asking candidates about their least favorite parts of their jobs, coworker snooped through my personal files, and more — Ask a Manager

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

1. I ask candidates about their least favorite part of their job — should I not?

I read the post yesterday on oddball interview questions, and I’m hoping I’m not being a jerk with my favorite question.

In the last year or so, I’ve started asking candidates what their least favorite thing was about their last role. It usually comes after my colleague asks about strengths and preferred work styles.

I have a legitimate reason to ask, or at least I think I do. I have a great deal of flexibility in how roles are assigned tasks within my department, and those tasks can be reassigned easily based on workload and goals. I also try to really base assignments individually. For someone fairly new in their career who wants to grow, I try to develop their weaker skills and expose them to a variety of things that could be useful depending on their long-term career path. If a person who is nearing retirement isn’t interested in development (in that way), I structure their role around their strengths, with emphasis on mentoring. I’ve found that my group is most successful when (as far as possible) I’m able to balance what they’re good at with what they enjoy doing.

When I ask about a candidate’s least favorite thing, it gives me a chance to see if I’d be able to support that or offer more transparency about the requirements. Someone who really doesn’t like speaking on the phone but enjoys data entry or vice versa could be easily accommodated but it helps me if I can structure their training with that in mind. Or be clear at the interview stage that task X is something there’s no getting around, unfortunately, would they still be interested in the role?

I don’t intend or want it to be a “gotcha” question or some sort of weird reverse psychology fake-out. I was also really hoping (probably misguidedly) it would help me be aware of some biases that would unfairly eliminate neurodivergent candidates that could be excellent employees. But am I really just actually being a jerk?

You’re fine. You’re asking a work-related question, which is very different from asking something totally unconnected to work like how the person organizes their closet or what their favorite dessert is. You also can clearly articulate how you use the answers in a work-related way.

That said, make sure you’re allowing for the reality that you won’t get fully honest answers across the board. A lot of candidates are going to worry about giving the “wrong” answer and may hedge in what they say. You might get somewhat more honest answers if you explain why you’re asking first, so that people know how you’ll use their response.

2. My coworker snooped through my personal files and found my salary

I have a situation where I’m aware that I’m partially at fault. We use a shared drive at work and have general folders sorted by topic and then personal folders for everyone on the team where we save our ongoing work. These are clearly labeled “Name” rather than “Work Topic.” My mistake is that I saved personal files, including my resume, cover letter, and offer letter for my current position in my personal file, the navigation of which looks like, “Jane –> Notes –> Personal –> Career.” Other subfolders I have are labeled by how they pertain to my duties, like, “Expense Reports,” “Templates,” etc.

Recently, I went out to dinner with a coworker, Stacy, who told me that our other coworker, Annie, told her that she “stumbled upon” my offer letter, which contained my salary. Annie then shared my salary with Stacy and shared her frustration that it was higher than hers. Our jobs have salary bands, and my salary band is higher than Annie’s. I’m generally a proponent of salary transparency but it bothers me that (1) she was clearly snooping, since my files are clearly labeled and she wouldn’t have a work-related reason to even access my personal files and (2) she shared my salary with our coworkers without my permission.

Is this something I can or should raise with my manager? Or is it my fault for leaving that personal information on a shared drive in the first place?

Well … you’re right that Annie shouldn’t have been snooping (and it sounds like she would have been well aware she was snooping based on your folder structure) but it’s also true that you really, really shouldn’t keep things like that on a shared drive because if you do, it’s highly likely someone will see it at some point.

To me this doesn’t rise to the level of something you should raise with your manager — although if you’re really bothered by it, you certainly can. If Annie had come across something else personal and was gossiping about it (your bills, for example, or something health-related), I’d feel differently … but companies’ secrecy around salaries hurts employees, so I’m less inclined to escalate it. That said, companies are the ones responsible for salary transparency; you shouldn’t need to bear that burden on your own and against your will. So if you did feel strongly enough to raise it to your manager, I don’t think you’d be out of line.

It’s also worth noting that while the National Labor Relations Act gives non-supervisory employees the right to discuss their salaries with each other, it explicitly does not give that protection to employees who obtain information about their colleagues’ pay through files known to be off-limits to them (or if their job gives them access to other people’s salary records, or if they get others to break access restrictions and give them confidential information).

3. Does plagiarism mean different things in different industries?

I worked in academia for 10 years before transitioning to the private sector. In my former role, plagiarism — the passing off of another’s thoughts and ideas as if they were the writer’s own — was a fireable offense. It also ruined your credibility and integrity as a scholar, effectively sinking your career.

In my new role, I write content for which others take complete credit. (When I accepted the job, I was told I wouldn’t get a byline, but I was not told that my writing would be attributed to someone else.) I’m not talking content like analytic reports — more like thought leadership pieces, blog posts, etc. that I fully research and write that are then published to the company website under someone else’s name.

I’m struggling with this! It’s 100% my work! When celebrities “write” their memoirs with someone else’s significant help, the author line will say “with Helping Hand” to give credit. I also know that ghostwritten content is legal, but the ghostwriter willingly participates in a contract with the full knowledge that another person will receive credit for their work.

Am I being too sensitive here? These pieces contain my words and my opinions. Can I use them in a portfolio when I apply for other jobs, even if someone who searches for them online will find them published under someone else’s name? It’s been so ingrained in me that plagiarism is the ultimate integrity and reputation destroyer. I don’t understand how things can be so different in corporate America.

Yep, this is super normal in some lines of work (for example, law, think tanks, government, and many others — everything from thought pieces to “a message from the CEO” letters). Part of your job is ghostwriting for someone else, and it’s really common and accepted in those fields that you won’t be given credit in the piece. It’s just a completely different model than academia.

It’s not considered plagiarism because this is literally how those jobs work (just like it’s not plagiarism for, say, a governor to have staff who write public statements for her). It would be considered plagiarism if you copied someone else’s work and presented it as your own — not that you are hired to write under someone else’s name.

You can indeed use the pieces in a portfolio in the future, explaining you ghostwrote them; employers will be used to seeing this model.

4. Am I a passive-aggressive emailer?

I have a case of social anxiety that I’ve made great strides in dealing with. I’m still a little cagey about saying things that I know are likely to initiate conflict, but I no longer scale back my requests or diminish myself as a prophylactic against it.

A few days ago, I stumbled across an article about passive-aggressive phrases in work emails like “just a reminder,” “for future reference,” “going forward,” “thanks in advance,” and “if you have any questions, please don’t hesitate to reach out to [contact methods].”

Not only do I use most of the phrases they listed, but I fear the root of the problem is my professional writing style altogether. My anxieties likely had a hand on the wheel while I was developing what felt like an appropriate work parlance, and it’s steered me toward bad habits and a lot of faux pas. And to complicate things, my current work situation makes it difficult to break those habits because my job means I often need to inform people I don’t work closely with that they’re doing parts of their job wrong and need to do it differently going forward. I know that’s not a pleasant message to receive, and can even be interpreted as combative if not delivered gently. But in trying to imbue those emails with empathy and patience using workplace-friendly language, I now realize they usually read like an omnibus of the world’s most irritating office candor.

The article offered some “better alternatives” for the phrases, but I’ve been struggling to incorporate them. I know “It would really help us out if you consulted the flowchart when entering XYZ forms going forward” is not great, but it feels real blunt and kind of rude to just say “Please consult the flowchart when you enter XYZ forms.” (Especially when I’m not the recipient’s boss!)

Instead of singular “better alternative” phrases, are there any good guiding principles for avoiding sounding like a jerk without coming off as two-faced?

I think you just read a crappy article. Phrases like “if you have any questions, please don’t hesitate to reach out to [contact methods]” are really standard things to write in a business email. We can tear apart standard business language all day long — there’s plenty to criticize — but phrases like these are standard and you don’t need to second-guess your own use of them to this extent. I mean, “just a reminder” isn’t the greatest phrase in the world but sometimes it’s a reasonable one for the context, and that doesn’t need to cause you any anguish.

That said, obvious attempts to tiptoe around your message instead of being straightforward can be grating on people — it can make them feel like you think they’re a delicate flower who must be carefully handled (personally, the phrase “gentle reminder” sets me on edge like nothing else) — and so if you’re seeing a lot of that in your writing, it’s worth considering whether you could just be more direct. The example you worried about being too blunt — “please consult the flowchart when you enter XYZ forms” — would be pretty blunt if it were the entirety of the email, but not if it’s part of an email that’s friendly and helpful overall. (For example: “Hi Jane! I saw you entered X as Y, and we’re asking people not to do that because it causes problem Z. Please consult the flowchart when you enter XYZ forms, since that lays out the correct process.”)

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