open thread – June 23-24, 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 :)

I overheard my interviewer calling me a schmuck, are managers obligated to give references, and more

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

1. I overheard my interviewer calling me a schmuck

I seemed to really hit it off with an interviewer during my final interview. I even had pretty good rapport with them prior to the final interview and was more than accommodating when they needed to reschedule this final interview and a previous phone interview. They walked me out of the building after the interview was over and even then we had a pleasant conversation, which is why I find it odd that as soon as I got outside I heard this person loudly refer to me as a “schmuck.” I’m not sure that they meant for me to hear this or how they came to feel this way about me, but I heard it just the same. The question is now should I simply ignore it and pretend I didn’t hear it, or is it something that should be a deal-breaker in terms of me working for this person and this company?

I wrote back to this letter-writer and asked whether it was possible the interviewer was talking to someone else (like jokingly calling it out to a coworker). He said:

There was no one else around and I was the last person they were speaking to, so I assume it was about me. They appeared to say it out loud to themselves as though they were thinking it. I suppose they could have been referring to the other interviewer, who was sort of obnoxious and really hung up on my lack of direct experience though I do possess a lot of easily transferable skills. But I kind of doubt it. When I turned around to look, the person was standing alone at the window. Their context is also open for debate they may have been annoyed-angry by something I said or did or even something I didn’t do or say that maybe they felt I should have or may simply think me a fool for wanting to work there.

This is so weird, and I can understand why you’re taken aback! Honestly, if there were someone else around, my money would be on them joking to that person and it not being about you at all. But given the context you described … I have no idea! I mean, best case scenario, they were chastising themselves (“You schmuck! You forgot to ask about Excel skills!”) or cursing someone else (“That schmuck Fergus! He never showed up for his part of the interview!”) … but that feels like a stretch. On the other hand, it also feels like a stretch that he would have been so bursting to insult you that he’d do it like this.

If he really did mean it toward you, he’s probably not going to offer you the job (at least not if he’s the final decision-maker), so at least there’s that. If someone else is the decider, though, then yeah, I’d be wary. In that case, I’d pay a lot of attention to the other cues you’ve gotten and will continue to get about what he’s like, what the culture is like there more broadly, and how well you think you fit what they’re looking for. Maybe he called you a schmuck, maybe he didn’t, and we probably can’t know for sure — so really leaning hard on the other stuff you see is probably the way to go.

2. Are managers obligated to give references?

Are all managers/bosses obligated to a certain extent to act as references for their employees (as long as they were satisfactory workers)? Or is acting as a reference more like a favor?

After getting a new job offer, should employees thank the referees who were contacted by the offering company in regards to the job? Are simple thank you emails enough, or is it customary in any situation (specific field of work, etc.) to send them gifts as a thank-you?

I have always thought that acting as a reference would be extremely time consuming for managers, especially those who have been in the role for a while or in company/area/department of high staff turnover rate, as the number of past employees build up.

It’s generally considered a professional obligation, if the person requesting the reference did good work. Certainly if a manager working for me weren’t returning reference calls for good employees, I’d speak with her about it — because it’s part of the unofficial agreement between employers and employees that you’ll be responsive to those.

That said, there’s an element of favor-doing to it too, in that you want your manager to go out of her way to help you — doing things like returning the call right away and not letting it sit, taking the time to be thoughtful with the insights she provides, and making sure she’s covering all the good things about you as an employee. In other words, you can be awesome at giving references or you can be perfunctory about it, and of course you want your references to be awesome at it. So that’s maybe where the line is between favor and obligation.

Regardless, though, most good managers are usually delighted to give references for good employees and don’t see it as a burden.

Definitely don’t send gifts as a thank-you; that feels a little too much like a quid pro quo (“I’m giving you this gift in exchange for giving me a good reference”). Instead, just send them a heartfelt thanks and let them know what job you end up in.

3. Taking roll call on conference calls

I have a question about the best/most efficient way to handle roll call during a teleconference with over 12 people. The program I work for has employees all over the country and there are multiple times throughout the week that our teleconferences will have upwards of 30 people on them. We do have access to a web-based meeting platform when we need to see/share our desktops which shows participants by name, but it is not always appropriate or necessary to use that system for our conversations.

I have seen a few different methods of taking roll: (1) the open-ended “who’s on the line?” approach — which really is the worst, because then there are people speaking over one another and it is mass confusion, (2) the “going down the list name by name” approach — effective but often takes up a large chunk of time and each time another caller beeps in, they start back at the top, (3) the “I’m not going to take roll” approach, which takes the least amount of time, but then we are unaware of who is on the call with us and it can lead to issues if specific people are needed for specific updates, and (4) the “group roll call” approach, where we are told to reach out to our managers to alert them of our attendance and then that one manager reaches out, via email or instant messaging, to alert the host. Again, efficient, but leaves the callers in the dark.

I tend to vary my approach based on the meeting, but was wondering if there is an approach I have not thought of. Is there a way to take roll that is efficient, effective, and time sensitive?

If the coordinator of the conference call is able to see who’s on the line, the most efficient approach is probably for that person to read off the names of everyone in attendance at the start of the meeting. Then if others trickle in, the coordinator can announce those when there’s an opening (“Jane and Fergus have joined as well”).

If the coordinator can’t see who’s on the line, an option is to have people announce themselves as they join while the coordinator notes down those names — and then can read off a full list of attendees before the meeting gets underway (and can have stragglers announce themselves later if needed).

But really, once you’re over a certain number of people (15? 20?), I’d lean toward avoiding the process altogether because it gets unwieldy and time-consuming at that point. If there are a few specific people who need to be on the line, go ahead and confirm they’re there — but don’t do it for everyone.

4. Am I supposed to respond to job candidates’ thank-you notes?

I’ve been a manager for several years, and been involved in numerous searches. I value and appreciate thank-you notes/emails from candidates, although it’s never a dealbreaker if a candidate doesn’t send one. I never respond, mainly because that’s what my boss did.

In the meantime, my fiance is searching for his first job after completing his degree in his 30s, and he sometimes gets responses to thank-you emails he has sent (maybe about 25% of the time). They’re just brief, polite responses (“Thank you, it was nice to meet you too”).

If a candidate sent a handwritten thank-you card, it would be very strange to handwrite them a note back (right?). But since many/most of these now come by email, is it weird that I don’t respond? Or is it normal for hiring managers to not respond, and my fiance just had a few particularly nice people?

It’s totally normal not to respond. It’s certainly a kind and gracious thing if someone does respond, but it’s 100% not necessary and most employers don’t respond to them.

did I lead my interviewer on?

A reader:

I have been working for a company (Company A) for six months now, on a temporary contract. The pay is good and the hours are flexible, and as I would like to start studying part time soon this arrangement suits me. I don’t see a lot of potential for growth in this company, and doubt they will offer me a permanent contract.

However, I recently came across an opportunity at Company B that sounded like an exciting new opportunity. They loved my CV, and I expressed to them via email that I was a fan of their work and excited at the prospect of contributing to it. I went to an interview, and a few details made it clear that this position wouldn’t be as ideal as I imagined. The pay is significantly less than I am earning now, and the commute would be very long and impractical, additionally, I got the feeling that the culture would not suit me either. However, the interviewer was so enthusiastic about my work, and I didn’t want to say no to this opportunity too quickly. I made it clear in the interview that I would like to discuss the details with my spouse and consider if the position would be best for me.

This morning, I received a written offer via email, and the salary is even less than what was discussed during the interview. I plan on taking a day or two to think it over, but likely will decline the offer, as I don’t feel it’s best for me. However, when I thanked the interviewer for sending the offer and expressed (again) that I would discuss it with my spouse and let them know my decision, the interviewer’s response was, “Haha, what decision? We’re just ironing out details.”

This makes me very uncomfortable, as I believe I made it clear I still needed to think it over. However, I worry that I have led the interviewer on by expressing my excitement about their work. I am very concerned that if I decline this offer, the interviewer will feel angry and deceived, and that I may burn a bridge.

What is the polite and professional thing to do in this situation?

Whoa, no, unless you said the words “I am accepting the job” or something close to that, you didn’t lead your interviewer on.

It’s implicit in the hiring process that either side may sound excited and enthusiastic, but that there’s no job offer until the employer explicitly makes one, and there’s no acceptance of a job offer until the candidate explicitly accepts.

This employer is being weird.

You didn’t lead them on. You’re allowed to express interest and enthusiasm without committing yourself to accepting the job. (And really, how could you commit without knowing the salary? That they think you would says something really odd about their thinking.)

Flip this around: It’s not uncommon for candidates to (wrongly) think they have a job in the bag because the interviewer seems enthusiastic about them. But imagine an employer saying to a candidate, “We’ll be in touch later this week with our decision,” and that candidate replying “”Haha, what decision? We’re just ironing out details.”

Ridiculous, right? It’s ridiculous here too.

This employer is acting as if candidates are just waiting to be picked, rather than doing their own picking too. That’s a fundamental misunderstanding of what hiring is about.

You could proceed two different ways here: You could just ignore the interviewer’s comment and trust that they’ll figure it out soon enough if you end up declining the offer. Or, if they seemed really serious — if it definitely wasn’t a joke and it’s clear to you that they genuinely think you’re already on board — you could respond with, “Before I can accept the offer, I need to think it over and talk with my spouse. But I’ll be back to you no later than X.” Hell, if you want to drive the point home, you could add, “The offer is for a lower salary than we’d discussed in the interview, and is significantly less than I’m earning now.” (But they may take that as you opening negotiations, so if you know you’re not going to accept the offer, it might not make sense to open that up. Although when you decline, you can certainly cite that as a reason.)

update: my coworker acts like the food police

Remember the letter-writer last December whose coworker was constantly policing and commenting on people’s food choices? Here’s the update.

I don’t have MUCH of an update on this issue, but did want to mention something that happened recently. I was in the break room with two coworkers — one being the Food Police — and overheard a conversation that went something like:

Totally normal coworker eating a totally normal broccoli/cheese/rice casserole: (insert some sort of justification for why they’re “allowed” to eat this normal meal)
Food Police: Well, it’s not healthy because of carbs.
Me: *rips headphones out of ears* You need carbs to function. Most of our energy comes from carbs.
FP: Well, yeah.
Normal coworker: Really? I didn’t know that!
Me: In fact, you need x grams of carbs per day just for brain function.
FP: Don’t tell her THAT.

Anyway, I basically just told him I wasn’t going to stand back if I heard terrible nutrition advice. Normal Coworker actually thanked me multiple times just for sharing the bit of nutrition knowledge I have with her (I assume because it legalized a necessary macro nutrient that’s been absurdly demonized by loads of people). Not a huge update and it may not solve the problem, but I was at least able to speak up both to the Food Police and for a coworker who was just trying to eat her lunch.

A major reason I wanted to write, though, was to thank all of your commenters. I have been SO encouraged reading through the comments on a lot of posts — but especially the food-related ones. Sometimes being in eating disorder recovery feels like challenging the entire world because the concept of nutritional balance without loads of food rules isn’t spoken or written about much. Reading input from SO many people who seem to have a grasp on what overall wellness and normalized eating looks like has really helped me understand what healthy thought patterns regarding food look like. This is such a supportive and understanding community. I really appreciate it.

ask the readers: what kind of work can I do that’s not in an office?

I’m throwing this one out to commenters to weigh in on. A reader writes:

I am in my third office job and I’m starting to think its not the place, but the actual “office” that is giving me trouble. My first job was okay but only part time so I moved onto one that was full-time. That job was truly a terrible place that I was glad to leave and I’m in a much better office now with better coworkers and more interesting work … Yet I’m still not feeling it.

I look at my group of friends and peers: half are in strictly office work (banks, insurance, government, etc.) and the other half are doing far more interesting, not-restricted-to-an-office work. Things like teacher, dog trainer, librarian, living museum participant, journalist, to name a few. I find myself very envious of their jobs. I know they’re not without their own hassles (the teachers complain about bad principals and helicopter parents, the dog trainers about terrible owners, the journalists of long hours) but I long for a job that would get me out of the office setting. Heck, my current job has me working closely with contractors who make various things and I’m envious of them getting to do back-breaking hands-on things even though I couldn’t work their tools to save my life.

It’s something I’ve looked into but the problem is that a lot of those things that interest me (and I’m looking very widely here, I don’t have tunnel vision on a particular path) either don’t pay enough for me to make a living or they require additional education and degrees that I can’t do at this time. These are things I can pursue in my free time like volunteering but I’m so miserable in my office setting that I really think transitioning to something a little less conventional would increase my quality of life. Perhaps even office work in a less Corporate America setting would be good but they seem very difficult to break into (I’ve applied to various universities, museums, and non-profits for office work I’m qualified for but was turned down for not having specific experience in those settings).

Anyway, I’d just love to hear your thoughts and the community’s thoughts on getting out of eight-hour office work, because I really do feel like I’m going to be miserable if I continue down this office path. Any ideas of jobs that are a little more hands-on, or even office jobs in a more interesting setting, I’d appreciate any guidance you might have.

I asked the letter-writer about her skills and experience are. The answer:

My skills lie mostly in customer service. I honestly miss working retail because I loved working with the customers in person rather than just over the phone. I like working with people and helping them. My current office job is better than the others because I’m support to a very large team so I get to help lots of different coworkers with various tasks, my favorites being anything that takes me away from my computer, even just packing boxes and picking up lunch orders.

Actual marketable skills beyond that would be writing, editing, invoice processing, event/meeting planning, and various other administrative skills like that (yes, all skills mainly geared towards office work but I think I’d be able to take some evening classes in the near future so I may soon be able to add to my skill set).

Readers, what advice do you have for this letter-writer, and perhaps for others struggling with this question?

I want to bill an employer who wasted my time, returning to work after working in the adult industry, and more

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

1. I want to invoice an employer who wasted my time in an interview process

I was recently involved in a two-month interview process where they flew me out for an in person interview as a “final step.” They paid for my flight and hotel, and I had asked my recruiter what I was responsible for but did not get any response, so all else fell to me. During the interview, I used my subject expertise to provide the company a training among other things (lots of notes were taken and questions were asked to me that made it apparent they plan to use everything I gave them). A week later, I reached out to the recruiter to be told the company never got approval for it to be a remote position (which was what I was told the entire time).

I am considering sending them an invoice for my expenses and time. Am I just being petty or should I actually consider sending it? Had they said “we don’t think its a fit,” I would have dropped this altogether.

Between expenses and everything, this cost me around $400 out of my own pocket. I have three small children and we are a one-income family, so $400 is a lot of money to us, plus missing that time with my kids and wife means a lot to me.

You absolutely can’t send it.

I understand the impulse, but they’re not going to pay expenses that they never agreed to pay and you’ll make yourself look really bad in the process because it’s just not done.

There’s never a guarantee that you’ll get a job at the end of a hiring process, no matter how positive a company is sounding. Plans fall through, budgets and priorities change, stronger candidates emerge at the last minute, etc. I know that in this case they’d led you to believe that remote work was already approved, but even that kind of thing can change (or people can assume it’ll be fine and then discover that some decision-maker several levels up was never informed and doesn’t like it, or so forth).

The only safe thing to do is to not invest time or money into hiring processes if you’re not okay with the prospect of it not panning out in the end. I’m sorry!

2. Returning to professional work after being a phone sex operator

I was an executive in a nonprofit agency and worked in the sector for almost 10 years. This last winter I left a very prestigious job to pursue work in the adult industry. I had been working as a phone sex operator part-time during my employment just to make some extra money. After a major management change, I decided to leave my job and work full-time on the phone. Aside from the obvious benefits of working from home and making my own hours, the pay is phenomenal! I’m easily making more than twice as much as I was as a program director in nonprofit.

It’s been almost six months since I left my job and I still haven’t moved forward with finding any other employment. I never thought I’d be doing this this long. My concern is how I am going to explain this gap in my employment when I do decide it’s time to return to my profession. It could be another six months until I find another job (I want to be selective and hold out for the right position since I have the luxury to do so right now) and I’m nervous about explaining myself. With the phone company, I’m officially listed as a contractor.

I know this is a really weird situation and I need all the help I can get. I really don’t want people to know what I’ve been doing for this last year, but I also don’t want to lie. Even if I get a job after having been truthful, I’d be embarrassed and would feel like I’ve made a really weird impression.

Unfortunately, because we live in a society that is so puritanical about anything related to sex, I think you’re better off not trying to come up with PG cover for the job and instead just saying you took some time off to do something else — travel, pursue a personal interest, attend to family, or so forth. If your previous job was a highly stressful one, you could even just say that after a decade of high-stress work, you wanted to take a break to recharge and think about what you wanted to focus on next.

If you’re only out for a year, I think you can make that work. Once it starts getting longer than that, that starts getting trickier, as people will worry about your skills getting stale, whether you really want to return to work, etc.

3. What help can I ask for after spraining my ankle?

I sprained my ankle playing soccer yesterday. I have a parking spot that I pay around $50 a month for that is four blocks away from my office. This parking spot is subsidized by my office (I think about $50).

It took me a half hour to walk in my crutches to my office from the garage — it was up hill on uneven ground. And I am an assistant so some of my daily functions require walking (copies, greeting clients, dispersing paperwork, etc.)

What, if anything, would be a reasonable request for my HR department? Or since this happened on my own time from my own stupidity do I just make do? There’s parking behind where I work but it’s all taken up by people with seniority. Would it be unreasonable to ask to park there for the week (or two) until this heals? Can I ask for a pass from some of the walking-related work things? I don’t know what’s reasonable and what isn’t. My first job out of high school, and I don’t want to be fussy, but I also don’t want to get needlessly screwed.

You can ask for all of that. It’s very reasonable to ask HR for temporary parking closer to the building. You should also talk to your boss (not HR) and explain that it’s difficult to walk right now and ask for temporary accommodations to your responsibilities until you’re off the crutches. These are both normal things to ask for and you’re not being fussy!

4. I was asked to complete an “automated phone screen”

I submitted a resume through a job board and received a reply from the job board, asking me to “Please complete your automated phone screen for [position].”

I’m supposed to call a number and answer pre-prepared questions, ones you’re typically asked in a live phone screen: “Tell us a little about your background,” “why are you interested in this position” (I’m not, but I need a job; can’t say that!), past accomplishment, and describe a difficult situation and how you resolved it. I have a week to do it, but I’m leaning toward simply deleting the email and forgetting the entire thing.

Is this a normal thing? I’ve never run across this before, ever. It’s for a receptionist job at a personal injury law firm. I’ve applied to law firms before and this never happened. Am I crazy to think this is lazy as hell? Anybody else run into this?

It’s not a super common thing, but it’s a technology that’s out there that some companies use … companies that don’t know how to hire well. It’s terrible for tons of reasons, including that it asks candidates who have already provided resumes and cover letters to spend more time investing in the job possibility while the company still isn’t investing any time back (i.e., answering their questions), it treats candidates like cattle, and it deprives the employers of most of the benefits of phone interviews (like seeing how the candidate speaks off the cuff, rather than how they read a script they may have written down in advance, and being able to ask follow-up questions).

5. Interviews in public spaces

I think I need some help with interview scheduling ettiquette. I currently work on a campus, within which several businesses share the same public spaces. I have an upcoming interview with one of the other businesses, and the hiring manager has asked to meet in the shared dining area for the interview. I’m not particularly comfortable asking her to move the location, as there is nowhere else nearby that is suitable. However, it’s highly likely that coworkers or bosses will see me and either realize I’m in an interview, or come and speak to me!

Would it be reasonable for me to ask the interviewer if we can ensure that the meeting is held outside of normal lunch hours? Should I admit that it’s because I want to be discreet? Or does that come across like I’m being underhanded about leaving my current job? I feel a bit awkward about all options!

You can do that! It’s a normal thing to not want your current job to know you’re interviewing; that’s not seen as underhanded.

Say it this way: “My current boss and many of my current coworkers tend to eat in that area around lunchtime, and I worry that we’ll be interrupted or that it could be awkward since my manager doesn’t know I’m interviewing. Is there somewhere else we could meet, or would it work for you to meet there outside of normal lunch hours?”

the Ask a Manager book is coming

Y’all, I wrote a book.

ASK A MANAGER: Clueless Coworkers, Lunch-Stealing Bosses, and Other Work Conversations Made Easy will be published by Random House/Ballantine next spring.

The book — which is nearly all new content that you haven’t read here — takes on more than 200 difficult conversations you might need to have during your career (with your boss, your coworkers, your employees, or your job interviewer) and gives you the wording to do it … focusing especially on the awkward and cringey conversations that people dread most.

In a decade of running this site, the theme I’ve seen over and over is that people shy away from having difficult conversations because they don’t know what to say. Often they worry it’ll feel aggressive or adversarial, and they’re looking for wording that won’t kill the relationship. And understandably so! Your quality of life at work can depend on having decent relationships with your coworkers and your boss, so the stakes are high.

But the stakes are high if you don’t speak up too. As I wrote in the intro to the book: “When the issue is serious – for example, if you’re not getting paid on time – not speaking up could mean not paying your bills. But even when the issue isn’t so crucial – when it’s, say, asking your coworker to turn his music down or to stop calling you ‘m’lady’ – not speaking up means not having perfectly reasonable conversations, all in the name of avoiding pretty minor awkwardness. If you speak up – not adversarially, not aggressively, just calmly and matter-of-factly – you’ll build a reputation as someone who’s able to navigate tough situations with relative grace. You’ll also significantly improve your quality of life at work, because when you speak up appropriately, you improve your working conditions and your relationships.”

I’m super excited for this to come out and believe me, I will tell you when it’s ready for pre-ordering.

Posted in me

what to say to a chronically late employee

A reader writes:

I have a new salaried staff member who is a manager-in-training for a new location we are opening up. She has worked for us for a week now, and is having child-care issues causing her to be tardy or have to leave earlier than expected. I would like your advice on the most professional way to handle this.

The nature of our business doesn’t allow for flex-time, and we are a semi-warehouse environment, so we don’t allow children inside the location. Location managers are also expected to be the last one out the door at night, which means sometimes you are going to be working 10-20 minutes later than you expected. She knew all of this before when she accepted the position.

The last four days, she has either been late (because the sitter was late), or she’s had to leave before other non-managerial employees in the evening to pick her child up. She’s a single mom, so I understand that she’s in a tough spot. The first time I had a conversation with her about her tardiness, she burst into tears. My boss spoke with her the next day, just to reinforce what I had said, and she burst into tears.

What’s the best way to have a crying-free conversation with her about tardiness and that as a manager, her schedule is firm, and that she needs to understand that some evenings she’ll be expected to work a little later?

I don’t want to scare her off or to think she’s not capable of doing this job, but I also can’t risk a phone call from the client complaining that she hasn’t been there when they expected her to be, or from other employees saying she wasn’t there to unlock the door, making them late.

I answer this question over at Inc. today, where I’m revisiting letters that have been buried in the archives here from years ago (and sometimes updating/expanding my answers to them). You can read it here.

should I sabotage my terrible employer on my way out?

A reader writes:

I have a question regarding ownership and I will preface it by saying that I realize it’s kind of a petty one. I am the graphic designer (I’m the only one) at a small IT company that does a lot of government work. Most of the work I’ve produced for them are infographics and some marketing things like flyers, banners, etc. I also rebranded the company to come up with logos and such.

After two years of being incredibly unhappy here and watching my employers really mistreat their employees I am excited to say that I got a new job (*throws confetti*) that I’m very excited about.

I’ve been wondering how much of my work I can leave with and not let them keep. Obviously things like logos and such is different, but I honestly don’t want to leave them any of the source files for infographics or even some of the marketing stuff that I’ve done. I want to leave them with as little as possible.

I admit that me entertaining this idea is fueled by some personal feelings about my bosses and the way they run their business. I’ve witnessed and documented enough to be able to put them out of business and destroy their reputation if I really wanted to. I’m surprised no one has already, considering how awful they’ve been to all of us.

I read through my contract and the employee manual and didn’t see anything about ownership. The closest thing is a section saying that employees need to return company property when they leave, such as computers, etc. A friend of my mine mentioned the other day that ownership may extend to the image files of my work (which there would be a very limited amount of use for since they’re very specific to the projects they were tailored for), but it’s possible that it doesn’t mean the company owns the source files too.

It’s vindictive and petty and, yes, immature, I know. Really, I don’t know if I’ll really even go through with any of it if it’s an option. I realize it’s unprofessional, but this is a bridge I’m not worried about burning either. My supervisor knows I’ve been job searching, that I’ve got a new offer, and has told me that I am always welcome to use him as a reference no matter what. I don’t trust my employers enough to ever consider them a good reference anyway even though I know that they like my work.

So how does ownership in situations like this work? Is it possible to leave them with image files but not the source?


As an employee, you’re engaged in what’s called “work for hire.” This is a provision in U.S. copyright law that says that an employer is the author and owner of work prepared by an employee within the scope of her employment. In other words, if you did it while working there as part of your job, they own it.

And come on, it is petty and immature. It’s also unethical; you were paid for that work, and trying to destroy their ability to use it on your way out would be a huge blow to your integrity. And it would only take a single mention of that to really damage your reputation. It doesn’t matter how terrible your employer was — “she sabotaged their files when she left” will a be a deal-breaker for any future employer who hears it.

It’s also unlikely to cause the harm to your employer that you might be thinking it would. They presumably have back-ups or other means if recreating things if they need to.

You didn’t say what sort of awful things this employer has done, but if any of them happen to be legal violations, the law may give you much more ethical means for redress that way.

If not … well, there’s Glassdoor, there’s discreetly sharing information on them with people in your field, there’s helping your coworkers get out of there themselves … and there’s living well without ever thinking much of them again, which is a special kind of satisfaction.

my mom is mad I didn’t negotiate more, inappropriate ring tones, and more

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

1. My mom is mad that I didn’t negotiate more

I recently received a job offer that I’m really excited about. There is growth opportunity, I get great vibes from my new manager (and her manager), the new workplace is both flexible on where I work and very close my house, and I would be doing work that I find interesting and meaningful. During the verbal offer, the manager put out a number ~$7,000 less than the low end of my range (and about $1,500 less than what I currently make). She has been a pretty straight shooter up until this point, and when I said it would be hard for me to move on for a pay decrease, she came up $2,000. She told me that’s all that was in the budget for this position and that if I refused this offer, they would need to kind of go back to the drawing board to see if it would even be possible. I didn’t want to jeopardize the offer, especially because this number is within reason for this position in this kind of industry. I verbally accepted.

The problem is my mom. She is absolutely furious with me for accepting right away. She works at my current workplace (on a different campus) doing a very similar job, though she makes almost $40,000 more than me because of her longevity at the institution. She is the one who found me my current position. She told me “you NEVER accept a job offer right away” and that I’m “not being rational.” Alison, I feel that moving to this job is maybe the most rational career move I’ve ever made. Yes, I will be stuck with this salary for a while, and I probably could have wrung a couple thousand more out of them, but I really, really want this position. The other complicating factor is that I’ve been “on the market” for a year now and this was my first interview. Did I make some kind of horrible mistake?


And your mom is being particularly weird here because you didn’t accept their first offer. You negotiated and got an additional $2,000.

You got a job you’re really excited about that you feel good about accepting, at a salary that you say is within the market range for the work, and you got them to tack on an extra $2,000. You did fine. Ignore your mom.

(And it actually might be time to pull back on how many of these sorts of details you share with her if she’s going to get furious about something like this.)

2. Inappropriate ring tones

When is a ring tone considered inappropriate?

I have a female coworker who has a man whistling (like the obnoxious whistle a man makes when a pretty woman walks by) as her text message alert. My company is 98% men so it makes me hate her ringtone even more. I’m curious to know if I am overreacting or not.

I tend to think that any alert tone that your coworkers can hear is already veering toward inappropriate, but one that mirrors catcalling noises is particularly so.

3. Company asked my reference for other references

I’m in the interviewing process for a new job, and the company seems very interested in bringing me on.

However, when they reached out to one of my references, the reference-checker asked her if she knew of any additional references for me. She was a little taken aback by this and said she’d get back to them if she thought of any.

She told me about this, and I’m a little unsure what to do since this seems out of the ordinary. I don’t think it would make sense for her to pass along a reference to someone she doesn’t know at all, but do I reach out to the interviewer instead? I’m confused that if they really wanted this info, I don’t know why wouldn’t they just directly contact me. Do I do nothing and just let it slide?

Yes. This is actually a technique that some reference-checking experts recommend; the idea is to broaden your base of people who know the candidate but are less likely to have promised the person a good reference and who therefore might speak more candidly.

It’s more common in background checks than in reference checks, but it is a thing that some reference checkers do. You don’t have to like it — and I can understand why you don’t — but enough people consider it a legitimate practice that it’s likely to come across strangely if you say something about it. (That said, you typically see it most with candidates for senior executive type positions. It’s much less common at less senior levels.)

Personally, I’m not a fan — although I see the value for CEO-type positions. Otherwise, though, I prefer to just ask the candidate to connect me to specific people I’d like to speak with who weren’t on the original reference list.

4. Applicants who don’t include cover letters

I’m not new to hiring or being a manager, but I am new to my current company and am hiring for the first time in this role.

I’ve been working with a recruiter and my team to get the word out about my need for applicants, and I have a few good resumes coming in. What’s strange is I’m getting almost no cover letters.

Would it be appropriate to ask them to add a cover letter after they’ve already submitted their resume? It would really help me to understand why they are applying and see a bit of their writing style.

You can do that! It’s fine to say something like, “We’re asking all applicants to include a cover letter. We’d be glad to consider your application if you can resubmit it with a cover letter included.”

One thing I can’t tell from your letter is whether the job is posted anywhere. You say you’re working with a recruiter and your team so I can’t tell if you’re doing this informally or not. If you are, I’d change that — formally post it, and in your application instructions, specifically ask for a cover letter. You’ll get a bigger pool and you won’t be relying as heavily on your team’s own networks (which is a good thing for lots of reasons, including that you’ll generally get more diverse candidates if you branch out beyond your existing networks). And you can also tell your recruiter to make sure people send cover letters when they apply.

5. Was it illegal for my manager to ask if I was pregnant?

Several months ago, I asked my manager for a morning off the following week because my husband and I were getting married at the courthouse. I supplied this information willingly. He looked distraught and asked if I was pregnant. I was caught off guard and answered no and explained the monetary reasons for getting married. It colored my view of him, as I am resentful of the inappropriateness and the implications but I moved on outwardly.

Fast forward several months and when I relayed the event to friends, they insisted it was an illegal question. I’m not sure it is though, since it wasn’t an interview. Wildly inappropriate certainly, but quite possibly legal. My internet searches have turned up conflicting information on the matter and the situation is made murkier by the fact that I’m a contractor with an agency, not an employee of my manager.

Do you know whether this was illegal or not? I’ve already turned down the job offer to be an employee for that reason and more but I’d like to know the answer for future opportunities elsewhere.

Nope, it wasn’t illegal. And it wouldn’t have been illegal in a job interview either.

It’s not illegal for managers or interviews to ask about pregnancy — or race or religion or national origin or any of the other protected characteristics (except for disability). What is illegal is using that information to make an employment decision — like deciding not to hire someone based on that info, or denying someone a promotion because of it, or so forth. Because of that, smart interviewers and smart managers don’t ask these questions — since once you do, it can be very hard to prove that you didn’t act on the answer in an illegal way. (And plus, so many people wrongly think the act of asking is illegal that it tends to make people super uncomfortable.)

This is possibly the thing people get wrong about workplace law most frequently; you’ll even see news articles from respected sources get it wrong. (Here’s one from Consumerist that got it right.)