updates: employee says his religion prevents him from using the correct pronouns, and more

Welcome to “where are you now?” season at Ask a Manager! Between now and the end of the year, I’ll be running updates from people who had their letters here answered in the past. Here are four updates from past letter-writers.

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

1. Employee says his religion prevents him from using the correct pronouns for trans or non-binary coworkers

I didn’t go into this in my previous letter, but I’ve had to manage this employee pretty closely for other reasons. Unfortunately, very little had been documented over the years, which I realized after being promoted into my current role. HR was made aware of this latest concern. Because we did not have evidence of this being more than a hypothetical situation at that point (not directly refusing to use an actual employee’s pronouns), we made plans to address if it came up in the future.

Not long after I wrote my letter, however, we had an incident of unrelated negative behavior directed at another employee that resulted in us letting this person go. You can probably imagine that after a long history of poor behavior in other ways, team morale was quite low (I must have read every letter you have for similar situations!) which helped bolster the documentation we had on file to make that decision.

We did have some good come from this — our HR department realized that we did not have adequate training in place for covering expectations around pronoun usage and we have now made changes to address this at an organizational level.

So, not quite the most exciting update, but my team is a lot happier and I am a lot less stressed from managing a difficult employee.

2. I don’t want to do a department overnight (#3 at the link)

Thank you for your advice! I ended up not having to go on the overnight portion of the retreat this year since I’d recently had a baby. The daytime activities I attended were okay, pretty run of the mill company bonding stuff.

I don’t fully trust our director to react well to any critical feedback, so I expressed my feelings to several reasonable folks higher up than me who he respects (also men, shockingly enough). I think a bunch of coworkers felt similarly because next year the retreat will be in town and only for the day. That works for me! It’s tiresome having to dance around issues with my boss, but it seems like the only way to make any changes happen. I’m currently job searching so hopefully a more functional and direct workplace is in my future.

3. A kid is making our customers uncomfortable (#2 at the link)

The advice was excellent but funnily enough after you gave it the kid stopped coming to the store. I don’t know if their family moved but we haven’t seen them in months.

I was able to use some of the advice given to assist with another customer, a young man who would spend hours talking to my booksellers, preventing them from doing their jobs. The booksellers were too polite to tell him to stop and told me he was harmless. He also did overtly hit on one of them in front of me and ask for her number, prompting me to make up an excuse to get her off the sales floor so I could talk to him.
I talked to him about the difference between a friendly customer service persona and an actual friend. And that the booksellers are required to be polite and attentive as part of their job but they had other tasks to do as well. It seemed to go well, and he hasn’t been a problem since.

Unlike the child in the original question, he wasn’t hassling customers and while he was young he wasn’t a child. But the advice about establishing boundaries and how to take a firm but kind tone was still very helpful.

4. I saw an email with harsh feedback about me as a job candidate

It’s been over a decade, but I’m back with an update!

Right around the time that you published my question, I received very gracious emails from both the hiring manager and the email writer in question acknowledging and apologizing for the mistake, but confirming that they would not be moving forward with my application. The email from the email writer was contrite and kind, and specifically apologized for how it must have felt to receive an unexpectedly critical email during a vulnerable time.

Due to your advice and the advice of the comment section, I responded with what I hope was equal grace. I thanked him for his candid criticism, and did try to proactively address the problems in my resume that he pointed out in his email in subsequent applications. I’ve now been in hiring roles at subsequent jobs and have occasionally thought about how uncomfortable the behind-the-scenes conversations that led to those emails must have been. I’ve also become (even more) obsessive about checking my “To:” lines before hitting send.

Because it’s been so long, I feel comfortable providing additional context that I’m a lawyer and was applying for a job in Big Law shortly after graduating law school without the traditional bona fides those sorts of firms look for. It wouldn’t have been unheard of for someone with my background to at least get a courtesy interview, but it would have required someone pulling my application out of the pile — hence my then-boyfriend’s request. 2013 was a rotten time to be a newly-minted lawyer, and I think this email hurt more than it would have ordinarily because it came on the tail of many other more impersonal rejections. I stuck with it, and a decade later I can report that I’m very happy in a role my 2013 self never would have dreamed I would be recruited for.

As an added, non-employment update, I broke up with the boyfriend in question after this entire incident. His response to my hurt feelings — which can be summarized as “well, what did you think would happen when you applied to this job I suggested you should apply for but you are clearly not good enough for?” — was confirmation that he wasn’t the right partner for me. Another silver lining!

{ 93 comments… read them below }

  1. Arlo*

    Funny how the folks who want to die on Pronoun Hill are never actually as kind and friendly and respectful in other areas as they think they are.

    1. Pastor Petty Labelle*

      Totally not surprised there were other problems. ALso not surprised there was a negative incident that resulted in immediate termination.

      1. WeirdChemist*

        Also not surprised that everyone on the team was happier after they left! You never really clock just how much time/energy you’re putting into ~dealing~ with someone awful (whether it’s confronting them on their crap or quietly stewing or trying to avoid them completely) until they’re out of your life.

      2. My Cabbages!*

        Right? My very first thought was, “Oh, what a shocker that someone being a jerk about LGBT+ issues is also a total jerk in general.”

    2. Hannah Lee*

      It’s like backwards interpersonal version of the “nice” people in traffic who try to “let” other drivers pull out in front of them (when there is no need, no big back up, no zippering needed) stopping the normal flow of traffic and potentially putting other drivers at risk.

      And as soon as you indicate “no, I’m good, I’m just going to wait at this here Stop sign until you go past because a) YOU have the right of way and b) there is no one behind you so I can go as soon as you proceed and/or you’re in one of three lanes and I will get broadsided if I pull out” they flip out, get angry, start swearing and gesturing. It’s the strangest thing!

      They aren’t actually “nice” or “kind” or “polite” as they pretend to be. They are actually fake or looking to feel superior, or have some strange views/agenda that makes them think they are the arbitrator of who deserves respect or autonomy to move freely in the world.

      1. LB33*

        You would love driving in Boston – nobody will pretend to be nice and they damn sure won’t let you go ahead of them

      2. Freya*

        Or the human, years back, who stopped their car in the middle of the road to get out and tell me the parking spot I was trying to get into wasn’t big enough for my car. Thank you, human, I’d figured that out and was just waiting for you to go past so I could leave and try and find another without hitting your car!

      3. AnotherSarah*

        This comment made my day, I’m a Boston/NY driver at heart and now live in an area where the practices are as you describe….

      4. Michelle*

        This reminds me of a sort of standoff I had with another driver at a stop sign. They kept waving at me to go – I think they were on their phone or something – and I kept waving at them to go… because they were stopped in front of my driveway.

      5. 1-800-BrownCow*

        Thank you, Hannah Lee! This is one of my driving pet peeves, whether I’m behind said “nice” driver who makes me stop unexpectedly or when I’m waiting to pull out somewhere and someone thinks they’re being polite by stopping to let me out, creating a potential accident situation. This happened to my brother when someone driving a large full-sized van stopped to let him turn left out of a parking lot and he didn’t want to be rude, so he quickly pulled out. It was a 4-lane road and he couldn’t see there was a car in the other lane that wasn’t stopping and he ended up being t-boned by the 2nd car. Of course, the driver of the van didn’t stop to apologize or offer assistance, they took off right away. So yeah, “nice, kind, polite” was not who they were. I agree with the “feeling superior” attitude for those drivers.

      6. Phyllis Refrigeration*

        Yes! i frequently go through a very busy 4 way stop which works surprisingly well with everyone going in the right order, but my mom will wave someone through that stopped after, thus messing everything up because now the person who was supposed to follow that person thinks it’s their turn. Plus it just slows things down as people are trying to figure out that yes, you want them to go, is it safe, check around, etc.
        Just do the correct 4 way order!

      7. JustaTech*

        I once had someone do this to me when I was a pedestrian – I was crossing a road that is ~4 lanes wide at that spot and I knew that some days I just needed to wait a while for a break in traffic. This guy pulls up and stops for me in the right most lane, and gets really, really angry when I won’t walk into the road, even though there was plenty of oncoming traffic and someone coming up in the left lane as well.

        I finally crossed in front of Mr “Helpful” and then was stranded in the middle of the street (in the turn lane, so not totally unsafe) until a break in traffic.

        Thankfully now there is a real crosswalk at that spot (with blinking lights!).

        1. AngryOctopus*

          I almost got hit by a woman who failed to notice the other 3 lanes of traffic had stopped for me. Luckily I pay attention so I had stopped in front of a car and was waiting for her to either notice or just drive by. Then when she did slam on her brakes, she raised up her hands in a “sorry!” gesture that went over badly because there in one hand was her phone!
          So naturally I gave her the unblinking staredown as I crossed, and when that made her uncomfortable so that she rolled down her window and said “I didn’t see you!”, I turned and screamed (pretty sure every stopped driver heard me) “THEN PUT YOUR F*CKING PHONE DOWN”. Good times.

      8. Dasein9 (he/him)*

        Ugh, yes. I take walks to manage chronic leg pain and am sometimes very slow. If people stop when they don’t need to for me to cross, they get annoyed when I walk slowly, but if I decline, they get annoyed that they stopped and I didn’t take the offer.

    3. OMG, Bees!*

      I have thought a lot about LW1 this year and I am not surprised on the outcome. Good to see it resolved before it became a bigger issue.

  2. Hlao-roo*

    Letter-writer 4: Thank you for the update on the decade-old letter! Glad to hear you’re in a good job now. I always appreciate an update on an old letter because there’s a lot of perspective that comes with the passage of time.

      1. Cubicle Escapee*

        It’s nice to see that everyone (except the ex) handled it so gracefully and professionally.

    1. ariel*

      +1 – congrats on the arc of your career, the dumping, and the ability to be gracious when you were not feeling so, OP!

  3. BigLawEx*

    Now some 25+ years past law school, I can say that more people than it would look from the outside get hired at BigLaw without the ‘proper’ bona fides. It’s exactly the situation you outlined – being pulled from the pile. It’s not the majority or even a significant minority, but it’s not zero. That said, as is evidenced by some of the most recent scandals, discussions are very harsh in BigLaw which includes hiring practices. It should never be taken personally.

  4. Bookworm*

    LW1: Perhaps not “exciting” in some sense but it’s great to read that this spurred greater change in general AND your team is happier. Win win!

  5. Anon for this*

    Pronouns: What never fails to amaze me is how someone who describes themselves as a devout follower of a particular religion does not, in fact, subscribe to any of the teachings of the founder of that particular religion. Tolerance, kindness, and empathy for others are definitely in short supply in that population.

    1. RVA Cat*

      This. I’ll bet they’re also nasty to the poor, tax collectors, and sex workers, to pull examples that are right there in the book.

            1. There You Are*

              I’m super left wing and I have a ton of empathy for the folks who work at the IRS, especially when one of the major political parties goes out of its way to defund the IRS, leaving it without the [highly-paid] experts who can untangle tax frauds of the ultra-wealthy.

              The folks who decide to spend the money the IRS collects on things I vehemently disagree with (“positivity training for people on food stamps” comes to mind), are a different story.

            2. JaneDough(not)*

              @LB33, I encourage you to rethink your aversion to the IRS. When it’s properly staffed (which hasn’t been the case for years), *then* it’s able to go after the big fish — that’s why the GOP opposes proper funding for the IRS. Studies show that every $1 spent to crack down on wealthy tax cheats yields at least $12 in revenue. In 2021, the IRS chief said (per the NYT) that tax cheats cost this nation $1 trillion a year — $1 trillion! I’d sure like that revenue available for education, healthcare, expanded public transportation, a proper safety net …

              When the IRS is understaffed, it audits middle- and lower-income people — those with simple returns *and* without lots of high-priced accountants / lawyers to find loopholes and / or to push back against an IRS audit. So please support the expansion of the IRS with the goal of getting wealthy tax cheats to do their patriotic duty. Thanks.

            3. Feral Humanist*

              The IRS is super important for rubbing off social programs that the left favors. I don’t love paying taxes but I like what comes from them, and everyone needs to pay their share for it to work.

              1. LB33*

                I love and support all the social programs and am happy to pay taxes! My issue is with the IRS itself as the best means to achieve this

        1. Delta Delta*

          I know the lady who stamps the property tax receipts in my town. She used to work at my bank and then changed jobs. I got to know her when she worked at my bank and I rather like her. This is as close as I can come to “tax collector” though.

        2. Catabouda*

          I do! A friend is the tax collector for our town. She gets all the fun of sending letters to delinquent folks and dealing with nasty phone calls with the added bonus of having to run for reelection.

        3. AnonORama*

          I know the tax assessor for my county, or at least I’ve met him several times. Actually a nice dude. But, I’ve never had a county tax issue, and I know him through another aspect of his work (voter registration).

          1. JaneDough(not)*

            @Nesprin, do you live indoors? If yes, then you (or a landlord) spend money keeping the structure intact — mostly to ensure that the structure keeps you warm, dry, and safe but also to ensure that the structure maintains its resale value. You can’t have it both ways — you can’t refuse to pay to maintain your home but also expect it to keep you warm, safe, and dry.

            Running a nation is, roughly speaking, analogous. Money is required to ensure that everyone is educated (keep in mind that YOUR SocSec payments depend on today’s students), that we have functioning police and fire departments, that roads and the electrical grid and the water supply are maintained and are safe, that we have a trained military at the ready, and far more.

            So no more cracks about “government agent[s] whose job is to take your time and money,” please. If you don’t like paying dues for this club (= paying taxes to keep your country functioning), then quit the club. And good luck finding *any* nation where taxes aren’t needed or collected!

          2. Mmsob*

            I’m one. We’re still just humans, doing the best we can to make teapots. Heaven forbid some hate that we use those teapots to house the homeless.

        4. Random Dice*

          I don’t know any tax collectors, but I enthusiastically pay my taxes.

          I love that they pay for roads I don’t drive on and schools and food and medicine of kids who aren’t my own.

        5. amoeba*

          I mean, I’ve had to call the tax department a few times with questions about my tax declaration and they were very friendly and helpful!

          (Which also kind of blows my mind, because “just call, they’ll help you” is… not something that works in my home country. Not that they’re horrible people there, but they’re definitely not as easily reachable or feel responsible for explaining things to you. Difference in staffing, I’m sure!)

        6. Lab Boss*

          I have an acquaintance who’s an IRS employee, but not directly involved with the collection of the taxes. We usually give him a hard time by reminding him that Jesus said to be good to tax collectors, not their bosses who are too bad at math to be trusted counting the money.

        7. Phryne*

          My mom was the modern version of a tax collector before she retired. She worked at the tax department of the ‘waterschap’*, institutions of medieval origins (so predating the country by some centuries) who are almost completely independent from the government and who can levy their own taxes. They are responsible for keeping our beneath sea-level country dry and for cleaning waste-water. Pretty good reasons to pay tax imo.

          *water board, although that does not really cover the meaning or function.

      1. Hannah Lee*

        And then there’s the whole “I’m gonna boil down those 10 simple rules down to just 2, for those who found the 10 too confusing” bit in which #2 is “love your neighbor as yourself”

        Like, even if you didn’t read *anything* else in the whole book or books, or only consult the Biblical Cliff Notes Red Letter version, that right there is straight up telling you “don’t be mean”

        1. Clare*

          The entire New Testament is a book about a dude going around giving out literal free health care and food handouts, while telling people to be less judgy and more focused on helping each other; and then other people going “Genius! We should all do that.”.

        2. JaneDough(not)*

          George Carlin did a very funny riff on boiling down the 10 commandments; you can find it on YT.

          1. catsoverpeople*

            The best, of course, being “thou shalt keep thy religion to thyself.” Amen! (so to speak)

        3. amoeba*

          I will also quote one of my favourites: “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.”

          (I’m not religious. But the New Testament certainly has some good messages that people could benefit from actually following.)

          1. whingedrinking*

            I’ve always liked, “If I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing.”

      2. Allibaster kitty*

        I mean the tax collectors were disliked because they would pad their pockets by charging extra. No one loves paying taxes, but in historical context, this is why they were so vilified during Roman occupation times, they literally were stealing from people….

    2. Orv*

      The only purpose of religion is to let people launder their existing prejudices into moral “principles” that then get special Constitutional protection.

      1. Zennish*

        That’s a really broad generalization, and not true across the board, although there are certainly particular expressions of various religions where this fits entirely. Personally, I’d consider myself a very religious person, but Zen Buddhists aren’t known for lobbying Congress. One of the vows that many of us end every group meditation with is “Greed, hatred and ignorance rise endlessly. I vow to abandon them.”

      2. Eater of Cupcakes*

        Correct me if I’m wrong, but I feel that when you say “religion” you actually mean “modern, American Christianity.”

        1. It Actually Takes a Village*

          You’re forgetting the Catholic church’s long and barbaric history. The Inquisition? The Doctrine of Discovery that said Indigenous people were not fully human and therefore did not have rights to the land they lived on? And the history of many other religions’ savagery and violence in the name of their god/s…

          1. Eater of Cupcakes*

            Orv was talking about “special Constitutional protection. I assumed (maybe wrongly?) that this referred specifically to the constitution of the USA, meaning that U.S. Americans are the only ones trying to get Constitutional protection.

  6. Alice*

    Thanking people for candid criticism is so hard sometimes…. Sounds like you handled it in a really good way. And, good riddance to bad rubbish re the ex!

  7. Reality.Bites*

    I think a good response to resignation discussion back then would have been “if that situation occurs we will accept your resignation with pleasure.”

  8. Lizzianna*

    “I will quit if you make me do XYZ reasonable thing!”


    I’ve had that conversation a number of times. It rarely goes the way the person threatening to quit wants it to.

      1. 1-800-BrownCow*

        A former manager at my job that had to deal with employees in positions that tended to have higher turn-over, so he would keep a stack of voluntary termination forms by his desk. When an employee would get annoyed and threaten to quit, he’d pull out the form and tell them to just fill it out and he’d submit it to HR for them. No one ever took him up on it, lol!

        And another good one was with a problem employee on my team that would constantly complain about everything, he would often say “At other places, they do ‘this better thing’ instead!” or “Other places make other people do that work, I shouldn’t have to do it!”. He once made one of those complaints in front of our manager and our manager replied, “Well, you should go get a job at one of those places. Let me know if you need my referral!”. It was awesome. Problem employee stopped complaining around the manager, but was still let go a few months later due to other multiple issues, much to everyone else’s relief. Now that I’m a manager, I keep that line ready to use, in case I ever need it. Thankfully I have a great team, so I haven’t needed to use it, but it’s still fresh in my memory just in case.

          1. 1-800-BrownCow*

            Why?? Don’t “threaten” with quitting because you are annoyed about having to do your job. If you’re going to use that as a tactic to try and get your way, then don’t be surprised if your manager is going to call your bluff.

          2. AngryOctopus*

            Eh, if you don’t like an aspect of your job, that you are paid to do, then don’t threaten to quit. Nobody wants to hear it. You can try to make it better, or you can go ahead and find yourself a job that doesn’t require you to do that aspect.

  9. JaneDough(not)*

    LW3, you did a good deed by helping the second boundary-less customer understand appropriate boundaries — and, I’m hoping that you also talked to your employees, because it’s just as incumbent upon *them* to observe boundaries as it is upon him.

    You wrote that the young man “would spend hours talking to my booksellers, preventing them from doing their jobs. The booksellers were too polite to tell him to stop …” Well, I (with many years in retail, and also as the daughter, niece, and granddaughter of many small-biz owners) would counter that *every* employee needs to develop the soft skill of disengaging from a Clingon, because not tending to the store is unfair to the owner who pays the wages and unfair to the other employees who take up the slack.

    Plus, everyone needs to know how to disengage from a Clingon just because — they’re everywhere in life — and needs to understand that being firm-yet-kind is NOT being rude. So please gather your employees for a few minutes before the store opens and teach them this skill. Show them Alison’s response; solicit their ideas for useful disengaging phrases; brainstorm together for more.

    I’ll ante first: [With warm smile] “I am *so* sorry to interrupt you, but I have to go — I need to dust / re-alphabetize the shelves / get something from the stock room. Take care.” (I wouldn’t say “I’ve enjoyed talking with you,” because a Clingon will interpret that as an invitation to start up again ASAP.)

    1. So many questions...*

      I love this. As a person who never wants to discuss with someone what books I’m buying or whether or not I need a 50th pair of black pants, I’m the opposite.

      That said, your suggestions are great for cocktail parties and so many other times people don’t observe the same social norms.

    2. Critical Rolls*

      Yes, disengagement is both a critical work skill and a critical life skill. In retail, “Is there anything else we can help you with?” is a good one for creating an off-ramp.

  10. Dark Macadamia*

    “I talked to him about the difference between a friendly customer service persona and an actual friend.”

    HERO. Seriously, you did him and your sellers and the world in general such a kindness.

  11. Have you had enough water today?*

    How is religion STILL allowed to be used as an excuse to be an A-hole? I have no issue with religious people being able to take time off for their holy days & attend to necessary prayers, but stop trying to force your religious beliefs onto the rest of the world by claiming you cannot be a decent human being due to your religious beliefs.

    1. Observer*

      How is religion STILL allowed to be used as an excuse to be an A-hole?

      it isn’t. If you notice this person got fired. And HR figured out that they need to start training people, including managers on documentation.

    2. Orv*

      That’s its real purpose. You’ll notice religions that don’t give people an out-group to hate rarely have much clout or attract many members.

      1. Lenora Rose*

        I think this is an extremely unkind thing to say. Such hateful groups are loud but they are not the majority, and those of us who seek the numinous, or the guidance to be a better person, and actually look into the giving and thoughtful tenets of our chosen faiths do not like being told our motives are rarer than the evil ones when we do not see that.

        Don’t judge frequency by volume. For non-religious examples, anti-trans protests almost everywhere were HUGELY outnumbered by the supportive ones, Black Lives Matter might have been painted as happening only in a select few places with riots but in actuality it involved millions and (huge majority peaceful) protests running weeks to months.

  12. Who am I? (Still trying to figure the answer out.)*

    I’m sorry if this is a bit of an insensitive question, but:
    Letter 1 (pronouns-refusing coworker) reminded me of something. Do you know a good web page or so that gives an intro to pronouns (and grammar around them)? Along the lines of “Do I say they is or they are for singular they? What’s the correct possessive pronoun for zie, zir or zier or something else? What options are there for unknown/not-she-or-he? etc.”
    Sorry if it’s off-topic…
    (While I didn’t really run into religious objections, I’m not a native speaker and the english-as-foreign-language classes around here more or less say “it’s he or she if you know, and it in any other case”. Which… no. But I’m in a position to at least share “outside of school, use this” sometimes luckily.)

    1. Minimal Pear*

      I’ve seen Pronoun Dressing Room recommended for people who want to try new pronouns, not sure how helpful it is from the other end.

  13. Coffee Protein Drink*

    Why do some people make it so bloody hard to call or refer to people with their proper names and pronouns. It’s not difficult, and it’s not a “lifestyle.”

    1. whingedrinking*

      Same reason they’ll ask someone where they’re “really” from and not take “from here” as an answer – because they have certain categories in their heads and get really angry when people don’t seem to fit in those categories.

  14. Hippo-Rhino-Saurus*

    LW4: Was your boyfriend Warner Huntington III?? I’m so glad you got away (and secretly hoping you and Vivian Kensington are still besties).

    1. catsoverpeople*

      Hah! Love this.

      Warner, who was wait-listed: “YOU…got into Harvard Law School?”
      Elle: “what, like it’s hard?”

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