transcript of “Will I Ever Find a Job I Like?”

This is a transcript of the Ask a Manager podcast episode “Will I Ever Find a Job I Like?

Alison: Today we have a bunch of interesting questions to tackle – including someone with an ethical dilemma, someone who isn’t sure how to answer a question that she keeps getting at new jobs, someone who’s pregnant and has coworkers who are being strange, and more. This first question is from someone who is wondering if she’ll ever have any job that she likes.

Caller 1: Hi Alison. I wrote a rambling letter to your blog a while ago when I was incredibly stressed out and floundering at my new job. I managed to work myself out of that immediate deep hole but I’m still struggling with being happy at work. While I feel like the malfunctions I’m dealing with at my current job are reason enough to leave, there’s a part of me that wonders: will I ever like any job I hold?

I spent my 20s either hating my office-like jobs or pursuing a more creative career, only to realize I didn’t like it and I wasn’t really that good at. I told myself then that I should stick with what I’m good at, which are more technical roles but with process improvement and project management angles sprinkled in there, and that I need to figure out how to balance the good and bad with work. At 30, I started a decent job as a project coordinator and quickly got a promotion, but the company laid off workers earlier this year due to losing a major client so I decided to look elsewhere, not to mention that the culture there was pretty negative all the time. I thought the job I started in April would be better, but my manager is terrible and the leadership of my team and department is very poor. Not to mention I’m drowning in work and can’t stop stressing about it all the time. I have a tendency to care too much about work and second guess myself. It’s also really difficult for me to just ignore things that can be improved at work, which I think drains me. I’m having trouble looking for a new job again because I’m terrified I’m putting all this effort in to just hate my job again. I started working with a career coach just to figure out what I want to do with my career, but I’m still concerned that I’m just not going to like any job that I go to.

So my question is: how can I like my job when there’s always going to be things I don’t like about it? How can I leave work at work and not stress about it all the time?

Alison: Well, I think there are a few different possibilities here: One is that you are in the wrong field. You’ve picked work that you’re good at, but that doesn’t mean that you like that work. It’s okay to not want to spend 40 hours a week or more doing something just because you happen to be good at it. I might spend some time thinking about the parts of your jobs that you’ve actually enjoyed – not just were good at, but really felt good about doing. And it might not be an obvious field like “project management.” It might be something small, like “Oh, I’ve really enjoyed talking new clients through our services and how we’ll work together” or “Oh, I love the days when I get to work totally alone with data and don’t have to talk to anyone” or who knows what. But if there’s anything at all in the jobs you’ve had in the last decade that you did enjoy, or at least didn’t dislike, think about those things and see if it leads you anywhere because it’s possible you were overly practical when you chose this field and you’ve got to course-correct by really leaning into the stuff you like. And you mentioned you’re talking to a career counselor and I’m sure they’re going into that stuff with you.

The second possibility is that your field is fine, but you’re picking the wrong jobs. And this one might be something that the career counselor doesn’t get into so much, but I think it’s really worth thinking about because it’s really, really common. How much due diligence are you doing when you accept a job? Are you just accepting any job that gets offered to you, which a lot of people do, or are you interviewing employers as much as they interview you, doing research on what it’s like to work there, and picking really, really carefully? Most people do it the first way, not the second way. And honestly, sometimes people don’t have the luxury of doing it the second way – sometimes you just need a job, period, and you don’t have the option of being picky. But when you’re not selective about what jobs you take, you’re much more likely to end up in a situation where you don’t like your job – where the boss is horrible, or the culture sucks, or the workload is overwhelming, or so forth. So before you conclude that you hate your field or that you just will never like a job at all, I’d really reflect on how much vetting you’ve done of your jobs before you’ve taken them. If the answer is very little, then I think it would be premature to assume that the problem is the field or that the problem is you. In that case, the thing I would try next is to start being much more deliberate and careful about vetting the next job, which also includes vetting the boss as well. Because there are often red flags in the interview process that people either don’t notice or don’t pay enough attention to – and often it’s because you just get focused on getting a job offer and lose sight of the fact that interviewing is supposed to be a two-way street, where you’re assessing the company right back. So that means really paying attentions to cues that you get about culture and about management style, and it also means going outside of the formal interview process to get information about how things REALLY work there, the stuff you might not be able to find out in an interview. LinkedIn can be really helpful in this, because you can see if anyone in your network is connected to anyone who works there or used to work there and might be able to give you the inside scoop. It doesn’t even have to be people’s first-degree connections. It could be second or third degree connections – like if your old coworker is connected to someone who’s connected to someone who’s connected to the company you’re working for, there’s a good source of info. And especially if they don’t work there anymore, people are more often willing to give you real, candid information. I actually think that’s one of the best uses of LinkedIn. I mean, LinkedIn is also very helpful as sort of an automatically updated Rolodex for everyone you’ve ever worked with. And I think this is the other way that it’s super helpful. Obviously some people also find LinkedIn very helpful for recruiting and finding jobs, but a lot of people don’t, and for those people, this is the value that LinkedIn can bring to you.

Okay, so possibility one is that you’re in the wrong field. Possibility two is that your field is fine but you need to vet jobs more carefully before you take them.

Possibility three is that, yes, it is something you’re bringing to the situation. You said you have a tendency to care about work too much and to have trouble ignoring things at work that could be improved, and that that drains you. And you’re right that there will always be things at a job that you don’t like. For people who tend to care too much, it can be hard sometimes to know where the line is between “yeah, this isn’t ideal, but it’s not a huge problem and I can live with it” versus “this is truly toxic and I should get out.” One way to help calibrate it is to look at what people around you think. If you have some coworkers who seem generally reasonable and they have good judgment and are reasonably accomplished, what’s their take? Are they like “oooh, run for the hills while you have the chance” or are they more like “yeah, it’s a little annoying but not a big deal”? That doesn’t mean you always have to feel like other people around you eel – and frankly, a really dysfunctional workplace can warp your sense of what’s normal over time, so there can be danger in relying too much on the opinions of other people – but it’s one data point to look at.

The other thing to look at is what the impact is on you. If something at work is bugging you, is it bugging you in principle because you think something should be running better, or is it having an actual direct impact on your ability to do your job and on your quality of life? If it’s just annoying you on principle because someone is wrong or because you would handle things differently, I mean, believe me, I get that, I’m like the queen of being annoyed on principle, but at the point where it’s affecting your mental quality of life even though the work thing itself isn’t impacting your quality of life, that stuff I would work on letting go. They’re presumably not paying you to care more about that stuff than they do, and it’s okay to decide “I’m at work to do this very specific job that they’re paying me for and I don’t have to care about things outside of that scope because someone else is handling that, even if they’re handling it differently than I think they should.”  And there can be real relief — and even liberation — in just deciding to care less.

On the other hand, though, if the things you’re bothered by are directly affecting you – and you mentioned drowning in work, and that would certainly qualify – that’s different. Those are cases where I think you should explore whether there are solutions that would improve things for you, like in the case of an overwhelming workload, talking to your boss about prioritizing what’s on your plate and potentially moving things off of it. If that doesn’t work, then you know that this is part of the package of having this job and you can decide from there if it works for you or not. But I think getting real clarity on what does and doesn’t affect you, and very deliberately choosing not to focus on the stuff that doesn’t, may help you get clearer about what’s really going on here. It’s hard to say for sure with the limited info I have, but these are the places that I would start digging into.

Okay, next letter.

Caller 2: Hi Alison. I’m not sure how to answer some questions from colleagues after I’ve started a new job. Often times I’ll have just started a week or two or even a month in and I’m always asked, “What do you think about this place? How do you like it here?” Or even more flummoxing, “do you like your new job here?” I know that my colleagues are coming from a good place and I want to get along with them, but I don’t want to sound or say anything off-putting or alienating. Do you have any suggestions on how to answer this type of question? Thank you so much.

Alison: In the vast majority of cases, this question is very similar to “how are you?” – in that people are saying it to be warm and polite and are expecting you to complete the exchange by saying something warm and polite in return. They’re just looking for you to say something like, “Oh, I’m getting settled in. Everyone seems great so far” or “So far, so good!” or “You know, there’s a lot to learn, but I’m really enjoying it.”

They are not usually looking for anything beyond that, like a confession that you’re overwhelmed or second-guessing your decision to take the job, or that you have some real doubts about the boss. And if someone IS looking for that kind of answer and they’re not your boss, that’s often going to be someone who’s into drama and you don’t want to feed that. I said “if they’re not your boss” because this IS different when your boss is the one doing the asking. With your boss, there’s more room to have a real conversation – like if there’s more training that you need, or the job doesn’t seem like what you signed up for, or you need clarity about something, those are things that you can definitely discuss with your boss in response to this question. But with everyone else, they’re generally just trying to be warm and welcoming and to  connect with you in some way. And so you just need to respond in kind, with something like “so far, so good.” And then you can keep the conversation going if you want, by asking things like “How long have you been here?” and “Tell me more about the work you do here” and things like that. Most people like to talk about themselves, and you can build relationships through these conversations.

Caller 3: I accepted a job offer a little over six months ago at a rapidly growing start-up company. At the time, my role was intended to serve under a senior manager to help with the high volume of work.  At the time, the pay seemed a little low, but I was desperate for a new job, and accepted without negotiating. However, not even halfway through my time at this company, the senior manager left, and I was given her entire workload. While it was stressful to say the least, I stood up to the plate and made sure everything continued to run smoothly. I was thanked immensely for my hard work, but not offered a raise or promotion.

Here we are a few months later. My company has hired a second person to share responsibility with my assigned tasks, but I am still swamped. I have been told numerous times that I will receive a performance review, once HR finalizes their new initiative for raises and promotions, but I am growing frustrated.

What has really triggered my dissatisfaction was recently finding out that co-op students my company has hired this quarter, are getting paid MORE than me!  I have gone ahead and addressed my workload, as well as salary concerns, with my manager, who could not make any promises about when and how this will be resolved. Is there anything further I can do?  Thanks.

Alison: Maybe! There are definitely things you should try.

First, I want to say that in general, in most cases you wouldn’t normally ask for a raise until you’ve been there for a year. Even if you realize that you should have negotiated better when the offer was made, once you agree to a salary, the understanding is generally that you’re agreeing to work at that salary for a period of time, and usually it going to look off if you ask for that to be revisited sooner than a year. But there are some exceptions to that, and this is one of them because when your job changes significantly from the one that you accepted, it’s reasonable to revisit compensation at that point. If you were really given your manager’s entire workload, that is a huge change and that’s a reason to revisit how much you’re making.

Now, you said that you’ve been told a bunch of times that you’ll get a performance review at some point, once HR finalizes some processes, but the performance review isn’t really the issue here. I mean, yes, let’s get you a performance review if you want one, but the more important thing right now is the salary and you’re still being paid for the previous, more junior version of this job rather than for the significantly increased amount of responsibility that you’ve taken on. You don’t need a performance review for them to correct your salary. So I don’t want you to play into that idea because that’s making this more complicated than it needs to be.

So what I think you should do is to go to your boss and say, “I understand that HR is in the middle of new processes for raises and promotions. But I’d want to request that my salary be addressed now. I was happy to help out when Jane left and to pick up her workload, but it’s been several months since I’ve been doing her work as well as my own, and shouldering significantly more responsibility than the job I was brought on to do, and I’d like my pay to reflect the way the job has changed. Can we adjust my salary now to reflect that the work I’m doing now is different than what I was brought in to do?”

If your boss tells you that yes, it’ll happen at some point but doesn’t say when, then you can try to pin that down a little more. You can say something like, “I’d like to get a more solid timeline in place for this, since it’s been several months. What do we need to do to get this addressed?”

And frankly, you can also say, “I’m concerned that the co-opt students we’ve hired are being paid more than me, given our relative contributions.”

But if that doesn’t produce any results, then at that point there isn’t much more pushing you can do and so you would have to decide if you’re willing to stay in the job at this level of pay or if you want to look elsewhere. And it’s also possible that if they do come through with a raise at some point, you can push them to make it retroactive so that it covers this period. Some companies will do that, some won’t, but you can definitely ask.

One caveat to all this though, and it’s important – you did say that they hired someone else to help with the workload. So if your workload is now just a BIT higher than before, that isn’t something I would make this strong of a push over. Workloads change, and that’s just how it goes, and in that case you can’t be quite this aggressive, coming at it from a place of “of course they need to fix this.”  But if you’ve really taken over most of your old manager’s job, then go for it.

And one other thing, which won’t help you now but might help you in the future, I totally get that when you get offered a job and you’re feeling desperate, it’s very tempting to just  accept without trying to negotiate salary. But it almost always makes sense to ask for more. There are some situations where it doesn’t – like if they met or exceeded the amount you said you were looking for, or if the offer is already really generous for your field, or if you know that salaries for this role are fixed and they don’t negotiate . But in most cases, it always makes sense to see if you can get a bit more, because you can often get a lot more money just by asking for it at that point. And it’ll never be as easy to get a raise later on as it is to get a higher salary during the offer negotiation process. So even when you’re feeling desperate, don’t let that be a reason not to ask.

Okay, next letter.

Caller 4: I’m calling because I have a bit of an ethical dilemma. I work for a conglomerate of doctors so the hierarchy within the office is very different than normal corporate work environments. Recently my supervisor has asked that me and my fellow coworkers in the same position in our office and the other offices that we work report weekly about the doctors in residence when they’re coming into the office in the morning. It’s very confusing because the doctors that we work with, some of them are specialists and it’s not those ones we have to report about, it’s the doctors we have to work with every day. It’s the doctors who would be our immediate supervisors. And we were told when we were asked to do this that they didn’t want any of it in writing. My supervisor came out to all our locations and told us that it was just her and the CEO who wanted this information and that we were not to tell anybody about it and not to discuss it. But it troubles me that they’re asking for documentation about our quasi-supervisors’ arrival time but they also want no written record of this, and I just feel like it’s a strange ethical dilemma and I was hoping you could help.

Alison: Oh, this is interesting. So there are very legitimate reasons that they could be asking you to do this. They could have gotten reports from patients or others that doctors aren’t there when they’re supposed to be. They could be in a position where they are genuinely concerned that the doctors aren’t there when they need to be, but they’re not on site to see it for themselves, so they’re asking the people who are to let them know what’s going on.

This isn’t the best way for them to handle it, because of course it’s going to make you and your coworkers feel uncomfortable. Ideally they would just talk to the doctors directly about what’s going on – but maybe they’ve done that and it’s still unresolved. We don’t know. In that case, ideally they’d then talk to you, but in a different way. Instead of asking you to keep a log with no context, they could say something like, “We’re trying to get a handle on the flow of doctors in the office. Can you give us a sense of what hours you typically see each person keeping? Are people there in the morning when patients show up?” and that kind of thing. But it’s hard to know what’s going on behind the scenes, and it’s possible that they do actually have some reason for handling it this way. It’s also possible, of course, that they don’t and that this was their first step before they did any of the other things I talked about, in which case they aren’t handling it well and they should have a conversation with the doctors they’re concerned about.

But ultimately, that’s their call and not one you get to make. They do have the right to ask you to expect you to do this if they ask for it. I’m guessing that the thing about telling you not to talk about it or put it in writing is because they don’t want the doctors to know that they’re observing this, because they don’t want people changing their behavior because they know it’s being monitored more closely. They want to see what’s actually going on, without anyone being tipped off and changing anything.

And I totally get why that feels icky to you, but I do think you’ve got to do it since you were told to by a supervisor. I would just remember that there could actually be reasonable cause for it that you’re not privy to.

That said, if you have decent rapport with the boss who asked you to do it, it is okay to ask about it. You know, you could say something like, “To be totally transparent, I feel really awkward about doing this without our doctors knowing. Is there any context you can give me to help me understand why you want us to do it?” You may not get a full explanation, but it might prompt them to give you a little more context, and it’s a reasonable thing to ask either way, as long as you explain that the question is coming from a place of feeling just feeling a little uneasy about it.

Caller 5: Thank you for your fascinating and informative podcast! I am calling today to talk about pregnancy-related issues in the workplace. I am presently about six months (and very visibly) pregnant. While I have so far avoided the workplace discrimination that some women encounter during pregnancy, I am noticing a number of other less serious issues that still cause me concern.

I have been at my job for about two years. My office is a relatively large and compartmentalized workplace. My job is primarily research and writing based so, while I am friendly with my coworkers, I often work alone and I like to keep my personal and work lives separate. But since I have become pregnant, it seems like many of my coworkers consider this an invitation to pop into my office unannounced or stop me in the hallway to talk about my pregnancy and ask me some very personal questions. Over the past couple of months, colleagues, including people who I don’t know very well, have made comments or asked uncomfortable questions about my body size, my personal life, and my career plans following the birth of the baby. Frequently, the same people will also ask the same questions or make the same comments over and over again. Here is a sample of some of the questions and comments I have heard from colleagues:

  • Wow! You look like you are ready to pop!
  • When are you due? I’m sure it won’t be long now!
  • How are you feeling? You look so sick or tired!
  • How many more kids do you want to have?

Or most troublingly: I’m sure you are planning to quit after the baby is born, right?

One coworker in particular stands out for his behavior. Shortly after I began to show, this coworker asked me when I was due. I had not told him that I was pregnant so this was a total guess on his part, but because I had already shared news of my pregnancy with my boss and select colleagues, I confirmed that he had guessed right. This is not a coworker that I interact with very often, but suddenly he was going out of his way two or three times a week to talk to me about being pregnant. Most insulting to me was when he started calling me “Mom.” At first, I tried to use short answers and body language to let him know these comments and questions were unwelcome, but he didn’t seem to pick up on these signals. Eventually, I pulled him aside to explain how uncomfortable I was with that nickname and to ask him not to do it again. I further added that I didn’t like to talk about my pregnancy at work unless it affected my work. He said he understood, but 30 seconds later, he again asked me when I was due.

I appreciate that most people are either genuinely happy for me or maybe just a little nosy but mean no harm. While I suspect there might be a colleague or two prying to determine whether or not my job will open up after I take maternity leave, which it will not, I truly believe that most people only have good intentions. I also know that a lot of women enjoy talking about their pregnancies; I am just not one of those women.

There are, of course, legitimate professional reasons to discuss my pregnancy and maternity leave at work and I am not bothered by these questions and discussions. With my boss and my team who will be affected by my time off, I have been very open and proactive about the amount of time I plan to take, what work I can do in advance, and what work will need to be completed by others while I am away. It’s only the unnecessary questions and comments about my pregnancy that are troubling me.

How can I navigate this situation? I am trying my best to be polite and put things in perspective, but these comments and questions truly make me uncomfortable. How can I make it clear that, while I am pregnant at work, the boundaries about my personal life remain the same?

Alison: It’s so gross that he called you mom! People are so weird.

To be clear, I’m sure there are some women out there who would not have a problem with that – but so many would, and it’s presumptuous to do that to someone if you don’t know them well enough to know for sure that they would be fine with it. It’s bad enough when you’ve got pushy relatives doing that kind of thing – it’s even weirder and more out of line when it’s a coworker. And a coworker you don’t even interact with much, at that! People are bizarre.

With the nosy questions and intrusive comments, I do think you’re right that most people are just happy for you and are trying to connect in a warm way, and not realizing that it feels boundary-crossing to you. And I think for the more mild comments, the easiest thing is to just take them in that spirit – and to feel free to then quickly change the subject. Polite people will pick up on your cues. But if someone keeps asking you how you feel or otherwise raising your pregnancy in a way that you don’t like, it’s totally okay to say, “You know, I appreciate your concern but I’m actually trying not to talk about it too much at work. Thanks for understanding!” And again, polite people will get it.

For people who comment on your body, like saying that you’re huge – it’s so weird how pregnant women’s bodies suddenly become fair game for people to comment on like this, isn’t it? Anyway, for those people, you still might find it easier to just take it as “okay, this person is attempting to connect with me, even though they’re doing it in an awkward way.” But if you want to, it’s also completely fine to say, “You know, it’s never a great idea to comment on someone’s size, even when they’re pregnant.” You might educate some people that way, who knows. But you also don’t HAVE to take that on if you don’t want to. It’s fine to just like raise your eyebrows and change the subject, or whatever you want. They’re being a little rude and it’s not on you to have to find a way to smooth it over.

With people who ask if you’re planning to quit after the baby is born … this is so offensive, even when people don’t realize it. It’s harmful to women who do plan to return, because when people assume that or reinforce that idea, it can impact what kind of projects and promotions women are given, and in some cases it even leads to employers being hesitant to hire women of child bearing age, even if only subconsciously. So you are free to respond however you want! You could say, “Wow, no, what a weird assumption.” Or “No, and it’s pretty damaging for women when people assume that.” Or “Wow, you really shouldn’t say that to pregnant women.”  Seriously, call that crap out. I mean, you don’t have to get up on a soapbox and start handing out pamphlets about the Pregnancy Discrimination Act, but you can absolutely respond in a way that makes it clear that the question is BS and out of line. And if you do the soapbox and the brochures, I support that too.

As for that guy who was calling you “mom,” I think you handled it perfectly. You tried using polite cues that his comments weren’t welcome, and when that didn’t work, you addressed it with him very directly. You were perfect! The fact that he then asked you another pregnancy question 30 seconds later doesn’t mean that you didn’t handle it well – it means that he’s an ass.  It’s totally okay with this guy to get even more direct if he keeps doing it after that conversation. It’s fine to just be like, “Ron! I asked you to stop dwelling on my pregnancy. Please cut it out.”

And one more thing, for people listening. In addition to what this caller is describing about these questions fell so intrusive and boundary-crossing, it’s also important to be thoughtful about how painful this kind of focus on pregnancy at work can be for people who are struggling with those miscarriage and infertility. And in many cases you’ll have no idea who those people are. So this is just a plea for all of us to remember to be a little bit more thoughtful.

That’s the show for today! I’ll be back next time with more questions.