weekend open thread – September 30-October 1, 2023

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 Whispers, by Ashley Audrain. A neighborhood tries to figure out what happened when a the young son of a woman known for losing her temper ends up in a coma.

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

it’s your Friday good news

It’s your Friday good news!

1.  “Last year, I was in a very toxic job — my boss was not very good at his job and had constant turnover, and I ended up doing work that was very much not what I wanted to be doing (think taking over the very routine stuff after yet another person quit when my background and the job I had been hired for were for higher-level, more complex things). I quit in September 2022 without another job lined up because I was working 9-10 hour days and had a 45-minute one-way commute. I had no time to interview, and at that time it was a job seeker’s market. I spent about six weeks applying only for remote jobs related to the higher-level, more complex things (and with a title bump), and had some lucky misses with companies that rejected me and then went down in flames.

I ended up with two competing job offers, one of which was consulting at the same level (and pay) I had been at, and the other was in-house with a title and pay bump for the exact higher-level, more complex things I already knew and wanted to get back to doing. I took the title/pay bump, and oh my gosh, I cannot tell you how much I am enjoying this job. I don’t believe in dream jobs, but right now this is exactly the work I want to be doing — a wide variety of interesting tasks, with judgment involved and troubleshooting and getting things squared away. Even during a busy season where I was working a ton, I was still enjoying the work. As an added bonus, my new boss is ridiculously smart, kind, patient as I’m learning things, and has even framed my performance goals to help me in my long-term career development, not just at this job. I also have a ‘side boss’ whose team I help regularly and he’s great too! I asked about taking off one of the days that I usually help his team and he immediately said it was absolutely no problem and he could find someone to fill in for the day – and he did! (I had no backfill at the old job, which was another reason it was so tough.) Maybe I’m just describing the way a job is supposed to be normally, but that last position warped my brain and I’m still untangling the effects of that. I’m one of those people who used to read the Friday good news and scoff (while secretly hoping I could get there someday), and I’m so glad I finally did get there!”

2.  “I have been reading AAM since 2019 and I’m happy to tell you that I was able to get out of a really toxic situation using your advice. I recognized that I had a boss problem, started looking for a new job, got to a couple of interviews and finally landed a job with greatly improved benefits. It’s been a wild ride!

My relationship with my ex-boss transformed from amicable to nasty over eight years. I am in academia, and I did not recognize the red flags when I first started due to inexperience. The ex-boss is a huge workaholic, believes that only those who have essentially no life besides work are fit for this career and actively chooses to pile unrealistic amounts of work on people and treat them unfairly. His behavior really worsened during the pandemic when he started to repeatedly call and cancel remote meetings on a few minutes’ notice, disappear for days without any explanation, and ignore our attempts at communication, all while instructing us to be proactive in contacting him and telling us he’s always available. He also scheduled 1-on-1 meetings for some, but not all of us, stating that he prioritizes those who are important for the team. In a nutshell, his work style is definitely not fit for managing people but the academia is notorious for only caring about scientific experience, and looping HR in on this did not have any effect. Direct and repeated feedback on why his management style was stressful to us did not make him wake up and see the demoralization he was causing. People started leaving or burning out.

I also hit my breaking point, burned out and went on a long sick leave. I tried to fix things one last time in a formal negotiation involving me, ex-boss, and occupational health care. It was a farce where he straight out lied and painted me as an unreasonable and overly sensitive person. I later learned from a trusted colleague that ex-boss called our feedback on his management style ‘childish’ and blamed us for gossiping. The cherry on top? The ex-boss ghosted my farewell party, scheduled based on his needs, at the last minute with an email directed to a coworker containing a really shoddy excuse. He never contacted me that day or afterwards, just ending eight years by pretending that I never existed. I am glad to have escaped and still blown away by how much the ex-boss seems to lack basic human decency. And yes, I am in therapy trying to undo the psychological damage and I think it’s starting to help a bit with the burnout.

I am so incredibly thankful to AAM for the support. I was able to gather my courage to see ex-boss for what he is and stay sane during my job search, reminding myself that I have a boss problem instead of submitting to his needs. The advice on cover letters, resumes, and interviews was critical in securing the new job. I was in a really toxic place and my health was deteriorating rapidly, so the advice may literally have saved my life.”

3.  “I resigned from a job of two years in late 2021 due to a family crisis that was ongoing. Thankfully, my spouse’s income was such that I didn’t need to find a new job immediately, so I started doing some freelance writing.

Fast forward to this past April. My spouse ended up resigning from his job without another lined up due to an increasingly toxic work environment. I immediately started job-hunting, as he decided to take some community college courses to refresh his skills before starting his own job hunt. We had enough savings to last us for a while if we were careful, but inflation hit our budget hard so I was getting increasingly frantic as I searched. I had multiple interviews, and two second interviews, but no offers. My confidence plummeted every time I got a rejection.

Finally, I landed an interview at a company that several of my former coworkers had moved to, as they had been singing its praises as a great workplace. I’d applied to every opening I was remotely qualified for at this company since starting my search, but had only gotten one interview with them previously (I didn’t get that position due to an inability to work weekends).

I interviewed the day before I travelled out-of-state to a family wedding, and I thought the interview had gone well. They’d said they’d get back to me early in the following week, so I was hopeful I’d get some good news once I got back from my trip.

The very next day, the recruiter called me while I was in the Las Vegas airport on a layover. With the slot machines ringing wildly in the background (yes, the Las Vegas airport has slot machines in the gate areas), she offered me the job! Apparently the hiring manager was so impressed with my interview that they decided to offer right away. It was a much-needed confidence boost.

I started in August and so far it’s been great. It’s nice to come into a workplace already knowing people, and I’m learning the ropes quickly. Thanks AAM for all your advice!”

open thread – September 29-30, 2023

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.

I didn’t get hired because I wasn’t “high energy” enough, telling a coworker to rein in their aggravation, and more

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

1. I didn’t get hired because I wasn’t “high energy” enough

I interviewed with a start-up recently and I think it went well: the standard recruiter call, the hiring manager call, then a call with a would-be colleague who I’d work in parallel with.

The day after the third call, the recruiter called and said they wouldn’t be moving forward with me for the role. I asked for feedback on how I can improve, and they said there really wasn’t anything negative, just that I wasn’t as strong as other candidates. So I asked again, what could I have done better that the other candidates showed? They said I wasn’t “high-energy” enough and that the other candidates were.

I know these people don’t know me that well because we only spoke for less than two hours total, but I am a very enthusiastic and energetic person. Others have recognized this in me, both at work and in my personal life. I even texted former coworkers about this and they essentially said “ha!” when I asked if I wasn’t a high-energy person.

I don’t know what to make of this feedback. I felt I brought my authentic self to this interview process, as I do for all the others. I ended the third call saying I was excited about the role and looking forward to working together. I’ve been working in this space for a few years now so I know how to talk, act, think, etc. for this crowd. But now I’m not so sure.

Is this just recruiter BS? Is this something that’s a valid criticism? And how would I demonstrate my energy levels authentically in an interview?

I wouldn’t put a ton of stock in it. Especially because the recruiter didn’t say it until you pushed for feedback a second time, it’s entirely possible that they took an off-hand comment the hiring manager made and put more weight on it than it deserved. (For example, the hiring manager commented that she liked that one of the other candidates was high-energy, and the recruiter turned that into a deficiency on your part because you were pushing for something — when it doesn’t necessarily mean that at all.)

Of course, it’s always good to reflect on feedback, even if it seems off-base to you. But it sounds like you’ve done that.

That said, some quick thoughts on ways to demonstrate energy: varying your tone of voice/not using a monotone, smiling, nodding, eye contact, paying attention to your posture (leaning forward a bit comes across differently than leaning back the whole time), asking thoughtful questions, finding ways to make a personal connection to the position, moving with some urgency when things are asked of you (like not delaying if you’re asked to send references) … and if you’re really concerned, you could do a mock interview with someone and get their feedback. But again, it’s likely this was just a recruiter reaching for something when pushed for feedback.

2. Should I tell a younger coworker to rein in their clearly audible aggravation?

A couple teams share my office suite, and one of them currently only has two full-time members, who are both 23 years old. They’re good at their jobs, but they’ve been forced to take on a lot of extra work with no extra help. Their boss resigned months ago, and no one has replaced her yet.

As time goes on, one of them has become more and more downright contemptuous about all other teams. I see their point, but the expressions of frustration are beyond office norms. We have plenty of gallows humor, but I hear them cursing out emails from across the floor at least once a day. Today, we were in an elevator with other employees, and they were naming and shaming a C-suite boss. While walking to the C-suite floor, they loudly said one department must be illiterate.

I once had their job and really sympathize with them. And frankly, I don’t care if they hate everyone. I get it! But I feel like they’d benefit from someone saying, “I know how pissed you are. Keep the cursing to under your breath, and do not say anything bad outside our office. No one else knows our culture, and it sounds really spiteful.”

I am in no way their boss, just a colleague who’s been here many more years but is still a relatively young person. Is there any graceful way to give this note, or does it cross into unprofessional feedback they didn’t ask for?

A reasonable person would appreciate that feedback and would want to know if they were potentially causing harm to themselves. I don’t know if this particular colleague is reasonable or not, but it would be a kindness to say it. Explain you know how frustrated they are and why, and they’re not wrong to be upset — i.e., establish that you’re on their side about that part — but that they’re not doing themselves any favors by being overheard talking the way they’re talking. Give a couple of examples and explain what could happen if someone other than you heard them. If they don’t appreciate it, that’s on them, but it’s not overstepping by trying to help, particularly given how new to the world work they are.

Don’t keep harping on it, obviously; this is a one-and-done conversation, and then it’s up to them what they do with the info.

3. Employee keeps calling me “hun”

How do I address an employee who keeps calling me “hun”? While I do not believe there is malicious intent, I prefer not to be called that. This is someone who does not report to me, but I am in HR so it’s a bit weird that he feels comfortable doing so. He has only done so via email but not yet over the phone (but I know it’s coming). What makes it even stranger is that he is young (22). I’d be more inclined to let it go if were an older person, but I just can’t let it slide. It feels condescending. Any suggestions or wording to put an end to this?

“Please call me Jane, not hun — thanks!”

And if that doesn’t immediately put a stop to it, have a word with his manager because it’s highly likely he’s doing it to other people and should be told to cut it out.

4. How can I talk to my employee about accommodations for her ADHD?

My current supervisee used to be my supervisor. We both did other things for a year and returned to our company, this time in a different division, of which I’m now the lead. We had a frank discussion about the change in dynamics and so far, things are going decently well.

My question is how to talk about accommodations, if appropriate, with her. In our previous roles she had shared that she had recently been diagnosed with ADHD and other learning disabilities. I was her supervisee at the time so I didn’t ask questions. When we transitioned into our new roles, she made an off-handed comment about her diagnoses, so I asked her if there were any accommodations in place that I should be aware of. She said she didn’t need any, and was handling it.

But, she isn’t. There are lots of things falling through the cracks. She has trouble following conversation threads, misses meetings, forgets things, and doesn’t follow through. I’ve addressed each thing as they have come up and asked her input on how to improve, but because I know what I know about her, I wonder if she really could benefit from some accommodations. However, I don’t know what those would be and our history together and the potential HR issues implicated here complicate things. I sought out the advice of our HR department, but they were unhelpful.

You’ve got to use a pretty light touch when it comes to pushing someone to seek out formal medical accommodations. You should name the issues you’re seeing, and you should say that those problems are serious enough that things are at the point where you need to figure out solutions — but beyond that, the most about accommodations specifically would be something like, “I want to hear from you what you think might help, including potentially whether it’s something we could approach from an accommodations standpoint.”

You could also look at the Job Accommodation Network’s suggestions of accommodations that can be helpful for ADHD and think about whether you want to suggest trying any of those — not necessarily in the context of “this is a formal accommodation for your ADHD” but just as strategies in general (since many strategies for ADHD can be helpful in a whole variety of contexts).

how do I ask for things and get people to actually help me (as a manager and as a volunteer)?

A reader writes:

In my both professional and personal life, I notice a common theme, and I’m wondering what I’m doing wrong. I manage people in my work life, and am the chair of a not-for-profit in my personal life. In both situations, I notice that I have a lot of difficulty getting people to help me with things.

For example, we are undertaking our annual fundraiser for my nonprofit, and when communicating with my board members, I get no response. I see the same thing in my work—reaching out to ask for help from my staff, and often getting no response. How do you ask for things and actually get people to help in the work? I am worried that it’s in my delivery—am I asking too much, am I demanding of people or conversely too wishy-washy, what is is it in my delivery that people aren’t responding to?

As an example, here’s an email that I sent to my board. I have not heard a single response from any board member, and no one has accessed the link that I sent (this email was sent out two weeks ago). I was actually worried that maybe my email didn’t send, so I sent a reminder yesterday, and still nothing. This is something that we ask of board members every year, so it’s not something that is new to them:

Hi everyone, and happy Friday!

We have officially launched the Long Table Dinner, officially known as the Autumn Harvest Dinner! I really need help collecting items for the silent auction/raffle. I’ve made a copy of last year’s list, including, wherever possible, the contact person and what they donated last year. If you could help out by contacting some people, that would be great (Jesse, the house cleaning last year was super popular!). Please see link below. I’ve also attached a copy of a donation request that you can give out.

Thanks so much everyone!

The work issues and volunteer work issues might be two separate issues with two separate solutions — or they might not be.

With people you manage at work, you have the authority and the standing to not just “ask for help” but to assign work, with specific responsibilities and deadlines. I can’t tell if you’re doing that or not. If you are assigning specific projects/tasks/responsibilities with clear deadlines and your staff members are just ignoring you, that’s a huge problem! You’d need to sit down with each person individually, name the pattern, and tell them that it’s a requirement of their job to do assigned tasks by their deadlines, and you’d need to treat it as a serious performance issue if the problem continues.

But the example email you shared makes me wonder if you’re not doing that. I don’t want to read too much into it since it’s just a single email from a different (volunteer) context, but here’s what I see in that email: you’re not assigning specific tasks and instead you’re asking a large group for general help. So it’s easy for people to assume someone else will step up. You’d probably get better results if you instead said, “I need each board member to contact five people; your assigned list is attached. Can you please make contact with each person on your list by October 10? I’ll check in on October 1 to make sure you’re not running into issues.” The purpose of the interim check-in is to keep an eye on the work during the time period you expect it to be happening in — so that if it’s not, you find that out early and can course-correct, rather than not discovering it until the end. (Also, ideally you’d mention ahead of time at a board meeting that this is coming, so people know to expect it and have the opportunity to raise any concerns they have about their ability to do what you need.)

If you start approaching work like that with your board members and still aren’t getting what you need, that’s an issue to raise with the board more broadly. Maybe they’re not able to give you the level of work you’re requesting, maybe they think your deadlines are unreasonable, maybe they think staff should be doing some of this rather than board members — who knows. But the next step would be to raise the issue and figure out how to navigate it.

The first step though — in both contexts — is to be specific about what you need and who you are asking to do what and by when. A general “please help out” isn’t explicit enough or individualized enough to get you what you need.

how do you find a lawyer for workplace issues?

A reader writes:

You’ve written before about the scenarios where it might be wise to speak to a lawyer regarding issues at work. Could you talk a little bit about how to find a lawyer for that kind of thing? Is there a speciality or title folks should be looking for? Is it just a matter of pulling up Yelp for your area?  I have multiple friends right now dealing with illegal harassment and threats of termination (there must be something in the air right now), and while I keep pointing them toward your advice, just getting started on finding legal representation is a huge hurdle for their burnt out, stressed out, defeated brains.

It’s important to find an employment lawyer, specifically. And more than that, you want an employee-side employment lawyer. (Typically employment lawyers will specialize in helping either employees or employers; you want the former.)

Two excellent places for referrals are:

1. The National Employment Lawyers Association’s Find-A-Lawyer service, where you can search for their members by state

2. Workplace Fairness’ lawyer referral service, where you can search by practice area and state

share your tips for work travel overseas

It’s the Thursday “ask the readers” question. A reader writes:

I’m going to be traveling for work (30+ hours of flights including layovers) after a few-year hiatus related to the pandemic. I usually fly overseas and I’m wondering if the readers have any travel tips? I usually try to pack food after getting food poisoning from some meatballs on a United flight from China to the U.S. Also thinking about trying out the Timeshifter app to help deal with jetlag, not sure if anyone has had any good results with that.

Readers, what’s your advice?

my boss’s speeches are way too long, etiquette when you’re next to a cougher, and more

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

1. My boss’s speeches are way too long

The head of our office is frequently invited to give opening remarks at events, and our new boss is very passionate about speaking … to the point where he is just talking way too much.

To give two recent examples, he was asked to provide three to five minutes of remarks, and spoke for 45 minutes. At another event, he was given 20 minutes to do a more in-depth speech, and he spoke for an hour and a half. These were both dinners, and the food was cold by the time it came out! At other events, he’s caused the scheduling to run massively overtime, and on several occasions the main content of the event has had to be cut from the schedule.

His role is quite high-ranking (think politician/CEO), so no one is in a position to stop him once he gets going. Generally a staff member will write the speeches so we can monitor length/content, but this boss insists on either writing his own from scratch, or greatly expanding on whatever notes were provided to him. A couple of staff have quietly suggested he keep speeches short when passing on a request we’ve received for remarks, and he reacted quite angrily.

Do you have any suggestions on how we lowly staff can gently approach him to give feedback? I’m afraid we’ll stop being invited to attend events, which would be hugely detrimental to our office.

If he didn’t have a history of reacting angrily when people bring it up, sure. In that case you could say, “We’ve been hearing from event organizers that your remarks are going too long and throwing off the rest of the program, and they really need you to stick to X minutes and no longer.”

But since he does have a history of reacting angrily, you need someone high-up and influential to address it with him — a board member, a major donor, possibly a second-in-command or another senior leader who he respects, the head of an event he really cares about appearing at — someone whose feedback he’ll feel obligated to take seriously.

It that’s not an option or it doesn’t work, all you can really do is try stressing the schedule to him right before he speaks … and maybe discreetly mentioning to event organizers that he tends to run long and they’ll need to be assertive about managing his speaking time if they want to stick to their schedule; they may have tools to do that if they’re prepared ahead of time. But otherwise … this is who your boss is and if he lashes out at feedback, you can’t fix that for him.

2. Etiquette when someone is coughing right next to you

Last week I was sitting at a conference presentation and the person behind me started coughing. They were unmasked, as was I. I am low-risk for Covid complications, and have accepted the risk I’m taking going unmasked in public settings, but I still don’t want to expose myself when someone around me clearly seems ill.

I didn’t know this person, so I don’t know if they were sick/just allergies and didn’t feel comfortable asking. I didn’t want to offend them (or get into an argument) by masking up when they started coughing, and for the same reason I didn’t move my seat (we were in the back and they would definitely have seen me move, plus I didn’t want to disrupt the presenter). For the same reason, leaving the presentation entirely wasn’t an option. I chose to do nothing, sat there trying to not visibly wince every time they coughed, and took a ton of vitamin C as soon as I got home! If (when) I find myself in this situation again, what’s the best way to handle it in a way that keeps me as germ-free as possible, while not insulting anyone or risking a scene?

The best thing you can do is to carry your own mask and put it on if you feel uneasy. You can’t control what someone else is doing, but you can take steps to control your own level of exposure. It sounds like you felt that would be a rude and obvious reaction to their coughing, but it’s not rude to take measures to protect yourself (and they don’t know what your situation is; maybe you meant to be masked the whole time and forgot until the sound of a cough reminded you) … but if they do take offense, that’s their own issue. If they comment on it (unlikely from someone sitting behind you mid-presentation, but not impossible), you could just cheerfully say, “Yeah, I can’t risk getting sick right now, should have had this on the whole time!” If they have Feelings about that, that’s on them. You’re protecting yourself, not asking them to do anything differently.

That said, I also think it would have been fine to get up and move. If they saw you, oh well! If someone is coughing in public, some people might choose to keep a distance. That’s just how it goes. An alternative is to get up for a different reason — grab some coffee or go to the bathroom — and then choose a different seat when you return.

Obviously there’s also a whole thing here about how people can spread infections without coughing or having other visible symptoms, but you’re aware of that and it’s not unreasonable to calibrate your level of risk tolerance to “if you visibly have a higher chance of being ill, I want to take extra protection.”

3. Employee turns in paperwork with gross things on it

Is there a good way to address what I think are occasional dried boogers on paperwork? I can’t believe I have to ask this. I’m a manager and starting a couple months ago (with an employee I’ve had for 10 years) it has become a not-too-uncommon event to find dried boogers on paperwork they turn in. I don’t want to keep dealing with it, but I’m afraid of what happens after I say something. We all have embarrassing habits and I don’t think I could return to the office if anyone ever had to have a conversation like that with me.

Gross, what the hell! You could address it without speculating on what the, uh, foreign matter is: “Could you please ensure your paperwork is clean before you turn it in? Lately there have been things smeared on it.” If they seem confused, hand one of the papers back and say, “Like this — I’m not sure if it’s food or something else, but I’d like you to be more careful to keep paperwork clean.”

But also: is something else going on with this employee? This seems awfully similar to people who purposely do gross things to bathroom walls as an act of hostility. Eeeww, I’m going to stop thinking about it now, but sadly you have to.

4. Can I call out a hiring manager for excessive back-channeling?

A few weeks ago, I turned down an offer for a position with a company I’d been referred to by a friend. This friend’s organization is a client of the agency that made me the offer.

During the hiring process, the co-founder had reached out to my friend for a back-channel reference check, which I thought was a bit odd. I would’ve been happy to have that conversation with him and answer firsthand, but my friend did splendidly. I brought it up during a subsequent chat but didn’t make a fuss. However, that prompted me to listen much more carefully, and several red flags were raised, which is why I ultimately turned the offer down. The CEO and his right-hand dude both received my email response to their offer.

Cut to now, almost a month later. I receive a text from my friend showing the message she received from the CEO on LinkedIn. He states that he offered me a much higher salary than I expected but that “something that was said during the offer must’ve turned (me) off”, and he was hoping he could get some “back channel feedback” from her.

I’ve already drafted an email to the CEO, because I feel very icky about the whole thing — that he’d reveal something like this to my friend, a third party to this entire process, feels like my privacy was violated. It’s also dragging her into this unnecessarily, which I find inconsiderate of them. Especially when they could’ve written to me directly at any point, but chose not to. I know it’s template “tech dude heard a tip about back-channeling at a conference and figured he’d do this all the time,” but I feel like someone should at least try to shake it out of him. Am I off-base, or is this just deeply out of touch with professional norms?

It’s not off-base that he contacted your friend for a reference — she’s their client and she referred you for the job; it would be surprising if if he didn’t ask for her thoughts on you. When someone refers a candidate for a job, it’s understood that they might be asked for their impressions about the person. That part isn’t weird or inappropriate.

The message after you turned down the offer is odder — not necessarily because he asked if she had any insight into what went wrong (they have a relationship, she referred you) but the way he asked it is a bit off (sharing the salary thing, calling it “back channel feedback,” implying they must have turned you off in some way rather than you just not thinking it was the right fit). Also, there’s not always a sharable story when you turn down an offer, especially not one you’d want someone else to share on your behalf. So I’d say that was a bit off, but not shockingly so, and not something worth calling him out for.

5. Screening candidates when your candidates aren’t great at applying and interviewing

As a candidate I’ve read so many of your Q&As and tips on writing resumes, cover letters, interviewing skills, etc. and it’s made such a massive difference to the interview process each time I’ve been on the candidate side, so firstly — thank you! Secondly, from an employer/manager side, I’d love to get your thoughts on what to screen for, or what to do, when you aren’t getting applicants who have done these things.

We are hiring in a relatively competitive market for a mid-level job (non-management) at a mid pay range (on the high end of industry and role salary bands, but not over and above) and what I’ve noticed is that the majority of candidates are not writing cover letters, or when they do both the letters and their resumes aren’t personalized to the job at all. Oftentimes its clear even at the interview stage that they haven’t put any effort in to researching the company or industry, and these are the best of the candidates applying.

I guess my question is in this type of situation, do I take it as a mark against them (I am happy and able to keep the position open and keep searching) or do I accept that this is the standard of applications and focus more on their skills? Part of this is I see it as a bit of a double standard — I would never send an application/interview like this but I am aware I am a very career-oriented person — but maybe this is okay in some situations?

Yes, it’s okay.

When you’re the one looking for a job, it’s in your interests to present the most compelling case for yourself as a candidate that you can. That’s what all the advice about strengthening your resume and cover letter and prepping for interviews is about.

But when you’re hiring, your job is to identify the candidates most likely to excel in the job. That doesn’t necessarily mean the person who wrote the best cover letter or prepared the best! Those things help candidates show you who they are and why they’d (hopefully) excel at the job — but they are means to an end, and you only need to be focused on the end (which is finding the strongest person for the job). You’re not looking for the person who’s the best at job-hunting; you’re looking for the person who will be the best at the role you’re hiring for. Candidates who take the sort of job-search advice here make it easier for you to see when that’s them, but them doing it/not doing it isn’t on its own a reason to hire/not hire them.

an employee 2 levels down refused to meet with me

A reader writes:

I am a division director at a large organization. I have three direct reports who collectively oversee about 30 staff, at levels ranging from entry-level, hourly office admins to seasoned managers earning six-figure salaries.

Every year, I meet once one-on-one with everyone who is not on my leadership team just to check in. I send out the questions in advance — they are designed to get feedback about the experience of the individual staff member and perceptions about what is working well and what isn’t in the division overall. There are a few questions I always ask and then I might throw in a couple of more topical questions.

I don’t consider these meetings to be optional, but it was never something I needed to enforce. My expectation is that when I request a meeting with someone on my team, they will meet with me. (I would personally never dream of refusing to meet with my boss!) Maybe not at the specific time I suggest, but they won’t just decline to meet. But that is what has happened and I don’t know what to do!

I sent a skip level meeting request to a manager (he has two young, new staff members who report to him.) He declined the meeting with no comment. When I followed up about finding a more convenient time to meet, he responded, “Thanks, but I’ll pass. I don’t need to meet.”

My irritation flared when I got this message, “Who does he think he is to just refuse to meet with me?!!” But once I got over that gut reaction and considered it further, I was conflicted. On the one hand, these meetings are important for me to get insights from across the division about what’s working and what’s not. In the past, themes have emerged that I’m then able to address to make the workplace better for all. Further, I don’t want this staff member setting an example for his direct reports that they can just opt out of meetings they aren’t interested in. On the other hand, these meetings are meant to give staff the chance to share their experience with me and something I’ve learned not to do thanks to reading AAM over the years is to force people to take part in “elective” activities (for example, when we have a holiday gathering, we schedule it during the normal work day but let people know that they are not obligated to attend and if they would rather just duck out early and take couple of hours of personal time, they can do that).

This meeting seems to straddle the fence on whether it’s primarily for me or for the employee. The staff member in question isn’t new to to the workforce or new to our organization. When I interact with him, he’s technically polite but generally sullen. That said, my understanding is that he’s fine at his job and his staff like him, but I have had to ask his supervisor to talk to him about participating appropriately as a manager. (For example, last year, he and his direct reports just … didn’t show up … at our division annual retreat. It was in our city, but away from our organization’s office, during normal work hours. He said he thought it was optional and he and his staff just went to work like normal that day.)

So, is this a hill to die on, where I I insist that he meet with me and share his feelings about his job? Or do I put this in the category of elective activity and give him a pass?

This is a work activity, and not an elective one.

You are doing due diligence on the management of your department, collecting information and creating opportunities for you to spot problems and areas for improvement. It’s a work duty, for you and for him.

Yes, it’s a chance for him to share things with you if he’d like to — and sure, he can opt of doing that piece of it if he wants to (although it would be pretty impolitic of him to make it clear he’s doing that; generally the wiser way to do that would be with bland answers rather than outright refusal). But he can’t opt out of you using the time to ask about things you’d like to know. It’s your meeting that you want; you get to call it and you get to expect him to show up for it.

And it’s not about dying on a hill; it’s about expecting him to comply with normal professional practices. Of course he needs to show up for a meeting that his boss requests. Not because you’re lording your authority over him, but because it’s reasonable to expect employees to comply with things that help you run your team effectively (within reason, of course … and this is within reason). It’s different from a holiday gathering; it’s a work meeting.

Years ago, I took over a team that had barely been managed previously, and I set up recurring regular meetings with each of the people who would now be reporting to me. One person told me she didn’t think it would help in her work and so I should skip her. I had to explain that the point wasn’t just to help her in her work — although I hoped that would happen too — but to help me in my work. To do my job well, I needed to know what was going on in each person’s realm and have the opportunity to give input, ask questions, make adjustments, and so forth. She had a fundamental misunderstanding of what the whole point of the meeting was — and, as it turned out, something of a fundamental misunderstanding of our relative roles as well. I suspect the latter is true of your employee, too.

Which I say because: something is going on with this guy. Sure, in the most generous reading it’s possible that he misunderstood what you were asking for. But I doubt it, especially combined with the rest of the info you provided about him. It’s worth digging in more deeply with his manager about exactly what’s going on there, because something is off.

my intern asked if my pregnancy was planned

A reader writes:

I’m pregnant with my first child. I’m just finishing my first trimester and have been sharing the news with colleagues.

I’m wondering what, if anything, I should do in response to my intern’s reaction. Like everyone else I manage, I told her one-on-one behind closed doors. Her response was really odd — she asked if the pregnancy was planned. (For the record, I am in my late 30s.) I was so taken aback in the moment that I didn’t even know how to respond. I think I may have just laughed it off. The more I think about it, though, I’m wondering if I should talk to her about her response and explain how inappropriate that question (or really any question related to a pregnancy!) is. She comes from a pretty sheltered background, so this might just be her genuinely not understanding that this isn’t an appropriate response. Do you think I should say something, or just let it go?

I answer this question — and two others — 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.

Other questions I’m answering there today include:

  • My company’s branded clothing doesn’t fit everyone
  • My business travel is full of exhausting cost-cutting