Q: I’ve recently started a contract position with the opportunity for eventual full-time employment. My previous contract consisted of short-term assignments with weeks or months of no work at all, and this new position has minimum quotas for daily production. I had a panic attack, complete with puking in the lav. How do I relax and do my work in those moments when I think I don’t measure up? I believe my work is fine. — C.P., Illinois
A: When I feel anxious, I draw comfort from the high probability that our planet will one day be engulfed by the sun.
But let’s analyze your situation through the lens of a biological truth: Humans hate change.
You got so nervous about starting a new job that you threw up. Not ideal, but also not unheard of. Humans hate change so much that sometimes the sheer fear of it makes our bodies go haywire. This is why we are all unfit for work of any kind.
As for your unease about the future, let’s assume the worst: that you are a terrible worker, totally unfit for the job, who should be fired immediately. The odds you will be are low, because humans hate change. Not only would the bosses have to cast about for your replacement, and do that person’s new hire paperwork, and process your outgoing paperwork — they would also have to fire you, which is an unpleasant activity many cowards will go out of their way to avoid.
You said you believe your work is fine but worry about negative thoughts. Listen to me — the words you are reading right now? I hate them. I regret my decision to select these specific ones from the rich English lexicon and am embarrassed at the idiotic way I have chosen to arrange them into these sentences. My worst possible fate is being buried alive while also burning to death slowly, and the second worst is hearing someone read these paragraphs back to me aloud. But the fact is, they’re probably fine. (By which I mean they’re definitely terrible, but the average person will probably think that they’re fine, because the only person on Earth who actually understands what is good is me, which is an awful burden to have.)
If you can overcome your self-doubt enough to say you believe your work is fine, there’s a good chance it’s actually better than fine. If it’s not, fine is good enough in most cases. It’s not your job to tell yourself you aren’t doing well; it’s your bosses’ job, and they are paid more money than you are to do it.
Snitches get kisses
Q: An ex-employee of the company where I work is under consideration for a new job at a wonderful place. He is a perfect fit for the position. The problem is that the hiring manager at the new job is calling around, asking why the ex-employee left in the first place. The actual answer is that someone in management, who subsequently left, simply hated his guts. There is no real way to reveal that without ignoring the informal company norm of simply verifying that he worked here from date X to date Y. What is the ethical thing to do? — Anonymous
A: If the most blisteringly honest thing you can say about someone is that they would be a perfect fit for a wonderful company, you have no ethical obligation to keep this secret from the world. I make it a point to say kind things about people behind their backs. It promotes a feel-good atmosphere and, if word ever gets back to them, I assume I look like a hero and that they can’t stop crying.
Whether the call is for basic due diligence or an attempt to dig up dirt (by a wonderful company?), you can reasonably respond to it with something like, “I remember him fondly. He worked here from date X to date Y,” and maybe top it off with your observation that this job sounds like a great fit. It’s possible to both remain professional and do him a good turn without sharing the plotlines of your workplace’s psychological melodramas. (These should be emailed directly to me at email@example.com.)
Work Friend is a cheeky New York Times advice column to help with careers, money and the sometimes grim, sometimes hilarious maze that is the contemporary office, from a rotating cast of advice-givers. Email questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.