This post, should I explain I quit on my second day because my coworker was overwhelmingly difficult? , was originally published by Alison Green on Ask a Manager.
A reader writes:
I quit a job three months ago and I keep running into the board members who hired me. I lied about why I quit because it was such an insane reason I didn’t know what to do. My boyfriend says I should have been honest, but I wouldn’t know where to start.
I got laid off during the pandemic and was finally able to find part-time work at a community arts center run by a local art nonprofit. It was only 20 hours a week, but it was a great opportunity in a field I love to help provide some fun and joy. I was so excited.
This is where things went bad. I met with “Amy,” the woman who was supposed to train me and be my coworker. It was raining my first day and there were a few rumbles of thunder in the distance. Amy (who I had never met before) greets me at the locked office door and, terrified, asks me through the mail slot, “Did a plane crash into the building?!?”
No. It was thunder.
Things only went downhill from there. Amy and I were the only people there and my training was only four hours. I got home and immediately had to lay down. Being with Amy for four hours was actual torture. She didn’t show me how to do anything or talk about the job, it was just The Amy Show: I am now privy to her entire medical history, which included three incredibly personal and traumatizing situations that she described in graphic detail. I know too much about her sex life, reproductive health, her childhood, her marriage, and more. After a few attempts to get her on track by asking work-related questions, I gave up.
When she lost steam on her personal life, she cataloged every perceived insult, slight, and personal tussle she’d had with the nonprofit that ran the gallery, every visiting artist and instructor she hated, and why. And that was literally just the first hour. When she finally did start training me, she showed me how to turn the lights on — just regular labeled switches — for 45 minutes.
She spent another hour telling me how hard it was to operate the point of sale software, which didn’t look hard to operate at all when I finally got a look at it. When she did interact with the only customer we had that day, she was so awful and oversharing that the customer and I both got another performance, this time of why Amy’s son is in prison. The customer left, very bewildered, and I was dying of embarrassment.
I decided to stick it out and go to my next day’s training with a plan to keep Amy on track and deflect her over-sharing.
Reader, it did not work. I’m not good with oversharing and I get overwhelmed really fast with emotional labor. I didn’t think Amy could possibly top what she told me the day before but holy crap. I had to call my roommate to come to get me because by the end of my shift I was having panic attack symptoms. When I got home, I made an emergency appointment to see a therapist for the first time in over a year. After speaking to my therapist, partner, and my friends, I emailed the board of directors and quit, making up a story about a family emergency.
That was back in June. I keep running into members of the nonprofit board at my new job (yay!) because two of their spouses work in my department. The board members aren’t professionally affiliated with my new job at all, I just happen to work with their spouses. It’s a small city. They’ve been really sweet but keep asking me for details about why I left, one of them even asked pointed questions about how I got along with Amy. Should I have been honest that working with Amy was so uncomfortable and upsetting that I couldn’t even finish out my first week? I want to have empathy for her but it was like being held hostage.
Oh my goodness, please tell them.
It is very likely that they already sense there are issues with Amy; that’s why one of them is asking you those pointed questions. Plus, if they’ve had to interact with her at all, they must know there are Issues.
Why they haven’t done anything about her is a different question — but this is a small nonprofit and their board members likely have a zillion other things pulling their attention away, and if Amy has more or less kept things running (and especially if this is the first time they’ve tried to hire someone to work with her), they might not realize the extent of the problem.
You had an incredibly bad experience with their employee. If these were smaller quirks — just a little oversharing or a little incompetence — that would be different. But this was scaring off customers, oversharing to the point that you sought emergency therapy, and 45 minutes of how to switch on a standard light switch. It also sounds like it was constant; it wasn’t “ugh, I had to spend 15 minutes with a difficult person,” but your entire experience there.
The board members — who are Amy’s boss, either directly or indirectly — are asking you what went wrong. Tell them.
I suspect you’re hesitating because it feels unkind to explain how very problematic Amy is. But they want to know, and if you don’t tell them, they’re going to hire someone else who’s going to have the same experience. And at a small nonprofit, one out-of-control employee can have an outsized impact, to the point that Amy could end up causing significant and long-lasting harm to the organization and its mission.
Get in touch with the board member who asked you the pointed questions and say, “I didn’t want to speak critically of my experience, but I’ve given it some thought and I’d like to answer your questions about why I left if you’re still interested.” And then lay out what you laid out here without sugarcoating it or pulling punches (if you do tone it down, there’s always a risk that the true intensity of the problems will be missed). Hell, you could send the board a link to this letter, which explains the situation pretty compellingly.