my coworker doesn’t understand anything I say, working from abroad without telling your employer, and more

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

1. My coworker doesn’t understand anything I say

I have been on my team a few months. My only colleague, Ernest, has been in the role 15 years so he is clearly able to do his job well enough. However, I often feel like we are having two different conversations because it doesn’t seem like he’s understood anything I’m saying. It’s not a language barrier, it’s more like I have no idea what wavelength he’s on but it’s not mine.

If he and I have a meeting, it will go like this. Our manager is Dorothy. Her manager is Betsy.

Me: Should we get on to writing that report about the new knitting process?
Ernest: I don’t see why Betsy wanted that. Our knitting process is better than it’s ever been.
Me: … yes … I’m glad you think so…but Dorothy wanted us to write a quick report just to check how it went and if there is anything about it we want to change, so we can feed that back to Betsy.
Ernest: I’ve looked at the crochet program and we’ve had some great feedback on that.
Me: That’s great … we’re not talking about the crochet program though. We’re talking about the knitting program. How did you want to divide work on that report?
Ernest: I’ve told Betsy our knitting program is better than it’s ever been.
Me: Good. That’s great. But we still need to objectively LOOK at it and do the report. I thought we could start by reviewing the knitting production figures.
(After a few minutes of talking about these figures, I ask him what he thinks.)
Ernest: We’ve had some great feedback on the crochet program.
Me: No, we’re talking about the knitting figures. I haven’t mentioned the crochet figures at all. I mean the knitting figures, on screen right now.
Ernest: I’ve told Betsy that the knitting program is the best it’s ever been.

After 35 minutes of circling, it becomes apparent that Ernest isn’t going to do the report with me. We’ve been over it 20 times and I’m still not even sure he understood the question, so I just ask him to give me a few days to do it myself.

This is not just a me issue. I’ve been in meetings where I’ve seen Dorothy and Betsy ask him a question, get an answer on a completely different topic than the one we’ve all been discussing for 15 minutes, and look bewildered. It’s resulted in me taking more of the lead when I have to work with him because I can’t trust that he’s even thinking about the same topic as me. It’s almost like he’s reached capacity — he knows the areas he works on and if you approach anything new, his brain just short-circuits. How do I approach this without looking like I’m treating him like an idiot and taking over all the tasks?

Oh my goodness, talk to your boss. Tell her you’re having a lot of trouble communicating with Ernest and ask for her advice. She’ll probably know what you’re talking about since he does it to her too, but if she doesn’t, you could ask if she’d be willing to sit in on a few of your meetings with Ernest to get a better understanding of the challenges you’re running into in. You can frame it as, “When we sit down to divide work on a project like X or Y, I have trouble getting him to respond to what I’m saying or move forward on the work. Would you be able to join us for a couple of these meetings in the next few weeks? I’m hoping if you observe, you might be able to point out if there’s something different I could be trying.”

Also … don’t assume that just because Ernest has been there 15 years, he must be doing his job well. Given what you’ve seen, it’s quite possible he hasn’t been managed effectively in that time (which means that appealing to your boss for help may or may not move things forward … but if nothing else, it’s likely to get you more information about what you’re really dealing with).

2. How to politely say, “I’ll respond when I can”

I’ve joined an organization as an editor, and I have a full inbox at all times. I am a one-man team, and often I have to put responding to non-urgent emails at the bottom of my to-do list, which leads to some long response times. I’m in a field where it’s not unusual to take a week or so to receive a response to a submission or for edits on a piece. However, newer submitters sometimes aren’t aware of this, and they’ll follow up a day or two after their email, sometimes multiple times before I can get to their email. Generally, this is a mild annoyance that doesn’t affect my workflow. Still, I am tired of “apologizing for a delay” or “thank you for your patience” for something that isn’t an actual delay, just an extended timeline that is normal in our field.

How can I say politely, “FYI — it’s normal for it to take up to 10 days for a response, so no need to follow up until then. Chill.” I deal with a lot of emerging writers, and I want to treat them with care while also setting up my own professional boundaries and teaching them norms.

Can you set expectations earlier in the process? For example, when you’re first assigning a piece, you could say, “Once you submit it, expect to hear back within 10 days”? Or, when you receive the piece, you could send a quick acknowledgement that says, “Received! I’ll have feedback to you within the next two weeks.” You could even set that up as a form reply in your email or auto-text so you can send it with just a few clicks rather than having to type it out every time.

Another option is an auto-reply that lists your expected turnaround times for various types of inquiries (“if you’re a writer submitting a piece, I’ll respond with 10 days”) but you can probably avoid that by setting up some quick form replies in your email program.

3. Can someone work from abroad without telling their employer?

My company is very flexible and allows full-time remote workers in most of the U.S. Because I am a rule follower, I make sure to discuss with my manager and HR if I am ever going to need to work from a remote location. My understanding is that I can work from anywhere in the U.S. for less than 30 days without issue; I am just expected to adhere mostly to New York hours as our headquarters are based there. If I were to relocate for more than 30 days, then I would need to update my address and make sure the company is licensed to do business in that state.

Where it gets tricky is working internationally. My company has offices in London and Singapore but will not allow anyone to work from there unless the company explicitly sends them there on business. I have asked if they would ever offer the option for people to work remotely from other countries (on their own dimes) and they said that the legal and tax implications are too complicated for the HR team to handle right now. I totally understand that and accepted it. So imagine my surprise when I get on a video call and find that one of my colleagues is calling in from … Peru! From my understanding, this is not okay and I was really bothered by it, but maybe I am missing something? I should also note that we have unlimited PTO so if my colleague really wanted to go there they could have just taken time off. Are employees obligated to tell their employer where they are going to be working from if they can work remotely? And are there any consequences for employees who bend the rules should their employers find out?

You don’t really know the situation with your coworker! They might have been in Peru on business, or might have received permission to work from there (despite your company not wanting to authorize it more generally). Or they might have been on vacation and were asked to call in just for this one call. Or yes, they might have done it without checking first. (If so, that’s between them and your company and I’m curious why you’re so bothered by it. Is it because you’d like to do the same and were told you couldn’t? That’s legitimate. But if it’s just because you’re a rule follower … well, it’ll be better for your quality of life if you accept not everyone is, and that doesn’t need to be your problem unless it directly affects you or you’re their manager or otherwise in a position where your job is to enforce the rules they’re breaking.)

But generally speaking, yes, there can be tax and legal consequences to allowing employees to work from another country (including needing to follow the labor laws of the country where the work is taking place). A single work call from abroad usually won’t trigger those consequences. Realistically, a full week of working from there probably won’t either. But companies generally want to make that call themselves, not leave it up to the individual judgment of each employee, and they can indeed require employees to seek permission to work from other locations (and impose whatever consequences they want for people who don’t).

4. Giving notice in a travel-heavy job

I work in a job where I travel about 75% of the time, and my schedule is set roughly one to two months ahead of time. I plan to quit the job soon because I’m just not happy in the position. I am job searching, but I’m unsure of how I should navigate the resignation process. If I get another job, do I have to set my start date to after the time when I’ve completed all my scheduled work travel? Can I give two weeks notice and cancel the trips that I already have planned? Should I give my boss a head’s up that I intend to quit in the next few months and I shouldn’t get scheduled to travel beyond that? None of these options seem great to me. If I get a new job and say I can’t start for one to two months, is that generally acceptable to companies? If I give two weeks notice and cancel trips, there’s no one who can cover these trips (this is part of the reason I’m quitting). Telling my boss I intend to quit seems risky for obvious reasons. Any advice you have for this situation would be very much appreciated!

Give the normal two weeks notice. You don’t need to wait until all your scheduled travel is done. (Think about how that would work in jobs that are scheduling travel a year out!) Your company will cancel the travel that you won’t be there to do; some of it will probably be refundable, but if some of it isn’t (or even if all of it isn’t), that’s just a normal part of doing business. You’re still only expected to give the same amount of notice as someone in a non-traveling job.

5. How to say “I’m really good at my retail job” on a resume

I’m attempting to update my resume and struggling with how to describe my current retail job while conveying how good I am at it. My manager has repeatedly said that I’m the best employee they have, customers occasionally comment on how well I do my job, I never get complaints, and I’m extremely accurate at anything to do with numbers to the extent that I’ve been told “the paperwork [that my boss does] is always easiest after your shifts.” Our store doesn’t do any sort of “Employee of the Month” awards and I don’t have any stats I could use to quantify my work, so I’m having trouble coming up with how to talk about it that’s not entirely reliant on word-of-mouth feedback. I doubt I can put something like “’You’re always so professional’ – A Customer” on my resume and without the things other people have told me I don’t think I come off as particularly impressive.

Another factor in my resume troubles is I want to switch fields to something completely different so I feel getting across “excellent employee” might be more useful than “excellent at the tasks of a retail job.” Especially since I want to move to a more professional field and I am aware being a cashier doesn’t exactly have the reputation of being skilled labor. This job is by far my longest stretch of employment and is likely the most load-bearing component of my resume, which is why I feel it’s so vital to depict it in the absolute best way possible.

You can cite the feedback you’re getting! I’d do it like this:

* Repeatedly lauded by manager as the team’s most effective employee, due to X, Y, and Z
* Regularly receive accolades from customers for A and B
* Cited for extreme precision with numbers and producing the most consistently accurate XYZ paperwork on a six-person team

{ 290 comments… read them below }

  1. NoMoreFirstTimeCommenter*

    #1 Ernest may have been at the company for 15 years, but you haven’t, so you can’t know if he’s been like that for the whole time. If it’s a new thing, there could be something going on with his brain that would be very good to find out about. Also for that reason I think you shoud definitely talk to the boss.

    1. PsychNurse*

      This was my thought too. Could he be developing dementia? Or some other problem— you need to talk to your boss, because her response will tell you a lot. Either “Oh I know, he’s always been like that, we all just deal with it” or “I noticed it last week!— I have no idea why he’s suddenly so confused.”

      1. Come On Now*

        Or he could be developing a hearing problem. In any event, management needs to talk to Ernest, this is an unproductive situation.

        1. kiki*

          This is good to bring awareness to, even though it ultimately doesn’t affect how LW deals with the issue. I think this can be one of the most surprising things for folks when they encounter somebody who is developing a hearing problem– sometimes their brain fills in information for them that was never said. For a while I was getting really annoyed by my dad– he had never been the strongest listener, but at one point it seemed like he was just writing off everything I said. He had a screening a few months later and then we found out he had a hearing problem.

          1. Lizzo*

            One of the elders in my family is also losing his hearing, and he explained it as “my brain skips over important words sometimes”, which leads to misunderstandings. It has nothing to do with volume–the brain simply isn’t taking in the information.
            Even if Ernest has a hearing issue and knows it (which he may not), he may be too embarrassed to say anything about it and is trying to muddle through without admitting there’s an issue.

      2. MusicWithRocksIn*

        This letter reminded me heavily of a guy who I used to work with. At the time I became convinced that he was developing some kind of cognitive issue, because every meeting with him was just this massive fight to keep him focused on what we were saying and repeating myself over and over again. Later, at a different job I heard that he had had a diagnosis on something along those lines and retied early.

        I would like to say I only felt sad and not the tiniest bit vindicated – but working with him was super frustrating and hearing that made me feel less crazy. Honestly it felt a little like gas lighting when everyone was jumping over his missing stair and acting like this was normal and ok while I was tearing my hair out going “I JUST SAID that three times!!” and sitting in three hour meetings that could have been forty minutes. At a certain point you realize ONE of you has something wrong and maybe it actually is you?

        1. Vanellope*

          Yes, the one time I had similar issues with an employee we learned later that it was early onset Alzheimer’s. No idea what might be going on with Earnest but I would be interested in hearing from someone who has worked with him longer whether this is new or “just how he is.”

        2. JustaTech*

          I had a boss for a while who had a terrible habit of not using nouns.
          You know, the words that specify what exactly we’re talking about?
          In a field with literally hundreds of objects, processes and projects. It was *incredibly* frustrating trying to figure out what exactly he wanted me to work on.
          As far as anyone could ever tell it wasn’t a hearing thing or a cognitive thing, it was just that Bob knew what he was talking about so he assumed that you did as well. Sort of like his brain and his mouth weren’t working at the same speed. Other people who’d also been around a long time had a reasonable chance of figuring out what “thing” he was talking about, but for the new folks it was a heck of a learning curve.
          (He wasn’t a great boss on a lot of levels and no one was sorry to see him move on.)

    2. Pennyworth*

      I was in a university class with an Earnest many years ago. He always talked at a tangent to the actual topic and seemed to have a different understanding of the subject to the other class members.

    3. Not teenage but still ninja turtle*

      Info: Does his response change when the feedback/conversation is written?

      I don’t want to armchair diagnose, but someone in my circle has an auditory processing disorder, and conversations with him can sometimes be similar to the one mentioned here. (Please note that this is not the kind of disorder that can be fixed with hearing aids–it’s about processing the spoken words, not hearing them).

      1. As Per Elaine*

        While still a possibility, the fact that they’re looking at the knitting data while he keeps going off on tangents about crochet does make me feel like this is less likely.

      2. CheesePlease*

        I wonder if communicating over chat / email changes the frequency of this miscommunication. Perhaps awkward at first but a potential solution of Ernest does struggle with auditory processing (can happen after a stroke, so if Dorothy is comfortable, I would encourage he see a doctor)

    4. Smithy*

      While something more medical/cognitive certainly might be at play – I’ve also encountered a number of “old timers” who’ve been through a number of different employer changes and have found a way to avoid or bulldoze through any work they’re not interested in doing.

      It may be that what Ernest likes is being an independent contributor on running the knitting and crochet programs, and is largely disinterested in any bigger picture work around them. He’s accepted or maybe even desires no further promotion and has no expectations of major raises.

      All to say, it may have been that ten years ago he was more of a team player and has now decided that provides no benefit. And being perceived as odd or as someone with something “wrong” hasn’t had enough of a negative impact on his professional life to change.

      1. EPLawyer*

        That’s what I think. he is simply going to do what he wants to do how he wants to do it. If asked, he deflects and obfuscates until everyone gives up and leaves him alone.

        Its working too. Instead of the work being divided fairly, OP, you are taking on a disproportionate share because of the frustration in getting through to him. Talk to your boss. But also be more direct. Hey we have to write up this knitting program report, you do this section, I will do this section. Then ONLY do your section. Don’t ask. yes its not your job to assign him work, but its not his job to avoid it so it all lands on you.

        1. Butterfly Counter*

          Completely agreed. I wonder about the gender dynamics at play here, but in any case, this does sound like weaponized incompetence. Instead of refusing to do the report, or pretending that he doesn’t know how to do the report (which would both be detrimental to continued employment), he pretends he’s confident on a completely different subject until OP relents and does everything themselves.

          Alison’s advice still stands, though. Bring this up with Dorothy.

      2. Sylvan*


        Have worked with people like this. I had to collaborate with one and communicating with her was like beating my head against a wall.

      3. Lacey*

        That was my thought as well.

        I’ve worked with people who insisted on not understanding something bc they didn’t want things to change or didn’t want to do the work or wanted to do all the work and not share it.

        I’ve also personally delayed doing work because I knew that a particular sort of work was just going to get canceled anyway, so why waste the time? That’s the kind of thing you know after a few years at a company and after 15 years it’s the kind of thing you might not realize has changed and really will be used now.

        1. Smithy*

          Your point about being at a place long enough to *know* the work that will either be ignored, canceled, changed midstream, etc. is also such a big factor in what can create that mindset.

          The longer you’re at a place you either know-know or gut-feeling-know the kinds of work that is actually important and you will get fired for not doing. And the stuff that gets assigned but you’re far less likely to get in genuine trouble to skip entirely or do half/a poor job of.

          We had a new VP come in and request for these partner profiles to be created for every partner everyone managed. Some people put in hours and hours of time to do them all well and to completion. Others made a big loud stink about how it was a huge waste of time before being rushed under scrutiny and management to do them. But ultimately the smart middle ground was to do your most visible ones “well” and then do an average to poor job of the rest (i.e. create/save a new document of Partner Low Profile, fill in the top basic info, start the first section, and do nothing else). Because ultimately only the visible ones were ever read but folders were checked to see if the work was all “in progress”. Also no one wanted to hear about how the process made no sense and there were smarter ways to assign the work.

          If at some point truly having all of those profiles made to completion genuinely mattered and that middle group approach stopped being savvy and started being incompetent or dumping work on someone else – then it becomes a management issue.

      4. The OTHER Other*

        This. IMO it’s very likely that this is a strategy he uses, consciously or not, to avoid work and projects he doesn’t want to do.

        LW says she is throwing up her hands and taking on work because she just can’t get through to him, and the boss seems to have the same reaction, so his strategy seems to be working well. He’s not doing the necessary work, yet reaps kudos for being a great worker. His work jujitsu skills are impeccable.

        This is not a coworker problem, it’s a boss problem. The manager is not managing, and it means the LW is doing extra work.

      5. Beka Cooper*

        Yup a small part of my work involves interacting with an entire department (of like 4 people) that reminds me of Ernest, so weaponized incompetence was the first place my mind went. In the last 6 months, I’ve managed to push the issue up to my boss and grandboss, so now I get the joy of watching them go through the same old cycles of emails that I used to have to deal with alone. I just get out my popcorn and watch while hoping my bosses appreciate why I was always so stressed by this (Ok actually it still stresses me out from the sidelines but I try to laugh).

      6. e271828*

        Agree. Ernest has come up with a very effective Bartleby strategy. OP goes away and does the report scutwork without him. Problem solved!

      7. Jeebs*

        Agreed. In the example, he got LW to do his portion of a shared project. It also sounds like he fully understood that the project had been requested and he was expected to participate – he just repeated over and over that he didn’t understand WHY it was requested as a strategy to bulldoze his way out of doing it.

        We do only have the one example, so it’s hard to say for sure, but based on my experience (I have an auditory processing disorder; my sister has a speech impediment; my father has hearing loss and refuses to wear hearing aids; verbal communication in our family is an adventure) this doesn’t sound like a physical hearing issue. The one time I’ve encountered someone who spoke like this, he was a malicious actor who was doing it intentionally to get his way, as evidenced by the fact that he cleaned his act up when dealing with (white, male) authority figures he respected.

    5. Van Wilder*

      Cynical Cyndie here: to adapt the “he’s just not that into you” storyline from SATC, this guy is clearly telling you he doesn’t want to do the assignment. There’s no such thing as mixed messages. Look at his actions. He’s not going to say the words “I’m not going to work on that report because I don’t think it’s necessary” but that’s what he’s saying.

      1. Jocasta Nu*

        I previously worked with a colleague who had a completely different thought process. He was brilliant in his field but very frustrating to coordinate with. We would have a conversation and each come away with completely different understandings. I am very analytical and linear, he was very creative and made all kinds of non-obvious connections-which was great when you needed innovation but incredibly difficult to navigate in a routine conversation. I learned to always confirm what we had agreed on, in writing, so we could renegotiate those areas where we had diverged.

    6. Snagglepuss*

      A few years ago, the head of my department apparently had some communications (meetings and emails) that seemed…odd. It was so abnormal that other leaders pulled him aside and kindly brought it up to him and suggested that he may want to seek some medical advice. Turns out he had a malignant, inoperable brain tumor and had less than 6 months to live. He passed away only 3 months later.

      So the coworker may be incompetent or deliberately passing work to OP, but it might be worth keeping a medical issue in mind if all obvious things are ruled out.

    7. goddessoftransitory*

      Yes. My first thought was “is this recent?” Because with my dad, one of the first symptoms of his eventual dementia was this kind of thing–he could still slot in names and procedures and the general, basic knowledge, but couldn’t make connections between those and the topic under discussion. He’d just repeat the same few sentences, and it was enormously frustrating because you couldn’t figure out what was going on.

  2. inkheart*

    LW1 – Is this something new for Ernest, the communication issues? Has he worked directly with Betsy and Dorothy before? Are you, like Betsy and Dorothy, a woman?

    I wonder if Ernest is having new problems, like with long COVID. Or working with women problems. Maybe in the past he worked with men who said “do this by tomorrow”, and you sound like you are trying to collaborate, and he is not getting that.

    Whatever is going on, yeah, it’s out of whack, and I agree to have Betsy and Dorothy watch and chime in.

    1. Where’s the Orchestra?*

      Yeah – this sounds like it’s time to make sure Betsy and Dorothy are really filly’s aware of how Ernest is acting (and is he has external facing responsibilities maybe sit in on some of those meetings too) because this really just doesn’t sound sustainable long term, and your managers should be a big part of helping get this sorted.

    2. Mockingjay*

      Ah, Ernest is very successful! He has perfected the fine art of wearing people down so they do the work instead.

      OP1, when you speak to your boss, suggest individual assignments or sequential tasks (you do a part, then Ernest does the next or vice versa). These will 1) force Ernest to do his own work and 2) give your boss a means to evaluate his performance. Currently you and others are covering for him, so a manager can’t tell if he’s lazy, ill-suited for the job, needs training, etc.

      1. hamsterpants*

        My company’s Ernest is an older guy who had an area of actual expertise years ago that is becoming decreasingly relevant to our company’s current work. He (and a few key people in management) remember him by his glory days. Ernest has effectively been put out to pasture, being permitted to ramble while new people have been variously hired to do the actual work and he can’t/won’t/doesn’t do.

        1. NforKnowledge*

          This reminds me of a (possibly exaggerated) story from my university: there is a physics professor they can’t fire because he won a nobel prize at some point, so he’s allowed to just pootle around (not teaching, thank god!) and study ghosts and stuff. If you’re gonna keep someone for sentimental reasons, at least keep them from interfering with everyone else!

          1. MK*

            Nobel laureates are not protected by law, they can absolutely fire him. Most likely there are practical advantages for the university from having him on staff (PR, gaining grants, impressing donors, whatever). Or he has tenure. Either way, it’s not sentimental reasons.

            1. Happy meal with extra happy*

              I didn’t read NforKnowledge‘s comment as the university won’t fire him because of legal reasons, so I’m sure they’re aware of that.

            2. mlem*

              As Happy meal says, “can’t fire” presumably means *practically* speaking (because of the optics), not *legally* speaking.

            3. Dust Bunny*

              I think they meant “can’t fire” for basically PR reasons, not literally legally can’t fire. My guess is the school wouldn’t want to be known as the one that fired a Nobel winner.

              1. Fishsticks*

                I’m sure they want to keep the ongoing PR of CURRENTLY having a Nobel winner on staff and find the tradeoff in paying his salary is worth the prestige of association.

          2. Manchmal*

            Universities have a great way of getting rid of old timers: they make them an offer they can’t refuse to get them to retire. I know of one person in the university where I got my PhD who was offered a full additional year’s worth of salary to retire. It doesn’t have to be a stick when a carrot works just as well!

          3. SpringIsForPlanting!*

            Ahaha I know who you’re talking about. That guy is living his best life, man. Plus, who knows, ‘more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in our philosophies’; who better to study ghosts than a great physicist? He might come up with something : D

          4. Cedrus Libani*

            That is honestly normal for Nobel winners – you’re more surprised when they don’t go off the rails. They’re often contrarians by nature, which is admittedly why they were able to spot the deficiencies in conventional wisdom and make their breakthrough, but it also means they never met a crackpot theory that they didn’t like. Also, once they get famous, nobody wants to call them on their crackpottery. What if they’re right? They were right once, and they might be right again. That’s how you go down in scientific history – Prof. Ghost Hunter was fired by some closed-minded idiot named Dr. Libani who thought he was a fraud, so instead of cleaning out his lab, he opened the portal to the nether world. Now half of NYC is covered in marshmallow fluff, most of the rest is slimy, and it’s my fault for being too dense to recognize an evil genius when I see one. Nah, I’d rather just ignore him, thanks.

        2. Flash Packet*

          We have one of those. He’s a manager in my department and we just work around him. Senior management know he’s not a resource so our project schedules are built as if he didn’t exist, so we’re not carrying his load for him. No one has to work extra hours to make up for his zero-level productivity.

          At first, I was peeved and was like, “Get rid of him! Pay me his salary and I’ll do an awesome job!” And then I just let it go since it doesn’t really affect me. It’s not like we assign him work and are then put in a tough spot when he doesn’t deliver.

          And my company gives a lot of money to various charities, so I see this as charity on a micro level. Pastured Manager did great work for a ton of years; he’s a military veteran; he’s had some family hardships. If this is how my company takes care of him in his “golden” years since we don’t have pensions, then so be it.

      2. irene adler*

        Exactly! He’s not incompetent or losing his faculties at all.
        He’s honed the fine art of offloading work tasks he doesn’t want to do.

        No team projects, no collaborations for Ernest. Make him 100% accountable for his work.

        My boss was a master at this technique -especially when there was a personnel issue. He would not address these ever- no matter what the cost to the company. He just kept throwing out reasons why it wasn’t his issue to solve. And he could generate the most illogical reasons imaginable. All. Day. Long. There was no beating him at it. So one would just acquiesce.

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

      I don’t see anything that would mean that he has a problem working with women. I think that is a stretch.

      1. Butterfly Counter*

        I wonder if it’s an offshoot of this. That Betty and Dorothy are both women asking for X that he is refusing to do is significant. And if OP is a woman and she is doing all the work assigned to both her and Ernest adds another layer. It’s possible that he doesn’t see value in following the instructions of women he reports to, so he just shirks his work onto the woman at his level by pretending he doesn’t understand the assignment.

        One solution, regardless of gender dynamics, is that when OP talks to Dorothy, she tell her that she’ll be happy to give Ernest all of her information as long as Ernest is the one who writes up the report. If he balks, hems and haws, or does the wrong assignment, it’s all on him.

        1. Butterfly Counter*

          (By “offshoot of this” I mean, not necessarily that he has a problem working with women, but that he doesn’t value women’s input. Basically, the same thing, but patronizing vs. hostile.)

      2. TrixM*

        If all the people having problems with Ernest are women, and if he is in fact a man, I don’t see how you can blithely dismiss the possibility.

        Sure, maybe Ernest is like this with everyone regarding knitting, but we don’t have that information. Conversely, we don’t have enough info to say sexism *is* the problem. It’s simply one possibility among many.

        I work in IT operations, which has maybe 10% women (actually, 4 out of 70+, where I work). I’ve been fortunate to have good professional relationships with nearly all my colleagues, but for the few I haven’t, it can be difficult to discern whether their issue is just me, general glass-bowlery, or outright sexism. Even now, after 25 years in the job, I’m having a struggle with one colleague, and I still can’t tell why. He is generally unhelpful to everyone, but I’m also the only person he’s complained to his boss about (for my politely saying “no” to a request of his, and yes, I did explain why it couldn’t be done).

        But I’ve definitely experienced outright sexism, such as the colleague who would say no to or delay all my requests, but who promptly fulfilled the exact same when asked by a male member of my team. It only came to light after several months and my complaining to my team that Wakeen always taking SO LONG to do anything really slowed us down. Turned out everyone else in my team had no such issues, so we ran a few “tests” that confirmed the pattern.

  3. Monotreme*

    I work with an Ernest. He actually reminds me a little of Cosmo Kramer sometimes. Getting him to respond to the words I actually said instead of the words he thinks (or perhaps wishes) I said takes quite a dance. Acknowledging what he said sometimes helps:

    “You’ve told Betsy that the knitting program is the best it’s ever been, and we need to write the report on it. I’ll do Section A on the knit. You can do Section B on the purl.”

    1. Mr. Shark*

      And then send an email with that information, cc’ing Betsy and Dorothy.

      “As discussed in the meeting today, I’ll do section A on the knitting program and you’ll do section B.” This sets it as an assignment unless he specifically contradicts it on email, and it will be apparent to both Betsy and Dorothy that there is an issue.

      1. LondonSuburb*

        I really feel like this guy knows what he’s doing! Playing dumb like this has got him out of so much work and these managers are dancing round it rather than giving him specific instructions and a PIP if he doesn’t get on with it.

        1. Where’s the Orchestra?*

          I am tempted to agree with this – as I have a coworker that used to try and get literally everybody else on the shift to do all his thinking for him (and never took notes either).

          I no longer help him – I redirect him to notes or the shift lead. I’m just a coworker, the lead’s primary responsibility is answering work questions.

        2. philmar*

          I think this is way way way more likely than the incipient dementia/mental deterioration theories that are floating around the comments. It’s just deflection, because he doesn’t know, doesn’t have a good answer, is behind on work and trying to distract with what he does know/actually has accomplished.

          1. Seeking Second Childhood*

            Another option is that the department procedures have fallen behind the times, and this guy is doubling down insisting that the way things have always been done is the best way. Some people take any desire for change as a criticism of themselves personally, even if the shift is customer driven.

            1. Dust Bunny*

              Or department procedures haven’t fallen behind but Ernest has and is resistant to updating himself.

          2. hamsterpants*

            The guy has worked at the role for 15 years. He could be 33 years old. Looking for an explanation of dementia or hearing loss is very charitable but also symptomatic of Occam’s Paisley Tie.

              1. Expelliarmus*

                FWIW I know 2 people named Ernest and they’re both under the age of 40, so I don’t think Ernest is necessarily an outdated name.

                1. Xantar*

                  I’m an Ernest and I’m in my 30s (it’s kind of weird seeing my name in a letter. That never happens!)

            1. Happy meal with extra happy*

              Yeah, I’ve worked with a bunch of people at my company that had been there for 15+ years and were in their 40s at most.

                1. Database Developer Dude*

                  Agreed. You never really know. I’m working on 9 years with my current company and I’m 55. I spent 12 and half years on active duty in the Army, and then bounced from one employer to another (10 employers from July 2001 to March 2014).

            2. SpoonieAnon*

              Although it’s rarer than in later life in the thirties are not magically exempt from developing hearing loss (and may take longer to realise/come to terms with it because they aren’t at the age-related-hearing-loss age)

          3. ferrina*

            Yeah. Or he really doesn’t know what he’s doing/what to do, so talks about what he does know. I’ve known several people like that- They only say broad statements and are quick to jump topics around things that they don’t know. “Things they don’t know” can also include “I don’t know what to do next” or “I haven’t done this before”. It’s annoying in a social situation, and untenable at work.

        3. Luna*

          It felt a bit like maybe this Ernest is a guy that really doesn’t like to make decisions, even small ones, like, “Yeah, I’ll take the knitting program report. That’ll leave the crochet report for you.” Maybe he likes to be *told* what to do than to be asked.

          While reading it, his way of responding did feel a bit familiar to me, but not enough that I felt I could really understand where he was coming from. Just a vague thing.

    2. JSPA*

      First step is to let the manager know you’re going to try being really specific with Ernest, and dividing up tasks, then letting him choose. Make sure that’s an acceptable strategy (it probably is).

      Next, do it.

      I’m a big fan of naming the responses you want, in small steps.

      “Ernest, before we go further, I need an acknowledgement that you hear and understand that we have a specific assignment, and that it’s apparently not negotiable, and not something that either of us can duck out on.”

      Then don’t say another word, until he gives you, at least, a “yes, I heard what you said.”

      “OK, the next step is that we need to do a spreadsheet on costs and sales figures for yarn weight, divided by acrylics and wool and blends, and a smaller but more involved spreadsheets on how needle diameters affect costs vs per-hour square inches produced. I enjoy the needle diameter number crunching, so if you have no preference, I suppose I’ll take that one. But if you want that one, call it now. Otherwise, you’re on the hook for the a spreadsheet on costs and sales figures for yarn weight, divided by acrylics and wool and blends. Which will it be?”

      “OK, as you have not taken dibs on the needle diameter analysis, I’ll let Betsy know that I’ll be doing that one, and you’ll be doing the spreadsheet on costs and sales figures for yarn weight, divided by acrylics and wool and blends.”

      email Betsy, and cc Ernest:

      Hi Betsy,

      I just talked to Ernest (cc’d here) about the analysis you requested. The purpose of this email is to close the loop.

      He states no preference for either section, so I’ll be doing the needle diameter cost/benefit spreadsheet, and he will be doing the spreadsheet on costs and sales figures for yarn weight, divided by acrylics and wool and blends.

      He mentioned that you’ve been very happy with the crochet numbers, which is great news, too.



      You MUST put him in the position where if he wants to duck out of doing the work, he has to reply to the email by saying, “I never agreed to do that” or something else equally clearly problematic. And if he’s on autopilot, or not processing in real time, for whatever reason, but he’s otherwise willing–this gives him a written prompt.

      1. EPLawyer*

        This is great. But one other addition.

        OP no matter what DO NOT DO HIS PART. If you finish your part and find his is not die, stifle the impulse to do it. Even if the deadline to get it done is fast approaching. Don’t Do It. All Ernest will learn is that his old way of just ignoring things he doesn’t like is still working.

        If his part is not done, go to your boss. Tell her, we divvied up the report, he agreed to do X. I did my part. His is not done. What do you want to do to make sure the report gets done. Your boss may tell you to do it, but at least you have named the problem. If your boss does tell you to do it, then use Alison’s Well I can do his part, but I also have N, O, P to do. How do you want me to prioritize. Push the Ernest problem to management. Not yourself.

        1. ferrina*

          Because if you cover for Ernest, you’re unintentionally hiding how big of a problem he is. Show your boss the tangible impact of Ernest. Left to his own devices, is he still doing his job? Or is he reliant on other people covering for him?

          1. Where’s the Orchestra?*

            Or if you do have to cover for Ernest – make sure it’s because the boss has Explicitly Told you to cover for Ernest. This way there is tracking on just what Ernest is dropping, and what that ends up costing the Dept with pulling others off projects to cover his drops.

      2. NeedRain47*

        My suspicion is that this is going to fall apart as soon as you get to the part where he’s supposed to acknowledge the assignment. He’ll just say “My cat’s breath smells like cat food” or whatever. I’d go straight to the email (and give time limits- “if this is not okay please respond by XX”).

    3. Narise*

      My take is to call attention to the fact he’s not acknowledging the assignment. ‘Ernest do you understand that we are working on a knitting report? Is there something you are not understanding?’ Depending on his response ‘What can I do to clarify we are working on a knitting report?’
      Drawing attention that you are interrupting his responses as a lack of understanding/knowledge may stop him in his tracks. But I would also loop in your boss and document via email any assignments or agreements in the meeting.

  4. Magenta Sky*

    LW 4: If it’s a big deal for the company to only get two weeks notice when you leave, they should have put that in a contract when they hired you, so that everybody would have the same understanding. They didn’t, so that’s on them.

    1. Tinkerbell*

      That’s true, but IMHO it would be really nice if you were able to give them that bit of extra notice and complete the travel you’ve got scheduled. It *should* be just a normal business expense for them to have to cancel all your accommodations, but I could totally see some managers holding it against you when you come to them for references later :-\

      1. AcademiaNut*

        It depends a lot on what the norms of the industry are. If it’s standard in the field to give two months notice when changing jobs, then your next job will know that it’s going to be at least two months between you accepting the job and finishing any background checks and starting work. If a new job is expecting you to start working within a few weeks of finalizing the acceptance, then asking for an extra month and a half is going to make things harder. With a high travel job, I think I’d prioritize an extra week or two for vacation before diving into another job.

        And keep in mind that businesses that are high travel know how the system works, and how to minimize possible cancellation expenses. It’s very easy to get hotel reservations that can be cancelled up to a week or two in advance, flights are more complicated, but that’s what travel agents are for (and fully refundable tickets do exist).

        1. Miette*

          Agreed. It’s also about what the norms of the job are. I’ve worked in sales and marketing teams where the bosses would not want an on-their-way-out employee to be customer-facing. The thinking is that employee had a reason they’re leaving, and on the off chance it’s because of a negative experience, the bosses don’t want them bad-mouthing the company to clients/prospects.

          I worked somewhere once where (for this reason) the policy was that the day you gave notice was your last one (regardless of role in the org), and you’d be escorted out by HR. So people prepared for it in that manner and enjoyed a two-week paid vacation before starting a new job (or built it into the start date).

      2. ecnaseener*

        I wouldn’t call 1-2 months “a bit” extra notice though. If we were talking 3 weeks instead of 2, sure.

      3. EPLawyer*

        But while they are completing the currently scheduled travel, MORE will be scheduled. Or else the OP is stuck saying “I will be quitting in 3 months, don’t schedule any more travel for me.” Whether or not OP has a job. Which also risks being pushed out the door before they are ready.

        2 weeks notice. This is about what is best for you OP, not your soon to be former company.

      4. MCMonkeyBean*

        Not if it’s scheduled two months in advance! If you really want to give extra, I wouldn’t do more than three weeks.

    2. MsClaw*

      I think one of the biggest cultural disconnects that shows up on this site between the US and many non-US job markets is that almost no one in the US has a contract. I don’t know where the OP works, but if it’s in the US she almost certainly doesn’t have a contract. Two weeks notice is a social norm, not a legal obligation, in most work places.

      I would try to be…. kind in giving your notice, like maybe plan to do one last trip if you have one coming up within two weeks of landing the new job. You could even put it that way when you give notice, giving 3 weeks notice so you can complete that last trip for example. Your bosses may also decide they *don’t* want you to travel within your notice period (depending on what you do, they may not want the company/team represented by someone on her way out the door).

      Good luck!

  5. Cynical optimist*

    LW 1: Ooh boy, I know Allison doesn’t particularly like us to make derogatory comments but…. it may just simply be Ernest is just an idiot. It isn’t wrong to say that some people are just stupid ( that has nothing to do with actual mental or intellectual disabilities or if he’s older maybe the onset of cognitive deterioration). Ernest sounds like he doesn’t put much intellectual effort into his daily life and it shows. We can all agree we have worked with or for people that the work “dingbat” would be the kindest description for them.

    1. Just me*

      Respectfully, I don’t think anybody is “just an idiot.” There are many ways to be smart, skilled and/or capable.

      It very much sounds like Ernest lacks at least some of the communication skills that people in jobs like his typically are expected to have. He may even be irreparably bad at his entire career. But he might excel at a different set of things.

      I used to supervise a person who came across to me as an unteachable airhead. She kept making really basic mistakes and not noticing them until they were pointed out. She has since become a tenure-track professor at an extremely prestigious university and won lots of awards in her field.

      Turns out … she’s not stupid. She was terrible at the kind of work we did together and probably still would be. Her current career relies on different talents.

      Anyway, maybe Ernest is better at processing information he reads than information he hears. Or maybe he’d be a good music composer or house painter or something

      1. Irish Teacher.*

        Yup, I know somebody who has multiple qualifications, including a PhD, got the second highest marks in her year in her BA and yet, would not appear that way if you just spoke to her.

        She wouldn’t quite do this, but she has a habit of giving very basic information, not in a patronising way, but like it’s something she just learnt. Like “so should we start with ‘we use knitting needles and wool in the knitting programme?” I don’t know if it’s because she’s so smart and has no idea what people of average intelligence would know or if she has some speech and language difficulty or if just somebody who doesn’t always express herself well or what, but whatever the reason, her communication certainly makes her appear less intelligent than she actually is.

        So it’s probably not fair to judge a person’s intelligence just by communication skills.

      2. Ernest's Colleague*

        Hello, it’s me, letter writer 1! I really like what you said here – ‘Anyway, maybe Ernest is better at processing information he reads than information he hears.’ Dorothy and I are both quite energetic, we like things fast-paced and to be busy, while he doesn’t so much. I’ve always known that he likes this at a different speed, but I hadn’t considered how he might actually process information. I’ll definitely think on it more – thanks for this!

        1. Ayla*

          That’s very helpful information! I’ve worked with some students who struggle with processing speed and frontloading can be really helpful, as well as breaking things up. If you do find that processing speed is a factor, something like emailing him an agenda and some ideas before the meeting, then if possible planning a few shorter meetings to share what you’ve each been thinking and talk about a few next steps, might help. It gives him time to mull over your input and feel confident on what he wants to share.

          1. ferrina*

            Also coming from an education background- out of habit, I now put all key information in at least two ways of communication (in-person conversation + email, or checklist + quick IM). It helps less things fall through the cracks.

        2. Smurfette*

          Since your manager is aware of this issue, it looks as though she’s just handed the Ernest problem over to you! And although you are not his supervisor, your ability to do *your* work is now tied to Ernest’s cooperation and competence.

          In addition to what you’re already doing, you could
          – ask Dorothy to assign you and Ernest specific, individual tasks with no overlap
          – put your hand up for tasks that you think you can complete without Ernest’s involvement
          – try a different way of communicating (e.g. using a whiteboard in your meetings, or typing bullet points into a spreadsheet – something that will give Ernest an additional “input channel”) – but only if you think it’s a communication issue rather than Ernest being an asshat

          (*I have a kid who does not process verbal information efficiently – it takes longer for the words to get to the correct part of his brain for processing, to put it simply. So if you start speaking to him when he’s not expecting it, he will look at you blankly for a few seconds until the words get there. I also find it difficult to explain complex topics unless I can draw as I speak (even if I’m the only one who can see what I’m drawing).

          1. BatManDan*

            I draw / write as I talk, too, even for basic stuff. And even if someone is in the room with me, and can see the whiteboard, it’s still mostly an internal mechanism, since my handwriting is illegible! Yikes!

        3. Irish Teacher.*

          This may or may not apply – probably not, but I’ll just say it in case it resonates, as Smurfette’s comment made me think of it. If you and Dorothy are both fast-paced, is it possible he has difficulty switching quickly from one thing to another? I have a colleague who is extremely smart, probably the smartest of the staff, but sometimes if you approach her about a subject she isn’t expecting, she’ll just stare at you blankly for a moment or get confused. It could be the simplest thing, like somebody once randomly asked her if she’d seen the Harry Potter films and she seemed completely confused by the question. Not confused as to why he’d asked it, which would have been reasonable, more like for a moment, she couldn’t even think what it was.

          I generally try to wait until I have her attention before asking her anything important.

          This doesn’t really sound like the problem here, but just in case you and Dorothy are moving quickly from one thing to another and he is someone who needs to focus on one thing at a time.

          1. Hannah Lee*

            This is me. I’m the colleague who takes a moment to lock in on what is being talked about and looks like I’m a deer in the headlights when asked a simple question.

            For me, I suspect the reason is 2 fold: 1) in any given workweek, I’m likely working on a couple dozen different, often, unrelated complex subjects (taxes, benefits, AR collections, negotiating facility and equipment leases, looking for suppliers for production material, export compliance, project managing IT upgrades and maintenance, financial analysis, benefits administration, trying to figure out where the packing tape Amazon Business says they delivered is, etc etc etc) 2) the people I work with are smart and good at their jobs, but never ever start a conversation with any context: it’s never “Remember that alpaca feed supplier, Nuggets, we were talking about last month? Do you have their tax code on file?” it’s always (person walks into my office and interrupts me in the middle of something with “What’s Nuggets’ tax code?” )

            So my brain is waaay deep in the active complex details of one or more things and it takes a moment come up out of what I’m currently doing, to do a mental search for the word “Nuggets” to try to orient to the subject they are talking about, chicken nuggets? Is it lunch time? gold nuggets? that weird candy that comes a block of hard licorice in a bag with a little hammer? oh! the feed supplier! before I can even begin to process what they are saying.

            The good news is that I and they are fortunate that often that process looks like:
            Random Questioner Over the Cubicle Wall: “Hey what’s the color code for our Grooming Brush decal?”
            Me: (blank face)
            (30 seconds of internal Beep Boop Beep Beep subject attention reset and memory scan)
            “Hmm, I think it’s Pantone PMS 280. … but I don’t work with anything to do with color specifications. I think I saw it on a quote request 10-15 years ago… let me check the records before you run with that”
            Me, an hour later: “Yes, it is Pantone PMS 280”

            But to someone who doesn’t know me well, and on things that require thought instead of random memory access, it probably comes across as me not being able to focus or follow what’s being said while my brain is locking on to whatever the conversation is about.

            1. Seconds*

              Oh, the deer in the headlights freeze!

              When I taught high school, I think the students would do this to play with me. I’d be leading the class, totally focused, everything going great, then suddenly someone would raise their hand and ask, What time does the dance start on Saturday night?

              My brain would feel like it had just had a train wreck. It would take a long time for me to come up with an answer, even, I don’t know. My brain would more be asking, Dance? What’s a dance?

              Of course, I should have told them that this wasn’t the time to ask that question, but I never could recover myself quickly enough to realize that.

              It is only in retrospect that I realize they probably did it on purpose.

        4. Thistle Pie*

          Does Ernest seem like he would be receptive if you just straight up asked him about how he communicates? “Ernest, I’ve noticed that sometimes in our conversations we aren’t on the same wavelength. I was wondering if there’s anything we can do during our meetings to alleviate the miscommunications?” And then you can ask if meeting in person/online, slowing the pace down, taking notes, using visual tools, etc would help.

    2. WoodswomanWrites*

      “It isn’t wrong to say that some people are just stupid.” At least on this site, actually it is wrong (and I personally think that applies elsewhere also).

      Your comment offers no advice to the letter writer, and just insults their co-worker instead. Ernest may be the wrong fit for this position, or has a cognitive issue, or whatever. But whatever the reason, calling him an idiot is mean-spirited and unhelpful.

    3. WoodswomanWrites*

      “It isn’t wrong to say that some people are just stupid.” At least on this site, actually it is wrong (and I personally think that applies elsewhere also).

      Your comment offers no advice to the letter writer, and just insults their co-worker instead. Ernest may be the wrong fit for this position, or has a cognitive issue, or whatever. But whatever the reason, calling him an idiot is mean-spirited and unhelpful.

      1. just an observation*

        Actually, from what I can tell, it’s perfectly acceptable as long as the person in question is male.

          1. JB (not in Houston)*

            Seriously. Nobody who looks at the comments here objectively can really believe that the commenters generally think it’s fine to say “some people are just stupid” if the person is a man–unless you are an “equality feels like oppression” type.

            But to bring it back to the OP, I don’t think Ernest is stupid, but in any case, the best way for OP to get the results she wants in this situation is to act on the assumption that he is neither stupid nor malicious, and to follow the good suggestions here about how to divide work better.

        1. Robin*

          Seeing as Ernest is a male-coded name and multiple commenters are saying that calling him names is not okay, you appear to be quite incorrect

        2. inko*

          You mean like…now? When we’re talking about a guy named Ernest and people are visibly pushing back on it in this specific thread?

    4. Cambridge Comma*

      OP ends up writing the report and Ernest ends up with no extra work. This could just as easily be strategic incompetence.

    5. bamcheeks*

      He could also be hard of hearing, have difficulty processing verbal instructions, have any number of degenerative conditions which affect his cognitive abilities— whatever! None of that matters to OP because she has no standing to have a discussion about any of that with Ernest. She needs to escalate the problems it’s causing to her managers.

    6. Richard Hershberger*

      Many years ago, when I worked in retail, there was a coworker who was genuinely low IQ. Think Forrest Gump. He was nothing like Earnest. He was a good and willing worker, but you had to break tasks way down into small steps, where with others you could state the desired end state. So where you might direct others to reset an endcap with this new merchandise that just came in, with him you had to tell him to take down the current merchandise, where to place it, to take down the price sign, where to put that, to bring the new merchandise out from the back room, where to put it on the endcap, and to put up a new price sign. The department managers who didn’t understand this hated having him in their departments, as he would simply freeze faced with the usual sort of instruction. I loved having him in my department. Once I figured out the drill, I knew the work would get done, and done properly.

      1. Where’s the Orchestra?*

        This is along the lines of what my current grandboss calls setting employees up for success: making sure that all employees are getting the training and task instructions in the format that lets everybody get the work done completely and efficiently.

        Yes I like and respect him because it’s about getting the work done correctly with everybody pulling in the same direction, and he’s good at it.

    7. Dfq??*

      Y I K E S at this comment. Other than the judgmental, derogatory language, it’s really not actionable for OP.

  6. tacos*

    #2, this isn’t all that helpful, but offered as an acknowledgment. I’m in an adjacent field working with writers. And what’s worse than the slow reply is the fact that the slow reply is exactly what they thought would come the next day: a basic acknowledgment or very simple request for more info. I haven’t found a solution for this and it sucks! Like I genuinely feel for them and it ramps up the pressure on that reply, delaying it further.

    1. Gen*

      I used to be on the emerging-writer end of this kind of thing, and even an automated acknowledgement would have reduced the frustration. My editor loved to say ‘ask me anything you like!’ but would then get upset when I’d ask for things like average turnaround times. It could all have been solved with an automated “Thank you for your submission, it may take X weeks to respond, if you haven’t heard back by Y weeks please get in touch”. I would also consider how expectations work in the other direction—it wasn’t uncommon for edits to come back months later with only days deadline at my end. Not saying that OP does that but might be worth considering giving newcomers some kind of guide to the process, or even just a link if there’s a blog out there already explaining things,

      1. Mockingjay*

        A lot of OP2’s problems can be solved by email rules and mailboxes. The autoreply suggestions are great to start. How about a dedicated email address for submissions? Submissions @ Include the autoreply. That leaves OP2’s regular email available for routine business.

        1. Damn it, Hardison!*

          You could also set up an auto reply for the mailbox to acknowledge receipt of the submission and set expectations for review.

        2. The OTHER Other*

          I think the problem is more that it’s the LW’s responsibility to prioritize these projects, and only some of them get the 10-day turnaround. The important work, or perhaps the ordinary requests from important people, are getting done sooner.

          While I like automation, I doubt an inbox can differentiate between these tasks. I think LW needs at least two responses, one for VIP’s and one for lower priority assignments, and needs to decide between these two responses themself as they go.

    2. Librarian of SHIELD*

      I think part of this is that almost everything people do online now has an auto reply. Place that online order? Auto reply. Send a message to customer service? Auto reply. So they’re emailing OP and not hearing anything back for days, and they don’t know if the email has even been received or what kind of timeline they’re looking at. An auto reply telling people their message has been received and they will be receiving a reply in approximately X days would be a kindness to the people sending the emails and would probably cut down on the people constantly checking in.

  7. blu*

    LW 3: I recently had a very similar scenario. I had one employee who requested to work from another country while they worked through immigration renewal items for their spouse that required travel to their home country. Even though we totally supported that it still took several weeks of research and investigation to ensure we understood tax and legislative implications and ultimately were able to approve with specific instructions around duration, nature of the work, and security protocols (like we don’t have an office there so we need to make sure you are working on a secure network connection). Similar scenario when someone requested to work from their home country due to a hospitalized parent. On the other hand we have other employees who want to work from tropical/fun locales for fun and we can’t support that at this time because we do not have the bandwidth, nor do we want to spend the funds on external legal guidance, to research many different countries where we never intended to have a presence.

    1. Sandgroper*

      LW3 if you were based in Australia you would have to pay income tax on your earnings, and there’s a sliding scale depending on you earnings. It’s not wildly complicated but it’s not a flat rate. This would apply for every hour you work in Australia. You would also have to earn our equivalent of minimum wage (or more, if you come under an workplace award, that designates the general working conditions for that job role), which is $21.38 but this is for the most basic, absolute minimum work role, and it’s highly likely you’d have a rate higher than this. Also depending which hours you worked (if you work NY hours then this would apply) you’d be eligible for shift penalties and allowances, meaning you are likely to be on 1.5 x wage so about $32 / hour minimum (and again, if your role is more than a basic role, significantly more). You’d have a raft of job protection rights, and workplace health and safety responsibilities, and so many other things in play, even if you work from ‘home’ or as a casual worker. If you did this for a period of time your working conditions might change too, as a casual worker becomes permanent over time. Generally your employer would have to give you 4 weeks of paid leave a year (pro rata if you aren’t here the full year), pay 10.5% superannuation into a fund of your choice, and 2 weeks personal (sick) leave. If you pay tax in America, or have different working conditions in America, Australia doesn’t care – if you are working within Australia these are the minimum conditions we set for people who are here, regardless of nationality, to ensure that no one is taken advantage of while here. If a person is here on holiday, short term, and does a few hours/days of work remotely then no one will know/care, but if they come here to work, move here with their dogs/cats/budgies and pillow, then they follow Australian law.

      I’m pointing this out to show the variety of conditions you might trigger if you move overseas. Thankfully Australia generally has a national system (not a state based one) for most of this legislation, so you at least can move around Australia without having to rework all your information on this.

      I think it’s fair for a company to put a line in the sand, and not just for people going as a one off somewhere, but also to say “no you can’t move to London to our offices there” even when there’s staff based in London. The logistics, overheads and legal quagmire of managing a person remotely is significantly higher than just managing them in your own country, and for some job roles it’s just not worth the complexity. If you are irreplaceable, if you are a highly valued skills set with a unique position in terms of knowledge and technical ability, then negotiate the hell out of it. But if you are replaceable… you don’t have the power to change it.

      If someone else is breaking the rules, stay out of it. Or if you feel you want to stick your nose in then do so, but it isn’t going to change your request outcome, just the other person’s. They might be on holiday and doing a few days of stuff on a critical project, they might have swung an agreement to do this short term while handling something else, they might be there on work. If they were in the US and ringing in remotely from somewhere else no one would care right? If they are stilling ringing in from Peru in three months time why not ask them about it first? Rather than escalating up a chain of command. If they are open and friendly they’ll tell you (if they trust you) about why they are there, and you might get a reasonable explanation without it being a ‘thing’ with HR. No one wants to dance with HR if they can get a simple answer elsewhere!

      1. AcademiaNut*

        It can be even more fundamental than this. If you’re visiting a country under a tourist visa, but are actually working remotely (beyond the vacation checking your email level), you’ve lied about the purpose of your stay, and there can be penalties for you personally.

        If you’re travelling to a country for a work trip, the rules are different – I regularly travel to other countries for conferences, collaborative work and site work, and I have to say why I’m there and for how long, but local labour laws don’t apply, because I’m a business visitor.

        1. Eyes Kiwami*

          Yes, often you can travel for business for a week or a month or 90 days or some limited period of time. But getting a work visa is a much more arduous process that requires a lot of paperwork, some money, and sometimes establishing that they can’t hire anyone local for the job. It’s actually quite difficult to move to a new country to work!

      2. MK*

        I wonder how the OP is so sure the coworker was in Peru? I mean, I doubt he was videocaling from Matsu Pitsu and one could see the sight in the background. If it was because of his internet location, could it be that they used a VPN?

        1. GythaOgden*

          They probably told their colleagues. Let’s assume the LW knows the specifics of their situation and assume she didn’t need to put that into the letter. I mean, Alison asks us to trust them enough on that score, even if we can raise issues with their motivation etc.

        2. Antilles*

          That didn’t really strike me as odd. The co-worker could have offhandedly chit-chatted about it, someone else already knew and asked how’s Peru, whatever.

          What I don’t understand is why OP immediately jumped to “bending the rules” and “consequences” and etc. Like, if I had someone call in for a single conference call, my immediate thought wouldn’t be that he’s sneakily relocated to another country. Instead, I’d assume he’s he’s calling in from vacation for this specific call or that he’d already mentioned it with his boss or some other informal arrangement.

          1. GythaOgden*

            To be fair, this has come up at work literally today. We’re in charge of who has access to the building, and my supervisor is trying to chase up people who have taken advantage of this to move away and try to make sure their passes are deactivated. A colleague remarked that a few were in Spain and she was surprised they could even work for us out there. We know one manager lives 200 miles away in Cornwall and another guy lives in Scotland (we’re in southern England).

            I think some of it is genuine surprise, and some of it may be that in-person people haven’t had that opportunity. I think some of the strains on our systems are also now starting to show — we’ve found management is rather out of touch with what /we/ need to support people working from home while we’re in the office. It’s led to a breakdown of our ability to send insured/tracked post reliably. People no longer really know what we do but we have to come in to do it while they can move to Spain and just never come to see the people they’re managing or providing care for (in our case in public health administration).

            In short, it’s not really just about Peru or the other country being a surprise. There could also be legitimate frustrations building up — lack of response, lack of communication, a colleague becoming out of touch as we reach the end of the third year of mass WFH. There’s layers and layers of inequalities building up here, so actually I’m not really surprised that OP is getting a bit frustrated with their colleague decamping to Peru.

            1. GythaOgden*

              (To clarify, I don’t mean management inattention led directly to our franking machine breaking down. Rather, it was a concrete example of where WFH management is just neglecting the our in-person needs to the point where our tenants are complaining. They couldn’t care less because our problems aren’t directly affecting them, but they’re making our job a lot harder. Most of our post is now items that need to go out through insured services provided by Royal Mail, and clients are a bit upset at the disruption to the service and the complete lack of regard paid by management working off-site.

              (To be honest, I read back through the archives from the last three years and am actually rather envious. Management in the US seems to be asking reports to come back in at least hybrid. Ours in the UK seems to be pulling the other way. Hybrid work is probably the best solution: there are some benefits from remote work but stuff that keeps company infrastructure running — including the massive IT investment WFH needs — is still in focus for them.)

      3. Esmeralda W.*

        FWIW, I have worked for two of the “Big Four” accounting firms during the pandemic, and both have prohibited working abroad (while not on a specific work assignment) because they are unable to sort out all the tax implications in a broadly applicable way. So yes, complicated!

      4. Tiger Snake*

        Not only are there legal issues and policy issues; even though from your persepctive as the end user there’s no difference in function, there’s useful SO MANY security issues with you being in a different country.
        I cannot stress enough how much easier my life would be if my ministers just Stopped Looking At Emails when they went overseas.

        Fun fact: Australia’s Telecommunications Act also guarantees a certain level of security from your phone networks. It was a key factor in allowing governemnt call centres to WFH during covid lockdowns. That’s not always the case in other countries.

    2. Not worth the agro*

      Totally agree with this. We don’t allow employees to work abroad because it causes tax and legal nightmares for us. However I’ve managed to get it agreed for one of my employees to work abroad for a few weeks so he can accompany his elderly mother on a trip to her home country to see family she’s not seen for nearly 3 years. It was a nightmare to get it approved – I had to get sign off from 3 different HR teams plus a security team, I had to get specific dates my employee would be working (because if it’s any more than 3 weeks, that’s when the tax stuff kicks in), and this was an “easy” case because my employee has citizenship of the country he’s travelling to.

      I would not go through that rigmarole with an employee unless there was a very clear reason for them to need to work abroad. Simply wanting to would not warrant the effort it takes to get it approved, even though technically it is possible.

      1. Anonymous Professor*

        +1 My US university had a faculty member resign at the start of the semester because she had moved back to Romania (her home country) over the summer and had assumed she could work remotely from there, but hadn’t told HR or anyone else about that. She had assumed it was a done deal because she had tenure. The university told her they weren’t going to go through the immense hoops that they would have had to so she could work remotely from an international position, she threatened to quit, and they said, “Fine, go ahead,” even though it left them scrambling to find a teacher for three classes. I think it was especially short-sighted of her because they had already published a policy that said anyone who moved to another state during COVID had to submit tons of paperwork by a certain deadline, which was more than a year ago, and they absolutely wouldn’t approve international moves to do that because of any reason. I can imagine the same applies to businesses, maybe doubly so because few employees would have the protection of tenure.

        1. Chauncy Gardener*

          Yeah. At old company someone moved to an EU country (from the US) and just assumed it would be fine since she was a dual US/EU citizen. It really, really wasn’t and we had to ask her to resign, since she had already permanently moved there. It would have cost the company three times more to have her in new country, we had zero infrastructure to file all the required government taxes, fees, forms, etc. Plus, we literally had to no way to pay her since our payroll service company was US only. And she was in a totally unworkable timezone for all her clients.

    3. Llama Llama*

      I work for a very large company who does allow some people to work out if the country. Accounting for it is a nightmare.

      1. NotAnotherManager!*

        We have an exceptional accounting and finance team, and the pandemic-related thing that nearly broke our very competence CFO was the people who wandered off and started working from abroad without telling anyone. Just dealing with the people who’s decamped, unannounced, to other US states in which we are not licensed to do business was problematic, but they worked through those pretty quickly. The international ones next level and wasted so many resources when their time was needed elsewhere.

    4. TrixM*

      Yes, I can speak to this directly. I’m a contractor based in Australia and I will soon be returning home to NZ permanently. My employers have kindly agreed that I can work from there.
      Since I am a contractor, it’s simplified in a way – my contract company continues to bill the hours to the org I’m working for. At the back end, I will be paying a slice off the top for them to remit my pay to my NZ bank account and take care of the NZ tax deductions, as I’ll be tax-resident there, which has a double-tax agreement with Australia (i.e. you’re not taxed twice). I’ll be contributing to an NZ-based superannuation scheme, and I’ll also need to pay contributions to NZ’s public liability insurance scheme. Fortunately, my contract company here will arrange all that plus my NZ tax returns (if I had a financial brain, I could do it myself, but I don’t).
      If I were a permanent employee, this would be complicated by the fact that the organisation where I work would not pay into an NZ-based bank account and will only contribute to an AU-based super scheme (compulsory for employees here). So I would probably need to remain tax-resident in Australia for the duration of my employment. I’m not sure what that would mean for public liability insurance in NZ, or what remains of our public health system (e.g. would I need private health insurance at “non-taxpayer” rates or something?)
      For the org where I work, the overseas arrangement required management approval up to the GM level. I’ll also need to go through a fairly involved security assessment by the in-house security team once I have a permanent address, since as well as accessing their systems from overseas, I’ll will be in possession of some of their IT assets.
      I’ve been assured verbally that there should be no issues with the assessment, despite the fact I’m actually in a fairly sensitive role, since both countries are members of “Five-Eyes” and have national security treaties. Plus, I already have a good working relationship with the security team members! Despite that, I didn’t inform them I was out there protesting the first US spy base in NZ back in the 90s, which we only learned – after Snowden – that it was part of the Five-Eyes arrangement. The irony is amazing; of all the things I need to be grateful for to continue working this way, THAT bloody spy base factors in!
      All this doesn’t even factor in working visas and residency arrangements. Fortunately, there’s no question about my right to work in Australia (I’ve been doing so for over 15 years), and I’m an NZ citizen. But if I were on a different type of working visa in Australia (and not a permanent resident or citizen), there would likely be issues with being resident overseas on that basis too.
      The other way round, while it is possible to get a residency visa in NZ while working overseas (if you are a non-citizen/non-PR), you’d have to be in the “filthy rich” class to get one (student or humanitarian visas would be no-goes).
      So, yeah, nah, unless they are very lucky in their situation, the LW is probably not going to make that one fly. I’m in an unusually forgiving set of circumstances compared to most other countries (the EU being a big exception, within its borders). Also, wherever you go in the world, as a US citizen, you can’t escape the taxes!

    5. Hats Are Great*

      We had a guy who surprise moved overseas, tried to hide it, but got fired pretty rapidly.

      We had an overenthusiastic rule-follower who, shortly thereafter, reported a co-worker was working from Greece. The lady “in Greece” just had an amazing Zoom background.

  8. Allonge*

    LW2 – so, I low-key hate having to acknowledge receipt of emails in general, but this sounds like a case for a (pre-drafted, as Alison says) response to all requests (or at least those from newbies).

    There is also an option for a second (again, plug and play) text if someone does follow up too early where you can be a bit more like ‘as per my last email’. This can include that repeated reminders will not speed up the process.

    Not sure how the submission process works, if you get things from random externals then this is also something you can put on a website.

  9. Ellis Bell*

    For OP1, I’m curious if she’s tried literal and direct statements and if Ernest responds to those better, than to these indirect, albeit common turns of phrase. OP1 probably thinks “should we work on this report” to be a really straightforward statement, but there’s a significant number of (highly intelligent) people who will just respond to that with their opinion on whether they should! Which is what was asked if you think about it! Going through the list it’s clear to me what OP wants, but she never actually says “do the report with me and choose an approach”. She asks what he thinks and wants. The closest she comes is saying they need to “look” at it. I’m not saying Ernest definitely is a strictly literal person, or that he’s suitable for the role if he is, but I’d usually start with that approach if someone isn’t picking up a message.

    1. The answer is (probably) 42*

      This is what I was thinking. Direct, unambiguous, unvarnished, short statements. The great thing is that this can work even if it’s truly deliberate incompetence, people like that often rely on softer language to wiggle out of things. So it serves a dual purpose- if it’s a true communication disconnect and he’s genuinely trying to work with you, you might find this method of communication more effective. And if it’s malicious incompetence, it makes it a lot more difficult for him to hide that.

      It might feel rude at first to talk like that- but you’re not being condescending or short with him, and if it’s delivered with a warm sincere tone it will not come across that way either.

      1. The OTHER Other*

        The example LW gives of a conversation with Ernest is a paraphrase, obviously, but seems to be full of exactly the sort of short and unambiguous statements you are suggesting, and Ernest keeps responding with non-sequiturs.

        1. Ellis Bell*

          It’s not that the statements are ambiguous but that they aren’t literal. They don’t literally say “please do this report or explain why not”. The phrase “Take a look at” does not mean “do it” and “should we..” has the same problem. It’s hard to imagine I know, but some people will answer “how are you”… with a description of how they are and genuinely think that’s what you meant.

    2. Sylvan*

      Going through the list it’s clear to me what OP wants, but she never actually says “do the report with me and choose an approach”.

      Oh, good point. I do think the problem is on Ernest’s end of things, because he’s having trouble talking with several people, but this is a good thing to notice.

      I used to have a boss who hinted at what she wanted, and communicated must-have and nice-to-have requests with the exact same vague hints. It was hard to figure out exactly what was required of us.

    3. Pay No Attention To The Man Behind The Curtain*

      I agree. Everyone should stop asking and start telling. My guess is Ernest very much does understand what the OP and bosses are saying and just doesn’t want to; he’s coming up with rebuttals and reasons that he doesn’t see the need for it so he doesn’t have to do it. He wants you all to keep trying to convince him that he should agree — he’s in control — but his agreement is not relevant. Try something more direct, “Ernest, this isn’t optional; we aren’t deciding if the knitting report needs to be done. We are doing it and you are going to be held responsible for taking on a part, even if you disagree with the assignment. Since you haven’t answered my question about which part you want, I’ll move this meeting forward by taking part A, and that will leave you responsible for part B.”

    4. Budgie Buddy*

      This is a good point. My boss right now is the type so ask “Are we doing anything with X?” When he really means “I don’t care how swamped you are, start hustling and get X on my desk by the end of the week.”

      But if I answer “Not at the moment. Do you want me to research X and do a detailed report, or would a short summary do?” He would answer something along the lines of “People like X. I think something should be done with X if possible.”

      Vague directions can come off as weirdly less respectful? Because it’s like you never have to own what you are actually asking of the other person. When “We should look at this” means “Spend all afternoon researching and writing a report” then you can still be righteously miffed when other duties don’t get done. Because after all you didn’t directly tell them to drop everything and work on the report. Nor do they deserve any credit for hustling. They volunteered that all on their own.

  10. Garlic Knot*

    #1 Omg, I work with someone exactly like this, it’s torture, the boss is aware and hasn’t done anything over eight years. Recently the boss declared that they’ll do the managing directly, but that never happens due to other, higher-priority demands on time and conflict-avoidant personality. I’m the team lead responsible for the end product, and this person shouldn’t have passed their trial period, if you ask me, most assigned tasks are wildly misunderstood with corresponding results and thus require double the time they normally should. I’ve been job hunting for months now.

    1. Glazed Donut*

      I agree. I have also worked with a similar person (and even asked advice about it on a Friday open thread!). I’m general these types of people circle conversations, often coming back to what they are comfortable talking about. They don’t seem to answer questions even when asked directly, and the meetings feel like a waste of time.
      Fwiw, I tried a soft “I’m having communication problems with Ernest” when I spoke to my boss. She then coached me on how to ask questions clearly when that was NOT the problem. LW1: my suggestion is to take it to your boss and be clear. How the manager handles it should tell you a lot about the future direction of the team and how the manager may handle other issues. That’s definitely been the case for me—and now that I’m gone from that team, the manager is brushing larger issues under the rug. It’s a warning sign.

    2. LittleBeans*

      I also have a similar problem coworker but in my case, we’re both mid-level managers. I can’t delegate work to him or break down projects into smaller steps – he’s a manager himself, it’s his job to do that! But I truly don’t believe it’s deliberate, he is otherwise a lovely person, hardworking and always happy to volunteer or help out when needed. Somehow, I think he truly just doesn’t understand what is happening a lot of the time. Like we’re talking about knitting and he suggests a crochet-based solution because he genuinely doesn’t understand the difference. I’ve been trying to cut him slack when he was new but he’s now been in his role almost 2 years.

  11. Frank*

    Ernest sounds like my mother, who has aphasia and is falling into dementia. She can only respond to what she thinks she is hearing. It is indeed like talking in circles. But Ernest also sounds like a guy I used to work with named Rich, who got a kick out of playing “dumb” around our boss and me (we’re both women). He understood the men on our team perfectly well, but something about the estrogen in my boss’s and my voices created a language barrier.

    1. Where’s the Orchestra?*

      Oh yes – I have this coworker, and fortunately my male grandboss sees right through him.

      I was told to redirect him to leads/managers/his (nonexistent) notes for all questions a while back (I will more than gladly help everybody else on the shift – 99% of this team is amazing).

      I have prevented myself a few times from telling him “sure, I’ll do 2/3rds of your work when you give me 2/3rds of your hourly rate.” Pretty sure he’d be offended and totally miss the point though. Plus it would make me look bad with the manager, and I don’t want that (especially since manager does see through this guys attempts to push work to coworkers).

    2. Mockingjay*

      I have a variation of Ernest, who relies upon charm to ooze out of assignments: “But you’re so better at this!” But it’s your department’s function, not mine. “But you know the project so well!” As should you, since you’ve been on it as long as I have.

      I learned to spout his own department’s processes back at him. Took awhile, but he realized I wasn’t going to budge and do his tasks for him. But good grief, the Ernies of this world are exhausting.

      1. Mekong River*

        That’s the type of behavior that the phrase “strategic incompetence” (or the new phrase “weaponize incompetence”) refers to.

  12. Beth*

    #3: Can someone work from abroad without telling their company? Absolutely. People CAN do all kinds of things.

    Should someone do it? Eh…it’s risky. Most companies really won’t like it, for the same reasons you were told not to do it (except more, because dealing with legal/tax issues after the fact is often even more complicated), and also because it feels kind of deceptive. If the company finds out, the worker might face serious consequences over it. They might also face visa-related consequences–for example, if the country someone’s visiting realizes they’ve been working there for an extended period while on a tourist visa, that could turn into a huge legal problem for them. If your coworker was writing in asking if this was a good idea or not, I’d tell them to use that unlimited PTO for their trip.

    But none of that is really your business. Your coworker is taking a risk, but they’re an adult; they can make that choice. If they’re sneaky enough to pull it off without anyone with authority over them noticing, then maybe it will work out for them. Either way, you’re better off staying out of it.

    1. WS*

      There can also be different scenarios depending on the job you’re doing. My sister-in-law is travelling to China to see her elderly parents. In her previous job (with the same company) she could and did work from there. In her current job, she is handling sensitive data and cannot have access to this in China, so she’s taking PTO. LW’s co-worker might be able to work in Peru and LW can’t, just because of the kind of work they’re doing.

    2. djc*

      I agree with your last paragraph. I would stay out of the situation. I wouldn’t be surprised if a lot of people are doing the “digital nomad” lifestyle without telling their companies.

      I work remotely with people who are located in India, Europe and across the US. When I’m in a meeting with them, I have not idea where they are actually located. From my perspective, I don’t care as long as the work is getting done.

      Personally, I’m just going to take a vacation instead of trying to work remotely from another destination.

    3. Smithy*

      Absolutely – I also think this is a case of asking for permission to do something technically illegal or against tax laws but not really enforced. No one at work in charge of compliance will greenlight this, but it also doesn’t mean people skirting the policy or even being flagrant about it will ever technically get in trouble.

      So in terms of what “can” be done with minimal risk – particularly if you work for a company that sends people on international travel to countries where they don’t need to apply for any visas before entry (i.e. someone from the US going to a conference in an EU country), then deciding that for a month or two (most importantly less time than the tourist visa awarded) you’re going to work from an EU country….putting aside whether you’d get “caught” by your employer – it’s unlikely to flag any major immigration/labor/tax flags.

      How this is enforced or isn’t depends significantly on so many things. So again, a company’s HR is very likely to be conservative about this. And then because of that, if you tell your supervisor you’d like to go to Italy for two months over the summer and plan on taking two weeks for vacation and working the rest – the supervisor deciding to ask HR or not will likely impact that answer. So again, the request might instead be “the family is planning to get a house on the seaside for two months summer of 2023 – would it be ok if I split working remote and PTO?”

    4. Observer*

      But none of that is really your business. Your coworker is taking a risk, but they’re an adult; ~~~snip~~~ Either way, you’re better off staying out of it.

      I’d go further and say that they MAY be taking a risk. Which is why I bolded the last line. Even if you knew for sure they were breaking some rules, you would be better off staying out of it. But given that you are clearly not close enough to your CW to have known what their plans were, you are also not in any position to know if they are breaking any rules or not, since you don’t know what the specific situation is.

      For yourself, if you want to take a short working vacation, ask your boss about that as there ARE different rules for different countries, and also the amount of time involved (eg 2 weeks is different than 3 months or a permanent move.) Beyond that, stay in your own lane and don’t go from “rule follower” to “rule enforcer even though it’s not my job”. It will not do your work relationships, your job at this employer or your career in general any good.

      1. Smithy*

        That bit about rule enforcer….. because ultimately it really risks hurting your relationships and reputation with your colleagues. This CW could have dual citizenship, approval from everyone, but due to questions now be put in a place where folks now folks are talking about this in a suspicious fashion. And if it is skirting the policy but not breaking the rules, that really won’t win you any friends.

        Also…..if you have a colleague that lives two blocks away or is a digital nomad working out of a hut on the beach, but it’s difficult to work with them on a regular basis due to the quality of their internet. Or someone who’s work hours are 9-5pm but will only accept meetings from your team between 9-10am. If those are regular issues, maybe it’s because they’re inappropriately working elsewhere – maybe its something else. But all of that is 100% fair to elevate. Deep diving into their tax/visa/residency status….not so much.

    5. Bee*

      Also, if you became aware that he’s in Peru *on a work call,* I would assume he’s not hiding anything from the company, so they know or they’ll find out, and either it’s fine or it won’t be fine, but regardless it’s not your responsibility to do anything about it.

  13. Emma*

    It’s not the only possible explanation and I realise it’s pretty cynical, but I wonder if Ernest just can’t be bothered to do the report, and is refusing to engage with the conversation because he knows that’s a reliable way to make other people so frustrated that they just do all the work for him.

    1. Pay No Attention To The Man Behind The Curtain*

      Yep. He also likes controlling the conversation so that the OP and the bosses have to continually convince him to agree or care or respond. It makes him in charge of the conversation and the work; he never has to outright refuse to do the work or answer the question…they just gave up too easily or couldn’t come up with a good enough rebuttal, too bad for them.

  14. QuinFirefrorefiddle*

    LW3- are you sure this person didn’t just forget to turn off their VPN after watching Peruvian Netflix?

  15. Where’s the Orchestra?*

    Pure speculation here, but could Ernest’s talking in circles routine be a form of weaponized incompetence to get him out of doing parts of his job that he just doesn’t want to do for whatever reason?

    Still the same approach though – get the managers involved, this is at least partially their responsibility to solve.

    (And hopefully you just have managers who are unaware of the scope and not actively avoiding confrontation with a challenging situation.)

    1. Generic Name*

      Frankly, I think this is a more likely scenario than all the medical or cognitive explanations folks are throwing out.

      I’m also curious as to why it’s up to OP to divide up and direct the work. Are they team lead and it’s their job? Or is management effectively giving them a group project and expecting them to (fairly) divide up the work themselves? Or maybe management is being really indirect and says, “it would be great to have a report on this” and OP takes it from there?

  16. Ernest's Colleague*

    Hi everyone, thanks for your thoughts! I am letter writer 1. I see why you wonder if it is weaponised incompetence or sexism, but while Ernest can be very difficult to communicate with he does also come across as supportive, trusting and…well…earnest! I am a woman and younger but he is the first to showcase what I’m capable of and acknowledge my value to the team, so I am very grateful to him for that.

    I think those of you talking about how he hears/understands things and that he might just respond to things differently might be on to something? He is a chatterer and has difficulty staying on topic a lot, and I get the feeling he reaches capacity of what he can cope with sooner than I do, i.e. he might be less resilient. I appreciate Alison and others reinforcing keeping Dorothy and Betsy informed as while all of that is understandable it’s obviously not also right if we BOTH get assigned a task and only I actually do it! I liked what was said about trying to use even more direct statements and am keen to give that a go next time we meet too.

    1. JSPA*

      It’s nice that he’s nice. And he may in fact be a lovely person who communicates badly.

      But…I’m jaded.

      I was so often used, in my youth, by older coworkers who loved to pick my brains (and present the ideas as their own, to the boss) and praise my energy and enthusiasm to me, to others, to the rafters (while offloading their drudgework onto me).

      Don’t mistake, “says nice things” for “is supportive and a mentor.” Idea leeches and time suckers are also sweet; if they were jerks, the wouldn’t get away with it.

      For now, he’s talking the talk, but not walking the walk; reason enough for you to be a bit on your guard.

      1. Watry*

        I had one of the coworkers you describe as well. Fortunately her supervisor came to me and said something like “you don’t seem to be falling for it but don’t let her get you to do her work”.

        Supportive to my face, but I later found out she was regularly complaining about me to our supervisors, about everything from the way I helped out people who were behind to my medical accommodations. Thank goodness they didn’t take her seriously, and she was spoken to about the medical accommodations thing.

      2. Smurfette*

        It’s good to be aware, but if OP says that Ernest is actually supportive / showcases her work / acknowledges her value to the team then it’s likely to be the case.

        1. EPLawyer*

          Put me in the cynic camp. Of course he praises her work. Then he doesn’t have to do it. Oh OP is soooooo much more organized than me. She understands the process so well and can communicate it better than I do. She should do the report.

          Never underestimate the amount of effort people will put into getting out of work.

        2. ecnaseener*

          I’m in JSPA’s camp on this – not that it’s definitely the case, but that it’s completely possible. He can genuinely, earnestly think well of OP and appreciate her work (especially when she does his work too!) and also selectively ignore instructions from her because it doesn’t jive with his worldview to take direction from a woman, cheerfully dump support work on her without considering whether that’s fair, etc.

      3. Monotreme*

        Don’t mistake, “says nice things” for “is supportive and a mentor.”

        True dat. Support in the form of acknowledging your value is important, but support in the form of pulling his weight on shared projects is also important.

    2. Hound Dog*

      Oh, LW, that’s part of the game he’s playing. If he makes you feel flattered and appreciated, you’ll be more likely to pick up his work while he kicks back and relaxes. If he *really* supported you, if he *really* valued your contribution, he’d be doing his job to keep things moving aling.

      You need to loop in your boss, and you need to be very direct and firm with Ernest. Don’t give him suggestions – give him directives.

      1. JB (not in Houston)*

        We really don’t have enough information to know that he’s playing some kind of game. I work with someone like this, and he isn’t trying to get out of work. He is just on a completely different wavelength than most of the other people at the office. Trying to nail down tasks with him takes longer than I wish it would, but I can get there eventually.

        1. Jeebs*

          But LW isn’t getting there eventually with Ernest. She’s doing his work for him.

          Surely if he were genuinely supportive and nice, he would not be okay with that.

    3. Ellis Bell*

      I would trust your instincts, I have experienced exactly what you describe. I was also struck by “After 35 minutes of circling, it becomes apparent that Ernest isn’t going to do the report with me”. You should feel enabled to cut through the circling and say “What part of the report are you doing?” or “Are you doing this report today?” or even “Why are you not doing this?” If that feels too direct, remember that he clearly needs it. As a bonus, even if he is weaponising incompetence it gets harder to do that with someone asking very straightforward questions.

      1. Everything Bagel*

        I agree you need to ask more pointed questions, or even start delegating the work, splitting it between you. Since he seems okay with you taking over a project, why not just do it? Tell him the parts that you would like him to do and tell him what you’re going to do, then ask him if he agrees. If he talks in circles without answering, keep asking him if he is going to do his parts? If you still can’t get an answer, I would ask directly, are you going to help me with this project, until you get a direct answer one way or another. Unless you get yes I will help you and yes I will do Parts a, b, and c, you need to go to your manager and tell her that he’s refusing to participate in the project and that you intend to carry on with it yourself. I don’t see what the harm would be in handling it this way since you are effectively handling these projects on your own already anyway.

        1. Thursday Next*

          And if you’re uncomfortable, remember that you can pair direct, even pointed questions with a still softer/friendlier tone of voice. The language used can eliminate wiggle room while the tone keeps things pleasant.

    4. Don’t put metal in the science oven*

      LW1 During your conversation with your boss(es) could you get their approval to say, “Ernest, Dorothy wants me to do W & X and you to do Y & Z.” Or even better get approval for Ernest to be given (by you but phrased as what boss wants) the menial rote easy tasks and you to do the higher profile and promotion-getting tasks. With bosses buy-in you insulate yourself if Ernest double checks with them what his assignment is. You can then be very specific to Ernest what he must do. It’s worth a shot. This might also be helpful when you complain to bosses about Ernest that you have some strategies you’d like to try.

    5. Monotreme*

      “He is a chatterer”

      Some people are just like this. I am more of a functional communicator, and when something needs to be done, I want to talk about getting it done. Do not distract me by telling me about how you’ve told Betsy that the knitting program is fantastic. I only want to talk about how we are going to divide up the work to get this damn report written. It sounds like Ernest is more of a relationship building communicator, where he needs to chitchat about everything rather than just get down to brass tacks.When a functional communicator and a relationship building communicator get in a spiral, it’s ugly. You both feel ignored. You both get frustrated. That’s why I try acknowledging what they are saying. An acknowledgment doesn’t get off track, and it makes the other person feel heard and validated. Conversations generally go better when people feel heard.

      I have to admit, though, strategic incompetence did actually occur to me. I like to give the benefit of doubt at first. However, it’s entirely possible that Ernest really doesn’t want to write the reportsAnd, consciously or subconsciously, knows that chattering about things all day will get him out of it. You may find that assigning specific tasks to him gets him to grudgingly do them (or maybe just gets him to verbalize that he’s not going to do them), but you will always have to be the project manager for whatever you work on together.

    6. MCMonkeyBean*

      I get why everyone is looking for explanations but honestly I think some people are just like this! I have worked with at least two bosses where I have these kinds of circular conversations, and they were both smart people who worked very hard. I just felt like I was somehow never on the same page as them and we’re always having two different conversations. It’s so frustrating! And I know some people where I have these kinds of issues socially as well, including my step mother. I just feel like it’s so frequent that I ask one question and she will respond with an answer to a completely different question.

      But knowing why doesn’t matter when all you are looking for is how to deal with it. Good luck!

    7. Mekong River*

      “I think those of you talking about how he hears/understands things and that he might just respond to things differently might be on to something?”

      I notice that you had already framed the situation when you asked the question. That is, you approached the communication gap assuming that he doesn’t understand what you are saying. What if that’s not true? What if he understands just fine, but maybe is a different type of communicator than you are? Somebody downstream mentioned people who are polite and indirect—maybe he understands just fine and thinks he is responding. I’m not saying that is the case—what I’m saying is, what if you took a more open mindset without deciding that he doesn’t understand or has cognitive decline or is from the Midwest? Adopting an open mindset might allow other options for getting the results you want, ie, getting him to commit to writing a section of the report (or whatever)

    8. blood orange*

      LW – there’s lots of speculation on what could be the problem. I would focus on just communicating the challenges you’re facing to your boss. Follow Alison’s advice.

      I do want to +1 the reader advice you cited to use even more direct statements. Just tell him what you need him to do. Ernest sounds a lot like my dad, even more so with your comment here. He is also a big talker (in quantity and volume), and he’s been hard of hearing since the Navy. I’ve just found I need to repeat myself to get him to focus on what I’m saying. Very direct statements and repetition helps in my case :)

      1. Cool Tina, Train Conductress*

        Yep. It’s not actually OP’s job to diagnose and solve this problem for Earnest. And it is an EARNEST problem. OP has been treating it like an OP problem by doing the work for him instead of saying to Dorothy/Betsy, “Well, Earnest won’t do the work, so how do you want me to proceed?”

        If Earnest needs some kind of accommodation, he and his supervisors can figure that out and inform OP.

    9. Ernest's Colleague*

      I actually already have an update – I’ve now been told (with his permission) that Ernest is having some mental health issues and is going on a period of leave with support from his workplace. His work will be shared out between me and Dorothy. It’s been really interesting reading all the replies and I think a lot of people suspected something of that kind. It seems he was having a hard time and therefore just absolutely couldn’t process anything new. While being talkative and getting off-topic is part of who he is, it’s been confirmed to be a fair bit worse at the moment.

      Those of you who suggested it was weaponised incompetence and/or sexism – I can see why you might think so from the context I gave, and you have definitely given good general advice which is always worth hearing and remembering, so thank you too. Ernest is a gentle guy, if infuriating sometimes, and nothing from him comes across as sly, malicious or manipulative.

      This is relief actually as it means there is concrete issue which is actively being tackled, plus it means Dorothy and I can just forge on with some work which felt like it was going very slowly. Fingers crossed for Ernest going forward!

      1. JSPA*

        Oh dear. I hope it’s indeed something treatable, and that the treatment helps. (Or that the workplace can find something reasonable for him to do, if it’s not something reversible, so he can continue to have healthcare and an income.) But either way, at least he’s not dragging you down with him.

  17. Anna Badger*

    I used to work with an Ernest. it made meetings incredibly painful, because there really was information that we needed from her but if you asked her a question she would do an analysis by eggbeater, pick the keyword she wanted to talk about most from the question and then monologue on that with no pauses for you to clarify (I timed one: 6 minutes. after that one I made myself learn to interrupt).

    the best strategy I found was to only ask her questions in writing, which did not solve the problem but which did make some improvement, partly because I could point back to what I had originally written when I needed to redirect.

  18. SAS*

    Oohhh LW #4, I’m glad Alison has given you the legal notice requirements but please pay mind to norms in your field and whether you think the cost/workflow issue of leaving with a lot of travel scheduled will impact your reference.

    Can you recall anyone else leaving while you’ve worked there and how long their notice period was? I’m in a government job that travels 50% of the time, with travel booked 2-3 months in advance. Yes, the law says 2 weeks is all that’s required but that would go down so badly with both peers and management in my department (not to mention the impact on our vulnerable clients) that 4-6 weeks is the unofficial norm.

      1. Ann Stapleton*

        #4 I agree that giving a two-week notice is all you need to do. I definitely would not alert my boss ahead of time that I’m in the process of finding another job, we’ve seen other posts on this site that explain why that can be very risky to you.

        It seems to me that this company is taking a lot of risk by not having another person who could step in and cover your job if necessary. Even if you weren’t looking to find a different job, there are other possible reasons why you could possibly need to take time off from work with little or no notice such as medical reasons, family emergencies, etc.

    1. Poppy*

      Depending on the job they might not want to wait two months for you to give notice to your old job. And she could quit on the spot tomorrow, there’s nothing legal or illegal about it.

    2. Dinwar*

      I’ll add my voice to the choir singing that there’s no legal requirement to give notice. You can legally (unless you have a contract stating otherwise) walk off your job right now and they can’t do anything about it. You’ll burn the bridge, but sometimes that’s an acceptable loss.

      Maybe government is different, but in the private sector it’s absolutely a thing to give a two-weeks notice. Any site manager that can’t handle staffing in two weeks isn’t a very good site manager. I’ve had to deal with staffing issues on two HOURS notice (due to illness, once someone being fired, and once due to a subcontractor being arrested).

    3. Generic Name*

      Are you in the US? If so, most states do not have laws dictating how much notice someone has to give when resigning. That’s what “at will” employment means. It means you can be fired at any time (as long as it’s not for an illegal reason) and you can quit at any time.

  19. FashionablyEvil*

    #3–it can also depend on the type of work you do too. There are additional export/import issues with the technology my company works on (you literally are not allowed to take it to certain countries). Our clients have also imposed restrictions on where work can be done based on their own security risk assessments (e.g., our company has an office in India, but at least one U.S. client restricts people from working from India.)

    All that said—not your monkeys, not your circus. Let them take the heat if it’s a problem.

    1. Smurfette*

      I work for a consulting company and my current client provides out laptops – which are not allowed to leave the country. Apparently some remote consultants have gone on international trips without asking/telling anyone, and it did cause big issues.

  20. FashionablyEvil*

    #1–I worked with an Ernest. She was eventually fired despite having been with the company for a while (she was very nice! and previous supervisors seemed to have shuffled her around to different teams without actually addressing the issue.)
    I think it all finally came to a head when we had a project meeting in a city with two airports and I mentioned on a call that the hotel was about 20 minutes closer to Airport A so if folks had a choice, that was a little easier. The employee booked an $800 connecting flight into Airport A when there was a $400 direct flight to Airport B, thus spending an extra 3 hours and $400 to save 20 minutes in a cab. She wasn’t there too much longer after that. (There was also a plagiarism issue, but the travel seemed to be the proverbial straw about her professional judgment.)

  21. I should really pick a name*

    I think this is a case where you need to let Ernest fail.
    Maybe if there are two reports to write, give him one. Or split a report into two discrete chunks for each of you to work on, and make it clear to management who is doing which one.

    So long as you pick up the slack, there’s no reason for management to find a sway to get Ernest to do the work, and that’s THEIR job, not yours.

  22. Delta Delta*

    #1 – it seems like Ernest has figured out how to not respond, potentially to get out of doing things he doesn’t want to do. Rather than letting Ernest choose, maybe the way to divide work is to send him an email (or ask the manager to do it) saying that OP does X and Ernest does Y, and that’s it.

  23. Camellia*

    Question about this statement from #3: “My understanding is that I can work from anywhere in the U.S. for less than 30 days without issue…”

    Does anyone know, is that correct? I live and work remotely at a company licensed in one state. I’d like to visit relatives in another state for a couple of weeks without using PTO. I would work my normal work days/hours and enjoy family after hours and on the weekend.

    1. BatManDan*

      The LW probably means that’s the policy at HER company. Your company may have a different policy. Most states do have rules around what constitutes “moving to” a state, and that would cascade into issues around residency, local tax, and income tax status, which is probably where the 30 days comes in.

      1. doreen*

        The 30 days probably does relate to residency and it might even have something to do with some labor laws – but it might involve income tax for the remote worker before 30 days have elapsed and that means it might involve withholding for the employer. Most states tax non-residents on income earned within that state – sometimes there’s a dollar threshold or a “days in the state” threshold but if you live in NJ and work while in NY for two weeks, NY will expect a tax return.

        1. Grits McGee*

          Yeah, isn’t this an issue that’s come up with professional athletes recently? I think I’ve seen stories in the news about states increasingly pursuing taxes on the income tax professional athletes earn while playing in different states.

    2. fhqwhgads*

      It may be correct for her company, assuming they have business presence everywhere in the US and are OK dealing with that. But no, there isn’t a blanket “30 day minimum” for nexus in all states.

    3. The Person from the Resume*

      It’s not a US law. States each have their own laws on this, and they do not align. It’s likely a company policy.

      You can just ask your company what its policy is, but they may need to know what state you’re thinking of working from.

    4. Cthulhu's Librarian*

      My understanding is that it is highly dependent on specific circumstances of the given company and employee. I’m guessing that was more of a policy and ruling specific to this company than anything else.

      I have family who worked for a company that had offices in literally every state of the country – they could work from anywhere in the US without a problem, but it had to be recorded in which state/office they did any work, even just responding to emails on a train – but their company was set up to track that.

    5. LJ*

      It really does vary by your situation. Visiting your family in Texas where there is no state income tax? No one’s coming to chase after you. Visiting your family in New York where you lived all your life until last year? It’s possible the state tax authorities may take an interest depending on the laws there (although how enforceable it would be could be a different question)

  24. Luna*

    Being told you’re the best employee in letter #5 reminds me of when I was told I was the only person at my office/school supply store that ever achieved a full 100 point mark on a secret shopper.

    It made me realize not that I was amazing… but that the standard at the store was really low. Especially since I can honestly say I treated none of my customers in the past days any differently or special. Mark of a good secret shopper, you have no clue who it might have been. I did my job, that’s all. And it got me 100 points.

    1. Dinwar*

      I had a similar experience as a cashier. We were rated, among other things, on our efficiency. There were certain items where the company had established an average time between scans–so, for example, if you scan a banana bunch then a bag of apples it should take 5 seconds. Within a week I was at 100% efficiency, and within a month I had some of the top efficiency numbers in the store. Standards were really, really low there.

    2. obleighvious*

      But even in that case, it’s significant. A person who can’t do a full-star job at a place where the bar is so low is probably not going to do fantastic at a job where the bar is higher, right?

  25. UKgreen*

    OP2 – rules and autoresponses in Outlook are your friend here. I have a specific mailbox for requests (for training, in my case) and it’s set to autoreply so the sender has no doubt their message has been received, and gets a realistic timeframe for how long it’ll take to get back to them.

    1. Eff Walsingham*

      I entirely agree with this.

      I have reached a point, both at work and with volunteer commitments, where I see that someone who asks me to do something will rarely be satisfied with the turnaround time unless it is well-nigh instantaneous. And, paradoxically, if I’m the one who needs something, there is a vast variance in when or whether I will receive any response at all; and then, whether it will be half-assed or well-considered. Or something in between.

      Autoresponse is your best friend here: “If this is a submission for editing, it will generally take around 10 business days to hear back. Or if this is X, then expect Y. Otherwise… Z. Have a good day!”

      Now I try my best to never apologize unless I’ve actually done something wrong. (I’m Canadian, so it’s hard. /s) Occasionally I will reference “gosh, it’s a really busy time here!” or tell my fellow volunteer committee members to expect to NOT hear from me for 3 days on either side of the first of any month due to pressures of work. But by and large, people aren’t interested in apologies, they’re interested in results. So I just say, “Here is the information you requested.” Or “Per your email on the 30th, here’s what I think we should do next.” no matter how long it’s been. So, even if the recipient is thinking, “Took you long enough!” it’s kind of on them for not saying, “I will need to know by Thursday” if that was really the case.

      When I (often) have to follow up with people, I try to keep it brief and breezy. If they get sick of my “How’s the project going?” emails, they can submit the damn thing, request more information, or give me an estimated timeline of when I’ll know more. No matter what methods we use to communicate, it’s got to be a two-way street. I had a former boss who was all about ‘managing expectations’ and I find it’s a lifelong experiment, because people’s expectations differ so radically.

  26. hbc*

    I had a near-Ernest working for me, and it’s like he had words that would trigger (to me) random things from his history with the company. “Knitting report” made him think of the time that he was asked to document knitting numbers which was then used to justify the crochet team being cut, which was a disaster that created more work for everyone. So I’m here thinking that it’s just a simple report, and he’s reacting to Step 1 of a terrible plan. He was never completely cured, but two things helped a lot.

    1) Ask directly about the confusing things. I know it seems off-topic, but “What do crochet numbers have to do with the knitting report?” will put it to bed faster than trying to redirect him. My Ernest didn’t understand in the moment that other people didn’t have the same context. He eventually got better at saying “This is just like the last time we did this report, it’s going to end in disaster.”

    2) Get more explicit and direct. “It doesn’t matter why Betsy wants the report, we need to do it. Is there a part you want to take or should I divide it up?” [random stuff about crochet] “You still haven’t answered my question. Unless you’re refusing to work on the report, you need to agree how we’re going to divide it up.”

    1. Ms. Norbury*

      I think this might be at least part of the issue. Maybe in his head his responses make perfect sense and there’s a clear connection between what you asked and what he answered, but he forgets that you can’t see his thought process (or he just assumes that everyone’s thought process is similar). If that’s the case, hbc’s suggestions might really help.

    2. Esmeralda*

      As someone who’s been around forever at the same institution, I try to preface seemingly unrelated talk with “I have some insight from when we tried this in the last century, do you mind if I share it?” [and then keep it short]

  27. Simone*

    Oh my goodness! This sharply reminded me of someone I worked with a few companies ago…
    He was a pretty high up manager (reported to owners/directors), and when I first started working there, he was pretty sharp knew his stuff and he did that job really well. Solid middle manager who knew the business. In three years I was there, the decline started happening, I don’t know if it was age or stress, I believe he had a medical condition that may have been contributing (or perhaps meds for it) … but I started leaving conversations with him thinking I have no idea if any of that sunk in, or he’d ask a question at the end that would make it clear he wasn’t on the same page, lots of nodding along and then redirecting or giving very general repeatable advice instead of complex problem solving. And this with someone who is senior enough that it was really hard to question. Most of the front office covered for him, if he sent odd responses to customers, missing the mark or just didn’t respond to emails. Personally I wonder if he was getting really really early onset Alzheimer’s (50’s) or Perhaps a mix of the medication/ fogginess? I very much hesitate to say this was age because age discrimination is nasty and hurtful & I have worked with incredibly sharp 75+ year olds! But It was really sad and frustrating, and really hard to address. it felt like a lot of the conversations were like OP’s! He never just outright said what are you talking about I’m confused And because he’s been there 15-20 years and was well respected, nobody could really call him on it.

    1. Hlao-roo*

      Ha! I think the politician response is more along the lines of “thank you for asking that important question (about the knitting process). I want to take a moment to talk about all the great feedback we’ve been getting on the crochet program …” but maybe the LW removed that when she was paraphrasing :)

  28. BBB*

    LW1 my boss is like this and it’s infuriating! I often say she is running on AM while everyone else is on FM. it makes everything so much harder than it needs to be.

    1. Somehow_I_Manage*

      The worst thing about the situation you described is it can be really hard to properly evaluate yourself in this area. Even if you have a track record of good communication skills, it only takes one Ernest to stop you in your tracks and ask, “Is it ME that is the bad communicator? Why don’t they understand me?” It can be a real mind-bender.

  29. Dinwar*

    LW #4: I had someone do this to me. He gave his two-weeks notice at the start of a major two-week effort, despite having a fair amount of work lined up. It sucked for us–we had to scramble to fill his position on a number of projects–but it’s a normal part of doing business. Like Alison said, think about what it would be like if this wasn’t true. I could keep you indefinitely by merely continually scheduling work a month from now.

    Another time someone left in the middle of the project. It’s how I got my current position, in fact. The idea was that they’d train me and I’d shadow them, then they just left and I got to deal with a major project with no prep work (I didn’t even have access to the programs I was required to use). Almost got fired for it, except that some heavy hitters went to bat for me. I don’t even resent the person who did it; at this point it’s a funny story we talk about whenever we see each other (and in her defense she felt bad, she didn’t realize I wasn’t informed of what was happening).

    So yeah, it happens. Look out for yourself, the company will make things work on their end. Once you leave it’s no longer your responsibility.

    One thing that is worth bearing in mind: Most expenses take a few days to get to the point where you can deal with them (especially if you have a company card), and in many cases only you can deal with them. When you give your notice, if you’re still traveling to support a project or two, ask about how travel expenses are handled. They can’t legally force you to pay those expenses (for one thing, the expenses are built into the costs of the project and the company would claim them as margin if they made you pay, which is fraud!), but it may mean that you need a bit more than two weeks to fully be out the door.

    1. Observer*

      (I didn’t even have access to the programs I was required to use). Almost got fired for it, except that some heavy hitters went to bat for me.

      If you nearly got fired over this, and needed “heavy hitters” to go to bat for you, that helps explain why someone might just walk away. This doesn’t sound like a really reasonable management team.

      1. Dinwar*

        Yeah, there were some real issues. We’ve been working to hammer them out. In this case it was a communications issue–the manager though I’d gotten more training from the field lead, the field lead thought the manager had provided more training, and I was just coming off a 3-month job on the other side of the country and had no idea what was going on. Once everyone figured out that I’d been tossed to into a chummed-up shark tank, everyone came together to help get the work done.

  30. KatEnigma*

    My husband had a coworker fired a few weeks ago because he’d moved back to India without permission. He got caught because he wasn’t even bothering to stick to an American time zone and it became suspicious that he was never available for meetings and was only logging in during the day in India… IT isn’t admitting to how long he’d gotten away with it, but they went back to check the logs and it wasn’t a vacation.

    So LW, if your coworker continues on, because of those real legal issues, they will likely be fired. Not your circus or monkeys unless they aren’t available for meetings or to otherwise talk to, etc. Then you could complain about that, specifically, and let management figure out the whys on their own.

    1. General von Klinkerhoffen*

      Someone close to me had to fire a good employee who was working from another country and lying about it. They probably could have found a workaround for the location (international company, employee had very good reason to want to be in that country at that time, and he was fully authorised to be 100% remote) but there was no possible workaround for that level of deceit.

      He got caught when he was asked to attend a meeting in person the next day, and couldn’t get a flight in time. If he had been where he claimed to be, it would have been a 2-hour (reimbursed) drive.

      There’s two levels of question in letter #3 and the answer to the “lie about it” part is no no no no no no no no no.

    2. ferrina*

      Not your circus or monkeys

      This. Escalate it if it becomes an issue (or if you are a manager and need CYA), but otherwise, let it go. Your HR team will handle it. Our HR team is really careful about things like this, but also will apply selective blinders. Our company has a strict policy about working while international (even for a day), but if a manager asks a “hypothetical” about an employee taking a two week vacation abroad who still wants to work a bit, HR may tell the manager that “hypothetically” the red-tape is insurmountable, even for a short trip and even when it makes practical sense and wouldn’t cause any legal issues; then again, HR can’t report anything they don’t know about and it’s rare for anyone to be reprimanded should HR eventually find out in hindsight. If HR knows in advance/at the time then they have to report it, so this situation is purely hypothetical, GOT IT?

  31. Esmeralda*

    OP #1. I betcha Ernest understands the OP (and the bosses). Ernest has found a way not to do work he doesn’t want (or isn’t able) to do without actually saying “I prefer not to”

    Ernest is a Bartleby, just with a lot more words.

    1. Unkempt Flatware*

      I agree. My Ernest is my father and he uses circular language to control the conversation and manipulate people. He’s so good at it and it is so engrained that I don’t believe he’ll ever be able to undo these habits. He doesn’t understand regular direct speech anymore because of how he rewired his own brain to control people.

  32. Grumpy old lady*

    LW#2: I would be very clear: due to the high volume of submissions it will be 10 business days before you receive a reply. Please wait 14 days to contact us. Thank you for your patience. By saying you will reply in 10 days people put 10 days as very last tome point, not when to expect an email.

    1. Just Your Everyday Crone*

      Or just say 14 days and then they’ll be happy to get it in 10. Underpromise/overdeliver.

  33. The Tin Man*

    LW#5 100% agree with Alison on the resume bit. If you have any e-mail or Yelp reviews that praise you can do some snippets in your cover letter – I’ve done a similar transition where I was able to quote very positive customer e-mails and Yelp reviews that specified me in my cover letter.

    1. EPLawyer*

      Also OP 5 – being a cashier and having an acccurate till is very much a skill. “attention to detail” then explain what that meant.

      I worked a temp job as a cashier once. I became very upset at the end of my shift when my drawer was off by 6 cents. The back office ladies found it funny in a nice way. They were all Yeah that’s actually really good. We don’t consider that a problem.

      1. Bayta Darrell*

        I came here to say just this! Reail has more transferrable skills than you might think. Obviously point out your great customer service skills, but don’t stop there. Make sure you tout your accurate cash counts as a way to prove that you’re trustworthy. If you process rewards card applications or do any financial reporting in the computer at your store, that’s data entry.

      2. Eff Walsingham*


        I was a cashier at a major drugstore chain, and if there was *any* discrepancy, even a nickel, they would make you count the till over and over and over again. (We had to clock out before counting our tills, of course.)

        I swear, they just did it to “break” us. Fortunately for me, my attention to detail is excellent. But it was really crappy of them.

      3. Copper Davidfield*

        Yes, it’s all about the skills — and the more transferable they are, the better. Think about what you do on a day-to-day basis and focus on the things that generate the greatest feedback. Resist the urge to create a single, one-size-fits-all resume and consider how your list of skills might apply to each targeted job. Make sure that the feedback is highlighted in the cover letter (should this be appropriate) and in the interview process. Best of luck!

      4. MCMonkeyBean*

        Yes, I was a teller for a while and I got a little certificate of acknowledgment for the “perfect balance club” at one point for having my register balanced correctly each night for like a month or something and I definitely have that on my resume!

  34. fort hiss*

    OP 1, sometimes people have been doing their job badly for 30 years and are just hoping no one will notice for a few more!

  35. Robin*

    Honestly I applaud Ernest. He’s got soft quitting and grey rocking down to an art form–he knows exactly what he wants out of his job and no amount of effort will get him to do anything else. May we all be like Ernest someday.

    1. ferrina*

      Let’s not be like Ernest. It’s one thing to have boundaries, it’s another to be completely uncooperative and uncommunicative.
      Grey Rocking is for dealing with toxic people, not general communications with reasonable people asking for reasonable things.

  36. Canadian Girl*

    To OP #1:
    I see Earnest as a master of getting out of doing work. To me it seems he is a master manipulator and has clearly able to get out of the work by circle-talking everyone.
    Best of luck!

      1. Generic Name*

        I’m honestly kind of loving the contrast between the “awww, he’s got dementia/aphasia/long Covid” comments and the ones saying he’s just trying to avoid working.

    1. Somehow_I_Manage*

      While it’s less exciting, 99% of the time it’s just a lack of competency that’s never been dealt with.

  37. A BA PO*

    #4 – this was me at my last job!! It was a pretty odd process for sure. Here are some things I experienced:
    – Actually getting all the paperwork and stuff I needed for my new job was the hardest thing. And kind of delayed the whole process. I had to get something notarized, and for various reasons had to wait until I was at home to get it done.
    – Also the timing of resigning was a thing delaying the process. I wanted to do it in person (we had a physical office in my home base), so I had to wait for a random Friday afternoon when I was in town, which was a few days after I had accepted the job.
    – After I did resign, my company was pretty eager to not have me travel to customers anymore and really dig into the transition process. I resigned on a Friday and gave two weeks. I still did the next week of travel as it was so close. However, I was due to travel the 2nd week of my notice period and they canceled that trip. So definitely a part of doing business, and wasn’t a big deal.
    Obviously, other folks at the company who traveled and resigned had different experiences. Some of them traveled up to their last day – even passing through the airport of the main office to drop off their equipment.

    1. Generic Name*

      Your last point is very salient. The company may not even want OP to be traveling during their notice period. They may want to focus on handing projects off.

  38. I am just here for the free pizza*

    #1 I am noticing that Ernest is a man’s name and all the people who he seems to disregard have women’s names. Is that accurate? If so, does he only do this with women?

    I had a manager who completely ignored anything a woman said at our weekly team meeting of about 12 people, yet when a man said the same thing, jumped on it and agreed. Selective deafness?

  39. urguncle*

    for OP 1, I’d just do what I want and let Ernest do…whatever it is he thinks he’s doing. He’s not acknowledging you and I think you can stop acknowledging his contributions unless they are actual contributions. It might go more like this:

    You: Betsy asked for a knitting report.
    Ernest: I told Betsy knitting is the best it’s ever been.
    You: Does anyone have anything they want to contribute to the knitting report?
    Ernest: I’ve looked at the crochet program and we’ve had some great feedback on that.
    You: Anyone else, knitting report inclusions?
    Ernest: I told Betsy knitting is the best it’s ever been.
    You: Dorothy, should we include the changes we’ve made in the process in this report?

    Stop giving people the attention they refuse to give you.

  40. Somehow_I_Manage*

    The Ernest situation is very challenging. You will likely not be able to understand why Ernest is the way they are, and I can only speculate that they will never land on a communication style that works for Ernest. It sounds like you are his baby sitter.

    Depending on how the conversation with the manager goes, it might be worth asking whether your manager could support you in making your assignments more independent and less collaborative. To use your specific example, maybe you write a report on the knitting, and Ernest gets assigned a report on the crochet. Or if you have to work as a team, maybe they could support you by defining your individual responsibilities, rather than leaving you to figure them out yourselves. Essentially, she is delegating task management of Ernest to you right now, and it’s not working.

  41. KP*

    LW1: Is Ernest midwestern? Because I am. And from my perspective, he understands you perfectly. He is telling that there is nothing wrong with the knitting program and doesn’t think work needs to be done on it. He’d like to focus on crochet instead, which he believes is a better use of time/resources.

    And if he is midwestern, this is as close as he can get to saying “No. I won’t do that. I think it’s stupid and wasteful”…..because saying that isn’t NICE. And above all, we have to be nice.

    For context, I work for a global corporation with a midwestern headquarters. My midwestern colleagues and I have a lot of stories about our non-midwestern colleagues not understanding us when we think we’re being very politely direct.

    1. Monotreme*

      If Ernest is a polite-indirect communicator, what is the best way for OP to tell him, “It doesn’t matter what you think, Betsy wants a report, so we’re writing a #%^$@ report! Now which parts do you want bc I’m not writing the whole thing myself, Bucko?”

      1. urguncle*

        Don’t give him open-ended questions that allow him to get around giving a direct answer. Betsy needs this report, so he can grab one of the sections of the report, or be responsible for project-managing the report progress. If he continues to pontificate around the subject, he gets assigned a portion. Put it all in an email for who is responsible for what and regroup at the next checkpoint.

    2. Dust Bunny*

      Also: It doesn’t matter if Ernest thinks it’s stupid and wasteful–it’s part of the job. Sticking coworkers with your work isn’t polite, indirectly or otherwise. I thought Midwesterners also prided themselves on work ethic?

      1. KP*

        We do. But some of us are jerks. And if you don’t have an outlet that socially acceptable, you do it this way.

  42. A "Slow" Woman*

    I have to say most of the comments about Ernest rubbed me the wrong way. There a whiff of ableism around them.

    I could finish a report five minutes ago, and still come up blank if someone asks me about it. I know the answer, I can answer it, if only you would give me a few minutes to gather my thoughts.

    It’s the same with meetings. It would be very helpful if people stop exporting an answer the second they finish asking a question. Is it really difficult to give a couple minutes for me to process the question, coming up with an answer, and formulate how to say it?

    The more you push for a faster response, the more I’m going to say nonsense or the same thing over and over because my brain is not given the appropriate amount of time to response.

    1. urguncle*

      Ernest isn’t being asked directly for feedback every time. I don’t think OP would have a problem if Ernest said, “hm, I wasn’t expecting to do this report during this meeting. Can I send you an email later today with my thoughts on knitting?” It’s that he’s directly ignoring the question and continuing to talk about something unrelated (Betsy said it’s going great, let’s talk about crocheting). If someone is asked a direct question and they respond to the question, even with a non-sequitur as Ernest is, the assumption is that is their answer. The workplace is all adults and they need to be clear with their needs, not expect others to intuit them.

    2. Elbe*

      The more you push for a faster response, the more I’m going to say nonsense or the same thing over and over because my brain is not given the appropriate amount of time to response.

      In situations like this, there’s no way for the other person to know that more time would solve the issue. Instead of saying nonsense, why not just mention that you need a minute to think it over? I think that people would be more accommodating if they knew what would help the situation.

    3. Mekong River*

      I tend to need a pause to digest everything as well, and I need that pause to be silent. Sometimes I pause while I am talking bc I need to process what I say next bf I say it. People have differing tolerances of pauses, though, and many people jump in and keep talking bc they can’t tolerate the pause. I have a guy who anticipates what I am going to say and starts to monologue bf I have fully formulated my comment/question. The last conversation I had with him, I said, “I’m not done yet.” It’s a little brusque, and I do need to work on something less brusque, but naming that I need more time did get him to stop talking. I suggest you develop some stock phrases of your own to name what you need.

    4. Observer*

      Is it really difficult to give a couple minutes for me to process the question, coming up with an answer, and formulate how to say it?

      Well, I would ask you the same question. Is it really that difficult to actually TELL people that you need time to formulate a response? Expecting an immediate response is not all that unreasonable most of the time, so if there is a reason why that won’t work, just SAY SO. I don’t mean that you should get into a whole explanation of neurodivergence or whatever the deal is. But simply “Give me a moment to formulate my response.”

      Also, neither the OP nor the commenters are complaining that Ernest is not responding quickly enough. They are complaining that he just doesn’t respond. Now, could it be that he has a processing issue? Yes. Could it be that a different form of communications might work better? Also, yes. And a number of people have mentioned that, with the OP apparently taking that on board as something to think about.

      But it’s not fundamentally unreasonable to wonder what’s up and suspect a wide variety of issues when someone simply does not answer the question and doesn’t give you a clue as to what would make it possible / easier for them to do so.

      1. Anonymous Professor*

        +1 I’ve worked with people who need time to process or who communicate better in certain styles. I don’t mind working with the style they prefer or giving them the time. But that’s because I know what they prefer. I’ve also worked with one person who would get very upset about innocuous things like an email asking them to respond within 72 hours but never gave me a reason for it, so they just looked unreasonable. (They also got upset about reminders of deadlines, emails formatted as bullet points, virtual meetings, in-person meetings, written instructions, etc., and when people asked them what them would prefer, would just stare at them in hostile silence or never respond to the email at all).

        Someone offering a solution that they need is vastly different than someone who just never tells you and expects you to guess, and then perhaps gets upset when the guess is wrong.

    5. MCMonkeyBean*

      I don’t think this really makes any sense in response to the examples from OP? In this example they were not asking for details about a report–they were saying “should we start writing a report?” OP is not in the presented case asking for specific answers or information about anything.

    6. AcademiaNut*

      In my experience, in a back and forth conversation or meeting, taking a couple of minutes of silence to process a question and come up with an answer is extremely unusual – pausing for a up to maybe ten seconds to think is much more common. If the question is complex, someone will say “Let me think about that and get back to you” and the question is revisited later in the meeting, or after the meeting.

      So if you need this, you really need to tell people directly exactly what you need, otherwise after ten seconds or so, they’ll assume that you didn’t hear them, or didn’t realize the question was being directed at you, or aren’t going to answer, and respond accordingly.

  43. H.Regalis*

    I want to know what Ernest’s deal is. Does he do it because he’s sexist? Does he need a hearing aid? Is it a cognitive impairment? Does he pretend to be dumb so he doesn’t have to do any work? Does he just live in his own world?

    One of my landlord’s former electrician was like this because of alcohol-related dementia. He was the master electrician, and there was a journeyman electrician who went around with him everywhere was basically his handler. ARD man could answer questions about electrical things, but anything outside of that he would just mumble and parrot back some of the words you said to him.

    1. Dust Bunny*

      My mom is a bit like this because she can’t hear (but won’t do anything about it) and also lives in her own world. She’s fine cognitively, she’s just lost the habit of having to accommodate other people’s ideas.

  44. Eff Walsingham*

    Not remotely useful, but when I saw the headline “My coworker doesn’t understand anything I say” I thought it would be like a situation I encountered at an office about 15 years ago, when I was asked by my boss to “translate” for 2 employees who both spoke fluent English.

    One woman was born in Egypt, educated in Melbourne (Australia), and had been posted all over the world. The other was a legal secretary from Mexico whose first language was Spanish, but she had received all her post-secondary education in (English) Canada. It baffled me that they both appeared to be sincerely trying to work together. Both had noticeable accents, yes; but totally fluent, unhesitating English. I felt super awkward about the whole thing. But I was thanked, so apparently the fact that I felt like a condescending idiot was my own problem.

    1. Cedrus Libani*

      I’ve had to do that a few times. I just sit there and repeat what they’ve said, except I sound like an American newscaster. It’s a little awkward, but languages are hard, and if I’m going to get away with being functionally monolingual then the least I can do is be helpful.

  45. Just stoppin' by to chat*

    Oh I think Ernest knows exactly what they’re doing. And it’s working in their favor since the OP is now taking on work that Ernest is also supposed to do!

  46. Elbe*

    I’ve been in close contact with people like Ernest and I sympathize with how frustrating it is! It’s possible that he’s doing this intentionally to avoid work, but I honestly think that this is some type of cognitive/communication problem.

    The only thing that I can think of that works is to ask more clarifying questions. Like, “Do you think that because the program is the best it’s ever been, that means that we don’t have to write the report like Betsy asked?” His response to that could at least give the LW more to work with (and draw out his logic) than just repeating the same things.

    But, that said, there are no magic words. If, for whatever reason, things just aren’t clicking for him, there’s not a lot anyone can do. He’s an adult and no one can force him to be good at his job or to get help for his issues. The LW should document everything, including what work is being done on his behalf, and make sure the manager knows.

  47. Student*

    #1: Does this happen in written correspondence, too, or only in verbal discussions? Are you meeting virtually or in person?

    I’m hard of hearing. Virtual meetings can be hellish for me, but I (mostly) compensate by asking people to repeat themselves as needed. Sometimes I spout vague BS like this if cornered, though, especially if I can’t viably ask people to repeat things that I couldn’t hear well due to how the meeting is structured.

    I have a co-worker that I suspect struggles as much with online meetings as I do. I can’t tell if it’s a hearing issue, a bad connection, an attention issue, or what’s going on. Whatever the root cause is, he often spouts vague nonsense things like what your coworker does in our virtual meetings. When I give him written things to review, though, he gives great feedback.

  48. Rumpling*

    LW3: I suggest you just relax. As long as you are not away for too long, you have an innocuous background in video calls and can comply with the time zone of your office you are very unlikely to be caught.

  49. Ari*

    OP3, does your company have guidelines written out somewhere on travel abroad that you could reference. I realize it varies by company and possibly what industry a person is in, but logging into VPN from outside the US without previous authorization is a huge no-no where I work. That kind of thing gets flagged quickly and probably goes down in a person’s Permanent Record. While I’m sure there are legal and tax issues, the main reason they cite is security.

  50. external recruiters*

    OP1. I am no doctor, but I once had an older co worker who did the same thing that Ernest is doing. It turns out he had a few mini strokes that cause some damage to his brain, making it difficult for him to process thoughts in a logical way. In my old coworker’s case, he truly believed he was responding in a logical manner. While he was on vacation, he actually had a full on stroke. The MRI showed the previous mini strokes. Also, I have had experience with people with early onset dementia and the behavior is exactly what Ernest is displaying. Just putting my 2 cents worth in this thread.

  51. Mr. Bob Dobalina*

    OP#4: I would just be careful about getting all your incurred expenses reimbursed before you leave – for example, if you are paying on your own credit card for future travel bookings and then submitting for expense reimbursement. Make sure you don’t get stuck without reimbursement.

  52. NaoNao*

    I have a bit of a different take on this whole Earnest thing. If a process seemed to be going well and I was getting compliments on it, I would be a little confused as to the point of a “report” to the higher-up’s as well. I might even feel alarmed, because a report is often the first step in a cost cutting measure or outright elimination of a process/tool/department. I can easily see why he’s pushing back, although he’s not communicating very well.

    LW: Can you write a report about [process]?
    Earnest (mentally: oh crap but that process was going really well, Betty just said that last week!) Betty just said that it’s going great [therefore we don’t need a report, and we can avoid any scrutiny that might lead to downsizing or cutting of tools, roles, etc.]

    Maybe I’m very off base here but that’s what struck me. The LW isn’t clearly explaining WHY they need the report or what it will be used for, just going into more detail about what should be on the report. I can see why Earnest is digging in, because he’s unable to communicate “Big Wig’s insistence on a report is worrying me” and he can’t mentally get past that hump so he keeps repeating “But…the process is going well!”

  53. OP2*

    Thank you all! An auto reply isn’t going to work because we already have an auto reply due to the large amount of other submissions from authors outside of the ones I’m in communication with. I think the acknowledgement &/or heading it off with letting them know about the response time when we first are in communication is going to be very helpful. It’s very much a “hurry up and wait” industry as a writer, so I sympathize with them, and I think that just letting the know up front will relieve a lot of anxiety on both sides.

    Thanks so much for the answers & comments. HUGE fan (reading since the guy who got a new boss but it turned out it was the live in girlfriend he’d ghosted years before), and I can honestly say that this

  54. OP2*

    Thank you all! An auto reply isn’t going to work because we already have an auto reply due to the large amount of other submissions from authors outside of the ones I’m in communication with. I think the acknowledgement &/or heading it off with letting them know about the response time when we first are in communication is going to be very helpful. It’s very much a “hurry up and wait” industry as a writer, so I sympathize with them, and I think that just letting the know up front will relieve a lot of anxiety on both sides.

    Thanks so much for the answers & comments. HUGE fan (reading since the guy who got a new boss but it turned out it was the live in girlfriend he’d ghosted years before), and I can honestly say that this has been a real guide as I found my way post-graduate school into a professional world, particularly leaving academia

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