did my boss reject me just so she could hire a friend, my employee lives in her cubicle, and more — Ask a Manager

here are the 10 best questions to ask your job interviewer — Ask a Manager

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

1. Did my boss reject me just so she could hire a friend?

Late last year, my manager “Sarah” was promoted to my grand-manager. Since her role was now available, my same-job colleague “Jake” and I had a frank conversation where we confirmed we were both going for the position and assured each other that we’d be good sports and happy for the other if one of us was promoted over the other (true!).

I interviewed on a Friday and thought it went as well as it could have on my part. One of my questions was whether the interviewers had any concerns about my candidacy I could address. Sarah answered on behalf of the panel, stating that my lack of management experience was her main concern. She said that since she was still learning her new role, she didn’t want to be teaching her new direct report how to manage along with teaching them her old job. I summarized everything I’d done to prepare myself for management — supervising volunteers, training junior staff members, leading projects, and one-on-one coaching from a prior manager specifically geared towards preparing me for a management role. The interview ended on good terms.

The following Monday morning, Sarah came to me to tell me my application had been unsuccessful. She gave me feedback that was mainly very positive, with only some very minor negative points. I left the meeting feeling like there wasn’t a whole lot I could work on, except perhaps my manager’s suggestion that I pursue a formal management certification to strengthen my application.

Jake and I talked, and he also received a rejection with the same “no management experience” feedback. Well, then the successful applicant was announced, and … wow. Prior to Jake and I, “Fran” had held one of our two positions, and she was now coming back. Seems fine on the surface, except Jake and I know her job history and she also has no management experience. She’s also a friend of Sarah’s.

I feel really weird about this. I’ve talked to Jake, some professional contacts, and some friends, and today I spoke to the ex-manager who had put so much time and effort into helping me to advance in my last role. While everyone I’ve spoken to has validated my feelings, I’ve worried that maybe I’m spinning the story in my favor, or maybe Fran has management experience I don’t know about — but that conversation with my ex-manager cinched it. The moment I told her who it was, she gasped, and when I gave her the details she was adamant that this was capital-H-Hinky. She used the phrase “major conflict of interest.”

Does this seem off to you? I know hiring a friend should be a no-no, but is it okay because she held my job for three years and has a proven track record? We’re a small industry, lots of us know each other well, and I’ve formed several strong friendships myself. Turning Jake and I down with the same excuse, but Fran apparently not having it either … if it turns out she does it’s a non-issue, but if it comes up when she starts in the role that she doesn’t, I honestly don’t know if I’ll be able to keep a straight face.

My therapist has suggested that I could contact the HR representative who was on my interview panel, but I don’t know how I’d possibly phrase, “Did you know Sarah and Fran are friends? Did you OK this hire?” I also don’t know if it would be worth it at this point, as they’re not going to un-hire Fran and it has a high possibility of torpedoing my relationship with Sarah if it gets back to her that I’m questioning it. That said, my faith in Sarah is permanently stained by this. I don’t trust her decision-making anymore, and it’s really upsetting me that I feel this way. I would prefer to stay in this role than pursue another employer, due to excellent benefits, pay, and a wonderful wider team, so leaving isn’t an option I’m going to take just yet — but who knows.

If it turns out to be true that Fran has no management experience, then yes, this is very hinky. Even in small industries, the bar for hiring a friend should be very high; it has to be clear that the hire is obviously the best qualified person for the job so that it doesn’t raise exactly the kinds of feelings you’re grappling with right now … and even then, it’s fraught with problems. Of course, it’s possible that Fran has some other skill or experience that makes her the best candidate even without management experience and that Sarah’s mistake wasn’t in hiring her but in leaving you and Jake with the impression that management experience was the deciding factor when it was actually about something else. That’s a pretty significant mistake if so, but it would at least change things a bit.

I do think you should speak with HR. I’d say it this way: “Jake and I were both told that our lack of management experience was the reason we didn’t get the X role. I’ve since heard Fran doesn’t have management experience either. If I’m wrong and she does, this is a non-issue — but if she also lacks the experience that we were told we needed, I have real concerns about what happened. Fran and Sarah are personal friends, and if Fran doesn’t have the experience that Jake and I both told was the deciding factor, it raises the question for me of whether that personal relationship played an inappropriate role in the hire.” Yes, it’s unlikely that Sarah will be un-hired at this point — but there could be other useful outcomes, like Sarah’s management of your team getting more scrutiny and oversight and/or stronger efforts to support your and Jake’s aspirations at the company.

2. My employee basically lives in her cubicle

I work at a research university, and I have an employee who I recently learned is using her work space after hours. This employee lives across the street from our offices and insists on working five days a week in office, despite a pretty liberal remote/ hybrid option. Her cubicle is very lived in — dry cleaning hanging on the wall, grocery bags of unopened food, many pairs of shoes, luggage, etc. It is neat but clearly an odd sight to the passerby. I have addressed the state of her cubicle a few times. All of this was odd and definitely raised a flag for me.

One of her coworkers shared with me that this employee does not have internet at home and prefers to come in after hours and use her cubicle (and the campus wifi) for anything she can’t do on her phone. In fact, she used to be able to get campus wifi in her apartment but during the pandemic the system was updated and does not reach that far.

I am not sure how to address this — there appears to be no policy stopping this. Folks are given 24-hour access and while it is uncommon for staff to be here in their cubicles at night, faculty do it all the time. While she may be watching videos or shopping, there appears to be no violation of our cyber security policy. While I don’t know her unique finances, her salary is at a point where I would usually assume she could afford internet at home. Is this something worth addressing or am I overthinking this?

My biggest concern is safety ramifications — if something happens at night, does anyone know she’s in there? But if people are given 24-hour access to the building and others are there occasionally, that may already be covered. Beyond that, I’d put this in the category of odd but not actionable. (That said, I do think it’s reasonable for you to say that her office can’t be an overflow storage area for her home. she can’t routinely use her office to store things that would normally be stored at home, like luggage. It’s an office, not a storage unit or an offshoot of her apartment.)

3. Should I hire an assistant manager who I stirs up drama?

I’ve been promoted to the head of my smallish department. All good so far. My dilemma is that I now have to hire an assistant head of the department. The person who is the strongest internal candidate has really stepped up in the last few months but has a history of stirring the pot. Think petty interpersonal conflicts and gossip. For various reasons, external candidates may not be an option. No one else on the team has demonstrated the skills required for the job. The optimist in me wants to believe this person can change based on what they’ve shown in the past few months. The pessimist says there is no way I’ll be able to trust them to have my back. None of the other candidates have stepped up the way this person has though. What do you think?

Absolutely do not hire someone with a history of petty interpersonal conflicts, at least not if that history is relatively recent. I’d even consider going without anyone in the role if that were the only alternative, and would be willing to explain to the person why. People in leadership roles need to minimize drama, not cause it.

4. Should I warn my employer about the checkered past of the company offering us a large contract?

Several years back I worked for a year with company A, who had a solid product but some awful business practices. Plenty of small but not likely illegal things, like padding client charges and cutting corners on products. But they also had a history of running up debt with their vendors, making impossible and ever changing demands, and then refusing to pay the bill. I was in an entry-level position and had a limited view of all the details – but it seemed like their team of lawyers and accountants were always in a battle with someone (which was often discussed loudly in the office).

I did not leave on the best terms, but since we are a small industry I’ve done my best to remain neutral towards them if they happen to come up. Over the years I have heard from several past clients who have had issues with non- or slow payment on large contracts (as recently as this year).

Fast forward to now, I have been working with company B for a few years, like the people, and enjoy my work. This week we got some great news about a potential new contract with — you guessed it — company A. No one seems to have made the connection that I’ve worked for company A yet, I would not be working directly with the project, and I could probably ignore the whole thing. Except company A is already talking about big orders on tight time frames, promising enormous future business, and asking for sensitive information — and I feel like I’m in a red flag factory that no one else can see.

What should I do here? I have a good relationship with the owners of my current company and think they value my opinion. But company A is notorious for disparaging past employees and could easily find out I work here now. Randomly suggesting that we get ironclad contracts and prepaid orders from them would be unusual and outside of my role. But sharing what I know seems like a liability too, especially considering how vengeful and petty I know company A to be. Should I just get a new job?

No! You should talk to your current company. Tell them you used to work at Company A and have some info about how you saw them operate that you don’t feel comfortable keeping to yourself — and then share what you know. The tone you want is not a gossipy “they’re the worst ever, can you believe this, let me spill all the tea,” but rather a more restrained “there were some serious issues that I want to make sure you’re aware of as you move forward.” But tell them. You have business-relevant info. What they do with it from there is up to them.

It’s very unlikely that this will get back to your old company in a way that would result in them badmouthing you — because it’s unlikely that your company owners will go to them and say, “Well, your former entry-level employee Valentina Bumblebee told us X.” Instead, they’re just more likely to do more due diligence, ask around, and maybe put the brakes on things. But even if Company A does decide to disparage you, your current company already knows you and your work, and Company A’s motives would be pretty transparent.

5. My resume has a very long section — is it OK to truncate it?

I’m editing my resume to make it punch more visually and improve the way it looks to those ATS bots. One of my jobs had me move around internally, but it makes my resume very long.

Would it be appropriate to list the whole time I was there, and then only my duties and accomplishments for my last position there, and then mention that if they want to know more, I can provide it, or should I try to jam it all in with font tricks?

I wouldn’t write anything like “more info available upon request” since that’s generally taken as a given, and the expectation is that you’ve already done the work to cull the info that will be most relevant (preferably without font tricks, so that you’re presenting a reasonable amount of information, not an excessive amount). But there are a couple of ways to approach it.

Option 1

Oatmeal Association, June 2020 – present
Senior Oatmeal Stirrer, May 2023-present
Oatmeal Stirrer, December 2022-May 2023
Groats Partnership Coordinator, January 2022-November 2022
Oats Quality Control Associate, June 2020-December 2021
* accomplishment
* accomplishment
* accomplishment
* accomplishment

In this version, your bulleted accomplishments could be pulled from all four roles.

Option 2

Oatmeal Association, June 2020 – present

Senior Oatmeal Stirrer, May 2023-present
* accomplishment
* accomplishment
* accomplishment
* accomplishment

Oatmeal Stirrer, December 2022-May 2023

Groats Partnership Coordinator, January 2022-November 2022

Oats Quality Control Associate, June 2020-December 2021

This version works if the accomplishments you want to highlight are all from the most recent role anyway.

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