I’m scared of hiring my first employee, an email squabble, and more

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

1. Was I wrong in this email squabble?

I have a question about a little email tussel I recently ended up in. I am a contractor for a professional services agency and was working on a project for a client. Part of my work includes using a third party to upload documents to a publishing site. This was my first time working with the third party in any capacity. Last week, I sent the required documents to the contact at the service (“Pat”) and asked for an update when the content was uploaded. They did acknowledge the email and said they would send an update once it was completed.

To make a long story short, Pat helped with uploading documents from a different (but related) project, and when I asked about the original request, I was met with pushback about never receiving documents related to the project (despite the email chain being named after the project). It was so blatantly wrong and strange that I began questioning myself, but a coworker also on the email chain acknowledged that Pat seemed disorganized, so I surmised that it must not be me. I sent the documents again to Pat two more times before the weekend, and each time was either ignored or they said that they did not receive anything from me when I asked for an update.

Eventually, on Monday morning, the client mentioned that they still did not see the documents uploaded. I reached out to Pat for an update, to which they said again that they never received anything from me and to send a new email with the attachments. I did as requested and included screenshots of all the emails I had sent to Pat the previous week with a note “in case they wanted to investigate.” It felt a little petty as I was sending it, but I was annoyed.

Pat replied back, “Obviously I am getting your emails but I never got one related to (Project name). Make sure you’re sending to the right recipient.”

Once they had confirmed completion of the upload, I sent them a screenshot of my original email including the “to” line showing that it did indeed go to them and said I appreciated their help. Pat’s tune changed significantly after that, and while they didn’t apologize, they said they would look into it more and they were glad we were able to complete the project.

If it matters, I am a woman in my late 20s and from what I can tell, Pat is a man in probably his 50s. While I felt petty sending screenshots of everything, this seemed like a very strange situation (could he not go back to the original email?) and I didn’t feel like being pushed around or apologizing for something I didn’t do. My director and coworker were also cc’d on all of the communications. Would love your insight on if I handled this appropriately!

Pat’s the problem, not you.

It’s one thing to miss an email, but before chastising someone to “make sure you’re sending to the right recipient,” you’d think he’d first go back and confirm that he really didn’t get the email.

I do think it was overkill on your side to send screenshots of all the emails you’d sent Pat the previous week, rather than just the one in question. Sending just the one in question probably would have solved the whole thing and not dragged out the interaction quite as much.

But again, you weren’t the problem.

2. I’m about to hire my first employee and I’m freaking out

I set up a nonprofit organization last year which has grown beyond the point where I can keep delivering everything on my own. There are two other directors on the board but they are both employed elsewhere, so other than quarterly board meetings I do the vast majority of the work. Thanks to grant funding and trading income, the organization can afford to employ someone part-time to take over some of the core delivery so that some of my time is freed up to work on developing and growing the business, and making it sustainable for the long term.

I’ve been through the recruitment process, I’ve got a preferred candidate and a second choice, interviews are done, references contacted, offer letter and contract (we’re in the UK) are all drafted with guidance from a HR consultant … and I am absolutely terrified of actually calling the candidate and making the offer.

I think I’m paralyzed by the weight of responsibility that being someone’s manager and employer involves. I have literally never been anyone’s supervisor or manager before. I’ve had a lot of managers, good and bad, and have a fairly good idea of what kind of manager I want to be, but the terror is getting in the way.

If I don’t hire this person, or at least A person, I will not be able to sustain the company. There’s so much potential and so much demand for what we offer, and the only way to realise that is to employ someone who is not me to do some of it. So why am I so scared? And what can I do? I told the applicants I’d make a decision last week. I’ve already updated them that there’s a delay, but I really do need to finalize the hiring decision this week, not least because I need them in role asap so that I can shift my focus to a large and important project starting in mid-July (which will involve hiring more staff).

This is hard to answer without knowing exactly what you’re afraid of, but if it’s really just the weight of being someone’s boss … well, honestly, you’re going to mess it up at some point, probably multiple points, because that’s what we all do. You’re not going to be perfect. You’re going to learn on the job, and it’s sometimes going to be messy. (This pep talk sucks, sorry!) But this is how you learn to do it. As long as you commit to a few basic principles at the outset — clear communication, getting aligned on expected outcomes, a coaching mentality, a bias toward transparency, and a view of the other person as a partner rather than a peon — you’re going to be fine. The other person is going to be fine. You’ll both figure it out. Commit to talking about it if that’s not happening.

But also, consider some training on how to manage people effectively — the nitty-gritty, “what does this look like day-to-day” of management. (I have conveniently written a book about exactly that and it’s even targeted toward nonprofit managers, so here you go.)

Also! Make sure you have a clear role description and list of outcomes the person will be responsible for achieving, and a training plan (at least an organized outline) for what you’ll need to cover with them to get them acclimated and equipped to contribute. You’ll feel better if you have those things. But from there … all you can really do is jump in.

advice for new managers

3. Interviewer asked, “What would your detractors say about you?”

I’ve interviewed twice for the same agency over the span of several years. Both interviews included the same question: What would your detractors say about you?

The question has actually turned me off a bit from working for that agency. How do you advise answering a question like that?

It’s really just the old “what are your greatest weaknesses?” in disguise — or at least you can answer it that way. If you’ve had 360 feedback and you’re comfortable talking about something from that, you can do that and cite it as the source. But either way, the framing should be the same as for the “weaknesses” question — something you’re not as strong in combined with what you’ve done/are doing to work on it.

4. Should I say my coworker is the reason I’m leaving?

I am planning to jump ship from my current position due to my hostile coworker. She belittles me and tokenizes my identity on a daily basis and reacts poorly to both constructive feedback on her poor judgement for managing relationships with outside community partners and simple requests such as turning off her phone volume in a shared office space or using Teams for work-related discussion instead of text. She is also a terrible writer (a key job requirement), so I end up having to rewrite much of her work.

I am 100% leaving this position due to her conduct and I feel it’s important to tell leadership. I already discussed my coworker’s behavior with my manager and there has been little change. Leadership’s main concern is finishing the project we were hired to implement. My coworker’s and my positions are temporary, project-based positions, so it is highly unlikely this coworker would stay on. Would I look like the petty, aggrieved employee for sharing my true reasons for leaving or should I keep it neutral and say, “I found a position that’s a better fit for my career goals”?

There’s no point in getting into a lengthy dissection of your coworker’s behavior, but if your manager is the one asking, there’s no reason you can’t say, “It’s no secret that I’ve found Jane very difficult to work with.” If the person asking is higher up, you can share, “I’ve encountered a lot of difficulties working with Jane, which I’ve shared with Manager. I don’t want to rehash it at this point, but it ended up seeming like the right choice to simply move on.” I wouldn’t get into it beyond that — you’re leaving, and that gives them enough bread crumbs to follow if they care to.

One exception: If I’m understanding correctly that Jane subjected you to harassment or discrimination based on your race, religion, sexual orientation, or other protected class, you should spell that out, along with the fact that your boss didn’t act on it when you reported it (that part is crucial). They need to hear that, even if they don’t care about the rest of it.

5. How to raise your rates as a freelancer

Is there a good way to raise your freelancer rates with your existing clients? I haven’t raised my rates in a long time because of The Fear of never getting any work ever again. I am now pretty sure that I am undercharging. My instincts are all saying “only raise by a really small amount!” “Give them three months notice before the rate rises kick in!” But those are the same instincts that led me to not raise my rates for years so I am not sure I should trust them!

Also, do I need to give a reason for raising my rates? Or do I just state that they are going up? I was planning to say, “Due to rising costs, I will need to raise my rates from 1 September to xxx/hour or xxx/day.” As I am a freelancer writer, they may ask what costs. But, honestly, the price of coffee, my most important business expense, has shot up so I am telling the truth!

In general, you shouldn’t raise your rates only by a small amount out of fear; you want to raise them to a level that’s in line with the market and which means you won’t be undercharging. At the same time, freelancers also have to be realistic about clients’ budgets and what price point they’ll accept, and how willing you are to potentially lose some clients over a price hike. (Ideally, you’d be willing to lose some, since it will open up space for clients who can pay what your work is worth — but obviously that gets into what you can and can’t afford, how much risk tolerance you have, and how large of an increase we’re talking about.) It’s more art than science.

You don’t need to give a reason and I wouldn’t say it’s “due to rising costs.” You can just let people know they’re increasing and to what. Giving two to three months notice is good practice. You can also note that you haven’t raised your rates in the X years you’ve worked together.

update: are we supposed to accept “touch” as an “appreciation language” at work?

Remember last week’s letter-writer whose company was doing a session on the “five languages of appreciation in the workplace” which for some inexplicable reason included “touch”? Here’s the update.

The meeting came and went, so I thought I’d update you. Our team is hybrid with some people fully remote, so the meeting was fortunately not in-person. There are fewer than 20 of us on the team.

The person leading the five appreciation languages was the head of another team in our division, so most of us knew her but hadn’t worked with her before. She began by talking about how much she loves the framework and it’s her favorite, and that the relationship one is also amazing, and then moved into explaining the five languages. For each one, she asked us to comment in the chat if we thought it as one of our languages. People were very active for the first four.

Then she got to “Touch” and she quickly said that she knew some people might be intimidated to say it was one of their appreciation languages, so she would pipe up first about it being an important one to her in order to break the ice. There was continued silence. Hoping to draw out fellow “Touch” people, she started telling us that at her last workplace people were very into hugging and back pats, but here it seems like more of a handshake/fist bump place, and that made her kinda sad. Still silence from all of us. She decided to interpret that as people not feeling comfortable to admit to Touch being their language, but then mercifully moved on to some exercises around the other four languages.

The training was somewhat useful–I learned some valuable insights into how various coworkers like to get words of appreciation (some in public, others not, some with lots of detail, others with just a simple “thank you”). And I also now feel confident that even if one of my coworkers really was hiding their preference for touch (which I doubt), no one in my office thinks touching is an appropriate way to show appreciation in the workplace.

I’m supposed to fire my husband’s ex-wife

A reader writes:

I have recently accepted a job I am excited about. I have been working a long time to get to this level of position. I am taking a week off before starting my new position.

While I was interviewing for the new position, they mentioned that one of my potential direct reports, Maude, had only been at the company for three weeks and they were discovering she is a bit more “self-taught” than she and her resume indicated, and that I would likely need to give her a lot of coaching/direction and possibly let her go. They mentioned this because if she is going to be go, they want it to be in her 90-day probationary period, which would give me about a month to assess and coach her.

When I went for my second interview, it really was just so I could meet all team. Maude happened to be out that day, so I didn’t meet her.

Today a VP was in town and asked if I wanted to meet at the office and go to lunch since she will be back at her home office on my first day. Over lunch, she mentioned again that Maude was not able to do the work at the level they were expecting, and she feels strongly that Maude is going to have to go. As we returned from lunch and were saying our goodbyes I noticed through the glass doors some of the people I had met who would be on my team, and saw another woman walking with them.

That woman is my new husband’s ex-wife.

As soon as I got home, I did a little digging, and she is Maude. She is the person who will be reporting to me who is “self-taught.” I know her entire resume is a lie — my husband told me, and I know her job history has been a lot less stable than her online resume and LinkedIn profile indicate.

What do I do? I don’t think it is appropriate for me to be the one to coach her, manage her, and certainly not fire her. I would be 100% able to give her a fair shot, but if I do have to let her go, it is going to be perceived as some sort of … crazy new wife thing!

What and when do I tell my new company? I would be willing to postpone my start date by one week, but beyond that…? I don’t think it is fair to show up on day one and have Maude find out then I am her new boss, and I don’t want to be the one to tell her.

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

I think my nanny candidate used a fake reference

A reader writes:

I’m looking for a part-time nanny for my young daughter. I posted on a reputable online job board that connects parents and caregivers, and I received several applications. One of them, a young woman I’ll call Aurora, quickly became my top candidate. She had great experience, special expertise, and her caregiving philosophy matched mine. Her phone interview went great and our in-person meeting went well. She gave all the right answers.

There were a couple of hiccups. There was, at one point, a long pause in communication — so long that I thought she ghosted me. But when she reached back out, she said there had been a sudden family emergency and she apologized. She also very quickly provided me with one reference, a former coworker, but it took her much longer to provide a reference from a parent she’d previously nannied for.

Her coworker reference was good, no problems. But her parent reference … Well, the person on the phone sounded very young to have school-age children. I didn’t think to ask her about it at the time, and I’m not even sure how I would have worded such a question. But it kind of ate at me. So before I offered Aurora the job (I was literally about to text her), I decided to just do a quick search.

The parent reference has a highly unusual name and was easily findable on social media. As far as I can tell, she has no children. (No pictures of any, no mentions, no posts or connections to anything parent-related. She gives thanks for her boyfriend and dog but not her kids.) Aurora and the parent reference routinely like each other’s posts. And I found a photo of Aurora, her coworker reference, and her parent reference posing together as part of a friend group, all of them in their early to mid twenties.

I mean, maybe this is explainable? Parent reference had kids very young and keeps silent about them on social media? They’re both friends and former employer/employee? But I’m a researcher by nature and training — I’ve built my career on finding information and weeding fact from fiction — and this feels icky.

What do I do? Ask Aurora about it directly? (But if this is innocent, I’ll look like a loon and blow the best candidate I’ve got.) Ask her for a third reference? (But am I going to trust that?) Just drop her and say I’m going in a different direction? I’m lost. Help!

I’d be highly suspicious too. And you can’t trust someone with something as high-stakes as your kids’ care once you suspect they’re lying about something as fundamental as a reference.

So. Did she have multiple child care jobs listed on her application? If so, one option is to ask to be put in touch with references from those too. It’s always okay as a reference-checker to ask, “Can you put me in touch with your manager from X job?” Candidates sometimes bristle at that advice to employers — but your situation illustrates why it’s so important to feel comfortable doing it. Sometimes the reference(s) the candidate proactively offered seem off. Sometimes they’re not people who can speak to the specific things you’re interested in learning about. And to be clear, sometimes there’s a legitimate reason why the candidate would prefer not to connect you (they left on bad terms, etc.), and then that can be discussed — but it’s reasonable on your end to ask.

Another option is to just ask Aurora about it: “I did speak to Valentina Picklebrush, but I wasn’t sure if I had the right person — she sounded quite young. I just want to confirm: she has school-age kids that you nannied for?” She’s probably not going to confess on the spot, but her response might push you more in one direction or the other.

But unless something happens that puts this completely to rest for you — like, I don’t know, it turns out that Valentina’s daughter answered her phone and posed as her mom for laughs, and the real Valentina speaks with you and it’s clear she is indeed a parent who employed Aurora — which is pretty unlikely — then I think you’ve got to pass on Aurora. The stakes are too high.

manager who makes too many assumptions, spending sick leave in Cancun, and more

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

1. I manage a manager who makes too many assumptions about everything

I manage a manager, Jane, who openly for all to hear assumes motivations for our clients, consumers, and employees on everything. It’s not only unhelpful, but it also is incorrect. For example, we had a project that was having some difficulties and Jane said in a team meeting, “Oh, they’re going to ask us to work the weekend,” when this was never mentioned. It not only put all others in the meeting on their heels and made them nervous, but it also made it seem like our clients were overly demanding. They never asked us to work through the weekend, nor did we need to. Her throwaway comment stressed a lot of employees out and also put our client in a false bad light.

Another example is when an employee Jane manages asked about a glitch she found on a project when she was reviewing it. I had more interaction with the glitch, so I asked her to compile all the feedback she received from different individuals experiencing the glitch, and then we could look at it as a whole. In response, Jane said, “It must have been a one-off situation,” but it wasn’t. There were a lot of people who experienced it, and we needed to come up with a solution – but her comment downplayed the seriousness. I appreciate if she was trying to bring levity, but she is always interjecting assumptions without any basis, and it’s not helpful at all. How do I approach this without knocking the wind out of her sails? Other than this, she does good work – but her additional anecdotes are becoming a lot to piece through.

Name the pattern! And explain that people put a lot of weight on her comments because she’s a manager, and so she needs to be more thoughtful about not making throwaway comments that people are taking seriously or rushing to conclusions without first asking questions. For example: “I’ve noticed a pattern recently that I want to bring up to you. You’ll sometimes make what I think you’re thinking of as a throwaway comment, not one you’ve necessarily thought through or expect people to act right away on. But because you’re a manager, your words carry a lot of weight — and when you haven’t thought through what you’re saying and are working from an assumption that you haven’t taken the time to confirm, it can send people down the wrong path, stress them out unnecessarily, or leave them with the wrong impression. For example (supply examples).”

Obviously, you don’t want the result of this conversation to be that she clams up and never speaks again because she’s afraid of doing what you’ve described, so there’s going to be some art in working with her on this. And it’s unlikely that a single conversation will solve it — but it will flag the issue and provide the framework to make it easier to talk with her about it when you see it happen the next time. It’s likely going to be an ongoing process of coaching (because at its core it’s about judgment), and you’ll need to talk through what she should be doing instead (asking more questions, probably), but this framework should help you name what you’re seeing and why it’s a problem.

2. Was it inappropriate for an employee of a client to invite me for drinks?

When I was 20, I worked at a consulting firm. I worked for a client overseas and worked mainly with a team, but occasionally I had to interact with other employees of our client company. One of those times, a female employee really appreciated some help I gave her and we talked a bit. She mentioned that she would be in my city for a work trip and that we could go out for some drinks if I wanted.

I felt a bit uncomfortable and didn’t answer and then we both pretended nothing had happened. I didn’t want to meet because I thought it would be weird (we really didn’t know each other and I suspect she didn’t know how young I was — she never saw my face) but I also felt it wouldn’t be appropriate. As a man, I didn’t want anyone in my company to think I was trying to hook up with employees of our client (even if this wasn’t the case; I think she was just being friendly). This happened many years ago and while I praise myself for my caution I still wonder if I was right in thinking this was inappropriate.

It doesn’t sound particularly inappropriate; people often meet up for drinks when they’re traveling through the city of someone they work with. I’d assume she was just being friendly and/or networking. If she’d kept pushing you to meet up after you’d declined, that would have been inappropriate — but it sounds like she just suggested it, you didn’t take her up on it, and that was that. Which is also fine! You’re under no obligation to agree to invitations if you don’t feel comfortable or just don’t want to go. Ideally, though, you should decline gracefully — citing other plans is an easy way to do it — so that no one feels awkward about it.

3. Coworker wants to spend sick leave in Cancun

I have a coworker who’s having a medical procedure done and is taking a week to recover. The second week he’s going to Cancun but wants to include that as sick time, not PTO. Can he do that? It seems like if he’s well enough to fly, it should be considered vacation.

It’s possible for someone to be well enough to fly but not well enough to work — depending on the physical and mental demands of the job, and also on what recovery entails (i.e., being laid up in bed is different from just being too mentally fuzzy from painkillers to work). But most employers are going to be awfully skeptical of someone submitting sick time while declaring they’re spending a week in Cancun. Your coworker is pretty much asking for pushback on it.

That said, if you don’t manage him/aren’t in HR and his absence isn’t going to significantly impact you, it’s not really your business and you shouldn’t get involved.

4. My new boss is in my D&D group

I work for a government organization with many departments. During the pandemic, a few semi-official hobby groups were created to allow people across different departments to socialize, including but not limited to a book club and a D&D group. They still exist “post-pandemic” and I’ve been part of the D&D group for about a year. We don’t meet during work hours, and we avoid discussing work during gaming sessions.

Earlier this year I interviewed for a higher position in a different department, and just got the news that I got the job! During the process, after I’d already interviewed, a new person joined the D&D group, and it turns out she’s going to be my supervisor for this new position. She’s fairly new to the position herself.

I know from past letters that you’ve cautioned people about getting too casual with their supervisors and reports, and because of the nature of tabletop RPGs, the group is pretty informal with each other. What’s the best way to avoid any professional missteps or awkwardness when my supervisor and I are pretending to be wizards together in our off hours?

I can’t speak to D&D-specific missteps (although I bet some readers can in the comments) but assuming you’re, you know, a reasonably well-behaved person and not the boor of the group, this is more of a potential landmine for your manager than for you. She’s got to be thoughtful about ensuring that others on the team don’t feel you’re getting special access to her or that work conversations are happening during these get-togethers that they’re not included in. You don’t need to manage that for her, though; that’s hers to navigate.

5. Asking for a raise: a success story

I wanted to share a success story with you! I’ve been at my current job about 18 months now, and am a mid-career nonprofit professional who freelanced a bunch before getting this steady gig because I needed a more stable income. I realized recently that I need a raise as I was taking on new responsibilities, and had already received a new title (budget issues at the time of the title bump meant asking for a raise was not prudent). But the budget has steadied out, and I figured it was time.

I read all the stuff I could on your blog about how to ask for a raise and then sent my boss an email asking for a salary discussion to be put on the agenda for our upcoming 1:1. In my email, I mentioned the accomplishments I’ve had recently and new projects I’m taking on that she’s expressed happiness with, and provided research about the market rate for my position, which my salary was at the low end of. My boss agreed to the discussion, and it turned out: the discussion didn’t need to happen. She showed up with a salary memo from HR in hand, with a 12% bump in my pay.

The hardest part was getting up the confidence to just ask for it! I knew I wasn’t going to leave over it, so I figured it couldn’t hurt to have the conversation. And I’m so glad I did!

the summer camp cook, the cat photo, and other stories of long-running coworker grudges

Last week we talked about coworker arguments and grudges. Here are 15 of the most ridiculous stories you shared.

1. The cheesecake

I worked for a government agency a few years back and for whatever reason right off the bat, an older coworker took a dislike to me. I have legitimately no idea why. She was clearly resentful of the possibility of having to train anyone, as I heard her talk several times about how she didn’t sign up to train people and she wasn’t going to.

Anyway, her normal M.O. was just general bitterness but she seemed to take it a step further. We had a potluck and I brought mini cheesecakes. I’m not sure what she brought, but she took ISSUE with these cheesecakes. She moved them to a different table out of the way so people didn’t know they were there. She walked around the entire day telling people about her cheesecake and how she made it totally from scratch. She didn’t even bring cheesecake that day, and also, mine were homemade too so I have no idea what she was on about.

2. The couch

I had a library coworker once with a years-long grudge against … a couch.

The Friends of the Library had used some of their funds to buy decent furniture for the break room, which most of us appreciated. She felt very strongly that any money the Friends raised should have been used to add to the collection, which we already had a pretty good budget for from other sources. She retaliated by refusing to sit on that couch, ever, for years. Unclear whether she succeeded in hurting the couch’s feelings.

3. The software admin

I worked at a small company where a department was run by an awful woman. She hired her entire old team from her last company and they immediately took over and started going on a power trip. They lied, refused to actually do their jobs and pushed it onto other departments, and made up unnecessary rules that had no basis in what our business needed.

They steamrolled over everyone else and I ended up being dumped with a lot of work they were supposed to be doing. And then they made up a ton of unnecessary requirements, and when I pushed back demanding they point to the ISO line they claim was required, they couldn’t and had to give up. So they hated me and decided to freeze me out and refused to talk to me.

It just so happened I was the admin of the software tool they had to use (the previous admin left and they never hired a replacement so I was just assigned this), and I was so petty that every time they pissed me off, I reset their passwords. They would keep trying to enter their password (when it was blank) and once they got frozen out, they’d have to come to me and ask for me to unfreeze their account and reset their password. I only did it because the software didn’t log things like admin resetting password. Also they logged in so infrequently (because they didn’t do their real job) they chalked it up to them forgetting the password each time and the strict password requirements that had to be changed every few months with no repeats.

Deeply petty and I probably shouldn’t be trusted with power because I took great pleasure in abusing it until I finally left.

4. The cat photo

I once had a coworker (Clara) who was inexplicably upset by the most benign things. Years ago, another colleague (Helen) gifted her a lovely photo of her cat, which Clara pinned up in her cubicle. Every time Clara felt Helen had done something to slight her (which was often), she would take down the photo. When they made up, the photo went back on the wall. The two of them controlled the energy in the office, so everyone could tell just by glancing at the wall whether it was going be a pleasant day or a miserable one.

5. The donut grievance

My first job after graduating as an engineer was in an automotive plant. I was a process engineer working on the floor. There was a steep learning curve to the job and some of the mechanics were really helpful when I had questions about the machinery. They were very helpful and kind and in order to thank them, I brought donuts to a meeting we were having.

Other employees who were not invited to the meeting (because it had nothing to do with their work) were incensed and made a complaint to the union. They launched a grievance complaining that some, but not all, employees were given donuts. When the union rep found out that I bought the donuts with my own money the grievance went away, but the other employees continued to give me nasty looks for months and complain that they hadn’t gotten a donut.

6. The long-running grudge

I once worked as an admin at a pretty big corporate employer in New Orleans. I had a coworker, N, who initially was really nice and sweet. We talked all the time and bonded over our love of animals.

One day about three months after I joined the company, I walked into work and saw N in the corridor. I said, “Hi, N!” and she actually turned her head so she couldn’t see me and kept walking. I shrugged it off at first, but it kept happening. I’d say hi, she’d ignore me. There would be food left from one of her meetings and she’d whisper to the other admins so that they could get the leftovers, but excluded me. She was my backup and was supposed to answer my managers’ phones when I was at lunch, but she decided she didn’t want to do that anymore so stopped doing it. My managers noticed and asked me to fix the issue, but N wouldn’t even discuss it with me. She just said she wasn’t going to answer my phones anymore.

I went to our big boss and he said that in his experience women admins always ended up in feuds and as far as he was concerned we had to handle it on our own and not to bother him anymore. So I stopped answering her managers’ phones. This made one of her managers so angry she stormed over to my desk and said, “Look, my phone is ringing. You answer it since N isn’t here.” I said, “Oh, N won’t answer my phones anymore, so I’m no longer answering hers.” She screamed, “I’m a lawyer and I’m telling you to answer that phone!” I smiled and said, “I’m an admin and I’m telling you I’m not.” She went running to N’s other manager but nothing changed.

It was the custom for admins to buy birthday cards and circulate them around for their managers. So when one of N’s managers had a birthday, she circulated the card. When it hit my desk, I told my coworker who put it there that I’d better not because N wouldn’t like it. She said, “Don’t let her intimidate you. Sign the card.” So I signed it and put it back on N’s desk which was in the cube next to mine. When she came back from lunch, she saw the card and I heard her yell, “OH, NO SHE DID NOT!” and then ripping sounds. She tore up the card and threw it away because I signed it. Then she sent out an email to the whole floor saying she was buying her manager a card, but if we wanted to send a card, we had to buy it ourselves.

This went on for months and months. A new admin started and was initially nice and then she started ignoring me and I asked her why. She said, “Oh, N told me that you are a slacker and don’t pull your weight here so I shouldn’t associate with you so I can stay in good standing with my bosses.”

N had more seniority than me and her manager was more important than mine. I was called into a meeting with mine and told that N was out to get me fired and if I were smart, I should start looking for a new job. I asked them if they could help me because obviously she was bullying me, but they said their hands were tied. So I luckily found another job in the same company, just a different department. On my first day HR sent out email to my old department and my new department announcing my new job and congratulating me and wishing me luck as was the custom. N responded with REPLY ALL in 57 RED font, “OH, HAPPY DAYS! HAPPY DAYS! SHE’S GONE!” Did she get in trouble? Nope. Just got a little talking to from her boss. I was happy in my new job where no one bullied me.

About two years later, I heard that N got fired because she refused to help another admin and her boss said, “Well, either you help her or you’re out” and N packed up her things and left.

Years later I went out to lunch with the coworker who’d encouraged me to sign N’s manager’s birthday card. We were both not with the company anymore and had other jobs. We started talking about our old jobs and she said, “Okay, I’m going to confide in you now. I know why N hated you.” Well, the reason was that I brought in a Witch’s Almanac calendar one day and hung it up in my cube. It was New Orleans and the vibe there is really eccentric and pretty much anything goes, so I didn’t even think it would be an issue. The calendar did not have explicit pictures or anything. It was arty more than anything. Crows, cauldrons, stuff like that. So N thought I was Wiccan and since she was such a good Christian, she made it her mission to destroy me professionally.

7. The promotion

I was hired into an org by a department head, Sansa, to be her assistant. She was clear in her hiring of me that part of my job duty was to do all the interfacing with other departments and clients, because she didn’t enjoy it. She hated making phone calls and was generally aloof, sullen, quiet, and didn’t identify as a “people person.” Perfect, because I came from a background of client relations, and I also enjoy people and making everyone feel valued and welcome, whether that person is a client or a colleague. So I did my job, and did all the interfacing for her. I made all the phone calls to clients. I talked to the other departments. Sansa adored me for taking all that off her plate.

After a few years of rarely speaking to a client or a colleague, she realized that I had become the universally-liked face of her department. Instead of taking a page out of my book, she decided that I should become more like her and start being more sullen and aloof. She demanded I stop being so friendly to everyone, because it was making her look bad. She told literally told me I should make my tone more flat and stop “being so warm” on phone calls, and that I shouldn’t go out to lunch with coworkers when I was invited, but eat at my desk alone, the way she did. I did not.

So she called a meeting with the CEO and head of HR and demanded that they fire me for being too friendly, and explained to them that she didn’t even need me, because she was doing all the work, and I was just making phone calls and eating lunch with other departments. Instead of firing me, they promoted me to be the head of a different department, away from Sansa. When Sansa wanted to hire a new assistant, they refused, because she can make her own phone calls, as she so kindly explained to them, and she didn’t actually need an assistant.

That was a few years ago, and she hasn’t spoken to me since. I’ve also gotten another promotion since then, and now work directly with the CEO. When we pass in the hallways I still give her the warm, “Good morning!” I give everyone, and she will not respond to me. So yeah, I have someone who hates my guts for being too nice.

8. The mugs of retribution

I used to teach full-time. One of the TAs was a good-looking younger guy, let’s call him Brad as in Pitt, who was the crush object of many students and a fair few staff. “Janet” from another department particularly thought of him as Hers, although he’d never shown any return interest (she was a good 20 years older than him for starters). This was fine, if rather odd, until one of my colleagues went on maternity and Brad started covering for her. His subject knowledge was okay but he didn’t know the nuances of the topic to teach to students, so I worked with him to fill the gaps, usually after school.

Now, I liked Brad in a “he’s a good laugh and never once tried to mansplain” way but didn’t fancy him in the slightest. The students referred to me as “goth teacher,” my taste in men ran accordingly. Janet, however, was Not Amused by us spending time together, and when it turned out Brad lived on my way home so could get a lift with me instead of her, she concluded I was out to steal her man. This middle-aged woman went full scorned teenage girl. It started with filthy looks at me and betrayed-puppy eyes at him. Blanking me when I talked to her, etc. Then Janet decided that the rest of the man-stealing harlot’s time at that school would go un-caffeinated. Personal mugs would occasionally go walkabout from the staff room cupboard but they’d return the next day. Mine stayed gone. I brought in a new one. Two days later, it vanished. Then another. And another.

I was mystified until I covered a lesson in Janet’s usual classroom and discovered ALL of my missing mugs stashed in the back of the storage cupboard.

9. The summer camp cook

At one summer camp, we had a cook who made terrible food, leading to a steadily building animosity between him and the rest of the staff. It finally exploded in a screaming fight (thankfully with no campers present) when someone asked him if he needed to be reminded how to use things other than the microwave, and he replied that you “shouldn’t f*** with someone who could poison you all.” He was ultimately fired for theft but not before deliberately serving us sandwiches made with spoiled lunch meat.

10. The desk gaslighter

My toxic, bullying boss would constantly move stuff out of line of sight (and I was pretty tidy – we’re talking about moving my notebook to an enclosed cabinet next to my desk, or pushing a small potted plant into the very dark corner of the desk behind my monitor). This boss was absolutely wild in how she behaved and this was just one of the many, many things she did. Of course, she denied ever doing anything and blamed the cleaning crew (!!!). Finally, I very obviously started taking photos of my desk before I would leave and made sure she would see me doing this. That stopped her desk-related shenanigans.

It’s been over a decade now but I still have the photos in my phone and every year between January and March I puzzle at why I am seeing photos of my old desk at this old job in my Google memories LOL!

11. The sun glare

During a standard interdepartmental spat over window blinds, one of the other managers became so offended by our manager’s love of sunlight that she locked him in the building during a fire drill. Claimed the glare of the sun confused her eyes so she “accidentally” put the key in the lock. They never spoke again, communicating through runners in a “X told me to tell you” system for fire years until she was encouraged to leave after locking him in a storage cupboard.

12. The speakerphone war

We had a speakerphone war at an old job. This was back in the old days when we all used hard-wired desktop phones, just for reference. Office Manager would come in in the morning, crank up her phone as loud as it would go, and listen to her voicemail. At best there’d be 1-2 voicemails, and it was usually over pretty quickly. Other Employee, however, simply could not deal with this. Other Employee would immediately start playing back her voicemails on speaker, as loudly as it would go. They also each figured out ways to amplify the sound so it was even louder than normal. This eventually got to where they were going back and forth with it all day long. It stopped only when Other Employee was able to move to a desk in another part of the building so they couldn’t hear each other.

13. The mini-fridge

In my public library, we had a very unpopular director. He was a micro-managing mansplainer, in an environment that was 90% female. Literally everyone on staff hated him, and he either didn’t notice or didn’t care.

At some point, he decided our breakroom – upstairs from where the staff worked and steps from his office – was underutilized. To be fair, no one used it because the odds of bumping into him or another administrator was high, and nobody wanted to deal with that during lunch. His solution was to remove all the refrigerators and microwaves from the downstairs work rooms to force people to eat upstairs.

There was a mini-fridge/freezer in our youth workroom that had been there for as long as anyone could remember. Unpopular Director said it had to go, but don’t send it to be auctioned, he could use it in his office to keep water cool for VIPs. We had a Youth Librarian who had real anger issues, and a hot burning hatred for Director.

Without defrosting the refrigerator or cleaning it out, she unplugged it and left it in his office on a Thursday evening, when Director planned to be out Thursday-Monday. Over the weekend it defrosted, ruined the carpet in Director’s office and set up a lovely mildew-y smell. As far as I know, the Youth Librarian faced no consequences (Director was a little scared of her). Within three months, the downstairs fridge and microwave had been replaced.

When Youth Librarian retired, she handed out buttons to staff with a picture of the mini-fridge on it.

14. The chain email

When working for the federal government, our admin once sent out an email to the entire office that was a chain email claiming you would get a free computer if you forwarded it to X number of people. I was so annoyed! It was 2012, not 1994, so this was absurd. Several more people then did the same thing! I got so fed up with these emails that I replied all to one with a snip of the employee handbook that specifically forbade chain emails.

For the rest of my time there (two years), the admin gave me the full silent treatment. She would shut doors in my face, turn away from me if I tried to ask her a question, refuse to respond to any email I sent her, etc. Luckily, she was pretty useless at her job so I didn’t need her help with very much.

15. The Pythagorean theorem

Years ago, I worked in a math-adjacent field. One of my closest collaborators mispronounced “Pythagorean theorem” painfully and frequently. For some reason, this caused me to completely lose my head each and every time. Was this a sensible trigger? No. Could I let it lie? Heck no! I proceeded to bring in evidence that his pronunciation was not one of the accepted pronunciations in any English-speaking country. There were dictionaries. There were subject experts. My colleague insisted that he was correct and I was wrong … but as the bigger person, he would not nag me about MY misguided pronunciation.

Finally, I dragged him to our manager’s office to declare, like a petulant child, “Manager, coworker is pronouncing ‘Pythagorean theorem’ wrong!” She stared us down for a solid minute, scowled, and, in a tone of utter disgust, said, “Get out.” We left. I never won the argument, but I’m still right.

sometimes an old job isn’t done with you … even when you’re done with it

When you quit a job, you typically assume you’re finished with that work — once you’re gone, your former colleagues will find a way to move on without you. But sometimes an old job isn’t done with you … even when you’re done with it.

Bizarrely, I hear all the time from people who still regularly receive work questions from jobs they’re no longer employed by. A minor question or two in the first few weeks after you leave might not be odd — where’s the key to file room? which vendor did you use for X? But some offices send a steady stream of questions to previous employees, sometimes even asking them to perform substantive work long after their final paycheck hits the mail.

At Slate today, I wrote about this weird phenomenon. You can read it here.

am I being a brat about not getting promoted?

A reader writes:

I recently applied for a promotion at work and was passed over in favor of an outside candidate. I won’t go into all the details, but hopefully it suffices to say that I was a very strong candidate, I had a lot of internal support, and everyone I’ve talked to has been legitimately shocked that I didn’t get the job.

I feel really disillusioned after this turn of events. It’s a small company with an important mission and I had previously envisioned staying here for a long time, but now I don’t really see a path forward in my career unless I leave.

I’ve put in a pretty extraordinary effort over the past few years, taking on assignments well above my pay grade when the company was in a pinch (and knocking them out of the park), working on weekends to finish urgent projects, and becoming a trusted advisor and critical part of the leadership team — so I really thought upper management would have my back on this promotion. I guess I’ve abruptly internalized the lesson that a company is not a family, and employment is just a business transaction.

Consequently, I very suddenly have lost my motivation to go above and beyond. Since I got the news, I haven’t been checking email after hours or working on the weekend, and I even turned down a project that I didn’t really have the bandwidth for. Nobody has said anything to me, but I can only imagine that it’s noticeable.

I’m not slacking compared to an objective standard, but I am kind of slacking compared to my own previous high standard. Is that okay, or am I burning a bridge that I might need in order to find another job and leave?

It’s okay to do what you’re doing.

It’s also understandable. Anyone in management at your company who didn’t realize this would be a possibility when they didn’t promote you was being naive.

No one is entitled to a promotion — but companies also aren’t entitled to employees who go above and beyond if their work isn’t rewarded. It’s reasonable that after not getting promoted, you feel less motivated to go over and above in the way you used to.

To be clear, I’m talking about things that truly qualify as going above and beyond; it’s not a good idea to slack off on core expectations. But from the specifics you gave, you’ve just pulled back on the extras.

From a practical perspective, it is a good idea to compare yourself to the average performance on your team. If the changes you’ve made put you below average for your team, then yeah, there could be consequences in your job search, even if it’s just a more lukewarm reference. But if it’s just that you used to go above and beyond and now you don’t … carry on. This is a natural and foreseeable consequence of not promoting someone and then not bothering to have any kind of conversation with the person to help them feel good about what their future with the company will be.

That’s not to say your company necessarily made the wrong decision! They might have been absolutely right; it’s possible the other candidate was clearly the stronger hire. But you’re allowed to draw your own conclusions from that process and adjust your behavior accordingly.

For what it’s worth: it’s a good thing that companies aren’t families and that employment is a business transaction! When workers are convinced to believe the opposite, it’s usually to their disadvantage: they generally end up feeling pressed to prioritize the company above their own interests — to accept lower pay, work longer hours, avoid pushing back against bad policies, and feel guilty if they consider leaving. Meanwhile, the employer on the other side of that equation isn’t normally offering benefits that would justify any of that (nor should they, in most business arrangements). But it’s perfectly fine for work to simply be a trade of your labor for money, and for you to reassess what you’re willing to give in return for what your employer gives you.

coworkers message me “hi” with nothing else, younger coworker thinks I’m tech-illiterate, and more

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

1. Coworkers message me “hi” with no indication of what they need

I find myself very frustrated with many of my coworkers. We use Teams, and I often receive messages that just say “Hi Name.” If I’m available, I can respond right away and get to their request. But sometimes when I step away for my lunch hour, I return to see that right after I left, I got a “Hi Name” message. When I respond, they’ve often stepped away and it may take another hour for them to get back to me with their request, two hours from when they originally reached out to me.

To me, it seems that people think that Teams chats follow the social etiquette of walking up to somebody’s desk. You both say a quick hello, then get to whatever they needed. However, I view it more like leaving a Post-It note on somebody’s desk. It’s visible, but if they aren’t there, it might take some time to respond. And to leave me a Post-It note that just says “Hi” on my desk, then to expect me to go to yours to leave one as well before giving any details, frustrates me. When I reach out to people, I generally send them “Hi Name, I’m reaching out to you about X. Do you have Y information?” — closer to how I would write an email.

I’ve been at this company for two years, I like it and feel valued, this is just a big pet peeve of mine, as I feel that it is less efficient, and if somebody messages me when I’m away, I now have to spend time tracking them down for their request. I’m also autistic and there’s a chance that there’s something about social cues and unwritten rules that I’m just not understanding. This is a large company, and this communication style is common between people of all ages, managers, coworkers, and contractors.

I’m sometimes tempted to just not respond until they do send the information over, but I also don’t want to come off as rude or unresponsive. I also have thought about addressing it individually with the people that I work closest with, but I’m not 100% sure how I should say it.

Yeah, this is just a Thing That Happens in almost every office. The people who do it think it’s friendlier, and everyone else thinks it’s inefficient and a little annoying. It’s very unlikely that you will be able to solve it, so it’s easier to decide not to care. Write back “hi” and figure that if their communication style means it takes an extra day for them to get the info that they need, that’s on them; it’s not on you to draw their needs out of them.

That said, if you work frequently with someone who does this, there’s nothing wrong with saying, “By the way, feel free to just launch in with what you need when you first message me. If you just say hi and wait for me to respond, it could be hours before you hear back, depending on what else I’m working on — but if what you need is in the first message, I can often get it to you faster.”

how to respond when coworkers IM me “hi” with no indication of what they need

2. My younger coworker thinks I don’t know anything about computers

I am older (mid 60s) and on my way to at least semi-retirement. We have on our staff a new younger (30-ish) woman who is in a leadership role. I have no issue with that – she’s good and she knows her stuff; I’ve learnt new things from her. But she seems to have it firmly in her mind that I am a sweet little old lady who cannot possibly know anything, especially in the field of computers. When it comes to software, or tech generally, she
is very patronizing towards me and tries to hold my hand through elementary steps. The thing is, I have been working with computers since the mid 1970s and helped design and set up the system we currently use. In this area, I’m good and I know my stuff.

My manager has taken her aside (he tells me) and spoken to her about the way she is treating me, and others on staff have commented as well, so it’s not just me. How can I make her see that I am competent in this area, before the sweet little old lady turns into a cranky old battleaxe on the warpath (which wouldn’t be good)?

The next time she does it: “I’ve been working with computers for decades and helped design the system we use now.” Use an amused-sounding tone.

If it continues: “I’m not sure if you realize you’ve been approaching me like I need remedial help with anything tech-related. So to let you know, I don’t.”

If it continues after that, consider talking to HR about it and using the words “age discrimination.” Or if you want to give your boss one more chance to handle it first, have that conversation with him instead and ask if he wants to do a more serious intervention himself or if it’s time for you to bring in HR.

3. Should I correct students who address me as Mrs.?

I am a faculty member at a major state university where I teach large undergraduate classes in a male-dominated discipline. I have been teaching for quite a while and have achieved the highest faculty rank (Professor). While I am not particularly concerned about being addressed as Professor or Dr., which are correct given my faculty rank and education, I take issue with one way that I am increasingly addressed by students — about half of the hundreds of student emails I receive each semester. Rather than start their emails with Dear Professor Green, Dear Dr. Green, or Dear Ms. Green, students increasingly refer to me as Mrs. Green. To add an irrelevant fact, I am not married.

It has always been my understanding that “Mrs.” is used to refer to a married woman, or a woman who has been married, without a higher or honorific or professional title. And that “Ms.” should be used to refer to a woman of unknown marital status or when marital status is irrelevant. Of course, I believe Mrs. should always be used to address anyone who indicates that preference.

My students will see my name written as Dr. Jane Green on a variety of university and course materials, but that does not seem to change the frequency of emails addressed “Dear Mrs. Green.” I hesitate to correct students for fear that it will be taken as an indicator of self-importance and give me a reputation for being condescending or unapproachable. However, I am sensitive to the misogyny involved. While I don’t think students should call their instructors by their first name, I don’t want to insist that students call me Professor Green or Dr. Green. I would be fine with being called Ms. Green – it’s only “Mrs. Green” that really bothers me.

Do you see this as an important “teachable moment” for college students entering the workforce (in addition to being a personal pet peeve)? My thought is that students should learn not to use Mrs. as the default title for women in the workplace or in addressing professional correspondence since marital status should be irrelevant in these situations (and also that perhaps it is a good idea to avoid offending others like me when trying to be hired for or advance in a position).

I think that if I had confirmation that this reasoning is correct, I would feel more justified including an explanation in my course materials and providing reminders in my responses to student emails. I am willing to take the possible blowback if it will help students in their eventual careers!

Yes, absolutely. Referring to a woman as Mrs. without any indication that she uses or prefers it is a good way to alienate a ton of us — since it’s rooted in the sexist notion that a woman’s marital status is relevant when a man’s is not. It will also hit a lot of ears as old-fashioned.

These students should learn that now so that they don’t address their cover letters that way, greet networking contacts that way, or otherwise annoy and aggravate the many, many women who use Ms. who they’re going to meet in their careers.

I’d say it this way: “It’s Ms. or Dr., please.”

You could add as a parenthetical: “Mrs. is not a title used in professional contexts unless the person has previously indicated she uses it. Default to Ms., or to Dr. when that’s correct.”

4. Can I leverage interest from other employers into a higher salary at my current job?

I’m in an enviable position: I’ve worked my way up to a fairly senior position in a smallish industry, and I have a specialized role that’s currently in high demand. And now—after climbing the ladder and working hard for 20 years—recruiters and hiring managers are calling me nonstop to try to entice me to move. I know, poor me. But I really like my current job! I’ve been here six years, I’ve had some nice success and built a strong program from nothing, and I feel appreciated and—I think—am fairly compensated. I don’t want to leave, but I find myself wondering: Is there anything I should be doing to leverage this interest with my current job? What would I even ask for, assuming I am paid well and well treated?

So far I haven’t even mentioned anything about all this interest to my current manager. But last night a competitive manager took me out to drinks and told me she wanted me to come over to work for her and I should “name my price.” I don’t want to be a cliche of the woman who never negotiates. But I also don’t want to be unfair to my current, very appealing job, where I ultimately want to stay. Any advice?

I’m not a fan of counteroffers, but that’s not what you’d be doing. You’d just be saying, “I really like my work here and want to stay. I want to be up-front that I’m being approached about other jobs that pay more than I’m currently making. I really don’t want to leave, but I wondered if we can take a look at my salary.” You could even use that exact wording.

One thing to note is that it doesn’t sound like you necessarily know what these other jobs would pay; it’s possible some of them would actually pay less well or be less desirable than your current role in other ways. It could be interesting to talk with some of them and progress a little further with them to try to get a better understanding of how they really stack up against your current position.

5. Repeated weekend reminders from a reference-checking company

I want to see if I’m unreasonably annoyed by this situation.

I got a message on Friday after 5 pm from one of the paid student leaders in a program that I help manage. She was letting me know that she had been offered a full-time graduate role that starts next year and they wanted references from managers by the end of that day. She told me she had put me down as a reference and apologized for not being able to ask first.

I was okay with this and was very happy to provide a reference for her. I had seen the message as I often work a later schedule.

I come in on Monday morning and discover four emails from the reference-checking company that has been contracted by the employer. The first email was sent on Friday at 6:41 pm, the second on Saturday at 7:02 pm, a third on Sunday 7:02 am and the fourth on Sunday at 7:01 pm. I’m not in a U.S. timezone, but even in the U.S. all but the initial email would have been on a weekend. I’ve included the text of the reminder emails in a screenshot.

I felt very pressured by this and that if I didn’t get it done quickly I would be hurting the student’s chances of getting this role. It seems to only be giving you three days to respond and those days don’t seem to be business days.

I would expect a system that collects references to account for business days, no matter when the candidate submits their reference request. I completed the reference request (which was 26 questions long and a totally different irritation) but have a lingering irritation about the way this communication occurred. It seems very disrespectful of my time and also unprofessional. Am I wrong to be this irritated?


Those reminders were almost certainly automated messages programmed to go out about 24 hours apart, without anyone thinking to leave space for weekends. That doesn’t make it any less annoying, though, or any less demanding. They’re just asking for people to hit that “decline” link.

weekend open thread – May 18-19, 2024

a mess was made

This comment section is open for any non-work-related discussion you’d like to have with other readers, by popular demand.

Here are the rules for the weekend posts.

Book recommendation of the week: The Ministry of Time, by Kaliane Bradley. As part of a study of time travel, a government employee is assigned to be the minder of a military commander from 1847. A culture clash ensues, as does a romance and a thrilling mystery.

* I make a commission if you use that Amazon link.