You should never find out that you were someone’s second choice.
Credit…Margeaux Walter for The New York Times
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After 18 months of being unemployed, I finally landed a job. It’s within my field of study and I genuinely love what I do. My new colleagues welcomed me warmly. The person who I work directly under even went on a long speech about how there were a number of very qualified candidates but I was chosen because I clearly showed passion and a strong background in the field.
Not even halfway through my second day, however, I was added to an email chain that indicated I was not the first choice. The initially selected candidate rejected their offer because they could not reach her price point. I was announced as the hire, to which the responses “unfortunate,” “too bad” and “onwards and upwards” followed. Obviously, I was not meant to see this email. All of these individuals were on the hiring committee, and I will be working directly with or under them.
What an awkward and unfortunate way to start a work relationship! How should I proceed in the face of their disappointment? And what to do regarding the colleague who blatantly lied to me about being chosen first? I am trying to hold my head up high but, admittedly, it is quite difficult.
This has happened to me a couple of times and it hurts. It just does. It makes you doubt yourself and distrust your colleagues, and it sours the entire experience. But their disappointment is not your problem to manage. And I imagine they are more dismayed about not working with their first choice than about having to work with you. That is little consolation, I know, but candidates turn down jobs all the time. Then organizations move on to the next equally qualified candidate. Your new colleagues are entitled to their disappointment, I suppose, but they should learn basic email functions and stop being so careless. What they did is tacky and deeply inconsiderate.
There isn’t much you can do about the colleague who lied about your being the first choice. That person was probably trying to overcompensate for the attitudes you saw in the missent email and to make you feel welcome. Any confrontation would be so awkward. The silver lining is that your work fulfills you. You got the job because you are excellent at what you do. Try to focus on that as best you can. Let their silly disappointment fuel your ambition.
And do what I did when I was included on one such email — save it forever, burnish their names in your memory, and plot the pettiest revenge you can imagine.
I have a co-worker I have gotten relatively close with over the past two years. For a year, I was her direct manager, though she has since transitioned to another department. We’ve shared somewhat personal details about our lives. While I prefer to handle issues like these outside of work, I was happy to act as a sounding board, as it felt like I was one of her only sources of support.
Recently, she’s had such a difficult time that she took a short sabbatical. She came to me first because she needed help navigating the situation, which is fine, but now I know quite a lot about her medical history and mental state and she continues to come to me with regular updates, even when I encourage her to seek out additional help. I’ve had to escalate some serious concerns about her mental health to HR, so I feel I’ve done my part professionally. It feels quite inappropriate for me to know so much about her medical condition, and I want to set a boundary, but I don’t know how to do this without really upsetting her. I care about her deeply, but don’t have the emotional or professional bandwidth to take this on.
How do I deal with setting this boundary in an empathetic but appropriate way?
— Anonymous, Boston
Your colleague sees you as a friend while you see her as a colleague with whom you are friendly. But, to be fair, I don’t think you have set a clear boundary around what you will and won’t discuss with her. When she approaches you with her problems, you listen, even when you try to redirect her to more appropriate resources. It’s very likely she has no idea she’s oversharing; she thinks she is confiding in a friend.
I totally understand not having the bandwidth to take on her problems, which seem overwhelming and fraught. It is up to you to establish boundaries and gently but firmly enforce them. The next time she approaches you and wants to overshare, you must tell her you care for her but you are not in a place where you can give her the emotional support she needs. It is kinder to be upfront with her about what you can and cannot provide her. I would also remind her of the mental health care options she can avail herself of in the workplace. I wish both of you the best in moving forward.
I have several years of experience at my current workplace but relatively little direct management experience. Although my employer doesn’t have a formal training plan for new hires, I have developed training materials and try my best to proactively teach new colleagues. With a recent new colleague who is my direct report, there have been issues and questions I feel could have been answered if he more carefully listened to my earlier explanations or reviewed directions I sent via email. However, I also recognize that I may not be explaining things as well as I think I am. How do I balance the tension between my feeling that his performance is not meeting my expectations while being unsure if I am adequately providing the direction he needs?
— Anonymous, New York
Why are you doubting yourself and taking on his inadequacies as indicative of your own? It is important to hold yourself accountable and be open to constructive criticism, but nothing in your letter suggests you aren’t providing adequate direction. His performance is not meeting your expectations. That is what you must contend with right now. Instead of worrying about your work, develop a strategy for addressing his performance issues, with a plan for how he can improve, as well as consequences should he not be able to meet the new expectations. And then, you have to follow through.
I’ve been moderately successful in my career. I have developed specialized expertise and I’m excellent at elements of my position, merely good to passable at others. I could probably keep doing this for the rest of my life. Sometimes it can be rewarding, but there are many elements of it I hate, and I end most days feeling worn out rather than productive or fulfilled.
I’m turning 40 next year. I’ve spent the better part of the pandemic locked in a spare room working remotely and getting increasingly burned out. I’m also reading articles about the Great Resignation and workers who are fed up and moving on. I am lucky to have a job when so many lives have been upended by Covid-19, but I’m wondering if this is it.
What is the right balance between passion and a paycheck? Should I be grateful for the occasional rewarding moments, overlook the bad, and otherwise appreciate that the job is a means to an end? Or should I start looking for something else? Do people who say they love their jobs really love their jobs, or is that a fantasy?
It is not a fantasy to love one’s job. There are, indeed, people out there who love their work, are passionate about what they do and are deeply fulfilled. That level of professional satisfaction can be elusive, but it does exist. A lot of the time it requires a combination of hard work, risk taking and luck. I love what I do. Even though I’ve been dealing with burnout lately, I am generally enthusiastic about all of the cool things I’m working on. When I finally have quiet moments to write, I am genuinely excited to see what I’ll be able to throw on the page. And it took more than 20 years to get here.
Yes, you should start looking for something else. Life is too short to be miserable at work. Even if you don’t find a dream job, perhaps you can find a better job for you. So often, people say they know they are lucky to have a job, but having to be grateful for something that makes you miserable is a terrible way to live. Don’t quit your job until you have something else lined up, but, my goodness, embrace passion. Love yourself enough to ask, “What do I want to be when I grow up?” and answer that question with radical honesty. You just might be surprised by what happens next.
Roxane Gay is the author, most recently, of “Hunger” and a contributing opinion writer. Write to her at email@example.com.