how to solve a conflict between two strong-willed employees

A reader writes:

What do you do when you have two very strong-headed and opinionated employees working closely together, one a team leader and the other a newer employee, who have a personality conflict?

The team leader has been with the company for five years and feels as if the newer employee talks to her in a condescending manner. The new employee has knowledge in the industry and has done the job for many years but is learning a new way and tends to ask lots of questions and wants specific details as to why our company does it such and such a way. This employee now feels that she asks too many questions so she stopped asking and then feels like she is looked at as a show off. I don’t think either of them is right; it’s just a power struggle.

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:

  • Should I not have shared with my staff that I have cancer?
  • Employer offered the job to someone else while we were still negotiating salary
  • Updating an interviewer on achievements that happen after your interview
  • When should I bring up a request to telecommute?

open thread – January 20-21, 2017

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 :)

a hiring manager chastised me for using his personal email address, my estranged spouse badmouthed me to my boss, and more

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

1. A hiring manager chastised me for contacting him at his personal email address

I found a fantastic overseas job listed on a company website, spent 20 minutes composing a knockout, personalized cover letter, and sent it to the manager’s email to make sure he saw it. The response? “How did you get this email? It’s personal!”

He also told me the job was only open to nationals of that country, despite there being no indication of that in the posting (and the fact that he, and most of the staff, are expats themselves). The whole vibe was “How dare you contact me?”

The email I used was listed right on the front of his personal website, visible to anyone taking the time to run a one-second Google search. I’ve been advised by many experts to contact hiring managers directly if you want your application seen. Am I wrong, or was his reaction rude?

You looked up his personal email and sent it there, right? It wasn’t in the ad? If I’m getting that correct, then yeah, you were definitely out of line. His personal address is his personal address; it’s not appropriate to send a job application there.

There is indeed a bunch of advice out there about sending your application directly to the hiring manager (which is often of dubious value), but it never means to their personal email address, just to their work one.

2. My estranged spouse badmouthed me to my boss

My newly estranged spouse called my boss over the weekend on her personal mobile, looking to discredit me. Would the boss take any of his allegations seriously?

He told my boss that the mental breakdown I had was fake (it wasn’t) and that I had had an affair with a coworker (there was a rumor that was unfounded; we were just great friends). The worrying one is that I breached a policy several times and this results in dismissal. At the time, it was unwittingly done, and I foolishly discussed my concerns with him, although this was well over a year ago.

Ugh, I’m sorry. The good news is that your boss is more likely to be really put off by your spouse making this kind of call, more than alarmed by the allegations he made. A decent boss will see this for what it is — an estranged spouse committing a major boundary violation. Because he’s so in the wrong for doing that, his credibility is close to zero and hopefully your boss will see it that way too.

I’d just say this to your boss: “I’m so sorry about that. We’re obviously estranged, and I’m shocked that he’d cross that line. I’ll do my best to ensure that he doesn’t contact you again. Please feel free to block his number just in case.”

3. Leaving a job after they treated me well through a health crisis

After graduating college, I had to find any job possible, as I was drowning in debt, embarrassment, and pressure to get one from my parents. I got a good retail gig at a fantastic company, but seven months after joining I had to leave to have scoliosis surgery. This came as a surprise to everyone, as I figured the problem had stopped being a problem in my college days. Unfortunately, standing eight hours a day in a lobby turned out to be horrible for the condition, so I was out for five months recovering.

I’ve since been back for nine months and am doing great. I really like the company and its culture, my boss is fantastic, I get along with all my coworkers … But unfortunately there’s almost no connection between my degree and the place I’m working at, and because of that there’s no real potential for growth. I don’t want to snub this place after they’ve treated me so well, but I feel like in order to stop being underemployed I’d have to look somewhere else. I was wondering, should I stay for a little bit longer so that it doesn’t look like I abandoned good people after helping me?

No, go ahead and do what you need to do for your career. The longer you’re not working in your field, the harder it may get to find work in your field, so time really matters here and you shouldn’t put off searching.

When you leave, be sure to tell your employer how grateful you are the flexibility they gave you and how much it made a difference to your peace of mind when you were recovering. Offer to refer people to them, or anything else you can do help out. But don’t put your career on hold — that’s a higher price than they’d probably want you to pay.

4. My coworker is working off the clock

I work in a small, family-owned business, and I suspect an employee, who is a family member, is being made to work off the clock.

The business is owned by a husband and wife team, who employe a mixture of family and non-family employees. Recently, I’ve caught a coworker, a family member, appearing to work during her lunch break, on a couple of occasions. We have a time clock that we punch in and out of. The few salaried individuals don’t clock in and out, but instead fill in time sheets each week; the hourlies, like myself, utilize the clock.

I asked the employee (let’s call her Jen), casually, if she was back to working in the middle of what should’ve been her break, and as I was clocked in, indicated that she should head back to the break room as I could take care of the task. I said it in a “You don’t want to work for free, right? Haha!” kind of way (I tried to keep it light, as I wasn’t sure if I was mistaken.) She mumbled something about “Well, yeah, I guess I’m kinda working, sorta…” and trailed off.

I’ve seen this happen a couple of times now, on one occasion with my manager watching as she blatantly walked back to the time clock to clock back in after working during her lunch. Whatever is happening here is happening with my manager’s full knowledge. There’s no way to really ask my manager about this discreetly, as we’re such a small company and I’m concerned about seeming like a busybody if I’m way off-base. Is there any legal way she could be working during her lunch time, using a time clock, and not falling afoul of the law?

I’m worried about backlash if I bring this up, and it seems like pretty blatant wage theft, but I can’t be sure, and can’t find out anonymously. There is no HR department; the manager is the owner, and so there’s no one higher to report this to. What, if anything, can I do?

It could be legal if (a) she’s exempt (are you sure that she isn’t?) or (b) she’s getting paid for the correct number of hours despite what’s recorded on the time clock.

But … she’s a family member and it’s a family business, and there’s no evidence that she’s being made to work off the clock (as opposed to just doing it, which plenty of people do). It’s misguided and it’s illegal for the business to allow it, but I don’t think you have any obligation to act here. If you want to say something though, you could say to her, “Hey, the company can actually get in trouble for allowing you to work off the clock.” And/or you could say to her manager, “Hey, I don’t know if you realized that we can get in trouble if we let people work off the clock.” But beyond that, this isn’t really yours to deal with.

5. Addressing a cover letter when I know the recipients

I’m a freshman in college working on an application for my first non-volunteer summer job: a camp counselor for a theater camp that I attended the last two summers. My question, is how do I address the cover letter? The two people who will read my resume and cover letter are my former director and his boss, and when I was working with them in an actor/director relationship, I called them Anne and Bolingbroke, not Lady York and Duke Hereford. But it feels unprofessional to me to use their first names in the salutation. (I even feel a little out-of-line with “Hi, Alison”, even though I’ve seen that dozens of times on the site.) What should I do?

Use their first names. Frankly, in most fields, first names would be fine even if you didn’t know the person you were addressing (I get cover letters from job applicants who I don’t know that are addressed as “Dear Alison” all the time these days), but in a case where you do already know them? It would be far weirder to suddenly revert to Lady York and Duke Hereford.

First names are not inherently unprofessional! You feel like they are because it’s a hold-over from high school/adolescence/childhood, where you were supposed to call adults Mr./Ms. ___. But most professional adults talk to each other using first names, and you are now a fellow adult. More on this here.

how do I network with a senior person when I’m much more junior?

A reader writes:

I am a fairly recent college grad (2013) who was hired by the local city government just a few months out of college into the job I’ve had for the last three years, the first two of which I was working part-time while juggling other jobs and internships. Now, however, I have been a full-time employee for over a year, with more responsibility, trust, etc. and am starting to think about what my next steps should be. I have been thinking that I would like to stay in the field I’m in, but am hoping to transition out of the public-facing work that I’m currently doing into a more research-focused role.

Last week I went to an author talk here in the city and, while waiting for the author to arrive, began chatting with the older woman seated next to me. We discovered that we had a lot in common, including shared travel experiences and the fact that we both work in the same field — in fact, she works in the part of the field that I am hoping to transition into. She asked me a few questions about my experience and what I am hoping to do in the future, but since it was such a casual discussion, however, I hadn’t really thought of it as an opportunity (because I struggle with networking), and was totally surprised when she handed me her business card at the end of the night and suggested I keep an eye out for job openings at her organization. Turns out, she works for one of the best-known organizations in the field and has a very senior role there!

All of which is to say: I know the general rules of networking (in part, from reading your archives on the topic) — building meaningful relationships, mutual beneficence, not wasting time or making onerous demands — but how do I actually begin to follow up on an opportunity like this one? Should I email now, or wait? And if I reach out now, what am I supposed to say? And how does one go about building a mutual relationship with someone who is so much more advanced in their career than me? Any advice would be much appreciated!

Email her now so that she doesn’t forget you. Tell her that you really enjoyed meeting her, that you were especially delighted because you’ve been wanting to move into the part of the field that she’s in, and that you’d love to meet her for coffee and talk more if she’d be willing to give you some advice on the industry.

(Then, of course, be prepared with actual questions to ask her if she takes you up on that offer. Don’t be the person who suggests a networking coffee or asks to pick someone’s brain and then waits for the other person to draw them out and do all the work. That is a thing that happens, and you want to avoid that by preparing before the meeting.)

You also asked about how to build a relationship that’s beneficial to her as well, when she’s so much more advanced in her career than you are. I think you might be getting too hung up on that part of networking advice that says to make sure that networking is a give and take. It’s true that you don’t want to just take and never give back to people … but when you’re very junior to someone, you often won’t be positioned to give back to them in terms of advice, contacts, etc. But what you can definitely give back is gratitude and appreciation, and you shouldn’t discount how much those can make it worth it for the other person. A lot of people find it really satisfying to help out people in earlier stages of their careers, as long as the recipient of that help appears to appreciate it and shows a genuine interest.

Networking also isn’t usually as much of a quid pro quo as you may be envisioning — more often it’s an investment in longer-term relationship building. And the connection may develop in unexpected ways down the road (like maybe in two years you refer the perfect person to her for a job she’s hiring for, or connect her with your boss for something relevant to both of them, or who knows what).

Good luck!

when I give my staff feedback, they complain that I didn’t tell them earlier — but I’m telling them pretty fast

A reader writes:

I’m looking for some help with replying to a specific line of conversation.

I’m at the middle management level in a medium-sized company. For the most part, things have been going smoothly. I do a lot of one-on-one coaching, and it usually goes without incident. I have a private, casual chat once something minor has happened two or three times–just enough for me to know it’s not a one-off, but not so frequently it’s habit yet.

However, more and more, when I try to give feedback, a couple specific people reply with, “You never told me! Why didn’t you tell me this sooner?”

…This IS me telling them! Literally the entire point of the conversation is to tell them the feedback and help them resolve whatever the challenge is. If I actually corrected every minor mistake the very first time it happened, morale would plummet and they would hate their jobs. Nobody wants that!

There’s no reason for people to fear my feedback. We don’t even have formal performance reviews (that’s another story), we don’t “discipline” people who mess up, and I typically don’t even care the mistake happened beyond my professional responsibility for quality control. I’ve tried different formats for the feedback, like email, instant messenger, and in person, but it hasn’t change the response.

I don’t know where these defensive replies are coming from, or why they are trying to turn the conversation around on me. It’s emotionally exhausting though, and I don’t want my team members freaking out every time I tell them something minor they need to improve upon. I need to be able to give feedback without the drama. Please help!

Yeah, that’s odd. In many cases, it’s better management to wait to make sure that something isn’t just a one-off before correcting someone — because otherwise, as you point out, you’d be coming down on people too often and when it wasn’t needed. Good managers do assume that people are human and won’t perform at 100% every moment of the day, and it often does make sense to wait and see if correction is really needed.

Is there something else going on that could explain the reaction you’re getting? It doesn’t sound like they have reason to fear severe consequences if they mess things up (which would have been my first guess), but is there a pattern of them not having heard feedback promptly in the past (maybe from a previous manager if you haven’t been in the role very long)? Were there serious business consequences from the mistake, which would make it the sort of thing you should touch base on right away rather than waiting to see if it’s repeated? Are the mistakes the type where getting it wrong once indicates that the person has a misunderstanding of a policy or procedure that will almost certainly be repeated if it’s not corrected now? Are the people giving you this feedback the overly-conscientious type who freak out if they’re perceived to have done something less than perfectly?

If you can’t figure out where it’s coming from, I’d just ask people directly. The next time it happens, say something like this: “Often, minor bumps get fixed on their own or never recur, and I trust and respect you enough that I want to give you some leeway to figure things out on your own and not feel jumped on every time something minor happens. If I notice it a few times, that’s where I’d think that I see it differently than you do and that it’s worth us talking and getting aligned, which is what I’m doing now. Does that make sense to you? If not, tell me more about where you’re coming from with this.”

And then hear the person out. Maybe you’ll hear something that does shift your perspective. But if not, then it’s okay to say something like, “I hear what you’re saying and I appreciate you raising it with me. I’m going to keep in mind in the future that you prefer feedback as early as possible, but I’m also going to balance that with my judgment about whether something is minor and unlikely to become a pattern or a problem, and the independence that I want you to have.”

One other thing — if this is only happening with a couple of people and not with anyone else, it might just be a quirk of those two people. It’s always good to step back and ask yourself whether you have a role in what’s happening and to try to learn more about what’s going on, but sometimes it comes down to individual quirks. When that’s the case, it can make sense to just explain where you’re coming from, acknowledge the difference in style, do what you can to accommodate it (if you can do so in a reasonable way), and not worry too much about it beyond that.

I hesitated to write that last bit because too often managers ignore feedback that they should be paying attention to and I don’t want to encourage that … but as long as you’re receptive to feedback and consider it with an open mind, you don’t always have to agree with it in the end.

when a manager keeps saying he took a chance on you, boss keeps canceling meetings, and more

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

1. Manager kept reminding me that he took a chance on me

Is it appropriate for a manager to constantly remind an employee (in one-on-one check-in meetings and evaluations and the like) that they “took a chance on him” by hiring him because he didn’t have the skills required, needed training, etc.? And to use this “fact” to attempt to motivate the employee to work harder to prove that the chance they gave him was appreciated? And then to text the employee’s cell phone after the employee has quit and gotten a new job because the manager heard the employee complain (on Facebook) about something he didn’t like at his old job, and the manager felt like he wasn’t being grateful enough for the chance that was taken on him?

Isn’t EVERY hiring choice taking a chance on someone? If you regret hiring someone later, shouldn’t you either live with it or fire them, rather than constantly remind them that you hired them even though they weren’t qualified?

Yes. And that manager was being ridiculous and a real jerk. Every hiring decision is indeed taking a chance on someone, just as every decision to accept a job is taking a chance on an employer and a manager. And yes, if the hiring decision turns out to be the wrong one, the manager’s job is to give candid and direct feedback, determine if person can make the needed improvements, and transition them out if they can’t. And texting a former employee to complain after the person doesn’t work there anymore — well, if you didn’t already know that this guy was ridiculous, there’s your clincher.

Your old manager is a terrible manager and an ass, and you should have no qualms about erasing him from your head.

2. My manager keeps canceling our meetings

I’m a recent college grad at my first office job, which is at a school district office. I’m here as an Americorps VISTA, which is a one-year volunteer commitment for which I’m compensated just enough to live by the federal government. My coworkers and supervisor are all wonderful, considerate people and I’m learning a lot about professionalism and work culture.

The problem is that my supervisor is very busy, being fairly high up in the district chain of command. She is pulled in a million directions and supervises nine people as well as an entire program at the district. I understand that as a volunteer doing indirect service my time isn’t as valuable as the superintendent’s or the program coordinators’. However, my supervisor never accepts my meeting requests, even when I schedule them for very open days in her calendar far in advance. She also double-books herself over these meetings that I try to schedule. This is especially frustrating because when I ask her in person to meet, she says “put it on my calendar.”

Recently she double-booked herself during an important meeting with a potential partner that I scheduled a month ago. I had even rescheduled it twice to accommodate her schedule, and she never accepted it to put it on her calendar. The meeting she scheduled over mine is with the superintendent, so I understand she takes priority. This is a common occurrence though, and it has started to make me feel like my work isn’t important, especially because I have a co-volunteer who seems not to have any trouble getting on our supervisor’s calendar.

How do I handle this? Do I need to swallow my pride and accept that she just doesn’t want to reserve time for me, or is there a tactful, professional way that I could bring this issue up?

Talk to her in person and say this: “I’m having trouble finding time on your calendar that doesn’t get booked over. It’s really important to me to meet with you and talk about how things are going. Can you tell me how to book time with you that we’ll be able to reliably plan on? Or if that’s not realistic, what can I do differently to ensure that we’re able to meet once or twice a month?”

Also, talk to your co-volunteer who does meet with her successfully and ask for her advice. You might discover that she knows some trick that would help you, like that your manager is more available early Tuesday mornings or something like that.

3. How to tell my boss that I can’t work with a client

I recently got hired at a studio as a dance instructor — a job I’ve been trying to get for years. I also found out I’m pregnant with my second child and am 27 weeks along, so I’m dealing with a lot of stressful emotions. Recently, a woman contacted the studio wanting info about classes I teach. However, she’s already an instructor somewhere else for the same subject. She has a history of being confrontational and aggressive and often makes up blatant lies about colleagues in the industry, to the point where she’s been banned from events/organizations. I go out of my way to stay away from her since she unnerved me even when I wasn’t pregnant. Also, she knows I’m the instructor since she cornered me one day and tried to intimidate me into sharing gym time (I couldn’t because the studio is the one paying for their students to get the whole gym).

How do I tell my boss I don’t feel comfortable being around this person when this is my first year working for them? I dont want to turn away clients, but I feel sick, shaky and on edge even glimpsing her from a distance.

“I wanted to give you a heads-up that I can’t let Lavinia Livermore sign up for my class. She’s a zoomba instructor herself and she has a long history of being hostile and aggressive to other instructors, to the point that several organizations have banned her from classes and events. I prefer not to open the door to problems with her; frankly, she scares me. I wanted to talk to you about how to ensure she doesn’t end up in my class.”

4. LinkedIn etiquette after a death

Recently, a manager died. We have removed his contact entries on our own company website, but I’m wondering what the etiquette is regarding his LinkedIn profile, which he used quite a lot. It’s within my powers to log in to his account, but I don’t know whether I should contact everyone he’s linked to inform them of his passing, change his details/status to say he’s died, or simply delete his entire account. What do you think?

None of that! This is something his family should decide, not his employer. While it’s true that LinkedIn is used for business, it’s still his personal account and not one that his employer should take control of after his death.

If you think that you’re the only one who has the ability to log in to his account, you could contact his next of kin to pass the info along, but you shouldn’t do anything else.

5. Should a manager tell her assistant she’s resigning before she tells everyone else?

Does a supervisor owe her assistant any sort of notification when she gives notice? I have suspected for some time now that my supervisor was looking for another job–she’s had some pretty big clashes recently with fellow clergy in our office, and she is assistant clergy, here five years already, with no chance to be promoted. I opened her email today to help sort and organize everything, and then there I saw it. She gave official notice yesterday to the senior clergy and president of the congregation. There has been no email or message for me, and she is not in the office today. There will, however, be a big staff meeting with everyone in a few hours and I’m sure that the news will be shared then. Is it too much to expect that she would have contacted me separately, so that I would not potentially learn at the same time as all of my colleagues?

Well … ideally, yes, she would meet with you one-on-one to tell you before she tells everyone else (not before she tells her own boss, of course, but before she tells the full staff). But I’ve learned from writing this site that many people are really weird about resigning and have odd ideas about protocol and how to do it. Hell, there are still people who think they’re supposed to resign by leaving a typed letter on their boss’s desk.

I think this falls into the “not ideal but not a huge deal” category and I’d try not to be too irked by it.

my manager keeps disparaging millennials on Facebook (and I’m a millennial)

A reader writes:

I’ve got an issue with my manager that I’m not sure how to address. My manager and I are friends on Facebook (she added me, and not the other way around). Normally, I wouldn’t have accepted, but it’s unfortunately a cultural norm around this company that everyone, across several layers of management, is friends on Facebook, so I went along with it.

My boss occasionally makes comments about millennials or shares links to articles and videos about “millennials in the workplace.” The comments and links are mostly very condescending, along the lines of “millennials are entitled special snowflakes,” “millennials don’t work very hard and then immediately expect promotions,” and “millennials are obsessed with social media and have no social skills.” It doesn’t help that Boss has accidentally made comments in the past about how young I am, and therefore how inexperienced I am. There’s about a 15-to-20-year age gap between us.

I haven’t had any feedback from managers about displaying those sorts of “typical millennial” things in any position I’ve held. To be honest, I don’t think those characteristics are typical of any specific generation, but that’s not what I’m looking to get into here.

It’s possible (and I’m sure it’s likely) that this is unintentional, and she doesn’t realize that I can see these things or that I’d find them offensive. I just can’t shake the feeling, though, that she doesn’t respect me because of my youth, and that posting things like that where direct reports and coworkers could see it is a marker of really bad judgment.

I have blocked my boss’s posts from now on, so I can put it out of my mind as much as possible, but I’m wondering how/if I should address this directly with my boss or with HR. Any thoughts?

What’s your relationship with your boss like? Do you have pretty good rapport?

If so, the next time you’re having a reasonably relaxed conversation with her, you could say something like this: “I’ve noticed you post a lot of things on Facebook about millennials. As a millennial myself, I’ve always gotten good feedback on my work ethic and I’ve certainly never felt entitled to a job or a corner office or anything like that, and I don’t see more of that in my peers than in any other generation. In fact, among my peers, because so many of us graduated into a bad job market, I see a lot of gratitude for the opportunities we’re given. I’ll be honest — those articles are frustrating to read, and when I see my boss posting them, I worry about what you think of me.”

She might brush you off with something like, “Oh, I didn’t mean you — you’re different.” But there’s a decent chance that you’ll actually get her to stop and think

But if you don’t have particularly good rapport with her, I’d be more inclined to just roll your eyes, know that she’s obnoxious in this regard, and stick with blocking her posts.That’s not to say that there isn’t still value in bringing it up even if you don’t have strong rapport (as long as the relationship isn’t outright bad), or that it might not make just as much or an impact on her, but it probably isn’t what you want to spend capital on in that context. (Better relationship = more capital to spend.)

I would not, however, address it with HR. In theory, yes, HR should point out to your boss that posting crappy articles that disparage an entire demographic group is a bad idea, but I don’t think it rises to the level of something that you should spend capital on reporting, given that business publications are full of this kind of swill.

And for the record: It’s far past time for people to drop the stereotypes and hand-wringing about millennials. Those stereotypes were never right to begin with but rather were about being younger and less experienced in the work world, not about born between 1982 and 2004. And speaking of the years that define millennials, the oldest of them are now 35. They’re hardly kids anymore, and these stereotypes aren’t just wrong but weirdly outdated at this point.

how to fire a volunteer

A reader writes:

I serve on a board for an alumni association. We are all volunteers, and we have various committees that other alumni serve on. It’s hard to get much help sometimes, so we try to find something for anyone who wants to help to contribute.

However, we have one volunteer who seems to suffer from delusions of grandeur. He is not an elected board member, only a volunteer on one committee. He gave himself a fake title that doesn’t exist and told others associated with our organization that this is his “job” and that we have given him authority to do certain things that we haven’t.

The head of this committee, a board member, is fed up (as am I — he has told other board members that I’ve given him permission to say/do things that he never even discussed with me). At first, we gave him the benefit of the doubt and assumed he misunderstood, but after so many times it’s clear that he is making things up to further his perceived importance. 

He came into this annoyed that his ideas had been ignored in the past and hoping to implement them through us. These involve him soliciting corporate donations. We don’t want him representing our organization to the public.

I know his reaction if we remove him from his position will be “you said you needed volunteers and then you turn away someone willing to help?” And yes, bodies are good, but we don’t want to be misrepresented or lied about, and he is not willing to follow the procedures of our organization (or says he is, then does the opposite, then claims he misunderstood).

As we discuss this further, I’d like to support the committee chair’s decision if she chooses to fire him. My instinct is that we need to be very clear about why he cannot be involved without being too soul-crushing, but I do think we need to be honest that his actions are in direct conflict with our mission and goals. If that leads to him telling others we mistreated him, that’s probably not as bad as having him out there running off his mouth to potential supporters. How would you handle this?

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.

why should I have to help clean the office kitchen when I never use it?

Two letters, same theme.

The first:

The directors at my workplace have introduced a policy that each week two people are responsible for cleaning the kitchen every afternoon before leaving. I find it unfair to have to clean other’s mess, given that the only use I make of the kitchen is for a coffee or tea during the day, and I always clean up before and after myself.

Is there a way you would recommend dealing with this? I have already refused to clean but thought there might be a better way of dealing with the situation.

The second:

I work in a nonprofit legal center where we are expected to each volunteer to clean the refrigerator. The refrigerator in my office is super gross and I can ALWAYS smell it when it’s open from my office. I have chronic migraines and it tends to be an issue, but I ignore it. For this reason, I opt out of bringing food I need to store in it and I have not used it once since I’ve worked here. I don’t feel like it’s fair that I should have to clean the refrigerator when I don’t use it. Is there any reason I need to be cleaning it? Can I speak up and say that I don’t want to because I don’t use it?

I’m pretty sure that the issue of how to keep the office kitchen clean will still be unresolved on the day that our dying sun goes red giant and consumes the earth.

Offices are notoriously bad at this.

The most obvious solution is to hire a cleaning person to handle it, but in smaller offices, it’s not always practical or even possible to hire someone to clean as frequently as would be needed.

The next most obvious solution — and, I’d argue, the right one if the first one won’t work — is to make it an explicit part of a junior person’s job (that you disclose to them during the hiring process so that they can opt out if they have a problem with it). But lots of offices don’t do this because they worry that it’s unfair to put it all on one person.

You might think that the next most obvious solution after that is some kind of rotation system shared among the users of the kitchen. But then you get people complaining that they only use the kitchen twice a year or not at all and so you take them off the roster, and then they’re spotted heating up coffee in the microwave and people complain and now your rotation is causing all sorts of drama, so you decide that everyone needs to be on it, and you end up with the exact problem that these letter-writers are having.

(Actually, you might think that the most obvious solution is to have everyone clean up after themselves, but so often it doesn’t work.)

So … where does that leave you, letter-writers?

Well, if you’re fairly junior, you probably need to just suck it up and do it. (Although letter-writer #2, if cleaning the refrigerator triggers migraines, you absolutely should explain that and ask to be exempted for that reason.) But if you’re not junior, it’s reasonable to push back on this. You could try saying something like, “I get the need to have a clean kitchen, but I never use it and I’m not contributing to any of the mess there. I don’t want to be taken away from high-priority projects to clean up a fridge that I don’t use, so I’m planning to keep myself out of the kitchen rotation.”

If you’re dealing with a reasonable person, they should get that it’s not a good use of the company’s payroll to have senior/specialized people cleaning up other people’s food messes.

But again, kitchen issues are a constant plague in office life, so it could go either way.