should pet peeves influence hiring decisions?

A reader writes:

I am hiring for a position that I will manage. Our office is small and this individual and I will work together very closely.

I know selecting interviewees and employees is not truly “fair,” but how much should my pet peeves impact the decision to interview someone? For instance, someone sent me a LinkedIn invite a week before their resume was sent to me to consider. I do not send invites to people I don’t know and I don’t accept invites from people I don’t know.

Or, I have seen some resumes that describe where the way people describe themselves as “charismatic” or “intelligent.” To me, it seems that if this is true, I will be able to figure that out when I meet you but the counter punch to that is that it doesn’t bother me when someone describes themselves as “hard-working” or “passionate.”

So far I am interviewing these folks based on their accomplishments, but I have to admit these pet peeves are in my head.

I answer this question 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.

my friend is a terrible employee — should I tell her what I really think or just give her sympathy?

It’s the Thursday “ask the readers” question. A reader writes:

I have a friend who I have never worked with. I want to start by saying she’s an amazing friend: supportive, smart, funny, kind, all the qualities you want in a friend … but I suspect she is a terrible employee.

We are professionals in our late 30s, and I’m not sure she’s ever left a job on truly good terms. We have graduate degrees in similar areas and work in parallel fields, so I understand the kind of work she does even if we do not directly overlap. As her friend, I hear over and over again about the toxic bosses, the problematic comments, etc. As a manager, I hear many of her stories and think, “Oh, you played that really wrong,” but rarely say that to her directly as it just makes her upset — and fair enough, she’s come to me as a friend, not a coach. I’ve heard the stories of her firings and kept to myself the general sense that, yeah, the boss did the best thing for the company even though it stinks for my friend.

Now she has taken a job that seemed like a really good fit on paper, but it is already falling apart a few months in. She has called a few times to complain about the unfair treatment she has received, how everyone hates her, how she’ll have to quit within six months, and so forth. Because we have never worked together, I have always been extremely careful not to make assumptions, to listen and to just be her friend, offering sympathy and a shoulder to cry on. But now I feel like saying, “We are middle-aged and there is a pandemic. You need to put up and shut up and just do the job or you are going to be completely screwed.”

I know this is more of a friendship question than a manager question, but do you think I should redraw those lines? Do I owe it to her to give her my professional opinion, as opposed to my friend one?

Readers, what say you?

boss gives us pop quizzes, random drug tests during quarantine, and more

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

1. My boss gives us pop quizzes on our cross-training

My boss, Cersei, is a brand-new manager, and my coworker (Jon) and I are her guinea pigs for learning how to manage. Jon and I handle different aspects of the same type of work. Cersei wants us to cross-train in each other’s areas, which is great! We already have basic knowledge of each other’s areas of expertise, and it would be good to be better at it.

But Cersei’s method of ensuring we get cross-trained is a little wonky, in my experience. She wants to give us pop quizzes on each other’s areas, while leaving us to handle the actual work of cross-training on our own. This is only my third office-type job, but I have significant retail/food service experience before this, and to me, the pop quiz idea comes off as punitive and ineffective. I would expect actual training to be involved somewhere, some kind of structured teaching of the information, rather than this approach of “handle it yourselves and I’ll randomly quiz you to see if you did it right.” Neither Jon nor I have experience training other people, so we don’t really know how to go about training each other aside from the basic things we’ve already gone over. Is this a normal way to go about cross-training? Am I somehow wrong to expect more structure or intentionality out of this process? How can I approach Cersei about my concerns without sounding combative or obstructive?

An alarming amount of workplace “training” happens without any real structure or method, and people without any training in training others are asked to train people all the time. The belief is often that if you know how to do task X, you can show someone else how to do task X. And frankly, a lot of the time that’s true! You might not do it in the most efficient or ideal way, but most of the time people muddle through.

But that doesn’t mean Cercei is handling this well. If she wants to be involved to the point of giving you pop quizzes, she should also be involved earlier on — talking with each of you about what to train the other in, and how thoroughly, and what having done it successfully will look like. For example, if you’re showing Jon how to send email newsletters, do you just need to show him the basic mechanics of creating and sending a newsletter in the CRM software, or do you also need to equip him to troubleshoot, create new design templates, follow your boss’s content preferences, and know the best days of the week to send them out? There’s a huge range of stuff that she could mean by cross-training.

Since the current system isn’t working, why not tell Cersei that you and Jon feel you’ve reached the limits of your training abilities and need some help? At a minimum, sitting down together to create a more comprehensive list of what each person needs to learn should help.

From there, I don’t think the quizzes are punitive per se, although that depends on exactly what she’s doing. Written tests would be weird, but informal “how would you handle X?” conversations can be a decent way to suss out what’s been learned and what spots might need more attention. But she’s got to put in the work to support the process on the front-end first.

(You also probably need all this stuff documented, since someone who learns something in July and doesn’t use it until November is going to need something written down to consult.)

2. I have to go take a random drug test during quarantine

I guess this is less of a question than just blowing off steam. I work as a third party contractor for a government agency. It’s one of those situations where my paycheck comes from the contracting company, but I work at the agency location and honestly see my contracting “supervisor” maybe twice a year.

I got an email this morning from the contracting company’s HR telling me that I was selected for a random drug screening and that I have until 3:00 tomorrow to go to a lab location to complete the screen. I haven’t left my house since mid March except for walks, our office is currently closed. I’ll have to use public transportation to get to the nearest lab. It seems crazy to me that random testing wasn’t suspended during a global pandemic. I politely but firmly pushed back to both my “supervisor” at the contracting company and directly with HR. The response from both was basically “random screenings are policy, wear a mask.” Can I get a reality check? I’m not the crazy one, right?

(Yes, I am planning on doing the screen tomorrow. I do not want to be fired).

You are not the crazy one. Drug testing already violates your privacy (what you do in the privacy of your own home on your own time isn’t any of their business to begin with — unless you are in a safety-sensitive position, in which case they should be using far more effective performance testing anyway, which would check if you’re impaired for any reason, not just finding drug use from a week ago) and your company particularly sucks for demanding that you risk your health for this performative concern about safety in the middle of a pandemic, while not finding any ways to make it safer for you (provide safer transportation? send someone to you? etc.).

Performance testing = computer-assisted tests that measure things like hand-eye coordination and response time, designed to catch multiple types of impairment (including legal ones, like sleepiness or alcohol). Used by NASA on astronauts and test pilots, and in other cases where safety matters more than drug testing theater.

3. Can you interview with a second company when an employer flies you out to interview?

I’ve got a question for you about something my boyfriend did when job searching. About two years ago, we were getting ready to move 12 hours away so I could start grad school. He scheduled an interview with one company in our new location and they offered to pay for flights, hotel, and rental car. Since he was going to be in the area, he scheduled another interview for the time he was going to be in town.

Well, both companies offered him a job, but Company A — who paid for travel — had a ridiculously bad offer. The pay was well below market rate and the benefits and the hours were bad as well. Company B paid significantly more and offered better benefits. It was really a no brainer who to go with. He waited a bit after thinking it over — company A’s name carries weight — and ultimately went with Company B. Company A seemed upset that he didn’t accept the offer. (If I remember correctly, my boyfriend tried to negotiate with them and it still didn’t compare to Company B.) They flat out asked if he interviewed for another position while there for their interview and seemed quite upset that he did. Was he wrong for scheduling more than one interview on this trip and having company A pay for travel when he didn’t ultimately go with them?

It’s not uncommon for people to try to line up more than one interview on a trip to a city they hope to move to, even when one of the companies is paying the travel expenses. As long as his interview with Company B didn’t add any expenses for Company A, he didn’t do anything wrong. My answer would be different if he’d tacked on an extra day for the interview at A’s expense, or if he was less available to A during his trip because of B’s demands on his time, but it doesn’t sound like that happened.

That said, in general it’s wise to be discreet when you do this. Companies understandably don’t want to feel like they’re facilitating some other employer’s interview schedule, so typically you’d keep it to yourself if you were scheduling multiple interviews during a trip they were paying for. But unless the company that flew you out books up all your time while you’re there, you’re free to go to a movie, have dinner with a local friend, or, yes, meet with other employers.

It sounds like Company A was just taken aback that your boyfriend turned down their offer and was looking for an explanation other than their below-market pay and benefits.

4. My manager told me I don’t seem passionate about my work anymore

My company performed their mid-year performance reviews as scheduled over the last month. We’re all remote during the pandemic and as far as I know, my company is doing alright and no one has been laid off. My mental health has been really suffering due to the endless global situations, a death in the family, and a general predisposition to depression and anxiety.

During these past few months, the responsibilities of my role have been expanded and I have more to do. I have been staying on top of this new work on top of my existing workload. During my performance review, my manager told me he was impressed with how I handled these new tasks but that he wasn’t seeing my passion for the work anymore. In all honesty, I don’t think I have ever been passionate about my work. I think what he’s responding to is that I’ve been going through a hard time lately. I asked for concrete examples I could work on. He said he didn’t have any, but still reflected this lack of passion in one of the scores on my review.

I’m feeling extremely frustrated and demoralized. It literally is taking all of my energy right now to do my work every day, leaving very little left for me to take care of myself after 5. I don’t have the energy to fake enthusiasm on top of that, and I don’t think that’s an appropriate ask during a pandemic. Am I overreacting? I feel like I should just be thankful to have a job that isn’t disrupted by everything going on, but I’m genuinely pretty hurt.

Nah, that’s messed up. He should come up with concrete examples of how this is affecting your work or it doesn’t belong on a review. To be clear, I’m not saying hard-to-define things never belong on a review; they often do. I’m saying that managers need to do the work of figuring out what the impact really is and articulating that.

It might be worth going back to him and saying, “I’ve thought a lot about your feedback in my review. I think what you’re seeing is my response to the stress of the pandemic, plus a death in the family and some medical issues I’m dealing with. I don’t think that belongs in my review, particularly in light of the good work I’ve continued to do and especially if there aren’t specific impacts on my work, and I’d like to ask you to reconsider including it in my scores.”

5. How to professionally answer work calls on a personal cell

I was hoping you could help clarify a professional way to answer your personal cell phone while teleworking during the pandemic. I generally just answer with “hello” but I’ve noticed a lot of coworkers will answer with a variation of “This is Fergus.” I don’t realy like answering my phone with my name, especially with unknown numbers, because I don’t want to provide them details to try to sell me stuff or scam me. Is “Hello” unprofessional? Should I suck it up since my personal phone is being used in a business capacity at the moment? How do I answer my phone?

“This is Fergus” is generally considered more professional than “hello.” Even though this is your personal phone, if it’s the main number you’re using for work calls right now, during work hours I’d answer it as if you’re getting a work call (especially if some of those calls are from clients and not just coworkers). But if you want, you could set up a Google voice number for work calls and set it to ring to your home phone, but adjust your settings to alert you when a call is coming in on that number.

That said (and I know people will disagree with me on this), I’m not convinced that people who want to scam you or sell you things will gain a significant advantage by knowing your name — you’re still going to figure out what they’re doing quickly and can cut off the call (assuming you have a reasonable amount of savviness, which I imagine you do).

my coworkers’ constant talk about stress is stressing me out

A reader writes:

My team, like everyone else, is experiencing a high amount of stress right now.

Recently I’ve noticed that when team members are announcing they’re taking a break, they will add something along the theme of “I’m incredibly stressed out and need a mental break.” Multiple people have reported having panic attacks. While it’s the truth, I think it’s an overshare that is starting to create a toxic environment where everyone is stressed out individually and about each other. We’re not fighting, but I do think we’re dragging each other down.

Our manager is painfully aware and we’ve had conversations as a team to acknowledge this is a very difficult time to be busier than ever with projects, while dealing with social unrest and a pandemic. I want to talk to my manager about this but I don’t know what to say, I don’t have a solution here. I guess I wish people would stop circling around the same message of “I’m so stressed out” because I think we all know we’re all stressed out and it’s tipped to a point where repeating it over and over just adds to the guilt we feel about feeling stressed. At the same time, I feel strongly that acknowledging mental health is important and don’t want to make it seem like no one should be speaking up.

Do you have advice for how I can talk to my manager? Advice for my manager or team?

I wrote back and asked, “What is going on in your office? Does this reflect a management/workload/staffing problem, where it’s understandable that your coworkers are breaking, and it’s a flag that the company needs to change something? Or is it more like hyperbole — the venting people do when they’re stressed but not as dire as they’re making it sound?” The reply:

I think it’s a little of both! I don’t want to discount anyone’s experience of being overwhelmed, but I definitely think that the level of venting and oversharing does have an impact on the general mood of the team.

Staffing-wise we were at an appropriate level going into the pandemic. Workload-wise we’re busier than ever, the amount of projects incoming has increased and that fact is acknowledged by our leadership team. Our director managing the workload/assignments can only do so much without being overridden or pressured by upper management pushing to get new projects quickly assigned to a manager.

Ooof, this is tough — because while it’s true that people shouldn’t vent their stress in ways that make other people more stressed, it sounds like the core problem here is workload and unrealistic expectations. And you definitely don’t want to tell people who are stressed by legitimate workload challenges to just be quiet and not complain.

The real problem is people are in a situation that’s creating this much stress in the first place. The discussion of it is a natural consequence of that.

So instead of trying to solve the stress talk, I’d use it as supporting evidence in speaking to your manager about the broader situation. In fact, with multiple people having panic attacks (!), all of you should talk to your management as a group, explain the situation is unsustainable, cite the level of stress and panic, and ask for help — whether it’s additional staff, reprioritizing work, pushing back and/or canceling some projects altogether, or so forth.

That’s not to say that it’s not legitimately stressful to hear so much talk about other people’s stress. It is. It’s just not the core problem here, and trying to address it without first addressing the other will do more harm than good.

And to be clear, it’s possible that people are venting more than is really needed. Venting has a way of encouraging more venting, and people might be doing it partly as an act of camaraderie, or because it feels like it releases some of the pressure, or simply because it’s become reflexive. But with the bigger problems behind it, it’s just the wrong thing to focus on.

If the situation were different and the workload were reasonable and the venting seemed hyperbolic, I’d encourage your manager to sit down with the venters and take their complaints seriously — dig into their workload and what was causing that intense stress. Framing it as “I wouldn’t have expected your workload to produce this level of stress so let’s figure out where the disconnect is” can shut down hyperbole if it is in fact hyperbole, or it can provide useful new info if the manager’s assessment is wrong. But that’s not the situation you’re in.

Until and unless your employer solves the workload problem, I think you’re going to keep hearing about people’s stress. Pushing on the workload itself is likely the only way to really solve it.

my coworker says our company is toxic — but is she the problem?

A reader writes:

I’m three months into this great new job that I’ve spent a lot of time in education and unpaid internships to prepare for. I’m so excited to finally have it! It’s a high-pressure job that requires a lot of attention to detail.

I was assigned to a trainer, “Jane,” who’s been here five years. At first we had a bit of a personality clash, but we’ve moved past that and I’ve come to value her as a very skilled employee who is a fair and patient trainer. I’ve gotten high praise from her and our supervisors, so everything seems to be going well.

However, from day one Jane has constantly complained about our workplace, mostly to our other coworkers while the supervisors are off-duty. (We’re on shift work, so probably 75% of the time we don’t see our supervisors.) I have noticed that there has been a lot of turnover in the past year; two employees quit in my first two months. Also, there’s this weird culture where each person seems to think they’re the only one who does any work or is competent. People tend to jump to conclusions about each other’s intent or state of mind when a mistake is made and, on the flip side, take it very personally when a mistake is pointed out. The tension seems especially pronounced between Jane and the two managers in charge of our section.

So far, I like everyone and don’t really understand where all this tension comes from, so I’m hoping to just keep my head down and be positive and friendly in the hopes that I won’t get sucked into it. But how do I know if it’s only a matter of time until my supervisors start singling me out, as Jane seems to think has happened to her, if this is a generally toxic workplace, or if the problem lies with my trainer?

You can read my answer to this letter at Vice today. Head over there to read it.

my boss is discriminating against my pregnant employee

A reader writes:

We have a colleague who has just left to spend a year working remotely (well, we’re all working remotely now!) so he and his wife can live near her family for a year. We needed to split his role into two anyway, so we hired someone, “Jane,” to take over his day-to-day work, and he is working on more independent projects while he’s away. I’m her direct manager, but both the director/owner (“Ron”) and I agreed that she was far and away the best candidate we had.

Two weeks after Jane started, she told us that she was pregnant and due about six months later. Ron was very, very unhappy. He felt tricked (she says she didn’t know at the first interview, but he’s not sure he believes her), and annoyed that we then had to find a replacement for our replacement. For my part, it was a bit frustrating, but that’s life. I like her personally, and she’s a fast learner and a good employee.

The problem is that, ever since then, Ron has been very cold to her. He’s asked me to keep a record of every time she says she’s exhausted or takes time off (which she is legally entitled to, paid) for doctor appointments, and has asked me if she’s making up the hours for those appointments that she’s legally entitled to. We had also talked about eventually transitioning her onto our B2B sales team (she worked on the side that we sell to for years, has great contacts, and is the right personality), but now he’s saying that when she’s a mother, she won’t be able or want to go out and schmooze with the customers anymore (it’s a schmooze-based field). Also, we interviewed a young woman for the maternity cover position, and he made multiple comments that probably this woman would announce her pregnancy as soon as she started. In the end, I pushed and we hired her, but I’m certain if we’d had two equal candidates, he would have gone with a male candidate or someone who he didn’t think was likely to become pregnant.

I’ve felt pressured to make sure Jane is working every hour she’s meant to. For example, she had a doctor appointment at 3 pm. She was planning to take lunch from 1:30-2:30 pm, travel to the appointment from 2:30-3, and then spend an hour at the appointment, and another half hour traveling, so finished by 4/4:30. I asked what time she thought she’d be signed back into work, and she seemed very taken aback that I wanted her to come back to work for the last hour of the day. Ron would absolutely be upset if he knew she’d just taken the last hour off, and I thought it was a bit cheeky to just assume she didn’t need to come back to work, but I felt uncomfortable nickeling and diming her time, when I know there are weeks she’s worked extra because we had so much work. In the end, she didn’t take a separate lunch break and ate during her travel time to the appointment, but didn’t come back to work after.

Another example is that she had a day recently where she said she was feeling unwell. I told her to let me know if she needed to rest, but I know that’s not how Ron would have wanted me to handle it. In the past, Ron has made comments like “legally, how far do we have to accommodate her if she can’t do her work?” and insinuated that he wouldn’t accept her pregnancy interrupting her work. In other cases, he’s been very insistent that employees under the weather take time to rest.

For the record, her due date is in a month now, and she starts her maternity leave in two weeks.

What is the best way to push back when Ron’s decisions are clearly colored by her pregnancy? I want to make sure that we have a workplace that is welcoming to women, especially since this kind of behavior is not uncommon in our field. I would like to have a child myself in the next few years, so it’s also in my own personal best interest to make sure we have a good culture around it.

Also, how could I have handled the doctor appointment situation better? What’s reasonable accommodation when she’s feeling unwell from the pregnancy? In general, she’s a hard worker, and I don’t think she would ask for special treatment unless she was actually feeling very unwell. I don’t think it’s a pattern of slacking off that needs to be addressed.

WTF Ron.

He’s asking how far the law requires him to accommodate Jane, so you should tell him. (You should tell him regardless, but he’s making it easier by posing the question himself.) He needs to hear about the Pregnancy Discrimination Act, the federal law that forbids treating an employee or job applicant unfavorably because of pregnancy or childbirth. It forbids discrimination based on pregnancy in hiring, firing, pay, job assignments, promotions, layoffs, training, benefits (like leave and health insurance), and “any other term or condition of employment.” It also says an employer can’t treat pregnancy differently than it treats other conditions — so if Ron wouldn’t be nickeling and diming the time of someone with a broken leg, he can’t do it with Jane either.

Ron has been violating this law all over the place. Specifically:

* If he wouldn’t have hired Jane if he knew she was pregnant (which his comments about feeling tricked imply), that’s illegal. He’s allowed to be disappointed that he had to find a replacement so soon after hiring her. He is not allowed to use the pregnancy as a reason not to hire her at all.

* Being cold or hostile to Jane because of her pregnancy is illegal if it affects her working environment in a severe or pervasive way.

* Keeping a record of every time Jane says she’s exhausted or takes time off for doctor appointments is illegal if he wouldn’t do the same thing for an employee with another medical condition. Making it harder for her to use the paid time off your company provides, simply because she’s using it for pregnancy-related things, is illegal.

* Nickeling and diming her on her schedule because of her pregnancy if you wouldn’t do that to other employees is illegal.

* Changing her work assignment (not moving her to your B2B sales team as planned) because he doesn’t think she’ll be suited for the job as a mother is illegal.

* Given all the rest of it, those multiple comments he’s making about how the woman hired for Jane’s maternity coverage will probably announce her pregnancy too? Probably part of a hostile environment around pregnancy in general — also illegal.

* Any and all other signs that he’d prefer to hire male candidates, all else being equal? So illegal.

None of this is your fault — it’s all on Ron, and you clearly are upset by it — but be aware that you’re starting to let your knowledge of Ron’s strong feelings on this influence the way you manage Jane. That’s really common (it happens all the time when a manager’s manager is toxic), but you’ve got to be vigilant about not letting it happen or you’ll be complicit in both his illegal pregnancy discrimination and his discrimination against women in general.

So, how do you push back?

First, sit down and have a conversation with Ron. Say this: “You’ve asked how far the law requires us to accommodate Jane. The law says we can’t discriminate against someone because of a pregnancy. We can’t consider it as a factor in hiring at all. We can’t make job assignments based on pregnancy or childbirth, like not moving Jane to the B2B sales team after she has a child. We can’t track her time off in a way we don’t track other people’s, or hold her to different standards on her schedule, or otherwise treat her in a more restrictive manner because of her pregnancy.” You could add, “Obviously we have to follow the law or we could rightly be sued. But even beyond that, we need to make sure we’re not discriminating against pregnant women or being hostile toward pregnancy in order to be a good workplace for women in general.”

I doubt a single conversation with Ron will be enough to solve it, although hopefully it will put him on notice that this is serious and the law isn’t silent on what he’s doing. You’ll likely need to keep reminding him in the future. For example, if he again makes a comment about feeling tricked by a pregnant candidate, you should say, “We weren’t tricked, since it would have been illegal for us to have considered her pregnancy anyway.” If he asks you to track every time Jane is exhausted or asks for time off, you should say, “Unless we are doing that for everyone, we can’t legally do it just because of Jane’s pregnancy.” And so forth.

In your own management of Jane, make sure you’re not playing to Ron’s prejudices. Treat her the same way you’d treat anyone else. If you’d be fine with someone else not returning to work after an afternoon doctor’s appointment — especially someone who has put in extra hours at other times — then be fine with it for Jane as well. If you feel hesitant because you know Ron would be upset, remind yourself you’re following the law and Ron presumably would be more upset (or at least should be more upset) if the company got sued and/or became known as a place that illegally discriminates against women. Remind yourself that you don’t want your name attached to those complaints either.

You also asked what reasonable accommodations are when Jane feels unwell from the pregnancy. The legal answer is: anything that helps her to perform the essential functions of her job without causing genuine undue hardship to the business (and the bar for undue hardship is pretty high; something like Jane getting to leave work early when coverage isn’t an essential part of her job won’t be considered undue hardship). Ask yourself how accommodating you’d be to someone who had a broken leg or the flu; be at least as accommodating here. (Frankly, you might even need to be extra accommodating to counteract Ron’s actions.)

Good for you for wanting to stand up to Ron. I wish I could say his views were shocking, but there are still a ton of people who think like this. All of us need to ensure they hear, “No, absolutely not, we can’t and won’t do that.”

I was told to ask more questions, recommending high-priced products at work, and more

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

1. I was told to ask more questions while I’m being trained

I just started a new job two weeks ago. I received feedback that they want to see me ask more questions so they can see externally that I’m “getting it.” I tend to not have questions until I start actually doing things myself. I take notes and I’m paying attention, but currently everything seems very self-explanatory. How do I respond to this? Should I make up questions to ask?

I’ve had this feedback before from previous employers, and I’m concerned I’m giving off the impression I’m not interested or am worrying them somehow. I’m a hands-on learner, so watching people do things and taking notes doesn’t really help me until I can put it in practice.

If you’ve had this feedback from multiple employers, I’m betting that it’s not necessarily that you need to ask more questions, but that you’re not sending enough signals that you’re paying attention and processing things. Questions are one way to do it, but they’re not the only way.

Things you can do:
* After someone shows you how to do something, repeat back your understanding of the key takeaways. For example: “Okay, so after logging in, I’d go to A and do B, and if C happens, I should check D?”
* Nod and give verbal cues that you’re following along: “Okay, got it” … “That makes sense” … “Ah, I see what you’re doing!” … etc.
* Be explicit about what you said here about how you operate: “I think I’ve got it! I usually don’t have questions until I start doing things myself, but I’ve taken notes and this makes sense so far.”

The idea is to more actively engage in the training conversation, to show you’re taking it seriously and not tuning out (because some people do that). The more you’re not just silently absorbing information and instead are actively participating, the less likely people are to worry that you’re not getting things.

2. Is it tacky to recommend exorbitantly priced products at work?

With all staff members now working from home, my company has been holding weekly lunch Zoom meetings, where we’re invited to socialize and talk about anything outside of work. While the conversations have been around things like cooking, gardening, and other hobbies, we recently had a conversation around skin care. Several people, including our CEO, recommended a couple of products they liked. However, I was flabbergasted at the cost of some of the products our CEO mentioned: $800 eye serums, $200 face creams and $500 tools for “helping products settle into the skin better.”

I believe everyone has the right to spend their money how they want to and shouldn’t have to explain themselves. I also like my CEO and I’m sure she had the best intentions. But recommending these products to staff members during a time when many of us have had family members lose their jobs due to COVID rubs me the wrong way.

Furthermore, as someone who grew up seeing a dermatologist, I was often recommended products under $20. The acne medicine I use now costs $10 with insurance. The prices of the items she recommended are truly exorbitant for the general public.

Would you consider this behavior tacky and/or tone-deaf? Is the situation amplified due to COVID?

Yeah, it’s tone-deaf. She presumably has some idea of what salaries you’re all earning. Assuming those salaries aren’t high enough to make those prices de minimus to you, those recommendations come across as insensitive to her audience — and particularly ill-advised because they reveal what looks like a significant income disparity between her and the rest of you. That would be true at any time, but it’s especially insensitive at a time when she should know lots of people are struggling to pay for food and housing.

3. Interviewers who ask about salary history when it’s illegal

I live in a state where it’s been illegal for hiring managers to inquire about your current salary for a while, but I’m sorry to say that hasn’t stopped it from happening in literally every interview I’ve had since that law went into effect in 2017. What I’m struggling with is how to handle this. In the moment, I have tried to pivot — I’ll say, “Can I ask about the salary range you’re planning for this position?” or something like that. Unfortunately, that hasn’t stopped interviewers from pushing further. One particularly tough interviewer refused to proceed with the interview until I provided an answer!

Because of wanting to present well, it’s hard to say anything that could come across as contentious. I’m uncomfortable saying, “I’m not going to answer that because it’s illegal for you to ask” because that’s obviously not a good way to make a strong impression. But there’s definitely a chance I’m leaving money on the table by being honest when I shouldn’t have to be. How can I best navigate this situation the next time it happens?

Say this: “Oh, there’s actually a new law in (state) that says we can’t talk about salary history in interviews. But if you can give me a sense of what range you expect to pay, I can tell you if we’re in the same ballpark.” Say it cheerfully, as if you don’t think you’re saying anything controversial — even like you’re offering helpful info.

(And to be clear, the law doesn’t really say “we” can’t talk about salary history. As the candidate, you can offer it up on your own if you want to; they just can’t ask. But you’re saying “we” because it’ll sound less adversarial.)

4. Giving feedback to a job-hopper

I was hoping to get some help with how to respond to an applicant asking for feedback on their resume and why they were not considered. This person has a long history of job hopping, with their longest stay around 1.5-2 years out of all 12 jobs listed from 2003 to the present.

How do I tell this person that they weren’t considered due to their job hopping, in the most respectful and professional way without getting any backlash to myself or the company?

Well, you don’t have to give feedback if you don’t want to. You’re not obligated to explain why you didn’t invite someone to interview; you can just explain you had a lot of highly qualified applicants and focused on the ones most strongly matched with the role.

But if you want to provide the feedback, I’d say, “For this role, we’re seeking stability and are focusing on candidates with a track record of longer stays at most of their jobs.”

5. I’m paid a day earlier than everyone else

I get paid a day earlier than the rest of my colleagues and have no idea if I should bring it up to payroll. Do I need to? Will it look bad if it’s discovered and has been happening for years (five, to be exact) without me saying anything? Can I just continue to get paid a day earlier and feel ethically okay not saying anything? It’s not like the 24 hours makes a huge difference in my life, but I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t a nice convenience.

More info: We’re paid every other Friday, but I always receive my direct deposit around noon on Thursdays. It took me a few years to realize this was abnormal! About two years in, I mentioned it to a colleague who said they were paid Fridays, but she didn’t seem to find my early payday strange, and suggested it was just something with my bank or that perhaps there was a variation in pay schedules.

I didn’t give it much more thought until I was out for lunch with several trusted coworkers who were joking that they “can’t wait til payday tomorrow!” and I felt … weird. I asked a few others afterwards and confirmed that yes, every person I’ve talked to is paid Fridays. Except me. I get paid on Thursdays. What the heck? How has no one ever noticed this? Do I come clean?

I doubt your company is running two separate payrolls, one for you and one for everyone else, so the most likely explanation is that it’s something to do with your bank — like if you bank at the same bank your company uses, it’s possible the money shows up in your account earlier.

But if you’re curious, there’s no harm in asking! I’m sure your payroll people will be glad to explain whatever might be happening, and you’re not going to look bad for not speaking up earlier. (You’re not cheating or anything! It just shows up earlier for you. You’re not doing anything wrong, and it wasn’t something you needed to flag for them.)

should I give up on job-searching in my new city and move back home?

A reader writes:

Shortly before the pandemic, I moved across the country to pursue a career in an industry which is incredibly competitive and centred in the city I moved to. I had enough experience in my previous city which made me confident I could at least secure an entry-level position here, and I was getting interest from companies I had applied to. I’m also still early in my career, but just past the phase where I’d be considered a new grad. However, my industry was deeply affected by COVID-19 and there have been significant layoffs. So now, very few positions are opening up and whenever one does, I’m competing against those who had been laid off and have much more experience than me. This is also an industry where local experience and connections are very important. This was made all the more clear to me when I recently interviewed for a company in my exact field for which I had all the qualifications and significant experience in, but the person hired had less experience than me, but all her experience was local.

In addition to that, I don’t have a social support network here at all and making new friends is virtually impossible in this current climate, whereas I have a strong support network back home. All of this is making me strongly reconsider moving back if I am able to secure a job back home. I have a strong safety net and emergency savings account and secondary source of income which means that financially, I’m not suffering terribly, but it’s also not great either. I’m still applying for any and every job I’m qualified for, but it also feels frustrating since I’m worried that they’ll limit my ability to move back into my industry in the future and I would rather be living back home if I’m working in a job that’s not in my field because at least that way, I’d have a support system.

The problem is, at this point, I haven’t been employed in a full-time capacity in over half a year and I quit my job in my previous city to make this move. Before the pandemic I was regularly getting interviewed and even got an offer in my field (which I turned down because I got a “run, don’t walk” vibe from the interviewer and was also leaving a toxic workplace, but now I regret not taking). How do I justify this to employers and not make it seem that I quit a job without another one lined up for no reason? Before I moved, the general consensus with most companies is that they’d be interested, but that I’d need to be living in the city before they seriously considered me for a position, which is why I chose to move without a job offer, which I now see as naive and foolish.

I’m just feeling really down. This move was supposed to push me further in my career and now I feel like I’ve taken 10 steps back from where I started. I’m applying to any job I’m qualified for, but I’m also thinking that if I wouldn’t have moved away from my hometown for these types of jobs and would have rather stayed there. I didn’t move here only for my career, I do love the new city, but what fun is it without anyone to share it with?

Thank you for any advice you can offer and sorry if I sound like a Debbie Downer in this email and if this is the 1284th email you’ve received about COVID-19. Your blog has provided a source of comfort and if anything, it feels less lonely to know that I’m not alone right now. Who knows, maybe another reader is dealing with something similar and they’ll also feel less alone.

If your heart is telling you to move back, you should move back.

I’m not 100% sure from your letter that it is, but I think it might be.

You haven’t failed, and your decision to move to this new city wasn’t naive or foolish based on the info you had available at the time. Before this happened, you were getting interest from the companies you’d applied to. So you made a reasonable choice — and then the world was upended by a pandemic. That’s it. You weren’t silly or naive. You, like everyone else, are the victim of a (hopefully) once-in-a-lifetime scenario that none of us foresaw.

And don’t blame yourself for turning down that job with the bad vibes either — you should turn down jobs that have screaming red flags if you have any choice at all, and at the time, you did. And you wouldn’t necessarily be better off right now if you had taken that job; you could be working somewhere that was destroying your mental health and jeopardizing your physical safety.

As for how to explain your situations to employers, all you need to say is, “I’d moved to X right before COVID-19 hit. The pandemic made my job search there a lot harder, and also made me realize I want to be near family.” They’ll get it. The pandemic is a legitimate explanation for all sorts of weird job search situations. Employers get it. Don’t stress about it.

Anyway. If you’re not absolutely sure you want to move back, why not give yourself a deadline? You could decide that if your situation hasn’t changed in X weeks, you’ll move back. Knowing you have a plan might take some of the pressure off and keep you from being constantly in “what do I do now?!” mode.

But really, if you wouldn’t have moved knowing what you know now and you wish you were still back home … you can course-correct. It’s not a sign of failure; it’s just adapting to circumstances that have changed profoundly.

should I lie on my resume to make myself stand out?

A reader writes:

Like many people, I am desperately applying for jobs right now. I have also been frequenting job-seeker forums to get advice and tips.

One thing I keep seeing is tips on how to embellish your resume and then “cheat” the background check. For example, imagine your actual job title was “administrative assistant,” but you put “office manager” or “administrative services manager” down in your job application. Or stretching start and end dates to cover long gaps.

If you are asked to complete a background check, most employers use a third-party vendor to perform the checks. That background check company sends you a form to fill out with titles, dates, company names, etc.

The “trick” is to be 100% honest when filling out that form. Then the background checker finds no discrepancies and gives your future employer the green light on hiring you. This works because it is reportedly not uncommon for neither party to compare the information you provided the background checkers vs. what you claimed in your job application. After that, it’s easy enough to cherry-pick obliging references (assuming your future employer bothers to actually reach out in addition to the background check).

Of course, this wouldn’t work for jobs requiring security clearance, and won’t hide certain things like criminal history. But more and more people are claiming this has successfully helped them land jobs that might otherwise be out of reach.

I feel deeply uncomfortable lying this way, but at the same time, I believe I am at a disadvantage if I don’t. In a competitive job market among a sea of embellished resumes, how can an honest one stand out?

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

how to handle requests to “pick your brain” from new grads

A reader writes:

A few years ago, I appeared in a series of videos about “how I got my job.” My job is pretty niche and there really isn’t a ton of institutional information about it yet, so it got a lot of attention. Since then, I’ve consistently gotten two to three LinkedIn messages per week from new grads and people looking to break into my field.

About 20% are just saying that they found the videos inspiring (which I love to hear!), 30% are just asking to connect, and the remainder are asking for more career advice — but in a very general way. Think “I’d love to get your thoughts on how to break into the industry/get hired at your company.”

I’m of two minds: I really want to help, but the volume of requests I get is much too high to respond to every single one. (I am working on a template email with generic info.) Also, maybe I’m being a bit of a Grinch here, but I bristle at how general the requests are. They make me feel like the person writing hasn’t actually done any of their own research (which, incidentally, is a huge part of this job). There even seems to be a trend now of people asking to grab 30 minutes for a phone call in their opening email! So, it’s probably not my place, but part of me wants to say “hey, this is not how to do it.”

Any advice for how (if at all) to respond to the more labor-intensive requests?

Yeah, what they’re doing is not a great approach. They’re asking you to do all of the labor of figuring out what would be useful to them, rather than doing that work themselves and then coming to you with more focused requests for help. And anyone who has agreed to take these phone calls has learned that once you get on the phone, it’s often more of the same: the person often still isn’t prepared with questions to ask and instead hopes you’ll deliver a monologue about your field, complete with helpful job leads.

I’m pretty sure this is because so many people absorb the message that they should network but don’t get much good guidance about exactly how to do it. And there is a lot of very general “contact people in your target field and ask for help” advice out there.

Anyway, if you only get a couple of these requests a year, it’s not that hard to agree to jump on the phone and see how you can help. But when you get a lot of requests, that quickly becomes impossible — and so people end up ignoring them altogether or only responding to people with a specific connection in their network (like their uncle’s friend’s son, or so forth), which often has the effect of giving disproportionate access and assistance to people who already have some amount of privilege.

So your idea to write a template email with general info is a great one, and always is when you’re getting a lot of similar questions on a topic. You could say, “I hear from a lot of new grads trying to break into the field, so I’ve written up some general information that addresses a lot of initial questions. I hope this helps!” In fact, you can adapt that basic language for a few different situations:

* If you want to signal that you’re not available for more help than this, you can tweak it to: “I hear from a lot of new grads trying to break into the field, and I’m happy to try to help. Because my schedule keeps me pretty busy, I don’t have much time for informational calls, but I’ve written up some info that addresses a lot of initial questions. I hope this helps!”

* If you’re open to talking more if they get more specific about what they’re looking for, you can tweak it to: “I hear from a lot of new grads trying to break into the field, so I’ve written up some info that addresses a lot of initial questions. After reading this, if there’s anything more focused you’re wondering about, please email me any more specific questions and I’ll see if I can help further.”

And before you have that template created (or for people who never create one), it’s also okay to say, “I’d be glad to help but since my schedule is busy, could you write back with the two to three specific questions that would be most useful to you?” A lot of people won’t even bother to respond once you do this, and the ones who do are a better investment of your time.

There’s a second question in your email too, around whether you can point out that the approach these networkers are using isn’t a great one. To people who are paying attention and can pick up on cues, the language above will signal that. You’ll be able to tell who is getting the message and adjusting their thinking by how they respond — people who write back to thank you or who read through the info you provide and then follow up with a couple of much narrower, well-thought-out questions have probably picked up on your hint. And the fact that they needed the hint in the first place isn’t necessarily damning, since these are new grads who are figuring out this stuff as they go along.

But it’s also okay to say more explicitly — to everyone, but especially to anyone who seems particularly demanding or oblivious — “If I can suggest something that will help, you’ll often get better answers from people (and probably find more people willing to help) if you can narrow down what questions you’re interested in. It can be hard to give a general overview, not knowing what you might already know or what you’re interested in, but people often have an easier time responding to very specific questions.”