I can’t trust the snacks from my coworker, large employee won’t use heavy duty chair, and more

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

1. My boss wants me to fire a heavier employee if she won’t use a heavy duty chair

One of my employees is a rather heavy person and has broken four chairs in the past year. My office is pretty flexible about office equipment, so after the first chair, I gave her the catalogue to pick what she needed. After chair #2 and two conference room chairs broke, I suggested getting a heavy duty chair. She burst into tears and said she didn’t want a “fat lady chair” because it was stigmatizing. I get it. Our culture is unforgiving to fat people, especially fat women. Chair #3 met the fate of chair #2, so for chair #4 I ordered her a heavy duty chair. She swapped it with a coworker. That chair broke too. My boss, looking at our supply budget, said that she takes and uses a heavy-duty chair or she is gone.

So, my question to you is what did I do wrong to get to this point? And how should I approach the “use this chair or be fired” conversation? She’s an otherwise okay employee, not the best, not the worst. I just can’t have her absorbing the equipment budget for six people.

It’s reasonable to require her to sit in a chair rated for her weight, but it doesn’t sound like you’ve told her yet that this isn’t optional — and if that’s the case, it’s premature to threaten to fire her.

I don’t think you did anything wrong to get to this point — you were trying to be understanding — but you do need to be more direct now and say something like, “We don’t have the equipment budget to replace chairs this frequently, so I need you to use the new chair I’m purchasing. You cannot swap it for someone else’s.” If she pushes back, say, “I’m sorry this is upsetting, but I don’t have any flexibility with the budget anymore, and I do need you to stick with the chair I’m purchasing.”

If your boss is really serious about firing her if she doesn’t comply, you’d be doing her a favor by letting her know that too. But ideally you’d explain to your boss that you haven’t yet been clear and direct with your employee that the chair isn’t optional (assuming I’m understanding that correctly), but that you’re going to make that clear now and announcing her job is at stake before you’ve done that will be counterproductive and alienating. If your employee refuses after you get clearer with her, that’s a different issue — one that wouldn’t about the chairs, but rather about her refusing to do something that you’ve explicitly told her she needs to do.

2. I can’t trust the snacks from my sort-of-vegan coworker

For about a month every year I go vegan. I’m newer to my current job so this hasn’t yet happened but will very soon. The problem is that my coworker Bessy is vegan. But she’s not. We’re a very snacky office and food gets brought in a lot. One time I brought in a snack and read out the ingredients to make sure Bessy would know if it was vegan. The snack had skim milk and I expressed that I was sorry she wouldn’t be able to eat it. But she ate it. We’ve also been out to lunch and she’s eaten pizza with non-vegan cheese and Mexican food that says on the menu it’s traditionally cooked in lard.

I am so not the food police and could care less about what Bessy labels herself. She’s fantastic and I have a very good working relationship with her. The thing is that when I go vegan I try very hard to stay completely plant based. Bessy brings in homemade “vegan” snacks and desserts routinely. I’ve tried them every time she brings them. However, when I’m vegan, I don’t want to take a chance that there are animal or dairy based ingredients in what I eat. How do I opt out of her food without implying I think she’s not a real vegan? Just for clarification I’m connected to Bessy and other staff on social media where the vegan challenge is discussed openly so I can’t pretend I’m not doing it.

The easiest option is to just not take the food she brings in and not say anything about it. But if she asks, can you say, “I’m being really strict about seeing the ingredients on everything I eat this month”?

Of course, that won’t work as well if she sees that you’re eating treats other people bring in. Ideally it would be nice if you were able to just say, “Oh, I’m being super strict and I know you’re sometimes more flexible about ingredients” — but that’s the kind of thing some people get weird and defensive about, so I wouldn’t say it unless you know she won’t react that way.

3. Taking another job with a boundary-challenged ex-manager

Last year, I relocated to a different state, leaving a job that paid extremely well and gave me tons of opportunity for growth. While I enjoyed the paycheck, my employer had some serious boundary issues, and I struggled to maintain work/life balance. The issues stemmed primarily from the fact that he thought of me as a friend, first and foremost, rather than his employee, and would do things like text me all the time about work (and non-work) related things all hours of the day. It’s hard to get into specifics, because our whole relationship was a boundary issue in itself. I was a highly valued employee, and the company really tried to get me to stay.

I enjoy my new job, but opportunities for growth (especially in terms of pay) are somewhat limited, and the culture here isn’t all that healthy. Overall, though, I don’t have any major complaints.

My previous employer and I have kept in touch, and I now have an offer in front of me to work for the company remotely. The pay is significantly better than my current employer, and I’ll have more flexibility in terms of time off and scheduling.

Part of me thinks that working remotely will alleviate some of the boundary issues I experienced previously, but another part thinks I’m crazy for even considering it. I wish income wasn’t such a big factor, but I’m the breadwinner, and it is a significant factor in weighing the decision. Do you think it’s possible to establish boundaries with a boss when you previously didn’t do a good job of that?

I’d be very, very skeptical that it can be pulled off, especially about a relationship that you call “a boundary issue in itself” and especially with a manager who thinks of you as a friend more than an employee.

In theory, you could try having a very candid talk about what the issues were last time and what you’d need to be different this time … but even then I’d be skeptical. If you’ve seen this person be extraordinarily self-aware and able to make major changes in response to feedback, then maybe. But I’d go into it assuming that there’s a good chance the issues will recur, and figure out how willing you are to deal with that if they do.

4. My coworker keeps commenting that I work all the time

I’m a manager at a Fortune 500 health care company. I work a flexible schedule of 9 hour days (with a required 30 minute lunch break) so I can have a half day off every other Friday. I’m the only employee in my smaller satellite office that has a flexible schedule, as far as I’m aware.

I get into the office by 7:45am and leave by 4:45pm most days. A new employee recently started at my office, and she sits near me even though we work in different departments. She works an 8 hour day, getting into the office after I’m already here and leaving before I do.

She has recently started making comments to me about how I must live in the office because I’m always here, I guess as a way to make some small talk? I told her I leave before 5 so I’m not at the office late, but she has continued to make these comments on a daily basis. I’m the only one in my area she makes these comments to, even though others are here before her. This morning, she made a comment to the tune of, “Hey, at least you had a change of clothes for today!” I gave her a half hearted smile and shrug and went back to my work because I didn’t really know how else to respond. She seemed miffed that I didn’t reciprocate more.

Should I have reacted differently? I don’t complain or discuss my workload with her, so these comments seem really weird to begin with. Or am I just annoyed by some innocuous comments and I should just laugh and move on?

My bet is that she’s latched on to this as your mutual “thing” — in her mind, this is the small talk you make together and she thinks it’s enjoyable banter for you both, rather than realizing how annoying it is.

If you want to put a stop to it, you can say, “It sounds like you’re really concerned about my schedule. Like I’ve mentioned, I work nine-hour days so I can take a half day every other Friday. There isn’t anything weird about that, so I’m wondering if there’s something you’ve misunderstood.”

If it keeps happening after that, then she’s not someone who picks up on subtleties (although the above isn’t really subtle) and you’ll need to be more direct: “All this talk about my schedule is unnerving. Could we find a different topic?”

Or, sure, you could ignore it. But it sounds annoying, and it’s also not great if one of your employees happens to overhear her and starts thinking you’re working crazy hours and then feels like their own hours aren’t sufficient.

5. Can I ask if there have been changes to a job I turned down that would make me reconsider?

Last August, I applied for a job at a very small nonprofit. I was interviewed three times, including a full day on site to meet the employees and the board. I really fell in love with this organization and I think the job would be a great fit for me personally and professionally. However, they made it clear early on that the salary range was lower than my expectations and current salary – also significantly under market value. Each time it was brought up, I was honest that I was only willing to consider a lower salary in exchange for more flexibility and generous PTO. They made an offer and, unfortunately, indicated that they were firm on only offering two weeks vacation and no option to occasionally work from home – so really no flexibility or extra PTO at all! I turned down the offer and explained that I would need significantly more time off to make up for the reduction in salary and wished them well on their search.

Flash forward to now. The position has just been reposted for the third time. Is it ever appropriate to reach back out to see if they have reconsidered their stance on time off and flexibility? To be clear, if they haven’t I would not be interested in the job, but I’m wondering if seeing the candidate pool and their difficulty in filling the position would have made them soften the hardline stance. To add context, the board and the executive director have all been with the organization a very long time, and the previous person in this role worked there for 15 years, so I think some of the rigidity around time off and working from home was due to being unfamiliar with how the standards for flexible work arrangements have evolved in recent years. I imagine that other candidates are similarly turned off by the combination of low salary with high demands and no flexibility because otherwise this job would be quite desirable in my field and region.

Should I just assume that if they changed their minds, they would have contacted me and leave it alone? Or would it look strange or unprofessional to reach back out to see if they have reconsidered some of their positions?

It won’t look strange or unprofessional to reach back out. That said, it’s not likely to be terribly fruitful — they have the same info you do about what the sticking points were last time, and if they were ready to reconsider, they’d likely let you know.

But there’s nothing wrong with saying something like, “I noticed the X position is still open. I know we couldn’t agree on the terms of your offer back in August, but I wanted to reiterate how excited I’d be to do this work if you end up having any flexibility on the salary range or the PTO and remote work. I realize that likely hasn’t changed — but if it ever does, please know I’d love to talk.”

at what point in a very long cold should I stay home?

A reader writes:

Despite getting the flu shot and frequently washing my hands, I catch two or three bad colds a year that last at least two weeks. They start out with three days of feeling terrible (headaches, nausea, aches) but looking fine. The next two days I feel better, but my eyes turn red and start to water. I trade in my contacts for my (very) thick glasses, and with my red, dripping face and distorted, blood shot eyes, I look like a melting Halloween decoration. The next five days, my eyes dry up but my nose starts to intensely run. After that the coughing starts.

My work gives one sick day every six months with no carryover past the year. I don’t mind taking a couple of days without pay, but there is precedence for workers being disciplined or fired over taking too much unpaid sick leave. No one else is trained with what I do, so any work not done on a sick day I will need to fit in the rest of the week. That makes taking a day off more burdensome on my cold then restful. Still I can tell my coworkers are irritated by my presence at work and that I should use up my sick leave if I have it, even if it is more symbolic that I am trying to keep the cold from spreading then actually useful.

My question is which day in my cold should I take? Should I take off when I feel most terrible (my preference)? Should I take off a day where I look terrible and people don’t want to be near me (their preference)? Or should I take a day where I am sneezing or coughing in order to reduce the chance of cold transference by a small percentage (probably some doctor’s preference)? I recognize that part of my problem is my work’s lame benefits, but I don’t know of any work place that would be fine with people taking two weeks off for a cold, so working while sick and contagious is just a fact of life.

First, your employer gives you two sick days a year?

Two sick days a year?

That is incredibly low, even by the meager standards of crappy employers, and they deserve to have your germs and phlegm lingering throughout the office.

But your coworkers don’t, of course, which makes this harder.

And you’re right that this question comes up even for people with a reasonable amount of sick time. If you get a cold that lasts a week or two, as many do, it’s not realistic to stay home that whole length of time.

There’s no perfect answer here. As you point out, you may have to choose between the days when you feel the worst, the days when you look/sound the worst, the days when you’re most likely contagious, and the days when you’re not so bad anymore but really need rest … It sucks.

If you’re able to work from home, that can be the best solution, but I’m betting that a company that gives you two whole sick days a year isn’t terribly work-from-home friendly either — and regardless, that’s not practical in many jobs.

I’d say to prioritize the days that you feel the worst, and stay home on those to the extent that you can afford to. That means that your coworkers will have to deal with your red, watery eyes, your runny nose, and your cough. That’s not great for them, but there’s no way around it. Staying home when you feel the worst is the best of a bunch of not-great options. (And if your coworkers are irritated by your coughing, sniffly presence, consider suggesting that you all push as a group for more sick leave.)

Do the commonsense things to limit your coworkers’ exposure, of course — wash your hands frequently, use plentiful hand sanitizer, don’t embrace anyone, etc. etc.

But this is the reality of colds and work, unfortunately.

we are all awkward creatures


On today’s episode of the Ask a Manager podcast, I talk with awkwardness expert Melissa Dahl, who’s the author of the amazing book Cringeworthy: A Theory of Awkwardness.

We talked about what causes situations to feel awkward, why we’re all especially prone to awkwardness at work, the amazing letter here from someone whose coworkers overheard her roommates having sex during a conference call, and much more.

my boss cares more about “confidence” and “strength” than truth and accuracy

A reader writes:

I need advice navigating communication style differences. I manage an office of about 12 employees and four interns, all working under “Fergus,” the company’s owner. I report directly to Fergus, and the others report directly to me.

The issue is that our communication styles differ vastly. Fergus demands what he calls “decisive communication,” meaning that people are expected to speak confidently and with finality, without phrases like “I think” or “I’ll check” or “probably.” He claims that shows weakness. He also tolerates no excuses, expecting employees to simply apologize for mistakes and accept that they did something wrong.

While I respect that, I prefer a different communication style. If an employee makes an error, I want to know why because that can lead me to greater understanding of that person and how to best communicate with them. More importantly, “decisive communication” trips me up because I have trouble distinguishing between what is true and what is the speaker’s opinion stated as truth. For example, in a client meeting, my boss asked one of my direct reports whether Project X would be completed by the deadline. Following the lines of “decisive communication,” my report replied that it would. Unfortunately, the situation was actually far more complicated. Due to factors beyond our control (outside contractors, mail), there was a good chance that the project might take several days longer than the deadline – and it did. The client was upset not because of the missed the deadline, but because of the unfulfilled promise. This sort of thing happens internally, too. When I’ve brought this up with Fergus, he says that we should always expect every statement to possibly be false, the important thing is that it is said with confidence and strength. I’m the opposite. If I ask Intern A if Client X has called, I’d rather hear, “I don’t know” than a flat “no” meaning that the client didn’t call her but might have spoken to someone else.

So how do we manage the communication and expectations of our reports? I recognize that it’s difficult for them to pivot and change their communication styles depending upon who they’re speaking to, but I also want them to speak honestly and explain things fully. I’ve been reprimanded for listening to an employee’s “excuses,” but those so-called excuses turned out to contain valuable information about a flaw in a system. Mostly, though, I want to understand what is actually true and not second guess everything. Can you help us navigate this issue? How do I address this with those I supervise?

You’re presenting this a question of differing communication styles, each of which is legitimate … but that’s wrong.

Fergus says that you should always expect every statement to possibly be false, but that’s okay as long as it’s said with confidence and strength??

WTF?

Here’s something I’ll say with confidence and strength: Unfortunately you are working for an idiot.

Of course you would rather hear “I don’t know but I’ll find out” instead of a statement that might be false! Of course a client would rather hear the truth than a lie puffed up with “confidence and strength.” These are normal things — so normal that they are generally the default for communication.

Fergus is setting up a work environment where you’ll never be able to rely on the information that you’re given, where “weakness” (which appears to mean not being 100% certain of 100% of everything 100% of the time) is somehow worse than “flat-out wrong” or “lying,” and where you completely mess up your employees’ sense of how to communicate in an office (something that will no doubt follow some of them to future jobs, where it will cause them serious problems and destroy their credibility with their new colleagues, and maybe even get some of them fired unless they immediately recover and pivot back to normal communication).

You say you respect Fergus’s preferences. You should not. His preferences are ridiculous, harmful, and diametrically opposed to a well-functioning, effective organization.

It’s very hard to believe that this is Fergus’s only serious failure of critical thinking. But even if it is, do you really want to lead a team that has this kind of dysfunction at the top? It’s going to severely hamstring your ability to manage people and work, and his ridiculousness will splatter on you in myriad ways that could end up hurting you professionally in time. After all, you’re the person who has to interpret Fergus to others, who has to manage your staff to communicate in the bizarre way he requires, and who presumably needs to act as if those expectations are reasonable when they are ludicrous (and who apparently gets reprimanded when you don’t).

You asked how to manage your employees under these conditions. I don’t believe that you can. You can’t instruct people to lie to Fergus and to clients but to privately tell you the truth. You can’t find a reasonable defense of Fergus’s requirements that doesn’t compromise your own integrity as a person with common sense.

I suppose if there are circumstances that ameliorate some of this — for example, if Fergus only shows up a few times a year and otherwise is basically out of contact, or if your sense is that a few strongly worded conversations will change his stance — then it’s possible you could make this work. But it doesn’t sound like that’s the case, and I’m deeply skeptical that working in this environment is good for anyone’s career, and particularly not for the person charged with overseeing the many highly problematic ways this will play out.

my boss is obsessed with not being invited to my wedding, I earn more comp time than I can use, and more

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

1. My boss keeps talking about not being invited to my wedding

I got married late in 2018. It wasn’t a small wedding, but I only invited a handful of my current coworkers, and I work for a mid-sized company. Leading up to the wedding, my boss made a few comments about the wedding and getting an invitation, and I tried to explain that we wouldn’t be able to invite everyone, but now, two months after the wedding, he’s still talking about the fact that he didn’t get an invitation, and making up a story about a coworker, who also was not invited, FaceTiming him from the reception.

And to make matters worse, he’s discussing the fact that I didn’t change my last name and making it seem like I didn’t so it would be easier to end the marriage. Not that it’s his business, but I told him my husband is okay with me not changing my name so I felt like no other opinions mattered. I’m not really sure what to do. I didn’t invite him to the wedding because it’s just not possible to invite everyone, and now I’m getting grief for it and having the fact that I’m not changing my name used as a reason I’m going to get divorced. Please help!

Your manager is being really weird and inappropriate here. The next time he brings up the fact that he wasn’t at the wedding, try saying this, “You’ve brought that up a lot, and I don’t know how to respond. It makes me feel like as my boss you’re holding it against me that we didn’t have you at the wedding — and obviously that would be really wrong! Could we agree to drop this and not keep discussing it?”

And if he bring up you not changing your name again, please say this: “I’m really not interested in discussing my choice to keep my name. Could we drop that as well?” And if he continues to push: “We’re getting awfully close to a situation where I have a boss pressuring me to do something because I’m a woman, and that’s awfully problematic in a workplace. Can we agree to drop it?” Or depending on the relationship you have with him: “Bob! This is getting so boring and you are making yourself look terrible.”

Ideally someone who’s not you would point out to him that he’s embarrassing himself with this.

2. My manager wants me to donate to his kid’s private school

I live in a state that has an education tax credit program whereby you can make a charitable donation to a public or private school and then get a dollar-for-dollar credit on your state income tax return, not just the standard charitable donation credit.

My manager, who likely makes around twice my salary, has a child in a private school and recently approached me to make a tax credit donation to his child’s school, which would help offset the tuition bill. I was taken aback and unsure of how to respond. I am a single parent and I have 2 children in public school myself and, if I were able to afford to make such a donation at this time, which I am not, I’d prefer to make it to their school. He’s awaiting an answer from me and I’m not sure what to tell him. I almost feel like this is a quid pro quo situation that may affect my employment. What should I do?

What on earth?! It’s outrageous enough that he’s asking you to make a donation to his kid’s private school, but am I reading this correctly that your donation would lower his tuition bill? If so, it’s an abuse of power for him to even ask you that. Either way, this is gross and offensive. It’s bad enough when managers pressure employees for charitable donations, but to his kid’s private school? Ick, no.

As for what to do, say this to him: “I don’t have it in my budget — sorry!” Just be cheerfully brisk and matter-of-fact. And if you get any pushback at all: “I can’t even afford the donation that I’d like to make to my own kids’ school, Fergus! I should be asking you to help me with that!” That will probably take care of it, but if for any reason it doesn’t, this is worth taking to HR (who will probably be appalled).

For what it’s worth, it’s easier to respond to this kind of thing in the moment with “no, can’t do that” rather than saying you’ll think about it (which then means having to go back and have a second conversation about it, and making the person think it’s a reasonable request that you’re taking seriously). But it’s completely normal to be so taken aback in the moment that you default to that.

3. I earn far more comp time than I can use

I work in a field that can be at times, fairly 24x7x365. I was fully aware of this fact going in to my field, so that isn’t really a problem. What is a problem is, I’m an exempt employee and it is our policy that if you work overtime as an exempt employee, you are allowed to use those extra hours to take time off without utilizing PTO.

However, I cannot possibly use the amount of overtime I generate, I usually generate between 40 to 80 hours worth of overtime during a project. There are usually four to seven projects a year, often back to back. I’ve had over a month of usable overtime hours worth of vacation time at various points in the year. This doesn’t even include my actual accrued PTO, which is a little over two weeks a year. I basically used none of my PTO in 2018 (it rolls over luckily, but it does stop accruing at a certain threshold I’m not far off from, from other years of no PTO). I still have almost two weeks of non-PTO time despite using about 40-ish hours of it. I want to be fairly compensated for my time but it’s nearly impossible to use the amount of time off I generate and then also use my PTO. I would be taking at least solid month a year, at least, to utilize it all, which is not possible.

Is there any other way I don’t know about that a salaried, exempt employee could be compensated for their overtime that I could discuss with my boss or do I just have to let it go to waste? If it was just a few hours here and there I wouldn’t mind, but it leaves a bad taste in my mouth to toss 60 hours of extra hours out the window. We used to have cashable PTO several years ago but that has since been taken away and we only have non-cashable PTO now so that is likely not an option.

You might need to look at it differently. As an exempt employee, it’s not typical to be compensated for every hour you work (that’s a pretty core piece of being exempt). Your company is trying to recognize that you’re working really long hours by offering you a way to accrue more time off (a form of comp time). But realistically, you can’t take off all the comp time that you earn on an hour-for-hour basis because (a) you’re earning a huge amount of it; it sounds like you’re earning 160-560 hours of comp time a year (which is four to 14 weeks on top of your PTO!) and (b) you’re in a busy job with long hours. If you look at it as “I earn an hour of comp time for every hour of overtime I work,” you’re going to be frustrated that you can’t use it all. It would be better to look at it as “I work long hours and get additional time off in exchange” — i.e., not focusing on the hour for hour aspect, which doesn’t sound like it’s a realistic set-up in your context.

The most important thing is to make sure you’re getting a reasonable amount of vacation during the year. I think you are, based on the math here — but if you’re not, talk to your boss about that and ask for help in planning some real time off later this year (it’s sometimes easier to get if you plan way in advance for it). Beyond that, though, realize that this massive amount of comp time is an illusion — you can’t take as much as you accrue, period. There might be value in pointing that out to your boss and asking that the long hours you work instead be reflected in your next raise. (But they also may feel like it was never intended to be taken hour for hour; it’s just intended to ensure you’re not being nickel and dimed on your PTO when you work such long hours.)

4. Can I ask my boss for more breaks in our meetings?

I recently switched jobs, and my new position is a great fit with one exception: long meetings. My manager has scheduled a weekly 90-minute meeting for my team of five, which sometimes pushes to two hours. My attention span caps out around 50 minutes, and I find myself doodling, on my phone, or just completely zoning out halfway through.

Would it be appropriate to ask my manager if we can plan for a “stretch and coffee break” in these meetings? I know a short break will help me focus, but so far my distraction hasn’t been remarked on, and I’m worried that if I bring it up I’ll just be drawing attention to the problem.

How new are you? If you’re brand new, I’d wait until you’ve been there a little longer (like a few months) before suggesting changing up the way they do meetings — but at that point, you can absolutely say something like, “When we go to two hours, I’m finding I focus better if I can take a short break for coffee or the bathroom at the one-hour mark — any chance we can make that part of the routine going forward?”

But until then — and for the meetings that stick to 90 minutes — it’s fine for you to take a bathroom break without making it part of the formal routine! There’s nothing wrong with excusing yourself for the bathroom and using that time to stretch or refresh a beverage. (I mean, don’t stay away 15 minutes or return with an elaborate, lovingly garnished drink, but five-minute bathroom breaks taken as the need arrises are pretty normal.)

5. Taking long calls in a cubicle farm

What’s the etiquette for taking non-sensitive, hour-long, work-related phone calls at your desk in a cubical farm? It’s common in my office for people to stop and chat in the halls, but everyone can hear each others’ conversations. We have conference rooms, but larger meetings obviously take precedence over phone calls there. My concern is disturbing my nearby coworkers who will indubitably hear every word I say.

It’s the nature of working in a cubicle farm; you’re going to hear each other’s phone conversations. If the space is generally pretty quiet, it’s considerate to use a conference room if one is available and you know the call is going to be long. But if that’s not practical (because the rooms are booked or need to stay open for meetings, or because long calls are a daily part of your job and it’s easier to take them from your desk), it’s fine to stay at your desk. That level of noise is pretty expected in that work set-up — which is often frustrating, but the burden isn’t on you to solve that. (My answer would be different, though, if you were taking lengthy personal calls. In that case, I’d urge you to find another space or reduce the calls. But these are work calls, and it’s not unreasonable to have work calls at your desk.)

my company moved me to 5 countries in 12 months, got me deported, and is angry I want to quit

A reader writes:

I started my current job knowing I would be based abroad in Morocco. However, there were visa issues and I ended up spending the first year across five different countries — each time not knowing the end date for my stationing. The company does not help with housing. I did eventually get settled in Morocco. However, my company had me go there on a particular type of visa which we all knew was only borderline appropriate for my work, and I ended up getting deported because of it.

This company is set up like the big consulting firms — suck up people with high grades right out of college for two years. They’re clearly serious about the two-year commitment and have stuck by me through all the visa trouble. When I called to say I was getting deported, they immediately bought me tickets to my home country.

So at this point I’ve spent more than a year trying to make the specific job offer I got a reality, and it’s clear I won’t be able to, and it’s been so miserable. I’ve explained that I’m pretty tired of last-minute relocations to cities where I don’t know anyone and I floated that I might want to find a job that would just let me stay in my home country, now that I’m back here anyway.

I was told that would be considered a very serious violation of the organization’s trust, and I should avoid damaging my reputation like that. That sounds bonkers to me. I understand it’s been an inconvenient period for them, too, but in addition to my five intercontinental relocations, there’ve been just as many planned but scrapped at the last minute. The whole thing strikes me as pretty unreasonable, no?

Meanwhile, I’ve been collecting bits of info from friendly acquaintances who also left this company before their two years were up, and I’m bracing myself for a wild exit interview. They were told:

* “This would be a terrible mistake for your career”

* “Are you the kind of person who keeps their word, or just greedy?”

* “Why would you leave now? You wanted projects, we’re getting projects.” (They were not getting projects.)

I’m hearing of pretty consistent references to “abandoning” one’s “service” and “disappointment” in “character” and — naturally — a refusal to consider they might not have created an ideal working situation. Sounds fun!

Yep, this is silly.

Any reasonable employer would understand that being moved around to five different countries, despite signing up for one, might cause someone to reconsider staying at a company. These aren’t minor upheavals like “go work in our office 20 miles away from this one for a few weeks.” These are relocations to five different countries, with zero help with housing each time! And you’ve also been told to use shady visa practices and been deported because of it (which potentially could affect you if you ever want to return to that country in the future).

It’s reasonable to conclude this isn’t what you signed up for, and it’s reasonable to conclude it’s not working.

Even if this looks like it’s working fine to them (which would be weird, but we’ll go with it), you get to decide that it’s not working fine for you.

You’ve given it more than a good faith effort, and you’re miserable. You get to bow out.

It would probably be interesting to ask those friendly acquaintances who also left before two years what consequences, if any, they experienced for leaving when they did. Was it, in fact, a “terrible mistake” for their career, or did no one really care? My money is on the latter. If this is a really prestigious, influential company, I could see worrying that you’ll be hurt by the lack of a good reference (especially if this is your only job experience right out of school), but when you explain to potential future employers that you were relocated to five countries in a year with no housing assistance and then got deported, no one is going to fault you for leaving.

I’m not getting opportunities at work – should I move on?

A reader writes:

I’ve been at my job for almost two years now, and in the industry for a while. During the time that I’ve been here, the team I’m on has undergone a lot of changes, including two re-orgs, several upper-level leadership changes, and I have personally switched managers. Throughout this time, I’ve heard many times that we’re going to be working on great things, and that we’re just in the middle of a transitional period. I’ve been patient and keep trying to be optimistic about my work.

I consistently receive very positive performance reviews, and I am trusted to get my work done and establish positive relationships with my teammates and clients. But over the last nine or so months, the work that I wanted to be doing (and was hired to do) hasn’t materialized, and I’ve been pulled onto projects with other managers in areas that aren’t my desired focus. Meanwhile, my teammates and junior teammates are put on the projects that I’ve been asking for all along.

In some ways, this could be a positive — it means that I’m trusted beyond my manager’s team and have a good reputation. It could also mean that my manager doesn’t feel like I’m a good fit for my job, although that hasn’t been stated in any performance review. Mainly, it means that I’ve been doing work I am not especially invested in, and I don’t feel like my career is gaining much by doing these projects.

I’ve spoken to my manager, and she knows the kind of work I’d like to be on, and has agreed that I should be doing. But time after time, I see other colleagues being put on projects that are in line with my own career goals, and I am pulled onto work that doesn’t move me forward. There’s no clear path to promotion, and due to the way that work is handled on my team, I don’t know what projects I’m slated to be on later in the year.

I have started to feel that if I don’t start to see changes in the work I’m doing, or gain a sense of what it would take to move me forward, I need to move on. What’s the best way to approach this with my manager? I don’t want to walk into the room and start with “Give me better work or I’m outta here,” even if that is how I’m starting to feel.

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

Posted in Uncategorized

how to say “I’ll quit over this”

A reader writes:

Two coworkers and I are outspoken and willing to quit or get fired over some changes to our jobs that are happening due to a new (and terrible) director. An additional two will also quit, but their personal situations prevent them from taking it to our extreme. (I understand, I’m not judging.) I have numerous reasons to expect that after we quit, more people in different positions will follow (that work will fall on their shoulders, and there are other changes they are dealing with too), and this turnover will cause some serious problems for the company all the way up to the shareholders. The company has had a massive turnover event once before, over a year before I started here.

I don’t intend for this to sound like I am full of myself or my importance at the company. No one would miss me if I quit today. However, I strongly feel it is accurate to say that losing the majority of the people in this position will cause significant hardship.

Our jobs are in high demand and we are all experienced employees. Being fired is a consequence we’ve discussed together and accepted. We’re fighting the fight because up until this, our company was a wonderful place to work with a lot of hard-to-find benefits and culture.

We’ve repeatedly brought up these issues with the appropriate people as individuals and as a group. We’ve proposed many solutions, we’ve pointed out the benefits to the company, we’ve pointed out the problems with these changes, we’ve talked to bosses of bosses, etc. I’ve been reading this blog for years, and we’ve done everything I’ve seen you suggest in the past.

I think we’ve done everything we can up to the point of blatantly saying that we refuse these changes (and that we will do what were hired to do and not what we’re being told to do), or we will quit if forced to do them, or you can fire us, and the latter two will domino the company into a lot of familiar long-term pain. And while I would prefer to find another job before I leave, if things were to take a bad turn (like the director started yelling at us, which is a possibility I see coming), quitting on the spot is on the table.

The question is, what is the right way to do something like this? It seems to be inappropriate and counterproductive to walk in and say “Not my job, fire me if you want.”

Excellent question!

One option is to meet with your manager and say something like this: “As you know, I feel strongly that this is the wrong approach. I will happily continue doing the work I’ve been doing for the last X years, but I’m not open to doing (new changes) because (reasons). Given that, how should we proceed?”

Or, instead of asking “How should we proceed?” end with, “I understand if we need to part ways over this” or “Given that, does it makes sense to end my employment?” or “It sounds like we should set an end date for my work here.” (Which of these to choose depends on whether you’d rather quit or wait to see if they fire you.)

These situations tend to get infused with a lot of emotion, but ultimately the question that matters here — and the one you need to pose — is, “Knowing that it’s not an option for me to do X, does it still make sense for us to work together?”

Sometimes people prefer a more dramatic option — like standing up in a meeting and announcing “This is reprehensible and I quit” or spelling out their resignation in cod or so forth — but really, taking a calm, firm stand of “this is what I will and won’t do, so how shall we proceed?” is in many ways more powerful. The dramatic approach is easier for employers to brush off as someone being self-indulgent and short-sighted, and even to roll their eyes at it. Not so with the calmer approach.

That said, sometimes you might want the more dramatic approach and that’s your prerogative. Just choose it deliberately and with full knowledge of the potential consequences … including that it will burn the bridge more thoroughly and it may look overblown to people who see it and don’t know the full story, or even to those who do. (And that can have consequences you don’t expect, like making people who weren’t part of the problem here hesitate to recommend you to jobs in their network, because they worry you have a penchant for drama or acting on impulse.)

On the other hand, if you’re ready to quit anyway and you’re okay with it being today and someone starts yelling at you or otherwise treating you abusively, there’s nothing wrong with firmly saying, “I won’t be spoken to that way and so today will be last day.” (Or if you want to give notice: “I won’t be spoken to that way, and so I’m formally giving you notice of my resignation. Let’s plan on my last day being two weeks from today.”)

One last note: In some cases, it makes sense to have the “how should we proceed?” conversation with someone above your boss. Not in all cases, but if your sense is that someone above your boss would try much harder than she would to salvage things with you, it can make sense to go to that person and say, “I’m at the point where I don’t think this can be resolved. Given that I’m not willing to do (new changes), does it make sense to set an end date for my work?” Sometimes that person might step in upon hearing you’re ready to leave over it — but of course they might not, so you can’t do this as a bluff. You’ve got to be planning to follow through on it.

Good luck.

can my husband be fired for my social media posts, letting a no-call no show return to work, and more

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

1. Can my husband be fired for my social media posts about his coworker?

We had a friend who is also a coworker live with us for five months. During those five months, she was very promiscuous and was having sex with her married supervisor and many coworkers. She got told to leave when she had sex with my 69-year-old dad in exchange for pain pills.

The other day I found a note in my husband’s pocket from her asking if he could find her or text her. I flipped out and looked into his call/text log on our cell bill. He’s texted her 26 times. He is a supervisor but not hers.

I posted on Facebook about her activities with my dad and her coworkers having sex with her and about her getting a teenager drunk and talking her into having a threesome with her supervisor. I also texted her and called her a skanky whore and a slut. Can my husband be terminated for my social media post or my text to her?

Yes.

In general, it’s a good life policy not to call people misogynistic slurs, and especially not to do it about a spouse’s coworker. Employers have a vested interest in their employees having reasonably harmonious relationships with each other, plus a strong legal interest in not having their employees harassed about their sex lives. If an employee’s spouse is putting either of those things in jeopardy, the employer absolutely can take that up with the person they employ.

Whether or not your husband will be fired is a different question, but at a minimum you’re likely causing serious problems for him at work, and making yourself look really awful in the process. Rethink your choices here.

2. Should I let someone who no-called no-show come back to work?

Thanks to your amazing resume and cover letter advice, I have landed myself a supervisory position for a national shipping company. The job has had its ups and downs, but the last two weeks have really made me question myself as a manager, and as a person. Without getting into details, I had three of my staff of six quit within one and a half weeks without notice. They’re for unrelated reasons, but we were already down one staff member so our schedule was devastated.

One of the employees had no-call no-showed for a shift last week, and all attempts to contact her failed. I assumed she got more hours at her other job and didn’t have the heart to tell me. It was decidedly uncharacteristic of her. My boss and I decided to proceed as if she were not coming back unless we heard otherwise. Five days passed without a word.

I got an email from her this morning and I’m not sure what to do. She says her phone got stolen on the bus, and her car got repossessed (information that was confirmed by one of my other employees) so she had no way to contact me or get to work.

The old me would have fired her without hesitation. I have always had a strong work ethic and a sense of personal responsibility, but I have fallen on my fair share of hard times, and am now very empathetic. I want to give her a chance, but I also don’t want to set myself up for more large unexpected holes in the schedule, especially when there are people out there who want a job with us who can be reliable. I feel like my judgement is clouded by my personal feelings. Am I wrong to want to give her another chance?

No. She’s not contacting you saying “I didn’t feel like coming to work, but now I want to come back.” She’s telling you that she had a personal emergency that makes her disappearance far more understandable. That said, she could have borrowed someone’s phone to call you, so I don’t think she’s fully blameless here — but if it’s better for you to keep her on right now because you’re short-staffed, you’re allowed to decide to do that. You don’t want to ever stick so rigidly to a principle (“all no-call no-shows will be fired no matter what”) without considering the entirety of the circumstances — both yours and theirs.

You can certainly have a conversation about why she didn’t find another way to contact you, and you can watch for other signs that she’s more cavalier toward the job than you’d want, and you can cut her less slack in the future if other problems arise … but if it’s better for you to give her another chance right now, by all means do.

I’d also take a close look at what happened with those three people who quit without notice. Emergencies do come up where people have to do that, but it’s generally rare. So I’d look at things like: Does your company make it safe for people to give notice (i.e., doesn’t push them out early when they do)? Does it treat people with respect and consideration? (If not, people won’t give it in return.) Are the pay and benefits so low that people can’t justify working a final two weeks once they have another offer? Are you hiring people without much adherence to professional norms in general? Is there some reason (morale or otherwise) why people might not care about burning a bridge? Once you figure out what’s going on, you’ll be in a much better position to avoid this in the future. (And you’ll know whether you really do need to be questioning yourself as a manager or not.)

3. I suspect the person who got a job I applied for lied about his qualifications

A few months ago, I applied for a job with a politician (Ron). I was a regular volunteer on Ron’s campaign several years ago, have remained involved with his organization, had since gotten another job in politics that lasted over two years, and recently deputy-managed a campaign for another politician in his area (with whom Ron is friendly, not competing against). I felt I at least warranted an interview, but didn’t wind up getting one. However, Ron called me himself to give me the news and said that he had to go with someone more qualified, but he would pass my resume on if he heard of other openings. I appreciated his honesty and the position he was in.

Last night, I did a little digging (in politics, opposition research is kind of an instinct), and discovered who got the job based on Ron’s public staff list. When I looked up the person (Allan) on LinkedIn, I saw that his most recent prior job (and the only one that would be relevant experience) was a lie. He claimed that for the last year he was a communications assistant at an organization where I know most of the people working there and all of the people at that level across the organization. I’m 99% sure it wasn’t Allan. Based on the claimed start date and the suspiciously few Facebook and LinkedIn connections we have in common, I suspect that Allan was actually a summer intern and inflated his job title and duration with his department. (This is a field where people know everybody and have a lot of connections.)

Obviously, before I do anything I should be 100% certain and confirm with other people who worked there at the time Allan claimed to be there. Even if I am right though, just because Allan’s LinkedIn page says he held that job, it doesn’t necessarily mean he presented himself that way in application process. That being said, if one of your employees had lied about their credentials, would you want to know? Would it be credible coming from a rejected applicant? If so, what is the best way to communicate this to them without making it look like I’m being petty? It is relatively entry level so experience isn’t that important, and there is no safety risk – just quality of work and the principle of it all.

It’s not yours to investigate or report, and it’s going to look weird if you do. If you hadn’t been rejected for the job, then maybe it would be something you could give them a heads-up about — but in this context there’s no way to do it without looking like you’re oddly invested in something that isn’t your business (and that you might be invested in it because he got the job over you). It’s not your problem; let it go.

4. How open should I be about my plans to move in the next few years?

I just started a new job in a city I’ve been living in for over six years. I love my new organization and finally feel like I’m finding my groove in my career at a place where there is a lot of room for growth. I’m not from the city I live in and have always had plans to move back to where I grew up. The plans have always been general, but now my partner and I are getting married and we’ve discussed that we feel like the timeline to move would be in the next few years.

How open should I be about this at work when it comes to conversations about my personal growth? I’ve been told I’ll be having one-on-one’s and group discussions about where we see ourselves in the future and I just don’t know how honest I should be. I don’t want to stunt my growth here, but I do see this as my last job in my current city and my success/happiness at work greatly determines how much longer I’ll stay.

Keep it to yourself. Your plans aren’t set yet, and all sorts of things could change in the next few years. Plus, even if those plans were written in stone, sharing them this far in advance risks you getting pushed out sooner than you’d want to leave (or not given long-term projects because they figure you won’t be around to see them through, etc.).

And really, lots of people won’t be at their current job a few years from now, so you’re not in a terribly unusual situation. You just happen to be thinking about a more definite plan than others might be.

5. Can I get out of a meeting that has nothing to do with me?

We have a monthly meeting or a particular project that I have always been included in for reasons I was never quite sure of. My former manager was required to go as it was for a project that she helped start, but by the time I joined the company, she had nothing to add. It was easiest for her to say I would be attending instead of her from now on, rather than say outright that this meeting was unnecessary for our department.

Fast forward a year, and I spend 60-90 minutes a month in a meeting where I contribute nothing and do nothing. It’s mostly a back and forth between the other two departments (A and B), with A painstakingly explaining data metrics and analysis to a very analogue team of B. Today, when team A sent round the meeting agenda, I saw there was nothing remotely pertaining to my department, and asked if I could be excused. Later a member of team B came to my desk to reprimand me for not coming, because two things to do with my department came up. One of these is something I have repeatedly said has been solely allocated to my (senior) colleague and I am not in a position to confirm or promise anything. (This element is the only relevant thing to our team that ever comes up at these meetings, and my colleague has pointblank refused to attend them.) The other was to remind me to prep for an external meeting I have organized.

Is there any way I can get out of this meeting or do I just have to resign myself to having this time completely wasted every month?

You can try! Talk to your boss and say this: “I’m thinking it would make sense for me to stop attending the X meetings. I’m spending 60-90 minutes a month in them, and for the past year, the topics discussed haven’t been relevant to our department. I’m not in a position to contribute anything, since it’s mostly discussions of ___, and I don’t leave with any action items to take care of. If it’s okay with you, my thought is to let (meeting organizer) know that I’m going to stop attending regularly, but if there’s ever something she specifically wants me there for, to let me know and I’d be glad to come. Is that okay with you?”

passive-aggressive notes at work

Take a look around any office, and you’re likely to find at least one passive-aggressive note. It might be the note someone taped above the kitchen sink, reminding you not to leave dirty dishes around, or it might be  the exasperated note on the copier, sternly reminding you to refill the paper tray rather than leaving it empty for the next person. You may even find notes in the bathroom, reminding you to flush or otherwise clean up after yourself, generally placed there after someone has not.

I recorded a piece for the BBC about passive-aggressive notes at work