how can I get my employees to be more comfortable figuring things out on their own?

A reader writes:

I’ve been a manager for a few years, and I’ve been working hard to build my bench. I keep running into an issue where I assign an employee a new task with as much lead time as I can manage, and their first response is, “Can you show me how?”

Throughout my own career, I’m rarely been given 100% of the information. I’m given a new report to run, or asked to find a piece of data. Most of the time I play around and figure it out, and if I get stuck, I’ll come back with “I tried A and B and those ways don’t seem to work, is there a different way to approach this or someone I can talk to?” Nothing I’m assigning is outside the capabilities or bandwidth of the employees, and when I’ve pushed them to try by themselves, they almost always figure it out pretty easily.

I’ve had success with letting them know if they want to check in with me after trying in a week, I can make some time, but not every task can come with an in-depth training. I’m spending my time with the more advanced tasks with even less information! When I’m hiring, I’ve made sure to include questions about what to do when you don’t have all the information, and I make sure my staff know that they have my support if there is a problem with the work the first time. How do I get my team to get more comfortable swimming in the deep end?

I answer this question — and three others — over at Inc. today, where I’m revisiting letters that have been buried in the archives here from years ago (and sometimes updating/expanding my answers to them). You can read it here.

Other questions I’m answering there today include:

  • What should I do about a candidate with an arrest for urinating in public?
  • How much time to give candidates for take-home exercises
  • What to wear on a plane with coworkers

{ 213 comments… read them below }

  1. Anastasia Beaverhousen*

    I have the opposite problem, how do I get my BOSS to solve the problem on their own? As in, identify the problem, talk to all of the people involved, complete all of the steps involved, because after 1 year they are not. . . and it’s chaos. . . .

    1. Jennifer Strange*

      Well, my question would be is it part of your job to handle the logistics of this? Without knowing more it’s hard to say, but it’s not unusual for someone to be asked to handle those pieces for their boss so that they can focus on other things.

      1. Anastasia Beaverhousen*

        No it’s not, think I do Part A and pass it along Boss who does Part B which triggers Part C. Part B gets partially done so C never gets completed and then 6 months down the road someone asks me what is going on and I have no idea what’s happening because I already did A.

        1. Jennifer Strange*

          Got it. Do you follow up with your Boss about the status of Part B? It sounds like a situation where you need to manage up. I’ve been there and it can be tricky, but I would start with confirming the status when you have your routine check-ins (and if you don’t have routine check-ins I would suggest you have them!) Just a “Hey, I know I sent you the hedgehog report last week so that you could build out the budget for hedgehog hats. Have you done that piece yet?” and if not I usually follow up with “Is there a way I can be helpful in getting that done? I know Julie in Animal Clothing needs that from us before she can finalize her budget, and the deadline she gave me was two weeks from now so let’s get it on the calendar to be done by next week.”

          1. Sharpie*

            Animal clothing definitely needs to go into to rotation of stand-in industries alongside teapots and llama. Because gosh darn that’s a cute image!! Those hedgehogs need their hats!

    2. ferrina*

      Standing meetings and a rolling agenda. You’ll have a section called “Waiting on Part B” with an unfortunately long list of projects waiting from your boss. Each meeting you’ll helpfully check in to make sure that you haven’t missed anything (purely to be helpful; you have to approach this from a point of information sharing, not getting your boss to do something).

      Then cheerfully inform people that it’s still on your boss’s list and it’s not ready yet. Let the boss face their own consequences.

      If you really want it to get done, you can offer to take on all/part of the task yourself (make it easy for the boss to say yes), but that’s only if it’s something you actually want to do and have time for.

        1. umami*

          I do this with my boss, and it works great. He actually sent his other direct reports my agenda template because it really helps to keep track of all the projects we’re all working on and their status.

          1. I am Emily's failing memory*

            Yes, I use this template with my reports –

            * Stuff they finished last week – so we can discuss how it went
            * Stuff that they’re working on this week, both new and ongoing – so we can talk through any questions, ideas, or problems they have
            * Stuff carried over from last week’s list that are waiting on someone else to do something – so it doesn’t fall off their radar while they’re waiting; so if I’m the someone, it never falls off my own radar; and so that I have enough visibility in the workflow to notice when a particular bottleneck starts to be less of a temporary throttle on our output and more of a persistent roadblock where our projects go to languish and slowly die of neglect

    3. Unkempt Flatware*

      I also have this problem. My boss needs near constant coaching and emotional support to do his job and that’s just….not my job.

  2. OrdinaryJoe*

    LW 2: Every time I read a question like this, I count myself so lucky that none of the stupid things my friends and I did in our late teens, early & mid-20s caused anyone to be arrested. We’ve all done stupid, harmless, out of character (or at least out of character for us now) things.

    1. bogsby*

      Seriously. My money is on this being the same person who complains “no one wants to work anymore” and offering measly pay

      1. aarti*

        This doesn’t seem very kind and is definitely going to discourage letter writers from writing in.

      2. Marna Nightingale*

        Given that the trend of doing all these background checks on applicants regardless of their applicability to the position in question seems to have led to a lot of employers just assuming that anyone who doesn’t have a clean police record, a stellar credit rating, and a clean drug screen shouldn’t even get their resume read, I read it the other way:

        I think what LW is trying to work out is, ok, we do consider applicants who don’t have completely clean records, but what counts as serious enough to be a red flag?

        Which is a pretty reasonable question.

        1. Peachy*

          I agree – it’s totally reasonable to ask, and I also don’t think there’s a one-size-fits-all answer to what’s a serious enough red flag. I work in a field that legitimately requires thorough vetting (youth services) and public urination would be a deal breaker whereas a long-ago shoplifting charge shouldn’t disqualify someone.

    2. just another queer reader*

      Absolutely. I’ve broken the law plenty of times; I’m just lucky (and white) enough to have not been arrested.

    3. I Wrote This in the Bathroom*

      15 years ago, after a work holiday party and on the way to the afterparty, I and another colleague stood guard for a coworker while he peed on a building in an upscale shopping center where our after party was. I barely knew the guy, but was friends with the other colleague and was their DD. He did not get caught. I saw a group of older ladies heading in our direction, and was able to intercept and delay them with inane questions (“Do you ladies know what time it is? did you say 8:30 or 9:30? 9:30? for sure? okay thank you!”) and they walked away none the wiser. I see this guy on LinkedIn all the time, he has a career in management now, changing jobs and/or being promoted and moving consistently up. I sincerely hope that he wouldn’t pee on a building now! If he can enjoy the rest of his life moving up and hopefully creating value for his employees without a stupid thing he did 15 years ago impeding his career, then so can this candidate.

      1. Nobody Cares What I Think*

        That’s more serious than it sounds, it’s deemed public exposure and in some areas considered a sex crime.

        1. Artemesia*

          That anyone thinks this is either a sex crime or ‘serious’ suggests how deranged our society can be and also how the slightest misstep can destroy someone’s life. Is there any man who has not on some occasion peed out of doors? Almost none of them are arrested.

          1. Kara*

            I’m going to have to disagree on that one. Sanitation, access to clean water and removal of human wastes, is one of the cornerstones of human society. Failure to appropriately do so has been the cause of a great deal of sickness and death throughout history. Plus property damage, because urine and urine salts can and do damage surfaces and landscaping. An argument can be made that public urination shouldn’t be a sex crime, but i very strongly disagree that it shouldn’t be a big deal given that it’s connected to public health!

            In addition i don’t like the ‘but most men do it’ argument. I can think of plenty of examples of harmful behavior that were ‘but everyone does that’ not all that long ago. If most adult women can handle their bladders in public spaces, why can’t we expect the same of the men?

            1. New Jack Karyn*

              I think that discouraging it through a citation to appear in court, with a fine and/or community service attached, is sufficient. Deciding that, years after the fact, this act makes a person unemployable, is overkill.

              I’m glad we’re not all peeing in the streets, but the (very) occasional violation of this norm is not the end of the world.

            2. Freeview*

              Sanitation, access to clean water and removal of human waste are the luxuries of wealthy nations. They are not universal. In some places they are regarded with suspicion because of the origin (‘colonisers’) or unnecessary expenses (unless foreign charities want to pay for, but again… point 1).

        2. Timothy (TRiG)*

          You would need to have a very strange definition of “sex” to consider that a sex crime.

          1. Good Enough For Government Work*

            The logic is that it’s considered indecent exposure, just like flashing.

            1. QuestionMark*

              The fact that a man peeing on the side of a building could be considered indecent exposure, but four men urinating at a urinal is not, is one of the great mysteries of our time.

              1. Citra*

                Urinals are indoors, in rooms specifically designed for them. They are not open on the streets, where any random passersby can see exposed parts.

    4. Beth*

      The existence of an arrest record doesn’t even guarantee that the person committed the offense, especially if the arresting officer was white and the arrested individual was not. Innocent people get arrested, and POCs get arrested on minor and major charges where white people do not.

      You also can’t be absolutely certain that this is the same person at all, unless the name was actually entirely and truly unique. If the name was, say, John Smith instead of Beauregard von Springdespangle, and the incident took place in a city and not a small town, I’d give John Smith the benefit of the doubt.

    5. Emily (she/hers)*

      My organization advises hiring managers and committee members not to check candidates’ social media or google them. At first that seemed a bit strict to me, but this question points out why it may not be a bad approach.

  3. wondermint*

    I have a colleague who does this. He won’t read the provided documentation and he won’t play around with what is already built to learn the feature (we’re in app development). He wants to be verbally guided through what he should be doing – AND he’s senior to me!

    1. John Smith*

      Yeah I have one of them and it’s infuriating. I’m generally given more responsibility as a result (on less pay) and when anyone tries to push back at him, he just comes up with loads of excuses and people back down because they can’t be bothered arguing with him. His latest one was a spreadsheet not showing any data which I had to fix by…..scrolling the damned sheet to where the data was.

    2. CharlieBrown*

      I just read the comment above and thought you meant you have a colleague who pees on the building!

    3. Curious*

      Just to be clear — you have a colleague who asks questions like letter 1, not urinating on buildings like letter 2 :)

  4. Corrigan*

    #1 If I got assigned something and had no idea where to start, I’d be pretty annoyed if my boss just told me to figure it out.

    That being said I have employees who constantly ask how to do things that they should know how to do, or at least know where to find the guidance. So I think there’s a happy medium between some instruction and no instruction.

    1. bogsby*

      There’s got to be something someone can do before asking to be shown how. Even a quick Google search can uncover some uncertainties.

      There’s a difference between “Can you show me how?” and “Would starting with X be appropriate?” even if X is wrong, it shows some iota of critical thinking went into the task

      1. Dust Bunny*

        . . . not always, though.

        A lot of the assignments I get are pretty discipline-specific, and often pretty institution-specific, and there just isn’t any way to figure out what I’m supposed to do beyond asking my supervisor. Also, if the search terms that should apply are used by other disciplines/communities/etc. to mean other things, your searches will be useless.

        If it’s something entirely or almost-entirely new, it’s pretty stingy of a boss to not give a foundation from which to start.

        1. bogsby*

          Of course “not always though.” There is no hard and fast rule for *everything*

          I argue that there’s merit in researching to ask a more informed question other than “Can you show me how?”

          There will be exceptions, as there always are, but being proactive with some tasks means you can build a buffer for the future when those rare I-have-no-idea-where-to-start-or-what-to-ask tasks arise

        2. NeedRain47*

          As for search terms, just throw the name of the field you’re looking for in the search box, this will make it not useless for things that aren’t very, very obscure. I do this all the time for acronyms.

          1. Captain Swan*

            Or use for acronyms. Unless it’s really really obscure you can usually find the definition there.

            1. DataSci*

              The problem with acronyms is you may not know WHICH of the many alternatives is the correct one. Sometimes it’s obvious with context, but not always.

        3. Radioactive Cyborg Llama*

          We really don’t have any information to say that the boss is not giving a foundation from which to start.

      2. Someone Online*

        The vast majority of what I do is not google-able. Like, if my job were answerable on Google, I wouldn’t have a job.

        1. Strawberry Ice Cream*

          I’m a librarian – a lot of my job involves Googling for other people, helping them learn to Google more effectively, and teaching them to evaluate the results they get. Having the technical knowledge to type things into a browser isn’t especially difficult, but actually finding the results you want (and structured in a way you can understand) is its own skill.

          If someone doesn’t know where to start or how to tell if the answer / example they find is accurate, it’s far easier for them to get initial help from a person who knows those things.

        2. Loulou*

          In my case, stuff isn’t google-able, but a LOT of things people ask about would be findable with a search in their drives or email. I’ve found certain colleagues don’t seem to have the instinct to do that first — or they think to do that, but they don’t use the right search term.

      3. turquoisecow*

        Googling “how to do X” at my job would yield no helpful results. We use software and have procedures that aren’t publicly available on the internet for anyone to Google – think googling something like “how do I change the prices for the Amazon website?” Hopefully there are internal documents the employee can look for, but they also might not know where to find them.

        If this is a task similar to one the employee has done before, I could definitely see the boss expecting them to figure out this task. You’ve already attached 150 teapot spouts to chocolate teapots, the process is similar enough to attach them to peanut butter teapots. Maybe you ask a clarifying question like “this is the same as the chocolate process, right?” but not “okay how do I do that?”

        Also, does the employee have other colleagues knowledgeable on similar tasks? In my previous job, no one else did exactly the job that I did and my boss wasn’t aware of the details and there was no documentation (I actually wrote a lot as I figured it out) so I would go to colleagues who did similar tasks and ask them.

    2. Solokid*

      LW #1

      Are your goals clearly laid out? And have you had to ask for multiple revisions from them in the past?

      When I’m on the receiving end of a vague “do X task”, I always ask “So the goal is to XYZ, right?” And invariably they come back with “well aim for X and Y, but if you can get Z without blah blah blah then that would be great” etc.

      I was more enthusiastic about “figuring it out for myself” (which always meant prioritizing time vs cost vs quality, or mindreading the higherups) if the pay was commensurate with that kind of decision making.

    3. Lulu*

      What struck me is that she wants them to come back to her in a *week* if they can’t figure it out. I get that there are some things they should be able to figure out on their own, but if you’re asking them to spend a week of their employment (or a decent portion of it) trying to look up how to do it and flailing, wouldn’t it be a better use of the business’s resources to take the time to show them how up front? Even if you just show them the basic steps and ask them to look up the documentation if they need more explicit guidance.

      There are types of tasks they should look up on their own. I remember very early in my career I was asked to write an executive summary. Had never heard of that before. So I googled, read some examples, and did it. I don’t think it would’ve been out of line, though, if I’d asked for guidance and had my boss respond “there are some good resources online. If you look up executive summary examples, you should be able to go from there.” It wouldn’t be inappropriate for me to ask, and it wouldn’t be inappropriate to be routed to other information sources.

      There are all kinds of information sources, and sometimes a *person* is the best and most efficient source of information. If I were OP, I’d consider the best information source in each instance and refer them to it. Sometimes it’ll be technical documentation; sometimes there are online examples; sometimes (for more creative things) it might be right for them to just give it a stab on their own; but sometimes the best source is *you* and the fact that you don’t want to take the time doesn’t mean you’re not the best suited to share the information.

      1. WantonSeedStitch*

        This was my thought as well. I feel like the idea of spending a week trying to figure out how to accomplish a task–much less actually accomplishing it–is ridiculous. I would also want to ask the letter writer:
        * Have these employees done similar tasks that should give them an idea of how to do these things? If not:
        * What kind of documentation exists that would help your employees learn how to do these tasks? Are they aware that it exists, and do they know where to find it?
        * Are they aware of what resources they have for accomplishing the task? Are they already trained on using those resources? If not, are the resources the kind that someone can figure out how to use by “playing around?”

        That first one is a big one. If my employee knows how to pull a report that says which of the brown llamas from the north pasture have produced at least 15 pounds of wool so far, they should PROBABLY be able to figure out which ones have produced 10-14.9 pounds and are currently ready to be sheared. If not, they’ll almost certainly feel comfortable making a start, and maybe just asking, “how do I tell which ones are ready for shearing?” But if they haven’t done anything like this, they might not know where the wool production information is even stored, or what tools they can use to narrow it down to brown llamas from the north pasture.

        1. Adrian*

          Some people can’t generalize, or won’t retain information after being shown how to do a task.

          I had a colleague who, despite my showing her multiple times, couldn’t or wouldn’t remember how to pull documents from the National Teapot Quality Control Incident System. In our work we used this system all the time.

          If someone provided a link to the desired document, she had no problem. But that wasn’t always the case, and in those instances I always had to start with “Go to”

          I don’t know how she’s managing this since I left the company.

      2. bamcheeks*

        I think that depends on whether it’s expected to take all their time or just a bit of it. My staff have pretty full schedules, so in my case it would be expecting them to find half an hour to look at the task properly, figure out whether they can/can’t do it and start to put together a plan, and then let me know at our next check-in. Not spend 40 hours hopelessly googling!

        1. MigraineMonth*

          I once spent half an internship playing solitaire because only one person in the office had the knowledge I needed and he was constantly out or too busy for questions.

          1. Overit*

            I am still bitter about having to drop an internship (and pay to take another 4 credit hours) because my supervisor was ALWAYS “too busy” or never there. She kept telling me to “figure it out” and I had zero idea what I was even supposed to figure out, let alone what to use to do so.

            1. Curmudgeon in California (they/them)*

              Yeah, it’s a problem if you’re expected to “figure it out” but don’t even have the keywords or concepts to start from.

      3. Lacey*

        Yeah, I’m curious the field this is in, because I’ve never worked somewhere that wanted me to spend a week figuring things out.

        And while I’m very much a person who will try to figure it out first and ask only as a last resort – I’d never wait that long. Especially if the question seemed easy to answer. Honestly, I’d seldom wait more than a day.

    4. Looper*

      To me, it just seems inefficient and a waste of time to give a new employee a task with 0 directions. Having people “play around” or “figure things out” requires trust and security, 2 things new employees don’t have. They don’t know their manager yet, they don’t know how punitive or micro-managey they are. They just want to do a good iob and stay employed through their probationary period. Throw them a line and then see how they adapt and take initiative over time. Having someone figure it out on their own also ensures there is no consistency across the team on how things get done. One person may take 10 times longer to complete a task because they weren’t shown a more efficient way.

    5. nora*

      I immediately related to this LW, because I have a colleague I’m senior to (but not their boss) and because I have experience in their work, they expect me to figure out everything for them. When they started I had no problem conducting very thorough trainings, writing extensive documentation, and after that consulting on something that I have experience in. But they come to me with issues well within the “figure it out zone.” Think IT issues, some kind of Excel thing that should be googled (after all, that’s all I would be doing), or just asking me to walk them through step by step before trying it on their own or reading the documents I provided. I’m pretty patient but I’ve definitely had to push back a bit. Even being pretty explicit, like “hey in this area I’m also coming in blind, and would just be sitting down with google or a manual trying things out. Why don’t you give it some thought and if you want to run something specific by me I’m happy to take a look.” That always results in crickets.

    6. MCMonkeyBean*

      Yeah, it’s obviously hard to judge for sure without knowing the specifics of what each assignment actually is, but I think my overall judgment is being affected by the tone of the letter which seems to be “I never got instructions, so why should you?”

      There are definitely lots of assignments that people should be able to pick up and start on their own if they are reasonably documented. And walking someone through a new process takes time you don’t always have. But a lot of the time it’s more efficient for everyone to take five-ten minutes and make sure they know what they are supposed to do instead of checking in a week (!?) later to find they have done the wrong thing.

      I joined a team that had infinite little assignments that were mostly terribly documented. Formulas filled with hardkeyed numbers and no indication of where the heck those numbers came from. Sometimes I couldn’t even find the prior file at all.. And everyone always said they didn’t have time to fix up these things, because assignments were taking so long to do they didn’t have time to document them. Thankfully my manager that joined shortly after me is as pro-documentation as I am so the two of us made sure I had time to clean these things up. I have spent countless hours improving and clearly documenting these processes, and now things that used to take days take hours.

      Clear documentation and instructions saves everybody time in the long run!!

    7. Radioactive Cyborg Llama*

      “Nothing I’m assigning is outside the capabilities or bandwidth of the employees.”

    8. GreenDoor*

      You have to balance “try this on your own” with “here are some general guidelines” otherwise your employee could be wasting a colossal amount of time going totally in the wrong direction. I at least start with “We want this tone, no more than this length, use X as the primary source. Your audience is Y, the deadline is Z” And if there’s an opportunity to throw in some mentoring such as, “With this task, most people often struggle with A…here’s what I’ve found helpful” why wouldn’t you do that? You’ve at least got to give people some kind of jumping off point!

    9. Dona Florinda*

      Once my boss asked her four direct reports to create a presentation (each report focusing on their own area of expertise) and somehow we managed to create four very different presentations. And none of them were what the boss had in mind.

      My point is that our boss didn’t have to hold our hands or give a step-by-step guide, but a few instructions telling us where to look for information or showing an example of what she was looking for would’ve saved a lot of time and frustration.

    10. Curmudgeon in California (they/them)*

      I had a boss like that, and at the time search engines were in their infancy. The expected me to “just figure out” complicated tasks that I had never done before, and wouldn’t even give me a hint, then would berate me for not doing it quickly.

      Nowadays I have experience, and much of that experience comes from learning where and how to look things up. With junior employees, I am likely to give them clues with the assignment, such as “If you have questions, your initial search keywords would be llama, shaving, clipper, and comb.”

    11. tamarack etc.*

      In my corners of the career world the ability to think one’s own way through a problem, and figure out and then acquire the necessary skills, is a pretty important part of our toolset. However, this, too, has to be taught.

      While I’m sympathetic (and in agreement) with the OP’s goal and purpose, they sound a little bit like they’re extrapolating too much from their own experience: If figuring things out comes easy to you, you may think that a little push is all that’s needed. But some need more scaffolding or confidence building, or intermediate steps, like: an preliminary exercise (“create an empty document” rather than “create a multi-tab spreadsheet with formulas”, “come up with some milestones” rather than “learn how to do X on your own”, or just generally “send me some resources you’ve found our next meeting, and we’ll discuss them”), regular check-in meetings, shadowing someone…

      1. Allonge*

        To be fair, this is what and why OP is asking – not just saying ‘oh why can’t everyone be like me’ but asking Alison how to get others to be more comfortable figuring things out if they are not shown.

    12. Sleeve McQueen*

      Agree. in my field things can mean something different to different people. Tell them to do a llama Report, some people will do a 27-page deck with embedded video and other people will send over three statistics in an email. I usually guide people to find past examples they can use as a reference or template at a minimum. I did wonder if in OPs situation the “figure it out yourself” could be setting people up to fail. Being clear on how much discretion you are giving people might help. “I need a llama report, but the parameters and presentation are entirely up to you” vs “I need a llama report that’s an updated version of the old report”.

  5. Jenna Webster*

    Have you explicitly told them, when you hand them the task and they ask for help, that you’d like them to work through it themselves, and if they need to come back to you, to be prepared to tell you what they’ve already tried? Also, this probably needs to become a bigger focus when you hire, and you need to make sure you’re rewarding people for stepping up and taking things on themselves. And make sure that no one gets in trouble for trying and failing, since what you want is for them to try.

    1. Willow Pillow*

      Excellent points, especially rewarding people for trying to figure things out themselves – positive reinforcement is much more effective. In addition, whatever materials people would use to figure things out on their own need to be complete and up-to-date. Those responsible for keeping them complete and up-to-date also need to open to hearing that others may not interpret it the same way it was written.

      1. gmg22*

        “positive reinforcement is much more effective”

        YES. I winced when I read this letter because the first thing I wondered was whether LW was providing clear expectations to her team, along with praise when they got something right on their own quickly vs patience when they didn’t or needed more help (a favorite part of Alison’s good and compassionate answer).

        When your job becomes “read your boss’s mind, because that’s how he/she learned to do their job back in the day, but be aware that you will usually get it wrong or be perceived as getting it wrong, and boss will not give you leeway for that” — welp, that’s how people burn out. Yes, I am speaking from deeply personal and ongoing experience.

        1. Willow Pillow*

          Same. I had a really painful circle with one manager where I’d ask her for confirmation about something unclear I’d read, get an impatient answer implying that I should be able to use my own judgment, try it that way and make the wrong decision (not a big decision, think having to redo a form), then get another impatient lecture. Feeling like we’re constantly about to make a mistake and we won’t be supported doesn’t help anyone’s judgment.

        2. DustyJ*

          I am currently in the process of bailing on my three-month-old job because my manager is exactly like this.

      2. Ama*

        Yes, I have a direct report who I am actively working with on getting in the habit of trying to figure out how to do something/answer a question herself and come to me only if she gets stuck or she feels she needs confirmation she’s taken the right approach, so when she does do that (like the other day when she answered a tricky email from a client exactly the way I would have done while I was out sick) I make sure I flag it for her and say “this was exactly right, great job.” We have a very high learning curve at our job and it is easy for new employees to lose confidence in their decisions (and for my particular report the fact that she has a close colleague I do not manage who routinely second guesses things even after I’ve said “yes do it that way” just complicates matters).

    2. Dust Bunny*


      My supervisor recently gave me a weird, nebulous project but with the clear instructions that a) she wasn’t entirely sure how it would shape up, either, b) there was not a tight deadline, and c) it did not have to be super detailed. And then she directed me to a similar project done by a roughly comparable institution, so at least I had a general idea of where to start. Once I got going, other things suggested themselves and it all worked out OK, but it was a relief to know that we were all flying blind and that I wasn’t going to be in trouble if I didn’t have it fixed in two days.

      1. Shirley Keeldar*

        The similar project part is huge. I think often if we’ve been in a job or an industry for a while, it can seem self-evident what should go into a project, but it’s really not for a newbie. “I need you to do a chipmunk report; you can take a look at the squirrel reports for a basic idea of what to include” is hugely helpful.

    3. AngryOctopus*

      Yes, there’s a lot of value to saying “Here’s assignment X. It should be pretty similar to something like B that you completed last month, but let me know if you run into issues”. This assures your employee that 1-you want them to work on it on their own and 2-it’s not something they’ve never seen before, and they have been successful in the past with something like it. Often that’s all the reassurance an employee will need!

    4. umami*

      When I have folks ask me for help with new tasks, I just sit them down and prompt them to begin thinking through how to approach it. That way I can see what they are thinking of doing to tackle it and then offer guidance without telling them how to do it (which, most of our work requires some critical thinking, so there isn’t really a ‘right’ answer anyway) so they can learn to think it through and then trust their own instincts and judgment It also helps keep me from leading them into doing it ‘my way’ when I really want to hear their thoughts!

  6. wondermint*

    Chiming in again re: #3!

    I honestly do not understand take home exercises unless the candidate is junior and has limited experience. Pass samples mixed and with references should be enough. If one must be given, it needs to be hypothetical.

    1. KHB*

      Past samples and references only work if the candidate is already doing exactly (or something really close to) what you’d be hiring them to do. It’s not feasible in all fields to limit yourself to candidates like that.

      As for how much time to give: Is this exercise fundamentally a test of speed? That is, if the exercise is meant to take four hours, and a candidate worked on it for six hours, would that be a deal-breaker?

      If so, then you should give them four hours to complete a four-hour exercise – but allow the candidates to schedule a four-hour window that works best for them. (So, if they say “I can do this on Saturday from 8:00 to 12:00,” email them the exercise at 8:00 on Saturday, and they can send it back by 12:00. Or set up an online page where they can retrieve and submit the exercise within the time limit.)

      If it’s not a test of speed, then there’s no reason to give them any time limit other than your hiring timeline. Last time I had a test like this, the employer reached out to me right at the beginning of my really busy period. So I asked if it would be OK for me to get back to them in a month, and they said “absolutely no problem.”

      And yes, of course, any exercise you assign needs to be hypothetical, not work that you’re actually going to use. If possible, you should be paying the candidates for their time (although my employer doesn’t do this, and I’m told that we’ve never lost a candidate because of it in recent memory). The employer I mentioned above even offered to reimburse me for childcare expenses if I incurred any – I didn’t, but I thought that was a great show of inclusivity.

    2. Toodie*

      I actually had the bad luck (my own doing) to hire a tech writer based on writing samples, only to find that he had been very heavily edited in his previous position.

    3. fine tipped pen aficionado*

      I’m public sector and I think our take home assignments are generally really valuable. For certain public-interfacing positions, we ask candidates to structure a mock public meeting. For some senior positions, we actually hold a 15 minute mock meeting with staff & some community partners roleplaying as the public.

      The information you see on the evaluation from the mock public meeting and the interview panel can present wildly different information about a candidate, and it’s valuable to have that. And most of the candidates will have past work they can repurpose for the assignment, so it shouldn’t be take a great deal of time.

      1. Where’s the Orchestra?*

        In a past job my spouse did a practical skills test for exactly this reason – because your certification can say you have the skills – but if you’ve never used them the skills will atrophy. But the skills test was a part of the final interview, so at most three candidates were taking it instead of every single candidate (and it was also something that was never going to be used).

    4. Parenthesis Guy*

      Take home exercises are common in my field for senior level candidates to ensure that they have the competence they claim. Lots of senior people can talk a great game but suck. References are largely useless and people usually don’t have good samples that aren’t proprietary. It’s easier for me to create a test that’s hypothetical than an interviewee create a sample that’s hypothetical.

      1. Curmudgeon in California (they/them)*


        I agree about the prior samples, but I am really shocked about your comment about senior people sucking. So you make someone with 20 years of experience do some sort of college type quiz to prove they know anything?

        One thing that being actually senior in my field has taught me is this: I don’t, and can’t know everything. But what I do know is how to look things up, based on my prior knowledge. Yes, there is stuff I actually did 20 years ago that I would need to look up and reformulate if I needed to do it again. Why? Because I am not a 20 something whiz kid with an eidetic memory. Plus, my field changes so fast that something I memorized five years ago is now obsolete.

        Most “tests” in my field are often retreaded college quizzes in an adjacent field. Since I didn’t go to college for my field or the adjacent field, I loathe this stuff, and it’s not in my skillset. People always assume that people in my specialty started in the adjacent field, so testing them on the adjacent field is just fine. I never use it in my actual work, so it often ends up like being quizzed on how to slay a dragon when the job is actually sweeping up lizard poop. IMO it’s a waste of my time, and an insult to my actual experience.

        Yes, there was one job where I had to take an on-site quiz that was actually appropriate and related to the job. I aced it, because it actually tested my practical knowledge for the actual job. It is so rare that that is the case that I still remember it 25 years later.

        1. New Jack Karyn*

          This seems unkind. Parenthesis Guy is likely in a completely different field, possibly one in which people can schmooze or fake it with substandard skills. Producing a sample is not the same as taking a “college type quiz.”

          For example, marketing: I know very little about it, but I suspect that while most people in marketing are competent and skilled, a few folks can get by via blowing smoke. Asking someone to, I dunno, craft 3 tweets promoting Brand X, or do a mock-up of an ad for Brand X to appeal to young parents, or produce a rough outline of a new $10 million ad campaign–doesn’t seem totally out of line.

        2. Sleeve McQueen*

          ok but your experience is not a universal one. I work in a field where being able to talk a good game is one of the prerequisites of the industry. I have indeed encountered the “mouth writing cheques their butt can’t cash” senior candidates and hired them to my cost. Sharing past work is not appropriate because a) it would be a gross violation of confidential information and b) the work is very collaborative so it’s impossible to gauge their specific contributions. It’s not unreasonable to ask them to complete a short assignment pitched at their level of seniority. It’s not to a quiz to make sure they know stuff off the top of their head, it’s a chance to explore how they would approach what we do.

        3. Properlike*

          The poster didn’t say *all* senior people suck, so you’re being curiously defensive. As others have pointed out, it may be true in that person’s industry. In the past few years, across industries, I’ve been baffled by how many “senior” people with grandiose titles and high pay do not seem any more intelligent or skilled than me in certain things.

    5. I should really pick a name*

      I don’t think I’ve ever done any work that an employer would be okay with me providing to someone else as a sample.

    6. TechWorker*

      Basically none of the work I do can be shared outside the company so real life work samples… not going to fly

    7. DataSci*

      No place I’ve ever worked would be okay with me sharing my code outside the company, nor would the prospective employer have any way to verify it’s mine. (And I don’t have a public GitHub to share, because I like to do something other than work when I’m done with work.) References for me are almost always just dates and job title, not detailed conversations about how I approach problems (people move around a lot, and I wouldn’t even know how to contact my previous boss anymore).

      The “hypothetical” part goes without saying, of course.

    8. Curmudgeon in California (they/them)*


      I’m senior in my field, yet I get quizzes and take home BS in an adjacent field all the time when interviewing. This is highly annoying. I don’t have 20 years of experience just to get asked to do a college style sample problem in an adjacent field that I never went to college for! It’s like applying for a job as a llama groomer, but being asked to demonstrate a particular style of yak shaving to prove that I know llama grooming.

      Most of the time they spec this take home garbage as “four hours”, but when I step in to plan it out, it’s obvious that they expect you to have a server set up with specific (enterprise grade) software and tools, and that it will actually take up to six hours just to set up your system (or an AWS instance) with all the crap you need before you actually start the project!

      Needless to say, I nope out of these. I’m not a dancing bear.

  7. Yakky*

    This was a HUGE problem for me at a job, as an employee. I frequently asked questions, even if I was fairly sure of the answer, because I just wanted to make 100% sure I was doing it right. I saw it as a sign that I was being careful. My boss saw it as a sign that I was being lazy. She got so frustrated, once when I asked a question she just sent me the link to Google. Eventually, I realized how our perspectives on the issue were different, and I learned how to take more initiative and always try to work a problem out on my own before asking my boss a question. I grew and learned a lot from the experience, and I’m a much better employee as a result. Unfortunately the bad first impression I left didn’t go away. I became terrified to ask any questions, and felt like I always had to guess what my boss wanted. I was ultimately let go from the job. I *so* wish that my boss had explained her perspective to me sooner — then I could have changed my behavior before she wrote me off as a lazy employee. Please, have a clear talk with your employees about your expectations, and also ask them for their perspective, so that you can reach an understanding before frustrations start to take their toll!

    1. Anastasia Beaverhousen*

      See I have a co-worker who will ask me for “examples” of how I do my work but I know it is so they can just copy and paste it and not have to come up with their own. I don’t play that game.

      1. Green Tea*

        I always provide examples when I have them available – but it’s to show the type of content needed and not something anyone could copy/paste.
        The team I’m on just did an assignment using a provided template with no example, and realized after we submitted it that we completely misunderstood one of the categories. All of the info we provided made sense with one (perfectly reasonable in context) interpretation of a word, but they wanted info related to the other interpretation. It would have saved us work redoing it if the asker had provided an example.

        Of course, it would be impossible for us to copy/paste another team’s example because all of the project info would be different, so there isn’t a sense of needing to keep anything different.

      2. Radioactive Cyborg Llama*

        If it’s something that can be copied and pasted, then it should be copied and pasted. I don’t know why you want your co-workers to reinvent the wheel.

      3. Curmudgeon in California (they/them)*

        Unless you are being paid to do original research writing, people who can copy, paste and then customize are more efficient than writing it from scratch, and therefore preferred. Especially if it’s stuff that needs to be written done in a specific corporate style I would want them to copy, paste, then customize.

        I see no point in paying someone to reinvent the wheel when they just need to come up with a new hubcap design that is not too radically different from the company’s current offerings.

        1. Lyudie*

          Yup. Maybe it’s my tech writer background, but things I create don’t belong to me, they belong to the company. If I create a tool or template that can save my coworkers time, why wouldn’t I share it? I’m not competing against my coworkers (hopefully!).

          1. Justin D*

            I’m in a somewhat related field (training materials rather than tech writing) and I copy stuff all the time. I still have to tailor it to my specific need but I start from examples and that helps me. I have had coworkers who try to do everything their own unique and special way and they are slow.

    2. Willow Pillow*

      I don’t think the self-awareness your last sentence relies on is that common, unfortunately.

      1. fine tipped pen aficionado*

        This is true but it’s also important to give folk the chance to show they are an exception and not the rule.

        1. Willow Pillow*

          I agree… This can be can be really tricky in my experience and has blown up in my face before, though.

    3. Sunshine*

      Yes! I’m the same way. To be honest a lot of things that are common sense to other people (if A=B, and B=C, then A=C) do not come naturally to me, so I always want to double check even if the answer is obvious. Luckily I do good work and am very low-maintenance once I understand the objectives, but I always want to double-check before doing the whole task wrong.

    4. Dust Bunny*

      My mother is like this: She will have something in mind and assumes that her approach is both a) obvious and b) universal. She gets mad at you for being lazy when you ask for more guidelines but then also gets mad when you don’t, couldn’t read her mind, and produce something that is quite different from what she envisioned.

      I ask questions. Sorry, bosses.

      1. Bee*

        Oh, hey, do we have the same mother? Always a gamble whether asking questions or trying to figure it out on my own but taking more than 30 seconds will be the thing that annoys her, sigh.

        1. Avery*

          How do all three of us have the same mother when I’m an only child? :’)
          And then she wonders why I don’t do more around the house proactively… gee, maybe it’s because when I do stuff around the house, all you do is criticize my best attempts after the fact!

      2. Random Dice*

        Anyone who has moved a lot as a kid has learned that this is a hugely common trait.

        1) There is a very specific regional unwritten rule of conduct.
        2) Everyone from this specific region knows this unwritten rule.
        3) Folks from this specific region assume the unwritten rule is universal for the entire galaxy.
        4) Anyone who violates the specific regional unwritten rule must be deliberately, aggressively rude or raised in a barn.

        Those are tons of fun to bump into the hard way, especially if not great with social cues already.

        1. Dust Bunny*

          Oh, we did that, too. And I went to seven schools in eight years from the first year of kindergarten, through sixth grade. No, we were not in the armed forces.

        2. Grizabella the Glamour Cat*

          Random Dice, I know exactly what you’re talking about! When I was between the ages of 12 and 18, my family moved four times (between 2 different states and 3 different cities). It was hell, not only because of those unwritten rules you mention, but because some kids in that age range can be incredibly intolerant of anyone who is different in any way. You may be brand new, but you’re still expected to magically have exactly the same knowledge base as everyone else, and God help you if you slip up and accidently reveal massive ignorance about something they think uou should know!

          By the last move, I was afraid to ask anyone about anything. It was just too risky. This carried over into adult life, but I didn’t realize where it came from for a long time. All I knew was that I HATED asking questions and would go to almost any lengths to avoid doing so. I’ve gotten better, but I’d still rather figure things out for myself if at all possible. (In this era of the internet, that’s a lot easier than it used to be.)

          In my work life, this took the form of being afraid to ask questions about how to do something and sometimes making unnecessary mistakes as a result. Nothing huge, thank goodness; the stress of cobstantly worrying about whether I was getting things right was the worst part. Hearing about bosses who get angry at someone for asking “too many” questions is jaw-dropping to me. I’m used to feeling guilty for guessing instead of asking. I’m really glad I never crossed paths with one of those “DON’T ASK ME ANYTHING!” bosses, because I would have probably been afraid to ask anyone anything EVER AGAIN after that. 8-[

    5. Princess Peach*

      Yes, I had a similar experience where my boss was an extreme micromanager and wanted to be involved in every little step of everything I did.
      When I got a new job (because that one was obviously terrible), my new boss wanted me to take initiative, figure things out myself, take risks, and pursue professional development without being asked. They never expressed any of that to me directly until they got very frustrated with my perceived inaction, so I largely maintained the patterns I learned under Former Terrible Boss.

      Both those jobs were learning experiences, but not particularly pleasant ones. People aren’t mind readers, and they come to work with their own baggage and understandings. Please be direct about what you expect from employees.

    6. umami*

      I had a direct report who would do this, and it was because my predecessor was a big-time micromanager (and had been her first and only boss for nearly 10 years). It took a while for her to understand that I was empowering her to come up with her own way of doing things and solving issues. She was also in a master’s program, and it drove her crazy that her professors wouldn’t answer her very specific questions about assignments. I had to remind her that they are promoting independent thinking, they aren’t going to give her the answer, just like at work, you have to be able to read between the lines and solve things yourself. It was a huge time suck to mentor her through this, but she’s doing really well in a new role now, so success!

      1. Appletini*

        This was really excellent of you to mentor her through this. AS Yakky’s example shows, most bosses would just fire the person and be done rather than go to the bother of helping them develop.

    7. Red*

      This was NOT your fault. This was your manager’s fault in every way. People like this need to not be in management. I am sick to death of people losing their livelihoods over nonsense like this!

      I’m so sorry you went through this, Yakky!

      1. Yakky*

        It’s OK, it was a hard situation but that job really wasn’t a good fit for me in a lot of ways. If you’ve heard of guess culture vs. ask culture, that job was filled with guess culture people and I’m 100% an asker. The job also involved tons of ego managing for my boss’s boss and various partners we worked with, and it was exhausting. I eventually found my dream job and I’m so happy now.

  8. HMS Cupcake*

    If my staff ask me how to do a task that I think they can figure out on their own, I turn around and ask them how they think they should approach it and nudge them along that way. Eventually they learn to approach me with their methodology upfront so that I can just give a greenlight or point out areas of concern.

  9. BlondeSpiders*

    RE: #2. “If you did decide to move forward with them, how would you address it on the phone call? ”
    Why would you need to bring it up at all? Is it even slightly relevant to the role? Is the role cleaning urine off outside walls? I’m just imagining this interview:

    “Tell me about a time when you faced a personal challenge (specifically being arrested) and how you got through it.”

    1. Random Dice*

      “Tell me about a time when you faced a personal challenge (having to pee without a restroom nearby) and how you got through it (pee on the wall!)”

    2. MigraineMonth*

      In my state, it’s actually illegal to consider someone’s arrest/conviction records in hiring decisions unless it’s directly related to the job. So presumably a bank could use a candidate’s record to choose not to hire someone convicted of tax fraud, but the pet store couldn’t.

      I’m trying to figure out what job “urinating on a building” would be considered relevant for.

      1. Orora*

        Federally the EEOC says you can’t use the fact of an arrest as the sole reason not to hire someone. Even using a conviction as the sole reason should only happen if the conviction is related to the job (no sex offenders around children, etc.)

        I would tread VERY carefully about using arrests in employment decisions. For situations like this, where it is clearly not job related, DO NOT consider it.

        1. Curious*

          Unfortunately, public urination is sometimes charged as indecent exposure, which is then considered a sex offense.

    3. CharlieBrown*

      “Do you still pee on buildings? Because we work in an actual building, and we really don’t want employees going outside to pee on the building. We have a large sign that clearly shows that it is ours.”

  10. But Not the Hippopotamus*

    I’ve had tasks that seemed pretty straightforward that I went and did, only to have the boss or project lead decide it wasn’t what was needed at all, and now I’ve got to do something different in a short timeframe. Given that experience, I would suggest the OP think about how they respond if the results aren’t what they are looking for, if they have enough time for a re-do built in, or whether it would be helpful in at least some cases to say something like, “I know this isn’t detailed, but take a shot at it and I’ll look over whatever you’ve got on Thursday to see if we need to course-correct.”

  11. thatoneoverthere*

    #1 – this is really workplace dependent and dependent on what is out there for resources for employees. There have been times I worked places, with no documentation on what to do for XYZ or ABC situation. I would ask and then it was “I don’t handle that or I don’t know we need you to figure it out” I did “figured it out” and was told it was wrong. Its frustrating and demoralizing!

    OR is this something you have gone over in detail, there is alot of documentation out there on how to complete and its STILL being asked about. Then maybe the employee needs to be pushed to do it on their own.

  12. grumpy old lady*

    I guess it depends on the level of basic knowledge your staff has. A new hire would need more info than a 3 year person. When I started in the lab I got more details. After several years my boss would leave a cryptic note to make this mutation in whatever gene and test the phenotype in Y reaction. I was on my own to figure out the gory details.

    I like the suggestion fromHMS Cupcake to turn it around and ask the employee what they think the best approach would be. Making them think out loud and reason out the steps is a good learning process. After they do that several times the hope is their confidence level is high and they tackle projects on their own.

    However, don’t discount the advantage of collaboration. Even after working many years in the lab we all bounced ides off of each other before starting a big project. Someone always had a good point to make.

  13. Dr. Rebecca*

    Ohhhhhhh, LW1. You do NOT want me playing around trying to figure out how to run a report unless your data set is locked down hard. I once set my computer to back up to the recycle bin, after my (ex)husband said “play around with it, you can’t screw up that bad!” Neither of us were able to fix it.

    If you set them a new task, why on earth wouldn’t you set aside fifteen minutes or so to delineate expectations and parameters before they do their own first try? People jump through hoops trying to outsmart the competition, etc., but with me you really need to out-stupid me, because I WILL find new and ingenious ways to fuck things up.

    1. But Not the Hippopotamus*

      Yes. Although this is context dependent. Like, if it’s taking a stab at writing a paper or making a PowerPoint, that’s one thing. If it’s figuring out a chemical experiment or hooking up equipment, that’s another. The stakes need to be part of the equation!

        1. tamarack etc.*

          Well, I do think that there are areas where a prerequisite for a successful professional is extreme attention to checklists and processes, and others where it is the ability to troubleshoot and figure out new things independently.

          *Both* need to be taught. But it would be foolish to use the existence of one to ridicule the other. I think it’s reasonable to assume that the OP is in a field where the OP’s goal actually makes sense – there are many of those. No, neither bomb disposal nor bench chemistry, nor neurosurgery belong in this category.

          1. amoeba*

            Eh. I’m a chemist and it’s actually very uncommon to ask your boss how to do something – I mean, you’re a trained professional, you know how to operate safely in the lab, and for the specific procedure you’re going to use, that’s something you normally search for in the literature (if you ask me, I will also just search for it and send you the result! Nobody know this stuff by heart!)
            Also, setting up new equipment etc. – generally definitely something you’d try to figure out yourself (by reading the manual, calling customer support, asking coworkers who might have experience…)
            So I know it was just an example, but actually, no, chemistry requires a lot of “figuring things out yourself”. (Not to be confused with “making random things up”, which I would most definitely not recommend!)

            1. tamarack etc.*

              Well, sure, this has all to be adjusted for professional level. I’m not going to die on the hill that “chemist” is the greatest example I came up with. Just that the subtext of the OP was not about stuff that’s part of the employee’s expected skill set, but something they haven’t been trained on. And they couldn’t ask co-workers for help.

              Basically, if a chemist were to undertake some procedure that a) is new and not part of what they were trained on or have ever done before and b) practiced by the rest of the lab and c) not documented as a step-by-step process in minute detail [I guess, in chemistry it would be!], then yeah, I’d expect a training, possibly with formal notes and test and supervised execution for a set number of times. I wouldn’t expect “oh, yeah, it’s basically a variant of the Columbmeyer synthesis using Acme Inc.’s new multi-aut0-sampler. You then send it through the gas chromatograph. Careful, the proprietary reagent is explosive if it mixes with air. I’m sure you can figure it out.”

    2. Czhorat*

      I agree.

      The line from the LW that throughout their career they’ve “rarely been given 100% of the information” can make this feel as if they have – perhaps subconsciously – an attitude that they’ve struggled and paid their dues, now it’s the next generation’s turn to suffer.

      There definitely is a balance between giving direction and expecting independence, and it’s easy for our own biases to push us too far in either direction.

    3. AngryOctopus*

      Yeah there is a huge difference between “Here’s a new task. It’s really similar to Z and L that you’ve been doing for 3 months, so go ahead and tackle it” and “Here’s a new task. Let me know how you get on with it”. Only one of them is going to inspire confidence.
      It’s like how I can learn how to use a new program by clicking around and trying things, or I can ask someone who knows how to use it to give me a 30′ primer on how to use the basics. Then I’ll be much more comfortable clicking around trying to figure out things that are more complicated!

    4. BellyButton*

      It depends. If they have been trained to do Report X, I expect that they then can figure out how to do the next report even if it is a different. I also expect them to Google, read their notes, look at any training materials they have been given access to.

      I have learned almost all software I’ve been required or needed to use simply by googling. There are guides and videos for almost everything a person needs to do.

    5. KHB*

      Because not all jobs are the same? Sometimes, there’s so much variation from task to task (and so little potential to irreversibly mess things up) that “try it first, and let me know how you get on” is the most sensible approach to take.

    6. Etiddul*

      So me! No one should — ever — be allowed to release any software of any kind without finding out if I, personally, can figure it out without screwing it up completely.
      And I’m talking about pretty normal life stuff. I know it’s possible to create intuitive processes, because I’ve seen them; why aren’t you using them?
      [End of rant]

      1. DataSci*

        Do you work in QA or UAT (user acceptance testing)? Being able to break software is a job skill in some fields!

    7. I Work for Cats*

      I work for a multinational company with about 5000 employees and I once managed to shut down Oracle for whole company. I was a new employee and was given a task that was out of my wheelhouse. When I asked for direction my manager told me to “figure it out”.

  14. Allornone*

    “Arrests are not “do not hire” me signs.”

    Amen. I’ve never been arrested myself, but I hate the idea that one act of foolishness can ruin someone’s life forever. Especially when you take into account the fact that minority populations are more likely to be arrested for the same offenses their Caucasian counterparts would be let go with a warning. Don’t get me wrong, certain crimes are unforgivable. And in the case of my organization, certain offenses will result in automatic termination because it puts our contracts and funding in jeopardy.

    But we have an employee who’s been with the company 18 years. He’s practically built the program he runs, and it’s an important program because it dramatically increases the scope of our services (we’re a youth-serving non-profit centered around mentorship, but his program allows us to offer services beyond one-to-one mentoring). He was arrested for marijuana possession (small amount- no intent to distribute) years before he got hired. If the powers that be had deemed him ineligible for hire, we wouldn’t be the organization we are today.

    1. CheeryO*

      I was Googling a new-ish coworker because I was really impressed with them and wanted to see what their background was, and the first result was a past DWI conviction. It was definitely them (combo of a unique name and the right city). I am really glad that their boss either didn’t Google them or decided to hire them anyway.

      1. umami*

        We had a finalist who was arrested for a DUI in the timeframe between the first interview and the finalist round (about 2 weeks). I literally thought, dude, you’re applying for high-level jobs, what are you doing?? Sigh.

        1. linger*

          I suppose it is different if the arrest occurs during the interview process, since that may speak to the candidate’s existing decision-making processes. On the other hand, an arrest is not a conviction, so it’d be a kindness to get their account, and explore what they’d learned from it, if they’d still otherwise have been a strong candidate. How did your hiring committee handle it?

          1. linger*

            I see there’s a more detailed account in another thread below. Unfortunately, it suggests this candidate had learned very little, since this incident fit neatly into a record of past convictions for similar offenses with more serious consequences.

      2. Curmudgeon in California (they/them)*

        Unless the job involved driving and it was a recent conviction, it shouldn’t matter. I know people who have had DUIs and that spurred them to get sober. They do fine in their actual occupation.

  15. NewJobNewGal*

    Whenever I’ve given take-home exercises, I’ve told the candidate to be ready to present/talk through their assignment at our next interview. They know it’s a valuable investment of their time because they have another interview scheduled, they get the opportunity to explain their work and their ideas, and the next interview will at least be a week away.
    I don’t use exercises as a way to thin down the applicant pool. If you get an assignment, then I’m committed in moving forward.

  16. Mbarr*

    Oh man, this is my life right now. I have a student employee who I’ve assigned a bunch of training to, and then given them small projects to do. I provide basic data (e.g. “Here’s the link to the data. I want the report to have X, Y, and Z.”) and then I set them loose, expecting them to go back to the training materials, or google stuff… And they’re just not producing the work expected.

    My previous two student employees did great work – not always perfect work, but as students, I expect them to flub at times. This one has more work experience, but is not meeting expectations at all. I’ve explicitly pointed out that they’re failing to follow instructions and… It just. Keeps. Happening.

  17. BellyButton*

    During the interview process I would ask people “if you are given something to do that you don’t know how to do or know much about, how do you approach it?”

    If they say they would ask their manager or a colleague first, it is a sign that they don’t problem solve on their own.

    1. KHB*

      I’m not sure that’s something you can universally infer (although maybe in your specific field, it is). It could be, instead, that the candidate is in an environment where poking around with stuff you don’t know how to do has the potential to really mess things up, so asking a manager/colleague is the most reasonable first step.

      1. BellyButton*

        But that is something you would want to screen for. If you asked them that same question you would expect them to say something like “since in X if you start poking around it could cause Y, I would make sure to reference training materials or ask for a quick tutorial.”

        1. KHB*

          If the question you asked was “How would you approach it, and why would you approach it that way?” then sure. But I’m not sure that I, as a candidate, would necessarily infer that “…and why?” was part of what you wanted to know, if it wasn’t part of the question.

          If you want to know about a candidate’s experience problem-solving on their own, you can always ask them about their experience problem-solving on their own. Or even give them a short exercise where they have to problem-solve on their own.

    2. Parenthesis Guy*

      Completely disagree. You always want to ask someone else first because you don’t want to spend a week figuring something out that your coworker knows how to do in five minutes.

      1. But Not the Hippopotamus*

        Also, if you ask, they can probably get you to any documentation faster than just trying to find it one your own.

        1. scurvycapn*

          Yep. Knowledge sharing is key, whether it is written or verbal. It saves time and makes life easier in the long run as standardized methods are easier to both implement and maintain.

      2. Flowers*

        10000%. Even my boss – who expects me to figure things out on my own – said just ask, dont’ flounder. There’s a point where figuring it out on your own is a bigger waste of time than just asking.

    3. Flowers*

      Why not just ask straightaway – “when you were given a new task to do, how did you approach it?”

      As a new person, I think it’s reasonable to ask whoever is assigning me something for at least a crumb of context, a point in the right direction.

      I’m using my own example – My background and experience indicates I know how to prepare a tax return. My training showed me where client files could be found and the software we use. But until I ask, I won’t know if theres a specific process the company follows, who reaches out to the client and who does what etc. All he would have to do is say “okay you can talk to Jessica, she can fill in the blanks for you.”

      At my last job, we had very detailed and extensive processes written down and given to all new hires in their onboarding. Current job….not so much. I asked what was reasonable and in fact, my boss said I *should* ask rather than flounder. so striking the balance is imp.

      You can’t just blindly give something to someone and then say they’re not problem solvers.

      1. Dinwar*

        “At my last job, we had very detailed and extensive processes written down and given to all new hires in their onboarding.”

        We have that for new projects. A 200 page safety plan, six 20 page job safety analyses, a 50 page sample analysis plan, a 100 page quality management plan, about two thousand standard operating procedures at last count….Guess how many of these get read before each job?

        Turns out if you bury someone in documentation they’re just going to ask you about the process anyway.

    4. Dinwar*

      Depends on the problem. For some things I do yeah, I want them to try to fix it–if a piece of equipment breaks down or something I should be your third phone call, not first. But it’s critical in many fields to know when something is outside your ability to answer, and it’s not always obvious. There are things that appear almost routine at my job, but which carry regulatory burdens or violate various agreements between big players (government agencies, international clients, that sort of thing), and I absolutely DO NOT want my staff trying to solve those problems. *I* don’t want to solve those problems, it’s my job to escalate them to the right people. Knowing which is which? Not always easy.

      If I’ve explained something to you five times, yeah, you need to look that stuff up. If it’s something new? Text messages and phone calls are cheaper than jail time.

    5. CharlieBrown*

      This question is so general as to be almost meaningless. And it’s likely you will not hire some qualified candidates because you think they don’t problem solve on their own.

      It’s much better to ask questions about specifics. Then you can judge how they act in an actual situation rather than in a hypothetical sphere that is devoid of context.

    6. Curmudgeon in California (they/them)*

      See, how I would approach it depends on if I’ve done similar stuff before. If I have, I’d start with Google or in-house documentation. If I hadn’t even heard half of the acronyms you use to describe it, I’m going to ask you for clarification so I don’t accidentally look up the wrong acronym (like POS is sometime “point of sale”, other times “proof of service”, and yet other times a rude descriptor.)

    7. Nina*

      I mean, during the interview the only real answer to that question is ‘it depends whether I’m in a highly regulated environment where there is exactly one standard way to do everything we regularly do, whether I’m in a R&D lab, whether what I’m working with is a task/area/dataset I ‘own’ or whether it belongs to someone else who has a way they prefer to do it…’

      As a new employee you bet your ass I’m asking first whether there’s a standard method for this new task or whether I’m working it out on my own.

    8. Sophia Brooks*

      I ask a similar question of my student workers who answer the phone. I ask what steps they would take if a customer asked something they didn’t know the answer to. I am looking for “look on the website” as number one, ask me/take a message to say they have to investigate and then ask me number two. I am pretty successful with it screening out people who will ask me every single thing. I also do a pretty rigorous training and have a wiki of FAQs. The other thing I do is just give them my building and office number, not explicit directions and see how they handle finding me (it is not super hard, but if someone asks where it is located on campus, I feel like they will not us Google maps or campus maps and that tells me something). I am not sure these same questions transfer to non student employees. I also like to hire the ones who say they want the job because they need money to live and it seems not terrible (I let them study between phone calls if there is nothing to to). The ones who talk about how my customer service job will give them valuable work experience don’t show up to work!

  18. Workfromhome*

    #1 You need to be more explicit when giving out these tasks. Personally my #1 thing i want to know is what the expected outcome is and that needs to have a certain level of detail. There is nothing worse than being told I need you to run a TPS report and then the boss walks away You spend hours figuring out how to do it and running it and then they tell you “Oh that is no good it needs to be specifically run on only TPS from the south region for the last 3 months. ”

    Shre the outcome or at least what part in the process the outcome plays. Give specific deadlines. If something similar has ever been done share that with them or share any resource that might help them figure it out. Let them know if the method matters or only the outcome.

    I dont mind figuring stuff out myself if I know that the outcome will be acceptable. When I give you the finished product Im happy to tell you what I did and do it better next time

    1. Appletini*

      You spend hours figuring out how to do it and running it and then they tell you “Oh that is no good it needs to be specifically run on only TPS from the south region for the last 3 months. ”

      This so much this. It often feels like a deliberate trap.

    1. CharlieBrown*

      Yes, nothing like a self-published piece by someone who thought those under him were lazy and incompetent.

  19. fine tipped pen aficionado*

    I don’t have a lot to add that hasn’t already been said, but I feel LW 1’s struggle. I am not anyone’s manager but I do have to assign tasks to the entire department on behalf of all my department’s managers, and my struggle is that prior to my hiring there was almost no documentation created for anything. Everyone relied on the institutional knowledge of long timers, who retired en masse during the pandemic. I’ve been creating thorough, easy-to-use documentation for every process I touch but it’s a challenge trying to retrain everyone to reference documentation before asking me.

  20. Inkognyto*

    I’ve coached many individuals over my career, and the biggest thing I try and give them are the tools and basics to learn on their own. I tell them I can show you, but you will not retain it as making mistakes and applying your own processes is how you learn. This is how I learned to do it and it’s not going to 100% apply to you. Here’s the framework of the ‘issue’ please go forth and fumble.

    I think part of it is many individuals in the U.S. education system are never taught how to learn.
    Then let the individuals learn. Once that is ingrained you don’t need to show that individual how to figure out new processes because it’s just something they do.

    1. fine tipped pen aficionado*

      It is truly wild how many people do not seek to understand the why or how, but only the what. They will memorize steps without any concept of why they’re doing them or how the whole process works, and then if there is a slight change or if anything goes wrong, they have zero capacity to problem solve.

      I remember my training on the first day with my current org, starting out in customer service, and no one could answer any of my 1000 questions about why we click this or how we do that so I would be prepared for when things went sideways, especially since I would often be working late nights or early morning with no other staff to ask for help.

    2. Appletini*

      Making mistakes needs to be allowed, though. I was raised to believe that any mistake was a disaster, and interestingly enough was managed that way in my lower-stakes jobs but not my higher stakes jobs. Being literally screamed at for, say, finishing the llama grooming with a red bow instead of a blue bow, will discourage an employee from trying different bow color approaches.

  21. Kesnit*

    Criminal defense attorney here…

    #2, I don’t know where you are, but I’m guessing in the US. There seems to be a philosophy here that any conviction means you are a hardened criminal and nothing you do in your life going forward will change that. Stop it!

    People do stupid stuff. Sometimes the stupid stuff is illegal and they get caught. You cannot hold something like that over a person’s head for the rest of their life. (There are exceptions where it would make sense to take someone’s criminal history into account. Urinating in public is almost certainly not one of them…) I cannot tell you how many clients I’ve had who have difficulty finding a job because they have a felony conviction. I remember a client I had many years ago who was hired for a good job and was doing well, and then his background check came through and he was fired immediately. (What he was convicted of had nothing to do with the job he was hired for. This wasn’t a situation of someone convicted of embezzlement working retail.)

    Everyone is the sum of their life experiences, and no two people have the same experiences. At some point, we need to look at the whole person and not one incident from years prior.

    1. umami*

      We once had a candidate for a high-profile position (the same one mentioned above where one candidate was arrested for a DUI before his final interview) with a significant gap in their resume. Turns out he had been in prison for 10 years after killing two people on the side of the road who were fixing a disabled vehicle. He was heading back to work after lunch and also happened to be on meth. He didn’t get into any specific reasons for the gap (just some ‘life challenges and lessons learned’), but a quick google search filled in all sorts of blanks!

  22. Loves libraries*

    I think I had some of these workers in school. They would ask me how to do an assignment and I would ask them to read me the directions aloud. That usually solved the problem. If not, then I would ask them what they would try for a first step. Of course this doesn’t always translate to adults in the workplace, but I can commiserate with you.

  23. BellyButton*

    Whenever I have been given an assignment when job seeking or given one to a candidate it is always when I or they have been selected to move to the next (and usually final) step of the interview process. It isn’t part of the pre-screen prior to the first interview. It is an opportunity for the 2-3 top candidates to present or talk through their work at the next interview.

    I am sure in some more tech heavy jobs a skill test would be used as a prescreen before even interviewing for the first time, but I think that is the exception.

  24. WantonSeedStitch*

    I’ve had an employee to whom I would give assignments (after rather thorough training, and with what I thought were pretty clear directions, FWIW), who would to take a week to “figure it out” until they were bumping up against the deadline, only to present me with something…entirely wrong. When I asked them why they did it that way instead of X way (where X was the right way), they said they hadn’t been sure about what was actually needed. I had to tell them “if you weren’t sure, you should have asked! I am ALWAYS happy to answer questions if it means you can spend your time and energy on the right things.” That person caused me a LOT of exasperation for the first…year? But then grew into the role a lot more.

  25. Sunshine's Eschatology*

    #2: I would add to Alison’s (excellent) answer that, even if you can find arrest/conviction information online, some states and municipalities limit how much criminal history you are legally permitted to take into account when hiring and how you’re allowed to do so. These are often referred to as “ban the box” laws (I believe referring to the check box on employment applications for whether you’ve ever had an arrest/conviction). Worth looking up in your area, whether you’re a job seeker or employer!

  26. SofiaDeo*

    LW#1: Depending on the type of employee and type of task, I think there are 2 camps. The first (type of employee) is they like to *memorize* how to do things, versus *can think/problem solve* to do things. With the former, if you have examples of old reports/end information, this can be their guide. People who are used to “memorizing” instead of “solve a problem with available data/ search for additional data to solve the problem” have needed to be managed totally differently IME. You sound like the latter type, as opposed to the former. And for the staff who aren’t used to “thinking” instead of memorizing, they generally will default to “asking”. And as Alison noted, certain staff may think they are being proactive by asking. Staff who formerly had really micro-manage-y bosses also may default to this, which is why having some sort of template to guide them is great, if you have one. So do as Alison suggested, make it clear up front you want *them* to suss out the details, and express confidence they can figure it out, before letting them know they can get back to you if they can’t. This will allow you to figure out processes or data sources they are forgetting, if they keep making the same mistake, etc. It may end up taking the same amount of time for you overall, but it will be spent identifying areas where your staff are weaker/stronger, what needs coaching, etc as opposed to simply showing people step-by-step.

    1. Sunshine*

      Oh wow, this is a really good way to put it! And I think also companies can turn people into memorizers if the systems are not intuitive. At my job NOTHING makes sense so I’ve defaulted to asking every time even if a task is very similar to something I’ve done before because sometimes there are secret rules that no one knows about until I do the whole thing wrong!

  27. Army of Robots*

    What to wear on a plane with coworkers — I agree that whatever you normally wear to travel is fine.

    Tangentially, though: I knew someone who always, always got pulled aside by every security and customs screener they encountered. I noted that this person had an “aging hippie” appearance and chose to travel in tie-die shirts, so my immediate guess was that they assumed drugs were a possibility. I therefore suggested dressing up a bit for travel — just a nice top, not formal wear — and that apparently did help matters. So *if* you tend to have that kind of problem when traveling, it’s worth aiming for something more business-casual than truly-casual when traveling with coworkers.

    1. UKDancer*

      Yes. I usually feel chilly on planes so I tend to go for layers when travelling but unless I’m going into a meeting or event immediately on arrival, I tend to dress for warmth and comfort, usually wearing trousers and a jumper.

  28. Avery*

    I’m still working on getting past that sort of learned helplessness myself as an employee… but it’s because in a previous job, trying to do something myself without asking for clarification or guidelines repeatedly would mean having my boss tear my work apart and yell at me for not knowing the secret criteria for it stored in her head…

  29. Parenthesis Guy*

    #1: An employee needs to be smart. If something is clearly an ad hoc request, then asking your manager for help is a bad plan. But if something is an existing process and is a big thing, then wanting all the documentation only makes sense. If I’ve created a big report, I’m always going to be asked how it works when someone else takes it over.

    But this manager just needs to learn how to communicate better. If their people are able to solve problems, then it’s not a bad thing if they ask for help. Their manager just needs to know when to say no and when to say yes.

    #3: I think that giving the candidate a choice of when they want to do an exercise is reasonable. I also like the idea of giving an assignment that’s difficult enough that it doesn’t really matter to me how long a user takes to complete it. There’s many ways to solve a problem. The method you choose will give me a better impression of abilities then whether its right.

  30. Lily Potter*

    One of the best things I’ve learned from AAM is the following response:

    “Look around in (fill in some places to find examples or repositories of information) and if you’re still stuck after lunch, come back and we’ll figure it out. But know that the first question I’m going to ask you is “what have you already tried/where have you already looked.”

    Along those same lines, I’ve also explained to several young people that, when writing something, it’s far easier for me to react to something that they’ve started than to tell them exactly how to write every line from the start. The first draft doesn’t have to be perfect and a page of redlines is not a failure. It’s a process.

    1. But Not the Hippopotamus*

      Yes. But there’s also the idea that if this really is new, the manager can say that up front. Like, “This is a new thing so we don’t have any examples and you’ll need to figure it out as you go.” And then set expectations, whether that’s talking to someone in particular if they are stuck, reviewing a draft in two days, or whatever.

      1. Lily Potter*

        Oh for sure. Point being in both of my examples that you have to set the expectation that the other party needs to put in some work first. You’re happy to help as a part of the process after they’ve tried a few things, but you’re not going to do the work for them.

    2. Appletini*

      But they might get a bad grade!

      By which I mean it took me awhile after leaving school to not see a page of redlines as a failure rather than the next step in development (it didn’t help that I would be scolded for not knowing things I’d never been told along the lines of “how dare you use a metaphor involving bubbles with this client, they had a dog named Bubbles who died so now any mention of bubbles makes them cry, why do you want our client to cry”). School vs work is a very different mindset and that’s not something anyone tells young people.

  31. Orora*

    I feel like there’s something very important missing from the response to LW #2: The EEOC has said:

    “An employer cannot refuse to hire people simply because they have been arrested. The fact that a person was arrested is not proof that they committed a crime. There are situations where an employer can explore the person’s conduct leading to the arrest and ask them to explain the circumstances. ”

    An employer would be hard-pressed to prove how a public urination arrest was so antithetical to their business that using the very fact of the arrest warranted asking the candidate about it.

    For 99% of companies, you should never use an arrest as the sole deal-breaker. Unless the arrest is very pertinent to your industry (i.e. you’re a bank and the person was arrested for check fraud), don’t conduct inquiries with candidates about any arrests that appear on a background check. Even convictions should only be used if they are job-related (like the bank/check fraud example above.)

  32. TechWorker*

    On #1, the observation that the LW remembers having to work these tasks out for themselves, and now they need to focus their time on working out more complicated tasks… isn’t particularly surprising :p there’s a reason you got promoted! Being able to work independently likely played a part. That doesn’t mean you can’t be specific about your expectations but you also shouldn’t expect your employees to have the same strengths (or weaknesses!) as you do.

    1. mf*

      A great point. In my experience, the people who know how to problem solve and figure out complicated tasks without a lot of input tend to be high performers in general. It’s great that the OP wants to develop that skill in their team members but they should also be realistic about the fact that not everyone can and will get there, so to speak.

  33. Jessica Fletcher*

    Ticketing for things like public urination is one way police harass people experiencing homelessness. The other option is that it’s a stupid drunken decision that happens to a lot of otherwise normal people.

    I don’t think it’s something to bring up at an interview.

    1. Curmudgeon in California (they/them)*

      Not only that, but nowadays there are very few publicly accessible restrooms. If you have a small bladder or other issues, there are often very few options, even if you are merely miles away from home, not homeless or drunk.

  34. Not A Real Manager*

    Glad others mentioned in the case of LW2 that using an arrest to reject an applicant can put you in dicey legal territory. Our HR encourages not even googling applicants. Just judge on their application materials (including interviews, references, resumes, etc.).

    1. allathian*

      I’m in Finland, and here it’s actually illegal for employers to google their employees or candidates. Or rather, employers aren’t allowed to use whatever they learn that way in making their hiring decisions, rather like asking a candidate about their family status, so most employers just don’t google candidates.

      They can’t even look them up on LinkedIn, unless the employee provides them with a direct link to their profile in their application materials.

  35. Marna Nightingale*

    Does anyone else really struggle with calibrating their Ask/RTFM/FAFO metre?

    Or, if you don’t, how did you develop a reliable one?

    Because I really really do. I’ve assumed I could get by on common sense and found out the hard way that a task needed specialized info I lacked and I’ve asked detailed questions and then found out that no, actually, it IS easy, and since my career has been varied and a bit odd, honestly, it hasn’t gotten a lot better with time because it’s usually a new problem.

    I understand the frustration of having a coworker or boss or report who is constantly asking for guidance, and I understand the aggravation of being stuck working with and cleaning up after Captain Gumption.

    But how did you all get so good at not being either?

    1. TechWorker*

      I don’t think anyone will get it right 100% of the time. You can help both sides by being clear about what you’re doing though, it is *far* less irritating for someone to say ‘I’m trying to do x, I’ve already looked at y and w, and I tried z, but that didn’t seem to work and I hit problem p. Can you help me with where to look next?’ compared to ‘how do I do x? Hit problem p’.

      Similarly if theres something you’re not sure you should take on without guidance, telling your manager/team what your plan is before spending a tonne of time on it can be worthwhile. ‘Looked into x, planning to start with z and w and focus on p. Any concerns let me know!’ – is less gumption-y than spending a week doing something and then finding out it’s the wrong thing.

  36. raida*

    I’d suggest giving people tasks and TELLING THEM WHERE THE INSTRUCTIONS ARE.

    And not giving people tasks to do without training.

    If there’s no documentation, give them the first couple of steps and tell them to give it a try for no more than an hour, after they’ve had a crack at it you’re happy to come over and go through the entire task.

    1. Don't Call Me Shirley*

      In my work, there’s no instructions because the task is “use the manual that came with the new equipment and set it up with our test board using the pin out diagram” – figuring it out is the job, doing it is a small end part. Or it’s “write a script to automate processing this data” – this is a job to be done once, you can have someone walk through the steps they did manually. The whole job sometimes is read manuals, use the professional training required, and then figure out how to do this novel or one time task.

      And if they can’t get the job done without being walked through it, after shadowing and being walked through a couple, well, that is the job. Juniors need to have their work more fully reviewed and sometimes it’s wrong, but that’s still the job, and it’s better they do it wrong and fix it, that’s how they learn the job.

  37. Melinda*

    I feel this in my soul. I had no idea people needed so much constant hand holding until i became a manager. It’s exhausting! Just try to figure it out!

    1. Appletini*

      Are you going to punish them if they get it wrong? How much latitude do they have for mistakes? How much time do they have for the tasks?

  38. Sam*

    For LW#4: I totally agree that you should wear comfy plane clothes within reason. But I’d definitely advocate for having a conference-worthy outfit in your carry-on bag in case any checked luggage goes astray! My org has several conferences a year, and in all the travel chaos in 2022 and 2023, at least one staffer’s bag is delayed each time. Toiletries can be pretty easy to replace, but finding a whole new professional outfit is pretty stressful in many locations…

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