how to explain a late professional start, demotions, and more

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

1. How to explain my late professional start

I’m what I think of as a professional late bloomer. I was “home-schooled” in a chaotic, dysfunctional home from first through twelfth grades by my mother, a woman who had never gone to college and who frequently struggled with her mental health. We were usually below the poverty line and didn’t have the resources to supplement a spotty education. Even so, I went to a top college on a National Merit scholarship. I didn’t know how to study, was dealing with home life drama, and was struggling with my own mental health issues (much later diagnosed as Bipolar II). In any case, I flunked out after three years. I spent most of my 20’s waiting tables and working similar low paying jobs until I worked up the nerve to go back to school. I graduated with a bachelors in chemistry in my late 30’s and a masters in epidemiology a couple of years ago. I’m now in my early 40’s and working a job in my field that, while by no means perfect, has been a good place to get my feet wet. Up until six years ago I was waiting tables, cleaning, and doing whatever else paid the bills.

I work in academia and my team frequently collaborates with folks from all over the world. From time to time when I meet someone new they ask me about my professional background, just in a friendly, getting-to-know-you way. This question gives me so much anxiety! I’m proud of how far I’ve come in my life, considering the challenges I’ve faced. But I work with highly educated people who have had more typical career arcs. It embarrasses me to try to scramble for something to say about my background and I’m sure I come across as vague and odd. Is there an easy way to answer this question?

I think most people will be more impressed, not less, by your background because of what it says about what you overcame! But you don’t need to share more than you’re comfortable sharing. It’s fine to just say, “I just got my masters in epidemiology a couple of years ago, so I’m a late starter in this field!” If they ask what you were doing before that, you could say, “Pretty much whatever paid the bills — I was dealing with some health issues that have since been resolved, but it meant I came to this later than I otherwise might have. What about you?”

2. Should I demote an employee who can’t do her job?

At my new job, I have a staff member who was promoted beyond her capability. I have tried coaching her, and she simply does not have the skill or aptitude required for the job. I do think she could work in her original role — but to have the budget to replace her, she would need to take a significant pay cut. Is this ever advisable?

My instinct tells me it should be avoided because it runs the risk of causing bitterness, bad attitude, etc. But with the economy what it is, it feels unkind to fire someone because of how I guess she might respond.

Demotions are tricky. Sometimes the person being demoted is relieved — they recognized the new job wasn’t working out and they’re happy to return to something they know they’re good at. Other times, it leads to resentment and demoralization, and it can end up becoming toxic for the rest of your team. So it really, really depends on what you know of the person, their take on what’s happening, and to some extent their professional maturity.

A middle ground option is to float the possibility and see how they respond, and then to keep a close eye on things if they want to try it — but if you move them back to their old position and there’s toxicity, at that point you’d need to act decisively.

But also, don’t use a demotion unless you truly think the person would be good in the position you’re moving them to. If you’re not likely to be truly happy with their work in that role either, it’s better to just make a clean break now.

On the pay cut — would it be a decrease down to what she was previously earning in the role? If so, that’s not necessarily unreasonable, as long as you also give her the choice of declining and leaving altogether (you want her to feel like she had some agency in saying, “Yes, I will do this”). But if it would be less than that in order to make all the budgetary pieces work, don’t offer that — it would be rubbing salt in the wound.

3. Do I have to give two weeks notice when I’m leaving because of safety violations?

I’m a department manager in a large chain grocery store. I was about to start a job search to a different type of environment when COVID-19 hit. I put that off as I am considered an essential worker, got extra pay and total job security. Now the extra pay is gone and we have gone from heroes to zeros. People are supposed to wear a mask and practice social distancing, but that’s a joke. Customers don’t wear masks, practice social distancing, or even use common sense. They walk up on top of me to ask questions, hang over my waist-high counter with their face 2-1/2 feet from mine, take their mask off to talk to me, etc. If I ask them to step back, I get pushback about being rude or a long-winded explanation about how I’m not at risk from them.

Colleagues also wear masks with their noses exposed or take them off when they are not in direct customer contact on the sales floor but are still around other colleagues. Store management says they can’t ask customers to wear masks or keep six feet apart because it’s not a law and they don’t want to offend them. There are half-hearted attempts to keep employees in mask compliance, but we are already short-staffed and they don’t want lose any more people.

I’d like to start up my job search. Do I still owe my employer the courtesy of a two-week notice when I am literally putting my life on the line every day I work? Before COVID, of course ,I wouldn’t have considered doing anything else, but now I wonder if I owe myself the gift of less risk more than I owe my employer the courtesy of another two weeks on the job.

Your employer sucks. It’s not true that they can’t ask customers to wear masks or stay six feet apart “because it’s not the law.” (It’s also not the law that people must wear shirts in public, and yet stores can still refuse service to people without shirts.) They suck for not being willing to enforce public health recommendations in order to protect their employees and their customers.

Anyway, no, you don’t need to give two weeks notice in these circumstances. When you resign, you can explain you’re leaving because your health is at risk, and because of that you can’t work out a notice period. If you want, you could offer to work another two weeks if they can assign you work where you can be assured of masks and social distancing — but that possibility sounds unlikely.

Now, the caveat: A reasonable employer would understand you couldn’t give notice if coming to work is putting your health at risk. Your employer has already shown they’re not reasonable. So it’s possible this will burn a bridge and/or that future reference-checkers will be told you left without notice. You can probably ameliorate that last part by explaining to future reference-checkers that you had to leave suddenly for health reasons, but be aware it could go down that way.

4. Is it weird to talk to multiple acquaintances about the same job at my old employer?

Is there protocol/etiquette around what to do when you know multiple people applying for the same position? I’m in grad school and recently left a great job with a fairly prominent organization in a field related to my grad program. I left because I’d been there for a while, and I’m pretty early on in my career and wanted to branch out into slightly different work. Recently, a few graduating classmates have applied to the same job opening at my old org and reached out to me for insight and informational interview-type conversations. I’m super happy to help as much as I can — I loved my time there and these people are great candidates who I would love to see get hired there. But should I ever let someone know that I also talked to others?

My grad program is small, so these candidates almost all know each other and it’s very likely that in general conversation two applicants might realize they both applied to the same position and both talked to me. Is this weird? If it matters, these people are of varying levels of closeness to me, from friends to more distant acquaintances who I’ve just met briefly.

This hasn’t come up in any way yet, but it’s been on my mind about how to navigate in case it does and for the future. So far I haven’t said anything and have just approached each conversation as if I knew no one else also applying.

It’s not weird to talk to multiple people who want to learn more about the organization, and you’re not obligated to disclose that you’ve also talked to others. You’re not doing anything they could reasonably expect to be exclusive to them; you’re just offering insight about the org and the job, not promising to campaign for them to be hired or to promote them as The One True Data Analyst.

That said, if you get the sense that someone thinks you’re going to help them get the job, it’s kind to say something like, “In the interest of transparency, I want to tell you that I’ve had a handful of other people contact me with similar questions and I’m offering everyone the same information.”

5. Possible job offer left dangling due to Covid

Over the winter, I had several conversations with a senior executive at a consulting firm I work with in my current job that started out as “hey, I hear you might be looking for a new opportunity” (which I was) and then moved into “let’s talk about whether there’s a fit here” and finally got serious in March with me meeting with other senior executives. The last meeting ended with them telling me to expect the next step would be HR reaching out to me. Unfortunately, that meeting was on March 13 — right before everything in our area shut down with a stay-at-home order. I haven’t heard anything from them at all since March.

I don’t particularly want to change jobs in the middle of a recession or worse. My current job is really stable and I don’t necessarily want the pressure of a new job and the pressure to perform in a consulting role when outside forces might make that even more difficult than usual. But at the same time, there’s a reason I was looking for a new opportunity in the first place, and this has been the best role to come along since October.

I’ve struggled with whether I should reach out or not, and if so, what to say. I certainly understand that the role might have evaporated, and expect that at the very least it’s probably on hold. Should I just wait this out? Or is there a graceful way to say, “Hey, I’m still interested, but I’m cool with waiting to reconnect at some point in the future”? I’m not trying to force them to make me an offer now because there are definitely circumstances where I’d decline (my current job is really stable!). And it’s really important to me to keep the relationship cordial, no matter what happens.

It’s fine to reach out, as long as it’s in a low-pressure way that makes it clear you’re well aware circumstances have changed. You could say, “I wanted to touch base about the role we’d had been talking about earlier this year. I realize everything may be on hold right now, given the pandemic, but if it makes sense to reconnect about it at some point in the future, I’m happy to talk any time!”

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