manager’s toxic positivity, why you can’t badmouth your boss in an interview, and more

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

1. Manager’s toxic positivity is getting us down

I’ve been a high school teacher for about 15 years. Obviously, everything about education has had to be drastically adapted in the past year and many of us are still struggling to keep up with the constant changes in expectations, combined with our own family crises. My new principal sends daily emails dripping with toxic positivity, such as pointing out the beautiful weather that we should be thankful for, or encouraging us to take time to practice self-care. These instructions are starting to feel more like extra responsibilities, especially when coupled with “here are three articles I thought you’d all enjoy reading before tomorrow’s staff meeting.” I sort of understand that she’s trying to keep our spirits up, but honestly, most of us would rather just not get an email like that at all. It’s just one more thing to see in the inbox and have to read, you know?

In staff meetings, we’re put in breakout rooms on Zoom to share our self-care ideas with each other, when we’d rather discuss professional things like concerns about specific students’ progress (face-to-face discussions with colleagues, even remote ones, are so much more valuable than emails for this sort of thing), so we feel like it’s wasting and disrespecting our time. Our union representative for the school has the responsibility of bringing teacher concerns to the principal, and she forwarded an article about toxic positivity which clearly outlined several examples of behavior she was guilty of, with the tip that several teachers felt bombarded in this way by her emails. Since then, nothing has changed. Can you suggest some ways to deal with this?

Yeah, I’m thinking someone who thinks this is a good idea isn’t necessarily going to stop just because she hears secondhand (even from a union rep) that some people don’t like it; it’s too easy to dismiss as, “Oh, maybe a couple of people don’t like it.”

How receptive is your principal to feedback? Ideally you and other teachers would tell her directly that you’d rather use meetings to discuss work-specific concerns and you’re not finding the self-care break-outs helpful. I’d focus your capital there rather than on the daily emails (annoying as those sound) because in theory you can skip the emails or quickly skim them, whereas the staff meetings use significant time and sound excruciating.

As for how to deliver that feedback, it depends on how communication usually works there, but one option is for a group of you to raise it at the next staff meeting — maybe at the end of a meeting and framed as a request for the next one. One person will have to be the first to speak up, but if you decide ahead of time that others will chime in with agreement, it’ll probably have more of an impact than hearing it secondhand.

2. Why is it taboo to tell an interviewer you’re job-searching because of your manager?

I was reading an article this morning talking about how managers are the reason people leave jobs. Not the first time I’ve heard this or experienced it. If people are always leaving jobs because of their managers, why is it such a taboo to use it in interviewing as a reason why you’re leaving your job?

The big thing is that the interviewer doesn’t know you well enough to know if your assessment of your boss is reasonable or if you were part of the problem. For example, if you say your boss was a micromanager, maybe she managed you closely because your work wasn’t great and required a lot of oversight. Maybe you have unrealistic expectations of a boss or you’re a prima donna or impossible to get along with. (Think about some bad employees you’ve known and what complaints they probably had about their managers.) It’s not that interviewers don’t know there are legitimately bad bosses out there; it’s that they have no way of knowing what the other side of this particular story is. And while good interviewers will of course know your account could be entirely correct and objective, it raises enough of a question mark that they’ll have to wonder, and it’s not in your interests to have those sorts of questions hanging over you.

Also, rightly or wrongly, the convention most of us have been taught is that it’s considered indiscreet and a little tacky to badmouth a previous employer. So if you do, your judgment will feel somewhat questionable.

More here.

3. Did I cheat on this hiring test?

I am writing about an interview experience I had a few years ago that I think about often. I work (more loosely now, but strictly back then) with data, and I interviewed at a company that, after the initial phone screen, asked me to do an at-home Excel exercise and then come on-site the next day to continue the testing, all of which was based in Excel, and the finished product was a worksheet I submitted. The exam asked about some obscure macros and formulas, and I used the Help tool within Excel (you might remember him as the little paper clip!) during the exam to clarify some of the details of the formulas they were asking about. It was the kind of thing where you would need baseline familiarity with the concept to even set up the formula, which I had, but sometimes the correct order and definition of the variables needed a little bit of refreshing.

Was this a huge error? Could they “tell” somehow that I used the paper clip to help me? Would that have been construed as cheating? I had a hard time thinking so at the time because there is no planet on which someone would have to use Excel at work but wouldn’t have the help tool or even the broader Internet at their disposal. I think about it a lot because they completely ghosted me after this interview — which between the at-home and on-site portions took about four hours of my time (that is what it was anticipated to take), so it stung and felt like I completely wasted my time. And in fact, when I called the hiring manager to follow up about the position after many emails being ignored, he straight up hung up on me as soon as I said who it was on the phone.

Nah, that’s not cheating. You used the tools that were available to you through the program itself! That’s fine. And if for some reason they didn’t want you do that, they could have said so. I doubt they could even tell you did, but if they did see it and objected to it, they would have just concluded you didn’t have the expertise they wanted and that would that — it wouldn’t be cheating or something that would get you hung up on in outrage!

The hanging up, by the way, was incredibly rude (obviously), but it was almost certainly about him being caught off-guard/panicking/not knowing what to say to someone he’d been avoiding because he’s incapable of delivering a professional rejection (but very capable of being a jerk).

4. Will it look bad that I’m earning an upper-level nonprofit salary and married to a millionaire?

I am mid-level management at a nonprofit that has a religious slant. The organization pays well for the nonprofit world and the culture of the organization is not without its flaws, but the pros far outweigh the cons (and their handling of Covid has been amazing).

The issue at hand is that I am now engaged. My fiancé is a musical artist with a loyal fanbase and has earned a net worth in the lower level millions. He also lives a very modest lifestyle so what he’s been able to save and invest has garnered quite a bit in returns.

I am good at my job and have worked and will continue to work my way up in this company. I am worried about the optics from the public should anyone make the connection between me and my husband once we are married. I know I am well worth what I am paid, but all of us are worried about any possible backlash from me being married to a millionaire and making a higher level salary in a nonprofit organization.

Am I overthinking this? Is there a way to potentially spin this if someone investigates our financials and decides this seems wrong? I would hate for my presence to bring any negative press to an amazing organization.

Yes, I think you’re overthinking it. There are plenty of people working in nonprofits who are married to high-earning spouses or have family money; it’s not scandalous! In fact, it’s no one’s business. (Interestingly, it’s especially common among fundraisers, at least in some parts of the sector.)

Your salary is set based on your employer’s salary structure and the market rate for the work within your field. There’s no norm that organizations shouldn’t hire people who don’t “need” the money, and there’s no expectation that you should turn down a job or a salary for that reason either. Your salary isn’t a charitable gift from your employer; it’s appropriate compensation for the work you perform. Anyone who took issue with you being paid the same as others at your level simply because of your personal finances would be a real outlier.

5. How do I thank my manager without seeming like a suck-up?

Two members of my family died of COVID within a month of each other. Needless to say, it was devastating and I’m only now coming around to feeling somewhat “normal.”

My manager was TERRIFIC through the whole thing. Our official policy is three days of bereavement leave but she basically reduced my workload to no more than 1-2 hours a day for two whole months telling me “only do these tasks when your personal stuff is taken care of.” They were very easy and low priority tasks—much simpler than the complex tasks I normally do. I made my full salary during this time.

Long story short, I reached the point I was READY and excited to return to my regular work, which requires a high degree of concentration and thought and have pretty much gone back to being the good worker I was before.

During our 1:1’s, I’ve thanked my manager for being so helpful and understanding. Is that enough? I feel like I should do something more for her for being so exceptionally understanding during a really bad time for me but also don’t want to make her feel weird or seem like I’m being a suck up (reviews are coming up).

Just thanking her is enough! That said, was it like a one-sentence “thanks for being so understanding” or was it something a little more substantial? If the former, you could go back now and say something more substantial — or, even better, you could put it in a written note. Managing can sometimes be a relatively thankless job, and notes like that are often cherished for years. (I have a file of them that I look at from time to time, and it really does mean a lot.)

You’re not going to seem like a suck-up if you do that! It’s a gracious thing to do.

I’m forgetful and disorganized — and I’m a project manager

A reader writes:

I’ve always been a forgetful, disorganized person and my bad stress avoidance skills means I tend to procrastinate on my most urgent tasks. Put shortly, I have an awful habit of missing deadlines.

I am aware this is not an insignificant issue in a professional setting. There doesn’t exist a job where punctuality isn’t a priority. This is something I need to fix about myself. I recognize this, and I am working to try to overcome it. I’ve been seeing a therapist for the past two years to try to address the issues with stress avoidance, and I’ve been reading books like Atomic Habits to try to help with my organization.

My question ties to my current job as a project manager, which I’ve had for the past three years. I think I must be in one of the worst fields for a person with my issues. Not only do I need to manage my own timelines, I need to manage other people’s as well. On any given day, I have dozens of projects at varying degrees of completion that I need to keep top of mind.

When I first realized how at odds my work requirements are with my shortcomings, I had hoped that working in this field would finally make me address my tendency to procrastinate and lack of proper organizational skills. I saw myself as one of those people who move to a new country and have no choice but to learn a new language ASAP. I’d have to sink or swim.

That was three years ago, and I’m sinking like a stone.

Make no mistake, I am much better at those things now than I was when I started. One benefit of this field is that everyone in it stupendously organized and happy to share their tips. I have no doubt that the differences between me when I started this job and me now are night and day. This job is indeed making me address my shortcomings faster than anything else in my life has, but it’s not enough. I’m better, but I’m still not good.

I’m still consistently behind on projects and receive low marks on performance reviews. I know I would be better and happier in another job where my weaknesses aren’t so pronounced. But again, what job exists where punctuality isn’t important? I can’t quiet the little voice in the back of my head that says I need to keep working at it, and the best place to do so is at the job that already taught me so much.

I would love to know what you recommend.

I wrote back and asked, “What did you do professionally before this job? And how do you think your manager would assess your work overall currently?”

This is my first full “adult” job. After graduating college, I bounced around doing about a half dozen contract jobs. Not one really cared about my development like my current job and team do, but I think I left a better impression on them, since my lack of organization didn’t really have a chance to catch up with me in the six months or a year I was at them.

I don’t need to imagine how my manager would rate my work overall, as I just went through my annual review, a factor that prompted my letter: Overall, I am a delight to work with. I show a desire to learn, and I approach problems with creativity and a calm demeanor (a necessity in this field). When I show up to my job, I’m good at it. But I still received “needs improvement” across the board, as other teams consistently reported they need to follow up with me to ensure work is getting done. I’m on an improvement plan, with work being done to improve my organization and follow up skills, and will reassess in three months.

Oooohh.

Given that additional information, I think the question posed in your letter needs to be purely theoretical.

If you received “needs improvement” ratings across the board and you’re on an improvement plan, there is a very high chance that you could be let go at the end of it, and so you need to be actively job searching. I’m sorry!

That’s not to say that improvement plans are always a prelude to firing the person but … well, often they are. And even when they’re not, they’re intended as a clear signal that things may not work out and that the period to figure that out is nearing an end. Your manager is telling you that your job is very much in jeopardy.

You should still work to improve on the measures laid out in the improvement plan — if nothing else, it will reflect well on you that you were clearly making an effort (and in some cases, but not all, that effort could even buy you extra time) — but start actively applying to other jobs.

As for what those other jobs should be: I would avoid more project management roles!

It’s one thing to target jobs that would be somewhat of a stretch, which can challenge you in a good way and help build your skills. But project management is a field where organization and meeting deadlines are crucial, fundamental traits for the work to go well. Taking a job where the thing you need to be extraordinarily good at is the thing you most struggle with is … well, it’s awfully mean to yourself! It’s sort of the definition of setting yourself up for failure. Why do that to yourself?

My sense from your letter is that you might feel there’s some inherent virtue in struggling until you get better at something. And sure, persisting at something that’s hard can be valuable. But when something is this much of a struggle and you haven’t made it to “good” after years of effort, there’s no special virtue in continuing to torture yourself — especially when it’s the thing you depend on for income.

You’re right that punctuality, organization, and follow-through will be important in most jobs. But it doesn’t make sense to take a job where they’re so central and fundamental to the success you will have in the role. By all means, decide it’s something you want to keep working at. But cut yourself a break; you don’t need to take a job where the things you struggle with are center stage.

There are jobs that would play to your strengths rather than your weaknesses. I don’t know specifically what they are for you because that’s not the focus of your letter, but there are jobs where timelines are looser and more flexible, or where you only work on one or two things at a time, or where someone else provides the structure for you to work within (rather than your job being to provide that structure for others).

It’s okay to decide something is not your strength and to instead focus on things that are, and it’s so much kinder to yourself.

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my employee refuses to use her coworker’s correct pronouns

A reader writes:

I am a new manager at a medium sized public library. One of my employees came out as non-binary last summer and has started using a new name, “Alex,” and they/them pronouns. Their new name has been pretty easy for staff to pick up, but the pronouns have been challenging for all of us to varying degrees. I have another employee, “Jane,” who has become adamant that because she is Christian and her religion says there are only two genders, it is discriminatory for us to ask her to use they/them pronouns when referring to Alex. Library management has firmly taken the position that correct pronoun use is of vital importance to customer service and creating an inclusive workplace (and is not optional!) but it took us a while to get there and meanwhile our communications around this issue weren’t entirely clear.

There was an incident a few months ago when Jane cornered Alex and repeatedly demanded from them what “people of faith” are supposed to do because it’s against her religion to use they/them pronouns. During this conversation, Jane repeatedly misgendered Alex, refusing to be corrected to use they/them pronouns. Alex felt harassed, and several other staff members who witnessed the exchange reported concern for Alex’s well-being to management.

Jane was given a verbal warning by her previous supervisor about this behavior. I was coming on as her new supervisor and sat in on the meeting. During the meeting, when trying to explain the issue to Jane, I brought up the concept of intent vs. impact. Jane told me that “intent is reality” and that she felt like we were trying to brainwash her and that she is being discriminated against for being Christian. It was very clear from this conversation that we are living in different realities. Jane was upset by the implication that she hurt another person (because she’s “not a bad person”). We ended this conversation with the acknowledgement that everyone makes mistakes (that doesn’t make us “bad people” — just humans), we’re all learning, and we were hoping to see some improvement in Jane’s pronoun use, or at least an end to the misgendering.

The library has since had an all-staff training about gender identity which explained the differences between sex and gender and underscored the importance of respecting people of all genders, specifically transgender and non-binary people. In the training, the statistic was shared that other people using the correct pronouns can help to reduce depression, suicidal thoughts, and suicide attempts among transgender youth. We hoped that everyone would benefit from this training, but especially Jane.

Because of additional instances of misgendering, Jane has now been issued a written warning. I am at the point where I feel like I have given Jane ample opportunities to improve, and have shown her a lot of grace, trying to remember that everyone is on their own learning journey. I have also reached a wall in terms of the paradox of tolerance.

Is there anything you recommend for getting through to employees who just aren’t listening, or are so stuck in their own perspective they are unable to recognize others’ perspectives as valid? I want to address Jane’s behavior clearly and directly, but also demonstrate that I see her and respect where she is coming from. I recognize that I, too, am stuck in my own perspective to a certain degree, but I also have experience in recognizing and holding multiple people’s truths at once.

Jane’s truth is that she doesn’t respect her colleague’s identity, and she’s not willing to change her behavior to what the organization requires.

By all means, give people some grace and an opportunity to adjust to changes that may not be intuitive to them. But there’s a point where it stops being grace and starts being an acceptance of cruelty toward others. Jane may not see it as cruelty. But I assure you that Alex is experiencing it as cruelty, or worse. So are employees who are watching, some of whom may be concluding that it’s not safe for them at work either.

There are limits to what you should accept at work in the name of tolerance. If Jane told you her religion prevented her from being respectful to someone of another race or religion, I’m guessing you wouldn’t try to give her grace around that; you’d tell her treating colleagues respectfully was non-negotiable, and you’d fire her if she continued to refuse. In fact, the law would require you to do that. A religious accommodation can’t legally be “we will let you violate anti-discrimination laws.”

You sound very focused on wanting to get through to Jane and change her perspective. But it’s not really your role as an employer to change what’s in Jane’s heart. Your role is to clearly explain what behavior is required from her, and hold her accountable to that. She can believe whatever she wants, but she needs to treat everyone at work respectfully and follow your workplace policies.

You cannot give her endless grace, because it’s coming at Alex’s expense (and maybe the expense of others there too).

Your organization rightly decided that it’s committed to respecting people’s correct pronouns, and that it’s not optional. But right now, in practice, you’re letting it be optional for Jane. She either follows your employer’s policy and stops harassing Alex, or she needs to go.

I have a professional crush on my boss, should I tell my office when I’m vaccinated, and more

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

1. I have a professional crush on my manager

I’m a senior member of a team of 30 people. During this current working from home period, “Olivia” joined our company as a manager for our team. I really enjoy working with her. She’s a huge inspiration and I feel like I make a lot of progress as an employee and a human being when we work together. I feel like we really click and it makes me happy. I have kind of a professional crush on her, which makes me want to do great work to make her happy. I don’t think it’s romantic feelings.

I think Olivia enjoys working with me as well. During our one-on-one today, she told me she thinks about me 3,000 times a day, about things she wants to tell me. Thinking about that gives me butterflies, but also makes me a little apprehensive. Probably these are just mutual feelings of enjoying working together, but who knows? I really appreciate working with Olivia and I want to keep growing under her excellent guidance, so I’m wondering how I can make sure this stays inspiring and professional and doesn’t turn into anything distracting and tangled.

There is such a thing as a platonic crush, and hopefully that’s all this is on both sides. I say “hopefully” because since Olivia is your boss, it would be strongly against your interests (and hers) for either of you to develop romantic feelings for the other. It could really mess up both your professional lives.

Now, I might be misinterpreting, but you sound awfully open to it turning into something more — and also as if you think it would be out of your hands if that happened. But you keep things professional by … committing to keeping them professional. There’s no real secret to it; you just respect the boundaries that must exist with someone in your chain of command, out of respect for them and your coworkers. Appreciate her as a boss and as a colleague and stay very conscious of the boundaries you’re both obligated to have.

But if you just get along well, like working together, and find yourself motivated to impress her? Those are good things! Those things make work more satisfying and more fun, and that kind of rapport has the potential to do great things for you professionally. (Just don’t put her on a pedestal. Some day she may have to turn down your raise request, give you feedback you disagree with, or even lay you off. Hopefully none of that happens, but if it does, you don’t want it to feel extra devastating because it’s coming from her.)

2. Should I tell my boss when I’m vaccinated?

I was wondering how to navigate informing your boss and/or coworkers after you’ve received the vaccine. It wouldn’t be assumed that I qualify for the vaccine in my state, but I do and will be fully vaccinated in a month. Do I tell my boss? Wait? Never share the info?

I feel like it would help when making decisions about me going into the office as needed or other things that I or my boss wouldn’t want me to do unvaccinated. Of course I would still be masked and socially distanced, but with a slightly less heightened level of caution.

I also know there is an aspect of jealousy or an unnerving feeling right now concerning who is able to get vaccinated and who isn’t, so I’d like to be sensitive of that as well.

You’re not obligated to share that you’ve been vaccinated if you prefer to keep it private, but it’s perfectly fine to share if you’re comfortable with it and it seems relevant. If you’re willing to do more things now, especially if that would keep someone unvaccinated from having to do them, it makes sense to speak up.

It does mean potentially opening yourself up to questions about why you were eligible, and not everyone wants to share with colleagues that they have, for example, a qualifying medical condition (which is a good reason for people to stop asking). One option if you don’t want to share personal info is to say something like, “I’m pretty private about the details, but I qualified under the groups they’re doing now.”

3. When the person who hires you leaves after a few months

When I was offered my current job a few months ago, I asked HR up-front if the hiring manager who would also be my boss would be in that position for at least a year. Over the last several years, I’ve had two experiences where the person who hired me left the organization within a few months. Both times, the boss I liked and had hoped to work for for a while was replaced by someone who wanted to build his or her own team or had no interest in my work, and definitely no interest in my success there. In one situation I was laid off; in another, I was pushed out and my job was given to the boss’ friend.

As you can imagine, I’m careful about who I end up working for and their future with an organization. I’ve always found that the people I know who’ve succeeded at their organizations spend at least a good year or two with the person who brought them on board. And isn’t that one good reason to accept a job — you have a good feeling about who you’ll be reporting to? I’ve never accepted a job where I walked out of an interview thinking, “Oh wow, that was horrible.”

Well, HR said at the time that there was absolutely no way the hiring manager would be leaving and that he had even expressed that himself to HR. She more or less said I had nothing to worry about. So I accepted the offer. Well, three months later, he was let go and replaced a few days later by someone from in-house. (I think he was let go due to some conflicts with one of the top managers. My boss was very competent, well-liked, and pleasant to work for. It appeared he had a boss who did not like him and found a reason to get him out.) My new boss and I have met only a handful of times on Zoom. I think it will be okay, but I’m not too sure.

I feel duped and my first instinct is to start looking for a new job. I had a lot of great projects planned with the boss who hired me. He was happy to have me, he understood my skill set, spelled out a clear career path, and was willing to send me to seminars and bring me along on conferences to network (after Covid ends, of course). I don’t feel too hopeful about things like that with my new boss. If anything, I’m hearing about cuts and micromanagy limitations during meetings. He’s already looking to hire new people he may be more interested in cultivating. I haven’t been there long enough to have a safe place and feel confident in my role.

I’m trying not to feel negative. Still, after being through a similar situation twice already, I can’t help but imagine the writing is already on the wall with new hires and probably some restructuring planned. Can this work out without someone in my corner? Am I right to start looking?

I think it would be premature to start looking, or at least premature to leave. Give it some time to get to know your new boss and see how things play out. In particular, make an effort to talk with him more — ask to schedule a call and talk about your priorities and what you’re hoping for from your relationship with him. If you start seeing real signs of danger, then yes, start looking.

But the thing is, managers leave jobs all the time for all sorts of reasons. This one was pushed out, but he also could have left because a better offer dropped in his lap, or because of a health crisis, or his spouse getting a job somewhere else, or all sorts of things. That’s not something people will necessarily be able to predict when you’re being hired (it’s definitely not something you should count on HR to know or share). I wouldn’t assume you were duped; things change.

If you figure you have to leave every time a manager leaves, you’re ceding a lot of control over your career to someone else’s decisions. That’s not to say that it’s not disappointing; you’re right that a manager can be a big draw in deciding whether or not to take a job. But if you’re only taking the job because that manager is there, that’s very risky — because you just can never know for sure what other people will end up doing.

4. Can my boss make me change my working hours?

I work for a small company that for the last few years has been entirely remote. I work in customer service with one other person and we both work a very standard 8 am -5 pm schedule Mon-Fri. Our boss recently asked us to take turns shifting our schedules so that we take off 30 minutes early and then work that 30 minutes later that night or over the weekend, so that customers aren’t waiting as long for an answer to their emails. This request is rubbing me the wrong way because I have a family, and I want to work my standard hours and then not work until the next day. My boss is a workaholic who replies to emails late into the night and I think might have trouble understanding that most people don’t want to work all day.

Is this legal of him to ask? Both my coworker and I are salaried employees (she is eligible for overtime, I am not due to my slightly higher pay). Can I push back on this since we were both hired with assumption that we’d work standard hours or do we need to suck it up and be team players? I feel like if we agree to this modified schedule, it could be allowing for the possibility of even more expanded hours into the future.

Yes, it’s legal of him to ask or even require. Employers can decide to change your schedule at any point. But you can also push back against the request! You and your colleague can explain you have commitments in the evening and aren’t available for work then. (If possible, coordinate with her so that she doesn’t get stuck with the whole thing.) It’ll probably help if you suggest other ways to ensure customers don’t feel they’re waiting too long, even if it’s just an auto-reply letting them know when they can expect to hear back, or evidence that not many emails come in during those hours, or so forth.

5. Should you put union leadership experience on your resume?

Is my union leadership experience helping or hurting my resume?

I’ve spent the last year and a half searching for a work opportunity to launch one of several different possible career paths. In the meantime, I have volunteered and increased my responsibilities with my current labor union. The leadership and initiative is relevant to many of the jobs I apply for. How do hiring managers feel about union leaders, even if they cannot cite union involvement as a legitimate disqualifier for a job?

Depending on the kind of work you’re doing for the union, it could hurt you with some managers, who will think it means you’re more likely to be a rabble-rouser or otherwise difficult to manage. (You might decide you’re happy to screen them out, though.) Others won’t care, and others will appreciate the leadership and organizing skills involved.

employer rejected me, then sent a list of everything I did wrong

A reader writes:

I’m a younger person who is job searching for something full-time for the first time. Haven’t been having a lot of luck of course due to the state of the world, but I recently got an interview where I made it all the way to the final round and was rejected.

At first, the company was really professional about it. They were kind enough to let me know I’d been rejected and thank me for my time. But then, about three days later, I got an email from one of the interviewers (a different one than the one who sent the formal rejection email, the final round had been in front of a panel).

The email body text said, “Hey, here’s some tips for future interviews” and attached was a Word document with a super detailed list of everything I’d done wrong, including that my answer to the question “what’s your favorite book” was too pretentious (note: the job wasn’t for a library or any other book related field). Although he’d been part of the final round interview panel, he hadn’t been
present during previous interviews and this was the first communication I got directly from this guy.

Here are all the comments from the document. It was a financial / stock company but the job wasn’t directly connected to stocks (copywriter position writing some ads/website update):

I can tell you are not passionate about stocks. Every member of this company has been passionately investing in the stock market as a hobby for years. You had basic technical knowledge and that’s it.

In general you seem to lack passion. Your answers are very thorough and well thought out but lack passion. What are you passionate about? I couldn’t tell.

You were clearly nervous throughout. You lack confidence.

When asked about an issue you had overcome, you mentioned something that had happened in a job not related to our industry

You didn’t seem to have an interest in company culture. We mentioned we are a company with lots of events and training workshops and you didn’t ask any further questions there.

Your response to the favorite book question sounded pretentious and insincere. Les Miserables simply isn’t a book people read for fun.

You weren’t enjoying yourself at all. We’re a friendly company and you were tense and nervous the entire time we talked to you. You let your nerves show.

Is this normal? It’s left me feeling really terrible. According to him, I did -so- many things wrong. It’s killing my confidence.

Hearing that I lack passion is really scary. I’m scared it will affect me in the job search going forward. It’s not an issue I ever thought I had, but now it is something that worries me daily.

Please do not let this guy shake your confidence! He is a jerk.

It’s one thing to offer a rejected job candidate a few tips that might help them with future interviews. A few. That can be helpful. But sending someone a full litany of criticism like this — when they hadn’t even asked for feedback! — is a jerk move.

Plus, the criticism itself is subjective, overly personal, and rudely framed, and his desire to send it to a stranger who hadn’t solicited it says more about him than it does about you. (It says he’s an asshole. Imagine working with this guy.)

And enough of this is laughable that it calls the rest of it into question too. Les Miserables “isn’t a book people read for fun” and you’re obviously being pretentious and insincere? The fact that he wrote that with a straight face and thought it was valid feedback means you can ignore the whole email. He’s told you who he is. (An asshole who also doesn’t read.)

To be fair, maybe it’s true that you didn’t seem passionate enough for them. If they only want to hire people who have been investing in the stock market for years as a hobby — excuse me, passionately investing — and that’s not you, that’s okay. That means this job wasn’t the right fit on either side. That’s not a failing on your side; it just means you and the job didn’t match up. But you were qualified enough to be invited in for an interview, so clearly someone saw enough in your materials to consider you a viable candidate. It’s not outrageous that you were there.

As for the rest of it … it’s hard to put any weight on it since so much of it is obviously ridiculous. Maybe you did seem nervous. A lot of people are nervous in interviews. For many jobs, that doesn’t really matter. Did you feel nervous? Did you feel like your nerves got in the way of how well you interviewed? If so, it’s worth working on that (repetitive practice often helps). But if you didn’t feel particularly nervous, please don’t let this guy rattle you into thinking you’re coming across badly. He sounds like someone who wants to see a very specific type of swagger from candidates (probably male swagger, among other things) and that’s about him, not some universal interviewer preference.

It’s also pretty odd that someone you hadn’t been communicating with throughout the process and who doesn’t seem to have played a key role in the interviews decided to send you unsolicited feedback of this nature. That … is not normally done. (In fact, it might be interesting to forward his feedback to the person who rejected you and ask if the feedback represents the employer.)

Frankly, he sounds like someone who enjoys making other people feel bad. That’s not someone you should take advice from.

If you’re genuinely worried about how you might be coming across in interviews, it’s worth doing some practice interviews with people whose judgment you trust and asking for feedback (ideally someone with some experience hiring, if you can swing that).

But what this guy did wasn’t normal or okay, and it sounds like he’s working out some issues of his own on you.

my terrible boss asked for feedback — should I be honest?

A reader writes:

My boss, Kate, has asked for feedback. The thing is … she is not a good manager. She doesn’t respond to questions asking for feedback or our requests for documents that we need to complete our work. Then she throws a temper tantrum that we didn’t do X thing in the way that we wanted (which we would have if she had responded to our requests for feedback). She doesn’t read comments made in Word documents, so I have to call her and go through every comment I’ve made in the Word document and ask for a response. That is, when I can get ahold of her because she’s almost impossible to reach. On the other hand, she also loves having long, unnecessary calls (anywhere from 45 minutes to two hours) that could just have been an email or a text message.

She also doesn’t want to deal with any administrative duties. That means that when our admin team needs information, they will contact me instead of her, which requires me going back to her to get their answers. She will whine about how she doesn’t care about whatever the thing is, which leaves me unable to answer the admin team, and they keep following up and asking.

Kate recently sent our team a form asking for feedback about herself. The feedback will not be anonymous. How do I approach this? Should I be honest in a way that could lead to positive changes that would benefit our working relationship, or should I just tell her that she’s awesome at everything to keep her happy? My work situation is very precarious — I am on very short contracts that can be cut with no notice, so if she gets pissed off, that could be it and I would be beyond screwed, as my legal residence depends on this job and going back home to my country is not an option.

Obviously, I would not phrase my feedback in a rude way if I decided to be honest, but I don’t even know if she’s a reasonable enough person that this is something that it makes sense for me to be considering.

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

is it normal to assign hotel roommates on a work trip?

A reader writes:

A while back, I worked at a place which took our whole department of maybe 20-30 people on a vacation for a long weekend once a year. Everyone in our department was an expat, and there was an expectation that most people wouldn’t stay working in this country longer than a few years, so this trip was meant to be a perk of our jobs and to allow us to enjoy the country we were living and working in (Thailand). There were also some higher-ups on the trip and a few perfunctory dinners with them, but no actual working. This was framed to us as a vacation that was part of our compensation package. No plus-ones were allowed. At this workplace, there was a culture of people being close friends with their coworkers and regularly socializing outside of work, and there were definitely cliques. Not all, but at least half of the people going on this trip were in their twenties.

People were allowed to opt out of the trip, but I don’t recall many people choosing to, if any.

Before the trip, it was explained that everything was paid for, including airfare, hotel, meals, and ground transportation. There was no mention of hotel arrangements specifically. I assumed that people would choose their own friends to share a hotel room with. However when we got to the hotel, a roommate list was read aloud and we were all assigned to a same-gender colleague to share a room with. The roommate list was roughly organized by job title with some obvious tweaking to allow two male managers who were close friends to be able to share a room, and two female non-managers who were close friends with each other and those managers to be able to share a room. One woman had to share a room with her manager.

While the person I was assigned to room with was perfectly pleasant and fine to share a room with, we weren’t close friends, and I certainly would have had a better time had I been allowed to select my own roommate. I understand it’s normal for people to be asked to share a room with a colleague on business travel when it’s just a few people going, but this seemed odd to me for a departmental vacation where so many people are going. I know others also thought it was odd, but no one pushed back at the time or asked to change rooms. Is this normal? And if it is normal to be assigned a roommate, is it normal not to be told in advance who you’ll be sharing with?

No, this is not normal.

First, I want to push back on the idea that it’s normal to be expected to share a room at all. In some industries, it is — you see it pretty commonly in academia, nonprofits, and some other fields without a ton of money to throw around. You also tend to see it in fields that run on young people (possibly because they figure young people will care less, which they often do, maybe because they’re not that far removed from the stage of sharing dorm rooms, etc.).

But there are lots of fields where expecting people to share rooms would be incredibly weird! And with good reason: Sharing a hotel room is awfully intimate. You don’t normally see coworkers in their pajamas, hear them snoring, or become familiar with their sleep or bathroom habits. Travel also can be draining, and most people want rest and privacy at the end of the day. Plus, people don’t always have compatible sleep habits (whether it’s bedtimes, or needing to sleep with light or a TV on, or needing absolute silence). And some people have medical conditions they’d prefer not to disclose or be forced to manage in front of colleagues.

It’s true, though, that there are fields where sharing hotel rooms is normal anyway. (Which is often hard for people in other fields to believe — they tend to be horrified by it for the reasons above.) And even in fields where you might normally get your own room on business travel, sometimes you find room-sharing arrangements on “reward” trips like the one you’re describing, where they’re taking the whole team and the trip is seen as a fun perk.

Still, even in those cases it is not normal to simply be assigned a roommate, without any chance for input. Sleeping in the same room as someone is an intimate thing, and people should be allowed to decide who they are and aren’t comfortable doing that with.

It’s also odd that your company didn’t give you a heads-up about the room-sharing arrangements before the trip so people could decide if they were up for that or not, or even offer to pay the difference to get themselves a private room.

There’s something very camp-like about how your employer approached this. I suspect it’s because you were all mostly young — I can’t see this flying otherwise.

I’m stuck with my coworker’s work because she has kids, denying employee bathroom breaks, and more

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

1. I’m expected to do my coworker’s work because she’s a parent

A coworker of mine, Mary, recently left to join another company on good terms with the management. Mary is a single mother to a young child and so would never be able to come in before 10 am (usually later) and would leave around 4 pm (often earlier). Prior to the pandemic, this meant that any tasks that would require us to be there earlier or later than our usual times would fall on me, and because I lived closer to our main hub (we worked at a satellite site), I’d also be tasked with being a courier. This would raise some frustrations when I would need a back up but couldn’t rely on her.

During the pandemic, we were allowed to work from home unless we had a client come in or if we had work that could only be done in the office. I was voluntold to take on additional pandemic-related tasks, but Mary would state that she did not have time and therefore couldn’t take on these tasks. Because of this, my workload tripled and I spoke with our manager to offload some of my projects to Mary — since many could be done remotely with a training session at the office. The issue was that this would mean that we’d need to be there at 8 am — which Mary couldn’t do, so it never really got offloaded.

Then Mary quit and I’ve been given all of her responsibilities. And now that I’ve spent a week going through loose papers, unorganized (to me) stacks of confidential information, and her to-do lists, I’ve seen that she hasn’t actually done much since September of last year. This means that her deadlines that haven’t been met fall on me, on top of my work.

I am burnt out, and I was burnt out prior to this and my manager already knows this. Previous concerns about Mary’s inability to show up early or stay late were always met with, “Well, she has a child and we have to be accommodating.” So, is it worth (or even okay) having a conversation with my manager about the issues I’ve found? And is it absolutely terrible of me to ask that Mary’s replacement be able to have flexible schedule? Am I too un-sympathetic since I do not have a child?

Yes, it’s worth raising it with your boss! Don’t frame it as “Mary sucked,” but rather as, “Here’s what I’ve found and it’s going to have the following impacts on me unless we come up with an alternate plan, which we need to because I’m stretched too thin and cannot sustain this workload going forward.”

Since your boss seems very willing to keep piling work on you regardless of what you say, you probably need to be prepare to set fairly hard boundaries on what you can and can’t take on, as well as when you need to stop working each day. Here’s some advice on how to do that.

And it’s very reasonable to say that because the burden on you from Mary’s schedule was significant, it’s important that the next person be available for full work hours. That’s not unsympathetic; it’s explaining a business reality. In fact, if anyone here is being unsympathetic, it’s your boss toward you. When she said, “Mary has a child and we have to be accommodating,” she really meant that she wanted you to accommodate Mary, at your own expense. It’s great when a business wants to accommodate someone in Mary’s situation, but it needs to be at their expense (i.e., by hiring more help), not by just shifting extra burden on to a different employee.

2. Denying an employee bathroom breaks

I’m being trained in a position that oversees about roughly four people. I’m not a manager, but I have authority over these individuals. I am in training to be my trainer’s backup for when she takes vacation or calls out. There is a new person I oversee who goes to the restroom for about 10-15 minutes maybe two or three times per night. She will normally ask me permission to go, but if I am not available she will go anyway.

My trainer has told me not to allow her to go so much, or at all. I am uncomfortable with this. I feel like I could get in trouble for denying her the restroom. And I don’t mind if she needs to use the restroom! But my trainer keeps pushing me to say no. I know some people go to the bathroom just to play on their phones, but I don’t know if that’s the case here. Regardless, I do not feel comfortable denying her the bathroom. But I keep being pushed to do just that. Are there any legal repercussions if I did deny her the restroom?

OSHA requires that employees have reasonable access to bathrooms, and not just during scheduled break times. Using the bathroom for 10-15 minutes a couple of times a night is not excessive.

But even aside from the law, what kind of environment is this where you’re being pushed to deny employees permission to use the bathroom? For that matter, what kind of environment is this where people feel they need to request permission to use the bathroom? Why not let people know they don’t need your permission and take yourself out of this entirely? No one with options will want to work somewhere where they need permission for a bathroom break, let alone somewhere where that permission might be denied. That is not how you treat adults.

Are there issues with this employee’s work or productivity? Is her absence creating workflow problems or issues for others? If so, address those things.

But please tell your trainer that you want people to take bathroom breaks as needed, you will track their productivity without monitoring bathroom usage, and you don’t intend to violate OSHA.

3. Arrival time and lateness with remote interviews

In this world of remote work, I have a question about remote interviews. What is your recommended arrival time for an interview on Zoom? Do you time it to log in right at the exact minute? Five minutes early? And then, as an interviewer, how long do I wait for the interviewee to login? I’m typing this now as I wait into my fifth minute for login. Am I being too rigid expecting the person to be here by now?

I’d get yourself set up and ready to go 5-10 minutes ahead of time in case you run into technical issues, but don’t actually log into the call more than a few minutes before the start time.

If you’re the interviewer, I’d expect the candidate to be there right on time, just like with in-person interviews. Give a short grace period since the person might be having technical issues, but after five minutes I’d be annoyed if I hadn’t heard anything (assuming they had a way to contact me — make sure they do), and pretty soon after that I’d give up on waiting. At that point I’d send an email asking if we got our signals crossed, and then would decide on whether to reschedule based on how they responded to that.

4. Employer wanted references that weren’t previous employers

As I was filling out an online job application, the references section stipulated not to use people related to me (expected) and that references must not be previous employers. What do you make of that? Is that normal? Who else am I supposed to use as a reference? Was this form really asking me to name friends outside of work who have no idea how I perform as a professional? Should I have given them my partner’s information? For what it’s worth, I gave the names of colleagues who are also good work friends.

No, it’s not normal, it’s bizarre! It’s a thing that you see pop up every now and then, and it’s extremely strange. Most employers have no interest in personal references; they want to speak to people who can talk about your work. But the ones who ask for this are usually looking for people who can attest to you being trustworthy and a fine member of the community. If you have to give them, the ideal names are people who you’ve worked with a colleague-like situation — coworkers you know well, like you provided, or anyone you’ve done volunteer or community work with, etc. (But in answer to your question, definitely not your partner!)

5. Paint colors for home offices

I would like to ask your opinion on office background paint colors for working at home virtually. Which colors are best to use? I have fair skin and white hair.

This is a question that you’re better off addressing to an interior decorator (or probably anyone who works with color and lighting) than to me, but I thought commenters might enjoy discussing it. For what it’s worth, though, I painted three walls in my office Benjamin Moore’s Tissue Pink, which is supposed to be a wildly flattering paint color to a variety of skin tones, and I don’t like it and want to repaint.

my boss told me I’m “not a good human” when I asked to be paid for my time

A reader writes:

I work for a professional firm that has a long history of devaluing non-partner contributions. Let’s just say we have problems:

• The pay structure for employees is all risk and no reward. Salaries are artificially low, below market, supposedly because of our bonus structure.

• If clients don’t pay, that comes out of our pay (bonus), and we get a lecture about how it’s a business and we are only worth what we bring in.

• If clients pay, we are given a lecture about how we are not partners so we don’t deserve to share in the reward. It’s a lose-lose.

• Predictably, there has been 120% turnover in my three years at the firm. Twice in the last five years, the entire staff has quit en masse.

• I have not received even a $1 cost of living increase since I’ve been here. As a matter of principle, the firm does not give base pay raises, ever, supposedly because you can “earn” more each year by working harder and bringing in more profit for the firm.

• When the pandemic happened, the firm cut 20% of professional employees, and also cut remaining employee pay. A few months later, the fear wore off and we realized that our hours/collectibles were actually up and started questioning why we were earning less for working more and bringing in more. We were told that things are “complicated” and there are things we just “don’t understand.” (Notably, all partners are men and all employees are women.)

• We also noticed that our firm received massive PPP “loans,” and that same week every partner announced a long vacation. Again, we were told we just “don’t understand.”

Fast forward to January, when the firm excitedly announced that they would be “helping” me and another completely overworked employee by hiring a new employee for us to train. The time spent training the new employee would come out of our bonuses, but we were told that this would benefit us in the long run because we would not be overworked next year. (We do not share in profits from this new employee.) What a treat!

I decided to raise this with the managing partner, and asked that they take our non-billable time into account this year for bonuses. It did not go well. Understatement.

His immediate response was that I’m “not a good human” and “selfish” because so many people have helped me learn my job, and so how dare I not be willing to help everyone else. (I never said I wouldn’t help — I just asked that I be compensated for my time.). He told me I’m being “short sighted” for complaining about reduced pay this year and not thinking about the supposed long-term benefits for me (not being overworked next year). He told me at least three times that he’s “disappointed” in me, which, okay whatever.

I mean, I’m not the crazy one here, right?

You are not.

This place is openly mistreating and exploiting you, and insulting you when you question it.

There are some people who aren’t good humans in this letter, but it’s not you.

Get out get out get out.