update: my boss wants me to ask a rejected problematic job candidate to volunteer

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

There will be more posts than usual this week, so keep checking back throughout the day.

This one is a double update. The same person wrote in to ask about a coworker who kept bringing her “problems” that weren’t problems (Emily) and, in a different letter, about her boss pushing her to ask a rejected problematic job candidate to volunteer (John). Here’s the update on both.

As many of the commenters picked up, management is kind of delusional here. In the past two years, every single position in my 8-person department has turned over at least once. I am very pleased that I just resigned yesterday after accepting a job elsewhere with a higher salary and significantly better benefits!

First, though, the updates. Emily is still here. Before the job was posted, Emily mentioned a few times that she was having a lot of trouble finding another job, and that her old workplace (shockingly) didn’t seem to want her back. My manager, I’ll call her Elaine, had not posted the role yet. Then, Emily came in one morning and gleefully announced that Elaine had asked her to stay. I was absolutely livid, and so, so confused. I immediately requested a meeting with Elaine, who avoided every question I asked about the situation. My other coworkers guessed that Elaine just didn’t want to go through the hiring process for a niche role, and that she really didn’t see Emily as a major issue because she just avoids managing her at all.

Emily continued to cause numerous issues, and her tone became increasingly confrontational. A few commenters asked about what kind of problems she caused. Shortly after my letter was published, another writer’s experience sounded almost identical to mine. Emily is very similar to the employee that letter is about.

Here’s a recent example of an interaction I had with her (think of this happening constantly, truly constantly, every day): I was hosting a low-key art program in an art studio (that I manage), and a few teens asked if they could paint. Everyone else had finished (so there was no one in the studio) and I had plenty of extra painting supplies. I let them paint for about 10 minutes. Emily lost her mind. While the teens were still in the room, she told me very loudly and rudely that I was setting poor expectations, that those teens were probably going to come back and want even more paint every single week, that we can’t be allowing things like this because then everyone is going to want to come in and paint all the time, and finally, that there were “probably other things [I] should be doing.” I calmly asked her to have this conversation at another time. She said that she needed to explain this to me in the moment, and continued saying that I was “setting poor expectations” by letting the teens use our (cheap, abundant) paint and paper. I gently guided her aside and said “Emily, this is an appropriate use of the art studio. They are being very respectful and clean, and we have more than enough supplies. We do not have to accommodate every request, and we can handle any future requests on a case-by-case basis. But I do think that allowing a few teens to paint is reasonable for an art studio. We want to create a positive impression of the space for every guest. Also, this is my activity, and I am not asking you to assist.” Emily continued arguing with me, to the point that I said “Emily, I am not going to continue this conversation. Please talk to Elaine if you want to discuss this more.” I then emailed Elaine, who assured me she would meet with Emily the next day to discuss her behavior. The very next week, I had a nearly identical situation, and Emily reacted even worse. I essentially gave up on Elaine’s management.

Other staff members became increasingly frustrated with Emily, as she continued to bring problems to them when I was unavailable. One close coworker knew I was job hunting, and she said that she would love to step into my position, but that she would not take the promotion solely because of Emily.

At the same time, under pressure from management, I reached the point where I was directly asked to have John volunteer as a presenter. I met with him to discuss the opportunity, and the topic he wanted to present was on a piece of technology I have used for over ten years. He brought me an article titled “[Piece of Technology] for Beginners.” I said “Oh, John, thank you, but I have been using this daily since 2010!” John said “Oh yes, I know, but you can always use more information, right?” So he has not changed a bit.

After that meeting, Elaine mentioned that she thought Emily would be a good person to host John’s presentation. I knew that they would mix like a match with gasoline, but I also knew that Elaine would push for it no matter what I said, so I agreed. I wasn’t working the night of his presentation, but I felt like I was there: Emily texted me 36 times about how awful and problematic John was. I hate to admit it, but I kind of enjoyed it. I steered it all to Elaine.

I am very happy to be leaving this toxic workplace. In addition to the John and Emily situations, there was a situation in which Elaine raised her voice to a coworker on the public floor, and that situation potentially involves racism. Upper management also put together an EDI committee, and of course, forced employees of color to be on it.

Thank you and your readers for advice on both of my weird situations!

{ 85 comments… read them below }

  1. Really?!*

    ” forced employees of color to be on it”

    What does that even mean? I wish more context and detail were provided. I am a fan of EDI.

    Did the employees of color not want to be on the EDI Committee?
    Were there non-people of color who didn’t want people of color on the EDI committee so management stepped in?

    1. Melanie Cavill*

      I assume from the wording of “forced” that the employees of colour were not asked, they were told. Among other concerns, this leans into treating people of colour like a monolith.

      1. LW*

        That is correct. One of my dear friends, a woman of color, politely declined when they asked her to be on the committee. The Director came into her office shortly after, and told her directly that “the EDI Committee is not a choice.” It was just so indicative of their toxicity.

          1. Emily*

            Yeah, this is almost evil villian levels of bad! I’m glad you got out of there, LW, and I hope your friend can too.

        1. Richard Hershberger*

          Back in my prior life, when I worked for Walmart, my immediate boss asked me to be on the safety committee, which corporate mandated each store have. I initially said no, because of the whole “more work for the same money” thing. Then he made it a personal appeal. Since he was in fact a total mensch and a great guy to work for, I relented. I initially took it seriously. I had been a volunteer firefighter in a yet earlier life, so I paid attention to that. I realized that the fire extinguishers were not up to code, not having been serviced as required by law. So I took this to the store manager, who told me that this wasn’t in the store budget and get back to work. After that I treated the meetings as an extra, mandatory break from work. This would be my recommendation here. The committee is just for show. Its sole function is to exist so management can say it exists. So why spend any time or effort on it?

          1. Vio*

            I’d never come across the word “mensch” before, interesting to learn!
            As for the committee it’s sadly common. Rules say we have to have a [Concern] Committee… but they only imply that you have to treat [concern] seriously, they don’t actually state it! So [Concern] Committee exists, does their job and nobody follows up on it because it’s either too expensive, too much work or requires them to remove their heads from their arses. [Concern] Committee eventually realise they’re just for show and no results come from their work so they stop taking it as seriously. Eventually something happens to make [Concern] a bigger deal and management gleefully point to [Concern Committee] having subpar work and blame that (instead of themselves for causing it. see heads in arses, above) while washing their hands of the problem.

    2. Observer*

      If the employees were “forced” then obviously they were not volunteering. And if you care about about *actual* EDI, rather than performances of EDI, then you start by treating your employees of color with respect. Which starts by ASKING them to be part of the committee, and if you get no takers, finding out WHY they don’t want to be part of it. *Forcing* them to take on a task that is not part of their job says that no one really cares or respects them or their work.

      1. tamarack etc.*

        I wouldn’t even ask. I’d have a 1:1 conversation about the organization’s path regarding JEDI, listen carefully and float the option to get engaged. OK, there are circumstances I might ask, but not unless I have a very good idea of what the employee thinks about the topic AND the feeling they would both like to contribute and be good at it.

        1. teapot community manager*

          What a neat acronym for justice + DEI! I’d never heard that before.

          May the force be with you.

          1. allathian*

            As long as you aren’t a DEI Sith Lord who voluntells minority employees to participate in DEI efforts.

    3. Hlao-roo*

      This is a different situation, but if you search for “a VP wants me to out myself at work and won’t take no for an answer” you’ll find a post from March 29, 2021. Pretty much what the title says: a VP wanted to write an article about the letter-writer’s experience as an LGBTQ employee and the letter-writer did not want to be out at work.

      Being part of the LGBTQ community is not the same thing as being a person of color, but in both instances, there are many people who do not want to be the public face of their minority group and it always lands wrong when people in the majority try to “volun-tell” people in the minority into diversity initiatives.

    4. Ellis Bell*

      I find it easy to imagine. It’s a bit like when women get voluntold to plan the Christmas party, only a worse, more frequent workload with dire boobytraps, and with more direct irony.

      1. Texan In Exile*

        My fast reading first saw that as “wire boobytraps” and I wondered why we were talking about underwire bras again.

    5. Not Tom, Just Petty*

      I believe it means that management is aware of issues faced by employees who are people of color. So they officially created a committee to fix it. Only they didn’t create a committee, they created a name, voluntold people of color to use their time and effort to put together and execute plans for DEI initiatives. But only PoC. While other people could choose to join in, the people who were already marginalized and othered were shown that: “you people have a problem with things as they are. You people need to find a solution. You people need to make everyone else buy in. This is what you people want.”

    1. EmmaPoet*

      At this point this isn’t even a hive. Or bees. It’s more like yellowjackets. Not a nest of them, just yellowjackets EVERYWHERE.

  2. Hills to Die on*

    I would put John and Emily together on everything all of the time. You’d be guaranteed to run off at least one of them. Emily would be the early favorite IMO. But you got a new job anyway and that’s great! Happy for you.

    1. Emily*

      Hills to Die on: I think that is a great suggestion! They’re both terrible and both drive each other crazy. The best outcome would be them both quitting! In any event, I am glad LW is out of there.

      1. froodle*

        Either their kids are normal, in which case the sequel is a horror movie told from the kids perspective

        Or then kids are like them, in which case the sequel is a horror movie told from humanity’s perspective

    2. froodle*

      Same. When I got to that part of the letter, all I could think is that OP is way more mature than me, because I would have paired them for everything and told them to loop Elaine in on anything and everything they thought needed addressing. Then laughed myself sick as I switched off my mobile.

  3. inko*

    Oh god, what a pair of absolutely exhausting individuals. They deserve one another. Enjoy your escape, LW!

  4. Bluburry*

    LW was correct in their initial assessment. In my experience as a Volunteer Coordinator it is never a good idea to place someone in a volunteer role who would not be a good fit in a staff role (or at least within the culture depending on the work) – especially with the additional descriptor of “problematic” attached to their initial interview. What an awful environment. Happy for LW that they are moving on.

  5. Emily*

    I was a little confused at first because I could have sworn there was already an update to the co-worker bringing up problems that weren’t their problems, and it looks like there was an update on 11/30/22: https://www.askamanager.org/2022/11/update-my-coworker-keeps-bringing-me-problems-that-arent-problems-and-theyre-definitely-not-her-problems.html

    It sounds like this update was written before that update, and I’m glad LW is out of that horrible workplace. What a terribly dysfunctional environment! Wishing you all the best at your new job, LW!

    1. LW*

      It was! I sent in this update awhile ago and assumed it got lost in the many emails I’m sure Alison receives. I had no idea how much would change!

      1. Ask a Manager* Post author

        Yes — I received this one in June (and I guess didn’t realize I had it when I emailed the LW for holiday updates season) so looks like they were printed out of order!

      2. Anonymous Pygmy Possum*

        I’m glad to know I wasn’t the only one confused about this! LW, thanks for clarifying. Hope everything is going well at your new job!

    2. West coast can’t handle snow*

      I laughed and laughed when you firmly redirected the 36 text complaints to Elaine. So pleased you are in a much better job

  6. Seeking Second Childhood*

    I’m practically hyperventilating imagining what it has been like for you at this place. Here’s hoping you have time to decompress and clear this chaos out of your psyche before diving into your new role.

    Yes Emily & John are problematic….but Elaine’s the boss. Her failure to control the chaos just makes it all worse.

    1. Emily*

      Seeking Second Childhood: This is a good point. The true problem here is Elaine who is refusing to do her job as the manager and allowing severe problems to fester.

      1. Magenta Sky*

        In the case of employees who are long term problems, it’s almost *always* their boss (or someone above them) who is the *real* problem.

        “People don’t quite bad jobs, they quit bad managers.”

  7. Scott*

    I’m really confused about the timing of this update. The update last month indicated the LW had already left this job and started a new one. Am I missing something?

    1. Blue*

      Yes, I was a bit confused as well since both the letters referenced already had updates! I’m assuming this is just additional detail for our enjoyment but I’m confused about the timeline.

    2. LW*

      Yep, I sent this in quite awhile ago! Alison reached out for the newer update I sent in, so I assumed this one was just lost in the many emails she receives.

      1. Jen in Oregon*

        LW, have you heard any other interesting news from the old job and how things there are faring at this time? Not that I am nosy or anything….

        1. LW*

          One of my regular students messaged me on Facebook that it’s a “complete disaster.” It was not surprising, but still very sad to hear that my work was going up in flames with my replacement.

          1. Hlao-roo*

            Sorry to hear that about your old work, but I am happy you’re in a new job that you like, and where you don’t have to deal with Emily, Elaine, or John!

          2. H.C.*

            That is so unfortunate, hopefully the students and/or their parents can escalate these grievances above Elaine so that the org can do some serious correction.

            But glad you’ve made it outta there!

            1. Where’s the Orchestra?*

              Escalating only works if the people above Elaine are willing to fix the issues. Given how they are willing to just let Elaine manage by not managing…..I have very low hopes here.

    1. Paris Geller*

      It really does, doesn’t it? So much of it is similar to experience I’ve had in the field before!

    2. LW*

      ..how’d you guess? :)

      I’m out of the field now, and honestly, I won’t ever go back. I enjoyed it more than corporate work, but the management issues are just too much! My new position is a nonprofit with an excellent administrative team, so it’s a great balance of a functional culture and work with purpose.

    3. EmmaPoet*

      Sad but true, when I add in John “volunteering,” libraries make sense for this. Along with the rest of the hot mess.

  8. Happy Little Cog*

    Dear llama gods, the amount of secondhand schadenfreude I experienced from reading the line that Emily was paired with John was amazing. That is some low-key sitcom material right there. I hope OP made popcorn to read those texts from Emily.

  9. Rose*

    From an outside, knowing you got out of perspective, there is something wildly comical about Emily yelling at you that you’re turning local teens into paint-addicted art fiends! They’ll just keep coming back, begging to do more art!! The horror! This situation cannot be managed or mitigated in any way!

    Do NOT give these teens the means to express their creativity in any way, ever again. Painting is a gateway craft!

    1. I should really pick a name*

      It’s a fair concern.
      Today a low key arts program, tomorrow impressionism, then before you know it, they’re cutting their ears off.

        1. Lady_Lessa*

          Or perhaps the teens will rebel and become the next Hudson River school painters.

          I’m weird, I like both Hudson River school and impressionism.

    2. Blarg*

      Why are these teens just loitering, never doing anything constructive?? Why don’t they use the art studio down the street? Kids these days, am I right??

    3. Zorak*

      Yeah Emily seems to think everyone else is as bizzonkers as she is- I could definitely see Emily pulling this If You Give A Mouse A Cookie BS with art supplies, but your average teen isn’t going to.

    4. Dances with Spindles*

      A gateway craft, indeed! Next thing you know, they’ll try their hands at pottery, sculpting, creative writing, embroidery, weaving, composing and playing music – and who knows where they’ll stop? Why, they might even end up making some real contributions to our culture and inspiring other young people to try THEIR hands at creating art as well! Gotta stop THAT from happening, at all costs!

  10. kitryan*

    I do love the ‘let’s let my two problems collide’ approach (in limited applications). I had two things stressing me out recently – a giant project I was not sure could actually be completed by the deadline and a new yearly self review requirement that needed to include actionable goals with time limits and so forth. My job as it has been doesn’t really suit itself to generating those kinds of goals so I was so relieved when I realized that my terrible giant project fit the terms exactly. I still may not be able to finish the giant project by the deadline, but at least I had something to fill in on my review!

    1. PrincessFlyingHedgehog*

      How DARE we enable teenagers to … *checks notes* … express themselves in a productive way!

  11. A. Tiskit & A. Taskit LLC*

    MANY people of color (and women!) get the job of “training” their White / male colleagues how to treat people of color and women at the workplace. And many have said that they’re very, very tired of being expected to be racial or gender representatives and unpaid teachers.

    Quite often, they’re asked to prepare presentations or simply be available 9:00 – 5:00, M-F as perpetual DEI “consultants”. And if they dare to ask about extra pay for that extra work, well, management is shocked – shocked! – that they aren’t delighted to do that for free (’cause isn’t that what they’re there for, after all? Ah..actually, no it isn’t!)

    1. how do they do that?*

      Can confirm.

      I offered to answer a few questions for a colleague at another location. That somehow turned into people (not my co-workers, fortunately) volunteering me to lead a DEI regional task force.

  12. Sleeve McQueen*

    I feel like there needs to be a blanket rule that if you need to write to Ask a Manager about two different employees, and the leadership does not give you the tools and authority to deal with them, it’s definitely time to find a new job.

    1. rebelwithmouseyhair*

      Oh I think making the two problem employees work together is an excellent idea, one if not both will surely crack at some point!

    2. Where’s the Orchestra?*

      I got the impression that both problem people were found thru the same interview process – and they took Emily over John.

      But really the problem is Elaine (and the upper management for ignoring the crap show that Elaine has created and enabled). The only hope is eventually upper management asks why all the competent people are gone and they have only a staff full of John and Emily’s to work with.

  13. rebelwithmouseyhair*

    When I got to the bit about Emily and John having to work together, I got excited, thinking either it’ll end in a shootout or they and Elaine would all resign simultaneously just to get away from each other, leaving OP on a clear road to promotion into Elaine’s role with as her first task, hiring people to replace Emily and John…

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