my manager is BFFs with my coworkers, telling employees not to wear headphones, and more

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

1. Telling employees not to wear headphones

I have two I.T. employees who like to wear headphones, not earbuds, at their desks during business hours. I find the appearance awkward when someone approaches them for support and there’s a brief waiting period for the employee to remove the headphones and acknowledge the person. I find this unnerving when I approach either of them and have to wait, and suspect many of my users may feel the same. In addition, I think it simply looks bad for I.T. support.

With that, I met with one of those employees today to discuss and apply my management rule to use earbuds instead. 10 minutes after this meeting, I saw this employee with the headphones on in complete disregard. This employee was quite upset when I reminded him that we had just discussed it. He stated there wasn’t a company policy about it. At this point, I told him this was my rule and he then made a beeline to HR. So, can a manager make department rules? Do we have that flexibility?

Yes, of course. Unless you work at a dysfunctional company that doesn’t let you, of course, but in general you get to decide how you want to run your department, within reason. The question of headphones is generally something that a manager would be able to decide.

However, I’d encourage you to reconsider this one. People who wear headphones at work are generally doing it because it helps them concentrate (something you want your employees to be able to do), and really it takes about 5 seconds to take them off, so that’s not a huge waiting period.

Now, if their jobs center around being highly responsive to people who walk up out of nowhere or if your department is actively working to get people to perceive it as more approachable, then yeah, it’s a legitimate concern that the headphones might signal “don’t approach me” when you want them to signal the opposite. But if that’s not the case, I’d rethink your stance.

2. My manager is BFFs with someone she manages

I’ve been working in pretty good environment for the past two and a half years. My boss is about 10 years younger than me, married, with two teenage boys. She’s risen quickly up the ranks. She’s gracious, upbeat, and a hard worker. She’s also generally professional, with one glaring exception. Her best buddy at the office (who also reports to her) sits across from her office, and they chat loudly every morning, share all sorts of things about their lives, and then have lunch together several times a week.

Meanwhile, my boss hired another woman (someone she knew outside the office) and this woman started a few months ago. She is also married, with teenage kids. Just as I thought would happen, this woman is now invited to lunch with my boss and the other woman I mentioned.

Now the two of them have access to my boss in ways that I (and two of my coworkers) do not. I also see favoritism happening quite a bit already. It’s demoralizing to work in this atmosphere, and I feel most days like I’m back in junior high. I don’t want to join this clique, but I mightily resent it and resent the fact that they’re well aware several of us are excluded from their little lunch club. I should also add that they travel together for work – or should I say, arrange their travel so that they can go out of town together, stay in the same hotel, yada yada yada. I don’t know if there’s anything that I can say or do, but it makes want to leave my job.

Yeah, this sucks. It’s one of the many reasons why managers need to have professional boundaries with people who report to them. They can be friendly, but not friends. Even if they handle all the other potential land mines perfectly (like impartially assessing their work, giving critical feedback when needed, and not favoring them when it comes to doling out assignments or perks), there’s still the issue of imbalanced access, as well as the way it makes other people feel.

Your manager is allowing her interest in being friends with these two employees to trump her ability to be an effective manager. There’s not a lot you can do about that (although you could mention it if your manager’s manager solicits feedback on her at some point or if your manager herself solicits feedback), but I hope managers who think they can be friends with employees think about what you’re saying here.

3. Do I need to tailor my resume to each job I apply for?

Is it critically important to tailor resumes to the job description, or is the cover letter the only document that truly gets tailored?

It depends. Does your resume speak directly to what the employer is looking for in as clear terms as possible? If so, you’re fine. If not, you should tailor it so that it does. It just depends on how well your resume already matches up.

For example, if the job posting has a heavy emphasis on X, and your resume only mentions X in passing even though you have a lot of experience with X, it would make sense to better highlight X for that particular job. You probably don’t need to do that for every job you apply for, but I’d be surprised if you never needed to.

A lot of people keep one long master resume, which lists everything they’ve accomplished everywhere they’ve worked (which could be pages and pages) but then edit that down into one actual resume to send (which should be 1-2 pages), pulling the bullet points from the master version which present the strongest case for the particular job they’re applying for.

4. If our HR manager was fired for lying about his qualifications, should his hiring decisions be reversed?

I work part-time for large company and i recently applied for a full-time position. The interviews came down to me and another part-time employee who doesn’t even put in a quarter of the effort I do. We were both interviewed by the HR manager and our supervisor. During my interview, the HR manager didn’t even understand the questions himself, which was weird. Well, the other employee got the job, which was okay because I at least got to keep my hours and overtime.

Later I found out that the corporate office visited the store and fired the HR manager because he lied about his qualifications and experience. So if he was not qualified to do the job or make those kinds of decisions, then shouldn’t the hiring decision be invalid? I really hope for an answer soon to see if I need to get ahold of my attorney or what other actions can be taken.

That’s totally up to the company, but it’s highly unlikely that they’d reverse hiring decisions unless they uncovered major hiring-related malfeasance (and even then, it would be tough to do, since people have already accepted those jobs and presumably started working in them).

There’s definitely no legal requirement that they reverse those decisions, and this is not the sort of situation where you need a lawyer. This is the sort of situation where you think, “Well, that sucks” and then try again next time.

5. Asking employers what skills they look for in job applicants

I went back to school for computer science (my previous degree did not really pay off and I would like to add tech skills to my resume to compliment my previous degree). Because technology can change quickly, is it alright to contact an employer well in advance of receiving my degree to find out what skills they look for in a tech grad or what skills they have a chronic shortage of? I want to be sure that I learn what is needed or that I start teaching myself what is needed (certain programming languages are not always taught in school).

You can, but a lot of times employer don’t respond to these requests (simply because they’re busy juggling more pressing priorities). But you can get this information a different way: by looking at ads for the types of jobs you’re interested in and seeing what qualifications they’re asking for. This is also something that informational interviews are great for. (Of course, as you point out, tech changes quickly so the skills that are in-demand when you graduate might be different from the ones that are in-demand now — but by keeping up with your field, you should be able to follow along with that.)

{ 279 comments… read them below }

  1. katamia*

    OP1: I hate earbuds. My ears are small enough that earbuds will actually just pop out unless I really wedge them in (which is uncomfortable and sometimes painful). If they’re wearing noise-canceling headphones instead of regular headphones, maybe you could talk to them about using regular headphones instead. You could also have them come up with a solution (IM them? Wave something in their peripheral vision to get their attention? Have them realign their desks so they can see when someone is coming to talk to them better?) that will make it easier for them to notice when someone wants to talk to them about something.

    OP3: What I did was I had several different basic resumes for each kind of job I was applying for–one for education jobs, one for admin positions, etc.–and while sometimes the base one fit the job description just fine, I could also add or remove things that pertained to a particular job description without having to overhaul or reformat my entire resume each time.

    1. Diddly*

      Recently had someone comment on my Resume that they also had a master Resume and like Alison says used it to pull out relevant information – but what they advised was to have a large skills section – and list capabilities there then just list the relevant jobs you’d held for that role – for the resume you sent out.
      I’m not sure why but I really disliked this idea, although I agreed my Resume needed shortening.
      OP1: Also don’t really get how earbuds will improve matters – agree with Alison that people use them to concentrate and that actually having earbuds means people approach you and talk at you without you realising they you’re listening to music -is more awkward then someone nudging you and asking to speak when it’s obvious you’re wearing headphones.

      1. TootsNYC*

        I’m not a fan of a “skills” section; I think because it just seems like such an opportunity to puff up skills.
        I found an old resumé I’d put together (actually, a newish one, because it has my current job on it!) that had an overarching section at the time; not quite “skills,” but “types of projects handled.” I’m an editor, so I’d written out all the types of copy (listings, recipes, fiction, news) and publications (quarterly, monthly, weekly newsmagazine, catalog). It felt less like puffery–those are pretty substantive to know about someone in my role, and I have a particularly broad set of experience.

        But there was still something about that block of type at the top of the resumé that made me want to just skip right over it.

        1. Abby*

          For my first job out of grad school, I had to rely on a skills section to help communicate the things I did during my 5-year PhD program. A lot of the technical skills I learned weren’t immediately obvious through the project description (assuming I had to keep the description at a reasonable length). It just made more sense to list the specific technical skills I learned along the way, even if it did not contribute directly to the final outcome of my dissertation.

          I would say a skills section has a time and place, depending on the job level (e.g. I had very minimal previous job experience to write about) and industry, but it should really only include relevant technical skills that are easier to qualify than soft skills. I always cringe at my old resume that lists things like “self-motivated and independent; cooperative with strong communication skills.”

          1. Robles*

            I can’t stand fluffy skill sections, but I think a skills section is a vital part of any resume, for two reasons… it shows what specific programs, databases, languages, and other proficiencies you have, and it allows the employer to see the breadth of your experience and pick up on things they like that maybe they didn’t put in the job description. Knowing that someone is proficient in Salesforce tells me they’re probably capable of picking up any database in a way that’s much more believable than “database proficiency” does. And I love seeing Spanish language or Photoshop proficiency on a resume, even though there are few jobs I’ve hired for that really require them; they’re just useful across the board. That’s what a skills section, with its one inch of column space, does for you.

    2. Sadsack*

      Just agreeing with your advise for #1. My SO can’t wear earbuds because they are not comfortable for him and he doesn’t like the music pumping into his ear like that. I fail to see how earbuds will look better than headphones anyway. The person still has a distraction from immediatrely seeing people approach, and people will still know that the person had on a headset. As long as the IT person does not act like he is being interrupted and is overall helpful, does it really matter which type of headset he uses?

      1. Dynamic Beige*

        The earbuds that come with an iPod are just the worst, for me at least. They hurt, they would never stay in, I must have small ears. I bought a third party kind (can’t remember the brand) that has some sort of soft foam on it which are way better for my ears.

        I agree with you about the fact that just changing from headphones to earbuds isn’t going to solve the underlying problem, whether that is that the manager just feels bad to interrupt or the employee is annoyed upon being interrupted. Changing desk sight lines, sending an IM “I’m coming over with my laptop, I can’t boot up” as advance warning, reminding them that part of their job is to be helpful when asked (do they need some training on that?) would do more to address the issue than switching from one kind of headphone to another.

        1. Stranger than fiction*

          Totally. I don’t get why everyone is walking up to the IT guys, I’ve never seen that at any company I work for. Generally, you instant message, call, or email them. My job’s not even as technical as an IT person’s, but I would be annoyed if coworkers were constantly walking up and interrupting what I’m trying to concentrate on. There’s just better ways to go about it. It seems the Op is focused on some sort of social stigma attached to headphones. Is it because of clients or visitors coming to the office? Even still, these days, it seems the norm for people to use them to drown out noise and help them concentrate.

          1. Sadsack*

            Where I work, we call the IT hotline and a ticket is submitted. The tickets are prioritized and addressed in a order by highest priority. I don’t even know where our IT people sit. I wonder OP’s company is really small and there are only these two IT employees.

            1. BeenThere*

              Before I even get to the bottom I want to thank all the posters above. It’s very rare for an IT person to be required to receive people at their desk and even if they are part of the support team. How do you know they aren’t working on something more urgent? I’m not even part of the helpdesk team (which is two people in my location for ~150 users). I’m an application developer and people think I’m on call for any problem. I was in the middle of a complex piece of refactoring with my noise cancelling headphones deployed and thousand line stare when an irate user waved their hand in front of my face completely breaking my concentration…. because their computer wasn’t playing loud enough. I made it clear I had no idea how to address their issue told them to raise it with helpdesk and put the headphones back on. I also had a HR guy joke when introducing me that if the helpdesk guys weren’t around to ask me. The look I gave him was priceless, I think I have it perfected.

          2. Jennifer*

            My coworkers walk up and interrupt me every five minutes. Headphones don’t stop anyone who wants to approach you, TRUST ME.

      2. TootsNYC*

        People can still see earbuds much of the time–in fact, they might be worse, in terms of being offputting, because people who don’t see them will have a longer wait for attention.

        I would focus instead on the idea of rearranging their desk, adding mirrors, etc., so that they can tell someone is approaching them. And on them taking their headphones off more rapidly if they are actually waiting for the end of the chorus, or something. Or otherwise acknowledging people who approach.

    3. Hlyssande*

      #1, this!

      I’m not sure if my issue is that my ear canals are small, but the earbuds with silicone thingies end up hurting and chafing, and the ones without anything on them fall out, every time.

      It’s entirely possible that the employees are simply not capable of wearing earbuds. Not everyone can.

      1. Elizabeth West*

        Me too–I have to wear the ones with the hooks that go over your ears, and they’re still uncomfortable. I have noise-reduction headphones with big puffy earpieces for work.

      2. Dr. Johnny Fever*

        I get ear infections from earbuds, but not from headphones. So that would be a medical thing with me – want to use earbugs? Wanna pay for the doctor office visits and the antibiotics?

        I’m sorry, but this is just petty. Headphones, earbuds, tomato, tomahto.

      3. afiendishthingy*

        must be a small ears thing. I find earbuds incredibly uncomfortable. I have a very lightweight pair of headphones that I wear at work and I love them. They have to take out earbuds to hear someone talking to them too, so what’s the difference?

    4. JC*

      I second Alison’s plea for you to reconsider this stance. Do they work in a cubicle or open office environment? If so, I think that makes it especially harsh to take the headphones away. When I worked in a cubicle, I was once working with a manager who wondered why I wore head phones at my desk. Meanwhile, he had a private office that was not nearly as noisy as my cubicle. If that’s the situation where you work, your no headphones request may look especially out of touch.

      I also can’t wear earbuds, like others have mentioned here. They fall right out of my ears.

    5. Sparrow*

      Glad I’m not the only one with earbud problems. I have yet to find any that fit properly. I like the idea of sending an IM before stopping by. I don’t wear headphones at work, but I prefer people do that in general before stopping by. Sometimes I may be on a conference call or working on a time sensitive issue, so I appreciate having a heads up that someone needs to talk to me in person.

    6. Mimmy*

      I also have a difficult time with earbuds due to small ear canals. However, I was actually able to find a type that fit pretty well. I don’t have the brand at hand, but it came with tips of varying sizes. They don’t always stay in firmly, but at least they are comfortable. I can’t even wear the standard Apple ones because they don’t stay in at all.

      1. Windchime*

        I have found that I can wear the Apple ones, but only if I put them in the “wrong” ear! Left goes into the right ear, and vice-versa.

        Headphones are much more comfortable. OP, you might lose some of your IT people if you insist that they not wear headphones. Many IT jobs (including mine) require intense concentration and the ability to juggle a lot of thoughts without interruption, and if you take away the headphones you are potentially adding in tons of distraction that make work almost impossible.

    7. Shan*

      Just here to agree with everyone else on reconsidering the use of headphones. My boyfriend just had to go to the doctor to have them clear an earwax blockage that lead to a really bad ear infection. He was told that wearing ear buds can be a factor in getting these blockages and has switched over to a larger set of headphones.

      At my company, we use Skype for Business which is a great messenger app, and makes it easier to get people’s attention, so I seconded IMing as well.

    8. Vicki*

      Re: #1 – earbuds fall out. Earbuds don’t work as well to isolate other sounds. Earbuds “bleed noise” more than headphones.

      But in particular earbuds also need to be removed before the person talks to you, so you’re being very petty about looks here.

  2. kara*

    In response to OP1:

    With much kindness and respect, anytime anyone says to me “I feel X and I suspect others do to” it sets off all kinds of alarms in my mind. Unless other people have TOLD you that they feel X, then dragging in other people’s supposed feelings to support your own is totally irrelevant.

    YOU feel that waiting a few seconds for these people to acknowledge you and remove their headphones is “unnerving”. That’s a personal feeling and you need to fairly judge if your personal feelings/anxieties should require the rest of the department to change their actions based on that.

    Also note that use of earbuds has been tied to ear infections and even loss of hearing. A lot of doctors recommend using headphones that cover the ear, rather than earbuds that block the ear passage and lock in moisture. I actually have some hearing loss in my left ear from using earbuds for phone and music and developing multiple ear infections several years ago.

    And finally I don’t see why waiting for someone to remove an over the ear headphone is any different from the pause and wait to remove an in-ear earbud. I think that this is YOUR issue that you’re pushing onto your employees and you really should back off of it unless there’s a valid business reason to do so.

    1. Graciosa*

      Well, that may have been the case, but I think the OP now has a legitimate issue – namely insubordination.

      The manager made a rule within her scope of authority, and the employee decided to 1) just ignore it, and then 2) challenge the manager’s authority to make rules at all.

      At this point, as a manager, I would be seriously – and I think justifiably – annoyed with the employee.

      Personally, I’m a pretty collaborative manager, and I would have been open to hearing disagreement during the meeting about the rule. Whether or not I ultimately agreed to change it, however, once I make a policy decision, my employees do not get to ignore it.

      For me, the insubordination is a much bigger issue than anything to do with the headphones.

      1. kara*

        Maybe yes, maybe no.

        She says “10 mins later” he was wearing earphones. It’s possible that he didn’t HAVE earbuds at work and would only have had earphones after their chat. Expecting him to just have the technology available at his desk 10 mins after their talk is totally unreasonable and would have led me to be defensive as well.

        Sounds like OP has unreasonable expectations all the way around.

        1. Anonymous Educator*

          If that’s the case, I’d expect this employee to say “Cool. I get it. I don’t have earbuds today, though. Is it cool if I wear headphones instead for the rest of the day?” instead of just putting on headphones ten minutes later.

        2. Graciosa*

          I would think the ten-minutes-later aspect made it worse, not better!

          He did exactly what she told him NOT to do ten minutes later.

          If he needed to use the headphones for the rest of the day (although I haven’t figured out why it would have been utterly impossible for him to survive without them for a single day) he should have said so.

          “I understand your concern, and I’ll bring in compliant headphones tomorrow, but I would like to finish out the day with the only ones I have.” I think he could have managed a sentence directly to the OP while they were discussing the new rule.

          I understand that you don’t like the rule in this case, but I think you’re projecting a lot more evil intent on the OP than is warranted.

          If you guessed correctly about why the employee behaved as he did (and I’m willing to admit I was speculating as well) then the solution was for him to use his words. It is not unreasonable for the OP to expect an employee to actually communicate with his boss about the issue that they were discussing.

          If the employee chose instead to ignore her, challenge her, and then appeal to HR, I don’t blame the employee’s behavior – which I do see as misbehavior – on the OP’s expectations.

          1. Mike C.*

            If he needed to use the headphones for the rest of the day (although I haven’t figured out why it would have been utterly impossible for him to survive without them for a single day) he should have said so.

            Try programming or doing mathematics in an open office with no way to block out the distractions and tell me how that works out for you.

            1. Sunshine*

              “… he should have said so.”

              You don’t get to just blatantly disregard specific instructions from your manager. If there’s a reason you can’t comply, be a big kid and talk about it. Don’t ignore it, then run to HR.

            2. Windchime*

              I agree with Mike. I’m a programmer, and fortunately the room I work in is very quiet. But it hasn’t always been so, and when it gets noisy, my headphones are a godsend. There is no way I can program with noisy distractions; it takes me 5 times as long to do anything.

          2. Llywelyn*

            Given that I don’t keep multiple sets of devices around for listening to music and given that we’re not talking the-end-of-the-world-is-nigh from using headphones but rather a manager preference, I’m rather shocked that the manager in question didn’t realize that they would be using the headphones at least until the end of the day and make that part of the opening discussion.

            To me that’s the sign of a deeply dysfunctional manager who needs their (arbitrary) requests to be followed immediately in a “jump-how-high” sense, not the sign of someone who is open for discussion on the matter.

            1. Tinker*

              On that note, I’m kind of wondering why there doesn’t seem to be an indication that any sort of conversation (of the sort which involves using words to describe the positions of both parties) ever took place. Granted the OP might have omitted this for brevity, and if so I’d like to hear more, but it rather seems like either the employee never said or OP never heard these relatively easy to arrive at issues with the earbuds over headphones thing generally or the immediate application thereof in particular. You’d think the person would have mentioned what their issue was in the “discuss” phase of “discuss and apply my management rule”, wouldn’t you?

              Did the employee just nod and smile and not disagree and put their headphones right back on the instant the OP left? And if so, why would they do such a peculiar and ill-advised thing? I feel like this is a bit like Issendai’s “Down the Rabbit Hole” and the missing missing reasons — not to say that the OP is like this, but that there’s this big discontinuity in the narrative in which something weird happens, and I feel like the whole thing would make a lot more sense if that hole were filled in.

        3. De (Germany)*

          I agree, depending on what was said in the meeting, the OP’s employee might have thought that would be okay – for example, if the OP said “in the future, please use earbuds”, they might have understood that to mean “as soon as you can”.

          1. De (Germany)*

            Okay, missed how the OP talked to him afterwards – that removes any benefit of the doubt for me…

      2. katamia*

        I’m getting the sense that OP may not have discussed the issue with the employees before making the rule. Not that the lack of warning automatically excuses the employee’s behavior, but if they didn’t see the problems with their work (if there actually were problems and this isn’t just OP’s issue, although I also think Kara makes a good point) or have a chance to come up with a solution on their own, then I can definitely understand why that would cause someone to bristle. I can also see going to HR and saying something like “Hey, I’ve been wearing headphones for awhile and now Manager says I can’t even though there isn’t a policy against headphones. What gives?” And then we don’t know what HR said or what happened after the employee went to HR, but it may not have been quite as inflammatory as OP makes it sound.

        1. Diays*

          “I can definitely understand why that would cause someone to bristle. I can also see going to HR […] but it may not have been quite as inflammatory as OP makes it sound.”
          I don’t really understand what in your summary is different from how the OP put it? The employee was annoyed and went to HR, that’s what she said.

          1. katamia*

            To me the way the OP words it makes it sound like there was malicious intent, like the employee was trying to score points or tattle, when it may have been more like confusion and annoyance.

      3. Ani*

        I would be very interested to see what HR and upper management have to say about the reasonableness of the rule OP has made first. It seems … arbitrary, against advice repeatedly posted here urging the use of headphones, contrary to general IT practice, and obviously in an area with distractions rather than a door. It was 10 minutes later. There does need to be reasonableness and a way for an employee to … protest? Take up an issue? Without that in itself being called insubordination. And clearly OP was basically hostile if 10 minutes later is still on this before anyone has had time to leave the desk and get or purchase her newly required earbuds.

        1. UKAnon*

          I think it’s a little unfair to assume that the OP was “basically hostile” – as others have said, it does look like insubordination. That said, this does seem to be one of those situations where it’s six of one, and it looks like it’s in danger of spiraling into Huge Workplace Drama quite unnecessarily.

          As manager, OP, I think it’s time to stand back, take a deep breath and prepare to be reasonable and communicative.*

          *(Whether you have been or not to this point)

          1. Ani*

            Hostile probably isn’t fair or the right word. But there’s still an oddly demanding tone — even with AAM. “So, can a manager make department rules? Do we have that flexibility?” That’s rhetorical, and coming from someone PO’d.

            As an employee who had just been told a new rule that came out of nowhere (and is against company policy) I know I would find it very hard if not impossible to believe that the manager with this approach is really open to hearing any objection, period.

            1. Mike C.*

              The lack of discussion, transparancy or tying the rule to actual business results is a serious problem. It comes off as arbitrary and, “because I’m the boss and I said so”.

              1. Dr. Johnny Fever*

                Agreed. This has nothing to do with business or performance, but for a petty annoyance. That’s control. It’s not insubordinate to refuse to follow a control maneuver – in fact, don’t we often advise OPs, not to cede control to the crazy?

                How would the comments go if the OP was the employee, complaining about the arbitrary earbuds rule his boss side-swiped him with, then harped on him about 10 minutes later?

          2. Monodon monoceros*

            Yes, it seems like both the OP and her employee were each a bit in the wrong here. OP should probably have talked to the employees first before making the rule, but then employee shouldn’t have ignored the new rule.

            I would suggest OP says to employee 1) you disobeyed my rule, and this is unacceptable, and then perhaps there are some consequences, however 2) let’s discuss how to deal with the headphone situation. Is it even a problem to wear them? Do earbuds even solve the potential problem?

            1. Monodon monoceros*

              Wow, terrible writing here. Hopefully this is coherent…typing on my phone.

        2. JB (not in Houston)*

          Well, but it was insubordination. If your manager comes to you and tells you, “this is the new rule,” and it’s not illegal but you don’t like it, you don’t just get to ignore it. That’s not how it works. I think the rule is unreasonable unless there are concerns like Alison mentioned. If I were the employee I’d be pretty miffed. I’d have asked if I could finish out the day with my headphones. But you don’t get to ignore whichever rules you don’t like without that being insubordination.

          1. Green*

            But that doesn’t mean OP should double down on the rule.
            You can have an “I’ve revisited the headphones issue, and my conclusion is Y. However, we do need to discuss the way you responded to the initial rule…” conversation.

            1. Colette*

              Is anyone suggesting the manager should double down on the rule?

              If I were the manager, I might reconsider the rule, but I’d also be watching that employee closely. I would to trust them to do what they were asked to do as they’ve shown they’ll disregard instructions they don’t like.

            2. JB (not in Houston)*

              That’s true, Op should not double down on the rule, and nowhere in my comment did I say or even imply that she should.

      4. Ad Astra*

        I agree that the insubordination is a bigger problem than the headphone situation. The fact that the employee immediately reported this to HR seems to indicate a misunderstanding of office norms.

        That said, I’m having a hard time imagining an IT position where headphones would be a problem — especially if earbuds are ok. It sounds like most of the people approaching these employees are other IT workers or managers, not clients or other employees seeking IT support. But maybe I’m misunderstanding this employee’s role.

        I’m not a fan of the policy, but I’m floored that this employee seems to think the manager doesn’t have the authority to dictate how her own department runs.

        1. Windchime*

          I’m floored that somehow earbuds are better than headphones. OP wants people to use earbuds….why? Because they look better? I can take off my headphones just as quick as the guy next to me can take out his earbuds. It makes no sense, and it makes me wonder what other arbitrary, “because I’m the boss” rules the OP has implemented. Only Bic pens? No whole-wheat bread on sandwiches brought from home? Only pink shirts on Tuesdays?

          1. Andrea*

            This is exactly what I was thinking—wondering what other rules this manager has implemented. I can’t understand why there would be any problem with headphones at all, nor does it make sense that earbuds would be okay if headphones are not. The employee could have handled it differently, but his response seemed maybe it could be a frustrated reaction to a last-straw ridiculous rule that this “because I am the boss and I said so” manager just made. But even if that’s not the case, I still don’t see how headphones would be objectionable or why earbuds would be better. Maybe the OP can update us.

          2. ThursdaysGeek*

            Seriously. If I’m wearing earbuds, they aren’t visible from my back, which is what people see when they first come into my cube. So they start talking, and I ignore them. At least with headphones, they know they need to get my attention with something besides talk. With earbuds, I just look rude, and they have to repeat what they were saying. (I do have earbuds, and a mirror to see movement behind me.)

            At least for the reasons the manager is giving, earbuds would not be better.

      5. Stranger than fiction*

        Either he didn’t have the earbuds, and thought it ok to continue with headphones that day, OR, I’m wondering if he has a prestanding Ok with HR to wear them, or a legitimate excuse to wear them that predates the Manager’sOp/s time there that she’s unaware of?

        1. Anne*

          This would be me at my last job – noisy open-office area, role requiring a lot of concentration, and I’m both ridiculously prone to ear infections and someone who gets noise-sensitive migraines. I needed to wear headphones to get any work done, but my doctor was firm that I needed to stop wearing earbuds – so I had an arrangement with HR for it to be an accommodation, since the standard in the office was discreet earbuds or nothing.

          If a new manager came in and enacted this rule, HR would have been my first stop too: to make sure that this new department rule didn’t override my accommodation, and also to find out whether the manager was aware of my need and didn’t care. If it’s fairly well-known amongst the rest of the team that Anne wears large headphones so she doesn’t spend half her time off work ill, and I didn’t know that the manager was unaware of this, I’d be pretty livid that she was more concerned with aesthetics (since the music or white noise itself isn’t the problem here, just headphone size) than with my health.

      6. baseballfan*

        I agree the insubordination is the issue.

        Personally, I dislike the use of headphones/earbuds in the office, as it makes people appear unapproachable – but I concede that this is a hotly debated topic and that certainly reasonable minds can differ.

        But if your manager tells you to do something, you do it. If you want further discussion, that’s not unreasonable. But don’t just ignore it and then run to HR when you’re called on your insubordination.

      7. Vicki*

        Oh good grief. Did you notice that this happened on the_same day_.
        Did she personally buy earbuds for this person?
        Did she state in the meeting “This is a rule and you will obey it immediately?”

        A manager who starts to think “insubordination” is a manager who will see a lot of turnover.
        (as is a manager who states “My rules or else” and expects those rules to be followed _10 minutes later_ when the rule involves hardware / equipment that needs to be purchased.

        It’s no wonder so many people write in about their bad managers.

    2. Anonymous Educator*

      With much kindness and respect, anytime anyone says to me “I feel X and I suspect others do to” it sets off all kinds of alarms in my mind. Unless other people have TOLD you that they feel X, then dragging in other people’s supposed feelings to support your own is totally irrelevant.

      YOU feel that waiting a few seconds for these people to acknowledge you and remove their headphones is “unnerving”. That’s a personal feeling and you need to fairly judge if your personal feelings/anxieties should require the rest of the department to change their actions based on that.

      This is a really good point. I work in tech support, and my boss gets all sorts of unsolicited feedback (for good and for bad) about how I and my colleagues are doing. If users were really annoyed about the headphones, I bet OP #1 would have heard something. No need to second-guess your users.

    3. LBK*

      Your first paragraph is exactly what I came to say – there’s no evidence that this is an issue for anyone but the OP, at least not as stated in the letter. I think letting your employees be productive and have an enjoyable work environment is more important than your discomfort for the 5 seconds it takes them to remove their headphones.

      If it’s really an issue of trying to get their attention, I’d say a better solution would be attaching a little mirror on top of/above their monitors somewhere so they can see people behind them. It might also be a good idea to shoot them an IM or quick email before you come over to make sure they’re free – I like when my manager does this even if I’m not wearing headphones since it means I can wrap up whatever I’m doing mentally rather than being interrupted once they come over.

      As for the insubordination issue…I agree that it’s bad for an employee to be directly disobeying something they were just asked to do 10 minutes ago but honestly for a kind of silly rule like this, I could honestly see myself skirting it. I actually see the biggest issue being that the employee went to HR instead of addressing it directly – it seems there are some communication issues here and that your employees don’t feel comfortable pushing back on you in reasonable circumstances. I’d question why that might be.

      1. AnonEMoose*

        I have a strong startle reflex, and use headphones at work so I can concentrate. I use a mirror at my desk to see if people are coming up behind me. I’ve also talked with my immediate coworkers and asked them to either knock on the end of the desk, wave in my peripheral vision, or say my name if they need my attention.

        It seems to work out well. I don’t get that adrenaline rush from being unexpectedly touched from behind, they get what they need from me, and I can concentrate well enough to get my work done.

        I don’t like earbuds, either – they tend to pop out for me. I’m not sure if it’s because my ear canals are small, or if it’s to do with their shape. Either way, they’re not comfortable for me.

        1. Hlyssande*

          I don’t have much of a startle reflex, but a coworker who had been standing silently behind me waiting for me to notice him once shook the back of my chair to get my attention. He’s also been known to knock on my desk right next to my mouse (so, practically leaning over me).

          I have yet to be able to convince him to knock or tap on the metal cabinet at the end of my cube. Ugh. It’s the worst!

          And I do have a little mirror, but I think it’s too little to really help me notice such things. And in the wrong place (not a monitor corner one, but on the wall slightly to the left of the monitors).

          1. catsAreCool*

            If you gave a shriek next time he did this, would it discourage him without getting you in trouble?

    4. Shan*

      +1 Agreed on the ear infection thing. I just posted above that my boyfriend had this exact issue, and he was in pain and couldn’t hear for 4 days.

  3. Sandy*

    I tailor my resume as well as my cover letter for two reasons:

    -my current job package is hugely diverse, and as I’m preparing to move on from here, I could legitimately be looking into at least three different fields. It doesn’t make sense for my resume to focus on teapot construction and engineering when the job I’m applying to wants a teapot publicist for their international markets.

    -some jobs (I’m looking at you, government…) will screen you out if the specific wording they used in the job ad isn’t reflected in both the resume and the cover letter.

    1. Stranger than fiction*

      I wouldn’t say I tailor mine for each position, but similarly, last time I was searching, I had 3 different versions due to my background- one emphasizing my Admin experience more; one emphasizing Sales more; and one emphasizing Customer Service more. The cover letter I definitely customized to each position, that is so easy to do, and I never had any problems getting interviews.

      1. Jennifer*

        I redo them every time because I’ve had my career counselor emphasize to me that essentially, people are stupid and you need to list the qualifications you have in the order that they’re listed on the ad, so they can easily figure out exactly how you meet their requirements.

  4. FD*

    Alison, in #5, the italics are missing on the question.

    #4, I’m very confused what you think an attorney would be able to do for you? Unless there’s evidence that the HR manager denied you the job based on race, sex, religion, or another protected characteristic, they don’t have to reverse his decisions.

    It does suck though when you *know* you work harder than someone, but they get the job you wanted. It’s possible the HR person was just bad at hiring. However, you might also think about whether there might be some management skills that the other candidate showed that you didn’t. Working hard isn’t the only characteristic that matters for a manager–a lot of people work very hard but are terrible managers.

    1. The IT Manager*

      PLUS, LW’s manager and HR interviewed LW. The idea is to reverse the decision of two people including his supervisor which doesn’t sounds like an idea for a good working environment.

      Additionally inflated his qualifications and experience probably means he claimed a degree, certification, and previous HR experience – none of which sound essential to me for making hiring decisions since most hiring managers don’t have special HR training before hiring begins.

      LW needs to let this one go despite his disappointment. He also needs to do some self-reflection. His supervisor was part of the decision. If he really does 4 times the work of the other applicant why did the supervisor support the other applicant?

    2. fposte*

      I think the OP is thinking it’s more like a trial where her public defender turned out to be not actually a lawyer, giving her grounds for a new trial.

      But, of course, it’s not like that. It could turn out one of the interviewers wandered in off the street and didn’t even work for the company, and it still wouldn’t legally require them to give you a second chance; as long as it’s not because of an illegal reason, they don’t have to give you any chance at all.

      1. Stranger than fiction*

        Great analogy, and I agree with fposte and IT mgr. I’d like to add, perhaps it wouldn’t hurt to just ask the manager about it. He/she could frame it as “I was disappointed I didn’t get the position. What could I do/improve/work on for next time there’s an opening to increase my chances?”

  5. Graciosa*

    Regarding #4, Alison is correct that you let this one go, but I also think you’re assuming the HR Manager had a lot more power than he actually did. HR does not normally decide who to hire – the final decision generally rests with the business, barring some dysfunctional (often family-run) businesses.

    I understand that you wanted the job and are hoping for a “do-over,” but there’s nothing in your letter to support it.

    There is no requirement that hiring be “fair” as long as no one violates any specific anti-discrimination laws.

    1. Ad Astra*

      I understand that you wanted the job and are hoping for a “do-over,” but there’s nothing in your letter to support it.

      This, exactly. I would be upset in this OP’s shoes, too. When I get bad news like a job rejection, or the time I didn’t make the cheerleading squad, or when my team loses a big game, my thoughts go immediately to technicalities that might overturn the decision. Most of the time, though, there’s no recourse and I just have to live with it. That’s what’s happening here.

  6. LawBee*

    earbuds hurt! over the ear headphones are so much better. OP #1, please rethink your stance – my ears hurt just reading the letter.

    1. Dan*

      Yeah… All the buds i have are really tinny. I bought a pair of jvc flats for $15 that are actually really good.

      1. stellanor*

        I have really comfortable earbuds that sound great, but they cost $200. I’m a bit of a headphone snob.

        My over ear headphones are still more comfortable and also actually easier to hear through – the earbuds isolate very well so it’s harder to hear if someone talks to me.

      2. Jessa*

        I can’t wear earbuds, I tend to very bad ear infections and anything that blocks up my ears is a problem.

        1. LadyTL*

          I have this same problem. For me it would be headphone or nothing. Maybe that’s why the employee went to HR, to ask what to do if earbuds would impact health but the manager isn’t allowing headphones?

    2. catsAreCool*

      Ear buds hurt my ears, too. If my boss had forbidden the use of headphones, I wouldn’t have worn them but I would have tried to explain why this is a problem for me.

  7. T*

    re #1, if people do come to ask questions frequently headphones might be a far better idea than earbuds if you look at it from another angle. Headphones are far more visible, which means there’s no “why isn’t this person answering me? Why are they being so rude? Oh, wait …” response, and they’re also much faster to take on and off than earbuds anyway (depending). I wear earbuds and headphones at work and earbuds are chronic for people getting half-way through a conversation and then repeating themselves, which they never do with headphones. Also some people just take out one earbud and then still can’t really hear … headphones are on or they’re off, which I think is a bit of an advantage in this setting. I think there’s an appearance vs functionality thing here.

    1. Jessa*

      That is a really good point that I didn’t even think of. And it’s so true, you talk to someone and you don’t realise they have music on or are talking on one of those tiny blue tooth phone things.

    2. BritCred*

      Yes. Nothing worse than walking up to someone and engaging them and then realising they can’t hear you and you haven’t got their attention. Most places in the situation would just ban the whole idea of personal music or sound unless that person needed to use audio for their job and obviously doesn’t want to disturb others. I’ve seen this rule at many jobs because our attention is needed if we are called and headphones and earbuds do not work with that.

    3. Hlyssande*

      Oh, this! I wasn’t even thinking about it from that angle, but it happens to me fairly often when I do put in the earbuds while doing things where I need to concentrate and block out everything else. The boss never gets grumpy about it, thankfully.

      Technically there is a ‘no headphones/earbuds’ rule in our office, but as my team doesn’t actually ever talk to customers (the rest are collectors), my supervisor and manager allow us to wear earbuds discreetly.

  8. skip2mylou*

    Do the IT staff in #1 work in a help desk situation? If so, I can see why headphones would be off-putting to folks coming to ask for IT support. I would think that ear buds would provide the same issue, though.

    We did an extensive survey of our users last year for a space I work in that has a help desk and the student workers wearing headphones was the number 1 complaint. The users felt that they were not welcoming and were less likely to use the space as a result.

    1. Judy*

      In my experience, most corporate IT help desks would prefer to not have walk in users. They want everything logged through their tracking system, so they can understand workload and responsiveness. Especially when there are one or two local people supporting a location, and the same in many other locations.

      1. moss*

        YES I was going to comment this as well. Being able to walk up to the IT person isn’t great, unless they are specifically front line help desk support that takes all comers, in which case they should be wearing NEITHER earbuds nor headphones. Otherwise, there should be a more formalized request system in place.

      2. Isabelle*

        mte, why is OP1 allowing users to walk in and disturb the team? They should open IT tickets instead.

        For all we know, the headphones could be partly related to this, the staff started wearing them to help their concentration and send the message that they are not immediately available.

    2. Sgreenwood*

      I totally agree with this! The earphones/earbuds divide seems to be a red herring. The real issue is that if the primary responsibility of the IT workers are to provide walk-in customer service support, headphones of any kind can be off-putting. It basically requires the customer to “interrupt” the IT worker, and that sends a strong message. Now, if the IT workers’ responsibility is not primarily customer service, I’d more fully support other options, such as putting up a sign, and encouraging positive, customer-focused behaviors, such as immediately taking the earphones off, smiling at the customer, etc.

    3. The IT Manager*

      +1 I was left with the impression from the letter that these people work at a help desk or other customer support position where customers often walk up to them. In that situation, I think headphones and earbuds are a bad idea, but head phones might possibly make them more unapproachable but they have the same effect by the time you get close enough to ask a question.

      OTOH if the LW thinks earbuds are okay, I’m not clear why headphones aren’t and LW is kind of being jerk for imposing an seemingly arbitrary policy.

      1. Elsajeni*

        The only thing I can think of is if the OP’s main concern is that people are walking toward the desk, seeing the headphones (= visual cue that the employee doesn’t want to be interrupted), and deciding “My problem can wait, I’ll come back later” and leaving — not so much that the employees aren’t acting approachable enough, but that they don’t look approachable enough from a distance. In that case, as long as they’re responsive and quick to take out the earbuds when actually approached, I can imagine how switching to earbuds might make people more likely to approach them with problems while still allowing them to listen to music/white noise/whatever to help them focus.

        If that’s the OP’s reasoning, though, it didn’t come through very clearly in the letter, which makes me wonder how clearly it came through in the discussion with the employees. I don’t think the employees handled it well — as other people have pointed out, the wise rule of “use your words” applies here — but if “headphones no, earbuds yes” was just presented to them as a new rules with no explanation of the reasoning behind it, I can’t blame them for thinking it doesn’t make any sense and not being eager to comply.

  9. Ali*

    #3 is what I do…keep a master resume and tailor as needed. It’s gotten me plenty of invites for interviews since I started doing that and taking Alison’s advice. But sometimes I find that one resume works for two jobs, especially in the areas I’m trying to find work in, where jobs tend to seem the same after a while.

  10. Anonymous Educator*

    I work in tech support now, and neither I nor my colleagues wear earbuds or headphones, but I don’t really see the headphones as the real issue. It’s sort of like managers who get obsessed about hours and not productivity. I think this manager is getting too focused on the headphones themselves and not the customer service. Headphones and good tech support are not mutually exclusive.

    (I will say, however, that a direct report putting on headphones ten minutes after a no-headphones conversation is extremely rude and insubordinate. If my boss pulled me aside and said “Don’t do X,” I would never even consider doing X within an hour or even a day of him saying that. I’d either object on the spot to why he was asking me not to do X… or I’d just not do X.)

    Focus instead on the customer service. Do you see how they greet people coming in for help? Is it more like Scenario A or Scenario B?

    Scenario A:
    Tech Support on headphones looking at his computer screen.
    User walks into office. U sees TS looking at screen and sheepishly approaches, trying to catch TS’s eye.
    TS eventually looks up when U is two feet away. Sighs loudly, takes off his headphones, and then asks what U wants.

    Scenario B:
    TS on headphones looking at his computer screen.
    TS sees U walks in as U opens the door.
    TS immediately takes off his headphones, greets and smiles at U and asks how he can help.

    If it’s more like B, then who gives an s**t about the headphones? If it’s more like A, then the problem isn’t the headphones—it’s the whole attitude toward the user and the job.

    1. De (Germany)*

      I have seen people who work with headphones but need to talk to people a lot having signs to the effect of “Feel free to talk to me, you’re not bothering me” or something like that next to their desks.

    2. fitzroy*

      In my experience (with our department office manager), it’s more like C:

      You walk on the door to her office, see she is sitting at her desk and has headphones on. You walk to her desk. She doesn’t react. You stand before her. She keeps typing, does not acknowledge you.

      1. fitzroy*

        You say hello, you wave your hand in her field of vision. She types, gives you annoyed look. You decide if you need her help urgently enough to go through with this. After you stay for half a minute longer, she stops typing. Takes of the headphones – they get tangled in her long hair/earrings. It takes about another two minutes to free them. Now she is annoyed that her hair is no longer perfect. Then she finally looks at you and you can get to your question.
        I’m pretty convinced that she does this spiel to be as unapproachable as possible. Many employees have started doing the OM tasks themselves now (which she was hired to take on). I think if you are in a role where interruptions are paet of the job (tech support, OM) headphones are a no-go. Maybe you can get away with some times when you are not available, but not most of the time.

        1. jen*

          but headphones are not the problem there, and banning them for everyone wouldn’t solve it. that’s just an individual.

        2. Kyrielle*

          Depends! I’ve seen someone who needed to be readily approachable, and it went more like this:

          You walk up, she doesn’t see/hear you. (This could use a sign on the desk saying ‘please do X’ but that doesn’t exist, alas.) You wave your hand in her peripheral vision – she turns at once, pulling the headphones off in a practiced move that just messes her hair up a little; she shoves it back into place, smiling at you. “Hi!” And waits to hear what’s up, though you know she’ll prompt you if she has to.

          Employees who want to be approachable can do it with headphones. Those who don’t want to be approachable can be unapproachable without. Now, if an employee who *wants* to be helpful, or at least *is willing* to be helpful, has trouble making it work with headphones, that employee should probably rethink the headphones. (We had a guy at $LastJob who liked loud music, and didn’t watch much to the sides, and it was really hard to get his attention.)

        3. Observer*

          Why are you worrying about the headphones – that’s not the problem. The problem is that she has a major attitude issue and she is ignoring people who she clearly knows need / want to talk to her. If you ban her head phones, she’s STILL wait to respond to you, and then instead of make a show of getting her headphones tangled (I can’t imagine how she manages that one, by the way), she’s make a show of something else – possibly being even MORE offensive. (Think a big show of closing her open windows, so you can’t see them.)

          In general, the idea of banning or requiring something for everyone just because of the behavior of one person generally smacks of poor management.

      2. Maxwell Edison*

        This sounds like a Choose Your Own Adventure story.

        To stand there waiting in ever-growing impatience for the employee to notice you, turn to page 57.

        To knock gently on the cubicle wall or similar surface to get her attention, turn to page 134.

        To sneak up behind her with ninja-esque stealth, snatch the earphones from her head, and scream, “GOTCHA!” turn to page 38.

  11. Ann Furthermore*

    #1: I…..don’t really understand what the huge difference is between earbuds and headphones. Some people don’t like earbuds, so they use headphones instead. Why is that a problem? It’s very common in IT for people to use either earbuds or headphones while sitting at their desks. I use earbuds, but I’ve also used headphones, and no one has ever gotten bent out of shape about it. If I worked at the help desk, or had a job where I constantly had to interact with internal or external customers, then of course neither earbuds nor headphones would be an option. There are some days when I have to work with other people quite a bit, so the earbuds/headphones stay off. There are other days (that I love) where I am working on my own, and then I can use them.

    Honestly, if my manager told me to use earbuds instead of headphones, I’d wonder why she had time to worry about something so insignificant. I’m not trying to be flippant or unkind, but if this is the worst problem you have with these 2 employees, then things are pretty darn good. (Of course, there may be other issues with these 2 employees that the OP didn’t mention.)

    1. Daisy*

      Yeah I agree. I originally misread the letter as the manager not wanting them to be listening to anything, and I thought that was a reasonable rule for a support position. I can’t see why the kind of headphone matters at all.

    2. MashaKasha*

      Agree. The employee who didn’t follow the order was probably weirded out and confused about it… like, what’s next? being told not to wear red clothing, because red color is upsetting to others? The request just makes no sense to me and it probably didn’t to the employee either.

      Also, like many have already mentioned on this thread, unless the person you’re approaching has no hair on their head, you cannot really see the earbuds; so you start talking to the person and wonder why they’re not responding, while they continue working and have no clue you’re even at their desk. I’d choose visible headphones over that any day – less confusion that way. (even though I’m an earbud person myself – bulky headphones give me headaches.)

  12. Tinker*

    #1 — I find it kind of weird that the debate here is “headphones vs. earbuds” rather than “listening to things vs. not”. Personally, being in an open office where there’s a lot of music use and usually being more of an earbuds sort of person, I actually went out and bought a pair of headphones in a conspicuous color that I use specifically for the office. I suppose it might take fractionally longer to remove the headphones from my head than it would to remove an earbud, but on the other hand it takes a lot longer and probably produces more ire on both ends when someone starts talking at me and is a fair bit in and wondering why I’m ignoring them before we both realize that I can’t hear whatever they’re saying to me. So, like, if the headphones give a standoffish impression, think of the impression likely given from to all appearances just being flatly ignored.

    Second thing here is, you may need to examine your expectations regarding responsiveness to see if they’re reasonable. If these folks, when not engaging in immediate support work, have other tasks that they have to do (and particularly if these, like many IT tasks, require sustained concentration), then there’s an intrinsic limit to how quickly they can be fully prepared to address an interruption and how approachable their manner is before they are addressed. If your expectation of reaction time and approachability is such that the remove headphones vs. remove earbud time is relevant and the visual cue of headphones is unduly off-putting, then perhaps it is necessary to have these people 100% dedicated to being available for support requests and not ever doing things that would be compatible with listening to music at all. Alternatively, if you’re expecting these folks to balance availability for requests with other tasks, then perhaps the thing to work on is managing expectations (including your own) and coaching these folks to be engaged and welcoming after they have task switched rather than focusing on the speed of the transition itself.

    1. Jessa*

      Or even having an “on call” person. Make a rota and say “Jo is on from 9-10, Sam is on from 10-11, etc.” and then say when you’re “on” you can’t be listening to music and your primary task for that hour (or whatever period of time) is answering walk in questions vs doing other “must look at screen” tasks.

    2. Mike C.*

      Seriously, the issue of having to have sustained focus for an intensive task like programming or mathematical analysis is the main reason I have headphones on in the first place. What do people expect when we’re herded into these stupid open offices ava the folks in the next row won’t stfu and the boss expects this report to be done yesterday but only said something now?

      Not to mention the fact that task switching is in itself a difficult thing to do, especially when they just walk right up to you whenever.

      /Sony MDR-7506, heck yes! Great, flat dynamic range and insulative enough that you’ll find yourself turning down the volume and keeping your ears safe.

      1. UKAnon*

        Yes, I’ve heard that for coders it can take up to 45 mins to regain concentration after any interruption, and I imagine many other computer tasks are the same. I hope, OP, you won’t now discipline them if you find their productivity goes down as a direct result of this.

        1. eemmzz*

          It can definitely take me like half an hour to regain full ‘in the zone’ concentration when someone interrupts me mid-programming.

        2. Diddly*

          It’s not just coders – this is how long it can take for anyone (supposedly) to get their concentration back – love to know how others deal with our ‘reactive’ world – instant messaging, emails, phone calls and colleague interruptions (who want you to do x,y,z now but also a,b,c they already assigned you and you were in the midst of doing…)
          I find it really hard to get back into things when ive been interrupted – especially when it’s a real life one, so I’m all for earbuds to be allowed to focus.

          1. Phoenix*

            If I know I’m going to be interrupted frequently, I find it helpful to map out what I expect to be doing in advance, and then mark down where I am and any notes as I go. This has saved me SO much time on days when I know I’m going to be constantly pulled away, but really need to get focus work done.

            However, if I’m NOT being interrupted, this is a useless and time-wasting exercise.

            Also, depending on exactly how on-call you need to be for your role, I’ve also found that changing location, if you can, can keep some distractions away. I can work in the cafeteria here, if it’s not during lunch. I’ve also booked a small conference room for myself (or for myself and another coworker, once) when I need to be Clearly Not Available.

          2. Koko*

            Almost every day I have a conversation with myself where I remind myself that it’s unreasonable to resent coworkers for popping by my office or calling me without warning to discuss things. Personally I would be in heaven if all in-person or phone conversations were scheduled in advance and all the time I wasn’t in meetings was just uninterrupted concentration time. I have grudgingly recognized that my preferences are at one of the tails of the bell curve and that the business world general expects me to be OK with drop-bys and quick calls…even though they destroy my productivity (and they often come after a few emails have already been exchanged and the other person decides talking in person will be easier, which unfortunately also then kills the discussion’s paper trail).

            They’re all polite enough to ask, “Do you have a minute?” but honestly, I do a lot of writing in my job and even just looking up to see who’s knocking on my door means there’s an 80% chance I’ve already lost the train of thought I was on. If they had emailed, “Do you have a minute?” then I would have seen the email the next time I actually had a minute, but by the time they ask the question in person they’ve already broken my concentration so I guess the minute is now.

            1. Ad Astra*

              Ohh, this speaks to me. I may never fully understand why people find it easier to talk in person or (worse) on the phone, but I’m starting to make peace with the fact that many people do.

              1. Liza*

                Ad Astra–I generally have a strong preference for email, but sometimes I switch to in-person conversation when I think there will be a lot of questions going back and forth, or I need to gauge the other person’s responses, or it’s a complicated issue and I’ll explain it better if I can wave my hands around…

                1. Ad Astra*

                  These all make sense, and I’m a big fan of scheduling meetings to talk about specific subjects, but I’ll probably never be someone who drops by a coworker’s desk. Well, except for the coworkers who sit right next to me. But I’m not getting on the elevator to ask a question. (The phone thing is what really bugs me, but maybe that’s generational.)

                  I also forget that not everyone is as comfortable with written communication as I am. Most people in my company don’t have any kind of writing or communications background, so they’re not always as skilled at expressing nuance and balancing clarity with politeness in email. Obviously lots of tech/finance people can write beautifully, but that’s not a requirement of their job while it is a requirement of mine.

              2. ancolie*

                Ugh! At my last job, in IT, we relied heavily on IM (especially since we had two corporate locations in different states).

                It when I would IM a more senior co-worker to ask something that really and truly had a short answer and they’d either call me immediately or reply, “call me”. AAAARRRRGGGHH

            2. louise*

              “my preferences are at one of the tails of the bell curve…”
              Describes nearly everything about me at work, even my sense of humor. Perhaps I would get along better with others if I can picture it this way. Thanks for the image!

            3. Jennifer*

              I hear ya. I’m so sick of being interrupted. I am also sick of “Can I ask you a question?”

              (a) You just did.
              (b) I can’t tell you “no, you can’t ask me a question!” I have to say yes no matter what!

              Also, “Can I ask you a QUICK question?” doesn’t make it any better since no questions here are quick.

          3. Stranger than fiction*

            Amen. Multi-tasking is overrated. For me, it helps to put my IM and phone on Do Not Disturb for a few hours a day at certain times of the month when I need to concentrate on reports/manipulating data. I do, however, send out an email to my coworkers each time, reminding them to “please email me for such and such requests, I’m checking every 20 min. or so”. Of course, this might not work for your situation.

      2. Blue Anne*

        I’m in finance and I find the same. I really want to wear earbuds because when I’m deep into four different workbooks, matching up figures all over the place, tracking down why those two digits are different… it is so hard to concentrate in open plan offices.

        And yet we’re not allowed to wear headphones or earbuds on client sites or in our own offices because it “doesn’t look professional”. Bull. Our clients know we’re doing work that takes concentration.

        It is very, very irritating. Right now I’m on a client site by myself for a few weeks and you can bet I’ve got the earbuds out. Almost any time I’m talking to the client it’s because I need something, so I’m going over to them. If they come up to me, I’m using the Apple earbuds with a volume/pause button on the wire – just hit the button and pull them out of my ears, takes all of half a second.


        1. Wakeen's Teapots Ltd.*

          FWIW, I think that norm is changing. Since I am old I can tell you that there have been big changes in the last 10 to 20 years. I think even 10 years ago, normal office, people with earbuds in left a “questionable commitment” impression, like you’d rather listen to music than work. That’s almost 180’d to no earbuds/headphones seems like you aren’t concentrating on your work.

          I don’t wear them, even tho I’d like to sometimes. For upper management, I think I need to appear audibly accessible at all times.

          1. Blue Anne*

            I think that’s exactly the issue. I work for a huge old starched white collar, old boys kind of firm. A norm that isn’t legally enforced changing in only 10 years is probably not going to be noticed by our management for… well, until millenials start to make Partner, probably.

            Frustrating. But I’m glad there’s recognition that it’s a changing norm, at least!

          2. Chinook*

            “FWIW, I think that norm is changing. Since I am old I can tell you that there have been big changes in the last 10 to 20 years”

            I agree that the norm is changing because I saw it as a teacher. When I started back at the turn of the century (I am old!), I had to make a special request to the vice principal to allow all the students in a class to wear headphones in class if they want (rather than just the student on an IPP) and I was considered the cool teacher for letting them do it (with very strict rules). Now, most students think nothing of having headphones on while doing seat work and the rules about when to use them seem to be second nature (i.e. not when someone is talking to you).

      3. lowercase holly*

        My across the cube neighbors hold whisper conversations, a sound that drives me up the wall. They can last for up to a half hour. If I can’t wear headphones of some kind, I have to vacate the area. The former solution is much more productive.

    3. BananaPants*

      I’m an engineer working in what amounts to a cube farm (managers get offices, the rest of us get cubicles). Everyone – and I do mean everyone – working in my half of my floor has earbuds, headphones, or both. A lot of our tasks require extended periods of focus and concentration and when the floor’s resident loud talker is at her desk and yammering away, or the people in the conference room 15 feet away are ignoring the posted request to close the damned door during their meeting, you NEED some way to block it out. I like to listen to podcasts or music while wrestling with Excel or Matlab for half the day, it helps me focus. If someone comes to my desk then I pop them out quickly.

      If earbuds are acceptable per policy, I don’t understand why headphones are different. I actually prefer headphones because I can easily see them on the person I’m trying to talk to – there’s no walking up to someone’s cube and not noticing the discreet little earbuds and then feeling awkward about bothering them because you didn’t notice them. If the issue is users needing a quick response when walking up to the IT staff, then can they post a sign to the effect of, “We’re here to help, just ask!” so that users don’t feel they’re intruding?

      1. Aunt Vixen*

        I used to work next door to a conference room that was heavily used because it was the furthest away from everyone. Which was true – it was in the back corner of the building, so it had the fewest number of nearby offices – but the two offices that were nearby had people in them, and my desk was against the shared wall. I couldn’t normally hear what they were talking about in there, but I could generally hear that it was hilarious.


      2. Elizabeth West*

        Same here–when I’m editing or working on our spreadsheet, I use instrumental music to block out noise around me and help me focus. I’m not the only one. I like the sign suggestion.

    4. Anonicorn*

      Yes! Task-switching from intense work is the worst.

      I’m also wondering if the employees are using headphones for part of their work in a way that the manager doesn’t realize, such as listening to voicemail requests, training videos, etc.

    5. Not the Droid You are Looking For*

      At my last job we were actively discouraged from going to the support guys directly, and were only supposed to raise concerns/request help through the computer system, because they did not want them build away from critical tasks every time someone jammed the printer.

      The guys always had their headphones on unless they were running around fixing things.

      1. AFT123*


        OP, this is a huge thing to take into consideration and maybe speak with your IT employees about. If they are being approached a lot during the day while simultaneously managing a queue and/or working on mentally intensive work, I’d really consider changing the “norm” to require users to submit requests electronically, even for small things like printer jams. If you don’t agree, please consider what it would be like to be interrupted constantly and be unable to plan your daily schedules, and how that impacts morale and productivity. “It takes 5 minutes” is not always accurate with these walk-ups either.

      2. Natalie*

        That’s how IT has worked in every place I’ve ever been. They use the ticket system for a lot of metrics, so they need to route everything through it.

        1. Chinook*

          “That’s how IT has worked in every place I’ve ever been. They use the ticket system for a lot of metrics, so they need to route everything through it.”

          Also, if they support multiple sites, the ticket system ensures that head office issues are not put ahead of field issues simply because head office personnel can walk up to someone. It also allows them to delegate work easily to which ever person is available instead of whomever is the most visible.

      3. MashaKasha*

        Yes, I agree. Come to think about it, the “everyone approaches IT support in person” method must be hugely inefficient, and must work something like this:

        – user X approaches support person A for issue 1
        – support person A starts working on issue 1
        – five minutes into work on issue 1, user Y walks in and approaches A for issue 2
        (not sure what is supposed to happen here. Does A write down the info on issue 2 and promise Y they’ll get to it right after issue 1? Or is A expected to drop their work on issue 1 and start working on issue 2? or is A expected to determine which of the two issues is higher priority and work that one first? Either way, A continues working on whichever of the two issues takes priority.)
        – five minutes later, user Z walks up to A to tell them to work on issue 3.

        Um… I’d quit after maybe a day of this. And I worked in on-call support. We had a ticketing system. All requests that came to us, came through email/SMS. No one ever barged in with a request. Granted, I was tier 2, but our tier 1 received all P1-P2 support call requests via phone, and P3s and P4s via email/ticketing system. Again no one barged in. I don’t see how that would ever work.

  13. Coach Devie*

    OP 1:
    I think the employee’s complete disregard for your discussion that had just taken place is crazy and should be addressed separately. However, I agree with Alison. I think you could approach this by sitting down with them both and asking if they are using them for concentration purposes, and that perhaps you needed to rethink what you were hoping to implement. Also, earbuds can be uncomfortable for many. They vibrate inside your ear canal which can be uncomfortable, or just having them in your ears isn’t always the most pleasant. You know best what your department/org faces on a day to day, but if this is something that can be reconsidered, I’d take it into consideration.

    1. Reflections*

      Maybe if the music vibrations in the ear canal are uncomfortable, the volume is the problem? Music in the ears doesn’t have to be very loud at all to cause hearing loss.

  14. Persephone Mulberry*

    #1: You know what I hate? Walking up to someone wearing earbuds and having them only take out ONE. I would much rather have them pull off a pair of headphones than sit there and converse with me with one earbud still stuck in their head. It feels like the subtext is “hope you don’t mind that this song I’m listening to is just as important as whatever you have to say to me.” I realize that it’s entirely likely they’re pausing or turning down their music anyway (I would be), but it just rubs me the wrong way. Maybe it’s because I’m not an earbud person myself.

    Anyway, I agree completely with the previous posters that the issue shouldn’t be about earbuds vs headphones but responsiveness vs not.

      1. eemmzz*

        Sometimes I have paused my music and forget to turn it back on again until a long time later. As you say wearing headphones also blocks out background noise which is just as helpful sometimes

      2. BRR*

        I have a pair where one broke but they block out the noise really well. I cut the wire about two inches below the buds because they’re more convenient like that instead of having a cord connected to my computer or a cord hanging down.

        But I agree with Persephone Mulberry that it’s annoying when somebody leaves one in.

    1. De (Germany)*

      “I realize that it’s entirely likely they’re pausing or turning down their music anyway (I would be), but it just rubs me the wrong way.”

      Or they could be people like me, who are hard-of-hearing/deaf in one ear anyway.

      1. BeenThere*

        Me too, on the left.

        I think my headphones stop people from thinking I’m being rude because without headphones people tend to walk up on the deaf side (because of where I am seated) and are ignored until I finally get that sense that someone is there.

        I did have a coworker demand I only wear one earbud, so he could shout to me from across the room. I informed him that I still wouldn’t be able to hear him and that if he was incapable of using IM to get my attention (like everyone else in the company in the very open office) throwing a scrunched up ball of paper in my direction would also be acceptable. Besides if it is that important you should get up and walk a few rows.

    2. Not Today Satan*

      I often pause the ipod and remove one earbud so that the wires don’t get all tangled.

    3. BananaPants*

      If I’m working with earbuds in and I expect people to be coming to my desk to ask questions, I only put one earbud in so that I can hear when someone’s there. So I’d only be taking one out to begin with. ;)

      If I’m using earbuds or headphones to block out surrounding noise I’m going to go for the headphones because I can’t afford expensive noise cancelling earbuds and my employer has thoughtfully provided me with what I’m sure is a very expensive set of headphones for use when analyzing sound files, and they happen to be splendid at noise cancelling.

    4. Ad Astra*

      When my company was switching to completely new operating systems and software, we had some kind of consultant come in and help us learn how to use it, and supervise our first few shifts to address any issues. After a couple of shifts, the consultant complained that I always had an earbud in (just the one!) and told my manager how annoying it was.

      Thing is, I had gotten into the habit of simply pausing whatever I was listening to when someone talked to me, because most shifts involved mostly focusing/blocking out extraneous noise (not easy for me since I have ADHD) and communicating by email and IM, with only occasionally talking out loud. Learning the new software did require more verbal communication than usual, but by then I was so accustomed to the feeling of an earbud in my ear that I completely forgot I had one in. I was giving this guy my full attention and heard everything he said to me, but it apparently looked like I didn’t care.

      Lesson learned, I guess. But if it bothered him that much, he could have just said something to me instead of bringing it up with my manager, especially since his presence in our office was temporary.

    5. QualityControlFreak*

      Mea culpa. However, in my defense I only wear one to begin with. On the other side I wear a headset that allows me to pick up the phone remotely. This is my setup when the phones are on. I seem to have good hearing; I’m easily able to hear normal conversation through this rig, as well as a high level of background noise, if I’m not listening to music trying to block all of it out. But I have to be able to quickly turn the music off when the phone rings, so I’ve gotten pretty adept at that.

      Folks who come to my desk already know I may be on the phone, so they usually just ask. If I’m not, I’ll cut off the music (and often unplug the earbud) but I don’t take it out. No one seems in doubt that they have my full attention or that I’m hearing what they’re saying/asking. Sorry to hear this bugs people so much!

  15. Student*

    OP 5: Most (reasonable!) tech companies aren’t going to focus overly much on you knowing one specific language for an entry-level programmer position. They want you to know programming underlying principals and best practices and be willing to learn the languages they prefer if you don’t already know them. By the time you graduate, they may all be favoring a language that hasn’t even been written yet, or using an OS that doesn’t exist today. Programming languages are all bound by certain rules, restricted by certain broad computing principals, and usually have lots in common. Learn how to comment and document well and everyone will love you.

    Mathematics is a good thing to learn if you want to program and you don’t know of other, specific niches that might be applicable. Matrix algebra (linear algebra) is your friend. Geometry is good for graphical branches of programming. A basic understanding of electrical engineering, physics, statistics, accounting, or finance can potentially come in handy in different niche programming jobs. Get comfortable with both Windows and Linux based programming for maximum flexibility.

    1. De (Germany)*

      Yeah, this. Learn something object-oriented, something functional, maybe something for scripting. And you also don’t need to be a “rockstar”when it comes to programming at the end of the degree – that’s not expected and also not what taking CS at college is about.

      (I am a software developer and did not study CS, so I may be biased, though :))

      1. Tau*

        Oh yeah, +1 to learning something object-oriented. That’s probably one of the things I most saw requested in job adverts other than specific languages, and the big conceptual difference to imperative programming can be hard to wrap your head around.

      2. Cari*

        Former CS student here agrees 100% with your post. Study should be good for getting the principles of programming sorted, xp in the field (or own time for fun!) is great for learning the specifics of a language, best practices, efficiency and problem solving :)

    2. eemmzz*

      +1 from another developer here. The language doesn’t matter as much as the ability to apply the knowledge you’ve learned. Once you know a couple of programming languages learning new ones becomes easier.

      One extra thing to learn on top of the advice above is definitely source control as not many degrees I’ve seen cover that. A lot of our grads and interns have never used SVN, Mercurial or Git.

  16. Apollo Warbucks*

    #1 I really don’t understand why ear buds are OK but headphones are not, it looks to me like you are making a distinction with out a difference.

    Also I’m assuming from the letter that you don’t work in IT yourself, which means you might not understand the work they are trying to do. You should consider the nature of the work they are doing and the office environment, for example if they are writing a lot of code of scripts then distractions can be really hard to ignore and it make it hard to focus on the work at hand.

    Something else to consider is, are the people walking up for help supposed to be walking up for help on the spot, or is there a method of requesting support they are trying to bypass and are they asking the right people? There is nothing more annoying to me than getting interrupted when I’m working on a major issue and someone comes and asks me how to put paper in the printer, especially when I don’t look after hardware, sure when I’ve got time I’ll help anyone out but sometimes its just not possible.

  17. Apollo Warbucks*

    #5 I would say that some vbscript or powershell and database / SQL skills are really useful and applicable in a number of tech jobs depending on what your career goals are but I second Alison’s advice of reviewing some job applications to see what skills are in demanded and what skills compliment each other.

  18. Pipette*

    #5, if your school hosts any job/career fairs, those can be useful for informal discussions about that with several companies. Regular IT/tech fairs and conventions might be useful too. But like others have pointed out, the fundamental skills are the same regardless of programming language.

  19. Bend & Snap*

    #1 I rolled my eyes at the phrase “my management rule.” The tone is just ugh. Blanket rules without having conversations first are often a knee jerk authority flex when problems could be solved through conversations and leadership.

    If there’s even a problem here to begin with.

    1. Sunshine Brite*

      Me too. Plus, I’m one that physically has never found a single pair of earbuds that have every worked for my head so if I needed to either listen to white sounds to help me concentrate or use them to complete calls on my computer it’d be done for me. Headphones are the only way I can go without distraction and discomfort.

      Seems like a weird hill to die on as a manager. Adding a seemingly arbitrary management rule without a dicussion with any of the key stakeholders – employees, users, employees of the focus appears targeting. I’m also not sure how the employee was supposed to implement the rule right away since presumably he doesn’t even own earbuds let alone have some onsite to finish out the day with.

    2. You understand, they got a plan for us*

      Yeah. I thought it was telling that OP1 “discussed” their new rule and then 10 minutes later discovered the rule being ignored. Sure it’s insubordination, but it leads me to wonder what the manager-employer relationship has been like up until this time. I get this picture of a boss who spends way too much time on inconsequential matters (like headphones) and not enough time focused on the actual work that the department is supposed to be doing.

      I’m sorry, but some managers are simply “weak”. And how does this happen? I don’t think there is a glib, simple answer, but I think part of it involves choosing the wrong battles.

  20. Blue Anne*

    OP #5: This might seem odd, but have you thought about asking on reddit? There are profession-specific forums there which are actually really, really helpful. Lots of people in the same profession who just hang out to shoot the breeze and help each other. There’s a specific forum for accounting, so I’d be shocked if there wasn’t one for programming. Give it a try.

  21. Katykat*

    Hi to the OP about the headphones.
    As other posters have said:

    Headphones help a lot of people to concentrate and the big ones are much for comfortable. They are also noise cancelling so your employees can sit and work in silence even in an open plan office. I actually would love to get a pair, however I haven’t because a good noise cancelling pair is really expensive. Potentially your employees bought a pair like this as they considered the benefits well worth the cost (these things can be $100+).

    I think as a manager you should be considering your employees’ perspective and why they make choices to work in the way they do.

    I think it’s worth asking yourself why you consider it worth annoying employees over this small issue which isn’t related to their performance. You should have the perspective here to pick your battles.

  22. BRR*

    #1 I’m not sure if you also have a problem with earbuds too but either way I’d highly encourage you to allow it unless there is a legitimate reason not to (not just a preference). If you find that they don’t notice when people approach them, can you have them shift their set ups to be able to see when people are coming up to them? You do have a problem with insubordination though and that needs to be dealt with.

    Just don’t let them do what our IT person does and play music over the speaker on their phone as they walk around.

    #4 Flip the situation and say you got the job, would you still have the position that anybody hired under this HR person should have the decision reversed?

  23. Dorf*


    Hey look! It’s the rare case of Bad Management™ presented by the source. We hear so much about “just bad management” around here but so rarely have it served it up by the perpetrator–thanks!

    1. betty lou spence*

      That seems unfair. And to be honest, I agree with the OP: IMO, headphones are not appropriate for help desk employees. (I’m assuming these are help desk employees as OP said that they are being approached for support. If they’re programmers than it doesn’t matter, but for support, it does.)

      1. Jen RO*

        I would argue the opposite – help desk employees should not be bothered by Regular Joe walking into their office. I am coming from the perspective of a big company where all communication to the help desk has to come in the form of a ticket logged through the appropriate channels, which allows them to prioritize tickets correctly and also lets them concentrate in peace – I sure wouldn’t want Mary to walk over to HelpGuy and distract him from fixing my internet problem! In my company, the help desk people are supposed to deny all “informal” requests.

        1. betty lou spence*

          I guess we just don’t know how the OP’s company work.

          I don’t work in IT, so maybe it’s different. I’m a librarian. Headphones at the reference desk would be a huge no-no.

        2. Judy*

          Yes, I mentioned that above. I’ve never worked in a place that didn’t require IT issues to be tracked in a system. You just don’t go and ask the IT team anything. (If it was really urgent, I’d write the ticket, and walk over with the ticket number.)

        3. Jennifer M.*

          At my office, the help desk is the only office area that has its door closed all the time. They don’t really want walk-ins; they want requests logged in the system. If you do have to come down (drop off/pick up usually), you have to knock on the door and be let in.

        4. Bend & Snap*

          I’ve never worked at a company where it was okay to walk up to an IT employee unless something was literally on fire. Open a ticket and let them help you.

          If a walk-up policy is okay and there’s a productivity problem, that may be something to look at. I don’t know anyone who can get a lot of high-quality work done with constant interruptions.

        5. Liza*

          It depends a great deal on the company. I’m in IT support and at my current company, employees are encouraged to contact IT in any way that works for them: phone, email, or walking up. I’ve worked at other companies where it was more like what you’re describing, Jen. Of the two, I prefer my current situation even though it can be more disruptive to me, because it leads to better service overall–because people are more likely to tell us about problems they’re having. (It does mean I sometimes have to say “I will take a look at your problem as soon as I finish this task” so I don’t get pulled from one thing to another, but I can do that.) It also leads to greater satisfaction among the people we support.

          In a situation like mine, I’m in favor of banning headphones AND earbuds the majority of the time, for all the approachability reasons mentioned in other comments. When someone is working on a special task that needs extra focus, or that needs audio, then I don’t see a problem with either headphones or earbuds–but maybe put a sign up in those cases that says “Working on a special project, please see my colleague Jane if you need anything”.

      2. Graciosa*

        When I first started at OldJob, walk up IT support was the standard. Yes, there were tracked tickets, but the end users were not the ones who filled them out.

        Way back then – in the olden days when we all walked to school in the snow up hill both ways – IT support was considered a *support* function, and end user service and convenience were the most important KPIs.

        Then we started outsourcing (to save money) and got terrible phone support – unless you were an executive. The decision makers who decided to outsource were not stupid enough to accept telephone support from another time zones as an adequate replacement to on site service with an actual human being.

        Having endured this for many years – including the technicians who interrupted my explanation that I needed a password reset to tell me to reboot, and the ones who closed my tickets after I failed to answer the phone immediately when they called back at 1:30 in the morning – I am pleased to see some signs that the pendulum is swinging back again.

        We actually have on site support with visible human beings that you can walk up to and speak with. It’s amazing. And fantastic. I had one who fixed a problem in less than thirty minutes that our telephone tech support had not been able to resolve at any level for more than a month. I adore them.

        And they do NOT wear earbuds or headphones or anything else that would appear to distract them from customer service.

        Of course, that doesn’t mean they’re not playing Galaga when I can’t see the screen – ;-)

      3. Ad Astra*

        In my company, “help desk” is a bit of a misnomer. There is no physical help desk; it’s a portal in our Intranet where you submit requests electronically, and then the appropriate person handles it from his/her cubicle. I assume that’s the setup OP is working in, rather than a physical desk (like a Genius Bar) where folks are expected to walk up and ask for help.

        Perhaps the OP will show up and clarify this, because I think it makes a big difference in whether this rule is reasonable and helpful.

      4. Observer*

        Here is the thing – the OP is ok with earbuds. The case he makes for differentiating between earbuds and headphones simply doesn’t hold up.

    2. Graciosa*

      I think that’s an extreme reaction to one small decision.

      Like Wakeen’s Teapots Ltd. above, I think there has been a cultural shift in how earphones are viewed in the work place. Whenever you’re dealing with a cultural shift, there are always some people ahead of the curve (who think the new practice is obvious, universal, and well-established as a standard) and people closer to the back of the curve (who think the few people trying this are demonstrating a lack of respect for the existing standard).

      A little understanding would help here, and at least an attempt to consider other points of view.

      In the category of bad management, we have seen bosses who:
      – spoofed the caller ID of an employee’s hospitalized mother;
      – insisted on underwear approval; and
      – visited the employee’s home to pound on the doors and windows.

      This is in addition to companies that withhold pay, believe screaming is a useful management tool, or have managers who extort money and steal tech equipment from their employees.

      Here we have a boss who imposed a rule – admittedly an unpopular one, but possibly justifiable under certain circumstances and certainly not rising to the level of underwear approval – after discussing it with the employee. These discussions are what we want from managers and don’t always get.

      I don’t think the Bad Manager label is justified here. Even assuming the rule was wrong – and I’m not yet convinced either way – even the best managers are imperfect humans who occasionally try something that doesn’t work as intended.

      1. Dorf*

        Your first three examples are Ludicrous Management Bordering on Criminal Behavior, not Bad Management.

        This case is classic control freak stuff–haughtiness, assumptions about others’ perceptions, indulging a vague personal feeling of dis-ease as justification for a policy to counter what is really a perfectly normal social interaction in the year 2015 (i.e., visually obtaining a headphone-wearer’s attention). And also, Bad Management isn’t the same as Bad Manager, but disciplinary action for an employee subjected to nonsense is on the table here. Some criticism is warranted.

        If businesses won’t pony up for quiet and privacy to help people concentrate, they need to concede something. Headphones are that something for many people forced to work in an open environment. Unless the main job responsibility here is to be attentive to walkups, headphones aren’t a problem.

        1. LBK*

          Control freak seems like a pretty inaccurate label here, and I say that as a control freak myself. I don’t get any sense that the OP is doing this because she wants to exert her authority or to make everyone do everything her way – it’s because she perceives a business issue with the image of the department. It may not be justified, but piling on with insults and assumptions about her motivations is unnecessary.

          It’s also weird to me when people treat managers like some kind of evil alien robot race. Managers are *humans* and as such are prone to flaws, bad ideas and missteps just like every other human out there. You’ll get much better results approaching situations like this with the attitude of “I’m going to talk to you person to person” instead of “You must be doing this because you’re evil and you hate me so there’s no reason to even try to reason with you”. I hate that us vs. them attitude and I find the people who think that way are usually the most unhappy with their careers.

          1. Dorf*

            It seems possibly presumptuous, but there’s nothing to argue that it’s inaccurate, and there’s some to argue that it’s on point (e.g., the stiff “apply my management rule” phrase along with no practical justification for a rule but two or three subjective, personal ones). And note that I mentioned the case, not the person–this is control freak-like behavior whether the OP is in fact a control freak in general.

            If the us vs. them attitude were so toxic, the OP should have avoided it in the first place. Plus, yet again, I don’t think people are saying that the OP is irredeemable or a robot or evil; but the OP is wrong in this case. I don’t have any problem saying that directly, and neither do several other people in this thread. Some are handling this case with kid gloves for some reason, but yes, I agree: humans are prone to missteps. This headphone rule is one of those.

          2. Graciosa*

            I have the same reaction.

            I am really, really, really glad that I don’t have this type of relationship with my direct reports. Being treated this way on a regular basis would drive me insane.

            Sometimes I think that people forget you typically become a manager AFTER having been an ordinary, individual-contributor employee for a while.

            Most of us had both good and bad bosses before we became managers – and continue to have both good and bad bosses after becoming a manager. Managing our first teams did not come with omnipotence.

            Although having seen Terminator Genisys this weekend, your evil alien robot race idea captured my imagination. I am picturing t-shirts –

            T E R M I N A T O R
            Infiltration Unit – Boss Model
            Built to Destroy the Human Race!

            [Sometimes all you can do is laugh it off.]

        2. Elizabeth West*

          I didn’t read it that way at all. A haughty control freak manager would not have written to AAM for help. The employee would have written in: “Dear AAM, my haughty control freak manager insists I not wear headphones while I’m trying to concentrate. How can I handle this?”

          I’m not saying everything OP has done is perfect, but leave a little room for improvement here.

  24. Dawn*

    #5: go hang out on Hacker News and Quora/StackOverflow/Github etc. Just keep an eye on tech stuff that pops up day to day- there’s a lot of chatter about what skills are best to learn, how the industry is changing, what technologies are up and coming, as well as a lot of job postings from hip tech companies that will let you see what they’re hiring for. You can also ID companies that you’d like to look for and follow them on GlassDoor and LinkedIn to see what jobs they’re posting about- it’s also a good idea to follow their blogs/FB/Twitter just to keep up with general chatter so you can hear about initiatives way before they hit the market which will also give you a good idea what skills they need.

  25. msmanager*


    The people in our accounting department sometimes wear earbuds. I would love it if they wore headphones instead – then I would know to tap them on the shoulder first!

    1. Hlyssande*

      Nooo, don’t tap on shoulders. Some people don’t respond well to being touched unexpectedly at all. If there’s something to knock on, knock on the thing.

      I have friends with chronic pain where even a well-meaning gentle touch on the shoulder can leave them with lasting pain if they don’t expect it.

      A friend from college had a spinal injury where if someone touched him on the back, it could cause him to fall.

    2. ginger ale for all*

      Please don’t ever touch your fellow employees unless it is an emergency and you are pulling them out of a burning building.

      I don’t have any kind of injury or medical need to not be touched by people who are not my romantic interest or family but it just squicks me out when people do anything other than a handshake. I don’t even kike it when someone taps me on the arm while we are sitting side by side to get my attention. I just stiffen up as if I am being attacked. My family has a hilarious videotape of me at a Girl Scout ceremony where our leader went down the line hugging the troop and I was last in line. She hugged me and I was completely stiff so she leaned me over and had to prop me back up straight with me all the while have this look of absolute terror on my face. The kicker is that I loved that Scout leader like a second mom. Sheldon Cooper has nothing on me.

  26. Richard*

    Good suggestions above on #5. Trying not to exactly repeat all of it…

    Also suggest that you look at some of the meetups (check out in the areas that you’re going to be looking to work in. If you can, try joining similar ones yourself, and keep an ear open to what they’re talking about. Talk to the people who are 1-2 years ahead of you in school. Make friends with them where you can, they may be hiring you later.

    Not knowing a thing about where you live or what industries you’re looking at, if you were interviewing with me –
    I’d suggest picking at least one programming language out of Java, C++, or Python – and getting as good as you can on it, and making sure your resume reflects that one. Then learn a few others, but make sure not to give them equal credit on your resume. If you don’t already use it in school, I would also suggest trying out Linux (use a Live DVD or USB stick, you don’t have to install anything on your computer – just boot it from the DVD/USB stick).

    If you feel that your school isn’t preparing you, then either look for an internship or job outside school, or find an open source program that needs help. Even if you aren’t ready to program for them, many of them need testers.

    The best interviewees have been able to concretely talk about what they’ve done – not just what the team they were on has done. When given a chance to give an elevator speech, they tell me what they’re good at and what they want to do.

    The worst interviewees give me a sparse resume that has a list of 15 programming languages, and make me play 20 questions to figure out which 2 they used in class.

  27. Nobody*

    #4 – Sorry, but it doesn’t work that way. If you really think about it, it would be ridiculous if all hiring decisions made by the unqualified HR person were reversed. What if you had gotten the job? Would it be fair for them to take it away from you just because the HR guy is a liar? Would it be fair to fire all the people who were hired on this guy’s watch? No way!

    By the way, terrible and unfair hiring decisions are made all the time by qualified and experienced people. There’s no guarantee that anyone else would have selected you. If you challenge their decision based on this, and especially if you bring a lawyer into it, you will just look foolish and probably make them glad they didn’t select you. I’m not saying this to be mean, but to urge you not to pursue this. I doubt any lawyer would take your case, anyway. Better luck next time.

    1. Dana*

      I think this is a good point to consider–if OP had gotten the job and then been demoted because the HR person was fired and their decisions all reversed, wouldn’t it seem absurd?

  28. Allison*

    #1, not only do some people not like earbuds, but having IT people wearing them could backfire if someone approaches IT, not noticing the earbuds, and just starts talking to them. At least big headphones signal to everyone “I’m listening to something and I need to remove these before I can hear you.”

    Either let them wear headphones, or don’t let them listen to music, but first you may want to get a better sense of whether the headphones are actually bothering the people who approach IT.

  29. You understand, they got a plan for us*

    #5: when I’m looking for software people, I tend to want someone who has a bit of experience with several different languages, because that will tend to show that the candidate has the ability to learn new languages as required.

    If you’re looking for specific examples, I’d say that experience with Java and C++, and Javascript/HTML5/CSS3 and jQuery are a pretty solid foundation for almost any job these days. There are a lot of here today / gone tomorrow frameworks and technologies, but it’s going to be a long while before strongly-typed, compiled OO languages are replaced on back-end systems (ie, Java, C++) and web browsers will probably use Javascript/HTML/CSS until the heat-death of the universe.

    I’ve written about this before: any classes you take on some kewl new technology usually aren’t worth the money, as you’ll have an edge on something that might last for a year. I’m hiring people for long-term positions, so what I want is someone who has a solid knowledge of the foundations (algorithms, data structures, architecture) as well as a strong understanding of networking, security, databases, and (the newcomer who is here to stay) mobile development. I venture to say that a background like this could get you hired at many, many places.

    (If it matters, this is coming from someone with 30 years experience in software technology at a Fortune 50 I/T company).

  30. Kyrielle*

    #5 – it also depends on what your goal is / what you want to do with it, so make sure you are talking to or looking at companies doing exactly what you want. I just went from a position programming C under Windows (still more common than you might think) to another one programming C++ using QT under Linux. Another position I applied for used C++.NET under Windows.

    And those are the ones closest to *my* skill set, and in my very limited range of locations I wanted to travel to and companies I wanted to work for. There were easily opportunities for C#.NET, VB.NET, Python/perl in addition to other skills, and languages whose names I *literally* hadn’t heard of.

    Look at the positions in the field you’re most interested in, see what they have in common, aim at that. Also aim to see how fast you can ramp up on something new, because that is easily the most critical thing, IMX.

    I will say that in many fields, some variant of C++ will serve you well – because if you can read C++, you can (with some adaptation) read C and C# because of how closely they’re related, and arguably some other languages also. But if *none* of them are in use where you want to go…then that’s not so useful.

    1. TootsNYC*

      I’m curious–is there a level of “portability” of skills between languages? Not that they’re identical necessarily, but…does learning one really well then make it easier to learn another?

      Sort of like learning people languages.

      I’m asking because I find that if someone (true of me, but I’ve seen of others) learns how to use one computer program, they are probably going to be really fast at picking up another one. Or, if not fast, able to get more out of it.

      1. Windchime*

        There is a level of portability, I’ve found. Once you’ve learned a language or two, then it’s much easier to pick up others. Sometimes it’s just a matter of learning new syntax, other times there are new features to become familiar with. But if someone came to me and said that they know Java and C++, then they will almost certainly be able to learn C# very quickly.

      2. Kyrielle*

        Yes! Hugely so in fact, because there are “types” of languages and learning how one of that “type” works makes it vastly easier to learn others.

        In that sense, in most fields, I’d start by learning an object-oriented language, followed by a procedural language (no objects). (There are lots of other types, but those are the two most common, in order of current preference – OO is ‘newer’ and generally preferred, for reasons, but there’s a lot of the older style still around being worked with.)

        In some sense, starting with C++ may make it easiest, because C (which is C++’s predecesor) is procedural while C++ is object-oriented, so you’ll have an easy leg up on the *syntax* of a procedural language, but there’s all sorts of ways to tackle it.

        (The difference is in how programs written that way *structure* and how to think about them, and it’s way more dramatic than the syntax difference between two languages of a ‘type’ usually is.)

  31. SherryD*

    I customize my resume for every job. It’s not too time-consuming, and I think it helps me get interviews. The only issue I’ve had is when someone helping me with my job search says, “Send me your resume, and I’ll take a look.” Um… which one? (I end up sending something recent, or one intended for a job that’s in line with what I’d most want.)

    1. TootsNYC*

      I also customize my resumé for almost every job.

      I have some basic ones for the different sorts of jobs I could go after. Each of them would be OK in a pinch for other roles, but not ideal.

      And if I were asked for a general resumé, I’d probably send the one that emphasizes the job I’d most like to have, given that all the experience I’ve got is pretty related.

      It’s not that hard–most of what I do is reorder the achievements / skills / responsibilities. I’ll move the budget one up to the top, or to #2, if the ad I’m answering mentions budgeting. (I don’t like rewriting or rewording if I can avoid it, bcs there’s a risk of typos; bad for anyone but absolutely deadly for me.)

  32. The IT Manager*

    LW#2, I’m sorry you’re experiencing this. Unfortunately while you have described a textbook situation as to why managers being friends (as opposed to friendly) with the people she supervises is a problem, you don’t have a ton of options. I’m going to go with there’s no way your manager can be unaware that she’s doing it so she probably doesn’t care enough about it to stop. If you think there’s a chance she might care how the three of you who are left out feel, you can try telling her. You can also try going to your boss’s boss or HR. It might help if the three of you who feel excluded go as a group.

    But the problem is that this is bad management 101 and you make it sounds obvious so I don’t think you’ll be telling anyone anything they don’t already know and haven’t done anything about yet.

    1. Ann O'Nemity*

      And I have to wonder if this isn’t the only bad management practice going on here.

    2. Stranger than fiction*

      Ah such good points, I agree about addressing it as a group, the whole strength in numbers thing. If it’s a big company, they may have no idea. Also, id advise the Op to document any concrete examples of favortism occuring, in case they need some evidence to back them up at any point.

  33. the_scientist*

    I have to be honest about number 1, I’m seriously wondering what kind of company allows people to just walk into the IT office at any old time to ask questions in person. Any place I’ve ever worked, you had to contact help desk either by phone or by submitting a form and generating a ticket. That way, all requests are logged and the company can prioritize requests and monitor the length of time from initiation –> ticket close as well as tracking who worked on the issue. With this method, IT is also not forced to deal with a low-priority issue right that second, just because the person happened to walk into their office. At my current job, we can reach our IT people on IM sometimes, but it’s understood that unless their status is “available” they aren’t to be bothered. So I have to wonder here if the root problem is expecting IT to be constantly available to handle interruptions, but I don’t know the nature of the OP’s business or the size of the company.

    The employees in this question also have my sympathy because I do a lot of data quality work and SAS programming and you better believe that I’ve got at least one earbud in when I am doing that sort of work to block out the ambient noise in my cube farm.

    1. Anonymous Educator*

      Although I love this idea in theory, every help desk–type situation I’ve been in has always been a walk-in scenario. I’ve worked in only small- or medium-sized organizations—not sure if that’s why, or if it’s just the places I’ve worked that have been this way. In one place, I tried to force a ticket system, but my boss was not insistent on it being mandatory for users to use, so I ended up just creating tickets for the users as they walked in… just to have a log of everything. Another place, my boss was simply against the ticketing system. And then in yet another place, my boss’s predecessor was let go for trying to insist on people using the ticketing system, so… no ticketing system.

    2. Allison*

      Probably a small, newish company in a small office, who hasn’t implemented an IT ticket system yet because they haven’t seen the need for it, or they have but are still working out the budget for it and considering vendors. It doesn’t happen overnight! I do think that a ticket system streamlines things and helps IT prioritize, but not all companies have them.

      Also, if someone’s laptop isn’t working or can’t connect to the internet, going to IT in person may be the only thing they can do.

      1. Stranger than fiction*

        If a remote persons laptop isn’t working they can just email from their cell i would think

    3. Oryx*

      Mine does. We have a single on-site IT person and then a larger remote corporate IT team. Our on-site person can do most basic troubleshooting and we can just walk on up to his office if we need assistance or call him or send an IM. For larger problems, the remote corporate team handles it via ticket process like you indicated.

      1. Stranger than fiction*

        Maybe in these types of situations, they dont have a lot of other responsibilities, though. A more general IT person helps users, but is also monitoring the servers and exporting reports and other things

    4. fposte*

      Ours does, and it has a big emphasis on walk-in availability. It’s basically a customer service position, and it would be pretty inappropriate for somebody to have earbuds or headphones on there except maybe for a moment.

      I don’t know if that’s true for the OP’s or not. If it is, it’s also possible that there are expectations for work that isn’t compatible with that kind of front-facing role, and the OP might want to think about that.

      Either way, though, the employee should not have openly disregarded a pretty simple request.

  34. AthenaC*

    #1 –

    I used to work in a job where listening via headphones was part of the job, and at my current job I benefit from being able to listen to music while I work. But I also supervise other people who periodically have questions for me, so I want to appear available. What works for me is to put an earbud in (or headphone over) the one ear that’s not facing anyone or facing fewer people, and leave the other ear open. That way I have a balance between listening to my music and knowing right away when I need to interact with other people.

    I wonder if something like this might work to address the manager’s concerns and allow the employees to be productive.

    1. Windchime*

      It’s good that you can do this, but it would drive me crazy. It would be like listening to two radio stations at the same time and I simply wouldn’t be able to concentrate on either.

    2. AthenaC*

      Meant to add in – when someone approaches me, the other earbud / headphone is immediately removed so they know they have my full attention.

  35. MM*

    #1 – my only concern with the manager now revising his/her stance is that because the employee disregarded the direction, it may look like the manager is just “giving in” because the employee didn’t want to wear them. So I’d tread lightly here.

    1. fposte*

      I get what you’re saying, but I think as a manager I’d rather have the false appearance of giving in than an adherence to a policy that turns out not to make sense. If other people think insubordination will lead to my giving in, they’ll learn pretty quickly that that’s not true.

      1. LBK*

        And in the long run, looking like someone who’s open to admitting when you did something wrong is much, much better for the manager’s image than appearing “strong” or whatever perception you’d be attempting to gain by sticking to the rule. That’s what allows your employees to be direct with you about issues rather than running to HR or just silently disobeying you.

  36. Dr. Pepper Addict*

    #5 – I have several friends that work in IT with Computer Science degrees. I toyed with the idea of going back to school myself for that – they all emphasized to me that the most important thing employers look for is various certifications, not education. My best friend who works in IT, knows of a guy that went straight from high school into that line of work and already knew tons about computers. He’s got a higher position in the company than my friend does.

    I don’t say that to discourage you from going to school – rather that from what I know of the field, the certifications are looked at very important, and you should probably concentrate on getting as many of those as you can. That’s what employers are looking for in that field – as I understand it.

    1. TootsNYC*

      Yeah, I might suggest going for certifications, and then seeing if you can get into the field. Then, once you’re working, you can see if going back to school will get you any greater expertise.

      My kid is studying computer science, and her almost-Ivy-League college emphasizes that they’re teaching them how to be a computer SCIENTIST instead of a COMPUTER scientist–focusing on problem solving, understanding the connections, etc. I have no idea if that’s true, but there is often a higher level of thinking that goes along with any sort of “detailed, hands-on” sort of field. Getting the hands-on skills might be a way to get in, and then you can see whether there’s a “higher level of thinking” sort of education that’s worthwhile.

      1. Kyrielle*

        For programming, having the style of thinking can be very valuable for making quick switches between the different languages for hands-on. Depends on what you’re hoping to do with that computer science. :)

    2. Kyrielle*

      I find that’s true of IT, but not so much of programming – for programming, either college or work experience count more than certifications, in my experience.

      1. BeenThere*

        This. Certifications mean absolutely nothing for programming positions. They can hurt you in some roles as the perception is that you’ve spent time and money to pass a test rather than creating a project and throwing it up on github to demonstrate your skills. Programming is one of those areas similar to the creative arts in that you can have a portfolio of work to show people even if you can’t use your actual work due to NDA’s and IP agreements ( common in Finance ) you should be able to throw together some samples.

  37. TootsNYC*

    Re: #1, and the objecting, then going to HR.

    That would have me sitting down with the employee.

    OK, sure, headphones vs earbuds are a big deal for you. Then you speak to me about it more in-depth. If you don’t bring it up, complete with your fact-based reasons, then I expect you to give it the good old college try and see if it works.

    And then you come back to me.

    You don’t throw “the company doesn’t have this rule” in my face, and you don’t take it to HR.

    Of course, I’ve been able most times to create a situation in which people who work for me feel they can actually speak to me and influence my decisions (sometimes maybe a bit too much, I think).

    And if the OP wants to reverse her decision without looking like she’ll cave at the least sign of opposition, that’s what I’d focus on: “You bring your objections to me, and my rules for how work is done inside our department trumps the company, and the way you handled this doesn’t make you look good. That said, here is the problem I have–what is your suggestion for how -you- will address it?”

    And the OP should never feel the tiniest bit of qualm interrupting someone’s headphone listening. Interrupting their *work* if they’re focusing; interrupting a task they’re midstream on; interrupting a phone call; interrupting an online training session–maybe she can feel a little bad about that, or decide to wait until the subordinate is finished. That has nothing to do with headphones, though.

    But there’s nothing about headphones, specifically, that can’t be interrupted. So maybe the OP just needs to feel more confident about that.

    1. TootsNYC*

      Meant to say–it’s not a problem for me that a subordinate has an objection to my solution for a problem.

      It IS a problem if the form of their objection is basically “you can’t make me.” That’s what “there’s no company policy” is: “You can’t make me.” Ditto the going immediately to HR.

      I’ve had subordinates tell me they don’t want to do things the way I’m saying. They have always said, “I don’t think it will work” or “it will make a few things harder” or even sometimes just, “I don’t personally like it; it bugs me.”
      They have also always said, “Can we fix the problem in this way, or that way?”

  38. azvlr*

    OP#3 – I used to tailor my resume to each job. However, I found that as began to identify what I really wanted to be when I grew up (after age 40!), the jobs that I was interested in grew smaller, but my resume matched more closely to those job descriptions. I feel that I interviewed strongly for my current job because of this focus, and my passion was very evident to the interviewers.

    That said, I did reword my resume to describe relevant skills I had gained in other roles in terms common to my new field. For that I borrowed heavily from job descriptions of interesting jobs. So instead of saying “Created lesson plans for Chocolate Teapot Applied Science course”, I used the verbs “designed, developed and implemented”, which closely follow a theoretical model in my field. I hope this was helpful!

  39. Oranges*

    #1: the biggest concern I have is why the employee didn’t use their words with you. By their actions they clearly had an issue with your (to me, ridiculous and petty) rule. That doesn’t matter.

    What matters is that you decided something and the employee rolled their eyes and ignored it. Which means you are managing that employee wrong, or that employee sucks. I’m going to guess the first one since it’s more likely in my mind and I feel for the employee TBH.

    Things that will help managing the anti-authoritative (from one):
    Try telling them straight out that it annoys YOU to have headphones instead of earbuds (unless you have actually gotten complaints).

    Ask if there’s any problems with switching (I’m betting those headphone cost $200 and that’s why they made a stink).

    Make it a trial thing: from next Monday for two weeks wear earbuds and we’ll see how it goes.

    Tell them the reason behind everything. If it boils down to “I’m the boss” I will do the thing but my respect for you and my willingness to go above and beyond just got torpedoed.

    Choose your battles wisely and always remember that I want to make you happy (it’s my job as an employee) but it’s your job to take care of me so I can do my job to the best of my ability.

  40. Tinker*

    In #1, as far as the question of the employee’s reaction to the thing, I’m going to point out the same thing other people did — ten minutes later this guy is flat ignoring you, and when called on it they’re instantly going over your head? One way of describing that is “insubordination” that is to be dealt with in some sense by doubling down on establishing authority. Another way is “complete breakdown of the working relationship”.

    What strikes me here is that if my boss decided he didn’t want me wearing headphones, he wouldn’t have met with me to discuss and apply his management rule that headphones were not to be worn but rather would have asked me not to wear them (maybe that’s what the OP meant, but the phrasing there has an odd emphasis on role power) , and if I had a problem with it then this would have been apparent in the ensuing civilized use of words to discuss matters rather than my flat ignoring him and then running to HR. This is, admittedly, because I am not a jerk and have some amount of decent judgment (and it seems that at minimum this dude lacks judgment, as I’d tell him were he the one writing in). But it’s also because my boss and I have a preexisting amicable and productive working relationship. Something about this case smells like that sort of relationship is lacking, and it might be useful to examine why.

    Few theories that come to mind: 1) It’s the established strategy for this guy or in this area that when directives come down that you don’t agree with, you just continue on with business as usual and generally the problem goes away — and this is often enough a functional solution to the problem that the person engages in it casually. 2) There’s a sufficient gap in expectations/communication that they’re figuring “might as well be hanged for a sheep as a lamb” because some other petty power struggle will be coming along tomorrow, and one might as well face it with un-chafed ears. 3) This person has concluded for some reason, correctly or not, that going to HR or otherwise over the OP’s head is more likely to resolve the dispute than trying to have any sort of discussion with them. 4) They’ve checked completely out of any sort of investment in a good working relationship, and hopefully are sending resumes out and banking that they’ll be gone shortly anyway — or they’re not thinking that far ahead, because they don’t have great judgment, and are just going to rot in place until forcibly removed.

    A lot of these theories involve some degree of foolishness or ill intent on the part of the employee, but of the sort that exists in an overall negative context that involves more than just them. That the person is just a bad employee, in a way that has nothing to do with the surrounding environment, and that this problem should be addressed by some variation on doubling down on authority IS somewhere on the list, but I feel like there’s a smell of rotten eggs in the room and what’s being asked is where to put out the bowls of vinegar.

    1. AnotherFed*

      I tend to agree with you here. If any of the IT/engineering supervisors here came up with a rule as silly as this one, the first response would be to explain how silly it was. If there were no good reason, just the manager’s feelings about it, the engineers would assume that meant it wasn’t actually a rule, it was an expression of personal preference which they could feel free to ignore. Could that be going on here?

      The second response (assuming something like ‘because I said so’ was the reason provided) would still be flouting it, because it’s a silly rule. In my experience, IT and engineering people tend to ignore rules that don’t pass the “but why?” test, and unless there was a very specific “you will stop wearing headphones immediately and only wear earbuds from now on or you will receive disciplinary action” they wouldn’t think that counts as insubordination.

  41. Don't Know*

    #2: The situation could eventually blow up on your boss. My former boss/CEO did exactly the same thing….hired a friend and it was very clear to the “out” people who the “in” people were in the office. Boss then hired another friend and for a while they were one big, happy troika – hanging out in each other’s offices, lunching together, etc. It was indeed like junior high. But eventually her “friends” became jealous of each other and started competing to be the favorite friend. Then they got mad at CEO and started undermining her to the board. CEO eventually got fired.

  42. sittingduck*

    I wonder a few things – when you say you ‘had a discussion about the new rule’ I wonder how you worded it. Was it a ‘I think it would be better if everyone used ear-buds instead of headphones’ statement or ‘You are not allowed to use headphones anymore.’ statement. If it was the former – that could be interpreted as something you are just thinking about, but haven’t set in stone yet.

    While it could have been insubordination, as others have said, I think there are other options as well.
    1. Employee didn’t realize it was a ‘rule’ just thought its was a suggestion
    2. OP didn’t explain WHY headphones were a problem, just said ‘no headphones’ and employee didn’t think it was a big deal/thought OP was kidding
    3. Employee had something they HAD to listen to for work (digital voicemail, skype call, etc.) and didn’t have earbuds – so they used their headphones and OP happen to walk by while employee was using the headphones to do legit work, which would have disturbed others if headphones hadn’t been used.

    In general I agree with everyone else that this is a terrible hill to die on as a manager – and that headphones allow others to know someone is listening to something and won’t respond right away to a request.

    Personally I like to listen to music at work, and I have headphones, but I keep only one ear covered 99% of the time, so I can hear if someone is coming to my cube to chat. I don’t take the headphones off unless I leave my cube, but I do pause the music when someone comes to chat….

    The prolonged amount of time the headphones causes sounds like digging for a reason to ban headphones to me. The time difference between headphones and earbuds really depends on the person – can you take both earbuds out at once? Do you take one out at a time? I can take my headphones off with one hand and get both ears free just as quickly as I can pull out two earbuds. I feel like you are reaching with that one OP.

    I would HATE this rule as an employee, and think my manager was micromanaging and being unreasonable, so I to might go to HR to discuss it …

    1. fposte*

      It was a meeting especially about this subject (which is overkill to me, but that’s another matter), and when corrected on his behavior the employee wanted to go over his manager’s head. Whether the manager gave reasons or not doesn’t matter to the insubordination question.

      It could be a bad interaction, for a variety of reasons, that wouldn’t have elicited insubordination if it had been handled differently. But it’s still insubordination.

        1. whatsanenigma*

          Regarding the whole “insubordination” thing, I’m wondering if the employee found himself caught between the proverbial rock and hard place.

          Maybe when OP approached him with the new rule, he was working on something that had a very tight deadline. He then agreed with what the OP said, maybe thinking this was silly but let’s sort it out later. Then tried to do his work without the headphones, and being in IT, the nature of the project was that he just couldn’t.

          Then he had to decide. Put the headphones back on and finish the current, previously assigned project on time, but anger the OP? Or leave them off, “obeying” the OP but then missing his deadline and then needing to deal with the consequences of that?

          If I were OP, I think I would investigate this possibility before doing anything about “insubordination”. If a newly-made, no-warning rule is issued, and it interferes actively with the ability of the employees to do their actual important work, well…IMHO even if it is a rule that in the long term will make things better, to expect employees to work to their full productivity right out of the gate, with no time to make adjustments to how they work, I don’t think that is reasonable.

          And FWIW I do think that visible earphones are better than earbuds in terms of signalling to people that you are listening to something. Especially if the person pulls them off right away when approached, I think they are better than earbuds but that earbuds are equally valid if the policy is that employees are allowed to listen to stuff at work – and it sounds like for this particular job, such a thing is a necessity.

          1. fposte*

            It’s the employee’s obligation to speak up before disobeying something like that, though. That’s not really enough of a reason for it not to be insubordinate.

            1. whatsanenigma*

              Overall I think that is true. If it was really going to be a problem with being able to get his work done, ideally he should have had that conversation with OP, or gone to HR with the problem first, before just going ahead and using them.

              I was thinking specifically of a situation, though, where there really is a tight deadline, and it’s coming down to a choice between does he put the headphones back and get it done or take the time to go talk about it and not have time to get whatever it is done.

              Because depending on what that project was and who it was for, the “insubordination” of failing to meet a promised deadline might have heavier consequences than those possibly earned by putting the headphones back on.

      1. AnotherFed*

        Or the manager came up with “I feel like this makes you take too long to respond to me and I’d like you to be faster” and the employee thought it meant he needed to respond faster, not that the headphones were the actual problem.

  43. Fuzzyfuzz*

    In the OP1’s situation, it sounds like the earbuds vs. headphones thing is a pet peeve rather than a management/performance issue. Sure, you can outlaw pet peeves like this as a manager (I had a boss who hated document stapling and only had us order pizza from a certain place for staff parties because she didn’t like the alternative–even though she didn’t eat the pizza). But it comes across as petty and shortsighted. The insubordination you mention here is one thing, but really consider whether this is a hill you want to die on.

    Biasing my perspective–I had an ear surgery when I was in my early 20s that makes it impossible/painful for me to wear earbuds.

  44. You understand, they got a plan for us*

    #2: I once worked a remote temporary assignment where the manager J had his best friend K as a direct report / right hand man. It was not as horrible as it could have been. K really was a top performer, so J tended to shovel the tough assignments onto him. There were about 12 people on the team, and we all got along well, perhaps because we were a small group, bravely working alone in the middle of a bunch of people who weren’t very happy to see us.

    I would not try to argue that this kind of arrangement is always a good thing. It just happened to work out this one time. A big part of it was that in addition to being a rockstar, K was a genuine, give-you-the-shirt-off-his-back kind of guy. To put it another way, we all knew that at the end, J would assign a 1 to K and give the rest of us 2’s. But if we’d worked for a random manager Q who’d never met any of us before in his life, he very probably would have handed out the same scores.

    However, J was aware of the delicate nature of things, and while he tried not to show it, he always seemed a bit nervous that someone was going to call him out for giving K preferential treatment. But to the best of my knowledge, this never happened. The circumstances of the assignment were such that we were persona non grata who had been called in to get an ailing project back on track, and as such our allegience to each other was perhaps stranger than normal, and no-one was motivated to rock the boat.

  45. Kiki*

    OP 1, I am late to the party, but I’m a programmer who wears headphones. My boss just waves or taps my chair, and I snap out of my coding trance. It’s not a big deal for either of us. Imagine you are back in high school and you are in your noisy, busy office, BUT you have 50 state capitals to memorize in the next 5 minutes for an exam in 6 minutes. That’s what it’s like for us programmers to work around you. You’re kind of a pain, but we like you all anyway. Please, take a minute to read this blog post on how to destroy programmer productivity:

    1. fposte*

      I think that’s really true for all focused work, in fact, not just programming. There’s a reason why I have a work at home day for max productivity.

  46. Sara M*

    Am I the only person who finds earbuds comfortable and effective, but can’t wear any other kind of headphone because they give me tension headaches? They crush my ear or my skull, even when they supposedly fit right.

    This thread is making me wonder!

    1. Elizabeth West*

      I’ve had that same problem with certain makes of headphones, especially when they’re new and very tight. But usually after they loosen up with a few days’ wearing they’re all right. I can’t speak to the special cushioned earbuds, because I’ve never tried them, but regular ones don’t fit in my ears very well. Also, the sound is tinny. I’m sure the $$$$ Bose ones aren’t like that, but I can’t afford those!

    2. LBK*

      Nope – I’m also a weirdo who finds ear buds more comfortable than over-ear headphones, which feel like they’re slowly crushing my head.

    3. Ad Astra*

      Headbands give me headaches, and so does wearing my sunglasses on top of my head. So I bet headphones would have a similar effect, but I haven’t used anything but earbuds for the last 10 years, so I can’t remember.

      I’ve definitely used some heavier headphones (like in classrooms and libraries, so maybe they were old?) that smashed my stud earrings into my head, which was quite uncomfortable.

  47. Observer*

    #1 I’m going to echo what a lot of people have said, with some additional thoughts.

    It sounds like you’ve had problems like this with HR. Which means that either HR is dysfunctional, or you have a negative track record with them.

    It’s not entirely clear whether you actually gave your subordinate a clear directive in the original discussion. If you did, then he was insubordinate, and you need to deal with that. On the other hand, if you “discussed” all the reasons why you want him to wear earbuds rather than headphones and expected him to understand from that that you are applying a “management rule”, then it’s not surprising he ignored you. Either way, you have some work to do here in terms of your relationship with your subordinate. And just reasserting your authority is not likely to go well, especially since you don’t seem to have full HR backing.

    I’m not defending the insubordination. But, in the long term, WHY is important to you. If it’s a result of someone who just handles rules he doesn’t like poorly, then you one situation on your hands. And, I would say that most of Alison’s advice on managing people who don’t follow instructions would apply here.

    On the other hand, if the main cause of the problems is a pattern of imposing unreasonable rules, you have a very different issue. Sure, you still need to deal with the insubordination. But, this is an issue you really need to correct, because it’s much harder to retain good people when you do that.

    I think there is a good possibility that this is at least part of the problem. The reality is that the rule you imposed is just not reasonable. There is simply no case to be made against headphones vs earbuds other than the fact that you don’t like them. Yes, you try to make a case, but it simply doesn’t hold up. On the other hand, as people have pointed out, there are good reasons to prefer headphones to earbuds – even in respect to the issue you raise.

    Whatever you do about your insubordinate employee, please don’t respond by trying to double down on an unreasonable rule. And, try to figure out what you need to do to avoid getting into the kind of useless situation again.

    1. fposte*

      I agree with much of what you’re saying, but I don’t see any indication of a problem with HR in the post. The OP is annoyed that the employee went to HR, that’s all, and I think that’s an understandable response no matter how she feels about HR.

      1. Observer*

        I could be wrong, but if HR had backed OP, I would have expected a different response that “isn’t a manager allowed to make rules?”

  48. On The Prowl*

    #2) I feel your pain so damn much! My boss majorly plays favorites with three or five people in our department. It drives me nuts to be working hard while they’re off on long lunches or sitting for over an hour in an office just hanging out. It’s one of the things driving me to job search again (there’s other issues too but this is a major problem, I feel very isolated and unwelcomed in my department).

    So I guess that’s my only advice. Suffer through as best as you can, and start the search for a new job if it gets to you that badly. Good luck, you’re not alone!

    1. Ann*

      Me, too! I also get left out of most of the socializing, because as the receptionist I can’t leave the front desk. In fact, there are a couple of new customer service employees who don’t even realize that I’m part of the customer service team, because my own manager never includes me.

    2. Michelle P*

      #2 hit a nerve with me because we have a huge problem with this in one of departments. And it starts right at the top. It’s kind of long story, so I’ll try to keep it brief with the highlights.

      “Jane”, who is a dept. head, has a way too close relationship with all her managers, but particularly with “Jill”. Jill is married to another dept. head “Jack”. Jane planned/coordinated Jack & Jill’s wedding, shower and baby shower. She was even present at the birth of Jack & Jill’s child. Yes, as in the room present. Jane has coffee everyday at 3 with Jack. Jill would come except her office is across the building and she doesn’t want to walk that far. (Jill holds “court” in her office several times a day with her fav employees and when Jane and/or Jack disappears for hours, they are in Jill’s office).

      Jill has picked up her cues from Jane. Jill has filled her department with people she knows and/or she thinks has the “right” look. It’s retail store inside a museum, so I’m not sure how she decided what the “right” look is.
      One of Jill’s full time employees, Jessica, who has a desk inside Jill’s office, is related to Jill by marriage. Our employee handbook states that no family is to supervise each other. Well, not only does Jill supervise Jessica, Jessica & her family rent a house belonging to Jill. Jessica regularly babysits Jill’s child. Jill & Jessica play “good cop/bad cop” with part time employees because Jill wants everyone to like her and Jessica is really a bitty that no one likes because of her attitude. If Jessica is having a bad day, she takes it out on the part timers and Jill doesn’t even say anything.

      Jill also hired her former sister-in-law, June, as a part time employee. June stays on her phone 99% of the time she is at work and of course, nothing is said to her. Anyone else gets caught checking the time with their phone, hellfire rains down on them.

      Jill consistently gives her favorites the best shifts and makes sure they get maximum hours. They can come in late or leave early without any consequences. Jill and Jessica will talk a little sh*t about them but never speaks directly to them or tries to address the problem in anyway. She has group of about 5 “good” employees- come in on time, never ask to leave early, rarely call out sick (and usually have a dr’s notes if they do) and are really good employees, they just don’t kiss the boss’s behind. If they weren’t in college, they would all probably leave.

  49. T*

    #1 I think you need to admit to yourself that this is 100% about appearances and nothing else. I’ll admit it doesn’t look as professional when an employee is wearing bright red Beats like some high school kid vs. discrete ear buds. But there is no functional difference as far as interacting with other employees between on/over-the-ear headphones and ear buds. Even with ear buds, you still need to get someone’s attention and wait for them to take them out.

    And, as others have said, ear buds are not good for your hearing. I just read a study last Friday (can’t find link but I think it was from the Sweet Home weekly newsletter) that over-the-ear, noise-canceling headphones are the best for your hearing. I think they said you don’t turn them up as loud because you’re not also trying to block out outside noise.

    #5 As a senior IT person, I get approached by junior level employees all the time for advice. They are always so disappointed when I don’t list anything tech-related in my answer. What will make you successful and help you move up? The exact same things that make you successful anywhere.

    1. T*

      #1 In addition, I think there is something to be said for not setting rules that every other department surrounding yours does not have. It would be different if you could show on paper that it relates directly to customer satisfaction but the headphone thing seems more like a preference to me. Little things like this often have a disproportionate effect on workplace happiness.

      I also never do anything to make myself unpopular unless there is a clear payoff for me. I’ve always found that unpopular people don’t typically have the same rate of career advancement. Our fates are often decided by what is said about us behind closed doors so I wouldn’t want an employee potentially badmouthing me because he can’t wear headphones.

  50. YawningDodo*

    OP3: I’m one of the ones who keeps a master resume and edits it down for each job application. I find it’s easier to do it for each application than to try to keep track of which version to reuse for any given posting, though if I’m applying for a bunch of jobs I get pretty quick at remembering which parts I usually alter for each general type of job. It’s not just cutting parts out, either; I’ll change the order of the bullet points under each job so that the most relevant skills are the first ones listed. My master resume is a little over three pages now, but I never submit one that’s longer than two.

    And my master resume really does include EVERYTHING I’ve done since starting college (think it’s safe to leave my high school summer jobs off at this point). My live-in work in the dorms hasn’t made it onto a submitted resume in years and probably never will again, but you never know. There’s also a minimum-wage job I worked during college that normally gets trimmed out, but which made it onto my most recent application because that old job was within the same corporation to which I was applying and it helped illustrate that I’ve had a long-term interest in working for them. So seriously, keep everything on that master resume, because it would be such a pain to dredge up that information if you suddenly realized you needed it for a specific application.

    1. Elizabeth West*

      I have that too, and I always saved each version with the name of the job, the company, and the date I sent it. Like Admin Asst-Teapots Inc.-Feb 16 2012. Along with my spreadsheet, it helped me keep track. When I get a new job, I update it as I learn and take on new tasks so it’s always ready to go if I need it. Two layoffs made me paranoid.

      1. YawningDodo*

        Yeah, I save the versions I send out — I don’t put exact dates on them (probably should), but on my computer I have a folder for each job application I’ve sent out that includes the cover letter and the version of the resume that I sent them, along with any other application materials, notes for myself, and (if I was on the ball at the time, which I haven’t always been) a copy of the job listing. It’s useful to have all that stuff in the short term, and in the long term I’ve never bothered to go through and delete most of it. I’ve gone back and referenced old application packages a couple times to see what was successful or to draw inspiration from old cover letters for similar positions.

    2. Ad Astra*

      I also treat LinkedIn more or less as a master resume, since it’s out there for anyone and everyone to see. The only thing not on there are my high school food service jobs, which wouldn’t be relevant to any job I’m interested in now.

  51. Cafe Au Lait*

    My workplace dealt with an earphone issue this year. The problem was one employee listened to music so loud she wasn’t able to hear when people approached her for help. Often we had to shout her name while standing right next to her.

    My manager banned headphones for just her. My colleague and I still listen to music, but our iDevices are kept on “low.” I would be able to have an entire conversation with my headphones on and the music playing.

    1. MashaKasha*

      I had a coworker who wore some kind of super-leaky headphones. I sat quite far from them and the music I kept hearing from their cubicle was so annoying, I had to break out my own earbuds. I originally thought this person was not wearing headphones at all, but other teammates corrected me on this.

      But this was really the only time I’ve ever had an issue with someone wearing headphones. If it doesn’t affect productivity, it’s not an issue. If it improves productivity, then it’s the opposite of being an issue.

  52. Shannon*

    The crux of the OP’s argument is that it looks unprofessional. Given that she’s allowed her employees to wear earbuds instead, it undermines all her other arguments for not wearing headphones.

    Personally, if I’m approaching anyone’s desk whose job is not primarily customer service, I give them a few seconds to acknowledge me, because I assume they’re working. It’s a courtesy to give someone a few seconds to wrap up their train of thought.

    Honestly, this is such a trivial issue that it falls into the “pick your battles” category.

    1. Jennifer*

      Seconded. I lose the headphones when I am specifically on public service duty, but otherwise, I am trying to drown out other people’s rackets so I can concentrate.

  53. voyager1*

    I haven’t read all the comments, but do you allow radios in your employees cubicles. I wear headphones because the person behind me has a radio blaring talk radio….

  54. Jo*

    I always wear headphones while working. They are invisible headphones, and I couldn’t get rid of them even if I wanted to.

    What I mean is, if I’m concentrating on work, and somebody speaks to me, I may not hear them simply because I’m concentrating. You can’t expect most people to have lightning-quick responsiveness when interrupted; it’s a special skill, whether innate or acquired, and I don’t think you should require it unless it’s crucial for that specific job (like the examples Alison gave – customer service, etc.) At my last job, I shared a small office space with my manager and another coworker, and if one of them spoke, they could just as easily be talking to each other and not to me/to both of us, and I just could not tune into what they were saying unless I knew they were speaking to me and I had a minute to shift my attention. They learned to address me by name and wait two seconds for me to say “Yes?” before going ahead. I think a lot of people’s brains function this way naturally, and a lot of people have to start functioning this way within an open-plan office just to maintain their focus, so the result is that you *always* have to wait those extra few seconds to get somebody’s attention even if they’re headphone-free.

    I now have a private office, so if somebody walks in and starts speaking I already know it’s me they want and I have to listen. But it still takes me a couple of seconds to finish my thought and shift focus to them. My manager is exactly the same way.

  55. Cranky PM*

    I rarely wear headphones at the office, but when I do, i wear big white ones so that people see them. That way they wait for me to take them off. If I wear earbuds, people have stood behind me having entire conversations and not realizing I can’t hear them. In IT, they are better off wearing the large headphones. It takes the EXACT same amount of time to remove earbuds than it does to remove over-the-ear headphones.

    This is a silly problem.

  56. Justin*

    Last contract I was on had a manager that was BFFs with her reports. So. Much. Loud. Conversation. Drove me crazy, and I heard way to much personal stuff.

  57. Volunteer Enforcer*

    #2, I have the same situation in a good way (if that’s possible). The head of my department is friends with my line manager. They manage this by keeping personal conversations outside of work and vice versa, forgetting the friendship and only acting like colleagues at work, and for areas where the friendship could easily introduce bias (such as a performance evaluation for my line manager) the department head’s boss does that area instead. It is hard, but can be managed with the right mindset and approach.

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