when an employee struggles with a task, cell phones at lunch, and more

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

1. Should I accept my employee just isn’t well suited to a task?

We are a small team of very silo-ed job types. Twice a year, for about a week each time, we have a meeting with lots of external stakeholders to review content for a textbook. The stakeholders are all subject matter experts (SMEs) and are focused on accuracy, completeness, etc. One of the roles in the review sessions is to serve as the note taker, capturing every edit the group of SMEs comes up with. This note taker is not an SME. There are a couple internal staff roles to whom this note taking has typically fallen. These are individuals who are not intimately involved with the crafting of content; they basically just come in and serve as the note taker these few times of year. I was one such person when I started in the role 10 years ago and I continue to do so now (although I am now in a leadership role).

We hired someone in late 2021 (Callie) to step into my previous role and now, based on tradition, she serves in the note taker role when needed. The problem is Callie is not good at this task. She has a hard time following along with the conversation, often needs one of the SMEs in the room to explain to her where the edit is to be made, requires a lot of time to ensure she gets the change correct, misses edits, etc. I have coached her on how to do this task better. Various SMEs have coached her on how to be better. SMEs’ patience often starts to run thin with her as a review session proceeds, most of all from the book’s managing editor, Paul.

Because this falls firmly in the “other duties as assigned” realm of her job description, how much can or should I focus on fixing this with Callie? Part of me feels like I should cut my losses and figure out an alternative for this task (for what it’s worth, an alternative will not be easy to come by for reasons that aren’t worth getting into here). The other part of me feels like it’s not unreasonable to hold her feet to the fire because the fact is this is a critical task and completing it doesn’t require anything that falls outside the realm of reasonable expectations.

A complicating factor that I know I need to ignore but just can’t — Paul (whose patience with Callie runs thin very quickly) is desperate for Callie to be better, as the clean-up work of things she misses/gets wrong often falls to him, but he also feels strongly that Callie isn’t putting in the effort to get better and that taking the task from her would reward her for poor performance. I don’t fully disagree with Paul, but also know that not every person is suited to every task. Help?

If she struggles to follow the conversation, she’s not going to be an effective note-taker, no matter how much you coach her on taking notes. If these meetings were more frequent, she might be able to get better over time, but twice a year? It’s unlikely to happen.

The big question I had reading your letters was: how’s the rest of Callies’s work? The issues you described — struggling to follow the conversation, missing edits, needing a lot of hand-holding on how to make changes — sound like they might speak to problems with her regular work too, unless it’s wildly different from what’s expected of her on these meeting days, so I’d want you to take a look at that. But if the rest of her work is great, stop making her struggle with something she’s bad at — and which isn’t working anyway, and which is taking up lots of time from other people to fix things for her, and where her work is frustrating everyone else — and find another solution. That’s not “rewarding her for poor performance” (and that’s a weirdly punitive way for Paul to look at it); it’s recognizing that she’s not the right person for this specific task.

2. Talking on a cell phone at lunch

Cell phone etiquette has obviously changed over the years, but I have always operated under the general understanding that if your phone call can be heard by others, then you shouldn’t be having it. (When I dissect that belief, I’m not entirely sure I can precisely pinpoint why it’s there, to be honest, but it’s there!)

I work in a very small office with, on most days, only three-five people working in the same space. I have a coworker who almost always eats alone after everyone else has finished and always talks on her cell phone while she’s eating. She is not particularly loud, but because the office is small, it is possible to hear the entire conversation. This is no different than when we all sit down to eat lunch together: people talk loudly and others can hear. But I’m having trouble not being annoyed at the situation involving a cell phone! Am I holding on to an old belief here for no reason?

Yes, I think so! It’s true that it’s rude to have a loud cell phone conversation in an otherwise quiet space, and sometimes it’s rude to have one at all in a space where people don’t expect phone conversations to be happening at all. But an office is usually a place where people will periodically be on the office; there’s no expectation that it will be a phone-free zone (usually the opposite, in fact). I’m guessing you wouldn’t be as bothered if it were a work-related call; it’s something about it being a personal call that’s feeling off. But unless the norm of your office is “we all work in silence and we’re expected to go into a private space for calls,” I wouldn’t call this particularly rude.

3. Internship’s dress code is painfully vague

I just received the full dress code for my internship that starts in a week, and I’m thinking through how to navigate it.

It reads as follows: “The firm has adopted ‘business casual’ and ‘client appropriate’ as the everyday minimum dress standard, including Fridays. The term ‘business casual’ is not clearly defined in the community, nor is there general agreement regarding its meaning. The operative goal is to choose attire that will promote, rather than detract from, the firm’s image of professionalism, sophistication, and dedication to our clients.”

I’m struggling with the lack of a “not allowed” list. At past business casual jobs, most employers have include a “not allowed” list in their dress codes, e.g no open-toed shoes, no visible tattoos, etc. Would it be gauche to follow up and just ask point blank for such a list? The reason I ask is that I do have visible (not offensive) tattoos, and I’m game to cover them with makeup and/or longer clothing, but would prefer not to if I don’t have to. Do you have thoughts/advice on how to approach this?

That is a confusing dress code, although you’ll probably have a much better sense once you start and can see how most people dress. Meanwhile, though, since what you’re wondering about is tattoos specifically, why not ask them about tattoos specifically? They may not have a “not allowed” list anyway — in fact, it sounds like they don’t, although someone would probably talk you through the do’s and don’ts if you asked. But it sounds like you have one specific thing you’re really wondering about, so ask about that one specific thing! It’s fine to say, “I wasn’t sure from what I read about the dress code if visible tattoos are okay. I have tattoos on my arms (or wherever). Should I plan to cover them?”

Alternately, you can cover them your first day and get more of the lay of the land then, or just ask someone in person at that point.

4. Should we be able to see how much PTO my boss really has?

I am new to the world of PTO and can’t seem to keep enough to do anything with my life. I work in a remote office, not the corporate headquarters, so we get forgotten about often. It seems like my manager always has ample PTO to take three-week vacations in addition to monthly requested days off while us little people are nickled and dimed for everything. As her director is not on site, it makes for an easy scam situation and I (and the rest of the team) are suspicious of her actions. I have no proof, but is submission of PTO a private matter? Or is there a record that should be available to us to ensure the PTO time she tells us matches her approved requests with her director? It’s pretty uncomfy.

No, you don’t typically have access to your boss’s PTO records. It’s also possible she has more PTO than you and your coworkers do (it’s not uncommon for people to get more PTO if they’ve been there longer or are in more senior positions). Or she could be scamming your company, who knows. One way to bring it to her boss’s attention is to have a plausible need to contact her boss about a work problem where you can mention, “Since Jane has been out for the last two weeks, we didn’t know who to go to about this…”

5. Can my resume say “Mage’s Guild” if I am a non-player character?

If my job was NPC who only says “They say there have been unearthly noises coming from the mage’s guild on nights when the moon is full,” can I just put “Mage’s Guild” on my resume?

I needed Twitter to give me context for this, but now that they have, the answer is no. You don’t work for the Mage’s Guild! You’re just a person saying you’ve heard there are problems there.

the charismatic aura, the glowing tan, and other amazing items seen on resumes

Last week, I asked about the strangest things you’ve ever seen in cover letters and resumes. You shared some amazing stories — here are some of my favorites.

1.  “A candidate happily let me know ‘I just got laid this morning’ (I assume he meant ‘laid off’ but it made me laugh).”

2.  “I had one applicant who put  ‘Have spent less than 8 nights incarcerated’ on his resume.”

3.  “At a previous job, I was assisting the head teacher with applications for a class teacher position. One lady wrote the entire application from the perspective of her hand puppet. The hand puppet had apparently filled in the application on behalf of the candidate. The best thing about it was that she included photos of her and the puppet working together on projects, e.g. in the garden, painting. I’m laughing now remembering it.”

4.  “I work in law. We once had an applicant openly state in their cover letter that their career goal was to work for opposing counsel, so they wanted a job at our firm to do opposition recon and learn how to better take us down in the future.”

5.  “I had a cover letter where a guy talked about navigating his divorce as relevant experience. This was a legal job, but it was not a family law job or adjacent, and the time was very much ‘I succeeded over my evil ex.’ So not appropriate.”

6. “Among other very silly things, a prospective intern that I was scheduled to interview included the bullet point ‘Powerful voice and charismatic aura’ on his resume. He ended up being a no-show for the interview, but I sorely wish I’d gotten to meet him.”

7.  “I once received a cover letter that stated, ‘I’m highly allergic to pet dander and I have three cats. I am determined and will bring this level of commitment to your company.'”

8.  “Once had a candidate write, ‘Strong typing skills,’ followed by, ‘WPM: 20.'”

9.  “One of my friends received a totally bonkers resume from a candidate who declared, ‘I have run a background check on myself and I have a clean record.'”

10.  “When I worked in corporate HR for a well-known convenience store based in the Philly area, I received a resume printed on a used sandwich wrapper from one of our stores. Complete with grease spots and smelling of rancid food. I give the person points for creativity, but for the love of all that’s holy, I wish they would have used a clean, unused wrapper.”

11.  “Received an email attachment (PDF) which I opened expecting to see a resume. It was a picture of the candidate, leaning back in a desk chair, with his hands pointing towards his chest. A superimposed box over his chest simply had the words: ‘Hire me!’ No resume at all.”

12.  “My favorite was under ‘other experience’: ”I’m extremely reliable. I once had 17 tequila shots on a night out and still made it to work the next day.'”

13.  “I once received a resume where the applicant had used an online service to generate a multi-page PDF with extreme background graphics that looked more like a sales document for a product than an actual resume. Worse, he hadn’t fully edited the whole thing, so page 1 started with a greeting of ‘Hey, wonderful’ and proceeded through instructions for using the template, including something along the lines of ‘this start-to-finish document will guide you through the process of putting your best foot forward.’

Spoiler: he did not put his best foot forward, and he did not get an interview.”

14.  “A favorite was a candidate who clearly took to heart the importance of quantifying accomplishments their interest section said something like ‘Exercise 6x/week for 3 years, increasing bicep circumference by 70% and decreasing waist circumference by 10%.'”

15.  “An applicant wrote in his resume, ‘I only write the personal pronoun ‘I’ as ‘i.’ Contact me to find out why!’

Honestly, I was so annoyed by this I decided no matter what the rest of his resume looked like, we would not call him. Luckily the rest of it ensured he wouldn’t have gotten a call back anyway.”

16.  “Mid-40s man in tech listed ‘grew largest pumpkin at the county fair, won a blue ribbon.’ His resume was otherwise excellent, so he got an interview.

At the end of the interview, they asked if he had any questions, and he wondered why they didn’t ask him about his pumpkin. The interviewer said, ‘Tell me more about that then, and how you see it relating to the work we do here.’

It happened when he was 12, he ‘didn’t remember much’ about how he did it, he just thought it was what made him unique.”

17.  “I’ve had several candidates who listed Olympic records, although not a single one was actually on the Olympic team, had verifiable records, or even possible. I had one 40-year-old candidate who stated that she won an Olympic medal in 1990. She would have been under the age of 10.”

18.  “At a nonprofit internship several years ago, I was tasked with receiving applications in the general mailbox and forwarding them to the relevant hiring managers, as there were many open positions in several countries overseas.

One applicant sent in a resume which had, in the lower left corner, a pretty big cartoon image of the genie from Aladdin coming out of his lamp. Then a blue speech bubble coming out of his mouth and filling the page. Inside the speech bubble was the actual resume (in smaller font, as the genie, lamp and bubble took up a fair amount of space on the page).

He was not hired.”

19.  “An applicant who was about 45 (based on high school grad date) listed every award received in elementary school. Nothing for middle or high school, just elementary and started with perfect attendance in kindergarten.”

20.  “From two different resumes:

‘The first thing to say is that I’m nobody special.’ — In the summary section.

‘Too many to list. Seriously. 10+ years.’ — In the skills section.”

21.  “A few years ago, I worked as a resume writer for a questionable career coaching company until it folded. Most clients would fight me tooth and nail if I said something needed to come out of their resume, and the career coach would back them up, so most of these bad boys clogged up someone’s inbox. Some of the best things I saw include:

* Demanded their resume highlight winning three erotic fan fiction contests in their awards and license section (medical field, did not get an interview).
* Citing over a decade of successfully hosting an unlicensed ayahuasca retreat in their home (elementary education, did not get an interview).
* ‘I probably know more than management does about INDUSTRY TOPIC’ in the ‘about me’ section, applying for a job in which he had no education or experience (cybersecurity, did not get an interview).
* Insisted that ‘never cheated on my wife or been tempted to cheat with a coworker regardless of mutual attraction’ stayed in the special skills section (media, did not get an interview).”

22.  “My friend in recruiting once received a 60-page CV, consisting of solid text and screenshots of the candidate’s IQ test results, recruiter inMails (to show how in-demand he was, I guess), feedback from previous recruiters (he highlighted that a previous recruiter had declared him the ‘most intelligent candidate they’d ever interviewed’ – but didn’t mention whether he was offered the job), that he’d recently attended a reading bootcamp that improved his reading comprehension to 2000 wpm, and – my absolute highlight – a summary of his EQ test results that showed he had a self-awareness EQ of 120.”

23.  “My mom, a nurse, had ‘looks good in white’ on her resume and got hired. It was the 60s/70s, a different time. She is still a nut.”

24.  “We had an intern who applied for a full-time role a couple years later … and his resume listed the accomplishments of our ENTIRE TEAM over the summer when he had interned. Cool that he was paying attention to what all of us were working on, I guess? But it was so clearly an impossible scope for a single intern and he was applying to the exact same team with all the same people. I’ll never know what led him to think that was a good move.”

25.  “On his resume for a serving position, “glowing tan” was its own bullet point on a list of skills.”

26.  “Applicant put in fake experience. Unfortunately, he put in my job as his current fake job — a job I’ve held for 10 years. I guess he didn’t realize he’d be reporting into me. Another applicant had one line of actual job experience, and a whole page of his tennis accomplishments, including children’s tournaments he’d won 15 years ago. As a child.”

27.  “One candidate listed ‘High social status’ as a quality. I emailed him and he explained that he had a large following on social media.”

28.  “My place of work has an online application for candidates to fill out. Under their work history, one applicant answered the question of who was their supervisor at previous position with ‘Barbara.’ The answer to the follow-up question ‘Why did you leave this position?’: ‘Barbara.'”

29.  “My three favorites of all time (hiring non-attorney positions in a midsize, fairly conservative business law firm). None were invited to interview, but number three was very close:

1. Perfectly fine resume for accounting position, but cover letter indicated they had been “screwed” by lawyers multiple times and wanted the job to prevent that from happening to others.
2. Gentleman with a skill listed as strong research skills, with a recent five-year “employment” stint listed as author and a link to his self-published fetish novel.
3. Good relevant prior experience, but the current position listed was a year-long stint as Miss BDSM OurState.”

30.  “From the Personal Interests / Accomplishments section:
‘Scented Candles
• I own 50+ scented candles covering every season of the year and give optimal recommendations using a calculated analysis on season, location, environment, event, personal preference, and vibe.'”

31.  “My heartfelt apologies to the original applicant wherever they may be now, but this section header of their cover letter has always stuck with me: ‘From whence did this stranger come to us in our hour of need?’ Love the confidence.”

32.  “Some job sites allow you to add soft skills to your application and ask you to list when this trait took effect. I’ve seen a lot of resumes that read things like ‘Enthusiasm (less than 1 year).'”

33.  “I’m currently hiring for a student worker position and received a resume that was just a screenshot of the candidate’s notes app on his phone. It included his full date of birth and age, at least five discrete fonts, and ‘good at video games’ in the skills section. Also, the screenshot was not cropped, and his phone battery was at like 5%. We will not be interviewing this person, but I’m secretly kinda bummed I won’t get to meet someone who sounds like truly a top-tier agent of chaos.”

34.  “The marketing candidate who sent a half of a dollar bill with his cover letter stating we would get the other half once we interviewed him. He was not interviewed.”

35.  “I saw a resume that included the line, ‘Personal interests: none.’ Not sure if he trying to signal how dedicated he was to his work?”

how can I shut down gossip at work?

A reader writes:

I like my job and my coworkers, but there’s one thing that keeps bugging me: There’s a real culture of gossiping, and I keep getting sucked into it. I used to be a huge gossiper myself, but at a previous job I was the target of some untrue and hurtful gossip, and since then I’ve really tried to reform my own habits.

At the same time, I’m aware that completely opting out of office gossip means I could miss out on information that would be helpful for me to know. I also don’t want to come across as chilly or reserved or like I’m judging other people. How do I shut down gossip when people try to share it with me without harming my relationships with those colleagues? Is that even possible? Or do I just need to get over it and accept that some amount of gossip will always be normal in a workplace and I’m being unrealistic in thinking I can opt out of it?

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

my employee yelled at a coworker — but I don’t think she should apologize

A reader writes:

I recently joined a public agency as a director after working in the private sector previously.

One of my employees, let’s call her Anna, works with various employees from the IT department in a working team on projects that are very much needed to advance our team’s work. She does her job super well and has great working relationships with all but one person from the IT team, let’s call him Barry.

There’s a long history of a fraught relationship between Anna and Barry that long predates my time here. They are equals in terms of org level and responsibilities (Anna handles responsibilities of a product owner and Barry is a developer, if that helps). Basically, Barry doesn’t do the work that the working team mutually agrees is his to work on and thus causes lots of extra work for other team members. He then wastes even more time by trying to explain why he couldn’t do the work, and/ or is trying to gaslight Anna into thinking that issues that arise from him not doing his work aren’t issues or are her fault (this isn’t just what Anna tells me; others on different teams see it, too).

For various reasons related to this agency, putting Barry on a PIP, moving him to other responsibilities, or getting him fired is not an option. There had previously been mediation between Anna and Barry that didn’t change anything.

Things recently came to a head where yet another thing wasn’t done by Barry, he was wasting peoples’ time in a weekly developer meeting, and Anna initially calmly and then “with a very loud voice” told him to “please leave the phone conference.”

Anna and I just had a meeting where Barry’s manager, Jason (he’s also new-ish to the situation), requested an apology from Anna for “humiliating” Barry and stating that Barry isn’t motivated and can’t do his work because of how Anna treats him (solely based on the one interaction from said phone conference). Any attempts of explaining the situation in context from our end were essentially blocked.

I’m totally there that it’s not okay to yell at someone and ask them to leave a phone conference. But I’m also feeling frustrated on Anna’s behalf and empathize.

Barry not doing work caused Anna’s reaction, not the other way around. Anna is also not responsible for, nor has direct management of, Barry’s work and motivation. Also, stating that the interaction was “humiliating” for Barry seems … off? Not professional, not appropriate, not conducive to a good working relationship, sure, but my sense is that it’s being overblown to distract from Barry’s issues.

We left the meeting with Jason stating that the respective sides would talk about how to repair the relationship (on our end) and how to address performance gaps (on Barry’s end), and that Jason and I would then reconvene to talk about next steps.

In any other situation, I’d agree that taking ownership and apologizing for yelling would be the right thing for Anna do. But for reasons I can’t quite put into words, this feels really icky and frustrating to me in this particular situation. Anna also just told me she’d “die inside” if she has to apologize to Barry, especially when there’s no acknowledgement of his contribution to the issues.

How would you handle all this?

The idea of Anna having to apologize to Barry feels wrong to you because Barry — the person who’s causing all of these problems — isn’t being held accountable in any way. Making the person who finally snapped after Barry’s bad behavior went unchecked for months/years apologize while Barry doesn’t receive any consequences proportionate to his offenses is wrong-headed and unfair.

What should happen is that Jason needs to have a serious conversation with Barry where he lays out the issues with his performance and behavior and says something like, “While Anna shouldn’t have raised her voice, we’re seeing the consequences of long-running frustration, and that’s the piece we need to address on our side.” And I suspect if Anna saw real action being taken on that, she would feel a lot more comfortable acknowledging to Barry that she shouldn’t have raised her voice. But asking her to do that when Barry is allowed to continue Barry-ing without repercussions is, frankly, a bit sick.

If Jason keeps pushing for that, hold firm. Say that Anna has been pushed to the brink by months/years of intransigence from Barry and that while you agree she shouldn’t have raised her voice, she is not the primary problem, and that you are not willing to alienate an excellent employee by forcing an apology without addressing the actual problem. Say you feel strongly that there needs to be a plan in place to resolve the Barry issues before anything else happens, because the situation has become untenable. Anna’s outburst is a sign of that, not a separate thing.

It could also be useful to give Jason clear documentation of the many times Barry has neglected to do his job in the last, say, six months, if that’s something you and Anna can assemble. If she has records of follow-ups and nudges (“I emailed Barry on 4/16 to remind him this was due,” etc.), include those as well. You want to present Jason with clear records of what’s been happening, especially since he’s new to the job and probably doesn’t realize the extent of the problems.

I also want you to challenge the idea that it’s impossible to move or fire Barry. Maybe your agency really does work like that, but most of the time when people say that what it really means is “it would take a huge amount of work and time to fire Barry.” Because you’re not Barry’s boss, you only have so much influence there — but that would mean it’s a problem with Barry’s managers, not that it genuinely can’t be done.

Also, I’d like to know more about your power here. Do you have the authority to say that your team will not work with Barry anymore? Or to start regularly going over Barry’s head and straight to his manager when he’s not doing the work he’s been assigned? (You almost certainly have the power to start doing the latter, even if you can’t do the former.) If Jason isn’t willing to hold Barry accountable for his work, then make this Jason’s problem so he feels The Pain of Barry more often.

does being salaried just mean I work a ton of overtime for free, coworker won’t share a file, and more

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

1. Does being salaried just mean I work a ton of overtime with no extra pay?

My position became salaried a while back and, while I understand the general idea of it (no overtime compensation), I’m wondering how working overtime hours should or does function in the real world sense.

For example, I’m compensated based on a 40-hour work week. For a variety of reasons, my work week is routinely more than that and in the last few months has ballooned into approximately 48-55 with evenings and even a weekend day tossed in. It’s a workload and resources thing and, yes, my boss and I have discussed the non-sustainability of this schedule.

Now, I am afforded flexibility in my day. If I need to come in late due to a personal reason (doctor appointment, family health issues, etc.) or need to leave for a brief time during the day to deal with an aging parent issue and then come back, there’s no pushback. But my workweek is still over the 40 hours.

Does being salaried mean I just have to eat all this extra time and oh well? When I was hourly, obviously I got overtime pay or could take that equivalent time off. Now that I’m salaried, am I just … screwed? I work 50 hours a week, they get all that extra work, and if I ever want a day off I have to use a PTO day? So they get a lot of extra hours and days beyond a 40-hour, five-day work week and I get no extra compensation on my end? I love the flexibility when I have to use it but it’s not like I’m “stealing” that time and not making it up (and then some). So how is this supposed to work?

Yes, being salaried (or more to the point, exempt) is often a scam. It’s exactly what you wrote: you can end up working tons of hours with no additional compensation. In return, you get some flexibility. Depending on how that balances out, it’s very often not worth the trade-off. What’s more, we’ve somehow convinced people that being salaried is better and more prestigious! That’s the real scam.

That said, you can try setting some limits with your boss — saying that due to (fill in the blank — family commitments, exhaustion, health reasons, whatever you decide on), you won’t be available to continue working these same hours so you want to talk about how to prioritize. That doesn’t work every time, but it works more than you might think. (Big caveat: if you’re in a field where it’s widely understood that the whole industry’s norm is to work a ton of hours — typically although not always in exchange for high pay — think big law — this won’t work.)

Read more:
is being salaried a scam?

2. I got chastised for intervening with a friend’s hiring efforts

A colleague (Ben) just got promoted and will be hiring his own replacement. We work closely together, but I am not his direct report or in his department. Ben is one of the best colleagues I have ever worked with, and we are personal friends as well (we travel to see each other outside of work, we were at each other’s weddings, etc.).

I was nervous about finding someone who would do as good a job as Ben did and was eager to try to help, but I helped in the worst way possible. We had a detailed conversation about what the role would require, and afterwards I thought I knew some other folks at the company would be interested in applying. I told them about the opportunity and gave them advice about the role as I understood it. There wasn’t yet a formal posting for the role or a job description; however, the fact that Ben was being promoted was public knowledge, as was that there’d be a backfill.

This turned out to be a pretty big mistake. I felt instinctively “off” about it after I did it, and a couple days later I got pulled into a meeting with Ben and my manager. Ben told me that what I’d done was a major overstep and was a big issue for him; the conversations we’d had were expected to be private and I was giving advice I should not have been giving, which was not entirely correct, to people who shouldn’t have heard it yet. My manager also made it clear it was not acceptable and not something that could be repeated. I apologized immediately, told them all the details of the conversations I’d had, and after the conversation went over with my manager exactly what the problems were and reiterated my apology. I intend to apologize privately to Ben also, between friends.

In retrospect, I don’t know what I was thinking. I got way ahead of myself and made an error in judgment; I can see why they were upset. But I did not realize it was as serious a screw-up as it was, and I’m not sure where to go from here. I’ve rarely gotten feedback this negative in my career. I have no other discipline issues and have never had one this serious before. I’m good at my job and have never had a bad review. HR was not on the call, but they were on an email following the meeting where Abe summarized what I was to not do, and I responded by reiterating my apology and making it clear I understood.

I’m afraid I can’t recover reputationally. I want to keep my job, and more importantly, I worry I’ve jeopardized a friendship. How can I gauge how big a deal this is going forward? How can I work to repair the breach of trust with my colleagues? Finally, given that I made the mistake, what else should I have done — I think I should have told my manager sooner?

I think you will be fine! This stuff happens, it’s been addressed, and you immediately took responsibility for it, apologized, made it clear you understood, and said you won’t let it happen again. You weren’t doing anything nefarious; you were trying to help and just overstepped. It’s mortifying to get dressed down like that, but one incident like this against the backdrop of generally having good judgment and being conscientious is not going to follow you around forever. (And the intensity of your current mortification tells me that you are someone who’s generally conscientious; people who aren’t don’t respond like this.) It’s likely that two months from now, no one is going to be thinking about this much anymore, including you.

As for what you should have done, ideally you would have told Ben and your manager about it as soon as you started feeling off about those conversations, framed as, “I think I messed up. I thought it was okay to do X, but in retrospect I don’t think I should have because of Y, so I want to let you know what I said and to who, in case there’s any damage control we need to do.”

3. My coworker won’t share a file we both use

I work with, but am not the boss of, our department’s administrative assistant. We have worked together for two years, started around the same time.

The previous administrative assistant maintained a shared file of POs and invoices so we could all access them. I have asked the current assistant to maintain that shared file, but she just created a personal file that she maintains for herself. She has been off a little more regularly this year (vacations, sickness, surgery, bereavement, etc). When she isn’t in, I am her backup and people come to me with the questions they would normally ask her and without access to the file, it isn’t as simple to answer. This past Friday I asked her to share it before she went on a week-long vacation (early in the day, well before the time she was leaving) and her answer was no and that I should be keeping my own file on the same information. I said no, she keeps the file and if she didn’t share it with me then I wouldn’t be answering any questions while she is off all this week.

I have other responsibilities and keeping a separate file seems ridiculous to me, and it was shared previously. But am I wrong? Should I keep my own file? Or should I insist when she returns that she makes the file shared? I may have to get our boss involved. We are usually on friendly terms and while she can be a brat with others in the department, she is normally fine with me (there have been a few times that she has gone silent on me but I have brushed it off). Do I need to keep our relationship just professional and not be friends? We usually work well together and usually have someone I consider to be a friend where I work. Is there too much of a gulf between our roles to be friends as well as colleagues? I am at a loss of what I need to do in this situation and need some guidance.

You should absolutely tell her she needs to keep the file shared. You’re responsible for being her backup, which means you could need access to that file without much notice. It was shared in the past and it needs to be shared now. If she refuses, then yes, you need to take this to your boss. Your colleague is refusing an obvious and necessary workflow and making part of your job impossible.

Whether or not you need to move to a more strictly professional relationship with her is up to you. If you’re happy to stay friendly with someone who periodically goes silent and flatly refuses work requests, have it at! That sounds loaded, like obviously the answer is that you shouldn’t, but I mean that — it’s really just what you’re comfortable with. But don’t let a desire to be friends deter you from bringing your boss into this. Your boss would want to know.

4. When your mom is your only reference

My daughter is applying for full-time jobs. Right now her experience on her resume includes two part-time jobs that are vastly different skill sets. One is hands-on (think along the lines of camp counselor, birthday party leader) and the other is an office job, with admin duties.

The issue is that I am her reference for the job with the admin duties. She has been working here part-time through college and since she graduated. When she applied for the other job, (which is suited to young college-aged people and is not a career job), she listed me as her reference. We have different last names. There is no one else here who could be the reference for her. When they emailed me for a reference, I asked if they would call me. They did and I explained that I wanted to let them know I was her mother, because she didn’t want to mislead them and did not know how to get that across on her reference list. I gave them factual info about her duties, hours, and reliability. Now that she is looking for a more career oriented job, how do we handle this?

Yeah, you can’t really be a reference as her mom. You might be entirely willing to list off all her weaknesses as objectively as possible (my mom sure would; for all I know she’s doing it right now without being asked), but reference-checkers are going to assume that you’re biased and can’t speak in a reliable way to what she’s like an employee.

Which leaves her with the problem of what to do with a reference for her one and only office job! The best thing she can do is to be very up-front about it. She should only offer up references for non-you jobs and if someone asks for a reference for the office job, she should say (without any evasion or defensiveness), “My manager for that job was my mother, so I figured you probably don’t want to use her as a reference — although I’m happy to put you in touch with her if you do.”

Lots of people starting out don’t have office job references; people checking references for very entry-jobs will be used to that. (That said, if she has the opportunity to get more office-y references, even if it’s just volunteering or temping, she should do it.)

5. How to remind employees of policies when they break them

My organization provides therapy to children with disabilities. Our field requires extensive compliance and documentation to ensure fidelity with clinical and operational procedures. All employees sign off on the company employee handbook at the start of their employment. How can I best reiterate policies and procedures to employees without feeling like I am repeatedly throwing the handbook at them? For example, when an employee incorrectly requests time off, I usually snip the handbook policy and offer alternative pathways to ensure compliance from all parties. Is this overkill?

Interestingly, the subject line of your email to me was “if you sign the handbook, are you bound by it?” and that’s a different question than what your letter is asking — which I mention because I think that not recognizing that is muddying your thinking. Your employees are bound by the policies in your handbook whether or not they sign it — but that doesn’t mean that everyone will read it thoroughly or, especially, retain what they read there.

People are going to forget specific policies or just get things wrong. When that happens, sending them a copy of the policy is a pretty stiff/soulless way to handle it. Just talk to them! Remind them of the policy and, to the extent that you can, explain why that’s the policy. That’s more likely to help it stick in their head, and it’s better for people’s morale to feel like they’re interacting with a human who understands they may have been confused or not not have fully understood how the policy should have played out in their particular situation.

weekend open thread — May 25-26, 2024

This comment section is open for any non-work-related discussion you’d like to have with other readers, by popular demand.

Here are the rules for the weekend posts.

Book recommendation of the week: Very Bad Company, by Emma Rosenblum. An executive disappears at a dysfunctional start-up’s annual retreat. If you like company gossip, even if not your own, this is very fun.

* I make a commission if you use that Amazon link.

open thread – May 24-25, 2024

It’s the Friday open thread!

The comment section on this post is open for discussion with other readers on any work-related questions that you want to talk about (that includes school). If you want an answer from me, emailing me is still your best bet*, but this is a chance to take your questions to other readers.

* If you submitted a question to me recently, please do not repost it here, as it may be in my queue to answer.

I got rid of my office’s furniture by mistake, is combined PTO better than separate sick and vacation time, and more

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

1. I got rid of my office’s furniture by mistake

We downsized our office recently, and I was in charge of getting rid of all the excess furniture. I’ll admit, I probably could have paid better attention in the one (one!!!) meeting we had that showed the new floor plan, but the thing that was really emphasized to me was which offices and rooms we were getting rid of. It was a lot and I was able to put it off because the start date kept getting delayed to “TBD,” until we got a week’s notice that construction would begin and I had to call a company to remove everything.

It was a pain getting a company on such short notice, especially since the removal had to be after hours per our building’s policy. I was also still sorting what tech could stay and go and juggling my usual job duties at the same time. All this to say, I was very stressed and distant from our initial meeting discussing everything and (since I had zero oversight on me) I marked way too much stuff to be taken because I thought there would be absolutely no room for it post-downsizing.

I’ve just come into the office now and I see that we have a new conference room to replace our two that were lost (so now we have one large and one medium conference room) as well as a long blank hall leading to our CEO and CFO’s offices. We had furniture that would have fit there in excess, but I got rid of it all (and paid for the privilege!) so now those areas are completely empty and we have no extra furniture to put there.

I have no idea what to do. Clearly my boss hasn’t been into the office in a while or I’m sure he’d have said something. Do I own up to it? Try to find replacement furniture so I have a solution when I do? Or just wait until he says something about it?

Right now I’m freaking out and wondering how many part-time jobs I’ll have to take on to make rent once I’m fired for making such an expensive mistake, so I’d really appreciate any advice you can give.

You need to own up to it right away, not wait for your manager to notice on his own! Not saying anything would make the original mistake worse.

For example, you could say: “I’m not sure what happened! I didn’t realize we’d have two conference rooms and that long hall to furnish, and was more focused on making sure we didn’t have too much furniture still with us post-move. Now those areas are empty; we need conference tables and chairs at least.” If you can’t credibly say you didn’t realize those areas would exist because you were shown them and just forgot, then the framing is more: “I’m not sure what happened, but somehow my calculations didn’t include enough furniture for XYZ. The conference rooms and hallway are currently empty. I realize this was my mistake, and I’m mortified. What’s the best way for me to fix this?”

But own up to it, and take responsibility. The fact that there was no oversight may have been a mistake on their side, but on your side it sounds like you were pretty haphazard about it (for example, normally with a task like that you’d ensure you had your own copy of the new floor plan and were mapping everything out). It’s unlikely to be a firing offense if you take responsibility for it, but it’s more likely to become one if you (a) don’t speak up right away so a solution can be found and/or (b) don’t take ownership for what happened and for getting it fixed.

2. Is combined PTO better than separate sick and vacation time?

My company “LittleCorp” is going through a merger into “MediumBiz.” The question has been raised whether to continue MediumBiz’s practice of five weeks Paid Time Off (PTO) to cover both vacation and sick time, or to move more to what LittleCorp has done: unlimited sick time, but only two or three weeks of paid vacation (depending on seniority).

Several folks see the five weeks of PTO and want that extra vacation time, and I can understand that. Especially since Covid, people have gotten sick a lot *less* because of distancing and we’re mostly WFH now.

However, prior to Covid, LittleCorp had cramped office quarters and a terrible culture of coming to work while sick. All of us got sick multiple times a year as some new disease ripped through the office. Technically this is a “management” problem of not enforcing “stay home if you’re sick,” but combining vacation and sick time into PTO would seem to set up a perverse incentive to come to work while sick to “save” those vacation days.

What say you? Which is better? Less vacation time, but more sick time? Or just combine ’em?

There’s no one correct answer to this. Different people have different (strongly held) opinions, and no matter what you do, some people are going to think you made the wrong decision and will be upset about it.

That said, I hate policies that combine sick and vacation leave into one overall PTO bucket. It’s great for people who never get sick; they get the maximum amount of vacation. It’s bad for people to do get sick more often (or who have kids); they feel pressure not to plan out time for vacation because they know they’ll need to hold on to those days for sickness. On the other hand, two weeks of vacation is bare-bones level stingy, and it won’t make you competitive or seen as having good benefits. Three weeks, at any level, is the absolute minimum I’d consider. Can you do a minimum of three weeks for everyone (more with seniority) plus unlimited sick time? That’s where I’d land if forced to pick.

Another complication: If this means people who used to get five weeks of vacation under MediumBiz’s policy (because they rarely got sick) are suddenly only getting three, those people are going to feel they got a paycut. The more generous you can be in plotting out vacation minimums, the better this will go.

3. Break room HVAC system aggravation

I’ve been employed by a small business for many years, and the president also owns the building. Unfortunately, routine maintenance isn’t a priority (outdated and inefficient equipment is not replaced unless it is forced, and there is no hot water in our office, for example). A few years back, an HVAC system was installed in the break room, which doubles as a file storage area. Before this, the room was intolerable during summer and winter, especially for spending an extended length of time in, such as my lunch hour. I once measured the temperature at the break room table to be 95 degrees in July. It’s important to note that it’s just the president and me working in this part of the building, and he never uses the break room. Our service technicians come in about twice a year to work from here, and at that time the boss orders lunch for everyone. In short, I’m practically the only person utilizing the space.

The HVAC system had issues since the start, and ultimately my boss stopped placing service calls on it, so it failed to heat or cool from the summer of 2022 to December 2023. I can have my lunch there during spring and fall when temperatures are pleasant, but in the extreme heat or cold, I would have to sit at my desk or go elsewhere for my lunch hour. During lunch, I work on other interests and make phone calls, and prefer not to do that at my desk so I can have some privacy. So in December, when it was extremely cold, I asked if he would consider having a technician check the system. Right after that, I fell ill with Covid and missed a week of work. During my absence, it was decided that the unit needed replacing, and my boss proceeded with it.

A couple of months later, I decided to visit a nearby Free Little Library during my lunch break. After eating in the break room, I left to exchange some books. When I returned to the office, it was about 5-10 minutes before my lunch hour ended, so I sat in my car and replied to a few texts. Upon re-entering the office, my boss confronted me, asking flippantly, “Is there something wrong with the heater in the back?” Confused, I assured him it was functioning well. He responded, “How come I just spent $4000 on it if you are just going to keep sitting in your car during lunch?” I was taken aback, because that day was the first time I had left the premises during my lunch in several weeks. I explained that I had taken about 20 minutes to eat lunch in the break room, then went to exchange some library books, and when I returned spent the remaining time in my car to return some texts to my family. His response was that he had paid for that system for me.

It’s spring now, and the lovely weather is enticing me to spend my lunch hour outdoors at a nearby park. The thought of spending nine hours confined to the office without the freedom to eat elsewhere or attend to personal tasks, all for fear of arousing my boss’s anger or seeming ungrateful, leaves me with regrets about raising the HVAC issue back in December. Should I have stayed silent? Or is it reasonable for me to choose where I spend my lunch hour, despite the fact that my boss says he invested in the HVAC system primarily for my comfort? Notably, there is no policy in our handbook that forbids leaving during lunch.

It was reasonable for you to raise the issue originally, and he’s just being a grump now. Part of operating an office space is having a working HVAC system. Or, if for some reason he’d decided to abandon heating and cooling the break room, he could have simply told you that — as in, “Sorry, we can’t prioritize the break room’s HVAC right now so it might not be usable during extreme temperatures for a while.” Or he could have said, “How often do you use it? It’s expensive to fix and I’d rather hold off if you’re only in there sporadically, but I’ll do it if it’s a space you want to use regularly.” Any of those would have been better than grousing at you because you didn’t use it once in three weeks.

All that said, I wonder if you’re putting more weight on his comment than you should. He’s probably not tracking exactly where you spend your lunch hour every day, just happened to notice the one day you weren’t in there, doesn’t realize that’s not your normal M.O., and is now wondering why he paid to make it habitable if you don’t use it regularly, given his overall cheapness. But he also might never bring it up again after his one cranky outburst.

As for how you should handle it, if it comes up again, say this: “I don’t spend my entire lunch break in the break room every day of the year. Often I do, though, especially when the weather is bad, so it really helps that it’s usable again.”

4. Employers ghost me after requesting lengthy tests and projects

I work in media. It is standard to be asked to complete an “edit test” after the first interview. These range from three-hour timed tests to three-day projects.

I am consistently ghosted after these tests. Obviously, I understand that this means they’re not moving forward with me, but after preparing (usually for a day) for a test or project or memo and completing it, I expect a polite rejection email. Most recently, I’ve been following up via email a week or two after these tests and homework and I STILL GET NO RESPONSE.

Is there a way to force a “sorry, we didn’t pick you” from these people or do I just have to accept this rudeness over and over? I should add that I have 15 years of experience in my field and am surprised to be rejected after an edit test. I’ve written for some of the largest, widest-read publications in the country and I know I do a very good job on said tests.

There is no way to force a response from them. What they’re doing is rude and unprofessional (although very common) but you don’t have any power or leverage to make them respond to you. You’re better off figuring that their silence is their response (which it is — it’s a rejection — just a particularly rude one).

That said, a three-day unpaid project is ridiculous. If that’s the norm of your field and all the most desirable employers are in your field are doing that, you probably can’t do anything about it unless your skills are especially in demand … but in general, it’s very reasonable to decline to do three days of unpaid work.

my friend is in trouble for attendance issues caused by her dad being sick

A reader writes:

I’m wondering if you have any advice on encouraging a coworker (or former coworker) to stand up for themselves. I have a feeling there’s not a lot I can do, but I feel so helpless watching this situation.

My former coworker and friend, Jane, is still at the job where we met. It’s not the worst employment situation I’ve ever heard of, but they keep salaries low, are extremely cliquey, and encourage in-fighting among staff. HR is primarily concerned with pressuring employees to give up federally protected rights, spreading confidential information, and micromanaging people’s clock in/out times.

Jane’s father is in hospice. He is unfortunately terminal and is unlikely to be around for very much longer. She is in her late 20s, so still quite young to be losing a parent. Due to the distressing nature of this, she had some issues with attendance as she tried to balance her ill father and multiple jobs. HR’s response to this was to place her on a PIP for attendance. Am I crazy to think this is totally bananapants and unbelievably unsympathetic? (I only left this job a few months ago, and I’m unsure how much it warped my idea of what is normal.) I get that it is technically allowed, but I can’t imagine my new team or company doing this — I’m hard pressed to think it’s now the professional standard.

I’ve encouraged her to look into FMLA and various forms of paid (or unpaid) time off to be with her father, but she’s extremely averse to conflict. Additionally, I’m fairly new to the corporate world and I’m unsure whether I’m giving the right advice or if I need to be more specific. I’ve tried to encourage her to look for new jobs but with so much going on obviously now is not a great time for that.

Because of her nature and now being placed on a PIP, she’s concerned about bringing it up or pushing back on these circumstances at all. For various reasons, she can’t afford to be without a full-time job for long and she’s also relatively inexperienced in the professional world. I think while she values my support she’s unsure if she can take my advice seriously (I’m a bit younger but a little more world weary, having been on my own since I was 17 years old). I’m wondering if someone with more experience than either of us confirming this is indeed insane would help give her a push.

(To be clear, she is in no way integral to the functioning of the company. The team could absolutely handle her taking a week or two off. They are griping about being short staffed but they just walked out an employee on the team who put in their two weeks, for no reason other than to make some kind of point? None of us under the manager that runs that team had or have access to confidential information/trade secrets.)

Is the answer simply “you can lead a horse to water but you can’t make it drink”? Or is there something I’m missing beyond general advice-giving?

Do you know exactly what the attendance issues have been? If it’s just that she’s missed some work because her dad is terminally ill, then yes, her company is being horrible. They instead should be talking to her about options for time off (including things like FMLA).

On the other hand, if it’s something like she’s missed work without alerting anyone she’d be out, or that her presence at work has been unreliable without talking to anyone about the reason why … well, she still shouldn’t be on a PIP if they now understand what’s happening; they should be explaining what they need on her end (like an alert when she’ll be out, to the extent that’s realistic) and what her options are for time off.

You mentioned some of the attendance issues may have stemmed from working multiple jobs; if that’s been part of it, that’s going to draw a less sympathetic response. Either way, her dad is still dying and they should assume she’s devastated and not working at optimal capacity, and they should be trying to work with her on getting everyone’s needs met, not being punitive. But some of this depends on how much has been “my dad is sick” versus “I’m working multiple jobs” (as well as on how much of the situation with her dad has been communicated to them).

As for what she should do from here, you’re absolutely right that she should be inquiring about FMLA. Some things to know about FMLA: to be eligible for it, her company needs to have 50+ employees and she needs to have worked there for at least a year and have worked at least 1,250 hours during that year. But if she meets those requirements, FMLA should be her next step since it will protect her job while she’s out for dad-related reasons. It’s not adversarial to use FMLA! It’s there for exactly situations like this. And that PIP is her company telling her that she risks getting fired if something doesn’t change; one thing it would be smart to change is the legal framework they’re using for that leave, and FMLA will do that.