my boss makes me hassle my coworkers for no reason

A reader writes:

I started working at my current job about eight months ago. My team is small — just my manager (a director) and myself (a manager) — and we have many projects that require us to work with other teams within our company. Most of the time, we are asking people from other teams to take time out of their daily workload to assist us. Asking people to jump in on projects is not always easy, especially when it feels like everyone is bogged down with a tremendous workload. I consistently try to be a bit lighter in my approach when asking for assistance — my manager, however, sees no problem essentially bullying her way into a quicker response.

Upon starting at this company, I noticed many people spoke warily of my manager, who we’ll call Jane. I could definitely understand their issues — she can be quite abrasive and overpowering. She is very negative and constantly micromanages just about every project she’s on. Regardless of these qualities, I’ve still been able to gel with her. Sure, she can pry too far into my personal life or snap at me for little to no reason, but I’m able to compartmentalize, and I’m happy with my position. Outside of the difficult parts of her personality, I don’t necessarily mind working with her.

We are in the midst of a large project at the moment and need quite a bit of IT assistance. The only person who can help out with this is currently on a business trip across the country. He will be back within a day or so, and advised Jane of this several times in the past week. Today, Jane asked me to call this man multiple times and ask him vague questions about the project that she had already emailed him. Unfortunately, as this is my direct boss and do not have much leeway to decline, I made the call and apologized profusely to this man. He was understanding with me, but proceeded to tell me to tell my boss to “go f*** herself” and let her know “the world doesn’t revolve around her work.”

While I wish I could say this is an isolated incident, Jane has asked me to do things like this before, like abruptly calling people to demand something that could wait until they’re able to reply via email. I have shared with her that people get frustrated by this, but I’ve watered it significantly. I haven’t shared how angry others have been, mostly because I fear she will throw a bit of a fit, go to them about it, and then my relationship with them will be damaged.

Any time I have expressed discomfort with the way she asks me to approach others, she takes it as me “being shy.” I have told her multiple times that I am not shy, but what I haven’t said is that I don’t enjoy harassing my coworkers.

How do I approach this subject without making it seem like a personal attack? I want to discuss this in a healthy way, but every time I’ve attempted to have a discussion with her, she doesn’t seem to take anything in — she is just immediately on the defensive.

You can read my answer to this letter at New York Magazine today. Head over there to read it.

I can see a coworker doing work for me incorrectly over her shoulder — can I step in?

A reader writes:

I wonder if you could help me with a bit of office etiquette.

There is a designer who works for my company. She is not my direct report and I don’t manage her in any way, but she does split her time between doing design work for me (she does two days of work for me a week) and the rest of the company. So I delegate, prioritize, give feedback, etc. over those two days.

Because of the way our desks are positioned — I am behind her and slightly to the side and we are facing the same direction — I can often see her work over her shoulder. On multiple occasions now, I have seen her doing something incorrectly, or working on something I didn’t want to prioritize while the priority work hasn’t been finished, or just designing something in such a way that I know I will want to change, even if it isn’t necessarily incorrect.

How can I address this — and should I? If it was just once, I’d shoot her a quick message and laugh it off as “Oh, just spotted this in the corner of my eye, actually it should be X…” but if it’s multiple occasions, that just seems like weird and creepy micromanaging to me! On the other hand, it would save us both time and her a lot of work if I did step in instead of waiting for her to send me the work at the end. There also must be a different level of appropriateness dependent on whether it’s actually doing something wrong, or just not my design preference.

If it gives any context, i’m only 23 and new to this company, and she has been here for a few years. I am not her manager at all and have never managed anyone before. I am having some other issues with her at times as well, in terms of meeting deadlines — I always give her a deadline of one to two weeks before I need to use something to leave time for revisions, but she often just goes by the final, final date and doesn’t leave any time for changes so I end up having to chase up on work all the time or risk pushing back deadlines. Addressing these issues earlier would help greatly with that.

Oooh, that’s tricky.

You definitely don’t want her to feel like you’re watching all her work as she does it, even though the reality is that you can see it. People need space to work and make mistakes and fix them, and no one wants to feel like everything on their screen is being scrutinized. On the other hand, though, if you can see her putting time into something she doesn’t realize she’ll need to change later, it feels weird not telling her that.

I think you can intervene a few times, but not on a regular basis. It’s fine to occasionally say, “Hey, I think you’re working on X, and I might not have been clear enough — can you actually take care of Y first? That one’s more time-sensitive.” Or, “Sorry to intervene while you’re right in the middle of it, but I’m hoping it might save you some time — I saw you’re doing this in blue but it’s got to match the green and gold color scheme for the event.”

Occasionally.

If it’s something you’re doing regularly, it’s going to drive her batty, and understandably so.

I’d actually look at this from a different angle: Take this as a flag that something is keeping the two of you from being aligned on projects from the start. Think about the sorts of things that you’ve seen her getting wrong, and think about what kind of info you could have given her earlier on that would have prevented that.

It’s really, really common in any kind of delegation (and especially with design work) for the person delegating the work to have all sorts of info in their head about what they want the final product to look like … but not to give that info to the person doing the work until later on, when the work comes back to them and they have something concrete to react to. The trick in delegating well is to learn to articulate much of that info as possible at the start — so that the person doing the work has all the same info you do about what you want. Right now it sounds like you might not be doing that, so she’s making decisions on her own — and they’re not lining up with what you want. (If I’m wrong and the mistakes she’s making are things you explicitly talked about earlier, that’s a different situation, but since you didn’t mention that, I’m going to assume that’s not the case here.)

The same need for clarity is true with deadlines, in a way. If she’s not meeting your interim deadline because she knows the “real” deadline, have a clear conversation with her where you explain that you’re setting interim deadlines to allow for revisions, and that you need her to use the deadlines you give her. If you have that conversation and the problem keeps happening, then you get more serious about it: “I need things back to me by the deadlines I give you, and it’s causing problems like X and Y when that doesn’t happen. Do you need me doing something differently so that you’re clear on those interim deadlines, so that I’m not having to chase it down after the deadline I give you passed?” (And if it still continues, that’s a performance issue to bring her boss in on.)

So for now, I’d focus on your pieces of this — on how you can be more clear. And when you see her screen and she’s doing something you know you’re going to want to change later, instead of saying something immediately, I’d use that as an exercise for yourself — a chance to figure out what you should have told her up-front but (apparently) didn’t. And then use those insights as a way to get better and better at the info you’re giving her on the front-end when you first delegate something. Over time, this should cut down on how often you’re spotting her screen and realizing she’s way off-base. (Of course, keep in mind that the goal here isn’t for you to have zero edits/tweaks when the first iteration of work comes back to you. It’s normal to still need to give input and you don’t want to try dictating every tiny detail — you just want to make sure that you’re setting her up to get reasonably close to what you want on the first try.)

Also, changing the amount of constant visibility you have into her work will help too. Can you move the angle of your desk or put up a small barrier that would keep you from seeing everything she does? That’ll force you to handle this the way you would if she were off in her own office, and it’ll be healthier for both of you not to have her right in your line of sight at all times.

how can I follow up without being annoying, people ask “who’s in here?” when I’m in a bathroom stall, and more

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

1. How can I be less annoying when I have to follow up with people?

Do you have any suggestions for less annoying follow-up? I have a mainly back office position and don’t work with customers or external partners for the most part, but sometimes I have to request documents for compliance. It’s a pain and I hate doing it, but we have to do it.

Let’s say it’s a signed TPS coversheet. I don’t have the authority to change anything about the process, and management wants it this way. I have to hound our partners for these stupid TPS sheets and send them a million emails.

I have frequent back and forth with several key partners. I have a decent rapport with them, but I can’t help but feel like I’m a pest when I ask for what I need. Sometimes I only get one or two TPS sheets back when I need four, sometimes it’s the wrong name, and sometimes I receive them much later than the deadline.

How can I politely ask for what I need without being annoying? I’m a young millennial woman so that is driving a lot of my thoughts here.

You know it’s a requirement, they know it’s a requirement, and it’s okay to continue checking back until you have what you need. You should do it pleasantly and cheerfully, but don’t feel awkward about the fact that you have to do it in the first place! (If anything, you might tell yourself that they should feel a little awkward that they keep not sending you something you’re clearly asking for.)

Sometimes doing this pleasantly means using softening language like “I’m sorry to bug you about this” but most of the time it’s fine to just be straightforward, as long as your tone is warm — for example, “Hmmm, I’ve got two back from you but still need two more — can you send the X and Y sheets along too?” or “Today’s our deadline for having these in, so could you send them to me this morning?”

And when someone is chronically sending them in late, it’s fine to say, “We’ve to have these in by the fifth of every month for (reasons). Is there something I can do differently on my end to make sure you can meet that deadline?”

Also! If you’re sending a zillion emails without the results you need, the very first thing to try is switching contact methods — in this case, to calling instead. Some people are much more responsive to calls, and the ones who don’t love calls may start to realize it’s preferable to answer your emails.

But sometimes this is just the job, and decent people will understand you’re not hounding them just to annoy them.

2. My coworkers keep asking “who’s in here?” in the bathroom

My office restroom has the usual share of problems, but I’m finding that I keep running into one that causes me more grief than others. For context, I have a medical condition that requires frequent and sometimes lengthy trips to the restroom. Quite a few people around the office know about it, as I also need to take time off every couple months for treatment and I sometimes mention it in passing. I have already set up reasonable accommodations involving these restroom trips with HR, so no worries there.

The problem is that many of my fellow lady coworkers use the restroom as a sort of hangout spot. People will either stand by the sinks and chat, or even carry on conversations while all parties are in the restroom stalls. These conversations are about everything from personal life events, to complaints about others in the office, to private customer information. When one of the speakers realizes that they are not alone in the restroom, they either stop talking abruptly, comment on the extra person and laugh about it, or ask the dreaded question: “Who else is in here?”

I can’t stand this. My choices feel like they’re limited to 1) staying quiet and seeming creepy or 2) sheepishly identifying myself and dealing with the embarrassment. I’ll frequently hear jokes when I go to wash my hands that “I’m eavesdropping.” When I hear certain people enter the restroom, my heart sinks because I know that they’re going to continue their conversation and I’ll eventually be involved whether I like it or not.

If I ran the country, I’d make the question “Who’s in here?” illegal in all public restrooms. Since I can’t do that, what can I do? I don’t want to take away people’s freedom to chat, but I’m tired of feeling like an unwanted presence in my own company restroom. Is there any way to get a little bathroom etiquette going?

I think that when you’re in a bathroom stall, you’re entitled to the illusion of a sound barrier, and therefore you are not obligated to respond to queries directed your way from outside the stall. In other words, stay quiet if you want to! But I can understand why you might feel too weird doing that, you could try “Someone using a toilet!” or even “Ugh, let’s not roll-call who’s on the toilet.”

And once you come out and reveal yourself, feel free to say, “I prefer to believe there’s a sound barrier in bathroom stalls, where noise doesn’t travel in or out.”

3. Interview outfits when a suit isn’t flattering

I have fashion question. I’m hoping to have some interviews in the near future, in an industry where suits are pretty typical interview attire. However, I have a very large bust, to the point where I have to purchase all of my work clothes from specialty retailers. My typical work outfit is a conservative, tailored wrap dress, which works well for my figure. Quite frankly, suits look terrible on me. Button-up shirts and blazers never fit right. They are either so loose in the waist that I could fit an entire watermelon in there, or they have to be tailored in a way that really emphasizes my bust and makes me feel uncomfortable. It would also cost hundreds of dollars, as there are only a few (very expensive!) companies that sell button-up tops or blazers that I could actually fit over my chest.

Is there an alternate outfit I could get away with? Or do I need to lean into the suit?

It really depends on your field, and the norms for your field in your geographic area. There are a lot of fields now where it’s perfectly acceptable to wear something that’s formal but not a suit to interviews — a business-y dress, a dress with a non-suit blazer, pants and a blouse, etc. Those might be perfectly fine for you. (There are fewer formal non-suit interview options for men, but they exist too, usually revolving around no tie or no jacket.)

But there are still fields where you really do need to interview in a suit and will appear inappropriately informal if you don’t — for example, a lot of finance jobs and some law jobs. So you’ve really got to know your field on this one, unfortunately! If you’re unsure, I’d check with a handful of people you respect who work in your field in your geographic region, both at your level and somewhat above it, and see if there’s a consensus. (Avoid asking anyone who’s known to have iconoclastic views on this sort of thing though; you’re trying to find the mainstream perception.)

4. How to answer “where do you see yourself in five years?”

I have no idea what I want from my career. Never have done. I have no particular ambitions or positions I want to achieve. I’m perfectly happy to be in the same position without advancement so long as that position is fulfilling for me. But I have no idea how to explain that in job interviews without coming across as a lazy or mediocre worker.

I’ve been answering the “Where do you see yourself in five years?” question by explaining that while I don’t have a set career path in mind, I know what I want from my position and then explaining what those things are, e.g. I want to work for a company that constantly improves and innovates, I enjoy working on a team, I want to be challenged and fulfilled by my work, etc. But I am not sure whether this is actually a good route to take or whether it is off-putting.

Interviewers who ask that question or similar ones are trying to get a sense of how this job fits in with your longer-term plans and goals. If it helps, you can think of it as, “How does this job fit in with where you see your career going?” They want to understand that because they want to hire someone who will be satisfied by the job and what it will do for them — which could be “help me move toward higher-level position doing X” but could also be stable, meaningful work. It’s fine to say something like, “What I really want is to stay in this field, building my skills, feeling regularly challenged, and doing work that feels meaningful. I’m very open about what that path ultimately looks like, but I’m excited about this role because ___.”

5. Should my resume mention an old internship with the company I’m applying to?

I have been updating my resume as I start to look for a new place of employment (in the same career field). During my junior year in college I was a summer intern with Company A. I interviewed with them once I graduated, but they ended up not having the budget to hire me at that time so I accepted an offer from Company B. Fast forward seven years (all with Company B), and I’m now applying to a new job with Company A. I’m not sure if I should put the internship from so long ago on my resume or not.

I have built a good portfolio of work that I am passionate about over the last seven years, and I want to make sure I have room to highlight those accomplishments. In comparison to my current skill set, the work I did as an intern is less impressive. I did real applicable work there; it was just at a level that reflected the fact I was an intern and didn’t have a degree or much work experience.

Is it a good idea to put the internship on the resume so that I highlight I have already worked there? Should I just list the dates of employment but not list accomplishments for that time? Leave it off from the resume and bring it up if I can during an interview? Forget the internship entirely and focus on more recent accomplishments?

List the internship, because it’s relevant that you’ve worked there before; it could give you a leg up, or it might just seem odd if it comes up later and you hadn’t mentioned it. But don’t devote a ton of space to it — just a single line (or maybe two) with highlights of what you accomplished there is fine.

You should also mention in the cover letter that you interned there at the start of your career.

I hired a friend and it’s not going well

A reader writes:

Late last year, when my company had some turnover and we needed a high performer in stat, I weighed the pros and cons and hired a friend, “Mike,” who I had previously managed.

He and I had brunch and discussed the friendship and work aspect, but ultimately the benefits to the business (at the time) outweighed the negatives I could see jeopardizing our friendship.

My issue now is that he seems to have incredibly low confidence when he isn’t in a familiar environment and has become self-deprecating and in need of constant reassurance, so not the high performer I thought I was getting.

That’s fine, and learning new skills can be tough, but at some point I need him to just perform. I also worry I’m approaching this more as a friend (“don’t worry, you’ll get there and I’m here to support you”) rather than a boss (“I understand you’re struggling and I’m here to support you to a certain point, but it’s also on you to make some changes”). What IS the right way to help an employee who has the skills but struggles with self esteem?

I also can’t be his sounding board for his feelings anymore and I don’t know how to discuss that. For example, yesterday he made a pretty brutal error and a client could have seen something they shouldn’t have on a live screen share. Now, they didn’t, as far as I know, so it’s a lot easier to mitigate, but obviously this is an issue.

It’s the first time it happened and I handled it the way I would with any other employee — “that shouldn’t have happened, we are lucky the client didn’t see it, and I want to know what steps you’re taking to ensure its never happening again, and if it does become a repeat issue we will have to have a more serious discussion.”

But then this morning he is texting me all woe-is-me and “I don’t want to come to work, I’m dreading it.” So far I’ve ignored the texts, but I want to say “what do you want me to do about it?” It doesn’t feel like a fair place to put me, as his friend and the person who delivered the much deserved criticism, but also I will own the fact that I have put myself here, by hiring him and failing at this boundary.

I’ve let it go but he will mope about it for days — and I don’t know how to handle his emotional self-deprecation (I think because we are friends, I hear more of his internal monologue than I would otherwise).

This is on me for hiring a friend, I know, but how do I set firm boundaries/help him with his struggling self esteem without crossing into friend territory? And how do I let him know that texting me that he is “dreading work” the morning after I have a disciplinary conversation with him is inappropriate/puts me in a weird position? Or do I say anything at all?

Are you prepared to lose the friendship?

I ask because there’s a pretty good chance that’s going to be the outcome here, and you can’t move forward the way you need to as a manager if you’re not okay with that possibility.

It’s hard enough to manage a friend under the best of circumstances, but it’s incredibly hard when that person isn’t performing in the way you need — and even harder when they are treating you like a friend rather than a boss.

It sounds like you’ve got to have a pretty serious boundary-setting conversation with him. It’s going to feel awkward and not terribly pleasant, and it’s possible he won’t handle it well — but it’s ultimately the least painful way forward here.

That means sitting down with him and saying something like, “While you’re working here, I’ve got to be your manager first and foremost, and that means you can’t send me messages about dreading coming to work. That puts me in a really awkward position, and it won’t work for the professional relationship we need to have. It also means you can’t look to me to be your sounding board for your feelings about work. I know you’re having a tough time and I sympathize, but because of our roles at work, I can’t be the person you talk that through with.”

I’d go on to say, “I know this is a weird spot for both of us, and if you decide it’s not for you, I’ll understand that. But while you’re here, I really need you to perform … and so I need you to figure out if it’s work you want to do and feel you can do, and if so, to focus on doing it without so much involvement from me.”

Because the thing is — it’s not your job to spend significant amounts of time shoring up his self esteem. It’s okay for a manager to do a little of that (“from what I’ve seen you do with X, I think you have everything it takes to excel at Y” … your presentation on Z in the meeting blew me away — you have a great command of the topic and a talent for making it interesting to others” … etc.) but you’re describing Mike as “in need of constant reassurance,” that’s not a reasonable way for you to spend your time.

You could also say, “Going forward, as long as we’re working together, I think we’ll each need to manage our relationship the way we would if we hadn’t know each other previously. That means I’m going to be less available for talking through your feelings about work, and I wanted to explain why so you understand the context.”

And then … start managing him the way you would anyone else. Don’t spend huge amounts of time on his insecurities; if the conversation goes in that direction, say something like, “Let me know if you have specific questions or areas you need help with, but otherwise I’m going to assume you’ll move forward with this” and then move to a new topic or end the conversation. That’s going to feel weird to you, and maybe rude, but you’re not doing him any favors at this point by letting him stay mired in these ongoing discussions of his insecurities.

If he texts you more complaints about work or comments about dreading coming in, first try ignoring them. If it keeps happening, then you need another “let’s clarify our work relationship” conversation.

But if things keep going in that direction despite this, it’s reasonable to call the question pretty quickly: Does he want to stay in the job or does he feel like it’s the wrong match? It’s okay to ask him point-blank: “Knowing that these are the expectations of the role, do you think you can meet them? Or realistically, is this not the right role for you long-term?” It’s not okay for him to stay in the role and keep signaling to you that he doesn’t think he can do the work — and if that’s what he’s conveying, you’ve got to bring that to the surface and ask him to decide either to commit and do the work or to move on.

And of course, even if he does commit, it may be that you end up deciding you need someone better suited to the work, and it’s wise to acknowledge to yourself now that it could go in that direction, so that you’re not operating through a lens of “must make this work.”

There’s a pretty good chance that this isn’t going to end with him having the warmest feelings about you. That sucks, I know — but it’s an outcome you’ve got to make peace with if you hire a friend.

my boss thinks I made a mistake, but I didn’t

A reader writes:

I’ve been at my current job as an editor for two years now and I report to a manager who reports to the director. The director assigns me work often. She doesn’t really work with any of the other editors directly, so I feel like she really trusts me. In all the time I’ve been there, I’ve never been reprimanded.Many of my coworkers complain about the director’s attitude but to me she’s always been very nice.

Earlier last week she called me into her office and gently let me know that I didn’t catch something I should have or emailed her to let her know. She was really nice about it and basically said it was ok because I usually always do catch things like that. The thing is, I did catch it and I did email her about it. I also sent her a follow-up email when she didn’t respond. She misses emails often because she gets so many, but she usually sees it when you send her a follow-up. I wanted to mention that I did email her, but instead I just apologized since she didn’t make a big deal out of it so I didn’t want to look overly sensitive.

Then last Friday a very similar mistake came through and again I caught it and sent her an email. First thing this morning, she sent me an email asking why I didn’t catch it when we talked about a similar scenario last week. This is the second time I did email her and she didn’t see it. Again, I didn’t say anything because I wasn’t sure how to let her know without sounding like I’m saying she didn’t check her email. If this happens again, how should I handle it?

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 can’t say no to clients, and my success is destroying me

A reader writes:

I’ve been an independent contractor for nine years, and I’ve finally found financial comfort and fulfillment in my work. This did not come easy. I was barely scraping by the first couple of years. I took sleazy corporate work for investment bankers and lawyers because that’s “where the market was,” and I had to sell myself short to be competitive.

Not anymore. I don’t have to hustle. Gigs fall into my inbox like candy out of a pinata. I have built rapport and trust with steady, well-paying clients who respect my expertise. I work on projects that excite me and make me feel like I am making a difference in the world. One client does educational development projects for the MENA region and it absolutely feeds my soul.

This is great! This is the dream! I am so lucky! Yay!

Except that it’s ruining my life.

I have no semblance of work-life balance and the stress is eating me alive. I’m constantly breaking down, there’s a pit of guilt in my stomach over not spending time with my partner or even coming to bed most nights, I have no social life or hobbies, I barely have time to eat, I rarely leave my house.

It’s not about time management (often the huge issue for contractors). It took forever, but I have largely figured that one out. Now I can stay on task, avoid procrastinating, etc. It’s about being too terrified of losing a client to say no. This regularly results in workloads that are so staggering that I have to work more than 80 hours — sometimes more than 100 — and pull several all-nighters a week just to stay on top. And when I manage prompt turnarounds because I want to keep my client company happy, I get praise for being “seemingly always available” and then they give me more work from a new program, which seems a cruel irony.

Sometimes I try to convince myself this is fine because it’s the trade-off and “it comes with the territory.” I have so, so much autonomy and flexibility. I can travel, I can work from anywhere while doing anything I want as long as I have a computer and some software. And then I also try to convince myself that it’s fine because the super high-stakes, high-stress deadlines come in short bursts, and I can rest and do whatever I want in between. I can work around the clock for a week and a half then take two whole weeks off and still make very good money. Who else can say they can just take weeks off regularly? I should be grateful.

Except it’s not working. The stress is so high I don’t want to even exist when one of those bursts is over. I feel utterly destroyed afterwards. I grow numb to my partner’s concern. I spend the time off recovering and hibernating, not living.

Then I go back to work and tell myself it will be different this time, that I will say no to some of the projects, that I won’t let my clients push things on me that I don’t have the time or heart to do. But I just can’t seem to make myself do that. They say words like “urgent” and “high profile” and I cave. I get terrified that I will lose it all. That if I don’t say “how high” when they say jump, they’ll find someone else who will. That they won’t renew the contract at the end of the fiscal year, they’ll stop looping me in when there’s high-volume work for an important launch event that might literally change the world because I can’t handle the volume, and bye bye dream projects, bye bye.

On some level I know that this is not true, that I am actually valuable enough to them for them to want to retain me, that they would probably be horrified if they realized just how much stress I am under, and that even if they split the projects with another contractor, I would still get plenty of work.

But I am so afraid of burning any of these bridges that cost so much to build and that I am so attached to that I can’t seem to say no. Any of the scripts I try to come up with feel too risky and I can’t go through with them. (Unfortunately the solution is not to thin down my workload by dropping a client for lots of reasons I won’t go into).

If I turn projects down, that absolutely means they will find someone else to do them. It would feel like putting the first nail into my own coffin. Especially because I have a bit of imposter syndrome going on. I don’t have certification or training in my line of work and my skillset is entirely self-taught, and most of the time I am not sure how I managed to land the projects I have. I’m just waiting for them to discover that I’m actually a fraud.

I don’t know what I would do if it all falls apart. I am attached to the work itself. Sunk cost aside, I’ve never had a “real” job, the thought of trying to transition into conventional employment in the U.S. job market with only a resume full of contract work and adjunct gigs and a degree from a third world country makes me want to faint. I have a chronic health condition that would make it very hard for me to keep regular office hours anyway, which is why I quit teaching and started to work from home to begin with. Even academia isn’t flexible enough for me. I don’t have a social safety net to fall back on because I left my country and am estranged from my family. My partner is underemployed and I support him. I am alone.

Please help me figure out how to assert myself without feeling like I’m jumping out of a plane without a parachute. I can’t keep doing this, but if I don’t I feel like I stand to lose it all. This sounds melodramatic, but I’ve already lost it all once before and I can’t do it again. Sometimes it feels like this job is all I have.

Oh my dear letter-writer, I want to bundle you into a cocoon of blankets and give you tea and let you take a days-long nap on my couch, because I know how very, very much this sucks.

But the house of cards here — the thing that is not real and not solid — is not your work or your skills or your reputation. The house of cards here is your belief about what would happen if you pulled back a little.

Clients who value you as much as yours sound like they value you aren’t going to dump you because you reveal that you are human. But they will keep giving you as much work as you’ll accept, because they like your work! They’re counting on you to tell them where your limits are — and you get to tell them you have limits. That will not surprise them or make them think less of you. They have worked with other humans and understand how it works. They’re telling you that when they comment on you always seeming available. And they’re assuming you’ll say “enough” when it’s enough, and it’s very likely that they’ll accept that and make do.

At some level, you know this. It’s why you wrote that they’d be horrified if they realized how much stress you’re under, and that you know you’re valuable enough that they want to keep you.

But you’re not letting yourself really believe this because you’re terrified.

And of course you’re terrified. Being a freelancer is scary. All your work could go away next month, and then what? And for you, it’s compounded by how much you’re devaluing your own skills — you’ve convinced yourself that what you have now is a special arrangement that you could never replicate again — that because you’re self-taught, your skills don’t “count” as much, and so who knows if anyone would ever hire you to do this work again if your current arrangement falls apart.

But that’s BS. It’s an illusion that you’ve convinced yourself is real. It doesn’t matter if your skills are self-taught once you have years of putting them to excellent use. Look at your track record. Your skills are real ones, and they get results and people like them (and you). After a certain point, it doesn’t matter how you acquired those skills; you have them, they’re valuable, people want them, and you can sell them. The evidence of that is the incredible success you’ve been having.

Your fear is also being compounded by how precarious your position feels, with no family for a safety net and with a partner who relies on you financially. Freelancing is scary under the best of circumstances, and it’s terrifying when you throw in those factors.

But you’re doing it, and you’ve found success.

You’ve found success.

What if you let yourself trust that? What if you let yourself trust that if one of these clients did go away, you’d find more work to fill the space (or even could enjoy leaving that space free)? What if you trusted that what you’ve built isn’t going to suddenly collapse? Or that if it did, you could build it back up just as you built it the first time?

I know how scary it is to trust that, because what if you’re wrong? What if you let yourself trust it and then things collapse anyway? But the alternative is doing this non-living you’re doing right now — spending every day exhausted and guilty and frazzled and feeling like you’re stretched so far that there’s barely anything left of you. The weeks/months/years of non-living are weeks/months/years that you’re never going to get back. They’re weeks/months/years that you’re spending without seeing friends, without being present with your partner, without being present for yourself. They’re weeks/months/years that you’re spending inside, stressed or recuperating from exhaustion, rather than outside in the sun, rather than laughing, rather than traveling, rather than living.

At some point you’ve got to decide if that’s the life you want to choose. Because right now you are choosing it. It’s not just happening to you by default, not after it’s gone on this long.

If you decide that it’s not what you want to choose for yourself — and I really, really want you to join me in deciding that it’s not — then this is what you need to do:

1. When you are asked to take on work that will require you to work excessive hours, you say this: “I would love to do this project but realistically wouldn’t be able to finish it by (date). I could finish it by (later date) though, if that would work. Or I could do (piece of project) by the first date but not the whole thing. Would one of those options work instead?” Sometimes they’ll say yes to your counter-proposal. Other times they might say no because they have hard deadlines they can’t move, and that’s okay. If that happens, you say, “I understand! I should pass this time then.”

2. When you can’t take on the project at all without pushing yourself past reasonable limits, you say this: “I would love to do this! Unfortunately I’m booked solid right now so I should pass this time — but please let me know if something similar comes up again, because I’d love the chance to do it.”

3. I urge you re-think if it’s really true that you can’t drop a client. I have felt that exact same way myself, and I know what it’s like to feel like you have no options there. But it’s always an option; it just comes with a trade-off you might not want to make. And maybe that’s the right call! But step back and really think about whether it is; don’t take it as a given.

4. Also, think about taking off a whole month or even more. You need a sustained period of time to recover from what you’ve been doing to yourself — and honestly, a month isn’t enough, but it’ll help you remember who you are, and that can fortify your determination to keep making space for that person once work resumes. If you start planning now to, for example, take off the entire month of December, you can give clients an early heads-up and they will figure out how to make do (and “make do” doesn’t mean “move on and never work with you again” — people go on leave and come back and it’s fine).

If you’re too scared to do what I’m outlining above, don’t commit to all of it right now. Do just #1 or #2 once, and see what happens. You’ll almost certainly see that it goes fine, and that’ll make it easier to do it the next time, and then the next time. You don’t need to change it all overnight. But experiment with it — because you deserve to take your life back.

my office thinks I insulted a coworker, colleague refuses to take my input, and more

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

1. My office thinks I insulted a coworker but I didn’t mean it like that

I work for a small nonprofit. I have one boss and about 14 coworkers with whom I’m “office friendly,” meaning I don’t socialize outside of work/discuss personal matters. Though I’ve been employed the longest, I know very little about people’s personal lives.

The other day my coworker “Susan” came into the office carrying a rock she’d found on a hike. She showed it to me saying that she thought it was a fossil and wanted to ask “Nancy,” our volunteer coordinator, what it was. Without thinking, I laughed and said, “Whatever would Nancy know about fossils? That’s not her background.” Susan gave me a strange look and walked away.

Later that day, our boss called me into her office, shut the door, and told me that “accusing a coworker of falsifying information on her resume is a serious issue.” She then asked me for proof that Nancy had lied. Apparently, Nancy has advanced degrees in paleontology and had taught at our local junior college before switching fields and joining our team. I confessed that I had no idea; what I said to Susan was based my not knowing Nancy’s background. The idea seemed ridiculous: Nancy coordinates volunteers at a nonprofit that has nothing to do with science. How was I to know her background? My response didn’t go over well. I received a verbal warning as well as “advice” about being more aware of how my words came across.

I was also asked to apologize to Nancy – which I reluctantly did. She accepted my apology, but seemed strangely hurt. I still feel that I did nothing wrong. I was merely responding to something that sounded silly to me; the others blew it all out of proportion. My boss said that my words had come across as “dismissive and sexist” because I’m a man and it sounded like I’d assumed Nancy wasn’t really a scientist. I did assume that, but not because she was a woman, because she’s working in a field that has absolutely nothing to do with her scientific background. What say you? Was I out of line? I want to return to friendly terms with my boss and coworkers, but I don’t want admit unwarranted guilt.

Yeah, your original comment was a little rude. If you didn’t know anything about Nancy’s background, it doesn’t really make sense that you scoffed at the idea that she could know about fossils (as opposed to saying something like, “Oh, I didn’t realize she knew about fossils”). And that does play right into some sexist tropes, even if you didn’t intend it to.

That said, your boss characterizing it as “accusing a coworker of falsifying information on her resume” is weird. That makes me wonder if this might be part of a pattern where you’ve been perceived to be dismissive or sexist before. If you’ve had that kind of feedback before, or gotten the sense people were taking you that way, I’d take this as a flag that it’s a serious problem with the way you’re perceived and your relationships with coworkers.

If not, and this is genuinely the first time this has come up, I’d still apologize. The comment was insulting, even if you didn’t intend it to be, and that alone warrants an apology. You could add that you realize now that it played right into a particular type of sexism that women in science have to deal with and that you’re resolving to be more thoughtful about that in the future.

2. Coworker refused to take the input I was hired to give

I started a six-month contract two weeks ago as an “expert” in a fairly technical field. Expert is in quotes because I’m really just someone with a great deal of experience (35+ years generally, 20 years with this specific technology). Part of the my job is to review other folk’s work, and “Ned” posted a change for comment that broke one of the basic rules in the field. I politely suggested a better way, and he replied by saying that he’s sticking with his solution.

Ned’s been with the organization about 10 years and is very bright, so my inclination is to leave it — except that I was hired (in my mind) to prevent exactly this kind of poor craftsmanship.

I think I may have to talk with the director who hired me to figure out how to deal with this. It’s a small group, and I don’t want to get off on the wrong foot — Ned’s been very helpful in orienting me. Consulting is hard.

The best way to approach it with the director is to frame it as asking for clarification about your role and about how she wants you to handle situations like this. For example: “Can I check with you about something? I ran into a situation this week where (describe situation). In a case like that, do you want me to do anything further after I flag the issue? If the person wants to move forward with their initial approach anyway, should I figure that’s their call at that point?”

3. I think I offended a client

I give private music lessons, often in people’s homes. About a month ago, I arrived and the youngest child didn’t know where her materials were, and said she hadn’t prepared. Normally I swallow this with a smile, but this time I chastised the child and brought the situation to the attention of her older siblings. This was obviously inappropriate and wrong! I should have brought it up with the parent, and only with the child in a polite, positive, or funny way. A few days later I emailed an apology to the mother (a real apology). I apologized directly to the child the following week (she said “thanks”) and a few weeks later apologized directly to the oldest child. However, the apology email was never acknowledged.

The mother is now giving me what seems to be the silent treatment — she does not show herself during lessons, she does not say hello or goodbye. The father now sits in the youngest child’s lesson (which is actually a win — I need parents in the lessons of young children). Since he never did before and now suddenly does every week, I imagine it was directed by her or decided by him, or both. He is pleasant and does not refer to the incident. The kids seem as happy and willing to play as ever, nothing seems wrong there.

What do I do? I would apologize to her directly if I could. I thought about finding her in the house, but I don’t want to create a scene. Background: I’ve been working with this family for six years, all without problems, in fact, they have been very vocally happy with me in the past. They do have a habit of leaving their children to work out their own practice, which is fine philosophically, but often frustrating practically. I think that’s probably why I snapped that day.

I’d let it go. You’ve apologized to everyone involved, and they might not think it’s as big of a deal as you do. It’s possible the mother has other stuff going on and you’re assuming it’s about you when it’s not. Or who knows, maybe it is about you! But you’ve apologized to her, and if she wants to be chilly for a while, hunting her down for another apology probably isn’t going to change that (and risks seeming very weird if she’s moved on).

It’s true that the father might be sitting in on the lessons to monitor you, but he also might be sitting in because the youngest child not being prepared made them realize she needed more parental involvement.

4. People try to make me work when I’m in my workplace on my days off

I work at a nursing home as a nurse, and my mother is a resident there. When I come in to visit her on my day off, is it fair that they ask me to attend work-related meetings and ask me work-related questions when I just want to see my mom and have a nice visit? I should be treated like a family member, not as an employee at those moments!

Yep, you’re absolutely right. When you’re there visiting your mom, you’re there in your capacity as a relative, not as an employee. It’s ridiculous that they’re asking you to attend work meetings during that time! (Work-related questions are a little less outrageous as long as they’re just occasional and truly time-sensitive, but ideally they wouldn’t be doing that either.)

The next time you’re there visiting and they attempt to pull you into a meeting, try saying, “Oh, I’m not working today. I’m just here visiting my mom and then I’ll need to leave.” If it keeps happening, you’ll need a bigger picture conversation with your manager, but simply being very firm about your boundaries (“no, I can’t do that, this is my time to visit my mom”) might solve most of it. And with the work questions, try, “I’m visiting my mom right now and need to focus on her rather than answering work questions, but I’ll be back on the clock on Tuesday morning.”

5. When is a reference too old?

I have someone who worked for me 10 years ago at a summer camp who frequently contacts me and asks me to be a reference for him as he applies for new jobs. I like him and he was a good employee, but we’re now both in careers unrelated to what we did when he worked for me, and the frequency that he asks seems … excessive … which may be why he’s still asking someone he worked for 10 years ago to be a reference. The companies do call me, and if I don’t answer (often due to doing my job or because of a time zone difference) I usually get a text or email from him freaking out. At what point is a reference too aged for an employee to use?

There’s no one point where a reference is too old — it depends on how long you worked together, how closely, and in what capacity. But 10 years is getting pretty stale (especially if it was 10 years for a summer job, which it sounds like it might be), both because the work you’re familiar with is so old and because it gets harder to speak about someone’s work with nuance when this much time has gone by.

It wouldn’t be unreasonable for you to explain to him that with so much time having passed since you last worked together, you don’t feel equipped to provide a nuanced reference at this point and that it would be better to use other, more recent references. If he seems alarmed, you could offer to do it if he’s really in a bind, but ask that you not be one of his primary ones.

Alternately, if your main objection is the frequency and urgency, you could say, “I’m happy to keep doing it, but I need you to be okay with there being a potential delay in my response, both because of work priorities and the time difference. If you need someone who’s always available right away, I’m not the right person to use.”

weekend free-for-all – April 13-14, 2019

This comment section is open for any non-work-related discussion you’d like to have with other readers, by popular demand. (This one is truly no work and no school.)

Book recommendation of the week: Foreign Affairs, by Alison Lurie. Two American university professors on research trips to London each get drawn into life-altering relationships with others. It won the Pulitzer in 1985.

open thread – April 12-13, 2019

It’s the Friday open thread! The comment section on this post is open for discussion with other readers on anything work-related that you want to talk about. If you want an answer from me, emailing me is still your best bet*, but this is a chance to talk to other readers.

* If you submitted a question to me recently, please don’t repost it here, as it may be in the to-be-answered queue.

my coworker is routinely late because she stops for coffee, letting a man open a door at an interview, and more

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

1. My coworker is routinely late to work because she stops for coffee first

I have a question about a coworker, Sansa, who is routinely ~5-10 minutes late (2-3 times a week). Her job does not require she be here at 9 on the dot. I know being a stickler about a few minutes is not good. However, every morning (not an exaggeration) she is late, she strolls in with Starbucks drinks/food … so in this case, it’s not “traffic was bad” or “the kids weren’t cooperating” — both of which I totally understand happen and aren’t cause for concern. To me, this is a known discretionary stop on her commute and she should plan appropriately for it. If one day the milk steamer explodes and she is late because of that … well, fine, but this is happening SO often. Honestly it just drives me crazy, but I know I have a pet peeve for habitual tardiness.

A further concern is that we are in the midst of recruiting (two offers have been made to new grads and we expect them to start within two months). These new employees will be at the same level, and doing similar work at Sansa (they’ll be more or less equals), and I’m worried Sansa is setting a bad precedent.

I’m not Sansa’s direct manager, but I do have seniority over her (I’m middle management, she is entry level). Am I crazy for wanting to say something to her? I could go to her manager? He and I have a good relationship — we’ve been working together for seven years and I consider us friends. But that seems extreme.

I’m sorry to tell you this, but I think this is a you problem rather than a Sansa problem!

You have a pet peeve about habitual tardiness, but the fact that it’s your pet peeve doesn’t mean Sansa is doing something wrong. The way to solve this isn’t to talk to Sansa, but for you to realize that this isn’t really your business.

Many managers, including me, couldn’t care less if someone is routinely five or 10 minutes late, as long as their job doesn’t require coverage that starts earlier than that. The question for any manager should be: What is the work impact of this? If there’s no work impact and Sansa is doing good work, who cares? I suspect you care because of the principle of the thing — it annoys you on principle that she doesn’t take timeliness more seriously. But lots of things can annoy you on principle without it being something you should address.

Ultimately, if her manager doesn’t care, why do you need to? And if you’re thinking, “Well, her manager is making the wrong call” — it’s not smart to nickel and dime good employees over five or ten minutes, especially when a lot of people value that kind of minor flexibility in their jobs. (Personally I’d be really annoyed if my boss gave me crap about being five minutes late when I was doing great work and it didn’t have any impact.)

If your concern is that Sansa is setting a bad example for the two new grads who about to start, that’s something for those new hires’ managers to deal with. If you’re their manager and you really need them to arrive at 9 on the dot, then you can let them know that — saying something like, “You might see some people come in a little later than that, but for our work it’s really important that you’re here on time because of ____.” (But if you can’t figure out what to fill in the blank with, that’s a sign that you don’t have a reason to require that.)

2. I waited for a man to chivalrously open a door for me while I was interviewing

I have been a stay-at-home mom for about 16 years, but have been working part-time jobs and most recently have been running my own cooking business. I am trying to get back into a professional, corporate position. I had an interview with the VP of HR in his office. When the interview was over and we went to leave, I walked to the closed office door and he was right behind me. I hesitated when we got to the door so that he could open the door for me. Which he then did.

I have no problem opening my own doors, so I don’t know why I didn’t just open the door myself!?! I know it’s not a big deal at all, but do you think this looked bad like I’m some sort of passive, old-fashioned, out of touch woman?! I expect my husband to open doors for me if we’re out and about, but I think men and women are equal!! I’m still waiting to hear if I got the job … it’s between me and one other candidate. She probably opened the door herself.

It’s true that it wasn’t ideal and in general you don’t want to wait for men to open doors for you in a professional context, but I wouldn’t worry a ton about it. There are other explanations for why you could have paused there — like that you were letting him take the lead because he was the “host” of your visit, not because he was a man, etc.

It is true that I’d be concerned if I saw a lot of indications from a candidate that they expected gender-based chivalry in the workplace, but one pause at a door probably wouldn’t add up to that. Give yourself permission not to worry about it!

3. People in my new office talk non-stop over the cubicle walls

Am I just a jerk or am I right in thinking this? I recently started on a new job where I get my own cubicle (no more sharing desks) so that is pretty exciting! That being said, cubicle etiquette is a little new to me. The problem is, all the people around me talk non-stop over the cubicle walls. For example, two people directly to my right talk over their shared wall for hour-long conversations at a time (work-related, but still frustrating). As I write this, they’ve been speaking for over two hours almost without break (I timed it).

Am I wrong in thinking that if your conversation is going to be longer than a minute or two, you should probably try to find a private room so you don’t disturb the people around me? It surely seems like that’d be more beneficial than talking to a wall anyway. I have a lot of trouble focusing with constant chatter in my ear. I tried bringing noise-canceling headphones to work, but there’s still just enough noise that I can’t focus on anything else.

I agree with you, as will lots of others, but ultimately this really depends on the culture of your workplace. If it’s an office where lots of people do a lot of talking over cubicle walls, that’s just the culture there … and they’re not really being rude by participating in that culture and following its norms. If it were just a few people, you could try saying something (like “I’m sorry to ask but I’m have trouble focusing — would you mind going to a conference room?”) but if it’s everyone around you and you’re the new person, that’s not likely to solve it.

It might be worth experimenting with what you’re playing in those noise-canceling headphones — if you tried music before, try white or pink noise now, and vice versa. (The comment section on this post has a lot of suggestions of specifics to try.) Otherwise, you may need to hope that in time you get used to working with conversation around you and that you’ll be able to tune it out. That does happen for some people — look at reporters who write on deadline in crowded open news rooms! — although I suspect not for everyone. (Although it’s actually easier if there’s so much conversation around you that it can become one big blur; it’s harder when you’re hearing just one conversation.)

4. Do I need letters of recommendation from my high school teachers?

I don’t know if you’ve answered something like this before, but I’m sending this in on my friend’s behalf. We graduated high school about a year ago, and we’re both in college. Recently, her parents have been hounding her about collecting letters of recommendation from high school teachers. We are both confused at their fixation on receiving letters of recommendation from old teachers without need. What could be a possible application of letters of recommendation from your old high school teachers? They presumably want her to obtain them in order help with searching for a job, but are they even useful as references when looking for a job that will require listed references? Do interviewers even take letters of recommendation anymore? The situation is baffling to the both of us.

Yeah, you’re not going to need those.

First, you’re right: the vast majority of employers don’t want letters of recommendation anymore; they want to actually speak to references so they can ask their own questions. (There are some exceptions to this, like academia and law, but those are exceptions.) Second, references from high school teachers are going to be of really limited value regardless. Managers from part-time jobs, if you have them, will be better.

That said, with the types of jobs you’re applying to as a college freshman, it’s possible that letters of recommendation could have some limited value just because you don’t really have “references” in the traditional sense at this point and really, when you’re hiring people without much work experience, there’s such limited data that it’s all a bit of a crapshoot. But you absolutely do not need to be out there collecting letters, definitely not with the fervor your friend’s parents are approaching it with.

It would be one thing if your friend was looking for a reference and her parents said “what about your newspaper advisor from high school who liked you so much?” … but hounding her to do it just as a general rule falls pretty squarely in the category of “don’t take job search advice from your parents.”

5. How did phone interviews work before email and cell phones?

Yesterday, I telling a friend about how my organization only started doing any kind of phone screen about six months ago and how before that, they just brought a bunch of folks in for interviews. My friend said “why?!” My theory is that it was the result of never updating process, that back in the day, before people had cell phones, hiring managers probably couldn’t reach applicants during work hours. I don’t imagine people could use their work phones. Perhaps they could schedule phone screens in which they called applicants at home, but not everyone would be able to make that work. So then we got to thinking about how one would schedule a phone screen (or even an in-person interview). We had email by the time we graduated college, which seems like it probably really helped with hiring processes. I guess before that, one could leave a message for an applicant at home and they could call from a pay phone during work hours … but what about before answering machines? Did scheduling an (in-person) interview require writing letters back and forth?

This conversation occurred on the occasion of my 39th birthday, which means that I am more often on the “you don’t understand how things were” side of conversations these days. But now I am very eager to learn about hiring processes in years predating answering machines. I would love to hear about it through the lens of AAM reader experiences!

Interesting! I’m six years older than you, which means that when I was first entering the work world email was just starting to become a commonplace thing and it definitely wasn’t something that had become a standard part of hiring correspondence. And I can barely recall how we did it, although I do remember applying for jobs by fax (!) and setting up interviews by phone. And I bet that you’re right about your theories about phone interviews — the logistics would have been a lot trickier.

People of the right age whose memories have not abandoned you: How did this work?