my coworker was fired because of me, I sweated through my jacket at an interview, and more

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

1. My coworker was fired partly because of me, but I didn’t complain about him

A coworker and friend was recently fired suddenly and told that one of the reasons was his attitude towards me. Other reasons were under-performance and not meeting goals.

I never complained or gave any indication to anyone that I thought this coworker had a bad attitude towards me. A supervisor apparently saw and overheard an interaction between us and jumped to conclusions. The supervisor approached me to ask if I felt threatened by the coworker. I told him, “Never for one moment have I felt threatened by this coworker” (and friend). The coworker was frustrated by a situation at work and I understood this and took the incident for what it was, someone blowing off steam.

After the coworker was fired suddenly, I reached out to him to see what I could do and offer support. He told me that when he was fired, he’d been told it was partly because of his bad attitude towards me. I assured him that I never complained about anything to do with him or his attitude towards me.

This has put me in an awkward position and I’m wondering who else he is going to tell (other coworkers and clients) that he was fired partly because of me. Did my boss have the right to use my name without my permission or a formal complaint from me against a coworker when firing someone? Any advice on damage control?

Could a reasonable bystander have interpreted your coworker’s interaction as disruptive, unprofessional, or unpleasant, even if you personally weren’t bothered by it? Since it spurred a supervisor to ask you if you felt threatened, it sounds like there’s a good chance his behavior did read as over the top, unless that supervisor has a history of jumping to unwarranted conclusions. And if your coworker/friend has had a pattern of disruptive, unprofessional, or unpleasant interactions with people, it’s possible that this was just the last straw — and last straws often get named, even when there are plenty of other straws in the pile.

To answer what you’re actually asking, managers are allowed to decide that they’re not going to tolerate rude/unpleasant/disruptive behavior, even when the person who’s the target of it isn’t complaining. And yes, your boss would have the right to specifically cite what how she’s seen your coworker behaving toward you, even if you weren’t bothered by it or complaining about it. But if you think she really misinterpreted — if there was truly nothing rude/disruptive/disrespectful about your coworker’s behavior toward you (not just that you personally didn’t mind it) — you could certainly let her know that you’re worried the situation may have been misunderstood. My hunch, though, is that this was part of a pattern that affected people beyond you.

As for damage control, all you really need to do is let your coworker know that you never complained about him, that you’re sorry your name came up, and that it happened without your knowledge or permission. If he’s reasonable, he’s not going to badmouth you to people over this (and again, it sounds like this was just part of the firing conversation, not the whole thing).

2. My coworker keeps mocking another coworker’s accent

One of my coworkers has a British accent. Normal, especially when you work in NYC and people are from everywhere.

Another more junior coworker keeps mocking his accent. He’ll be trying to ask a serious work question or just have a normal conversation with his coworkers, and she’ll pop in from nowhere and obnoxiously mock his accent. I’m talking like “hello governor chim chim chiree” over the top rude and obnoxious.

He clearly doesn’t like it at all or think it’s funny to the point where I’ve noticed he’ll shut down or walk out of conversations when she pops in. She’s not picking up on basic courtesy/social cues that this isn’t okay or funny to anyone.

Is there a polite way to say something in the moment next time this happens to shut it down?

Good lord, yes, shut this down. Any of these are appropriate to say:

* “Wow, making fun of someone’s accent is not okay. Stop.”
* “Jane, cut that out. That’s really gross and rude.”
* “That’s not funny. It’s actually rude. Please stop.”
* “You sound really bigoted right now. Stop.”

I know you asked for “polite” and these might not feel polite. But they are exactly what the situation calls for: clear and direct expressions that this is not okay and needs to stop.

I think she might be getting away with this because people with British accents don’t typically face the same type of discrimination as people with, say, Spanish or Chinese accents sometimes do. It might help you address it if you reframe it in your head as not being so different from that — it’s still mocking someone for sounding different and being from another place, and it’s bigoted and offensive.

3. I visibly sweated through a jacket at a job interview

Should I address it with an interviewer if I discover that I have visibly sweated through my interview jacket?

I attended a two-hour second-round interview, and the third and last office I was interviewed in was quite warm. I wore a sleeveless blouse under my jacket, to be a little cooler, so there was no additional fabric to absorb the sweat. To compound this, I might have forgotten to put on deodorant (doh! — after remembering so many other personal care details especially in preparation for the interview).

After the third interview I was asked to wait in an office until the business owner was able to speak with me one last time, which is when I noticed that I had sweated through my jacket. It wasn’t very visible from the front or sides if my arms were down (the office had a mirrored surface), but it was two dark marks halfway down to my elbows on my light gray suit. I was only a little nervous, so it was largely a reaction to the temperature of the last room, but I’m sure others have had interview sweat although I didn’t find advice when I did a search on your site as soon as I got home. If this should happen again in the future … well, first I’ll wear a sleeved shirt and triple check that I have on deodorant … but should I have some casual comment or apology ready for becoming a bit unkempt?

With something like sweat showing through clothes, usually a polite fiction from everyone that it’s not actually happening (or that they’re not noticing is best). Meaning that you can ignore it and power through, and you’re not obligated to acknowledge it.

That said, if you’d feel better acknowledging it, you can say something like, “My goodness, please excuse my reaction to the temperature — it’s hotter than I’d anticipated!”

If you’re worried the sweat will be read as nervousness, and if it’s a job where staying metaphorically cool under pressure is important, you might have more peace of mind if you address it. But it’s really up to you.

You’re human, and humans sweat, and sometimes wardrobes show it, and generally the best thing you can do is to try to take it stride and not be mortified. (Signed, someone who once led a whole new employee training with lipstick all over my teeth.)

4. When someone doesn’t come back after bereavement leave

I have a pretty low-stakes question for you. Last week my teammate, Bob, was away on bereavement leave after he lost a parent. He told us all he would be back on Thursday, but when Thursday rolled around, he didn’t come in. His manager, Jane, came by to ask me and his other teammate if we had heard from him and if we knew when he was coming back. We hadn’t, and besides, Jane is his manager, not us. (Jane is very new to being a manager.)

This situation raised a question for me: How would a manager ask someone when they’re coming back to work in a situation like this? Obviously we want Bob to take all the time he needs, but when someone doesn’t come back when they told us they would, is there a good way for a manager to check in, ask when they’re coming back, and whether everything is okay?

Yes. Ideally a few hours after Bob was expected on Thursday, Jane would have reached out to him in a low-key way, saying something like, “I just wanted to check in with. We’d been expecting you back today, but if you need more time, let me know and we can work out what you need.” That signals that she’s willing to work with him and understands he might need more time than he originally thought, but also that she needs to be kept in the loop about his plans.

5. References who want to use email rather than talk on the phone

I’ve recently revved up my job hunt (current company has had a dramatic shift in leadership and is rapidly becoming a somewhat toxic situation, in addition to below-market pay and sluggish advancement despite clearly outlined goals being met) and have reached out to my set of references to check in and verify contact information.

Several people I’ve used consistently over the years have requested email-only contact. Is that okay? Should I try to find more flexible references, or if no, how do I indicate that preference when providing them? Nearly every company asks for an email address AND phone number. One of my former managers who I’m still friendly with told me a horror story about being kept on the phone for nearly 30 minutes with inane questions (when giving a reference for someone else, not for me), and then being contacted three additional times by the same recruiter to answer essentially the same questions as she had “misplaced” her notes.

Yeah, references who are only willing to talk by email and not phone are going to be a problem. Some employers do conduct written reference checks, but not the majority of them — and good reference-checkers are definitely going to want to actually speak to people. (That’s because it gets better information — you can ask follow-up questions, hear tone, hear hesitations, etc.)

So I’d look for people who are willing to talk on the phone. And if any of the people telling you email only are key references (like recent managers), I’d try saying something like, “I’m sure they can use email to initially contact you to schedule a call, but in my experience they’re going to want to talk with you by phone and won’t accept an email reference. Would it be okay to include your number as long as I indicate that you’re busy and may have limited time to speak?” If someone’s really reluctant and they’re an especially important reference for you, you could say, “I’m so sorry to ask, but my ability to get this job may hinge on you being willing to talk to them. If it comes to that, could I ask you to allow a call?” (And really, unless you have wildly over-used these references — like expected them to take reference calls every month for years — they should agree to this. Giving references is part of the deal when you manage people.)

That horror story you heard about someone getting contacted four times for the same reference by the same recruiter is just that — a horror story, not something people typically need to expect.

an employee keeps complaining to me about her boss, who I manage

A reader writes:

I’ve been the director of my library for about two years now, and there’s one employee who I’m having a really hard time understanding how to manage.

Cynthia is managed by Jessica, and I manage Jessica. Cynthia is very type A and holds people to incredibly high standards. This sometimes makes her difficult to work with, as she is very meticulous and gets upset when others don’t work in the same manner as she.

Cynthia most frequently complains about her manager, Jessica, who takes a much more right-brained approach to her job. Jessica’s management style is loose, fun, and go-with-the-flow. I believe in a busy public library where flexibility is key, Jessica’s approach is beneficial.

When Cynthia complains to me about Jessica, I have tried to redirect her to work it out with Jessica herself, and to be more adaptable to different management styles. But she continues to complain about Jessica to others and to me, and I don’t know what to do about it. I’ve asked her not to do this, but it seems like she feels I’m not doing my job if I don’t discipline Jessica in some way.

I believe she wants me to agree with her and hold her manager accountable in a way she doesn’t believe I am currently doing. I feel like she wants me to put the same kind of pressure on Jessica that she puts on herself, and I’m not interested in being that kind of supervisor. I am happy with Jessica’s performance. If I don’t take the action Cynthia believes I should take, she sulks and complains to the other employees.

In all honesty, Jessica is much easier to work with than Cynthia is because she doesn’t get so worked up about everything. In my opinion, I’ll take a team player who moves at her own pace over a hard worker who complains about everything. Do you have any words of advice for dealing with Cynthia?

Ooooh, you need to shut this down.

It’s not okay for Cynthia to be constantly complaining about Jessica to you or others. It’s not a good use of your time to field the same complaints over and over again, and by not shutting it down more assertively, you’re inadvertently signaling to her that it’s okay for her to keep bringing it up. That’s really undermining to Jessica! And by allowing Cynthia to sulk and complain about Jessica to others, you’re letting her create a toxic environment for other employees … and again letting her undermine Jessica.

It’s not clear to me if Jessica knows this is happening, but if she does, she’s probably pretty frustrated with you for not handling this more assertively.

If your main response to Cynthia has been to tell her to work it out with Jessica directly and to be more adaptable, that’s not enough. That might have been fine the first time Cynthia complained to you, but it sounds like for a while now she has needed to hear a clear statement that you are happy with Jessica’s work and disagree with her complaints. If you haven’t said that straight-out, she probably thinks you don’t feel strongly about the situation either way and are just being passive about getting involved. And she probably thinks she should keep advocating for change because you haven’t clearly told her that you don’t agree with her take. (She may even think you’re sympathetic to her case.)

You need to tell her much, much more clearly that you are happy with Jessica’s work, and you need to shut down the chronic complaining.

The next time Cynthia complains to you about Jessica, say this: “We’ve talked about this a number of times, and I don’t agree with your assessment. I’m happy with Jessica’s work, and think she’s doing an excellent job. I hear that you have concerns, but Jessica and I both need you to figure out on your own if you’re able to be reasonably happy in your job, knowing that the things you dislike aren’t going to change. This is not a conversation that you and I can keep having; it’s becoming disruptive to our work.”

From there, if she brings it up again, cut it off right away: “We’ve talked about this in the past, and it’s not a discussion we’re going to continue to have. I’m concerned that you’re not hearing that message.”

Frankly, someone also needs to address the sulking, but that should really be Jessica, as her boss. So if you haven’t already, you need to loop Jessica into what’s been going on and tell her explicitly that you have her back in shutting down the sulking the next time it happens. If she doesn’t have experience dealing with Cynthia types, you may need to coach her through what that looks like. You can suggest language like, “I understand you’re frustrated about X, and I’ve heard your concerns. X isn’t going to change so I need you to decide if you can work here knowing that.” And, “While I understand you’re frustrated, you can’t take that out on your coworkers — I need you to engage in real discussion when people ask you questions and not turn your back when people are talking with you (or fill in whatever specific behaviors are reading as sulking). If you think about it and realize that you’re too unhappy here to do what I’m asking, let’s talk and we’ll figure out what to do from here.”

Right now it sounds like you’re staying too neutral, and that’s what’s letting this continue. Get in there and manage the situation more proactively — and support Jessica in doing that too!

(I do want to note that in general, managers need to be open to hearing concerns about the managers below them. You don’t want to reflexively send people back to their managers to work things out when there might be serious problems you’d miss otherwise. But it sounds like you’ve considered Cynthia’s concerns and are confident in your assessment of the situation.)

my coworker’s kids are disrupting our meetings

A reader writes:

I am working with a group of parents who are organizing a charter school. As the board president, I never bring my son to board meetings, as I need to focus on the agenda. One other board member, who is also a friend, frequently brings her children to board meetings. They are 6 and 7 years old and are frequently loud and disruptive during these meetings.

This parent is on the orientation committee for the school principal, who starts working next week. Today she told me that she will be bringing her kids to the orientation meeting. This will be a long and intensive meeting. Because our site is undergoing refurbishment, we have no choice but to meet in a coffee shop at a private table. How do I tell the parent that it is inappropriate to bring her children to this meeting?

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:

  • Telling my boss that I’m leaving after I promised that I wouldn’t
  • Employee’s new schedule is hard to work with
  • My manager’s boss wants us to complain about my manager to his face
  • Can I ask my references how strong of a reference they’ll give me?

should I take a job working for my dad?

A reader writes:

After almost a decade of working in one industry, I am totally burnt out and desperately longing for a career change. This industry is fairly difficult to get out of (very specific skillset not easily transferable to other jobs) without going back to school, which I don’t have the money for at the moment.

I’ve been offered a great opportunity to work for my father, who owns a small business in a completely unrelated field. The job would pay well, offer a fair amount of flexibility (working from home is an option), and give me skills/work experience that would theoretically allow me to pursue a different career path than the one I’m stuck in right now.

However, I know there are a lot of potential problems that come with working for a) such a small company (five employees total) and b) family members. I’m already struggling with how to navigate certain less desirable aspects of the job — how do you maintain work/life balance when your boss is also your dad? Now I’m wondering if there are other pitfalls I should be aware of before I go ahead with this job offer. Do you have advice as to any major pitfalls to watch out for or things I should clarify up-front with my dad before I start working for him?

Noooo, don’t do it.

Or at least, put a ton of effort into exploring other options before you decide this one is really the best one for you.

There are a ton of downsides to working for a parent, and those downsides are magnified a million times over when the company is only five people:

* It’s very unlikely that your dad is going to give you the same kind of professional development that you’d get working for a good, non-parent manager — meaning things like rigorous and honest feedback.

* You are going to be seen by everyone as the boss’s daughter first and foremost. People are going to be cagey about what they say around you, may assume that you only have your job because you’re his kid (and may not respect you much as a result), will assume favoritism whether or not it’s really there, and may resent you for what they figure are special privileges or special access. It’s not a great dynamic for the non-family-members working there.

* It’s going to change your relationship with your dad. It’s possible this change could be good (deeper understanding of each other, more time together), but it’s possible this change could be bad (frustrations and friction from work spilling into your relationship, spending enough time together at work that social time together is much less appealing, etc.).

* Work disagreements are going to be personal. It’s a rare person who doesn’t have days (or weeks or months) when they’re really frustrated with their boss. That’s normal. But that person will be your dad, and it’s going to feel way more personal (and may push emotional buttons that a non-relative boss would have a harder time pushing).

* You’re going to be emotionally invested in a way that won’t always be healthy. If the business is struggling, you’re going to feel that in a whole different way than if you weren’t working for family. That stress will be your stress. And if you look around and realize things aren’t going well and it would be in your best interests to leave, that may be hard to do because you’ll feel like you’re abandoning a family member right when they most need support.

* It’s going to be really hard to get a reference from this job in the future. Employers are not going to put any weight on a reference from your dad. The longer you stay there, the more this will matter (because if it’s a multi-year portion of your career, future employers are going to want to talk to your manager there). If you’re thinking you could solve this by reporting to someone who isn’t your dad, let me tell you what a crappy position that person would be in, managing their boss’s daughter.

To be clear, I can see why taking this job sounds appealing. You’re burned out where you are and you want a career change, and this is an easy path out! But you will be doing your future self a huge favor if you thoroughly explore other options rather than just jumping into this one because it’s an easy escape.

my coworkers want to bond over numerology, is my boss trying to thwart my raise request, and more

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

1. How can I get out of numerology at work?

My team is small, we get along great, and are fairly close. The other day, my well-intentioned, very nice, and otherwise very sane coworkers got into a full discussion about all the, for lack of a better term, hippie nonsense they wanted to participate in as a group bonding activity.

Apparently, before I started, they did some activity where they added up the numbers in their birthday to find their “number” so they can “better understand each other’s work personalities” and therefore work better together. This devolved into conversations about astrological signs, charts of some kind, and sun and moon signs. All fine, they’re more than welcome to talk about it do what they’d like between themselves. But then the suggestion came up that we should do it as a group activity so we can understand the best ways to approach each other, etc.

I … I do not know how to get out of this, being the only one who seems to think this is all crazy. If it were just-for-fun activity, I’d participate and just take no notice, but the fact that they think they want to use this to then adjust how they actually treat each other in the workplace worries me quite a bit. And, truth be told, I’m not 100% sure if my boss is on board with this, though a coworker said when they did it last time, she “loved” it.

Can I get out of this with any valid reason, and without looking like a curmudgeon? Should I just do it and ignore the so-called “results” and deal with any issues that stem from it as (and if) they arise?

At a minimum, you can say, “Honestly, this is very much not for me, and I’m especially not on board with using it to tailor how we approach each other.” If your team were large, I’d just leave it there — it’s not for you and you’re opting out. But because your team is small, you actually do have room to propose the group skip it entirely (because if your team is, say, four people, you’re 25% of it and have the standing to no, this isn’t a good team activity, in a way you wouldn’t necessarily be able to say on a 20-person team where 19 others wanted to do it). So in your particular context: “Honestly, this is very much not for me, and I’m especially not on board with using it to tailor how we approach each other. I’d be really uncomfortable with this being a team activity — can we skip it?”

2. Is my boss trying to thwart my raise request?

Last year, I took over a technical writing position at my company. I’m doing well, but I think my boss is trying to stifle my request for a raise.

Compared to my predecessors, I have nearly double my output, while having better overall work quality. My current boss calls me a rock star. My previous boss even recommended that I be considered for a higher position within the company when he left the company.

Last month, my boss gave me a raise out of the blue. It was a very hasty meeting, and the raise itself was much, much less than what I would have asked for; it was a $1,000 per year raise. To put it into perspective: even with this raise, my salary still does not come close to the market rate for the work that I do. My company is expanding and is not in any sort of financial hardship.

I believe that if I try to do a salary negotiation at the one-year mark, my boss will point to my previous salary increase and use this to justify pushing my request for a salary increase to a later date. What do you recommend?

I wouldn’t assume he was deliberately plotting to thwart you from asking for more money; he might have just thought you were doing a good job and wanted to show you that in a tangible way … especially since this doesn’t prevent you from asking for more if you want to.

When you’re at your one-year mark and ready to ask for a raise, go ahead and do it without regard to this small mid-year bump. Point out that you’ve doubled the output of your role, and cite the other contributions you’ve made and the market rate for the work.

If your boss pushes back by saying that he already gave you a mid-year raise, you can say, “I appreciated that! But what I’m asking for is $X, which I think my work warrants, especially given that our competitors are paying $Y.” (If you can’t specifically cite competitors, you can change that language to “especially in light of the overall market for this work.”)

3. I don’t want people sitting on my desk

I’m in a job I love with coworkers who are fairly wonderful. Though I have difficulty with social interaction sometimes and tend to be highly formal, they stop by my desk to chat often, and I enjoy the work friendships.

Until they put their rear ends on my desk. I’ve put a chair in my area to redirect the bottoms, a placemat on the desk to discourage sitting, and even started putting my lunchbox and purse on top of the placemat. It’s still an inviting area for some reason. I eat at my desk. Ugh.

I’m afraid of coming off too curt, because I do have that resting b— face, and I really am not good socially. I’d rather have their rear ends there than lose the visits.

The best way to do this is to frame it as a peculiar quirk of yours — as in, “I have a weird thing about people sitting on my desk — can I relocate you into that chair?”

4. Is my former manager too busy to meet up?

I have a question about an ex-manager who is too busy to meet up. I have worked with this manager for over one year and developed a really good relationship with her, and we are even friends via Facebook. Recently, this manager left the organization, which has been quite a sad loss for me. On her last day, we agreed that I could still come to visit her in her new role.

It’s been over a month now since her departure, and I have recently taken to contact her and ask whether she would like to be meet up for lunch. Her responses to me have been quite curt lately. She advised me of her unavailability on certain days, and availability on other days depending on what’s going on.

I feel a bit disappointed by her response as my intention was really just to catch up with her (which I did mention to her). Is she really just too busy at her new job or doesn’t really care about me anymore?

She’s probably just busy at her new job. It’s only been a month, which is very little time at all. Normally I’d have said to give it a few months before trying to set something up. But if she’s telling you she’s available for lunch on specific days, that sounds like she’s offering to meet for lunch on one of them, so why not take her up on it, pick one of those dates, and set up lunch then? If she backs out, then assume that yes, she’s too busy, and give it a few months before you try again. If it doesn’t work then, then yeah, I’d leave it there. That wouldn’t necessarily mean she doesn’t care about you, but people often don’t stay in touch when they change jobs because they get busy with other things, and it’s not personal.

Even if you do meet up for lunch, though, I’d advise tempering your expectations. Unless you have an unusually close relationship, this might be a “we get lunch once or twice and that’s it” situation, or a “we get lunch once every six months or so” situation, rather than something where you’re going to continue to see each other frequently. Pay attention to her cues, and see if she issues her own invitations, and match your level of outreach roughly to hers.

5. Well-meaning people keep offering me condolences … and it’s a lot

My mother died last year. She was a prominent public figure in our region; accordingly, many people remember her fondly. Ever since she died, clients of mine have been bringing up her death and offering condolences. This happens several times a week, often accompanied by lengthy reminiscences.

I know people mean well, but it’s incredibly draining. No one seems to consider that their comment might be the fifth one of its kind I’ve heard that day. Snowflake, avalanche, etc. She died suddenly and I’m only in my 20s, which I’m sure is also a factor: people see me, in that moment, not as a professional peer but as an orphan to comfort. One woman even offered to be a “surrogate mom whenever [I] need one.”

What, in theory, is a supportive gesture ends up, in practice, as a lot of emotional labor for me. It’s not pleasant to be forcibly reminded of my mother’s death multiple times per day, especially in a professional context. It takes me out of the moment. I don’t want to be rude — again, I really do appreciate it — but I need an appropriate way to shut this down.

That sounds so hard, I’m sorry. I don’t think there’s a way to head it off from ever coming up, unfortunately (although if readers have ideas about that, I’d welcome them in the comments), but I do think you can politely shut it down once it starts. When someone offers condolences, you can say, “Thank you, that’s kind of you” and then immediately transition into a work topic. Do that fairly quickly; if you let a silence sit there first, people are going to clearly going to start filling it with more remembrances about your mom, so make that transition a quick one.

Most people will follow your lead, but for those who don’t — for those who see you changing to a work topic and bring it back to your mom anyway — try saying, “I prefer not to talk about it at work, but I wanted to ask you about (insert work-related topic here).” Or “It’s difficult to talk about at work, I’m sure you understand” or “Oh thank you, but it’s actually easier for me to stay focused on work while I’m here” or so forth — all followed by an immediate change of subject to a work topic.

What other thoughts do people have?

weekend free-for-all – March 23-24, 2019

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.)

Book recommendation of the week: Daisy Jones and the Six, by Taylor Jenkins Reid — the fictitious oral history of a band in the 70s. It’s like the written version of watching a “Behind the Music” special but with more drama and more humor. I loved it.

open thread – March 22-23, 2019

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.

should I stop wearing makeup to fit in at work, unprepared interviewers, and more

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

1. Should I stop wearing makeup to fit into my office culture?

I know you have talked about overdressing being a sign you don’t understand the work culture when starting a new position, such as wearing a suit at a tech start-up. But what is your take on makeup/hair? I recently started as a new grad in a new research position in industry. My coworkers are all at least 10 years older than me and have Ph.Ds while I have a bachelors in the same field. There are few women, but the few I do work with wear baggy dress pants and sweaters, no makeup, and no hair styling. I wear makeup everyday (subtle blush, mascara, and then a small cat-eye) and usually style my hair, but I have been feeling like it feels out of place within this workplace. I also wear dress clothes appropriate for a lab, but I worry that I appear as if I focus too much on my appearance. Or, with my obvious youth, I worry that my appearance makes people take me less seriously. I believe I feel like this way due to my general lack of confidence in the role (working on it!), but I wonder if meshing with the culture also applies to the overdoing hair/makeup. Of course, I feel more confident with my appearance as I’m comfortable.

Is there an argument for not putting as much effort into my appearance to fit with the culture?

The short version: It’s silly that this matters/sometimes it does anyway/it’s up to you whether to care.

The longer version: I want to say it doesn’t matter, but the reality is that in some work cultures it can mark you as not quite getting the culture or being out of sync with the priorities that people who thrive there usually have. As is always the case when you’re handling this kind of thing differently from the rest of your office (including clothes, too), it won’t always matter — and if you’re great at what you do, your chances of it not mattering go way up — but sometimes it matters.

But even if it does matter in your office, you might still decide you’re not going to play along, just like someone in a different office might decide they’re not going to wear lipstick and blow dry their hair. And to be clear, it’s silly that an office culture would care either way if you do or don’t wear makeup — but some do, and if you’re in one that does, the important thing is to understand the landscape so that you can make your own decisions with full knowledge of potential trade-offs.

Of course, that’s what you’re trying to figure out about your office, and I can’t tell you from here because I don’t know the culture there. But if you felt like you were being taken seriously and respected by the people you work with, I’d tell you not to worry about this at all. It sounds, though, like you do worry you’re not being taken as seriously (although this is tricky because, as you note, that could be just about youth). But if you want to experiment, you could try toning down your hair and makeup (not zero makeup and hair styling, just less of it) and seeing if you notice anything different.

But again, up to you. (This doesn’t feel like an especially helpful answer. I’m sorry!)

2. How insulted should I be when an interviewer isn’t prepared for an interview?

How insulted should I be when an interviewer isn’t prepared for an interview? I’m interviewing for a fairly senior position, and am currently in the midst of a series of (remote, video) interviews by people quite senior at the company. At one interview today, the interviewer started by explaining that he had just been on a call with the chief executive to discuss an upcoming national conference, which he then started explaining to me as he would to someone who had never heard of it or this company before. I jumped in when I had a moment to tell him that I knew all about it — because I’m on the program team for that conference, am speaking at it, and have spoken at it the past two years! If he’d glanced at my resume or cover letter, he’d have known that. I’m very involved in the nonprofit side of our field’s community, and am one of the leaders in this community — I’m interviewing at the company that manages the for-profit side of the industry. I’m even friendly with the chief executive and have been recently on calls with him myself to discuss the upcoming conference!

Am I off-base to be insulted that he didn’t even glance at my resume or have any idea who I was before speaking with me? (Not in a “do you know who I am?” way but in a “did you look at who you’re interviewing?” way.) Not to mention that a candidate for this role would have been woefully unprepared to not know about this upcoming conference. I know that not all candidates are internal to this community, but I really felt like it left me at a disadvantage in this interview because he didn’t know my experience or involvement. And to note, this was not an introductory interview – I’ve already had a couple of those. Now I’m worried that the other interviewers might be similarly unprepared, and I’ll have to spend even more time reviewing my experience with them, when it’s all on my resume and outlined again in my cover letter.

You shouldn’t be insulted because it’s not about you; it’s not as if he thought, “Jane Smith? She sounds like a real waste of my time, so I won’t bother reading her materials.” But annoyed? Sure, you can be annoyed.

But the thing is, sometimes this happens through no fault of the interviewer’s. Sometimes an interviewer is pulled in at the last minute because the person who was originally supposed to do it is out, or they realize at the last minute that they really want this particular person to weigh in, or the person had 20 minutes set aside to review your materials ahead of your interview and then got pulled away by an emergency. None of that is ideal, but it happens and it’s understandable and the best thing you can do is to just roll with it. And other times, yes, sometimes the interviewer had your materials well in advance and just didn’t bother to review them. And if that turns out to be a pattern of disorganization / inconsideration / cavalierness about hiring, you can factor that into your thinking about whether you’re interested in working there. But if it’s one person one time, I wouldn’t read anything into it.

3. What’s up with this disclaimer on our emergency contact forms?

I’m a little concerned about a statement made on our new emergency contact forms that we received at work. We all know that the point of these forms is to give permission to contact one or two people in the event of an emergency (or suspected emergency if an employee doesn’t show up). That is noted at the top of the form, but just above the signature line it says: “I understand and agree that the company will have no obligation or liability to notify such person(s) in case of an emergency.”

Now I have read many emergency contact forms over the years, and have never seen this type of statement before. I also did a Google search and of the 50 or so that I looked at, not one had any sort of disclaimer like this.

It strikes me as suspicious because they specifically decided to add it. Why? It’s almost like they’re making an advance decision not to contact them. They made it 100% mandatory to sign this, but they’re not holding themselves responsible for utilizing the information?

Of course, this is just the latest in a long string of many strange things happening around our office lately, or else I might not have even noticed it. I’ve worked for this company for several years, and since an executive management change three years ago we’ve transitioned from being widely recognized as a people-oriented company known for its flexibility to a strict policy-oriented company. No advance warning was sent out that old policies would suddenly be enforced, and anyone (customers or employees) who questions the change is immediately shut down with “It’s always been the policy.” Micromanaging has become a massive problem from the top all the way down, to the point many employees and even managers have left or been pushed out. Those of us who are left from before the change live in constant fear that we will be next. Because of that I have been trying to keep my head down to avoid notice, but it’s tough when things keep getting more difficult to deal with.

What do you make of this? Is this (combined with the change in company direction) a red flag to start looking elsewhere? Or would it be better to ride the wave and see if things settle down?

I would assume they’re just trying to cover themselves in case an emergency contact isn’t contacted in a situation where it would have helped. There’s no requirement to have those forms at all, so if they just didn’t want to use them, they could simply get rid of them. It’s much more likely that they’re concerned about legal liability in a situation where someone doesn’t think to use the contacts.

I do think, though, when you get to the point that you’re suspecting stuff like this because general conditions in your organization are so bad, that’s a sign that you should be looking at other options. And really, you describe yourself as living in constant fear that you’ll be pushed out — why would you not be looking around?

4. Candidates who ask for the job description

I’m wondering if this is a pet peeve of mine or if other HR professionals find this annoying as well. I get severely annoyed when I reach out to candidates for a phone interview after they have applied and they ask me to resend them the job description or ask for company information, i.e., “remind me what company this is again?” Is this just something that comes with the territory of recruiting and HR or is it a preliminary indication about soft skills like detail oriented-ness and resourcefulness?

It depends on the context. If you’re calling a candidate out of the blue (as opposed to a pre-scheduled phone interview), of course they might need you to remind them about the details. People usually apply for multiple jobs, and it would be unreasonable to expect them to have the details perfectly organized in their heads at all time, with no notice that they’ll need to.

On the other hand, if you scheduled a phone interview by email (so they had time to prepare for the conversation), then yes, I’d be concerned. Although you do need to make sure your job posting is still online — some companies take them offline once they’re no longer accepting applications, and then candidates have no way of accessing them again (unless they saved them when they applied, which is a good idea but not something everyone realizes they should do).

5. I was fired and my boss keeps offering me side jobs

I was terminated about a month ago and was given my last paycheck that day. My previous boss (she was the CEO) keeps in touch and asking me for side jobs i.e. pay me to help with the website. I don’t want to but I also don’t want to burn bridges. Am I wrong for declining?

Nope. You’re not required to do work for someone who no longer employs you in order to keep a bridge intact. You only have to be polite about it. Say something like this to your former boss: “Thanks for thinking of me for this! I’ve taken on other commitments that are keeping my schedule full so I’m not able to help, but I hope you’re able to find someone right for it.”

my boss constantly complains about how much he pays me

A reader writes:

I work for a very small company with three full-time employees and my boss, who is the owner. My coworkers and I (who are all in our first professional jobs out of college) make reasonable salaries for the area, but receive no other benefits. One of my coworkers and I started around the same time and recently received raises at our two year anniversaries. These raises are standard and were outlined to us when we first started. Because the company rarely has had employees stay this long, the overhead of our salaries is higher than my boss has experienced before.

Here’s the problem: He complains CONSTANTLY about how much we cost him. He’ll remind us in emails or in person at least a few times a week how high overhead is. My coworker recently used several of her PTO days and he basically yelled at her that she should have used them before she received the raise. He recently emailed us both letting us know if we wanted to take any unpaid days off, that would be fine with him.

I might understand this behavior if the company was really struggling. However, I handle all the finances for the company and can see that the past two years have been the most profitable the company has ever been. In fact, much of this profitability can be directly tied back to mine and my coworker’s efforts.

To me this seems unprofessional and I find it completely demoralizing. It seems like he doesn’t appreciate our work but instead just looks at us as dollar signs. Most of the time he is a good person, but this has really started to bug me and I don’t want to continue to be reminded what I burden I am. However, I want to stay in this job for the next year as I need to be close to family members who are ill. Additionally, I recently have taken on more responsibilities that if I stay and continue to learn could open up a lot of doors professionally for me in the future. So what do I do in the meantime? Should my coworker and I tell him how these comments make us feel? Or should I grin and bear it for a year until I can move on?

It might be interesting to act as if you’re taking his comments very, very seriously. You could ask to meet with him and say something like, “You’ve been mentioning a lot lately how much my and Jane’s salaries cost the business. I’ve done some market research and know that we’re being paid well in line with the market for this kind of work — maybe even a bit under market since we don’t get benefits. Since we’re not overpaid, I’m concerned if there’s some other message here — is the business in trouble? Is everything okay?”

(And yes, you see the finances and know that things are fine — but it’s plausible that you’re concerned that he knows something you don’t, since otherwise his comments are inexplicable.)

I suspect you’ll get a cranky answer that doesn’t admit things are fine but instead grumbles about the strain of, you know, paying employees for their work.

At that point, you can say, “Assuming you agree that we’re being paid a fair market rate for our work, it’s really demoralizing to be told so frequently that we cost too much. I believe I’m being paid fairly so I don’t know how to respond when you talk about my salary. What are you looking for from me when you say those things?”

It’s possible that just calling out the behavior like this will get it to stop, or at least significantly lessen.

But if it doesn’t, then I would try to just look at him as an amusing caricature of a miserly industrialist, like a Mr. Burns or an Ebenezer Scrooge.

Also though … I am highly skeptical of any company that rarely has anyone stay even two years, and oh also happens to hire mainly people right out of college (who conveniently are the ones least likely to recognize and balk at terrible management practices), and doesn’t provide benefits (although it does sound like you get paid time off, so I assume that means no insurance — which is not good). Combine it with your boss’s absurd behavior, and I would seriously question how much you’re getting out of staying, and how many doors it’s really going to open in the future. I hear you that you want to stay in the area because of ill family members, but it’s worth thinking about whether there are other, healthier workplaces that would let you do that too.

what to look for when you’re interviewing students

A reader writes:

While I’ve had plenty of practice interviewing experienced hires, I’m feeling stumped preparing to interview college students. We are coming up on campus recruiting season for interns and new hires, and I’m having trouble formulating my general interview script. Most of my go-to questions focus on past projects and experiences in different work environments. How do I translate this to students, especially the internship candidates who may not have any prior industry experience? What do I look for – GPA? Class projects? Leadership activities?

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.