If You Have an Awkward Work Problem, This Is the Person to Ask About It

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Photo: H. Armstrong Roberts/ClassicStock/Getty Images

The modern office is a weird place. There are, on the one hand, some very clearly defined rules guiding your behavior: You know what time you should arrive at work, for one, and you also know what you should do with your time once you get there.

Let’s hope you know these things, anyway, because we encounter more than enough gray areas in the workplace. What, for instance, are you supposed to do if a work friend keeps pushing for the two of you to become real friends when the feeling is not exactly mutual? How are you supposed to handle it when you are forced to share a hotel room with a colleague (or, worse, your boss) when you’re on a work trip? And is there any way — any way at all — to save face if your co-workers on a conference call overhear your roommate having (loud) sex with his girlfriend in the next room?

These are real questions, asked by people in unfortunately very real situations, and Alison Green has answered every one of them. Green runs the site Ask a Manager, which is a bit like an Ask Polly or a Dear Sugar, only for uncomfortable workplace issues. Green launched the site in 2007 when she was managing a nonprofit organization and realized there were so many weird little nuances of working in a white-collar office environment that no one really teaches you. “People don’t explain that to you, and you don’t really learn it in school,” she said. Since launching the site nearly a decade ago, Green estimates that she has answered somewhere around 5,000 questions about office life — which means that, at this point, chances are high that she has at least answered a version of the awkward workplace problem you are currently dealing with. She currently gets about 50 questions a day, answers around 35 a week — in posts that routinely get hundreds of comments — all of which translates to about 1.1 million unique visitors to her site per month.

Clearly, Green is tapping into something here. In a way, she acts as the internet’s work therapist, in that she sees firsthand the anxieties that are most bothering employees and job-seekers alike. There are two major themes of her site: the weirdness of having a job, and the weirdness of trying to get a job. In both of these contexts, but perhaps especially the latter, so many of the rules are rather fuzzy. What, for example, are you supposed to do when an interview seemed like it went great — but then you never hear from the hiring manager again? (The answer, alas, is much like what happens when you never hear from a date again: Move on. Forget it ever happened. Green will explain more in a bit.)

And so if the questions she answers have one thing in common, it might be that they are written from a place of deep uncertainty, from a confused employee or job-seeker who has tried and failed to quietly figure out the rules on their own. This is perhaps what makes Green’s site so soothing to read — she has a matter-of-fact tone that lays out the answer, or at least a range of potential answers, to the question “Just what am I supposed to do here?”

The bulk of the social-science research suggests that people tend to have a difficult time handling uncertainty. When given a choice, for example, people tend to prefer knowing that they will receive a painful electric shock immediately over the mere chance of receiving one later. We like to know what’s coming, and this may be especially true of people who are score high on tests measuring neuroticism. According to a 2008 neuroimaging study by University of Toronto psychologists Jacob B. Hirsh and Michael Inzlicht, when neurotic individuals received ambiguous feedback, their brains showed more signs of stress than when they received outright negative feedback.

The point being: Uncertainty has a way of morphing directly into anxiety, which is no doubt part of the reason Green’s site has remained so popular for so many years. For ambiguous situations (say, a receptionist who won’t stop hugging people), Green provides clear, straightforward answers (“Just talk to her. And do it now.”). She also understands that sometimes people need specific suggestions on the kind of language they should use to broach these uncomfortable subjects. “Sometimes I think they know that they probably have to say something, but they cannot imagine how to say it in a way that doesn’t sound really rude or aggressive or adversarial,” she told Science of Us. “So I think a big thing that people get from the answers to those sorts of letters is advice on the language — like, here’s how you say it, and here’s how you can frame it.” (For the huggy receptionist, she lays out the outline for exactly what the letter writer could say to make the hugs — finally, blessedly — stop.)

To that end, there is one core piece of advice she says she is always returning to. “More often than not, when people write in, they’re looking for an answer that does not require them to have an awkward conversation about it,” Green said. “And, I mean — it’s not Ask a Magician. But if there is one thing I say over and over and over, it is probably this: You either have to have the awkward conversation, or live with the thing that’s annoying you.”

It would be a shame to have a conversation with Green without asking for her advice about the common themes she sees repeated in the letters that she gets, so here’s a lightly edited overview of the questions she’s always asked, along with some common misconceptions she is always having to correct.

On how to deal with a work acquaintance who is desperate to be your actual friend:
People really have a hard time with that one. And understandably — I mean it sucks to say to someone, “I don’t like you the way you like me.” So I would say you can start out with a pretty light hand. Start out giving hints, and see if they can pick up on that. Like, you can be busy when they go by your office, and you can have other plans for lunch, and you can say, “I’m on deadline, so I’ve really gotta focus on getting this done, so I can’t talk right now.” And some people will pick up on that.

But sometimes people don’t pick up on that, and it continues. And I think at that point if you want it to stop you have to sort of — and I advise this a lot, this pattern — start with the light touch, and if it doesn’t work, then sit down and actually address what’s going on. And in this case, you know, it doesn’t have to sound like, “I don’t like you, leave me alone.” It can be, “Hey, I know you like to come by and chat a lot at work, but I really can’t — I really need to focus,” or, like, “I’m finding that I need to be more diligent about really focusing on work, and I can’t chat as much.” And usually that will work. And if it doesn’t work, well, then you have a sort of different problem on your hands.

On what you are probably misunderstanding about your manager:
I definitely hear a lot of “Oh, I couldn’t be candid with my manager — my manager doesn’t want to hear this difficult message that I have to deliver.” Which could be everything from “My workload is too high and I’m drowning,” or “I think that this new initiative that we’re doing is a strategic mistake.” It could be a whole range of things, but people feel like — “Well, I can’t really tell my manager. I’m just supposed to say ‘yes’ to everything.”

And there are certainly managers where that is the case — where you will do best working with that manager by just keeping your opinion to yourself. But those are not the majority of managers, and that’s not how management is supposed to work.

On what to do if you interviewed for a job and then the hiring manager ghosted on you:
People get really, really anxious when they haven’t heard back from an employer, and employers compound this by doing this rude thing where they interview people, sometimes multiple interviews, and then never get back to them to reject them. It’s so rude and inconsiderate. So I hear from a ton of people who are like, “When can I follow up with them, and if I can what should it look like? And when should I hear? And what does it mean that I haven’t heard? And help me read the tea leaves. And what do these signals from them mean?”

So one thing that I end up telling people a lot is the absolute best thing that you can do is to just put it out of your mind. Pretend that you didn’t get the job, and just move on mentally. And let it be a pleasant surprise if they do happen to contact you. Because it doesn’t help you to sit around agonizing and worrying. I mean, if you feel like you have to follow up at some point, put a note on your calendar for two weeks reminding you to, but don’t think about it until then. Like, really pretend you got rejected. When people follow that advice, I think it makes job searching a lot less stressful.

On what you probably misunderstood about your last job interview:
People think they have to sort of sell themselves for the job — that they should only present their strengths, and that they should hide their weaknesses, and that they should cajole a hiring manager into thinking that they’re the right person. It is the worst thing you can do. I mean, that is how you will end up in a job that isn’t right for you, that you will struggle in, and then possibly get fired from. So a hiring manager who is really probing into where your weaker areas might be, or ways in which the job might not be the perfect match — that’s the interviewer you want. I mean, it sounds so counterintuitive to people. But your goal shouldn’t just be to get a job offer. Your goal should be to get a job that you will be happy in and really excel in. And an interviewer that’s really equipped to help you figure out if this job is the match for you, that’s exactly the interviewer you should be excited to be talking to.

And, I mean, people have so many complaints about their managers and their companies once they’re on the job it’s surprising that people don’t think about that more when they’re in the process of finding that job to begin with. But I understand — you need a job, you need income, you have a livelihood, you have a family to support. Of course, there is a part of you that is just focused on getting an offer. But if you’re in a position where you have the luxury of picking and choosing and you have some options, it’s so much better to be honest and up-front about who you are and who you are not.