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interviewing with a manager who wanted to lay me off, customers who make religious comments, and more — Ask a Manager

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

1. Interviewing with a manager who wanted to lay me off

My manager at my last company had me on his layoff list. Another manager showed me the list looking for the name of someone who got laid off not realizing I was on it, and I saw myself listed with the three who had gotten laid off. Seeing that was a huge blow. Up until then, I’d considered myself valuable, with years of knowledge and experience. To be laid off over people with less experience, education, and dedication filled me with doubt. It was a large factor in me quitting that job with nothing lined up to take time off to reevaluate my career.

Ultimately, I decided to stick with it since I’m almost 50. I’ve been at my new company for two years now. My previous manager started here a year ago and, since he started, has twice asked me to apply for roles on his team. Both times I’ve asked, surprised, if I would be considered. He replied that of course I would be considered, seeming surprised and confused. After he hired someone for his most recent opening, he asked why I hadn’t applied after he suggested I should. Again, I asked if he would have considered me, and again he replied that of course he would since he asked me to apply. He said he’d let me know when he had another opening and asked why I keep asking if I would be considered. I gave some vague reason.

I can tell my continued questioning is confusing to him. I’d love to work with him again. He’s the best manager I ever had, but I can’t stop this nagging doubt that he doesn’t value me enough to keep me on his team. I guess people get laid off for different reasons, but the other three people on the layoff list with me, well, everyone expected they would go. It was very disheartening to see myself listed with people who worked another job while at work, watched sports for hours on their work computers, repeatedly violated safe protocols, and lost customer parts and lied about it. I can’t help but feel there is some massive mistake I made or some major flaw or failure that I’m unaware of. If there is, I want to know what it is and fix it.

Should I just come right out and tell him I know I was on his layoff list, explain what a blow it was, and ask him why? Or, if I were to interview with him, would it be strange if I asked what he sees me contributing to his team or what experience/knowledge gaps he thinks I have? The fact that he keeps asking me to apply makes me think he sees more value in me than I thought after I saw my name on that list, so maybe the risk is low if I were to get hired on his team. I don’t want to work for him again with this nagging doubt. I distrust my security with him and that would lead to me second-guessing everything I did.

I think you’ve interpreted this wrong. People get laid off for all kinds of reasons that don’t necessarily have to do with their work, like that their position is the one the team can most afford to lose, or a program they’re working on is slated to be cut as an additional cost-saving measure, and tons of other things. Yes, if you’re doing layoffs, it generally makes sense to include the lowest performers, but that doesn’t mean there won’t be role-based cuts too. (Also, note that you weren’t actually laid off while the other three people on the list were, which likely means something.)

In any case, your manager has asked you repeatedly to come work for him again. He wouldn’t be this insistent and asking this often if he were offering out of pity; he means it. If you can’t feel comfortable working for him again, so be it — but it doesn’t make sense to keep doubting him. (And I hope you’ll reconsider your reluctance, too, because “the best manager you ever had” is not something to turn down lightly.)

I do want to point this out: you quit a job with nothing else lined up rather than be laid off (thereby forfeiting the chance for severance if you did eventually get laid off, which you might not have) and now you’re refusing multiple invitations to work for someone you really liked because you doubt they really like you, despite all signs to the contrary. You’ve been leaping to the worst possible conclusions and then acting on those conclusions in ways that are counter to your own interests — ways that harm you (perhaps so that you can do it before anyone else can?). Any chance that’s been a pattern before?

2. Responding to customers who make religious comments

I work in a customer-facing position in a very religious part of the country. I am an atheist. Generally this isn’t an issue, but lately I’ve had several interactions where I’ll be checking out a customer and making small talk and the customer will make a comment about how some people “need Jesus” or their relative needs to “read the Bible.” Whenever this happens, I’m at a loss for how to respond. I don’t want to agree or disagree with their statement but it always seems to turn awkward, even when I try to stay friendly but neutral. I don’t struggle with all references to religion; if they say something like “god bless,” I just responded with “thank you.” But in these other situations, it feels like they want me to affirm their judgment about the necessity and value of the Bible and Jesus, and I don’t want to offend them but I also don’t want to pretend to agree with them. Any suggestions for a script that will end the interaction less awkwardly?

I don’t know that there is a way to keep it from being awkward! They’re making the interaction awkward by assuming their religious beliefs are universal, which is rude (though also very common in some regions).

I’d stick with friendly but neutral, even if it does make for a slightly awkward moment. Exactly what that looks like will vary by interaction, but don’t underestimate the usefulness of a random subject change: “did you want to take one of our sales flyers?” / “I love your necklace” / “can you believe how hot it is out there?” I also wonder if in some of these interactions it’s possible to mentally reframe comments like “he needs Jesus” or “she needs to read the Bible” to “I’m worried about him” / “I don’t understand her” and respond the way you would if they’d said that instead? Don’t do that in cases where it’ll make you feel like you’re agreeing with something you don’t agree with, but there might be times where it’ll work.

3. My coworker made me wait a long time while I was standing in her office

I work at an agency in a senior management role. I have a colleague, a peer, with whom I don’t work together often, but sometimes I need her expertise on projects for my client. She is an added value asset I can sell to clients, essentially.

This colleague and I were working on a project, and I needed her input on a response to my client. I messaged her on Slack twice with no response so went to her desk. When I asked if I could have quick word with her, she asked me to wait while she finished an email. She then put her headphones back on and made me wait 3-4 minutes while she finished typing. I felt really uncomfortable standing there in the middle of the office — we are open plan — but knew if I asked her to find me when she finished, it would never happen and I needed this info.

Is this rude and disrespectful or am I being overly sensitive? I have asked people to wait myself when I’ve been in the middle of something but the length of time and the fact she put her headphones back on just seems really off to me. I also wonder if she would behave the same way with other colleagues she has a longer relationship with.

Well, ideally she would have told you she needed several minutes in case you didn’t want to wait, or simply said she was in the middle of something, but I think you’re being overly sensitive (and you did show up without warning, after all, and after already getting some cues she might be busy when she didn’t respond to your messages). She might have been in the middle of a back and forth with someone, or been downloading info from a conversation she’d just had and didn’t want to lose the details, or just needed to finish a thought. Who knows. I wouldn’t worry about it at all!

4. My promoted manager won’t accept help with his old job

My manager was promoted to a vice president position from his prior director role. This promotion is an interim appointment since our C-level executive would like to do a formal recruitment for the VP position, but needs someone to fill it now for at least the next year. My manager is now doing two jobs, his new interim VP role, plus his director role. He told everyone on his team he has to operate in this dual-role fashion for the next year. I meet with him biweekly for our one-on-ones, and I see and hear the toll this is taking on him. He is visibly more tired and he shared with me that he feels inundated with the increased workload.

I am a manager on his team and in the past I’ve shared with him that I have a desire to expand my responsibilities as a people and organization manager. He has been supportive of this and has given me chances to manage additional projects. We have a good working relationship and I want to see him succeed, especially in his new VP role.

I sent him an email offering to serve in an interim capacity in his director role as he gets acclimated to his new position. I provided a proposal for how I could achieve this alongside my existing responsibilities. I also outlined how this works toward achieving my career aspirations and alleviating some of the load to allow him to focus on his new responsibilities.

I didn’t receive a response to this offer. During our next one-on-one, I brought it up. He didn’t address it and just said he’s keeping everything as-is for the next year. In my mind, there are a two possibilities for why he’s doing this: 1) there are things going on at his level that he’s not at liberty to share or 2) he is having a difficult time transitioning away from his prior role. While scenario 1 is certainly possible, based on his past behaviors it is more likely scenario 2 is in play — delegation has been a struggle for him. Many times in his director role, he got a bit too far into the weeds on projects where it would have served the team more efficiently to delegate to his team leads. Should I continue to offer this assistance to him or just let this go and let him do whatever he feels he has to do?

Let it go. You made the offer twice — once in writing and once in person, and he told you clearly that he’s keeping everything as-is for the next year. That’s a no! It’s possible that the explanation is one of the two you came up with, or it could be something else (including that he might not think you’re a shoo-in for the interim promotion). Regardless, you asked, and he declined. You should leave it there.

5. Did I make a mistake by leaving my passion field?

About a year ago, I left my notoriously abusive, high-stress passion role for a more stable field-adjacent position. Think if I was previously a math teacher for several years and now I’m an accountant for the school district. My stress level is way down, I have more energy for my personal life and the role has a surprising amount of flexibility.

The problem is, I don’t … like it? I knew it would be less public-facing and more administrative than my previous job. I did not consider how much of my day would be “take two PDFs and make them one PDF” or “let’s have three meetings to decide which icebreaker to do at the next training.”

I made this change in hopes that work would be less of a rollercoaster — while I had a lot of fulfilling moments in my last role, there were a lot of hardships and people in my role aren’t always treated well by the public or by their colleagues. But now it’s like I traded that for all the boring parts of a job and none of the dopamine. And the thought of logging into the email factory every day for the next 20 years kind of makes me nauseous. I’ve talked to my therapist but, as you’ve pointed out, therapists are not always the best at giving career advice. I would love to just follow my heart and dive back into my old job, but I need to be realistic about how much that level of emotional involvement affected my personal life and health. How do I find the line between engaged and healthily detached to ride out to retirement?

The choice isn’t just between this one soul-deadening job and the exhausting role you were in previously. It might be that your current job isn’t right for you, but that doesn’t mean you have to go back to where you were. You could see the current job as data that’s helping you refine what you do and don’t want, and go out and look for a job that’s closer to what you do want. The choice doesn’t have to be binary.

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