if I didn’t have enough experience, why did they bother to interview me?

A reader writes:

I found out a couple days ago that I didn’t even pass the 20-minute phone screening to the next round of interviews for a job I applied for, and it’s really a huge blow of confidence.

I applied to a position a couple weeks ago at a dream company and I got an email saying the recruiter was interested in setting up a phone screening. I spent days practicing potential interview questions, and I thought I answered pretty well the day of the phone call — despite the recruiter being five minutes late to call me after our scheduled time. I honestly felt confident I should at least move on to the next round. LinkedIn calculated that I was within the top 10% of applicants who applied, although I am aware not all applicants apply through LinkedIn.

Then I got the rejection email with some boilerplate information about the competitiveness of the selection process, how ultimately I wasn’t a match, and how I should have more experience (it’s an entry level job with one year of experience minimum — I have about 10-11 months of professional experience with proven results).

I wasn’t sure if it’s a generic email sent to all rejected candidates or if my recruiter was being serious about the “getting more experience” part, so I wrote a gracious follow-up email thanking her and using tips you recommended on writing a post-rejection, follow-up email asking for feedback.

She responded by referring me to their company’s hiring guidelines, which list criteria such as academic, leadership, experience, etc. that come to play and urged me to apply again next year.

What’s bugging me is that I provided all the information that was asked in the pre-phone call screening logistics. She knows my experience from my resume and I elaborated on them in the interview and she has copies of my transcripts and my GPA (3.8). If I wasn’t a match then, why allowed the phone interview to take place? Wouldn’t it save them 20 minutes of talking to a candidate they weren’t going to hire?

I’m just so disheartened I didn’t even make it pass a phone screening. I get and respect that ultimately I may not be their ideal candidate, but the whole process felt like me jumping through hoops for something I was never going to get.

Can you offer any perspective on the HR side of things that I may not be taking into consideration?

Yes. Hiring is always about grading on a curve. You’re being compared to other candidates. No matter how qualified you are, there could be a dozen candidates (or more) who are more qualified.

It’s not “if you meet all the criteria we’re looking for, you’ll move forward to the next stage.” It’s “if you’re in the top five (or whatever) candidates we’re looking for, you’ll move forward to the next stage.”

It sounds like you were on the low end of experience for what they were seeking — “a year minimum” means that other candidates probably had two or three years experience. That doesn’t make you a bad candidate; it just means that other candidates might have been more competitive.

You’re wondering why they bothered to interview you since they already knew your experience. They interviewed you because you looked promising enough that they wanted to learn more. But after they talked to you, they decided that, compared to the other candidates they were talking with, you weren’t as strong as others.

That’s a normal way for this to work out. Sometimes you get a candidate on the phone who was borderline on paper and they’re amazing on the phone. Sometimes you get on the phone with someone who was really promising on paper, but way less impressive once you talk with them. Sometimes you get a candidate who’s strong on all fronts, but four others are even stronger so you end up not pursing that first one.

That’s why we interview people! Otherwise we’d just hire off of resumes alone — but resumes are just a starting point. Resumes say “okay, this person could be plausible” but they don’t say “this is the person to hire.” Most information that leads to a hire comes out of actual conversations — where you learn more about how people work, how they think, how they communicate, where they’ve thrived, what they’re looking for, and so forth.

Plus, the curve that I mentioned earlier. You could be good on paper and good in the interview, and still lose out to someone who was simply better. Better at the work, better at some specific thing they want for this job (that they might not have even realized they wanted until they saw it in someone), better at communicating on complex topics, better at forming quick rapport with people — all sorts of things. It doesn’t mean you weren’t a solid or even strong candidate. It just means they happened to talk to someone else who was a stronger match.

You can look at this and be frustrated that it didn’t work out, or you can look at it and be pleased that you were strong enough to get an initial interview and have a chance to tell them more about you, even though it ultimately didn’t work out.

It’s better for your mental health to do the latter — and to go into a job search expecting that there will be lots of these situations, and that it’s just a normal part of the process, and that’s okay.

my boss yells, and it’s scaring my coworker

This week on the Ask a Manager podcast, I talked to a guest whose boss yells — and is making things quite unpleasant. Here’s the letter:

My boss can get worked up when things are not going according to plan and will often end up yelling for minutes on end. This usually happens in group settings, and he’s not yelling at anyone in particular, just about his frustration in general (although sometimes he’ll yell about a person who’s not present). I don’t enjoy this, but it’s also not the worst thing in the world for me to listen to — I know it’s how he processes things at first, and that he’ll calm down and solve the problem reasonably after he gets it out.

Recently, though, one of my coworkers, who is a close friend of mine and a survivor of domestic abuse, confided in me that because of her personal history, his yelling scares her. She’s not actually scared that the yelling about frustrations will turn into yelling at her, or that he’ll escalate his behavior in any way, but hearing someone yell about even an abstract problem is triggering for her. I think if he knew this he’d make a much stronger effort to find healthier ways to process his emotions, but it’s obviously not the kind of thing to lightly encourage her to share with him.

In my opinion, yelling at work, especially on a regular basis, is a baseline unacceptable behavior. I’ve discussed this issue lightly with him before, but he hasn’t really changed anything. In general, he’s open to criticism and we’re very honest with him, and he’s put in the effort to change other things we’ve brought up, but I don’t think he understands the stakes here. How can we address this with him meaningfully without sharing my coworker’s history?

The show is 22 minutes long, and you can listen on Apple Podcasts, Google Play, Spotify, Stitcher, or wherever else you get your podcasts (or here’s the direct RSS feed). Or you can listen right here:

If you’d like to come on the show yourself, email your question to podcast@askamanager.org … or if you don’t want to be on the show but want to hear me answer your question, record it on the show voicemail at 855-426-WORK (855-426-9675).

And if you like the show, please subscribe and leave a review on Apple Podcasts or wherever you listen.

You can get a transcript of last week’s episode here.

my former employee is badmouthing me to my staff

A reader writes:

To summarize the below story, I had an employee leave the company due to a bad interaction with me, and I’m not sure how to move forward with him or the rest of the remaining staff.

I’m a midlevel manager and I work for a small entertainment company. I recently had an employee who we hired in a pinch because we thought with his experience he could fill a gap quickly and efficiently, but it turns out he was terrible and either dishonest or in denial about his own skills. He often did not listen or follow instructions, and his customer service skills were just awful. Many times, even after after discussing corrective actions, he still was unable to complete tasks correctly. He often needed to be reminded of the same thing four or more times.

After about six months, he decided to resign. He wrote an email to my boss saying that he couldn’t work for me anymore because I am angry and hostile. He also wrote that after speaking with other employees about me, he has concluded that I am just an unhappy person with anger issues, and that he feels that attempting to change the atmosphere would not be possible, as this is just who I am at my core.

I feel that it was really unnecessary for him to evaluate me as a person. It’s one thing to raise the issue that our professional interactions were not positive (which is valid, I admittedly lost my patience with this guy), but it’s another for him to say that I’m an unhappy person at my core. He doesn’t know me.

Additionally, I really hate that he did this from the perspective that he was a great employee. He even joked in the email to my boss about a project that he left improved, saying “at least that’s in better shape now” even though that particular project was delayed significantly because he didn’t follow the project instructions and had to start over.

This guy was a huge pain and was terrible at this job, and left me with more work than if we had not hired him. If I’m honest, I just didn’t feel like I had a lot of recourse, and I was really angry about it. He really frustrated me several times a day with just general incapability. I admittedly stopped putting forth effort to really handle his shortcomings in a better way because I was just tired of it.

I really want to set the record straight with this guy, that he doesn’t know me personally and I’m not an unhappy, angry person. That I failed as a manager, but he also failed as an employee. Is that even worth it? Could I even do it if it were since he already left? I’m sure the answer is probably no and no, but would feel better hearing that from others.

More importantly, I want to set the record straight with my staff. How do I move forward with them?

Definitely don’t pursue the idea of trying to set the record straight with this guy now that he’s gone. He no longer works for you, and it would be odd to contact him now to tell him he’s wrong about you. It will look to him — and more importantly, to anyone else who hears about it — like you’re inappropriately holding on to a work disagreement that ended with his departure, that you’re overly invested in what a former employee thinks of you, and that you’re not recognizing appropriate manager/employee boundaries (which generally mean the time for trying to change an employee’s perspective is while they’re still working for you, not afterwards).

I totally get the temptation to try to set the record straight with him. It’s frustrating to hear that someone’s take on you is so wrong. But the door is closed on this one.

Your staff who are still there are a different story. Even with them, though, I’d be very cautious about attempting to address this. They’re going to believe what they know from their own firsthand experience with you. If you’ve been a generally good manager and not angry or hostile, his words aren’t likely to carry a ton of weight (and that goes triple if they saw the shortcomings in his work).

The best thing you can do is to conduct yourself well and trust that the people who work for you will see that. That will garner you far more respect than trying to tell them your side of what should be a private personnel issue.

The exception to this is if it’s become truly disruptive on your team. If people are gossiping about the situation and it’s become a distraction, you’d need to address that. But even then, you wouldn’t get into all the details of what happened. Fairly or not, people expect their manager to be the bigger person in a dispute like this and to be discreet about whatever went down with a toxic former employee.

But the thing I’m most concerned about in your letter is how the situation got to the point that it did. Hiring mistakes happen, but once you’ve realized someone isn’t doing the work at the level you need and isn’t responding to feedback, you’ve got to take pretty swift action to resolve it (which generally means warning them you’ll need to let them go if they don’t do XYZ, and then following through on that). You felt like you weren’t able to do that, and I’m curious about why. If you don’t have the authority to fire, you presumably do have the authority to make a case for firing to someone above you (which also would have given you some protection from this guy’s accusations later on, since your manager would have already known there were serious problems with him and would have seen his complaints through that lens).

What you can’t do is to just stop trying to manage the person — which is what it sounds like happened here, and then you got angry because you felt you didn’t have the tools to resolve the situation. But frustration and anger are Not Okay for a manager to display at work. You can certainly experience them privately, but a manager displaying anger at work creates a really unpleasant environment for other people (in fact, my podcast episode today is about that), and it’ll make people lose respect for you because you’ll look like you don’t know how to exercise your authority appropriately. (More on this here.)

So while I’m sure you’re right that you’re not a fundamentally angry or unhappy person like his email accused you of being, it sounds like you did bring those emotions into work in a way that wasn’t okay. You’ve got to take responsibility for that and figure out how to avoid in the future.

That complicates my advice above about how if you’ve been a generally good manager and not angry or hostile, this guy’s words won’t carry much weight with people … because it sounds like you were angry and hostile toward him! And if people saw that, they may indeed give it some weight. You can’t change the past, and you can’t argue against what really happened — but you can resolve to handle this kind of situation differently going forward, double down on managing effectively from now on, and trust that in time people will see that.

coworker is blasting us with vanilla pumpkin fragrance, Xanax at work, and more

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

1. My coworker’s medication is affecting their work and our manager doesn’t know

On four separate occasions in the last month, a coworker has come into work completely spaced out. Slightly slurring, eyes not focusing, forgetting things we had just talked about, unable to stay on conversation topic, stumbly and unfocused when walking. They haven’t made any egregious mistakes, but it’s a problem. They talk in circles, don’t pick up on normal social clues and are a distraction to others on the work floor. I fear them talking to clients or our directors like this. The team started noticing but was not sure how to react or how to escalate it.

Last week, the same coworker came in and announced without prompting to our immediate team that they have been long diagnosed with a bipolar disorder, have been having trouble managing manic/low episodes, and are taking heavy doses of prescribed Xanax before coming to work sometimes to even it out. They told us our manager did not know.

This doesn’t feel like something as coworkers we should be touching. I don’t feel comfortable being involved in their health and medication issues, so how it is affecting their lucidity/professionalism at work it isn’t something I feel like we should navigate directly with them like one would a typical teammate issue. I don’t know if privacy concerns should keep me from saying something higher. I wish they had not brought us into it. At the same time, it doesn’t seem right that our team would know the medication cause of our coworkers very obvious impairment, but keep that from our management. Mistakes in our team’s work could have rippling affects that could potentially jeopardize our client accounts. Plus it’s negatively affecting our team dynamic. It’s the elephant in the room no one knows how to talk about or signed up for. What obligations do we have in this situation to our company or our coworker? Help?

What kind of relationship do you have with this coworker? If you’re pretty close with them, one option is to say privately, “You mentioned that you’re on a new medication, and I wasn’t sure if you realized that it’s causing some side effects that would be alarming to people who don’t know that — such as slurring, stumbling, and seeming unfocused in conversation. Until you told us what was going on, I was really worried about you. I didn’t know if you realized those things were noticeable to the extent that they might cause real concern with clients and directors.”

Alternately, I do think this is reasonable to discreetly mention to your manager. You wouldn’t share your coworker’s diagnosis — which isn’t yours to share — but you could certainly mention your concerns that it’s making it tough to have work conversations and that they may appear impaired to clients. You could frame it as “I feel awkward mentioning this, but I also feel uncomfortable not mentioning it.” The idea here isn’t to get the person in trouble, but to flag for your manager that she needs to take a look at the situation and presumably talk to your coworker about how to best manage it.

2. How to I get out of being filmed for “fun office videos”?

I work at an established company that has recently decided to up its social media profile … by taking pictures of us to use on email, in-house IM, and “even your personal LinkedIn if you want,” and by shooting videos of us in the office over the next few weeks to show potential clients how fun we are.

While I can’t believe we’re the only ones who feel this way, one coworker and I want absolutely nothing to do with this. I have had my share of online stalking/harassing and I don’t want to open the door to the possibility of more of the same, especially in my professional life. Plus, I just plain don’t think this is appropriate at all and want no part of it. I’m even afraid to socialize outside of work with my coworkers for fear I’ll get ambushed. I’ve managed to avoid the new social media person’s camera so far, but according to a coworker, they’ll be coming to harass us about it on Monday. I would like to plainly state to them that I do not and will not consent, now or in the future, to my picture being taken or being shown in “fun” work videos. I’ve tried searching for laws to back me up, but I can’t find anything for my state. Please help me avoid this!

I don’t know your state’s law on this, but it’s very likely that if you and your coworker can get out of this, although it might require some hoop jumping to do it. First, I would go to whoever is coordinating this and explain that you’ve dealt with online stalking in the past and it is not an option for you to have your image shared online. Say that you will be opting out of the photos and videos, and that you wanted to make them aware of the situation. You’re not asking for permission here; you’re letting them know. Then, if you see anyone around you with a camera, say, “Please don’t photograph or film me; I’ve talked to Jane about not being included in this.” If you get the sense they’re not respecting your wishes, you can get up and leave the room (if whatever you’re doing is optional at that particular moment) or call them out more assertively (“hey, I need you to stop filming me right now; please turn that off”).

3. Coworker is blasting vanilla pumpkin fragrance into the office

How do I deal with a coworker who fires up the aromatherapy without asking those nearby if they are okay with the headache-inducing smells? It seems pretty inconsiderate to just assume that plunging the office into a cloud of vanilla pumpkin will be okay with everyone.

Some people genuinely don’t realize that other people can be sensitive to smells, or assume it’s so rare that it’s unlikely to apply to anyone around them, or assume that if anyone who doesn’t like it will speak up.

Just be direct: “Unfortunately I seem to be sensitive to that scent — it’s giving me headaches. I’m sorry to ask, but can you not use (scent plug-ins/fragrance sprays/whatever they’re using) in the office?”

Most people will be fine with that. A handful will dig in their heels and be rude about it. If that happens, give it one more try: “I’m sorry to push, but it’s really causing me physical discomfort and I need to ask you not to use it.” And then if that doesn’t solve it, talk to your manager or HR, who should handle it from there (but you want to be able to say that you attempted to handle it yourself first).

4. How strongly can you block your former company from asking for your help once you’re gone?

How strongly can you block your toxic ex-company and your toxic ex-coworkers from asking for your help once you’ve left toxic ex-company?

I am a senior project manager and I left Very Toxic Company (VTC) a few months ago for a new position at Competing Great Company. One of the other very toxic senior PM’s at VTC who inherited most of my projects and clients has been reaching out to me “to get my history and knowledge of my recent projects.” I answered his first email out of courtesy – and these were not short answer type questions – but I did it anyway in the hope that my replies help him on his way and close things out. Nope. A second email followed with many more questions. Again, not short answer type questions. Both emails were rudely written and I feel they were looking to cast blame rather than get answers. Red flags regarding professional liability started popping up in my mind. I decided not to respond to email two. This though led to follow-up texts (“Hey, did you get the email that I sent? We really could use your input”). I ignored the texts. The texts were then followed up by my past manager reaching out to me via email (“Hey, did you get toxic PM’s email? We could really use your input”).

At this point, I wrote a profession but pointed email to my past manager saying please stop contacting me. My ex-manager replied that they would stop contacting me.

Is there any other way to handle this? Is it even remotely possible to walk the line of wanting to be helpful without it leading to getting “sucked back in”?

Generally you start off with a softer approach and then escalate it to a firmer one if it turns out you need to — because often the softer approach will work, and if you can preserve the relationship, that’s generally a better outcome for you. So typically that would mean saying something like, “My new job is keeping me really busy and unfortunately I don’t have time to do these questions justice. I’m sorry I can’t help!” Or, “I can answer one or two quick questions, but won’t be able to do more than that because of commitments to my current job.” And then if they keep pushing after that: “I’m getting the sense you’re hoping for some substantial help from me. Normally I’d suggest that we could figure out an hourly consulting fee, but the reality is that my schedule won’t allow even that. I’m sorry I can’t help!”

All but the most ridiculously toxic places will leave you alone at that point (and you’ll probably still have preserved the relationship and the reference because you were polite about it). But if they don’t, you absolutely can ignore any further contact after that.

5. Explaining to an interviewer that I’ve been caring for a sick family member

I’m writing because I have a question regarding what’s appropriate to talk about in an interview setting. Since the end of my most recent contract gig earlier this year, I’ve been helping to care for my mother, who was recently diagnosed with cancer. When the topic of what I’ve been doing comes up, I typically phrase it as “providing care and support for a sick family member.” This is usually enough to satisfy an interviewer on the topic, but I’m a little concerned that not going into further detail makes me look like I’m just trying to not give a full answer to the question. Is it appropriate to go into more detail about what I’m doing and why I’m not actively working? I have no problem talking about it, but I’m just worried that interviewers might think it was oversharing.

Nope, your current answer is fine. Interviewers don’t need more detail than that; you’re telling them the relevant part … and some people may actually be made uncomfortable by hearing more detail than that, because it’s not necessary and it will shift the focus of the interview to the details of a really tough situation rather than keeping them on you and the job. “Caring for a sick family member” is such a typical way to say this that it would be odd for someone to think you were trying to hide something.

the bad acid deal, the abusive boyfriend, and the threatening coworker

A reader writes:

I’m in a bit of a moral dilemma here and was hoping you and the commenters could help out.

I’ve been working at my current restaurant job for about a year now. Unlike most restaurants I’ve worked at, there have been very few HR problems — everyone got along with each other pretty well. About two months ago, we hired two new people, Jake and Diana. They were both very obviously “personalities,” but they worked hard and fit in well enough, and it’s hard to staff a restaurant without a few people who may possibly be addicted to drugs, or have sketchy connections, or poor judgement.

About a month ago, Jake and Diana somehow struck up a deal where Jake would give Diana a lot of LSD and Diana would give Jake an expensive bike (which was almost definitely stolen). Diana (along with another coworker, Lisa) is accusing Jake of selling her bad acid, likely some research chemical. She demanded a refund, but Jake hedged and generally avoided the question for a few weeks.

Some quick backstory. Diana is in an abusive relationship. This is something of an open secret at the restaurant; she has directly called it abusive before, made reference to being hit and generally painted it as a very bad situation. The boyfriend also has a tendency to show up at the restaurant unannounced, demanding to know why she isn’t home yet (during her standard, scheduled hours). It is bad news, but all attempts at intervention have failed.

All this is relevant because, shockingly (shockingly!), this bad drug deal has now escalated to threats of violence. There is now a text message record of Diana threatening to sic her boyfriend on Jake, followed by Jake asking directly if that was a threat and Diana replying “Yes.” Following this, the bike was apparently returned, but now Jake is demanding $120 from Diana as payment for the bad acid. I know all of this because Diana is openly talking about it in the kitchen in front of me and one other employee. Jake is apparently also discussing the situation with other employees.

So…what do I do here? I’m not super comfortable working with someone who threatens their coworkers (even if I have no intention to sell acid, good or bad, to anyone anytime soon), but if I report this situation, either a) one or both of them will be fired or b) the owner will sweep it under the rug because she can’t afford to lose a third of her kitchen staff. Also, Diana is living paycheck to paycheck and facing eviction over her boyfriend’s continued threats against their roommates, so there’s a real possibility that her life takes a bad turn if she gets fired.

This … is all a lot of drama.

And I’m not sure you need to get involved with it.

If this were happening in an office, it would be so wildly out of sync with what’s generally considered okay at work that I’d say yeah, you should tell your manager what’s happening.

I want to give you the same advice here, but the reality is that restaurants often tolerate a lot more of this particular kind of thing (both the drug use and the general drama). Not all of them, of course, and if your sense is that your manager would be horrified that this is happening at work, that’s a point in favor of discreetly tipping her off.

But if your main concern is less that this all happened in the first place and more that Diana and Jake keep bringing it into work by talking about it all the time, another option is to just ask them to knock it off. You could tell them both that you don’t want to get in the middle and that it doesn’t belong at work. You also could point out that if they keep bringing it to work, at some point it’s going to get back to your manager and they could lose their jobs. For good measure, you could add, “And I don’t want to be held responsible for knowing about it and not saying anything, so please don’t talk about it around me.”

It’s up to them whether to heed that warning or not (and really, it’s not a warning they should even need in the first place) — and it’s not your responsibility to save them from their own decisions. You can’t be more invested in saving their jobs than they are. And if you do decide you want to talk to your manager about it, that’s the framework you should have in your head.

But ultimately, if you’re conflicted about whether to take it to your manager or not, it’s okay to decide that this isn’t yours to solve.

how to ask for more vacation time

If you’re like most Americans, you don’t get nearly enough vacation time from your employer. But what you may not realize is that you can often negotiate more vacation time for yourself – either as part of the offer negotiation process when you’re first being hired or later on after you’ve been on the job for a while.

At New York Magazine today, I talk about how to negotiate more vacation time as part of a job offer, as well as how to ask your existing job for more time off. Head over there to read it.

my coworker gives everyone the silent treatment for weeks

A reader writes:

I have a coworker, Jane, who deals with conflict in strange and alienating ways. Recently, she’s been giving people the silent treatment on and off. It makes meetings tense, and she tends to keep it up for days or weeks at a time before spontaneously deciding she’s speaking to her coworkers again. She refuses to speak with me and others about necessary work matters until she calms down, and she makes a point of making meetings as tense as possible, up to and including only responding to direct questions from our supervisor.

In the past, I’ve tried reaching out with, “Hey, I’m not sure what’s going on but I’m sorry that I upset you – can you let me know how I can do better?” etc. but this absolutely enrages her and she shuts down completely, thus extending the length of the silent treatment. She’s told us that she just needs to be left alone to process her feelings until she feels ready to talk to us again, but it’s honestly gotten to the point where it’s disruptive to my direct reports’ and my workflow as well as really bad for morale. Not to mention, she refuses to tell anyone what upset her in the first place so no one has the ability to fix it.

I’ll be on-boarding a bunch of seasonal staff soon, and we’re heading into our busy season. I just don’t have the bandwidth for her mini-tantrums and I don’t want our new temps to feel tension or negativity right out of the gate (attrition is a problem, so it’s important that we keep them happy to the extent we can). Jane and I have the same supervisor so I’ve mentioned this to her, along with the steps I’ve taken to handle this on my own (talk to her, give her space when feasible but it’s not always feasible). Our supervisor’s been sympathetic but mentioned Jane has had such a long tenure here that basically she’ll be here until she retires and there’s not a lot we can do about her attitude. I’m feeling really stuck. I love my job, and I can’t imagine leaving over this, but there just has to be a better way to deal with this issue that I’m just not thinking of. What are your thoughts?

I have two main thoughts: Jane is a toddler, and your manager is at least as much of a problem as Jane is, if not more.

Jane’s behavior is, of course ridiculous. She doesn’t have to socialize and chit chat with people at work if she doesn’t want to, but it’s unacceptable to refuse to talk to people about work issues. She’s essentially saying “I’m going to opt out of doing my job for the next few weeks.” She’s a huge problem.

But your manager? Who sees all this right in front of her and apparently is in meetings where it happens and won’t address it? Who responds to requests for help about it by throwing up her hands and saying “oh well, nothing I can do about it”? She’s a huge problem too. Like Jane, she too is opting out of doing a key part of her job, which should include telling Jane in no uncertain terms that her behavior is unacceptable and if she wants to stay employed, she needs to talk with people about work matters, period.

So we have two people on work strikes here, although one of them probably doesn’t realize she’s doing it. (Overly passive and/or inept managers who decline to manage tend to just think “what a pain, but I can’t think of anything that can be done,” rather than deliberately setting out to abdicate responsibility … but the result is the same.)

So, what can you do? You’ve got two options, and you’ll probably end up needing to use a combination of both.

1. Call Jane on her behavior. When she ignores a work question, walk over to her desk and say, “I need the answer to X” and then stand there waiting. If she refuses to respond, then say, “You don’t need to socialize with me if you don’t want to, but you do need to continue doing your job. How would you like me to get X from you?” Similarly, if she’s being rude in meetings, call it out: “Jane, you’re the one best equipped to answer this question. Can you please respond to Bob?”

She may still stay determinedly silent, but by calling it out, you’ll make what she’s doing look even weirder and more awkward, and it will look even worse that your manager is sitting by silently.

By the way, I would drop the “sorry I upset you, what can I do better” stuff. That’s a fine approach for people who will open their mouths and engage, but with someone acting as ridiculous as she is, I wouldn’t cater to it that way. She’s being enough of an ass that she’s forfeited any right to that kind of coddling.

2. Push the problem over to your/her manager as much as possible. Jane won’t respond to work questions or is holding up workflow? Shift straight over to her manager — “Jane won’t answer this, so can you tell me how to get X?” … “We need X from Jane before we can move forward and she won’t speak to anyone. How do you want us to proceed?” … etc. Hell, you can do that in meetings while Jane is sitting right there. There’s no need to protect her from feeling the awkwardness of what she’s doing.

By taking everything Jane won’t deliver or answer straight to your/her manager, you’ll hopefully make your manager feel more of the brunt of Jane’s behavior … and if she has so little shame / so little ability to function as a manager that it doesn’t move her to deal with Jane, you’ll at least be transferring the problem over to her plate. And since she’s speaking to people, you’ll presumably get at least some sort of answer.

I suspect #1 won’t get you very far (but is still worth doing), and you’ll end up at #2. Then you can see what happens once more of this is falling on your boss to deal with.

Meanwhile, though, don’t lose sight of how utterly not-okay Jane’s behavior is. It’s crazy that your office boss is tolerating it, and it sucks that the rest of you have to put up with it.

mandatory flu shots at work, helping a coworker through an international flight, and more

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

1. Can our employer require us to get an in-office flu shot?

In years past, my office has offered an in-office flu clinic for employees who were interested. As flu season is upon us, our office reached out about the flu clinic again, but this time they are saying participation is required from everyone, and if you don’t sign up for a time, one will be assigned to you for the clinic.

No one in the office is anti-vaccination by any means, but several of us are concerned because we prefer to get our flu shots elsewhere or do not want to disclose medical reasons for avoiding the shot. A few of us have tried to tactfully notify the VP running the clinic that we don’t want to participate, but she only responds with pressure to get the shot in-office and asking directly why we don’t want the shot in the office.

Are employers allowed to mandate participation in programs like this? And if not, what is your advice for discussing with a VP who seems to be pushing for pretty personal reasons as to why we’d like to get the shot elsewhere (or if at all)?

In most circumstances, employers can indeed require that employees receive flu shots (and it’s especially common for health care workers, to protect patients from flu-infected workers). There’s something of a growing backlash against this though, and some states have introduced legislation to ban this practice so you should check to see if you have more state-level protections than federal law gives you. But for most people, the answer is yes, employers can to this, although they’re legally required to accommodate you if you need an exemption for medical or religious reasons.

If you prefer to get your flu shot from your own doctor, I’d try saying to your pushy VP, “My doctor asks that I get the shot from her at my yearly physical, which is coming up soon, and I don’t want to ignore her instructions.” If you have medical reasons for not getting it, try saying, “My doctor has instructed me not to get the flu shot. I’m sure you know that some people with certain conditions are advised against it, but I don’t want to discuss private medical details at work.” If she pushes, you may need to offer to bring in documentation from your doctor (which only needs to say you can’t have the shot, not the reasons why).

And ideally someone — or even better, a group of you — would point out to her or to someone above you that it’s great to offer the flu shot to employees, but pushing for private medical details isn’t okay.

2. I’m anxious about helping a coworker through an international flight

I will be traveling internationally for work soon. A colleague who has an impairment to one of their senses will now be joining this trip and began asking me about traveling over on the same flight so I could help them navigate the arrival process, which includes visas and a special exception they had to get in relation to their management of their impairment.

I can’t empathize fully with their situation, I know that. I can sympathize with the challenges of life with this impairment, but I have not had those same challenges myself. I know my take on this is selfish. But being given the responsibility to navigate someone else through a foreign visa entry process feels completely overwhelming and is making me panic. Part of the context here is that I am anxious about travel in general, and particularly when it’s international travel with visas et al. I also know from recent travel experience where I had to get special accommodations for entry that that additional element may spiral me into an anxiety attack. I prefer traveling solo in order to control how much time I have to get to the airport, how I plan to get places, have responsibility for only my own stuff, etc. I understand work travel is different, so I try to just get over those elements that make me anxious when I travel for work.

They haven’t booked their flight yet, so it’s unclear if we’ll be on the same one. I suggested that perhaps they should contact the airline directly to get assistance upon entry rather than relying on my ability to help them navigate, given that I may not be able to assist them properly. Regardless of whether we’re on the same flight, I genuinely feel that their getting official assistance makes more sense so I don’t accidentally mess up some aspect of their entry process. Selfishly, this also would alleviate my anxiety about navigating them through this process.

Am I being an asshole to suggest that they get airline assistance regardless? Should I be completely fine with navigating this colleague through this process myself? I’m sure I’m seeking validation in requesting a response, but I’m torn on whether I’m completely in the wrong here or if this is actually the responsible thing to do.

If you weren’t dealing with anxiety and you just didn’t feel like doing this because it sounded like a pain or you wanted to be able to have a carefree flight with no responsibilities besides yourself, then yes, I’d say you were being callous and unkind.

But it sounds like you’re dealing with your own medical issue — anxiety. And to be clear, if this were just “eh, I’m a little anxious about being responsible for someone other than myself,” I’d tell you to put that aside in the interest of helping someone who has a genuine need for help. But if you’re truly worried about an anxiety attack, then that’s different — and frankly, if you’re at risk of an anxiety attack, you’re not well positioned to help your colleague anyway.

I do worry, though, that even if you explain the situation to your coworker, it may come across as “I can’t be bothered to do this.” I don’t know if there’s anything that can be to mitigate that, other than just sounding as kind and empathetic as possible when you talk to them.

3. Asking an interviewer how performance problems are handled

I’m interviewing for a new job this week. In my current job, problem employees are pretty much not disciplined at all and are left alone as long as they do the bare minimum. It’s killing morale. I’m wondering if there’s a good way to ask what kind of consequences are enforced for problem employees, without it sounding like I’m asking because I am a problem employee myself looking to avoid getting in trouble. Help?

I’m thinking I could ask the “what’s your management style” question and then ask a follow-up question like “how do you address problems when they come up?” if it’s not covered, but maybe that’s too vague to really get at the heart of what I want to know.

I wish there were a good way to find out about this in an interview, but there isn’t really a direct question that will reliably get at it. Bad managers are notoriously bad at assessing their own management style and are very likely to give you a reasonable-sounding, textbook-y answer to this that doesn’t reflect how things really play out. And people who do this aren’t generally trying to be deceptive; they really believe what they’re saying — except that the problem is in the details. Someone might tell you they have a very structured process for addressing problems, use progressive discipline and performance improvement plans, etc. — and that could all be true, but it might also be true that you’d have to kick the CEO in the face before they’d actually use that process.

Really, what would be great is if you could ask, “Who’s the lowest performer on your team, what makes you say that, how long has that been your assessment, what have you done about it so far, and why are they still here?” That would tell you a ton. But you can’t ask that.

Instead, the best way to find out about whether a manager actually manages is to do due diligence outside of the interview, like using your network to find people who have worked at the company or with the manager before and talking to them. You’re far more likely to get candid, accurate information that way.

4. Participating in medical research when you’re in HR

I work in academia in HR. I’m not in an employee relations role, but it is a small department and we all pitch in as needed. The school is reaching out to employees (and the public in general) for voluntary participation in a study specific to a medical issue I qualify for and would have real interest in talking about. (Nothing that I’d make a trip to the doctor for, but it does impact my day-to-day life in an annoying way.) The researchers involved are said to be making real strides in this area. The study would involve a pelvic exam.

I don’t know anyone involved in the study, and everything is confidential, but I have a knee-jerk reaction that employees shouldn’t see my insides, no matter how much I’d like to participate. Am I off-base?

I think it’s totally up to you and what you’re comfortable with! If you worked with the researchers, I’d advise more caution (although even then, a lot of people would tell you that people who do pelvic exams as part of their routine work wouldn’t be weirded out by doing one on someone they know). But in this case, where you don’t even know the people involved in the study, it’s really about your own comfort level with it. There’s no established protocol that being in HR would make this off-limits to you. I mean, if the details here were different and it was possible that you could be in a meeting helping to fire the person who was examining you while you were in stirrups the day before, that would be far more awkward — but it doesn’t sound like your job has you doing that kind of thing. I think you can go for it if you want to.

5. Should I mention that I could start a new job right away rather than needing to give two weeks notice?

I’m not working except for the occasional short-term contract. The agency I work for is fine with me leaving if I get a full-time job. In short, I’m available to start a permanent job right away. Is this something I should bring up in an interview? I think it could be a factor an potential employer might consider a plus, but perhaps it might also make someone wonder if I’m some sort of problem child.

I wouldn’t volunteer it unless your interview specifically asks when you can start or it otherwise seems really relevant. That’s because most employers are planning on people needing to give a notice period, and aren’t going to be hugely swayed by hearing you don’t need one. There are some employers who would be excited that you could start earlier, but not enough of them to make this worth raising on its own unless there’s an obvious reason to.

But if it does come up on its own or you’re asked about it, you can say, “I’m on a short-term contract right now, and my end date is flexible. I could do the standard two weeks, but I could also probably wrap up sooner than that if you needed me to.”

how can I brace myself for my toxic new job?

A reader writes:

After searching for over three months, I finally received a job offer. I accepted and will start in a week.

While I am happy to have the offer and will take the job, I am a little wary. Since accepting the offer and letting a few friends and family members know I got the position, I have received a number of warnings from people who either work there, have worked there, or know someone who works/worked there. The warnings range from, “Your new boss is a b*tch” to “Don’t get involved in office politics” to “That place is a cesspool.” I trust the individuals who are telling me this so I don’t believe that it’s just idle gossip or baseless criticisms, and I did see a bit of what they are indicating at play during the interview process. Lots of subtle, but still noticeable, power plays were evident among two of the executives on the panel, but I shrugged it off as me reading too much into things. Now, I’m not so sure. Plus, there were a lot of layoffs recently and an insider told me that employee morale is very low. To add to this, the company is not very well-situated in the eyes of the public and the department I will be in is receiving the brunt of the criticisms.

While none of these warnings or bad vibes make me want to reject the offer (quite frankly, I need the money), they do make me a little anxious. I’ve seen you share lots of tips for how to deal with a toxic work environment while you’re an employee, but is there any advice you can give to someone who is willingly about to enter a such an environment? I already plan to keep my options open, keep to myself as much as is possible for an extrovert like me, and actively refrain from getting into toxic conversations, but what else can I do?

Be vigilant about remembering that this place is dysfunctional and don’t get too invested.

That might sound obvious, but one of the ways that dysfunctional workplaces harm the people who work there is by warping their sense of what’s normal … and by getting them overly invested in trying to make something work that they aren’t well positioned to fix in any meaningful way.

There’s nothing wrong with taking a job at a crappy company just because you need the money! We work for money, after all. What’s important is that you don’t lose sight of that, and that you keep some emotional distance so that you don’t get sucked into drama or toxicity or weirdness. You’re just there to do your job and go home.

Be pleasant and polite, but let any crap you see roll off your back. Remember that you don’t need to care about whatever problems exist there and that this is not your organization to fix. (That assumes that you’re in a job that allows for that approach. If you’re senior management or in a department charged with making things work better, like some parts of HR, that’s much harder, so I’m hoping neither of those is the case for you.)

This approach does mean that you might not make the type of close work friendships that you might make in another company. In very dysfunctional environments, close friendships are often based on some degree of commiserating over the mess, and you want to avoid that. And frankly, work friendships can draw you into the dysfunction in ways you don’t expect; you might do an excellent job of distancing yourself from your office’s toxicity, only to find yourself suddenly invested in ways you vowed not to be when it affects someone you’ve grown close to. That’s not to say “don’t care about the people around you” — but part of working in a highly dysfunctional office is that if you invest in anything there, you’re creating an opening for the dysfunction to come for you too at some point. That sucks and is unfair, and it’s also very much the reality of it. So proceed with caution.

All that said, you should also keep in mind that everything you’ve heard so far is secondhand. You’ve heard enough of it that it’s pretty likely it’s true … but it’s also true that different people react to things in different ways. Some people are able to shrug off things that other people run screaming from, and there’s at least some chance that you’ll get there and find that you aren’t as bothered as the people warning you have been. So don’t go in primed to see everything in the worst possible light — because that can make things frustrate you more than they would otherwise. But that’s a delicate balancing act when you combine it with all of the above.

the office that became a circus of barking dogs and other tales of dogs at work

Of all the perks some employers offer to entice employees to stay at the office longer – free food and drinks, foosball tables, nap rooms, even laundry service – there’s one that brings out stronger emotions than all the rest: dogs at work.

At Slate today, I wrote about why some people love having dogs at work, and others hate it — and what happens when it goes really wrong. You can read it here.