This is for bits of knowledge or basic skills that you used to think were nigh-universal, but your job made you realize are emphatically NOT. I have definitely become less naïve about the knowledge gaps that can exist. Now I’m always striving to find the balance between not assuming someone understands something, but also not assuming I need to immediately launch into something they already find obvious.
Example1: I work in payroll. Ever since the US federal W-4 changed dramatically at the start of 2020 thanks to the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, I’ve been getting numerous questions along the lines of “Umm… how on earth do I fill out this mess?!” (This question is NOT one of the ones that surprises me.) If it’s an email, I can just copy and paste a response I’ve developed about how I can’t give tax advice, but the IRS has a tool at irs.gov/individuals/tax-withholding-estimator that might help. When it’s a phone call, I give them that same address and/or how to search for it. The part that startles me is that, while I’ve been reading out the web address, on more than one occasion a caller has asked me what a “hyphen” is. I would honestly have never thought that was an obscure word.
Example 2: I get that not everyone is great at math, but I seriously underestimated how many don’t even understand the underlying concepts. There is one particular employee who calls me every time his union settles an upcoming rate increase. If he knows his current hourly rate, and what percent the increase is going to be, that should be enough information for him to figure out what his new hourly rate is going to be, right? Nope. He has no idea what to type into the calculator. (He also can never remember how to look up the salary schedules on our intranet site that would flat out tell him the new rate, but that’s a different topic!)
This same guy also simply cannot comprehend an hourly rate with more than two places after the decimal (his particular salary group typically has three, but some employees have as many as six). The first time he called, the new rate was something like $32.008/hr, and his brain exploded. When I explained that it’s “just a liiiiittle under thirty-two dollars and one cent,” he responded confidently with, “Oh, so it’s thirty-one dollars.” I always feel so bad, as though I’m talking down to him, when I end up saying things like, “It’s more than 32 dollars and no cents, but less than 32 dollars and 1 cent,” but he’s so utterly baffled otherwise!
Example 3: A caller wanted to know why her net pay was lower than she expected. I pulled up a comparative previous check, and looked at the gross, taxes, and deductions for each (which is also something they can do on our intranet site, instead of sitting there listening to me breathe while I flip back and forth, line by line. They seem to expect I’d have some 2-second answer off the top of my head.). “Well, I see your tax amount is different. Did you make a change to your withholding recently?” “Nope, no, I didn’t change anything with my withholding.” I looked in more detail. “Someone went under your ID and changed the withholding status from married to single… you didn’t make that change?” I was getting nervous, because we’d recently had another employee get hacked, and it’s not pleasant. “Oh, yeah, I did that,” she responded. “I didn’t know that would change how much tax came out.”
That one still makes me laugh years later. What did she think that question was on the W-4 for? The IRS isn’t throwing a mixer!