coworker refuses to talk to us, demoted and can’t move back up, and more

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

1. I was demoted and now can’t move back up

I’ve been at my company for over a decade, and have a track record of being an asset to the company. A year ago, I mutually agreed to step down from a management position. The proposal was I was better suited to a different, soon to be open position. I’d temporarily go back to entry level, but the door was open to quickly move on to something more challenging.

I’m sure you can see where this is going. The position didn’t materialize as there was a hiring freeze and now they are not replacing head count. That means I’m trapped in a role I outgrew 10 years ago, and it is devastating. As someone who actively seeks a challenge and always wants to do more for the good of the team and the business, I feel extremely limited by my current role. I still go above and beyond, and management still feels I’m adding value, but I feel like I’m using one-fifth of my potential. To be honest, I’m literally bored to tears.

I’m doing my best to find ways to do more, but I’m limited by the parameters of my position. I’ve asked my management team for more of a challenge, but they have nothing. Their opinion is that I am adding value in my role and I am an asset, and if I don’t see it that way, they can’t help the way I feel. There’s nothing open and not even a project or additional responsibilities they are willing to consider.

I want to stay with this company, but I don’t know how much longer I can continue in this role. My company recognizes my capabilities, but how can I get active interest in letting me actually using them?

You need to change companies, I’m sorry. You’d been at the company for 10 years and were in a management position and they moved you to an entry-level position you’d outgrown a decade ago? That is not the sign of a company that has faith in you or plans to move you anywhere near the level you’d been at. It doesn’t sound like there were even specific plans to move you back up (“you’ll move to X job in three months once it’s open”), just that the “door was open” to something more challenging. And now you’re “adding value” in this entry-level role so you have to stay put? Something doesn’t smell right here.

This is their long-term, possibly permanent, plan for you. I don’t know why — maybe it’s something that happened in your last role, or maybe someone in management really doesn’t like you. But this is their plan, and they’re telling you that pretty clearly. It’s time to look outside the company.

2. My coworker refuses to talk to us and management won’t do anything

I work in a bookstore, and our location is fairly laid-back. Several employees have friendships outside of work, but even among those who don’t, the relationships are friendly. Think casual greetings as people arrive, offering to help cover an area if someone is having a rough day, etc.

A few months back, one of my coworkers (Ann) became rather standoffish. This came out of nowhere. She talks to one other coworker and to our managers, but if any of the rest of us says anything — up to and including “hi!” — it’s like we don’t exist. She ignores us entirely. The coworker she does interact with will talk with us if Ann isn’t around, but if Ann is in then neither of them will speak to or acknowledge anyone other than the managers. This has been brought to the attention of our managerial team a few times and by multiple coworkers, and while they’ve spoken to Ann, nothing has really changed.

We just lost an employee, Sam, who is moving in a couple months. He told the team that he could have stayed another month but left earlier than necessary due to feeling pushed out by Ann and her friend. When one of my coworkers brought this to a manager, she was told that as far as management is concerned, they believe Ann is being unfairly bullied. It seems unlikely that they’ll be taking any further steps to sort this out. What do I do? Go to upper management? Accept that Ann is going to pretend the rest of us don’t exist? I don’t need to be best friends with everyone I work with, but acknowledging that I’ve said something doesn’t seem too much to ask?

Expecting a colleague will acknowledge when you’ve spoken is not too much to ask; that’s basic civility, and your management shouldn’t be okay with employees being ignored. But multiple people have talked to them about it, and they’re not intervening. At this point, the easiest path is to accept that this is how Ann is, internally roll your eyes, and stop caring. Unless it’s actively interfering with your ability to do your job, it’s not worth escalating to higher level management.

I am curious about what led them to conclude Ann is being bullied. Did something happen that led to Ann ignoring everyone? It’s possible you might not know about it if something did. I’m also curious how people have been treating Ann since she shut down; there are certainly ways people could be reacting to her standoffishness that could read as bullying, like trying to force a greeting or shouting “hello” loudly to make a point, etc. Regardless, though, everyone is better off just accepting that Ann, for whatever reason, isn’t going to talk to most coworkers and letting that go. That doesn’t mean it’s okay or that someone higher-up shouldn’t intervene! But they’re not going to, so this is the path with the least strife and drama.

3. Surprise baby shower

One of my coworkers sent out a meeting request for an on-site meeting during work hours to our full team that was billed as a meeting to brainstorm group goals and group activities. I thought it was odd that it was coming from this coworker rather than our department head, and that it was on-site without a lot of notice since much of our team is hybrid/remote, but it was a day I was already scheduled to be on-site so I accepted without really thinking. After I’d already accepted the meeting, my coworker sent a follow-up email to everyone except for a member of our team who is pregnant that the actual purpose of this meeting is to have a surprise baby shower for the coworker who is expecting.

I had already contributed to a group gift organized by another coworker and am happy to celebrate my coworker’s impending arrival — but from a distance. I have had my own fertility struggles which culminated last year in emergency surgery for an ectopic pregnancy. Other than my immediate manager, my team is unaware of the reason for my surgery and I am not interested in sharing details beyond “unexpected abdominal surgery” with them. While I am genuinely happy for my coworker and was happy to contribute to the group gift, going to a baby shower would hit hard on my sadness over my fertility struggles and the way they ended. When I even think about playing baby shower games, I start to cry.

My immediate manager is on vacation this week so I cannot discuss this with them. Since I would rather not share why I don’t want to attend to anyone else, is there a way you’d recommend handling this?

You’ve unfortunately developed a scheduling conflict with the meeting and won’t be able to attend, but hope they have a great time! That’s it. If that requires altering your schedule for that day, go ahead and do that. Really! You’re not obligated to attend this bait-and-switch shower, and the politest way to decline is to develop a conflict.

Also, this is a weird way for your coworker to manage the shower! I can see why she might have disguised it as a meeting for the coworker being celebrated, but she shouldn’t have lured the rest of you to accept under false pretenses, especially since most people would think the sort of meeting she billed it as was a lot more mandatory than a shower. (And I hope she knows for sure that the pregnant coworker will appreciate a shower! Not everyone wants them, either at work or in general, and sometimes for reasons related to religious customs or medical situations. Surprise showers are risky if you don’t know for sure.)

4. As a new manager, can I take over hiring from my team?

Last year I took over managing a 10-person technical team that I had previously worked on for five years. A few months ago, I had my first chance to hire a new employee. The previous long-time team lead had always involved everyone in the hiring process — some people screen resumes, others conduct interviews, and the team brings one or two candidates to the lead for a final interview. I liked this idea so I kept the tradition. But my team brought me duds. So I went back through the applications myself, found strong candidates that my team had missed, interviewed them and hired one. The new hire has been a huge success, and people on my team have come to me privately to thank me for not hiring any of the initial candidates.

But now I have a problem. We’re about to hire again, and after my last experience I’ve convinced myself that I’m a better judge of candidates than my team is collectively. I’m tempted to just do the hiring process myself as it will be faster and I’ll be more confident in the result. I’m worried though that this will show a lack of confidence in my team. I’m not generally a micromanager; I give my team lots of latitude to manage their own tasks. Will they be offended if I keep the hiring process to myself?

Why not reverse it — do the initial screening and first-round interviews yourself, and then bring the finalists to meet with your team? You should be clear that this isn’t a vote; you’re the one making the hire, but you want their input before the final decision. If anyone asks about the change, you can say, “I didn’t think the old system worked as well as I wanted when we used it last time, but I want people to have an opportunity for input once we have solid candidates.”

This is a reasonable and  very common way to do it.

Also! Involving everyone in hiring might sound good in theory, but will often collapse completely unless you invest real time in getting everyone on the same page about exactly what you’re looking for and how to rigorously assess it, as well as training them in things like how to interview effectively and combating biases as they evaluate. Otherwise you’re likely to end of with a hodgepodge of candidates who people just liked personally, thought would be a good coworker, or filled some side agenda they might have that doesn’t align with the must-have’s for the role. In fact, even with people playing a more limited role this time, you should still invest in doing some of that work.

5. Giving notice when your boss is on vacation

I have a good problem, I think, in that I have been through three rounds of interviews with my dream job, and they seem (???) excited about me. No guarantees, of course, but based on what they’ve said I am hoping to see an offer early this week!

The problem? My boss leaves for a two-week vacation on Wednesday. I am crazy excited about this new opportunity, but I have also loved where I am now. It’s a small company and they’ve taught me so much. I don’t want to put my current boss in a bad situation, either by telling her right before she leaves and ruining her vacation or by giving a short notice if I wait until she’s back. What’s the most professional way to handle this — assuming, of course, that everything goes right with the new job?

Is there anyone else you could reasonably give your notice to while your boss is gone — like your boss’s boss or your boss’s deputy? If so, give it to that person. They’ll be best equipped to decide if it’s something your boss needs to/would want to be alerted to while she’s on vacation. And you can just let that decision be above your pay grade; you’ll have given your notice and the clock will be counting down on your notice period.

But if the company is so small that there’s really no one else to resign to — like if it’s your boss, you, and a handful of peers — you probably do need to call her while she’s away. Yes, it sucks to have to deal with something like that from vacation, but that’s part of the deal when you’re running a really small company. Apologize for the timing and explain you’re bothering her only because you didn’t want to blindside her with just a few days notice when she’s back. If she decides she doesn’t want to deal with it until she’s back anyway, so be it — but let it be her call.

I was rejected for a job, but I see no signs the new hire has started yet

A reader writes:

In April, I did a job interview at a small employer (less than 15 staff). I’ve often been told that I interview well, but this interview was probably the best interview I’ve ever done. The interviewers repeatedly told me how impressed they were with me, I built a great personal connection and rapport with the interviewers (who were laughing and smiling throughout the interview) and at the end, when I asked if they had any concerns about me, the only concern they raised was that I might get hired somewhere else.

But I guess they liked someone else just a tiny bit more. They told me that they hired someone else, but the decision was very difficult. They didn’t specifically say that I was second choice, but they strongly implied it. I replied to the rejection email to wish them well with their chosen candidate and to encourage them to contact me if anything changes. That was a little over three weeks ago.

Here’s the thing. They have a “Meet Our Team” page on their website with photos and little bios of their staff and there’s still no new employee listed. (I’ve also tried doing a Google search for “employer name job title LinkedIn” and nothing comes up, but I know not everyone updates their LinkedIn profile regularly.) I don’t want to get my hopes up, but if the new employee doesn’t show up on their website in the next few days, then I’m thinking it’s one of three possibilities: (1) they’re slow at updating their website (but they have a large communications team, so that seems unlikely), (2) something delayed the new employee’s start date (like an illness or a weird emergency), or (3) the new employee reneged or is considering quickly quitting or something like that.

So I’m not sure what my best course of action is. Should I just wait patiently and trust that they’ll contact me if they need me? Or, maybe at the four-week mark, should I try reaching out to them to re-express my interest in the position? If so, then what do I say without sounding like a creepy jerk who doesn’t respect their hiring decision? But if I don’t reach out and the first choice reneges, then will the employer feel too sheepish to reach out to a rejected candidate who they were worried might get hired elsewhere? This job would be a really great job for me, so I want to play my cards right. (Of course, all will be moot if the new employee’s picture shows up on the employer’s “Meet Our Team” page.)

You are reading too much into things.

It’s only been three weeks! It’s entirely possible that the new person isn’t starting for a month or even two (or potentially even longer — I’ve waited three months and longer for the right candidate in roles where getting the right person was more important than having them start quickly). Their start date might still be in the future. And once they do start, lots of organizations take a long time to update their online listings of employees.

If for some reason the new hire did fall apart, it’s very, very, very likely that the organization would reach back out to you if you were indeed their second choice.

Contacting them three weeks after they rejected you to say that you’re wondering if they want to hire you after all because you haven’t seen them update their website with the name of the new hire would come across pretty weirdly. Not “never consider this person again” weird, but a little off. If they want to get back in touch — and especially if they thought you were as strong a candidate as you believed — they will.

You’re overly invested at this point. I think that’s probably because you let yourself believe the interview went so well that a job offer was highly likely. But the things you describe that led to that belief — the compliments, the rapport, the laughing — those can all happen even when you don’t end up being a finalist for the job. Sometimes that’s because you’re one of the first people to be interviewed, and they don’t really know where you rate relative to the rest of their candidate pool until they’ve talked to more people. Sometimes it’s because they’re just nice people who genuinely connected with you, but that’s not the same thing as being exactly what they’re looking for (which can be extremely nuanced and difficult to assess as a candidate). Sometimes other people are just stronger. And yes, they told you their only concern was that someone else might hire you, but that can be a kind of throwaway remark in response to a question that put them on the spot (“do you have any concerns about me?”) and to which they weren’t prepared to provide a thoughtful answer off the cuff.

That can be a painful lesson to learn, but it can also be a liberating one because it can stop you from overly investing in jobs before you have them.

Or who knows, I could be wrong about all this in your case! The new hire could be stuck at a bottom of a well somewhere. But again, if the hire doesn’t materialize and you were the recent strong second choice, they’ll contact you.

The best thing you can do is believe the book is closed on this, as they told you it was, and let yourself mentally move on.

my employee is patronizing when I correct his work

A reader asks:

My employee, who is fresh out of college, is often not very thorough or good at his job. He’ll submit work that clearly lacked any attention to detail. And 90% of the time, there are errors that I end up pointing out. I am fair, factual, and give context to why the error is important to avoid. I never reprimand, just state the facts and move on.

He always responds with an excuse like “oh, I thought you said it was this” (even though I clearly wrote the answer out in the email to him) and then he follows up with a “good job” or “cool, great catch.” It’s always in a tone that feels condescending and patronizing. I’ve been in my industry for years. I don’t really need to hear compliments on how great I was at catching that 1 + 1 isn’t = 40. To me, it’s 100% not the same as saying “oh, thanks for catching that!” It’s like instead of appreciating that I was there to help him fix something, he pats me on the back for doing my job?

It’s really weird and I’m not sure how to address it. Another observation is that he is not like this with my colleagues, most of whom are male, and I’m a smaller Asian woman.

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

can my employer make me give four weeks notice when I quit?

A reader writes:

When I started at my current job (an entry-level administrative job, no state secrets here), my offer letter stated that I would have to give minimum four weeks notice when I left or I could open myself up to legal action from the company. I also live in an at-will employment state (New York, if it helps), so technically I could also be dismissed at any time without notice or reason.

Whenever I tell people about this, typically the reaction from friends, mentors or networking contacts is “that doesn’t make sense, they can’t do that/legally enforce that.” I had one mentor suggest that since my job is so low-level and I make a comparatively low salary, even if I did break this rule, my company likely wouldn’t pursue legal action because it would be too great of an expense. I can see that logic, but my company is also very large and wealthy, and they have good lawyers in the legal department. I wouldn’t want to go up against them if it came to that; plus, I would like a good reference from them in the future.

My main reason for writing in is because I’m in the final stages of interviewing for a new job that I’m excited about, and if all goes well I’ll be receiving an offer soon. I’m worried that they’ll balk if they hear that I need to give four weeks’ notice, or that they’ll ask me to start sooner.

Can my employer legally enforce the four-week notice period, and if so, how can I explain that to my new employer?

Some final notes: I would prefer to leave my current employer on a positive note, but I do really want this new job. I also think my current employer would like me to train my replacement if possible, which I understand, however with this being a low-level administrative position I also don’t think it would be a major hindrance if I wasn’t able to do so.

It’s highly unlikely that that’s enforceable.

For it to be legally enforceable, you’d need a signed, written employment contract where both sides agreed to specific terms around separation — which would include your employer making guarantees as well, such as agreeing not to terminate your employment without similar notice to you, or pay in lieu of notice. You almost certainly don’t have that kind of contract, because most U.S. workers don’t (and entry-level admins almost never do).

They could also put in your offer letter that you can’t leave until you’ve supplied them with three drops of your own blood, or the feather of a rare bird. It doesn’t mean you have to do it. An offer letter is just an offer letter; they can change the terms of what’s on offer at any time (such as by cutting your pay, as long that’s not retroactive, or by changing your benefits) and so can you (by declining to continue offering your labor — i.e., leaving).

That’s what at-will employment means: either of you can end the relationship at any time. In fact, look at your offer letter again and there’s probably some language in there about your job being at-will. But even if there’s not, if you don’t have the kind of contract I described above, then you’re at-will, like most American workers.

That said, legal considerations aside, it’s possible there could be other ramifications. Take a look in your employee handbook and other written policies. Some employers have rules that if you don’t give X amount of notice, your unused vacation time won’t be paid out when you leave (if you’re in a state where it’s not legally required). You also might be ineligible for rehire if you don’t give the amount of notice they want. But they can’t stop you from leaving earlier, or sue you if you do.

Of course, you might burn a bridge by giving less notice than they want. But even that is fairly unlikely as long as you handle it well.

When you resign, just give a standard two-week notice. Don’t say anything like “I know you wanted four weeks.” Just give two as if of course that’s a normal and reasonable thing to do, because it is. If they mention that they wanted more, you can say, “Unfortunately the other job was firm on the start date and two weeks was the most I could negotiate.” (Note: it doesn’t matter if this is true or not. In fact, if you can negotiate a start date further out, I’d encourage you to take a week off in between jobs to recharge, not to use the additional time working for your old employer.) This almost certainly happens to them all the time, and they’re well aware that two weeks is the professional standard, and it’s very likely not to be a big deal.

You could also discreetly ask around about how others have handled this. If you have coworkers you trust who have been there a while, ask if everyone really gives four weeks notice or if two is common. You’ll probably hear two is common (and they might even be confused about why you’re asking, because a lot of people don’t even remember what was in their offer letters).

coworker pries into my romantic life, telling an employee to be less uptight, and more

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

1. Coworker keeps prying into my romantic life

I’m a woman who’s not straight, and not out to anyone where I work. I’m in my mid 20s, and a coworker who has to be in at least her 60s is constantly making remarks about me having/getting a boyfriend. In one instance that happened today, I was typing something on my phone and when she saw this, asked if I was “texting my boyfriend.”

Even though it doesn’t sound as if she means anything malicious by it, her comments still make me really uncomfortable. I’m not sure how to best address this because I’m not a very confrontational person, and I don’t want to out myself accidentally. Do you have any advice for how I can respond to this coworker if she does this in the future?

Give her a weird look and ask, “Why are you always asking me about a boyfriend?” Or: “Why are you always asking me about boyfriends? It’s a weird thing to keep saying.” You said you’re not very confrontational and so you might feel rude saying this, but I want to stress that it’s not rude! It is really odd of her, and if she’s well-intentioned, she’d want to know that she’d making you uncomfortable / coming across strangely.

But if you want a softer option, let your face look visibly unhappy/uncomfortable and say, “Could you please stop making comments like that? It makes me really uncomfortable.” This is also not rude to say! This is letting someone know they’re doing something they probably don’t intend (making you uncomfortable) — and again, if she’s well-intentioned, she’ll appreciate knowing (like if you kindly tipped her off to a massive chunk of spinach in her teeth). There’s also, “I prefer not to talk about my dating life at work, thanks for respecting that.”

There’s a certain breed of person who, once out of their 20s/30s, assumes everyone in their 20s has a wild dating life or wants a wild dating life, is possibly wistful about not being in that mode anymore themselves, becomes intrusive on the topic while thinking they’re being supportive, and nearly always assumes heterosexuality. You’re allowed to correct these people’s boundaries and tell them the comments are unwelcome. (There are other explanations for the behavior too, but this one is especially common.)

2. My dad says I shouldn’t ask what kind of training I’d get as a new manager

I have applied for and received an interview for a new position. The position is manager level, and it would be my first time managing a group of people officially. Throughout my 10+ year career, I have led various projects and teams of people, so “being in charge,” delegating workloads, delivering feedback, and other various managerial tasks will not be new to me. In my opinion, not having an official people leader role on my resume is my biggest weakness on paper. I fully believe in my ability to be a manager; it does not scare me.

I know you typically advise against taking job-searching advice from parents, but my dad works in the same industry. I was discussing with him the list of questions I had for my interviewers, which included a question about what type of training the company provides for new managers. My dad said that I should not ask that question, or any question relating to leadership training, because it will come across like I am doubting my ability to manage and would require training to be able to do it.

Part of the reason I am interested in this role is the potential for advancement beyond the manager level, so I am curious about how this company prepares their people for advancement. Is asking about manager/leadership training a terrible idea? Is there a way to frame it so it doesn’t come off like I doubt myself?

Don’t listen to your dad. When I’m interviewing someone who would be formally managing for the first time, I want to see that they have a healthy appreciation for the challenges of moving into that role and that they’re not assuming everything will be smooth sailing or that they have nothing to learn. Formally managing for the first time is a huge learning curve, and it goes far better when the new manager understands and expects that. You don’t want to seem insecure, of course, but you also don’t want to come off as cocky or like you don’t think you’ll need any support.

And for you as a candidate, it’s far better for your first management position to be with a company that offers new managers support and doesn’t just throw you in to sink or swim.

The one tweak I’d make is that rather than just asking about training, I’d ask about what kind of support you’d get as a new manager. Formal management training is fine as far as it goes, but you can get much the same from a book or myriad YouTube videos if you’re motivated to; what you really need is ongoing support and mentorship.

3. Career opportunity vs. marital sacrifices

For over 20 years, my wife has dedicated herself to the same company, now serving as an executive who genuinely loves her job. Since 2015, she has been able to work remotely, which allowed us to move three times to accommodate my career. Throughout this journey, her patience and accommodation have been remarkable – I am truly fortunate.

We’re currently residing on the east coast, but our situation could change yet again. A year ago, I experienced a mental health crisis that led me to leave my job. Since then, I have taken a dead-end role in a field outside my expertise. Not only is the work unfulfilling, but the pay is also inadequate. An incredible opportunity has now presented itself – an amazing role that aligns with my experience. However, accepting this position would necessitate yet another move across the country.

The prospect of constantly restarting in new communities at our age (in our 40s) is daunting. Moreover, the time difference between the potential location and the east coast would strain my wife’s remote work situation with her colleagues. I am torn – I don’t want to remain in this dead-end job or settle for any available position just to stay put. Yet, I also cannot fathom negatively impacting my wife’s health, happiness, or career, for she has been more accommodating than any spouse should ever be expected to be.

We are at a crossroads, weighing our options. We could stay on the east coast, where I would either continue searching for a new job or potentially not work at all. Alternatively, we could relocate across the country, which would mean my wife working 2-3 hours behind her colleagues and the arduous task of building a new local support network. A third option would be for me to move alone, leaving us to navigate the challenges of residing apart while finding ways to visit one another regularly. None of these scenarios seem ideal, as they all present significant sacrifices. The question that weighs heavily is, how can we strike a balance, pursuing our respective careers while nurturing the profound commitment of our marriage?

You’re putting an awful lot of weight on this one single job. If it’s not right for your family (because it would strain your wife’s work situation, ask something grueling that she’s already done quite a lot at this point, or require you to live apart), it’s okay to decide it’s not right for your family and keep looking. That doesn’t mean that you’re dooming yourself to the job you’re in now. It just means that one across the country isn’t right for you.

But this is also very specific to your marriage, and to your wife. Maybe your wife is the rare person who enjoys moving around and starting over socially. Maybe she’s not daunted by the prospect and is encouraging you to do it. But since you’re citing the work challenges for her and considering living separately, I’m guessing that’s not the case. So where does she stand on this? If she’s anything other than wholeheartedly enthusiastic — this person who has already uprooted herself three separate times for your career in the past — then I think you’ve got to decline the west coast job and keep looking locally. That’s a sacrifice, yes, but she’s already made a bunch of them and it may simply be your turn.

4. How do I tell my team member to be less uptight?

I am the manager of a new marketing writer, “Adam.” Adam joined my team six weeks ago and I am finding his uptight nature at odds with company culture and the work that we do.

Adam is very reserved and incredibly polite. All his interactions on chat and email are formal: hope you’re well, etc. In meetings, he is very scripted, reeling off actions and status updates. There is no banter, light-heartedness, “how was your weekend?” or joking about.

When we interviewed him, I really warmed to him as someone who was quiet, but pleasant and cared about doing well. Now in employment, that has translated into awkwardness and a reluctance to say when he is finding things hard and needs help.

My company is in a classically traditional, corporate space but we are actively about not being like that, and being creative and conversational and interesting instead. I have found Adam’s uptight nature filters through into his writing, which is dry and corporate—even after he has made efforts to make it less so. Adam is unlikely to pass his probation period at this stage.

As a manager, I am casual and friendly, swear like a sailor and like to have a chat as well as talking shop. This is the same for other team members, so the cues are there that it’s okay to be more informal. How do I get Adam to lighten up? I want to tell him to relax, but I know that will only make him self-conscious.

Separate out the work issues from the social ones. If Adam were doing great work, wouldn’t it matter much less that he’s formal in emails and meetings and doesn’t banter or relax? Those things aren’t — or shouldn’t be — the reason he’s unlikely to pass his probation period. But the work issues very much are, so focus there. Right now, he’s not writing the way the job requires, so give him clear and direct feedback about where his writing isn’t hitting the mark and what needs to change. Give that feedback on individual projects, but also talk to him about the pattern — be clear that this is a broad issue with how he’s approaching the work in general, not just small tweaks to individual pieces of writing. And if you haven’t been up-front with him that you can’t keep him in the job if this doesn’t get fixed, be honest about that; he deserves to know so he can make good decisions for himself (like starting to look around at other options now rather than being blindsided when he’s fired one day).

But try to separate out the social stuff. You’re seeing it all as part of the same problem — and perhaps it is — but the really relevant and actionable pieces are the ones about his actual work.

5. Did my old company own the rolodex I created while working there?

Years ago, I worked as a paralegal at a law firm. When I started working there, I had come from a much larger firm where one of my tasks was to request medical records. At the new firm, it turned out that this task was the bulk of my job and I quickly noticed that many of my colleagues used Google to locate contact information each time they needed to call a facility. I decided to create a rolodex for myself to keep track of contact info for the places we routinely requested records from. It just seemed silly and inefficient that I would request information from ABC Medical Center three times a week and would have to google their number every time I needed to follow up with them.

At first, the rolodex was hardly useful and only had a few names and numbers. But by the time I left, it was full with almost every single medical facility you could think of, their main telephone number, their direct line to the medical records department, and the name of the person handling the records, plus a supervisor’s name. At my desk I even had taped up lists for entire medical systems with all the hospitals/clinics in the system and all their contact info. People often came to my desk to browse the rolodex and would sometimes leave post-it notes or email me asking for contact info. All that to say, if you needed to get a real person on the phone, I knew who that was and how to reach them.

About a year before I left, they hired Jane. She was inexperienced and had a rough time getting used to the job. Eventually I moved on and when I did I took my rolodex with me. I heard through the grapevine that Jane did not improve and soon after an old coworker told me that when management pressed Jane about some of her issues, she blamed me for not having the proper contact information. That same week I got a call from my boss practically breathing fire and threatening legal action because I had taken my rolodex. She said that my rolodex was the firm’s intellectual property and I had no right to it and was keeping Jane from doing her job well. I was confused and initially refused to “return” it because in my opinion it never belonged to them. It was something that I created for myself to make my job easier, that no one else at the firm had seen fit to do, and that everyone else benefited from while I worked there. After my boss spent 10 minutes speaking legalese at me, I offered to make her a copy but told her that I needed the rolodex in my new role. She was less than nice about that suggestion, and I got upset and flat out told her that it wasn’t my fault that people relied entirely on me for something that I didn’t have to do — something that anyone else could have done, that anyone else could still do if they felt like it (or, ya know, they could go back to googling like they were doing before I got there). We were at a stalemate and as I was young I got the “this is how the real world works” lecture with veiled threats about how this could impact me and my future career. I thanked her for her “concern” and hung up.

My old coworker recently joked about it but framed it as if I was in the wrong. Something along the lines of, “Remember when you told Old Boss to shove it and they couldn’t have their rolodex back? Haha.” That mildly annoyed me but got me thinking. Was it “their” rolodex and not mine? Should I have just handed it over? Again, I was more than happy to make a copy but old boss wasn’t just upset that they didn’t have it. She seemed more upset that I was using it to “thrive elsewhere.” Quotes as those were the exact words she used. How should I have handled it?

Yeah, legally they owned it. It was your idea to create it and your work putting it together, but that was done as part of your work for that company, so it falls under their legal ownership. (Just like if you had the idea to create any other new initiative while you were there; if it’s done as part of your work for them, legally they own it.)

Your boss handled it really terribly, but she wasn’t wrong on the fundamental ownership question.

weekend open thread — June 15-16, 2024

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

Here are the rules for the weekend posts.

Book recommendation of the week: The Paris Novel, by Ruth Reichl. When her difficult mother dies, a woman is left a plane ticket and instructions to go to France, where she finds the unexpected.

* I make a commission if you use that Amazon link.

open thread – June 14, 2024

It’s the Friday open thread!

The comment section on this post is open for discussion with other readers on any work-related questions 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 take your questions 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.

thongs at work, the best interviewing order, and more

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

1. Thongs at work

The other day, while I was at a healthcare facility where they do both clinical visits and operations, I saw a female employee walking by me, wearing her perfectly-acceptable scrubs, who was clearly an operating room doctor or nurse. For whatever reason (lack of sleep, my own HR awareness, curiosity) I noticed her buttcheeks were very … wiggly. She was slim, so it wasn’t super noticeable, but it definitely looked as if she was wearing a thong or other kind of cheeky underwear. For personal context, I’m a cis het woman, I’m an HR manager (not in a healthcare setting anymore, though I have been before), I’m not slim by any stretch of the imagination, and I don’t personally wear any undies that can rise up my butt — though I used to, but never for work. I don’t really care what anybody wears under their clothes, as long as the clothes themselves are appropriate for the work the person does. Still, something didn’t sit right with me being able to see that woman’s butt wiggle in that specific setting.

She wasn’t my doctor or nurse, and I don’t know how I’d feel about it if she had been. So, my question to you is: the discomfort of having a piece of floss up one’s butt (while doing surgery!) notwithstanding, is what she was wearing ever okay?

I don’t know how we could conclude that what you saw was about her underwear rather than just … the way her body is? Regardless, though, as a general rule we’re all better off not thinking about what underwear anyone else is wearing or not wearing! Some butts are jigglier than others. Some boobs are jigglier than others. (And for that matter, not everyone finds thongs uncomfortable; some people find them more comfortable. Bodies are different.) As long as everything that should be covered is covered, we’re all fine.

2. Should I tell my trainers one of their examples was in poor taste?

I was just in a mandatory training for work about storytelling — more of crafting a story to get buy-in from stakeholders, etc. in business settings.

The very first example they led with to demonstrate strong and to the point storytelling was the famous “For sale: baby shoes. Never worn” example attributed to Hemingway. I lost a niece at eight months old in a very sudden and tragic way. To add to that, she died right around Christmas, meaning I had to donate/regift presents I had bought her for what would have been her first Christmas. This was four years ago and I’ve been to therapy and I have mostly been able to avoid any overly emotional reactions to about her at work. They started to ask people what they thought about the story around the room and I could already feel tears welling up, so I exited quickly and went to the bathroom but the waterworks had started and I could not stop them. I got them mostly under control, but when I came back in I kept welling up and I KNOW it looked like I had been crying. Some coworkers I’ve worked with long enough that they know what happened, but others don’t. Luckily it was a larger group of like 40 people, but I know the table I was sitting at could see what I looked like and to make matters worse I was sitting in the very front of the room.

Was using that example in poor taste or was I being too sensitive in that moment? I’m usually not that emotional, I truly could not stop the reaction once it started. They’ll give us a survey tomorrow when the training finishes, should I tell them to consider changing their example?

It’s a really common example of powerful storytelling using only a few words so I don’t think it’s outrageous that they used it in a work event … but their training will be stronger if they think about how things like that might affect participants, since they want people engaged with the training, not having to unexpectedly deal with intense personal feelings that they didn’t realize would be triggered today. They’ll never be able to stamp out all mention of things that might cause a strong personal reaction from someone, but I’d sure want to know how it landed with you if I’d been your trainer. So yes, go ahead and be honest on the survey. (And I’m sorry about your niece.)

3. What’s the right interviewing order to use?

When interviewing several candidates, what are your thoughts on whether the strongest candidate should be seen first, last, or in the middle? And if you were a candidate, which would you hope to be?

I don’t think it matters all that much! That said, if I were pressed to choose, when I’m hiring I’d rather have the strongest candidate at the end — because if you talk to them first, you’re measuring everyone else against them and that can lead you to overlook/dismiss other people’s strengths.

As a candidate, I don’t think there’s any point in caring. If you’re first, you can set the bar for everyone else. On the other hand, there can be power in being toward the end so you’re fresher in their minds. On yet another hand, sometimes if you’re at the end they’re already sold on someone they talked to before you and aren’t considering you as seriously. There are so many factors that can go into it, and they can change with every hiring manager and every interview process, that there’s no point in thinking about it too much.

4. Can I contact my partner’s employer to thank them for a perk?

Are there any reasons outside of emergencies where it is appropriate to contact a partner/spouse’s employer? Of course the standard answer here is no. But what if it’s to say thank you for a perk my partner received that I also benefited from?

My partner works for a company that often gets tickets to various sporting events as a perk. Think VIP passes for employees to woo clients and network, comped tickets to be enjoyed with friends and family or as a team-building activity, or tickets gifted as a bonus after a tough project or a job well done. My partner has been working on some really big projects and their director asked what he could get us tickets to to say thank you. We are fans of a notoriously expensive international sport which the director is also a fan of, so my partner asked if tickets to an event in a country we’ll be traveling to in a few months would be possible. The director was enthusiastic and not only got us tickets to the full multi-day event, but is continuing to work with his contacts to get us access to parts of the event that aren’t open to the general public. I am beyond grateful, this is a once in a lifetime experience for my partner and me, and we would have been thrilled to even have the chance to experience the event at all, let alone the (very good) tickets and extra perks that the director is working to get for us. For context, our tickets were about $1,000 USD each, and the additional experiences and access are based solely on the director’s social capital and string pulling.

I know this is a drop in the bucket compared to the kind of revenue that my partner alone generates for them, but I still feel compelled to say thank you (especially because the director included me specifically in offering tickets for the two of us)! I work at a nonprofit where this kind of thing just isn’t a thing, so I don’t have a context for this. Would a simple handwritten thank-you note for my partner to hand off next time they’re in the office together be appropriate? Or would I come off as boundary crossing or somehow too effusive? My partner is equally thrilled and has expressed their thanks via email directly, and doesn’t have much of an opinion on a proper thank you note.

Don’t do it. The director is giving those tickets to your partner as a business move, not a social one; he’s doing it to reward your partner, build their morale and make them feel appreciated, and increase their loyalty to the company. You’re benefitting from that, but it’s not a social situation. Your partner needs to be fully in charge of managing that relationship; they should certainly express appreciation, but it would be a little off to bring in a thank-you note from you.

update: my coworker watches a daycare livestream all day

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

Remember the letter-writer whose coworker watched a daycare livestream all day? Here’s the update.

I took your advice to mention it to management because we randomly had a training that made it clear that, yes, this is the sort of thing I should be discussing with my manager.

What happened was that not long after you posted my letter, my organization hosted a coach training where it became apparent that expectations and approaches for the role vary widely to an extreme throughout the company. They shared official forms showing coaching plans and goals from the coach, coachee, and management perspectives. These plans did include discussions between the coach and management on performance of the coachee . Those of us already in coaching roles were completely baffled since this was the first time we had seen or heard anything about coaching plans.

I took the forms to my direct manager and asked why I hadn’t seen them before, and if we were supposed to be using them. He hadn’t seen them either! But it did prompt a frank discussion on my coworker’s performance where the daycare livestream issue was mentioned only as an aside, not the primary area of concern. We haven’t revisited the forms since then; apparently my organization just chooses not to use them even though they are normal elsewhere in the company.

After that discussion, management did start monitoring my coworker’s situation much more closely with biweekly meetings instead of monthly and setting much more clear expectations for her. She still has not been promoted, but I know her performance has improved and it is something they are actively working towards.

I appreciated the reminder in the comments about anxiety and that it can look like a lot of different things. She and I typically are pretty open about those sorts of things, so I don’t think it was that. We’ve had lots of working mom discussions since then and I think what it comes down to is that she would love to be a stay-at-home mom. But that isn’t an option for her so she is now learning how to balance work and home better. I think she is also realizing that if she wants to continue to be the super involved room-mom-type, her career progression will likely stop after her first promotion. And there is nothing wrong with that, it is a well paid position with good job satisfaction, she just needs to manage her expectations.

Now for the real question — does she still watch daycare livestream at work? Yes, she does. But in a much healthier and more job-appropriate way. She pops on while she’s eating lunch and that’s about it.

update: all the men I work with go on an annual camping trip together, and women aren’t allowed

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

There will be more posts than usual this week, so keep checking back throughout the day.

Remember the letter-writer whose male coworkers all took an annual camping trip together and women weren’t allowed? Here’s the update.

Last September I posted about the all-male faculty and staff camping trip at my school (all-boys Catholic school).

Bad update: Well, the camping trip is coming up — Monday to Thursday of next week, in fact. Still an all-male trip. Still no women invited or allowed.

Good update: The school agreed to create a committee to discuss women’s issues and experiences at the school, and I was the chair this past year. Administrators gave me TWO professional development days to present information (data and interviews and women’s personal experiences of exclusion) on campus. I got to be in front of the entire school for somewhere around eight total hours, educating everyone on the inherent inequalities of being a woman at an all-boys high school. We did a school-wide survey about exclusion, sexual harassment, and gender inequality on campus. Some of the men were shocked to learn about how the women feel.

The camping trip was discussed! As predicted, there are a lot of people (men) wanting to push back on the idea of women being invited. Some of them sought me out for my opinion, privately, and asked me questions about it in what I’d consider to be a good-faith attempt at understanding my perspective. I used talking points straight from Alison’s answers to guide our discussion. I spoke one-on-one with maybe eight men out of the 60 or so who attend this trip. Maybe I’ve turned a couple hearts? (By the way there are at least five men who are emphatically on my side — very exciting!)

The conversation is ongoing around the trip specifically. Not surprisingly, there’s a lot of other cultural issues to address. This year I got pregnant (a great piece of news for me and my husband) and I was devastated to learn there is no paid maternity leave (well, devastated, but perhaps not surprised). Catholic schools managed to lobby for an exemption to my state’s paid family leave policies. (Really pro-family, right?) I joined the faculty contract negotiations team this summer, and I am always working to leverage positive social change where I work.

To everyone who rightfully asked why I am still working there: I think you’re right, and it’s time to leave. I owe them a couple more years contractually for paying for my master’s degree (nice job perk, to be fair) but after that I am not sure I see myself staying. In the meantime it’s imperative that I work to create change, no matter how strongly the cultural tide pushes against it.

Thank you to Alison and the commentariat, who persuaded me I’m not upset over nothing.