I caught my boss listening at my door, using a fake name for job hunting, and more — Ask a Manager

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

1. I caught my boss listening at my door

I have been a manager for more than 20 years. I started at a new company about three months ago. About a week and a half ago, I was having a meeting with my team of two in my office. The door was closed. I have frosted glass but I could see my boss pacing back and forth outside the door a few times. Eventually, I saw him stop and I could see that he was cupping his ear to listen at the door.

My department has had a lot of turnover. Though I have not been there long, I can already tell you that my boss is the reason for the turnover. I have literally been losing sleep while working for this man. How do I confront him? I’m generally a very blunt, straight shooter type personality. I’m having a hard time right now for fear of losing the job but his behavior shows a clear lack of trust and I may lose my job whether I speak up or not. I guess I just have to chalk that up. I can’t stand the distrust and disrespect.

Listening at your door was ridiculous, but it sounds like there are much bigger problems with your boss and I don’t think there’s a ton to be gained by “confronting” him over this. You could certainly say, “It looked like you needed something while I was meeting with Jane and Maximilian — feel free to knock if you need me urgently while I’m in a meeting” … although since it’s been a week and a half since it happened, the window for saying that is probably gone. Ideally, you would have addressed it while it was happening, like by opening the door and saying, “I’ll be done in about 15 minutes if you need me” (which is a way of responding assertively without making it adversarial).

But if you’re losing sleep working for this guy, there are bigger issues than his eavesdropping, and I’d focus on deciding whether there’s any bearable way to stay (and actively working on leaving if there’s not).

2. Not accepting a job that drug tests, and being honest about why

My partner is an engineer who has been casually job searching. She was recently offered a role at a very large company and is inclined to accept, but recently discovered she will have to be randomly drug tested. She is fully remote and does not do any work in the field.

We live in California and regularly use cannabis (both recreationally as well as for medical reasons for me, so it’s always going to be around). Not only does my partner not want to stop smoking, we both are morally against the war on drugs and the way that cannabis has been criminalized and demonized.

She wants to mention this when refusing the offer and make clear that she believes it’s a DEI issue to drug test remote workers who don’t operate any machinery, pushing out people who are disproportionately non-white or disabled.

Is it worth it to mention this to the recruiter? She doesn’t expect or desire any change to their decision, it just seems right to flag that candidates care about this. Would that be appropriate?

Hell yes. One person pushing back on something like this usually won’t in itself create change, but multiple people doing it absolutely can. Be one of those voices. That kind of pushback is often what tells employers when the tide is turning on a whole range of issues; it’s often how companies realize that something that they thought was uncontroversial no longer is. (Note: It’s possible this policy is outside the control of the company, like if they have certain types of government contracts. But it’s worth speaking up regardless.)

3. Using a fake name for job hunting

With my unusual last name (think similar to Butts or Dicks), I have found that I get zero, zip, zilch response to any online application. I’m accustomed to websites stating that I can’t use my last name since it violates their profanity policy (Disney and Citibank are recent examples). Even if I have a contact at the firm I’m targeting and I’ve spoken to them on the phone, they always say I still need to submit my information online to their applicant tracking system. And there’s where it dies.

Adding to my conspiracy theory, both of my children graduated from college in the past few years. Both have the identical experience (hundreds to thousands of applications, zero responses) with the internet job search process.

Prior to internet job boards, I was always able to get a new position in under week. From all of this, I’m pretty convinced that my submissions are being filtered out early in the process.

What are your thoughts on using an assumed name in my resume, email address, LinkedIn name, etc.? Once we’re at the offer or background check stage, I would let them know my real name.

Using a different last name could be a problem if you’re filling out an application that requires you to attest all the info you’re submitting is accurate … but otherwise, I think you might as well experiment since you’re not getting bites any other way. At this point, it doesn’t sound like you’ve got anything to lose by trying.

Rather than making up a whole new last name though (which could throw people when you have to explain), could you use your middle name as your last name? Or a parent’s maiden name? Or even add a suffix to your real last name (so Dicks becomes Dickson or so forth)? That way when you do explain it, it doesn’t seem like you just threw a random false name in there. Also, when you explain, be very matter-of-fact — “I’ve starting using Dickson because a surprising number of online systems think my legal name is profanity.”

It’s ridiculous that this is happening, by the way.

4. Conflicting cover letter advice

I’m stuck between two different common sources of bad advice: my parents and my college career center. While writing cover letters for internship applications, I’ve bounced back and forth between the two and gotten wildly different feedback. For instance, my school suggests starting with something like “I’m delighted to apply for X position at your company.” My parents, however, suggest I leap straight into the cover letter and start discussing myself. For comparison here’s the first few sentences of a cover letter after being reviewed by each:

Career center:
Dear X company hiring committee,
I’m delighted to apply for Y internship and honored to have the opportunity to learn from a business that values the explosive imaginations of both players and employees and whose colorful, distinctive franchises have reached around the world.

Hello, X company hiring committee!
Professional whimsy, artistic science, playful programming: these are terms many might consider oxymorons, but in Y industry, it’s never either-or. The best entertainment (to me) always embraces these paradoxes.

Whose advice is better? On the one hand, I understand my parents’ point that the career center version feels a bit lifeless/personalityless. On the other, I feel weird not acknowledging the company or posting until the end of the first paragraph. Because internship cover letters are a different beast than job applications, a lot of the cover letter advice online is irrelevant to me, so I’m left ping-ponging between these two. Help! Whose advice is better—or is there a happy medium? And do you have any advice for writing internship cover letters in specific?

These … are both bad.

You want to write like a normal person, with plain but conversational language and the way you would write if you were writing an email to a slightly senior colleague who you knew a little but not well. I will bet a large sum of money that there is no circumstance in your life where you would truly write emails with phrases like “explosive imaginations of both players and employees” or “professional whimsy, artistic science, playful programming.” Those read like … well, really bad marketing language. Do not take cover-letter-writing advice from either of these sources.

If the question is how to open a cover letter, you really only need to say “I am writing to apply for your X position.” That’s it — then go into why you’d do a good job at it.

I strongly urge you to read some of the sample cover letters in the archives here (like this, this, or this). It’s not true that internship cover letters should be dramatically different; all the same rules apply. When I hire, I’m looking for the same thing in cover letters from intern applicants as I am from employee applicants; the only real differences are that you’ll have less experience to pull from, so they can be harder to write in that respect. But the general goals, structure, and content should be the same.

5. National park passes as gift idea

At the end of every year I’m always looking for ideas for holiday gifts for people in the office, either ones who report to me or not. So I wanted to write to offer a suggestion: annual national park passes. We are fortunate to be located right near one of our amazing national parks in the country, and in December they offer annual passes for the next year for half price, making it affordable for me to buy several for my reports. I realized that these are great gifts for people, a full year’s worth of natural beauty, able to be experienced at any time. In theory it’s a good healthy resource for personal de-stressing, also offers a nice option for something to do either alone or with one’s family whenever they want, on the weekends, whatever. Depending on the park, an annual pass is ~$50, which with the cost of everything going up, is enough of an expense that I predict a lot of working people don’t feel comfortable justifying spending on themselves. Getting it for them as a gift solves that. Finally, it avoids getting people gift cards for restaurants they might not like, etc., or booze or anything potentially fraught, that sort of thing. I just wanted to mention the annual national park pass for your local national park as a good option. Plus that money supports the national parks, another good thing.

Consider it passed along!

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