boss is paranoid that I have a secret email account, voluntary task has suddenly become mandatory, and more

It’s five answers to five questions. Here we go…

1. My boss is paranoid that I have a secret email account

I’ve been with a small business for 20 years, handling office duties as the secretary and bookkeeper. The owner, an elderly man who has peculiar habits and is paranoid about various matters, once misspelled my email address on his phone back in 2019. Instead of the correct format, he added an “A” – Therefore when he emails me from his phone, he is mistyping my email address.

Despite my explaining the mistake and clarifying that it was saved incorrectly on his phone, as well as showing him that he has been mistyping it, every few months he questions how many company email addresses I have (just one!) and accuses me of manipulating the company email settings to create a second, secret address.

It’s worth noting that our email server is configured to route all incoming emails, even those addressed to incorrect company addresses under, to his email. He requires that he be CC’d on all incoming and outgoing emails, and insinuates I have created this second, secret email to hide company things from him. I can show him the email server settings that prove each employee only has one account, and prove that firstname”A” does not exist at all, but he doesn’t understand. His conspiracy theories persist despite the facts, and he can talk circles around me. What should I say?

I don’t think there are magic words that will solve this! You work for someone who is paranoid, doesn’t understand email, and thinks that you want to deceive him. The paranoia on its own makes this unsolvable.

You’re 20 years in. Has he been like this the whole time or is he getting worse? If he’s getting worse, that trajectory is likely to continue and you could end up in a truly unpleasant situation. To be frank, it sounds like you’re already in one — and I suspect this is a boiling-frog situation where things have gotten worse so gradually that you haven’t looked around and realized how very bad it is.

I hope you’ll take this as a nudge to think about what you’d like to come next for you, and what a quality of life improvement it would be to work for someone who doesn’t believe you’re lying and deceiving him.

2. My new coworkers keep talking about how expensive my grad school was

I’ve just finished my master’s program, after 2.5 years! About two months ago, I was hired at a city agency. The job is specifically for people who were already in a grad school program for this degree, and on completion of my master’s I get a title bump and a raise.

Since I just started this job, I’ve been introduced to everyone in my office (some of whom have the same role as me and also the same degree). Three times now, when I’ve been introduced to a coworker and mentioned what school I’m attending, their first response is to exclaim how expensive my school is.

Some context: In my city, three universities offer this degree, two private and one public. Because we’re all working in a city agency and not making the big bucks, many of my coworkers went to the public university to get their master’s. But I chose the private program because they gave me a 50% scholarship! My master’s cost less than the public option, and my university offered evening classes so I was able to work full-time. The result is that I paid off the degree before I graduated and never had to take out loans.

I have only shared this with my supervisor and her supervisor — because again, on the first day I met them, one of the first things my grand-boss said was how expensive the private university is. I figured it would look good to my supervisors for them to know I’d been awarded this scholarship, so I told them.

I haven’t mentioned the scholarship to anyone else when they bring up the cost, because 1) it would feel like unnecessary bragging; 2) contradicting them in our first encounter would make me feel awkward; and 3) I don’t want to share information about my private finances. But it keeps happening! Literally the cost of my master’s is the first thing people want to discuss when they find out I just graduated (not the specific number, but that it’s expensive compared to the local public university). The next time it happens, should I mention that I went to school for half off? Or just let them assume what they will, that either I had help paying for the degree or I’m drowning in student loans? Is this just idle office gossip and I shouldn’t let myself be bothered by it?

I don’t think you need to clarify anything. This is likely to fade into the background once they know more things about you.

But given that people keep bringing it up, there’s nothing wrong with saying in response, “Yeah, I had a scholarship or I couldn’t have gone there.” That’s not terribly private info and it sounds like you’re feeling uncomfortable with your colleagues not having that context. You don’t need to get into all the details (that it was 50%, that you worked full-time, etc.) — that’s likely to sound defensive, and you don’t owe anyone all of that. But a brief “yeah, a scholarship made it possible” would probably give you peace of mind that it sounds like you don’t have right now.

3. My voluntary task has suddenly become mandatory

I’ve been working as a system administrator for a small company (less than 500 employees) for about a year and a half now. I’m one of four team leaders in my department with no direct reports, so I’m a sub-department of one. Nearly all of my essential duties require a specialized skill set that only I possess, and these duties can’t be placed on the back burner if we want to continue to have a functional system. In fact, my job description has zero language about “other duties as assigned,” and I was told when I was hired that that was intentional.

Last summer, I volunteered to participate in a large-scale project with another department that doesn’t require any specialized knowledge but does involve two-hour blocks of time that require a lot of physical and mental stamina. Over the next few months, I was assigned to four different time-sensitive projects that can’t be done without my skill set, and I know of at least two more due to begin in the next few months. I realized near the beginning of the holidays that my workload was becoming unsustainable, so it made the most sense to me to step down from the large-scale project, especially considering the fact that our company hired six temporary staff specifically for this project, bringing the number of participants to twenty-five people.

To my great surprise, my supervisor was and is adamant that I continue to participate in this project. I reminded them as diplomatically as I could that my participation was voluntary and that they now have six new staff to help. When that was met with a shrug, I finally asked why one person stepping back from a project that involves the majority of two departments would make a significant impact, they struggled for an answer and just said, “People might not like it.”

I was told that the only way I would be allowed to step back from this project is to get a medical exemption, which I’m now pursuing, but my question is this: is it standard for a task/project that was taken on voluntarily to become required without notifying the employee and/or revising their job description? If there was any way for me to continue helping with this project, I absolutely would, but at this point, I’m putting my physical and mental health in jeopardy by trying to juggle it with everything I was actually hired to do.

Yeah, that happens. It can be for legitimate reasons, like that once you volunteered they planned around you and it would cause problems (budgetary, staffing, political, other) to have you suddenly pull out. Your manager’s explanation of “people might not like it” doesn’t sound like this is necessarily in the “legitimate reasons” category, though (although who knows what more there might be to it that she didn’t or couldn’t explain).

Separately, it’s very common for people to get assigned work that isn’t in their job descriptions (whether or not they have an “other duties as assigned” line in there) and for job descriptions not to be regularly updated.

what to do if your workload is too high

4. Would dressing down help me better support my coworkers?

I’m a 37-year-old, not unattractive cisgender heterosexual white man. I’ve spent my entire (still-youngish) career in female-dominated vocations and workplaces. This feels completely normal to me at this point, although I try to stay self-aware and reflective about my behaviors at work.

I overdress slightly for my job, always have. I’m very good at what I do, but my responsibilities are not overly difficult, nor do I manage anyone. My comfort zone is the Jim Halpert look: dress shirt with sleeves rolled up, khakis, and an unassuming tie. It works for me, I like it, and it helps me distinguish between Work Me and Home Me.

I am also regularly assumed to be in charge — or at least much more influential than I actually am. This happens with coworkers of all tenures, community partners, and even just contractors who show up at the building. When addressed in this way, I work hard to redirect or clarify my role.

Should I dress down a bit in order to reduce my apparent level of authority so that my coworkers are more likely to be addressed in a way that aligns with their professional status? Is harm happening here? My coworkers and I have joked about this common dynamic before, but now I’m (finally?) wondering if this has been a hint all along, or at least if there’s more I can be doing to support others.

I think you’re likely to be assumed to be in charge some of the time no matter what you’re wearing, simply because you’re a man and people are still programmed to assume authority figures are men … but it’s also true that if you’re the only one dressed at “tie” level, that could be contributing. I hate to say that you should change what you’re wearing when you’re happy and comfortable with it … but yeah, if you want to be an ally to the women you work with, it could be interesting to see if anything changes if you dress slightly down.

(That said, there can be some amount of value in people who make socially-programmed assumptions hearing a man reject externally-conferred authority and saying, essentially, “Nope, talk to her, she’s my boss.” Is that small record-scratch moment a seed that helps their brain make fewer gender-based assumptions in the future? I don’t know and I’m probably over-thinking it, and in a female-dominated field it might not make a difference anyway … but I think this is more complicated than it looks on the surface.)

5. What to say if interviewer asks if I know my (now fired) former bully

Soon I will be interviewing for a position in a different company than I currently am at but one that I have worked for previously, for an entirely different department and location than I worked at previously. The department I’m interviewing for is the same department that my former lead went to. This former lead was not a nice person and bullied me and another coworker for most of the time we worked together. She also was fired from the department I’m interviewing with about a year ago. I don’t have any of the details on why she was fired, but knowing how hard it is to get fired at this company and how quickly it happened, it must have been pretty bad.

There’s a good chance that if I get past the first round of interviews and interview with the hiring manager, someone is going to notice that we overlapped and ask if I knew her. I don’t want to lie and say no. But I also want to distance myself from sounding chummy with her because we certainly were not friends or even friendly. I know that it’s probably not very professional to tell an interviewer that I knew her but we didn’t get along. So if someone asks if we knew each other, what’s the best way to answer?

“We did overlap some of the time I was there, but I don’t know her well.”

You’re not likely to be quizzed on what you thought of her; you’re just acknowledging that yes, you did overlap.

{ 344 comments… read them below }

  1. Zarniwoop*

    “Nearly all of my essential duties require a specialized skill set that only I possess, and these duties can’t be placed on the back burner if we want to continue to have a functional system.”
    If something critical goes wrong because management told you to work on things someone else could do instead of things only you can, do that’s management’s fault, not yours.

    You can’t afford to care more about the company’s success than your manager does.

    1. Magenta Sky*

      “If something critical goes wrong because management told you to work on things someone else could do instead of things only you can, do that’s management’s fault, not yours.”

      Very true. But I’ll bet you a steak dinner that same management who can’t see that coming now will place that blame on our letter writer.

      They are absolutely wrong that there’s only one way out of the assignment. The other ways is another job. And with health issues at stake, a lot of people wouldn’t be overly concerned with giving a lot of notice.

      1. Meat Oatmeal*

        Yeah, I’d strongly advise this person to cover their butt by getting their manager’s directions in writing. Maybe by writing a casual-sounding direct message in the office chat system that thanks the manager for clarifying that LW must continue working on that one project, lists LW’s other duties, says LW can’t fit all of them into the workweek and asks the manager to please designate which job duties are top priority and which can be postponed or removed.

        It’s a tough spot to be in. LW, I don’t envy you. I hope it all works out in your favor, either with your current employer or at a new and better workplace.

        1. Banana Pyjamas*

          Yes. Also when something goes wrong, reply to the same email chain or send the email as an attachment. Ask to revisit the conversation.

          Document, document, escalate won’t hurt either. The first time there’s a problem is your second document. The second time there’s an issue escalate to the skip level supervisor either by emailing them directly or replying to the same chain and Cc’ing them.

        2. Sue*

          Yes. It seems like their best course is to highlight the impact this side project will have on their ability to do their regular job duties. Forget about how you got into this situation and concentrate on how to make your management aware of how this will negatively impact your actual job.

          1. Grumpy Elder Millennial*

            Came here to say exactly this. My read is that this is the real problem: the LW has too much work and something has to give. That thing can either be this project or some of the work that requires her specialized skillset. Which one is up to the manager. But lay out the options clearly and get the manager to decide what the priorities are.

        3. Phryne*

          Yes, I kind of missed that in the answer. Go to your manager and outright ask them ‘ok, if I have to spend this time on the other project, which one of my other tasks can I drop or put on the backburner to free up the time’ and give them a list with all the essential tasks you alone can do. Let them choose priorities, and get it in writing.

        4. Hannah Lee*

          Yup, if the manager is prioritizing this side project, make them reprioritize the other stuff, in writing.

          Because all that “mental and physical health” strain on LW is because they are trying to be competent and diligent and keep doing their original job, at the same quality and quantity as they did before this other project work was added permanently to their job duties. They’ve found that’s impossible without them, personally, paying a steep price. LW should immediately stop doing that.

          If 20% of their workload is New Project and they work 5 eight hour days, 8 hours can be spent on New Project, leaving 32 hours left for allocation to Responsibilities From Original Full Time Job. Manager needs to pick which of those Responsibilities FOFTJ are the priorities LW still needs to work on, and which are no longer LW’s responsibility. LW doesn’t owe employer an extra 8 hours just because manager asks for it. I’d go that route first, over the medical exemption thing. This is a problem boss created, boss should be the one to solve it.

          And if they won’t, LW should take their unique and valuable skills elsewhere.

          (In fact, I’d recommend LW start job hunting in parallel with asking the boss to prioritize their workload, instead of using their time and energy chasing medical exemption documentation)

        5. Uranus Wars*

          Agree strongly with this advice. It took me about a year to successfully outline the increase in job duties and how I finally got through to my management was a two column spreadsheet.

          Column A: resources when I started and responsibilities (in my case I had reports)
          Column B: resources currently and responsibilities (staff had been cut in half, duties had doubled)

          While I realize LW doesn’t have a team, I think this is something that COULD work. When I tried to explain it, even in writing, I got a nice raise once and then another time I got an answer similar to what LW got.

          The side-by-side list made it clear that I wasn’t asking for money, I was asking for resources/time or for something to be taken off my plate. We came up with a plan to delegate items to another department that had bled to me voluntarily or had grown from my scope. I also got a small bump in pay as a result.

          To me, the difference spoke to outcomes and hard data, not my feelings. But my manager also has a history of being understanding and flexible so I was comfortable talking with him this way.

    2. Violet Fox*

      What happens when you are ill, go on holiday etc?

      Also as a fellow sysadmin, why are you firefighting so much?

      1. Captain dddd-cccc-ddWdd*

        > why are you firefighting so much?

        I’m also in a related area, and I got the sense it isn’t really firefighting as much as that they have some system, perhaps some kind of legacy tech…., that OP is the only one who knows how to do the tasks on that system. It seems to me more of a lack of knowledge and cross training of the others.

        As for why that is (either constant firefighting or lack of cross skilling as it may be) — I bet that’s related to the info in the letter: management don’t see the bigger picture consequences and say “just get it done tactically” every day.

        1. Cyborg Llama Horde*

          I’m imagining something like certificate renewals, or making updates to a legacy system that no one else knows how to use. It’s probably more complicated/specialized than that, but this company has a lot of this sort of work, it needs to be done regularly, and for whatever reason they can’t or won’t train someone else to do it. It’s not firefighting… as long as LW has enough time to do her job.

    3. Anon for this*

      A year or two ago, I was in a similar situation. My department had committed to a big project and decided that it would be an all-hands one to finish in the time they’d allotted for it. I was struggling to complete all of my normal tasks as it was; like the OP, I have some specialized skills at the time was the only one with those skills. (That has changed, luckily!)

      At any rate, I went to my manager and asked to be removed from the new project. She said no. I then asked what I could drop in order to be able to make time for the project…and her response was “nothing”. She basically told me that ifI had to work 50 hrs a week to fit everything in, then that was what I should do.

      That is very much not the way things normally work at my company.

      So I picked what to me was the least important of my regular tasks and fell behind in it. As far as I could tell, no one noticed, not even my manager. After the large project finished, I was able to get caught up in the regular task, but it was incredibly stressful. I hope your manager is more open to reason than mine was, OP!

    4. Also-ADHD*

      No, but LW needs to document that they asked to drop the other project to prioritize these needs effectively and hold firm there. Alison is right that this issue happens, but in this case, it’s poor judgment on behalf of the manager because the employee is better used in other ways. I’ve found in those situations, it’s best to document (CYA, written communication) concerns and directions, and STOP doing any extra hours or effort to see what happens. That can be problematic if you’re in a general role, but if you’re the only one with certain skill sets, most organizations realize your value at that point and address the issue.

    5. rebelwithmouseyhair*

      I don’t know whether OP has actually spelt out that the volunteered activity is preventing her from doing her normal work? She mentioned that there were new team members to do what she volunteered for, she didn’t mention saying her everyday work was being impacted.
      I would spell that out to my manager and warn them that I would soon be burnt out with the volunteer work, which would result in me taking sick leave, and that wouldn’t help on either front.

      1. Snow Globe*

        I agree with this. It sounds like the LW has focused more on what the job description says and that this was originally volunteer work. They need to flag for the manager that the volunteer activity is taking up so much time that it impacts their availability to do the critical job that only they can do.

    6. Notmyjob*

      I bet there are a bunch of other unhappy people working on that project and leadership thinks if they let one person off the hook, then it will start a landslide of others wanting to drop it too. I have seen that at other companies, and management hides behind “it wouldn’t be fair” or “people wouldn’t like that.”

      You may find success with a medical note (or you may be shifted to a less physical aspect of the project). You may have better luck with “This {job specific critical item} needs my attention, so I will be stepping back from {voluntary project} for a while to make sure we stay up and running” and then just…always have better things that come up that keep you from rejoining. After a while no one will probably notice.

      Management should be better than this, but I have know many managers who manage “business” but have no idea how to manage “people” (as we see in this blog over and over!).

      I would not focus on job descriptions or what was promised to you. Focus more on “business needs me over here to avoid bad things at the moment.” That may be more their language since that is more about “them” vs what “you” need.

    7. The Person from the Resume*

      But when the LW drops those duties, she can be blamed for not working longer hours to get it all done.

      Is it fair or right? No. But they can easily say these are all your duties and you need to do it all. Or work harder, faster, smarter.

    8. MCMonkeyBean*

      I don’t think her manager did tell her to work on something else instead though, just to do all of it. If she hasn’t already, OP definitely needs to broach it from the angle of “ok if you want me to keep working on the X project than which of these other assignments are we going to reprioritize.”

    9. Lenora Rose*

      The one question Alison always asks that I didn’t see asked here is, when the LW requested to move off the project, did they explicitly state the consequences, in as many words?

      “The reason I want to step back from project A is that I have 4 projects coming on the pipeline that will require my specialized skill set and nobody else currently employed here can handle. I can handle 4 items in the time allotted but not 5. Which of them do you want me to drop in favour of project A? The consequences if I drop projects B or C are as follows, and if I drop D or E, then X will happen.”

    10. OMG, Bees!*

      In IT, I had a coworker in a similar role as LW3 who handled too many projects and tasks with a notepad that listed every project he was working on. When boss had a new idea or task, coworker would pull out the notepad and ask which current project is getting bumped.

      I think LW3 needs to have a discussion over which tasks they have that can be scaled back if this “voluntary” one is that important to the supervisor.

      Similarly, at the same company, boss tried to get everyone above helpdesk level to be in the on call rotation for after hours support, but the same coworker and I refused outright and a 3rd tech quit (coincidence, he had a better job offer at the time) and the boss backed down. But a couple other techs agreed to be on call.

  2. Heidi*

    It’s interesting that the boss in Letter 1 has made these accusations multiple times over the years, but hasn’t fired the LW for whatever the secret email allows the LW to do. Is he grumpy and accusatory, but deep down inside knows that his suspicions are unfounded? Or does he forget that he already made these accusations last time? Both are terrible, of course, but if it’s the second scenario I’d have more concerns about how this business is even operating.

    1. Pastor Petty Labelle*

      That was my concern too. He’s elderly and paranoid. Maybe he was always paranoid. But he is not getting any younger. At some point he is going to retire, voluntarily or involuntarily. Then what are you going to do OP1?

      You need to have a plan for YOUR future. No matter how much loyalty you feel to this company or your boss, there is an end date here.

      1. Sue*

        Yes. Now he is making a bizarre accusation about an email address. I hope this doesn’t escalate to other accusations regarding money issues or the like. He could potentially cause harm to your reputation by spreading lies about you or even involve authorities if he really believes you’ve done him harm.
        This may sound extreme but he is clearly not rational so please look after yourself here. You can’t fix him.

        1. Smithy*

          To AAM’s point about the frog in the water – lots of people of all ages can get confused by technology, hate when there’s a system change at work, etc. So this kind of confusion may have started in a range that used to be far more of a quirk, but as its grown – it really does indicate that something more serious is going on that a script won’t fix.

          If the OP has been working there for 20 years largely happily, there may have never been a lot of thought of what would happen with the owner would retire or age out. The OP may even be older than the owner! But hopefully the context that more energy or the right words won’t fix this will help the OP’s perspective on next steps.

        2. Hannah Lee*

          Leaving this situation sooner rather than later is probably the best way to go, because right now it seems like boss at least some of the time comes back to reality.

          But with time and age and and given his paranoid, accusatory impulses, LW may have a short and shrinking window to get a positive reference from him when LW does decide to move on. If there are peers or senior co-workers or external clients LW can line up to be references, in case he’s not going to be a reliable reference at some point, I’d start that process too.

          And also, this may be overkill, but is there any external audit or review services that could be brought in to review how things are run, maybe from a “review of process controls” angle? It’s not a bad idea in any organization to look at that periodically and especially in a small-mid size organization with long serving staff where some of that stuff may become loose or more informal as time went on. That might backstop LW on 2 fronts a) give the boss reassurance from a 3rd party (external authority) that nothing shady is going on and b) also give LW that same documentation that they are not, in fact, doing something shady that they can refer to down the like if boss starts up again.

          1. Observer*

            And also, this may be overkill, but is there any external audit or review services that could be brought in to review how things are run, maybe from a “review of process controls” angle?

            That can be a good thing when you actually have some reason to worry about your cyber-security, information controls, or the like. But you simply *cannot* “convince” a paranoid person that way. What do you want to bet that the boss is going to accuse the OP and consultant of using this “secret” email to conspire behind his back?

            It’s just not going to do what you are expecting it to – that could only work with people who are either reasonable or unreasonable in the normal way. (ie the kind of person who might fly off the handle and not listen at first, but will subside when an “objective” party chimes in.)

            1. Insert Clever Name Here*

              Or even “of course the audit didn’t find your secret email account — YOU are the one who wanted it! The auditor is probably who you’re emailing from the secret account!”

    2. Emmy Noether*

      So I had a paranoid boss once (actually medically diagnosed paranoid, which he told me about). Don’t try to make logical sense of a paranoid person’s actions and thoughts, because they don’t make sense, even if you accept the paranoid premise. My boss would have ups and downs, flip out and make accusations, then calm down and act as if nothing happened, or even apologize. It doesn’t surprise me at all that this has been happening on a loop over years. Still, if it’s untreated, it will most likely get worse and/or more frequent over time.

      In my case, I was on his good side, so no accusations, but still rants and requests for help, which was scary enough. The company tried to help him for a long while (leave for treatment etc.), but when it didn’t take and he started accusing colleagues, he was let go to protect the rest of us.

    3. Ellis Bell*

      It doesn’t sound like the kind of paranoia that is actually based on anything; in that case you want to tackle the cause and come to a resolution. If this is internally caused by his mental health, he’s just looking for hooks to pin his paranoia on. If it wasn’t this it would be something else.

      1. Becky S*

        Correct! If OP1 manages to get through to the boss on this issue, something else will pop up. There’s nothing logical in paranoia.

      2. MigraineMonth*

        I have a friend who is sometimes paranoid, and there’s no amount of logic that can get them out of an episode. Trying to defend myself from what she thinks I did only makes things worse.

        1. Ellie Chumsfanleigh*

          There’s a woman in one of my IRL friends groups who, for decades, has believed that there is a family who is 100% dedicated to harassing and stalking her.

          She has moved over a dozen times in the 25 years I have known her and, each time, she swears The Family finds her and moves in above her / next to her / across from her.

          Logic doesn’t work with her: “Teresa, you said they moved in above you about 3 months after you moved into the prior apartment. And now, after only one month in the new place, they’re in an apartment across the courtyard from you. Wouldn’t breaking the prior lease be expensive for them? Why would they waste hundreds or thousands of dollars just to move near you again?”

          Her response is that “crazy” people don’t operate on logic. [Which… yes. But I doubt she realizes that she’s talking about herself.]

          The Family has also hacked into every single cell phone she has ever had. Her proof of this is all the spam calls and texts she gets. Except… the amount she gets is normal. We all show her our phones and our spam texts and calls, but she insists hers are somehow different.

          Her cell phone provider got tired of her trading in phones [for free, because they were “hacked”] so they put a moratorium on her account. She can only trade in at the normal time when she becomes eligible for an upgrade or pay full price for new phone. So now she’ll only use the phone for calls, but won’t text or surf the internet, because the phone company was somehow able to convince her that her phone calls can’t be tapped.

          She isn’t able to tell us what members of The Family look like, because they are ninja-level stealthy. I offered my trail cam to her when The Family moved in across the courtyard from her (“Just aim it out your front window and you’ll get footage of them coming and going,”) but she insisted that they’d just stay inside until the camera is gone, even if the camera was there for more than a couple of weeks.

          Other suggestions to catch them in the act of harassing her or to stop them are equally brushed aside.

          So, on some level, she knows they aren’t real.

          OP’s boss sounds like he’s as far gone as my friend, but with a different outlet for his paranoia, and I cannot imagine working for someone like that.

          1. Anonymous For Now*

            Assuming that the people who lived above her in her old apartment are still living there, how can they also be living across the courtyard from her in her new apartment?

            What happens if you prove that they are still at the prior location?

    4. RabbitRabbit*

      The quip that “You can’t reason someone out of a position that they didn’t reason themselves into” goes double for paranoia.

    5. Llama Llama*

      I was going to say something similar. I armchair diagnosed this. It’s not going to get better, possibly far worse. So keep that in mind about your future.

    6. Artemesia*

      she has two choices: Ignore and internally laugh at this nonsense OR find another job. Since she has a boss sliding into dementia, what happens when that becomes paralyzing to him? This is a situation where finding another job is going to have to happen sooner or later, so start looking now.

      1. Aequoria*

        Yes, it can be. Paranoia and delusions. My mother in law has dementia and is convinced that if she cannot find something, that her daughter (who lives out of the country) took it with her on her last visit. It is her default belief and she will sometimes get angry if you try to reason that someone absolutely did not take furniture from the US to Italy in their suitcase. This was the first thing that come to mind for me…the forgetting the explanation and alternative default belief are common to dementia.

        1. Arts Akimbo*

          Same. A very common feature of dementia is that the person becomes certain their loved ones or other people closest to them are stealing from them or hiding things they can’t find. It’s heartbreaking.

          Whether or not this is the case for the OP’s boss, she should really consider job hunting. This situation, whatever the cause, sounds untenable and escalating.

    7. Sara without an H*

      I’d take this a step further. Leaving aside potential mental and/or physical health issues, the LW specifically states that the owner of this small business is “elderly.” Is there a succession plan in place to carry on the business if/when the owner is no longer able or willing to run it?

      If the answer to that question is “no,” then I’d strongly recommend that the LW start planning her next steps ASAP.

    8. AskJeeves*

      Yes, I very much wonder how he’s keeping this business afloat if this is his managerial approach. Can he be behaving much better with customers?

  3. T.*

    #2 : yes, private school is expensive and I’m grateful I earned enough scholarship to make it affordable. I’m lucky to have that opportunity! Tell me about… (change subject)”
    I went to an expensive private college with scholarships, grants and loans. My loans were less than many because of the scholarships. Find an equalizer to show you don’t feel superior to them from this opportunity and they will likely accept you more quickly.

    1. Sue*

      I don’t think it’s bragging, in fact it’s the opposite to say that it was less expensive to go to your private school with a scholarship than the public school would have been.
      People don’t automatically think a scholarship is something to brag about. They are awarded for many reasons, the most common being financial need. It’s ok to kindly educate people about the realities of higher education finance. Many people make erroneous assumptions.

      1. Fikly*

        Grants and loans are typically based on financial need. Scholarships are typically based on academic achievement, at least in the US.

        In the US, it’s socially considered bragging and often inappropriate to imply that you are smarter than the people around you, and to say you attended school based on a scholarship is very different than a grant or a loan. This is even more true among certain political leanings.

        1. Captain dddd-cccc-ddWdd*

          Would “I had financial assistance from the university, otherwise I wouldn’t have been able to go there” cover it? I doubt most people would then come back with “yes but was it a scholarship or a grant, I need to know the exact details of this so I can judge you the appropriate amount”…

        2. bamcheeks*

          I got postgraduate funding in the UK, which is rare and hard to come by, and I always say, “I was lucky enough to get funding” because, well, I *was*. Academic funding is never a pure meritocracy, and there are nearly always more qualified and incredibly talented people that the panel *want* to give funding to than there is funding, so however good you are there is *always* an element of luck and having the right project or hitting the right note in your application or having a really good day on the test day or whatever. The only way this comes off as boasting IMO is if *you* think this makes you better than your colleagues— but really this stuff is a mixture of talent and luck and by the time you get into the workplace, other skills and experience tells more strongly anyway.

        3. Sue*

          I am in the US and strongly disagree with this. I have sat on numerous scholarship committees awarding what we called scholarships. They were often need-based. I am aware of merit scholarships but a great many awards are called “scholarships” and are based on need. I would in no way judge someone for telling me they received a scholarship and am amazed anyone would consider it bragging. Students have awards ceremonies where scholarships are announced and there is very rarely any indication whether the money is merit or need based.

        4. Phryne*

          At this point, it seems like OP feels like they have to choose between implying they are rich enough to afford an expensive school or smart enough to get a scholarship. If I were them I’d go for the second one, but that is a personal choice.
          Neither being born rich or poor or being smart or not is a personal achievement, but you’ll get judged on it anyway. People will soon move on and the ones who don’t will have given you valuable information about themselves.

          1. Phryne*

            And to clarify, yes I know that in reality OP got there by working hard. But that is not what the nosy people want to believe, and the rest will probably judge you on what they see and thus find out soon enough.

          2. Emmy Noether*

            I agree. Since both implying one is rich and implying one is smart can be considered bragging by some (misguided) people, this is a pick-your-poison situation. I know between the two I’d rather be judged for being smart, especially at work, though this may be context dependent.

        5. Ladida*

          Well if they just mentioned their scholarship out of nowhere, then perhaps it would be considered bragging. But that’s not the case here. I think it is the coworkers’ reaction when they hear the school the LW went to that is socially inappropriate and brings the LW in an awkward position of trying to explain how they were able to afford that school.
          I agree with Alison, I think replying with ‘I had a scholarship’ is fine. I think saying nothing and letting them assume whatever they want is fine too.

        6. cosmicgorilla*

          It is not considered bragging in the US to say that you received a scholarship. It is not considered bragging even if it was awarded based on scholastic merit and not financial need. Maybe there is some small faction of the US, some specific cultural group, where this is true, but this is not a thing “in the US.”

          1. Uranus Wars*

            Strongly agree. My aid was classified as “scholarship” but it was because my family had no money to send me to school. I didn’t qualify for academic aid because I was also mediocre as a student. And probably continue to be mediocre as a working professional. And that’s ok!

        7. Artemesia*

          no, not really — this is true of some scholarships, but it is quite common for there to be a lot of financial aid awarded as ‘scholarships’ that are means tested. Few people talk about a college awarding them ‘grants’ — they are often referred to as scholarships.

        8. Higher Ed Pro*

          This is inaccurate. Need-based scholarships are incredibly common. Unsubsidized federal student loans have no income requirement. They are offered to any student who submits the FAFSA and has a gap between their gift aid and the cost of attendance.

          1. Quill*

            Also some scholarships are incredibly specific. You can get specific aid for some schools by being, for example, from a specific township that donated land to the school for the orchestra building AND in the orchestra. (And knowing that the scholarship existed to begin with.)

        9. MCMonkeyBean*

          This is inaccurate on both counts. Obviously we don’t know what school OP went to specifically but there are plenty of colleges that offer need-based scholarships in addition to ones based on academic achievement, athletic ability, community service, or a ton of other potential reasons!

          And anyone who would hear a basic factual statement of “I received a scholarship” and take that as bragging is the one with the issue. It’s an extremely normal thing to mention casually. OP does not owe an explanation to anyone, but it is a perfectly thing thing to say if she wants to downplay the expense of her schooling.

        10. Scholarships*

          not truenearly all financial aid of every sort in the US is needs based. There are some merit based scholarships but they are rare and also tend to be small.

      2. JSPA*

        Graduate aid is (broadly) less need- based and more competitive / skill- based than undergrad. Also, they are likely to use “scholarship” terminology for skill/achievement-based, and “grant” for needs-based.

      3. Higgs Bison*

        As someone who got my bachelor’s from an ivy league school I use this strategy when people awkwardly fawn over me going there. I emphasize the fact that their financial aid was such that the cost for me to go there was cheaper than to my state’s state school, even with their best merit scholarship. It seems to shift the conversation away from the awkward “I am in awe of your accomplishment” or “how fancy” tones and into “I never realized how affordable it could be.” It has the added benefit of making reach goals seem not inevitably doomed for irrelevant reasons, which I think is a valuable lesson for a lot of the people in my life, unfortunately.

        1. Seeking Second Childhood*

          >”added benefit of making reach goals seem not inevitably doomed”

          That’s a really good point, and I hope OP sees this comment!

        2. Angstrom*

          Yes. The private colleges and universities with the highest “sticker price” often have the most generous aid packages, and can be less expensive than a public school for a low-income student.

          1. Nerdgal*

            I try to explain this to people all the time, with limited success. I use the analogy about cars – the sticker price isn’t always what you pay.

            1. Angstrom*

              It’s frustrating. I know folks whose kids could probably get a great aid package at a private school, but they’re scared off by the sticker price.
              There’s nothing wrong with state universities. It’s just that folks shouldn’t limit their options based on faulty assumptions about cost.

          2. Filosofickle*

            I wish someone had told me this when I was heading to college! My short list might have changed dramatically.

        3. Washi*

          I agree. I’ve openly said I got a lot of financial aid for my undergrad, and a combo of scholarships and Americorps money to help pay for my master’s. I’ve never gotten the impression that this comes across as bragging, whereas if I just say where I got my undergrad degree with no explanation, that’s when I get “fancy private school” comments.

    2. Ellis Bell*

      Yeah, I think OP is putting too much emphasis on the idea that scholarships are brag-worthy. I mean, they might be, (and they might just be a thing done to help out students) but unless OP is saying it in a brag-tastic way, and dropping their scholarship into every conversation, they’re just contributing to the discussion someone else started. People are only mentioning it because these costs seem to be a common bonding conversation in this workplace. OP could absolutely join in: “Oh, yeah I had to work full-time to afford it – they were the only ones who did evening classes”, or “Luckily I got a lot of financial help from the school or I couldn’t have afforded it” or “Actually it worked out cheaper than expected – but I had to go at night, and use their scholarship programme.”

    3. Optimus*

      Exactly. “Yeah, thanks to a scholarship, Private U actually turned out to be the most affordable option for me,” gets the point across too without saying something like “I couldn’t have done it otherwise.”

      1. Molly Millions*

        And I think if she says it in the same tone as, say, someone who found a good deal on a phone plan or wants to pass along a hot tip on a sale, it won’t come off as bragging.

    4. Oakley*

      Not to show the chip on my shoulder too much, but I live in a mid-size city that has two universities with a lot of overlap in professional grad programs. One is a nationally ranked Ivy-adjacent, but the state school is literally a third of the cost, and the place to be if you want connections to local businesses and local/state government jobs. People who go the private school tend to move immediately to NYC or DC, or “home,” wherever that may be for them. My husband and I both are from the area, have grad degrees from the state school, and have rarely met anyone with a degree from the private school actually working in our city, in our fields. So to me, some of this may be surprise that you stayed/wondering when you’re going to jump ship for a “better” job! If that’s the dynamic, even throwing in “I grew up here/partner is here/I love PLACE” might help people be less weird about it.

    5. starsaphire*

      Or just a simple, “Yeah, thank goodness for scholarships, amirite? Anyway, about (work thing)…”

    6. Office Lobster DJ*

      Since it sounds like multiple coworkers can’t seem to drop the subject, I wondered if the subtext is that they feel the private school’s program is more prestigious than their own and they have a bit of a chip on their collective shoulder about it. Based on that assumption, I think it’s good advice to find an equalizer, like “Yeah, I really lucked out with my financial aid package.”

      It’s not that OP should downplay their accomplishments, but they are in the on-boarding stage where it makes sense to give more weight to rapport building.

    7. Not A Raccoon Keeper*

      I would go for a more general “yes, but private unis often have more scholarships available – many of us paid less than we would have at (public university)”. It implies OP got a scholarship, but makes it more general and open to discussion, without really opening a door to OP’s finances.

  4. Banana Pyjamas*

    LW3 this sounds like the perfect time to utilize cya follow up emails.

    Good morning Fergal,

    Per our conversation I am continuing work on the inter department project. As we discussed I cannot finish all of my scheduled assignments while continuing this project.

    Many of my regularly scheduled tasks are cannot be taken on by others. Please let me know which tasks I should put on the back burner.

    Thank you for your guidance.

    When something important then gets missed, it’s not your problem. When boss asks why you respond to the same email chain or send the previous email as an attachment.

    Good morning Fergal,

    I wanted to revisit this conversation. Dropping task had unforeseen (roll your eyes all you want because the boss can’t see) consequences.

    Trying to push back my other core job functions would also probably have negative repercussions, but continuing the inter departmental project would require me to delay those.

    Please advise

    This is also a situation where document, document escalate might be appropriate. If things go awry again, at this point you could forward the whole thing to your skip level supervisor.

    Good morning Skip,

    I am concerned about recent issues with task x which led to an and task y which led to b.

    Please see the attached conversation to understand the full context of these events.

    Alternatively you could continue the conversation with you direct supervisor and CC your skip level superintendent.

    1. JSPA*

      You don’t want to say you’re continuing, when you’re going for a medical exemption.

      Maybe, “to follow up on our previous conversation: as there is no way to cover my essential duties and continue with what previously were voluntary duties on the X project without debilitating physical damage, I will indeed be seeking medical exemption from my (previously voluntary) X duties. Thank you for understanding that this has risen to the level of medical necessity, and reminding me to assemble appropriate medical documentation and formal exemption.”

      1. Banana Pyjamas*

        Until you actually have a medical exemption, you need to complete your work. Boss told LW to continue the project, and they would need the medical exemption to be taken off of it.

        1. MigraineMonth*

          I’d disagree with this. Most workplaces would *far* prefer someone to refuse to do an assigned task (and backstop with documentation later) than to do the task, get injured, and have to pay out workers comp. For that reason, “I refused to lift the boxes because I have a back problem” is likely to be fully supported by HR.

          Getting their boss in (well-deserved) trouble isn’t worth OP getting injury and needing months of rehab.

        2. Not that other person you didn't like*

          No. No you don’t. You don’t NEED to do anything that isn’t in your best interest. This is a business relationship, not a moral obligation. The OP is clearly a highly conscientious person and in my personal experience it’s extremely easy for those people to be taken advantage of.

        3. OMG, Bees!*

          I think the best solution is for LW3 to go to the supervisor with every take they have and decide which ones can be dropped or pushed back. Have it in writing, of course. If the supervisor really wants the “voluntary” task official and is a reasonable person, then the rest of the workload and be dropped.

    2. Polaris*

      I once had luck with the following email:

      “Please advise which new customer you’d prefer I piss off, Big New Company A or Big New Company B”, where Company A and Company B were both very very large companies that we’d been chasing for close to a year before landing a contract.

      Oddly enough, competent assistance was hired within a week.

      1. Florp*

        This. Boss, I can’t finish all of this work to an acceptable standard. Which projects do you want me to put on the back burner? Get it in writing.

        For what it’s worth, does you direct supervisor know that your job description / job offer specifically had the “additional duties as assigned” taken out? If they weren’t directly involved with hiring, they may not realize that the higher ups were trying to avoid this exact situation.

  5. Shinobi42*

    Lw1 – if you do reflect and think that your boss’s paranoia us escalating it could be a sign of a underlying health condition. If you have a relationship with his family where you could express concern (safely) that may be helpful to him.

    I mention this only because my own father is a business owner and if one of his team members said something to me I would be grateful. But I know not all small businesses have those kinds of relationships and you should use your best judgement with no guilt if this isn’t something you can do.

    1. JSPA*

      This is emotionally appealing, but
      a) possibly legally indefensible,
      b) professionally indefensible,
      c) validation of his paranoia to the point of career suicide for the LW.

      There are many things in life, real and by way of thought-experiment, that would be useful in dealing with people’s unknown motivations and actions. (Wiretapping! ESP! Invisibility!) But we don’t get to use those things. Secret / private feedback from the employees of family members is heading into that territory. Its a job, not a personal friendship; those things are not fungible.

      1. Emmy Noether*

        I agree in general, but with small family businesses, family members are sometimes already fairly involved in ways that would be weird in other contexts. I know several where family members help out in crunch times, or do one small infrequent task, or do trainings, etc. I know a lot of commenters here don’t like that sort of mixing, and it’s not for everyone, but it doesn’t always have to be unhealthy. It’s how a lot of very small businesses survive.

        If the LW has an existing relationship with a trustworthy family member that is involved in the business, it could be doable to mention something offhand when they see them and chat anyway. Not in a “your [dad] needs medical attention!” sort of way, more in a “so this weird thing happened…” sort of way.

        1. Ms_Meercat*

          Agree with you, small family businesses are just that way sometimes.
          My brother is leading “ours” in the 4th generation. I grew up in/around the business, worked summer jobs, and did a small consulting thing a few years ago. One employee there has known me for 30 years, another one for 20 (working together during my summer jobs, then he left and came back a couple of years ago). They were at my Mom’s funeral, who also worked in the business until she passed.
          Small businesses just work like that sometimes, it’s not for everyone but it’s what it is.

          If something was up with my brother, I’d appreciate hearing that perspective, and I wouldn’t find it weird at all. As I said, one of these employees has known me since I was a child.

          1. Ashley*

            So much this. Having been in small business before I have many family members contact info in my cell or could easily access it and I am not even talking about their personnel file.
            Small family businesses are different then large corporations and sometimes this usually means handling thing differently. I would not suggest reaching out for someone at a large corporation unless I was a COO and the CEO was having issues, but at a small company absolutely it might make sense.

        2. JSPA*

          Oh, if it’s truly a family business, and the family contact is actually or effectively a coworker, and there’s an existing line of job related communication- – sure! But, “you may or may not remember me from the company picknic, but you gave me your number so I could text you the source for the raspberry cookies… well, I wonder if you know that your uncle is having paranoid fantasies” isn’t an option.

      2. Green great dragon*

        I don’t see any legal problems with describing facts to an acquaintance? I don’t see it as professionally indefensible or career suicide either, but that’s less factual.

        1. Cmdrshprd*

          I think even in a bigger company with HR department and everything, if someone started exhibiting strange behavior it would not be unprofessional for a coworker to bring it so a family members attention.

          To a partner/spouse, child, sibling etc… I wanted to let you know jon doe was started to show some weird/strange behaviors like XYZ, I busy thought you should know.

        2. JSPA*

          Ignoring that they are family (because not all family are mutually- supportive of each other, nor are they all on the same side of any decision or issue)

          You’re sharing information about your workplace with people outside that workplace, in a way that might harm your workplace. I suppose, as it’s presumably not a publically-traded company, there isn’t much risk in privately sharing information with select outsiders to the company… but (say, in the case of a divorce that you don’t know is pending, or a financial power struggle involving declaration of incompetence?) the risk isn’t zero.

      3. bamcheeks*

        I am fascinated by the suggestion that this would be legally indefensible. What laws do you think would be in play? In the UK if it was a manager talking to a report’s family about their health without the report’s knowledge or permission it would violate most company policies and potentially be a GDPR violation, but I don’t think there’s any duty of confidentiality in the opposite direction.

        1. Madame Arcati*

          Conversely I don’t think GDPR makes any distinction about the seniority-direction iyswim. I don’t see it’s less of a privacy violation to talk to one’s boss’s family about boss health than it would be for one to talk to one’s employee’s family about employee health. Why would it? Privacy rights don’t get reduced when you get promoted.

          1. bamcheeks*

            My feeling is that if you’re managing someone, then any knowledge of their performance, health, relationships with others etc becomes knowledge that you have as part of your professional role as their manager, and you’ve got a professional duty to keep that confidential. I don’t think you have the same responsibility to those above you. Someone bitching about someone they manage in a pub is in breach of professional ethics in a way that someone bitching about their manager isn’t. But that’s more to do with policies and professionalism than legal restrictions.

            Actually, GDPR is less concerned with privacy per se than it is with how data is recorded and stored. So I suspect the only way it would be in play here is if you sent an email rather than picked up the phone.

            1. Emmy Noether*

              I agree. I don’t know about legally, but ethically, a manager has more of a duty to keep things they learn about their reports in their role as manager confidential. It’s not that managers have less rights, it’s that they have more duties.

              1. Green great dragon*

                I’d also see a distinction between things a manager has been told about and things they’ve seen. If their employee tells them about a health issue in order to get accommodations, that should totally be need-to-know only. If a manager sees their report is acting strangely, falling asleep in meetings etc then they can tell people facts… I still wouldn’t, like, ring up their relations but it feels the line is different.

                1. bamcheeks*

                  I don’t see that distinction, actually. If I’ve observed it in the course of my observation of their work, then it still comes under “things I know as their manager” to me.

                2. Engineer*

                  I’d say the distinction to tell family/energency contact should come not from being told vs observing, but whether a manger reasonably believes that their report is adversely impacted by something and they may not understand/be capable of understanding the full extent of that impact in their work and life. We’re around our coworkers 40-50 hours a week, after all – that’s a lot of time around a person to realize hey, something isn’t right here.

                  We’ve had a couple few letters over the years where a coworker/manager has noticed cognitive decline, sudden mood swings, major changes in behavior and has wondered if they should reach out to that person’s contact. And I say that at some point, you do, manager or not.

                3. doreen*

                  I think that part of the distinction between being told and observing is because usually only a manager will be told about issues that aren’t apparent and the manager only knows those things because they are the manager while anyone might have observed their behavior. For example , if I need accommodations because of an not-visible health problem I probably would have told only my manager – but cognitive decline or paranoia or certain physical problems might be noticed by anyone. If the receptionist can see that I’m paranoid, then the manager didn’t gain that knowledge by being the manager.

      4. Shinobi42*

        My experience with long term employees of small family businesses is that there is sometimes considerable persobal/professional overlap. (for better or for worse)

        But as I said LW should use their judgement on any potential ramifications and only act if it can be done in a, way that has no blow back.

      5. kiki*

        I’m curious what exactly would be the legal issue if LW discreetly confided their concerns about their boss’s help to a family member of their boss?

        I don’t think LW has an obligation to do that, especially not if they’re don’t know their boss’s family at all, but if they do have some sort of relationship, I’m wondering if there is actually a legal blocker? A friend went through a period of intense psychosis. Friend’s family was grateful that friend’s boss reached out to them (friend’s mom was her emergency contact) to discuss what they had observed, otherwise they would have had no idea and would not have been able to help as early as they did.

        It sounds like LW’s boss isn’t currently experiencing something terribly extreme currently (he may have always been a suspicious person who is confused by email), but I do wonder if any cognitive decline progresses further, what would be the recommended recourse would be, if any? Especially since it sounds like boss is the top guy at his company, I feel like things could get really bad (both cognitively and financially for the business) before anyone feels like they can/should raise the issue with somebody. And even then, who does this get raised to?

      6. Observer*

        a) possibly legally indefensible,

        No. There is nothing like HIPPA (or other regulations) at play here that could cause a *legal* problem. And if the OP were to be careful to be factual, much like they describe the situation here, there would also be no issue of slander / libel as truth is an absolute defense in the US.

        Having said that, I agree that it would be career suicide. If the OP considers doing that, the only way and time to do that would be *after* they have landed a new job and are literally on their last day at work. *And* they should not tell anyone where they are going to work.

      7. Maggie*

        Hmm – I feel pretty differently. At the end of the day we’re all humans with bodies and brains that can betray us. If the LW is comfortable and feels safe doing so, I think it’s ok to tell a family member who is trustworthy “I wanted to let you know X happened with my email address (describe situation factually) and it made me a little concerned so I’m letting you know.

        1. HonorBox*

          Especially because it has happened repeatedly. If boss is paranoid once and takes the explanation, processes it correctly and moves on, you probably let that go. But since it continues to occur, it might be worth noting to a trusted family member what is happening and the repeated nature. It is a way of protecting themself (LW) and could provide protection for the business, too.

          I don’t think it needs to be “your dad is accusing me all the time of having a secret email address” but could be phrased as “just FYI, this is a something that continues to come up and I’m concerned for a variety of reasons, and wanted to give you a heads up.”

      8. doreen*

        I think a lot of this depends on what sort of business this is – is it a small business where the owner is the only family member working there and the employees don’t necessarily know the family members aside from maybe holiday parties? Or is it the sort where it doesn’t even make sense to refer to “employees of a family member” because multiple family members own or work in the business?

    2. Seeking Second Childhood*

      Just do it verbally NOT on the email whose replies route through the paranoid owner.

    3. Venus*

      The first sign of dementia is often paranoia and anger. I had a family member accuse me of rearranging items in their home because they couldn’t accept that they had done it and then forgotten. There is no way to resolve the problem other than leaving, because the dementia will get worse.

      If he has been paranoid for 20 years then it is obviously something more than dementia, yet if it is increasing then that could be a new factor.

      1. MtnLaurel*

        I came here to say this. If caught early dementia can be treated. There is not a cure but there are ways to slow the progression. As a child of someone with dementia, I’d be grateful.

        1. Maggie*

          Yeah, if someone thought my parent had a serious life altering illness but didn’t tell me that would be upsetting. Maybe he’s just mean and paranoid, but at least you’re passing along a very reasonable concern.

      2. e271828*

        The LW is paranoid cranky guy’s employee. What do you think he will do when some family member says “Employee thinks you’re showing signs of dementia and paranoia?” Because the odds are very good that someone would let something like that slip in the stressful conversation about Dad’s mental state.

        The LW is much better advised to start very discreetly looking for another job or at least planning out what to do if this one goes away.

    4. Elizabeth West*

      It doesn’t matter WHY he does this — maybe he has an issue, but some people are just paranoid. That doesn’t change the advice.

      Anyway, OP is his employee, not his family. If this is related to an escalating health issue, his family has likely noticed it already.

  6. nnn*

    I don’t know that this would change anything for #1, but I find myself curious who in the organization would actually be empowered to create an email address, especially one that the boss doesn’t get cced on. Can LW actually do that? Could the boss do that? Is there an IT person in this small business?

    Also, who would be empowered to detect and delete such an address if it did exist? Could the boss do it? Could he have someone else do it? Or is OP the only person who can do it? (Seems out of scope for a secretary and bookkeeper, but small businesses often have scope creep)

    1. Maranda*

      That would be me. It’s just a google business email and we pay for 4/month. Very small company- there’s no IT dept, just me. I told my friends if I wanted a separate, secret account I’d have made a free gmail or hotmail account, not one on the company side.

      1. paxfelis*

        Would it make sense to set one up under the boss’s typo, with an auto reply stating that it wasn’t a valid e-mail?

        1. paxfelis*

          Would it make sense to set one up under the boss’s typo, with an auto reply stating that it wasn’t a valid e-mail?

          Sorry, should have included that this would be a step in “placation until you get another job.” Not a solution, a patch on a leak until you can get into a different boat.

        2. Snow Globe*

          Or create an actual email with that spelling that goes to the LW, so that it *doesn’t* reply back to the boss. It sounds like the boss would just be confused by an auto-reply.

        3. Pastor Petty Labelle*

          Oh heavens no. That would just prove to the boss there was a secret email when he got the auto reply message. He wouldn’t actually read the message.

          If telling him he mistyped it, then showing that he gets all emails anyway hasn’t worked, showing that this email address actually DOES exist is a really bad idea.

          You can’t manage around this. He is determined to be paranoid about something. All you can do is protect yourself by getting out. Or as noted above, if safe to do so, talk to a trusted family member.

    2. Seeking Second Childhood*

      OP, Now is a good time to “find out” that his email account remembers addresses even typos to volunteer on future emails.

      If you can figure out how to remove a suggested address from your software, I’d suggest sending instructions NOT offering to do it for him. One step less likely to trigger another point of distrust.

      1. Maranda*

        Good idea! Yes, he showed me his phone and that when he starts typing my email that the wrong one pops up. I explained that’s bc he mistyped it and he saved it. He insists that he didn’t do it, and since it only comes up in the Gmail app, well that must mean the email exists. I told him the phone saved it and is filling it in, he still insisted that it doesn’t. I literally can’t

        1. Ashley*

          Have you tried the alias route? Where you have alias emails set up for everyone in case someone misspells a name so you all do miss any company emails? I am not sure if that would make it better or worse, but I literally set up alias emails for myself because people can’t spell my name (and they forget I changed my name well over a decade ago).

        2. glt on wry*

          Well, damn. Was going to suggest getting him to delete this incorrect addy from his address book, but he’s thrown up a whole new different obstruction to that solution.

          1. Pastor Petty Labelle*

            And he will continue to do so. There is no logical solution to this — because the boss is illogical.

  7. Rainbow Brite*

    #1 is giving me flashbacks to when a paranoid landlord accused me of having a second secret cat! I owned exactly one cat and she was on the lease, but apparently during an inspection my landlord saw a cat upstairs … and then a cat downstairs! And since cats obviously can’t go up and down stairs, she deduced from this that I MUST have a second, identical cat whose existence I had for some reason chosen to hide, despite the apartment being pet-friendly.

    I noped out of there quickly, and it wasn’t even my livelihood on the line. OP, unreasonable people cannot be reasoned with. Get out if you can.

    1. Irish Teacher.*

      And your two cats were apparently completely identical! Not that that couldn’t happen, but you would think it would be a clue they might be the same cat.

      1. Rainbow Brite*

        And she would NOT believe me when I insisted I only had the one cat. Come to find out she then told my new landlord as part of my rental reference all about the second secret cat (the words “second secret cat” were literally used). Luckily, landlord #2 apparently did not care how many cats I owned or whether they were secret, and thus I was allowed to leave that bizarre situation.

        1. Cmdrshprd*

          To me “second secret cat” means you have three cats total. I like the story better with more cats.

          You have the cat on the lease (#1), then you have “first secret cat,” (#2) and “second secret cat” (#3).

          Commercialized pet cloning is a thing now. So the cats are identical because you cloned them.

            1. Clare*

              We all know what you really meant when you told your landlord “No, I don’t have two cats!”, Rainbow Brite.

          1. Polly Hedron*

            To embellish the story further:
            the number would vary with the punctuation, e.g., in writing,
            “second (secret) cat” = #2
            “second secret cat” = #3
            In speech, you’d have to add punctuation via pauses before & after “second”.

              1. Polly Hedron*

                Yes, several kinds of punctuation would change the number.
                My sister once took advantage of the reverse case: two identical black sibling kittens that her landlord thought were just one.

      2. Seeking Second Childhood*

        Yikes, landlord thought The Matrix was a training video.

        (“Neo: A black cat went past us, and then another that looked just like it. Trinity: How much like it? Was it the same cat? Neo: It might have been.”)

    2. Lady_Lessa*

      You mean that cats are mobile? So that Ms. Teresa actually tracks the sun and lies in different spots during the day? I’m amazed.

      1. Lenora Rose*

        I sometimes swear that for the sunbeams and other warm spots they don’t so much get up and walk over as just phase-shift or teleport over… but that’ still technically moving.

    3. t-vex*

      I kind of love this. It’s the opposite of my friend, who had 6 cats in identical-looking pairs, so as far as her landlord could tell there were only 3.

  8. LobsterPhone*

    I worked in a public library with a guy around my age (20’s) who dressed like he chose his work clothes from a pile on the floor and tied his waist length hair back with hot pink scrunchies he got free from a magazine in the library. The majority of the library staff was over 50 and female – guess who got the most people assuming he was The Librarian (there can be only one, apparently)? He would direct them to the branch manager and they would visibly hesitate. Is he sure he’s not in charge? tl:dr dressing down will not change this dynamic, sorry Jim.

    1. Everdene*

      Yeah, when I managed an in person advice centre every man was more likely to be considered the manager than me. it didn’t matter what they (age of my dad/always wore a tie, office apprentice/jeans and hoody, same age admin/chinos and casula shirt) or I (varied from full business suit to sundress and flipflops to jeans and hoody) was wearing.

      Don’t bother changing what you’re wearing. Just directly correct the misconception each time. “I’m not in charge, you need to speak to my manager Jane”. This works, albeit one person at a time.

      1. Cyborg Llama Horde*

        Yeah, I’ve had junior colleagues that I was obviously coaching assumed to be the more senior tech. One instance with a contractor was so egregious that when I FINALLY (after multiple days of male-presenting colleague redirecting the contractor to me) got the contractor to talk directly to me… and he started refusing to answer any questions at all from male-presenting colleague, even for the parts of the project that mpc was in charge of.

        In my personal life, I’ve also had issues with contractors and a male neighbor about ten years older than me, who hangs around because he’s a curious extrovert and has too much time on his hands. I wear my regular business-casual outfits (not anything I would call fancy, certainly not on the level of a tie, but a nice outfit); neighbor often wears raggedy shorts and a t-shirt with holes. Despite the disparity in dress AND the fact that I was the person who initiated the contact and was clearly expecting to write the check… multiple contractors would invariably give him updates instead of me. Like, on one occasion they told the neighbor that they were shutting off power to my unit, and didn’t tell me until I came downstairs wondering why I had no power anymore.

    2. goddessoftransitory*

      Yeah *sigh.* The LW could wear one pink bunny slipper and a mesh belly shirt and he’d probably still be presumed to be in charge (if for no other reason than people would reason “well, he’s dressed like that and isn’t being walked out by security so he must be the boss.)

    3. WS*

      My workplace has two bosses, both women, one in her 50s and one in her 30s. It’s a health business so every is clearly identified by their position on a name badge, and the two bosses have to have their names (both clearly female) and qualifications displayed. People still go to the 18-year-old checkout guy instead.

    4. learnedthehardway*

      I would suggest that the OP perhaps lose the tie, but otherwise, I don’t think that anything else is going to make a difference.

      Perhaps the OP can do a study on the effects of dressing down – does losing the tie make a difference. If not, how casually does he have to dress before people stop assuming he is the manager? (Shorts and flip flops, probably.)

      1. CountryLass*

        Aw man! My inner nerd wants a full-scale experiment done now! A week with a tie, a week without. A week with a tie but visible eye-makeup and a week with eye makeup but no tie. Brown shoes/sparkly trainers. Normal hair/’feminine’ styled. Dress shirt/tight pink t-shirt and so on!

        1. Florp*

          Came here to say this. Well, some of it, I hadn’t thought of eye makeup and the rest!

          Try not wearing a tie for a couple of weeks and see if anything changes. I suspect it won’t.

          OP4, it sounds like you are already saying something like “I’m not in charge, let me introduce you to my boss,” and that’s probably the best way to handle it. I’ve been the woman in charge in this kind of situation, and the clients who have made this mistake have *always* looked surprised that they guessed wrong, even when they were also women. Even if the guy that they assumed was in charge was wearing warehouse appropriate jeans and a tee and I was wearing a killer suit and heels!

          Some habits are just ingrained.

      2. Smithy*

        I also work in a field that is heavily women dominated, and inevitably the men who are in our industry get a lot of “extra credit” for being there at all as well as being presumed to be more senior. Right now the only man on our team is in the most junior role, and combined with that and him being really really tall – that adds another few assumed seniority points.

        All to say that some of this will be the OP needing to continue doing this with words and regular correcting. This is a systemic issue and it’s never going to just be one person. However, I do think that in part of doing this work, there is the opportunity for the OP to take a more conscientious effort to look at how his colleagues dress and strive to match their formality more.

        Making choices like dropping the tie or the next time he shops for work shoes – thinking about a fashion sneaker instead of a loafer or other dress shoe? In the same way that men are regularly assumed to be more senior at work, men’s business casual often requires a lot less thought. Khakis/chinos, button down, tie will work for the majority of men and men’s body shapes provided they have the correct size. When you compare this to the thought women put into what is business casual for them at any given age, body shape, climate, etc. the male privilege continues with its simplicity.

        The OP may hate fashion and shopping. And the idea of considering a fashion sneaker for work vs a dress shoe may sound like a level of Dante’s Inferno. In that case, continuing to be an advocate with his written and spoken language may be the best way forward. But I also do think there are ways for the OP to be more aware of message being sent by their clothes and try to tweak that.

    5. Richard Hershberger*

      “The Librarian (there can be only one”

      They shall be drawn to the ALA convention where they will fight for the Final Prize.

      1. t-vex*

        Honestly I would have thought the same thing. Like, there’s only one Sheriff and only one District Attorney, so why would there be more than one Librarian?

    6. HannahS*

      Yeah. It can be more than one thing–the clothes might play a small role, the whiteness, the being handsome–but when you’re male in a female profession (or male in a male profession,) you’re more likely to be assumed to be in charge. Changing your clothes probably won’t help.

      Is harm being done? Absolutely. But changing your clothes won’t help. You correct people who assume you’re in charge; that’s the right thing to keep doing.

      I realize your colleagues might be hinting that they’d prefer you dress less formally, but as long as you’re not two steps more formal that everyone else, you’re fine.

      Women’s workwear is, IMO a torturous circle of hell and there is no female equivalent to khakis, a dress shirt, and a tie. Last time I looked, I could not even find an in-person store to buy khakis (that were not actually just leggings) and a normal, well-fitting dress shirt for women. Believe me, I am jealous of my male colleagues who can blithely put on (yet another identical pair of) khakis and a blue shirt with nary a further thought, and then be assumed to be my boss. But like, if they wore a tshirt, it would still happen.

      1. Zap R.*

        Half of the world’s population has breasts and would therefore appreciate an affordable, widely available, business casual button-down that could be worn by people with breasts. And yet.

        1. Hannah Lee*

          Breasts and arms.

          In the past, I struggled to find business casual button-downs that both fit across my chest and didn’t have incredibly wonky arm fit – whether armholes sized way too big or too small, armholes that for some reason ran parallel to where the increased width for breasts were (like, did the manufacturer not notice that in most human people shoulders occur naturally parallel to collarbones, not the middle of the chest?) , sleeve with very small diameter cuffs, or with some combination of one or more of those with sleeves that were super long or super short.

          1. The New Wanderer*

            I highly suspect, from the placement and construction of the sleeves in many women’s dress shirts, that the designer expects the wearer to have no more physical activity than the mannequin it was pinned onto.

            1. Zap R.*

              See also: women’s pants

              They can’t slide down my butt when I take a step, designers. Like, that is not going to work for me for obvious reasons.

            2. Freya*

              My work uniform polos have the tendency to have a slight puff to the sleeves, because the cuffs/hems ride up above the biceps they’re borderline too small for. I’m riding it out until the next replacement batch, when I’ll get a size larger and get the waist tailored in even more.

        2. I Have RBF*

          I’m enby, but have rather big boobs. I still buy my clothes in the men’s big and tall department, because they fit better, and last longer. Men’s polo shirts don’t have arms that are too narrow, too short, too low, or weird shapes. I wear a 2x men’s polo, and a big waist stretch chino. Are they a little baggy in places? Yes, that means I can actually move in them. Skintight women’s wear feels like a straightjacket of discomfort.

    7. Lily Rowan*

      Yeah, I really appreciate that LW4 asked the question, but I bet changing his clothes wouldn’t change that dynamic much, if at all.

      It doesn’t help that in many heavily female workplaces I’ve been in, most of the men ARE the bosses.

      1. CountryLass*

        I think the fact that he has thought about it is really good, and ok, maybe it has taken some time and possibly some hints from the female staff, but he has still noticed the pattern, made the connection and found a possible solution that he is then checking (with a woman!) to see if it is appropriate. Can you imagine that happening 10-15 years ago? It’s unlikely a man would even have noticed, let alone thought about changing…

          1. Zap R.*

            Well, yes, obviously.

            But I think the point CountryLass is making is that the needle has shifted since then. Men have always known that sexism existed but more of them* seem to treat it as an actual problem in 2024 than in 2008.

            *And by “more of them” I mean, like, five of them.

  9. Cacofonix*

    I hope #3 gets updated with advice on actively working with OP’s manager to set priorities for the unsustainable workload. No way should one require a medical exemption to get out of being unfairly overworked.

    1. learnedthehardway*

      Yeah – that’s ridiculous. The thing I would do would be to make a chart of what I was supposed to do, and how long it would take to do each project. Then break it down over the time I had to do each project. Oh, that means working 120 hours per week? Sorry, not happening. How does the supervisor want me to deal with that. And no, I’m not interested in giving up the pieces of the role I was hired to do.

      In fact, it may be time to mention this to the OP’s second line manager or HR. A side-project is highly unlikely to be as important to the business as the OP getting their core work done.

      I would also be having the supervisor confirm in writing that they are prioritizing this side-quest and are aware that the OP will not be able to complete other work, as a result. CC the second line manager, if needed.

    2. bamcheeks*

      Yeah, I feel like that answer answers the literally asked question (“can they make me do this? yes”) and not the bigger one of “what do I do if I’m being asked to do more work than is reasonable / possible in my working week”.

      As other people have said, LW2. there’s unlikely to be anything contractual that prevents them deciding your time is better spent on the project than on the core duties listed in your contract, unless you’re in the rare kind of workplace with *very* robust contractual expectations, but in that case you’d probably know that the first stop should be your union. You can however make sure your boss is aware that this workload isn’t reasonable, and ask them to help you prioritise which of your usual core tasks you *shouldn’t* do in order to free up time for this project. A decent boss will take this seriously. A less decent boss will either tell you to do it all, OR tell you to de-prioritise something that you know will store up trouble for later because they don’t understand your work as well as you do. If you’ve got the less-decent kind, then the advice to make sure all these conversations are documented is a very good idea, but also, so is jobsearching, because that’s a bad situation to stay in long-term.

    3. Beth*

      It gave me flashbacks to my old job, where the owners, after piling too much work on all their staff, decided it would also be a good use of our time for us to track our work every minute of a week, and also to write up how many hours a week we needed to cover all our essential duties.

      When my even more terribly overworked colleague turned in data showing that she needed about 60-70 hours each week to do everything, and that every minute of her day was overpacked, they did not understand that she was overworked and they needed to hire more staff. Instead, they attacked her for having made a huge mistake in thinking she needed so much time.

      1. Hannah Lee*

        And your story gave me flashbacks to an old job where management had all the non-management salaried-exempt staff track their work hours and tasks, as prep for reclassifying these roles into non-exempt positions eligible for overtime pay. (presumably they wanted a handle on how much overtime to budget.)

        In the short term, it had the effect of employees getting excited for a bump in pay for all the long hours they normally worked PLUS made them aware of exactly how long those long hours really were. There had been workday creep and just about everyone was working over 50 hours a week, and some much much more than than.

        In the long term? When management looked at the work hour data, and decided it would add up to WAY more overtime $$ than they wanted to budget for, so decided NOT to reclassify anyone, to just keep things the same, it had the effect of people being PO’d they’d done the whole ‘tracking hours’ thing for nothing, and of employee morale plummeting, people cutting WAY back on the extra hours they were willing to put in.

    4. MigraineMonth*

      It sounded like the medical exemption might be about getting out of the more-physical aspects of the volunteer project? Though I agree that there shouldn’t need to be documentation about that (and I suspect HR would not be pleased at hearing that workers were being pressured into doing tasks that might result in injury).

  10. Keymaster in absentia*

    1. You cannot reason a person out of a paranoid delusion. In fact there’s very little if anything that can be done unless the person themselves seeks assistance with it.

    (Reference: I have schizophrenia and my grandmother had 24/7 unmanageable paranoid schizophrenia. Not saying this is what your boss has, just relating my experience).

    So he’s never going to get over this in my estimation. It’s a small thing to him and he’s the boss.

    All you can feasibly do is a) live with it or b) get a job elsewhere. If you choose option A you might be able to redirect him when he starts going off on one but that depends a lot on how you get on with him and whether he can be distracted from it. Sometimes that works, sometimes it doesn’t.

    1. Not Australian*

      Yes, people will believe what they want to believe – and there’s no way to logic them out of it because dammit they’re *right*!

      1. Emmy Noether*

        There’s a difference between obstinacy and actual paranoia though. Paranoia isn’t about wanting to believe something, or about wanting to be right, it’s a mental illness. Trying to logic with a paranoid person can have weird results – it will sometimes make the person build on the paranoia (the conspiracy is bigger than I thought!) or change their target.

        I obviously can’t armchair diagnose this person, but if it is indeed real paranoia, it’s a very different experience from your typical wingnut uncle at thanksgiving.

        1. Observer*

          I obviously can’t armchair diagnose this person, but if it is indeed real paranoia, it’s a very different experience from your typical wingnut uncle at thanksgiving.

          Not really, in *this* context. Given what the OP describes, the OP has no way to convince the boss or substantially change anything. The underlying cause does not change this nor their relationship.

          Neither does it change what the OP probably needs to do, which is to start looking for a new job.

    2. Michelle Smith*

      Just another data point regarding delusions: My grandmother had dementia and not only were we unable to reason her out of whatever she believed was happening at the time (it’s not just memory loss for folks that don’t know, there can also be accompanying hallucinations and delusions), we were actively DIScouraged by her doctors to correcting her. It doesn’t work and just makes everyone involved frustrated and angry.

      Definitely keep this in mind when figuring out how to deal with misinformed boss. If there is someone at the office who he does trust, perhaps enlist them to help him delete the wrong email address from his phone.

      1. boof*

        Yeah, a true delusion (ie, there’s a lion roaring outside the window last now!) you don’t try to convince them it’s wrong, because if they were able to be convinced, most of the time they would have known already it was a hallucination and not something that actually happened (it’s possible to see things and know they’re not there; it’s possible to see things and be convinced they are real, depending on what is going on in the brain).
        So don’t argue with it, move on, be soothing – “that sounds scary but you’re ok now and no damage, let’s get breakfast!” etc etc – don’t have to agree with the delusion either, just try to address what’s happening now and generally show kindness.

      2. Hannah Lee*

        “… we were actively DIScouraged by her doctors to correcting her. It doesn’t work and just makes everyone involved frustrated and angry.”

        Same, RE a member of my family with dementia.

        The thing is, that’s an accommodation, way of caring for someone I love in my personal life. there is NO WAY I would stay in a work situation that required me to deal with a boss or co-worker who required that approach (unless I worked in a memory care unit and it was my job)

      3. Observer*

        Definitely keep this in mind when figuring out how to deal with misinformed boss.

        Kind of. In the sense that it means that you simply cannot “reason” this boss out of his issues. It’s part of the job.

  11. FanciestCat*

    Usually people without student debt fall into two categories, especially at private schools:

    1) You were low enough income, a great student, possibly suffered a tragedy, or some combination which allowed you to become eligible for grants and earn scholarships to cover most or all of your tuition.

    2) Your parents were wealthy enough to pay for it.

    I’ve noticed that if I just say “Oh, I don’t have student loans” if the topic comes up, or if I brush past comments about cost, people always seem to slot me into #2. I can feel the judgement lol. Saying, “Oh, I had enough scholarships to pay for it.” is the magic phrase for them to put me back in #1 and the animosity disappears. Because now I’m not coming off as more privileged. And I would stick to just vaguely saying scholarships even if the real aid was more complicated. When I was younger I used to start giving the whole story of my dad dying my senior year, social security payments, dropping into a lower income bracket and pity scholarships but that really bummed people out and was TMI. Just “scholarships”.

    1. learnedthehardway*

      That, or “I will be paying off these student loans by the time we colonize Mars”.

      That’s what I used when people would assume doing an MBA meant I had excessive wealth. Since the school I attended didn’t have scholarships for the MBA program (only for more senior graduate work). I would also say that my retirement fund would likely never recover (we have a program in Canada where you can take money out of retirement investments to pay for education, but then you have to pay yourself back later).

    2. Prismatic Garnet*

      Agree, referencing your scholarships isn’t braggy or too private, it’s really what will make it not a point of interest for people who will otherwise assume you’re wealthy. And “contradicting” someone on your first meeting isn’t a typical thing to be worried about or try to avoid, especially because it’s not like you’ll be contradicting them aggressively like you’re in debate club, really you’ll be yes-and-ing both the conversation and their premise by providing context. Your tone is still that of a person saying yes, even if you’re correcting some thing they misunderstood.

      But really, if e.g. the first time you meet someone you say you’re from Portland, and they assume you’re from Oregon but really you’re from Portland Maine, it’s not creating an awkward moment or ‘contradicting’ them to correct that misunderstanding either. It’s just a normal part of friendly conversation.

  12. Captain dddd-cccc-ddWdd*

    OP3 (“voluntary” task for another team) – I think the supervisor’s response is quite telling, although it seems vague. “People” might not like it is deflecting the not liking it from the supervisor onto nameless others. In fact the supervisor doesn’t like it. Why is that? Well, if OP leaves that project, I expect people (real ones this time) would ask why. And the answer to that is that OP is a single point of dependency in their role, in that no one else can do it and it’s critical to the company. This makes the supervisor look bad, for not having things like contingency planning and cross training in place. People (there it is again) might start to wonder whether the supervisor really has a grip on resource planning etc.

    Needless to say, if there is any truth in what I’ve put above, this is a really weak and spineless style of leadership from the supervisor. I bet that isn’t the only instance.

    As for how this would change the advice… I agree with others who have said after getting it in writing, strategically let some things drop. Maybe a support ticket for an important person gets delayed or the daily report doesn’t go out that day. When inevitably there’s trouble about this, it comes back to the supervisor. Personally I would also go to the supervisor’s boss, because supervisor is jeopardising things that are critical to the company by insisting on this. And the ‘grandboss’ might not be aware of the dependency on OP.

    1. Clare*

      I’d modify this approach ever so slightly to be a more ‘weaponised compliance’ approach. Unilaterally letting things drop can reflect poorly on you, so I’d be constantly strategically asking your manager which tasks to do with your time to make it crystal clear who’s decided to let X and Y fall over.

      I’ve had to do this in the past with a boss who wanted everything and the kitchen sink. It looked like a lot of me asking “OK, I don’t have time for all of these things, so what’s your number one priority?”. He’d squirm and try and get out of it and say it’s all important etc etc, but I just kept very politely saying “I understand, but I can’t start anything until you give me a priority order on these things. You need to make that decision. What do you want me working on right now?”. He simultaneously hated it, and thought I was fantastic and gave me a promotion – so make of that what you will.

  13. Victorian Trainer*

    As a man, I delight in wearing a mild Victorian style to work. So, expensive looking brown brogues, brown waistcoat, fancy patterned shirt, “gold” pocketwatch and chain in waistcoat.
    I furthermore delight in looking puzzled and then explaining to people that I am in fact the hunble trainer and my most illustrious Manager is Beverley, who is over there, is the one to speak to.
    Especially lovely as I deal with Government especially Defence.

  14. Treena*

    Re #2, I would highly recommend you say something to clarify that you/your parents did not pay the full tuition at the expensive school.

    I also thought it would not matter when I experienced something similar, and no, their opinions of me did not change with time. In a silly little icebreaker activity, one of my “fun facts” was that I’d moved 15+ times as a child. I overheard a snarky comment from across the table that they wished they had the money to move even once. I was too shocked to say anything, particularly because my family moved exclusively because of financial instability and also most wealthy/stable people do not move a lot?? But I don’t think their opinion ever changed of me, and I was too young to realize how that could impact me professionally. Luckily, I only had that job for 2 years.

    In a less impactful example, a few years after finishing my graduate degree, a classmate commented on how my dad was in the military. I was very confused (he didn’t even qualify for the draft!) and she said that since I’d moved around so much as a kid, she assumed I was a ‘military brat.’

    All that to say…people will make a million and one assumptions about you, but in a city agency/helping profession, assumptions about non-existent privileges will only hurt you. Really it’s best to quickly and calmly clarify without making a fuss and move on.

    1. Smithy*

      Your last paragraph really stuck out to me.

      Right after getting my masters, I was interviewing for a prisoner’s rights organization. In addition to not getting the job, the feedback I got was that I didn’t appear like I’d be comfortable with prisoners and ex-cons. At the time the feedback was confusing, but later on in my career when I did get a job with another organization that also had a prisoner’s rights component – the feedback made a lot more sense.

      The organization wasn’t expecting me to have had personal experience in the prison system, but rather was saying that I didn’t seem comfortable talking about myself. In my next job, I likely had even less in common with who we worked with, but could show far greater comfort talking about myself in a genuine but professional context. In that first interview, having such rigid and formal boundaries, made me seem remote and likely uncomfortable even though I was attempting to just be professional.

      The OP could just as well have wealthy parents or a trust fund that paid for schooling, or scholarships, or they could have taken out large student loans. Any option would still be ok, but not having any language to talk about it can harm you depending on the career you’re ultimately seeking to have.

    2. Observer*

      but in a city agency/helping profession, assumptions about non-existent privileges will only hurt you.

      I really hope that this is not true because that is really ugly.

      Fortunately, it hasn’t been true of the people I know. (I mean assumptions about non-existent privilege actually hurting people.) I hope that my experience is more common than yours.

      1. Adultiest Adult*

        Oh, it absolutely happens. Heaven forbid that you’re a young teacher or social worker and you have a Coach purse, or drive a Tesla. No one will care if it was a gift, or it’s your one big expenditure and your budget is bare-bones everywhere else. It taps into an underlying bias that people who are in helping professions should be doing it purely “for the love of the job” and should not be overly concerned about money, nor should they be paid too much or seem too privileged. Especially if people have any inclination that your position is being funded by the government or grants/donations… Some people become extremely judgemental about how people in the helping professions spend their money, and that also extends to what types of people should be in those professions– if you’re a “rich do-gooder” you risk not being taken seriously by either your colleagues or your clients. I can understand why the OP is eager to avoid that label, because it can take a long time to shake.

  15. a bowl of marigolds*

    RE: #2 (scholarship)

    I was able to get my MA for near-free due to being in the US Peace Corps. It was not at a private university, but, long story short, the whole degree ended up costing me around $1k out of pocket, as I did have to pay for one credit.

    I’m very open about this. In fact, particularly with younger folk, I explain the process directly and the how and why it happened… it might help somebody who wants a MA but doesn’t want to go $50k+ in debt! Obviously, “go join the Peace Corps” isn’t exactly a realistic option for a whole lot of people… but for some it might be, and it might be the thing that sweetens the pot enough for somebody who’s “always thought about it” to do it. While I did take a monetary hit the years I was in PC due to it being volunteer, really, the basically-free MA made up for it and I got PC on my resume; this is pretty powerful in some aspects, particularly in my industry.

    I don’t think there’s anything wrong with mentioning that you got a scholarship. You can just say, “Yeah, it is typically pricier, but I did get a scholarship that offset the cost and actually made it cheaper than the public option. They were also more flexible and it allowed me to work through the degree and get it debt-free. Thus, for me, it was the wiser and more economical decision.” That’s not bragging or being defensive: it’s just a fact. And, really, if there was something you did to make you eligible for the scholarship, you might actually be helping somebody (or maybe somebody’s kids) to get their own scholarship!

    You didn’t “cheat” to get the degree. You were able to find a path that made education more affordable for you than many. Honestly, I think it’s important to be open about these paths so that others can potentially benefit. To me, being transparent about scholarships and grants is similar to being transparent about salary. It’s beneficial for everybody.

    1. Irish Teacher*

      I think the concern is less that it is cheating and more that if the scholarship is very prestigious, it might sound like the person is saying, “oh, I’m so smart I got a scholarship.” I don’t really think most reasonable people would think that, but I do think most people are a little self-conscious about drawing attention to their accomplishments.

      Yeah, it is just a fact and it should be perfectly acceptable to indicate “I had the highest GPA in my undergrad and therefore got a scholarship” or whatever it was, but I can understand why somebody might feel uncomfortable with that or feel like they were implying, “well, if you were as smart as me, you’d have the option of going to any of the three colleges too.” Again, I don’t think most reasonable people would hear it that way, but it is easy to overthink what you are saying yourself.

      I think it is easier to tell somebody about something like being in the Peace Corp because that is a choice and there is no particular judgements that I know about attached one way or the other to being in the Peace Corp, whereas something like having the highest GPA of any applicant or having aced an entrance exam or having some special skill that makes you a particularly desirable are all things that are highly prized in our society.

      1. a bowl of marigolds*

        Haha, well, there are definitely some people who have strong opinions on the Peace Corps, I will say that. I would also argue that having a perfect GPA or high entrance exam or a special skill does typically involve some element of choice. Can everybody do it? No. Many people cannot, and much of that is due to things that are outside of the control of individuals. There are learning disabilities, issues related to family/economics/health and all sorts of things that may prevent it. Just like not everybody is in a position to drop everything and join the Peace Corps, not everybody is in a position to get a 4.0 or be a top-level piano player.

        I do understand the element of discomfort, particularly since instances of exceptionalism ARE usually tethered to privilege in some way. However, it’s also true that the LW’s coworkers are the ones that are bringing it up. LW isn’t the one going around and waving the diploma in their faces.

        Frankly, even if LW went to the more-expensive university because their family is richy-rich pants and LW’s parents play polo with the university president, it shouldn’t matter. If LW is competent at their job, that’s all that counts.

        But that’s not the case here. LW got the scholarship because they are exceptional. It would be poor taste to tap-dance all over somebody’s head about it; however, it’s far poorer taste for somebody’s first comment about an education to be related to the cost. Stating whatever exceptionalism made the education attainable in response is not poor taste.

        LW seems to think it might be: this is not true, and particularly not in this circumstance. I agree with you that most reasonable people would see it this way.

      2. Smithy*

        There certainly are scholarships that indicate having a very high GPA or being smart plus having another talent. However, in the US there are also a lot of scholarships that have a far more blended criteria – such as being from a specific geographic area, belonging to a faith community, or writing an essay on xyz. This isn’t for graduate school, but it’s always tickled me that David Letterman set up a scholarship specifically for students with a C average.

        Now in this case, the OP may have gotten one of those “super high GPA” scholarships, but in the US and even for graduate school – there are enough other options out there that it doesn’t have to be disclosed. For someone very interested for themselves or their kids, I think the OP can always decide about whether or not to step into a mentoring roll and sharing more. But honestly, even very competitive scholarships like the Rhodes Scholarship that are also well known, being pragmatic about what someone needs to do to apply can really defuse that conversation. How far in advance you need to submit, or what time of year – that is basic information most people don’t know.

        All to say, there are enough scholarships out there that people won’t likely take it as the OP boasting about being genius level. And anyone who asks for more, being as helpfully bureaucratic as possible (where do you find information about scholarships, when are they usually due) takes that conversation away from GPA.

        1. a bowl of marigolds*

          Another thing about this is that it was a half-funded terminus MA/S. Those are RARE, since MA/S programs are cash cows for universities. Plus, if there is a PhD in the same faculty at the university, PhDs are always going to get first pick for TA/GA-ships.

          Nobody with a 4.0 and nothing else is getting a half-funded terminus MA/S. Tens of thousands of undergrads get 4.0s. There’s got to be something else afoot to make a university offer such a cut (or to get an outside organization to offer you that much cash).

          It is highly likely that LW did have a high undergraduate GPA… the majority of scholarships require/favor that. But there’s also got to be something else. The most “controversial” thing I could think of is if it’s a scholarship related to diversity. But even then, I don’t think I’ve seen a “diversity” scholarship that amounts to half the cost of an MA/S, and I would also believe such a scholarship would require a high GPA, the “diversity” element, AND something else.

    2. MissBliss*

      Slightly off topic, but: I don’t know if it is still the case, but when I was graduating college (a decade ago – how???) you couldn’t really get into the Peace Corps without a Master’s. So I don’t know if that is still a path for folks, sadly!

      1. a bowl of marigolds*

        I was in the Peace Corps in 2008, and only had a BA. It’s possible that when you were applying that the recession was a factor and there were many more people with higher credentials applying for slots (and I also know that they cut back on gov’t programming during that time in a pretty big way). They’ll take somebody with an MA over somebody with a BA, of course.

        However, I do know that there are people with BAs only who have gotten accepted as PCVs within the last 5 years. So it’s definitely not MA-only. Part of my stipend requirement was speaking with students on campus (who were undergrads) about joining PC. So, well, they wouldn’t have had me do that if nobody with a BA was accepted.

        Perhaps you are thinking of Peace Corps Response? Many of those positions do want/heavily favor people with MAs.

        1. MissBliss*

          I’m glad to hear it has changed! At the time, it was definitely the regular Peace Corps, not Response. I remember looking through a LOT of listings and if I recall correctly, having a Master’s was not an explicit requirement, but through the grapevine I was hearing that you were much more likely to be selected if you had an MA than if you didn’t. It does make sense for it to have been recession related.

  16. Richard Hershberger*

    LW2: It could be worse: law school. Go to law school and literally every single one of your colleagues will have thoughts on that particular school. Every law school in the US is ranked, and the lawyers in your area will know the pecking order of the local schools. They also will have a pretty good idea of the cost, or at least the cost back when they went, because they will have looked into it for themselves.

    The good news is that, as Alison notes, once you are established in your career this doesn’t matter, or at least matters less. Yes, some will still look down their noses at lawyers who went to lesser schools, but if those lawyers have established track records of success, this is more a marker that the snob is also an idiot.

  17. Kate*

    LW1, it sounds like your boss has been like this for a while, and isn’t a change? Because at my last job, I noticed personality changes in my boss that made me suspect he was in the early stages of dementia. (He would go from kind and genial to mean, he blamed me for everything that he perceived was wrong around the office, he’d forget things I had told him the day before, he would fixate on things, etc.) About 18 months later, he was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s and retired. I hope that isn’t the case for you, and obviously I never mentioned my suspicious to my boss, but it seems like an exit plan would be prudent just in case.

    1. Slow Gin Lizz*

      I second the exit plan, because even if he has no new health issues he will, presumably, want to retire someday. Might as well find something different now, if only to get away from his paranoia.

    2. Lily*

      Dementia was my first thought as well. Not diagnosing, it’s just that I’m a nurse and I’ve seen this a lot.

  18. Maranda*

    I’m the letter writer of question #1. The boiling frog analogy is one I’ve used before! He has always been slightly paranoid but I’d say it has gotten worse the past few years. Also wanted to clarify something- all incoming emails are automatically forwarded to his email account, which I monitor bc I write emails on his behalf. So that’s why I still receive these emails he writes to the incorrect email address on his phone. Everything outgoing, he’s supposed to be CC or BCC’d on. But that’s a whole ‘nother story about him only randomly reading the flow of email… He is heavily dependent on me and while I know anyone is replaceable, I believe he would have a hard time keeping a secretary/bookkeeper in today’s climate with the work load and no one to pick up the slack. I am paid very well with benefits and that’s probably the main thing keeping me there. The same day last week as this accusation of a secret email account, I was attempting to submit the W-2s to the SSA online. He freaked out when he got an auto email for logging in, thinking that I was trying to access his personal social security info and insisted that they go to the IRS and not the SSA. I had to show him the W-4 that clearly says they are submitted to the social security administration, as I’ve been doing for many years.

    1. Keymaster in absentia*

      Ooh, okay I am starting to think he’s getting worse. That ‘you’re trying to access my personal information!’ over a simple email verification is not good, because I recognise it.

      Gentle advice: you can’t do anything to stop this. If you present him with facts it won’t matter. And while it’s nice that you’re worried that he won’t be able to find a replacement for you it’s also not what should be driving your considerations.

      You have to put yourself first. Now if you feel you can deal with continuing accusations of lying in exchange for good pay and benefits then 100% I support you. Likewise if you decide that since you can’t change his behaviour you’re better off leaving before/if he gets worse.

      Total support either way mate.

    2. Jade*

      Don’t wait until he accuses you of sabotage or stealing or something goes missing and he blames you. He can cause legal problems for you. Start looking. GL.

      1. RVA Cat*

        Seconding this. It sounds like you are running the business for him, which would be one thing if you were his daughter who would inherit it or a partner in the company – and if you were, you would be part of the decision on when he retires.

        My father worked the whole first half of his career at a family-run firm, only to be let go the moment the sons took over. That was over 30 years ago and loyalty means even less today.

    3. Pastor Petty Labelle*

      Him having a hard time finding someone to replace you is a terrible reason to stay. Unless you are taking over this business when he retires, its not your responsibility to ensure the company continues.

      You need to get out. You are overlooking all the bad things in order to find a reason to stay. Its not going to get better. You can’t reason with an unreasonable person. You can only protect yourself.

      Assuming even the best of outcomes, he realizes he is sick of all of this and decides to close the business in 2 weeks, then what?

      1. Beth*

        +eleventy billion.

        LW, it will continue to get worse, and he will look for more and more reasons to hurt you. Do you want to be looking for your next job while fighting spurious legal attacks and malicious professional sabotage? Start looking now!

      2. Observer*

        Its not going to get better.

        Not only that – it is already getting worse.

        You *really* need to protect yourself. And the fact that you are probably irreplaceable is not a reason to stay – it’s a reason to leave! Because it’s clear that your boss is fundamentally unreasonable and unwilling to pay for the help he needs. Sure, he pays you well, but he’d be paying 1.5 FTEs a substantial amount more.

        Both things are bad. In combination? It’s just a matter of time before things blow up. Get out on your own terms.

    4. Observer*

      He is heavily dependent on me and while I know anyone is replaceable, I believe he would have a hard time keeping a secretary/bookkeeper in today’s climate with the work load and no one to pick up the slack.

      Time for another job. Really. It’s nice to be needed, but are you really being paid enough for an over-loaded job PLUS the paranoia?

      It sounds like you are good at your job. Start looking.

    5. Frankie*

      If you’re providing OM, bookkeeping AND payroll processing and payroll tax reporting, I can almost guarantee you that you are underpaid. Do you reconcile the banks? This is internal accountant level work.

      1. Maranda*

        I do everything office, secretarial, bookkeeping and accounting-wise except filing the corporate tax returns, thankfully he does have a CPA for that.

    6. Sara without an H*

      Maranda, this isn’t sustainable. I asked in an earlier comment, is there a succession plan for the business when your boss is no longer able to run it, for whatever reason? If not, while you feel irreplaceable now, you may come in some morning to find the company is shutting down, and you no longer have a job at all.

      Now is the time to start looking for your next position. It sounds as though you have a lot of experience that just needs the right presentation to make you very hirable elsewhere.

      And who knows? When you give notice, it may inspire your boss to go ahead and retire.

      1. Maranda*

        That’s a good question. During the height of the pandemic I spoke with him about a business plan of succession bc, God forbid he got Covid or something bad happened, there is no one aside from himself on the checking account. I told him I was not asking to be added but to please have some sort of paperwork drafted, perhaps some sort of power of attorney? so that his wife or someone else could run the business if he wasn’t able, even if just temporarily to wind things down to a close. I don’t know if he ever did it. However he is in his mid 70s and while he’s been blessed with good health, I know that any of us could have a bad car wreck or sudden illness that changes everything. He has no plans to actually retire. He used to say he would at age 75 and he’d turn the business over to 3 of us but that didn’t happen.

        The more I write and the more responses I read, I realize this does all sound pretty bad. Another person nailed it about very small businesses can have different dynamics that wouldn’t be seen in large companies.

        1. Observer*

          Another person nailed it about very small businesses can have different dynamics that wouldn’t be seen in large companies.

          That’s true, and it can have both benefits and drawbacks.

          But one of the things that it means at this point is that unless there is something in writing about handing the company over to you, or a succession plan / backup in case he get truly disabled, etc. you are almost certainly going to get messed over one of these days.

        2. I Have RBF*

          My spouse is 72. Their health was perfectly fine… until it wasn’t. They now have a large cancerous mass in their abdomen.

          Which is to say, health in older people can change very suddenly, or be sort of declining until something tips past tolerable.

          Maybe if you find a different job they will take the hint and retire.

          1. Hobbette*

            So sorry to hear about your spouse. Sending positive thoughts for you both and Jedi hugs if you need them.

    7. H.Regalis*

      I can 100% understand staying for the money and benefits, but please be careful because his behavior could escalate. Paranoid people can make your life difficult. I have a couple relatives with moderate-to-severe paranoia (to the point where it’s messed with their ability to hold down a job, maintain relationships, etc.), and they have both reported people they know to various authoritative bodies accusing them of things like stalking, elder abuse, and incest; which prompted several months-long investigations that completely upended people’s lives. None of the stuff they accused people of was true.

      1. GreyjoyGardens*

        Someone commented below about this angle (possible false accusations of something actually illegal, if not immoral) and I hadn’t thought of that. It’s annoying to be constantly badgered about a non-existent “stealth email account,” but it’s quite another to be accused of something like fraud or embezzlement. The LW should look for another job asap.

    8. Prismatic Garnet*

      If you get perfect enjoyment and fulfillment out of this job, that’s one thing, but please try to erase from your mind any consideration for whether the business does well or poorly once you leave. That is not something you should be taking responsibility for.

      You didn’t create this business, and if he was entitled to have you stay around propping it up, no matter what, that would entail giving you full trust and authority to make decisions that are sensible. Unless you’re getting paid like the business owner, you cannot feel as responsible for the business as its owner. That’s just a mind trick to keep people tied to jobs that are not in their best interest.

  19. DJ Abbott*

    #4- for as long as I can remember, ties have represented authority. Doctors, lawyers, managers. So, if you dress the same but without the tie, that might help. It wouldn’t hurt to try it.

    1. Angstrom*

      That was my thought. Keep the dress shirt and rolled sleeves and omit the tie. It still looks professional but is one step less formal.
      As Alison said, it’d be an interesting experiment. Since you’ve joked about this with your coworkers, it might be interesting to let them know what you’re doing and see if they notice a difference in how outsiders respond to you.

      1. Richard Hershberger*

        And many lawyers nowadays dress casually: anything from business casual to Hawaiian shirt, shorts, and flip flops. In any but a very staid firm, a lawyer wearing a suit means he is going to court, or perhaps meeting with an important and old-fashioned client.

        1. Delta Delta*

          Current lawyer look: wool clogs, wool socks, sweatpants, professional blouse and cardigan. I’m appearing for court from home today – there’s no way I’m getting more dressed than this. I met with a client yesterday wearing jeans and a “dressy” sweatshirt. When I have to drag my body to court I wear something nicer, but that’s becoming the exception for me.

      2. Jay (no, the other one)*

        Old-fashioned and dangerous. Ties are vectors for disease transmission. I have some colleagues who wear bow ties, which are safer. Some hospitals now prohibit ties altogether.

        1. Throwaway*

          I think it’s important to clarify: Ties are a disease vector specifically in a medical context! I don’t think an accountant would have a higher chance if transmitting diseases if they wear a tie when meeting clients.

        2. bamcheeks*

          I didn’t realise there were still hospitals were they weren’t prohibited and bow ties and white coats aren’t usually allowed here either! The rules will be different for doctors in roles /duties where infection control is less acute, but open-necked shirt and rolled-up sleeves is the standard uniform for male hospital doctors in the UK. I used to work with medical students and newly qualified doctors and you could see the point about two months in where rolled up sleeves had become so natural that they felt physically slightly uncomfortable with their sleeves down.

          1. DJ Abbott*

            In the hospital where I worked until 2019, the Chair of the department wore scrubs to work with inpatients and a suit and tie for outpatient practice.
            Another middle-aged doctor also wore suits and ties. I don’t remember seeing any young doctors in ties.

        1. bamcheeks*

          Huh, maybe this differs by country? About 15-20 years ago there was a big push in the UK to get rid of ties, bow ties, white coats and suit jackets because they’re usually not washed regularly and they’re unhygienic. You’ll still see them in settings where infection control is less important but standard what-male-hospital-doctors-wear is a shirt with the sleeves rolled up and trousers that can go in the washing machine.

          1. Banana Pyjamas*

            Our pediatrician in the US wears a tie. His wife, a board certified neonatologist, wears a white coat sometimes. They went to medical school in Turkey, and they did their residencies at a prestigious university hospital in Chicago.

          2. UKDancer*

            Yes “bare to the elbow” is the rule for everyone in most UK hospitals (probably all UK hospitals but I’ve not been around them all) for male and female staff. It’s part of ongoing attempts to tackle MRSA and infections.

    2. PlainJane*

      Or, if you don’t want to go tie-less, try an informal tie, like a string tie, or wear it loosened around the neck.

      It would be an interesting experiment (and if you do it, I’d love an update about how it went), but I’m inclined to say “You do you” and just refer people up the line. After all, a female admin assistant who comes in wearing a nice business suit is still assumed to be the admin assistant if that’s the desk she’s sitting at, so maybe it’s time to start enforcing the idea that the same is true of a well-dressed male AA. (Though the question about the desk is another interesting one. Where are you sitting that people outside the office assume you’re in charge? If it’s at a front desk then… I am honestly puzzled. Because who assumes the boss is sitting up front? And if someone has been directed to you, then wouldn’t they already know your rank? That’s kind of a digression, but I do wonder.)

  20. I should really pick a name*

    You’re looking this through a lens of “this isn’t in my job description” and I think that’s a bit of a red herring.

    The actual situation is “if I continue to focus on X, I’m not going to be able to do Y”. That might get more traction from your boss than getting hung up on whether this work is voluntary or not.

    Also, the decision to take on a project might be voluntary, but once you’ve taken it on, it’s not unreasonable to have the expectation that you’re responsible for it from then on.

    1. Tiger Snake*

      Yes: when I read or hear about volunteering in the perspective of work projects, I expect that you’re volunteering to take on and be part of the project for its ENTIRE duration. To compare it to real volunteering it’s not the “I’ll help out on the dog pound on free weekends” type, but the “Sure I’ll join your trip to build houses or whatever” type.

      In fact, its my experience that the fact that it will take you away from your normal job duties is WHY they say they’re looking for volunteers. That way people can make the judgement to look at it and determine if they need to talk to their boss about how that will impact on their other mandatory job duties ongoing.

  21. I should really pick a name*

    A bit of a tangent, but I find the description “a small company (less than 500 employees)” interesting. I wouldn’t consider a 400 person company to a small company. I’d probably say a small company is less than 100 people.
    Curious what others’ thresholds are.

    1. Irish Teacher*

      I’d consider a small company to be…less than 20? But I think it depends on field too. Like for a doctor’s surgery, I’d consider small to be one doctor, maybe a nurse and a receptionist. 20 would be very large for that. But for a field that has a lot of multinationals, I guess an independent company with maybe 50 employees would be considered small.

      1. TX_TRUCKER*

        The USA federal government definition of small business takes an approach similar to yours. Small depends on the industry AND annual sales. Depending on the industry, small could be up to 1500 employees. If you are curious about your industry, the SBA website has an online calculator.

      2. Clisby*

        Yes – I worked for years for what I’d call a large nonprofit (about 1500 employees), but obviously that would not be a large aerospace company.

    2. BatManDan*

      He’s using US government definitions. “Small business” in the context of federal programs, classifications, statistics, etc. means less than 500 employees

      1. Antilles*

        That’s interesting, because that definition isn’t actually consistent with the way the US government applies laws.
        There’s a lot of relevant laws (FMLA, ACA health insurance requirements, affirmative action plans, compliance reporting) start to fully kick in at fifty (50) employees NOT 500.

        1. doreen*

          That’s because like most things in the US , the definition varies based on the context – and the best I can remember, a lot of laws ( possibly all) never actually use the words “small business” for exactly this reason. ( ADA applies to employers with 15 or more employees, COBRA to 20 or more, WARN for 100 or more. ) The Small Business Administration generally considers 500 or fewer employees to be a small business.

        2. Gumby*

          Sure, but kicking in at 50 employees doesn’t mean that a business with 51 employees isn’t a small business – it means it’s a small business that is above the threshold for those provisions to kick in. You can both be subject to FMLA and qualify for a small business loan from the government / get awarded SBIR projects.

          SBA does generally say small business is 500 employees or fewer. But! There are some industry-specific limits to be considered for loans and contracting opportunities that are sometimes even higher than 500. I didn’t see anything over 2,000 when scanning limits of small business size by NAICS code, but several were 1,500 or so. Or some industries determine whether you qualify based on annual receipts rather than number of employees.

    3. rebelwithmouseyhair*

      The legal definition here in France is “very small” for up to 20 and “small and medium” is between 10 and 249 employees. Yes that means your business can be both very small or small and medium if you have 15 employees.
      So basically a firm with 400 employees is pretty big even if it’s not a multi-national.

    4. Ferret*

      In the EU & UK the definitions are <250 = Medium, <50 = Small, <10 = Micro, through there are also turnover criteria. From my poitn of view 250 still seems pretty small – I work at a company with ~500 and it certainly doesn't feel "large" although I did start out at a company wit 10k uk employees so that makes a bit of a difference…

    5. Scarlet Ribbons in Her Hair*

      I worked for ten companies, five of which had ten or fewer employees. I worked in a five-person branch office at one of the other companies. A company of one hundred employees is huge!

    6. SameReaction*

      40-50 max. There’s been a definite difference in company behaviors when you hit around that number. I would consider anything >400 or so to be large, with another tier of gigantic above that for the really large places.

    7. Freya*

      In Australia, depending on the context, small business means less than 15 or less than 20 employees. Or business turnover less than $10 million.

      1. Freya*

        So if you’re talking Australian employment law, it’s <15 employees (not including contractors).
        The Australian Bureau of Statistics talks about <20 employees.
        The Australian Tax Office talks about turnover <$10 million.

  22. Phys*

    #4. I’m a woman physician. No, the man in the room dressing down will not help this. I’ve literally been in a suit + white coat and had a patient ask me “well, what does he think?” He was the janitor who had followed our team in to grab the trash. Who was wearing a janitorial jump suit. (Absolutely no disrespect to our janitors).

    1. Jay (no, the other one)*

      Co-sign. I’ve been assumed to be junior to the medical student, the pharmacist, the nurse, and any other man in the vicinity.

      The capper was the time my mother asked me for a medical opinion and then suggested I check with my husband to see if he agreed. My husband is a geologist. I said “Mom, you are not a rock.”

  23. Mimsie*

    LW4 please don’t change how you dress. I feel like dressing down, yes would be an interesting experiment, but if it “succeeds”, what a depressing outcome that bends to the unfair and inaccurate perceptions of society.
    If you feel comfortable doing so, I would love you to fight the good fight and vocally correct people in their assumptions as Alison suggests. But I get that could get tiring so maybe it’s easier to go to work in a T-shirt. But please consider it!

    1. Scarlet Ribbons in Her Hair*

      I don’t think going to work in a tee-shirt would help. At a former company, which was owned by a woman, clients often assumed that Fergus was the owner (which greatly upset the owner). I think it was because Fergus always wore a plaid sports shirt (with big pit stains), tattered-looking jeans, and a baseball cap (worn backwards). I believe they figured that since he dressed so poorly, he MUST be the owner, thinking that no one was in a position to tell him to dress better (at least wear shirts that didn’t have pit stains).

      1. JustaTech*

        Ah yes, the scientific academia clothing scale: the person who looks most like they found all their clothes in a “free” pile is the most prestigious professor with the biggest lab and largest grants.

        The person in the neatly pressed shirt and clean blazer? Grad student.

  24. English Rose*

    #4 Please don’t dress down out of solidarity with your female colleagues, although as a female worker I appreciate the thought. Be yourself in your great smart casual outfits. (But then I’m someone dresses more formally than most people are comfortable with, and yearn for the days of suits.)
    You’re a man, as others have said, people will think you’re in charge. Put them right, one at a time. But express yourself in your clothing the way you want.

    1. Observer*

      I agree.

      OP, I want to give you a ton of credit for writing in and trying to do something about this. Unfortunately, changing the way you dress is highly unlikely to change anything.

  25. rebelwithmouseyhair*

    OP 1, my former boss queried my honesty on just one occasion: I had worked overtime and was entitled to some time off in lieu of being paid for that overtime. He started saying “how do I even know that you were working that day?” I told him “I can prove it by showing you the emails to and from my personal email (because I couldn’t access my work account from home), but I won’t. If you require proof of my honesty, when you have had literally zero reason to suspect any dishonesty in the ten years I’ve been working for you, when there is literally nothing to indicate that I’ve been dishonest tracking my overtime in this or any other instance, I will simply stop doing overtime. I’ll leave at 4pm every day whether or not the work is done, and you’ll have to deal with the consequences.”
    He quickly walked that back.
    For OP, it’s trickier because she’s been taking this guy’s BS all this time, but it’s well worth asking what makes him think she might be doing that, and why, and to give her proof of her wrongdoing.
    But given how it sounds like he might be getting worse, and that it very probably won’t get any better, I’d be looking at other options. I’m sure there are plenty.

    1. The Unspeakable Queen Lisa*

      It sounds like she has, though. She mentioned he talks in circles around her. This is the thing with paranoia – it’s not coming from a rational place, it’s emotional. So proving that he’s wrong will not change anything for the better. In fact, conspiracy theorists often double-down on their belief the moment they are shown facts proving they are wrong, because it’s not about facts. And you can’t actually disprove a non-existent “fact” that they’ve made up.

  26. RH in CT*

    Yes I have experience with (bully) when I worked here before. If they were still in this department I would not be applying for this position.

    1. Cacofonix*

      That might feel satisfying to say, but it is unprofessional. Alison’s tack is the way to go here.

      1. commonsenseseometimesmakessense*

        Agreed, and I honestly do not expect the interviewer to bring up this former employee. Employers who terminate employees usually do their best to avoid any possibility of making the former employee or the circumstances surrounding their termination a topic of conversation.

  27. Ashley*

    For 1, I’d be curious the advice for job searching from that point (if OP intends to). Having been there twenty years with this person as their manager, how do you discuss leaving in interviews and explain why you (presumably) don’t want to put your boss of 20 years as a reference?

    1. Hlao-roo*

      how do you discuss leaving in interviews

      There are lots of acceptable answers to this question: looking for a change, looking for a new challenge, interested in a role that is more bookkeeping than secretarial (or vice versa).

      how do you … explain why you (presumably) don’t want to put your boss of 20 years as a reference?

      Most people accept that job candidates don’t want to share their current managers as a reference. It’s not a guarantee that the job candidate will receive (or accept) an offer, and knowing that an employee is looking for a new job can change a manager-employee relationship.

      Other people this letter-writer or someone in a similar situation can use as a reference are: managers from previous jobs, coworkers who have since left this small business, potentially long-standing clients of this small business who have interacted a lot with the letter-writer.

    2. Observer*

      how do you discuss leaving in interviews and explain why you (presumably) don’t want to put your boss of 20 years as a reference

      ~~smile~~ Well, I’ve been there 20 years. I suspect he’s not going to be thrilled with the idea.

  28. Honestly, some people’s children!*

    I graduated from an expensive private college in the mid 80s. I came from a poorish background—not poverty but sometimes adjacent. I qualified for the maximum Pell and state equivalent grants and a loan program with an income qualifier that was much cheaper than programs seem to be today. My school also gave pretty much anyone who was in the top 10% of their high school class a small scholarship. Nearly 40 years later I occasionally get a comment like “how did you afford that school”. I tell people that grants represented a higher percentage of tuition back then, which is true! I think Alison’s suggestion of just simply saying I got offered a scholarship that was very helpful is exactly what to say in that sort of situation. You’re responding without giving out personal information.

    1. GrantsAreGreat*

      yup, I got a significant grant that paid for my extremely expensive college education (which had as a condition that I couldn’t work while in school which made making up the part it didn’t cover soooooo much fun) + grant/TAship for grad school. My education (all in) would have cost close to 500k but I didn’t pay anywhere close to that.

  29. Delta Delta*

    #2 – This will pass. And in the meantime, you don’t really owe anyone any kind of explanation. You can just ignore the “omg that’s so expensive” flagellation and pivot to asking the person about their position or a project or something. I suspect the bit about how expensive the grad program is is sort of just one of those things people talk about in that city. Kind of a space-filler, like talking about the weather or the local sports team or whatever.

    I went to a Very Good University and when someone expresses similar surprise/thoughts/shock/horror/whatever, I just smile and say “Go Blue!” and move on.

    1. Banana Pyjamas*


      Also for Michigan residents, check out the Go Blue Guarantee. The school offers very robust financial assistance for residents nowadays.

  30. N C Kiddle*

    #1: this is just the reality of this job. You can’t reason him out of it, so your only options are to learn to live with it or look elsewhere. And as others have said, this sort of paranoia is often just the tip of a very worrying iceberg, so looking elsewhere is probably the smart choice.

    #4: as well as what others have said, there’s the dynamic that I know exists in academia and may well happen elsewhere too where white cis men get to dress as casual as they like but everyone else is judged if they don’t look perfectly presented. So dressing down will play into that one. Just redirecting people as it happens, even though it’s tedious, is probably the way to go.

  31. Somewhere in Texas*

    LW #2- I wonder if when people ask where you went you could just say, “I went to UNIVERSITY on a partial scholarship while working full time.” Like right out the gate lining up everything. If they push back, it’s as simple as “With their class schedules and scholarships it was the right choice for me.”

  32. Tracy Flick*

    “I am also regularly assumed to be in charge — or at least much more influential than I actually am. This happens with coworkers of all tenures, community partners, and even just contractors who show up at the building. When addressed in this way, I work hard to redirect or clarify my role.”

    I don’t think you should do this with people who are not part of your company, but when this happens internally, don’t just correct the mistake – call out the sexism! “Why did you assume that I was in charge?”

    Let it be weird, dude. They’re displaying sexist bias.

    Start documenting instances of this obvious pattern of bias, and then once you’ve got a catalog together, politely flag it to HR. Talk to your manager about it.

    “Just so you know, this is something that happens often. I take it seriously, and so I’m politely pushing back. Thank you for your support.”

    This attitude is almost certainly having a negative impact on your coworkers beyond these dismissive interactions. Having this on record could be hugely helpful.

    1. commonsenseseometimesmakessense*

      I think this approach would come across as oddly aggressive. HR cannot really do much with this information either. They can recommend bias trainings at most. But this is not behavior coming from one source. It is coming from external players as well as coworkers, and from multiple people. And you do have to consider ongoing relationships with coworkers, so, while it is good to flag it or call it out gently, it probably is not a good idea to be so aggressive about it.

      1. Tracy Flick*

        I don’t think I agree. They can’t do anything about the problem in isolation, but if there are ongoing conversations about equity, then this is actually very valuable information. If women are trying to complain about this kind of microaggression, they’re probably getting brushed off. Supporting feedback from a man who has noticed discrimination is helpful.

  33. kiki*

    For letter two, I’m wondering if the people who bring it up have more to say about the school and its cost or if they ask LW further questions about their financial situation? I wonder if it might help for LW to think reframe it in their mind as something LW’s coworkers are just saying out of habit more than they think about it with regard to LW specifically. Some things just become deeply associated with each other and become a habit to say. I’m thinking about the comedian’s mom who couldn’t mention Seth Meyers without saying “he’s so handsome.” This happens a lot with weather stuff too: “It’s hot outside today!” –> “It’s not the heat, it’s the humidity.” It becomes part of the social script– it’s not something the people saying it are thinking too much about.

    I say that just in case it helps LW not stress about this as much. Alison’s suggestions are great and a simple way to clear up that LW is not saddled with tremendous debt, but it’s also possible these people aren’t thinking too deeply about LW’s financial situation.

  34. Michelle Smith*

    LW4: Wear what you are comfortable in. No matter how well I dressed, when I walked into a criminal court room in previous jobs, I was automatically assumed to be either a defendant or a defense attorney because of my skin color and gender presentation. There is quite literally nothing you can do about implicit biases except continue to call them out and redirect people. That is how you can be an ally. Taking off your tie isn’t part of that and you do not have to dress like you do at home to try and redirect people. Use your words like you’ve been doing – far more powerful.

  35. BecauseHigherEd*

    LW 2 – that happened with my first job out of undergrad. I went to a private university with a high sticker price and, like you, had a big scholarship. Even with that, it wasn’t *inexpensive*, and I worked two jobs while going to school as well. I worked for a nonprofit where many people had worked their way through college; a few were very proud of the fact that they were NOT saving for their children’s college because THEY NEED TO PAY FOR IT ON THEIR OWN. (My dad, who did not go to college in part because his family did not have the money, would have begged to differ, but that’s another matter.) Needless to say, I got a lot of weird comments about my education. On my first day working with one woman, she flat-out asked, “Was it worth it?” Other people would make off-hand comments about how privileged I was to have my degree and how “that’s not how most people live.” Again, I was not bringing up my education, and I had a big scholarship and worked two jobs while in school.

    I eventually mentioned it to my manager, and I think she privately met with the people involved and shut it down. Some of these people had issues with boundaries in general and eventually left or did not have their contracts renewed. In the moment, I wish I’d just had the cajones to say, “Can we please not continue to bring this up? What matters is that I’m here doing my job now” or something to that effect.

  36. Kermit's Bookkeepers*

    Re #4, prepare for me to make a rash generalization based on anecdotal observation, but:

    Assuming all other things are equal. I feel like if a woman is dressed up and a man is dressed down, people may assume she’s dressed up because she’s his secretary. If a man is dressed up and a woman is dressed down, people may assume he’s dressed up because he’s her boss. I think it can be a real “heads I win, tails you lose” situation. The calculus changes based on other intersectionality (age, race, etc), but my point is that I don’t think LW #4 is going to fix this by wearing a cardigan. But I’d be real curious to see what happens if he gives it a shot!

    1. Polly Hedron*

      if a woman is dressed up and a man is dressed down, people may assume she’s dressed up because she’s his secretary.

      Yes. I used to be a software engineer. The most dressed-up women were the administrative assistants.

    2. kiki*

      Yeah, I think people’s minds come up with all sorts of ways to rationalize what’s ultimately sexism, racism, or another bias, but I do think it’s worthwhile for LW to experiment a few weeks (as long as they don’t have to buy any more new clothes to do so). I don’t know how big the dress code differential is between LW and their coworkers, but if LW is the only one business/business casual wear and everyone else is in jeans and t-shirts, I wouldn’t blame anyone for assuming he has a more senior role. That may not be the root of the assumption, but at least trying to eliminate that factor for a little bit will be interesting.

  37. Observer*

    #3 – New task

    I’m repeating a lot of what has been said.

    Firstly, it doesn’t really matter whether it’s normal to add duties. It happens all the time and sometimes it makes sense – and other time it does not. So that’s not where I would focus.

    Stop wasting time, money and effort on a “medical exemption.” Instead, ask your boss what you can drop to accommodate these new duties. Make sure you put this in writing and that it goes up the chain as well so you have this documented. If you’re hourly also start clocking all of your overtime. If you are not hourly you can still push back on unreasonable hours.

    If your boss / upper management / HR insists that you do all of this, without any reasonable accommodation for reasonableness, it’s not going to matter if you get a medical exemption. They are going to fight you on that too. So you are going to be MUCH better off documenting your head off so you are a *little* bit covered, and in the meantime look for another job.

  38. Ex-prof*

    LW #4:
    Clothes don’t matter that much when people are making assumptions.

    One time I was in a laundromat, dressed like an absolute slob because Laundry Day. I was the only White person there, amongst all of us ranged on the plastic chairs while our clothes sloshed and spun. A repair guy came in, walked straight up to me, and said “Which machine needs fixing?”

    If you dressed down, they’d probably think you can do it because you ‘re the boss.

  39. Maggie*

    Lw 4 – I don’t think you need to change what you wear, it doesn’t sound out of step with a lot of workplaces and if you like it then why change? Just correct people when they make an assumption or clarify your role.

  40. Pocket Mouse*

    #4 – I agree with others that you shouldn’t change how you dress, unless you want to (temporarily or permanently). But you shouldn’t have to work *hard* to redirect people! Once you find a short script that feels right, go ahead and use a version of it every time. An option is “Why are you asking me? I’m a [X role], the person you want to speak with is Juanita, the [Y role] and in charge of Z. Here’s her number/I’ll take you to her office.” The ‘why are you asking me’ is conversationally rhetorical, and not followed by a pause, but direct enough that it can spark people to think about their answer to it. The offer to assist may underscore that you’re in a position that assists hers. Maybe this doesn’t work perfectly for your situation, but think about the key things you want to convey in these instances that both give them the information they need and contradict their biases, and make it a habit. Thanks for being thoughtful about this!

    1. Clare*

      Alternatively “Oh, you’re not looking for me, you’re looking for Juanita, our excellent teapot painter. I’ll show you to her office”. As a man, your word carries extra weight with people, so if you, as a man in a tie, show respect for your female colleagues then other people are more likely to do so as well. Deliberately seeking out opportunities to mention your female colleagues’ expertise (in a genuine way, not a condescending way) is an easy way to have an real impact as an ally. Your word will have more impact with some people than a woman’s entire portfolio.

  41. Caramel & Cheddar*

    1) It’s certainly not a solution to the overall problem, but is it possible to update his address book so that your erroneous address isn’t in it? I don’t think this will reduce the paranoia, but at least he’ll stop sending email to the bad address.

    1. Adultiest Adult*

      Unfortunately this might not work if it’s an auto-fill error, in a program like GMail. Once an email has been sent to an incorrect address, the program will continue to suggest that as an option forever more, from what I can tell, just because an email went there once. (I once sent an email to bsmit@companyname instead of bsmi@companyname and GMail will forever remind me of my mistake, even though I have now sent dozens of emails to the correct address and have it saved.) Savvier people might make sure to always fill the address from their contacts, or just remember that it’s not the first option, it’s always the second one, but this boss doesn’t sound like he’s paying attention closely enough/has the cognitive ability to remember to do that. Plus I agree with the other commenters that this is a symptom of a larger issue… if it’s not this, it’s going to be something else!

  42. Just Thinkin' Here*

    LW#1 – I would start looking around for Plan B. I don’t know if the elderly business owner is 65, 70, or 80, but someone who is both paranoid and unable to learn 20 year old technology (emails) is probably not going to be a great manager going forward. He may be able to function doing his work out of muscle memory, but anything new that heads his way may give him trouble or a reason to re-think retirement. It’s always better to find someplace new on your own terms and if you haven’t renegotiated lately, you’ll probably walk into a raise to boot.

  43. JaneDough(not)*

    LW2, if you tell your colleagues that you received a scholarship, some of them will say something like “Wow, you’re so smart! I never could’ve gotten a scholarship.” So think about whether you’re up for that, and have a modest reply ready.

    1. JustaTech*

      Do people really assume that all scholarships are merit (smartness) based?
      When I was applying for grad schools I also looked at a lot of scholarships (small ones) that were based on personal characteristics, not grades or income. Like, one for people who could prove that they had an ancestor who fought in the Revolutionary War (my grandmother had done all the genealogy work), or for students of Scandinavian extraction studying X subject.

  44. Karma is my Boyfriend*

    LW #1: Is this a sudden, new level of paranoia? If so, it could be worthwhile to suggest to someone close to him to get a checkup. If he’s always been paranoid, thennnnn I guess I’m not sure how you stayed there this long.

  45. Nomic*

    I remember asking a boss of me, “I don’t have time for all the tasks you have given me. Which one is the highest priority?”

    His answer: “All of them”.

    I found a much better job soon thereafter, but that was such a frustrating day.

  46. LucyGoosy*

    LW 4 – I agree with Alison–it’s not because of how you’re dressed; it’s because you’re a man. I can’t tell you how many times I as a woman have been mistaken for an admin regardless of what I’ve been wearing (and, honestly, regardless of what the men around me have been wearing). In my (primarily female) department, the one male employee is consistently the most underdressed and people still assume he’s competent until they get sufficient evidence to the contrary. The key is not to change how you dress, the key is to redirect and clarify, as you do, but also to think about whether you are amplifying the voices of women you work with whether you help them be leaders in meetings, on calls, or just generally within the workplace.

    1. Green Goose*

      Slightly off topic but your comment made me remember a former admin we had. In the almost decade that I worked at my company we’ve only ever had one male office admin and the way leadership treated him so differently than the 8+ women in the role was pretty infuriating. The role required that the person rarely leave their post, a desk near the front door, and the role had to do all the menial office duties. These rules were enforced with all the women but not the one male admin. He would leave his post all the time to the point that it caused issues, and one time I encountered an angry client who had gotten into the building and stopped me on the way to the bathroom.
      (We worked at a location that clients did not go to, it was the HQ and clients only went to branches so it was very surprising)
      I was looking around for the admin as this woman was complaining to me, and not really letting me go to the bathroom, and I eventually got her to leave. When I mentioned it to the admin he literally laughed it off like I was telling him a funny story. He would laugh light heartedly when he didn’t do things that were part of his job, and never made coffee or cleaned the kitchen which all his predecessors and subsequent admins were required to do. And… we work in an office with an all female leadership team. The C-Suite member who was particularly harsh on the women, never reprimanded the guy once and he was truly the worst at the job. I was relieved when he resigned.

  47. Green Goose*

    I don’t think it’s bragging to mention scholarships, I think of it as information sharing. I’m in a sort of similar situation because I got my masters degree in England (I’m American and live in the US) and people automatically assume that it was frivolously expensive/or really tough to get into. Before I applied for my graduate programs I had only heard of Oxford and Cambridge and I was not eligible for either school and they are also quite expensive but I was surprised and a bit saddened to learn that it was less expensive for me to be an international student in pricey England than for me to live at home and go to a state school program in my home state. Also, my English university was very generous with scholarships for international students so I ended up not needing to take out loans to attend, which is not the reality of a masters of education at most US universities.

    I like sharing the surprising lower cost option, because most Americans I talk to about my experience didn’t even consider getting a degree abroad and there are so many countries that offer fully English masters programs that cost a fraction of the US price.

    Since your scholarship enabled the program to be affordable you could share the information with colleagues who may have younger siblings/friends who might apply for that scholarship.

  48. HonorBox*

    OP1 – Didn’t read all the comments so I apologize if this was addressed before. But do you have IT on site? Or do you have an IT company that provides support? Either way, perhaps they could walk him through the setup of your emails and help him to change the incorrect email address of yours he has in his phone. Not that it should have to be this way, but perhaps an outsider explaining the situation and his error will come across as “expert.”

  49. Catabodua*

    LW1 – I hope the reply and comment section help you realize it’s time to get out / move on. Which is so, so hard sometimes. But I’m worried that his paranoia will shift to accusing you of fraud or other financial malfeasance and he can destroy your chances of finding a new job. Or worse, place you in a position where you are defending yourself to law enforcement and the courts.

    My father drifted into deep paranoia in his last years. He also struggled with his phone and was convinced that I was blocking his ability to make phone calls because I updated the settings so that his phone wouldn’t ring after 11pm and before 7am.

    He told everyone he could about how much money I was stealing from him. The level of record keeping I had to maintain once my dad said that to his priest, who then reported it to the state’s elderly abuse hotline … Please keep yourself safe.

    1. GreyjoyGardens*

      I hadn’t thought of that possibility. My dad got Lewy Body dementia in his last years, and he was paranoid and accusatory, but (perhaps fortunately!) he lived in a care home and did not have a priest, so I never got reported to an elder abuse hotline.

      But you are right, though it’s not LW’s fault, and it is the sad side effects of what might be their boss’s dementia, LW1 should keep the best paper trail they can and document document document, just in case Boss escalates from “secret email account” (annoying, but harmless) to “LW1 is committing fraud” (which you do not want to have to defend yourself against).

      1. Catabouda*

        Sorry that you went through something similar. It’s so hard. My father was also in a facility. The priest came through weekly to give communion.

        1. Adultiest Adult*

          My grandma had Lewy Body dementia and it makes me sad to remember how she degenerated into paranoia and anger because of it. It is so hard! Our family realized our vulnerability to a similar reporting situation when one of my aunts was driving my grandmother to an out of state wedding a few days after she’d tripped at home and fallen on the tile kitchen floor, bruising her face and her eyes and spraining her wrist. My grandma became frustrated with my aunt for some reason and started accusing her of pushing her around–I think she actually said, “You’re trying to get rid of me!” in the middle of a crowded highway rest stop. My aunt said, “Ma, you can’t talk like that, they’ll take you away!” and luckily my grandmother stopped, but it was a sobering moment for the family as they realized that her paranoia was escalating to the point that it might have consequences for the rest of the family.

  50. Abundant Shrimp*

    #5 – I had a mean neighbor once. We didn’t interact a lot, but he made my family’s lives difficult. The only time he and I did talk, the talk ended with him telling me to mind my own business and shutting the door in my face. (He was playing music through his outdoor speakers, while inside himself, past the noise-ordinance evening cutoff, and we had to wake up early for work and summer camp the next morning. I asked him to turn the outdoor music off, or at least down, because we could not sleep – one of the speakers was just a few feet from our bedroom windows, that were open for fresh air.) After six years of living side by side like that, he passed away suddenly and in a way that brought news crews to our street. The reporters tried asking me about him and before I could even think it through, “I didn’t know him that well, we never spoke” came out of my mouth and the reporters then went off to bother my other neighbors on the (short, dead-end) street. When the news articles came out, it became evident that everyone on the street had given them that same answer. It was a new street that had been rebuilt 20 years prior, with old houses torn down and new, larger ones all built at around the same time, his house had been one of the first to have been built on the street, and most of the people had been living there since then or at least for a long enough time – there was no way nobody on our little street had ever talked to that guy. He just seemed to have had ruffled a lot of feathers, and “we didn’t know him at all” seemed to be everyone’s go-to answer. Perfectly fine for you to give! And if the interviewers manage to read it between the lines, that’s on them.

    1. Observer*

      And if the interviewers manage to read it between the lines, that’s on them.

      I don’t think anything is “on” anyone. It’s reasonable to come to that conclusion. But I also, I can’t imagine any sensible interviewer taking this badly. After all, being able to react to an uncomfortable question with some discretion is a valuable skill in almost any position.

    2. Deann Troi*

      I disagree that you should say this and I also disagree with Alison’s “We did overlap some of the time I was there, but I don’t know her well.” The OP said this person was “my former lead.” To me, this means there was a formal relationship where the OP had to work under or do work assigned by this person. They didn’t just overlap, and if someone is someone else’s lead, it is disingenuous to act like they didn’t really know each other. If I were the interviewer and I knew somehow that one had been the lead for the other (and if it is a small industry like mine, they very well might know this), I would find an answer that tries to obscure the fact that they had this relationship to be problematic.

  51. Throwaway Account*

    For #2, my mind went right to library school and that feels like it changes things a bit.

    If this was for an MLIS, getting a scholarship is relatively rare and does feel like bragging, especially to folks who keep bringing up the school and the cost. It is like saying you are better than they are.

    I might agree with them when they say University X is expensive. “Yes, it has the reputation of being expensive! I think people don’t realize that with their scholarships, the cost is about the same as the Other Universities.”

    In other words, people don’t know. It is not, OP has more money or is much smarter.

  52. NewLibrarian*

    Hi, I’m the OP. And yes, it was as MLIS, you’re the first commenter to even guess the degree, and you were right! I also found out during school that they do give out some form of scholarship to about 66% of MLIS students (I’m not sure of how many students get what amount of tuition covered though).

    I don’t know much about MLIS degree financing around the country since I only considered local schools, but the private school I went to only offered masters degrees, no PhDs in any fields, so maybe that made them more likely to offer funding to masters students.

  53. Lizzianna*

    I supervised an office with a bunch of men in an industry that is male-dominated, so I’m pretty used to people assuming that my team members are in charge.

    Honestly, the best thing you can do in those situations is just to cheerfully correct them and re-affirm the roles on the team. “You need to check with Liz, she’s the lead on this project.” Or physically turning to me and saying, “Liz, you’re the project lead. Do you want to respond?”

  54. Destra N.*

    For LW #2:

    Is it possible to set the FirstNameA address up as an alias that automatically forwards to your correct address? As an example, I used to work at a company that gave me a Firstname@ address, but everyone there knew me as Nickname, and so they would try to email me at Nickname@ instead, which inevitably bounced. One department head (who also was responsible for IT matters) got so frustrated by it that he set it up as an alias (without asking me, but I didn’t mind and honestly still find it hilarious), meaning that both Firstname@ and Nickname@ ended up in the right place. They never did that for anyone else, just me, and it totally solved the issue.

    1. Orv*

      If the CEO is paranoid that they have a secret email address, making the supposed secret address real doesn’t seem like it would improve the situation.

  55. Belle8bete*

    Paranoid email boss: My dad got like this. Turns out he has Lewy Body Disease. It’s not as well known as it should be, so although there’s an excellent chance that’s not happening here, everyone should go look it up and know what it is.

    1. GreyjoyGardens*

      My sympathies; my dad had it too, secondary to Parkinson’s, and he got a LOT like Paranoid Email Boss, as well. I was stealing from him, his friend and former co-worker was stealing from him, he wanted back tax forms so that he could make sure the IRS was not after him. He also hallucinated stuff like a cat in his room (Dad did not have a cat), my grandma (who was dead for decades) in his room, etc. Awful, awful disease.

      Boss could well have dementia of some kind. It’s obviously not up to LW to treat or deal with, just maybe know that it’s not you, it’s not even him, it might just be his brain.

      1. Belle8bete*

        And it’s very hard to get those with dementia to understand they have it—which makes sense because the brain is malfunctioning, it’s a merry go round of difficulty.

  56. Orv*

    #3: My experience is that if I do something once, it becomes an expected part of my job in the future. This has taught me to say “no” a lot more often at work.

  57. Mmm.*

    I was a teacher, and even the male gym teachers, in their shorts and tees, were assumed to be in charge. We female teachers often found them to be change-makers regarding those assumptions. They usually said, in a lighthearted way, something like “oh, thankfully, I’m not in charge. Ms. XYZ is the real MVP around here!” However, there were times when they addressed it head on, asking “why do you think I’m the boss?” It depended on the situation.

    That said…lose the tie, if you’re wearing one. And switch to comfort shoes, if you can. It just makes life much easier (and back problems less likely, regarding shoes!) to be a bit more relaxed if the rest of your environment is.

    And if you’re a teacher of tweens and teens, keep an eye out for those schoolkid crushes, especially if you’re still dressing like this. It’s a hard balance, caring about the kids and having them misinterpret it!

  58. Marzipan Shepherdess*

    LW2: This, alas, is why many savvy employees who’ve seen which way the wind blows in their companies do NOT volunteer to go above-and-beyond what’s necessary for them to keep their jobs. Too many have seen the following scenario play out when others have stepped up to do more than their job requirements:
    1. Volunteer’s manager is pleased and compliments Volunteer on their initiative.
    2. Manager begins to count on Volunteer to always perform above-and-beyond (a&b) task(s).
    3. Manager assumes that no one else needs to learn to do Volunteer’s a&b task(s).
    4. When/If Volunteer wants to pull back on doing a&b tasks, Manager is aghast.
    5. When Volunteer finally states that they can no longer do the work of two people, Manager is
    enraged and unloads their fury on Volunteer.

    I’ve seen this play out all too often; invariably, other employees pull back from their commitment to help out and become cynical, seeing Volunteers as exploited, gullible or both. Way to tank morale, Managers!

    1. GreyjoyGardens*

      I’ve seen it too. It makes me not volunteer, because, well, I’m not gullible! (Or at least I hope not!). If volunteering is looked upon as for suckers and/or patsies, then nobody is going to step up and volunteer.

      I *am* concerned for the LW saying that their volunteering requires a lot of physical exertion. I worry that LW could injure themselves. Could LW get a doctor’s note excusing them? I know that sounds like school, but it might help the LW dial back on the burdensome volunteering.

    2. Orv*

      I learned to say “no” after a job where they kept firing people and adding their responsibilities to mine. Eventually I was basically doing two and a half jobs for the pay of one. After I burned out and left, they had to hire two people to replace me.

  59. Annalee*

    For LW5 (whose lead was a bully): I wouldn’t worry too much about this. I actually wouldn’t suggest saying you didn’t know her, because for an internal role it’s too likely that they’ll already know (or will find out) that you worked closely with her. At large companies the hiring manager will have access to internal work history that will look familiar to them from when they hired your former lead. Even if they don’t, they might reach out to contacts on or near your old team.

    But as a hiring manager, if I knew (and cared) that someone used to work with someone I/my team had fired (or just wondered if they had), I would definitely not ask “do you know X?” The prohibition against trashing former colleagues/bosses in interviews is way too strong for that question to give me any useful signal about the candidate. It’d just put them on the spot for no reason.

    I’d actually be more concerned that the candidate would have an impression of me/my team that I’d want to clear up. If I/my team hired them, that tells you potentially way more about us than working under them tells me about you, and I’d want to diplomatically clear up any wrong impressions.

    So as the manager, I’d prep for interviewing you in the following ways:

    1. I’d have an answer ready if you asked about the fired person. If you asked something like “X was the best lead ever, why did they leave?” I’d say something like “Can you tell me what you admired about their leadership?” to find out if you admired their toxicity or were unaware of that. If you said anything that even hinted in the direction of “I hope you won’t hold working with them against me,” I’d say something about how we always assess candidates on their own merits.

    2. If I had concerns about how your last team operated based on what I’d heard from the fired employee, I’d ask some questions that would help me assess how much you and the fired employee had in common, and would give you a chance to differentiate yourself without trashing on them directly. That are “tell me about a time…” questions and “knowing what you know now, is there anything you’d change about how OldTeam did [blah]” questions. Since you’re at a different company now I might ask if there’s anything about their culture or leadership style you’d love to see at OurCompany.

    3. I’d probably lay it on a little thicker than normal when telling you about the team’s culture to counter any impression you might have that we either hired X because we like bullies or fired X because we, idk, “can’t handle honesty” or whatever. I wouldn’t want to miss out on a good candidate because they thought we tolerated bullying, and I’d want to scare off candidates who were attracted to the role because they thought people like X thrive on my team.

    4. I’d make sure to book enough time for you to ask me questions about any of the above. I’d expect you to have some questions about team culture, and if you asked me questions that made your old team sound horrific, I would not hold it against you. (I once had an internal-ish candidate ask how often BigBoss screams at the team. What I said out loud was, “that has literally never happened, and if it did, I’d be on the phone with BiggerBoss and HR immediately.” What I thought was, “well I guess the rumors about your current boss are true.” It did not affect their candidacy).

    All that said, if a candidate did flat out told me “I don’t know her” about someone I’d fired for bullying, then even if I knew or later discovered that they worked closely with the person, I would not think “that candidate is a liar.” I would think “that candidate knows better than to trash former colleagues, even when those former colleagues have it coming.”

    Don’t worry about this.

    1. Colin Watson*

      Yep, all this. Also: I’d expect there to be a decent chance that if they’d fired somebody for bullying then a bunch of people who’d worked with the bully would be doing their best to forget that they ever existed and certainly wouldn’t ask a candidate about them a year down the line. (Not that that’s necessarily the best thing to do, just that it’s somewhat probable.)

  60. Umami*

    For the master’s degree, I think an answer of just ‘I know, right?’ is all that is needed. I wouldn’t overthink why people say it, they probably just see it as a bonding statement to commiserate about.

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