short answer Saturday — six short answers to six short questions

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

1. How long can a reference take?

I am supposed to start a new job on the 13th, but they are still waiting for a reference from my old employer. It has been a week so I can’t start my job yet. How long can an employer take?

An employer can take as long as they like to respond to a reference request; in fact, they’re not obligated to respond at all. But you can often push things along by calling them yourself, explaining that your job offer is on hold pending this reference, and ask them to respond ASAP.

(By the way, do you know that the reference will be a good one? Some employers just don’t respond rather than give a negative reference, if they didn’t think well of your work. But it’s also possible that it just fell through the cracks or is sitting on the desk of someone who’s out, or something like that. So call and find out.)

2. Company banned my husband and I from speaking at work

My husband and I work for the same company. He is a supervisor. I was hired in as an agent and was told the other day (almost a year later) that we can’t talk to each other when we are in the work area because it might be looked at as favoritism from other agents, even though he is not allowed to do anything for me. When I was hired, I was never told anything about this, and it’s not in the employee handbook. I was wondering if it’s legal? We work in different departments and I see other supervisors talking to friends.

Yes, it’s legal. If it didn’t come up for a year, though, then I’d look at whether something led to it recently — were you spending too much time talking to each other? Was there a complaint? In any case, many companies won’t hire employees’ spouses at all, which is probably a better solution than banning you from speaking to each other, but either way, it’s legal.

3. Approaching my boss about staying on after my apprenticeship ends

I have been on an apprenticeship for almost a year now and it’s coming to an end. How do I ask my boss if I still have a job, once the apprenticeship is finished?

“The end of my apprenticeship is coming up in June. I’d love to stay on once it’s over. Is that something that might be a possibility?”

4. Forgot to include my cover letter

I recently submitted an online application and forgot to attach my cover letter! It’s a position that I’m qualified for and quite interested in, and I’m kicking myself now. Will my resume suffice? Would it be overkill/annoying to resubmit WITH the cover letter? Or did I just kill my chances? This is one of those positions that does not provide an individual’s email address, so I’m not even sure how to follow up. Any advice?

Send the cover letter now, with a note explaining it didn’t attach the first time. Include your resume again too, so that they don’t have to hunt it down to connect them. Assuming you wrote a good cover letter that didn’t just summarize your resume, it’s a crucial part of your application that you don’t want to skip.

5. Manager won’t give me the same raise that others got

I am currently working for a large chain business, I was recently given more responsibilities at work such as closing the store. Coworkers who have also been given the same responsibilities have been given a raise in hourly wage. However, my manager refuses to give me a raise but still expects me to close and assume the same responsibilities. I feel as if I’m being discriminated against. What should I do?

Do you suspect your manager’s decision was based on your race, religion, sex, national origin, or other protected class? If not, then this isn’t discrimination in the legal sense. Simply being unfair or treating you differently than someone else isn’t on its own illegal.

However, you can certainly ask your manager why you’re not receiving the same pay as others who have the same responsibilities. (Note: Doing this in professional jobs isn’t appropriate; in that context, you’re expected to negotiate your salary without regard to what your coworkers make. But doing it in a retail store where pay tends to be handled differently is generally fine.)

6. Titles when you don’t know a person’s gender

In my current position, I have to write a number of formal letters and emails to staff members in diplomatic positions. My question is regarding correspondance to staff who are not the Ambassador or Consul General, but various other staff. Occasionally, I have to write someone where I am not certain what the gender is and Google isn’t providing a conclusive answer. How is it best to address a letter in this case? Or are there other ideas on how to try and determine someone’s gender when the obvious internet searches aren’t providing concrete results?

Since you’re writing to lower level staff where a formal title isn’t necessary, I’d go with the full name instead of a gender-based salutation, i.e., “Dear Jesse Pinkman.”

{ 47 comments… read them below }

  1. JT*

    #6 – for people some in diplomacy, honor and formality are important, so it may be worth calling the embassy or consulate’s main line and asking how to address the person to whom you are writing.

    1. Jane*

      I was wondering about that too. Might not be appropriate in this context to just use the person’s name without any title.

      1. Jane*

        If the convention in that industry is to say “Dear Mr. Ambassador” it might not work to write “Dear [First Name] [Last Name]” even if that is followed with the title. This is a tough one though. I guess calling to verify is one option but in the back of my mind I’d also be wondering if certain names which (to me) seem to be for women (like Ashley) in a particular case belongs to a man. It’s not necessarily that straightforward even with names that seem gender-specific.

        1. Anonymous*

          Sometimes I think it would be easier if we just all went by job titles. Ambassador Brown. Senior Blogger Green. Teapot Maker Smith.

        2. JT*

          The OP isn’t writing to sitting ambassadors, but people of lower level. In most cases, Mr. or Ms. [Last Name] is appropriate for those positions. There are exceptions (for example if person is a medical doctor).

          Also, ambassadors of most nations are enough of public figures that it’s easy to find their gender online. It may not be so lower level staff.

          1. Anonymous*

            I’m the anon above. I was just trying to make a comparison because OP mentioned “correspondance to staff who are not the Ambassador or Consul General”

    2. summercamper*

      I vote for calling as well… while I’ve never worked in diplomacy, I did an internship answering the phones for a US Senator. I frequently received calls asking about the gender of certain staff members. In my experience, this sort of thing was usually handled on an intern-to-intern level, so I doubt that Jesse Pinkman would ever hear that someone called asking for his/her correct salutation (and that’s how the requests where normally worded – “What is the correct salutation for Jesse Pinkman?” rather than “What is Jesse Pinkman’s gender?”)

      1. Chinook*

        Asking about the correct salutation will also help in case their is a professional title (ie. Dr.) or whether it is Miss, Mrs. or Ms.

      2. Jazzy Red*

        I call the company when I have to send something to someone with a name that could be either gender. Sometimes I will google a name and click images. Most the people I’m looking for are professionals, and I’ve found a few that way. Sometimes I can find a newspaper or magazine article that quotes the person, and might say “he said” or “she said”.

        I once had a male boss named Beverly (big guy who played football in college), and a male landlord named Marion. It made me more aware and careful of getting the Mr./Ms. correct.

    3. Kit M.*

      If it’s American embassy staff, I really wouldn’t worry too much about it. I’m speaking as someone who grew up in an (American) diplomatic family, but happy to defer to anyone who has experience actually working in a consulate or embassy.

    4. Jessa*

      I spent a lot of time as a secretary when making out programmes and lists and sending letters calling another person’s secretary and asking them “What does Pat Smith want to be called?” (Does this date me? Give you an idea how old I am laugh?)

      And if I were not sure of Pat Smith’s gender, that’s how I’d ask it. If I were completely and totally sure of what gender Pat Smith presents as I would ask “Does Pat Smith want to be Ms., Miss, Mrs., Doctor? and is that short for Patricia on formal things?”

      Because in other countries especially there are different mores about gender identification. And in a formal communication her last name may even pick up a gender. She may be Mrs. Smithova in Poland.

    5. Ask a Manager* Post author

      She’s not writing to the ambassadors in this case (in which case the way to address them would be clear), but to lower-level staff.

      1. OP #6*

        In my situation – the embassies that I work with the most often, I am the most familiar with the staff, how formal to be, and how to double check in cases where I am unsure. However, in particular with Asian embassies that I work with far less fequently – I feel less sure with what to do.

        In my years in my position, I have learned more and more about different very formal holdovers in embassies (for certain embassy events, it’s expected for women to wear pantyhose) – but there are also definitely embassies and staff where they aim for a more casual relationship.

        My particular question was in response to someone who emailed me, signed with a full name – and then in my response email I was uncertain. Going with the full name though appears to be appropriate for this case.

        1. JT*

          If it was me, responding to a message fairly promptly, in email, I might not use any saluation. I’d start my message with something like “Thank you for your interest in X.” or “Thank you for your request.” Then the next item on a new line. This is using email sort of like an ongoing conversation. Dear [First Name] [Last Name] seems strange to me – like a mass mailing. Whereas skipping the salutation is at worst too casual, but it’s also very businesslike — getting to the point.

          I wouldn’t use this approach if some time passed between messages. If you have time, the correct thing is to find out the gender/preferred salutation via phone.

          Also, with some Asian names there are clear gender differences that someone familiar with the language/culture can tell, so you might ask a colleague with that sort of knowledge. I can guarantee that even if a Ms. Takahashi Yamamoto exists (unlikely) she’s so used to being called Mr. Yamamoto that you would be in a massive amount of company for a gender error. Takahashi is man’s name.

          1. OP #6*

            Without getting too involved in the nature of what I do – skipping the salutation all together seems far too informal. I am not working in the US, and the country where I’m based unfortunately does not have a large presence of those who I could ask/would be better informed.

            So on the one hand, I’m sure given the local population there has been much butchering of names (both pronunciation and gender) – but if possible I’d like to avoid this as much as possible.

  2. Jane*

    Not being able to speak to your spouse at work sounds extra bizarre. I guess at that point I would just rely on using the phone (if it’s allowed) and taking lunch or breaks together if/when possible. It’s not the end of the world, as most people don’t work at the same place as their spouses and don’t get to see them during the day. That being said, if I worked at the same place as my significant other, I would be pretty annoyed if my employer said that we could not speak at work. Of all the people I know who are married or have dated coworkers, I’ve never heard of such a rule. I’ve heard of employers discouraging relationships in the office or refusing to hire someone who is married to someone else who already works at the company, but that’s completely reasonable. This no speaking at work policy is silly and unreasonable but it is what it is and I guess it’s one of those things where the employer holds the cards and can say “if you don’t like it, there’s the door.”

    1. A Bug!*

      I’m picturing a call centre. In the call centre where I worked, there was a lot of “high school” mentality, made worse by the fact that the management never seemed to draw a line. If a group of employees decided something wasn’t “fair”, they’d stew over it for a while until they were really angry about it and then go to management.

      Management would prioritize “smoothing things over” over putting their feet down and saying “You are being ridiculous and petty. Go back to work.”

      There’s not much to be done if you work in an environment like that, so your last little bit is absolutely spot-on.

  3. Mrs. Pink man*

    I want to know what kind of formal correspondence might be addressed to Jesse Pinkman! Other than warrants, that is.

        1. Cube Ninja*

          He can use Microsoft WORD. Write letters ‘n s***, yo.

          I was thinking that if Jesse Pinkman is diplomatic staff, we probably have bigger issues at hand.

  4. The Snarky B*

    Alison, just to confirm – for #4, you’re saying reapply entirely?

    I’ve had this issue once before and I’m wondering if you think there’s any harm in doing that. Like the company comparing your first application to the second (I’m thinking of the ones with assessments n crap like personality tests), or thinking ours trying to game the system, etc.
    and when there’s nowhere to write extra notes, which kind of word entry field do you suggest using?

    1. Marmite*

      I think Alison was assuming this was a job where you could apply with a resume and cover letter, rather than one with those ridiculous (yet common) long application forms or assessments like personality tests. Generally those tests can only be taken once and it would likely be a red flag to an employer if you tried to take them again.

      I’ve re-sent a CV with a cover letter once, when the cover letter somehow lost it’s .pdf suffix while attaching to the e-mail and I wasn’t sure the receiver would be able to open it. I ended up getting an interview for that job so it didn’t seem to count against me.

      For those other types of application though, with the tests and such, I’ve never included a cover letter unless there was an option to upload one within the application itself. A lot of them specifically state they don’t want anything other than the application form.

    2. Ask a Manager* Post author

      Yes, I’m assuming she can email them, in which case she should write a note explaining what happened, and attach both documents.

      1. Kit M.*

        My reading of the question was that she didn’t necessarily have a contact email of any sort.

        1. Ask a Manager* Post author

          Ah, I think you’re right. In that case, if it’s an electronic application system, no, I think the chance is gone, unfortunately.

    1. Jessa*

      Regarding number two, I’d want to know WHY. If there’s an appearance of impropriety or favouritism, then yes, they need to be told they can’t do that at work.

  5. PEBCAK*

    #5: I realize AAM is saying that you can’t expect veryone to make the same amount in a white-collar job title, but if you do know how much your peers make, isn’t that part of the “market rate” argument that you’d be making when you ask for a raise? Or does it only matter what you could get elsewhere?

    1. Jessa*

      Especially if you’re an hourly employee and not a salaried one. Hourly employees all things being relatively equal should be paid the same thing. Accent on equal. Particularly if one is female and the other male.

      1. Eric*

        But couldn’t you still make the argument that whenever any of your coworkers took on this extra responsibility they got a raise to go with it, even if you don’t reference a specific dollar amount?

        1. Ask a Manager* Post author

          It’s just generally not an effective argument. It’s way too easy for your manager to say that it’s a different situation, and managers generally bristle at hearing you compare your salary to a coworker’s, rightly or wrongly. It’s far more effective to base it on the value of your work and the market rate.

          1. -X-*

            I don’t understand how you reconcile this with pointing to market value. The company’s relationship with the co-worker is an example of the market that is particularly relevant, perhaps more relevant than random group of outsiders with similar companies, insofar as we know what the work is exactly (whereas the generic market includes jobs/companies that may differ a little).

            I can understand the bristling point, but not the logic of how this is weaker than a general market argument.

      2. PEBCAK*

        Yeah, I’m splitting hairs; my thinking is that you’d want to get the information, if at all possible, as part of your own pre-ask-for-raise research, even if you wouldn’t actually mention it to the person you are asking. In a company that doesn’t publish salary ranges, even internally, it would be very useful.

        1. fposte*

          I think managers hear “I’ve identified market rate as being x% above my current salary and I’m asking for a commensurate raise” very differently than “I know you’re paying Joe x% more than me and I want the same,” even if they can, as you suggest, come from a pretty similar place.

          1. -X-*

            “As I understand it, Joe’s salary was increased when he began doing A and C because we know A and C are valuable to the company. I’m glad to have the opportunity to do A and C, and I hope you’d agree I’m doing them well. It seems to me, that my compensation should reflect that value.”

  6. Anne*

    Really enjoy your blog. Re: #2: Just FYI–it should be “Company banned my husband and me from speaking at work” (instead of “my husband and I”). (If you were to replace the two parties with a single pronoun, it would be “us” [objective case], not “we” [subjective].)

    1. Anonymous*

      A similar trick is to take out one person – “Company banned me from speaking” vs “Company banned I from speaking”

    2. Henry*

      You must have a very good microscope and super sharp scalpel for those hairs you’re splitting.

      1. Anne*

        I’m not sure how this is hair splitting. Just trying to politely point out a grammatical mistake, like someone did earlier in the comments pointing out misuse of there/their. Allison usually corrects these when they’re brought up. The phrasing “Company banned my husband and I from speaking” is incorrect. It should be “Company banned my husband and me [i.e., us] from speaking.”

        1. Jazzy Red*

          Yes, but after the ninth or tenth correction, it gets annoying as hell to see any more.

          Let it go, let it go!

  7. darsenfeld*

    Number 6, this may be UK-centric style as I am from that country originally, but we often use “Dear Sir or Madam” if the gender of the recipient is unknown.

    As a rule of thumb, if the recipient is male it is “Mr. x”, if the recipient is an unmarried woman (or whom her married status is unknown) it is “Ms. x”, and if one is certain a woman is married it is “Mrs. x”.

    1. Kate in Scotland*

      Isn’t ‘Dear Sir or Madam’ only correct when you don’t know the addressee? I’ve never seen it when there is a name on the letter.

    2. OP #6*

      While I may not know the gender, I do know the name.

      This situation where I find this the most uncomfortable is that I will receive an email from the first secretary/deputy consul/etc. requesting a meeting. The email is often signed with their full name in an “email signature”. In these cases where I’ve never met the person before, writing back to them “Dear Sir or Madam” would feel very odd.

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