my employee keeps venting to me about his divorce, trust-building activities that actually work, and more

It’s four answers to four questions. Well, three questions and one story. Here we go…

1. My employee keeps venting to me about his divorce

I manage a team of 20. I have two supervisors on my team and one is going through a divorce. He (male, 55) calls me (female, 33) constantly wanting to vent, and he sends me long-winded emails telling me how great a manager I am and how much he feels valued and appreciated. It’s gotten uncomfortable. I try to redirect conversations and only keep them about work because he will consume my time and end up telling me all about his wife and their troubles. I don’t want to hear about it, it’s a waste of my work day, and I’m not his therapist. He often asks for advice and what I would do in a relationship, which I try to deflect.

I don’t want to be mean and I try to support everyone on my team, often letting staff cry in my office when they are going through a tough time (death in the family, difficult customer, project failures, etc.) but he is draining, I feel like he’s crossing boundaries, and honestly the guy has an unhealthy crush. He’ll call multiple times a day asking if he can vent about his wife! He even started texting me after hours! I never respond to the texts and only halfheartedly say things like “that sounds tough, I’m sorry you’re going through this.” How do I professionally let him know that I’m not his sounding board without damaging the professional relationship I need to maintain?

“I know you’re going through a tough time, but since I need to be your manager I’ve realized I can’t be your sounding board about this. I need to keep our conversations focused on our work.”

And then if he keeps bringing it up after that: “I’m sorry to interject, but I’ve got to keep my manager hat on here so we can’t delve into this. But I did want to ask you about (work topic).”

You might feel awkward saying this — it’s inherently a bit of an awkward message to deliver! But the only way to address it is by saying it and getting it out there … and it’s in his best interests to have you clearly set that boundary before he goes even further with it.

Also — keep in mind he might be waylaying other colleagues with this as well (especially female ones, if he’s the type of guy who sees every woman as a potential therapist) and keep an eye out for that too.

2. Trust-building activities that actually work?

My fully remote department is about to have its first-ever in-person retreat. The pandemic has been a roller coaster for my team in many ways (high burnout and turnover, abrupt changes in leadership, crises of values/mission, etc.), and our department lead has asked us for suggestions for activities. I am hopeful that this might be an opportunity to restore trust, build comraderie, and create a more sustainable foundation moving forward. However, I am well aware that many team-building or trust-building exercises are ineffective, invasive, or inappropriate (having read as much from others who have written in over the years), and would like to avoid that. Do you or other readers have any suggestions for trust-building activities (or other types of team-focused exercises) that actually work?

I honestly don’t think they do. Trust-building exercises won’t fix the damage from the sorts of things you describe; your organization needs to address the core issues themselves. Even in companies without those kinds of deep-rooted problems, the only real way to build cohesion and morale is by creating a positive, cooperative culture year-round, not just for the duration of a team-building event. In fact, when companies try to use these events as a substitute for more meaningful work, they can end up lowering morale instead.

One thing you might try instead is using some of the retreat time to listen to what people think is needed to move forward in a more sustainable way, and coming up with actionable steps from that. (But if realistically nothing will change as a result of that, doing it is likely to add to the existing problems by just increasing people’s cynicism.)

3. Should I ask interviewers if they have internal candidates?

I’ve seen some viral posts on social media advising job candidates to ask interviewers whether they’re considering any internal candidates. The idea is to have a more realistic idea of your chances, or possibly to know whether you should emphasize traits an internal candidate might not have. Do you think this question is a good idea? It’s definitely tempting, but I don’t know if hiring managers would appreciate it.

Most of the time it won’t tell you much. Sometimes there are internal candidates who have no chance of being hired (see yesterday’s letter about that). Sometimes there are solid internal candidates but the company wants to hire someone external with a fresh perspective, or they’re committed to hiring the best person regardless of whether they’re internal or external. So the answer won’t really tell you much about your chances, even though a lot of candidates are convinced it will.

4. A cautionary tale about using your internet username on a resume

A humorous horror story and healthy reminder to never use your personal username/email on anything related to your professional persona:

A few years back, I had a friend who made an impressive amount of money through her side hustle of making custom Funko Pop toys. She was very good — people got Pops of themselves to use as wedding cake toppers, of their favorite characters from old shows, of people they knew to give as gifts, etc. It took up all her free time, so if I wanted to hang out with her, it made sense for me to learn to make some, too.

To make them, you pick the head and body that most closely resemble the character you’re building (typically two different Pops), boil the dolls to soften the rubber, pull their heads off, swap them, cut off unwanted parts with a heated knife, sculpt new accessories in clay and attach, and then paint the whole thing. Kinda cool. I did three sets before I lost interest, and saved the photos in some Picasa-style online album (not a social media site) so I could show other people.

Fast forward to this year, and I was making some new business cards for an upcoming conference. I’ve always used the same email address and username for everything and it’s never been a problem. I’ve googled the email address to make sure that nothing bad came up, and it was always fine. But this time, I decided to google just the first part of the address (the part before the @) just to make sure.

There, on the top of page 1: doll parts. Vats of boiling dolls. Dolls with their heads ripped off. Dolls getting body parts chopped off with hot knives. Tubs of dismembered doll parts that had been cut off but saved, just in case they fit the need of a future custom. I looked like a full-blown psychopath.

I wasn’t in the photos, and it was my friend’s home instead of mine, but the username is distinct enough that there could be no mistaking whose account it was. The photos have all long since been deleted and I had thought they were all set to private, but the internet has a long and pervasive memory. I guess they’re going to stay on Google indefinitely, despite the files not actually being hosted on the site anymore. I have to wonder, now, how many hiring managers took one look at that and decided to file my resume directly into the trash.

So let this be a reminder to all: select a unique username for all your weird hobbies, and make sure no part of it (no matter how small) is re-used in your email or on your resume!

Oh noooooo. Consider the reminder issued.

{ 407 comments… read them below }

  1. Ellis Hubris*

    OP#3- my experience is knowing if that company is required to host external candidates even if internal candidates are present. Everytime I’ve gone through the process with an internal candidate, the internal candidate has gotten the job – no matter where I was in the process. Still I think it’s hard to know what the intentions are. I do my best to portray myself in every interview as I am and let things fall as they do. I personally think it’s not cool to waste candidates time but I also don’t want to work for those companies who do.

    1. John Smith*

      My experience is quite the opposite. My employer generally employs external candidates. I was new to the profession when I got my current role and whilst I was told I gave an impressive interview, I found that I was one of several external candidates selected over experienced internal ones. Since then, I’ve seen very odd decisions being made, including one person who has applied for and won several (different) roles but does the same job in each, whilst more obvious and experienced candidates lose out. During organisation restructures, new positions are created to retain certain staff to do the same role even though that role was supposedly redundant. For our last vacancy, we had an excellent (external) candidate but waited 3 months before offering the position, during which time they had gone elsewhere. I’d add incompetence and favouritism to Alison’s list of reasons for recruitment decisions.

      1. Sola Lingua Bona Lingua Mortua Est*

        My experience is quite the opposite. My employer generally employs external candidates.

        This has been my experience, too. I half joke that recruitment assumes external candidates are better because they’ve been smart enough to avoid working where I have so far.

      2. what the nope*

        In my workplace it’s extremely common for leadership to appoint favorites to certain positions, and on the flip side, ignore qualified internal candidates when they want to impose regime change.

    2. Kiitemso*

      My company definitely seems to favor internal candidates for middle managerial type roles but not very senior or leadership roles. A recent internal promotion for a leadership position happened and when the CEO talked about it, he seemed surprised that our internal candidate ended up being such a strong match against the outsiders they had brought in for interviews. It seemed they fully intended to keep her where she was but when she interviewed exceedingly well, plans changed and they promoted her from within.

      1. Captain dddd-cccc-ddWdd*

        > when the CEO talked about it, he seemed surprised that our internal candidate ended up being such a strong match against the outsiders they had brought in for interviews

        That speaks volumes (probably unintended) about how he sees the company’s approach to developing people, doesn’t it!

    3. English Rose*

      I think it depends on the company. Where I am now, we go with the best candidate, which can be external or internal. I think it’s around 50/50. I can tell you that wherever I’ve worked there have been hiring managers who are crossing their fingers that certain internal candidates don’t apply, so internals don’t have an inherent advantage if they don’t have a great reputation.

      1. Anon this time*

        I’d agree with this for my current employer. Different teams do the hiring for each job, and whether internal candidates have an edge varies widely based on what they’re looking for in that particular role. I’ve seen internal candidates who I thought were universally well regarded torn to shreds by a hiring committee, and also situations where the person to take the role was basically chosen before the ad even went up. “Best candidate” is super relative here.

        I also once hired an external candidate over a very well qualified internal person (who actually also ended up being hired for the role later and was great) because of skills tied to their previous role that met a need not reflected in the job description. Ironically, it turned out that the internal candidate had experience in that area as well, but it was a situation where we didn’t know how much we wanted it until we looked at them side by side, so we never asked them about it (it wasn’t something that would show on a resume unless the candidate knew specifically to highlight it).

    4. Earlk*

      I’ve hired for a role before when an internal candidate was the preferred choice but an external candidate absolutely blew us away with her interview.

    5. Anonymous Tech Writer*

      Countering with my own piece of anecdata that internal applicants can be completely unqualified for the position.

      We were hiring for a junior technical writer. It was surprising to get a resume from our in-house print shop guy, but he was in a position to have significant knowledge of the product and the developers. Unfortunately he asked if the person hired would “have to, you know, WRITE the docs.” He had only ever known about the final 1% much-hated paper-based step of our development cycle. How he missed the job title, I’m not sure. Maybe he just wanted some interviewing experience.

      Anyway, we got our external hire. (And now I’m reminded to be glad we’ve long since gone electronic.)

    6. Sheila*

      I just recently lost out on an internal posting because I lacked specific technical skills they didn’t ask for on the posting, and I suspect didn’t know they wanted until after my interview. I have soft skills they desperately need, I am low on technical skill compared to most of their team but they are swimming in technical skills… They decided they wanted to hire for skills they’ll need for a project 2 years down the road, that they will need soft skills to get started now because the operations team is going to bitterly oppose it if they don’t explain it better than they are, but it’s literally not my job to worry about that so woot I guess. Oh, and they didn’t actually hire anyone, they just reposted.

      1. Certaintroublemaker*

        I am so, so glad that the tech support team where I am hires for soft skills and customer service experience, with just some technical knowledge. The technical part, we teach.

    7. Not A Girl Boss*

      I recently asked a slightly different question that led to some really good insight/discussion. I was interviewing as an external hire to be a people manager, and asked whether they had considered hiring internally for the role. My main concerns were:
      1) Is my new team going to be bitter if an internal hire was passed over for the role in favor for me?
      2) If no one was qualified to take the job… why? This is a well established company with many long-time employees. If their people aren’t being developed to move up, that is a red flag to me.
      3) If no one wants the job… why? Is it an unreasonably stressful job, etc?

      The hiring manager shared that he had an employee he really wanted to promote into the role, but the employee was one of those people who strongly did not want to be a manager, although he was critical to the success of the company and would be my ‘right hand man’. Then the hiring manager ended up letting me interview with that employee, which provided awesome insight into the org.

    8. learnedthehardway*

      It really depends on the company. I work with one company where the preference is to hire internally, but the need is generally to hire externally (long story short – leadership is trying to upgrade talent, but managers who have been promoted internally don’t see the need. Usually ends up in a delicate set of manouvres in which leadership tries to not insult management). Another of my clients is hiring externally despite having several internal candidates, because the internals aren’t strong enough to be promoted yet.

      In any case, it’s pointless to ask whether there are internal candidates. If the answer is yes, it doesn’t mean the internals are being seriously considered. If the answer is no, it doesn’t mean that someone put their hat in the ring later. Assume there are potential internal candidates and that you will have to prove yourself to be a stronger candidate than any internals or externals.

      Also, don’t ask how many candidates have been interviewed or how many applicants there have been, etc. It’s not relevant. The company will interview as many as they need to find the candidate who fits the bill.

    9. Ellis Hubris*

      For the companies that require interviewing outside external candidates, I think my experience remains the default. I was the most sought after temp at the exclusive agency in a major us city for 2 years (legal field). For the companies that required external candidate interviews, no matter what internal candidates applied, they always hired internal. It’s entirely possible the internal candidates were the best fit every time. These companies still wasted a lot of time of others because they needed to check a box. I don’t see a way to know ahead of time what other applicants might be, which is why I think it’s more important to know if the process requires outside candidates, as a check box. If so, I would personally bow out. I’ve spent weeks of my life preparing for interviews that were decided before I got there. Every temp job I’ve had offered me a job so it doesn’t seem to be my skills or personality.
      The only time I knew for sure about the company’s hiring process was with a recruiter so no doubt that’s more information than most would have.

  2. Capt. Liam Shaw*

    LW1: Might want to also suggest your company’s EAP will have the resources to help him. Sounds like he needs a therapist.

    1. Jill Swinburne*

      Yes, that’s what I was thinking, “Hey, Joe – I have plenty of sympathy but I’m here as your manager, I’m a llama groomer, and I’m not equipped for these discussions. Here’s the information for our EAP – please go ahead and use it, it’s what it’s there for. Let me know if you need to use any leave. Now, how’s the Pensky file going?”

      1. Bagpuss*

        Yes, and even if the company doesn’t have an EAP you can use a similar script “Hey, Joe – I have plenty of sympathy but I’m here as your manager, I’m a llama groomer, and I’m not equipped for these discussions, it sounds like you might find it helpful to talk to a therapist or to your lawyer about these issues”

      2. Rose*

        In this kind of situation, using excuses that aren’t the real reason you need to cut things off (aka I need to be working, this isn’t appropriate me manager/report behavior, and also I don’t want to be your therapist) tends to backfire. If she says she’s not equipped for these discussions he’ll tell her that she’s such a great listener and it’s so helpful.

        1. Slow Gin Lizz*

          Nah, she’s the boss so she can be more forceful with him than she would with a colleague at the same level she’s at. And she can also, in this case, say that they need to keep discussions focused on work, which you would have a hard time saying to a friend or family member who was doing this to you. And to your point that she’d be using excuses that aren’t the real reason you need to cut things off…well, I think they actually *are* the real reason.

          1. Rose*

            But all of these are very different messages from “I’m not equipped for this.” I agree she can and should be more forceful, but that would mean not pretending this is about what she is/is not capable of and being clear that it’s no appropriate and needs to stop.

        2. Nesprin*

          The warm handoff helps in this case:
          “Hey I’m really not equipped to handle this, and while I’m happy I’ve been helpful for you, I need to focus on work. Let’s go back to your office and call the EAP, and see what they can do for you”

      3. ferrina*

        I like this wording. I’m a fan of “I’m not equipped for this”- it’s a nice reminder that female-presenting people aren’t all magically equipped with therapist powers. (setting aside whether someone is even interested in being your therapist; just because some can doesn’t mean they are obligated to)

    2. lilsheba*

      That is exactly what I think too. He NEEDS a therapist obviously, and referring him to the EAP is the best route.

    3. Artemesia*

      But first and foremost, she should have shut this down the second time it happened. He calls and asks to ‘vent’ about his divorce and she just lets him? This is really unprofessional on the part of the manager here. The boundary should be made clear the moment it is more than a one off. The OP might want to explore some further management development to avoid similar blurrings of boundaries.

      1. FedToo*

        I don’t mean to pile on here but the other line that struck me was allowing other employees to cry in your office. Yes we are humans and yes sometimes we have emotions, but if people are regularly needing to cry at work in your office I think there’s some resetting that needs to happen (obviously if someone has a death in the family that’s a rare and special circumstance), but I would examine if maybe you’re setting an overall emotional tone that needs better boundaries. Not that people can’t have emotions or cry, just that you and your office are not the place where that emotionally outlet should occur.

      2. Kuddel Daddeldu*

        Often these discussions creep up on you. It starts with fairly innocuous one-sentence venting (“I had a hard weekend, I had no ideas that getting divorced is so complicated! Now about the Barglefutz file, …”) and grows… and grows… into full-blown EAP material. So I don’t blame anyone for not stopping it at what, in hindsight, would be a reasonable point.

    4. Elizabeth West*

      I had that same thought. Clearly he needs to talk to someone, but it shouldn’t be OP.

  3. Good Luck*

    For LW#1: what about suggesting that he utilize your EAP? (assuming you have one)

    Something like “Bob I want to make sure you have the support you need as we have been spending so much work time talking about your ex and it’s not appropriate for me to provide counseling as your boss…”

      1. My Useless 2 Cents*

        Seconding. I like your wording. Unambiguous and professional but still supportive.

        While there is nothing wrong with Alison’s wording, if OP is correct in thinking he has a bit of a crush on her, then the “I can’t be your soundingboard about this” opens up the possibility of incorrect thinking to the effect “maybe she has feelings for me too” rather than “this is inappropriate because I’m your boss”.

  4. Capt. Liam Shaw*

    LW3: I have been asked about internal applicants when doing interviews. Always thought it was odd frankly.

    1. takeachip*

      I’ve also been asked how many finalists we’re interviewing which is equally awkward. I am not sure why people think it’s a good idea to put an interviewer on the spot like this. In both cases I give the same response: that’s confidential information I can’t disclose. I’m happy to share what I can about our timeline and next steps in the process generally but asking me about other candidates is off limits.

      1. allathian*

        Mmm. I work for the government, although not in the US. Here the names of applicants for every position are essentially public information and every candidate, regardless of how far they got in the recruitment process, will be told who got the job and how many candidates applied and were interviewed when the position has been filled. For senior leadership roles in government agencies, the list of candidates can make the news, at least if there’s a candidate who’s notorious for applying for every c-suite position regardless of their suitability for the role.

        You can refuse to allow your name to be published on these lists. Some people do, but I can’t remember if anyone who’s refused to let their name be made public as a candidate has ever got the job in my agency. For management positions, the list of candidates is published on our intranet, where they also state the number of candidates who requested anonymity.

        Granted, I don’t think knowing the number of competitors is necessarily *useful* information because it doesn’t really matter if you’re competing against 5 or 500 others if only one person gets the job regardless. But I really, really do not understand why the number of candidates should be considered confidential information. I do understand that it’s not prudent to publish the names of unsuccessful candidates in an at-will environment where an employee can be penalized just for looking elsewhere, but the number of candidates and the ratio of internal vs. external candidates? Nope, I don’t understand why that should be confidential information.

        1. Michelle Smith*

          But how is it useful, literally at all? From the candidate’s perspective, it tells me nothing actionable.

          1. Seeking Second Childhood*

            I think allathian agrees with you, but not that the info is confidential as others have said.

            >>Granted, I don’t think knowing the number of competitors is necessarily *useful* information

            1. I'm Just Here For The Cats!*

              In government positions it’s not confidential. But a company can decide that something like the number of applicants or amount of people interviewing are confidential. As far as I know there is no law that requires companies to tell applicants how many people they are interviewing.

          2. My take*

            When I’m in the final stages of an interview, I think it’s very useful to know how many other people are in that stage. In part because then I know how to calibrate my investment in the role.

            For example, once I was offered a job at Job A. Job B I preferred and was in an interview process for – I knew I was 1 of 10 people they were considering. I accepted Job A and decided to let Job B go. If I had been one of 2 people in a finalist process, the calculus would have been different.

            Another example: I was asked to make a sample video of a speech. I would (and did) do this in a finalist process with a small handful of finalists, but it took several hours so have decided to leave the process for jobs where this was required of all applicants.

          3. Hiring Mgr*

            I don’t think the names matter, but if i’m a candidate I certainly want to know if I’m one of three people in the mix, or one of 50.

        2. Totally Minnie*

          The fact that people can look it up and find out doesn’t mean I have to be the one to tell them. I’ve only been asked that question once, and I think I said something like “we don’t discuss information about our staff or applicants with people they haven’t authorized us to speak to.” There may be other ways to find those things out, but I don’t have to be the person that shares it.

        3. takeachip*

          It’s confidential because I want it to be and I don’t have any obligation to share it. There’s no benefit for the organization to share this and a few risks–such as, sometimes we only have one finalist and I don’t necessarily want someone to know that going in to salary negotiations (we make fair offers & don’t lowball, but have a strict budget and I don’t want to make things any more complicated than they already are) or feel especially rejected if we don’t hire them. Or we might have five finalists and the person asking is far and away our top candidate, but I can’t tell them that, and if they know how many finalists we have they might get nervous and decide to apply elsewhere when otherwise they might not have done so. The thing is, you never know what sort of assumptions people are going to make, and I’ve seen people really let their imaginations run away with them over the smallest thing. If I can’t explain the full context I am wary of giving people some relatively useless info that could come back to bite me in unexpected ways. I run a very applicant-focused and transparent process–even candidates we don’t hire go out of their way to email afterward and say this–but this is just an area I don’t get into.

      2. I should really pick a name*

        How is that putting them on the spot?

        It’s a perfectly reasonable question that doesn’t provide personal info about the other applicants.
        You don’t have to answer it, but I don’t see a problem with them asking.

        1. MCL*

          But it’s not useful to know. As far as I can tell. Why ask in the first place? It’s much more informative to ask about anticipated hiring timeline or next steps.

          1. I should really pick a name*

            I don’t think it’s a particularly useful question, but I don’t see a reason not to answer it.

            And asking one question doesn’t mean you can’t ask others.

            1. I'm Just Here For The Cats!*

              I can think of one reason why you might not be able to answer the question. It’s an open role or there are several roles open and so the hiring is taking longer. For example, lets say I work with llama groomers. We typically have 16 on staff but we have 4 openings. We are a niche group who work with disabled and adolescent llamas. Because of this we need specific groomers who 1 want to work with our type of llamas and who have the credentials to work with them. So the applicant pool is very small. Also, many times people would have to move to our city, so it has taken a while. So for the past 6 months or so we have had an open application and the hiring team periodically reviews applicants and offers interviews. If someone asked how many people are you considering we would not be able to give a clear answer. We could say that its a long term open application and we have interviewed several groomers, but there isn’t a specific number of people who are in the running because we are not interviewing people back to back.

          2. AlsoADHD*

            I think the number of candidates still be considered is useful information. It is helpful to know if 2 people are being considered or 20, if your company would not hire anyone and wait to post the job again if they don’t find the perfect fit, etc. I do see why it’s awkward to ask, but I think a lot of the best companies I’ve interviewed with have just provided those transparent details naturally. It’s definitely not “confidential” information “about” other candidates so that’s kind of a bunk reason to say they shouldn’t be asking it. If you don’t want to answer because your company doesn’t have that kind of thoughtfulness (doesn’t even know? Feel on the spot) or transparency, that’s fine. A lot of companies are like that. But it’s not information you “can’t” share.

            1. Observer*

              I think the number of candidates still be considered is useful information. It is helpful to know if 2 people are being considered or 20, if your company would not hire anyone and wait to post the job again if they don’t find the perfect fit, etc.

              Well, that’s just the thing. The number of candidates is only useful IF you have the answers to the other questions AND a few that you didn’t list.

              It’s definitely not “confidential” information “about” other candidates so that’s kind of a bunk reason to say they shouldn’t be asking it.

              I have to agree.

              If you don’t want to answer because your company doesn’t have that kind of thoughtfulness (doesn’t even know? Feel on the spot)

              I think that that one is a bit unfair. Others have pointed out reasons why that information may not be really available in many situations.

            2. takeachip*

              I posted a reply above that explains my rationale a bit more. When I tell people the info is confidential (and it is–it’s information about our process that we have deemed not for sharing outside the hiring committee or those who have a business need to know) they seem to accept that and it helps end the line of questioning without embarrassing anyone. I don’t like being asked but I don’t hold it against anyone and want to pivot away from it easily. It is also an easy bright line to have–we don’t talk about other candidates, period, with anyone. It makes it easy for our managers and others on the hiring committee to not cross any lines; we are a small and insular field and we often have several internal candidates, so it’s really important to keep a tight lid on this info in general. Number of finalists just falls under the general umbrella of “don’t talk about the candidate pool.”

              1. Anon122*

                Maybe it’s field-dependent, but to me this is just another power play by the employee/company.

              2. blerg*

                “we don’t talk about other candidates, period, with anyone.”

                Bully for you. The question isn’t about *them*, the question is about *you* and where you are in your hiring process. The candidate is trying to calculate their chances and how invested they should be in it. If I’m on the third interview and you’re down to the final 3, I’ll stick with it. If it’s the third interview and you’ve got 25 other candidates, I’ll bow out because who’s got time for this?

                You want to keep info about *your hiring process* confidential, that’s fine, but please don’t pretend you’re protecting others’ privacy since that’s not at all what’s being asked.

              3. Anonymous for This*

                If I asked the question and received that answer, I would know I didn’t want to work for the company. The notion that divulging the number of candidates is equivalent to talking about the other candidates is a great example of “blowing smoke”.

                I would assume that if I worked there, I would be getting this type of non-answer if and when I asked a legitimate question about the job, my benefits, etc.

        2. Colette*

          Sometimes you don’t know how many people will be finalists (you interview 10, you want 3 finalists but only get 2 because the other 8 aren’t a good fit). Sometimes you know, but already know the person you’re interviewing won’t be one of them. Sometimes the process is ongoing and you are still taking applications.

          Sure, in all of those situations you should be able to come up with an answer. But I don’t see a situation in which asking will help the candidate – the best interpretation is that they’ve wasted part of their limited time asking something that is irrelevant.

        3. Observer*

          How is that putting them on the spot?


          It’s a perfectly reasonable question

          Kind of. It’s not invasive or anything like that, but unless you know a LOT about the company, it’s not a helpful piece of information.

      3. WantonSeedStitch*

        I think that’s a good response. I don’t like it when people ask about other candidates. As a hiring manager, I am doing my best to measure each candidate against the job, not against each other. I want the candidates to approach the process from the same way. Don’t worry about who else is applying. Just help me know how good YOU would be for the role.

        I am still to this day curious about whether anyone else even applied for the role I was promoted into a few years ago, but I have not asked.

      4. Observer*

        I am not sure why people think it’s a good idea to put an interviewer on the spot like this.

        I suspect that most people don’t realize that they actually are putting the interviewer on the spot.

      5. Velawciraptor*

        I think people are trying to get a sense of how much competition there is for the role so they can calibrate their expectations. Employers are often unaware of how demoralizing a job hunt can be (particularly a long one). I get why people would want to know if they’re one of 50 that are being spoken to or one of 5.

        1. Colette*

          I think you’re right – and I still think it’s an inappropriate question to ask. You can be the only finalist and not get the job (because they don’t think you’re the right fit or they have a hiring freeze or they get a last minute application from a superstar or …) so how much competition there is doesn’t matter.

          I know job hunting is hard – I’ve been there repeatedly – but it’s not on a potential employer to manage your anxiety about it.

          1. Anon122*

            Not being totally transparent gives more power to the employer. This isn’t about managing anxiety. It’s a power dynamic and information is power. Everyone saying it’s confidential or not fair to ask etc is just, intentionally or unintentionally, arguing for more power to employers at the expense of applicants.

        2. Local Garbage Committee*

          I think employers do know that the search can be demoralizing (source: I am current hiring manager and former person who spent years looking for a job in my field) – fwiw I’ve found it MUCH worse to be rejected when there were 5 candidates vs. when there were 50.

      6. Blackcat*

        So years ago, when I was first on the academic job market, I applied for a job I. Sweden.

        I got regular updates on how many people advanced to each stage, which felt nice to know.

        But then at the end of the search, I got a document with all of the candidate names (!) their ranking of us (!!) and the notes on each of us (!!!).

        At first I felt like this was a wild invasion of privacy! But then I actually looked at it, and it was really helpful. I think the transparency forces the evaluation to be more fair. As someone not offered the job, I understood why! I agreed with their rankings! I was deservedly number 4, with some nice notes about what they found compelling about my work but I was just too early in my career to compete with the top 3. I found it useful and encouraging.

        All this is to say there are different cultural norms in different places around confidentiality in hiring. That’s not right or wrong, just different.

        1. Anon122*

          In a way, yeah, it’s just different. But your example illustrates the pressure transparency puts on employers. If employers in general knew that their entire process and decision-making would be published, they would be ceding information and power. I think discrimination of various kinds is harder to engage in under totally transparent conditions.

    2. Seahorse*

      Even if the hiring manager will disclose that information, I’m not sure what the interviewee is supposed to do with it. Internal or not, it’s unlikely you’ll know the exact qualifications or experiences of the other applicants.

      All you can do is present your own credentials and hope for the best. Having some generic info about the “competition” doesn’t do anything to actually bolster your application.

      1. Charlotte Lucas*

        I agree. Knowing how many other people are interviewing doesn’t help me at all. (I just need to be better than their other best candidate.) However, if there are multiple positions, that is useful to know, because it increases my chances of getting hired.

        1. Hazel*

          That’s a great point about number of positions being more relevant.

          If there are only a couple of applicants and they are internal, it increases the chance of them being identified in a supposedly confidential process, I think that’s partly why people don’t like to say the number.

          I suspect the other reason is if someone is unhappy with the process they might latch on to ‘why did you you hire everyone but me’ and make life difficult. In a union shop it could also be a hiring grievance.

        2. Anonymous79*

          What? Logically, number of applications or finalists is essentially as helpful as number of positions, at least most of the time.

    3. LunaLena*

      I’ve seen someone ask about internal applicants during final interviews before, but she also included a reason for it: when she (A) had applied at a previous job, there was an internal applicant (IA) who thought she was a shoo-in for the position since she already worked in that department. A ended up getting the job, which meant becoming IA’s direct manager. IA was extremely bitter about this and made A’s life hell for her first few months – refusing to tell her anything, not cooperating as much as possible, doing the bare minimum when asked to help etc. After a while they were able to come to an understanding and worked somewhat harmoniously together, but those first few months were so stressful A wanted to make sure she never repeated that experience again.

  5. Casper Lives*

    LW 4, thank you for this hilarious reminder that the internet is forever. My teenage Facebook posts will never be fully gone.

    1. Aphrodite*

      I am so grateful I grew up pre-Internet, in fact, pre-computer. I kept diaries for years and they were full of angst, ridiculous resentment from an immature idiot (even up to my early forties), and just plain awfulness. Yes, it helped me to grow as a person but one day I realized that if I were to be hit by the proverbial bus that they would cause immense amounts of pain to others. I spent two days tearing out and then tearing up pages of stuff for the recycle bin before tossing the covers. I felt such relief when I was finally done. At least the handwritten stuff will never resurface unlike online stuff.

      1. SB*

        It sounds like we may be from the same or similar eras & I am grateful at least once a week that I made all my adolescent mistakes in a time where portable pocket cameras with instant access to the entire world were merely things in science fiction movies!!!

      2. Beka Cooper*

        Yeah, my best friend and I, plus our two younger brothers, went through a phase of making really weird videos on our small camcorder that we thought were hilarious. This was in the late 90’s, early 2000’s. At the time I knew that it was possible to get the video onto a computer if only we had the right equipment, and I thought it would be super amazing if I could edit the videos and put them out for the world to see.

        Now that YouTube is a thing and I’ve seen what that would have meant, I am so glad that those videos are safely on our little tapes. I think there was some stuff that we thought was really funny as 12- and 15-year-olds that I now would consider pretty offensive.

        1. negligent apparitions*

          My friend and our older sisters did the same thing during the same time frame – and yes, so glad we never managed to get them to the internet!!

      3. WantonSeedStitch*

        I remember how light and free I felt after destroying my old diaries from my preteen to teenage years. I was a little worried I might regret it, but I never have.

      4. zuzu*

        I used to tell my students during my “the internet is forever” section of legal research class that I used to do all the same stupid shit they were doing at their age (they didn’t know we knew, but oh boy, did we know because the bars in town were complaining to administration about them) but no one was following me around with a camera and livestreaming it. So it wasn’t going to get my job offer yanked.

      5. goddessoftransitory*

        I remember reading online somewhere somebody asking people to keep their diaries and such because they’re invaluable to future historians and such. There were a lot of dry replies saying they doubted the historians of the future needed ravings about One Direction in hot pink glitter pen.

        1. tuppence*

          I mean depending on the era, yes they would be.
          It would tell historians that glitter pens were available and cheap enough that teenage girls could use them, provide insight into the first uses of new words/phrases (teenage girls are about 10 years a head of others in usin new words/old words in new ways since the 1700s or so) and how people reacted to pop culture phenomena. Contempory first hand documentation how people live their lives of anything is like gold dust for historians.

          Fun fact: salt and pepper cellars used to be part of three part sets. We have no idea what the third one contained, mustard is one hypothesis. But no-one actially wrote it down in any surviving documentation, because everyone knew what it was.

          Hypothetically, if we had a load of historical refrences to One Direction in media and no context for it we’d be grateful for a diary raveing about the band One Direction because it would contextualise it.

          Also an (incomplete) list of things that were scorned at various times in history as for (teenaged) girls/women until men took an interest in them and decided this is cool enough that its not for girls: novels, working on computers, botany, The Beatles.

        2. It Actually Takes a Village*

          I’d rather read about teen girl crushes than the significant majority of what white men wrote about everyone else throughout history.

    2. Jellybean_Thief*

      I am an elder millennial, which means I came of age alongside the internet.
      I was a big nerd, and when I discovered fanfic, I thought I had truly found my people.
      I was active in several newsgroups and published all the Star Trek: The Next Generation & Deep Space Nine fanfic I wrote from ages 14-18 under **my own name.**
      Some of this included early attempts at smut. Because the internet taught me that the only good fanfic was sexy fanfic, and I wanted to write good fanfic.
      (I didn’t have my first kiss until I was 19, so you can imagine how that worked out.)
      And then I went to college and forgot all about it.
      10 years later, I’ve been in a job for about 2 years. Love the company, love my coworkers. We’re in a team meeting, and somehow the conversation wanders over to Patrick Stewart.
      My boss quirked an eyebrow at me and says “Well, we all know [Jellybean_thief] loves Patrick Stewart,”
      I look blankly at him, because I’ve never shared my high school Star Trek phase.
      “Or maybe just Captain Picard. You find the most interesting things on the internet when you google people, don’t you?”
      Evidently he’d google-stalked me prior to my first interview and read ALL my fanfic.
      I literally almost vomited, right there in the office.
      Still in the top five most embarrassing moments of my life.

      1. Beans Talk*

        Oh this is hilarious. (From an elder millennial currently rewatching The Next Generation.)

        1. allathian*

          LOL yes. From an X-gen Trek fan who got her first email address at college ans who’s been online all her adult life.

          I never wrote my fantasies down, and even if I had, I would never have posted them online under my own name. I always had a crush on Riker rather than Picard, though. ;)

      2. Emmy Noether*

        Oy, that’s definitely a contender for a future mortification week here. On the upside, your boss seems to have a sense of humor about it (although he really should have never mentioned it), and it’s a hilarious anecdote for the rest of us.

        I there’s one thing the “right to be forgotten” needs to be applied to, it’s teenage writing endeavors.

      3. Your Local Password Resetter*

        Honestly, I’d consider that far more embarrassing behaviour for your boss. Like why are you googling searching your employees and nosing through ten-year-old smut fanfic? And why are you bringing that stuff up in front of other employees?

        1. Myrin*

          It’s not at all unusual for a boss to google people who applied for a position under them (which is what Jellybean’s boss did)!
          And honestly, I would’ve at least skimmed the fanfic, too, unless it was in a fandom I’m particularly uninterested in; I just wouldn’t ever mention it.

          1. triss merigold*

            Yeah, it’s the mentioning in a group setting at work I think is at best thoughtless. My Tumblr and AO3 are not under my name but even the quality stuff I wouldn’t want a boss seeing. Some of it’s g-rated. Some of it’s…not. Some of it’s a decade old! I’m not ashamed of it, heck, I’m proud of some of it, but surprising me with it in a professional setting would be anxiety inducing, to say the least.

            1. Kel*

              Just recently changed my ao3 to a different handle, since I was using the same one for everything and there’s…only me with that handle. I was suddenly terrified of someone googling my instagram name and getting my fic. absolutely not.

              1. Lydia*

                This used to be me. If you saw anything posted by one of two of my used handles, it was 100% me. I don’t know if that’s the case anymore, but it certainly was for about a 15 year period.

              2. Bread Crimes*

                Yeah I changed my AO3 handle when I started teaching classes, because if my students are gonna find out what kind of fanfic I write, they’d better at least have to work for it.

          2. Irish Teacher*

            I don’t think it’s unusual to google or even to read it. I do think it’s unusual to let the person know you’ve read it. I don’t think I’d even mention it if I read a colleague’s old fanfiction, let alone if it was smutty.

            1. Jackalope*

              Yeah, this. It was tactless to *mention* that he had read what she wrote, especially given the circumstances – she wrote it when much younger (especially since she was a teenager at the time), and since it was (slightly?) racy material it shouldn’t have been mentioned at work in this context.

              1. goddessoftransitory*

                I agree! That was not a cool move. I doubt the boss’s behavior every second of his teen years could stand up to scrutiny!

        2. Observer*

          Honestly, I’d consider that far more embarrassing behaviour for your boss.

          Very much.

          And why are you bringing that stuff up in front of other employees?

          Especially this!

          I once found something rather embarrassing that an employee had posted a number of years prior. I had actually gone searching because of a rather odd phone call I had gotten, so I wanted to make sure that I wasn’t handling a genuine hot potato. It turned out to be nothing that should be a problem for us as an organization, but it was definitely something that could have hurt them and family members.

          I *did* speak to them about it. But in private! And I didn’t mock. I just told them what had happened and how this could cause further problems. It was very much an FYI type of situation. I have no idea what they did about, as I never checked again. No reason to, and no reason for anyone else to know this stuff ever existed.

        3. blerg*

          Worse than mentioning it in front of coworkers, he apparently has already shown it around to the others for a good laugh at her expense (“…Well, we all know…”) Then decided to embarrass her about it. What a tool.

      4. Liz*

        I did exactly the same thing! Sixteen year old me could not imagine a future where my mildly erotic Buffy fanfiction wasn’t my greatest achievement in life, so it was all posted under my full name. I don’t think anybody has found it though.

        I do still write, but I’ve since learned the art of the pseudonym, and sufficiently hidden all my fandom related frolics behind appropriate avatars. I google myself every now and then to check!

        1. AnonForThis*

          I’m glad I used pseudonyms for my middle school fanfiction, particularly after this exchange with an anonymous reader:

          Reader: This is so good! You have to continue it!
          Me: Thanks!
          Reader: I’ll kill you if you don’t finish it!
          Me: …

      5. Richard Hershberger*

        Go for Stewart, not merely Picard. Watch I, Claudius to see him when he had hair, playing a truly evil captain of the Praetorian Guard.

        1. Nessun*

          Everything about I, Claudius is amazing, but seeing Captain Picard as a member of the Guard…I was not prepared for that the first time I watched! Of course, now I watch other shows and think of nothing but the characters (Sian Philipps in particular – Oh look it’s Livia, Evil Incarnate!).

          1. Richard Hershberger*

            I was just a couple days ago astonished and delighted watching Classic Who, fourth doctor, City of Death. At one point, as the Doctor and Romana are returning to the Tardis parked in the Louvre, we see a man and a woman admiring the it and discussing its artistic merit. The man was played by John Cleese. I dropped everything to show my wife.

        2. JustAnotherKate*

          Also, watch the original Dune (if you can stomach it)! Very weird film, but it was nice to see him pop up! Particularly amusing because he is the keeper of the House Atreides Battle Pug, which was definitely not in the book but added a certain something to the movie.

          1. goddessoftransitory*

            All the pugs at the beginning of that film!

            I saw that when I was about nine with absolutely no context–just went to the movies every week and that was what was playing. Mind STILL blown.

          1. goddessoftransitory*

            He’s also utterly fantastic as Claudius in the David Tennant Hamlet. It was basically a play about a fascinating man with a nutty nephew.

      6. Richard Hershberger*

        I got online back in usenet days, in my early thirties when I had nearly attained the age of reason. I made a conscious decision to use my real name as a measure of self restraint. Using my real name would give me just a moment’s pause before hitting the send button on an intemperate post. I won’t say this worked perfectly, but it worked more than not, and I continue the policy to this day.

        1. I have RBF*

          Whereas I refused to use my real name on UseNet.

          I had long arguments with people who were sure that what I said had no importance because I didn’t want to sign my “real” name to it. Nevermind that some people only know me by my pseudonym, and that if you knew my wallet name you could easily stalk me because it was unique. (I actually had people driving around my neighborhood that couldn’t find me because I used a pseud. They knew the area because a sort-of friend blabbed, but not my address.) Add in a bit of gender dysmorphia – I’m AFAB, and the last thing I wanted was to be regarded as “A woman on the internet? ASL? Wanna fuck? Show me your tits! Check out my dick pic!” A gender ambiguous pseudonym helped cut the problem off at the knees.

          That pseudonym is older than Google, and I used it before I ever got on the net. If it had a birth certificate, it would be old enough to drink.

          Different strokes for different folks.

          1. CC*

            Hah, yeah same. I actually stopped using my old-enough-to-drink pseudonym a few years after it became old-enough-to-drink, which was [mumble] years ago now. I’m a different person now, and I *don’t* stand behind a lot of what I did under that pseudonym. 20+ years will do that you know? I have learned a lot of things.

            Especially when the majority of it was stealthing “nope not AFAB at all” in open source development and holding a bunch of techbro attitudes which I’m now very embarrassed about. At least with the gender-ambiguous pseudonym I didn’t get hassled about being “A Gurl On The Internet!!!” although I did witness a couple of arguments about whether I was male or female.

        2. Antigone Funn*

          Way back when, I read a persuasive essay in favor of always using your real name online, for the reasons you stated: basically, you should be able to stand behind what you say, even if you have the option to be an anonymous coward. I thought that sounded reasonable, so I did it for a while. This was around the time I graduated high school, so just taking my first steps into being a Grown Adult Person With Responsibilities. Before that, as a minor, I always used a pseudonym for safety.

          I quickly found out that having a female name online invites all kinds of abuse, not to mention stalking, or just tying your real name to stuff that isn’t people’s business (like racy fanfic or AAM comments, lol). It was…a real learning experience for me. I’m sure it’s the same way for people with ethnic names and such.

          Now I maintain one email for internet stuff and one for IRL stuff. I’ve used the same pseudonym for fan pursuits for more than 20 years. It works just as well for restraining myself from posting things I’m not proud of, but I could still ditch the nym if I needed to.

          1. Richard Hershberger*

            Fair point. I do have that White cis-male privilege thing going. I completely acknowledge that it colors my perspective on the matter.

      7. Turquoisecow*


        Now I’m really glad I do most of my interneting under a pseudonym. While people probably could connect the real me to turquoisecow, it’s a few more steps than just typing my real name into google.

        I’m not sure where I got the idea to use usernames on the internet but I still feel awkward about my real name on Facebook.

        1. Zelda*

          One of the many, many reasons I am not on Facebook is their real-names policy. Heck to the nope.

          1. There You Are*

            Uh, I’m on FB and I don’t use my real name. I started with my real name, had someone from a different political persuasion internet-stalk me because I said something negative about his god (the then-POTUS), so I changed my name.

            I have online FB friendships dating back at least a decade with people whose real names I didn’t learn until 2-3 years ago.

        2. I have RBF*

          I have cut my Facebook time to maybe once a month. The only reason I ever was on it to start with was for my high school reunion and some family that use primarily that. I don’t like their algorithm, their wallet name rule, the way they encourage lies and misinformation, or their other shady shit.

        3. But what to call me?*

          This comment made me realize that one reason I never actually do much on Facebook is because I find it so difficult to think of anything that I’d both want to post under my real name on a platform where everyone (parents, coworkers, boss, neighbors, students, etc.) can see it and that I wouldn’t find so boring and generic that there’s no reason to bother posting it at all.

          1. But what to call me?*

            e.g I think my fanfic is pretty good and I’m happy to put it in front of the people who would enjoy it, but I sure wouldn’t get anywhere near the topics I tend to explore there if I thought it might be read by my dissertation committee. And there are things I’d discuss with my academic advisor that that would need way too much context to make sense to my brother. And there are things I’d share with my mom that really don’t need my coworkers’ opinions. And someone I know from the internet because we always leave nice comments on each others’ fics doesn’t need to know the details of the latest work drama. And that one creep from that weird internet argument 2 years ago *really* didn’t need to know where I live or work. There just aren’t that many things to talk about that need to be shared with every single person who knows my real name all at once in exactly the same way (through an easily searchable post).

            Except cute pet pictures. Those seem to be popular with a very wide audience regardless of what name people go by.

            1. Bread Crimes*

              One of my advisors has a hard rule of not looking at her students’ social media in any form until after they’ve gotten their degree and moved on. Which I found out about because she mentioned in passing that she’d suddenly realized at one point that she was reading a Twitter thread I’d written, and stopped immediately once she twigged to who I was.

              To be fair, it was a whole long thread about scholarship in our field that had been QRTed by another person in our field–and I wouldn’t have minded her reading that at all! But it was reassuring to know that even when she found me online by accident, she was the one putting up the barrier so that she couldn’t see me fret about assignments or what not.

              1. Zelda*

                Heh. I once had a quote from a professional article printed out and pinned to my cubicle wall for about 18 months before I realized that I knew the guy from science fiction conventions.

      8. Lirael*

        I mean. if he read the whole lot that’s quite a compliment and tells you just as much about him, IMO [eyes emoji]


        1. Warrior Princess Xena*

          That was my thought too, though like OP I would probably have melted into my seat in sheer embarrasment.

      9. Totally Minnie*

        Oooooh. I’m an elder millennial too, but around age 14 when I was starting to sign up for my first internet accounts, I worked one period a day in my school’s guidance office. The secretary there was a very sweet woman who was EXTREMELY paranoid about all this newfangled internet business. Every time she talked about it, she would say how dangerous she thought it was for people on the internet to know your real name, so right from the beginning I was picking fake names for the internet. Bless Miss Betty for saving me from mortification!

        1. tangerineRose*

          Maybe Miss Betty wasn’t so paranoid after all :) I’m glad she saved you from embarrasment.

      10. Random Dice*

        Honestly, he crossed a line, going that deep down a rabbit hole and then bringing that up.

        Not great social skills, that one.

      11. WantonSeedStitch*

        Oh noooooooo. What an awful thing for your boss to do. What purpose was served there besides humiliating you? Some people think that humiliation is a form of humor and affection, but those people are jerks.

      12. I Wrote This in the Bathroom*

        Oh heck.

        Read through the comments below and, while my first reaction was “it’s great that he never said anything for two years and until you had a great relationship w/the team,” people that are horrified that he brought it up in a team meeting, you’re right! That stuff belongs in a 1:1 *maybe, if that*. Or in a speech to be given at your retirement party. Not in a team meeting!

        PS. Occurred to me reading your comment that my younger millennial kids were very active on Newgrounds in their preteens and early teens. One posted fiction. Some of what I saw of their posts back then would certainly raise eyebrows*! Hopefully none of it can be traced to them, they used snarky (to them) usernames (at least one was a South Park reference) and email addresses that I’m sure they do not use anymore. Fingers crossed.

        * when younger son was 12, I convinced him to watch a classic 80s film with me, and the next day found his review of it on NG. “My girlfriend talked me into renting it. Didn’t want to at first, but I got to fist base halfway through the movie and to third at the end! The movie was good too.” and no I’m not telling y’all what the title was.

        1. I Wrote This in the Bathroom*

          *First base, I somehow made his review even worse than it already is, haha

      13. zuzu*

        I’m really lucky, because while I did some embarrassing stuff under my own name in the early days of the internet, I happen to share a first and last name with both a real estate agent who is aggressively online and a scholar who is also aggressively online, so their hits have pushed all my cringe way, way down the results.

        1. I Wrote This in the Bathroom*

          Hahaha that was the top result I got when I googled my main email address just now. I got it when I was married and it is FirstName+MI+First 3 of LastName I no longer have. (Confuses the heck out of people.) Well apparently there’s someone out there with my FirstName, whose last name is my MI + first 3 of my old last! This person’s Facebook page is the top match when searching for my email. I can live with that!

        2. King Friday XIII*

          Depending on what name you look for, I’m either a professional sports player or a major character on a TV series and believe me, I am *extremely* grateful.

          1. wendelenn*

            Well, King Friday XIII WAS pretty important on that series! LOL I know that’s not what you’re saying but I do love your username here.

      14. ephemerides*

        Well that’s a millennial horror story for the ages!

        I’m in the same demographic, and I think there’s something of a divide in how comfortable people are talking about fandom stuff IRL–not necessarily age-related, more so when someone got involved in fandom. I started in the late 90s when I was in high school, and it was something people just Did Not Talk About offline, regardless of whether they read/wrote smutty fanfic or the most innocuous gen fic. Which left a deep impression on me to the extent that even saying the word “fanfic” out loud was deeply uncomfortable for a long time. Yet people who are about my age or only a couple of years younger, who started in fandom in the 2000s or so, seem more comfortable talking about it as just another interest, possibly because that’s around the time when fandom started becoming more mainstream and seeming less like some deviant niche interest.

        Which is all to say that something like that used to be one of my worst nightmares! I’d like to think I’d take it more in stride these days as I’m moving into my Too Old to Give a Damn years, but who knows.

        Also, I did at least have the sense to participate under a pseudonym from the beginning… but when I was applying to colleges, it occurred to me to search for my real name (which is unusual enough that any mention would be immediately recognizable as me), and I discovered that at one point, when I was around 14 or so, I apparently sent in an “about me” thing to a fandom mailing list I was on in which I gave my FULL NAME, including my even more unusual MIDDLE NAME, and someone had the bright idea to archive everyone’s “about me”s from that mailing list on a Geocities page. Cue panic! Luckily, I emailed the page owner and they were nice enough to take it down immediately, but that was a hell of a thing to discover (both that I was dumb enough to do it and that someone else saved it for posterity).

        1. But what to call me?*

          I discovered fanfic sometime early to mid-aughts and have only recently decided ‘screw-it’ about keeping it some big deep secret, though mainly because it has turned out to be relevant to my PhD research. I actually introduced my 60-ish y.o. research advisor to fanfic XD
          But she will *never* know my Ao3 or tumblr username.

          (Fortunately, I was far too worried about my parents discovering what I was reading to ever attach my real name to anything. I wasn’t all that interested in smut, but I made no effort to avoid it either.)

      15. Ampersand*

        This is so funny! Also: I am dying. On your behalf. I think I might literally have died on the spot had this happened to me.

      16. UKDancer*

        Oh poor you. I am so glad most of my terrible teenage fanfic is now on defunct sites and under another name. It was probably pretty terrible (mostly Forever Knight and DS9) with unrealistic dialogue and bad love scenes.

        I’d be mortified if any of my colleagues found it because it’s something I prefer not to remember having done.

        It’s funny once I graduated from university and started working, I lost the interest in fanfic and just stopped writing it. Sometime I may try again but this time with better characterisation and less wince inducingly bad dialogue.

      17. Csethiro Ceredin*

        That’s just mean of the boss. We all did cringeworthy stuff at that age! And hey, teenage you had good taste in shows (and, arguably, fictional characters).

      18. Crazyoboe*

        Oh god, this makes me thankful that my bosses have never found the Janeway/Chakotay fanfic of my youth …

    3. Boiling Heads*

      #4, I used to do monster doll customs and post process photos online for clients, so I both feel your pain and can also assure you that I would never judge someone by the vat of boiling body parts in their garage. XD

      (I also have an extremely unique name where the Google results are nothing but me. Thankfully, I started my online time in the 90s, when “don’t use your real name EVER!” was common sense, so all my search results are boring. Get tired of constantly having to tell people search sites to remove my addresses and phone numbers, though. US privacy laws are absolutely dire.)

      I do have a tale about something that could’ve ended very badly if the wrong person had gotten involved:

      A few years ago, I found an SD card on a guest lobby chair when I came into work. After having IT scan for malware, I plugged it in my reader to see if I could figure out who it belonged to and return it. There were a bunch of random sci-fi TV episodes on it, and an email address as a filename in case the card was lost and found. Always a good practice. Nothing revealing about the email, no real names or anything, something generic like ilovesunshine/dogs/hatecauliflower @ lovesun dot whatever.

      So I Googled the email. And just from that one email, within about fifteen minutes I had discovered all of the following:
      -The full real names of the email’s owner, their spouse, and their young children.
      -Their home address and phone number, and multiple photos of the entire family outside their home.
      -Where their kids went to school, what grades they were in, and their hobbies (on personal and official school social media).
      -Where the parents worked, and their job titles and job history.
      -A very good idea of their annual income.
      -What vehicles they drove and what they looked like.
      -A detailed listing of their expensive hobbies. (The email was registered to many forums, where they also posted photos from their expensive hobbies.)

      Basically, with one email and a quick Google, I had more than enough info to have scammed these people, or gone after their kids, or otherwise made their lives hell if I’d been that kind of person. I was pretty torn on whether or not to tell them what I’d found with that one email search. But I ultimately just stuck to writing, “Hey, an SD card with this email found at [business location]. Would you like to come claim it?” Because all too often, the person trying to help is the one who takes the heat in those situations. In their place, I know even if they had good reason to look me up, I’d still feel a bit uncomfortable with a total stranger telling me out of the blue that they’d discovered all this revealing stuff about me online.

      So, yeah, if there might be any reason to put your contact info out there where random strangers might find it, like an email on an SD card you may lose? Make sure that the info you use isn’t connected to anything you wouldn’t want random strangers using against you.

      (They emailed back to say, thanks, but the card has already been replaced, so we don’t need it anymore. I gave the card to IT to wipe all the data from it and discard it. The end.)

      1. Boiling Heads*

        Oops, I “accidentally half a sentence.”

        “…I plugged it in my reader to see if I could figure out who it belonged to and return it, and, you know, make sure they weren’t a creeper before contacting them because we got a lot of those at that job.

      2. WantonSeedStitch*

        Hey, do you work in prospect research? If not, you should! I’d hire you!

        1. Boiling Heads*

          I’ve never done prospect research! But I just love doing research for the sake of learning random things. I’m actually on my final day at current job for health reasons and needing more gigs, so I’m going to have to look into this. :) If it doesn’t involve a bunch of talking to people via phone or face-to-face (as in, the health reason for why I’m leaving current job; vocal cord issues from overuse), it might be very interesting for me!

          (My bragging achievement is when I spent my free time combing the far and gross reaches of the Internet to pin down a very slippery longtime stalker of a friend so she could ID him to the authorities. It took me almost a year to finally have enough random pieces of evidence to stitch into an accurate picture of this guy’s crimes. A year well spent to get a violent criminal away from an old friend! And, despite my username for this post, there was no boiling of body parts involved in the process.)

          1. AGD*

            Well done! I did a similar thing, counterstalking a friend’s slimy partner when he suddenly blocked me everywhere upon realizing I’d seen too much.

            1. Boiling Heads*

              I’m really glad someone else can do this for their friend! It’s a highly unpleasant and usually lengthy undertaking, but it was so worth it to know someone I cared about was a bit safer for my efforts.

          2. Zelda*

            “enough random pieces of evidence to stitch into an accurate picture of this guy’s crimes”

            Penelope Garcia, is that you?

      3. Elizabeth West*


        I think of stuff like this every time I see people put their kids and grandkids in public posts under their names on Facebook. Set it to Friends only, Susan!!!

    4. I Wrote This in the Bathroom*

      Luckily, my teenage days were before the Internet, but I got my FB account in my late 30s, to keep in touch with my then-work group of friends, that was very cliquey and into partying and playing online games on our FB accounts (don’t remember what Mafia Wars is, but I used to put in HOURS battling my teammates on that thing)… my FB posts from that time are cringey, but they are either Mafia Wars-related or extremely vague one-liner hints at something in my life. Or they are photos of my dog. Somehow past me had the good sense not to post a lot about my kids, not to post photos of the kids, and not to go into any detail about my divorce and subsequent years of online dating! Only mention of my divorce that I found on my FB is a screenshot of Courage the Cowardly Dog, captioned “the things I do for love”. Posted the day when I went to the court for the final divorce hearing, and then to my realtor’s office to put a downpayment on a house. Not a peep on my FB about either of those! Thank you, past me! (now the mommy blog I had in the mid 00s is another story, but it’ll be hard for an employer to find)

    5. Elizabeth West*

      My hobbies are fairly family friendly, except I do have a lifelong love of horror fiction and follow a lot of writers. Who often post horror art. So anyone looking at my Twitter feed is going to see likes and retweets of some gross, weird shit. :)

      However, this community also contains some of the NICEST people on the planet. They may write about monsters snacking on people’s fingers, but in person they’re kind, nerdy, love to share their knowledge of writing and the profession in general, and are lovely, mostly normal (lol) people.

    6. Csethiro Ceredin*

      Agreed! Also I was very interested in the process for making custom Funkos.

  6. Goldie*

    LW #2 We stopped doing retreats but the best ones included wide range of easy, fun activities that give people lots of choice of what to do including sitting and chatting. Games, cornhole, crafts, adult coloring books, magazines, good snacks, a nice place to sit or take a stroll. An actual retreat from work.

    1. Sibilant Susurrus*

      An accessible activity that could work is a few cooperative board games. Depending on how many people, divide into groups of 4-6 and each group gets a different game. There’s plenty out there that offer about an hour of play per game.

      1. MyStars*

        There are also some fun “party” games that can foster playful cooperation and getting to know one another. Apples to Apples has always been an interesting one for learning a little about one another. Pictionary is weirdly useful, especially if you have a larger group of 30ish and break them into two teams by counting off. Jigsaw puzzles and card games like Uno leave room for conversation and letting your hair down with no fixed participation numbers or limits.

        1. Rebekah*

          I was going to suggest Apples to Apples! That game requires no skill (seriously I’ve played it with preschoolers if not toddlers), can be played by 4-12 people, can be taught in seconds, and yet is entertaining and hilarious for adults while creating a lot of opportunities for conversation.

        2. This*

          Oh my gosh I haaaate Apple to Apples. Every time I’ve played it’s felt like an hour of politely pretending very boring jokes were actually very funny and clever.

          1. Jackalope*

            Hah! I’m with you on this one. Maybe the lesson is just bring a handful of games and let people pick what they’d like to play rather than having a big group game session where everyone has to do the same thing.

          2. Boiling Heads*

            Oh god. I’ve just been reminded of the time I got roped into a game of Apples to Apples with a bunch of co-workers who were overly literal. I don’t find the game that amusing to begin with, but all the other judges were obsessed with the most “accurate” answers rather than the most entertaining, and they hated when I judged based on humor. Instead of playing a game, I felt like I was doing one of those awful school exercises with flash cards that didn’t even have any educational value.

            I think A2A is one of those games you should only play as a game with people whose perspectives align with yours so everyone’s actually somewhat entertained. Otherwise, I guess it’s as a very drawn-out and frequently dull way to get to know someone’s public personality.

        3. Nargal*

          Yes, some fun party games have been hits at the work events I’ve been to! Things like scattergories and pictionary are lots of fun and don’t involve revealing anything too personal (like two truths and a lie type games).

        4. Willow Pillow*

          Telestrations would be my pick! There are 8- and 12-player versions, it’s like telephone but everyone has a secret word/phrase and little dry erase pads are passed around to draw the phrase, the next person writes what it depicts, the next person draws that, etc. It doesn’t require any drawing skill – the worse the drawing is, the funnier the results get!

        5. Stuckinacrazyjob*

          Codenames is pretty good! And just one! Just no cards against humanity. ( i never want to know if anyone is racist. it’s embarrassing)

          1. I have RBF*

            Yeah, CAH is a bit too … crass, in that it has a lot of bathroom humor and sexual innuendo. I mean, I added the menstrual pack to my set. Definitely not work safe.

            1. AnonForThis*

              I think the entire point of CAH is to be NSFW. It’s basically workplace harassment: the game.

              1. Random Dice*

                Most gamers I know have long ago moved past CAH. It’s just tiresomely trying way too hard.

          2. The Shenanigans*

            I agree with CAH, but because the game is very, very, very not safe for work. However, I want to know when people around me are racist because I want to make it very clear to them that it is Not Okay, and if they won’t change their thinking, to please keep it in their nasty little minds.

      2. The Shenanigans*

        And for the love of every god do NOT make people play if they would rather watch!

    2. Allonge*

      I was totally going to suggest this – get some good time together, with as much relaxation / choices as possible. Having a memory of low-key fun with colleagues is going to build trust as much as anything else would at this stage.

      1. allathian*

        Yes, this. Although watch out if there are any very competitive people attending the retreat, a few of those could spoil the fun for the less competitive people. If that happens, it won’t help build trust.

        1. Seeking Second Childhood*

          I’m shuddering remembering camps where I tried many new crafts FOR FUN and then got surprised by an unexpected art show.

          (Ugh, bad memory unlocked. I loved camp but they should have reminded first-time campers about the art show. I went for goopy fun putting Vaseline and plaster bandages on my face, then switched tracks. I would have come back and PAINTED IT if I’d known someone would get a ribbon!)

    3. birch*

      Yeah, I think this kind of thing is a good idea in general. Particularly, your options that make sure people can still participate in the socializing without participating in the games themselves. It’s so frustrating when an activity is billed as a fun relaxing social time but the only way to actually talk to people is screaming at them across a volleyball court or something.

      I would also say, in total agreement with Alison, any team-building/retreat/social activities only work if the dynamics involve a basic level of trust among the people at the retreat, and if the stated goals are plain. You can’t forcibly rebuild trust without addressing structural issues, so if trust building is actually the goal, you need real actionable plans. If just relaxing and rewarding the employees with fun is the goal, then you need to make sure people are able to relax. What is NOT relaxing or safe is a retreat where people who made decisions that harmed others are all invited together and expected to get along– it feels like brushing important issues under the rug and can further erode trust. I’d go so far as to say that if members of your department were responsible for the issues you mention, you don’t have the option of “relaxing social time” with everyone invited. You can either dis-invite the people in power or you can do the hard work, but you can’t have relaxing fun when those dynamics are still in play.

    4. Mel*

      I agree with Goldie. Look at the retreat as an opportunity to get to know your colleagues in person, but don’t focus on trust building activities. The latter will come only with time and a lot of effort, the former will help to begin building camaraderie.

      1. Scarlet2*

        This. It’s important to make sure people can connect in the ways that feels most natural to them. I really hate being forced to take part in “activities”. I’m not a child at summer camp.

    5. Earlk*

      Best ones I’ve been on have always involved some kind of session on exploring our work, either how we can improve processes or coming up with a mission for the next year or so and then and an activity that is more social, this can be tricky to work out what people want to do but we’d work out activities based on budget and location then let people order by preference what they’d prefer just to give an idea of the range one time we went canoeing and another we sat around playing children’s party games.

    6. Cat Tree*

      Pre-covid, we used to have a yearly picnic at a park. Management provided the food, including grilling it if necessary, and served it so they could say hi to everyone. They always made sure to have options for everyone. Other people could choose to bring food like side dishes or desserts, for those who like cooking. There was always enough catered food that bringing extras was purely voluntary. The organizers even made a point to request adding labels to food to make it easier for others with food restrictions.

      It was always scheduled during work time. There were a variety of activities or you could just sit in the pavilion and talk. I always really liked it.

      1. NotBatman*

        Same! I especially appreciated the public park locale for being kid-friendly (if necessary) and not creating pressure to drink alcohol.

    7. Pucci*

      I was just at such a work retreat where one of the activities was this: Prior to the retreat, our boss had us submit a photo of something that res presented us – a favorite car, a hobby, a pet, a place. The boss used a game platform to set these us in multiple choice quiz, and we logged into the platform to guess who each picture represented. It was a fun way to get to know our colleagues.

    8. Random Dice*

      I think it’s worth stepping back, though – the goal is impossible to accomplish through the requested activities.

      Trust is built by being trustworthy.

      The ones who were untrustworthy in this scenario – repeatedly – are the company’s leadership.

      Getting worker bees to trust *each other* doesn’t solve the underlying problem: they don’t trust the company’s leadership. (For good reasons.)

      There is no activity at a retreat that can fix a problem that’s caused by people who aren’t there… and in fact not only aren’t owning up to their own culpability, but are trying to shift blame to those they harmed.

      The employees aren’t the problem and so can’t be the solution. The offsite will only piss them off and add to their indignation.

      1. Ask a Manager* Post author

        Yes, this is the thing — the letter isn’t asking what activities they can do at a retreat; they’re asking what activities they can do to build trust in a toxic situation. Apples to Apples (even if you like it!) isn’t going to do it. All the suggestions here are ways they can fill the time in reasonably pleasant ways (for most people) but they don’t speak to the question she’s posing.

        1. 1LFTW*

          Whenever I’ve had to endure “trust exercises” and “team building” activities led by leadership that’s already caused harm, the result has been more harm, and a further erosion of trust.

    9. Momma Bear*

      One company used to have low-stakes competitive events like gingerbread house building (every team got a pre-purchased starter kit from the Director), chili cookoff, etc. Things where people *who wanted to* showed off skills and those who didn’t want to do the thing got to sit back and cheer (or sample and vote). I also like the idea of different options – give the introverts space to chat in small groups or play a game like Forbidden Island and everyone else can do something bigger and louder if they want to. If you’re doing casual food time, maybe take that as an opportunity for managers to have small group discussions with people and really listen. And at the end of the event (give it a time limit) let people leave early, wink wink. I always appreciated that if I put in some face time, I was allowed to try to beat the traffic home.

      I’d also look at the reason for the retreat/event. Is it a checkbox or is there really a bigger systemic issue in the company that’s being overlooked? Would this be better as one on ones or skip level meetings to get to root cause?

    10. maybenotrelevant*

      I finally experienced a team building activity that didn’t make me cringe…

      We decorated and assembled skateboards and did a giant poster in a timed fashion… It allowed art people to art, mechanical people to mechanic thing, and people like me to start trading markers with other teams so that we could have 3 orange ones and some other team could have an extra green and red one :D

    11. Artemesia*

      Retreats and exercises can be helpful with a well functioning team. They don’t cure lack of trust because lack of trust is fundamental. The only thing that cures that is the business i.e. the leadership, being trustworthy — that is a lot harder than some game.

    12. IDIC believer*

      I was subjected to many such activities/retreats over 45+ of work life. And found them all anxiety-inducing and pointless, while acknowledging many colleagues felt otherwise. I wish more had been optional and that I had been brave enough to call out sick much earlier in my career. The last 10 years before retiring I *somehow* was on leave for all such days (as well as holiday parties, etc).

      I get that for many their job includes socializing or connections. But for me, I just wanted to do my work to the best of my ability, get paid, and leave. I was content being the reliable fixer of others’ mistakes/laziness as long as I didn’t have to do a lot of small talk or pretend I cared about others’ home lives.

      I would never wish a pandemic on the world but did appreciate it gave me a legit (in other people’s mind) reason to live my hermit lifestyle. Now retired, I am in nirvana.

  7. takeachip*

    LW1, keep in mind that it’s not completely up to you whether setting this boundary damages the relationship. You can script the perfect message and deliver it flawlessly, but it’s still going to be up to him how he receives it. Sometimes people get so focused on planning out their end of the conversation that they forget it’s going to happen live; it won’t just be you saying your part. He’s already shown you that he doesn’t have his own limits and it seems like he may not really respect or accept your role as his manager based on the way he’s treated you. You might want to prepare for several different bad reactions from him–what you will say if he pulls the old “I’m sorry I’m such a terrible person” guilt trip, or if he gets emotional, etc. When setting a boundary I think it’s best to just repeat the message and end the conversation if someone reacts poorly, otherwise the other person can take it as a negotiation.

    1. Limdood*

      if I’m wrong about this, great.

      but my suspicion, from reading the letter, is that once it’s clear to the guy that you’re absolutely done with that, his entire demeanor and attitude will change and you’ll go from the manager he can’t stop gushing about to the heartless ice queen.

      it really sounds like (maybe subconsciously, as a result of the divorce) he’s piling on the “I’m so unfortunate and misunderstood” heap in the hopes that some other woman (you, the OP… but as Allison says, it could quite easily be getting launched at other female employees too) will realize just what a catch he is and scoop up what his soon to be ex wife is about to pass up. getting “rejected” (regardless of just how inappropriate the whole thing was) has a good chance to put him in “sour grapes” mode where he makes you out to be the bad guy to salve his ego.

      hopefully you won’t have to deal with all of that… but every part of the letter reads strongly like the prelude to this exact scenario

      1. takeachip*

        Oh I wouldn’t be surprised at all if you’re right. This sort of idealization and triangulation is a huge red flag.

      2. allathian*

        Yes, this. That said, it’s not a reason to allow him to continue dumping his emotional garbage on the LW. If he becomes even more difficult to deal with as a consequence of her setting boundaries in this, they can be dealt with like any other performance issue.

        1. EPLawyer*

          Exactly. As others have said, OP, be prepared for him being difficult. Which you then need to address. You also need to be prepared to manage him out if he refuses to respect boundaries and understand this is a place of business not his therapist’s office.

          That sounds tough because you want your reports to be able to have a rough time and get the support they need during it. But I am willing to be that your reports appreciated the support and then GOT ON WITH THEIR JOBS. This guy is looking for a new wife.

        2. Observer*

          That said, it’s not a reason to allow him to continue dumping his emotional garbage on the LW

          I’d go even further and say that it IS a reason to *not* allow it.

          And, 100% *when he reacts badly, you’re going to need to deal with it like any other performance problems. He’s not going to like it, he’s probably going to yell to HR, but that’s what you are going to need to do.

          *I honestly don’t believe that there is any chance he’s going to handle this well. I hope I;m wrong, but I doubt it.

          1. Artemesia*

            This is why I suggested further management development for the OP. This situation should have been dealt with the second time he tried to make her his support woman. Now he will escalate if she deals with it professionally and she needs to know how to manage that firmly and effectively.

      3. I should really pick a name*

        If heartless ice queen means he leaves her alone, I’d consider that a win.

        1. smirkette*

          Except that that perception can end up negatively affecting her position. Women and other marginalized groups are often punished for setting and maintaining boundaries in ways that white men generally are not.

      4. Chrisssss*

        That is beautifully said. The way he praises her sounds like love bombing to me. I also hope we are wrong on this one.

      5. ferrina*

        Yep, this is how I suspected this was being played out. A younger manager, sympathetic ear, clearly he’s going through so much and needs to be comforted /s/…. in my experience men that go into this variety of glassbowling tend to get hyper-defensive when called on it. (I’d say 90% double-down; 10% actually reflect and apologize). The woman that sets the boundary is “unfeeling” or “uncaring” or “cruel”…he doesn’t see that it was never her job to soothe his emotions in the first place. It’s never “sorry, I did get too personal there”; it’s “but I’m going through a hard time, cut me some slack” (translation: I am upset and you are obligated to tolerate my behavior)

      6. SHEILA, the co-host*

        I also got this vibe from reading the letter. He’s 22 years older than her. I’m getting heavy older guy wants a hot younger wife as a divorce prize vibes off this, and guys like this can turn on a dime from piling on the charm to calling you all sorts of misogynistic names the instant they’re rejected.

        That being said, this guy needs boundaries, and sooner, rather than later, before he alienates the rest of the team. If it seems like setting that boundary is going to be dangerous given the above, then call the EAP yourself for support and advice and/or get HR involved. Either way, his behavior is inappropriate and either the behaviors stop or he stops working for you.

        1. Ti*

          “Heavy older guy wants a hot younger wife”…..

          Youch. There’s no need for fat-shaming, ageism, or objectification here.

          1. Jayem Griffin*

            I read it as: “heavy ‘older-guy-wants-a-hot-younger-wife’ vibes” – like, the vibes are heavy, not the guy.

          2. Redaktorin*

            Others have pointed out you misread the fat-shaming, but the other stuff is also a bit of a stretch. There is a phenomenon whereby some misogynistic straight men look for women much younger than them (“hot younger wife”) as consolation for a divorce is pretty well-established.

            Nobody is objectifying OP or criticizing him for being old, but criticizing him for treating an attractive younger woman as a prize that proves he has “won” his divorce.

            tl;dr: You need to learn the difference between objectifying someone and talking openly about that person being objectified by a third party.

      7. negligent apparitions*

        ::I see myself in this photo and I don’t like it::

        (having been the emotional dumping ground turned heartless bitch in this scenario)

      8. Csethiro Ceredin*

        Yes… and if he may react poorly it’s a good reason to give your boss a heads up about the situation and your plan to address it in advance.

    2. bamcheeks*

      A really, really good thing to internalise is that it doesn’t matter if he dislikes you. Obviously it’s not ideal and it’s good to have positive relationships with your staff. But if it’s a choice between being liked because you’re an endlessly available sounding board for Mr Divorce and being disliked because you set boundaries and redirect someone to work, it’s not a difficult choice. It’s easier to set that boundary if you remember that the boundary itself is important, rather than phrase it as, “how o I set this boundary without upsetting Fred”.

      LW1, a useful phrase is, “what do you need from me as your manager?” It’s a strong but surprisingly gentle way of directing people back to work because it’s an offer of help, but it’s forcing them to focus on your role as manager not as a friend. A slightly reduced workload? Friday afternoon off at short notice? Recognition that you’re not on top of your game right now but that’s temporary? All of these are manager problems. “A listening ear any time any where” is not.

      1. Ellis Bell*

        Yeah, I don’t think the OP needs to worry about it going south too much, because so what if he doesn’t like it? To be clear, I’d be surprised if he made it an issue once it’s spelled out. I think the businesslike tone of Alison’s script could easily prevent a shame spiral, particularly since there’s no beef made of all the free venting he’s already had, and it’s phrased more like “going forward, it’s time to focus on work”. However, even if the worst reaction possible happens, it’s more useful to have that out of the bag where you can see it, than it is to avoid it. If this guy is “stubbornly entitled to women’s emotional labour” man as opposed to “clueless and you remind me of a wife-mummy-primary teacher; plus women are always nice so I thought it was okay!” man, then you need to know that. If he won’t take clear, mild, businesslike direction from his boss because she’s a woman then it’s not his divorce that’s the issue.

      2. Cat Tree*

        One thing that took me way too long in life to realize, is that my goal is changing the other person’s behavior, not changing their mind. I don’t need to convince them that they’re wrong and I’m right. I don’t need them to agree with me. Ultimately I need them to do the thing or stop doing the other thing.

        1. Aelfwynn*

          This is so true and so hard at the same time! I’ve definitely gone into these situations wanting the other person to understand how bonkers their behavior is, but it’s a fools errand most of the time.

      3. RVA Cat*

        Seconding all of this. I hope OP1’s workplace has a good EAP. It also sounds like he may need to take some time off to get his head together.

        One boundary could be to stop all talk about his ex-wife. She does not work there. I like steering everything back to his specific, work-related needs like PTO.

      4. ferrina*

        It can matter if he starts treating you different as a manager. If OP trusts her boss, she might want to give the boss a head’s up. “X is going through a hard time, but he’s started using me as a therapist. I’m going to let him know I’m not available to listen to things about his divorce (though obviously I’m available for any work issues). I’m hoping he’ll hear and respond well, but given how he’s been acting a little strangely, I just wanted to give you a head’s up.”

        This would very much depend on how reasonable OP’s boss is. I’ve had a couple of bosses that would note this and only get involved if warranted; but I’ve also had bosses that would either demand that I become a sounding board forever, or would outwardly agree but then punish me later by declaring me unsympathetic in a review or something. So definitely base your actions on your knowledge of your particular boss.

    3. Wendy Darling*

      Yeah I think LW#1 needs to be prepared for the guy to get ANGRY. The last time I set a boundary with a male coworker about trying to use me as his personal therapist, he flipped out (fortunately we were remote so he was flipping out at me over chat rather than yelling to my face) and then just never talked to me again unless it was absolutely necessary for work purposes, and also went around telling everyone I was a bitch.

      That’s a pretty extreme reaction but unfortunately not a totally uncommon one. Being a passive-aggressive guilt-tripping shit is more common.

      Honestly I’ve found that there’s a not-insignificant number of men who think that any woman they encounter is personally responsible for managing their emotional well-being and feel like the woman is violating the social contract if she opts out of that role.

    4. The Shenanigans*

      The response to all of those is “That’s not an appropriate response in an office. I can tell you are struggling. Here’s the EAP. I need to be your manager and not your therapist.” And just keep repeating that. People absolutely can hold on to their own boundaries whether or not others “allow it” or not.

  8. Lozi*

    Letter #1 – usually I agree with Alison, but in this case I worry about the phrase “manager hat” because that makes it seem like something you can take off and on, and implies there is a different “friend hat” you could put on and listen to him vent … which you clearly don’t want.

    1. IT Squirrel*

      I thought the same although you hit on exactly why – it’s the transient sounding nature of ‘with my manager hat on’ suggesting there might be times you don’t have your manager hat on with this person. I would probably go with ‘as your manager’ instead.

    2. Ellis Bell*

      I get what you’re saying; this is the kind of person who when given an inch will take a mile, and so you can’t give them even a hope of you being less than frosty and work focused. It’s a decent instinct. I think if this were an untouchable peer, or OP’s boss there’d be more reason to fear the ramifications of any wiggle room in interpretations. When you’re the boss you can just say: “no, we’ve passed the time for personal discussion on this” forevermore. Besides, there are times when a good manager can and will take their business hat off and just be a fellow human being with you. The example OP gives, of an employee receiving news of a bereavement is a really good example and one the employee in question probably knows about. You don’t sympathise with bereavement for business reasons, but because you’re both humans. It’s tempting to say to this employee “you have burned up all your chips in expecting me to human alongside you whatever happens to you in future.” It’s not that simple though and OP just needs to reiterate that they’re in charge of deciding when they will do this. I actually thought it was really clever wording to imply “that was okay for a minute, but now it’s time to move on”, because even though it wasn’t, it’s face saving and much less drama. If he doesn’t accept the direction that it’s up to her to set the tone, well she’s his boss and has the power to address it.

      1. so much good stuff*

        Agreed. The hat concept is useful here because it reflects the multiple roles managers might wear for their employees. OP has the choice which hat to wear and should exercise that autonomy with their best judgement rather than pretending (or at least implying) they don’t have that autonomy.

    3. Captain dddd-cccc-ddWdd*

      I think the “manager hat” is appropriate (I actually said it yesterday, I was saying something to my direct report and said that I was saying it with my personal hat on rather than my manager one), it is a useful concept.

    4. Gary Patterson’s Cat*

      It’s hard. As a manager you want to be open and empathetic if an employee is going through something huge in their personal like that’s affecting their work. In order to do that, you have to understand the issue.

      But now is the time to close this down, and refer him elsewhere to professionals (and I would emphasize that term) who can better help him manage the changes in his personal life.

  9. SB*

    Have just had to clean diet coke off my computer screen from where I spat it out laughing at the doll parts…thank you for my Friday afternoon laugh out loud moment.

    1. Charlotte Lucas*

      My late grandmother made dolls. While Funko pop came after her death, I think she would have loved this. (And seeing random doll parts, which are creepy as all get out before the dolls are assembled, is a childhood memory for me. But the boiling would be new.)

  10. Happy meal with extra happy*

    Can we cut off early any comments along the line of “just cancel the retreat”? Lol, I agree with Alison that there likely aren’t any activities to fit what OP wants, but there are still other benefits to off-sites, and as we’ve seen from a recent letter, many people do like them!

    1. Charlie*

      Yeah- when I’ve done retreats at work, even if the actual activities weren’t super useful (but not actively bad, just things like putting team plans on big papers and walking around adding sticky notes for how your team could help with that other team’s plan), it’s been nice to connect with my coworkers just in the course of the day, in a way we don’t get to do now that we’re fully remote day to day. Sometimes just being in a room with people and interacting as human beings can build cameraderie.
      So, I agree, I don’t think there’s an ideal exercise, but there could be a positive impact even if you mostly just do substantive work stuff rather than specific team building.

      1. Bit o' Brit*

        I do think fondly of one “retreat” activity I’ve done with work. Someone organised a grid on the floor (I forget how big, maybe 12×12 squares, each big enough to stand in). The organiser had a map of “safe” paths across the grid, possibly including “treasure” spots that are also marked on the floor. Each person got a turn trying to cross the grid, and as soon as they stepped on an “unsafe” square they were out. Everyone else (both those who’d had a go and those who hadn’t) tried to memorise the path and give(/shout) advice to the person whose turn it was.

        It was a lot of fun, felt vaguely “team”-y without being too competitive, and those who couldn’t partake in the walking part could still partake in the advice-giving.

        1. Zzzzzz*

          If a company spent money to fly me and my coworkers to an off-site spot to play silly things like this vs giving us all better pay and benefits (actual morale boosters), I’d be pissed that I spent my day doing this vs actual work w deadlines, and then spending my time doing what I want to do in the off hours vs traveling back. NONE of these things work (I’ve been working for 40 years across the spectrum of companies in the communications industry). One bonds w fellow co-workers over shared WORK projects, not this nonsense.

          1. Michelle Smith*

            Your experience isn’t universal though. Some people like these activities, like the person you’re replying to. We all already know increased pay can be a morale booster. But that doesn’t help the LW who presumably isn’t authorized to tell their boss, who asked for retreat activity ideas, to cancel the retreat and give raises instead.

            1. Red Reader the Adulting Fairy*

              Also it’s highly unlikely that the retreat represents enough budget to make a reasonable round of raises. And then you’re gonna be pissed that you got a dinky raise that isn’t even worth the administrative time it took to process it.

            2. IDIC believer*

              Retreats and the like are what *sick* days are for – or dying gmas. We all vary; but for me I get enough time with my coworkers just through necessary work discussions. I only wish remote work was a thing during my career and in my area.

          2. EPLawyer*

            This is the difference, I am guess that Bit O’ Brit company was mostly functional in other ways.

            Like Alison said, if your company is dysfunctional, no amount of team building, retreats or fun activities will fix it. The converse of that is that if your cmopany ismostly functional, a little bit of silliness doesn’t harm morale and might actually help.

          3. Critical Rolls*

            Well, yeah, with that attitude you’d definitely get nothing out of it. Some of these are silly or a waste of money or a bizarre ego exercise for the C-suite or a really elaborate version of the ol’ pizza lunch. But most of them are not all the way at the nonsense end of the scale, and once they are happening, it’s the choice of each participant whether they want to try to get something out of the day, or make *sure* it’s a waste of time.

          4. Waiting on the bus*

            At one retreat, where we did the same activity Bit o’ Brit describes, I bonded with a co-worker from the Dev team who I had never worked with before, which lead to chatting at work. Which in turn opened the door to me working more closely with the development team. I now work in software development – another colleague of the dev team reached out to me after I had left the company to see if I was interested in coming to work for his new company.

            Does my anecdotal evidence that team events do work trump your anecdotal evidence that they don’t?

            Team events don’t fix a broken company (sorry, OP) but they can have a positive effect on teamwork for sure. I’ve experienced that often enough. Your attitude (this is nonsense, none of this works, I’d be pissed) would be an absolute outlier at any place I’ve ever worked at.

          5. Malarkey01*

            A 20 minute activity that gets you up and out of your chair in the middle of OTHER work related activities actually boosts creativity, listening, productivity, and collaboration. So yeah a day of games is eye rolling. Someone putting a 20 minute breakout activity in the middle of a day spent listening to presentations is very very different (especially in the dreaded 2-3 pm after lunch training/presentation crash)

      2. WoodswomanWrites*

        This is spot on. My experience and some research I’ve happened upon indicate that genuine team-building typically comes from engaging in positive activities together, not from an an arbitrary “team-building” activity.

        Effective retreats that I’m participated in have ranged from focused brainstorming about project strategies to taking a field trip somewhere that might or not be related to our work. Sometimes just having an interesting experience together strengthened our connections as a group. At one workplace, we periodically went on a guided tour of our city. Each highlighted something completely unrelated to our work and included a box lunch we ordered. We enjoyed them.

        And above all, whatever you decide to do, please get input from your team about what they would find appealing and make sure they don’t exclude anyone based on physical activity, etc. The best retreats with topics unrelated to our jobs were the result of an informal survey by those organizing events asking for suggestions, and then later giving us the opportunity to weigh in on the suggestions to pick what appealed to most of us.

        1. allathian*

          Yes, very good points. I’ve enjoyed the retreats/development days we’ve had, but that’s because we’re already a well-functioning team. They’ve been especially valuable in getting to know each other after the pandemic because our team’s both expanded (from 15 to 22 employees) and experienced a lot of turnover during and after the pandemic lockdown. Only 7 of us already worked here in February 2020.

        2. Thistle Pie*

          I like the idea of a completely unrelated activity that is just a shared experience. At one place I worked we did some offsites that were just things in our city, kind of like your city tour idea. My favorite was going to a local art museum and then getting lunch. It was nice to walk around and get to know my coworkers in a new context without any forced conversation or competition. Plus there was an activity beyond just a meal, which for some folks in our office was a triggering thing. They just did the art museum and then got permission to skip the group lunch.

    2. I should really pick a name*

      There can be benefits to off sites, but it’s hard to benefit if they’re having one for the wrong reason.

      As opposed to preventing people from saying not to have it, perhaps you could list some of the reasons you think they should have it?

      1. Critical Rolls*

        It’s entirely unhelpful to the letter writer to say “don’t have it.” Having it or not is not in their control — it IS happening and the LW is trying to make it the best they can. The point of comments is supposed to be to help the LW, not air personal preferences that can’t be applied to the situation.

    3. AlsoADHD*

      Sure, but most benefits to off sites are from focused purpose and collaboration that relates to the work or just meeting in person (flexibly and with options/outs, as too much voluntold “fun” can mess with socializing because it can be non inclusive etc). Trust building activities are bad news, and usually fail. Team building activities need to be selected thoughtfully and basically optional or have levels/options for participation or they’re probably not inclusive, particularly to invisible disabilities. I think off sites aren’t really for trust building as much as they’re for two things: just basically bringing people together into spaces where it’s possible for them to informally interact, as they’d naturally like, and bringing people together to collaborate on the work.

    4. Falling Diphthong*

      Like other human things: If the foundations underneath are sound, extra furbelows can really add to the whole. If the foundations are poor, then no amount of added frosting–even good frosting–is going to save the whole.

      1. Kalros, the mother of all thresher maws*

        I asked for some thoughts and experiences on Strengths/DiSC in the open thread a couple weeks ago and a consistent theme in the replies was that people who hated them often resented that they’d been used to paper over real problems in the workplace. In a situation like LW’s I don’t think team building is totally useless, but it has to be focused on giving people a mental break, and if there’s any kind of refocus or reset, it has to be true. If there’s a crisis of values you have to be prepared to speak to what the company is doing to uphold the values that people sign on for, not just “restate a commitment.” Hollow words are worse than no words.

    5. Random Dice*

      I’m actually going to say “Just cancel the retreat”.

      Not out of introversion – I recently went on an offsite and really valued it – but because it’s doomed to fail.

      Let’s make an analogy. Say Sven is into arson and keeps torching office chairs, and Sven’s coworkers are both scared and angry. To resolve the problem, you can’t pull all of the coworkers BUT Sven to an offsite and get them to do trust-building exercises about safe lit match handling. They don’t need to trust each other around fire, they need to trust that *Sven* will be handled.

      Sven is the erratic company that workers reasonably fear – leadership needs an offsite, and to communicate what they will do differently, and then (slowly) prove themselves trustworthy again.

      1. Observer*

        I’m actually going to say “Just cancel the retreat”.

        Not out of introversion – I recently went on an offsite and really valued it – but because it’s doomed to fail.

        So? The problem here is that the OP doesn’t have the power to make that decision, from what they write. So telling them to cancel is like telling them to control the weather.

        1. YetAnotherAnalyst*

          If the department lead is asking for suggestions, suggesting they delay or cancel the retreat ought to be an option, right?

          1. Shoes*

            You are 100% right LW can have the to suggest delay or cancel the retreat.

            Every choice has potential consequences. A potential consequence is burning political capital on this issue. LW is the best judge of their situation. Since LW contacted AAM, cancelling or delaying the retreat must not feel like a real option, right?

          2. Shoes*

            They can absolutely suggest it.

            Every choice has potential consequences. A potential consequence is suggesting delaying or cancelling the retreat burns political capital. LW is best judge of their situation. If delaying or cancelling is a real option, why contact AAM?

            1. YetAnotherAnalyst*

              My nesting failed me, but the reason to contact AAM is because the first choice option would be exactly what LW said – suggesting a trust-building building exercise that actually works would be the preferred option, and Alison has much more insight into what might work than most folks. It’s not clear to me which of the remaining options would be preferable to LW now – suggest nothing, suggest a retreat activity with a different goal, or suggest some other way to build trust (like delaying the retreat).

      2. bamcheeks*

        It’s “doomed to fail” if you set the expectation that it’s going to Fix Everything. It’s not doomed to fail if you set reasonable expectations— that everyone comes away with a clear understanding of the strategic goals, that management has some new ideas for addressing the cultural problems they’re facing, that everyone feels that they have a stake in the planning process, etc. these are all very reasonable targets for a short retreat which can make the managers’ jobs easier over the next year and start the process of improving the culture.

    6. MCMonkeyBean*

      I agree, especially if these are employees that don’t see each other in person frequently there can be some social benefits to coming together and doing some fun activities! I just think OP is really putting way too high expectations on the power those activities will have. They are not going to walk away from them with huge amounts of trust in the company rebuilt, but that doesn’t mean it can’t still be a positive experience.

  11. Rainbow*

    OP3: In my world we pretty much always end up getting internal and external candidates for every position we throw out. They’re evaluated fairly (IMO) and we will happily hire either. When I was hired here I know all the other candidates in the final round were internal. But I got the job. We’re currently hiring my counterpart; none of the externals were it so we went the other way. *shrug*

    OP4: Your former craft sounds fascinating! I guess I haven’t seen the pics but I feel I could guess you were up to something cool maybe?

  12. LD*

    LW#1: I worry, possibly unnecessarily, about what will happen when the divorce is final. I know he’s a direct report, but I fear the “crush” already described will morph into an assumption of a “deeper relationship” even though you’ve been nothing but professional. IF you know HR won’t overreact (given that the present situation has not crossed a big boundary) I’d let someone know there’s a slight potential for this to happen, both to CYA should he claim you’ve “led him on” to coworkers, and for your personal safety.

    1. learnedthehardway*

      I think it is premature to bring HR into it, but I agree that it’s a possibility.

      I think the OP should direct the employee to their EAP (if one exists), and have a direct conversation with the person to ask what accommodations they need right now. She should also be direct to tell the employee that she is not there to be his therapist and that as his manager, she has to keep focused on work. Repeat if necessary.

    2. I Wrote This in the Bathroom*

      Yeah that was my worry too – he’s setting up the stage to ask her out the moment it’s final, and to then pout when obviously told no. Not sure about looping others in at this point, but he certainly needs to be told today that OP is no longer his sounding board as of yesterday.

    3. Observer*

      IF you know HR won’t overreact (given that the present situation has not crossed a big boundary) I’d let someone know there’s a slight potential for this to happen, both to CYA should he claim you’ve “led him on” to coworkers, and for your personal safety.

      I think that looping HR in is a good idea, if they are competent, but I disagree that the situation has not already crossed any major boundaries. The fact that he’s calling *multiple times a day* simply to vent about his wife / divorce and that he is texting her *after hours* about this, is already a significant over-step.

      She should loop HR in and tell them that she’s about to lower the boom – no more venting, shutting down these conversations, etc. They don’t need to do anything, but just be aware if he comes running to complain about her.

    4. Excel Jedi*

      Agreed with this. It would also be worthwhile to ask HR for guidance in handling the situation. Alison’s advice is spot on generally, but there may be some internal nuance which LW1 should know.

    5. Once too Often*

      The LW might go to HR for advice on shutting this down, any documentation HR might want eg pattern of conversations, content, LW’s redirection attempts, DR’s wandering out of normal professional boundaries (breakups mess with our minds as well as our hearts.). It can be hard to remember that it’s usually kinder to reinforce professional boundaries in the face of someone’s upset.

  13. Punk*

    The problem with one-off retreats where most of the people have never met in person (or only see each other at these events) is that people just stick with their own departments, especially if the day is stacked with scheduled events. It’s so weird to go to these things that were apparently planned to help us network, only to realize that there’s not enough time to have an organic conversation. IMO the best team building is giving employees a full hour for lunch and making the break room a place people actually want to hang out. But since the LW’s company is remote, I’d suggest just bringing a lot of food into this event and making it easy for people to walk around.

    1. fhqwhgads*

      My experience has been sort of counter to that. We were intentionally assigned to interact with people in other departments, specifically people we never otherwise have reason to work with. But because these “team-building” exercises had nothing to do with work, and the people we’d all be put in groups with were not people we’d ever work with, it was basically flying across the country to hang with people I’d then never interact with again, until possibly a year later at the next one.

  14. Coverage Associate*

    One of my law school professors said that there’s a correlation between doctors going through divorce and malpractice claims. Definitely it was harder to remember work stuff during my last break up.

    Not sure how this information is actionable for OP, but maybe in that conversation cutting off the venting, OP can ask how the report can be supported in the workplace. When I have had family members in the hospital, for example, I have asked for quiet work days and no travel.

    1. Random Dice*

      In that well known historical documentary “Jane the Virgin”, the doctor going through a divorce accidentally inseminated the wrong woman, the aforementioned virgin.

  15. Iron Chef Boyardee*

    #4 (A cautionary tale about using your internet username on a resume):

    I started with the Internet around 2000 when I was in my late 30s. I chose as my e-mail address something like birdboy@yehaw(dot)com which reflected my interest in birds. (Note: I’m not interested in birds in real life, I’m just using it as an example here. The actual interest isn’t anything weird or anything like that, I’m just trying to preserve my anonymity.)

    I’ve never had any problems with “birdboy” the way OP has with their username, but after almost 25 years and as a gentleman now in his early 60s I’m a little embarrased when I have to verbally tell someone my e-mail (as opposed to just entering it somewhere). In retrospect, I wish I had gone with my name in what I’m presuming to be a standard format for e-mail addresses (icboyardee@yehaw(dot)com)… but who knew in 2000 how important an e-mail address would be? I certainly didn’t.

    I think I already know the answer, but I asked a long time ago and maybe the technology has advanced since then. Is there a program, an entity, or whatever that will allow me to send out a notice universally and globally changing my address from birdboy@yehaw(dot)com to icboyardee@yehaw(dot)com, or would I have to essentially just ignore the “birdboy” account from here on in and start using “icboyardee” as if I were a totally new user just starting out?

    1. Sibilant Susurrus*

      You can set up a new email address with a name you’re happier with, and then just sey your birdboy email to forward everything to the new one automatically.

      1. XF1013*

        Beware that some free email providers will delete accounts if you don’t log in within a certain time period (Yahoo 1 year, Gmail 2 years, etc), so if you go this route, log into the old account periodically to keep the forwarding in effect.

    2. Obsidian Egret*

      You pretty much just make a new account and start using it. You can set your email program to forward emails from the old to the new, but you’ll have to inform people that you’ve changed it and go through your other accounts over time to make sure the address is updated. A bit like changing your physical address, except that you can still use the previous address for specific purposes if you want to. I’ve got a few email addresses for different purposes (which I definitely recommend, keeps your internet stuff away from your real name while still having a professional option), but they all forward to my primary one, and I can select which one to use when sending email if I want to use a different address than the default.

    3. Bit o' Brit*

      Most email providers will allow you to set up an “alias” on your “birdboy” account that you can use to send and receive email. And I know Microsoft for one will let you then make that alias your primary address on the account. My first email address was along the lines of “crazygoth@hotmail”, but now I can use “bit_brit@outlook” as the primary address for that account. Not that I use it much because dear lord the spam, but I’m too sentimental to shut down the account.

    4. Rainy Cumbria*

      When I was a young adult my email address had “monkey” in it. I guess I was trying to be cute? I’ll forever be grateful for the recruiter who suggested as kindly as possible that firstnamelastname might look a bit more professional and employable.

      1. Turquoisecow*

        When I started using email for “professional” things like job searching, I got a first name middle initial Lastname email on Google. (Firstname Lastname was taken but middle initial was not) I still use the cutesy email for other stuff, especially if I don’t want it tied to my actual name.

    5. Put the Blame on Edamame*

      I switched to Fastmail where I can redirect all old email there and alerted people to my new address without missing old emails. Great service, would recommend.

    6. Constance Lloyd*

      I set up my email in high school using my actual last name along with my first and last initial. In the many years that have passed, my initials are now very common stand-ins for swear-y slang. Rather than change my email, I’ve opted to include my middle name in all job applications. This seems to mostly work, but I feel you and your “bird boy” pain!

    7. Random Dice*

      Yes, and once it’s set up it’s automatic.

      You get a new, bland email address.

      You set up an auto-forward of all emails from the old address tu the new one. (Search for “how to auto-forward all emails in Gmail/Yahoo/etc)


    8. Kesnit*

      In the mid-90s, I set up an email address on hotmail that was a reference to my college and my major (think utceng, except I didn’t go to University of Texas and I’m not a civil engineer). I still use that address for Web sites that need a log-in, but it can be a pain when I have to spell it out for people. (I have separate gmail accounts for personal use and professional use.)

    9. Weaponized Pumpkin*

      Oh how I wish I’d snagged a good gmail in the beginning! I was early to the internet and already had a bunch of addresses, plus my own domain / email (myname at myname dot com) so it seemed unnecessary. Gmail seemed like just another fad. Years later, Gmail has lasted, my old addresses (ex. yahoo) look outdated, and email from my own domain is sometimes blocked by corporate and google servers — last time I job hunted, I had a few serious glitches with that. A recruiter at a major tech company had to use her personal email to correspond with me, which does NOT look good. Gmail in particular seems to have it out for my host, something I’m trying to sort out but small hosts in general seem to have problems these days.

      How do people even find bland, normal email addresses anymore?! I still have one I can use, but again super obsolete domain. That’s not usually a problem, but it can be and I don’t want to look as old as I am.

      1. XF1013*

        I feel you with the personal domain! I did the same thing, except I foolishly chose a little-known TLD, which has caused endless problems since. Systems will frequently reject my email address as invalid because they only recognize .com and .org. When I give it verbally such as over the phone, confused people often write it down with an extra .com on the end that isn’t there, breaking it. Last fall, my longtime bank locked my account and insisted that I provide them with a “valid” email address before I could access my money, despite having used the same email address for twenty years and having just received email from them there as recently as the day before. I’m slowly converting my many accounts over to a Gmail address, which would be easier if there weren’t a couple of decades’ worth of them.

        1. Weaponized Pumpkin*

          That sounds so frustrating! Even with a dot com I have had my email address rejected for being too short — my preferred address (anonymized obvs) is wp@weaponizedpumpkin, and wp isn’t seen as valid in some systems. For a brief moment we had diversity in domains and systems but everything seems to be getting funneled into a very narrow path today and woe to anyone who tries to avoid assimilation.

    10. STAT!*

      All these suggestions are great. However, if you use that old email address as your log in name for web accounts, then I don’t think there is any automatic service that will switch these to a new name. In fact in some cases you might be stuck with the old name, unless you open a whole new account. But opening a new account might not be possible in some cases, eg with utilities.

  16. Mmm.*

    I was a theatre teacher, which means I should be the queen of team building activities. They’re extremely helpful in theatre and *some* classroom settings.

    I agree with Allison. They don’t work in normal job settings. If we’re honest about workplaces, we don’t all have one common goal like we do in the arts!

    What I’ve found can bond people are activities that aren’t as face to face, oddly. For instance, going to a casual trivia night can be awesome.

    If you need a decent icebreaker, though, “tell me something boring about you” often works well. There’s zero pressure to impress and people often find commonalities they wouldn’t if they had to say something “interesting.” I’ve seen people bond over their love of extra mayonnaise, lol!

    1. Weaponized Pumpkin*

      I really like the “boring” prompt! I believe that my life and interests are boring to others, and I dread questions that ask me to say something fun about myself.

    2. Bear in the Sky*

      There’s another ice breaker game that I’ve done in a work setting (multiple companies meeting together, so it wasn’t that we all knew each other), that I think works very well:

      Each person writes one kind of interesting thing about themselves on a slip of paper. For example, “I have three cats,” or, “I love going camping.” Then the facilitator collects the slips and redistributes them, so everyone gets someone else’s slip of paper. Then you all go around asking people if they’re the person on your slip. “Are you the person who has three cats?” “Are you the person who loves going camping?”

      When you find your person, you group up with them (pre-pandemic, you would link arms or hold hands, now you might want to change that) and go around asking people whatever question is still unanswered. The group gets bigger and bigger as more questions are answered, until everyone is eventually in it.

      That way, people don’t have to talk about themselves much and don’t have to come up with very many things to say, but there’s still interaction and you learn things about each other.

  17. pcake*

    LW2, I’m sure you’re aware that trust is built over time and with experience, not through pop-psyche exercises or having people play games that some feel obligated to play.

    Make sure – 100% sure, and mean it! – that everyone knows this is truly voluntary, and there will be no negative issues for those who don’t want to go. Then make sure that’s true. And if enough people opt out, I guess that’ll tell you something.

    I never want to do things like that. I want to work with people who don’t need to hang out like friends in order to have cordial, quality work relationships. Making us have a dinner together or – worse – play sports or go on a magical mystery tour will make me very unhappy, which won’t build any feelings of trust.

    Good luck, and let us know how it goes!

    1. Apples*

      I love this comment. Bosses don’t seem to consider that “team bonding” can have the opposite effect on some people. Forcing socially awkward/introverted/neurodivergent/just plain grumpy colleagues into unstructured social interactions and physical contests can actually damage their standing with coworkers and introduce resentment towards the company. Please please please make agendas clear well ahead of time and let people opt out without retaliation!

    2. Grumpy Lawyer*

      Yes! I hate retreats and mandatory “fun” at work, especially when work is a source of stress for me. My best work relationships are with people I’ve worked with on work stuff at work. That’s the secret to a good work culture – give people opportunities to build camaraderie through the work they do together. I’ve gotten to know, like, and respect so many people I wouldn’t have gravitated toward socially just through completing projects and solving problems together. Some of that has even happened at off-site events one previous employer arranged, but they were truly voluntary opportunities to volunteer with local nonprofits, not retreats. Again, the key was working together.

      1. anonagain*

        Working together is my preferred team building too. My favorite “all staff” events were at an organization that had quarterly meetings where different departments gave useful presentations. It was like journal club. I left those meetings with an appreciation of my colleagues’ work and with ideas for my own work.

        I have been part of several poorly functioning teams. In every case, the problem wasn’t that people didn’t get along. We could — and did — happily chat, have lunch, go bowling, etc. Liking each other doesn’t always translate to working well together. Conversely, I’ve been on effective teams that were less social with one another.

        1. Charlotte Lucas*

          So much this! My worst work “retreat” (no real budget, so held in an extra large meeting room on campus) was held on a day that I was responsible for a non-moveable deadline (online newsletter based on government requirements, so no way to do it early or late). I had to miss the part with training I would have found useful & attend the useless team building part. When everyone else left at 4, I went back to my desk & worked until after 6.

          I’ve long since left that job, but it taught me the importance of scheduling if you have an all-day event.

      2. I Wrote This in the Bathroom*

        Agree. My closest work relationships (and some lifelong friendships!) developed from working on things together. It is the best team-building activity that I know of and I will die on that hill. That said, OP’s team seems to be lacking those working relationships because of all the mess the company’s been going through.

    3. Captain dddd-cccc-ddWdd*

      Yes, there’s no “shortcut” to building a good team culture. I think it is a similar fallacy to people jumping on the latest “one weird trick” to lose weight or whatever rather than putting in the work (diet and exercise) to do it the standard way.

    4. Person from the Resume*

      The way you rebuild trust over time in being trustworthy. There’s no shortcut that can accomplish this over a weekend.

      Have the retreat. Get to know each other in person. But work on work things that make sense to be done in person – meetings, collaboration, brainstorming, strategy, etc. You might could start to create a more sustainable foundation moving forward for your team. START, not finish. You cannot fix long term problems in a few days.

      But also don’t call it a retreat. Do work there. Interact with your coworkers while working. Be paid/compensated for the time you spend working.

    5. I Wrote This in the Bathroom*

      All I could think of after reading the letter was that scene from Reservation Dogs where Jackie and Willie Jack are doing a trust fall.

      I’ve seen the game of Two Truths and a Lie go over well in several different team settings.

      1. New Jack Karyn*

        I was in PE class in . . . 5th grade? Sixth? And the teacher tried to get us to do trust falls. But he had like, three or four kids around the one who was supposed to fall. Probably should have had more like six or eight. And the catchers were all *sitting*.

        Shockingly, the first girl to try it just fell flat on the floor. We all laughed. The game halted.

    6. The Shenanigans*

      And, make all activities optional. No forcing people to play board games they hate, or talk about anything they don’t want to talk about. Make it an actual RETREAT. That means if someone chats with a few people here and there, but otherwise just watches activities, you need to let them.

      And do not do any activities involving public criticism or public feelings.

  18. Inkognyto*

    I have a ‘business/professional email’. It took a lot of work to find one, but it’s not in anyway used for anything but things related to my career/linkedin/resumes. Like keeping my CPE’s up to date for my certifications and anything related to that.

    For google itself, If you take the same email before the @ and add special characters ‘-‘ and ‘.’ you cannot sign it up. They don’t consider them for google. email. So “MySpecialEmail@ is the same as My.Special.Email@

    I choose something not on google also, I used hotmail, got the name I wanted.

    I also like that I can search my name and pretty much not find myself on the internet. Why? I don’t allow anything to index me, and I haven’t for a very long time. I don’t want it too. If someone cannot find me on the internet, that’s their issue.

    Also set the secondary email address as part of the recovery of the other one, and vice versa. This way if you get compromised you have another to recover. You ‘can’ get them back from google but it’s a pita to do it fast.

    1. The Shenanigans*

      Just FYI a Hotmail address can look a little odd and out of touch if you use it for business. Outlook has more or less replaced Hotmail for business, after all. Sane hiring managers will just raise their eyebrows but not discard you for it. But why add that question to your application when it’s easy enough to get a free email address? You may have to be okay with going with a version of what you want vs exactly what you want but I’ve never had a problem finding something I like that’s available. Just wanted to give a heads up/advice. YMMV on whether people in your network or industry care at all, of course.

      1. Coco*

        I’m a millennial and I use hotmail. Despite having an iPhone for years, I still can’t figure out how to use Siri. At some point, somebody ought to just toss me in with the boomers hahah.

  19. Jessica*

    LW2, another thing to think about is workload. Nothing you come up with is going to be enjoyable if people are supposed to be “relaxing” but all they can think about is the work they have piling up, and possibly the personal time they’ll have to carve out of their lives to catch up from this missed workday. Try to arrange a week where people have Team Day and 4 days of work, not Team Day and 5 days of work to magically do in 4 days.

    1. Scarlet2*

      That’s a really good point. I think it’s also important to make sure there’s no heavily scripted compulsory “activities” so people can just spend time together in the way that feels the most natural to them.

      1. Richard Hershberger*

        The over-scripted ones are the worst. Even if we stipulate that there is a business case for my spending quality time with Bob in Accounting, or perhaps Dolores in HR–it seems to be pretty random who I should be spending this time with–forcing the issue with an artificial activity isn’t it.

    2. WS*

      Yes, and also that the Team Day is paid work time at the usual location and usual time (or transport is fully provided and gets people there and back in the usual workday) not “hey, let’s all spend our weekend on this!” or “beautiful spot, it’s going to take you two extra and unpaid hours to drive there, yes it’s mandatory!”

  20. Leelee Spaghetti*

    OP1: A recently departed co-worker has been doing this to me as well, not necessarily relationship venting, but definitely using my time and energy in ways that were not productive or within the scope of my role. I used to come back to my desk after each intense session to reams of flowery prose complimenting me. In the beginning I thought that she was recognising the inappropriateness of her behaviour, but I came to realise that the insincere and inauthentic compliments were just part of her method to keep me on the backfoot so she could keep steamrolling over my very reasonably set boundaries. The only thing that worked for me was recognising the pattern of behaviour and being firm and clear on my boundaries each and every time we spoke. I’m a conflict avoider, and it felt so uncomfortable and rude at first, especially when I was having to do it up to three times a day, but the relief I felt afterwards was immense!

    1. Random Dice*

      I read this paragraph as “dearly departed” and it made it so much more interesting to imagine your late coworker hanging transparently over your shoulder.

  21. The answer is (probably) 42*

    LW4: And this is why, as a mid-range millennial, I’m so relieved that my stupid younger self had the forethought to create two distinct online presences for various different uses. Plus a simple email address that’s just firstnamelastname which I use for professional purposes. I will say there’s been enough overlap over the years that if you *really* want to you can make the connections from those to my real name, but it would require serious sleuthing, not anything that a standard ‘google your candidate’s name’ search would bring up.

    Also, very conveniently, I have a first cousin with the exact same name as I have, so when you google us you get a mixture of results. And we’re both in respectable, normal careers.

    1. MsSolo (UK)*

      Mm, that’s where I am – joined the internet in the era of “no real names ever”, so I’ve got two identities, both of which stretch back two decades (was one of the reasons I didn’t change me name when I got married is because my professional email is old enough to drink?). I don’t think it would take major sleuthing to join them up, but googling me wouldn’t link them. Plus, I share my real name with an actress from the 20s, so the first couple of pages are all about her.

      1. Warrior Princess Xena*

        Oh same. I have my personal identity, which I keep on basically Linkedin and a very very tiny private Instagram, and my gaming identity, which someone could probably pin to me with enough work but like yours hopefully wouldn’t turn up in a casual google.

    2. Juicebox Hero*

      I was born in 1976 so I’m not sure if that makes me late Gen X or early Millenial.

      Regardless, I’m soooooooo glad my teens/early 20s happened before the internet was as pervasive as it is, and especially before the rise of social media. The thought of anyone discovering my angsty journals, horrible fanfic, horrible original fiction, and triple horrible fanart makes me want to croak.

      Fortunately my hobbies these days (knitting, gardening, watching football and swearing) are so unremarkable that no one will care.

      1. Lirael*

        Gen X for sure. my sis is 78 and I’m not sure what she falls into but 76 is definitely x

        1. Irish Teacher*

          Yeah, the cut-off usually seems to be either 1981 or 1982. Some go a bit earlier and I think I’ve even seen some definitions that use 1983, but the most common definition I’ve heard is “turned 18 after the millennium.”

    3. Jay (no, the other one)*

      I have an unusually spelled first name and am easily Google-able. Luckily I am also very boring. If someone refused to hire me because I sing in a community choir or belong to a synagogue, that’s OK with me.

      My kid, OTOH, is essentially Google-proof. She was born in 2000. Her first name is one of the most common girl’s names from the late 90s to now. Her last name is Smith (mine is not). She’s still been very careful about what she posts under her “real” handle. When she was 14 there was a foofaraw in the school board about her high school, and one of the board members posted an obnoxious rant on Twitter including ad hominem attacks. I was driving the kid and her friends somewhere and heard them in the back seat saying “That’s SO inappropriate. Doesn’t he know the Internet is forever?” From the mouths of babes…

    4. Dust Bunny*

      I have what is probably a unique (in the whole world) name. I have social media accounts but don’t put my full name on them, and don’t put my name on them at all if I can help it.

    5. Waiting on the bus*

      I used to have a firstnamelastname but it was on Yahoo which I’m not supposed to use for job applications anymore. Now I have a Gmail with a random letter thrown in as middle initial just so I could get a semi-professional looking mail address. (I don’t personally like the email addresses with numbers in it. I’m lucky that my name is uncommon enough that a version with a middle letter was still available.)

  22. Rainy Cumbria*

    OP1 – Perhaps add “Who else can you talk to about this?” to what Alison suggested, and be ready with the details of your EAP if you have one.

    1. Observer*

      Yes on the EAP. No on the question. Normally that would be a reasonable question. But this is someone who is going to try to steamroll the OP. She’ll ask and he’s going to use this as just another excise to continue dumping on her. Because Poor Guy ™ doesn’t have ANYONE else but the OP to talk to!

      Of course that’s not her problem, and any reasonable person would understand that. But this guy is NOT reasonable, and the OP can’t afford to give him any more excuses at this point.

      The most important thing for the OP to realize at this point is that it is NOT her job or responsibility to “let him down gently” or soften anything for him. Nor to carry any more burden or even do anything to make thing easier or smooth things out for him.

  23. Irish Teacher*

    LW2, like Alison says, I really don’t think there is any activity one can do for a day or a few days that will significantly improve trust or make people feel like a team. I guess giving people an opportunity to get to know each other (and I think Goldie and those who replied to them had some good suggestions as to activities that could support that) could help, but it’s not going to do much about the underlying issues.

    And honestly, from what you have said, it doesn’t sound like the problem really is lack of trust or lack of teamwork. It sounds like the problems are coming, largely from above, and even if people did develop closer relationships and see themselves as more of a team, it wouldn’t necessarily make them more patient with those issues. I’ve worked some places where there was a really tight team feeling, but…part of it was because the levels of things like burnout and problems with management were quite high and it was a sort of “banding together to survive this” sort of thing. Which probably isn’t the vibe you’re looking for.

    If the day is meant to be fun, could you ask your staff for suggestions about what they would like to do?

  24. Jade*

    Shut down this divorce talk today. It has gone far too far. You can be an empathetic manager without it reaching this out of control degree. Make it very clear that all texts are work related only and advise this person that while you sympathize that all communications from this point on are work related. This isn’t going away until you take a stand.

  25. Amanda, But Not Amanda Hugginkiss*

    OP4: Please please please tell me you are ‘Crime Junkie’ and that you plan to post this same message on the CJ FB group. AF and BP and their followers will love this. Thanks for this reminder about the online presence.

  26. pally*

    #4: I do google my name regularly, but it never occurred to me to google my email address (which is simply

    So I did so just now.

    And… I am mortified. Found a whole lotta porn videos connected to my name (with and without the OH my!

    1. Diane*

      OMG never thought of that just checked mine came back power tools??? I sell vintage Italian Jewelry. Thanks for the warning!

  27. YetAnotherAnalyst*

    LW2: Thinking back over my work history, the things that have improved my trust in my employer have been: clear, consistent communication; explicitly shared goals that benefit employees (ie, streamlining a process, not maximizing profit); visible, reasonable management and HR responses to problems; surprise paid days off during periods of high stress (“Yes, we see what’s happening on the news, and nobody expects you to care about TPS reports right now” is a really reassuring thing to hear from upper management).

    Things that have eroded my trust include: being ignored; most ice breaker games; management/HR silence during periods of upheaval (to the point I no longer participate in ERGs); surprise layoffs; corporate jargon/doublespeak; being asked to commit more of my time/energy/self without a similar commitment from my employer.

    The things that increase my trust generally aren’t things that happen during a retreat/summit/off-site, but the things that decrease my trust are pretty frequent occurrences for those sorts of things. I don’t think I’ve ever had a retreat that didn’t have me polishing my resume the weekend after, to be honest. Maybe one that just involves some paid time for socializing organically would build trust, but I don’t know.

    1. Seahorse*

      I’ve enjoyed various meals and informal conversations with coworkers over the years, but agree that official team building or trust exercises don’t achieve what they’re supposed to. I already trust my coworkers not to be malicious jerks during a mandatory fun game. That doesn’t make us work together any better though.

      I also trust that they will (and should) put their own personal and financial needs ahead of whatever work we may be doing together. They’re not family or friends, and trying to force that dynamic will either create an unprofessional, cliquish environment or seem incredibly out of touch.

    2. learnedthehardway*

      Another thing that promotes teamwork is compensation plans – make sure that your company’s bonus / incentive plans create a healthy balance between individual achievements and group performance. eg. sales plans that incent only sales revenue can cause problems. If the sales are large/complex, the sales comp plan should have a metric for profitability so that sales people evaluate opportunities based on whether the company can deliver on them.

      A compensation plan that rewards teamwork will incent teamwork.

    3. Random Dice*

      As I said in more detail above, the company execs are the ones that destroyed trust, and it’s on them to repair it – not these poor everyday workers.

  28. NeedRain47*

    #3: always assume there are internal candidates. There almost always are, and like Alison said, you can’t know whether they’re good candidates or what the employer is looking for. So I always assume (and unfortunately, usually find out after I dont get hired that yes, an internal candidate was chosen.)

  29. Gary Patterson’s Cat*

    For #1 the message is great but as his manager, you can also refer him to your company’s EAP which usually have counseling, or to his healthcare insurance provider because they offer some great online therapy options.

    I went through a lot of “stuff” last year after a loss and began using Grow Therapy, which I found through the Cigna website. It really helped having a therapist to vent these things to and get some solutions to manage.

  30. Falling Diphthong*

    #2, my child’s college athletic team recently went through a rebuilding period, so I read your letter with that in mind. Important differences:
    • It’s an opt-in extra activity–if you don’t like it you can leave without that affecting your schooling or job.
    • It’s a sport, so the group bonding together over swooping highs and crushing lows is built in. As is the flip side, where you say “It’s just a sport, so ultimately the outcome of that game or play is not defining your life.”
    • It’s a group of young very athletic people, so it’s a given that everyone can do all the physical bonding stuff.

    All of those don’t apply at work. The optional aspect, the common goal, the buy-in of people who really want to see this team succeed and figure out how to contribute to that–those can’t be picked up and plastered onto other things in life where you’d like people to really go all in for your personal benefit. You’ll fail if you try to copy that over as a way to motivate employees who a) are there in significant part for a paycheck, b) have reason to distrust the org.

    Also, the team rebuilding had all the elements Alison suggests, like really listening to people and considering how to adapt the org in light of that feedback. It wasn’t a top-down imposed change.

  31. Purely Allegorical*

    #2 — I actually disagree with Alison, to a point. I think retreats can be hugely valuable if done in the right way. Some portion of time should go toward actual fun things that allow people a break from work (picnic, corn hole, whatever), but you can use other portions of time for things like Rose/Bud/Thorn activities (probably planning for a follow up to think creatively about what comes out of the Thorn session, since it sounds like there are a lot of problems…) or activities designed to help teams learn how to work with each other (especially since turnover is high). Part of my job is designing these types of workshops for clients and I see firsthand how valuable they can be.

    1. The Shenanigans*

      I’m curious about what activities you are thinking of that would help people work together in this situation. I honestly can’t think of anything that can happen in a few hours in a work retreat that would make people who are exhausted, distrustful, resentful, and cynical work together well from then on out. Especially when they see no progress on the actual causes of the lack of teamwork. That’s the situation in the LW. Alison is right. They need to fix the real problems or accept that the teams won’t function well.

      Also, keep in mind that enough people (like me!) hate these activities on principle. It’s way too easy for this to backfire and make an already struggling team worse. And if the team already works well together, you risk alienating them by pushing this.

    2. NotBatman*

      One that worked very well for me personally (as in, I trust my colleagues a lot more now than I used to) was a book club. We read short books that are available on tape, usually silly/light books that loosely relate to our job. So if we were vet techs, we’d read a lot of James Herriot; if we were travel agents , we’d read Bill Bryson. We only meet ~4 evenings a year, but 1-hour chats have often stretched 3+ hours because it’s such an enjoyable indirect way to talk about our jobs.

  32. PhyllisB*

    I have three different accounts: one for business, one for personal, and one for newsletters. It makes it easier to look at what I want. Actually, I have four: when I got an android phone I had to get a Gmail account, but I I’ve never accessed it and can’t even remember what my email name or password is.

  33. So Anony for This*

    I’m currently hiring for a role on my team. I had an intern (we have paid internships, so she is considered an internal applicant) apply and I was delighted! Her work is good, she’s young so I know there will be a learning curve, but I figured, hey, she’s worked here for six months, this is great.

    She 100% bombed the interview. Despite working for me for six months, she couldn’t tell me our business’ target audience WHOM SHE ROUTINELY CREATES MATERIAL FOR. I was shocked.

    1. Yours sincerely, Raymond Holt*

      That’s such a shame. Was she able to take the feedback well and learn for next time? Do you think it was interview skills (not realising the amount of preparation needed, freezing up on the spot), or do you think she’s actually been covering up a lack of knowledge or coasting all this time? I’m so curious about the onboarding and internal information sharing at your workplace, and from whoever manages her in particular, for her to work there six months without being clear on the target audience!

  34. No Tribble At All*

    #2: Had some useful activities at a newly-formed-department offsite. The new department was composed of 3 groups with different roles & functions. Things I liked:
    – Doing a “is/is not/does/does not” chart within each group. Useful for things like “we are subject matter experts on llamas, we are not tier one support for llama grooming questions, we do not braid individual llama manes for customers”
    – Month/Year/3 year goals for the whole department, written on sticky notes. Give everyone 10-15 minutes to write down goals/projects on their own sticky notes. Then put the sticky notes on the wall under each time span. Then go through the notes and group them. These can be more “in an ideal world we would have project x & y done” rather than “synergize more” type goals

  35. JSPA*

    #2, Trust is earned by being trustworthy. And secondarily, by visibly working towards the same goal.

    If people are so siloed at work that you can’t wait for it to happen organically there, I suppose you can do something like having everyone volunteer at habitat for humanity (making sure that there are also roles that are seated / in the shade / not tool using, to accommodate different needs and abilities) or do a shift together at a food bank. If there’s an end purpose that gets buy-in from everyone, you achieve the shared goal aspect, and you Create a situation where everyone can see everyone working.

    But if some of your people are not trustworthy or not dependable or take advantage (of situations or of each other) there’s no magic trust exercise that will reset their values, nor make others happy to work with them.

    There’s no substitute for hiring good dependable people, and giving them enough freedom and insight so that they can see how the parts work, and come to appreciate each other’s approaches.

    I suppose another possibility would be a day of management training in which you encourage everybody to think like a manager. Sometimes asking someone with bad habits or a bad attitude how they would manage somebody who has those problems can lead them to course-correct, especially when there’s also a no-nonsense, “of course it’s a given that these things are problematic” attitude towards certain behaviors, (and “of course these other things are traits to be accommodated” where that applies).

  36. Quokkabrarian*

    Re: #4: I’ve been on the Internet a long time, so long that my recent material covers up my older, more juvenile efforts. But it never occurred to me to search the stem of my email address!

    Turns out a relative-by-marriage with a name similar to the nickname I use comes up in the first Google page– with info about her serious chronic illness. Oh my! This is a sticky wicket, as I have been applying for jobs, getting promising interview interactions, and then ghosted, all year. I’m fat and use a cane, so it’s possible people are thinking I’m her, though she works in a different industry.

    Now I’m wondering if I should post a shout-out to her on Linked-in, so people know I’m not *that* Quokkabrarian

    1. I Wrote This in the Bathroom*

      This is a mess and I am sorry you’re going through this, and am… shocked but not shocked I guess? that so many employers apparently turn a candidate down because they’ve found out online about the candidate’s (real or mistaken) chronic illness.

    2. JSPA*

      Yep, discrimination affects not only people in the group, but anyone perceived as being in that group.

      And of course the family of both, in terms of lost earning potential, and the extended family and friend group, in terms of need for support and general stress.

      Which is to say, even if an employer somehow doesn’t support the ADA, or doesn’t think they should have to hire people without regard to their disabilities or chronic illnesses, so long as they don’t affect ability to do the job (or they want to discriminate on the basis of some other characteristic)…even plain old self-interest should shut that down quick. Because regardless of category, when you step back a little ways, it becomes increasingly clear that “they” are “us.” All of us.

  37. Spicy Tuna*

    For #3, whether or not the employer is considering internal candidates will vary based on company policy and the role.

    Years ago, I worked for a company that had identified a critical business role we were not doing at full strength that other companies in our industry had completely handled. The person who was filling the skimpy role at my company had left, and I was asked to fill in while they interviewed candidates with more experience.

    Well, it took a long time. They interviewed a LOT of candidates. I cannot just “fill in”; I am someone who must do something 100% or not do it at all. So I started expanding the role myself; taking online training, asking questions of others in our industry, writing policies and procedures, etc. At that point, I asked if I could interview because I was basically already doing the job.

    Both my boss and her boss were both very clear that it was their strong preference to hire an outside candidate that had more experience (and this preference was not wrong AT ALL as the industry was highly regulated and if the responsibilities of the role were not handled properly, big fines and sanctions were possible).

    However, no external candidate was willing to take the role for a variety of reasons, so I got it. In this case, being an outside candidate was a strength, so you never know!

  38. Samwise*

    OP 3. I’m displeased when interviewees ask about other candidates. It’s inappropriate for me to talk about other candidates with you, and if you ask, I’m unimpressed with your grasp of professional norms. It won’t get you booted out, but it’s a mark against.

    And yes, “are you considering any internal candidates “ is asking about other candidates. If you need that info, get it another way.

    1. I should really pick a name*

      Can you clarify what specifically about that question is inappropriate?
      It’s not providing any personal information about the other candidates.

      1. JSPA*

        It kind of could be? (Depending how the company handles internal hires, I mean, and how small the field is.) Some companies require buy-in from current supervisors, some put up walls of secrecy; some roles are the sort of thing where thousands of people could theoretically be qualified, while for others, the mere fact that there is an internal candidate, or another local candidate, would be darn-near identifying.

        Process and goal questions are more neutral:

        “are you able to tell me how many candidates are strong contenders, so far?” (reasonable, to want to know if you’re one of a handful, or one of dozens being interviewed)

        “are you hoping to hire someone who already has hands-on familiarity with your company’s specific processes though having worked here, or do you see bringing in an outside hire as something useful in its own right?” (this is a more important insight than whether they have internal candidates)

        As for people who get turned down with, “we went with someone internal,” that can be code for, “we wrote the job description to promote someone internal, and it just happened to also fit you.” O it can mean, “we’re telling each good candidate some version of, “it’s nothing bad about you, we just went in a different direction.” Their other internal candidate may euquivalently have gotten, “we realized we wanted skills in basketball as well as basketweaving”–and in both cases, the real answer could be, “they did great at trivia night at the bar.”

    2. pally*

      As a job seeker, I have never inquired about the other candidates (internal or external). Not my business.

      However, I have experienced many HR people who have directly emailed me to let me know that the candidate chosen was an internal candidate (this was not a generic email, but one specifically worded for me).

      Conclusion: the information must matter in some respect.

    3. Observer*

      And yes, “are you considering any internal candidates “ is asking about other candidates.

      In what way is it asking about other candidates?

      If you need that info, get it another way.

      How? I can’t think of any way that a person could get that information other than asking that is not truly unprofessional.

      1. Samwise*

        We’re an office of about two dozen. If I say yes, we have an internal candidate, you can go look at our staff listing and figure out who it is.

        Get the info another way: use your network. If you can’t get it that way, then be like every other candidate and not know who is interviewing.

        I run a leak-free search. I’ve kicked gabby colleagues off search committees.

        Our office is also careful when we have internal and external candidates to not share the names of externals with internals. Last year I interviewed for a lateral position (and got it). I was not the only internal candidate but neither of us knew for sure if the other had even applied.

        And really, what good would it do you to know if there’s an internal candidate? You have no idea whether that means external candidates will be considered equally (in our office they are). How would you prepare or behave differently if you knew that we were interviewing internal candidates? Or five candidates? Or whatever? Focus on *yourself* and what you can bring to the position, ask your questions, engage with us so we can get a sense of each other.

        1. Yours sincerely, Raymond Holt*

          I agree the question isn’t very useful and I wouldn’t ask, but your response seems extremely harsh.

          “Get the information another way” or “use your network” reads like you do think it’s OK to ask about it, if you happen to have contacts, but if not, you don’t get the information. Asking an interviewer or hiring manager seems the *most* professional way of asking. You talk about “leaks” but then talk about people using their networks to find things out instead of asking directly.

          It doesn’t mean they “don’t understand professional norms.” It isn’t *that* unusual a question. I get not being keen on it but you’ve leapt to so many conclusions and judgements which are not very reasonable.

    4. fhqwhgads*

      I never ask this question, but really what it boils down to – but would be considered impolite to say – is “did you only post this because you’re required to also consider external candidates but it’s a formality and you had someone internal in mind from the jump?”

      I agree with Alison there’s no point in asking about “internal candidates” because there’s no way to know if the employer favors them, or doesn’t, or yes there are but they’re not qualified, yada yada yada. As you say, no reasonable hiring manager is going to discuss other candidates. But I think it’s misreading the situation to automatically be miffed when interviewees ask that particular question, because they’re not really asking about other candidates. They’re using that phrase as a substitution to ask about the hiring process. Still a bad question because the real underlying question about the process is unlikely to be something the employer would be forthright about. But if you are concluding they don’t understand that you can’t discuss other candidates, I think you’re completely misreading what they’re doing. You may still be displeased, but at least be displeased for the right reason.

  39. Random Dice*

    LW #4 – oh nooooo, that’s hilarious in such a cringe-inducing way.

    And so perfectly described, I can so picture the doll horror show carnage!

  40. Observer*

    #1 – Venting employee

    Please, PLEASE take Alison’s warning about what this guy might be doing to other women very seriously. You already know that he is perfectly capable of major boundary crossing. Think about: He has a crush, which can happen, but he has *let you know about it*. That is bad. Worse, he’s called you multiple times to talk about his personal life, and he has *texted you at night*! That’s incredibly out of line. And you are his manager. If he’s willing to do something like to someone who has authority over him, what do you think he’s doing to his colleagues. Worse, what kind of demands is he making on the women who HE *manages*.

    Even if he’s not *deliberately* misusing his power, the differential is still there. The women who work for him don’t have the ability to say no in the way you do. So, please pay VERY careful attention to this.

    1. SHEILA, the co-host*

      This, so much. It reads to me like he’s more actively looking for ways to talk to his crush, stomping all over boundaries in the process. His behavior is not appropriate for the workplace, full stop. Also, he’s 22 years older than she is! While I know some people manage age differences just fine, in this case, it’s just adding to the ick factor, especially with the divorce. It gives off “I want to trade my no-longer-attractive-to-me wife in for a younger model” vibes.

      Even if he is truly “just” clueless, he’s sucking up way too much of LW’s professional and personal time.

      LW, I know you don’t want to be mean, but this guy is not going to respond to hints. He may even convince himself that you’re just hard to get and ramp up his efforts in response to your “game.” He needs a firm no and a talk about boundaries, along with a referral to an EAP. If it seems like he’s the type that won’t take no for an answer without causing a scene, then HR needs to be involved, pronto.

    2. JSPA*

      Not impossible, but also not supported by any details in the letter.

      One could equally argue that, knowing the rules on harassment and abuse of power, he’s only doing it in the direction where it ISN’T an abuse of power.

      The LW can and should shut this down.

      In particular, as we’re writing barely-supported fiction here, apprently….if there’s even a slim chance that he has convinced himself that it’s reciprocal, and he plans to blame LW for the breakdown of his marriage, when he gets cold feet, or when LW shuts him down, it’s much better to shut it down firmly, early.

      1. Observer*

        One could equally argue that, knowing the rules on harassment and abuse of power, he’s only doing it in the direction where it ISN’T an abuse of power.

        You’re seriously arguing that someone who is this “clueless” and clearly boundary stomping is also so careful about boundaries that he’d be careful with any woman he manages? That’s unicorn level of unlikely.

        We know that he’s a boundary stomper. Boundary stompers rarely only sompt on one person’s boundaries. Therefore it would be very foolish of the OP to overlook that possibility. This is not fanfic – this is the expression of a very well worn pattern.

        If this guy turns out the be the one unicorn that actually will blow all boundaries with his manager who also happens to be young enough to be his daughter (and a “trophy wife”*) , but will also be extra careful with the people he manages, no harm will be done. After all, all I am suggesting is that the OP pay careful attention. If nothing problematic is happening, there won’t be anything to see. On the other hand, if the OP takes your tack and ignores the evidence she already has, and she’s wrong, then a lot of harm will come to the women who work there.

        Harm will possibly also come to the OP and her employer, since one of the things that courts look at when assigning blame to employers and managers is whether they “should have known”. When you have this pattern of behavior, that could seriously be seen as an indication that they “should have known” that he might be acting inappropriately with others.

      2. Postdam*

        I’m genuinely sorry that your very reasonable take is likely to be met with indignation that you are somehow minimizing this problem. We are allowed to shut things down that should not be happening without needing to invent catastrophizing fan-fiction. It would probably be healthiest if we could generally do just that.

        1. Observer*

          All good and fine. But what I an saying is far from fan-fic. The reality is that people who stomp boundaries tend to do that across the board. And those that don’t generally do stomp boundaries with with anyone they don’t think has the power and will to shut it down.

          It doesn’t matter if the reason he’s doing it is misogyny or pure equal opportunity self-centeredness. The simple fact is that, as with bullies, boundary stompers will commonly exhibit that behavior with multiple people. For the OP to ignore that, or for people to claim that it’s so far fetched that the OP should not even consider this and look out for it, is taking a real risk.

          This is not “indignation”. It’s a recognition of a very real pattern of behavior.

          1. whynot*

            People will have a difference of opinion. PLEASE stop scorning those who don’t see things as you do, and posing false and disrespectful premises (“You’re seriously arguing…?” is a comment disguised as a question, and is beyond uncalled for). Frankly, I think it sucks you keep getting away with it.

          2. whynot*

            “…for people to claim that it’s so far fetched that the OP should not even consider this and look out for it..”

            Who said that?

  41. another academic librarian*

    Knowing there is an internal candidate won’t help one way or another. I was told about an internal candidate for my present position when I was interviewing. I obsessively researched her. Her credentials exceeded mine. The job was hers, I thought.
    After I got the job, I found out that she had blown her job talk (wasn’t as prepared as she should have been for the questions from the committee members)
    there were two other people who were internal adjacent who did not have MY qualifications but had others who felt strongly that I was the WRONG person for the job and made my first years difficult.
    I played the long game. They are gone now.

  42. Marigold*

    LW# 1- Recently, one of my coworkers brought up his wife’s health. She is struggling with early menopause and experiences symptoms on a daily basis. He use3d to go into detail about it every day during lunch. It came to a point where I needed to tell him that this was a violation of his wife’s privacy and we weren’t interested in hearing about this every day. I understand your approach probably needs to be softer. Some people can’t help but overshare, while it’s my worst nightmare!

    1. I Wrote This in the Bathroom*

      Oh no, I’m going through mine now and some of the symptoms are… not lunch-table talk at all!!! Not to mention that this isn’t his story to tell people! His poor wife, I’d be livid. I’m glad you shut it down!

    2. Dust Bunny*

      My dad will tell anyone anything. I never tell him anything personal, ever, and it’s driving my mom nuts that she can’t trust him with information.

    3. MsSolo (UK)*

      Reminds me of a former manager who read out a text from her teenaged daughter in our open office which began “don’t tell anyone but…” No recognition of her daughter’s request for privacy. As far as she was concerned, she was sharing something that was happening to her (receiving a message) rather than something happening to her daughter.

  43. Sunshine*

    LW 4 is a great reminder to Google yourself and all of your online aliases often! A stalker situation taught me how incredibly easy it is to find information on people with just an email address or phone number. Google usernames, email addresses, name combinations, and your phone number with and without quotation marks to see what comes up. I’ve had my info removed from all of those data broker websites, but I still pop up in comments sections from ancient websites I can’t do much about now. Be careful!

  44. Uranus Wars*

    For #2, the best “retreat” I ever had was when we had a new manager basically sat us down in a room (off-site) for two half days and let us vent, come up with ideas of how we thought things could get better, etc. The key, though, was our team went into it open-minded – so I could say “It drives me crazy when Jane does X and if she could communicate Y way instead it would help me” and then Jane and I talked it through. People said same about me, probably worse!

    He then compiled our feedback and we got real results from our department head over the next 6-12 months, including open communication and a shift to balance responsibilities as well as added a part-time person. So that means we also had leadership in place willing to address some the real, most impactful issues. Morale between the team improved as well. It was all about open communication.

    I agree with Alison that team building isn’t going to fix your issues but wish you the best of luck!

    1. Yours sincerely, Raymond Holt*

      This sounds like it worked really well. Did you already have a decent level of trust between you? It sounds like you all went into it with the intention of hearing each other in good faith, valuing each other’s perspectives, and welcoming constructive disagreement.

      Sounds like a good place to work!

  45. Dust Bunny*

    Trust-building: Sorry, but the best way to address this is to address the actual underlying problems, at least to the best of your ability. You can’t band-aid over structural problems.

    I trust my employer because the way I’ve seen them behave for the past [lots of] years has demonstrated that they’re reasonable and humane, and I trust my coworkers because I see them getting work done and not stabbing each other in the back every day. There aren’t shortcuts.

    My workplace does fun-ish get-togethers twice a year or so (boxed lunches and bingo for gift cards, basically) but they’re short, low-stakes, and undemanding. The rest of the time we just do our jobs and aren’t jerks to each other.

  46. Alton Brown's Evil Twin*

    A cross-question modest proposal: Marriage counselors could make a killing doing ‘trust-building’ exercises at corporate retreats.

    Trust is built through an accumulation of evidence of trust-worthiness. I trust my coworkers to do their jobs thoroughly after I’ve seen them…. (wait for it)…. do their jobs thoroughly a bunch of times. I trust my coworkers to not sabotage my projects after they’ve demonstrated multiple times that they don’t do those things. Etc.

    So the counselor explains how trust works, and then asks questions and elicits thoughts from the group. “Regina, suppose you had to delegate a report to one of your coworkers because you’re going to be on vacation when it’s due. What are some of the behaviors, that sometimes or frequently happen in your office, that would make you worry that this coworker wouldn’t get the report done accurately and on time? Conversely, what are the behaviors this coworker could regularly exhibit that mean you could relax on vacation and trust that the report would be ok?”

  47. Immortal for a limited time*

    #4 – welcome to the Wayback Machine! There is an official archive of everything on the internet at It saved my bacon once at work when I needed to track down a video segment from a board meeting that had been accidentally overwritten when we moved from our web server to YouTube. It keeps a snapshot of virtually everything at seemingly random points in time, which can’t be deleted. This can be very helpful (as I found out) or shocking (as you found out).

    1. a little light*

      Just one caveat–if you control the webpage, you can request that the pages be removed from the archive, and you can also set “robots.txt” to not permit bots to scan your page going forward (though this will also remove you from search engines).

    2. Snell*

      JSYK, the Internet Archive doesn’t keep snapshots of everything, and snapshots aren’t from random points in time. If there’s a snapshot on the archive, it’s because somebody chose on that date to take the snapshot, and anyone can do this. I myself have done this on numerous occasions, and you can, too, if you ever need to.

  48. Critical Rolls*

    LW2. It really does not help the LW, who is not in charge of whether to have this retreat, and also is not in charge of strategic planning for their department, and ALSO not in charge of the company as a whole, to say what the company should *really* be doing to build trust! It’s like if someone wrote to a column for recipe ideas based on the limited stock in their corner store, and everyone told them what the store should be doing differently, or how the commenter, personally, hates to cook.

    My advice would be to try and have a mix of structured activities that encourage interaction, and lots of time for people to interact on their own. Be careful to keep the stakes in line with the seriousness of activities (like, you can do something silly with whether a hot dog is a sandwich, but not with anything that might reference pay, benefits, or advancement). Be careful to make sure those who are higher in the hierarchy aren’t being tone deaf (hand-waving problems, winning raffles, talking about sacrifices they don’t participate in). Have a variety of activities and make as many elective as you can. Also, I think about some way to make sure people can feel seen and heard about the recent difficulties in a contained way, so that it doesn’t become the focus of the trip. If there’s anything concrete that can be announced to address anything (expanded EAP, additional PTO, new schedule flexibility) this is a great time for it. Anything the team can genuinely celebrate together, including recent accomplishments.

    1. I Wrote This in the Bathroom*

      I disagree and think it does help in the sense that, LW was asked to suggest activities to the department head. Now with the feedback received both from Alison and in the comments, LW is reassured in the opinion they already had that most team-building exercise that people normally suggest, that might work in a healthy and happy workplace, will not work here. This way LW isn’t going to suggest something that will for sure not work (and then avoid looking tone-deaf themselves for having suggested it). I like your suggestions, especially the ones about making the activities optional.

    2. YetAnotherAnalyst*

      Except the LW is looking specifically for activity suggestions for building trust, right? So, to use your recipe analogy – if someone wrote in asking for Mrs. Beeton’s best recipe for Baked Alaska, it would be helpful to know that Mrs. Beeton doesn’t have a recipe for Baked Alaska, as she died in 1865 and Baked Alaska was invented in 1867. The writer could then consider if a different recipe would suit their menu, or if the impossible dish was so important that they need to cancel or delay the dinner.

      LW isn’t powerless here. Their department lead has asked for suggestions, so they can always suggest that there are issues that need to be addressed before (or in addition to) this event – assuming that they trust their department lead to take that in the spirit it’s suggested. Or, they can choose to suggest an activity that supports a different goal, if trust building isn’t realistic. Or, they can consider if the trust issues are in fact resolvable at all given Management’s response, and whether they should look elsewhere rather than invest energy trying to fix things in their current job .

      1. Critical Rolls*

        Making positive personal connections with coworkers and management does, in fact, build trust. It doesn’t magically make everyone utterly confident in each other and the workplace, but I assume LW is not an idiot and knew that already. Also going on the assumption that LW is capable of asking the question they mean to ask — “it’s been a tough year, how can I suggest we make the most of this retreat?” — rather than intending to ask an entirely different series of questions — “should I trust my department lead? Is this retreat a good idea? How can my company address trust on a global and strategic level? Should I try to gumption-fix my company’s issues from many levels down in the org chart or should I start job hunting?” And there’s nothing in the letter to go on about whether LW has raised issues with their lead. They may have already done so, and again, that is a completely different question.

        1. YetAnotherAnalyst*

          The question that was actually asked is (very lightly paraphrased): “Do you or other readers have any suggestions for trust-building activities that actually build trust?”

          The answer “No, not in your situation – here are some things that would build trust” is a valid and useful answer to that question.

          “Here are some other things you can do on your retreat, even though they’re not trust-building” is also potentially useful information – but LW isn’t actually responsible for planning the retreat, any more than they’re responsible for fixing the trust issues at their company. They’re just looking for something to suggest to their lead.

  49. Aelfwynn*

    #1 – It’s crazy the things people tell their manager about… I’m not entirely sure why it is. I’ve had people tell me allllll about their medical situations and their personal struggles (fighting with spouses, issues with their parents, etc., etc. etc.). I’ve practically begged them in conversations to stop, saying “you really don’t need to tell me about the specifics regarding your health. I just need to know when you will be out. No, really, I don’t need to know about your colonoscopy!” Yet it continues.

    The most difficult one was one to figure out was someone who had a close family member in hospice and insisted on sending me all sorts of messages off-hours with updates on the health of said family member and asking me to call them so they could give me updates (on nights and weekends even). I tried to tell them that they really did not need to send me these updates, but some people seem to think they really need to keep their manager in the loop about things that are really none of our business. It can be hard to set that boundary with them (especially when they’re going through something rough and don’t want to hurt their feelings), but I think it’s important.

    Sounds like with this guy something along the lines of “I don’t need to hear about it” isn’t going to set that boundary, though. He seems to know you don’t need to be updated, but is using you, as you said, as a therapist. The most passive thing you could do would be to just not engage so he isn’t getting what he “wants” from you, but if he’s a guy who just likes to hear himself talk, it won’t matter. I think direct (like Alison’s suggestions) tend to be the best, clearest, path forward.

    1. I should really pick a name*

      I think some people take “I don’t need to hear about it” to mean “You can tell me if you want, but you don’t have to”.

      If it’s not working, you usually have to move to the more direct “Please stop doing this” (which would have to be very carefully worded in a situation where someone has a family member in a hospice).

  50. misquoted*

    I’m a fan of the “stop/start/continue” model of problem solving. It encourages focused discussion about what elements of the job/workplace/etc. should be discontinued, what could be started, and what is going well. It’s work-focused, but a bit outside the box, and can be done in many ways, including remotely if necessary. (I will also say that I personally like the cheesy team-building stuff, but I acknowledge I’m in the minority.)

  51. Dread Pirate Roberts*

    Letter writer 3, I agree that asking the question isn’t likely to lead to a useful answer, or give you much sense of your own position. I was on a hiring panel where we really hoped for an external hire but didn’t end up getting candidates who met our needs better than the internal candidate, who was very keen but lacked some qualities we wanted. And I’ve been on hiring panels where we were neutral to start but an external candidate won out over the internal. Or the internal candidate agreed to an interview for development purposes knowing they were unlikely to get the job (in one case, after the top 2 external candidates rejected the offer, she did get the job and was a great fit!)

    I know it happens, probably a lot, but I’ve never been on a hiring panel where we were confident we’d hire an internal candidate from the start (unless it was closed to external applicants!)

  52. Henry Hass*

    When I was an assistant manager in retail, my boss decided to hire a sales associate whom I’ll call Maybel Lee. Her email was similar to because she loved to party and drink tequila and somehow thought it was an appropriate email address to use professionally. She was an awful employee who got away with a lot of bad behavior because she was buddy-buddy with the store manager. The regional manager was oblivious and, for years, thought the employee’s name was Maybel Aquila and even wrote it on official paperwork.

  53. Trust exercise alternative*

    Letter 2:

    A friend went through a messy school year, and here’s what the staff did to reflect:
    Everyone had 20 minutes to write down on sticky notes things/practices from the past year they want to leave in the past.
    Then 20 minutes to write things they want to carry forward.
    Then 20 minutes for things they’d like to have/dreams/things they’ve seen work elsewhere.

    Then people were broken into three groups and each was assigned a pile of sticky notes to sort and look for recurring themes. Then they shared those with the group.

    It provided a fairly safe way to give hard feedback, an allowed the most universal issues to rise to the surface.

    I think that would build trust by demonstrating the complaint was trying to listen to people.

    (Of course it depends what you do moving forward!)

  54. JSPA*

    OP1: letting people cry in your office, for privacy, is one thing; crying in your presence is quite another. That’s opening you up to be WAY more involved in your employees emotions and private lives than is healthy (as with this case in point).

    “If you need a moment alone to pull yourself together, I’m going to be out of here for 5 minutes or so.”

    Remember to put away sensitive documents, lock your desk drawers, and shut access to your computer, and then hand them the kleenex box, quick pat on the back if that’s within your workplace norms, then go to the bathroom or get a cup of tea, and let them collect themselves.

  55. Tammy 2*

    I totally understand when there is a strong internal candidate (and I have been that strong internal candidate who got the job), but I once interviewed for a role where the internal candidate who got the role was **on the panel.** Considered that a bullet dodged, because what a wild way to run a search.

  56. YetAnotherAnalyst*

    Because, if there were a trust-building or team-building exercise that would help, that would be a far superior option – and Alison is likely to have much greater insight into that than most folks. So LW now can decide whether it’s preferable to suggest an activity with a different goal, suggest a different solution for trust-building, or suggest nothing at all.

  57. Can't Sit Still*

    LW2: There is one thing your department head can do to facilitate trust during this retreat. It doesn’t solve anything long-term, but will buy a little time if the company genuinely intends to fix the underlying problems.

    It’s food. People always overlook this, and it is the easiest to fix and the fastest way to destroy trust. Your retreat MUST accommodate ALL of your employee’s dietary preferences & requirements. Every. Single. One. All food should be clearly labeled, with known allergens at a minimum, but ideally with all ingredients. It is entirely possible to accommodate both a gluten-free vegan and someone on a paleo with the same meal.

    It does take time to collect data and plan a menu, but it will absolutely destroy any vestiges of trust if one of your employees can’t eat the provided food, either due to allergens or for religious reasons. This also means that you shouldn’t have alcohol as part of your retreat, either with meals or having a wine tasting as teambuilding.

    I won’t lie, it does take time and effort to do this, and it’s not a small ask. People may not even notice all the effort that went into it. But you see how well the ubiquitous pizza parties go over when a company puts zero effort into food for its employees.

    1. Mark This Confidential And Leave It Laying Around*

      Seconding this. Rather than demand trust from employees, show them you remember some of them eat kosher, halal, vegan, or gluten-free. It’s a bit of a PITA to accommodate everyone, but I totally agree with Can’t Sit Still: it gets noticed and remembered. It is the cheapest way to buy goodwill.

  58. Ellie Rose*

    LW#2, the only time I’ve found team building exercises effective is when the work environment is generally healthy.

    Then, simple social activities a few times a year go a long way. People bond pretty naturally if there’s low-stress social time, and if they *aren’t*, there’s no magic fun activity that will fix it.

    examples: afternoon free food truck, paid team lunches, and totally optional clubs both physically active (tennis) and chill (movie club) with a small budget.

  59. Kermit's Bookkeepers*

    I want to gently push back on the commenters relating to LW1 who are jumping to the conclusion that her employee is grooming her as a future romantic prospect and/or will become immediately petulant and hostile when she sets down a boundary. That is of course a possibility and I think it’s perfectly likely he’s falling into the unfortunate patriarchal pattern that prompts many men to treat women as an automatic source of emotional labor, but he could just as easily be on the “cluelessly selfish” side of things rather than the “maliciously/harrasingly manipulative” side. I just don’t want LW1 to get needlessly spooked about what could turn out to be an uncomfortable but ultimately harmless conversation.

    Letter Writer, you say that you have tried to redirect conversations back to work, and I’m wondering if this is just one of those cases where you think you’ve been a lot more direct than you have. What he’s doing is inappropriate, but if your signals have been gentle and vague he could be under the impression that you haven’t laid down any boundaries at all and all of this is okay with you. It’s possible that one simple, direct conversation followed by sticking to your boundary may solve all of this with minimal strife. Next time a conversation starts to go south, say something straightforward like “I recognize that you’re going through a terrible time right now and I want to be sensitive to that, however as your manager it’s not appropriate for me to be a source of emotional comfort on this, and going forward I’ll need our conversations to remain-work related. Our EAP has resources if you would like to find someone to talk to about the personal impact this is having on you, and I can connect you with them for next steps. In the meantime, is there anything I can do as a manager to help you through this time?” And then offer a couple of examples of stuff you can actually do (reduced hours, more WFH time, etc).

    When he texts after hours, ask cheerfully if its a work emergency. When he confirms it isn’t, tell him that you try to unplug after hours but you’ll see him in the morning. When a work conversation starts to skew into his personal life, cheerfully and firmly steer the conversation back into the correct channels. “Mm. I’m sorry you’re going through that, but I do need to keep us on task. Do you have any updates on the project, or should we reconvene at a later time?”

    1. Kermit's Bookkeepers*

      Just realized the second 2/3 of my comment is simply a more verbose version of what Alison already said way more succinctly. Whoops!

      1. I went to school with only 1 Jennifer*

        People learn different ways. Different ways of phrasing will hit better for some people. (My job involves explaining things to people and I really like getting to hear how other people explain the same things. It’s useful.) I think you’re fine here.

    2. Observer*

      who are jumping to the conclusion that her employee is grooming her as a future romantic prospect and/or will become immediately petulant and hostile when she sets down a boundary. ~~~snip~~~ he could just as easily be on the “cluelessly selfish” side of things rather than the “maliciously/harrasingly manipulative” side.

      So? You really think that if he’s “just” cluelessly selfish, he will respond well when the OP sets some reasonable boundaries? I don’t. Again, decades of experience tells me that whenever someone makes such outlandish demands of someone’s time or resources, they react very poorly when the other person pushes back. That’s true no matter what the reason for the boundary pushing is. Because they clearly feel entitled, and they don’t react well to people not giving them what they want and they “deserve”.

      1. Moryera*

        Exactly. It’s not like this sort of person wakes up and goes “hmm, I think I’m going to go into the office and harass my manager today”, but that’s still what we’re seeing here. Cluelessly manipulative.

    3. I Wrote This in the Bathroom*

      But we take LWs at their word here and this LW mentioned an unhealthy crush…

      “but if your signals have been gentle and vague he could be under the impression that you haven’t laid down any boundaries at all and all of this is okay with you”

      I’m having flashbacks to when, at my workplace, multiple people called the HR on the same guy on multiple occasions and their answer always was “we cannot do anything, because he didn’t know he wasn’t supposed to” (tell a teammate he’d come to where she lived, threaten *the teammate’s cats*, tell an off-color joke at a team-building lunch for a team that wasn’t his, that he’d crashed, etc) Something tells me this guy knows good and well that it is not okay to call your boss multiple times a day, followed by texting same boss after hours, with rants about your divorce proceedings, so I’d like to gently push back on the narrative that it is LW’s fault that he doesn’t. Is he doing this to anyone else in the management? nope. so he knows it isn’t the right thing to do.

      1. Observer*

        I think that you are 100%

        However, it is still a good idea for speak in terms that allow no mis-interpretation whatsoever. The OP should do so and then document that she’s done so. Not because she’s at fault, but to make sure that if he (or HR) try that particular piece of nonsense she can respond that she actually told him in clear terms that he cannot do that. So, no, he either DID know, or *absolutely* should have known because she actually *told him*.

        It’s depressing that she should have to consider this. But given the attempts to claim that maybe he really doesn’t realize, it’s unfortunately to her benefit to be proactive about preventing that from happening.

      2. Kermit’s Bookkeepers*

        Never meant to imply that any of this is letter writer’s fault! Only that we don’t have enough information in her letter to imply that setting down a firmer boundary will go badly for her. Of course that’s a possibility she would want to prepare for (source: am a woman and have had boundary-setting conversations go both ways), but treating hostility as a foregone conclusion feels like, well, jumping to conclusions. We should allow for the possibility that being explicit and firm with her employee may resolve the behavior.

  60. Evergreen*

    LW 2
    I’m a fan of low key, non physical non personal icebreakers that give people something to talk about later. A couple of ideas:
    – a “jigsaw puzzle” on which each piece has a question along 2 edges and answers along the other two, the otherside is a picture. Team has to strategise which side to complete, if it’s the questions everyone usually knows an answer, if people hate jigsaw puzzles they can joke about that, etc
    – a short trivia quiz where everyone sends you a question in advance. Can have other games around that like the team comes up with name for its little toy mascot, the team has to have their thumbs on the table at 6:00:00pm etc
    – related, except you ask everyone for a few non-personal numeric facts (how many hours was your longest flight, how many days have you worked at the company for etc) and the teams put that in order from highest to lowest
    – short scavenger hunt around the city (find signs/statues/colours etc)

    But anything competitive make it short (like an hour) and make the prize pretty crap (glue the team mascot toy onto a trophy base kind of crap) and have food/drink available if people prefer to just sit on the edge and watch/chat.

    Won’t solve your issues in one day, but at least you’ll have met someone else in the company who detests jigsaws as much as you do!!!

  61. AskHRButOnlyIfActionable*

    OP3, if you do choose to ask, I would only ask the HR/recruiter and not the hiring manager or anyone actually interviewing you. But asking does seem to have mostly gone out of style, so I’d only ask if you plan to change your behavior based on the answer. For instance, if you’re offered an interview and the only time they’ll do it means you’d have to miss a family event or if you’d be travelling a long distance for an onsite interview or similar, you may decide it’s not worth the extra effort if there are internal candidates.

  62. Hmmmmmmmm*

    LW1, probably not a crush. I have had this happen at least three times with female coworkers who had no crush on me. They are just vampires . They will suck the life out of the world with the venting. Just try to turn the conversation onto you and some problem and you will see quite quickly. The minute they can’t endlessly vent and talk about themselves they no longer want to talk.

  63. Alice*

    Hi OP2, I think that the comment I’m about to make will make things even more difficult, sorry!
    I have lost trust in some of my colleagues, my managers, and my organization during the pandemic because of workplace safety issues. There is no team-building activity in the world that would fix that. I try my best to put it aside, but that is a lot easier when we are not in person and when we are not talking explicitly about trust/safety/inclusion.
    Honestly I think you are in a tough position as a middle manager in this context. You probably don’t have the authority to change the culture to be more deserving of your reports’ trust, which is not your fault, but is going to leave you feeling like a failure if “restoring trust” is your self-imposed goal. Good luck though.

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