inviting an ex-coworker to a holiday lunch, new meds make me burp, and more

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

1. Should I not have invited an ex-coworker to a holiday lunch?

This happened a couple years ago but has bothered me ever since. A well-loved employee of eight years left the company after a major change in leadership. A terrible change in leadership, which she was not happy with, so her leaving was somewhat fraught with emotion (we were shocked she left!). She resigned and finished her work while our city was still in lockdown, so her farewell was over Zoom. About a month later, we were set free and had our team’s Christmas lunch at a local pub. We were still friends, so I mentioned it while we were chatting about things. I suggested to her that she should pop in once the event was officially over (outside of work hours) so we could say a proper goodbye as her Zoom farewell was not so fabulous.

She did in fact pop in — well after the event had ended, when most of us were just hanging about, finishing drinks which we had self purchased. She was warmly received, with loads of hugs and well wishes, with nothing but people happy to see her. As we sat there, someone turned to me and drama whispered, “OMG do you know who invited her?!” and I responded that yes, in fact, I had. This employee said to me, “You’d better call in sick tomorrow. There’s going to be a major witch hunt to find out who would do this.” A couple more people also warned me that I’d “get in trouble.” Turns out, because this person had left in an unhappy way, management had kind of “disowned” her, and had apparently treated her as persona non grata in her final weeks. Apparently they were going to have a hissy fit that she was “allowed” to come to this event and my head was going to be on the chopping block.

I don’t get it. She showed up to a public place, after an event, to see some ex-work-mates. Did I do something wrong here?

For the record, I showed up to work the next day. Nobody said anything to me, but when I too resigned a few weeks later (because I found a great new role), management also treated me as though I had the plague for my final weeks. Apparently this was their thing? No matter who you were, if you resigned, you were immediately hated and they talked shit about you.

The idea of a “major witch hunt” because a former employee dropped in toward the end of an out-of-office social event is indeed ridiculous. But I will also point out that it didn’t happen — your coworkers warned you that it would, but it didn’t. To me, that says that your management had created a deeply dysfunctional environment where people anticipated blowback based on the amount of vitriol that had already been circulating, which is itself a problem; your coworkers just misjudged exactly how it would play out in this situation.

That said, there are situations where inviting a former employee who’s known to be persona non grata with your management would affect you politically. It’s not the same as your situation, but if you’d invited someone who had, I don’t know, stolen the firm’s client list or screamed “fuck you” at everyone on the way out the door — or even this person — your management might rightly take issue with that, and it could affect how people saw your judgment and your trustworthiness.

Even in a situation like yours, when management was wrong to be upset with the ex-employee, inviting that person to a social event that’s been organized for employees could still have political implications for you. You might decide you don’t care on principle, but you’d still want to be aware that it was something that could blow back on you and make your decisions accordingly.

2. New meds make me burp constantly

I am on some new meds, and the two worst side effects are nausea and belching. They are mostly little, but I am burping constantly. I’ve told my team about it, lest they think I’m suddenly disgustingly rude, and they understand (we’re too close with too many boundaries crossed, so this was just a little thing to say).

But we’re merging companies and I’m going to be in charge of more people who I don’t know and don’t have the same relationship with. It’s not something I want to share with everyone just because we cross paths, and I am hoping that a new influx of people will help move my group to a more professional attitude, so I don’t want to necessarily share from that aspect, either. A boss shouldn’t generally say these things to their employees.

We’re in an open office plan, and not everyone will hear every burp, but everyone is going to have to deal with it sooner or later and to some extent. Of course I say “excuse me,” but it’d honestly be easier for me and a lot faster to just pretend it didn’t happen, or I’m saying “excuse me” all day long!

So, do I tell my new staff? Do I just pretend it’s not happening after the first “excuse me”? Do I just say “excuse me” 700 times a day? (And no, Pepto doesn’t help!)

I mean, I wouldn’t open with “I burp a lot” when you’re first introduced, but it’s fine to explain it at some point relatively soon after starting to work together. For example: “Excuse me, a medication I’m on causes belching. I find it’s less disruptive if I don’t say ‘excuse me’ every time, so please consider this a blanket ‘excuse me.’” There’s nothing inherently inappropriate about saying that to employees, and people are generally more patient and accommodating with stuff that’s been acknowledged and explained.

3. Why do recruiters ask for MY impression of an interview first?

I need help with a job hunting pet peeve.

I realize that recruiters are humans just trying to do their job in the way they’ve been taught to do it, I know that being rude or hostile to a recruiter would be a Very Bad Move, I always try to be externally warm and polite even when I’m internally screaming “LEAVE ME ALONE!”

That being said, when recruiters set me up with an interview, the first thing they do after is call me and ask how I think it went. Which is okay if it’s just an introductory call where we’re both evaluating each other, but they also do this for technical screenings where the hiring team is evaluating my skills. WHY ARE YOU ASKING ME HOW IT WENT? My opinion isn’t the one that matters here! I’m probably already really stressed about it, the last thing I want is to rehash it with a stranger. Why don’t they just ask the hiring team first? Then they could tell me how I did.

I realize that I’m having an outsized emotional reaction that has more to do with the stress of job hunting than recruiter behavior, but I could use some generic, noncommittal scripts to make these interactions easier.

Recruiters are, at the core, salespeople and they are trying to sell you to their client, the employer. They want to talk to you first so that they know if you think you bombed the interview, or if you’re not very interested in the job anymore, or if something weird happened that they’ll need to smooth over, or if you don’t want to move forward without clarity on issue X, and on and on. They feel more in control if they gather info like that from you first, so that they’re not flying blind when they talk to their client.

It might be more intuitive if you imagine, say, sending a junior team member to meet with a VIP. Afterwards, you’d probably prefer to check in with the junior team member before you talk to the VIP in case anything happened that you’ll need to manage on your end, and so you have some info before you go into your conversation with the higher-stakes person.

It’s also not true that your opinion doesn’t matter; you could decide you don’t want the job, and it’s in the recruiter’s interests to know that early on if so.

4. I can’t get anyone to acknowledge my resignation

Earlier this year I took a second job as a fitness instructor, and … I hate it. The location is one of many in a large chain, and ever since my onboarding I have felt quite alone and things have been very disorganized. I recently found out that I wasn’t even trained properly. So I decided to quit teaching this particular class. The problem is that my immediate supervisor also resigned about a month ago, and a replacement hasn’t been hired yet. I sent a resignation email to the site leader (my grandboss), and I have heard nothing back. It’s been almost a week.

I realize that it isn’t technically my problem, but being an instructor is customer-facing and continuing to be on the schedule and “no-showing” would look really bad, especially to the members who I’ve developed a rapport with. I also teach at another location in the chain that has a much better culture, and I don’t want to do anything to burn that bridge. I was planning to follow up at the beginning of the final week of my notice period, but is there something else that I should do here?

I wrote back and asked, “Any reason not to call them today?”

I’ve never even met him and couldn’t pick him out of a lineup, so this didn’t occur to me. Duh. I suppose I could try that. And if I just get voicemail?

Yep, call him! If you get voicemail, leave a message explaining the situation — something like, “I want to make sure you received the resignation I emailed you on (date). I hadn’t heard anything back and wanted to confirm you’ve seen it. I’ll need to be taken off the schedule after (date). Please let me know you’ve received this so I don’t keep trying to reach you!”

Whenever your need to reach someone is time-sensitive and you haven’t heard back via email, try calling. Even if you’ve never met the person or spoken to them before. When one method isn’t working and time matters, always try another. (Within reason, obviously — don’t resort to showing up at their house. But a phone call should always be fairly high on the list of things to try.)

interviewer asked me about a political argument I had 10 years ago

A reader writes:

I’ve been looking for a job for a year and finally accepted a hybrid role at a medium-sized start-up. I’ve been here for a week and a half. It’s fine but things are pretty disorganized and my manager keeps making comments about me in a leadership role soon, which I realize more and more that I do not want.

During the time between signing and starting, I was contacted by another company (I had sent out over 300 applications and was still in the mode of saying yes to every interview; I realize the respectful thing would have been to withdraw) and kept getting invited back for more interviews. This second company pays 30% more, is larger and more established so I will have an opportunity to learn process missing from my mostly freelance resume, has more robust product, and is fully remote. No brainer! Until.

The hiring manager of this second company emailed to say he wanted to meet to discuss an offer. About half an hour before the meeting, he said we would not be discussing the offer because they hadn’t completed my references. Instead we would be discussing feedback from the interview process. Weird, right? After a perfunctory questions, he brought up:

1) a response of mine from the interview process (that I truly do not remember) where it seems the perception was that I don’t deal well with conflict and just do whatever I want

2) a time I had a “heated political conversation” … 10 years ago when I was in school. (A person on the hiring committee went to school with me, so I assume he was the source. The hiring manager did a bad job convincing me otherwise. I asked the hiring manager for more details about this decade-old conversation and when he couldn’t provide them, I asked if I could contact my former classmate to clarify. He said no because he had not cleared talking to me about the anecdote with my former classmate.)

The interview made me uncomfortable and confused. He seemed reserved and “diplomatic”: at the end of the call he kept saying if there were to be an offer, if you were to join the team…

A few hours later, when they had completed my reference checks, (I checked with them and they all said the person they spoke with — not the hiring manager — specifically asked about conflict with me), he emailed saying the way I had approached the meeting and my references had made him confident I’d be a good team member and when could I meet to go over the offer?

Is this a huge red flag? I’m sort of starry-eyed about the comp and how good the role could be for my career progression. What questions should I ask when we “go over the offer” (literally who knows what this meeting might be)? I’m worried about coming off confrontational.

Because I was out of work for so long, I need to stay at my next job for at least a couple years (also, I am so sick of job searching) but I worry that I’m moving something okay for something … maybe bad?

Yeah, I’d be put off too.

Why are they even setting up a meeting to make an offer when they haven’t finished your reference check?

And then, rather than rescheduling the meeting once he realized the references weren’t done, he decided to use that call to dig into his apparent reservations. To be clear, if he had reservations, he should talk to you about them before making a decision — but then why had he already set up the offer meeting in the first place? I suspect the reservations were somewhere in the back of his head and he initially hadn’t planned to follow up on them, but then when he had a call with you and no offer to make, he figured he might as well ask. It comes across weirdly to you as the candidate, but okay, I can see how he got there.

But asking about a “heated political conversation” from 10 years ago?! If it was heated because you were saying things that were, say, racist or homophobic or otherwise bigoted, I can see why he’d be concerned about bringing you into their workplace. But otherwise … really? That’s A Lot. And I’m not thrilled about you taking a job where the manager might already have a chip on his shoulder about you, and might be likely to see every minor conflict through an already biased lens.

As for whether these are huge red flags … well, they’re not green ones, that’s for sure. I don’t think you’re in “run like hell” territory, but it would be smart to get more information.

One thing you could do is simply ask him head-on in the next conversation, “I was surprised when you asked about a political conversation from a decade ago, and I wondered if you could tell me more about the concern on your end so I’m not walking into a situation where I might not understand all the dynamics in play.”

But in your shoes, I’d want to gather a lot of intel about what this manager is like, from sources other than him. Can you work your network to find people who have worked with him and get the low-down? If that’s impossible, you could try asking to meet a few people on the team, although that’s not as reliable (since people currently working for him generally won’t be as candid as people who aren’t). What you learn from doing that is likely to either make you feel more comfortable moving forward or make it clear that you shouldn’t take an offer from this guy.

update: my boss is doing 27 events next month … the average is 4

Remember the letter-writer whose new boss was planning 27 events for the next month when the average was four (#2 at the link)? Here’s the update.

It has been about a year since my letter to you, and I will start by saying I am still in the same job with the same team. Your advice was really helpful … but somehow, I missed that my answer was posted!  I’m kicking myself because you were very correct in the path forward.

Thankfully, I took the approach you suggested in our next 1 on 1 and focused on how overloading events ripple-affects my workload. Unfortunately, I wish I had had your scripts, because my boss’s takeaway from the meeting was still that I need less on my plate. Over the next three months, I was taken off more and more projects, and felt iced out of the department. I took it as a sign to start job hunting, as I wouldn’t have any ongoing events to wrap up. However, being in a niche competitive field, I didn’t get any offers.

My boss was so busy we didn’t have a 1 on 1 until October, where I broke down in tears over how I had nothing to do and had no communication on what the team was doing. The response I got was, “Well, I gave you what you wanted, why are you upset?” I communicated that my workload was drastically changed with no follow-up or check-in, and that something in our work relationship needed to change. We established biweekly 1 on 1s to communicate better. This helped, but I found that the meetings would become her telling me how she was upset over something I said or did that had happened days or weeks before that I had no awareness of, and most of them were misunderstandings that would have been cleared up immediately if she had time to talk to me in the moment.

In March, in one of our meetings, she opened up about being hurt because of something she overheard. My partner attended one of our events and told our friends how much I had worked on it and my boss took it as she did not do enough to help me. This was brought up in our 1 on 1 almost a month later. In response, I made a very unprofessional move that I regret, and I asked if she had considered therapy. She took it well in the meeting, but that was the wake-up call to me that this dynamic was unsustainable. I went to my grandboss and requested that the three of us meet.

The meeting went way better than I expected it to. I came in with serious self-reflection and admitted the places I went wrong, and she did the same. There’s a serious lack of trust between us, and we both would assume the worst in the other’s intention. She would think everything I said was a backhanded jab at her, and I would see her not sharing information as spite when it was just falling through the cracks because, again, her workload is triple everyone else’s. I established things I need to know for the job versus what I want to know out of curiosity. The three of us agreed that if something upsets her, she can and should send me a Slack message about it so I could either correct the misunderstanding immediately or self-reflect on it until we meet.

I feel positive about this going forward. Either (1) the miscommunications will stop, (2) I can point to the agreement from the meeting and ask her to follow that, or (3) if there’s anything truly inappropriate, I will have it in writing. Our grandboss seems to be more aware that the root issue is workload, as she had asked in the meeting for my boss to prioritize office time for drop-in conversations. I’ve learned my lesson of staying in my own lane and only bringing up things that affect me. Overall, things have been good since then, and the three of us will meet quarterly to make sure communication is still going well. I’m in a position where I can keep an eye out for openings to move up and can continue working here until then. Issues aren’t fixed overnight, but I have the structure and support to thrive in this position regardless.

let’s discuss wild overreactions at work

Inspired by yesterday’s letter about the CEO who freaked out over a very mild joke, let’s discuss wild overreactions at work. Some stories that have been shared here over the years:

  • “This was a legendary story at the first restaurant where I worked, a popular downtown brunch place. A previous kitchen manager had a strong hatred of cooking egg whites – he felt like it disrupted the entire flow of everything to stop and carefully separate the yolk from the rest of the egg. Over time, he got angrier and angrier at customers who ordered egg whites, especially during the weekend rush. One Sunday, when an order for egg whites came in, he decided he’d had enough. He took the bill and demanded to know which table had ordered it. When the server told him, he marched over to the table, slammed the bill down, and said, ‘Buddy, you can cook your own f&$@! egg whites.’ He tore off his apron, walked out, and never came back.”
  • “We just standardized our email signatures yesterday. People flipped out. ‘Why can’t I have this picture of my dog in my signature?’ ‘‘But I’ve always used pink cursive font — it’s cuter.’ ‘You’re crushing our individuality.’ Another department manager had employees who threatened to quit. I really didn’t think that having a standard email signature was that big of a deal. This is literally the only company that I’ve worked for that didn’t have one (until now).”
  • “Our organization holds an annual event where the summer interns make presentations on their projects … One year a new administrative assistant ordered appetizers from a different vendor and there was no cheese tray. A supervisor who had worked with multiple interns came in as the event was starting, looked at the food, loudly exclaimed, ‘WHERE IS THE CHEESE WHEEL?’ and then stormed out and refused to participate when he was told there was no cheese. We had to scramble to keep the interns calm and get them the paperwork they needed to satisfy their internship requirements.”

There was also a legendary response to a decrease in speed dial buttons, the person who became livid about a joke about King Charles, and a new hire’s response to cheap-ass rolls at a potluck.

Let’s talk about wild overreactions you’ve seen at work. Please share in the comments.

employee cries whenever she gets a new assignment, team went to dinner without me, and more

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

1. Employee cries audibly whenever she gets a new assignment

I am a lawyer at a small-ish law firm. We have five paralegals, of varying abilities. Our best and most senior paralegal is a bit of a cryer. It seems like it is part of her process. Every time she gets an assignment, she goes back to her cubicle and cries for about five minutes. The crying is audible. My office door is about 30 feet from her and I can hear it. It’s not to the level of “just informed a close friend died” but it’s beyond some silent tears when you watch a sad movie.

Then she composes herself, gets to work, and does a great job. So this isn’t a performance issue, but it is a bit of a perception issue. While she cries, the rest of the office kind of scatters. The other support staff, who are in the same open plan section of the office, have started finding things to do away from their desks as this happens. Those of us with offices and doors shut our doors. For a while, one of the other attorneys would stop what she is doing and check in, coach her through getting going, but it was clear that this was just A Thing That Happens. So the office has settled into a combination of ignoring it and making ourselves scarce.

Is this right? Do we keep just ignoring it? She always gets her work done and done well. (And we always make sure to let her know what a great job she does with assignments. We’ve tried a lot of positive reinforcement. It didn’t change anything about the initial crying.) She is very pleasant and happy outside of the five minutes after she gets a new assignment. The only real downside is that it is awkward, and when we have new people in the office they get a bit freaked out about our culture (which is pretty laid back, despite the daily crying interruptions). We do have some conference rooms that are often empty, so if she wanted a private space that is available. Do we start telling her that she needs to use one for crying? Is that appropriate?

I think it’s more than a minor issue! Working around someone who frequently cries audibly is a big deal! I’m not surprised her colleagues are scattering since most people would find that really stressful and disruptive. People can’t continue on with whatever work they’re doing (or social conversation, or whatever is happening in the moment) when someone nearby is audibly crying. It’s distracting, it will cast a huge pall over everyone who hears it, people will wonder if they should be trying to comfort her or at least acknowledging her sadness … it’s a big deal.

Have you ever talked to her about it, naming the pattern and asking what’s going on in those moments? I’d start there. As part of that conversation, you can explain that’s it’s rough on others and ask her to work with you on thinking of solutions, which could indeed include going into an empty conference room and closing the door. That’s not inappropriate, and you’d be on solid ground in asking her to. But it should be part of a larger conversation about what’s happening so that it doesn’t come across as just, “Yo, we don’t want to be bothered with your pain, hide it away.”

Related:
a new manager says it’s a problem that our employee cries in meetings, at her desk, and during team lunches

2. Another angry boss writing angry memos

The president of a company I used to work for sent the email below a few years ago. I saved it as an example of how not to manage people and as a reminder for myself to look for a new job.

For context, the “tweak” was a new feature request from the client. This occurred in 2019 and as of 2023 the client had continued to make suggestions for additional “tweaks.” It’s an inevitable part of being a company that does B2B bespoke software development. Here is his email (only names have been removed or altered):

I just finished having an email correspondence with (name) on the (project). He informed me that there was a meeting on Monday with (name) about more tweaks that need to be done. This is a pathetic effort on all your parts with no exceptions. How can a project that took months of planning and developing and designing and all of you involved in it miss a “tweak”? There is absolutely no sense of urgency on anyone’s part to launch anything that may give us a head start. All of you easily pass the blame on the other for either missing things or things not getting done on time. We have a major launch on hold because some of you or all of you missed a “tweak.”

Here is what IS going to happen. By the end of the day TODAY my time I want:
1. how was this missed
2. what is being done about it
3. when is this “tweak” going to be done and launched.

I don’t care who’s sick, on vacation, has other things to do, or whatever sad excuse anyone may come up with. The consequences for this not being done is not going to be pretty for anyone on this project. and if anyone of you thinks they are irreplaceable because of what you do, think again. Make it happen NOW.

This email was sent to approximately a dozen recipients, employees and managers, and almost all of them have since resigned from the company. What are your thoughts on this person’s leadership style?

Tiger Mike?

Aside from the fact that it’s not okay to talk to people that way, this person is an incompetent buffoon. Pre- and post-launch tweaks are such a routine and unremarkable part of software projects that the fact that he doesn’t realize that makes me wonder how he can possibly be in his position. It’s no surprise his staff all leave.

Related:
angry boss writing angry memos – the next installment

3. My team went to dinner without inviting me

I am the new head of a department and the leadership team (my direct reports and I) had an off-site on my second week. On the last day of our off-site, we invited the staff in that location for drinks in our offices. I saw two of my direct reports grabbing their stuff and asked if they were about to leave and they confirmed (they said they were tired). I handed over a gift and wished them a good flight.

I then spoke to other staff members, who said that my direct reports were going out for a dinner and asked them to join, and these other staff members asked if I’d join too. I hadn’t been invited and, given that my direct reports had had a few opportunities to do so, I said that unfortunately I could not join. I later went to my direct reports, who were standing together with other staff members to say goodbye, and again there was no mention to me that they were going out for dinner.

As they did invite staff members, and it was a close-off of the off-site, to me it wasn’t the same as socializing without the boss. (If it were only my direct reports going, it would not make me think at all that I’m being excluded.) It did make me sad, so I wonder if I should ask one of them what happened?

Don’t ask what happened. People sometimes want to socialize without their boss there, even if the boss is great, especially at the end of an intense off-site. It’s just different socializing with the boss there versus not; people can’t relax in the same way.

You said you’d understand that if it had been just your direct reports, but that doesn’t change just because they invited others. I know you probably feel awkward that they went out of their way to not tell you, but that’s not terribly unusual with this kind of thing. It’s genuinely okay that they wanted to do their own thing without their manager there, and you shouldn’t take it personally or make them think you feel weird about it.

4. My interviewer didn’t take any notes

How am I supposed to deal with an interviewer who seemingly isn’t taking notes when I answer her questions, but invited me in the first place?

I was invited for an interview and there were three panelists: one young woman, one young man, and one older woman (the one who contacted me). During my interview, only the man took notes during my answers to their questions and at one point, the older woman sighed and looked exasperated with him for taking notes.

I have not heard back from them but this interview was my attempt to get away from a very inappropriate boss in a different part of the agency who was harassing me. Maybe he knows this person and asked her to string me along? Is this a normal thing that happens?

Nope! That doesn’t mean it didn’t happen here — anything is possible — but it’s not common and there’s nothing whatsoever to indicate it occurred. Lots of interviewers don’t take notes! Some panels of interviewers assign one person to take notes. Others don’t care about notes at all. You shouldn’t read anything into that.

5. Am I ruining my life by moving for my spouse’s job?

I am about to move to a different state because my spouse broke into a career with a difficult threshold for entry after years of trying. I will be leaving a stable in-person job that I like, but which has enough problems that I was planning to find a new position anyway to improve my quality of life. I just did not expect to be searching out of necessity so soon, and did not expect to need to dive into the remote work world given our relocation destination away from our current metropolitan hub.

People from my millennial cohort seem to see no problem, and are nothing but optimistic about the move and my future opportunities. Yet after a month of searching with some leads but no offers, my parents tell me I am ruining my life by leaving a stable job to turn to remote work and are constantly ask whether I have found a job yet. Dare I ask you to be the tie-breaker — am I ruining my life, or is being a “trailing spouse” not the life-ruiner my parents seem to fear and this situation is better to present to a therapist?

Having to change jobs when you move with a spouse is not a life ruiner. If you do it repeatedly, it could make your professional life a lot harder — or at least not what you wanted — but even that isn’t a life ruiner, unless for you a happy life can only revolve around one specific career track. (No judgment if so! But most people have a lot of different work scenarios that could be compatible with a happy life.)

I’m also curious why you (or your parents?) are defining “stable work” and “remote work” as opposites. Remote work isn’t inherently less than stable than non-remote work. They’re all just jobs.

Also, a month with some leads but no offers is pretty normal and not a sign of doom.

the lawnmower message, the mangled journal articles, and other stories of deliberately burnt bridges

I recently asked about bridges you intentionally, happily burned. Here are 12 of my favorite stories you shared.

1. The fish tank

In college, I worked as a cashier at a national chain pet store. The pay was dismal but it was pretty easy work, so I stuck around. After working there for three years and getting promoted, I broke my foot (not at work). When I went in the next day and said I would need a stool/chair, the manager flatly refused, scoffed, and said, “If I can’t sit down, no one can.” (He definitely had a chair in his office so this was total BS.) I was the only cashier scheduled for that evening (and generally this was the case; there was never a back-up). I said, “Oh, okay, then I guess I have to quit.” I walked over to the fish tank area, dropped my register key in the biggest tank, and left out the side door. They called me three times the next day (and my emergency contact!) to ask where my key was. I never responded.

2. The glitter

Not me but a coworker. This coworker had been at this department forever, and the company offered early retirement payout twice during their time at the company, which they applied for but the department rejected both times. So they were BITTER and rightfully so.

This coworker had reached retirement age and quietly arranged it all with HR and didn’t tell a soul. Didn’t announce it, didn’t give notice, and got HR to delay routing all the paperwork until the day they left.

I came in one morning to find a trail of glitter from the front door to their office and the room practically wallpapered with comic strips and memes about bad bosses/quitting/see ya never. It was amazing. Funniest thing I’d ever seen in my life.

The cherry on top? The department replaced the carpet in the hallway a few months later and to this day I am convinced it is because they couldn’t get the glitter out of the carpet.

3. The training

I’ve burned exactly one professional bridge in my entire career and I 100% stand behind it. I worked at a really toxic job for a number of years and my resignation was just as toxic, but I made the mistake of agreeing to come in on Saturdays (for an abysmally low hourly rate) to train my replacement and answer questions (via email or text, specifically noted not to call during work hours) after I started in my new role. I wish I had known about AAM back then, because Alison’s advice about not doing this after quitting is spot on.

I was getting absolutely swamped with questions from the staff member who was temporarily covering my duties while they trained my replacement. When I didn’t immediately answer her emails, she texted. And if I took more than five minutes to text back, she called my personal phone. And if I didn’t answer my personal phone, she called my work number (it was listed on a public directory, I never gave it to her). I emailed my former boss about it the response was, “We’ve [management] discussed this and concluded that this is a personal issue between you and [staff member]. You can work it out between yourselves.”

I was just … livid. I sent an email back, after getting payment for the Saturday training I had already completed, stating, “I’ve discussed this with myself, because [staff member] is not my coworker or employee, and concluded that this is outside the scope of what we agreed on when I quit. I will no longer be answering questions or coming in on Saturdays to train [replacement], you can work out the transition between yourselves.” I blocked the staff member and my former boss on both my personal phone, marked emails from the company as spam, and screened any calls from them on my work phone. I was going through my spam folder a couple months later to look for something else and came across a reply from my old boss calling me wildly unprofessional while also simultaneously offering me an extra $10/hour to keep training on Saturdays. Gave me a good laugh.

4. The lawn

In college I worked for my local township’s Parks Department, mowing lawns. They usually sent summer workers out in teams of four, but when they realized I got my work done and didn’t break the mowers or trucks, they started sending me out alone, but with the same length punchlist as the four-man crews. I complained, but none of the bosses cared because the work was getting done. It was annoying, but the overtime money was good so I stuck around.

After I graduated college, I worked one last summer before starting my “real” job several states away. From the start of that summer, I repeatedly told my boss that if he kept sending me out alone to do the work of a full crew, I was going to mow my name into the big park next to city hall downtown on my last day. He thought I was joking. I had absolutely nothing to lose and I was not joking. On my last day, I dropped the deck on my mower so the blades were almost low enough to scrape the dirt and signed my name in 20-foot tall letters in the field next to city hall. It was a dry summer, so it took almost two months to grow out.

5. The flowers

Early in his career, my husband worked for the IRS and was up for promotion to the next class of government worker. He was passed over twice – the third time would have been an automatic promotion. His boss closed the rec instead of giving him the job and he started looking in the private sector. Once he got a new position and started climbing the corporate ranks, he sent his former boss a thank-you card when his salary hit twice what he’d been making at the IRS, and sent flowers when it hit three times.

He understands from former coworkers that the flowers went right in the trash.

6. The scientific articles

A lifetime ago, I was a copy editor at an international science journal that took itself very seriously. Despite this self-seriousness, the work atmosphere was a hot mess (lots of employees dating each other with regular office breakups and drama, many inappropriate comments said openly, some real problem employees tolerated for eons), mostly due to the intensely hands-off attitude of the department manager. If I had been paid in peanuts it would have been a raise, and I had the worst benefits allowable by law at the time. But they promised to train me and prepare me for a shiny, exciting future!

Well, after a few months it was made crystal clear that the training I was promised was not to occur, and then several of us overheard our great-grandboss declare there were “just way too many employees” in our division. I correctly deduced, as the most recent hire, that my time was probably coming to an end. So on my last day, I took a bunch of scientific articles (“The Precise Tensile Coefficient of Llama Fur: An Exhaustive Report”) and did a find/replace on key words so as to turn them into instant parodies (“The Precise Time-Traveling Mysteries of Llamas: An Exciting Exposé”) and sent them out as proofs in progress to the scientist authors moments before handing in my badge and going home.

I was told later by someone who stayed slightly longer that it caused a collective massive eyebrow raise from various science orgs, some very long talks about what was going on with the editors, and while a few authors found the “edits” terrifically funny, the rest were simply confused. Although I was told via email I was never to be hired again, the organization ended up firing the whole department for budget reasons and outsourcing cheaper editors in another country, so … oh well.

7. The maternity leave policy

I was pregnant. My nonprofit employer had seven full-time employees and no leave policies. My commute was 90 minutes, each way. Our board had just finished conducting a benefits analysis and every member of the org shared that we needed a family leave policy. So I told my boss at eight weeks I was pregnant and needed to start talking about what a leave policy would look like.

This seemed like a no-brainer – we should create a policy, right? Wrong. Our board chair, upon discovering that I was pregnant, claimed she couldn’t “waive a magic wand and create a maternity leave policy!” She refused the flexible arrangement I proposed (six weeks off, then part-time and remote until my child could go to daycare), and a few weeks later replaced my boss with someone who’d start 10 days before my due date. And as it became increasingly clear that I would, in fact, give birth (and therefore be out of the office, with or without “permission”), it was equally clear that no one was willing to tell me what leave I’d be provided.

Fast forward to Friday afternoon, exactly one month before my due date, the week before Christmas. I get an email from my new boss – who I haven’t met and won’t return my calls – laying out what my leave will be: four weeks, unpaid. I can’t work remotely at all, so I’m expected to commute (this job could be done from literally anywhere – I was a department of one!). And after four weeks I’m to be back in the office (…with my baby? I don’t know what they expected, because I told them my daycare started at 12 weeks).

I weighed my options. I was young – these were powerful board members. They had sway in the community. But also, I’m tired. I’m eight months pregnant. I literally have zero f**** to give at this point. So I decided to burn it all down. I forwarded the email from my “new boss” to the entire board and laid it out for them – that the team had asked for a leave policy, that I spent six months offering to negotiate this including with [board president], and that I was going to pack up my things Monday morning.

Our biggest funder – who’s on the board – immediately responded, “Can someone explain why we are refusing to provide a leave policy?” and then I logged off.

8. The psychic

I used to work every Saturday for a psychic who owned a used bookstore, because she needed someone to run the bookstore while she gave readings in the back room. She was a very difficult person to work for, and one day when she asked me to work overtime but later refused to pay me for that, I had enough. The next Saturday, I just didn’t show up.

She called me and said, “Why aren’t you at work?” I said, “Because I quit.” She said, “You quit?” I said, “You should have seen this coming. You’re supposed to be a psychic.” And I hung up.

9. The contract renewal

My former employer definitely sees this as bridge burning, but I see it as justified karma for rampant gender bias. I started my career in a consulting firm in a historically male dominated industry. Almost immediately I noticed a distinct pattern – a man and woman would be hired to the same team at the same time, with similar levels of experience, but the man would always come in at a slightly higher level and with significantly more pay than the woman. There were always justifications – “He had an MBA, not an MS” or “He spent two years working instead of getting an MBA”, etc. The only consistency was that the men always came out higher.

The final straw for me was learning that an incompetent (male) coworker of mine at the same level as me was making 30% more than I was. I literally had 10 times the sales as he had that year, which supposedly made up 80% of our performance evaluation metric. Soon after, one of my clients gave me an offer to come in-house for close to double my salary, which I happily took.

Then the “bridge burning” started. My new company still had a contract for the same work with my previous company, which I got to manage from the client side now. My old company replaced me with one of the incompetent, overpaid men on their side. Predictably, he did a subpar job – missed deadlines, significant errors (which he blamed our team for), and an arrogant attitude on top of everything. This wasn’t just my opinion – my new boss and coworkers all noted this man’s arrogance and how much of a drop in quality there was compared to my previous work. Our contract was up about a year after I joined, and we sent the project out to bid. Even though we knew we wouldn’t choose them, we still invited my former company to bid on the project (which is a lengthy process), but ultimately chose a different vendor.

When we shared the news, one of the partners from my old job called me up to tell me how much I’d regret this and how much I had messed up his metrics for the year by losing this project, and how disrespecting “where I came from” would haunt me in the future. So far no haunting yet, our new consultant does an amazing job, and at least six other women from my previous firm left to work for clients and then fired our old company. So maybe it was our old company that burned the bridge with us.

10. The screeds

Not me, but someone who used to work for my employer. Apparently he was fired and viewed it as wrongful, so he took the time to write and send an email with six HEFTY paragraphs before he lost access about how the company was Doing Wrong By Him, how they’d abused his goodwill, how everyone knew him and should raise a fuss with HR, etc. This was the politest, quietest member of our office facilities team; I’m not sure he ever said more than about three words to most people. IT quickly came in and deleted that email from everyone’s inbox.

24 hours later, the guy managed to email the all-office distribution list from his personal email with a second AND THIRD lengthy screed about how terrible they were to him, how he’d been sick, how dare they fire him, here’s his contact info in case anyone wanted to go work with him when he found a new job…

Pretty sure that bridge was burning merrily. And hey, IT discovered a gap where outside addresses could email our all-office distro system because of him.

11. The truth-telling

I was working at a very dysfunctional company where the CEO’s brand of chaos and tyranny was most of the problem. When people would resign (frequently), he would insist that no one could be notified, but would still often make them work their notice period. So people would just suddenly disappear with no announcement – before or after, there was no transition documentation or delegation of tasks or roles, people would just suddenly be gone (like unpersoned). Their email would bounce and no one would know anything about it. Even managers would be out of the loop on who was supposed to do their work or where their deliverables were, etc.

So when I resigned, I told my manager (with whom I had a good relationship and who was also on his way out) that I was giving notice and telling everyone. He just said, “OK.” I toured the whole company, announcing to everyone, en masse, loudly, that I was giving two weeks notice and if they needed anything or had any questions, to come to me. Then, last and least, I popped by the CEOs office. He looked up and said, “I have a call, what do you need?” and I responded, “I’m giving two weeks notice and I just told everyone in the whole office, so I wanted to tell you quickly as well.” I was critical path on so much stuff that he couldn’t risk pushing me out early.

During our exit interview, he said, “This is a very stressful environment and not everyone can handle it.” “Well,” I said, “It’s your company, so if it’s stressful and people don’t want to work here, it’s because you want it that way.” I realize that this was all terrifically rude and not at all professional. I regret nothing! My manager was an excellent reference for years and I don’t think it harmed me professionally at all.

12. The sticker chart

A few years back, I wrote in about my bizarre dysfunctional office where we had a sticker chart where we had to indicate how we were feeling that day. We were treated very badly in that workplace but there was one woman who received some uniquely horrific treatment that I still struggle to comprehend. My favorite thing I’ve ever seen in a workplace was when she handed in her resignation, she strode right up to the sticker chart and slapped her sticker into the “feeling fantastic” box.

pregnancy and work: all your questions answered

Here’s a round-up of posts about pregnancy and work.

interviewing while pregnant

is it dishonest not to disclose you’re pregnant when you’re interviewing?

interviewer said they would hire me if I weren’t pregnant

interviewing while pregnant — but I’m not the mother

when should I tell my interviewer I’m pregnant?

working while pregnant

how do I announce my pregnancy at work?

how do you handle being pregnant at work?

is it bad faith to try to get pregnant when you’re in a new job?

I want to get pregnant … but I love my new job

I just started a new job — and just found out I’m pregnant

talking about my pregnancy at work when I’m placing the baby for adoption

your coworkers

my employee asked if I’m pregnant

my coworker keeps pressuring me to get pregnant

my coworker is upset that I’m pregnant

my coworkers are asking if my pregnancy was planned

male coworkers think I won’t return to work after my pregnancy — and won’t shut up about it

how can I head off pregnancy talk at work?

your boss

my boss says no one is allowed to get pregnant

I don’t want to tell my boundary-violating boss I’m pregnant

my boss is pressuring me to get pregnant

my boss complained that he was “the last to know” I’m pregnant

my boss is pressuring me to tell my coworkers about my pregnancy sooner than I want to

my boss disclosed my pregnancy

my managers joke about not hiring women who might get pregnant

being the boss of a pregnant person

should I have told my employee I figured out she’s pregnant so I could offer her flexibility?

my boss is discriminating against my pregnant employee

my employee didn’t tell anyone she was pregnant until she was about to give birth

my employee is pregnant but hasn’t said anything

managing an employee with “pregnancy brain”

my new hire didn’t tell me she’s pregnant — can I fire her?

maternity leave

everything you need to know about maternity leave in the U.S.

my department will fall apart if I get pregnant and take maternity leave

should I take more maternity leave than I want to “set a good example” for other women in my organization?

I keep getting work questions while I’m on maternity leave

I don’t think I want to come back from maternity leave

my CEO is furious about a joke I made

A reader writes:

I recently had an odd situation with the CEO of my company. I am a project manager working on a high-profile, time-sensitive project that was very important to the company. Although the company is a large multinational, I work out of the small satellite office, along with the CEO for North America, the VP of my division, and a few director level folks and individual contributors. Typically there aren’t too many people in the office since people travel a lot for work and work a hybrid schedule when not traveling. I don’t talk to the CEO a lot, but we do chat a few times a month and he’s traveled to visit my project several times.

Late in the day during a key (and highly stressful) week for the project, while I was chatting with one of the directors about sports, the CEO walked over and joined in our casual conversation. (We were the only three people in the office.) At the end of the conversation, he asked me how the project was going. I use humor to deal with stress so I made a very quick joke along the lines of, “Was I supposed to be working on that project this week?” — the joke being that obviously I’d been working extremely hard on it all day, before giving an update that was all good news with a detailed plan to finish the remaining work on time.

After I delivered the joke, the CEO’s expression went completely blank but he was clearly angry. The next week, I got a stern lecture from the division VP about how making jokes like that is extremely unacceptable. My boss (director level) got a 45-minute lecture about how he can’t let his people make jokes like that (although he did not seem to care and told me it was hilarious). Another director level type working closely with me on the project told me he’d heard about the joke from the CEO, who seemed to be so mad he was telling pretty much everyone (this guy also thought the whole situation was amusing). That same week, I got the key part of the project wrapped up on time and on budget, so a major win for the company as a whole.

For context, the CEO does make jokes fairly frequently (not super funny ones, but still jokes). The entire length of the incident, from when he finished his question to when I started the project update, couldn’t have been more than five seconds. Was it really such a huge deal that I made a joke like that, and what do I do next?

What on earth.

Your joke was fine. Even if your CEO had a two-second moment of panic in thinking you hadn’t been working on the extremely important project he assumed you were working on, it would have been immediately clear you were joking because you instantly went on to explain where things stood. It’s not like you let the joke go on and on, leaving him to think for any real amount of time that you’d forgotten the project.

Candidly, I can imagine privately thinking the joke wasn’t very funny. If you’re stressed and on-edge about something, you won’t always appreciate someone else joking around about that thing, even when you know they’re on top of their part and there’s nothing to worry about. But as a human living in the world — and especially as someone managing other people — it’s ridiculous to hold that against the person afterwards. People joke! People let off steam. It’s normal, and any mild “agh, that’s not funny” stress reaction should pass quickly.

So your CEO’s reaction was wildly over the top. Angry? Lecturing your boss and the division VP, and complaining about it to a bunch of others? That’s a bananapants overreaction.

It would be completely different if he’d said to your boss, “Hey, Jane sometimes jokes around in high-stress situations — please let her know it can land wrong when others are frazzled.” But that’s not what he did.

Going forward, now that you know he reacts like this, obviously don’t joke around him — assume he will take everything you say literally and does not appreciate attempts to lighten the mood. Noted.

Normally I’d say that’s all you need to do. This should have been such a minor incident non-event that it never needs to come up again. But given that your CEO clearly doesn’t see it that way, you could ask your boss whether it’s worth you apologizing to the CEO — not a huge mea culpa, just “I’m sorry that joke landed wrong; I hope you saw later how seriously I took that project.” Which is silly to have to do, but might be worthwhile politically.

interns stole alcohol at a work retreat, vacationing with a friend from work, and more

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

1. Interns stole alcohol at a work retreat

I recently started a new role, and last week we had a three-day annual retreat with the whole organization (about 30 people). It was a great experience overall, but it ended on a sour note: on our last evening, after a team dinner, two interns and one junior employee (who is still in their probation period) got very drunk, broke back into the restaurant where we had eaten after it closed, and stole an expensive bottle of alcohol.

None of us were aware of this until the next morning at breakfast, when the owners of the event space came into the restaurant, identified the three thieves through security camera footage, and demanded that they pay the full price of the bottle — $250. The interns and the junior employee seemed suitably embarrassed and went back to their rooms to gather up the money.

I was seated with a group of other managers and the CEO, and their conclusion seemed to be, “Well that was embarrassing, but if they pay for the bottle that’s the end of the story.” Personally, I thought that it should have been taken much more seriously — it seemed like a major lapse in judgement, and had it been my decision to make, I would have fired all three. I am a manager, but none of the three involved report to me directly, so it’s out of my hands. Still, should they have faced consequences from our organization as well, or was the fact that they were called out publicly and had to pay for the bottle enough?

For what it’s worth, there was wine served at the final team dinner, but it was far from a debaucherous free-for-all; there were speeches from the CEO and VP, a quiz about our organization’s history, that kind of thing — convivial, but no one other than the interns was getting drunk.

Yeah, I’m with you. You don’t commit a B&E during a work retreat!

It’s easy to leap to “I’d have fired them,” and that was my initial response. But when I reality-tested that by asking myself, “Is that really what I’d do in that situation or is it just the easy answer when it’s a hypothetical rather than reality?” and “What if this were an otherwise excellent employee with a great track record?” There are some situations where I could imagine not immediately firing the people involved and instead having an extremely serious conversation along the lines of, “This is unacceptable behavior to associate us with and a lapse in judgment that has broken our trust, and the consequences of that are….” (Even then though, are you ever going to be able to comfortably send that person on a business trip or out with clients? So it also depends on what their job is. And you’d need a lot of history of strong judgment and good work before this to even bother.) But two interns and a junior employee still in their probation period — i.e., people without a track record to counter-balance this incident? I’d be a lot less inclined.

What’s interesting to me about this isn’t that they weren’t fired, but that the organization’s response seems so mild in general. Like it wasn’t even a big deal as long as they paid for the bottle? That part — the lack of any serious concern — is pretty weird.

(Note: Much of my response is because they broke into the restaurant. That’s a big deal! If it was more like they swiped a bottle that was sitting in plain view somewhere, it still wouldn’t be okay, but I’d be less shocked by the lower-key response.)

2. I hate my workplace, but I don’t want to accept an alternate offer (I think)

I work at a mid-sized nonprofit that, to put it bluntly, is a mess. It’s an unhealthy work environment, everyone is charging towards being burnt out at an accelerated rate, we’re all overwhelmed, communication is a nightmare, we’re building the plane as we’re flying; you name a problem, and we probably have it in spades. But, I find the work I do enjoyable and fulfilling, like a handful of my coworkers, and have good enough work-life boundaries that my work problems rarely bleed enough into my free time to be a problem.

I spend probably an equal number of days excited to go to work in the morning as I do considering slashing my tires so I can get out of going in.

I recently received an offer from a sister organization to transfer to their branch. I have worked at this branch before at a part-time capacity with a lower title than I have now, so I know a bit about the environment and what would likely be expected of me. To be clear, since this is a sister organization, my status, benefits, pay, or title will not change at all. The only things that would change would be my workplace, work environment, and extra duties as assigned.

They’ve given me time to think about it, and I’m flabbergasted that as of right now, I don’t want to leave my current job.

When I think about the differences between the two, my current job, for its many, many flaws, feels more exciting and full of opportunities, including opportunities to make things better. The offer likely would provide a more healthy and stable day to day environment, less extra work, and somehow, that feels more boring to me. And yet, logically I know I would be stupid to stay.

Have I somehow Stockholm Syndromed myself into wanting to stay at a job that makes me miserable at least half the time? Am I being delusional about what the potential benefits of staying versus leaving?

Any chance it’s not so much that you want to stay where you are, but that you’re not excited about this specific other job? Is it possible you’d be more enthused about leaving for a different job altogether? Maybe you shouldn’t be comparing Current Job vs. Sister Job, but rather Current Job vs. something else entirely and should job hunt more broadly.

Or, it’s possible that you’re nervous about leaving something that’s comfortable. People often feel anxious about leaving bad jobs — because you like your coworkers, or you know how to get things done there, or everyone respects you, and on and on. It can be hard to leave that situation for something unknown, even if you hate it some of the time.

Or who knows, maybe you like the chaos. Some people do! In that case the solution might be to reframe the frustrating parts in your mind so you see them more clearly as trade-offs you’re intentionally choosing and are okay with. That can take some mental gymnastics, but if you can get that kind of clarity on it, it can make the difficult parts more bearable.

I don’t know which of these it is for you, but those are the questions I’d be gnawing on in your shoes.

Related:
feeling anxious about leaving my bad job for a better one

3. Is it OK to vacation with a friend from work?

I recently took a promotion, which meant I moved to a different state/work facility for my job. I now oversee a handful of associates as an assistant manager.

I have been good friends with one of my coworkers, “Brad,” at this site/department for a few years now. We started chatting on a business trip, and we’ve been friends ever since. Our friendship has always been strictly platonic, and this hasn’t changed since I’ve moved to the area.

Since the move, Brad and I have gotten into the habit of hanging out one or two times a week, including him introducing me to some of his non-work friends. We’ve grabbed dinner and watched movies, met up for drinks, or even just hung out at my apartment pool. It’s been a good transition so far, because I’m new to the area and didn’t know anyone else before I moved.

Brad invited me to go to his family’s vacation house in Florida for a few days. We both have time off work, and I think it would be an awesome couple days hanging out by the pool in Florida. We would each have our own bedroom/bathroom, but it would just be the two of us. My question is, is this crossing the line into “ick”?

Both of us have the same manager at work, and we work together in the same department/office. We’re both the same hierarchical level due to my recent promotion, but I am a newer manager and there is lots of room to move up in the future. He mainly does project work as a “technical expert” and does not manage people. Neither of us are going to mention the Florida trip at work or to mutual friends/coworkers, but does this cross the line? I can’t shake the feeling that this would be a really bad idea professionally, even though we’ve been friends for a few years before we started working directly together in the same department/site.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with taking a trip with a coworker who you’re friends with outside of work.

If you think you might ever be promoted to a position where you’re managing Brad, I wouldn’t go because that could really complicate things. But otherwise, it doesn’t have to be particularly line-crossing.

However, can you dig in deeper to where your discomfort is coming from? Do you feel weird because he’s a coworker, or because he’s a male coworker? (Obviously you’d want to feel confident that Brad also sees this as purely platonic and you won’t end up spending a few awkward days trapped together after he makes a move on you by the pool, but it sounds like you do.) Is it because it would intensify the friendship to a level you’re not sure you want? Does it feel like it’s blending worlds (work vs friends) too much? Would you just feel weird if people at work knew about it, and wouldn’t want anyone to find out?

“It just feels like crossing a line that I’m not comfortable with” is a perfectly good reason not to go, as is “I can’t shake the feeling that it would harm me professionally in this particular workplace.” So are any of the reasons in my previous paragraph. But if it’s just a worry that it’s inherently inappropriate to travel with a work friend, I don’t think it is.

(Full disclosure, I once went to Vegas with a male friend from work and it was awesome.)

4. Can a church require employees’ spouses to tithe?

I work for a church in Illinois that requires employees to tithe 10% of their income. However, this church also requires tithing based on household income, including my wife’s income, even though she is not employed by the church. They estimate spouses’ incomes and track our giving monthly. If we don’t meet the required amount, they can fire me or withhold yearly raises. Can they legally require my wife to tithe?

They sure can. But I’d love to know how they’re “estimating” your wife’s income.

5. When can I call someone’s cell versus a main number?

If you do not have a previously established relationship with a business contact, and they list their mobile number alongside the “direct” or “main” business line in their email signature, which is it best to start with if you have to call them (with no previous arrangement in place)?

Pandemic times shifted norms considerably regarding the role of personal cell phones and the workplace, and I’m unsure where things have landed. Sometimes the person answering the office phone thinks it’s weird that I’m calling and it seems like my message will never reach my contact, but then sometimes the contact is blindsided if I try their cell. I’m also wary of accidentally calling their cell on a day off or if there’s a time difference I’m not cognizant of. That’s never good. What’s the general consensus these days?

If they list a cell and a “direct” or “main” number, start with the direct/main number. If the person who answers there doesn’t instill you with confidence that your message will reach the person, say something like, “I do have her cell — should I try her there instead?”

If you have their email address and the query isn’t time-sensitive, you can also just start with an email, even if it’s just to ask to set up a time for a call. There are plenty of industries where an unscheduled phone call is still the norm, but lots of contexts where emailing first works well too and makes all this a non-issue.

And of course, once you’ve established some initial contact with the person, you can always ask which number they prefer you use in the future.

former coworker stole my work and keeps contacting me for help

A reader writes:

I have a weird issue that I need help with. My former coworker, Lulu, joined my company about seven years ago as a relatively inexperienced but enthusiastic junior team member. I trained her on some of her duties and, due to the nature of our jobs, we worked closely together for a time.

All was (mostly) well, but I noticed Lulu’s sensitivity and immaturity about some things, mostly about feeling “left out” of projects that didn’t concern her. Because she would claim to be hurt and disappointed by being left out, our manager began including her in recurring meetings she didn’t need to be in. She’d rarely contribute to these meetings but insist on attending; often, we’d need to move the meeting to accommodate her increasingly messy calendar, which was full of all the meetings she insisted on joining. If we didn’t move the meeting at her request, she’d have an urgent meeting with our boss, complaining that we were going behind her back.

Lulu received a significant promotion a few years into her tenure, and her behavior worsened. In meetings with my team, she’d bring up how being “left out” negatively impacted her work. We’d explain that she didn’t need to worry about the project in question, and then at meetings with our mutual manager present, she’d repeat the whole performance again with more dramatic flair.

She also started claiming ownership of things only tenuously related to her job. At one point, I created a company account on a free software tool for other departments to do work related to a specific project. Lulu complained that due to the nature of the software tool, she should have been consulted before anyone opened the account or used it. In other words, she was very good at borrowing trouble where there wasn’t any and bogging down workflows due to her own hurt feelings and self-importance.

I was supposed to continue working with Lulu, but it was extremely difficult. Several times, I approached her about working collaboratively on new initiatives, but regardless of how I worded the request, she interpreted the conversation as me trying to tell her what to do. Maddeningly, Lulu frequently did tell me how to do my job. The only way to work with her was to give her “approval” power, even when it made no sense. This grated on me because she was very green in many areas of her own job, and not at all knowledgeable about mine. So, eventually, I just avoided working with her whenever possible. Our team performance suffered because of this, but since our boss coddled Lulu there was nothing more to do about it.

A month or so ago, Lulu got another job and resigned. In the days leading up to her departure, she quizzed me intensely on my day-to-day work, asking how I did or approached certain things. This tripped a wire in my brain, and after Lulu left my company, I looked at our internal knowledge center and discovered she’d “checked out” and downloaded several of my own guides, frameworks, and templates.

She is now essentially doing my job at her new company – the same title/type of work, but also literally my job because she’s using all my collateral, which I also suspect she used to get the job in the first place.

The latest development is that she periodically emails me and asks for help. These emails are obsequious in tone and are things she could easily google for herself. I can’t decide if she thinks I’m dumb enough to help her out or if she believes she is so charming that I couldn’t possibly resist her request.

I am torn between pretending I don’t get these emails (or just responding half-heartedly enough that it’s no longer worth her time to even send them) or telling her outright to figure things out for herself. She made my job incredibly difficult for years; I am not inclined to help her.

If this were a movie, you could send her bad advice, which she would then steal, ultimately torpedoing her career due to her own incompetence and underhandedness. You, meanwhile, would get a promotion and also a handsome boyfriend.

This not a movie, so don’t do that. But you definitely don’t need to help or even respond to her emails at all. Just ignore them.

If you feel awkward doing that, the next best thing is to take a long time to respond and then, when you finally do, be vague and unhelpful — or just say, “Sorry, I’m swamped right now and I don’t want to hold you up, so don’t wait on me.”

But really, you could just ignore her. Set her emails to go straight into your trash if you want. You don’t owe this person who made your life difficult, and who apparently stole your work, anything. You definitely don’t owe her help doing her new job.

If you could prove she had stolen your work — or your company’s property, more broadly — and taken it to her next company where she was presenting it as her own, that would be worth tipping off your boss about. Your company might have Feelings about that kind of theft (especially if she’s at a competitor, but even if she’s not), but it doesn’t sound like there’s conclusive enough evidence to go in that direction (even though I agree with you that it looks pretty clear), especially given your boss’s coddling of Lulu.