companies without HR, hair styling in the work bathroom, and more

It’s five answers to five questions. Here we go…

1. Makeup and hair styling is making our work bathrooms gross

My organization shares a floor with a few other companies, and I noticed that some of the women in the other companies treat the shared bathroom like their own. I’ll come in in the morning and they will be gathered around the sink, putting on makeup and straightening their hair. While bizarre, I tried not to let this bother me, but lately the bathroom has been really gross with towels all over the floor and hair in the sink. Is there anything I can do? I don’t know these women personally, who even who they work for.

Unless they’re blocking your ability to use the sinks, I’d try not to care about their morning hair and makeup rituals. (And if they are blocking your ability to get to the sink, just say, “Excuse me, could I use the sink?” Most people are going to let you through if you directly point out that you need access.)

The towels on the floor and hair in the sink is a different issue. For that, I’d talk to whoever manages building space issues for your company and ask if they can talk to the building management about the cleanliness issue. The building management might need to clean the bathrooms more regularly, or they might decide to put up signs or talk to tenants about keeping the bathrooms neater — but first someone should tell them that there’s an issue.

2. Should I be worried if a company doesn’t have an HR department?

I’m job hunting in the tech field, and there’s a company I really like that has invited me for an in-person interview after a phone interview. In the phone interview, the person mentioned that there is no formal HR person in a company of ~40 employees. This was a big red flag for me, particularly after he described a really liberal vacation/PTO policy– they don’t have set amounts of vacation employees can take, it’s as you need it within reason.

I know this is tech, and a smaller company, and tech is liberal in these kinds of things, but I’m coming from a Fortune 500 company which is HUGE and has a formal HR department! How reasonable is it for a company of ~40 (but expanding!) to not have an HR department? Do you have any recommendations for questions to ask in the interview about how HR issues are handled?

It’s totally reasonable. There’s not going to be full-time HR work for a company that size. There should be someone who handles HR stuff, of course, but it’s very reasonable that they don’t have a dedicated HR person. In fact, if a 40-person company did, I’d wonder what that person did all day.

As for what to ask, I think it would come off strangely to ask about how benefits or harassment complaints or other HR stuff is managed. It would be like asking about how payroll is managed; you can generally assume that they have systems in place for those things. But once you get an offer, ask for details about benefits and pay attention to how that request is handled. If they have organized information on benefits that they’re able to get to you quickly, that tells you that someone is on it. If they don’t, that might be a prompt to dig further. But really, no dedicated HR person for a 40-person company is reasonable and common.

The bigger issue I’d think about is whether you’re up for the changes that will come from moving to a small company. You’re talking about a big shift in culture, and you should make sure that you’re clear on what that’s going to entail.

3. I don’t want the director sitting in on my performance evaluation

I’m due to have my annual performance review. This is usually held with my own line manager, but the director wants to come along too. I’m not comfortable with this and want to know whether I can prevent this from happening without causing bad feelings.

The director is not known for his listening skills or support for staff development and was instrumental in my not being successful in achieving a promotion last year. The norm in our organization is to meet with your line manager alone so I could probably gain HR support, but it doesn’t seem the best of times for me to be oppositional; I want to rebuild the relationship with my own manager and have an honest open discussion about my career.

I think it would be reasonable to ask your manager about it. I’d say something like this: “I was hoping we could talk one-on-one the way we usually do performance reviews. Can you tell me more about why Fergus is going to join us?” Depending on the answer, and on the type of rapport you have with manager, you might say, “I’ve found Fergus hard to talk candidly with in the past, and I’d hate to give up the chance for a really candid conversation with you about my performance and the future. Do you think it could be possible to do that with just the two of us?”

If nothing else, you might be able to arrange to have that as a separate meeting later on, after the one that includes the director.

4. Was I wrong to ask about my coworker’s dating life?

I have a coworker who I am very friendly with. We talk about so many things and are a source of support to one another at work. Unfortunately, she seems to have a habit of making me feel like I’ve crossed a line when I talk about something personal but non-offensive. This has happened three times over the course of two years. She talks about her dating life a lot, and today I asked her how it was going. It was a casual question and she had just asked me if I had met anyone at a party, but she said I crossed a line. I said I was sorry, but honestly I don’t like being blindsided. I know she’s my coworker first, but you can’t tell me I’ve crossed a line when we’ve discussed something that you brought up. Am I wrong?

It sounds like she’s opened the door to talking about her dating life — by talking it about a lot herself, and in this particular conversation by having just asked you if you’d met anyone at a party! So no, I don’t think you’re wrong. But it sounds like she’s weirdly sensitive and has double standards and different norms than the rest of the word on how conversations work. Given that, I’d just assume going forward that she’s weird about personal stuff and you shouldn’t ask about it, because you never know when she might randomly bite you.

5. Is having international references holding me back?

I recently returned from a five-year stint living and working abroad. When I left the company I was working for, I asked a few people to be my references (and they all graciously agreed). Now that I am back in the States and applying for jobs, I am worried that having international references is putting me at a disadvantage. I don’t think that companies will make the effort to get in touch with my references because they require an international phone call — assuming that an email questionnaire wouldn’t suffice. What should I do?

I’d include the international references, but also some domestic ones if you have any — so that employers have choices. And for the international ones, I’d make it as easy as possible to contact them, by listing phone numbers with country codes, email addresses, and time zone and a note about the best way to get ahold of them. You could even add a note to your reference list that says something like, “Apologies for all the international references here! Since I’ve been working abroad for the last five years, they’re my most recent ones, but if that poses any obstacles, please let me know and I’d be happy to provide other names as well.”

But regarding your worry overall: Few employers check references before they’ve interviewed you, so it’s unlikely that this is causing you to lose out on jobs before that stage. And once you reach the interview stage, if things seem like they’re moving forward, you can always address it proactively at that point. If someone really likes you in an interview, it’s unlikely that they’re going to be put off by international references.

{ 356 comments… read them below }

  1. Sara M*

    #2: My husband has worked in the tech industry for years. All the things Alison describes are pretty normal for a company of that size. Just pay attention to whether things are handled reasonably well and on time. That will tell you a lot about the company.

    In general, certain things you take for granted may not be true here, so be sure you’re ready for some culture shock. It may turn out that you love the new culture–or at least some parts of it.

    1. Kethryvis*

      Yup, i work in the tech industry too, we’re just shy of 100 employees. We just finally were able to have a perm HR person about two months ago. (she still does a few small office manager type things, but those are being unloaded steadily)

      When i was hired, we were more like 25 people, and no HR person. That being said, I did get prompt info on benefits, as well as the unlimited PTO policy we also have. The unlimited PTO had nothing to do, afaik, with there being no perm HR person, more that as others have mentioned it’s pretty much becoming the standard in this industry.

      i do echo what AAM and others have said about corporate culture. These smaller startups have a much different culture than your typical Fortune 500 company, i’d wager. Hell, my start-up has a different culture than most places i’ve worked period; tho it could be more a sign of the times than this particular company (the massive mandatory ‘team building’ exercises, etc. we’re going “glamping” in another month and a half, can i tell you how “thrilled” i am about this? Esp. since i think ‘glamping’ is a term that needs to die a painful death.)

      If you’re really bothered by no formal HR department, and a “really liberal” no-PTO policy, i’d think very heavily about whether or not this is a career jump you want to make. I’d be willing to bet you’ll find a lot of things are more liberal and lax than your typical “large” company. Start-up culture is not for everyone; i know it’s certainly not for me. And really, unlimited PTO policies aren’t as rosy as they sound (I’m almost positive AAM has outlined the pitfalls of that in a previous posting). Instead of focusing on the HR questions, i’d ask more about company culture and see if this is something you’re comfortable with fitting into. That, i’d say, is more important that the presence, or lack thereof, of a dedicated HR person.

          1. Elysian*

            Could you please explain what you mean by modcons? The things that came up when I googled that phrase are NSFW and have nothing to do with camping.

            1. Daisy*

              Modcons means ‘all modern conveniences’- it’s a letting ad shorthand. (I just googled it and all the results said that, so don’t know what on earth you looked for.)

              1. Elysian*

                Something that looked a hardcore body modification conference is what came up for me.

              2. Swedish Tekanna*

                Things that have been standard for decades. When ads say that it is usually to draw your attention from the fact that the wiring is falling apart, the walls have damp or there are mice in the kitchen. But I digress.

                1. Elysian*

                  I’ve never seen this shorthand in the US (though maybe I haven’t been looking). This might be an abbreviation used mostly in Europe? Either way thanks for explaining… “shorthand” for anything inevitably confuses me. I know what modern conveniences are.

                2. Natalie*

                  @ Elysian, I’ve only encountered it when renting in Europe, also. I think it’s because the housing stock is older, so at one point you might well have encountered a flat without mod cons. Whether that’s still true, I couldn’t say.

                3. fposte*

                  I just confused somebody with this one the other day, in fact. Merriam-Webster online says it’s “chiefly British,” so I’m guessing that’s where I got it.

                4. Swedish Tekanna*

                  Apologies, Elysian. My dig was meant to be directed at letting agents’ ads, not you! Just meant that running water etc have been available even in older properties for years, so when they are advertised as something noteworthy I hear loud alarm bells.

                5. Alter_ego*

                  My favorite is motels that have a sign outside advertising that their rooms have color TV!

                  At this point, I’d be far more impressed to discover that someone had a working black and white TV

            2. Merry and Bright*

              Short for modern conveniences, so things like plumbing, electric lights etc. In glamping it might even include things like carpets, internet connections or whatever.

              Glamping has become more popular in parts of the UK, in smarter campsites and also the grounds of big country houses where they are trying to “add value” and help with the high running costs. It has got to the point where you might actually spend the same amount of money on a proper hotel but perhaps that is just me. But I admit it does look comfortable.

      1. Cheesecake*

        My thoughts exactly about thinking heavily on this career jump. OP seems to be concerned about pretty normal start up/small company things (absolutely legit, coming from a corp.) and in fact these are all parts of culture – there are no clear procedures and no additional handholding.

        Nowadays everything can be outsourced, including HR, from payroll to recruiting to handling legal stuff. So i would indeed spend time asking about their culture and how they operate in general (and they probably will touch HR topic) vs asking “how do you guys manage not having dedicated HR?”

      2. Swedish Tekanna*

        From hard experience at a toxic-crazy employer a few years ago, I would say be wary of an employer that does not have someone on board (or easily available) who has a proper knowledge of employment law, pay law, etc for your geographical area. This may be hard for a very small employer, but you need someone who knows the legal position and, preferably, a go-to person who you can take concerns and problems to (even if it is outsourced). It is too easy otherwise for an employer (intentionally or not) to screw its employees over.

        My own company employed 400+ people and laid off the whole HR team in an effort to save money. I don’t work there anymore but I know they are still providing business for the lawyers at the Employment Tribunal. Without HR, stuff was handed out randomly throughout the organization. So, although the absence of an HR Dept is not necessarily a red flag in itself, the absence of any kind of HR provision would be to me.

        1. Steve G*

          You also need to check that all other departments exist when working at a smaller company, I’ve been at 2 companies without IT. THAT is a pain. It seems that when a company lacks either HR or IT, they act like any problem they don’t know the answer to doesn’t exist, or is not solvable, and at those 2 jobs, it wasn’t seen as a good thing to actually use the experience they asked about during the interview and say “but at (other job, where we had IT or HR) they easily did abc.” You’d think they’d at least be open to suggestions. But too many egos on the line.

    2. Anon Regular*

      I was actually surprised by this response – not the overall message that this isn’t a red flag, but by Alison’s sense that there wouldn’t be enough HR work for a team of 40.

      I work for a startup nonprofit (4 years in now) with a staff just over 100. Our HR-equivalent team includes at least 4 full time employees (maybe more? There are 4 that I’ve worked with). We are growing very rapidly (doubled in staff size every year, and that will be true this year too) so maybe that’s the difference. They handle recruiting, salary negotiations, benefits and payroll administration, disputes/interpersonal coaching, organizational culture and values thought leadership, soft skills training (like coaching on having difficult conversations), and so on.

      1. doreen*

        Some of it probably has to do with the fact that your company is growing- but some of it also has to do with how functions are organized. Those functions have to exist- but they don’t have to live in a dedicated HR department. I work for a very large state agency and my husband works for a not-very-large company (under 200 employees). My agency has a very large HR department and my husband’s company has no full-time HR staff ( they have only recently started using an HR consulting firm) but most of the functions you mention aren’t handled by HR at either employer- payroll administration is handled by finance at both places , salary negotiations (to the extent that they exist) are handled by the owner at my husband’s company and a separate state agency at mine, training/coaching at my husband’s company comes from the immediate supervisor while at my job training/coaching comes from either a manager or from the training/staff development department which is separate from HR.

    3. SanguineAspect*

      I’d also like to mention that “unlimited” or “liberal” PTO policies, at least given my limited experience at my current company, are more curse than blessing.

      It allows startups to avoid being required to pay out time off when you leave the company (so they don’t have to show that as overhead while doing financial accounting). So it means: if you’re in a state that requires payout of unused PTO when you leave / are fired, you don’t get that money.

      In my current company, it also means that scheduling time off can be difficult. We run a really lean team, so there isn’t a great deal of redundancy. It means a lot of planning has to go into vacations. My boss took his first time off since he started 9 months ago last month–he took 2 days off. My CTO took his first vacation in 3 years recently–he took a week off. Another coworker has taken a week total of vacation in the last year, scattered between long weekends. We also have a non-existent holiday schedule, with the exception of things like Thanksgiving Day or Christmas Day or New Year’s Day…so we don’t have explicit holidays off (mostly) unless we expressly take them off too.

      And because the culture / people in charge don’t take time, the people under them are uncomfortable about taking time… it’s frustrating.

  2. Katie the Fed*

    #1 – are people working out before work maybe? Is there a walking or running club or a gym nearby? That might explain why so many women are doing their hair and makeup in the bathroom – and you/they might be able to lobby management into converting a bathroom into a locker room or something (which may not be reasonable but you never know).

    I agree though – hair in the sink is kinda nasty. And I shed like a Saint Bernard.

      1. Swedish Tekanna*

        Yes, and most people I know use the showers, locker rooms etc at the gym itself.

        1. Natalie*

          If they’re biking or running, they might not have any other locker room-type place.

        2. LPBB*

          I had to shop for a new gym and was quite surprised to find out that locker rooms and showers are no longer considered a basic staple of a gym. Granted, I’m shopping on the budget end of things, but I was quite taken aback.

      2. Swedish Tekanna*

        But if they are, let’s hope they find time to deodorise amongst all the other personal grooming. Had that problem in a couple of offices in the past with coworkers who went to the gym during the day.

    1. NoPantsFridays*

      Hm, on this note, since OP isn’t sure what company these women work for — is it possible that they have physical or outdoor job responsibilities, and are changing and cleaning up in the bathroom when they come back indoors? This might not be common, but is the case at my office building. Some employees of my company have job responsibilities that require them to be both outdoors and indoors in the span of a work day, and we do have locker rooms on our first floor that have facilities to shower and change. If we didn’t have locker rooms, these employees would really have no option but to use the regular bathrooms.

      1. OP 1*

        I wouldn’t think so–all of the other companies on my floor are “Jon Snow Management Ltd.” etc., and they really are only there in the mornings in a “I didn’t get ready at home so I’m doing it here” kind of fashion. But even if they did work outdoors, it wouldn’t explain the need for using a flat iron during working hours.

          1. ThursdaysGeek*

            The latter sounds like an east coast business, and probably a profitable one this year.

        1. NoPantsFridays*

          OK. I was just thinking, if they had to shower mid-day due to their job responsibilities, it would make sense for them to be doing some hair styling. But, if it’s only in the mornings, rather than mid-day, that’s an unlikely explanation.

        2. INTP*

          My guess is that they’re trying to shorten their commutes by leaving earlier and primping at work (or they just like the bonding aspect). Neither case is really a pressing enough issue to justify doing it every day in a small public restroom IME. (Which I know will make some people think “Why do you care what they do when it isn’t affecting you?” but it DOES affect me if I have to inhale someone’s hairspray and walk out coughing or I get sweaty in the bathroom from all the heat styling tools. Brush your hair, put on your mascara, etc if you must but you don’t need to flat iron at work.)

          1. the gold digger*

            Except this morning, it was snowing. Even though I had done my hair before I left for work, having to spend three minutes brushing snow off the car before I could get into it, having to get out again at the end of the driveway to brush more snow off, and having to get out again four blocks away to brush snow off the back window meant that my nicely blown-out (OK – moderately blown-out) hair now had snow on it. Snow turns into moisture turns hair into frizz.

            If I actually cared about how I looked at work, that would be a reason to flat iron in the ladies’ room.

            1. INTP*

              I’ll grant that a quick flat iron touchup or makeup reapplication is fine. I just don’t think anyone needs to do it every day as a regular solution like these girls apparently are. I also don’t think anyone should be spraying products in the work bathroom – there are non-spray products if you need them. I can smell it from the furthest stall when someone’s spraying hairspray and it’s gross.

              1. OP 1*

                Absolutely–when I get caught in the rain, or wind, or weather in general, I will go to the bathroom to touch up and make sure I’m put together and look good. But on those days even I don’t bring a flat iron to work (or keep it in my desk?)

                1. afiendishthingy*

                  I’m with you, OP, straightening your hair at work is totally weird. A little makeup, fine, brush your teeth after lunch, good for you, but it’s not a dressing room.

    2. OP 1*

      There are two gyms down the road, but I know that they both have locker rooms (checked them both out before I realized I would never actually go! XD)

      Also I wouldn’t mind as much if they acknowledged that it was a weird thing–I have to ask to get to the sink every time, rather than them being aware of their surroundings and stepping out of the way.

      1. Janie*

        I am 100% with you, it is my pet peeve when women treat the work bathroom like their home bathroom and I don’t know why they think it’s a totally normal thing. I just think it’s gross…don’t they know what people DO in bathrooms??? It also makes me uncomfortable if I have to use the bathroom for its intended purpose and there is some woman primping at the mirror.

      2. catsAreCool*

        I hate it when people are oblivious to the fact that they’re blocking someone’s path. It really irritates me in the supermarket. Why do some people use their cart and their body to block the entire aisle?

    3. INTP*

      It’s reasonable to do small clean-ups in the work bathroom in that case, but full-on primping is so annoying in a public restroom. I don’t need a nose full of your hair spray (or worse, perfume/body spray) when I am trying to use the restroom. Too many blow dryers can make it hot and stuffy. It seems like no big deal if it’s just one person but when it’s many, all the heat styling and spraying of products creates a stuffy, smelly atmosphere that is hell for people with asthma and fragrance allergies. If you need to do anything other than apply makeup, brush your hair, or a very quick blow dry with no hairspray, you need to find a way to do it somewhere else imo, even if that means choosing between perfect hair or running club.

      (Also, if they have wet hair but there’s no locker room on campus, that means either they’re washing it in the sink or they’ve washed it at home and left specifically to dry it at work for some reason.)

  3. Natalie*

    #1 Hi, I’m your property manager! (Hopefully not for real.) we definitely want to hear about any cleanliness issues, because we can probably do something about that. Personal issues, like sink using, we would really rather not be asked to deal with because we can’t really help.

    1. Jessica*

      Whenever I walk into bathrooms that have ridiculous notes tacked all over by “management” (Please put trash IN the basket), I always think, “Who needs to be reminded to do that?” And then stories like this come along and I realize why there have to be notes.

      1. Guy Incognito*

        In the stalls of my office bathrooms there is a sign that reads

        “In the interests of hygine please refrain from smearing bodily fluids on the walls”

        I’ve not been hear long and asked if it was really necessary, and apparently it was.

        1. Puffle*

          In my university, there were signs telling people to please please please stop putting their faeces in the waste-bins or on the floor…

          1. LBK*

            IIRC isn’t it common in some countries for used toilet paper to go in the trash can instead of the toilet because the plumbing can’t handle it? I remember this coming up during the Russian Olympics when the Americans were grossed out by it and others said it was normal. Maybe a cultural thing?

            1. Apple22over7*

              Yes, I’ve heard something similar.

              On a related note, I used to work in a building which would regularly have international visitors (typically central Asia) – there were diagrams in the toilet cubicles showing how to sit on a western-style toilet. Apparently, many visitors would stand on the toilet seat & squat over the bowl, and the building owners had had to replace several toilets because they’re not designed to withstand being stood on (not to mention problems with aim..)

              1. Natalie*

                Similarly, it’s really common in Muslim communities to have foot washing stations (you wash your feet and hands and such before praying). In bathrooms without those stations, people will use the sink and it’s really hard to do that without getting water all over the floor.

              2. LibLady*

                When I took my daughter for a college visit, we were waiting in a crowded restroom with only one stall for our turn. An elderly Asian lady went into the stall, and neglected to secure the door so that it swung open. We could see her squatting over the drain in the floor to do her business. Yep, imperfect aim is a problem. We went to another bathroom.

            2. Clever Clogs*

              Yes it is common in some European countries, I know we were asked to do that when visiting Greece.

              And FWIW, since using this site, I no longer brush my teeth in the communal washrooms at work…we have a shower room and I now use that room as it’s private. I had never thought about the fact before that others wouldn’t like it but it makes sense.

              1. Elizabeth West*

                I don’t have a problem with people brushing teeth if they rinse the sink afterward. Some people don’t because they’re gross. Same with the hair people–use a paper towel and wipe it up!

            3. Oryx*

              Yes. I had an aunt who did some mission work and when she came home after being there for over a year she said it was a little weird readjusting back to being able to put it in the toilet.

            4. MK*

              If the city is centuries old, there is only so much you can do with sewer system, especially if the buildings are archeologicl monuments and cannot be extensively renovated.

            5. Sandy*

              I live in one now (Middle East). A place where it’s common- not a trash can or toilet!

              The pipes in most homes and offices here are old and aren’t able to handle toilet paper without clogging.

              So the vast majority of homes and workplaces will have a small garbage can with a lid next to the toilet.

              1. Sheep*

                I’m also in the Middle East. I had to be admitted to the hospital in my very first week here (stomach bug), and I was faced with a bathroom with no bin or toilet paper, just a little shower head thing…

                Luckily we have both at home and at work!

              1. Vera*

                I have to say that’s not the norm in Chile (I am Chilean). I mean, yes, there are places where you are told that, but in most places I’ve been or visited in my country, it’s normal to flush TP. Actually, the only place where I was told not to flush was my grandmother’s place, and I always wondered if that was her fear of breaking stuff just by using it (she used to say that appliances would break if we pressed their buttons too many times) or if it was the many, many times the plumber had to go to clean the plumbing because it was very, very common to flush sanitary pads, and people were thinking TP and pads are the same thing.

                1. Elizabeth West*

                  People flush pads here in the States too. And you know the flushable wipes? They’re not really flushable.
                  On that last, google “London fatberg” for proof. Just don’t do it when you’re eating. >_<

                2. the gold digger*

                  Vera, I was in pretty modest accommodations (I was a Peace Corps volunteer in the early 90s), so that probably had a lot to do with it.

                  (I never could figure out why Peace Corps was in Chile – it is a completely developed country!) (But with some old plumbing in some places.)

            6. INTP*

              Yeah, when I was in Costa Rica there were signs in nearly every restroom (unless it was a higher-end American chain hotel or something) saying not to flush your TP.

              1. INTP*

                Adding: It wasn’t a cultural thing like, “Oh, Costa Ricans just really like to throw away their TP in the wastebasket.” It was a technical thing – the sewer/septic systems were different and for whatever reason toilet paper would mess them up.

          2. Artemesia*

            There are countries where it is routine to put used toilet paper in a wastebasket. Perhaps students from such countries were continuing to do this out of habit? Otherwise, yikes.

        2. NoPantsFridays*

          There have been a few stories like this here on AAM. Never ceases to horrify…

        3. L Veen*

          There’s a note above the garbage bin in the women’s bathroom on my floor that says “Please do not contaminate the garbage bin by throwing garbage in it, paper towels only.” I understand that they don’t want to have to empty it 3x a day because of employees throwing their empty coffee cups or whatever in there, but on the other hand, it’s a little absurd to complain about people “contaminating” a trash receptacle by… putting trash in it.

          1. BadPlanning*

            Is it a bin that they don’t put a liner or trashbag in? So if someone puts something wet or sticky, they’d have to wash out the wastebin? Or are they composting the paper towels? Only ideas that I have on that front.

          2. The Cosmic Avenger*

            As Natalie talks about below, you need to make things easy and obvious, rather than difficult. A sign like that needs to specify something more like “Paper towels only!”, and have a trash can right near by, otherwise people will use it as a trash can. (Either that or they need to fix the logistical problem by using liners and/or emptying the bin more often, assuming BadPlanning is correct.)

            1. L Veen*

              They do use bin liners, and there are no trash cans nearby.

              That’s one thing that’s always confused and bugged me about this office – people just do not have individual trash cans/wastepaper baskets at their desks, just recycling bins for paper. There are two big wheeled trash cans in front of the elevators, but it’s annoying to have to get up from your desk and walk that distance every time you want to toss a used kleenex, especially since you need to swipe your card to get back in. At my last place of work, everyone had their own trash can and cleaning staff emptied them twice a day.

          3. Traveler*

            Is it possible that people were throwing things like insulin needles or pads in there? Things with blood technically should be separate when possible, so the person cleaning the bins knows they are handling blood in case of bloodborne pathogen issues. Just thinking specifically since they used the word “contaminate”.

        4. INTP*

          At my old work there were signs asking employees to please not stand on the toilet.

          Evidently, many of the employees from regions where squat toilets are the norm did not want to adjust to our sitting toilets and the janitors kept having to wipe shoe prints off of the toilet seats. (Maybe they just didn’t know. I’m skeptical because our toilets to not look like squat toilets and it should be pretty clear that they aren’t meant to be used that way imo, but who knows.)

      2. Natalie*

        I’m actually not in favor of notes. Most of the time, issues like trash on the floor are probably happening because of a design or functionality issue. For example, a lot of people use a paper towel to open the door because they are germaphobes, and then throw the towel on the floor. No amount of PA notes are going to convince them that thrash on the floor is more important than what they see as a health issue for them, nor can I convince them to get treatment for their anxiety disorder. But put a trash can right next to the door and they’ll use it.

        If you can’t mistake-proof the bathroom, then you just need to clean it more often. My suspicion is that fewer people will trash a clean bathroom then will add a little mess to a dirty bathroom.

        1. The Cosmic Avenger*

          Absolutely. If people are selfish enough to be dropping paper towels (or deuces) on the floor, a note very likely will not cause them to have an epiphany. We have a bin for paper towels right by the door, and I think that helps.

          1. Natalie*

            We’ve learned the hard way. I despise those toilet seat covers (irrationally strongly HATE them, actually) but if you don’t buy them people either hover and then pee on the seat (making it dirty, goddammit!) or cover the seat in an elaborate toilet paper monument that clogs the plumbing or ends up on the floor.

            Sigh. If I could get one wish it would be that people just use the damn bathroom without being so terrified of everything.

            1. Swedish Tekanna*

              …and sometimes leave the wet toilet paper still on the seat with **** on it.

            2. NoPantsFridays*

              What do you think about just wiping the seat? Does that pose a problem, other than using a little extra paper? I wipe the seat with as little TP as possible, then deposit the TP in the toilet, then sit on the seat – yes, with my butt making contact with the actual seat *gasp* – and pee. But then my work bathrooms are honestly very clean, probably cleaner than my bathroom at home haha. I’ve seen flush-splash on the seat, which is water – but never once have I seen pee or s**t on the seat. Thankfully.

              1. manybellsdown*

                That’s what I do. I give the seat a wipe and then I sit on it. I’ve never “caught” anything from a toilet seat.

                The worst internet flame war I ever saw, though, was between women who sit and women who “hover.” It was uuuugly.

              2. Natalie*

                I can’t imagine that would cause any issues with the toilet. A little extra paper won’t clog it – when people clog it by covering it, they are using yards and yard of toilet paper.

              3. I called her Estella*

                “If you sprinkle when you tinkle,
                Please be sweet and wipe the seat”

                This notice was up in the cubicle in the rest room of a hotel where I was minute taking at a seminar a few weeks ago. Unfortunately it didn’t work.

            3. Hlyssande*

              We don’t have the covers and I’ve made a habit of wiping down the seat every time before I use it because I’ve sat in something wet after eyeballing before. The lighting in there is really not so great so sometimes it’s hard to see if there’s stuff on the seat.

              This is a fancy-ass restroom in a fancy-ass office and women still pee all over the seats.

            4. INTP*

              I never understood the point of those toilet seat covers and never use them when they’re available. What sort of pathogen do people think can survive on a dry toilet seat but can’t get through a thin layer of wax paper?

              Miraculously, I’ve never gotten a butt disease from sitting on the toilet directly lol.

              1. Vera*

                Well, I use them all the time, because most often than no, the seat is not dry. And I’m not happy having to clean other person’s pee.

              1. C Average*

                This is brilliant. I will henceforth think of those toilet seat covers as butt cootie shields.

            5. PlainJane*

              Yes! It’s your butt, not your lunch. For a great take on this issue, check out “A Brief Disquisition on the Existence of Butt-cooties” by Diana Gabaldon, author of the wonderful Outlander series. Just Google “gabaldon butt cooties” :-)

        2. Alter_ego*

          our building’s solution to that was to put an automatic hand sanitizer dispenser right next to the door. Which, on it’s face, seems like a really good solution.

          Except that I am very short, and it means that when I’m not thinking about it, my shoulder goes right under the sensor as I leave. We’ve been in this office about 4 months, and I’ve probably had my shoulder soaked in hand sanitizer about 6 times since we moved in.

        3. Lynn Whitehat*

          I agree. I think 95% of the time when I see a note saying “PLEASE DO NOT X!!!!!!!!!! >:-( >:-(“, there’s not really a good alternative. One of these days, I will have a pen handy, and write underneath “what do you suggest instead?”

          The women’s restroom in the engineering building where I went to college had no trash cans or waste receptacles of any kind. Yeah. Housekeeping would leave notes, “DO NOT THROW TRASH ON THE FLOOR!!!!!!” But… there was nowhere else for it to go.

      3. IrishGirl*

        In my old university there was a sign reminding students to sit on the toilet seat, not to stand on it.

        1. Artemesia*

          People from cultures where squatting is the norm often do this which as you can imagine leaves a horrifying mess on the back of the toilet since their feet are not positioned properly this way. When Boeing was preparing airliners for middle eastern countries decades ago, the toilets had foot pads alongside that would position people using the toilets this way properly. (or so someone who worked on their airliner prep told me.) I remember years ago that Orly airport in Paris which serves third world countries always had toilets of both types with a picture on the door showing if it was a squat or sit toilet so people could choose the one that worked for their cultural habits. Alas occasionally people made the wrong choice, stood on the seat and left the stall unusable.

          1. the gold digger*

            The first time I flew into Dubai, in the ladies’ room at the airport, I was stuck using the hole in the ground toilet. I was exhausted from the 13-hour flight (in coach – in the middle seat) and really did not feel like balancing over the hole. But needs must so I did.

            It wasn’t until my second trip there that I realized they had both kinds of toilets and I just hadn’t figured it out.

        2. INTP*

          Same with my former office. I’ve been told by people from countries with squat toilets that (warning, TMI ahead) it’s more difficult or requires more straining to go in a sitting position than a squatting one. I think that is why they choose to do it, not that they aren’t aware that they’re supposed to sit, so the solution by Boeing to add foot pads so the toilets can be used either way is a good one (or just keep a Squatty Potty in the restroom for people to use).

  4. Puffle*

    #1 eugh, I find it irritating enough that my co-workers all congregate in our (small) work bathroom to do their hair/ make-up and brush their teeth after lunch, since I have to run the sink gauntlet just to wash my hands (think five women trying to do their make-up over two sinks). If they started making a mess, I would definitely speak up, though I would be careful to steer away from “It’s gross and weird” and move towards “This is a shared space and when it’s messy it makes things more difficult for everyone. Can we encourage people to bear that in mind and tidy up when they’re done? ”

    Seriously, though, the number of people who don’t seem to understand basic rules of behaviour in public spaces, such as “don’t make a mess, and if you do, clean up after yourself”, always astounds me…

    1. Cheesecake*

      I am so happy someone mentioned “brushing teeth”. Honestly, it grosses me out more than hair&makeup. I find teeth brushing to be quite an intimate procedure, but a lot of people don’t. We used to have an office with normal M/F bathrooms plus a separate lockable room with shower/toilet. Yet, there was a colleague who cleaned her teeth like a hygienist: brushing, threading, tongue cleaning (3x a day) – all in the public section, while she could have done it in privacy of the shower room.

      1. MK*

        On the other hand, teeth-brushing is about hygiene, not groomimg. I can understand people feeling it’s a neccesity in a way make-up and hairstyling is not.

        1. Cheesecake*

          Well, it is also messy and it also takes space. While for styling hair you need a mirror and a plug, for teeth brushing you need entire sink and that you can’t move away from. And on the side note, how hygienic it is to brush your teeth next to someone who washes hands after toilet activities is another topic.

          1. Marzipan*

            Unless they’re washing their hands in a weirdly mouth-poky fashion (and the mouth in question is mine), I’m really not too worried, to be honest!

            (And if they *are*, I have a whole nother set of worries…)

          2. Natalie*

            I don’t think there’s any health risk to where/when you are brushing your teeth. Most germs don’t really work that way.

            1. Cheesecake*

              Then why do they advise to not keep your toothbrush in close proximity to the toilet?

              I don’t mean it like you get mouth infection if someone washes their hands next to you brushing your teeth. It is just non-hygienic=gross.

              1. Former Diet Coke Addict*

                It’s because when you flush a toilet, aerosol toilet water particles fill the air and settle on the brush. But frankly everything you touch in the bathroom will have that same fine mist, and tooth brushing isn’t going to make an enormous difference either way.

              2. KerryOwl*

                Because minuscule water particles fly out of a toilet when it’s flushed (and if it doesn’t have a lid, or the lid is up). Not because germs float off of people’s hands and onto toothbrushes.

                1. Natalie*

                  IIRC Mythbusters tested that and found out it wasn’t any different anywhere else in your house.

            2. C Average*

              You know what I always think is funny about the where-do-you-keep-your-toothbrush conversations? So many people use those toothbrush holders that smush together all the toothbrushes in the household. Now THAT’S gross. In a household that contains two kids who are always bringing home germs, I’m not worried about my toothbrush being in the same room as the toilet. I’m worried about my toothbrush being in close proximity to the kids’ toothbrushes. We keep all of ours in separate places (we each have a drawer).

          3. LBK*

            Do you not brush your teeth in the same room people use the toilet in at home?

            We had a LONG debate about this topic (oral hygiene in the office bathroom) when there was a letter about someone whose manager was basically stalking her to make sure she wasn’t flossing at work, despite the OP being told by her dentist that she needed to. It’s kind of baffling to me how grossed out some people get by the idea of someone brushing their teeth or flossing in the office – unless you’re licking the mirror/sink I don’t see how it hurts you.

            1. Cheesecake*

              Yes, but it is only 2 people and i do my brushing ritual in absolute solitude. Also, my husband shares my view and doesn’t like to be looked at when he brushes teeth. Match made in heaven!

              Anyway,that is my “thing” to find this gross, especially when you have another room to do so. I never complained or stalked anyone because of teeth brushing (and never heard of, it seems a bit outrageous from the manager!). It is just my opinion and i understand it is perfectly fine to not be as lazy as me and take care of teeth.

            2. charisma*

              Hi. Adult braces-wearer here. It is absolutely imperative that I have a place to brush my teeth most days, and it’s not like I have some other restroom within reasonable distance to use that is NOT a public restroom, where I can brush my teeth.

              I really am sorry, because I myself actually have a major aversion to anything teeth/spit related (ugh), and I literally (yes, literally) cannot stand seeing other people brush their teeth and will avoid being around it at all costs (even leaving the restroom until the teeth-brusher is finished), but I can’t help it. I have nowhere else to go.

            1. Cheesecake*

              On the earth my home is somewhere middle of Europe and i brush my teeth in my bathroom where noone is watching!

      2. The Cosmic Avenger*

        It could be worse, Cheesecake.

        We have someone who blows their nose into the sink. As in, plugs one nostril and aims the other at the bowl of the sink.

        To be fair, they do rinse it afterwards, and I think this is common in certain cultures.

        1. Cheesecake*

          To me the whole teeth brushing in public toilet is just weird, it is not a big deal and i don’t make drama. But this is really yuk!!!

        2. MK*

          Is there a cultural aversion to paper handkershiefs? I can understand (sort of) washing your nose after you blow it; but this sounds odd.

      3. OriginalEmma*

        I’m pretty sure that most office bathrooms, with bathrooms large enough to have multiple stalls and sinks, are cleaned way more often than the average homeowner’s by that building’s cleaning crew.

        Additionally, that tooth brush being used over the sink is typically at least three feet away from the stall so the “why do they tell you keep your toothbrush away from the toilet?” question is spurious. You’re not rubbing the toothbrush all over that person’s poo hands before you brush, are you?

      4. Artemesia*

        I never ‘get’ criticisms of teeth brushing. Where would one do that if not at the sink? The world would be a better place if everyone brushed mid day and for those with teeth issues or braces etc, it is critical to do so.

        1. C Average*

          Yeah, me either. I brush every morning after my coffee and most afternoons after lunch. So far, I’ve not gotten any noticeable side-eye from anyone. I make sure I rinse the sink, and I sometimes say something self-deprecating like, “Yeah, I’m the weirdo who brushes her teeth in the ladies’ room every morning, but anything beats having coffee breath all day.”

    2. Sadsack*

      I have noticed that after some people where I work brush their teeth in the work bathroom, they do not rinse the sink. Please please please RINSE THE SINK. I am revolted when I step up to wash my hands and there is a foamy mass of toothpaste and food particles in the sink. I could seriously puke from seeing and that, and smelling it, no matter how minty fresh. I rinse my sink at home, don’t you?

      1. Natalie*

        It’s super rude to the cleaning staff, too. That stuff dries on and makes their job unnecessarily hard.

      2. Monodon monoceros*

        Irrelevant story to work, but the last time I visited my nieces and nephews, when the kids were all brushing their teeth together, my 2 year old niece was dipping her toothbrush into the toothpaste spit in the sink from her brother and sister and then brushing her teeth. I learned quick to stand there and rinse the sink immediately after they spit before she could do it again. Love that kiddo, but so gross.

    3. DMC*

      Okay good we’re on teeth brushing now! LOL. I have an issue I’m wondering about getting input on. I have Invasalign, which requires me to brush my teeth after every meal and put back on my aligners. So, I’ve brought a toothbrush to work, keep it at my desk, and brush in the bathroom after lunch. I always make sure no one is in the bathroom when I brush my teeth (I’ll leave of there is). Occasionally, someone will come in while I’m brushing (believe me, I try to be fast about it, and I do clean up). But I still feel a bit awkward. For those bothered by toothbrushing at work, any suggestions? (Incidentally, my dentist recommends flossing too, but I resist doing that unless I’ve had something that really requires it before I put in my aligners since I try to be as fast as possible). I cannot wait until I’m finished with these things.

  5. Jessica*

    Re#2 – I was the first HR person for a non-tech company of over 200 people. They had benefits and everything, just didn’t really have one dedicated person handling it until I came along. And from what I’ve seen in the tech industry where I live, unlimited PTO is becoming the gold standard, especially at companies that sound like the one you’re describing.

    1. Wakeen's Teapots Ltd.*

      I think we were 75 before we got an actual HR person, and she was more clerk than anything else. We didn’t get a real HR director until we were well over 100. (Could have saved senior management a lot of grief if we’d invested earlier, btw, but that’s hindsight.)

      1. Jessica*

        I kind of fell in to my HR job, as I was hired for a different position and found it odd that they didn’t have a dedicated person to handle all of it (kind of like what OP experienced). I’m not sure that they ever would have gotten anyone if I didn’t take the initiative. I got the impression that the CEO though HR was the stupidest thing out and not a “real” job. When I negotiated my salary, she pretty much wanted to pay minimum wage and couldn’t believe what the market rate was. She *did* start to appreciate it when I caught a bunch of potential legal issues that could arise from bad record keeping, missing legal paperwork, and generally bad treatment of their workers. You wouldn’t believe how many people flocked to my office with grievances once they knew there was a dedicated person.

        1. Beancounter in Texas*

          Ditto on the initiative. From what resources do you draw knowledge and support?

          1. Jessica*

            Do you mean you are currently in the same position now? I am sadly not doing that position anymore; it was my first real job out of college and was a great experience. But when I did it, the best resources were government sites for up-t0-date legal standards. Can’t get around that. Support was non-existent, really. I worked quite a lot, failed or had to start over quite a bit, and made a lot of standard operating procedures just to get things organized. This was a while ago and I would bet that there are even better resources online now. I’d say Evil HR Lady would be a great blog to read too. The inner HR person in me still likes keeping up with the profession. And listen to what employees are saying! I learned of a lot of potential issues that way and was able to fix it before they got bad.

  6. Jessica*

    Re #4 – That’s…extremely weird. Does she just want you to mutely listen? Or is she really talkative when her dating life is going well, then shuts down when it goes poorly? It’s very odd, especially since she brought up the party question.

    1. Op 4*

      Hi Jessica

      I have no idea and it’s not a conversation I can have right now with her. I have asked her in the past but she wasn’t really clear. The first time it happened I had come back from shopping from Victoria secret (bag was labelled with my scarf draped over it trying to be discrete) she asked me what I brought and I said just makeup and bras they have a sale. She said I shouldn’t talk about that and I said okay sorry. The second time was a work related issue where I was a project manager and asked her to complete a task. She said it was inappropriate that I give her a task since I’m not her manager and then stopped talking to me outside of email for four months. I gave her space and eventually she started acting friendly again so I thought she might have been going through persona stuff and didn’t ask her about it. Now this.this happened on Friday and she won’t even respond to my good morning. That’s ridiculous behavior and it’s enough to bother anyone.

      1. Ask a Manager* Post author

        She asked you what you bought at Victoria’s Secret and then got huffy because the answer was bras? She’s not a normal conversationalist. I’d just drop any expectations of normal conversation with her.

        1. hayling*

          I agree. OP I think you buried the lede here…your coworker has bigger problems than discussing personal lives!

          1. Elizabeth West*

            Yeah, the coworker is a twit. This sounds like a drama llama move. I’d quit discussing anything at all with her. She’s asking for information on you and not sharing her own? Nope.

        2. Merry and Bright*

          Now we have a Victoria’s Secret branch in London I will be grinning like a loon and thinking of AAM next time I go by: weird coworkers, intrusive perfume.

    2. Op 4*

      Oh no I think my response to you didn’t load. Apologies if this is posted twice. Yeah she is weird in what can and cannot be discussed in that it’s okay if she brings it up and it’s not ok for me to discuss it.
      1- I went to Vs during my lunch break and I tried to hide the pink and Orange bag but she asked me what I bought. I said they had a good sale on makeup and bras and she said “we can’t talk about that here!” I felt so embarrassed that I said sorry. She came in to my office to ask me! Why ask then?
      2- I was project manager and she was on my team and I gave her a task. She told me I couldn’t tell her what to do as I wasn’t her manager (though he gave me permission for this project to give tasks to the team) and said it was innapropriate. I asked her how and she was vague. Then she stopped talking to me for 4 months. She’d only email me if she needed to discuss something. I tried to bring it up at some point but she just said everything was fine. Out of the blue she came back and started talking to me as she had before. I gave her the benefit of the doubt bc I don’t know of she was going through something personal and didn’t ask.

      1. Cheesecake*

        I am so not surprised she also acts out in the work setting. Totally unprofessional.

        And not talking about bras and makeup? What else exciting is left in 9-5 day?

      2. fposte*

        Okay, to hell with the personal stuff–the fact that she wouldn’t take instruction from you when you were managing her team is a huge problem for me, and I’d actually have brought it up with your manager. And if she literally then gave you the silent treatment for four months? Might also have brought that up, because it’s unprofessional and ridiculous.

        This is somebody erratic and dramatic; this is somebody to steer clear of. Let go of the benefit of the doubt. She’s not an asset to your work or personal life.

        1. JB*

          Totally agree. Talk to her about work stuff when you have to, make generic, vague small talk in the break room or any other place where you happen to run into her, but limit it to that.

      3. Jessica*

        How bizarre! I can’t get a read on this woman. Did she ever do the tasks you assigned her? If not, that’s a huge issue…she can’t just skip doing them because she doesn’t like that you assigned them. I’d be interested to know if she is a capable worker over all AND if you’ve noticed that she acts this way towards others. What a strange set of rules she has, though.

        1. OP 4*

          I mean she did the task but the fact she said that I couldn’t tell her what to do was bothersome. I thought about my tone when asking her and it was the same it was with everyone else “hey, could you please pull up some numbers for XYZ” That’s the thing, in normal times she is a consummate professional and a good person but then something like this happens and I wonder if I have been completely wrong about her. I still think she is a good coworker it’s just that I should probably keep my distance and limit myself to just coworkers at this point. With regards to how she acts toward others, she is arguably the closest to me and doesn’t really tell other people when something is bothering her. I like her the best but I try to act the same with everyone. At least you always know where you stand with me.

          1. TeapotCounsel*

            >and doesn’t really tell other people when something is bothering her.

            And there’s the crux of the problem. Sounds like a passive-aggressive personality that’s gone totally over the top.

            1. TeapotCounsel*

              I’m rethinking my comment, because OP did mention that sometimes she says something, and when she does, it’s weird.

              Something is up with this person. I’m agreeing with the earlier posters about her being too dramatic.

              1. Anna*

                I think part of it might be that when she did say something to other people, they probably dropped her like a hot potato and just started avoiding her. It’s possible the reason she brings it up with you and you alone is because you haven’t yet started avoiding her weirdness. Just out of curiosity, does her name start with an S? She sounds a LOT like someone I used to work with.

                1. OP 4*

                  No it doesn’t. I think maybe I need to be more clear about my boundaries and that I won’t tolerate that kind of behavior. As much as it might be sucky, I will need to be her coworker though and not a friend. I’m really grateful to hear that other people have gone through similar things (well not happy that happened to them per se) and that I’m not alone. People are just weird sometimes and you just need to keep your head up, be clear, and do the work…

          2. Cheesecake*

            It is still striking she said something like this to you professionally. I used to work in project teams with project managers who gave me tasks and something like “you are project manager, not my manager” would sound pretty offensive and obnoxious and off to my boss it goes. But what is really out of this world is the silent treatment she gave you. I just don’t get it.

          3. Jessica*

            So here’s how I now view your coworker. Conversations are supposed to be like a game of tennis. Sometimes you just lob the ball back and forth, sometimes they are hard hitting, but generally, they are reciprocal. Your coworker is the person that takes the ball and throws it into the stands when you hit it at her. She is just so completely disruptive of the normal conventions that I can’t even fathom what goes through her mind. I’d say you are on the right track if you are planning to guard yourself. Thanks for sharing this story and filling in details… I’ve gotten weird vibes from similar people and am glad that I am not alone in thinking there is something off.

      4. Jessie*

        This feels like manipulative behavior. I’ve seen people who do this as a way of getting others to do what they want by turning perfectly normal situation uncomfortable. They want the people around them to always feel like they’ve done something wrong which has to be made up for. At least, that’s what it sounds like from the project manager anecdote.

      5. Not me*

        OK, I admit I’m extra paranoid about office politics and such, but this woman sounds like she is trying to deliberately set you up, so you one day end up with a long track record of prying into her personal life and sharing inappropriate things with her (which of course, she provoked you into asking/saying, but she might choose to withhold this little piece of information). I’d stay as far away from her as possible, keep conversations strictly professional, preferably in front of witnesses and/or in writing with other people CC’d on them. Again, I might be overreacting, but in my own 20+ year work history, the only times I’ve come close to getting into trouble at work/getting fired was because of a scheming coworker that I was originally friendly with. At one of my first jobs when I was younger and more naive, I confessed a work crush to an office friend. The office friend then invited my boss to meet for coffee and a chat after work, to warn him that I have a habit of sleeping my way to the top, that I’d already tried it with (crush) and failed, so now the boss should be careful, because I might start with him! Thankfully the boss did not believe her, I’m afraid to even think what could’ve happened otherwise.

        Op4, while your coworker might in fact be going through something personal, you’re not her therapist, you cannot help her, but she can do you serious damage. My advice is to keep the interactions to a minimum.

        1. Artemesia*

          This. People like this are flypaper. Avoid at all costs and when she refuses instruction when your boss has put you in charge of a project, immediately bring that to your boss. S/he needs to see the pattern.

          And never ever discuss anything personal with her regardless of what she asks or says.

        2. Ann without an e*

          I agree with Not Me. I’ve been burned too. I’ve become a pioneer of paranoia. This woman is manipulative at best, who knows what her end game is, but I’ll bet you a chocolate teapot you don’t want to find out.

          I read a great article about gut feelings. They come from the limbic system in your brain. This is the most ancient part of your brain that performs threat assessment and chooses fight or flight. It also assess social threat, since we can’t survive without the group. In response to social threats it releases cortisol and adrenaline, resulting in that feeling in your gut. Its a mitigated fight or flight response for social threats. This is a very old part of your brain, its good at what it does, trust that feeling.

        3. Jessica*

          I don’t think that is paranoid at all! I was just talking with a friend about how they were fired because someone they had originally vouched for and referred (friend of a friend situation) had been undermining them the whole time. To add insult to injury, this person got her old job. My friend had been going the nice route because this person was a casual acquaintance and she didn’t want to rock the boat. She’s learned to protect herself the hard way.

        4. INTP*

          I agree. If it isn’t a professional strategy on her end, it’s a personal one, where she just wants to set up drama and have an excuse to flip out and give the silent treatment.

          I don’t usually like to read nefarious motives into everything but I’ve been racking my brain for why a woman who thinks it’s unthinkable to mention bras at work would ask what you bought at a lingerie store, and there is none. (Unless maybe she’s so conservative she’s horrified by the idea that you might buy bras at Victoria’s Secret at all and was simply trying to reassure herself that you only bought body spray and sweatpants but…that seems like a stretch, to make an understatement.)

          1. catsAreCool*

            “why a woman who thinks it’s unthinkable to mention bras at work would ask what you bought at a lingerie store” This!

      6. Sue Wilson*

        1) This person is not your friend. I understand if you need to remain friendly, but I would keep it impersonal with her.

        2) You don’t seem to have a good grasp on where your boundaries are and it’s making you timid with her when she behaves confusingly. If you didn’t want to talk about the bag you brought in, don’t talk about it. Figure out what you consider inappropriate and don’t get drawn in if your coworker indicates that she has a wider boundary. I think you want to have a good relationship with her, but if you know she behaves like this, you have to settle for a professional relationship.

        3) It doesn’t matter if she has something personal going on, she needs to respect whatever authority you’ve been given. If she responds unprofessionally to you having some control, address that with either her or her manager, if she’s not doing the tasks you’ve assigned or responding to work concerns you have. Don’t let it bother you when she stops talking to you about personal matters. At least at those times, you don’t have to think about what’s going to set her off.

  7. finest quality. superior workmanship.*

    Re #4: *sigh* this is a huge pet peeve of mine: people bring up a topic, talk about it – and you ask a question and they give you this “are you from another planet? how dare you ask me about that?” routine.

    In short: no, you’re not wrong, your co-worker is “broken” somehow (although I don’t know how). I’ve known peole like this. I tend to avoid them. Invariably I’ve found out they’re broken in several places.

    1. Op 4*

      Thank you! This might be it. I’ll also make it a point that personal topics are off the table even if she brings it up

      1. LBK*

        My only guess is that the times she freaks out about it, something bad has just happened in her dating life that she’s not comfortable talking about (whereas she’s fine sharing good/neutral details).

        1. NoPantsFridays*

          This is my bet, too. The times she brings it up, it’s good news or neutral news. The times she doesn’t, and doesn’t want to talk about it, it’s bad news.
          I personally don’t bring up my dating/romantic life at all, so it really irritates me when people ask. But, this coworker obviously doesn’t mind discussing it when she wants to discuss it. Erratic behavior, to say the least…

      2. Jessie*

        The only problem you might run into with making a point of avoiding her and/or making a point of not talking about personal topics is that you’re likely to get the same result: she overreacts and claims that you’re deliberately shunning her or being overly rude. Not to mention that if her intent is to make you always feel defensive while dealing with her, then she’s accomplished her goal.

        Honestly, my suggestion would be to continue treating her as you would any other person in the workplace. Don’t avoid talking to her, but don’t delve into anything more personal than “have a good weekend?” If she asks you about something personal, give a vague answer and steer the question the other way.

        “What’d you buy?”
        “Oh, just needed to pick up a couple things. Have a good lunch?”
        “How was your date?”
        “Pretty good. Have a good lunch?”

        If she freaks out about something work-related I’ve found that “I’m very sorry you feel that way,” is generally a good canned response. It leaves the ball in her court if she wants to pursue the issue further, but shows that, although you’re receptive, you aren’t giving any ground at the moment.

    2. The Cosmic Avenger*

      Good point. In fact, some people do this in order to keep other people on the defensive, as a kind of power play. It may not even be conscious, as they may have grown up in a household where this type of undercutting is an everyday mode of communication. Speaking of other planets, I often find it useful to just take the view that I’m exploring an alien culture, and I need everything explained to me. “I’m sorry, did that offend you? You brought up meeting someone at a party, so I thought it would be OK to ask about that. Should I not ask about that, even when you bring it up? I’ll try to remember that, but it would help me if you didn’t bring up topics that I shouldn’t ask about, because I’m used to any mention of a subject being an opening for discussion.”

      [ARMCHAIR ANALYSIS DISCLAIMER: I’m talking about patterns I’ve seen in many people, but they’re by no means common. This may not apply to any particular person.]

      1. The Cosmic Avenger*

        I just figured out what I was getting at…it’s almost like this person is used to gaslighting, and they’re kind of pulling something similar on the OP. Not quite, but similar. But I doubt it’s intentional, based on the context. If it was, they would probably be doing it with work issues to undermine the OP.

        1. Op 4*

          I’m basically Ingrid Bergman in this scenario! I never thought it could be a power play.

      2. Jessica*

        I *love* that way of handling it. I hadn’t even thought of it as being a power play, but it very well could be, and calling attention to it is the best way to at least let the person know you’re on to them.

        What you said kind of reminds me of one person I used to know that loved to be dramatic and gossip about people. They would bring up some terrible wrong they had (supposedly) experienced at the hand of someone else. I would engage (like an idiot) and say, “Oh my gosh, how terrible of them!” or something along those lines. This person would immediately do an about-face and say, “Well, they’re really not THAT bad.” and would make it seem like I was some jerk for reacting and she was some benevolent saint. It took me a few times of that happening before I caught on, until I basically did what you said, which was say, “Uh, YOU were actually the one talking about them!” I learned to not engage, though OP’s coworker is so bizarre, I doubt you could predict her behavior enough to not engage. But I love your solution!

        1. some1*

          I had a a former coworker who would do this. She would complain about management to people and if you said anything in agreement, she’d go to management and claim you volunteered everything she had said. Luckily I was warned about her in my first week and it never happened to me.

    3. Vanishing Girl*

      Wow, this thread is so helpful! I have a former co-worker who did this, and I never understood it. I ended up just stopping all personal talk with her. Glad to know it happens to other people, and how to frame it a bit better so it doesn’t bother me.

    4. INTP*

      This is what makes me think it’s an intentional power play thing. With both the VS bag scenario and the dating question scenario, she specifically opened communications on that topic and then flipped out when the OP responded in a reasonable way. She’s setting the OP up to offend her, though who knows if it’s a Gaslight master plan or excuse to start drama for her own amusement or just a toxic communication style she learned in a toxic home.

  8. Bend & Snap*

    #2 the PTO thing may be tied to their exit strategy; accrued vacation time can be seen as financial liability. It’s a normal thing in tech and is usually a strategic decision.

    1. olives*

      I’d be really interested to hear some time what the strategic reasons are for a lot of tech company decisions. I hear a lot of rhetoric from companies about how open offices are for better collaboration, and unlimited vacation is for employee happiness, but there aren’t a whole lot of articles out there explaining that the offices are mostly to save money and the unlimited vacation plans keep them from having to pay out vacation time. It’d probably put a lot of weird tech industry decisions in a new light.

      1. Nashira*

        As somebody who’s planning to swap into the tech industry, man, I would love an article like that! Even if I’m likely to end up working for my state government, for reasons like guaranteed sick leave and obscenely good health insurance… so it wouldn’t really apply to me…

      2. AW*

        Ditto on wanting to know more from a strategy viewpoint.

        I want to say that I’ve read some article claiming that open office spaces are bad for productivity (might have been something by Allison or something she linked to). I’m certain I’ve read an article stating that unlimited vacation time actually leads to people taking less vacation. The problem with unlimited vacation (with no rules around it) is that people are unsure of how much vacation is too much and without PTO accrual limits those people who only take vacation when it’s “use it or lose it” just never go on vacation. Companies that had chosen not to have a vacation policy have had to implement some rules to make sure people take it like a minimum vacation policy or even offering a bonus to employees who take vacation time.

      3. Joey*

        It’s a bunch of bs. Sort of like when companies call themselves a startup but they’ve been around forever. It’s no different than telling you much they appreciate employees yet they’re paying you crap.

        Open offices are cheaper and more efficient financially (they can squeeze more people in). They’re just trying to spin it as a positive so you don’t complain you can’t concentrate or no longer have private space.

      4. INTP*

        The unlimited vacation time actually helps them to LIMIT the amount of time employees can take, as well. If you get 2 weeks of vacation time, your boss isn’t really in a position to say “It’s unreasonable for you to take 2 weeks of vacation this year” – you expect to take it all, with some flexibility about timing. If you are told “Unlimited vacation time, as much as is needed and reasonable and approved by your manager,” your manager is in the position to determine whether your requests are needed and what is reasonable and you may wind up with far less. Even if managers aren’t denying requests, people are likely to feel okay about taking 2 weeks of vacation when they are explicitly given 2 weeks of vacation but fear being seen as a slacker or non-team-player when they have to ask for it.

        It would be interesting if there were a study on average vacation days taken at companies with unlimited vs limited vacation day policies.

        1. SanguineAspect*

          Bingo. I mentioned this above, but I can tell you that after talking to the employees at my “unlimited” vacation policy workplace, people take far less time off here than at any of my prior companies by a landslide.

  9. finest quality. superior workmanship.*

    Re #3: This strikes me as odd. Like – is your director gunning for you, or something? You mention “rebuilding” your relationship with your manager, and how the director was “instrumental” in preventing your promotion. I’m guessing there’s a larger story here. In any event, I like AAM’s advice: see if you can figure out what’s going on, and maybe see about setting up a separate 1-on-1 review.

    Or – this isn’t necessarily a good idea, but can you get the performance review scheduled sometime when the director simply can’t make it? He’s out of town, or snowed in, or something? I know, I know – it’s a rotten idea.

    1. Artemesia*

      I’d want to sit down with the director before hand for an informal discussion of goals and accomplishments. If it were me and I got this ‘we can’t do it without the big boss sitting in’ I would be hyperventilating that I was about to be fired. This sounds treacherous to me. (I do tend to overreact to such things — but I can see why your are nervous about it.)

      1. OP 3*

        I am less worried about my job than I was last year. The director is a micromanager who always has to have the last word then he sits back and looks around the room in a self-satisfied way, presumably because he thinks he’s won the argument through debate rather than through power-play. Maybe I need to keep looking around as I’m sure he can read my mind at times.

      2. Merry and Bright*

        I would also want to know if other staff were getting the director treatment, or if it was just me.

  10. OP 3*

    Yes I was surprised by what happened last year – it seems as if the director had formed a bad opinion of me due to a wrong assumption about how I’d behaved during a difficult period; in fact I’d been very professional and supportive of the senior staff involved. Following this I did have a candid conversation during a 1 – on – 1 with my manager, we addressed the issue yet I feel like I’ve been left in limbo – my standing has improved with my managers but I no longer trust that she has my back.
    During my review decisions will be made, such as scoring performance, approval for training and additional projects; this couldn’t be brought up or changed later on. I will explain my concerns to my manager, I could try to schedule this so late in the holiday season that the director is already fully booked but it doesn’t seem a good idea to scheme too much considering the background to my issue!

    1. Cheesecake*

      Then you need to talk to your director directly :) In my opinion performance review is 1-on-1 with your manager and i would not be comfortable with someone not very involved in my daily job to be there. In your case, on top of that director is already coming with negative vibes on your performance. You need to catch up before and have an honest talk

      1. OP 3*

        Maybe I can head things off by being proactive as you suggest – in truth I’m trying to avoid this conversation. I’ll work out what I would like to be involved in and how much this matters to me to try and remove the heat if I get turned down. I’ve lost confidence I suppose.

        1. Cheesecake*

          I totally get you and this is not going to be an easy breezy conversation. But avoiding it will do more harm than good. If he does have something against you and has a lot of weight in the org (and i guess he did, it is a director we are talking about), no matter what you do or what your boss says – it won’t be good enough to take you to “the next level”. So talking to him will shed some light on your future. It can also turn out it is not as bad as you though, so by not talking you will stress out for no reason. I just personally hate to “hang in” waiting. I once did this tough conversation and it gave me extra push to leave :) And i never looked back, only regretted not having this talk earlier.

        2. Wakeen's Teapots Ltd.*

          Sometimes, in order to win, you have to take unfair criticism and move on from it, having never changed the other party’s mind.

          Years ago, we had a website development project that was badly delayed. It not only cost us a lot more money than it should have, it effectively tanked my division’s sales for the better half of a year and made us return no profit for the year. I got *eviscerated* by PTB over this with the strongly convicted feedback that I was bad at project management.

          I am so not! Not! Not!

          After I (calmly, and as non defensively as possible), made my case that this was not so and this was a bad one off of not my doing, I had to let it go. I had to let it go and prove by deeds rather than words that the feedback was unfounded.

          Whatever the director says to you one on one is the opinion she already has. Not talking to her is surely won’t change it. Talking to her, if you can remain calm and non-defensive, has a good chance of upping her opinion to something higher, maybe all the way to neutral ground where you can then show, by deeds ongoing, that the opinion formed was wrong.

          Don’t spend time arguing. State a calm case but don’t argue.

          1. Cheesecake*

            One needs balls to go and have this conversation and if anything the director will have some respect towards OPs honesty. (but yes, key here is to be very calm and not defensive) .

            OP will also have a chance to address his presence at the review vs sneak around with the calendar; i bet he is not stupid and will notice the whole scheduling “scheme”. And this will backfire not only for OP but also for the line manager.

          2. Jules*

            I am with you on this. As a PM in my last job, there is always something wrong with the way I am handling things and I always end up preparing presentations and defence over something I supposedly not do. The outcome was clear though, I had a system implemented country wide with minimal issue. So many people from all location praised how we mange the project. Sometimes, just let it go and keep the end goal in mind.

    2. Graciosa*

      The wrong assumption will not be fixed by your trying to avoid the director, and I’m a little skeptical that a manager whom you don’t trust to have your back is going to keep her boss out of your review when he clearly wants to come.

      I think the more interesting question is whether or not you want to stay with this company, working under the close supervision of (even if not directly reporting to) a director who micromanages, engages in power plays, and does not like you. Unless he has already announced his plan to retire in May, this doesn’t sound like a good situation.

  11. Paul*

    #5 I’m puzzled by the answer to this. Surely it doesn’t look very professional to actually say that you’re sorry for having worked in another country. I would actually be wary of an applicant who apologised for something they hadn’t done wrong.

    1. Apollo Warbucks*

      I think in this case it is more an acknowledgement of the inconvenience in getting references rather than an apologising for doing something wrong.

    2. super anon*

      i think the apology is for the possible inconvenience of having only international references, and not for having worked in another country. what allison wrote doesn’t seem unprofessional to me, but i’m canadian so apologies for everything all the time are in my blood and never seem out of place.

      1. Zillah*

        I’m American, and I completely agree. It’s not “I’m sorry, I did something wrong,” it’s, “Sorry that it’ll be a little inconvenient to check things.” That’s so far from unprofessional, IMO, that I’m honestly a little confused.

      2. Merry and Bright*

        super anon – We British can give you a run for your money there! It is a well known joke that if someone accidentally treads on our foot, we apologise to the other person (probably for being in their way).

        1. Felicia*

          It’s a well-known joke about us Canadians too! We do still very much hold on to our British colony roots.

          1. NoPantsFridays*

            Grew up in Canada (large city), now live in the US (medium city). I apologize to lamp posts when I step on their bases.

            I have noticed that here in the US, people sometimes say “excuse me” when Canadians would say “sorry”. So sometimes, the sentiment is the same but the actual word is different.

            I have also noticed that notions of personal space, and how much of others’ space you have the “right” to take up, are different. I’m finding in the US, at least in my area, there’s a lot more touching/grabbing/stepping on by strangers who then glare at you as if to say “how dare you take up space!” instead of apologizing. In Canada, I found that both stepper and steppee (the one who was stepped on) fall over themselves to apologize.

          2. HR Pro*

            When I was in high school (in the U.S.) I was giving a mini-speech at the front of a classroom and I mumbled “sorry” to a desk when I bumped into it. One of the girls in my class loudly said “she just apologized to the desk! Ha ha ha!” and the whole class laughed at me. I’ve never forgotten the embarrassment. It also never occurred to me until reading this that the fact that she was from an Eastern European country might have been a factor – she wasn’t used to these old British habits that some of us still have. Interesting!

        2. SJP*

          Right! I’ve lived in Canada and thought them the same or slightly less apologetic than British. British people are known as being super polite and apologising even if they’re in the wrong..

        3. Apple22over7*

          Haha, oh yes – I have apologised to lampposts, bollards and door frames for bumping into them too.

        4. Nashira*

          To quote the great Professor Elemental: “I begin every sentence with an apology. Sorry that’s the case; that’s just British policy (I’m British!”

    3. Mina*

      I agree that I would not apologize for having international references. People can put 2+2 together: if they see that you’ve worked abroad for the last few years, they will understand the international references. Apologizing for them seems really weird and to me, comes across as if you think international references are worth less compared to those in the same country.

    4. Wakeen's Teapots Ltd.*

      It’s just a thing to say like its companion “thanks for your time”.

      Good customer asks for quotes on four items. She realizes she needs another and emails back, “Sorry, I need one more quote please. ”

      She’s not actually sorry nor should she be but it’s a polite acknowledgement of a bit of extra time on the other party’s half. That’s all.

      1. Swedish Tekanna*

        Yes, it is just a nice way to put it, so it sounds like a mild request instead of an order.

    5. Bwmn*

      Just about year ago I basically as OP #5 – and the inconvenience really can be significant enough that an apology (for the inconvenience) makes sense. I did what Alison wrote and put one US reference despite being a very old reference, and provided 4 international references out of fear that some would be tougher to reach than others. Ultimately it worked out, but it definitely wasn’t without stress.

      Where I work now relied on an external company to do reference checks and they were pretty inflexible on some terms (they wanted a series of questions either by phone during business hours or via email – and as my most recent direct supervisor wasn’t a native English speaker and hated writing in English… wasn’t without stress). Ultimately they got in touch with enough of my references that not reaching my direct supervisor was something they let go – but I would just add that when providing international references – the more the merrier.

      1. OP #5*

        Thanks! I think you’re the second person to mention the use of external companies conducting the reference checks, (and as embarrassing as it is to admit) it never really occurred to me that external companies are used. I will def. add a reference located in the US, even though it may a bit “outdated”.

        1. finest quality. superior workmanship.*

          Just me, and based not on any experience with references, but simply from working with people all over the world: I think the most important part is to include the Time-Zone and maybe explicit hours of availability in the local and foreign TZ. I’m sure there are some real Citizen-of-the-World kinds of people out there who have this stuff all memorized, but my experience has been that people are always having to look this stuff up, they get confused, they think they’re calling on a Friday when it’s Saturday where the Reference is, and so on.

  12. ReanaZ*

    Does seriously no one else get a majorly, majorly ooky vibe from #4? I feel pretty grossed out just having read that question. I would pretty much not want that OP asking me any personal questions if they were my coworker.

    Everything about this question and the weird over-defensiveness and minimization of the coworker’s concern (“Personal but non-offensive”! “It was a casual question! “You can’t tell me I’ve crossed a line”!) screams someone who actually isn’t very good at reading conversational subtext and who probably actually isn’t aware when conversational boundaries are possibly being crossed.

    There are lots of ways one can tell when boundaries are being crossed and one is that the person you’re talking to tells you with their words that you’ve crossed a line. This isn’t “blindsiding”, it’s literally how good communication works.

    I see nothing in this question about the coworker behaving inappropriate or reacting disproportionately or flying off the handle or being “weirdly sensitive”. In the OP’s own words, he said something to her about her dating life that he thought was okay to say (and doesn’t tell us exactly what that was) and she (calmly, it seems) said it crossed a line. To him, as part of the conversation, in response to a question she didn’t want to answer. How is that weird?

    Three times in two years, this coworker has said that he’s crossed a boundary. It’s not like she’s running to HR or his manager or berating him every conversation. Three times in two years. I’m pretty sure I’ve told people I like and get along to and who are reasonable at least 3 times in a year some variant of “Yeah, that question is a little over the line/not something I’m going to answer/inappropriate/something that’s making me change the subject.” This seems like a totally normal and okay thing to do, particularly so rarely.

    And instead of apologising and backing off, he’s writing the internet to complain about how she’s being unreasonable and “blindsiding” him by calmly stating boundaries sometimes. What?

    I also don’t understand why Allison’s vilifying her. Is not calming using your words in the moment to tell a coworker their personal question crossed a line exactly what you’d recommend someone do in that situation?

    Serious, serious creeper vibes, dude.

    1. Marzipan*

      Mmm. I was also thinking that it’s not a bad thing for people to communicate what their boundaries are and, if they feel something has crossed a line, to say so.

      #4, I get the logic of ‘well, she’s talked about this topic in the past, so it must be OK to talk about it again now,’ but in practice I don’t think it always works that way (and clearly it didn’t for your co-worker). It’s perfectly possible for someone to be comfortable with one discussion and not with another; for reasons that, in fairness, are probably not obvious unless you have a window into their brain – but in telling you they aren’t comfortable, that person is basically giving you that window. I find it hard to see that as inherently unreasonable.

      1. Op 4*

        Hi marzipan

        I think that’s a good lesson to learn. As far as communicating boundaries I am all for it but sending mixed messages doesn’t help anyone.

        1. Natalie*

          I wonder if she’s someone who just learned that “boundaries!” are a thing and doesn’t know how to do it subtly, by redirecting or something.

        2. ReanaZ*

          How is “You crossed a line when you said this thing.” a mixed message? It’s pretty much as clear and unambiguous as a message can be.

          If you want to know why that particular thing cross a line, you could just… ask her? As opposed to complaining about how she is some great mixed message mystery who doesn’t have any right to draw conversational boundary lines.

          1. Myrin*

            The mixed message is that the coworker brings up the topic first.
            Coworker brings up topic: message = it’s okay to talk about this
            OP answers in kind and coworker reacts negatively: message = it’s not okay to talk about this

    2. Marcia*

      How do we know OP 4 is a dude?

      Maybe OP 4 was violating boundaries… but maybe not, we don’t know. I’m a (shy) woman who has experienced this sort of thing before, not often but once or twice. it was weird and I definitely didn’t interact much with them again. We usually assume the best about the OP unless the facts given clearly show otherwise.

      I’ll tell people I don’t want to talk about something before, but if you face people being -inappropriate- three times a year, that seems like a lot of baloney you are dealing with. But we don’t know that OP is a purveyor of that kind of baloney, versus just bringing up something that someone doesn’t want to discuss. The two do seem different to me, as long as the request not to discuss whatever topic is respected.

      1. xxj*

        Yeah, OP4 is female! She mentioned somewhere upthread that she bought some bras from VS (to which coworker was horrified by – erm.)

        1. ReanaZ*

          Sorry for misgendering you, OP. But women can be creepy too, so it doesn’t really change my read of your letter, just the pronouns I would have used.

          1. OP 4*

            Is this issue striking a personal chord with you? Most of the responses I’ve read seem to see the situation for what it is. I don’t really see the point in engaging with you about this, because it seems like you’ve already made up your mind about this being ‘creepy’ or what have you, but it seems most people on this board don’t feel the way you do about this issue.

    3. joey_aam*

      I think you’re reading a lot into this that isn’t there. Also FWIW I read OP #4 as a female.

      This is one scenario I can think of for the events described:
      Coworker: Oh hey OP #4. How was your weekend? Did you meet anyone at the party on Saturday night?
      OP #4: Oh yeah, I met $PERSON, [insert more detail here]. How about you, have you met anyone new recently?
      Coworker: Don’t ask me that, you crossed a line.

      In this case I would feel at least a little shocked had I been the OP.

      Is this what happened? Who knows! But it is at least a little weird if Coworker brings up the subject of OP’s love life, but refuses to answer when asked about her own.

        1. Cheesecake*

          Stay away from this colleague, OP. You don’t know when she will throw you under the bus in a work situation, because what’s ok for her to do is totally not ok coming from someone else. Avoid!

        2. Andrea*

          Is there any way to reframe your thinking so that you are able to not feel bad when it happens? So that you are changing your reaction instead of worrying about avoiding her moving line of conversational boundaries. That might be easier in the long run compared to trying to make your coworker change.

          1. OP 4*

            What do you suggest? This is someone I consider a friend. Up until Friday, we were having lunch every day and we’ve gone to see Broadway plays and music concerts and malls. It’s hard not to be completely blindsided, not to mention hurt. As a professional, I’m able to push that hurt aside and move ahead but I don’t know what I can do. Right now, I’m thinking, it’s not me it’s something that’s going on with her and I just need to try to be understanding about it, from a distance.

            1. Amber*

              If they are a friend, and not just a coworker, can you directly address this problem with them? Tell them how you feel when they do this. Ask them to work with you to deal with these issues in a way that doesn’t make you feel hurt?

              If having that conversation doesn’t seem possible, is this person really a friend? Friends care about how you feel. A friend would want to know that they were hurting you by their words/actions, and would then make the effort to stop doing so.

              Perhaps the change that needs to happen is the conversation with the friend. Or perhaps it’s you recognising that this isn’t actually a friend.

            2. Colette*

              I’d stop thinking of her as a friend. It sounds like she’s erratic about boundaries at best (as in she gets to have them, but you don’t). Back off and be friendly without being too personal.

            3. A Cita*

              This sounds a lot like a roommate I had. I mean, exactly. And she went to a lot of Broadway plays. :)

              Take home: It’s not you; it’s her. And it won’t change. As someone said above, something’s broken.

            4. catsAreCool*

              It sounds like your co-worker won’t respond well to talking about this, so it might be best to just back off quietly and try sticking mostly to work conversations. Sorry you’re having to go through this.

        3. Dynamic Beige*

          I think that this coworker is a little jealous of you. She may also be the sort of person whom only good things are supposed to happen to *her* — no one else. You told her you were going to a party. She asks if you met someone there, you did. She didn’t meet anyone over the weekend, so you’re doing “better” than she is! Uh-oh! Danger Will Robinson!

          I think if you go over all these times that she’s pulled this, you’ll see a pattern that you’re doing better than she is (in her opinion) and she doesn’t like it so this is her way of levelling the playing field. The VS was a good example. You bought new stuff, unless they’ve started selling snow shovels there, the first thing anyone is going to think of when they see that bag is that you bought new underwear. The fact that she asked what you bought, you answered her (without putting on a fashion show) and she got offended by that, after she’s asked you about bowel movements? That totally reads to me “how dare she rub it in my face that she’s bought new sexy underwear and she got it on sale! I can’t afford that and I have no one to wear it for!” or something along those lines. She is the sort of person who if she has a boyfriend around Valentine’s Day she will pull the most epic fit if he doesn’t send her the biggest bouquet of flowers ever to her work — so she can rub it in the faces of all the other women there.

          I agree with everyone else, it’s time to start looking for new friends. Slowly phase her out and if she asks you questions that are personal in nature call her on it. Or if she pulls this tell me this/that’s crossing the line! stuff, call her on that too.

      1. LBK*

        Yeah…this comment is wildly assumptive to me and I can’t really see how ReanaZ got creepy vibes from the situation. Maybe if you ignore that the coworker brought up the topic in the first place and that this is a common subject of discussion – I think you have to read it like the OP constantly makes uninvited comments/asks questions about the coworker’s dating life in order to see this as creepy, which isn’t how the situation is outlined at all.

        1. Op 4*

          I’ll just chalk it up to it hit close to her/him. Because I don’t see how my question could make someone “pretty grossed out” unless they assume a lot about the situation.

          1. ReanaZ*

            I;m not grossed out by the situation–I think “we were talking about a thing, I said something I thought was okay and the other person told me a crossed a line” is a totally normal situation. But I am massively grossed out by your response and what you wrote here. Still am.

        2. John*

          I don’t get it, either. The situation here is pretty clear. The co-worker opens up about dating. OP follows up by showing interest in how it’s going and gets slapped.

          The equivalent is, “We should had a beautiful baby boy. He’s so adorable. Wanna see pics?”A week goes by and OP asks, “Hey, how’s baby doing?” “Nothing of your business! You’ve crossed a line!”

          I don’t think this co-worker is very stable. Handle with care and, if possible, distance.

        3. Not me*

          Well if ReanaZ assumed that Op4 is a dude, then scrolled down to read about Op4 running out to VS at lunch to buy bras… I see where she got the creepy vibes from! lol jk, no I don’t see that at all. It was a wild assumption indeed.

          1. OP 4*

            I didn’t mention the VS thing until much later on though. The only thing they had to go off on was my original question tbh

      2. HR Manager*

        That’s how it came across to me too. If I were the OP, I would just make it clear to the other that since she asks the OP personal questions, but the colleague does not reciprocate, going forward it is best to avoid all personal questions on both sides.

    4. Zillah*

      I agree that the OP is reacting a little strongly to three requests to back off in two years. That really doesn’t seem like a lot to me, and since it seems like the coworker’s addressed the issue in the moment and moved on rather than escalating it, it sounds like it’s more uncomfortable than genuinely being blindsided.

      However, from what the OP has described, I can also see why they’re feeling confused and blindsided, so I feel like you’re being a little harsh here.

      I mean, here’s the thing: I might agree with you if the OP was asking these questions without any prompting. That would definitely be creepy – you don’t go up to a coworker who’s never talked to you about this stuff and say, “So how’s your dating life?” That’s weird.

      But it’s not out of the blue. Based on what the OP said, the coworker initiates conversations about her dating life pretty frequently, and clearly initiates conversations about the OP’s dating life at least occasionally as well, since the lead-up to this recent incident was her asking the OP whether they’d met anyone at a party. It does seem a little weird to me that she’d react pretty poorly to the OP asking her a very similar question.

      1. Helka*

        Yeah, I agree with this. I think both OP and the coworker are being a little unreasonable, in different ways. OP is reacting oddly strongly to having boundaries occasionally set in what sounds like a clear manner (which is a good thing! more people should set boundaries like that!) but the coworker is also making it really hard to gauge where exactly her boundaries are, and that sets up the OP to run afoul of them.

        1. Op 4*

          Hi hello
          Maybe you’re right in that I’m acting strongly. It’s certainly something I’m asking myself. I think it’s unfair I have to limit conversation when she has brought up the subject. What am I supposed to do, just tell her about it and not ask her in return. An argument could be made about not talking about personal things at work but I don’t know how much that is followed. My philosophy has always been if you ask me about something you’re opening the door for that conversation. Now I know better.

          1. finest quality. superior workmanship.*

            I totally get “acting strongly” about this. Maybe not everyone has experienced it. But I think you can tell just by the number of people who have contributed so far who have experienced this, that it’s something that makes a very strong impression. It’s not a perfect simile, but if, say, someone spat on you three times in two years – nobody’d be commenting that your reaction seems a bit ‘strong’ for something that happens so rarely.

            A lot of people have been talking about ‘boundaries’ and so forth, and that may well be involved, but when I think back to the actual person in my life who got me to pondering this kind of behavior: for her it was absolutely some kind of weird power trip head-game thing. She was into various kinds of “Dominance / submission” (aka D/s) stuff, and – long story short, she was something of a psycho who was constantly playing games and doing things to put other people down (which, by her thinking, pushed her “up” into some kind of dominant role).

            I really don’t know what the story is with OP4’s co-worker, but reading this thread it seems obvious that a lot of people have encountered this kind of behavior, and as much as I myself enjoy playing Devil’s Advocate, I simply can’t read this situation as anything but “co-worker is 100% out-of-line”. Which happens – I remember not long ago Alison wrote a column on co-worker disagreements which made the really great point that it’s incorrect to assume that both parties share guilt. If you’re walking down the street and somebody hits you over the head and mugs you, nobody says “well, it takes two to tango!”

          2. Zillah*

            With the the further detail you’ve given… yeah, I don’t think you’re reacting too strongly anymore. It makes perfect sense to me. Your coworker seems like a loose cannon.

        2. Cheesecake*

          I don’t get how setting boundaries for someone else but not for yourself is called “setting boundaries”? In my world it is called “being hypocritical”

          1. Op 4*

            right because setting boundaries implies there needs to be a reciprocal action. It needs to be the same for both. For one thing, I don’t discuss my personal life with my boss and he doesn’t either. if we do it’s pretty vague. This is an implicit boundary we’ve set and we both haven’t expressed a need to change it. That’s a boundary that hasn’t been stated but is followed equally by both parties.

            1. fposte*

              I don’t think most people say explicitly when they need to change a boundary, though; that’s why advice columns are filled with people asking how to tell people stuff without telling people stuff. She *is* telling you that she’s got a boundary there, whenever she gets touchy about being asked something.

              The problem is that she’s also telling you that there is no boundary there when she asks you the same thing. Now, there are actually plenty of good relationships where boundaries aren’t reciprocal, so it’s not requisite that they be, but I also can understand being annoyed at this–I would be. I do think you should let go of any secret hopes that she’ll explain herself and acknowledge the disparity, though. I don’t think that’s her style.

              1. catsAreCool*

                Also, if the boundaries are uneven like this, the co-worker should explain what her boundaries are. Does she expect you to magically read her mind and know them?

            2. Natalie*

              FWIW, I don’t think it’s true that boundaries need to be the same for both people. I know a few people who refuse to talk about money (to a point of silliness, IMO) but I’m not remotely shy about money and it doesn’t bother me if they ask. That’s their issue; I don’t need to make it mine.

              That said, when I inadvertently cross their “no money talk” boundary, they are a lot more polite about it then it sounds like your coworker is being.

              1. Cheesecake*

                It is all about the last point. Politely refusing to answer or changing topic is different than the obnoxious “you crossed the boundary!” comment right after asking OP the same question she refused to answer.

              2. Colette*

                That’s a little different, though. If they didn’t want to talk about their finances but thought it was fine to ask about yours, that would be inappropriate. You choosing to be open without expecting the same from them is different, because you are setting your boundary and they are setting theirs.

                I guess what I’m trying to say is that people should default to assuming other people’s boundaries are as restrictive as theirs – you shouldn’t ask for information you wouldn’t share.

                Of course, the world doesn’t always work the way I think it should.

                1. Natalie*

                  To be clear, they do ask me about my finances. It doesn’t bother me at all. It’s also seems totally reasonable for someone else to think that all boundaries need to be reciprocal, I just don’t think that’s a given.

                  To me, boundaries can be different because they have different sources for each of us and those experiences may not be the same. Say I came from an abusive family and thus a personal boundary is that I never talk about my family. It would be sort of extreme to never ask about other people’s families just because I won’t talk about mine. (But again, unlike OP’s coworker I wouldn’t jump all over other people for asking. I would just decline to share.)

                2. Colette*

                  That’s a good point – I do think that it’s fine to ask questions you wouldn’t be willing to answer if the other person volunteers information about that topic. In other words, your friends who don’t like to talk about money can ask about your finances because you brought it up first.

        3. catsAreCool*

          When I look over what the OP said and the co-worker’s responses, I am confused by why the co-worker would get annoyed at the OP talking about something that the co-worker was basically bringing up first. It’s tough to have a conversation with someone who has rules that are unwritten and don’t match what most peoples’ rules.

    5. Op 4*


      I think you’re assuming a lot about me which I don’t mind clearing up. Firstly, I am a woman and close to my coworkers age. I know you switched my gender in the last line and I trust Alison enough that she wouldn’t feel the need to vilify anyone but provide sound advice.
      Second, the three times this happened my coworker would stop talking to me for an extended period of time. She is basically icing me out for a mistake we can all make. A mistake I’ve apologized for and said wont happen again and you better be sure I won’t ask about her dating life and will move the subject away from it in case she brings it up, which she did here.

      We have such a small team and spend so much time at work, it’s only natural we would talk about personal things. Also there have been wildly inappropriate things she has said which has embarrassed me. However I have gently called her out on it and we’ve moved on, so why am I not given the courtesy here? Has anyone not put their foot in their mouth at work? I agree with Alison that this behavior is strange and found her advice valuable.

      1. SJP*

        OP 4 – I’d call her out on this. Just be like “something is bothering me and i wanted to clear it up” and say about how she asks you about your dating life but when you politely, out of courtesy, ask her as you’re interested (as you express that you are friends) and she shuts you down. Say something like “You openly ask me about my dating life and when I do the same in reply you get defensive and say i’ve crossed a line. Why is that? (include if you want and hear her out). Can we just make that topic a no go area?”

        And if she gets defensive then give examples. Hell, even the example you gave. e.g. “You asked me about someone i’d met at a party, but when I reciprocated the question you got defensive. It’s very hard to read and I get mixed signals about what we can and can’t talk about so im going to make this topic a no go area”

      2. fposte*

        I think you’re better at dealing with this than she is, and that’s not likely to change. I also think that some people like to share intimacies, but some people are just nosy–they’re not really inclined to share their own, they just want to know about yours–and I think she may be tipping into that category. I think SJP has a point about asking her what’s up, but I also think she’s likely to keep on keeping on. It’s not likely she’s going to stop being occasionally defensive about what you say to her, so if the lack of parity still bugs you, you may just want to withdraw a little more on the answering or answer a query with “You first :-).”

      3. Wakeen's Teapots Ltd.*

        Meh, normal people don’t act like that.

        Just stick to business with her. It’s NBD, really. Find another friend, right?

        Rule of life #121: avoid the kookies (but not the cookies)

      4. OP 4*

        So that reply I made at 7:57 was to ReanaZ. I think everyone has offered me advice and listened to this issue I’ve been having and I really respect the AAM community. The fact that we can comment on work issues and give each other support is great. We don’t often look at things from an outside perspective when we’re in the middle of it and that’s why we ask for advice. The only thing I really take issue with, with regards to ReanaZ’s post, is the following:
        “And instead of apologising and backing off, he’s writing the internet to complain about how she’s being unreasonable and “blindsiding” him by calmly stating boundaries sometimes. What? ”
        I did apologize and did back off but I sure as hell won’t apologize for ‘writing to the internet’ I am writing to Alison, whose blog I have followed since it first started so many years ago. Through ups and downs, I’ve learned a lot about myself as a professional and I’m sure many people here can say the same. I’m a regular commenter here but I’m anonymous for my question, and I stand by my actions. I can’t thank Alison enough, or people who have responded to my question, for their advice, guidance, reassurance, argument, or agreements. It’s that type of comment which makes people hesitate to ask questions. I’m not complaining because I love my job and I have it a lot better than a lot of people out there, but if I have a concern at work, I’ll bring it up on this website.

      5. Colette*

        Personally, I wouldn’t want to be friends with someone who stopped talking to me when they were mad. It sounds punitive, and seems like a power play to get you to apologize the “right” way.

    6. Cheesecake*

      Absolutely and totally disagree. Big deal breaker is that the colleague finds it ok to talk personal things in general and ask about someone else’s personal life. But once you do the same – she gets offended. Double standards is what i hate and try to avoid; i’d write this person off as a potential friend and make a huge mental note on how s/he behaves as a colleague.

    7. Lily in NYC*

      Wow, this is a huge stretch in my opinion. They are very friendly. Coworker talks a lot about her dating life. OP asks innocent question and is told she crossed a line and feels bad. That’s pretty much it. I’ve worked with weirdly private people before and it gets old. I’m not talking about someone who is private in general – I mean those types who will ask you nosy questions themselves, talk about their bowel movements and then start clutching their pearls when asked a normal question.
      I had a coworker with a gold pro husband. He won a tournament and my other coworker said congrats and asked how much the purse was (the winnings). Coworker got furious and told the other one to mind her own business. I was like ????, it’s public info and listed in the newspaper. The girl who asked was shy and I could tell she was about to cry. The whole thing was ridiculous.

      1. Lily in NYC*

        Ugh, coworker had a GOLF pro husband, not gold pro. I don’t know what a gold pro husband is, but I think I want one.

        1. Op 4*

          Gold pro does have a nice ring to it. Actually it’s funny (also sad) that you mention that bc this coworker has asked me about bowel movements and I just shook my head and said “are you serious with that question” and she said no, we both laughed, and moved on about it. Like who asks about bowel movements at work that is not okay! But I’m not the type to hold it against a person bc we all say dumb things sometimes it’s just about moving past it.

        2. Hillary*

          My hairdresser’s partner is a gold pro – he’s one of those people you see infomercials about who buy old jewelry. Until he got that job I didn’t realize it was a real thing.

    8. Anna*

      I’m incredibly confused by this response. Either you’re incredibly sensitive about creepiness or you are unsure what creepiness is. If you started a conversation with me and said, “Hey, I like those boots. Were they very expensive?” and I said “No, they weren’t. They were $$ at STORE. Where did you get your cute shoes?” and then you said, “You’ve crossed a line asking me about my shoes.” Guess who sounds like the weirdo?

  13. Purr purr purr*

    #5, I have a lot of international references and sometimes they’ve been called and sometimes they’ve been emailed. If you can provide both forms of contact info then a company can decide which they would prefer to use. I don’t feel like having international references has held me back.

    1. OP #5*

      Good to know!

      When you provide your references, do you make any notes for the international ones (like putting time zone information) ?

      1. Bwmn*

        I think that if you can put time zone information, that’s helpful – particularly if it’s Europe or something where it’s just a case of “make sure to call in the morning”. My main advice though is to add more references if you can, because some may be more accessible and others not.

        The other things, depending on your references language skills – some might be much more happy giving an English reference verbally or written. My former boss would have been happy to give me a spoken reference, but a written reference was a writing task that’s a much heavier lift. I don’t think you should necessarily mention that to potential employers – but if you give 4-5 references instead of 3, then if one falls through or hates the format – there are others easily lined up.

        1. OP #5*

          Even though I think my references would be comfortable providing either a verbal or written reference, you have a good point! I guess there’s no harm in adding a few more references to my list.

          1. Bwmn*

            My former boss was also on the difficult side – so in the grand scheme this was no surprise. But I guess the bigger surprise was that for all of the information I’ve read about references being checked via the phone (where my boss was confident) – I was surprised about the written reference. Had the reference check not been done by an external company, I imagine there would have been more flexibility.

            Either way, I think going in with the attitude that a) yes this isn’t as easy and b) how can I make this as easy as possible (i.e. giving more references than perhaps actually required). And a word about telephone numbers – don’t know where your references are necessarily based – but provide a telephone number that is exactly what should be dialed. Don’t add + or other numbers that might not actually be dialed (such as if (0) is occasionally listed). Basically assume that the person dialing the number has never dialed abroad before in their life. I currently work for an international humanitarian organization where staff members call abroad all the time – but as the reference check was done externally, that kind of familiarity wasn’t the same.

      2. ThursdaysGeek*

        I’d recommend putting in the full phone number, including the country code. I call internationally so rarely that I’m not quite sure what all to put at the front. So if you added all that, you would eliminate a step they would need to figure out for themselves. Every little bit to make it easier will help.

  14. misspiggy*

    Re #1, would it be useful to state how much PTO you’ve been used to taking previously, and ask whether that would be considered normal at this company? Reactions may tell you what you need to know.

  15. Xarcady*

    At a large law firm where I temped one summer, it seemed as if most of the female administrative staff came to work and then proceeded to the bathrooms to put in their contacts and apply their makeup. They’d be in the building on time, but spend the first 15 minutes or so of their work day doing grooming that I thought they should have done at home. But hey, I’m not their boss and if their boss doesn’t mind, it’s not my problem.

    But hair straightening? (Which I take to mean combing hair, not using electric appliances.) If there is the slightest breeze, my hair gets messed up. If I’m wearing a hat because it is freezing cold outside, my hair gets messed up. One of the first things I do when I get to work is head to the bathroom, where there is a mirror, and comb my hair so that I’m not walking around all day with a messy part and bits of hair sticking out all over. I don’t like looking unkempt at work. And I’ll repeat this at my lunch break, because thin, fine hair gets messy no matter what you do.

    So I don’t think the women are doing anything wrong, as the bathroom is the appropriate place to put on make-up and comb your hair. But leaving a mess and blocking access to the sinks is not appropriate and should be addressed.

    1. Judy*

      I usually use the term “brushing or combing hair” for doing that and the term “straightening hair” for using that electrical appliance that is like a curling iron but has flat plates instead called a flat iron.

      1. fposte*

        That’s what I thought–that this was plugging in appliances. Which I also think is a bit much, but I’d suppress my internal snark if they managed to clean up after themselves.

        1. Xarcady*

          If it’s electrical appliances, then I think that’s too much for the workplace. But the term, “straighten the hair,” can also mean to tidy it up, usually by combing. Along the lines of “straightening your desk up.” It’s a bit old-fashioned–I think women used to straighten their hair after removing their hats, back when ladies wore hats outside.

          Now I’m not sure what the OP meant.

          1. OP 1*

            OP 1 here- they’re using flat irons. I also touch up my hair when I run to the bathroom and check my makeup, but I found it bizarre that they would *do* their hair in the bathroom.

    2. Ann O'Nemity*

      Ten years ago, I used to regularly put my make-up on at work. In my case, the limited public transportation options meant that I could arrive 30 minutes early and sit around waiting for the manager to arrive to open our suite, or 15 late. My manager preferred option 1. Putting on make-up in the (shared) building restroom was one less thing to do at home and it helped me kill some time before I could start working.

      That said, I always tried to clean up any mess I made. Like the campsite rule – leave it in as good or in better shape than you found it!

      1. the gold digger*

        I put my makeup on after I got to work when I took the bus because being out in the cold (below zero) made my eyes water so much that everything would wash off.

        Also, my eyes are so puffy in the morning. Thank you, middle age and not being able to ever eat pickles unless I want to pay the price.

        But my makeup consists of some eye shadow and some mascara – I don’t make a mess and if I did, I would sure clean it up. (Now I just do it in my car in the parking lot.)

  16. AngeS*

    OP #1 – I had worked for a company with 10,000 + employees according to Linkedin before joining my present employment with a boutique office of less then 10 people. It’s been 3 years and I’m looking for a way out. I have determined that this way of office life is not for me. It’s not only that there is no “HR person”. There are other function in the office that has no designated person to look after, and it creates office politics when I push to get it done. At this moment, we have had an issue with the cleaning company that cleaned our office and my boss fired the company. Before a solution is found, we a few officemate have to vacuum the floor. I also feel that I have no one to talk to in the office when there is a problem – it’s either the boss or the person who might be offended by what I say. I would love to have some 3rd party’s perspective when shit happens.

    1. AnonAnalyst*

      I actually was going to post something similar. I’ve worked for several small companies now and I find that I really fit well there because you have a lot of opportunity to take on different responsibilities, but there’s also a downside in that there are a lot of things (like in the HR example) that are technically no one’s job, so at some point someone has to pick them up. Roles and responsibilities can be a lot less clearly defined and much more fluid, particularly in companies that are growing quickly.

      I’ve been fortunate in that none of the small companies I’ve worked for has gotten to the point of adding cleaning to people’s job duties, but I can relate to your example of feeling that you have no one to talk to about problems. That said, that’s really only been an issue in the 2 super small companies (10 people or less) that I’ve worked in; when I worked in an organization of ~40 people, it seemed like there was more distance since our designated HR person was further removed from possible problems.

      I will say that when I worked for the company with about 40 employees, I didn’t feel like not having an HR department or person was a problem. There was one person who handled the basic HR stuff (vacation tracking, general policy/procedure questions, maintaining personnel files, etc.) and then the company would call in consultants/lawyers/recruiters for other issues as needed. It seemed to work fine, so I don’t think not having an HR person is necessarily a problem, but I do think the OP’s concern is indicative of the fact that she might need to more carefully consider what it’s often like to work in a smaller company.

  17. YourCdnFriend*

    Re#5: my sister had this challenge and her biggest issue was people assuming she wasn’t eligible to work in our home country when so much of her experience was outside of it. Maybe try to talk about why you’re moving home in your cover letter.

    Doesn’t address you’re specific issue but it’s so close, I thought I’d share

  18. Beenthere*

    #1, I don’t mind the hair and makeup but I do mind if women decides to shave her legs, with her seating on the counter and her feet in the sink.

        1. I called her Estella*

          Perhaps I should expand here. I do some volunteer shifts at a residential centre where many of the residents are wheelchair users so the sinks are specially adapted to chair level. It is one of the professional nursing staff who cuts her toenails there. (No, it was not a one-off). Enough said.

  19. AvonLady Barksdale*

    #1: the mess is the thing here– that would HUGELY bother me. So would the taking up space, but you can ask to be let in for a minute. The makeup? Not so much, that’s harmless.

    What I hate hate HATE with more vitriol than I can express is when people spray perfume or hairspray in the bathroom or, even worse, in the little vestibule in the front of the bathroom that so many offices have. It’s gross, it smells, and it forces people to walk through a cloud of chemicals before they attend to a necessary bodily need. In my experience, the women who spray stuff on themselves in the bathroom are never the ones with a light touch.

    I also hate the smell of burning hair, so the hair straightening would bother me a lot too. That’s something I’ve learned to kind of get over, but I still hate it.

    1. LBK*

      I’d rather people spray that stuff in the bathroom than the rest of the office – to me, that’s designated “gross/strong smells” territory. Better than the guy who used to spray Axe at his desk, thus leaving our office smelling like a middle school locker room.

    2. Allison*

      Agreed! I once worked in an office where the bathroom almost always reaked of Bombshell by Victoria’s Secret. Now I don’t dislike that perfume, or perfume in general, I think it smells nice, but I didn’t need to be inhaling it every time I went to take a leak. Besides, VS perfumes don’t seem very appropriate for the workplace, that’s something I’d wear on dates or out dancing.

      1. Allison*

        I’ll just add, if people want to smell nice at work, there are other ways to do it that don’t involve sprays. They can use scented lotion, or roll-on perfumes.

      2. Natalie*

        Oh, horrible flashbacks to a co-worker who used some VS lotion that you could smell from 20 feet away. IMO, Victoria’s Secret perfumes are the female equivalent of Axe.

        1. Allison*

          Did you ever tell her it was too strong? I don’t VS lotions at work, but I do use Bath and Body Works hand creams at work (same company, similar ingredients, less sexy smells), and I invite my immediate co-workers to tell me if it’s too strong; I would stop and use something less strongly scented if I knew it was causing a problem.

      3. TJ*

        Blanket-statementing that all of VS perfumes aren’t “appropriate” is flat wrong — they carry a ton of scents (much like bath and body works), some of which are floral, some fruity, some musky, some bright. Just because the store sells lingerie doesn’t mean their scents/makeup are automatically “sexy” (though I will say that their makeup is terrible, quality-wise).

        My college roommate wore a VS body spray as her everyday scent that was completely in line with scents from fancier perfumeries, and she never overdid it — unless you asked her where she got the scent it wouldn’t stand out at all as coming from VS and not marc jacobs or something. It’s about how someone applies their scent, and not where it comes from.

    3. Zillah*

      As someone whose asthma and migraines are triggered by super strong perfume, among other things, +1000!

      1. allisonallisonallisonetc*

        Yes this! I’ve had to leave work early more than once because someone at a desk near me created a cologne/perfume cloud around themselves.

        1. Windchime*

          I’m currently on my second day out sick because I had a cold and went to a gathering on Saturday where someone was wearing incredibly strong, floral-scented lotion or something. It triggered my asthma and now I have had four miserable days trying to get it under control. Today I also had a migraine to go with it. So I can totally sympathize.

  20. Jules*

    #5 Most of my experience are from international. Having said that, most companies utilizes vendors to follow up on international references. I’ve had some company ask for email addresses so they could contact my reference. I typically gave the business email since that looks a whole lot kosher then personal emails. Didn’t really deter my job search. The ones who wants your experience and skills, don’t care that they have to go an extra mile.

  21. Allison*

    When I first saw #1 I had a hard time understanding why so many women put on makeup and do their hair at work. I’m no stranger to the expectation on women to look nice, especially at work, and the expectation that all that grooming should be done in private where no one (except other women) can see the work that goes into one’s appearance.

    Okay, but why do it at work? Why not at home? All your beauty stuff is there, yes? Can’t you use the bathroom for touchups? THEN I remembered that if these women have kids, they may not have a whole lot of time to themselves at home, maybe these women need to focus on getting the kids ready and get out the door.

    All right all right, but I still can’t figure out why they have to be so inconsiderate and make a mess. These women should be moving so women who need to wash their hands can get in there, and Op#1 and her co-workers shouldn’t feel bad asking them to move as needed. I also second AAM’s advice, bring up the cleanliness issue with whoever interfaces with building management; they might send out a building-wide e-mail, or have the offending office hold a meeting with the women. They did that at my first job, rounded up all the young ladies in the company and tell us the ladies’ room was gross because of us and we needed to be cleaner.

    1. Sparrow*

      I carpool with my husband and he has to be at work promtply at 8 AM, while I have a flexible start time. If I’m running late, I’ll drop him off and then do my makeup in the car before heading into work. I would feel very self conscious doing my makeup in the work bathroom with other people coming and going.

      I wouldn’t have a problem with others doing their hair or makeup, but I agree they should be considerate of others and clean up afterwards.

      1. Allison*

        I feel weird touching up my makeup in the bathroom too. If I have a pimple or two I like to keep them covered with a concealer that treats breakouts, but I hate doing it in the bathroom when others are in there because then I just look like some self-absorbed millenial who’s obsessed with her looks.

    2. OriginalEmma*

      You could also spend 6+ months out of the year in an climate where wooly hats flatten hair styles, scarves smear lipstick, foundation or blush, and teary eyes from the cold make mascara blot and run.

      But in that case, I’d come to work early to preen. Without a arsenal of hot hair appliances!

      1. Allison*

        Haha, I feel that! I’m in Boston, we’ve been a winter nightmareland for the past month or so. I wear fuzzy boots to work and change my shoes, but since I drive I’m not too conscious of hats or scarves smudging my makeup. I don’t seem to have an issue with hat hair either.

    3. Not me*

      I’m guessing strict hours. My first job out of college (overseas) had those. As in, work starts at 8, if you come in at 8:01, you get written up. (Happened to me once.) EVERYONE did their hair and makeup at work. We had a special area set up in our office, with a mirror, curling iron, etc. We didn’t make a mess, though!

  22. Not Today Satan*

    Spending a lot of time grooming in the bathroom is one of my pet peeves. I have a shy bladder and I feel SO self-conscious trying to do my business when someone is standing outside the stall, silently.

    1. Chriama*

      Haha I’ve felt the same thing, and my solution is to plug my ears. When I can’t ‘hear’ the silence outside my stall I’m able to unclench ;)

  23. HR OP*

    I’m the OP for #2, and yeah, after doing a bit more research (ie, calling around to a bunch of my friends who work in smaller companies/start ups), I figured out that it’s a pretty normal thing for the industry. :)

    I actually had the interview already (it went really well, and I have an offer) and ended up doing pretty much as suggested– asking around the culture rather than particular policies, etc. It was really reassuring, esp. b/c what I was most concerned about (having the expectation be that no one takes vacation) appears to not be true. I got guilt-tripped into taking hardly any vacation last year due to some scheduling stuff at my current job, and got quite burned out, and I never want this to happen again. The person I was interviewing with, who would be the person I’d be reporting to if I took the job, spent a lot of time emphasizing how much he wants his employees to be engaged and interested in their work and not burned out, and it was really reassuring to me, as was talking to some employees about their schedules/workloads.

    It would definitely be a giant culture change for me, and I’m really considering that part of it, but it also sounds like it would be a new challenge and new stuff to work with, and damn, I’m just so bored here.

    1. Amber Rose*

      Small companies are fun if you keep an open mind. The people who don’t do well are the ones who can’t let go of what’s given at big companies. Our new hire keeps bugging me for process manuals. We probably have some gathering dust that haven’t been updated in a decade… A couple of the manuals were pointed out to me once but I was advised not to read them as they’re very dull.

      And if you’re currently bored, that’s a good sign. In smaller companies there tends to be a lot to do and with a looser structure, it’s easier to get involved in lots of different things just by asking.

    2. Not me*

      Op2, that’s what I was worried about too when I read your post – that “take as much vacation as you need” would in reality translate to “omg no you can’t go on vacation now, we have a project to release, try back in a month”… repeat in a month etc etc. Good to hear it’s not the case. I’ve worked at both small and large companies, there are good and bad sides to both. I think the main difference is, at a small company, it’s easier for the owner/manager to screw things up and there’ll be no one to stop them – you can’t go to HR and complain since there’s no HR. But they’re more fun to work at when they have the right people in charge!

  24. HR Generalist*

    OP#5: I often receive international references when we have candidates who have been working on cruise ships, or travelling and working in hostels for the last little while. If you’ve been out of the country for a year I don’t find it strange at all. We do what we can to make it work (although I find often references are a waste of time) if the hiring manager wants them checked I go to whatever lengths to get them. I’ve googled “How to call France” and “Timezones in Germany” too many times to count.
    One thing I have found helpful is to add an email address if you have it – it’s so much easier for me to send a blurb up to Official Languages to be translated, and emailed to the reference, instead of having to call and stumble through their language or mine.

    1. Judy*

      Having an email address allows the reference checker to arrange the call, rather than trying to catch someone in their office or home.

    2. OP #5*

      Thanks! I always include both the phone number and the email address, I am happy to hear that listing the email address is appreciated.

      1. Ashley the Nonprofit Exec*

        the e-mail address is SO helpful. At the very least, the hiring manager can use it to arrange an agreement time for a phone call.

    3. Development professional*

      You also might consider asking your references for their Skype user names, and list that info too. Not that the company is likely to spontaneously initiate a Skype conversation with someone the way they would a phone call, but it might remind them that Skype could be an option instead of a potentially expensive long distance international phone call. Giving multiple points of contact (within reason) is always a good thing in my experience.

  25. books*

    @OP3 – you may want to come to the meeting with a list of topics to talk about (or send to your manager beforehand). You might be more comfortable having that as a resource in case you get nervous or things get off track and it could also help your manager make sure the positives are addressed during the meeting and not get carried away with something else.

  26. Julie*

    #2: Don’t necessarily be worried if they don’t have an HR department. Ask key questions though to see if they’ve got someone available to handle HR duties- Is there a handbook? Who do you contact when you have issues like FMLA or need accommodations? Many law firms provide services like this for smaller businesses and startups and seeing signs that they’ve contacted a firm with those kinds of requests are often (but not always) good signs of longevity. At 25+ employees I’d expect to see formal documentation created and by 75 employees there should be at least 1 employee handling HR concerns. There’s always exceptions but those are some quick numbers based on typical scenarios I’ve seen.

  27. C Average*

    I agree with everyone who’s said the private/not private colleague is someone best to be avoided.

    That said, I’ve myself been in the position of trying to adjust my boundaries at work, and I have no doubt those efforts looked clumsy to others, so I’m willing to cut other people a bit of slack there.

    When my manager came on board a couple years ago, she talked freely about absolutely anything and everything, and all of us, including me, followed suit. There was pretty egregious oversharing on the part of every single member of my team. It felt safe at the time, and kind of fun.

    As time went on, I noticed that my manager did a lot of gossiping about people pretty close to her, and it became a major turnoff. I wondered if she was gossiping about us when she was with the friends about whom she talked when she was with us! I no longer trusted her. I made the decision that I didn’t want to share anything personal with her or with a couple of colleagues with whom she’s close.

    I’m sure that change felt abrupt to those around me.

    Even now, there are times when my manager and colleagues are conversing around me in a very personal or very gossipy way, and it can be hard not to be tempted to participate. I always have to make a conscious effort to hold myself separate from these conversations. The conversations are interesting and sometimes juicy. I don’t WANT to participate–I think the whole thing is kind of icky–but it’s human nature to be drawn into these things when they’re happening all around you.

    tl;dr: I probably sometimes behave a bit like your colleague, getting personal and then pulling back. My preference is to not get personal at work. But sometimes the chatty atmosphere around me makes me momentarily forget about the boundaries I’ve set for myself, and I overstep them and then need to re-establish them.

    1. Merry and Bright*

      I really sympathise with you here because it is so hard sometimes at work to strike the right balance between being sociable and discreet. Too discreet and you can risk being seen as aloof.

      On the other hand, coworkers I barely know have shared information with me that I would hesitate to share with anyone, except maybe a very close relative or medical professional. The older I become, the more I think that there is nowhere stranger than the workplace!

  28. Ashley the Nonprofit Exec*

    #1, is there any possible way that the co-workers getting ready for work in the bathroom are homeless and don’t have another place to get ready? The make-up I can see in a lot of contexts, but towels? (assuming you didn’t mean paper towels).

    Maybe that is far-fetched, but it’s not unheard of for an homeless person to get ready in the bathroom at work.

    1. Swedish Tekanna*

      Not so far-fetched. Something like that happened at my sister’s workplace. A guy had been evicted from his flat and used the showers. It was a large building and he used different rest rooms on different floors. Sometimes he even managed to sleep in the offices overnight. It was quite sad. It came to light when the tax office caught up with him for not filling in his return as it had been sent to his previous address, so they contacted him via his workplace instead.

      I also worked for a company where one of the customers was homeless. We found out because she always used the bathroom when she called in and came out in different clothes and smelling much better. The office manager put two and two together over time but I don’t know what the eventual outcome was.

      1. Editor*

        That’s something I would actually address, because it annoys me so much. I think when I asked to get through the makeup-and-hair scrum, sometime I would say, “You know, when I come in here after you’ve left the restroom, there are always paper towels on the floor and hair in the sink, instead of the trash being in the trash can. I’d appreciate it if I didn’t have to step over that mess any more and worry about falling.”

        I don’t know if this will make the situation better or worse. Their behavior seems so middle-schoolish (leaving trash on the floor, having to be asked to move every need to get to the sink) that I’d worry about mean girl behavior. If you think they’d be petty and mean about being called out, then enlisting building maintenance or finding out where they work would be the way to go.

  29. hayling*

    I work for a tech company and when I started (~12 people) we didn’t even have an administrative assistant. The CEO handled payroll and benefits. I never had a problem with my paycheck, etc. We got a part-time admin when I’d been there about 6 months, and a few months later she was made full-time. She now handles HR-type stuff as well as being the CEO’s assistant, handling other office stuff, planning events, etc. (yes she is SuperWoman!). I don’t think there would be enough work for her for to do HR full-time (we have about ~20 now).

  30. SallyForth*

    #1. We are lucky enough to have one-stall bathrooms (co-ed) and some even have showers for post-workout. This means people are doing a lot of different activities in the bathroom and it can get messy. Someone on the other side of our building put up a lovely sign and since then the mess has gone down considerably. It says “Now that our bathroom is on a once-daily cleaning schedule, it would be lovely, and in the interests of good health and good grace, for everyone to do a quick check to make sure they leave the room better than they found it.”
    On my side, there was no such sign and it was quite a bit messier until last week when we put one up.

  31. WorkingFromCafeInCA*

    #5 – In addition to all the other great suggestions people have already posted, when I returned to the US after years working abroad in a foreign-language country, I also wrote a note to mention that each person spoke English fluently. For some references, they spoke two or languages fluently, and I mentioned those as well. (I knew that my company had international ties and that one of those languages might be relevant for them, too). Good luck and welcome back!

  32. Stranger than fiction*

    Re 2 I’ve worked for four companies with 45-55 employees and all but one had an HR person! One even had an assistant. But the one that didn’t had an office manager that was very good at getting you what you needed so I agree with others that it’s the change in cultures you should focus on

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