update: how can I keep my star performer, without being able to pay or promote him (while his less competent coworker earns double)?

Remember the letter-writer in August who was trying to figure out how to keep his young star performer without being able to promote him or give him much more money … while his slower, less skilled coworker earned almost double? Here’s the update.

To clarify some things, my company has a two-tier partnership structure. There is the Ownership tier that own around 80% of the equity and responsibilities to simplify are sales and finance. Then there is a Principle tier that is responsible for running each discipline: Structural, Mechanical, Civil, Electrical. We each have around 5%. We are given budgets for salaries, and that’s where my major hurdle was. Cecil is paid at the market rate for an engineer with his experience and licensure. I have no issues with his performance in a vacuum, but Fergus has a better skill set. I was referring to finite element analysis and other design software I wouldn’t expect a Structural Engineer to know. (I don’t know it either.)

Using a lot of the suggestions here, I had approached them about raising my budget since Fergus just became A LOT more marketable and was told no, we need someone at an EIT rate to log most of the hours to be competitive. I suggested that we hire a new grad, and was told we don’t have the work backlog to support another engineer. I brought up that we can’t keep both at the status quo and I was confident that Fergus could handle the added responsibility if we let Cecil go and was informed that “layoffs are bad for moral” and to my astonishment “Cecil is approaching 20 years of experience. How do we sell Fergus as a Lead Engineer to a client? He is the same age as some of their kids. Nobody will want a millennial in charge.” (Is reverse age discrimination a thing?) I’m now thinking about leaving as well.

So, after I realized that I wasn’t going to get more than the 7% increase I previously had directed to Fergus, I sat him down, explained everything, told him that I wouldn’t blame him for leaving, and offered to write a reference. Two weeks ago he asked for a private meeting and gave me his resignation. He’s leaving for a competitor. I asked if he didn’t mind sharing what they offered. He told me, and it was almost double his current salary. I didn’t even insult him with any sort of counter even though I was authorized to. I could’t get that high anyway. I wished him luck, and gave him his last week as PTO.

weekend free-for-all – December 3-4, 2016


Please observe the size differential. These are both full-grown cats.

This comment section is open for any non-work-related discussion you’d like to have with other readers, by popular demand. (This one is truly no work and no school. If you have a work question, you can email it to me or post it in the work-related open thread on Fridays.)

Book recommendation of the week: Domestic Violets, by Matthew Norman. Hilarious family dysfunction and workplace snark — what more could you want? It’s seriously very, very funny.

5 more updates from letter-writers

Here are five more updates from people who had their letters answered here this year. (I’ll be printing updates daily or close-to-daily through the end of the month. We’ve got a lot this year!)

1. Advising a great applicant to run far, far away from my troubled workplace (#2 at the link)

I really appreciated your feedback and also found the comments very helpful. I felt, truly, for the commenters who chastised me for sitting on the sidelines, because I was chastising myself for that, too.

What happened: We offered the candidate the job, and I also took your advice to reach out to them and offer to answer questions, etc at the same time. (It wouldn’t have been weird to my employer to do so, and it was a great suggestion.) But the applicant-turned-new hire did not take me up on that offer. They took the job.

Within a couple of weeks, the new hire began to express some very polite and professional frustration with the parts of the new job and organization that I think were misrepresented to them. I gave the new hire tips for dealing with their frustrations and how to navigate our organization without going absolutely bonkers. I hope it helps — I think managing expectations and doing a lot of self-care is a huge part of being able to get by in this particular job, because the org’s problems are fundamentally, in hindsight, about a personality issue from the top.

I’ve since left the organization, and I’ve been much more direct in my exit interview and memo. I don’t have any expectation that what I had to say will be well received, but I’ve done what I can. I also now know that the feedback I gave our organization has been a repeat of what others (we’re pretty high-turnover) have provided, to no avail. (“Stop being so critical, you don’t understand” is the general response received.) For now, I’m banking on our director seeing what a great talent and asset our new hire is, and maybe upon reflection she’ll see that making some intentional changes will help to retain staff.

2. How can I ask my manager and coworkers to stop talking about politics at work?

I was pretty prepared to use your suggested responses if the conversations dragged on in meetings, but luckily that didn’t end up happening again. There were shorter discussions about political candidates in meetings towards the beginnings and ends, but in those cases I was able to duck out or tune out until the topic changed. So, I would actually say I ended up taking the advice of the commenters who told me that asking to keep discussions about political candidates out of meetings would be seen as adversarial and wouldn’t be taken well.

3. I was offered a new position but they won’t tell me what the pay is (#2 at the link)

Thanks for answering my question. I was over-thinking and management was checking to see if I was interested. I did let them know I was not interested. The main reason is that I’ve been training our new hires temporarily since early April. My manager quit at end of April and I continued training new employees under my new manager. I was never paid for April training! I did receive my regular pay, but we are paid extra for the role of a trainer even if it’s temporary role. On top of that, the amount of paperwork I had to complete to show “proof” that training took place rivaled the novel War and Peace. My new manager had to research why I was never paid, complete mounds of paperwork, and have various persons from upper management sign off. Even after that, no pay. We were told my paperwork was sitting on some executive’s desk waiting to be processed.

By early September, I advised my manager that I would be calling HR to complain which I did. I was guaranteed the missing pay would be in this Friday’s paycheck. Only a few more days and I’ll know. By the way, my company is large, international company. SMH…. thank you for your great advice.

4. How do you get experience if all the jobs require you to already have experience?

I did end up getting an offer for a technical writing position, which is very exciting for me! Thank you again for your help, and thanks to the commenters for their insights. I think reading your book and your archives helped me a lot as well.

5. My injury is preventing me from going on a company cruise — and my company wants me to pay them back for my ticket

Thank you so much for your time and for all the advise that everyone had suggested. I ended up having a meeting with both HR and for some reason my supervisor. I was willing to work with them if we could come up with some sort of an agreeable figure and/or payments. Well, needless to say, I felt like they ganged up on me, to the point where my own supervisor was defending the actions of the company and actually was shaming me for not going. The decision to make me pay stood. With that being said, I asked for an invoice in our last meeting months ago; I have yet to receive it, so I have yet to pay it.

4 updates from letter-writers

Here are four updates from people who had their letters answered here this year.

1. My coworker is threatening to lie to get our manager in trouble

Just wanted to thank you for posting my letter and your answer. It really helped, as well as did the wonderful and helpful comments. I did meet with one of our HR people, and I’m glad I did. I feel good about having done it, and even if it never goes anywhere, I feel a sense of relief for having gotten it off my chest.

The HR person was so nice about it, and told me that they do a very thorough job of investigating if anyone makes any allegation, so I shouldn’t fear that one of my managers would get fired because “Anne” told a lie. I found out something interesting — when I mentioned that I’d heard “Anne” went to HR about manager #1 (the male manager) a few months ago (which my friend had told me “Anne” told her), the HR person looked surprised. She told me “I’ll tell you this, and no more, but “Anne” came to us over a year ago and hasn’t made any other complaints since.” That makes me feel more and more like “Anne” is just a big talker and wouldn’t actually do anything. Before I left her office, she made sure to ask me if I had any questions or any further concerns besides this one, and even gave me some advice (consider breaking away from our lunch group OR bring up the idea of making our lunch break a work-talk free zone, ie “we are all stressed out by our work, let’s talk about more pleasant things during lunch so we can all decompress for a half hour”).

Anyway, I hope it helps you to know that you and your other readers helped me pull together the courage I needed to talk to HR about this, and has relieved a lot of anxiety for me.

2. How do I tell a laid-off coworker that her old job is open but she shouldn’t apply?

My initial worry that Padmé would ask me about the job was for naught. But although she never contacted me, I was so relieved to have the suggested phrasing from you and your readers for how I should respond.

Padmé did apply for her old job, but it went to Rey who is excelling at it and makes a wonderful fit. When the HR rep mentioned to the hiring supervisor that Padmé might apply for Rey’s old job, the hiring supervisor said he would be willing to interview her. I was in the room with them, but I refrained from saying anything like “don’t interview her just to be kind if you have no intention of hiring her.” In a different situation, I might have said something; in this case, I just zipped it. We ended up hiring a new person, Jyn, for that vacancy, and she is fantastic.

Padmé probably made things worse for herself after not getting her old job back; the head of our section told me that she received a weird, scathing letter from Padmé, accusing her of not giving her a fair chance. As much as I was curious to know the contents of that letter (and would have loved to share the juicy bits with the readers), I again zipped my mouth and didn’t ask for further details.

No more meddling from me in these situations! My heart was in the right place but now my nose is, too. Thank-you all.

3. Starting work after being a stay-at-home parent

An update to my post about returning to the workforce after being a stay-at-home parent for five years. It has been good and bad. The job I originally wrote you about was a five-month contract, and in the end I didn’t get pulled on full-time which was disappointing, but in the long run it wasn’t a good fit for me anyway. After that contract ended I looked for work for about two to three months and settled into the full-time job I have now. I was originally hired at $1 less an hour than I had made at my job before I became a parent, which was fairly demoralizing, but I needed a job and the benefits and other perks made it worth it. I’ve been there over a year now and have been promoted and am now making $1/hour more than I made previous to staying at home.

The transition has been hard and not hard. I definitely don’t have any “mom brain” and while I am older than a lot of my team (I’m about 10 years older than the majority of my colleagues), I have a lot of experience not just in the work we do but in life in general and I was pretty easily fast tracked for my promotion. I feel 100% confident in my abilities in my job and I love having a non-kid space in my life. I feel good paying our rent and having a better control of our finances. On this minus side, I miss a lot of stuff at home — I missed my son’s first day of preschool, I can’t go to meetings for the kids or take them to appointments, I rarely see my parent friends that I was close to. All together though, I like working more than not working and I’m happy that I made the transition. Thanks!

4. Job-searching advice for a teenager on the autism spectrum

So, I did the interview for the retail store on Saturday. I arrived at the store in plenty of time, and I walked over to Guest Services and told them who I was and that I was there for my interview. This guy, we’ll call him “Tom,” told me, “Okay, go sit on the bench over there and your interviewer will be with you shortly to take you back to the office.” I did as Tom told me.

Sure enough, my interviewer, who we’ll call “Curtis,” showed up promptly. Curtis took me to a back room, and there were pens and markers and highlighters that were all the store’s main color (which happens to be my favorite color, for another reason). I looked at them, but I resisted the strong urge to use them to doodle all over my arms. Self-control, right? Well, Curtis asked me some questions about my strengths, some “tell me about a time when…” stuff, etc. I answered them politely, with enthusiasm, and exactly how I’d rehearsed them. He absolutely adored me!

Then, a second interviewer came along. We’ll call her “Jessie.” She asked me what my weaknesses are, and some more “tell me about a time when…” stuff, and stuff like that. And I answered her well. She absolutely adored me!

Then, something really cool happened. Like, for me, this would be like having rainbows flow out of my arms when I run. It was that cool. Jessie told me that she was going to go get the HR director (let’s call her “Patsi”), and that Patsi was going to MAKE AN OFFER!!!


So I said, “Okay! Alright! That works!”

So then Patsi comes in and asks me, “We’d be paying you $10.00 an hour, does that work?” And

I said, “YES!”


how can I get my coworker to stop talking to me all the time?

A reader writes:

I recently joined a new company and got to know a colleague of mine, who happened to come on board on the same day as me. According to her, it’s for this reason that she confides a lot of her personal and professional matters to me during office hours. I even got a text message from her over the weekend, complaining about how she can’t stand our boss. Though I played smart by not dispensing any opinions on that, I feel that she has crossed the line of not knowing when to stop “harassing” her fellow colleagues about her personal / work-related issues.

How can I break it to her in a firm and yet polite way that I would very much prefer if she keeps her whinging to herself at a moderate level, and also not send me relentless e-mails (via our office email) to “chat with me” when I have specifically asked her not to talk to me while I’m trying to focus on my work here. She just doesn’t seem to get my drift. What should I do and say?

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.

open thread – December 2-3, 2016

It’s the Friday open thread! The comment section on this post is open for discussion with other readers on anything work-related that you want to talk about. If you want an answer from me, emailing me is still your best bet*, but this is a chance to talk to other readers.

* If you submitted a question to me recently, please don’t repost it here, as it may be in the to-be-answered queue :)

employee’s emotional outbursts might be hormone-related, coworker marks most of her emails as “highly important,” and more

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

1. I think my employee’s emotional outbursts might be hormone-related

I manage a business with eight employees, which includes one supervisor, Diane, who oversees the daily operations of most of the remaining staff. One of those staff members, Kristine, is a very good employee; however, she periodically has very strong emotional reactions to work situations (and life situations, but we know to focus on the work ones).

Here’s the thing though, in reviewing my notes recently (following Kristine’s most recent outburst) I’ve realized that these emotionally charged reactions occur at a regular interval of every four weeks. Based on the notes and other information informally shared by Kristine, it seems very likely that these exaggerated behaviors are hormone/PMS-related.

While I have no intention of suggesting to Kristine that things may feel worse due to hormones/PMS, would it be completely inappropriate for me to help her supervisor make this connection too? Am I making too big a leap in my assumptions about this?

Should we address these behaviors that only happen every so often (and so predictably)? Even if I don’t say anything to Diane about it, is it inappropriate or “too soft” (I don’t want to be a pushover) of me to use a little more caution in addressing errors, requests, etc. during these times of likely increased sensitivity?

I think you can legitimately point out to Kristine or her manager that this happens at regular four-week intervals, but I wouldn’t speculate to either of them about why that might be. At most, you could say something like, “Given that this is happening at regular intervals, it might be worth talking to a doctor about whether there’s something medical going on.” But anything beyond that is too personal (and also gets into icky historical territory about women and emotions).

And don’t treat her differently during those time periods — it’s too personal, it’s speculation, and you might be wrong. (And a lot of people — everyone? — would be mortified if they learned that their boss was tip-toeing around them when they suspected they had their period! I am cringing just thinking about it.)

Most importantly, what you need from her doesn’t change regardless of the cause of her behavior: You need her to stop having disruptive emotional outbursts, and that’s true whether it’s caused by PMS, her monthly book club meeting, or anything else.

2. Coworker marks most of her emails as “highly important”

I have a minor workplace annoyance I’d like your advice on. One of my coworkers is in the habit of consistently sending emails marked as “highly important” with the dreaded red exclamation mark next to it. Her role is different than everyone else on our team because she is involved in process improvement and system upgrades, as opposed to just making chocolate teapots like the rest of us. So, in one way her emails are important, but never urgent. I looked back at the past three months (I keep all of my emails in a folder based on who sent them) and roughly 75% of the emails she’s sent were red exclamation marked.

Is this one of those things I need to just get over or should I talk to her or our boss about it? I’ll admit that I don’t read her emails all that often because my thinking is that if nearly everything she says is highly important, none of it is. Am I off-base here?

No, that’s annoying. It’s not really a big enough deal that you should definitely speak with her or her boss about it though — it’s more something to just roll your eyes at.

That said, if you have a friendly relationship with your coworker and you think she’d take it well, there’s no reason you couldn’t say, “Hey, I’ve noticed you mark the majority of your emails as highly important, which really dilutes the impact of marking them that way at all. I didn’t know if you realized how often you do it, but it’s enough that I suspect it’s not having the impact that you intend.”

(Also, job applicants: Stop marking your application-related correspondence this way. It is obnoxious.)

3. Flying out for an interview when I’m a finalist with another company

I am a finalist for Company A, and the position is perfect. I visited the home office at their expense last week ,and I still have one more phone interview to complete later this week. According to Company A, I am a very strong candidate.

I have also been invited to fly to Company B for a set of on-site interviews. I am a strong candidate for Company B but they are not my first choice. Here is the issue: Company A has not made an offer but it is likely that I will have one in the next two weeks. Company B is pushing for me to give them dates so that they can fly me up in the next two weeks. I do not want to waste Company B’s money because if I get an offer from Company A, I will take it. Should I let Company A know that I am being pursued or should I just continue to interview with both?

Continue to interview with both. Until you have an actual offer from Company A, you should continue to proceed as if they weren’t even in the picture — because there’s no guarantee that an offer will materialize. No matter how much they like you a stronger candidate could emerge, a hiring freeze could be implemented, they could reorg the department, or all sorts of other things. So you don’t want to rule out other job possibilities meanwhile. And Company B isn’t wasting their money by flying you out; you’re still on the market.

You also shouldn’t mention Company B to Company A at this point, because you’re still just in the interview process with B. Company A surely assumes that you’re talking with other companies. If you get an offer from B, at that point you’d alert A in order to see if they could expedite their own timeline … but they’re not likely to do that just because you have upcoming interviews.

4. Offering to cover for frequently absent coworkers

My job is in one small unit of a much larger organization, most of which involves working with the public. I mostly work on the tech side, although I’m not without experience on the public side. Two of my colleagues are regularly out without any notice, at least once a week, and their duties fall to the rest of our division. However, there is no set contingency plan should one or both of them be out. Hiring a new person is a process so there’s no short-term relief on the horizon, and maybe no long-term relief.

I’m trained in these public jobs (mostly), but I get the feeling that my non-confrontational boss only puts me in them at the last minute and by necessity. I do have goals and projects that I’m working on, although I’m mostly unsupervised while my boss frequently subs in for my absent coworkers. I think this constant chaos is wearing on everyone.

I’d like to have at least a little more predictability in my schedule, and I’d like to have some responsibilities automatically fall to me when people are absent. I’d also like to be proactive and help stave off the worst of the chaos that results from multiple people being out.

How do I go about asking for these things in a way that is respectful to my boss? He and I have a decent relationship and I’m working on being someone he can rely upon. I know he’s struggling and also not getting much help from above him, and that the situation isn’t likely to get significantly better any time soon. I need to put in at least another couple of years at this institution before moving elsewhere. How can I help my boss make the best of a hard situation?

You could say this: “We often end up scrambling for coverage when Jane or Fergus are out at the last minute. I don’t mind covering for them. What would you think of making me the official sub for them when they’re out? I wouldn’t mind that being our default, and that way we’d have a plan in place and ready to go.”

That said, be sure that you want to offer this, and think carefully about whether it will impact your ability to get your own work done or put you in a position where you’re just meeting basic expectations in your job when you otherwise would be exceeding them. Pitching in is a good thing, but you should look out for yourself too.

5. Do I have to have my last name on my resume?

I’d really rather not have my last name on my resume because I’m estranged from my family. Would it be okay to put my name down as my first name and last initial?

Nope. You’ve got to use your last name. Using just your first name and last initial would be so out of sync with how resumes work that it would come across very oddly. It’s likely to look like you’re trying to hide something (by avoiding being googled) or just very out of touch with professional conventions, neither of which are good.

update: employee keeps asking coworkers for food and money

Remember the letter-writer whose employee kept asking for food and money from her coworkers? Here’s the update.

I wish I could say it has gotten better, but every few months I get complaints. What sucks about this for her is that she is a great performer otherwise.

It is not a food scarcity issue because she also brings her own food every day. This all seems to be part of a deeper issue. She has asked for food from someone’s plate and crashed other department’s closed celebrations. She borrows money from her coworkers and does not pay it back. Usually it is change but sometimes it is more. She doesn’t contribute when we take up a collection for something, which is her choice, but she will ask coworkers for money if it is something that requires payment for participation.

Favors are usually small such as grabbing something off the printer for her or getting a drink, but on at least two occasions she has asked someone to run a personal errand for her.

I tell the people complaining to firmly tell her no and that they can ask her to stop asking them. I’ve had multiple one-on-one conversations with her, and we even had a group meeting a few months ago about office etiquette that touched some of these scenarios.

Each time I have sat down with her, I have first approached from a place of concern for her and then talked how this behavior could impact the team and her career. Each time she has pretty much denied that there is an issue. She becomes deeply offended and then will make several petty retailiative complaints about her coworkers in the days following the discussion. We are talking extremely petty … this person smells like Lysol … that person clipped their fingernails at work … the person who complained about me asking for food asked someone for ketchup. We have discussed this pattern as well. I met with my manager and HR to let them know of the situation.

The employee and I had another sit down a few weeks ago after I received a complaint from someone outside of our workgroup. I told her that we’ve discussed it multiple times and any additional complaints would result in disciplinary action and a mandatory EAP referral. We documented the conversation. I have little faith that this behavior will stop, and I realize now that I should have done this much sooner but I was hesitant to come down so heavy on someone who may be in need.

don’t send anonymous notes at work

From time to time, I hear someone suggest sending an anonymous note to a coworker, a manager, or HR in order to let someone know about a problem without having to deal with the awkwardness of having a conversation about whatever the issue is — from “you smell” to “my manager is a jerk” to “Fergus plays on the Internet for five hours a day.”

But anonymous notes are rarely, if ever, a good way to handle a problem.

First, they have very little, if any, credibility. When you don’t know who’s delivering a message (and the person has deliberately chosen to obscure that), you have no idea how much weight to give it. Maybe the person telling HR that their manager a jerk thinks that because they’re under-performing and resent the manager’s efforts to hold them accountable. Maybe the person telling you that smell is the office prankster playing a terribly misguided joke. There’s no way to know. What the recipient does know is that the sender wasn’t willing to own the message they’re delivering.

And so now the receiver is in a really awkward position. They have to wonder whether the note is reporting a real problem or it’s from someone with an unsubstantiated ax to grind. Should they spend time investigating? How much time, if a first look doesn’t reveal any problems? Does it make sense to spend significant amounts of time on something that they have no way of knowing is credible? (And unsurprisingly, there’s some research showing that people are less likely to act on anonymous complaints … which makes sense, given all these factors.)

Plus, if the message is something of the “you smell” variety, now the recipient has to wonder which of their coworkers left the note, which can cause awkwardness in their relationships with everyone, and that’s unfair and even cruel.

And yes, sometimes people contemplate sending an anonymous note of a management issue because they’re afraid of retaliation. But an environment that retaliates against people for raising concerns in good faith isn’t one that’s likely to handle an anonymous complaint well either. And an environment that does handle complaints effectively (anonymous ones or otherwise) is one where you likely don’t need the cloak of anonymity in the first place.

So, down with anonymous notes.

how to manage a project when you don’t have formal authority

In some ways, project management can be harder than people management, because when you don’t have formal authority over the people tasked to your project, you have to find other ways of getting things done and keeping people accountable.

At QuickBase’s Fast Track blog today, I talk about the keys to managing a project effectively when you don’t have formal authority over the people working on it. You can read it here.