coworker plagiarized my paper, should I tell my boss we can all see he’s offline, and more — Ask a Manager

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

1. My coworker plagiarized my paper

I’m curious about an issue that happened to me a number of years ago and how you would have advised me back then. I had a coworker who I knew on an acquaintance level. We were friendly and would occasionally interact when our work overlapped and attended monthly team meetings together. We had different managers, but the same grandboss.

I was working on my master’s degree via distance learning and so was she. At one point she was taking a class I had just finished. I shared with her my papers from that course, along with the professor’s feedback. One paper in particular I had done poorly on, but the feedback on that paper was invaluable and helped me moving forward. I shared it with her as I felt it could help her too.

A few months later, I was on maternity leave, and got a call from the university. They told me that this coworker had submitted my (poorly written!) paper as her own. They did a Track Changes report on it, and she had swapped out the cover page info and that was it. I was not in trouble as I am allowed to share my work as I wish, but they wanted to know if she had been given it or stolen it in some way. Because I was busy with my new baby, I let it go.

However, I had no clue how to handle this at work when I returned. She plagiarized me, blatantly. But it was not really a work issue, and I assume the school handled it but I don’t know how. I never brought it up with her, but heard from others that she had taken a leave from school and work around that time due to health issues. I just sat on it, and she was eventually promoted on a temporary basis. She didn’t do well and was not offered the job when it went permanent. She then left the organization. She also never finished her degree, as far as I am aware. Should I have spoken up? If so, how would I have addressed it? It felt sort of gossipy to bring it up, but would it have been really?

You certainly would have had standing to address it with her. The easiest way would have been to just be straightforward: “The school contacted me to say you’d turned in my paper as your own. What happened?” (Obviously you know what happened — she decided it would be easier to plagiarize your work. But asking that question is a way to make it clear you you know and aren’t giving her a pass.) (Also, why that paper of all papers, when it got a bad grade? So many bad choices here.)

But I think you’re asking whether you should have brought the incident to anyone else’s attention. You didn’t need to, but you could have. Caveat: if you were a manager, you would have had more of an obligation to raise it as something your employer might want to be aware of when considering her for promotions, etc. (because it’s a pretty serious ethical violation that’s sort of work-adjacent, even though it didn’t happen at work).

2. Should I tell my boss we can all see he’s offline?

I’ve had my boss for three years and he’s really struggled as he didn’t have previous management experience or experience in what our specific team does. We do get along personally, but it’s been hard for me professionally as I continue to handle most of the day-to-day and I’m afraid eveyone is finally starting to notice he doesn’t contribute much.

The main issue is a classic lack of availability. Someone on another team let me know a while back that my boss wasn’t available on Teams until after 10:30 a.m. most mornings.

I’ve seen this as well, like his boss will message our team with a request and my boss won’t see it for several hours in the morning when he should be available. I really want to avoid our team looking bad because of this. I know boss really struggles with technology (he’s early 40s, only a few years older than me) and doesn’t have email on his phone, etc., so I don’t think he knows everyone can see he’s still sleeping. Is there any possible way to point this out without it getting more awkward?

It’s not a problem you have to solve; it’s on your boss, not you.

But if you really want to say something, you could approach it as if you assume he’s working then but for some reason his Teams setting isn’t showing it: “I’m not sure if you realized this, but your Teams setting has been showing you as unavailable until about 10:30 most mornings. It might be worth looking at your settings if you don’t mean for it to.”

3. Diplomatically criticizing AI in an interview

I’m at the second stage of interviews for a job I’m really excited about, and it’s in large part thanks to your advice on cover letters! Since it’s a copywriting position, I’ve been tasked with a few small writing assignments to demonstrate my skills.

I’m writing to you because one of the tasks is to edit content generated by AI into a cohesive text. Following my initial interview, I’m aware this will be something the company wants the hired person to experiment with to potentially speed up the work process. I was cautiously excited about that goal; I don’t have a lot of experience with AI, but I’m a curious person and quick to pick up new tech skills.

The problem is, the text I’m editing for this exercise is really bad. At first glance, the text seems fairly intelligible, but a closer look reveals it’s just word salad camouflaged by mostly correct grammar and varied syntax. I’m talking blatantly false claims, incorrect explanations of concepts, wordy, repetitive ideas, and a tone that doesn’t match the company’s brand at all.

If I make it to the next round of interviews, I’m pretty sure I will be asked about my experience editing this AI content. I don’t want to lie and say it was great and I loved using it, but I also don’t want to knock myself out of the running for the position by being too honest, especially since it’s only a slice of what the job would be.

How can I diplomatically say that it took me more time to edit the AI nonsense than it would have for me to just write the requested copy from scratch? I’m open to try again and experiment more with AI-generated content (I recognize that this tech is advancing very quickly), but I obviously have reservations about how effective using this tech will really be.

If you just want a diplomatic answer: “I’m really interested in how refining the prompts might change the quality of the output. The AI text in this exercise required a lot of editing — so much that it would have been faster to write it from scratch — so I’m interested in experimenting with ways to try to improve its output.”

But you also want to make sure that you don’t end up in a job where you’re uncomfortable with their use of AI, or their work processes in general … and this is an opportunity to explore their philosophy on AI, how realistic they seem about its current limitations, and how receptive they are to well-explained pushback. So a different option would be to say something like, “The AI text in this exercise required a lot of editing — so much that it would have been faster to writer to write it from scratch — so I’m interested in what your experience with it has been. Have you found you can get better output by refining the prompts you put in?” … and “How are you figuring out where AI will improve your efficiency and where the technology isn’t aligned enough with your needs yet?”

4. Company posted a better job after I interviewed for something else

One week ago I had an interview for a job at a very small, very specialized state agency. The job is a slight stretch beyond my core expertise, but I’m confident I could pick up the new skills quickly, I have always wanted to work for one of the very small number of these agencies, and it was the first job they had posted since I moved to this city almost a year ago. However, today they posted a second opening that is more suited to my expertise and more aligned with the activities I’d ideally like to do, as well as being permanent, while the first job is funded for only a few years.

There’s a decent chance that I’ll hear back about the first job before the closing date for the second, three weeks from now. If I would ideally like to have the best chance at the second job, but would prefer a shot at the first over neither, what are your recommendations? Important notes: both have the same hiring manager and the job market here is quite small. I have many more years total experience than either job asks for, but in the way of government jobs I think, the description calls for experience in very specific tasks. I’d say I meet the qualifications for both jobs, the second more than the first.

Go ahead and apply for the second job (it’s government, so you can’t skip that step) and then email the hiring manager and say something like, “I wanted to let you know I also applied for the X position. I’m very interested the Y position as well, but the X job is a particularly strong match with my background. I’d be glad to be considered for either or both.”

5. Two weeks notice when you don’t work five days a week

How does the standard two-week notice period apply for cases where an employee works four days a week (or fewer)? In a post from 2009, you write “two weeks notice means 10 business days.” For the four-day-workweek individual, are these 10 days spaced out over three weeks? Or would it be fair to assume it’s business days regardless of if the employee normally works that day or not?

If it helps, let’s assume the company is the kind that allows people to serve out their notice periods to the full extent. What is reasonable for the employee to offer?

It typically means two calendar weeks from when you give your notice, even if you work four days a week.

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