will my employee be demoralized by a coworker’s promotion?

A reader writes:

I’m newly the manager of a small group of three people. One of my first acts will be to promote someone in our group-let’s call her Sarah- who is overdue for recognition of the truly outstanding work she does for our organization. One of my other reports, Dian, currently shares the same title as Sarah, and has been at the company far longer, but won’t be receiving a promotion now (or at any point, unless her contributions change considerably.) Diane does a lot that’s great but only in particular areas-she is inconsistent and at times incompetent at others. Nonetheless, she is valued for the number of things she does do very well.

What is the proper etiquette in this situation? Should managers tell other reports that one of their colleagues will be receiving a promotion before the announcement goes out company-wide? I anticipate that Diane will feel demoralized at this news, something that I’d like to address if I can because one of the things that hinders her work is a recurring sense of discouragement and disengagement when things don’t go well. Should I tell her in a matter-of-fact way about Sarah before she hears along with everyone else? If I think she has mixed feelings about it, should I find a tactful way to raise that with her? Or should I just be business-as-usual and stop trying to anticipate possible reactions?

I answer this question — and three others — over at Inc. today, where I’m revisiting letters that have been buried in the archives here from years ago (and sometimes updating/expanding my answers to them). You can read it here.

Other questions I’m answering there today include:

  • Will connecting on LinkedIn make my staff realize how young I am?
  • Applications that want me to share something unique about myself
  • Our intern sounds unprofessional

ask the readers: how do I get people to remember me?

Per Thursday tradition, I’m throwing this letter out to readers to weigh in on. This is an interesting one:

How do I get people to remember me?

Today, my colleague and I attended a meeting to finalize a work program we had negotiated with an external organization. The meeting followed six months on from an initial two-hour face-to-face meeting that both my colleague and I attended and contributed to, and multiple email exchanges in which my colleague and I participated. There were two people from the contracting organization, both of whom I had met at the initial meeting. One could not remember my name, and one did not remember meeting me at all. Both remembered my colleague, who is more well known than me in this sub-field.

This is regular experience for me. People often forget meeting me, or are not sure if they have or not, and often forget my (run of the mill) name. Name forgetting I can live with, but having people forget they ever met me is disheartening. More than that, it feels humiliating. As importantly, work in my industry flows through networks, and I think my “forgettability” hurts me professionally.

I am a quietly spoken but confident (although perhaps increasingly less so) white woman in my mid-40s. I contribute thoughtfully in meetings, am very good at my work, and have a great reputation amongst people who know (and remember!) me. In professional contexts outside of meetings, I am friendly and feel socially confident, although I am perhaps a little quiet when I first meet someone. If it’s relevant, I physically look and dress like many, many women in my field.

My field is dominated by women at the lower levels of staffing, and by men in senior positions — but the forgetting seems to be gender neutral.

I need to change this, for my professional trajectory and sense of self, but I am at a loss as to what to do. Do you have advice?

organizing an all-men beach weekend for coworkers, is gossip beneficial at work, and more

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

1. Should I organize an all-men beach weekend for my coworkers?

I work at a bank branch of about 17 people, nine of whom are male. I’m considering inviting all the guys in the office for a weekend at the beach. We all get along and enjoy golfing, and think it could be a fun weekend. I wouldn’t be advertising it around the office because this would be a “guys weekend,” but since all the guys in the office are being invited, I’m anticipating the women in the office hearing about it and causing some drama.

Am I overthinking this because of the office culture we live in today, or is there a specific way that I should approach this? No work is going on during the trip, so no “deals” are being made. We are simply hanging out. The simple fact is that us guys are all pretty friendly towards one another and enjoy each other’s company. We’re all on the same career path and no one officially answers to or manages the other. Thoughts?

Yeah, it’s likely to be a problem. There’s a long history of women being excluded professionally through informal all-male social networks, where men are included in networking and business conversations in off-hours social settings without women. You have to understand that history to understand why, even if you 100% don’t intend this that way, it’s likely to have echoes of that to people. (Especially with the golf, by the way, as that was a traditional way women were excluded. Golf and strip clubs.)

Don’t be part of that, and definitely don’t be the person who organizes it. At a minimum it’s going to look really bad, and you may end up causing real issues in your office, as well as making people above you question your judgment.

And if you’re really friends with all the men in the office and none of the women, it’s worth thinking about why that is, since in a group of 17 people, that’s not likely to be a random quirk of statistics.

2. Do I need to gossip in order to hear insider info about my job?

I’ve always felt strongly about not gossiping at work, but I’ve noticed recently that the people who gossip know much more about what is going on with the company than I do. They knew ahead of time about the state of the company, possible layoffs, and upcoming changes when I was blindsided. Is it possible that engaging in gossiping is a social investment to open you up to being told more insider information?

There are different types of gossip, and I wonder if you’re grouping all in together when you shouldn’t. The bad kind of gossip is when gossip about other people that’s unkind and/or no one else’s business (like gossiping about someone’s sex life) or that’s based on nothing more than idle speculation (“Jane has been out a lot lately, I bet she’s job searching”). But there’s also good gossip — positive thoughts that you wouldn’t mind getting back to the person you’re talking about (like how much you like working with Jane or what impressive feedback you’ve heard about Bob). And then there’s sharing work-related information, which seems to be the type of thing you’re talking about. That’s not usually gossip — that’s talking about what’s going on with your company and in your industry.

It’s true that people who engage in bad gossip are often going to hear the work-related info too, because they’re talking to people a lot and having free-floating conversations and it’s more likely to come up for them than for someone who limits how much they talk to others. But you don’t need to engage in bad gossip to hear this kind of thing — you just need to build relationships with people and make a point of talking to them informally and being open to tangents. I would focus there and see if it changes the type and amount of information that flows your way.

3. Awkward text exchange with a boss-turned-friend-turned-boss

I work in higher education, and I have a situation with my boss I would love some help with. I worked for “Amanda” for a few years, and while she was my supervisor, we had a friendly but professional relationship. Our team was only part-time student workers and us, and we worked together very closely. After I left to complete my PhD, she and I became good friends, regularly meeting for brunches and happy hours, along with a few other former employees. We also texted/emailed regularly. A year and a half later, the person who took on my old position resigned, and Amanda hired me back. At the same time, our team of two became a team of three with the addition of a new full-time staff member, “Gina.”

In the year since my return to work, I felt like Amanda and I were balancing friendship and the supervisor/employee relationship well, though I will admit I did impart a little more distance given her status as my boss and the addition of Gina to our team. My return to the office also coincided with Amanda falling out with one member of our brunch group, so our out-of-office hangouts also largely died out (though we do sometimes get a drink or dinner with Gina after work events). I still see her former friend regularly on my own (which she knows about), but she and I talk about work and our personal lives every day and spend a great deal of time together, so I haven’t really made an effort to schedule alone time outside of work with her.

Last week, she and I had a late-night text conversation that started about a work-related thing, but then devolved into her telling me how much it hurt her that we are no longer friends. She had clearly been drinking, and tone of her texts was rather inappropriate (a close friend who read the texts described them as “insecure high school mean girl”). I was very taken aback by them, and tried to explain that I still thought of her as a friend but that I was trying to navigate a rather muddled personal/professional relationship. I also said I didn’t want to create an environment where Gina might feel excluded. She replied by saying that it made her very sad, but I made it clear how I felt and she’d “just deal with it.” I said I was going to bed but that we should talk about this in person at some point, and she stopped replying.

The next day I just opted to pretend it never happened unless she brought it up, which she didn’t. Her behavior in the office has been more or less as usual, though she has been a bit more distant and on occasion snippy with me. Other than her boundary issues, she is a really great boss and we work well together. I’m not sure if I should bring this up with her, or let it lie unless she brings it up herself. Do you have any advice?

I wouldn’t bring it up. It’s possible that she’s embarrassed by the conversation (or even that she doesn’t remember the details, depending on how much she’d been drinking). As long as she’s treating you more or less the same, I wouldn’t bring it back up again and risk further awkwardness with little gain.

If she does start treating you oddly though, or if you see additional signs that the (necessary) change in your relationship is causing issues, then you might be stuck having to discuss it. I’d approach that as “hey, I’ve tried to be really thoughtful about how we navigate social boundaries now that you’re my boss, and I know that’s inherently weird since the nature of our relationship has changed a couple of time now, but I feel like we’re doing a pretty good job of it.” If you model an approach that’s pretty matter-of-fact that of course things had to change, she might take her cues from you, even if she does feel weird about it. (And it’s pretty normal for either of you to feel weird about it at times! It is weird. That’s okay.)

4. Asking about raises when you’re being hired

I’ve been in my current position (as a librarian at a university) for almost five years. I’ve had one performance-based raise (which are an exception at my institution) and no adjustments for cost-of-living increases. No one on staff has gotten a cost-of-living raise in many years. Thanks to the fact that I’m about to be getting paid effectively *less* than when I started, I’ve started applying for new jobs. When should I ask about the frequency of cost-of-living raises in the hiring process? Or is that something I should assume will happen and it would be weird to ask about it?

You can ask once you have a job offer and are negotiating salary. In that context, you can say, “So that I know what to expect in the future, can you tell me how you typically handle salary increases? Do you have set periods for offering merit raises or cost-of-living adjustments?”

5. Explaining company acquisition on a resume

How does one handle a company acquisition on a resume? I worked at Company A for three years until September 2017, at which point they were acquired by Company B. I immediately began looking for a new job and did not include Company B on my resume, but would explain the situation during a phone interview. I was employed with Company B through January 2018. When my new job did a background check, I had to disclose the information anyway, and felt like I was lying since I didn’t expressly include it on my resume.

What’s the best way to handle this? Should the new company become its own line item, or can I keep the job as one entry, and note that Company A was acquired by Company B in Sept 2017?

It doesn’t need to become its own line item. You can do it this way:

Company A, September 2015 – January 2018 (acquired by Company B in fall 2017)

my employee works late every night, but it seems to be her fault

A reader writes:

Recently I’ve encountered a tricky work issue, and I’m struggling to come up with a solution. I’m a new manager with one direct report. I’m also a recent addition to this team, which I’ve since learned has had a lot of turnover and inconsistent leadership in the past year. My direct report is one of the few people with over a year’s experience working in this group.

So here is the problem: I noticed right away that deadlines are regularly missed and frantic late nights are the norm. The more involved I’ve gotten, the less this has been the case. Not having to stay late personally, however, hasn’t stopped me from occasionally pulling late nights for what I consider “symbolic” reasons. I feel guilty leaving at 5 when my direct report is staring down easily another four hours of work.

At first I tried resolving this problem by taking over part of her workload. This worked for a while, but I was soon fielding angry emails from finance, telling me projects weren’t scoped for this degree of involvement from me. I can only participate in a review capacity. So now I just regularly check in, and I do a lot of “backseat work” over her shoulder. I parse through her work and provide detailed feedback. We’ve avoided coming hard against any deadlines this way, but to be honest, the late nights have not stopped. The more closely I’ve worked with her, the more I feel like it can be attributed to a lack of proactivity and independent problem-solving on her part. It’s like she’ll wait all day for feedback (in the form of very prescriptive instructions), and then spend all night incorporating it.

My perspective on the situation has changed. I now feel like, as long as we aren’t missing deadlines, it’s no longer a problem if she’s regularly working late nights. She may just need more time to complete her work, so that’s going to translate into longer work hours. But I still feel guilty about the situation—particularly when she gives me a report every morning of just how late she stayed the night before. Sometimes she does this in a way that I can tell is more like, “Look how hard I’m working.” But other times, I wonder if she’s framing her frequent late nights as a problem for me to solve. When I head out at normal working hours, she also sometimes makes comments like, “That must be nice.” I suspect she thinks she is working much harder than I am.

The frustrating part is that I don’t know how to say to someone pulling 12-hour days that I think she needs to apply herself more — that, in fact, working harder, instead of just pushing paper around waiting to go home, would allow her finish work and go home much sooner. She also has more experience on this team than I do. I don’t want to undervalue her work or dedication, but I also don’t want to feel guilty every day I leave at a normal time.

What would you do in this situation?

Talk to her! As a general rule, if you as a manager have concerns about an employee that you haven’t shared with the employee, that’s a sign that you need to have a conversation.

I’d frame it this way: “I know you’ve been working long hours and I’ve been trying to work closely with you so I can figure out solutions to that. In doing that, I’ve noticed that the most intensive parts of your work often get done in the evenings rather than during the day. I’d like to shift that. I think if you were doing things like X and Y during the day, there would be far less need for you to work into the evenings. Can we talk about what’s getting in the way of you being able to do that?”

Also: “My sense is that often you’re not moving work forward as quickly during the day because you’re waiting for more detailed instructions from me. I’d like you to be solving problems like X and Y yourself, both because that makes sense for your role and because that will let you keep work moving without having to wait for me.”

You may then need to do some coaching with her about how to problem-solve on her own. (There’s some advice on how to do that here.) But if that’s a reasonable expectation for her job, you do need to explain to her that you expect that and hold her accountable for doing that.

I would not, however, decide that you’re fine with her regularly working late nights as long as she’s not missing deadlines. It’s not really okay for someone to do that as a regular thing, for a whole bunch of reasons. First, it’s not great for her (for obvious reasons). Second, it’s not great for you as her manager — it’s not going to reflect well on you to people who notice it, because it’ll look like you either overwork her or aren’t addressing a problem. Third, it’s not great for others who see this happening and may think regular late nights are part of your office’s culture. If the work should take eight hours a day and it’s taking her 12, that’s something you have to address.

And you need her to know that that shouldn’t be happening, and that the two of you will need to actively work together to stop that need. That’ll also hopefully curtail those “must be nice” comments about your own hours, which are particularly inappropriate given the context.

Also … how’s her work in general? I’m asking because what you’re describing often goes hand-in-hand with lower work quality in general, especially given the lack of independent decision-making. And if that’s the case here, this is just one part of a larger issue that you’ll have to address.

how to manage an overly talkative intern

This week on the Ask a Manager podcast, I talk to a manager whose intern is way too talkative — and who has some boundary problems too.

The show is 23 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:

Here’s the letter that kicks off the discussion:

I could really use some advice on managing an inexperienced person. I have an intern this summer who is a loud, nervous talker and who occasionally slips into inappropriate topics of conversation. When discussing her work, she goes on and on, reiterating a question three or four times and explaining why she’s asking … all without taking a break to let me answer, even the most basic questions. For example, I manage our social media for the company, when she asked what our Twitter handle was, she asked “what was the Twitter handle? I just want to write it down so I don’t forget, or I guess I could just look it up. Like, duh, that wouldn’t be that hard. I should probably already know this, but I just haven’t been on twitter much. I mean, I posted those things you asked me about, but I wasn’t like ON Twitter to do it, so I didn’t notice what the company twitter handle was.”

Once or twice I have interrupted her by saying “ok,” and holding up a hand (like a “slow down” gesture), and answered her question. That went fine, but didn’t change anything. She shows no sign of getting comfortable, and I don’t know that she’s aware she’s doing it.

I know it is because she’s nervous. This is her first office job, and she’s pretty young, even for an intern. Other people have noticed and started avoiding her a little bit, and it has only been three weeks. 

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.

update: my intern is refusing assignments because of her politics

Remember last week’s letter about the intern who was refusing tasks because of political objections? Here’s the (very interesting!) update.

I apologise for being so late in getting back to you. I had a family emergency and missed seeing that you had posted my question until after you had closed comments. Then I wanted to take the time to read through all the comments (1300+!) before replying. Please feel free to post as much – or as little – of this as you would like.

If I could clarify a few things: the politician in question is not a Nazi, literal or otherwise. He is a dyed-in-the-wool right-wing conservative with whom I disagree on virtually every issue. He is controversial in part because of his private life, which he has made part of his public persona – otherwise, I would believe that his private life is no one’s business but his. To avoid starting another firestorm, I want to make it clear that as far as I know, he has not been implicated in the #MeToo movement. He has, however, been repeatedly accused of cronyism and nepotism, and embodies the cliche of the “family values” politician who regularly trades in his wife for a younger model.

I find myself in the strange position of sounding like I am defending him, which I certainly am not – as I said, I have protested outside his offices before. But I feel compelled to point out that the wilder speculations about his identity and politics were incorrect, if understandable, given that I was reluctant to give any more details about him.

In part, that’s what surprised me so much about my intern’s response. I’m not trying to police anyone’s feelings, but her vehemence seemed disproportionate. What she actually said to me (as close as I can remember) is “I hate that guy so much. If you forced me to have anything to do with him I would keep punching him and punching him and punching him until he fell over on his stupid smug face.’” So, like many of your commenters imagined, it was a hyperbolic – and inappropriate – comment, but not one I viewed as a serious threat to anyone’s safety.

I also want to point out that there is a difference in our institution between a “private tour’”and a “VIP tour.” Again, a number of your commenters were correct when they suggested that the private tour was done for the convenience of everyone, and not as a statement of support for this politician. It is our policy to try and arrange these private tours (with no press or PR attention) for anyone who is in the public eye. And we do this not because it’s a special treat for them – although you could argue that it is – but because it minimises the disruption to everyone else. As much as it seems reasonable to suggest that this man buy a ticket and wait in line like other visitors, that would actually be a disaster. Having someone at his level of national prominence walking openly around with the public would be an enormous security threat (for which we would be responsible). Not to mention, it would completely destroy the chance for anyone else to enjoy the exhibition.

His office approached us to request the private tour. We would – and have – granted the same to anyone at a similar level, on either side of the political spectrum. We have also done this for local and national celebrities and well-known sports figures who want to see the exhibition. Again, I want to emphasise that these are NOT press or PR events; in this particular case, no one was aware of the visit outside of museum staff and this politician’s employees.

Several of your commenters suggested that I was interested in maintaining appearances over morality. I know those comments were intended as criticisms, but I was grateful for them because they prodded me to think more clearly about a point that I think I articulated very poorly before. Namely, that for me, it is very important to think of a museum as an institution that is open for everyone, even those I strongly disagree with. Being welcoming to everyone *is* a moral standard for me. We are a public institution, funded by the public, and should be open to the public. I’m not naive enough to think that museums will fix the world or that my work will transform every bigot who sees it, but I wouldn’t be doing what I do if I didn’t believe in the potential of art and history to change ideas and minds.

That said, I agree with you that there is a place where everyone must draw a line. I don’t know what I would do if I was asked to give a private tour to someone like David Duke or Nick Griffin. I can’t imagine that my museum would put me into such a situation, honestly. But if something like that were to happen, I would almost certainly politely step aside, and be willing to accept any consequences for doing so.

So here’s what happened with the actual situation I wrote in to you about. In my initial surprise at her response, I told my intern that she could bow out. As I said, the offer to be included in such a tour would be considered a perk by a lot of people starting out – not because of the person being given the tour, but because the interns get a chance to see more behind-the-scenes aspects of museum work. As such, I had a number of volunteers from the intern pool eager to step in and do the logistics work. I did the tour solo (with the exception of security people, of course) and it went smoothly.

But I did speak to my intern about her response and the “punching and punching” comment. I told her that that kind of comment was totally inappropriate in any work context, but especially in ours. She seemed surprised, and responded that she thought I was “cool,” which was why she felt free to say what she did. I told her that it had nothing to do with being cool, but with what is appropriate in a workplace, and that a comment like hers – along with her refusal to do the logistics work – could have ended in her termination. Again, she seemed surprised at this, but also seemed to take it in, and she thanked me for my input. Honestly, *I’m* not surprised at her. I have a lot of experience dealing with interns, and often they reach us at the ages of 27 or 28 towards the end of their graduate studies. Many times these interns have literally never had a job before, and they find it hard to adjust to an actual working environment, where they have to show up on time and do things they don’t want to. I’m not denigrating them at all, please understand that. It’s just that they are learning the “soft skills” of working far later than most people do, and I’m usually pretty patient with that while also setting firm expectations.

Anyway, I wanted to thank you very much for running my question, and for moderating the firestorm that it apparently ignited. I appreciated many of your commenters ideas and opinions, and apologise for missing the post on the day, and not foreseeing that this would be such a loaded question. Thanks again!

is it okay to write someone’s cover letter for them, a mysterious fragrance, and more

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

1. Is it okay for me to write other people’s cover letters for them?

I do a fair bit of writing and editing for my job, and sometimes friends or family members will ask me for help with their own writing projects — especially cover letters. I am curious about what degree of help is ethical and appropriate for me to provide. For example: I am currently helping a friend who is an engineer with her application for a role does not seem to involve writing at all. She is a great engineer, but not a great cover letter writer, and so the final product is starting to resemble a ghostwriting project I might do at work — she gave me great content to include and I worked to capture her voice, but I feel like I have done most of the work in creating the letter.

Will it reflect badly on her if she gets the job, and doesn’t write this way in emails, memos, and other written communications that are part of a non-writing job? Or do hiring managers understand that candidates may get a lot of help on their cover letters, especially if they are weak writers? And if the former is true, how can a candidate who is good at their profession but bad at writing increase their chances of getting an interview? I kind of feel like I’m helping her cheat, but then I think about what a common practice ghostwriting is for people and organizations with sterling reputations, so I am waffling on this question!

I’m sure some people will disagree with me, but if I found out a candidate had someone else write their cover letter, I wouldn’t think too well of them.

I get that it’s tough for people who aren’t great writers, when they’re in a system that relies on a decent cover letter to get in the door. But if she’s applying for positions that don’t require great writing, then her cover letter doesn’t need to show great writing either. For a non-writing-based job, she just needs to show that she communicates reasonably competently in writing, not that she’s Hemingway.

And yes, if she’s going to need to write emails, memos, etc. on the job, the hiring manager may indeed assume her cover letter reflects the level of skill she’ll bring to doing that. To be clear, a savvy hiring manager would give her a writing exercise to test that as part of the hiring process if that’s something they’re going to put a lot of weight on (because they’d know that there’s no way to know how much help she might have had with the letter) — but meanwhile, she’s still presenting work as her own that isn’t her own, and that’s misleading.

It’s one thing to help someone edit a cover letter that they wrote themselves, or to give feedback and guidance on what the letter should contain. But you shouldn’t be writing it for them.

2. A mysterious fragrance in cubeville

There is someone on my floor who is using some sort of scented product several times through the day (maybe a lotion or air freshener). I’m sensitive to smells in general, but this particular one I can taste in the back of my throat as soon as it’s released, and it has triggered headaches and nausea.

Problem is, I can’t pinpoint who or what is the source. I’ve mentioned it to everyone on my team, and they don’t know where it’s coming from either. Some have also noticed it, but no one else is affected to the extent I am, thankfully. I’m pretty sure they aren’t the source, since I’ve noticed it at times when they’ve all been away from their desks. That leaves another (completely unrelated) department which is also located on our floor. We all have cubes, and there’s nowhere open/away from the smell for me to move my desk to. I’ve taken to just getting up and going away from my desk for a while, and waiting for it to dissipate. I’ve tried chewing gum, but it doesn’t mask the taste.

I feel like I need to let my manager know what’s going on. I have no clue who the source is, let alone the names of most of the people in that department, so I haven’t addressed it with anyone directly. Short of sniffing virtual strangers as they go about their work, I don’t think I’ll be able to locate the offender. I know my manager has noticed the times I’m away from my desk, although it hasn’t impacted my productivity, so I’d like to make sure she knows the reason. I’d also really like it if the smell went away. What should I say?

This isn’t just “I don’t enjoy this scent.” It’s “this scent is giving me headaches and nausea.” You absolutely can go to your manager and say, “I wanted to let you know someone on our floor is using a scented product several times a day that I seem to be sensitive to; it’s been giving me headaches and nausea. I haven’t been able to figure out where it’s coming from, but I’m pretty sure it’s not our team since I’ve noticed it when they’ve been away from their desks. I’ve taken to working away from my desk when it happens, waiting for it to dissipate. At a minimum, I wanted to let you know that so you don’t wonder where I am. But also, I’d love it if we could figure out where it’s coming from and hopefully ask for a change so that I’m not having this daily physical reaction.”

3. My boss laid me off but wants me to work four hours a week without immediate pay

I was laid off last week and I already filed unemployment (I’m in Rhode Island). Today my boss/owner of the company told me that it was due to “lack of work” and we have a return-to-work date of eight weeks from now. However, since there are only three employees working for this company and she laid all of us off, she put herself in a situation in which there is no one to operate her business. Of course her business needs to function, so she asked us if we can continue working four hours a week without pay. We would receive compensation for our services upon our return-to-work date, eight weeks from now.

Can I tell her no, I don’t want to work at all while I am collecting unemployment? Does she have the right to make me work those hours? And to wait to receive pay? If she does force me to work those hours, does that mean I need to report it to unemployment? I believe that my situation is case of a boss taking advantage of loyal, hardworking employees, but I don’t want to lose my job over four hours.

She can require you to work those hours in order to have a job later, but she can’t require you to wait to be paid. In fact, Rhode Island requires that you be paid on your regularly scheduled paydays, and within nine days of the end of the pay period.

So one possibility is for you to say, “I can do the four hours a week if we’re able to stick to our regular paydays during this period, but state law says that we would need to be paid within nine days of the end of the pay period. If that’s not feasible to do, we’d need to hold off any work until can be paid, so that we don’t run afoul of the law.” You could add, “Since I’m collecting unemployment, I think they’ll be scrutinizing how this works, so I need to be really careful about doing this legally.”

Also, you should be actively job searching in the interim. She may intend to bring you back in eight weeks, but there’s no guarantee that will definitely happen (and even if it does, this is a pretty big danger sign about the long-term stability of your job there).

4. How can I back out of an interview with a staffing agency?

I recently applied for an office management position at a local staffing firm — at one, not through one, at a posting that I found on their website and LinkedIn page. It became clear in the initial phone interview that they were looking to shop me out as a candidate to some of their clients. I quickly clarified their intentions, and let them know that while this changes the tone of the interview for me, I was willing to discuss the job opportunity they had in mind. But truthfully, I’m not interested in using a staffing agency to find work, and I’m feeling rather naive and a little tricked! Needless to say, they could not produce a job description for me to review; instead they asked to set up an in-person meeting, which I agreed to, because I was so surprised in the moment that I didn’t know what else to say.

This company has a good reputation in my city, and I don’t want to burn bridges. How do I back out of this professionally?

There’s a very good chance that the position you applied for doesn’t actually exist. Staffing firms are notorious for advertising fake positions in order to get candidates who they can then shop to other employers.

You can back out by saying something like, “Thanks so much for talking with me the other day. After thinking over our conversation, I’m going to withdraw my application from consideration, and thus need to cancel our interview on Friday, but wish you the best of luck in your search.” If they question you, it’s fine to say, “I had the impression from the ad I responded to that I was applying for an in-house position. I understand now that that’s not the case, and I prefer to apply to employers directly.”

5. Should I conduct exit interviews?

​My assistant is leaving at the end of the month. I’ve always heard you should lead an exit interview with anyone who quits. Is an exit interview still the norm if the employee was part-time? He was at our organization 20 hours a week for one year. If I should lead an exit interview, can you please let me know what types of questions should be included?

It’s really up to you. Some employers do them, and some don’t. There’s no point in doing them unless you’re genuinely interested in the information you’ll receive and open to acting on it in some way; don’t do it just to go through the motions because that will create cynicism in your other employees. And of course, exit interviews shouldn’t take the place of checking in with people regularly while they’re still employees (and if you’re only going to do one or the other, do that!), but sometimes you get more candor from people when they’re leaving.

Rather than doing it yourself, it can make sense to have your own boss or HR do it, since people might not feel as comfortable sharing feedback directly with you (especially if the feedback is about you).

Good questions to ask: What could we do to make this job work even better? What should your manager do differently? How comfortable were you approaching your manager with a concern? What do you wish you knew when you first started working here? What do you wish you could tell the next person in this role? What could we have done to convince you to stay?

how much do I need to alter my own schedule for a job interview?

A reader writes:

I have been applying for other jobs and have had some success (thanks to your helpful tips for cover letters!)

I had a phone interview with a company last week and we are trying to schedule a time for me to come in to meet with several members of the hiring team in person.

My question is how much do I have to maneuver my own schedule to meet their needs? I am excited about the role and would like to get in for an interview as soon as I can. But the availability I gave (five full days over about a week and a half) didn’t work for most of the people I’d need to meet with. They asked me for my availability the following week, which is just not good at all. It’s a very busy time at my current job. I have several meetings with some higher-ups that are just very difficult to reschedule

I’m unsure about what to do here. If I give open availability to the interviewers, I risk needing to reschedule these meetings which would definitely raise a red flag to my current manager. But if I only give availability that works around my schedule, it leaves the new company with few options to meet the needs of their hiring team. I certainly don’t want to risk them rescinding the interview because I’m too difficult to schedule with! But I also think my current position is the one that’s paying me and the interview is no guarantee of a job, so why should I risk alerting my manager to my job search? Maybe I’m overthinking all this too and it’s not a huge deal one way or the other. Any advice would be helpful!

Ideally, interviewing scheduling allows for some back and forth. You say “I’m open on XYZ days,” they say “those won’t work for us, could you do ABC instead,” you say “I’m scheduled to teach an uncancellable class those days, are there any other options that would work,” and somehow in there you find a time that works for everyone.

The reality, though, is that sometimes schedules just don’t match up and someone will have to compromise. Sometimes that’s just because everyone involved has a packed calendar, sometimes it’s because the employer is being overly rigid about dates (like only offering one or two and refusing to consider others), and sometimes it’s because there’s a reason for that rigidity (like some interviewers are coming in from out of town and so all interviews have to be done in a three-day period).

A good employer will try to be flexible for a really strong candidate, but they’re going to be subject to the kind of restrictions I just mentioned.

A bad employer won’t even try to be flexible and will just announce a single date they expect you to show up, take it or leave it.

A good employer may get a little frustrated if they throw out a bunch of options and you don’t seem like you’re trying to make any of them work. They’ll reasonably expect that if it’s proving tough to get schedules to line up, you’ll give a little on your side to try to help that (just as they should on their side if they can).

So what does that mean for your situation? In your shoes, I’d give them a list of dates over the next three weeks that you absolutely cannot do and offer to make yourself available for anything outside of those, even if it means having to move things around. (And be judicious in composing that list; if you say you’re unavailable 75% of that time, you’re making it pretty hard for them.) And it’s fine to give some context, saying something like, “It’s an unusually busy time at my current job and I’m locked into quite a few commitments there, but as long as we can avoid these dates, I can find a way to make it work.”

If they come back and say, “sorry, we can only do (date you can’t do),” then at that point you have to decide if you’re willing to agree to that or not. But with a decent employer, it’s reasonable to explain your restrictions and ask if there’s a way to work around them.

should I use a job offer to get a raise at my current job?

A reader writes:

I’ve worked in development at a significant cultural institution for over a decade. I’m frequently told I’m an essential member of the team and that things would fall apart without me. Two years in a row now I’ve been told to expect a promotion, and then asked to wait until the following year for both a promotion and a raise. This past fiscal year, I was told to pass on the promotion for budgeting reasons; they said I should push it off a year in order to get a raise commensurate with what I deserve. Recently, I was told the same thing is true for this coming fiscal year– that I should wait until next year for my promotion and raise.

I assist in creating our budget, and I know that we’re having a rough couple of years and significant difficulties trying to hit the goals given to us. We’ll likely come in under our goals by about 10% this year, and everyone has had to tighten up our spending across the board. They’re even talking about not giving raises this year.

But I feel like I’m being taken advantage of right now, that they think that because I’ve been in the department longer than almost anyone else, that they can count on me to continue working here indefinitely.

I believe that if I had a job offer somewhere else, they’d find the money to keep me in our multimillion dollar budget. I feel like the fact that I haven’t gone out and found another job offer is allowing them to take advantage of me.

A job just opened up across town in a significant cultural institution whose mission I agree with, within walking distance of my house, but also at an organization I know can be more dysfunctional than the organization I work for. I think I could get that job, but what I really want is for my interest in that job to give my current organization the incentive to fight for me and not take advantage of me anymore. I don’t know if this is even a valid hope.

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

my child-free coworkers constantly complain about people with children

A reader writes:

I recently started a new job in an office. Overall the work environment is great — everyone is expected to work hard, but we are treated like adults and our individual methods and moment-to-moment doings aren’t policed much at all.

I share a work-space with a coworker, V, which also houses the printer and the mailboxes for the department. Thus, many other employees pass through our space, often stopping to say hello or chat for a minute. This is mostly fine, and doesn’t impede my concentration.

However, there is one coworker, M, who comes in about 8-12 times a day and usually stays several minutes to chat with V. They engage in venting which is clearly therapeutic for them, and while the negativity can be exhausting to listen to at times, usually I can tune it out. The chats never go on too terribly long, just a bit longer than the office norm.

However, fairly often lately the thing V wants to vent about is receiving baby shower invites from relatives, and that always segues into both of them just talking really poisonous vitriol about people with children and about children themselves, how annoying it is when they cry at restaurants, etc. They are both committedly child-free dog parents and seem to have a lot of resentment about how society relegates their relationships with their pets to second class status, and on a basic level I very much agree: as someone who worked closely with parents and children in a previous incarnation of my career, I feel very strongly that the way parenthood is pushed on people as The Only Way To Experience Real Fulfillment is major bullshit and hurts children as well as adults. Nobody should be pressured into having kids if they don’t really, really want to. Having a dog is a much saner and more eco-friendly choice! The office is full of Pet People, and overall I love that.

That being said … as well as being a Pet Person myself, I do really, really want to have kids, and a big factor in my choice of employer and leaving my old field was this particular company’s parent-friendly benefits policy. Hearing them speak so scathingly of “breeders” and “brats” makes me quite uncomfortable, as it’s easy to then imagine what they’ll think of me when I (eventually) have a child (although I’m hoping not to still be in my same position by then as it’s quite entry level, I’d be happy to stay in this department as I really like my boss, who is child-free too but would NEVER say things like this, so it’s entirely possible that I’ll still be working with both of them).

However much their scorn of parenthood irks me, though, what really makes me go all cold and shaky is their scorn of children themselves. They really say some nasty things, and while I realize many adults don’t, I remember my own childhood and what it was like to BE a child extremely vividly. As I said, I support 100% people’s right to choose not to have children, but when people actively HATE children, I just want to scream “HOW CAN YOU, A FORMER KID, THINK KIDS AREN’T PEOPLE??!” When they say nasty things about children, they’re saying them about me, and about themselves, and it’s very hard for me to understand how they don’t realize how messed up that is. Do they think they sprang fully formed from the head of Zeus? How can I engage with this without accusing them of being delusional?

On principle, I am glad our office culture permits the level of socializing they’re engaging in, and I don’t want to ruin what they clearly experience as a safe space to vent about their experiences, especially since I’m a newcomer. But listening to them spew this kind of hate about parents and children makes me just so uncomfortable, and I can’t just put in headphones as I need to be able to hear the phone. I’d rather address this directly with them than involve anyone higher up, as I don’t want to rock the boat and end up causing some sort of ban on non-work-related conversations.

Is there a way to ask them not to say these horrible things without making them hate me, either as a future producer of “brats” or as That Bitch who took away their only joy in life by stopping them from venting at work? Or should I just wait it out, hope that V’s friends will soon get the hint about her wish to attend baby showers, and cross the “will I become a pariah when I have a child” bridge when I come to it?

There’s no way to guarantee that they won’t hate you if you ask them to stop, but unless they’re truly ridiculous and unreasonable, your chances are pretty good.

I know you might be thinking “well, clearly they’re ridiculous and unreasonable, as evidenced by this line of conversation” … but sometimes people get caught in a weird echo chamber about things like this but still do realize that they should rein it in around others once it’s politely pointed out to them, and do realize that plenty of people they like don’t share their views.

I’d try saying this: “Hey, I agree that it’s BS the way parenthood is pushed on people, but there are kids and parents in my life who I love. Can you lay off the anti-kid talk around me?” Hell, you could add, “I’m going to have kids at some point, so I’m definitely not the right audience here.”

I’m torn on whether you should say this to V by herself, or to both V and M the next time it’s happening. I’m leaning toward saying it to both of them in the moment next time, because that way they’ll both hear it and V won’t need to have a separate conversation to relay it to M, which could easily turn into snarking about it in a way that isn’t quite as likely if you just deliver the message to both of them on the spot.

They may still snark about it because they’re apparently snarky people, but so be it. I don’t think it will be hateful outrage, though, because the message you’re delivering just isn’t that inflammatory. If it is hateful outrage, then they’re truly unreasonable and you were going to trigger that response from them over something else sooner or later anyway … but your chances are good that this will take care of it.