5 questions about names and work

I’ve gotten a bunch of questions about names recently. Here are five short name-related questions and answers.

1. People keep shortening my name

I have a name that’s easy to shorten, and many people with this name often DO shorten it intentionally (think “Jonathan” to “Jon” or “Elizabeth” to “Liz”) However, I do not like to use the shortened version of my name, especially in professional settings. The challenge is that many people automatically switch to the shortened version, without asking if it’s okay and even if I’ve never, ever referred to myself with that nickname.

How do I handle this? It’s not like someone is calling me an offensive slur — I feel like that would be easier to handle because it’s more obvious and understandable that I don’t want to be called that on a daily basis. But I very intentionally do not use the shortened version of my name, and I don’t want others to think that’s my preference just because one or two people used it and I didn’t correct them. Pulling someone aside after the fact isn’t always an option since I work with a lot of remote employees or state-based employees from other organizations.

Just address it directly right in the moment:

In person: “Oh, it’s Jonathan — I never go by Jon. Thanks! So anyway, about the teapot convention…”

In email: “By the way, I go by Jonathan. Thanks!”

That said, the reality of how weird people are with other people’s names is that you will probably need to repeat this more than once to some of them, and a couple of them may never quite retain it.

2. Colleague refers to women as Ms. FirstName

I work with a colleague who is relatively new to his position (less than one year). I am his senior, but we work in different departments with completely different reporting lines. But our work often overlaps and he and I have multiple reasons to work together. I have noticed over the past few months that he is in the habit of referring to all women (including his boss, who I know well and am friendly with) as Ms. FirstName, both in spoken and written communication. But men are just FirstName — no diminutive added on.

We work at a large, prestigious public university and this sort of gender-based issue is out of the norm. I suspect that it’s a cultural difference (he is African-American), but I’d like to let him know this isn’t okay in general and specifically, *I* don’t want to be called Ms. FirstName.

How to broach this? I’m not his supervisor, but I’d very much prefer talking to him directly, not to his supervisor. I don’t want him to get defensive and for all I know, his supervisor might not mind this at all. I find it really off-putting, though and want it to stop.

Yes, it sounds like a cultural difference. (It can be a southern thing too.) Because of that, I don’t know that you should address his broader habit, especially since you’re a peer rather than his manager. But you certainly have standing to tell him how you’d like to be addressed. For example: “Would you call me just Jane rather than Ms. Jane? Thank you!” Or: “I know it’s from a place of respect, but I much prefer being called Jane. Thank you!”

3. Using a slightly different last name on a resume to avoid bias

My maiden name is a pretty unremarkable Christian last name (like Smith, for example). Before getting married a couple months ago, I was looking for work and had a few interviews but nothing worth leaving my current job over came up. Post-wedding, I’ve taken the last name of my Muslim husband, which is a fairly common Arabic last name that includes the Arabic “the” prefix (think Al-Fayad), and now that I’m job searching again I find I’m not getting any interviews like I did before.

Nothing in my job search has changed except my last name on my resume, so I want to try a little experiment by changing it slightly. If I drop the Al prefix and just go by Fayad, my name could be mistaken for an Italian one (again, Al-Fayad is just an example, but in any case my name would definitely read as less obviously Arabic). I’m sure people use variations on their first names all the time on resumes (Bob instead of Robert, etc.) but what do you think of someone using a slightly different version of their *last* name on their resume? And, if I do this and I’m offered a job, how and at what point do I bring up the correct spelling of my name?

Note: I don’t want to use a hyphenated Smith-Al-Fayad because, trust me, the two names together along with my first name looks long and unwieldy. Also, before anyone brings it up, my husband doesn’t have the same issue as he works for himself, and in a previous European country we lived in he went by just Fayad for a while, so neither he nor his family think it’s disrespectful or anything for me to drop the prefix.

Sure, you can absolutely do that. Once you accept a job offer and you’re nailing down details, you can just say, “By the way, the legal spelling of my last name is Al-Fayad, which is different from what you have from my resume. I’d like to use it on any paperwork or anything else that might get set up with my name ahead of my start date.”

4. When you mess up someone’s pronouns

We were discussing the recent nickname post over dinner the other night, and my husband brought this up: He works at a company that has a relatively large number of transgender employees. So far, he hasn’t messed up any actual names, but he has accidentally called a colleague by the wrong pronoun, in front of them (and awkwardly tried to cover it up). I said he should probably apologize matter-of-factly in the moment and say it was a mistake he’ll try not to repeat. He wondered if that would be more awkward, especially if they didn’t notice. What do you think?

My instinct is to correct yourself, give a quick apology, and move on — but transgender readers, will you weigh in on this? I could imagine it’s something that might vary by personal preference, but what’s some good general guidance?

(I just found this, which seems pretty helpful.)

5. Business cards and a confusing email address

I use a nickname that is fairly different from my given name, including a different first initial (think Peggy/Margaret). I’ve just changed careers, and I’m going by Peggy at my new job. However, my email address uses the initial of my given name.

Is it acceptable for my new business cards to read “Margaret (Peggy) Smith”? This way people will understand why my email address is msmith@company.com, rather than psmith@company.com; but they also don’t risk being confused about why I introduced myself to them with a different name than the one on my business card. However, I don’t wish to look unprofessional by including a nickname.

Sure, that’s fine to do! Even better would be to see if your company can change your email address to psmith@company.com (and presumably redirect msmith@company.com to it for a while if it’s already out there). I mention this in case you don’t realize that this is a reasonable thing to ask them to do. (They may say no if they’re weirdly rigid — some places are — but there’s nothing strange about asking.)

pinpointing your procrastinating, paperless offices, and more

Over at the Fast Track by QuickBase today, I take a look at several big work-related stories in the news right now: pinpointing the resistance at the root of your procrastinating, whether the paperless office finally coming, and more. You can read it here.

job-searching advice for a teenager on the autism spectrum

Here’s a conversation I recently had with someone who wrote to me, and I’m hoping y’all can help. She writes:

I am having such trouble getting a real job. I don’t know why (though I have my guesses, which we’ll get to in a moment), but I really am.

I am 17-3/4, and I will be turning 18 in December. Most people I know in my area and age bracket are working at least one job. I have tried and tried and tried to get a job. There was one point where I almost got one, but the person in charge of my case quit, so I was dropped.

Is it because I’m a girl? Is it because of my stutter? I have a slight unibrow – should I tweeze it? I have Asperger’s – do they know that, and are they not hiring me because of that? Should I get some sort of facial surgery or other medical procedure to make me look “more professional”? Is it my poor math skills? My loud, sometimes flat-ish voice? I’m not blonde – does that matter? Do they know about my slight mental health issues? Is it something to do with my unusual parents? Is it my weak back? My weak arms? My weak hands? My big feet? Is it my height? I mean, I’m pretty tall. Do I seem too indecisive? Too impulsive? Is it the fact that I have to wear glasses? Am I not wearing the right colors to interviews somehow? Am I too extroverted? Does my not having a car matter? Should I be wearing more makeup? Less makeup? Do they know I have to take meds, and is that why? Is it my teeth? My dark circles? My slightly pointed ears? Do I need different earrings? Different skirt? Bring a pen? Am I over-thinking this?


I wrote back and said: “It’s probably not any of that, and you definitely shouldn’t feel like you need any kind of plastic surgery to look professional! As long as you look reasonably neat and groomed, your appearance shouldn’t be playing much of a role in hiring decisions.

Any chance it’s something about your manner in person? It can be hard for everyone to come across as professional when you’re just starting your career, and Asperger’s can sometimes make it harder. If that’s what’s happening, it’s absolutely something that you can overcome with some pointers. (I could be off-base about it; it’s just something that’s not uncommon with Asperger’s in the beginning of job searching.) If you think that might be what’s happening, I’d be glad to do a post soliciting advice from readers on the autism spectrum; I know I have a bunch, and people tend to like to be helpful with this stuff if they can. Let me know if that seems like it might be helpful, and I’ll do it!”

She gave me the go-ahead:  Please do an Aspie-targeted post for advice. You’re exactly correct that it definitely does make social-type things harder when you’re an Aspie. I could use some help from some more successful Aspies in learning to be a successful person with Asperger’s. Thanks in advance.

So, readers on the autism spectrum, do you have advice for job searching that might help in this context? (Others are welcome to chime in too, but I’m especially interested to hear from people with firsthand experience.)

my manager takes credit for my work, rejected by form letter from someone I know personally, and more

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

1. My manager takes credit for my work

I work for a small company with only three full-time employees, so things can get quite hectic at times for my supervisor, Jane. She often gives me projects that our customers and sales reps request from her and that she is too busy to work on. To give some background, I have worked at my company for a year now, and have gotten constant praise from Jane from day one. She is always telling me what a great job I do, and how I am “well above the learning curve” for my position. However, I am starting to see an ongoing pattern in the way she presents my finished work to our customers and sales reps; that is, she claims my work as her own.

Every time that I work on these projects, Jane tells me to bring my finished work into her office so that she can “take care of the rest.” After checking my work, she tells me how great everything looks and how she is so thankful that my work is generally mistake-free, so she does not have to fix anything (which I appreciate). But she then proceeds to send my finished work to the customer and their sales rep and claim it as her own. She cc’s me on these emails, and the body of the email usually says something along the lines of, “Please see attached my work on X, Y, and Z.” Subsequently, the customer and/or sales reps will email Jane back and say something like, Thank you so much, Jane, for all your help completing this project for us.”

I would partially understand Jane’s reasoning for doing this if I were merely assisting her with these projects, but these are projects that I am completing 100% on my own, from start to finish. I know that Jane trusts my work, so I wish she would just allow me to send the project over to our customers on my own, without her intervening and taking credit. Just to clarify, in no way do I mind doing these projects for Jane as I truly enjoy the work I do, but I think it’s reasonable of me to expect some type of credit. Am I being petty about this, or would it be appropriate to bring up this ongoing issue with Jane? 

It’s not all that unusual for managers not to give specific credit to contributors when sending work to clients, since most of the time clients don’t really care about the specifics of who did it; they just care that it’s done well. But saying “please see my work” is explicitly taking credit for something she didn’t do; typically a manager would at least say “our work” in this context.

I think you’re entitled to be annoyed by that; it’s grating to me just reading about it. But whether it’s worth saying something about depends on what the impact is on you. If you’re trying to build a reputation with these particular customers, and it would be a significant help to you if they knew about your contributions, then yes, say something. Or if these were high-profile projects inside or outside your company, then getting credit would have real career benefits to you, so in those cases you’d absolutely want to speak up. But if — as is often the case — it doesn’t actually have a real impact and is just irritating, I’d probably let it go, in favor of saving your capital with Jane for something else.

2. My coworkers ask me to send them the same info over and over

I work at a university as office support associate, basically bottom of the pack. One of my duties is to book the hotel, air flights, and various other items to bring in an invited speaker for seminar class. The faculty do the asking and inviting and then I take over from there.

When I am in contact with the speaker asking for the information I need to book the items, I always include the faculty/host of the guest in the emails so they are seeing how things are unfolding and have the confirmation numbers and flight itineraries etc. — everything they need to make the visit itinerary. Yet I continuously have to keep sending the information over and over, like they never seen it before. This is getting really frustrating and I want to minimize this. What are your suggestions?

I wonder if the problem is that you’re including the faculty host on all the back-and-forth, meaning that they have a bunch of emails that they don’t really need and thus are more easily missing the ones they do need. Could you stop including them on all that correspondence, and just wait until you have a confirmed itinerary to send? At that point, you could send all the details in one email with a clear subject line (“Falcon Flanagan’s itinerary info for 10/7 seminar”).

Since this is a change from what you’ve been doing, you’d want to alert them to it so they’re not wondering why they’re not seeing any movement on your end as things get planned. To explain what you’re doing differently and to assure them you’re on it even though they’re not getting cc’d on everything, you could send them an email at the start that says “I’m reaching out to Falcon. I’ll leave you off the back and forth as we make arrangements, but I will send you a detailed itinerary once I have it all confirmed.” If you have antsy faculty to work with, you could add, “I expect to send that to you no later than X days from now.”

Alternately, you could store all the itinerary info an easily-accessed central location — streamlined in a way where it’s just the details they need, in a well-organized format — so they’d always just need to go to the same place to find it. But I bet the first suggestion might solve things better.

3. Rejected by form letter from someone I know personally

I recently applied for a job for which I considered myself to be an exceptionally strong candidate. In addition to having deep experience and qualifications that nail every one of the skills and requirements outlined in the position description, I have known the hiring manager for many years and she knows my accomplishments well. I prepared a very strong cover letter (in my opinion), and really worked hard on updating my resume to reflect all the ways in which my experiences mirror the skills they said they were looking for in the posting.

Today, about a month after I applied, I received a form email from the account of an administrator at the organization rejecting my candidacy with no explanation. The form email was signed by the hiring manager, my acquaintance, even though the email did not come from her email account. While I have not heard from my acquaintance directly during the process, I know/assume she is aware of my application as I included her on the email I sent to the administrator when I initially submitted my materials for review. Plus, I would’ve hoped she would have review them as part of the process!

Now, I feel like I’m in an extremely awkward position. First, I am completely confused as to why I was not even offered the opportunity to interview for this position. The form email offered no explanation. I don’t think I’m overselling myself when I say I have exactly the qualifications and experience they are looking for, and I have a strong reputation in my field for being a smart and effective leader. I would like to ask for feedback from my acquaintance, but don’t want to seem too pushy. Second, our field is extremely small and we live in an extremely small town. I will see her again, probably soon, and I’m not sure I will be able to hide my frustration with not even being granted a courtesy interview. Third, even if I figure out a way to gracefully ask for feedback or express my disappointment, I’m not even sure who to email because I haven’t received any direct communication from my acquaintance. The whole thing is bizarre and so foreign to my direct way of communicating, I’m second-guessing all my instincts on how to respond!

Yeah, if she knows you as more than just a passing acquaintance, she should have reached out to you personally to say something. I would try not to be offended that you weren’t interviewed; it’s really common for hiring managers to want very nuanced things that aren’t always easy to reflect in the ad. And because she does know you, she might know that you’re great in X ways but not quite the right fit in Y way. (That’s the double-edged sword of knowing the hiring manager — they know your strengths, but they also know the sometimes-more-hidden ways in which this role might not be the right match.)

Alternately, though, it’s possible that she’s not the person doing the initial screenings and that she doesn’t actually know you were rejected. She might have forgotten to flag your candidacy for them, or there could have been all sorts of other miscommunications. Because of that, it’s worth making sure she knows — but you need to do it in a way that doesn’t sound like you’re assuming that she must not or that you think the decision to reject you was a weird one. I’d send an email that says something like this: “Got a note from Teapots Inc.’s admin account this week letting me know I’m not moving forward for the teapot painter position. I’m disappointed, but I know you’ll find someone great. Thanks for considering me, and I’d love to catch up any time.” That way, if she wasn’t in the loop, she’ll now be alerted and can step in if she wants to.

4. Should I give my interviewer a pre-written thank-you note at the end of our interview?

I have an upcoming interview for a position that is, essentially, my dream job. I’m preparing to go above and beyond to nail the interview and wow my potential employer. The interview is scheduled at the end of the day on Friday, and immediately following I’ll be out of pocket until the following Monday, traveling out of town (I’ll be driving, then at a music festival all weekend).

Would it be overkill if I prepared a thank you note ahead of time and gave it to my interviewer at the conclusion of the interview? I plan to send an additional thank-you email/thank-you note the Monday after.

Don’t do that.

A big part of the point of a thank-you note is to show you that you thought about what was discussed during an interview and decided that you’re still enthusiastic about the job. If it’s clear that you wrote it before you even came to the interview, it’s going to look really perfunctory, like you’re just checking off a box, and is going to feel pretty strange to your interviewer since it clearly doesn’t have anything to do with the content of the interview. It would be like if at the end of a first date, the person handed you a sealed envelope with a card inside about what a nice time they had with you, which they’d written ahead of the date.

And you also don’t want to do two separate thank-you’s for the same interview. Just sent one, and send it by email on Monday. (Email is the better option these days, since if you send it by postal mail, the person may not even see it until after they’ve made a decision. Some people don’t open their postal mail at work for months because so rarely is it relevant to some jobs.)

5. Taking a week of vacation after giving notice

I am planning on quitting my job in the near future and will relocate to another state. I would love to use up my week of vacation time that I have left. I plan on submitting the week vacation request, getting it approved, and then officially resigning, giving three weeks notice (my vacation being the third week). Is that acceptable? I don’t want to burn bridges.

It depends on your company. A lot of companies have policies that you can’t use vacation time — particularly significant chunks of vacation time, like a week — during your notice period (because the notice period is for transitioning your work, so they want you to be there). There’s a decent chance that they’ll end up telling you to set your last day at the end of the two weeks, and not to include the vacation week at all. If your vacation time gets paid out in cash when you leave, that may not matter. But if you’re in a state that doesn’t require vacation pay-out and your company doesn’t do it on their own, you could lose that week of vacation.

So I’d check your employee handbook to find out what it says about all of this before you do anything. (Alternately, could you just take that week of vacation, and then give your notice when you return?)


employee is citing a family death two years ago as a reason not to work around any holidays

A reader writes:

I am a new supervisor and have an issue with a current employee. This employee is an hourly graduate student who mostly works nights/weekends when our full-time employees do not. It is stressed that the position is pre-professional, meaning we treat the employee like any other professional, while giving them coaching and help looking for full-time work in the field.

Our grad student employees are expected to work a weekend day, evenings, and reasonable work around holidays, so that we have enough employees around to stay open. Around holidays, that usually means filling in when other employees are at lunch or in meetings and unable to be facing the public. Basically, they fill in for our required commitments when we’re short-staffed. We don’t expect both of the grad students to be around, just one, so they have to learn to negotiate with each other to make sure their role gets filled. For holidays, often one student will work right up to the holiday and then take a few days off after, and the other will take a few days before, but come back right after the holiday.

However, this year, one of our students said “my parent recently died” as a reason to get out of working around any holidays, and requests time off (instead of swapping) for smaller family events, such as a relative’s birthday, because “it is important for them to be there since they lost someone recently.” So far, I’ve allowed this to happen without questioning things, as grieving is tough and takes time. But she is not willing to negotiate about being around any time around Christmas—demanding three full weeks off, saying she’ll need a lot of time with family since it is such a tough time of year, and was crying when she told me. I reiterated that this is her last year as a student and thus her last year getting a month off for the holidays, and she needs to get used to not being able to go home for weeks at a time.

I have assumed that this death was very recent, such as in the past few months, but I went online to search for an obituary, and found the death was over two years ago. I want to think that this employee and their family has had enough time to grieve, and should get on with their lives, which means not using it as an excuse for extra time off. However, I’ve never had to deal with the death of a parent, so maybe I’m being cold about this situation.

Well, first, you definitely want to stay away from ideas like “they’ve had enough time to grieve” or “they should get on with their lives.” That’s really, really not yours to determine. And it’s very normal for the loss of a parent to be something that people grieve deeply for years.

It’s not typical, though, to ask for bereavement-related time off two years after the fact, and if the death was really two years ago, your employee is handling the time off requests, well, rather unusually.

But before you conclude anything, are you absolutely sure that the obituary you saw was the correct one and not, for example, for a different parent or step-parent? It would be pretty horrible to assume here and get it wrong.

If you’re sure you’re correct, though, then it would be reasonable to just say to her, “I’m sorry, but I can’t give you the full three weeks off. Let’s talk about what we can do, while still ensuring that other people get the time off that they need as well.”

I wouldn’t pursue the thing about her needing to get used to not being able to go home for weeks at a time, because it’s going to come across as trying to teach her a lesson when you really should just focus on being direct about what you need from the person in her job. I do get that part of this set-up is that you coach these grad students on workplace norms — but I think this is just too fraught, since it’s tied up with issues of loss and grieving. She’ll figure this one out on her own when the time comes that she needs to.

So don’t get caught up in whether her requests are legitimate or in seeking out obits or anything like that. Just focus on being clear and direct about what you need from her, and about what you can and can’t accommodate without being unfair to the other student worker or leaving yourself short-staffed. (And in fact, that’s the best lesson about workplace norms you can give anyway, because that’s what she can expect from future workplaces as well.)

how can I tell my team that their raises will be tiny?

A reader writes:

I manage a team of 12 IT staff. Over the last year, we were responsible for an extremely large project working long and hard hours. The cost savings to the company was supposed to be in the millions. We sang the typical tune, as instructed by HR, to demand everyone to work more efficiently and put staff on performance plans if they only met the status quo.

Well, now it’s time for pay raises and was told I am being given $5,000 to split between the 12 staff. This is completely demoralizing. How do I communicate this when doing performance reviews? (I can’t really push back on it because the “pot” is final. I’ve tried to ask HR for guidance on how to communicate this. Some staff already see through this that working harder to get a better rating has no bearing on salary raises.)

I answer this question — and four 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:

  • How to deal with rude schedulers
  • My friend is dating my boss’s boss
  • Do employers really have to interview a minimum number of candidates for every job
  • Should I be concerned that my job is going to go away?

my coworker responds to everything I ask him to do with profanity and “your mom” jokes

A reader writes:

Thanks to the great advice on your blog, I have gone from being a green, honestly unprofessional newbie to office culture to having considerably improved professional dialogue and interactions with my coworkers at the office I have been working in for over three years now. I paid especially close to your tips about communication (especially for those of us who are a little shy/awkward, as it were) and it’s really helped! …Except for the one person I work with more closely than anyone else, of course.

I am a Teapot Reports Processor and work in an office with one other person, a guy the same age as me (25), who is the Teapot Records Clerk. We both have the same boss, but I am largely responsible for supervising him and delegating what he does everyday. Our jobs are pretty closely intertwined — filing and all of that is on my job description in addition to what I normally do, and vice versa for him. We became friends pretty quickly and found in each other a mutual love of memes, music, stupid jokes, and being sarcastic 100% of the time. Normally this never got us in much trouble as long as we didn’t get rowdy, and we are still able to work in the same space doing our own respective things. I am a very high performer and always have been; it’s just my behavior that needed some serious tuning.

But lately, since I made a turnaround re: professionalism, he seems to be pushing back on everything I say and ask him to do more than ever. He will deliberately ignore things I ask him to do a certain way (“I’ll do it differently when someone tells me to”), gripes and complains loudly when I ask anything of him ever, and sometimes won’t even answer basic questions. (For example, one time I noticed he was covering overtime at the front desk and called upstairs to ask why — he responded to every variation of me asking “why are you still upstairs?” with “your mother” and would not give me an answer.) There’s also a lot of name-calling, which I know is all facetious and I don’t really get offended, but it does get grating to tell him “hey, I need you to do this report” and hear “shut up, bitch” in response, jokingly or not. It gets REALLY profane in here (I’m talking tons of F-bombs and the C-word, among everything else imaginable) and I am trying hard to curb as much of this as possible because this is just… not how anyone should be talking at work regardless of who can overhear it, ever. We all joke and rib each other here, but neither I or anyone else comes anywhere close to how off the cuff he gets.

I talked to our boss about it, and she advised me to sit him down and tell him what I expect of him and I have. His response to “I need you to know when to stop with the jokes and listen to me” or “I need you to ___, can you make sure that gets done” is “I need your mom to stop.” Hilarious. I tried to be more lighthearted like, “haha, no but seriously, can you ____” and “not to be a buzzkill, but will you ____” and that doesn’t really help either. I’ve had sit-downs with my boss and him about it and he just gave manufactured answers, which satisfied my boss, but not me. I’ve asked her how much I can push back against this behavior without it overstepping my boundaries, since I am not “officially” his supervisor, and she said I can do whatever I feel is necessary to get him to cooperate, but nothing is working.

My boss seems content to just tell me I’ve shot myself in the foot with this one as a result of too much joking around, and honestly she’s probably right, but I really want to believe there is a way to turn this around because there isn’t much chance he’s going anywhere soon. I don’t need this to be serious business ALL of the time, but this communication gap is frustrating at best, and his poor work ethic and refusal to do things I need him to do is dragging me and my department down. I’m worried I’ll never be management material if I can’t get this situation under control. I’ve had such good results with everyone else, but not this guy. Please help.

What is up with your horrid, horrid coworker?

I can’t tell if you think he’s truly joking around, but someone who sits in a meeting with you and your boss and promises to stop this and then goes right back to it and who flagrantly ignores your very clear directives that he stop … isn’t joking. He’s being hostile.

And your boss is telling you that because you used to joke around with this guy, now you might just have to accept that he’s going to call you a bitch, tell you to shut up, and refuse to answer questions or do his actual work?


That’s not reasonable, and that’s not how this is supposed to work. Does she not care that he’s being verbally abusive and presumably standing in the way of your ability to do your job?

I’d love to know what she meant when she said that you can do “whatever you feel is necessary to get him to stop.” Since you’re not his manager, there are only so many options you have here, and it sounds to me like you’ve tried the obvious ones.

I would go back to your manager and say this: “I need your guidance on how to handle this situation. I am not okay with Bob calling me a bitch or refusing to answer work-related questions. I have tried all that I can think of without having actual authority to require him to alter his behavior. I’ve sat him down and told him what I need, I’ve clearly stated that his comments aren’t okay, and I’ve been as direct as I can possibly be. Nothing has changed. When you meet with us together, he gives you respectful answers — and then goes right back to the same behavior once we’re out of the meeting. You’ve told me in the past that I should do whatever’s necessary to get him to cooperate, but at this point, what’s needed is for someone with authority to tell him this is unacceptable and to ensure it stops. I think he needs to hear that his job is on the line if he continues being abusive and unresponsive, but that’s not something I have the authority to say.”

It’s possible that you haven’t laid it out quite this starkly for her before, and that saying this will prompt her into action.

But if she won’t step in and handle it, then here’s what I’d do with your coworker:

* Do not say things like “haha, no but seriously…” or “not to be a buzzkill, but will you…” That’s you trying to appease him, and this isn’t behavior that should be appeased.

* Stop joking around with him entirely. Be stony-faced and serious. When he responds to your questions with “your mother” or any other ridiculous non-answer, look at him stony-faced and say “I need an actual answer.” If he still doesn’t give you one, then say, “Okay, I’m going to loop Jane into this” and then do so — as in an email cc’d to your boss that says, “Bob, I asked you X and you continually replied ‘your mother.’ I need to know X by the end of today.”

* Similarly, when he ignores your requests, send him an email cc’d to your manager that says, “Bob, this morning I asked you to do X. You first ignored me, then told me you’ll do it when someone else tells you to, so I’m looping in Jane here.”

* Ignore his griping and complaining. Literally tune it out. He’s looking for a response from you. Don’t give him one.

* If he ever says “shut up, bitch” to you again, walk into your manager’s office immediately, report it, and tell her you’re not okay with being spoken to like that. (Note: You said you think it’s facetious and you’re not terribly offended by it. Frankly, I think you should be, but if you want to give him a chance to stop on his own, you could first try warning him with, “If you ever speak to me that way again, I’m making a formal complaint with Jane.”)

I know that you feel like you’re supposed to handle this situation yourself and that it’s somehow failure on your part if you don’t — but you don’t have the authority that’s needed to deal with this guy. Your manager is the one failing by allowing this to continue, not you — so please don’t convince yourself that is some kind of lack of leadership on your part if you can’t successfully shut it down. It’s on your coworker and your manager, the two people who could actually change his behavior.

You don’t have a magic wand or an anti-asshole potion, and absent having actual managerial authority here, that’s what you’d need.

living so close to work that coworkers could see in my window, employee is struggling with anxiety, and more

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

1. Living so close to work that coworkers could see in my window

As most people do, I have always despised the time spent (some might say wasted) commuting to and from work. I’m currently in the market for a new job, and the commute time to the potential new positions always weighs heavily on my decision to apply for them.

Well, there’s one position in particular that I’m interested in that has about the best commute time there is; it’s literally next door to my house. I live on a somewhat peculiar street in that, while it is mostly a residential street, there is a small business park in the middle of it, and my house is located directly next door. About a year after I moved in, an upstart alternative energy company moved into the suite closest to me. Over the past couple years, they have grown quite a bit and have created several new positions which they advertise with signage outside of their building and in the local newspaper. One of these positions is in my field and I’ve always been interested in the alternative energy industry, so it would likely be a good fit for me even if it wasn’t so close to where I live.

Obviously, the practically non-existent commute has advantages: saving money on gas and car maintenance, being able to spend my entire lunch break at home, being able to get too and from work safely in inclement weather, etc. But I can also see some possible disadvantages as well, such as how easily I could become the “go-to guy” when there’s an emergency at the office outside of regular business hours. Also there’s a privacy and boundary issue at play, not the least of which is that you can actually see into my bedroom window from the front door of the company! Then there’s also a potential of getting unexpected and unwelcome house calls from coworkers during my time off, for either professional or social reasons.

What’s your take on this type of situation? Obviously living close to work has its advantages, but is this *too* close? Should I try to apply and just weigh the pros and cons, or skip it altogether?

Ooooh, interesting. I wouldn’t worry too much about unwanted house calls; it probably wouldn’t happen, but if it did, you could put a stop to it immediately. What would worry me most is the potential lack of privacy; I wouldn’t want coworkers to be able to see right in my window. Even if you kept the curtains closed all the time (which isn’t really ideal), I’d still be concerned about your comings and goings being noticed more than they normally would. If you’re out sick, is someone going to wonder why they see you leaving your building and not returning for hours? Are they going to take note of visitors showing up at your door? Etc. It feels a bit too close for comfort to me.

That said, if you’re really interested in the job, you should apply and see what happens. You might end up wanting it enough that it will trump this stuff. (And if you happen to rent, you could always consider moving if you get the job and stay in it long enough for that to start to feel reasonable to do.)

2. I suspect my employee is struggling with anxiety

A question I’ve been pondering lately is how to be sensitive to potential mental health issues when an employee hasn’t disclosed an issue/this issue. I have a talented employee who gets paralyzed trying to do new things. When there is a roadmap and it’s something he’s comfortable with, he does a great job. He’s very smart and his ideas are usually great. To move into the next step in his career, he needs to start being somebody who is driving new projects where there isn’t a roadmap, and he’s starting to struggle.

Seeing this pattern and the fact that he has a hard time asking for help, it seems like he might be dealing with anxiety. It’s a lot of things having to do with his overall mood/demeanor. But the more tipping point to me is the degree of paralysis I’m seeing. Like if it’s in the “new project” box, he has a hard time recognizing the pieces he *has* done before or is familiar with. When we had a talk about this, kind of around the edges, I told him it’s fine to not know how to do things, he just has to communicate that with his teams appropriately and make a plan, and he told me that he has a really really hard time admitting when he doesn’t know something and asking for help (which, as a somewhat anxiety prone person myself, felt familiar, though the good chance I’m projecting is why I’m asking you first vs just asking him).

Is there a good way to be sensitive and supportive while giving feedback?

The best thing that you can do is to give him very clear, specific feedback about what you need to see him doing differently — and of course to be kind in the way you deliver it. You want to be careful not to be so kind that it obscures the message, though; rather, you’re going for kind in tone and vibe. Your tone should be “you’re not a horrible person or a failure for struggling with this” and “here’s what it would look like to approach it differently.”

I would not delve into the potential anxiety aspect of it, at least not beyond a one-time mention of “you know, sometimes when people struggle with this, it’s tied up with anxiety issues, and if that resonates with you, it’s something you could talk to a doctor about.” Beyond that one-time, very brief mention, it’s just really not your place to diagnose or nudge him on that aspect of things, especially if it’s not something he’s disclosed to you. Certainly you can use it as a reminder to yourself to be compassionate about whatever the reason is that he’s struggling with this (whether it’s anxiety or something totally different), but as his boss, your role is really just to give clear feedback and a reasonable amount of coaching, and then let him take it from there.

3. Can I ask my boss to lunch?

I’ve recently (within the last two months) earned a promotion and now have a new boss. New Boss and I have been in the same department for a couple of years, but of course I’ll have much more interaction with her now. We get along fine, but our check-ins are very tight on time and leave no room for getting to know each other. Can I ask my boss to meet for lunch so we can get to know each other better? Is that a thing? If that is a thing, what topics are okay and which should I steer clear of? My intended career trajectory could potentially mimic hers, so I’d love to learn more detail about her professional history. Also, she’s well known for negotiating a great salary – I’d love to learn more about those skills, but I’m assuming I need to avoid that topic, right?

Sure, you can say something like, “Could we go to lunch some time? I’d love the chance to talk to you outside of our check-ins.”

At lunch, I’d steer clear of personal topics unless she brings them up. It’s fine to tell her that you’re interested in having a similar career path to hers and saying that you’d love her advice in that regard. I wouldn’t get into her own salary negotiations though; that’s likely to just be too awkward since she’s your boss and since she’s the one you’ll be negotiating with for your own salary. (However, at whatever point you and she are no longer working together, you could absolutely ask her advice on negotiating.)

4. Mentioning that your wife may go into labor before or during a phone interview

My husband has been applying to some jobs here and there, and a few days ago, was contacted for a phone interview. He’s written back but they haven’t gotten back to him. I’m also due to go into labor any day now. Is that something he should bring up now, during the scheduling process or not mention it unless he has to cancel the interview because I’m in the middle of delivering?

Nah, I wouldn’t mention it unless it turns out that he needs to. Odds are good enough that he won’t have to.

5. My loud coworker keeps working near me because he “needs company”

Where I work we, unfortunately, have an open office floorplan. I hate it. It is much of the time impossible to have a long stretch of quiet time to accomplish anything. I come in very early only to beat the pack and snare a precious few quiet hours.

One coworker who is quite a nice person and has a private office in another area has recently been coming over to my desk to work. He talks excessively loudly even when no one is speaking to him. I’ve even caught him singing a time or two. However this person has also been extremely helpful to me in my duties in the past so I don’t want to offend him by saying anything. I know others are disturbed as well but are too nice to say anything.

When I questioned why he was leaving his spot to come work by me, he claimed he needed the company. Our manager does not have much sympathy. And there is no other quiet spot to move to. Headphones and earplugs do little. I’m contemplating sneaking into the colleague’s office to work now just to save my sanity. What should I do?

Say something to him! You can’t worry so much about offending him that you’re not willing to speak up about a very reasonable thing — and since you describe him as a nice person, he would probably be mortified if you allowed him to continue bothering you without clueing him in.

Say this: “Bob, I love working with you, but working near you can be challenging when I’m trying to focus because you talk while you work. Would you mind giving me back my quiet space so I can get my focus back?”

Otherwise, yes, tell him you’re going to borrow his office while he’s borrowing yours, “because I need quiet to work.”

my boss wants a timeline for me leaving and I haven’t even given notice

A reader writes:

In my recent one-one one with my boss, we discussed my career path. I am currently in a graduate program that is only vaguely related to my current role, because what I do now is not something I wish to do long-term. It’s a career path I fell into, and while I do a good job, I will never be great at it or enjoy what I do.

He asked me what kind of role I wanted to do, and I expressed that I quite hadn’t figured it out yet, but I was starting to identify a few areas I would like to explore. With his blessing, he suggested I contact our HR business partner to go over what internal paths there might be and any suggestions she had, which is about what I expected. It is a very large company that does encourage moving around to explore others areas of interest. What he said next, though, is what I am concerned about.

He asked that after I meet with her, we establish a timeline for me transitioning. I responded that I felt that was a bit premature, since even if I do meet with her, I have no idea if a position in an area of interest would be available or that I would be hired into that role. His response to that was that he “can’t keep investing in me indefinitely knowing I eventually I will leave and that he would need more than two weeks notice” since I have a large volume of work that is time critical on a weekly basis. I left the meeting saying that I would contact HR and let him know what was discussed. My performance is adequate, so it’s not an issue with me under-performing, more that involving me in long-term projects and training would be wasted resources.

I’m afraid now if I don’t find something sooner than later, they are just going to hire a replacement and let me go. And while I hope that eventually I will find something more suited to my interests and skill, I feel it is unrealistic to put a timeline on it at this stage. I understand him wanting to prepare as much as possible, but I find it concerning that he’s already asking for a timeline. I’ve only had two jobs post-college, this one for the past 16 months, and my prior one for eight years, so I am not sure if this is a usual request.

I am also looking outside my company, but again, there is no guarantee that I will find something soon. I guess I am feeling like I am being shoved out the door before I am ready. I have no intention of giving notice until I have accepted an offer, because at the end of the day I have bills to pay. How do I approach this when he asks for a timeline again?


I know from the employee side, this seems patently unfair. From the manager side, there are really are times where, after an employee expresses interest in leaving, it can make sense to say, “Okay, let’s nail down what a timeline for that would look like so that we can both plan.” (It particularly can make sense to say that when the employee isn’t performing at a high level — especially if the alternative would be going through all the work of a performance improvement plan and possibly letting them go.) But that shouldn’t be the default position; the default position should be open, honest conversation that doesn’t include forcing the person out early. (More on how managers should navigate this here.)

And I’m sure you didn’t go have that career discussion with him intending it to serve as some kind of unofficial notice.

So it might make sense to go back to your boss now and say this: “I’ve had some time to digest our conversation, and I want to make it clear that I have no plans to leave in the near future. While I appreciated your suggestion to talk to HR about longer-term prospects, I enjoy my work here and don’t have current plans to look for other roles.”

However, this gets a little trickier depending on exactly what you said to him in the earlier conversation. If you told him that you don’t enjoy the work, it’s not totally unreasonable for him to want to start making moves toward resolving the situation because he of course wants to have someone in your job who’s enthusiastic about the work.

So if you did tell him something like that, you need to be prepared for him to say something like, “Hey, I appreciate that, but given that you know this work isn’t for you long-term, I do need to get someone in here who’s excited about what we’re doing and committed to being here longer-term.”

If that happens, then you could try saying this: “I really didn’t intend to give you the impression that I wanted to move on right away. I’m committed to this work and I would hate to be pushed out just because we talked about very long-term career goals the other day. It was never my intention to start making plans to leave.”

Worst case scenario, if he doesn’t change his stance here, you could just call the question and say, “Are you telling me that you’re going to let me go if I’m still here after a certain number of months?” and/or “How long are you willing to let me stay in this job?” He might not be willing to go as far as actually letting you go and instead is just aiming for some kind of mutual agreement — and if you won’t do that, he may back off (and your company might have policies or practices that make that more likely — which is also something you could ask HR when you talk to them). Or he might just say he’s going to set a date. If it’s the latter, you can at least try to negotiate for a longer transition period.

But go back and talk to him and see if you can work this out.

my coworker wants us to call her boyfriend her “master”

I gasped out loud when I received this letter, and so will you.

A reader writes:

An employee, “Sally,” started at our workplace about a year and a half ago. She’s not my subordinate, but is the subordinate to a peer of mine, and works frequently with my subordinates. A few months later she got a new boyfriend, “Peter.” (I found out about this through normal water cooler-type conversation.)

After she’d been with the company a few more months, at Christmas time of 2015, she invited her boyfriend to our holiday party. (This is totally normal in our workplace; people are welcome to bring any family or friends they like to the party as long as they RSVP.) Everything there seemed fine as well, although at one point Peter asked Sally to get him a drink, to which she replied “Yes, master!” in a very “I Dream of Jeannie” kind of way. We all laughed it off as a joke, and it didn’t come up again.

…until it did. We had an early summer party in late May at which Sally and Peter both attended (again, bringing SOs and friends was totally acceptable, so that was not in itself a problem). At this party, there was a good deal more of Peter ordering Sally around and Sally calling him “master”: he sent her to fetch drinks and hot dogs, he told her to find a place for them to sit, etc., to which she replied consistently with “Yes, master.” It made a number of people, myself included, clearly uncomfortable, but there was nothing objectively abusive about it (he never yelled at her or threatened her), and her immediate supervisor and her supervisor’s supervisor weren’t there, and so no one said anything (perhaps incorrectly?).

After the party, at the office, I overheard a conversation in which one of her coworker-friends was like, “so uh, what’s up with the master thing?” and she explained that she was in a 24/7 dominant/submissive relationship, and he wasn’t her boyfriend or her SO or her partner, he was her “master,” and needed to be referred to as such. Her coworker was clearly flummoxed and didn’t have much response to that.

Later, I heard her correct someone who referred to her boyfriend as her boyfriend/partner, saying that he wasn’t her partner, he was her master, and should be referred to using his appropriate title. She compared it to gay rights, saying that if she was a man, they wouldn’t erase her relationship by referring to “Peter” as “Patricia,” and so they shouldn’t erase the D/s relationship by calling him a partner instead of a master. It’s pretty clear that her coworkers aren’t comfortable asking her “will your master be at the end-of-summer barbecue?” or “did you and your master do anything fun this weekend?, though, and thus have just stopped referring to Peter at all.

Her direct boss, my colleague, is baffled as to how to sensitively address this issue. My instinct is that there’s a very big difference between insisting that colleagues acknowledge that you’re in a gay relationship and insisting that they refer to your partner as “your master,” and that it borders on involving other non-consenting parties into your relationship … but I can’t really articulate why. For what it’s worth, I am a bisexual woman, and our office has a number of gay/lesbian, trans, and poly individuals, so it’s not an issue of being against nontraditional relationships. It just seems to be that it seems very important to Sally that Peter be referred to as “her master,” and it seems equally clear that her coworkers find this intensely uncomfortable.

Help? How can I advise my colleague? What’s reasonable in this situation?

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