my awful former boss is my new coworker’s sister

A reader writes:

I’m a freelancer in a creative industry, and recently I’ve started a new project with a new company. The other night I was invited to their monthly team drinks as a way to welcome me aboard. One of the managers I was introduced to, Bob, said he had read my resume and had noticed I used to work for Company X. He asked me a few questions about working there — what it was like, who I worked for, and whether or not I enjoyed it. Company X is relatively well-known in our industry, so it made sense to me that he’d ask about my time there.

I said it was fine, and I really enjoyed the project I was on, but the company wasn’t the right fit for me and that’s why I had decided to end my contract. He kept pressing for details about it, so eventually I told him the truth: my manager there would regularly ignore calls and emails from the freelancers for weeks on end, which made us wonder at times if we’d been ghosted; we all had a lot of trouble getting paid on time; and there were even some instances of full-time workers being given credit for work I had prepared myself. I tried to handle the situation as best I could when I was there, but ultimately it began to impact how happy I was outside of work hours, so I gave notice. (I didn’t sound angry, just explained things factually.)

Bob seemed surprised but accepted that answer, and we moved on to another topic of conversation.

And then later on I heard from another member of staff that Bob’s sister actually works at Company X. I put two and two together and did some quick social media research and found out Bob’s sister is actually my old manager.

I feel like I’ve really put my foot in it now. I’m wishing I had handled Bob’s questions more professionally — maybe I should’ve just changed the topic of conversation? Even though I know I didn’t do anything wrong at Company X, I’m worried I’ve done something wrong in this situation. Do you think I should talk to Bob about what I said? Or just forget it all happened and hope for the best?

Bob is the one who should be feeling like he put his foot in it. Pushing for details about your experience there without mentioning that his sister is a manager there was a jerk move.

Frankly, even if his sister didn’t work there, continually pressing you for details that you were obviously not offering up initially was pretty rude. It’s generally understood that people often try not to badmouth former employers, and I don’t like that he kept pushing you to say more.

But more importantly, not mentioning that his sister was a manager there at the same time he was pressing you for details … that was a seriously crappy thing for him to do. If he’d said, “Oh, my sister manages the finance team over there, what was your experience like?” you’d presumably have given him a very different answer. And on some level he surely knows that, because there was a point in that conversation where it became weird that he hadn’t shared it … and that point was pretty early on.

Now, all that said, yeah, you probably said too much. Your initial (vaguer) answer was presumably the amount you were comfortable sharing, and you didn’t need to let Bob pressure you into sharing more.

But there’s also real value in people sharing information like “Company X doesn’t pay their freelancers without constant hassle.” And exchanging info about employers in your field is a key way people learn who they do and don’t want to work for or what landmines they need to watch out for. You didn’t say anything that wasn’t factually correct, and it doesn’t sound like you badmouthed anyone by name. You didn’t go on a hostile tirade; you were just matter-of-fact about the business problems you encountered.

That stuff is legitimate to share with trusted colleagues. It gets a little trickier with someone you just met, though. You didn’t yet know how Bob operates, if he had an agenda, or who he might be aligned with. With a new person, you’ve got to figure that anything you share could get repeated to anyone and decide if you’re okay with that possibility.

So: Is your discomfort about the possibility of what you told Bob getting back to his sister? Or is it more about the awkwardness of having criticized Bob’s family member to him?

If you’re worried about it getting back to his sister … it’s not ideal, but the stuff you said was factual and doesn’t sound like anything she should be surprised to hear. Maybe a little stung, but maybe it’s not a bad thing for her to hear people’s experiences working on her team. (If she’s both vindictive and influential, I’d be more concerned but since you didn’t note that she is, I’m going to assume she’s not.)

If your worry is more just that you criticized Bob’s sister to his face without realizing it … well, Bob created that situation and got the awkward moment he deserves. If you’d get more peace of mind by addressing it, you could go back to him now and say, “I just realized your sister works at OldCompany — you didn’t mention it when we were talking the other day.” See what he says. Or you could skip mentioning his sister entirely and just say, “I normally wouldn’t share that kind of thing about an old employer, and I hope you’ll forget I said anything. I really did enjoy the work I did there.”

But I also think it’s fine if you just leave things where they are.

Either way, I’d try to find some ways to be (a) scrupulously professional and (b) impressive around Bob in the coming weeks if you have the opportunity.

And either way don’t trust Bob going forward.

how big of a deal is lying on a resume?

A reader writes:

I am a director of a local nonprofit with a very visible presence in our area.

Two years ago, I hired a new associate director, Gina, after she had amazing interviews and strong references. She has proven to be exceptional in her role. Eager, great sense of humor, very intelligent, poised, I could go on. She, like myself, is a single mother and I cleared a path through our company for her to return to school and get an MBA. Within the past two years our company has really blossomed, and part of that is directly related to Gina’s hard work.

But a week ago, I was at a work conference. While speaking to one of the event coordinators, Gina’s name came up. He stated that he worked with her briefly at her previous job and disclosed to me that she was fired. I was shocked. I distinctly remember from her interview that when I asked why she wanted to leave her current position, she stated that she wanted to return to the nonprofit field. The man delivered this information to me in an “Oh, I’m glad she got something she likes, but I assume you knew she was fired” kind of way, so it wasn’t as though he was trying to toss her under the bus.

When I returned to work, I checked her personnel file, and her resume clearly listed her previous job as still ongoing when she applied with me. I haven’t told anyone, and no one would know. Do I speak with her? Do I terminate her? Neither of these things feels right to me. She made a mistake, but there is nothing in her two-year performance that suggests anything other than a highly qualified and committed individual who has gone above and beyond in her role. I’m torn over this, and to be honest, I wish I never knew this information.

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

my coworker is changing her appearance to match mine and rips my work off the walls when she’s mad

A reader writes:

I’m an elementary school employee and relatively new to the job. I get along well with most of my coworkers, with the exception of “Therese.”

Therese is in her 60s and works next door to me, and when I first started this job, I thought she was a friendly (if eccentric) coworker. She called me “new bestie” when I started setting up my classroom, and I thought that was just a quirky way of welcoming me to the school. But it seems like she genuinely means this.

I could have been fine with that, and am always very professional with her, but strange things have been happening since I started working. These include:

– Therese started dying her hair a brighter shade so that it matches my hair color. We both have the same color hair, but mine is much lighter. The dye job happened a few months into me starting at the school.

– Therese has started styling her hair like mine. Originally, she would (I think) put her wet hair in a braid and leave it that way throughout the day. Around the same time she dyed her hair, she adopted my hair style, which is pretty unique and labor-intensive.

– Therese often asks about my love life, even when I say that I just don’t want to talk about it/there’s nothing to report. (I don’t like the idea of talking about my partner/anything romantic at work, because we work with kids and it seems weird to have discussions about my personal life when a bunch of eight-year-olds are walking by.) At one point, Therese was also convinced that I was engaged and just not telling anyone. That was absolutely not the case, and I don’t even know how she got that idea.

– Therese, who never used to wear makeup to work, began wearing bright lipstick in the same shade I wear, in addition to using makeup to make her eyebrows the same color as mine.

– Therese has started dressing like me. I typically dress very formally for work and usually wear the same shades of clothing. Therese used to wear athletic wear, but she has started to wear the same kinds of shoes and tops that I wear, in the color that I wear them, and other coworkers have commented on this.

– During my prep time, Therese will come into my room and ask me to answer questions for her. Often, they’re questions I’ve already answered (sometimes questions I’ve answered that day, or the day before). When she gets her answer, she will just find a place in my room to sit and either do her work or just sit and look at me.

– On more than one occasion, I’ve seen Therese in my room taking phone calls when I am not in the room. This is concerning to me. When I go into the room, she’ll leave, but only after a few minutes, and never with an explanation about why she can’t be in her own room or any of the empty rooms in our ring.

– I’ve tried to be polite and say that I have work to do and don’t have time to chat when she comes into my room, but she either won’t listen or guilt trips me until I look like a bully.

– Sometimes Therese will ask me to do favors for cash. When I tell her that I’m too busy, I’ll often still find her cash sitting on my desk with a thank-you/instruction note. I’ve given it back and told her that I really don’t have the time, but then she will get upset again. Once I stepped in and covered a class for another teacher, and Theresa made a passive aggressive remark about how I “must not have been that busy.”

Beyond all of that, though, this is the part that really concerns me:

– She usually sits next to me at lunch. I don’t really want to sit by her, but I’m not going to be rude and get up and leave. One day, I sat next to a different teacher and there was no space for Therese. She stated daggers at me, and then later that day, I saw that all of the student work I had hung around my door had been ripped down. Theresa said that her student must have done it accidentally, but when I pulled that student aside and (very gently) asked what happened, he explained that Therese told him to tear the work down.

That makes me afraid of any direct confrontation. I already talked to my boss, right after the tearing things down incident, and I told her everything. She sympathizes, but Therese is tenured, so there isn’t much they can do. And my principal knows that I’m worried about Therese retaliating, so she says it would be best not to pull her in to talk. I’m kind of inclined to agree, because I don’t want any weird retaliation either.

I’m still probationary, so I can be dismissed for any reason. I don’t want to get a reputation as someone who causes problems or doesn’t play well with others, because I can’t afford to lose this job. But I’m honestly not sure what to do about this situation anymore. I love my job, but I’m very uncomfortable with this coworker (and these examples are only a few of many).

I’ve heard she’s had problems with other teachers in the past (I asked a close colleague about her, and he said there have been problems and it’s best to stay on her good side). I’m not super close to the other teachers in my ring, though, and they tend to be unfazed by her antics, so I don’t feel like I could talk to any of them about her.

I don’t think I’d go as far as saying I feel unsafe, more just unsettled. I don’t think she’d do anything to physically hurt me, but I’m worried that she’d do something like make up a rumor or something to hurt my career if she’s upset with me.

Any advice you have would be much appreciated.

I’m unsettled just reading this.

If Therese were just copying your clothes and your hair, I wouldn’t be that alarmed and would tell you to let it go. It’s a little annoying, but trying to call dibs on clothes or hair styles at work doesn’t have much upside.

And if it were just a matter of her trying to chat too often or hanging out in your room, I’d tell you to get more direct — that it’s okay to ask her to leave your room or stop taking calls there and not to worry about her guilt trips when you set those boundaries.

But what worries me — and I’m sure what worries you — is the punitive streak she’s bringing to all this. She feels entitled to your time and attention, and she’s reacting as if you’ve wronged her when she doesn’t get it. The snarky and immature “you must not have been that busy” remark is bad enough, but having a student tear down artwork from your door? That takes this from “immature and annoying clingy colleague” to “seriously troubled.”

In a different situation, I might suggest you be really, really direct and tell Therese to lay off what she’s doing — to make it clear that she’s alienated you and violated your boundaries and that the behavior needs to stop.

But I’m worried about advising that when you’re worried she’ll try to hurt you professionally if she feels rejected (and where there seems to be good reason for that worry). Given that, three other things might be worth trying:

1. Be pleasant but relentlessly distant. Greet her cheerfully. Spend a minute talking if she initiates conversation but then be busy with something else you need to do. Keep doing stuff like returning her unsolicited cash (!) and if she makes passive-aggressive remarks about how you don’t seem that busy, stay cheerful and upbeat: “Yep, stuff keeps coming up!” Ignore the snark and the resentment and just stay steadily upbeat when you’re dealing with her. But keep her at a distance — don’t share anything, don’t let down your guard, and don’t let her pull you further into her orbit.

If you’re thinking this sounds exhausting: Yes! It sounds exhausting to me too.

2. Do you have any options for building more physical distance between the two of you? Can you try to get assigned to a different room and/or a different lunch period next year?

3. Perhaps most importantly, really work on building relationships with other teachers there, and your administration as well. You might find people who have some insight into Therese and what might be effective with her (and who are more willing to share that when they know you better / trust you more) — but even if you don’t, strong relationships with others can only help if Therese does escalate in some way.

Ultimately, will this be enough to make the situation better? I don’t know. It might not be.

It’s frustrating that the person with authority to step in and deal with this, your principal, is washing her hands of it. If you had downplayed the situation in any way when you spoke to your boss, I’d encourage you to go back and share the full scope of it now. But it sounds like you already did, and she’s declining to act.

And that claim that she can’t do anything because Therese has tenure — tenure doesn’t prohibit a conversation about what’s going on, and tenure doesn’t prevent saying, “This behavior is unsettling people and needs to stop.” (It does make it harder to put real teeth behind that if it becomes necessary, but it’s ridiculous for her to act as if she’s just a bystander with no ability to shape anything that goes on among her teachers.)

Ugh, this is an awful situation, and made more so because your options are so limited. What do others think?

should I tell a candidate her goals are unrealistic, I don’t want to lead all our meetings, and more

It’s four answers to four questions, plus a story. Here we go…

1. Should I tell a candidate her career aspirations are unrealistic?

I am currently in the process of hiring for a position that I would consider just above entry level. It is a role in an operations department that supports an organization in a very “sexy” industry.

Today we interviewed a great candidate who has the right education, experience, and personality to be a real success. Unfortunately, in answer to our question about career aspirations, she answered that she hoped to use the position to get a foot in the door to the “sexy” side of what we do. It’s great she was honest, and if that’s what she truly wants then I wish her all the very best. But … while it’s not impossible, it’s definitely a one in a million shot for her. Her education and experience mean that she’s highly unlikely to ever even get an interview, let alone land a position. In 25 years in the industry, I’ve seen it happen only once, by what I can only call stealth, if not outright deception, and frankly that was not a success. To top it off, working with us isn’t going to give her the type of experience or leg up she obviously thinks it will.

I fully intend to let her know that if that’s what she truly wants this isn’t the role for her, but is there any value in explaining that her likelihood of success in her goal is so small, and that people with far more education and experience than her are struggling to find even entry level roles in that side of the industry? Would I just be crushing her dreams for no reason or, worse, to my own ends?

I don’t think you need to crush her dreams. It’s usually not a closely guarded secret that job X is highly competitive and tends to go to people with Y and Z in their backgrounds, so if she sticks around your industry for very long, she’ll presumably figure it out for herself.

But I do think you should give her accurate information so she can make the best decisions for herself. Don’t say, “You’ll never make it in this industry!” Say, “I want to be up-front with you that to be considered for jobs like X, you’d need Y and Z. Without Y and Z, most places won’t interview you — and even with Y and Z, it’s highly competitive. I think you’d be great at JobI’mHiringFor but I want to make sure you know it wouldn’t be a stepping stone to Job X, with us or in the larger field.”

You don’t need to hammer it in more than that. Give her the info in a matter-of-fact way, plant the seed, and from there what she does with it is up to her.

2. My coworkers call to check on their emails right after sending them

I pride myself on my quick turnaround and address 90% of the emails I receive during the work day within an hour, often less than half an hour. But I find myself looking for “nice” or even “nicesty” (thank you, Reginald D. Hunter) ways to get through to people who call to “make sure you got/see if you’ve had a chance to look at my email” … which they sent not five minutes earlier. Some of these people don’t give me one lousy minute to open their email before they pick the phone!

Subtle hints –“It’s been pretty hectic today and I haven’t had a chance to look at it yet, but I do see it there in my inbox, looks like it came in about three and a half minutes ago and I’ll take a look at it as soon as I can” — haven’t worked. The emails are all regarding routine, non-emergency, non-time-sensitive matters, and the people in question are not superiors with standing to say, “Drop whatever you’re doing and look at my email this instant.” These are intra-agency “customers” who in many cases are lower pay grades than me. It’s disruptive of my workflow (first in, first out) and it’s undermining their ability to get what they want from me as quickly as possible. Is there a professional, diplomatic but assertive way to shut this nonsense down?

Try making the phone calls as utterly unsatisfying for these colleagues as you can — don’t even confirm you’ve received the email and instead explain that you’re in the middle of something else. As in, “I’m right in the middle of something else right now so I haven’t checked, but if I don’t see it there once I’m able to check, I’ll let you know.” If they get that response a few times, they’re much less likely to keep calling.

Alternately, you could say, “Yes, I just received it a minute ago. I didn’t see that it was marked urgent — is there an emergency?” And when they presumably say no, you can say, “Oh, okay, no need to call unless something is an emergency. I usually respond quickly.” That’s fairly pointed, but it’s not unwarranted. I read this again after it published and thought, “What?! No.” There’s no need to be so passive about it. The next suggestion is really all you need. My apologies.

Or you can just address it directly: “I’m really on top of my email, so no need to call unless you haven’t received a response by when you need it. A lot of people call right after emailing and it can end up slowing things down!”

Caveat: It doesn’t sound like these callers are senior to you, but if someone senior does it, you generally would need to be more accommodating.

3. I don’t want to lead our meetings every time

I joined a small department within a larger company as part of a managerial team two years ago. Four managers report up to one director. Overall, I love working with the team and the company, and the director and I worked together in a previous life so we have a pretty good working relationship.

Not long after I joined the team, my director took leave and I was given a temporary promotion to run the department with the other managers for half a year. It was a bit odd, as I’d only been at the job a few months and the other managers had been there for years, but they were all juggling the care of young children with work, so I didn’t think much of it. During that time I took the visibility of being the temporary director — being the lead on budget, running staff meetings, etc.

I’m not one to not offer to help out, and the other managers help in many other ways, but since my director has returned, I’m often designated as her “shadow” to help on various emergency projects. I’m fine with giving added support, and I know everyone in the department works hard.

There is one thing that is irking me though. We have weekly department meetings and whenever my director is unable to host the meeting, she asks for a volunteer. At first I was doing them as need be, but then I noticed no one else was stepping up to lead. I’ve even hung back a few times when my director calls for a volunteer to see if someone else will volunteer and they never do. Last week, I joined an afternoon meeting a few minutes late that anyone could have started. My director usually hosts this meeting, but couldn’t make it that day. I quickly learned that everyone was waiting around for me to start the meeting. We all carry the same level of responsibility in the organization and we make the same pay. I’m beginning to get a bit resentful. I’ve brought it up lightly a few times in our managerial meetings, reminding them that staff must be getting sick of my voice (as I host several other meetings on a regular basis throughout the week), but no dice.

Any advice on how I can stop being the default host? It’s nice that they trust me, but does it always have to be me?

It sounds like you’re starting to be seen as something like a second-in-command — you filled in for the director when she was away and she’s been having you work as her deputy since she’s been back. If your colleagues now see you as the director’s back-up … well, that’s not a bad thing for you professionally. It can give you more influence, more access, and higher-profile projects, and it positions you well for a promotion at some point. (That assumes you want that stuff! If you don’t, at some point it might be worth talking with your boss about where you do and don’t want your career to go.) In that context, it’s not surprising people are looking to you to lead the meetings.

But if you don’t want to do it every time, you need to say something more directly. You’ve been pretty indirect so far! Saying that staff must be getting sick of your voice sounds like you’re just being self-deprecating; it doesn’t communicate “I don’t want to do this.” So at the next meeting where people assume you’ll take the lead, say more directly, “I’d prefer not to lead the meetings every time. Can we rotate the duty so it’s more evenly shared?”

4. Saying I’m interested in a new job because of the hours

I’m considering applying for a position for which I am qualified (possibly overqualified) and think I would like, but it is very different from my current job. The biggest reason I would want to apply is because its hours are much better for my family (no nights and weekends, which I have to work frequently right now). I like my job right now a lot, but I’ve been getting more stressed about family life and putting the burden of meals and bedtime on my spouse. In interviews I’ve always been asked why I applied for the position. I don’t want to be untruthful but I also don’t want to say it’s because of the hours and look like I’m not interested in the job itself. What’s the best way to approach this in an interview?

Yeah, don’t say it’s because of the hours! Interviewers are usually looking for people who are interested in the work itself and if your primary interest seems to be the hours, you won’t look very invested. Talk about aspects of the work itself that appeal to you and why you think you’d be good at the job. That’s not being untruthful; it’s speaking to what the interviewer is most interested in hearing about.

(That said, you could mention the hours as something prompting you to consider moving on from your current job — just not as the reason for the appeal of the new one.)

5. Another speaking up success story

Monday’s success story motivated me to tell my own — less consequential — success story.

I live in a country where driver’s licenses are provisional for the first two years. For some infractions there’s a mandatory additional course that’s expensive and somewhat time-consuming. I work for a company with fewer than 30 employees. The “company car” doubles as the owner’s family car. The owner’s son was caught speeding in a camera trap and photographed, and the photo was sent to the person to whom the vehicle is registered — my boss. Since his son just had a week or so left on his provisional license, my boss claimed not to know the driver of the vehicle. Since it’s a company car, it could have been any of us or anyone we let drive it. I heard about this in a three-way conversation with a client, the boss, and me. The plan was to deny knowing who the driver was and sit it out.

A few days later, my boss came into my office and said agitatedly, “A police officer will be here shortly. If he shows you a photo of [Son] you don’t know him.” He then disappeared to a meeting with four colleagues. I worked for a half hour or so and decided this would be a good time to run a work errand. When I came back, the officer was there, and the visit was coming to an end. He had asked the receptionist if she could identify the driver and talked to the boss and the other person in leadership. I later heard that the photo was compared to a team photo on display in the lobby.

Even though the situation was over, I was dissatisfied and I remembered your advice to push back as a group if possible. After talking with a few colleagues, it was clear that the boss hadn’t spoken to everyone when he made his agitated request and that it would be difficult to find common ground. One of my colleagues encouraged me to talk to him myself since the boss prefers handling things one-on-one and she said, “What you say has weight because you don’t complain about every little thing.”

After stewing through my lunch break, I approached him and said I hadn’t been okay wiith his request and that if I had been caught speeding with the company car on a provisional license I would have taken the additional training. (I got my license after I started working for the company.) He brushed it off, saying nothing had happened, no one (except the receptionist) was asked to identify the driver on the photo.

When I said goodbye for the evening, he brought it up again and said he’d been caught up in the moment. He maintained that it was his decision as a father whether to try to spare his son the ticket and the additional training, but apologized and said that it had been wrong of him to involve his employees.

Thanks for the encouragement to stand up.

am I being a dress code snob?

A reader writes:

About five months ago, I started a new job as a manager in a nonprofit with approximately 30 full-time employees and over 100 part-time employees. In my department, I inherited one full-time assistant and 15 part-time direct reports. We are a public-facing department with a large social media presence.

The organization’s employee handbook has a clearly-defined business casual dress code policy: no jeans, t-shirts, sneakers, etc. However, everyone here dresses like a slob. On my first day, my assistant was wearing rumpled cargo shorts and a t-shirt with holes. My part-timers routinely show up in jeans, sweatpants, and the type of clothing I’d usually reserve for yard work. My own supervisor wears jeans and an untucked t-shirt.

I’ve always been someone who enjoys dressing up for work. My typical work wardrobe consists of dresses, skirts or slacks, blouses, and blazers. It drives me nuts when people look unpolished and unprofessional at work, but that seems to be the accepted culture around here.

Would it be out of line to enforce the company dress code in my own department, even if it’s not enforced anywhere else? Or am I just being an elitist?

It sounds like in reality the dress code is different from what the handbook says. Sometimes you see that in situations where, for example, the handbook was written 15 years ago and no one has bothered to update it since then, but meanwhile what’s considered acceptable in the organization has changed.

Have you asked anyone about it? Before you go changing something this significant — and believe me, what people wear to work (and what clothes they therefore have to buy) is significant to them — you’d really need to talk to people and get a better understanding of what’s going on. Maybe the dress code was written under old leadership, the new leadership doesn’t care, and you’d look out of sync with the culture if you tried to enforce the outdated one. Maybe the dress code became more casual as the organization noticed the people it serves responded better to that. Maybe the dress code was intentionally relaxed as a perk and no one bothered to update the handbook. Or sure, maybe the change wasn’t intentional and an objective observer would agree that things have gotten too casual for the work you do — but maybe you’d still have a mutiny on your hands if you try to change it at this moment in time.

I don’t know what the context might be — but it sounds like you don’t either, and you need to understand that before you consider trying to change something that matters to people. You don’t change something this significant to other people just because you like to dress nicely yourself.

So talk to people. Start by asking your own boss. Say you noticed the handbook says one thing but the practice seems to be another and ask about the difference. If your boss doesn’t shut down the idea for a change, then talk to your own people — ask what their thoughts are and how they think the current practice does/doesn’t impact the results they’re getting.

And then really focus in on that question yourself. Does your team do work where being more nicely dressed has an impact on their work? You noted they’re public-facing, but public-facing can mean “won’t be trusted if we’re not in suits” or it can mean “won’t be trusted if we are in suits” and all kinds of variations in between. Particularly in some types of social service work, some traditional ideas of “professionalism” can create problematic distance between staff and the people they’re serving.

So before you consider changing anything, get really clear on the problem you’re trying to solve. That problem can’t be “it drives me nuts when people look unpolished and unprofessional at work.” It would need to be something like “clients trust us less,” “the public sees us as a rag-tag band of incompetents when we need them to see us as skilled professionals,” “our clothing is detracting from our message when we speak to the media,” or so forth.

You’ve also got to bring some nuance to it. An untucked shirt can be fine in a context where a t-shirt with holes isn’t.

And to be clear, I’d be surprised to see people turn up to work in sweatpants and t-shirts with holes too. But you’re talking about changing an established culture that apparently your own manager participates in, and you might be talking about people needing to buy entirely new wardrobes. You’ve got to have legit reasons to push for that.

If there really isn’t a work reason for pushing people to change something they’ve been doing for a while and probably value as a perk of the job, you’d be better off pushing for the handbook to more accurately reflect the dress code instead of the other way around.

my coworker hijacks our meetings with endless questions

A reader writes:

I have a question about a coworker, Sam, who has LOTS of questions in our weekly team meetings. Because of the busy nature of our job and our small team, we have lots of situations where we have guidelines to follow but are free to make judgment calls as needed since there’s no way to have a rule book that will apply to every situation. Our leadership is very clear that we won’t be punished for a wrong decision made with good intentions in an unusual situation.

Sam has lots and lots of questions in our team meetings where he seems to want a clear cut answer about The One Right Way to do something, where there’s usually not a one-size-fits-all answer for the situation. It ends up dragging out the meeting by quite a bit, which is exacerbated by the fact that our manager, Carolyn, tends to be long-winded, so each clarifying question turns into another whole spiel. The meetings often end up being largely conversations between Sam and Carolyn that seem better suited for individual check-ins (which we have once a week), and I can see other admins becoming visibly frustrated and wanting to get back to work. To make this worse, these conversations often come when the meeting has clearly wrapped up and Carolyn throws out a quick, “Does anyone have any last questions?”

My title is senior admin, and my function is basically that of a team lead or shift supervisor. Carolyn manages all of us, the rest of our team comes to me with questions first and I pass them along only if I can’t answer, and Carolyn asks me to report to her on how staff are doing and to check in with them during their shifts to see if they have questions, but I don’t have any actual management responsibilities. I’m also good friends with Sam outside of work, and I feel both of these things make me well-suited to help resolve this and save the sanity of myself and our fellow admins.

After the last meeting where this happened, Sam texted me afterward to ask if he was being “annoying,” and I told him that he seems to be asking about one way to do things when often the answer is not so clear cut or it’s all case by case. He responded that he often feels like Carolyn was meandering and not really answering his question, which is why he keeps trying to clarify and repeat his questions, and that he asks them during our group meetings because he feels the answers would be important for all of us to know. From my perspective, I feel that a) the questions he usually asks are basic questions about processes that have been in place for months and which we are all familiar with and have followed many times (i.e., not questions anyone else has or an answer anyone else needs to hear) and b) Carolyn is answering his questions but the answers are essentially “it depends,” when he seems to be trying to get her to say yes or no.

Is there something you’d recommend I say in the moment, or to Sam or our boss privately, about this or is this just the reality of meetings and something we’ll have to live with?

You can read my answer to this letter at New York Magazine today. Head over there to read it.

my boss wants me to help him jump the line for the Covid vaccine

A reader writes:

I work in a medium-sized office in HR. My company’s CEO, a man in his early 40’s, has requested that my boss (the VP of human resources) help him get on a list for a Covid vaccine within the next few days. This task has been passed down to me. However, my state is currently only vaccinating health care workers and patients over 65. My CEO is not either of those things. I did call the hospital and was told there was nothing they could do, but my boss insisted I call again and keep pushing.

When the task was given to me, I was told that they wanted me to call because they didn’t want it to seem like a rich CEO was trying to cut his way to the front of the line. That made my stomach go up in knots because, well, frankly that’s exactly what it sounds like. I’ve been putting off calling again because it’s increasing my anxiety. There are people out there who are severely at risk and it feels awful that my CEO is trying to push his way in when he isn’t that at risk.

Is this a normal request for HR to help with? I feel scummy making these calls but don’t know how or if I should push back.

No, this is not a normal request for HR to help with.

It’s not a normal request for anyone to make.

It’s the request of a crap person who thinks he’s entitled to cut in line ahead of people who have a greater medical need than he does. And with the vaccine in such short supply, that means someone who needs it more — perhaps a health care worker, perhaps someone at high risk of dying if they’re infected — will remain vulnerable longer.

It’s grossly entitled.

It’s certainly true that wealthy and well-connected people have managed to get special treatment throughout the pandemic, like faster access to testing and better treatments. And I don’t doubt that some of them will find ways to jump the line with the vaccine too. We’re already seeing that Black Americans are getting access to the vaccine at far lower rates than white Americans.

But if your state is currently only vaccinating health care workers and people over 65, I’m curious exactly how he thinks you’ll be able to procure a slot for him. And “in the next few days”! What exactly does he think you can do? For that matter, what does the VP of HR who passed the assignment to you think you can do?

I’d go back and talk to your boss and ask her specifically what she thinks is within your power to do … and then point out how very, very bad it could be PR-wise if people found out your CEO used his position to jump the line ahead of people with a higher need. I’d say to point out the ethics too, but it seems pretty clear they don’t care about that.

should I apologize if my fly is down, telling my bosses they need to work more, and more

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

1. Should I tell my bosses they need to work more?

I work at a small real estate brokerage in a major U.S. city. I was brought in to help organize their systems and to increase productivity. The owners are a married couple and I’m their second in command. My bosses say they want to do more business, but they rarely work and leave for weeks at a time. When averaged, I estimate they work for one hour a day. But they honestly believe they are incredibly busy high-functioning professionals.

I like them as people and want to tell them the problem so that they can be successful. However, they would be certainly be offended and regularly ignore my counsel on other matters as it is. Do I tell them where the problem truly lies? I’m currently looking for a new job, but I will still need their reference in the future. (This is the highest level job I’ve had thus far.) So do I ever tell them?

It doesn’t sound like there would be much point. They already regularly ignore your counsel! There’s no reason to think this would be any different, particularly when you’d be advising them to make what would amount to a major lifestyle shift. And even if that weren’t the case, it’s not like “if you want more business, you need to work for more than an hour a day” is a particularly difficult-to-obtain insight. Surely they’re capable of connecting those dots themselves if they want to. If they want more business, they’ll work more. It seems like they don’t want it enough to do that.

It’s not your job to try to find a way to get through to them, particularly when you’re concerned you could offend them and jeopardize future references. Enjoy the spectacle of two people believing they’re incredibly busy while working an hour a day and keep searching for a new job.

2. Should I apologize for my fly being down?

I’m male, and I was talking with one of my female coworkers last week for about 10 minutes, and then I went back to my desk and sat down and I realized that my fly was open the whole time we were chatting. Do you think I should apologize the next time I see her or just say nothing?

Say nothing. It happens. If you’d noticed while you were talking to her, you could have said, “Excuse me!” and turned away and fixed it. But unless you have a very bad reputation, she assumed it was an accident (if she noticed at all) and bringing it up afterwards would only make things awkward. (If anything, bringing it afterwards might push things slightly toward the “is he creeping on me?” end of the spectrum).

Wardrobe malfunctions happen!

3. Should I talk to my boss about herpes?

I have bad bouts of herpes two or three times a year. Usually it comes on when I’m a bit run down after a cold, or stressed at work, or having a a home life crisis.

When I get the flare, I usually feel like I have the flu for a few days beforehand — achy, headaches, lethargy etc. Then, the skin lesions for five days, and at that point I feel a bit tired and grouchy. It takes about a week after the lesions disappear for me to feel well again. So, I can feel unwell or lingeringly tired for about three to four weeks.

Prior to the pandemic, I just “kept on and carried on,” coping with drooping eyelids at work, taking occasional painkillers and anti-virals. Since the pandemic, I’ve had one flare only and was able to work from my bed during that time. I was amazed at how much faster I recovered — it took only a week to feel well again and I was significantly less unwell than usual.

I’d like to have a script to present to my team leader (who is a bit of a stickler for presenteeism in non-pandemic times and I suspect will revert to that when things go back to normal) to ask that I’m allowed to work from home if I’m feeling a flare coming on in the future. Do I mention what condition is causing this? I’ve learned to live with herpes and don’t feel any particular shame about it anymore, but don’t want to overshare.

Of note, my productivity initially took a dip at the beginning of the pandemic, but I’m now more productive than I was in-office. Of second note, I don’t need advice on how to manage this condition. I’m big on integrating self-care with conventional medicine, so if there’s a remedy, I’ve tried it!

Nope, don’t specify that it’s herpes. You really don’t need to share details about any medical condition at work. And even if you’re comfortable sharing it, your team leader is likely to feel like it’s too much personal information that she doesn’t need and would rather not have.

The “doesn’t need” part is important there — you can ask for what you want without naming a diagnosis. You could simply say, “I have a medical condition that flares up a couple of times a year, and I usually feel unwell for three to four weeks when it happens. During the pandemic, I was able to work from home when it happened and I found I recovered much faster — in only a week — and felt much less sick than usual. Now that I know it shortens my recovery so significantly, would you be open to me working from home in the future when I have a flare-up? It would likely be one week two or three times a year.”

4. A piece from my portfolio has a term I wouldn’t use now

In 2013, I published a short pop history article in a magazine. It was well received, and the next year I won an industry award for it. Naturally, I added the article to my writing portfolio.

In 2018, the leadership of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints formally asked people to stop using the popular term (Mormons) for the Church and its members. My article had the term prominently in the title and throughout the text. I took it out of my portfolio at once, but it’s still floating around online, including in connection with the award it received.

How should I handle questions about this article? Right now, my script is something on the order of, “The article used a term broadly accepted at the time. I wouldn’t use that term today, so I’ve taken it out of my portfolio.”

Keep it in your portfolio! You won an award for it, after all. Just include a note leading into it that says, “This article was written before the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints asked people to stop using the term ‘Mormons’ and thus the term appears throughout.”

I think you intentionally avoided using the term in your proposed script, but doing that is likely to confuse people who aren’t aware of the church’s request and won’t know what you’re referencing.

5. I run two fan accounts for musicians — can it go on my resume?

I have somewhat-unusual online experience that I’d like to include in my resume or cover letter. I currently run two “official” fan/update Instagram accounts for musicians. In addition to posting about their new songs, albums, interviews, etc., I also make photo and video edits, and post my own art (drawing/painting) related to the artists.

For the more famous of the two artists, there are about 30 accounts from 18 different countries in a group chat with a representative from the artist’s management team — that’s the “official” part. The rep sends us promo content to post, and if live shows ever come back, we’ll be the ones they’ll call if they need help in our respective cities. For the just-starting-out artist, I have direct contact with both the artist and her manager, and they send me exclusive content and information before it’s officially released.

For the larger artist, I’m the most followed account and the “president” of our worldwide fan club. For the smaller, I’m basically the only active update account, and definitely the only one who she talks to regularly.

Bonus, if it matters: about 95% of my posting and communication are done in my second language (for both accounts).

I’m now trying to change careers into something music-marketing-related. Can I include these accounts on my resume, or talk about them in my cover letter more or less how I’ve explained them here? I’m taking online classes in both music business and marketing, but I don’t have much experience otherwise. (And if any readers are in this industry and want to throw out suggestions, I’d love those too!)

Yes! It’s directly relevant to the work you’re hoping to do in music marketing.

For anyone wondering why this is different from yesterday’s letter about helping to home-school relatives and swapping tutoring with friends: This has outside accountability to people who aren’t friends or family, and the letter writer has built something that’s visible online for employers to look at. It’s much more akin to a volunteer job or running a volunteer organization.

I pushed back on my coworker’s bigotry: a success story

A reader writes:

This isn’t a question, I just wanted to reach out and let you know how much your blog has helped me get through this situation at work!

I work in healthcare, specifically pediatrics. I’ve worked in healthcare for over a decade, and I’ve been in some truly toxic workplaces, but the clinic I currently work in is not one of them! My boss is an amazing person, the literal dream boss. She listens, she isn’t afraid to jump in and work the front lines with us, she isn’t only open to feedback but actively encourages it. Plus, she is quick to let us know when we are appreciated.

The other day, I overheard one of our providers, Mallory, asking her nurse to properly document a transgender patient’s names/pronouns. The nurse, Cheryl, didn’t know how to do this (it doesn’t come up super often and she’s a newer hire, so this wasn’t a big deal), so I volunteered to walk her through it. Our electronic medical record has functions to facilitate this, so that you can look at a patient’s chart and immediately see names and pronouns while leaving legal names and biological sex unchanged for medical and insurance reasons.

As I was walking Cheryl through this, she immediately started making comments like, “I don’t have a problem with it, but…” and “None of my friends were like that in high school.” I responded that I didn’t have any friends who were twins in high school, but that doesn’t mean they didn’t exist back then, and she said, “This is a new thing, it just keeps happening younger and younger.”

Then, she said something along the lines of, “It’s just weird to me. I don’t understand it. Like, you’re supposed to call them ‘it,’ right? Mallory told me to just call them ‘it’.”

I was speechless!

After what felt like forever, but I’m sure it was only a second, I said, “No, never, never, ever call transgender patients that. Don’t call anyone ‘it,’ that’s really dehumanizing.”

The comment was bad enough on its own, but it’s even worse when you consider that I had literally just helped her document that the patient used she/her pronouns (!).

Afterwards, I felt like I handled the situation okay in the moment. I wish I had said a few other things, but I didn’t just let the comments slide in the moment, and I’m proud of myself for that. I’m generally the kind of person who does not like conflict and prefers to stay silent, but I spoke up.

But, as I thought about it more, I started to feel like it wasn’t enough and I realized I needed to say something to my boss.

Like I said, my boss (Lana) is really the dream boss. But I was still anxious about talking to her. Unfortunately, transgender rights is politicized, but I knew I had a solid foundation discussing it from a place of best practices for our patients, and our company policy is very inclusive. I also had to fight the voice in my head that said I was “tattling” on Cheryl.

Pre-COVID, Lana asked us all for feedback on in-service ideas/topics for staff meetings. She is amazing at having our monthly staff meetings revolve around exploring deeper topics and she has invited guests to speak with us. They aren’t just boring policy meetings, they are insightful and informative and enjoyable. Way back when she asked, I told her I thought we should do an in-service on transgender/non-binary patients and discuss best practices to support them, and she thought it was a good idea. But COVID disrupted things and our monthly staff meetings have been more like emergency sessions. So, I decided that I could use that conversation as a framework to discuss my interaction with Cheryl. Instead of just bringing her a problem, I could bring a solution too!

I decided to email her (patient care makes it difficult to carve out time to talk, plus I was anxious and wanted to write things down so I could organize my thoughts). Lana quickly responded to the email saying to talk with one of our mental health providers about planning an in-service (yay!), but she also sent me an IM asking to talk with her when I got a minute.

I went into her office. She asked me to close the door. I started panicking, and then she said, “I just want you to know that I was absolutely horrified by your email! What Cheryl said was completely inappropriate, and I’m just grateful that the patients or her parents didn’t overhear her, because that was not acceptable. Thank you for bringing it to my attention.”

She also mentioned that Mallory would never refer to a transgender patient as “it” and in fact Mallory is one of the providers who is most protective and knowledgeable about her transgender patients.

Reading your blog has given me the courage to speak up, and to do the right thing. I truly, truly love my patients and I knew I would feel awful if I didn’t say something and one of them got hurt by a fellow medical professional saying something so gross and dehumanizing. Plus, I now have the opportunity to streamline our transgender patient policy so all of our patients can come into our clinic safe in the knowledge that everyone, from the receptionist to their provider, will call them by their correct name and pronouns every time, and our office can be a safe place for them to get the healthcare they need!

Here’s what I love about this story:

* You don’t like conflict and prefer to stay silent, but you spoke up because you knew your voice was needed.

* Like most of us, afterwards you thought “I wish I had also said X or Y” but you got the important parts right (“this isn’t right / don’t do that”) and you don’t minimize that to yourself.

* You realized there was more you could do to help, and you did that too.

We have the rights and protections we have because people speak up, even when they’re uncomfortable. That work is not done. Let’s all keep doing it.

what to do (even now) if you’re stuck in a job you hate

I’ve always received a lot of letters from people who hate their jobs and want to leave, but since the pandemic started, a sizable portion of those people feel they have no way out. The job market makes them pessimistic about their chances of landing a new position, and with so many layoffs, they worry that even if they do get a job offer, the new role might not be as secure as the one they’d be leaving behind.

At Slate today, I wrote about how so many people feel trapped in miserable situations right now–  and what to do if you feel stuck in a job you hate. You can read it here.

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