my boss keeps telling me to clean up my office, carpooling with someone I manage, and more

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

1. My boss keeps telling me to clean up my office

I work in a non-teaching position at a large university. I accepted my current position mid-pandemic, at which time the department was streamlined down to just my supervisor, “Angela,” and myself. Angela is exacting and stern but excellent at her job and I can generally roll with her quirks as I enjoy my work and the school is an amazing employer. I’m trying to decide how to handle one of the areas where I struggle with her. Angela determines which of us will work on specific projects and creates a shared spreadsheet with these tasks, noting the due date, who will be completing it, and any details. This is fine except that twice now, she has listed under my tasks: “clean and organize your office space.”

I’ll be the first to admit that I’m not the most organized person, but my office is exactly that — mine. No one goes inside it except me and the night cleaning crew. We have several meeting spaces for use when we need to speak with students or faculty, as well as a large public-facing desk that we share. No one else ever has any reason to come inside my office. I contain any clutter to areas that only I use. In addition, my mess isn’t piles of garbage or rotting food. It’s stacks of paper on my desk that I keep procrastinating organizing and a book shelf that doesn’t isn’t up to the standards of the Bodleian Library. I can understand being asked to clean if I were creating a health hazard or piling my things in shared spaces, but this is simply papers in my own space. Last time she put this on the spreadsheet, I half-heartedly shuffled some things around. This time I’m tempted to simply pretend I didn’t see that particular assignment on the spreadsheet.

How would you approach this? If it matters, I feel like I do an excellent job. I’ve gotten consistently glowing evaluations from university administration and lots of positive feedback from the students and staff I work with. Angela largely expresses positive feelings about my work, but I have to be careful to catch her in a good mood if I want to discuss anything work-related… or anything else, actually.

Talk to her. She clearly has expectations about your office that you don’t agree with, and the way to handle that isn’t to ignore them or try to do the bare minimum you can get away with; that’s just going to guarantee that each of you ends up annoyed.

It’s fine to push back with your boss on something like this, but it needs to be in the form of an explicit conversation — not in the form of just not doing what she asked.

So raise it head-on! Tell her that the way your office is set up works for you and no one else comes in, and you’re wondering if there’s a concern she’s seeing that you’re missing. Go into the conversation open to the possibility that she might have a legitimate reason so that you don’t sound defensive — and because she really might. (For example, if she ever needs to find things in your office when you’re out, she might be reasonably concerned that she won’t be able to.)

2. Can I offer to carpool with someone I manage?

I’m a supervisor. I just moved and now live extremely close to one of my employees; we live in a suburb that’s a pretty far drive from the office. Would it be appropriate to see if they want to carpool occasionally? On the one hand, it seems ridiculous for the earth and our wallets for us to drive separately, and I think they would appreciate the offer. On the other hand, I wouldn’t want them to feel compelled to ride with me, and I wouldn’t want the other employees to feel like they’re not in the secret carpool club.

My gut says no, but then my other gut says I’m being ridiculous. If it helps, it’s a congenial office where people generally get along. Though I would say that — I’m the boss.

Because you’re the boss, I don’t think you should set up a regular carpooling situation; that would risk making other people on your team feel that one employee is getting daily bonding time with you that they’re not getting. It also risks setting up a situation where your employee wants to stop carpooling but doesn’t know how to get out of it.

But sharing an occasional ride shouldn’t be a big deal if you offer it in a way that makes it very easy for them to decline. In fact, do it in a way where they could get away with never mentioning it again if they’d rather not — like, “We live so close to each other, let me know if you ever need a ride to or from work.”

3. Employer won’t accept that I’ve said no to their job offer

I have been interviewing for jobs over the last few months and received a job offer last week. After my interview with the person who would be my supervisor, I got a vibe that wasn’t settling right with me (think, very abrasive; I was told by this person that they’ll offend me on a regular basis, and I’m to get over it). I asked for a day to think about the offer, and to determine if I could work with that style of management.

During that day, we found that one of my parents has a very serious medical condition and will need on-going treatment and surgery for at least three months. As I’ll be needed to help with care, transportation, medication, etc., I withdrew from the position with a nice email, explaining my reasons (ill parent, not wanting to start a new position by asking to take three months off, that I have FMLA protection at my current job, and that I’m not the best fit for that management style), thanking them, and wishing them the best of luck finding a candidate for the role.

I’m now receiving phone calls and emails about talking with them more and trying to make arrangements. While I appreciate the offer, I am truly not interested in the position any longer, and I keep repeating that. I don’t want to be completely rude and just ignore the them (small town, people talk a lot), but I have personal matters that need my attention. How do I get them to understand? Do I just stop answering? I don’t want to ghost anyone, but I don’t know if repeating myself is helping.

I’m going to assume that you’ve been clear about your no and not softened it to the point that they think you would welcome their help in making the job work out. Assuming that’s the case, they’re the ones being rude by ignoring your answer At this point, it wouldn’t be rude for you to stop responding — you gave them your answer and you’re not leaving them hanging. But if you want to respond one more time, say this: “I am formally declining the position. I’ve got my hands full with a family situation right now so I won’t be able to respond to further messages, but best of luck filling the role.” And then stop responding — they won’t keep trying forever.

4. Half our internships are awarded by nepotism

I work in a large company that strives to be progressive and equitable. We have full health benefits for domestic partners, paid parental leave for birth or adoptive parents of any gender, and a diversity task force that aims to ensure all employees feel welcome and valued.

This is all great, but my beef is this: my department frequently gets the child/friend/niece/neighbor of some executive gifted to us as an intern. We usually hire our own intern as well, meaning we have two interns total. The hired intern must undergo a rigorous process that includes multiple rounds of interviews and submitting work samples. The nepotism intern still needs to submit a resume and do an interview, but those are just formalities.

My sense of equity and fairness grates at how the company says it wants to promote equity and social justice and yet engages in this practice. Our department VP is unlikely to challenge it because the intern is free for us (i.e. their pay comes out of someone else’s budget) and we’re understaffed so frankly we could use the help. My question is, do I point out how this practice contradicts our stated values or do I just keep my mouth shut and don’t look the gift horse in the mouth?

For what it’s worth, I’m a manager who reports to the department VP. I don’t supervise the interns directly, but they work on my team. My team’s general attitude toward the situation is a mix of resignation, annoyance, and gratitude for any help we can get. They are professional and treat both interns equally, but there is a lot of sighing and “ugh, why” behind closed doors.

You’d be doing a good thing if you pointed out to your diversity task force that awarding half of your internships by nepotism perpetuates the privilege pipeline where students with connections get more opportunities than students without them, and that it directly contradicts the values your company professes.

5. What’s up with employers checking references after they’ve already made an offer?

My partner recently got a job offer for a field he’s more interested in and with a nice raise, as well, which we are both very excited about! However, HR asked for his references after offering him the job, making the offer conditional on the reference check. Why do companies do this? This happened to him for the job he’s currently in, as well as to me in my current role!

The frustrating part is that despite having received the offer a week ago, he still hasn’t been able to give his notice at his current job. You never know if a reference will unexpectedly burn you, or just say something that the reference checker doesn’t love and suddenly, the job offer is rescinded. But the longer he waits to give his notice, the more likely it is he’ll need to push his start date, but he won’t know what start date works for him until he can give his notice!

So why do companies do this? Wouldn’t it be easier for everyone to do the reference checks before sending the job offer? That way the candidate isn’t in this weird gray zone where they need to figure out a start date before knowing when they can even leave their current job! I understand that it’s maybe easier for HR, since that way they’re only contacting references if the candidate is interested in accepting, but on the other hand they’ve already had to draft up a new job offer with an adjusted start date, so it seems like more of a hassle for them, too.

Yep, it’s a terrible practice. Typically employers that do this see the reference check as a rubber-stamp where they’re just checking to make sure you didn’t misrepresent your experience — they’re basically looking for a thumbs-up or a thumbs-down rather than the more nuanced discussion that a thorough reference-checker would do. They’re treating it as similar to a criminal records check or degree verification, which is not what it actually should be.

It’s a bad practice because it means the offer could still be yanked so it’s not a real offer at all but candidates don’t always realize that, and also because it denies hiring managers the ability to include insights from references in their decision-making before they settle on a candidate.

Your partner is absolutely right to wait to resign until the contingency on his offer is cleared, and if he does need to push the start date back because of that, it’s okay for him to explain to the new employer that he’s not comfortable giving notice until the offer is a final one.

weekend open thread – October 16-17, 2021

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

Here are the rules for the weekend posts.

Book recommendation of the week: The Husbands, by Chandler Baker. In a neighborhood of high-powered, accomplished women and their extremely supportive, housework-loving husbands, all is not what it seems.

 I make a commission if you use that Amazon link.

it’s your Friday good news

It’s your Friday good news!

1.  “I emailed you a few weeks ago asking for advice after I was told that I would never be promoted again even though I had just received a great 1-year review and a promotion. (Note from Alison: this exchange was unpublished.)

Well, I took your advice and went back to my boss to ask for clarification. I cited all the higher level work I had been asked to do in my current position and floated an idea for a new role that would include more higher level leadership and training work. My boss said she liked the idea and would see what she could do. Today my boss told me that she’s worked with HR to create new position for me at a higher level. This new position will involve a lot more strategy and policy work, which I love, and it comes with a 10-15% pay bump.

I’m really excited and I wanted to thank you for your advice and for encouraging me to advocate for myself. Your blog has taught me so much.”

2.  “As of December 2019, I’d been in my first job out of college for about four and half years. It had been a great place to start my career, but as often happens, things changed. My amazing boss left, and the new boss wasn’t as great. There wasn’t a path to promotion unless I was willing to move locations, and several years into the role, I wasn’t learning as much. I decided it was time to start looking.

Between December 2019 and February 2020, I had several informational interviews with people in my network. I updated my resume and LinkedIn and started reading all of your resources on writing cover letters. Plus, I had just started a new volunteering gig adjacent to the field I wanted to enter.

And then, pandemic. The job opportunities I’d been looking at disappeared, seemingly overnight, and the work my team did was severely impacted by COVID-19. While we thankfully didn’t go through any lay-offs, the company did decrease our pay 5% and delayed our bonuses.

I wasn’t confident about being able to find a new job with so much uncertainty in the world, but I kept up a light search. After applying to maybe 10 roles and not hearing anything back, I noticed that a local (huge) tech company was hiring like crazy. I asked a friend who worked there if she would refer me – I didn’t have a tech background but figured some of my skills might be transferrable. She put in the referral. From there, I had two phone interviews, followed by a full day of video interviews with several members of the team. I heavily relied on the AAM interviewing resources and of course, asked the ‘magic question’ (some version of – what distinguishes someone who is good at this role from someone who is great at it), which landed well! My (now) manager seemed impressed, and she told me that one of my (now) colleagues was really the epitome of what great looked like in the role, so I had the bonus benefit of knowing who to pay attention to. Without ever meeting anyone in person, I received an offer in June 2020 for 30% more than I was making previously, with much better opportunity for upward mobility.

I’ve been in that role now for over a year, and it’s been a great step in my career. The work is more interesting than what I did previously, I’m gaining valuable skills, and I’m (virtually) meeting a ton of great people. I’m glad I didn’t give up the search, even when things were so uncertain.”

3.  “At the end of 2019 I was the team lead of, let’s say, Teapot Refining, which includes Painters and Glazers. While I was working part-time due to family stuff we re-hired a Teapot Glazer, Jake, who had left a year before and had a similar seniority to me when he left, before I was promoted to team lead. A couple months later when I was back full-time, my boss told me he was splitting the team up into Painters, led by me, and Glazers, led by Jake, because ‘he didn’t think Jake would handle working under me well.’ (Yeah, I’m a woman.) That left me as lead for an entire one other Teapot Painter. I was not thrilled.

Review time was coming up and I asked Jake (who I got on with quite well actually) if he’d tell me what salary they’d hired him back at. Surprise, his salary was 20% higher than mine, with a promise of an additional raise in 2020 which would have put it at 27% higher. I suspect that they didn’t want him on my team because I would be seeing salary numbers at review time.

Both HR and my boss had waggled their eyebrows and indicated a big raise in the making. It turned out to be 10% more than my current salary, so they were splitting the difference. I said I didn’t think that was quite fair, given Jake’s salary for an equivalent position. There was a lot of bluster about this being the best they could do, and I shouldn’t compare myself to Jake, and there would be another raise next year, and money wasn’t everything, etc etc. I had practiced this scenario with my wife in advance and kept my cool. Indicated I would quit, because I would have! My boss said he’d get back to me.

They came up to within 3% of Jake’s current salary plus my suggestion of a guaranteed month of remote work from another country, plus a promotion plan towards Head of Teapot Refining and Packing.

We set up some goals and a timeline. 2020 rolled on, I wasn’t sure about taking on the “And Packing” part, my boss couldn’t articulate exactly what duties the position would entail while pushing me to come up with A Vision for it – it was rocky. When a headhunter dangled a pure Head of Teapot Refining position in front of me with a team size of 10+ people for a 28% higher salary, I was interested. The company culture sounded great, there were a ton of interviews, they loved me, I loved them, I accepted their offer.

The timing, though. While the interview process was happening, review time was coming up. I learned from my boss that they would offer me another raise for my core job duties (which would keep me at 3% under Jake’s 2020 salary). And that they would finalize the promotion for Head of Teapot Painting and Packing… but not Refining… and the promotion would not come with its own raise. I put in my resignation letter instead of having a review meeting. They were puzzled.

I’ve just passed three months at the new job and I couldn’t be happier. My new boss and team gave me rave reviews, the company culture is amazingly good, I am challenged and excited and still turning my computer off right after 8 hours. And it’s 100% remote!”

open thread – October 15-16, 2021

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.

my friend’s work problems are stressing me out, I got accused of trash-talking a former job, and more

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

1. My friend’s work problems are making me anxious

I have a friend who can’t seem to hold down a job for very long before becoming very frustrated with it. Every workplace has an issue: coworkers who are catty, management that isn’t supportive, information that isn’t clear, and demands that are unrealistic.

From my vantage point, they are similar and benign issues that most workplaces have and there are ways around them. But whenever I try to share thoughts like that, she gets mad at me for not being supportive. So I have been trying to just listen and let her vent.

However, now I notice that I am getting very anxious. I fear she is jeopardizing her jobs with her behavior but she doesn’t see it. She needs the job so it’s not like she is trying to sabotage them. She genuinely seems confused about why they aren’t going well and doesn’t see her own role in the difficulties.

How do I best help her here? Is it better to just be the friend who listens or should I try to help her understand the work world a little better?

It sounds like you’ve tried to help her understand what’s going on and she’s gotten angry at you. But that doesn’t mean you need to let her vent to you endlessly either; at some point it’s reasonable to say, “I support you and I know you’re struggling with this stuff, but when I’ve tried to share my thoughts on it, you’ve gotten angry. I’m at the limits of how I can help, so can we talk about stuff other than work instead?” Friendship does not require you to endlessly listen at the expense of your own peace of mind; you are allowed to set limits.

If she’s a very good friend, you could try saying, “I see this really differently than you do, and I think you’re causing problems for yourself that you don’t see. It’s making me worried for you. Would you like me to share my perspective?” But if you try it and she’s unmoved, then you’re back to the above.

Alternately, every time she complains about work, you can try saying, “So what do you think you’ll do about it?” … but if that gets you labeled as “unsupportive” as well, then you’re back to the above too.

2. My manager’s phrasing is driving me nuts

I think I may be overly sensitive on this one, but I need some perspective. My manager has recently starting messaging me saying, “Can we do X?” as a way to assign me tasks. It absolutely drives me crazy. I prefer direct communication, and would much rather she ask, “Can you do X?”

Using “we” makes me feel like she doesn’t respect my contributions and that anything I do is just something “we” have done together. Plus, I worry that the lack of clarity will cause issues down the road — I imagine a situation where she thinks she assigned me something and I think that she is working on it. I’ve started replying with “yes, I can do that” to try to get her to recognize what she is doing without raising it directly. I feel like I’m being too nit-picky with her language, but this is something that really bothers me. Is there something I can do to get her to stop?

I’d recommend trying to let it go since asking her to stop likely will come off as nit-picky and overly controlling. The part of this that you have the most control over is your reaction to it. Can you focus on trying to change that instead?

That said … are you seeing any other evidence that your boss doesn’t respect your contributions and/or takes credit for your work? If so, those are substantive issues and worth addressing (totally aside from the language issue). If you’re not seeing any signs of that and it’s really just her use of “we” that annoys you, that’s all the more reason to try to get past it. We all have annoying verbal tics.

(For the record: Managers shouldn’t do this! If she were writing to me, I’d tell her to stop doing it and to be clearer when she’s assigning work, and ask if she’s using “we” out of a discomfort with authority. But she’s not the one writing for advice.)

3. I got accused of trashing my former company

I left a niche industry over eight years ago. Very dysfunctional, small company, family-run business. I was there more than 10 years. The last several years, it was obvious my boss barely tolerated me. When I finally found a chance to move on and gave my two weeks, my boss barely spoke to me.

Years of gaslighting, inappropriate comments, intrusive questions about personal matters … on and on it went. So I left with minimal contact with ex-coworkers. There was one person I did like working with and I stayed in touch with for a while, meeting up for the occasional coffee.

This past weekend, my husband and I were in a retail establishment, and low and behold next to me waiting to be served was the owner’s son from that job. After a few pleasantries, he went off — demanding to know why I trashed his dad and the company when I left. Totally taken aback, I said, “What are you talking about?” He went off calling me a liar and said, “Oh, so everyone made that up?” I have no idea what I allegedly said, nor did he provide specifics. I’m totally baffled. Furthermore, I would hope that I would have been more professional than that because I know it’s professional suicide to trash ex-employers. I have been racking my brain and honestly nothing is coming to me that could have been construed as badmouthing. And the fact that they waited this long to call me out?

Any advice? I know for a fact It won’t do me any good to try to talk to him about it further.

Leave it alone. it doesn’t sound like there’s anything to be gained from trying to engage. Who knows what he’s talking about — maybe someone there misrepresented your actions after you left (it sounds like the sort of place where that could happen), maybe he misconstrued something he heard, maybe he completely mistook who you are and thought you’re someone else entirely. Regardless, this is someone who thinks it’s okay to confront someone in public eight years after they left a job. He’s not someone whose judgment you should put a lot of stock in.

You’re not in touch with that company anymore or even in the same industry. You don’t need to put energy into sorting out what the owner’s son thinks.

4. My employee is applying for an internal job but doesn’t know I’m on the hiring committee

One of my direct reports, Jane, has applied for an internal open position. This position is in my department but does not report to me.

The trouble is that I am on the hiring committee and I don’t believe Jane knows this. She hasn’t said anything to me about applying. She had a phone interview last week with the committee head (other members were not involved, which is standard) and it wasn’t discussed there either. When I learned Jane had applied, I offered to recuse myself from the search, but the committee head didn’t feel it was necessary.

How should I approach this with Jane, if at all? Mostly I want to spare her the experience of coming for an in-person interview and seeing her boss on the other side of the table.

She might have not mentioned to you because she didn’t think she needed to, but she could also be worried that you’d respond badly to hearing that she’s looking to move on. (Of course, she may or may not be actively looking to move on; it’s possible she’s just interested in this particular job.) So the key thing is to make it clear that you’re not upset that she applied for another job.

I’d say it this way: “I wanted to give you a heads-up that I’m on the hiring committee for the X position so I’ll be in the interviews next week. I didn’t want you to be blindsided by that! I’m excited to talk more about the role with you.” If you think she’s a good candidate, add something supportive — “I think it could be a great next step for you” or “I could see you being really good at this” or “I’d hate to lose you, but I’d be glad the company is keeping you” or whatever makes sense for the context.

If she doesn’t get the job and you’d ideally like to keep her, talk with her about whether there are ways she’d like her current job to evolve. Are there areas where she wants to develop/projects she wants to take on/etc. and are those things you can realistically offer?

when the red flags are even more ominous than you know…

In 2014, I received this letter. I get more mail than I can answer, and this one didn’t end up getting published. But read on, because there’s a twist coming.

After following your cover letter and resume advice, I landed an interview for a position I would love to have. It is similar to my current work but would allow me to be more proactive and have greater ownership over the work.

My issue is with the prospective company’s hiring practices. I would like to question them in the interview to gain some insight in their company culture and structure, but I don’t want to come across as overly critical. After two in-person interviews, one phone interview and one skype interview, the company is flying me out to their headquarters in California to interview with an unnamed “panel” (the actual job is in Arizona.) The scheduler keeps moving my interview date every few days and it’s been pushed back 6 times now, including 3 plane tickets. I’m also concerned that they don’t trust their Arizona team with this hire, when it seems from the conversations I’ve had, I would have little interaction with the California team. How do I approach the question of the constant rescheduling and the trust issues? Or do you think that both are non-issues?

Back to 2021. The writer of this letter recently emailed me about something else and included this note:

I noticed a question I submitted back in 2014 about some warning signs from an interview process I was embedded with at the time — and it was for a position at THERANOS! It was the craziest, most disorganized, lengthy hiring process I’ve ever experienced. I’m really thankful I didn’t pass the final interview.

I asked the letter-writer if she’d share more details and she obliged:

I had completely forgotten that I reached out for advice, and reading it over now with SO much hindsight, I should have said “no thank you” based on their constant rescheduling! It was an incredibly stressful process because I would schedule a day off from work to fly to California, and then have to reach back out to my supervisor and change the request- six times. A total red flag for my current job, but they didn’t seem to notice. At the time, Theranos had JUST emerged to the national scene and were in Walgreens test stores in Arizona, with a full board of directors including several high-profile military leaders, so I thought it would be a good opportunity and there was only glowing, credible press about their mission and future. They provided a voucher to go through the nanotainer collection process at a local Walgreens, but I didn’t have a chance — and I’m glad now since it’s been revealed that false positives were abundant in their testing.

On the interview day, I flew to Palo Alto into the last step of a three-month process (my fifth interview), and they had this weird stipulation that if you took a taxi, you wouldn’t be reimbursed for travel, only if you took public transportation or rental car/shuttle service — but with the timing of landing to interview time (they determined both), there was no time for any of the reimbursable options. The building was super secure and I had to wait in a stark lobby behind multiple security doors for at least an hour, but that was actually the fun part of the day, chatting about the Chicago Bulls with the security guards. When someone finally arrived, I was led to a smaller lobby, where, after another half hour (now 1.5 hours later than originally scheduled), I had an extremely abrupt, short, cold interview with one person from HR. We didn’t vibe at all, so I wasn’t shocked that I didn’t get the job, but I WAS surprised that after all of the effort on both of our sides, I received a generic email form letter signed “Kind Regards, Theranos Human Resources.”

Another part of the interview process that I’ll never forget was the Skype interview with Sunny Balwani. He looked absolutely miserable, stressed, and rushed. Like he had been sleeping at his desk for weeks and was just absolutely hating that he had to talk with me. I’ve heard in the meantime that Elizabeth Holmes’ defense was going to portray him as a conniving Svengali, which didn’t match at all what I saw back then!

My lesson learned from this experience was that red flags are called red for a reason, and I just kept ignoring them. Rescheduling an out-of-state interview six times to meet with one person should have clued me in that this would not be a great place to work! I think we all make excuses because we’re so wrapped up in the process and start imagining ourselves out of our current situation without detecting dysfunction in the future opportunity. I’m glad I was spared that job, because a year and a half later, the Wall Street Journal started exposing the company, ultimately leading to them liquidating. But boy, that year and a half would be full of stories I’d never forget, probably!!

I want to just give 2014 me a hug that she was trying SO HARD to impress people at this incredibly dysfunctional, toxic workplace.

But three companies later, I am happy and well-adjusted. Thanks again for all your great advice over the years!

update: how much of a red flag is it if a job candidate was fired twice previously?

Remember the letter-writer asked about a job candidate who had been fired twice previously? Here’s the update.

I wrote in about six months about a job candidate who was fired twice previously, and my uncertainty about whether to move them forward in the process. As I said in the update in the comments section, I did end up interviewing the candidate again, but I felt like they weren’t quite the right fit for what I needed.

In the end, I went with the candidate who had been my top choice from the first round of interviews. She started a few months ago, and she is an absolute dream. Conscientious, diplomatic, flexible, really open to feedback, willing to ask questions until she understands something and then able to apply that knowledge and work independently much faster than I would have anticipated. We have a really complicated bureaucracy and I never expect anyone to really know what they’re doing for months, but she’s already figured out how to get stuff done that I didn’t even know could get done. It took her a bit to trust me when I said I was very open to her improving systems as we went, but now that she both trusts me and trusts herself to understand the systems, she’s making really helpful improvements. She is also doing such a conscientious job at one of her data entry tasks that upper management commented on how much easier it is to run reports now, because they don’t have to do the same extensive data clean-up that used to be required. I feel like she’s regularly trying to figure out how to make other team members’ jobs easier, while still being clear about her own boundaries, and it’s just really helping the team function amazingly well overall.

I really appreciated the comments on my original letter reminding me (and the commenters!) that I wasn’t hiring in a vacuum and that I had to compare the candidates to each other. I definitely want to continue giving candidates a fair shot and not make assumptions about their backgrounds, but I’m also glad that I learned I can trust my instincts, too. And I’m so grateful for this website and your book, Alison. My reports have all recently said how much they appreciate my management style (one of them described it as “laidback but with high standards”) and I know I owe a lot of that to you! Thank you so much.

what should I bring to the office now that we’re going back?

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

I graduated in May 2020 and started my job fully remote. I luckily have a really great group of coworkers who made a huge effort to include me in the broader office even while virtual and I really love the work so far. But we are now slowly starting to work from the office on a hybrid schedule and I realized I have no idea what do with an office and desk! I had internship experiences in college, but not in an office environment, and the office is currently undergoing a lot of restructuring, so there actually aren’t many folks fully settled into their desk space currently to base my set-up on.

We have shared offices (I’ll be in an office of three) with individual desks and some built-in cabinets.

This feels silly to ask, but what sort of things should I keep at my office? What supplies should I bring versus ask for the office to order for me? What kind of decoration is appropriate? Do I need to keep any additional clothes at the office in case of emergency? I feel a little lost and embarrassed to ask my coworkers, so I thought maybe you or the fine readers of Ask A Manager may have some advice!

Readers, have at it in the comments!

boss says we can’t share our lunches, employee fell for a scam, and more

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

1. Our boss told us we can’t share lunches with each other

I have been having lunch with some of my coworkers for over four years. Sometimes we bring food and share it among us. Last month, my boss told me and everyone else that we had lunch with that we can no longer share our food with each other. Apparently, someone who does not eat with us complained about us having lunch together and sharing our meals with each other. My boss said that it was favoritism because we were not inviting everyone else in the department to eat with us and share our food with them. So basically, we can’t bring our own food and share it with my closest friends at work because we are showing favoritism by not inviting the whole department to eat with and not sharing our food with them.

That is ridiculous. You are adults, not children, and you should be able to share your food with whoever you damn well want.

Obviously, if you were ostentatiously making a point of excluding one particular person, that would be jerkish and your boss should tell you to stop being an ass. But a small group of coworkers sharing lunch is not a big deal, and your boss appears to believe he’s running a kindergarten.

I don’t know if it’s a battle you feel like fighting or not, but you’d be on solid ground in saying, “This is our lunch break, when we’re on our own time. We’re not trying to be exclusionary, but we’re all adults here and we think it’s up to us who we share our own food with.”

Otherwise, you might consider leaving the office for your lunches.

2. My employee fell for a scam

I run a small retail business and while I was out this afternoon, someone came in and scammed one of my employees into giving him $300 in cash from the register. He told my employee that I was buying some furniture from him and we had spoken about, so she handed him the cash, then realized what she’d done and called me.

How do I proceed from here? I know that confidence tricksters are professionals, but handing over $300 without checking with the boss — I’m good at telling my team when changes are happening and would never ask anyone other than me to pay someone — seems like a big lapse in judgment. That is not an insignificant sum to the business — it’s an average day’s takings.

Any advice on how to handle this with this employee would be appreciated.

The business should cover the expense, just like you would if she made a totally different type of error in her work that cost you money. Absorbing the cost of errors is part of the cost of doing business. You shouldn’t ask an employee to pay for something that happened while they were performing their job in good faith.

But take this as impetus to train all your staff on spotting scams and handling similar situations that could come up in the future.

3. How can we be fair without being rigid?

I’m involved in a formal business coaching agreement with a husband and wife team that own a business near mine. They also happen to be close personal friends, so I know quite a bit about the business, and THEIR business. The business they own is a national franchise of a home services trade.

The question in front of us right now is: how do we accommodate the technicians (employees, not independent contractors) who need flexibility in start times due to circumstances beyond their control, while still maintaining standards and a sense of fairness among all the employees (particularly the other technicians)? Some are single parents, some of them have children whose schools have different start times, sometimes all of them are dealing with the variable of which schools are open in-person and which ones have closed due to exposure or quarantine-style restrictions? (Meaning, the need for flexibility exists for each individual tech, not just from tech to tech.) Explicitly, 7:45 am is considered “on time,” but one or two cannot arrive before 8:30 am without serious disruption to their family obligations. How can they enforce rules around tardiness, provide the needed flexibility, and still maintain a sense of fairness?

Four general principles:

* Strive to give people the maximum amount of flexibility you can without harm to the business’s operations. Stay away from rules that exist for rules’ sake.

* Spend some time figuring out where you can and can’t be flexible. Maybe start times aren’t a big deal. Maybe they are. Maybe you can accommodate a couple of people coming in late, but not everyone doing that. Figure out where the lines are, and communicate them openly and directly with your team. If there are some things you definitely can’t accommodate or can’t accommodate more than rarely, be up-front about those.

* If someone’s flexibility means that other employees get stuck with more work or less desirable work, make sure you recognize that in tangible ways (like money, extra time off, accommodating other things that are important to that person, or whatever makes sense for the context).

* Make sure that your flexibility isn’t limited to parents; non-parents generally have obligations in their lives that also matter. Make sure you don’t set up a parent/non-parent divide on your team. At the same time, though, the reality is that parents are operating under a uniquely crappy set of circumstances right now, and it’s okay to recognize that as long as you’re not ignoring non-parents’ realities too.

4. Should I mention I’m trans when interviewing?

After many years with my employer, I’ve decided to look for another situation. I am a management professional in a progressive city in a progressive region—which is great because I am transgender, and job hunting as a trans person is beyond stressful in any area. I’m very fortunate that I am far enough along in my transition that I’m clocked reliably as male 100% of the time. It would never come up in conversation with coworkers if I didn’t make a point to be open about it. Which I am. I have gotten reasonably deft at finding appropriate ways to disclose this information at what I consider to be the right time depending on the person.

Should I tell prospective employers that I am transgender during the application phase? My partner thinks I should because it could be an advantage to my prospects due to interest in hiring diversity. I don’t think it is appropriate—it’s not relevant to my profession, and as a hiring manager, I find it problematic when someone discloses a protected status before they’ve been hired (after all, one may never know why they didn’t get the job). Also, I already feel uncomfortable with the obvious male privilege I am afforded on a daily basis. I don’t feel right trying to game the system further.

I could find a way to work this information into an interview as a “gauging the culture” question. Should I?

Legally, employers can’t consider it (even in your favor) when deciding whether or not to hire you. In reality, though, employers consider illegal factors all the time, consciously or not. And given that trans people face discrimination more often than they face positive bias in hiring, it’s at least as likely to hurt you as to help you.

But there’s potentially value in that, if it helps you screen out bigoted employers. If you have the luxury of being at least somewhat choosy in your search, it can make a lot of sense to mention things that will help you screen out places you wouldn’t want to work. Doing it via a question about culture is a good approach so it doesn’t seem randomly shoehorned into the conversation.

5. Applying after withdrawing past applications

How many times can you continue to apply at a company after withdrawing previous applications? I’ve applied to the same company twice in the past couple of years, then I withdrew my application each time after they offered me an interview. The first time I had already accepted another job offer and I was honest about this via email; the second time I decided to stay at my then-current job, so over the phone I gave an excuse about my circumstances changing.

Now I have left my most recent job, that same company is advertising again, and I’m interested. But I’m also applying elsewhere, and if I keep withdrawing my application, I’m worried I’ll become like Ben Wyatt in Parks and Recreation, repeatedly letting down the accounting firm.

So, what’s the etiquette? Am I fine to keep applying to this company? Or should I start to approach this situation with more caution, in case they form a view of me as an unreliable candidate?

You’re fine applying again. The first withdrawal barely counts — there’s nothing flaky about having already accepted another job by the time they contacted you. The second time wouldn’t be remarkable on its own either; it’s only the fact that it’s the second time that could make it more of a thing of interest.

Go ahead and apply again if you want, as long as you’re sure you’d go to an interview if it’s offered (assuming, of course, that you haven’t already accepted a different job in the meantime; there’s no controlling for that).

our head of security took upskirt photos of an intern

A reader writes:

Curious to hear your take on a situation that came up a long time ago at a previous workplace. Shortly out of college, I got a job working for a nonprofit cultural institution that had a fair share of unpaid interns working across the organization.

Our head of security had a reputation for being gross/inappropriate around women at the company, so much so that my female supervisor and head of my department both took me aside my first week to quietly warn me to “watch out for myself” around him. As this was an organization that was often open to the public, this guy managed a team of security guards as well as a fairly sophisticated video security system throughout the building/grounds. That fact was always at the back of my mind whenever I was working alone early or late — this guy that multiple female colleagues had warned me about had the ability to surveil me as I sat at my desk — which, I realize, sounds dramatic — but just wait.

One day, a teammate was in the empty lobby a few feet from the head of security and his second-in-command. An intern wearing a skirt was hanging up signs along the stairwell above, and the head of security holds out his phone with the back of it facing upwards toward the stairwell when the unmistakable click of his phone’s camera rang through the lobby loud enough for his second-in-command and my colleague to hear it and look at each other. He was taking upskirt photos of an intern and was caught in the act.

Both my teammate and the member of the security team who witnessed the event went to our head of HR to report what they had seen, and the company did … absolutely nothing. Possibly he was spoken to (I can’t say for sure), but years later the guy still has his job running the security department at the organization.

Is there any universe where retaining this guy is an okay move? Aren’t upskirt photos in the workplace with MULTIPLE witnesses grounds for an automatic fire? What gives? And what could I and/or a group of my coworkers have done to demand that this lech get canned?


YES, this should have been an automatic firing. NO, there is no universe where retaining this guy was okay.

Of course, that assumes that this really was what it looks like — that he was indeed taking upskirt photos and not just, I don’t know, photographing the elegantly carved staircase bannisters or something, a fact that could have been easily verified by demanding to see his phone (and firing him if he refused to show the photo he’d just taken).

This would be unacceptable for anyone, but he was the head of security — a person with special access in a job that requires a high degree of trust. There should be nowhere in the cosmos where “oh, we’ll give him a warning and then set him loose among employees again” is considered a reasonable response.

That your company did nothing is … well, it’s maybe what we should expect from a company that had already continued to employ a head of security who was so known to be gross around women that multiple members of your management team warned you about him.

Whatever led to him still being around despite those complaints (hint: deeply entrenched sexism and a dismissal of women) is the same thing responsible for them keeping him on after the photo incident.

As for what you and your coworkers could have done: in theory a group of you could have demanded further action be taken. What that could have looked like in practice would depend on what you were willing to do — anything from making loud demands within the organization to being willing to quit over it to going to your board of directors to going to the media or even to funders. Sometimes those things work! Sometimes they don’t. They work more often now, but since this was years ago, it might not have worked then.

Is he still there? If so, you and your old colleagues might consider writing to the board now and sharing your experiences with him.