employee’s spouse emailed about his bonus, I don’t want to do a project with my needy coworker, and more

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

1. An employee’s spouse emailed about his holiday bonus

My husband just asked me for advice on an issue he encountered today. He is a small business owner who employs around 50 employees. This morning, he received an email from the spouse of one of them. It’s quite lengthy – around 500 words (yes, I actually checked, LOL). In it she expounds on what a committed and loyal employee her husband is. She mentions that our holiday party is coming up and she knows we are making decisions regarding bonuses. She doesn’t come out and mention “bonuses,” rather she uses the word “recognition.” At the end of the email, she requests that we keep the email a secret from her husband.

I am of the opinion that her husband should know that she is doing something like this – it’s so wildly inappropriate that he deserves an opportunity to tell her to knock it off. My husband just thinks we should delete and pretend we never saw it. What do you think? Another issue is the holiday party – which spouses usually attend. If she thinks this is okay, I have to wonder if she will bring it up to my husband. Oh, and for context, we don’t do large bonuses. It’s just not a thing in this industry for workers in his position. They are very well compensated on an hourly basis, which she would know because he has worked for us for several years.

I’d sure as hell want to know if my spouse had sent an email like that. And her request not to tell him makes it particularly icky.

If I were your husband, I’d forward the email to the employee with a note saying, “I received this email from Jane and don’t plan to respond but didn’t feel comfortable not letting you know about it. Maybe you could let her know we don’t talk to spouses about this kind of thing?”

Or, with someone I didn’t know well, I might say that in person instead (since I’d want them to see my face and hear my tone and know that our relationship was fine) and then forward it on afterwards.

2. I don’t want to work on another project with my needy coworker

I worked with a colleague who was very needy on a project for about a year. When I say needy, I mean she had no respect for either professional or personal boundaries. She would call me before I would even get to work and then after her kids went to bed to discuss this project. She would also call me on days I had off even after I specifically told her that I needed time off to decompress and not think about work. It got to the point where I would just turn off my cell phone when I got off work to not be bombarded by the constant text messages that she would send at all hours. She and I also worked on another project at this same time where I did about 80% of the work, and she would call and text me that she didn’t even start on her half and was freaking out about this presentation. I told her that my part was completed and she needed to make time to get her part done as she volunteered to take this on, and she ended up doing her part. In an hour-long presentation, my half was about 50 minutes due to her not being prepared and she only presented for 10 minutes. The presentation was well received and we both got equal credit for this and she wants me to do another project with her next year.

I really don’t want to work with her again on a project and can’t take the constant calls and text messages, and when I’ve set limits they were blatantly ignored. I’ve already told her that I may not have the time to take on an additional project next year as my responsibilities have increased and I will be in a new role in 2019. She has already emailed my boss and copied me that she can’t wait to work with me again in 2019 on an additional project after I’ve already said no. Any guidance would be appreciated.

Are these projects optional for you or are they a requirement of your job? If you’re senior enough to say no or if the project is optional enough that you can decline, talk to your boss and say something like, “I saw Jane copied you on a message about working on X together next year so I wanted to give you some context. I’ve told Jane that I won’t be able to work with her on it, and I’m hoping to stick to that. We’ve worked together previously and I found her very difficult to partner with — she called me at home early in the morning and late at night and on days off, even after I asked her not to, texted me at all hours, and did very little of the actual work. So my plan is to focus on A, B, and C and let her know I’m not available for X, but I wanted to fill you in since it sounds like she might approach you about it as well.”

And then just be firm with Jane: “I’m not going to be able to work on X with you so you should make other plans.” And then stick to that.

But if the project isn’t optional and your boss tells you that you need to do it, then I’d try being very blunt with Jane: “When we worked together last year, you called and texted me quite a bit outside of work hours. The only way I can work on this with you is if we decide from the outset that we won’t have calls or texts outside of work hours.” (And then if it happens anyway, block her number and let her know you’ve done that and why. Assuming this isn’t a project where your employer would expect you to be available 24/7, you’re allowed to do that.) You could also say, “I’d want to be really clear about the scope of work that I’ll take on and what you’ll be responsible for. Last time I ended up doing most of the presentation myself and I don’t want that to happen again. How do we ensure it doesn’t?” (And then if it happens anyway, keep your boss in the loop so that she’s clear on your contributions and doesn’t give you less credit than you deserve.)

3. I’m being harassed by a coworker I don’t want to report

I have a question about how to bring up sexual harassment at work. It’s a bit more complicated than most situations, because we’re both gay women who are closeted at work. It started out with coming out to each other when we were working alone together for the first time. We had a laugh and bonded over being in two minorities at work: women in a heavily male-dominated blue collar job, and being gay on top of that. We had fun, all was well.

But then it escalated badly. She started talking in detail about her sex life, about how much she likes younger women (context: she’s 55, I’m 25), how many significantly younger sexual partners she’s had, and — well, VERY crude comments, gestures, and “jokes” about lesbian sex and female bodies that I’m not comfortable repeating. She also suggested that I come over to her place some time so we could “cook dinner and stuff.” It all made me incredibly uncomfortable. I don’t think she intended to make me uncomfortable, and she’s got juuust enough plausible deniability to make me doubt whether I’m imagining things, but it honestly did feel vaguely predatory, and was definitely beyond inappropriate workplace behavior regardless of her intent toward me personally. If it had been a man, I would have immediately told him to stop, and reported him to both our manager and HR without second thought.

The crux of the issue: She is not out at work, and made it very clear that she told me her orientation in strict confidence. I can’t ask any of my coworkers that I’m closer to for any kind of advice, because it would out her no matter how discreet I tried to be. Same thing with talking to our manager: it would out her no matter what. And, not gonna lie – I really don’t want to report a lesbian for sexual harassment of a young woman, because our field is already very misogynistic and homophobic as a rule. So my only option is to talk to directly to her, and her alone. I have to continue working one-on-one with her, so our working relationship has to be preserved, and she’s shown no indication of toning down her sex talk no matter how much my only reactions are an awkward laugh/hum and silence or a subject change. Do you have any advice for this very, very awkward and sensitive discussion I’m going to have to have with her?

The thing that really sucks about these situations is that people should pick up on the fact that your awkward laugh/silence/subject changes mean you don’t welcome their comments … but a lot of them will use the lack of a clear “stop” as license to continue. In some cases that might be genuine social obliviousness, but in many others, it’s not.

In any case, since you haven’t yet directly told her it’s unwelcome, there’s a decent chance that doing that will get the outcome you want. So try saying this: “Hey, you’re making me really uncomfortable with that kind of talk. Would you stop doing that around me?” Or, “I’m really not comfortable having this kind of conversation with a colleague. Could you stop?” And if that doesn’t work, then this: “Hey, I’ve asked you to stop this and you’re continuing. If you were a man, I’d be reporting this as sexual harassment. I really, really don’t want to be in that kind of position here, so could you make this easier on both of us and cut it out?”

If she continues after that point, she’ll be pretty much forcing your hand in terms of reporting it — but you’ll have very clearly warned her and given her a chance to stop it.

4. Bringing alcohol to a gift exchange that kids take part in

My boss hosts an annual holiday party at his home which includes a white elephant gift exchange (everyone brings a gift, people take turns choosing one to open or “stealing” an already opened gift from a previous participant). This is completely optional and the maximum budget per gift is very low, or you can bring something random you no longer want from your house. My boss’ kids (preschoolers) have been allowed to participate each year which is fine and the kids are well behaved.

My question is whether it’s okay to bring an alcohol-related item as my white elephant gift given that kids participate? For reference, alcohol seems to be very common in my field and even keeping it at work isn’t unheard of. I brought alcohol gift last year and it was the most stolen item by far so I know it was a popular gift. Luckily the kids didn’t choose it to open so it wasn’t a problem. I purposefully chose a more adult, less kid-attracting wrapping paper, but I also want to be sensitive to adults that don’t drink. My team is rather small and I’ve seen everyone drink, however significant others I can’t be sure about. If I write “21+” on the gift tag, do you think that would mitigate any concerns, both regarding my boss’s preschoolers getting liquor for a gift, and a non-drinker getting it?

It sounds fine to me! But you never know what people are going to be weird about, so if you want to be sure, you could run it by your boss and confirm that, particularly since it’s his kids.

5. Can I bring my best friend as my plus-one to our company party?

I’ve been invited to my company’s annual holiday party and the invitation included a plus-one. I’m easily the youngest on my work team; this is my first full-time job after finishing college (and my first corporate holiday party). Everyone else on my team is married, so it’s likely everyone else’s plus-one will be their spouse. However, I’m single and like the idea of bringing someone with me, just to have someone I know well and am comfortable talking to with me at a minimum! My best friend/former roommate will be in town that weekend to visit me regardless, and I trust her completely to reflect well on me at a work function. My question is, is it weird to bring her with me if we’re just friends and not partners? I don’t know whether I’m completely over-thinking this and stressing out about it needlessly.

This is one of those things that varies by office. In some offices, it’s fine to bring a plus-one who isn’t a significant other … and in other offices, it’ll come across strangely. Do you have a coworker with excellent judgment who you trust to tell you the truth? If so, you could run it by that person and see what they think. But if you don’t get a confident answer from anyone, I would err on the side of not doing it, especially because you’re the youngest there. If it does turn out that your office is one of the ones where it would be seen as weird, it risking making you read as more young than you are, and that’s not helpful when you want people to take you seriously.

update: my coworker plays Christian rock all day

It’s “where are you now?” month at Ask a Manager, and all December I’m running updates from people who had their letters here answered in the past.

Remember the letter-writer who shared an office with someone who played extremely religious Christian rock all day long? Here’s the update.

So, I actually chickened out of talking to her about it for awhile after receiving that advice – sometimes I’m fine with confrontation, but other times I’m a total wuss, and this was one of the latter.  In fact, getting your email asking about an update was what nudged me into finally speaking up, so that I’d actually have an update to give – thank you for that!  I’m happy to report that Operation This Is An Office, Not A Church was a complete success.

This morning Lily had a particularly gospel-y playlist running, and it was early enough in the day that only she and I were around, so I realized I wasn’t going to get a better opening than this – with the behavior in question actively occurring at the time, and semi-privacy for a conversation if we needed one.  I was nervous, so I literally had the post on AAM open on my computer and used pretty much the exact phrasing you suggested (I didn’t quite read it off the screen at her, but almost).  Lily seemed a little surprised, but not as defensive as I’d worried about.  She actually proposed to switch to headphones instead – which I’m even happier about, to be honest – though she doesn’t have them in her purse today, so for now we’ve switched to a different playlist.  So I got pretty much the best possible outcome: not only am I free from the religious music that was putting my shoulders up around my ears, I get to reclaim the peace and quiet I was used to when I had my own office! 

Thank you so much, both to you and to the commenters who offered their advice as well – it was so helpful even just to hear external confirmation that I wasn’t being unreasonable about this, and then the script you provided gave me the confidence to speak up without getting awkward or letting my irritation show. 

35 gifts for every type of employee

If you’re the boss, finding the right gifts for your employees can be fraught with questions: How much do you spend? Should you spend the same amount of money on each person? And if you don’t know someone well, how do you make sure they like the gift while still keeping it professional?

To be clear, managers don’t have to give their staff members gifts, but it’s a nice gesture if you want to do it – and in some offices it’s very much expected. (Although here is your obligatory reminder that because of the power dynamics involved, gifts at work should flow down, not up. Managers should never expect or encourage gifts from employees.)

New York Magazine asked me to put together a gift guide for bosses buying for employees, and so I hunted down 35 ideas for everyone on your team.

(Again, not obligatory!)

(Unless your office makes it so.)

You can read it here.

update: my new office works torturously long hours

It’s “where are you now?” month at Ask a Manager, and all December I’m running updates from people who had their letters here answered in the past.

Remember the letter-writer who had started a new job where everyone worked ridiculously long hours — like routinely working past midnight? Here’s the update.

First of all, I want to say THANK YOU for publishing your response to my letter. I also want to thank the readers who commented and shared their own advice and experience – I read and appreciated every single word.

I honestly wasn’t expecting your reply, nor the opinions expressed in the comments, to be so unambiguous. Hearing from so many people that the situation was definitively not okay really helped me reframe from “I can’t handle the heat in this kitchen” to “when the kitchen’s on fire, getting out is the right move.”

So what happened next? A few weeks after you published my letter, I ran into a younger coworker who was crying – to make a long story short, she’d essentially been given an ultimatum to cancel her (weekend!) trip home if she wanted to keep her job. (This person is also one of the most caring and committed people at the company – someone who regularly stays past midnight not because she has to, but because she offers to help so others can go home a little earlier. Grrr.) As I was trying to tell her that was truly not okay, it hit me that it was time to put my money where my mouth was. I decided right then and there that if I was kept past midnight that night, I’d resign the next morning; I was there until 1, and I resigned the next day.

After I made the choice to resign and, in effect, stopped forcing rose-colored glasses onto my face every morning, I let myself acknowledge things at that company are out of control in many more ways than work-life balance…I won’t get into it all here, but think ritualistic public shaming, actively pitting people against each other, criticizing individuals for things that shouldn’t even be mentioned in a professional environment, and so much more. I am so happy to have gotten out of there quickly, before my own norms and expectations got twisted.

While I was really scared to leave with nothing else lined up, particularly because my partner was looking for employment himself at the time, I knew it was the right thing for me to do. And this story has a happy ending – I’m thrilled to share that I am now at a wonderful company – still in the ‘prestigious’ field I wanted to be in! – where literally everything about my life is better: the (actual) work-life balance, the culture, the values, the commute, and even the salary. So if there’s a broader lesson or takeaway from my experience, I offer: know that leaving a toxic job – though it can feel terrifying in the short term – might actually be less risky than staying put.

update: our security guard slept with an employee, then asked her to pay him for it

It’s “where are you now?” month at Ask a Manager, and all December I’m running updates from people who had their letters here answered in the past.

Remember the letter-writer who worked somewhere where the security guard had slept with an employee and then extort her into paying for it? The letter-writer had heard the story from a colleague, Marco, felt ethically obligated to report it, and was wondering whether to tell Marco she’d done that. Here’s the update.

The investigation by HR was completed and they found no cause for action. The HR rep kind of implied that Marco made up the story, but through the conversation it became apparent that something had indeed happened. The HR rep seemed to imply that the kind of information that was being said about the guard was malicious, and Marco and I were more at risk for reprimand. I kindly explained to him the value of a ‘whisper network’ and how important it was to me to know whether or not I have anything to fear if I find myself alone in the parking garage with this guard. I had to ask for an update to the situation in order to find anything out because the HR rep said since I wasn’t a party or witness to the incident, I had no right to know- which is why they did not tell me the investigation was completed or the findings. The HR rep met with me only because I requested an update.

While talking with the HR rep about the vandalism, his attitude seemed that whatever happened wasn’t a big deal. What I didn’t tell you when I wrote, or the HR rep when I reported the incident, was that Marco told me the woman had found a hamburger smeared all over the front windshield of her car after she refused to pay the guard. I visibly saw the reaction on the HR rep’s face when I said, “You may not think smearing a hamburger on a car is a big deal, but it is a form of intimidation.” Then, I reminded him about Hollywood PI Anthony Pelicano who threatened LA Times reporter Anita Busch when she was writing a story about one of his clients, by placing a dead fish on her windshield. Dead fish, hamburger, it’s all the same – it’s a threat. I’m fairly confident the HR rep thinks I am crazy, as he said that my perception was way off base! Way to minimize my concerns!

As for me and Marco, my guilty conscience got the better of me before you even published my letter, and I told him almost immediately that it was I who reported the incident to HR. He wasn’t mad, although he was more reserved around me for a while as he processed the information. I explained my feelings to him that I have as a result of sexual harassment at work and why I felt it was so important to look into this incident. I did not question him about why HE didn’t report the incident, but I know that if he ever tells me anything of concern, my approach will be to encourage him to report it instead of getting personally involved. Now that some time has passed, everything is okay with us. We even laugh about not being seen by HR together, but it doesn’t really stop us from having lunch together, etc. And why should it? He and I did nothing wrong. I’m most relieved about that and feel this incident and working through the aftermath has solidified our friendship. So, to conclude, I would say that our HR department sucks and I’m going to keep my mouth closed from now on, I’m still going to be cautious around that guard, and Marco and I have a real, true friendship.

Thanks again to you and the readers who provided support and advice. It was very comforting to read all the words of encouragement and appreciation for what I had done.

updates: the early morning meetings, the boss posting fake news, and more

It’s “where are you now?” month at Ask a Manager, and all December I’m running updates from people who had their letters here answered in the past. Here are five updates from past letter-writers.

1. Can I push back on daily morning meetings before my usual start time? (#2 at the link)

I emailed the meeting organizer something like, “8am is a bit early for me on a daily basis. Could we do this asynchronously or at a later time on some days?” His reply indicated to me that I was not the first person on the team to ask ;) In the end the daily meeting idea was dropped (thank goodness).

Many of the commenters reminded me that 8am for me is a late evening for someone else. If the 8am meeting had been the last meeting before those co-workers could leave I would not have felt okay asking to change it. However, we regularly have meetings that go until 11am that those co-workers are expected to attend.

It’s hard to find the right balance for our team because we span 9 time zones The co-workers in the eastern time zones knew the expectations when they took their jobs and built their lives around working in the evenings. One spends the mornings as primary caregiver for his son. Another has a 2 hour “no meeting” block for their family dinner time.

The team has a hard “no meetings Fridays” rule to make sure everyone always get proper weekends and everyone on the team enforces this rule even if it doesn’t affect us.

Some parts of our set up suck (I do the occasional 7am meeting) and other things are awesome (someone from our team is available 17 hours a day). The only constant for our schedules is the flexibility, which I think is partially why the idea of a daily meeting died.

Thanks for giving me the confidence to say something and the reminder to ask gently.

2. My boss won’t stop posting fake news and false memes on our company Facebook

The short and sweet of it is that I got fired in September. My original question had been about my boss ruining our reputation through social media; he stopped posting fake news but is now posting wholly irrelevant content. The reason he concocted for my being fired was such that I can’t receive unemployment and can’t say what it is publicly for various reasons that scare me a lot – even though it’s a practice that he and several other members of the organization have done and continue to do. I discovered that I was lied to about the board voting to fire me – in fact, the board barely knew they had an employee. The only vote ever related to me was the vote to hire me. My boss told me several times in the past that the board had voted to get rid of me but that he fought for my job. None of that was true. There were a lot of lies, but I can’t bring them to light because he has this “reason” I was fired that he could pull the trigger on any time he thinks I step out of line.

I firmly believe that I was fired because I had the audacity to use my position for good rather than as a publicity stunt. It was a massively abusive environment, and I developed a crippling anxiety disorder. I thought I’d have to go on disability. It took me months to realize that I did some amazing things and am worth SO MUCH MORE than he made me believe.

The organization started falling apart the moment I was fired, and he’s now quietly asking around for someone to buy one of our properties. I’ve had a plan to take this part of his org away from him when it became too expensive to justify, but he’s apparently so hard-up for money that it could actually become a reality. Soon. I’m realistic – I have a business plan, a pro/con list, and a ton of skeptics to shut me down, so I’m fairly grounded in my expectations. It’s an exciting prospect, and I’m willing to work incredibly hard to realize it. I’m pretty sure my former boss would turn me down out of spite, though.

Thank you to all the readers who told me to run – you were right. I have this “thing” where the “universe” leads me, and the “universe” absolutely did lead me to that job. It’s just that somewhere along the line, I missed the, “GIRL, RUN!” message. I’ve been lost for a long time, and everything’s felt wrong. This venture I’m considering feels right again, and I have a lot of people in my life to make sure I don’t just “feel” my way into it.

Thank you all so much, Alison and readers! Looking back on that post really helped me through all this garbage.

3. How to deal with a client who’s always late or no-shows

Immediately after reading your response and the comments, I asked this client to switch our weekly call slot to make it A) earlier in the week and B) first thing in the morning that day, so there would be less of a chance of things “coming up” right before our meeting to distract him. He agreed and this improved the missed meeting problem almost right away. I have also started sending a call itinerary about 30 minutes before the meeting (why I wasn’t doing this sooner, I don’t know) and this has greatly helped us to stay on track/create a paper trail of the items I need his input on to move forward, so that if we do miss a meeting it’s not on me if things are late.

I have also become more confident in defending my time; between this and several of your other articles I have taken your advice to be less accommodating of last-minute requests for “urgent” meetings (when the client previously blew off a scheduled meeting that I already held time for), and to encourage email communication in lieu of a phone call when possible.

This client is still late pretty frequently, but I have come to terms with that as being “just part of the job” for this otherwise good client. I usually have 10-15 minutes of busy work ready for myself to be working on when I know I’m going to be waiting for him to join the meeting. Not ideal, but as your commenters pointed out, I am getting paid regardless of his tardiness so I feel that it’s not something I want to rock the boat/overstep my bounds as a consultant over.

Thanks for this and all your other great advice – I read your column daily and am constantly learning from it!

4. My boss won’t let me give my staff feedback in case it hurts their feelings

Predictably, things deteriorated pretty quickly. Even after I expressed my frustration with the way things were currently being handled, things never actually changed. Whenever I gave my team feedback (always professionally handled, I swear), the CEO almost never had my back and doubled down on the “you’re doing great!” talk, so I ended up looking like the Big Bad Wolf.

Things went really downhill with one young team member in particular. She screwed up a few times in a big way (which is normal and not the end of the world, if handled correctly). But thanks to the CEO, there was never any real accountability and my attempts to correct it were undermined completely. This team member was basically under the impression that her work was flawless, and I was just being unreasonable. So she kept screwing up in bigger and bigger ways, but I was the only one being held accountable.

This lead to an extremely stressful work environment for everyone. Unfortunately, the damage is done. I have turned in my two weeks, and thankfully have been offered a position with double the salary.

When I told the CEO I was leaving, she told me they’d go out of business without me (yikes). This all could have turned out very differently if she had just been willing to allow me to actually manage.

5. I’m about to go on medical leave, but I’m also hoping to take my long-delayed honeymoon (first update here)

I’ve finally settled in on this, thanks to a huge crazy set of circumstances in my life that started with a family emergency for my new husband and have culminated in us moving across town into a house from an apartment, a move we were not even close to expecting and accomplished in the span of one week. Through all of that, my boss has been remarkably supportive of the situation, even sharing a situation with her husband that was very similar to what had happened with mine.

I never did speak directly with her about why my leave was denied the way it was and all of the reasoning behind it, but I’ve managed to let it go. My work did suffer for a few weeks, but it was such a hectic time for the month after I would have returned, I don’t think anyone noticed. With everything that has happened since, it seems much less important.

Also, I now recognize how much the lack of sleep and the recovery from that was affecting my emotional stability, which I think a few comments pointed out. I’ve now been able to sleep properly for several months and I feel incredible because of it. I’m remembering things I would have almost immediately forgotten before, and I’m just overall back to my over-achiever self, which I definitely needed because our lives have been extra difficult the past month or so. I appreciate the advice from AAM and all of the commenters, even though I wasn’t necessarily the best sport about it, and I’m so pleased to report that it seems like I’ve truly solved the insomnia issue that’s plagued me for most of my life.

our holiday party excludes people with mobility issues, turning down training requests, and more

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

1. Our holiday party excludes people with mobility issues

Recently, our small company grew large enough to require an actual HR department and a person was hired. Said person has taken over leading/supervising work related social committees — holiday parties, summer potlucks, that sort of thing. Usually she gathers some staff to help out, but generally she and the EA do most of the organization.

In the past year, we have had two major off-site work events that I could not attend because they forgot to check if the venue and/or arranged transportation was accessible. I am not wheelchair-bound, but have mobility restrictions that require me to use two canes permanently. Both times, I chalked it up to both of them being new and being distracted by the food-restricted people. (We have multiple vegan, vegetarian, celiac, and life-threatening allergies so meal planning is a challenge.)

Well, the annual holiday party is upon us and we’re going bowling. Great! We all like bowling. We’ve gone before as a group and had a blast. Except that decided they didn’t want to book where we usually go, they wanted to go somewhere a little flashier. (Our usual place is, admittedly, a dive. The food is great, the place is clean, but a dive). The new place does not have a ramp or an elevator, nor does it offer any kind of adaptive bowling equipment. I am welcome to bring my own, if I have it. I do not. I bowl once a year with the work crew. It should be noted that I got this info directly from the bowling alley myself. I asked the EA when the holiday party email went out what the accessibility was like and she said she’d call, but didn’t.

How do I respectively decline to go to this event without sounding hurt (which I am)? “I’m not coming because you forgot to check if I could participate again” sounds petty. And how do I broach HR about this continued exclusion when it’s HR doing the excluding?

“We’ve had three major off-site events this year that I couldn’t attend because they’re weren’t accessible to me. Starting in the new year, could we make a point of ensuring that venues and transportation will be accessible?” And then if they say “oh yes, of course,” then you say, “Is there anything different that could be put in place to ensure that? I ask because for the holiday party, I inquired about accessibility and was told Jane would check into it, but then I never heard anything back, and when I called on my own, found out it wasn’t. I’m hoping there can be some official change made to whatever procedures are used for booking venues and transportation to ensure it doesn’t fall off the radar in the future.”

This is eminently reasonable to ask for. And I know you’re worried about taking HR to task, but really, this is a pretty serious oversight on their part, and any halfway decent HR team would want to know this was happening so they could fix it. Look at it this way: You’ll be doing them a favor by putting this squarely on their radar, because it’s something they should really, really want to fix.

If this doesn’t solve it, then pull in your manager. But hopefully this will do it.

2. Should I ask for a gift since I can’t attend the office holiday party?

We relocated to an area and I sought out an insurance office that was next to our temporary housing and started working there — mostly remote but I occasionally would go into the office. Last year we relocated again and now we are five hours away. I have worked for my boss now almost four years, but was only able to attend his dinner one time in the past. I spoke with him yesterday and he mentioned that they are planning the dinner in January and within the week I should let him know if we will be in the area.

My dilemma is that when I cannot attend, I don’t receive anything in lieu of not attending the dinner. I feel for my hard work and dedication, it would be nice if I get a little something — maybe a gift card for local restaurant? I mean, if we were to travel, we would spend, time, gas, hotel, etc. — obviously that just doesn’t make sense.

Your thoughts whether it is rude/wrong of me to simply tell him I cannot attend and then somehow suggest a restaurant gift card instead?! If okay, not sure how to word it either?!

It’s fine to tell him that you can’t attend; he probably assumes that’s likely going to be the case since you’re five hours away. But you should not suggest that he give you a gift instead. This isn’t a situation where everyone else is getting a gift and you’re not. This is a situation where others are attending a workplace event that you’re not attending because you’re remote. A gift isn’t an equivalent substitute. It’s true that it would be a nice gesture for him to send you a gift in lieu of being able to wish you happy holidays in person, but it’s not in any way obligatory or even something you should expect — and asking him to do that would come as weirdly transactional.

There are huge upsides to being able to keep your job when you move away, but there can be downsides too. This is one of them, but it’s a pretty minor one.

3. My old boss just got fired — should I contact her?

I resigned from a difficult job last year and landed at a new company where I’m much happier. A big part of the reason for my departure was my former boss — decent person, not-so-great manager who ran a chaotic and ultimately unprofitable department. She was let go a few weeks ago in a very public way (it’s a small industry), and I’m struggling about whether I should reach out to her.

A significant part of my reason for leaving was that I just didn’t have a great rapport or comfortable working relationship with her. She’s not a bad person (and she is super creative and charismatic, so she has a lot of fans in our industry), but I found her chaos really stressful, and I wanted a job that was a better fit for me and my working style. When I announced my resignation, she grew quite cool, and I had a somewhat uncomfortable last couple of weeks at that job. I haven’t been in touch with her in the year since I left.

I’m trying to put myself in her shoes and decide whether I’d like to get a note of support from a former colleague at this time … or if I’d rather just lick my wounds in peace. However, we have such a small professional circle that I wouldn’t be surprised if our paths cross again. I feel as though I should reach out, just to say … something? “I’m sorry this happened, and I wish you success” sounds trite. “Thinking of you” sounds like someone died. The last thing I want to do is be patronizing.

However, I want to be kind (because getting fired stinks), and I want to be professional (because who knows, she could end up working at my new company in six months or six years — a distinct possibility despite the firing because again, small industry). Would you suggest I write to her, and if so what should I say?

I’d leave it alone. You weren’t currently working with her, you didn’t especially like working with her, and she’s not someone you’re actively trying to maintain a relationship with. It’s not rude not to contact her. Plus, contacting her is essentially saying “people are talking about you being fired,” which is not a wonderful thing for her to hear, even if she figures some of that is probably happening. You’re fine just leaving it alone.

4. How can I turn down training requests from my clients?

I am an independent consultant that works on, let’s say, specialized teapot tracking systems. My clients send me issues and change requests; I handle them. I have a few people who, every time they request something, also add a request for “training” on how to solve the issue themselves. The requests range from the general, “train me how to troubleshoot delivery errors,” to the super specific, “train me on how you fixed the data in this particular one-time broken message.”

Alison, I hate training. I’m good at it, but find it exhausting, and it’s taking time away from work I do enjoy. I want to work on teapot systems, not train people how to do that. I already happily do some training, when appropriate (or unavoidable). If possible, I refer them to classes or documentation. Unfortunately, this is a niche product with hardly any resources available.

The reason they ask is because they hope to (or were hired to!) take over part of the work I do for them. And I honestly encourage them to pursue that! (Just don’t ask me to teach them how.)

Deflecting the requests is getting exhausting and, worse, coming across as unhelpful. Clearly, I need to reset expectations somehow. I’m hoping for a script that gently says, “I don’t do training on X,” but, you know, actually sounds supportive. I want to be a partner assisting them, but I have to cut back on this training. I can’t think of a reasonable position to take, and I don’t have any good alternatives to offer them if I don’t suck it up and train them. Do you have any advice for this situation?

It’s perfectly reasonable to decide that you’ll sell your expertise and labor doing X but not for Y — and in fact, one of the benefits of freelancing is that it’s easier to set those limits.

You could say, “I actually don’t do training, but I can get this fixed for you and then refer you to some documentation if you want to take a more detailed look at it.” Pairing “I can’t do X” with “but I can suggest Y” instead will soften the no.

And if you’re asked why you don’t do training, you could say “It’s never been what I’m best at” or “I’ve found it takes too much time from the work that I prefer to focus on.” And then you could add, “But I’m glad to fix anything like this that you want me to handle, and I can point you to some classes if you’d like to learn about it yourself.”

5. Can I ask for my coworker’s higher pay rate when I cover for her?

I work for a healthcare clinic as a front desk patient services representative. We have several clinics around the state. I work as the front desk for both medical and dental in my office. This already is more than most of the other front office staff responsibilities, but I have a coworker who constantly calls in to work for various reasons. When she does this, I am expected to fill in for her. The starting rate for her job is $3/hour more than mine, but I still get paid the same even if I do both our jobs.

Is it unreasonable to ask to be paid at least starting rate when I do her job? How and who do I ask about this? I am just shy of a year at this company, but the job was way more work than I imagined it could be and they add on new stuff regularly.

Yeah, you can’t really ask that — but you can ask for a raise on your own merits. The reasons you can’t really ask for her rate of pay when you fill in for her are (a) there might be all kinds of other reasons why she earns more than you do (like bringing more experience or skills to the job, even if some of your duties overlap at times) and (b) it’s pretty normal to be expected to fill in for coworkers when they’re out and it doesn’t normally warrant special pay for that period of time (with some exceptions, like a very long-term parental leave cover).

However, you’ve been there a year, the job has been expanding, and you’ve proved your reliability by filling in for other spots when needed. You’re well-positioned to ask for a raise on your own merits, totally separate from the issue of your coworker. Here’s how to do it.

me, talking about burn-out

I’m on the Stuff Mom Never Told You podcast this week, talking about burn-out — how to recognize burn-out, what to do if you’re burned out, my own experiences with burn-out, why it might be different for women, and more. The episode is 52 minutes long and you can listen here.

update: my coworker put push pins on my chair

It’s “where are you now?” month at Ask a Manager, and all December I’m running updates from people who had their letters here answered in the past.

Remember the letter-writer whose increasingly aggressive coworker had started leaving push pins on her chair? Here’s the update.

I took your advice and was very firm with my manager and the VP about my intolerance for the situation and I also went to HR myself demanding meetings, as per your advice. I was definitely being firm from the beginning but I made it way more obnoxious for them to ignore my concerns, and after several meetings with HR and my manager and the VP of our department, HR and the VP worked out a corrective action plan for the offender. She was not to speak to me or the rest of the team about anything related to the issues she caused and was generally told to not make idle conversation with me at all (since I told HR myself I want as little contact with her as humanly possible). She was also moved to the other side of the floor to sit directly in front of the VP’s office so he could keep an eye on her. She has had many run-ins with HR for leaving an hour or two earlier than she’s supposed to, so they figured this would kill two birds with one stone.

Anyway, another manager in my department (whom is EXTREMELY friendly and kind), lets call her “Jane,” had to work with her on a large high-level project which required them to have lots of meetings and contact with each other every day. After the first few meetings, Jane noticed that the offender was often not at her desk even though her meeting calendar was wide open. Since she was having trouble contacting her, she asked her about how she can get into contact with her when she’s not at her workspace so that they can resolve issues quickly. After that moment, the offender began to show Jane her true colors, as well. Jane started to receive some violent and strange actions from the offender – for example, coming to her enclosed office in the morning to find her chair knife-sliced and things on her desk broken (only other person in the office at that time was the offender), having pictures of her and her family stolen from her desk, and catching the offender in her enclosed office on several occasions with no reason for being there. The offender also continuously broke into my own managers enclosed office to steal the calendar from her wall (which my manager uses to remind her of her employees scheduled PTO).

A few more things occurred with me where the offender would creep into my cubicle when I was not around – however, Jane and another employee would question her every time and she eventually stopped doing that altogether. Often I would come in and all of my electronics (monitor, computer, phone, cell charger, keyboard) would all be unplugged and jerked around to different areas. The timing was always conveniently early in the morning when very few of us are here, but guess who always was one of those few – YOU GUESSED IT – the offender! Eventually, we have all learned to always put everything away and lock them in our drawers, even when we go to the bathroom, and most of us have started to come in 30-60 minutes early just to ensure she doesn’t mess with our things and often we try to make sure at least one person is over in our section at a time so we can guard each other’s things.

We all continued discussing these issues with HR (including the managers and the VP himself several times), especially as the offender recently has been constantly leaving for hours throughout the day AND leaving hours early without receiving approval or even informing anyone (and she has no PTO left), but they refused to fire her. She often found ways to explain things away (covering herself by saying she took a training to help her be a better employee, etc.) She is also a (*suspected*) FMLA time off abuser, who has sued previous companies for FMLA discrimination. Purely speculation, but we imagine she was most likely fired from these companies after she kept using unfounded excuses for leaving without approval. (Examples: saying she can’t work certain days of the week because of her “flare-ups” which are always conveniently Wednesday and Friday afternoons, constantly taking time off without having any time in her bank left, etc. just like she does here.) So basically, we got the inkling from the HR reps and their carefully-worded explanations for their inaction that they were expecting the offender may attempt to sue the company and they were trying to avoid it.

Luckily, however, as of THREE days ago, the offender RESIGNED!!!! WOOOO!!!! We are all very happy on this team now that we know the she is almost gone forever!

In the end, we were all extremely disappointed by how unsupportive our HR department is and by how much power HR reps have. The VP should have been able to remove the offender as soon as he felt so inclined with all the evidence of her violent behavior, yet, HR was able to block him every time.

Ultimately though, for now, we can all breathe a little better because she will no longer be able to terrorize us! (Now, if only we could warn her new company….)

Thanks for all the help, Alison!

updates: husband’s boss is sleeping with married department head, and more

It’s “where are you now?” month at Ask a Manager, and all December I’m running updates from people who had their letters here answered in the past. Here are five updates from past letter-writers.

1. My husband’s boss/our friend is sleeping with their married department head

Thanks for all the great advice and script for talking to my friend about the situation. Using that, I asked her tell my husband and offered to tell him myself. She apologized and felt terrible, and said that she never really meant for me to keep it from him or expected that I would. She didn’t feel like she had the rapport to do it herself (since we had a more intimate/personal friendship and they have a more comradely one) and asked me to, hoping he wouldn’t think too poorly of her.

The readers all insisted on full disclosure, and were pretty intensely set on me needing to tell him everything no matter what. However, I’m happy to say that I was right in thinking he honestly preferred not to know, and was 100% understanding of me keeping Jane’s trust on a sensitive issue. When we talked, I started with the broadest strokes (“Jane isn’t really leaving because of burn out, and I don’t want you thinking otherwise”) and got more specific. He stopped me when I told him she had fallen in love, and didn’t want anymore detail. He would be mandated to report the people involved if he knew, and preferred to stay out of it especially considering his friend’s genuine emotions were involved. My husband told her privately he didn’t hold it against her, she moved, hasn’t seen the Man in question, and is dealing with heartbreak in healthier ways.

Thanks so much again, and to the readers, as I’d struggled over this issue for a long time! I’m glad some of my instincts were right but I’m also glad that the secret is off my chest. It remains to be seen if they stay split, but I’ll still be seeing lots of the Man since apparently he’s related to a new coworker at MY job!

2. I accidentally embarrassed my friend’s boss — but I was right about what I said

I actually wound up not apologizing even after your thoughtful advice. As it happened, soon after the confrontation with Ariel I started hearing Sam complain more and more about Ariel acting punitive about small things. He wound up leaving the company, which reduced the time I spent talking to his boss to effectively zero. It didn’t seem necessary to bring up the incident to someone I talk to so rarely, and as more time passed I forgot about it pretty quickly, and I think Ariel did too. I think apologizing would have just made it into more of a “thing.” But I appreciate your advice and the kind words from sympathetic commenters. Thanks for helping!

3. I hate working from home — how can I make this better?

All the comments where incredibly helpful and I took a lot of the commenter’s advice including work from home meet-ups, getting “dressed” and trying to take a walk to help break up the day. Looking back at my letter now I am amazed because now I LOVE working from home. I am so much more productive than I have ever been and get more time with my family. I love that I can start dinner while on a conference call. Working from home has been great and I appreciate all the advice to help me get to this point. Thanks all!

4. I interviewed for a job that didn’t match the job posting — and other things seemed off (#3 at the link)

I have an update to my recent letter. I ended up turning the job down. As the interview process continued, it became clear that the role was not as advertised and—more concerning—that the different higher ups had different perspectives on what the priorities for the new employee would be. It was a difficult choice because my job search has been (and continues to be) so difficult. I’m just now getting over demoralization caused by some very dysfunctional workplaces and terrible managers, so I’m extremely wary of putting myself back in that kind of environment again.

5. How can I get out of dressing up for Halloween at work(#5 at the link)

I ended up dressing up, as things started rapidly improving by the end of the month. My spouse had been laid off early in the month – this was the enthusiasm-sapping event to which I referred – but they got a new one about a week and a half later (because they’re awesome), so things were looking a lot better.

The commenters made some wonderful suggestions, and I appreciate every one of them. I ultimately dressed up as a Disney character, as that was my team’s theme. However, if I ever find myself truly lacking the desire to dress up, I will most likely employ one of the strategies recommended by the amazing comments section.