my boss jokes about firing people, my awful ex-coworker works at the company I’m interviewing with, and more

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

1. My boss jokes about firing people

I moved from corporate to nonprofit about eight months ago and currently am a newer member (not the newest) of a good team. My boss is very touchy-feely and I am very not, but we have not had any conflicts and I have felt supported in ways I never did in the corporate world.

However, I need advice on whether I can or should say something that is really bothering me. In the last eight months, she has made almost identical jokes to four people on our team. We have a weekly group meeting and if someone is late (totally acceptable for this setting), when they do enter the virtual meeting she always says, “Hey Jane, we have spent the first part of the meeting talking about you and your performance and we will need to let you go.” She immediately laughs, no one thinks she is serious for a single second, and she is a very sweet woman. But it makes me crazy! Can I say something or do I need to just chuckle and bear it?

It’s baffling when people in positions of power don’t understand that their ability to yank someone’s livelihood out from under them is not a funny joke. And yet, this happens way more often than you’d think it would. Sometimes it’s people who are uncomfortable with their authority, sometimes it’s people who are fascinated by their own authority, and sometimes it’s people who are just thoughtless.

In any case, there’s room to say something! The light-touch approach, if you want to try it first, is to react in the moment. The next time she does it, you could just let yourself have a natural reaction — like looking stricken and saying, “That’s really mean” or “That’s awful.”

That might be enough to jog her into reconsidering how the “joke” is going over. But if she keeps doing it, you could say something to her in a one-on-one like, “You’ve joked a few times about firing people in meetings. It gives me a pit in my stomach every time. I don’t think we should joke about people’s ability to support themselves and their families.” If she’s a generally decent person who just didn’t think this through, that’ll likely get her to re-think it.

2. My awful former coworker works at the company I’m interviewing with

I was impacted by a restructuring last year and have been actively looking for a new role. It has been taking longer than expected and a company I am very interested in called me regarding a position they thought I would be a good fit for.

My concern is that I know a previous colleague, who I had a terrible experience with, recently starting working there. I believe they are in the same department but different team. My experience with this person was they were a bully and extremely difficult to work with. My old company acknowledged to me that they were aware that this person was a problem but did nothing about it. I would be very concerned about working around them again.

I took the first interview to learn more, regardless of my concern. At my interview, the department head mentioned they recently hired this person from my old company. I did not react or respond in the moment. The company has called me to set up another interview and have stated they want to move quickly with me and said, “We are very keen on you. We see you as a great fit.” I am interested in the role and have indicated I would be interested in continuing the conversation.

Any suggestions for how I can raise my concerns without it looking bad on me or is it better to bow out gracefully and state another reason? I am concerned that if I don’t raise it proactively, they might hear about “a challenging dynamic” between us from one of my references.

I don’t see myself being able to accept the role without setting some expectation that I will not tolerate being bullied in the future and express my concern. I think they would want to know as well as it could impact the broader team dynamic if not managed.

I’d bow out of the interview process. It’s very tricky to tell a prospective employer that you don’t get along with one of their current employees or try to address bullying before you’re even working there. They don’t know you, so they’re not equipped to judge which of you is the problem and it’s likely to sound like drama they’d rather just avoid. It’s also such an unusual thing to raise as a candidate that there’s a risk, however unfairly, that you’ll end up looking high maintenance (again, they don’t know you and are going on very limited data). There’s also no guarantee that you wouldn’t have a terrible experience with this person again (and same department, even if a different team, is too close for comfort).

3. Managing expectations of internal applicants when they’re not right for the job

Any advice on what to do when a direct report inquires about their suitability for an internal job opening? I’ve been promoted (yay!) and now need to fill my old position. I have two colleagues who I know are interested in applying for the role (which would be a step up from their current roles). One of them is great, and this is exactly the kind of position they should be aspiring to in 3-4 years, but they just don’t have enough management experience yet. The other is … great in some ways, and has more experience so on paper might be a fit for this role, but I’ve worked with them for long enough to know they are 1) incredibly disorganized and 2) a bad manager. Both of them are angling for “informal” conversations with me about whether they should apply. I don’t want to automatically count them out, but I also don’t want to give them any false hope. How would you handle this?

With the great but inexperienced person, does the experience deficit already make them a clear-cut no? If so, be forthright about that: “We’re looking for a hire with more management experience because ____, but you would be a really strong candidate for this kind of role in a few years.” If it’s not so clear-cut: “I want to be up-front that we’re really emphasizing management experience for the hire because ____, but I still encourage you to throw your hat in the ring if you’re interested.”

With the disorganized bad manager: If you’d been managing them for longer, ideally you’d give really clear feedback about the issues you see and why they’d be prohibitive for the job. With someone you just started managing, that can feel premature (even if you know it’s not) so in this case the most I’d say is something like, “Two things we’re really going to look at for this role are management skill and ability to stay organized with a high volume of work coming at you, so I would try to speak to those in your application if you can.” (You can include other things on that list too if it would be weird to just name those two.) And later on, assuming you eventually reject them, give them feedback at that point about strengths the successful candidate had that they were weaker on.

4. Did I misunderstand my offer letter?

I work as an instructor. Wages tend to be very low in this field. I was offered a very part-time position (10 hours a week) teaching a couple of classes. This is an hourly position, no benefits or stability.

The offer letter said: 20 hours a week at 50 dollars an hour. I knew I would only be teaching 10 hours a week. So, I interpreted the offer to mean 10 teaching hours + 10 prep hours. This is fairly common in our field.

I got my first paycheck and I was paid only for the 10 hours I taught, not the 20 hours in the offer letter.

I did talk with HR and they said that the offer letter was meant to convey that 20 hours/week was the maximum I could teach, not that I would be paid for 20 hours a week. But now I am getting paid half of what I thought I would be for this gig, and it’s having a pretty significant effect on my pocketbook and mood!

My question is, do I have to accept that? Did I just misunderstand the offer letter? It’s absolutely my own fault for not clarifying with the director before I signed all the paperwork, so I genuinely don’t know whether I have anything to stand on here.

I suppose it’s possible that your field has some unusual norms around this, but in general, no, you weren’t wrong. A letter that offers you 20 hours a week of work generally means … they are offering you 20 hours a week of work. Not up to 20 but really 10.

Are you a contractor or an employee? If you’re an employee, since you’re hourly they’re required by law to pay you for all the hours you work, which you should point out — as in, “To comply with federal law for hourly workers, we need to pay me for my prep time as well, which was 10 hours last week and which I expect to be 10 hours a week going forward. That’s always been the standard practice I’ve seen in our field.”

If you’re a contractor, your options are more limited and depend on how willing you are to walk away if they won’t budge. You can point out that the offer specified 20 hours a week, not up to 20, and that you’re being paid half of what the letter said you were signing on for, and you can hold firm that you need to be paid for the 10 hours a week of prep work you’re doing. If you’re willing to walk away from the job over it, make that clear — as in, “I of course can’t do the job for half the pay I came on board for, so what makes sense from here?”

Read updates to this letter here and here.

5. How do I ask my interviewer about their frequent turnover?

I recently applied for a job and when I was searching for information about the position, I found an old job posting for the same position from around six months ago. Do you think it’s okay to ask in the interview why they’re having to fill the position again so soon? Do you have any ideas on how to phrase it? I don’t want to be perceived negatively for asking but I also feel like it would be a major oversight to not try to find out what happened, especially as I’d be leaving a job I like and that I’m comfortable in for it.

From the LinkedIn profiles, it also seems like there are a number of managerial level staff who have started in the last 3-6 months, which seems like it might be a red flag. Any thoughts? It’s basically an administrative position so I don’t think I could ask to speak with various staff members before accepting or anything like that, but I want to be as thorough as I can.

For the question about why they’re filling the job again so soon, you don’t need to dance around it! You can either ask how long the last person was in the role and why they left, or you can say, “Am I right in thinking I saw this position advertised about six months ago? … Can I ask what happened that led to it being open again now?” (Of course, keep in mind that they might have multiple slots for the job.)

Then from there, you can go to, “What’s your turnover like generally? I got the sense from LinkedIn that you’ve have had a lot of new people start in the last six months or so, and I wondered if that’s being driven by growth or turnover or something else…?”

Also, there’s lots of due diligence you can do via networking, which doesn’t rely on having to get all your info from your interviewers. Here’s some advice on how to do it.

{ 258 comments… read them below }

  1. Salaried health issues*

    #4 It sure sounds like they pulled a bait-and-switch. Either that or they’re ignorant of the norms of your field, but I doubt it.

    I wonder about the field. As far as I know, Adjuncts are usually paid per credit hour per semester.

    1. prof*

      I’ve also never received an adjunct contract that doesn’t list my specific classes and teaching credits. It’s never hours, because that’s the hustle of adjuncting (you’re paid for teaching time and that includes all prep and grading, it’s a contract and you’re not an employee so they get away with it).

      Very odd case… I’d be curious to see this contract.

      1. Spanish Prof*

        We, too, pay all our adjuncts by credit hour, adjusted for terminal degree. I have never heard of, or seen, a part-time teaching position anywhere that was paid hourly. Are you in the US, OP #4? So curious!

        1. Starbuck*

          There’s plenty of part time hourly teaching positions outside academia in informal ed / non-profits. I’m not surprised by the arrangement OP’s describing – I assume they want OP to teach various programs, but they only want to pay for teaching hours and not prep hours. But if OP is hourly and not a contractor, that’s bullcrap.

      2. Delta Delta*

        Yep, me too. I’ve taught as an adjunct at a couple places, and the letters have always said some version of “You’re teaching Intermediate Llama Litigation Ethics in the Spring Quarter for a rate of Three Nickels Per Credit Hour.” It says nothing of prep time, because it’s assumed that if you do the teaching that you’ll be there and ready to go and prepared to teach the class.

      3. Plain Jane*

        My husband taught adjunct for quite a few years and his contracts were similar to yours. The rate was per class hour with the assumption that this pay included prep time, dept meetings, office hours, etc. They would list the specific classes he was teaching. I don’t think he was ever paid “hourly” (though it may have been listed somewhere, it’s been a few years). LW 4 I would definitely push back on this one and ask for more clarification. This isn’t what your contract said.

      4. Yorick*

        Yes, as an adjunct you typically get paid per credit hour you’re covering over the whole semester, not the number of hours per week you work. So they typically quote you the total amount for the class for this semester. I’m not sure if this varies by location, I’m in the US.

    2. LW 4*

      I think that they low-balled me, and I chose to interpret it as a high-ball. This issue is made murky because this is a place I’d might like to advance in, and actually shift roles away from teaching.

      So I have to decide if I should make a fuss on my way out the door, or play nice because I want to stick around.

      1. prof*

        Ugh. Obviously beware of a place that treats people like this but I get it. It really does seem like a bait and switch. Good luck!

        1. After 33 years ...*

          +1 Paying an adjunct by the hour is very unusual, and this looks like a low-ball. Even if you decide to stay, beware of whom you are dealing with. Also, let your department head know what’s happened, if you haven’t already.

          1. LW 4*

            Hi Alison and Commentariat,
            This is LW 4. I wasn’t sure where to post more info; thanks for any advice you can offer! So, I teach in a program that is affiliated with the university, and I’m paid hourly by the university. I’m not an adjunct prof. It’s like an extension class.

            I did mention this whole SNAFU to the director. I explained that I had misinterpreted the offer letter (bad habit to assign the blame to myself). I really did want to keep everything copacetic with him, so I spun it as, “Well, I would love to pick up more responsibilities and grow with the org in other ways, maybe admin or curriculum design.” NB: This is what I actually want to do, since I am ready to pivot out of the classroom and into the behind-the-scenes work.

            The director was receptive, but our conversation was deeply complicated by the news that he (the director) had given his own two week notice and a new interim director would be coming in. (!!) New director seems very cool and open, but obviously very busy so I haven’t set up a meeting yet.

            So I have just been sitting tight. The semester is almost halfway done, so at this point I do think I’ll just stick it out. I should have said something about the offer letter right away, like the script that Alison gave.

            I guess my next steps are to talk to the new director and explain to him that I want to work in other areas beyond teaching, and see if they have anything for me. ???

            1. Evelyn Carnahan*

              Are there other colleges/universities nearby where you can work instead? I feel like the best case scenario for the offer letter is that the people who put together the offer made a mistake and don’t understand the kind of work you do, but when you pointed out the error they didn’t offer any solutions. Would you want to keep working there?

              1. LW 4*

                I do want to make it work, yes. It’s true that it’s not a very auspicious beginning, but there’s not that many circuses in town, so I’d like to stay affiliated with this university if possible. It is a bit of a train wreck though! But I think I bear a part in the confusion, since I didn’t ask before signing, and I didn’t advocate for myself after I knew. Now I’m trying to see what, if anything, I can salvage going forward. :/

                1. Evelyn Carnahan*

                  I’m in higher ed and I’ve been there! It’s probably a good idea to bring it up now, and even bring up that X University pays 1:1 for prep time, and just keep this in mind when you reup your contract. I really don’t think you bear any of the responsibility here, and hopefully this was just a mistake that will make you more alert to similar mistakes (this is a pretty significant mistake though).

                  It’s hard to say where the offer letter problem started, but I would assume that the now or soon-to-be former director played a part in it. Maybe the interim director or next director will be more on top of the details.

                2. Just Me*

                  Hey LW 4! I used to work as an admin in ESL instruction and now at a University. Unfortunately, this kind of thing is veryyyyy common in post-secondary ed–they say they will pay well for classes but then only give you a few hours a week for work. I have some colleagues who made the jump into admin and found it to be more stable and were able to leverage their experiences in teaching as a bonus (things like, “I’m a registrar full-time but I can sub in a pinch or proctor an exam!”)–you may not want to do that at *this* institution, but long-term it could be something to consider.

                3. LW 4*

                  LW 4 here: I can’t reply to Evelyn & Just Me’s comments (I think the thread only goes to so many sub-threads) so I am replying here. Thank you for your feedback. I really want to switch into admin. I feel that I will hinder that transition if I make a stink about the wages, since it’s halfway through the semester. I will talk to the new director. Hopefully they’ll want me in a non-teaching role (or able to step in and sub, as Just Me mentioned). Since it would be a different job, I’m thinking the money won’t be great anyway. Ah, higher ed.

                  If I were going to stay as just a teacher, I would probably fight for the prep hours. Maybe that will become my cause… as soon as I have a steady paycheck that is .

            2. TiredMama*

              Sorry if you have explained this somewhere else, but I’m confused why you are not paid for the hours preparing for class. You cannot teach without some prep and that should be paid.

              1. iliketoknit*

                I think commonly people are paid for credit hour on the assumption that a credit hour will involve more than the literal time spent in the classroom (in the same way that students are supposed to allot x hours of work outside the classroom per hour in the classroom – can’t remember now how many hours that’s supposed to be and I don’t think most students ever factored this in, but that is the official assumption for a credit hour). It is pretty uncommon to pay literally by the hour, at least in my experience – in fact usually it’s just “you’re getting paid $1200 to teach this semester-long class.”

                (I think there’s also an assumption that the person being hired should have the class ready to go and if they need to prep that’s on them, but that’s more of a cultural thing than any official policy. And obviously it doesn’t address things like grading.)

              2. LW 4*

                We’re just… not paid for prep hours.
                I did email the director. I am galvanized by these comments to take *some* kind of action. I’ll send an update if anything exciting happens!

            3. Starbuck*

              Are you turning in time sheets? What would happen if you just correctly recorded all 20 hours, or whatever your 10 hours of teaching + # hours of prep time is?

            4. Reluctant Mezzo*

              Finish up with honor and then run. If you put up with it, they will be more than happy to continue to screw you over.

        1. Marzipan Shepherdess*

          People very often do stick around when a nonprofit agency / university is focused on a mission that’s very important to those employees (e.g., education for an historically underserved population). Unfortunately, said nonprofits are well aware of this and the less scrupulous among them take advantage of that dynamic to be exploitive.

          Full disclosure: I’m a lifelong nonprofit agency employee, and am NOT trying to bash nonprofits! They do a tremendous amount of good and most are NOT dysfunctional or exploitive: it’s just that the ones that are stick out like a sore thumb while the ones that aren’t are quietly going about their work of helping others and don’t make for sensational headlines.

      1. Jackalope*

        This may not have been your intent, but the comment, “Welcome to the real world,” pretty much always comes across as condescending and not helpful. The Real World (TM) often involves employers being open and up-front about how many hours you will get and keeping to their word. If a new employer tells you that your new job will involve 20 hours of work that you will be paid for, it’s not unreasonable to expect that what they’ve told you is in fact correct.

  2. Art3mis*

    #2 If I found out Linda was working at the same company I was interviewing with… nope. Nope. Nope. Nope. Nope Nope. Linda is WHY I left my old job. Linda was also a bully and extremely difficult to work with and management would do nothing about her. Ugh. Even the thought. Forsooth!

    1. LifeBeforeCorona*

      In my field, food and hospitality there is a lot of turnover and you can run into the same people over time. There is a toxic/lazy bully that applied for a job and I told my manager that if they hired that person, I would quit. They re-scheduled their interview twice, were late for it, and were very dismissive to the support staff. In the end, they ghosted the process and trash-talked our workplace. My manager said they understood my stance.

      1. Not So NewReader*

        Yeah, once established in the job it’s a whole different scene. One woman from Old Place applied at my Current Place. I had an opening in conversation with the boss when the boss mentioned he was not interested in hiring gossips. So I told him about what I saw when I worked with Applicant at Old Place. The application hit the garbage can.

        I did not even do the deeper dive into explaining this was a really toxic individual.

      2. Art3mis*

        I work in Insurance and in this town it can be a small world but she’s older and I’m pretty sure she’s staying put at OldJob until she retires. I don’t even want to run into her in public.

      3. T-rex*

        I’m also in food & hospitality and I have, more than once, made sure a toxic person from an old job didn’t get hired on. When I was an hourly employee I was trusted enough for my boss to take me seriously, and now as a manager I just don’t offer an interview and explain to the other managers why. I live in a small city- making a bad name for yourself at one job will get you blacklisted from multiple places.

    2. Persephone*

      Same! There is a former co-worker that I would never work with again, she was so hateful. We were technically two different departments too, just ones that that worked together a lot, so yeah, there’s not enough distance in the world…

      However, a former school bully and I work for the same company, but in completely different departments that never intersect, so I very rarely ever see him, and never have to work with him.

      If there’s ever any chance of having to work with this person, OP, RUN now.

      1. Ace in the Hole*

        Same! I am fine with almost everyone I’ve ever worked with, but there are two people I refuse to ever work with again. They weren’t just jerks… they were actually frightening.

    3. Generic Name*

      Yup. I’m really glad that Awful Former Coworker 1 and Awful Former Coworker 2 now work at the same company….that Awful Former Coworker 1 owns, so they’re both in the same place and I never have to apply to work there. I would also bow out of the interview process. If asked why, you can flip the standard script around and say something like, “I have interviews with so many quality companies, and I’ve decided to go in a different direction”. Okay, maybe that will come off as obviously snarky.

    4. Momma Bear*

      Before I applied to my current job, I made really sure to find out if my old manager was here or not. They were the main reason I left the job I had working under them, and I would rather eat live scorpions than ever work for them again. I would bow out if there were any other options re: employment. An interview is as much for you to know about the company as it is for them to learn about you.

      1. Medusa*

        I’m tucking “I would rather eat live scorpions than ever work for them again” away into my hyperbole folder for later use to describe my old manager.

    5. Elizabeth West*

      Mm yeah, pretty much. When I was looking after getting laid off, I heard Bullyboss got fired (not laid off, mwahahahaaa) and I decided I wouldn’t work anywhere with him ever again. Six years of listening to him abuse Nice Coworker was bad enough.

      If you do decide to take the job, OP, you’re going to have to go above and beyond to be professional. But honestly, is it worth the effort, with the possibility of a repeat hanging over your head? A bully doesn’t need to be in your department to work their evil.

    6. Cercis*

      I’ve hit the “bridge burning phase of life” where I flat out tell people “I will never work with that man, he’s horrible to women, so I’m going to bow out of this project.” I’m sure it makes me look less than professional, but too many men have been shocked (shocked I tell you) to hear that he’s an ass to women, while the women have just nodded and said “yeah, he’s difficult to work with, but what are you going to do?” They’re going to suck it up and let him get away with being an ass and marginalizing women, I’m going to call it out. But I’m coming from a place of great privilege that allows me to be that picky and turn down projects and say why.

      There’s another man in my field that I just say “he talks a good game, but I don’t want him on a project where I need to rely on follow through.” He has “failed up” many times, but it seems to be catching up to him. He’s definitely “Peter Principle” in action. So far I’ve managed to keep him off the nonprofit board, which is a working board and already has too much dead weight, but when I go off the board in 3 years, I’m sure he’ll get installed. Maybe he’ll have matured by then.

  3. my 8th name*

    #2, can you get a sense of how often the team you’re interviewing for works with your old coworker’s team? I just hate the idea of you letting this person rob you of an opportunity you might otherwise take, especially since this org may be equipped and willing to manage this person’s behavior is ways your old company cannot. Good luck!

    #4 since offer letters are often recycled/built off of templates, it’s possible the information was just outdated! Either way, you can definitely push back but I’d be prepared for them to send you new paperwork. I just would be surprised if they were magically willing to pay you twice as much as they planned, especially if other lecturers aren’t being offered the same. Good luck to you as well!

    1. MK*

      Eh, even if the OP was told the two teams rarely interact, it’s a pretty risky move to take the job expecting to have little to do with this coworker. Things can change, and once you are working for the same company, you don’t have much resource to avoid them.

      1. Cait*

        I would also encourage the OP not to apply but hate to think that Linda is still winning even though she’s in a different job/position. If I were the OP I would sincerely turn down the next interview. I’m sure the company will ask why and I think it would be a good idea to be honest but diplomatic. I would say something like, “In all honesty, it was acknowledged that Linda X now works with you and I had nothing but bad experiences with her when we worked together at Company Z. Suffice to say, she was quite the bully and I do not feel comfortable working with her again. I only say this for the sake of transparency and I appreciate your interest in me but this is why I have to pass on this opportunity.”

        1. Nancy*

          I highly doubt the company will ask why. They are not going to care about the reason, they will just move on to the next person. But if they did ask, adding all this makes the LW look bad.

          1. Koalafied*

            Yeah, at most if asked for a reason and I wanted to disclose the real reason, I’d say something super brief/vague like, “Linda and I didn’t work well together here,” or something… But even that, I probably wouldn’t say. “Nothing but bad experiences” and “suffice it to say she was quite the bully” is definitely too much detail, but honestly even bringing it up at all I’d worry that if Linda every moved on and I applied at the company again in the future, are they going to remember me as “Koalafied who has such poor interpersonal relationships with coworkers that she backed out of a hiring process over it?” Which isn’t to say that’s the only interpretation they could come away with, but it’s a probable enough one that I wouldn’t risk it just so I can tell the company that I, an unknown/unproven person to them, thinks one of their employees sucks. It’s not likely to benefit me in any way.

        2. Hiring Mgr*

          I wouldn’t do that, mainly b/c the company knows Linda and not you so they’ll just think “drama”… and if Linda moves on you might want to work there at some point

          Plus, it can’t be helpful to think of Linda as “winning” just by getting a new job… though i understand what OP means..

        3. Evelyn Carnahan*

          I wouldn’t say that Linda is winning by pulling out of the hiring process. LW2 will win in the long run by not working with Linda again, and eventually Linda’s reputation will catch up with her.

          1. Cait*

            Ugh, I guess so but in a way it feels like she really is winning if the OP has to turn down a job they want just because Linda is there. Like, if Linda is literally the only reason OP has to turn down that opportunity then Linda, however inadvertently, is still affecting OP’s life negatively. I’d think by mentioning it, OP would be (at best) letting the company know to keep an eye on Linda or (at worst) coming off as dramatic. But if OP isn’t going to move forward with that company anyway I wouldn’t think the latter would matter.

            1. Smithy*

              I think the main reason for the pushback is that your best case scenario (the employer keeping an eye on Linda) would actually make this a fairly bad employer. Can you imagine your current employer hearing from someone they interviewed once or twice that they had interpersonal issues with you and that warranting them to remember that and keep an eye on you??

              I know it may be a lot less satisfying to think of winning as a life free of Linda and a life where you don’t think of Linda….but seeking a more direct binary 1 for 1 keeps the OP in a tit for tat cycle with Linda that won’t help.

              I used to work at a horrifically toxic place where many of the senior leaders I wished all sorts of “I hope you lose” thoughts and feelings. The gift of time and distance has both taken me away from the worst of a bullying workplace, but also given the perspective that some of the conditions that resulted in why that place was so bad has also changed. And while I’d work for them again, they may genuinely not still be that bad. Linda may have benefitted from time, age and a change of scenery and may not bully anyone at this new place. Which for all of her future coworkers would be great, but for those of us who do still hurt – never has to be something we want to watch.

        4. Antilles*

          No, OP should definitely not say that. The key point here is that Linda already works there and barely knows OP, so the department head is going to fall somewhere on a scale between “ignoring it as sour grapes” to “assuming that OP causes drama”. Especially if Linda (like many rude people) is perfectly pleasant to her boss, a random candidate just doesn’t have credibility to say something like this.
          Besides, what outcome are you even hoping for in bringing it up? They’re not going to fire an existing employee to appease a candidate, so OP has to move on with the job search the same no matter what.

          1. EmmaPoet*

            Agreed. Sticking to a nice, “the position’s not a good fit for me” is much safer. The object here is to get a job, not to try to get Linda canned. And if a potential candidate I didn’t know well told me this and I hadn’t seen Linda being awful, I’d likely think the candidate was the problem here and reconsider them.

        5. Sara without an H*

          While I agree that OP should withdraw from the process now, I think the script you’re proposing has too much detail in it. OP#2 may want to apply for another position in this company in the future and it would be a bad idea to leave their HR person/Hiring Manager/whomever with the idea that OP#2 is prone to drama. A better script would be “I appreciate your interest in me, but I’ve thought it over and decided that this position wouldn’t be a good fit.”

        6. Jora Malli*

          I would encourage OP not to think of this as the old coworker “winning.” Part of the process of interviewing for a new job is figuring out if anything about the new job is a deal breaker. Think about the presence of your old coworker the same way you’d think about being required to work a really undesirable shift, or being assigned to an office where the commute would be four hours long. You’ve found out that there’s something about this job that just won’t work for you, and that’s totally norma and fine.

          1. Wisteria*

            Yes, I agree. Framing someone as winning is just a way to stay fixed on a grievance–and the fixation will cause more suffering than the original grievance did.

        7. Observer*

          I’m sure the company will ask why and I think it would be a good idea to be honest but diplomatic

          I would be surprised if the company asked why. And even if they did, I would not suggest that the OP give this much of an explanation. Because unless they are a REALLY good in terms of management, AND they are already having issues with ex-CW, it’s not going to look good for the OP. They are not going to fire ex_CW, and it’s highly likely that they will revise their good opinion of the OP. Why burn that bridge?

    2. Office Lobster DJ*

      I also hate to see OP#2 turn down an opportunity because of Linda, but they have no way of knowing whether the level of interaction would be tolerable until they’re in the role.

      If OP bows out, which on balance is probably the better option, it’s probably not worth it to mention Linda. If she’s terrible and the company is a good one, it’ll sort itself out.

      If OP continues, I noticed that they are concerned a reference might mention the problems between OP and Linda. Presumably the reference would also take care to describe Linda as the problem, which would take some of the heat off the OP. With this possibility, should OP say something ahead of time to avoid the new company finding out from a reference? I can imagine a company getting concerned that their new prospective hire was “hiding” that information: Are they just trying to get close to an old nemesis for sabotage?

      OP telling them they can’t work with Linda is too far, unfortunately. If OP decides to roll the dice and continue, there’s a good chance they will need to say something at some point. I’d suggest appearing unflappably polite to Linda, and constructing the past difficulties as ancient history stemming from very different “styles,” but we always turned out a good product, didn’t we, Linda?

    3. Sara without an H*

      Re OP#2: It’s a bad idea to try to anticipate Nemesis. Sometimes you just have to detach, decide that the universe will get around to “Linda” eventually, and let it go.

      And while it’s possible that the department is structured in such a way that OP#2 and Linda would rarely interact, I wouldn’t bet on it. If I were OP#2, I’d bow out now, saying I’d decided the position would not be a good fit.

    4. JSPA*

      If the other person was broadly acknowledged to be problematic at the prior job, is there any chance that they’ve already burned their bridges at the new one, and are on their way out?

      I think there are ways to say something, especially if you’re otherwise withdrawing anyway.

      “When you asked me about Person A, I was not sure quite how to respond. Person A and I did not find a way to work together productively at Oldcorp. While it might have been situation-specific, the fact is, I don’t know what I could have done differently. As a result, I do have qualms, to the point where I feel that the wiser course would be to withdraw my application. It’s a shame, because I’m otherwise very interested in the job. If they were to move to a different department or location, I’d be delighted to be reconsidered.”

      “There was drama, I’m being responsible by avoiding drama” does not make you out to be a drama llama.

      1. Curmudgeon in California*

        This. There are very few coworkers that I wouldn’t be willing to work with again. More managers that I would reject.

        But the ones that are on that list? I would avoid them, because of too much drama that I just don’t need in my life.

      2. Calm Water*

        I agree. This is a company and a position the OP is interested in and may consider working with if a different position were available or if Linda leaves. Explaining that past issues are serious enough to withdraw from contention is different than pouting and stamping one’s foot and saying they won’t play in the metaphorical sandbox if Linda was there first.

      3. Cedrus Libani*

        It doesn’t sound like OP #2’s interviewer was aware of said drama, though? More likely, they’d seen both resumes, knew they worked for the same company at the same time, and therefore probably knew each other. “Hey, we hired so-and-so recently!” => subtext “Here’s a person you know, if you’ve got questions about culture fit or work-life issues, maybe you’d be more comfortable talking to them.”

        Honestly, I wouldn’t withdraw over this. There are scenarios where I would, even if unemployed for a year and watching my savings dwindle. Drama Llama is a senior-level person who will get to direct my work? NOPE. Drama Llama is peer-level, but a known menace, and they’ve been at the company more than long enough to make it clear that said company isn’t going to manage them? Also NOPE. But in this case, Drama Llama is a fellow newbie on an adjacent team. Doesn’t even sound like a manipulator, just an equal-opportunity pain in the butt; others will catch on to that quickly.

  4. Double A*

    Whoa, I want to know where it’s standard to get a 1:1 prepping to teaching ratio! Public school teachers get about a 1:6 prep ratio if they’re lucky (and I make $25/hour, not including benefits though).

    The offer letter was totally misleading. But it seems like such a sweet deal that I would have been shocked to receive it and would definitely have clarified. But maybe I come from a totally different background of compensation for teaching. But seriously… I’m curious what the institution was where the LW teaches where that could even have been a realistic possibility.

    1. LW 4*

      Hi. I am LW 4 (compensation confusion).
      Prior to this teaching gig, I taught at another local university. That was also very part-time, and the pay was actually higher than this offer from Uni #2.
      So, I did think that the offer from University #2 (prep + teaching) was in the realm of normalcy.

      1. Zoe*

        Did you turn in a timesheet of some kind? Like, how do they know you spent 10 hours in prep? I am not in your field but with our contract instructors I would think it means one could get up to 20 hours depending on how many hours they submit.

        1. Covered in Bees*

          It would get assumed that 10 hours and class time would require 10 hours of prep. For many teachers and lecturers this it’s usually less than they actually spend on it unless they’ve already taught that specific class a few times already.

      2. CM*

        I’m not in academia, so I don’t know the norms.

        But to me, an offer letter saying you work 20 hours and get paid $50/hour means just that. If it didn’t explicitly say you get paid for teaching hours only, then you should be able to rely on what the letter says.

        It depends on how much you need the job, I suppose, but I would go back and say, “hey, I am putting in 20 hours of work, and you told me in writing that I would get paid $50/hour for 20 hours of work. Even at this rate, I would be getting paid less than at other area institutions. I need to get paid what we agreed on.”

        I wonder, too, whether you would be able to get any information about what other lecturers there are paid. Might be hard to find, but would be very useful to have more data.

        1. LW 4*

          I should have done that right away. Now, four weeks have passed. I have a bad tendency to try not to make waves. So, I just tried to grin and bear it. Obviously that was unwise but I wonder if it’s too late at this point to bring it up?

          1. A Simple Narwhal*

            Absolutely not! Definitely bring it up now, you don’t just have to grin and bear it.

          2. How About That*

            LW, this is your COMPENSATION, and worth clarifying no matter how much time has elapsed. The crux of the matter is what is understood to be included as “work”, classroom instruction time only, or instruction plus prep time. Also, the contract language does not say up to 20 hours, why would it if you are to teach for ten hour only.

            Ambiguously written documents are interpreted against those who wrote them, legally speaking. You can point this out. The language should have clearly specified your pay was only for ten hours of classroom instruction time, period. The HR person is clueless and I would not have been satisfied with their answer. Half my expected pay would be unacceptable. Good Luck!

    2. A mathematician*

      I work at a university, admittedly in Australia rather than the US, and for an hour long class each week the tutors get paid for three hours (one hour prep, one hour of the actual class, and one hour marking afterwards). Repeat classes for the same subject don’t get the hour of prep time (because once you’ve prepared the material once you’ve prepared it for any number of repeats) but do get the hour of marking. And that’s with material prepared by the lecturer for the class, so the tutors don’t have to write their own questions.

      1. Batgirl*

        This is so much how it should be, but it’s the first I’ve heard of it actually happening.

        1. WS*

          It’s very recent and after much fighting for it – I quit academia entirely because I couldn’t live on the pay.

      2. borealis*

        I work at a university in Sweden. Depending on the course, we are allocated three or four hours for each hour in the classroom; courses with a lot of marking and grading of assignments generally get four hours, and for courses where the teaching is mainly lectures or seminars without graded assignments you’ll be allocated three houes. The first time you teach a course you’ll get extra hours. In some ways, this is a pretty generous deal, but then again, there is no such thing as a teaching assistant–the teacher handles all feedback and student communication between classes, and some admin stuff that a TA might be doing at an American university. There is also no difference if you have 10 or 25 students in a seminar group, you won’t get more hours for marking and grading twice as many assignments. The hours are calculated when the course is first planned.

      3. Dutchie*

        It’s weird to assume that a repeated class doesn’t need preparation time though. Maybe not as much, but you would want courses to stay up-to-date, right?

        Although this might explain that TikTok I saw from the student having to read a book to “understand what it’s like to live through a pandemic”.

        1. After 33 years ...*

          +1 In addition to revising the material, some of my preparation time involved assessing what went well when the course was last taught, what needed adjustment, making new assignments, and seeing if the evaluation scheme needed any changes. Even for courses that I have taught for several years running, there are always things to do.

        2. Another Aussie at a uni*

          Repeat usually means in the same week. So you teach the same material to just a different bunch from the same cohort.

        3. MCMonkeyBean*

          I think by “repeat” they mean like if you teach the material on Tuesday and then you teach it again on Thursday to a different group of students. Not like you teach it this year and then teach it again next year.

          1. Jora Malli*

            That’s how I understood it too. Like, if you teach in the English department and you have two sections of freshman composition, you would be doing prep for both sections at the same time.

    3. misspiggy*

      I’m a freelance adult education trainer and I usually negotiate based on 1:1 prep to teaching. The training materials have to be usable by others in future, so there is expectation that preparation will be significant.

    4. Anti teacher*

      Standard where I am is 3 hours pay for every one original hour in front of the “class”. They wrap a lot of the job into “prep”. Given recent wage theft scandals it is also clear that many places do not honestly cover “prep” in their ratios.

      I’d assume it was a 20 hour role with 10 hours face time and 10 hours other based on that contract. I’m sadly unsurprised that a university would try to get away without paying the wage owed.

  5. ENFP in Texas*

    The “You’re fired… haha, just joking” boss should meet the “I resign… haha, just joking” co-worker from last week.

    1. On the road again …*

      Yeah I think I might be tempted to respond to “you’re fired” with something like, “but I was late bc I was writing my resignation email!” But in my experience most people this clueless don’t get the joke when it comes back at them.

    2. Bilateralrope*

      Or go with “Ok”, leave the room and start packing your things. If anyone asks why, just tell them exactly what the boss said. Word for word.

      You can decide how far you take it before you reveal that you’re just returning the “joke”. If you ever reveal it.

      Maybe turn up late to the meeting when you’ve already got a new job lined up so you intentionally trigger the “joke” because that gets you out of giving notice. Maybe refuse to return to work unless you’re rehired with a pay raise. Maybe you file for unemployment because it will be fun if the company tries to contest it.

      Basically, see how much trouble you can cause by taking her at her word.

    3. Covered in Bees*

      Or get her colleagues to respond, “You can’t fire me, I quit 10 minutes ago!”

    4. No longer working*

      My take on this is that even though the LW says being late is acceptable here, the boss who is joking about firing people for being late, really isn’t OK with it. I see the joke as passive-aggressive. Maybe the latenesses need to be discussed and clarified that yes, the things that make people late for the meetings are more of a priority, or no, she really prefers people there on time.

      1. Mr. Bob Dobalina*

        This. In fact, it would be my very first assumption. The boss really doesn’t like people being late, and this is her way of (poorly) communicating that in a passive-aggressive way. And because of this, I don’t think OP should address it in front of the group. It should be done privately.

        1. Bad Joke Boss OP*

          I can see why this would be the assumption but it is not. These are people coming into the meetings late because they have been required to be off-site and are traveling. It is both approved and required for them to be late and I should have clarified that better in my letter.

          1. EvilQueenRegina*

            Would she ever make the same joke in another context, or, say, make the joke to someone who was last to arrive but not actually late?

  6. KateM*

    LW4, how many teaching hours per week counts as a full-time job? (And are those hours or, say, 45-minute lessons.)

  7. WoodswomanWrites*

    #1 – If it were me, I would go straight to Alison’s second option and bring it up with the manager directly based on how you describe her. You mention that she is supportive and “a sweet woman,” so I imagine she’s just oblivious that her jokes about firing are not funny nor appropriate. It sounds like she wouldn’t want to make you uncomfortable and would take your feedback well.

    1. Not So NewReader*

      Consider something like this, OP, “I don’t make jokes about quitting because it’s really not that funny. It’s kind of like joking about pay rates, certain topics create awkward moments and even cause upset for people.”

      I’d either address this immediately or let it go. The real problem comes in when something goes on for months and then one decides to address it.

      Another approach to consider is to saying, “Company culture is such that being late for meetings is excusable. Do you prefer we all be exactly on time?”

      1. ecnaseener*

        I don’t think it makes sense to ask about the meeting lateness aspect of it. If this manager responds to people showing up late by making a joke and going back to the meeting, she’s trying to show that she’s *not* upset about the lateness. It’s the specific joke that’s a problem, not the general practice.

        1. Anne Marie*

          I can’t help but think LW1’s boss *is* upset about the lateness, and this is her way of trying to get her team to show up on time without addressing it directly (because it would be a difficult conversation, maybe?). Which is obviously not a good look, either. And just out of curiosity, who decided it’s “totally acceptable” to be late to a meeting led by the boss? Depending on why someone is late – and how often – it can be interpreted as a lack of respect.

          1. ecnaseener*

            I see a joke (in general, not this particular bad choice of joke) as “I’m acknowledging your lateness because I don’t think it should go totally ignored / I don’t want you to think I don’t care at all, but I’m not going to make a Thing out of it because I get that stuff happens.”

          2. Office Lobster DJ*

            I think this is a strong possibility. If boss truly didn’t care, a simple “Hey Jane” or nod/smile would suffice for a greeting. It would be a non-event. Instead, boss is stopping the meeting altogether to comment on how Jane apparently missed some important discussion by being late, and to subtly remind everyone that boss has the power to instill Consequences.

          3. Jora Malli*

            I was thinking this too. Op describes the boss as “a sweet woman,” and as a fellow sweet woman, I can tell you from experience that a lot of us are the way we are because we were brought up as peacekeepers with an emphasis on not rocking the boat. Having a conversation with someone about a thing they’re doing that you want them to stop is unthinkable in this philosophy. It’s possible that the boss thinks making these “jokes” is a way to let people know she wants them to start showing up to meetings on time without having to actually tell them that.

            But no matter why she’s doing it, the advice is the same. “Boss, you’ve made several jokes about firing people and they make me very uncomfortable. I don’t think people’s livelihoods are something we should joke about,” will get your point across nicely and hopefully your boss will get the point.

            1. Momma Bear*

              In a one-on-one, maybe say, “Jane, I’ve noticed you making a joke about firing people when they’re late to this meeting. I find it a little off-putting. Company culture is that it’s OK to not be exactly on time for this kind of meeting, but does that not work for you?”

              We had people rolling in to a particular meeting 5 minutes late. Exec didn’t like that and made it clear that their meetings started exactly on time and they expected people to show up on time. People stopped being late for that meeting. Jane needs to drop the joke and just be clear and direct if what she actually wants is promptness.

          4. Bad Joke Boss OP*

            I can see why this would be the assumption but it is not. These are people coming into the meetings late because they have been required to be off-site and are traveling. It is both approved and required for them to be late and I should have clarified that better in my letter.

            1. Anne Marie*

              OP, in that case, your boss’s “joke” is definitely weird. If you can talk with your boss privately – and maybe feel out a trusted colleague to see if they feel the same and are also willing to say something in private – then that’s the way to go. Perhaps your boss thinks that your colleagues are taking too long to log in, because most of the time it appears they are on time? Though four colleagues being late in eight months seems not too bad, based on the circumstances you describe.

              It might be a bit of stretch, but I am bad at always thinking Task Y will always take X minutes, where X is the shortest amount of time that task has ever been accomplished (e.g., all green lights on my way in to work during the early days of COVID so minimal traffic), even though X + 15 is definitely the rule and not the exception. I have to force myself to plan for X + 15. Your boss might be the same.

    2. Threeve*

      Is it really that bad to casually/jokingly address it in the moment? It doesn’t really sound like she’s the personality type who can dish it out but not take it.

      “Once is funny, twice is silly, three times is [exaggerated mumble].”

      “Oh that reminds me, [name of boss’s boss] wanted to talk to you, and he did NOT seem happy…”

      To late arrival: “we were actually planning a bad-joke intervention for [boss].”

      That said, unless it’s truly distressing, I would let it go. Bad jokes are just kind of a fact of life with some people.

      1. MCMonkeyBean*

        Ok I feel like it probably really depends on your relationship… but I actually love that bad-joke intervention response!

        1. quill*

          Bad joke intervention is definitely what I might use if, say, a family member was doing this. With colleagues, whether or not I expect it to work is a mixed bag but I sure would be tempted to say it.

      2. Observer*

        That said, unless it’s truly distressing, I would let it go. Bad jokes are just kind of a fact of life with some people.

        This is not just a “bad joke”.

        And the OP has made it clear that is IT distressing to them – they say that it “makes me crazy There is no way that this is NOT “truly distressing” for at least SOME of the other people. The fact that everyone laughs does not mean anything because a lot of people will laugh even (or especially) when they are distressed.

  8. Batgirl*

    OP1, even if you don’t decide to speak up, don’t choose to “chuckle and bear it” either! It’s perfectly okay to let a joke fall flat, or look shocked, or just let your face do what it wants. Currently your boss thinks she’s making nice pleasantries and being jokey when someone is late to cover the awkwardness. She probably doesn’t think it’s the funniest joke in the world, but the polite laughter is feedback that she’s on the right track. If you allow an awkward silence, at least from your corner she’s getting better feedback as to its reception.

    1. Sanskritchers*

      But who knows how OP1 has been reacting up until this point. They haven’t said anything yet, so even if they’ve been going along blankly it’ll be odd to allow themselves to be shocked now. And if they’ve been smiling/laughing previously, this change just won’t work.

      1. Observer*

        This is really common, but really bad advice. It is simply not acceptable to tell someone that they are no longer “allowed” to complain or push back on bad behavior because they have not done so till now. Till now, the OP has probably been making an effort to not “make a fuss”, now they should stop. If anyone actually claims that “well you seemed to be ok, how dare you change your mind” the OP can simply point out that they were never ok with it, but they’ve run out of energy and patience to pretend.

        1. Rocket*

          I don’t think they’re saying you can’t change you mind and push back, but specifically “looking shocked” like you’ve never heard that joke before when you clearly have is going to come across bizarre and could quite possibly derail what you’re actually trying to do.

      2. Batgirl*

        I’d agree the previous context is important but all the OP has to do is keep that in mind. She shouldn’t go from slapping her thigh and howling with laughter one day to “how dare you” the next. But she can probably go from putting in a mild “ha ha” to either looking taken aback, bored with it, or blank faced. Her own comfort level is probably the best guide.

    2. Not So NewReader*

      Yeah, stop laughing or smiling and maybe make a face that goes with the word, “ouch!”. I’d consider saying “ouch” out loud.

    3. MPerera*

      Regarding the silent reception… I work in a hospital laboratory, and last year, out of the blue, one of my coworkers started talking about how Covid-19 had been developed in a lab in Wuhan. I was so taken aback that I couldn’t think of how to answer. So I just looked at her.

      Coworker : “And then the Chinese scientists deliberately released the virus.”
      Me : Blank stare over the edge of my mask, silence.
      Coworker : “I saw a video about it on YouTube…”
      Me : Blank stare, silence.
      Coworker : “Uh… did you need any help booking those specimens?”
      Me : “Sure. Thanks.”

      She never mentioned the virus to me again.

  9. Fiona*

    #3 Please be honest with them. Nobody is better off if you string them along because you’re trying not to hurt their feelings.

    1. Ness*

      At my job, managers aren’t allowed to discourage anyone from applying to a vacancy – it’s one of the fair hiring principles. This may not be common or I assume Allison would have mentioned it, but I think LW3 should tread lightly here.

  10. Sean*

    LW1: I wonder what will happen when the boss is placed in the unfortunate position of having to fire someone for real – and the employee in question genuinely thinks the boss is joking?

    …and refuses to believe the boss’s ever more desperate assertions that, actually no, this time it’s for real? “No, honestly I mean it this time.” “Yes, I know I was joking before, but not now.”

    1. JM in England*

      You’ve nailed it!

      This boss needs to (re-)read the story of The Boy Who Cried Wolf……

    2. ecnaseener*

      I mean, hopefully a real firing conversation would be in private, not at a staff meeting called for another purpose! That would be the first clue (or rather, the last clue, if the manager does her due diligence and warns people ahead of time they’ll be fired if their performance doesn’t improve)

      1. Empress Matilda*

        Yes, and a real conversation doesn’t usually include the literal words “you’re fired.” Usually it’s more like “we’re going to have to let you go” or “this isn’t working out, so unfortunately this is your last day.”

        So to me, it’s pretty clear that it’s a joke. I don’t imagine the boss is even that upset about the lateness – I expect she thinks it’s just some light banter between colleagues. Of course that doesn’t change the impact on the OP and others, and they should definitely ask her to knock it off. But give her the benefit of the doubt. I would say somethng like “Can I ask you to stop? I know you’re joking, but I have a hard time with jokes that sound like they could be real, especially when they’re coming from my boss!”

    3. Grand Admiral Thrawn Is Blue Forevermore*

      In my first church office job, one of the pastors disliked me but who knows why. I’d planned a day off to do something that I was really excited about (the book of costumes and accessories for The Hobbit came out that day!) and while I was talking about it to the office people, he makes sure to say that they will be interviewing for my position on my day off. Joking-not joking one bit ha ha. He would have kicked me out that day if he could, though I didn’t fully realize that at the time. People suck.

  11. birch*

    LW1: I really disagree with the advice to start with suggestion 1! That might make sense if this is the first time the “joke” has happened to you personally (although to be honest, I’d still side-eye you for not having reacted when others were the victim of the joke), or if there’s a significant escalation, like when we’ve heard of people touching coworkers or throwing things at them. But if you’ve been previously sitting there either chuckling politely or straight-facedly ignoring it, suddenly reacting shocked and appalled about it feels so weird and fake. If I was making an off-color joke without realizing how it came across and someone who had heard it several times already suddenly told me it was really mean and made a shocked face in front of the whole team, I would feel like they had set me up to make me feel bad in front of everyone. I’d wonder why they hadn’t reacted at all before, let alone said something to me about it. IMO it’s always better to start with the genuine ask to stop the joke, assuming you’re both reasonable adults and that the supervisor would understand the explanation that the first one or two times you’d let it go because people are allowed to make mistakes, but it’s started to become a routine that needs to stop. If they’re otherwise a reasonable and kind person, give the supervisor a real chance to apologize and trust that they will change.

    1. Xavier Desmond*

      Yeah I agree with your advice more than Allison’s. The first step to get someone to stop doing something is to ask politely most of the time.

    2. Green Post-Its*

      This is much more sensible. Your boss will most likely not even notice you ‘acting shocked’ unless you make quite a production of it. I would want to talk about it privately with the boss and not mess around pretending to be ‘appalled’.

      1. ecnaseener*

        Especially in a virtual meeting – I know I don’t pick up subtle facial expressions in those.

    3. Batgirl*

      I do think there is a spectrum of reaction you can choose from though. There’s being vocal and having a face like you’ve been slapped with a kipper and then there’s a mild “this joke is wearing thin” face.

    4. CM*

      I agree, I’d mention it in a 1-on-1 and say, hey, could I ask you to stop with the jokes about how you’re going to fire people who are late to meetings? I know you don’t mean it, but since you actually could fire us, it’s hard for me to laugh!

      1. Fierce Jindo*

        This is great wording. It gets the point across without belaboring it or coming across as scolding.

    5. MCMonkeyBean*

      Yeah, I think finally speaking up and saying it’s mean after it’s already happened a few times can be fine but definitely don’t act shocked if it’s like the fourth or fifth time someone says something in the same group of people. I think everyone would be a bit confused by that reaction, not just the boss. I would go with something more like “you make that joke a lot and I know that no one thinks you really mean it, but it actually makes me pretty uncomfortable.” I’m not sure if something like that would be better in the moment or one-on-one later.

      1. Threeve*

        If you reply in the moment in front of other teammates, even the most neutral “it would be nice if you stopped making that joke” is going to come across as critical and confrontational.

        If you respond in the moment, it has to be with another joke (“oh man, you keep making that joke, and sometimes you get me all worried and sometimes you get my hopes up!”)

        Or, one-on-one, it’s a very simple “would you mind dropping the ‘you’re fired’ jokes in meetings?” No explanation needed unless she asks for one. Reasonable people don’t need formal, scripted responses if you’re addressing something for the first time.

        1. JE*

          That was my thought. I thought Alison’s suggestions could lead to the person getting defensive. You were “fine” with it before, but now you’re saying it’s “mean” and you are embarrassing your boss in front of others. (I know that’s not the intention, but that’s how the boss is gonna feel). I think an immediate about-face in the moment might make the situation *more* uncomfortable for the bystanders

          Start with the one-on-one. This gives the boss a heads-up without them feeling confronted.

    6. DrWho*

      I was going to write the same. This sudden change if reaction in front of everyone the fifth time the joke comes out to me screams drama. No need. Just politely ask her in private to avoid such jokes because they create awkwardness.

    7. calonkat*

      I spent a number of years under/unemployed in a rural area where computer skills weren’t needed (a while ago). While I’ve now been employed by a government agency for nearly 15 years, and keep being assured my skills are valued, if someone said that when I walked into a meeting, I’d probably burst into tears and go start packing up leaving someone to hunt me down to explain the “joke”. Wonder why that hasn’t happened with a new hire?

      1. Bad Joke Boss OP*

        I am LW1 and coming into this job from an incredibly toxic culture where I was verbally abused by a previous boss. I know I am extremely sensitive and it is part of what has kept me from speaking out about this joke. It makes me feel ill every time it comes up and I fear I would have a really negative and angry reaction if that jok were directed at me.

      2. wittyrepartee*

        I think I’d freeze, and get that horrible tingly feeling as blood rushes to my face when I’m really upset. Then maybe have a panic attack in the bathroom.

    8. Observer*

      I would feel like they had set me up to make me feel bad in front of everyone. I’d wonder why they hadn’t reacted at all before, let alone said something to me about it

      When someone is doing something wrong and someone acts shocked about it, you don’t get to decide that THEY are the one who is wrong. Even if you “didn’t mean it”. Even if they didn’t act shocked before. It’s a very normal thing to happen.

      And when you (generic you, not @Birch) are a boss, that’s true 10 times over. The boss is a functional person. If she doesn’t realize that the relative power here makes a difference then she shouldn’t be a boss. Deciding to get mad at the person who has finally run out of patience / energy / shock acceptance for actually showing how they feel because it’s “mean” is classic deflecting of blame. In my experience, people who react this way also don’t react well to being “politely asked”. Because someone didn’t use the right magic words, they didn’t make themselves “clear enough”, the didn’t seem REALLY upset, they weren’t polite enough, or some other excuse.

      If someone acts shocked at your behavior, even if it’s the 10th time you are doing something, do NOT try to blame the other person for not reacting in a way that makes you less than comfortable.

      If the supervisor is a reasonable and competent person they should understand that people sometimes hide their shock at bad behavior, but they can also reach a point where it’s just too much. Lashing out or blaming the victims and observers is not a reasonable response.

      Also, sometimes a public response is exactly what is called for. Look at last week’s letter from someone whose coworker sent out a really disgusting email to the entire company. Other people in the company decided that the whole department is on board with it, and many commenters agreed that it was TOTALLY reasonable because no one in the OP’s department had pushed back publicly.

      1. JE*

        What you’re suggesting isn’t wrong, and if the boss were 100% reasonable and understanding and rational, it would work.
        But doing what you suggest is *not* going to get you what you want (the jokes to stop).
        You can say “Well she shouldn’t get defensive!” and you’re right, she shouldn’t. But that doesn’t mean she *won’t*.
        The boss isn’t the one reading these comments. She is not going to see you telling her that she’s in the wrong and she needs to fix her behavior.
        We are not deflecting the blame. The LW asked what *they* can do. And the consensus in this thread is that having a private conversation will probably go over better. LW said that the boss is a “sweet person”. Gently talking to her one-on-one probably will go over better than confronting her in front of others.

      2. Chi*

        Thank you for saying this. I didn’t agree with that comment and all the other comments agreeing bothered me. I couldn’t put my finger on why but you articulated it perfectly.

        For the record I am a “freeze in the moment” type person too. It frustrates me that suddenly I have to give up my right to be upset about something just because I didn’t speak up the first time. It is a tasteless joke and common sense should tell the boss it isn’t funny.

  12. Bullying Survivor*

    OP2: If it were me, I would walk away. Just think back to how miserable your bully made you at work and very likely at home, too, as you stressed over the situation. That kind of experience is traumatizing. Even if they are on another team and you don’t have to interact, just seeing them or hearing their voice can negatively affect you. My bully moved to a different department, which was a good thing. Unfortunately, daily interactions still occur due to proximity. It’s exhausting in so many ways. I’ve worked with a counsellor to help me overcome the trauma of the bullying and the resentment I felt toward management for not doing anything (until I was ready to walk and they spoke to the bully to tell them to stop). My work with the counsellor makes the current situation a little more bearable, but it still sucks. It would have been so much easier if she had just left (or got fired!) the company instead of this constant reminder. It would be a dream for them to be gone. I couldn’t imagine knowingly putting myself into a position where we’d work together again. There’ll be other great jobs out there. This one isn’t worth the risk.

  13. Bookworm*

    #2: I’d say it’s probably best withdraw and tell them it’s a “culture fit” or even “fit.” Safe(r) language that is vague enough. And besides–if they hired your awful former co-worker, what does that say about THEM? Sure, people change and all that but I’d say “fit” can be a reasonable and safe explanation.

    I’m sorry you have to deal with all of this.

    1. MK*

      I doubt the coworker was awful during the interview process. I am not saying it’s impossible that the company knew of their behaviour and hired them anyway, but this is unlikely to be obvious during hiring and might not even come up with a reference check.

      1. Jora Malli*

        I always say one of the hardest things about hiring is that almost anyone can pretend to be collegial and easy to work with for 45 minutes. Sometimes they can’t and you can cross them off your list, but I’ve definitely hired people before who seemed like they’d be excellent team members in the interview, only for things to go horribly wrong after the fact.

    2. Covered in Bees*

      I’ve seen people be totally five and lovely in an interview and then not good in the workplace. Especially with a bully. Unless they’re totally out of touch, they wouldn’t bully people interviewing them or, possibly, anyone with seniority over them. I know the later can happen but it’s far less likely in my experience.

      1. Evelyn Carnahan*

        Yep. I worked for a terrible bully (made one of her direct reports openly cry in an HR training!), but she was a wonderful and charming interview.

    3. I'd Rather Be Eating Dumplings*

      And besides–if they hired your awful former co-worker, what does that say about THEM?

      This is legit tricky because lots of bullies don’t show themselves immediately: it takes time for the problems to become apparent. And a company that fired a new (and otherwise acceptable) employee based on the word of OP would also be a dysfunctional company. By the time former co-worker has been there long enough for the company to recognise the situation and deal with it or ignore it (whichever they chose), OP’s interview process would probably be over.

      There’s really no good move for OP at the moment.

    4. Covered in Bees*

      I was trying to think of a way for OP to say, if specially asked, something along the lines of “I’ve worked with Chad before and found the other work styles clashed.” But even that would probably go over poorly.

      1. Curmudgeon in California*

        How about “I’ve worked with Chad before and do not wish to do so again.”?

        It says Chad is the issue, but does not go into detail. It’s blunt, minimalist, and gets to the heart of the problem.

        1. Observer*

          The problem is that is actually doesn’t say that Chad is the issue. It says that YOU think that Chad was the issue. The problem is that the new employer has no way to know that. Which means that it could be that Chas is not actually the issue but that you are.

          For an extreme example of what this can be, find the letter from the person who got hired after being a SAHM for a number of years then got fired for “taking initiative” in her view, but actually for being impossible – she went behind her boss’ back, yelled at her in a meeting and told her not “mind her own business” and “not interfere” with OP’s work. (She used the name Betty ans Veronica.)

          1. EmmaPoet*

            Yes, if they don’t know you, well, Chad is the known quantity and he might be great or a complete toad who they’re trying to manage out. Either way, a candidate doesn’t have the social capital to burn on something like this.

            I remember that letter, and oh, but the OP was insufferable in that one sample. I can’t imagine working with her as a subordinate.

    5. JM in England*

      I have a slightly different experience of this. Was put forward for a job by a recruiter and my research on the company revealed that the new boss would be a former boss who was a bully towards me and several of my then-coworkers. This was enough to immediately call the recruiter back and withdraw my candidacy.

    6. LDN Layabout*

      And besides–if they hired your awful former co-worker, what does that say about THEM?

      That the former co-worker interviewed well? Most bullies don’t show up to the interview in ye olde villain gear and twirl a moustache while detailing their horrible personalities and issues to the interviewing panel.

      1. The Prettiest Curse*

        Yes, lots of bullies are successful at their bullying because they are extremely manipulative people – which would make it difficult to successfully gage their potential for this type of behaviour in an interview.

        I’ve worked with 2 different bullies who didn’t start in on the worst of their crappy behaviour until I’d worked with them for years. So even if they seem fine at first, it can take a while for bullies to start being awful to people.

        1. Cercis*

          Or they’re strategic about their bullying and bully people who don’t want to “make waves”. I mentioned up above that there’s a man in my field who is a major ass to women. He marginalizes and belittles and patronizes. When he’s in charge of a project (or even when he’s only in charge of portions of the project) women get assigned to support roles and left out of the strategy roles. When women speak up about it, mentioning that they have limited time available and want to spend it more constructively for the project, he presents it as a lack of commitment, because the support work has to be done by someone.

          When I pointed this out to some of the other men in the field they were legitimately shocked, because he had told them that the women REQUESTED those roles because they had other things going on and couldn’t devote the necessary time to the higher level roles (and a good portion of the men have asked me if I just “misunderstood” or was perhaps “being too sensitive”). When I mention it to women, they say “oh yeah, he’s like that, you just have to play the game.”

          I decided to use my time in other organizations and when he’s mentioned as a person to bring into a project I just say “that’s your choice, but I won’t work with him, so if he fills a need for you, that’s great, I’ll help you find someone else to take my place.” Most of these projects are volunteer (but high visibility) projects, but some are paying projects. I should probably figure out a more diplomatic way to say it, but I’m just done being marginalized and trying to play nice while everyone ignores his treatment of women.

    7. Rolly*

      “if they hired your awful former co-worker, what does that say about THEM?”

      It’s very possible they do not know this person is a bully, so it doesn’t say much except perhaps that they don’t check references of peers/subordinates that the applicant did not provide. Which very few organizations do anyway.

      1. Observer*

        Even if they checked references, they might not have gotten the information they needed. Given that the old company knew that Ex-CW was a bully but wouldn’t do anything about it, what are the odds that they didn’t say anything? I would say that it is EXTREMELY likely that no one in the old company said anything.

        1. Evelyn Carnahan*

          People also lie in reference checks. I was on a hiring committee for a bully boss and checked her references. They were *glowing*, and when we got off the phone the other reference checker said she sounded almost too good to be true. A year or so after she started, one of my colleagues met one of her references at a conference and found out that the reference and another reference at the same org gave false positive references to get her out of their org before she could apply for promotion.

    8. moonstone*

      In my experience with bullies, bullies are very good at choosing who to be mean to and who to be shitty to. Namely, they will be nice to people with power and influence and shitty to people who have little status and who won’t be believed if they were to speak up. And if they are reasonably good at their jobs there is no reason not to hire them.

      There is an organization that I will never ever apply to as long as one of my former bullies works there, even though I’m sure we would be working on different teams since we have different specializations. It’s just not worth it, but fortunately for me there are other options.

  14. Skippy*

    LW3: If neither of your colleagues would be a good fit for the role, please just be upfront with them and tell them straight away. They probably think they have a good shot as an internal candidate, so don’t give them any false hope that they are being considered if you already see red flags in their candidacies. And not only should you tell them they’re not being considered — you should also give them specific and actionable feedback as to why,

    Even if you do this I would also be prepared for the fact that both of them may leave as soon as they can find something else. Being passed over for a promotion — even if it’s for all the right reasons — is incredibly demoralizing.

    1. EPLawyer*

      For the one who needs management experience, please be clear how they get management experience. They might hear they need management experience and think “great, that’s why I was applying, now what do I do?”

      1. A Simple Narwhal*

        Yes this is a great point! Too often (mediocre/bad) managers say you need more experience in X but then offer zero ways to achieve that, it’s incredibly frustrating. If you can’t immediately think of how they could get that experience, at the very least say “if this is a direction you are interested in, let me think of ways we can expose you to this (so you can get that experience)”, and then follow through.

        And if you look and there’s literally no way they are able to gain management experience in their current role, then please be honest with them about it so they know where they stand and aren’t waiting around on false hope.

      2. eastcoastkate*

        YES! It’s so hard when you’re trying to move into management experience and everyone keeps telling you that to qualify you need management experience. K- I’m trying haha.
        Can they supervise in an unofficial capacity or lead a project, or lead interns? Give them a path or options.

        1. Curmudgeon in California*

          Yeah, apparently you can’t be a manager without already being a manager. Plus, it has to be a paid manager in the specific field, nothing else will do.

          Can you say “Catch 22”??

          That bitterness you hear is me trying to get into management for the last 15 years.

    2. Anonymous Koala*

      I disagree; if I were OP I would not bluntly tell an otherwise good employee that they are not being considered for a promotion without a *really* specific reason. You never know what your pool of candidates will be at the start of a process, nor do you know the full extent of someone’s relevant experience just by working with them in one role. If you discourage a candidate from even applying, you run the risk of loosing a potential candidate, unnecessarily demoralising a good employee, and robbing them of feedback on their application. Plus, even though OP feels that they are a bad fit for the position, others on the hiring committee may disagree. I would steer clear of making unilateral judgements about candidate fit before at least looking at an application.
      But I do agree that any feedback the OP gives, particularly feedback about needing more experience in X, should be specific with actionable steps the employee can take to gain that experience.

    3. Squeaky wheels hurt my ears*

      Interested in any comments about workplaces with policies about interviewing any internal candidates (government jobs, union shops) and if that changes any of this?

      Been in a lot of internal interviews where I got very little feedback after. What is the best way to give feedback to someone not suited to the role if they are basically stuck where they are? How do you thread the needle between coaching them to be better without looking like they will be a shoo-in next time?

  15. hamsterpants*

    #2 — Most workplaces these days have some boilerplate rhetoric about not tolerating bullying. In an interview setting, that boilerplate might be the best you would get. You could softpedal and ask about what steps the company takes to ensure a healthy culture, inclusion, and healthy conflict resolution, but that’s about it. Few jobs are going to give you real information about whether they have dispensed with bullies before.

    1. Lina*

      Yes, and also what happens with that “no tolerance” policy depends on how it actually plays out. My bully was very, very smart about what she did/said and when. It always came down to she said-she said with no other witnesses, and because the bully was my boss’s right-hand-deputy, the boss was predisposed to listen to her interpretation of a situation rather than mine. It all resolved well for me eventually, but was a good lesson in hearing both sides of the story when trying to navigate interpersonal drama.

  16. MicroManagered*

    On #1, I hope I don’t get dragged for this, but is it *ever* ok to joke about firing someone?

    I’m not talking about an example like #1 or the first episode of The Office–that’s obviously messed up. But there have been times where I’ve made a very quick joke to about someone being fired, usually because *they* started it. For example, let’s say I call my direct report to tell them something fairly benign or even good news, and they start the call saying “Uh ohhhhh am I in trouble?” I might respond with “Yes you’re fired. NO! I just had a question about the XYZ report!” in a very obviously joking way.

    Should I not even do that?

    1. KateM*

      I’d say better not indeed. As otehrs have said, it wears thin pretty fast, so better not get into habit in the first place IMO.

    2. CM*

      I don’t think it’s ever OK from a manager even when it’s very obvious it’s a joke. Because behind the joking “uh oh, am I in trouble?” is the truth that you hold some power over them. So even though your direct report knows you’re joking, there’s still that element of worry.

      1. Eldritch Office Worker*

        In fact I’d try to get rid of the “am I in trouble” joking as well. I’ve always responded to jokes like that with a “what? of course not” or a genuinely concerned “why is there something I should know?” which usually nips it in the bud. It just creates an anxious environment to have that kind of thinking as an undercurrent, and that’s what that joke reveals in a truth-in-jest sort of way.

    3. JustMyImagination*

      No you should not do that. I get anxiety when my boss calls a nondescript meeting or a last second “can we chat?” call. My stomach would absolutely drop at the joke and I wouldn’t be able to focus on what you really wanted to talk about because of adrenaline.

    4. SJ (they/them)*

      I wouldn’t even joke about it, not because you’re going to scare the person in the moment necessarily, but because it signals that you aren’t taking the responsibility seriously of holding a kill switch on someone’s livelihood. If I’m the employee, I want to know that that switch is in a locked room under three layers of shatterproof glass, not chilling in your pocket where you can pretend to flip it for fun.

    5. Minions?*

      Given the dynamics, I wouldn’t *start* an unexpected call to a subordinate with that.

      I think it can be fine in other ways. My supervisor will, very occasionally, *react* to hilariously minor missteps with a jokey-voiced “You’re fired” — I think she’s actually quoting a Minion? It’s patently obvious it’s a joke as she says it, though. (I also happen to know just how long she’s spent trying to get someone dismissed for failure to perform; my company saves on-the-spot firings for things like opening porn in the open floor plan.)

      1. Dinwar*

        There’s someone I work with that does that to me on occasion. We’ve worked together for over a decade, the first few largely in the field. Your concept of “professional norms” loosens up a bit in such circumstances. I remember running out of gas in the Gulf of Mexico with him, for example, and another time getting stuck in a gator slide and him pulling me out. Plus, it helps that my work is all project based–I can be removed from a project, but still have a job (if I can find more work). I don’t actually need him, and we both know it, so there’s no real threat even when he has authority over me.

        If my actual supervisors say “If you do X you’re fired” I take them very, very seriously. I learned early on in my career (due to a rather fortuitous combination of students in my HAZWOPER class) that one of the duties of some positions is sacrificial offering. What I mean is, sometimes a company will decide to deal with potential liability by firing an employee in order to show the regulators that they’re Doing Something to Fix The Problem. Going through that position is part of the career development process. On the flip side, my supervisors are keenly aware of what would happen if I were to be fired (a colleague in a similar position left the company recently and we’re still dealing with the fallout), so they don’t want to give me any ideas!

        In the end, it all comes down to relationships. What is acceptable depends on your relationship with the other person. There’s no real hard-and-fast rule, especially when you consider the concept of counter-signaling. The culture of the company and the specific office, the person’s personality, and the expectations set up in previous interactions all come into play.

      2. JustaTech*

        Yes, my boss does this (very occasionally) too. But I’ve worked with him for more than a decade, and he never starts a conversation with the joke. It’s always something outside of all of our control happens and he’d say “Jane, you’re fired!” and Jane would laugh and say “Sweet, I can go home!”.
        It started as some gallows humor during a bad time at our company and now has become a kind of running joke.
        But my boss is pretty sensitive about how he uses it: he didn’t make the joke with me for years and years, and he never made that joke with another coworker who wouldn’t take it well (even knowing it was a joke) and he has yet to do it with any of the new people.

        But the difference between this and LW1 is 1) it’s never the start of a conversation, 2) it’s only done with people who know that it is a joke and have known him for years, 3) it’s never done as a passive-aggressive way of correcting someone, 4) he’s a good enough manager that all his reports know that if there actually was a problem it would be brought up promptly and privately, 5) we all know he’s never going to fire anyone.

        LW1’s boss’ way of making the joke, bringing a group into it, is extra unkind and weird.

    6. MicroManagered*

      I should also mention that my employer has a very thorough process to actually terminate someone and nobody would EVER find out they’re fired from a routine phone call. You’d be on a PIP for months, you’d have had coaching sessions about the PIP, etc. Even in cases of gross misconduct, you’d be placed on a paid administrative leave while HR investigates.

      1. Gingerbread Gnome*

        I still wouldn’t joke about it. You are in a position of power over them.
        That “Am I in trouble?” isn’t funny or starting a joke even if they ask in a lighthearted way. People laugh due to the relief. They may or may not know about the termination process, I would expect managers know about the process much more than employees who are not in management.

      2. For the Moment*

        I’ve found that Very Good Employees are often so far away from anything like a PIP process that they do really worry about any kid of interaction or feedback as “Holy crow! I’m going to get fired!”

        For my high performers, I have the habit of once a year or so, going over what actually “being in trouble” looks like, with commitments that until they have gotten a piece of feedback with a request to improve, by a date, in writing, they are not even on the road toward a PIP. All other feedback is “lets go from good to great on this” or about growth in skills that we’ve discussed being on their roadmap or generally normal. (And even being on the road toward a PIP isn’t being on a PIP and being on a PIP isn’t being fired, its a whole process. But if you aren’t aware of the whole process, any thing can feel dangerous.)

        As a habit, joking about the power you have over other people is something I consider a bad look, but there are supposedly people who can pull it off authentically and respectfully. I’m a giant fun sucker and aim for sincerity with my staff. I don’t want people to be trying to read my tone, when I can just use the words I mean.

        1. MicroManagered*

          Oohhhhhh this is really insightful. The kind of joking I’m describing is DEFINITELY with people who are so very far from anything remotely like disciplinary action, that frankly they’re being ridiculous (and sometimes exhausting) by reaching for “am I in trouble” at all.

          Do you review that process as a response to a misplaced “am I in trouble” comment? Is that generally the context?

          1. Observer*

            Even good performers can get worried when called into a last minute meeting.

            You don’t have to go through the PIP process with them. But do not joke back at all. Better to either get the meeting started before they go there. Or even if you can’t do that (maybe they jumped right in or whatever) your response should be serious and make it clear that this is not the case. “If you are in trouble, I won’t spring it on you in a surprise meeting” kind of response.

          2. For the Moment*

            They’re not being ridiculous- they’re good because they’re conscientious and being concerned about screwing up is part of that.

            Generally the process review would happen at some team meeting when it made sense in context of other things going on – like a colleague being let go somewhere else in the company, or when people were starting to get squirrely about self reviews, or generally when “let’s talk about the difference between feedback and struggling” made sense.

            When someone asks if they’re in trouble, I usually went with “No and I’m sorry I worried you, I just wanted to check in on the X project” or whatever. If they’re still anxious, I might point back to that more general discussion as a reminder that trouble looks like repeated, written, specific requests for improvement, not vague last minute requests for time. (I also work to make sure that requests for time aren’t vague because “do you have a minute?” Can be a really stressful ask for some people and giving context allows people to show up prepped rather than nervous)

        2. Girasol*

          Reviewing the firing process with your good employees is such a great idea! When my employer fired people after a PIP, the rumors of what had happened were downright evil. Maybe my company really was evil, but maybe if we had known the whole story we would have thought the company had acted entirely appropriately. But no one did know, and managers never talked about the process, so after a firing several really good people would suddenly leave for another job.

      3. Nameless in Customer Service*

        If I worked there and you told me this I wouldn’t believe you. Not because you personally are mendacious but because I have worked in a couple of places with such processes laid out in the employee handbook and then seen people fired on the spot after one argument with their boss. In one case after a nurse pushed back against racist microaggressions I heard her called into the boss’s office and threatened with the loss of her license (we could all hear through the door, it was very uncomfortable) and she freaked out so hard she was removed by ambulance and never seen again. The basic truth of the working world is that it is entirely unfair and power driven. There is only as much justice as people with power are willing to exercise.

        You are the person who works with your underlings. Maybe you truly have this kind of rapport with them. But please think hard about the power you have over their livelihood, both now and in the future if you’re called on to give references, before you make any joke they are obliged to laugh at.

      4. Girasol*

        You know the process and how firmly the company adheres to it. Employees may not know about it or may remember less well managed companies they’ve worked for in the past and doubt that the process is always followed. I’d lay off such humor if only because someone who misunderstood could end up resigning out of the blue, saying, “Well, you mentioned firing and I thought I must be in trouble so I found another job.”

    7. Threeve*

      If you’re confident the vibe of your office/relationship with your report doesn’t make it upsetting or inappropriate, you’re fine. I’ve worked places where my rapport with my boss was casual and jokey enough that I would laugh at this.

      I think I once had something like the following exchange:
      *chair is knocked over somewhere down the hall, audible but well out of sight*
      Boss: Threeve, if you knock one more chair over I’m going to fire you.
      Me: If you fire me, the next chair is falling on you.

      1. Dinwar*

        I’ve had similar exchanges.

        Them: Do that again and you’re fired!
        Me: You realize if you fire me you get my job, right?
        Them: Well crap……

      2. Antilles*

        In theory, I’d agree with you. In practice? I am certain that the number of bosses who *think* they have good enough rapport to make these jokes greatly exceeds the number of bosses who *actually* have this kind of rapport.
        I mean, if OP1’s Boss was in these comments, she’d probably say that she was just making a humorous joke and didn’t realize it was bothering people.

        1. Eldritch Office Worker*

          Yes this. In person, I’d shrug it off in most cases. Here, where people are searching for advice, I’d say the risk is too high you’re reading the situation wrong.

        2. Filosofickle*

          And FWIW even if my boss has this kind of rapport with us, I’m fundamentally insecure about my performance — despite having been a top performer my whole life — and it would strike terror in my heart. I have no rational reason to believe my boss was serious. It’s a me thing. And yet.

      3. Observer*

        If you’re confident the vibe of your office/relationship with your report doesn’t make it upsetting or inappropriate, you’re fine.

        Except that there is no reason for @MicroMangered to actually BE confident in that. Even without the additional information they provided, it’s pretty clear that there is most probably a level of anxiety at play that’s being covered over by the “joke”.

    8. MCMonkeyBean*

      Better safe than sorry. I doubt an interaction like you’ve described would send someone here wondering what they should do about their terrible boss, but is the need to make that joke so great that it’s worth even the smallest risk of upsetting someone? No. Best that people in power avoid jokes about using that power altogether.

    9. Red Reader the Adulting Fairy*

      One of my team members is retiring shortly, and there have been a couple of points since their announcement where they say “Is it okay if I (whatever)?” and I have said something like “Sure, you can pretty much do whatever you want at this point, what am I gonna do, fire you?” But I think that’s more a “yay you’re outta here on your own terms soon” type joke than an actual joke about firing someone.

      But no, if someone starts out with “am I in trouble” then a joke about firing is absolutely 1000% not okay, that’s like responding to someone telling you their foot hurts by stomping on it.

    10. I should really pick a name*

      Is it so important to be able to make that one joke?
      In the right context, it will probably land properly, but why risk freaking someone out?

      1. MicroManagered*

        Is it “important” to me? No. Does it come across like something that I think is really important? Reading this letter made me think and ask questions, that’s all. Jeez.

        1. Observer*

          It’s good that you asked. I think, however, the you are misreading the response.

          The point is that how much risk you should take is proportionate to how important the risky action is. So if you need to make sure that employee know about Very Important Safety Rule, you make sure that you are very clear and very emphatic and you don’t worry about offending someone because they think you think they don’t know their job. It may be a significant risk, but it’s important enough that you take it. But there are other things that are so unimportant the you should not take ANY risk. So, making a joke is generally unimportant enough that you should not take any risk at all. That would be the yardstick you should apply.

        2. MCMonkeyBean*

          Well I mean yes, if the advice is that this is literally never a good joke to make and your first thought is “but can I do it anyway” then it does in fact come across a tiny bit like you think your ability to make this joke might in some circumstances be more important than the potential pitfalls a joke like this can create. Just… don’t do it.

          If there is the tiniest sliver of a possibility of a chance that someone could briefly take the comment at face value–or even if they know that you didn’t mean it but it still alters your relationship with them by bringing the power you have over their ability to put food on the table to the forefront of their mind in every conversation they have with you, then there is just no reason to ever even consider making a joke about your ability to fire anyone.

    11. generic_username*

      Oh god, the “am I in trouble” joke is making me cringe because what if it actually were an issue that you were calling about… would you have to be serious and be like “actually, yes.”

    12. oranges*

      I put it in the same category as pranks and asking someone to do something reasonable and they respond with a no before laughing.

      “Can I please get a straw?”
      “Nope! …. just kidding! I’ll be right back.”

      I roll my eyes every single time.

      1. Evelyn Carnahan*

        But I think that the dynamic here is really important. I feel like this would be like if an intern asked me if they could go to the bathroom and I said no and then laughed. It might be a bad dad joke in some instances but in a workplace where it’s the person with more institutional power saying it, it becomes a much bigger problem.

    13. kiki*

      I think this is one of those things where it’s really safest not to, buuuuuut I totally hear jokes like this all the time and most people (in environments that are overall good and supportive) seem unbothered by it or even actively join in on the gag. This is one of those tricky situations for humor, though, because due to the work hierarchy people will be reluctant to express if they don’t like these jokes.

    14. Bagpuss*

      I think it’s better not to – not least because even if someone knows you are joking they can have that momentary anxiety, and the power difference does make it problematic. Also, people do sometimes try to use humor when they are worried, so someone saying ‘am I in trouble’ in a joking way may be using the jokey tone to cover a genuine worry.

      That said, I think that if you know someone well enough it is possible to make jokes, but it’s perhaps best if they are something that’s not only not true but couldn’t be true – I have joked with my assistant about how her poor mind reading abilities will be coming up in her annual review, for instance (in the context of me having planned to ask her to do something but not having actually asked her to do it, and her therefore not having done it, but even with something like that I wouldn’t make the joke unless I knew the person extremely well (my assistant and I have worked together for over 10 years) and only after having made clear that it was my mistake not hers.

    15. Observer*

      usually because *they* started it. For example, let’s say I call my direct report to tell them something fairly benign or even good news, and they start the call saying “Uh ohhhhh am I in trouble?” I might respond with “Yes you’re fired. NO! I just had a question about the XYZ report!” in a very obviously joking way.

      Should I not even do that?

      No, don’t even do that!

      Understand that if they ask something like “am I in trouble?” it is generally NOT them “joking around” about being fired, or even about being in trouble. It’s the expressing anxiety or concern. Your joke just exacerbates the problem. Even if they are using a joking tone, it’s an expression of concern. It’s just not ok to feed that. Even momentarily.

      I realize that you see this as an exchange of friendly jokes, but it’s not. It really isn’t. You’ve escalated the “jokes” from mild to really serious – “in trouble” can be quite mild in real life but “you’re fired” is most definitely not. Also the power differential is real, and you do have the power (even if not easily exercised) of making that “joke” be real.

    16. iliketoknit*

      When one of my grandbosses needs to talk to me, they like to walk into my office and declare, “You are in SO much trouble!” I know that it’s a joke (very much in their typical manner), and I know that if I actually were in trouble, they wouldn’t just walk into my office and announce it – they would be much more professional and formal about it. It still makes my stomach sink every time, just for a moment, because this person is my grandboss and there’s a significant power differential. If my same-level colleague in the next office walked in said this I wouldn’t blink an eye. There are obviously a lot worse things that this grandboss could do, and it’s not often enough to be worth bringing up, but one result is that I always kind of cringe when they walk into my office. (I probably would anyway b/c I am the kind of person who always wonders if I’m in trouble, but this hasn’t helped.)

    17. Mallorie the Recruiter*

      Hilarious as I made almost the same joke to my intern this week! I had accidentally locked her out of a SharePoint and she was like “I thought I was fired!” and my response was to (laughingly) say, Yeah, none of us knew how to tell you, so we figured we’d just shut off your access and hope you take the hint.

      It was incredibly clear to BOTH of us that this was a good-natured joke and she knows getting locked out of the SP was a dumb mistake I made and she also knows her work is great and well appreciated. I also have no authority over this intern and couldn’t fire her if I wanted to.

  17. Jake*

    My advice to #2 would be different – partly because I interpret the LW’s message to mean they were adversely impacted, i.e. laid off, from a corporate restructuring. From that frame of reference, we know two things – LW needs a job and LW is interested in a company that is interested in them.

    I think we can also make a couple pretty safe assumptions: first, that while Old Employer was bad at sticking up for bullied employees, we don’t know the same about Prospective Employer; and second, that while Bully was somehow protected at Old Employer – whether by politics, circumstance or culture – she/he/it (I’ll call the bully Sheeit to cover all my bases here and because I am an Isaiah Whitlock fan) probably doesn’t have the same capital at Prospective Employer.

    LW – There is no harm whatsoever in letting the interview process play out some more and getting a feel for the culture of this prospective employer. You can also coach your references not to bring up your relationship with Sheeit. If Sheeit could have derailed your interview, my bet is it would have happened already. And you don’t seem to be afraid to stand up to Sheeit if Sheeit starts their, well, sheeit at NewCo. So why would you bow out of the interview? That’s just making yourself an unnecessary martyr.

    Get the job. Stick up for yourself if there’s any bullsheeit. See what the company does when it’s a completely different dynamic and you’re the shiny new penny they just brought on board. You may have more of the whip hand here than you realize.

    1. Everything Bagel*

      I agree with this all except the part where the former coworker could have derailed the interviews by now if she wanted. The former coworker works on a different team, so may not necessarily be at all involved in this interview process. They may have their first encounter when the letter writer is introduced around the office.

  18. SJ (they/them)*

    The answer to #2 made me so sad! This sucks. It shouldn’t have to work like this.

    Certainly if you can comfortably bow out (you have other options, are not desperate, etc) then, maybe that’s the right thing to do. If you don’t have that option though, I wonder what other avenues you might have to keep exploring the decision.

    For example, could you ask about it in the interview? Say, I used to work with this person, can you tell me how much the two roles interact? You don’t have to explain why. You could also ask some about how the company handles interpersonal issues at the workplace. I mean, maybe that will send up a flag in the interview for them that you’re “high-maintenance” or whatever, but if your other option is bowing out anyway… does it matter?

    As a visibly trans person I’ll also say that if you are visibly marginalized in some way — be that race, gender, disability status, etc, that may give some cover to asking more probing questions about how interpersonal dynamics are handled in the workplace. Not that you’d put it that way, I’m just thinking, if I were interviewing a visibly marginalized candidate and they had more than usual the number of questions about how we handle tricky interpersonal dynamics, I think my first thought would be ah, shit, that makes sense — are we a safer workplace for this person? If so, can I demonstrate or explain that somehow? You know?

    Maybe that’s unrealistic, I’m not sure. I wish things were different.

    Also, about the refences – you mentioned your former company was aware of the problem. Are there references you could use who would fully understand your concerns and handle their reference accordingly?

    I’ll be wishing good things for you.

    1. Conne*

      Agree with this comment. OP, depending on how badly you need the job, you could consider taking it if offered and seeing how things play out. You may have little interaction with this person, and/or a new employer could be a reset on the situation. You could keep your job search going in the background to maintain options. But even if the bully is intolerable and you have to quit, you’re not necessarily worse off than declining the job now.
      Caveat: if interacting with the bully could damage your reputation then perhaps it would be best to bow out now. You are in the best position to know the risks vs your need for a job.

    2. Kes*

      Actually, I don’t think I’d mention them specifically but probing about how your role would interact with other teams or departments may be worth it if you need the job enough to want to continue in the process.
      That said, even if your teams don’t interact there’s no guarantee you won’t run into them in the break room etc

  19. SomebodyElse*

    Yeah, I’m going to disagree for #2. Continue interviewing and take the bully out of the equation for now. *All this is going on the LW’s information, there could, of course, be details that would change the advice

    1- You don’t know what’s going on with this person currently. The new company may be better handling them, they may have a manager that doesn’t put up with their previous behavior, there may have been something with your old company that contributed to their behavior. Or in fairness they could be just the same or even worse.

    2- You mentioned that you’ve been out of work for a year. I’d imagine that even a not-ideal job right now would be good for all the usual reasons (money, confidence, resume building). Taking this job (if you would have otherwise taken it) will give you cushion to look for something better.

    3- Obviously you have a history with this person. But here’s the real truth, it is just as likely that your hypothetical new job also has a bully. They are kind of everywhere, so there’s no guarantee that by dropping out of this interview process you won’t find yourself working with a bully in the future.

    4- Once you hypothetically get this new job, you can then deal with the bully. You’ll have way more standing as a good employee.

    1. Eether, Either*

      Yes, I completely agree, especially with reason #1. I worked for an attorney who treated his admin like crap and he asked to be reassigned to me. When I worked for him, we got along great. Different situations cause people to react differently.

  20. No Dumb Blonde*

    For LW #2, I wonder if there wouldn’t be a way to imply there was a problem without specifying it. If I were interviewing with a company that seemed so highly interested in me, I’d say, “I’m sorry, but I’ve thought it over and I will need to withdraw my application. You mentioned a person I formerly worked with had been hired, and it’s best we not work together again.” When pressed, I’d decline to give details other than “I don’t think it’s a good idea for me to proceed.” Sure, this might make them think you are the problem — and they might even ask the other person about it, and that person might trash you. But if it were me, I’d be willing to take that risk. You aren’t saying it was their fault, just that a conflict existed.

    If they start noticing some abrasive personality traits with them (or they hear complaints from others), it’s possible they would recall what you said in your interview, and they might be more likely to address their behavior sooner than later. Or maybe this person will be beloved by all there – who knows! But in this job market, personally I’d be tempted to state this as my reason in a non-finger-pointing way. If this other person ends up not being a good fit by their own metrics, maybe they’d even reach out to you, if they recall that they thought you were a good candidate before you withdrew. Or not; let’s hope by then you will have found a great job and are happy elsewhere.

  21. Salad Daisy*

    #2 I wish I could say I was always successful in not letting other proscribe my actions, but I try not to. You are giving this person the power to decide whether or not you will pursue a job. That’s bullying at its finest. And they probably don’t even know about it!

    I would continue the interview process and see what happens. As someone else mentioned, lots of employers have very specific policies about bullying. It’s also possible that this person will not even come into contact with you, does not remember you, or has changed the way they act in a professional setting.

    1. irene adler*

      Good point. Might be useful to find out if there is a company policy against bullying. And how seriously they heed said policy. Although it might be a little dicey finding a way to ask about this-without tipping your hand.

      1. Curmudgeon in California*

        “How does your company handle bulllies? I’ve been witness to some bullying in the past and want to make sure I’m not stepping into the same kind of problem here.”

        Even witnessing bullying can have an impact, and smart companies know it. When it’s the manager who is a bully, it destroys teams.

        1. rototiller*

          I’m curious about this, because I think this might be a case where I missed a shift in the language – does this use of “bullies/bullying” in a work context not come across as childlike? I don’t mean the concept, just the specific words, to be clear. I wouldn’t be thrown by the same question rephrased as “harassing behavior” or something. But “bully” so strongly evokes “schoolyard bully” to me that I would definitely be startled to hear it in an interview. Is this just me becoming An Old? Is it a regional thing? (I’m in the eastern US.)

    2. Captain dddd-cccc-ddWdd*

      I probably would continue too. The other thing to take into account is that OP may be able to avoid the bully on this occasion, but if they are in the same field / area – aren’t they likely to come across each other again in the future? They’ve already worked together at one company, now bully is in the new company that’s reached out to OP. If she doesn’t pursue this opportunity, there could be another one in the future in a different company that the bully has moved to…

      1. straws*

        This would be my concern. Decline company A, get job at company B… bully gets fired from company A, then applies to company B.

        1. Eldritch Office Worker*

          While this is true, you probably have more standing as a current employee to influence how the situation plays out at company B, than you do as an applicant at company A.

  22. This is My Happy Face*

    #3: Especially for the inexperienced candidate, could you point them towards places where they could get some of that managerial experience in their current role? If that’s the key piece they’re missing, it’d be helpful to know what things they could do to start working on that. For the disorganized and bad manager employee, you’re probably best off being upfront with them about the problems you see.

  23. Erin*

    #2 I was in your situation 3 years ago.

    I took the job because it was a great fit for me. I also made a point of ensuring any and all interaction with my former colleague was positive & productive, just as all of my interactions with colleagues are. We are still in the same org, but on different teams, and our interaction ebbs and flows. Overall, it hasn’t been an issue.

    Bullies and prickly people can’t handle it when their targets don’t react to their attacks. But, staying calm, detached & unaffected exposes the behavior to others in a pretty obvious way.

    Bottom line: if this role is one that you would really succeed at, and the only thing holding you back is a difficult former co-worker, rise above it! Don’t let this person (or any difficult person) stop you from your career goals.

    1. laser99*

      I have to disagree with the second paragraph. In my experience bullies like it when the target doesn’t react…it shows them they can continue the behavior with impunity.

  24. VanLH*

    As someone who worked, part-time, as an adjunct faculty member at three, different colleges I was always paid an hourly rate per credits for the course.

  25. DrWho*

    LW2: I disgaree with just giving up a possible job that seems like a great opportunity without trying to address the situation. The same way employers sometimes ask in interviews if you have ever had problems working with a colleague and how you addressed it, I think you can ask them, without mentioning this person specifically, what would the company do in a situation where an employee is bullied by a colleague. Do they intervene? How?
    Also, you can ask what other teams yours would work closely with.

    Based on their answers, you can decide if you want to risk it or not. Not knowing how horrible this person has been to you, it would be unfair of me to just say that their are not worth losing this opportuninty, but… Do you really want to give them this power over you?

    1. DrWho*

      Also, sometimes people behave differently in different contexts: this person in their previous role knew that there would be no consequences to their behaviour, so they just went on with it. In a new position and being new there is a possibility they might try to be more professional. Tho this is just a slim chance.

      1. Sara without an H*

        This, with caution. Total personality conversions are rare, in my experience, but interpersonal dynamics often make a difference. I have known dysfunctional work groups to regenerate after one or two key people left.

        If the OP chooses to interview for this position, she should definitely find an opportunity to ask about how team members interact. And your question about how bullying is managed would definitely be appropriate.

  26. Sara without an H*

    Hi, OP#5: Sure, it’s absolutely fine to ask about this in an interview. If the interviewer can’t, or won’t answer, that alone tells you something very important about the company. Alison’s scripts are fine.

    There could be several explanations for why this company is doing a lot of hiring. Are they expanding certain operations? Or maybe they froze some positions while the pandemic was in full swing and are trying to fill all the gaps at once. I spent most of my career in higher education, where a sudden flurry of job postings usually meant that a state-imposed hiring freeze had just been lifted and the university was trying to get all their vacancies filled as soon as possible.

    But by all means, ask about this. Good luck!

    1. Cedrus Libani*

      Agree with this. I remember getting similar advice as a college student looking for my first Real Job (TM), and dismissing it – if something looked bad, and it looked bad because it WAS bad, then why would the employer ever be honest with me about that? They could just lie, and I wouldn’t know. I’d figure it out, but only after I’d turned down my other offers and moved to a new place, so it would have to be double plus bad to be worth starting the whole process over again…

      But I tried it anyway, and then I spent rather a lot of time scraping my jaw off the floor. If dysfunctional people were ashamed of their dysfunction, they’d do something about it, but they’re not – so they’ll happily tell you all about it. When functional people find themselves in a dysfunctional environment, they’ll put the best possible spin on it in the name of professionalism, but they’re mostly unwilling to lie to your face when asked about something specific.

      So ask the question! People will tell you things, but they won’t volunteer, you have to ask. Sometimes the answer will make you want to run for it, Looney Tunes style, leaving a trail of human-shaped holes in the wall because you’re in too much of a hurry to go around. That’s OK. At least you know!

  27. Chelsea*

    #5 – A good employer will be excited to see how much research you did about the company and role. I’m hiring right now, and when I realize candidates looked at our website, got a feel for our team, etc. I get really enthusiastic about their level of engagement. If the company seems defensive or put off about your research, that’s a huge red flag that I wouldn’t suggest ignoring. There are plenty of reasons the job might be available again, or that they have new managers (restructure, growth, internal promotions, etc.) so if you approach this openly, you can assess their reaction to know if you want to work with them.

  28. moonstone*

    Ugh I feel sorry for OP 2, but I agree it’s best to not take the job and also not say anything. You will find another job – it’s worth holding out for one where you know you won’t be working with a toxic bully. But I understand this current situation is frustrating.

  29. CathyA*

    To comply with federal law for hourly workers, we need to pay me for my prep time as well…

    That may not be true because LW4 is a teacher. Teachers (also lawyers and doctors) are exempt from FLSA and the salary and salary basis requirements do not apply. As long as their primary duty is teaching, they can be classified as exempt. Of course it depends on exactly what the offer letter says and whether she works in a state that has implemented other labor laws applicable to teachers, but I bet if LW4 uses this phrasing she’s going to be told she’s exempt and doesn’t have to be paid for work outside the classroom.

  30. anonymous73*

    #2 I disagree with the advice…If you took away the fact that your former workplace bully was working there, is this a job you would be interested in and pursue? If the answer is yes, I would just be honest. They can either decline to move you further through the process, or you can let them know what happened, and get more information about how they would handle it if you were offered the position so you can make an informed decision.

  31. aghast*

    re: LW#1. I once worked with a group of people who had mostly come over from a rival company that had a massive layoff and were fortunately placed to join a new department at ours. At the end of a large, stressful project, after the closeout, our manager came into our team meeting and handed everyone an envelope with a gift certificate in it. The envelopes she used were company logo’d and were plain white business envelopes. The gift certificate was visible inside, and it was printed on pink paper. Of course we did not know what was inside the envelope at the time.

    Everyone who had come over from the rival company – about 2/3 of our team – sat frozen with wide eyes and had gone quiet and pale. Our manager started talking about how proud she was of the work we had all done on this huge project. One person put their head down on the table and started taking deep breaths. Our manager stopped and finally read the room, then she asked what was wrong with everyone.

    “Are we being let go?” one person asked.

    “No!” she exclaimed, horrified. “Why would you think that? This is an end of project celebration meeting.”

    It turns out that all the previous company’s employees had been laid off at an end of project meeting by being handed literal pink slips – in white envelopes – and they thought that was what was happening now.

    It was a horrible misunderstanding, our manager took us all out to lunch to a very expensive restaurant as an extra level of apology, and I cannot fathom why on earth any manager would think that joking about someone being let go in a meeting would be in the least bit funny.

    1. Observer*

      Oh my! That must have been a horribly uncomfortable meeting! It’s no one’s fault of course, but I feel so bad for the people who thought that they were being laid off! I think it was a good move on the part of your manager to do the lunch. Because it wasn’t her fault – how could she know that this is what had happened? But it still would have been soooo upsetting to people. Some smoothing things over is a good move.

  32. Jessica Fletcher*

    #1, it sounds like being late is actually not ok with your boss, and she’s just uncomfortable saying so.

    1. Observer*

      That’s quite possible.

      OP, if you decide to talk to your boss, perhaps you could ask her about this directly?

  33. LilyP*

    For #2, it depends on (1) how urgent your job search is and how many other interviews you’ve been getting and (2) how much this person upsets you and how comfortable you are standing up for yourself. I don’t think there’s a graceful way to bring it up in the interview process or insist on some sort of pre-resolution, so if you’re sure that working with this person would be a deal-breaker you should withdraw now. But does it need to be a deal-breaker? In many cases I think I’d be comfortable taking the risk if I can mentally prepare to (1) not give a rats ass what this person thinks of me or if they say mean things to me, (2) document anything nasty they say or do, and (3) escalate promptly and consistently if they’re impacting my work or crossing a line into harassment. I think if you can do that stuff consistently, in most environments you can really limit the impact someone else’s nastiness can have on you. But if the thought of having to do that stresses you out too much *and* you have some other options, it’s ok to withdraw for your own peace of mind. But you might be in a place where you should take this job and if it ends up being bad you can search again pretty soon while still having income coming in.

  34. MrsMotz*

    I would not bring up that person, but maybe ask how they would usually handle workplace conflicts or bullying, and explain you’ve previously worked in environments where the actions of one unreasonable person affected other people’s work environment and when brought up, management did little to nothing to mediate between conflicting parties or addressing inappropriate behaviours. How they answer that question may give you more confidence in either (best case) that they will be proactive to handle conflicts or bullying so the work environment doesn’t suffer OR (worst case) that you can bow out knowing it’s the best choice for you because there would be a high risk of the same thing happening again and not being addressed.

  35. raida7*

    2. My awful former coworker works at the company I’m interviewing with

    I’d hit up the next interviewer with questions around how bullying is handled at the company – is it “don’t rock the boat”, “sensitivity training, repeat, never fire”, “Mediation and then firing” or what? What are the expectations of managers when it comes to toxic behaviour?

    Worse Case Scenario: You opt out of the recruitment and they have an idea it’s because they don’t meet the bar for acceptable responses to bullying. Best Case Scenario: They are good at this, have fired people in the past, don’t consider anyone irreplaceable, etc.

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