open thread – March 22-23, 2019

It’s the Friday open thread! The comment section on this post is open for discussion with other readers on anything work-related that you want to talk about. If you want an answer from me, emailing me is still your best bet*, but this is a chance to talk to other readers.

* If you submitted a question to me recently, please don’t repost it here, as it may be in the to-be-answered queue.

should I stop wearing makeup to fit in at work, unprepared interviewers, and more

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

1. Should I stop wearing makeup to fit into my office culture?

I know you have talked about overdressing being a sign you don’t understand the work culture when starting a new position, such as wearing a suit at a tech start-up. But what is your take on makeup/hair? I recently started as a new grad in a new research position in industry. My coworkers are all at least 10 years older than me and have Ph.Ds while I have a bachelors in the same field. There are few women, but the few I do work with wear baggy dress pants and sweaters, no makeup, and no hair styling. I wear makeup everyday (subtle blush, mascara, and then a small cat-eye) and usually style my hair, but I have been feeling like it feels out of place within this workplace. I also wear dress clothes appropriate for a lab, but I worry that I appear as if I focus too much on my appearance. Or, with my obvious youth, I worry that my appearance makes people take me less seriously. I believe I feel like this way due to my general lack of confidence in the role (working on it!), but I wonder if meshing with the culture also applies to the overdoing hair/makeup. Of course, I feel more confident with my appearance as I’m comfortable.

Is there an argument for not putting as much effort into my appearance to fit with the culture?

The short version: It’s silly that this matters/sometimes it does anyway/it’s up to you whether to care.

The longer version: I want to say it doesn’t matter, but the reality is that in some work cultures it can mark you as not quite getting the culture or being out of sync with the priorities that people who thrive there usually have. As is always the case when you’re handling this kind of thing differently from the rest of your office (including clothes, too), it won’t always matter — and if you’re great at what you do, your chances of it not mattering go way up — but sometimes it matters.

But even if it does matter in your office, you might still decide you’re not going to play along, just like someone in a different office might decide they’re not going to wear lipstick and blow dry their hair. And to be clear, it’s silly that an office culture would care either way if you do or don’t wear makeup — but some do, and if you’re in one that does, the important thing is to understand the landscape so that you can make your own decisions with full knowledge of potential trade-offs.

Of course, that’s what you’re trying to figure out about your office, and I can’t tell you from here because I don’t know the culture there. But if you felt like you were being taken seriously and respected by the people you work with, I’d tell you not to worry about this at all. It sounds, though, like you do worry you’re not being taken as seriously (although this is tricky because, as you note, that could be just about youth). But if you want to experiment, you could try toning down your hair and makeup (not zero makeup and hair styling, just less of it) and seeing if you notice anything different.

But again, up to you. (This doesn’t feel like an especially helpful answer. I’m sorry!)

2. How insulted should I be when an interviewer isn’t prepared for an interview?

How insulted should I be when an interviewer isn’t prepared for an interview? I’m interviewing for a fairly senior position, and am currently in the midst of a series of (remote, video) interviews by people quite senior at the company. At one interview today, the interviewer started by explaining that he had just been on a call with the chief executive to discuss an upcoming national conference, which he then started explaining to me as he would to someone who had never heard of it or this company before. I jumped in when I had a moment to tell him that I knew all about it — because I’m on the program team for that conference, am speaking at it, and have spoken at it the past two years! If he’d glanced at my resume or cover letter, he’d have known that. I’m very involved in the nonprofit side of our field’s community, and am one of the leaders in this community — I’m interviewing at the company that manages the for-profit side of the industry. I’m even friendly with the chief executive and have been recently on calls with him myself to discuss the upcoming conference!

Am I off-base to be insulted that he didn’t even glance at my resume or have any idea who I was before speaking with me? (Not in a “do you know who I am?” way but in a “did you look at who you’re interviewing?” way.) Not to mention that a candidate for this role would have been woefully unprepared to not know about this upcoming conference. I know that not all candidates are internal to this community, but I really felt like it left me at a disadvantage in this interview because he didn’t know my experience or involvement. And to note, this was not an introductory interview – I’ve already had a couple of those. Now I’m worried that the other interviewers might be similarly unprepared, and I’ll have to spend even more time reviewing my experience with them, when it’s all on my resume and outlined again in my cover letter.

You shouldn’t be insulted because it’s not about you; it’s not as if he thought, “Jane Smith? She sounds like a real waste of my time, so I won’t bother reading her materials.” But annoyed? Sure, you can be annoyed.

But the thing is, sometimes this happens through no fault of the interviewer’s. Sometimes an interviewer is pulled in at the last minute because the person who was originally supposed to do it is out, or they realize at the last minute that they really want this particular person to weigh in, or the person had 20 minutes set aside to review your materials ahead of your interview and then got pulled away by an emergency. None of that is ideal, but it happens and it’s understandable and the best thing you can do is to just roll with it. And other times, yes, sometimes the interviewer had your materials well in advance and just didn’t bother to review them. And if that turns out to be a pattern of disorganization / inconsideration / cavalierness about hiring, you can factor that into your thinking about whether you’re interested in working there. But if it’s one person one time, I wouldn’t read anything into it.

3. What’s up with this disclaimer on our emergency contact forms?

I’m a little concerned about a statement made on our new emergency contact forms that we received at work. We all know that the point of these forms is to give permission to contact one or two people in the event of an emergency (or suspected emergency if an employee doesn’t show up). That is noted at the top of the form, but just above the signature line it says: “I understand and agree that the company will have no obligation or liability to notify such person(s) in case of an emergency.”

Now I have read many emergency contact forms over the years, and have never seen this type of statement before. I also did a Google search and of the 50 or so that I looked at, not one had any sort of disclaimer like this.

It strikes me as suspicious because they specifically decided to add it. Why? It’s almost like they’re making an advance decision not to contact them. They made it 100% mandatory to sign this, but they’re not holding themselves responsible for utilizing the information?

Of course, this is just the latest in a long string of many strange things happening around our office lately, or else I might not have even noticed it. I’ve worked for this company for several years, and since an executive management change three years ago we’ve transitioned from being widely recognized as a people-oriented company known for its flexibility to a strict policy-oriented company. No advance warning was sent out that old policies would suddenly be enforced, and anyone (customers or employees) who questions the change is immediately shut down with “It’s always been the policy.” Micromanaging has become a massive problem from the top all the way down, to the point many employees and even managers have left or been pushed out. Those of us who are left from before the change live in constant fear that we will be next. Because of that I have been trying to keep my head down to avoid notice, but it’s tough when things keep getting more difficult to deal with.

What do you make of this? Is this (combined with the change in company direction) a red flag to start looking elsewhere? Or would it be better to ride the wave and see if things settle down?

I would assume they’re just trying to cover themselves in case an emergency contact isn’t contacted in a situation where it would have helped. There’s no requirement to have those forms at all, so if they just didn’t want to use them, they could simply get rid of them. It’s much more likely that they’re concerned about legal liability in a situation where someone doesn’t think to use the contacts.

I do think, though, when you get to the point that you’re suspecting stuff like this because general conditions in your organization are so bad, that’s a sign that you should be looking at other options. And really, you describe yourself as living in constant fear that you’ll be pushed out — why would you not be looking around?

4. Candidates who ask for the job description

I’m wondering if this is a pet peeve of mine or if other HR professionals find this annoying as well. I get severely annoyed when I reach out to candidates for a phone interview after they have applied and they ask me to resend them the job description or ask for company information, i.e., “remind me what company this is again?” Is this just something that comes with the territory of recruiting and HR or is it a preliminary indication about soft skills like detail oriented-ness and resourcefulness?

It depends on the context. If you’re calling a candidate out of the blue (as opposed to a pre-scheduled phone interview), of course they might need you to remind them about the details. People usually apply for multiple jobs, and it would be unreasonable to expect them to have the details perfectly organized in their heads at all time, with no notice that they’ll need to.

On the other hand, if you scheduled a phone interview by email (so they had time to prepare for the conversation), then yes, I’d be concerned. Although you do need to make sure your job posting is still online — some companies take them offline once they’re no longer accepting applications, and then candidates have no way of accessing them again (unless they saved them when they applied, which is a good idea but not something everyone realizes they should do).

5. I was fired and my boss keeps offering me side jobs

I was terminated about a month ago and was given my last paycheck that day. My previous boss (she was the CEO) keeps in touch and asking me for side jobs i.e. pay me to help with the website. I don’t want to but I also don’t want to burn bridges. Am I wrong for declining?

Nope. You’re not required to do work for someone who no longer employs you in order to keep a bridge intact. You only have to be polite about it. Say something like this to your former boss: “Thanks for thinking of me for this! I’ve taken on other commitments that are keeping my schedule full so I’m not able to help, but I hope you’re able to find someone right for it.”

my boss constantly complains about how much he pays me

A reader writes:

I work for a very small company with three full-time employees and my boss, who is the owner. My coworkers and I (who are all in our first professional jobs out of college) make reasonable salaries for the area, but receive no other benefits. One of my coworkers and I started around the same time and recently received raises at our two year anniversaries. These raises are standard and were outlined to us when we first started. Because the company rarely has had employees stay this long, the overhead of our salaries is higher than my boss has experienced before.

Here’s the problem: He complains CONSTANTLY about how much we cost him. He’ll remind us in emails or in person at least a few times a week how high overhead is. My coworker recently used several of her PTO days and he basically yelled at her that she should have used them before she received the raise. He recently emailed us both letting us know if we wanted to take any unpaid days off, that would be fine with him.

I might understand this behavior if the company was really struggling. However, I handle all the finances for the company and can see that the past two years have been the most profitable the company has ever been. In fact, much of this profitability can be directly tied back to mine and my coworker’s efforts.

To me this seems unprofessional and I find it completely demoralizing. It seems like he doesn’t appreciate our work but instead just looks at us as dollar signs. Most of the time he is a good person, but this has really started to bug me and I don’t want to continue to be reminded what I burden I am. However, I want to stay in this job for the next year as I need to be close to family members who are ill. Additionally, I recently have taken on more responsibilities that if I stay and continue to learn could open up a lot of doors professionally for me in the future. So what do I do in the meantime? Should my coworker and I tell him how these comments make us feel? Or should I grin and bear it for a year until I can move on?

It might be interesting to act as if you’re taking his comments very, very seriously. You could ask to meet with him and say something like, “You’ve been mentioning a lot lately how much my and Jane’s salaries cost the business. I’ve done some market research and know that we’re being paid well in line with the market for this kind of work — maybe even a bit under market since we don’t get benefits. Since we’re not overpaid, I’m concerned if there’s some other message here — is the business in trouble? Is everything okay?”

(And yes, you see the finances and know that things are fine — but it’s plausible that you’re concerned that he knows something you don’t, since otherwise his comments are inexplicable.)

I suspect you’ll get a cranky answer that doesn’t admit things are fine but instead grumbles about the strain of, you know, paying employees for their work.

At that point, you can say, “Assuming you agree that we’re being paid a fair market rate for our work, it’s really demoralizing to be told so frequently that we cost too much. I believe I’m being paid fairly so I don’t know how to respond when you talk about my salary. What are you looking for from me when you say those things?”

It’s possible that just calling out the behavior like this will get it to stop, or at least significantly lessen.

But if it doesn’t, then I would try to just look at him as an amusing caricature of a miserly industrialist, like a Mr. Burns or an Ebenezer Scrooge.

Also though … I am highly skeptical of any company that rarely has anyone stay even two years, and oh also happens to hire mainly people right out of college (who conveniently are the ones least likely to recognize and balk at terrible management practices), and doesn’t provide benefits (although it does sound like you get paid time off, so I assume that means no insurance — which is not good). Combine it with your boss’s absurd behavior, and I would seriously question how much you’re getting out of staying, and how many doors it’s really going to open in the future. I hear you that you want to stay in the area because of ill family members, but it’s worth thinking about whether there are other, healthier workplaces that would let you do that too.

what to look for when you’re interviewing students

A reader writes:

While I’ve had plenty of practice interviewing experienced hires, I’m feeling stumped preparing to interview college students. We are coming up on campus recruiting season for interns and new hires, and I’m having trouble formulating my general interview script. Most of my go-to questions focus on past projects and experiences in different work environments. How do I translate this to students, especially the internship candidates who may not have any prior industry experience? What do I look for – GPA? Class projects? Leadership activities?

I answer this question 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.

ask the readers: when you’re the chronically sick coworker

Last fall, we had a letter from someone frustrated with a coworker, Jane, who was constantly out of the office and had taken far more personal and sick leave than anyone else in the office received. The letter said, “I find it incredibly unfair that Jane is given so much lenience … I’m having a hard time enjoying the work I do when I’m stuck on the same team as such an unreliable coworker.” In my response, I pointed out that while Jane might be abusing the employer’s good will, it’s also possible that she was dealing with a health condition and had negotiated time off to deal with it.

In the comments on that post, someone wrote, “I’d love an Ask the Readers post on this! And how and how much ‘Janes’ communicated with coworkers when they’ve been in her position, and how things worked out. I’m still constantly trying to find the line between ‘taking care of myself’ and ‘rationalizing slacking off and/or unnecessarily burdening my coworkers.'”

So, readers, if you’ve ever been the chronically ill coworker who needed extra time off or other accommodations, how did you navigate it with coworkers? What went well and what didn’t? What advice would you give others who are struggling with that?

my coworker uses all-caps for everything, can I ask my office to stop swearing, and more

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

1. My coworker uses all-caps for everything

My team recently hired a new employee to help pick up some of the slack when it comes to the admin tasks we deal with on a day-to-day basis. Our new employee (Sansa) is enthusiastic about the job, a quick learner, and well liked by everyone in our organization. Her work is also very consistent and accurate. However, she does have one habit that drives me and my counterpart absolutely mad — she prefers to TYPE IN ALL CAPS.

Now, this wouldn’t be a huge concern if it was just on internal communication (emails to staff, messages on Slack, etc.), but one of her tasks is to draft the letters and memos that go out to our clients and the public. All of the letters she drafts use templates where the writer can fill in the blank on the particulars, meaning random words will be capitalized in the middle of a paragraph. There is nothing about the details she’s entering that warrants the use of all caps (or even bold, underline, or italics). Ultimately, this means either my counterpart or I have to re-do all the work she’s just completed (defeating the point of bringing her on the team) or the letter is sent to the client looking sloppy or poorly generated by a computer.

My counterpart and I discussed this with Sansa early on. We gently questioned if Sansa prefers to write this way because it’s easier to read, hoping we could find a way to adjust her computer screen to increase the font size. She told us that it’s just her preference. I’ve even made a joke (it was appropriate in context of the conversation) about how Sansa “yells” at me through email; to which she giggled, said that’s just how she types, and that I know she’s not trying to be “shouty.” The way I see it, it is an understood rule for anyone using electronic communication THAT ALL CAPS MEANS YOU MUST BE UPSET OR YELLING OR TRYING TO DRAW ATTENTION TO THE MESSAGE.

I hope that we’re not making a bigger deal out of this situation than need be – maybe we need to hear from an outside perspective that this isn’t a big deal and we should move on. But if you think our concerns have some merit, can you offer any advice on how we can address this with Sansa? I know from reading your articles that the next step is to very directly discuss this matter with her. However, I’d hate to go into the conversation where my only defense for asking her to change is “because it’s not how you should do it” or “it looks more professional to type normally.” To me it seems like we’re trying to push our stylistic preferences on her even though our way is the conventional format. Any advice or feedback would be greatly appreciated!

This isn’t stylistic preference. If she were just doing this in internal emails, then maybe — although even then, it would be reasonable to ask her to stop because it’s harder to read. But doing this in materials that go to clients and the public? No. That’s not okay, and it’s not just a stylistic preference. It’s the same as if she’d decided to send all your materials out in white font in pink paper — you would presumably simply tell her to stop. And you need to do that here too — without the hints and the jokes — just a clear, direct “we need you to do X instead of Y.”

I suspect you feel like you can’t say that so bluntly because you’re not her manager, but actually you can! She was hired to take work off your plates, and you’re having to redo it for her. You 100% have the standing to say to her, “We do need you to stop using all caps so that our materials are consistent and professional and easier to read. Please start using standard case on everything you’re producing for clients and the public.” Then, if she gives you any more work in all-caps, tell her that you can’t use it that way and ask her to re-do it. Not only do you have the standing to say that, but I’d argue you have an obligation to say it — because right now you’re wasting your own time cleaning up her work (which your organization and your manager surely don’t want) or allowing materials to go out looking like they were created by a hostile loon (which they also surely don’t want).

Talk to her today, and enjoy the soothing feel of standard case on your eyes tomorrow.

2. Can I ask my whole office to stop swearing?

So, maybe I just need to adult a little, and this might seem really nit-picky, but I work in a very casual, small office environment that houses different departments (eight office workers and eight yard workers and drivers who are in and out all day), where the majority of people cuss like sailors. The big boss does also; we don’t see him often, but when we do, he’s a sailor as well.

I get there is foul language everywhere, but honestly, hearing the F-bomb a half dozen times before 6 am is difficult.

I have a very good job. Is this just something I need to accept or is changing it possible in your opinion? I have thought that being the one person to say something about it would most likely put me on the “outside” and I’m not sure if it is worth it.

Well … my guess is it’s something you’ll have to decide if you can live with or not. Your situation is different from, say, this letter from someone who had one coworker who was constantly dropping F-bombs. In your case, if it were just one or two people, you could tell them the language bothers you and ask if they could rein it in. But when it’s an entire office of 16 people … that’s the culture, and they’re allowed to have a culture that uses adult language if they want to. (To be clear, there are some things where you’d have standing to ask 16 people to change, like if they were creating a sexually hostile workplace or so forth. You’re not required to live with centerfolds taped on the walls just because other people like it. But profanity isn’t in that category.)

If you feel really strongly about it, you could try saying something to the most frequent offenders, or the ones you’re most comfortable with — and even if they’re the only ones who rein it in, that would at least lower the amount you’re hearing each day. But I don’t think you can single-handedly tell each individual person there that they need to stop, and this is going to be more about whether you can be happy in this culture or not.

3. Is it bad to step back from a management job to a less senior position?

I’m currently a manager of a team of 28. I’ve been with my current employer for nine years, and I’ve been a manager for the last three. I work in the financial services industry in a very high-stress, fast-paced, cutthroat, high-stakes environment. The job has taken its toll on my health over the years. I’m 31 years old and am currently on two medications to control my dangerously high blood pressure. I work 12-hour days and sometimes I even have to work on Saturday mornings to catch up on my reports and other behind-the-scenes tasks that I cannot complete during the standard work week.

I’m about to accept a job offer at another company where I think I would be a great fit. I really like the role that they’re offering me. The thing is, I would not be a manager. I would be starting from the bottom again as an individual contributor. Part of me feels embarrassed and like it’s a sign of failure, because I’m currently a manager and I would be moving down to an individual contributor role. However, I don’t really think being in a management role is doing my health or work-life balance any favors. I like the idea of coming in every day, sitting at my desk, focusing on my own work and being responsible for myself, not other people.

I went through multiple rounds of interviews with the new potential employer and they were very impressed with my work experience and skills. They do not seem to be fazed by the fact that I would be trading down to a lower level role. Part of me still feels weird about it because I’ve grown so much and made so much progress at my current employer, but I just simply cannot stay in this stressful role anymore. Is it common for people to step down from being managers and go back to being individual contributors?

It’s very common! Some people stop managing because they realize they don’t like it (lots of people don’t like it!) or aren’t great at it, some people stop managing because there’s just another role that appeals to them more, some people stop because management just doesn’t happen to be part of the next thing they do.

Management is a huge pain the ass — stressful and often thankless. It sucks that it’s often the only way to move up in your career. But if you’ve found a job that you’d like and that gets you away from a work environment that’s destroying your health, don’t have qualms about taking it. People move around and career trajectories aren’t always perfectly linear. And if you decide you want to move back into management in the future, you’ll be helped by having management experience in your past.

I also wouldn’t think of it as “starting from the bottom again,” unless you’re taking an entry-level role, which I doubt you are. Plenty of individual contributor roles are quite skilled, senior, and respected. I think the management vs. non-management distinction is messing with your head more than it should — and that you should take the job, lower your blood pressure, and revel in the fantastic joy of not being responsible for other people.

4. I have to pay for an assessment test in an interview

I am in the second step of an interview process. The first was to watch a few videos the company posted on YouTube, then submit a video with your opinion of the videos, detailing why you’re a good fit, what does the future look like with you employed there, etc. The second was to take the Kolbe assessment test, that the applicant has to pay for. All of this has been done via email, no phone.

I’ve been out of the interviewing process for a while now, but it just seems as though we should not have to pay to interview. Is this normal now? I’ve tried googling if this is common but nothing is coming up on the matter at all.

No, this is not normal. You should not need to pay for assessment tests. This is either a scam or a company that doesn’t know what it’s doing (I’m leaning toward the latter, given the inept-sounding first step of their process). I wouldn’t pursue this.

5. Vacations when I’m resigning and starting a new job

I’ve been in talks with a new company and it is likely I will be offered a position in early to mid April. I would like to give three weeks notice to my current employer, but I have one-week vacation booked April 20-27. This week would fall in my notice period. Is that okay?

Also, I have a trip booked for two weeks May 15-29, which would be in the first month at my new company. Is it bad etiquette to take this, and do I need to cancel (I would lose $600 and an amazing trip!) or do most employers understand and accommodate if they are told this in the interview stage? I want to set myself up for success and leave my old company in a good state, but also have had these trips planned for months and would like to take them.

I tend to do all my travelling in the spring and late fall, and it just happens to be bad timing this year.

Some companies won’t let you take vacation time during your notice period because the point of the notice period is to give you and them time to transition your work, and that can’t happen if you’re not there. But because you’re going to give three weeks, that should help — you can frame it as “since I already have a trip booked for part of this time, I’m going to give three weeks notice so I’m still here for two weeks before I leave.” That said, the timing of your resignation could matter. If the trip would be the third week of your notice period, they may tell you to just officially wrap up the week before, leaving that vacation week unpaid (if you’re in a state that doesn’t require employers to pay out accrued vacation time). So factor that in as well.

For your May trip, the time to bring this up with the new employer is once you have an offer but before you’ve accepted it. At that point, explain that you have a pre-planned trip that’s already been paid for and offer to take the time unpaid. Lots of employers will be fine with this; others may not, especially if, for example, it would mean you’d miss important training. But it’s a normal thing to ask about. (They also might just prefer to have you start after the trip is over, but that’s something they’ll suggest if so.)

my team got matching tattoos … and other lack of boundaries at my start-up

A reader writes:

I work at a tech startup in a place where that isn’t very common, and there’s always been a blurring of work camaraderie/ being actual friends because we’re all younger adults, but this is a new level: a majority of my team (eight out of 12 team members, including our department head) went away on vacation together and got matching, work-related tattoos.

The tattoos are small and subtle (think: the letters C T and we’re the chocolate teapots department). But this also wasn’t a youthful indiscretion kind of situation either; they booked the tattoo artist ahead of time along with the AirBnB.

This kind of thing has become increasingly common among my department, with the same group of eight or so teammates doing things together on the weekends, including our department head. There are informal group chats I know I’m not part of, going on vacations together, and now tattoos that quite literally mark the in-group. (A photo of some of the team members’ tattoos is now being included in our new hiring training documentation. That actually worries me even more. Perhaps this is an overreaction, but that feels like a sign this is being embraced as part of our team culture.)

I’m not invited to these things, and while everyone is nice enough, I have never really felt I belonged here (I’ll be there a year in April). I’m also visibly a minority compared to the rest of my office (I have a disability that does not impact my work, but is visually obvious).

My friends say this is harmless, and I should stay to build my resume, but I’m kind of alarmed. Am I right to be planning an exit from this kind of environment?

Ignore your friends.

Having camaraderie and friendly relationships with your coworkers is a good thing.

But there is a certain kind of toxic culture, often found at start-ups and/or on teams made up mainly of young people (and there’s a lot of overlap there) where boundaries are so blurred as to be absent, people mistake their employer for family or friends.

Here’s what tends to happen in those cultures: People are expected to show inappropriate amounts of commitment and loyalty, even when it’s not in their self-interest to do that (and even when the employer won’t show it in return). People make sacrifices they shouldn’t make (anything from regularly working unreasonable hours, to not speaking up about things like harassment, discrimination, or legal violations, to not leaving for a better job when they should). People get rewarded and promoted for their relationships rather than for their work. People feel left out and alienated if they don’t want to manage their careers and lives that way, or if they’re different from the dominant group in some key way (hello again, race and gender).

Other things that happen in those cultures: People don’t get managed well, which leads to things like not getting feedback necessary to their growth to not having any way to escalate serious issues. People also pick up terrible habits and frameworks about work that they carry to their next jobs.

Maybe none of this sounds like your office, but based on what you described, I’m betting it does.

Eight of 12 people on a team vacationing together would be problematic on its own, but throw in that your department head was one of them, and you’ve got a seriously dysfunctional situation without professional boundaries.

That’s before we even get to the tattoos. For which I have no words, other than to say that instead of including the photo of the tattoos in new hire materials, it would be better if they included it in recruiting materials, where it could function as a huge flashing danger sign for job candidates to warn them off.

So yeah, you’re right to want to leave. Leave before this messes with your norms, and before it takes up so much space on your resume that the reference from them will carry even more weight.

how to say no to your boss

I get a ton of letters from people who are really unhappy about something their boss is asking of them, but don’t feel they can push back because they’re internalized the idea that you’re never supposed to say no to your boss — that they’d look like a prima donna or difficult, or not a team player.

But the reality is, in many cases you absolutely can push back or say no to something your boss is asking of you, as long as you do it the right way. Today’s podcast episode — the penultimate episode of the show — is all about how to do that, including a bunch of different examples of when you might want to, and exactly what to say in each of them and what your tone should sound like when you do.

is being visibly stressed at work a sign of commitment?

A reader writes:

Can you advise on a discussion I was having with a colleague?

We were chatting casually and I said that whenever she has been panicked and overwhelmed in the past — and felt sure everyone would blame her for the unfolding disaster with a client — it has always turned out well. She has even been acclaimed recently for how she handled a tough situation which she was sure would reflect terribly on her. She is good at her job and widely seen that way.

I said she would enjoy work more if she was able to deal with difficult situations and tough clients calmly. I didn’t say this part, but I also feel it would be better for junior staff who I see getting really unnerved by an atmosphere of panic. I then spend time reassuring them that they are doing a good job and no one else sees them as party to an unfolding disaster (usually it’s just a standard working week).

We are a big office, so I don’t want to exaggerate her impact on the wider atmosphere — but working on projects with her is working in a sea of negativity, especially about clients who I mostly find to be nice people who are not doing anything to merit the constant cursing as soon as their backs are turned.

She acknowledged that when she had shown this stress in the past it had been unwarranted. But she said it was partly beyond her control, and partly that she wanted people in the office to know whenever she was stressed. She said it was a way to show you care about the work you are doing — she wouldn’t trust someone too laid back. I replied that I would think twice about hiring anyone who couldn’t handle stress, that I would worry they would take it out on colleagues or one day snap and never return — that someone more level headed is a safer bet. I didn’t add that it makes her a difficult person to work with.

Obviously there is a happy medium between panic-stricken and excessively laid-back, but what precisely is that balance? I am pretty sure she is not striking it, but I do wonder if I am either? Am I getting judged harshly for being pretty level-headed — as less invested in the work? How do you show you are serious about your work and competent without the histrionics?

You show that you are competent by doing good work. You show that you are serious about your work by taking your work seriously — acting with a sense of urgency, flagging issues early on rather than waiting until they blow up, being flexible when you need to in order to meet deadlines or get the right results, seeking input when something is high-stakes or new to you, making a point of learning from past projects so you’re constantly improving, both soliciting and welcoming feedback, and being respectful toward coworkers, clients, and others you come into contact with.

Your coworker is failing dramatically on that point. It’s not respectful to curse about clients as soon as their backs are turned (and in fact, that would make me think your coworker doesn’t take her work seriously enough). And it’s not respectful to “want people in the office to know whenever she’s stressed” — that’s transferring her own stress over to them and making less life pleasant for them.

You’re also absolutely right that it makes her look like she can’t handle the demands of the job. That’s not to say that anyone who ever shows stress at work looks like they can’t handle the work. But someone who’s visibly and vocally stressed on a regular basis, and who makes a point of performing that stress so others will notice it, is indeed going to come across as breaking under the pressure of the role. That doesn’t inspire confidence in the people around them, and it can have real consequences for the work because some people will stop bringing them questions or new tasks during that time and may hesitate to provide necessary feedback, for fear of adding to their burden (or causing them to crack).

You asked if you’re coming across as less invested in your work because you’re level-headed. If you’re in a reasonably healthy workplace, I doubt it very much. Reasonable people don’t look at someone who’s getting excellent results in her realm and think, “But it doesn’t seem like she cares enough.” (That does happen in unhealthy environments, though — usually in the context of trying to hold you to unreasonable expectations about things like work hours. But you don’t want to alter your behavior to cater to that.) In a healthy environment, you show your commitment by ensuring your work is good, not by emotional displays about it.

If you are close with your colleague, it’s worth going back to her and saying something like, “I was thinking about our conversation about stress. There’s something I didn’t say at the time that’s been weighing on me since then because I know it’s something I would want to hear if I were in your shoes: When you share so much of your stress, it creates so much negativity that it can make working with you difficult. I’ve noticed our junior staff are particularly unnerved by it, and I’ve had to spend time reassuring them that things are fine. I think you do amazing work, but sometimes this does make it tough to work with you.” You may not have the kind of relationship where you can say that — but if you do, you’d be doing her (and everyone else in your office) a genuine service.

I replied-all with an adversarial email, my boss and I dress alike, and more

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

1. I sent an adversarial email — and replied-all

I’ve seen plenty of articles about how to respond to someone who is unprofessional, but what do I do if I was the one who was unprofessional?

I am a supervisor who often interfaces with management and sometimes takes on a management role. Recently, I was working with leadership to transition an employee into a new role on my team. I offered to work with management to support whatever transition plan they needed but, since the employee will earn more in the new position, asked that she be transitioned to the new pay scale ASAP. We were all set to transition her when our admin person cancelled the action at management’s direction. I responded to everyone on one of the emails, basically going on a rant about how we were doing a disservice to the employee and I didn’t understand why when the pay could be separated from the transition of duties.

The email wasn’t received well, to say the least. I got an email from one manager directing me to conduct any further discussion with him in person, another email from a senior manager to the entire group telling me I was being unprofessional and to start being professional, and an email from my second level manager after my response was forwarded to him by the senior manager telling me to give him a call. He then told me that my response was inflammatory, accusatory, not productive, and an exhibition of poor leadership and that I needed to change my communication methods. He brought up a similar type of response I had with a peer (so this isn’t the first time).

I responded to the senior manager’s email by apologizing for my lack of professionallism and expressing that they deserved — and I would give them — better. I want to work on my email communications with a goal of being objective and concise and making sure I *don’t* use email when I feel impassioned about the subject being discussed … which mostly centers around standing up for my employees when I feel like they’re being short-changed. What should I do to recover from this, if recovery is even possible?

Recovery is indeed possible.

Effective immediately, stop using email for anything that you feel heated or impassioned about. From here on out, you need to see email as being only for relatively dry information exchange. Anything that’s stirring up emotions in you needs to be addressed through another means — ideally in-person, but over the phone can work too, depending on the context. I’d tell you to also banish your reply-all button (because that was a big part of where you went wrong), but that shouldn’t be necessary if you follow the first rule.

Also, it’s great that you want to stand up for your employees. But your job is also to work with management above you to understand their priorities and carry them out as best as you can, while giving them information that will help them make good decisions, and ultimately recognizing they have the final call. That doesn’t mean “blindly do what higher-ups tell you.” It means “if you have information that might change their perspective, share it.” But you also have to recognize that they have priorities that might rightly trump yours at times, and they may know things about the bigger picture that you’re not privy to. If your first instinct is to go on a rant about how they’re getting it wrong rather than to seek more information and to offer input like “my concern about X is Y — would Z be an option instead?” then you’re going to make yourself far less effective (and annoy people around you in the process). Right now you’re coming across as adversarial, when you need to be coming across as collaborative.

You can’t effectively stand up for your employees if everyone thinks you’re a hothead.

2. I left qualification off my resume to get my job and I now I’m regretting it

About five years ago, I was out of work and having a hard time finding a job. I saw a job posting that looked very interesting at an exciting organization, but I was clearly overqualified for it. Since that had kept me from getting interviews or job offers in the past, I dumbed down some of the titles, experience, and accomplishments on my resume before I sent it in. I wound up getting the job, and have done very well at it, getting above-average raises and bonuses every year.

My direct supervisor has just announced she is leaving, and I know that I am very qualified to take her place. However, they have just posted the job, and they are listing requirements that I have, but left off or minimized on the resume that is in my personnel file. How do I handle this? Do I come clean?

Well, first, know that your resume is a marketing document; there’s no requirement that you list everything you’ve ever done on it. You’re allowed to tailor it to the job you’re applying for (assuming you don’t lie, of course).

If you left out a ton of stuff, then yes, this might be a little strange. But they know you, they know you do good work, and they’re extremely unlikely to penalize you for the omissions now. (If they would have rejected you if you’d submitted a more complete resume, it would have been because they assumed you would get bored of the job or left as soon as something better came along. You’ve been there five years now, so they clearly don’t need to worry about that now.)

So don’t think of this as “coming clean,” which implies you did something wrong that you need to confess. Just be matter-of-fact about it: “I didn’t include this on my resume when I applied five years ago because it wasn’t relevant to this role, but I actually have a ton of experience doing X and Y. I’d like to apply for this position, and here’s a more comprehensive version of my resume that includes the work experience I didn’t think was relevant for my current role.”

3. My boss and I keep accidentally wearing the same thing

I work in a very small office — just my boss, me, and the maintenance guy who pops in occasionally. I adore my boss, but lately I’ve noticed that we tend to wear the same style of outfits. Like we’ll both have on a blue shirt with black pants and a black cardigan. Yesterday we both wore pink shirts with jeans and grey cardigan, etc. I’m fairly new to office environments, so I’m not sure if this is super weird or if I’m just overthinking it. We don’t wear identical outfits, but they are pretty similar in style and color. Should I go shopping or should I just chill out?

Nah, you’re fine. Sometimes this happens in offices (it’s like the clothes version of women’s menstrual cycles syncing up) and you can make a joke about the matching outfits You definitely don’t need to buy new clothes.

Related: is it weird to start dressing like my boss?

4. Should I let a client know I’m struggling with mental health issues?

I recently left my job and am working as a freelance marketing consultant while I look for my next role. One of my clients has expressed interest in hiring me when her budget permits later this year. That’s great news, so I’m doing my best to continue to impress her with my work in the meantime.

My problem is that my quality of work has been suffering lately because of my mental health. Being a freelancer means I do not have health insurance, so my diagnosed anxiety and ADHD are currently going untreated. Without medication, I am finding it extremely challenging to meet deadlines and generally put out the quality of work I want to.

I recently submitted a project over a week past the deadline, and my client expressed some serious frustration. I want to tell her that I’m struggling with my mental health, and that this is not my normal MO. I am also restructuring my budget to find ways to afford my medication so that this will not happen in the future. What do you think about this approach? And what’s your advice for disclosing mental health struggles after they cause an issue? Especially since I’m a freelancer and do not have the same protections that a traditional employee would.

It’s too much information. You don’t need to specify that it’s mental health any more than you would need to specify that it’s colon health. Just go with “health issues.”

There’s still a stigma around mental health (which sucks, but is the reality), and ultimately she doesn’t need to know the details of what happened, just that you’ve been dealing with some health issues that you’re working on getting under control.

Go with something like this: “I’m so sorry I missed the deadline for this. I’ve had a flare-up of a medical issue that I’m working on getting under control, and it led to delays with this work. I know this put you in a bind, and I want you to know that I take that really seriously and am taking steps to ensure it won’t happen again.”

5. How to turn down recruiters who are head-hunting you

Is there a good way to turn down recruiters who are head-hunting you? I didn’t respond to one recently until I realized I was potentially damaging a future relationship, even though I know that the company was in no way right for me. How specific do you need to be, while still seeming open to the company in general?

It depends on the context. If we’re just talking about an email from an external recruiter (meaning one who doesn’t work for the company you’d be hired by, but has many companies as clients) who you’ve never worked with, proposing a job that’s entirely wrong for you, you can just ignore that email. They send out hundreds of those a day and are used to being ignored.

But if it’s an internal recruiter (meaning employed by the company you’d be working for) at a company you might be interested in some day, or if it’s a recruiter who you’ve previously had useful-feeling interactions with, it’s helpful to respond and briefly explain why it’s not the right match for you. That doesn’t need to be anything lengthy — just something like, “Thanks so much for thinking of me for this! I’m looking for roles that focus on X rather than Y so this isn’t the right match for me, but I’d welcome hearing about any X-focused positions in the future.”