the tyrant and the coffeemaker, a clothes-obsessed coworker, and more

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

1. A tyrant and a coffeemaker

This situation happened years ago, when I was much newer to an office environment, and I wonder how it could have been handled better. Within a week of starting a new job, my manager told me not to drink the coffee from the office coffeemaker. One coworker was particularly territorial about the coffeemaker, and would not let anyone else clean it but would clean it themselves fully every day. My manager told me that whatever she cleaned with (a white powder substance kept in an unlabeled jar that others believed was dishwasher detergent) made people feel sick after drinking the coffee.

At the time, I was one of the few regular coffee drinkers in the office, so I opted to frequent the cafe literally next door. Eventually, my direct manager purchased a small coffeemaker that made one cup of coffee at a time for my use (and I was responsible for cleaning it). No one ever drank the other coffee, so it often sat out until being tossed at the end of the day. I don’t believe anyone ever addressed the situation directly, as this coworker also rummaged through the trash bins at everyone’s desks (I was told never to throw out or keep anything I’d like confidential at the office).

Being the newest hire and the coffeemaker having been the most veteran employee at the company, I didn’t feel it was my place to say anything. But is there a way someone could have done something?

Why on earth didn’t your manager put a stop to it? She should have told your coworker to stop cleaning the coffeemaker, effective immediately, because whatever she was using was making people sick (and she should have told her to cut out the trash-rummaging at the same time). Addressed, over, done. Or if that wasn’t the end of it — if the coworker refused or threw a fit or whatever else, your manager should have addressed that as well because you can’t have people running amok on your team and throwing tantrums when they’re told to stop poisoning others.

It’s bizarre that instead everyone just tiptoed quietly around your coworker and her jar of white powder! And really, if your manager wasn’t going to do it, there’s no reason another coworker couldn’t have. I get why you didn’t want to since you were new, but surely someone else there could have spoken up!

I’m guessing that this coworker was Difficult To Deal With and that’s why no one did, but your manager had a professional obligation to intervene.

2. I manage a manager who’s uncomfortable discussing staff performance

I manage a team of 7-10 staff. I have a wonderful new staff member (let’s call her Sally) who is leading a project for the first time, which includes supervising the work of one of our other staff members (Jane). Jane has a strong work ethic but — like all of us — has room for growth.

Here’s the challenge I’m grappling with: Sally doesn’t have prior supervisory experience and understandably has a lot to learn about how to provide specific, concrete, constructive feedback to Jane. Sally understands that this is an important learning area. However, she expresses discomfort anytime I bring up the topic of “let’s talk about some strategies you can use to provide Jane with the feedback she needs.” Sally has told me it makes her very uncomfortable to “talk about colleagues.” I’m always careful to use respectful language when discussing Jane’s growth and development, and it’s critical to the project’s success that Sally learns how to provide Jane with direct feedback.

Sally and I have discussed why it’s so important. She is self-aware about this limitation and truly seems to want to work through it. The crux of the issue seems to be that she finds conversations with me about Jane to be so uncomfortable that she is unable to engage in them. How do I approach this?

The bottom line is that Sally can’t manage someone if she’s too uncomfortable to talk with you about that person’s work. You can try explaining that these are normal discussions to have and a routine part of managing another person, in case she doesn’t realize that. You could also suggest she read some material on managing managers, to drive home how normal this is. But if she’s too uncomfortable to do a critical part of the job … you can’t have her managing projects or people. There’s no real way around that.

It sounds like you’re looking for a way to coax Sally into being more comfortable, but there’s only so much you can do there; the rest is up to her. In your shoes, I’d have one more conversation with Sally where you lay out that this is essential and why, explain that she won’t be able to continue supervising Jane’s work unless she overcomes this, and ask what support would help her do that. But it sounds like this just might not be work Sally can do, at least not right now.

Read an update to this letter

3. My coworker keeps commenting on my clothes

I have a coworker who talks about my clothes a lot, and not in a good way. We are in a creative industry and have both been working long enough to remember when Casual Friday didn’t exist, much less current office dress codes, which often allow people to forego “business attire” altogether. She dresses more casually than I do for work, which is her right; I’m just not comfortable going to the office that way and management has never expressed any issues with either of our clothing choices. The rest of our staff runs the gamut, attire-wise, and no one else comments on others’ work wardrobes unless they really like something a colleague is wearing and perhaps want to ask where they got it.

However, this person has a habit of commenting on my outfits at length and recently went so far as to ask, “Do you even OWN sweats or a hoodie?” A top manager was within earshot, so I didn’t feel okay replying “none of your business!” Instead, I said, “You really don’t think I wear dresses and heels to the gym, do you?” Probably not a great response, either, but I was taken aback that anyone would ask something like that and it didn’t stop the questions. If this keeps happening, what would you suggest?

Personally I’d say, “Good lord, Jane, enough about my clothes already! Your level of interest in what I wear is getting weird.”

But if that’s not your style, some other options:

* “You have a lot to say about my clothes! Why so interested?”
* “This has become a very boring topic. Can we put it to rest?”
* “Please stop commenting on my clothes.”
* “It’s strange that you keep evaluating my clothes.”

4. Panel reference calls

Last week, I had a Zoom interview as a first interview and was surprised that there were at least 12 people on and they all participated in asking me questions. Which was unusual to me — everywhere else I’ve ever interviewed in my life, the hiring committee is 2-3 people — but it was nice to meet everyone; it was about half the department I’d be working for.

They asked for my references, which I gladly provided. My references mentioned they were a bit surprised to receive a panel reference call with multiple people on the phone. Is this a new thing, or is this organization a bit of an outlier? Is there anything I should be concerned about?

Group reference calls are not typical! Nor are panel interviews with 12 people — that’s a lot.

It makes me wonder whether this employer is unusually reliant on doing things by consensus/committee and, if so, how that plays out in terms of things like efficiency, autonomy, and fast decision-making. It could be fine or it could be terrible, and different people could feel different ways about it.

Also, I definitely wouldn’t recommend to an organization that they conduct reference checks this way. References are far less likely to be candid when they’re on a call with 12 (!) people listening to them.

5. Employer believes you have to be already doing the role before they promote you

I work for a small company. The company president has repeatedly stated his belief that employees need to already be performing all of the responsibilities of the next-higher position before they can be promoted to that position. Is this a common policy? Also, isn’t it a bit unfair, since the company is basically asking us to do the work of a more senior person, for the wages of the more junior position?

It’s not the norm but it’s a thing that some companies do and yes, it’s terribly unfair for exactly the reason you said: you’d be doing a higher-paying position without the pay and without any guarantee you’ll ever be getting the pay. It’s also outright impossible in some cases; there are times when you need clear and official authority to operate. For example, you can’t just start managing your peers or negotiating contracts; you need explicit authority to do that and everyone else involved needs to know you have that authority.

If a company wants to see if you’re ready for a promotion, there are lots of ways to figure that out, like watching how you perform in the position you’re in, observing your strengths and weaknesses and judgment, and seeing how you do with stretch assignments … or, for that matter, assessing you the same way they assess outside candidates, who they definitely can’t do this to. Your company president is full of crap.

{ 441 comments… read them below }

        1. Margarita No Salt*

          THIS!!! This was what I came here to say! Scream laughing about the person and their jar of white powder!!

    1. DANGER: Gumption Ahead*

      My mystery fanfic node interprets this as long-term arsenic poisoning. Bob from accounting never should have turned down her purchase order. The rest of the office were to be poisoned as red herrings

      1. Curious*

        Even Faceless Men (or Faceless Women) are subject to discipline if they poison anyone other than their assigned targets.

        1. Nessun*

          There’s a Faceless Woman who Lives in My Office?! I thought I only had to worry about the one that lived in my Home!

            1. Curious*

              In Game of Thrones, the Faceless Men are a guild of assassins who work for the Many-Faced God. Jaqen H’ghar is Arya Stark’s manager; he entrusts her training to the Waif, an individual contributor whose techniques … are perhaps worse than most candidates for Worst Manager of the year (after all, how many of those beat their employees or co-workers with sticks — including after they’ve been struck sightless?)

              1. Mr. Shark*

                Haha, I love the description of the Waif as an individual contributor! I think Arya was definitely a BEC for her because she felt threatened.

            2. Anonymouse*

              It’s the name of a character on the fiction podcast Welcome to Night Vale! The Faceless Old Woman Who Secretly Lives In Your Home (or just The Faceless Old Woman, for short). She’s voiced by Mara Wilson and once ran for mayor of the town.

      2. Red Reader the Adulting Fairy*

        I’ve actually seen that episode of Forensic Files. Only it was cyanide in the water cooler. :P

        1. JSPA*

          It’s not fiction, sadly.

          Specifically coffee machine:

          other workplace poisoning via drinks:

          Intentional poisoning is obviously not common, and not the go-to assumption, but it happens. Stupidity is yet more common, and potentially just as lethal. hTere’s no way that, “just don’t drink the coffee” is an OK response.

          1. Kay*

            Holy criminies!! I guess I shouldn’t be surprised, but ..shuffles around desk, find sheet, jots down “won’t get poisoned by co-worker” in the “pros” column of Working From Home doc…

            1. Coffee tastes odd today…*

              Well maybe not… my office mate at home is the beneficiary of my life insurance…..

          2. Anonymous for this*

            Wow. The case in my OldJob is not on the news, but it is very similar to the Harvard one (your first link). So, a few years ago, a well known research center on East Coast but not Harvard. One afternoon, I walk out of the lab to get s lunch or something, turn around the corner and see a corridor and an exit to the stairs crossed off by a police ribbon and some commotion in the far end of the corridor, firemen in uniform in and out of the lab door. A few days later, we get an organization-wide email stating that five people from the said lab felt bad after drinking coffee from a coffeemaker together (there is a breakroom with coffeemaker adjacent to the lab) and ended up in the ER. They have been treated and doing fine. Investigators found traces of sodium azide in the coffee machine. Investigation is in progress, if you know anything please contact [city] police department or leave anonymous tip at [number], etc.” There has never been a follow up, story didn’t make it to the news, I don’t know anyone from that lab personally and have not heard any gossip. So what happened is a big mystery to me.
            Now, sodium azide is a very commonly used chemical and it is very well known that it is deadly toxic. I don’t see how it is possible to accidentally contaminate the coffee with the high dose of it. The lethal dose is ~1g, so I’d guesstimate that an average adult person will have to ingest 50-100 mg to end up in the ER. Multiply it by 5 people and that’s quite a lot. So I don’t believe it was accidental.

          3. Heffalump*

            I wouldn’t think that anyone at my job would poison anyone, but the victims in these stories presumably thought the same!

      1. Environmental Compliance*

        At the very least, the mysterious white powder should really have a full label on it, as it’s outside of the (presumably) consumer labeled bottle.

        1. Environmental Compliance*

          So, uh, I guess if anyone has this issue somewhere else and you have an HSE/Safety person or team, please bring this to us and we could do something about it. I confiscate random unlabeled (or not worksite approved) jars o’ chemicals on a somewhat regular basis. This would not fly on any of my sites (or previous places I’ve worked).

          1. quill*

            You would have HATED my first non-internship job.

            … Someone more experienced than 23 year old me definitely needed to get in there and make it stop.

            1. Environmental Compliance*

              I can only guess that what I like to refer to as “corner chemicals*” were common?

              *Those chemicals or materials etc. that get shoved into corners, behind doors, randomly in file cabinets because someone ordered the wrong thing, forgot they ordered something, no longer used whatever it was, and it was easier to make it hide than make it go away properly.

              **I get a lot of “wait, you can get rid of this for us??” in my job. It’s like people think that once you get something, it stays forever or until some magical fairy (i.e. EC) comes along to find it a new home.

        2. Reluctant Mezzo*

          Where’s an MSDS when you need one? (yes, I do remember it’s the old name, but don’t remember the old one. Got up too early today only to find out the appointment is *next* Monday).

    2. Koalafied*

      Part of me wonders if it was the cleaning powder at all, or if she just makes her coffee so strong that casual coffee drinkers get stomach upset from it. I’ve absolutely known a die-hard coffee addict whose brews are like jet fuel and mutual friends who will occasionally enjoy a cup of coffee after a leisurely brunch cannot drink their coffee. I’m a daily drinker of (less) strong coffee, and to me it definitely tastes strong and will reliably prompt a visit to the bathroom not long after imbibing it, but it doesn’t cause me discomfort.

      Reason being that the warning to just “not drink the coffee” makes somewhat more sense from the standpoint of someone who can take or leave coffee – they were handling it the same way they would if the colleague made chili at home and brought it into the office and had made people sick in the past. It’s easy to just say, “Oh, no thanks,” and not bother to confront her about her chili recipe because they don’t need chili in the first place. LW mentions being the only regular coffee drinker on staff. Manager probably thought the warning was more in the column of “Sally sometimes offers to share food she made, I’d suggest declining when she offers” than “Sally has monopolized a communal office resource, I’d suggest finding an alternative way to get the coffee you require.”

      1. Dust Bunny*

        I had a boss who made coffee that would all but dissolve the spoon on contact. We all learned to heat 1/3 mug of water first and then fill the rest with tar coffee.

      2. SaffyTaffy*

        @koalafied I was wondering that, too. Mass hysteria is a real thing and can be more subtle than “we’re all gonna die RIGHT NOW.”

      3. PT*

        The chemical they use to clean commercial coffee makers and other drink machines I think is a white powder. There have been several cases of “someone served cleaning fluid/white powder” and it turned out the machine was washed incorrectly.

        I wonder if she worked food service and brought over the habit of cleaning the machine with commercial cleaner, but isn’t mixing it correctly for a home machine, or the home machine works different and it’s not rinsing out right.

        1. Splendid Colors*

          Cracker Barrel recently lost a BIG suit brought by someone who was served undiluted sanitizing concentrate that employees were keeping in a water pitcher. It was corrosive enough to cause serious health problems he won’t recover from completely.

      4. Guin*

        The only thing that should be used to clean a coffee maker is vinegar. If someone is using any kind of substance other than white vinegar out of the jar, they’re doing it wrong.

    3. SaffyTaffy*

      @coffee I can easily imagine someone with poor insight and poor boundaries might say to themselves, “I feel sick every day because of X” and X is whatever their pet peeve is. X can even change over time! “I’m sick every day because the President has me so worried,” or maybe, “I’m sick every day because I have some kind of food sensitivity, who knows, probably GMOs.”

  1. anonymouse*

    My husband manages software engineers at a large software engineering company you’ve definitely heard of. They promote engineers this way. My impression is that out of a group of level N people, there are naturally some people who have grown their skills to the point where they effectively have the skills of a level N+1 person. They are writing better code more efficiently, or needing less and less direction from senior people and solving problems that are getting larger in scope. They are gradually moving from only executing decisions to starting to plan out and design larger and larger pieces of project. This growth is a natural process of growing as an engineer, and it happens *gradually* and *incrementally*, not in all-or-nothing jumps.
    So, when my husband says that they promote people who are already doing the job of a level N+1 person, it doesn’t mean that the level N people are grabbing extra job duties that they aren’t supposed to have. In fact, there often aren’t huge, hard and fast differences between the job duties of a level N and a level N+1 person; the level N+1 person is just better at the same kind of role. It means that the promotion folks are recognizing when people have grown to the point where they have the skills of a level N+1 person and then giving them the title that is appropriate to their level of skill. I actually think this system makes a lot of sense for how they structure their software engineering roles.

    1. anonymouse*

      Also, if you go in knowing that you’re a level N, and you’re going to be paid as a level N until you can consistently perform as well as a level N+1, then you’ve accepted those conditions. I will also say that pretty much all the software engineers at that company are paid well*, and performance is reviewed quarterly, which negates many of the concerns around not being paid what one is worth.
      *(I lived on a PhD stipend in San Francisco for many years, so all the people who complain that salaries around $100K aren’t actually good enough to live in the Bay Area can just go away.)

      1. Keyboard Cowboy*

        I suspect I work at the same Tech Megacorp based on the description, or at one that works the exact same way (they all kinda do). This becomes frustrating once someone is doing the N+1 work but repeatedly fails to get promoted to N+1 – and at my Tech Megacorp anyway, promotion season comes around only twice a year, and much of the promotion decision is out of the hands of the employee and their manager. So it’s not quite so simple as “do N+1 work and get promoted to N+1 ASAP” – a poorly executed promotion attempt can really draw out the pain, as I understand it.

        Anyway, here’s me agreeing to take on some N+1 work and really crossing my fingers on the promotion this spring….

        1. Alexander Graham Yell*

          My small consulting firm does the same – not necessarily from entry (N) to N+1, but the N+1 to N+2 jump involves doing some N+2 work to prove you have the skills. You get more support and training than somebody who is fully N+2, so you’re not as autonomous as somebody who is performing the role fully, but you definitely have to prove you’ve done it successfully to qualify for the semi-annual round of promotions.

          A hopeful N+1.5

      2. Just a person (wearing pants)*

        That’s nice that you survived on a stipend in SF — what the hell does that have to do with anything? I live well below six figures in San Francisco, but salaries around $100k (or less) are in fact prohibitive from like, purchasing a home or getting childcare? Just because you can survive on less doesn’t mean that low six figures don’t equate to what they would elsewhere. Good for you, I guess? You don’t say that you “lived” comfortably.

        1. anon software engineer*

          anonymouse, I see exactly why you said what you did. I am a software engineer at one of the big 5 companies that has a similar process, and I get privately annoyed when my colleagues complain about their pay because I remember working at an entry-level job for less than $35K in NYC before becoming an engineer. Objectively I get that people want to be paid more if they do better work, but subjectively I sometimes feel like many of my coworkers are kind of out of touch with the reality that in this winner-take-all economy they are actually among the winners. (For what it’s worth to Just a Person, a $100K salary often equates to much more than that when you add in bonus and stocks. I expect to make almost twice as much as my base salary this year.)

          Realistically I’m sure Alison would argue that it’s not good management to promote people this way even if they are overpaid to start with. But, also, my company pays people in a way that “Level N” salaries overlap with “Level N+1” salaries anyway, and as you take on more responsibility you get paid more whether or not you’re promoted (and I think most of them work the same way), so it’s not as egregious as “start doing higher level work for lower level pay until we decide to promote you.” Maybe I’ve just drunk the Kool-Aid but it’s never bothered me (partly because I’m making literally ten times as much as I did at that entry-level job, so… yeah, I just can’t find it in me to complain).

          1. Seeking Second Childhood*

            and as you take on more responsibility you get paid more whether or not you’re promoted
            See, that’s the right way to do it–but it’s not common. Covering for an n+1 on extended medical leave does not get even a,bonus where I am.

            1. RabbitRabbit*

              This. I had a job where I was also covering the entire role of another fulltime person who’d moved on and still got paid nothing more than the annual not-even-COL increase.

              Being actually paid more for doing more work duties, even temporarily, is not real common.

          2. pancakes*

            “Objectively I get that people want to be paid more if they do better work, but subjectively I sometimes feel like many of my coworkers are kind of out of touch with the reality that in this winner-take-all economy they are actually among the winners.”

            What about the reality that many people don’t want to continue living in a winner-take-all economy? Or the reality that people making $100k/year may not be able to afford housing in a place where people who make $1m/year have bought up most of it? The average annual income of the top 1% in the US is $1.3m. The top 1% (making approx. $421k/year and up, per EPI) take home 21% of all the income in the US. I don’t see why anyone but those in the top 1% should be happy with this arrangement.

            1. Asenath*

              If enough people won’t work in a place where the salaries won’t buy a house, the company doesn’t have to pay lower ranking people more, they will simply move to an area where salaries are lower. Neither companies nor employees are tied to one location. And I really don’t care if the rich earn a lot as long as I am earning enough. That might mean renting all my life – many people do – or starting over in another place and another job, which I have done.

              1. pancakes*

                I suggest you read about the difficulties people have renting in the Palo Alto area. It’s been going on for many years. It is of course your prerogative to categorically not care about people in particular income brackets or whatnot, but the solutions are nowhere near as simple as you make them out to be. It’s not as if the people who clean their offices and care for their children should have to endure a three hour daily commute to do so, either.

              2. pancakes*

                I should add, it’s not as if Palo Alto is the only place where the mismatch between rents and incomes is wildly out of whack. The same has happened in Austin. I’ll link to an article about it in a separate reply. In the meantime:

                “With an average of 180 new residents moving to the city every day in 2020, housing inventory is very low, realtors said. Multiple offers, bidding wars and blocks-long lines outside open houses are commonplace.

                Home sale prices in the city of Austin skyrocketed to a record median of $536,000 in October, up from about $441,250 a year ago. And they have more than doubled since 2011, when the median sales price was $216,000, according to the Austin Board of REALTORS, a trade group. Rentals, too, have surged, with the average cost of an 864-square-foot apartment now $1,600.”

                The idea that people should simply pack up and leave whenever they get priced out of their homes isn’t realistic. It also isn’t conducive to the sort of communities most people want to live in.

                1. ...*

                  This is all absolutely true. I live in Austin. I can barely afford rent in a 1-bedroom, and I can’t just pick up and move because that would cost thousands of dollars that I don’t have. I will eventually end up having to get a roommate, and hopefully it won’t be a complete stranger. I thought I was done with bunking when I graduated college.

              3. peachy*

                One of the problems is that there are many areas where even renting is not an option. That’s been a big problem in Santa Barbara. UCSB grad students have been trying to unionize because the housing situation is so bad there they can’t afford to live there. The building codes in the area make it difficult to build multi-family housing (i.e. rental apartments), so it’s a supply-and-demand problem. So UCSB’s solution is to let a billionaire hobby-architect build Dormzilla, a 5000-person dorm made of windowless jail cells. I might be happy to rent all my life, but that’s because I live in a city full of rental options. Other areas are not so lucky.

          3. Napkin Thief*

            Have you looked at the housing prices in those areas lately? Just a cursory search on Zillow will give you an idea. I get the feeling it’s probably a very different landscape than what you were dealing with back then.

        2. generic_username*

          I agree. This rubbed me the wrong way… I very comfortably lived for years on $40k in my area. Now, six years (and some raises and promotions) later, I’m married and want to have kids and it is not infrequent that I worry about affording childcare and wonder if I’ll be able to cover my mortgage (for a house 1 hour further out of the city!) once my family expands. Is it doable? Of course! Does it mean people should not ask for more when they feel they deserve more? of course not!

      3. Sporty Yoda*

        Unrelated, but I saw “I lived on a PhD stipend in San Francisco for many years” and reflexively “oof”ed; currently on a PhD stipend in an area with a lower cost of living and it ain’t fun, can’t imagine what it’s like in Cali.

      4. TechToiler*

        I’m the OP on that question. Our performance is reviewed annually, although they will (rarely) do promotions at the mid-year. So you can be stuck in a lower role for quite a while.

    2. AcademiaNut*

      That way makes a lot of sense. You’ve got a range of performance and experience in a given role. Compared to someone new to the role, or an average performer, someone experienced and high performing will be functioning at the top of that role – taking on the most difficult projects, showing that they can think ahead to the next step or broader situation, mentoring less experienced colleagues. When it comes time for a promotion, that’s the person who is the logical choice. It’s not even a matter of putting in longer hours – as you get more experienced at the work, you’re doing more in the same amount of time.

      Of course, there are some things that you can’t really do until the promotion. Formally managing people, for example, or having the authority to make higher level decisions, or delegating tasks. If you start negotiating with vendors, or assigning work to your colleagues, or trying to put your underperforming coworker on a PIP, the powers that be are unlikely to be appreciative.

      1. Koalafied*

        Yeah, this approach makes a lot of sense for roles that are like “Engineer I” and “Engineer II” or “Project Manager” and “Senior Project Manager” – with those sort of titles I would expect there to be a fuzzier line between the two roles, with them doing largely the same kind of work, but the Grade II/Senior version of the role having been recognized as skilled enough to handle more sophisticated/complicated instances of that work, perhaps with less supervision, or perhaps projects are always assigned to a Grade II/Senior and a Grade I/Junior, with the senior person acting as the project lead and providing training/mentoring to the junior person.

        But it’s way different if we’re talking about promoting someone from Digital Marketing Manager to Marketing Director, where they’re going to move from a “doing”-focused role to a much more management-focused role, and potentially supervising not only the area they used to focus on (digital marketing) but also other related areas (telemarketing, direct mail) that they may have little in-depth knowledge of because they never worked a role doing those things.

        1. The OTHER Other*

          I worked for a company like this, and unless you were an external hire, or left and came back (they devalued experience at their own company, in multiple ways), getting a promotion was extremely difficult unless you had already been doing the job first, sometimes for months or even years. They were also extremely rigid about changes to titles/payroll only happening 2x/year, and I guess they figured we’d never notice how promotions were invariably announced weeks after each deadline.

      2. Emily*

        Well, in our company you can demonstrate ‘leadership’ by taking a lead on a project without managing other people. You get others to buy into your vision and use ‘lateral influence’ to get them to push forward an idea. It’s a way to demonstrate general leadership skills, and it’s not crazy that you can use that to get promoted to the next level.

      3. Cat Tree*

        It’s similar at my company (in a different industry). Those of us who are interested in moving into a manager role can get experience through things like managing an intern, helping to train new people, being on the panel for interviews, taking on a mentor role either formally or informally, or managing contractors for special projects. Of course it’s not identical to being a manager but a lot of the skills are transferable. But we also have management training for new managers so we just need to demonstrate an ability to learn those skills.

    3. Pool Lounger*

      My partner works for a Fortune 100 tech company and they promote this way too, pretty much. You don’t have to be doing the exact job, but you need to be able to work at a level higher than you are to get promoted and hired at that level. It makes it tough to gain certain types of experience.

      1. Pool Lounger*

        For example, a level higher than you is able to get bigger, new ideas pushed through and give presentations to higher level execs. You can’t do that at your lower level. But to get hired or promoted to the next level you need to show that you can do those things… that you’re never allowed to do.

        1. Oh No She Di'int*

          Well *someone* is getting promoted at that company. How are they doing it? Or do they just let the upper levels of management wear away through attrition until there’s no one left in those jobs?

          1. just another bureaucrat*

            Thank you for calling this out. The no one is ever allowed to do this thing is always a weird thing, especially in companies that promote from inside. I work at a place where every single person in management has been promoted (which I do not actually think is a great thing) but an armload of people still constantly complain that “no one” ever gets promoted. “Well not you, you’re different.” Nope, started as entry level just like you. (not that there aren’t a ton of problems but no one getting promoted from inside is not one of them)

          2. Koalafied*

            For a long time it was really an employer’s job market, and a company could feasibly take this stance and always have someone in their hiring pool who had previous experience doing the exact job they were hiring for. Particularly in the ~decade between the Great Recession and the Great Resignation. All those experienced workers got laid off in 2008-2009 when companies downsized to cut costs, and when the economy came roaring back, they didn’t staff back up because the lean staff had proven they could do the work. So you had not only 1) experienced workers who were laid off looking for work, but 2) most employed workers being overworked from absorbing the duties of laid off coworkers whose roles were never rehired, which meant that experienced workers were more likely to be looking for a new job than if they had been compensated more fairly or given a more reasonable workload. Employers who posted jobs would get hundreds or even thousands of applications and many of them would be people with loads of skill and experience. There were so few jobs available many mid-career workers were forced to apply for and accept lateral moves or even down-steps because they couldn’t land a stretch role, and early career workers frequently lost out on entry level roles to those folks.

            Happily, that has finally changed (though some employers are being more stubbornly slow to read the writing on the wall and still operating like it hasn’t or like the current job-seeker’s market is a temporary aberration they can just wait out).

          3. generic_username*

            Actually, no… They hire from outside at places like that. I know many people who have left jobs due to that issue.

          4. Pool Lounger*

            They’re also known for their problems keeping people long term. There have been articles about it recently. People leave, get experience elsewhere, and sometimes come back. Or they hire outside people.

          5. The OTHER Other*

            Actually, no, this isn’t always true. Some places bring in outside hires for middle and upper management positions. At a former company of mine, you could be promoted from entry level to the next level (and even those positions were scarce, with little turnover) but I literally know of no one who was ever promoted beyond that in the several large departments I was familiar with. People would leave to get promotions elsewhere, and sometimes return at a higher level, but mostly the company would hire managers and executives from other companies.

        2. DireRaven*

          Or you don’t have time to do because the “stars” keep delegating their repetitive, time-consuming, no real thought required tasks to me. And there is no one to pass those tasks onto, as I’m the department’s most recent hire (going on 6 years now) and I absorbed the duties of a couple people no longer with the company, even though I’d like to take on higher level tasks.

          Or I attempt to take on higher-level tasks (that seem to be well within my capabilities), to “prove” readiness for the next level, only to discover afterwards that there was vital information I did not possess, and now everyone is scrambling to undo or lessen the severity of the damage. Or, midway through the project, one of the “stars” takes over it from me.

      2. DistantAudacity*

        My former (very large) employer worked was liked this as well.

        Yes, sometimes a person gets constrained by the current role they are in, which is not the person’s fault and seems (and is!) unfair. An important step there is to work with your manager/lead to plan for a role where you ARE able to demonstrate those skills, or to use other mechanisms/paths to do the same, as you move towards getting a promotion.

        Note – roles are mainly project-based, so will have a time-limit.

        1. Koalafied*

          Yes, employers should do a better job communicating the growth potential of a role proactively, especially with entry and junior level roles where people are more likely to see the job as a step hopefully on the way to something else, and less likely to have learned yet that it’s something they should be asking about.

          There’s nothing wrong with having an ongoing need for someone to handle entry level tasks, not having budget to add new head count, and not having frequent enough turnover in mid-level roles to be able to promote the entry level folks more than once in a blue moon, no matter how good they get at their job. Managers just need to be honest about that with candidates, and with themselves. Tell candidates that you hope they’ll stay for 2-3 years or longer, and that typically people who have mastered the role go on to take higher level positions elsewhere as there’s limited opportunity for internal promotions for that role.

          1. Not One of the Bronte Sisters*

            This, absolutely! I worked at a company where the managers knew what skills needed to be added for employees to move up, but the employees never knew.

    4. MK*

      I don’t think anyone is saying it’s unfair to have people performing at a higher level before promotion. What is grossly unfair is to expect people to essentially work a higher role for less money for a long period of time before promoting them. I wouldn’t have an issue with occasionally assigning people higher level tasks to see how they do, or even give them a short (a few weeks) trial run at the higher role.

      1. I'd Rather Be Eating Dumplings*

        Yeah. I also know a lot of people who worked at a well-known company that uses this technique for promotion. But my understanding of the application is that it has a lot of to do with higher-level projects and tasks being assigned and then monitored more closely.

        I imagine that style of promotion assessment naturally works better with certain job roles than with others.

      2. londonedit*

        Yeah, I wouldn’t expect someone to just jump into a higher-level role without having demonstrated that they can do some of that role – the way it works in my industry, you’d usually start organically taking on some bits and pieces of the next role up and then that’s how you demonstrate that you’re ready for a promotion. There will be a natural tipping point where you can say look, I’ve been Assistant Llama Groomer for two years now, for the last year I’ve gradually taken on responsibility for helping the Llama Groomers with quality control, I feel like I’m now ready to make the move to Llama Groomer and be responsible for quality control myself. What isn’t fair is when it’s ‘well we need to see that you can do the job, so you can start doing it, but it won’t be an official promotion and you won’t get the official title and salary until you’ve been doing the job for at least a year’.

    5. StudentA*

      I get what you’re saying. In that employer’s culture, I think it’s fine. The way I see it, even if you’re not supervising anyone, it sounds like your husband’s employer is rewarding those who already do the same job as everyone else, just that you’re especially fast and efficient.

      I mean, the alternative would be to just not reward folks who happen to be superstars, just because they’re not in supervisory roles or doing taking on drastically different responsibilities. So your husband’s employer is doing what most companies aren’t even bothering with.

      1. Your local password resetter*

        You can always create new promotion lines for people who do their job really well, or just give them significant raises.

        1. Esmeralda*

          Depends on where you work, of course. Large state university. Historically, our academic-adjacent division has done that at the upper levels, not at the mid and lower levels (the peons who actually work with the students). And yes, that causes a wee bit of resentment, especially in the many years when it’s suggested that we should just be glad to have jobs, too bad there is no money for merit raises.

          1. generic_username*

            Ooof, I also work at a university and it is definitely rough to be told that there is room for raises/promotions and then have to read a constant barrage of “please join us in congratulating Jane on her promotion from associate dean to senior associate dean.” Like, weird, that role didn’t exist before and was clearly created for Jane, but I guess I’ll keep my fingers crossed that we get raises that barely cover COL back…

        2. TechToiler*

          That’s the issue with our company, you can’t get a significant raise without a promotion. Even for the best performers annual merit raises seem to be capped at 3%. (They claim there is no such cap but…there obviously is.)

      2. I'd Rather Be Eating Dumplings*

        In that employer’s culture, I think it’s fine

        I think this is also a system that works better in at larger employers where they have the amount of work and support to offer more advanced projects to lower-level staff without asking them to take on the full role of a higher level employee.

        Additionally, if it’s the company I’m thinking of, then they will have a clear track record of promoting employees and raising salaries, which is going to make people feel more comfortable engaging with that system.

    6. Perfectly Particular*

      My company works the same way, but it is so easy to get stuck! I kept having manager changes, so no one person was consistently seeing the contributions I was making or improvements in my work. I got from an N to an N+1 after years of high performance and fighting for for it, but to get to N+2, I applied to another dept. and took on a new role there.

      1. Smithy*

        This is 100% my problem with this system – is that while in certain quantitative fields it may work on more of an objective fashion – far far more often it ends up being far more subjective and manager dependent.

        While issues of managers moving around can hiccup someone’s evaluation very often, I think this style also allows for classic power structures to remain in place where somehow those who went to school together, belong to the same clubs, etc etc end up betting those N+1 or N+2 assignments earlier and earlier than other staff.

        1. turquoisecow*

          Yeah I think this system works well when you have competent managers who notice their reports are doing well and make it possible for them to do higher level work. Because this is a system that relies on a mentor or manager saying “I think Bob could do N+1 work, let’s give him X task, or invite him to Y meeting.” Without that, Bob can be the best Level N person there, but never get promoted.

          As a person who tends to fall through the cracks and not get noticed because I’m not the manager’s favorite, I could see leaving after a few years out of frustration and getting a promotion that way.

    7. Corey*

      I’m not entirely sure why people are being coy about naming the companies here, but this was the process at Google 100% and because it was the way Google does it, a lot of other tech companies do it because that must be the right way I do it. I’ll say that while it’s weird to complain about your salary not being high enough, the level of respect you get as an N+1, especially entry level L3 to L4 to senior L5, is meaningfully different. Before your first promotion, it was virtually impossible to transfer teams, before your second, it’s virtually impossible to manage a project or participate in long term planning.

      From personal experience, it’s also a terrible hiring practice. I was hired at L3, despite an advanced degree and years of experience, without knowing what that meant. By the time I realized, it was too late. You have to show sustained performance of the level above, which means multiple evaluation cycles at Exceeds Expectations (call it 3/4). But, to be fair, everyone’s first eval on a new team is Meets Expectations (2/4), per convention. That’s 6 months. Next eval, you get your stellar rating (4/4), but can’t be promoted because it’s not sustained yet, the committee wants to see if you can keep it up. Next evaluation is cancelled, per Covid. Finally, 2 years after starting, got my “promotion” to the level I felt I should have been hired at and was performing at the whole time.

      That whole time I was stuck on a team that was being tossed around by upper management, from cancelled project to cancelled project, with a first-time manager who really didn’t know how to manage people, and constantly being told that this is the best place to work in the world, despite a really horrid, toxic work environment and no way out.

    8. Eden*

      A lot of software engineering is like this, but at least at my former company it was kinda bs. One of the things iu were jidged on was scope of impact and as Alison says, some things you can’t just tale on yourself. At higher levels “write better code” is not enough, a manager needs to give you opportunities to architect or lead projects. It was a cool fact that we could see men being promoted at the se time women were being told they hadn’t shown enough technical leadership in cases where they simply weren’t assignrd opportunities to lead.

      1. Green Beans*

        Yeah I was thinking this was a perfect way to encourage very sexist/other -ist promotions, honestly.

      2. Smithy*

        Yup, I alluded to this above – but there just comes a point in most jobs where those quantitative measurements just stop being reliable if you’re not getting the right assignments. And it’s highly rare for 3 or 4 equal leadership opportunities to arrive at the same time that can be distributed evenly.

        So how those opportunities can assigned and when in someone’s career is what puts someone on the track when they’re up for promotions every two years, every three years, or every four years (etc.). I will also say that depending on your sector, the dynamic between being “given” an assignment because your leadership identify you as the best candidate as opposed to “campaigning” for an assignment directly or using other less direct methods are also very different in how you’re perceived by management and the support you have.

        1. Spencer Hastings*

          And in some cases, you can’t just *ask* for those assignments, or even ask to be trained on certain tasks, because who do you think you are, anyway?

          1. Smithy*

            Absolutely. And very often I’ve seen how some people are “assigned” those tasks cause it just “happens” to fall within their area of expertise or focus or whatnot. However, when there’s more of a general opportunity, then it becomes an open competition where people apply.

            And so “asking” to be assigned something that’s becoming a general opportunity then looks like you’re requesting favoritism despite something very similar happening recently to another colleague. All to say, this can ALL get very insidious and problematic.

      3. Nanani*

        This is pretty well documented in classes, where the bros get extra credit and cool projects and opportunities for extra work while the women just kinda don’t.

        It’s not a good structure, it’s an excuse to follow biases and pretend the last several decades of progress don’t apply to tech

      4. Kat*

        Bingo. It’s a way of maintaining the status quo without having an obvious written policy to do so. The people who get favourable assignments to “test their abilities” tend to reflect the demographics of the leaders, and the cycle repeats…
        Signed, tired female construction project manager

    9. AthenaC*

      Public accounting works like this, too. This sort of system makes a lot of sense where there is meaningful difference in performance and capability just from sustained effort over time.

      1. Spencer Hastings*

        And also, at certain levels it’s not like there are a certain number of slots for a person at X title — the firm where I work went from having more staff than seniors to having more seniors than staff, then back again, just due to who got promoted when, and who left, and how many new people were hired.

        1. AthenaC*

          Exactly – and because of what you mentioned and the nature of / amount of work, what exact role person performs will vary wildly over time. Seniors might do staff work, senior work, or manager work. Managers might do senior work. Partners might even do a tiny bit of senior or manager work when things are really tight.

          But yeah – the best evidence for “Is Associate ready to be promoted to Senior?” is “Has Associate successfully performed Senior-level tasks such that they can be relied upon to do Senior-level tasks regularly going forward?”

    10. Snowball*

      I’m at a big 4 accounting program and generally, before you are promoted to the next level you have been “acting” at the next level on several engagements, if not all of them

    11. higheredrefugee*

      One other thing that could be said in the final discussion is reframing it as, yes, we’re speaking about Sally, but in the context of what I expect of you in managing this project and her workflow. Putting it more squarely in what is required for her role, like any other performance issue.

    12. KRM*

      It’s often the same in science. As you become more comfortable with running some assays and procedures, you start to take on more of that or see how it can be applied to your program more easily. As you grow your skills you get promoted to the next level. Of course it’s not a perfect system and you have to have a decent manager (and a promotion structure–I’ve worked for a couple startups that didn’t put any structure in for 4-5 years, so it was somewhat frustrating), but that’s kinda true with promotions in many jobs. And for jobs where you’re suddenly managing people, you hopefully aren’t actually managing anyone unless you’ve discussed maybe having an intern with your boss, so you can see 1-if you like managing and 2-if you’d then actually want to move into a position like that.

    13. TechToiler*

      I’m the OP on promotion letter above. I do work for a company in the tech industry, and there is truth to what you’re saying. The difference between an Engineer 1 and Engineer 2 is a matter of gradual progression in skill. However, the only way to get a decent raise here is to get promoted, otherwise the yearly “merit” raises are barely enough to keep up with inflation (this year I’m sure they’ll be way less than the rate of inflation).

    14. TechWriter*

      Everywhere my spouse and I have ever worked has been like this (largely tech). Including the Canadian federal government.

      Granted, neither of us has sought to be promoted to a management position or a position with significant difference in scope/job duties. But it just never occurred to me that it might go another way.

    15. LinuxSystemsGuy*

      That’s fine in large organizations, especially when the job is a “commodity” at a given company. If has 1000 teapot makers organized into teams of six level 1 teapot makers, three level 2 teapot makers, and one senior teapot maker, that kind of arrangement makes perfect sense. As people grow in skill there’s going to be enough churn and attrition to start promoting. There’s at least three problems with such an arrangement I can see.

      1) It doesn’t help with promotion beyond senior teapot maker. The next logical step is teapot maker manager, but a good teapot maker is not necessarily a good manager

      2) It’s not nearly as useful outside of a company’s core competence. might have 1000 teapot makers, but maybe they only have 20 IT people, and those are specialized. Two database guys, half a dozen help desk, a few network people, etc.You can’t use the teapot maker promotion system for them, or HR, etc

      3) In small companies (and LW said they work for a small company) the practice probably doesn’t work at all. Unless you have a *lot* of level 1 teapot makers, and need a pretty large number of level 2 teapot makers, the system breaks down. When your whole team is five teapot makers, one of whom is a senior maker/manager hybrid, there’s not much of anywhere for junior makers to go.

    16. River Otter*

      Yes, I find it personally quite bizarre that people think they should be promoted just because they have been in a role for some amount of time and they ask for it. They seem to believe that work is like school – once you complete all the requirements of calculus 1, you register for calculus 2. That’s not how it works in the world of work. Just because you can do all the work of engineer 1/accountant 1/assembler 1, that does not mean you get promoted to engineer 2/accountant 2/assembler 2. In the working world, you have to not just solve calculus 1 problems, you have to be better at it than your peers, you have to mentor other people in calculus 1, you have to understand the principles of calculus 2, you have to be able to solve the easier calculus 2 problems with the aid of a solution manual and write out the first couple steps of the solution to the more difficult calculus 2 problems, and so on. Then you get evaluated against your other peers who are also at that level, and the ones who are the most successful across the different areas of evaluation get promoted to calculus 2.

    17. no sleep for the wicked*

      Asenath said: “And I really don’t care if the rich earn a lot as long as I am earning enough. That might mean renting all my life – many people do – or starting over in another place and another job, which I have done.”

      And my first thought was 1930s era dust bowl/union breaking efforts encouraging displaced workers to fight each other for ever-lower wages & working conditions. The people who cared about equity and decency lost to the people who did not care, and conditions got worse for everyone. It’s pretty gross to see it happening now, but as the anti-vax movement has so amply shown, many Americans are just plain selfish, even when it harms others.

    18. So they all cheap ass rolled over and one fell out*

      This normally works in tech, even at small companies, but occasionally does not. I got caught up in this once when I spent six months leading two contract developers with the Senior title I didn’t even have, and asking every month what I else needed to do to get promoted. When they finally did “promote” me it was title only, no raise. So I quit (accepted a job offer I already had in hand).

  2. WoodswomanWrites*

    For #1, I truly can’t fathom how an entire workplace allowed Coffeepot and Trash Rummager to do either of these things beyond a single day. “Oh don’t mind her, she just poisons the coffee and roots around in your trash, no big deal.”

    I’m afraid to think about what other weirdness was going on in that office.

    1. JustAThought*

      Because they didn’t want to make a new pot? Clean the old pot? Never heard of Bon ami cleaner? Thought cocaine was put in their coffee??!
      I do understand thinking things are weird, but really thinking about this years later?
      Should have made a fresh pot of coffee and ignored coffee police. Done.

      1. Peachtree*

        I think this is harsh; there are sometimes memories that linger and it’s nice to hear about workplace dramas that are essentially solved by now! And it’s not always easy to be the new person and make a change when your manager is essentially going with the status quo. Though I agree, someone should have done so.

        1. Momma Bear*

          Agreed. I still think about the place I worked where the coffee would be left for days and actually grew mold at least once. I refused to drink from that coffee maker/pot. The office manager cleaned it and claimed they were on top of it so it wouldn’t happen again, but I was always grossed out anyway.

          1. JustaTech*

            Back when we had coffee pots (rather than single-cup machines) it was easy for the coffee to get weird because the carafes were *so* good at keeping the coffee hot that yesterday’s coffee would still be drinking temperature the next morning.

            So in addition to washing the carafes before I made a new pot (I was almost always the first person in), I took to putting a little post-it on the carafe with the day of the week it was made, so you wouldn’t have to guess if it was today’s coffee or yesterday’s coffee. It really helped keep the pots cleaner because folks rinsed them out and made fresh more often. It wasn’t that they didn’t care, it was that they didn’t *know*.

      2. LifeBeforeCorona*

        It’s interesting to hear about old work situations that now would be shut down instantly but it wasn’t always that way. I recall incidents that should have been handled much differently but being new and inexperienced you often don’t have the standing or confidence to speak up at the time. The co-worker with the prominently displaced Playboy calendar comes to mind. Then it was “that’s just Fred, haha”. Now it’s don’t even think about displaying photos of naked women in an open office.

        1. UKDancer*

          This so much. It’s interesting to think about how you should handle things or what would be done now when reflecting back on situations in years before. When I started work 20 years ago the older female staff warned newcomers which men in the company were safe to have private meetings with and which were to be avoided because of their penchant for inappropriate behaviour. This was considered entirely normal and the right thing to do. Nobody actually tried to stop the groping or sleazy comments.

          Looking back I’m horrified that this was just accepted and nobody did anything to stop it. In my current company it’s very clear that this type of behaviour isn’t tolerated and I would certainly not put up with it being older and more senior. So when I look back I am amazed how much things have changed.

          1. Former expat*

            I have been a similar situation more recently as an expat. A relatively senior and influential man (also expat) working at our biggest client groped me at a party that I was attending in my professional capacity, after getting upset with me that we hadn’t invited him ourselves.

            I told at least two of my managers that this had happened, including another woman. I openly told my male boss that I wouldn’t sit next to this man at a business lunch. Grimaces but not action. So the best I felt I could do was warn all my female colleagues and those managing them (particularly younger local staff) about him, as well as other women in the expat community, so they could avoid being alone with him.

            I wish I could have done more but there was a limit to my influence as a middle manager, and I did use credit to kick up a serious stink on a couple of other occasions when management were on the point of taking decisions that would have been seriously out of line with my values. (And I won those fights.)

            1. UKDancer*

              I think sometimes there are limits to what you can do, especially as an expat. I’ve worked abroad before and found it’s a lot harder to be taken seriously if you’re foreign. It’s one of the reasons I came back to the UK. You have to pick your battles and sometimes you don’t get the outcome you should.

              1. Former expat*

                True. Sad to say, I am British, as were both the groper and my male boss. Female boss was American. So it wasn’t because I was foreign to them. Just screwed up priorities and power dynamics. I work somewhere now that takes much better care of its people :-)

        2. NotRealAnonForThis*

          I’ve had enough years in my (very much male dominated industry) where both the displaying of risque calendars, and my reaction to it (noting my opinions on fake vs. not via sticky notes) would neither be accepted anymore. Rightfully so. I’ll give them some grace, because “this is how its been for years” and they did learn, and my 21 year old self a little grace as she was just trying to prove that she could fit in regardless and they didn’t intimidate her.

        3. no sleep for the wicked*

          I was the first female warehouse manager in a fastener supply company and faced the ‘har har you’ll love John’s calendar’ hurdle right away by hanging a ‘sexy man’ calendar right next to the ‘sexy woman’ one. Both came down the same day and I’m sure all the dudes were disappointed I didn’t throw an entertaining fit about it.

          1. LittleMarshmallow*

            Haha! They folded fast! I’m pretty sure the guys I worked with would’ve just let me have my “sexy man” calendar if they got to keep theirs if I tried that.

      3. RabbitRabbit*

        I can see how a newer hire would be reluctant to go against a manager’s orders, no matter how weird it sounded.

      4. Snow Globe*

        I think the issue is that if the entire machine (including the basket, inside the water reservoir, etc.)was cleaned with dishwasher detergent, brewing a new pot might not solve the problem (and I wouldn’t want to take the chance).

        The other question is, how could you bring this up with the co-worker without first drinking the coffee, or letting them know that the manager had warned you not to drink the coffee?

        1. MissBaudelaire*

          Yeah, I doubt it was intentional poisoning, and more likely Coffee Cop thought they were the only ones who ever did any work ’round here!!! and were washing it improperly and didn’t rinse right.

          1. Where’s the Orchestra?*

            I was also guessing that the coffeemaker cleaner was using too much cleaning agent and not rinsing throughly enough. Not deliberate attempts at making others ill- just not good at cleaning. That combined with everything else makes me wonder if they were friends with higher managers and mid level management had been told to just wait “Cleaner” out until they retired?

            1. MissBaudelaire*

              It’s possible! You do wonder why it was so acceptable for this person to just poison people casually and flick through everyone’s garbage.

      5. Kal*

        Soaps and other cleaners designed for food surfaces are safe to be consumed in the trace quantities that are leftover after being properly used for cleaning and appropriately rinsed. Larger quantities of soap can and absolutely do cause illness – and unless you’re happy to take a handful of bon ami and eat it or put a teaspoon of it in your morning coffee, I think you know that. Acting like they thought it was like cocaine being put in their coffee is quite unkind.

        We know that there are a number of ways that people regularly mess up when it comes to cleaning, especially with more complex equipment with internal surfaces like a coffee maker. We also know that there are numerous cleaning products out there that are entirely appropriate for some uses but not others. Getting sick after drinking the coffee and then looking at what coffee is being used and what the machine is being cleaned with is a normal reaction. If the coffee itself didn’t seem to be contributing but you couldn’t identify the cleaning product because it was an unlabeled (which also means it didn’t have any labels for how it was to be used to compared against how it was actually being used) leads to a normal conclusion that the cleaning product might be the cause. If you can’t identify the cleaner, you also can’t identify how many flushes of the machine would be necessary to make it safe, and the coworker insists on using the same product on the machine every day, so flushes would have to be repeated every single day. Are you really going to be sitting there running multiple batches through the machine every morning just so you can have a cup of coffee, all the while knowing that the coffee coworker will very likely throw a tantrum at you if they ever catch you doing it?

        Perhaps you would be willing to be that confrontational. But most workers, especially ones new to the job and to the working world as a whole, will simply do what they can to just get to work, expecting their manager to be responsible for handling the coworker instead of taking it on themselves. And if your manager and everyone else on the team, who are all more senior than you, seem to treat it as something that can’t be changed, its easy to just go along with them instead of deciding to go tilting at windmills.

        1. Observer*

          Acting like they thought it was like cocaine being put in their coffee is quite unkind.

          Not only unkind, but also ignores what the OP explicitly states. They say that she used “a white powder substance kept in an unlabeled jar that others believed was dishwasher detergent” In other words, the OP explicitly states that the problem was someone just not cleaning the thing properly – probably using too much of the wrong cleaning agent because she was convinced that nothing else was “good enough”.

          And if your manager and everyone else on the team, who are all more senior than you, seem to treat it as something that can’t be changed, its easy to just go along with them instead of deciding to go tilting at windmills.

          This is true. And even someone with more rank and capital might decide to use that capital on other battles. Remember, this woman was being allowed to misbehave in other ways. Which tells me that there were probably OTHER problems in the place, as well.

      6. Observer*

        Should have made a fresh pot of coffee and ignored coffee police. Done.

        And get reprimanded by their boss? Woodswoman is right – there was almost certainly a LOT of other mismanagement going on there. Let’s face it, they also didn’t do anything about her going through people’s trash. That’s always a sign of trouble. And in this case, there are some further indicators – she clearly gossiped about what she found.

    2. Dramatic Intent to Flounce*

      I just… did that particular manager buy individual coffeemakers for every single employee or something? (And if so, please tell me that did not include the poisoner!) You’d think telling someone to stop using a cleaning product unfit for human consumption on the coffee pot would be the easier solution, or at least the cheaper one.

      1. Jillian*

        I had a similar coworker; I was a manager but not HER manager. I told her politely to knock it off and was called in to HR and told to let it go and just don’t drink the coffee. My direct manager said he did not know the reason but she was apparently untouchable. One day after work, I “accidentally” broke the coffee maker and brought in a new one that made individual cups with pods. Since it was technically mine, I cleaned it and left clear instructions how it was to be cleaned if anyone else chose to. Drover her crazy, but everyone else was happy and brought their own pods as needed. My manager offered to pay me for the machine but it was worth it to me so I said no thank you. He kept me pretty well stocked with my favorite blend though.

        1. Bilateralrope*

          A coworker poisoning the shared coffee. HR acting as an accomplice.

          Sounds like a question for the police.

                1. pancakes*

                  I think it was something other than cyanide. Remarkably, there is a story about a doctor found guilty of poisoning his partner’s family’s coffee in today’s Guardian. With thallium, which is reportedly odorless and tasteless. Creepy!

                2. UKDancer*

                  Thallium used to be a lot more commonly used to poison people because it was found in rat poison and was easy to obtain and difficult to detect. I think it’s a lot harder nowadays. There was an Australian killer in the 1940s called Caroline Grills who poisoned several members of her family with thallium before she was caught.

          1. EPLawyer*

            We had this letter. HR was friends with the person who complained though. Although it was the owner of the sandwich accused of poison.

            So ridiculous. If everyone has to tiptoe around the untouchable person it really affects work. You have to stop and think before throwing something away or all the lost productivity by people making coffee runs because you can’t use the office provided coffeemaker.

            1. Cold Fish*

              As someone with horrible year-long “seasonal” allergies, I say have at my trash. Eww, gloves recommended!

              I don’t drink coffee but as a standard office perk, allowing one person to commandeer the machine like that seems strange to me. (I LOVE the smell of coffee brewing but the taste is just too bitter. Even coffee ice cream can be too strong for me.)

        2. Lacey*

          Ugh, the untouchable coworker.

          I’ve never had one try to poison the office, but so frequently there’s some coworker who can’t/won’t do their job, is a jerk, makes work more difficult than it needs to be… but for whatever reason management has decided this coworker must be kept on at all costs. Nightmare.

          1. MissBaudelaire*

            Right? At ExJob we had a few people like that. Although for us it was less that they were untouchable and more like every time in the past they had been called to the carpet for their shenanigans, they made the boss so miserable about it, he just wouldn’t. He basically told the rest of us to figure out how to work around them.

            Unfortunately, this resulted in everyone else doing more work to accommodate that coworker. It was a lot of resentment and bitterness all around.

          2. JESUS IS THE MAN!*

            Re office poisoners…

            I worked somewhere once that had some really gnarly institutional conflict going on, and one day a coworker with a severe peanut allergy got to their desk and found that everything had been liberally smeared with peanut butter. Allergic Coworker ended up in the emergency room but was ok in the end. Law enforcement got involved. I never did hear whether the culprit was identified.

            I quit that job soon after. They were not paying me enough to hang around a potential murder scene.

            1. EPLawyer*

              WHAT???? That is bonkers. I mean office politics can get nasty but it usually stops short of attempted murder. Usually.

            2. Librarian of SHIELD*

              What the actual bananas. And we thought the coworker putting snickers bars on an allergic person’s desk was bad…

              1. JESUS IS THE MAN!*

                I had to go look that up. Good grief.
                At my workplace, it was definitely a commentary on overarching issues at the company, not just a childish “so-and-so can’t eat nuts and is the FUN-SLAYER” thing, but the fact that this kind of thing has happened more than once is… *disgusted noise*

            3. MissBaudelaire*

              Oooh my goodness. That is all kinds of messed up. I cannot imagine.

              I would have board the Nope Train to Forget Thatville, too.

            4. Observer*

              I worked somewhere once that had some really gnarly institutional conflict going on, and one day a coworker with a severe peanut allergy got to their desk and found that everything had been liberally smeared with peanut butter.

              That’s not “institutional conflict”. Even “really gnarly”. Or rather the “institutional conflict” was simply the tip of the iceberg of badness.

              1. JESUS IS THE MAN!*

                That’s the thing, I thought it was just normal “wow, my job sucks and there are some seriously unhappy people here,” until that point. Because you do, don’t you? You want to think it’s just ordinary awfulness until it tips over into extraordinary awfulness and you can’t anymore.

                I have not kept in touch with anyone from that workplace, so I can’t provide an update on whether someone faced actual legal consequences for the act. :/

            5. NotRealAnonForThis*

              Someone tucked an actual shelled peanut into my (allergic, epi-pen carrying) child’s backpack at age kindergarten (age 5 for those not in the USA). Yes, the offending protein that can cause a fatal allergic reaction is likely on the shell as well.

              The school district did investigate and involved local LE, but nothing came of it because nobody saw anything. I’m just thankful that we taught our child what peanuts look like, and as a result, our child involved her teacher immediately upon discovery and somehow never touched it.

              Peanut butter would have had me absolutely through the roof.

            6. generic_username*

              Thats… a really serious crime. Like, I think someone can be charged with manslaughter had your coworker died.

          3. Anon for this*

            My job has someone like that. Whenever someone’s being difficult, we’re advised to be the picture of calm and serenity in our dealings with them, so scrupulously professional as to be above reproach.

            Then person on other team calls people stupid on a group call and no one bats an eye.

        3. Falling Diphthong*

          I am fascinated that this happened in more than one place. (Unless OP1 is a coworker from your old office.)

      2. Green great dragon*

        If the manager is really too conflict averse to stop her, why didn’t they just buy another coffee maker for everyone else, which toxic-cleaner co-worker was not to touch?

        1. Venus*

          That was my first thought, and I’m disappointed it is this far down in the comments. The obvious solution is to buy a small coffee-maker for that employee, or worst-case buy a second large one and make it clear that it is not to be touched by the problem employee! If that employee can’t be directly told not to drink it then maybe label it ‘decaf’ and tell everyone about the situation.

    3. Avi*

      She sounds like a textbook example of the Missing Stair principle. She’s obviously a problem, and everyone knows that she’s a problem, but no one wants to actually go through the hassle of confronting her behavior so they just step around it instead of taking any actions to stop her from being a problem. And yeah, once you start doing that on one issue, it’s really easy to start doing it with other problems.

      1. EventPlannerGal*

        So many stories on here remind me of how powerful that can be, but it still shocks me sometimes. I have no clue if I would have said anything and strongly suspect that I wouldn’t if everyone else was like “oh that’s just her way!” but like… she was poisoning people! Damn!

    4. Hotdog not dog*

      I had the same thought. A missing stair is one thing, but this person is a whole missing staircase!

    5. londonedit*

      People don’t like conflict, and they especially don’t like causing (as they may see it) conflict in a situation like their workplace, because they know they’ll have to be there 8 hours a day five days a week and they’d rather just let Weird Coffee Coworker do her thing and use the cafe down the road instead of risking making things awkward or starting a big ruckus about something as silly as coffee. It’s classic ‘missing stair’ – you don’t even realise you’re doing all the workarounds and you don’t realise how silly all the ignoring her behaviour and ‘oh that’s just Jane’ is until someone comes in with an outside perspective and says ‘What?! You have someone at work who’s cleaning the coffee maker with a weird white powder that makes people feel ill, and the solution is that no one drinks the coffee? That’s mad’. Until that point, it really is ‘Oh yes, one of the stairs there is missing – it’s fine, you just have to make sure you do a little hop on the fourth step and hang on to the handrail on the other side, then you can just swing your leg around and jump up on the next step. It’s fine!’

      1. PT*

        I worked somewhere where anyone who spoke to anyone about anything (even a manager giving performance corrections to their staff!) would get labeled as “difficult” and “not getting along.”

        It was terrible. Someone would be filing the teapot orders in the llama file and showing up an hour late to llama training sessions so they got canceled and transferring porridge customers to the teapot desk and training new teapot sculptors to put the spouts on upside down rendering them unsalable, and no one was allowed to say anything. It was madness.

    6. ellex42*

      I’ve found this kind of weirdness is typical in companies where managers don’t have much power to deal with the people they’re supposed to manage, or have very limited power to manage the veteran employees in particular. I’ve worked for more than one manager that would have been excellent, if they were allowed by those above them to effectively deal with veteran employees who had pretty much figured out that they were bulletproof – not necessarily for the work they did, but because the company was a generally toxic environment where upper management would refuse to allow lower managers to fire anyone who had been there long enough.

    7. RagingADHD*

      Because Trash Lady was favored by someone in upper management or ownership.

      The LWs direct manager had probably tried before to get her in line or get rid of her, and they were overruled. So the best they could do was warn people.

      Happens all the time. Not always about coffee, but all kinds of things.

      Substitute any toxic behavior, from gossip and bullying to outright harrassment, and you’ll see people caught in the middle trying to work around it and protect others the best they can.

      1. Where’s the Orchestra?*

        That was my theory elsewhere as well – others were just told to “wait out” the missing stair till that coworker retired. Probably because of a friendship with higher level managers. It’s crummy – but so many of us have seen this happen that it’s not an uncommon situation.

    8. Momma Bear*

      Oh, I’m sure this was the tip of the iceberg. You can’t have someone like that being enabled without other things happening.

    9. Database Developer Dude*

      I am so with you on this one. If I had worked in that office, that wouldn’t have lasted one day. The instant people started getting sick off the coffee, I’d have confronted the Coffeepot Tyrant and demanded to know what was in the cleaning solution.

      You don’t clean a coffeepot with dishwashing detergent.

  3. Emmers*

    #4. My academic institution does panel interviews like this and it’s gotten worse in the pandemic. Our whole department of 25 gets a zoom invite to all 2nd level or above interviews and whoever can make the meeting is assigned questions to ask the candidate by our director whose very much into showing they are consensus driven, even if that’s not the case. I don’t think it makes for great interviews on either side because sometimes 3 people show and sometimes 15 and we don’t know who will be there til day of so no ability to let the candidate know either.

    1. variational*

      That is so ridiculously inefficient for everyone! And also doesn’t allow the candidate to correctly evaluate their ‘fit’ for the positions since it appears to be a consensus culture when it actually isn’t. Do you get a lot of turnover from new hires within a few months of starting?

      1. Emmers*

        No, we don’t but I attribute that to our very niche work and being the only game in town for hundreds of miles. Folks are usually here a long time or they are here to get tuition benefits and leave after they complete terminal degrees. It is an incredibly inefficient interview system and one I would love to change.

    2. The Prettiest Curse*

      As a candidate, it would freak me out if I didn’t at least know how many people to expect to be interviewing me. What on earth do they tell people who ask how many interviewers there will be and their names? “Dunno, it depends on their schedule and mood that day”?

      1. Emmers*

        The director does send the list of potential interviewers, but it’s just the whole department of 25 which I can’t imagine is particularly reassuring. Who is actually in the room during the interview, at least at the 2nd level interviews, doesn’t really matter because our question list is the same for every candidate.

        1. The Prettiest Curse*

          Yeah, that’s the exact opposite of reassuring! As a candidate, you don’t have any way of knowing that the questions will be the same regardless of the number of interviewers. So that many people would cause me to flee, just because it would be so overwhelming.

        2. Anonymous5*

          “The question list is the same” — but that means people can’t probe or ask followup question, which are critical to finding out more about candidates. As we know, standardisation doesn’t work because people don’t provide standard answers.

          1. BeckyinDuluth*

            I don’t know about this academic institution, but at mine “you have to ask the same interview questions of all candidates” is an equity practice, but it does not mean you can’t ask follow up questions.

            One way to address this would be to at least share the questions in advance so they know something about how the interview would go.

            1. Loulou*

              Yes, this has been my experience too. But I’m also more used to the hiring committee asking me the set questions they ask all candidates, whereas the big panels of colleagues seem to ask a mix of set questions and more organic questions about things from my resume, things I said earlier etc. I’ve liked that mix but clearly it’s not universal.

            2. Emmers*

              Yep, it’s an equity policy and yes we can ask follow ups. I’ve suggested sending the questions out to candidates beforehand but HR told us it’s confidential info which I think is ridiculous.

            3. UKDancer*

              Yes. I’m not in academia but we ask the same questions of every candidate to ensure fairness. That way you’re not treating your favourite applicant to an easy ride and making it harder for the others by giving them really hard questions. The panel agrees what they’re asking and who is putting which questions beforehand. The follow up questions vary depending on what the applicant has said and what we want to know more about and how they’ve answered.

              But we always ask everyone the same questions to begin with. I’d get HR on my case like a ton of bricks if I didn’t.

        3. Dutchie*

          I understand the reasoning behind asking the same questions, but having that many people in an interview would actually be a nightmare for me because of my ADHD and I assume that there are people with other disabilities who would also be at a disadvantage because of it.

          If you are in a position to bring it up, it might be worth it to mention how it makes your hiring practices less accommodating.

        4. Amaranth*

          The fact they all got on the reference check calls would make me feel like I need to apologize to my references, and wonder at the fact half the department has that much free time.

      2. So long and thanks for all the fish*

        I just had a second interview that was a zoom panel interview with, i kid you not, around 30 people. The first interview had around 9, which was bad enough. The first interview I got everyone’s name at the beginning, the second one they introduced all the managers and had assigned questions to some individual contributors, whose names I also got when they asked their questions. Otherwise, it was just the names on the zoom screen.

        As for what I was told, the first one was “a few team members”. The second was “more people from the department”. It was a little intimidating, but one person was in charge of making sure we weren’t ever all sitting awkwardly in silence waiting for someone to say something, and they did a good job of making sure it ran smoothly.

    3. OP #4 here*

      It’s good to see a perspective on this from someone at an org that hires this way.

      I would not have liked having people conducting my interview if more people were available that day. It threw me off a bit (because I was frantically trying to scribble down who was in the Zoom meeting (and some were connected in a conference room) and what their roles were. Introductions also took up a good bit of the time.

      How long are your interviews like this scheduled for? Mine was only an hour and I didn’t think it was enough time.

      1. Another Group Hire Voice*

        I also work in academia and hire this way, but faculty interviews are always a two day affair, and there’s at least one meeting with just the search committee (usually three to four people) and a one on one with the Dean. I would think anyone that is interviewing for a faculty position knows that this is how it goes.

        We do have search committees for staff positions that can have up to eight people on the committee. It usually lasts an hour, then they get another hour that is a direct one on one with the supervisor. But in the end, the supervisor gets to say who they want. It’s the search committee’s job to make a list of strengths and weaknesses of the candidate, they don’t get to choose.

        1. After 33 years ...*

          Yes, these are our procedures as well.
          Faculty candidates are required to present a research talk, and anyone from the department – faculty, staff, students – can come and ask questions. Pre-2020, audiences of 40+ were common.

      2. Emmers*

        We usually block out 2 hrs for the panel interviews, one seems short! Intros take forever, my least favorite part. Also some folks in a conference room together is a rough dynamic for a virtual interview for so many reasons. Ooof.

        1. OP #4 here*

          With a large number of people being introduced and asking questions, 2 hours seems like a more appropriate amount of time to block.

          For me, it was only the first interview, I’m not in academia, and this wasn’t even a high level job, so I really wasn’t expecting that level of turnout.

          But it is good to know there is a field where having this number of people involved in the interview process is not abnormal.

    4. Robecita*

      My academic institution has committees of ~4-7 people depending on the role. I think this is fairly common in academia. We also are not supposed to make reference calls unless two people from the committee are on the call, I guess to avoid having only one person hear/interpret relevant info. Is this common?

      1. Alton Brown's Evil Twin*

        “We also are not supposed to make reference calls unless two people from the committee are on the call”

        This is baffling.

        Faculty members are trusted to teach and advise students, including PhD candidates and other intense 1-on-1 activities, without somebody looking over their shoulders 24/7. Why is it necessary to have no-lone-zones for every single step of the hiring process?

        1. Emmers*

          Honestly my impression is that I think no one wants to be responsible solely if a candidate doesn’t work out and also academia loves a committee + leadership is wary of *appearing* bias and has taken a more is better approach when hiring.

          1. Amaranth*

            I could understand having an extra person if an organization/company had any past accusations of bias?

      2. After 33 years ...*

        For a faculty position, the referees’ comments have to be written (or e-mailed) to the Department, all faculty members can see them, and follow-up or private communications with referees are not permitted.

    5. Rock Prof*

      Yeah, I was thinking this doesn’t sound uncommon in academia. I had a recent interview with 8 people on the hiring committee (and a few weeks missing), where they just round robin the questions.
      But like others pointed out, academic interviews are generally 1-2 days where you meet with various subsets of people. I even met with the university president for this interview, which feels wild for a normal TT position.

    6. Wintermute*

      I would really worry about sending inadvertent messages. Especially in academic circles word gets around, people talk. So if candidate A and candidate B are talking and candidate A says “it was wild, I had 15 people show up at my panel interview!” and candidate B only had three then candidate B is going to make some assumptions about your overall level of interest, so is candidate A for that matter. Not only is that just rude, playing mind games with your applicants, you could open yourself up to some very awkward questioning.

      Any time two applicants get wildly different treatment you have two problems. It can hurt your ability to get the best candidates, of course. But worse, those candidates who find out are going to wrack their brain trying to think of a reason why and they are not going to be inclined to be charitable. That kind of thing can easily lead to a surprise when you didn’t even realize you’d created the impression of an ulterior motive or legally impermissible reasoning.

      1. Emmers*

        We don’t keep the ‘why’ a secret but candidates do have to believe us when we tell them it’s just a matter of who is available and I’m sure some don’t. Not my favorite element of my job for sure.

        1. Wintermute*

          My concern would be someone who feels hurt and starts to wonder why no one “made themselves available”– “this is who was available” is basically “this is who felt like making it a priority to show up” after all.

          And it’s not hard to see how someone could be insecure about what decides the real reason people did or didn’t make something a priority. If you’re saying “this is who chose to come”, that prompts the immediate question of “why didn’t other people chose to come? and that can lead then to wonder if it’s an illegal reason.

          1. Emmers*

            Im not sure what the illegal part of this is but if I’m presenting/teaching/on pto etc that day or time, then it doesn’t matter how much I want to interview someone, I’m not available.

            1. Wintermute*

              To be blunt, it’s because if I get three people and joe rando gets 15, I’m going to start wondering why, and the answer I settle on might be that I think it’s discriminatory. That he got much more attention than I did because people decided not to bother with my interview because I’m a minority, or some other protected characteristic.

              Any time you treat candidates wildly differently you leave yourself vulnerable to people making the assumption that the reason I was treated poorly and someone else was treated well is because they didn’t want to hire me, but couldn’t say why.

              If there are ACTUAL discrepancies, even totally accidental ones, that’s even worse– say you have 10 candidates that make it that far and just by random chance the women have an average of 4 people showing up and the men average 8. In a smallish sample size it’s not hard to end up with those kinds of differences by pure chance. But pure chance or no that in and of itself is illegal even if you didn’t intend or mean for it to happen.

              Treating candidates wildly differently for basically random reasons can backfire in all kinds of ways.

              1. pancakes*

                How would you know how many interviewers other candidates are getting? Discrimination in interviewing is a big problem, of course, but it’s also a problem when there’s just one interviewer who seems to be discriminatory. It’s not the main or only problem with having candidates facing a panel of a dozen people, or half a dozen. Most candidates are going to wonder about the decision-making process at an employer that does that, not just the ones who are wary of discrimination.

                1. Wintermute*

                  Well part of the problem is that academics talk, it’s a field where it is more likely than most for candidates to compare notes about what they experienced.

                  You also raise a good point about it making people in general wonder how competent the place is, though, even if they’re not assuming the worst about why they might have gotten less interest.

                2. Dutchie*

                  Isn’t this why it would be better to just have a set number of people who are designated to the process and will show up to all the interviews to make sure all candidates have the same number of interviewers? That way you decide upfront what would be a good balance between bias and absolute chaos.

                  I cannot imagine having a predetermined set of questions, but have a random bunch of interviewers based on who could show up that day. Surely some people have to be in all the interviews to make sure they can compare all the candidates? Those are the people you want in the interviews. I don’t actually understand what the benefit would be from having *more* people be in an interview (especially not over zoom).

              2. Emmers*

                I think it’s interesting the assumption is more people on a panel is somehow better but I agree that our system isn’t set up well for everyone getting the same interview experience with regard to interfacing with the department personnel. I actually think it’s too standardized in most parts and would like actual functioning hiring committees for different roles where we could ask specific questions. We’d never have 10 or even close to that number of people interviewing for a position either so potentially the issue you highlight has an even bigger impact. Our director doesn’t have much regard for our schedules but covers it with HR by saying everyone is invited to the interviews, regardless on attendance outcomes.

    7. L.H. Puttgrass*

      “I don’t think it makes for great interviews on either side because sometimes 3 people show and sometimes 15 and we don’t know who will be there til day of so no ability to let the candidate know either.”

      This part is really bad, IMO. I did a full-day academic job interview that was scheduled like this: although there were some interviews scheduled with specific people, there were other blocks in which everyone was invited to drop in. In one or two of those blocks, no one did. I spent a lot of time catching up on other work while waiting to see if anyone was interested enough to stop by.

      I was not surprised when I did not get the job. On the plus side, I wasn’t quite as disappointed as I might have been, either.

    8. Momma Bear*

      We are required to have 2-3 people with the thought being that different opinions will give the best overall view of a candidate. There was a time our interviews got too big and the CEO put an end to it because they felt that it might be scaring off good candidates.

  4. us vs them*

    #2 – I’ve encountered this behaviour before and it was underpinned by a clear ‘us vs them’ attitude (the workers bees vs management). My Sally believed strongly that they needed to shield their direct reports from the big bad managers*.

    OP 2’s Sally is probably struggling with moving from being and individual contributor to a position with people management and hasn’t made the mental leap.

    I agree with Alison that this is critical to resolve and if Sally can’t get over her discomfort quickly (as in 1-2 weeks max), she is not suited to the position.

    *Example – when the servers went down which took some hours to fix, in a meeting to determine what had gone wrong and what steps needed to be taken for it not to happen again my ‘Sally’ refused to deliver the diagnosis and actually said, “My job is to protect my staff from consequences” (!!).

    1. The Prettiest Curse*

      “My job is to protect my staff from consequences”

      I get the feeling that this is the origin story of some the terrible employees we read about on this site.
      If you don’t want to be responsible for implementing all of your employer’s policies (even the awful, illogical ones), just don’t become a manager. The no-consequences school of management works just fine until it runs into people who will be crappy to their colleagues or neglect their work unless they DO have consequences.

        1. The Prettiest Curse*

          Yeah, exactly. So many of the bad situations on this site could have been avoided if managers had just been prepared to have difficult conversations with their staff and make sure that there were consequences for terrible behaviour.

      1. Forrest*

        I am managing a team that’s had this kind of manager in the past, and it’s just rotten. I have a team member who has spent the last year perfecting their tall conical teapots, and they’re rightly proud of them — but they’re getting no recognition for them, and they’re furious and bitter about it. But that’s because the departmental strategy switched away from tall conical teapots to short squat teapots two years ago, but previous managers never sat down to have the Difficult Conversation with them. You’re just not doing anyone any favours with an attitude like that and it makes me so angry for them.

        (I have also been asked not to have that conversation with them YET because there’s lots of other dysfunction going on and since teapots are only 20% of their role, it’s ok if they keep making the wrong ones for now. But their anger about the lack of recognition is spilling over in various other directions and it’s rapidly moving up my list of things I need to address in order to get anything else done, and aaargh.)

        1. Your local password resetter*

          Oh dear, I’m getting anxious just reading about that. And it’s only going to get worse the longer it festers.
          Sorry you have to deal with such a dysfunctional mess.

        2. Amaranth*

          So, what do they actually DO with work product they are allowing to be completed incorrectly? Pay for another employee to redo it?

          1. Forrest*

            There is still a market for tall conical teapots, so they’re still getting sold. It’s just that those clients are considered a shrinking market and there’s less profit per teapot, so the company strategy is to focus on the short squat teapots because that’s where the growth is. But nobody has given my team member accurate information about that, so she can decide whether to switch to short squat teapots or look for a role at a company which will continue to provide tall conical teapots.

    2. Alternative Person*

      Urgh. It’s one thing to protect staff from the s*** rolling downhill but you still have to hold them accountable.

      1. Where’s the Orchestra?*

        I had a friend who was managing in a situation like this. The big manager at the top – well all the middle folks were joking that he’d obviously found some major dirt on somebody to get the job, because he was such an incompetent backstabbing vindictive idiot how else did he get the job? Anyways, friend had a habit of holding all decisions about new priorities for 24 hours to make sure there wouldn’t be changes (frequently happened) and to also give themselves time to translate things into actionable items.
        (Friend has moved on since, but it’s a small industry and heard that vindictive manager just got hit by the Union with a major grievance, they are not shocked.)

      2. KRM*

        I know! My old boss was great at protecting me from the dithering management went through when assigning new programs, or trying to constantly change things based on one set of data. She would not have hesitated to call me out if my work was subpar or if I couldn’t deliver the results needed in a timely fashion. There’s a huge difference and managers need to be able to see that difference.

      1. JustMyImagination*

        It sounds like they’re still peers. Sally was assigned a project to manage, not staff.

        1. Librarian of SHIELD*

          That makes it even more essential for Sally to talk about the staff with OP. If Sally’s not writing people’s performance evaluations, she needs to share pertinent information with the people that do.

          OP, in your next conversation with Sally, I would recommend explaining that you aren’t asking about this because you want to punish anyone, but you need to make sure that staff are assigned to projects that are appropriate for their skill levels and you can’t do that if you don’t have a realistic view of what those skill levels are.

          And long term, she can’t move into a supervisory role in the future if she can’t discuss her staff’s needs with her own manager. Sometimes I need to advocate for better training or other essentials for my staff, and to do that I have to be honest about why those things are needed. And my boss has to sign off on my staff’s performance evaluations, so she has to know some of the details of my staff’s abilities.

          1. JustaTech*

            Exactly. It sounds like Sally doesn’t want to “tattle” or “gossip” about Jane, so the OP needs to be super, super clear that this isn’t about gossip or punishment, it’s about making sure everyone can do their best, both Jane and Sally.

    3. BatManDan*

      At this level of resistance, I don’t think Sally will simply start becoming a good manager through the sheer force of a good example and some quality management from above. She will probably need extended coaching, most likely from an outside coach/consultant, before she can be comfortable doing what needs to be done. In the meantime, if I were in that situation, I’d change her title / role / responsibilities until she addressed what’s blocking her.

    4. Ana Gram*

      I had a supervisor who did exactly this! I’d scheduled a meeting with a unit we work closely with so that we could figure out a more efficient way to deal with some paperwork. This was totally in my purview to do and involved 4 people and a meeting that would take about 20 minutes. More of a chat, really. They were walking over from the other side of the building so it was pretty low key all around.

      He cancelled the meeting! He told my colleague and I, in a relieved tone, that he “got us out of the meeting”. What? It was a very bizarre point of view and he acted like he was saving us from being berated by the other unit. (Which would not have happened.)

    5. PT*

      It could also be a history of higher management being poor at their jobs.

      Years ago, I had a crew of generally good employees. They were knowledgeable, reliable, and rarely needed any correction beyond a verbal one. But my boss thought they were all stupid and irresponsible, and so anytime there was a tiny glitch, or he received some cockamamie complaint, my boss would want to automatically fire the person responsible rather than talk to them. The problem was, almost all of them were better at their job than market average, and replacing them with someone just as reliable and competent was going to be difficult, so it was best to engage in a process of constructive criticism, not GOTCHA! But my boss liked GOTCHA!, so I had to spend a ton of time running interference to keep him from firing my whole department for minor human errors. The department he directly supervised had massive turnover because he treated his employees like they were all replaceable morons, and because he treated them like that, he mostly was only able to hire low quality candidates and if anyone got good at their job, they’d leave as soon as they could.

    6. Cold Fish*

      It sounds less like trying to protect people from consequences and more like Sally feels like any discussion about another coworker is gossiping or worse “snitching” on said coworker. I don’t know how you could ever resolve that. A manager must be able to discuss performance (good or bad). Heck, I wasn’t even supervising but just training coworkers and needed to be able to honestly talk about their performance with my manager. I think OP needs to sit Sally down and have a very honest discussion about what supervising entails and if she even wants to be in a supervisory position.

      1. JustaTech*

        That’s exactly how I read the situation. Maybe if the OP (after being super clear that this isn’t about “snitching” or “tattling”) asks Sally to start with something Jane is doing well, so Sally can see that it’s not a “let’s find fault with every little thing Jane does” but rather “these are the things Jane does well, these are the things Jane needs to work on, and that’s OK, you just need to inform Jane which things need work and identify if there are ways to support Jane improving on those things”.

  5. Ashkela*

    LW#3, I’ll admit my reaction when someone does this is to immediately ask why they asked/commented. “Do you even own a hoodie?” “Why do you ask?” I’ll admit that it depends on the situation, but I’ve found forcing folx to spell out their heinous opinions (when I don’t care, as opposed to if it’s actually hurting my feelings) will usually result in them dropping it, either because they think that I’m so dumb/boring as to not understand them or very rarely, they realize they’re being a jerk. But I also love doing that to rude people, so YMMV.

    1. allathian*

      Yeah, me too. If someone’s making me uncomfortable with their questions or comments, I have absolutely no problems returning the awkward where it belongs. Fortunately I work with professionals who don’t make inappropriate comments, especially not now that we’re mostly WFH.

      When this has happened socially, it’s usually been with friends of friends. I can sometimes forgive inappropriate behavior, up to a point, but I don’t forget. Friends of friends don’t usually get second chances with me, either.

    2. KateM*

      Knowing myself, I’d probably just answer “yes” in a surprised tone and face. There’s no saying how they react to that, though – probably thinking I’m dumb, too.

      1. RagingADHD*

        IME, a sincere and literal answer is actually a great way to shut this kind of nonsense down. Whatever game they’re playing, just don’t play.

        Works a treat. And perfectly polite to boot.

        1. Elizabeth West*

          Yep, I used to do that to a bully who would ask me sarcastic questions designed to get a rise out of me. He always said them very innocently, but I would answer as if it were a real, serious question. It was so much fun to watch the wind go right out of his sails. It’s possible he thought I was slow on the uptake, but his opinion did not matter to me in the slightest.

    3. Falling Diphthong*

      “I wear my hoodie while dangling off the city’s drainpipes, looking for crime. And nowhere else.” (raspy Batman voice)

    4. The Cosmic Avenger*

      Yes! If you can pull it off, Clueless But Curious really frustrates passive-aggressive people, because they need to state explicitly what they were trying to hint at. Sometimes I call the technique The Anthropologist, because I enjoy thinking about it as being dropped into this remote, strange tribe where everything is new and different.

    5. tessa*

      LW3: “‘Do you even OWN sweats or a hoodie?’ A top manager was within earshot, so I didn’t feel okay replying ‘none of your business!’ Instead, I said, ‘You really don’t think I wear dresses and heels to the gym, do you?’ Probably not a great response…”

      I happen to think it’s a wonderful response, FWIW. Spot on, in fact.

    6. Amaranth*

      Or cut off the give and take by looking at them with a slightly puzzled air and say ‘what a bizarre question’ and then blink and move on with your day.

    7. JustaTech*

      I used to have a coworker (who was liked and respected and knew it) who dressed very well compared to the rest of the lab; think dress and heels vs jeans and sneakers.
      One time (once!) another coworker joked that she didn’t think Coworker 1 even owned jeans. So a few weeks later, on a Friday Coworker 1 wore jeans (and heels), and had a good laugh at our reactions.

      But! this was a single interaction (not endless), was done in a tone that expressed that the joker did not think there was anything wrong with not owning jeans and that she respected coworker 1.

      If you have a convivial, respectful workplace you may be able to occasionally make light jokes about people’s style. But as soon as it’s A Thing or done in an unkind way, no, it’s not a joke and it has to stop.

    8. Snaffanie*

      Yes! “Why do ask” is such a great response that can be followed up with similar prompts until the rude person has dug themselves into a hole of their own making. And you’ve done nothing by be politely inquisitive. Glorious!

  6. awesome3*

    #3, To me it reads like your coworker might be insecure about their own clothing choices and if they are following the dress code properly, and are dealing with that anxiety inappropriately by taking it out on you. I’d take it as, it’s not you, it’s them, and proceed accordingly

    1. Love to WFH*

      Exactly. You dress more formally than they do, therefore they think you must be judging them.

      The same thing happens to vegetarians. I’ve been lectured about how it’s fine to eat meat when all I did was ask for one of the pizzas being ordered to be a veggie.

      Some people imagine they’re being attacked all the time, whenever anyone does something slightly different than they do.

      1. KRM*

        Re: pizza, that would result in me giving my best head tilt and “so, some people don’t eat meat for personal or religious reasons, we need veggie pizzas, not a lecture”. Repeat as needed. Add “Unblinking Gaze of Incomprehension” if required.

      2. Mme Pince*

        Yes! This is exactly the sort of example I was going to provide. The person assumes judgement without any evidence. This also happens when you mention you don’t drink (or even just pass on a drink), which is extra weird for me, because I stopped for medical reasons, and if I’m anything it’s slightly jealous of people enjoying delicious cocktails.

      3. JustaTech*

        I will fully admit I was super intimidated by the gal at my second lab who dressed really well (fashionable, put together), but I knew that it was all me and my insecurities from like high school, and not anything she said or did or thought about me.
        So I told my scared high school self to be quiet and I got to know this coworker and lo! she was a perfectly nice person who had no interest or intent on picking on me.
        Part of being an adult is identifying thought patterns that aren’t serving you and moving away from them.

    2. anonymous73*

      That was my first thought but it doesn’t excuse their behavior. They still need to be confronted and told to stop.

    3. Falling Diphthong*

      Ah, yes. “I might be doing it wrong. If I want to be right, I need to criticize others for not fitting what I will claim is a universally understood norm they are doing wrong.”

    4. EmmaPoet*

      I’m wondering if it’s reverse snobbery in action, where Jane feels that anyone who dresses up is superficial and only cares about appearances.

  7. Observer*

    #2 – Alison is right that you need to spell some things out very explicitly. There are two items that I think need to be included.

    1. In this context, Jane is NOT Sally’s “colleague” but her managee / report / employee. They are NOT on the same level on the hierarchy, and she needs to be VERY comfortable with that idea. Because it’s not just about discussing Jane’s performance with you, it’s about managing her and issuing directives. Obviously you don’t want someone who is in the habit of barking orders at people and throwing their weight around. But at the same time, it’s really important to understand where the authority (and responsibility) resides.

    2. Discussion of Jane’s work is not her “talking” about Jane as in gossip. It’s a results oriented management discussion. These conversations can and should cover a lot of ground. Yes, it covers where Jane can improve. But it also covers what tools the company could provide her, or support that Jane might need at some point, or perhaps a raise, bonus or promotion. The point being that it’s not fair for ant and all information about Jane get stuck with Sally if Sally is not the person who has all the power and authority to make all relevant decisions about Jane.

    1. A.N. O'Nyme*

      Especially your first point stood out to me as well. Doesn’t seem like Sally realises she’s no longer on the same level in the company as before or at least doesn’t realise her relationship with the other people working there has fundamentally changed (or she doesn’t want to acknowledge that). Either way, she needs a good discussion on the topic of how to be a manager and if she’s willing and able to perform those duties. Management isn’t for everyone, and that’s fine, but the sooner everyone gets on the same page about whether or not Sally specifically is suited for management at this point in time, the better for everyone (especially Sally).

    2. Bagpuss*

      Yes, that what was struck me – Sally needs to recognise that Jane isn’t just her colleague, she is her direct report and Sally as the manager has an obligation to talk to her about her performance (good or bad) and to talk about her to her Sall’y own manager as appropriate.

      I think the LW has to be very clear that Sally’s discomfort isn’t a good reason to deprive Jane of proper feedback and management.
      Given how much the letter focus on what Sally is comfortable with, and being ‘respectful’ I wonder whether LW may have been softening things too much in speaking with Sally and needs to have a very direct, clear conversation with her where she expressly tell Sally that this is a vital part of her role, and that it is not fair to Jane for her to be avoiding part of her job and leaving Jane without feedback or guidance. Perhaps flag up that her attitude means that she isn’t in a position to advocate for Jane or to support her appropriately to improve or develop, so not only is he approach bad management, it is potentially actively damaging to Jane’s career as well as to her own.

    3. Harper the Other One*

      That’s exactly what I came here to say – OP, you need to reinforce that Sally is not a colleague any more. That’s part of the movement to management and she needs to hear that explicitly so she can decide if that’s right for her or if she’s better off pursuing non-management work.

    4. MechE*

      -Sally has told me it makes her very uncomfortable to “talk about colleagues.”

      This caught my eye as well. Until Sally realizes that they are her subordinates, a statement of fact, not a value judgement, I don’t know how she can be a manager.

    5. Smithy*

      With #2, I also think there’s a dynamic in showing how results oriented management and “talking about colleagues” within management structures is actually a professional positive. Essentially, if what Jane requires to get the next promotion or the highest raise or whatever is to be at a place where she’s able to groom three llamas a day and right now she can only groom two. Discussing steps to get her to two, are all positives. It’s a case where “talking about someone” is a way to see how they might be positioned for growth opportunities, funding for training or promotions.

      The other thing that might be worth flagging….in my first management position, I was deeply insecure about the management responsibilities while being highly secure about the individual contribution piece and just wanted to focus there. The woman I was managing was highly competent as an individual contributor and clearly pushing for more to do – but at a time I was just getting my sea legs in a new job and as a first time manager. As a result I know I came off as insecure at first. Over time, I was able to gain more confidence and leadership but those early days led for a dynamic where she heavily pushed back against me as a manager. And it was a dynamic I thought I kind of deserved for being an inexperienced and at first weaker manager – and honestly, it took me a while to catch what were more problematic issues she was bringing to the table as opposed to genuine frustrations.

      For some people, having a manager who’s learning and perhaps who’s insecurities are more visible I think is really frustrating. And some of us first time managers can easily tell. Which can often exacerbate insecurities. I don’t know if that’s what’s going with Sally necessarily, but it may be worth also taking the time to talk directly to Sally. These types of dynamics can really fester when structures are super hierarchical and there are never skip level meetings. If Sally knows that the OP is also talking to Jane, then I think that can break up certain levels of allegiances and protection.

  8. CreepyPaper*

    #5, I used to work somewher where I was a Teapot Co-Ordinator level 2, although I was doing all the duties of a level 3 except for being a team lead. I was a section lead, which apparently wasn’t the same thing, despite me doing LITERALLY ALL THE SAME THINGS as a level 3/team lead, they kept me at a level 2 for years.

    So I was doing all of the duties of the level 3 position but they wouldn’t promote me because of the way the job descriptions were worded, so what you’re being told is a practice some companies definitely do and isn’t right and yes I am still horribly resentful of doing the work of a level above the role I had and not getting the title bump and pay increase to go with the extra work.

    1. Wendy Darling*

      I’m still cranky about my last job, where I was told I had to do level 3 work to get promoted to level 3, so I did level 3 work for a whole year while still getting paid at level 2 only to be told sorry, there was a promotion/raise freeze right now because even though the company had its best quarter of all time, we missed some revenue target.

      And they only did promotions at annual review time so I was basically expected to keep doing level 3 work for level 2 pay for another 12 months before I MIGHT get a promotion IF they decided the finances were good enough to maybe pay anyone except sales and the CEO more money.

      I quit for a job that paid 30% more and is more interesting and less stressful.

    2. RC*

      This is reminding me of my first professional job, where I was hired at entry level as an admin and promoted to a sales position midyear. Since reviews–and salary adjustments–were only handled in April, I basically worked at half the salary of other colleagues for half a year. I recall a harrowing sales trip where I had a blown out tire and no ability to pay for it because the one credit card I had was maxed out, I lived paycheck to paycheck, and the company card was NOT to be used for personal expenses. It was BS and I am still salty about it 20 years later.

    3. Fabulous*

      My job right now, when we had a re-org, my new grandboss was talking to my boss about how it’s great that they now have two Level 3’s in this role, and my manager was like, hold up – Fabulous is still only a Level 1. Doing the work of a Level 3. They at least brought me up to a Level 2, but I’m still a bit salty about it. Now I have to wait for my coworker to retire before I have a chance to be made Level 3 because of the way they’re doing promotions now (i.e. we can’t be promoted within our own roles anymore, there has to be an open role of that level and “move” into it).

    4. Managing to Get By*

      For ladder promotions, such as Analyst 1 to Analyst 2, we do generally start giving more complex work to analysts when considering them for promotion. They don’t need to be doing ALL the work of the next level, but they need to show that they are able to advance in their skills. We have 5 levels of Analyst, and Level 1 is people right out of college.

      Someone who has been an Analyst 1 for about a year will get some more complex projects, and training from someone at a higher level. After they’ve completed a couple of higher -level projects, with positive feedback from the trainer, we’ll put them in for the next promotion cycle.

      Then the first year or so at the new level they’ll still be doing a mix of simpler and more complex work. It takes at least a year to learn the next level, sometimes longer.

      This continues throughout their career, if they stay and progress up the levels. Levels 4 and 5 have expectations of showing some leadership skills, such as running a project and training/coaching less experienced employees, so if someone’s goal is management we can see what they would need to work on in order to lead a team.

      This works well in our organization, and seems fair in that people don’t have to do all the next level’s work at lower pay to get promoted, and then once they’re promoted they get a raise to the next level but have a year or so until the majority of their work is at that level, so a new Analyst 2 will still be doing quite a bit of Analyst 1 work but getting paid as a 2. It’s an ongoing cycle of learning and promotions, and the promotions tend to come in the middle of the training period for the next position.

      If someone reaches their maximum capability, or if they don’t want the additional duties of the next level (Levels 4 & 5 require client presentations as well as some coaching and training and leading projects) then we don’t mind if they stay at a particular level for the rest of their career. Although, if they weren’t able to move past Level 1 then they probably wouldn’t be a good fit for the role, but generally people who aren’t able to master the skills needed for Level 2 self-select into a different career.

      The main issue I have is that we do have only one or two promotion cycles per year, and we usually don’t know until the cycle begins and we’re told to submit promotion requests. Also, the manager has limited impact on promotion approvals. All of our promotions are reviewed at the Senior VP level, which seems ridiculous for at least the first 2 or 3 levels. This is part of why we need them to handle at least 1 or 2 projects at the next level before promotion, that helps with getting approval.

  9. Fake Old Converse Shoes (not in the US)*

    I wonder what would happen if a clueless employee or a visitor got poisoned by the coffeemaker in OP1’s office.

    1. JustAThought*

      Since that didn’t happen, I wonder what would have happened if op1 made a fresh pot after cleaning pot? Could that have been problem solved?

      1. pancakes*

        Running enough water through it (or water with a bit of white vinegar) to flush it out would’ve taken ages. I can see why anyone wanting a cup of coffee would prefer to just go to the cafe next door instead.

      2. Observer*

        Could that have been problem solved?

        Possibly – and possibly not. That’s part of the problem. With no way to know what kind of cleaner the CW was using, and how it was cleaned, there would be no way for the OP or anyone else to know whether a rinse of the pot and a single extra cycle would be enough. So, it becomes a real risk. Keep in mind that a lot of dishwasher detergents are extremely hard to rinse off of hand washed items, much less the inside of a coffee maker, because they are designed for a different system.

        On top of that, the OP’s boss explicitly told her to pretend like the coffee pot doesn’t exist. Why would you expect the OP to ignore their boss’ orders?

    2. Bagpuss*

      Yes, I’m intrigued as to what would have happened if OP had just run the machine through to clean it then made a new pot of coffee.

      It is really bizarre that the manager just let it happen.

  10. fluffy*

    LW1: If I had to guess, the mysterious white powder was either dish detergent, or Puro, a cleansing agent that professional baristas use to clean espresso machines. Puro is incredibly effective but also extremely alkaline (it’s basically powdered Drano), and if you don’t properly flush out the machine after cleaning it, it’ll make people sick.

    Also you’re not supposed to use it on regular coffee makers; it’s just for backflushing espresso machines and soaking portafilters and baskets and so on. (You aren’t even supposed to run it through the espresso machine’s water line directly, for that matter, and even for a coffee shop you only need to use it like once a week, certainly not every day.)

    1. Cheerfully Polite Grey Rock*

      This was precisely my thought! Although we did use it every night as part of the closing and cleaning procedure, but a) we were a very busy cafe, and b) you only use like a quarter of a teaspoon per group head. Also, they are well rinsed both after cleaning, AND the next morning before setting everything up again.
      And dialling in the coffee each morning also involves running several eapresso shots through the machine, so it helps wash out any remnants.
      I strongly suspect this coworker either didn’t rinse the pot out properly, and certainly didn’t make an entire sacrificial pot of coffee to throw out before the real drinkable coffee was made!
      And you’re right, using industrial strength cleaning chemicals (designedfor machines that go through kilos of beans per day) for an office pot is just extreme overkill, hot water and detergent would work fine and is much less likely to poison your coworkers!

      1. Seeking Second Childhood*

        All you need for most small scale coffeepots is to run white vinegar through. ..but even that takes a water only pot before you make the coffee. And I suggest doing this when no one is eating, because strong vinegar smell is not pleasant.

        1. Gray Lady*

          I always run at least one water only pot PLUS a pot with a small amount of coffee in the filter to get rid of the vinegar. I can still smell it after multiple runs of water and though it might not taste in the coffee, I’m just not persuaded until l run through some coffee to absorb it a bit more.

        2. Charlotte Lucas*

          Ok. I use vinegar to clean my tea kettle & microwave. I agree the smell is strong, but not unpleasant. It wouldn’t put me off my food unless I were eating something sweet.

          1. Gracely*

            Vinegar is one of the worst smells I’ve ever encountered. I wish I could use it for cleaning, but it makes me gag every time. Worse, if you’re sensitive to it, it lingers, and one or two rinses is definitely not enough to get rid of the smell.

            1. JustaTech*

              There’s a very scary cleaner we use in the lab that I’ve never minded, because it smells mostly like vinegar. But most of my coworkers *hate* it because it smells like vinegar. (I was not pleased to discover just how nasty a cleaner it is because the smell didn’t warn me off.)

              It’s interesting how people can have such a variety of reactions to the smell of hot vinegar.

          2. Cold Fish*

            I also find vinegar to be not unpleasant through strong smell. I can be very sensitive to chemical scents and much prefer the smell of vinegar to 99% of the air fresheners and plug in’s on the market.

            (Side note: instead of air freshener, leave a bowl of white vinegar in a smelly room for a few hours, come back and toss the vinegar in the sink. The vinegar will absorb the smell leaving a neutral scent to the room. Unless the source of the smell is still in the room that is.)

          3. Dahlia*

            In some places, there’s cooking vinegar and cleaning vinegar and cleaning vinegar is MUCH stronger.

    2. JustForThis*

      It might also have been citric acid. It is basically harmless, but some people may have reacted to the taste (and the knowledge that mysterious white powder is being involved).

      1. Chocolate Teapot*

        There’s an old fashioned powder detergent called Vim, which might have been what was used.

      2. fluffy*

        Yeah, citric acid is very useful for descaling (and is what you actually want to run through the machine). But still, that’s like a monthly thing, not daily, and you still need to flush the coffee maker out if you’re going to have drinkable coffee in the end (although at least that’s just a matter of flavor, not health/safety).

    3. What She Said*

      I was thinking it was the powder you use once in a great while to get coffee stains out of the pot not for daily use. And you have to rinse really well. I’m betting that was the issue, she wasn’t rinsing well. We have the powder here at work but only a few are comfortable using it for that very reason. They are afraid they won’t rinse it completely and make people sick.

  11. Cheese Jaffles*

    # 3 not that this is relevant but LWs story eerily reminds me of a classmate that would always comment on peoples attire.

    She could not understand why anyone would be well dressed for a TAFE class (Im Australian and I think this would be somewhat equivalent to Community College in the U.S).

    She was one of the youngest in the class, late teens, in which most students her age would turn up in trackies (sweat pants for you Americans) or leggings and a hoodie.
    Meanwhile the rest of the class mid 20s and above would wear a neat pair of jeans, top and a cardigan or jacket.
    Lord forbid any of her female classmates wear anything too ‘stylish’ though.
    She’d grumble and sneer at a few classmates that would turn up to class wearing dresses or even light makeup.
    Anyone dressed ‘smart casual’ was of the object of her scorn and ridicule.

    Upon getting to know her better, I realised that at her core she was deeply insecure. She was already struggling with the class content, overwhelmed with the course curriculum, and intimidated by her mature classmates.

    In addition to having body image issues I believe she felt that her classmates being ‘overdressed’ was an attack on her own laid back casual attire.
    Perhaps making fun of others gave her a sense of control in an environment where she felt very out of place.

    1. Fake Old Converse Shoes (not in the US)*

      I remember a high school classmate who said that she would feel really ashamed if she had to repeat an outfit during the week.
      I wonder how much of her expensive wardrobe was a victim of formaldehyde and other Med School related… “smells”

    2. Not my usual account*

      If you cannot take it any more, ask her why does having people with a different sense of personal style than hers bother her so much.

      If she continues to attack, I would be tempted to slowly look at her from head to toe with a dead pan face, say ‘uh huh’ and turn and walk away. I would only dream about doing the diss and pivot.

      In reality, be professional about it and if it doesn’t improve after speaking to her, let your manager know.

    3. Falling Diphthong*

      I realised that at her core she was deeply insecure.
      I think that’s how this stuff almost always reads to a neutral outside observer with some life experience. (Being able to go baboon-troop-observer above-it-all is critical to being able to pull it off–it’s much harder if this is someone with whom you feel you have to interact politely.)

      1. pancakes*

        Observing people’s behavior dispassionately isn’t inconsistent with interacting politely with them.

    4. anonymous73*

      Knowing the “why” behind it doesn’t excuse the behavior though. A bully is usually a bully because they have their own insecurities. It’s still wrong and inappropriate behavior.

      I live in a state where the summer is often “hazy, hot and humid”. Some men will comment and ask why I’m “so dressed up” if I show up in a skirt or a dress. Sometimes it’s just because I felt like it, but most times it’s because it allows my undercarriage to breathe. Regardless, why people feel the need to comment is irrelevant. Just maybe say I look nice and leave it at that?

      1. KateM*

        They are asking because they are too insecure to come to work in a dress or skirt, obviously.
        Reminds me how I once read an article how in a school with an uniform there were no uniform shorts, and school rules wouldn’t allow even in hot weather to wear non-uniform ones, so the parents of boys dressed them in uniform *skirts* instead as there was nothing in rules about not allowing *that*.

    5. RagingADHD*

      Teenagers making fun of people because they’re insecure is pretty universal. I’m kind of surprised you had to get to know her better in order to figure that out.

      It’s a trope for a reason.

  12. The Wall Of Creativity*

    #5 Been there. When you finally decide you’ve had enough and tell them you should be promoted, their reply is “Why should we promote you? What extra thinks will,you be able to bring to the job after being promoted?” When they say that, it’s time to leave.

    1. Wendy Darling*

      I got so frustrated at this that when my manager criticized me for “holding back” when I’d been working above my job level for over a year my response was, “Yes, I am, this is what you get for .”

      Just because I CAN do more doesn’t mean I WILL do more. If somebody wants me to do the big fancy job I require the big fancy title and the big fancy pay.

      1. Wendy Darling*

        Err, that was supposed to say “this is what you get for [insert my pay rate]” but I did something untoward with brackets, oh well.

      2. UKDancer*

        Definitely. One of my mother’s friends was a librarian for many years. She is now semi retired but works as an assistant shelver 2 days per week at the local library. They keep trying to put her in the reference library as a librarian and she keeps saying “no, you’re not paying professional librarian salary, you’re paying me a minimum wage to shelve books. So that’s what you get.”

        1. MissBaudelaire*

          “If you want to pay me part time benefits, you’re going to get part time hours from me.” -me, to my exboss when he thought he’d be cute.

        2. no sleep for the wicked*

          Totally me. In my past life I held director-level positions and was a mover & shaker. When life handed me lemons a while back, I made lemonade by carefully choosing my job based on duties and expectations that met my needs for low stress conditions. Yes, I could solve a lot of problems at my workplace but I don’t suffer from vocational awe and my lower pay keeps it that way.

    2. Alternative Person*

      Yeah, this formed a big reason why I left my previous job. They wouldn’t give me pay parity (the company didn’t have a title system) with my ‘senior’ colleague because because they wanted to maintain his seniority even though (and they admitted) I was more qualified and the best in branch.

      The reason for his seniority? He joined one year before I did.

    3. Velocipastor*

      This is exactly why I left Old Job. The department head retired and I was not considered for the role even though I was the person who worked most closely with them and was their back up when they took vacations. They decided not to fill the role which means someone (Me!) had to take on all their daily tasks. I was told I would get a promotion and a title bump, but not department head, if I “proved myself.” 9 months later, I left because the president was “too busy” to look over the title bump and pay scale but had plenty of time to send all staff emails about fantasy football.

  13. Katz*

    #3: Another reply back: You wear what you’re comfortable in and I’ll wear what I’m comfortable in.

    1. Delta Delta*

      Right? Probably lots of people are reading this very post while wearing sweatpants or leggings because that’s comfortable. I happen to prefer jeans, so that’s what I’m wearing. If I felt more comfortable in a dress and pearls, I’d wear that. Whatevs.

    2. MsClaw*

      I live in an area that gets cold (at least to me). When I first started working here, I would occasionally get something saying something like ‘I’d be too warm if I wore that’ and I’d reply ‘oh? Then it’s good you didn’t wear one’.

  14. caps22*

    Coffee lady is a potential lawsuit. Someone who gets sick from the coffee that is known to be toxic, and is presumably not labeled with a big HAZARDOUS SUBSTANCE sign has every right to compensation. And the coffee lady herself could seriously cut herself rummaging in the trash if someone has properly disposed of broken glass in there. This needs to get elevated, not tiptoed around.

    1. pancakes*

      It’s enough that it’s inappropriate and unsettling for her to be rooting around in people’s trash, even if they don’t ever dispose of broken glass. Likewise being weirdly possessive of the coffeemaker. Bad behavior doesn’t have to be a financial liability to be actionable.

      1. Observer*

        Bad behavior doesn’t have to be a financial liability to be actionable.

        Of course not. The problem is that all too often there are bosses who think that they “can’t” do anything about bad behavior, or don’t CARE to do anything about it, unless you can point to a specific risk that they (management) are taking on by not addressing the issue.

    2. Aspiring Chicken Lady*

      It would be a SHAME if the coffee carafe got broken and left under some delicious gossipy trash …

  15. SarahKay*

    Is it just me or does “The Tyrant and the Coffeemaker” sound like the title of a (modern-day) fairy-tale?

    1. Falling Diphthong*

      This poor coworker is the only thing keeping the undercaffeinated night gremlins too queasy to wreak havoc, but she’s dismissed as a witch.

  16. Karia*

    This makes me feel incredibly old, because I cannot fathom wearing sweats to the office. I work in a creative industry, many places with casual dress codes. And if wore sweats to any of those jobs I’d have been asked if I was ok and sent home to change.

    1. anonymous73*

      I always used to joke that at my last job I could show up in pajamas and my boss wouldn’t care. And it was true. It was only 4 of us in the office and all of our meetings were over the phone (no video). But I still wouldn’t show up in sweats and a hoodie. But that’s me. I wouldn’t comment on anyone who chose to do so, even if they were violating a dress code. It’s not my business to enforce.

      1. Karia*

        Oh, I wouldn’t care if someone else did it (unless we were seeing a client). There’s just no way I’d feel comfortable.

      2. Gracely*

        My current boss is a bit like that–and I have a couple of coworkers who have definitely shown up in pajama-like attire. Doesn’t bother me, but I can’t quite go there.

        Literally the only time our boss has said anything about office attire was the day before our new president was going to come to our department to do a walk-through, and that was just a “FYI, the prez is going to be here tomorrow, so you should probably avoid work-out type clothes if you’re coming into the office.”

    2. Gary Patterson's Cat*

      I could. But it depends on what you’re doing that day. Definitely not appropriate for days if clients are coming in, but might be fine on the day before a holiday or a weekend.
      And with some creative/fashionable/entertainment type offices street wear is a hip thing and ok for the office.

  17. OP #4 here*

    Thanks so much for answering my question! I will definitely keep this in mind if I move forward with this org.

    I did get more info from my references and found they each got a call from a different subgroup (different names) of the initial group that interviewed me – so luckily they didn’t all get the full group! It struck a couple of them as odd enough that they flagged it for me, so the first thing I thought was, I better Ask A Manager!

    Glad to know this isn’t some new trend. I am grateful when people provide me a reference and I would hate to subject them to something like that more than once!

    1. anonymous73*

      Yeah even a smaller subgroup calling your references is weird. It’s like nobody can make a decision without it being a consensus.

    2. Antilles*

      The references is what makes it weird to me. A panel interview is often awkward, but it at least makes theoretical sense because you want the entire team to get a feel for the candidate but not making it a forever-long interview. But for references? I legitimately don’t understand the point.
      The instant you put me on speakerphone with multiple people, I’m not giving you anything but the most positive feedback because I have no idea who all is on the line; for all I know the candidate themselves is sitting quietly in said conference room. So the reference checkers aren’t getting anything negative, nothing where I mention a candidate’s weaknesses along with their strengths, not even any of the usual hint-hint vagueness.
      Also, with that many people, you’re going to have to basically follow a script as a reference checker with no natural conversation, follow-ups, etc to probe and really get a feel for things.

      1. sofar*

        Seriously … a panel REFERENCE call? WTF? Also, how do you even get 12 people to all make sure they’re available at the same time that works for the reference? I HOPE they aren’t insisting that the reference work around the schedule of their entire team. Are these reference calls insanely long d/t the panel format? So many questions. This is so so so odd. I’d be really caught off guard by this.

  18. judd*

    OP2, send Sally to management training that is actually good.

    If Sally does not actually see anything negative with Jane’s work, you may also need to accept that, especially if whatever defect you see in Jane’s performance is not actually anything other than minor, and that you are nitpicking for the sake of it.

    1. WellRed*

      OP has no way of knowing whether Janes work us good or bad if Sally refuses to discuss it. And discussing the POSITIVE aspects of Janes work, is also important. Sally seems unable to do either.

      1. judd*

        I read it as OP2 having already established an opinion about Jane and her work quality: “Jane has a strong work ethic but — like all of us — has room for growth.”

        I totally agree with you regarding the positive aspects of Jane’s work needing to be discussed! I’m sick of managers who do nothing but focus on the negatives, especially when it is all very minor stuff and it’s all just nitpicking. It is pointless, unhelpful and completely toxic to both productivity and morale.

        I’m just hoping that OP2 doesn’t already have some pre-determined, negative ideas about Jane. If OP2 does, Sally’s lack of communication could be because she knows OP2 isn’t giving Jane a fair go.

        1. Smithy*

          I do think this is where the OP can hopefully stress to Sally why it’s so important to have those conversations.

          Very often the viewpoint of more senior leaders view of “has room for growth” of more junior colleagues is largely related to a lack of experience. They’ve never prepared briefing materials for the CEO, they’ve never done public speaking in front of a large audience, never created a workplan, successfully closed out a project, etc etc etc. Or its a case where they’re not often working with more senior leadership, and perhaps on those few occasions are more quiet – and so the manager’s manager is specifically wanting to know what they did contribute.

          I do think that some of this ultimately can feel personal when it comes to leadership, confidence, speaking with authority, etc. But in that more detached space, it can be so important in identifying more gentle opportunities to grow those skills.

        2. Observer*

          If OP2 does, Sally’s lack of communication could be because she knows OP2 isn’t giving Jane a fair go.

          That’s still not OK on Sally’s part. What she would need to do in that case is to push back on the OP and say that she believes that Jane’s work is fine because a, b and c. Or even “Jane’s performance is really good, and I think our time could be better spent on discussing A, B and D”.

          I doubt that this is the issue though, because what she is saying indicates fundamental misunderstanding of her role, and discomfort with a key part of her role. Jane is not he r”colleague” in this context, and she NEEDS to “talk about” her reports.

    2. Observer*

      If Sally does not actually see anything negative with Jane’s work, you may also need to accept that,

      The problem is not that Sally doesn’t see anything wrong with Jane’s work. It’s that SHE WON’T DISCUSS IT. That’s just not acceptable. ESPECIALLY since Sally is a new manager, and so it’s possible that a discussion of the project and Jane’s work could surface an issue that Sally missed. Or not. But there is no way to know if Sally won’t “talk about” Jane.

    3. learnedthehardway*

      OP2 needs to also point out to Sally that performance management of direct reports is a MAJOR element of managing people. Discussing their performance with her own manager is also not “talking about” aka “gossiping about” the direct reports: it’s also part of her role as manager.

      Sally really needs some management training as she doesn’t seem to understand what a manager does.

      Just speaking from my first management role – sometimes, being a manager means standing up to your own manager to either defend your people from unfair criticism, but that doesn’t mean you don’t manage your team’s performance.

    4. just another bureaucrat*

      If my boss’s boss is seeing negative things in my performance I should be told. If my boss refused to discuss it with their boss that’s going to absolutely negatively impact my long-term work here. My boss isn’t likely the person who will get me promoted, my boss is rarely the person who is going to be able to alone approve a raise. If your boss were directly hurting you, that’s not a good boss.

      I don’t know why you’re not actually trusting that if OP says they see something that needs improvement you don’t trust them.

      1. judd*

        I don’t know why you’re not actually trusting that if OP says they see something that needs improvement you don’t trust them.

        Hard-won experience. It also sounds like OP is Jane’s grandboss, not her direct boss, and this can result in someone not actually having a good understanding of what’s going on.

        If it helps: I’ve currently got a nightmare on my hands from a direct report, who is a grandboss. They are insisting there are terrible deficits in the performance of a newer employee, but they have no clue as to what it is this employee actually does, and are refusing to listen to sense from the employee’s actual boss, all of their senior colleagues, and the employee themselves. I’m just back from leave and have needed to step right in to try and put this fire out, and I’m fuming at my direct report for being this stupid. His actions reek of bias and workplace bullying, and I’m not having it.

    1. pancakes*

      It’s a bit much to suggest that people with vocal fry have lousy personalities as well, and there are plenty of people as insecure and unpleasant about it as this coworker who don’t.

      1. lemonade*

        This comment reminds me of when an older male customer told me he was surprised I was in a PhD program because I had vocal fry. Literally said, ” you can’t have a PhD, you have vocal fry.” I think it said more about him that it did about me.

  19. anonymous 5*

    OP#3, for what it’s worth, I think your response to the “do you even own sweats?” question was brilliant!! And I am sure I would *not* have been able to come up with anything that clever in the moment if I had been in a similar situation.

  20. Batgirl*

    I think the most shocking thing about #3 is that the comment came after the colleague made a habit of “commenting on my outfits at length”. I can’t think of any way to do that, even if I was being complimentary. I could come up with “that’s nice” or “I like that” or “how smart” but that’s about it, I certainly couldn’t do it at length! What on earth has the colleague been saying “at length” to let OP know she doesn’t like her clothes? I think by the second line of her spiel, I’d be saying “What exactly are we doing right now?” or “I don’t know how I’m supposed to respond to that, is it a compliment?”

    1. londonedit*

      I haven’t encountered someone commenting on my clothes, but I’ve had a similar thing at previous workplaces where someone has latched on to the fact that I enjoy running and made it A Thing that they comment on all the time. And I’d have described that as ‘commenting at length’ – it would be something like:

      Annoying Coworker: Oh, londonedit, I expect you’re doing some MAD run at the weekend again, are you?
      Me: Well, yes, I was planning on going for a run.
      AC: How far is it THIS time?!
      Me: I usually do a 5k parkrun on a Saturday and a longer run on a Sunday.
      AC: You are MAD. Absolutely MAD. How long is this longer run? What time do you go? You are CRAZY spending your weekend RUNNING. I can’t believe you get up so early on a Sunday! Why don’t you have a rest? What do you need to eat to do all of that? You must be eating ALL THE TIME! Why don’t you just sit down and watch TV like the rest of us?

      Etc. I expect this coworker is doing a variation of that – ‘Oh my goodness, OP, you’re so smart AGAIN! Don’t you ever dress down? It’s casual here, you know! You must spend a fortune on clothes! I don’t know how you manage with all those dry cleaning bills! Don’t you even OWN a hoodie? Don’t you just want to wear tracksuit bottoms to work sometimes? You should CHILL OUT once in a while, you don’t have to come in wearing posh clothes all the time!’

      1. SarahKay*

        My kneejerk response to reading your example of “Don’t you just want to wear tracksuit bottoms to work sometimes?” was “Dear grod, no! so let’s hope I never end up with a co-worker as rude as poor OP3 because I imagine they’d be highly insulted if I said that.
        I’m very happy for anyone else to wear them, including to work if that ties in with their dress code, but personally I have no interest in wearing them other than for exercise.

        1. Karia*

          Yep, I can just see myself saying, without thinking, “yes, for running and painting the house”. And it would have been true, but obnoxious.

      2. Batgirl*

        Yeah I was half wondering if this was a case of the conversationally challenged! I have had coworkers too who seem to orbit around “This is something I have noticed about you! I notice things! We are bonding!” Without ever noticing there’s no reciprocation and the person they are talking to is developing a twitch.

        1. traffic_spiral*

          Yeah, I know that people here cream their pants at the opportunity to use “why do you ask” or “how unkind” at every perceived slight, but personally I would chalk this up to “this person is just making small talk based on the one thing they know about you (your fashion choices)” and not get bothered. Just respond to this one question with “not for work, I don’t,” and respond to comments on a particular outfit with “thanks, [insert short sentence about where you got the item they noticed].”

          I once bought some soccer tickets for my mom as a present, a co-worker noticed I was looking into some of the stuff, and now brings up random championships (UK, international, etc.) on the reg. I don’t actually care about soccer, but I don’t take his comments as a slight that I’m not into a more mainstream american sport, or that I don’t have any other interests, I just talk about it for 30 seconds with him and move on with my day.

          Most coworkers know 1-2 personal things about you: cats, a hobby, a favorite sports team, your love of funko pops, etc. and so you can expect pretty much all your non-work conversations with them to be like “hey buddy, [random question about the 1 thing they know about your personal life]? Really? That’s nice. Well, see you tomorrow.”

          Unless this woman is questioning your professionalism or otherwise actually causing trouble, I’d just mentally categorize her as “person who I talk clothes with for 30 seconds” and move on.

        2. MissInMS*

          I’ve had this same thing go on with people, its like they take one small detail about my life and make it my identity so they can act like they “know” me.

  21. anonymous73*

    #1 You didn’t have a co-worker problem, you had a management problem. I don’t care how difficult someone is to discipline or how long they’ve been at company, but your manager needed to put a stop to this person’s behavior. And even if new, it’s okay to tell someone to stop a behavior that directly affects you (like going through your trash). You shouldn’t have to implement workarounds for bullies.
    #3 – “Why are you so obsessed with what I’m wearing? You need to stop commenting on it.” Confront them directly and TELL them to stop. I say this often…someone with no boundaries needs to be told to stop their behavior. If you instead ask them, they think they have a choice.
    #5 – that’s not how promotions work (or at least it shouldn’t be). There are times where you may take over some duties if someone leaves and your manager sees that you should be promoted because you’re already doing part of the job. But you usually don’t have to do a job with bugger responsibilities at your same level and pay before they actually provide you with the title and the raise to go with it. Your president is using their employees if this is their way of thinking.

  22. ecnaseener*

    I can also see #5 leaving people stuck at a lower level because their manager refuses to give them any stretch assignments. (Not that this isn’t a potential issue in any workplace, but normally it’s at least POSSIBLE to apply for a promotion while just doing a great job at your current level.) It lends even more weight to favoritism and racism/sexism/etc.

    1. Rockyroad*

      This is a good way to phrase this, because at my workplace they say this expectation before promotion is to enhance fairness, which it does not.

      My fortune 500 company has this broken structure in place too. Qs about back pay for acknowledged higher value work are met with “that’s not industry standard”, and increased opacity around who is responsible for that decision.

  23. SharksAreCool*

    A theory on #1: I used to work in a cafe and we used a “white powder” called Puly Caff to clean all the coffee pots (once weekly) and the espresso machine (daily). We were supposed to triple-rinse the pots after putting Puly in them because it could make people sick if ingested. Could she have been using professional-grade coffee pot cleaner but not rinsing out thoroughly enough?

    1. Where’s the Orchestra?*

      Reposting this here – where I meant to put it:

      This was my thoughts above. That regardless of what type of soap coworker was using they were not rinsing the pot out well enough afterwards and the residue was causing problems.

      I suspect that the problem was allowed to fester because it reads like there wasn’t a bunch of coffee drinkers in the office, so the bulk of the office wasn’t affected by the crazy coffee cleaner.

  24. MissBaudelaire*

    I don’t think I would have been able to ignore someone rifling through my garbage? Like, is this person part sasquatch or bear? What do you think you’re going to find in there? Are they starving and need more food? Looking for compost scraps? Do they suspect that I’m some sort of spy and would carelessly leave my intel in the garbage? I just… I don’t understand.

    1. Where’s the Orchestra?*

      This was my thoughts above. That regardless of what type of soap coworker was using they were not rinsing the pot out well enough afterwards and the residue was causing problems.

      I suspect that the problem was allowed to fester because it reads like there wasn’t a bunch of coffee drinkers in the office, so the bulk of the office wasn’t affected by the crazy coffee cleaner.

  25. just another bureaucrat*

    Do you only have this issue with Sally talking about Jane or does she refuse to talk about her other direct reports too? Part of this might be to get in the habit of running through all of them and talking about good or bad things they did somewhat regularly. But Sally is actively hurting her team if she’s refusing to help them develop AND refusing to escalate any of the positive things to you. A big part of the managers job is to develop folks and help them. If she’s just abdicating her responsibilities then she’s not appropriate for that role.

    I’d also say that sometimes discomfort is appropriate to have. When you are growing you are often uncomfortable in it. It’s hard, it’s new, it’s challenging. Those things can make you uncomfortable but that doesn’t mean you stop doing it. You need to learn what growth discomfort feels like vs this is a bad thing I’m doing discomfort. And if Sally’s someone who hasn’t had to do a lot of uncomfortable growing this might be new for her and she might think that her personal comfort is all that matters. But it’s not.

  26. Eleanor Rigby*

    Letter Writer #2 reminds me of a similar(ish) situation is I was in a while back and I wonder how I could have handled it differently…

    I was in a project manager type role, so no official managerial power but I had insight into how people were performing. The people on my project team and I all reported to the same person, the head of the department.
    The department head would ask me how staff members were performing; I would tell them. But then the department head…discussed this feedback directly with those individuals. I don’t know exactly what they said, but I know it was obvious to those staff members that I was the one providing feedback to the department head (they said as much. to me).

    It looked like I was tattling(?) to the department head. But when the department head asked me directly about the staff performance, I couldn’t say nothing, or say that things were going better than they were!

    I tried to just stop giving feedback to the department head, but that didn’t really work, and I eventually left that job without ever really resolving this. I still don’t know what I should have done!

    1. Fabulous*

      Sounds like it was on the department head to have translated the feedback better. In your shoes, I may have said as much – “Could you please spin the feedback as if it were coming from you instead of me, and leave my name out of it altogether? Because you’ve said to them it’s my feedback in the past, I’ve been getting a lot of pushback from my team, and I need to preserve our working relationships while this project is ongoing.”

    2. Critical Rolls*

      I would ask where those people’s manager was in this, if it wasn’t the department head. But, really, if you had insight to their performance that was needed by management, I’m just not sure if there was a good answer. The manager can try and be vague about their source of information, but sometimes it can be obvious, and if the culture there viewed normal feedback as “tattling” there were multiple issues along several vectors.

      1. Observer*

        and if the culture there viewed normal feedback as “tattling” there were multiple issues along several vectors.

        This. 100%

    3. Observer*

      It looked like I was tattling(?) to the department head.

      That’s part of the problem right there. Even in a non-manager role, giving actionable and relevant feedback to the boss is not “tattling”. If it was seen that way, that’s an indicator of some dysfunction right there.

      If you were in a project manager role, you should have had SOME authority. But in any case, unless your role was secret it should have been clear to everyone that PART OF YOUR JOB was to provide accurate feedback to management.

      And the best thing for you would probably have been to lean in to that fact. Not in a “nyah nya I’m going to TELL on you!” kind of way, but in a “Yup, project manager means I’m the one updating Big Boss on the progress of the project with as much relevant detail as necessary.”

  27. Fabulous*

    #5 – I just recently learned about the 70-10-10 rule. That may be what they’re thinking.

    “The 70-20-10 rule reveals that individuals tend to learn 70% of their knowledge from challenging experiences and assignments, 20% from developmental relationships, and 10% from coursework and training.”

    How it was explained to me (in terms of promotions) is that if I need to demonstrate that I’m ready for a promotion, 70% of that demonstration should be through stretch assignments, 20% through networking and relationship building in that new role, and 10% of training on the new tasks. I don’t love this framework (for many reasons) but I do understand it – they want you to be able to demonstrate that you can handle the work and work with the people before you’re officially in that position.

    That being said, my job recently changed its promotion structure so that you’re unable to be promoted in your same role (like from a junior to a senior) there has to be a pre-existing person in the higher role who’s moved on for you to even be able to apply for it, so now that kind of falls along the lines of the above explanation too.

    1. periwinkle*

      Learning science person here: the 70-20-10 rule was based on a single study and people just glommed onto that ratio. Buuuut… it’s a workable rule of thumb and emphasizes that experiential learning (aka actually doing the work) is critical. So much corporate learning has zero follow up support, and that’s why Wakeen keeps filing the llama audits incorrectly.

      Sorry to hear about your promotion structure change. That’s what my company (Fortune 50) does. “No promotions in place” for non-unionized employees was just replaced by “okay, we’ll allow it but you need massive documentation for why you deserve it, and a VP has to approve it, don’t count on this happening any time soon, so continue working at the higher level for lower pay for another year.”

      My tuition clawback period ends next December. That’s the only reason I’m still here but the payback amount has finally dropped to a level I don’t mind paying back…

  28. Aspiring Chicken Lady*

    My workplace … and most others, since ya know, OSHA … that we have very specific rules about any products used in the workplace — from industrial chemicals, to cleaning supplies, to white-out. And those rules include accurate labels on products, and printed information about those materials in a special binder accessible to everyone.

    Seems like insisting that all cleaning products be in their original container and be used according to the directions would be a simple directive.

    1. RagingADHD*

      Makes you wonder how she cleans things at home, and what it’s doing to her innards over time.

        1. RagingADHD*

          I saw one the other day where they were soaking raw chicken in bleach water, washing it in dish soap, and then barely rinsing it before applying seasoning.

          Of course, they were also touching everything in their kitchen with raw-chicken-hands, and when a piece of chicken fell down the sink disposal, they just yoinked it out and kept seasoning.

          So it was terrible in every possible direction at the same time.

          1. Pascall*

            I’m internally screaming thinking about soaking raw chicken in BLEACH WATER and using DISH SOAP omg like just don’t eat chicken at that point.

  29. HowDidIGetHere*

    Re: Panel Interview … I had always worked in engineering industries, but about 10 years ago I interviewed for a grant writing position at a local community college. I was taken aback when I walked into a conference room, was seated at the head of a long table, and faced about 8 people who all had questions to ask of me. I had never had the kind of group interview before and I was definitely rattled.

    1. Fabulous*

      Yeah, the only panel interview I’ve ever been on was for a nonprofit as well. Wonder if it’s more of a thing in that sector?

      1. Environmental Compliance*

        I had a panel interview for the job I’m at now – environmental engineering, large manufacturing company – as well as for the job prior to this – same field/type of company. First one was 6 people, second one was closer to 10, both had the management team(s). Pretty typical IME- they want to find someone who is keeping the company in compliance and out of legal troubles while working well with management/plant floor & some….interesting personalities.

  30. big striped cat*


    Why did 12 people even want to participate in an interview?! Especially if it was some stilted robotic script interview. I’ve encountered offices like this, and I think there are two ways it happens:

    1. Staff enjoy judging candidates more than they enjoy doing their actual jobs, and they’re not too busy to waste hours on the process.
    2. No one in the office trusts each other to handle it themselves; they think their colleagues will hire someone terrible.

    1. Loulou*

      This is such a weirdly hostile way to interpret an interview style that’s completely normal in some fields. I’m sure I could think of some equally conspiratorial questions about fields that send candidates take-home tests or something else not done where I am…but I won’t because different fields have different norms and different is not always wrong.

      1. big striped cat*

        It can be both normal and wrong. The format tends to inhibit fluent dialog (especially on zoom), and almost inevitably, most of the interviewers are superfluous — they don’t influence the ultimate decision. And you get drama when interviewers hold strong contrary opinions about candidates.

        1. Loulou*

          Sure, I can imagine it being weird on zoom. Basically all interviews are weird on zoom. Talking to my best friend is weird on zoom!

          But “superfluous’ and “wrong” is a judgement you’re making and you seem weirdly sure nobody else has had a different experience. As a candidate I’ve appreciated the format, getting to interact with a big group of potential colleagues, seeing how THEY interact, and so on. There are jobs I didn’t take, but would recommend to anyone just because of the dynamic I observed in these interviews. It’s important to some people, and in some fields, to meet a lot of the people they’ll be working with, not just the boss and three others. *I* could say it’s wrong *not* to introduce them to everyone as a group!

  31. Sporty Yoda*

    RE #1:
    Wasn’t there a letter a while back about someone who would clean the entire office kitchen with undiluted bleach without rinsing it or something similar? And no one found out until LW saw? I think it wound up being a larger OSHA issue (because undiluted bleach), but it’s still weird to me how anal some people are about keeping the office kitchen clean.

    1. MissBaudelaire*

      I mean, on some level, I get it. We had adults at my ex job who refused to wash their hands after going to the toilet. We did clean a lot of stuff thoroughly because that’s pretty gross. But we didn’t use undiluted bleach because that’s a hazard.

    2. A. D. Kay*

      I seem to remember a letter about someone using caustic drain cleaner on kitchen surfaces and appliances…? And the fumes were affecting a pregnant employee?

    3. RagingADHD*

      I remember one about a coworker cleaning the sink with Drano, using the communal sponge. Which they left unrinsed, and several others used the Drano-sponge to wash their mugs.

      The LW didn’t want to “snitch” on their friend, but I still can’t believe they watched coworkers use the sponge and didn’t say anything. That’s a whole other level of throwing people under the bus.

    4. Hlao-roo*

      For those who are curious, the letter being referenced by Sporty Yoda, A. D. Kay, and RagingADHD is “I saw my coworker wiping down our kitchen sink with Drano” posted on June 27, 2016.

  32. January*

    #1 reminds me of a former coworker who was a paralegal at my old job. On paper he was a great candidate but was extremely difficult to work with. He did things like create massive, elaborate spreadsheets to track information that had none of the information the attorneys actually needed to use (thus slowing down his substantive work), and refused to file things on the shared drive with any naming convention other than the one he was used to. To top it off, he was semi-incompetent and the other attorneys essentially just worked around him because the Chief Legal Officer didn’t want to deal with the hiring process.

  33. Never Nicky*

    I’ve worked from home for six years and for most of that time, I’ve been into vintage (1950s) style fashion. I wear a dress pretty much every single day, usually simple makeup but a bright red lip. This isn’t the norm in our organisation, which runs casual, especially since we switched to hybrid working

    And in all that time, the only comments I’ve had have been positive. A couple of times people have said they couldn’t be bothered to do what I do, but I explain a dress and comfy tights is my equivalent of a T-shirt and leggings, and they see that the impact might be different, but the effort is the same.

    So yes, your co-worker is weirdly hooked up on this, OP#3, but it probably says more about them than you.

    (and even I have a hoodie … I use it when I’m gardening, because its pockets hold secateurs and string!)

    1. Karia*

      Yep! I genuinely feel a bit uncomfortable in sweats and wouldn’t want to wear them all day. Just let people do what makes them comfortable and happy, as far as possible.

    2. Allison*

      Same! I’m much more comfortable in a fun dress with a flared skirt, even if I have to wear tights to keep warm, than wear jeans to work, and there’s no way I’d wear sweats to work! Working from home I’m “laced up from the waist up,” so I rock yoga pants on the bottom but a professional top and a full face of makeup – red lip included! Red lips are the best! And I have my favorite tweed jacket on today, it’s classy and cozy and makes me feel like a smart lady.

      Where are you getting your work dresses? I used to love ModCloth, but then they were bought by Walmart and then, when they went indie again, I don’t think they’re as good as they were in 2014. Unique Vintage has a nice style but the quality isn’t great, buttons are always falling off.

  34. Voodoo Priestess*

    LW #5 – I work for a big company (5,000+ employees, almost every state in the US) and this is the way some regional offices operate. It sucks. What I’ve noticed is that if local turnover is low and there isn’t much work, there are fewer opportunities to advance, so this is how they determine if you get a promotion. You have to already be doing the work successfully before you get the pay/title increase. In other markets where turnover and workloads are higher, this doesn’t work because there is a shortage of experience, not opportunity. Those offices are begging people to step up and into more responsibility.

    Basically, in the Midwest where people don’t want to relocate and there isn’t as much work, it’s a fight for a promotion. On the coasts, where there is more work and higher turnover due to other opportunities, it’s far easier to advance your career. It sucks when you see your counterparts in other offices taking on awesome projects and getting promoted while you wait your turn. It also breed contempt when you’re performing the work of someone 1-2 titles above you without the recognition or pay.

      1. JelloStapler*

        (re-classification usually comes with a requirement that the person is demonstrating that they are already doing the job and they are just changing their role to match).

  35. Hurricane Wakeen*

    Hey Alison – FYI, the in-line ads are interfering with the comment grouping function. I can collapse comments briefly, but the ads will undo that after a second or two and expand the whole thread. Is there a way to prevent that?

    1. RagingADHD*

      I’m always happy to disable my adblocker for sites worth reading – as long as their ads are non-intrusive enough that I can actually read the content. (Because what’s the point, otherwise?)

      The ads here make the site completely unusable, especially on mobile. If you’re on Android and Chrome, the desktop extension and app AdBlock Plus works great.

  36. SK*

    LW #4

    Depending on the industry and organization, panel interviews are common for later stages of the interview, usually the last stage. Panels happen because your role might involve interacting with many different departments/people, so they want to assess if you’re a fit for everyone you’ll be working with.

    I’m in web development. I usually see panel interviews at larger organizations, such as big universities or corporate-type entities. I haven’t experienced many, but the panel can be 4-5 people or even closer to the 12 you experienced. Usually, the company will give you some an indication that a panel interview will happen. They might say they have to coordinate with other departments for your next interview or they will outright tell you it’s a panel interview. At my first panel interview, I was very surprised to see so many people. I think there were 10 and this was pre-pandemic, so I didn’t even have a calendar invite listing the people in attendance.

    I have never encountered a panel reference call–that’s…something.

  37. CommanderBanana*

    Ugh, re: LW#3, I have a coworker like that. I can from a work environment that was more formal than my current place (think, business, not business casual) and just never changed my wardrobe, plus I dress more conservatively than most people my age because of religion, and she always has something to say about it. Think, insults framed as ‘compliments’. I know it’s coming from a place of insecurity on her part, but it’s really irritating.

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

    In regards to #4..I’d like to know what industry the company was in and just how many people were on the reference calls. The low says multiple but is that more than 2 or all 12.
    I’m in academia and my public university must have 2 people on the call when doing reference checks. So I’d agree that 12 people interview is a bit much but if their were only 2 or 3 people on the reference check calls I don’t think it would be a big deal.

  39. Wandering Anon*

    The tyrant and the coffeemaker sounds like the title of a fable that I would very much like to read…

  40. Just So Tired*

    #3, I feel for you. I had a similar scenario once. It was in a mental health program with a decently sized campus. I am a woman, and at that time I was in my mid to late 20s. I often wore casual dresses and shoes- not heels, just shoes, not sneakers. I would get a lot of comments from 2 male staff who were middle-managers but managed a different level of staff than myself. Staff they supervised did recreational activities with individuals and so jeans/sneakers were more the norm but my clothing was far from what would stand out from other people doing similar work. I was often meeting families and outside staff. My clothing was always fine per the dress code, which was mostly around safety issues not aesthetics. The comments would be odd, like one time I recall one of them asked me, “What kind of a dress is that?” At first I didn’t realize what was going on, but then I came to believe that these comments were rooted in sexism. So I started responding, “Are you concerned that my clothing is impacting my ability to do my job?” which shut things down pretty fast.

  41. Spicy Tuna*

    #5 – it’s not unheard of, and it can actually make sense in some situations. A position opened up at a company I worked for years ago. The person doing the job had resigned and the company wanted to expand the role a lot more. No one in our company had direct experience in the skills required for the expanded role, but someone had to do the basics while the company was interviewing for qualified candidates.

    I ended up holding down the fort while the search commenced. Except that I needed to meet certain government requirements, etc, and I never “dial it in”, so I ended up acquiring a lot of the skills needed for the new role. A few months passed and they were unable to hire someone from outside the company. In the meantime, I had acquired a good deal of the skills (and my boss was awesome in sending me for training and providing me with resources to help me), so they ended up promoting me into the role.

    1. TechToiler (OP of #5)*

      It does make sense in some specific situations, however this is basically a company-wide policy.

  42. Thorn*

    I work for a place like this and this also often plays out along gender and race lines where POC and women have to prove they can do the work while white men are promoted based on potential – and/or given more opportunities to do the job in an acting role first.

  43. Large Panel Interview Survivor*

    #4 – I feel your pain on the large panel interview. I once had a second interview with a law firm for a summer associate position that ended up being a large panel interview on steroids. I wasn’t told it would be a panel interview or who I would be interviewing with before hand — only that one of the two people I had spoken with on my first interview would be my “host.” This was pre-COVID, so the interviews were 100% in person. The host brought me into one of the firm’s large conference rooms, and set out large piles of copies of my resume and law school transcript. I was then told that anyone who wanted to stop in during the 90 minute interview window could — the host kept track of everyone who walked in and gave me a list of their names after the interview. It was such a hot mess — some people stayed the entire time, some people popped in just for a few minutes. I kept repeating myself over and over as the same questions were asked, and then questioned myself with every repeated answer, wondering if I was being consistent as some people were in the room hearing the same questions be asked as well. The most awkward part was that they let one of their current summer associates (who was just a year ahead of me in law school and also worked for the same professor as me as a teaching assistant) to come into the interview as well — he proceeded to grab my law school transcript and review it right in front of me. By the end of the interview, about 16 people had come in and out of my interview (in addition to my host and the other law student) — and yes, I sent a thank you to every single one of them. I received an offer from the firm and ended up turning it down (not because of the chaotic interview experience), but it’s a battle story I tell every time I interview law students or potential new attorneys at my firm now.

    1. big striped cat*

      Amazing! Employers need to ask themselves what they’re really getting out of these huge panel events. Sometimes it seems they just find it fun.

    2. anonymouse*

      Jeez. I moved in with my parents at the beginning of covid and my dad has been working from home for most of it. He’s on the hiring committee so I’ve overheard him do interviews for summer associates, fellows, regular associates, etc. They follow a format where the interviewee speaks to a different partner or associate for about half an hour each, but I think that in total they only speak to three and it’s pre-planned and not simultaneous! It’s really interesting to hear how my dad interviews because he asks the generic question of “why do you want to work hear/in this area of law” but the other questions are more like “what was your favorite class in law school” “I see that you interned for xyz place, how was that?” and then has a conversation with them and answers their questions. I told him that he’s way more relaxed than any interviewer I have ever had and he said “Well they go through a pre-screening process and a basic screening interview so they’re all qualified and we do reference checks, so I just want to learn more about them.”

  44. Allison*

    #3, there are two situations where it’s okay to comment on people’s attire in the workplace:

    1) You absolutely, honestly, genuinely LOVE their style and you’re paying them a sincere compliment. And even here, sometimes it’s okay and sometimes it can make someone uncomfortable if you don’t know them very well.

    2) Their attire is inappropriate for the office, AND you’re in a position to sit them down and have a straightforward conversation about it.

    OP, it sounds like your attire was within the range of what was appropriate for your office, even if it was on the dressier side, and your coworker’s comments were out of line. If you think someone is overdressed, but you’re not their manager and thus not in a position to actually address it, worry about yourself, they’re not dressing up AT you!

  45. I just like skirts*

    #3: In college I almost always wore skirts, even when I was wearing otherwise casual clothes–I just found them so comfortable. But whenever I did wear jeans, there were always a couple of people who would LOSE THEIR MINDS. “I can’t believe you own jeans!!” “OMG you’re not wearing a skirt!” It didn’t seem to be negative–it was more just like they were trying to create a consistent mental image of me or figure out what my clothing ‘meant’. Maybe your coworker thinks she needs to somehow understand the meaning of your clothes (she doesn’t!). Also, people can get REALLY worked up sometimes when someone doesn’t do something exactly the way they do it. Again, it’s like they’re struggling to fit *your* decisions into *their* decision-making process. (Which, again, in this case they really do not need to concern themselves with!)

    Not a solution nor an excuse, more just a reassurance that, yeah, people are sometimes like this and it definitely

  46. RB*

    So, Sally in #2 could’ve been the manager in #1, given how paralyzed she is to actually managing people. Hope she doesn’t go on to be a manager, because she is missing the most important quality a manager needs to have.

  47. Olivia Oil*

    #5: I also wish that companies and orgs would be honest/transparent about the fact that not everyone can get promotions in their organization, and to have alternative professional development plans for those people. My last company wasn’t and every performance review made some employees spin their wheels for potential promotions that never came. Then they would be confused as to why there was high turnover among the 90% of entry-level employees who never got promoted or received professional development of any kind. It was about time everyone got bored of doing the same stuff over and over and left. They should have just been honest from the get go that professional advancement in the company was limited.

  48. PSA*

    “It’s not the norm but it’s a thing that some companies do and yes, it’s terribly unfair for exactly the reason you said: you’d be doing a higher-paying position without the pay and without any guarantee you’ll ever be getting the pay.” — happened to me. After doing a job not at all on my job description without anything taken off my plate for years (delay partially pandemic related) for exactly this reason, I was told that I do an amazing job but it was never intended to be a promotion, only a title change. I suppose the extreme gaslighting that came with it was entertaining from a detached perspective, but otherwise the whole experience seriously sucked.

  49. Basketball Jones*

    On #2, I wonder if Alison’s proposed plan wouldn’t be a bit of an overreaction. Yes, relaying feedback is a key responsibility of being a manager, but for someone in that role for the first time, it’s also one that can be uncomfortable, might require a change in mindset, etc. Managerial responsibilities can be the only advancement path in certain fields, and a good employee shouldn’t be taken off of it because of a few growing pains. Sally understands that this isn’t optional and wants to work through it. I would continue to provide support to get her where she needs to be. Maybe it’s joining her for meetings where feedback will be delivered so she feels more supported. Maybe it’s helping to actually provide some of the feedback (concerns about undermining, sure, but I don’t think it’s a big deal — grandbosses should be allowed to step in). I don’t know what the exact answer is, but to me, this seems less of a case of “this employee really isn’t suited to this role” and more one of “this employee needs continued coaching and support as she transitions to a new phase in her career.” She seems to be willing to make a good faith effort to improve, so I think the LW can pick up the slack while she develops.

    1. Observer*

      but for someone in that role for the first time, it’s also one that can be uncomfortable, might require a change in mindset, etc.

      And if she can’t get past that discomfort to shift her mind set, she can’t do the job. That’s the bottom line. It *IS* a key part of the jib, as you acknowledge. Given that reality, it’s just not reasonable or realistic to say “but if you’re uncomfortable, you don’t have to do it.”

      1. Basketball Jones*

        Sure, but it’s also all the more reason to extend patience and understanding, and to be willing to meet the employee halfway as she makes the transition. Needing some time to adjust isn’t the same as not being able to do a job. A veteran manager who was reluctant to give feedback would be a different story.

  50. Linda Evangelista*

    OP5- same thing at my company and I find it honestly ridiculous. Also, they won’t promote “too many people at the same time” (so say, even if 5 people have demonstrated promotion readiness, they’ll only promote 3). No idea why that is, but it’s definitely not a recipe for retention.

  51. The Rat-Catcher*

    #5, in addition to being a terrible way to treat people, is a great recipe for turnover. I left a job I’d been at for six years and all it took was “we’ll pay you the same as everyone else, with the same title as everyone else, to do the same work as everyone else.”

  52. Candi*

    #4 -how do they ever get anything done having to schedule that many people for one call!?! People have work to do!

    Conversely, they have that time because they aren’t doing much or anything. So how do they get away with that!?

    I think this might be at least a yellow flag. To do that, for what sounds like routine hire, to have the time to take out of their own work schedules to do that? Something feels really off.

    (A CEO or something I expect to get grilled by multiple people, including a board of several members.)

    #5 -“Your company president is full of crap.”

    Gloves-off Alison. I love it.

  53. Danish*

    I knew it was time to leave my job in academia when I was told that I couldn’t be promoted to a higher position until I’d been doing the job for a year, but also that only people with that job title were allowed to do it.

    Nobody really commented on the impossibility of that so I took it as their cowardly way of telling me I wouldn’t be moving up in the organization any time soon.

  54. It'sABonesDay*

    Re: LW4, I just did a round of reference checks where there were 2 of us on the call. I was just there to take notes so the head of the search committee could focus on the questions/conversation. More than that feels really weird.

  55. Shen519*

    Ah yes, my ex company in Singapore claimed that you need to be performing the roles of 3 levels above you to be promoted 1 level.

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