Dear Captain Awkward:
This is (hopefully) behind me now, but I could use help understanding it, and strategies to prevent it happening again. I work at a small nonprofit, where I am a department of one. So I was excited when “Mark,” whom I’d met a few times at events related to my work, emailed saying he wanted to help out. He wanted to use us as a case study for his coursework, and while this was not an internship (his grade was dependent on his case study only) he was very clear that he wanted to help in other ways: “I have the time, and I’m happy to help with anything from IT work to giving rides.”
First sign of trouble was his frequently cancelling our weekly meetings, or showing up 15+ minutes late. Sometimes he’d text to cancel just minutes before our meeting time, after I’d already arrived. Sometimes his reasons sounded legit, other times it was “I don’t have much for us to talk about today so I’m gonna keep working on these overdue assignments instead.” I told him we could change the time or frequency of our meetings if he wanted but I didn’t appreciate having my time wasted. He promised to do better but nothing changed.
Sometimes Mark would take 5-6 days to respond to an email, then the response would be full of apologies, TMI excuses about his personal life, and EMPHATIC statements about how excited he was to be working with me and how great it was gonna be from now on!! As if he could dazzle me with so many exclamation points that I’d forget everything before. Then if I didn’t respond to his email immediately he’d start texting me, asking did I get his email?? It felt lopsided and annoying.
Then he no-call-no-showed for a big event where I’d assigned him an important role. After hearing nothing from him for two days I emailed saying I was disappointed and I needed to see more follow-through from him if we were going to keep working together. He apologized, then told me his marriage is falling apart, then said I also owed him an apology because sometimes I cancel our meetings and I don’t respond to his emails fast enough. I reminded him what I’d told him from the start: my work life is chaotic and there are lots of demands on my time, that for us to work together I needed him to be reliable, not another factor in that chaos. When we met next he again told me way, way too much about his marriage troubles. I tried to change the subject several times but probably not forcefully enough. The whole thing felt very weird.
Shortly after this I learned he’d also been flaking on commitments to our volunteer coordinator, leaving her scrambling to find a substitute. So the next time he was late for our meeting (texted 5 minutes before start time saying he’d be half an hour late, showed up 50 minutes late), I told him how frustrated I was with this pattern. He became indignant, said I’ve been patronizing toward him from the start, he’s a grown man (37!) and doesn’t need to be lectured, he’s in two grad programs and has a family and also I’m a hypocrite because I also cancel our meetings or am late sometimes. I told him he’d signed up to help me and my organization, and instead he’d been an ongoing source of stress for me. He began to complain about all the time I’d spent “venting” to him about my job. (Um, you mean, telling you about the ins and outs of my job, for you to write your case study? I thought that’s why you were here?) Then about how I picked this meeting place, which is far from where he lives. (Um…what?) There was no whining or beseeching in his voice. He was angry. I cut things off there, then later sent a restrained, professional email making it clear that our collaboration was over.
I’m left feeling very unsettled. I think it’s clear Mark has problems with boundaries and professionalism. (He also repeatedly demonstrated what I’d call a high degree of white fragility and entitlement, just shy of being outright racist. We are both white but in our context I still found it very weird that he would say such things to me.) But being called a hypocrite gnaws at me, no matter the source. We’re all lefty radicals and not big on hierarchy, but I still feel like he expected a degree of reciprocity that was not reasonable, and not how I said from the beginning things would need to be. But maybe I was treating him poorly by enforcing a power differential between us, just because I could? I need help getting my head around this so I can learn and move on, and also I’m wondering what I can do to nip this kind of thing in the bud if it happens again. Without being an authoritarian asshole about it. FWIW I am a woman and 5 years younger than Mark.
Sorry so long. Cut as needed.
Not your supervisor
Dear Not Your Supervisor:
Here is the takeaway, from what I can see:
The next time you meet a volunteer like “Mark” – someone whose unreliability makes work for you both in the form of emotional labor and actual labor – you’re gonna give him two chances and then you’re gonna say “This arrangement isn’t working for me” and end it without further discussion. And hopefully that’s what readers will do if they encounter a similar situation.
Applying Occam’s Razor:
This guy sucks – he is manipulative, patronizing, disrespectful, and sexist. He wasted a shitload of your time and then tried to make it your fault when you finally called him on it.
This guy has a lot of Life Stuff going on that makes him a bad fit for your organization and this project right now.
Both are true.
Good news: You don’t have to decide which applies. You gave him many chances, communicated your expectations clearly, and tried your best to make it work. Try less hard next time and save everyone a ton of time and energy.
If your organization doesn’t do this already, look into: volunteer contracts & codes of conduct, volunteer training, a structured way to give feedback to volunteers, and other best practices. This guy would probably have behaved like an ass whether or not he signed something, but it would have helped you extract him sooner if he had.