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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.

open thread – February 15-16, 2019 was originally published by Alison Green on Ask a Manager.

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

1. A car alarm is disrupting our office many times per hour

My office is small, one story, and located on a relatively busy street. There is a car that parks along the street directly in front our our building, and this car has a VERY sensitive car alarm. This has always been an issue since I started here, almost three years ago. The owner of said car previously used to have a car where the alarm system blared every single time a car would zip by. It didn’t matter if it was a smart car or a 4×4 lifted diesel truck, that alarm would go off. Every. Single. Time. Now, she has a different car, with an even more obnoxious car alarm. Sometimes it takes her 2-5 minutes to walk outside the building and turn it off, and it often happens nearly every 5-10 minutes. This is maddening. We are unable to hear clients on phone calls and unable to focus on work because her car alarm is blaring for what seems like hours, every 10 minutes. It is so bad, we have two clients that refuse to meet in our office, which is an issue because of the nature of our work.

The reason that we don’t know what to do is that this car does not belong to one of our employees. It belongs to someone in the next door office. I have suggested calling next door and requesting the employee park across the street in the communal lot, rather than right outside our front door, thinking that if it is located in the lot, it won’t be triggered by street noises. This was shut down because they don’t want to cause any hostile tensions between us and that company. They also believe this will come off as controlling. I have also suggested writing a friendly note and leaving it on her car, letting her know her car alarm is very disruptive to our business and the others on the street. This was also called too aggressive (which, who cares at this point). Aside from it being disruptive and giving me regular headaches, I am positive that this has to be annoying for the owner too. Having to get up from your desk to turn off your car alarm every 5-10 minutes has got to be disruptive and aggravating to her too, so I am really at a loss as to why she even wants to park there knowing she is gonna be pulled away from her desk to turn off the alarm. Do you or your readers have any suggestions?

P.S. I decided to track the alarm and how long it blasts each time it goes off. In the last 49 minutes, her car alarm has gone off seven times. Since it takes her so long to turn off the alarm, the alarm has been blasting for a combined 28 minutes. I am losing it.

Good lord, how is this woman okay with going outside leaving seven times in an hour to turn a car alarm? How is her employer okay with it? I do not understand this situation.

In any case, leave the note. You don’t need your employer’s permission to leave the note, as long as you don’t identify your company in it. Leave a note saying you work nearby, the alarm is giving you headaches and driving away clients, and beg her to disable the alarm (which clearly isn’t serving any function at this point) or try parking in the lot. That said, this is not someone who is governed by logic, so the note may make no difference.

Your other, and perhaps better, option is to report it to your local police. Many cities will cite car owners whose alarms go off too frequently.

2. My coworker is blocking me from work a senior manager asked me to help her with

I’m fairly new to my job doing administrative work at a large company. Recently, a senior-level manager (Sara) asked if I could help another admin (Mary) catch up on some of the work she was behind on for a C-suite executive. I responded that I was happy to help and reached out to the Mary to get the details and formulate a plan. Honestly, I was flattered and excited that I would be helping out an exec!

For a bit of context, I have a great working relationship and a budding friendship with Mary. Upon my initial outreach, Mary agreed to send along some materials that I could help with and did so, however I’m limited in how much I can help without more information. I did but I could, but told Mary I’d probably need more and she agreed, but expressed that it was really more work for her to share info with me. I offered to sit with her so that she’s not sending me info, but rather we can work together to speed up the process and be there together to field questions but she didn’t go for the idea. I feel like I’ve tried everything to be helpful, but Mary doesn’t want to put in the up-front work in order to share her load. I know she’s open to help and it’s not a matter of controlling the situation, it’s like she’s too unorganized to make this process easier.

Now, Sara is asking why we’re not getting the work done and what’s taking so long. For now, I’ve let Mary respond to these emails and say “we’re working on it” and “(my name) has been a great help,” even though I haven’t because she’s making it impossible for me to help! I don’t want this to reflect poorly on my work ethic and I don’t want to throw Mary under the bus. There’s a chance that nothing will come of this and I’ll never be asked directly about how involved I’ve been thus far, but as a new employee I want to impress senior leaders, not shy away from stepping up like this. Is there anything I can do here? Or do I just let this pass and hope I can impress her next time?

You need to let Sara know what’s going on. She specifically asked you to do some of this work and needs to know that it’s not happening — especially since it sounds like Mary is letting her go on thinking you’re doing work that you’re not doing. If the real situation comes out at some point, you’re going to look like you were complicit in Mary’s lie and that’s not good.

Reply to Sara and say, “I was able to do XYZ on this project, but after that Mary felt it would be more work for her to relay the information I’d need to assist her further — so since Tuesday, I’ve been sitting it out. But I’d be glad to keep helping if Mary wants to pull me back in!” This is not about throwing Mary under the bus; this is about updating Sara on work that she asked you to do and is now checking in on.

You can also say to Mary, “I need to let Sara know that I’m not working on this since it sounds like she thinks I am” so that she’s not blindsided when Sara asks her about it.

3. Can I ask if I’m going to be laid off?

Is it okay to ask if you might get laid off? My job is entering a slow period that’s projected to last for a year, so I’m terrified that I’ll get laid off, considering that I have very niche skills that make it so I can’t just be transferred to another role in the meantime. And if it is okay to proactively ask, how on earth do I go about doing that — just come out and as, “Hey, am I about to get laid off”?

The problem with asking is that if they say no, you can’t really believe that answer. Your manager may not think you’re going to get laid off, but then it happens anyway. Or they may know it could happen but aren’t allowed to say that. Some people have been told their jobs are safe hours before they get laid off. As a general rule, companies do not want to announce layoffs until they’re actually happening, for fear of causing rumors and panic and losing people they wanted to retain.

What would be more useful would be to talk to your manager about how you can be useful and productive during this slow period, and to come up with your own proposals of things you could work on. Or if it seems really clear to you that there just won’t be anything, then you can say something like, “Could you talk about the plans for my role during the next year while this project is slowing down?” (You might worry that’ll call your manager’s attention to the fact that you don’t have much to do, but it’s very unlikely she won’t notice that on her own, and meanwhile you’ll get the peace of mind of actually discussing it.)

4. Can I tell my references I turned down a job where they vouched for me?

I’ve been job hunting for a few months. I recently reached the final stages of two hiring processes, and gave my references a heads-up they might be contacted by two places. One organization moved quickly and gave me an offer. After a lot of soul searching, I turned them down. (It was objectively not a good fit for me, and I was really excited about the second place.) I’m still in the running for the second organization, but their timeline is a little slower and I probably won’t hear back from them for at least another week. I’m optimistic, but of course anything could happen. I don’t think they’ve contacted my references yet.

I know I need to follow up with my references. One of them emailed me asking how it all turned out. I hate not responding for 2+ weeks, or worse, not responding for a while, then following up to let them know another reference request might be coming from the second organization. That feels really transactional!

Is it okay to tell them I turned down the job? Does that seem entitled? I shouldn’t lie and say they turned me down, right? Or should I just wait until I have something definite to tell them about the second organization?

Tell them you turned down the job! It doesn’t seem in the least entitled. People get to turn down job offers for all sorts of reasons — they could come to an agreement about pay, or the health insurance was ridiculously overpriced or non-existent, or the job just wasn’t right for you, or so forth. Receiving an offer in no way obligates you to take it. And you haven’t wasted your references’ time when you turn down an offer; sometimes you don’t know whether or not you’ll take an offer until you actually get it and can consider the details.

So respond to that reference (do not leave her hanging!) and say, “I did end up receiving an offer from Company A. Ultimately I ended up turning it down; after a lot of soul searching and reflecting on what I learned in the hiring process, I realized it just wasn’t the right fit for me. But I really appreciate you taking the time to talk with them, and I’m hoping to find a stronger match soon.”

If you turn down a bunch of offers for not being the right fit (as opposed to not being able to come to terms on salary, or the job offered being different from the one you interviewed for, or something else you couldn’t have known until seeing the offer), your references could start wondering why you’re not being more thoughtful about these jobs before they get all the way to the offer stage. But that’s not going to happen with just one instance of it.

5. Does this email mean I’m going to get rejected?

So you have a phone screening for a job. Then you go in for an interview. You meet three people. You feel good about how you did. Then the following week you get an email saying, “Thanks for coming in, we’re going to make our decision at the end of this week.” Is this a formal brush off? Should I expect an email telling me I didn’t get the job?

It means “thanks for coming in and we’re hoping to make a decision by the end of the week.”

There is no code here. Those words mean what you’d assume they meant in any other context.

car alarm keeps disrupting our office, coworker is blocking me from work, and more was originally published by Alison Green on Ask a Manager.

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A reader writes:

I wanted to reach out about something I perceive as “odd” in our workplace, but, this is my first full-time, professional office job so I wasn’t sure if I’m just not used to a normal practice!

Our office generally has a unique culture, because we are almost like an “outpost” office attached alongside the company’s warehouse. Our corporate headquarters office is in a different location, and they have a much more professional atmosphere than we do. As a result, we often don’t get many of the perks the headquarters employees enjoy, and are treated noticeably differently.

One curious way this manifests is that our management doesn’t allow our coworkers to share that they’re leaving the company until the very day before they will no longer be working for us. Then, they make sure the coworker doesn’t announce it themselves, but that a senior member draws everyone together to make the announcement for them to the whole team. It’s not only jarring, but has also caused significant disruptions in the workflow. Recently, two team leads have left in this fashion, with only a day to redistribute new tasks among the remaining team. We realized that many of their duties weren’t discussed in the shortened timeline, and we’ve had to do a lot of detective work to accommodate. I’ve confirmed with both coworkers that they were made to sign a document saying that they couldn’t tell anyone they were leaving. Also, our managers don’t tell us when a coworker has a family emergency or is sick for an extended period, and will refuse to confirm or deny their continued employment, even after weeks of absence, which gets worrying when you care about the person!

When this lack of transparency is hinted to management, they double down and get defensive over their choice not to tell us, citing negotiations to keep the coworker. However, it honestly feels like a power play, and makes us feel like children — like we can’t handle the truth and it must be mitigated. However, I could be totally off-base, which is why I’d love your opinion. Is this a common management practice you’ve used? Do your offices work this way? Is there a way to bring this up that doesn’t sound accusatory?

Nope, this is not normal. It’s extremely weird!

There definitely are some offices that are weird and secretive about people leaving. It’s not at all the norm, but they’re out there. More often than not, it’s because they’re concerned about the appearance of high turnover (which is of course terrible logic, because it’s not like you’re not going to notice the person is suddenly gone.)

And it’s a terrible practice! It creates a culture where people don’t trust their management to give them relevant information, and where people feel they’re not trusted to be able to handle totally routine and normal information. Plus, as you note, it creates a ton of inefficiencies because people don’t have time to get information from the person who’s leaving or fully transition their work.

It’s particularly odd that your company makes resigning employees sign a document saying they won’t tell anyone they’re leaving. They have very little leverage over people at that point, so ideally people would simply decline to sign. Any chance that lots of your coworkers are relatively young and inexperienced and thus don’t realize they could or should push back on that?

It’s also especially strange that your company is similarly secretive when someone is out for an extended period and won’t tell you whether or not they still work there! I can’t imagine what their rationale would be for that, which makes me think that your company is run by people with severe control issues, and I’m betting they’re weirdly controlling or secretive in other ways.

                                                                    unrelated image for Valentine’s Day

our office won’t tell us in advance when people leave – and sometimes won’t confirm or deny if someone still works here was originally published by Alison Green on Ask a Manager.

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A reader writes:

I was hired four months ago at a large organization to be a trainer and writer. I got to ask a lot of questions about the role, which fit what I wanted to do perfectly. My would-be boss pushed hard to bring me on and insisted to the team that this role was necessary, despite budget issues.

Fast forward four months later, and my immediate boss loves me. The problem? I’ve hardly done any of the work I was brought on to do. She has piled work on my plate that was previously hers and fills my schedule with very long work meetings where I provide damage control to different teams about shoddy work she completed before I was hired because I’m better with people.

Although I’m using my project management skills and getting a lot of things done, no one is noticing except her, and the work I’ve been doing was not part of the job description when I was hired. I am a total team player and am happy to lend a hand, but part of the role I was hired to do involved working within certain timelines, which I’m now not meeting.

She doesn’t seem concerned about this, and there doesn’t look to be any end to this on the horizon. Our weekly one-on-ones where I bring up the need for time to develop my programs always fall on deaf ears in favor of immediate priorities.

A coworker who also works under her had the same thing happen to him – for two years! He’s complained to our boss’s manager and asked for a reorg several times and is encouraging me to do the same. I’m wary of this since I’m just settling in and I don’t want to cause problems, although I’m starting to get resentful. My boss also tends to be sneaky and hold grudges, so I can see her getting really upset if she hears I did this.

I’m concerned because my role is to work with most of the people in the organization, so not doing the job I was hired to do is starting to become very obvious. A lot of people are currently waiting for training, and I keep promising that it’ll happen soon. Should I just accept the the role has changed? Is this going to be detrimental to me in the long run, or should I just continue since she loves me?

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.

my new job isn’t what I signed up for was originally published by Alison Green on Ask a Manager.

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It’s the Thursday “ask the readers” question. A reader writes:

I am a woman in my late 20s, and work for a nonprofit in a mid-sized city. I grew up in a bigger city than this one, and went to college in a city with a higher crime rate than where I am now, but I feel more unsafe in the neighborhood where my office is located than I ever have before.

My office is in an area that is often referred to by a nickname that indicates the type of drugs often found here. Many of the people who live in this area might need the services my organization offers at some point. The majority of the time, I need to take public transportation to work, which involves about a 10 minute walk to and from my office. However, all of the issues I have had have been in the area closer to my office (rather than near the bus), including issues directly in our parking area behind the building.

In the past six months alone, there has been a man hiding next to my car (someone coincidental pulled into the lot as I was walking into it so they ran away); another man follow me for blocks screaming threats as I walked to the bus, and another man drive slowly next to me as I walked to the office trying to get me into his car. I feel unsafe most of the time when I leave the building, but appear to be in the minority. I know that some people have quit without notice because of issues with people in the neighborhood, but most of my coworkers seem to feel they are overreacting. When I mentioned the person hiding next to my car to a coworker, she literally laughed and was shocked when I said I was afraid he was going to try to rape me.

I have not spoken to my supervisor about this because I don’t really have any ideas about what the organization could do to fix this issue and I am not sure if they have any responsibility to do so. I feel like flood lighting behind the building is the least they could do, but of course that wouldn’t solve the issues that have taken place a block or so away. Also, I have been trying to get in early and leave on the earlier side because my husband is able to pick me up rather than me having to take public transportation and I’m not sure if I should discuss this with my supervisor. He does know that I tend to get to work on the earlier side and I do work a full 8 hours (if not more). I am not the only person in my office who works a bit outside the typical 9-5. I also know that before I started working here the office had a police officer come in to talk about the neighborhood, but the general feeling what that it wasn’t helpful. Everyone is also in agreement that continuously calling the police is unlikely to lead to a safer neighborhood for a variety of reasons.

Is there anything at all that I can ask of my office? It seems a bit silly but ideally I would like them to have us take a self defense class. I have not spoken to my supervisor about any of this but everyone is aware of the reputation of this neighborhood. Lastly, I DO like my job and do not want to leave but it is stressful to have my personal safety threatened so often, and I know my friends and family feel worried about me.

Readers, what ideas do you have?

I feel unsafe in the neighborhood I work in was originally published by Alison Green on Ask a Manager.

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

1. How do I tell friends and family I can’t keep helping with their writing?

I’m an English teacher and over the years many of my friends and family have asked me for feedback on their writing. Now that I have a family, the demands on my time are greater and frankly, I am less interested in helping like this. How do I transition my friends out of this? I would feel weird charging them but I guess I should? I really don’t know how to broach this with people without sounding awkward and weird; I think I am too emotionally invested.

Would you want to do if they were paying? If not, don’t offer that as an option just to decrease the requests because some people may take you up on it! If you just don’t want to do it regardless of pay, it’s totally okay to just explain your schedule doesn’t allow it anymore. Anything like this works, depending on the tone you want with the particular asker:

* “My schedule is so swamped these days that I wouldn’t be able to do it justice.”
* “Ah, I’m sorry. I don’t have enough free time these days to be able to say yes.”
* “I wish I could help! My schedule is crazed right now though. Sorry I can’t look at it!”
* “If I say yes, it will sit for weeks while I feel guilty for not having enough time to look at it, so I’m going to preempt that by doing the right thing and telling you now I can’t.”
* “I’m trying not to say yes to that anymore, since my schedule has gotten so packed.”

If you make this is big thing where you feel terrible and like you’re letting them down, it’s likely to be weird on their side too. If you’re matter-of-fact about it and then change the subject to something else, it’ll go fine with reasonable people. (And if they’re unreasonable, there’s nothing to feel bad about anyway.)

But if you’d do a few of these requests for the right price, you can say: “I’ve gotten so many of these requests from family and friends, and my schedule is so busy now, that I’ve actually started charging a fee for it. I totally understand if that’s not what you’re interested in, but if you are, the fee people are paying is $X.” (I like “the fee people are paying” rather than “the fee I’m charging,” because it emphasizes that other people find this worth money, which make it harder for them to complain they shouldn’t have to pay.)

2. Drug testing for nicotine

My husband has been trying to quit smoking, and he is in the process of applying for jobs. As part of the application process, they’re asking for drug screening, not only for illegal drugs but also for nicotine. In some cases (bank teller positions), it was made clear ahead of time that they were testing for nicotine and that its presence would take him out of the running; in other cases, it was a total surprise, after he had done the test, that they were even testing for that.

I understand wanting to have a nonsmoking work environment, but even using the patches, he was disqualified. These are not jobs in the healthcare field — we’re talking bank teller, security guard, guest attendant. It seems so invasive and so illogical that I have to ask, where is this coming from? What even is the logic, that smokers are not to be trusted to hold down a job? Is anyone else experiencing this? And he’s working hard on quitting, but in the meantime, what recourse do we have, to stop burning through our savings?

Yep, some employers are doing this. You mostly see it in the health care field, but where it’s popping up in other places, it’s driven by insurance costs. It’s cheaper for employers to insure non-smokers. (There are sometimes secondary concerns too, like client complaints about employees who smell like smoke … but mostly this is about health care costs.)

Some states do have laws that prohibit employers from discriminating against smokers. To see if you’re in one of those states, check the list here. But if you’re not, there’s not much recourse on this. He could certainly try explaining that he’s not smoking but instead is using nicotine patches — but my hunch is employers are likely to be pretty rigid about the policy (both because people using patches often go back to cigarettes, and because often insurance discounts are based on them having an across-the-board rule).

3. Tubs of butter are taking up all the room in our tiny fridge

I had no idea this would be the hill I wanted to die on, but here we are. In our office, on our floor we have a kitchen area with a small dorm-sized fridge. There are 13 of us in our little area although with part-time and working from home, six to 10 is more normal most days.

The bottom of the fridge is taken up by the office milk leaving two rather small shelves. Often people pop out at lunch and get some shopping and fill the fridge after lunch but at that point everyone has taken out their lunch and its mostly ok, although sometimes very difficult to shut.

The problem is the six full sizes tubs of margarine/butter. Seriously. Of 13 people, there are six of these. Sometimes five, but usually six. I first brought this up jokingly that this was ridiculous and a couple people defensively said they were sharing. This is a tiny fridge. With their six tubs and if I am not first in, I cannot put my lunch in the fridge. I have started bringing a cold bag or something that doesn’t need refrigeration. I mentioned that each tub is bigger than 1/13th of their share of the fridge and I just get “but I have toast in the morning.”

Sigh. I just think it’s so selfish and I’ve been as up front about it as I can think and people just do not see that a full sized tub is too big for a teeny shared fridge. I’m annoyed but not insane, this isn’t a management thing, but I would like to understand why their big tubs of margarine trump my lunch. You may just advise I take up meditation or up the martial arts training to channel my aggression but maybe you or the readers have a brilliant suggestion here to transform coworkers into sensitive space sharers? I really really like a cold diet coke.

Convince your office to buy a full-sized fridge (a dorm fridge for 13 people is way too small). Failing that, you could propose a butter club, where all the butter eaters chip in for a single tub of butter to share. (Or perhaps a butter club and a margarine club.)

But perhaps the best solution of all — butter keepers! They don’t go in in the refrigerator at all.

4. My boyfriend and I are interviewing for the same job

My boyfriend and I recently applied for the same marketing position. We come from a similar professional background, so it makes sense that every once in a while we may be interested in the same company. To our surprise, we both passed the first round of interviews and have been selected for the next round. We never imagined we would both get this far! Is it unethical for both of us to be in consideration? Should one of us drop out?

We are both extremely happy for each other and find the situation to be amusing. We love each other and both have many great career opportunities, so at this point either one of us getting this job would be an exciting moment as a couple.

The concern is less the impact on our relationship if one of us gets it over the other, and rather if it would look unprofessional or unethical for the hired party if the company found out that the other candidate was a romantic partner? Are we already in too deep here? Should couples avoid competing professionally (even if we are okay with it in our own relationship)?

It’s not unethical, but the company might feel a little odd if they find out later and realize you never said anything. It’s hard to articulate exactly why. A little of it is the worry that it could give one of you an unfair advantage or create an information imbalance they weren’t expecting. (Frankly, I don’t think that gives you a huge advantage; interviews aren’t like tests where knowing the questions would mean you could look up the answers ahead of time. But I could see someone feeling uneasy if they found out later that they hadn’t known.) More of it, though, is that some employers will feel it’s an odd thing not to mention.

And they might be more cognizant of what they to each of you if they know it may get back to the other. For example, I might tell a candidate they’re our front runner, but I wouldn’t say that if I knew their partner was still in the process with us.

I don’t think you have an obligation to disclose it, but I do think it’s smart to disclose it to avoid that potential weirdness. One of you could simply say, “By the way, I want to mention that my partner, Tangerina Stewpot, is also applying for this position. It’s not a problem for either of us, but I wanted to mention it.” That’ll also make it less awkward if one of you gets hired and the other one shows up a few months later as their date to the office Memorial Day barbecue or whatever.

5. Am I sabotaging my future career by volunteering too much?

I recently moved to a new (very small) city for my partner’s work. It’s a great place to live and we have friends here, so it has actually been a good transition. My problem is that I didn’t have a job lined up when we moved, and now that we’re here, I’m struggling to find one in my field. I have a long gap in employment – last year I was finishing my grad degree and not working at all. It’s been a while since I was actively job seeking, and I’m a bit intimidated, but trying my best.

Before we moved, I made a list of organizations in my new city that I’d love to work for. When I arrived, I leaned on my local network and met someone from each of those organizations for coffee. They were all friendly and open, but none of them are hiring (they’re local nonprofits with small budgets, and all of them led me to believe that they wouldn’t be hiring anytime soon).

I decided to volunteer for three of them — one weekly, and two on an as-needed basis. My reasoning was: get to know the people I want to work with, learn more about my field here, and just give back to my new community in a way I care about. It’s been rewarding, but I sometimes worry that I’m giving away free labor and there will never be a reason for any of these places to hire me.

At what point is volunteering no longer a good idea? The volunteer work I do is mostly below my skills/education level, but some of it involves more extensive knowledge/experience and I worry that I shouldn’t be doing this for free. On the other hand, volunteering is a good thing to do, and maybe this is my only way to be involved in my field here for the foreseeable future. Maybe I should be content just volunteering at these organizations, and start looking for paid work outside of my (fairly niche) field. I’ve been job searching continually, but the pickings are slim around here.

If it helps, I’m not in financial difficulty – no kids, low rent, and my partner makes good money, so I’m not desperate for a salary yet. But – I really want to work! I’ve been here three months and I’m ready for gainful employment. What do you think I should do? Keep volunteering or let them know I can’t continue for free?

Well, on one hand you’re saying that your reasons for volunteering are to “get to know the people I want to work with, learn more about my field here, and just give back to my new community in a way I care about.” But it also sounds like you’re hoping one of these organizations will hire you. That can be a really risky approach, because there’s no guarantee it will happen — and especially not with small organizations with limited budgets and limited staff. If they don’t currently have a paid employee who doing the type of work you’re doing, chances are relatively low that they’’ll create a full-time paid role for it. Not impossible, but low — unless they’ve specifically told you it’s a top item on their priority list once their budget allows it. That doesn’t mean they don’t value the work, just that there are usually going to be a bunch of higher priorities.

Because of that, if you tell them you can’t continue for free, the most likely outcome is that they’ll  thank you for the work you’ve done and wish you well. So you’ve got to decide if you want to do the work for other reasons or not. If you’re going to feel resentful or like you wasted your time if they never hire you, definitely stop volunteering since there’s a good chance that will never happen. But if you like the work you’re doing and won’t be upset if it doesn’t lead to anything more, keep doing it … just look at it as a way to expand your network and do good, rather than as a direct line to paying work.

I can’t keep helping friends with their writing, office butter bonanza, and more was originally published by Alison Green on Ask a Manager.

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A reader writes:

I’m in a very competitive, very niche academic field. I’m writing because I wonder if you and your readers can tell me how to keep going when I’m losing hope as this roller coaster of a search keeps on rolling.

I have been applying for jobs since last year, and I have had one — ONE — interview. A recent rejection informed me that I was one of 322 applicants for a position. This is the norm. It’s true that I was under no illusions going into this field — I made the decision to follow my passion, and I still deeply love what I do, and I can’t wait to teach full-time someday. But … reality is hitting hard. While I do have freelance work in my field, it is a “feast or famine” situation, and adjunct teaching is not consistent, i.e. some semesters I’m teaching and some semesters I’m not. I live off my gig checks and when I’m in a “famine” month I do part-time jobs so I can pay rent and eat, but it’s a vicious cycle because I have less time to apply for full-time jobs and pursue opportunities in my field that might improve my odds of employment.

Because jobs are few and far between, I apply to positions all over the world, in places I don’t even want to live and for jobs I’m not even sure are perfectly suited to me. I don’t know where I’ll be living from one year to the next. I’m going to be 35, single, without kids. I have accomplished more than most women my age, and am well known in my field. But I have no money, my life seems stagnant, and the rejections are making me feel like I’m failing. Every time I write a cover letter I feel this terrible feeling of intense hope combined with the inevitability of rejection. It’s exhausting.

This summer I finally took a vacation from applying for jobs and went off-grid for three weeks. It was good for my health and I returned refreshed. But as a “feast” semester ends and a “famine” one begins, and no prospect of full-time work waits for me, I feel myself sinking back to that place of despair. I have heard horror stories of people like me applying for positions for years and never finding work. I know this is a real possibility, but I don’t want that to be me. I’m scared, but I love what I do so much. I don’t want to give up hope.

My question is: how do you deal with this process? How do you maintain your mental health? How do you deal with rejection? How do you navigate the application process for extremely competitive jobs?

This isn’t the answer you’re asking for, but it’s the one I think is important.

Are you okay with this being your life long-term? If you knew that the unsteady adjunct jobs and feast and famine cycle was going to continue for the next 10 years, would you do anything differently now?

When you’re in a very competitive field where there are far more people who want a stable path in that field than there are stable paths available — and when the number of non-adjuncting jobs is shrinking and more competition is pouring into the market every year — the reality is that, no matter how good you are, you might not win that lottery. When something is your dream, it can make sense to give it a shot for a while … but there’s also a point where it’s far better for you to make alternate plans.

Only you can decide when you’re at that point. But do you love what you do enough to do it under these conditions for years to come? Are you comfortable sacrificing other huge things in your life (a location you like, money, security, peace of mind, maybe family) in exchange for what may be a long shot?

Or are there other paths you could be happy with? Could you, for example, be happy doing something professionally adjacent and teaching a course or two on the side?

Again, only you can make that call. But you’ve got to be really clear-eyed about the likely outcomes. If you stay on this path, your situation now may be your situation in 10 years, 15 years, and beyond. At a minimum, I’d look at what other paths are available to you.

You still have more than one future out there.

But if you decide that yes, it’s okay if life stays like this for the long-term, then I think the way you deal with the stress and rejections is by keeping that choice in the forefront of your mind — by remembering that you knowingly chose a tough path because you find the trade-offs enough, and by focusing on what you are getting out of it. And if you reach a point where that doesn’t feel like enough, there’s no shame in that — just make sure you recognize when that’s happening and don’t ignore it.

(The whole time I was writing this, I kept thinking that this is the same thing I’d tell someone heading to Hollywood to try to find success as an actor, or any other field where the number of people who find success is dwarfed by the number of people seeking it, which says a lot about the current state of academic jobs.)

how do I not lose hope in a highly competitive field? was originally published by Alison Green on Ask a Manager.

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A reader writes:

I have to sit with a coworker twice a month shut in an office by ourselves for several hours — and all she does is complain and groan about life and process all of her problems. I’d especially love your advice on ways to say “Hey, you’re so negative that I actually dread your visits and I never wanted to be your therapist” in a way that won’t hurt her feelings/is socially acceptable.

Background: I work as admin/secretary position where I work in an office alone 90% of the time. I communicate with my boss by phone and take calls from clients with work happening on the field. Twice a month, we have a bookkeeper (Jane) who comes in for 3-4 hours and does her work while I take calls and do other tasks.

This bookkeeper is, well, definitely one of the most negative people I’ve ever met in my life. She’s very nice, and we would probably be friends if it weren’t for this. Think like an energetic Eeyore who’s a middle aged woman. I’ll say, “Hi Jane, how are you?” She’ll say, “I’m doing ok, except [goes on rant about husband/other work/politics/natural disaster/her health/etc.]” and she goes on. and on. and on. Until I want to take a shower from the negativity in the room. When she leaves, I open windows and vacuum and play happy music. I’m not exaggerating.

My boss is aware of this and he sometimes sends me on errands when he knows she’ll be in, but he can only do so much.

I’ve tried changing the subject to something positive every few minutes/being Pollyanna. She turns whatever I say into something sad. “Yes, the sun looks pretty, but we could really use some rain. It’s TERRIBLE some of the issues happening with the drought. Did you hear about the fires happening in [area]? Terrible.”

Other things I’ve tried:
– Finding safe subjects, though I’ve only really succeeded in finding marginally less negative subjects.
– Being busy with other work and phone calls and saving things up for when she gets there, but I can only do that so much and she goes on monologues in between my calls.
– Taking my lunch while she’s here, but I can’t escape the whole time.
– Disagreeing with her. “My husband says I should just tell them to leave” … “Yeah, I agree with your husband.”
– Asking her what she plans to do about [thing she’s complaining about] which just makes her go, “I don’t know” and then go on a rant about how terrible it is that she doesn’t know what to do and replay everything she just said.
– Finding a reason to say, “I can’t talk now, I need to do X” and she’ll start talking out loud to herself and complaining, then asks me work related questions laced with negativity.

I feel like this is a nonconsensual therapy relationship, and she just expects me to be her therapist. I don’t mind her sharing stuff going on in her life but I don’t want to listen to this level of negativity. Can you help me? How do I set boundaries with her? Is there anything else I can I do?

I talk with this letter-writer on today’s podcast. The show is 30 minutes long, and you can listen on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, the iHeartRadio app, or wherever else you get your podcasts (or here’s the direct RSS feed). Or you can listen above.

If you want to hear your question on the show, email it podcast@askamanager.org or record it on the show voicemail at 855-426-WORK (855-426-9675).

You can find transcripts of previous episodes here. (The transcript for today’s show will be released in the next week.)

my coworker is unbearably negative was originally published by Alison Green on Ask a Manager.

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A reader writes:

A few months ago, we gained a new departmental manager (Kelly). Some background: Kelly is about 10 years younger than the two most senior people in our department, of which I am one, and comes from another industry so there’s a steep learning curve.

My colleague (Alex) and I are finding conversations and meetings with Kelly increasingly difficult, as Kelly calls us out for acting/feeling/looking frustrated, hostile, or defensive. It’s not an exaggeration to say this occurs every other meeting.

A typical scenario: Kelly asks a question, I start answering, Kelly interrupts me to ask another question, and when I try to finish answering, she asks why I’m “frustrated.” If I try to explain, truthfully, that I’m not frustrated, I’m just trying to explain the answer or the context, Kelly responds with “There’s no need to be defensive.”

Last week this happened in a meeting with Alex, where Kelly asked me “Why are you so defensive?” when I was having to explain something for the third time that meeting. Alex came to talk to me afterward and volunteered that I had done nothing wrong, and any frustration was from Kelly asking the same questions and not listening.

Kelly is constantly taking notes but never seems to remember what we say, so we end up answering the same questions over and over: We don’t need to do anything with the TPS reports because they were submitted two weeks ago; we can’t exactly replicate the number of chocolate teapots reported finished last year because some departments are late reporting their numbers to us and we have to manually update the official PDF to incorporate those; this dataset lives in the Teaset Database not the Chocolate Database; I’ve already requested access but you need to give your approval.

It’s now at the point where I will choose to walk the long way round to get to the bathrooms or the break room rather than walk past Kelly’s office, in case I get called in for an impromptu meeting/Q&A. I know Kelly means well and is trying to build rapport, but being repeatedly asked if I’m frustrated or if it’s something personal with Kelly (previous conversations included variants of “let’s work it out”) is causing me frustration and annoyance.

I even recorded my last meeting with Kelly to let someone else listen later and give me impartial feedback as to whether my words or tone were implying something I did not intend, whether the feedback was reasonable, and if any other nuggets could be gleaned. (For the record, I live in a one-party consent state, and do not intend to share the existence of the recording with anyone else.)

I’m taking on board the advice I received from the third party, which included feedback that I did sound a little frustrated but that it didn’t seem unreasonable, and confirmed that we seem to have very different communication styles. In short, Kelly is constantly using a lot of management speak like “Let’s get on the same page,” “Believe me, I’m on your side,” and “We can work this out.” I plan to listen again, and try to pull out some specific examples that I hear again and again, and try to figure out why they annoy me and how I can ignore them. However, we still have an ongoing problem which needs to be addressed before it causes real issues.

Alex and I both have a great working relationship with the CEO, and there have never been communication problems like this in our department before. The CEO is very empathic and approachable, values Alex and me as long-time employees, and knows that bringing in someone from another industry was a bit risky, but Kelly does have some technical skills we will find useful in the longer term.

Although I would prefer to talk directly to Kelly, I don’t feel that either of us can talk to Kelly about these problems without it causing more difficulties. I think we should broach it with the CEO, who has asked me about tension in the department. I said that we were just a little stressed with our busy period and were working through some things, hoping that Kelly would be able to read our body language better as we all got to know each other more, but instead the situation is worsening. How should we approach this?

Good lord. What Kelly’s doing doesn’t sound like “management speak.” It sounds like someone who’s inappropriately focused on imaginary personal dynamics while everyone else is trying to have a business conversation.

Would you be comfortable sitting down with her and saying something like this: “When we’re talking about work matters, you frequently put the focus on personal emotions that you’re concerned we might be having. For example, when I’m trying to explain a work situation or give context for an answer, you’ll frequently tell me I seem frustrated or defensive. To be honest, the only thing I find frustrating in our conversations is being told that I seem frustrated! I’m trying to keep the focus on the work topic we’re there to discuss, and it’s strange to be told I’m feeling an emotion that I’m not actually feeling. I’m hoping we can agree to keep those assessments out of our conversations, and just focus on the work we’re discussing.” You could add, “It’s the same thing with being told a lot that you’re on our side or that we can work something out — I take both of those things as a given, and saying them so often makes our conversations feel more personally-focused than they need to. I think things would go more smoothly if we didn’t focus so much on emotions and instead kept our focus to the work topic.”

But whether or not you have this conversation with Kelly, I agree that you should be talking with the CEO, who has already asked you about the tension in the department. That’s opening enough; don’t wait for an engraved invitation. Go back her and now and say, “You asked about this earlier, and I mistakenly downplayed what was going on, hoping that it was just transition pains. But the situation is getting worse, and it hasn’t been something we’ve been able to solve on our own.” Then tell her what’s happening, including the part about Kelly not retaining anything you say. Don’t pull your punches here; tell the truth about what’s going on. Kelly may be the wrong hire, and if that’s the case, the sooner your CEO figures that out, the better for everyone.

Meanwhile though: Try to catch yourself before that frustration shows up in your voice. Your frustration makes a ton of sense here, but you don’t want a situation where your CEO can legitimately think that you’re part of the problem — and that could happen if she starts hearing that you regularly sound annoyed when you talk to Kelly.

So if you feel yourself starting to get frustrated with Kelly for asking the same questions over and over again, you’re better off saying something like, “I’ve noticed you’ve asked that a few different times in this meeting. Is there something about the way I’m explaining it that isn’t making sense?” And with the interrupting — well, to some extent it’s her prerogative as the boss to interrupt, especially if someone is (for example) going on a long tangent or otherwise getting off course (which is what it may genuinely seem like to her), but if it’s happening constantly, it’s reasonable for you to politely say, “Actually, could I go back to what I was saying when you jumped in? I think it’ll answer your question.”

But talk to your CEO. She asked what’s happening, and you should tell her.

new manager keeps telling us we’re frustrated and defensive was originally published by Alison Green on Ask a Manager.

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

1. Someone is stinking up the bathroom next to my office

I am writing this partially to check myself. Please feel free to tell me to grow up and that this shouldn’t bother me!

I have a senior level position at a non-profit organization. Our offices are in a renovated home and my office is the former master bedroom which is on a wing of the house that is slightly separate from the rest of the building. The master bathroom is also in this separate wing with a door right next to mine sharing a wall. There are no other offices in this wing.

I have a lot of meetings with donors and members of our executive board, which is part of the reason for my admittedly plum office situation. In the past few months, a woman who works on another floor of the house in another department has started coming to the master bathroom at least once (and often twice) a day to do her business. This business is often loud and always smelly. In addition to my annoyance, this has also been awkward when I am having meetings or bringing guests to my office. She has many other bathroom options (the house has four bathrooms for nine employees) and she literally passes two bathrooms between her office and mine, so this isn’t a situation where she doesn’t have a choice.

The idea of talking to her about this feels extremely uncomfortable, but all my other possible solutions (locking the door when I’m having meetings or loading it up with air fresheners) feel very passive aggressive. Do I need to just suck it up and have this conversation or is passive aggressive the way to go?

I actually do think you could lock it an hour or so before meetings, and in an office this small, you could let people know what you’re doing and why. Not naming the perpetrator, of course — but saying something like, “The bathroom next to my office has become a popular choice for more pungent activities, likely because it’s located away from the others, and this has caused problems when VIPs are here for meetings. To avoid that, I’m going to lock it ahead of those meetings. It’ll be unlocked the rest of the time.”

The rest of the time, though … well, it’s a bathroom! I can see why it’s annoying that she’s leaving her own floor to come use what probably feels like “your” bathroom, but it isn’t really your bathroom and she may prefer to expose one person to the sounds and smells rather than many (and if she doesn’t work closely with you, she may like the illusion of anonymity that she can’t get with people she talks to all day).

And there’s nothing wrong with putting a white noise machine and some Poopourri in there.

2. My office wants to make me use a nickname

My name is, let’s say, Jane Smith. I just received this communication on messenger from my office manager:

Quick question: do you have a fav nickname you like to go by?
How do you feel about “JS”‘? lol
On a scale of 1-10, how excited are you about Smithy?

I believe this is part of an overall strategy to improve office culture. How do I politely say I like to go by my first name/last name combination. Or just the former. Apparently everyone in the office got the same request and it’s mandatory. I have to submit a nickname by Monday! I honestly don’t have a nickname. My boyfriend suggested that I request to be referred to as “Your Majesty” but I’m a little worried that my coworkers might actually start calling me that.

“I feel strongly that names are very personal and I really don’t go by a nickname or want to go by one. So just Jane for me.”

If you’re pressed, “Really, I’m just Jane. In my family, names are a really meaningful and personal thing and I would feel really uncomfortable having a nickname.”

And if you’re up for it: “I appreciate that this is an attempt to make the culture here friendlier. By forced to go by a nickname I don’t like and don’t use would be the opposite of morale-boasting for me. If we want to improve the culture, maybe we can talk about (insert actually useful thing your office needs here).”

3. Being booked in “basic economy” on flights for job interviews

Is there a good way to push back on a company booking your travel for an interview as “basic economy”? I’ve seen plenty of times that basic economy travelers are the first to get bumped and forced to check their bags (in addition to being stuck in middle seats), and I always spend the extra money to avoid it myself. Now a company has booked me on a basic economy fare for my cross country flight to interview. I feel like there might not be anything to do now except suck it up for this interview, but is there a way to prevent this from happening in the future?

(I do want to point out that I’m totally fine with coach. That’s what I book for myself! The issue is the “basic economy” that makes you board last/not choose a seat/etc. On the last few flights I’ve been on, I’ve watched at least two passengers with this type of fare get booted to later flights, too, so part of my concern is not arriving on time. I’m also going to have to pay for my carry-on.)

You can absolutely say, “Would it be possible to put me in Economy rather than Basic Economy? That way my carry-on will be covered and I won’t be at as high a risk for being bumped off the flight.”

It’s possible that it’s their policy to book everyone in Basic Economy, but it’s just as likely that someone junior handling travel arrangement saw a very low fair and grabbed it, but will change it if you ask.

4. Can I ask to work from home whenever there’s dangerous weather?

Two weeks ago, I was in a bad car crash during a snowstorm on my way to work. I was not at fault, but my car was totaled, I was trapped in the vehicle for awhile, and I sustained minor injuries to my neck and shoulders. I live in the far north where driving conditions are frequently deadly in the winter. The crash was traumatic, and has remained traumatic because driving conditions have been consistently bad since my accident. I feel extremely anxious while driving because the roads have been so unsafe lately.

My boss suggested I work from home that entire week as I sorted out my injuries (which were thankfully minor) and found a new vehicle. I was so grateful she offered this option. The following week, driving conditions were still brutal, and I requested that I work from home two days, which was granted. My job has a formal policy that allows staff to telework with their supervisor’s approval.

We’re now on week 3, and we’re expecting 6-8 inches of snow tomorrow and the same the next day. I want to ask for the option to work from home on days when conditions are bad, but I worry that maybe I’m pushing it. I don’t want my boss to think I am milking this or taking advantage of her thoughtfulness in initially suggesting I work from home that first week. I have a good relationship with my boss that allows me to be candid, so I brought this up to her last week when I asked for additional work-at-home days, telling her I in no way intended to take advantage of her flexibility to date but that I was genuinely concerned about safely arriving at work due to the conditions. She agreed and said it’s better to be safe than sorry.

Am I pushing it if I ask to work from home any time driving conditions are significantly dangerous? My boss herself works from home four days a week, so I don’t know why I feel oddly guilty asking for this accommodation, at least for now. I’ve been at this job less than one year and am still eager to reinforce that I am a good employee with a strong work ethic.

In theory, the answer should be that if driving conditions are dangerous, everyone should stay home and you shouldn’t worry about asking. In reality, if you live somewhere that routinely has bad weather conditions, you’ll generally be expected to find a way to get to work except in really extreme situations.

But you’re in an office where working from home isn’t uncommon and you just had a serious accident. You shouldn’t be pushing it if you say something like, “For the rest of the winter, would it be okay for me to plan to work from home when driving conditions are dangerous? I’m still shaken up by my crash and I’d feel a lot better being able to plan on doing that, but I don’t want to assume it would be okay without talking to you, and I don’t want you to feel I’m taking advantage of your flexibility.”

5. When should I start applying for jobs?

I graduate early May, and I’m not sure if I have begun applying too early. I won’t be able to start any jobs until after graduation, but I also don’t know how long the process usually takes or how quickly employers are looking to fill positions.

Go ahead and start now. Some employers will be looking to have someone start more quickly than that, but lots of hiring processes take months. You can’t always tell from the outside, but this is a reasonable time to begin applying. Most employers will figure out from the fact that you’re in school that you’re not available until May, but if for some reason one doesn’t, you can make sure it’s clear when they first contact you. (There are also some fields that hire a bunch of soon-to-be-grads even earlier than now, like parts of finance and law, but you probably know if you’re in one of those fields.)

Make sure that your resume lists your education this way:

University of Porridge, B.A. in Oatmeal expected May 2019

someone is stinking up the bathroom by my office, I’m forced to use a nickname, and more was originally published by Alison Green on Ask a Manager.

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