I get angry when my coworkers make mistakes

A reader writes:

I’ve got a question regarding how much “mistake tolerance” is expected in the workplace.

Just to give you some background, I’m a (tech) team lead, which, in my case, means my daily job is not very different from that of other team members, except for the part that I get to make technical decisions concerning the projects we are doing. That includes, deadlines, technologies, methodologies, features to be included, etc. and most importantly, I decide whether a piece of work by any team member is acceptable. However, I don’t “manage” people; that is, I don’t give time off, I don’t give them feedback, I don’t decide their raise, etc. There’s a manager to do that.

Now to the main question. I have very low, almost zero, tolerance for mistakes. Whenever I see a mistake in anyone’s work, especially trivial ones, I will get very angry. The rationale in my head is always “We have ONE job and one job only, and that’s to get this done! No excuses.” As such, I will remove the person from the project, in addition to having a detailed (sometimes heated) conversation with both the person and our manager on why such mistakes are not allowed in my team.

So how bad is this? I know my intolerance could probably be attributed to some sort of OCD, and sort of know it is not good. But I just cannot forgive mistakes easily. Do you have any advice?

Yeah, what you’re doing sounds pretty bad.

I see two issues here: First, your expectations about normal amounts of errors are off. And second, you’re taking it really personally when mistakes happen and you’re having an emotional reaction where one isn’t warranted, rather than handling it professionally. (Which, as people are pointing out in the comment section, is a mistake in itself! So there’s some irony there.)

On the first issue, people are going to make mistakes because you work with humans, not robots, and humans make mistakes. If someone makes a mistake occasionally, that is normal — and you should see it as normal and not an outrage. Perhaps you’re the very rare person who truly never makes mistakes in your work. If so, you’re something of a unicorn. That’s not typical. If you are that unicorn, good for you — that’s a rare talent. But if you want to work with other people, you have to recognize that you’re not normal; if you expect others to be unicorns too, no one will want to work with you, because you’ll be out of touch with reality.

Now, obviously there’s a point where someone is making too many mistakes. And that brings us to the second issue, which is how to handle it when that happens.

Right now, you’re reacting very emotionally: you’re getting angry and having heated conversations. There should rarely be any need for that at work, and by doing it, you’re almost certainly alienating people and making no one want to work with you. That’s a big deal — not only are you making working with you a bad experience for other people, but you’re also impacting your own professional reputation. That will matter when you’re looking for a promotion, a raise, or a new job, or even just when you want to be included on something that other people don’t want to work with you on.

Here’s the thing that you’re losing sight of: At work, you have the tools you need to solve problems calmly and rationally. Getting angry and emotional says to other people that you don’t know how to do that. It makes you look out of control, and it can make you look inept. You don’t want that.

Your goal needs to be to solve the problem, not to punish people or let them know how wrong they are or how much they frustrated you. Instead of having a heated reaction, you just need to deliver information calmly and clearly.

That means that if someone makes a single mistake, all you need to do is say something like this: “I found mistake X. Can you take a look at it and fix it for me today?” If relevant, you can add, “Let me know if you’re not clear on what I’m talking about and I can walk you through it” and/or “Can you figure out how that happened so we can make sure to avoid it in future rounds?”

And if someone makes mistakes regularly, that’s a pattern you need to talk to their manager about, since their manager is responsible for addressing it. And that should be a calm, matter-of-fact conversation — as in “Fergus is regularly making mistakes like X and Y. I’ve pointed it out to him, but it’s continuing to happen and I’m concerned about the pattern. It’s causing me to have to redo his work and making me reluctant to keep him on the project.”

But there’s almost no reason to ever have a heated conversation over a mistake. This stuff shouldn’t be so emotional.

If you find that you can’t control your emotions about mistakes, it’s probably worth exploring with a competent therapist — because a pattern of strong negative reactions to something that doesn’t warrant that intensity is usually connected to something more deeply rooted, and likely isn’t about work at all.

I’m in trouble for forwarding emails, did job candidate really do the work she claims, and more

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

1. My boss chastised me for forwarding some of her emails

My boss is in the habit of sending emails that fall in the category of “asking me to ask someone else to do something/a question/etc.” I am perfectly fine with this as I understand my job is to carry out what she asks and I am often a liaison for her on matters at my location or with certain departments.

In the past (at other companies/jobs too) I have often forwarded requests with my summary of the request in my message. My reasoning is to leave the forwarding chain below just in case the recipient of my message wants to understand context/doesn’t get my request or my request carries more weight if the recipient can see that my superiors are asking for whatever it is.

The problem is, my current boss has chastised me for doing this, because a couple of times she has, far down in the email chain, said something she is embarrassed about or talked about someone. I hadn’t thought of this because her comments weren’t explicitly bad but just might be interpreted as a little unprofessional. I was wondering is it bad form always to keep a chain below my summary? Or is it a situation where I just need to comply with her desire to have nothing forwarded because she doesn’t do what I do, which is basically don’t email anything you don’t want a colleague seeing?

Well, at a minimum you need to comply with this because she’s your boss and she’s told you to.

But beyond that, yes, her position is reasonable. Sure, in theory you should never put anything in an email that you don’t want the world to see, but in reality many people talk more causally and candidly in emails to their team than they might to someone else, or they use shorthand that they might not use more widely (and which might sound bad without more context, etc.).

It’s considered common courtesy not to forward someone’s words along when they clearly weren’t meant for others to see. (The “don’t email anything you don’t want the world to see” means that your boss wouldn’t be absolved of responsibility if the email did make its way to someone she didn’t want to see it, but she’d still be entitled to be annoyed with you for forwarding it.)

There are times when it’s helpful to forward along the previous email chain as context for a request, but if you’re doing that, you really need to review the entire chain and just include the parts that are clearly okay to share.

2. Did this candidate really work on the project she claims?

Someone has applied for a position in my department, who I will interview today. In looking at their LinkedIn profile, they claim to have worked on a project with which I am intimately familiar (at a previous company), and I don’t recall their involvement. Should I interview this person, or should I point out the inconsistency to the hiring manager, or contact HR, or …? There is a possibility that I simply do not remember the person, so should I reach out to people at the previous company and ask whether they remember this person?

Start by asking the person about it when you interview her. Ask about her role and the work she did and see what she says. If it sounds off to you, then yeah, at that point I’d reach out your former colleagues to see if you can verify what the candidate is telling you — but it’ll be more effective to do that once you know exactly what she’s saying she did.

It’s also okay to be up-front with the candidate that you’re familiar with the project and explain whatever your own involvement was. Not in a “gotcha” way, but in the normal way you’d do it if it you didn’t have any suspicions. That may or may not lead to any further light being shed on the situation, but it can make it more likely.

3. I went part-time but my boss acts like I’m still full-time

I recently went back to school, but was able to become a contractor at my company where I had previously been salaried. I felt lucky to have this arrangement, considering that I am pursuing a degree completely outside of the field I had been working in professionally.

However, I’m having a difficult time setting boundaries with my boss about when I am offline and at school and when I’m not. She will frequently send me emails when I’m in class and expect an immediate response or assign me large projects despite the fact that I’m only in the office two or three days a week. At time it feels like I’m doing the exact same job I was before I started grad school, just with less time to get everything done. Because I am now an hourly contractor, I appreciate the work, but it is making it difficult to focus on my school work, which I feel like should be my priority. I think if I had come on only as a contractor and had not been working for my boss before, I would have an easier time communicating that I can only take on X projects or waiting to answer email until I am back on the clock. I have repeatedly sent emails reminding my team of my schedule, but to no avail. Can you think of a way I can respectfully communicate to my boss that I really am a part-time contractor now?

Stop sending emails to your team and call your boss and talk to her about this. Say this: “I’ve noticed that I’m getting emails that need an immediate response, and that I’m still being assigned the type of large projects that I did before I went part-time. I want to make sure that you’re not counting on me for things I’m no longer able to do. In general, I can promise to respond within two days but not always sooner, and I can do up to X hours of work a week but not more. I need to start being really disciplined about sticking to that, and since it will be a change from before, I want to make sure that it will work with what you need.”

If she says that’s fine, then start sticking to it. If you’re assigned a project that’s too large for the hours you work, point that out immediately: “I’m only working X hours/week now, which means I wouldn’t have this finished until October 30. Will that work or should someone else take this on?” Or, ““I’m only working X hours/week now, so I can’t meet that deadline and it should probably be assigned to someone full-time.” And when you get emails outside of your hours, don’t answer them immediately; if you do, you’re training people to assume that you will. Instead, wait until it’s convenient and then include a line like “Just to remind you, I no longer see this stuff immediately; I only look at these emails during (hours).”

Give that a few weeks and see if it changes anything. If not, it’s time for a more serious conversation with your boss: “This is continuing to happen, and I want to talk about whether this arrangement makes sense, given the limits on my time now.” (Of course, you’d want to be prepared for her to conclude the answer is no, so make sure that’s an outcome you’re willing to risk.)

4. I ran out of paid time off — can I still take my upcoming vacation?

My employer approved my vacation a few months ago, and now says I can’t take it because I ran out of paid time off. I don’t mind taking the time with no pay. Can he take back the approval?

Yes. Legally, he could take it back even if you still had vacation time left, although that would be crappy to do. But generally you’re expected to manage your own stock of paid time off, and if you have a scheduled vacation coming up, you’re supposed to ensure that you have enough accrued time to do it. Some employers will let you take unpaid time if you need it, some will allow it only in case of emergency, and some won’t allow it at all. But in general, the amount of paid time off your employer gives you means “we expect you to be at work minus the X number of weeks of vacation we give you each year.” Once you use those X weeks, you’re not expected to take more.

Now, if you used up all your PTO on something unavoidable like an emergency or sickness, a considerate employer might try to work something out with you so you could still go on the vacation (generally either letting you take the time unpaid or giving you an advance on future PTO). But they’re not obligated to do that, and they’re especially unlikely to do it if you used up your PTO on more optional things.

5. Bringing a service dog to a job interview

I’m disabled and have been out of work for five years. I’m currently combing your archives to brush up my resume since I’m able to work again, but I have a question.

I have a service dog (trained to assist with both my mental illness and my physical disabilities). If I’m lucky enough to get an interview, should I mention him beforehand? If so, how should I phrase it? I don’t want to ask if it’s okay to bring him — legally he’s allowed. But neither do I want to startle someone who may be uncomfortable around large dogs. Also how do I handle addressing my disability? Obviously not disclosing it isn’t going to work. I plan on targeting my job search to jobs where my service dog is the only accommodation I need.

I plan to groom my dog within an inch of his hairy life and clean and polish his gear so he looks like the professional he is, but beyond that I’m really nervous about how to go about finding a job while so very visibly disabled, and any advice is welcome.

Yes, mention it in advance — not only in case someone is startled around large dogs, but also in case your interviewer is allergic. (In both cases, they should find a way to work around the situation, but advance notice is going to make that a lot easier.)

Usually being very matter-of-fact is the best way to handle this kind of thing, since it makes people more likely to respond that way themselves. When you’re setting up the time for the interview, I’d just say, “By the way, I have a service dog who will accompany me.” If you’re willing to disclose a little bit more, you could say something like, “By the way, I have a neurological condition that requires a service dog, and wanted to let you know ahead of time that he’ll be accompanying me.”

what’s up with this patronizing rejection letter?

A reader writes:

This email arrived in my inbox more than a week after I was supposed to be notified of this organization’s decision in hiring a higher-level volunteer position. The first sentence is the only one that seemed personally written for me.

I feel like I should respond politely but I’m angry that in all of this poetry they never state outright that they went with someone else nor that they are rejecting me. It’s so much language but completely indirect. Like, we decided? We decided what?!? I mean, I’m not obtuse so I know what they decided (also because they actually sent out an announcement about what they decided to all the org’s members).

Am I wrong to feel insulted by this form letter? Can I respond in a way that makes it clear that I don’t appreciate the mass message and the lack of directness, or is that just a no-go? Here’s the message:

Hi!

Thank you so much for your application and time on our call!

On the bright side, you can wake to birds chirping. Not beeping texts.
On the bright side, you can stay out longer. Instead of going home early to get on a call.
On the bright side, you can have a bit more time to do other stuff — for your Org family!

In our search to revamp Org’s XYZ Program, we had a plethora of applicants and love.
That made it competitive. After much talking, texting, emailing and thought, we decided.

The bottom line: on the bright side, you have more time.
And we thank you so much for your desire to serve.

But wait don’t go! There are many other ways to be an awesome, active Org’er.

Reach out to your chapter president and board leaders. You could organize a city event.
That could be as easy as a drinks social on a Friday night. That could be a professional speaker spotlight with someone you’ve been wanting to meet – for a selfie or possible job. That could be a big fundraiser, like New York’s trivia bowl.

What we’re saying is, more opportunities await you.

What the hell? This is incredibly patronizing and weird.

Bad things happen when organizations try to get creative with rejections.

Three basic sentences is all it takes — some variation of this: “Thanks so much for your interest in the X role and the time you spent talking with us. The hiring process has been very competitive and after much consideration, we’ve decided to offer the position to another candidate. But we’re really grateful for your interest and wish you all the best in whatever comes next for you.”

Saying “on the bright side, you have more time” in place of a direct rejection is kind of awful. And yet it sounds like they genuinely thought it would be a nice message, so someone there is very, very tone-deaf.

Anyway, since this was a volunteer position and they’re trying to encourage you to stay involved with the organization, I do think you have room to say something to them about it. I wouldn’t complain about it being a mass mailing — form letters are really normal with rejections — but you could say something like this: “I appreciate you notifying me of your decision. For what it’s worth, I’d strongly prefer a straightforward rejection. This message felt pretty indirect, and even a bit patronizing. I wanted to mention it since I support your work and thought it might be useful feedback to have for future rejection letters. Thanks again for talking with me, and I look forward to staying involved with the organization in other ways.”

update: I won’t be considered for a promotion unless I promise not to leave if my coworker gets the job

Remember the letter-writer whose boss told her she wouldn’t be considered for a promotion unless she and her coworker both promised not to leave if the promotion goes to the other? Here’s the update.

I wanted to write to let you how this panned out. I’m happy to say that I received the promotion. The selection committee announced my new position back in June and I’ve since been transitioning into the new role.

Looking back, I see that I let my boss get into my head and unnecessarily complicate an already very stressful process. I later learned that the selection committee went into the process believing that I was the perfect candidate for the position. According to one of them, the rigorous interview process was just a matter of “kicking the tires” to be sure I was ready for the role. Furthermore, I learned from a member of the committee that permitting my coworker to continue through the interview process was a mere professional courtesy and that they didn’t take her seriously as a candidate. They were evidentially well aware of the shortcomings and the idiosyncrasies that I saw in her work and her management style. I think they did everyone a great disservice by not being more forthright, not to mention sharing this information with me after the fact, but that’s in the past.

Funnily enough, my relationship with my coworker improved once the company announced my selection for the new position. She stopped jockeying for position and stepping on my toes while trying to prove her worth to the company. We established a good level of professional respect and worked well together. Yesterday she announced her resignation, which was not a huge surprise.

Thank you to everyone who offered very sage advice and encouragement!

is it unprofessional to wear the same clothing item twice in a work week?

A reader writes:

I just have a quick question for you regarding professional dress code due to a comment from my boss. Is it unprofessional to wear to same pants twice in a row or more during a work week? I have been working here for well over a year and this is the first time my boss has ever commented on my habit of doing this.

After she noticed I was wearing the same pants in the same work week, she said something in the vein of “It’s not professional for you to do that. If someone notices someone, say, wearing the same dress or shirt multiple times, they might assume things about their finances or that they aren’t taking care of themselves.”

Upon reflection, I can see where she’s coming from. However, the fact that it was pants I wore twice made me more confused, since while I can follow the logic for a shirt or a dress, I can’t understand the logic with pants.

Some facts on my wardrobe: I have about five pairs of pants that are not jeans. Three are nearly identical black slacks, one pair has pinstripes, and there’s a a gray pair that I was wearing when this comment was made to me.

While I have been slowly building up a closet professional items, my living location does not have any true shopping locations that are not an hour’s drive away or more. It’s not practical for me to have bottoms for every single work day. But since her comment implied that it’s as much of a faux pas as wearing the same dress/skirt/shirt for multiple days, I now feel maybe my instinct was in the wrong. What do you think?

Tons of people re-wear the same pair of pants within a work week.

Hell, tons of people re-wear the same shirt within a work week.

(Also, lots of these people are men, and I bet your boss doesn’t even notice when they do it.)

It’s true that if you have a really distinctive clothing item — like a green dress with white polka dots — it’s going to stand out, and people will notice if you wear it Wednesday after just wearing it on Monday. Even then, though, it’s not scandalous. It’s just … noticeable.

But pants? Plain black or gray pants?

No.

Even if someone did notice, there’s no way for them to know if it’s the same pair, or whether you — like lots of people — have multiple pairs of basic clothing items. Lots of people have several pairs of similar-looking (or identical) clothing items. It’s really not a big deal.

Your boss sounds like she has some kind of hang-up about money, since most people really aren’t “assuming things about your finances” just because you wear the same pants twice a week. (And even if they did, being on a budget isn’t some kind of terrible character issue.)

my coworker wants to pull me into her counteroffer, boss is going to trash-talk me when I leave, and more

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

1. My coworker wants to pull me into her counteroffer

I am a junior-level employee at an small (25 people) consulting firm. I have worked there for about two years. The company has been going through some rough periods due to personality/management conflicts between employees and management. I have personally been frustrated with one project manager (above me in the hierarchy, but not my supervisor) who is very intelligent but lacks control of his temper and various other people skills (Greg). A few months ago, three other employees and I filed a compliant to the company president about cumulative incidents with Greg and as part of this, I had said that if things didn’t change with Greg I would leave. Things have improved with Greg in that I rarely have to work with him anymore, which solved my problem.

Yesterday, another project manager (Rebecca) approached me and said that she had a job offer from a competitor and would be negotiating for a counteroffer with our company and wanted to bring me with her to our competitor if she left, or negotiate for increased perks for me to stay. She asked for me to give her a list of demands for the president on Monday.

I am really conflicted by the whole process, as I plan to leave for grad school in about a year and don’t want to start over at a new company before leaving. I don’t know whether she is trying to help me with Greg or whether she is just trying to use me as leverage with the president to help her bargaining. I don’t want to burn a bridge with Rebecca but I also don’t burn a bridge with our president and I don’t want to work at our competitor (but I would like a larger salary). I am thinking that I prepare a vague list of company improvements (more communication between departments, improved employee morale, etc.) that I had planned to share during my performance review next month anyways? Not sure what to do. For what it’s worth, I’ve been told by other people with lots more experience than me how oddly our company management/operations are.

Yeah, don’t do that. First of all, Rebecca should be sticking to negotiations for herself, not pulling you in (and yes, I do think she might be trying to use you as leverage for herself). You don’t want someone else making statements about your willingness to stay on your behalf; you won’t have control over the messaging, and it could end up really hurting you (if, for example, Rebecca tells them you’re ready to leave). It will also look odd that Rebecca is having this conversation on your behalf. Second, asking for vague improvements like better morale is not the way to go — those aren’t easy changes, you’re not likely to get them this way, and you’ll end up looking naive for asking for them in a “this is what I need to stay” context.

Leave Rebecca and her timeline out of this. Do you want to leave? Do you want to stay? (It sounds like you want to stay, which would make this whole thing moot anyway.)

Handle this on your own, and let her handle her situation without making you part of it. You want to serve your own interests, not hers.

And be aware that there can be some real problems with counteroffers.

2. My boss is going to trash-talk me when I leave

I’m a young professional working at a startup organization that, to say the least, has its issues. Our two bosses are husband and wife (don’t even get me started), but the husband most often takes on the CEO role. He’s eccentric and opinionated, a terrible manager, and over-friendly with our small staff. But the worst thing about him: he talks about past employees in disparaging ways. A lot.

We had two employees quit over the summer, both of whom were close friends with our bosses. Just recently, I overheard a conversation in which my boss called them “ungrateful” for asking for higher salaries, and then disparaged them for quitting. Their first COO quit last year, and since then, I have heard my boss call him everything from a “f*cking idiot” to a “total a**hole” who stole from the company by asking for an “exorbitantly high” salary. The low salary is exactly why I’m quitting, as it’s not a livable wage and I can barely make ends meet while working there. So here’s my dilemma: how do you quit a job knowing full well that there’s a 99% chance the boss is going to talk badly behind your back about it? None of the previous employees ever gave notice (they just quit on the spot and walked out), so I’m nervous as to what my work environment will be like while I serve out those final two weeks. I’ve been a good worker, with no substantial issues during my time there, but I don’t think that will matter– my boss gets so defensive, he makes up issues that weren’t really there. (Thank god I’m leaving, right?) I’ve thought about doing the same, just quitting on the spot, but the notice is necessary for both professionalism reasons and because I’ve taken on lots of responsibilities and will have multiple ends to tie up before being able to move forward. I want to leave on a good note, but that almost seems impossible at this point.

My spouse suggested I offer to volunteer for the organization to soften the blow and not burn any bridges, but, honestly, I really just want to be able to focus on my new job, which is in a brand-new field for me and will require all of my time and attention. I’m worried that the act of quitting itself will initiate his smack-talking, potentially damaging my reputation with my coworkers and the influential people on the board.

Is there a way for me hedge this off, or is it just something I’ll have to deal with? I don’t anticipate needing him as a reference for any future positions, so does this really even matter at all? Thoughts? Strategies?

Yeah, don’t volunteer — make a clean break and devote yourself fully to your new job. New jobs are exhausting. You don’t need to be volunteering for a jerk on top of that. You are not obligated to volunteer or otherwise continue working just to leave a job without being trash-talked. You get to leave, whenever you want and without continuing to be tied to your old job, and having it be a clean break will be a lot better for your happiness. Why give that up to appease a jerk?

Here’s some advice on dealing with your manager if he reacts badly during your notice period.

And keep in mind that if your boss is known for trash-talking everyone who leaves, your coworkers and the board already know that.

3. My coworkers drink at lunch, so why can’t I smoke pot?

I work for a company in Oregon that specifically states in the employee handbook that no one is allowed to be under the influence of anything, including alcohol, at the workplace, yet the entire group except me all have a cocktail or two at lunch. Almost every lunch. Why then should I not be allowed to smoke some medical or even recreational cannabis and return to work? I find this arbitrary rule quite discriminatory and think it should be illegal if it isn’t. Even though Oregon and Colorado (where this company has offices) have legal medical and recreational cannabis, I was told I could be fired if there were ever a reason to test me for it. Is this even legal, as these coworkers are all under the influence upon returning to work, yet I am ostracized and forced to fear for my job if I partake in an equally legal substance even OFF the job?

Well, it’s actually not equally legal, because marijuana is still illegal under federal law, even where it’s legal under state law. (This is setting up a weird state/federal conflict, but the federal government can indeed arrest marijuana users even in states where it’s legal.)

That is incredibly stupid, but that is the current situation. So yes, your employer can treat marijuana differently than alcohol. The best thing you can do is to work to change federal law.

4. Employers calling my secondary phone number

I have a question about employers calling my secondary number. I filled out the basic contact information form and put my cell as the primary and my home phone as the secondary. I share the home phone with other people and I cannot always rely on them to give me messages ASAP.

The other day, my employer called my home phone to tell me when my orientation is be scheduled. I was not delivered the message until two days later and in addition they did not attempt to call me on my cell phone. This is very annoying because I marked my cell phone as the primary for a reason and my home phone as the secondary (I want to be called there second). This is the second employer who has done this and it just grinds my gears. How should I address this?

Stop listing your home phone number at all, and just list the cell. You have complete control over messages left on your cell, so there’s no reason you need to give a second phone number at all.

5. Putting MOOC certificates on a resume

I’d like to improve my skills and have been looking into MOOC platforms such as edX and Coursera. As you know, these are generally free but some also offer students the option to pay to receive a certificate once they pass their course. They claim that it improves job prospects and shows potential employers that you’re skilled and dedicated, but I’m wondering how accurate that is. Are certificates from online courses meaningful enough? Do they belong on a resume, and is it worth paying for one (other than for motivation)?

Eh. This can vary by field, but in most cases, certificates aren’t going to be hugely helpful. The skills you gain from the courses can be quite helpful, if you’re able to show real-world application of them, but the certificates themselves aren’t hugely impressive.

But again, some fields are exceptions to this, so this is one you’d want to ask someone in your specific field about.

weekend free-for-all – August 12-13, 2017

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.)

how can I get my employees to stop socializing in front of clients?

A reader writes:

Can you suggest a few phrases I can use to redirect my team during quieter periods of time when they all get chatting about their personal lives? I work in a veterinary office, and I’d like my team of client service representatives to be a bit more professional, especially when there are clients in the waiting room.

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:

  • My manager told me to take guests for dinner but not to pay for it with a corporate card
  • How can I get to know people in my new office?
  • Do I have to reply to recruiters’ emails?
  • Can I keep my current company’s name confidential on my resume?

open thread – August 11-12, 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 :)

our customers talk about our sizes, sending interview questions in advance, and more

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

1. Customers talk about our sizes

This question is for my coworker, Jess. We both work at a women’s plus-size clothing retailer (national chain) in the midwest. I do wear some clothes from here, but to most, I probably do not look like the average plus-size person. Jess is a little larger than myself. This is unfortunately relevant because customers try to relate to Jess in such ways like “Oh! You have a big butt you can help me [pick out something that would look good with my own big butt]” or “Oh, you get it with how big your hips are!” or the most common: “I’d rather you help me due to your size!” And recently there are new skinny jeans, which we are supposed to be promoting, and when Jess tells customers about them, they laugh at her for presumably suggesting that plus-size women can wear skinny jeans. They also have complained to her about other people who work here due to their size, such as Andrea, who is very slim and petite, and even our store manager, who wears some things from the brand but is more my size in that she doesn’t necessarily “pass” as a plus-size women.

Apparently these comments have happened before to coworkers who have since left and would more fit in to the “plus-size” image. I asked Jess if there was a certain demographic who give her comments like this since she said that she can tell who will say these things. She said it was mainly women in their 40s-50s.

I have not had any of these comments made to me. These are obviously putting a mental strain on Jess and making a thankless retail job even harder. I do not think she has spoken with the store manager, so I will today and our district manager is also visiting.

It sounds to me like the “I’d rather you help me due to your size!” comments capture what’s going on — that your customers feel particularly comfortable with Jess since she’s closer in size to them. My hunch is that the comments stem from the camaraderie and relief of shopping somewhere that actually caters to them, unlike a lot of other stores that ignore the fact that people come in a range of sizes. I don’t know that there’s anything she or the store could do to stop that without making customers feel unwelcome; it sounds like it may come with the territory, unfortunately.

But the store should give you all some guidance about how to handle customers who complain about smaller-sized women working there, even if it’s just to say that you all love fashion, regardless of size. (They should have better messaging than I do, but I’d imagine it would be something along those lines.)

2. Sending candidates the interview questions in advance

I work at a small non-profit with 10 staff members. We are about to hire five new employees. Our COO has insisted on doing all of the screening interviews herself even though she won’t be directly managing any of these new staff members (that’s another story). She’s been sending me candidates she likes to interview (I’m a director) and asking me to send them questions in advance. I’ve never been sent interview questions in advance and asked a few friends who have also never had this experience. Is this a standard practice I just haven’t come across? For me, it seems like a terrible way to get a good feel for someone.

I definitely wouldn’t send all your questions in advance, but doing it with with a few key questions can be a useful way to get more thoughtful answers — especially if you’re (a) interviewing relatively junior people who don’t have a lot of experience interviewing and will otherwise be scrambling to think of answers to “tell me about a time when…” questions on the spot or (b) interviewing senior people and want to see how they handle complicated questions that benefit from deeper advance thinking. Here’s a description of how I’ve done it in the past.

The key, though, is to really probe into whatever answers you receive to the sent-in-advance questions. You need to ask a bunch of follow-up questions (what was the biggest challenge with that? why did you approach it that way? did you worry about X? how did you handle Y? what would you do differently if you could do it again?) or otherwise you may just end up getting canned answers that won’t be very useful to you.

That said, though, my hunch from your letter is that your COO isn’t doing it this way.

3. Should my friend get a recommendation from the hiring manager’s lawn guy?

My friend is looking for a job at one particular company. He knows the hiring manager’s lawn guy, and the lawn guy has offered to give the manager my friend’s resume instead of my friend applying online. Is this weird? Should my friend take the lawn guy up on his offer?

Does he just cut his lawn, or is the relationship deeper than that? If he just cuts his lawn — and if the company where your friend is a applying isn’t a lawn care company or in a related industry — it’s not likely to be hugely helpful. And yes, possibly weird.

Caveat: There are some people who place a huge amount of weight on personal recommendations from people who aren’t particularly connected to the work they do and who aren’t in a position to evaluate the work of the person they’re recommending. The people in this group tend to place enormous emphasis on character references and less on evidence of work skills. If it turns out that the hiring manager is one of them, then who knows, maybe this could pay off. But in general, it sounds like too tenuous of a connection to use.

4. When exit interviews are shared staff-wide

My company has recently, in a bid for transparency, started to publish the results of exit interviews each quarter. That means they present pie charts of the reasons why people are leaving and graphs of people’s opinions of upper management. I don’t have a problem with those. But I do have a problem with their publishing quotes directly from the leaving employees. They do remove names, but we aren’t that large of a company and people tend to do very specific jobs, so it makes it fairly identifiable. I had a work friend leave the company recently and I knew right away what quotes were hers. Heck, every time we’ve had someone leave the department, I’ve been able to tell what quotes were theirs.

I am planning on leaving the company in the next month and I am considering if I decline an exit interview altogether, given this policy. I’d like to help the company; it is a nonprofit that does some good work, while also struggling to meet the needs of employees. I’d love to provide some feedback, but I don’t want my coworkers knowing exactly what I said. I’m not going to say anything bad, but I will say where the problems are in my experience.

What do you think about this approach to exit interviews? Am I crazy to feel a little annoyed about this? I would have no problem is a report was complied in HR and used there and by upper management, but the report is emailed to all staff. It is great fodder for speculation about who said what.

Yeah, I can see why you’re concerned. Their attempt at transparency is a good thing, but when you have a staff that’s on the smaller side, you’ve got to consider whether people will be able to stay anonymous.

Frankly, that’s a great thing to give feedback about at the exit interview! They may have no idea that it’s playing out that way. You could explain your concerns and that it’s been clear to you in the past who quotes had come from, and say that you’d like to give feedback yourself but that you’d want assurance that your quotes won’t be widely distributed if you do. It’s reasonable for them to share what you say with senior management, but it’s also reasonable for you to ask that they confine it that group. (It’s also reasonable for you to limit what you say if they won’t promise you that.)