updates: the employee who needs to figure some things out himself, the coworker working a second job, and more

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

1. How to tell an employee he needs to figure some things out himself

I have a quick, albeit possibly underwhelming, update to this. Carl’s questions continued, but I was much better equipped to handle them :) and then a whole lot of other things happened. Shortly after this, Carl was offered a plum international trip to New York (to address one of my substantive policy areas). I reacted … not well to this. I wrote about it in a Friday open thread, and some commenters replied that I seemed to be a bit burned out. They were very correct!

I spoke to my manager, who was really apologetic about the whole situation. It turned out that she was slightly zoned out because she had just accepted a position in another organisation. When she left, I was given many of her programmatic responsibilities for a three-month acting-up period, with budget responsibilities taken up by her manager (based in another part of the world, and overloaded with a million other things). And… chaos ensued.We were heading into a spectacularly busy period program-wise, and taking on managerial and operational responsibilities on top of this (and not being able to control our budget) was not easy, and I did not excel by any stretch of the imagination.

I applied for another job at a much bigger, more prestigious organisation, working in a team with people whom I already worked with as external partners – and was offered it almost immediately after interview! I’ve been in that role now for a month and half, and I really like it. It doesn’t have managerial responsibility, which I was not ready for or good at – in fact, the role in the team is comparatively more junior than I was before – but it has deeper substantive work and better pay. I spent a few weeks in the new job still feeling burned out by the former, but it has been a relatively quiet time of year for our industry, so I’ve spent the time planning, and getting to know my new substantive areas and colleagues, and now I am just about at the point of very much looking forward to next year. So win-win. Apart from Carl, who is feeling isolated and abandoned by the wider organisation since my manager and I left (which is true – the organisation decided to not hire for my manager’s job, and have not yet recruited for my former role). I take him out for lunch now and again and am gently encouraging him to look elsewhere at places with more structure which could be a better fit.

Thank you so much for your advice (and all that you do!!), and commenters for their take!

2. How can I fix my company’s dysfunctional culture? (#2 at the link)

Thanks so much for publishing my letter, and all the sage advice you dispense!

I did end up leaving that job and am much happier for it. Entirely coincidentally, I gave my notice on the same day as multiple other coworkers. All of us were women, with similar levels of experience, and the only people capable of doing an important set of tasks. Our manager, when asked by another colleague, said he “didn’t see a pattern” in our departures. Right.

Some context that I had left out of the first letter was that I am a woman of color, and our management is all white male. Definitely some of the morale issues stemmed from ingrained biases, and attempts to address DEI topics were often met with the “I don’t know, what would you do” response, which is pretty classic I’ve now realized. Not only do women and people of color bear the brunt of these issues, we’re also made to feel responsible for fixing them, even and junior staff. And still somehow do our day job as well. So glad I’m no longer around those kinds of attitudes.

Since I left, I started therapy and eventually realized a great deal of my burnout came from the fact that my manager had been gaslighting and emotionally abusing me for years. In the meantime at the old company, there continues to be wave after wave of departures and at this point, there is hardly anyone I used to work with still there, with the exception of management. From what I’ve heard there has been no effort to change any part of the culture, so I expect more staff turnover will happen.

My new job is wonderful- supportive colleagues, interesting work, and a very collaborative culture. It’s not without its stresses but it is a world of difference from the truly toxic environment of the old job. I am now building in social equity as part of my research and fully supported by my organization in doing so. Thanks to all the commenters for sharing their experiences trying to change cultures, it definitely helped me focus my energy on job searching to end up where I am now.

3. Should I tell my boss my coworker is working a second job?

I never ended up turned Bella in. Maybe I should have but I just didn’t know if she needed the money, and I didn’t want to be a cause of her job loss if it came to that.

Alice got promoted and no longer manages Bella and myself. Bella and I actually bonded a good amount and we had figured out how to work together really well. She did come clean about the second job but they decided it wasn’t a big deal since they weren’t related.

The culture has had a drastic change since Alice’s promotion. Our new manager, Jasper, leaves a bit to be desired. He can come off as condescending and has very old school ideas on how we should do our work. We’ve added more people to our team but no one on the team seems happy anymore.

Crazy update is that Bella was let go last week. My guess was more of a personality conflict than anything as he seemed extra hard on her. I am also looking to leave due to Jasper’s poor leadership and not feeling like I want to be a part of this new culture. I won’t call it toxic, but the joy I had about my job is dwindling. I just heard from a company I interviewed with that they are working on an offer for me and I should have one by tomorrow!

4. My coworker says our company is toxic — but is she the problem?

Jane quit after I’d been there less than a year, shortly after she was promoted. She was one of five people (out of 11) who quit that year. In this time, I’d worked mostly alone on my shift. I worked through some of the hardest times our agency had ever seen (including the pandemic). But all I got from my managers was non-constructive criticism. They’d only praise me was when they wanted me to cover an undesirable shift. They ignored my emails asking for help and told me I rely on my supervisors too much. They wrote us up for minor, reversible mistakes, and seem to come down harder on people who question them (including myself). Once I was written up after coming to them to ask for help on a mistake I’d made – while I was overwhelmed and working alone.

Finally, my managers uncovered a misguided decision I’d made in good faith a year prior; I hadn’t attempted to hide it, but given how ignored I felt I didn’t think anyone would care. I was accused of going beyond my expertise (though I’ve been peripherally trained in the subject matter … and they have zero expertise in the subject matter at all). They also cited “20 incidents of inappropriate behavior” (?!) that they had never addressed to me before. (Beyond seeing me crying at work due to stress and a big breakup, only to tell me “you can’t have a bad day in this job”….a very emotionally challenging job in emergency services.) I explained myself, accepted responsibility, and pointed out other gaps in the project that others had left that should be addressed with equal scrutiny. I cared about what happened and wanted to make sure the process as a whole could be improved. I even had a union rep advocating for me. None of that mattered, and they recommended termination, “allowing” me to resign. The coworkers I was closest to were shocked and appalled and rallied around me. A month after I left, one of the managers took my work friend into his office and told her not to be friends with me because I’m too negative.

It’s been six months since I left, and I still feel humiliated and heartbroken. I was able to get another job right away through a close connection who had also worked there and knew the terrible dynamics, but I’m panicking over how to address this in future applications. So many ask if you’ve ever been asked to resign. I have no confidence in my abilities. I’m still beyond devastated and extremely depressed, and I can see myself having regular panic attacks at a new job, because what could I get fired for next time?

In the end, it looks like Jane was right about a lot of it. I had thought my work ethic and skillset would protect me from all that. They didn’t. I take some solace knowing that these managers don’t have the greatest reputation among others in our field, but I am so new that I worry what this will do to *my* reputation. All I can hope is that I can maybe better recognize red flags in the future.

Anyway, thank you so much for providing me with an outlet for this. It’s been a tumultuous few years for me, professionally and personally, even aside from the pandemic. I’ve revisited the original letter a few times since you posted it. Your and others’ responses have helped take some of the sting off this situation since it was somewhat predictable.

{ 32 comments… read them below }

  1. Sloanicota*

    “It doesn’t have managerial responsibility … the role in the team is comparatively more junior than I was before – but it has deeper substantive work and **better pay**.” – Living my dream, OP! Salaries are so arbitrary in my field and it’s crazy there are so many roles that do less work for more money!!

    1. Artemesia*

      Management is hard and it really requires different skills than doing good substantive working; knowing yourself and what kind of work you want to do, is so important. I have been an interim high level manager — and I was okay at it — not fabulous, but a fair number of accomplishments actually getting a new department up and running after the expected leader died before the launch — BUT I was so happy to go back to doing what I like to do and not continuing as a manager.

      It is like picking up a rock and seeing squirmy things you didn’t know were there when you move from being an individual contributor to running the joint. I immediately had to cope with an alcoholic who was not not getting his job done, a sexual harassment case and several people who were not performing well — all stuff I was oblivious too when doing my own thing.

      1. Worldwalker*

        Because so many companies think of management as a promotion—often the only path—and turn good individual contributors into bad managers. It’s a whole different skill set. The things that make someone a superb teapot designer are totally different from the things that make someone a good manager. Some people have both sets of skills, but they should be evaluated on their management skills, not their design skills.

        Years ago a friend of mine was “rightsized” because he didn’t want to advance. He loved programming and was good at it; he hated managing and was bad at it. But they insisted that he *had* to become a manager or else. (The story has a happy ending: he landed at a company that was overjoyed to have programmers who wanted to be programmers, and rewarded them accordingly, and his former company went under a few years later, due primarily to bad management decisions)

  2. Observer*

    #2 You say Our manager, when asked by another colleague, said he “didn’t see a pattern” in our departures and and From what I’ve heard there has been no effort to change any part of the culture.

    I have to say that the two things are inextricably intertwined. When a manager refuses to see the pattern in front of his nose, and upper management enables that, that is a sure-fire indication that NO changes are going to happen.

    I’m glad you got out of there.

  3. Sara without an H*

    I had thought my work ethic and skillset would protect me from all that. They didn’t. OP#4, I’ve been there, done that, and bought the t-shirt. This is not, not, NOT YOUR FAULT. Your old firm sounds like a toxic dumpster fire — there’s no way you could have made the situation work and absolutely no reason to feel personally humiliated by the way you were treated. Repeat this until you believe it.

    This experience will probably do less damage to your reputation than you fear, given that your former employer’s reputation is already known in the field. Toxic HellHole, Inc. will matter less and less as you build your own reputation and accumulate more colleagues who can speak to your good work. (Stay in touch with that “close connection” who helped you get your current position.) Concentrate on your current job, and try not to agonize about the last one.

    You will find lots of good advice in the AAM archives and remember, you have a cheering section here.

    Jedi hugs, and best wishes for a much happier New Year.

    1. Lw4*

      You are SO very kind! It’s been a few months and I’ve sprinkled some updates below – mostly that I’ve moved long distance and have been vindicated by past and present colleagues. Still stings, but I’m getting along :)

  4. Observer*

    #4 you worry about your reputation. But if you are correct that people know about these folks, you have no need to worry about your reputation. Especially since you have a new job that you are apparently doing well in. And former coworkers (and even Jane) will be willing to talk about you positively, regardless of what your former employer tells people. Even people who still work there may tell the truth, and certainly people who are no longer at the company will not feel constrained to support the company’s narrative.

  5. Also Sara*

    OP#4–when I read your first letter, I thought, this sounds like emergency services. As a paramedic for 15 years, I’ve been in a lot of toxic workplaces. My current one is so ridiculous I just laugh at it now, but they pay pretty well and I only work two days a week(and to be fair, they are trying to change the culture now that all the area companies are competing for employees). Whether it’s LE, fire, EMS or dispatching, everyone knows who the crap managers and companies are in our small world . It’s not going to affect your future employment in the least in this field. They’ll know you’re coming from XYZ place and have probably hired people who quit or were terminated from there before. Shake it off and move on to someplace that appreciates you.

    1. LW4*

      100%. They call us “last responders”…lol. Monday-morning quarterbacking by managers who haven’t stepped foot in the field or worked night shift in years is par for the course. I guess the silver lining of my brutal training/managers is that I was trained at a VERY high (often unreasonable) standard and am very good at what I do. I’m now at an office in a completely different part of the US that desperately needs someone at my level. I’ve already distinguished myself here after only 4 months. I’ve told a couple people in my peer group what I went through and they’re just astonished. That level of nitpicking would never fly here. I still leave work thinking of all the things in my reports that I didn’t document and have almost called the office to have them add to them…and then I realize they’d think I was nuts! Just hope that if/when I’m in a position of authority, I won’t be *that* kind of manager.

    2. Where’s the Orchestra?*

      As someone else who used to work for an absolutely batty manager, surrounded by batty managers (honestly I think the dysfunction was what kept that place running) who now works elsewhere- my current manager considered a bad reference from the nutters a sign I’d be a good employee.

  6. learnedthehardway*

    OP#4 – I feel so badly for you!! You are going to be okay, though. It sounds like you are in a much better company / org now, with people who understand what you went through. You will recover your confidence – it might take awhile, but you will get there as you discover what “normal” looks like (in terms of work culture). Speaking from experience, I made the same sort of transition once, and it took a few months for me to realize I didn’t have to duck and cover anymore, because I wasn’t under (figurative) fire all the time. Now that you’re hired, it’s okay to let your manager or mentor (the person who supported your candidacy) know that you need some support to integrate into the new org.

    People know what the management was like in your old company – nobody is going to hold that against you. And it won’t be the problem you expect in future interviews – it’s more likely that people will nod sagely and say that they’re surprised you lasted as long as you did, and that everyone knows what a toxic place it was to work. You will just say there were “cultural challenges” and your efforts to address process issues weren’t well received. It was a mutual decision to part ways, and you’ve been very happy as CurrentOrg, etc. etc. You don’t have to badmouth OldOrg at all. Just talk about all the positives at CurrentOrg. Damning by faint praise is a good approach for these kinds of situations.

    1. Lw4*

      Yes, the “duck and cover” feeling is still following me, one year and 1200 miles later! I still worry about getting in trouble for small things, and my new coworkers think I’m nuts with the amount of details i include in my reports, lol. The other day I had an informal performance review, and even though he gave me “excellents” across the board, I was still shaking a couple hours later. I’m getting closer to feeling “safe” a little at a time.

  7. HA2*

    OP #4 – if you want to have some peace of mind, remember that the most common way of getting info about how you did at past jobs is REFERENCES. In future jobs, they’ll most likely want to talk to someone who managed or worked with you at each of your past jobs as a reference. …and in this case, you have managers or coworkers from ToxicJob that will be a great reference. This won’t be a black mark on your resume that you have to somehow hide – it’ll be just one of many places you have a good reference from!

    1. Where’s the Orchestra?*

      I mentioned this up above as well: if everybody knows this place is full of batty managers – a bad reference from crummy managers can be a good thing.
      I left a place like that, and my current boss said the bad reference he got from former job told him I’d be a good employee – because the only good references that person ever gave were for his toadies. The people who actually did all the work were the ones who always got bad references (possibly to strangle your job search and keep you there to keep the place going).

  8. Anonymoose*

    LW #4: I’m sorry, that sucks. Gunnysacking you like that with 20 complaints about your prior actions might have been a violation of your due process rights, because they didn’t seem to think them important enough to bring up earlier, but instead used them to hurt you later.

    1. Tio*

      Due process is for criminal cases, not jobs (at least in the US). Here, they can generally just fire you, with or without made up violations. The reasons they fire you for only affect unemployment availability.

      1. silverpie*

        The statement did mention a union rep, so due process as defined by collective bargaining agreement might be in play.

  9. LW4*

    Thanks y’all. This all went down a year ago now. I left that new job after 8 months; turns out that an office run by people from the same toxic workplace isn’t the best place to heal. So, I’ve moved long-distance to an office in the region where I grew up. I think two of my “problems” in that region were a culture clash and undiagnosed ADHD. My new office is the opposite extreme from my old one, in both good (camaraderie and cultural fit) and bad ways (zero discipline or structure). I’m already highly valued. Also, I’m on ADHD meds, which has helped immensely with emotional regulation and verbal filtration. There’s a lot to be desired, especially in terms of pay, but I think I’m on a better path. I’ve also learned that putting work before everything just sets me up to be exploited rather than rewarded. So, I will be using those vacation days now!

    1. I Am On Email*

      This is such a nice update, thank you for sharing it with us. Good luck on your new job and your new (old) location!

  10. Neuroqueer*

    OP#4, You will be fine.

    After I was fired from a truly terrible job that was alternately a) known for being terrible or b) really respected, depending on who you asked, I was similarly worried about how I would handle it in interviews. The second interview I had where I had to address it and my responses weren’t quite as …smooth…as I would like, I paused before answering a question about it and my interviewer interrupted me to ask “…were they a**holes?” and I had to laugh because..yes, yes they were. And after that I was much less nervous about addressing it, not just in that interview but going forward, because people know there are workplaces full of buttholes that sucked in more ways than you could explain in an entire hour with your therapist! We’ve almost all worked at a place like that! The trick is finding interview-appropriate ways to communicate that.

    When asked about being fired, or leaving that job on bad terms, the answer that I rehearsed until I could say it without sounding teary or panicky or angry went something like “In a period of (SIGNIFICANT PAUSE)…rising workplace tensions, short staffing and rapidly increasing workload, I made a mistake XYZ* and they decided to let me go. I’m not sure that that helped solve any of their bigger picture problems, but I do wish them well, for the sake of [customer base] if nothing else.”

    If they seemed kinda uptight or formal I’d leave that last bit after the comma off.

    *XYZ – the concisest explanation you can manage clearly. No excuses here. You don’t want to be so vague as to sound like you’re being evasive, but over-explaining makes you sound like you’re still emotionally caught up in it, and wastes interview time you could spend being professional and impressive. Ask for a friend’s help with this part if you need to. I did.

    1. Lw4*

      Thank you so much. I’ve moved to an office in another state and it never really came up in the interview. Mostly they just wanted to know why I would want to move *here*, lol. (My canned answer is that most of my family is here.) But they pieced it together pretty quick. They’re really interested to know how things were run there; within my first week, one guy said, “Were they trying to torture you into quitting?” Ha! The more time passes, the more I’m able to condense what happened into “wasn’t a good fit, this is generally why, and this is what I could’ve done better.” Helps that no one who knows the whole story thinks I did anything wrong, but I know that I can’t lead with that in interviews, lol.

      1. DyneinWalking*

        Yeah, “wasn’t a good fit” is too likely to be taken as “I wasn’t cut out for this type of job, at all”, or possibly that you had a bad attitude or something like that.

        I think you should aim for softened versions of blaming the management (where the blame belongs!), just like Neuroqueer suggests – honestly, it sounds like you could use their wording verbatim! Giving a diplomatic answer really doesn’t have to mean that you can’t name any workplace issues. One big reason for diplomatic answers is simply that assholes tend to label everyone else as assholes, so when interviewers see someone badmouth their employer they can’t tell if the issue was a legitimate workplace problem or if the employee was a problem themselves. So, when referring to problems of your (former) workplace, you should try to frame them in a very factual way and stay away from subjective claims. As an example, words like “much” and “little” are subjective since their meaning depends on one’s definition of “enough”; naming the actual numbers is objective because it allows the listener to make their own judgement.

        In you case, a subjective, “dangerous” framing would be “I didn’t get enough supervision and was written up for small mistakes” – the listener wouldn’t know how you define “enough” supervision (do you expect hand-holding?) and what you consider “small” mistakes (did you endanger clients?). A much better, objective, formulation would be something like this: “I worked shifts alone XX% of the time and was written up for [specific mistakes xyz]”. It says basically the same thing but allows the interviewer to judge for themselves – and most likely, they will judge it as “bad management” without you ever having called it bad management out loud.

        1. LW4*

          Thank you. I’m actually doing the exact same job in another state – one that is generally thought of as a more intense/busier place for this kind of work. So, hilariously, I get to tell them that I feel far less overwhelmed than I did before! I never work alone now, and there’s zero petty nitpicking from management. (In fact, there’s zero oversight from management at all, lol.) Sometimes things leak out, like asking if I’ll get in trouble for XYZ, or if they expect things like ABC. Generally the responses are something like, “No…no one cares” or “That’s actually a good idea, I’ve never thought of that.” They see that I’m very good at what I do, so I’m sure they’ve formulated their own opinions on why I left.

  11. Michelle Smith*

    LW4: If you have access to therapeutic support, please consider taking advantage of it. It sounds like you have a ton of toxic crap that was dumped on you in your last job and in my experience, having someone sort through that with you can be immensely helpful.

    I promise you that this one termination is not going to follow you the rest of your life. You’re going to be just fine. The most important thing for you to do is focus on the job that you have now and getting yourself mentally squared away so that you’re able to tackle it from a place of better self-confidence than you currently feel. I have a strong inclination that you are plenty competent, but I know from experience that this can get diminished and overshadowed by negative self-talk and low self-esteem. It’s not your fault and you can get through it.

    As far as how to explain in applications and interviews, I’d just be honest. Explain that you made a decision that turned out to be misguided and that it led to your termination. Say how you learned and grew from it and demonstrate how you make decisions now in collaboration with supportive managers. The new prospective workplace doesn’t need to hear all the nitty gritty details of how you were wronged. You just have to show them that they don’t have to worry about you and that you’re a person who grows from mistakes. Remember, there are plenty of people who get fired for actual egregious misconduct, rather than minor mistakes, that don’t stay unemployed forever. In fact, you say yourself that you pretty quickly got a new job. That is an indicator to you that you may be catastrophizing a bit and will be just fine going forward. I believe in you. You should believe in you too.

    1. Lw4*

      Thank you so much! I submitted this update a few months ago and have since moved far away for the same kind of work. I’ve told my story to a lot of colleagues now (not my new boss though!) and they ALL say my “decision” wasn’t misguided at all. In fact, it would have been encouraged! It went “wrong” because my working relationship with my managers was so poor that it didn’t allow me to go through proper channels. What they saw as “going rogue” is actually what reasonable people call “taking initiative.” Of course, if I could do it over again, I certainly would have gone about it differently, but they genuinely were looking for a technicality they could use to fire me. I still have some terrible bouts of anxiety and depression (for which I have professional support), but I feel valued and respected at my new office.

  12. WoodswomanWrites*

    #1 — This is a wonderful update. You recognized that being a supervisor isn’t for you, you got a job at a new workplace where you’re happy with a pay raise, and you’re thoughtful about helping Carl even though you’re no longer colleagues. Great news all around!

  13. Dawn*

    LW4: Please know that your reputation is likely not at stake here as it sounds like your former employer’s reputation is probably well-known within your field, and nobody is going to hold it against you that working at the crap factory resulted in your being covered in crap.

  14. Darla*

    LW4, I am so sorry that you went though this.

    I’ve had a PIP used as a bullying tactic on me before, where my abusive manager fabricated performance problems, and made it literally impossible for me to do my job. The fact there was rock solid written proof of all this (and several very obvious ADA breaches) did not deter my boss from being allowed to unlawfully fire me. I did get a good severance package in the end, but it was awfully stressful. It’s permanently damaged my faith in employers, managers, HR, and the legal system.

    I wish you all the best in the future, and hope that neither of us encounter such awfulness again!

  15. Keats*

    Hey Alison! Just a heads up; most of the links in the original posts aren’t routing here, but to the update about the unacknowledged adoption. Thanks for posting these though; they’re fascinating!

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