it’s your Friday good news

It’s your Friday good news!

1.  “Your blog has truly been invaluable in shaping how I approached my recent job search as a recent college grad and leaving Old Job, which was toxic, even though I felt passionately about the mission.

There were a number of reasons to leave Old Job, but this one epitomizes it– they weren’t making my retirement contributions on time. In other words, retirement money was being taken out of my paycheck…and just sitting in Old Job’s coffers for MONTHS until I happened to one day check my retirement account and realize there was WAY less in there than there should have been.

When I initially raised this, my manager made a joke (“who knows where you’ll be in 40 years??”) and HR made an excuse (“it’s been a busy year.”) After I raised it again, they backfilled the contributions, but then forgot to deposit again the next month. Even after I escalated, letting them know that IRS guidelines mandate timely deposits, my manager eventually said to me that I wouldn’t be able to expect timely deposits. At some point, he even asked me not to follow up with HR until after a deadline they had together.

When I gave notice, Old Job offered to let me switch to a Dream Role in a different department. It was hard, but I still said no and accepted New Job. Nevertheless, the time before starting New Job was filled with regret. I loved Old Job’s mission and was kicking myself for not accepting Dream Role. I was starting to wonder if I should have just resigned myself to sending monthly reminders for HR to deposit my retirement contributions. Couldn’t I just do what other employees did, which was simply not use our retirement benefit because they didn’t trust HR?

When I left, HR gave me a $350 going-away present. My manager suspected it was out of guilt from not being able to make retirement deposits on time. Funny what an underresourced nonprofit can and can’t afford to do.

But now I’ve started New Job and I can’t believe how much I was starting to accept the unacceptable. There’s no way I should have been okay with irregular retirement deposits. And last week, I found out that Dream Role wouldn’t have been so Dreamy, because my would-be manager was fired after just a few months on the job. No regrets at all!

For any of you out there in a toxic workplace, leave before it starts to infect your soul. And definitely soak up all of Alison’s great advice on this site– I wouldn’t have been able to get out so quickly if not for her job search advice.

2.  “I work a series of jobs based on contracts that last anywhere from 1-5 years. Often while the job location will remain the same, the employer will change with each new contract. Last year, part way through one contract, I realized I was being significantly underpaid (both for my field and in comparison to my coworkers). That contract ended, however, while I was in the middle of discussing this with my then supervisor. By the time the new contract started and the new employer reached out, I had done my research and knew what salary range I was looking for. Initial conversations with the new employer were promising. When we discussed salary expectations, I followed Alison’s advice and talked about the salary range I was expecting instead of my previous salary. It sounded like we were on the same page but when the initial offer came through, though it was higher than my previous salary, it was still lower than what I was looking for. I wrote back explaining that, based on our previous conversations I was expecting an offer closer to $$ and asked if we could schedule a phone call to discuss. Not only did they respond right away, but they came back with an offer that was a little higher than what I was asking for! I’m now making 25% more than I did last year and finally feel like my salary adequately reflects my market value. I’d never tried to negotiate my salary before and I doubt I would have tried this time either if it wasn’t for this blog. Thank you!”

3.  “My government agency started promising me a promotion as a part of a reorganization in Summer 2019. Being the government, the plans moved slowly and then died a sudden death in early 2020 with the onset of the pandemic. We worked extremely hard throughout early covid as a healthcare related agency, being short staffed going in and a hiring freeze preventing us staffing up for over a year. I worked WAY TOO MUCH, but also had great opportunities to do really impactful work and got stellar feedback and was consistently being promised that the next available promotion was mine by multiple levels of leadership. When we started hiring again in Summer 2021, I was passed over for a promotion for an external candidate who was underqualified for the role (I’m biased in that assessment, obviously, but they also left in less than six months for a demotion, so…). My morale was already getting pretty low, but that was just rock bottom.

Now the good news! A role in the Secretary’s Office opened up (like cabinet secretary, not clerical staff), which was kind of my wildest dream next step. It’s a politically appointed position, so you can’t really apply, the best you can do is try to make sure the hiring manager knows you are interested. Well, I happen to know this hiring manager from some prior work we did together. I was so worried she would feel like I was taking advantage of that relationship, but scraped together all my courage and shot her a message saying as casually as possible, “no pressure, but putting it on your radar that I would be interested if you’re hiring”. She called me back, got my resume, “interviewed me”, and offered me the job all in the hour following my message! She was absolutely thrilled that I reached out and thrilled to hire me, which was a total boost to my waning confidence. My current job tried to counter offer me a promotion to stay, the same position they passed me over for a few months ago. But I’m heading for the secretary’s office in a few weeks and I’m just over the moon excited about the opportunity.”

open thread – January 21-22, 2022

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 (that includes school). 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.

part-time admin got a full-time job, what to say when your boss is laid off, and more

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

1. Our part-time admin got a full-time job and wants to do both

Recently I hired a part-time contractor to help with administrative work. The pay is respectable, but certainly not enough to live on. We’re flexible on schedule — most of the work is admin work done in an online system (think reporting expenses, processing invoices, etc.). My thinking was that whoever took this job was going to have to juggle it with SOMETHING (school, another part-time job, child care, etc.) and I’m not concerned about what hours they work to fit in with that (it can all be done fully remote, and we’re all working remotely for the foreseeable future). When I said that, I was envisioning something like “I’ll work mornings” or “I can’t work Monday or Friday.”

The person we hired just accepted a full-time position that sounds like a traditional office job. She’d like to continue with us, but work outside of business hours. My instinct is to not love this arrangement. She says that she can arrange her schedule around the periodic meetings (which admittedly will be few and far between, although she and I will need to check in regularly). I’m guessing that arranging her schedule will likely be harder than anticipated (it just seems odd to me to count on clocking out of a full-time job for an hour in the middle of the day to cover something for your part-time job?). I don’t want to say “no” to an arrangement that could be fine, just for the sake of being a traditionalist (and honestly don’t want to go back to the drawing board!).

I’m leaning towards something like, “I know I said the schedule is flexible. It is, but the expectation is that you attend these two meetings per week, and can fulfill a response time of X days. If that starts to be a problem, we’ll have to reconsider.” Does that sound fair? Am I crazy to even entertain this situation?

I’d be pretty skeptical of how it’s going to work out, but that doesn’t mean you can’t try it and see. You’ll probably know pretty quickly if it’s going to work or not.

But it’s worth having a more direct conversation about your concerns: “You’ll need to call into two meetings a week, usually at 2 pm Monday and 11 am Thursday, and process X within Y days. Can we talk about how that will work if you have another full-time commitment during our business hours?” And maybe, “How will you handle it if that ends up being a conflict with your full-time job?” (I assume she’ll need to prioritize the full-time job, but having the conversation about it will probably be useful for both of you.)

However, make sure you’ve really thought through the impact of not having her available during  any of your work hours, outside of those two meetings a week. If you’ll ever need quick responses or same-day turnaround time, it’s probably not going to work well. But if her work is truly independent and not tied to specific hours — and, crucially, if the work you’ve seen from her so far is good enough to justify trying it — it’s not crazy to test it out and see.

There’s also a separate concern about whether her work for you will be impacted by the total number of hours she’s working — a lot of people aren’t at their best when they’re working that much — and she may burn out much more quickly than a person who wasn’t doing this. If your interest is driven by her skill set, the quality of her work, and/or the tight job market, you could wait and see how that plays out … … but if it’s more about “ugh, I don’t want to have to hire again,” I’d be less convinced.

2. Our meeting topics are vague and never have agendas

My office culture is one of those “invite everyone to everything and we’ll see what sticks with who” kind of places (usually in the name of knowledge transfer). Often I get meeting invites for standing or ad hoc meetings, usually for an hour, without an agenda. Just a meeting invite with a high level meeting description (e.g., Teapot Orders or Spout Repair or New Neon Teapots).

It feels like responding to the meeting organizer to ask, “Is there an agenda?” shouldn’t be out of line. However, part of me thinks it comes across as if I’m not willing to go into a meeting open-minded or that I have crowned myself with the privilege to be selective about which meetings I attend.

The reality is that I do have the time to attend most of these meeting, but I find it frustrating that we go into each one blind or without knowing if we’ll be involved in the effort or topic long-term. I am willing to learn about various topics but I would much prefer to be part of meetings where I know I have an active role. Knowing an agenda might help me decide if it’s worth asking if I need to be part of the meeting. How would you handle this?

Any chance you’re in a position to advocate that all meeting invites in your organization include an agenda, or at least more detail than something as broad and vague as “teapot orders”? From what you described, I’m guessing that lots of your coworkers spend a lot of time in hour-long meetings that they wouldn’t have attended if they’d known more about the agenda ahead of time. And with so little advance info, how are you supposed to prioritize any meeting relative to other things you might have already set aside that time for?

So if you’re in a position to suggest that including more information up-front would be helpful to everyone, do that. If you’re not, asking for an agenda for yourself is pretty reasonable in theory — but if you’re very junior or the invite comes from someone very senior, politically you risk looking out of touch with the culture. In that case, I’d actually ask your manager’s advice, since she knows the culture and should be able to tell you how asking for agendas will go over with various players.

3. Is it unprofessional to tell an interviewer you need a new job “yesterday”?

Can you settle a debate? My wife and I have a difference in opinion.

When interviewing, if a hiring manager says they “need to fill this role yesterday,” is it “desperate” or “unprofessional” to say something similar back to them that you yourself all need a new job “yesterday” … or somehow conveying that you as well are seeking mutual accommodation (they need an employee, I need a job)?

I wouldn’t say it’s unprofessional per se, but you shouldn’t say that to an interviewer because (a) you will destroy your ability to negotiate once you’ve conveyed how highly motivated you are to accept the job and (b) it’s just kind of … unappealing. It makes it sound like you’ll take any job and probably aren’t thinking critically about whether this is the right role for you, and implies you’re not exactly an in-demand candidate. (That last part is BS — it shouldn’t matter how in-demand you are if you’re right for the job they’re hiring for — but human nature is such that it can matter.)

4. What to say when your boss is being laid off

I started a new job almost seven months ago and was hired by a gem of a manager. I’m happy here. The job is fully remote so I’ve never seen the office or any coworkers in person.

Yesterday we found out the jobs of my manager and a team lead (both of whom are wonderful people) are being eliminated. They are both invited to apply to several new open positions in our department or any other position in the company. My boss had told me months ago that he suspected this may happen and that he’d take on an individual contributor role instead of a leadership role. I don’t know if he expected to be automatically shifted into a new role or if he was prepared for a layoff where he’d have to apply to, and maybe not get, another job here.

If I found out a good peer coworker was being let go, I would have an idea of what to say (condolences, confidence in their search, and offers to write a recommendation, serve as a reference, and/or keep an eye out for opportunities). But both these people are senior to me: one is my direct boss and the other is a leader who I informally report to. To further complicate matters, the team lead being let go just told us last week that his spouse received a serious diagnosis.

The separation date for both people is two months away so it’s not goodbye time … but I feel like I have to say something now. I’ve been reserved at work, but I do care very much about these people and I don’t want to be cold. I want to give some acknowledgement. Any ideas what to say? And is an email to each person appropriate, or would a Teams chat be better, or something else? Or should I follow their lead in real time at the next team meeting next week and say nothing in the meantime?

Something like: “I was so sorry to hear this news. I’ve really enjoyed working for you and think you’re fantastic at what you do. (Fill in specifics here if you want, like that you’ve learned a lot from them, they’re a great coach, you admire their skill at X, or whatever applies.) Please let me know if there’s anything I can do that would be helpful as you’re looking at new roles (or afterwards).”

If you speak regularly and/or are fairly close, I’d do this over the phone or video. But otherwise, email is fine too.

5. Teaching with a cancer diagnosis

I’m wondering if you and your readers might have advice about disclosing — or not — a cancer diagnosis when you’re a teacher. I work at a university, so my students are all adults (generally 18-24, though with some older students). I was just diagnosed with cancer and am trying to figure out what, if anything, to disclose to my students. My doctors are hopeful for treatment, but I am going to lose my hair, and might have to move classes online some days depending on how I’m feeling. The good news is that I have a great support system and a fantastic and supportive department, but I’m unsure what, if anything, I should tell my classes. They’ll obviously notice some things — I have a wig, but might not wear it all the time. Is it better to let them infer what they will, or should I be direct? A potential complication is that I am pre-tenure, so my end of semester course evaluations will matter. If students think I’m just lazy and unresponsive, rather than dealing with medical issues, they might have different responses on those evaluations.

I guess another factor to consider is that I am very young, with no cancer history in mfamily, so I kind of feel like I want to shout about the importance of mammograms from the rooftops! But I also don’t know if any of my students will have had traumatic past experiences with cancer, and I definitely don’t want them to feel like I am putting an emotional burden on them. I think I’m willing to be open about what I’m going through, but wondering if I should say anything or not.

Let’s throw this out to readers to weigh in on, especially those with teaching experience.

don’t trust the answers to “how would you describe your management style?”

When you’re interviewing for a job, you want to know what kind of manager you’d be working for.

Here’s a question that isn’t that likely to tell you: “How would you describe your management style?”

That question shows up over and over on lists of questions that job seekers should ask their prospective managers in interviews. But it’s not likely to get you solid, reliable information about what that manager is really like to work for.

Most people — and especially bad managers — are notoriously bad at accurately assessing their own management style.

I’ve sat in interviews where chronic micromanagers have described themselves to candidates as “hands-off” and giving people lots of autonomy, or where absentee managers painted a picture of themselves as involved and engaged. I’ve heard managers describe thoughtful, supportive performance management systems that they didn’t ever actually use. And I’ve heard an ear-numbing amount of platitudes like “open door policy” and “servant leadership” and other catch phrases that revealed nothing about how the speaker actually operated in practice.

Even when it sounds like you’re getting specifics, you can’t assume you’re getting the whole picture. A manager might tell you about the structured performance system the company uses to address problems, but what you won’t know is that they only make use of it in the most egregious situations and only after being pushed to for years. Or they might tell you about an appealing-sounding system of recognition and rewards for great work, but you won’t know they rarely use it and in fact regularly make people cry with their feedback.

There’s just an incredibly high chance of getting answers that sound reasonable but don’t reflect how things actually work most of the time.

And it’s not that bad managers are deliberately trying to deceive you; it’s that many (most?) bad managers are convinced they’re good managers! Many of them truly believe they’re kind, fair, thoughtful, and well-liked. Many of them also know the “right” things they’re supposed to say in response to this question, and they say them.

Instead, the best way to find out about how a manager actually operates is to ask other people. If you have a chance to talk to other employees on their team, ask those people about the team’s management. (Don’t just ask about management style though or you’re likely to get vague answers. Ask things like how mistakes are handled, how problems are addressed, how much support they get in their jobs, and what they’d change if they could.) And if at all possible, use your network to find people who have worked at the company or with the manager before and talk to them. You’re far, far more likely to get candid, accurate information that way.

There are also other ways you can assess a manager in an interview that will be revealing. For example, pay attention to whether your interviewer can clearly describe what success in the job will look like, since a manager who can’t name what you’ll be expected to achieve in your first year on the job hasn’t thought through what they really need and is more likely to surprise you with different expectations than what you thought you were signing up for. Pay attention, too, to how you’re treated during the interview: Is the person who would be managing you polite, respectful of your time, and actively interested in you? Do they answer questions head-on or give vague or evasive responses? How up-front are they about the downsides of the job or the culture?

But ultimately, to know what a manager is really like to work for, you’ve got to talk to people who have worked for them. And if you can’t do that — since admittedly it’s not always easy — at least make sure you take anything they tell you about their own management style with a high degree of skepticism.

updates: employee got pulled over during a Zoom meeting, and more

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

1. My trainee got pulled over during a Zoom meeting

Thank you for your advice on this. Your answer was about what I was thinking, and I think what I did worked out well. The new employee immediately apologized during our next check-in and admitted she had been driving. I didn’t call her out on her other excuse because while I doubt it was true, I can’t confirm that. I don’t blame her for being shaken up after a police encounter. (I heard the officer be quite aggressive with her over something she denied happened. It went on for minutes before she cut off.)

Turns out, she had a sudden schedule change, wasn’t sure if it was okay to reschedule, and tried to make it work while driving. Some people assumed it was a training, but it was just a check-in, which is probably why she thought it would be manageable. I told her under no circumstances should she put her safety at risk for a meeting, and she promised to keep that in mind.

I didn’t realize this letter would cause such heated discussion on driving during Zoom meetings! It’s something I’m very much against for safety reasons, I know that any distracted driving is dangerous, even if I was sympathetic to her mistake. We don’t have anything in our training materials about not driving during meetings, but I am adding them for our new employees starting in January. We have had everyone from entry level staff to high level managers at our company talking while visibly driving in the past. Admin has only started cracking down in the last year. Now, I have a chance to influence that, so this was a wakeup call that I need to address it right away.

2. Am I wrong in not attending the funeral for my boss’s father-in-law? (#5 at the link)

I saw your call for follow-ups. This one is uneventful, which is good. The day of the funeral, my coworker who pressured me and another coworker were getting ready to leave the office to head over. Other coworker asked if I was coming, I said no, she responded, ok, we’ll be back in a bit. Which is how my original conversation with the coworker who pressured me should have played out. She stood silently by for this exchange, so maybe she learned something? Probably not. But, I’ve not heard anything about it since. So, success? I struggle to stand up for myself sometimes, so I just needed some extra validation that I was in the right. Thank you!

3. Should I tell my boss I hate my job?

I did manage to connect with one coworker at the Bad Place, and I had some more candid conversations with my manager (and his manager), but in the end I had to leave. I work for a competitor now and I’m very happy.

The real hot gossip though is that after leaving, through a bizarre series of coincidences, I just happened to become friends with someone who left the same team shortly before I’d joined. I was hesitant to be frank with someone I’d just met about my experience, especially since they had a long tenure. But they busted that door wide open with some, uh, choice words about what’s going on with that team. Suffice it to say I feel much more confident that it wasn’t just me.

4. Friday good news (#1 at the link)

After almost a year at my “new” job, things are going pretty amazingly. We’ve returned in-person with a degree of safety that I couldn’t ask more from, they’ve been amazingly flexible during a time when my family had all sorts of erratic scheduling needs, and the change in workload and pace from my previous position is almost unbelievable. Three levels of management have checked in to make sure I’m using my PTO, even during the busiest times for the office. The speed and efficacy with which action is taken when a need for change is identified blows me away, and the framework for most of the change is with an eye toward greater equity for the organization across all our spheres of influence. (By the way, this is an organization big on referring to everyone in the community as a family. While I understand the caution, it’s not always a red flag; sometimes it’s just true.)

Just when the first seeds of thinking I might want to have a plan for future advancement started to creep into my brain, my supervisor told me that she was seriously reconsidering her work-life balance and might be requesting a move to reduce her hours. Things moved fast, and ultimately:
–She moved to a part-time mostly-WFH support position, which allows her to work around time with her very young kids. So she’s happy.
–The part-time member of the department moved into a full-time version of the same role, which means he has a stable schedule and moves to salary, as opposed to working literally five different positions and taking hours where he could. So he’s happy.
–I was promoted to manage the department, along with a slightly-over-5% raise and control of my schedule. Beyond that, my new supervisor has said she thinks the whole department is undercompensated and wants to pursue remedies in the budget for the next fiscal year. I am very happy. We’re currently wrapping up this year, and then I will not only have my first Christmas Eve off in ten years, but I’ll be off between Christmas and New Year’s without taking any PTO as an organization-wide year-end practice.

Outside of work, I’ve become a volunteer for the organization I interviewed with directly before my current one. They’ve even asked for my input on future event programming, and I look forward to building more relationships there.

At my old position, I’ve watched from afar while the person I knew would be asked to take over has really made things his own. I knew he could take things in a unique direction, since we have totally different strengths, and I’m so happy to see him thriving. I don’t have any second thoughts about leaving, but one of my resolutions for the new year is to rebuild my relationship with the owners there. When I left, I was in a serious state of overload and could only commit to things I absolutely had to do (all inboxes were an utter mess), so from their point of view, I just disappeared. I truly do love them as people and want to have them in my life going forward, so now I shake myself out of the “it’s been too long to not be awkward, so let’s make it longer and more awkward” to rebuild some bridges.

Thanks again for all the advice, which I’ll be using even more of as a brand new manager!

how can I advocate for workers’ rights when I’m the customer?

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

My sister and I are members of a community pool/gym that is run under the umbrella of a larger nonprofit. The greater organization serves people with disabilities, but membership to the gym is open to the entire community. Both my sister and I have varying degrees of invisible disabilities and we use the pool almost daily, but we are not members or involved with the organization’s primary programs/services.

Given how often we visit the pool, we’ve gotten to know some of the staff fairly well—in particular, the life guards and cleaning staff. Recently (and unsolicited), a couple of the staff members shared with us some Seriously Not Cool™ information:

  • Pool staff is kept two hours under full-time; rather than provide lifeguards with benefits, job postings are up seeking a third. (Cleaning staff was only just made full-time a couple months ago, after a situation that included a wrongful termination case, and even they are still kept at minimum wage.)
  • When closing the pool up for the night, if tasks take an extra 20 or 30 minutes, someone has been going into the computer system and removing the tracked overtime minutes. (Before and after screenshot photos have been taken documenting this.)
  • Staff have been told they’re not allowed to discuss salary with each other.

Being alarmed that the staff was not aware of (and in some cases, being purposefully misled about) their rights as workers, and at the request of two staff members, I did some research and created a wallet-sized information card listing their state and federal rights on one side and contact sources for resources and pro-bono lawyers.

The people in this community are incredibly dear to my sister and me. I’d like to help more, but I’d never want to endanger anyone’s job or trust. As such, I checked with the staff members who confided in me before even writing this email.

Given my own health issues, I’m limited in what I can do physically and financially. On the other hand, while my ethnicity is in the “other” category, I’m white-presenting and have seen firsthand preferential bias given by management to me (and other white/white-passing individuals). While that infuriates me, I also figure that if I am being afforded that privilege, I need to use what energy and capabilities I do have to advocate for change.

Questions:

For those who have worked in similar situations: What help would you/did you appreciate from clients/customers attempting to advocate on your behalf? What was out-of-line and hurt you instead of helping?

For those who have managed, served on boards, etc.: What sorts of outside advocating/pressure have successfully helped to bring about real change/improve a working environment? Does it make a difference if those advocating are participating in specific programs or just paying to utilize the facilities?

For those who work advocating/protecting/ensuring employee rights: What am I missing here? Are there additional resources that might be useful? Should I just step back now and mind my own business?

Readers, please share advice in the comment section — but with ground rules on this one:

  • Let’s hear mainly from the three groups the writer is specifically asking to hear from.
  • Please indicate which group you’re in, to keep this as useful as possible to her.

men with bare chests at work, charging late fees when freelancing, and more

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

1. Bare chests at work

I have an “is this weird or is this COVID?” question.

My employer held a vaccine and booster clinic recently, by appointment only. The setup was like most ones I think we’re all used to in this pandemic era: booths that have partitions but are not private and a large observation area for post-shot folks. In order to receive his shot, one fellow untucked and entirely unbuttoned his oxford shirt. He did not have an undershirt on. Just his nips to the wind. And then he sat there chatting for several minutes before getting his shot. I didn’t think I was going to get Chippendales with my morning mRNA, so I was admittedly a little startled. Is… this weird? Should he have worn an undershirt? Or am I being overly prude and this is this just what we should grow to expect when we get vaccines at work?

(P.S. It’s entirely possible he forgot he had an appointment and was just leaning into it by pretending it wasn’t weird to sit in the middle of a conference room dressed like Magic Mike.)

Nah, it’s weird! (Can I do a whole week where I just issue verdicts of weird/not weird? That sounds very relaxing.)

Maybe his shirt was so tight that it was hard to roll up the sleeve enough to expose his upper arm. Although … some men feel VERY FREE about taking their shirts off and don’t think it’s a big deal, even in normally buttoned-up environments like work. He may be one of them.

I like to think he went home and told his partner, “I did this weird thing at work today and I don’t know what I was thinking.”

2. How do I charge late fees when freelancing?

I’m freelancing while I’m in between jobs and as anyone who has freelanced knows, getting people to pay you on time can be a challenge. I have a term right on my invoices indicating my pay period and late fee terms so my timelines aren’t secret or easily missed by my clients. You’ve spoken about late fees matter-of-factly in the past so I’m assuming they’re not wrong to have, but how do I ask for them or warn clients about their impeding addition? Do I have to give a bunch of reminders or do I just send a notice with a form letter style of “this invoice is past due and a fee of X is applied”? I need some language and process tips!
Also, I usually give a bit of a grace period for new clients since I know it can take longer to get a new vendor set up, but is this undermining myself?

Ideally you want to have the late fees in your contract so that the client is legally bound to pay them. It’s much easier to collect them if you can point to a contract.

But if the fees aren’t listed in a contract (and they may not be, especially if your clients are the ones writing the contract and you’re just signing — which is sometimes the case for freelancers*), then the deal with late fees is … you can try. Include them on the invoice as you’ve been doing. The first time someone misses a payment deadline, let that be their one grace period — email them and say, “I can waive the late fee this time, but I want to make sure you see it for the future.” But it’s also the case that some clients in some industries just don’t pay late fees if they’re not bound to them via a contract, and if they have more power than you in the relationship (like if they’re a huge corporation with a ton of freelancers and you’re one person without a ton of sway), there isn’t always anything you can do about that. You can try! But getting it into your initial contract is the safest way.

Another way to do it is to have an “early payment discount” that you apply if payment is received X days early (and which is the real fee and deadline you want).

* About freelance contracts: If a client insists on providing the contract rather than using yours (which is common in some industries, especially if they use a bunch of freelancers and have their own system set up), know that you can push back on clauses you don’t like. I routinely mark up contracts and send them back to clients saying “can we change X and Y?” and most of the time they agree.

3. Was I too positive or was my friend too negative?

A while back, I was unemployed and I had an interview that went pretty well, although I didn’t end up getting the job. Even though I was desperate for a job, I didn’t mind that much, because it was a temporary position with a long commute. The interviewer rang me and told me that it was down to me and another person and the other person was chosen as they had much more experience than me. After having sent out numerous applications and never hearing back, I was actually feeling quite positive about the outcome. Obviously, I would have been happier if I got the job but it made sense that they would hire someone with more experience.

A few days later, I had coffee with a friend and mentioned what happened. I said that despite the rejection, I felt pretty good about myself, because I gave my best and did pretty well. I was definitely not saying this in a tone that could be interpreted as resentful. To this, my friend said something along the lines of: “You know, they just use not having enough experience as an excuse.” I do tend to be over-sensitive, so I think she was just trying to encourage me and not realizing that I ended up feeling the opposite way.

Was I too positive or was she too negative? I feel that if they didn’t want to hire me due to whatever reason they didn’t want to say, they could just send me a brief email. There is no need to personally call me with an excuse. In addition, if it is not about the experience, they could simply say that I am not what they are looking for. I feel that what the interviewer said is what happened: they considered hiring me, but choose to hire the person with more experience. I don’t believe that it is an excuse that they made up to cover some other reason for them not wanting to hire me.

It’s impossible to know for sure — some employers do use “we went with a candidate with more experience” as a sort of catch-all explanation for why they’re not hiring you — but your friend is definitely off-base in assuming it’s always an excuse. It’s true a ton of the time! Maybe in this case there was more to it, but there’s absolutely no reason to assume that — and if she thinks it’s always BS, then her understanding of how hiring works is wrong. She’s also approaching it in a strangely adversarial way; employers don’t need “excuses” to not hire you and they’re very comfortable just rejecting people with vague language or not bothering to send a rejection at all (let alone call you).

I also can’t figure out why she thought “they use that as an excuse” would be comforting to you! Implying that there must have been some secret reason they found you unsuitable for the job aside from this very straightforward explanation is … kind of a crappy thing to put in your head?

Anyway, your take on the interview and its outcome sounds good to me. Hers sounds off.

4. Checking back with a candidate who rejected an offer a few months ago

I work for a small construction company and we have had an opening for a more technical office position for the past year or so. Despite my best efforts, we have only had one candidate make it to the final round.

This person was out of state and flew in several months ago to take a tour of our facility and interview with managers. We ended up making them an offer and after some consideration they turned it down without giving a reason.

Now it’s been several months and we wanted to reach back out in case something has changed. I’ve never done that before, and wanted to get your perspective. How impolite is it to reach out to candidates who have already rejected a job offer? And if I did, what kind of script would you suggest?

It’s not rude to do! They might have already taken a different job or still be uninterested, but there’s nothing wrong with checking in. I’d say something like, “I hope you’re doing well! I know when we last talked, you had decided the position wasn’t for you but I wanted to check in and reiterate our interest in case anything has changed on your side. We haven’t found a candidate who we like for the role as well as you, and if there’s something we can change about our offer to make it more appealing, we’re very open to talking. Either way, I hope things are going great for you.” (Ideally you’d personalize that last bit — like “hope things are going well with the iguana project you told me about/the new baby/fill-in-the-blank.”)

Also, if you’ve adjusted the salary for the job, definitely mention that. (And if you haven’t, consider whether you need to, and then mention it if you do!)

5. Changing my religious observances at work

When I started my current job, I was in the first stages of exploring conversion to a new religion. Recently I finished that conversion, and now I’m thinking about asking for accomodations like maybe leaving early one day or refusing overtime in certain occasions.

I wasn’t observant when I started the job, and it’s been almost two years. How do I bring up these requests to a manager given that I didn’t ask about them when hired? For context, in my opinion, my leaving early or not working overtime would not affect the overall operation of the business. It may require moving schedules around.

Be straightforward! “My religious practice has changed, and I am now observing the Sabbath and will need to leave a little before sundown on Fridays and won’t be able to work Saturdays” (or whatever accommodation you need).” Depending on the type of job, you might add, “Can we plan for me to make up that time earlier in the week?” or whatever makes sense for your situation.

our new-grad employees see less glamorous work as beneath them

A reader writes:

I am 26 years old. I have been in the working world for several years. Our office just hired a couple of new grads. I find some of the ways they talk about work tasks to be naïve to the point of being demeaning.

One coworker, John, often talks about his internship at the state house of representatives before he graduated. He didn’t like his boss there—he has told us this—because his boss assigned him tasks like making copies and didn’t give him a lot of substantive work. Honestly, he’s really green and seems totally new to an office environment, so it’s not shocking to me that his boss didn’t assign him substantive projects. I understand that it was disappointing, but that’s life, no? I believe you can learn something valuable in any professional situation, even when the task seems boring.

Another coworker, Jane, frequently complains about an internship she had at the State Department where they asked her to, among other things, “make copies and clean the supply closet.” Every time she shares this anecdote, she looks at me like, “Can you believe that?” Yes, I can. I don’t know why she expects me to be outraged that they would assign a 19-year-old the task of making copies rather than overhauling U.S. policy in the Middle East.

The “I’m so much better than this attitude” drives me crazy. In my first job out of college, I worked in higher ed administration. I helped run a university medical clinic. I was responsible for making copies and stocking the supply closet. Those were really important jobs—other things couldn’t happen if the copies weren’t made and the supplies weren’t stocked. We couldn’t serve our clients if those jobs weren’t done. I did those jobs well. They were not easy. I learned a ton in that role and look back on it fondly.

I worry about these comments because we have people on our team who are in charge of these so-called menial tasks, and I don’t want them to think that we devalue their work. Our office wouldn’t run without their work.

Do you have any tips for how to respond when John or Jane makes a comment like this? Should I just ignore it? Am I in the wrong?

You are not in the wrong. John and Jane sound naive about how work works, and not terribly respectful of administrative work. That doesn’t make them bad people; it just means that they might not have had anyone who helped set their expectations correctly … and they probably haven’t had enough exposure to the professional world yet to see how essential admin work is to keeping an organization running and to know that doing it well takes real skill.

But you’re extremely well-placed to help them adjust their expectations and understand what is and isn’t normal in internships and early-career jobs! Because you’re relatively close in age, you’ll probably have more credibility than someone a couple of decades away from them, whose advice can more easily be dismissed as not really knowing how things are now.

When John and Jane make these comments to you, use it as an opportunity to help them recalibrate their thinking. For example:

John or Jane: “My boss at my internship used to have me make copies — it was so insulting.”

You: “Oh, it’s really normal to do things like that in an internship. I did that at mine, and we do it here. It’s not weird — you do that stuff in early jobs.”

Optional add-ons / alternatives:

* “It’s not the most glamorous work but it has to be done, and I always found doing it was a good way to get exposed to what was going on around the office — which is a big part of the point of an internship.”

* “At the start of your career, you’re an unknown quantity. When you show you can be trusted to take care with work like that and do it well, over time you get given more interesting projects. My experience was that the interns who saw it as unimportant or beneath them didn’t get as much out of their internships as other people did.”

* “Yeah, when you don’t have a lot of experience yet, that’s where you start. But it means you get to be around people with more experience who are doing the more substantive work and you learn a lot that way.”

* “You probably don’t mean to sound like you’re devaluing administrative work, but our office wouldn’t run without the people who do those tasks. It’s important to be respectful of those jobs, even if you ultimately want to be doing something else.”

* “Did they tell you before you came on board that you’d be doing substantive policy work? Sometimes interns do get to work on substantive projects, but it’s normal to be mostly in a support role until you have more of a track record.”

They’ll figure it out eventually either way (probably), but you’d be doing a good deed by giving an honest response to what they’re saying.

about medical practices that can’t pay enough to keep their employees…

After last week’s letter from a medical practice manager struggling to hire staff and unable to pay more because of tightly regimented insurance company payments, I received this letter offering a different view that I wanted to share here.

Hi LW #2,

As a fellow small medical practice owner, I feel your pain. The feedback about PTO and other suggestions is fine, but I think most commenters (possibly even Alison included) aren’t aware of the root issue.

I run a similarly sized practice to yours. We are known for our amazing culture. I always have more people who want to work here than I can hire or have need for. I have had people move across the country to work here, unasked. There is no problem signing people on.

Our challenge? Retaining staff, because we can’t afford to pay them. We have the exact same problem: our pay ceiling is capped because of reimbursement and the fee-for-service nature of health care. Our staff are crestfallen when they have to resign, but it’s necessary for them to do what’s best for their families. I’m constantly consulting with the staff to tweak our employee offerings: more benefits and less pay, more pay and less benefits, etc. etc. But at the end of the day, we can only offer so much pay + benefits combined. More PTO is fine, but more PTO costs money!

We are able to keep as many people as we have because of our culture. Our staff in two-income families are willing and able to take a lower pay for improved work-life balance and employee experience. But not everyone has that financial privilege.

Insurance rates haven’t budged in over a decade, or they’ve gone down. I ran an inflation calculator this past week. Since I first opened the practice nine years ago, there has been an effective 20% cut in reimbursement. Twenty percent loss of revenues, in less than a decade. Cost of living has gone up and up (and skyrocketed during COVID). Health care workers need higher compensation in order to feed their families, but where does that money come from?

The math just. does. not. work. It is mathematically impossible for a health care practice to take year-over-year cuts (that are outside our control) while maintaining employee compensation levels, let alone increasing. Treatment times may be shortened, as you described, but that’s a huge quality and clinical efficacy hit. In some cases, a shortened treatment might as well be no treatment at all. There are qualitative minimums to clinical care.

We made the decision to go private pay only this year, as a result of this. Our specialty is such that this is doable, we offer a service for which enough people can afford to pay out-of-pocket. This isn’t possible for many kinds of medical care, though. Practices with expensive equipment or involved procedures won’t be able to service anyone but the 0.01% as a private pay clinic.

There is a reason small private practices (and hell, small and mid-tier hospital systems) are all selling and being absorbed by massive entities. I don’t know how long the rest of us who operate these kinds of practices will be able to survive. We are probably the ones who make the best damn buggy whips — but it’s still a buggy whip, and there’s no place for that in today’s market.

The advice from readers (and Alison) is fine, but as someone who has been grappling with everything you expressed, this is NOT because you are failing or missing the mark as a business owner. Sure, maybe you can level up some elements of culture or flexibility or something. But that is only going to get you so far, and you will still have the same struggles.

I don’t have an answer, and I’m sorry to sound so grim. You aren’t alone.

my coworkers told my boss I talk about my baby too much

A reader writes:

I’m still processing the conversation I just had with my boss, so I’m sorry if this is a mess.

I’m a new mom. My baby is going to be four months old later this week. I took 12 weeks off and returned to work a month ago. I manage a small team at a communications firm.

Since my return, people ask how I’m doing and how the baby is doing as part of small talk. I have always taken a personable approach to my professional life, but even when saying, “Oh, she’s going through a growth spurt right now so we’re dealing with some lack of sleep” I always keep it lighthearted and typically follow up with how I’m happy to be working because I genuinely missed it. I don’t monopolize the conversation talking about my child, or spend more time on it than would be appropriate talking about motherhood.

My work production hasn’t slowed down or decreased in value. Instead, my team became more independent during my leave, meaning I am able to take on more to promote our company’s growth.

But, apparently, six people have gone to my boss saying they feel like I am not putting work first and that I’m not “fully” there. The most information I got about who has issued these concerns is that none of them are the employees I manage, clients, or people I even work with on a daily basis.

I’ve pitched multiple new prospects over the past 30 days, rebuilt our entire proposal strategy, and have been fully engaged with my team and our clients. The company culture is one that has always been supportive of families and everyone shared stories about their kids or pets if they have them. I have always enjoyed that part of the company.

I think it’s important to note that I left the company last year (before Covid) for a job that didn’t work out. I have a combined total of four years with the company. I came back at the beginning of this year (they knew I was pregnant when they hired me) in a completely different and higher role than when I left. I’ve suspected that rubbed some of the longer-term employees the wrong way.

I asked if I’m not meeting expectations, if I’m being unreliable, if I’m underperforming and it’s none of that — it is solely that I have replaced talking about other things that I used to (hobbies) with my child.

I’m hurt and confused. I was told I’m doing myself a disservice to my career and reputation in the company. I don’t even know what advice I’m looking for by sending in this story … I guess, what do I do, besides no longer talking about anything personal?

Something is weird here. It’s odd for six separate people who don’t work closely with you to complain to your boss that you’re talking about your baby too much, especially when you really don’t sound like you’re talking about your baby that much.

Of course, it’s possible for someone to talk about their baby too much — just like they could talk about their diet too much, or football too much, or their dating life too much. Any topic, if overdone, can become too much. (And we’ve seen examples of this with kid talk like this, this, and this.) So the first thing I’d suggest is comparing how much you’re referencing your kid to how much other people in your office talk about their own children, just for a reality check to see if your calibration might be off.

But if it’s really just that you used to talk about running and cooking and now you’ve replaced those conversations with mentioning the thing that has replaced them in your life (your baby) … well, unless you were going way overboard on running and cooking talk previously, that just doesn’t sound like a big deal, and certainly not to the point that six different people should be describing you as not fully present at work.

If that’s the case, I would guess something like one of these is happening:

1. It’s exactly what you suspect — resentment from some longer-term employees over your return at a different and higher level.

2. Or, it’s not really about the baby talk, but is about other changes linked to the baby — like that you’re more vigilant about leaving on time now than you used to be and don’t respond to emails in the evening anymore, and they’re reading that as you being less committed than before, and seeing all baby talk as additional evidence of that.

3. Or, your baby talk isn’t calibrated quite right yet — not necessarily that you’re talking about her non-stop, but maybe that you’re not reading people’s cues about who is and who isn’t a baby story person (just like if you were misreading cues about who did and didn’t want to hear about politics or football or dating). But while this one is possible in general, it doesn’t really sound like what’s happening in your situation.

4. Or, your boss has an agenda of her own with this feedback — like she feels you’re less committed now that you’re a parent and rather than own that feedback herself, she’s attributing it to others. This would be seriously Bad Boss territory, and you should consider it through the lens of what you know of her. If she’s a reasonable and trustworthy person, it’s not this. If she’s comfortable with difficult conversations and has a track record of honesty even when it’s hard, it’s not this. If she’s gone out of her way to support you as a working parent, it’s probably not this. But if you read that and thought “oh yeah, I could totally see her doing that” … well, maybe it’s this.

But it’s tough to know from the outside what’s going on.

Do you have a trusted colleague whose opinion you could ask — someone who you trust to be blunt enough to say “yeah, it’s been a lot of baby talk” if in fact that’s the case?

Also, what kind of relationship do you have with your boss? If you have decent rapport, it’s worth going back to her and saying something like: “I’ve thought a lot about this, and I’m stumped. I’ve paid attention to how often I mention my baby, and it’s not often, certainly no more than other people here who have kids and no more than others talk about hobbies or other interests outside of work. And since you agree that my engagement and initiative aren’t problems and you’re not getting this feedback this from the people who work with me often, like my team, I think something else is going on. I don’t know if it’s resentment over me returning in a higher-level role or something else, but I can’t make sense of it. Do you have any insight that could help me make sense of this feedback so I don’t have to conclude that I shouldn’t mention my family at work at all?”