can you have close work friendships when you’re in HR?

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A reader writes:

I work at a company with a large number of employees under the age of 30 (myself included), and because of that, there’s a very social atmosphere. I’ve become quite close with a woman in a difficult department (let’s call her Linda) who is very fun to be around but will often incessantly talk about work. Because I work in HR, it often puts me in a precarious position and I’ve learned to just nod my head and listen to her complain.

Linda’s boss recently resigned and left quite a bit of uncertainty for that department, which was already in a state of turmoil. Because Linda was a high-potential employee (and someone made the mistake of telling her that), she took it as an indication that she was now in a position of power to negotiate a salary increase and promotion, because the department wouldn’t want her to resign as well. She talked quite a bit outside of work about this situation, with me mostly nodding and listening, and I always stayed impartial. I did try to give her some advice on how to go about asking for the raise so as not to sound aggressive or demanding, so she didn’t end up shooting herself in the foot. Linda told me the amount she was going to ask for, which was way above what her job was worth, and I told her, as a friend and without invoking any specifics of company, that she could certainly ask for it but it was unlikely she’d get that much of a raise.

About two weeks later, Linda’s promotion goes through (with a salary much more appropriate for her role), and I get called in to my boss’s office. Turns out that Linda told the VP of her department that I had told her (Linda mentioned me by name) that she was going to get $3k more than what she received. I did no such thing, nor did I ever indicate an exact number, I just told her that what she was asking for was unreasonable. It caused a huge headache, and made me look bad not only to my boss but also to that VP. I thought about my options and determined that I really couldn’t say anything to Linda – the conversation was had in confidence with the VP, and if word got out that she had talked to HR, it would likely make it even more difficult to find out what was really going on with that group in the future. So I moved on and learned my lesson to keep my mouth shut in the future (and did my best to subtly distance myself from someone who was clearly not a friend).

I’m curious – what would your approach to this situation have been?

Yeah, you can’t have these kinds of friendships when you’re in HR.

That’s part of the deal with you work in HR. It doesn’t matter if you just sit and nod while your coworker complains about salary — in their eyes, that can come across as “Lavinia thinks that I’m justified in being upset about my salary.” And that can be seen as you speaking for the company, or at least using your official knowledge to inform your response as a friend, whether you intend it that way or not. It doesn’t matter if you explicitly tell them that that’s not the case; too many people will assume it is anyway.

I get that there’s a bunch of people under 30 there and it’s a social atmosphere. But you have to have more boundaries than everyone else. Frankly, it’s possible/likely that they all need better boundaries too, but you in particular really need them because you’re in HR. You need to be able to recommend that some of those people be fired or laid off (and to be able to do the actual laying off if it comes to that), you need to be seen as impartial, you need people to believe that you handle confidential information discreetly (which is harder when you are known to have close outside-of-work friendships with some coworkers), and you need people to believe that your friendships don’t play a role in sensitive company decisions, from raises to discipline to layoffs to how allegations of harassment or discrimination are handled (the latter being particularly tricky, since people may not even want to report incidents to you if you’re known to be close to the harasser).

You can be friendly, yes. Warm and collegial, yes. But outside-of-work friendships? Not unless you’re extremely careful about navigating the boundaries, which definitely doesn’t include a coworker talking to you “quite a bit outside of work” about her raise strategy.

Your job is to represent the company. That doesn’t turn off when you’re with coworkers, even when you’re outside work. It kind of sucks, but it’s an inherent part of the gig.

my job is pushing me to get a smartphone and I don’t want one

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A reader writes:

I currently have an older cell phone (not a smart phone) for personal use. I have texting and voicemail. Although I am under 30, I am comfortable with this decision and I have never had the need for a smart phone. I enjoy this phone because it’s durable (I’ve had it for 6 years), cheap (it costs me $30 a month to have) and convenient (I only need to charge it once weekly or biweekly). It makes calls, receives them, and works as an alarm clock, and that’s really all I need. I do have my phone on me at all times like the next person, but I don’t hear it ring when I am out walking my dog or at the store. However, I do return calls promptly after I see I’ve missed them (again, just like the next person).

A few months ago, I was promoted and moved to another department. Recently, after a vacation I took, my manager brought me into her office to mention her belief that I need a smartphone. She said her and other employees are aware that I have an outdated phone and said it is necessary that I have a smartphone so I can be available to check emails at all times and be reachable. She asked if I had thought about getting one. I said no.

She asked if it was a cost issue, which I said that it was (although it is also the belief that I don’t really need one, since mine works fine and is durable and reliable). I didn’t specify, but in my head I thought how my phone costs $30/month and a data plan/new phone plan can cost around $100/month, and would also require a case for durability and possibly other phone accessories. She said there is another manager in the office who has an old iPhone available for me to have, and would only require the new plan hookup. She said she’d talk to corporate about getting the phone plan paid for, but she said it would probably be difficult, since I am still fairly entry-level and “if we get yours paid for, other employees will wish for theirs to be paid for as well.” My previous position dealt in finance, so I know that other higher-ups have par of their phone bills paid for ($75, or about half of their monthly bill), but none of my same-level coworkers have theirs paid for.

I don’t believe I need a smartphone. I have internet at home and a cell phone with text and voicemail. Worst-case scenario, an employee can contact me to let me know an important email chain from a client needs to be responded to. Nothing came up on my recent vacation that I am aware of, but she still mentioned it, which makes me believe that they wanted to contact me then, but couldn’t.

I also am concerned (as I’ve read in a previous post on your site) that having this work phone would make them think I am available 24/7, even on weekends. I am rarely contacted outside of work hours, but I am concerned that my coworkers and manager will believe I am now constantly available. On weekends or on vacation, I would love to be able to leave this phone behind or off, but I guess that would defeat the purpose of them providing it to me.

My concern is that she will come back to say “corporate won’t let us pay for it.” I don’t think it will come to this, as I’ve been recently been promoted and (hopefully) am in good graces, but I would hate for them to fire me over my refusal to increase my cell bill by $70/month to get a smart phone. My medical bills recently increased and I am not making very much, so this would definitely impact my budget.

I work in the media industry where there are tight deadlines and occasional weekend work. I am not in the level that directly contacts clients, so the concern of meeting their needs is filtered through my managers, then to me. Since I occasionally work weekends or very late nights (had a 70-hour work week last month), I enjoy having weekend time to myself and vacation time when I request it (always far in advance). What are your thoughts?

I think there are two issues here: whether you really need a smartphone to do your job and whether you need to check email outside of regular work hours.

There are some roles that do truly require checking email on evenings and weekends, and many of them are in your industry so it’s possible that it’s the case here … although most of those roles don’t require a smartphone to do it; you can check email just as well from a computer. The only roles that truly should require a smartphone are ones where you need to check email so often outside of work hours that it needs to travel with you to restaurants, movies, and other outings. Otherwise, a computer suffices.

Given that distinction, I wonder if this is less about what device you’re using and more about “we feel like you’re more disconnected than everyone else” … which may or may not be rooted in a legitimate work need.

In talking to your manager, I’d get clarity around that distinction. Is she really saying you need a smartphone, or is she saying you need to check email more in your off hours? And if she’s saying the latter, then you can explore how necessary that really is.

I’d say something like this: “I’ve actually been really deliberate in not having a smartphone. Part of the reason is the cost — increasing my cell bill by $70/month isn’t trivial — but part is also philosophical. I think you know I’m highly responsive and available outside of regular hours when I need to be, but it’s important to me to me to have space on evenings and weekends when I can disconnect. I am absolutely willing to be called or texted in case of an emergency, but even with a smartphone, I’d likely turn email off on weekends because I believing in taking time to recharge. So I don’t think changing my phone is the answer; it sounds like what I need to get more clarity on is how often you want me to be checking email during off hours — whether it’s from a phone or from a computer.”

You’re likely to get one of two responses: Your boss might tell you that you do need to be checking email more often during off hours, in which case that’s the issue to explore here, not what technology you use to do it. Or you might get a vaguer answer — if your boss doesn’t actually think you need to check email X times per weekend but just has a hazy feeling of discomfort that you’re not more connected.

The vaguer answer is harder to deal with. At that point, it’s a judgment call about how much your boss is really going to push it, what kind of rapport you have with her, and whether your relationship will allow you to push back.

But if it’s a more concrete response that, yes, this job does require checking email round the clock, then you basically have three options:

1. Push back about why and see if one of you changes your mind. To push back, you might try pointing out that you’ve only been needed outside of work hours once in the last X weeks (or whatever stat makes sense there).

2. Present other ways to achieving whatever her objective is in that, like asking if people can call or text you if something is urgent. (The latter is only reasonable if urgent things come up infrequently; it wouldn’t be reasonable to request if you were, say, a communications director for a high-profile company that regularly fields after-hours media requests.)

3. Or, if she won’t budge, then what she’s telling you is that this particular job (at least at this particular company) does require this kind of availability. If that’s the case, you might need to decide if it’s a job you want, under those conditions.

But I don’t think any of this is really about smartphones. It’s about how plugged in you are, by any means.

my coworker hogs the coffee supplies, suspicious sick days, and more

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

1. Coworker hogs the coffee supplies that we all bring in

We have a small laboratory that runs 24/7. We are all pretty close and have set up our break room with a nice coffee maker, but we rely on all staff to supply the coffee and creamer to keep things going. Some bring the coffee grounds and others the cream.

The problem we are having is that one coworker comes in and uses about 3 ounces of cream in her 6-ounce cup of coffee and then drinks many cups throughout her 8-hour shift. I thought about putting up a clever reminder that those who drink coffee should also supply something to keep our happy lab happy. She knows that it’s all by employee contribution. I don’t want to single her out, but some are talking about hiding their supplies away so she can’t use them. If that’s the next step, we won’t have our cute, homey ambiance that we love about our break room. She’s not exactly the friendliest person to approach. I hope you can help us come up with a way to sort of lay down the law without making her feel singled out or leave her defensive.

I think you’re better off just being straightforward with her, rather than trying to come up with clever wording or dancing around it. I’d say something like this: “Hey Jane, can we get you into our rotation for replenishing the cream? We’ve been taking turns stocking everything. Could you take Mondays?” Or if the issue is that she’s already part of the rotation but just bringing in far less than she’s using up, then say this: “Hey Jane, it looks like you’re going through the cream really quickly. Can you grab some extras to bring in?”

If she bristles, then you ignore the bristling and just say, “Yeah, we go through a lot and want to make sure it’s evenly distributed among the people using it. Thanks.”

2. Should I approve this sick day?

I’m a new manager (one month in) of a team of 11. One of my employees has just requested a sick day in advance, and she listed a doctor’s appointment as the reason. Should I approve this? It seems obvious to me that she’s not going to spend the whole day at a doctor’s appointment. I believe she is really taking a vacation day but counting it as a sick day. I can’t decide whether to question her about this or let it go and hit approve. Thoughts?

Some medical appointments do take the better part of a day. It’s not really your place to question her about private medical issues, and doing so can cause all sorts of problems (including pissing off good employees who will rightly feel that you’re violating their privacy). If she has the PTO time, you shouldn’t question it.

As a new manager, it can be hard in the beginning to sort out how to handle this stuff; yes, you’re supposed to enforce whatever rules your organization has but don’t lose sight of the fact that a much bigger part of your responsibility is to create a high-performing team and a culture that high performers will want to work in. You want to focus on the big picture: Are people performing at a high level? That’s what matters.

3. People have just learned that I’m dating a coworker

I’m a recent graduate, and I’m one and a half months into a three-month internship at a newspaper that my boyfriend works at. I’d met the intern coordinator once socially prior to all this, so she knew about our relationship. She mentioned it briefly in the interview and clearly didn’t have a problem with it. Our roles never intersect at any point and we’re in completely different departments.

It’s now all over the office that we’re dating. I don’t really have a huge problem with it because I’ve had the chance to establish myself and I’ve been doing a pretty good job. But now I need a good way to handle myself when I go back to the office. It’s small and casual but a lot of the people there are very, very prominent in my industry. I do not need a bad reputation here! I’m hoping for a couple of good phrases to a) acknowledge this whole deal and b) deflect inquiries.

I don’t like talking about my personal life at work at the best of times, let alone with my boyfriend across the room. I don’t think people will actually be mad or vicious or even care a huge amount, but juicy gossip is juicy gossip and there’s a definite chance of light-to-moderate teasing. Am I freaking out over nothing? Did I screw up by putting myself in this position? I work with professional gossips; how do I deal with humour and grace?

Yeah, you’re probably freaking out more than is necessary. You’ll get some questions, you’ll answer them lightly (“yeah, we’ve been dating for a while, but I haven’t wanted to make it A Thing at work”), and people will move on. Truly.

And keep in mind that people will usually take their cues from you on stuff like this. If you signal that it’s no big deal, people are more likely to respond that way.

4. My manager isn’t returning my calls about missing work

I am in a very stressful situation at work, and on Friday it all came to a head. I tried to ring my line manager several times, but got no reply; she did not answer her phone. So I left her a voicemail informing her that I would not be in on Monday as it was too much. She did not ring me back. Even when I tried to ring her again later in the day, still no reply. I am going to ring her again in the morning to tell her again I will not be coming in, and that I am going to the doctor, as the whole work situation has made me feel ill. Surely she should at least respond to the voicemail I left or acknowledge the fact that I rung her at least 10 times?

Sure. But she hasn’t, so you need to make sure that you’re keeping her in the loop about what you’re doing.

For what it’s worth, saying that you’re not coming in because work is too stressful generally isn’t a good idea. It’s possible that she’s not bothering to respond because she’s annoyed that you’re adding to whatever drama is already happening and figures that she’l talk to you whenever you reappear.

5. My boss told me my coworker was getting fired — before my coworker knew

I just received a call from my boss telling me that they were terminating a colleague of mine. I reached out to my colleague to give my condolences, only to find out he had not been notified by my boss or HR yet. Is this even legal from an employee rights perspective?

Your boss made a major error by not letting you know that your colleague didn’t know yet, but there’s nothing illegal about sharing that info with you or other coworkers.

my coworker won’t stop commenting on my clothes, handbags, and finances

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A reader writes:

I could use some advice in dealing with a rather rude coworker. I am getting married next year and planning a wedding. I do not talk about my wedding at work to really anyone unless they bring it up and I keep it simple. I don’t like to talk to much about it or anything in my life. I like to keep my personal life just that, personal.

One coworker who is new to the office constantly comments on everything I have, from my shoes to my scarves and handbags. Our workplace has a casual dress environment so I am not dressing fancy at all. (She is the office bully and comments to everyone but lately I am her victim of choice.) Her obsession lately has been my handbags. I have several Michael Kors bags and she comments on each of them. “I have no idea how you are paying for a wedding when you keep buying bags!” Or “How many bags do you have? I have no idea how you can possibly even afford to have a wedding!” She has not said these comments once to me; they are almost daily.

My finances are none of her business, nor is my wedding. I am not going around the office crying poor me that can’t afford anything. I find it insulting to me, my fiancé, and our families. I work hard for everything I have including those bags. And I shouldn’t have to justify my lifestyle to anyone. Wedding planning is a stressful time and I don’t need any more stressed added to it. Do you have any advice of how to nicely tell her to mind her own business?

You’re taking it way too personally. She’s obnoxious and nosy; that’s about her, not you. Don’t hear these questions as a demand to justify anything or as criticism of you; hear them as what they actually are, which is her announcing, “I am a nosy, obnoxious person.”

As for what to say in the moment, ignore her or say, “Yes, I know, all my handbags are shocking” or “It’s incredibly boring to keep talking about this. Can we move on?”

Stop letting it bug you and she’ll probably move on (and if she doesn’t, she’ll continue looking ridiculous to anyone observing while you look above it).

massive discount on the Ask a Manager “how to get a job” bible

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how to get a jobLooking for a job?

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ask the readers: when parenthood changes work habits

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I’m throwing this one out to readers to answer. A reader writes:

I am the executive director of a nonprofit with about 20 employees. Most have been working for me for over 10 years. When they were hired, they were selected because they were high-achieving, high energy, good thinkers who believed in and were committed to the mission of the organization.

About half have had children in the last 5 years. All but one of these new parents have changed significantly as employees. They miss work frequently due to sick kids, school closings, and babysitter problems. They have become low energy and lethargic at work, are distracted and preoccupied, and want to come to work late and leave early. Our parent company has a generous sick time and vacation policy which they take full advantage of. They want to be included in new projects, but ask for special treatment (examples: they only want to do the “in-town” meetings, they don’t want to be lead initiatives during the summer, etc.). It makes running a business very difficult.

I have directly addressed this with them individually, the problem gets better for a while and then returns. So it becomes a cycle of performance improvement plans, which they accomplish, and then regress. I travel a lot and stay very busy and do not have time to micromanage them, but they take advantage. I value their professional skills and want to be a family-friendly workplace, but this behavior impacts productivity and creates problems for those who have to take up the slack. Any suggestions?

fired because of a false complaint, how to answer “Why are you the best person for this job?”

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

1. How to answer “Why are you the best person for this job?”

I was once asked in an interview, “Why are you the best person for this job?” I can prepare for some questions, but this was unexpected. Logical me says, how am I supposed to know whether I’m the best person if I don’t know who else is applying? What’s the best response to this?

This is a terribly phrased interview question, since of course you can’t know whether you’re the best candidate for the job or what the rest of their applicant pool looks like. But they’re not really asking that; they’re asking why you’d be great at the job. So mentally rephrase it to that in your head, and talk about why you think you’d excel at it.

2. We don’t get per diem when we travel on business to our home office, although we get it on other trips

I work remotely on a team that is made up of about 30% remote workers. Twice a year, our entire team gets together for a week long on-site meeting to regroup, plan, etc.

Normally, we travel about a week a month and have a per diem of $40 for food. However, when we travel to the home office, we are only allowed to use the per diem on the two travel days (Monday and Friday), and the other days we are supposed to pay for meals out of pocket.

One of my coworkers asked our department head why this was the case and was told that no one was paying for his meals (the department head’s) during the on-site, so why should we be different? The coworker replied that we should as we aren’t going home to a refrigerator full of food every night. The coworker was told to drop it. Does this seem unreasonable to you? If so, can you think of another way to approach this?

Yes, it’s unreasonable. If you’re traveling away from home, it doesn’t matter that you’re traveling to another office of your company. It’s travel. The fact that there are employees who live there doesn’t change the fact that you don’t, and that you’re on travel that whole week, with the accompanying expenses.

If you want to pursue it, I’d approach HR, not your department head, since he’s shown that he’s not open to thinking about it. In approaching HR, I’d say, “Given that we’re incurring the same expenses that we’d be occurring on any other business trip that kept us away from home, would you consider allowing us the same per diem that we’d receive if we were traveling to, say, a client’s site? We’re still without a refrigerator of food to go home to at night.”

3. I was fired because of a false customer complaint

I was terminated today from my position as a store manager at a storage facility. Here’s why: While off the clock and visiting my father in the hospital, I received a call from a rep at the company’s 24-hour customer service hotline. The rep asked me to resolve a customer issue. The customer wasn’t able to access the gate. His PIN code wasn’t working. In speaking with the customer, I realized he was routed to me in error. He should have been routed to the manager of a close-by sister site. He wasn’t my customer so there was little I could do to assist him. I hung up with the customer and informed the appropriate store manager of his need and asked her to follow up and assist him.

Today I learned the customer complained about my inability to help him and lied, saying I advised him to climb the fence to get in, something I would never ever do! I was fired for violating the company safety policy. I was told that my suggestion risked the safety of the customer and the facility. I was given no opportunity to give my side of the story. I was told specifics aren’t important and the decision had been made.

Can an employer terminate me for an incident that happened while I was off the clock and not being paid? And should I have been given the opportunity to explain and prove the customer’s accusations were false? My employer took the customer’s word and based my termination on it.

Yes, you can be fired for work-related incidents that happen while you’re off the clock. (However, if you’re non-exempt, they need to pay you for any work you do, even if it’s outside of your hours. As a manager, you’re probably exempt, but it’s worth mentioning.)

They absolutely should have given you an opportunity to explain what happened, and it’s ridiculous that they didn’t. Legally, they’re not obligated to, so you don’t have much recourse here, although you could certainly try reaching out to your manager and explaining the situation, even if only to negotiate the reference that you get in the future. Sorry this happened to you; it’s BS.

4. Can I put being the executor of a will on my resume?

My father passed away earlier this year, and he named me executor. He left behind a house, multiple accounts, cars, etc. and I (with the help of my wife) have been cleaning out the house, paying his bills, closing/transferring his accounts as necessary, and selling the contents of the house. This estate is still ongoing and I will need to pay taxes on it before the end of the year. I’ve already had to fire one lawyer and retain a second one to help out with this part at least. Is this something that’s worth putting on my resume?

Nope. It’s certainly a lot of work, and you could even argue there might be transferable skills involved, but it doesn’t belong on your resume. In general, attending to family personal matters is inappropriate to include on a resume, regardless of the work involved. (To use another example, if you’d coordinated a massive and complicated trip as part of your job, that might be a highlight worth mentioning, but if you did it for your family reunion, it’s not.)

Part of the reason for this is simply convention, part of it is that you’re not really accountable to anyone (clients, employer, etc.) in doing this type of thing and so theoretically could have done a mediocre job at it and prospective employers have no way to know, and part of it is that it’s the type of thing that so many people will do in the course of their family life that it’s not quite considered resume-worthy.

I’m sorry about your dad.

5. Letting a company I interviewed with know that I’ve accepted another position

You’ve had several posts regarding the reality of how rarely applicants hear back from an employer when they are not offered a position. My question concerns the flip side – the applicant’s responsibility or courteousness to let a potential employer know she is moving on and is no longer interested in the position she applied for. Obviously it doesn’t make sense to follow up like this for every application, but what about those for which you’ve interviewed?

My particular situation is that I received an offer for a position which was my first choice, but the paperwork/offer letter/contract was still in the works. During that interim, I interviewed for another position, which was my second choice. At the end of the interview, we discussed their timeline and when I might expect to hear from them. I followed up with a thank-you email and received a personal and typical response from them. It has now been more than seven weeks since they expected to make a decision and I haven’t heard anything more, yet through my network I have heard they are just “slow to fill the position.” I would potentially like to work with this employer in three to five years from now. The paperwork has gone through for my first choice and I will be taking that position. It seems courteous to close the hiring process with the other employer by taking myself out of consideration, but I would like to do that in a way which keeps the bridge open for the future and without sounding snooty. Any suggestions on appropriate wording?

“Thanks so much for talking with me about the ___ position in August. I wanted to let you know that I’ve accepted another position so need to withdraw from your process. I enjoyed the opportunity to talk with you and think the work you’re doing is (fascinating/exciting/something I’d love to be a part of down the road). Best of luck in filling the role, and I hope our paths might cross again in the future!”

That said, since they’ve let seven weeks go by without being in contact, you’re really not obligated to do this. That’s enough time that it would be reasonable to assume that they’d moved on without other candidates without bothering to tell you (and if you hadn’t heard otherwise through your network, it would be a decent bet, given how common it is for employers to do that), and in that case you wouldn’t owe them an update. But particularly since this is a company that you might be interested in working with in the future, a quick email like this could be a nice closing of the loop.

Sunday free-for-all – September 14, 2014

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Lucy emergesIt’s the weekend free-for-all.

This comment section is open for any non-work-related discussion you’d like to have with other readers, by popular demand. (This one is truly non-work only; if you have a work question, you can email it to me or post it in the work-related open thread on Fridays.)

Have at it.

my coworker told me I’m too loud, salary and demotions, and more

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

1. My coworker told me I’m too loud

I work in a cubicle farm in sales. Today as I was on the phone with a client and closing a sale, a coworker comes up to me, waits for me to finish on the phone, and then in a rather back handed fashion says, “You are very good but you are also very loud. I’ll appreciate it if you would quiet down.”

I was incensed. I make my bread through closing deals and am a gregarious, enthusiastic person. This is a large part of what makes me successful. I’m not quiet as a mouse, but I am not brutishallly loud.

I only started at this new company 6 workdays ago and have had two interactions with this woman, who I think works in HR. Is what she did okay? Should I take her comment as a put-down? It sure felt that way in the moment. The icing on the cake is that I have received nothing but friendly and positive feedback from my boss and co-salesmen.

Without knowing exactly how loud you are or how much your voice might carry, it’s hard to say. But asking a coworker to try to keep their volume down isn’t an inherently rude request; in fact, I often advise people here to be direct with coworkers when they’re particularly loud and making it hard for others to focus. That said, I can see why her wording rubbed you the wrong way; I suspect you would have taken if differently if she’d said, “I’m so sorry about this, but I wonder if you could lower your voice just a little on the phone? I can hear how gregarious you are with clients and I bet it makes you great at your job — but unfortunately sound really carries in this office, and the volume is making it tough for me to focus.”

In any case, I wouldn’t take it as a put-down. I’d take it at face value — as a direct request for you to lower your volume if you can. If you can’t feasibly do that, you can tell her nicely that you’re sorry but you don’t have a way to do your job any more quietly than what you’re already doing.

2. Can my company require me to share what I’ve heard about them from others?

I am a manager in a very small company, with less than 10 employees. Can my employer require me to divulge information I have heard said about our company from other companies in the same industry, vendors in the industry, or acquaintances in the industry?

Sure, they can make that a requirement of your job — although I’m not sure how they’d know if you’re filling them in fully or not.

3. Why did this interviewer ask why I’m leaving my current job?

I had a surprise phone screen today (my first ever, actually) and am really shaken. I’m wondering if it was reasonable. To give some context, I’m a pharmacist. This phone screen was for a job in a pharmaceutical manufacturing sort of company. I’m not familiar with the hiring processes of corporations like this–I’ve only ever worked (and applied for) jobs in local chemist shops and hospitals, and neither have ever had any phone screens. I maybe should have suspected it when the caller identity showed up in a different state to the job I’m applying for, but I thought it was simply HR calling to offer an interview rather than a phone screen as such! They asked the following questions:
– Why are you applying for this job when you’re from another state?
– What do you do at your current job?
– Why are you leaving your current job?
– What’s your expected salary?
– When would you be available to start?

The “why are you leaving your current job?” really threw me for a loop, as I’ve never been asked this question before by anyone. Yes I’ve only been in the workforce for 3 years but have held 7 contract positions plus this current perm fulltime job and never been asked that. Plus I would’ve interviewed for a few more, so I’d say maybe about 15 interviews at least.

I did seem to pass it however, as they asked me when I was free to do an actual interview with the site managers, but yeah I’m really shaken and wondering if this is a typical phone screen?

I ask “why are you thinking about leaving your job?” or (if the person isn’t currently employed) “why did you leave your last job” on every phone interview I conduct. It’s a very normal question and not one you should be rattled by. Interviewers ask it not in a judgy way (like “what’s wrong with you that you’re thinking about changing jobs?”) but rather because sometimes it produces really interesting answers. Sometimes it produces really mundane answers too, and that’s fine. But it’s a reasonable and normal question to ask.

4. Do I have a right to keep my salary in a demotion?

Do I have a legal right to keep my salary if I get demoted to a less responsible position? I work in California.

Nope. Your employer can change your salary any time (as long as it’s not retroactive and as long as you don’t have a contract that says otherwise, which most people don’t). If you were demoted to a less responsible position, it makes sense that your salary would change as well.

5. Update from the reader thinking about writing a grant to fund the job she wanted

Here’s an update from a letter-writer in December who proposed to a nonprofit that she’d help the write grant applications, on the condition that they hire her if the grant came through. She was wondering if she should ask for a signed guarantee that they’d hire her for the grant was approved, which I advised her against for the reasons you can see here (#3 at the link). Here’s the update:

It turned out to be better for me that we didn’t make any future employment commitments. As a couple of commenters deduced, the organization was, in fact, young, disorganized, and helmed by a woefully inexperienced director. And that manifested in unclear vision, unrealistic goals, frequent staff turnover, and leadership too out-of-touch to properly serve the “community leadership” aspect of its mission statement. (“Honest, we tried to recruit [members of the minority group we primarily serve] to the board, but they are way too busy scraping by to contribute in any useful way!”)

I did get some valuable experience helping my organization and a partner org negotiate and outline a project agreement for a collaborative program they were proposing. The collaboration fell through due to – drumroll, please – lack of funding. However, the partner org recently told me that a month or two after I left, my home org finally wound up hiring a program manager to do pretty much what I had been doing – and is paying her with actual money! It’s best I got to walk away from this mess unscathed not long after my original letter. Since then, I’ve been contracted to work on some curriculum development projects, and I have an interview for a new educational outreach position soon – a paid position.