short answer Saturday — 7 short answers to 7 short questions

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

1. Employer won’t let me tack vacation time on to a work-related trip

I work for a national lab. I pay my salary out of my grants. I pay for conferences I go to out of my grants. I pay overhead to the national lab for the lab/office, administrative and security support for working here out of my grants. The national lab pays my vacation and sick time and I have 5 weeks vacation.

I am required to go to a European conference this year by contract signed on a collaborative grant. The lab has told us we can not tack on vacation to our business travel or it may not be more than half the time of the conference. Of course, I want to take an additional week vacation after the conference and have offered to pay the return flight out of pocket. But they still say no. The conference is 3 days so I’m allowed to take only 1-1/2 days vacation after.

These new rules are to protect the taxpayer from researchers taking unnecessary trips and charging their grant. But if I pay the return flight I’m saving the taxpayer money. (I can list a million ways in which unnecessary overhead costs at this lab cost the tax payers excess money.) Is this really legal? And do other private companies do this?

I can’t think why it wouldn’t be legal. Companies can make whatever rules they want around work-related travel and how you use your vacation time. In fact, because no federal law requires employers to give vacation time at all, companies can structure it as weirdly as they want — they can say you can only use it on Tuesdays, or only on odd-numbered days of the month, or only after 18 days have elapsed since your coworker took time off, or whatever else they want. You can certainly advocate for changing their policy, though.

2. I want to be non-exempt

I am a salaried exempt employee (I get paid the same amount every pay period, regardless of hours worked). Office hours are 9-6 with an hour for lunch, but about 30-40% of the office stays until 6:30 or 7 every day. I don’t mind staying late on occasion, but recently I’ve been staying about 3 hours late every day and coming in for one weekend afternoon. (like I said, I’m not alone when I stay late – this seems to be a company wide and possibly field (architecture) wide issue). If I’m going to be working 10 or more extra hours a week, I’d like some form of compensation. Is there anything I can do to change my status from exempt to non-exempt? Is it even worth asking?

I think what you actually want is compensation for working overtime, and you’ll muddy the issue if you ask to be treated as non-exempt. If you’re treated as non-exempt, your employer will need you to track every minute worked, will need to pay you overtime for all hours over 40 in a week, and will have the option of lowering your paycheck on weeks where you work less than 40 hours. You might find that you’re prohibited from working overtime at all, or even from answering work emails from home at night or on the weekends (which may not even be feasible for your position). That’s overcomplicating a situation where you really just want more pay for working longer hours.

These sorts of hours may simply be part of the deal with your position, in which case you’re unlikely to be successful in asking to be compensated for them. (There are many exempt positions where hours much longer than you’re talking about are normal, and there’s no additional compensation for them.) But you could certainly ask about something like comp time for weeks when you work, say, 50 hours or more … but again, make sure that that’s reasonable in your industry, because in lots of industries where putting in the time it takes to get the job done is just part of the expectations — law, nonprofits, and others — that would just come across naively.

3. Should you handwrite writing samples?

When an employer asks for a writing sample, do they want it to be written longhand or typed?

Typed. Or more specifically, they’re expecting it will be typed on a computer and printed out, in most cases. Unless they specifically say that they want to evaluate your handwriting, which would be unusual (but does occasionally happen).

4. Employee doesn’t want to work alone at night

We hired a part-time employee to cover 3 shifts a week, all of which are closing shifts. The last hour of the closing shift is covered solely by the closing person; they are in the store alone. The person we have working this shift now, six months into her position, is saying that she does not feel comfortable working in the store alone because she is afraid of being robbed. We haven’t had any incidents or previous problems and we’ve been open 21 years. There hasn’t been any indication that she has been threatened in any way, other than there are customers who “creep her out.” She wants to switch shifts with other employees and work earlier in the day (these are of course the more desirable shifts to be had). My question is this: am I obligated to keep her on the schedule? I don’t really want to take an employee who has worked their way up into the more desirable shift and put them on closing because someone feels uncomfortable doing the job they were hired to do.

No, you’re not obligated. You can certainly tell her that the job you’ve hired her for is the night-shift position, and that moving to other shifts isn’t currently an available option. If she declines to work those shifts, you can replace her. (Make sure whoever you replace her with is comfortable with working night shifts alone, of course.)

Before you do that, though, I’d talk to her a little more to find out if there are real security concerns that you could be addressing. That’s something you’d want to know, if so.

5. Is this legal?

Before Christmas, my employer gave me a note to say that my employment after Christmas would be reduced to a 3-day week. I did not agree to this change to my contract and have recently found out that others within the firm have been doing my job. I am a delivery driver and management has been using their own cars to deliver goods. Is this allowed? Not all members of the work force have had their working week reduced. Is this fair?

Unless the decision was based on your race, religion, gender, national origin, or other protected class, your employer can absolutely change your schedule, decrease your hours, or take you off their schedule altogether.

If they’re decreasing your hours and managers are doing work you used to do, it sounds like they’re trying to conserve costs.

6. How far back should references go?

How far back in my job history should I provide references? I’m still on very good terms and in contact with coworkers and managers from previous organizations from as far back as 5 years ago, but I’m not sure if I should provide them as references anymore and focus on references from more current coworkers and managers.

Leave the coworkers out of it altogether; most reference-checkers want to talk to managers, not peers. Five years back isn’t too long, although I wouldn’t leave the more recent managers off either, or that will raise questions about why you’re not as eager to have them spoken with.

7. Will this look like job-hopping?

Last May, I relocated to another city for a job. After 4 months, our entire department was laid off. I ended up finding another job, where I have been for a little over 3 months but I am unhappy with the culture, amongst other things. I’d really like to look for another job but I don’t want this to affect how potential employers might perceive me since I’ve only been here for such a short time. Should I just suck it up for a while longer so I don’t look like a “job hopper”?

Two short-term jobs in a row isn’t great — it’s likely to raise red flags for future employers. So unless you’re really miserable, I’d stick it out for at least a year if you can.

{ 112 comments… read them below }

  1. De Minimis

    2. There have been some overtime lawsuits for lower level employees in accounting, but I don’t believe they ultimately prevailed, or even if they did, it did not change the firms’ practices [so the only way you could possibly be compensated is to sue your employer.]

    I think the justification was that the lower level employees were not actually performing accounting work [using their professional judgment, issuing opinions, etc] but were basically doing something that was equivalent to data entry, filing, copying documents, etc.

    In looking it up, it looks like the junior employees ultimately lost on appeal. Also, their suit was based on California laws regarding overtime.

    1. fposte

      Oh, that’s interesting (and not surprising–I’m actually a little surprised they won in the first place).

      OP, you’re not really talking about the nature of your job as the basis for this, and that (and a minimum salary level) are what’s key, as De Minimus’ example notes. If you think your position is wrongly classified on that basis, that’s another matter; I suspect that even if that’s the case, it’s going to end up, as Alison suggests, not with you doing the same job for additional pay but with you taking quite a pay cut and being limited to 37.5.

    2. Dulcinea

      Similar case for insurance workers was actually successful…in that case, the workers were salaried but ultimately were found not to be exempt because rather than using their independent judgment in their work they really just followed company protocols/formulas.

      1. De Minimis

        Interesting…wonder what the difference is. My guess would be that at the accounting firm the junior employees were working toward CPA licensure and were just paying their dues and would eventually be performing more advanced work that involved professional judgment.

        Having actually worked as a junior employee for one of the plaintiffs I can confirm that the work definitely does just involve following protocols, but I don’t think there would be a way to pay overtime without revamping the whole system, generally people report their own hours and organize their own schedules and that would have to change.

        I have seen smaller firms that do pay overtime, so it is not unheard of in accounting.

    3. Nameless

      I worked at a small CPA less than 20 employees and we would get overtime anything over 40 hours. Also any work done on weekend was OT regardless we worked 40+ hours or not

  2. Katie in Ed

    It’s worth it to mention to #5 that he/she would probably be eligible for unemployment if his/her hours have been drastically reduced. Am I right about that? I seem to recall reading it here.

    1. fposte

      That’s what I’ve heard–I suspect there’s a percentage standard or max income, but it certainly wouldn’t hurt to file–worst that can happen is they say no.

      1. JohnQPublic

        That’s true in Texas- unemployment also covers underemployment, so checking with your state labor office would be a good idea.
        You should also start looking for another job- if they’re cutting costs like this they might just eliminate your position.

  3. JT

    In #5 a contract is mentioned. It is possible that the change is illegal insofar as it’s breaking a contract. The OP needs to check the contract carefully about what it specifies in terms of work hours and the ability of the company to make unilateral changes to contract’s terms.

    1. Ask a Manager Post author

      Oh, I meant to mention that. My hunch is that it’s not a contract in the contract sense, since most U.S. workers don’t have contracts but often refer to their work agreements that way anyway. But if I’m wrong and there really is a contract, yes, definitely consult that.

      1. Dulcinea

        Also, OP may be able to get unemployment assistance because cutting hours like this may qualify as “constructive discharge.”

  4. Dave

    Related to #4,

    I work in a large office building (alarmed, locked, etc) and there are several employees who refuse to be in the building if they are alone. They will arrive in the morning and wait in their cars for up to 45 minutes for someone else to arrive before they will go in. They do not report to me, but I still find the behavior a bit uncomfortable and strange as it feels a bit like they expect me to be protecting them when they follow me into the building.

    1. Jo

      I can relate to feeling insecure alone I the building. However I wouldn’t feel secure alone in my car for 45 minutes either. I just relock the door after me as I enter the building, then strangers can’t just wander in.

    2. Chris80

      What’s weird about this to me is not so much that they don’t want to be alone in the building, but rather that they’re getting to work 45 minutes early! I’m all about being an overachiever, but still…it’s weird to arrive 45 minutes before others if you’re not even willing to get out of your car once you’re there!

      1. Rana

        It might be that they’re stuck with the sort of weird commute where if you leave at, say, 7am, it only takes 15 minutes (making them arrive 45 minutes early for an 8am start) but if they leave at a later time it will take a half hour or more to travel the distance (due to traffic).

        Just sitting there in the car seems strangely paranoid. But, then, my own car isn’t that comfortable, so I’d rather wait inside.

  5. AJ

    #5 specifically mentions the word “contract.” Employment contracts are exemptions to the employment at will standard and may have provisions to formally augment the employment relationship. Is this person in a union?

  6. JPB

    #3. At my school, we include a written reflection at the conclusion of a visit. We have candidates hand write those so that we can see how well they can write without a computer to help and to see if their handwriting will model well for students. But that is something we do in person. I would never expect someone to submit a handwritten sample unless I explicitly asked for it.

  7. OmarF

    #1. I think the lab is absolutely correct in this case. They have to be concerned with protecting their source of income. It’s far too easy for some story to hit the press of people finding conferences in desirable places just so they can get a cheap vacation paid mostly by the taxpayer. I’ve read many myself. If this were to happen, this lab could well be out of business.

    I’m sure the OP would only be attending conferences that are in the best interest of the taxpayer, and will even save the taxpayer money. However, optics really matter in this case. This rule is very reasonable and more like it should be encouraged, both to protect the taxpayer, and to protect the businesses relying on taxpayer money for their income.

    1. K

      And I imagine people in government are fairly sensitive about that right now after the OPM Law Vegas debacle a year or so back.

    2. fposte

      “Optics” is a great word here. I think the policy is pretty clear–if the main duration (and thus, reasonably conceived, purpose) of the trip is vacation, then it’s not appropriate for the grant to fund the travel. It’s not that you’re saving the taxpayers one leg, it’s that you’re funding your own vacation on grant money with the other.

    3. Grey

      That’s what I was thinking. Sure, you might be paying for your own return trip, but taxpayers may question why you even needed to go there in the first place.

      I think your employer wants to prevent any such questions or any potential audits.

    4. Bwmn

      This essentially applies to all US government staff – so while it may be frustrating, it’s definitely not a policy that this specific lab is using to punish the OP. My father is a chemist with a federal agency, and it sounds as though the problem used to be quite widespread with scientific conferences in Italy being particularly popular.

    5. ThursdaysGeek

      Although, the rule can also cost the government money. My husband also works for a federal lab, and he can’t fly out early or late to include a saturday night stay, which can result in a much lower flight cost, still leaving a savings after paying for an extra night or two at the location (which he would be willing to pay, thus giving an even greater savings). There usually isn’t money for necessary trips, so junkets are never even considered, at least at his level.

      So, the optics make it look like it’s saving taxpayer money, but the reality is this rule sometimes costs more.

      1. OmarF

        “Although, the rule can also cost the government money.”

        It’s the same in business. Years ago, I received advice to avoid expensive looking rental cars when traveling to the corporation’s head office town. It doesn’t matter if you are saving the company money. Too often people who don’t know the whole story will get up in arms over it. Unfortunately, sometimes those people would have the capability to affect your career prospects.

  8. Tasha

    #6 Five years doesn’t sound too long, since in many industries, people stay longer than that at a single employer, or have at most two or three. Of course, restaurants and political campaigns are noted exceptions, and if someone’s recently out of school, they might have a number of internships. Maybe OP could consider how long s/he has held previous jobs, and if there’s a string of them that last less than a year or two, make sure that the next position is longer-term.

  9. Amanda

    Regarding #7-

    I agree that you should stick with your current job for at least a year, but I see no reason why you can’t start quietly laying the groundwork for finding another job. By that, I mean, working on your resume, networking, staying current on news in your industry, researching companies in the area that you might want to work for and reading this blog.

    Job searches can take over a year and building a network and developing good job-searching skills doesn’t happen overnight. This is coming from someone who wishes she had begun her job search long before she was actually ready to have a job-learn from my mistakes!

    1. pidgeonpenelope

      Furthermore, that OP states they don’t like the culture. Perhaps it just takes time to adjust and in time, they might like it.

      1. Headhunter

        I agree that two short-terms jobs are not great, but if you have relocated to another city, there is absolutely nothing wrong with returning to where you lived previously. I would suggest documenting a reason for leaving on your resume – i.e. “Reason for leaving: Desire to return to hometown (list where you lived previously).

  10. pidgeonpenelope

    #4. Why, on Earth, would you have only ONE employee working in your store ever? That is unsafe and makes your store an easy target for a robbery and/or an attacker. Your employee has every right to say she feels unsafe because she is. Please consider adding an additional employee to all shifts because even though there might not be enough workload to go around, dealing with a robbery and or a rape will be more expensive.

    1. Ask a Manager Post author

      Plenty of businesses only have one employee for some shifts. The employee is certainly entitled to feel unsafe and decline to work those shifts, but the employer is not obliged to give them different shifts instead or even keep them on their staff at all.

      1. PEBCAK

        I’d be worried more about employee theft than an outside robbery, if I were the manager. I assume they have the appropriate controls in place, but this is the reason most big retail chains never have one employee open or close alone.

        1. VintageLydia

          Yeah my old retail job had the two-person rule to prevent shrink. Safety was also a concern (especially after some wacko attacked one of our cashiers with a razor blade–she was fine btw) but it employee theft was the main concern.

    2. Kimberlee, Esq.

      What Alison said, and there are plenty of other ways to discourage robberies and attack. I think a 21 year track record of zero instances is a decent assurance of safety.

    3. Kara

      My coworker’s father is a systems analyst who works third shift and is apparently the only person to do so (I commented “That must be so lonely!”).

      1. fposte

        I was alone in our old building a lot of the time, and since I’m prone to insomnia and lived close by, I’d just come in at night.

        Admittedly, retail is a different matter, but working alone is a reality of small retail business.

      2. Ellie H.

        When I was 17-18 I was an opener/closer at the bookstore I worked at and one of my coworkers was chronically super late, so almost every time I opened on the weekend I would be the only one there for 30-45 minutes. It was creepy walking into the dark basement alone but I never felt really unsafe – it bugged my mom though. Incidentally the store actually WAS robbed once but during business hours – someone took money out of the unlocked safe in the manager’s office.

    4. Elizabeth West

      I agree with Alison in that the manager might want to do an audit to see if there is anything concrete that is making the employee feel unsafe, before blowing off her misgivings. There may be something about the area or procedures that’s making her nervous. And of course, it may just be that she’s jittery after dark. But it’s worth checking.

      The deli-cafe where I worked in CA didn’t have air conditioning (we were by the sea and didn’t really need it), but the kitchen would get hot, and you had to open the back doors to get fresh air. People who worked closing complained to the company about it, because the place was in a downtown area that got a little weird after dark. We all thought it would be a good idea if they got AC so we could lock the door at night, but they didn’t want to spend the money. Sure enough, one night, the closing crew got robbed–at gunpoint. (I wasn’t there, btw.)

      They still didn’t do anything about it, until it happened again, and they finally installed some AC and made it mandatory to lock the door at closing. If someone had gotten killed, they could have been sued out the ying-yang.

    5. Not So NewReader

      I agree with you pidgeonpenelope. Modern retailers are thinking more and more in terms of employee safety than ever before.
      Disclosure- I was robbed working alone at night like this. There is nothing like being on the wrong end of a weapon to make a person rethink what s/he is doing.
      In previous settings, I was lucky to find a friend/family member that would sit in the store with me until I had to lock the door. At one store, a man sat in his car for two hours waiting for me to leave work. My friend parked his car between the man’s car and mine and made sure the man did not follow me after I left. I have a few stories of odd stuff like this.
      So after the robbery, that was it for me. I no longer toke jobs where I work alone at night in an unlocked building. And that may be the employee’s solution.
      However, to the OP, I have to say to you have safety plans in place? Does everyone know what to do for various types of problems? For example: A while ago a clerk working alone in a store had a terrible gasoline spill. Because she was working alone the spill got huge in the time it took for her to figure out how to stop the pump and call the proper authorities. The spill cost tens of thousands of dollars and homes had to be evacuated.
      Personally, one place that I worked an air conditioner fell on a customer. I was working alone- so I raced around getting medical help, waiting on other customers and cleaning up blood. My stress level was through the roof- I had no first aid training, I had little understanding of the electrical issues involved, there were no emergency phone numbers posted etc.

      Not all safety issues are crime related. Although, crime is the first thing that comes to mind and the most scary. People working in teams can share information and ideas and resolve a crisis quicker in many cases.

      If labor is $10 per hour, then that only means a $70 dollar a week savings for the company if a person is sent home one hour before closing. An entire year’s savings could be wiped out by one incident.

      1. Josh S

        I get your concerns (and share them), but it’s not always feasible — or even useful — to have a second person on hand.

        If a robber comes in with, say, a gun, it doesn’t matter if there is 1 person or 5 people on hand — nobody’s going to fight the guy and he’s likely to get the same result regardless of the number of people. And risk management/insurance says to “give the armed robber what he wants and deal with the fallout, instead of putting people in harms way”.

        For the gasoline spill and the AC unit falling — both of those issues are due to a lack of training. Two people without knowledge of the fuel shutoff or emergency numbers (911?) are just as ineffective as one.

        And while the wage for labor may be $10/hour, there’s also the consideration of payroll taxes, unemployment, that the employer may also have to pay (more for someone with benefits as well, though that’s not typical of retail). So the $10/hour employee may actually be a $25/hour cost ($175/week = $9000/year). Which changes the math. When margins are small (foodservice and retail are often this way, esp in the slow months), that can make the difference between keeping everyone on or having to fire someone — or even whether the doors stay open.

        Like I said, I agree with you. A lot of the ‘savings’ could be wiped out by a single nasty incident. But the owner of the store has to balance that potential risk (when the potential may be very small/negligible) against the cost of mitigating that risk.

        ZERO risk is VERY expensive, and usually impossible to achieve.
        VERY SMALL risk is typically MUCH more expensive than SMALL risk.

        The employer has to decide how much risk she is willing to assume, and the employee has to make the same decision.

        (This from a guy who worked retail in a mall by myself for hours on end when I was in high school, and who worked a standalone retail store by myself — including some open-to-close shifts alone — while I was in college. Sure there was a chance I’d get robbed or have something happen that was beyond my abilities as a young kid to handle. But the risk of that was small, and I was willing to take it, as were the employers.)

        1. fposte

          The problem also is that the number of situations that might theoretically come up are beyond reasonably preparing for–I doubt that anybody’s prepared for a plummeting air-conditioner event.

          A big, simple printed checklist for hazardous events like the spill and a “when in doubt, call 911 and keep yourself safe” policy for human emergencies and possible crimes is pretty reasonable coverage. I’ve had several first-aid courses over the years, and I still think the best I’d muster in your AC situation is to call 911 and keep people away from the site until help came.

          1. Not So NewReader

            Interesting discussion, folks.

            I think it boils down to the employee’s decision to keep the job. Working conditions are what they are. In the AC story, I believe that was pre-911 service. Additionally, we were not allowed to call the boss at home and we found that the number was unlisted. The lack of a support system was jaw-dropping.

            And as fposte points out it is impossible to anticipate every situation imaginable. But as NYC learned, if you have basic plans in place you can piece together a plan to deal with an extraordinary, unforeseen event ( such as the WTC). The basic plans become stepping stones to larger plans.
            OP may want to look over the emergency plans she has for her store. Do those plans cover foreseeable issues? Are they in writing? Another key thing is to touch base with the employees periodically and ask them “what if ” questions to reinforce the knowledge. “What if there is an electrical problem, what would be your first move?” Emergency shut offs for anything (water, electric, gas pumps, AC/heat) should be clearly labeled. Every employee in a small business should know how to shut these things off. (It’s not that hard….) Knowledge is empowerment.

            Bottomline: An employee that is scared to work alone at night probably is not going to become “UNscared”. Some people will lighten up if they have a clear understanding of what is expected from them and how to handle emergencies. My suggestion is that although this employee’s fear seems to be about crime, perhaps additional review of other safety concerns would salvage the situation. I think that OP is writing in because she would like to salvage the situation as opposed to letting the employee go.
            On top of all this, I have used a buddy system. I would call a friend when I got home. If my friend did not get a phone call, he knew to question that. This could be something OP could suggest to her employee.

            Again, this job may not be a good fit for this employee. And that could be the answer. Based on my own experiences, I would never work retail alone at night again.

      2. JT

        “there were no emergency phone numbers posted etc.”

        In the US, if you have a landline, the number is 911.

        1. Elizabeth West

          You’re probably not old enough to remember, but in the good old days, there was NO 911. In an emergency, you dialed zero and told the operator that you needed help. She (it was usually a woman) would then call the cops, fire department, ambulance, etc.

          This became a thing in 1968, but it wasn’t rolled out nationwide until the early 1970s. I was born in 1965, and I can remember being taught to use zero as a small child. It takes time to set up these infrastructures. As an illustrative parallel, electric lights were invented in the 19th century, but there were lots of places in the US that weren’t completely electrified until the 1950s.
          http://people.howstuffworks.com/question664.htm

          1. Josh S

            And 20-25 years from now, people will look back at us and wonder how we ever managed without the ability to send text (SMS) to emergency services/911. The carriers are just getting to the process of creating a standard that can be used for text-to-911. It’ll be a couple years til that gets started.

    6. JT

      “Why, on Earth, would you have only ONE employee working in your store ever? That is unsafe and makes your store an easy target for a robbery and/or an attacker.”

      Probably because there isn’t much crime and they’re not as worried as you seem to be. The OP said they hadn’t had a problem in 21 years.

    7. Waiting Patiently

      I worked 11pm-7am for a hotel chain where I was the only person there. The police did a round or two at the hotel. There were two 24 hour diner and truck stop places within walking distance. I got to know the people there….sometimes they would send over food. I also chatted on the phone with other night auditors at nearby hotels. That made time go by and sort of added to feeling safe. Oh and sometimes, when rooms were available I would reserve myself a room and forward calls there. Luckily I never was robbed…a few weirdos at night that was it.

  11. Holly

    #7- I disagree; I definitely wouldn’t quit your job before getting another one, but it doesn’t hurt anything to start job searching now. Just don’t include your current job on your resume at all; search as though you were laid off 3 months ago and are still unemployed. That’ s hardly a red flag in this economy. Searching while being (seemingly) unemployed is a disadvantage, but even if you can’t find a new position, you’re no worse off than you are now.

    1. AB

      I agree IF the OP#7 has learned from her previous interviewing experience and will do things differently to ensure the next job is a good fit. Otherwise, he/she could just be exchanging a bad job for another one, and then having to hold on to an undesirable situation next time to avoid posing a red flag for future employers because of all the job hopping.

      1. Anon

        This idea of a good fit is really important, and as someone who has jumped on two positions recently because I was broke and scared it can be a very hard place to be.

        I admit it, and I worked hard at those positions none the less. But I was let go from the last position and to be honest, it is very hard to step back and say ‘wait a minute, I may be broke and scared but I don’t want to go through a revolving door of jobs here.’ The fear or economic insecurity is really strong but I am trying to wait, take some time and really get clear on what I want to do, what I am good at, and where will I be able to do a good job and stay for a period of time?

        In my work life, I always like to work hard, do a good job and accumulate good references. I really try and avoid a bad job if I can. In this economy, my fears have really been overwhelming, and with good reason.

        It’s not the short-term-ness of the positions that bothers me, I have had some shorter contract positions and received excellent evaluations. It’s the negative fit and evaluation that causes the damage and that is what I am really trying to step back and evaluate. It’s really very hard to do but so far on interviews people tell me that is a very wise thing to do, and so now even when it is not a good fit we can both agree and be respectful about it. That’s worth alot.

  12. Jess

    #4: If you want to keep this employee, I think it might be worth it to ask what measures (besides switching shifts) might make her more comfortable. Obviously, you’re not obligated to provide any of them, but I can think of several things you may already do or would be willing to do (alarm button at the counter that calls the policy, another security camera or sign stating there are cameras, not keeping large amounts of cash in the store at night, a police stop by once a night (they do this at many 24 hour stores near me), a “training” on what to do if the store IS robbed) that may make the employee more comfortable.

  13. Esra

    Not all non-profits are cheap on the OT/lieu time. One I worked for had both for salaried and hourly workers. You’ll be able to take cues from others there I’m sure, but if you get along with your manager it wouldn’t hurt to ask.

    1. Ask a Manager Post author

      It could hurt. Longer hours are the norm in many fields, and if you’re in one of them, you’ll look bad asking to be paid extra for what’s a standard part of the job in your field.

      1. Esra

        That’s why I said take cues from others who work there, and take into consideration your relationship with your manager. This might be the Canada/US culture divide striking again, but I know the non-profit I worked at is hardly the only one that offered OT/lieu. If you have some chats with coworkers about lieu etc, and it seems favourable, I don’t see what the harm would be at that point of approaching your manager.

        1. fposte

          I think it’s the Canada/US divide. In my experience, it’s freakishly rare for an exempt employee to get overtime in the US. Comp/lieu time is another matter–that’s a common enough practice that you’re not likely to turn people off by inquiring about it (though that doesn’t mean you’ll necessarily get it). Asking for OT pay when you’re an exempt employee is weird enough here that it would genuinely be a blotch on your record and an eye-rolling story amid the higher-ups.

          1. Esra

            Lieu is definitely preferred at the orgs I’ve been at. That might be a better place to start making some inquiries with the coworkers.

          2. Lulu

            I didn’t even know you COULD get paid OT as an exempt employee – I’ve always been non-exempt (which I hated, because I didn’t get the “benefit” of working much OT and instead had to sit and stare at the ceiling for hours sometimes when there was no reason to be there…), but the industries I’ve worked in have involved frequent spates of very long hours for both classes of employees in other roles, and I can’t imagine them pushing back. Some of the lower level ones got “comp time”, but often couldn’t take it because they were quickly segued to the next project-on-fire – not sure how that bit worked out in the end. But my impression has always been that the higher up you go, the more likely it is to be assumed that the nature of your job includes working-as-lifestyle.

        2. GeekChic

          Esra, it’s definitely the Canada/US divide (plus the lack of exempt vs non-exempt distinction in Canada).

          I work as senior IT in a non-profit right now in Canada and I 37 hours per work. Anything more and I get OT – which can be either time in lieu or money (my choice). None of this crap (and it is crap) about long hours being “the nature” of IT or non-profits or anything else.

          I’m sure all of the US commentors will insist that that just isn’t feasible in their industry and that it’s “naive” to expect reasonable work hours. Just makes me glad I no longer live or work in the US.

  14. Kim

    If poster #2 is in architecture and only working 50 hours a week, then they are lucky! It is pretty much the nature of the industry, and I dont know anyone that puts in less time than that, and I definitely don’t know anyone that gets compensated for it!

    1. Coelura

      Same here. I’m in IT and its considered normal workweek if you work 60 hours. 70+ when systems fail are common.

      1. -X-

        IT at my office works 40-hour weeks generally, as do many of us n other aspects of work. In crunch times (a week or two at a time, a few times a year) we work more. But if most people need to work 60 hours or more regularly, there may be a staffing issue – the company is deciding not to have more people cover the work. That’s common in some industries because the businesses can get away with it.

      2. The IT Manager

        It really depends on the company. That’s not true for all IT, and IT is really a very comprehensive category because all businesses now need some sort of IT or another. But those Silicon Valley Internet start ups certainly have the reputation of 60+ hour a week norms.

        1. class factotum

          One thing to work long hours at a startup on the chance you could become rich when the company goes public.

          It’s another thing to be expected to work long hours all the time for an established company where you get a salary and nothing else.

      1. EM

        Thank you. I work part time at a company where 50-60 hour weeks seem to be the norm. I normally work 30 hours, which is full time in many other industrialized nations. I work “part time” so I don’t have to work more than 40 hours.

      2. Ask a Manager Post author

        Sure, of course. But I think people are pointing out that it’s the norm in response to some comments sounding like this store is wildly outside the norms, when it’s not.

    2. bo bessi

      Agreed. I do hiring for an architecture firm, and it’s absolutely standard to work more than 40 hours a week – especially the closer it gets to deadlines. We do have a policy for comp time if you work over 50 though.

  15. Seal

    Re: #4: I have worked in academic libraries in various capacities entire career. Over the past 10 years I have headed 2 branch libraries in different parts of the country; both are in larger library buildings and have evening and weekend hours. In both places, the one ironclad rule is to never have less than 2 people working after 5pm and on weekends. It’s for the safety of both the staff members and the collections/facility. Our staff members (who are often students) are even instructed to leave together when the library closes, again for safety reasons. While people often assume college and university campuses are safe places (and for the most part they are), the sad truth is that bad things happen everywhere. Better safe than sorry.

    The OP might consider revisiting their staffing policy now that one of their staff members has raised a concern. If God forbid something should happen on the night shift, they could be sued for not having addressed a known safety issue.

    1. Ask a Manager Post author

      It’s very, very common for many businesses to have one person on a shift. Certainly some businesses handle it the way yours did, but plenty aren’t able to profitably put two people on a shift that only requires one.

      1. Mike C.

        Two things:

        1. If it’s not profitable to do something in a safe manner, then it shouldn’t be done.

        2. Just because it’s “very, very common” doesn’t mean it’s the right thing to do, and isn’t a justification in and of itself on it’s own.

        1. Ask a Manager Post author

          The store may have decided it’s reasonably safe. Nothing is ever perfectly safe; you weigh the risks and decide what’s the most reasonable course of action. We don’t have any information at all about what safety procedures they have in place, and thus no reason to assume it’s not pretty safe.

  16. A teacher

    I worked as a building supervisor at the YMCA in college and we always locked down the building alone because it was “safe”, until the time when one of us walked in on a homeless guy that he broken into the boiler room and was living there. It only takes one time and its enough that policy wAs changed. Our director decided to suck up the minimal cost to make us feel safer.

  17. Clerk I

    #4 – Years ago, many of the stores, fast food places, and gas stations around here had only one closer that stayed after everyone else left. Then the KFC got robbed. This was about ten years ago. There were about 3 high schoolers working and the manager who was relatively young, they got violently knocked around and money was taken from their register. The KFC closed shortly after since the employees refused to work without at least a camera, and the owner could not afford to put one in.

    Since then, there have been several armed robberies all over our small town. Numerous attacks, and some suspicious fires. Only one gas station that is open 24 hours still only has one person on for overnights and it is usually a manager. This is in a small town that nothing had ever happened in for years. People felt safe here, doors go unlocked.

    I would at the very least ask about security concerns, maybe something happened at another area in your town/city. Depending where you are located could the police do a drive by around the time she gets out? Or if there is security where you are located (like a mall or like around here there are security guards at some plazas) can they come by when she gets out? Sometimes I’m the only car left in the staff lot when I get out late at night and I always have the option of calling security and getting walked to my car.

  18. Chocolate Teapot

    3. I know in France that it used to be quite normal to have your handwriting analysed, but it may no longer be the case. Certainly, I have seen job adverts which request a handwritten cover letter.

    1. AG

      Definitely a cultural difference across the Atlantic! These days I can’t imagine filling out a job app by hand, let alone doing a handwritten writing sample! They don’t really teach penmanship here now the way they did in the past. Some schools are considering not teaching cursive anymore!

      I think at least in the US they are looking to see if you have good writing skills, not handwriting skills.

    2. Mike

      If you get a request for a hand written writing sample you should ask if they’d like you to use courier pigeon or the pony express to deliver it.

  19. bearing

    You know, Alison, I wonder if you might consider putting together an “Is this legal?” “Can they do this to me?” FAQ. It could be the start of your next book…

    You can have one [really long] chapter for “yes, it’s legal” and then shorter chapters for “you’ll have to check your state law,” “no, it’s not legal,” and maybe “yes, it’s legal, and by the way you might be the problem.”

    1. AG

      Agreed!

      However I do like AAM’s answers to a lot of those questions where she is sympathetic, i.e. “Yes it’s legal but you’re justified in being uncomfortable/angry/upset and I can understand why it would be a dealbreaker for you.”

  20. dr lemur

    #1 – This is the price you pay for opting to work at a federal facility. You might as well just accept the restrictions, because there’s no getting around them.

    1. EngineerGirl

      I was going to say that too. And if you work with the feds long enough you’ll run across at least one set of conflicting rules.

  21. Construction HR

    #2 Our salary folks work 5x10s as our std work week, this is spelled out in our employment agreements. Because of the variable nature of our work, we are also granted OT pay @ ST pay rates for +50 hours/week. Some of our competitors offer a choice of $$ or comp time.

      1. Construction HR

        None are union. The salaried staff got tired of the Saturdays & Sundays and supervising personnel who, with OT, were making 20-30% more than their bosses.

  22. Suz

    I have a question similar to #6. I’ve been promoted 3 times at my current employer but I’ve had the same manager the entire time I’ve been with this company. I don’t want a potential employer to contact my manager because she doesn’t know I’m looking for another job. But the last position I held with a different manager was almost 10 years ago. Would it be OK to use coworkers as references in this situation?

    1. PEBCAK

      Is there anyone you have had a dotted-line relationship with who you trust? I have been a reference for people who were peers, title-wise, but who reported to me on specific projects, so I was able to talk about their work reporting to me on those projects, some of which lasted several years. From the hiring manager’s perspective, I was well-suited to talk about their strengths and weaknesses, etc.

    2. Tuesday

      I’m wondering the same thing. I don’t want anyone at my current job to know that I’m actively job hunting, least of all my bosses, but I’ve been at this job for quite a long time. In the past, I’ve asked former co-workers to be references. Is that not okay?

    3. Ask a Manager Post author

      Don’t use peers if you can at all help it. Generally reference checkers want to talk to people in a position to evaluate your work — managers.

  23. Another reference question...

    #6 made me wonder this: my last job was three years ago. It was a small department, and my supervisor, with whom I did not have the best relationship anyways, has retired. Only about half the original staff remains, actually. I am still on good terms with a colleague there, though, and can list her as a reference. I wonder if I should add something like “*Previous supervisor retired”?

    1. AB

      People retire or move on all the time, but that doesn’t mean you can’t still ask them to provide references.

      I had a manager who is now retired and still gladly provide references for me as needed. Perhaps you can find your supervisor on LinkedIn or somewhere online and ask?

      1. Another reference question...

        We weren’t on good terms. She was notorious in the company and many people were glad to see her leave.

        I have other former managers with whom I’ve kept in touch; she’s the only one I don’t list.

  24. TL

    Re #4: My first thought was to suggest adding a second person for that last hour of the closing shift, if at all possible. If it’s not, it’s not; but I know that I’d feel uncomfortable closing alone at night, particularly in a sketchy neighborhood or at a very late hour.

    I admit, employee safety is one of those areas where it really bugs me when an employer dismisses employees’ concerns by saying “Well, nothing bad has ever happened…yet”. True, your store has an excellent track record, but there’s always a first time. Even stores in “great” neighborhoods can be robbed, especially if they look like an easy target.

    It might be a good idea to review your safety precautions, and maybe help close for a couple of nights, to see if there’s anything that stands out as problematic. Are *all* areas well-lit? Are there mirrors or cameras, so the closer can keep an eye on blind spots in the store? Is there some kind of a silent alarm that the closer can set off, if necessary? Can they carry something like pepper spray (probably *not* useful in case of an armed robbery, but could be helpful in other instances)? I’m not exactly well versed on safety precautions and procedures, but I’m sure the local police department would be able to give suggestions.

    1. JT

      21 years is evidence. It doesn’t sound dismissive to me to take that as a key piece of information. Plus crime rates overall in the US have been declining since the mid-1990s.

      Someone saying they don’t feel safe is not really evidence that decisions should be based on. It’s a sign that more info is needed and that safety procedures should be checks (not necessarily increased – that depends on what other info is found).

      The OP should ask for specific reasons the person doesn’t feel safe – are there sketchy people around at night, have there been recent robberies or incidents at nearby places, has someone appeared to be “casing” the place. Has crime been increasing in this place recently? What?

      Decisions should be made based on evidence and analysis of risk/costs/benefits.

      There’s always a first time for many many things, but that doesn’t mean we should change procedures based just on fears of “what if.”

      1. Mike C.

        What kind of statistics class did you take that allows you to cite an overall tread of “21 years of lower crime” and yet apply that to a given retail store in a very specific area?

        1. JT

          The store in question has not had an incident in 21 years. Is that not relevant?

          Oh, and I took statistics (basic statistics for social sciences) while in graduate school at Yale. Not sure how that is relevant.

  25. Lee

    I worked for a NFP in a strange location. I wouldn’t call it ‘sketchy’ but it was a service for the disabled located in an industrial area as the building was gifted to the organisation. I was often working out there alone (although not late at night). We were always supposed to keep the screen door locked and apparently we had a policy that if we were out there alone and weren’t expecting clients we didn’t have to answer to door if someone turned up in expectantly. Unfortunately, this never worked in practice as we had lots of deaf clients who turned up in expectantly (for one reason or another) and you have to open the door so you can sign with them. On paper our safety practices looked ok but in reality they were pointless. We just opened the door because we felt we really had no choice (if no one answered deaf clients could hardly call us). It sounds like the employee really needs to make a choice about whether they want to remain working there. It may or may not be fair but its probably realistic.

  26. Bob G

    I work for a security monitoring company and there are some things that can be done for #4 (worried about working alone). Most people have mentioned camera systems but in most cases cameras alone are used “after the fact” to try and get a look at the person who committed the crime. As TL mentioned a camera system with monitors strategically placed would allow them to see all areas of the store which may help. It can also be a deterrent to have a monitor visible so the customers entering the store are aware they are being recorded/watched.

    If the location already has an existing alarm system that they arm when leaving and disarm when arriving some other features can be enabled. Hold up buttons and even wireless panics can be installed that the OP can keep on their person. The opening (disarm) and closing (arming) can be supervised by the monitoring center so they are calling the store and or a emergency call list if it isn’t armed by a set time. This would let the OP know that someone would be aware that something delayed them setting the alarm.

    Camera systems can be remotely monitored by a monitoring center so someone is “checking in” on the store to see if everything is alright.

    Obviously most of these solutions do cost extra money but it is often less expensive then having to staff another employee every shift. I know in my experience the fact that the location has never had an incident doesn’t mean that they never will. It usually takes an incident before anything is installed or investigated.

    With some of the solutions mentioned you can show a “business use” for them so they are not only a security cost.

    The cost of cameras can be offset by allowing the owners to review video and track trends such as number of customers in the store during certain hours, employee reviews, etc. Supervising the disarming of the store can assure the owners that someone has arrived and has the store open and ready for business and supervising the closing can assure them that the location has been secured. You can also set hours when no one should be opening the location so an employee with a key and alarm code isn’t coming back after hours and helping themselves to money or product.

  27. Schnauz

    #4 – Please do followup with Alison’s advice and try to delve a little deeper. Coming from the employee side of the equation – why is your closer working alone for the last hour of her shift? It doesn’t sound like you’re on a 24hr schedule, so why are you isolating your employee that extra hour? Is it possible to close that hour earlier, or is it really cost prohibitive to have at least 2 people work that extra hour? In general, as a customer, I appreciate all extra hours but as someone who works a closing shift myself, it sometimes feels pretty arbitrary when the difference is 1 hour or less.

    As for safety issues: just like our pretty 401k papers tell us, past performance is no guarantee of future performance. Yes, it’s great that you’ve had 21 years without incident, that doesn’t mean you’ll have 21 more however. Perhaps the creeps your employee is feeling is a case of her subconscious giving her genuine information, rather than whatever you must think is going on since you’re set to dismiss her feelings. If, as another poster suggested, worked the shift a couple of times (alone or with her), perhaps you’d be able to see if you concur? Are you sure you can’t afford to have 2 people working at all times? While it’s true that no amount of people working guarantees anyone’s safety, it is also criminally disingenuous to say that 1 more person won’t help. If someone is looking to rob, assault, rape or murder someone, they will almost always consider a single person working alone to be easier prey than even just 2 people. Yes, 2 people will not deter an incident every time, but it IS a deterrent MOST of the time (especially in the case of personal assaults like rape). Furthermore, when you regularly and routinely work alone, that makes it easier for people to plan to assault you. Even if not directly, then anyone (coworkers, cleaning staff, repair reps, workers in other companies that share your building, etc) mentioning “yeah, Julie always closes on Tues” puts someone at risk.

    Aside from the overt security issues, there are a host of minor issues that crop up when just 1 person is working. Bathroom breaks comes to mind first. Clearly you don’t mind if your worker leaves the store unattended for a few minutes while she pees. Oh, you do mind? Huh. I work in a non-retail/non-restaurant company and I end up alone on an irregular basis. You would not believe the number of people who are amazed that I’ll leave phones unattended so I can pee or refill my water cup or heat up food (we’re talking about working 4+ hours alone sometimes). I simply tell them that I don’t see why I, as a grunt, am expected to care more about our customers’ coverage than the managers/owners who think it’s okay to schedule 1 person for that amount of time. Because really, if they think I’m going to hold the pee for one second longer than necessary (and even just an hour is too long IMO), then they should have 2 or more working at any given time. And what about time off? When you have only 1 (or even 2) person working that shift, you’ve now made it very difficult for them to take time off. Even for full-time employees, you’ve just complicated their life AND YOURS. Instead of a relatively easy schedule to cover when inevitably you have someone call in sick or need time off, you now have to convince someone to extend or switch shifts. Depending on your closing duties, you also might have to train that person to close or close yourself because you don’t have anyone else with key responsibilities. If that employee quits, you have a schedule out of sorts until you hire someone else and convince someone to change their shift. All unnecessary chaos if you simply employee at least 2 people for every shift.

    Obviously, this is near and dear to my heart. I don’t work alone, there are 2 of us, but I have encountered all of these issues. No particularly creepy customers, but I have had repair crews or cleaning crews “surprise” me late at night (9pm, 10pm, etc) since no one thinks they need to let a “grunt” know when they’ll be alone in the building with 5 strangers who are in there on “guest” passes. Yeah, that’s fun. Have I ever been assaulted leaving work? No. Am I still justified in feeling uneasy sometimes? Hell yes.

    1. Oxford Comma

      THIS. I have been on both sides of the table on this. I had a student employee who requested not to work a hard-to-fill weekend shift. Turns out a customer had figured out her schedule and was waiting for her outside the facility for her at the end of her shift. Now we had never had a problem before but nobody told him that. We were able to resolve the situation by getting the police involved and doing drive bys much more regularly.

      I also had an oh-so-fun job working as a hospital biller once upon a time. The hospital was in a crappy part of town and it was not safe. My employer outsourced me to the hospital. They demanded that I work as many hours as possible to get the work done (all perfectly legal). But you know what, when I was getting in at 5 in the morning or leaving at 9 at night, I felt unsafe and I had every right to be. There were incidents and my employer never once addressed my concerns. On the plus side, it motivated me to get my graduate degree and get the hell out of there.

  28. ANONY. THIS TIME

    Anonymous because I don’t want to call any of my coworkers out!:

    #1 – As horrible as it is in this example, I see the need for the rule (though they should break it in your case!).

    I work for a large company’s Manhattan office. Its not THAT bad, but I do notice people coming here that don’t need to. My best friend’s job sees it more than I do. I have had people fly to NY for 1-2 hour meetings. I have 3 coming up in February – 2 of the 3 could easily be done via a conference website, 1 could be, but since the meeting is long, it would make sense to build a rapport with that person.

    But, yeah, people may not flat out abuse travel policies, but many people overuse them and make questionable trips. (But yes, while someone expensing a trip to Manhattan when they only live 5 hours away is totally different than going across the ocean, I think you should get an exception).

  29. LawEnforcementSupportClerk

    Re#1 – we had a prisoner transport to come back from a popular vacation spot (think sunshine and bikinis), ton of volunteers to go, two that finally won, ahem, had to go, set up the trip themselves. Funding paid for the flight down and back (as usual). They paid for the hotel, rental car, and all meals (normally covered) and stayed a few extra days. Despite the fact that it saved the agency money (flights were cheaper when it was spread over several days, and they didn’t submit for meals, car or hotel) once it got out people were livid. Demanding an investigation, etc. Massive nightmare for all involved.

    It’s all about appearances.

      1. LawEnforcementSupportClerk

        I made it known (teasing of course) that the boss (decided who went) and I were wide open for bribes. In the end they were chosen by an actual tangible count (like number of alcohol citations – but not) that *should* have avoided any grief…. should have anyway

    1. Bwmn

      While the argument for being able to extend a trip is “the company/grant is paying for the plane ticket for work, and I happen to be taking a vacation” – appearance wise it’s basically impossible to differentiate that from “the company/grant is paying for the plane ticket for vacation, and I happen to be doing some work”.

      And when talking about government offices/tax payer issues – that’s a big apperance issue. I know in my father’s federal agency, words like “Italian villa” and “French Riviera” were the buzz problem phrases that contributed to the current policy.

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