4 more reader updates

Here are four more updates from people who had their letters answered here this year.

1. I made a huge, fireable mistake at work

I didn’t mention this in my original e-mail but we brought the mistake to our manager’s attention immediately. There’s no way we could have hidden this from her, so trying to do so would have likely led to immediate termination.

While ultimately the error was due to my coworker and I being careless, it was also clear that there was some miscommunication from a vendor that contributed to the oversight. I was also helped by that fact that we didn’t lose the contract. And once I found that out I busted my ass to do the best job possible on this project, even though it has meant some very long hours and Saturdays spent at the office this month.

The feedback I’ve gotten from the client has been very positive and my workplace may get a contract for a second project as a result. I was really beating myself up for about a week after we made that mistake, which I’m not sure did me any favors since it made it hard to focus on getting anything done. While I’ve been extra careful with my work since then, if/when I make mistakes in the future I will try to be less self-punitive.

2. HR won’t let us hold people accountable for performance (#3 at the link)

Since I wrote to you, there’s been some good progress. One point I didn’t make in my original post was that HR was more agreeable to the idea of providing financial incentives for exceeding goals than they were to consequences for failing to meet goals (some commenters asked about that). Once I got them to consider the two issues separately, we were able to move ahead quickly with teapot makers who exceed their goals being eligible for a modest bonus at the end of the year. That plan goes into effect on January 1. Yay!

As far as consequences for not meeting goals, it’s still a little murky but I am hopeful. I requested a meeting shortly after I wrote to you with a few key people, including my manager and the head of HR. Right away, it became clear that HR was hung-up on some details that I didn’t really care about. For example, I used the term “six-month probation” in my plan and was told “we don’t have probation, we have performance improvement periods.” Fine, call it whatever you want. Also, the “performance improvement periods” are typically four months, not six, as I had suggested. Again – I can work with that. There was a lot more of that, but in the end they conceded that our new leadership wants to see greater accountability and gave me the leeway to get creative with the performance appraisal template. For example, for the question about whether the employee is courteous, maybe I could say that it was uncourteous not to meet their goal of 25 teapots (?!). Like I said…still a little murky.

3. How much does the hiring process reflect the organization?

I actually cringe now when I read this because….oh my goodness. The HR process was 100% representative of the organisation. In my question I said: I’m worried I’m going to spend my working life frustrated by slow and inefficient processes. Ah yes. That was, in fact, my life for 22 miserable months. I wrote in my response to your answer: I also feel like the hiring manager is organised and extremely talented, and also a good person, so I do have confidence in her. Oh boy was that misjudged. Talented and a good person, but so disorganised person it was a disaster.

The organisation was in a period of transition which made things harder, but even taking that into account, it was just mind-boggling how slow and inefficient that place was. The environment was toxic (my manager’s words, not mine, that is how widely recognised the problem was), I worked harder than I’ve ever worked in my life, I was endlessly apologising to clients and vendors for our ridiculously slow response times, over which I had no control, I worked every nights and weekend, travelled a huge amount, and in the end I just burned myself out. I’ve now moved on and the most valuable lesson I’ve learned is that there is no such thing as the “perfect job” that I thought this was. Caveat emptor, indeed.

4. I was denied a request to use a different computer because of a heavy smoker (#2 at the link)

Nothing good came from broaching the subject again with my manager, in an email, in my in-person year review, or with HR. Nothing changed. I at one point was summoned to a surprise meeting with all of the management of my location, where I was even laughed out of the room for asking to wear a face mask to protect my lungs and admonished for bothering my manager with my emails because they are very busy and don’t have time for things like this apparently. (I cried in front of everyone but I really didn’t care about looking unprofessional – their conduct was unprofessional)

I paid for an Ask A Manager resume review and landed a sweet new secretary position that I found on craigslist (I find all the best openings there!). I started in August (it’s at a small private preschool). The days between my two jobs, I filed a complaint in person at the EEOC and I’m waiting on the mediation process. I don’t think there is much there to claim in terms of compensation/settlement because I didn’t spend any time unemployed, but the way I was treated is unacceptable and illegal.

New job has 7 weeks+ of paid vacation and normal hours and federal holidays and teacher work days and everything that is amazing about school schedules. I also received a sizeable holiday gift (I would even call it a bonus) from my boss. It’s very nice to work hard and be appreciated for working hard. The kids are adorable.

I’m super missing my 401(k) matching, golden health insurance, and other benefits from working for a corporation, and a few other things, but this was a great move for me. I’m on day 3 of an 18-day break for the winter holidays. The break is so long that my former second job in food service was able to put me back on the schedule for some fun short shifts/some money to spare.

{ 53 comments… read them below }

  1. BRR*

    #4 There are a coupe of smokers in my office and I feel your pain. I don’t have any respiratory issues but I swear some days one of them doesn’t put on deodorant either.

    Alison, are you going to do a resume review anytime soon?

        1. Zillah*

          Basically, you can pay Alison to look over your resume, and she’ll identify what you could do to make it stronger. I found it hugely helpful when I got it this year.

    1. Clever Name*

      Yeah, me too. One of my office mates is a smoker, and sometimes the lingering odor makes me sneeze nonstop. Not fun. Since I only work half time, I’m trying to just deal with it.

      1. Simonthegrey*

        My best friend shares an office with a smoker. Because she has documented allergy/asthma issues and her doctor was able to vouch that smoking is one of the triggers, the office paid for a filter for their area (the gal didn’t smoke in the office, but she hung her coat there instead of in the coat-room and thus the room always had that smell.

        1. OP 4*

          That’s a good solution for her, I’m impressed. It wouldn’t have worked for sitting <6inches from someone for 8 hours, but that's an excellent company that paid for a small effective solution.

    2. INTP*

      I’m not dealing with it at my current job, but I’m also a student and have spent many class periods with my sinuses irritated, coughing and feeling sick, because a smoker came in late and sat down next to me. (If I were to get up and move to another desk, I would look like the rude one to the professor for getting up in the middle of class and moving around.) It makes me want to start a third hand smoke awareness campaign, because so many people seem to be in denial of it, or think the smokers’ addiction trumps the health issues many, many people have from it. (Which aren’t always covered under the ADA. I don’t have a specific diagnosis, just very sensitive sinuses that are prone to getting infected if I’m exposed to major irritants like smoke or perfume/added fragrances, but if I get a sinus infection I need to stay home from work or school to recover.)

      1. Jeanne*

        I know this may sound strange, but we’ve actually come a long way in a short time in freeing ourselves from smoke and smoke smell. Only about 20 years ago, many businesses still allowed smoking inside offices, inside the cafeteria. In 1994, in a pharmaceutical company, employees had only very recently lost the right to smoke inside the building. For a long time we had the crowd at the door. Then they forced smokers away from the door. No company has the whole thing under control yet. It’s a very difficult issue. I do believe most smokers are addicted and find it hard to stop. But think about the huge cultural shift we’ve had with smoking in businesses and restaurants in just 20 years.

        I’m sure that doesn’t make you feel better when you’re sick. I do think that together we can keep working on this issue and continue asking for help for those who react badly to smoke.

        1. INTP*

          That’s true. I’m under 30 and have a mother with equally bad sinus issues, so while I vaguely remember “smoking sections” in restaurants and how the stench would waft across the room, I did not spend much time in places that allowed indoor smoking in the 90s!

          I also have a biased view because I recently moved from California to the Midwest and the smoking laws are many years behind here in comparison. I was shocked to see people just walking down the sidewalk in my suburban neighborhood with a cigarette, and appalled to find that people smoke at bus stops.

          1. Ellie H*

            Is it really “appalling” that someone would smoke at a bus stop – or outdoors? Where are smokers supposed to smoke, some special cordoned-off area hundreds of feet away from where a non-smoker might accidentally be walking? In my experience it is quite normal and relatively mundane that someone might be smoking at a bus stop.
            I am admittedly am feeling a little defensive as I am a former smoker, but I would be surprised if it were not the case that the majority of people, while probably preferring not to smell cigarette smoke, are not so intensely and acutely averse to it.

            1. Melissa*

              Walking down the street is fine, but it IS kind of irritating when smokers smoke at bus stops – or any other outdoor location where a lot of other people have to gather (like a park). I mean, I do feel sympathy for smokers that they feel like they can’t smoke anywhere these days, including in their own homes sometimes. But on the other hand, the problem is that wherever they smoke they’re going to release secondhand smoke and if that is nearby other people, it is going to irritate them. Secondhand smoke isn’t good for anyone, even if they don’t have an intense reaction. But a *lot* of people have worse reactions to it (I also have asthma and smoke also triggers my migraines).

              The reason people are irritated by it is that it’s unhealthy. Most people are not intensely averse to it, but consistently breathing secondhand smoke is dangerous to health, too.

            2. Anonsie*

              At a bus stop? It’s going to vary by the type of bus stop and how much space there is, but generally oh my god yes that is a bad idea because people have to stand in one spot right within a few feet of each other. Smoking outside is one thing, outside when there are people who are required to stand within arm’s length of you and can’t move is another.

            3. Joe*

              I actually think that smoking should not be permitted in any public outdoor place. Bus stops, parks, even sidewalks. There is no way for non-smokers to avoid those places, and there is no reason that smokers should be allowed to inflict damage on non-smokers. I am very much in favor of people’s right to smoke, but I think it should be confined to designated areas and private homes.

          2. Squirrel!*

            I also have a biased view because I recently moved from California to the Midwest and the smoking laws are many years behind here in comparison.

            Many of the states in the Midwest have public smoking bans in place (Illinois, Iowa, Kansas, Michigan, Minnesota, Nebraska, North Dakota, Ohio, South Dakota, and Wisconsin), so I’m not sure what you’re referring to.

  2. YourCdnFriend*

    Post 1 reminds of the power of effective problem solving and how that can impact customer experiences. Some of our most loyal customers became loyal AFTER having a problem with our product. They were so impressed with the resolution, they’re loyal through and through.

    1. jag*


      A reasonable client (like a reasonable person) will know that mistakes happen. Often, the issue is how good is a person/employee/organization at fixing the problem and preventing it from happen again.

    2. Worker Bee*

      Isn’t that normal tho? I mean take your own experience.. We tend to tell other people of our worst customer service experiences, but also on how those have been resolved, if they indeed were handled in an awesome manner. But try to remember a good service from the start… Nothing. You jsut don’t think much about them..

      1. Raine*

        I was wondering about this — I wonder if it’s unpaid? It’s not a corporation, and I thought school teachers even had access to special bank account savings mechanisms to help them budget for those summer months off.

        1. OP 4*

          No, it’s definitely paid. I work through June and July summer camps and in August we’re closed. European boss!

          1. Melissa*

            I think this is where the disconnect comes in – many people view “paid vacation” as time that you can take off whenever you want, and consider that something different from days that the office is simply closed, like Thanksgiving and federal holidays.

  3. Brett*

    #4 We have a couple of detectives in our building temporarily, and I am working with them regularly. My wife thought I had started smoking (not jokingly!) because my clothes and car smelled so bad of smoke. Turned out that the detectives all smoke and the smell from their spot outside and off their clothes had spread to my clothes! Ick.

    1. Rebecca*

      Ick, indeed. We have smokers, too, and they all congregate together right outside the main door, so when anyone enters or exits the building, you have to walk through their cloud of smoke. It seems like there is always someone smoking outside. I wear dressy clothes to the office, and wash them separately, and notice that I can smell cigarette smoke on them when I put them in the washer. The worst part is when one of them comes in from a smoke break and walks directly to my office to have a conversation about something. I want to spray them with Febreeze!!

      1. RubyJackson*

        “when anyone enters or exits the building, you have to walk through their cloud of smoke.”

        This is one of my professional pet peeves. I’ve never understood why companies don’t prohibit this practice, because this is the first impression that clients get of their company, and it’s a bad one. It’s like having to walk the gauntlet to get to them.

        1. Simonthegrey*

          My current job, and one of my former jobs, prohibited smoking within 50 feet of entrances. Both also have had very strict policies for wearing lotions/perfumes/scented products. There are issues working at either, but I am very appreciative of both of those facts.

      2. OP 4*

        yes, this nonsense is terrible. Buildings that require 25-50-100 ft distance from the doors for smoke breaks are the best.

        I can pull my scarf over my mouth for the gauntlet (and 99% of the time, I’m wearing a scarf so I can) but you can’t do that for 8 hours.

        1. LoFlo*

          Ex smoker here and started smoking again. I noticed how bad it smelled on me and started using e-cigs. I crave nicotine much less with the e-cig. I was also very careful not to smoke during the day if I had a job interview so I wouldn’t smell. When I was filing for UC, the state office reeked of smokers.

          I always wonder how many people who don’t know why they didn’t get the job smelled like smoke?

        2. A Dispatcher*

          I definitely think it’s something you go “nose-blind” to. Smoking in general can diminish the sense of smell, but even non-smokers who are constantly around the smell tend to stop smelling it/noticing it. I grew up in a house where my father smoked indoors all the time and I hated it for many reasons but smell wasn’t one of them. I never really noticed it, nor did I notice it outside of the house either when around smokers. When he moved out, within a few weeks I all of the sudden could smell this terrible odor that I’d always heard people complain about but had never really understood until just then. I am glad not to be around the second hand smoke all of the time, but I can’t say I love being able to smell when coworkers are back from their smoke breaks (or more accurately, can tell as they approach from 20 feet away – yikes!)

          And as a reply to Brett – a doctor once all but accused my younger sister of lying to her about being a smoker because she smelled so strongly of smoke – turns out it was all just due to living in the same house as my a heavy smoker. It got into our hair, our clothes, everything, we just never knew it until it was pointed out to us by non-smokers.

          1. Windchime*

            Until just a few years ago, people could still smoke in bars in Washington. A friend and I would go out and it didn’t seem bad while we were there, but when got home my hair and clothes would stink like cigarette smoke. I would have to take a shower at 1 AM just so I could sleep without smelling smoke in my hair.

            Now people are required to stay away from doorways (50 feet, maybe?) and can’t smoke at all in public buildings. My entire workplace is (supposedly) tobacco-free, although there are a couple of people who do still do sneak the occasional smoke break at work.

  4. Alistair*

    I am a strong believer in second chances, but also in the belief that you have to work your ass off to deserve that second chance. OP#1, you did exactly that, and proved out my beliefs very well. Congratulations, you deserve kudos and the good things that you have reaped from your actions!

  5. Preston*

    I don’t exactly understand what your nonforprofit does, but I think the idea of putting people on notice like you want to do is a little agressive and just asking to get sued. It is one thing to put someone on goals or such, but your HR dept was right IMHO. They have to look at the big picture of say an employee sueing say for discrimination that you caused because of your aggressive idea… don’t think it is possible? Happens everyday with companies being sued by a bitter employee. I think what stood out most to me was you “ambushed” (your word in your OP) your HR person wanting a response.
    I do think incentives are the way to go if you want to motivate people. But without knowing more about what your dept does I am hesitant to say if that is going to get your response you want. I do think your HR dept saved you a lot of trouble though. I have worked in various companies, some reward hard work some don’t. If you are a go getter, best to find a place that rewards it.

    1. RishaBree*

      What? What basis would they have to sue if someone is put someone on notice for failing to meet a basic requirement of the job? That doesn’t make any sense at all.

  6. Preston*

    People sue all the time for “discrimination” because they feel the boss is out to get them. Those suits are completlely baseless, but a company still has to defend it. I also think the OP needs to communicate to his/her team that the 25 projects part of the job will weigh highly in the review. Nobody wants to get a surprise in a review that they are going to be put on goals/PIP. A bad employee knows what to expect in their review, but the OP sounds more frustrated then anything,
    and seems to be willing to do whatever they feel to get the job done. I think incentives are a good idea, but twisting some of the terminology in the review about “courteous” to mean what they think is “murky” seems like a stretch. The OP needs to communicate how the reviews will be weighted or
    he/she may get the 25 projects done per person, but could kill morale or get a bitter employee who could problems later on.

    1. Beezus*

      If the goals are measurable and achievable, and people aren’t meeting them, it’s not aggressive or discrimanatory to have consequences for not making them. People do sue all the time for silly things, and defending those things is a business expense that every company has to deal with. A well-run business doesn’t continue to employ people who don’t do their jobs because they’re afraid to incur the possible expense of defending a disgruntled employee’s claim. And morale is better served by a system that both rewards good performance and has consequences for poor performance.

      Twisting the meaning of the review format to hold people accountable is not an ideal solution, but the OP admitted that; it’s just the compromise she’s settled on with HR for now.

    2. Ask a Manager* Post author

      Giving people goals and holding them accountable to them is a normal thing managers should be doing with all reports, and performance evaluations are a logical time to talk about goals for the next review period. That’s not punitive or discriminatory; it’s good management.

      And totally, loudly seconding this from Beezus:

      A well-run business doesn’t continue to employ people who don’t do their jobs because they’re afraid to incur the possible expense of defending a disgruntled employee’s claim. And morale is better served by a system that both rewards good performance and has consequences for poor performance.

      1. Jeanne*

        I agree with that quoted part. I never worked for a well-run business as defined by this quote. It sounds like the OP doesn’t either unfortunately.

    3. Ludo*

      It is not, and would never be considered, discrimination to set goals and hold everyone accountable to the same goals. Putting someone not meeting those goals on a PIP is considered holding them accountable.

      Now of course, if there is some ADA covered reason that prohibits meeting that goal, the OP will need to address that individually but barring that there is nothing wrong with what the OP wants to do.

      You can’t decline to discipline because you fear a lawsuit. Make sure you are complying with the law and don’t let the sue-happy people run the show.

      1. Preston*

        I actually agree with all of you, as long as the goals have been communicated to the team. Like I wrote in my second post, that isn’t mentioned anywhere in the OP or update. To me that jumped out as a red flag. A review is not the place to slap someone with probation out of blue. The manager/letter writer needs to be communicating the expectations to the team. A review should never be a surprise to the employee. If an employee is being given feedback and the performance is not improving, then by all means take measures. But doing it out of the blue… just asking for trouble.

        1. Preston*

          Forgot to add. The OP would be smart to document anything/everything with employees not meeting expectations.

        2. Melissa*

          The OP never explicitly said “Everyone knows about the 25 teapot goal,” but the implication is certainly there and there’s no reason to believe that her employees are unaware that they are supposed to be making 25 teapots a year.

          Furthermore, the OP *did* explicitly say that they were going to be slapping anyone with a PIP out of the blue.

          Essentially, if someone fails to meet the 25 teapot goal (and this is after I have met with everyone regularly throughout the year about their progress and provided them with as much guidance and support as I’m able), I want to give them six months to improve their performance or be let go.

          She meets with her employees regularly to appraise them of their performance, and then even after they have been repeatedly told that they aren’t measuring up, she *still* wants to give them six months to get better before they are fired. That’s very generous!

    4. Melissa*

      If you were hired to make 25 teapots a year and it was clear that that was a key part of your job description – but you consistently failed to meet that goal – why on Earth would you be surprised that it came up in your annual review? It’s part of your job! Nobody should have to be warned that something that is a key part of their job will be taken into account in their annual review. (Besides, the OP already said in her original letter that the PIP comes after she’s already met with employees several time advising them of their failure to meet goals.)

      1. Preston*

        I missed the part in the about the feedback, hence why I was so tough on the LW. If the feedback is given then the plan is a good idea from what I can tell. Though I would still suggest documenting all feedback.

    5. jag*

      Any sense of the scale of ‘all the time’?

      Filing lawsuits costs money, and if the suits are baseless I don’t think many lawyers would take the work on a contingency basis. So I don’t really believe you.

      1. Preston*

        I have seen it happen twice. Once with an actual suit another where someone made claims that went nowhere. In both cases the people were terrible employees, and needed to be fired. If your an employer you need to make sure your employees/managers document performance or policy issues in case someone decides to sue.

  7. Observer*

    I had one additional thought about #4. If you get asked again if you can physically sit near the smoker, the answer is “No, unless I xyz accommodation” In your case that would have been the face mask. And, always, when talking to HR, make it clear that you are asking for an ADA accommodation. They are really going to have a hard time claiming that allowing the face mask during training created an undue hardship.

    1. OP 4*

      Good point! I did phrase it that way, several times. In the end, no dice.

      While its true that its hard to claim undue hardship from a face mask, enforcement is coming slowly. Scheduling mediation is proving impossible. Can’t win!

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