tiny answer Thursday: 7 short answers to 7 short questions

It’s tiny answer Thursday — seven short answers to seven short questions. Here we go…

1. Hiring the runner-up before firing the first choice

I am an HR director for a nonprofit of about 120 people. We recently wrapped up a lengthy search that saw us have applications from nearly 100 people. It was down to two candidates, and I went with my competency list (attempting to be as unbiased and scientific as is possible in this inherently messy profession) instead of my gut intuition.

We’re now 3 weeks into working with the hire, and he is not meeting the bar. In retrospect, I should have known this and am kicking myself. I am reasonably certain the runner-up has not yet accepted a position since he was leaving the country for the 3 weeks since we called to reject him. I do think he is capable of the job and meets our bar. Is it ok for us to call him and confirm his availability prior to terminating our current hire? How do you suggest handling a conversation to offer him a position after having just passed him up for this spot less than a month ago? The position is urgent and basically must be hired within the next week.

You really need to handle the termination and the hiring separately. If you start hiring this guy before you’ve handled things with the person currently in the position, you risk signaling to any employees who hear about it (including the prospective new hire himself) that you’re not straightforward with employees when things aren’t working out, and that you’re willing to operate in a manner that many people will see as shady.

So don’t wait to talk to the new hire about the fact that it’s not working out. But meanwhile, you can certainly email the other guy and say, “Hey, we have an unexpected opening that we’d love you for; we’re still ironing out details, but I’m wondering if you’re still available.”

2. Part-timer being worked full-time

I am a part-time employee at a design firm, where I also assist the receptionist on an as-needed basis. I cover the desk until she comes in, and for lunch breaks, vacations, etc. Here’s the problem: they ask me to stay late (I am only scheduled until 2 pm) at least twice a week, sometimes more. And the receptionist has been either calling out sick or taking a day off, at LEAST once a week. So I feel obligated to stay the full day (I have a couple of other part-time gigs that are flexible, so it is usually not a problem). The problem is, when she is out, I cannot take a break. I can’t leave the desk for more than a bathroom break, and I’ve worked stretches of two weeks of 9 am – 6 pm or 9 am – 7 pm without stepping outside for air — or to get lunch. That makes some weeks 45 or even 50 hours. It is a small company and I have only been employed with them for 6 months.

Should I be getting overtime for those hours? Or are they required to give me an hour break? I am non-exempt and am paid by the hour.

If you’re non-exempt, you should be getting paid overtime for all hours you work over 40 within a given week. Whether or not you’re required to be given a break depends on what state you live in; there’s no federal law requiring them, and some states do and some don’t.

Also: You can say no. Don’t feel obligated to stay late if you don’t want to and didn’t sign up for that. When asked, say, “I’m sorry, I can’t because I have somewhere I need to be.” You can also say, “Hey, can you send someone to cover the front desk while I go to lunch?”

I would talk to your boss about what’s going on, because she may have no idea or not realize that it’s a problem. Say something like this: “I’m glad to help out by working extra hours on occasion if it’s needed, but I’ve been working as much as 45 or 50 hours per week, rather than the Y hours we talked about. I’m also finding that when Jane is out for the whole day, I haven’t been able to take a lunch break or any other break at all. I’m not sure what options are available to solve this, but I figured I should talk to you about it.”

3. Using current employer’s fax machine to fax job applications

I’ve been looking for a new job, and one of the companies I applied at asked me to fax some paperwork to them. I don’t have a fax machine at home, and, honestly, aside from my job, I never run into one. I know using work resources to apply for other jobs is a big red flag for a prospective employer, but what about this situation? They insisted on faxed documents because they create legal copies. I ended up asking a local convenience store, but I’m worried that still looks bad.

Don’t use your office’s fax machine. You risk being caught, and you also risk their information showing up on the fax itself, which will look really bad. Use a fax machine at a copy shop, or scan the paperwork in and use an online fax service.

(And it’s weird that they’re requiring a fax. Nearly every other company manages to survive without requiring job applicants to use faxes, so their claim to you that it’s for legal reasons is B.S.)

4. Does this dress code sound like my nose piercing will be allowed?

I will be starting a new job in a couple of weeks and I’m currently going through the initial hiring process, reviewing paperwork and the employee handbook. My question is regarding the dress code. I have my nose pierced, and for the interview I put in a small, unobtrusive stud. Typically I prefer to wear a small hoop that is obviously less subtle. I read through the employee handbook, and the dress code just warns against appearing sloppy, unprofessional, or of wearing extreme styles of dress or hair. I live in a city where piercing and tattoos are very common and prevalent, though I recognize that company culture dictates what is acceptable as well. When I went in on a Friday for my interview, everyone seemed casually dressed. If the handbook doesn’t explicitly say anything about piercings can I go ahead and wear the jewelry I want? Is this the kind of thing I should wait to feel out after I’ve been there or should I just ask HR outright if it would be acceptable? It seems silly now that I’ve spelled out my concern, but I feel strange asking for permission for something like this.

Just ask. Wear the unobtrusive stud again on your first day and ask either HR or your manager, “Hey, I wanted to ask about piercings. I normally wear a small hoop in my nose, but I wasn’t sure from the dress code whether that was okay or not.”

5. Explaining a job detour caused by depression

In August of 2010, I left my job as a grant writer at a small, internationally focused nonprofit. There were many reasons for my departure, but chief among them was that I was battling a very bad case of chronic depression and PTSD. I decided to take on a job as a dog walker while I tried to deal with my mental health issues — something that would be physically active, fun, healing and still bring in an income. I am still working as a dog walker now, but I have successfully treated my issues and am eager to return to a more engaging work world. I’ve recently started job hunting and I’ve sent out a few applications, but I’ve been held back by my fear of trying to explain my work history. I’m nervous that employers will not consider me as a serious candidate because I’ve spent the last two years in a service job. How do I tactfully explain why I’ve been out of my field for two years without giving too much undesired information?

“I was dealing with a health issue that has since been resolved.” That’s all you need to say — employers shouldn’t probe to find out specifics; they just want to know that it’s no longer an obstacle. Good luck!

6. Is this temp-to-perm-to-temp job fishy?

I accepted a temp-to-perm job that was suppose to go perm after a month or two. When I accepted the official offer and completed the application, after 2 months my employment was rescinded! Apparently there was an inaccuracy in my job history dates that I thought I cleared during the background screening process. They agreed to let me stay temporary with a possibility that I can reapply after 6 months. Is this at all a likelihood or just an excuse to keep me off payroll? Some of my coworkers are in the same boat.

Hmmm. I was going to say that I have no way of knowing; it’s certainly possible that they’re extremely rigid and bureaucratic and are telling you the truth. However, the same thing happened to some of your coworkers? That makes the whole thing sound fishy to me … although it’s hard to say with certainty without more details.

7. Managing a lazy employee when you don’t have real authority

I think “facilitator” is the best way to describe my position. I am in charge of six people and need to decide their day-to-day assignments within our group, but lack the power to really hire or fire. My question is about an employee who is lazy and apathetic. He needs constant “reminders” about what to be doing. When I give him specific assignments, he’ll say “Really?” as if it were a joke. I’ll answer with “Yup” and sometimes will give explanations. It’s draining to need to give him several more directions when the other employees can usually figure out what needs to be done by themselves, and if others need direction it only needs to be said once. Am I being too soft? I spend all day with these people, and don’t want to scare them off.

P.S. I should add, he’s young and doesn’t really seem to care about the job. It’s more of a short term money-maker.

Tell your boss what’s going on and ask her to intervene with him. If you don’t have the authority to manage people’s performance (which inherently includes setting and enforcing consequences), then she presumably is the one who’s supposed to be doing it … so give her the information she needs in order to do that. If she doesn’t handle it, or if she does but things don’t improve, go back to her again and push the issue harder. There’s no reason this should be tolerated when there are loads of talented people looking for work and who wouldn’t behave this way.

{ 107 comments… read them below }

  1. Anonymous*

    Re #3 – I don’t see how using a convenience store looks bad.

    But online services (ideally the paid one, with no ads) are the way to go if possible.

    1. Elizabeth*

      FedEx/Kinko’s also offers fax service, if you want something more “office-y”. They’ll also receive faxes for you and hold them until you pick them up. But I agree; I don’t see anything wrong with using a convenience store. If any potential employer holds it against you that you don’t own a fax machine, that’s not an employer I’d recommend working for anyhow…

    2. Anonymous*

      Tip: If there’s a college or university near by, the on-campus copy shop can be cheaper than Fedex/Kinkos.

      1. Catherine*

        I was just going to recommend that. Usually colleges have a fax machine in the library that anyone can use. I recently used one, even though I worked at the university, because I was faxing a job application. It cost a few bucks but it’s worth it to not have to use your employer’s machine.

    3. Anonymous*

      Google has recently (this past Spring, I believe) launched a fax service, HelloFax. The free version lets you send or receive a few faxes a month directly from/to your computer. It’s perfect for those random fax quandaries.

      1. Your Mileage May Vary*

        Sorry, that was me. (I don’t work for Google or make money from them. I just think they are awesome!)

    4. Elizabeth West*

      If there is a state Career Center in your area, they also let you use the fax for free. I rarely do, since most places have online apps or let you email a resume, but it’s nice that they are there if I need them. Plus, they offer other services.

  2. moe*

    A big “wow” to #1–wanting to hire the runner-up prior to firing the person you just hired.

    OP sounds like a reality show casting director, not an HR professional — let alone the *director* of HR. Brutal.

  3. B*

    #1 – I can only assume since you did the hiring that you are also the hiring manager. My question is…why have you not spoken to them, letting them know they are not hitting the bar? Sometimes it can take a month or so to catch on to a company’s wants and culture. True you can know right away they will not work out but perhaps you are also looking for ways they are not hitting the bar in order to hire this other person.
    As for hiring the other person, note that they, and the rest of the company, will figure out he was second choice. And you fired the first choice practically willy nilly so it could happen to any of them. That is a pretty bad work culture to create.

  4. Anonymous*

    I am the HR Director in #1. I am actually really curious about my question regarding the conversation with the runner-up. I absolutely will not have a conversation with him prior to both the current staff member and the full staff knowing the status. I would never do so, for exactly the reasons stated in the answer. Also, for the record, we have already started intensive coaching and support, and laid out specific plans. We’ve also paid for some training in the area of weakness for the employee.

    However, as a contingency plan, I do think it could be a delicate conversation if/when we do call the runner-up, and would love any advice for explaining the situation to him, without violating privacy of the former staff member.

    1. Anonymous*

      You should definitely think of a timeline for when you want to see some change/improvement. This second person is still looking and may hold off on other opportunities if you tell him he MAY be reconsidered. Make sure you know for sure before you keeping him waiting on just a possibility.

    2. Student*

      If you can hire the #2 choice, then call him. If you cannot hire the #2 choice, do not call him. He will not be happy if you string him along and ultimately can’t offer him a job, and that’s a really terrible thing to do to someone.

      You don’t get to call him and explain your “delicate situation” because this is not some reality TV dating show. Your delicate situation is not his problem. You either get to call him and say, “I have an opening that I want to hire you into,” or you do not call at all.

        1. Jamie*

          I agree also. It’s like not breaking up with someone until you know you have a new BF lined up. They are two separate things.

          If the new hire isn’t working out then let him go, offer it to the second choice – and if not accepted launch a new search.

          If you wouldn’t fire the new hire unless the second choice was available then this seems like a case of hirer’s remorse and I would think it would be better to work with the person you’ve already selected and evaluate him on his own merits.

      1. Anonymous*

        Agreed! If you can hire the second choice hire them. If you cannot, do not call saying we may be able to. You are stringing them along and giving them hope.
        I do see Allison’s point. I had a job where I knew right away it was not a good fit, when I got there.

    3. Jamie*

      “Also, for the record, we have already started intensive coaching and support, and laid out specific plans. We’ve also paid for some training in the area of weakness for the employee.”

      Just curious, but if he’s only been there for three weeks and you’ve started this …can you have properly evaluated the effectiveness of the training in this short period of time?

      I believe you can know in three weeks whether or not someone was a bad hire but for me that would be finding out he lied about crucial skills, attitude, etc.

      Readers only have a small snapshot of the situation, but I’m trying to figure out what kind of paid training can be arranged, completed, and determined to be ineffective in three weeks and I’m drawing a blank.

      1. Ask a Manager* Post author

        Yeah, if that’s needed, that to me is a sign that the fit isn’t right, period. Doing that kind of intensive salvation on a new employee isn’t generally the right move.

        1. Jamie*

          I agree – this sounds like it was a bad fit and that you can absolutely tell quickly. It just seems that once you throw these kind of intensive resources at the problem it could be confusing for an employee if they are let go before there is a normal time of determining whether or not they were effective.

          Then again – I would only recommend those kind of resources if the hire was a great fit in other ways and just needed some specific skill training…but I would hope I’d have determined that in the interview stage so no surprises.

        2. Anonymous*

          Do you also think that using those resources is a bad idea if someone is entry level? For example, I’m a new admin at an IT company and know nothing about IT.

          1. Jamie*

            When you say admin – do you mean your a new system or network admin, which is IT, or administrative support at an IT company?

            I tend to hear admin and assume IT, but on this blog it tends to usually mean administrative assistants or other admin support positions.

            If it’s administrative support, what are you struggling with in working for an IT company? Are there parts of your job that you feel can be addressed with specific training? Because if it’s a question of the little industry quirks or verbiage that may very well be better addressed with time and a friendly mentor.

            1. Anonymous*

              Sorry for the confusion, I’m kind of an admin assistant so doing stuff other than the actual technical coding and what have you. I find that I’m limited in what I can do because I don’t know all the terminology/ concepts. I also tend to get assigned random things that cover a wide range of departments.

            2. Anonymous*

              Sorry for the confusion, I’m kind of an admin assistant so doing stuff other than the actual technical coding and what have you. I find that I’m limited in what I can do because I don’t know all the terminology/ concepts. I also tend to get assigned random things that cover a wide range of departments. I feel that the company wants me to know these things ASAP.

    4. Ask a Manager* Post author

      If you do fire the first person and call the second, you can simply be straightforward that the original hire didn’t work out. This stuff happens. If you try to dance around it, you’ll introduce awkwardness into the conversation; just be honest about it, without going into detail.

    5. fposte*

      If you’re offering somebody a job and you weren’t a jerk in rejection, it doesn’t need to be a delicate conversation: “We were impressed with your strengths previously, our prior candidate didn’t work out, and we’d love to offer you the position if you’re still interested.” There’s nothing schmucky about this, as this is one of those areas where hiring is not like dating :-).

      As Student indicates, I think it becomes delicate if you’re trying to make it do things it shouldn’t, like gauge interest or commitment from somebody when you’re not offering them anything. So don’t call until you can make an offer, and if you get turned down, then you just start a new search.

      And as people have said, the firing and the liking #2 are two separate issues. It’s quite plausible that you won’t get #2 and will have to go through a search again to find #3. This isn’t a hiring do-over where you’re getting the candidate you now wish you’d hired; it’s dealing with an employee who’s not working out and then finding somebody for his position, starting with a previously strong candidate.

    6. Anonymous*

      HR Director; as many have already said – three weeks isn’t really that long a time; but, you are there and we aren’t. So, I am going to assume that you are correct in that assessment. (for what it’s worth, as a trainer, I have had new hires in training for that length of time at some places – it really isn’t that long – and to avoid being rude I wouldn’t further pile on)

      However, what makes you so sure the runner up will work out? Didn’t you use your “scientific” method for both of them? Unless the first new hire lied about something I don’t really see how you can be so sure that the runner up will do any better. Please ask yourself if this isn’t a case of “buyer’s remorse” that is causing you to think the runner up will be better. (damn, I should have bought that red car, it really was much nicer than the blue car I bought)

      Sorry, I lied, I will further pile on – your “lengthy search” also tells me that you might be having buyers remorse – taking too long to hire tells me that you possibly weren’t sure how to hire (see AAM’s previous post linking to an article in which one of the issues is management wants the “perfect” candidate and they hesitate hiring at all)

      For whatever it’s worth, I have been interviewed for jobs in which the first choice “didn’t work out.” Be prepared to be honest about this and give clear examples. Not everyone will, but, *I* will question you about it – extensively! Not to be nosey or rude; but, because I want to make sure that it will be a good fit for me.

      In my two cases I got two different answers – the first was a wishy-washy “we don’t want to go into details because of confidentiality”. That is a HUGE red flag! Since I don’t know that person and you aren’t telling me her name there really isn’t any breach of confidentiality. They should have given me clear examples where someone “dropped the ball.”

      The second time involved clear answers in which I felt like they were being too picky. The person actually, in my opinion as a trainer, accomplish a lot in a month’s time and they still weren’t happy with what she had done. (I told them that BTW; so they didn’t offer me the job; hopefully they decided that they were being too harsh and didn’t fire the person yet)

      Both times there were clear red flags to me that I wouldn’t be happy at either place. So, I would further advise you to ask how would an outsider view your assessment of the new hire not working out. You owe it to yourself, your organization, your employees, and, especially, to your runner up to be honest with this assessment.

    7. Joey*

      As someone who’s done a ton of hiring I’d suggest you look further at your hiring process. While its not an exact science and never will be there’s a problem if your gut and your selection process are giving you two different top candidates. Id try articulating and quantifying exactly what your gut senses that your hiring process is missing. Missed hard skills are a little more obvious, but i frequently see people blinded by a candidate that looks good on paper and not giving enough weight to things like integrity, innovation, drive, etc.

      And unless you planned on something other than typical new hire training it sounds like you may be prolonging the inevitable with the current person. Think of it this way, would you have still hired the person if you new then what you know now. If the answer is no you are doing a disservice to that person by delaying that person from finding a job they can succeed in. And I hope you’re not planning on keeping the new hire just so you can have a warm body until your 2nd choice starts. That would be really selfish but I know it’s a natural reaction when you’re faced with the workload of a vacant position.

    8. Anon1973*

      I was a #2 choice. I was turned down for the position. About two weeks later I received a call asking if I was still interested. I say yes, I was. The caller said great and made me an offer.

      That’s all there was to it – no details were given about why I received an offer after first being rejected. I didn’t ask. It didn’t matter to me. All that mattered is I got the job.

      Several months into the position, when I knew my co-workers and supervisors better, they did tell me what happened. I won’t go into the details, but it was something that was understandable and no one questioned management’s decisions.

  5. Suzanne*

    As to #1, good grief! 3 weeks is all you give a new employee? Are you giving adequate training? I haven’t had a job in 5 years that had anywhere near enough training (If I hear “Oh, you’ll figure it out” one more time, I might explode). You can’t expect a new person to know and understand all the ins and outs of your company, your computer network, your policies, and any other quirks of your company that quickly.

    1. Anonymous*

      Also, taking into consideration if this is a new field for them. I recently started a job as an admin at an IT company. While I’ve done admin work, I have never been in IT. It’s difficult learning without a lot of training aside from “here’s some of our brochures for customers, let me know if you have any questions!”

      If it’s a culture/fit/work ethic issue, that’s not something you can easily change. But more training may help if it’s possibly a skills issue.

    2. Ask a Manager* Post author

      To be fair, there are absolutely times when you can tell with confidence within a week that a new employee isn’t going to work out — sometimes it’s culture fit or work ethic, and other times it’s that the person doesn’t absorb/comprehend in the way the person in that role needs to. I think anyone who’s managed a lot of people is familiar with that sinking feeling that a new hire isn’t the right person for the job.

      1. Suzanne*

        I imagine there are times when you are pretty sure that an employee isn’t a good fit, but I would have serious reservations about working at a company that gives you a 3 week window to get up to par. I know I have worked places that get rid of people frequently and it wreaks havoc with the rest of the staff. The good ones bail out before they are tossed overboard.

        1. Ask a Manager* Post author

          Yes, I wouldn’t advocate a three-week window to get good at a new job. (I generally think that takes at least six months, in fact.) I’m talking about situations where it’s simply clear right away that the person isn’t right for the job, not because they’re new but because it’s not the right fit (whether because of skills, attitude, or whatever). There are occasionally times when you know right off the bat that it’s a bad hire.

          1. fposte*

            Do you think it’s usually an indication of a hiring flaw that could be redressed in future, or is it the kind of thing that’s tough to predict? I was involved in a hire that didn’t work out and the organization changed radically after hiring, so we didn’t do a post-mortem, but looking back I wish we had.

            1. Ask a Manager* Post author

              I’m a big believer in always trying to figure out if there are lessons there that you can learn from for the future when someone doesn’t work out — were there signs you missed, or exercises you should have done in the hiring process that would have revealed the problems, or areas you should have probed more on but didn’t? I think you can almost always find things to learn from in these situations.

              But I’m also a big believer that no one is perfect at hiring, and no matter how thorough you are, you will occasionally make mistakes. And it’s not “you suck at hiring” but rather “hiring is incredibly difficult and nuanced, and we’re dealing with people, not machines.”

              1. Jamie*

                I especially love your second paragraph. It’s really hard because there are so many variables. I took a job once and immediately knew it was a bad fit – unfortunately they didn’t agree with me and thought it was a great fit…they were very wrong…but anyway, you can’t know the totality of what you’re getting based on interviews. That applies to both sides of the interview table.

                And if people were machines this process would be so much easier. If one of my computers doesn’t work out I decommission it and replace it with one which will perform exactly as I need. But then they don’t have feelings, career goals, or families…at least not that I know of.

              2. Ask a Manager* Post author

                I should actually add a caveat to my last paragraph, because there are of course people who DO suck at hiring. Hell, there are whole companies that suck at hiring. But if you’re vigilant about doing the components of good hiring* and someone still doesn’t work out, then my last sentence stands!

                * components of good hiring = not hiring someone from just one conversation, really probing into the details of their experience and how their brain works, in most cases finding ways to see them actually do the work (using an exercise or simulation of some kind), and conducting thorough reference checks (not just employment verification)

                1. Elizabeth West*

                  And don’t forget to tell them ALL the things they will be doing. I got hired once for a receptionist position, but they never told me I’d be doing a client’s payroll until my second day on the job (it was at an accounting firm). Until that point, I thought it was just an admin job. I’m LD in math, and can’t do someone’s payroll. After the manager screamed at me for making a mistake on my third day, I quit.

                2. Jennifer O*

                  My first thought: I love how succinctly you’ve described the components of good hiring.

                  My second thought: Too bad it’s buried in the comments section of a post. I’d love to see this as a full post.

                  You’re awesome, Alison. Thanks yet again for being such a sage of the workplace.

          2. Kimberlee*

            It’s weird to me that so many people seem to think that being able to do the functions of the job and being a good fit for the company and culture are the same thing… like, if you can tell within the first couple days that someone isn’t going to work out, it’s not usually something skill related. It’s something else; personality, fit with office culture, a shirking of duties or business conventions that goes beyond what should be or could be taught, etc.

            Three weeks is probably not long enough to determine if they can properly figure out office procedures. But it sure is long enough to figure out if you just don’t want them working for your company anymore for other reasons! And if that’s the case, you’re not doing anyone any favors by letting them linger.

            1. Anonymous*


              Thanks for all of the feedback. For what it’s worth, our process included:
              -Online application
              -Pre-screen 30 minute call
              -2 reference checks, 1 of which I (HR director) know personally
              -Drafting a plan for the position (it’s a discipline position in a school)
              -90 minute in person interview with HR director and Principal

              The biggest gap we are finding is a massive technology skills gap, and data is an important piece of the job. We questioned one reference on the area of technology and was told he struggled at first but then really got up to speed. Candidate confirmed this. However, we’re seeing major gaps (sending emails to wrong people, never having seen excel, not knowing how to put a ppt into present mode, missing emails entirely and not responding)

              In retrospect, I wish we’d done a more thorough performance task that focused not only on the vision, but also a task involving sorting and analyzing discipline data.

              Thanks a ton for the thoughts.

              1. Ask a Manager* Post author

                Yeah, this is actually not a particularly thorough process. You only talked to this person for a total of two hours before hiring him. I would always do a second in-person interview, and also an exercise that probes more into the ability to actually do the job (drafting a plan for the position is different than testing the skills it’ll take to actually do the position). So I’d take a look at how you can modify this going forward, and that might help.

              2. Suzanne*

                I still contend that three weeks is not nearly long enough for someone to get up to speed. I had a position a few years back that expected me to do all kinds of things in excel, a fact which was never, ever mentioned in the interview process. The silly thing was that most of what I needed to know, I learned very quickly once I could get someone to sit down for 10 minutes and show me, but no one seemed to want to take the time. There was an assumption that I should just know how and why things were done a certain way.

                Even someone proficient at some of the computer applications will need some reasonable time to understand how it’s done at YOUR place of business.

                As for emails, has anyone explained to the three weeks and counting employee that he or she needs to respond to these emails? I was in a position a few years ago at a company that had offices all over the country with a company wide instant messaging system. I was never told that this was the case, so I was flummoxed when someone started messaging me from another state. I know how to use instant messaging, but did not know how, or if, I was supposed to respond to this person’s questions.

  6. Karyn*


    My old job had a similarly worded dress code, and when I started, I didn’t have a piercing, but eventually got a small stud in my nose after about six months on the job. I just started wearing it to work, and waited for someone to mention it. My boss eventually did – about four months after I got it! And when he did, he just asked, “Did you always have that piercing?” I asked if it mattered, and he said, “Not at all, I just want to make sure I’m not going nuts!”

    I find that in most companies (excluding law offices, stock brokers, etc. – the more conservative professions) don’t care as long as you still look fairly professional and aren’t coming in with huge gauged earrings or whatever. A nose stud is fairly unobtrusive.

    1. Anonymous*

      I have seen it rumoured that at one point, Sun had a dress code which simply stated “You shall be dressed.” Apparently they still had some issue with violations, though.

    2. Anonymous*

      Even more conservative professions are caring less, in my experience. Since I started working (about five years ago) I’ve worked in a couple different legal departments and law firms. Not a single one has cared about the tattoo on my ankle. One woman who interviewed at my current firm kept her nose stud in for it; she didn’t get hired, but I also didn’t hear anyone gossiping about the nerve of her keeping it in for the interview, either. HOWEVER, my tattoo is still something I generally cover for the interview and then inquire about once I’m hired — and every response has been “oh gosh, of course it’s not a big deal!” (Granted, I’ve worked in small legal departments and mid-sized firms, not BigLaw which is probably different.) I agree as long as your piercing or tattoo is tasteful and the rest of you is professional, most offices don’t care.

      1. Anonymous*

        I worked in big law for a few years, and there were always a couple of attorneys who had small visible tattoos. One associate with a nose stud. No issues that I know of, though this was in California (and I don’t know if the tattoos were visible during interviews).

      2. Andrew*

        I would urge caution –the dress code seems vague enough to allow for any kind of interpretation. “Unprofessional” and “extreme” are in the eye of the beholder, and until you know the culture, it isn’t worth the risk to guess about such things.

        A few weeks of discreet observation of your co-workers and a couple of short conversations will give you your answer. Surely the nose jewelry can wait until then?

  7. Lee*

    I’ve used FaxZero.com before, but Student is right, many libraries offer fax services for a small fee, and you are supporting your local library! They also often have computers and printers/copiers that can be used along with WiFi occasionally.

  8. KayDay*

    #4 nose piercing: So, one of my regrets from college is not getting my nose pierced (due to way overblown fears of professional dress codes), and now I think I am too old for that sort of thing….le sigh… but I digress.

    I would do everything Alison said (i.e. just ask) but, if I were you, I would wear the stud, regardless of what they tell you, for a couple of weeks just to get a better feel for how people dress–people often dress more casually on Fridays. Dress codes tend to have both written and unwritten components, so somethings might be allowed “on paper” but would look out of place anyway. (but honestly, I doubt anyone would care about the hoop!)

    1. Grace*

      There’s a rad lady at my work who’s probably in her mid-40’s, and she just got her septum pierced. It looks awesome! So I think you’re never too old for that sort of thing. Also, nostril piercings are one of the most reversible and easily healed piercings if you don’t like it. I think you should go for it.

      1. zayq*

        My mom, (late 40s) has a nose stud too, and she looks awesome with it, so definitely don’t age hold you back!

        1. JT*

          Nose studs, in general, look good and I’m glad they’re more accepted.

          Rings through the septum are much more “forward” and I can see those being problematic in conservative places.

          Rings through the side are intermediate between those too I think.

          1. Andrew*

            Facial piercings of any kind give me the creeps, and I suspect I’m not alone.

            I wouldn’t assume that the powers that be are OK with even a nose stud unless I had real proof.

          2. Grace*

            I work at a bike store, so the dress code isn’t conservative. But, I was responding to KayDay’s age concern.

      2. Jen M.*

        I like that you said this. I’ve considered getting a nose piercing. (I’m in my early 40s.)

        I’m already working on my tattoo collection (4 so far, at least 2 more planned), so why not? ;)

  9. Catherine*

    # Definitely wear the stud for a while, or even a clear place-holder until you get a better feel for things. There’s too many unspoken rules flying about. However I think a nice stud would be perfectly acceptable in most cases. However, a hoop is more noticeable and might not go over well, even if it’s a tasteful hoop.

    1. Kimberlee*

      I feel like if a stud was fine in the interview, there’s no reason to go for the clear holder on the job. I’d wear the hoop the first day. You have the legitimate excuse of knowing that they didn’t object to your piercing before, and if it’s a problem, they’ll let you know.

      I think that approach is better than the above, where you let people get used to you being a certain way, and then you change into being more who you really are later on. It sorta feels like false advertising to me (though admittedly this is a small enough deal that it’s not like it’s going to end up with anyone getting fired or super pissed off or anything).

      1. Ask a Manager* Post author

        I’d still just wait and ask on your first day. If it’s fine, you can wear it on your second day and forever afterwards after that. But if you wear it on your first day and it turns out they’re not okay with it, now you’re having an awkward conversation right at the start of your job. Why opt for awkwardness when there’s an easy alternative?

    2. Grace*

      I have multiple piercings, and while I wear clear retainers for the more unusual ones (Eyebrow, septum and 2 lip rings), I’ve never had an employer who had an issue with a small nostril ring. It’s really not that much more obvious than a stud, unless your ring has a jewel or chain on it, or is obnoxiously large. I think if you’re nervous you should check, but I don’t think it should be a problem.

      Granted, I’ve worked at a construction company, Wendy’s, an indie guitar store, an alternative jewelry shop, and as a mechanic at both a go-karting store and a bike shop, so I’m not exactly experienced in a “professional” work environment.

  10. H*

    I am the person in #2 — first, thanks for the suggestions! I have spoken to my boss about it — and she is the one who would have to cover the desk if I wanted to take a break (and she is admant about not doing that).

    It’s not a full-time position, but I think they hired me as ‘part-time’ to skimp on not giving me benefits (I am the only part-timer there!). Most people who work here never get a break, but they are exempt, so it’s allowed.

    1. Natalie*

      You absolutely should be getting overtime (they can’t give you something else like extra vacation in lieu of overtime pay either) and perhaps if you point that out to them they will, at minimum, stop asking you to work 50 hours a week.

    2. Max*

      In that case, if you stopped staying all day, she would have to address the actual problem – a receptionist who isn’t scheduled for enough hours and is also taking a ridiculous amount of time off. The receptionist is only being allowed to get away with this because your boss is a bad manager and is letting it slide because it’s not inconveniencing anyone who matters. If you stop staying all day out of the goodness of your heart, the boss will be forced to face the consequences of letting the receptionist continue with this behavior, and the problem will be resolved in record time.

        1. JLH*

          This goes along with one of my favorite sayings about the workplace: “If you don’t let it break, it won’t get fixed.”

    3. AP*

      Eek, I was just about to chime in here and say I was in your position once. I was the office manager, but the company wasn’t very busy and we laid off our receptionist and I agreed to take on the phone system as part of my job. A lot of time I was the only person around and ended up afraid to run to the bathroom in case I missed an important call. Finally I spoke with my boss about it, and she was like, “you know, we do have a voice mail system! It’s not ideal if all phone calls go to voice mail, but once in a while it’s fine.” I was pleasantly surprised.

      But it sounds like you already tried that tack and were…unpleasantly surprised. It also sounds like your boss is not stepping up or trying to find a solution – not a good sign for the company in general, especially given the rest of the background you’ve provided.

      1. KayDay*

        Also, many phone systems now will support an auto-attendant (press 1 for Kathy; press to for Bob; press 3 for Tony….) that can be turned on just when you need it. So if you need to go to the rest-room, you can turn it on just for those few minutes.

    4. Ask a Manager* Post author

      H, you need to do one or both of the following:
      1. Start saying no when they ask you to work longer than you signed up for.
      2. If you do occasionally agree, point out that if it causes you to go over 40 hours that week, they’d need to pay you overtime (say, “which I’m pointing out because I’m not sure if that’s something you want to do, so we should clear it before I stay”). You should also point out that they may inadvertently be changing you to a benefits-eligible status if their benefits are based on whether you’re working part-time hours or not. (Again, say “I wasn’t sure if this was a problem, so I wanted to raise it before we hit that point.”)

      On benefits and how your hours can trigger eligibility, read this post:

      1. Anonymous*

        You should also point out that they may inadvertently be changing you to a benefits-eligible status if their benefits are based on whether you’re working part-time hours or not

        Why should the employee do that? Surely the manager would be fully capable of working that out for themselves?

        1. Ask a Manager* Post author

          Many, many managers don’t know what the rules are for this kind of thing (regardless of whether or not they should). It’s only practical to advocate for yourself.

          1. Anonymous*

            Making sure that your manager doesn’t start giving you benefits is considered advocating for yourself? That’s a rather unusual viewpoint.

            1. Ask a Manager* Post author

              No. Making sure that you get benefits that you’re entitled to, if you’re entitled to them. The language I suggested was language she can use to point out that she may be earning eligibility for them.

              1. Anonymous*

                Perhaps then, it might be better (for the employee, not the manager of course) to wait until after eligibility had been achieved, rather than warn in advance (beyond a generic note of total hours worked).

                1. Ask a Manager* Post author

                  Sure, if you’re someone who likes to take an adversarial stance with your employer rather than a collaborative one. Which comes with an entirely different set of issues.

                2. Anonymous*

                  An employee requesting benefits to which they have become entitled as a direct consequence of doing exactly what their manager requested them would be considered adversarial?

                3. Laura*

                  It would absolutely be adverserial to request something with such a large magnitude as BENEFITS …AFTER the fact, even if they are deserved.

                  That is like babysitting your neighbor’s children, when your neighbor thought it was going to be free, then when they come home, smacking them with a 100 dollar invoice. Of course you should get paid, of course you deserve it, and of course you never agreed to do it for free, but having the discussion after the fact is plain rude.

                4. Ask a Manager* Post author

                  Deliberating not mentioning this until you’ve triggered eligibility and only mentioning it then is an adversarial way of operating. If you didn’t realize it yourself until then, then it’s not. But knowing it and not bothering to say anything, when you think there’s a good chance that they’d change course if they realized it, is adversarial.

                5. Anonymous*

                  It’s not at all like the babysitting example – the manager knows exactly the point at which the employee would become benefits eligible, and how much work they have requested. Wouldn’t a reasonable person presume that much?

                6. Ask a Manager* Post author

                  Nope. They should know in theory, but in practice they often don’t. If you do know, it’s courteous to point it out. (And the fact that you think it’s not is where the adversarial nature of this is coming in.)

          2. Alisha*

            Alison, how many managers do you believe simply don’t know the rules vs. intentionally flout them?

            In my experience, it’s been about 50/50, but I’d be curious to hear your perspective, especially since you do management coaching through your day job.

            In my case, my husband has been an invaluable resource in terms of coaching me on employment law and directing me to resources that spell it out, but I think this was just random serendipity. He’s not a lawyer, but is a great legal-eagle.

            1. Ask a Manager* Post author

              Of the managers who don’t follow a particular law, the vast majority of the time it’s because they don’t know it. Vast majority. There’s also, “I know technically this doesn’t follow the law, but surely they can’t really mean it in a case like mine.” And they really believe that last part.

              As I’ve said here before, there are some many elements to employment law, some of them quite arcane, that it’s close to impossible for a small business to stay on top of them all. There’s no one place to go to get informed of everything, and sometimes something is counterintuitive and you wouldn’t even think that there would be a law that you should look up.

              1. Jamie*

                I have to agree – and I am off the scales for cynicism.

                I used to think if people didn’t know this stuff it was deliberate, but my short stint filling in for HR a couple of months (talk about being a team player – I deserved a Nobel Peace Prize for stepping up to the plate for that one – HR is exhausting) showed me how complex the labyrinth is.

                And too many times I’ve seen decent and well meaning people get it wrong. I know they are decent and well meaning because once they are made aware of the error it’s immediately rectified with reparations and apologies when warranted.

                You cannot over estimate the value of having a good labor attorney on retainer.

        2. Kimberlee*

          I want to second the idea that managers don’t necessarily know what the eligibility standard is. It’s all based on the company’s contract with the carrier, and those vary wildly, and it’s not like anyone other than whoever administers the benefits have ever looked at that contract.

          I was the benefits administrator for my job during the time when we discovered that there were eligibility standards other than “whoever the boss says gets insurance gets insurance.” I had never done that administration before, so I had no reason to believe that wasn’t the case, and nobody I work with has ever seen the contract. There’s no way our department heads know what the eligibility standard is. There’s not necessarily much reason for them to.

  11. Malissa*

    #3–A scanned document has the same legality of a faxed document. Some companies still think it’s easier for people to fax than it is to scan. Ask them for an email address.

    1. Kimberlee*

      Actually, I have also run into the problem of some places (usually government entities and banks) not accepting emailed documents and insisting on faxed ones. It was explained to me that laws have not caught up with technology, there are plenty of places that consider a faxed signature legal, but a scanned and emailed one not. It’s a stupid distinction, but it does exist. There is legal precedent for a faxed signature to be considered valid, but not so for emailed ones (in these assumably rare cases), so some entities would rather be safe than sorry.

      1. Ask a Manager* Post author

        This is totally true (and annoying). The government agencies are probably still using abacuses. But there’s no reason an employer should need to do it with job applications. MAYBE hiring paperwork, but not applications.

        1. Deedee*

          I work for a government agency and we do actually have calculators and computers! (haven’t had abacuses for at least five years now…) The policy of requiring documents to be faxed rather than emailed (in our State) is apparently due to our email not being secure. Anything with tax ID numbers or other confidential information is to be transmitted by Fax (which I find strange that faxing would be more secure? can this be true?)

          1. Elise*

            I am also in government (Fed not state), and we have the same reason for not generally accepting any outside emails. We can only send secure information internally if it is encrypted, and external users won’t be using the required encryption.

            Our IT dept also has the worry about viruses, so emails with no personal data and no attachments are generally more acceptable than emails with attachments. So we wouldn’t be able to open a password protected attachment and use that as a sort of encryption.

  12. Josh S*

    For #7 (No real authority to fire/discipline the slacker)

    AAM is dead right. Take it to your manager. But ALSO take a list of examples, expectations, and how those expectations aren’t being met. You can say something like, “Joe is really not meeting expectations. For instance, I gave him Assignment 1, and he had to ask 3 times how to accomplish TaskA even though he has done it several times before. Then, when I followed up a day later to make sure he was moving on to TaskB, I discovered that he had not even begun TaskA.
    “This is one example, but it is representative of a greater trend–he does not care about getting the work done, and is not able to work without significant reminders and guidance. In my opinion, we need to put him on a coaching/improvement plan, and if he doesn’t meet it, we should replace him.
    “Can I have your support in addressing this performance issue? Would you like me to handle the coaching issues, or would you prefer to do it?”

    If your manager doesn’t want to get involved, it’s time to find a new workplace. If you are in charge of performance but have no authority to enforce standards, you’re in an impossible position. Other employees will pick up on this, and you’ll have an unmanageable team.

    Good luck!

  13. Anonymous*

    #1-Three weeks? Seriously?

    I’m not sure I have ever even had proper systems access in my first few weeks at a new company.

    If the person is really that bad this soon, it had to be apparent in the hiring process.

    As for improvement, I would think there would have to be a minimum 90 day time frame. It sounds like they were given a couple days or even hours!

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      90 days is a very long timeline. In my experience, if you’re going to see improvement, you see it quickly — a few weeks, generally. I wouldn’t do more than a 30-day improvement plan in most cases.

      But, as I wrote in a comment above, it’s absolutely possible to realize in someone’s first week that they’re the wrong fit. And it’s not always due to sucking at hiring.

    2. Vicki*

      I worked with someone where we all (co-workers) knew the person was not a fit very quickly. She would not learn. Anything. Never took notes. Asked the same questions over and over. Leaned on co-workers to “help” her with projects (where “help” meant we were essentially doing most of the work.”

      Yes, you can know in 3 weeks or less. Training wouldn’t have solved the problem. Training wasn’t working.

  14. Anonymous*

    For #1 I would give the “runner up” full disclosure of what is happening. I would never go work for a company that is willing to simultaneously track down a previous candidate for a job, while going behind the current employees back and firing them after only three weeks.

  15. starts & ends with A*

    My previous company had a 90 day review period for new (entry level) employees. Rarely, but it happened, would someone be terminated* at the end of that period. However, the people who were – you knew well ahead of time that they weren’t a good fit. Like the guy who told someone on his team that he shut the door to his office and took a nap on the second day. There was a lot of work done to get him to bring pen/notepad to meetings and he had embellished when he applied about his web skills, which was discovered pretty quickly.

    So yeah, I think you can figure out after 3 weeks that the person you’ve hired isn’t a good fit. Can you get them up to speed? Eventually. But is it worth it if you need someone to fit in and start learning and you risk them not working out over a longer period of time and have to entirely reopen the hiring process? Maybe not.

    *Seriously, terminated is a great verb choice for employment.

    1. Elizabeth West*

      You’re terminated, sucker!!

      LOL I get a mental picture of the hapless employee being asked into the office for a chat, and an inner door opening and the metal endoskeleton stepping slowly out….

  16. K.T.*

    Re: 2. Part-timer being worked full-time

    While in school, I worked p/t as a receptionist and went through the exact same thing you described; however, I didn’t mind most of the time b/c I could use the money. Anyway, I worked sometimes up to 12 hrs a day and on weekend where there was no one to cover me, I never had a break. I was paid OT for any h0urs worked over 40 though.

    As far as the break and getting paid the OT issue, it’s definitely a discussion you should have with your manager. I’ve brought up conversations like this numerous times when I was in your shoes and we always somehow worked out something. Also, if you can’t work certain days, just say “no.” Believe me, I’ve learned to be more assertive with saying “no” after being pressured so many times to cover the front desk since the f/t person was out.

  17. JessB*

    To OP#2, I’m a temp and had to learn how to stop work at 5:00. I was previously someone who was rather flexible about this, but when I was being paid to work 9 to 5, and only those hours, and wasn’t getting sick pay or holiday pay, I had to teach myself to stop – or ask.

    I approached my boss with the AAM staple ‘how do you want to handle this?’ because it raises the issue, is non-confrontational and gives them a chance to think about it. I suggest this in your case too – ‘when Receptionist is away, it makes it difficult for me to take a break. How do you want to handle this?’

    But make sure you get a break, that’s just not on.

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