short answer Sunday: 7 short answers to 7 short questions

It’s short answer Sunday — seven short answers to seven short questions. We’ve got someone who wants to transfer two months into a job, a union forbidding its members to eat lunch with managers, and more. Here we go…

1. Transferring soon after starting a new job

What is the best way to go about asking to transfer to another department within the same company? I have been at my current job for only two months and while the position I am in is ok, there is another department that I have more interest in. How to I go about bringing up the possible transfer to my supervisor? I don’t want him to think that I would quit if I didn’t get transferred, or have him fire me for whatever reason. Also, I’m not even sure if there is an opening in the department at this time. I just want to be considered for any current or future opportunities that may come up.

Um, don’t do that. You’ve been there two months. Their investment in training you hasn’t even begun to pay off yet.

You need to stay in the position you accepted for at least a year before you start thinking about transfers. I’d be irritated as hell if a new hire was already making noises about moving somewhere else.

2. Being let off early your first day on the job

What does it mean if my boss let me off early my first night at work?

Probably that she was attempting to be nice and cutting you some slack on your first day. There’s a small chance that it was actually because you were doing a terrible job and she wanted to minimize the damage, but it’s far, far more likely that she was just being nice. If you’re at all worried, you can always ask, “How do you feel things went today?”

3. Union forbidding eating lunch with managers

I am a manager for a large nonprofit agency in California. There are many managers at the site. We are a union site, with many non-management union employees. Recently, the union membership indicated that it was forbidden for union employees (in particular, bargaining unit employees) to have lunch or take breaks with managers. I enjoy having lunch with some employees who are not managers. Is this legal?

Probably, but I’m not a lawyer and I don’t know for sure. Keep in mind, though, that the union represents employees, and if they have a problem with this, they should speak up.

4. Handling conflicting stories from two employees

As a manager, how do you handle conflicting stories from two or more employees? I’m trying to get to the bottom of an error that was made and boiled it down to two employees. However, each are telling a slightly different story and each putting the blame on the other. I’m not sure who to believe. This gets trickier, since one of the employees is in my department, and the other reports to another manager. How would you handle this situation?

Well, you may not be able to figure it out conclusively. All you can do is talk to each person, be on the alert for BS, and factor in each person’s credibility and what you know about how they tend to operate. You might also ask the other manager for their take. But ultimately it might not be possible to know for sure.

5. Asking a coworker to be a reference

How do you ask a coworker if you can use them as a reference? The last time I tried, I asked a coworker at my former job, and she acted put off by it; she told me that usually you need to know the person longer before asking for a reference. (We worked together for about a year, and got along great.) She has more job experience than I do, so now I’m wondering if asking for a reference from a coworker even appropriate. Did I make some kind of faux paus? When is it appropriate to ask? Or, is it appropriate to ask? I just don’t know how to bring it up.

No, this isn’t a faux paus. She either doesn’t know what she’s talking about, or she doesn’t want to be a reference for you for some reason and didn’t feel comfortable just telling you that directly.

6. Formatting a cover letter

My college career center told me to always include my address and the organization’s address in the cover letter header, in traditional business letter fashion. It looks professional but takes up quite a bit of space. Is it still necessary to do this?

Nope. And you definitely don’t want to do it if you’re putting the cover letter in the body of the email — although you don’t really need to do it in a Word document either.

7. Listing work for a parent on a resume

I am a college senior getting ready to go into the workforce and am currently revising my resume. My dad’s advice since graduating high school was that I should work every summer I was home. He says that employers don’t like to see large gaps in the work history that can’t be explained by being in school. I’ve worked most summers and about a year ago, my mom started her own embroidery business. I couldn’t find a job anywhere last summer, so I helped my mom. My question is whether I should list my mom on my resume or if I should leave that summer empty in the work history. I did do a lot of organizational work and other tasks that I can’t exactly list under my other jobs, but it was really informal and officially there are no employees. (My dad and I are the closest things to employees because we know how to work a computer.)

Sure, you can list that job, and you don’t need to specify that it was your mother’s business unless someone asks you about it. Work is work.

{ 82 comments… read them below }

  1. Meredith*

    Forgive me if this is a silly question, but my law school career center is also huge on very traditional cover letters with full address blocks. If you’re not starting the cover letter with your address or the organization’s address, should you thus go straight into the date and greeting, as in:

    January 29, 2012

    Dear Ms. Green:

      1. Meredith*

        No, I wouldn’t use the date in an email body. (I *definitely* have never used the date or address blocks in a cover letter that’s in the body of an email anyway!)

  2. Meredith*

    Oh, and a follow-up question: another thing I’ve heard of some people doing is instead of the address block, putting their resume header on the cover letter and then just heading to the date, greeting and letter. How do you feel about that, assuming the resume header isn’t huge or obnoxious in some way (e.g. a different font than the letter, which would irritate me personally)?

      1. ChristineH*

        Ooh good to know because I’ve done my cover letters that way, probably at the advice of my university career center (can’t say for sure though). Thanks!

      2. just another hiring manager...*

        I don’t mind the resume header on the cover letter. These documents are a packaged deal, so what’s wrong with a cohesive package? I think it looks like having your own letterhead, but it really is a matter of personal preference.

        But, I’m sure AAM would agree, you wouldn’t really want to work for someone who would flat out reject or accept you as an applicant just based on your cover letter header/address block, or lack thereof.

        1. Ask a Manager* Post author

          I might be misunderstanding the question, but I think she’s talking about not something that looks like letterhead, but the whole top piece of the resume with the profile section. To me, that looks overly gimmicky — like a sales flyer instead of a letter. And that WOULD be a strike against a candidate.

          If she’s just talking about having the contact info formatted the same, that doesn’t seem problematic.

          1. ChristineH*

            Ah that makes me feel better because I only use the contact heading of my resume in a cover letter, nothing else.

          2. Kim Stiens*

            LOL, would you consider it too gimmicky if an applicant actually HAD their own letterhead… like maybe with a logo and everything? I have personal business cards, which I bought at Rosetta Thurman’s advice even though I worried they were gimmicky, and I could see designing some fancy letterhead to go with it. :)

            1. Piper*

              I have a logo and letterhead. But then, I work in a field where that lends itself to that kind of thing. If I didn’t have it, people might wonder why not.

            2. JT*

              A personal logo is a bit much, unless the person is working as a consultant in a design-related field.

              But letterhead, with name and contact info , makes a lot of sense. Nowadays with electronic cover letters that info can be built into a header, and in a font-size much smaller and more discrete than the main text. The design should related to the design of the resume in terms of fonts, though they might be smaller in the letterhead address block (and business cards).

              1. Anonymous*

                A personal logo? I have to admit that made me chuckle. Would it be weird to use the image of my tabby cat? I think prospective employers should know I’m a crazy cat lady. I like to be upfront ;)

              2. Piper*

                It’s a text-based logo and I work in a creative design field where this is actually pretty common. I realize outside of this field, it might be odd. But I actually get compliments on my resume and its design nearly every time someone contacts me, so I must be doing something right.

        2. KayDay*

          I’m with you JAHM…that’s what I do. I think my personal “letterhead” looks damn classy too! It’s just my name and contact info (no “logo” or anything), but nicely formatted.

  3. Susan E*

    #4. And does it make a difference in what you are going to do about the problem? The words “getting to the bottom of it” made me wonder if this is about fixing the problem or putting the responsibility on someone.

    1. -*

      I am sometimes in situations where I am one of the 2 employees, so it would matter to me if the employer tried hard to get to the bottom of it just to find the correct employee to but blame on. I have a huge # of responsibilities and a many items I contribute on, but aren’t officially my responsibility. Delays, missed dealines (and thus sitting $) with the items I contribute on often get blamed on me my one other co-worker. The contributions I make on what are basically his items could be learned in 1-2 hours of training, but he wants to work a max of 8 hours a day in a place where most people do 50, so he “doesn’t have the time” to go above and beyond……

    2. ChristineH*

      That’s kinda what I got out of that question as well. Taking responsibility for errors is certainly important, but the way the OP is going about it feels a little childish (although I might think differently if it turned out the error was of a critical nature, particularly if it impacted safety or was illegal).

      1. Ask a Manager* Post author

        Yeah, it would have been easier to answer this question if we had more details about what the issue was. Was it something relatively minor, or was it something so serious that it really required “getting to the bottom of it”?

          1. anonymous*

            So hard to know w/o the deets, but could a shortened RACI matrix work to help prevent the problem in the future? Anything would then be cross-checked by the time it got to you. It would make it their clear & joint responsibility to get it right.

  4. Kim Stiens*

    I agree completely about the cover letter thing. When I’m reviewing cover letters, one big thing I see all the time that will quickly put a person in the “no” pile is a short cover letter. If you are given a page to tell me why you’re awesome, giving me a half page (which is ultimately what you get when you have two blocks of addresses, date, and the 4 lines open for a signature at the bottom) looks lazy and unenthusiastic. An otherwise stellar candidate can make up for it, but I like seeing a page full of reasons I should hire you, rather than a page of old-school business nonsense.

    1. Anonymous*

      While I’m not sure exactly how short is short in your definition, I would like to just say that you might be passing over someone who should be your new employee. Are you even reading those letters you pass up or do you just look at the page, determine it’s too short, and put it in the “no” pile?

      1. Ask a Manager* Post author

        I was about to say the same thing, but she went on to note that an otherwise stellar candidate can make up for it, so I assume she’s reading everything (which I would agree with).

      2. Piper*

        Sometimes brevity is best and should be rewarded. Why ramble on if you can get to your point more succinctly?

        1. Ask a Manager* Post author

          I think that’s reasonable if what’s written is truly excellent. But all too often very short cover letters consist only of a quick rundown of the person’s experience, which can be found in the resume anyway. The cover letter should offer something different than the resume — and if a shorter letter achieves that in a compelling way, then great. I just rarely see that.

    2. Nethwen*

      I assume you’re talking about electronic cover letters in any form? I ask because I have applied to plenty of places that insist on mailed application materials. Of these, the few that have sent me correspondence have used the traditional business letter format, so my conclusion was that if a company wants a mailed CL, they also want the traditional formatting.

      1. Ask a Manager* Post author

        Yes, I’m talking about emailed applications. Are you in the U.S.? It’s pretty unusual for employers to ask for materials to be mailed; I can’t recall the last time I saw or heard about that!

        1. Ask a Manager* Post author

          Just clicked on your link and saw you’re in North Carolina. I’m baffled about why you’re seeing employers asking for stuff to be mailed! (But in any case, if you do need to mail it, I agree that you’d use the traditional business formatting.)

          1. Nethwen*

            Most of these companies are in South Carolina or in rural areas in North or South Carolina. They also happen to be libraries that have “open to new technology and comfortable with computers” as a job requirement.

            1. Ariel*

              Yes! I applied to several libraries that required a paper application, resume, and cover letter. One required grad school transcripts (I did not apply to that one, those are expensive!)

          2. ChristineH*

            What about when an employer requests that you apply by email and ask that, in addition to a resume, a separate cover letter be attached as well? Would you then use the traditional business-letter format?

          3. Natalie*

            I’ve come across two in Minneapolis – the office of a huge labor organization and a small nonprofit focusing on homelessness. I read both job postings a couple of times just to make sure they hadn’t hidden an email address somewhere.

    3. Anonymous*

      I’m curious! May I ask in what capacity you are reviewing candidates (HR specialist, recruiter, functional mgr etc) ? I have never once been passed a cover letter by HR when reviewing candidates, and it’s honestly neither here nor there to me (for reference, I’m a program mgr & colleagues I’ve informally polled feel the same way). But it’s obvious that people feel very strongly in one camp or the other.

      I have a strong sense that cover letter etiquette is industry-specific. In my industry (gov’t contracting), it’s usually desirable that any cover letter included be brief and hit the high points of the advertised position.

      1. Kim Stiens*

        Haha! I review candidates and put them through the initial screenings, and set up interviews. I don’t have final authority for any hire though. And I think that being a concise writer is a VERY good thing, and a very well written cover letter could be fairly short, but I think it’s indicative of a level of effort, especially when talking about a subject you’re an expert in (yourself). :)

        1. Anonymous Curiosity*

          Thanks for your replies, ladies! I deal mostly with hard science-types, so creative writing skills are usually a moot point, though they are far more important in other disciplines.

          For Kim: Do you pass the cover letters on to your clients with the resumes? I couldn’t tell. Do they ask to see the cover letters? Should a candidate walk in the door expecting that the entire interview team has read their cover letter? It seems that most do!

    4. KayDay*

      I think that is quite harsh to penalize someone for following very standard business conventions. Keeping cover letters concise and no more than one page and using proper business format are such standard advice that you might be weeding out a lot of really good candidates. If they can’t write a business letter when applying to the job, what will they do on the job?

      Personally, I think it would be weird to send someone a business letter not in business format, assuming that you send an attachment with a letter; not an email (if it’s an e-mail, it should be in “email format”). When I screened applications, I thought letters that didn’t follow business format in the most basic sense looked a bit immature. A manager doesn’t want to have to teach employees what business letter format is.

  5. Nethwen*


    If this is an hourly low wage job (retail, hospitality, etc.), then it could be that the store wasn’t making its sales quota for the shift. At that point, managers start “letting” people go home and it would make sense for them to send the newer people home first.

    Every time I’ve been sent home at these kinds of jobs, the directive was phrased as a kind offer, “You can go home now, if you want” or something similar. If I replied with, “That’s ok, I don’t mind staying,” the manager would become uncomfortable or look sympathetic while explaining that I had to leave early because the store wasn’t making enough money. Getting sent home early happens to most people in these kinds of jobs; don’t take it personally.

    1. Anonymous*

      I have made it a habit with my hourly employees to simply schedule them for shorter shifts their first week or two. I don’t restrict it by much (an hour or two) but it’s imperative to avoid sensory overload. As I tell my employees, I never cut hours once the schedule is posted. I make it clear that IF they are out of things to do and IF it is slow, they are welcome to request to leave early. They are welcome to cut their own time, but I never push it. This has always been successful with my staff. We’ve accomplished a lot, and yet they feel comfortable requesting to head home early if need be.

      1. Nichole*

        A system like this should be the standard.When I was doing retail and restaurant type work, it was a major inconvenience for me to be cut early because I don’t drive. I once waited outside my job for two hours because my ride was at a funeral, it was raining, and the other girl wouldn’t trade me first cut, but one of us had to go. It’s considerate of the employer to give employees an opportunity to plan ahead.

  6. Anonymous*

    Re: #6 Formatting Cover Letter

    Thanks for clearing that up, because I was wondering the same thing and how to start the letter without the address block. However, I do find it a bit weird to use the term “Dear.” To me, “dear” is something more personal and I would write that to a close friend or family member. Would using “To” be alright too? Or are there any other greetings that are good to use?

      1. Nathan Reed*

        FWIW, I was taught to use “Dear X:” with a colon for formal letters, but “Dear X,” with a comma for personal ones.

            1. Long Time Admin*

              Also use the same punctuation after your closing, which is generally “Yours truly” (without the quotation marks) in business letters.

              When my boss emails me letters to fix up and mail for him, correcting the punctuation and moving the date to the proper place are the first things I always do.

              1. Long Time Admin*

                Wait, Wait!! Don’t put a colon after Yours truly though. If you use a comma or semi-colon in the greeting, THEN use the same punctuation after your closing. If you use a colon in the greeting, use a comma in the closing.

                (I need more coffee.)

              2. Ask a Manager* Post author

                I might be misunderstanding what you’re saying, but the closing should always be a comma, never a semicolon. (And the greeting should be a colon or comma, but not a semicolon.)

              3. Piper*

                Not that it really matters, but in most business correspondence I’ve seen recently, “Best Regards” or “Warm Regards” is often used as the closing and I usually use the former in cover letters. I’ve actually never seen “Yours Truly” used in the business sense (which obviously doesn’t mean it isn’t, but I’ve just never seen it).

  7. just another hiring manager...*

    Re: 1. Transferring soon after starting a new job

    I agree that you shouldn’t be asking for a transfer after only 2 months. However, use the next year or so to network with the department you are interested in and do an awesome job in your current department! That will help you make the transition later on.

    1. Kris*

      I’m probably about to be in a similar situation. I like my job, but not my location. I am hoping to be able to transfer to another office in a different city while still doing the same job I am doing now. When is it ok to request this type of transfer?

        1. Alicia*

          Kris never responded to this post, so I’m going to jump in since we’re in the same exact situation. :)

          I’ve been at my job for 10 months, but want to transfer to their office in another city with the same position/level. 10 months is a lot closer to a year than 2 months, and I love the company that I work for, just not the city. Is a 10 month mark okay?

    2. Vicki*

      I also agree that two months is too soon. You’d sound like you have a bad case of Grass-is-Greener syndrome On the other hand, a year is a LONG time, especially if you continue to have less interest in where you are now. That can lead to lack of motivation, burnout, and leaving the company not just the department.
      Give it another couple of months and re-evaluate. If, at 6 months, you feel the same way, you need to have a talk with your current manager.

      1. Vicki*

        I’m speaking as someone who has found herself “stuck” for a year in too many jobs. They all started out great and changed dramatically a few months to 8 months in, essentially becoming Not The Job I Accepted. Hanging on for a year because it takes that long to be sure and find something else is bad enough. Hanging on for a year as an arbitrary number would be intolerable.

  8. ChristineH*

    Re: #7 (listing work for a parent on resume)

    I know I’ve been quite chatty here today, but this question just occurred to me. I’ve been helping my mom with projects off-and-on over the years; would that be worth including on my resume? She doesn’t pay me (although I think she offered to do so years ago) and there’s no set schedule, but it certainly uses valuable transferable skills (mainly data entry and document formatting). Or might it be better to work into an interview? These projects are not part of a specific business/organization.

    1. Natalie*

      I would think you could certainly put it in your cover letter, if the work was relevant to the job you were applying for.

  9. Suz*

    Regarding being sent home early on the 1st day: At my company, new hires are usually sent home early every day on the 1st day. Depending on the position, you may possibly be sent home early a couple more times during the 1st week. You’re being bombarded with so much new information. After too many consecutive hours it doesn’t sink in anymore. Better to go home and get a fresh start the next day.

    1. KayDay*

      Ditto, I think I’ve be sent home at least a 30min early for every salaried job I have had! Usually (for me) the first day has mostly been paperwork, introductions, a tour, a ton of new info, and some really basic tasks…it has always taken me a few days to pick up a full 8 hours of assignments. I’m sure that’s not true everywhere, but it has been for me.

      1. JT*

        Leave early at the start? That surprises me – I’d think you could spend time just reading and reading company info even if there wasn’t an assignment to do.

        1. KayDay*

          I was told to go home (e.g. “hey, great to have you on board, go ahead and leave at 5:30.” (instead of 6)). I would then take my time getting ready to leave and make sure no one needed anything else. I would never, NEVER!, just leave of my own volition on the first day …and yes, I would take home things to read. I think they were just trying to be nice :)

        2. Just Me*

          I would do what the manager was asking me to do. Although I would not have an issue with just asking if there is something I can take home and read or reaching out in some manner but if I was told to go I’d go. It is not the new persons place to question the managers decision. I am not even sure if I would like it if an employee ignored my ” order” to go and then decided what they should be doing instead. Maybe the training is as such that they don’t want to inudate the employee to much on the first day. There will be more than enough time for the new employee to show their enthusiam.

          1. T*

            I was sent home early my first day. It wasn’t because I was doing anything wrong, but most likely because I had sat through 4 hours of orientation that morning and spent the rest of the day with my boss going over my role. After he was done going over everything he wanted to for the day, he told me to “beat the traffic and head out early.” He also had me come in later the next few days so that he could prepare a little before I came in. I wouldn’t worry too much about it. I also agree with JT that staying after being told to leave would probably irritate your new boss.

            1. Scott Woode*

              The only time I have ever been sent home early has been during the first week on a serving job, and even then it hasn’t really been “early” per se, but more after all the side work had been completed for the FT/PT servers who were already on the floor. Even after being sent home, I was still expected to memorize the menu, beverage lists, and other sundry details in my time-off.

              With regard to formatting questions (and by extension, questions on grammar) a great suggestion for all cover letter writers is to read Strunk & White’s “The Elements of Style.” I turn to their advice whenever I have a question regarding punctuation, grammar, tone, tense, etc. especially as it pertains to more formalized, professional writing.

  10. Just Me*

    #3 – I work for a med billing office non-union. I always supsected this but now know for sure that the leads, supervisors and managers have been ” unoffcially” offically advised not to speak to any of us underlings on any personal basis as much as they can help. Leads and supervisors basically ignore you walking down aisles and keep little eye contact. They truely seemed petrified that they will be caught talking even basic human conversation with people.

    The upper managment apparently is afraid that the managers etc will not be able to remain objective and might have favortism issues if they ask you how your child is after they have been sick. I don’t think even the managment, supervisors etc.. interact with each other.
    I can tell you that in the LONG 15 months I have been there I have had no more than a full 2 hours worth of conversation with my boss.
    And even that I might be long shotting that one.
    Exec managment also thinks that leaving in the middle of the day for an appendectomy is a bad thing and assess you a point as well as a 1/2 point for a min late even once a year, so I was not too surprised when I heard the no talking ” rule”.

  11. Anonymous*

    Is it OK to link to your site? I do not expect reciprocation – I simply believe your information would be invaluable to my niche. (not active yet but soon!)

    1. Anonymous*

      Whoops! I meant to add that I am looking to assist artists with their gallery dealings. Though we have many specific issues, if half my people simply read your site they would saved much trouble.

  12. MP*

    Re: #6 Cover Letters
    Alison, what’s the etiquette when emailing a HR manager? Do you attach both cover letter and resume to an email with a brief greeting? Or do you chuck the cover letter in the email body? I tend to do the former because I personally prefer looking at a formatted document. Your take?

  13. Jamie*

    I don’t know how crucial it is to get to the bottom of which employee did what, but if this was more than a misunderstanding and someone was lying I think a good manager would want to know who.

    It’s basic – but the OP could try bringing them both in the room to go over the error. Even people more than willing to toss you under the bus behind your back have a hard time lying when the person they are lying about is in the room.

    I once did that when someone was blaming an error they made on me, as in “That’s how she told me to do it, even though it was in complete non-compliance with her own procedure. The one she wrote and polices.” So I just casually asked for a brief meeting between our boss, myself, and the weasel to “clear up any confusion.” After a few minutes I went back to work while he had a longer chat with the boss about accountability.

    It doesn’t have to be confrontational – it’s better if it isn’t, actually – but just having everyone in one location cuts down the bald faced lies for all but the most sociopathic co-workers.

  14. Jamie*

    I wouldn’t worry about being sent home early, absent any red flags.

    I’ve sent people home early when things went better than expected. In my case, new hires need to be trained in different areas by various personnel. Time is estimated based on the average. If a new hires learning curve was faster than average and everything for the day was covered with time to spare, it’s better to cut them loose a little early than to mess with the schedules of employees who weren’t planning on training until the next day.

    If they were hourly, I paid up until the agreed upon time, though. I’m not a fan of punishing people for performing well :).

    That said, I do think it’s a good idea to tell the person that it’s just a scheduling thing. A new job is stressful enough without the added paranoia of trying to figure this kind of stuff out.

  15. Anonymous*

    In my email cover letter emails, I usually address it as:

    Name of recruiter
    Recruiter title
    Company name
    Company address

    Dear “name of recruiter”

    Could someone explain why this is not a good idea? It makes sense to me to have all of that information so it helps with organization in terms of who I am addressing the email to, rather than just starting with “Dear recruiter”

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