Making your critique clearly may be the best act of mentorship you can perform — even if it’s your last, for him.
Q: I’m a university professor and a senior member of my department. I’ve been mentoring a junior member of the department who recently had a job interview at another institution. He asked if he could represent our department at a conference there, hoping to impress this prospective employer. We agreed to his plan.
But then they gave the job to someone else — and he decided he didn’t want to go to the conference anymore, because he would feel “awkward.” He asked me to go instead of him, so that he could “avoid embarrassment,” which was inconvenient for me, to say the least. (Another person in our department agreed to go.)
I believe his response to this situation was extremely unprofessional and immature.
Can I still, in good conscience, act as this person’s mentor and write letters of recommendation for him in the future, when my opinion of him — at least to some degree — has been compromised by his behavior? — Ann
A: If you don’t think someone deserves a recommendation, you should not recommend him. And you should also not let him believe that you’re recommending him. Whether you can still act as this person’s mentor is a slightly different question, and maybe a more illuminating one.
How you proceed depends on two things. One is how strongly you feel about this junior person in general: Is he someone you otherwise believe has a lot of talent to offer, and just made one immature slip-up? Or did you always have mixed feelings about him? Or did this one mistake completely flip your opinion?
The other, related issue is whether you believe he could learn from this incident. If you think that he has potential, and that you can get him to understand why you believe he mishandled this situation, then you should try to do so. Part of being a good mentor, after all, is helping someone with less experience recognize mistakes and avoid repeating them.
If you believe, for whatever reason, that this would just be a waste of your time, then you should make it clear that this particular mentorship has essentially ended. But even then, I think you should explain why.
It’s not clear whether you’ve already communicated to this person that you believe his behavior was selfish and immature, and that it inconvenienced others. In fact, I’m not sure why you didn’t just inform him that he had to follow through on the plan that you signed off on for his benefit — and that he could just suck it up, get over his “embarrassment” and be a professional. Moreover, it’s possible he wasted a chance to make an impression on this other institution that could pay off later.
Even if you spell all this out in the course of informing him that he’ll need to seek recommendations elsewhere, he deserves to hear it. I suspect that if you could talk all this through, you might find the damage is reparable. But if that’s not the case, making your critique clearly may be the best act of mentorship you can perform — even if it’s your last, for him.
When lunch questions get personal
Q: I am a healthy weight and don’t have an eating disorder, but I really don’t enjoy eating lunch at work. I attend the scheduled team lunches and don’t want to appear quirky or anti-social, but I also don’t like being pressured to eat food I don’t want at times I don’t want it.
How should I respond to comments from my colleagues like, “You didn’t eat lunch today?” Or, “That’s all you’re having?” I think they’re being well intentioned, but I find it uncomfortable. — Michael
A: Obviously your eating habits are none of your colleagues’ business, and your annoyance is understandable. But as you say, I’m sure your colleagues don’t mean any harm. In fact, it wouldn’t surprise me if, ultimately, they don’t really care all that much — they’re mostly just making conversation.
So I would suggest a twofold strategy. First, prepare some stock answer that deflects the question and is in the realm of the truth without getting particularly personal: “Oh, I always prefer a big breakfast. If I eat a lot midday, it slows me down. Been that way since I was a kid.” Or whatever you’re comfortable saying.
Second — and more important — change the subject immediately. Don’t wait for your busybody inquisitor to react to your explanation. Move directly to another topic; a total non sequitur is fine, and perhaps preferable. “And by the way, thanks for introducing me to the Cogswell Cogs rep. She’s great.” Or: “Before I forget, congratulations to your Mets. That was some game last night!” Or maybe: “Hey, where’d you get that excellent tie?”
You just want to pick something that your interlocutor will be likely to respond to. It’s not really that hard. Most people have a favorite topic, and it’s not you or your dietary preferences: It’s themselves.