weekend free-for-all – January 25-26, 2020

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: All This Could Be Yours, by Jami Attendberg. A dysfunctional family’s patriarch is on his deathbed, and his daughter struggles with his legacy.

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

open thread – January 24-25, 2020

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.

someone stole my work history, my coworkers are angry about an HR investigation, and more

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

1. My coworker made up stories about my medical condition, HR is investigating, and my coworkers are upset

I had a mastectomy in November. I didn’t tell my coworkers that I was having this procedure done because the last thing I wanted was people drawing attention to my chest. I knew people would be curious, but I figured they’d eventually let it go. One coworker has been (since I went on leave) asking around the office trying to figure out why I’m out and has even made up stories about a hand surgery and work comp claim and “woman surgery” (whatever that is). I should have let it go, but it’s January. I reached my breaking point yesterday and sent an email to my boss to ask this coworker to stop speculating why I needed surgery and to respect my privacy. Instead, my manager escalated this to HR.

I know I should have let this go, because now HR wants to interview the people who told me these crazy claims (in confidence) and there’s apparently no way to stop this process once it has started. I’m very angry at myself for not just moving on. One of the coworkers has already expressed that she never should have said anything to me in the first place and another is angry that they have to deal with HR. I’m not sure how to start repairing these relationships. Do you have advice?

Your manager most likely escalated it to HR because the company has a legal obligation to act when someone might be being harassed for certain medical conditions (anything that might be covered under the ADA, which this likely is). It’s true she could have simply had a stern conversation with your coworker and shut it down, but I can understand why she wanted HR involved — this kind of thing has the potential to be serious for the company if they don’t handle it correctly. HR is doing an investigation for the same reason. (More here.)

Regardless, if anyone is upset with you over this process, they’re absolutely wrong. The person who caused this is your coworker, who is a boundary-violating jerk. You put up with it far longer than you should have, and you had every reason to finally ask for it to be stopped. If your coworkers ask you about, you can shrug and say, “I just asked Jane to tell Lucinda to knock it off. They thought it required a more serious response than that because the company can have legal liability when there’s a medical condition involved. I’m not going to argue with that. But I gave Lucinda every chance to cut it out before I finally mentioned it to Jane.” Or even, “If you’re annoyed to have to deal with HR, that’s on Lucinda, who’s been doing this for months and had every chance to stop.”

You could also tell HR what’s happening and ask that they make it clear to people that you didn’t cause this and blaming you for it is crap.

2. Should I mandate video conferencing?

I manage a small team of software developers. We are spread out over 4-5 locations and so rely heavily on conferencing technology. We tried using video to increase participation and team “bonding” since team members may only see each other once a year, if that. We had good participation at first, but now hardly anyone turns on the video. In doing some research, it seems the only way for it to be effective is to have full buy-in from team members. I’m wondering if using video is valuable enough to mandate using it on daily stand-ups (if we can’t get 100% participation), or if we should not put too much time on this and put focus on other necessary areas. Do you have any thoughts on this?

Ugh, no! Don’t make people turn on their video if they don’t want to, which they clearly don’t. Some people hate appearing on video. There’s not enough to be gained by insisting on overriding their preferences.

As a manager, you’re going to have to have a certain number of requirements that annoy people. Don’t add to that number when you don’t have to.

3. Someone with my name has stolen my work history

I have a very common name, and live in a large metro area. Think Anna Jones in New York or Jennifer Johnson in Los Angeles. I’ve been at my current role for three years, and am fairly happy here but when I see a job opening that seems like it would be a great opportunity, I apply. This means I’m applying to a small handful of roles a month. I’ve had a few interviews and one offer I didn’t accept a few months ago.

This week my boss came into my office and asked me if I was planning on leaving the company. I frantically tried to think how he could possibly know i was applying when he said that HR had been contacted on behalf of a company conducting a pre-employment background check before I could start a new position. I was flabbergasted and told him I had no idea what he was talking about. I even checked all my emails when I was alone and I haven’t really been in the running for another job in weeks.

I spoke with HR, and they showed me the email asking to confirm employment, which they had answered according to policy before someone decided they should tip off my boss. I’ve never heard of this company before, let alone applied for a job with them. When I contacted them, they put me through to a hiring manager who told me I’d been in for an interview a few days ago.

They wouldn’t show me the submitted resume due to “privacy concerns,” which is absurd, but I’m sure that someone with my same name is using my actual credentials to get jobs. I looked at my Linkedin and now recognize that it had tons of random people viewing it, one of whom worked at the company that supposedly hired me. I am freaking out. I don’t know how much damage has been done to my professional reputation, because I have no idea who this is. Is this illegal? What should I do?

Holy hell. Someone out there has stolen your work history and is posing as you! This one is outside my expertise, but it’s worth having at least a preliminary conversation with a lawyer to find out your options.

I’d think that the company that hired this fraud would be interested in cooperating with you to stop them, but their “privacy concerns” stonewalling indicates otherwise. A lawyer might be able to get past that stonewalling though, who knows. It’s worth talking with one. (Lawyers, want to weigh in via the comments?)

4. Should I get a graduate degree in a field I don’t plan to work in?

I’m a recent college graduate currently working in data science. I’m considering leaving my job in a year or two to pursue a two-year master’s degree in theology or biblical studies. For a variety of reasons, I doubt I’ll be able to find a job in ministry that I’ll be successful in — I primarily want to study theology because it’s a personal passion of mine, and I so I would probably try to find another job in data science afterwards. But I’m worried that employers would question whether I’m really committed to my career. Or maybe they’d just think I’m a weirdo at risk of bringing religion into the workplace?

As a hiring manager, if you saw a candidate about five years out of college with three years of relevant experience but fresh out of an unrelated (religious) master’s program, how much of a red flag would that be?

The thing about fresh master’s degrees is that employers usually assume you want to use them — and so if you’re applying for an unrelated job, they assume you’ll leave as soon as something in “your field” comes along. Not always, but a lot. You can sometimes talk your way out of that, by giving a compelling, believable explanation of why you did the program and why you want the unrelated job you’re applying for. But it’s the kind of thing that will make some hiring managers worry, and if they have other qualified candidates whose resumes aren’t raising those same questions, some won’t bother talking to you to find out more about your situation.

That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do it. But you’d want to go into it with your eyes open to that piece of it.

Updated to add: Some commenters are noting this is less likely to be an issue in data science. So know your field!

what to do if your references aren’t available

A reader writes:

This question mostly applies to people working at small businesses where there is one manager and a few employees. I’ve always been told references should be whoever you reported to and/or whoever can evaluate your work. How can I provide a reference to potential future employers when the boss isn’t available or isn’t appropriate?

Possible situations: death of the owner/boss when there are no other managers … Your boss moved to a different company/location/country/industry and you can’t get their new contact info … The company went bankrupt and everyone scattered and not everyone can be found on LinkedIn or Facebook … Your boss is in jail or otherwise inappropriate as a reference … You were the boss and are now moving on after the company was sold, closed, complicated, etc.

Generally, you’d explain the situation and offer up other people who can speak to your work — ideally from that job, but if that’s not possible then from others. If you’re really stuck, sometimes you can offer copies of your performance evaluations from that job (which is one reason why it’s good to keep copies of them at home).

Hiring managers are humans who understand that sometimes this stuff happens. If you explain that your previous manager is dead or off the grid or so forth, they’re going to get it — they’ll just want you to be making an obvious effort to offer up other people who can speak to your work. Different hiring managers will have different levels of flexibility on this. Some will accept peer references when you’re in a bind like this and some won’t. Some will be happy as long as you can offer a manager from further back, while others will be uneasy if they can’t speak to one from the last decade. Some will make exceptions if you’re a truly stellar candidate who they already feel confident about, but they’ll have real hesitations otherwise. You just need to have a conversation with them, explain whatever the situation is, and work with them to see if you can come up with something they’ll accept.

But to the extent possible, it’s smart to make a real effort not to lose track of people who could be references for you because the more you have, the better. (LinkedIn can make this easier, although not always since not everyone uses it.) If you’re in a situation where you truly can’t come up with anyone for your entire career, not just a single job, that’s going to limit you.

updates: the tenant requesting money, the bad friend employee, and more

Here are three updates from people who had their letters answered here in the past.

1. My former tenant’s “manager” is requesting money for her time spent on a lease dispute

At first I did not contact Sara’s employer as I did not want the situation to escalate, either for me or the other tenants (I secured the access to the building thanks to the advice of one of the commenters). I received another email, threatening to send bailiffs this time, and I asked my solicitor to deal with it. She contacted the company and they confirmed that they had not started litigation. I know that Sara is not working for this company anymore but don’t really know what happened.

I have not heard from her since the court hearing 6 months ago (small claims court), and her parents have paid what she owed me. All is well.

2. I manage a friend and it’s not going well

So many changes have occurred since I last wrote you. My friend quit the job within six months of my taking over as a manager and I now manage a team that is truly my own.

As I mentioned in my last letter, one of my concerns was the review period that was coming up. I met with my boss as you and many other commenters suggested and basically told her everything that had been going on. It was a difficult conversation because I felt like I was bad-mouthing a friend. But things had gotten so bad that we could not have a civil conversation without snarkiness or attitude (hers and mine, I am ashamed to say). However, my boss let it be known that she was not surprised at any of it and that my friend was the same way with her – difficult to manage.

The review did NOT go well at all. I asked my manager to sit in on the review with me since she managed my friend for half the review period. My friend was combative throughout the process, making up things that did not happen and questioning all my feedback in her review. Luckily I documented every interaction with her and showed her the emails, to no avail. After the review, she went in and left a scathing response to me and my boss, accusing both of us of everything from racism to sexism to preferential treatment, and sabotage. Then she quit less than two weeks later.

Looking back, I don’t think there was anything that I could have done to manage her better because we were just too close. I don’t think I adequately stated how close we were in my last letter. We were really close to the extent that our families knew each other, we took international trips together multiple times, attended kids’ birthdays, baptisms, etc. It’s a bittersweet situation because while I am happier at work, I lost a really good friend, but I guess such is life.

I greatly appreciate your advice as well as that of the commenters. It grounded me and provided a better perspective. I learned a lot from this experience and I am continually growing and I am happy to say that my boss’ confidence in me has grown since then. She constantly seeks my input on serious matters and takes my recommendation often.

3. How do I let people know I’m fine with not getting promoted?(#4 at the link)

Thanks so much again for answering my question. This is only a partial update because even though I wrote in a while ago, the job vacancy for the Head role only went live a couple of weeks ago, and the recruitment will take a couple of months to complete, so I am still in the same position structurally as before.

Because everyone in my organization tends to be aware of the latest job postings, I did have about a dozen people approach me when the advert went live and ask if I was applying. I found it quite easy to say that it wasn’t the job for me and l was looking forward to specialising more in what I do now. Often these people would express shock, which I am just trying to take as a compliment (that they think I could do the job – though I couldn’t). It will be interesting to see what happens when the Head is eventually recruited; in the meantime I think I have managed to quash any rumours that I have been passed over.

On a different note, a few months ago, I reread your response and started to think more about the undercurrent of gossip/drama that is rife in my organization and how I have been feeding it myself. I think I find it difficult to resist because I am the youngest and least experienced manager; I admit I am pretty impressionable and I have FOMO; so I do participate and contribute to this gossip culture, even when talking about myself/my work. I don’t think I am by any means the worst culprit. But I have started to be mindful of what I say and what its impact will be, if it’s not news that is 100% professional or need-to-know. I think acknowledging it was an important step for me. My goal is to be more professional, mindful, and compassionate, so that I can resist the urge to gossip. I hope this will make me a better manager in the long run.

let’s talk about bombed interviews and other job search mortifications

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

Today I had the worst job interview of my entire life. I am a young graduate professional who had the opportunity for a job that would have put my in a great position financially and mentally. It wasn’t a dream job, because those don’t exist, but I was really excited about it. Alison. I bombed it. It was terrible. It got me thinking though, I can’t be the only (semi) successful person who has totally failed something. Can we hear about mortifying interview experiences?

Yessss. Readers, please tell us about your bombed interviews and other job search mortifications in the comment section.

interviewing when you might be moving, coworker told people about my husband’s criminal record, and more

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

1. Interviewing when I might need to quit the job quickly

After two years in a freelance position, I’ve begun interviewing for in-house roles in my city. I’ve had some hesitation about doing this because, while I am really eager to find a consistent position, there is a strong chance my partner will be offered a job across the country. We don’t know when the offer might come, and we don’t know when we’d have to be out there if we decide the move is the right thing to do.

I’m beginning to hear back from companies about initial interviews, and the ones I have had so far have been positive. Of course, nothing is guaranteed at this point, but I’m imagining a situation in which I’m offered a job and then we decide to move. Knowing that that’s a possibility makes me feel a little bit dishonest if I leave it out of the conversation, but I also don’t want to bring it up before we know more about our plans. I’ve worked remotely for years, so I’m very comfortable with that, but to be honest, if we move I’ll be much more inclined to find a job in our new city (which has abundant and interesting opportunities for me!).

Do you have any advice about how/when/if I should be bringing this up with hiring managers? I suppose it would make the most sense to wait and see if this move will materialize at all, but since we don’t know how long that will take, I’m not comfortable putting my entire job search on hold. What would you say, or want to hear, if you were on either end of this situation?

As a hiring manager, I’d want to know very early on in the process so I could decide if it made sense to keep you in the candidate pool or not — but to be honest, unless you were truly extraordinary, I probably wouldn’t consider you further because it doesn’t make sense to hire someone who’s already thinking they may leave the job soon after. So, know that’s how a lot of hiring managers will feel and make your decision about whether to disclose it accordingly. (This assumes we’re talking about professional jobs where frequent turnover isn’t built into the model.)

But if you think you’re likely to know for sure in the next few months, it would be better to wait until then. I agree you shouldn’t put your job search on hold indefinitely for something that may never happen, but if you have the option to freelance a few more months, I’d strongly consider that.

2. My coworker is telling people my husband has a criminal record

About a year ago, my then-boyfriend came to visit me at work. A new colleague, whom I didn’t know or work with, told several colleagues that he has a criminal record, which she knew because her sister dated him years ago. Her stated reason for telling colleagues: she was worried that he was there for a job interview and she thought the company should know.

I approached my HR manager about the issue — that a colleague had brought in personal, sensitive information and spread it around my workplace. He recommended that I speak with her directly, which I did. I politely and firmly explained that this is not information that is hers to share. He made a mistake in his youth (a minor, non-violent offense, for which he paid very heavily and for which he continues to pay a heavy price). She apologized, the damage had been done, but we moved on and several months ago, I married him.

This week, I learned that this same person approached a family member of mine (the two of them are members of the same religious community), months after the wedding, to tell her about my husband. I have a small family, and they are very important to me. I was livid. What if my family decided to turn their backs on us? This person doesn’t know me or my husband, she doesn’t know what happened with my husband’s transgression, we’ve never done anything to her, and even her sister moved on years ago.

I have no power over this person. Do I have a justification for filing an official complaint with HR? Harassment? Hostile environment? Anything?

Probably not, I’m sorry. Hostile work environment, in the legal sense, needs to be based on race, sex, religion, disability, or other protected characteristics. It doesn’t rise to the legal level of harassment (which requires that the conduct be severe or pervasive, and also based on protected characteristics like the ones I just named). It’s possible your company has internal policies against gossip or would consider this otherwise problematic, and you could try explaining that your coworker is spreading gossip about you outside of work. But this is someone who shared info that’s factually true with someone she knows in her personal life. It’s not likely to look like a sustained campaign of harassment (even in the non-legal sense). And I suspect that the more you fight it, the bigger deal it’s going to make of something that you’re trying to keep a smaller deal.

Can you instead work on making peace with it? Your husband got in trouble for a minor, non-violent offense in his youth, as have millions of other people. That’s a fact of his life that’s not going away. It’s part of him, part of his history, and part of why he is who he is today. The more you can make peace with it and not see it as a dirty secret to hide, the easier this will probably get.

3. Email subject lines for death announcements

I wanted to get your thoughts on quite a tricky subject; deaths at work. I’m a communications manager and, sadly, during my career I’ve had to face and help communicate the deaths of colleagues number of times.

I’m fairly confident on how I’ve handled most of the processes around these — one-on-one conversations with people who knew them well or worked closely with them, sensitively worded emails to the wider team with next steps or what to do if they need to talk, penning straightforward and heartfelt obituaries for public announcements when needed. However, there’s one area that I feel I just haven’t been getting right (if “right” is possible) and can’t find much advice on — email subject lines.

It’s just a fact that some people will need to be notified by email rather than a face-to-face or a phone call. But I find it frustrating that the work I put into breaking such bad news in a sensitive way somehow needs to sit behind the blunt instrument of the business world — the email subject line. No matter how I phrase it, the subject line always seems too vague (“Sad news”), too specific and blunt (“Timothy Jones passed away yesterday”), not important enough (“Timothy Jones”) or too impersonal (“Notice of the passing of Timothy Jones”).

Do you have thoughts on how to approach this? I know it’s going to continue being something I need to handle and I want to do my best to treat it with the solemnity that it deserves across everything it touches.

There’s no good answer for this because it’s just an awful situation. I would go with “sad news.”

4. Why do people accept LinkedIn connections but refuse to communicate?

I’m confused about a piece of LinkedIn etiquette. From your blog, I understand that it might not be the best idea to contact hiring managers directly to check in about your applications status. That’s great.

But there’s this company I wanted to work at for years. I’ve done all of the research I can possibly do. The big gap is not knowing anyone, so I connected with a manager in my field who works there and reached out to express my interest in the company and let them know that I’d love to learn more about the company from him. He never answered. I tried again a while later because he’d written a post on LinkedIn that I shared my admiration for. He never answered.

I get that strangers have no obligation to answer people on platforms like LinkedIn and I’ve moved on, especially since realizing through other means that I don’t want to work for a tech company. But what confused me is why this person accepted my connection request to begin with. Why would you connect with someone, opening that door for communication, if you’re not going to communicate with them at all ever? It doesn’t make any sense. I understand that he might not have had anything to do with jobs I was looking for like I thought, that maybe he was already inundated with messages, and so forth … but then don’t connect with strangers who can clearly see your position at the company? It makes LinkedIn connections seem very hollow if people are collecting connections who they’ll refuse to communicate with.

Some people accept all/most LinkedIn connections without thinking about it at all, and it’s not any deeper than that. But also, he might be open to some types of conversations and not others. He might be up for responding if you sent him a question about a paper he authored, or asked for a reference for someone he worked with, or had questions about a particular piece of his career path. Those are all more compelling than “I’m trying to get hired at your company,” which is what your message boiled down to. He might get a lot of those messages. He may prioritize spending his time on other things.

Asking a stranger to spend time helping you in your job search is a big favor to ask. Some people will respond if you look like an unusually good candidate (and some not even then). Some people will respond if they’re actively hiring (and some not even then). Some people will respond if you come through a mutual connection. But in general, people don’t prioritize cold contact from total strangers looking for a job. It’s just not what people are on LinkedIn for. That doesn’t mean he wouldn’t respond to something that held more interest for him, though.

5. Can I reach out to the person who used to have the job I’m interviewing for?

During an interview process, is it strange to reach out to the person who held the position before you, i.e,, your potential predecessor? I’m very early in the interview process for a position. The person who had the position previously has left the organization already and was there for only a year, which to me is a potential red flag (and I’ve heard a couple other things that concern me as well). But also, who knows — it might be a completely great organization. I want to try to identify them and reach out, but before I even try to do that, I’d love to know your thoughts on whether doing that is weird in the first place.

In contrast to question #4, this is a good example of the kind of LinkedIn query someone might find more compelling! Or not, who knows, but it’s worth a shot. It’s not inappropriate to do, as long as you’re under serious consideration for the job (it doesn’t make sense to do it at very early stages of the process, when they’re still making lots of cuts). Just make sure you’re diplomatic in your approach; your initial message should be one you’d be okay with the employer seeing (because at this stage you don’t know if she’s still super close with her old boss and might mention it to them).

I recently coached someone through doing this (like you, she was seeing potential red flags and wanted more info) and she ended up turning down the job over what she heard.

is it okay to drink before a presentation?

A reader writes:

Presentations are a small but regular part of my role, but I often get nervous and end up hurting my message by criticizing my slides, adding excess caveats to my points, and just general blunders from lacking confidence.

Last time I presented, I discreetly took a few swigs of vodka a few minutes before, and everything went better! I didn’t weaken my message, and I was smoother answering questions on my feet. At the same time, I realize I’m taking a risk and how this sounds.

I’ve gotten empty positive feedback on all of my presentations; I don’t trust my boss or peers to give honest criticism. I don’t need to give excellent presentations, but I want to do better for my own sake. I’ll probably try this again, but I wanted to get a second opinion.


My initial reaction is, “No, don’t do that.” But some people get prescription pharmaceuticals for exactly this type of thing, and I’m not a big fan of the idea that only officially sanctioned drugs are effective. So I think we need to parse out exactly why Ativan is fine but alcohol isn’t in order for that to be a logically sound stance.

And honestly, if you said you had a glass of wine beforehand and found it smoothed away your nerves, I wouldn’t think that sounded totally unreasonable. But “a few swigs of vodka” is more extreme, given its higher alcohol content.

That said, if you could be positive it worked and had no ill effects, I wouldn’t be the one to tell you it’s unacceptable under any circumstances. But I worry about your ability to self-assess that! You felt the presentation went better, but can you know for sure that other people felt that way? Maybe they did! But alcohol can mess with your ability to accurately assess that.

Normally you could test that by seeking feedback from your boss on how it went, but you don’t trust her to give honest feedback. If you’re going to try it again regardless, it might be wise to record it to listen to later with sober ears.

There are more caveats too. If anyone sees you swigging from a vodka bottle ahead of time or smells alcohol on your breath, those are bad things. Or if drinking made the presentation go fine but then you were sluggish through the rest of the meeting or way too friendly with people afterwards, those are problems too.

Plus, I imagine this worked by relaxing you and slightly lowering your inhibitions (as alcohol does), but there are a lot of inhibitions that need to remain in place when you’re at work. And you can’t really tell vodka to lower your public-speaking inhibitions while preserving your “don’t make bad jokes about the CEO/flirt with the hot bookkeeper/divulge how annoying the client is/overshare about your divorce” inhibitions.

So — is it okay? It depends on all the factors above, and we’d need an independent observer (not slightly intoxicated you) to weigh in on those for us. And, crucially, it could go fine once and then not fine the next time. So I’d say it’s a fairly significant risk.

do I apologize to my employees too often?

A reader writes:

I’m a new manager at a company where I’ve worked for years. In trying to adjust to the role, I’m realizing that I’m the sort of person who says “sorry” a lot. I’m not always doing it to take the blame on myself; I’m often doing it because to show empathy and sometimes make a situation less confrontational. Do you think this will hurt my effectiveness if I don’t change? I think I can apologize in ways that are still appropriately firm (e.g. “I’m sorry, I know this is piling onto an already-busy week, but I need you to add X to your plate and get it done by Friday”), but am I actually undermining myself by doing this?

If it matters, I’m a man. (I hear this is a more common or more problematic issue for women.) And I’m in my mid 30’s, roughly the same age as the majority of coworkers.

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

Other questions I’m answering there today include:

  • Employee’s personal life is derailing work conversations
  • Job candidate called coworker “annoying”
  • How to support employees when they have abusive customers
  • Starting a new job when pregnant

my assistant uses eating to avoid working

A reader writes:

I am a new manager at a nonprofit and have just been assigned an entry-level administrative assistant who has been failing to make deadlines, has been repeating preventable mistakes, and has major issues with focusing at work.

She tangled with her last manager because she felt attacked when asked to explain missed deadlines and now has been passed off to me. In my team, we are all exempt workers and are all given some flexibility regarding when we take meals and how long they are. We don’t have set hours but we typically work 9-5, eat breakfast before we start work, and typically take an hour or less for lunch breaks. We don’t have a break room, so most of us eat lunch at our desks.

One large source of distraction for this person is that she will spend up to four hours a day eating and when she is eating her work trickles to a halt. It is not unusual for her to arrive after 10 AM with breakfast in hand and spend an hour slowly snacking with a bowl in one hand and a spoon in the other. She will order takeout for lunch that requires leaving for an hour to pick it up (we are in a traffic congested city) and then she will munch on it over the course of another two hours. Slurping noodles or soup is a regular occurrence and after an hour it gets pretty old. A snack or lunch leftovers are picked at from 4-5 PM. While she is eating, her laptop is open but very little work is getting done or she is scrolling on her cell phone. On most days she only has 3-4 productive hours in the day. None of this extended snacking would matter if she was doing adequate work, but now when I get handed poor work with excuses, all I can think of is the two-hour spaghetti slurping break that took place while she was supposed to be working.

We work in an open plan office, so all of this is happening within feet of other team mates who have admitted to being distracted by this drawn-out eating ritual. It feels like eating is being used to avoid working, but I don’t know how to address it with her without seeming like I’m picking on her. Other people do eat at their desks but they all get their work done and don’t distract others while they eat. I’m also sensitive to the fact that many people have complicated relationships with eating. I wouldn’t like it very much if someone made me feel self-conscious about eating at work.

This isn’t really about the eating, it is about the time spent not working. I really wouldn’t care if she ate crunchy tortilla chips for eight hours straight as long as she got her work done but she is regularly dropping the ball and also not working full days. I’m a new manager and don’t want to be unprofessional but I also don’t want to be a doormat and don’t know what to do.

Eating issues aside, I’m very skeptical that you’re going to be able to keep her. She spends four hours a day barely working, misses deadlines, repeats mistakes, and “feels attacked” when she receives feedback. It’s very likely that you need to replace her, so start planning with that in mind (meaning that you should find out what the process is for doing that in your organization and begin that path right away). And given the history, you should assume she’s going to feel attacked when you talk to her about these issues, and plan for how you’ll respond to that (there’s some help here, here, and here).

Which, conveniently, ties into how to handle the eating: Focus on her performance.

If she stopped the eating completely but nothing else about her work changed, you’d still have big problems, right? So your primary focus should be her productivity, her work quality, and meeting deadlines. It’s time for a serious conversation about those things, which you should frame as, “In order to stay in your job, I need to see X, Y, and Z.”

Make that your primary focus. But as part of that conversation, you can also say, “I’m concerned that you’re spending a lot of time focused on things other than work — like eating, being on your phone, and reading online. I’d like you to eat breakfast before you arrive at work so you’re not distracted once you get here, and I’d like you to confine your lunch to your lunch break so your work has your full focus the rest of the time. I’d also like you to keep your cell phone put away while you’re working.”

(In fairness, it’s possible to have a health condition where it helps to be steadily snacking throughout the day. If she tells you that’s the case, obviously you’d accommodate that. But even then you’d say, “Right now your level of productivity is plunging when you’re eating. Having a snack out is fine, but it can’t slow your work down the way it has been.”)

But keep the focus on her performance and what needs to change there, and make it clear you need to see significant, sustained improvement quickly — meaning within days, not months.

One last thing: You mentioned your whole team is exempt. I’m skeptical that an entry-level administrative assistant qualifies for exemption (something that’s determined by government rules; it’s not up to your employer). That might not be something you feel like taking on within your organization as a new manager, but it’s very likely that she’s actually supposed to be non-exempt (meaning you have to pay her overtime), which is all the more reason to get this under control.