I was told I could bring my dog to work but now I can’t, companies that don’t check references, and more

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

1. I was told I could bring my dog to work but now I can’t

I recently accepted a placement through a large, multinational staffing agency to work on a temp-to-perm basis at a small nonprofit where a few other employees, including the organization’s president, bring their dogs to work sometimes. During the interview with my supervisor before being offered the placement, she mentioned that I would be allowed to bring my dog into the office if I wanted. This was a big selling point for me, partly because my partner regularly travels during the day for his job.

After almost a month at this placement with no contact from either of the recruiters I worked with, I got a call from one to check in. He mentioned that my supervisor had said that I had brought my dog in a few times (which was the first he’d heard of it), but that as a contract employee of Multinational Corporation, I wasn’t allowed to do that because it opened them up to legal liability if my dog hurt someone or got hurt (or something, it’s unclear). When I asked him where this was stipulated in the contract I signed, he said it wasn’t because “it’s so uncommon” and “they didn’t know.” I explained that I felt misled and might have made a different decision about taking the placement if I had known that what I saw as one of the main perks of the job wasn’t allowed during the contract period. Short of terminating the placement, what is their recourse if I violate this rule that I didn’t explicitly agree to ahead of time? If they did terminate the contract, would the nonprofit then be allowed to hire me directly if they wanted to?

Yeah, “you can’t bring your dog to the client’s office” isn’t something that you’d normally find in a contract even if it’s their policy … but they can all have sorts of policies that aren’t included in the contract. The contract binds them (and you) to what is included there, but doesn’t preclude them from also having additional, separate rules you’ll be held to.

So unfortunately, you don’t really have much recourse. You can back out of the placement if you want to, but the organization almost certainly has a clause in their contract with the staffing firm saying they can’t hire you directly for X months afterwards (usually six months or longer is standard).

At this point I think you’ve got to decide if you want the job knowing that you can’t bring your dog in while you’re on a temp contract or if you’d rather look for something else.

2. Coworkers are annoyed that I don’t recognize them behind their masks

I’ve worked for my company for many years but recently started working in a city where there is a small office with about 20 employees who I haven’t been acquainted with before. I usually work remotely, but I come in for office events and team-building activities.

Everyone is very nice, but the problem is this — I don’t have the greatest memory, made worse by a medication I have to take, and it is difficult for me to recognize people I’ve briefly met once months ago or remember their names. Add in the fact that they are wearing masks, and I am constantly re-introducing myself or have a blank expression on my face when someone comes up to me.

The past month or so, no less than five people have said to me “Yeah, we’ve met before…..” and sounded pretty annoyed that I didn’t remember them. It’s clear they are offended, and I’m afraid I am insulting them or getting a reputation for either being spacy or rude.

How should I handle this? What can I say when someone masked comes up to me that I may have met before but I don’t remember?

What is up with your easily affronted coworkers? It can be hard to recognize people in masks who you don’t see often because, you know, THERE IS A MASK COVERING MUCH OF THEIR FACE.

Anyway, try just cheerfully citing the masks: “Oh, of course! I’m terrible at remembering faces when we’re all masked!” … “Carla! I’m used to seeing your face on Zoom without the mask. Good to see you!” … etc.

But your coworkers are being weird.

3. Is it a red flag if a company doesn’t check references?

I recently received a job offer from an employer who did not request references. Is this a red flag to not accept the offer, since working somewhere where they don’t check references could yield a lot of questionable coworkers?

For context, it’s possible that I was “checked out” via established contacts. These are two government agencies that I recently heard a second line supervisor remark that “we lose a lot of people to,” so it’s possible that folks know each other and check informally.

It’s really common for government agencies not to check references. Background checks, yes — but references aren’t always part of their highly regimented hiring processes.

If it weren’t a government agency, it’s still probably not a huge red flag. I believe strongly in checking references and have avoided some hiring disasters that way, as have many other people, but some places don’t do them or don’t do them consistently (sometimes because they’ve approached them so perfunctorily in the past that they weren’t that useful). It could indicate that they’re not especially rigorous about hiring … but neither are a ton of companies that do check references. With any company, references or not, I’d say to lean most on making sure you’ve really explored the company and the manager and know that it’s a place you do want to work, including doing your own behind-the-scenes reference-checking when you can.

4. Am I arriving too early to virtual meetings?

Your recent question about how long to wait on remote calls sparked a question about the other end of the spectrum — is it ever too early to log onto a virtual meeting?

I typically hit “Join Meeting” as soon as my calendar notification pops it up, almost always 15 minutes before the meeting. I then continue whatever I’m doing until the meeting actually starts. I prefer this so I’m not sitting there watching the clock with “is it time to join” and it gives me a chance to casually chat with colleagues who also join early while still respecting everyone’s meeting time. However, a couple circumstances have made me question if this is as harmless as I originally thought:

1. A couple times on a conference type call where people were giving presentations, the organizers would be in the call organizing and I would feel super awkward. I would drop out and rejoin, which also felt silly.

2. My company’s software has somewhat recently started notifying everyone when the first person has joined the meeting. In general, meetings start more on time with this but I have noticed a few times that interns will join right after me (when they would before wait until the meeting time). I’m totally happy to wait for the meeting time and don’t expect people to join just because I do. I’m fairly new to leadership but doing more of it and when I’m meeting with people lower in the hierarchy, I don’t mean to pressure them to join early.

Yeah, don’t join 15 minutes early, for both of the reasons you said — you might make someone deal with you earlier than they were prepared to, and it can make more junior staff feel like they’re supposed to follow your example.

Most calendar programs will let you customize how your reminders work though. I have mine set to alert me 10 minutes before a meeting (my advance warning that I need to start wrapping up whatever I’m doing) and again one minute before (so I know now is the time to actually call in). That might prevent you from feeling like you have to keep tracking the time after the first reminder.

5. My previous toxic job wants my help

About six months ago, I left a job in the education sector. The workplace was toxic and it was clear I would be miserable as long as I was there. For example, I attempted to offer feedback and suggestions based on what clients shared with me, and I was met with a response reminding me of my place in the hierarchy — in other words, unless I was in upper leadership, this was outside of my job duties.

When I submitted my resignation in June, I included a lot of documentation of my work, past projects, and outlines/scheduling to help the new person get situated. Just a few hours after emailing my resignation, my email and all accounts were disabled; this happened at night on a Monday (outside of normal work hours for our IT department when they could have waited a little longer and disabled it Tuesday morning).

Needless to say, I don’t feel like my previous employer was particularly gracious when I left. It was clear we didn’t really get along well, and back in June, I shrugged and joined a great new workplace. Things have been great! I’m respected and engaged and feel like I’m really appreciated for my skills.

Recently, I was contacted by my former boss asking me to complete work for a client. The client is one I have had a good relationship with for a few years. The time commitment to do this is probably just a few hours, but honestly, I don’t want to do any work for this toxic place. It feels like they burned the bridge when I left.

Is it okay not to respond to my former boss at all? It feels a little rude but I’m not sure I can respond in a way that is honest without being disrespectful. The message she sent was not a “Can you do this?” but “What is your email so X can ask you to do this?” Obviously, I don’t want to air a lot of dirty laundry to the client, so I’d rather not interact with either at all. Is it a mistake to ghost my old boss? Could this hurt me in a reference down the road?

You can ignore the message if you want to. That wouldn’t hurt you reference-wise with a reasonable manager (who is likely to assume you just missed the message or were busy and it fell through the cracks) but is this a reasonable manager?

That said, it sounds like you mainly don’t want to respond because you can’t think of a way to do it without being disrespectful or airing dirty laundry. But none of that is necessary! You can simply say, “My schedule is really overbooked right now and I can’t take anything else on, but best of luck with it!” and leave it at that. That’s the option I’d advocate.

how can I stop softening the message in tough conversations with my staff?

I’m on vacation today. This was originally published in 2015.

A reader writes:

I’m a relatively new manager of a small team, and while I do have a lot of strengths as a manager, I’ve also discovered that I have no idea how to communicate directly. Even when I think I am being direct, I replay the conversation in my head later and realize I padded the whole thing with “softening” language that only distorts the message.

Reading your column regularly and forcing myself to push through situations that feel uncomfortable has helped, but I still feel like I’m doing a lot of trial-and-error in real work situations where the risks of “getting it wrong” are sometimes pretty high. I also occasionally catch myself letting smaller issues slide just to avoid having a conversation about them. A couple of times those issues ended up developing into a situation where I couldn’t let them slide anymore, and of course failing to address things earlier only made the conversation even more awkward.

I’d love to figure out how to practice this stuff at times when there isn’t actually an immediate need for it, so that when a real management conversation or workplace issue arises I’m more comfortable handling it in the moment. How do people who are naturally conflict-avoidant learn to confront things head-on? What specific strategies or resources can people use for improving direct communication and building assertiveness?

I can’t tell you how many managers I talk to where a staff member is having performance issues, the manager is frustrated about why the problems are continuing, and when I ask how direct the manager has been about the issues, the answer turns out to be “not very.”

So you’re far from alone in this, and you have a huge leg up in that you recognize that it’s happening and you’re committed to fixing it. Frankly, just that alone is going to be hugely helpful, because if you’re aware that you tend to do this, it’s going to be harder to keep your pattern going.

Here’s what I’d recommend:

* Get really clear in your head about this fact: You are doing people a disservice by hiding the message. Often when managers soften language in these kinds of conversations, they do it because it feels kinder to them. But it’s not kinder! It’s actually unkind, if the result is that the staff member doesn’t quite hear the message or fully understand how serious it is. That denies them full information about their own work life and about possible consequences. It makes it more likely that they’ll continue frustrating or disappointing you, and that has real consequences for their reputation, your assessment of their work, raises, project assignments, their overall dynamic with you, and future references. That’s not fair. (And wouldn’t you hate if if your boss weren’t being direct and straight with you?)

The kindest thing is to be clear and direct so that people have access to the same information that you do. Work on really internalizing that and believing it, because it will change the way you act.

* Before any conversation that you feel has the potential to be uncomfortable or that you might end up softening in a not-ideal way, write out talking points for yourself ahead of time. What are the key things that you need to communicate? What wording will do that? Write out the specific language you’ll use.

* Then, practice saying it out loud. This step is important because, with awkward or tough messages, the hard part is saying it out loud. So imagine yourself in the actual conversation, and say your talking points out loud. Are you internally cringing? Are you attempting to soften the language? Say it enough times that you become comfortable and can imagine saying it in the real conversation.

* Since you know you have a tendency to soften your language in the moment, think about the ways that it might happen here if you’re not vigilant — and then resolve not to do it. Just going through this thought process and being cognizant of the issue makes it a whole lot less likely that you’ll slip backwards. For example, if you know that you need to tell someone that an issue is serious enough that it could end up jeopardizing their job, you might know you’ll be uncomfortable saying that explicitly when you talk — because that’s a hard message to deliver. So vow to yourself beforehand that you will be clear on that point and that you won’t let yourself get away with not saying it.

And to be clear, being direct with people and not softening your language doesn’t mean that you have to be robotic or a jerk. You can still be clear and direct while using a kind tone. In fact, you normally should use a kind tone, even when you’re delivering a no-nonsense kind of message. So maybe you can push your softening impulses into tone, not words, and let your tone sound concerned and empathetic — just keep your words themselves direct.

update: I hate my boss’s mandatory Zoom happy hours

Remember the letter-writer who hated her boss’s mandatory Zoom happy hours? Here’s the update.

The advice was, in fact, very helpful—thank you.

In the next meeting that was held after my letter was published, with your advice, I just … didn’t attend. I didn’t give an excuse, just declined the RVSP and waited for the fallout. There was no comment made at all, either by my manager in our weekly one-to-one or anyone else. In the next team meeting within work hours, they didn’t seem to acknowledge my presence or lack thereof in the after-work meeting. This seemed to dislodge something else about the situation I hadn’t acknowledged: if one of the others didn’t attend, there would be enquiries as to why and whether everything was okay. For me, they didn’t even seem to notice whether I was or wasn’t there.

I attended the one after that and tapped out after an hour, but once again, no comment was made. I took that as a great signal to go ahead and selectively attend. Now that I realized I was being unnoticed, it really struck a pattern. I can’t lie: being ignored except for being a person to assign tasks to really got me down. There were no chats about how my weekend was or what I was doing or how I was doing as a person; just emails to do XYZ, thanks, and little other acknowledgement from my team. I made attempts to reach out which were politely rebuffed.

After some bolstering, I raised this pattern of lack of acknowledgement with my manager, suggesting that maybe we hold smaller meetings within work hours so I could get to know the team better. He wasn’t interested but did attempt to involve me for the next few times I attended the 2.5 hour meetings. He was promoted from being on its team to being its manager, so I imagine that makes things difficult for him. Unfortunately, that died back down again, even when I raised it a second time. I eventually did grow close to another team—who unfortunately are based in a different country and time zone. (As a quick caveat: I’m not sure if I was being actively ignored, but there was certainly a lack of acknowledgement and interest in me. I understand this isn’t high school and I don’t expect to be friends with anyone else, but some occasional small talk would have been appreciated, or a quiet pointer if I’d somehow caused offense.)

Lockdown ended in my country and I moved cities to be closer to the job. I attended the summer BBQ for the company, held in-person, where I was once again kind of ignored by my team, to the point where they all went off to the pub without inviting me, leaving me behind in an empty office without telling me where they were going. The lack of acknowledgement plus other problems with the company were really starting to frustrate me at this point, so I started to apply for other jobs despite my inexperience—and I got one! At the current job I’m a technical and social media writer; in the next job, I’m a technical author, so something of a role upgrade. It also came with a 7% payrise and a manager who does my role in a senior capacity, which I hope will help. I’ll have been at the first job 18 months when I leave—which according to your own advice is very far from ideal, I know—but I intend to be at this job a lot longer.

Overall things have turned out alright for me—at least right now.

fired for forwarding resumes to myself, boss wants me to buy everyone expensive coffee, and more

It’s MLK Day and I’m off today so here are some letters buried in the archives from years ago.

1. I was fired for forwarding resumes to myself

I’d like to get your opinion on an incident a few years back in my first internship out of school. I had just completed the four-month contract, and my boss couldn’t have been happier with my work. He got me a one-year contract in a higher paying role, still reporting to him, and I ended up taking a two-week vacation overseas between the internship and the contract start.

In the last week of the internship, my boss received a message from the security department, informing him that they had discovered an email I had sent out externally one month prior. This email contained several attached resumes from prior applicants to the company, which I had found stored (improperly) on a shared network drive. They were simply emailed to myself. As for the purpose, it was truly just my own curiosity of wanting to peruse them at my own leisure. I somehow believed that having that extra resource on hand would benefit me down the line, and my curiosity just got the best of me.

It was a very stupid lapse of judgement on my part, which I regretted almost immediately afterwards. I regretted doing it so much that I deleted them from my email before even looking at them. I admitted this to my boss when he first approached me. He seemed genuinely shocked when I admitted to doing it, and although he had a serious talk with me, he agreed that it should not be an insurmountable situation.

However, I received a call from my boss during my vacation that the resume situation had been escalated, and as a result, my one-year contract was rescinded. This was a pretty difficult call to hear, especially since I still had a good week left in my trip. Long story short, when I returned, my boss was exceptionally gracious to me on a personal level, agreeing to serve as a positive reference for my applications and expressing general regret that the situation had happened as it did. Although I was still quite rattled from the experience, I did my best to convey my apologies for putting him through everything as well, since the situation clearly came about as a result of my own actions.

This incident is now a few years behind me and I have been able to move on, but what is your opinion about the way the organization handled it? I guess maybe I’m looking for validation that my boss’ position was more reasonable than the higher-ups who (it seems) made the ultimate call, but what would you have done? For a bit more context, the organization was a medium-sized financial institution.

Well … you breached those job applicants’ privacy for your own curiosity, which raised concerns about your integrity and ability to handle confidential information properly (something that really matters at a financial institution). Is it a huge outrage? No, not the hugest. But it’s enough of a red flag that I can see why they didn’t want to embark on a longer employment relationship with you once they learned about it at a time when it was particularly easy to cut ties.

2017

2. My boss is shirtless in his staff photo

I work for the Southern California branch of a large, multinational corporation. The company recently rolled out a new internal employee directory/intranet platform that allows us to customize our profile photos, resume information, skills and interests, etc. The information is only accessible to other employees, but that’s thousands of people! The platform is what we use to find another employee’s phone number, email, work location, supervisor, and so on.

In their profiles, most people use their default (security badge) photo, a corporate-style headshot, or a casual on-the-job photo. My immediate supervisor, however, is an avid swimmer. He uploaded a profile photo of himself in swim trunks, swim cap, goggles, but no shirt. It’s not prurient, but also not an image I want to have in my head during work discussions.

Although our workplace is casual, it’s not shirtless-casual. I’m no manager, but the photo looks inappropriate/unprofessional to me.

Should I just ignore it, address him directly (“Boss, the photo of your bare chest makes me uncomfortable” would be a very awkward conversation!), or share my concern with his supervisor (I don’t know if she has seen it yet, or if she cares)? I don’t want to get him in trouble, because otherwise he is a pretty good manager. But eewww….

Oh, California.

Okay, that’s not fair. But still … California.

I agree with you that it sounds really off-key, but I don’t think this is a battle worth fighting or a serious enough thing to escalate to his own manager. I mean, he could have a similar photo displayed in his office — because people sometimes display photos of themselves engaged in sporty, outdoor activities, including swimming — and you wouldn’t really have standing to ask him to remove it there. Assuming it’s not the kind of photo that’s moving out of the G-rated realm (like if he were wearing a thong and facing away from the camera), all you can really do here is roll your eyes and let it go.

2017

3. My manager wants me to buy our whole team expensive coffee

I work part-time in a small department of four. My director (not in our department) and I were recently discussing some of my supervisor’s failings (which is a different issue) and one of the things that I mentioned was that she is often cliquish with the other full-time employee in the department, not sharing information with the part-timers and gossiping, etc.

One of my examples was that often (at least two times a week), my supervisor has the other full-time employee bring her Starbucks. Mostly this happens right in front of us with no offer to grab us some, and it doesn’t seem as though the my supervisor pays her back or gets the next round. It’s not really a big deal, but sort of annoying in the “gifts flow downward” aspect of business, plus, it’s just sort of rude and inconsiderate to everyone who is sitting right beside them. Not something I would bring up on its own, but as an example of this reflecting poorly on my manager because it seems like she is getting special favors from this other employee.

I guess my director talked to my supervisor because a few days later we were all given a small Starbucks drink from my supervisor and told we would get the next “round.” I didn’t really want a 500-calorie sugar and caffeine bomb at 4:30 p.m., but it was already bought, so I took it. Now the other part-time employee is upset because every third Friday, we are expected to bring in drinks for our department. Neither of us can really afford that on a part-time salary. In addition to this, if I go to Starbucks on my own, I get the evil eye, or if I go on break, my supervisor asks “Are you going to Starbucks?” I don’t really think I should have to buy my boss a drink every time I go to Starbucks, but I realize I am the one that started this mess!

How do I get out of buying my department coffee every month?

“I can’t afford to buy everyone coffee every few weeks, so I’m going to bow out of the rotation (and of course I don’t expect anyone to buy it for me either).”

And if your manager notices you’re going to Starbucks and asks you to get her a drink, say, “Sure, but I don’t have enough cash — can you give me enough to cover your drink?” or “Sure, I think it’s about $4” (or whatever their drink costs).

And if you just notice her giving you the evil eye for going, ask about it directly: “You look bothered — did I do something wrong?” Followed by, if necessary, “Yes, on occasion I treat myself to Starbucks. I can’t afford to buy it for everyone.”

Straightforward, not a doormat, and totally reasonable.

You also might mention to your director that whatever talk she had with your manager didn’t quite work the way she probably intended.

Read an update to this letter here.

2015

4. Can I give my coworker part of my raise?

I don’t know the right words to describe this, but is it possible that somehow I can give up/ transfer/forfeit my raise and give it to a coworker? I’ve worked for a great fast food place for about a year and a half, and I just recently got a raise. I would like to give some of this raise (or all, or more) to a certain coworker in my store. Is there any thing I could do to make this happen ASAP?

It’s a very kind thought, but it’s unlikely to be feasible. Employers want to pay employees what they believe their work is worth, and that’s really a transaction between the employer and the individual employee. There are lots of reasons for this. For example, one reason is that if you left, they’d suddenly need to lower your coworker’s pay, and that’s rarely a treat to do.

So, typically you can’t reassign part of your pay to someone else. (I mean, you can of course give your money to anyone you want on your own, but you can’t funnel that donation through your employer.)

However, if you think your coworker is doing a great job and should be recognized for it, you can make a point of sharing with your or her manager the things she does that make her so valuable.

2017

5. My manager doesn’t like my maternity clothes

I am 30 weeks pregnant with my first child and having some difficulty with my boss over maternity clothes. I work in finance and my office has a particularly conservative dress. Pre-pregnancy, I generally wore a sheath dress, blazer, and string of pearls. I haven’t really been able to wear anything like that for the past few months. Finding conservative maternity clothes has been difficult but I managed to find a few suits and some plain, sleeveless tops to go underneath. I’ve also found some black dresses that worked well with a blazer. (Similar to one pictured here.) I thought everything was fine.

Last week, my manager pulled me into his office and told me that my current wardrobe was unacceptable. I apologized and explained that I thought I was following the dress code. I asked what specifically I needed to change. He said that if I was going to wear a pant suit, the shirt needed to be tucked in and belted. Also that he did not like the look of side ruching or an empire waist on shirts and felt it was unprofessional. I told him that I would try to find maternity clothes that met his discerption but that it would be difficult. He wasn’t convinced and said that my job depends on me being dressed according to his standards. (There are a few other women but none of them have had any children while I’ve been at this job so I can’t look to what they’ve worn.)

Do I have any pushback here? I spent the weekend looking for clothes that met his requirements but haven’t been able to. He’s out on vacation this week and I’m out next week so I have a little bit of time to figure something out. I’m nervous that my job could be on the line.

Wha…?! What you’re describing is totally standard maternity wear (as is that dress you linked to).

I don’t recommend HR a ton, but this is a case where you should talk to HR. Your manager sounds like he has no idea what typical maternity wear is, and he’s getting way too involved in the details of what you’re wearing. (He “doesn’t like the look of” side ruching? I mean, I don’t like the look of the color yellow, but it never occurred to me to forbid people from wearing it.)

Go to HR ASAP and explain what happened and ask for guidance. They should intervene. Make sure that as part of this conversation, you ask them to ensure that you don’t face retaliation from your boss for involving them.

Read an update to this letter here.

2017

weekend open thread – January 15-16, 2022

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

Here are the rules for the weekend posts.

Book recommendation of the week: Ghosts, by Dolly Alderton. It’s light but it’s dark. It’s a rom com but it’s more. It’s about ghosting but it’s also about aging parents and changing friendships and career angst and the general mess of life, and it’s funny.

 I make a commission if you use that Amazon link.

it’s your Friday good news

It’s your Friday good news!

1.  “I have been an avid reader of AAM for 6 years, having stumbled upon your website when I was making the leap back into work after having my first child. In 2017, after working in restaurants in a well-known food metropolis for almost 20 years and as a chef for almost 10, we moved cross country to be closer to my family and I took a position at my family’s non-food-related business. It was an industry I knew nothing about, but the pay was okay and the benefits were generous. I was also surprised that my customer service expertise translated beautifully to my new position, and I found my coworkers to be professional and helpful and my managers to be really great.

Unfortunately I discovered quickly that I hated the industry. And by hated I mean actively despised because it went against my personal and moral beliefs. Imagine being an environmentalist and taking a position as an oil salesman; this felt like exactly that. I spent many hours of many days getting yelled at by old white men who weren’t getting what they wanted exactly when they wanted it in an industry I literally didn’t care about and it wore on my soul. I continued to plow through the work out of loyalty to my mom, who is the president of the small company, but after 2 years of grinding it out I started looking for a job in food again. I even took an interview at an upscale grocery chain’s corporate headquarters in my city, but the position would have been a lateral move from what I was already doing, and when I shared with my mom that I was interviewing elsewhere, they ended up offering me a 20% raise to stay, so I did.

Cut to spring of 2021: We’re a year into the pandemic, having transitioned to full-time WFH for all 5 employees in the company, and several things transpired to quicken my departure from the business after 4 years of being there: 1. My work (aka my mom) did a really crappy job of providing any accommodations for me during the initial stages of the pandemic, as the only employee with small children (my kids were 2 and 5 at the time). As in, I got zero accommodations, despite my asking multiple times for adjustments to my work schedule to make it possible to have both kids home with no childcare while still doing my job. 2. My coworker quit early in the pandemic and they never rehired for her position, which meant my workload essentially doubled and stayed doubled the entire remaining time I was there. And 3. My direct supervisor, whom I have known for over 20 years and otherwise fully respected and thought was a great manager, turned out to be both anti-vaxx and anti-mask. I had to fight for the most basic COVID safety measures such as masking indoors at all-staff meetings. As you can imagine, this was also straining my relationship with my mom.

After yet another Very Bad Day at work in April 2021, I looked online at job listings yet again and saw that the upscale grocery store I had interviewed with 1.5 years prior was hiring for what is basically my dream job as a chef developer, doing R&D and recipe development for the grocery brand. I sent the listing to my husband and his response was, ‘It’s like they wrote this job exactly for you.’

I reached back out to the HR contact I had, hoping they remembered me, and they did! I had my first interview scheduled a couple weeks later, and this time I diligently studied your interview guide line-by-line, spending several hours the night before each interview preparing questions and practicing answers. It helped immensely; I nailed both my first and second interviews and I got offered the job soon after! I started about 6 months ago and it has been AMAZING. Not only am I working back in food, which is my first love and passion, but I received a $11K salary increase plus EOY bonus opportunity. The corporate office is also walking distance from my house, whereas pre-pandemic I was commuting 20 miles each way. The office has also taken COVID very seriously, mandating vaccines for the corporate office and implementing appropriate safety measures and adjusting for new information. At my previous job, I had to fight tooth and nail for any COVID precautions at all, and it’s a relief to not have to worry about that anymore, especially with little ones at home. Best of all, though I know my mom was very disappointed that I ended up leaving the company, she didn’t take it out on me at all and we are on great terms again. She’s even come around to realizing how toxic the environment is for her and is looking to retire within the next year, which is such a relief as we’ve been trying to get her to retire for over 5 years.

So thanks for AAM, and thanks to the amazing community as well. This is one of the best resources on the internet, bar none.”

2.  “I have been in my current position since October of 2018. I have been looking to move up in my company for a year. Last July I interviewed for a stretch position that I really didn’t think I would stand much of a chance at getting. This position is a level above what someone at my level would normally get promoted into – it happens, but it’s not common. I had the interview and thought I had done medicore, at best. The hiring manager called me a couple of weeks later and told me that I didn’t get the position. But she also said that she was very impressed with me, I was their #2 pick and outperformed managers (which I am currently not), and she would love for me to apply for future openings on her team.

Sure enough, in early December she messaged me to let me know she was going to have an opening and asked if I would like for her to send me the link when it got posted. A couple of days later someone else she works with called me to make sure I knew it was posted. The next day the manager messaged me again to encourage me to reach out if I had any questions. I interviewed the Friday before Christmas Eve. I thought I bombed the interview but apparently I was wrong (again!) as I had an offer the following Wednesday! From the day I applied to the day I had an offer, the whole process took less than 3 weeks which is super fast at this company. This will be my 3rd promotion since I started with this company in 2016 after graduating college and comes with a 20% pay bump! Thank you for all the amazing resume and interview advice you have given. It has been a huge help!”

3.  “I am so relieved to be able to share this news.

In 2018 I left a job that I loved for medical reasons. Got that finally resolved many many months later. At that time there were no positions available with the company I had left so I moved into active job-seeker mode.

A month into the search, my husband (who is retired) was diagnosed with cancer. We knew (because of the type of cancer) that it was going to be a difficult treatment regimen, so we decided to rely on savings until the worst of the protocols were out of the way. Finally got him squared away in late 2019, and I began job searching again. I found a job and was due to start in March 2020. Needless to say, that job evaporated like so many others in the wake of the pandemic.

I stayed in the hunt, but nothing materialized until summer of last year, when the job market got a little looser. I started at least getting some screenings and some interviews, but no offers.

Finally, a week ago I got an offer! It is a 95% WFH position, and when I have to go into the office it’s only a 15-minute commute. The pay meets our needs, and I was even able to negotiate a 5K bump in the stated range because of my experience. I start soon and I am so very happy.

So I’m here to share that even a 71-year-od grandma, with no college degree, who has been out of the workforce for over three years can find a good job! It takes perseverance, optimism, knowing and believing in your own worth, and listening to good advice — like the advice that you give here! Thank you.”

4.  “I am a big fan. I have been reading your site since 2015 and it SAVED me. From 2011 to 2017 I was in an extremely toxic, dysfunctional workplace, but I didn’t see it at first. Then I inherited the office manager position with HR duties I knew nothing about. Your site was a God-send. It made me start pushing back against the company owner and the awful ways she treated her employees (but not me, she LIKED me… for a while). Oh the stories I could tell! Did I win? No. Ultimately, I had to leave to save my sanity. But, I fought for what was right while I could.

Which led me to an easier, much more laid back position – not toxic in the least – but still dysfunctional in that this company owner just did not handle his business well. I was stress free and treated well, I just didn’t know if my paycheck would clear every week. Yikes!

Which leads me to where I am now, which is…. OWNING MY OWN BUSINESS!

Yes, I finally took the leap and said to myself, ‘Self, I can do this on my own and see what happens.” So I set myself up to offer bookkeeping and virtual admin/executive assistant services for small businesses and business owners. Then I hit social media, my local network of friends, business organizations, freelancer job boards, anywhere I could think to get myself out there. 5 months later I have as much business as I want to take on, I am actually turning some down because I don’t want to overbook myself. I am making more per hour than I was as a paid employee. AND I just landed a really big client (for me anyway) that looks like it will turn into a long term relationship, which is exactly what I want.

None of this could have happened without Ask A Manager and its commentariat. I would never have gained the knowledge and insight I have now without all of you. Ask A Manager helped form my way of thinking about the workplace, about the employer/employee power dynamic. And now, it helps me with my client relationships and my business core values.”

open thread – January 14-15, 2022

It’s the Friday open thread! The comment section on this post is open for discussion with other readers on anything work-related that you want to talk about (that includes school). If you want an answer from me, emailing me is still your best bet*, but this is a chance to talk to other readers.

* If you submitted a question to me recently, please do not repost it here, as it may be in my queue to answer.

I was kicked out of a work lunch because I couldn’t eat, attracting employees when we can’t pay more, and more

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

1. I was kicked out of a work lunch because there was nothing I could eat

This happened a few years ago, pre-Covid, but I would still appreciate your input on it. I was a part of the voluntary team that helped to plan, organize, and set up for events, celebrating things like holidays and the completion of major deadlines, which was run by someone from HR. At one point HR set up a lunch to show their appreciation for us. However, the planning for this was delegated to a non-HR member of the team, Daphne, who chose a barbecue restaurant. I am vegetarian and can find something to eat 99% of the time — but here the only vegetarian option was the coleslaw. I decided not to complain, and when Daphne emailed me to ask for my order, I politely responded explaining that I could not eat anything from the restaurant she chose, but not to worry about it. The day of, I decided to join the lunch for the social aspect; food was delivered and we got together to eat in a conference room. I had already eaten, so I just sat. The head of HR joined us, and on seeing that I was not eating, politely asked me to leave; I don’t remember the reason he gave. So I missed out completely.

Was the HR head right to ask me to leave? Should I have handled this differently, such as by pushing back immediately when I saw there was nothing I could eat at the restaurant, or holding off on eating my own food until the team lunch?

You were asked to leave an appreciation lunch because you weren’t eating? That’s so bizarre, and frankly rude, that I don’t know what to do with it.

You didn’t do anything wrong. If you’d wanted to, you could have asked earlier on if they could choose a restaurant that didn’t exclude the vegetarians of the group. Or you could have brought your own food to the lunch if you’d wanted to. But what you did was perfectly fine too. Not only should they have welcomed you rather than kicking you out, they should have offered to order you something from another restaurant once they realized you couldn’t eat (in fact, Daphne should have offered that as soon as she saw your earlier email).

2. How can we attract more employees when we can’t pay more?

I run a medical practice in the U.S. We’re a small clinic, with two locations and 12 employees when appropriately staffed (we are experiencing labor shortages just like everyone else).

In this time of employees demanding better pay, we’re struggling to attract candidates. We meet or exceed the median wage for the area, but I can’t really go above that. We only get paid per patient we see, and our rates are set by the insurance company and have barely changed in the last 16 years. The easiest way to make more money is to see more patients, but the only way to do that is to shorten treatment times further, which isn’t fair to my clinicians or the patients, and is even less attractive when discussing the job responsibilities.

We offer decent benefits (15 days PTO, 10 paid holidays, subsidized health insurance and dental insurance, free life insurance, free short-term and long-term disability insurance, a tuition reimbursement/student loan repayment program — we even started offering a sign-on bonus which I’ve had to claw back twice because people left for higher paying jobs) but can’t offer the other perks that the management books talk about like flextime and work from home, for obvious reasons (we are a type of medicine that is very hands-on, so we don’t have many telehealth appointments). We try to treat our employees well by buying lunch, surprising them with gift cards, handwritten thank-you notes, casual dress days, team building days (think escape rooms and dinner out) — things that fit into a small budget but still say “we appreciate you.”

It’s not that I don’t want to be able to offer more, but I need to more than double our size in order to do so. I’m willing to do that, and we were on our way pre-pandemic, but now I can’t attract enough candidates to get there, so I’m stuck in this terrible loop! (And it would still take some time, it wouldn’t happen overnight). So, how can we be more attractive without increasing our payroll?

The thing that immediately jumps out is that you’re offering very bare-bones time off — assuming your 15 days of PTO is combined vacation and sick leave, that’s the equivalent of two weeks of vacation and one week of sick leave, which is the absolute minimum considered acceptable for most professional jobs in the U.S. If you’re looking for low-hanging fruit, it’s definitely your PTO. I know offering more means people will be out more, which might sound like it will compound your staffing issues — but offering more would help you attract more people in the first place.

Beyond that, I’d talk to your staff about what they want (you might find that they don’t care about the escape rooms but would really like more back-up dealing with difficult patients, or who knows what) and their thoughts on what would attract more applicants. And if you haven’t already, make sure you look at what other options are available to your candidate pool in your area, and what those jobs are offering. But the PTO is the thing I’d tackle first.

3. I interviewed for a role that was open because someone died from Covid, and they still aren’t mandating masks

I wanted your thoughts on this job I interviewed for. The job was open because someone died of Covid, which the HR rep let me know. I was very grateful to have been reading your blog all along because when she didn’t tell me about the Covid safety procedures afterwards, I immediately asked.

Masks are not mandated. Vaccines were not mandated either. This role could be done from home but they are making people come in office.

I turned it down, but she kind of made it seem weird that I even brought up the Covid safety procedures. Did I do the right thing?

Yes. Any employer who acts like you’re odd for wanting to know their measures for keeping people safe in a deadly pandemic is not an employer you want to work for. And that’s before we even get into their apparent utter lack of safety precautions, despite having someone die.

4. My interviewer asked me what questions they should have asked me

I had a final-round interview recently, and things seemed to be going okay when, at around the 40-minute mark, I got a question I’ve never had before: “What questions haven’t we asked, that you think we should have?” I quipped that that seemed like a trick question, which was met with some light chuckles, but then a silent pause descended over us.

I wouldn’t say I’m an inexperienced interviewer, but in my surprise I had a hard time putting all the pieces together – what had/hadn’t they asked; what hadn’t I told them; what wouldn’t be a horrible question to answer; what would my answer be to the question I asked myself by proxy. I did my best to pull from hints in previous questions to go deeper on specific concerns/skill sets to the work, but I obviously didn’t wow anyone and the remainder of the interview had a “let’s get this over with” tone.

Afterward, I consulted the internet to see what others said about this question and didn’t really find much. Have I been living under a rock while everyone has been out there asking this back-handed question? Is this the new, mind-bending way to ask “Anything else you’d like to share with us”? How would you recommend formulating a graceful answer?

You’re over-thinking it! It’s generally just a way to ask if there’s anything else you want to share. Ideally you’d think about whether there’s anything else that would be useful to discuss about your qualifications, experience, or approach to your work — and then with any reasonable interviewer, you don’t need to formulate it as a question like you’re on Jeopardy or something but should just be able to say, “I saw the role involves sometimes dealing with frustrated clients, and I’d love to tell you about my approach to that” or so forth.

And I almost took this next part out of my answer because it won’t apply a lot of the time and also is a whole separate topic, but I’m leaving it in case people find it useful:

Alternately, if there’s a piece of the role that you’re not sure is that right fit for you, I might ask about that — for example, “I was curious about how much X expertise you need for your Y project — could we talk through how I’d approach that and make sure it’s in line with what you need?” (You might think you should never highlight potential weaknesses in an interview, but if you’re worried you might be ill-suited for part of a job, it’s far better to find that out at this stage, rather than after you start … and good employers will respond well to an honest conversation about your fit for the role, as long as you’re coming across with confidence and thoughtfulness.)

how to respond to unclear “let me know when you have some time” requests

A reader writes:

I’m in a sort-of HR role, where it’s normal for colleagues to need my guidance on certain things. Sometimes it’s a quick policy question, sometimes it’s much more in depth, and very often there are legal considerations that mean the question should actually be directed to our legal or payroll departments.

Because I tend to be more approachable than those teams, I often get emails and instant messages along the lines of “let me know when you have some time to talk.” I’m always happy to meet with people (it’s literally my job!) but these types of messages are a pet peeve of mine because they don’t include any context and I can never predict if it’s going to be an easy question or an emotional unloading.

Is there a professional way to say “please tell me what you need so I can tell you if I have the time / emotional bandwidth to have this conversation right now”? I feel comfortable being straightforward to some coworkers I’m friendly with but I don’t have that relationship with everyone and I need to protect my own well-being sometimes, even if it’s just a five-minute heads up that my day is about to go in a different direction.

For what it’s worth, I try to give others the same courtesy and say, “Let me know when you have 15 minutes to discuss X topic” but don’t know how to get others to do the same for me.

This is so, so common and I don’t know why. If you’re busy, of course you need a sense of the topic so that you know how to prioritize it against other stuff you also need to take care of.

And while one might assume that if the situation were urgent, the asker would tell you that … in fact, quite a few people do not! Quite a lot of people (especially when they’re less experienced / early in their careers) use “tell me when you have a few minutes” for important and even time-sensitive things.

It’s not just about urgency, either. It’s also about knowing how much time a topic is likely to take (if it’s about X you might know that will take two minutes and find it easier to just talk right now, but if it’s Y you might want to wait until you have time for a longer conversation), as well as knowing if you’re even the right person for it (there’s no point in making someone wait two days to meet with you and then have it turn out that you need to direct them to a different person anyway).

So what you want is very reasonable. And there is a way to ask for it. The key is just to make sure you don’t sound so harried or put-upon that the person will hesitate when they need things from you in the future.

I’d say it this way: “I can definitely make time! Can you tell me the topic so I know how to prioritize it around other stuff?”

If you do this consistently, over time you can usually train people to start including the topic in their requests up-front.

One caveat: sometimes a topic is so specific or personal that the person can’t disclose it in advance without having the whole conversation on the spot. (For example: quitting. They could try language like “I have some news to share,” but even that is generally interpreted to mean quitting or parental leave.) So if you get the sense that someone is deliberately being cryptic, it can be good to just roll with it.

update: can I ask for a raise after covering for remote coworkers for over a year?

Remember the letter-writer wondering if they could ask for a raise after covering for remote coworkers for over a year (#3 at the link)? Here’s the update.

There have been a lot of recent developments at my work in the months since I’ve written to you and I finally have an update to share!

I took your advice and had multiple conversations with my boss about the tasks I had taken on and how the workload could be more equally distributed and what could be done to have my compensation reflect the increasing responsibility I had taken on. My boss did what she could to redistribute tasks and even took on some herself so that I could get a breather, so for awhile I was staying sort of afloat.

And then another coworker left.

Things escalated quickly, I ended up taking on his responsibilities while keeping up my own workload along with the extraneous tasks I had been doing while management searched for a permanent replacement. I was working ridiculous hours and doing what I could to keep everything going and secretly getting my resume together to start looking for another job. I genuinely enjoyed my job and even learning other elements of other roles, I just couldn’t keep up with the workload anymore.

Then last week my boss and her boss asked to meet with me. I didn’t know what the meeting was for, so was pretty floored when they told me that they recognized how hard I’d been working, how much I had done for the department, and that they were going to promote me. I wasn’t expecting this at all and was in shock because this type of praise isn’t often given at my organization. They went even further, and told me they were making me a manager and gave me an over $15,000 raise! They permanently reassigned some of the tasks I had been doing around the office, adjusted some of the workflows and also let me customize the new role to my skills by letting go of some old tasks and picking up new ones I enjoyed.

With the new workflows and people slowly coming back in the office, plus we have a new person on the team and the changes my bosses made to my workload, it has been much more manageable. I am enjoying my job so much more and am finding a lot of ways to grow in my new role.

I never expected this outcome or this level of support from my supervisors. I’ve worked at such toxic places in the past that it honestly didn’t occur to me that the situation would ever improve. I can’t thank you enough for your response to my original letter, and to the commenters who left such kind words when they were needed.