employee deserves a higher performance evaluation rating, how to respond to “is everything okay?” and more

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

1. My employee deserves a higher performance evaluation rating than I can give him

Yearly appraisal time. About a month ago, I was told to turn in any requests to rate employees at the highest performance level of “significantly exceeds standards.” These appraisals were to be reviewed at the highest levels, including our president and the board of trustees. (I work for a non-for-profit of about 250 employees.)

Now that I’ve actually put all the details in writing, I’m regretting that I didn’t recommend one of my team members for the highest rating. The rating just below it is “fully achieves standards” and that’s what I thought was appropriate for him before I actually put it all in writing. We are told as supervisors that this is a very acceptable rating and the one that most of the employees will receive – in the description for fully achieves, it reads “consistently and occasionally exceeds standards.”

My supervisor says it’s too late to request a change even though our formal deadline for conducting appraisals and turning in paperwork is March 4. The deadline for giving the highest rating was early so that those involved had time to review the documents and approve it. Assuming I really can’t get the rating up one notch, what is a good way to conduct the appraisal without deflating my employee – especially if I’m asked why he didn’t get the higher rating?

I’d tell him the truth. It risks demoralizing him, but the alternative — trying to defend a lower rating — risks demoralizing him even more. The key will be to talk about what other actions you plan to take to try to address the situation. For example: “After reviewing your performance in detail, I think you deserve the highest rating. Unfortunately, I didn’t realize that until I sat down and put my reflections in writing, which was after our internal deadline for getting the highest-level rankings approved. I’ve tried very hard to get an exception made but haven’t been able to because (explain process). So what I’m going to do instead is ___ (add a formal note to your file explaining the situation / ensure that you’re first in line for raises, promotions, recognition in the coming year / see what I can do about a mid-year raise in a few months that reflects your excellent level of work / whatever else you can figure out to ameliorate it).”

But first, go to bat as hard as you can for a process exception. An organization that’s going to make managers jump through hoops to award the highest rating should pair that with some flexibility for managers who find themselves in your situation. (That said, an organization that has its frickin’ board reviewing performance reviews is an organization with some serious weirdness around this process. I’m all for combatting grade inflation, but there are much simpler ways to do that, and it’s certainly not what the board is there for.)

2. How to respond to “is everything okay?”

I work in a small, open office. There are 13 of us. We’re a friendly, warm bunch for the most part. I’ve noticed that when one of us is stepping out for a doctor’s appointment — I know this, because someone will say “I’ll be back around X o’clock; I have a doctor’s appointment” — one of the two managers will typically follow up with “everything okay?” Usually someone will respond by starting to describe (vaguely) what’s going on (“oh, I’ve had a cold all week…”) but before they can say much, the manager will say “you don’t need to tell me why, just wanted to see if you’re okay.”

I know there asking this to be friendly and show on a certain level that they care, but it kind of puts whoever has the appointment in a awkward position. What should one say? “Oh yeah, everything’s okay”? What if something isn’t okay (such as a serious diagnosis or illness, or just something you’d rather keep private)? I just wish they didn’t ask it. I feel that if there’s a medical issue that somehow affects one’s work/attendance/etc., then it’s okay to share – but for the garden variety appointment, it just feels a little much to ask about. Ultimately, it isn’t anyone’s business why someone is going to a doctor’s appointment. I wish there were a way to convey that without coming across as rude.

Yeah, they’re almost certainly asking to express that they care about your well-being, but they haven’t really thought it through. That’s pretty normal; most people don’t think much about this stuff. We are a species that tends not to think things through.

If you feel strongly about it and you have good rapport with either of these managers, you could point out what you’ve said here: “I know you’re expressing concern and probably don’t realize this, but it can feel awkward to be asked if everything’s okay when one of us is leaving for a doctor’s appointment. It can be hard to answer without giving details, even though I know you’ve said you don’t want them. And of course, sometimes things might NOT be okay, but someone might not be ready to share that.” I’d also add: “I really like that we all have such warm relationships here. This is just something that I thought you might not have realized and that you might appreciate hearing it.”

But if that feels like way too much or you can’t imagine having that conversation with your two managers (since it would be totally natural in some relationships and not at all in others), then that’s a sign that your best bet is to just stick with “yep, everything’s fine” when you get this question. If it helps, see it as just a generic but warm social pleasantry — not a real request for information, but more like the “how are you?” / “fine, thanks, and you?” exchange that isn’t a genuine request for info about your physical or mental state.

3. Talking about an overwhelming workload in a senior position

I am wondering about how to frame a conversation about sustainability/workload with my supervisor in the context of a senior leadership position. The typical advice on prioritizing competing demands is to lay out trade-offs: “I can’t have X until Tuesday, unless I prioritize Y. What would you prefer?” But, this execution-oriented conversation is no longer relevant in my new role. How can I be transparent with my manager that I’m struggling to keep my head above water without making it seem like I’m the problem for not being able to handle the workload?

For background, I am about eight months into a brand new position at a small but growing nonprofit (~35 staff). My role is a big ambiguous in scope, as it focuses on special projects and strategic partnerships; it’s one of the only positions that cuts across teams (which I love! but which also gets me pulled in to lots of different projects). I report directly to the CEO, who gives me a lot of autonomy based partly on trust and partly on lack of time to supervise more closely. I am technically a member of the senior leadership team, though I don’t actually supervise any non-interns. Though I have supervised staff previously, this is the first time I’ve been at this level of seniority in an organization.

Same basic principles, actually, but you should figure out what course of action you think is best and then loop your boss in to your plan. For example: “I’m juggling X, Y, and Z and am not going to have time to get to all of them as quickly as we’d discussed, especially because Y is turning out to be a lot more time-consuming than we’d thought. My plan is to prioritize X, wait on Y until later this month, and keep Z on the back burner until we’re through our big spring push. Sound right to you?”

That’s obviously a simplified version of what’s probably a more complicated workload — but that’s the basic approach. “Here’s the situation, here’s my plan for how I’ll tackle it, what I’ll push back, what I’ll delegate, and what I might table altogether.” And if you’re really struggling, it’s okay to say that and ask for input — “I’m having a hard time seeing what I can push back and I’d love to talk it through with you.”

4. An event I really want to go to is on the same dates as a work conference

There is an admin conference my old boss approved for me to attend, back in November, before she left the company. It is through an outside company, in late April at corporate headquarters–driving distance to my office.

Recently, someone announced the dates for a professional genre writing conference in another state, and guess what date it starts? Yep, same date as the work conference.

And I stupidly forwarded the work conference info to my new boss not long after she took over. So she knows about it. I asked the person who sent the announcement if the seats had been paid for and she said yes–but if you really needed to get out of it you probably could. However, the writing conference has nothing to do with my job. I wasn’t gung-ho about the work conference to begin with after looking at the jargon-filled itinerary, and now I will be mentally checked out wishing I were somewhere else.

I would simply attend a different one, but a substitute guest of honor whom I actually know will be there and this person could be a huge networking help. Given the state of his health, he may not be able to travel to it next year. There are pitch sessions with real agents and I need the practice. And the schedule shows a long list of useful workshops and panels. I need to start going to these things if I’m ever going to publish anything. I wish I had known the dates before the work conference registration—I would not have signed up. Is there any way out of this? Should I risk saying something to my boss (she knows I write)? Offer to buy out my seat? I really really really do not want to go. I wish I had backed out before my old boss left, but I didn’t and now I just want to cry!

Ooof. I do think you can change your mind about attending a conference — “They released the program and it doesn’t look nearly as helpful as I originally thought it would be. Let’s save the money and the work time.” But it’s much trickier to back out if it’s because you want to do something else for personal reasons; it risks looking like you were either being cavalier with your employer’s time and money when you first asked to attend the work one, or that you’re putting optional personal plans above a work commitment now (and maybe letting that bias your assessment of how useful it will really be).

How’s your relationship with your boss? If it’s good, I think your best bet is to just be straightforward and tackle the perception land mines head-on. For example: “I’ve been thinking about suggesting I not attend this conference now that I’ve seen their agenda because of XYZ. And now I have extra impetus because there’s a personal event I’d like to attend during the same dates. I feel weird asking you about this because I don’t want it to seem like the personal event is the only reason I don’t want to attend, but I truly don’t think it will be that useful. But I really don’t want to appear to be biased by the fact that it conflicts with the dates of my personal event. Would you mind taking a look at the program and telling me if you think it would be okay to skip it and get my ticket refunded, or if it you think it’s valuable enough that I should stick with it and skip the other?”

* If your boss says you can skip it, try to get the refund. If you can’t, go back to her and ask if she thinks you should cover the cost yourself and say you’d be willing to.

5. Can my employer ask me to change my personality?

I am not your stereotypical female who talks like a valley girl or in a high-pitched voice. I’m very professional but not rude, in my opinion. I don’t smile much at work. I’m straight and to the point.

We had a customer call and complain that I was too dry over the phone and was rude and needed to be more courteous. My opinion is I was not rude. Maybe robotic is the word.

My HR manager has asked me on more than one occasion to be more personable. Are they allowed to do that? Can they really ask me to change my personality? Is it legal?

They are indeed allowed to ask you to use a different manner with customers and coworkers. If you think you sounded robotic, it’s not surprising that they’d ask you to change that. Companies usually don’t want to sound robotic when dealing with customers; they want to sound warm, friendly, and helpful. This post and this post may help.

(And I’m sure it was probably just bad wording, but be careful about how you stereotype women there! Most women don’t sound like valley girls, and many of us are quite straightforward.)

{ 362 comments… read them below }

  1. Ask a Manager* Post author

    I’m putting this right up top after some of the discussion below: Please remember that the site commenting rules ban pile-ons and derailing threads over people’s word choices. The language in letter #5 has been addressed; let’s focus the discussion on the actual questions in the letters. Thank you.

  2. Bookworm*

    OP #5: it sounds like you’re feeling pretty frustrated, and I wonder if that’s maybe causing you to look at the situation pretty black & white.

    I think there’s more nuance here. I’m sure there’s WAY more to your personality than just how you are on the phone. Rather than thinking of your phone manner as an integral part of your personality, it maybe be helpful to think of it as a skill or a tool: one you can hone and change depending on the needs of the situation.

    It’s also worth noting that the vast majority of people have a “home personality” and a “work personality.” There’s usually overlap, but there’s also qualities we only channel in certain circumstances. Many, many people are more extroverted, less goofy and more willing to suffer fools in their work days than they are after hours. I realize that this can sometimes feel disingenuous. But just like you’d act differently at a wake versus a birthday, it’s natural that you would play up (or dial down) different parts of your personality at work.

    Lastly, we should all be mindful about not falling victim to the pitfall of self-categorization. Sometimes when we see ourselves as a “type” of person (say, for example: entertaining, great at parties) it can make it difficult to recognize and change bad patterns (say, too much drinking and not enough sleep) because we see them as an identity rather than what they are: habits. Everyone changes and grows….it will be easier to be thoughtful about that growth if you don’t view change as having to be a kind of self-betrayal.

    I would try to be thoughtful and not dig in your heels on this one. I doubt phone etiquette is the hill you want to die on.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      Everyone changes and grows….it will be easier to be thoughtful about that growth if you don’t view change as having to be a kind of self-betrayal.

      I love this.

    2. Doriana Gray*

      Great response, and I totally agree.

      OP #5, I would characterize myself as being extremely socially awkward – I don’t talk much (usually because I have trouble figuring out what to say), and I don’t radiate warmth and compassion. Yet, I’m very well liked at work and have always received great feedback about my level of helpfulness from clients and customers because I make the effort to appear/sound engaged in every conversation I’m involved in.

      Think of it like an acting exercise. Every interaction you have at work, especially phone conversations, are like a scene. Think about what your motivation is by having the conversation: what do you want and how are you going to get it? Then i flip it and ask myself, what does the other person want and how can I help them get it? (If you even can help.) When I approach colleagues and customers with this thought process in mind, I’m much more gregarious and outgoing – thus more likable. It’s work, I’ll admit, and I’m careful to never completely stray too far from the behavior that comes naturally to me (you don’t want to sound insincere), but it’s worth doing if you care about your work and professional reputation.

      1. penny*

        #5. Agree with Doriana on this. I’m the same quiet & introverted, but I’m in a people facing role and that requires a certain type of communication. Don’t think of this as changing your personality, but your communication style. That’s to be expected at work and a good communicator can adapt their behaviors for the situation.

      2. Lizzy*

        Your second paragraph is excellent advice. I too am introverted and have been accused of being aloof, but I have learned how to compromise by employing similar techniques. I think you can improve your approach with how you deal with people, especially in a professional setting, without having to worry about being insincere or constantly feigning cheerfulness.

      3. Lillian McGee*

        Yep, totally. I hate, hate, hate the idea of being a phony, but phoniness (on the phone especially, pun not intended) tends to lead to much better results than whatever else I may wish to be expressing.
        Two quick and easy things that help me 100% of the time: repeat the person’s name at least once in the conversation, ideally both in the greeting and at the end, and actually physically smile while you are talking. Even if you’d rather strangle the person you are talking to. Smiling while talking, or even making a phony little laugh makes me sound warmer (I’m pretty sure) and it actually makes me feel more confident and more positive overall.

        1. Banana Sam*

          Maybe it’s just me, but when someone I don’t know purposefully uses my name it’s pretty jarring, and it sounds unnatural 100% of the time. To me it comes across not as friendly, but as manipulative, forced, or creepy depending on the situation. I think a nice greeting might be a better way to go. Even well-acquanted people who are talking to each other in casual conversation don’t generally address each other by name, anyway–they use pronouns.

      4. LiptonTeaForMe*

        Dang, I was coming here to say the very same thing. As an introvert also, I have been coached a few times as well just for being me. People seem to have this idea that all customer facing people should be outgoing, full of life, compassionate, talkative and on and on. That unfortunately is far from who I am. I too, don’t pick up on social cues, could care less about small talk and seem to have “resting bitch face”, not to mention that I come to work to do that…work.
        I have had many conversations where the boss wants me to “sugar coat” an explanation as my response was viewed as rude. Without specific example of what they want, I am never going to be able to deliver as I just don’t think the same way. Make sure when you have the conversations with the boss that you ask for specific examples of what they want as being more personable is up for interpretation and until they spell it out, you will continue to have these conversations with management.
        But I have learned over the years to put on a face so to speak to get the job done. It is literally like your job is requiring you to act for 8 hours. And if you are truly an introvert, this is going to take an awful lot of energy to pull off.

    3. preach!*

      This second paragraph is particularly insightful and was communicated in such a thoughtful, nonjudgmental way. I really appreciate what you’ve said. It’s something I recently realized I struggle with (I’m not ______. Why am i behaving as though i am?). It’s so limiting! Thanks for putting this into such beautiful words!

      1. TootsNYC*

        “(I’m not ______. Why am i behaving as though i am?)”

        Well, you may be a little bit _____. We’re all entitled to have little pieces of different traits in ourselves.

        I always laugh at myself, because I’m an utter slob. Except in my files and inside my kitchen cabinets. So I have two diametrically opposed personality traits that show up VERY strongly, sometimes in the same room! (kitchen counters vs. cabinets…)

    4. Monotone Jess*

      Bookwarm – I see most things in Black and white on a daily basis. I definitely have a “Home” and “work” personality.

    5. addiez*

      I got similar feedback at one of my first jobs – I was coming across as brusque when calling people across the organization (at a university, so very spread out). The feedback was on my communication style. Since then, I’ve learned that it’s important to tailor your communication style to the interaction and person you’re talking to. I don’t see that as a reflection of my personality at all (I was just trying to be efficient!) but instead a suggestion on how to better interact and build relationships.

    6. TootsNYC*

      “Rather than thinking of your phone manner as an integral part of your personality, it maybe be helpful to think of it as a skill or a tool: one you can hone and change depending on the needs of the situation.”

      Expanding on this:

      Think of your time at work as NOT being a place that your personality is all that important. These people aren’t your friends; they’re your customers or colleagues.

      And especially w/ customers–they aren’t your friends. What they think of your true personality is completely UNimportant. what they think of your company is what matters.

      So, bullshit them! Well, OK, not “bullshit.”
      Manipulate them! Well, OK, not “manipulate.”
      Perform for them! Well, OK, not “perform.”
      But maybe roll those together, add some professionalism and a desire to achieve a specific outcome, and there you will have a new approach.

      You are achieving a specific purpose when you are on the phone or at work.

    7. TootsNYC*

      And expanding on this:
      “Lastly, we should all be mindful about not falling victim to the pitfall of self-categorization. Sometimes when we see ourselves as a “type” of person (say, for example: entertaining, great at parties) it can make it difficult to recognize and change bad patterns (say, too much drinking and not enough sleep) because we see them as an identity rather than what they are: habits. ”

      We can also get discouraged from exploring new activities, because they don’t fit our stereotype of ourselves. Or, we don’t expand new aspects of ourselves that are surfacing.

    8. Stephanie*

      I think this is a wonderful post. This was something I found myself contemplating when I went away to college and started developing relationships where I volunteered; the happy, bubbly me, smiling and chatting away with strangers was so opposed to my normal, introverted, disinterested self, that I found myself in a bit of an identity crisis. I eventually realized that change was OK, and that my new behaviors were making me successful and opening up new possibilities for me. I ran through almost exactly what Bookworm described (though I did not understand it as fully as Bookworm was able to describe it. Well done!)

    9. Anna*

      Erving Goffman “The Presentation of Self in Every Day Life”. Dramaturgical Theory. It’s one of my fave sociology theories (even though I really dislike social psychology).

    10. AnotherHRPro*

      To continue on with Bookworm’s comments, instead of thinking personality, think behavior. You are being asked to behave in a different way for your job. We all do this. For example, in my personal life I am horrible at balancing my checkbook. For my job, I need to manage a large budget and I do that thoughtfully and accurately with high attention to detail. Not because I’m naturally inclined to or because I enjoy it, but because that is a behavior that is required by my position.

      Your manager is asking you to behave in a different way than your natural and preferred way. To be more courteous and less robotic. That does not mean you have to be a super friendly person who smiles all the time, but it does mean that you need to behave in a way that demonstrates what your manager is looking for. If you are unclear on what exactly that looks like, you should talk to your manager and ask for specific feedback on what exactly they want you to do. Maybe it is to demonstrate more empathy by saying key words (e.g., I’m sorry) or maybe it is engaging in some small talk to better connect with your customers (e.g., How’s the family?).

      Again, this doesn’t mean your personality needs to change. You are who you are. But according to your manager, how you behave with customers does need to change. This does not mean there is anything wrong with your personality. It just means that your job requires some specific skills and behaviors that you are currently not demonstrating.

  3. Ambarish*

    #5: I actually fear something more pernicious may be going on. I suspect “courteous” and “polite” may be code-words for OP to be more stereotypically woman-like. Especially the part about OP not smiling enough raised my heckles: why on earth do women have to smile? How come men are never asked to be smiling? If OP were a man, I bet OP’s personality would be thought of self-assured and all-business, and OP would probably come across as a high achiever with no time to waste.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      The OP says that she herself considers her style robotic. That’s problematic in both men and women, particularly in customer service positions. (And she didn’t mention that anyone has asked her to smile.)

      I’m going to suggest that we not take this in a gender direction for that reason, since it sounds like the sexism issues that can sometimes exist with these sorts of issues aren’t clearly in play here and won’t be terribly helpful when it comes to practical advice for the OP.

    2. Bookworm*

      It doesn’t sound like she was asked to smile more, just a line from OP that she doesn’t smile much. As far as I can tell from the letter, she was only asked to adjust her phone demeanor to be more courteous.

      1. Beth*

        I’d suggest OP to smile while on the phone, this tiny trick will complitely change the tone of her voice. It’s worth a try.

        1. april ludgate*

          I’ve definitely read articles before about how forcing yourself to smile can trick you into feeling happier. I think it also works for making your voice sound warmer too, even when the other person can’t see you.

        2. Seal*

          I was just going to recommend the same thing – it really does work!

          Also, the OP might consider practicing what she says when she answers the phone or when she makes a call. Having an automatic yet pleasant greeting every time you answer the phone will help get the conversation off to a good start, as opposed to fumbling over what you want to say when the phone rings. For example, I always answer the phone with “Seal Lastname”; several of my staff members answer with “Firstname Lastname, can I help you?”.

          Don’t forget to end your conversation by thanking the caller for their time, too.

        3. Bwmn*

          Also here to recommend this. Smiling while on the phone gives you the permission for yoru smile to look forced, weird, and unnatural – but the person on the other end of the telephone can’t tell that. It’s just a helpful trick that really does help your tone of voice.

          Smiling while on the telephone is as much of a vocal trick as techniques to apply vocal fry or speak in a higher or lower register. I get that the instruction to women to smile more can be fraught, but in regards to how your voice sounds on the phone – this is a bit different.

        4. nofloyd*

          This! Never been good at phone convo – too stiff, matter of fact. Not a naturally warm personality.
          I now force myself to smile (as an exercise to myself) before I pick up the receiver. I usually drop the smile as soon as I start talking, but it does somehow get the words to come out more friendly and approachable – a more personable tone.

        5. Lizzy May*

          I was always awkward on the phone so when I got a job that was phone heavy, I put a mirror up in my line of sight. If I saw my blank face while I was talking with a customer, I always changed it to a smile and I could hear a change in my tone of voice too. Its amazing how something that feels so silly works so well.

        6. One of the Sarahs*

          +1, it really does work. I have always had a “good telephone manner” but it was fascinating in my long-ago call centre days to see how I and other people responded to little training tips like this, and what a difference it made.

    3. LisaLee*

      The OP doesn’t say she is asked to smile more, she *describes herself* as not smiling much at work.

      I think you’ve definitely got a point that “courtesy” behaviors are more expected of women than men. But it sounds like we’re talking about a customer service position here, in which case it is important for a person of any gender to be personable and pleasant. I think it’s totally reasonable of the OP’s company to ask her to act friendlier to customers if she is indeed putting on more of a “robotic” tone. In phone service especially, you’ve got to project that tone.

      It also sounds to me like the OP also thinks she is less warm/personable than the norm, which indicates this might not be a gender issue (at least not entirely).

    4. Daisy*

      She comes across as quite rude in this 6-line letter, so I’m pretty sure it’s not just to do with smiling or not.

      1. Ask a Manager* Post author

        I agree the OP’s opening line wasn’t … the best, but I’d like to give her the benefit of the doubt that it was just a bad choice of wording, in the interest of hospitality. I’m all for something constructive like “hey, your language here is an example of what might be problematic in your style,” but please keep it kind.

        1. Elizabeth West*

          To me, it read as if she were pushing back against a perception that may or may not be her own. I know a lot of women who say, “I am not and do not want to be a ‘girly girl’!” My response to that is typically, “Okay, then don’t.”

          1. Observer*

            You may be right. But, I think what the OP writes presents a problem. She doesn’t present as pushing back against a particular type of female, but against a stereotype that fits ALL women. What follows fits, as well. It doesn’t sound like her manager asked her to be more “girly” or to engage in more “girly” behaviors, but rather in fairly typical customer facing behavior. (At least typical in reasonably well functioning organizations.)

    5. Marzipan*

      When they run a call centre where I work (which happens for a few weeks each year) all the staff, male and female, are specifically trained to smile while on a call, the thinking being that it comes across in their voices while they’re talking to callers and makes them sound… well, not robotic.

        1. Countess Boochie Flagrante*

          Yep, that was my experience too. Not only does it indeed come across in your voice, but smiling actually gives your emotional state a nudge toward the more positive, which is helpful when you’re on calling #73 of the day and just want to go home. It’s not changing your personality, but it’s a small brain hack to keep yourself going.

        2. Anna*

          I used to think it was crap advice and then I started taking more calls at work with outside organizations and it does totally work. It changes the sound of your voice AND it changes the nature of the conversation because it’s really hard to be grumpy and smile at the same time.

      1. bkanon*

        Coworkers of mine were always amazed how I could flip from muttering profanities at the scanning systems to utterly helpful on the phone. I was told it was two different people several times! The difference was one deep breath and a deliberate smile when answering. It feels ridiculous but it helps. As does the mental reminder that the person on the other end of the phone can’t see me and they don’t know what’s going on. If I’m brusque, they think it’s them, not that this frickin’ barcode doesn’t exist grr argh.

        1. manybellsdown*

          Ahaha that sounds just like my phone voice. One second I’m swearing at the copier, the next I’m dulcetly crooning “Teapots Inc, this is Bells, how may I direct your call?”

      2. Stranger than fiction*

        Yeah, that’s a very old trick. At a lot of places I’ve worked, both the salespeople and customer service people have mirrors in their cube or office (sometimes even attached to their monitor) for that purpose.

    6. Wakeen's Teapots, Ltd.*

      There’s no coding in asking a person who faces a customer to sound warm and friendly. There’s enough actual discrimination in the workplace to not have to look for it where it’s not there.

    7. Monotone Jess*

      Ambarish – I have been told on more than one occasion to smile while on the phone, because it shows through the phone. This tactic just doesn’t work for me. And, after being told to be more personable flat out told the HR manager that if I were a “MAN” the caller would have had no issue with the way I spoke to him. So, you are right on point with your comment. Among my colleagues, I am considered of self-assured and all business.

      1. Monotone Jess*

        I’ve now determined that robotic is not the right term to describe my phone voice. My phone voice and work voice for that matter is monotone.

      2. J.B.*

        I think you’re stuck with people’s perceptions and there are two elements to them. One is that the expectations for women are higher and the other is that you are coming across as brusque. The way they are asking you to change doesn’t seem particularly helpful. (For example, why the HR manager, why not your supervisor? Can’t they give you more specific guidance?) However the emotional component to communication still exists and is part of your working life.

        Given the feedback so far I wonder if you might benefit from seeing a speech coach or something like that. I had a professor in college for whom English was a second language. His words were very clear and grammatical but very monotonal. Over the course of several years he really worked on his inflection which made a huge difference in those of us trying to absorb his words.

        I know this stuff is really really hard and I think you’ve had a very thoughtful approach to the comments!

    8. meg.*

      While she may not have been asked to smile more, I do believe that we expect females to smile and hold this against them when they don’t (e.g., how many females have had this included in their work evaluations?). However, we do not have this same expectation on the male side. Robotic or not, there is more of a gender issue here than what we may want to admit to on both sides of the situations.

      1. fposte*

        It *could* be a gender issue, but it’s also reasonable to require people working your reception desk to have soft skills.

        There’s kind of a Venn diagram here: gendered expectations in one circle, and legitimate professional feedback in another. The fact that there’s some overlap doesn’t make the HR manager unreasonable for saying that the OP needs to sound courteous on the phone.

        And also, the fact that expectations may be gendered doesn’t mean that the expectations for men are the appropriate ones–sometimes it’s gendered in that men get to slide on stuff they shouldn’t. I don’t enjoy talking to men who are brusque on the phone either.

        1. Anna*

          Yes, and the OP has expanded on it and said she sounds monotone and that would be annoying for someone on the other end of the phone.

    9. TootsNYC*

      I have DEFINITELY come across customer service approaches that I found rude and too brusque, in both men and women.

      And I think the OP would be doing herself a disservice by casting this as a feminist issue.

  4. Wendy Darling*

    Heck, as a native Valley Girl I take exception to the idea that there is anything wrong with the way I speak!

    1. Scotty_Smalls*

      I have to agree.

      And OP might be interested to know, that while I do tend to use up speak when in social situations. I can actually turn it off and speak professionally when needed.

      1. nep*

        I was talking with an agent at a national call centre yesterday — at one point he said ‘…get back witchu…uh get back with you’. For a second he popped out of his professional-speak.

        1. Elsajeni*

          Hah! Sometimes there’s one phrase where you just can’t shake the natural accent — for me it was “How kin ah he’p yew?” (This was a source of GREAT HILARITY to my coworkers in Oregon.)

        2. OriginalEmma*

          Ugh, I did this the other day with a partner agency. They call us with quick, legit requests to run across the floor and assist them all the time. He opened with “Hey OriginalEmma, it’s PartnerDude,” to which I responded “yo!…uh…how can I help you?” I don’t say “yo” anymore. I haven’t for years in my personal life, not to mention my professional life. Ahhhhh!

      2. Hellanon*

        Another way of looking at uptalk is that it’s a way of asking for agreement with whatever the speaker is trying to get across to listeners. It’s a strategy for accomplishing a communicative goal – as is code-switching into professional or vernacular speech given the situation. The key, I think, is to see all those modes of speech as slightly different languages appropriate for different purposes, and to aim for fluency. Since, ultimately, isn’t communication the point?

        1. fposte*

          And it also has different cultural implications in different places–it’s not nearly as stigmatized in Australia, for instance.

          1. Testy McTesterson*

            Yup. Upward inflexion is completely normal here. Both men and women use it, and it often implies either a question or that your not finished talking yet. Apparently it is also commonly used as you climb the corporate ladder, probably because it’s an easy way to get subordinates to confirm they understand or have heard what you’re saying.

        2. Wendy Darling*

          I use it two ways — to solicit feedback (I want to know if the listener is still listening, or if they understand what I’m saying) or to indicate I’m not done talking yet.

          I also apparently come off as incredibly professional and articulate in interviews and meetings, so clearly it’s not necessarily an impediment to anything. Apparently some combination of other things I am/do is shielding me from that particular stigma.

      3. SerfinUSA*

        A local radio station (large west coast city) has an afternoon show with 2 middle-aged men and a millennial woman, and I always laugh when I hear the men up-speak in their normal broadcast verbiage. I assume the younger person’s “accent” has rubbed off on them, and it is incongruously funny.

        1. Anna*

          That also could have been the recommendation of a consultant. Recently some radio people in my local area started talking about what the consultants had told them. And by talking about it, they basically made fun of it the whole time while “trying” to use their recommendations.

      4. YawningDodo*

        I had a coworker who would turn the upspeak *on* when she was dealing with a difficult caller. I think the theory was that she could just sound like she was making a series of suggestions? Instead of telling recalcitrant people what to do? Please visit our website and click on that link, yes, that one?

        A second coworker caught on and started doing the same thing even though upspeak wasn’t part of her natural accent. I never had it in me to do it myself, though.

  5. neverjaunty*

    OP #4, while those conferences are helpful and often way more fun than work events, you are probably greatly overestimating how necessary they are to getting published – seminars are great and pitch sessions are good practice, but you don’t NEED these things to pitch to agents or learn about professional markets. Skip it this year, try to get more involved in a local chapter of the organization that is related to the conference, and in the meantime work on getting your writing ready to wow an agent.

    1. MK*

      What I find concerning is that, even if the manager agrees the work conference isn’t important and can be skipped, their view of the OP will be flooded by it. The thing is that the OP isn’t thinking of skipping a work event in favor of a personal one, but of another work event, that will benefit not their employer but their own second/new career; it evokes the stereotype of the struggling artist who works at something they aren’t interested in to pay the bills and plans to quit as soon as they make headway in their real career goals. It can hint at disinterest in your job in a way that a purely personal one-off event wouldn’t (like skipping a not terribly useful conference for the unexpected wedding of your favourite cousin). The OP should keep that in mind.

      1. Graciosa*

        Agreed – to the point where I actually disagree with Alison’s advice on this one.

        I don’t think you can have a discussion about backing out of a work conference in order to do the equivalent of trying to interview for a different job in a different field.

        Discussing the lack of interest you have in the work-related agenda is going to make this worse.

      2. Stranger than fiction*

        Yeah, I could see that. Plus, it sounds like her current boss is relatively new, so may not be a great impression to make so early on.

      3. Artemesia*

        I have on occasion talked myself into justifying not doing what I SHOULD do but what I wanted to do, abandoning a commitment for something better. I have always regretted doing this and remember vividly every single one of the times I have done this. IMHO there is no way you can drop a professional commitment you made and informed your boss of to attend a hobby event (since it involves travel and can’t be hidden — it would be different if it were a local weekend event) without damaging your reputation with that new boss. And it really does sound like you are rationalizing abandoning the professional commitment for personal reasons. If you just didn’t want to do the conference — no harm, no foul. But skipping it to go hobbying is going to look terrible. No one is going to believe you did it because the conference had a disappointing agenda.

    2. Authoria*

      Co-signed with neverjaunty. Writers’ conferences are fun and helpful, but their role in getting published is often over-estimated.

      If most of your value in going is to network with someone you already know, consider that as the guest of honor he’s going to have dozens or even hundreds of other people angling to talk to him as well. You might even stand out more sending a brief hello email a month before the conference (“sorry I have to miss this event, the agenda looks great!”) than you would trying to pull him aside during the event.

      Ditto for pitch sessions with agents. The best outcome of a pitch session is for them to say “Great, send me pages” – no matter how much they love the concept, they can’t sign you until they know the writing is there. So a strong query will do the same job.

      Good luck! The road to publication is long and fraught. Keep going. Keeping at it doesn’t guarantee you’ll get published, but giving up guarantees that you won’t.

    3. shep*

      OP #4:

      As neverjaunty and Authoria have said, writing conferences are great experiences and offer some really useful panels, but they are a lot of money for relatively little yield.

      I was an agent intern during grad school (MFA in creative writing, and yes, I totally write genre as well :) ), and their typical approach at pitches is to request pages as a matter of course, and not especial interest. While pitching can be a good skill to cultivate, it doesn’t offer the edge most people think it does, and the vast majority of your work as a writer will be NON-verbal queries/pitches/etc. To boot, pitching sessions are generally overcrowded and your actual timeslot very short; you’re also often dealing with jet-lagged agents on very little sleep. Verbal pitches often do not showcase your work at its best, and often many agents will admit that they need to READ just a little of the work to determine if they’re actually interested.

      In fact, I recently talked a friend and (fellow MFA) out of spending a ton of money on conferences, which she wanted to do in lieu of querying, because she felt it would give her the same edge.

      Ultimately, querying does the exact same thing as pitching at a conference, except far more efficiently, and for far less money.

      That said, if you want to go to the conference and your boss is okay with it, there’s nothing wrong with that, and there’s really nothing wrong with pitching, aside from the general reality that it provides no edge over querying.

      But go for the experience and the panels, and not because you feel you need to pitch to be published, because you absolutely do not.

    4. Kate M*

      I was just coming here to say this. OP, I think you’ve built it up in your mind, and now you’re coming up with all sorts of reasons why you just HAVE to go to this conference. In reality, if you already know the guest of honor, that isn’t a compelling reason to go to this one. And I’m guessing most conferences have the same types of panels/workshops you could use. You could definitely find another one to go to. I get that you really want to go to this one, but if you ask your boss to let you out of going to the first conference, and then take vacation days during the same time to go to this, it’s not going to look great.

    5. OP #4*

      Thanks for the advice, everyone! I’ve been working very hard on my writing, and I actually have been getting good feedback. I’m miles better than I was when I quit dicking around and started writing seriously. I was mostly interested in serious workshopping, and just making some connections with other writers, maybe meeting some of them I know from Twitter.

      Where I live, there is basically nothing like this except one miniscule sci-fi con that barely has any writers and is more fan-focused. Though I just looked at the schedule (it’s this weekend) and it does have two panels I might want to go to. Also, Chewbacca is going to be there, soooo……

      I wasn’t super interested in the work thing—it’s full of gimmicky stuff like “Are you a Worker or a WOWer?” and puzzles, etc. Ugh. But I thought my old boss might want me to go. At that time, I didn’t know she was retiring. I’m not sure she cared one way or another at that point–she announced it a month later. This job started out with a lot of editing–in fact, my skills are what got me hired, but now the whole focus of our department is changing, which fills me with trepidation. It’s not that I don’t care about my job or anything; it’s a good job and overall I like it. But it’s JUST a job. And so is every single paid position I have had or ever will have that isn’t writing-related. Because I am an artist, and that’s just how it is. I can do my best, but I don’t have to love the job or devote my life to it.

      I’ve been thinking about it, and I believe I would rather save my money and go somewhere at the end of the year. I’ll just stay here and work on my queries. They DO need work. My guru’s website has been down, but it will be back up soon, so I have a source of good advice there as well.

      Thanks everyone! And thanks, Alison–when you said “Ooof,” it made me realize that backing out really won’t help me.

    6. Amanda*

      Chiming in as another genre writer trying very, very hard to get published.

      OP#4, having attended several local writing conferences, an audition-based genre writing workshop (Viable Paradise, if anyone has heard of it/is curious), and a genre literary con, I can agree with neverjaunty et. al that all these things are fun, and Viable Paradise in particular I’m thrilled to have attended; I got a lot out of it.

      But none of these were magic tickets in getting published. I’m still working at it. I’m still learning. I have hopes that attending these conferences and workshops may cut down the time it takes me to become publishable, but insta-publication? No. Ultimately, I think what counts is your time spent at the computer (or with your notebook, however you write!) working at your craft.

      Unless you have a really, really good working relationship with your boss, in your shoes I imagine I’d ultimately still attend the admin conference. As others have noted, not doing so, especially for a personal event, could give your boss a negative view of you. And with the average first-time genre writer advance being somewhere in the $5k to maaaaybe $10k region, it’s best to make sure that your day job remains secure.

      In the future, though, there are lots of websites devoted to rounding up genre conferences and conventions. Run a Google search, mark your calendar, and request the time off in advance. And, of course, keep writing. :)

      Best of luck!

      1. OP #4*

        Oh, I never thought it would be insta-pub (LOL); I just thought it would be great to go, especially with someone I know there. I figured I wouldn’t get much of his time and had been looking at the panel topics, etc. I know the old fan-con adage–never plan your visit around one guest because they might not show up.

        It’s not technically my genre, but it’s related to one I do write and it’s one I’m a fan of, so that had really interested me. Some of the writing conventions surrounding it do apply to the work I’m doing now. They do it every year, so I will take your suggestion and plan for the next outing. :)

  6. Another*

    OP#5 Having spent more years than I’m happy about taking drive through orders, I have the following advice. Fake it and be glad they are on the other end of a phone line. Your customers do not care about your personality, or that your car got stolen, or that your dog died, etc. because when you are at work you represent your employer not yourself.

    1. kckckc*

      Exactly! If you are in any type of customer-facing position then your company is paying you to represent them in whatever manner they expect. Communication style is one of the things that can hold you back professionally, so you definitely want to work on it. You can be straightforward and to the point and still come across in a warm and friendly manner. It doesn’t come naturally to everybody. Be sure to carefully consider your word choices and inflection as both of these can be pitfalls when it comes to customer service.

  7. Sue Wilson*

    #3: My role is a big ambiguous in scope, as it focuses on special projects and strategic partnerships; it’s one of the only positions that cuts across teams (which I love! but which also gets me pulled in to lots of different projects)

    OP, since your role is a little more nebulous and it cuts across many departments, it can be really easy for someone in your position to take on projects they simply don’t need to. You mentioned being pulled onto lots of different projects. Who decides what you must be pulled onto? If there’s something you want to address with your supervisor, how much autonomy you have to choose your projects might make deciding on what to do first a little easier.

    Also, what’s your goal for this position? What do you want to have accomplished? Choose a few things that you would like to say you achieved for a set term and then prioritize projects that help you achieve them. Or figure out which projects have to be done first to get projects related to your ultimate goal moving. The way your role helps the company’s ultimate goals for the year is also something you could probably talk to your boss about and might help you prioritize projects and relationships.

    1. Newbie*

      Great advice, Sue Wilson. I previously had a position that was a bit nebulous and just kept getting work piled on. It became overwhelming and unfortunately my manager wouldn’t accept that I couldn’t keep working a ridiculous number of hours to try and keep up. I bear responsibility for allowing it to get to the point that my manager came to expect that I would continue to kill myself to try and get it all done.

      LW# 3: It is important to set priorities that align with your and the company’s goals, whether you work with your boss to establish those priorities or your boss allows you the autonomy to establish them. For some people, it can be very easy in your situation to want to be a team player and help in a variety of ways, but ultimately without goals you can become overextended and overwhelmed. Setting priorities now can keep you a productive member of the team.

    2. Stranger than fiction*

      Great points. Also, is there some sort of Manage by Objectives or goals set forth for your position, Op? Something like this sounds like it’s totally necessary for your role.

  8. LadyCop*

    #5 I take pride in my great ability to fake joy and enthusiasm even when I don’t have any for the day…or in general really. Even when I was in elementary school, other kids constantly prodded me…asking why I “frowned so much.” Uh…I wasn’t frowning, it’s my neutral face (too bad resting bitch face wasn’t a thing back then). Needless to say, it feels good when I can talk to someone who finds me open and helpful, all while in my head I’m rolling my eyes. Makes work more fun ;)

    1. A Dispatcher*

      I may or may not be known to flip off officers and/or callers who are being particularly rude, all the while maintaining an extremely pleasant demeanor on the air/the phone. In fact, I tend to get more and more sickeningly sweet the worse someone is to me.

      1. Xarcady*

        So do I.

        I hate talking on the phone. It is my least favorite method of communication. And yet I have developed a phone personality that works with irate customers. It’s to the point where if a really upset customer calls, the call automatically gets transferred to me.

        So there I am, grumpy to start with because I know the caller is going to be hard to handle, and having to smile and stay calm and soothing. Bleech!

        It’s an act. I mentally go elsewhere and just focus on shutting the caller up. Being super sweet and helpful and kind gets them off the phone faster, so that’s what I do. Mentally, I’m re-running scenes from horror movies with the caller as the victim; but my voice is calm and soft and ever-so-helpful.

        Because my goal is to end the call as quickly as possible and if being super sweet will do that, trust me, that’s what I’m doing.

      2. Kyrielle*

        Oh, yes, the sweeter-the-less-happy-I-am thing. Last job, I took a phone call from a project manager of ours about 5 minutes after start of work one day (also known as zombie o’clock and the section of my day dedicated to loathing my then-commute), and I gave the “(Company name), this is Kyrielle!” greeting…and she said “Oh G-d, you’re cheerful.”

        Nope. Not at all. But I chirp *really* well when I’m not cheerful, and formulaic greetings help. I had no idea it was someone I got along with really well vs. a client I’d never talked to before. She laughed long and hard when I said, “Oh, hi, (so and so)” in a more normal voice and then hastily added, “Uh, not that I’m not glad to talk to you, just that I don’t think you require Pollyanna on the line.”

        1. TootsNYC*

          When she was a toddler, my oldest kid was SO SO SO charming when she was exhausted. The more exhausted she got, the more charming she got. It was almost funny.

          Though, it may have been “hostage survival” behavior: “If I’m really, really nice to these people, maybe they’ll let me sleep!”

    2. Snazzy Hat*

      “I wasn’t frowning, it’s my neutral face (too bad resting bitch face wasn’t a thing back then).”

      Fun fact! The medical term is “flat affect” (same stress pattern as “Affleck”). When a psychiatric NP informed me I have it, I initially thought she was saying I have no or little emotion in my facial expressions, but she explained it just means my “neutral” appears negative to others.

    3. Booker*

      When I worked retail, I made a game out of getting sweeter and nicer the angrier a customer got. Especially the ones who were goading me, trying to get me to snap so they could then run to the manager and complain that I was rude so they could get a discount/free whatever. I’d get nicer and nicer and they’d get more and more upset. it was a fantastic social experiment. I’d usually get them to leave or swear, in which case *I* could run to the manager and get them kicked out.

      1. Snazzy Hat*

        {highest of fives} I was trying to help a customer once with something I didn’t have expertise in. He started to get annoyed that I didn’t know the answer, and IIRC he thought I was being difficult and/or rude. I directed him to someone else who could solve his problem. Soon after that, I was called to run a register. Eventually the guy came through my line! I was so damn cheerful when cashing him out, I felt as though I was daring him to complain to my manager about how “rude” I was.

      2. Kelly L.*

        I did this too! I still do it to some extent. The more you yell, the quieter I get and the more I say ma’am and sir.

      3. Noelle*

        I’ve done that too, and it can be pretty fun to be the pleasant voice of reason in the room. When I was a server, I had a lot of customers who could be real jerks. Being incredibly polite and friendly sometimes made them more reasonable, but at least was also enjoyable when they responded badly. If someone is going to yell at you, it’s kind of nice to have enough self control to stay pleasant.

        I also try to use this technique when I’m on the other end of a customer service call and am trying to deal with someone difficult. I pretend my call is being recorded and therefore I must stay as calm and reasonable as possible, even when it’s the fifth time I’m calling because my insurance company doesn’t know how to update things.

      4. T3k*

        I can’t tell if I’m glad or disappointed to have not had a chance to do this. I’ve had a few irate customers but on a scale of 1-10, the worst was maybe a 5. And had one that registered at a 2 come in later and apologized.

        1. Marzipan*

          I once had someone get so angry he could no longer speak and was just making furious noises down the phone. His wife called the next day and apologised!

      5. catsAreCool*

        When I worked in fast food, if a customer was rude and obnoxious for no reason, I would act very very sweet, so sweet that it was slightly sarcastic. It doesn’t work in some situations, but it worked great there.

    4. Monotone Jess*

      LadyCop – I find it extremely hard and exhausting to fake joy and enthusiasm. I too suffer from “resting bitch face” and I reserve my smiles for the people who are really special to me.

      1. Us, Too*

        “I reserve my smiles for the people who are really special to me.” <—-This is why your customers are troubled and you are getting the feedback you are getting. Customers feel that they ought to be special enough to you for you to be able to muster up a cordial, genuine business smile and corresponding tone.

        Being friendly (or at least acting in a way that is perceived as friendly) to customers is part of the job.

        I think you must consider whether this type of job is something you will excel at long term if you find this to be difficult or exhausting. It could get easier with time and practice, but it might just be something you find won't be worth the effort to you.

        1. TootsNYC*

          ” Customers feel that they ought to be special enough to you for you to be able to muster up a cordial, genuine business smile and corresponding tone.”

          And because you are at work, and because their money is why you are in the room—why you even have a job, why your company exists as an entity to employ you—they *are* important enough for you to smile cordially at them and use a corresponding tone of voice (especially if they can’t see any smile).

          If you aren’t willing to wrap your head around that, then I’d have to join in saying, “maybe this is a bad field for you.”

      2. StudentPilot*

        I’d like to point out that something difficult is still possible to learn. Think about tying your shoes, riding a bike, learning to count – all of these things are ‘difficult’ when we first go to learn them, but with perseverance, and practice, we get better at them until they are second nature. It really is no different with the skills we employ at work. We practice to get better at typing, we buckle down to learn a new computer program, we play around with new features on a computer; faking enthusiasm can be no different, so long as we choose to see it as a skill to be employed at work, and not being disingenuous to our core selves.

  9. Marzipan*

    #5, it sounds as though you’re being asked not to change your core personality, but the way you interact with customers/people, which isn’t the same thing.

    I do not actually give two hoots about many of the problems people phone me up with. They are frequently rather silly. I generally don’t understand why they feel as strongly about them as they evidently do. BUT, none of those callers ever have the least inkling of any of that. Their experience is that I am patient and kind to them, and explain what solutions I can offer or where else they can pursue help, and 99% of the time the call ends with them feeling much better about whatever it was. I do this because it’s a generally decent thing to do, because it’s a requirement of my job, and – on a really pragmatic note – because it serves my own interests to spend a little time on them now rather than lots of time later when they’re still unhappy because I didn’t leave them with a feeling of resolution the first time and they call back or complain.

    That might sound really false to you – but what it comes down to is, customers (internal or external) don’t always like straight and to the point, and they pretty much never like robotic.

    Fixing this is actually pretty easy, though. 1) Go for a non-robotic vocal tone. Not a high-pitched one (?), just one that sounds like you’re interested in talking to the person you’re talking to. (Maybe make yourself smile when on a call; have it come across in your voice.) 2) Acknowledge whatever emotions the person sounds like they’re expressing. “I can tell how frustrating this has been for you, I’m so sorry.” (I had to learn to do this, and I can understand if you’re rolling your eyes at it, but it’s basically magic. People want to feel listened to and acknowledged; you need to get past that before you can actually completely fix the problem.) 3) Give them the necessary info. 4) Include some brief social pleasantries. This doesn’t have to be, like, a lengthy discussion of where you and they are going on holiday this year; just stuff like ‘Is there anything else I can help with?” and “Thanks for calling”. And that’s it.

    Maybe all this sounds horrible to you and you’re thinking all like: ‘I’m direct and down to earth, why would I waste time on this nonsense? I wouldn’t want all this frippery if I called with a problem; it sounds horrible. I’d just want the answer.’ But what you’re being told at work, basically, is you need to do this stuff. You don’t have to change your personality – you can, at heart, continue to think it’s all silly – you just have to do it, in the same way you have to answer the phone “Wakeen’s Teapots, Lucinda speaking” and not “WHAT!?!?” It’s just a skill, a tool, not a makeover. Good luck!

    1. Wakeen's Teapots, Ltd.*

      Oooooh, what a great post and what a time saver for me that you wrote out most everything I was going to say.

      I have seen some pretty dry face to face folks turn on the light bulb and be Warm and Personable when engaging customers. Lookit, customer facing isn’t for everybody and no shame in that. But if you aren’t willing to try to present friendly and warm to customers, you shouldn’t be in a customer facing job.

      Being warm to customers when they call is part of the job.

      1. PontoonPirate*

        Yep, and sometimes it’s the tedious part, right there with the filing and the expense reports. I have RBF and RBV(voice) so I have to be particularly careful when I’m dealing with a stakeholder over the phone or in person. I sort of imagine I’m a devotee of the Carol Beer model of customer service in my head, and then do the opposite in reality. It makes me feel genuine happiness (mostly at their expense, grant you) but it comes through in my voice and my face.

        To them: “I’m sorry, that does sound like a problem. Let me see what I can do!”
        Internally: “Compu’er says naoww….”

          1. PontoonPirate*

            I get ya. The thing is, it really can work against us professionally. I know how exhausting it can be to fake it for people. I get resentful sometimes, too, but in the end, it’s like resenting other social norms we participate it. It’s not going to change the expectation and it makes me crazy.

            So, can you think of things that will help you “enliven” your voice without as much effort as smiling? A funny joke, or a printout of a cat meme, or any tangible cue?

    2. Countess Boochie Flagrante*

      All of this, all of it, but most specifically the part about acknowledging people’s emotions. It’s hard when you’re a representative of a business and someone comes in making accusations — you want to be like “nah, policy exists for a reason” or similar, but there’s an enormous power in saying “You’re right, that is super messed up, I’m really sorry, let me see what I can do for you.” It’s related to the teaming that Alison occasionally talks about; the customer comes in thinking that you, the faceless voice on the phone representing Big Company X, are their enemy, but you can pretty easily switch things around so that you’re on their side, the person who’s going to help them and get things as fixed as possible.

      1. Not So NewReader*

        I spend a lot of time calming people. Some times our system is more like a brick wall than a system. By the time people get to me they have hit that brick wall head on a couple of times. They are REALLY frustrated. I am very careful not to promise to fix the situation because sometimes I can’t. So my default answer becomes “let me look at this and call you back.” Well, the person is so frustrated that at times I have to say this five or six times before they hear me. Other people “get it” right away, meaning that if I am actually going to fix this, or find a solution they can use then it will take me time to do that. Some times it involves 2-3 hours of telephone calls before I find an answer. Sometimes it can take several months for that answer to work out. The way I come across is very important. If I come across as robotic/aloof/whatever, I will double or triple my workload because of complaints/endless fretting and other things that nervous people come up with to do.

        1. fposte*

          Oh, these are really good points. These days I think even uncomplicated customers have usually had to negotiate a phone tree and given information at least once before they get to a human, so even if they’re not calling with a problem, the beginning to the phone call is pretty frustrating (I think that’s one of the main disparities in customer service–the phone call starts 2-3 minutes earlier for the caller than it does for the rep). So in general customers are spooked horses by the time a human talks to them, and it may be helpful to keep that in mind and realize how different that is from something like a simple email exchange.

          1. Wakeen's Teapots, Ltd.*

            We have “ring straight thru to a rep”, no button presses, just a “Wakeen Teapots, this is Fergus, how may I help you?”.

            Such an anomoly in today’s world that the fancy new phone system we bought a couple years back had no set up for that and had to be jury rigged to accommodate us. The phone guy was like “NOBODY does that anymore.”

            It’s best experience! I’m a sort of stubborn person. You may have picked that up. ;)

            1. Kyrielle*

              I’m glad the phone guy was wrong. I wish more places DID do that.

              My doctor’s office and my kids’ doctor’s office aren’t too bad though. They just want to know roughly who you need to speak to – one button and they pass you through – and given that the answers can range from “scheduling please” to “I need the advice nurse” to “I’m a pharmacy employee trying to call about renewing a prescription”, I can totally see why that one question is reasonably automated.

              But the Phone Tree Of 20 Questions, especially if it doesn’t even give the answers to those questions to the poor person who picks up? Ugh, from both sides.

              1. Revolver Rani*

                Also the phone tree that makes you listen to commercials between questions – I’m looking at you, Comcast.

                1. Stranger than fiction*

                  I think I’d rather hear commercials then the every 15 seconds “thank you for holding. a representative will be with you shortly. you can also visit us at http://www...”

                2. Kyrielle*

                  Or you phone tree in and are waiting on hold because everyone in that department is busy, and it cycles through ads, including telling you that you should check out their website to do your business. Usually, if I’m calling, it’s because using the web site for this isn’t an option or didn’t work! :P

                  If it only said that once I’d be fine, but if the hold time is long enough that I hear it more than once, I usually start talking back to it. Some day that will backfire and I’ll be in the middle of it when the poor person picks up.

                  Seriously, mention the web site alternative once if you must, and _then just stick to music_.

                3. Cath in Canada*

                  The worst I’ve ever encountered was the old Canadian immigration number. You had to get through multiple menu selections before it would let the phone ring through to a rep, and then if no-one is available, you’d get disconnected and have to start from scratch – there was no queue, no hold, nothing. I haven’t had to call them for years and I still remember the sequence of menu keys I needed to get to that point – I memorised them so I wouldn’t have to listen to every option every time!

            2. AnonInSC*

              I now want to do business with you if I ever can. I HATE phone trees with a passion. Especially ones where I have to enter information that I then have to repeat when I finally get to a person.

      2. Ad Astra*

        I had a boss who REFUSED to let me acknowledge customers’ frustration when they complained to us on social media because he felt it was “admitting fault.” It drove me nuts because sometimes we really were at fault, or other times we had the policy for a reason but it was still an annoying policy, but all our responses must have been supremely unsatisfying to our customers. Ugh!

    3. Glod Glodsson*

      +1 to all of the above.

      When dealing with clients, they’re not always super rational, most of them are emotional when they call. You can’t really appeal to logic when someone’s emotional, so the best thing to do is to reduce those emotions by acknowledging them. As soon as people feel they’re taken seriously, they’re much more willing an able to listen to rational solutions.

    4. Newbie*

      I completely agree with you that customer service is a skill or tool. I can be a very straightforward, no nonsense, cut to the chase kind of person. But I’ve learned over the years to do much of what Marzipan suggested. I don’t have to agree with customers, but I do need to represent my company in the way the job requires. Whether that be the ability to use certain software or treat customers and coworkers in a specific way, those are job requirements.

      Customer service isn’t for everybody. We all have different strengths, skill sets, and preferences. I’ve turned down job opportunities that contained tasks I don’t enjoy or don’t want to enhance. If the LW prefers not to make the accommodations to her work style to meet company expectations, it might be time to explore other employment opportunities. Nothing wrong with aligning your career with your strengths and preferences.

    5. april ludgate*

      This is all really great advice! I’m also wondering if part of the robotic feeling is because you have a script to follow or you just naturally end up saying the same things a lot, because then you could take those phrases and specifically practice adding warmth to them. I always hated talking on the phone and it didn’t come easily to me, so I would listen to how friendlier coworkers would word things and the intonation they’d use and copy it until it sounded natural. I still run through practice conversations in my head when I have to make calls so that I have a loose script of the conversation in my head, then it’s just a matter of “acting” my part.

    6. Monotone Jess*

      Marzipan – I’ve determined I can never be an actor, because for me to sound interested is a huge feat for me. But overall, your post is extremely helpful. It will be one I read numerous times.

  10. Nicole J.*

    OP#5 – Focusing on the phone aspect….When I first started in my current job my phone manner was terrible – I didn’t mean it to be, and I was never rude, but I hate talking on the phone, I get really nervous and it can make me come across as abrupt and cold.

    What I’ve done to make sure I sound warm and helpful with clients is to a) write a few notes about what I need to say in the phone call, so I don’t get panicky and blurt out unintelligible sentences or feel the need to hurry to end the call just to make the torture stop, b) do some deep breathing just before I make a call, so I’m as relaxed as I can be, c) make sure I start the call with a smile on my face – doesn’t matter if it’s a fake one, it still does the job, and d) give a genuine “How are you?” after the introduction – and respond pleasantly to the answer – before diving into the meat of the call.

    Regarding not thinking you were rude, in a way it doesn’t really matter – if the customer has that impression, whether you meant it or not, and had it so strongly that they felt the need to complain, that has to be something your company looks at.

  11. Leeza*

    #2: don’t say you’re going out because of a medical appointment, just say you have an appointment.

    1. NJ Anon*

      This, if you don’t say you’re going to a doctor’s appt, they won’t ask. But I honestly think you are way over thinking it. If they ask, just say “yes, thanks!” They are just being nice.

    2. Doriana Gray*

      Exactly. People are offering up too much information if they don’t want the, “Is everything okay?” question.

  12. Merry and Bright*

    #2 The “Are you okay?” question usually is well meant. But if you answer “yes” it kind of suggests a white lie otherwise why would you be going to the doctor’s/hospital appointment/clinic? Yet if you say “no” it risks sounding a bit curt unless you add the reason. It is easy to overthink stuff like this but I tend to go for something like “Hopefully!” or “Oh, not too bad!”

    On the other hand there are coworkers who will already have told you their symptoms or medical condition in minute detail so you already know the reason for the appointment. But I digress…

    1. MK*

      Yes. I think “Nothing serious” and “Just a few check-ups” should carry the moment, especially since the managers obviously aren’t asking for details.

      1. TootsNYC*

        I agree with this. And I don’t quite get why it’s such a difficult enquiry to deal with.

        Let’s say things aren’t OK, but you don’t want to share it, or get into it in the room full of people. Just say, “Just some follow-up stuff.” Or, “Nothing to worry about.”

        Nobody’s going to be mad when you go to your boss in private later and say, “Well, it is serious; I have to take 2 months off for cancer treatment.” The boss isn’t going to say, “Why did you lie to me when I asked if everything was OK?”

        YOU CAN LIE. You can say, “Yep, everything’s fine,” even if it’s not.

        Consider their question, and the whole exchange, to be communication that says:
        • I want to convey that I care about you as a person with health.
        • I want to indicate that you could come to me if it was important.
        • I want to indicate that I’d be willing to listen if you wanted to complain about your ingrown toenail. (OK, only a little bit about the toenail, but if you wanted to talk about how to deal with, oh, lupus, I’d be up for a conversation about logistics, emotional support, commiseration, a story about how my aunt coped with that same thing, etc.)
        • I want to let YOU decide how much you are willing to share. (Because I didn’t ask, “what’s wrong?”)

        I once had an employee who was taking her 4th doctor-visit absence in a three week period. Maybe I goofed, but I said, when she told me, “I notice you’ve been out going to the doctor’s a lot. I don’t want to pry, I don’t need any details, but I wanted to express my concern and ask, oh, I guess, should I worry?”
        Her response was, “No, my doctor is just the kind of guy who pursues every test. There isn’t anything to worry about.”
        Maybe that was unfair of me to ask her that–I tried to make it clear I wanted to express concern without invading her privacy.

        Recently my deputy was out on a medical leave; she told me, “I have to have an operation–it’s not serious, it’s not cancer or anything, just something I need to have done.”
        I did appreciate being told “it’s not life-threatening,” because I would have wanted to know that level. And I was touched that she volunteered to have someone let me know when the operation was over, so I’d know she was into regular recovery. I said, “thanks for offering–I would never have asked, but I’ll be glad to get that news. I wouldn’t really worry a lot, but it will be a low-level concern during the day, because I care about you.”

        That said:

        Maybe you can start modeling a less intrusive phrase to use. A statement, not a question.
        Maybe you can leap right in with, “I hope it goes well.”
        That might get people to shift.

    2. Snazzy Hat*

      “Everything okay?”
      “Oh fine, I scheduled this days/weeks/months ago, thanks.”

      Even if it’s for something crappy, at least you’re having it treated or monitored or whatever, and *that’s* the “fine” part. None of my coworkers really cares if I need to get a tooth removed. They’re more making sure that I knew beforehand and scheduled the appointment in advance, rather than I’m suddenly leaving to get emergency oral surgery that must be performed within the hour.

    3. Ster*

      When I had a bunch of appointments for a chronic thing i didn’t want to discuss i used to reply with ‘I’ll be alright’ it suggests this isn’t a frivolous appointment but signals i don’t want to get into it.

    4. Sadsack*

      “Just a routine thing,” has been my response to this. I think saying, “Yeah, I’m fine is perfectly OK. Anyone wondering why you are going to the doctor if you are fine is reading too much into it.

    5. Nerdling*

      “Well, actually, I have this enormous hemorrhoid, and I’m really hoping the doctor can help me out without having to resort to having surgery on my anus.”

      No one will ever ask you if you’re all right again. (I wouldn’t actually do it, but it would certainly nip that problem in the bud?butt?whatever.)

        1. Marty Gentillon*

          I can totally see how that question is difficult, especially when the real answer is: “No, not even slightly, and I am still trying to process that fact.” The truth is that there is no need to answer that question. A good response that doesn’t answer the question is: “thanks for your concern” Hopefully they will have enough tact to not pry. (Best of luck with whatever medical condition you may or may not be facing.)

    6. Pam Poovey*

      I have two employees. One gets very visibly hurt if I don’t ask questions about their doctors appointments, and volunteers all the details when I don’t press further. He once came to me with a baggie of prescription bottles because he wanted me to know all the meds he was on…you know, just in case something ever happened to him while at work. I had to explain that I’m not a nurse and that I wouldn’t be able to do anything with his meds, I would just have to call the ambulance. No, he doesn’t have a chronic condition that anyone would need to know about – like panic attacks, epilepsy, etc. Just your run of the mill blood pressure, cholesterol, seasonal allergy, etc. If he calls in sick, if I don’t ask what illness he has and what his symptoms are, it comes back to me that he thought I didn’t believe he was sick and that I don’t care that he is sick. My other employee is very private, quiet and guarded. Never goes to the doctor. She recently had a doctors appointment and I asked if everything went ok. I felt awful because she was obviously put on the spot and uncomfortable answering. I certainly didn’t want the details, but I also didn’t want her to not think I cared about her.
      For every employee that doesn’t want that level of involvement from their boss, there is one that will feel like their health is must not be important to anyone. I would love to just not have to ask because I wouldn’t expect my boss to ask, or care for that matter.

      1. MsChandandlerBong*

        As his boss, I don’t think it’s your responsibility to handle that sort of thing, but high blood pressure is very much something an EMT or paramedic would need to know about. It can cause strokes, heart attacks, and other serious problems. If you have high blood pressure, there are also certain drugs you should avoid. Just wanted to put that out there so people don’t think high BP is nothing to worry about.

  13. Hazel Asperg*


    As the name suggests, I have Aspergers, so I can also be quite ‘robotic’ when I speak to people. I have had to train myself, over the last twenty years, to remember to say, “Fine thanks, how are you?” when someone asks me, “How are you?”. I have learned through responses that when customers call, they want those phatic (social) communications, even though I find them pointless/tedious/etc. When I want something from a coworker, I want to walk in, politely interrupt, ask them for whatever it is, then leave. But they require pleasantries, so I have to do those things too or I lose social points and risk my job performance.

    So, basically: I totally, totally get what you’re saying. It’s really frustrating, but those pleasantries are a legitimate work skill. I try to think of it like a set of gaming actions, where you have to perform actions x, y and z before result A1 happens. Then it’s far less onerous.

    1. Argh!*

      I have coworkers with Aspergers who also have learned the niceties. They don’t work in customer service roles, but we are all customers of each other in a sense, and they are pleasant to work with. All of us have times when we don’t feel sweet as pie, but being cordial & friendly to others just becomes second nature, as you said.

    2. LibbyG*

      I’m neurotypical, and I do enjoy the social niceties, but I wish NT culture would make more space for other social interaction styles. It doesn’t seem fair that people like Hazel and OP#5 have to do ALL the work of aligning their self-presentation with others’ expectations. We’re not there yet, obviously, so I agree that OP#5 does have to figure out a strategy.

      1. J.B.*

        I’m neurotypical or at least close :) and I’m not keen on the social niceties either. However – if someone comes in and starts asking me questions I would need a minute to switch my brain over and know what’s going on. The standard social exchanges do give time for that.

        1. JB (not in Houston)*

          That’s a good point. Those social niceties that can be annoying for some often serve the purpose of giving the person you’re talking to time to stop thinking about what they were doing and get into the headspace of “I’m having a conversation now, I need to hear what this person is saying and understand it.”

          1. INFJ*

            Very well put. I now understand why it bothered me when one of our interns used to pop his head in my cube and blurt out a question. I usually love helping people/answering questions, but it took about 15 seconds to get over the shock of being suddenly interrupted, comprehend the question, and deliver a cogent answer.

    3. Ciela*

      Hi Hazel!
      I did have Asperger’s Syndrome, until they removed that diagnosis and combined it under the Autism Spectrum umbrella. I’m still mad about that.
      I also face challenges with people thinking I am rude when I’m not. Maybe I tend to be a bit more formal than some other people. I would say “To whom do you wish to speak?” instead of “Who do you want to talk to?”. But I do strive not to sound rude, and certainly never intend to be rude towards customers.
      Unfortunately since one of our receptionists quit, and the other one takes 4 hour lunch breaks everyday, I am left in a customer service role much more often than I would like.
      I also have been told, by boss, that he doesn’t want me to be autistic anymore. I’m certain that I cannot accommodate that request, and it was very bizarre for him to even make it.

        1. Ciela*

          It’s been 8 months since I was asked to stop being autistic, so I am quite certain he has forgotten that conversation. He tends to forget conversations concerning personnel matters after about a month. He may have also forgotten (again) that I’m even on the spectrum.

      1. Hazel Asperg*

        Good grief, that’s awful that your manager said that. He doesn’t seem to appreciate that autism is a disability and you can’t switch it on and off when it suits. I hope your situation improves soon.

        1. Ciela*

          You’re right Hazel, he doesn’t understand. I got the idea that because I’m High Functioning, rather than a more classic autistic, he thinks I have control. I don’t. I try, I try so hard. I try to act the way I believe to be socially acceptable, smile while talking so as to seem more pleasant, but it is very tiring.
          Have you ever successfully convinced someone “No, I’m not being rude, I’m just being Aspie?”

      2. Oryx*

        Some what off topic, but there is this really great book out called “In a Different Key” about the history of autism and it discusses Asperger’s, including the start and discontinuation of that diagnosis. The book is huge but reads quickly (I found). You might find it interesting.

    4. Tau*

      Fellow Asperger’s person, who doesn’t have problems with those social niceties (my default interaction style tends to get read as “enthusiastic and cheerful but kind of weird” rather than “rude”, AFAIK) but does understand where you’re coming from.

      The way I personally think of the pleasantries is based on a linguistics class I had in undergrad, where the professor talked about theories for how language developed. Apparently one of the leading theories, at least at the time, was that language was originally a substitute for grooming behaviour meant to cement social relationships in primates. This still makes a lot of sense to me, and is in line with how I see a lot of the social niceties function in practice. It’s like there’s two levels to the conversation – one is the direct informational one, and the other is basically going “Hi! I’m a human being! I recognise you as a fellow human being. I recognise you as a member of my social circles. We are in the same nebulous tribe.” That’s the social niceties, which can take different forms depending on culture, and not engaging in them gets viewed as rejection on that meta-level and ties into all sorts of social-species group issues (are they about to be ostracised from the group? Are you even part of their group?). So people don’t react well.

      Aaaand this is most likely not particularly helpful to you – god knows people can explain why lying makes logical sense to me until they go blue in the face and my brain still parses it as a completely irrational self-damaging action it refuses to engage in – but this is how my own Aspie brain makes sense of social niceties as a necessary part of interaction.

  14. Wakeen's Teapots, Ltd.*


    I can’t improve on Alison’s advice, I can only echo that, on a senior level, that’s what I’m looking for (and what my own responsibility is to the people above me.) Your job is to figure out the best use of your time to the org and your mission.

    Sometimes I will check my own direction at peer or my reports level. I get a little um, swept up, in whatever my passion of the moment is, and that can take me off course if I don’t check in. “I am spending most of my time doing XYZ because of ABC, what do you think?” The mental exercise of planning to check in, alone, can help me redirect myself a bit.

    Do you have goals to check yourself against? I don’t have any manager, per se, just Large Goals. I check my time expenditure against the goals, working towards 100% max effectiveness in fulfilling them.

    1. F.*

      Wakeen, that is very timely advice for me. I am trying to take my HR Manager (dept. of one) role from the company owner’s perception that it is just an administrative paper-pushing function to the desperately needed role of actual HR management including staying current with compliance issues, developing policies, planning for company growth, strategizing, etc. My enthusiasm coupled with relative newness in this position (19 months) sometimes finds me distracted by every HR-related squirrel that runs by. There are so many directions to go that I find it very easy to spend a lot of time on a low-reward tangent that is highly unlikely to be implemented as opposed to something with a higher chance of being implemented. As time goes on, I’m sure I will be able to prove to the owner that HR is much more than placing recruiting ads on the internet and enrolling employees in insurance, but I need to prioritize my projects for maximum benefit in order to do this. Only then will I be able to get the owner’s backing on the policies and programs that this company needs in order to thrive.

      1. Wakeen's Teapots, Ltd.*

        I love learning new things and I’d likely be swept along just as you are. I let myself get swept along a little because that’s where I often find my best stuff, but I have to check myself or a month/year will go by and I’ll find that I haven’t produced the maximum overall results.

        Sometimes when I check myself the answer is “yes! right on!”, but honestly, I need to ask other people when I get too excited about something because I can’t trust my judgement 100%.

  15. Ruth (UK)*

    5. Gosh it looks like a lot of people are responding to this one but anyway, I’m not sure what a valley girl is exactly (I googled it and it’s someone from a certain area?) but stereotypes rarely hold truth for most people and are often a sort of weirdly exaggerated interpretation of a group as they are perceived by an outside group and so I would say most women are not ‘stereotypical’ females. Anyway, changing your tone and manner while talking to customers is not forcing you to change your personality, though it could depend how much they’re asking, like how far they want you to do. If they want you to specifically change your speech patterns, not just manner or tone it might be a bigger deal. I talk pretty differently on the phone ay work than I do to my friends. I mean, mostly cause the people I am talking to at work usually have poorly functioning hearing aids so I have to shout…

    1. AMD*

      It’s a pattern of inflection and word choices that makes most sentences sound like questions even when they are not, and makes the speaker sound “ditzy,” or young, stupid and careless. It’s stereotypically feminine. See the movie Clueless for examples. ^_^

      1. AMD*

        Argh, that was meant to describe the steeotype of the way of speaking, not actual people who speak that way. I have known good and intelligent people who upspeak etc, but that is the stereotype.

      2. ginger ale for all*

        There is an old song from the eighties called Valley Girl by Moon Unit Zappa that popularized the term. It’s a fun song to hear if anyone wants to google it and listen to it for a quick mood booster.

  16. KatieBear*

    I’m going to be blunt. If you think it’s okay to say that average “stereotypical females” talk like “valley girls” or in a “high-pitched voice”, I don’t have a lot of sympathy for you. Your tone is bigoted, and in my opinion worse, however I’ll only allude to it since I’m not willing to type the words. Additionally, I dislike the adjective female to describe humans. I am not a lab rat, I’m a woman.

    If you can’t be polite in this presumably well thought out typed case, I can only suggest you check into your customer service skills. If you find it that distasteful, perhaps you should enhance your toolbox or look into something else. No one is asking you to change your personality, only to display standard customer service.

    Not only is asking you to be kind legal, but it’s the social, humane thing to do.

    1. KatieBear*

      Straight from Wikipedia, the definition says
      “The label originally referred to a swell of upper-middle class girls living in the early 1980s Los Angeles commuter towns of the San Fernando Valley, but in time the term became more broadly applied to any woman or girl — primarily in the United States and Canada — who engendered the associated affects of ditziness, airheadedness, and/or greater interest in conspicuous consumption than intellectual or personal accomplishment.”

      Using this term to describe stereotypical women is appalling. Full stop.

    2. Wakeen's Teapots, Ltd.*

      Lookit, I get you. It’s worth pointing out that the OP didn’t say “average” female but “stereotypical”, which, isn’t even a stereotype in my neck of the woods, ’cause, Philly, ya know? But I get you that the OP phrased portions of her question in a way that is offensive.

      Point is, it’s only 4:45 am east coast atm and piling on the OP for her word choices can take over/derail the whole comment section here by 9am. I’m chiming in this way ’cause I think Alison has finally gone to sleep and I’m up with three cups of coffee in me. :)

      1. KatieBear*

        I get what you’re saying, thanks for infusing some humor. I’ve always appreciated your comments.

        But I’d be just as offended if the OP5 said the “average” woman was a valley girl, which is WAY less than a hop, skip, jump away from calling the average woman an airhead. It’s hurtful and pejorative.

  17. Jwal*

    As a Brit the term ‘valley girl’ makes me think of a woman with a thick Welsh accent (think “I’m from the vaaaaalleys!”), which made me very confused for a moment about what typical American women must be like…

    1. KatieBear*

      Never in the history of the term “valley girl” has it meant smart, hard working, clever, resourceful, funny, or kind. It has always been a pejorative term. I don’t blame your confusion one bit. This bigoted post shouldn’t slide for a second.

  18. Need cheering up*

    OP#1 This happened to me, albeit for other reasons. I am your employee. My previous boss was incompetent and not capable of assessing her team. Higher ups did not care, which meant that several high performing and very experienced employees were overlooked and are now lagging behind with regards to title and salary. A new boss came in and saw this and is now having trouble rectifying the situation because the company is now going through a challenging time. It is incredibly frustrating for me.

    My advice to you is to follow AAM’s advice. When I complained under my old boss, they tried to cover things up and justify it with my apparent insufficient performance. They literally plucked things out of the air and I ended up speaking to HR. Tell him what exactly happened, give as much transparency as possible and you have a greater chance he’ll not be as mad. Being honest and admitting a mistake makes you a stronger leader and get you more respect in the long-term. Your employees can sense when you are not straight forward, which will increase uncertainty and lower morale even more.

    1. Lauren*

      I agree with this. OP risks the employee thinking that the boss is just a tool of a company that has no desire to put any effort into their employees. Show that employee that you have their back, that you plan to fight like hell for them. That the employee can trust OP and come to OP with any concerns. Also, tell the employee that if you can’t make headway – you won’t lie about fake timelines and hoops that are just out of reach to extend their tenure at the company without any intention of giving back with raises / promotions / investment in training / etc.

      Tell them that you will give brutally honest feedback with him if it turns into that type of situation. and even encourage them to move on and be a reference if there is no hope of change.

  19. Kathlynn*

    I don’t want to derail the conversation about number 5 anymore. But I do think this might be an important point. The letter write might mean that it’s a stereotypical thing women get into trouble for. Or at least that’s how they see it. There have been other LWs who have submitted questions on how to correct the employees who act like the description of “valley girls” and such on this site.

    1. hbc*

      While it’s true that women face this kind of criticism more often than men, it doesn’t make sense to flip it around and assume that the request OP5 got is unfair. It’s like finding out a male colleague is making more and complaining that it’s sexism without looking at education, experience, performance, job duties, etc..

      If OP sees that there are people who are more “robotic” trucking along without a comment, then sure, she can point that out. (Though it’s not as if the reprimands are posted in the breakroom. I hope.) But if you’re on the wrong side of a basic expectation for your job–and I think we can all agree that customer service reps shouldn’t be mistaken for an automated system–it’s not a strong move to argue that other people are also on the wrong side.

      1. Lauren*

        #5 You also don’t get compliments usually for being cheerful as much as you get complaints. This can’t be fixed with data that says you fixed it, it will merely be something that gets repeating as any new complaint comes out. Even if its not directly related to this original feedback. It becomes a list of anecdotal nonsense that plagues women’s reviews such as ‘be more confident’ and ‘be less aggressive’ without anyway to refute something that has a tangible something that says ‘its fixed’.

        The only thing I can think of is OP should ask the person to record her interactions for several weeks to determine if she has ‘corrected’ the issue. Fake it until it can no longer be used against you with anecdotal complaints that are not refuted regularly with glowing praise from all the calls that were handled without complaint or having an issue.

    2. Lauren*

      I have a high pitched voice because I am deaf in one ear, and this is how I grew up talking. ‘Valley girl’ speak is often assumed to be a choice that MUST be corrected. Some people like me, have a high pitched voice because of a medical issue.

  20. Caroline*

    For #1, are your employee’s pay rises or bonuses linked to to their performance evaluation rating? I ask, because if so, it’s going to be a much more difficult conversation.

    It could be certainly be demoralizing to hear your manager say “I messed up, and as a result your stellar performance isn’t being recognised as it should be.” But if they then have to add “And because I messed up, your pay rise and/or bonus will also be smaller than you deserve”… I would be super demoralized and extremely unhappy with you as my manager.

    I definitely agree with Alison that you need to go as hard as you can pushing for that exception regardless of whether or not performance related pay is an issue. But if it is, then you might need to spell out to your supervisor (and the board, if necessary) how unfair it is for any employee to be penalised for their manager’s error. If they still refuse to budge, then you need to think very carefully about how to discuss this with your employee, and maybe see if there’s anything that you have the discretion to offer in recognition of their excellent performance (e.g. a couple of extra days of vacation).

    1. Countess Boochie Flagrante*

      Yeah, I agree with all of this. Alison touched on the process being pretty insane (and it is!) and I know that if I were that employee, I would be feeling the hit in a big and serious way. Especially since there isn’t a middle step between “fully meets expectations” and a full-board-review super-red-tape bureaucratic nightmare — what on earth?

      I’m not a fan of most of the ways this kind of rating system gets used, but I recognize that it’s easy to codify and use as a benchmark for overall stats across a large company. But for the love of god, there needs to be something in between a C and an A+!

      1. Ms. Anne Thrope*

        Right? Lord save us from these idiotic ranking systems. ‘Fully meets’ actually means ‘sometimes exceeds’? And the step above ‘fully meets’ is ‘significantly exceeds’?? That’s stupid. Words mean things; use them correctly.

        Here, they haven’t bothered w/ reviews (or raises) in a couple years now but when they did, it was made extremely clear–ballistically–that ‘everyone is a 3 [out of 5]’. So, why even bother w/ rankings? Good question. On the plus side, it’s quick and easy to do your self-ranking. Just click 3,3,3,3,3 ok and it’s done. (Bonus–they call ‘raises’ ‘merit increases’ but go out of their way to emphasize that they have nothing to do w/ merit, which of course is obvious because they don’t quite keep up w/ inflation and being a high performer gets you nothing. They’re COLAs and pisspoor ones at that.)

        So, for OP1, as a manager if you can push back against this idiocy you’ll make your high performers happy. Happy workers do more. Unhappy workers feel like, why bother if I’m only going to get a ‘meets’ and a COLA that doesn’t quite keep up with the increase in insurance costs.

      2. Stranger than fiction*

        It is odd isn’t it? And how can someone “occasionally AND consistently” exceed expectations? It’s one or the other.

    2. BananaPants*

      Agreed. I hope this doesn’t cost OP a good performer, but if that is the case and this employee’s bonus/raise will be affected, there’s a chance that it might.

      1. finman*

        I knew a guy who got the Chairmans award for exceptional work, and ended up with a 3 out of 5 on his annual review. Only 6 people got the award, and yet he still met expectations. I won’t go on any further performance review rants because it’s a rabbithole I don’t want to start down.

    3. LQ*

      I absolutely agree about the last point. I’d actually say you should do that anyway. What other things can you do? What things motivate this employee? More interesting work? Better equipment? More vacation? Flex time?
      (There’s been so much science that shows that once you get past a threshold using things other than money to motivate is more valuable. This of course assumes you are at that threshold. If you aren’t…redouble your efforts.)

      Finally, I’d say if you are unable to do any of these things? Understand that they might leave, and be gracious about it. Make it clear that you won’t hold it against the employee, you will support them. This will help you with this employee and future ones. Especially if they are already underpaid.

    4. LawCat*

      Totally agree. If pay raises are tied to the performance eval, the employee will be demoralized and may start looking for other work.

      I had an employer where raises were tied to the performance eval (you needed a certain amount of “exceeds expectations”. The employer threw a component of work not related to the substance of what we do into the evaluation (admin tasks, but we were not doing admin work so this basically boiled down to tracking your time correctly and submitting timesheets in time). There was not much to evaluate, but I was meticulous with my timekeeping. I “met expectations” here (“exceeded” in many areas of my professional work/what I was hired to do). So I asked what I needed to do in the future to possibly earn an “exceeds” on the admin tasks. Supervisor said I couldn’t, it’s not a category people in our role could earn an “exceeds” on. I found out they use the same form every year. I was extraordinarily frustrated because it meant I would not get as much of a raise and seemed to exist just to prevent people from getting higher raises.

      I don’t work there anymore.

      As an employee, it just looks and feels awful when the employer puts up barrier s to raises because of entrenched bureaucratic ideas and processes that are out the employee’s hands and devalue the employee’s work.

    5. The_artist_formerly_known_as_Anon-2*

      As I said above – the OP painted himself into a corner. He needs a trap door, or a rope ladder, or a rocket belt to get out of it.

      He again should plead – PLEASE let me change this. Otherwise – he loses, the employee loses, and the company is certainly going to lose.

      Regardless of the tap dance OP does in the review session – the employee is

      a) going to leave the session disgruntled and demoralized.
      b) going to go home – re-assess, re-evaluate his situation with the company
      c) he could start looking.

      If he finds another situation and goes in and resigns – the company may still have one last chance, one last shot to straighten things out — a counter-offer. But if I were the employee, I would not accept the counter offer without a new review – with a statement saying

      “Perhaps the employee did have a better performance in 2015 than I indicated on his review; it was unfortunate that it resulted in this, and we apologetically hope that we can go forward as X is a prized employee and key contributor. We just didn’t acknowledge his performance as we should have, but X did give us the opportunity to set the record straight.”

      And hope he accepts the counter-offer… then again, often, it’s too late. And OP will likely take the heat in an exit interview.

    6. TootsNYC*

      Another option:

      If you truly can’t get them to deal with this now, can you get them to let you do a 6-month appraisal? And then strategize with your employee about what goals you two can craft to “game the system” or guarantee a nice raise then?

      1. Alice Appraiser*

        I posted a pretty extensive reply on this. Thanks for all the input. I love the idea of the 6-month appraisal and giving a bigger raise at that time. In a nut shell, after speaking at length with HR and Steve Supervisor, the rating that Ed Employee earned was actually on target. Ed Employee and I already met for the appraisal meeting and he came away from it very well, even commenting to Steve Supervisor privately (and unsolicited) that he appreciated the review. Ed & I (as well as Steve & I ) discussed opportunities for 2016 by which Ed could earn the highest rating for next year’s review.

        Also, I totally agree with those posting that you need to own up to your mistakes and I do so with my staff and my peers. In this case, I was relieved that I didn’t make the huge blunder that I thought I had.

  21. Bend & Snap*

    #5 fake it till you make it. Smile while you’re talking, even on the phone, exchange pleasantries, etc. that’s not changing your personality, it’s adapting to what your workplace requires.

    Also do some reading on emotional intelligence. A lot of women are great communicators due to EI and it’s a skill you can learn.

  22. IrishGirl*


    If I were in your situation I’d use the phrase “ah, grand” – we use that to mean anything from fantastic to terrible.

    1. AvonLady Barksdale*

      YES. Like a walking Marian Keyes novel. In the States, that would bewilder the heck out of some people, but it would be so fun.

      1. WellRed*

        Love Marian Keyes! I remember one line about a work meeting or some such: “We stapled on our happy faces.”

        Yes, I’m in the states.

      2. MoinMoin*

        Yay! Marian Keyes! I discovered This Charming Man in a box of free books on a bus in Germany and I’ve been hooked ever since. (Also in the states)

  23. Rebecca*

    OP#5 – when my phone rings at work, and the caller ID indicates is a problem colleague, or maybe some other problem, I take a deep breath and I smile before answering. Then I adopt my “happy voice”. My office mate often says “pick up your pant legs, it’s too late for your shoes”. Practice a few times, and it will become second nature.

    1. F.*

      “pick up your pant legs, it’s too late for your shoes” I just snorted all over my keyboard!! Good thing it was only water!

    2. Total Rando*

      Maybe it’s because I’m exhausted this AM, but I cannot understand the meaning behind this phrase. Help?

      1. Master Bean Counter*

        The BS is getting deep is what this implies. Which can often be the case with some problem coworkers.

      2. TootsNYC*

        It could also apply to non-B.S.

        Like, you’ve already been criticized for not doing something the right way; start doing it the right way now.

  24. Countess Boochie Flagrante*

    #1: Ouch. It doesn’t sound like you have the power to make any changes to the ratings system itself, so I’ll spare my full rant on the insanity there, but this is definitely going to be tough. One thing you might do in the review is acknowledge to the employee that they’re missing out on this rating because of your error, express your determination to make sure they get it next year (assuming they keep up the performance, of course), and ask them what you can do in the meantime that will make them feel rewarded adequately. Can you offer them extra perks — flex time, choice assignments, something else — as another incentive to perform? Something to make them feel as appreciated as they actually are.

    #5: Your personality and your presentation are very different things. You are not being asked to change who you are, you’re being asked to change how you act in specific situations. Who you are — your internal processes and mental architecture — is of far less interest to your company than the way you perform. Saying that you’re being asked to change your personality is like saying that actors change their nature every time they pick up a new role.

    If it helps, literally look at it as performing. You’re going on ‘stage’ and playing the role of Nice Helpful Customer Service Person #1. Your work clothes are your costume, and at the end of the day, you get to take that costume off and leave the character at the door. The Nice Helpful Customer Service Person is nothing more than a part you’ve been cast in, and as an actor you owe your audience a good performance, but that’s all it is.

  25. Not So NewReader*

    #5. I hope you mull over some of the really great posts on your situation, OP. These are very well thought out answers of why we do what we do.
    Unfortunately, buried in your question is the answer, many folks consider a robotic reply to be rude and unprofessional. I think we have a higher awareness of this now than we ever had, because so much is automated. There are very few places that I call that do not have 6-7 questions in their automatic call routing system. By the time I reach a human being, it is has been 5 minutes. Since I am only allowed part time hours at my job, 5 minutes is a huuuuge amount of time to spend just looking for another human being. It is a huge relief for me to find another person to talk over what I need to discuss. Maybe it’s not fair that we employees have to compensate for short-comings in our systems, but this is part of what we do during our work day. I know I can hear relief in other people’s voices when they finally reach me directly. I try to keep that in mind as they ask me the same questions the previous 237 callers asked me.

    Now, it could be that you read all these insightful comments and you remain unpersuaded. You still feel that you are, maybe, losing parts of yourself (?) then I would say it’s time to consider doing something else for your employment. Not being snarky, serving other people is one of the toughest jobs there is, period. Not everyone is cut out for it, and thank goodness! Because we need all kinds of people doing all kinds of work.
    While you ponder this whole thing, I would like to encourage you that your employer is not trying to force a personality transplant on you, but rather your employer is investing time with you so that you can be successful at your job. That is a compliment, they feel that you are worth the investment. Not everything that looks bad or feels bad is actually bad. I think we were talking about that on Friday’s forum.

      1. Not So NewReader*

        You don’t have to answer if you do not want to answer:

        Are you the OP?
        Do you have a monotone voice? Some people with thyroid conditions and other things are not capable of having inflections in their voices.
        If this is you, I have no way of knowing, for the time being, I would recommend working with your word choices and smiling while you talk. People CAN hear the smile over the phone, it will change how your voice comes across.
        On the word choice, sometimes adding a few more words or an extra sentence or two can get people to see that you are an actual person who is indeed listening to what they are saying and will endeavor to help them.

        If this does not apply to you, or you do not wish to answer, feel free to ignore me.

        1. Monotone Jess*

          Yes, I’m the OP and I have a monotone voice. I’ve tried the smiling over the phone. But, smiling is hard for me especially if I don’t mean it. I’ve perfected the fake smile, but I don;t know if a fake smile would help over the phone. I am very direct and to the point and women of few words. I will try adding more words and see if it help my predicament.

          1. LQ*

            Fake smile absolutely helps over the phone. People can’t tell, it is more of a jaw muscles thing than anything so fake away.

          2. Not me*

            It can make a difference. Have you ever recorded yourself speaking, by the way? It could help you look for something specific to change. Or you could find out that you’re fine and the criticism was off-base. :)

            1. Monotone Jess*

              Hmm, really good idea. I’ve never thought of that. Maybe if I heard myself I would truely understand what they are telling me.

              1. Not So NewReader*

                Yes. Please do this. I recorded my own voice and I found that I was not as horrible as I anticipated. Sure, I have things to work on but I could clearly see some changes that I could make immediately. I suspect you will find that your voice is not horrible and this might not be as bad as you think. I am saying this because of what you say the boss said. If you were really bad, the boss would have told you much more than what you indicate here.

              2. LQ*

                You will also find that your voice when you record it is higher than it is to you (this is a function of the way your voice travels and the way you hear, your own voice always sounds deeper to you than it actually is), this is part of what makes it hard for people to listen to the sound of their own voice. So I really recommend setting aside the idea that higher voices are bad (or even that it isn’t you) before you do that or you may find yourself having some trouble with that. It’s just the science of vibrations.

              3. TootsNYC*

                I suggest you ask your employer if you can record some of your calls on your work phone, on work matters. And listen to yourself while you are doing the actual job.

                Maybe listen to yourself along with someone else.
                It might be interesting to compare your inflections to someone else’s.

                also–along with the smiling: Maybe print out wallet-size photos of 6 or 7 people to put on your desk, and when you get a customer, stand one of them up in front of you, to remind you that there is an actual person, not just a voice or a task, on the other side of the phone.

          3. Clever Name*

            Adding words will definitely help. I’m very to the point, so when I write an email, I’ll write out what I want to say and then I add a nice intro and a friendly sign off. It does help.

    1. catsAreCool*

      Using the person’s name some (not too much) can help make the customer feel like there’s a connection.

      One thing that helped me has been sitting near someone who is good at expressing empathy over the phone. I sometimes will remember something he said or how he said it that I can use.

  26. Browneyedgirl*

    I actually lived in the Valley that’s referenced in the term Valley girl for a few years. I went to high school there, and while I don’t say like a lot or go “OMG he’s like a total Baldwin” I definitely channel my inner valley girl if I’m working the phones for hours. You’re looking for energy and enthusiasm that transmits well vocally and there is something about the valley girl cadence that works well to project that (without requiring actual energy or enthusiasm). Don’t knock it until you’ve tried it.

    1. Countess Boochie Flagrante*

      It’s also worth noting that the uses of “like” that we generally associate with Valley Girls (although most younger folks do it these days, at least ime) actually have a lot of linguistic value. They’re actually functional, not just filler words!

      1. Browneyedgirl*

        Absolutely, NPR did a great bit on usage of the word like that I absolutely loved. It is a very useful filler word. I don’t usually use it a lot on phones because I have a script I’ve practiced a few times, but in real life it’s useful.

        1. fposte*

          There’s a funny Calvin Trillin essay from when his girls were teenagers where they make a case for the word in very erudite terms and he has to concede its value.

            1. fposte*

              I don’t think it’s online–it appeared as an essay called “Like, Really” in his compilation _Enough’s Enough_ and then got retitled as “Like a Scholar of Teenspeak” in the anthology _Quite Enough of Calvin Trillin_. But it should be pretty easily obtainable in a library, and it’s possible you could find it online in some paper’s archives, since his column was syndicated.

              And if it leads you to read more Calvin Trillin, that’s a win.

      2. Talvi*

        There are actually quite a number of academic studies on the uses of “like” (quotative like, or as a hedge, etc.). My sociolinguistics reading group was talking about doing a study on “feel like” a couple of years ago, but that ended up not happening…

    2. AvonLady Barksdale*

      There is something else in the Valley Girl way of speaking that could be helpful– I have a very low voice, and at one point I had to see a speech pathologist because my low pitch was hard on my vocal cords. My speech pathologist taught me to raise my pitch a little bit, and as a result, I sound much more pleasant. Not fake nice, not overly chipper, just pleasant. That higher Valley Girl pitch goes a long way toward conveying that energy and enthusiasm you’re talking about. Now, I still have a low voice, but I no longer sound like I’d rather be hiding out in a cave.

    3. Teapot Coordinator*

      YES! The valley girl cadence is excellent for this!
      When I’m dealing with a difficult client that I’m trying to essentially sweet talk into deciding that my way is the right way or to pay their open invoices, I’ll pitch my voice higher, turn away in my chair from distractions and twirl my hair.
      I realize that sounds vaguely ridiculous, but it totally works. I think the hair twirling keeps me focused on being persuasive.
      See also: I’m from Southern California and have only recently stopped using “like” in every sentence. The Midwest finally beat it out of me and are working on getting me to say pop instead of soda now.

      1. NJ Anon*

        IDK I’m born in NY and have lived in NJ most of my life. Valley girl-speak on a customer service call annoys the hell out of me.

        1. Browneyedgirl*

          It’s not the words–I get why those are uncomfortable on a customer service call–it’s the rhythm. It’s easier to keep up over long periods of time.

        2. College Career Counselor*

          I would be, too. I guess you just have to know/adapt to your audience! Also for Wakeen’s Teapots, Inc. up-thread: “I’m not mad–I’m from Philly.” ;-)

          1. Wakeen's Teapots, Ltd.*

            Ha, yeah, you have to think Marisi Tomei from My Cousin Vinny to get a “stereotypical female” in our parts.

            Of course Philly/Jersey/NYC customer facing people, men and women, are professionally friendly,as are their counterparts in other regions. But the Valley Girl idea is weird and fwiw, I can’t remember running into as a customer on the other end of the line.

      2. TootsNYC*

        re: pop

        I moved to the East Coast from the heart of the Midwest (“Midwest” = “Iowa and the 7 continguous states,” if you ask me). And I gave up “pop.”

        Sometimes I really miss it. The word. Not the drink–I didn’t give up pop, just “pop.”

    4. Monotone Jess*

      I’ve tried it on many occasions and it works, but since it doesn’t come naturally to me it’s very tiring. I will have to hone that skill.

      1. Master Bean Counter*

        I would recommend going to a personality/communication style class. There is a ton of them based on four personality types and how they communicate. Often understanding what other people need/want from communication will help you deliver the message better.
        Also think of it more as getting your message across effectively, than changing yourself.

        1. fposte*

          I’ve never heard of personality or communication classes–those sound fascinating! Can you give some examples so I’d know what to look for or recommend?

          1. Elizabeth West*

            I think Master Bean Counter means stuff like DISC, etc. We’ve talked about them here before. Personally, I think their only value is a very vague awareness of different communication styles. Kind of like the business version of zodiac signs.

            1. fposte*

              Oh, okay–I thought it was like personality coaching, and I was going to try to send a bunch of my co-workers.

          2. Master Bean Counter*

            They are usually classes that have people grouped into four personality types and talk on a very high level and in generics. But it was enough to get me to see that not everybody likes short and to the point. It also gave me an idea how to approach communications with others.
            The True Colors class sticks out in my memory.

    5. Jennifer*

      Yeah, I REALLY have to feminize how I talk while serving. Girl it up, be fake cheerful and happy at all times. Sad but true, it’s really a requirement for women.

  27. Sharon*

    Re #1:

    Even if the employee isn’t demoralized this can make them cynical. This has happened to me so many times where my manager tells me I really seceded expectations but for various beaurocratic reasons they couldn’t rank me honestly. They never took the extra step that Alison mentions of finding some other reward, though. So I’m apparently a consistently stellar employee (at several companies now!) who has never been promoted and rarely given raises commiserate with my performance. Yeah, I’m cynical now and pretty much just a paycheck worker now. (And still manage to rank very high!)

    1. BananaPants*

      YES! Being in a company with stack ranking (although not including the firing of low performers), there are few things more demoralizing than being told, “You did an awesome job last year but I’m only allowed to give one person an “Exceeds Expectations” rating…” or “You got a promotion with a raise last year, so even though you did great work we aren’t giving you any merit increase this year.” Thanks for making it clear that my hard work isn’t really valued at all!

      1. RVA Cat*

        I’m in a similar situation here. Office gossip has it that “Exceeds Expectations” ratings are limited to upper management pay grades only :(

        1. Stranger than fiction*

          I don’t mean to promote lying for the Op, or that they brush this under the wrong. But, honest question, how does the employee even know that something like this might not be happening?

      2. Jennifer*

        The only time I got “exceeds expectations” on any aspect, I also got “needs improvement” in order to balance it out. You just can’t get any kind of raise for merit where I work any more and we all know it. But it has good job benefits and is mostly secure, so….you put up with it. Also, I can’t find any better jobs.

    2. Former Retail Manager*

      The larger the organization gets, the worse this problem seems to become. I too have been in the same position in the past and I felt it was a “cop out” early on until I had a manager that really pushed for me. Guess what? It didn’t matter. I think most of the other managers knew it wouldn’t matter so they stopped pushing and we ended up with a revolving door of employees because there was no incentive to work hard since it would never be rewarded and the employee would just move on. I agree it makes people very cynical and the rigidity doesn’t tend to serve most organizations very well.

    3. Alice Appraiser*

      Some follow up on my question that posted today (Question 1). I talked at length with my “Supervisor Steve” prior to the appraisal meeting with “Ed Employee”. Steve read the appraisal (and he also knows Ed’s work ethic and regularly observes his performance). He assured me that the performance rating of “fully achieves” was actually the most appropriate for Ed. That was a relief. (and yes, Caroline, the rating does affect the merit increase) So I really did lobby for Ed, which I was able to tell him. Steve was confident that what Ed had accomplished in 2015 was not sufficient for the highest rating. He further clarified the criteria. In order to earn “significantly exceeds”, employees need to perform tasks that are not part of their job description, and/or which significantly affect change in the institution. In fairness, our HR department gives us a good description for all ratings. I just had really hoped to give Ed the highest one, as he is my top performer. He is really a leader on my team and in many ways, “significantly exceeds” compared to others on my team.

      The appraisal meeting with Ed has occurred now. Prior to the meeting, I shared the appraisal document with Ed so he could look at it in advance. I added a specific note to him congratulating him on the rating he earned. I also indicated my desire to work with him closely in 2016 to help him earn the next level. The meeting went really well. Ed even made a point to tell Steve privately how much he appreciated the appraisal and told Steve that he walked away from it feeling really positive. Ed also sent me a personal email thanking me as well. Steve and I are both determined to give Ed the opportunities necessary for him to earn the highest rating next year, a goal he wishes to achieve.

      Thanks for the input Allison. Hope this post is helpful to others as well!!

      1. Intern Wrangler*

        What a great update. I especially love how you are thinking ahead for next year and that you will give him opportunities for some stretch assignments.

  28. Argh!*

    #5 your employer isn’t asking you to change your personality, only your persona. There is a customer service persona that we all learn, though there’s wide variety. Yes, it’s acting, and no, there’s nothing wrong with that. There are times in life that you just have to act the part.

  29. Not an IT Guy*

    #5 – I had a similar occurrence happen with me but quite the opposite. During my time in my company’s IT department I was fully expected to be rude and disrespectful to other coworkers, even going as far as being told I had to have issues with them that didn’t exist. Needless to say I routinely got screamed at by the manager and the other member of the department for not following this directive, even at one point being called “disloyal” just for treating people with courtesy and respect.

    It can really take a toll on somebody being asked to change who you are for the sake of continued employment when deep down you know what’s being asked of you is not the norm by any means. But your situation OP doesn’t sound even half as bad as mine, and you are getting a lot of great advice here! I guess all and all, things could be a lot worse.

    1. KR*

      I think this is funny. My boss makes fun of me for my customer service voice. I just tell him I’m more friendly than him. (Jokingly)

  30. fposte*

    For #2, Alison and others with thoughts–what’s a better thing for a manager to say? I’m trying to remember what I say, and I think probably it’s “Okay–see you later!” Which could seem a little flip, I guess, if somebody was going for a serious problem. But “I hope everything’s okay” is going to seem weird for people just heading out for their pap smears, so I’m inclined to err on the treating-it-lightly side.

    1. PontoonPirate*

      I think “Okay, see you later” pretty much covers it. If you they haven’t indicated anything serious is going on, it’s not unreasonable to think you wouldn’t immediately jump to worst-case scenario. If you do know it’s something serious I suppose that something like “Okay–take your time” would offer general, blanket support without cluing others in as to the nature of the visit.

    2. Lily Rowan*

      I guess I usually assume it’s just a checkup or maintenance of some kind, since that’s the only kind of doctor’s appointment I usually have, and probably half of the “doctor’s appointments” I’ve had in my career were actually job interviews!

      Anyway, I think “OK – hope all is well” or something breezy like that — not a full question — lets someone just say “See you tomorrow!” or “….actually, this might be a problem.” or whatever.

    3. hermit crab*

      I’m not a manager, but I just realized that when my cube neighbors leave for an appointment (or a meeting or whatever) my go-to comment is about the weather. For example, it’s pouring rain today, so I might say something like “OK, stay dry out there!” It’s sorta best-wishes-y without being personal. Talking about the weather facilitates ALL KINDS of social interactions!

      And I really like Pontoon’s suggestion of “Take your time”!

    4. Not So NewReader*

      This is no where near as personal as a human doctor appointment but I had a nice interaction with my boss one day regarding my dog.

      He had difficulty during the night and by morning he was worse. A friend checked on him mid-morning and called me at work. The dog was STILL getting worse. I said to my boss, “Something is really wrong with my Little Buddy…” I never finished my sentence. She interrupted to say, “Leave, go home, right now.” I never even got to explain*. The next day she did not ask, but I volunteered later on.

      This is a great way of handling things- cut right to the point and skip the details. Bosses are pretty much stuck with assuming everything is either alright, or it is being handled until they are actually told things are NOT alright or things are NOT getting handled. I think the most bosses can say is, “If you need something, be sure to let me know what I can do.” And that is almost a comment reserved for a private conversation, it’s not something you say across a work area.

      *I should explain that my dog was younger at that time, so it was a surprise to her that he was having serious difficulty. And I have a long history staying at work, even though she has said I should leave. The dog had managed to throw a few vertebrae out of alignment. I was able to tell her the next day that he was on the mend.

      1. Lily Rowan*

        Yeah, that’s right. It can feel like a fine line between being supportive and being nosy, but if you can focus on the practical, that should always work.

        I have a staff member who never gives any details at all beyond “family stuff” so I tell her I hope everything’s OK and of course she can leave early/come in late/whatever, she thanks me for that, and that’s the end of the conversation.

    5. Case of the Mondays*

      My employee had a medical issue at work and had to leave mid-day. It was something that could be serious but might be nothing. I had another coworker diagnosed with cancer. I wanted to make sure they knew I cared but also that they didn’t have to talk about it if they didn’t want to. So, in both instances I sent an email or text that said – “hey, I’m not going to ask how your appointment went tomorrow in case you don’t want to talk about it. I am thinking of you though and if you want to talk, I’m here.” Then I didn’t have to feel like a jerk the next day coming in like nothing was wrong. They knew why I was doing it. The one that had the in office issue decided to tell me how things went. The other one just gave me updates on a need to know basis.

    6. TootsNYC*

      “OK, see you later,” is totally fine.

      I suppose if you wanted to express concern, you could say, “I hope it goes well.” (I’d vote for a cheery voice, more like the tone you’d use if someone said, “I’m off to my piano recital.”) That’s what I say for dental visits, anyway.

      1. TootsNYC*

        or maybe, if it fits w/ your role, “Let me know if I need to start worrying.”
        But I wouldn’t say that for just the odd dr. appt here and there. Only if there was a pattern of being out, or something.

    7. Dr. Johnny Fever*

      In this situation, I usually say, “OK, take care.”

      I don’t need to know details, yet I think this is a warm statement to acknowledge the person leaving and why.

    8. Ultraviolet*

      As the employee, I would strongly prefer “Okay, see you later!” to anything else. I wouldn’t want to talk about a serious health problem before I had to, and if there is one I’d probably be in a better position to discuss it after the appointment than before.

      But I also tend to avoid specifying that the appointment I’m leaving for is medical. Maybe someone who volunteers that information would prefer to have it acknowledged?

      For what it’s worth, even in cases when I have said I’m going to a doctor’s appointment, I’ve always assumed someone who didn’t comment on it was respecting my privacy.

  31. Snazzy Hat*

    LW#5: I promise, there will be times when people appreciate your robotic voice and downright thank you for having it! Most often, those times will involve reciting numbers and spelling out words. I called a customer service place once where, after the main reason for the call, the CS rep said to me, “I have a question, and this is just me personally asking this; are you in the military?” and explained her suspicion was based on the way I spoke (especially my NATO spelling). We had a short chat about my parents being former officers, most of her family are/were in various branches, etc., and then we continued the business call.

    By the way, both of my parents sound like text-to-speech programs on their voicemail greetings. His starts, “Hi. You have reached: [one, two, three. four, five. six, seven.]”, whereas hers in its entirety is, “Hello.” Pause. “Please. Leave your name and phone number.” Pause. “Thank you.”

    1. Booker*

      Yes, the robotic voice is so useful for numbers! I use it all the time, though I try to be pleasantly-voiced otherwise. Reminds me of a comedian I once heard talking about someone giving him a phone number to write down and saying, “Yeah, it’s 17-21…” And the comedian was just frozen. “That’s not how you say a phone number! Everyone knows it’s ‘bum-bum-bum, bum-bum, bum-bum!”

      1. Rusty Shackelford*

        The Car Talk guys used to do that when they gave their phone number. It makes it impossible to memorize – at least for me.

        1. anon for this*

          Some numbers are easier in certain ways, say perhaps when it is a year, like nineteen seventy five or when it rhymes like part of my phone number does, eleven forty seven.

      2. Talvi*

        This can be cultural, though! In France, it’s very standard to leave a phone number like that. For example, if my phone number was 0612345678 (because mobile numbers in France all start with 06 :) ), I would read it as “0-6-12-34-56-78” and that would sound perfectly natural in French. It… took some getting used to.

        1. Snazzy Hat*

          God forbid your number has eighty-something or ninety-something in it.
          “quatre” ok, four… “vingt” wait, twenty?… “dix” ten… uh oh… “sept” sev– that was a 97! I just wasted all that time writing down 4-20-10!

          The pledge drive phone number for a radio station in my neck of the woods is, and I quote, “eight seven seven, five eleven, ten seventeen”. This area does not have a substantial French population, so they can’t use that reason to back it up.

    2. Shell*

      Yeah, I once had a cashier ask me if I did sales or spent a lot of time on the phone because I’d recited my postal code using the NATO alphabet and enunciated my numbers really well. I replied that I was the receptionist. :D

      I always pin up a table of the NATO alphabet by my phone for this reason. I’ve noticed my current job’s cubicle mate also defaults to the NATA alphabet when he speaks on the phone.

  32. Allison*

    #5, your manager just wants you to improve your phone voice, not your overall personality. Everyone who needs to interface with external customers and clients develops a pleasant phone voice even if they’re not a super sweet person in general.

    Personally, when I’m on the phone with someone, and they don’t sound pleasant, I sometimes feel like I’m being a burden and ruining the person’s day by calling. I don’t want to feel guilty for calling.

  33. New Math*

    #2 You could try humor in your response…. “might be the plague. I’ll keep you posted if they prescribe a long holiday in Fiji.”… “Just confirming that the three cups of coffee I drink each morning are adequate for a healthy diet.” … maybe quote from Shel Silverstein (a gash, a rash, and purple bumps…).

    1. Gandalf the Nude*

      “Well, I’m dying but no faster than usual.”
      “Just getting a note so I can skip P.E.”
      “*speaks in tongues*”

      PS, please tell me “New Math” is in reference to the Tom Lehrer song.

      1. hermit crab*

        And so you have thirteen tens, and you take away seven, and that leaves five… well, six, actually. The idea is the important thing!

  34. Former Retail Manager*

    OP#5….sooooo many great suggestions above about ways you can view change, make adjustments to how you interact with customers, etc. However, I am of the school of thought that people don’t really change. They are who they are at their core and if the thought of having to fake enthusiasm, warmth, smiles, etc. makes you retch, my suggestion would be to seriously look at your current position and industry to determine if there might be a way for you to transition to another position or industry in which your personality is better suited to the job, or at least isn’t a detriment. Without knowing specifically what you currently do, your age or education level, it’s hard to say if this is a feasible option, but if it is, please consider it.

    I spent 13 years in retail management and it was physically and emotionally exhausting. Today’s retail really wants you to be “on” all the time and engaged with customers and employees in an outgoing, friendly, and salesy manner. While I can do that, I can’t do it 50 hours a week. It was just totally exhausting and I ended up growing increasingly bitter and pissy toward the end of my retail career. It can be extremely hard to behave in a certain way when that just isn’t who you are, so if you can make a transition, even if it’s just to interact with customers less frequently, I think it’s well worth looking into. Best of luck!

    1. Monotone Jess*

      I am currectly looking for a new job, And, you are right, the idea of being fake all day, makes me retch.

      1. Andy*

        I really love your attitude with respect to these suggestions. You’ve taken them with quite a bit of grace and that’s terribly commendable. You may not be sparkly on the phone, but I suspect you are a reasonable person and I (for one) really enjoy working with reasonable people. Sometimes vocal tone is just a tool to help others recognize what our intentions are; your intentions are good, you are trying to help, now you just have to let the customers on the other end of the line in on the secret in a different way. Best to you MJ, and for what it’s worth…I’ve received raises and promotions based on my phone style working with clients. They might not know the ‘real me’, but they get real good service and that seems to be sufficient for all involved.

        1. Monotone Jess*

          Thank you so much! I’m trying to look at everything positively and take the negative comments with a grain of salt. After reading everything the commenters have said, I better understand the situation and am now more open to change and bettering myself.

  35. Katie the Fed*

    Oh, #2. This is such an unnecessarily tricky issue!

    I’m the type of manager who, if you tell me you’re going to be at the doctor, I just say ok and don’t say anything else. Except then I have employees who kind of linger, and CLEARLY want me to ask more, which I don’t want to. The one time I asked “is everything ok” I got a long explanation of getting an IUD implanted. Let’s just say that unless we work in the medical field, the phrase “I have to get my cervix dilated” should never, ever be uttered.

    Then I have people like my colleague who interrogates people who are going to the doctor. “Oh, what for? Are you ok? You’re not sick are you?”

    I’d rather be the first type, but I’d also rather nobody ever offered details. Ack!

    1. Boo*

      Ha! Yeah I think really what people are asking is “I hope it’s nothing serious”. That’s really what they want to know – should they be concerned, do you need help with anything, do they need to think about cover etc. So when I’m asked if I’m ok when I’m going to the doctor’s, I just reply that it’s not for anything serious, thanks for asking but I’ll see them later/tomorrow.

      Of course this only works if it really isn’t anything serious. I think perhaps a better way of phrasing care/concern would simply be to say “I hope everything is ok” – acknowledges clearly it isn’t right now but expresses well wishes without sounding prying and lets the person know they can come to them with any follow up issues to discuss such as time off.

      1. Case of the Mondays*

        Yeah. I had bad allergies once and my colleague called out sick during the same time. When she returned I said “oh, no, maybe my allergies are actually a cold and contagious.” She replied, I was out with bad cramps so nope, you aren’t contagious. Oops lol.

  36. SMGWiseman*

    #2–I totally feel you! I work with a lovely, friendly group of people who wouldn’t think twice to ask if everything is OK, purely out of genuine concern.

    You really can say “Yes, everything’s fine, thanks!” and be done with it. Often (thought not always) the few seconds of silence that follow when you don’t offer any details can jolt the other person into realizing ‘Oh, perhaps that’s none of my business’ and the conversation can taper off naturally. Give yourself permission to protect your privacy at work.

    (Additionally, giving scant details some of the time points up the privacy aspect as well. I will sometimes say ‘Oh, yeah, everything’s fine, I just have a really sore throat and a headache’, and other times will respond in a general fashion with no details. That’s a subtle signal to my coworkers that I don’t want to discuss it. [Maybe I’m overthinking this, but I’m fascinated by workplace interactions])

    1. Ife*

      Additionally, have your coat and things gathered before you announce why you’re leaving, and be walking the other direction as you respond “Oh yes, everything’s fine.” Then you can avoid the awkward stare of concern/follow up questions!

    2. TootsNYC*

      If you feel a need to fill the bubble of “air” after “yep, everything’s OK,” you don’t have to talk about your health. You can talk about the traffic, or even work.
      “Yep, everything’s OK–see you tomorrow/in a couple of hours.”
      “…–I’ll finish that Brewster report when I get back.”

  37. Yetanotherjennifer*

    Op#5, think of this as developing something similar to a “teacher’s voice.” All my teacher friends have one and can use it at will. It’s more complicated than an accent or simply talking louder, it’s a combination of firmness and volume and posture and whatever else. It’s different for every teacher because it incorporates their personality. Accents are more than just the pronunciation of words, it’s also about the rhythm and spaces between words. Some accents are lilting and some are more staccato. And it affects word choice too. Teachers use different words when teaching and some regions are wordier than others. Do you have any coworkers with a great phone voice who could help you?

    I don’t have a teacher’s voice but I do use a Southern accent in certain phone situations. I’m a midwesterner but I used to live in the south and picked-up the local accent. Later, whe I was working for a job with stressful phone situations and combative people, I learned that switching to a southern accent gave me more time to think about my response, reminded me to be polite despite their rudeness, and gave me an extra edge if they underestimated my intelligence due to the stereotypes associated with a southern accent. Plus it was fun. These days I find myself automatically slipping into the accent during a difficult conversation or when I’m especially nervous.

    Once you find your optimal phone voice, you can use some visual and verbal cues to help you slip it on. A picture of something cute and lovable or peaceful might be a good visual reminder. Or something soft and fuzzy if you’re more tactile. And I’ve seen interviews with actors who often use foreign accents and they talk about having key words and phrases that help them get the accent started. You could come up with something like that for yourself.

    One more thing, OP, are you from around there? Could some of this be cultural differences in accent and talking? There are stereotypes and perceptions about regional accents and rural vs urban ways of talking. Maybe your accent doesn’t fit in and that sets you behind from the start.

    1. Monotone Jess*

      I’m from California, but speak monotone. As soon as you said that, I realised my accent may not fit in.

    2. Elizabeth the Ginger*

      I’m a teacher and I think this is a great comparison. I’ll add that it takes some time to fully develop another voice. When I was new, my teacher voice felt a lot like acting. Now, I code switch between regular-Elizabeth and teacher-Elizabeth so seamlessly I don’t think about it at all. And I’m still me when I’m teacher-Elizabeth, just a version of me that has a more proactively supportive tone, speaks more clearly, and leaves out things like how I might have a headache right now.

      1. Elizabeth West*

        I had an instructor in college who was a retired cop and he would do that. He assisted me with an interrogation scene, and when I first called, he was all chirpy-friendly like, “Hey! What are you up to, etc?” As soon as we began to discuss the interaction between my detective and the person he was interviewing, he transitioned seamlessly to Cop Voice. It’s a very neutral, businesslike tone that isn’t cold but not warm either. There’s a change in language too. The suggestions he gave were more conversational, but the way they were phrased were different than regular conversation. They were (are) designed to elicit information, not make small talk. It made the scene better, because I had the right casual tone but I made the subject waaaaay too cooperative. It was a good way to show what he would do if she weren’t. Kind of like how the sympathy helps calm the angry customer down so you can get to the root of the problem.

        So when you speak in a business or professional situation, it’s not just your tone, but like Elizabeth the Ginger said, you leave out the headache stuff and phrase things differently (depending on your profession). You are really truly inhabiting a different character!

    3. Not So NewReader*

      OMG, teacher voice. I had several family members that were teachers. Get-togethers around the holidays, invariably lead to lively, animated conversations. And people would slip into their teacher voice. We would say to them, “You aren’t using teacher voice with me, are you?”
      Great example for the OP.

      I also read of a flight attendant who could not get all the passengers to sit down. She slipped on her “mom voice” and said, “You aren’t still standing, are you?” The standing passengers shrunk down and slid into their seats. The point of this story was that the flight attendant defused a potentially bad situation just by her tone of voice.

    4. KR*

      This is a great way of thinking about it. A good customer service voice takes time to perfect because you can’t sound fake. No one is every that cheery and sickeningly polite all the time, that’s why a lot of people have a specific voice they use on the phone with customers.

      1. TootsNYC*

        You don’t have to sound cheery and sickeningly polite!!! You just have to sound like you are paying some attention, and that the person on the other end of the phone is worthy of a little bit of your energy.

  38. LQ*

    #5 Others have given great advice in handling this so I’m going to give some physical suggestions on voice. I’m not sure if you work in a call center or just have to sometimes handle phone calls. Hopefully these will help either way.

    Hold a pen (a clean one…) in your teeth for 1-2 minutes before handling the call. The idea is to push it back so that your brain thinks you are smiling, it will also help your vocal affect, it helps loosen up your jaw and work your muscles. (I find this especially helpful if I haven’t talked to anyone yet that morning, which is most of the time.)

    If possible to get a sit/stand desk and if that is feasable for you I’d recommend it. You can get better breath control when standing. If you stand lean forward just a little bit so you are standing more on your toes. Think about taking big breaths when you have a long thing to say. Also try to be aware of your intake of breath. Sharp quick intakes of breath can sound dramatic on the phone so if you suck in quick you are putting the other person on edge. If you can breath in slowly while they are talking, or take a moment to collect your thoughts as you inhale you’ll be better than a quick sharp breath.

    If you can’t get a sit/stand or it doesn’t work for you, lean back slightly, make sure your feet are at a comfortable height, and don’t cross them. This all gives you better breath control.

    The idea behind breath control (aside from the intake I mentioned earlier) is that if you have more control over your breath, you have a lot more control over the tone of your voice and you can use it to create a much more inflected speech.

    Slow down your talking if you are a fast talker, and you can actually aim to drop your voice at the ends of sentences to create inflection without uptalk. This creates a calmer tone. (There’s lots of stuff around uptalk that I won’t get into here.)

    (I normally have a fairly harsh, fast, loud tone, but using this I’ve been described as having a “melodic” and “soothing” voice.)

      1. LQ*

        If you are a fast talker the biggest thing I’ve found is the intake makes a difference. I’ve done recording of audio and playing it back. If the only thing I change is silencing the breath, people think the talking is much slower. If you can breath in quieter people will think you are talking slower.

    1. Alma*

      Great suggestions, LQ. People (IME) are often surprised when women enunciate well, which (I think) drops the voice to a lower pitch, and also adjusts the cadence.

      I learned how to speak to be understood at an early age through choir training. It makes a difference when the voice is directed to a certain point in the room. This is applicable to “telephone voice” as well, though the concept was easier to describe with an old 20-lb corded phone with the old style handset. I think it also makes a difference whether speaking happens in a room where other people are speaking at the same time (like a phone bank, open office plan curse them, or cube farm).

      When I began to speak publicly, and when I teach others to speak publicly, one of the first things I cover is posture and “stance” which gives one the correct body support to make the speaking less work. Stance gives a physical sense of control.

      My text would be marked as I practiced, using my own mark-ups for continuing the flow of the sentence, enunciation of initial consonants, words I wanted to speak more slowly, etc.

      A flexible script would be helpful to someone not used to, not comfortable with, or unsure what to say when taking phone calls.

      I’m not sure this would be an entirely comfortable situation, but it might be more comfortable than being told to sound cheery (gag!). Is there someone you have noticed that has a telephone style you would be comfortable with? If someone approached me, I’d be happy to come in early, stay late, or “work with you on a project ” so we could practice in peace.

      I still want one of those screw-on shoulder rests for the old phone handsets and figure out how to adapt it to work with a cell phone. Those shoulder rests were by far one of the greatest inventions ever.

  39. CreationEdge*

    The #5 letter reminds me of my time running a customer service team. I’m pretty sure at one point I told a rep that they need to “sound excited, not like you want to be anywhere but here.”

    Their normal speaking voice was friendly enough, but once they got on the phone it switched over to an incredible monotone.

    Acting was just part of the gig. I’d vent about a nasty customer, or be in the middle of a heated exchange with a coworker, but as soon as that call came in I’d turn on the friendly energy so that every customer I handled got the same positive experience.

    It could be exhausting, but mostly I enjoyed it. Having to be cheerful in this constant, short increments were a reprieve from other stresses or a bad mood. Hard to stay upset when you’ve just been being nice as possible (but not gushy) for 5+ minutes.

    1. KR*

      Coming from a customer service background (and still doing it in my other job) my boss always makes fun of my cheery sweet customer service voice whenever someone calls on the phone. It’s a difficult habit to form but once you get the ability to quickly turn on and off your customer service attitude, it becomes very useful.

  40. Monotone Jess*

    OP#5 – I’m the person who wrote question #5. And, apparently the person who riled you all up. I wrote this question in haste and in the moment.

    I noticed a lot of people had issues with the use of my word “stereotype”. I don’t believe any women falls in the category of stereotypical, as we are all different in so many ways. I should have used women-like versus Valley Girl or high pitched voice.

    I used this word to describe the type of person the complainant thought I should be. I feel as though this man holds all women in a certain stereotype. As soon as I didn’t fall into his stereotype he got upset.

    Stereotypical – Adjective
    Having the qualities that you expect a particular type of person to have.

    I do know, most women now-a-days are straightforward. They are some of my best friends.

    Let me tell you a little bit about myself. I’m in payroll, I’ve been with this company for 10 years. I didn’t do much customer service work until our receptionist was let go. They chose not to replace her and instead asked 2 payroll assistants and 2 HR assistants to take shifts covering the switchboard and reception area. We were all thrown into this new environment. We were given more work on top of spending 3 hours of our day answering phones. Our managers don’t understand why we are so behind on our work and don’t realize it takes twice as long to do our work while answering phones and helping applicants and visitors.

    1. fposte*

      “I should have used women-like versus Valley Girl or high pitched voice. ” Well, no, that wouldn’t have been great either :-).

      But it sounds like circumstances have put you into a position that really doesn’t suit you and that has downsides aside from the fit question. So while it’s good to have an effective phone manner in your toolbox, maybe it’s time also to work on the resume and the job hunt.

      1. Jubilance*

        Absolutely. There’s been a big change in your work duties, and it’s unlikely that your company is going to hire a new receptionist. Your best bet is probably to find a new role more similar to what you were doing before, without having to interact with the public. Best of luck!

        1. Monotone Jess*

          This is exactly what I’m trying to do. I’ve never been good at customer service and they know it. They’ve always known it. I’m very smart with what I do, but not warm and fuzzy. So my presentation is not the best. I’ve deffinately gotten better over the years, but not up to the standards that is required for a customer service job. After all this, they still put me in a position I am not well suited for. I must adapt or move on I guess.

          1. fposte*

            Unless you can convince them that you should be spared the reception duties when the other payroll person isn’t, yup, adapt or move are pretty much your choices. But if you’re good at payroll, that’s a pretty valuable skill, so hopefully you’d be able to find something that suits you better.

          2. Jennifer*

            Yeah, they just can’t stop ripping on me for not being awesome at solving problems for strangers on the fly in areas I know nothing about, with no help around. But every damn job wants me to serve and smile, apparently.

    2. Not So NewReader*

      Under that stress it’s can be even harder to modulate one’s tone of voice. Stress does a number on the body including the voice box.

      1. fposte*

        Even small amounts of stress! As most of us who’ve sung in chorus know, notes that can be easy to get at home can become much harder when you’re in front of other people.

    3. Elizabeth West*

      Oh God, that SUCKS. Why do companies expect people who do meticulous work, like payroll and accounting, that requires concentration and attention to detail, to work the damn front desk!? Do they WANT you to get behind and mess it up? It would actually cost them less to just hire a replacement than to deal with all the issues this could bring up.

      No wonder you’re looking. I would be too. And I understand more now why you might not sound thrilled to be there. It would be very hard for me too, and I’m naturally chirpy.

      1. Observer*

        It’s surprising how many otherwise intelligent and good managers really do not understand the effect of interruptions on this type of work.

      2. Nervous Accountant*

        Oh gosh. My job is a lot more customer service than I ever anticipated. I had the same exact frustrations the first few months but slowly I’m getting better at it…..

    4. Jennifer*

      That’s what happened to me too–I was in a field where I didn’t interact with the public and then got transferred into customer service. And yes, answering the phones makes you pretty much unable to do a lot of work at the same time. I did not choose to get into customer service other than choosing not to be unemployed/laid off if I didn’t do it.

    5. Wakeen's Teapots, Ltd.*

      Well that’s ridiculous. I’d have the same rate of success if I took somebody from payroll and made them customer face.

      Lookit, if you want to stick this job out, you’ve gotten some great advice here on how you can make some changes. It’s not changing your personality to make some of adjustments to be warmer toward people who are calling in.

      THAT said, for pete’s sake, we hire and screen for customer facing skills (natural or acquired) before someone starts, as well as hire for people who want to talk to customers.

      I’m sorry you are in this spot. You need to adapt new skills OR your boss needs to change your job back OR you need to find a new job.

    6. catsAreCool*

      Besides the constant interruptions, some people are meaner to the receptionist (or the person they think is the receptionist) than to anyone they think is higher in the food chain. Which is terrible.

      It seems really odd to take people who work in payroll and put them into receptionist duty part time. Isn’t that expensive?

  41. Ad Astra*

    At my office, I’d be tempted to respond to “Is everything ok?” with “Probably not; they told me I had snuffaluffagitis and it’s terminal.” Or even, “Gosh, I hope so, cause it would be kind of awkward if the answer was no, now that you’ve asked about it.”

    But not everyone’s office communicates that way.

  42. CADMonkey007*

    #2 This is how people are at my office. All the older guys share openly the nature of their Dr. visits, cardiologists, endoscopies, etc. If you’re sick, people want to know the nature of your illness. Cold? Flu? Stomach bug? etc. I realize people are just trying to be nice so it didn’t really bother me at all until a few months ago after missing work due to a miscarriage. Wow, talk about awkward. “Everything ok??” Um, nope but I don’t want to discuss it with you!!!

    1. KR*

      My boss is having some medical procedures done and I am trying very hard to not listen to the detailed descriptions of his kidneys.

  43. The_artist_formerly_known_as_Anon-2*

    #1 – well, mr./ms. manager, you’re in big trouble. There IS no way out of this. You painted yourself into a corner.

    – if you bring the employee into his/her review and say “you were really better than this, I should have put you in for a higher appraisal” his response is going to be “then why the hell did you do THIS?” You already lost all credibility by putting the wrong rating in. You really expect him to accept “gee whiz, maybe next year you’ll get a raise, golly, you really ARE the best, drink your milk and you could grow up to be like Hulk Hogan?” Come on now. Promising to un-do the mistake next year? You may not get the chance, or may get the chance in a counter-offer if he resigns — but — yeah. Bad news.

    – if you try to pretend the employee is “just average” – well, you now put the guy into the Peter Gibbons situation. See “Office Space” NOTE = to prospective managers and active management – the movie “Office Space” is a parody/satire, it is not a management tutorial on how to run a business. — Peter tells the two Bobs that he only does enough work to keep from getting fired.

    I would go back and explain the situation to upper management. You’re going to have a credibility problem – you’re going to truly pi$$ off the employee if you try to say “I really didn’t mean this, you’re better than what I said for the record” — and if you try to say he’s only average – this may spur him into mediocrity.

    OK – you made a mistake. And you admit to it. Now, the BIG mistake is your company is not allowing you to fix it before it impacts your prized employee’s ranking and morale. That is, before it becomes an “official mistake”.

    Keep in mind – in the corporate world, or even the non-profit world, managers and executives attempt to fix one mistake by making an even more egregious one. That’s what’s happening here. Or will happen.

    It’s admirable that OP sees what’s going wrong and wants to “steer the ship away from the iceberg” before a collision occurs. His bosses insist on sticking to their guns, and hanging OP out to dry on it.

    A lesson to managers = think like a chess player. Think in “plies” – because a bad move early in the game might set the course for the future.

    In football, if things go wrong in the first half, you can review your game plan, adapt in the second half, and win.

    In chess, you can’t undo a stupid move and likely can’t make up for it. You have to play it out and hope for the best. Managing a staff is like chess. It’s not like football.

    1. Alice Appraiser*

      Thanks for your input on this. I sent a pretty extensive update on this in a separate post, which is time-stamped about 1:29. I asked Steve Supervisor to look over the appraisal a second time to see if it could be bumped to the higher rating. We talked at length about the rating system. The highest tier really isn’t what Ed Employee earned. I felt a lot better about it when Steve expanded on criteria for the top rating. Appraisal has occurred. Ed Employee was very satisfied with his review and I’ll be sending opportunities his way in 2016 by which he can earn the top rating.

      1. The_artist_formerly_known_as_Anon-2*

        Yes, I have gone back and read that.

        You seem to have dodged a bullet — but is your explanation a rationalized defense of what you did with Ed Employee? And quite often, people will, when they’re angry, curb their REAL feelings.

        Just hope that he didn’t smile, say “oh yeah, all is well” and Ed starts floating his resume. This can STILL come back to haunt you.

        Basically, you were successful (it seems) at kicking the can down the road six months, and if it really was a successful move, you managed to spin a potentially disastrous situation into a positive one. Hopefully this will end up as a positive for both you and Ed.

        Just – hope – that your company’s success continues. Because if Ed Employee hits all his targets, and comes back to you in six months and says “it’s game time, Alice” – you had better hope that there are no “freezes” on, and that the money to come through is there.

        Even if you’re told, at that time, “if Ed comes back, cry poverty” … most companies have a slush fund / set-aside fund, to cover situations like Ed’s – and most companies never have freezes on promotions. I once caught a director in a lie over that one, but that’s another Dinner Table Story for another day.

        And don’t dare him to test his value on the open market. (well, you may have already unwittingly done so, let’s hope not.)

  44. Weekend Warrior*

    Re #5
    As a Canadian I always enjoy calling American customer service lines for what seems to be almost over the top warmth. My fave was reserving a room at a W Hotel and the person confirming that I’d have a “wonderful queen size bed”. Then I realized that “Wonderful” was a W trade name.

    When McDonalds was first opening in Moscow, counter people were trained to smile. Customer response? “Why are they laughing at us?”

    So much of this is cultural! And now Canada has imported the Walmarts and Gaps along with their greeters, our style is changing too. :)

    1. Bowserkitty*

      This is an interesting viewpoint! Most Americans view Canadians as the over-the-top polite, and as an American I dread calling most American customer service lines because I always seem to get somebody who quite obviously doesn’t want to be at their job (@_@)

  45. Observer*

    #5 I haven’t read the comments yet, but I see from Alison’s note up on top that you’ve gotten a lot of flack already. So, I’ll try to avoid a pile on here.

    A general rule of thumb with “is it legal for them to ask me to…” is that in the US, it’s generally legal for your employer to ask you to do almost anything unless it’s illegal for you do it, or it’s inappropriately based on a protected class. (The other exception would be around issues like retaliation or refusal to make legally required accommodations.) So, if your boss had told you that you need to be more personable and friendly than the men in your office, or had to be “more feminine” then that probably is not legal. Defining robotic as rude is almost certainly legal.

    It’s also pretty sensible. Robotic comes across to people as uninterested, un-engaged, rigid and just doing the bare minimum regardless of need. I’m not saying that this is what you are doing, but that’s how it comes across. There is a reason people try so hard to get to a “real live person” rather than the automated attendant.

    I’m also wondering about something. As Alison noted, your description of “typical” feminine behavior really is not accurate. If this is really your perception, then perhaps you are not the best judge of how you come across to others. So, while you think you are simply being straightforward, others may see you are curt or dismissive. Perhaps you could have someone you trust, and who doesn’t have gendered expectations of how women “should” talk, listen to some of your interactions and give you some good feedback.

  46. Development professional*


    It sounds like because you don’t have any direct reports (other than interns) you feel like you have to do everything yourself that you want to get done. You don’t have anyone to delegate to. Since your work cuts across so many areas, I would make it a priority to build up your relationships with your peers (department heads?) in all the departments you work with, in order to get help. If you need more man power to be able to prioritize a project that directly benefits or intersects with a particular department, and you have a good relationship with the head of that department, you may be able to figure out together with that person whether a member of their staff should be taking on parts of the work or even just coordinating closely with you to help you focus on the top line stuff and alleviate some of the burden you’re feeling.

  47. Zahra*

    OP #5
    I’ll assume you work in an inbound call center or in a position where calls come in fairly regularly and you are expected to solve a situation. I’ve worked for a few years in a call center, with call monitoring forms. I can tell you that there are some items I almost never did, but I did hit the main points and kept control of the call and of my feelings towards my customer. I rarely had a customer unhappy with my demeanour. Some were unhappy with the company policy, yes, but there wasn’t a lot I could do about that, apart for telling them that I did go to bat to try and give them what they needed. I think my phone personality helped a lot there. Everyone on the floor would talk to their cubicle neighbours if they were both between calls. We could have been expressing intense frustration about a personal or work issue, but it didn’t show through when we answered the phone.

    So, without changing a lot of what you do, here are some things that were in the call monitoring form that relate to “being more personable” (you can also look online for “Call monitoring form” or “Call quality form” to get other suggestions):

    1. Smile when you answer. It really does show in your voice. It doesn’t matter if it’s fake, just the physical act of smiling changes the warmth of your voice. If you need to, tape a small mirror where you can see your face during the call to remind you to smile.
    2. Say “How may I help you?” (you don’t need to go all the way to “How can I provide you with excellent service today?”)
    3. Repeat the customer’s name at least twice. I like to do it at least once between steps 6-8 and another time in step 9 or 10.
    4. Get the account information as soon as you can, so you can check the information while you’re talking to the customer.
    5. When the customer explains their issue, let them get it all out. Don’t interrupt. If it seems there are more things than your short term memory can handle, take notes.
    6. Once they’re done telling you why they’re calling, repeat what you understood in your own words. “Okay, so you want me to remove the late fees in your invoice.” If there are a lot of items, ask if you forgot anything.
    7. If it’s a frustrating issue for the customer, express your empathy “I know it must be frustrating.” You don’t need to express sympathy (feeling what the customer feels), just empathy (understanding their emotions).
    8. Even if you said at the top of the call “How may I help you?”, once you know what the customer wants, repeat in some way that you’re going to help them. “Let me see what I can do.” “Let me look at your account.” “Sure, I can help you with that.” even just a “Sure, can I have your account information?” or an “Okay, let’s start by getting your account information.”, as long as it’s said in an helpful/warm/friendly tone. (I always got a zero for that one, because I didn’t expressly say the word “help”, even if I was conveying that I would work with the customer to solve the issue.)
    9. At the end of the call, ask if there’s anything else you can do for them.
    10. Thank the customer for calling and wish them a good day.

  48. Brett*

    #1 I wonder what shape the organization is in financially.
    A policy just like this was put into place at soon-to-be-former job in 2007; reviews that were too high (since these were tied directly to raises) had to be reviewed by the board of commissioners, the merit board, and then approved by the county council. The only way to make it through all three steps was to include a justification that the employee was below market rate for their pay, which was a huge red flag that it had nothing to do with the actual performance of the employee. Less than a dozen employees out of over 5,000 received reviews that made it through the board and council reviews.

    The following year, merit raises were temporarily suspended for the year. That temporary suspension was extended, then extended again through 2020, and then made an indefinite suspension of merit raises. And then last year merit raises were reviewed completely from the policy book.

    Maybe this policy of reviewing strong reviews through the board of trustees is not a sign that the organization is trying to dramatically cut costs in that manner, but I think it is certainly something to consider.

    1. Alice Appraiser*

      Great point Brett. However, in my case, the organization is doing well financially and is stable. The 4 point scale was first introduced for performance reviews done in 2014 (for 2013 performance). Prior to that, it was a 5 point scale. At that time, as now, supervisors still need to review appraisals and approve the ratings before they are shared with employees. The top tier was also given sparingly, but not with as much authorization needed – just approval from my supervisor and his/her’s supervisor.

  49. Nervous Accountant*

    #5… oh gosh I struggled with this SO MUCH. When I first started I listened to others and how they were as smooth as butter….I genuinely felt like I had a crappy personality for this job. Eventually it got better, not perfect, but better than I used to be.

  50. Alice Appraiser*

    Some follow up on my question that posted today (Question 1). I talked at length with my “Supervisor Steve” prior to the appraisal meeting with “Ed Employee”. Steve read the appraisal (and he also knows Ed’s work ethic and regularly observes his performance). He assured me that the performance rating of “fully achieves” was actually the most appropriate for Ed. That was a relief. (and yes, Caroline, the rating does affect the merit increase) So I really did lobby for Ed, which I was able to tell him. Steve was confident that what Ed had accomplished in 2015 was not sufficient for the highest rating. He further clarified the criteria. In order to earn “significantly exceeds”, employees need to perform tasks that are not part of their job description, and/or which significantly affect change in the institution. In fairness, our HR department gives us a good description for all ratings. I just had really hoped to give Ed the highest one, as he is my top performer. He is really a leader on my team and in many ways, “significantly exceeds” compared to others on my team.

    The appraisal meeting with Ed has occurred now. Prior to the meeting, I shared the appraisal document with Ed so he could look at it in advance. I added a specific note to him congratulating him on the rating he earned. I also indicated my desire to work with him closely in 2016 to help him earn the next level. The meeting went really well. Ed even made a point to tell Steve privately how much he appreciated the appraisal and told Steve that he walked away from it feeling really positive. Ed also sent me a personal email thanking me as well. Steve and I are both determined to give Ed the opportunities necessary for him to earn the highest rating next year, a goal he wishes to achieve.

    Thanks for the input Allison. Hope this post is helpful to others as well!!

  51. Vicki*

    #1 – I just want to say that I am in awe of your workplace having a level for “significantly exceeds standards”. Everywhere I’ve worked, it’s always been “expectations” (as opposed to standards). Which means that if you do quality work, on time, people will expect you to do quality work, on time, and you can never exceed “expectations”.

  52. auntie_cipation*

    re #5 — I have a good friend who equates his personality and his behavior — he appears to believe that however he would naturally behave is unchangeable. Obviously this is nonsense and I’m sure I could find plenty of examples of when he has controlled his behavior in all sorts of social or interpersonal situations. But when we argue about his behavior when it is something that I find upsetting/rude/carelessly hurtful, etc — he appears to think that being asked to change his behavior, even on quite superficial levels such as observing basic politeness customs, is being asked to change “who he is” or his personality.

    Letter #5 came as close as I’ve seen a letter come to addressing that dynamic, so I just wanted to provide this seed comment to see if anyone had any input — on how rare/common that attitude is, or a good way to point out the ridiculousness without seeming to disregard that he seems to actually feel they are connected, etc. Thanks!

  53. Daniel*

    It’s kind of silly when you think about it. These customer service jobs expect us to be able to sound warm and genuine at all times when dealing with customers, and I understand why they push for it, but it’s just an unrealistic expectation. Overcoming a monotonous voice is tough, I would compare it to overcoming a speech impediment. It’s a good skill to have, though, being able to fake emotions at the drop of a hat. Funnily enough, I read that people from other countries think we Americans are fake because of our customer service.

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