asking my boyfriend’s boss to help me plan a secret vacation, a camera was stolen from my office, and more

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

1. Asking my boyfriend’s boss to help me plan a secret vacation with him

My boyfriend of six and a half years is turning 30 between Christmas and New Year’s. His family and many of his close friends live in the UK. I would like to surprise him with a trip to the UK for Christmas and so that he can spend his 30th with the people who mean the most to him. However, in order to do so, I would need to contact his manager to ask about booking time off for him. I know that he is allowed to have one week of vacation per year, and he has not taken his vacation this year. How would I go about asking my boyfriend’s manager to request time off for my boyfriend?

I’m not really a fan of this, because it can put his manager in a pretty bad position. From the manager’s perspective, I don’t know if he’s saving up his vacation time for something else, or whether the two of you are having problems and he’d rather not go on this trip (and might prefer to use work as an excuse), or whether he’s going to submit a vacation request for November that would leave him no time for this trip he doesn’t know about in December. If he only gets one week a year, you’d be using all of his vacation on this, which he might not want or which might conflict with other plans he has (and there’s a decent chance he’ll have already used it since this will be the very last week of the year).

It also can cause workload issues, if he’s planning to do something crucial during that week and doesn’t know he’ll need to get it done earlier or otherwise make advance arrangements to cover his work. (In some jobs, the manager could do that for him, and in other jobs it would be much harder.)

A better option might be to ask him to take that week off but leave the trip itself a surprise.

2. Our department camera was stolen from my office

I work at a large company, but my department is pretty small. I’ve always been in charge of keeping the DSLR camera for our department in my office. I use it from time to time, maybe once a month if that – to take photos of new employees and things. I just realized today that the camera is missing from my office (I honestly haven’t had to use it in a month). I tended to either keep it on my bookshelf, or in a drawer with the camera case. I’ve looked through all my stuff and it’s nowhere to be found. I’ve asked around to other people in other departments, and no one has seen it.

Obviously, I should’ve locked up my things better but after four years, there’s been no incident until now. My boss is on vacation until mid-week next week. I’m unsure how to tell her this, and am a bit afraid of the consequence. I don’t walk into my office daily and inventory my belongings, and unfortunately this somehow got away from me. Any advice? I’m ready to look up replacement cameras and hope the end result isn’t too terrible.

If they haven’t given you a locking drawer or somewhere else to secure it, this stuff happens. I mean, yeah, it’s not great that you didn’t have it locked away, but ideally you wouldn’t need to worry about coworkers stealing things either.

All you can really do is be straightforward with your boss, and take responsibility for not having it more secured. I’d say something like, “I think the DLSR camera has been stolen. It’s usually on my shelf or in a drawer, and it’s missing. I’ve looked everywhere and asked other people to look, and it’s nowhere to be found. I should have asked earlier for a locking drawer to keep it in and will in the future if we replace it, but I wanted to let you know right away.”

3. Turning down a job at a company I want to work at

Recently I have began applying aggressively to a company that I really want to work at, in hopes that one of my applications (or my numerous applications in general) would catch the attention of HR. All of the jobs I applied to are similar, just in different departments. Recently one of the applications was accepted and I was contacted by an HR person who did mention that they noticed I applied for “some other positions in (this field).” They then noted the specific application they were contacting me about and we scheduled a phone interview.

I have done my due diligence and read up on the department and their work. Well, after doing all of that, I realize that I don’t think this particular department would be a good fit for me, but I still want to work for the company. I do plan on completing the phone interview; however, if I am called for a formal interview, I don’t really want to waste the time of the staff in that department. My thinking is that the phone interview is a good way for me to talk to HR and give them more information on myself so that if my application is selected again in the future, they already have an idea of my skills. But I am not interested in the work the department does and I don’t really want to turn down an interview and possibly a job if it’s offered because I don’t want to look bad. I don’t know what to do. Is there a way to not accept a formal interview if offered without looking bad? I still really want to work at this company because they are a leader in their field but I don’t think the current position I’m being interviewed for is a good fit for me.

Definitely don’t go to an in-person interview if you know for sure you don’t want the job. You can just explain that you really appreciated their time talking with you, but you realized that you’re more interested in working in departments that do X and Y and you’d love it if they’d contact you if an appropriate opening there comes up.

It’s fine to do still do the phone interview — and it’s possible that you might find out information that changes your mind — but I wouldn’t count on that being something that helps you in the future. I’m assuming this is a large company (given the number of openings you’ve applied for), so while the phone interviewer might put some basic notes on you in their applicant database, it’s not super likely that it’ll give you a significant leg up with other roles there. (It’s definitely possible, but not something I’d plan around.)

The bigger issue here, I think, is that you might be applying for too many jobs with this company. Applying aggressively in the hopes that they’ll notice you can be problematic — it can lead to them noticing you in a bad way, especially if you’re being so indiscriminate that you didn’t realize you’d applied for something that didn’t actually interest you. That’s less of a problem at large companies as long as you’re applying for the same basic types of work, but I’d still make a point of only applying only for jobs there that you’d be excited to interview for.

4. Severance when an employee is fired

My question has to do with notice and severance. I know good employers give employees notice of a layoff (or severance if the employer cannot give notice). However, what about for employees terminated for misconduct, especially with a progressive discipline system in place?

I understand the legal issues with waivers in exchange for severance. Outside of that issue, though, should employers give severance to employees terminated for cause, assuming the employer has a progressive discipline policy in place (so the employee has had previous warnings and/or done something so egregious, they needed to be terminated). Do you have a sense of whether it is common or not common to give severance to employees terminated for misconduct?

It really varies by employer. Some employers routinely offer severance to fired employees, often because they want the signed release form in exchange. (It’s typical to have people sign a release of any future legal claims in exchange for severance, which can be smart to do even when you don’t have any worries about legal issues, because even baseless lawsuits can take up a huge amount of time and money.) Others don’t offer severance to fired employees unless there’s a specific reason to (like that they’re worried the person is litigious or has real grounds for a case, or because they recognize that just got the hiring decision wrong and so bear some responsibility).

In general, I think that employers who can afford it should offer severance to employees who are fired unless they’re being fired for deliberate misconduct. If someone is being fired because they just couldn’t do the job well but they made a sincere effort, that sucks for everyone and it’s kind to offer some severance to cushion the blow (and to recognize that hey, you hired this person so you’re part of this too).

5. Should I get a low-level part-time job in order to work my way into a management position?

I’ve worked my way up to a supervisor position in informal education nonprofits (think zoos, gardens, etc.). I’d like to eventually become education manager/director of an informal facility, but in my current office that would mean my boss would have to leave, which isn’t going to happen any time soon.

There is a science museum in my town that I would love to work at. Science museums are the one informal facility that I haven’t worked in, but I think would fit my background well.

Do you think it would benefit me to work at the museum part-time doing something like weekend birthday parties? This would be a low position on the totem pole. Then if a management position opens up, I would already work there and have an “in.” My husband thinks that everyone loves a “work your way up from the bottom” sort of story, but I’m worried it might actually hurt my chances since they would see me just as a birthday party host and not a manager. (If they see me at all, since management very well might not work weekends).

I would enjoy the weekend work but don’t need the small amount of extra money it would get me, so I would just be working there in hopes of it helping me get a management job there in the future.

Nah, I wouldn’t do it. If you wanted to do it for other reasons and this would just be a possible side benefit, I’d say to go for it — but without counting on it leading anywhere. But in a case where you’d be doing it solely as a strategy to get hired into a management role, no. There’s more chance than not that it won’t give you a leg up since the work is so different from what you actually want to do there. (It might be different if it were volunteer work; then it’s clearer that you’re just looking for ways to help out. But taking a low-level paid role isn’t likely to have the same effect.)

Instead, I’d just plan to send in a particularly awesome cover letter and resume when the job you want opens up. And also, you might look for other ways to become a known quantity to decision-makers there, such as by attending their events or otherwise networking with them.

my coworkers keep pressuring me to take vacation — but I need to save up time for a chronic illness

A reader writes:

I have a problem that I’m sure other readers would love to have: I’m about six months into a new job, and almost everyone in my department has been pressuring me to take vacation. The pressure has been gentle, but persistent. Some examples: my supervisor brought it up in both my three-month and (early) first annual review, the associate director of the department brought it up at the tail end of one of our small department’s meetings, and someone I report to part-time told me she was so glad I was finally taking some days off when I let her know I had to be out (though I’m actually working those days – I’ll just be away at a conference).

I know it’s great to work at a place that encourages rest, but I still can’t take the days off. Unlike at my previous jobs, sick leave and vacation don’t accrue separately here – there’s just one bank of paid personal leave. As a chronically ill person who has had to miss a lot of work over the past few years (I’m currently in slightly better health, but I will inevitably get sick again), it seems foolish for me to miss a lot of work for something other than “can’t get out of bed.” I spend much of my personal time managing my illness to make sure it doesn’t encroach on work and I don’t want to undermine all that effort by messing with my routine or risking running out of leave time when it inevitably becomes necessary to take it.

For now, I just need to keep my head down and get to work every day. It’s frustrating to be chided (I am the youngest person in the department by decades, so there’s a flavor of kindly paternalism in the way some of coworkers talk to me) for doing something I don’t want to have to explain. I’m usually better at advocating for myself, but I can’t figure out what I can say that won’t sound defensive or frustrated with a policy my department doesn’t control. I just want to politely shut these well-intentioned comments down. Do you have any suggestions?

Ugh, I can see why you’re frustrated. You shouldn’t have to share medical issues with everyone, and they’re putting you in a position where it probably feels like you’re going to have to. At the same time, it’s great that they truly want people to take time off, and I can see where they’re coming from too — they’re probably used to people who have to be urged to take vacation before they really believe the culture encourages it.

I do think it would be useful to tell your manager what’s going on, so that she doesn’t keep nagging you. Otherwise she could reasonably see it as part of her job to ensure that you get regular time off. If you trust her to be a reasonable person who doesn’t freak out at the mention of illness, I’d say this: “I really appreciate that you’ve encouraged me to take time off. I have an well-controlled medical condition that occasionally flares up and requires time off, so I prefer to save up my time in case that happens. I wanted to let you know so that you didn’t worry about me not really believing it was okay to take vacation or anything like that.”

For everyone else, how about this: “Oh, I like to save it up and use it in larger chunks.” Or “I won’t hesitate to take it when I need it, but for now, I’m saving it up.” Or even “I’m planning to take some time off later this year — don’t worry” (followed by, if pressed, “no specific plans yet, but I’m on it”).

Or you could also use a version of the manager language with other people, depending on whether you’re willing to share that more broadly.

This is a good reminder, too, for the rest of us to be careful about not crossing the line between “making sure new person knows we support using benefit X” and “nagging new person into something they don’t owe us an explanation for.”

when you should default to “no,” how to be productive when you’re sleep-deprived, and more

Over at QuickBase’s Fast Track blog today, I take a look at several interesting work-related stories in the news right now, including why you should default to “no” when you’re overwhelmed, how to be productive when you’re sleep-deprived, and more. You can read it here.

interview with a 16-year-old working her first summer job

My 16-year-old niece, M., has appeared here before — when she was 12, she and her sister helped me answer this letter about a boss who was always making out with his girlfriend in his office, and when she was 14, they helped me answer this letter about a boss stopping up a toilet and asking someone else to plunge it. This summer, she got her first job and I asked her to tell us what it’s like to be working for the first time. Here’s our interview.

So you have your first job! Tell us what you’re doing.

This is my first job and I’m working as a lifeguard at an outdoor pool. There is also a hot tub and wading pool that we guard. Lifeguards are also in charge of a bunch of secondary duties like cleaning and checking the chemical balance of the pool water.

Is it weird to have a job? Does it make you feel more grown up?

It isn’t really weird; it is kind of like school except you can to decide not to come in as long as somebody can cover your shift. Also, it feels more important than school in some ways because at school if you fall asleep or aren’t paying attention or something, it doesn’t matter but at this job it immediately matters because somebody will probably get hurt.

I don’t think it makes me feel more grown up, but it gives me a different understanding of employees in jobs that involve customer service or cleaning. Before, I didn’t always know how to act around people in those types of jobs. I would always be nice and polite and everything, but now I know that the main thing is to stay out of their way and just be polite. Some members make the job easier and some make it harder; there isn’t much in between. If they follow the rules and do everything correctly, it makes it easier, and if they are rude, or they don’t follow the rules or argue, it makes the job harder.

Well, it makes you feel more grown up to me. What has surprised you most about working?

It might just be the particular place I’m working or the job I have, but I was most surprised by how many people are inconsiderate or rude to the staff or other members. It especially surprised me how entitled some people feel, and how they say very rude things to lifeguards when their kids are right next to them. Even kids are rude sometimes, but how can you blame them when they learn from their parents that that is the way to talk to lifeguards?

Members will often question a rule, and they honestly believe that they have thought of something that nobody else ever has, that this particular rule is completely unnecessary, and I just need an explanation about why their particular kid should be able to use water wings. Sometimes the excuse is as silly as “she just loves Frozen so much, and she came to the pool so excited to wear her Anna and Elsa water wings, I just don’t have the heart to take them away from her. Look at her!” What do they expect me to say to that? “Oh, yes, of course, I did not realize that she was such an avid Frozen fan! In that case, enjoy the water wings!” Sometimes, parents are a bigger problem than their kids are.

How do you handle it when parents are being rude like that?

In this job, the customer is not always right. In fact, usually they are wrong. It is important to remember that, because many members will tell you something that sounds like it could very possibly be true, and it can make you rethink what you are about to say. But you have to remember that this isn’t a bartering system, and rules are rules. Sometimes, a rule is changed or altered if there has been too many complaints about it, but it would never be changed in the middle of the day or something like that. Mostly, you just have to keep telling the customer the rule and explain why it is in place and try to convince them to follow it, but if they start yelling or will not listen, we just get a manager to deal with them.

Do you remember years ago when I taught you what to say if you ever need to fire someone? Now that you’re working, does the thought of firing someone seem heartless and cruel?

I remember you said we have to talk about COBRA! (Note: When I taught my nieces about this, they were young and thought there was a snake involved.) I don’t think that having a job changed what I thought about firing someone, but when I first started, I was very worried about being fired because I messed up or got in trouble or something, but when I started working with other people who were less hard-working than I was, I realized that it would require something very, very bad to be fired (at least at my job), so I am not worried about that at all anymore.

Yeah, I think I had that same experience with high school jobs. You come in terrified, and then you realize that just showing up and making a sincere effort makes them pretty happy with you, or at least so it was at Mrs. Fields Cookies and TCBY (both excellent summer jobs, by the way).  Anyway, what do you like most about working? 

I am lucky to be working with such nice, funny people, so I like my coworkers the most about this job. I have gotten closer to some of my friends I already knew from working with them, and I also met new people. But I know that it won’t always be this kind of situation, so I would say that my second favorite thing is the paycheck.

The paycheck is indeed nice. What are you doing with the money you’re earning? And what does it feel like to suddenly be earning much larger amounts of money than you’ve had in the past?

Mostly, I just buy things that I really wanted before, but I couldn’t get. It’s also helpful to pay for concert tickets. It feels good, because I can buy most things that I want. Also, I got a checking account and a debit card. I have been saving most of my money.

Were you surprised by how many taxes are taken out of your check?

I wasn’t really surprised by the taxes because it wasn’t too bad, and I bet I have used way more money than they took from all my years in school and using everything else that taxes pay for.

You are a good person; I am annoyed by how many taxes come out. What do you like least about working?

When I first started, I really liked when nice kids would talk to me and ask me questions and act like I was a celebrity, but most of the time people are not very nice to the lifeguards because we are always the ones yelling at them. That is my least favorite part. There have been multiple times when, after I tell the parent and kid the rule, the parent will turn to their kid and say something like “The lifeguard is here to stop us from having fun again; let’s just go.” They probably just say it so that I will apologize or something but I never do because I’m not sorry that they are not allowed to do dangerous things at the pool. When people don’t listen, I hate it.

Last year, you helped me answer a question at Ask a Manager from someone whose boss had clogged up the toilet and then asked him to plunge it, even though he was in a professional job that wasn’t supposed to involve plunging toilets. Your stance at the time was that the guy was being a prima donna and should go ahead and plunge it. Now that you have a job, has your opinion changed?

I agree with my past answer, but if I was the person, I might try to just get someone else do it by telling them that the boss needs somebody to do it. At my job, it is one of my jobs to plunge the toilet if needed and clean up poop from the floor and stuff like that. But, it isn’t too hard to get someone else to do it usually. If it is in the boy’s bathroom, you can get a boy to do it easily. If it is in the girl’s, it is a little harder, or if there are only girls working, but you can say that you were planning to go on your break right then or say that you have to guard the pool if it’s the right time, or say you are in the middle of something else. So far, I have never cleaned up poop, and hopefully I can keep it that way for the rest of time.

a terrible student worker asked me for a reference, coworkers send social texts throughout the night, and more

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

1. A terrible student worker asked me for a reference

I have received a reference request from another university for one of our former work studies. I had told this student that I was not hiring her back because she wasn’t reliable. She would cancel her shifts at the last minute, not making an effort to find a replacement. We had a list of duties that they are responsible to do during their working hours, and then they are free to work on school work. She wouldn’t do anything unless I told her to. She had good attendance the first year I had her, but wasn’t motivated and had to be reminded constantly. The last semester she worked, she was terrible.

She turned around and used me for a reference where the employer sends you a form asking you to fill out an online form. I have completely ignored both emails because I cannot give her a good reference. I’m stumped by the fact that she thought I would be a good reference, and I was never contacted by her asking to be a reference.

How do other supervisors handle reference checks for employees that you’ll never rehire, etc.? I’m in shock that she thought I would give her a good reference after the talk I gave her. Do students feel that as an university employee that she’s obligated to be given a good or marginal reference?

You have a few options: continue to ignore the reference requests (which sends its own kind of message, although it’s at least somewhat open to interpretation), fill out the reference request honestly (that’s certainly what the employer sending it is hoping you’ll do), or reach out to the past employee and explain to her that you’re not able to serve as a reference for her (and why) and suggest she find someone else.

At a minimum, I would do the last one because it’ll be useful for her to hear that her actions have consequences (and it’s a kindness to let her know not to try to use you as a reference in the future). I think there’s also real value in providing honest references, so that’s something to consider too — although with work-study jobs, it’s possible that the school doesn’t want you actually torpedoing students’ chances of finding work, so that may not be the right option here (in other contexts, though, that caution wouldn’t apply).

As for why people list references from jobs where they didn’t exactly shine … some of it — maybe most of it — is simple naivete. And some of it is obliviousness, in that they don’t realize just how crappy their performance was. (In fact, one question to ask yourself is how direct you were with her about your concerns with her work. Did you tell her clearly and directly that you had serious problems with her work? If not, she may not even realize it.)

2. My coworkers send social texts throughout the night

My boss and coworkers send large, ongoing group texts several nights a week. Often, it starts with an innocuous update like “I’ll be late tomorrow because of X, thanks for your support!” but it keeps going for hours. The constant updates are driving me crazy, because I expect that if I get a text from my boss or coworkers, it’s about something urgent, and everything else can wait until the morning. Often boss and coworkers are texting each other back and forth on this group text until 10 p.m. (when my husband and I are in bed!), and I don’t know how to respond to it. I usually send one text back to let them know I received the message and then completely ignore the rest of them, but honestly I’d prefer not to answer at all unless it’s an emergency. By the time these texts start, I’ve already driven my commute, decompressed from work, and am trying to detach from the day, and these texts do not help with that process!

How should I handle this? I don’t want to come across as a party-pooper or non-social (I’ve very social during work hours with my coworkers when time allows for it), but is there a nice way to say “sorry guys, I appreciate the sentiments but I just saw you all day and I need a break”?

Some phones will let you mute the whole conversation; I’d make that your go-to strategy if your phone has that functionality. But you could also say, “Hey, I’m finding that getting texts throughout the evening is making it hard to disconnect from work and some are coming in after I’m already in bed. Can we try to pull back on them, or at least not send them to the whole group?” The fact that you’re very social during the day means you don’t have to worry as much about this coming across as chilly (not that it should regardless, but in reality it otherwise could).

3. Religious headscarfs in job interviews

I cover my hair for religious reasons, either with a scarf or a hat, usually coordinated with my outfit. I began doing this after I got married and was already employed. Now I’m job hunting, and this will be my first time interviewing with a headcovering. Should I wear a headscarf, since that looks more overtly religious? Should it be black, or can it be another color or a pattern? I know the goal of getting dressed for interviews is to not stand out, but it feels kind of unavoidable. I don’t need to address it with the interviewer, right?

You definitely don’t need to address it with the interviewer, and I don’t think you need to change the type of scarfs you’re wearing to black or other neutrals if you don’t want to. (The photo you sent me along in this email had one that was brightly colored but looked great.)

I’d stick with scarfs over hats, though, as people are more likely to recognize them as a religious head covering (whereas a hat may appear to just be a fashion choice, which normally wouldn’t be a thing you’d do for an interview).

4. Interviewing right after dental surgery

Thanks to your amazing advice, I have two in-person interviews this week. Yay! Unfortunately, I had periodontal surgery late last week. As a result, I have black stitches in my gums, and when I smile, it looks like I have spinach in my teeth. I also am talking a little weirdly, and my cheek is slightly swollen and looks bruised.

I asked my friend and my mom for their honest assessment – are the stitches noticeable? They confirmed that it looks like I have spinach or kale in my teeth.

There’s no way that I can change my interview dates, so I’m wondering if I should say something to my interviewers? If so, what should I say? I don’t want them to think I’m a mess!

Yes! Just say “I’m so sorry, I just had dental surgery and there are some unpleasant-looking black stitches in my gums right now. Terrible timing!” They’ll understand, and that will much better than letting them just wonder what on earth is going on in your mouth.

5. We’re required to submit time sheets before the end of the pay period

My current workplace has really odd practices around submitting time sheets, and I don’t think they are legal.

I am required to submit my timesheet at noon every Thursday for the pay period ending on the following Sunday. Part of my work requires me to respond to state governments during their legislative sessions—this means my schedule can be all over the place, no matter how well I plan or manage my time. To correct the timesheet, I have to submit a revised timesheet the following Monday at 9 a.m. This spring, I had to do this almost every week.

After submitting corrections every week for several weeks, my HR director told me I could just add the additional hours worked to the time sheet for the following pay period. Obviously this has impact on overtime pay.

This week, I was informed by my direct supervisor that the HR director had him correct my timesheet for the previous week because I recored arriving at 9 a.m. on two days that I actually arrived at 9:30 a.m. I recorded my time this way so I could add hours I worked the previous week without saying I worked so many hours in any one day that I had to clock out for a second lunch. Is any of this actually legal?

They can have you do your time sheets however they want (including having you submit revisions a few days later or even making you submit it at precisely 1:02 a.m. every Wednesday) as long as your actual pay for that pay period reflects the number of hours you worked in that pay period, including any overtime. That’s the part that the law cares about.

That means that they cannot have you move hours to the next pay period if they results in your check for this pay period being lower. (This all assumes that you’re non-exempt. If you’re exempt, paying you overtime is optional and thus they can do it however they want.)

my manager says that most people are too good to stay in my job for long

A reader writes:

I have been at my job for 2.5 years. A member of my team recently quit, and my manager asked me to participate in the hiring process to replace her. Since then, she has said a few things that I perceive as hurtful and insulting towards me and my job.

During the first round of interviews, she talked to me about the difficulties about the hiring process. She told me about the round in which I was hired and said there was an excellent candidate who interviewed extremely well. She opted not to hire him because “he was so great he would have been gone in six months.” She has repeated this story to me about 10 times since then. The implication is that I only got the job because the other guy was too good.

When an interview goes well, she tells me the candidate has career aspirations and won’t stick around for very long. She recently decided to hire a candidate we both liked and warned me, “She’s so good that she won’t be here very long.”

She frequently tells me that my position is entry-level and it takes a “special person” to sit there “doing the same thing” day in and day out and, as a result, most people don’t want to do it for very long.

My manager has always been on the blunt side. It’s a trait I value because I never have to worry about where I stand with her. She’s actually quite supportive in a lot of other areas and I have learned a lot from her, but these comments are negatively impacting me. My morale is extremely low. I feel ashamed of the work I do and the fact that I have been with the agency as long as I have. Is it a good idea to speak to her about this issue or should I continue to let it slide? Am I being too sensitive?

I don’t think you’re being too sensitive! Your manager is being pretty thoughtless here.

I don’t know what kind of work you do, but it’s true that there are some types of jobs that it’s hard to keep good people in — often because the work is pretty rote or repetitive and after a while it stops being a challenge, which is when many people will itch to move on to something else. But that doesn’t mean that no good people stay in those jobs; there are plenty of talented people who derive real satisfaction from that type of work or who have other reasons for liking it (for example, preferring a job that allows them to put more energy into their lives outside of work).

Since you otherwise like your manager and have a good relationship with her, I think you should talk to her about how these comments are coming across to you. I’d say it this way: “I’ve found getting a window into the hiring process really interesting, so thank you for sharing your thoughts on candidates with me. But I wanted to ask about something. You’ve mentioned a few candidates being too good to stick around very long, which of course makes me wonder about what that means about me! I’ve been here a couple of years and I enjoy my work, so it’s jarring to hear you say that good candidates won’t stay. Can you tell me more about what you mean when you say that?”

This might prompt her to clarify that she actually meant something totally inoffensive. For example, she might have been using “too good” to mean overqualified (like having a masters degree in rice sculptures when the job only requires basic level knowledge of rice sculpting, or having five years experience in rice sculpting when the job doesn’t require any). Or she might tell you that you’re unusual in being good at the job without wanting to quickly move into a different role and that she’s thrilled to have you. Or, yes, it might prompt her to say something even more insulting than she already has … but even if that happens, you’ll come out of the conversation with more insight, which is good.

So ask. The great thing about people who are both blunt and supportive is that you can usually ask most of what you’re wondering about and not get the run-around. (They might actually be my favorite kind.)

I’m supposed to interview my ex for a job

A reader writes:

I’m assisting in the hiring for an open position at my company. Unless I change departments (which is feasible), this new hire will be my direct supervisor. I’m mid-level and the position is senior but not executive level.

Someone I dated a few years ago is applying for the position and is likely to be a candidate we want to interview. We only dated for about six months and it ended amicably. I think he might be great at the job, and I’d be very comfortable working with him but uncomfortable with him being my boss. Do I interview him just like I would any other candidate? Do I excuse myself due to a personal relationship? If he is hired, is there a way to work out the situation without the whole office knowing we used to be together?

My ex knows the situation, but he also knows I am considering leaving the company within the next year or so for other reasons entirely. At this point, I’m most concerned about how to handle the interview process because I think there will be options for altering my reporting structure if it gets to that point.

I answer this question — and four others — over at Inc. today, where I’m revisiting letters that have been buried in the archives here from years ago (and sometimes updating/expanding my answers to them). You can read it here.

Other questions I’m answering there today include:

  • How to turn down an employee’s request for training
  • Company removed my name from my work after I stopped working there
  • I’m quitting, but my employer wants me to stay on to finish a project
  • Dealing with frequent blushing at work

my company asks personal, invasive questions about your childhood and adolescence

A reader writes:

I’ve been working for the past three years at a large global organization. After three interviews, I was brought on board for a one-year trial period, a common situation for junior staff, and I was recommended to go through the formal hiring process at the end of that first year.

Thus began a series of additional interviews, all of which had more to do with my childhood rather than my qualifications for the job. I was 24 years old at the time, and working in a program coordinator position.

The first interview was positioned as a coaching interview, because the hiring process is so bizarre that candidates are unlikely to pass without significant help. My teammates invited me to talk about moments I had a “new idea,” rehash the organizational philosophy, and talk about my family’s values. I was told to avoid the “we” pronoun, even if I was working as part of a team, and to throw in some key terms where I could.

In later interviews, questions ranged from “Tell me about your life history, starting when you were young” to “Who was the biggest influence on you when growing up and how?” to “What did your parents do? What did you talk about as a family?” (Real question — I had to answer it!) Not once did the interviewers ask about my recent job experience or the work I was performing at this organization; they were more interested in what my family discussed around the dinner table growing up.

Here’s the rationale, as I understand it: The organization reveres creativity and initiative, and the organization believes showing those traits as a kid indicates a natural leadership that makes you a great fit for the company culture. And this is an organization that loves thinking about culture; they seek employees who are lifelong and obsessive problem-solvers, even if their role is relatively straightforward or expertise-based (e.g., write tweets, organize the tax audit). The hiring committee bases their decision on more than just anecdotes from your childhood and early life, but that’s certainly a serious factor.

All told, this process took about three months, and included six people on my team, two random employees from other departments, and three high-ranking leadership members.

I was ultimately hired, but, as I watch newer colleagues struggle with this same process, I can’t quite get it out of my head. The process made me feel frustrated, demoralized, and devalued — as if my qualifications and ability to do the job were less important than whether my life story fit into this arbitrary box.

On one hand, it’s flattering to feel like the interviewer wants to get to know you as a person and cares how you see the world. On the other hand, I feel like my experience as an eight-year-old should have very little bearing on whether or not I’d be a high performer, a good colleague, or dedicated employee. I understand the need to assess cultural fit, but it strikes me that it should be a secondary or tertiary concern rather than the primary criteria. Right?

What’s your take? Am I wildly off-base? I love my teammates, but this part of our organization makes me feel queasy. I’m getting ready to move on from the organization, and so I’m asking partly because I’m dreading the interview process for my next job. This was my first salaried job after college, and I feel like I have such a skewed perspective of the hiring process in general!

Nooooo. It’s not normal for an interview to delve into your childhood and adolescence, let alone for an employer to have a series of interviews about it. It’s more what I’d imagine for an induction into a cult.

There are so many problems with doing this:

* It’s incredibly invasive. It’s likely to turn off good candidates who value their privacy or who recognize ineffective interviewing, as well as people who had difficult or unhappy childhoods and don’t care to discuss it at work.

* It’s psychologically unsound. Your employer’s premise seems to be that people don’t triumph over difficult childhoods, or change dramatically once out of their teens, or even benefit and grow from less-than-ideal circumstances in their lives. All of that is ridiculous and demonstrably untrue.

* It’s hugely biased against people from non-traditional or disadvantaged backgrounds. Are they not going to hire anyone who grew up with a single parent who who had to work most of the time? What about someone who grew up in foster care? What about the child of alcoholics who didn’t often make it to the dinner table? What about someone whose childhood was marked by sexual abuse and really doesn’t want to talk about it?

* It ensures that the company will end up with a relatively homogeneous workforce, rather than getting the benefit of a staff with a whole range of experiences and backgrounds.

And on top of all that, it’s not even the simplest path to assessing what they want to know. If they want to suss out candidates who are creative, take initiative, and are obsessive problem-solvers, it would be far more straightforward to look for evidence of these things in their adult lives and work histories, by using interview questions that probe into how they’ve used those traits at work and what they’ve achieved with them and by giving work simulations designed to assess those things. It really doesn’t require asking what your parents did for a living.

Plus, I’ve got to think that they’re getting lots of false positives — people whose childhoods check the “right” boxes in the interviews, but whose actual work doesn’t show the traits they’re looking for … since they’re apparently not bothering to spend much time probing into what people are really like now, as opposed to decades ago.

You’re right to feel queasy about it. The good news, though, is that it’s very unlikely that you need to worry about encountering this when you start interviewing for a new job. This is so Not Normal that it’s highly unlikely that you’ll ever encounter it again. So yay for that.

my interviewers burst out laughing after I left the room, I need a different desk chair, and more

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

1. My interviewers all burst out laughing after I left the room

Last week, I interviewed for a position that would provide me some great experience right after I graduate. The position is not permanent, but would tide me over for a while as I search for a more permanent position. I was very excited to interview and practiced answering questions, as well as preparing questions of my own to ask as you advise. I thought I did well in answering all the questions, and was honest about the areas in which I had some, but not a great deal of experience.

As I left the interview room and closed the door, I overheard one of the interview panel members say something I could not make out and then heard everyone else in the room laugh. I think the people in the interview room thought that once the door was closed, the room was soundproof. I have no idea if the remark and laughter were directed at me, but I am wondering if this is a red flag. I am considering pulling my application as this may be an indication that these people found me ridiculous. Even if I was hired, I now feel uncomfortable with the notion of being around these people. Am I being overly sensitive? Should I let this go and see what happens?

Yes, you should let it go. Absent some specific reason to believe that they were laughing at you, it’s far more likely that they were laughing at something that had nothing to do with you. Someone could have commented on a funny text they just received, or pointed out that they’d accidentally worn mismatched shoes that day, or all sorts of other things.

A roomful of people isn’t likely to burst out laughing at a candidate who just left, unless the candidate did something truly outlandish (like pooping-in-the-potted-plant level of outrageousness, not jut not interviewing well). And inexperienced candidates in particular generally get cut a lot of slack and are the group least likely to provoke an instant post-interview group laugh. Really, the most likely scenario is that the laugh wasn’t about you at all!

2. How do I ask for a different desk chair?

I spent several months earlier this year with a debilitating injury, sciatic nerve pain from a herniated disk. I was working from home part-time, and spent a lot of my work days lying on the couch covered in ice packs. After months of physical therapy, I am doing much better but it is not an experience I ever want to repeat.

I just started a new job that is a full-time office job. Today is my second day. I know already that the chairs they give everyone here will not work for me—they’re not uncomfortable for the average person, but it is not possible for me to sit in them with good posture. I need a different chair because if I keep sitting in the one I have, there is a good chance I’ll be injured again.

What do I do? Is this a situation where the company should be paying for a chair? Will it be considered high-maintenance for me to ask for this on my second day? Should I talk to my boss or to HR? Or should I be buying my own chair, which may cost hundreds of dollars? I may also want a trackball mouse and wrist cushions. And for the chair I should probably go to my physical therapist again to figure out what kind I need so I don’t end up ordering a new chair that’s just as bad—who pays for that?

I feel silly being so worked up about this, but I’m actually really scared that they’ll deny my request, that I’ll get injured again. Can you help me figure out how to have this conversation?

In most cases, reasonable companies will get you the chair you need. Go to your manager and say this: “I’m finding that my desk chair is aggravating the pain from a recent herniated disk. I’m going to talk to my physical therapist to see what she recommends, but once I know that, is it possible for me to get a different type of chair and possibly wrist cushions?”

The physical therapy appointment is something that you’ll pay for yourself though, since it’s not an injury that you got at work.

3. I can’t afford my coworkers’ lunch invitations

My colleagues invite me to lunch several times each week. I attempt to make excuses by mentioning I have a heavy workload or that I’ve already packed a lunch, but the fact is that I just don’t have the money to go out for lunch. I’m very budget-savvy and I pay attention to every penny, so it’s not as though I’m a careless spender– I just quite literally do not have the money, especially for spontaneous events. We work in a fairly upscale part of town, so even when I do have some extra cash, I can’t really afford anything within walking distance.

I really love my job and my colleagues and I don’t want to appear antisocial. I also understand that my coworkers significantly more money than I do, so they may not realize that money is more of an object for me (I am fine working at the “bottom of the totem pole” since it provides experience that directly correlates to the skills I’m learning in my master’s program). My colleagues really seem to like me and I don’t want them to think the feeling is not reciprocal. I also don’t want them to become less comfortable working with me. How do I politely say “no” to these friendly lunch requests?

“My budget usually only allows for packed lunches from home, but if you ever get takeout and bring it back, I’d love to eat with you.”

Most people remember being on a tight salary at the start of their careers and will get it once you explain it.

If you can, though, look for other ways to make overtures — for example, if you usually eat your lunch in the park next to your office, you could invite someone to join you there. Or if you occasionally splurge on a takeout coffee or a cookie from the bakery downstairs or whatever, invite someone to go with you. That stuff isn’t strictly necessary, but if it’s an option, it’ll help reinforce that you want to be friendly.

4. Should working in a sex shop go on my resume?

I am an undergrad student doing a degree that will hopefully lead me to a job in the government as an analyst. I’ve always worked through school and have taken on student debt which barely allows me to pay bills in an expensive city. My parents can’t help me out for school so I am on my own. I was downsized from my old job and looked for months to find work, depleted my savings, and was actually worried about starving or becoming homeless.

I eventually found a retail job in a store that specializes in selling equipment to help people enhance their sex lives. The store is clean, feminist, a great safe space for our LGTB community and not at all sleazy. Most importantly, I am good at sales and it pays my bills because of the good commissions. I’m worried, however, that as I finish my degree and apply for government jobs, I am going to have trouble explaining this on my resume, or that people will see it an ignore me entirely. I have tried to find other work but to no avail (I applied for a job as a cashier and I was told that 600 people applied for the position).

Do I keep this off my resume and just say that I was focusing on school? Do I use a euphemism? What should I do when I am ready to enter the professional world?

I originally asked this letter-writer if the store name makes it obvious what it sells (it does), and whether the store might have a corporate name that’s more opaque, possibly for the purpose of being vague on customers’ credit card receipts, but it doesn’t.

Given that, I’d just go ahead and own it. Put it on your resume and be very specific about the work you do there — play up the customer service aspects of the work and anything else that would be transferable to other types of jobs. Make it clear that it’s respectable, customer-service-oriented work.

There’s also some good advice in the comments on this post (on a similar question).

5. Company I used to freelance for refused to consider me for a new job

I freelanced at a creative services company a few years ago. I thought it was a great experience. They retained me for six months, and I had no issues while there.

Recently, an outside recruiter called me about a full-time opening at that company. I said I was very interested in working with them again, so he submitted my name to the hiring manager. When he got the hiring manager’s response, he forwarded it to me. I was shocked. It simply said “Sally has freelanced with us in the past. It’s a NO on her.”

This cannot be a case of not being qualified; the job listing sounded like a perfect match for my skills. It seems clear that this company had some kind of problem with me. My question is, should I reach out to the hiring manager and ask for some elucidation? (The recruiter was not willing to ask for more info.) It is killing me to think that perhaps I did something to flag myself as a poor employee, but obviously had no idea.

No, don’t contact the hiring manager and ask why. The reason could be an awkward one (such as that she thinks your work is okay but not great, she just didn’t like you, or you didn’t get along with people there), or it could be that there’s something else off about the fit that you don’t realize (your strengths are more X, and they’re looking for something more Y — which wouldn’t mean that you were a bad employee, just that you’re not the right fit for this particular role). It could even be that normally you’d be a solid candidate, but they have two unusually stellar candidates in the mix, and they only want to talk to additional people if they’re competitive with those two.

Who knows — but it’s her prerogative to pass, and she probably wouldn’t appreciate knowing that the recruiter passed her message to him straight along to you.

how should we handle job candidates who show up for interviews way too early?

A reader writes:

I’ve seen a lot of mentions on your blog about candidates who arrive too early (including that it is not something top candidates do). Accepting that there will always be some people who will show up early anyway, do you have any suggestions on mitigating the awkwardness that ensues if someone is 20-30 minutes early with nowhere to wait?

I work at a startup that is small but growing, so while we have an entire floor in our building, our “reception” area just has a few employee desks and no actual waiting area. We have only a couple rooms for meetings, and they’re nearly always booked immediately before an interview. Most candidates who arrive early are between 5-10 minutes before their appointment time, which makes it easy to just show them the restroom and get them a coffee or water. But we’ve had folks arrive even earlier and then have to awkwardly stand around employees doing work for 15 minutes, or we’ve turned them away and suggested they go to a nearby coffee shop until their interview time.

This isn’t something that seems to warrant proactive communication in the interview confirmation email, since most people have decent judgment about when to show up. I also don’t want to scare people off by making it seem like we’re squished into a hole in the wall — the office is fine, it’s just that floor space is valuable, and when interviews are our only outside guests and only occasional occurrences, desks were prioritized over reception seating. But I don’t want our lack of accommodations to reflect poorly on the company if someone shows up before we have room for them. Thoughts? Am I overthinking it, and we should just continue to recommend a coffee shop if someone is 30 minutes early?

P.S. For what’s it’s worth, 99% of our candidates are local so should know how long it takes to get here and have the ability to scope out our neighborhood for a spot to hang out if they’re early.

Keep doing what you’re doing. It’s reasonable to expect that people won’t show up outlandishly early, so I don’t think you need to give specific instructions to ward that off. And you shouldn’t need to worry about the lack of reception space reflecting poorly on you, as long as you do plan for and accommodate people who show up a more reasonable five to ten minutes early, which it sounds like you do.

So yes, when the occasional person does show up way too early, just tell them you’re not ready for them and ask them to come back at the scheduled time — as in, “We won’t be ready for you until our scheduled time, but there’s a coffeeshop across the street that you can wait in. We’ll see you at 2:00!”

I’ve noticed that when this topic comes up, people often say that they’re annoyed but still feel obligated to accommodate the really early arrivals — either by spending time getting them settled or by letting them wait in an area that’s really not set up for it, or even by starting the interview early. But there’s no need to do that, and in fact I’d argue that it’s better not to … because (a) your schedule matters, (b) it’s perfectly okay to politely but firmly set boundaries, and (c) there’s value in sending signals about your culture, like “we’re thoughtful about how we use our time and our schedules are real, not just suggestions” and “we mean what we say when we make commitments.” (That might seem like a lot to read into this situation, but I really do think it reinforces those things.)

The same thing is true in other situations where someone is doing something a bit inappropriate or inconvenient. For example: fielding calls from parents job searching on their kids’ behalf (you can and should just say “we only speak with applicants directly”), making a meeting full of people wait to get started until one late person shows up (you usually can and should just get started, unless the late person is truly crucial to the meeting; people will generally learn pretty quickly that they need to be on time), and sitting through job interviews where you’re mistreated (you can say “you know, this isn’t for me” and get up and leave).

You can and often should assert yourself in situations like these politely — just be matter-of-fact about it, explain what you want or plan to do, and proceed as if of course the other person will be fine with it. They usually are — and if they’re not, you’ll get valuable info from that exchange anyway.