is it weird to have your spouse visit you at your office?

A reader writes:

I recently got a job running a research facility at a university. A few months into the job, my soon-to-be wife mentioned she’d like to come in and see my office. I, however, find this kind of weird. I don’t see anyone else’s spouses or friends dropping by. Also, as a new person, I don’t want to it to look like I’m socializing instead of working. She thinks I’m the weird one for saying no. Am I being too rigid? Is this just field-dependent (she used to work in publishing)?

I’ve seen you answer questions about spouses at work events or being there on a regular basis, but not about very occasional visits.

I think it’s in how you frame it.

In lots of offices, it’s not big deal at all for people’s spouses or significant others to stop in on occasion, except that it’s less often “to see the office” and more “we’re going to lunch and meeting at your office, and maybe I’ll meet a few of your coworkers when I’m there.”

I do think that “this is Jane and she’s here to see the office” would be a little odd in most offices — although not crazy-odd, just unusual-odd.

But if she wants to see your office, having her meet you there before heading out to lunch together would be a very normal way to do it.

I wouldn’t do that your first couple of weeks on the job, since at that point people know so little about you that every minor deviation from the norm stands out, and you don’t want it to look like you’re going to treat your office as some sort of odd clubhouse for family and friends. But you’ve been on the job a few months now. It should be fine to do.

That said, you know your office best, and you should be the one to make the call.

how can I help an employee who suffers from anxiety?

A reader writes:

How can I help an employee who is suffering from anxiety? The employee in question is a very hardworking, very conscientious employee but she suffers from excessive worry and anxiety. This isn’t my diagnosis — she told me she’s taking advantage of our employee assistance program and getting help with it. However, part of her illness is that she worries — a lot — and doesn’t always have a good sense of perspective on what’s worth worrying about and what’s not. I understand this, as I’ve been there as well.

The way this manifests is that she frequently asks me if she’s messed something up, or made mistakes, and she seeks constant reassurance. I am very good about giving feedback, positive and negative, so she knows that I’ll tell her if there’s a problem. But I think the illness is clouding her ability to really accept that. So how do I work this? I don’t mind giving reassurance, but I don’t think it’s really helping. Is there something else I should be doing?

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:

  • My coworker keeps answering all my emails in person
  • Should I let my friend know his references are terrible?
  • I gave the wrong answer about salary
  • Should HR prep candidates before interviews?

my employee tells small lies but is otherwise good at her job

A reader writes:

I manage two clinics, both of which are located in the same building. By necessity, I spend most of my day at the main clinic; I oversee everything, but the nature of the work in the smaller clinic does not require constant clinical oversight the way it does in the main clinic.

The receptionist for the smaller clinic was hired before I became her manager. She has many great qualities – she is very skilled at her job (our industry is very niche so I definitely value her knowledge and experience), has a good rapport with patients, and is an enthusiastic and creative problem solver.

Here’s the rub: this employee has the tendency to be sneaky. I have caught her in some small lies, and they are starting to create issues with the staff members she works with at the smaller clinic. She is honest about the big stuff – I’ve monitored those things VERY closely – but she has a pattern of pushing the boundaries of what she can get away with over time. For example, she will take liberties for a while (e.g., leaving the clinic regularly to make personal calls during business hours, arriving 10 minutes late once or twice per week even though coverage and punctuality are both important parts of her job) but I only hear about it from her colleagues once they start to notice a clear pattern of behavior. I also know of a handful of times over the years that she’s told small lies, such as saying she had approval for something when she didn’t.

As soon as I address the issues with her (I’ve sat down with her three times in total), she is incredibly apologetic and minimizes the issues as misunderstandings that will be cleared up immediately. She then performs the duties of her job perfectly … until 3-6 months pass and she starts the process over again, usually with slight variations of the same issues. The fact that I am pulled by the other clinic and can’t have my eyes in both areas at once definitely works to her advantage.

A few months back, her coworkers approached me with a short list of things she’d been getting too lax about. Most of the items were fairly minor but collectively they were definitely concerning, and most of them were also on my radar so it was clear that I had to act. I prepared a list of expectations for her and went over them with her in person. I expressed disappointment that I was having to revisit issues that had come up in the past. I also made it clear that the expectations were non-negotiable and that I’d be monitoring her adherence to the list. She seemed genuinely discouraged, and embarrassed by the feedback – she felt that she had really stepped up her efforts over the previous year (it’s true, she has taken a lot of initiative and her overall performance has been excellent otherwise) and thought that her colleagues were overreacting to occasional problems. There could be a grain of truth to that – since she’s shown herself to be sneaky in the past, her colleagues are probably less willing to give her the benefit of the doubt. She was quite teary and she assured me that the expectations were crystal clear.

In the month or so following the meeting, things seemed to be going well … but then the plot thickened. The employee currently has an immediate relative who is gravely ill and there are some additional factors have made her personal circumstances incredibly challenging. She has made some reasonable requests that make her life a bit easier during a very difficult time and I have approved those requests. Unfortunately, I am now finding out that she has been pushing the boundaries again, such as on one occasion telling an employee that she had been given permission to do something from me when she hadn’t. Frustratingly, it was something I would have allowed had she asked me, but she didn’t and she should have. 

I have worried that the dishonesty might extend to bigger things, but I have only seen signs that she IS behaving honestly in other areas. For example, when I took over as manager, the cash box had never been properly monitored and she could have reasonably assumed that that would continue (or else the paper trail would be too confusing to go through in detail). What I found was that she had consistently tracked every single item accurately and honestly. Obviously, not everyone who lies is bold enough to steal, but I found it reassuring that she had protected an area of vulnerability when she could have quite easily taken advantage of the lack of oversight. I find that she is conscientious about asking for approval before going forward with anything of definite significance, even for things she could get away with not asking about. It’s not an excuse for the other behavior, but it shows that there are shades of gray that make it difficult for me to tease everything apart — it seems that she can keep herself in check for the big stuff but takes liberties with the stuff she views as being trivial.

I have seen past posts where you’ve talked about toxic employees who undermine authority, but this situation seems less cut and dry and her personal circumstances add to the confusion. I am hopeful that the situation is salvageable. Her colleagues otherwise have a decent working relationship with her.

This employee knows how to straddle the line between acceptable and unacceptable behavior so closely that I sometimes question whether I am overreacting or under-reacting at the same time. On the one hand, these are relatively minor issues that are coming up with an employee who is otherwise very competent. On the other hand, how could I not have major concerns about her integrity at this point?

Ooof.

I think the fundamental question for you here is: Are you okay with having an employee who you know will lie about small-ish things, which means that you can’t take her at her word when she tells you something? And who you know will do things you’ve asked her not to do, as long as she thinks she’s not being watched closely?

I don’t think you should be okay with that, even though the rest of her work is good.

I especially don’t think you should be okay with it because you’ve talked to her about this before. It would be one thing if she somehow didn’t think this stuff was a big deal and that you wouldn’t really care if you knew about it anyway. But you’ve talked to her about it and told her clearly that it’s not okay and that it needs to stop … and it’s still happening.

It’s also concerning that she’ll shape up for a few months when she knows she’s being watched, and then will slide right back after some time goes by. That says she does understand what you want her to stop doing, and she’s capable of stopping it during the short periods where she takes you seriously … but ultimately she’s just not in sync with you that it matters.

Since she’s otherwise a good employee, you could give her one more chance and be extremely clear that the change needs to be a permanent and sustained one or you won’t be able to keep her on. As in: “We’ve talked several times in the past about these issues. I’m really concerned that it’s come up again. Can you help me understand why this keeps happening?” Followed by: “You do good work, but I cannot keep you in this job if I can’t trust you to operate with a high degree of integrity. I need to be able to take you at your word, because the alternative is that I’d have to check up on everything you tell me, and that’s not practical. I want to be very clear with you that this is a final warning and if the problems resume, I will need to let you go. I hope that doesn’t happen because I think you’re very valuable here, but these issues are serious and I need you to take them seriously as well.”

I know you want to be sensitive to the stuff going on in her personal life right now, and that’s a good instinct. But that should lead you to do things like give her more schedule flexibility if you can and even to give her this final chance … but it’s not something that should make you overlook fundamental integrity issues.

how often can you take mental health days, is this employee ranking system insane, and more

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

1. How often can you take mental health days?

How often (if ever) do you think someone should take a mental health day? I think about taking one every few weeks, and then convince myself I am too busy. I am not particularly stressed, but I wonder if it would be a good way to recharge. What do you think?

Every few weeks would definitely be too much, but a couple a year is totally fine to do, as long as you choose days that won’t mess up anyone’s work flow. More here.

2. Is our new employee ranking system insane?

We have a new HR head who is shaking things up (a good thing) but a change to our performance evaluation system leaves me scratching my head. They announced that we will now be graded on a curve, and what followed was the most bewildering presentation I’ve seen in a while. HR explained to our team that managers will still score reports against their job descriptions and manager expectations on a 1-4 score, but now those performance scores will be sent up the chain, where they will be re-scored to fit a bell curve. This new score will be both the annual evaluation score that goes into our file and will be used for incentive distribution. The info session devolved into colleagues asking how they can be ranked as “exceed expectations” by a manager and then marked as “needs improvement” a day later because of the bell curve. The new HR person kept saying this was about “rewarding performers, which might be new here” and was generally condescending.

Is it just me, or is this an insane way to “measure” performance? Working on a high-pressure team where weekend work is routine and headhunters are constantly dialing us, I am really concerned about the morale hit from arbitrarily classifying a quarter of high-power performers as “needs improvement” or even “meets expectations.” I realize that some of our organization (450 employees) needs motivation, but mediocre performers don’t last until annual review in my shop. We have assembled 12 rock stars for my team and yet only two “exceeds expectations” slots will be available. The craziest part is that we will need to create performance improvement plans for perfectly great workers who will randomly get the short straws when HR HAL crunches the numbers. On paper, it also puts them on the path to termination (though I never expect that would happen). This plan is the centerpiece of the new HR person’s agenda, so I am at a loss of how to raise my concerns without offending someone who got quite defensive when rolling it out. For what it is worth, we are highly profitable and we are not under budgetary pressure to reduce force (quite the opposite).

Yeah, that’s a ridiculous system. You sound like you’re a manager there. Ideally you and other managers would push back as a group, which will make you much harder to brush off. Say that this isn’t a system that serves your needs as managers (and remember that HR is there to serve you as part of the company’s management, not the other way around); that you’re not willing to spend time putting good performers on performance improvement plans (!); that based on what you know of your staff, this will demoralize and drive away strong employees; and that this will destroy the work you’ve done to create a team of high performers.

Speaking up as a group is going to be key here, and I strongly suggest that you go over the HR person’s head to do it. And frankly, as a group, you might try a firm “we simply are not willing to manage our teams this way” and see what happens.

3. I’m worried that my coworker is burning herself out

I work in a small, close-knit department. I am very close with my coworker Bertha (outside of work, not just “really good work friends”), and we have the same boss, who is awesome and seems to really care about our happiness and career growth. Bertha and I work with a separate department that is pretty demanding and challenging to work with, and I’m really concerned about Bertha’s mental well-being.

Bertha is crazy smart and does excellent work, but the nature of our jobs means that you get very little recognition from the other department, there is a lot of shuffling, priority switching, etc. The chaos is just the nature of the beast in our industry. Bertha, however, takes every shift very personally (for example, being moved off a project that she hated anyway) and assumes it’s a reflection of her work (which it definitely isn’t). She is also suspicious that she is not well-liked (she is very well-liked) and bad at setting boundaries with her team (she often tells me she was up until 11 p.m. working on some last-minute request).

Our other coworkers and I keep trying to give her pep talks: “It’s not you, we all feel like this, it’s a hard job, don’t take it personally, did you even WANT that project?” and I keep telling her she needs to talk to our manager about her work hours. I know she’s unhappy, but her self-esteem seems too low to entertain the thought that she’s not the problem. I care about Bertha a lot, and I worry she’s going to spiral herself into quitting, or self-sabotage until she really does drop the ball.

Given how close we are, and our solid relationship with our boss, is there a way for me to talk to Boss about my concerns, i.e., “Hey, I’m really worried about Bertha, she seems to be working crazy hours and I think she’s getting burned out”? (Or something similar.) Normally I would butt out, but he’s been really helpful working me through similar problems, and I think she trusts him — she just won’t initiate the conversation herself.

If you are very, very confident that your boss will handle it appropriately, then yes, you could give him a low-key heads-up that she could use some help. But it’s crucial that you be confident about that, because you don’t want your conversation to trigger a horrible mishandling of the situation (like your boss pulling Bertha off more projects without explanation or, worse, keeping her from work that would be good for her professionally). In fact, because of that, it would be good to be pretty specific with your boss about what would and wouldn’t help, so that he doesn’t inadvertently flub his response.

Big caveat here: If Bertha would be horrified or upset if she knew you had done this, don’t do it. It’s not an act of friendship if she would consider it undermining or unwelcome, no matter how good your intentions.

4. How to leave a meeting that’s devolved into chit-chat

I work at an organization where many of us know each other from previous jobs and we are very friendly and fairly informal. In our department, we have pairs of junior and senior staff working on the same portfolio, and everyone is supervised by the head of the department. I’m the junior in the pair, and my senior has known our boss for decades, through several previous jobs. I have no doubt that their close relationship has benefited me (more attention from the boss on our issues, etc.).

It is not unusual to have a meeting with just the three of us. Sometimes after we’ve dispensed with whatever the topic of the meeting was, we’ll get to talking about something else and the conversation will go on for a long time. Sometimes it’s completely not related to work, sometimes it’s them regaling me with “war stories” from their history. Usually I enjoy — and participate in — these conversations. We all know the feeling of wanting to delay getting back to our desks and going back to work.

But I’ve been particularly busy lately. There’s a new leader of world teapots and we anticipate having to do a lot more work defending the tea drinkers we represent. It’s going to be very busy this year for all of us. Lately these long, dallying conversations have just been making me anxious — I can picture the emails piling up in my inbox — and I’m not enjoying them as much. What is a polite, professional way to extricate myself without alienating my colleagues? If we are in a conference room, it’s easier because there is often another meeting coming in. But if we are in my boss’s office it’s harder. They know my schedule well, so I can’t fake another meeting — plus I don’t want to lie to people I genuinely like and respect.

“Do you mind if I duck out? I’m swamped this month and have a bunch of projects I need to dive back into.”

After you do this at one or two meetings, you could say at the next one, “By the way, my workload has really increased lately, so while I normally love sticking around and chatting when we’re done with our agenda, for the next little while I’m going to head straight back to my desk. I didn’t want either of you wondering why the sudden change — it’s nothing personal!”

It would probably be a good idea to still do one of these chat sessions every now and then — like maybe one a month — just to maintain the relationships you’ve built. But it’s very reasonable not to do it more often than that.

5. Interviewing with hair loss and a turban

I have been making steps to move out of my current job and look for something that satisfies me more, so I’ve started reworking my resume and taking a look at posted jobs. I don’t have a hard timeline that I’m working with, and my current bosses like me, so I’m only concerned with exiting before I get too bogged down.

My issue is this: last year I was diagnosed with lupus, and in the last 8-9 months, most of the hair on my head fell out, along with some facial hair. Eyebrows I can disguise with makeup, but while my hair grows back in (and until it decides on one color) I have been wearing turbans at all times except at home. I have zero other symptoms and currently do not require extensive medical appointments.

Everyone who sees me assumes I am going through cancer treatments – until I correct them, which I can only do if they ask me directly. Yet I know you’re not supposed to ask applicants about medical issues. I don’t know how to approach possible job interviews and the assumptions people may make about my health. Is it the best option to mention it in an interview, or keep silent until I receive an offer? Is there anything that can be done about those assumptions without putting employers in a weird privacy spot? I’m concerned that biases against people who might medical time away or have to leave could seriously impact my options.

A wig isn’t an option because a nice wig is expensive, and I’ve found anything on my head other than cotton itches/is uncomfortable.

I’ve been mulling on this and am torn between thinking the best option is not to mention it (on the grounds that it’s not really relevant to the hiring process) vs. thinking it might be better to say something, but being unable to come up with good wording. Readers, can you help?

my boss wants 20% of my salary from my next job

A reader writes:

I recently told my boss that I am looking for a new job, and that I would be leaving his company within four weeks. When I had a few offers, I met with the boss and discussed them with him, especially since one of the offers is a current client. He said that he wishes me well and that he will waive adherence to the “non-compete” clause, as the client is not changing any services with his company. A few days later, my boss calls me and says that he feels that it is fair that I pay 20% of my new salary as a conversion fee to his company.

He said that it was because of him that I was able to interact with the company, and most recruiters charge 20% of the new salary as a fee. I would have to pay about $25,000 to my old boss because I have a new job. He said that it was only fair since he was “nice enough” to let me out of my non-compete clause. Is this legal?

Sure, it’s legal for him to ask for it, just like it’s legal for him to ask for your first-born child or a lock of your hair.

It’s also legal for you to laugh and laugh and laugh, and give him nothing — no child, no hair, and no money.

He has zero claim to any portion of your new salary. He has zero claim to even a single dollar from your wallet.

Yes, you met your new employer through your current job, as hundreds of thousands of people before you have done. That’s a very normal thing. It’s a huge part of what networking is.

The type of recruiter fee he’s referring to is paid by the hiring company, not the person being hired — and only when there’s a pre-negotiated contract agreeing to said fee.

As for the non-compete, loads of employers have people sign overly broad non-competes that won’t hold up in court. You’d be well-served by having a lawyer look at yours.

But what your boss is asking for is ludicrous and outrageous. Do not pay him any money.

I do worry that he will try to torpedo your job offer with this client when you decline to turn over your money to him. It would be good to be working with a lawyer before he hears your answer, because your lawyer might be able to warn him off doing that, possibly citing tortious interference (illegally and intentionally damaging someone’s business relationships) or something similar. Note that I’m not a lawyer and can’t say if you’d actually have a case … but a good lawyer is likely to have lots of tools at her disposal to get your boss to back off regardless. Call one today.

how should I handle questions about my age at work?

A reader writes:

I want to ask about workplace etiquette relating to a person’s age.

I work in digital media and have done well for myself in my career. Recently, I was attending a conference with my boss and presenting on a project to a group of his peers from other companies when one of them interrupted me in the middle of my presentation and asked how old I was. I was so taken aback that I gave the truthful answer (30), but immediately regretted answering the question. For the rest of the session, I had the feeling that I was suddenly an amusement and not taken seriously because I was at least a decade younger than the rest of the group and they had all lumped me in that broad, nebulous, and maligned category of “millennial.”

I am now incredibly self-conscious because I’m aware that I look younger than I am. I have never dressed unprofessionally or behaved inappropriately at work and I now take great pains to try and be that much more professional in the way I put myself out there to the point where it’s a bit exhausting and others have noticed my stone cold dead seriousness as of late. But regardless, isn’t it inappropriate to ask someone their age in a professional setting? And what should I have answered instead to deflect from the irrelevant question?

In talking with other female friends my age, many noted that they too have experienced something similar and we’re uncertain whether it’s an age thing, gender thing, or a bit of both. It’s not like I am 22 and straight out of college. This year, I plan to start looking for jobs a step up from where I am now, but I am worried the “looks too young” issue will continue to haunt me and cause people to not take me seriously as I try advance professionally in the near future. I would love to hear your thoughts.

You can read my answer to this letter at New York Magazine today. Head over there to read it.

I manage someone who was terribly harmed by my family … what do I do?

A reader writes:

I am a director of a department. One of the supervisors who reports to me, “Jane,” is a former foster child of my sister. My sister and her family have issues, and it was alleged that her son raped Jane while she was living with them. While I do not know the details of the situation, I am aware that my nephew is troubled and I do not doubt Jane’s story. I am currently estranged from my sister and her family in part due to this situation. Through family gossip, I have learned that my sister openly and vocally blames Jane for her son’s problems in life and has made Jane aware of this.

Jane and I have never discussed any of this, and as far as I know she was not aware of my relationship to her rapist/ former foster family (my name is very common and we never met while she was living with them so I would not expect her to connect us). My nephew passed away recently and an office busybody shared the obituary with my department, with a message explaining this was my nephew, so at this point I assume Jane has made the connection.

In the weeks since the obit was shared with the department, Jane appears quite stressed in general, and in one-on-one meetings with me she appears uncomfortable to the point of being on the verge of tears at times. I am struggling with whether or not to discuss this with her and how to best address it. I normally try to be direct with my employees, but this seems like way too personal an issue to discuss with an employee. At the same time, part of me feels that if Jane knew I do not consider these people family and am not holding anything against her, it could make things easier for her. Even if it did not make things better, I think clearing the air between us might at least make her feel better since she would not have to guess what I do and do not know. Although I have no idea what she is thinking or feeling, and being open with her about this could just make things 100 times worse for her.

Jane is a great employee and I would really like to keep her on my team, but if she feels it is too uncomfortable working together, I would like to help her find something else, either at our company or elsewhere. Assuming there is an appropriate way to address this situation to begin with, would it be appropriate to tell her I would support her if she indicates she want find another job (be a reference, reach out to industry contacts, etc.)? I do not want her to feel like she is being pushed out by any means, but I could not blame her for not wanting to work for her rapist’s uncle. Is there any good move here? Ignoring the issue does not seem like an option, especially considering at some point the level of stress she is exhibiting would most likely affect her job performance (as of now, it is not) and then I would have to address that, and potentially open this can of worms anyway.

Any advice you have would be most appreciated as I am way out of my league here.

This is awful, and I’m way out of my league here too.

It’s possible that the right move would be to say something kind and supportive without referencing the situation with your sister’s family — but enough to show her that if she’s concerned about where you stand, you’re on her side. For example, you could say something like this: “You’ve seemed stressed lately, and I want to let you know that if there’s anything I can do to support you, I’d like to. You’re a great employee, and I’m so glad to have you on my team, and if there’s anything worrying you that I can help with, I want to. I don’t want to push you to talk to me about anything you’d rather not discuss, but I want you to know how much I value you and that if that I’m here if you need anything from me.”

If your sense is that saying this to her in person might be too upsetting for her, you could also put it in an email.

The other option, I suppose, would be to be more explicit about the family connection, in which case you could say something like: “We share an awful family connection, and while you don’t need to talk to me about anything you don’t want to talk about, I want you to know that you have my full support. You’re a good employee and a good person, and I’m so sorry for the family history we share. I value and respect you, and if there’s anything I can do to make life easier for you right now, I’m ready to do it. To be totally transparent, I would also understand if it’s too uncomfortable to work with me, and if that’s the case, I will help you in any way that I can. But I want to be clear that I think you’re great and I have your back.”

Right now Jane might be walking around unsure if you even know about the connection, and stressed about what will happen if you figure it out, and so it’s possible that getting it out there could relieve some of that. It’s also possible, of course, that it wouldn’t, and this is so hard precisely because we can’t know.

In general, I tend to believe people should always err on the side of transparency, but with this one I’m truly out of my depth.

What do others think?

candidate has applied for the same job 142 times, talking to an adult child’s employer, and more

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

1. Candidate has applied for the same job 142 times in one month

We have an applicant, “Fergus,” who has applied for the same opening 142 times in the course of about one month. Fergus applied for a job with us about a year ago and got to the phone interview stage but didn’t have enough experience to move on to an in-person interview. At the time, I explained that and offered to send his resume to the hiring manager for junior positions. He declined, saying he was only interested in the job he’d applied for.

Recently we had another opening for that job. Since the position was posted, Fergus has applied almost daily. And when he does apply, he usually applies at least 10 times that day, resulting in 142 applications and counting. Our applicant tracking system is mediocre at best, so I have to go in every day and weed through all of his applications before I get to the new applicants. This is very time consuming.

Over the last few days, he has started calling us, asking us why he hasn’t been interviewed. I have told him we are looking for someone with more experience but he believes he has enough experience. I have told him we have his application so he does not need to reapply, and clearly he has not listened to that. I’ve told him our process is to contact candidates and that he should not contact us. That didn’t work either.

I’m at a loss as to how to help him. Part of me is frustrated with him because he is wasting so much of my time. Part of me feels sorry for him because he does not seem to understand what is appropriate. If he is doing this at every company he applies, he’s sabotaging his chances of landing a job anywhere. How do I get through to Fergus?

You may not be able to, since something clearly isn’t quite right with Fergus.

Have you sent him a rejection notice yet? If not, do that immediately, and make sure it’s extremely clear.

If that hasn’t solved the problem, can you block him in your system? That would be the cleanest way to deal with it.

If you’ve already rejected him and you can’t block him, then say this to him: “You’ve applied for this job more than 100 times in a one month period. We will not be interviewing you for this job. Please stop re-submitting your application.” He still may not stop, but these three things give you the best shot at stopping it.

2. Am I really responsible for my boss’s other business partner getting his mail?

I work for a small business as the administrative assistant. I assist 16 people, four of whome are the company’s owners. As an A.A., I know that doing personal work for the boss is part of the territory. As a general rule, personal work for three of the four bosses probably takes me about 15 minutes a month on average. The fourth boss is a different story.

It’s not so much that he inundates me with personal work: it’s the type of work. He’s a landlord and owns several other businesses with partners that don’t work for our company. He often tells his tenants to drop off rent to our office. This makes me uncomfortable since I have to handle the rent checks (and cash!) and I’ve told him that, but nothing has been done about it. The thing that bothers me most is this:

He and his other business partner incorporated their business using my company’s business address. (Just to be fair, another boss uses our business address for his other companies. He, however, handles that mail and I do nothing more than put it in his mail box.) They did this in 2010. For the past six years, I have had to forward the mail on to the actual business address of this other company. Last year I asked if his other office could change their address with these companies to their actual address. The request was passed on and the volume of mail dropped off. I still receive mail for this other company. Apparently, in a rare instance of something getting buried on my desk, I didn’t get the mail out to the other company as quickly as in the past. Well, my boss got an email from his business partner and he forwarded it on to me. In part in reads : “I just got a collection notice from (X) that looks like she sat on for 3 weeks until she sent it. I don’t get it. It’s unprofessional. Especially a letter like this that would appear important (although it isn’t).”

This was upsetting to me. I don’t work for this man. I don’t get paid by him. I don’t process his mail. I don’t even open it up for him like I do for my company. I put it in an envelope and send it on. Instead of remembering that for over six years he’s gotten this timely, free service from me, he calls me unprofessional. I made a mistake. Just who is responsible in this situation? Is it my responsibility to make sure he has his bills or is it his as they are his bills?

Well, it’s your responsibility if your employer says it’s your responsibility, and in this case it sounds like this boss has the authority to make it part of your job. That said … if you could make the case that dealing with his other company’s business is taking you away from other priorities, you could talk to the other partners and see if they’d be willing to intervene. In fact, if there’s one partner who you have particularly good rapport with, you could talk to her and see if she thinks there’s any hope of getting some or all of this moved off your plate.

3. Getting info from an adult child’s employer

A friend of mine is in a fix. Her adult daughter was terminated from a well paying job — apparently there were issues over performance and attitude for over a year. As a parent, she was accepting her daughter’s version of the happenings and trying to support her. Now the daughter is under medication. My friend feels that the details of the employment, including the reason for termination, will help her in helping her daughter recover faster and get back to work. Unfortunately her daughter says she has no friends from the company. In this case, what should my friend do:

1. Ask HR – are they obliged to share information? Can she ask to speak to the manager?
2. Dig up names of other employees from social networking sites and ask them instead?

Both need to be done discreetly without her daughter knowing – but considering that everything is in such a sensitive zone, she wants to know if a family member can directly approach the company or any of the other employees and ask for details.

Noooo, she should do none of that. It’s very unlikely that the company or the manager will talk to her, and rightly so — they have no way of knowing if the daughter would want them releasing information, and they’ll almost certainly err on the side of protecting her privacy, as they should. And trying to dig up names of her coworkers to contact is a pretty big violation of her daughter’s privacy, and could end up negatively impacting her professional reputation in ways that will hurt her in the future. And frankly, in a lot of contexts this would come off as incredibly boundary-violating.

I’m sorry your friend and her daughter are going through this, but the daughter is an adult, and her mom should not be trying to dig around in her employment stuff.

4. How long should I wait to ask for a raise after a disciplinary action?

I have been working at my current job for approximately a year and a half, and feel I may be being underpaid. The schedule for pay increases wasn’t discussed with me when I was hired. Normally I would simply approach my boss and ask, but I feel the timing is not right as I received a write-up regarding tardiness about a month ago. (I have no disagreement with the write-up itself; being on time is, in my line of work, absolutely essential, and I fully understand that I screwed up and needed to do better.) I have not been late since the write-up and have taken some steps to safeguard against it happening again. So my question is, how long should I wait to prove that I’ve mended my ways before I can ask for more money?

I’d give it another six months. That puts a good chunk of time between the raise request and the write-up, which makes it more likely that you’ll get a positive response to the request. You don’t want to ask when a reason for saying no is too fresh in your manager’s mind.

5. Getting pregnant after starting a new job

I’m about to start a new job and turning 30. My husband and I have starting a family on our radar, but no specific plans at this time. Certainly there are many factors that go into even trying to get pregnant, but in general, what’s proper etiquette in how long to wait to get pregnant? I’m conscious of establishing my credibility as well as not waiting too long either for my health, or for balancing my next career move in the future and potentially starting the clock all over again at a new job.

This isn’t really about etiquette — you should get pregnant when it works for your family, to the extent that you can control the timing. That said, you might want to wait until you’ve been at a job long enough for FMLA coverage to kick in … and it’s certainly true that most employers are less likely to think “agh, crap” if you don’t announce you’re pregnant in month two on the job. (Although the decent ones will keep that thought to themselves.)

I’m a finalist for a job where it sounds like people work a ton of hours

A reader writes:

I have been interviewing with a company and after a successful in-person interview, they want to proceed to the next stage. As yet, they haven’t formally made an offer, and we haven’t talked money, but it seems like they will offer me the role: they invited me to meet with them on Monday to “talk through the offer” (their words).

The company has many strengths: a smallish place that is growing fast (but not a start-up), a commitment to training and learning, nice people, up-to-date technology, etc. I’m a career-changer who is looking for my first role in tech. Apart from the fact that it’s really difficult to find those entry-level/junior roles, a place that grows their staff and commits to training juniors would be a great start to my career.

However, a number of comments that were made during the interviews (one on Skype, one in person) indicated that they work a LOT, as in long hours. For example, various staff members who I met or who interviewed me made comments like:
– “Biggest challenge? How to fit a year’s work into three weeks!” (said as a “joke” that was obviously not really a joke)
– “The dev team are great, they’re a tight-knit bunch — they were here coding til midnight the other night!” (hmmm)
– “People arrive around 8:30 and stay til …. whenever” (rather than “around 5:30” or anything like that)
– “If you are busy and have a lot going on in your life … ” I don’t remember the exact phrasing here, but the implication (really, it was an outright statement) was that that wouldn’t be compatible with working there. (This comment was by far the biggest red flag to me.)
– The fact that my first interview (via Skype) was on a Saturday.

Mostly things that would be totally innocuous on their own, but together it forms a certain pattern. (I could add several more examples too, but won’t bore you.)

I’ve been thinking about all this a lot more since the interview, and it seems like a big red flag to me. I work hard and yeah, sometimes you can’t be out the door on the dot of five if you have a big release. But work-life balance is really important to me. And I do have a busy life and a lot going on outside of work, just as everyone does: commitments to family, friends, volunteering, hobbies, etc. Even if that wasn’t the case, it’s important to me to have time to live, not just live to work. I think that is a reasonable position.

So in retrospect, it seems like quite a red flag. I want to probe them about this, but I’m unsure how to do so. Do you think it’s appropriate to ask them about their expectations re: hours worked? Or do I just need to suck it up for a couple of years and pay my dues, being quite new to this work?

Important context: I’m in New Zealand, where we have a much more laid-back work culture than the States – a 40h week is the norm. Even tech companies are (mostly) quite into work-life balance. We don’t have the concept of ‘exempt’ workers, and working a lot of overtime is unusual here. When overtime is worked, it’s traditionally paid at time-and-a-half (although this is not legally required).

Yeeesssh, huge red flag.

Actually, it’s not even a red flag in the sense of “hmmm, this is concerning and you should investigate further.” These people are directly telling you that they work really long hours.

This is exactly the kind of thing that people wish prospective coworkers would be open about, because too often no one mentions it until after you start the job and discover that the job that you thought had reasonable hours actually has horrible ones.

These people have been up-front with you! That’s a good thing. Believe what they’re saying.

If you don’t want to work really long hours, you should not take this job.

And no, I don’t think that you need to suck it up and deal with this for a couple of years. You said pretty clearly that most companies where you live have reasonable hours. Don’t pick the one place you’ve found that doesn’t.

employer doesn’t want me to support any other charity, my employee doesn’t use enough words, and more

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

1. Employer wants me to agree not to support any other charity

Thanks to your tips and advice, I have been offered a full-time job at a nonprofit, charitable organization. I have received my formal offer, but before I accept I have a question about the statement I am required to sign. It reads:

“Upon the acceptance of employment at *nonprofit name* the employee agrees that they shall not volunteer for, donate to, promote, facilitate, organize, or otherwise have involvement in any other charitable, nonprofit, or fundraising event that is not related to or run by *nonprofit name*. If any employee is found to have donated to, volunteered with, worked for, or otherwise had involvement in any charity besides *nonprofit name* they will be subject to immediate dismissal without notice or severance. No exceptions to this policy will be made under any circumstances.”

I asked for clarification after I received this statement and I was told they want employees who are committed to their mission and don’t want their employees distracted by any other kind of charitable work. It was confirmed to me that any kind of donation or volunteering with any other charity or nonprofit would lead to me being fired without exception. They also assured me this is a normal practice in the nonprofit world and that it is a standard statement. I finished my classes in December and didn’t need any credits this semester, and my college graduation ceremony is in the spring. I have never had a job besides working in an ice cream store at a camp over my summer holidays when I was in high school and college. This statement raised a red flag for me and I just wanted to know if it really is a standard requirement for nonprofit employment.

Noooooo, it is not a standard thing at all. I’ve worked in nonprofits my whole career and now coach nonprofit organizations, and this is not a thing that normal organizations do. It’s not normal at all.

I’m actually more alarmed that they they’re trying to convince you that it’s standard than that they have the policy in the first place. If they’d said, “Yes, this is unusual, but our reasons for it are ____,” then at least they’d have some credibility. But now not only do they have a bizarre (and rather horrid) policy on this, but they’re also lying to you about it being normal.

It’s none of their business if you donate to or support another organization, and it’s a really odd thing to try to control.

2. My employee doesn’t use nearly enough words

I supervise a person who doesn’t use enough words. For instance, “Hey Suzie, what about that invoice?” she will exclaim over the cubicle wall out of the clear blue sky. I have to then ask, “What invoice?” She responds, “From McMaster.” I have to then ask, “Which one?” There are 20 a month.

Sometimes, she will stand up and look at me and with an inquisitive expression, and she will say, “Remember that…” and then she just trails off waiting for me to complete her thought. The whole time she is looking me square in the face. I have to say to her, “Please finish your sentence.” Sometimes, I get more clues and sometimes I get, “You know, that thing.” Regardless of how she responds, it’s like pulling hen’s teeth to get all the information I need to understand what her question and/or need is.

It’s making me crazy. I have never encountered this before. It goes on like this for days, when all the while I’m trying to focus on my work. An immense amount of time is consumed with me trying to understand what she is asking. I would like to counsel her on this poor form of communication, but I’m not sure how to say it.

The basic formula when you want to give feedback on something is to name the issue, explain the impact, and explain what you want the person to do differently. So in this case, you could say something like this: “When you approach me to ask questions, you often assume that I know the context that you’re referring to, so you’ll ask me about ‘the invoice’ without telling me which invoice you’re talking about, or you’ll just say a few words and wait for me to finish your thought. It means that we end up spending extra time going back and forth as I try to figure out what you’re referring to. Going forward, can you make a point of giving me complete information in your initial question? So instead of ‘the invoice,’ you’d say right up-front ‘the Nov. 15 invoice from Warbleworth Inc.’ Can you try working on that?”

This is such an odd habit that I’m not confident she’ll get it without more coaching, so you should be prepared to coach in the moment too. If she starts with “the invoice,” stop her and say, “This is an example of what we were talking about. Can you take a minute and figure out what info you need to give me so that I know what you’re referring to and we don’t need to go back and forth with lots of questions?”

3. Did my cousin mishandle this negotiation?

I’m relatively new to the professional working world, so I had a question about something my cousin faced recently.

She graduated this past May with a degree in engineering and got an awesome job offer in Texas (we live in Michigan) with a company that she interned with this past summer. Because she was moving so far away, they offered to pay for her moving costs. They also said that in place of a higher salary, they’d give her a company car. She was okay with it and went on planning her move. A few weeks before her move, her contract still hadn’t been finalized and they were backpedaling on the company car part. She didn’t have a problem with bringing her own car down there but wanted the pay compensation in place of it because of the way previous negotiation conversations had gone.

My parents and I were talking about it and they said something along the lines of our generation expecting to get things even though we hadn’t earned them yet. I tried to explain from my cousin’s point of view that the company car was one of the bargaining points in deciding her compensation. I know that a lot of people look down on Millenials as just expecting things to be the way we want but not all of us are. My cousin worked very hard for her degree, internship, and job offer.

Was my cousin right to continue to negotiate when the company car didn’t come through? Or were my parents correct in making a general statement about “our generation?

Your parents are wrong. Your cousin was offered the company car in lieu of more money. When you’re offered something in lieu of money, the implication is that money would have been appropriate to expect. So when the car fell through, so did the “in lieu” part, thus reopening the question of what salary was fair. It made perfect sense for your cousin to ask for more money at that point, and in fact it would have been pretty negligent of her not to!

Good for your cousin for advocating for herself. (And really, whenever you hear someone painting an entire generation with the same brush, meet whatever they’re saying with some serious skepticism.)

4. Company is pressuring us to leave positive ratings on Glassdoor

My company (where, frankly, the morale is quite low) has a terrible Glassdoor rating. Our CEO gets a lot of negative feedback. The recruiters are struggling and we need to hire at the executive level (or just below). Recently I have noticed more positive reviews that are all shorter and not very detailed. I suspect some employees have been asked on a one-to-one basis to help our ratings.

Today everyone received an email that appeared to be a Glassdoor app asking people to rate the company. My gut feeling is that this is inappropriate. We have a lot of non-native English speakers, and I especially worry that they would feel coerced. I am curious to know your thoughts on this.

Yeah, they should stop trying to manipulate their Glassdoor rankings. People rarely appreciate being pressured to leave positive reviews that they don’t actually stand behind, and it’s going to leave a bad taste in people’s mouths. Plus, it’s not even in the company’s interest to have a bunch of fake glowing reviews out there; they want to hire people who know what they’re getting into and are okay with it, since people who feel hoodwinked will leave more quickly. A transparent conversation with candidates about the company’s problems and how they’re addressing them would be a better hiring strategy.

You could discreetly let your coworkers know that they’re not obligated to rate the company, and that since the site is anonymous, in theory your company shouldn’t be able to track who did and who didn’t.

5. Interviews are being scheduled for the promotion I applied for, and I don’t have one

I recently applied for an internal promotion for a job I have been acting in for two months. I put together a good quality application that I had vetted by my referee, who does a lot of hiring. I have a large amount of very relevant experience, but it’s likely that for the level of the job, more extensively experienced applicants came along.

I am almost completely certain that interviews have been booked for in two days time. While not overtly marked, it is clear to me from accessing calendars I need to for booking appointments that they are happening and I don’t have one. I have not received any update on the process from my supervisor.

I am disappointed I haven’t been shortlisted, but what hurts more is that interviews have been scheduled and my supervisor hasn’t let me know that I was not successful in obtaining an interview. At the moment, it is just the two of us in our department and has been for the last few months.

I feel like my contributions as a team member are not being valued with the courtesy of telling me that I haven’t been successful reasonably promptly, but I also want to handle this whole situation as professionally as I possibly can. Am I being unreasonable to feel like I’m not being valued? Can I ask for an update on the process to trigger the discussion? How do I handle providing feedback that I am disappointment about the way the process has unfolded?

You’re making a lot of assumptions here! It’s entirely possible that she wants to talk to outside candidates first before she talks with you. That’s particularly true if you’re a strong candidate, since by talking to the others first, she’ll have a better sense of where she might particularly want to probe with you. Who knows, she may not even feel she needs to do a formal interview with you in order to consider your candidacy. But there’s nothing here that indicates that you’re out of the running.

Why not just ask her? You could say, “I have the sense that interviews might be getting scheduled, and I hoped you could give me an update on the process and when you think I should expect to hear about any next steps.” Hell, you could even say, “Could you let me know if I’m in the mix of candidates you’re considering?”