I’m attracted to my boss, VIP references, and more

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

1. I had a dream about my boss … and now realize I’m attracted to him

I am a teacher in a large school district. From my first interview with my superintendent, we got along. I didn’t realize then that he had a reputation for not being friendly. Every interaction I had with him after was positive, professional, and the opposite of what his reputation was. Since he became the head superintendent, he has had many obstacles, both in the district and personally, and I’ve reached out to acknowledge this a few times. He has alway made an effort to seek me out when he is in our building or he sees me at a district event. And I’ve always thought this is because I understand him more than others.

Recently an incident happened that was innocent enough, but a family member of mine asked if he ever flirted with me. This was the first time I had ever thought of him in this context but I answered no, of course not. That night I had a very vivid but inappropriate dream about him and while I realize it was subconscious, I really struggled with it. He is married and so am I. I have never seen him as anything other than my boss. A week later, I saw him at a restaurant and he came over to talk with me (I was with another teacher). After the interaction, she commented about how he was looking at me. Thankfully I do not see him often, but I have sent him emails since then. In hindsight, I think I was trying to normalize things (and he has no clue). The problem is, now I think he realizes something is off. I’ve come to realize that I am attracted to him but will never act on this. I just don’t know how to handle things going forward or how to stop feeling this way.

Those dreams can mess you up! It’s not uncommon to have a sexual dream about someone who you’d never thought of that way before and then see them differently afterwards — especially if the dream was vivid, because now your brain has had those feelings toward them! It’s weird. (It can happen with other things too. You can have a dream that you were fighting with your spouse and feel off toward him the next day even though you know the fight didn’t really happen.)

If you don’t dwell on the feelings, they’ll go away in time. Carolyn Hax, I believe, has suggested picturing the person doing as many unappealing things as possible — being rude to your family, having a disgusting bathroom, hating your cooking, leaving you with all the cleaning, etc. Sometimes, too, it can help to take whatever spark you’re feeling toward the crush and trying to channel that into your marriage instead. But most importantly, don’t panic — crushes are natural, even married people get crushes, and it will go away in time as long as you don’t feed it.

I don’t want to ignore that two separate people have now raised the prospect of some kind of chemistry between you (or at least from him) … but I also do kind of want to ignore it. It sounds like you have a much better relationship with him than most people do, and sometimes other people can misinterpret that kind of rapport between a man and a woman as “oooooh, he likes you!” Of course, it’s also possible that your family member and the teacher who commented were picking up on something real. But assuming that he continues being professional with you and doesn’t cross any lines, it doesn’t really change the advice. (You might choose to pull back slightly on the warmth, while still being polite, but I don’t think you have to — unless that makes it easier for you or you do start sensing something inappropriate from him).

2. One-sided recognition

There is a trend in my office where staff are asked to sign cards for supervisors who have completed training or reached professional milestones. For instance, a newly promoted supervisor who finishes the introduction to supervision course administered by our agency can expect another supervisor to coordinate a card signed by the staff in his or her area.

When staff is made aware of the existence of another card, it is always with notice that they may sign if they wish. Signing these things is not a big deal and in some instances staff may actually have a relationship where the meaning is heartfelt. However, we are a small enough office that not signing will be noticed and the atmosphere is such that petty animosity from the top is a concern (trust is low and the agency ranks near the bottom of the yearly federal Employee Viewpoint Survey).

The only acknowledge staff receive for professional milestones is recognition of employment anniversaries in the form of a pin … or a rebuke that they are late in completing a required training. Is this normal? I used to think it small of me to be tired of the self-congratulatory supervisory ranks soliciting cards for one another, but now the semi-compulsory and one-sided nature of the ritual has me thinking that the promotion and relocation to better quarters is congratulations enough.

No, that’s obnoxious, and I’m not surprised to hear it’s a troubled atmosphere. Treating management’s accomplishments as important and worth celebrating and staff’s accomplishments as only worthy of a nudge to get them completed is a recipe for division and resentment. It’s not small of you to see this as one-sided and weird.

3. How important is it for my references to be VIPs?

I’m currently in a junior position on a team of about 15 people at a mid-sized company. I’m moving to another state soon (great timing, right?) but knew of my move very early and was able to give several months notice to my employer — meaning I don’t have to hide that I’m job-hunting or worry they’ll push me out if they hear I’m interviewing elsewhere.

When updating application materials for a few jobs, I asked my manager, “Maria,” if she’d be willing to be a reference for me. She enthusiastically said yes, but also said my work has been great and “Kim,” her manager, would surely be more than happy to be a reference for me if I wanted to ask her instead, since Kim has a higher title than Maria. This gave me pause — I’d always figured I should be using my manager as a reference. While Kim is a lovely person and a fantastic boss, I do not interact with her one-on-one very often, and while she likely has a rough idea of my day-to-day work, she does not assign me tasks or have check-ins with me, so I don’t expect she knows the ins and outs of what I do or don’t contribute. I’ve concluded that I’m likely overthinking this and that I should list Maria, as she can more directly speak to my work quality and my contributions to her team. Plus, while Kim’s title (Director of Federal Vegetable Policy) is higher than Maria’s (Associate Director of Zucchini Research), Maria’s nevertheless conveys that she is also relatively senior.

While this is a minor question, it’s gotten me thinking more about reference lists than anyone really should. Should I be making more of an effort to list people on my reference lists who are higher-ranking, even if they’re not my immediate manager? Maybe I’m being naive, but if I were a hiring manager I’d want to talk to someone who can speak best to a candidate’s work and their specific abilities, and I would be annoyed if an applicant had given me the name of someone a few levels above them in an attempt to impress me.

Nope, you’re exactly right. Your references should be people who can speak to your work with nuance. A manager several levels up who doesn’t know your work well won’t be able to answer questions with the kind of detail and nuance that make for a really great and useful reference. (Not everyone understands this though! That’s why you get people offering to be references for people they barely know.)

4. Changing my name after my parents’ divorce

My parents divorced after 30 years of marriage (I’m in my late 20’s) and it has not Gone Well. Turns out my dad is not who I thought he was, and he has completely cut contact with my mom. She wants to change her last name, from the one she took when she married him to something completely new. I’m a lot closer to my mom, and depending on how my dad acts in the near future, I might change my name too. It feels like changing your name after a divorce is normal and understandable, but changing your last name when your parents get divorced … it’s like standing in the town square with a big neon sign that says “MY DAD AND I DON’T GET ALONG.”

If I were to change names, how would I phrase this? I’m in an industry that relies heavily on social media, like my portfolio, which is akin to “www.buffysummers.com.” I can’t simply change and expect people not to notice or say anything. I could make a post on LinkedIn that simply says “I’ve changed names, and now go by Buffy Harris” but are people going to assume I’ve gotten married? I’m not even dating anyone, and it feels like it could become really awkward, really fast. Even a straightforward “I decided to change my name after my parents’ divorce” sounds like a surefire way to make others uncomfortable.

You don’t even necessarily need to make a big announcement (although if you do it, do it by email, since using LinkedIn means a ton of people will miss it). You can just start signing communications with your new name. It’s often helpful to include the old name too for a while so people know who you are — something like “Buffy Summers Harris” or “Buffy Harris (formerly Summers).”

And yeah, people are probably going to assume you got married. But you can simply correct them when that happens — and you can be vague when you do! You don’t need to explain it’s tied to your parents’ divorce; you can just say, “Just some family stuff!” Say it cheerfully and then move the conversation along, and most people won’t pry.

update: my coworkers make orgasm sounds while I’m on the phone

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

Remember the letter-writer whose coworkers were making orgasm sounds while she was on the phone? Here’s the update.

I decided to take the slightly underhanded route of scheduling a call with an important customer half an hour before they were going to start faking it, and the moment I heard a noise from their department, I sent an email to my manager, their manager, and their team lead saying that I was on the phone with Professor Annalise Keating of Middleton University and could they please refrain from making any sexual noises while she could hear. To their credit, they were silent for the rest of the day. Later, Bonnie, who is in my department but who didn’t know that I’d specifically requested they be quiet because of my call, made a comment to Laurel, a weekly faker, that she was so glad that they’d finally quit it with the sex noises. On Monday, I went over and thanked them all for not making orgasm noises while I was on my call and said that I’d found the orgasm noises very distracting in the past and would really prefer that they not make orgasm noises in a group like that again. I tried to say the word orgasm as often as possible in as flat a tone of voice as possible, in the hopes that some of them would realize how ridiculous this situation was.

The next few Fridays, I went over to ask them not to make orgasm noises, and they didn’t, though some of them were kind of snarky about it and made it clear they thought I was the Fun Police. Then one Friday, I was off work and apparently they took that as their cue to start faking it again, but then Wes, who is in a third department and is very mild-mannered, went over and told them that they were making him uncomfortable and he had really appreciated the quiet over the past few weeks. I think that that finally clued them into the fact that not everyone thought they were as cute and funny as they thought they were, because the faking it stopped! One or two of them were pretty sulky and snubbed me a bit, but by that point (two and a half months after my initial email), I had been interviewing at another job and was close to getting an offer, so I really didn’t care at all. I did get the new job and started in early February…and then Corona hit, I got laid off, and I got rehired at the old job at 90% of my previous salary. We’ve all been working remotely, and the company’s actually handled it really well and given almost everyone the option to work remotely permanently. We have had occasional recreational video chats scheduled, and we have an open office-wide IM for fun, non-work related messages, but those channels have all been appropriate and free of sex noises, and strictly opt-in. Still don’t love this job and still looking for a new one, but things could definitely be worse!

“I will confront you by Wednesday of this week”

Several years ago, a reader shared with us this epic email that was sent by their company’s boss after a holiday party gone terribly awry, and as we enter the holiday season we remember its glory.

“This happened about ten years ago, but the email I received from our boss was so epic I preserved it.

Context: The second year I worked at this company, our holiday party was held on a dinner cruise boat. Our boss footed the bill for dinner and an open bar, and a few other companies also hosted their own parties on the boat at the same time. Since I was underage at the time, I did not drink, and actually left early with my date. Everything was fine when I left. The Monday after, I rolled into the office– the first person there– and was greeted with this email from our boss [identifying details removed]:

‘Good morning to all. I hope all of you had time to recuperate and reflect about the unusual chain of events and circumstances at this year’s Christmas party. Some of you went home early and did not take in the full range of events.

Unfortunately, some of our staff got out of hand, including the spouses. Things were said, and things were done, that quite frankly were very inappropriate. Also, we had people from the adjoining group that decided to take advantage of our open bar and co-mingle with our group.

In regards to the inappropriate behavior, I am not going to go into all of the details, but let it be said that the root cause was probably due to the open bar. Some of our staff decided that the open bar meant that the drinking could be unlimited, not only in how much, but how they drank. As a result, some our staff and spouses decided that shots were OK. Shots were ordered for some who do not even drink. Shots are not OK at a company Christmas party. Other staff and spouses got multiple drinks at once for themselves and for people not even in our group. Others decided it was OK to get openly drunk and beligerent, to the point of making racial slurs. I, myself, am guilty of attacking someone from the other group after he decided to retaliate by groping my wife.

Having thought about the circumstances and the fact that we have to work together as a firm and team, some of you need to apologize for your behavior and/or for the behavior of your spouse. We specifically implemented a no fraternization policy and some of you could get fired on that alone, while other staff exercised no restraint over their spouse for their drunken condition. It is not OK for a spouse to misbehave, just because he or she is not an employee. Many careers have been destroyed, and people get fired, due to the conduct of their spouse. You are expected to exercise constraint over your spouse, or take them home. And if that cannot be done, then you should not bring your spouse.

In regards to the Firm’s policy on drinking, there will be no more open bars. Unfortunately, some of you and your spouses exercise extremely poor judgment. Because of this poor judgment, it puts the Firm at risk. Given the poor road conditions that night, some of you could have ended up dead. It is also unfortunate that a few have to ruin it for the whole group.

I would like to start the apologies by stating I am sorry for not handling the situation that I was confronted with in a different manner. I feel embarrassed, and it was not conduct befitting of the firm’s president. I also felt betrayed by some of you for patronizing the one individual from the adjoining group, who’s behavior was lewd and offensive, not to mention the outright theft by running up our bar tab.

I invite others to make some form of apology, either by email or in person for what they did or said, or what their spouse did or said. You can do this voluntarily, and you know who you are, or I will confront you by Wednesday of this week. I do not intend to ignore what happened. If I have to confront you, you could lose your job. I will be available Monday and Tuesday late afternoon, or you can email me and/or others. Let’s not let this one incidence stop us from being [#1 company in field]. We have a lot going for ourselves and let’s keep it going.’”

update: my employee keeps getting deadnamed by a coworker

It’s the launch of this year’s “where are you now?” month at Ask a Manager! Every day this month, I’ll be running updates from people who had their letters here answered in the past. To kick us off…

Remember the letter-writer whose employee kept getting deadnamed by a coworker? The coworker, Lizzy, insisted she would only use the name the coworker was given at birth “out of respect for his mother.” Here’s the (epic) update.

Hearing from Alison and all of the commenters made me realize that I needed to talk to John about what he wanted to do. I apologized to him for not being proactive enough with this problem and for underestimating just how offensive Lizzy’s actions were, reiterated that I was on his side, told him that I was setting up a meeting with Lizzy and her manager for later that day, and asked what he wanted to do and what he wanted me to do. He admitted that although he was joking about it, he was actually really upset by Lizzy constantly dead naming him, so in addition to needing her to stop, he would rather not work with her anymore, or at least work with her as little as possible. I also told him that I was willing to make a big stink about both Lizzy’s actions and HR’s inaction to my boss (Lizzy’s grandboss) and the higher ups in HR, but that I wanted to make sure he was comfortable with being explicitly identified as being transgender and experiencing transphobic harassment. He said he was worried about escalating the issue himself, because he didn’t want to come off as pushy or overly sensitive, but that he did want me to do it.

I took Alison’s advice with Lizzy’s boss and just checked his and Lizzy’s Outlook calendars to find a time when they were both free and set up a meeting, figuring that his dislike of confrontation meant that he would go along with it. I said that Lizzy’s offensive behavior towards John had gone on way too long and that she needed to immediately stop calling him any name other than John. She tried to say that she had no problem with transgender people (I had not mentioned anything about him being trans, only that she had to call him by his name) and that it was a matter of respect for his mother, but I interrupted her and said that John’s mother and her feelings were irrelevant and that she was being deeply disrespectful to John, who is actually her coworker and thus actually needed her respect. I also said that it didn’t matter how she felt about trans people or if she didn’t intend to be transphobic, purposely calling John by his dead name was a transphobic action and it needed to stop, and that until I could trust her to treat him with respect, she was not to attend any of our team meetings and any workflow that would normally pass between her and John would go through me first and I would pass on the information. Her boss spoke for the first time then and said that that sounded like it might make us miss deadlines on some of our tighter turnarounds, which I agreed was true, but that given that Lizzy refused to use John’s name, I felt I had an ethical duty to prevent her from speaking to him at all, not to mention that allowing her to continue harassing him would open us up to litigation. I tried to say this all as matter-of-factly as possible, so it would be clear that I didn’t care how Lizzy actually felt about mothers or trans people, and that I wasn’t asking for suggestions on what should be done.

After that meeting, I emailed my team and explained that due to Lizzy’s outrageous and offensive behavior, I was changing our procedures so that she and John would no longer have direct contact, and that they should expect some delays in communication between her and our team. I also apologized for having allowed her to behave in such a blatantly transphobic fashion for close to a month, which should never have been tolerated at all, and explained that I had told her that she had to stop immediately, so if she referred to John as Sally again, they should let me know, either by forwarding me an email if it was in writing or by documenting the incident if it were over the phone or video chat, and should also feel free to tell her that she was being offensive and needed to stop.

This is when things get satisfying! My boss was included on the email to my team, and he called me about half an hour later asking about it. I hadn’t told him much about the Lizzy situation, because he has very little patience for people complaining about their interpersonal conflicts to their boss, and while this is a lot more significant than an interpersonal conflict, I thought he wouldn’t want to hear about it anyway, especially since he doesn’t have much contact with my team in normal times and has had even less while we’ve been virtual. Once I explained what had been happening, he said that was the most ridiculous thing he’d ever heard and set up a meeting for the two of us with the head of HR for the next day (I asked John if he wanted to come and he said he’d rather not and he trusted me to take care of it). The head of HR agreed that this was outrageous and that HR should never have tolerated it. A week later, Lizzy got fired. Then the HR rep who had said this wasn’t explicitly transphobic got fired about about a week and a half later, Lizzy’s boss had to go through some pretty extensive management training and there’s talk that he may transfer into a position without any direct reports, the entire HR department did training on LGBT issues and what is now required of them because of Bostock v Clayton County, the entire company got an anonymous survey asking if we had ever been harassed or felt that we were the victim of discrimination in the workplace, and the head of HR personally apologized to John for the first HR rep’s mishandling of the case and encouraged him to come to her if he ever felt harassed based on his gender identity.

I also sent John the link to my original letter, and he told me to thank everyone for all your supportive comments. And of course I want to thank you all as well, for giving me the confidence to escalate this situation the way I should have from the beginning. It’s seeming more and more like Lizzy, her boss, and the first HR rep were problems, but that the company as a whole really is the good place to work that I’d always thought it was.

I couldn’t use sick time after my boyfriend had a stroke because we’re not married, and more

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

1. I couldn’t use sick time after my boyfriend had a stroke because we’re not married

I have a pre-COVID question about something that is still bothering me after more than a year. I am a single person and I do not have immediate plans to marry or start a domestic partnership. Last October, my then-boyfriend of a year had a stroke at only 30 years old. I received the call from the ER on my way to the office and let my supervisor know that I needed to go to the hospital and that I would be late to work. I’m employed at a large research university which is a perennial “Best Places to Work” list winner and espouses values about supporting employees, mental health, etc. I have hundreds of sick time hours and extremely little vacation time.

After my boyfriend stabilized, I went to my office to collect my computer and some work I needed and spoke with my supervisor about my boyfriend’s condition and that I needed to be in the hospital because he didn’t have any family in the area and I was his emergency contact. I was gobsmacked when I was told I could not use my sick time to be in the hospital with him. Our HR portal allows employees to use sick time for 22 types of relationships (children, stepchildren, in-laws, grandparents-in-law, etc.) and my manager said that my boyfriend did not qualify for any of them because he wasn’t my spouse and we did not live together. I pretty much had a breakdown in her office because I was under so much pressure and stress. It felt, and still feels, like my organization (and my manager) let me down, treated me as “less than,” and failed to live up to the values the organization uses as a recruiting tool. Effectively, it communicated to me that my relationships do not matter and afterwards, out of bitterness and anger, I actively disengaged in any work that was not directly assigned to me and withdrew from volunteer projects. I’m really happy to now be leaving the organization, but I can’t help but feel like I may have missed an important memo — are single people supposed to just constantly lie to their managers in order to have the same privileges and compassion as married people?

No, your organization just sucks. I’m sorry.

A decent manager would have said, “We don’t have a formal category for this but obviously he is like family to you and you should take the time you need. I’ll handle it with HR.”

It’s true that society as a whole — not just employers — treats marriages and domestic partnerships differently than it does people in relationships living separately. It’s a weird thing. If you and your boyfriend shared a house, I suspect you might have gotten a different response even without being married. People see not cohabitating as indicating something about the seriousness of the relationship … which is problematic, because you can have a serious and long-term relationship living apart and you can have a marriage that’s little more than hostile roommates. Part of that is about the legal ties of marriage, of course, but you usually see cohabiting unmarried relationships get taken more seriously than non-cohabiting ones.

Anyway, it’s understandable that employers need to put some limits on benefits usage, but they need to be flexible when a situation comes up that’s still within the spirit of their policy, if not the letter.

2. Moving back to old company soon after starting new job

About six months ago, I left my former organization for a new job that was an upgrade in responsibilities and salary. I love my old company, but it was hit really hard by COVID and I felt like I jumped off a sinking ship. My former boss recently left and my old company is trying to hire me for that position. I don’t love my new job, it’s been a stressful transition, but leaving would almost certainly burn a bridge at my new company. I thought I would at least hear the former employer out even if I’m inclined to say no. Would jumping back to my former employer so quickly look bad on my resume? Is my instinct that I would burn a bridge at my new company correct? It is definitely an upward move and would entail a nice pay increase. However, it does feel like accepting a counteroffer, albeit belatedly.

It would probably burn a bridge with your current employer, but that’s not necessarily a reason not to do it. The thing with burning a bridge isn’t “avoid at all costs.” It’s just “know what you’re doing and be willing to live with the consequences.” In this case, the consequences will probably be that you can’t get a good reference from them (not a big deal since if you were only there six months, I wouldn’t use them as a reference anyway), they won’t re-hire you in the future, and they might quietly curse your name for a while. But if it’s clear to them (or you’re able to explain) that you’re not happy with the new job and it’s not the right fit, it probably won’t be a huge thing. People generally don’t want colleagues to stay in jobs they’re not happy in.

It also likely won’t look bad on your resume. Sometimes people leave a job and then realize they want to go back. It’s not a big deal. And that’s especially true in this year of chaos.

The only way I’d say this is like a counteroffer is that you should make very sure that the instability that drove you to leave in the first place isn’t still a problem.

3. Rewriting my job description when I’ve taken on lots of new work

I’ve been at my job at a PR firm for about two years and many responsibilities (unrelated to my job description) have been added to my plate during this time. My boss is now keen to update my job description to reflect the full extent of the work I’m doing. I haven’t received a raise or promotion and don’t expect to at this point, given the economic uncertainty. However, I feel nervous about simply updating my job description as if these additional responsibilities are part of what I was hired to do at the salary I was hired at. I wonder if it will hurt my chances of getting a raise for this work when the company is financially able. But maybe I’m thinking about this the wrong way?

Yeah, you’re right to be cautious. You don’t want the extra work to simply be seen as exactly what you were hired to do in the first place. (That assumes, of course, that it wasn’t. Sometimes a job is expected to evolve as the person is trained, and the extra responsibility is a natural evolution that was always intended.) That said, an updated description of everything you’re doing can also be used at some point to make the case that the job you’re doing now is different than the job you were hired for.

I’d probably just clearly mark what’s new in whatever you write up. Write the job description as it existed when you first came on board, and then have a separate section called “New Responsibilities” and put the rest there. If your boss is turning this into a formal job description for your role, she may remove that — but laying it out like that should help emphasize how the work has evolved.

4. Too many reply-all birthday emails

Pre-Covid, my department used to do birthday desserts monthly for everyone who has a birthday that month. We’d get an email letting us know who had a birthday and when cake was ready.

Now, since we’re not all in the office, we get a “virtual” happy birthday email once a month with a picture of a cake. This has turned into once a month we get a chain of obnoxious reply-all emails where, instead of responding to just the people who have birthdays that month, we all get replies that say “Happy Birthday” until my inbox is spammed with 10 or 12 emails that I then have to delete.

Is there a way to politely bring this up? I’m afraid it might backfire because I don’t have my own birthday on the list or participate in “cake day” when in the office. One email is fine; it’s the continuous reply all’s that are annoying.

That would annoy me too, but honestly I wouldn’t spend capital on it. Having to delete 10-12 emails isn’t onerous enough to warrant trying to get it stopped; save your capital for other stuff.

Microsoft’s creepy new “productivity score” tells your boss how often you attend meetings, answer email, and use Word

If your workplace uses Microsoft Office products, be aware that the company launched a new “Productivity Score” feature this month, which lets employers track how their employees use Microsoft’s tools across 73 different measures — including things like how frequently you send emails, how often you turn your camera on during virtual meetings, how often you contribute to shared documents and group chats, and the number of days you used Word, Excel, Skype, Outlook, and other Microsoft tools in the last month. Then they compile it all into a report and send your boss a breakdown every month.

Microsoft claims this is “not a work monitoring tool” and points out that it’s optional — even though the administrator of the program (your employer) is the only one who can opt out.

Here’s Gizmodo:

If that sounds like an Orwellian nightmare in the making to you, you’re not alone—privacy experts are criticizing the company for essentially gamifying workplace surveillance.

… David Heinemeier Hansson, co-founder of the office suite Basecamp, described the feature’s design as “morally bankrupt at its core” in a series of tweets this week.

“The word dystopian is not nearly strong enough to describe the fresh hellhole Microsoft just opened up,” he said. “Being under constant surveillance in the work place is psychological abuse. Having to worry about looking busy for the stats is the last thing we need to inflict on anyone right now.”

… Workplace surveillance has become a particularly prevalent concern this year with the pandemic pushing more and more people to work from home. In June, the research firm Gartner found that 16% of employers were using monitoring tools more frequently to track their workers’ computer usage, internal communications, and engagement among other data. And with coronavirus cases continuing to climb to record heights in the U.S., experts expect the development and adoption of these tools to only ramp up further.

how do you hold an office holiday party during a pandemic?

Usually at this time of year, my inbox fills up with questions about company holiday parties: How many drinks are OK to have there? Should I bring a date? Do I really have to go at all?

This year, the questions are quite different – and nearly all along the lines of “what do we even do for the holidays in a pandemic?” Many employers are simply canceling holiday celebrations, since there’s no way to safely gather. But some employers have devised celebrations that will keep people safe and actually sound fun (even to this curmudgeon). I recently asked Ask a Manager readers to share how their teams are observing the holidays in lieu of in-person parties this year, and it turns out companies have gotten really creative. At Slate today, I shared some of the most interesting ideas people reported. You can read it here.

is it right to fire someone for being arrested for a (horrible) crime?

A reader writes:

Recently a coworker of mine failed to show up for his shift a few days in a row, and his supervisors were unable to reach him on his phone. Eventually, someone went to his home, where they were informed of the reason he hadn’t been at work — he was in jail. The company immediately fired him. The crime didn’t happen while he was on the clock, on company property, or involving any other employees.

On one hand, I get it. I live in an at-will employment state, and being accused of a crime is hardly a protected class. Additionally, this person”s role is very public-facing, and the nature of the crime he’s been accused of would make the public and his immediate coworkers very uncomfortable to have to interact with him. (The crime was rape, although I don’t know if they knew that when they fired him.)

On the other hand, I know that people do get accused of crimes they didn’t commit. He’s only been accused, not convicted It seems kind of gross to fire him when we don’t know yet if he actually committed the crime. If it turns out he didn’t do it, he would have been fired — not laid off — for a situation completely out of his control. I know the concept of “innocent until proven guilty” doesn’t really apply outside the court system, but still… the whole thing kind of rubs me the wrong way.

What do you think?

Agggh, this is hard.

You’re absolutely right that it would be awful to fire someone for a crime they didn’t commit. It’s also understandable that the company doesn’t want to have an accused rapist on its payroll. Some companies handle this by suspending the person without pay until there’s been a conviction or acquittal, but then you still get news stories saying that the accused rapist is employed by CompanyName. That can be a difficult thing for a business to navigate.

It’s different, of course, with different crimes. Automatically firing anyone who’s arrested for anything is a bad practice — especially when you consider the role race plays in policing and in who gets charged with crimes and who gets given the benefit of the doubt.

It would also be illegal under federal law. The EEOC says, “Arrests are not proof of criminal conduct. Many arrests do not result in criminal charges, or the charges are dismissed. Even if an individual is charged and subsequently prosecuted, he is presumed innocent unless proven guilty. An arrest, however, may in some circumstances trigger an inquiry into whether the conduct underlying the arrest justifies an adverse employment action (emphasis mine) … The employer needs to show that the policy operates to effectively link specific criminal conduct, and its dangers, with the risks inherent in the duties of a particular position.”

In other words, you can’t fire someone simply because they were arrested, but if the conduct that led to the arrest makes the employee unfit for their position, that can be a reason for firing — for example, a trucker arrested for drunk driving. (If you’re thinking that requires the employer to act as judge and jury before an actual judge and jury have made a determination … yes.)

Some states have laws that offer employees a higher degree of protection, such as California’s law preventing employers from firing someone for an arrest that doesn’t lead to a conviction.

It’s also worth noting that sometimes someone may be fired not because of the arrest itself but because of the missed work while they’re in jail.

It’s a tough thing though. As a society, we tend to believe in “innocent until proven guilty” more in theory than in practice.

What do others think?

boss told me I need to wear makeup and jewelry, employee has terrible attitude, and more

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

1. My boss told me I need to wear makeup and jewelry

I work as an account manager in health care. I have a new boss who has been writing me up for having an “unprofessional appearance.” Today she explained to me that I need to wear makeup and jewelry. I have never been one to wear makeup, and when I do it’s minimal. Same with jewelry, I do not like to wear it. My overall attire is always professional and I take much consideration in my appearance. Is she right for saying I should wear makeup and jewelry?

I have been with this job for three years and never been told I lacked professionalism until she was hired.

Nooooo, she is out of line. There are a small handful of jobs where women are still expected to wear makeup and jewelry — some types of high-end sales, for example. But it’s not most jobs, and it’s not health care. In most jobs, whether you wear makeup and jewelry is entirely up to you. You might be expected to look polished, but how you get there is a matter of personal choice. Your manager is being weirdly overbearing and sexist.

A bit about the law: Courts in the U.S. have generally allowed companies to have different grooming standards for men and women, including requiring that women wear makeup — but they’ve also generally held that grooming standards shouldn’t place a significantly higher burden on one sex, and your manager’s requirement sure as hell sounds like it would do that.

I’d suggest talking to HR. Tell them your manager has told you you’re required to wear makeup and jewelry and ask if that’s a new rule that’s now in effect; assuming it’s not, tell them you’re concerned she’s presented it as a requirement, you’re concerned it creates legal liability for the company, and ask for their help in shutting it down.

2. My employee gets their work done but has a terrible attitude

I was promoted earlier this year to a position where I’m leading a small team at a small company (~100 employees). One of my direct reports (we’ll call them Jan) is both older and more experienced than I am, but for a number of very valid reasons, was not considered for the promotion. However, Jan feels they should’ve been promoted over me. From early on, Jan made it clear that they saw reporting to me as temporary and frequently kept me out of the loop on important projects or tried to go around me. We had several challenging discussions about this, and it felt like we were making some progress.

However, after nearly a year, Jan has continued the same behavior. We discuss the behavior regularly, but after our meetings, it’s like we never discussed anything at all—they just adjust their behavior on one project and then revert to their old ways with new projects. I understand that the reason why is there are little to no repercussions—Jan still gets their work finished, and as long as they’re getting the work done, I don’t know what I can do.

It’s gotten to the point that it’s causing tension on our team since it’s painfully clear that Jan is unhappy. I’ve asked Jan for feedback so we can work better together (I’m very aware of the fact that I have a lot to learn!), but they insist things are fine…then I hear from my boss and others on my team that Jan is complaining about my management.

I don’t have any management experience with a situation like this, and I’m at a loss as to what I can do. Can I discipline someone for having a bad attitude? Is there some way to get Jan to actually provide feedback?

Give up on trying to get Jan to give you feedback and instead focus on the changes you need to see from them. Don’t make it about their attitude (which can be hard to pin down); make it about specific behaviors that need to stop (or start). You can absolutely discipline and fire someone for things like you’ve described — you just need to translate the problems into concrete behaviors. For example, if Jan keeps you out of the loop, one of the standards you need to hold them to is “proactively informing me of details like X, Y, and Z.” Sit down and write out all the behaviors you need to see that you’re not currently seeing, and you’ll have the meat of a performance improvement plan.

You’ll need your boss to have your back on this so loop her in right away, both about the severity of the issues and your plan for dealing with it. You should be prepared to fire Jan if the problems continue after you clearly spell out what they need to change, and you don’t want your boss to be blindsided if that’s the direction things go in. (Also, this isn’t something you should let drag out. Aim for a resolution within a month or two at most.)

3. How much does a company’s Covid response reflect how it might respond to other crises?

I know you have been receiving and answering plenty of questions regarding how to navigate working for an employer who doesn’t take Covid precautions as seriously as they should. I just started a job this fall and have been extremely disappointed with how my small company has handled the massive increase in cases recently (think: scheduling an in-person holiday party, having a culture where it’s a “choice” to work from home but a frowned-upon choice, etc.). I’ve been following your advice in this context as best I can, and I know that if it really came down to it, I would 100% pick my safety over keeping this job. But if it doesn’t get to that point, I’m wondering if I should still be thinking critically about my long-term desire to stay at this company — which I otherwise like — given their Covid response. In other words, how do you think a company’s Covid response is concretely related to how it might respond to other, non-Covid (and non-emergent) contexts?

I think it’s strongly correlated in several ways. First and foremost, it says they’re cavalier about public health, and their employees’ health in particular. In your company’s case, it also says you can’t trust what they say; they might tell you something’s okay but then penalize you for it. And it says they’re either willing to buy into the politicization of a serious public health issue if it suits their own agenda or — if they’d be doing this even if Covid hadn’t become politicized — that they prioritize their profits way over the safety of their employees (beyond even the typical amount of self-interest you normally see under capitalism).

4. Holiday blues in a festive office

I work in a job that is classified as essential, so I have to go into the office every day. My family was hopeful that we’d be able to get together over the holidays this year, but we canceled Thanksgiving and stayed in our own homes.

I’m looking ahead to Christmas, and starting to mentally prepare myself for the fact that I probably won’t be able to see my family for that either. To make matters worse, I live alone and my company has a shutdown for Christmas that’s pretty long, but not long enough for me to properly quarantine and go visit with loved ones. So I’m looking at a holiday that I’ll have to spend alone, for the first time in my life. The easiest way for me to do this is going to be to essentially pretend the holiday isn’t happening and do my best to act like it’s just another day.

The office that I work in tends to be VERY festive and based on communications from management I think they’re going to double down this year in an effort to lift spirits after a rough year. Unsurprisingly I’m not super into it. I want my coworkers to enjoy their holiday and I don’t want to stop anyone from having fun. Any recommendations on how to respond when people realize I’m not as into the festivities this year (they will, I’m a big Christmas person in the office) without drawing too much pity or coming off like a grinch?

How about, “The holidays are hard for me this year since I can’t go home so I’m kind of tuning it out. I don’t want to dampen your celebration; I’m just sitting it out myself.”

You do risk people responding to that by trying to cheer you up or get you into the holiday spirit, so be prepared to say, “I appreciate the thought, but this is easier for me this year” followed by an immediate subject change.

5. Asking for a raise after I was hired back at an old job

I was laid off last spring (like many), but was offered an old job at a previous company. I had kept in touch with my old boss, and when they heard I was unemployed, jumped on asking me if I would like to come back. They were offering $13k less than what I was making at my laid-off job, but I was not in a position to say no to a steady income. I did not negotiate at the time because I wasn’t sure if I could. Upon my hiring, my manager said we could discuss a raise in around six months to a year. I have now been at the company for eight months, but I’m not sure how to bring this up. Our company definitely is not doing poorly (or as far as they share with employees), but I just don’t know how to ask to revisit the conversation. I was thinking about waiting until the holidays and seeing if they do anything special this year (during my previous time with this employer, they never did a holiday bonus/end of year cost of living adjustment).

Am I being too timid with this? Thinking about the conversation makes me extremely uncomfortable.

Yes, you’re being too timid! Don’t wait to see if they do bonuses or raises around the holidays when they’re never done that before. Plus, you want a raise, not just a one-time bonus or a cost-of-living adjustment.

Asking for a raise makes lots of people (probably most people) uncomfortable, so don’t take your discomfort as a sign not to do it. Sit down with your boss and say, “When I was hired back eight months ago, you suggested we could discuss a raise after six months. I think my work has gone really well — I’ve achieved X, Y, and Z — and I’m hoping we can increase my salary.” More advice here!

weekend open thread – November 28-29, 2020

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: Saints for All Occasions, by J. Courtney Sullivan. Another epic family saga, this one told from alternating points of view and about two sisters who leave Ireland for America. Estranged for years after arriving, one raises a large family while the other becomes a cloistered nun. It’s about family, secrets, and how decisions when you’re young can shape the course of your life in ways you never expect.

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