my boss helped my girlfriend’s mom ambush her at our house, what does “polished” mean in job postings, and more

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

1. What does “polished” mean in job postings?

I’m office temping and looking for a full-time job. I was at first focusing on nonprofits, but after some great experiences temping in the corporate world, I’m expanding my search. Every now and then I see in a listing that they’re look for a “polished” assistant.

The first time I saw this, it was for work with a luxury brand, and I immediately imagined a conventionally attractive woman with sleek hair and freshly manicured nails. I suspected that luxury brand work was not for me — I dress tidily and professionally, but don’t want to work someplace where the tweezedness of my brows might come under scrutiny.

Now I’ve been temping someplace a month, and one of their temp-to-term postings also used that word. I know this company isn’t like that — they’re corporate, but clearly not judging admins on pore size or whatever. So: what does “polish” mean? How is it different from “professional?”

Sometimes “polished” does mean what you’re envisioning — a particularly high level of attention to grooming and overall physical presentation.

But more often it just means a high level of professionalism. It means, for example, that you’re going to handle even difficult callers smoothly, that you’re not going stand in a VP’s office fumbling through papers for five minutes rather saying “let me find that for you and I’ll bring it right back,” that you’re going to greet visitors warmly even when you’re feeling harried, that you’re not going to complain about work while you’re at the front desk, that you can competently juggle multiple things without getting flustered … overall, that you’re going to be highly competent, make the job look easy and be a calming presence in the office rather than a stressful or chaotic one, and not need coaching on professionalism.

2. My boss was fired my second week on the job

After a year of being unemployed, I had an interview with a manufacturing company for a role in my field. The first interview went well, very standard, although there were a lot of behavioral questions and none about my actual technical skills as an accountant. In the second interview, I met directly with the controller, who wanted me to know that the financials were a mess and that it would be challenging but rewarding. A mess was an understatement. Two weeks in now, and the controller was walked out of the building. HR has reassured me that my job is safe and that my technical skills were part of the consideration in hiring me, as they were discussing removing the controller at that time.

I’m concerned because I definitely do not have the skills to sort out this mess. The role I was hired in to is a brand new one, so I technically have no duties. They will be hiring a new controller but they are starting the process now so it will likely be a few weeks.

Do I start looking for a new job? Should I put this one on my resume when applying? I’m not sure what looks worse … a year of unemployment or applying for a new job within three weeks of the start date of the latest one.

I think it’s way too premature to assume this job won’t work out. It’s possible, sure, but it’s also possible that this was just crappy timing and you’ll have a bumpy first couple of months and then it’ll be fine. And it could even be a good opportunity for you to get experience that you wouldn’t otherwise get. I would just be very up-front with whoever you’re reporting to in the interim about your skills and what you can and can’t do, and ask how you can be most helpful during this period.

That said, there’s no harm in applying for more jobs if you want to, so that if this one does turn out badly you’re ahead of the game. (If you do that, don’t put this one on your resume; there’s no point in including a job you haven’t at for very long.)

3. My boss helped my girlfriend’s mom ambush her at our house

My girlfriend and I work together, and her mom is friends with our supervisor. We’ve recently learned that our boss discusses the current state of our relationship with her mom. We try to be as professional as possible at work, which our boss interprets as a lack of affection and caring. Now both my boss and my girlfriend’s mom think I don’t care about her and she shouldn’t be with me. At home, we’re loving and affectionate, something neither of them see.

After not reaching my girlfriend for a week because her phone was shut off, her mom talked to our boss, who told her about a night that I would be at work but my girl would be home. Not even 10 minutes after I leave for work, her mother and brother show up, uninvited, at our house and just walk in on my girlfriend in her underwear. Her mom is convinced I’m abusive, so I can assume she walked in as a way of getting an uncensored version of our living environment.

Did our boss break the law by sharing our schedule with her mom, essentially planning this little ambush? If some random person had asked for our schedule, would it be legal for her to give it out? I see no difference. The house is a rental in my name so I see it as trespassing and I see my boss planning this with her as conspiracy to commit trespassing. Do I have any legal recourse or am I wrong in thinking laws were broken?

It wasn’t illegal for your boss to share your schedule with someone outside the company — poor judgment, definitely, but not illegal. (And of course, that pales in comparison to her poor judgment in pretty much every other detail of the story.)

I can’t speak to trespassing law, although I suspect that it wasn’t trespassing unless your girlfriend ordered them to leave and they refused.

Either way, though, there’s a big problem with your boss and your girlfriend’s mom. I don’t know how solid your other options might be, but I’d be looking at changing jobs to get away from all this drama.

4. Is this a vacation day or a sick day?

My office has separate vacation leave and paid sick leave, not combined PTO. Would you suggest counting the following scenario as a vacation day or a sick day? An employee was out of town on a personal trip over a weekend, and the return flight Sunday evening was cancelled due to airline delays related to weather. Since the employee was booked on an evening flight, they were rescheduled to the following morning and therefore missed work on Monday.

This is in reference to a salaried employee who works only four days per week and already has 10 days of vacation time (essentially 2.5 weeks of vacation per year) that is allowed to be used in single day increments if desired.

Most offices would handle that as a vacation day. But if you’re particularly flexible about how people use sick days and don’t really care if someone charges a day off to sick or vacation, there’s no inherent problem with doing it that way.

5. Company put hiring process on hold — should I tell them I’ll have to look at other jobs instead?

I went on a fantastic interview. I was told at the interview that I had a “really great shot” and was an awesome fit. I was asked about my schedule for a final interview on July 19 and responded the same day but never heard back. It’s now the end of August and I’ve not been offered the position and that final interview has not been scheduled — but I have received emails stating they are so sorry the process is taking so long, they’re still very interested in me, but the hiring process has been delayed at this time.

I am extremely disappointed with my current company and salary, which makes this potential opportunity even more desirable than when I first interviewed and wasn’t really looking to leave (they contacted me via LinkedIn). How should I respond to this email sent yesterday telling me things are on hold? Should I let them know I am eager to leave and was waiting on them but will now have to explore other companies and positions? I really liked the company, location, potential to grow and the salary they offered so letting this one go would be difficult.

Oh my goodness, no, do not tell them that. They are assuming that you’re exploring other options, so it would be odd to state that — it would sound like you were relying too much on this job panning out and that you were trying to make that their problem to deal with.

Even people who are told they’re a great fit end up getting rejected, and hiring processes get put on hold or stopped altogether. You definitely don’t want to rely on this job, and you even more definitely don’t want to tell them you’ve been doing that since that will look naive. Moreover, they have reasons for having things on hold, and those won’t change just because they hear that you’re disappointed. (In fact, you want them to take whatever time they need to figure everything out before they offer you a job; otherwise you risk major changes to the job or team after you’ve already accepted it.)

So just thank them for updating you and tell them that you’ll be interested in talking whenever they’re ready to move forward. Then, the best thing you can do is assume that it’s not going to happen (not because it won’t, but because it’s better for you if you’re not waiting around for it), put it out of your head, and proceed the way you would have if they’d rejected you — meaning, presumably, that you start applying for other jobs.

what’s the minimum amount of time I have to stay in a job that’s making me miserable?

A reader writes:

I’ve been at my new job as an executive assistant and I’m already feeling very miserable. I made the mistake of taking a job that’s heavier on the administrative side and it’s just not the right fit for me. I was desperate because I’ve been job searching for nine months while relying on a contract job for money and that EA offer was the only one that came through. I also received negative feedback on my performance review today, and I’m trying my best to fix them now while fearing that I could get fired in two weeks.

If I somehow make it through this job, how many months until I start looking for another position? What is the minimum to stay in a job that the length looks desirable to HR?

It depends on the rest of your job history and your overall situation.

If you’ve had a pretty solid job history before this point, then I wouldn’t worry about this at all — start looking for something else right now. Having one short-term job, or leaving it off your resume entirely if you’re only there a few months, isn’t a big deal. Patterns of short-term jobs (when they weren’t intended to be short-term, like a contract position) are what can be an issue — that’s when employers start worrying about job hopping.

But if your resume is already littered with short-term stays (in most fields, that means less than a couple of years), then yeah, there’s more reason to try to make this work. If that’s the case, then you’re in a situation where you need to try to repair a spotty job history, and you do that by racking up several stays of at least a few years each.

However, staying in a job that you’re not doing well at won’t necessarily help you — especially if you get fired after, say, 10 months (at which point it’s harder to leave it off your resume altogether) or if you can’t get a good reference from them. So you need to factor that in too.

Other cases where it could make sense to leave now even if it will add to an already job-hopperish resume are if the job is making you truly miserable for a sustained period of time or endangering your health or safety.

There are worse things in the world than having a spotty job history. It’s something that makes future job searches harder, which is why you want to avoid it, but please don’t feel it’s supposed to trump absolutely everything else going on.

my junior employee’s expectations are out of whack

A reader writes:

I have a relatively new staff member who is in his first professional job after grad school. He’s a great employee and is always eager to take on more, but I’m starting to see a problem that I need some help with — he’s getting dissatisfied because there isn’t always more for him to take on.

I want to be a supportive supervisor and offer him opportunities and challenges when they arise, but I think I need to help him understand that a big part of work life is just doing your job every day, especially when you’re new to the profession. There’s not always going to be some big new project you’re asked to take on, and when you’re a lower-level staff member, you’re not always going to be participating in the high-level work that involves decision-making. I think he’s still in the mindset of grad school and internships, where being a star is important, and everything is very project-oriented.

I’ve supervised staff before, but they were clerical workers in positions without opportunity for growth. This is my first time supervising someone who really wants to be challenged and who I feel I have an obligation to cultivate as a new member of the profession. But as a middle manager I don’t have the freedom to create opportunities for him. How can I help him adjust his expectations of what work life is like without being a total downer? (And conversely, how can I adjust my own mindset so I don’t feel guilty that the job is what it is?)

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

I’m being compelled to testify at a coworker’s divorce hearing

A reader writes:

I work as a receptionist in a very small office. A few months ago, I started getting belligerent and uncomfortable phone calls from a coworker’s wife where she would yell and curse at me, culminating in her threatening to send the police over if her husband didn’t answer the phone (he wasn’t in the office at that time).

At a friend’s urging, I reported it to my boss. (Our company has fewer than 10 people, and we don’t really have an HR department.) My boss talked to my coworker, “Ken,” and Ken said that he and his wife were going through a messy divorce and that he could get a restraining order that would prevent her from calling the office. Ken asked me to write a brief statement about the content of the phone calls to give to his lawyer, and I did. I thought that was the end of it.

Yesterday, I was served with a subpoena to appear in court next week for a hearing related to Ken’s divorce. Apparently, he wants to prove that his wife has been harassing his employer and trying to get him fired, and he wants me to testify. The hearing is during work hours, and the courthouse is a 40+ minute drive from where I live. He gave me no warning and didn’t discuss it with me beforehand at all — he was at lunch when I got served. When he came back, I told him I’d been subpoenaed and he said, “Oh. Yeah. Will you do it?” I said I’m legally obligated to. He said, “It would really help me out. She’s trying to destroy my life.”

I feel that this is seriously inappropriate. First of all, I really do not want to get involved in a coworker’s personal affairs. Also, it feels like I’m being punished for reporting harassment at work. It might be worth mentioning that I’m a woman in my late 20’s, and almost everyone I work with is a 50+-year-old man (including Ken), and I have the least seniority in the office.

I talked to our boss and he said I don’t have to use vacation time, and will even reimburse my mileage to drive to the courthouse (very generous of him). But I don’t want to do this, and I feel angry that it’s even happening in the first place. Am I wrong in thinking this is unreasonable? Do I have any recourse?

It was bad form for Ken not to talk to you about this ahead of time and to just let it be sprung on you with no warning. And it was additionally bad form for him to be so cavalier when you asked him about it. So Ken didn’t handle this well.

But that aside, Ken is being harassed at his workplace by someone who’s willing to verbally abuse his coworkers, and he’s legitimately concerned about how that could endanger his employment. You’re in a position to verify what’s happening. You don’t need to take sides — you just need to factually report what you’ve been subjected to. (You could also ask Ken if you can talk to his lawyer ahead of time to get better prepared for the questions you’re likely to be asked.)

I can understand why you’re really uncomfortable with this. But I also think that if the genders were reversed and a woman’s soon-to-be-ex were harassing her and her workplace, it would be a more obvious call that you should do what you safely could to help her get it stopped.

If you really don’t want to, though, you could talk to Ken or his lawyer and try to get removed from his witness list.

But whatever you decide, I don’t think you should look at this at punishment for reporting harassment (harassment in the colloquial sense, not the legal sense, since the wife’s calls don’t sound like they meet the legal harassment test of invoking race, sex, religion, disability, etc.). Sometimes life is messy, but that doesn’t mean the messiness is punitive. I imagine Ken is feeling pretty desperate and is just hoping for factual back-up, and I can’t blame him for that.

(I’m really interested to hear other opinions on this one though.)

should we fire an intern for extending her vacation without permission, coworker makes rude remarks about my quietness, and more

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

1. Should we fire an intern for extending her vacation without permission?

I’m a mid-level manager at a medium-sized startup. We recently hired a very young intern who just graduated from college. She took a three-day trip to New York, and had asked for the time off in advance. This morning she emailed me telling me, not asking me, that she would be extending her trip by one day: “I’ll be extending my stay in New York an extra day and will be returning to work on Wednesday. I’m sorry for the inconvenience.”

My boss was livid when he found out and wants to fire her. Our office has a flex-time-off policy, but other workers have to cover for your assignments while you’re out, and we ask for advance notice. It’s unprofessional and unbelievable, sure, but is it grounds for termination?

Your boss is overreacting and being unreasonable. In many offices, people manage their own time and this would be perfectly fine. It sounds like that’s not the case in your office, but then you just need to explain that to her when she gets back. She’s an intern; explaining this kind of thing is part of the deal.

Unless her unexpected one-day absence is causing some kind of massive problem that she should have been able to foresee (like it’s the day of an event she has key responsibilities at), your boss is off-base.

2. My coworker makes rude remarks about my work and my quietness

I started in my current workplace doing quite a technical job which involved very little interaction with colleagues (I am the only person working on that area and it doesn’t cross a lot with others). I am quite quiet and not very assertive.

After about a year, I got a new manager and a promotion to a job that involves, with my old duties, substantially more working with colleagues across our organization. I think my new manager and I have a good relationship and she has invested time and effort into my development, particularly around taking on a leadership role internally.

I get reasonably good feedback (I am not there yet but have improved), but a member of my team who does not report to me comments a lot about my quietness, etc. For example, if I am about to go into a meeting, she will comment about whether I am going to talk enough. Or when I chaired a meeting recently, she seven to eight times pulled up that I wasn’t moving things on as quickly as she would have liked and afterwards commented to the whole team that some people “just aren’t cut out for it.”

I don’t really know how to handle this; it’s going against the grain for me to speak out anyway, and I think this makes it a more challenging environment. In our hierarchy, she is more junior to me but older. I would be really grateful for any advice about deflecting this or if I am being over sensitive. I don’t think she knows the background but I am struggling to improve.

Your coworker is a jerk — seriously. Even if she has legitimate concerns about the things she’s raising, she’s raising them in a rude and obnoxious way. Her comments aren’t okay, and someone needs to shut them down, either you or her own manager. Ideally it would be you, because it will strengthen your standing if you take it on yourself. Ideally, you’d do two things: First, in the moment when she makes a rude comment, call it out — for example, “Jane, your comments aren’t constructive. If you have a concern, please come talk to me after this meeting.” Second, talk to her in private and say this: “You’ve made a number of comments questioning my work. If you have a legitimate concern, please raise it directly with me or with your manager. Can you do that?”

If it continues after that, let her manager know what’s going on. She’s way over the line, and her manager should want to rein her in. (And if the reality is that you can’t bring yourself to talk to the coworker directly — which I realize might be the case, although I hope it’s not — then go straight to the manager. But do get it shut down.)

3. Am I obligated to give a birthday gift to a coworker who gave me one?

If one of my coworkers purchased me a birthday gift, am I required to purchase her one for her birthday? I know this sounds cruel, but this coworker has been attempting to become closer with me than I want. She has caused problems in the office for herself and others, and while I don’t mind the occasional call in which she tends to rant about her job, I don’t really want to be that close with her. In other words, while I know her from working with her, I do not want to be friends outside of work, at least not while we work together in the same office.

She purchased a gift for me for my birthday (a small bottle of alcohol) and she knew that giving me the gift made me uncomfortable, but she did it anyway. (She knows how I feel about workplace relationships and keeping things relatively professional. She actually said she knew it would make me uncomfortable but did it anyway.) I thanked her for the gift by saying it was thoughtful and didn’t really know what else to do. To my knowledge, she has not purchased any other coworkers gifts.

Now her birthday is coming up. Am I required to return the favor? My concern is this will set precedence for not just birthdays, but other holidays as well (Christmas?) and I do not have the extra cash to spend on someone I don’t know that well and I don’t want to know that well. Frankly, the whole thing has made me somewhat uncomfortable. I don’t want to have to purchase coworkers gifts, but I feel like if I don’t get her something, she will think of me as rude or downright mean. I feel like I’ve been pushed into a tradition that I don’t want anything to do with.

Nope, you’re not obligated to buy her a gift. This is actually made somewhat easier by the fact that she said she knew it would make you uncomfortable; it sounds like you’ve already explained to her that you don’t want that type of relationship. Plus, the easiest way to convey “I don’t want a gift-giving relationship with you” is … to not give a gift.

It would be nice to wish her a happy birthday that day (and that should keep the lack of a gift from feeling mean). But also, keep in mind that you can’t control how she feels. You’re not obligated to give her a gift, you’ve made your stance on boundaries clear, and you’re not doing anything wrong; if she’s upset, that’s not caused by you, but by expectations on her side that you’ve already asked her not to have.

4. Pregnancy when employer has a self-funded health care plan

I have recently found out that I am pregnant (currently about five weeks) with my first child. My first appointment isn’t until around the eight-week mark, and I wouldn’t normally even consider telling my employer until around five to six months.

However, we have a self-funded health care plan. What makes it worse is that I work in HR and my boss is the one who receives all the medical paperwork that includes the cost, employee name, and what was done. Does the fact that she will see I’m attending prenatal appointments, having ultrasounds, etc. just through the fact that we’re self-funded change when I should tell her myself? I really don’t want to tell her so early, but I don’t see many options when she’s going to find out herself regardless.

I don’t think it needs to force you into announcing your pregnancy before you’re ready. Yes, it’s true that if your boss sees that paperwork, she’s likely to figure it out, but if she has any discretion at all, she’ll know she needs to engage in a polite fiction of not knowing. And because your employer has a self-funded plan, they’re covered under HIPAA, which means that your boss can’t legally share the information she’s exposed to from administering the plan or use it for any employment-related action. So, proceed the way you would if it weren’t a self-funded plan, and announce when you’re ready to announce.

5. Can I push back on this inconvenient meeting time?

I am a remote employee who doesn’t get much face time with my boss. He often cancels meetings.

I’m developing a big proposal for my department which I thought was due early next week. We had quickly mentioned last time we talked that we could perhaps review in person. I reminded him and he suggested 7:30 a.m. on Friday morning. That means I have to kill a day to get there for a very early meeting when, if it were a few hours later, I could fly in and out in one day.

Can I push back on this? I don’t see why it can’t be later and fly in and out same day.

He’s probably just not thinking about the logistics the way you are. It’s really normal for this to happen — managers don’t always think as deeply about logistics for this type of thing because they assume that if there’s an issue, someone will say so, whereas employees often assume that if the manager is suggesting it, that must be the way they want it and there’s no room to push back.

Just say, “Any way we could do it later in the day so that I can fly in and out the same day?”

company wants to have tea with my family as part of an international interview

A reader writes:

I’m going on a final interview in another country next week, and they’re flying out my whole family so we can decide together if we want to expatriate. They’ve been very accommodating and have been wooing me, which I appreciate.

My problem is this: we’re taking a red-eye, overnight, from the west coast to Europe. I got an email today asking me and my family (my partner and our two children) to meet for tea in the late afternoon. My questions:

– Is it weird that they want to meet my partner and children?

– I’m worried that my children may not be well-behaved due to jet lag; our meeting is late afternoon local time but early morning on the west coast, and they will have been up all “night.” Do I warn the interviewer? Do I try to force my strong-willed kids to nap in the middle of the day, despite the fact it’s bad for jet lag?

– How do I prep children for their parent’s interview?

My initial reaction after reading this letter was “just say your kids will be napping after the red eye or have touristy plans with their dad,” but then I realized that I really have no expertise on this. I also realized that I know someone who does have a ton of expertise on this — Suzanne Lucas of Evil HR Lady. Suzanne, in addition to being a friend and mentor and the person who inspired me to start Ask a Manager, moved from the U.S. to Switzerland with her husband and kids a few years ago and knows all about international relocations. Here’s our conversation.

Me: My initial reaction was that she should say her kids will be napping or that they are doing something touristy with their dad, but then I wondered if this isn’t really supposed to be optional and they’re all expected to make an appearance. What’s your take?

Suzanne: It’s a little weird to want to meet everyone, but it’s not super weird. Why? Because when you’re offering someone a job in a new country, you really have to make sure the whole family is happy. In theory, you just ask the candidate, “Everyone excited about this?” but it’s a great idea to bring the spouse and sometimes kids out to the new place.

If an expat relocation fails, it’s not likely to be because of the job, it’s likely to be because of the family. I’ve been living the expat life for seven years now, as a trailing spouse. That means my husband got the expat job and I followed. We love it here, but I’ve seen plenty of jobs fail because the spouse didn’t like it. I’ve seen families return to their home country in under six months because the spouse just couldn’t handle it. I’ve seen people lose a hundred grand in relocation costs in order to get back home. I’ve seen families broken up where the expat person stays and the spouse and kids return home.

Moving to a new country is hard. If you’re going to any reasonably sized city there will be an expat group and lots of English speakers, and an international school for the kids. But, there won’t be a Target or a Walmart, or a decent place to get shoes at a reasonable cost. Sure, you read about those Hollywood stars who go to Paris to shop, but they come with huge bank accounts. You’ll find everything smaller and more expensive in Europe. For instance, we sold our 3700-square-foot home in Pennsylvania, and live in a 900-square-foot apartment. Part of that is simply choice–we like to spend our money on travel–but part is that 3700-square-foot homes just don’t exist in Switzerland and if they did, they’d be so expensive we’d never be able to get one.

Some people can not handle this at all. They can’t handle learning a new language or figuring out new customs. I was with a fellow expat wife when she got angry that the gas station attendant didn’t speak English. I pointed out that maybe she should learn German and she replied that if they had good customer service they’d only hire people who spoke English. Okey-dokey, you’re not fitting in here at all.

So, this company obviously understands the importance of keeping the family happy. They wouldn’t go to this expense with the idea of interrogating your children before making you a job offer. It’s probably more of a “we’ll sell the whole family on this!” However, if they want to have tea with your whole family on the same day as you land in Europe, that’s nuts. My kids don’t sleep on flights, and are complete disaster cases whenever we land in Europe from U.S. trips. (They do better going West than East, as most people do.)

So, what I would do is say, “Everyone is really excited about getting a chance to see the city and we’d love to have tea together, but can we make it at the end of the week when we’ve had a chance to adjust to the time change?” If they hold firm, well, a nice warning of “Everyone will be a jet-lagged mess, but we’ll see you at 4:00!”

I don’t know how old your kids are, but if they are toddlers, well, I’d advise you to leave them home with grandma anyway. Toddlers on a plane. Shudder. Jet-lagged toddlers are even worse, but that’s up to you. And up to grandma, if one is available.

Me: That’s super helpful. What do you think they’re hoping to gain by having the kids at the tea? Do you think they’re trying to sell the kids on the area (if the kids are old enough for that), or is it more like general hospitality, or ….? I get the sense that the letter-writer is worried a bit that her kids and spouse will be being judged in some way, and I assume that’s not the employer’s intention, but what’s your take?

Suzanne: I’m guessing it’s general hospitality for the kids, but I think they may be legitimately concerned about the spouse not liking it and wanting to make sure he wants to move. International relo is really expensive. Really expensive. Ours cost over $100,000. Even with repayment agreements, it’s a huge risk.

I’m making assumptions here–but since the letter-writer is female, I’d assume a male partner, although it could be a female partner (and really, it’s Europe, no one cares), but male trailing spouses are rarer than female ones and it can be really hard for men to adjust to being the trailing spouse.

It’s hard for women, but for generations there have been wives clubs and such, with little for men. That’s changing, of course. I wrote an article on it a while ago, and interviewed a bunch of men about their challenges.

If the spouse is going to be looking for a job, they’ll often offer job hunting assistance, so they may want to talk with the partner about that.

I can’t imagine they care about the kids, probably just being nice and realizing that they can’t have the partner come in and leave the kids alone in the hotel.

I’m guessing though!

Me: That makes sense. Thank you, Suzanne! Everyone should go read Suzanne’s blog now, and send her all your questions about international relocations.

6 things you should unlearn to succeed at work

usnewsLife has a way of instilling lessons in us that don’t always apply in every context. That’s especially true when it comes to work: You may have habits or ways of thinking that served you well in school or beyond, but which will actually hold you back in your professional life — like thinking that being thorough is always better or thinking that appearing impartial will make you more credible.

At U.S. News & World Report today, I talk about six of the most common things you may to need to unlearn in order to succeed at work. You can read it here.

how can I keep my star performer, without being able to pay or promote him (while his less competent coworker earns double)?

A reader writes:

I am a partner in a small engineering firm. Six years ago when I was brought on, I was allowed one staffer. I hired a new grad, Fergus, who turned out to be great. He knew or could adapt to any design software out there, wasn’t lost in the world of theory, and turned in work that was actually able to be constructed. He’s almost never missed a deadline or has been over budget. He has been one of the main reasons my department has grown. I have compensated him with raises every year.

A year and a half ago we grew substantially, to the point that my staff engineer was overwhelmed. I needed to hire additional staff. I needed someone with the experience of another five-year engineer. It’s a really competitive industry, and all I could find was a 10-year engineer who was licensed, at almost double my five-year’s salary.

The 10-year, Cecil, is a competent enough engineer, but he’s slower, he often requires information that the client doesn’t have to start a project, he isn’t as capable with technology, and he lacks the personal skills to effectively coordinate with other departments.

Recently Fergus has achieved his professional license and has been named in a “30 under 30” publication. We are growing but not to the point where we can hire. I am not able to compensate the five-year adequately and still win bids for projects. His salary review wasn’t quite as amicable this year as normal. I know that he left disappointed.

To make matters worse, I am forced to have Cecil write all proposals, lead all major projects, and take some smaller projects from Fergus when we are slower in order to justify his cost to the other partners. I can’t let either one go because replacing them will a long and costly process.

I suspect that Fergus has to be receiving calls from our competitors on a regular basis. He’s quiet and respectful about it. However, I suspect that it’s a matter of time before he finds another company with a culture that he likes and can offer more.

I don’t want to lose him, but I don’t know what I can offer. I feel like assuring him that we will let Cecil go as soon as we can replace him with a quality replacement is unethical. A made-up title isn’t going to cut it, and I have little more responsibility to offer. Do you have any suggestions?

Be honest with him about what you can and can’t offer, and support him if/when he decides to leave.

Sometimes when you can’t pay great people more, you can keep them by offering other things — more responsibility, opportunities to have more impact, ways to grow, or a really great working environment.

In this case, you can’t offer those things, and to add insult to injury, he has to watch a less competent colleague getting all the benefits and recognition that rightfully should be his. Just hearing about this as a bystander is pretty infuriating, so imagine what it’s like for him.

What you’re saying here is that you know you hired someone who isn’t very good, but you’re going to give him a bunch of rewards that he hasn’t earned while denying them to the person whose performance does actually merit them … and you’re going to pay the less competent guy nearly double what the better performer is getting.

If you’re really committed to that path, then the most ethical thing you can do is to let Fergus know that this is how things are going to remain and that you understand if he chooses to look elsewhere because of it.

And really, even if there were some magical way to keep Fergus (without changing any of these fundamentally unfair conditions), it wouldn’t be right to do it. You shouldn’t try to dissuade him from leaving a situation that’s stacked against him.

For what it’s worth, though, you say that you can’t let either of them go because replacing them would be long and costly. But you’re going to lose Fergus at some point and will have to go through that long and costly process then anyway, so it might be worth factoring that into your thinking.

employee disregards direct instructions, coworker asks where I’m going every single time I leave my desk, and more

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

1. My coworker asks where I’m going every single time I leave my desk

I am a research analyst at a small research center. I share an office with two other analysts. One of my officemates is part-time and works unusual hours, so we are rarely here at the same time. My other officemate just started a few months ago, and we are both here 9-5, five days a week. She and I don’t work on any of the same projects, so we don’t talk much beyond the usual polite small talk a couple times a day (how was your weekend, can you believe this weather, etc.).

Since she is new, she occasionally asks me a technology question or where to find a document, which I’m more than happy to help her with. But she does one very irritating thing: she asks me where I’m going every. single. time. I get up from my desk. I don’t think it’s an attempt to make conversation since she never asks any follow-up questions. I truly do not know why she wants to be updated every time I go to the bathroom, to a meeting, for a walk, out to lunch. The constant questioning makes feel like she is monitoring every move I make, when there’s really no reason for her to do this. I need her to stop, but I also do not want to be rude or make her feel like I never want her to talk to me. I am pretty introverted and tend to get lost in my work, but I wouldn’t mind having more conversations with her, just not about the frequency of my bathroom breaks. Should I say something?

Yes. I know it can feel awkward to ask someone to stop doing something, especially if it might make them feel awkward, but remember that (a) the awkwardness is likely to be brief, especially if you make a point of helping things be normal afterwards (more on that in a minute) and (b) most people would much rather know that they’re doing something highly annoying than just be stuck annoying you forever.

Some options for what to say:
* “Did you know you ask me where I’m going every time I get up? I will never have an interesting answer to that.”
* “I love sharing an office with you, but I like to be able to leave without announcing where I’m going! But I’ll let you know if I’m leaving for the day or something like that.”
* “It feels a little weird having to tell you whenever I’m going to the bathroom, so can we just say that I’ll make a point of letting you know if I’m leaving for the day so that you aren’t asking where I’m going each time I get up?”

And yes, she might feel a little chastised, but if you make a point of being aggressively normal with her after that (find a reason to make conversation about something else, ask if you can get her a coffee when you go to get yourself one, etc.), any awkwardness shouldn’t last long.

2. Employee disregards direct instructions

I took a promotion nearly a year ago that put me in a management position over my previous peers. One of the women who reports to me has been with the company much longer, and commonly disregards requests I make of her (and the team). Recently, I asked my team to begin using our interoffice instant messaging tool to ensure the team is able to contact other team members quickly (for those questions that don’t warrant an email); many of us work remotely from each other, so we don’t have the option to yell over cube walls or walk over to chat.

This woman did not respond to my request and has not implemented it (it’s been a week since I requested implementation). HR has told me that I can’t force her to use it because it isn’t a company policy; however, managers can implement their own requirements, and it sure would be great if she would do what I asked her to do. Any advice for me in this situation? What can I say to her to ensure that she implement, while also letting her have a chance to share any concerns she has? What if she still just won’t implement after we’ve discussed?

HR is totally off-base; the majority of what managers expect from employees aren’t things that are formally enshrined in policies.

But the bigger issue than the instant messages thing is that this employee commonly disregards your requests. That’s not okay, it’s a big deal, and you need to address that forthrightly.

If that weren’t the situation, and it was just about the IM’ing, I’d say to just ask her what’s up, because maybe there’s some reason that she especially hates IM or finds it distracting, and maybe you’d even find it compelling once you heard her reasoning. In that case, I’d recommend saying this: “Is there a reason you haven’t turned on your instant messaging after I asked everyone to start using it last week?” Then, if you weren’t swayed by her response, you’d say this: “I hear you. I do want everyone using it because we need to be able to communicate quickly, especially with so many remote people, so I need you to keep it on.” Depending on the circumstances, you could add, “Let’s try it for the next few weeks and see how it goes — if you’re hating it at that point, we can revisit it then, but I’d like you to give it a shot.”

But this isn’t about IM. This is about an employee who regularly ignores expectations, and that’s really what you need to be taking on. That’s a conversation where you say, “This has become a pattern, and it’s disruptive to our team. I need to be able to rely on you to implement the things I request. That’s a requirement of your position here, and if it continues not happening, it will jeopardize your job.” And you need to mean it when you say that, because you cannot responsibly keep someone on who regularly ignores what you tell her.

3. Coworkers keep interrupting me when I’m on meal breaks

I’ve been working for a new company, less than 90 days. It’s a decent environment, but my team doesn’t seem to disconnect when people are off the clock. We don’t have a cafeteria, so generally people take lunch at their desks. I also arrive early (about 20 minutes) each day to eat breakfast and get situated.

We have an open floor plan. My boss and peers will often talk shop on MY time. My bag isn’t down yet some mornings and I’m being asked about things. They don’t leave me alone during lunch either. Everyone else is working on the clock but they will ask me to jump in.

I’m not the only new employee. I’ve noticed the others take lunch in their cars and don’t come in early. Is this culture normal? How do you respectfully create boundaries? I don’t want to eat lunch in my sweltering car!

Well, if you’re in your office, it’s not outrageous that people are assuming that you’re working. You’re calling it “MY time” and getting annoyed that people aren’t leaving you alone, but they don’t know what your schedule is or that you came in early for non-work purposes.

It sounds like the issue is that there’s no way to tell that you’re not officially working when this happens. Lots of people do eat while they work, so that’s not a sure-fire sign that you want to be left alone. So I think you’re going to have to get comfortable saying “I’m on my lunch break right now but will help you once I’m back to work.” (That won’t really work for breakfast — it’ll be odd to say you’re on a break when you just arrived — so it might make more sense to eat breakfast at home.)

4. Asking my boss to hire a full-time assistant instead of two part-timers

My boss wants to hire two part-time admin assistants, instead of one full-time person, for the end of the year and for tax season. According to my coworkers who have been here longer than I have, they tried this setup before and it was “a total disaster” due to disorganization and things falling through the cracks. I have worked as the full-time admin here and I supervise the current admin’s work, so I have a day-to-day understanding of what the job entails, and I feel very strongly that we need one full-time person in the job. I know I should address this in terms of making our office run smoothly during our busiest time of year, but how can I bring this up to my boss without seeming like I’m overstepping? Or should I not bring it up at all?

No, you should definitely bring it up. This is the kind of thing that good managers want to hear input about. It’s not overstepping to express an opinion about something that you have standing to understand and that will impact the organization’s work. It would be overstepping if you kept bringing it up repeatedly, but that’s not what you’re proposing.

Just be direct: “I’ve been thinking about your plan to hire two part-time assistants rather than one full-time person. I’m concerned about X and Y if we go with two part-time people. Would you be open to one full-time person instead?”

5. I want to tell my company I know my raise is just about the new overtime law

I work full-time for a very small company. I am a salaried employee who makes about $2,500 less than the new threshold for overtime pay. I typically receive a small raise once every two to three years, and no annual bonus.

My company is doing extremely well this year, and my department has gone above and beyond to support that in many ways. One of the reasons I took this (underpaying) job in the first place was because it offered some flexibilities and a predictable workload. Both of those features have eroded considerably in the last year, and are likely to continue to do so.

Come December, I expect I will receive a raise of about $2,500 to get me up to the new overtime threshold … but it will be given in a “congratulations/thanks for all the hard work!” context (and gratitude will be expected) rather than a “this is financially smart for the company but not really for you!” context. I would like to indicate to my supervisors/company’s owners that I know better. I want to do that in order to not participate in what might not be a total lie, but also isn’t the truth, and to at least make them question their usual modus operandi of “everything is fine because we’re saying nice things, and saying nice things costs nothing!” It hasn’t been easy going to company meetings where the owners talk at length about how great all of the new revenue is, when the people who built what they’re selling know we’re not likely to see any of it beyond what the government now requires. Is there a way to do this?

Eh, I don’t think there’s a lot of reason to. It’s going to be very, very normal for companies to raise people’s pay to the new overtime threshold if they’re already pretty close to it. I can see why it grates if they’re pretending that’s not the reason and expecting you to be grateful, but I think the real issue here is that you feel underpaid and the benefits that attracted you to the job have gone away. That’s where I’d focus your attention. (It’s also really normal not to get any of that new revenue earned by the company; pay is generally tied to market rates for the job you do, not to the company’s sales figures. But if you’re not even being paid market rates, that’s a legitimate concern, and it might be time to go somewhere that does pay you at market value.)

If you really want to say something, though, why not ask for a larger raise and fold the overtime bump into that? You could say, “I know this salary bump is to get us to the new overtime threshold. But in light of my work doing X and my accomplishments in Y, I’d like to talk about adjusting my salary to a higher level.”

weekend free-for-all – August 27-28, 2016

Eve on chairThis comment section is open for any non-work-related discussion you’d like to have with other readers, by popular demand. (This one is truly no work and no school. If you have a work question, you can email it to me or post it in the work-related open thread on Fridays.)

Recommendation of the week: Today I’m recommending movies instead of books, and two very different movies at that — the very funny mockumentary Popstar, and the very funny but in a totally different way Love & Friendship, based on Jane Austen’s Lady Susan. I am still laughing at both.