure, but workplace hierarchy often makes that impossible. Like, yes, hierarchy empowers people to get stuff done, but at the expense of totally disempowering a larger group of people.

      1. Artemesia*

        If you have ever seen ‘holacracy’ or ‘wholacracy’ in action as a management tool you would learn to love hierarchy. Yeah if the people at the top are personality defects or incompetent, it is a nightmare, but I have literally seen two businesses close up that failed because of failure to manage and the embracing of holocracy. One depended on recruiting clients in a very hot market and had no one in charge of recruiting clients because ‘it is everyone’s job’ and thus there were competing incompetent efforts and they failed through lack of clients.

        Give me a place where there is someone in charge over that any day. At this very moment I am watching another company losing its top people who are frustrated at the drift allowed by weak management.

        1. Retired Prof*

          I have always liked having a boss, rare as that is for an academic who are usually notoriously hard to manage. Tell me clearly what you expect me to do, give me the tools to do it, and get out of my way, and I will exceed your expectations. (I understand that implies a competent boss). But my frustration was always with the parts of academia that function as a “holacracy”. Most committee work, where everyone thinks they have the answer and no one wants to let anyone else actually be in charge, is nightmarish. This is one reason why higher education is so slow to change or improve – when everyone is in charge, no one is in charge.

          I really think the issue is not hierarchy itself, but dysfunctional organizations. If key people in the organization do not understand how to create a workplace that lets people do their best work, it doesn’t matter how flat the org chart is. If there’s no mechanism in place to help change the behavior of an incompetent boss, the issue is not the hierarchy, it’s poor organizational management.

          1. Julia*

            I’m with you guys on holocracies being a lot less efficient than hierarchies. But I can’t help feeling there must be a middle ground where decisions are centralized in a boss but it’s also not unbearably gauche to tell that boss his ideas suck, and you don’t have to defer to him nauseatingly the way you do in our current office culture.

            Also, when you say “the problem isn’t hierarchy but bad bosses”, it sounds a lot like “the problem isn’t dictatorship but corrupt dictators”. Power corrupts. The existence of a dictatorship will draw corrupt leaders to it. Rather than just hoping that organizations are set up well enough to oust bad bosses (which seems pretty rare), we should be able to institute some structural protections in the workplace akin to tools of democracy.

      2. Que Syrah Syrah*

        Hi! I’m OP.

        FWIW, I don’t really feel like I “bought into it,” so much as before I misunderstood it. Because, as posters above are surmising, the examples I’d been shown prior to this place were really, really, REALLY bad. So it skewed my idea of what “normal hierarchy” is. Now that decent people who don’t throw their weight around/aren’t struggling with insecurity and ego are at the helm, it’s a totally different experience.

        So in that respect, I didn’t buy in to the toxic model that I’d always eschewed, it’s more than I was shown a much healthier model and therefore have a more well rounded understanding of what hierarchy is. I don’t disagree with you that as a concept it can still be problematic (your example about not having a lot of options if your boss sucks is spot on) but if your boss/leadership DOESN’T suck, it can be surprisingly…unproblematic.

        As a side note, one of the reasons I was excited about this position is because it was a huge bump in pay and title but I don’t have any direct reports. I’ve never had any interest in being a manager, so this opportunity was a rare gem (since so many promotions come with managerial responsibility). That also allows me to kind of sidestep a lot of interpersonal stuff that managers probably need to deal with more directly.

  2. spreckles*

    #1… HUUURRRGGHHHHHH my stomach heaves for your situation and is SO GLAD you escaped. Congrats on the house!

  3. Dust Bunny*

    Everyone I know who “hates authority” or “hates hierarchy” never seems to notice that even in settings where there technically is neither, there still is. I mean, there was always the cooler and more influential kid on the playground, the person who was closer to the center of the friend group, the friends for whom you’d drive an hour in the middle of the night versus the friend for whom you wouldn’t.

    1. JSPA*

      Also, for organizations on the other end of the spectrum, it’s worth reading one or another version of the Tyranny of Structurelessness, with its unpacking of Formal and Informal Structures.

    2. Lunch Ghost*

      The coach of my sister’s high school sports team decided they would no longer have team captains because “that way there will be less drama”. To my sister’s unsurprise, with no captains there was just as much drama, but no one to tell the coach about it.

    3. kittymommy*

      Yep. I work in government/politics now (directly for politicians) but there was just as much “office politics” and hierarchy when I worked for Winn-Dixie as there is here. Sometimes there’s less here. My bosses are always willing to help me in more of the “menial tasks” of my job than my supervisor when I was a cashier.

      1. Artemesia*

        50 plus years ago I sat with members of my first husband’s law firm watching TV as one of their clients was raided by the feds — with FBI crashing in the front door and clients running out the back with boxes all over the local news. Some in the law firm had not wanted to take these clients and were now enraged to be on the news and others were excited by the drama. I was just literally thinking about how much the office politics involved were like what was going on at my High School where I was teaching and we were embroiled in a lot of in fighting and conflict, when one of the partners turned to me and said ‘I’ll bet nothing this exciting ever happens to a schoolteacher, does it.’

        Yeah office politics is pretty much the same in every organization and every organization has as its primary mission self preservation.

    4. Meep*

      I mean, I hate office politics and will often refuse to play nice with others to appease them when their requests are downright stupid. But typically, it comes down to I refuse to let “authority” unfairly treat subordinates like garbage and will call them to the mat on that. I, however, acknowledge that I am refusing to play a very twisted, harmful game and accept the consequences (that I may be fired) over it.

      However, typically people who hate authority typically just dislike their authority being questioned or being told what to do and they are usually the ones who take in the relationship (e.g. the “cool kid” or the person who insists you drive an hour in the middle of the night but will not do the same for you).

    5. Tali*

      Yes, if you are used to observing primate behavior you can see many of the same gestures and behaviors in humans. When two people are bickering, who backs off first, who comes over to separate them, who goes to whom afterwards for reconciliation and reassurance. There is almost always some sort of “hierarchy” or level of influence or power.

    6. Overeducated*

      I think it’s just more complicated than that. The “person closer to the center” may be at the top of an informal hierarchy, but they’re not limiting other people in the friend group from talking to each other, for example. They can also lose their position by acting badly, because it’s a fairly democratic and decentralized sort of hierarchy. In contrast, if you’ve ever worked somewhere where the term “chain of command” is used, that’s a pretty formal hierarchy and you may even be restricted in how you’re allowed to interact with peers in a different chain, which makes collaboration and communication really hard. There are also hierarchies where there’s no accountability; I think PhD programs are one of the worst, because PhD student success is basically in the hands of an individual advisor, so even if there are formal mechanisms in place to punish (for example) sexual harrassment at the university level, there may be no other advisor with a similar research topic for the student to switch to, and they may feel they truly have no recourse if they want to stay in the program and graduate. So sure, there are hierarchies everywhere, but I think informal ones are an entirely different beast than formalized structural ones.

  4. Stay-at-Homesteader*

    Kind of a deviation, but does anyone know is Cydcor is responsible for the salespeople who come around and try to get you to show them your gas bill so they can switch your service? Because I’ve been wondering for years how they get away with that, and it seems like it’d fit.

    1. Squidhead*

      Here in upstate NY *many* companies use that tactic. Some used to be really aggressive! We have a no soliciting sign on our door, which helps, as does me answering the door in pj’s, pointing to the sign, and telling them I work nights. Also, we actually signed up with one- which did in fact save us money as promised, so now we can say, “oh, sorry, we already have an ESCO.” The one we signed up with was willing to give us everything in writing, which the door-to-door creeps won’t do.

    2. DrunkAtAWedding*

      That definitely sounds like them.

      I ‘worked’ for them for 2-3 weeks back when I was about 19. At the time, they were doing a phone package, I think. We were told to open with the question ‘Did you get the refunds on your phone bill?’ or something like. They never told us this, but I figured out it was to make the customer feel like this was something they should already know about, to do with their normal phone company. They’d said no, and our script told us to get into their house, tell them we had to check something on their phone, and then call through to the office (no idea who those people were, they might have legitimately worked for the phone company) so they could get started signing them up for the new deal.

      When I was ‘training’ I saw my trainer say the customer should definitely ask us about what the phone package included and not trust the person on the phone, because we were the experts on the product. That was an outright lie, we were never told anything about what we were selling apart from what was in our script.

      In the 14 (!) years since then, I’ve often wondered about the HR lady. She seemed like the one person to be in a semi-legitimate role at the company. Even the ‘owner’ didn’t have a real job, because they sign their bank accounts over to the parent company, but the HR person must have been getting a regular pay check for calling people in for interviews (there were always interviews, turnover was very rapid). It’s quite interesting to actually hear from one of them.

  5. JSPA*

    OP#2, you are a seriously good person. Not wanting to work for a pyramid scheme puts you on the path; finding 2 weeks of Covid preferable to one more day there–that’s above and beyond, and I salute you (and hope you’re doing well now, health-wise, as well as job-wise).

  6. Phony Genius*

    From #2: “I actually enjoy the “mandated fun” morale-building events”
    I would normally cringe hearing that, but compared to where the OP was coming from, I can understand it.

    1. Not Tom, Just Petty*

      I think, too, that these morale events, team building events may fall into “edutainment training,” and OP’s company does it well. Makes hella difference.

      1. Artemesia*

        These exercises have a place — especially at the start of training — and especially if they are related to the work to be done. I used to do an exercise when I was teaching people how to evaluate their training where teams developed criteria for evaluating an orange and then each got a paper sack with an orange in it and had to apply their criteria. Some got a standard naval orange, others a tangerine, a chocolate apple, an orange marker, a blood orange (most had not seen one before back then), an apple. And often a team would contort the criteria so that an apple would be an ‘excellent orange.’ All the basic concepts and skills to be covered in developing an evaluation program are introduced in this exercise and are surfaced easily in unpacking the experience and it was both fun and set up the course of training really well. An experience of criteria that don’t fit the goals of a program or of distorting data to ‘win’ or prove success is more powerful than just saying it.

        It is possible to design activities to help people get to know each other or work together or whatever that also relate to the task at hand AND do not eat up a lot of time. I think the 12 days of Christmas snowfakes and videos are the classic example of what not to do — because the activity had nothing to do with the work and sucked up endless time.

  7. FG*

    Whenever someone claims that an org “doesn’t have politics” I just roll my eyes. If you think that then you don’t understand humans. Maybe you’re in a place of privilege where it’s invisible to you, maybe when you see it it’s because something rubs you the wrong way. But when 2 or more people are in a group, there is politics. Doesn’t matter if it’s blue collar or white or academia or government or nonprofit or PTA or knitting circle, there are politics. You may find them seamless & easy to navigate, or not, and some are certainly easier to deal with than others, depending on your position & role & temperament. But they are always there.

    1. PT*

      Some places the politics are more unreasonable than others, though, so it’s much easier to step on a landmine when you were doing nothing. I think that’s what a lot of people are reacting to when they say “no politics.” We’ve all worked in that environment where saying, “Could I close the window, it’s raining on my desk?” starts a three week long war that sabotages your credibility within the workgroup for the next year and requires you to start job searching because the company is bananacrackers.

    2. Texas*

      (Haha, as someone who was on the eboard for a knitting club in college, my goodness are there politics/drama!)

      1. knitcrazybooknut*

        Acrylic versus natural fibers? Wooden versus metal needles? Superwash versus non? Knitting versus crochet???

        And that’s not even touching the controversies about racism and classism in the knitting world.

    3. Anon for this*

      It reminds me of how most of the rest of my second grade class when I was a child thought the teacher played favorites. For some reason, that would never have occurred to me.

    4. DrunkAtAWedding*

      I was in a sci-fi group which regularly schismed and budded off into new groups when people fell out. All of the geek social fallacies were exacerbating that situation (I’ll put a link in a reply to this comment, in case people are unfamiliar). The biggest one was GS5, “Friends Do Everything Together.” That meant, if you fell out with someone, not only had they breached GS2, “Friends Accept Me As I Am”, but the only possible recourse was to set up your own separate group with everyone who was on your side. There were always sides.

  8. FullyLicensedLlamaGroomer*

    When being sick with Covid is better than work, you know that you are miserable at your job. Happy you got out, #2!

  9. Not Tom, Just Petty*

    OP 3: you remind me of how my brother explained something once. There was a major shake up in an office and everyone was out. “think of leadership like a guy egg salad at a picnic. He ate egg salad; he got sick. Never eating egg salad again. Is it the eggs? The mayo? Something else? Don’t care. All egg salad is bad.
    Glad you tried egg salad again.

  10. Nora*

    >1 Oh my god, you could hear their porn from ANOTHER BUILDING?? Yikes!! I’m glad you’re getting out of there

    1. OP1*

      Yeah, although it’s terraced houses converted into flats so we do share a wall with the other building – not QUITE as dramatic as it sounds! (Might be called townhouses in the US?)

  11. GreyjoyGardens*

    In my experience, when people say they “hate hierarchy” or “hate office politics” it means one of two things:

    1) This person thinks they’re James Dean and needs to grow up a bit. Or they’re oppositional by nature.

    2) A far more common situation – hating *dysfunctional* and/or abusive office environments. The shark tanks, where you’re always on edge, any request can give offense and cause huge drama, people get put on PIPs for coming in five minutes late one time in midwinter, and people low in the echelon (support staff, interns, “newbies” in general) are absolutely to be seen and not heard, and obey any unreasonable order from on high.

    Nobody wants to work in an abusive, backstabby, drama-laden environment. Politics and hierarchy are inevitable, but abusive workplaces are not.

  12. The_artist_formerly_known_as_Anon-2*

    #4 – surprised no one has addressed your comment, as it involved decisions that you alone had to make.

    It appears, from your letter, that you decided to go for that Ph.D., and that’s a good thing for you in the long run. If you have any career that lasts years / decades, you may have to face other decisions. In my 48-year career I had to make painful ones myself –

    – leaving a job that I enjoyed, but there was no future in it financially – I was going to quit and go to grad school but I was given a promotion/change of duties. Did I make the right decision? I don’t know, but 45 years later I still have my doubts. My IS/IT career was good, and financially rewarding, but I do occasionally think back “what if”.
    You’re not going to face that.

    – other times – leaving a job that I *loved* but I realized that within a year I was going to be unemployed,and so I had to move on, because I had a family to support. Another time the paycheck was too small. No regrets but I didn’t like leaving . On the other hand, my family liked eating, having a roof over their heads, a college fund, etc. etc. so I made the correct choices.

    – my last long-term gig (23 years) I had to leave, for reasons of health (mentally, emotionally) – disrespect, and I was financially sound. My wife convinced me it was time to go.

    I wish you luck and it appears – you made the correct decisions, but most of all, you didn’t make them in a vacuum.

  13. Jacey*

    Congrats to all of the OPs on greatly improved situations!

    OP 4, as a fellow pandemic grad student, I’m sending lots of good vibes your way. I hope the PhD takes you in the right direction :)

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