Q: I work in a field adjacent to academia and the pandemic has elevated me to a management role on a fast-paced, high-profile project. I work directly with our company executive, who is widely respected and has come to recognize my contributions to the project. I am grateful for the opportunity to work on an important cause, to tap into skills I never got to exercise before, and to remind myself I don’t often run from challenges. But I am disheartened by my colleagues, many of whom “talk the talk” about advancing equity and demonstrating compassion yet fail to advocate those same values in-house. I am often the only person agitating in a staff forum about taking direct actions to alleviate burnout or retain entry-level employees who leave in droves every season. We continue forming ad hoc committees to examine issues for indeterminable amounts of time. I am nagged by this sense that, especially as majority women-of-color managers, we should be collectivizing our leadership to make more gains. It’s time for me to resign, both to collect my wits and to hopefully feel less like an alien in my next workplace. I will have the ears of our company executive and his chief officers one last time in addition to the standard exit interview. Should I be candid about my frustrations and why I’m leaving, or should I just be gracious and “hope our paths cross again”? — Anonymous, Washington, D.C.
A: I get a lot of questions about exit interviews, so I will try to address the matter generally while also answering your question specifically. I should warn you that this phenomenon of people voicing solidarity but doing little to act on the politics they purport to have is not unique to your workplace. Most people talk more than they act. I hope you find a new workplace that is better aligned with your values, but be prepared to encounter a similar complacency wherever you land.
There are all kinds of ways to approach exit interviews. You can burn it all down, telling your employer the most unfiltered version what you think. Most of us have fantasized about this kind of exit interview, this moment of triumph, but we don’t do it because the world is small and our professional circles are even smaller. We can’t trust that there won’t be repercussions for speaking our mind.
As you consider how candid you should be, you should first determine what you hope to accomplish. Will voicing your frustrations do anything to accomplish that goal or will they simply make you feel better? Will the organization act on your feedback in constructive ways or will it be a liability for you in the future? If your professional future depends on it, be gracious. The frustrations you share here aren’t really about this workplace specifically. They are about people and inaction and inconsistent values. The most relevant concern is with regard to endless committee work that accomplishes nothing. What suggestions do you have for how those committees can be more institutionally supported and relevant? Start there and let common sense be your guide for the tone you take and where the conversation leads. Whatever concerns you share, I hope you are heard and that your exit interview brings you the kind of closure you seek.
To tell the truth?
Q: It is not unusual for my new firm to interview candidates from my old firm and I am often asked what I think of them. I do not mind the question. Given that we all need jobs, how much is reasonable to share? I’m not talking about the rock stars or really problematic employees. I’m talking about the ones who are good but maybe not great. In a recent example, I was asked about a colleague who had previously had trouble with her manager. While I was not privy to the details, management issues were a huge problem in the department. She may have been “difficult” to manage, but there were also a lot of bad management practices. This all seems like a lot to share. What do people expect? What is the right thing to do? — Kate, Atlanta
A: You ask a good question. When giving this kind of informal recommendation, you should be honest about what you have directly observed or experienced. Everything else is conjecture or hearsay. You noted that you weren’t privy to details about your colleague who had trouble with her manager. In such instances, it is better to say nothing on that subject. You don’t have enough information, and to share partial information might adversely affect your former colleague’s chances. Lots of people have trouble with managers for all kinds of reasons. Because she isn’t one of the really problematic former colleagues, no harm is done in sharing what you know that is positive. Trust your instincts. They have guided you to ask this thoughtful question and they will guide you as to what to tell whom and when.
Drowning in the deep end
Q: I was recently promoted to a managerial position. We have backfilled my old position, and this is my first time managing another person. We are a smaller company, and nearly every department relies on the two of us to support its work product. We never replaced the marketing director role, so I am the de facto lead for all of our promotional efforts. I want to rise to the challenge and steer our marketing efforts in the right direction, but I am becoming increasingly convinced I am not ready for this role. Most critically, I worry that I am not providing the new associate with the guidance she needs and should expect from this role. I report to the head of all the company’s business efforts, who is great but does not focus entirely on marketing. I want to ask him if we can hire a new marketing director — someone who can help lead our strategy and I can run ideas past. I want to keep in mind my own career path as well; I would like the opportunity to succeed and grow. How can I tell my boss that the best thing for me, and the company, would be to look for a new marketing director? I am worried that bringing this up will show a lack of ambition and ownership. I can contribute positively to the company, but I am getting overwhelmed, a little burned out, and worry I am not doing a good enough job. Is this something I need to just toughen up about and figure out a way to make it work? — Anonymous, Washington, D.C.
A: It can be terrifying when we are thrown into the professional deep end. I hope you take some time to acknowledge the great work you have done in assuming more responsibility and managing your first employee. This notion of toughening up to grit our way through untenable circumstances is incredibly overrated. Your well-being, both professionally and personally, matter. I trust your concerns, though it does seem like you’re doing a wonderful job in a challenging situation.
If you genuinely are overwhelmed and anxious, it is time to speak with your boss. I would make the request for a new marketing director by also identifying why that position should be filled by someone other than you and how it will benefit the company.
At the same time, also make it clear that in the future, when you have more experience, you would like to be considered for the director position. You might also approach this by asking for another team member to be brought on board, to lighten your small team’s workload, and give you the time and space to learn to manage well. I wish you the best however you move forward, and again, give yourself some credit for what you have accomplished thus far.