new boss barely talks to me, the ethics of gathering info from competitors, and more

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

1. The ethics of gathering information from competitors

I work in marketing research and a large part of my job involves tracking the activities of our competitors. This typically involves gathering information from their public websites/all social media pages/publicly available revenue information/etc.

Recently, however, I was unable to find pricing information on a specific product line on this particular competitor’s website. A potential customer would have to call to find that information. Which is exactly what my supervisor asked me to do: call pretending to be a customer and find out the pricing. This feels really unethical to me. Information that presented publicly is one thing, but this feels like intentional manipulation and I feel like it crosses a line. No one else seems to feel like this is a big deal, but I don’t think its right that I’m being asked to do this.

Is this a common thing and I’m just unaware of it, or am I right in thinking this is unethical behavior? And if it is wrong, how do I tell my boss no?

I think it depends on how deceptive you’d need to be to find out the pricing. If it’s as simple as just calling and asking and getting an answer on the spot, I don’t think that’s a big deal; it’s not all that different than getting the info from a website or from price-shopping a competitor’s store. But if your competitor would need to do real work to pull together a quote for you, you’d be wasting their time, and I think that’s unethical. Or if they ask you for a bunch of information about you/your company and you lie, that’s pretty shady. But a simple “can you tell me what X costs? okay, thanks very much” call isn’t a big deal.

If you do conclude that what you’d be doing falls on the shady side of the line, you could say to your boss, “I think we’d be crossing a line by asking them to spend time pulling together a quote. I’d suggest we look at X instead.” (X will depend on factors about your business I can’t predict, but ideally you’d want to have some alternate proposal to make here.)

2. My boss at my new job has barely talked to me and I have nothing but filing to do

I am a senior in college, and I was just hired at a company in their accounting department. Of course it’s a great opportunity to learn. The woman who hired me just came back from medical leave, so she’s trying to catch up on her end and in the office. In the interview, she said I would be learning how to handle the 401k accounts. The first day I worked there, she wasn’t there. So I asked her assistant on what I should do, so she told me to file. I have been filing for the past three weeks, and every time I try to talk to my manager, she’s always in a meeting or talking to someone. I don’t know if I should talk to her assistant or what to do.

Yes, talk to her assistant and ask her to help you get a meeting with your manager on her calendar. Then, in that meeting, say, “I know you’ve been very busy, but when I took this job, my understanding was that I’d be doing XYZ. Can we talk about what the timeline for getting me trained to do that will look like?”

3. Asking about an employer’s financial troubles at a job interview

I was just invited to interview at a college where I have been applying for the past several months. I’m committed to finding a job there, partially because it’ll get me much closer to field I’m most interested in, but mostly because I’m enrolled in a master’s program there and would receive free tuition as a full-time employee.

The problem is that I have several classmates who work at the college, and they (along with professors, advisors, etc.) have been openly discussing the college’s financial troubles for quite some time — budget cuts, changes to benefits packages, sporadic hiring freezes, and some layoffs (but not many, and not affecting the departments I’m applying to). Is this something I can or should bring up during the interview, when it’s my turn to ask questions? Or is it taboo (or just weird) for a candidate to ask the company about its rumored financial troubles?

Nope, you can bring it up. I’d say something like this: “I’ve heard that the college has had some layoffs and budget cuts lately, as have other schools. Has that impacted this department, and do you expect it could affect this role in the future?”

Keep in mind that they genuinely might not know the answer to that, or might give you a PR-ish answer rather than a real one, but it’s still worthwhile to ask the question, since you might have something that seems sincerely reassuring or that gives you more reason for caution.

4. Making people take the same week of vacation each year

Can a company make an employee take the same exact week of vacation each year? I can understand black-out days and the same month but the exact same week? This person can never take a family vacation because their spouse’s black-out days began on the same week.

Yes, they can — although it’s a pretty bad policy and will harm their ability to be competitive and attract good people, because people with options are likely to prefer to work somewhere less restrictive.

{ 83 comments… read them below }

  1. Kat A.*

    What is it with employers being hyper-controlling of people’s vacation time? Enough already.

    1. UKAnon*

      Well, sometimes there are good reasons – like “after X deadline each year we know there’s never enough work to do, and you’ve all just been doing 70 hour weeks, and you need to make sure you aren’t carrying over more than X holiday, and so for that week when you’d otherwise be sat in the office being bored we ask you to take holiday”. Or, in a small enough office, “the boss/owner wants a holiday this week, and as he has to be there for anybody else to have work, you all get holiday too” or so on.

      When there are no good reasons, then yeah. Stop it.

      1. aphrael*

        Even when there are reasons, employers should consider that occasionally, the fact that their employees are people instead of robots might be mildly inconvenient and plan accordingly.

        1. UKAnon*

          Well, yes, but employees also have to be receptive to business needs sometimes. If the company is shut that week they aren’t going to pay you for work you’ll never do.

          1. Andrew*

            I don’t think that it’s the case that there’s not work that could be done. Even during slow business times, if those exist, they could work on things like 1) planning ahead 2)analyzing successes and failures, etc.

            1. UKAnon*

              It entirely depends on the job. If your job is to put handles on teapots and there are no handles during X week of the year because sales and logistics and legal are all working on contracts for the next year, there’s no point standing next to an empty assembly line all day. Or if your job requires that another person be in the office for you to complete work, and that person isn’t there, you’re not going to be able to get anything done.

              I’m not saying that companies should be able to dictate every hour of your holiday. I’m saying that there are some companies and some situations where it makes sense for them to have shut down periods for some or all employees, and just as employers should offer proper holiday & other benefits, so should employees try and use them where possible with the needs of the company in mind.

              1. the gold digger*

                If the factory is closed for maintenance, there isn’t anything a press operator can do. Some places do close factories and that’s when everyone takes vacation.

                (We had one factory at least that closed the first week of hunting season because so many people would be taking off anyhow.)

                1. Meg*

                  Yes, my current employer closes the factory for a week each year for legally required maintenance. The factory workers have to either take a week’s vacation (and get paid) or not get paid. Most take the vacation.

                2. Witty Nickname*

                  My step-dad’s old company (a factory) used to shut down for a week or two during the summers. He was in the maintenance department, so his team worked at least one of those weeks to perform routine maintenance on the equipment. And his employer charged him for a week of vacation anyway. He got double pay, but lost an entire week of his already limited vacation time.
                  I think he generally took the first week of hunting season off too. :)

            2. MK*

              “they could work on things like 1) planning ahead 2)analyzing successes and failures, etc.”

              Frankly, that sounds more like making work to keep people busy. In many jobs, things like that are not even relevant.

          2. Mike C.*

            And sometimes those “business needs” are really nothing more than arbitrary inflexibility on the part of owners or management who lack creativity or an understanding of things like “cross-training” or “automation”.

          3. Faith*

            I have worked for two employers that had company-wide shutdown between Christmas and New Years. The first employer basically mandated that everyone has to use their PTO to cover those days. Considering the fact that everyone started with 2 weeks (80 hours) of PTO couldn’t get any more until they’ve been with the company for at least 5 years, the employer essentially made everyone use up half of their PTO during this shutdown. Needless to say, the long “Christmas break” was not viewed as a company perk. The second employer simply paid everyone during Christmas shutdown, without requiring them to use their PTO. So, the Christmas break was actually viewed as a company benefit, as opposed to a lousy way of cutting business costs and passing them on to your employees.

            1. JeJe*

              I’ve had two employers with Christmas to New Years Shutdown. They both worked the same way, we got paid for the shutdown without using PTO. The first company with that policy was horribly cheap and not afraid to nickel and dime their employees. I’m surprised they didn’t require PTO to be used.

            2. Sparty07*

              When I worked for a manufacturer, they shut down for a week of maintenance around July 4th. Union members got it off paid without using PTO based on their contract, but all the non-union office staff who shared the manufacturing building as the group headquarters were required to take the week off using their vacation. A select few could opt out if their work had a specific deadline or some other reason. The only group forced to work besides the maintenance crew was accounting/finance. We had to get the books closed according to a set calendar we couldn’t veer off of. But, because they were doing maintenance on the whole building, most of the week they would shut most of the air conditioning units off and we had to work with giant fans blowing. We did not enjoy having to work in those conditions, but at least our leadership dealt with the same problems and didn’t excuse themselves.

              Also, the same company had a company paid shutdown between Christmas and New Years, except our financing company. There had to be x% coverage and those who were forced to work were given 4 offsetting days to use at their leisure. Some people appreciated the chance to have other days off as they either had family close or didn’t travel for other reasons (spouses who had to work, etc) while others would always request the time off. It worked well for everyone.

        2. SevenSixOne*

          I think having a few blocks of 1-5 days blacked out is reasonable, but some companies take it too far– CurrentJob has just about everything from the week before Thanksgiving to the week after New Year’s day (about 8 weeks!) blacked out. I’ve been forced to call in “sick” when I absolutely can’t work a blackout day… but wouldn’t you rather know in advance that I need to take two days off in the middle of the blackout period and plan accordingly than get surprised on the day of that “oh by the way SevenSixOne won’t be here today or tomorrow” and be REALLY screwed?

          We’re a 24/7 operation, so we have to work holidays too– sometime in the beginning of September, you can sign up to have ONE holiday off during the blackout period, but you still may need to work any/all the other holidays, even if they fall on what would normally be your day off.

          1. Pinkie Pie Chart*

            My husband can’t take vacation from Nov 15th through Feb 15th. He works in a call center and that’s open enrollment for ACA related stuff. So, no family vacations for us.

      2. UK HR bod*

        I think it’s far more reasonable in the UK and Europe, where people tend to have more holiday time. It’s not uncommon for a Christmas close for instance, or to restrict certain times due to customer requirements. It’s rare though that it will cover all the holidays people have available to take – when you have limited holiday anyway, it feels far less reasonable to put restrictions around it that affect the employee’s ability to use it effectively.

      3. Kyrielle*

        Even when there are good reasons, it’s not a good idea. $PreviousJob went through a period where Christmas and New Year’s weeks had to be taken off out of our vacation, using up 6-7 days each year. New hires got 10 days…accrual started after 90 days on the job…and if you couldn’t take it paid you had to take it unpaid.

        We lost people, good people, over that. I would have been one of them, had I not already had four weeks of vacation a year and thus still enough time for the vacations that worked for MY family, of which this was NOT one. I did household chores and wandered about on an unwanted staycation those weeks, for two years, because it’s a TERRIBLE time to travel if you have no reason to, given everyone that wants and chooses to.

      4. Green*

        Companies should operate on the “hit by a bus” policy. Any organization should be able to function without one person for a week or two. Someone could quit, have a family emergency, be ill, or, yes, be “hit by a bus” and die. While an employee should be sensitive to business needs (i.e., you are the conference organizer and conference is X day each year or you work in the hotel industry in Florida and need to work over Christmas each year), that should apply more to black out days than mandated vacation week. This is definitely an organizational problem rather than an employees-not-being-sensitive-to-business-needs problem.

    2. AdAgencyChick*

      I’m guessing this is a holiday period because the spouse has a blackout then. If the business is closed for the holiday, that shouldn’t be part of people’s PTO/vacation allotment. I’m not saying they have to give the same number of PTO days as before, but when you HAVE to save X days of your vacation for a particular period that isn’t even of interest to you, it’s not a vacation.

      (This is making me terribly nostalgic for the days when many agencies would close for the week between Christmas and New Year’s.)

      1. Apollo Warbucks*

        I think it depends on how much holiday you have. My old job used to give 25 days holiday and then make you use three between Christmas and new years, which I didn’t like but was part of my contract.

        1. Elysian*

          NOPE. That week ends up being 5 of my 10 vacation days during the year, because I’m usually visiting family that lives far away. Some vacation, right?

    3. Chinook*

      Sometimes there are good business reasons and employees need to understand that when they work in an industry. Anyone in education knows you don’t get your choice of days off – it is dictated by school schedule. Around here, if you work in the bush (think logging, oil patch, natural gas exploration) the window of available time for work means no work during freeze up, spring thaw and bird nesting season. Rather than have employees sit idle, companies shut down during that time for paid vacations.

      1. Chameleon*

        Yeah, but in education at least inservice days are inservice days, not vacation days. Mr. Chameleon is a teacher, and he must work X days per year, less Y wellness days (sick or vacation PTO). Holidays don’t count toward either X or Y, and we’d be pretty upset if he had to use a wellness day when he had no choice whether to work or not.

    4. Kara*

      I’ve had this problem with a client or two when I work with them to write employee handbooks/policy/etc. I’ve had to explain more times than should be necessary that forcing your employees to take their PTO in the same week just so you can take a week off isn’t really a “benefit.” On the other end, I’ve had an owner who was generous with the amount of time given, but super anal about which weeks were “blackout weeks.” She had at least two weeks per month that they weren’t allowed to take off. Smh.

  2. The Great Attractor*

    #1: I understand how OP1 might feel unethical calling and asking for prices. But I think that there are a lot of rather subterranean reasons why some companies don’t make their prices easy to find. Like: the price is somehow different depending on who you are. Or the company wants to get your name and contact information so they can bug you from now until eternity. Or it’s simply the psychological edge of making you work (just a bit) to get the price. Or they won’t tell you the price until you’ve agreed to sit down and listen to them give you a pitch / proposal.

    1. MissDisplaced*

      Yes. In the case of my company, price depends on who you are (type of customer) and there are many variations of contracts and such. Certain other products are available at a set price.

    2. Mike C.*

      Wasn’t there was a pretty famous story years ago about a lingerie catalog that sent catalogs with different prices based on the apparent gender of the recipient? Am I misremembering this?

      1. M from NY*

        If it’s same company I also remember prices were different based on zip codes. Haven’t shopped there since.

    3. Stranger than fiction*

      Yep this is so true, especially for things like software that are scalable to business needs. There’s no public pricing and you have to call sales for a demo. It seems shady, I know, but I’ve worked at a few places like this where a person like the Op would create your fake “shopping identity”, like a fake gmail with a fake company and then you call competitor and vice versa, we would get calls or email inquiries that you’re pretty sure later were a competitor. It’s sometimes the only way to do a competitive analysis other than finding customers that are using competitor and willing to tell you what they spent

  3. ArtsGirl*

    As a market researcher, I have done the call around asking for prices but never deceptively. I usually just called and asked “Hey, can you tell me how much the price for X is?” And with caller ID, even though I didn’t give my name, I am pretty sure some of my targets knew why I was calling and gave me the info anyway.
    I don’t think doing that is unethical. What would cross a line is giving a false name/story of lying to get the information.

    Pricing is always one of those hard things to obtain but seems what market research is always asked to do! Suggestions for you if you don’t want to do the calling around thing is perhaps asking your sales team to ask for you (they typically have contacts who can give insight), asking a third party like a distributor to obtain quotes, or if you are lucky and you work in government, you can access contract information/price list through the GSA.

    Good luck!

    1. Wakeen's Teapots, Ltd.*

      I draw the line in how much time I’m going to cost the human being on the other end of the phone/email. Mild lying or a false impression of who I am (the person I’d ask to do this is) doesn’t offend me, but costing a human being a chunk of time does.

      The “worst” thing I ever did that that did make me feel guilty but I did it anyway: a cut throat competitor entered the market and I wanted to know how a major competitor, who offered price matching, was dealing with the insanely low prices. I emailed the major, presenting myself as a small customer, and asking for a price match on a basic item. A human being did have to create a quote for me with the price match. I still feel bad but I’d do the same thing, in a one off situation, again if I had to.

      I think it is generally wrong to suck a chunk of another person’s time or the competitor’s money. A simple call for pricing if need be, not wrong, we’d all do it to each other. Next level, wrong, and find another way or use it soooo sparingly you can deal with a little guilt.

      * if there’s a tradition in that industry of everybody doing it to each other and you are all trading time amongst each other, mmmmm maybe.

      *i get a lot of info through back channel conversations. Back channels, like vendors who sell to each, are better.

      1. AdAgencyChick*

        “if there’s a tradition in that industry of everybody doing it to each other and you are all trading time amongst each other, mmmmm maybe. ”

        Yeah, that’s the case in the industry that serves as our clients (I’m in a niche advertising field). Our client companies not only do this, they all have entire competitive intelligence departments whose job it is to do this. I’m just glad I don’t work in one of those departments, but I recognize that this is just considered part of doing business in the industry.

        1. Sydney Bristow*

          When I worked at a hotel, we’d all call each other regularly to check room rate and occupancy. I always thought it was weird but since everyone did it to each other and we all identified ourselves and where we were on the phone, it didn’t seem wrong.

          1. SevenSixOne*

            When I worked at a gas station, we did a similar thing… but since gas stations wouldn’t give their gas prices on the phone, we’d have to call another location of our own store and ask them to look across the street and see what Competing Gas Station’s price was.

            So you couldn’t call Neighborhood Gas and say “Hi, this is SevenSixOne from City Fuel, what’s your current gas price?” or pretend to be a customer and leave out the “SevenSixOne from City Fuel” part, but I could call the City Fuel a few miles away and ask them the price at their location and the Neighborhood Gas across the street. It was weird.

      2. salad fingers*

        Yeah, in my industry, we actually share pricing (though it’s easy to track down anyway), revenue information, salaries, etc. with our a lot of competitors, and they do the same for us.

        Without more information I don’t feel skeeved out by this one.

            1. Green*

              Mike C. and I never agree, so you should *definitely* run that by legal. Individuals who participate can get in trouble here, not just businesses.

        1. Busy*

          Late to the party, but as a recovering antitrust attorney, the initial question set off my antitrust alarm bells, and salad fingers, your comment send them clacking into overdrive. Definitely check with legal to make sure you aren’t running afoul of antitrust laws – they’re scary and not the ones you want to get caught violating.

  4. Engineer Girl*

    #4 This is a hold over from manufacturing. Many times an assembly line would shut down for retooling and everyone on the line would get the week off. If the employee is associated with the assembly line then yes, this is a reasonable cost saving measure for the company and it is disclosed up front at the time of the interview/job offer. Whole economies are based on this. For example, in Michigan the sports/vacation economies were focused on the week in July and the week between Christmas and New Years because that’s when the auto lines were shut down or closed.
    If there is no manufacturing involved I can’t see the need to force someone to take the same week each year.

    1. Elizabeth the Ginger*

      It’s very rough to say “This one week, which you have to take right at this time, is a significant percentage of the vacation you get all year.” I’m a teacher and my vacation time is almost entirely dictated by the school calendar – I have a handful of personal days each year, but I’ll never be able to plan a week in Paris in the middle of October! – but I get enough time off that it’s not all that difficult for my husband to take time off during some of my breaks.

      If the company was upfront with their weird vacation policies during hiring, then I think it’s a case of “well, you knew what you were getting into…” But unless there’s a real reason for it, it’s a bad policy and will lead to them losing their top talent.

      1. Monodon monoceros*

        +1 There’s a huge difference between your only week of vacation being dictated versus 1 of your 3 or 4 weeks dictated.

        1. Tau*

          And considering that OP specifies that the person in question can never take a family vacation as a result of this policy, it sounds like this is more along the lines of the former.

      2. Engineer Girl*

        The auto shutdowns were a part of the culture and even children knew about them. This was something people were willing to put up with in exchange for excellent pay and benefits. The alternative was layoff/no pay.
        I’d say this was a co-operative agreement with the workers. The company clearly had to shut down the plants to retool for the new models. It would be unreasonable for the companies to pay for the non-producing worker. While inconvenient, it was a way for the worker to get paid and to also get vacation. Senior workers received extra vacation (via seniority) for other times too.
        The rhythm is not much different from other producing industries if you think about it. Farmers, for example, can’t take off during planting and harvest but take their vacations in the summer.
        At least the shut-down workers actually get a vacation each year. How many of the information age people leave vacation on the books because they can’t take it at all?

        1. neverjaunty*

          The auto shutdowns were a result of collective bargaining and contracts with the unions.

          1. Engineer Girl*

            Partially true – which meant that the unions wanted the shutdowns and it wasn’t forced on the workers.
            The shutdowns were also needed to retool the lines. My father was one of the people that had to switch over the lines (he was a power engineer). We never saw him for 2 weeks a year as he was working long hours in the plant. Unlike all of our neighbors, we took vacations in August.

            1. browneyedgirl*

              The auto shutdowns are still a thing. I work in a tenuously related part of the industry, and I only get 12 days so the proscribed vacations really cut into being able to do anything else (and yes they make me use vacation days even though it’s mandatory).

    2. Xarcady*

      Yes, this used to be the case with several of the factories in my town. They’d close the assembly lines for two weeks in the summer for cleaning/repair/retooling–and that was when the assembly line workers got their vacation. Two weeks at the same time every summer. The factories would stagger the closing dates so that the vacation cottages at the beach wouldn’t be overrun by thousands of vacationers at the same time.

      People were very used to it and planned their lives around it. It’s not an issue now–all the factories have either closed or the jobs have moved to China.

      But I’d find it very odd for a random company to just announce to employees, “This is your vacation week. You have no choice.” There would need to be a very good reason for that, or I’d be looking elsewhere.

      1. thelazyb*

        My ex -colleague’s husband worked somewhere that they always needed a certain number of managers available and they basically allocated each manager a week or two. It meant she had very little choice of her leave. Still never figured out whether they had a good reason for beingso rigid (without getting too specific he worked in public transportation)

    3. MzAnon*

      As someone who still works in a manufacturing environment, we still have this policy (well the Christmas half) even though we don’t have to shut down for retooling or anything anymore. We build large Navy ships, and people are actually attracted to positions there knowing they are guaranteed days off from Christmas eve until New Years Day, even though only the actual holidays and 1 extra day are guaranteed paid (the rest you have to use pto or its unpaid).

  5. The RO-Cat*

    #1 (competition prices): when I worked in sales, gathering price info was a routine task of the whole sales force. Things were pretty straightforward in that particular field, but there were moments when we had to pull a stunt or two to get the necessary intel. As far as I can remember, the general view among all companies involved was that anything went, within the confines of the law. Many clients would ask for a quote only to flash it to the competition during negotiations; many competitors would ask clients they were friendly with to ask for quotes only to find prices (everybody knew what was going on, everybody sent quotes in anyway). In gathering intel, the lines were often blurry. I relied heavily on my personal definition of “ethical” (and I had one or two run-ins with my bosses on this subject); I guess OP1 is well within their right to refuse to do something they deem unethical (but be ready for the fallout).

    #4 (vacation time): my SO works for a company that closes down in mid-July to mid-August, year after year. They do maintenance work (it’s a plant processing raw ore). There might be good reasons for that decision, there might be not; thing is, even in a heavily regulated European country, with a very employee-friendly legislation, exact vacation time (not duration) is considered secondary to company objectives. Unpleasant (summer peak season means vacation peak prices for us), but we have to do with that decision.

    1. periwinkle*

      When your SO’s company closes down for the maintenance break, are employees required to use their vacation time or else go unpaid? My employer (manufacturing) shuts down for the week between Christmas and New Year; employees receive holiday pay for the entire week and only have to use vacation days if they choose to extend their time off. Our contract employees don’t get that holiday pay but they’re allowed to come in and work normally if they don’t want to use their vacation days.

      I initially assumed that OP#4’s company closed for a specific week each year and forced employees to take that week as vacation time or unpaid leave. Then again, maybe it’s a super control-freaky place that thinks assigning each employee a specific use-it-or-tough-luck vacation week will ensure adequate coverage in the office?

      1. The RO-Cat*

        Truth be told, this company / industry is very generous with vacation: a total of 56 working days per year (that means weekends and national holidays come on top of that). There never was a problem using vacation days (they also close around New Year for about 3 weeks). Theoretically, if you used all that vacation time you would go unpaid, but IME that never happened to my SO.

        1. UKAnon*

          Yes, my experience is that with companies who have specific shut down they also try and give more than the minimum required holiday days, so that even if you end up using some of your holiday on shut down you still have plenty of time to take as you will.

          1. Kyrielle*

            That would be brilliant and awesome…it wasn’t the case in my experience when $PreviousJob added the required shutdown, they didn’t change the (crappy but not uncommon) vacation amount at all.

      2. MsChanandlerBong*

        My FIL gives his employees two weeks off every year: one week in the summer, and the week of Christmas. Not only do you not get any choice in the matter, both weeks are unpaid. Aren’t you just shocked that my husband didn’t want to work for his dad?

    2. MK*

      If it’s a case of the company closing completely for a specific time-period each year, I don’t think it’s crazy for the employer to require that vacation is taken then; too restrictive perhaps, but there are other advantages, like knowing months in advance when your vacation will be and being able to plan accordingly. Especially if this time-period is significant, like a whole month.

      But I would consider it very problematic if this was just some random restriction management imposed because they don’t want to bother making a new vacation schedule every year.

  6. Artemesia*

    Re the struggling college. I asked those questions; they lied; after I moved my husband and family to the town costing my husband a year of unemployment and moving him from a very lucrative fast track job into scrambling for a new job (we had no idea how hard it would be since he had been so successful in both getting his job and being promoted where we were) — after making this move, the place folded due to its financial problems and there we were — me with no job and him with a far inferior position to the one he gave up to let me take one of the rare jobs in my field.

    I’d not only ask, I’d be doing some deeper research about the place’s finances — not possible for me as it was pre-internet — but don’t count on them being honest if you ask the right questions. (I had colleagues apologize to me later about not being forthcoming but of course they were recruiting and didn’t want to discourage me from taking the job.)

    1. Anon567*

      My advice to OP4 is to try to get more info. My alma mater is in financial trouble as well as under fire for the president being an autocrat. Chronicle of higher education did an article last December, student run newspaper did an article on the financial situation last spring. There was a vote of no confidence essentially by the student senate several years before. And all sorts of drama with the faculty senate years before when they tried to do a vote of no confidence. More than just finances, also with the way the place was run. But you can get a pretty good picture if you find all these articles.

    2. Anx*

      It’s also probably worth researching the political climate.

      My local public university is part of a school system which was once well known and respected. Local politics have lead to budget cuts that, to me, are disproportionate to the actual budget crisis and increasingly more politically or ideologically motivated than financially.

      It’s shocking how much the morale and culture of the school has changed in just a few short years.

      I’m so sorry that they flat out lied to you, though.

      1. fposte*

        Yes, my state is in very public crisis, so it would hardly be giving away a secret to talk about that in an interview. However, it’s simplified by the fact that we therefore can’t hire anybody for permanent positions–they’re all “visiting,” which means term-limited. So it’s possible there are jerks on hiring committees swearing to applicants that the positions will become permanent, but there are two big fat warning signs in both the state and the position name.

      2. Chameleon*

        Not to out, but I’m guessing you are a badger? I’m at a university that competes with you for grad students and shares initials. We don’t quite have your problems but are also facing a slow but significant decrease in funding due to a combination of tax deficits and court- mandated spending elsewhere, neither of which our legislature seems willing to address, so I feel you.

  7. Blue Anne*

    #1 – I did that pretty often when I worked at a tech company. It’s pretty much expected that it’s happening, I think. I wouldn’t let any company get so far that they started putting work into making a pitch for me or anything, but other than that, I don’t think it’s unethical.

    So pretty much what Alison said!

  8. Anon for this*

    #1 Some companies will hire third-party mystery shoppers to pose as customers and get detailed pricing information on things like new vehicles. The shoppers aren’t told they’re doing espionage jobs for competitors, presumably in case the company being shopped figures out what’s happening and demands to know who they work for. This is one of the reasons I no longer shop. I couldn’t reconcile myself to the ethics of getting paid to lie to people in a way that would cause them real harm.

  9. Anon the Great and Powerful*

    I worked in a call centre that did #4. My assigned vacation week was given to me after I started work. I think they wanted to destroy morale and it definitely worked.

  10. Cass*

    My husband’s work chooses their vacation week – they call it a “plant shutdown.” (Only 4 people work at the company so it might be less of a big deal.) It’s not the best policy, but we’ve made it work so far since my job is more accommodating.

    1. Cass*

      Although I’ll mention the year we got married, his boss did take into consideration when we wanted to take our honeymoon and made the plant shutdown that week. If he hadn’t done that, it would have been a real bummer.

  11. doreen*

    #4 – Is it really the company mandating a specific week (you must take vacation the last week of August) or is it just the way things work out (after everyone with more seniority has made their pick, the only time left in the summer is the last week of August but you could take vacation in the first week of February if you wanted to )? It makes no sense to me why the company would mandate a specific week, but people choosing to take the same block of time each year is common enough that the second situation is plausible.

    1. Apollo Warbucks*

      Some work places do dictate what weeks you can have off it’s more typical in manufacturing normally factory fortnight, and Christmas week but even after that three weeks you’d still have a week to taken when you wanted. I’m in the UK and not many places still force employees to take certain weeks off, but as I mentioned above my last job closed the office over Christmas and made you save three day holiday to use and that was only last year.

      1. doreen*

        Yeah, I kind of assumed it wasn’t that sort of thing ( factory or small business* shutdown ) because I would think in those situations there wouldn’t be a question about whether the company can do it or why they do it. But maybe I’m too optimistic.

        * It is not uncommon for small businesses to shut down when the owner wants to go on vacation . And by small, I mean small – the dry cleaner or deli with a total of four employees where the owner is there every hour the place is open. The kind of place where you might see a sign that says “Closed due to death in family”

      2. Elfie*

        Yep, I start a new job in November (I’m in the UK too), and I have to use 3 days of leave over Christmas (out of 30, though, so ordinarily not so bad, but my holiday year starts in April, so this first year it will be pro-rata, which kinda sucks). It means that hubby and I will not be able to take our 10th wedding anniversary trip until next year, when it won’t be our 10th anniversary – even so, its worth it to get away from CurrentJob! So it sometimes happens. Hubby works in automotive, and although he doesn’t have shutdown, a lot of his friends who work production do have mandated holiday weeks.

  12. Buttonhole*

    Re #1:
    I was a consultant and one employer I worked for included market research for big companies as part of the consultancy offering. I don’t want to say more – the firm is small and one of few companies offering this for a very specific industry.

    We had to use LinkedIn to find contacts in our clients’ competitors. For example, the procurement manager for product ccc in xxx. We then had to ring them – using the company website and figure out where they are based and hope reception will put you through to Person A. Then, if you are lucky to get through to Person A, you need to tell them “hello, I am calling from company yyy. We are working on a report on product ccc and we are gathering information on product ccc. Can you answer a few questions on ccc, how you procure, how much you pay, and your contract terms for providing ccc to companies you provide to? First, I hated it because I was never working on a report (ie we were forced to pretend to be journalists or researchers) I was in fact a consultant working for their competitors fishing for information that my managers told the client we have but didn’t ie data on product ccc. I hate lying. Also, the questions were often about matters that could be seen as commercially sensitive. I knew that, but had to ask those questions and then explain to the project manager why I could not progress and come out with information we needed for our models etc.
    If you feel uncomfortable doing this I would look for another job. It just makes you miserable and affects your morale and eventually your performance.

  13. aNoN*

    #4 Allison, in some industries a week long shutdown is common like in heavy manufacturing. The company will shut down in the winter when volumes are seasonally low and take the opportunity to perform maintenance on equipment and allow workers to take off. This extends to corporate offices in some cases.

  14. Mike C.*

    I find this discussion of ethics in competitive research interesting, given the lengths political campaigns will go to perform opposition research.

    1. Wakeen's Teapots, Ltd.*

      Ha, yeah, well some of us in the business sector have souls. :p

      Seriously though, there’s nothing going on at a major competitor that I don’t know. I’m able to gather enough info to know their basic approach to: list pricing, special account/high volume order pricing, vendor agreements/how hard they squeeze them costs, etc. I don’t have to suck the time of some poor (competitor) inside sales person by running them around on some fake opportunity, that’s all.

  15. Emily H.*

    I know someone who works in (daily) TV and they have to take their vacation time when the show is ‘dark’ (not being filmed) – they get unpaid time off in the summer, and a few paid weeks here and there throughout the year. It really is Not Good from a morale perspective, but I guess they’d have to hire a lot more people to get the show out consistently if they allowed people to take vacation outside of those windows. (I am in the position of having last pick for my own vacation hours after everyone else with more seniority, so getting our schedules to line up for a vacation together is a challenge!)

  16. not telling*

    Re #3–keep in mind that an answer that contradicts your friends accounts may not necessarily be a PR/canned response. It’s entirely possible that your friends’ stories aren’t accurate. Academia is notorious for a vicious gossip mill.

    Things like resignations and terminations can easily become ‘layoffs’ in the rumor mill. The term “budget cuts” often refers to program changes that may simply be a result of market demand or new accreditation requirements. Changes in class schedules may be at the request of a valued instructor or professor, and not because the institution is having budget woes.

    Health insurance benefits are guaranteed to change, regardless of an organization’s financial health. Insurance companies decide what’s covered and how much it costs–not the employer. If an insurer decides to change the plan, an employer has two choices: accept the changes, or find another carrier; either way, it spells c-h-a-n-g-e for the employee. And premiums will always go up. Always.

    Colleges and universities are usually public trusts or at least have enough of an impact locally that their goings-on are covered by the media. Many of the things they would tell you in the interview would also be available in the school or local newspaper (budget cuts, layoffs, etc). Do your own research instead of relying on whatever an interviewer tells you–they are always going to paint the rosiest picture.

  17. Rat Racer*

    At my current company, I am required to disclose who I am and who I work for if I call a competitor. But in a previous life, I had to do some market research for a large academic medical system regarding the types of radiation oncology services they offered and/or were planning to offer. My boss asked me to call competitors pretending that I or a loved one had cancer and was shopping around for radiation oncology services. It made me extremely uncomfortable both for ethical and superstitious reasons. I’m grateful for my new company’s policy – it makes it totally pointless to call competitors directly, and that (in my opinion) is a good thing.

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