updates: the “mom energy,” going to a conference with a cold, and more

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

1. How do I avoid “mom energy” with my younger employees? (first update)

Mini Annie update:

Annie accepted our offer of severance and asked if she could say goodbye to our team, so I set up a Teams meeting for the five of us.

She legit gazed sweetly into the camera and said, “It’s been a pleasure working with some of you.”

2. Going to a conference with a cold (#3 at the link)

You published my question a couple weeks after I sent it in, so by that time, the conference had come and gone. I had arranged with the conference organizers to get a room for myself so as not to spread my cold to my roommate or to keep her up with my congested tossing and turning, and had planned on wearing a KN95 mask the rest of the time. Unfortunately, I started feeling much worse in the middle of the night before the morning I was supposed to leave, so I ended up staying home that weekend. I’m glad I did, because I felt, looked, and sounded terrible that weekend and would have been in no position to network, learn, or socialize.

There was a lot of discourse in the comments. As to whether what I had was Covid, both my partner and I tested negative multiple times all throughout our respective illnesses, so we’re pretty confident it was just a cold. I still didn’t want to spread “just a cold” to anyone, hence the precautions I was going to take at the conference, but if there was reason to believe it was actually Covid, I wouldn’t have even considered trying to go.

As to the concept of sharing a hotel room with a stranger, people were truly horrified. It was a worker’s side labor law conference, and most of the attendees (myself included) were law students who were recipients of the organization’s labor law summer fellowship. If you’re deep enough into the workers’ rights legal world to attend the conference, you probably already know that you’re never going to be wealthy or have the sort of resources of a lot of fancy law firms or big, powerful corporations, so sharing rooms wasn’t a surprise. Plus, we’re all students and that’s just sort of how it is a lot of the time. (In college, I was heavily involved in a political organization that had its annual conference in D.C. My senior year, I was on the national student board, and they put all eight of us board members, of mixed genders, in one tiny hostel style room with bunk beds while other attendees got put in hotels. So in comparison, sharing a room with one other person in a reputable hotel didn’t seem so bad.) A month or two leading up to the conference, we had the opportunity to select a single room, but we had to pay the difference between the cost of the single and the double room. At the time, I had no idea I’d be sick, so I didn’t feel like paying extra for a room to myself, so I declined the offer.

So anyway, it was a bummer to miss the conference, but at least I didn’t spread my germs to anyone there. Thanks for the advice, Alison, and thank you to the commentariat for keeping me well entertained on publication day!

3. How do I come to terms with giving up on my dream job?

I appreciated all the answers, and it was really helpful to read and consider when thinking about my job. I actually ended up leaving the position I wrote in about for unrelated reasons and have moved to a similar position at a university! It’s been about four months, and I’m loving it. Working at a university gives me the ability to access and participate in academic discussions related to my “dream job” (and importantly, get paid a livable salary!). It’s still not what I imagined myself doing when I was in college/graduate school, but it’s something that I now can see myself doing for the foreseeable future. As an added bonus, the university I’m working at has great tuition benefits that I’m looking forward to taking advantage of.

The commenters on my original post really helped me to re-evaluate what “dream job” means, and the ways that I can still engage with the field I trained in and love AND keep it separate from my work life. Extra-special thanks to commenter Les, whose comment I remind myself of sometimes.

Thanks again to everyone (and to this blog … it’s been great to read while I navigate the beginning of a career).

4. The winner of the bad interview answer question from 2009

Hey, remember when you ran a contest 14 years ago for the best answer to the “If you were an animal, what kind of animal would you be and why?” interview question, and someone won with an answer about E. Coli?

It was me! And I still have the floor lamp I got! It only kinda goes with the furniture I have now. And it got broken somehow in an interstate move a few years ago and doesn’t turn on anymore. But I don’t care. I love it and I’m never getting rid of it. In a way, it’s the first time I ever got paid to write.

Unfortunately, the company that supplied the prize, CSN Office Furniture, appears to be out of business. Double unfortunately, my hours just got cut in half at my job, and my spouse was laid off two months ago. Worst of all, no one has ever asked me in an interview about what kind of animal I would be and why. So I don’t have a victorious story about how being funny and clever about intestinal bacteria has led me to personal fulfillment, financial stability, and the respect of my peers.

But I still have my Ask A Manager lamp, and a great story for parties.

{ 96 comments… read them below }

  1. Sharpie*

    Oh, Annie. I hope she does some growing up soon, and that life doesn’t hurt too hard while she’s doing it.

    LW4, depending on how the lamp is broken, it may just need to be rewired. I’m glad you haven’t had such off-the-wall interviewers in the years since your e. coli answer.

  2. NoOneWillSeeThisComment*

    I work for a small company that is nowhere near rich enough to blindly be labeled as a ubiquitous “corporation” (the economist in me can’t stand the world corporation being overly used to mean “big bad business”), but I promise you they would NEVER even consider pairing people up in hotel rooms. I realize there are plenty of careers where no one is going to “get rich” doing them, hell, that’s been my whole life…but it’s not unreasonable to give grown adults a private room.

    1. H.C.*

      Seconded, though now that LW indicated they were students – the room-sharing aspect is a little bit more understandable (but still something I’d side-eye at)

    2. Llama Llama*

      While I completely agree and expect that if I am traveling that my company puts me in a quality hotel with my own room plenty of corporations don’t.

      My husband was a manager at a large retail store. He occasionally helped them open stores that required travel. Despite the fact that these stores often had $100k sales in a day they put him in scuzzy motels and he had to share!!

    3. Where’s the Orchestra?*

      Sounds like they were Grad Students, and Grad Students often get really tiny shoe-string budgets for conferences (if they get one at all). Many folks in a room is sadly the norm there.

      1. amoeba*

        To be fair, as a (grad) student, that was really normal and fine for most of us. Also because we were genuinely good friends with our coworkers and actually out partying together. Not sharing with my work bestie would have been weird, haha!

    4. AnotherSarah*

      I just returned from one of my professional conferences…we share hotel rooms. Most professors (and that’s most of the attendees) don’t have a large enough research/professional development budget to get their own room, especially if they’re traveling far or go to multiple conferences a year.

      1. Cat*

        College Board puts strangers in a shared hotel room every year when they have readers grade the advanced placement tests. This policy has not changed even though now many people grade remotely, so they clearly are saving a lot of money. Most teachers who grade do it because they want to be better AP teachers. This is the main reason I won’t do it. It is so disrespectful to me.

    5. B*

      On the one hand, yes, you’re not going to get rich as a union-side labor lawyer or organizer. On the other hand, more than anything, you should be prepared to advocate for dignified conditions for everyone, and should not accept the status quo because that’s just the way it is or because someone holding the pursestrings said so. You don’t have to be a robber baron to have a room to yourself at the Hampton Inn!

    6. andy*

      Honestly, at least around here, pairing people is completely normal. I was surprised back them how horrified comment section was, but took it as yet another instance of “managers living in an alternative universe”.

      You get good hotel, where good is defined as safe, clean, reasonably comfortable. You don’t get single room in it.

  3. DVM of course*

    I’m going to totally out myself with this comment but my favorite interview discussion topic was: would you rather die via cobra or tiger?

    1. goddessoftransitory*

      Are these the animals or martial arts styles?

      If the former, a tiger, because I would die petting a big ol’ kitty.

          1. Warrior Princess Xena*

            I can gleefully confirm that those *are* screenshots from their actual feed and they *do* have a sense of humor. Also, let’s be honest here, who doesn’t want to pet the kitty.

      1. DVM of course*

        Animals. I chose tiger, because big, pretty, kitty, get in a quick pet before death. Cobra envenomation is a horrible way to die.

    2. Clare*

      Cobra. I’m far less concerned by dull, diffuse pain than sharp pain, no matter the intensity. I’m mentally strong enough to not need it to be quick. Plus it would give me the chance to make sure I call in dead so that my boss can get a head start on finding cover for me.

      1. giffen*

        I read about a bad boss who had an employee come in even though they were in the process of dying from a cobra bite. And it was their wedding day too!

    3. The OG Sleepless*

      Oo, I don’t know. Cobra envenomation sounds pretty awful, but on the other hand, I’ve been mauled by several 10 pound kitty cats and the pain is absolutely shocking. I’ve always thought being attacked by a big cat would be a terrible way to go.

  4. Not Tom, Just Petty*

    Annie sold her birthright for a mess of pottage.
    I hope she invests that severance money wisely, because she may be without a job for awhile.
    Who am I kidding?
    She will talk her way into a job two levels above OP and Alison will be bombarded with letters about the Wunderkind manager who only communicates through chat and threatens legal action against anyone emailing her.

    1. annabelle*

      Annie is exactly the kind of mediocre weirdo that fails upward into a VP role at a hedge fund or Twitter knock-off, pulling in 6 figures.

  5. JustaTech*

    Annie, dude!
    I literally gawped, sitting here with my mouth hanging open at the stunning audacity.

    This, this is how you become an office legend, of the bad kind. Some day, decades from now, Annie will hear the stories about her younger self and realize that this, and only this, was the mark she had made.

    1. goddessoftransitory*

      I honestly had a kind of “well, if you’re gonna go out like that, respect” reaction to that. I mean, either she really was epically clueless or knew exactly what she was doing.

      1. MM*

        And probably will post to TikTok for the views and notoriety. Where she can play the victim in all of this and tell her side of the story.

        1. Pastor Petty Labelle*

          Oh of course. She expected applause for how she stuck it to the boss.

          Meanwhile everyone actually in the meeting was just staring dumbfounded at her cluelessness.

      2. Where’s the Orchestra?*

        Honestly Annie struck me as really, really young and clueless to how the working world worked.

        Hopefully she figures it out – for the sakes of all the folks who will have to work with Annie.

        1. Candi*

          How young, though? In the initial letter, OP said she’d worked there five years and it was her first job. That puts Annie between 21 and 23, maybe edging to 24. That’s old enough to learn not to be a brat -most of my college classmates had figured it out!

          It’s also disturbing that she was there five years and thought she could get away with this. It doesn’t say much about her previous managers.

      3. the cat’s ass*

        epically clueless/main character energy…yeah, whatever, you clueless nit. my 18 yo gs troop has better work/people skillsthan this.

    1. Rainy*

      The temptation to respond “And I’m sure someone enjoyed working with you!” would have been resistible but I definitely would have enjoyed the second or two while the many possible responses flashed through my head.

  6. lyonite*

    In case anyone else was wondering, here’s Les’s comment from the original Dream Job question:
    “I’ve found it helpful to remind myself that I am not my job and that this is what I do so I can finance and enjoy the time not spent at work. Take the prior advice and find a way to make your dream job part of your free time.”

  7. FricketyFrack*

    Annie is a whole mess, good lord. I don’t know if I could’ve kept from cracking up when she did that though – the audacity of it is incredible. And she probably really thinks she did something there. Knock on wood, she’ll grow up, learn how to behave appropriately, and it’ll just be one of those things that occasionally make her crawl under her covers because the cringe is too intense, because the alternative is the kind of thing to inspire way more letters to AAM.

    1. EmmaPoet*

      I would like to think that a few years from now Annie will stumble across AAM and find these posts and quietly melt into a puddle of embarrassment, then frantically google, “I made a complete fool of myself in front of my first boss, how do I apologize years later for being such an a-hole?”

    2. Lana Kane*

      “And she probably really thinks she did something there.”

      I know this is total fanfiction, but I’m picturing Annie coming up with that line and being so excited to roll it out during that meeting. Maybe practicing her delivery in the mirror lol

  8. The dark months*

    I would like an update from Annie in 10 years. And maybe one from her manager to see if growth has indeed been achieved.

    Thanks to LW regarding the stupid interview questions! I just spent some quality time reading those comments and they are delightful…kinda like your lamp…

  9. Dadjokesareforeveryone*

    Don’t think we’ll have that bad interview question contest again, so I’ll just post what I have.

    For an accounting position, “What’s animal would you be?” Me: “I would be an ant, specifically one if the worker ants who cares for the queen’s eggs and keeps track of how many there are at any time. In other words, A Count Ant.”

    1. Clare*

      Haha I love it! You’ve inspired me! For a locksmithing position:

      “Would you accept a fantasy animal? Because with my rarely seen and highly sought after skill set, and my ability to work quietly in the background without causing waves, I think Nessie would be the most appropriate choice. As in, Nessie the Loch’s-myth.”

    2. CupcakeCounter*

      I’m an accountant and my first job was in agriculture, specifically a soybean processing plant. So I was a LITERAL bean counter :)

  10. H.C.*

    LW2 I’d push back on the idea that only posh corporations or flush foundations can give conference attendees their own hotel rooms (though now that you gave the student context, the room-sharing is a bit more understandable). The bulk of my career has been in non-profit or public sector industries, and I have never been asked to share a room when traveling for work.

  11. Walter*

    #1 – this is why you simply fire some people instead of playing this nicey-nicey game. This is work, not pre-school break time.

    1. Candi*

      In some states, law requires the nicey-nice procedure be used on everyone if the company has one. It’s to prevent EEOC violations.

  12. annabelle*

    I know LW 1 was trying to make the best of a not-great situation (and I imagine that especially once their managers and CEO saw that Annie was bringing in lawyers, they were like “ugh”) but it chaps my hide that Annie’s tantrum was rewarded with the chance to resign (so it preserves the reference) *and* severance pay. Talk about literally rewarding bad behavior.
    Excuse me while I go kick some rocks for a bit, what the heck am I doing wrong in my life that I can’t luck into that kind of sweet “oh just be an insubordinate, weirdo butt-head at work for months on end and then they’ll literally pay you to go away” gig????

    1. Where’s the Orchestra?*

      The lawyers really were the part that confused me – were they a family friend, distant relative, closer relative’s significant other? Just how and what they wrote seemed so far from what you’d expect from a lawyer.

      1. Pastor Petty Labelle*

        There are lawyers out there who will 1) take everything their client says as the gospel truth and 2) write anything their client says as long as they get paid.

        You don’t think Annie mentioned any of the reasons for this — like skipping meetings, not following directions and calling out sick when she didn’t get her way do you? of course not, she framed it as she was the poor put upon victim by the evil boss who didn’t know how to manage.

      2. Bunny Lake Is Found*

        I’d go friend who only has Annie’s side of the story or spouse/boyfriend/girlfriend (i.e., someone who isn’t going to tell Annie she is wrong about this because they don’t want drama in the personal relationship). Whoever wrote it probably wouldn’t have taken it any further. You can make a lot of really vague “threats” in a letter, it isn’t like a court filing. My fave: “We will have to consider legal action”, which has about as much weight as saying “We will have to consider whether mayonnaise is actually a werewolf.”

        Also, the average retainer is somewhere around $5,000-$7,500 these days. Giving Annie $2,500 to go away is just good business sense.

    2. Not Jane*

      I hear you. I had a coworker who could gef away with things like that and I used to think, if I tried that there would immediately be some recourse about it. I think there’s a level of expectation we set for ourselves and our superiors expect that from us, so if we behave like Annie we are out of line with our own established standards which is reprimanded.

    3. Candi*

      Who says the reference is preserved? “Not getting fired” and “will never rehire” are two different things, and Annie probably has the second all over her file.

  13. GreyjoyGardens*

    Annie sounds like a piece of work, not to mention a keister-pain. I’m glad the trash took itself out, albeit in a passive-aggressive, bridge-burning way.

    Hopefully Annie grows up and realizes that you don’t act like a foot-stomping tween at work. (If she posts it to social media, is she going to realize that social media lingers longer than the old days of LiveJournal and Usenet?)

  14. Not A Manager*

    When Annie says, ““It’s been a pleasure working with *some* of you,” is it acceptable to smile sweetly and say, “And I’m sure it’s been a pleasure for some of us to work with you”?

  15. LobsterPhone*

    Re Annie…I just heard the school secretary from Ferris Bueller’s Day Off in my head… ‘what a little a**hole’.

  16. Someone*

    Oof. I clicked on the link to the original letter #1, and right in the first thread of the comments someone noted that Annie’s formative work years (i.e. the first years) were during the pandemic. Which is a good point and likely exacerbated her immaturity – but also, this hit really close to home.
    I started my PhD position a mere month before lockdown was enforced in my country, and I’m certain that this has affected the overall course of my work life significantly and lastingly. I’m not that immature (at least I hope I’m not), but I definitely missed out on a lot of personal growth and new experiences that I had expected and was excited for. Instead of getting to observe the workplace norms at my office, traveling to conferences and just generally mingling with the scientific community, I worked at home remotely (well, at least I had that option…) and aged 10 years (at least!) in cynism.
    I still feel like a student and still haven’t really managed to connect to the other people in my group. Which is not the same problem as Annie’s, but, well, I guess people are immature in different ways and therefore need different lessons to grow… and a lot of people have missed important lessons/experiences during the pandemic.

    1. Parakeet*

      It’s not even just a pandemic thing. My first job after college was tech-research-y, and other than the occasional “good job,” “can you get this done earlier?”, and similar, I had no regular meetings with my managers or anyone else (I also got let go after three years with no warning, so that does happen and really shows the problems with that kind of culture). My next couple of jobs were not that extreme, but close. Then I went to grad school, in a field where work can be very independent (1-3 authors on a paper, not a two-digit number as is the norm in some fields), largely imposing my own structure on my work life, choosing my own dissertation topic, creating my own deadlines. I was pretty good at that and my advisor was very senior and had long since made his reputation, so he was chill and low-pressure.

      Since I had been an adult in the professional world, nobody had ever used the kind of manager-speak (and I don’t mean that in a pejorative way here, just the ways of giving and wording feedback and checking in regularly that Alison talks about on this blog) that are normal in the advice and comments here. It was some real culture shock when I switched to a field where hands-on management and that kind of manager-speak are normal. It still sounds strange to me, like a different dialect (that has been interesting to learn), even after reading this blog for a while. And it was pure learning-by-immersion (as a neurodivergent person). It did feel micromanage-y and a little condescending until I got used to the dialect and the rhythm of it all.

      So yeah I was a little less appalled by Annie’s mindset than many when the original letter was published. I did think that her expressing that so outwardly in such a snarky way was terrible judgment. It sounds like the terrible judgment continued to the end!

      1. Samwise*

        I understand her behavior at first, but to double and triple down on it takes some kind of obliviousness or stubbornness or self-regard.

        You tried to learn from it. Annie didn’t think she had to learn anything, and in fact she thought she was schooling her boss. Shoulda fired her sooner.

  17. Cinnamon Boo*

    When I did a goodbye announcement on LI, I gave props to my old company and what they did to help me in my career but I did say, and “I will miss several of my coworkers.” Hahahaha.

    1. Not Jane*

      When I finally get to leave I going to say “I’ve learnt so much from you” not clarifying that some things I’ve learnt are how not to manage people, how not to run an organisation…

  18. buddleia*

    Re: stupid interview questions for #4 – reminds me of the time I was asked “your director has asked you for the number of windows on buildings on [major street name]. How do you go about getting this information?” I can’t remember what I said, but the job had nothing to do with buildings or windows. I remember thinking that’s a dumb question – am I ever going to do something like this in the job? I accepted another job before I could find out the results of that competition.

    1. ampersand*

      I’m still laughing at “results of that competition.” Also, you’re right—that’s exactly what it is!

    2. Too Many Tabs Open*

      Now I’m going to spend the rest of my morning thinking about how I’d answer this. (Walk down the street/around the buildings and count? Email the building managers? Find out what window washing company each building uses and ask them?)

      This proves nothing about my llama-grooming or teapot-painting abilities.

      1. Clare*

        My approach would be:
        (length of street/length of average building type) x average number of floors in average building type x average number of windows per floor

        The answer would probably be ok for a fairly homogeneous suburban street or one that’s all skyscrapers, but likely several orders of magnitude out for a mixed zoning area, so ymmv. Best I’ve got *shrug*.

        Although, thinking about it, in some jobs this could be a great filter for people who are likely to lie or BS and mislead their boss when they don’t actually know the correct answer. You only pass to the next stage if you honestly admit you don’t really have a great answer.

  19. saskia*

    lol why would you cede the floor to Annie in her very own special Zoom meeting? I would not have done that for such a disruptive employee.

  20. The Trap of the "Dream Job"*

    LW3, I hope the following will help you (or others) rethink the notion of a “dream job.” If we’re looking to work to fulfill even one dream, that’s a huge sign that something is misaligned in our lives.

    I have some talent as a writer, and I attended one of the most prestigious MFA programs in the US. While there, I realized that I was nowhere near as good a writer as I wanted to be and I didn’t know how to become significantly better, so I decided to stop writing (which I don’t regret). I also decided to ditch my plan to teach fiction-writing at the college level and instead turned to copy-editing.

    After many years of lousy schedules on daily papers (4p-midnight, *and* you work weekends but have off two weekdays — so your social life dies and your friendships thin) and/or long commutes (medical debt meant that I couldn’t afford to rent in the expensive city where many publications are located), I finally got my dream job — a seat on the copy desk of a major US mag.

    For many reasons, it was pretty terrible — one of my worst jobs ever — and it became life-shattering when the owner decided, as the Great Recession hit, that Owner wasn’t going to delay a make-the-mag-more-profitable scheme but instead laid off many people, myself included. (There were many other options, including across-the-board pay cuts, or subletting our 2/3-empty office space.)

    What followed was catastrophic for me: I was over 45; I’d been there for less than a year; I hadn’t yet gotten the elevated editing experience I sought and also didn’t get the web-production experience that employers were now seeking. For the 1st time in my life, I couldn’t even get an interview elsewhere — and unemployment was so high that I couldn’t get office-temp work to pay my bills.

    Poverty and ill health followed, and I haven’t overcome them. Looking back, I see many red flags — not least that the owner underpaid everyone low on the masthead, bc Owner knew that we loved the mag and would accept crumbs in order to work for it — and I wish I’d never taken the job. But one reason I did is that it addressed my submerged desire to write — as in, if I couldn’t create what the mag’s authors did, I could at least help them by improving their prose. Not really so good in the long run. (Would’ve been better to tutor kids, for ex.)

    A job is just a way to pay for the rest of your life. If you’re lucky enough to work someplace that lets you use some of the skills you treasure, that’s great — but if not, that’s fine. Once we’ve started thinking of our bill-paying gig as a way to add meaning to our life, we’re in trouble; we need to look at what’s missing in our life and find ways to address *that*.

  21. LadyHouseOfLove*

    Annie probably feels like she had the perfect comeback and, meanwhile, everyone is like “What an absolute moron.”

    It really sounds like she read one too many “and everybody clapped” stories from Reddit.

    I’m curious how she’s going to do in her next job.

  22. Samwise*

    Annie. What a turd. Eventually she’ll get slapped down hard. Because as she gets older, the behavior will be less and less likely to be seen as “she’s young/new to the work world”

  23. Candi*

    Oh boy. If Anne doesn’t curb that attitude, she’s gonna wonder why she can never “keep a job”.

    Sometimes, getting sick is your body’s way of telling you “I just can’t anymore, slow down already.”

    I think the concept of a “dream job” is rather toxic. It sets up unreasonable expectations and encourages ignoring red flags. “A job I can be happy in” is a better metric.

    There’s always that One Cool Thing that’s going to be pried from your cold dead fingers -it’s not going anywhere because it means so much.

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