perfunctory thank-you notes, profanity at work, and more

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

1. Giving your interviewer a thank-you note on your way out of the interview

My question is about handing thank-you cards to people immediately after interviewing with them (literally after shaking hands before you leave the office). My husband was told this was done a few years ago where he’s currently interviewing, and they were impressed with the originality. I personally think it’s strange. Can I please have your thoughts?

Yes, it’s strange. It makes it look perfunctory and not genuine (since you were planning to do it before you came in and it had nothing to do with the content of the meeting). It also negates one of the points of a thank-you note, which isn’t really to say thanks but to follow up on the conversation and reiterate that you’re still interested.

From the interviewer’s perspective, the thank-you note doesn’t just signal manners; more importantly, it signals interest. Interviewers want to know that the job candidate went home, thought about what was talked about, digested it all, and concluded that they’re still enthusiastic about the position. That’s what getting a thank-you note conveys — as long as enough time has passed for that to be realistic.

2. Is an employer required to respond to inquiries from an employee’s creditors and collection agencies?

Is an employer legally bound to verify employment for collection agencies, an employee’s creditors, etc.? Previously when a creditor or other telephones, I would ask them to fax the request to me, inform the employee of the interest, then respond to the request. I currently have an employee who is having financial issues – one creditor is calling monthly for her employment status and another would like information in order to garnish her wages.

If they the creditor has a court order, you must comply with that. But otherwise, to the best of my knowledge, there’s no law requiring you to respond to them. You can also tell them to stop calling your workplace, and they must comply with that.

3. Offer was withdrawn and then reinstated

After applying to a job posting online and going through two rounds of interviews with both the director and VP of the department, I was made an offer, which I subsequently accepted. The entire process of applying, interviewing, and being made an offer took around seven weeks.

After formally accepting and signing the offer, I received an email from HR not long after saying the offer was withdrawn because the job was now closed due to unforeseen internal circumstances. I then contacted the hiring manager about what had happened, who told me that he didn’t have all the details at the present time as he was away from the company on business and he apologized over what had happened. He promised he would due his best to sort the issues out and also assured me that it had nothing to do with me since they wanted me for the job.

The day he returned to work, I received an email from him saying that the job was in fact reinstated and was sent a formal email from HR saying to disregard what had previously happened and the job was back on and mine. What do you make of all this? I know that things like this could happen in the workplace but should I be worried? Should I take this as a red flag?

Find out what happened first. Before you accept, call up the hiring manager and say something like, “I’m interested in moving forward with the offer, but I’m concerned about what happened earlier. Can you shed any light on why it was withdrawn previously?” Depending on his answer, you might also ask, “Is there any chance that the job might be frozen again?” But hear what he has to say before you make up your mind.

4. Contributing to a gift for a (not always thoughtful) boss

I work for a very large organization that has had so many cutbacks in the past five years. Some of these cuts include head count, benefits and the year-end holiday party and gift. The past two years, our sales team has gotten a gift for our boss, costing each of us $25. In return, we have gotten an email thank-you in late January or early February. In prior years, our boss had given us a gift in the form of alcohol (wine). There are two people on the team who do not drink, so in my opinion this is a thoughtless gift.

Just this week, one of the team members sent out an email stating she would again be collecting $25 for our boss’s year-end gift. Since we are salespeople and our efforts contribute to her income, to me it feels wrong that we are giving her a gift at the end of the year when it almost goes unnoticed. What is proper? Should employees give their employer a gift?

No. Gifts in the workplace should flow downward (your manager to you), not upward (you to your manager). And that would be the case even if your boss thanked you for the gift more quickly, or if she were more thoughtful with her own gifts to your team, or if the organization hadn’t been making cut-backs. Email your coworkers and say, “I’ve been reading that etiquette says that employees shouldn’t give gifts upward, so I suggest that we skip the collection this year and perhaps just give Jane a card.”

5. Using the F-word at work

Is using the f word sexual harassment or harassment of any kind? My son recently started a new job and another employee used the f word several times at him angerly. He said it in front of people and made my son very uncomfortable. How should my son handle this?

Did he use it at him or in front of him? If just around him but not about him, your son probably needs to let it go; people do use profanity in the workplace. But if he used it at him (like “F you” or “you’re a F’ing jerk”), then your son should tell his coworker that he doesn’t want to be sworn at. If the problem continues and your son is sufficiently bothered by it to talk to a manager, that would be his next option.

But no, the mere use of the word is not sexual harassment.

6. Answering “where do you see yourself in five years?” when I want to retire

I have an interview this week for what is hopefully the last interview I need to do in my career. I’m taking a step down career-wise and think this job will be easier to sustain and possibly enjoy for the last three years that I need to work before I retire. What do you suggest I say when they ask “where do you see yourself in five years”? Probably shouldn’t tell them “happily retired.”

You can honestly say that at this point in your career you’re not looking for additional advancement and that you’re really just looking for a position with (fill in what appeals to you about this role). They probably won’t press you and say, “but what about in five years?” but if they do, it’s fine to say, “To be honest, I don’t know. I can tell you that I’d like to stay in my next job for at least the next three years, as long as it’s a good fit.”

{ 185 comments… read them below }

  1. Jake

    The thank-you note before leaving thing screams of one out of ten (or one hundred or whatever) hiring managers thinking it shows initiative/creativity with the rest being annoyed that you aren’t following accepted practice.

    It is like cold calling when a company explicitly tells you not to, sure your cousin’s buddy’s wife’s ex-father-in-law got his cool job with the cool company by cold calling, but everybody else that does it has just annoyed the hiring manager.

    1. AdAgencyChick

      I’ve heard of wedding receptions where guests received preprinted thank-you notes (“thank you for coming, and thank you for your gift!”) at their seats. This is almost as bad (I say “almost” because presumably OP’s husband would not be preprinting the notes), and for the same reason.

      There’s no better way to say “this thank-you is insincere.”

      1. Sunflower

        WOW on the seat, that is about as bad as it gets. I’ve gotten generic pre-printed thank yous sent to me in the mail from wedding guests. It actually made me want to go back in time and not attend the wedding. TACKY!

      2. Judy

        Almost every wedding I’ve gone to that has had favors at the table has a note on it “Thank you for coming to share our special day with us.” But I’ve also received personalized thank you notes from everyone for the gifts.

        1. Sunflower

          I think its totally ok to have thank you notes on the table as long as some sort of personalized thank you comes after the wedding.

      3. Anonymous

        I have horrible handwriting, I would make a spread sheet and outsource the handwriting for wedding thank yous. Yes, there are people that do that.

        1. Sunflower

          I think it would be very nice to have the notes outsourced as I also have terrible handwriting and will probably need someone to write them for me! The post card like notes that obviously came out of a mass printer similar to postcard flyers you receive for promotional events from stores are the ones that rub me the wrong way.

        2. Anonymous

          Just a note about horrible handwriting – for something personal like a TU note, nobody cares. My mom’s best friend had laughably bad handwriting, but we loved getting cards from her. She died about 10 years ago and my mom still has some of those cards with her goofy handwriting. Please hand write yours! (Although not the address maybe!)

          1. Audiophile

            You say no one cares, but numerous articles advise to skip handwritten thank you notes, if your handwriting is bad. My handwriting is bad, many people at my current job say it’s awful, so I’ve become accustomed to emailing thank you notes.

            1. fposte

              Anon is talking about personal thank you notes and you’re talking about professional ones, though, so they operate under different rules.

          2. Elizabeth Westq

            I think it’s fine to print them if everyone knows your handwriting sucks or you can’t write easily for some reason, but they should be personal and specific, and I would sign them by hand.

    2. Sunflower

      I don’t understand this could impress someone. Honestly, I’d be offended. Yes you clearly want A job but it looks like you’ll take any job.

      OP & AAM is right- this is really strange and defeats the purpose of thank you. A thank you note not only signals interest but it also lets you to say why you would want that particular position in that particular company and why you would be a good fit for each other. It’s 100% worth it to take the extra time to make sure it conveys those things

  2. WWWONKA

    # 6 Maybe say something as well about what you can/would contribute during your time with the company. If they are looking for a 5 year plan and only get a side stepped answer to 3 years may get you put on the back burner.

  3. Fatimat Adelabu

    #1 I know it may seem like a lot of work to come back and leave a hand written note for the interviewer that is why one may write it prior and then hand it to the interviewer after their session. But what about taking your self to breakfast or lunch in town afterwards, sit in a booth, then write out a true card. With that you can drop off the card with the receptionist before you head out of town.

    #5 I really believe you should put your son on to the power of AskAManager.com But the way I read it – it seems like he was verbally attacked, I do agree with Allison. He should talk it out first before speaking to their manager.

    #6 I hate this question. What I really want to say is that I’d have earned an MBA degree and would be in your position (if I was meeting with an executive). But wouldn’t that sound too egotistical?

    1. PEBCAK

      Not only egotistical, but naive. MBAs are really not worth as much as most people getting them seem to think. They might be required for advancement, but unless you are at one of the top five B-Schools, nobody is hiring you/promoting you on the degree alone.

      1. Victoria Nonprofit

        Actually, having watched my husband go through the MBA proves at a Top 20 (but not Top 5) program, that’s not really true. At least at Top 20 schools, there is an almost secret world of jobs that are exclusively available to just-graduating full-time MBAs. Obviously your success will depend on a lot of factors other than the fact of the MBA (your grades, even from college, and your GMAT score matter a LOT; your previous experience as well), but it’s crazy. My husband is considering offers that are double and triple the (decent) salary he had before entering the program, in a field (consulting) that he switched to after starting his MBA.

    2. EngineerGirl

      #1. Please don’t hand write a thank you note! In today’s society an e-mail is sufficient. it is also easier to archive. And dropping off with the receptionist? NOOoooo. That would be so annoying, as the receptionist now has to chase down the recipient.

      YMMV – some countries are more formal than others. But in the US – just no. Send a thank you note via email.

      1. Anonymous

        On the first day of my new job, I opened the mail and there was a handwritten thank you note from a rejected candidate. I gave it to my boss and she said, “Why would you send this by mail to a University? I knew this lady was a moron.”

        1. Lily in NYC

          I’m confused by this. Your boss sounds like a jerk. What is so wrong with the candidate mailing a thank you note?

          1. Cat

            Yeah, I have to say, I get a smattering of hand written thank you notes. It’s fine. I mean, it makes more sense to do it by email because it’s so much quicker and you don’t know when the decision is being made, but I’m certainly not going to judge a candidate for hand writing a note.

            1. Tina

              It’s not necessary to handwrite a thank-you note, but I wouldn’t hold it against some one. I’ve talked with several employers who still like them (not to say they would hold an email one against a candidate).

              On the other hand, I can also say that sending anything through our University mail system is bound to take weeks…

              1. en pointe

                Yeah I interpreted the scorn as being directed at mailing a thank you note to a university, which is quite likely to be an unreliable nightmare, rather than just mailing one to employers in general.

                1. fposte

                  I still don’t get it, and I work at a university. I get a lot of mail–it’s not like it stops in confusion at the university gate and waits for me to find it.

                2. Bea W

                  You really have to work at any particular university (or any place) to understand how slow the mail system is. It’s not unreasonable for anyone else to expect sending a physical thank you note would take the better part of a century to reach its destination.

                  I work for a private company, and letters may end up in the shared mailbox…maybe in the right department, in which case no one may even check it for weeks or months…it does stop at the gate and wait for me to find it!

          2. CAA

            It sounds like she was commenting on the candidate’s lack of awareness that the internal mail system at a University is not an efficient way to communicate. If her note arrived on the day that someone else started the job she wanted, then obviously that’s way too late to help her get the job.

            If you want a thank you note to work for you, then you have to make sure it reaches the right person in a timely fashion, which is why you send an e-mail. I’m not offended if someone sends me a paper note, but I did have a case where one took a couple of months to reach me because it got buried in someone else’s pile of paper by mistake. (Also, since I’m hiring software engineers, I sort of expect them to make use of technology, and it’s a little weird when they don’t.)

            1. Kelly L.

              I wonder if she sent it to

              Person’s Name
              University Name
              City, State ZIP

              without anything to indicate the department or building or any other subdivision of the university that would have helped them sort it. Or even just University Name.

              1. Cassie

                For us, our mail is delayed by at least a day even if you do put the full street address on the envelope. All mail to the zip code is sorted by univ staff first and then distributed to each department who has their own +4 code. So if the envelope has the zip+4, it’ll get to the recipient even without a department name.

            2. Jennifer

              See, when I heard that the thank-you note was pre-written, I thought that they did it to circumvent the slowness of the mail. I suspect some people think thank you e-mails are Tacky, but these days you can’t wait for the US mail to deliver the note if it ends up going the slow route.

            3. Bea W

              If you don’t already work for the university, you wouldn’t know this to be the case though. She’s commenting on a lack of awareness of something that the candidate shouldn’t be aware of.

              It’s similar to someone asking me who John Quincy Adams was recently. My jaw dropped open, but then I remembered she’s not from the US. People don’t naturally know what they have not been taught or experienced. It doesn’t make them a “moron”.

          3. Anonymous

            OK, I thought it was just me. The boss sounds like an idiot. I don’t understand why a handwritten note sent through the mail is such an awful thing and why that would cause someone to be labeled a moron.

            1. Loose Seal

              Might be part of a self-fulfilling prophecy. Boss already thought candidate was a moron and anything the candidate did would just give Boss more evidence.

        2. Sunflower

          I think this strongly depends on the company and the interviewer.

          I personally send a thank-you email within 24 hours of meeting the person and then send a handwritten note as a little extra. I ALWAYS send an email & if it’s a job I really want, I send both. Sure my handwritten note might get tossed asap or not even read but I think it’s a non-aggressive way to stick in the interviewer’s mind just a little longer.

          In a tough economy where hundreds of people are competing for one job and the tiniest misstep can take you out of the running, I think a handwritten note is a safe route to take if you’re looking to stay remembered and show the hiring manager how badly you want the job.

          That being said, handwritten notes have a delay and so I think it is important to ALWAYS send an email and then work on the handwritten note.

          1. EngineerGirl

            If you want to be remembered then have outstanding achievements. Sending hand written thank you notes shows that you don’t know that you don’t know how the game is played.

          2. Ask a Manager Post author

            No, no, don’t do that! Two thank-you notes is overkill. It’s unlikely to get you rejected, but it looks slightly weird, and it’s definitely not helping you.

            Just an email is fine. And it’s often better, when a decision is being made quickly.

            1. Offer reinstated

              Hi Alison, I read your advice about topic #3 on the offer being reinstated. I’d already spoken with the hiring manager who said it was just an internal issue and there was some confusion going on with HR which he had resolved. I tried digging deeper but that was the best I could get.

              1. Treece

                Funny, judt today I got a rejection email stating the job I interviewed for would not be filled at this time and then 3 hours later got a phone call from the person I interviewed with telling me to please disregard the email because there had been a glitch with their system. I thought it was odd but it didn’t occur to me to write them off because of it. Human error or system errors happen. I think if this is the only thing that has given you pause regarding this company that you should go for it. But if there were other things that you felt were off then you may want to reconsider.

      2. Anon

        To some extent, I think you have to play it by industry and by region. I live in the deep South, and handwritten thank yous are still very common (in some cases, expected) here, both for personal and business situations.

  4. Verde

    #2 – What Alison said x 100. I had a staff member I shared an office with who was getting harassing phone calls at work and I told her to tell them not to call her work number, as she would take the calls then get all distracted and upset. They are not allowed to call work!

    Check with your attorney on this, but this should also apply to verification of employment requests from banks, mortgage companies, rental agencies, and so on. I had to call in the lawyers when I was being harassed and threatened by a mortgage company for more information than we normally provide on a VOE. Horrible people, who make it sound like you have to do everything they ask, when really you simply don’t – you’re doing it as a favor to your staff and are under no obligation to do it at all.

  5. Meg

    With regards to gift giving, what would you say is the etiquette with giving a group gift from people both above and below the recipient? I’m an assistant, and we do collections from the entire team (up to senior management level) for birthdays/new babies/leaving gifts. Should these really only come from above?

    1. Ex-Mrs Addams

      I’d say the arrangement you have is fine, provided it is a truly voluntary contribution and there is no penalty (overt or otherwise) for not contributing.

      1. Anon

        I once worked on a team that decided to chip in on a present for our manager for Boss’ Day. It was a nice gesture, but it felt a little weird. I thought a nice card thanking her for being a great boss would have been better.

  6. Daisy

    4) I don’t think wine is a particularly thoughtless present. It’s pretty standard, and a boss doesn’t really have a way of knowing if someone’s teetotal. Getting the same smallish token something for the whole team is about right, it’s the team getting the big present for the boss that’s backward.

    5) I enjoy the word ‘angerly’.

    1. Ann Furthermore

      I agree the big present to the boss shouldn’t be done. My co-workers and I get a small gift for our boss each year, and by small I mean a $5 contribution from each of us to purchase a gift card from the Starbucks kiosk in the company cafeteria. She’s a big coffee lover so she really appreciates it. In general she’s a pretty frugal person, so anything more elaborate than that would probably embarrass her.

      Her job requires her to put up with lots of BS from people across the organization, plus she is a great “buffer” between us and upper management. She’s a really great boss so we like to do something for her each year, and this is a small thing that lets her know she’s appreciated.

      1. Jazzy Red

        Some years back, I worked in the Marketing Department as an admin. There were 3 other admins, two more senior who did different work, but we all sat together. We had a VP and 2 National Accounts Mangers in the office, and 4 National Accounts Mangers in the field. Every year, the admins bought gifts for all 7 of them. This completely ruined my gift budget for my family and friends (who I love and would like to have spent more money on) for Christmas.

        A nice card with a sincere note and maybe some homebaked treats is plenty.

    2. en pointe

      I think that it could be considered pretty thoughtless.

      It’s not so much about knowing which specific people don’t drink as it’s just being aware that there are non-drinking people on the team in general (if that is indeed common knowledge among the team).

      I think that should be enough for the manager to want to give a present that they don’t already know not everyone will enjoy.

      1. Daisy

        Well that’s what I meant, I don’t see why people’s dietary choices would be ‘common knowledge’. The coworkers might go out together, or it might come up in conversation, but that’s far less likely with bosses and subordinates. Of course if the boss does know and gives those people wine anyway, I agree that’s twatty.

        1. en pointe

          Oh, I suppose I was thinking of my own office where we do things like Christmas and Melbourne Cup lunches and you become aware pretty quickly that there are vegetarians, non-drinkers etc on the team.

          Agreed that if the boss genuinely doesn’t know about the non-drinkers then there’s nothing wrong with a wine gift.

      2. Loose Seal

        I don’t drink. But I wouldn’t find it thoughtless to be given a bottle of wine. I’d keep it and bring it to a holiday party as a host/ess gift. Much like I’d regift anything my mother-in-law got me :)

        1. gd

          Are there people who want a green glass pear? Or a cast iron cat? Or 3 nesting tables painted with hummingbirds? Or a framed photo of my in laws? Because I would love to re gift what my MIL sends me.

          1. teclatwig

            Me! I love my cast iron cat! But I doubt you would want to trade me for my toothbrush & toothpaste (yes, really) or selection of Christian-themed financial self-help books….

              1. JMegan

                My grandmother-in-law once tried to give me a ceramic F.

                A stand-alone F, about eight inches high, with a hole in the top (for candles? Flowers? Who knows?) Sadly, we were travelling at the time, and it was really too bad that it didn’t fit in my suitcase!

          2. ThursdaysGeek

            I’d take the photo — I’ve got a great wall of photos and total strangers would be a nice addition. But I don’t have anything to trade. I still think happily of my MIL when I put on my gloves in the morning: one red, one black.

            1. the gold digger

              Actually, my husband loves the cat. I think of it as another thing to dust. And when they gave it to us, we were at their house, which is a four-hour plane ride from us. I looked at this life-size cast-iron cat and thought, “Just how am I supposed to get this home?”

              However, may interest you in a custom jigsaw puzzle of a map of my neighborhood?

            1. the gold digger

              It’s not that, Lydia. I mean, it’s cute, but my MIL spent nine days in my house and never once saw an item like that. I like pretty things, but they have to be functional – so nice bowls or vases are fine, but I don’t want something that is strictly decorative and has to be dusted and is breakable. (We have cats, so can’t have Nice Things.)

              I also don’t like a lot of clutter – it’s pretty spare in our living room, except for the life-sized cast-iron cat on the floor and a few other items that we have picked up traveling. (For ex, the ashtray we got in Morocco – an item that inspired two American guys at the shop with us to gasp and ask, “Is that for cigarettes?”)

              My husband says that if she noticed that we don’t have stuff like that, she probably thought, “They have NOTHING like this! They NEED it! They don’t have any THINGS!”

              It’s the kind of thing I would think is cute at someone else’s house – but just don’t want in mine.

      3. BCW

        Yeah, I’m not sure how many people there are in the office, but to assume the manager knows what everyone does in their private time is presumptuous. I don’t think its a thoughtless gift.

    3. The IT Manager

      I think the thoughtlessness of a gift of wine is dependent on how well the people in the office know each other. If it seems like common knowledge to the co-worker then perhaps it is thoughtless of the boss.

      But so many things are problematic. Wine because people don’t drink. Chocolate or other foods because some people have allergies. Even the common “go to” Starbuck’s card is a dissppontment to me. I don’t like coffee so there’s a fairly small number of items on their menu I will drink, and I’d never choose to go there myself. I think I still have a gift card to Starbuck’s I got a year ago in my wallet.

        1. the gold digger

          And yet you can never swap the store credit for the spice store in Fort Worth (which was so necessary considering I live a mile away from the headquarters for Penzeys) or vivaterra.com, home of the $59 green glass pear.

          My MIL has this amazing talent – the ability to get something unwanted, unnecessary, and untradeable.

          1. ThursdaysGeek

            My MIL said that she bought gifts that she wanted to give, not necessarily what the other person wanted to receive. But, she still managed to give good gifts that we also liked to get.

          2. FreeThinkerTX

            But. . . vivaterra.com has “…created two companions for our perennially popular handblown dimpled-glass Bartlett pear: one is a Bosc pear, the other a Kalamata fig. Each unique translucent objét reflects light and adds a buoyant grace note to mantel, table or shelf. Iridescent stems provide a masterly decorative flourish.”

            Just think, Gold Digger, your mantel, table and shelves could be BUOYANT. I’d totally get the whole set if you live in a flood plain. ;-)

      1. Jennifer

        I either hand off the Starbucks cards or save them for going out with people who specifically want to go to Starbucks (i.e .most people who actually like coffee). Though yeah, they do sit around for a year with me. But at least there’s like, 2 things I’ll drink at one–I really hate Peet’s because even their tea is awful and almost all of the time there is nothing there I’d want to consume!

      2. Cath@VWXYNot?

        I don’t drink coffee, but I love Starbucks cookies (mmm, ginger molasses), and I’ve practically lived on their fruit and cheese platters at some conferences.

    4. The Other Dawn

      I personally think wine is fine. I don’t drink wine, but I always enjoy receiving a bottle because then I can hand it over to my sister who enjoys trying different wines. Or, I may cook with it. I don’t think it’s thoughtless at all.

      1. fposte

        Ditto. It’s the spirit in which it’s given that matters to me, not whether or not I can immediately consume it.

      2. Anonymous

        What the Other Dawn said.

        I never drink, but wine is easily re-gifted, looks nice, keeps well. I don’t mind if someone who doesn’t know me well gives me a gift of wine – I just pass it on or cook with it or serve it to others.

        Someone else said “It’s like buying dog food for someone who doesn’t have a pet, or worse”

        Baloney. Wine has a whole positive culture and history built around it, is usually packaged attractively, and can be cooked with or re-gifted easily.

        Wine in a box is perhaps analogous to dog food. Nice looking wine in a bottle – no way. And I don’t drink wine ever myself.

    5. thenoiseinspace

      It’s absolutely a thoughtless present. It’s like buying dog food for someone who doesn’t have a pet, or worse (in cases like mine, where the employees are actually allergic to alcohol) presenting a bouquet of ragweed to someone with allergies. Nothing says “I don’t value your contribution to my present” like giving a return gift that the employee can’t use.

      1. Colette

        In a personal relationship, I’d totally agree, but this is a business relationship, and generic gifts are the way to go. Yes, it would be nice if they were somewhat personalized, but there’s a fine line, and a manager of 15 people isn’t going to want to make 15 stops to buy 15 equivalent-but-not-the-same gifts. And most people will find a use for a bottle of wine, even if they don’t drink it. (For context, I rarely drink and a tiny glass of wine makes me fall asleep but certainly wouldn’t be offended by a bottle of wine.)

        1. JMegan

          I think there needs to be a balance between generic gifts for the group, and some sort of personalization for the individuals. Beyond just allergies – say if someone was a vegetarian for religious reasons, you wouldn’t want to give them a gift card to Meaty McMeaterson’s BBQ Buffet.

          Or if someone is an alcoholic, a bottle of wine could be really problematic, whether they’re drinking or not. It’s not necessarily something they can just give away if they’re really struggling with it.

          There’s probably no perfect gift that would appeal to everyone on any given team. But I think you should know individuals well enough to at least know what would be massively inappropriate. Maybe the answer is to have two generic gifts – half the team gets Generic Gift A (eg a bottle of wine) and the other half gets Generic Gift B (a Starbucks card.)

          Going the half and half route, nobody gets singled out (everybody gets wine but that one guy, and did you know he’s a massive alcoholic!), nobody gets anything wildly inappropriate, and people can discreetly trade if the wine drinker gets the coffee card or vice versa.

          1. Dana

            Is it weird that I totally just googled “Meaty McMeaterson’s BBQ Buffet” in hopes of it being a real place? Sadly, it’s only a fantasy. A delicious fantasy…

          2. Loose Seal

            A boss several levels higher than me always made homemade banana bread for everyone and passed it out about a week before Christmas. Our office smelled wonderful that day. However, I can’t eat gluten. Did I complain? Hell, no! It was a fantastic gesture and I took the bread to my family’s get-together later in the week where it was consumed with joy.

            The next year (and this is where the story gets sad), he was handing out the bread to everyone. He handed me mine and because he had gotten to know me better in the intervening year, said, “Oh right, you can’t have gluten” and he took it away!! Right out of my hands. So I got to smell all the other breads but didn’t get one to take home. (Also, my family wondered where the great bread was…)

            Regardless, I didn’t think he should change his yearly gift for my food intolerances. Just give people the generic office gift you’ve decided on and let them deal with the particulars of its disposal.

      2. KarenT

        It’s not the same as giving out dog food or ragweed because wine is a generic gift. It’s more similar to giving out chocolate to someone who doesn’t eat it or coffee to someone who doesn’t drink it.
        A gift is a gift–if you get one you don’t like you say thank you, discard it, donate it, regift it, or whatever, and move on with your day.

      3. fposte

        But then a gift card is even more thoughtless, because it’s not even a gift–it’s a ticket to a gift.

        1. Jazzy Red

          My parents used to give me a gift certificate for JC Penney’s every Christmas. I loved it! Shopped the January white sale and got better stuff than I could have otherwise afforded.

          I think a gift card for a specific store or restaurant, that you know the person likes, is a good gift.

        2. EvaR

          I like gift cards for this exact reason! The point of a gift is to wish the person well and give them something they will enjoy. It is not to show off how well you know someone or what great taste you have. A gift card is always the right size, you are never allergic to it. It never has accidental unfortunate implications or sits unused on a shelf or in a box. It accomplishes gift giving to people you don’t know intimately most efficiently with the least amount of fuss.

  7. Ann Furthermore

    3) I agree that you should try to find out the circumstances around the withdrawal and subsequent reinstatement of the job offer. It could have just been a snafu, or it may be indicative of a bigger issue.

    My company currently has a headcount freeze across the board, except for one particular area. Any requests for new headcount go all the way up to the CEO, but first must pass through one of the other executives that is being held to a target that has been dictated by our parent company. This guy has turned down nearly all headcount requests, but for some reason requests from this one area always seem to get through.

    I am currently in Europe for the week and the VP of my area is here too. The headcount discussion came up this morning while we were all eating breakfast and I mentioned this situation and — trying to be tactful since there was a VP at the table — and said, “Well, I’ll just say it does not go unnoticed and leave it at that.” The VP said she knew exactly how the rest of us feel, and was really biting her tongue to avoid saying more. It was an interesting conversation.

  8. Kat A.

    OP #3,
    I think it’s a big red flag, and they may not be honest with you about the reasons.

    What if you take this job — giving up your old job and health insurance — and it’s eliminated after only a month or so? You have everything to lose, they don’t. So don’t take their word for it.

    1. thenoiseinspace

      I’m inclined to agree. If you don’t currently have a job and aren’t risking anything by taking this position, then go for it, but if it means giving up a current job, I wouldn’t risk it. For me, the lack of internal communication is just as big a flag as the offer being revoked – proceed with caution and assume the worst, just to be on the safe side.

  9. WIncredible

    Are these letters all for real? “…due his best,” “angerly”??? Are these sic, or just missed typos? Because if these are actual employed people SMH.

        1. JMegan

          “Cromulent” is my favourite word ever. Closely followed by “embiggens”, and anything else that comes from the Simpsons. Win!

    1. Loose Seal

      I am always so surprised when people feel they have to comment on typos. I’m really curious — what does making this comment get you? Satisfaction? Something else?

      FYI…”angerly” predates “angrily” in English so perhaps it’s not in common usage anymore but there’s nothing wrong with it.

      1. tcookson

        I can’t exactly say I’m surprised, but I just think it’s unnecessary. I notice those things when I’m reading the blog, but I don’t really see any need to bring it up. It’s just a little tic that passes through my awareness without causing me any trouble, so why trouble anyone else about it?

        Even when someone has obviously used one word when they meant another, you can generally tell what word was meant and go on with reading the post with your understanding pretty much unimpaired.

        The only reason I can see to comment on others’ grammar and/or usage is to seek clarification when you genuinely can’t figure out what they mean. If you get their gist, just get it and move on.

        1. Mander

          +1,000,000

          I’m trying to get established as an editor/proofreader, so I certainly notice most little errors, but it doesn’t make me twitchy or fill me with a need to correct people. I really hate it when people don’t contribute to threads except to be snarky about other peoples’ spelling or grammar. What is the point, except to be nasty?

    2. Calla

      Believe it or not, human beings make mistakes and are still allowed to hold jobs. Especially words that sound similar (due/do)– I know, first thing in the morning, I’ve definitely emailed “right” instead of “write” or vice-versa once or twice.

    3. Anonymous

      There are actually people whose native language isn’t English reading/commenting/writing here. Especially “angerly” sounds like a mistake that could easily stem from that.

    4. Jazzy Red

      These people got their meaning across, and that’s the whole function of language. It certainly would get points off from Sister Mary Edith, who taught me in grade school, but the posts were clear enough.

        1. Jazzy Red

          My sisters and I used to play “nuns” and drape white dish towels over our heads and call ourselves “Sister Mary Your-Name-Here”. A couple of months ago, they were at my house and my dog went under the table and came partway out, with the white tablecloth draped over her head. I called her “Sister Mary Rover” and we all laughed like crazy.

          Yeah, it’s the little things that keep us going.

  10. josh

    I have to admit, since I started reading your blog, I am amazed at the number of questions you get, that to many people the answers would seem obvious, yet this is clearly not the case. Demonstrates how we all assume that what is basic knowledge/implicit to us, is clearly not to other people and why we all need to improve our communication skills.

    1. Elysian

      I agree, and I appreciate that this blog exists for that reason. I grew up low-income with parents whose jobs were solidly blue-collar. I graduated college having no idea how to navigate office etiquette. Things that someone was taught their whole life may be totally foreign to another; I’m so glad that the Internet exists and that people like AAM are kind enough to do the teaching.

      1. Jean

        Hmm. This comment started out as a quick, snappy add-on but morphed into something longer and more thoughtful.

        Blue-collar/white-collar isn’t the only culture gap. If all of the adults around you are scientists, artists, musicians, writers, historians, and so forth, you can graduate from college with only a dim awareness of the poise, polish, political savvy, and self-confidence required for success in the business world.
        Life secret #1: Employees need adequate commonsense knowledge about routine transactions and interactions. Lacking this knowledge, the average worker will either charge ahead and risk mistakes, or dither and procrastinate until coworkers and/or supervisors look at you as though you had six heads and no brains!
        Life secret #2: The nonprofit world requires the same combination of administrative skills and interpersonal poise.
        Life secret #3: Keep smiling. It’s good to learn something new every day even if it’s just how to calm down the panic of taking the initiative to solve problems.

        1. EvaR

          Yep. Raised by hippies and my solidly blue collar grandfather here. So many things that seem obvious to people raised in a certain environment seem ridiculous or even hostile to me. So many things I do seem twee or sort of sneaky or superior to others. When you are raised in a culture and then most of the people you know are from that culture, it becomes invisible and “natural.”

    2. Jazzy Red

      I agree with you.

      Sometimes when we’re in the middle of these problems, we just don’t see the answers. I like the way Alison never makes people feel less for asking. The people who comment here are great, too.

      I’m off work now, but I’ll still keep reading this blog. It has helped me sharpen my people reading skills (which were pathetic but are much better now), and that helps me in my *real* life.

      1. ThursdaysGeek

        I’ve learned a lot from Alison and from the commenters, who are almost always polite and clear thinking. And not just about workplace issues, but about how to treat people and how to behave in all sorts of situations. Thank you all!

        1. Jean

          Sleep deprivation has erased my manners…yes, +1 to Alison! I’m getting a fine education re navigating workplace challenges from your blog (plus all the comments).

    3. Joey

      It’s fairly common to lose objectivity when you’re involved.

      The other fairly common thing is that people involved tend to rely heavily on is pure speculation that’s probably colored by bad experiences.

      One other common misstep is people lose sight of the fact that the best business decision doesn’t always result in the best outcome for the employee. Sounds easy, but people get caught up in “fair”, but forget that fairness rarely if ever is the only goal.

  11. Cheryl

    In regards to #2, if it is a legal document with consequences (for the employer) for not following up such as a levy or lien, you have to respond to that as well. These two issues rarely go the route of a court order…so FYI.

  12. Brett

    #3 Should the OP consider the offer a new offer, or a reinstatement of the original offer? In other words, are they in a situation again where they can decide whether or not to accept (and even negotiate), or are they still ethically bound by the original offer?

  13. LivelyDiscussion

    #4 – My first year at CurrentJob, my boss told her team she would be getting us gifts – they were very thoughtful and you could tell she spent time/energy picking out stuff for us we would really like. The only thing was that my team and myself felt pressure to get gifts for her and each other, and that’s what we did. I know others on the team (including myself) didn’t really have the money to spend on “extra” gifts.

    By the following year, our team dynamic had changed a lot (basically, our roles were eliminated and some people got to stay in the department and others were allowed to stay in the department until they could find another job). It was kind of awkward, not to mention stressful for those who were looking for new jobs.

    What I decided to do was bake holiday treats for the whole team, put them in a pretty box and include a hand-written note. Everyone liked it because they didn’t feel they had to reciprocate with a pricey gift. Our manager did end up getting us gifts, but smaller ones (but still thoughtful) than the previous year and everyone was totally happpy.

  14. Noelle

    #2 – It depends on what kind of debt it is. If it’s federal debt, such as student loans, then it IS legal to garnish wages without a court order and an employer could potentially get in trouble for not cooperating. The government has a lot of authority under the Debt Collection Improvement Act. There’s a Treasury website that has the types of action the government can take here: http://www.fms.treas.gov/debt/dca_quickref_index.html

  15. Anon

    #5-Even if it was said directly to your son, would it count as harassment? I don’t know. Is it unprofessional? Totally. Should someone clue this guy in that profanity laced tirades really aren’t cool at work? Absolutely. Should your son decide if it’s really that big a deal and whether or not he should say something? Yes. There are some people who are really bothered by profanity, whether at them or in general. If the established work culture (whether right or wrong) says this is okay, then that person needs to decide if it’s worth it to say something to the cussing person or not. If, after saying something to the cusser, you get ripped a new one then I would go to management.

    Where has the world gone to that we can’t just say “can you chill with the language?”

  16. Elysian

    #5 – I largely agree with AAM. People swear in the workplace. You can’t stop them. If it is getting in the way of doing your (your son’s) job because it is in front of clients or customers, then talk to a manager.

    But I wonder – why did OP jump to ‘sexual’ harassment? Is it a misunderstanding of harassment generally, or perhaps the profane coworker is using the word more like “I want to f you?” I feel like this OP is either confused about what things are sexual, or we’re missing some serious context.

    1. fposte

      I’m wondering if the OP basically meant “illegal in some way” and hung it on harassment. And the answer is that it’s not illegal to use the f word or even to say f you to an employee, even if it rises to the level of verbal abuse, unless that abuse is occurring demonstrably for reasons protected by law (race, religion, gender, disability, etc.). So if the boss is horrible to the kid because the boss thinks the kid’s really bad at his job, that’s not illegal, and if the boss is horrible to the kid and to everyone else, that isn’t either.

      1. Elysian

        Right – I can make the mental leap to harassment, I just can’t get my head around the extra step to ‘sexual’ harassment.

        Maybe I’m just over-sensitive after the guy in the sandwich shop at lunch yesterday wouldn’t stop calling me ‘sweetie.’ I just kind of feel like people jump to quickly to “SEXUAL” harassment when they’re looking for something bad to hang their hat on, and it devalues real sexual harassment.

        1. stella

          Possible scenario for sexual harassment: The coworker is using the f word to describe in detail actions he/she would like to do with a customer/client. That would make it 3rd party harassment, I think, but still sexual harassment.

          1. Ask a Manager Post author

            Yeah, but I’d think then that the letter would focus on (or at least mention) the fact that someone was describing sexual acts in detail! Not just take issue with the use of the F word in the process of their sexual soliloquy.

            But I could be wrong; people are odd.

      2. The IT Manager

        The LW and her son sound like people who do not curse – at all. Yes, “fuck” is a word that describes a sexual act and was once actually an acronym “For Unlawful Carnal Knowlege” if what I learned in high school was right.* But saying a word that describes a sexual act is in no way sexual harrashment. And it seems odd to make that leap.

        * Is that memory accurate? Is it possible that one of my teachers actually said “fuck” in context of a lesson or that we discussed “the f-word” in high school?

        1. fposte

          You’re probably correctly remembering that somebody, possibly the teacher, said that, but it’s not true–fuck isn’t an acronym (and neither is posh, or most of the other “it’s really an acronym!” etymology stories).

        2. blu

          Saying it to describe an act is not sexual harassment, but I can certainly thinks of several sexually related phrases that could be being used here that would take this into the realm of sexual harassment if 1. The person has been told to stop and 2. The person continues doing it anyway.

        3. LV

          “Is that memory accurate? Is it possible that one of my teachers actually said “fuck” in context of a lesson or that we discussed “the f-word” in high school?”

          When I was in the fourth grade, we had a lesson on “hurtful words and gestures” and our teacher asked us to name words or gestures that could offend other people or hurt their feelings. I said “Like giving them the finger?” and she asked me to demonstrate for the class. So I had to flip my teacher off in front of everybody. It was the most uncomfortable moment of my young life up to that point.

      3. Katie the Fed

        My mom tends to think that anything mean or unpleasant that happens in the workplace constitutes a hostile environment. No matter how many times I tell her “you keep using that word. I don’t think it means what you think it means” she just bandies it about like she has a clue what she’s talking about :)

    2. blu

      I was wondering about that too, because it could actually tread into sexual harassment if it’s being used in that way. The first step is still to tell the person to knock it off, but this could actually be sexual harassment depending on what the person is actually saying.

    3. Loose Seal

      The F-word is a sexual word, though. I realize most people just use it as a substitute for random adjectives and whatnot and don’t necessarily mean sex. But I always thought that the big objection for using the F-word in polite company was the sexual origin of it.

      [Not that it should be considered sexual harassment. I just get how the OP thought it might be. Although, if the person said, “I’d love to F you” or “You just need to be F’d” then I’d probably think it would be sexual harassment because, to me it would be no different than them saying “I’d love to have sexual relations with you” which I think is WAY inappropriate for the workplace.]

    4. Sydney Bristow

      Is it possible the word was not what we think it was the homosexual slur f word? That is the only way I understand it being connected to sexual harassment. Alison, would that change the answer?

      1. Elysian

        I didn’t even consider that – great point. That would be a much more complicated question, I think.

      2. Ask a Manager Post author

        Sexual orientation (actual or perceived) isn’t a protected class under federal law, and many states don’t include it either. I suppose that it if were being said in the context of a remark about your sex life or sex in general, it could eventually become so severe or pervasive that it could reach the level of sexual harassment, but generally a single case of name calling, even when sexualized, isn’t going to be considered legally actionable harassment.

        However, if you’re in a state that does include sexual orientation in its anti-discrimination laws, then it’s possible that it could, depending on the details.

        Either way, though, I’d think any competent employer would put a stop to the use of any type of slur.

  17. Feed The Ducks

    Just wanted to say I’m happy to hear there are no legal issues around dropping the f word at work or my company would be in trouble.

  18. Suz

    The question about saying f*** at work brought back some old memories for me. Very early in my career I worked in a very male dominated field. One of the pieces of advice I was given was to drop the f-bomb into casual conversation when I was at a job site. That was supposed to make the men feel like they could be themselves and accept me as one of the guys.

      1. Suz

        I don’t know if it was the swearing that did it or not, but I did always feel like I was accepted as one of the guys.

        1. fposte

          There was some survey reported in our local paper a couple of years ago about average swearing frequency. My friend and I agreed that we were nobly raising the average.

    1. Elizabeth West

      Yeah, I’ve done it too, in manufacturing. I had people say “Well f—that; oh, sorry,” and I just said, “That s—doesn’t f—ing bother me.” They laughed and weren’t uncomfortable after that.

    2. The IT Manager

      Hmmm … I rarely curse in public myself, but I will if I am really upset/angry. I can see where this may influence some men.

      I am not personally bothered by cursing, but I am bothered when a man will curse and then apologize to me (a woman) for it. I suppose you could say it not gentlemanly to curse in from of women, but I don’t want to be singled out for an apology because of my gender which happened to me just this week.

      1. ThursdaysGeek

        I’ve had both men and women apologize for swearing in front of me (also a woman), and I assumed it was because they had noticed I never swear. But I ignore the swearing, don’t ever act offended, so I don’t understand why they think they need to apologize.

      2. tcookson

        I curse at home all the time, but I rarely curse at work or in public unless I’m caught by surprise. Like when I was pushing a cart across campus and the 16 sandwich trays piled on it started to slide off, and I yelled “Son of a b —-!!” before I could help myself.

        Then there was the time I was driving to work and one of our more conservative faculty members called my cell to get flight info on an arriving guest. He asked me a question and had paused for my response when a parked car started backing out of its spot and straight toward my car. So just as the professor was waiting for my answer, I shouted, “F- you, b@st@rd!!” to the driver. (The professor was taken aback for just a moment, but we laughed about it later!)

        1. tcookson

          I went and pre-emptively told both my bosses about the thing with the professor, because my policy is that, if my bosses are going to hear anything potentially bad about me, they’re going to hear it from me first. I told them exactly how it happened and what I said, and they both cracked up! One of them promised me a “+1” on my annual evaluation for it, so we’ll see how that pans out for me. ;-)

          1. Cath@VWXYNot?

            Heh – the chain once came off my bike as I was turning a corner on my ride home, and having had a long day I said (rather loudly) “OH FFS” (non-acronym version).

            “Hi Cath!”, said one of the professors I work with, who was out walking her dog…

            Oops.

            She thought it was pretty funny, luckily!

            1. A Bug!

              I was once on the phone with my boss who had called me at home to ask about a file. I had the phone held to my ear by my shoulder while I was making chicken stock. Some readers already know where this is going. Yes, I strained the chicken stock into the sink, keeping the spent detritus.

              I realized what I had done just at the point of no return. And I shouted “Oh, S****”. At my boss. When I was less than three months into my employment.

              Luckily, the only repercussions I ever saw were that he stopped being so cautious about swearing in my presence.

    3. Cath@VWXYNot?

      I did my PhD in Glasgow, Scotland, where the F word was just part of normal every day language and was often heard around the lab – not aimed at anyone in particular, but maybe at a particularly frustrating piece of equipment, or in a description of a fun night out. When I moved to Vancouver, I VERY quickly learned that the level of swearing I was used to (and was apparently somewhat immune to even noticing I was doing) was NOT acceptable in Canada… oops… although my new labmates seemed to extract some amusement out of it, so there is that.

    4. Jake

      In construction it works. Never had to do it myself because I curse enough as it is, but I’ve seen people go from, “man, he seems stand-offish” to “yeah, he seems like a reasonable fit out here” in the course of 2 profanity containing sentences.

      This is with the staff folks even, not the craftsmen.

  19. Elizabeth West

    re #2–can the employer tell the creditor to stop calling, or does it have to be the person they’re calling? I’m asking because we had that situation at Exjob, but it was for something related to identity theft. I finally had to lie (with my boss’s blessing) and tell them the person didn’t work there anymore to get it to stop.

    He said he had told them not to call his work but they kept doing it and I couldn’t get a number off them to report it because they blocked it.

    #6–I hate this question, because thanks to the recession, you can’t depend on staying at a job even if you want to.

    1. Ask a Manager Post author

      Either the employer or the person they’re calling can tell them to stop. The rule is something like “if the creditor is told the calls aren’t allowed at work.”

  20. holly

    my current boss used the f-word my very first day of work when talking about a certain policy. i knew i liked her ;-)

    1. tcookson

      When I first started with my previous boss, I worried because he was so nice, it made me wonder whether, if I were doing something wrong, he’d tell me.

      Then one day he came into my office right before the class that he taught with two other professors. I had been responsible, at the beginning of the semester, for adding to his calendar the days that he was responsible for the lecture (he highlighted them and I added them).

      Turns out, there was one that he failed to highlight and I failed to notice — or to add it to his calendar. So he came running into my office right before his class was supposed to start, yelling, “Tcookson! We have a f-ing problem!!”

      It kind of broke the ice — I always knew, after that, that if there was a problem, he’d tell me!
      So right before

  21. BEEN THERE DONE THAT

    I honestly did not know that contributing to a gift (up) was not just unnecessary, but not ettiquette. I have always gotten a little something, even if it was homemade fudge, or a small trinket or up to a small dollar contribution for a gift card for our manager. I have felt uncomfortable not giving if everyone else is, so I gave to the group contribution. Also if everyone else was doing ‘their own thing’ I would still do ‘my own thing’ and give a gift. However, last year, before I knew my supervisor was going to write me up for beign 2 months on the job and not being an ‘expert’ and did not give me a raise, I gave him/her a gift. It didn’t cost much but it was still a very considerate gift. he/she pushed it to the side, didn’t even open it in front of me, no thank you at that time and never even received a thank you later. I also never saw him/her wear it either. So the following year, I didn’t give at all! So now I don’t feel so bad. Thanks AMA!!!!

  22. Katie the Fed

    #5 – We had a woman start who announced at her very first workgroup meeting that she was Mormon and she would not tolerate people swearing, and if they chose to do so she’d be reporting them on an EEO violation for offending her religious freedom.

    I’m uh…just glad I wasn’t her manager. I think there are much better ways to ask others not to swear, but you should also take into account the environment you’re in. If you’re working in, say, the military or construction, you probably need to have a slightly thicker skin on profanity.

    1. Emily, admin extraordinaire

      On behalf of my fellow Mormons, I apologize for her rudeness! I don’t like swearing much, either, and almost never swear myself (when I’m really really upset, you might hear me say “crap”), but if I have a problem with someone’s language (which doesn’t happen very often), I talk to them politely and ask them to tone it down around me. I also try to avoid certain industries and environments where it’s common. But what she did is just being a jerk. :P

      1. Katie the Fed

        Yeah I know quite a few Mormons and they all strike me more as the “live and let live” type. Unsurprisingly, she turned out to be just a jerk in general. :)

    2. Jake

      I work in construction and one of our engineers was a mormon. He used profanity just as much as the rest of us. Maybe a LITTLE less in some cases, but still had quite the mouth on him.

  23. pidgeonpenelope

    #2: My mom works for a collection agency and she is the one that sets up the wage garnishments after the court order. That said, if there is a court order, you MUST comply. If you don’t, the collection agency can file suit to garnish your business instead.

    If it’s just a collection agency who’s trying to contact your employee and there is no court order for garnishment, tell them you’re a place of business and not to call again. They have to comply with that.

  24. Ursula

    Regarding the F Bomb:
    In my twenties, I dated an attractive guy I referred to as “Dumb Dave” (not one of my finer times). One night we were at a bar and I said fuck to something and then, “pardon my French.” He looked at me and (seriously) said, “I didn’t know fuck was a French word!”

    Thus his name. It didn’t last long.

    1. ThursdaysGeek

      When I hear the “pardon my French” statement, I often point out that the word they used more likely came from anglo-saxon roots. I get a lot of blank looks.

  25. anon-2

    #2 – just make sure it is a legitmate COURT ORDER from a court, and not something someone claims it to be. Sometimes unscrupulous bill collectors, etc., will send an official-looking letter – when, it’s just a letter.

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