can I show armpit hair at work?

A reader writes:

I have a strange question for you and your readers: how appropriate is body hair in professional offices?

I’m a woman in my 20s who prefers to keep my underarms unshaved, though they’re tidy and unobtrusive. (I have light hair, which makes it less noticeable.) In general, I think sleeveless blouses can be fine at many offices, but I’ve found myself balking at airing out my underarms in professional contexts and am not sure whether to avoid sleeveless tops forever or just get over it.

This isn’t an issue that often — I’m a freelance writer and work at home/in casual-dress environments 95% of the time. But every now and then I need to dress more professionally, and I’m wondering if I need to make it policy to keep my pits to myself?

(For the record, I wouldn’t spare it a second thought if a female coworker happened to have underarm hair that showed — but if a man at a nearby desk wore a shirt that showed his armpits, I’d find it unpleasant. Not sure what to do with that distinction. Surely there’s a difference between tidy office pits that are normally fine to wear to work — unlike sleeveless men’s shirts — and “dude at beach” hair??? Or am I doomed to cardigans anytime I’m in a business casual workspace?)

I have to confess that I’m squicked out by armpits in general — men’s and women’s — and if it were up to me, no armpits would ever be on display anywhere and sleeveless tops would be abolished. I am strongly pro-sleeve for all, and so I’m not a reliable source for an answer to this.

But I will try to put my bias aside and answer this.

We do have different standards for men and women’s armpits at work. Men generally can’t wear sleeveless tops to work in most office environments at all, so their armpit hair never really comes up as a question. But in many/most offices, it’s fine for women to wear sleeveless tops, and you could argue that if sleeveless tops are okay, then any resulting visible armpit hair is no one’s business.

On the other hand, while there are big regional and cultural differences on this, there are certainly office environments where wearing a skirt that exposed obviously hairy legs would be Not Done. It’s not necessarily that it would result in a formal talking-to, but in some places it would be a thing that was noticed and made people think you were less than professionally groomed. Which is stupid and unfair, but would definitely be a thing in some — not all — offices. (I think this is changing though!)

My guess is that armpit hair falls along the same lines: fine in some offices, not fine in others. And so you’d have to know the culture you’re working in, and how much you care about complying with that culture’s norms and expectations.

employee overstepped with a coworker’s tragedy, boss told me to change my ringtone, and more

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

1. My employee alienated a coworker with her opinions about his personal tragedy

I’m a relatively new manager (six months in) and this is my first management job. I’m still getting the hang of things. My boss and everyone above him don’t work in this branch. I am wondering when a manager should get involved in a personal dispute between two employees that has nothing to do with work.

“Robb” is the relative of someone who was murdered. He changed after it. He lives alone, doesn’t celebrate holidays or things, and wants to go through the motions and be left alone. He has been vocal in his personal (not work) life about there being no justice for victims. “Arya” is a newer employee. I don’t know how she found out about Robb because he doesn’t talk about it at work, but she thinks Robb needs to forgive the perpetrator (who got life with no parole) and fight for prisoner rights to fix the prison system, and she told him this a few times. Robb now avoids Arya as much as possible (and she hasn’t made any further comment). Other employees are enabling Robb by dealing with Arya on his behalf.

My conundrum is that all the work is getting done, Robb has not been hostile to Arya (nor has anyone else) and he just avoids her, and no one has complained or brought forward concerns about anything. As a manager, should I be dealing with Robb’s situation or should I leave this alone because it a personal conflict?

Don’t fall into the trap of thinking that personal conflicts are off-limits to you as a manager. If they impact your employees’ work, work environment, or overall satisfaction at work, you can get involved.

If you haven’t already, you should tell Arya clearly and sternly that her comments to Robb were unacceptable and that in the future she needs to stay out of other people’s highly sensitive personal situations. You should also let Robb know that you’ve done that, and that you’re sorry he was subjected to that.

I don’t know how big a deal it is that other people have to deal with Arya on his behalf, and that’s very relevant here. If it’s not very frequent and if it’s not disrupting other people’s work, I’d let this go for a while so that Robb can get some space from her. Even if it is frequent, if you can change the workflow to keep them apart without compromising what you need each of them to be producing (and without overloading anyone else), that might be the smartest path. If that’s not possible, then yeah, at some point you’ll need to talk to Robb and find out what he’ll need to be able to work with Arya again. But if you can give him the grace of some space from her now, that would be a kindness.

2. My boss asked me to change my ringtone

Is it worth it to try to push back when you’re the only one in an office of 10 people asked by your manager to change the ringtone on your personal cell phone? My standard one (that’s the one when anyone calls, but I have distinctive ringtones for certain folks) is the theme from the Beverly Hills Cop movies, and I keep my volume at about 20-25%. Everyone else in the office has their ringtones on full blast. I know because I hear them. One is a particularly shrill old-style telephone ring, and another is the bugle call “Release the Hounds” from a fox hunt.

In any case, mine’s not bad, and it’s not loud, but I’m the only one asked to change it. Is it worth pushing back on?

I mean, I think everyone in your office should be keeping their phones on vibrate; this sounds like way too much jarring noise.

But I don’t think you can push back on this. Your manager has told you that she finds yours in particular to be disruptive (and maybe others have told her that too), and that warrants changing it. Or if you feel strongly about keeping it, then keep your phone on vibrate when you’re at work.

(And actually, even if this request had come from a generally reasonable peer, rather than your manager, I’d say the same thing. It can be hard to work in an office full of other people’s noises, and if someone tells you you’re making a noise that’s particularly driving them round a bend, it’s kind to try to accommodate them if you can do so without major inconvenience. Even if you feel like other people are just as bad!)

3. How can I explain a medical absence without sharing the details?

I am a 30-year old woman working in my first professional role following graduate school. The team I work on is small (eight people) and fairly tight-knit. In two weeks, I am going to be missing a few days of work to have a tubal ligation. This surgery is completely elective and something my husband and I have been discussing for a long time. I’m actually really excited about it.

My issue is that I’m not sure how much I will need to tell my team. As a woman who has never had and does not want children, I am used to getting a lot of unwanted commentary from friends, family and – most annoyingly – strangers about the issue. I know that I’m making the right choice for myself, and I don’t want to open myself up to lectures or judgment from well-meaning coworkers with different value systems.

How do I explain that I will be taking a few days off to recover, without getting into the specifics? I have disclosed the reason for my surgery to my manager, who is very supportive. I’m just not comfortable going into great detail to the rest of the team, and I know they will be curious and ask questions.

You don’t need to tell them anything! Or at least nothing beyond “I’ll be out for a few days” or, if you want, “I’m just having a medical procedure — it’s nothing to worry about.” The idea here isn’t to hide the details out of shame or stigma; the idea is that this is the appropriate language for any medical procedure, because none of them are your coworkers’ business! It’s totally normal not to divulge medical details at work. (The same was true with your boss, actually — you weren’t obligated to share the details with her either, unless you wanted to.)

4. My job doesn’t provide safe parking

I currently have a second job at a restaurant with not a whole lot of parking. On weekend nights, in order to free up more parking for customers, they force us to park in a strip mall parking lot (if we don’t park there, we can be sent home for the night or fired). This parking lot is across a very busy road, past a sketchy gas station, and past a very dark store front. I am a tiny young woman and am forced to walk alone back to my car, usually between 11 p.m. and midnight. I am always in my restaurant uniform and almost always carrying nearly $100 in cash. We have asked several times for a remedy to this situation, and their best answer was that they would drive us to our cars at the end of the night. They’re promised this four or five times, but it still hasn’t happened. In fact, one of our managers has a suspended license so, if he’s closing, it isn’t even possible! They’ve also offered to go get my car for me, which I politely declined because I don’t want anyone else driving my car, god forbid they get in an accident.

I know that employers aren’t technically required to provide parking, but the place they require us to park is owned by other businesses! There is a large supermarket and probably eight other smaller stores in the strip mall and we are effectively stealing their parking. Are they within their bounds legally? Do we have any avenue for action here, or do we just have to suck it up?

They are indeed within their bounds legally. There’s no legal requirement that an employer provide parking to employees. If the lot where they’re telling you to park is marked for those other businesses’ customers, you can point that out, but then they might just shrug and tell you to take public transportation.

Your best bet is probably to push for a solution with a group of your coworkers, which will make you harder to ignore. Insist on the rides-to-cars plan happening, and push for a work-around on the nights the manager with the suspended license is working. Or you could ask if they’d pay for a group cab for you all to that parking lot, but who knows if they’d be willing to do it.

If they won’t budge, or if they agree and then flounder when it comes to actually implementing what they agree to, then at that point you’d need to decide whether you want to stay there, knowing that this job doesn’t come with safe parking, or if you’d rather leave. (Or a third option — unionize and make parking part of the negotiations! But that may be more invested than you want to get.)

5. Should I do more to show I want a job at a particular company?

I applied to a position at my alma mater which I didn’t get because they felt I was overqualified. But they said they were impressed with me and would be in touch if a more suitable position opened up. They reached out to me about another position 5 months later but I didn’t get that job either because I didn’t have experience in one area they felt was relevant for the job.

A few of my friends think I should do more to get them to hire me: one suggested going there and having a conversation with the HR manager about how unsatisfied I am with my current job and how I really want to work there. Another suggested applying to other positions even when I don’t have all the qualifications just to show how badly I want to work there. My instincts say that would hurt rather than help my chances because they have already stated in both interviews that they like me and that it’s more a matter of finding the right fit than anything else. Should I do more to show I really want to work there?

Listen to your instincts here, not to your friends. This employer knows that you’re interested because you’ve applied for two jobs with them. The reason they’re not hiring you isn’t that you don’t seem insufficiently interested; it’s been about your qualifications not being the right match both times. So finding ways to impress upon them how very interested you are isn’t the right path here (and rarely is, after a certain baseline level of interest has been expressed).

Definitely stay away from that advice to tell the HR manager how unhappy you are with your current job (after showing up in person, no less!). That’s not why employers hire people. The way to get hired there is going to be the same as it is for most jobs: Be a very strong match with what they’re looking for, and be able to convey that in your resume, cover letter, and interviews. That’s a boring answer so sometimes people (like your friends) go looking for alternative paths, but those alternate paths are often off-putting (as “show up in person and explain you hate your current job” definitely would be).

can I show annoyance with a terrible job offer that I don’t plan to take?

A reader writes:

Is there ever a productive or reasonable way to express annoyance at a job offer you don’t intend to accept?

I recently interviewed with a company for what sounded like a lower-mid-level position. The title, described duties, and reporting structure all indicated a position that would be the next step up from what I currently do. I’ll admit, some of the questions I was asked in the interview process were fairly low-level, but the actual duties of the job were complex enough that I chalked the low-level questions to a poor talent pool in our area combined with a new interviewer.

I went through a phone interview, took a full day off for an in-person interview, which was canceled at the last minute, and then took a morning off for the rescheduled interview, after which I was offered the job and told the HR department would be calling me to discuss terms. I was very curious at that point to hear the offer. Like I said, everything about the job was pointing to it being a higher level than I’m currently working, but because of some of their questions, I was prepared for the offer to be more of a lateral move.

HR called, and … their range for the position was really low. It was low enough that I don’t know of anybody in our industry (and I know folks who are working call centers!) who would be tempted to accept. I felt like they had wasted a day and a half of my time and PTO when any reasonable hiring manager and HR department would have known that what they were offering was unlikely to be commensurate with specialized experience (and this was a large company with a formal HR department, not a mom-and-pop who maybe didn’t know better).

Would there have been any way to express my frustration and annoyance at their waste of my time that would have done any good? I had a similar situation a few months ago, where the company handled it in the exact opposite way. I applied to a position that seemed like a lateral move, and the hiring manager emailed me to say that their budget was tight and that, based on my resume, they suspected I wouldn’t be interested in moving forward. They were up-front that the position pays X and said to let them know if I’d still like to schedule an interview. I could not have been more impressed with their respect for my time (and their own!), and I almost wanted to point out the contrast to the HR person at the more recent company. Would that have been warranted? Would any expression of frustration have been?

What I actually ended up doing was telling the HR person that I would need double what they were offering to even consider the role and that it didn’t sound like it made sense for us to continue the discussion. The hiring manager ended up trying to get them to expand the salary rage to at least come cose to what I wanted, because my skillset was exactly what she was looking for, but HR wouldn’t budge, so that was the end of that. But I still wonder if I could have given some indication of how much I felt they had wasted my time when they could have been upfront about the salary range.

Yeah, I can see why you were really annoyed by that. When an employer knows that they’re offering a salary that might be low, or when they have reason to think the person they’re interviewing will find it low (like if the person is coming from a notoriously higher-paying industry), it’s common sense and courteous to talk about it early on the process, so that they don’t waste anyone’s time, including their own.

As for whether you can point that out to them … You actually kind of did, just without spelling out your irritation. “I would need double what you’re offering to even consider the role” pretty clearly says “wow, you are way off what I was expecting.”

But there’s room to say a little more if you want, too. For example, upon hearing the salary offer: “Oh! … (uncomfortable silence) … That is significantly lower than what I’d expect for a role like this one. Wow. I have to be honest, I wouldn’t have invested this amount of time in your process if I’d realized from the beginning that the salary was so far below the market rate.”

That’s blunt, but it’s reasonable. You don’t say it in an angry tone, just a surprised and concerned one.

Another version, for use later on, not on the spot: “Can I pass along some feedback that I think might help with your process? The salary you’re offering is so far below market rate that I really wish I’d known about it from the start, before I used up PTO from my current job to come interview. I think so many candidates will be taken aback by it that you’ll save a lot of time — yours and theirs — if you let people know your range up-front.”

This, of course, is one of many ways that our culture’s weird coyness around salary hurts people. They wasted your time and energy, and they wasted their own too. No one was served by them springing that information on you at the end of the process.

am I being ageist toward my older employee?

A reader writes:

I work at a job where I manage several remote contract workers. It’s my first time managing this many people and I really enjoy it. However, I have one person who I get periodically frustrated with, and she happens to be the oldest person I manage. She’s probably at least in her 60s, if I had to guess.

She does pretty good work when I push her, but it doesn’t come easily. I have to ask her repeatedly to follow instructions that seem to come a lot easier to my other employees. The job involves writing, and she complains that she can’t come up with ideas to write about, but when I send out content ideas to all my writers she never takes any of them.

With any other writer I wouldn’t let this slide, but there are two factors keeping me from parting ways with this one: One, every time I’ve express disappointment in her work, she’s told me pretty dire things like “I’m desperate for this job” and “This is my only source of income.” One time, payment was a little late and she said that if she wasn’t paid soon, she wouldn’t have any money in her account (I used to be a freelancer so I know the struggle, but I also had more than one gig). And making all of this worse, she recently experienced a really sudden death of a close family member. I can’t hear these things and not be affected by it.

Second, I worry that some of my frustrations have to do with ageism. The fact is that my other younger writers (some are millennial aged, like I am, while others are in their 40s) are more responsive via email, better at using digital tools, and just better at writing for the internet. They are more nimble and versatile, and they take direction well. With this other writer, I feel like everything comes so much harder, but I wonder if it’s because the other writers and I are at the same pace because we are closer in age, and that I just need to be more patient.

This employee is really sweet, and like I said, she can do good work sometimes. But I get really frustrated and I feel like if things got worse with her performance, I’d never be able to sever ties because I’d feel too bad.

How should I manage this employee without letting my emotions or ageism get in the way? Help!

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

my boss won’t stop posting fake news and false memes on our company Facebook

A reader writes:

I work for a small charity and report directly to our founder/president. We have a contractor for our Twitter and Instagram accounts, but our president refuses to hand over our Facebook pages to anyone.

Lately, he’s started posting fake news/memes. The memes are “in line” with our mission in that our mission is around social justice, but they’re wrong. For example, we were especially loathed for sharing that incorrect meme saying something like more kids have died in school shootings than in the Iraq war, which is absurdly wrong.

We receive dozens of emails and our reviews plummet every time he does this. I’ve brought it up to him five times. The first two times, he “explained” that the news/memes are “partially” true and that he doesn’t delete them because it increases engagement and exposure, and the last three times I received no response at all. (My only way of communicating with him is through email, so I document everything because it’s very easy for him to ignore me.) The worst part is that our organization takes a firm stance AGAINST fake news.

I’m in charge of answering our email, so I’m the one who has to deal with these people who are (justifiably) angry about the misinformation we spread. I forward them all to my boss so he knows the impact of his posts and then try my best to smooth things over with the emailer. When my boss sometimes replies to them, his response is always essentially that he’s been in this business for decades and knows better than everyone else.

We’ve had our Facebook Ads account revoked, lost a full star on our reviews (which should have been almost impossible with the number of five-star reviews we’ve received over the years), people are telling their friends that we’re frauds, and donations have almost ceased. I’m embarrassed to be working in what used to be a coveted position in a highly-regarded charity. I’ve started looking for other jobs, but there are few prospects right now. Is there anything I can do to save us in the meantime?

I wrote back to this letter-writer and asked what’s up with email being the only communication method between her and her boss, because that’s quite odd:

I’ve worked here for a year, and my boss has only physically been in the office for maybe six weeks of that time. He won’t talk on the phone, I don’t even know his actual number (he gives out various ones depending on who he’s talking to), he refuses to buy me a work phone (so I have to give out my personal number to people who sell it), and he won’t answer any contact through unofficial means like Facebook — unless the person is important, of course. The ONLY way he will contact me is through email. If I had to hazard a guess, I’d say it’s because it’s really easy to just not acknowledge an email.

I actually think you’ve got bigger problems than your fake-news-loving boss. An organization president who only communicate with his staff through email is … not great.

I mean, if you were a huge organization and you were many layers of management beneath him, maybe. But you said it’s a small organization, so there’s no excuse for this other than that he’s really terrible at managing people and/or is purposely avoiding accountability for his decisions and/or both. I’m guessing both.

You say the charity is highly regarded, so I’m curious if the founder/president has always been this way, or if something has changed in recent times. For example, maybe there used to a be a competent second-in-command who reined him in but who’s no longer there, or maybe he’s just become increasingly checked out as time has gone on. Or maybe he’s always been like this, but the rest of the staff has been strong enough to compensate. Or maybe he’s truly great at some other aspect of the job, and just really bad at the parts described here, who knows.

But please know that the part of this where he’s incommunicado is really strange.

In any case, as for what you can do about it … I’m not hopeful that you can change it, because you’ve already taken the obvious steps and they haven’t worked.

In general in a situation like this, you’d want to do the following, in roughly this order:

* Talk to the person and explain in very clear, concrete terms the harm the behavior is causing — in this case, that your reviews are plummeting, your membership is angry and calling you frauds, your Facebook Ads account has been revoked, and donations have almost ceased (!). That last one is usually pretty hard to ignore, and the fact that hasn’t mattered to him is a particularly strong point in the “all is not well” here column.

* Have someone senior to you and with more standing/influence raise the issue and repeat your points.

* If the problem continues after that, decide how strongly you feel about it and how much capital you’re willing to invest in pushing back. If the answer is “lots,” then at that point you can do things like organize your coworkers to push back as a group (which can be harder to ignore and can give you some cover).

Ultimately, though, sometimes the leadership of an organization will make terrible decisions and be impervious to reasoned feedback about it. When that happens, generally you need to accept that they’ve made their decision and you need need to make yours (in other words, accept that it’s not likely to change and decide how bothered are you about it, and choose whether to stay or go accordingly).

But this guy is watching donations dry up and doesn’t care. Assuming you’ve made sure he knows the connection between his memes and the decrease in revenue, this isn’t a “try to make him see reason” situation. It’s a “exit the ship as quickly as you can” situation.

my boss keeps trying to use my car, coworker says I need a makeover, and more

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

1. My boss, who I live with, keeps trying to use my company car

When I interviewed for a position, I was told that I would be given a car and lodging while working, since I was relocating for a short while (I’m freelance). In writing, my boss said I would have “transportation” provided. When I arrived in the state and tried to rent a car and send an expense report to cover it, they said they wanted me to drive their personal car. (The car belongs to the company owner. This is a very small company with two full-time employees — me and my local boss, both of us answering to the main boss, who lives elsewhere). So fine, I used their car — but with that came all these stipulations not outlined before.

My local boss — who lives with me in this provided home, which is another can of worms — has commented several times on how I should use the car, and how I shouldn’t be using it for personal reasons. Since this local boss wasn’t part of my contract negotiations — we were hired together — I said that this was part of my contract and that it was my car, and as such I could do what I wanted with it. I have treated the car as a rental, since that is what I had originally intended to get and it was their decision for me to use their personal car.

In addition, my boss’ boss — the one who owns the car — told my local boss she could take the car “any time” that she wanted. As a result, my local boss has come to me in the past and announced she is taking my car.

Then my boss was needling so often into my car use that I had to tell her once to back off. She then started asking prying questions into my contract and got very upset about some of the intricacies, saying her contract promised that she would be paid more than me and she was worried she wasn’t getting paid enough and that somehow that was my fault. I was floored and just said that if she had an issue with her contract to talk to the main boss; it had nothing to do with me. Also, it felt kind of weird to have her commenting on my pay like that; she kept asking me how much I made while saying “I am your boss!” to intimidate me into answering. I felt pretty attacked and was pretty upset by the whole thing. What’s going on here with the boundaries? How much of this situation is out of line? I’ve been dealing with it for so long I can’t tell up from down.

Your boss is definitely out of line, but the entire thing is weird — particularly the part about you two living together, which you didn’t even get into here, and which actually seems like a bigger, weirder deal.

You sometimes see these sorts of blurred boundaries with three-person companies, but your boss in particular sounds awfully unprofessional. The fact that this whole situation is temporary is a good thing. If they try to extend it, I’d be really wary unless you’re getting extraordinarily good professional benefits out of this somehow.

2. Should I tell my contact his email address is unprofessional?

I recently met someone who used to work at the same organization I did (we didn’t overlap) who is on a job search. We have some openings at my company that seemed like a good fit with his background, so I encouraged him to apply and asked him to send a copy of his resume to me.

The resume looked good, except his email address really stuck out. Instead of the usual FirstNameLastName@whatever.com, his email address was the title of a well-known children’s book and his initials, plus it was on an email server that seems pretty antiquated (not AOL, but close).

Do you think I should respond to him and say, hey, by the way, your email is really jarring in an otherwise professional resume? And the choice of email server makes you look a little out of touch, especially for positions that require some media savvy like the one he was applying for?

He’s much older than I am (an in, received a degree just a few years after I was born!) so it feels really weird to point something like this out, but I know if I were reviewing this resume for hiring, the email would seem weird to me.

I don’t think this is so egregious that you need to mention it. If he’s an otherwise strong candidate, hiring managers aren’t likely to reject him for having WindInTheWillows-AG@whatever.com as his email address. It’s the kind of thing where they might think, “huh, that’s a little unusual,” but no reasonable hiring manager is going to be so put off by that that they take him out of the running.

The antiquated domain thing … again, no sane employer will reject him because of that, but you’re right that it can contribute to an overall impression (i.e., depending on what the domain is, it could make him not savvy about technology). I think it depends on what his field is though, as well as how well you know him. If he’s in a field where being tech-forward matters and you were close, I could see saying, “Hey, I know this is weird, but using a compuserve email address on your resume might look a little dated/behind-the-times on tech. It’s easy to set up Gmail or a personal domain if you want to do that.” But it doesn’t sound like you’re particularly close, so I’d leave it alone, especially since he hasn’t asked for feedback on his resume and it doesn’t rise to the level of “embarrassing error that must be corrected.”

3. Interviewing when you like your current job but would leave for oodles of money

I was contacted by a headhunter about a job. I was about to tell them I was not interested, I am happy with my current employer, when they told me about the compensation package. I am well paid in my current job. The new company is offering enough money that I could pay off my mortgage in the next five years (instead of 25 years)! Even if conditions are toxic, for that kind of money, I would take this job if offered.

I have a phone screen scheduled for later this week. What do I say when they ask why I’m leaving my current job? New challenges? An opportunity to work for a market leader? These answers sound so generic to me, but I can’t really say the compensation is the reason, can I? Or is there a tactful way to say that the compensation is the reason?

Don’t say the money is the reason; employers never love that, even though we do in fact work for money. Instead, say something like, “I’m happy in my current job and wasn’t actively looking, but when your recruiter contacted me about this position, I was really intrigued by the role because of ____.” (And then fill in with something that plausibly appeals to you about the work you’d be doing.)

4. My coworker keeps telling me I need a makeover

I have a coworker (I work in retail) who constantly makes comments about my hair — that I dont “style” it (I keep it in a ponytail at work so it doesn’t get in my way when I am working). I don’t wear makeup to work either, and she constantly makes comments on that, saying things like “you should put makeup on.” She even told me in a tone that was not very nice that one day she needs to take me to get a makeover. She even said a few times that I need a makeover in a way that was not polite at all. I kept quiet for now because I don’t know what to do or say, plus I don’t want to cause problems at my job. What should I do or say to her?

Your coworker is being incredibly rude. The next time she comments on your appearance, try saying, “I’m fine with my hair and makeup the way it is. Please stop commenting on it.” Then, if it continues: “I’ve asked you to stop commenting on my hair and makeup. It’s really bizarre that you keep doing it.”

5. My manager won’t tell me why I can’t get promoted

I’ve been at my company for almost 10 years now and have performed really well 90% of the time. I’m in sales and have had only one bad year, which was out of my control. I’m never the star, but I’m steadily successful and have a good reputation.

My problem is that I’ve been passed over for several promotions. I’m not the type to think that everyone above me is incompetent (there are a few bad apples) but rather that I rightly deserve to be at that level too. I’m friends with my manager, but he will just not tell me why I’m not getting promoted. He will say nothing but good things about me to my face and tell me that I’m doing a great job, etc. However, when I press him for feedback, he can’t be honest. I really like my company but I’m clearly not on the fast track. People far junior to me are already being groomed to advance ahead of me. Should I get my head out of the sand and realize that this is as far as I go here? How do I get honest feedback so I can either improve, decide to be happy where I am, or find a new job?

Yeah, your manager is doing you no favors by sugarcoating whatever’s going on. You could try saying to him, “I appreciate that you praise my work, but what would be the most helpful to me is to understand specifically what you need to see from me in order to consider me for a promotion.”

But if he’s not willing or able to give you useful feedback, then yes, you probably need to accept that this may be as far as you’ll ever go there, for whatever reason, and that you’d need to go elsewhere if you want more responsibility.

get a signed copy of the new Ask a Manager book

Thinking of getting the new Ask a Manager book, Ask a Manager: How to Navigate Clueless Colleagues, Lunch-Stealing Bosses, and the Rest of Your Life at Work?

If you pre-order now, you can sign up for a free signed bookplate here. (Details are at the link, but basically you provide proof of purchase and we’ll mail you a signed bookplate.)

This offer is only available for pre-orders, so it expires on April 30 (but works if you pre-ordered before today too).

The book comes out on May 1 (two weeks from tomorrow). It tackles 200 difficult conversations you might need to have during your career, focusing especially on the awkward and cringey conversations that people dread the most – like telling your boss you made a major mistake or asking your coworker to stop dumping work on you. It’s nearly all new content.

What people are saying

“The author’s friendly, warm, no-nonsense writing is a pleasure to read, and her advice can be widely applied to relationships in all areas of readers’ lives. Ideal for anyone new to the job market or new to management, or anyone hoping to improve their work experience.”
Library Journal, (Starred) Review

“A must-read for anyone who works…[Green’s] advice boils down to the idea that you should be professional (even when others are not) and that communicating in a straightforward manner with candor and kindness will get you far, no matter where you work.”
Booklist, (Starred) Review

“I am a HUGE fan of Alison Green’s Ask a Manager column. I never miss it and always want more. This book is even better. It teaches us how to deal with many of the most vexing big and little problems in our workplaces—and to do so with grace, confidence, and a sense of humor.”
—Robert Sutton, Stanford professor and author of The No Asshole Rule and The Asshole Survival Guide

Order your copy now!

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the power dynamics in job interviews will mess you up

One of the most frequent themes in my inbox in the decade I’ve been writing Ask a Manager has been rude and power-tripping behavior from prospective employers during the interview process. And in letter after letter, people have written about feeling obligated to suck it up and deal with it because they think their interviewers hold all the cards.

I wrote a column for Slate that explores the weird power dynamics of job interviews — and how they can lead job seekers to make bad decisions for themselves. (And it includes some highlights from memorable letters from here.) You can read it here.

how can I stop people from stealing my food in the office fridge?

A reader writes:

I have a question about how best to call out and address food theft and bad kitchen behavior. Most of our staff is very respectful and we have systems in place to keep our kitchens clean. But there are a few bad actors, and their behavior is getting worse.

There are some communal dishes in the kitchens, but a few of us bring in our own mugs. I’ve occasionally had my mug “borrowed” if I’ve left it too long in the kitchen after cleaning it, which for the most part is fine if they clean it and put it back. But a few weeks ago I found my mug in the kitchen covered with oatmeal. There was literally a thick sheet of oatmeal on the inside, outside, and on the handle — it looked like it had been dunked in a vat of oatmeal. It wasn’t even rinsed. Whoever had made the oatmeal had left it out to dry into concrete on my mug.

What’s more annoying is that I’ve had quite a bit of food and drinks stolen too. A few sodas I could write off as harmless (or an accident). But it’s happening more frequently. Just a little while ago I had an entire box of snacks stolen out of the fridge. And then just yesterday, I came into work and found that someone had opened up a Ziploc that had my breakfast in it and helped themselves to some of it. It’s just becoming brazenly rude at this point.

Do you have any advice about what to do? I have absolutely no idea who it is. For a while I was resigned to venting to a few friends and writing it off, but because the behavior is getting worse. (Seriously, who just starts opening up other people’s containers and helping themselves to half of it?) I want to proactively try to call out the behavior and address it. Post-It notes or a message in the general office Slack are tempting. But I don’t want to be the kitchen police, and I don’t want to sour an otherwise good office/kitchen culture. What’s a productive way to handle a few bad apples in the kitchen?

This is a problem that plagues offices everywhere and, as far as I can tell, no one has ever found a fully effective solution to it. (Witness, for example, the amazing viral Twitter thread a few weeks ago about an investigation into some stolen shrimp fried rice.)

There are a couple of things that work … sometimes. They won’t be effective in all cases, but they’re worth a shot:

* Label your food with your name. Some office food thieves will be deterred by this — maybe because when food is unlabeled, it’s easier for them to believe it’s somehow communal (even if that stretches credulity), or maybe because it’s easier for them to steal when their victim is Unknown Coworker rather than Jane, Who Always Says Hi To Me. On the other hand, particularly sociopathic thieves won’t care. But hey, at least by trying this, you’ll find out which type you’re dealing with.

* Call out the theft publicly. This won’t be appropriate in every office, but if your team is small enough, in some offices you could send an email team-wide saying, “I had a box of mangosteens in the fridge that has gone missing. Please let me know if you know its whereabouts.” Again, sociopaths won’t care (and who knows, might even get a thrill), but your more run-of-the-mill food thieves may feel guilty and be less likely to do it again when they’re forced to see that their pillaging wasn’t a victimless crime.

(You can also get more creative. This person put her food in a thermos and labeled it “breast milk.” People stayed away.)

As for the mug … if you leave it in the kitchen, some people will assume it’s for communal use, since some offices do provide mugs and other dishes. Your oatmeal-eating colleague is gross (how and why was the outside of the mug caked with oatmeal??), but your solution there is just not to leave it in the kitchen (or just to use mugs you’re not attached to, and where you won’t care as much if they’re desecrated with oatmeal).

Truly, though, as long as offices have communal kitchens, people will make their bad manners known there.

misbehaving coworker doesn’t know I’m about to be his boss, communal microwave is on my desk, and more

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

1. A misbehaving coworker doesn’t know I’m about to become his boss

I’m in a tricky spot — I was recently granted a promotion that will put me in charge of my current team. Because we have a big project launching a month from now, my boss has concluded that it’s best to keep everyone focused, and not announce the restructuring (and my new role) until after this project wraps. The issue is that I already have tension with and big concerns about one coworker who will report to me (let’s call him Jeff), and the situation is rapidly getting worse.

I don’t think it’s a personal beef with me: Jeff has made some big missteps in the past year and received a lot of criticism for it, so I suspect he’s just feeling defensive and disengaged. But in recent meetings he’s been combative and curt with me, and another coworker recently divulged that he’s taking regular time out of the office to interview at other companies, offloading major components of his job onto an unqualified freelancer, and hiding out in conference rooms where he watches baseball games on his laptop instead of working.

Jeff is clearly looking for an exit, but in the meantime, his behavior is impacting our team and he’s not taking pains to hide it from me because he doesn’t know I’ll soon be his manager. How can I intervene right now, seeing as the promotion won’t be public for another month?

You probably can’t. You just don’t have standing or authority to do anything about it right now. However, you can talk to your boss about the situation so that he’s in the loop, and to ensure that he’ll have your back in dealing with the situation right out of the gate when you your promotion takes effect.

For now, you’re getting the benefit of getting a really clear look at a problem you’ll have to deal with soon though, and it sounds like you’re seeing more of it than you’d see if Jeff knew you were soon to be his boss. You’re not obligated to tip him off in order to protect him from himself (especially since that would mean divulging information you’re not authorized to divulge yet). And it might actually be useful that when you do become his boss, he’ll realize that you know the situation; that could make it easier to have a candid “you’ve got to cut this out” conversation with him.

(And meanwhile, you can hope that one of those interviews turns into a job offer, which sounds like it would be the best thing for everyone.)

2. My coworker has none of the skills she said she had

My manager recently hired a woman, I’ll call her Sue, as a programmer in our IT department. Problem is Sue knows nothing about programming, let alone the specific languages she said she knew. So, all day long she asks for help on everything. My other coworker helped a lot at first, even though we knew she was totally lost — we thought maybe she could pick it up. But Sue retains nothing, asks the same questions over and over, and can do nothing on her own. When we get very busy, this will be a problem, as we can’t do her work and ours. Unfortunately, my manager — as she hired Sue — seems to be reluctant to face the fact Sue is incompetent, though we have told her, gently, that is the case. Recently, I told Sue that it was her project and I was not going to write it for her, so now she badgers my colleague. I used to love this job, but having Sue around just gets me aggravated. Any suggestions?

This is your manager’s problem, so let it be your manager’s problem. It has to be that way because she’s the only one who has the authority and tools to actually deal with the situation.

So when Sue asks you for help, tell her that you’re sorry but you’re busy and can’t help, and suggest that she talk to your manager if she’s stuck. Make “this is not my problem” your own internal mantra in your head, because it’s not — and if you’re tempted to step in and try to help the situation, you’ll make it easier for your manager to avoid dealing with it. (You might point that out to your coworker as well and suggest she use the same approach.)

3. Is it wrong for me to settle for a while?

I hear a lot about how people want to push the envelope when it comes to work, always moving upwards, looking for bigger, better paychecks and offices. And while those things are definitely nice, I wondered if sometimes it’s okay to just, settle for a while?

I’ve spent the last 10 years working through high-stress jobs, first in a management position I was not prepared to handle, then an incredibly toxic environment, then a year of temp jobs after the toxic one fired me. My job now is very low-key, low-stress, makes use of my talents, and I very much like the people I work with.

Everyone around me, though, keeps asking when I’ll move on, look for something better. And while I’d love to get something better paying, this covers my bills plus a little, and I feel like it’s doing my mental state a world of good and I know there is room for some elevation within it. I’m not saying I don’t have ambitions, but right now I’d just like a little quiet. Is that wrong?

No! You get to do this however you want. You have a job you like that, you’re earning enough money (it sounds like), and there’s no reason you need to do this differently just because other people have a different idea of what you should want.

The one thing I’d say is to be thoughtful about how this might impact things you want to do in the future (for example, if you dropped out of a field you think you’ll want to go back to eventually, it would be smart to figure out what, if anything, you need to do to ensure that path is still there when you want it). But you sound happy with your situation, and that’s enough.

When people ask you when you’ll look for something better, you could simply say, “I’m actually really happy with this right now.”

4. There’s a communal microwave at my desk

I have recently taken a new position. The desk that I am assigned has been empty and the other folks in the area have placed a communal microwave at the desk. Having the shared microwave on my desk will drive me nuts with the food spills and smells as well as having people hovering at my desk. Do I have the right to ask that it be moved and how do I go about it?

Good lord, yes. It’s actually on your desk? It’s more than reasonable to say, “Now that I’m using this desk, it’s not really working to keep the microwave here. Is there another spot it can go in?” If you get any push-back, explain that the smell and people using it are too distracting while you work. (And if anyone argues with that, you can say, “It really does distract me, but if you don’t think it’s a big deal, can we move it to your desk?”)

5. I’m annoyed at how my boss handled my dress code violation

I’ve been at my company for almost three years now, two at my current office location. We have company-wide policies, but my VP is a little lax in enforcing things. It’s a bank and there’s a dress that goes with that.

Something I enjoy doing after work is running. Another coworker runs as well, and 5-10 minutes before the work day is over, if there aren’t any customers, he’ll duck out to the bathroom and change into his running gear. I’ve also started doing this as well. I don’t do this every day, but two or three times a week I’ll grab my gym bag and change. I’ve been doing this for the past three months.

Today I did the same: about five or 10 minutes before the end of the work day I changed into my running clothes and went back to my office with a few minutes before the “official” close of business. My boss rounds the corner and tells me that I need to be sure to wait until the actual close of business before changing into my clothes, and that I don’t want to be perceived by my coworkers as “that person” who cuts out a few minutes early when everyone else is still working. He said he mentioned this to me because he saw me going to change.

A couple of things struck me as inconsistent: 1) My boss has seen me do this before and has made no indication that this was a big deal, as others do it from time-to-time as well. 2) I know where my boss was when I was walking out of my office and I know there’s no way he would have been able to have seen me go to change.

There are two coworkers who I don’t get along with in my office. They’ve been there for 10+ years and sticking around solely for their paycheck and my theory is that one of them said something to my boss because they are the only ones who saw me once I had changed. None of my coworkers are fans of conflict and prefer passive aggression to acting like adults and bringing something up to the person that they actually have an issue with. At the end of the day, I don’t particularly care about working through until the end of the work day and waiting to change. That’s fine, and it’s completely reasonable. What I’m having trouble getting over is the idea that my boss lied to me when his story doesn’t add up. It’s petty, it doesn’t matter, it’s office life, but I can’t seem to shake it on principle.

You should let it go. It’s true that in a business with a dress code and customers, you shouldn’t be changing into running clothes before the end of the day, whether that’s enforced consistently or not. It’s possible that the reason your boss said something to you this time when he hasn’t before is because he figured he’d let it go once or twice, but now it’s a pattern so he needs to correct it. And even if your coworkers did alert him this time, he didn’t lie to you — he didn’t say “I noticed this entirely on my own.” He just addressed it, and figured that how it came to his attention wasn’t particularly relevant (because it’s not!).