weekend free-for-all – September 14-15, 2019

This comment section is open for any non-work-related discussion you’d like to have with other readers, by popular demand. (This one is truly no work and no school.)

Book recommendation of the week: The Lager Queen of Minnesota, by J. Ryan Stadal. I am a huge fan of his Kitchens of the Great Midwest (until stumbling across his photo recently, I thought he was a woman because he writes women so well). Anyway: pies, breweries, family drama.

open thread – September 13-14, 2019

It’s the Friday open thread! The comment section on this post is open for discussion with other readers on anything work-related that you want to talk about. If you want an answer from me, emailing me is still your best bet*, but this is a chance to talk to other readers.

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

coworker tags our CEO on Twitter to point out my mistakes, office baby talk, and more

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

1. Coworker tags our CEO on Twitter to point out my mistakes

I’m part of an incredibly progressive, supportive team, where one of my responsibilities is my organization’s social media. In six months, I have made three errors within tweets, two of which were mixing up the dates that two very similar events were happening on, and one of which was just a formatting error.

One coworker from a different department — who does not work with social media in any capacity — replies to the errors from her personal Twitter, tagging in our CEO’s personal Twitter to shout about the mistakes. She then emails a screen grab to my entire team (the person I manage, my manager, and my grandboss) demanding that my grandboss check all of my social media communications before they are posted, which would be ridiculous.

Obviously in an ideal world I would not be making any errors on social media. But three tweets in six months does not seem like a bad hit rate (also, our social tone is playful and conversational, and usually quite informal). Should I ask my manager to ask this woman to lay off me? Or do it myself?

That’s incredibly obnoxious. Ideally your manager would have already seen this and told her to cut it out, but since that doesn’t happen, it’s reasonable for you to say, “Jane, if you spot any errors in our tweets, please bring it to my attention directly and I’ll get it fixed. Commenting about it on Twitter brings more attention to it to people outside our organization, which reflects badly on us.”

That said … while your coworker is in the wrong in how she’s handling this, three errors in tweets in six months does strike me as a lot for public communications (especially for dates of events). If your coworker is involved in marketing or events or anything else that your social media work supports, she’s right to be concerned. I’d hold off on bringing your boss into this and instead focus on figuring out a system to catch errors before anything gets posted.

2. My coworker talks like a toddler

I work as an admin in a pretty small company, and I’m one of the youngest people in my office. Some of my coworkers have kids my age. One of my coworkers, “Linda,” is an older woman and has been here for a long time. She is a nice enough person and a decent worker. My problem with her is she constantly uses what I would call childish language.

For example, instead of saying, “I think we mixed up the dates on last month’s reports,” she’ll say “I think we made an uh-oh on last month’s reports.” And instead of saying, “I cut my finger on a stapler,” she’ll say “I got a boo boo on my finger.” A lot of the time, when she is taking a break to use the restroom, she’ll say she’s going to “make a tinkle” or “go potty.” And so on and so on. She talks like this constantly and, as far as I can tell, it’s not directed at any one person. It seems to be just how she is no matter who she’s talking to.

On one hand, this is the kind of thing I feel like I should just let go. One the other hand, I cringe when we’re in a meeting and she talks this way in front of clients or our bosses. We work in a very distinguished field (think like legal or medical) so coming off as professional is very important.

Although none of the bosses have said anything to Linda to my knowledge, I do worry that she makes us look a little unprofessional sometimes, particularly when we’re around clients. I’d like to say something myself to her, as we have a good working relationship, but I’m not sure how to say, “Can you please talk like an adult?” Should I say anything to her and, if so, how do I phrase it?

While this sounds incredibly off-putting, it’s not yours to fix! If you were her boss, you should absolutely say something. If you were her peer and she was talking to your clients that way, you’d have standing to address it. The people who have standing in this situation to address it have inexplicably chosen not to, and as the admin, it’s just not yours to handle.

Since you don’t have standing to address it, I’d say sit back and enjoy the entertainment of having a colleague who talks like a toddler and an office full of coworkers straight out of the Emperor’s New Clothes. (That doesn’t mean that you can’t call it out when it happens in a one-on-one conversation with you, though. There’s no reason you can’t say dryly, “I think you mean a mistake” when she refers to an “uh-oh” or so forth.)

3. Our annual evaluations want to rate our “boldness”

I’ve worked for company for five years. Each year they change the annual evaluation procedure, usually adding questions about goals we never set or new objectives or values we’ve never discussed before. Here are some of the ways I’ve been asked to evaluate myself this year:

“You stand tall in the face of adversity, are willing to voice an opinion and are firm in upholding company values. Rate how you have achieved your accomplishments by being bold.”

The other questions ask me to rate how I achieved my accomplishments by being innovative, collaborative, ethical, and disciplined. While none of these are bad goals, how am I supposed to describe the same accomplishments over and over from these different goal posts?

But “bold”? What does this even mean?! I’ve asked our HR rep, who kinda shrugged and said just go with it. What sort of response are they expecting? How on earth is this supposed to determine my value to the company? Are these sort of inane questions worth anything to anyone?

Is “boldness” by chance one of your company’s professed core values? It’s not uncommon for companies to assess people on how they match up with the company’s values — but “bold” is one that really needs more definition and discussion. And if the values are all like the ones you named, I’d rather see broader instructions like “in discussing your achievements, feel free to highlight ways in which you’ve especially lived our values of XYZ.” And really, evaluations should be primarily focused on the extent to which you achieved you goals. If you were unethical, undisciplined, or too cautious in pursuing them, we’re going to talk about that, but there’s not a ton of pay-off in forcing everyone to write about how ethics or discipline or boldness helped them hit their targets. (And the fact that your HR person didn’t have a real answer for you is evidence of that.)

In any case, you don’t need to use different accomplishments for each of these questions. You can use the same accomplishments and talk about different aspects of them (for example, if you’re talking about project X, you can talk about the specific ways you collaborated on it in response to the question about collaboration, the discipline you brought to it in response to the question about discipline, and so forth). Don’t use a single accomplishment for everything, but it’s okay if your answers overlap.

4. Coworker leaves other colleagues out of the loop — and looks biased

I’m a few months out of college and on a software development team. A few weeks ago, my team brought in a senior designer, John. The problem is that John keeps leaving people out of meeting invites, thank-yous, and code reviews, and the people he leaves out are coincidentally the minority members of our team. (John thanked a coworker who was out for a week instead of the female lead, who put a lot of time into reviewing his work.)

Anyway, we don’t have a traditional kind of manager, just a project manager who handles assigning work. Right now, I’ve been adding forgotten team members with “hey, looks like you forgot X, so I added them.” Is there anything else I can do? If it’s relevant, John and I are remote, most of the team is in the same office, and I look like a white dude.

What you’re doing is great. Keep doing that.

If you weren’t just a few months out of college and John weren’t in a senior role, I’d say to also call it out more explicitly — as in, “I’ve noticed you keep leaving women and people of color out of your meeting invites, thank-you’s, and code reviews. I’ve been trying to add them in where I spot it, but I’m sure you don’t mean to be doing that so I wanted to flag it for you.” And frankly, you might able to say that now, but given the likely disparity in power and influence, you’d want to adapt based on what you know of the politics in your workplace and your dynamic with John.

You could also flag it for your project manager and ask them to keep an eye out for it.

are my clients hiring me to do work their companies believe they’re doing on their own?

A reader writes:

I’m a somewhat newish, full-time freelancer (data visualization and reporting). Previously, I was an employee for many, many years at huge financial institutions, so that’s my “level-set” in terms of business norms (conservative, process-driven, high awareness of confidentiality).

It has happened twice (among 20ish contracts) that I find out some time after I’ve started a contract that the client is personally paying me for work for their company (where they are an employee, not founder/owner). Significant work, not just an hour or two helping to figure out some calculation or technical work-around.

This makes me uncomfortable. I feel like I am potentially being engaged in something sneaky (the client sharing company data outside the company, or using unvetted resources), but given the set-up of how projects happen, I don’t have enough info to really know if something is off. I do ask questions before taking a job, but I’m not going to preemptively ask all potential clients if they have the authority to hire me. Also, even if the client has the blessing of their employer to hire me, it goes against everything in me that the employee is paying me their own money for their company’s work. But again, I don’t know the whole situation – maybe they’re making more than enough to sub-contract and still come out ahead, but I worry that maybe an employee is so afraid of losing their job they would pay their own money to keep it – a situation I don’t want to somehow condone or contribute to.

What do you think about this? If I find out an employee of a corporation has hired me with their own money to work on their company’s data, do I have some responsibility to push back or ask questions? Is the ball in my court in any way? After all, if I see a job that is clearly a student trying to hire someone to complete an assignment, that is fraud and clearly not okay. Is there a clearly drawn line when an employee hires someone to help them do their job? I suspect norms could vary in different companies and even industries (and I do work in a wide variety of industries and types of companies).

About my work set-up: I find and connect with clients through a third party online service, who also handles invoicing and payments (they are not my employer in any way — I set my own rates, choose my own jobs, and then negotiate the terms of my own contracts). So I don’t personally write invoices to my clients or have their payment information, which is why I don’t know I’m begin paid personally rather than through their company.

The way the service works is that a person posts a project/job description and can either invite freelancers to apply, or freelancers can find the job and submit a proposal. The client can post a job under their own name or a company name, but it’s usually their own name. The potential client and freelancer have a conversation, decide whether to move forward, agree to terms, and a contract is issued through the third party service (with standard boilerplate terms including data confidentiality, so I am under contract to keep the data confidential). Because I work with data, clients will often, but not always, also ask me to sign their own company’s confidentiality agreement, which I am happy to do. As a side note, I do google potential clients before engaging with them. I like to see that they are affiliated with the company they say they are (LinkedIn or their company website) and get an overview of the company.

The first client this happened with, let’s say Fergus, is a mid-level manager in a huge corporation. He was one of my very first clients, and over time I had small suspicions he may have hired me directly. Fergus told me some months later that this was the case. He had a change of manager, and my existence somehow came out. He asked me to help him document the work I had done so formal company paperwork could be written out and said the company wanted to get my third party online service on their vendor list. So, he did okay with the fallout, and it was really his choice and situation to deal with. But from what I gather, his company wasn’t happy that he hired me unofficially. On the other hand, they were happy with the results of my work, and my client made that happen.

Have I been made part of dishonesty toward a client’s employer? I wouldn’t know without explicitly asking, which feels … presumptuously distrustful?

I cannot imagine a situation where I’d be okay with an employee hiring an outside freelancer to complete work I’d assigned to them and believed they were doing, unless (a) they disclosed it to me up-front and I okayed it, (b) they were senior enough that they had the authority to make those decisions on their own, or (c) it was the norm in their field (like an event planner hiring day-of assistants).

It’s hard to know exactly what’s been happening. It’s possible that it’s (b) — the people you worked with had the authority to bring in outside help, or at least reasonably believed they did. But the fact that at least one company wasn’t happy when they found out indicates that might not be the case. On the other hand, if it’s people hiring outside help to complete an assignment their boss thinks they’re doing on their own, that’s not really okay.

The problem you’re facing is, how can you know which situations are which?

If you really want to explore this, I’d talk to people who work in the field those two clients were in — run it by them and see what they think.

But my thought is that there are lots of other reasons you shouldn’t contract with individual employees, even aside from the ones you laid out in your letter. What happens to the work if the person leaves their job while your project is only partway done? How will you track down payment if the person disappears? And if you need assistance in enforcing the terms of the contract, you want the company to be the liable party, not an individual.

Given that, I’d think the easiest approach is to make it your policy that when the work is ultimately for a company, you’ll only contract with the company, not with individual employees.

You could explicitly ask when the contract is being put together, “Am I contracting with you as an individual or with the Savory Pies Center as a company?” And if they say you’re contracting with them as an individual, you could then say, “For legal reasons, I only contract with the company directly.” If asked why, you can explain it protects you down the road around things like payment and liability.

If the contract does end up being with the company, at that point I think you’ve done your due diligence.

But if someone balks at you not contracting with them individually, at that point the door is open for you to ask for more information — as in, “Can you tell me about the context? Has your company approved outside work on the project?” … and you could then explain that you can’t do work for a company that hasn’t been okayed by the company itself, unless you get information that changes your thinking on it.

updates: the fake pregnancy rumor and more

Here are three updates from people whose letters I answered here previously.

1. My coworkers are joking that I’m pregnant when I’m not

Firstly, thank you so much for publishing my letter and for your thoughtful response. I was intensely frustrated when I wrote to you and worried I was overreacting, but your response along with the insight and stories of your commentators proved exactly why pregnancy isn’t something to joke about.

Thankfully, I have a positive response!

A few commentators wondered if I was the only woman on the team. Staggeringly, the team is mostly women. We’re all around the same age, but I’m the only person who isn’t vocal about staying child-free. I think this is why they didn’t consider the prank to be a big deal, but every way I look at it just shows some terrible judgement.

As we’re a small company, the HR is split between our office manager (female, who was in on the prank) and our director (male, who wasn’t). The director wasn’t in the day after I heard the announcement, but I shut down any attempts to laugh about it with “stop, I don’t like this.” The following day, I pulled my director aside and told him that a) I wasn’t pregnant and b) the whole thing was problematic and needed to stop immediately. He was shocked that I hadn’t been in on the prank and was very supportive.

Not long after, he pulled the office manager aside for a chat and then asked if I could help him with an errand that took us both out of the office for a while. When we came back, everyone was very sheepish and the radio was turned right down. No-one has apologized so I don’t know if they thought of me as a spoilsport, but I don’t really care!

A few people wondered if the radio presenter knew the pregnancy was fake, but I think he believed it was genuine. My coworkers have played the game of “what crazy thing can we get him to say” before, and I think I was just collateral damage this time around. One of my coworkers emailed him and he stopped all mentions of the prank right away. But, in a twist, the radio station is (almost) no more! A couple of weeks after all this went down, every live show stopped and it looks like it’ll fold any day now.

From what I’ve gathered, he’s just a regular guy who did an afternoon show for fun. None of his shows have ever featured shock value or pranks, which is why the whole thing felt cruel. On the other hand, my coworkers do have a habit of taking things too far.

2. Letting my office know about my child’s transition (#3 at the link)

I just wanted to let you know that I did tell my department about my trans child. It was actually a huge relief to be able to just say, “Hey, just so you know, my middle child goes by Sam and he/him pronouns now.” No one was freaked out about it (or if they were, they sure didn’t say anything in the moment). As far as I can tell, everyone is treating me the same. One of my colleagues thanked me for sharing the information with them. My manager just asked how things were going, and complimented me on being a good, supportive parent! (My response: “He’s my kid.”)

Anyway, I want to thank you for sharing my letter, and all the commenters who weighed in with advice. What a great community you have built here!

3. Is it ethical not to ask for more work when you have room to do more?

I wanted to let you know that I got the promotion/raise!!

I ended up keeping my head down and when I got really bored, asking my marketing boss what she had that I could help with. I discovered late in June that there was talk of creating a position explicitly for me as a marketing assistant. The job was posted, but due to the salary they were saying the position deserved, grand-boss made it a professional-only posting requiring a degree. I was disappointed, my marketing director was disappointed, and she told me there was no way the job would get any applicants because the specific experience/knowledge that nobody else in our area would meet (because it was tailored to me!).

The job was reworked in July and posted as a still-significant bump but not as a professional position, and with the blessing and encouragement of my bosses I applied and got it! In fact, I was later told I was the only applicant. This position will be more work of the kind that I enjoy and find fulfilling, and I will have lots of new unique challenges and very little of the work that bored me. I start soon and will have a salary that’s about $7,000 more than my previous position, something like a 30% jump. It will look great on my resume once I graduate and I know I’ll really enjoy the increased workload and the variety. And I’ll be moving into my own office from a hallway desk. And I’ll have increased flexibility that will allow me to take day classes and get my degree faster!

I don’t think I could have asked for a better outcome, and I seriously credit my success to all the AAM reading I’ve done, so thank you Alison and the insightful commenters!

how do people survive jobs with long hours — and is it worth it in the long-run?

It’s the Thursday “ask the readers” question. A reader writes:

I recently started my first professional job since graduating college. I work in an industry that is notorious for long hours (think 60-80 hour weeks for 4 months in a row). I knew what I was getting myself into when I accepted this job, but now that it’s here I’m really struggling with the hours. My physical and mental health has been deteriorating, and I carry stress with me even when I’m not working.

How do people survive working jobs with insane hours? I intend to stay 2-3 more years (as is traditional in my field) then move to a job with more work-life balance, but even these next few years seem impossibly daunting to me. Do you have any advice for how to succeed when there isn’t much work-life balance? How do you stay productive and alert when working 12+ hour days, six days a week? Any advice would be greatly appreciated.

I am also curious if those who have worked long hours look back with regret for the time they spent working, or feel that their hard work was worthwhile. I am hoping that my work now will pay off for me later, but I am really worried if I’m sacrificing too much for my professional life. Thank you so much for your thoughts!

Readers, please use the comments to weigh in!

I don’t want to stay in an Airbnb with coworkers, illegal requests for salary history, and more

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

1. I don’t want to stay in an Airbnb with coworkers

I just started to work at a small company (under 15 people) that hosts conferences a few times a year in different parts of the country. Everyone in the company is required to be on location for each of these conferences, which I was aware of when I was hired. However, recently it came to my attention that instead of putting us up in hotels while we are on location, they rent Airbnbs that we stay at all together.

The idea of sharing sleeping/bathroom space with the rest of my coworkers and not having my own space to retreat to when the day is done for the entire week that we are away makes me feel uncomfortable. That said, I know that this is a tactic they are using to be financially conscious and not have too high of expenses.

How should I go about having the conversation with the owner of my company about my feelings about our travel accommodations? What is reasonable for me to ask for?

Personally, I think it’s reasonable for you to say you’re not comfortable staying in an Airbnb at all and ask if you can book a hotel room. If it were me, I’d say, “I’m not comfortable staying in an Airbnb — I’ve read too much about the safety issues that can crop up. I’ve found a room I can book for $X/night — can I go ahead and do that?

But you’re new and it’s possible it’ll come across as out-of-touch with the culture. It also may put a divide between you and your coworkers, if you’re the only one who opts out of these arrangements. So you’ve got to factor that in and proceed accordingly. If you’re in a senior role, it may not matter. If you’re pretty junior, it’ll likely be more of A Thing — and if that’s the case, I fear you may be stuck with this unless you’re willing to risk this type of blowback.

2. Online application illegally asking for salary history

I’m currently completing an online application for an organization in Washington state, where in July it became illegal to ask applicants what their previous salary was. I’m considering putting 0’s into the required box, because I cannot complete the application without putting numbers into the form. Moving forward, how should applicants inform the employer that their application doesn’t follow the new law, especially without jeopardizing their candidacy for the job?

Yep, put all zeros in that field if it’s required. Ideally you’d be able to contact them and say, “I saw there’s a problem with your application form. It’s still asking for previous salary, despite the state law that now prohibits it, and the form requires the field be filled in before the application can be submitted.” But (1) many employers don’t respond to questions about their application process, (2) the right person may not even see it (your message may go to someone low-level who ignores it), and (3) there’s risk to being the applicant who right out of the gate is advising them on their legal obligations. One option is to get around #3 is to send that message from an email not associated with your application, but then you’ve still got #1 and #2 to deal with.

You could also take a screenshot and send it to your state Department of Labor, which is charged with enforcing the law.

3. My coworker is a pain to schedule meetings with

Part of my job is administrative, and it often falls on my shoulders to schedule meeting for my department’s leadership team (of which I am a member). I’ve been assigned this task for about seven months, and am quite capable of effectively using my company’s scheduling methods.

The problem is, there is one other leadership member who, no matter what, tells me she can’t attend the meetings I schedule despite the fact that her calendar shows her as “free” or otherwise unscheduled for those times. This is a reoccurring issue, and it regularly forces me to ask her when SHE wants to meet, and then change meetings that I’ve already set. We’re peers in terms of company hierarchy and generally get along well socially, but I feel like it makes me look incompetent every time I schedule a meeting and have to change it. I don’t tell the rest of the team why I change dates/times; I simply note that there was a scheduling conflict. I also check with her from time to time about whether her calendar is up to date, and she always says it is. What can I do?

First, name the problem for her and ask her what you can do to solve it: “Jane, I’m having trouble scheduling you in for meetings. You usually say your calendar is up-to-date, but then when I schedule meetings for times your calendar shows as free, you nearly always end up having a conflict and I need to go back and find new times for everyone. I want to be able to schedule meetings correctly the first time. How can I solve this?”

If this doesn’t produce a resolution, then I’d stop relying on her calendar at all and just email her when you need to schedule things. It’s more work up-front, but it’s less work than always having to schedule everything twice.

4. Interviewer was eating lunch during our Skype interview

I am applying for entry-level jobs. I recently had a Skype interview with me and four interviewers on different cameras. One of the interviewers was using the time to eat their lunch while interviewing me. The three other interviewers didn’t say anything, but it threw me off. Is this normal to expect during Skype interviews during potential lunch hours?

It’s not unheard of. Some people work through lunch, and you happened to be the work they had scheduled for that time. Sometimes, too, people get pulled into interviews at the last minute, and it’s either eat while they talk to you or not get a chance to eat at all that day.

People are also sometimes more willing to eat during a Skype call since the food seems less intrusive — you’re not smelling it and seeing it across from you on the table the way you would if you were meeting in person.

It’s not so common that you’d expect it, but try not to get thrown by interviewers who are multi-tasking.

5. Should I push back on sharing an office?

I need your help to determine if I’m being oversensitive about this situation. I’ve recently taken an administrative position at my current job. My position was newly created at all the sites across the organization. For background, each site has known about the addition of this position for over a year.

I was recently told that I would be sharing an office space (for about the next six months) until they could figure out the best place to put me. I find this incredibly odd as I will be not only the only manager but the only person in the whole building who has to share an office. I have issues with this for a number or reasons: (1) Perception. I find it hard to believe people will take me seriously as I don’t have my own office. Everyone who will be reporting to me will have their own office. A subordinate who I will supervise will be sitting directly across from me in the shared space. (2) How do I tackle handling meetings or employee evaluations? What if someone needs to speak to me about something sensitive? Do I ask the staff member in the same space to leave?

I’m generally pretty low maintenance and am unbothered by much. However, I feel like that’s why I was placed in this office, because my supervisor knew I wouldn’t make a fuss. I don’t believe that if they had hired an external employee for this position that they would have placed them in a shared office. Am I thinking too much about this?

You’re right to be concerned about how you’ll have private conversations with employees, which is something you need to do as a manager. It’s reasonable to push back on it. You could say, “I’ve given this some thought and I don’t think it will work. I need to be able to have private and sensitive conversations with employees. Are there any other options?” If whoever is in charge of this says they can’t think of anything, then I’d say, “In that case, I’m going to have Jane take the shared space and I’ll take her current space.” (Jane in this case is someone who reports to you, because you should have the authority to do that. Choose that person carefully though; whoever you pick probably won’t be thrilled, and it’ll help to be able to explain why you chose them.)

my boss has 10,000 unread emails

A reader writes:

Is it ever normal to have 10,000+ unread emails in your professional inbox?

Yesterday I inadvertently saw that my boss had 10,965 unread emails. She is a general counsel of a medium-sized company and does not seem to be overloaded with work. The majority of her team (around six people) are very autonomous in their work and do not often need her insight. Her working hours are equivalent to mine, around 50 hours per week, which is considered to be normal working hours in my field. Nor do we have automatic software notifications that tend to inundate our inboxes.

I have heard colleagues saying that she rarely answers emails. And I generally don’t send her email if I need her insight or feedback, as I know I will not get a quick answer (unless I chase her up face to face regarding the message). If I need something from her, I will go directly to her office or text message her, and in those those cases she is responsive. However, I work in the same building as she does, so I can step into her office anytime. Some of my colleagues who are not based in the same city struggle a little more to get answers from her.

Last month, I needed to obtain an information about a file I am working on, and she told me to contact someone in an other department for the info. Once I contacted did, that person told me that they already sent an analysis of the situation to my boss. I went to my boss’s office to ask her whether she has received the analysis. She checked her emails and found it. She then sent it to me and apologized.

This morning, we were in a meeting with an other department, and she mentioned something about an email that we all received. But I think that she read it so quickly that she misunderstood it (it was a very simple message), and she was corrected by the sender, who was in the meeting.

I haven’t worked for her that long and, given my autonomy, I do not closely work with her, so I cannot truly evaluate her competence or workload. And to be fair, she is always available whenever I step into her office. I was simply taken aback by her huge amount of unread emails.

There are a surprising number of people like your boss with literally thousands of unread emails in their inboxes. Even tens of thousands.

I don’t get it, but they’re out there.

With some people who do this, it’s not that they’re intentionally ignoring messages. They’re on mailing lists that send tons of messages and rather than deleting them, they for some reason leave them in their inboxes and just keep an eye out for anything else. But of course, when you do that, it’s easy to miss messages you actually need to see. It’s not a good system, although clearly some people feel it works for them.

With other people, the unread count is deceiving. They’ve filtered mailing list messages into subfolders, so they’re not cluttering up their inboxes — but in some email programs, the unread count in subfolders still shows up in your overall unread messages count. (Personally, I wouldn’t be able to take that stress and would be deleting every day — or at least marking as read — but some people aren’t bothered by it, or at least learn to live with it.)

All of this means: Don’t draw conclusions about your boss’s competence based on her unread email count. Draw your conclusions based on what you see of her actual work.

You’ve seen enough to know that email isn’t a good way to get her attention and that she has missed important messages … so that’s a data point in favor of her being disorganized, at least.

It makes sense to adjust for the email issue the way you’ve been doing — calling, texting, or dropping by her office. Your remote coworkers probably need to do the same thing (minus the dropping by).

There are people out there who are good enough at the core of what they do that people are willing to accept this kind of deficit in them. There are also people whose work doesn’t justify having to work around them in this way — but you’re probably not in a position to do anything about that. All you can really do is file this away as useful info about how your boss operates, and adapt accordingly.

my office sticks women with all the party-planning

A reader writes:

I’ve noticed in my office that nearly all of the holiday planning responsibilities fall to women. This is in a traditionally male-dominated industry where there has been progress in hiring/promoting women, but we’re still generally underrepresented. However, in the party planning efforts, usually all, or all but one, of the representatives are women.

This isn’t some vast management conspiracy. Usually what happens is a call for volunteers goes out, everyone ignores it, and each component organization either designates a representative or a woman volunteers. I don’t think it’s intentional in any way, but I can’t help but be frustrated that these types or roles always seem to fall to women.

Is this actually a problem? If so, whose responsibility is it to ensure a diverse representation in these things? How do they best do that? And how do I, as a low-level manager in this organization, approach it with my leadership?

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.

when giving good news, my boss first pretends to be upset as a “joke”

A reader writes:

Recently, I was called into an “emergency” meeting with my grandboss, supposedly to discuss budget problems on a program I am leading. This worried me, because I hadn’t thought there were any budget problems, and I hardly ever talk to her (and, wouldn’t expect to, unless something was Very Wrong). When I got there, both my boss and his boss grilled me about the project for a minute or so, before telling me they had lied — we weren’t there to discuss the project at all and in fact they were giving me an award for my performance on it!

A few months ago I got promoted, and a similar thing happened. My annual review was unusually very tense. I was grilled on my goals and projects in a stern way that seemed a bit out of place, and was asked things like “why haven’t you started this yet?” And “how much did you REALLY contribute to that?”… And was surprised with “I’m promoting you!” At the end of the 30-minute meeting. My boss later told me he had been trying to worry me as a joke.

My bosses found both of these things hilarious. And I feel like I should too. But I hate it! I have anxiety issues that I struggle with, and although I think I’m good at masking that, and seeming calm on the surface, I have a hard time calming down after stuff like this. In the annual review, I was so worried about the tone of the conversation that my stomach was in knots, and I didn’t ask questions like I normally would. In both instances I feel like I didn’t get to enjoy the moment because I was recovering from worry.

I guess this is a small thing, and I should probably feel grateful I have bosses that recognize my work and have a sense of humor. But, these tiny pranks bothered me so much that I was wondering if it was worth saying something (like “please don’t do that again if you care about my mental health! I don’t like it!) Or should I let it go?

WTF.

Your boss and his boss are asses who don’t understand power and the bounds of exercising it. Nor do they understand humans.

I’m sure there’s someone out there who would have genuinely enjoyed being the target of these “pranks” and would have enjoyed a jovial, unfeigned laugh at the end of them. That doesn’t change the fact that most people wouldn’t, and that making someone feel anxious and fearful isn’t a funny joke.

When “relief” is the best case outcome of a joke targeting someone whose paycheck you have authority over, your joke sucks.

And the authority piece of this is really crucial. When you have authority over people, you need to exercise it in a way that’s respectful of the people living within that control and indicates you’re sensitive to the potential for abuse inherent in that power. A boss who think it’s funny to trick you based on his power to levy serious, life-changing consequences on you isn’t a boss you can trust.

You’d be right to feel rattled and alienated by this even if you didn’t struggle with anxiety. Many people would! Your anxiety makes this even more upsetting, of course, but please know it’s understandable to take issue with this regardless.

So yes, do say something to your boss. I’d word it this way: “A couple of times now, you’ve made it seem like you’ve had serious concerns about my work before giving me an award or promotion. I wanted to ask if you’d please not do that again. Both times, my stomach was in knots and I was extremely worried. It wasn’t fun for me and I’d rather not go through that again. I also want to be able to take you seriously if there ever are serious issues with my work and not need to wonder if it’s real or not.”

If your boss is a mostly decent person who just didn’t think this through, he’ll respect this. (There are mean-spirited jerks out there who wouldn’t, but the type of manager to ignore this sort of direct request is pretty rare.)