I graduated university about two months ago, and right now I work at a tiny indepedent publishing house. Well, I say “work”; they cover my travel expenses and feed me lunch, but I’m not getting paid, which I didn’t care about when I started because I thought it would be interesting. Nominally, I am a trainee.
This has its perks; I work with two people I get on quite well with, the food is good, and there’s a cat. But the job itself sucks. I thought that being taken on as a trainee would involve some kind of, you know, training; I was told I’d get to experience the day-to-day workings of a publishing house, learn my strengths and the like. It’s not like I didn’t expect that to involve some initiative, but I did think there’d be someone to vaguely oversee what I’m doing. There’s not. There’s the boss, two other trainees, and me. Nobody knows what they’re doing, so nobody does much, and the boss isn’t very involved in the company except for when he panics and snipes at us all for not having known to do what he thinks ought to have been done. The only work I get is work I scrounge up for myself. I am frustrated and bored.
I said when I started that I could commit to six months working there. There is no formal agreement of this; I am not being paid, really, so there’s no contract. I said to myself that I’d stick it out until Christmas (I started in July) or until I found something better, whichever came first. But I don’t even know if I can do that anymore. My friends think I’m crazy for sticking with it this long. Even my parents probably wouldn’t judge me for quitting.
But how do I do that? Can I do that? I feel guilty towards my coworkers and the boss, who is a nice person even if he has no idea how to run a company. I feel like I’m breaking my word and flaking out. And I keep wondering if the reason I’m not getting more out of this is not that I’m just lazy and expecting everything to be handed to me, like if I were really a good employee I’d just charge in there and single-handedly make everything happen and turn this company around. How do I say to someone “look, you’re a really nice person, but I’m not getting anything out of this traineeship and I want to find a job that doesn’t suck, so I’m leaving”? Will leaving like this hurt my career later?
Thanks for your time. Sign me,
This Is Not A Good Use Of Your Graduate
Dear Graduate: The Goat Lady here, one of the good Captain’s mysterious minions. I know it’s taken me a while to answer you, and hopefully you have sorted this out in the meantime! But I really couldn’t stop thinking about you and your situation and finally I had to go to Cap and say, “Cap, I know that usually I hang around in the background fetching your metaphorical coffee but this letter, I cannot let it go, can I pleeeeeeaaaase take it?”
Because oh, Graduate. If I am reading your letter correctly, this dude is trying to run his for-profit company on the backs of three unpaid trainees that he isn’t actually bothering to train, and when I hear that my eyes get a little wild and all I can think is…
And then I got to the end of your letter and you were wondering if maybe something is wrong with you and I. have. been. there. In the shitty job position where your boss nonetheless makes you think that maybe all the terribleness is because you are bad and incompetent and lazy. These days I am privileged to work for my goats who are pretty honest about their exploitation. But I remember, Graduate. Oh, I remember. Nevertheless, this is not “Reminisce About Why Goat Lady Has Spent The Past 17 Months As An Impoverished Goat Farmer” time, but rather “Graduate, You Are Too Awesome For This So-Called Traineeship” time.
I mean, can we count the ways this dude is awful? I do not care if he is technically speaking a nice guy, what he’s doing right now is exploitative and terrible. For one thing, you are learning nothing and this is no big surprise. I have trained cats, dogs, chickens, turkeys, rabbits, goats, and even people, and let me tell you this: there is no organism on the face of the planet that learns well if you leave them to guess what you want and then yell and panic at them when it turns out they aren’t psychic. Not one. In fact, if you try to use that method on non-human animals, they will just shut down and become afraid to do anything at all because they have no idea what the odds are that you’re going to punish them for doing it. That is not training, that is being mean.
For another thing, this dude. And his for-profit company. And his only employees are three unpaid trainees. Who aren’t learning anything. Well, and a cat, who if it is getting fed and all is the only one of you getting paid but probably isn’t learning anything beyond how to manipulate you and your co-workers into giving it its preferred form of attention.
What I’m trying to say here, Graduate, is that the problem is not you. The problem is this dude who is being exploitative and mean. So you gave your word you’d stay there for months, but it was with the understanding that you would actually be learning something, and you are not. The only appropriate response to someone who tries to guilt you about breaking your word in this situation is
You can absolutely leave this position. I know it sucks to leave awesome co-workers, including the cat, but this situation is not working out for you at all. You are unhappy, you are bored, and you are being made to doubt your basic work ethic and competence because your boss is using the world’s least effective teaching method ever.
So here is a handy script for you: “I really appreciate the opportunity you’ve given me, but it’s not really a good fit for me and I’ve decided to pursue other opportunities. My last day will be [INSERT DATE NO MORE THAN 2 WEEKS OUT HERE].” Stick to the script no matter what. Do not get into why with this dude, do not get into his failings as a boss, resist the temptation to hand him a copy of Don’t Shoot the Dog by Karen Prior so he can learn to be better at this training thing.
He will most likely have a lot of “But whyyyyyyy” questions. Keep repeating the script. He will try to guilt you for leaving him. “I”m sorry, but while I really appreciate the opportunity…” i.e. stick to the script. If you give him reasons, he will probably try to argue with them, so don’t bother.
As for your later career, it’s true you might not be able to use this guy as a reference. But I’m betting that anyone who has done business with him for half a minute knows he is flakey as hell. I wouldn’t worry too hard about him bad-mouthing you, and if the subject of your time at his company comes up, you can take the moral high ground and continue to stick to the script: “I really appreciated the opportunity he offered me, but it just wasn’t a good fit for me.” Resist the urge to explain that it wasn’t a good fit because dude apparently wanted people with psychic powers, or at least expected unpaid interns to have the knowledge of people with years of experience in publishing.
You will be OK, Graduate. This was less a promise you made to him than a verbal contract between the two of you. He broke that contract by not actually providing you with an opportunity to learn, which means you are absolutely not beholden to stick to your end of it. Go forth and find something more fulfilling to do with the rest of your year. If you want to learn to be a goatherd, I’ve got a great opening for an internship that pays in milk, eggs, and cheese.