how often can you take mental health days, is this employee ranking system insane, and more

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

1. How often can you take mental health days?

How often (if ever) do you think someone should take a mental health day? I think about taking one every few weeks, and then convince myself I am too busy. I am not particularly stressed, but I wonder if it would be a good way to recharge. What do you think?

Every few weeks would definitely be too much, but a couple a year is totally fine to do, as long as you choose days that won’t mess up anyone’s work flow. More here.

2. Is our new employee ranking system insane?

We have a new HR head who is shaking things up (a good thing) but a change to our performance evaluation system leaves me scratching my head. They announced that we will now be graded on a curve, and what followed was the most bewildering presentation I’ve seen in a while. HR explained to our team that managers will still score reports against their job descriptions and manager expectations on a 1-4 score, but now those performance scores will be sent up the chain, where they will be re-scored to fit a bell curve. This new score will be both the annual evaluation score that goes into our file and will be used for incentive distribution. The info session devolved into colleagues asking how they can be ranked as “exceed expectations” by a manager and then marked as “needs improvement” a day later because of the bell curve. The new HR person kept saying this was about “rewarding performers, which might be new here” and was generally condescending.

Is it just me, or is this an insane way to “measure” performance? Working on a high-pressure team where weekend work is routine and headhunters are constantly dialing us, I am really concerned about the morale hit from arbitrarily classifying a quarter of high-power performers as “needs improvement” or even “meets expectations.” I realize that some of our organization (450 employees) needs motivation, but mediocre performers don’t last until annual review in my shop. We have assembled 12 rock stars for my team and yet only two “exceeds expectations” slots will be available. The craziest part is that we will need to create performance improvement plans for perfectly great workers who will randomly get the short straws when HR HAL crunches the numbers. On paper, it also puts them on the path to termination (though I never expect that would happen). This plan is the centerpiece of the new HR person’s agenda, so I am at a loss of how to raise my concerns without offending someone who got quite defensive when rolling it out. For what it is worth, we are highly profitable and we are not under budgetary pressure to reduce force (quite the opposite).

Yeah, that’s a ridiculous system. You sound like you’re a manager there. Ideally you and other managers would push back as a group, which will make you much harder to brush off. Say that this isn’t a system that serves your needs as managers (and remember that HR is there to serve you as part of the company’s management, not the other way around); that you’re not willing to spend time putting good performers on performance improvement plans (!); that based on what you know of your staff, this will demoralize and drive away strong employees; and that this will destroy the work you’ve done to create a team of high performers.

Speaking up as a group is going to be key here, and I strongly suggest that you go over the HR person’s head to do it. And frankly, as a group, you might try a firm “we simply are not willing to manage our teams this way” and see what happens.

3. I’m worried that my coworker is burning herself out

I work in a small, close-knit department. I am very close with my coworker Bertha (outside of work, not just “really good work friends”), and we have the same boss, who is awesome and seems to really care about our happiness and career growth. Bertha and I work with a separate department that is pretty demanding and challenging to work with, and I’m really concerned about Bertha’s mental well-being.

Bertha is crazy smart and does excellent work, but the nature of our jobs means that you get very little recognition from the other department, there is a lot of shuffling, priority switching, etc. The chaos is just the nature of the beast in our industry. Bertha, however, takes every shift very personally (for example, being moved off a project that she hated anyway) and assumes it’s a reflection of her work (which it definitely isn’t). She is also suspicious that she is not well-liked (she is very well-liked) and bad at setting boundaries with her team (she often tells me she was up until 11 p.m. working on some last-minute request).

Our other coworkers and I keep trying to give her pep talks: “It’s not you, we all feel like this, it’s a hard job, don’t take it personally, did you even WANT that project?” and I keep telling her she needs to talk to our manager about her work hours. I know she’s unhappy, but her self-esteem seems too low to entertain the thought that she’s not the problem. I care about Bertha a lot, and I worry she’s going to spiral herself into quitting, or self-sabotage until she really does drop the ball.

Given how close we are, and our solid relationship with our boss, is there a way for me to talk to Boss about my concerns, i.e., “Hey, I’m really worried about Bertha, she seems to be working crazy hours and I think she’s getting burned out”? (Or something similar.) Normally I would butt out, but he’s been really helpful working me through similar problems, and I think she trusts him — she just won’t initiate the conversation herself.

If you are very, very confident that your boss will handle it appropriately, then yes, you could give him a low-key heads-up that she could use some help. But it’s crucial that you be confident about that, because you don’t want your conversation to trigger a horrible mishandling of the situation (like your boss pulling Bertha off more projects without explanation or, worse, keeping her from work that would be good for her professionally). In fact, because of that, it would be good to be pretty specific with your boss about what would and wouldn’t help, so that he doesn’t inadvertently flub his response.

Big caveat here: If Bertha would be horrified or upset if she knew you had done this, don’t do it. It’s not an act of friendship if she would consider it undermining or unwelcome, no matter how good your intentions.

4. How to leave a meeting that’s devolved into chit-chat

I work at an organization where many of us know each other from previous jobs and we are very friendly and fairly informal. In our department, we have pairs of junior and senior staff working on the same portfolio, and everyone is supervised by the head of the department. I’m the junior in the pair, and my senior has known our boss for decades, through several previous jobs. I have no doubt that their close relationship has benefited me (more attention from the boss on our issues, etc.).

It is not unusual to have a meeting with just the three of us. Sometimes after we’ve dispensed with whatever the topic of the meeting was, we’ll get to talking about something else and the conversation will go on for a long time. Sometimes it’s completely not related to work, sometimes it’s them regaling me with “war stories” from their history. Usually I enjoy — and participate in — these conversations. We all know the feeling of wanting to delay getting back to our desks and going back to work.

But I’ve been particularly busy lately. There’s a new leader of world teapots and we anticipate having to do a lot more work defending the tea drinkers we represent. It’s going to be very busy this year for all of us. Lately these long, dallying conversations have just been making me anxious — I can picture the emails piling up in my inbox — and I’m not enjoying them as much. What is a polite, professional way to extricate myself without alienating my colleagues? If we are in a conference room, it’s easier because there is often another meeting coming in. But if we are in my boss’s office it’s harder. They know my schedule well, so I can’t fake another meeting — plus I don’t want to lie to people I genuinely like and respect.

“Do you mind if I duck out? I’m swamped this month and have a bunch of projects I need to dive back into.”

After you do this at one or two meetings, you could say at the next one, “By the way, my workload has really increased lately, so while I normally love sticking around and chatting when we’re done with our agenda, for the next little while I’m going to head straight back to my desk. I didn’t want either of you wondering why the sudden change — it’s nothing personal!”

It would probably be a good idea to still do one of these chat sessions every now and then — like maybe one a month — just to maintain the relationships you’ve built. But it’s very reasonable not to do it more often than that.

5. Interviewing with hair loss and a turban

I have been making steps to move out of my current job and look for something that satisfies me more, so I’ve started reworking my resume and taking a look at posted jobs. I don’t have a hard timeline that I’m working with, and my current bosses like me, so I’m only concerned with exiting before I get too bogged down.

My issue is this: last year I was diagnosed with lupus, and in the last 8-9 months, most of the hair on my head fell out, along with some facial hair. Eyebrows I can disguise with makeup, but while my hair grows back in (and until it decides on one color) I have been wearing turbans at all times except at home. I have zero other symptoms and currently do not require extensive medical appointments.

Everyone who sees me assumes I am going through cancer treatments – until I correct them, which I can only do if they ask me directly. Yet I know you’re not supposed to ask applicants about medical issues. I don’t know how to approach possible job interviews and the assumptions people may make about my health. Is it the best option to mention it in an interview, or keep silent until I receive an offer? Is there anything that can be done about those assumptions without putting employers in a weird privacy spot? I’m concerned that biases against people who might medical time away or have to leave could seriously impact my options.

A wig isn’t an option because a nice wig is expensive, and I’ve found anything on my head other than cotton itches/is uncomfortable.

I’ve been mulling on this and am torn between thinking the best option is not to mention it (on the grounds that it’s not really relevant to the hiring process) vs. thinking it might be better to say something, but being unable to come up with good wording. Readers, can you help?

Read an update to this letter here.

{ 618 comments… read them below }

  1. Sami*

    OP#3: I admire how much you want to help your friend. Instead of talking to your boss (and Alison is right in her advice), maybe your company has an EAP Bertha could go to? Or an outside therapist? You could even offer to set up an appointment, maybe even go with her if she’d like. Good luck.

    1. Harper*

      Yeah, I tend to feel as though talking to the friend directly is the better option, even encourage her, if OP#3 thinks the boss would be understanding, to talk to the boss herself.

      1. zora*

        She said that she has told Bertha many times to talk to the boss, but she won’t follow through, and that “she just won’t initiate the conversation herself.”

        But I agree, I think I would try a couple more specific suggestions for Bertha, including the EAP one is a good one. But then if it still doesn’t work, I would go to the boss, personally.

  2. MommaCat*

    #2: Your HR is NUTS. I can’t imagine any way for that to end well if you can’t stop it, as it seems like a recipe for employees to actively sabotage each other to get those coveted spots. Not a good team-building method, by any means.

    1. Artemesia*

      This sounds like a CEO met an old frat buddy at the conference and over drinks got sold on this kind of crap. Either push back as managers or watch your best people walk out the door. Even in a classroom the curve doesn’t work that well. It is a tool for management that can’t identify what the outputs should be.

      1. Gazebo Slayer (formerly I'm a Little Teapot)*

        Ha, I love that characterization!

        I once had a very benevolent but somewhat bumbling boss who would sometimes decide to rearrange who sat at what desk for no apparent reason. People who’d been at the company for a while would shake their heads knowingly and say “He’s been reading management books again.”

    2. WS_OP2*

      OP 2 here. This is a major concern. My team works because we put egos aside, with the ethos that the competition is other companies. This will turn the competitive instinct inward, which isn’t helpful when each person has their own functional lane.

      The bewildering part of all this is that HR spent the first half of their presentation explaining the behaviors associated with each performance tier. Exceeds expectations means you consistently perform above minimum expectations; needs improvement basically means you’re on probation. That part all made sense. The bell curve that came next didn’t.

      Now that managers will have scores disregarded, we have a situation where employees will basically be helpless to achieve through their own effort.

      This is the angle I will take with our CEO. Several managers already went to HR yesterday and got a lecture about how “change can be hard.” Um yeah, half my team quitting would be a hard change, sorry if we’re not coping well with this great idea.

          1. Mike C.*

            I don’t have the link no handy, but the current CEO made every department compete with each other for internal resources, ad space and so on. The CEO is an ardent believer in the teachings of Ayn Rand, and used those to guide his management strategies.

            As you can see, it’s worked wonders.

            1. Koko*

              That sounds awful! I often joke that my department is the invisible one in our company in that we never get the kind of public praise that other departments get, but at least we aren’t made to compete with the other ones!

              I went to a great graduate program where everyone they admitted was offered full funding for 5 years, conditional on maintaining a B average. My cohort was my life support in grad school. We had to read hundreds of pages of dense theory texts every week, so we started a study group. We divided up the readings 8 ways, and each person took very detailed notes on their 1/8 of the reading, condensing 50 pages of obtuse Weber into 4 pages of clear notes. Then we each made 7 copies of our notes, and we met once a week to get notes from each other and sit for about an hour as a group to read through them and make sure everyone understood what everyone had written, refer back to the original text and clarify where needed, etc.

              Meanwhile, over at another graduate program I had friends in, where they gave everyone full funding the first year and then only funded the top 50% of the cohort in their second year, people were ripping pages out of textbooks or keeping books permanently checked out of the library to make it harder for the other people in their cohort to do their work.

                1. Turtle Candle*

                  Friend of mine in medical school had similar stories. When you combine every-man-for-himself with a system where there’s an arbitrary percentile cutoff, what you get in many cases goes beyond “unhealthy intrateam competition” to “active sabotage.”

              1. Caity*

                A friend of mine was in a program where they funded X students initially and X-2 after the second year, and then they’d post a class ranking at the end of each term so everyone saw who was likely to lose funding. Morale was bad and my friend ended up leaving with an MA instead of staying in that stressful environment.

                My PhD program told us they saw the “gatekeeping” period as the application process: once they accepted you, they believed in you, and they’d work with you to help you succeed. In fact, at one point when multiple people failed their comprehensive exams, the faculty met to discuss whether the exam process was the problem or if it was a coincidence that multiple good students needed to retake. (We get two tries in my department.) I can’t imagine being in my friend’s program, or one like your friends.

                Making the focus on internal competition instead of improvement and learning and support seems SO OBVIOUSLY short sighted and foolish to me, but I’m not an HR manager, so what do I know.

            2. Jaguar*

              My favourite anecdote from the Sears mess was that Sears has a power tools division and an electronics division. Previously, the power tools were sold with Sears-brand batteries, but because of the internal competition mandate, the power tools division starting putting in a different brand to reduce the sales of the electronics division.

              (In an odd twist, I think this worked out better for the consumer as Sears batteries have always sucked)

        1. Sal*

          Microsoft too, I think. They ranked all employees against each other and I think it really didn’t work well for them.

          1. Wendy Darling*

            A lot of tech companies used to do this and it was really bad. It turns out that when you hire a bunch of super high performers and then throw the annual Hunger Games every review period, morale sucks and turnover is really high. In general that trend is on its way out, thank goodness (to the point that I can ask people about how they measure performance and then nope out of anywhere that stack ranks).

          2. Mabel*

            I worked for a company that did stacked ranking, and it was awful. Then our division was acquired by another company, and we were so relieved because the new company didn’t do stacked ranking. Then the new company said, “we heard about this stacked ranking from your former managers, and we think it’s a great idea.” :( Thank goodness they don’t do it any more.

      1. EW*

        My husband has first hand experience with this type of performance grading system. It also makes it EXTREMELY difficult to get anything above the middle – for every person exceeding expectations you have a person that needs improvement. Please push back on this system.

        1. Lance*

          And the worst part is, the ‘needs improvement’, in many cases in this system… doesn’t actually need improvement. So what are you, as managers, supposed to say to that, even? ‘Oh, I’m sorry, but you’re just behind the curve, but I don’t really have anything that really needs improvement, so… sorry?’

          1. EW*

            Yup. One of his coworkers got a needs improvement and fought the rating. His manager tried to tell him that he actually deserved that rating. Said coworker starting putting in minimum effort and job searching. Funnily enough no raises were given out that year so it didn’t even make a difference in terms of money/pay.

          2. SignalLost*

            Yup. I got laid off because of this once. My team was the small part of a VERY large team – my boss joked that we were the third product of a two-product company, which: accurate – and our overall VP had x number of performance evaluations at A, y at B, etc. The most visibly profitable division insisted they could not assign anyone in their division a “meets expectations”, let alone “needs improvement”, and the VP bought it, which meant that of my department of four at that level, we had two “needs improvements” to give out. Surprisingly, when layoffs came around, myself and the other person were let go.

            I literally lost my job because my boss was forced to state that my occasionally not emailing him deadline updates was one of the very worst problems in our division. It didn’t matter how much other work I did or that I was, the precious year, the highest performer on our team. (I lost a few pieces of my portfolio due to the company choosing to shut down those revenue streams.)

        2. plain_jane*

          I used to have Microsoft as a client. Their stack ranking was a serious distraction for many solid contributors, because it emphasized the need to always be managing up skip levels, not just accomplishing their job well.

        3. Tuesday*

          Yikes, so this is a widespread thing?

          One of the things I’ve learned from reading AAM is that HR doesn’t have the kind of power and/or responsibility that most employees tend to assume it does. Setting up a system like this seems like HR overreach. Why do they get to decide that employees need improvement even when their actual managers have said otherwise?

          Also, it seems like it could work the other way. You might have a team of middling-at-best workers, but a couple of them are gonna get bumped up to “exceeds expectations” just to fit the bell curve.

          1. Artemesia*

            But apparently management bought this idea and has empowered HR to do it. If the OP can’t turn it around she and her team should all be looking for other positions since they are in a hot field.

          2. Jadelyn*

            HR has as much power as the organization’s leadership allows it to have. If HR is empowered by a supportive CEO who just lets them do what they want and backs it with her own authority, they can do all kinds of ridiculous things – like this forced ranking BS.

            1. Uzumaki Naruto*

              Although it’s possible that HR is just doing this, and the CEO doesn’t know (or care, or realize the implications…) — in which case it’s really these managers like the OP who are enabling HR.

          3. Chinook*

            This is frustrating because that is not how you are suppose to use a bell curve. If you have enough people, it should naturally occur in most cases. If it doesn’t, then you go back and check to see if the system needs fixing (not the people).

            Ex: If 90% of your staff “exceed expectations,” then your expectations need to be changed for the next round because there is no way that, in an average group of 450 people, 400 of them are absolutely amazing (unless they truly are and it can be quantified in different ways). The problem isn’t the people, it is the questions being asked.

      2. sam*

        I can’t google for it right now, but there was a great article (in forbes or fortune?) a few years ago about Microsoft’s dysfunction, and in particular their “stacked ranking” system, which sounded a lot like this. It resulted in managers basically recruiting low performing people for their teams, because they knew that they’d have to give someone a low score, and they didn’t want to punish their actual good performers, and it also resulted in teams with overall great performers suffering as managers of those teams were forced to grade someone lower – often resulting in their dismissal. It was a complete mess. The article was basically about how MSoft finally realized how screwed up the whole thing was, and how it was leading to terrible products (zune?!) and major missed opportunities (someone basically invented facebook years before facebook, but no one could see the value).

        1. Koko*

          Exactly! Bell curves are the most common distribution of variables that aren’t correlated with membership in the population. If you’re trying to hire high-performers and you end up with a normal distribution of talent then frankly your hiring sucks. You want teams to be bloated at the top end with a skinny tail at the end. The whole damn point of hiring people carefully based on skills instead of choosing names randomly out of a hat is to end up with a distribution of talent that’s better than the general population’s distribution of that talent.

          1. Trout 'Waver*

            To clear up a misconception: Bell curves and normal distributions are terms that only describe the shape of a curve and not its mean. You could have a bell curve that is centered on the high performer side if you are good at hiring.

            The problem here is that HR is forcing the grading bell curve to have a mean of average performance.

            1. Koko*

              I suppose I halfway agree. You could be good at hiring and still end up with a bell curve centered at the top, but I still think that the variable’s correlation to population membership should make it very unlikely that it would be a normal distribution.

            2. Hal*

              Exactly. It’s possible that there has been score inflation with the current criterion-based system (as opposed to a norm-based one like the one being implemented), so a hard look at the distribution of the 1-4 scores makes sense. Forcing those scores into a normal distribution, however, is silly and mathematically unsound.

              It also sounds unsound from a morale perspective in that you should at least start identifying the low performers before upsetting or pissing off the average and high performers.

              And the new HR person should have had some solid data analysis to show to support this new system before rolling it out.

            3. animaniactoo*

              Exactly – if the bottom end of the curve was not going to be changed to “Needs Improvement” and put on PIPs and probably forced out the door, the curve would likely be fine.

              The major problem is how they’ve *defined* the terms of the curve points, and what the results will be of landing on them.

              If the bottom end of the curve was simply not eligible for an extra 2 days of vacation, while only people who had genuinely been graded as “needs improvement” were going to potentially end up on PIPs, it’s likely there would not be such horror running through everyone right now.

              1. Liz2*

                Perhaps not the level, but the same problem remains- their actual performance will not be accepted. It will be rejected and have negative consequences for no reason other than to fill a mathematical model.

              2. Turtle Candle*

                Right. Especially on a smallish team where you’ve hired well, the low end of the curve might be “good” and the high end might be “amazing,” with the middle people “great.” And it makes no damn sense to fire the good end of the spectrum in most cases.

                If the department is underperforming, address that! The last thing a company needs is artificial turnover.

          1. sam*

            Funny – I was actually thinking of the Vanity Fair article, but somehow I always end up thinking it was in one of the finance magazines, and Koko ended up finding a completely different but related article on the same topic. Heh.

        2. CC*

          Ugh. I worked for a kind of dysfunctional company that sold event planning online tools among other things (the parent company kept buying other companies and smashing them together, so in the year I worked there the product line had changed a LOT). They stack ranked company wide and it was AWFUL. For instance, when I was hired on, I was the ONLY admin in the company…so I was going to be ranked against people whose jobs and skills had nothing to do with mine. I found it bizarre. And, no matter your actual performance, if you were in the bottom 10%, you’d be given a PIP. The top 10% were told they could basically do whatever they wanted. And if you weren’t in either group, you were just ¯\_(ツ)_/¯. I’d never seen that ranking system before and never want to again. Certain departments were kind of just screwed. I imagine sales would have been favored above all else (that department was a hot mess and seemed to get away with a LOT of things behaviorwise that they shouldn’t have. They were universally disliked, which I found unfortunate because I did have several friend on the sales team. It was just the overall behavior of the group that caused the irritation in other departments). It was a frustrating system because I definitely felt it would be impossible for me to ever change positions or move up because I’d likely always be lumped in the middle.

          So strange. I just don’t get it.

          1. CC*

            Plus, it keeps morale low for anyone who feels their department will be overlooked. I mean, why go the extra mile when there’s no hope that you’ll escape the middle 80%?

            Anyway. I’m somewhere new thankfully. I was let go due to a variety of issues there and it was one of the best things that happened to me (my boss fought to get me two months severance, I found a job within ten days, and no joke – make 30% more than I did at that software company and am in a far less stressful environment. And there’s not stack ranking here. Bananas.)

        3. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

          I was going to say this, too—Amazon uses stacked ranking, and based on the NYT’s story about working at Amazon (and the experiences of friends who are current/former Amazon employees), it sounds like working in a living nightmare. It’s an awful way to measure performance that hinges on a quasi-social Darwinist framework, and it encourages infighting and backstabbing while undermining teamwork principles.

          For some ungodly reason, it’s back en vogue with big companies—it’s one of those terrible evaluation systems that comes in/out of popularity every decade or so.

          1. Jadelyn*

            Ugh, and here I thought it had died out like the awful fad it was back in the early 2000s. Did we not learn anything from the first go-around with this?

            1. starsaphire*

              Yeah, we all hated this when it came ’round last time. WHY are companies still doing it?

              My BFF was forced to stack her own reports this way. She was told the exact number of fours and threes she was allowed to give out, and everyone else HAD to get twos and ones. She quit over it instead, and took several of her best team with her.

              1. Amy*

                I’ve worked at place that was similar it didn’t have a curve but it was understood that in our department of 10 you could only have (on a scale of 5) one 5, three or four 4’s and the rest 3’s or less. They ended up making 3.5 and 4.5 rankings. If you scored high enough in your dept you got a small bonus but there was an unwritten rule you couldn’t get it two years in a row.
                My current company rarely gives exceeds expectations, my boss had to fight for me to get it and my group exceeded all our KPI’s some by over %50 and I won an award for a project related to my personal goals for the year.

      3. MuseumChick*

        Just a couple of thoughts. Since HR is disregarding the other managers framing it as them just not liking change, start with that when you talk to the CEO “I’m thrilled that we are shaking things up with HR, I know that was a real need here. After the presentation the other day I have some concerns about the new performance review system. I foresee it having a real negative effect on my teams moral and productivity. If there are only two Exceeds Expectations spots even though everyone on my team meets the qualification the energy that they currently put into an excellent job will diminish.”

        Or something to that effect. Start with acknowledging that change is needed with HR and that is not what you fighting against, rather the real consequences of this new system.

      4. Kalamet*

        That’s exactly what it does. My company made a switch to a similar (but less extreme system). I don’t like it at all ,because (like you) I think it makes our coworkers competitors. I asked my boss what’s to stop people from hoarding knowledge or not helping each other out. He said that cutthroat behaviors would ding our performance ratings too. So they want us to compete, but not be competitive?

        It’s a weird system all around. You would think that the company would want to say “our team is all high performers” instead of fitting them to some arbitrary curve.

      5. Quinalla*

        It sounds similar to the system at my husband’s company, they don’t have bell curve exactly, but they have min and max requirements for their needs/meets/exceeds for each team which does the same thing, people who should be exceeds sometimes are technically meets. They give everyone who quits a needs, etc. I personally don’t like ranking systems at all, but grading on a curve or similar just makes it a meaningless game that still makes people feel bad even when they KNOW it is a rigged system. And it often still is taken into account for promotions, raises, etc. Push back hard on this and definitely go to your CEO.

      6. Lora*

        I have worked at multiple places that use this method. It was explained to me as Jack Welch philosophy that Made GE Great; this would have been more impressive if at the time we didn’t have a room full of broken GE equipment that they refused to repair…

        In practice what happens is there WILL be some sub-groups within a department who mysteriously all get 4/5 and 5/5 and some sub-groups whose managers are less well connected / less political will be told that their original score of 4/5 or 5/5 for any given employee has been reduced to 3/5 or even 2/5. The “curve” becomes 100% dependent on whose manager is in favor with Corporate HQ at any given time and who can seize the most credit for things other people did.

        The results are not pretty. Lots of backstabbing and people engaging in all sorts of shenanigans to be the most beloved. And you are correct, people rapidly conclude that their best efforts are only rewarded with a 2.5% raise, which amounts to $20/paycheck – and for the effort they put in, they might as well do “just good enough” at their day job, leave every day at 4:59 and go to a second job if they really want to make more money and have it be rewarded. If you can take a part time job bagging groceries and be rewarded more than you would making a $1M business improvement, there’s no sense in putting forth your very best efforts. And in those conditions you can very well have a superstar under your nose and never know about it, because they’ve had no incentive to do their best work.

        I have personally worked with: a boat builder, two carpenters, a modern art dealer, a landscaper, a motorcycle safety instructor, a day trader, several microbrewery owners, a fitness coach, a spinning/yoga instructor, several university adjuncts, several VC consultants (this goes alllll the way up the corporate ladder, not just the individual contributor folks), a journalist, a children’s books author, a handful of professional musicians, and probably lots more that I didn’t know about their side gigs. I’ve done some consulting myself on the side, both for academia and for other aspects of my industry (e.g. teaching computer scientists how to structure database queries for bioinformatics, teaching equipment and site engineers how to design for hazard remediation).

        People didn’t quit over it, they just stopped caring about their jobs and did the bare minimum, and frequently shuffled around to try to get into a department that Corporate rewarded for whatever reason. In the departments that were frequently marked down, there was high turnover and the attitude was “the beatings will continue until morale improves” because OBVIOUSLY they got marked down for being terrible, not because that particular manager didn’t know how to play politics or wasn’t golf buddies with the CEO or whatever. At one point 1/3 of a poorly-connected department was fired for being consistently the lowest performers, and the entire division it was in collapsed and a C-level guy was fired as a result – turned out that department manager was just really, really bad at playing politics and was always outmaneuvered by a brown-noser in another group, whose people sat around playing computer games all day and taking 4-hour lunches. Which is why managing by walking around is often more useful than 4-up and 5-15 reports…

        1. AnotherAlison*


          And the even better part is that the year you manage to hang on to your higher rating will inevitably be the year that the company decides to keep raises low because some other project in some other division halfway across the country was a shitshow. So, congrats you’re a 4.5/5. . .here’s your 3%, be happy some people got nothing. The next year, you might just get a 3, but the company is flush with cash. . .congratulations here’s your 3%, but don’t let it go to your head, some people got 6%.

        2. Just Jess*

          I scrolled through to find a place for a devil’s advocate comment and yours is the perfect contrast. For the record, I pretty much agree with what you’ve said about favoritism, office politics, and actual effectiveness.

          It sounds like OP#2’s organization is aware that managers are rating low performers highly because of subjectivity and office politics. The new HR process (which is a terrible idea and seems to have been rolled out and communicated awfully) is an attempt to address that by pointing out that not everyone can be meeting or exceeding expectations so first-level manager ratings need to go through a sanity filter. As Lora and others pointed out, the proposed new process is going to be biased and broken.

          The proposed system is terrible. There’s a real problem it’s attempting to address that is not affecting OP#2’s rock star team and it will need a solution.

          1. LizB*

            pointing out that not everyone can be meeting or exceeding expectations

            Why can’t everyone be meeting or exceeding expectations? If you’re hiring the right people, I would hope that basically everyone is meeting expectations, and a chunk are exceeding, with very few people falling short of expectations.

            1. Morning Glory*

              +1 the OP clearly said that on her team, employees who don’t meet expectations don’t make it to performance review time

            2. Just Jess*

              LizB and Morning Glory,

              Correct; that is OP’s team. We don’t know what else is going on in their organization. Management and leadership can be very poor at certain organizations. However, it’s best if we don’t go in assuming they are inventing problems.

              The solution is crappy. That doesn’t mean there isn’t a problem.

              1. Morning Glory*

                Yes, but you made it seem like an impossibility that everyone could be meeting or exceeding expectations. Not like there was a possibility that not everyone could be meeting or exceeding expectations.

                Ranked systems don’t work because they assume the former. There are better solutions for the latter.

                1. Just Jess*

                  Correct. I think it is impossible that not everyone at the org. in question (not OP’s team) is meeting or exceeding expectations. That’s (probably) why leadership is trying to address ratings across the board. They’re thinking “that’s not right! We have tons of poor performers. How can we fix this?!” Then they landed on the wrong solution because it sounded… mathy.

                2. Just Jess*

                  Wait; “impossible that everyone IS meeting expectations” etc. That would explain leadership’s attack on manager ratings.

                3. Turtle Candle*

                  Assuming there is a real problem of underperformance in other departments, and assuming this initiative does come from upper management and isn’t a new HR person run amok…. it sounds way more like something that would be picked out of laziness than because it’s mathy. Identifying what departments (and who in those departments) are underperforming and managing them is hard work that requires a great deal of time and effort; artificial rankings with arbitrary cutoff points are easy. It’s just that they’re actively counterproductive. But they’re appealing because they’re easy, especially to higher-up people who don’t have to do the ranking and firing.

                  Frankly, if this actually is coming from upper management, I suspect that I can accurately guess who IS in fact the source of the problem underperformance….

              2. Zombii*

                I think you’re giving the company way too much credit. Any time I’ve been at an organization that used stack rankings, it was because bonus % was based on performance metrics and the companies didn’t want to pay out a bonus to everyone.

          2. AMPG*

            We had something like what you’re talking about in my old organization – each manager did their ranking, but then the teams’ overall rankings were weighted slightly against each other (I was always a bit fuzzy on the details here) when it came time to apply the salary increase formula so that a manager couldn’t game the system by giving all their team members the highest score. This way nobody would be artificially downgraded, but the potential for grade inflation was curbed.

            1. Just Jess*

              I’d be very interested in more details about this. This sounds closer to reasonable and what OP#2’s org. is trying to accomplish.

              Because you could just have an easy rating manager in addition to having managers who are easily biased and overlooking poor performance. Aha! Found one strategy! OP#2’s org should invest in training managers to avoid rating bias.

          3. Jadelyn*

            It may be addressing a real problem of score inflation – but the way to handle that is with another look at your review methods and if necessary retraining your managers on how to benchmark scores. We don’t do numerical scores anymore, but when we did, managers had to have explicit behavioral examples of why they gave their reports whatever scores they had given. We reviewed the benchmarking every year so that managers were super clear on what behavior was associated with each score level. Those are ways you fight score inflation and make sure people’s reviews are accurate, not by instituting horrible forced-ranking systems.

            1. HR Bee*

              I came here to say this. Score inflation by managers who don’t like conflict or just have generous natures and good relationships with their teams is a real thing, but you don’t fix that by forcing a certain distribution, you fix it by training your managers how to grade performance.

              We just made some edits to our performance evaluations, and I’m combating this with extra training and expanding the range for the scores. Being able to rate someone a 4, 5 or 6 out of 10 and have all three mean “Meets Expectations” seems to be helping staff to not feel like they need to push someone up an entire grade just because they are slightly better in this category than the last one. It accomplishes the same thing, but it allows a little more nuance in the conversation.

              And I’m not forcing a certain distribution of scores, because then how are we supposed to measure how we’re actually doing??

      7. LQ*

        This is a system that is designed to set it up so that you only have 2 exceptional members of the team. If you have a third they will want to leave because they aren’t being recognized as exceptional. You’re (them not you!) actively pushing to always have a bell curve, what you should do is push the people you have (and you hire) UP (or down I suppose) the bell curve. Or you’ll just have to hire 2 shitty performers, and 8 in the middle. That’s the only way to have a stable bell curve.

      8. misspiggy*

        I think you hit the nail on the head with your description of how your team works, and you should use that as the centrepiece of your argument. I was in a similar team that was painfully undermined by this type of approach: it doesn’t end well.

        I can see the logic of wanting to incentivise the best performers, and needing to find money from somewhere for that. I can also see the logic of wanting to offer a carrot and stick for lower performers. However, a Bell curve is not the tool to achieve this. For a start, it’s intended to reflect large populations. It will not work as a performance reward/ punishment budgeting tool for individual teams.(Don’t get me started on misuses in education….)

        One of the ways my awesome manager helped our team deal with the ridiculousness was to state clearly that the pot for rewards for being outstanding was limited, so only one person per year would get that. She would grade performances as she saw fit, and would try to rotate the ‘outstanding’ extra pay award annually between the top performers. She worked hard to provide other methods of feedback and incentive for the rest of the team, making it clear that we were all high performers. Flexible hours, food and compliments were usually good.

        And she worked with other managers to flatly refuse to pretend that anyone was a low performer when they weren’t. At one point management was going to put women who had missed work due to maternity leave at the bottom of the curve, meaning a real-terms pay cut and a PIP. A group of managers made it very clear that they would rather resign than inflict such nonsense on staff, and it was dropped.

        So our team never identified any low performers, and rewarded the highest performers in a rotating manner. As most of the organisation took a similar approach, in the end management had to rebudget for performance pay, as so little was available from the lower end to fund rewards at the higher end. Not great for morale, but better than the utter trainwreck that it started off as.

        A better system would be simply to have a pot of money set aside to reward outstanding performers in rotation, and to discipline low performers without using them as a source of funding for high-performance rewards. Why would your management want your organisation to reflect the performance trends of the whole population, when it should be aiming for all its staff to be at the upper end of the curve?

        1. AnonNurse*

          Wow. Just to be clear, if only women who had taken maternity leave were at the bottom, they would have a heck of a case for FMLA retaliation/discrimination based on their sex.

          1. animaniactoo*

            Not even if it was only women at the bottom – if women who had done so were consistently at the bottom for *no other identifiable reason*, they’d have a solid case on the FMLA retaliation front.

      9. aebhel*

        Yeah, there is absolutely no reason for work performance to be scored on a bell curve; that’s utterly nuts. The bell curve makes sense in some academic situations, but for performance evaluations? Hell no.

      10. longtime lurker*

        Our company did this for several years. It is awful, especially on a mature team. Several folks had to take the fall every year. The first year, we had some folks who transferred in from troubled teams. They were the fall guys. The next year, the new folks got tapped. Ditto the third year. It looked really bad when one of the “under performing” new employees, according to his rating, was the first in his hiring cohort to be promoted to the next level. It had to be explained to the C-level in great detail how someone ‘so bad’ could all of a sudden become great. When they saw his actual reviews, they could not argue.

        We’ve done away with the hard bell curve now, thank goodness.
        It only promoted backstabbing and selfishness. Why help the new guy when you require someone to always be worse than you.

      11. neverjaunty*

        OP, google “stack ranking” and “Microsoft” – lots of articles explaining why this kind of system is stupid and destructive.

        And at this point it’s time to stop playing nice with the HR person. You appear to have someone who is in love with an outdated and destructive evaluation model, perhaps because they took the entirely wrong message from “Glengarry Glen Ross”.

        1. Stranger than fiction*

          Yes, and then have all the managers sign the back of the stack of articles and shove it in her face (I mean leave it in her mailbox) and a copy to the CEO.

      12. Sarah*

        They used this at one of my previous jobs during the recession. It probably was useful as a tool to help identify candidates for layoffs – even you have a great workforce of performers, you need to identify the bottom.

        It was rolled out terribly – everyone had their reviews with their manager, THEN they told the managers about the distribution, and people’s metrics were changed. They also did it for the final review (that determines raise/bonus), but hadn’t thought of it for the earlier mid-year review. So one could have been told mid-year “you are doing great!” and then get a low rating.

        The version my company did was a Jack Welsch from philosophy, so I read his book (“Winning”) to see what was up. I was annoyed, because while the book strongly advocated for this approach, it also said it needs be coupled with absolutely frank and transparent feedback. The book’s philosophy was to get rid of the bottom 10% every year, even in good years.

      13. Observer*

        Yeah, but being hard doesn’t make it right.

        Look at what happened at Yahoo – Marissa Meyer was brought in to save the company, and one of her first moves was to implement a modified form of stack ranking. Despite it getting a lot less press than some of the other things she did, this is the one that had the worst effect.

        Microsoft is another company that finally abandoned stack ranking – there is good reason to believe that some of their disasters were in part due to the way stack ranking works.

      14. Dani X*

        I work at a company that recently got rid of this system (as in this is the first year without it). It has the effect of both discouraging collaboration and discouraging going above and beyond. You don’t want to collaborate and give someone an edge to get a better rating, but you also know that your chances of getting that coveted exceeds expectations is pretty low so why put yourself out there when you know there is going to be no reward. You know you will be in the middle no matter what – seems like the same people are always at the top. Someone once compared it to the Avengers – which one of them will you give that needs improvement to and kick off the team? And how will that affect the morale of anyone else? If you want to message me about it feel free- but I would push back hard against this.

      15. ThursdaysGeek*

        It may be more than half of your team quitting, and it won’t be the bottom half either (not that you really have a bottom half). If you have a team of super stars who work really well together, and they see some of them get shafted, all of them will be offended, and the ones who get the high ranking will be as likely to leave as the rest.

        So, not only will you quit having a functional team, shortly you will lose those high performers, and will be forced to hire people who fit in that artificial bell curve with mediocre in the middle. That should be enough to get the rest of your stars to leave.

    3. Dr. Doll*

      Heh. The University of Kentucky law school was all concerned about grade inflation a while back, so they went the College of Education for some advice. The most senior higher education scholar there told them to have criterion-based grading: clear criteria, high standards, give everyone the grades they earned. The law school decided that that was way too much work, and went with a curved system.

      They were honestly shocked as hell when massive cheating ensued.

      1. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

        The majority of T100 law schools grade this way (on a curve), and it’s ridiculous, does not provide meaningful or helpful evaluation, and tends to reward problematic traits unless grading is also blind. It comes from the idea that if everyone is scoring between 92-99 out of 100, there’s no way to differentiate without a curve. I don’t agree with that, but law is notoriously hierarchical and loves rankings, which is partially why curved evaluation systems haven’t yet fallen apart in this industry.

        1. Lily in NYC*

          I think it’s a very shady way for law schools to make money (the “scholarship” scam – where a bunch of first years get scholarships and told they only keep them if they get over a certain grade. But what the schools don’t mention is that only a very few people out of the entire class will get that grade because of the bell curve. They know that most students will just take out loans if they lose their scholarship because they already put in so much time and effort).

          1. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

            It’s absolutely true that there are law schools that use this as a business model—they accept an oversized class, impose a curve, take everyone’s tuition money and then flunk 50% of the 1L class; or, as you noted, grant scholarships they fully intend to revoke after the first year.

            That said, a lot of schools that don’t use that model also use curved grading and do not condition a person’s scholarship on performance on where they fall in the curve (but they may condition it on whether a person is at academic probation levels). I think the money-making scam part of law school is the insane tuition that bears no reasonable relationship to the cost of delivering a high-quality education.

        2. Thornus67*

          I had a law class where the professor e-mailed me to say I got a perfect score on the exam, which was the only grade in the class. This was curved down to a 93 and was somehow not even recognized as the highest grade in the class.

      2. JB (not in Houston)*

        Using a curve in law school is pretty standard. I am sure there are a number who don’t, but I can’t only think of one–Yale, which doesn’t have a traditional grading system. I’m not surprised that Kentucky hesitated to get rid of it. They might have worried about how it would be perceived and how that would effect their students. I’m not saying that the curve is good, just that law schools do worry a lot about perception for how it might affect their students getting hired (and of course, rankings).

        1. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

          This is my understanding, too—that Yale is the only school that does not curve their grades. That said, Yale awards grades almost exclusively on sycophantism or on a professor’s personal appreciation/like of a student, which creates a different set of equity problems, particularly for first-generation, women, LGBT and POC law students.

      3. Artemesia*

        It is quite shocking how few people in academia can answer the question: what does A performance look like in this class? What is it people know and can do and how do we measure that with validity?

        I was at an institution that was very prestigious and yet failed its first round of accreditation because they didn’t listen to those of us who said ‘the criteria have changed; you have to be able to document achievement in programs.’ The provost said ‘oh we did this last time and (name of top competitor) did this last year and were re-accredited.’ We were right; the criteria had changed to requiring clear objectives and measures for programs. It meant for me that I had to work over the Christmas break to get our college’s materials ready along with a few other professors in positions of leadership. (and we HAD told them so) Because our programs already used objectives and had reasonable measures, it was not difficult for us to meet the requirements. But you should have seen most of rest of the programs including ones like engineering where it should have been easy as well as philosophy and history where it is a lot harder to do.

        Stack ranking is lazy and has perverse incentives. There is a kernel of truth i.e. often poor performers are allowed to coast in organizations. You fix that by being clearer about performance and managing those people out not by punishing people doing a good job.

        1. tink*

          The head of my department in my undergrad program had really clear criteria for grading and explained it in the first week of class in the 100-level course everyone in the program was required to take before progressing into any course (save the lone other 100-level course in the program). “A” quality exceeded expectations and showed at least an entry-level professional grasp of the concepts. “B” meant you understood the textbook concepts and had the start of applying them at higher levels, although not to the same understanding as the “A” performers. “C” showed a solid understanding of textbook concepts, but not the linking of the concepts into something beyond individual pieces (basically being able to regurgitate the text in your own words, but not being able to extrapolate that X related to Y and dovetailed into Z). A “D” meant you mostly understood the textbook but hadn’t internalized the concepts well enough to put them back on paper, and “F” was for some combination of failure to follow instructions/not understanding the material even enough for a D/etc.

          He used real examples (anonymized) from other classes, and left pretty extensive notes to help people get to the next level, but he wanted people to be aware of what would be expected all the way up the program from the very beginning so that people who couldn’t or didn’t want to put that level of effort in wouldn’t waste their time or money trying to flounder through the program. The group in the program each year usually shrank at least 50% between the 100 and 200 levels, and the professors all strongly encouraged or required working together to succeed.

        2. Turtle Candle*

          I remember how surprised and pleased I was when a prof administered an exam to us that most of us did very badly on… and instead of either telling us all to suck it up, or “fixing” it by curving the grades, he said, “Okay, clearly I either screwed up the exam or taught you all badly. Let’s try this again.” Admitting that he had goofed to a room of beady-eyed nineteen-year-olds can’t have been easy, and assessing whether the problem was with the exam or the test and correcting it was definitely work (and some people still failed the “new” exam–but they were genuine underperformers and not the confused majority), but he stands out to this day to me as an example to follow.

    4. Nabby*

      Yeah I didn’t know our business school grading system could follow you into the workplace like this!

    5. nonymous*

      assuming that the bell curve distribution of the population’s performance applies, that hypothesis only describes the general classification of the curve. What it doesn’t describe is the amplitude, or the spread for a population. In addition, the qualitative descriptors for the different performance classes would have to be normalized as well. So they would have to define what “0” means for the company *after* normalization, not during the raw rankings. “0” might mean does all work on time with a professional attitude. “4” might mean work 70 weeks and stay until 11p.

      In addition, this does not address the situation that you describe, where one team might be full of rock stars and the other might be full of mediocre talent. Honestly, there are places in most large companies for both types – I’m not sure how much of a “rock star” the mail room attendant needs to be? But certainly there is benefit to the org if capable staff does not have to be paid top dollar coupled with low turnover.

      I propose that all managers rate their reports a “4” (or whatever your top score is).

    6. Retail HR Guy*

      There’s a very large section of the HR world dedicated to this kind of thing. My completely biased take on it is that this is what happens when you try to turn a trade into an academic subject. People go to school for degrees in HR, write and read papers and theses that can be interesting but don’t really apply to day-to-day HR, and try to turn something into a science that isn’t really a science.

      Then they graduate and bring this overly-theoretical crap into the real world to inflict upon the poor, unsuspecting masses of employees. The next thing you know, Jim in accounting is on a PIP not because he did anything wrong but because some study in HR Analytics Quarterly says that the Smith-Parker method raises productivity by 3.2% over traditional methods in a Bronsonian marketplace.

      1. Jadelyn*

        Oh, I have All The Opinions on this! I do feel that research-backed initiatives are good, so long as it’s run through the filter of “what will this do to the employees in a practical environment?” I’d rather have research-based ideas than the kind of harebrained crap you see coming from a certain type of management/HR consultant, you know?

        But I definitely, definitely, SO AGREE that academic HR study does not remotely have anything to do with real day-to-day HR! I’m finishing my degree right now – should be done in May! – and I have to say I’ve learned far more on the job, just by asking questions and observing what my more experienced colleagues are doing, than I have from all the “HRM” degree classes I’ve taken.

        Unfortunately, you have to have the piece of paper in order to move up in most places. So we keep on getting our degrees in HR and perpetuating the issue.

      2. Zombii*

        Good insight. I just finished an intro to HR course; it seemed like good background, and gave me a lot of explanations for everything that had gone wrong at Toxic Exjob, but based on the text I would still have less than no idea how to improve that place.

    7. Mina*

      I once worked at a company that had a ranking system like this. It was horrible and demoralizing. People who did well at their previous companies got ridiculously low scores on their annual reviews here. And they wondered why there was such high turnover.

    8. KM*

      For me, I think the problem is conflating measures of whether or not someone’s performing adequately against a set standard with measures of how they’re performing relative to others. Supposing you can determine a fair way to stack people, I actually think a curve can be useful for determining raises and bonuses — but whether or not you’re in the top 3% relative to everyone else is a completely separate question from whether you’re “meeting expectations” or “need improvement.”

  3. Mike*

    A system like #2 would have me updating and polishing my resume lickety–split. And I’m the top performer in my group.

    While not perfect I do like what our company put together. There are about 15 topics over various areas that can be Commendable, Proficient, Approaching Proficient, and Not Proficient. I fill it out, my manager fills it out, and then we meet to discuss. No score and little BS. It may help that we are a public entity so my pay isn’t dependent on this.

    1. Paul*

      My current company operates this way and while it doesn’t seem fair, it’s likely one of the downsides of working for a large company. They provide a solid salary and benefits. I felt burned last year because I was one of the people pushed down a notch because of the curve.

      I am dubious of the claim that you can have a team of 12 rockstars. Unless you are paying top dollar, and likely aren’t because evaluations would mean less to employees, it’s nearly impossible to have a team of that level. You may think they are all rockstars and deserving of an “exceeds expectations” but it’s not realistic. Give the top 2 a good score and bonus and give the rest stardard merit increases. I can almost gauranter pushing back will only leave you frustrated because your seniors likely will side with HR.

      1. Lord of the Ringbinders*

        But you are surely judged on how you perform against the objectives you have been set?

        I think ranking makes no sense. Judge people on how well they did. If everyone is coming out as a rock star and you think that’s implausible, look at how you appraise people and the objectives you set, don’t add an arbitrary curve.

        I can only think of one person on my team who isn’t a ‘rock star’. So who gets the raises? The boss? The admin assistant whose work is not so visible but without whom things would grind to a halt? Or just pick a few people out of a hat?

        Divide and conquer does not work. Pitting people against one another does not make for a happy or functional team.

        “I am dubious of the claim that you can have a team of 12 rockstars. Unless you are paying top dollar, and likely aren’t because evaluations would mean less to employees,”

        I am dubious of the claim that people only care about money and without merit increases nobody would care about evaluations.

        Over here most jobs do not have merit increases, only time-based ones. Nobody in any job I’ve ever done has been eligible for an increase based on a performance evaluation. But people still cared! Why? Aside from the whole issue of not getting fired being a good thing, people want more from their jobs than money – many (most?) people actually genuinely care whether they’re doing well.

        1. Lord of the Ringbinders*

          Oh, and what happens when you pick a couple of people and as a result pay people from protected groups less for the same job based not on their performance but an arbitrary curve?

          That sounds unwise. OP, you may also want to look at this angle.

        2. Lionheart26*

          Exactly. I’m a teacher and our curriculum has criteria-based assessments. If my assessment is well designed, there will naturally be a range of results. If all the students achieve “exceeding” for all criteria, it means my assessment is not rigorous. It doesn’t mean I can change the expectations retroactively.

          1. AcademiaNut*

            There’s also the issue of small number statistics (this is a major issue I have with the abuse of the normal distribution). If you have a small group of people, it is not mathematically valid to bell curve the results (at least 30 is the rule of thumb I was taught).

            I was in classes in graduate school of six people. If we all did well in the assignments and exams, we could all get As. If we all performed similarly, it would be completely illogical to give two people As, two people Bs and two people Cs in order to make a very small bell curve – you might spread it out to, say, an A+, A- and A. On the other hand, if you had an undergrad class of 200 people, you would expect the results to fit within an expected distribution, and something would be fishy if everyone got As. (As an aside, the distribution of marks for large classes was typically double peaked, not a single peaked distribution.) However, if all the students who got Cs and Ds on the first exam dropped out, your initial distribution will have changed, and it won’t make sense to give students who got a B on the first exam a D on the second for the same level of work.

            If the LW is in an environment where low performers don’t last long – they quit or are let go on a less than 1 year timescale – then I might not buy 12 rockstars, but I would buy 12 consistently high performers who she wants to keep on the team.

            And if they are high performers, then I strongly suspect that the reaction to being put on a PIP for mathematically dubious reasons will, for some of them at least, be to polish off their resume and start looking for new opportunities.

          2. BellCurvesareDumb*

            I had a negative experience based on a bell curve in college. I was offered a spot in a special class for high performing math students, but they graded on a strict bell curve. In two semesters we had professors with wildly different styles so for one semester we had an easy professor and a 95 turned into a B minus and one professor who was so nuts hard that our class average on a midterm was a 27% and then that insanity was curved. I literally quit my math major because of it.

            In my current workplace there are very very clear expectations and everyone, if they hit the numbers and reviews, could receive the high rating. Everyone has their own work, but our office has a collaborative attitude and people often help out with others assignments. Grading on a curve would make expectations unclear and would unnecessarily pit people against each other, killing a collaborative environment. I would leave if my office suddenly based performance evals on rank. Some database of everyone’s long term metrics exists somewhere but that isn’t even kind of the same as no one goes on an improvement plan because of it alone and it almost never comes up.

            1. Turtle Candle*

              I keep coming back to that. Right now, I know what my expectations are quite clearly. A barely-passable tech writer turns in the product documentation on time with few or no errors; a good solid tech writer ties in the product documentation on time, and it’s correct, clear, and concise, and they also help with cross-product and cross-department education; a great or “rockstar” tech writer does all of the above, plus is actively helpful to other teams, produces nice-to-have-but-not-necessary supplemental documentation, writes in a way that is not only correct and clear but a pleasure to read, and becomes a resource for others in terms of product knowledge.

              I understand that. I try to be great; hitting “good” is my minimum; under rare circumstances (getting over an illness, major external stressors, Shit Happens, etc.) I my drop briefly to “barely passable” but not below. But the point is that I know where the break points are, more or less. And we might have one or two greats, two to four goods, and a passable who really needs to get her act together–or we might cluster in one of the categories, especially if we hire and train well.

              If on the other hand it was like, “Josephine is our best writer, so to be great you have to beat her; Leliana is pretty good so you need to be about as good as her or better to be good; Cassandra’s writing is pretty awkward so you need to stay better than her to not get fired,” it would not only be weirdly competitive in a situation that doesn’t require or benefit from competition, it would be opaque. How do I know who I have to “beat” and what I have to do to beat them? And assuming I do suss it out, what happens when we hire Vivienne and Sera? It’s a situation where, because I’m being pitted against my colleagues rather than against a standard, I am actually less clear on how I’m doing.

              If there’s “grade inflation” and people are all being treated as rockstars just for doing the baseline expectations of their jobs, by all means, correct that. But stack ranking and grade curving is a terrible way to accomplish that. It kills morale and still makes the standard unclear.

            2. Jocelyn*

              The only classes I had with curves were the ones where you could only be curved up.

              And I’m sorry it was so awful you left your major for it. You’d think MATH professors would realize that wouldn’t work well.

          3. Artemesia*

            But a class of students will naturally fall on a bell curve because they range in intelligence and character. I have never had a class without a couple of lazy butts in it or a couple of unusually hard working and/or intelligent students. The bell curve shouldn’t work for a group of people selected in a rigorous hiring process for high skill and achievement. Yes, managers should weed out poor performers, but the better you are at hiring, the fewer that should be.

            Stack ranking at tech companies was particularly weird since the hiring process is so skills based and rigorous. If you can pass the microsoft or google or amazon hiring screens then you should be part of a group that clusters at the high end of the bell curve compared to all tech workers.

            1. Allie*

              I think the OP was referring to a specially selected class, which is more like a job. I similarly hated bell curves in my advanced major classes where they were only 8 or so students. There were on 12 grads in my major my year (high high weedout early on) and assigning a third Cs in our advanced classes sucked.

              1. Zathras*

                Yeah, that’s a really stupid system for small classes because it discourages collaborative learning. In a class of 200 people, you can form a study group of 3-4 people without feeling like you’re competing with each other, since it’s possible for you to all get A’s. But if there are only 8 people and you’re competing for the 2 available A’s, why would you help anybody else with the material?

                The same effect would happen at work. Why would I go out of my way to be helpful to the new hire when their success threatens my status, compensation, and possibly my employment? The less scrupulous employees might even resort to deliberate, subtle sabotage.

                1. Turtle Candle*

                  Yes, very much. Right now I’m the veteran with lots of subject matter expertise. It’s something I’ve built up over time, and I am not just willing but actually delighted when a new hire says “hey, when you get a chance can you explain component X to me?” I want them to be cross-trained, to build up their own knowledge banks, and to succeed.

                  I would be deeply suspicious of any system that gave me a concrete incentive to hoard that knowledge rather than share it.

          4. Kate*

            I think there’s a difference though between rating employees and grading students. The employees were chosen by the employer, who makes every effort to not only avoid below expectations people, but to select exceeds expectations people. Whereas students are (in most cases) a random selection of the general population who are going to be a range of grades.

            1. Zathras*

              Depends if you’re talking about high school students vs. university students – with higher ed, there is the application/admissions process, so in theory you have also weeded out the low performers. At least that is how it works in the US, I don’t know how university admissions work in other places. The process was similar for the one Canadian school I applied to.

              1. Zombii*

                No, that is not how it works in the States. Since the applications/admissions process has surprisingly little to do with the actual curriculum, it’s not very effective at weeding out low performers—and colleges will always make room for a legacy who doesn’t give a single f!ck about education, but their parents insisted they go to school.

                1. Zathras*

                  I never claimed the admissions process was perfect – I even qualified my statement with ‘in theory’. My point was that at the college level the student population is not a random selection of the general population, which was stated in Kate’s comment. It is a population that has been deliberately selected based primarily on past academic performance in high school.

                  Honestly, even a public high school population isn’t really a random selection of the general population. The kids in a given high school are selected by location, which is directly affected by how much money their parents have and what they do for a living. Which in turn has been show to affect academic performance.

        3. Paul*

          I agree money isn’t everything, but for most people, they only work to pay the bills. This is unfortunate as you “should” love what you work on, but I don’t believe most people do. Because it is used as a means to survive, people generally want more money vs less for the time they put in.

          I have worked at places before that didn’t have annual reviews and raises and what happens is that as you gain skills and experience, you have to be the one to bring up the uncomfortable topic of making more money with your boss. It’s not fun and for people that don’t like doing it, they end up making less money doing the exact same thing that another equivalent job pays more for. It’s much easier to be part of an annual process that always gives at least a cost of living raise.

        4. The Data Don't Lie*

          “Aside from the whole issue of not getting fired being a good thing, people want more from their jobs than money – many (most?) people actually genuinely care whether they’re doing well.”

          YES. I was working in a job that was a new field for me, but which required many skills from my old field. It did take me a little bit of time to get up to speed on the new things and new terminology for the field, but I thought I was doing well and I felt confident about myself and my ability to succeed, and about the work I had done. Furthermore, when I was offered the job and was negotiating salary, I had asked for more than what they offered and was told that they didn’t want to pay me quite that much because I was new to the field and would require a lot of training my first year. I felt like this was fair and agreed to their counteroffer. Fast forward to my 1-year performance review, and I sat down with my manager (who had previously sat down with my boss to rate my performance). There were 5 levels, I believe: 1: “ineffective” , 2: “less effective/developing”, 3: “effective”, 4: “highly effective”, and 5: “extremely effective”. She drew a line through the “less effective” part of #2 and told me that I should focus on the “developing” part, because I was new and new to the field and they felt like I was still developing a lot of my skills. She then went through and showed me that I had scored a 2 on every. single. part. Except something that was like personality based, like enthusiasm, and also the one asking if I got to work on time. It was all fine and good to cross out part of the definition of the ranking, but that didn’t make it go away. I left the meeting feeling like I had spent an entire year not being effective at my job, and upset that no one had felt the need to bring that up with me until my evaluation. It destroyed my job satisfaction, and I ended up finding a new job shortly after that. The evaluation didn’t affect my raise or anything, but I just wouldn’t work for people that felt like I wasn’t effective but made no effort to explain to me the specifics of why they felt this way or to clearly articulate ways I could improve.

          Honestly, it’s possible I really *was* less than effective at my job, but to go an entire year thinking that you’re doing great and then at the end of the year get hit with the fact that your boss had apparently been unsatisfied with your work he entire time but hadn’t said anything is a morale killer.

      2. Dan*

        If mediocre.performers don’t last until the next review, then I can believe OP has a high performing team.

      3. neverjaunty*

        I would not be so sure “the seniors” are behind this, as opposed to some HR person who apparently missed the memo about why stack ranking destroys companies.

        1. Engineer Girl*

          I tried explaining this to an HR person once. She didn’t understand why engineers were so upset about a 60% rating. I explained to her that in aerospace that 99.99% isn’t good enough for our products. So a 60% rating meant that you are a complete failure.

        2. Wendy Darling*

          Yeah I read that and was like, “But that’s stack ranking and stack ranking is on the way out!”

          Thinking stack ranking is the new awesome is so 2007.

          1. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

            It’s frustrating because it keeps coming back, like a bad case of herpes. It was popular briefly in the 80s, then went out of vogue, came back in the mid- to late-90s, went out of vogue, then came back in the late aughts. It’s one of the most self-cannibalizing and least illustrative or helpful methods of evaluation.

              1. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

                Not the “voodoo economics” of evals? ;)

                (but yes, it’s both, and neither is supported by evidence)

            1. Artemesia*

              It is an artifact of the fact that most managers don’t manage. We see this all the time in this group — horrible workers whom managers don’t manage and don’t dismiss when they don’t improve. Stack ranking is a structural way to try to force managers to manage. What is really needed is rigorous evaluation of managers for the quality of their teams outputs and their ability to hold high performers and weed out low ones. This is the biggest gap in corporate management — the failure to evaluate managers as managers.

              1. Turtle Candle*

                Yep. And it’s easier too, especially if you’re a few layers removed from the person who has to do the firing. “Rank everyone, curve the rankings, and whack off the bottom 10%” is way, way easier than “assess and manage, and teach your subordinates to do the same with their reports.”

        3. Antilles*

          Most notably Microsoft. There was a great long-form article a few years ago about how Microsoft missed tons of opportunities in the 2000’s. And *every single person* interviewed pointed to the stack ranking as a critical factor that set the company back.
          Here’s the issue that companies repeatedly ran into: Stack ranking provides an explicit and clear incentive for employees to work against each other.
          >If you’re a high performer, you are best off working with a team of average people because no matter how well the *team* does, only one person is going to get that coveted “high performer ranking”. So while it’s best for the company to have all-stars Steph, Kevin, and Klay all on the same team, it’s bad for them individually because the stack ranking guarantees that two of them get ranked “average” even if they’re all objectively among the 15-20 best employees in the entire multi-billion dollar company.
          >It encourages employees to subtly screw each other over. If only two people in the group are getting raises this year and I’m in competition with Andy and Bob, am I going to go very far out of my way to make Andy look like good? Nope. Instead, I’ll do my best to appear helpful without actually being helpful.
          >Because managers often don’t know all the details of every employee’s performance, it encourages employees to spend time playing politics rather than doing their actual jobs. This is exacerbated because the ranking often includes input from other managers and not just your direct team lead, so it’s not just pleasing one person.
          >It discourages employees from helping low performers. If we’re guaranteed to have one “low performer probation” employee, it’s in every other employees’ best interest for Johnny to keep failing since it reduces competition.

          1. Paul*

            I think the answer to that situation is to give every employee at least a minimum annual raise (ie: 2%). For rockstars, their raise percentage is up to the discretion of the manager. For the top percentage, they get bonuses. Sure, some rock stars may not hit the “bonus mark” but that can be made up through their increased raise percentage.

            1. Antilles*

              First off, most of the people who choose these systems do so under the theory that the rock stars are worth far more than regular employees and that merely ‘adequate’ employees should just be happy to stay employed. So the idea of “minimum raises for everyone” is going to meet with a lot of resistance.
              Secondly, the discretion of the manager rarely comes into play here. Most of these systems are imposed top-down so while OP is trying to advocate for higher raises for her staff, other managers at OP’s level will also be fighting equally hard for higher raises for their staff members. Especially given that managers are often judged by the performance of their subordinates – so OP’s peers have a clear incentive to fight back firmly against OP’s “I have 12 rock stars” description, since that makes them look bad by comparison.

          2. Gazebo Slayer (formerly I'm a Little Teapot)*

            One particularly unpleasant side effect of the backstabbing culture that stack ranking encourages: the people who get promoted will often be people who rose to the top by sabotaging and undermining everyone else. Meaning that you will eventually end up with a lot of awful people as managers and a toxic company culture.

            1. Antilles*

              It also has a nasty reinforcement effect even on your good employees. They’ll realize that you need to Play the Game and start acting that way themselves. Or possibly realize that they don’t want to deal with that trash and leave.

            2. Turtle Candle*

              Yes, my experience is that companies with this type of ranking also have a ~mysteriously~ high percentage of “jerkass geniuses.” Because the system rewards the “jerkass” characteristics as much or more as the “genius” ones.

            3. Zombii*

              Holy shit. You just explained to me why Toxic ExJob is so toxic (they’ve been doing stack ranking-based incentive/penalty programs since the building opened in 2003—and the company as a whole has been doing that even longer). THANK YOU. :)

        4. LBK*

          I dunno, head honchos who aren’t doing the same kind of evaluations of their employees could probably lose sight of what this will mean for lower-level individual contributors. I could easily believe that the HR person gave some flashy presentation to them about why this was a great idea to boost performance and they went along with it.

        5. Turtle Candle*

          Agreed. My first thought was “is upper management on board with this, or is it something some random new dingbat thought was a fantastic idea?” I’d check on that first–it might solve the problem super quick (and if it doesn’t, Alison’s advice for coordinated pushback is spot on).

      4. MK*

        But it is realistic to have people labeled “needs improvement” simply because there are others better than them? Also, if you do your hiring right, all people will have a certain level of skill, so the difference between the best and the lowest ranking employee will be negligible. When I was being trained for my current job, after having gone through a pretty competitive entry process, all 90 of the people who were part of that year’s intake were ranked based on how well they did in training, and we all scored between 12.75 and 13.5 out of 15. The difference between the top performer and someone in the middle of the pack was 0.03 or something. Using the ranking for evaluating us would be highly inefficient.

        The problem with grading on a curve is you are abdicating realistic evaluations. If you get a couple of really high-performers, the objectively great employees behind them come across as underperforming, when they are not. Or if you have a low-performing team, the objectively mediocre employee who is doing better than the rest is given rockstar status. Neither of this things are good.

      5. Susan*

        I disagree. First of all, “rockstar” employees tend to care very much about their work performance, even if they are already getting paid well. At a previous job, I was at the absolute top of the payscale, so the only raise I could possibly get was the standard cost of living raise that everyone got, regardless of performance, and guess what? I still worked super hard and I still wanted to be recognized for my high performance.

        Now, I’m not a manager, and maybe this is naive, but I think that every manager should strive to have a whole team of employees who exceed their metrics. That should be the holy grail of management, and if it happens, the company should not only give the whole team a rating of exceeds expectations and a corresponding raise/bonus, but they should be overjoyed that they have developed such a high-performing team. If you really do have a team of rockstars, they are probably doing enough for the company’s bottom line that they more than pay for their own raises.

        1. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

          Absolutely agreed. The private sector has this weird idea that the only reason people work hard is for money or to avoid punishment. That’s simply not true of high achievers—they work hard because they receive intrinsic value from working hard. It informs how they see themselves, how they perceive their role in teams, and their personal desire for growth and excellence.

          But stacked ranking also doesn’t produce high achievers—ranking systems never create excellent employees. It punishes people in unuseful and arbitrary ways that destroy their self-worth and undermine principles of teamwork.

        2. Paul*

          I agree, a manager should strive to have a whole team of emloyees who exceed expectations. But the reality is that you can only control a team so much. Would you simply fire everyone who doesn’t exceed expectations? If so, then you run into the issue of letting go people who contribute enough to warrant them staying, but not contribute enough to be considered a rockstar. Hiring is a VERY difficult task and you could spend a year trying to fill a spot of someone who was average.

          As a manager, it’s always a compromise and while it’s a dream to have a rock star team, unless you are the company owner and can control every aspect of a company’s culture and finances, likely you won’t be able to attract and retain only rock stars.

      6. Annonymouse*

        If you have a team of consistent high performers It doesn’t make sense to punish people who are slightly below the highest.

        E.g the highest performer gets a 96/100 in the metrics and lowest performer is 93/100.

        It would be entirely unreasonable to put 93/100 on a PIP or look at firing them because on another team or workplace they’d be the top person.

        If everyone is about the same level how is it fair to say “sorry but you need a PIP even though you’re good at your job and consistently perform at a high level.”?

        It’s just going to drive away anyone of quality and make the company less profitable

        1. Detective Amy Santiago*

          “It would be entirely unreasonable to put 93/100 on a PIP or look at firing them because on another team or workplace they’d be the top person.”

          This is an excellent point! What if the top person on another team was at an 80/100? They’re getting rated higher than people who are objectively better performers.

          1. LBK*

            This comment is even better if you read it in a panicked Amy Santiago voice. Freaking out over a change in the performance review system is totally something Amy would do :)

          2. Paul*

            It’s a very tough situation, especially when you can’t grade on metrics. How do you decide who contributed the most on your team vs a completely different team? I guess the takeaway is that life is not fair.

            Fortunately, I’m able to divide up a merit raise pool as I like. ALL high performers will get a larger raise then average performers. The performance review score only really impacts the bonus IMO.

      7. Koko*

        I can buy that maybe the team is so high-performing that the bar has been raised and there’s really two of them that are a standard deviation better than the rest of them. I accept that managers will ration out the high scores because they can’t give them to everyone for differing reasons.

        But under no circumstances should someone performing well get a low score because of a curve. It’s one thing for a strong performer to get “meets expectations” because there are supergeniuses on their team who have raised the bar and put the “exceeds” on lock. At least that’s still a positive review and comes with a raise. That, to me, is a budget constraint more than anything – we’ll reward all of you but we only have enough money to super-reward 2 of you.

        It’s another thing entirely for a strong performer to get “needs improvement” when they did their job well, just because they did it the least well of anyone on a high-performing team where everyone routinely hits their targets. That system mathematically requires you to be continually putting staff on PIPs and managing them out of the company. Performance interventions like that should be held to an objective standard, not a relative one.

        As others have said, that kind of internal competition isn’t healthy and leads to a breakdown in team camaraderie. People stop being willing to help each other because helping someone else could be a detriment to their own ranking.

        1. LBK*

          Completely agreed. I think it’s fairly common for there to be a limited number of “exceeds expectations” scores to be allowed, but I’ve never heard of limiting how many “meets expectations” you can give out. The implication is completely illogical – if you were *always* carrying multiple people on your team who weren’t meeting expectations, you’d either be terrible at hiring or seriously lacking in performance management. You shouldn’t have that many people needing improvement who keep making it around to an annual review.

          1. Turtle Candle*

            The implication is completely illogical – if you were *always* carrying multiple people on your team who weren’t meeting expectations, you’d either be terrible at hiring or seriously lacking in performance management.

            Yes! Exactly. This is requiring people to put their teams on a constant turnover treadmill, and basically requiring them to be either bad at hiring (to ensure that they don’t lose a solid performer to the treadmill) or bad at management (by encouraging intrateam conflict and by making it pointless to work with people–you’re going to have to PIP and fire someone, why bother?). It is an attempt to incentivize good work by actively incentivizing bad management.

        2. Paul*

          Agree, I didn’t clarify that almost nobody receives a “needs improvement” score. It’s really a half bell curve and not a traditional bell curve. Everyone gets either a “exceeds expectations” or “meets expectations”.

        3. Turtle Candle*

          Yeah, I’m fine with only the tippy top performers getting the big bonuses. If the team scores like, 98, 95, 93, 88, 85, then it sucks a little for 93 that they came so close without getting a bonus, but such is life. But if you’re putting the 85 and 88 on PIPs, something is wrong with either your scale or your system.

          It reminds me of the “rate our customer service on a scale of one to five!” thing, where there are secretly only two ratings: five, and Utter Failure; a 4.5 average = A Stern Talking To. When I was a grocery bagger girl I used to be so tempted to say, “if you’re going to give me a four, just give me a one, it’s the same thing to Corporate.” (I didn’t, but I was so tempted.)

          1. Zombii*

            I worked at a call center for so long that I always give top ratings on any survey I fill out, unless the service was somehow appalling.

            And don’t bother rating the person highly if you’re going to rate the company poorly: since the company considers the people its avatars, poor ratings for the company also result in punishment for the rep. If your experience was average, the kindest thing you can do is just… don’t even fill out the survey. (If service was bad, go crazy, customer service should know better.)

          2. ancolie*

            When I bought my car, the sales guy* said I’d get an “experience” survey from the parent company and the dealership would really appreciate it if I completed it (I’m sure all dealerships are required to get a minimum number of responses or get dinged for it). It would ask me to rank everything on a 1-10 scale.

            I said, “let me guess, 1-9 is FAIL and 10 is the only acceptable score?” He smiled and said something about me being familiar with the concept. Hah.

            I gave all 10s because it was an experience that was overall really good. But they (the parent company) lost the opportunity for potentially useful feedback because I did NOT want to basically flunk the guy. Don’t give people the illusion of thoughtful nuance with a 10 point scale when it’s actually a binary system (intentionally skewed to fail most people).

            * great guy, seriously. Listened to me when I said I only wanted to talk about bottom-line pricing, so don’t even start with the, “how much do you want to pay a month?” stuff. He was super low-key and not schmoozy or obnoxious.

      8. Lily in NYC*

        Sure you can. My team of 9 has 8 rock stars (I am the non rock-star of the group but my role is very different). We only hire through referrals from current team members and my boss is incredibly demanding – she thinks nothing of getting rid of people who don’t perform to her level. And we pay crap. But it’s a high-visibility job in our industry and it’s a given that anyone who makes it for two years in my department can go make big money in the private sector afterwards. I do not like our hiring methods, though – it’s elitist and creates groupthink because they are all so similar to each other.

      9. Paul*

        I should have clarified that the scale is 1-5, where 4s and 5s are “needs improvement”. The general idea is that the team should only have 2s and 3s, because a 4 or 5 should already have been put on a PIP or fired.

        What this ends up looking like is 30% get 2s and a bonus and the rest get 3s and a standard COL raise.

        Regarding rockstars caring about performance, they do, but if they are paid well they usually care less about the curved score vs the constant praise from their manager. The problem is that performance reviews are almost always linked to incentives, so if you don’t get a 2, the bigger issue is not getting a reward.

    2. PB*

      This. In fact, my last company implemented a milder version of this. We weren’t graded on a bell-curve or put on PIPs despite being exemplary(!), but they institute a policy that only “the top employees” could get raises. Not the top employee in each department, but the top employees overall, and a very small number of them. I was the highest rated employee in my department, by a large margin, but I didn’t get a raise. The director agreed that I was exemplary, but just not exemplary enough.

      I had already been looking for a new job. Five months later, I got one and never looked back.

      1. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

        That’s awful—it sounds like they were creating a fake system to make people think they could advance or be rewarded when in fact it was all a ruse. If there’s no metrics for defining “exemplary,” then it’s ridiculous to pretend you’ll reward people for achieving that status.

        1. PB*

          Exactly, and as Turtle Candle points out below, how do you compare people who do drastically different jobs? If you have a teapot analyst, a sales associate, and an EA who are all competing for the same raise, and all exceptional at their jobs, how do you rank them? It was demoralizing for everyone involved.

      2. Turtle Candle*

        A friend worked at a company (basically a largish startup) who did this, and it was a nightmare. How do you compare the work of a great EA to the work of a great software engineer to the work of a great sales guy?

        Turns out the big boss took it as “direct revenue,” so only sales got bonuses ever, and in fact it was almost impossible for sales to get fired (even the crappiest sales person got more “direct revenue” for the company than the most brilliant engineer, simply because the engineers did not do sales!).

        The company collapsed in a trash fire of drama, to my complete lack of surprise.

  4. LoV*

    I’ve worked under the same kind of evaluation system as OP#2. It kind of sucks and I think it’s design to cycle people out. Sometimes it made me wonder if I should be helping out my coworkers since they were really my competition…

  5. MillersSpring*

    OP5 reminds of the recent OP who had to wear comfortable shoes and had upcoming interviews. You could be very transparent, reassuring and brief, e.g., “Sorry about the turban! I went through a health issue that thankfully is now under control.”

      1. Sassociate*

        But aren’t they just as likely to assume cancer and, if they are inclinedto do so, discriminate on that basis if she doesn’t say anything?

          1. MegaMoose, Esq*

            The OP then mentioned filling in eyebrows with makeup, so I think it could go either way but probably leans female. A man could presumably shave their head until they’re done interviewing without question.

            1. Hey Nonnie*

              Well, a woman could shave her head too; although with her hair just starting to grow back I don’t know if she’d want to.

              Then she could simply say, “Alopecia. Thankfully it’s growing back now.” Which would reveal nothing except the obvious, and perhaps make the point that hair can fall out for lots of reasons. I’m not sure how it would be received, however.

              Is there enough hair grown back to do a super-short pixie / buzz-cut, and simply pass it off as personal style? I’ve worked with women who had quarter-inch buzz-cuts, and no one thought it was worth remarking on.

              If she had appropriate cultural heritage, I’d suggest using a turban in the style of her cultural dress — so once again it comes across as personal style — but if that were an option the question probably wouldn’t have come up.

              1. Zombii*

                Hair that falls out for medical reasons often falls out in patches/clumps, and often doesn’t grow back evenly. Buzzing it down could look worse, for any number of reasons, and there’s also the weird identity issues most people have associated with their own hair, and how they choose to wear it, or are forced to wear it, again for any number of reasons.

                Good suggestions though, if applicable. :)

      2. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

        Honestly, people should not think “cancer” when they see a turban. For all anyone knows, OP is a Sikh.

        1. SometimesALurker*

          Yes, this! I’d be uncomfortable advising OP to say “sorry about the turban” for that reason.

          1. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

            Do you think this varies by geography, though? I’ve lived in places where turban would not read as “cancer,” but this could also be a product of my industry or my region.

            1. Hey Nonnie*

              I thought she meant a pre-fab turban like these:

              … rather than a cultural turban, which would require a lot more fabric and some skill in winding / tying it. (Like these:

              As I said above, if a cultural turban is an appropriate option (she is of the heritage the style belongs to), I’d just do that. Cultural dress is pretty common these days, and my mind certainly wouldn’t jump to “cancer” seeing someone wearing one of those.

      3. irritable vowel*

        If it were me, I’d just lightly say, “By the way, I don’t have cancer, I just had some hair loss related to another medical issue.” If people are morbidly curious they can google it – lupus comes up, as do some other non-serious conditions.

    1. MK*

      I think a turban is more noticeable than shoes though. I mean, people might not even glance at your feet, but there is no way they will miss a hairpiece.

    2. Cambridge Comma*

      I wondered about something like ‘I just wanted to mention why I am covering my head — I have some hair loss issues at the moment, but nothing at all to worry about’. Just because they otherwise might assume from ‘under control’ that she has had cancer.

      1. zora*

        I’m also voting for this wording. This is good.

        And I would be in favor of saying something if it was me, just because I would be worried people are making assumptions and I’d want to head them off because it feels more proactive. But I think that part is completely up to personal preference! If someone feels like they’d rather ignore it, I think that is up to them. This is a tough one, I don’t think there is one better answer.

    3. Hannah*

      Just personally- I wouldn’t use the wording sorry about the turban, since it’s nothing to apologize for. If I was the OP, I would just openly tell the interviewer that I have Lupus and it caused hair loss. In my opinion, yes it’s more personal information than they are entitled to, but there is nothing to be ashamed of and no reason to hide it or skirt around it.

      1. Jessie the First (or second)*

        I agree- sorry about the turban implies (really, says outright) that a turban is problematic. And it isn’t. I don’t know what to say in this situation, but apologies doesn’t sit right.

      2. LBK*

        Eh, I get this reasoning and I know particularly for women there’s gendered implications of over-apologizing, but I think it’s extremely useful as a softener and not as a literal apology. When there’s blame involved, certainly don’t apologize for things that aren’t your fault, but I say sorry a lot as a way to smooth conversations.

        Personally, I think something direct but a little joke-y could work, like “Since I’m sure it’s the first thing you noticed – I have a medical condition that made my hair fall out. It’s not related to cancer and I’m doing great, just still figuring out the best way to keep my head warm until my hair grows back!” This depends a lot on how much you can pull off staying positive/owning it while you say this, but I get the sense the LW could do it.

    4. AnotherAlison*

      Would it be weird to say “I wanted to be upfront that I’m wearing the turban because I have a health condition that sometimes causes periodic hair loss.”

      I’m not sure if that would be private enough for the OP, but I think the wording is a little less likely to be confused with cancer. I’m also not sure the OP will not be dealing with this off and on regularly. Autoimmune conditions are unpredictable, of course.

      1. LPUK*

        Or you could explain you have alopecia which is the technical term for hair loss and covers everything from male pattern baldness to hair loss from chemo, so no need to jump straight to serious and debilitating illnesses.

    5. Mpls*

      I”d probably point to the turban and say “Hair loss. Not cancer. Not contagious.” And then smile and shift the conversation to something interview related.

      1. Payroll Lady*

        +1 Short, simple and to the point. As the interviewer I would appreciate that it was addressed but set aside quickly.

    6. Bwmn*

      Provided the OP is in a part of the country with some kind of Jewish or Muslim community – my assumption might be that the turban was for religious reasons. While people who know the OP might be quicker to assume illness rather than religion, for an employer I think that the religious explanation might be enough to muddy the waters of an interviewer’s mind.

      Since most interviewing outfits are long sleeves, I might even see about finding a skirt that would go just beneath my knees to lean into any religious assumptions an interviewer might have.

      1. ThatGirl*

        Not to be nitpicky, but turbans for religious reasons are actually most common among Sikhs. Which is not to say a Jewish or Muslim person (woman) couldn’t wear one. But most of the time, in my experience, when you see a man wearing a turban, he’s a Sikh.

        1. Bwmn*

          There’s a significant group of Orthodox women who do wear turbans or tichels as opposed to wigs. True, most Muslim women don’t – but I still think that the religious possibility clouds an HR mind enough to hopefully not result in an immediate leap to CANCER.

          1. ThatGirl*

            Fair enough, I didn’t realize that some Jewish women do. I do think most Muslim women stick to hijabs/scarves. But either way I think you’re right.

        2. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

          I actually think it’s good to be nitpicky on this issue.

          That said, I have seen some (Orthodox?) Jewish women wear turbans as part of their religious practice, but Sikh women also may wear turbans as part of their religious practice.

          1. Bwmn*

            I do want to clarify with my comment that I’m not saying that the OP should try pretend to be religious, but largely just add to the conversation that there are other reasons why women wear turbans beyond being ill. And that while HR might have background thoughts of “hmmm, sick” – there might also be background thoughts of “hmmmm, religious?”

            I totally get the impulse to be concerned about this in an interview, but there are other reasons why a woman would wear a turban beyond being sick. I do appreciate wanting to be honest to dispel any misunderstandings, but I do think that any mention of “illness not to worry” raises more questions and issues around health. On the flip side an assumption of “maybe religious” might just create enough thoughts that there won’t be this immediate assumption of “oh, cancer or another major illness”.

            1. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

              Oh, I agree with you! I didn’t think you were saying OP should pretend to be religious. I thought you were saying, “Hey, there are lots of places where turban = religion, not cancer.”

        3. Observer*

          I’m guessing that the OP is female, based on the comment about makeup. I don’t know about Moslem head covering – it seems to me that they tend to wear head scarves most commonly – but among Orthodox Jewish women who cover their hair but don’t use wigs, turbans are very,very common.

          1. ThatGirl*

            It’s funny, there’s actually a synagogue down the street from our house but it’s Reform, so I don’t see many Orthodox women (whereas there’s also a mosque nearby so I see a lot more more-religious Muslim women who nearly all wear scarves) – so I didn’t realize turbans were also common among Orthodox Jewish women. Now I know. :)

        4. Jessie the First (or second)*

          I see lots of Jewish women wearing them in my town (maybe it’s not strictly a religious thing but more cultural?). But I think that the perception that it is religious-related clothing would be pretty common, actually, regardless the accuracy of that perception. Which could mean it might be fine not to mention it at all because the interviewer might not register anything unusual about it.

      2. turquoisecow*

        I live in a very Jewish neighborhood – around the corner is an Orthodox synagogue, and it’s far from the only one in my town – and I’ve never seen a Jewish woman wear a turban. (Which is not to say they don’t do it, just that in this area it would be unlikely). I would be very wary of allowing anyone to think I was a religion other than my own, and wearing long skirts/sleeves would give them that impression. I personally would find that borderline offensive. What if the interviewer IS a member of that religion, or there are others at the company who are?

        The best option is, if the OP is comfortable about speaking about their health issues in this manner, to be up front. “I don’t have cancer, I have another medical condition that makes my hair look horrible right now, just FYI.” If the interviewer incorrectly assumes cancer, they may be hesitant to hire, and if the interviewer incorrectly assumes religion (or is led to assume religion), that opens a whole other can of worms.

        If you want to keep it private, say nothing. If you’re okay saying something, than explain it succinctly and move on. Don’t mislead people intentionally.

        1. OP #5 writer*

          OP here. I agree; I am not comfortable with misleading anyone into assumptions about my religiosity in one way or another; that feels like appropriation for my secular benefit. After the many kind and thoughtful things people have posted, I’m thinking it will depend on the tone of the interview itself and my comfort there – but I will be practicing a response that is straightforward and not too over-share-y.

          I suspect that a lot of folks commenting aren’t sure what 85% hair loss really looks like, and what partial growth in two colors actually looks like – it makes being short-haired or shaved harder to maintain. Only certain coverings actually cover the whole head, and most of them ‘look like’ chemo-style coverings or turbans, or wigs which I won’t be wearing. At any rate – thank you to everyone for the support! I’m excited to get out there.

          1. Jaykay*

            I am not 100% sure whether you are a woman or a man. I am assuming man, because you mentioned facial hair. But if you are a woman, you could wear a wig.

          2. Bwmn*

            I lived in Jerusalem for many years, and so certain aesthetic styles of Orthodox dress are familiar to me without being tied to religious observance. A search online for “tichels” will include a number of turbans/coverings that are common in the Jewish faith and a number of which provide complete coverage as well as “volumizing” options to poof out the overall look for observant women who have shaved their heads but still want a fuller look.

            Regardless, my mention of it was simply that if you chose to make no mention of why you’re wearing the turban – an interviewer might think “illness” – they might also think “religion”.

          3. Turtle Candle*

            I think straightforward and not TMI is perfect. Some variation on, “you may be wondering about the turban–it’s a medical condition, not life-threatening or debilitating or contagious, but it makes my hair fall out. Just keeping my head warm!” Smile. Move on.

            “Not life threatening or debilitating” will probably signal “not cancer,” and “not contagious” resolves another potential worry.

            The wording and tone will vary depending on your personality and the rapport with the interviewer, but if you hit those notes you should be fine.

        2. Jessie the First (or second)*

          I think the point is just that it isn’t necessarily true that the interviewer will think “OMG! Cancer!” if she walks in with a headcovering of some kind, turban or not, so if OP is worried about possible discrimination because of worries about her illness, it may be a nonissue. I agree that deliberately trying to appear to be something you are not isn’t right. I would vote for either truthful (I like Rusty’s wording – simply “You may be wondering about the turban, just some hair loss, nothing to worry about”) or not saying anything at all.

    7. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

      I think it’s absolutely ok not to mention a health issue or apologize. Although it’s less common for women to wear turbans, they go in/out of fashion frequently, and Sikhs wear them as an article of faith (mostly men, but many Sikh women also wear turbans, and in particular, Sikh women who are White tend to wear them more frequently than Sikh women of other races/ethnicities). As a result, refusing to hire someone for wearing a turban could easily land an employer in hot water because in most cases it would read as discrimination on the basis of religious identity.

      I’m not saying OP has to pretend she’s part of the Sikh community. But I think it’s valuable to society if people treat turbans as something normal that exists in the world (because it is). So OP, I don’t think you have to apologize or disclaim anything. But if the interviewer asks, you can say your wear your turban for: (a) aesthetic reasons; (b) as a personal choice; (c) because it makes you feel [fill in emotion], etc.

      1. Bwmn*

        This was my thinking, that once you add in “maybe religious, maybe illness, maybe aesthetic” – that there’s enough going on for an interviewer to not leap to conclusions. If anything I would recommend investing in a “very nice” neutral colored turban to make it appear more fashion oriented.

        This isn’t about pretending to be another faith, but just letting there be enough muddy waters so that this notion of “illness is the only option” isn’t in an interviewers mind.

    8. nonymous*

      In addition to all the wonderful scripts I am reading, I’d encourage OP5 to explore other head coverings besides the traditional chemo-turban (because, honestly that’s what comes up in shopping when you google “cancer” and “turban”). There are some really stylish headscarf options out there, which can help to mitigate the sickly look. Just my two cents, the fact that someone is taking the time to present their head covering in a fashion-forward manner (coordinating with outfit, deliberate knot placement) would go a long way to assuaging concerns about the individual’s energy levels. When I’ve seen chemo-turbans on people without hair loss, it’s usually to hide unwashed hair, or hair in rollers.

    9. rPM*

      I really like the idea of a script like this said in a light tone. Other commenters have made good points about the word “sorry” and the potential for interviewers to still assume cancer though, so maybe something more like: “I don’t normally wear this turban but I recently had some hair loss – nothing serious, just waiting for it to grow back in!”

      1. rPM*

        Or perhaps ” – nothing to worry about” if you don’t want to characterize the Lupus as “nothing serious”.

    10. viola dace*

      Wigs are not expensive. And they look very realistic. They are on a net base so not hot or itchy. I chose not to wear a scarf or turban while on chemo because it’s like saying, “Hey, cancer girl here!”. Google wigs.

      1. Jessie the First (or second)*

        But wigs ARE itchy for the OP, as she explained in her post. She needs something cotton on her scalp for it to work.

      2. SCAnonibrarian*

        All of that is entirely subjective and based on your personal opinion.
        1) expense. A human hair wig will start at about $100+ US dollars, for a very basic and not particularly stylish wig. They EASILY get into the $500 to $1000+ range depending on colors (highlighting) and hair style. We can’t assume that the OP has hundreds (thousands?) of dollars to burn.

        2) the realism depends on the styling and the style is dependent on the cost and the materials. Yes there are very realistic wigs. They are usually the most uncomfortable, the most expensive, and the most time-consuming to apply properly with wig-tape and makeup around the lace fronts and styling the wig hair before and after it’s on.

        3) LOTS of people find wigs to be very hot and itchy, especially people who are not used to wearing any sort of head covering beforehand. Just because it’s a net doesn’t mean it’s natural fibers, and most wigs are not natural-fiber netted because the netting has to stand up to the daily wear and tear on the wig.

        4) I think the OP is aware of the connotations related to cancer, that’s why she/he wrote in. I don’t think your phrasing here is particularly supportive or helpful. There are plenty of ‘non-cancer’ contexts for turbans, and the OP requested advice for that, and specifically commented that they were NOT looking into wigs or hair-cut options.

        tldr: I feel like a reply essentially saying ‘nuh-uh that’s not true’ to the OP in regards to something as subjective as personal comfort and fashion is less than helpful.

        1. Observer*

          Some incorrect information. The most realistic wigs do tend to be the most expensive – but they also tend to be the most comfortable and EASIEST to put on – and don’t need anything in the way of special makeup etc. This is not 100%, but overall this is the case. This, by the way, is not a matter of “personal opinion” or the like, but of the way the industry works. For instance, one of the things that makes a wig expensive is how much custom work is done on it before you ever wear it.

          So, for example, a fully custom cap / net that is based on a tracing of your hairline is going to be expensive, but it’s also going to fit perfectly, not too tight, nor too loose. And you don’t have to do much messing around to make it look realistic.

          That said, I agree that blanket statements about the looks, cost and comfort of wigs are not wise because there is so much variation. And, in general, the more realistic and comfortable a wig is, the more expensive it is likely to be.

          It is also absolutely true that some people just don’t find them all that comfortable, especially if they are new to wigs or if they have any sort of sensitivity. So, if the OP says that wigs are not comfortable for her, I’m going to take her at her word. Yeah, if she has the budget she might want to explore some better wigs, but don’t assume she’s going to find what she needs.

          To the OP, if you got this far, I would give this piece of advice: If you are interested in exploring wigs and have a few hundred dollars to invest in one, work with someone who serves an Orthodox Jewish clientele. That’s were you are the most likely to get something that might work. But unless you can afford totally custom work, you are not likely to get something that is as comfortable as a cotton turban or kerchief. I definitely second the advice to visit wrapunzel.

      3. Turtle Candle*

        I think it’s kinda inappropriate, when someone has said that they find wigs to be itchy and out of their price range, that they’re wrong. If there is anything I think that a given human is the expert on, it’s the state of their own scalp.

  6. J*

    I would say hit the nail on the head and directly explain what is going on. I know employers are not meant to discriminate due to illnesses, but they may be unwilling to hire someone who looks like they may end up going through extensive debilitating treatments (being out of work on a regular basis). They also may be concerned that your ability to work might be compromised by the illness, or… this is the horrible one, they might be thinking of moral within the company if say treatments did not work, leading to the WCS.

    Obviously they shouldn’t think like this…. but it would be impossible to prove that it was a factor they took into account… so yeah… be upfront.

    1. ArtsNerd*

      Yeah, I’d address it directly, and awkwardly try to “casually” make some kind of self-deprecating joke about it… like “Please don’t mind my alopecia. My immune system hates my hair. I can’t decide if it’s terrible that it’s my only symptom (because it’s so visible) or amazing (it doesn’t hurt!)”

      1. ArtsNerd*

        Also I have some dermatitis-related hair loss on my scalp and it’s annoying as hell trying to balance skincare and societal expectations. Nothing as extensive as OP5, of course.

  7. Ellen N.*

    I have experience with autoimmune disorders and work, because I have one (pemphigus vulgaris). When I was diagnosed I explained to my bosses that they might see some physical changes because I was on a high dosage of prednisone. It’s tricky because most people who don’t have an autoimmune disorder or know someone who does find them confusing. Believe it or not, if you bring up your autoimmune disorder you will need to explain that they are not contagious. You will also have to steel yourself against everyone wanting to give you “medical advise”. Personally, I would explain that I had lupus and that the only symptom is that my hair fell out as in my view the facts are better than speculation. Good luck!

    1. krysb*

      I have psoriasis; it mostly attacks my elbows, but it is cyclical on my scalp and shows up in spots elsewhere, such as my ears, face, and feet. However, in the past few years, it’s been really having a go at my hands. So, while mostly I can cover up the issue, unless I wear gloves, everyone can see my Deadpool skin. Plus there are times where I am expected to shake hands.

    2. Elizabeth West*

      Ow! :(

      I have eczema on my hands that flares up periodically when I’m under a lot of stress. For a while, it looked pretty gross. I had to tell people it was not contagious and I refrained from shaking hands, since they felt like lizard skin. I’m usually one for candor, but yeah, people giving you advice is pretty annoying. I found saying, “Thanks, but I’m under a doctor’s care” usually stopped it (but not always).

  8. snuck*


    I can think of a few ways to pass it off…

    You could make a small joke, “I had an argument with my hairdresser and this is what I’m left with!” or “Never leave your child with chewing gum while you nap on the couch!”…

    I can’t tell from your letter if you are male or female, so I’m going to answer to either…

    If you are male – can you just shave your head/cut it very close and then any colour and thickness differences are negligible, if you get asked you could shrug and say “my hair is odd, so I am keeping it short”

    If you are female – then a turban is a fairly in your face difference – not a lot of women wear turbans. Could you borrow a wig for interviews (maybe from your local Lupus organisation, a Cancer support group etc?) and then if you are offered the role you can say “By the way, I’ve recently had some hair loss, so until it all grows back nice and tidy I’m keeping it short/dying it wild colours/wearing a hat to work, let me know if you have any issues with that”. Maybe find some scarves or hats for other times. If it’s just colour differences and a very very short cut is posisble then may be find some Lupus friendly dyes (tough).

    Pre offer I’d avoid talking about it. Lupus is one of those nebulous auto immune disorders that people don’t know a lot about but know they are really serious (and therefore might worry about their health costs or your availability to work etc). If you can’t play it down at all, then a self depreciating smile and a nod and something like “I’m just arguing with my body about the importance of hair right now – not to worry – it’s nothing terminal!” and they won’t ask any more I presume.

      1. bridget*

        ? This doesn’t seem like a particularly helpful response to snuck; if you disagree with something, you can explain which part and why.

        I agree with the part about lupus being sort of nebulous to a lot of people. I don’t know a lot of details about it, but hearing “lupus” on its own would not reassure me that it was not something to be worried about. Maybe not in the same league as cancer, but potentially very serious. My main piece of information about lupus in my brain is that I think it was related to Flannery O’Connor’s death, but I assume medical advancements since have happened.

  9. Fiennes*

    If OP#5 is female: they sell women’s soft hats with hairpieces peeking out from under the brim, just like real hair would. One of those would be very comfortable; you’d still have to explain why you’re interviewing with a hat on, but you might feel more confident and at ease. Also then nobody’s mind flashes straight to cancer.

    If OP#5 is male: shave the remaining hair on that head (if there is any) and just rock it! Lots of women go for what I call “the Picard mystique.”

    1. EddieSherbert*

      Well, even as a woman, she could go for the shaved head if she wants (I have rocked a bald head before, and actually got like 10x as any compliments as with any other hairstyle).

      But it kind of sounds like she wants to let it grow out again :)

        1. Fiennes*

          I think bald looks great on anyone–but on a woman in a professional setting, my guess is a lot of people will think “cancer” before “cool.” I had my hair largely fall out due to a bad medication reaction once, which meant I walked around with a soft headwrap on, no visible hair — and people reacted to that. Some people pull away; some people gave me pitying looks; some were extra kind. Honestly the kindness was what bothered me. I felt like I was soaking up goodwill that wasn’t rightfully mine.

          Is that a logical reaction? No. but as a society we react hard to cancer and it’s manifestations, and I understand why OP5 might want to avoid that.

    2. turquoisecow*

      I’ve seen women (often cancer survivors) rock the bald look often, so that’s not totally out of the picture if the OP can do it. I’d be wary of the hat, though. I was always taught to take a hat off inside (although I think that’s more of a male thing than a female), so wearing a hat might actually be a little weirder than a turban. Might be a good option for just taking a walk outside or something, though.

      1. Fiennes*

        She’d have to explain the hat the same way, sure. But it looks less cancer-y, if that’s a particular assumption she wants to avoid.

      2. ancolie*

        Traditional hat etiquette says a man takes his hat off indoors but a woman may keep hers on. The reasoning is/was that women’s hats tend to be part of her overall ensemble (ie aesthetic vs utilitarian) and often are pinned into the hair.

        (Which makes me ponder about etiquette when a woman wears a traditionally male hat, like a newsboy. It *is* most likely part of her entire outfit, but it’s also easy to just lift it off her head, sooooo….)

  10. Lord of the Ringbinders*

    #5 I think when there’s something physically noticeable like a turban or a crutch it’s okay to say something, similar to the recent advice about the hiking shoes. Yes, it may seem like something not to do. But it’s already done when they see you, as your appearance is currently saying something, I think it’s okay to want to also say something with words and direct what that something is. It’s the words you’re introducing, not the whole idea of giving any information about this whatsoever.

    I’m stumped on a script though as a) I don’t know a huge amount about lupus and what you’d want to say to avoid misinforming them in some way (e.g. you might not want to say it’s not serious when if I’m correct lupus is chronic and you may need accommodations later) and b) I don’t know how you could be clear that it’s also not another condition like trichollotomania without telling them what it is.

    What would you like them to know?

    1. dr_silverware*

      If the only goal is to make sure the thought of cancer isn’t on the table, then I’d say wear a turban made out of a dark-colored, professional-looking cotton. If OP feels that people are reacting to it, they can mention the turban with a smile: “oh, excuse the turban–I have a bit of hair loss from a medical condition. Don’t worry, not cancer!”

      But hopefully the point becomes moot; I have a feeling that the employers OP would want to work for as someone managing a chronic condition would be the same employers who wouldn’t make a big deal out of headwear that could be either medically or religiously necessary.

      1. pomme de terre*

        Agree that a simple dark-colored turban would be a good solution. I might assume that the person had some kind of religious or cultural affiliation wearing such an accessory (which can be a whole ‘nother issue with some interviewers), but it would not read as inherently unprofessional to me.

        In OP #5’s spot, I would wear as professional-looking a turban I could find and then not say anything about it. Even if someone said, “Hey, cool turban,” I would just say thanks and not expand on why I was wearing it.

    2. RP*

      I agree – in interview settings – try an address early any elephants in the room. The last thing you want is for you to leave the room and the only thing they talk about is your “fashion or styles choices”. As a hiring manager, many candidates have come in with casual shoes, bandages, even a neck brace and just said outright I would have worn X but due to a medical condition, I hope you’ll understand if I choose to wear blank today. The one piece of advice- is do not feel the need to apologize. Just explain simply and move on.

  11. Sue Wilson*

    3. Honestly, OP, I think if Bertha is already considering innocuous business changes as signs of personal failings, despite many many people telling her that it is not a failing, I don’t think there is any level of good intentions which will have Bertha seeing this as anything but you “ratting” her out to your boss. She is already taking the impersonal as personal; she is going to take this actually personal thing as a betrayal. Unfortunately, Bertha has some disordered thinking, and that usually takes some type of therapy to sort out.

    I would do a couple things:
    1) I can’t tell if Bertha is new to this industry or not, but at my company every so often we review procedures and changes when dealing with other departments. You might want to encourage your boss to set up one of these (maybe with the other department) so that your boss can set general expectations about your interaction with them. I know you said it’s pretty normal, but that doesn’t mean nothing can be improved upon, and maybe Bertha seeing clearly how the pie gets made will let her take it less personally.

    2) Instead of reassuring her that everyone feels like she does, challenge her thought process (if you’re in the circumstances to do so). When Bertha says that being reassigned 3 times means she’s a failure, mention that Mable was reassigned 4 times, does Bertha feels like Mable is a failure? Bertha will likely say no, and you can ask what makes Mable so different from Bertha. If she gives some other reasoning, firmly but kindly reply “I don’t think that’s the case,” and then move on to another topic. All this does is disrupt Bertha’s pity party (I say this with kindness; self-pity is much more emotionally satisfying than anxiousness or stress and I don’t necessarily think it’s a bad thing every once and a while, but constant spiraling into it can be harmful), and prevents her from continuing it. I would bet that constant reassurance is actually reinforcing how Bertha feels (she feels anxious and you all comfort her).

    3) If you have to have the above conversation several times, before you redirect away (and preferably if it’s just you and Bertha), tell her she seems very unhappy and that maybe talking to someone professionally can help her rethink it. If she demurs, just keep disagreeing with her assessment of herself and redirecting. But if she seems the least interested, direct her to your EAP or even a anxiety hotline.

    1. LQ*

      I think something like this would be good. I think it really helps if the person knows you care about them very much and you’re doing it to help them. It can help to stop and get them thinking a different way. I’d also consider telling her she needs a new job. I mean I feel bad saying it, but she might not be able to stop thinking this way about this job. Therapy + a new job might be best. Even if she is great at this one. Even if she is well respected. She’s not happy, she’s not doing well.

    2. TL -*

      Yes on this. Reassure her once and then refuse to indulge in the pity party (those are private parties). Even better, develop a catchphrase like, “Boss seems really happy with your work. Everyone gets reassigned but all your feedback has been positive.” Say it, or a close variation of it, every time she talks to you about this. Be calm, listen, say your catchphrase calmly and kindly, then gently change the subject.

    3. Jaydee*

      I also think that simply reassuring Bertha that everyone feels this way is not helpful. What it does is normalize and legitimize her feelings, which can make it even harder to address them. Everyone else feels stressed out, works crazy long hours, questions whether they are good enough at their jobs, etc. Everyone else is handling it okay, so why can’t she? Or maybe others aren’t handling it okay, but there’s just nothing anyone can do to change it, so she feels like she just has to deal with it.

      One thing you can do is share with her the strategies you and others did to address those things. “When I was concerned I wasn’t doing a good job on spout design because I kept getting shifted from project to project, I talked to my supervisor about it. She explained it was just the nature of the beast and they reassign people to whatever project happens to need them at the time.” “Remember when Fergus was really stressed after his daughter was born because he was working crazy hours on projects that kept getting cancelled? He ended up talking to a therapist and said it really helped him figure out how to balance his work and family responsibilities. I can ask him for the name and phone number of his therapist if you want.”

      That can help her see that 1) other people aren’t just handling everything better than she is – they are taking proactive steps to improve their situations and 2) there is actually something that can be done, either to change things at work or to change how she copes with things at work. Then it’s sort of up to her whether she does those things, but at least it gives her ideas of concrete steps she can take and some support in taking them.

    4. turquoisecow*

      Good advice. It seems like Bertha’s problem is maybe less with the job, and more an internal thing. If the OP follows Sue Wilson’s advice and it doesn’t change anything, I would wonder if Bertha is more looking for attention than anything.

    5. MsBorgia*

      OP #3 here — Thank you so much for your comments; Alison and everyone else here have given such compassionate and helpful advice!

      After I wrote in, I decided independently not to reach out to our boss, for many of the reasons people have already outlined. Of course, I was left with a looming sense of, “How do I help my friend?” I think your tips hit the nail on the head; I especially like the technique of comparing Bertha’s performance to other people in similar situations.

      I should also note that Bertha is being transferred to another project that will hopefully involve less direct reporting to high-maintenance teammates, so maybe some improvement will come of that as well.

      Thank you everyone!

  12. President of the Lutheran Sisterhood Gun Club*

    Re #5: I have lupus too, and a pile of other autoimmune diseases. I’ve never had my hair fall out to that extent, it’s always been little clumps that were coverable by the rest of my hair. But people have enough weird misconceptions about autoimmune diseases that I wouldn’t mention it before you’re hired, and like other people have said, lupus is so unpredictable that if you end up needing accommodations later, you don’t want people being weird about that because you said earlier that your illness is mild.

    I think if at all possible, your best bet would be to go with a short, deliberate haircut. Like a buzzcut in a pixie cut style, and you can wear a professional-looking headband to further take away some of the attention from the hair loss. If that won’t work, I would cover it but come up with some totally benign but not health-related reason why you’re covering it. Tell them you had an allergic reaction to hair dye. Or say nothing and hope they assume it’s for religious reasons or just a style choice – there are enough women who cover their hair for non-health reasons that it’s reasonable to think they might make that assumption. I know it might seem sneaky or dishonest, but I have had enough people have really bad or weird reactions to finding out about my illness that I would absolutely not disclose it during a job interview.

    Best of luck on your job search!

    1. Sled dog mama*

      If OP is comfortable with something other than a turban I would choose something that looks like it could be a religious or style choice. As an interviewer I’d be much less likely to question or worry about that, but that’s also down to OP’s comfort level and where OP lives. Where I live no one would bat an eye at a religious head covering, unfortunately in today’s world there are some people who would judge more harshly for a religious head covering than for simply having alopecia.

    2. SamSam*

      If I saw a head covering like a scarf I would assume religion or something of the sort. As long as it’s stylish or neat, in my urban area I think the discrimination would be less than if the interviewers suspected a serious medical issue (not that there should be discrimination either way!)

    3. OP #5 writer*

      Hi, OP here – glad for your own experience here, thanks. It’s pretty extensive hair loss and my hair is buzzed, though growing in a completely different color/texture so it looks – not great. I’m basically wearing this until I can see if it’ll turn one color or the other or gets long enough I can dye it or pass it off as a choice. I am leaning toward finding the most attractive covering I can and saying nothing, like you’re suggesting; the weird reactions are definitely concerning.

      Re: another comment above – my current employer and coworkers have been fabulous about this diagnosis and experience and very supportive. If I weren’t looking I wouldn’t be bothered at all other than the obvious self esteem issues with being a woman and your hair falling out.

      1. Bwmn*

        There are religious Jewish women who choose to wear turbans instead of wigs.

        If I were in your shoes, I’d personally try to lean into Orthodox Jewish women’s styles and hope to trigger those assumptions rather than explain any of the illness issues. I would look at styles of tichels and other ways that Jewish women wear turbans, and then just make sure that my interviewing skirt was just below the knee (as opposed to above).

        I completely sympathize that going through this has to be very self conscious and if your normal life it’s more apparent that you haven’t had a sudden conversion to Judaism/Islam then the next assumption is illness. But with an employer, I’d hope that religious discrimination issues would be buzzing and squash all conversation.

  13. Engineer Girl*

    #1 – This is going to come out snarky no matter how I write it (sigh). Why not use the weekend for mental health? Unless you are in a highly stressful job I’m wondering about mental health days.
    If you are filling your days to the point that it’s always frantic then you’ve over committed. It’s time for a serious examination of your schedule or expectations. I know that there are seasons of hectic, but it shouldn’t go on forever.

    1. TheLazyB*

      Nice thought but it so depends on your family/life. My husband works Saturdays, so on Saturday I have our energetic 5 year old, and Sunday is our only family day. DH gets Monday to chill while DS is at school. I’m left with no days to myself.

      I’m not the OP, but I could have written that letter.

      1. Engineer Girl*

        But that’s something you need to negotiate with hubby. Maybe you can get a private evening for self care etc. Maybe hubby can use half of Mondays for some chores.
        Sick days are really about sick.

        1. Ask a Manager* Post author

          I’d argue that good managers are flexible with good workers when it comes to how they use sick days. If someone has a good work ethic and is responsible, there’s no reason they can’t take the occasional mental health day when their workload allows for it. Not monthly, certainly, but a couple a year? That shouldn’t be a problem when someone is a good worker and has a reasonable boss.

          (I’d actually be really put off by a manager who insisted that that wasn’t okay to do. It comes down to treating people like responsible adults who can manage their own workloads.)

          1. pomme de terre*

            For one year, I worked for a tech company with a trendy “unlimited PTO” policy. I had read that most workers with unlimited PTO actually end up taking less vacation and was determined to avoid doing that. If they were going to offer that benefit, I was going to take it.

            During that year, I made a point to take at least one day off per month (ie, if I wasn’t going on a proper multi-day vacation, I’d take a random day off). IT WAS A GREAT AND GLORIOUS TIME. I’d try to do something semi-practical with the day (like schedule a midday doctor’s appointment or get my oil changed), but honestly just relaxing and maybe running errands was such a tremendous benefit. It made me way less distracted when I really was at work.

            Granted my job was structured in such a way it was pretty easy for me to set things up to run smoothly in my absence, and these were scheduled “mental health days” and not me calling in the morning of. And I had a boss who believed in the value of PTO.

            But a random semi-regular weekday off was the best. I was definitely better during that period than when I was struggling with depression and was dragging myself into work (for the same company) and feeling so distracted and worthless due to decreased executive function. :)

            1. KateT*

              My workplace is open (customer service) six days a week. Everyone typically works five days a week. Saturdays are the coveted day off, of course, but everyone gets 2-3 scheduled weekdays off per month and it is indeed glorious to have a random Monday or whatever free for appointments or excess napping without dipping into PTO.

          2. caryatis*

            What I don’t understand is why it would be a sick day. If you have both vacation and sick leave separately, the situation where you’re not sick but just need a break seems like vacation time to me.

            1. Tomato Frog*

              Polite fictions! I’m a big fan of them. They make it easier for everyone.

              First, my bosses expect people to use sick leave unexpectedly, but would be confused if I just took random vacation days occasionally. Sure, there’s no practical difference, but it’s just not the norm here. Plus, using sick leave gives my managers plausible deniability — I am dead certain no one would mind if I took an unexpected day off for no particular reason except that I need to recharge, but at the same time I’m sure they don’t want to have to give me explicit permission to use vacation time on the spur of the moment, without advance notice. “Vacation” is generally something my boss has to approve and by taking it at the last minute without a clear-cut reason, I’m basically putting my boss on the spot.

        2. Mookie*

          Nope. Mental health days, particularly when employers are explicit about them, are not about “sick” in the way you’re insinuating and there are many legitimate, healthy functions for ‘personal days’ and time off.

          The ‘hubby’ thing is not appropriate, by the by.

            1. EW*

              It is a completely unnecessary nickname that in this context I read with a negative connotation. Similar to “wifey”. You can call your own spouse whatever you’d like. Don’t call other peoples’ spouse/SO by a nickname. I’d be livid if anyone referred to me as “wifey” to my husband. Just like I hate other nicknames other people love (“bae” – ugh…..).

          1. bridget*

            This seems like language nitpicking, which Alison has asked us not to do. Enough people use “hubby” as a generic abbreviation for husband that it’s kind of hard to say it’s definitely “inappropriate” versus just a term that bugs you.

            1. Turtle Candle*

              Yeah, to me this clearly falls under inapproprlanguage nitpicking. For some people, “hubby” is nails on a chalkboard, but then some people find “DH” or “partner” or “Mr. Turtle” nails on a chalkboard too. But it’s not a slur, and this is a site where commenters speak casually; it is hardly the kind of thing that needs to be flagged (especially as an unrelated parting shot.)

              1. Mookie*

                It’s not unrelated and it’s not a “parting shot” to identify and critique what was obviously condescending. TheLazyB was the target of that comment, and they agree.

                1. Turtle Candle*

                  I am fairly sure that the chilling effect of language nitpicking is broader than you’re assuming, but I am happy to call this argument quits.

        3. Annonymouse*

          But physical isn’t the only kind of sick.

          If I’m burning out at work or starting to get overwhelmed (which is happening now) to the point I’m getting stressed and possibly anxious then it is past time for me to take a day off for my own mental wellbeing.

          It isn’t about cheating and getting an extra holiday. It’s about resting and recovering both physically and mentally to be back where I should be.

          Compare it to an RSI – except for your thoughts and feelings. If you don’t take a break you are going to break down completely.

            1. Uzumaki Naruto*

              That’s a really arbitrary and, I think, incorrect view. It’s super odd to me that you’re stating it as some kind of settled fact.

              If you’re stressed and burning out and need a day off for your mental health, it’s health-related. Sick days are for health. Vacation days are so you can go do fun stuff.

              What, if any, kind of non-physical health issue is okay with you to use a sick day on?

          1. Chinook*

            But if you are burning out at work to a point that you need to take a “mental health day” as often as once a month, then the problem is the job and you either need to learn to adapt or look at moving on.

            And yes, I did put that in quotes because I am one of those people who suffers from mental illness who legitimately can’t get out of bed on a bad day or suffers from hallucinations on occasion and this makes work difficult to do. I have also worked in jobs where I was overwhelmed and stressed beyond belief and, to me, they are two different kettles of fish, partially because I could plan a vacation day in advance to help alleviate the stress (which is less stressful because I knew I wasn’t coming back to a disaster I made by not being there) vs. waking up the morning of and not being able to function.

            Now, if I had a job or boss that wouldn’t allow me to take a vacation day on relatively short notice to help alleviate stress, I could totally see calling in sick, but that would be because I am not able to access those vacation days for a break.

        4. TheLazyB*

          I have depression and anxiety which recently got out of control for family reasons. If I’d taken a day or two off earlier I might not turn have needed to take a longer period off a couple of months back. It’s like taking one day off when you first feel a cold starting as opposed to it developing into full blown flu and needing a week off. It’s hard to know where the line is but I wish I’d taken a couple of days of sooner.

          1. Colette*

            I think there’s a difference between taking a day off to deal with mental illness and calling a day off a mental health day when really you just want to recharge. The first one is obviously fine, but the second one is a little like walking with a crutch you don’t need to get a seat on the bus. I mean, recharging is good and it should be fine a couple of times a year, but it kind of makes light of true mental illness to call it a mental health day.

            1. Allypopx*

              As someone who has bad enough anxiety that I keep a tin of anxiety meds in my desk for panic attacks, I disagree. Not having a mental illness doesn’t mean you can’t have bad mental health days. Not having a terminal illness doesn’t mean you don’t get colds. Stress can impact people in a lot of ways and taking a mental health day to decompress and get your head on straight can benefit people whether they are dealing with a broader mental illness or not.

              1. Amy The Rev*

                I agree! I rarely get sick enough to stay home from work, maybe one bad cold/year that leaving early and staying home for a day is enough to kick. I’m much more likely to feel mentally overwhelmed than physically overwhelmed, and so usually I use my sick days to take care of my mental/emotional health. Sometimes, leaving work early and staying home for a day is enough to nip the cold in the bud, and similarly, staying home for a day is sometimes just what you need to calm the mental seas before it turns into a tempest/burnout. That’s how I structured my class absences when I was in college. If I hadn’t missed any classes due to illness by mid-semester, I’d allow myself one ‘skip’ per course (we were allotted 3 absences before grades started to suffer).

            2. ThatGirl*

              I kinda disagree, even without a diagnosed mental illness taking care of one’s mental health is important. And I say that as the not-mentally ill wife of a therapist who has his own mental health struggles.

            3. Amy The Rev*

              I disagree with this- you don’t need to have a specific mental illness to justify taking care of your mental health. It’s similar to the concept of ‘prehab’ vs ‘rehab’ in sports medicine. You do certain exercises as part of training to help prevent an acute injury, even if you don’t have a chronic problem area/injury. Similarly, you can do things to take care of your mental health to help prevent an acute problem, even if you don’t have a chronic mental illness. The term “mental health” doesn’t just refer to the health of those with mental illnesses, but to psychological/emotional/etc health in general.

              I imagine it would be frustrating as a person with a mental illness to feel like you/your community has had to fight just to have your illness validated, just to have the opportunity to be able to take a sick day to deal with your illness, and even then there is so much dismissal and stigma surrounding mental illness. And yet, as our society is more aware of and knowledgeable about mental illness, we have become more aware of and knowledgeable about mental health in general, and I would argue that in the end it actually would *help* mental health advocacy efforts, if the concept of taking an occasional sick day in order to “recharge” or otherwise tend to one’s mental health, were to be normalized. I don’t think it makes light of mental illness to validate the need to take care of general mental health, just like it doesn’t make light of chemotherapy/the flu/norovirus for a healthy person to use their sick time to go to an annual physical at their GP.

        5. Allison*

          Sick days are for when you are so unwell that you would be useless at work, going into the office would be significantly detrimental to your state, and being around people might cause whatever ails you to spread. Sick days are for when you need to rest and recover, so you can get better faster. This usually pertains to physical illness, but it’s not uncommon for someone’s mental state to get so bad that they need a day to stay home, by themselves, and rest.

          If I get 6 sick days a year, and don’t get sick (or need to visit the doctor) that often, and I don’t have kids, maybe in October I’d figure hey, I feel really overwhelmed right now, or so depressed that getting out of bed is a challenge, I can afford to use one of these sick days to care for my mind.

          Maybe we should rename them wellness days.

          1. Katie the Fed*

            I like that.

            There’s something very different about sleeping in on a weekday, sitting around in your jammies, and having nobody else to look after like husband/children. I’m an introvert though – maybe it’s an introvert wellness day :)

          2. Whats In A Name*

            I can say that there have been days that I am so mentally gassed that my time at the office is useless…. because I am distracted by whatever issue is plaguing me to the point of not being able to focus on anything else.

          3. Zombii*

            Oh please god no. Google some company policies for “wellness days.” These are already a thing, and they are not what you intend them to be.

      2. NJ Anon*

        This was me when my kids were little. I’ve always worked and while others looked forward to the weekend to rest and recharge, with 3 young ones, I was busier on the weekends then being at work. And my husband didn’t work on the weekends either.

    2. MK*

      I think the problem with weekends is that for most people they are filled with chores and obligations and people you need to see and preparing for the week ahead. A Wednesday spent at home, when the rest of the world is working can really help you destress.

      But I do think the OP is looking at them wrong, almost as if they were extra vacation days. Mental health days in my view are about times when the effort of working at top speed for a lengthy period of time has lead to the sort of accumulated tiredness that doesn’t go away with a good night’s sleep and you really need a day of doing nothing to rest (or a similar situation). It’s not about recharging from the usual tiredness of the job.

      1. Misc*

        Unless the ‘usual tiredness’ of the job IS that sort of high stress constant work environment.

        My job fluctuates but if I have to work too much too long I definitely burn out and notice my performance slipping and just decide to give myself permission not to work for half a day or a day. This usually ends up with me feeling much better and working much more efficiently the following day so I actually end up getting the same amount of work done overall.

        And once or twice a year would not be enough – I generally give myself an ‘easy’ day every week (not a nonwork day, just a low expectations day), and take an official day off every 2-4 weeks (either I’m burnt out or it’s slow anyway so I’m bored and inefficient). Admittedly, my ADHD doesn’t help, but if they like the way I work, then they have to take my brain’s need for rest breaks along with it.

        (This is a lot easier because I work from home, sick/annual leave is essentially unlimited but legally is a solid amount of time that I KNOW I need each year, nobody tracks my hours but me, and I can easily reschedule most of my tasks around my sleeping habits. I also balance out by working while sick a lot because I’m stuck at home *anyway*. The mental health days become a LOT more important. Plus, I forget to take my ‘official’ holiday time, so as long as I unofficially take at least one day a month off, I can take a couple of weeks at the end of the year and not have lost out on leave).

        1. MK*

          Eh, I would argue that if you are able to give yourself a day (or half-day) off at will, you don’t actually “have to” work too much too long. I work at home about around 2/3 of the month and my work is case-and-deadline based. When I work non-stop for 6 days (usually because I don’t want to interrupt my flow) and then don’t work for a three-day-weekend, I don’t think of it as taking a day off, but as of using the great feature of my job which is managing my own schedule, as long as the work gets done well and on-time. Because there was really nothing external stopping me from working at a more sedate pace for more days or defering some of the work for next week, it was my own choice.

    3. Some sort of Management Consultant*

      I don’t agree at all!
      I sometimes just need a break from the routine – chance to sleep in and just relax (and be alone, in my case :))
      I think that’s completely natural. To be able to do so is a privilege, sure, but that doesn’t mean people shouldn’t do it.

      1. Chinook*

        “I sometimes just need a break from the routine – chance to sleep in and just relax (and be alone, in my case :))
        I think that’s completely natural. To be able to do so is a privilege, sure, but that doesn’t mean people shouldn’t do it.”

        And that, to me, is the definition of a vacation day, not a sick day.

        1. Uzumaki Naruto*

          Well, vacations are planned. Waking up feeling like you need a day off for your mental well-being isn’t.

    4. Mookie*

      Because like other physical and emotional events, you can’t always predict your mental health needs and they don’t necessarily conform to a timetable. Weekends aren’t leisurely for many, many people, as TheLazyB points out, and personal lives can be highly stressful themselves, or just very involved. Some commitments — to family, to ourselves — can’t just be scheduled and optimized away. The LW didn’t mention anything about “frantic” or “hectic.” She wants a recharge; that’s a legitimate use for a mental health day in most people’s estimation and one is not failing at life for requiring it now and again. It’s healthy and normal, and the LW wants to be responsible in choosing one.

      1. Sparrow*

        Seconding your first sentence so hard. I have depression. Some days I wake up and it’s bad enough that I know I would be useless at work – just as I would be if I woke up with a fever or a stomach bug. Just like being physically unwell, I will still drag myself in if there are things I shouldn’t miss. And when I call in, I just tell my boss I’m “not well today,” because it’s accurate either way. (And yes, this is with treatment. I still find that every few months, an extra day at home is necessary in seeking a healthy mental balance.)

    5. Elfie*

      Which totally disregards those of us who are carers for family, or single parents, or who have otherwise stressful stuff going on in our personal lives that means that weekends aren’t chill out time at all. They’re just a different kind of stress. Still, a change is as good as rest, eh? (And I too sound snarky but I’m really not trying to be – I am a carer for a disabled husband, and this is my life too, and I’m just trying to convince myself as much as anyone else).

    6. A Non E. Mouse*

      If you are filling your days to the point that it’s always frantic then you’ve over committed. It’s time for a serious examination of your schedule or expectations. I know that there are seasons of hectic, but it shouldn’t go on forever.


      I have 3 kids. I’m signed up for hectic until the youngest is at least 18, and the oldest is 9 years older than him. 27 years of raising kids feels like forever, especially in the middle of it. I cannot divest myself of the majority of the work kids take.

      Could I cut back on an activity or two? Sure. Which family member should take the hit for the team and watch tv instead of play ball? Which kid can’t play an instrument? Who doesn’t learn to swim?

      Actually not being snarky there: I’ll tell you that *I* usually take one for the team, home and at work. I spent an hour working after the kids went to bed last night. Kids didn’t suffer but my sleep did.

      As others mentioned, weekends are frantic. I do everything I can on a weekend to make my weekdays easier, and though I try very hard to keep a work/life balance that works for me, my husband, my kids and my employer, there are just times – especially at the end of a long hard slog – that I’m gonna take a Tuesday off, get a massage and some cheap tacos.

      If my employer wants my hard work (and trust me, they get their pound of flesh during the week, evenings and weekends) but wont let me decide on some random non-busy Tuesday that I was taking a mental health day, I’d find a new employer.

      I’m in tech – our days are very rarely 8 to 5. Work takes weekends and evenings, so sometimes I will take a weekday. Even Steven.

      1. Turtle Candle*

        Yep, I agree. In the past year I had one weekend where my father in law had to make an emergency ER trip, the house’s pipes broke, we got infested with ants (probably because of the pipes breaking), and the cats got into craft supplies and ate something they shouldn’t have and has to be rushed to the vet (also because of flooding). I didn’t need to take personal time for any of those specifically, but by Monday I was like “I am so freaking worn out I cannot brain,” and called in sick.

        To have scheduled that day, I would have had to known in advance that the stressalanche was about to fall on me, which I didn’t.

        One and a half mental health days got me back out of panic mode and into normal functioning.

    7. Lora*

      Why not just call it A Personal Day and who cares whether you use it to soak in the spa, play video games or talk to your therapist or have a ritual My Little Pony-worshiping day? I don’t need to know WHY you’re going to be out, I just need to know when and how long. If you can tell me in advance so I can plan projects/staffing that would be nice, but if you can’t oh well life happens.

      For the record I’ve had horrible jobs that took some months to get out of, so I know what it’s like to come to work and the only thing that keeps you going is the fantasy of throwing That Jerk down the staircase. And I still had to use my PTO for a bunch of family things and going to the doctor, and it sucked out loud. But I don’t begrudge anyone their PTO, it’s theirs.

      Also, what someone said down-thread about vacations. Take them. Go somewhere nice and relaxing. Spend time sitting on your butt on a beach or camping or what have you. If you can arrange it, take an evening in the middle of the week where you do something nice for yourself – hang out with friends, join a hobby-related club, yoga class, whatever. That way the week doesn’t feel like such a drag, because you have that mid-week break to look forward to.

      1. Whats In A Name*

        I get what you are saying 100%. But I think bad management experience is what leads to these questions in the first place, not intent or bad choice in work/life balance.

        I say that because I got written up for taking A Personal Day once. Because we only had sick or vacation as options.

        I woke on Friday, realized I had an alarming amount of overdue tasks to take care of before a work trip was taking me out of town for 4 days on Sunday so I left a VM for my boss (she had taken morning off for a doctor appointment) saying I was taking day to take care of personal business, that my calendar was clear and no tasks were undone.

        When I got back from my trip the following Thursday there was a write up and I had to use a vacation time out of my bank. The time classification I was ok with; the write up not so much.

        FWIW that place was a nightmare to work with – they also made me us vacation time when I had to take a day to transport my partner to and from his shoulder surgery because sick is for “care of self or family member” and because we choose to not get married he can’t count as family, even though we share an address and bank account.

        1. Whats In A Name*

          So I told that long story and didn’t loop back with these past experiences, though 5-6 years ago, still make me uncomfortable taking time without specific reasons or appointments, even though I am self-employed and can dictate my own time off. It’s had a lasting, weird, mental effect.

          1. Lora*

            I’m sorry. Your boss was an a-hole.

            Was I the only person whose teachers and grandma shouted “mind your own business/beeswax!” at regularly?

            1. zora*

              My mom used it so much as a teacher in her daycare, that all of the preschoolers learned the abbreviation and all we had to say was “M.Y.O.B!” and the kids would say it in unison. It was kind of adorbs. ;o)

            2. Whats In A Name*

              Staple saying among my grandparents as well. Looking back I do realize just how toxic that place was, but couldn’t see it at the time. And I think there are a lot of managers out there like that (based on what I’ve been reading here over the years and what my peers tell me) so I can sorta see how these questions/misunderstanding/guilt come into play.

    8. Tomato Frog*

      I’m not sure why we would want to set a “highly stressful” bar for allowing people to take a mental health day in cases where it would hurt no one and help the person taking it.

    9. Elizabeth*

      Because there are days where it’s Wednesday and the thought of going to work and dealing with boss/coworker/client/whatever stress makes it really, really, really difficult to get out of the bed in the morning. I once took a mental health day three days after I got back from vacation. I needed it, and I didn’t feel bad taking it. Waiting until the weekend would not have helped me in the slightest for what I needed on a Wednesday.

    10. Bwmn*

      Every time the issue of mental health days come up, there are always people who have strong feelings that sick days are just for being “sick” as opposed to issues of stress or recharging.

      Allison has repeated said that taking 2-3 a year is reasonable, lots of commenters agree with this in a variety of ways, but I think the reality that there will always be voices that say “sick days are for being sick unless you have a very direct conversation with your manager or rename them personal days or something else”.

      Ultimately, I believe that this is an issue that many many people (if not the majority) will say “an occasional mental health day is totally fine” and there will always be a sizable chorus arguing against it. Things like being burnt out around situations at work, overwhelmed by issues at home, really upset due the a break up, loss of pet, etc. – any good manager will ultimately understand these things happen to all of us without necessarily wanting to go into any more detail in the same way that they don’t want to know exactly what your food poisoning symptoms are. I say, use that occasional sick day when needed, don’t feel bad about it, but also know that there will always be a voice or two on the other side. So exercising a little caution with who you talk to about it (especially at work) is also wise.

    11. Regular reader*

      I have two little kids at home, one with anxiety and one with ADHD. The one’s ADHD behaviours trigger the other’s anxiety behaviours, which in turn triggers my own anxiety and depression. It’s exhausting. My partner works evenings and weekends. Yes, he does chores during the week, but that still means that 90% of the parenting is on me.

      I wouldn’t say my life is “frantic,” but I would certainly say that I’m over committed. I have spent tons of time, money, and emotional energy in the process of re-examining my schedule and expectations, but there are just no other options for me at this point. This “season of hectic” is likely to last at least another 5-6 years, until my children are older. Not forever, but enough to have a significant impact on my mental health. So when recharging on the weekends isn’t an option, I absolutely take the occasional day off work to just sleep.

    12. Lily in NYC*

      Does one have to be at a breaking point to use a mental health day? I don’t think so. There are some days I wake up with major cramps and I’m just sick of the world and need to hermit in my house all day. As long as my boss is cool with it and I have the vacation time, it shouldn’t matter (I never use sick leave if I take a mental health day; I use vacation time). I just don’t see why I should care if my reasons are “severe” enough to other people whom it doesn’t affect one way or the other.
      And just because you write “sick days are for being sick” doesn’t make it so.

      1. LaurenB*

        I’m afraid I don’t understand – if you’re arguing that that’s an appropriate use of sick leave, why do you use vacation time for it?

      2. Bwmn*

        For some of us an “unscheduled absence” is only acceptable in regards to using suck days and can not be used for vacation days. So when we justify a need for needing a day in bed, to recharge, get caught up on errands, etc. we are using a sick day to achieve that.

        If it’s a company with a combined sick day/vacation day PTO pool – then this issue isn’t at play. If it’s a company where employees are allowed the occasional unscheduled absence for a personal day – then it’s a different issue. But ultimately I think this largely comes down to how PTO is structured and how employees respond.

        1. caryatis*

          This is a good point: if you have separate vacation time and can use it with little notice, you should use that time for mental health days. On the other hand, if sick leave is your only option, and you _really really_ need it, I think it would be okay. Rarely.

          Note: if you have an actual mental illness, sick leave is acceptable.

          1. Jessie the First (or second)*

            ” if you have an actual mental illness, sick leave is acceptable”

            A person can have no diagnosis and yet have an episode of anxiety. Or depression. Or soul-crushing stress.

            I really abhor the idea that we should get to judge whether other people’s mental state “counts” as an illness or not.

      3. fposte*

        I think that most people who get stuck on the “mental health day” idea are bothered by people’s using sick days, though; if you’re using vacation or personal days, nobody’s going to object to what you’re using them for.

        On a conceptual level, I prefer such days not taken as sick leave. *All* vacation days are supposed to rest and recharge you; this approach just seems to make vacation days into “leaving town days” and consider anything else to be a sick day. (My employer does pretty clearly state what sick leave is for, and yeah, it is pretty much “sick leave is for the sick” or for the caretakers of the sick here.)

        But in practice I really don’t care. As long as you don’t go into the red or screw over co-workers, I’m not going to worry about it.

    13. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

      I think this ignores the reality of people’s lives and the unpredictability of mental health needs, and it also implies that the OP’s account is unbelievable or unworthy of being taken at face value. It also creates this weird, somewhat judgmental, notion that you have to be “really suffering” to need the chance to recharge and that you’re also somehow bad at life/time management if you don’t adequately recharge on weekends. That’s simply not true, and although I know you didn’t mean it that way, it’s extremely unkind.

      You do not need a diagnosed mental illness to need a “mental health day”—this is a kind of cruel way of introducing a “are you really suffering?” test into mental health needs without acknowledging that some folks experience episodic, temporary stress that does not result in a formal diagnosis but is no less serious than someone with a diagnosis going through the same experience. And if you have a diagnosed mental illness, you can’t always predict when you’re going to be hit with a case of the green meanies, and depending on how they hit, you may or may not feel comfortable taking a sick day.

      It’s not helpful to blame people for their brain chemistry or circumstance in life by admonishing them for “filling their days.” This really misunderstands how mental health operates. Managing one’s mental health can be really difficult and frankly, exhausting, especially when added to all the other responsibilities required to be a functioning adult human. And in many cases, people have limited control over their workload or lifeload, even if they adopt best practices and communicate openly with their managers. And many people do not have a family, friend, or SO support system to rely on. If someone is feeling so depleted that they cannot function or are getting down or overwhelmed or panicky stressed regardless of a formal mental health diagnosis, and if their absence would not materially undermine their coworkers or their individual performance, then it’s absolutely reasonable and ok to take a mental health day.

    14. turquoisecow*

      Except weekends are when you get chores done. Cleaning and laundry and grocery shopping that you couldn’t get done during the week because you were working and then tired in the evening. Let’s not even get into if you have kids. When I was single and living alone, my weekends were stressful with all the things I needed to get done before Monday.

    15. Tax Anon*

      I recently took a mental health “sick day”. My work has been 50+ hours a week for the last two months. My husband works weekends and we have a child, so my weekends are spent shuttling and supervising the kid and getting caught up on chores. Last week I took a sick day on one of my husband’s days off because I was feeling consistently stressed and burned out. We drank a bottle of wine and spent the day cuddled up on the couch. It was absolutely what I needed to keep me sane, just like a day in bed is what I need when I’m sick. I realize you disagree with the practice, but my mental health is as important to me as my physical health, and I don’t have the luxury of cutting back my hours or hiring help to do the chores.

    16. nonymous*

      While I sympathize with the exhaustion that just rolls off some of these comments, I also want to point out that having children (and participating in swimming and music lessons) is a choice, and unfortunately life isn’t fair and sometimes hands out resources differently (e.g. family that needs extra caring or is somehow limited in their ability to contribute).

      From a purely practical perspective, when one is frantic in their personal life they may not have the bandwidth at work that a life without those obligations affords. This is okay. I wish American culture allowed for greater acceptance of the tradeoffs that can be made to balance home and work. However, coming to the table expecting that a chaotic personal life with limited resources does not affect weekday capacity is unrealistic. Of course with the luxury of resting all weekend comes greater capacity during the week. And that’s okay too. What else is okay? Being the person who doesn’t have a weekend full of family obligations but still choosing not to spend that increased capacity on the job.

      1. TheLazyB*

        Oh absolutely. My personal life and weekends are made more challenging by a child. For a decade or more my mum’s challenge was parents whose health was rapidly declining and who refused to go into nursing care for much too long. My coworker does football (soccer!!) coaching for kids. I don’t see any of those as more or less valid than the others.

    17. Stranger than fiction*

      Maybe they need to decompress from spouse/children while they’re at work/school? Been there done that.

  14. Candi*

    OP 2: Push back push back push back.

    The curve was bad enough in high school biology. (Yes, I think it’s kind of juvenile -and it’s a system I benefited from.) It has no place in the workplace.

    My toxic housekeeping job had a couple of the women thinking they had to compete against everyone else, even though the job reqs were such that it wasn’t necessary; either the place is cleaned properly or it’s not. It’s not fun. (Would it surprise anyone that these two were not good at doing the basics of their job, and tended to heavily brown nose?)

    Needing to compete for a “reason” (because I think this is silly) will make it worse.

    Everything I’ve seen on here over the past 10 months is: best management judges each employee on their own merits, positive negative. Katie the Fed and Wakeen’s Teapots Limited often have wonderful advice, and other regulars are hot on their heels.

    1. Chaordic One*

      These are the kind of bad management ideas that drive good employees away. What is wrong with this new HR person?

      1. Lies damned lies and statistics*

        I really wish people would either study statistics enough to really understand how they work, or leave them alone. Wrong tool, wrong job. wrong idea.

        A small group of 12 people doing complex jobs with lots of different variables from person to person is not at all what bell curves are intended to measure. Bell curves are meant to look at trends over large populations, like regional variations over years in national birth and death records.

        An appropriate target for a bell curve in the workplace might be looking at the performance of, say, a large group of 50-100 Chocolate Teapot Handle Attachers on an assembly line, doing exactly the same procedure with very few variables. Or maybe comparing the Chocolate Teapot Handle Attachers at Factory A with those at Factory B.

        If the difference between ‘best’ and ‘worst’ performers is below the p-value (usually between 1% and 5%), then that’s not a performance problem, just normal variation. Even if it’s over 5%, what you’d do with those results, if you’re doing your job and trying to improve the company’s performance, is NOT punish individuals, but look at changing resource allocation, training, or improving your management.

        Honestly, forget twenty years out of date – your HR person sounds very 19th century.

        1. Lora*

          Disagree. LaPlace first calculated P-values in 1774. DeMoivre published on the standard distribution in 1732.

          Although Gauss published in 1809 and Poisson published his Recherches sur la probabilite des jugements en matiere criminelle et en matiere civile in 1837.

          Potayto, potahto.

          1. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

            I’m confused by your response, as it doesn’t seem to relate to what “Lies damned lies and statistics” has written. Can you clarify?

            1. Rat in the Sugar*

              I was confused at first too, but I believe that Lora is referring to the “your HR person sounds very 19th century” comment, and is saying that since P-values were first calculated in 1774 that their HR person is actually very 18th century. It took a second for me to get that, though, I thought at first she was disagreeing with “Lies damned lies and statistics” math.

              1. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

                Oh, thank you! That was what had me stuck—I thought she was taking issue with the 19th century comment. I was confused because “Lies damned lies and statistics” wasn’t saying that p-values were created in the 19th century, but rather with the application of that principle to hiring and evaluation. But I didn’t want to jump to conclusions, so I appreciate clarifications :)

    2. Katie the Fed*

      Hey, thanks so much for the shout-out! It made my day. I haven’t been around as much lately because work is crazy, but I’m trying to get back :)

    3. Dee*

      I hate these systems too. They’re a terrible way to motivate and reward employees.

      Two jobs ago, I took over production of the annual report from our PR person. I brought it in on time and spent 30% less than the previous year. That was a savings of many thousands of dollars. My review? “Meets expectations.” Really? You expected me to save all of that money?

      And of course, if you ever “exceed” expectations, then the baseline is reset. If you continue performing at a high level, you’re just meeting expectations. When you tie all of this to salary increases, it’s such a morale killer.

      Another thing is that what seems to happen in practice is that the big, flashy people get the highest ratings, while people like me, who are more introverted and just do their damn jobs, are taken for granted.

  15. Chaordic One*

    OP 3: It sounds like you and Bertha are in a lousy situation. I agree with Allison about talking with your boss about Bertha burning out. If your boss makes the suggestions about things that Bertha can do to prevent being burned out, your boss might have a bit more influence than you do because of her position. If your boss does it, there’s a better chance for success.

    Bertha needs to learn that some things can wait a little bit, and probably needs some reassurance that she isn’t going to be put on a PIP or be fired when she still turns out high quality work.

  16. Lord of the Ringbinders*

    #1 I’m generally very uncomfortable with the term ‘mental health day’ because some people genuinely need time off sick due to a mental health problem. If it’s a self-care day, take vacation unless your employer allows ‘duvet days’. I say this because this kind of terminology is not just semantics – it contributes to the ongoing lack of parity between mental and physical health problems. I am all for self-care and time out but sick leave is for times when you are actually sick.

    As to how often you take sick leave, bear in mind that there may be a set number of days that triggers an occupational health referral (in, say, a rolling one-year period).

    1. Mookie*

      it contributes to the ongoing lack of parity between mental and physical health problems. I am all for self-care and time out but sick leave is for times when you are actually sick.

      Hmm, I think characterizing mental needs as not being encompassed by a general-use, umbrella term of “sickness” actually widens the gap, reduces the parity, rather than acknowledges that they’re similar needs and similarly legitimate uses of personal time.

      1. Lord of the Ringbinders*

        Mental health needs absolutely are covered by that.

        OP is not talking about sickness, however.

        1. Mookie*

          No, she’s talking about preventative care and where mental health fits in the typical paradigm for such care.

      2. doreen*

        “Mental health day” has at least two different meanings. One meaning involves an actual mental health problem that like a bout of nausea, makes it difficult/impossible for a person to go to work on a particular day. Then there’s the other meaning – the one where you can choose a day so as to cause minimal problems at work, and the only reason you are using a sick day rather than a vacation day is that a taking couple of this sort of “mental health day” gets you a couple of extra days off a year. I think calling the latter type a “mental health day” obscures that the former type exists – there’s a big difference between ” I could use a day off to relax but it doesn’t really matter if it’s today or tomorrow” and “I couldn’t get out of the house because I was having a panic attack”

        1. fposte*

          Yup, there are absolutely two uses to the phrase, and I’m seeing some understandable confusion between the two.

        2. Trout 'Waver*

          There’s actually 3 uses of the phrase. Some people with long-term mental illnesses need to take mental health days as prophylactic self-care. Similar to a physical therapy appointment you could schedule at any point in the week, but if you don’t schedule it you’ll re-aggravate your injury eventually.

          That’s in addition to waking up too debilitated to work or just using them as a goof-off day.

        3. Chinook*

          “Then there’s the other meaning – the one where you can choose a day so as to cause minimal problems at work, and the only reason you are using a sick day rather than a vacation day is that a taking couple of this sort of “mental health day” gets you a couple of extra days off a year. ”

          This is the definition I really hate because there are real dollars associated to it (at least in Canada). If someone took a couple of mental health days as defined above, then they are literally saving a couple of paid vacation days for future use or payout. I see it as an abuse of a paid benefit. And, if you are a contractor, like me, who doesn’t get paid sick days, it really grinds to see someone abusing benefits as if they are owed them instead of recognizing that sick benefits are not meant as compensation but as a way not to punish the sick for being sick by docking their pay for time not worked.

          1. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

            Would you feel this way if you received sick days?

            Sick days are part of a benefits package and consequently part of compensation. They serve multiple policy objectives, including the one you’ve identified. But because they’re part of a person’s benefits, I absolutely think people are entitled to take them. This isn’t “leave abuse” unless it violates an employer’s policy governing sick leave.

            1. Zombii*

              Chinook is talking about Canada. It sounds like their sick days are mandated by the government, rather than being determined by the employer like in the States.

    2. xyz*

      I think I agree with Lord of the Ringbinders, although I’m not 100% sure of people’s positions in the debate! Evidently, people have different conceptions of what a “mental health day” is and that’s confusing the issue. I personally see it as a day taken out of the pool of normal sick days, for the explicit purpose of looking after your mental health (i.e. more than the “not particularly stressed, but might be good to recharge” way that OP uses it), but which doesn’t necessarily require a doctor’s note/diagnosis.

      As someone with a long history of anxiety and depression, it does weird me out a bit hearing R&R days classed as “mental health days”. I’m also fully on board with self care and normalizing mental health, but that seems to go in the other direction of trivializing what may be very serious and even life-threatening problems. A bit like how people say they’re “OCD” because they like things neat, or they’re “depressed” because their favourite band broke up or something.

      That said, of course only OP (and her doctors) can really judge her situation, and if she’s thinking of it on such a frequent basis, who am I to say it’s not really needed? It’s just the terminology that doesn’t sit quite right with me.

      1. Elfie*

        I think I agree too – I suffer from anxiety and depression, and I’ve had to take time off work because of it. I think my take on it is that sick days (whether they’re for mental or physical illness) are re-active – you don’t take a sick day before you get a cold to stop you from getting one (or do you? I certainly don’t!). Self-care days are preventative rather than curative, so I don’t see them as ‘mental health days’. But that’s purely my opinion.

        1. xyz*

          Right. If she was feeling stressed to the point where it may affect her mental health if she didn’t take time out… sure. But in her self-described situation, I would rather it were described as a ‘personal day’ or something. I don’t know the US work culture though. If I take a sick day, I don’t have to share the reason why (unless it’s an ongoing thing requiring a doctor’s certificate).

        2. Grits McGee*

          I actually take proactive sick days- I’ve learned through experience that taking a day when I’m feeling really run down will usually head off a longer illness.

        3. Sparrow*

          If I start to get a cold and I don’t have anything critical on my calendar, I will absolutely take a sick day to rest, hydrate, and try to stave off the worst of it. I think preventative care certainly qualifies. As someone with a mental illness and who frequently works with people with mental illnesses, I completely agree that they shouldn’t be trivialized. But I also think encouraging people to engage in whatever self-care makes sense for them can only help increase overall thoughtfulness about mental health needs.

        4. AMPG*

          But you also use sick time for preventative care doctor’s appointments (and similar reasons), right? Those are about safeguarding your health, too.

      2. Willis*

        I agree with you. Seems like “rest and recharge day”, or maybe “wellness day,” would be more appropriate terms. Plus those types of days are helpful when you’re physically worn out as much as mentally, like maybe after a big deadline where you’d been getting less sleep than usual. But to be honest, times that I’ve taken a day like that, I’d just say I wasn’t feeling well without getting into the specifics/semantics of it. Not something I’d do too often, but a couple times a year seems reasonable.

      3. Stranger than fiction*

        Truly is a lot of debate. I guess that’s why some companies go so far as to give x number sick days, x number vacation days, and then sometimes a separate number of personal or wellness days.

    3. Alton*

      I can see your point about people using the term in a way that might feel minimizing of mental illness/mental health. But I also like the idea of framing mental health as something that can be a concern for everyone. Someone doesn’t have to suffer from a clinical mental illness to find themselves anxious or overburdened by stress, and I think focusing on mental health only in regards to mental illness makes people either hesitant to seek help or more likely to get unnecessary diagnoses. One of the most liberating things for me was realizing that there didn’t have to be a strict dichotomy between “I’m perfectly fine and am just a weak person” and “I’m definitely clinically depressed and anxious and can’t manage my brain chemistry.” I didn’t have to “justify” wanting help with coping.

      1. hermit crab*

        One of the most liberating things for me was realizing that there didn’t have to be a strict dichotomy between “I’m perfectly fine and am just a weak person” and “I’m definitely clinically depressed and anxious and can’t manage my brain chemistry.” I didn’t have to “justify” wanting help with coping.

        I love how you framed that. I think the middle ground is where a lot of us can take charge of our mental health; both “I’m perfectly fine and am just a weak person” and “I’m clinically depressed and can’t manage my brain chemistry” frame things as being out of one’s own control, just in different ways. Everyone has physical health and we all do things (nutrition, exercise, sleep, preventative care, etc.) to take care of it, even if we don’t have a diagnosable condition. Why shouldn’t mental health be the same way?

        1. mentalhealtheveryday*

          I’d also point out that it wouldn’t be appropriate to use a sick day as a “physical health day” to exercise or grocery shop (which are things that you may need to do to maintain a healthy body), just like taking the day to sleep in and recharge is not a (sick day) “mental health day” even if it may have a health benefit.

          1. hermit crab*

            Huh, that’s a really interesting point. I feel weird in these debates because I feel strongly that “mental health days” (in the colloquial sense) can be a legit use of sick time, but at the same time I really don’t like that term and I wish we had a different one.

            In my case, I’ve learned that taking a day off to recharge during stressful times is a good way to avoid the anxiety-related chest pains that I tend to develop when things get really overwhelming. That’s like a… preventative health day?

            1. mentalhealtheveryday*

              Yes! It’s not the concept I take exception to, but rather the term “mental health day”. I prefer “self care day”, or something closer to that/

              1. Whats In A Name*

                I like “self care day”. In my circle I can say that “mental health day” came about from working with too-strict employers who really only thought there were 2 reasons for taking time off work: you were on your deathbed/contagious or you were physically out of town.

                Example: One employer actually wanted you to come in sick and would provide you with a can of Lysol to keep at your desk if you were hacking – same place that made me use vacation to take partner for surgery and wouldn’t approve vacation if reason was family in town visiting, and we it was a beach town. I look back and think “Lord, what was I thinking?!?”

                1. Whats In A Name*

                  I should add this was our internal/group communication – I have never said to a manager “I am taking a mental health day” and now that I am a consultant when I am out of reach for a client I just say I am taking the day off – they really don’t need to know what for.

          2. Alton*

            Hmm. I don’t know. People do take sick days for things like routine doctor/dentist appointments. The main reason I’d find it odd for people to take “physical health days” for the things you mention is because exercising and grocery shopping need to be done routinely and fitted into your schedule regardless. It’d be like me taking a mental health day to watch a movie that’s on TV at 8 PM. That’s not something work would interfere with anyway. But if someone was really sore from running their first marathon or something, I wouldn’t blame them for taking a day off from work.

            1. Jessie the First (or second)*

              But you said ” People do take sick days for things like routine doctor/dentist appointments” – if you mean the standard yearly physicals, those are preventive visits. So yeah, it’s a “physical health day” they are taking for their sick day. Which I think is fine, as is taking a sick day for preventive mental health wellness.

          3. Chinook*

            You summed up my thoughts exactly! If I am not going to take a sick day to maintain a healthy body, then I shouldn’t be taking a sick day to maintain a healthy mind.

          4. Rat in the Sugar*

            Well, what if it was something a little different–I used to work at a job in college that put a lot of strain on my back, and sometimes I could tell that if I kept working and didn’t give it a rest that I was going to strain something. Taking a day off to allow my back muscles to rest would prevent me from throwing it out at work the next day. I personally would consider that a “physical health day”, and equivalent to a “mental health day” where you know that you need some time off or you’re going to burn out on your next shift.

      2. Turtle Candle*

        Speaking as someone with mental health issues, I agree. I think that reframing mental health as something relevant to everyone, just as physical health is relevant to everyone (not just people with chronic physical health issues) is beneficial in destigmatizing it.

    4. NewDoc*

      My favorite use of the term “mental health day” was when I was a teenager working at a day camp in the summer, and the mom of one of the kids on my bus called to tell me that he “really needed a mental health day so won’t be on the bus.” He was six! It was summer camp! There was really no need to justify his absence at all so I thought it was hilarious she called it a mental health day.

      1. Jessie the First (or second)*

        “He was six! It was summer camp!”

        Anxiety and stress can affect small kids, too. And summer camp, though it is supposed to be fun, can make already-prone-to-anxiety kids anxious. I think “hilarious” is an unfortunate way to describe that.

        1. NewDoc*

          My word choice was unfortunate here, and I apologize. “He’s 6! It’s summer camp!” was intended as an illustration of how much this did not at all need to be an excused absence of any sort (i.e. calling to say “my child won’t be in camp tomorrow” was sufficient), and how much the term has permeated the culture. Of course 6yo children can also suffer from anxiety and I did not mean to make light of this fact, but looking back my comment isn’t clear. Thank you for the feedback.

    5. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

      I disagree—I think it’s better for the world, and less stigmatizing for folks with mental health diagnoses, for the term “mental health day” to be part of the vocabulary for everyone. It signals a proactive approach to managing a specific kind of distress/exhaustion that is not quite the same as regular R&R, etc. And I don’t think it diminishes the seriousness or validity of other people’s ongoing mental health concerns.

      1. Emi.*

        Agreed. Personally, I would’ve had a much better time in college if I’d been able to articulate a level of unwellness and care-needing that didn’t hit the “I am seriously ill and unable to function” mark.

    6. Princess Carolyn*

      “Self-care” is a relatively new term (at least as far as I’m aware), but I’m just now realizing that I’ve been using “mental health day” in a way that would be better described as a “self-care” day. That is, a day when I need time off to protect my sanity and deal with my life rather than a day when my mental illness is acting up. Both are legit uses of a sick day, imo.

  17. Statistics are fun!*

    OP #2 Could you try approaching this from a more mathematical standpoint? Whoever is pushing this policy is demonstrating a fundamental misunderstanding of bell curves and how they’re supposed to function. Random distribution bell curves are quite interesting in that almost anytime you measure a randomly selected population on most any metric (for example height, weight, or, in this case, job performance) you can expect the results to fit something closely resembling a Bell curve. However, the key to this actually working is having a truly randomly selected population, and, unless your hiring process involves randomly pulling resumes from a pile and offering those candidates the job on the spot, this is almost certainly not the case in your context. I assume that your company attempts to employ the highest performers possible, and either manages low performers to perform at a higher level or manages them out of the organization entirely. In this case you wouldn’t expect to see a traditional normal distribution bellcurve at all (which is why hr is forced to fudge the numbers to make the data fit the results that they’re expecting). Assuming even halfway decent hiring/ management practices, you should expect to see a weighted distribution with most of your employees falling in the higher end of whatever evaluation metric you’re using. Not Sure if this is helpful, but it could be useful framing. Sounds like someone in HR needs to sign up for an introductory stats course at the local community college asap…

    1. Hankie Enlightenment (formerly Sarahnova)*

      Yeah, this practice is only about 20-odd years behind the times. I can’t believe some HR person is now actively introducing it like it’s a great new thing; it’s bad enough when it’s a legacy.

      Research has found, not surprisingly, that performance at work doesn’t follow a normal distribution (and as PPs have pointed out, even if it did, you need a large population before you’d see that pattern). If you are giving grades to people, there should be some kind of calibration process of that, IMO, but not a forced mapping to the bell curve.

    2. BellCurvesareDumb*

      For whatever reason, I am reminded of that sequnce in Jurassic Park (the book) where Malcom points out that the Gaussian curve they are seeing in the sizr of this dinosaur means the dinosaurs are breeding because an unnatural introduction means you would get an unnatural distribution. It helped 12 year old me understand the concept, maybe a similar visual would help whatever HR person thinks this is a good idea.

      1. Bad Candidate*

        I used this same example for the bell curve ranking system we use at my own job just last week! :)

    3. Mike C.*

      Let me start off by saying I like this idea at its heart. But if you’re going to take this approach, you need to really unload in terms of evidence and time to present that evidence.

      You’re likely going after a program that for now has a ton of political support and you’re going to be dealing with folks who clearly don’t understand mathematics. I can clearly imagine the lead treating this as their easy way to drastically improve the company and being more than willing to dismiss your concerns as nothing more than, “you can’t please everyone” and “everyone hates HR anyway”. So be prepared for this. I’ve dealt with similar situations and it can become obnoxious when the non-technical person becomes obstinate.

      Math alone should save the OP, but she’ll need much more.

  18. Antie*

    #5. You have lupus-related alopecia. Perhaps you can refer to the symptom of alopecia without mentioning it’s underlying cause. “Please excuse the turban… I’m having a bout of alopecia, so my hair is looking a bit uneven.” This might reduce any worry they might have to a possibly temporary cosmetic issue.

    1. Christy*

      I totally think this is the right way to go! You might have to explain alopecia, but even alopecia has an innocuous explanation.

      1. mreasy*

        That was my thought too – as alopecia often presents in people who have it without other associated disorders or symptoms.

    2. hermit crab*

      I think this is really smart! I think a lot of people are at least somewhat familiar with the concept of alopecia these days, and you probably won’t have to explain anything.

    3. Princess Carolyn*

      Oooh, this is smart. A lot of people will be familiar with alopecia, and it’s fairly easy to explain to those who aren’t. “Lupus” sounds a bit scarier and would raise more questions than necessary at such an early stage of the hiring process. Basically, explain only what you absolutely need to explain for the situation.

  19. Lord of the Ringbinders*

    Re the bell curve. Your HR person seems not to grasp that ‘rewarding’ people in this way will pit them against each other, destroy team morale and collaboration, and at worst make them not want to help each other with anything ever.

    I do not think you can reasonably set objectives and retrospectively downgrade someone because someone else did better. All of the nope.

  20. Cristina in England*

    #2. Didn’t Microsoft destroy itself from the inside out with stack ranking its employees like this? What a quick way to get rid of all of the good employees.

    1. Cassandra*

      Came here to say exactly this. There’s plenty of “stack ranking? noooooooooooooooo” literature out there now thanks to Microsoft. Maybe grab some to back you up, OP?

      Not to scare you worse, but classic stack ranking involves firing the bottom-rankers…

  21. Anonicat*

    #4: thank you for providing me with the image of a certain world leader as a teapot. It’s really made my day.

    1. RVA Cat*

      This, plus now I’m imagining him singing “I’m a little teapot, short and stout…” as befits his maturity level.

  22. Uk person*

    1. By the way I think I interpreted this letter slightly differently than Alison with the every few weeks thing… I though the op was saying basically ‘every few weeks I get to the point of thinking about taking a day off (but then i don’t. Then I think about it again in another few weeks etc)” not that ‘every few weeks’ was the frequency with which they want to take a day off. (it doesn’t necessarily effect the answer though it makes it unnecessary to point out every few weeks is too much (if they hadn’t meant it that way. Maybe they did. The phrasing can be read both ways).

  23. MommyMD*

    “I have a dermatology issue that affects my hair growth. Excuse me for not removing my turban. It’s more of a nuisance than anything. I’m very excited about this ipening and the opportunity to bring my skill set to the position”.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      It’s an informal term, not a formal one. It typically means a day that you take as a “sick day” but you’re not truly sick; rather, you’re taking the day to recharge if you’re feeling stressed or burned out — for the good of your overall mental well-being.

      It doesn’t refer to time off to deal with actual clinical conditions (which would just be a normal sick day).

    2. Kora*

      It’s slang for taking a sick day for something other than a physical problem. There’s a bit of confusion in how it’s used, though – some people who say mental health day mean specifically a day they are taking off to manage their depression/anxiety/other condition, whereas other people use it more generally to mean a day they’re taking off for R&R (which of course you can argue is good for your overall mental health and stress levels).

      1. FiveWheels*

        Okay, so for the R&R/de-stressing, it’s basically a day of PTO you take to relax rather than for a specific trip or other purpose?

        In my industry/area (law, UK) it would be very much frowned upon to take a sick day for that, but very normal to take a random vacation day here or there… But from what I gather here the USA tends to be a little less friendly about PTO than the UK.

        1. VroomVroom*

          The point is really that you don’t have to tell your employer why you’re taking a sick day – you just say you’re out sick. You don’t say to your boss “I’m taking a mental health day today” you just say you’re out sick, but you’re really not – you use it to recharge and unwind.

          1. A Non E. Mouse*

            You don’t say to your boss “I’m taking a mental health day today” you just say you’re out sick, but you’re really not – you use it to recharge and unwind.

            Well…I might be doing this wrong then. I actually tell my boss/coworkers “I’m taking a mental health day tomorrow”.

            We tend to spot each other fairly well (one guy was in and out of town on short notice while his father-in-law was passively and then actively dying, and we took on all his work including weekend/evening stuff), and so if one of us has had to do a lot of extra work, we’ll even encourage a “it’s quiet tomorrow, don’t come in!”.

            Maybe a department/company culture thing?

          2. Tau*

            This may actually be another US-UK difference (?). Not 100% sure about this, but the last time I talked about my company’s sick leave policy in comments a bunch of US people responded going “oh my god that is completely nuts what is wrong with your company” and a UK person responded going “oh yeah I hear you, that’s been standard where I’ve worked but it’s pretty ridiculous, isn’t it?”

            …which is to say that in order to take a mental health day, I’d have to actively lie to my employer (as they’ll demand to know the symptoms of the illness), and I get the impression this is far less unusual in the UK than the US. Other people in Britain may want to correct me on that.

            1. FiveWheels*

              If I (UKer) tried to take a sick day (whether paid or not paid) because I needed some de-stressing or self care time, I’m pretty sure that would be treated so “pulling a sickie”, ie lying about being ill to get a day off.

              On the other hand if I had leave left to use and there was no work reason why I couldn’t be off, there would be no problem with saying “hey boss, can I take tomorrow off? Gonna have a duvet day.

              Agreed with Tau that my employer would want to know my symptoms. Some would pry out of nosiness, some skills be genuinely concerned, but none would accept “I’m not coming in but I won’t say why “

              1. Tau*

                The annoying thing for me is that I have to request a day off at least five days in advance. So if in the morning I feel like an elephant stepped on me but not sick in the way it’s usually understood, my only options appear to be dragging myself in anyway or lying about symptoms. :/

                Out of curiosity, do you have mandatory post-sick-leave back to work meetings with HR as well? That was the main thing that the US commentators were saying was nuts, but from some cursory research seems to be relatively standard in the UK.

                1. FiveWheels*

                  Depends on the job. In one place there was only a meeting for people who had been off sick for some time, or otherwise requested some kind of accommodation.

                  In another, three periods of sickness in one calendar year would trigger a fit-to-work meeting. Generally the people in question had three very minor bugs, but the meeting was clearly designed to say “are you okay, do you need any assistance, etc”. Plenty of people still took offence and thought the meeting was an accusation of lying.

        2. Natalie*

          The difference in my experience would be the level of planning and advanced notice. Plenty of people plan to take a vacation day here and there to relax, but they let their team know ahead of time just like any other vacation day. Whereas if you were taking a sick day as an R&R day, you would call in that morning.

        3. Stranger than fiction*

          The difference here would be pto is usually scheduled ahead of time, whereas sick days are you calling in unscheduled.

      2. Elizabeth H.*

        Yeah, I would never refer to “mental health” day if I were referring to actual illness like depression, anxiety, something like that. I would only use it in the vernacular way. I actually don’t really think I have heard of anyone using it in the first way and meaning it literally. I feel like people are usually private about mental health illnesses to a somewhat greater extent than physical illnesses, so would just say they have a doctor’s appointment or are dealing w/health issues or something nonspecific.

        1. Turanga Leela*

          Likewise—I see people downthread talking about using sick days for therapy and/or because of mental illness, and I’d put that in a totally different category than “mental health days.” If your depression or OCD is keeping you from leaving the house, or if you’re seeking care for a mental illness, that’s taking a sick day for medical reasons, full stop. I think of a “mental health day” as a discretionary day off to sleep and give yourself a break.

  24. Chicken Fishing*

    OP1 – do you take vacation regularly? As a manager I’m fine with mental health days a couple of times per year as Alison suggested, but I also strongly encourage my team to take a full week off at least once a year to recharge. Preferably separate from holidays where they have family obligations.

  25. Oryx*

    So, for many of us, “mental health days” are not bonus vacation days to take just to chill out: they are days that allow us to manage our mental health the same way we manage our physical health. Sometimes this means I use it for therapy appointments, just like I would a doctor. Other times it means my anxiety or depression (or both) has gotten to the point where I am not able to function (and, of course, having anxiety means I debate in my head about taking the time, worry the effect will have on coworkers, even when I know they’ll be fine) and I need a day to manage it in the comfortable environment of my home.

    For others, I understand sometimes life just gets to THAT POINT and you just NEED A DAY. Self care does not need a diagnosis.

    But for the OP, who is self described as not really stressed and just wants a day to refresh? That sounds like it may be better suited to a personal or vacation day.

    That said, it’s your sick time to use.

    1. Oryx*

      And, of course, after posting this I’m all worried about what everyone else will think. Stupid anxiety.

      1. JMegan*

        Oh my gosh, I’m thinking “thank you so much for articulating all of that!” Especially this part:

        (and, of course, having anxiety means I debate in my head about taking the time, worry the effect will have on coworkers, even when I know they’ll be fine)

        For me, that’s a sure sign that I actually do need to take the day off. If I’m healthy, or if I’m physically sick, it’s an easy decision to either take the day off or not. But if I spend half an hour dithering about whether or not I’m really unwell enough to stay home, then it’s a good indicator that I should stay home. Anxiety-brain is super fun, isn’t it?

    2. Dr. KMnO4*

      I think what you posted is very reasonable and makes a lot of sense. As someone who also has mental health conditions I can relate to your post and your perspective.

  26. Christy*

    As someone with anxiety who for a while used sick leave for regular therapy appointments (so, I empathize), the whole objection to “mental health day” to mean self-care strikes me as “old man yells at cloud”. It’s the vernacular, and it’s broadly used, and it doesn’t make sense (to me) to object to the OP using this very common phrasing.

    And truly, I also feel like nitpicking the OP on whether she needs the self-care enough isn’t fair. I think we can all agree that rest days can help our mental health, and we shouldn’t discount her needs just because she’s fortunate enough to have her mental health needs taken care of with this level of treatment. (A day on the couch instead of, like me, therapy and meds.)

    1. Mookie*

      Exactly. It’s a spectrum, and casting aspersions on one end of it affects everyone, including people who are essentially non-functional and in definite need of accommodation when symptoms arise. Trying to weasel out of an employer’s obligations on a technicality serves no one’s interests. Companies can generally survive through a teammember’s brief absence, and insisting that they come into work will not produce good results and will likely burden the team further, not to mention the chilling effect that will follow.

    2. mreasy*

      Yep exactly, spoken as a person with a cocktail of severe mental health issues. I don’t find it offensive or incorrect to use “mental health day” – and, frankly, I think most people have some level of anxiety, stress, insomnia, etc. that could lead to physical illness or more severe mental trouble if they don’t head it off at the pass. Hurrah for the human condition!

    3. Freya UK*

      Agreed. I have anxiety too, and I have no problem with the term ‘mental health day’. If anything I think it beneficial to the cause – supporting the idea that taking the time you need to look after yourself emotionally (in whatever form that takes for the individual, and for whatever reason) is valid and important. If people spent more time prioritising their overall sense of wellbeing in the first place it might not so often escalate into a full-blown mental illness. The more people that do it, the more ‘legitimate’ it becomes as a concept (unfortunately the people most vulnerable to mental health issues are often also the ones that need ‘permission’ for how they feel), the healthier we all are as a society.

      It’s true also that it’s a spectrum – different points at which things become stressful or insufferable, and different ‘triggers’, we shouldn’t judge others by our own standards of what we can endure.

      1. Allypopx*

        Mostly agreed, though I’m a little wary about the implication mental illness happens because you don’t take good enough care of yourself. I don’t think that’s exactly what you meant and I’m probably being a bit sensitive, but on the off chance anyone else reads it that way I just want to point out lots of things cause mental illness, most of which we don’t fully understand yet.

        However, to your point, I also think if people took more time to focus on their mental and emotional well-being we’d be a healthier society, and that if people thought more about their own mental health they’d be more empathetic when they encounter people with mental health issues.

        1. Freya UK*

          Yes indeed, I didn’t mean it that way – as mentioned I do have anxiety myself and mental health issues run in my family. There are unfortunately a myriad of avenues to mental health issues.

        2. Observer*

          Most health problems don’t happen solely because you don’t take good enough care of yourself. That includes mental health problems. But, it is also generally true that self-care is a factor in occurrence and / or severity for most issues.

          It’s a tough thing to discuss because it mostly comes up in a blaming way as in “Why didn’t you take care of yourself – you could have prevented this, it’s all your own fault.” But when it comes to people actually doing the self care, at least the forms that are not “heroic” (eg doing on a strict and limited diet) we have a really negative attitude. Look at the discussion here about “duvet days”, which should only be taken if your employer allows them – apparently if it doesn’t involve sitting in a doctor’s office or being stuck with something that’s not “really” necessary care. And the discussions here are on the more reasonable and civilized ones!

  27. V*


    “Excuse the headgear. While I’ve fully recovered my hair hasn’t quite gotten the message yet.”

    Or any variation thereof. An opening to apologise for wearing a piece of headwear indoors (not that you typically need to for a turban) followed by a self-deprecating that doesn’t go into _any_ detail but makes it clear that you’ve recovered is the script I would stick to.

    Even if you go with something else, definitely say something. Sure, it’s illegal for someone to not hire you based on a (perceived) medical problem but let’s face it, you’re going to instil a lot of doubts as to your performance and, frankly, how long you’d be able to do the job for if you were dealing with something serious.

      1. V*

        Perhaps the wrong turn of phrase then but the point is rather to avoid going into even limited detail about the precise nature of the cause but to simply assure the interviewer(s) that it’s nothing that will impact your work.

    1. Mookie*

      It’s unfortunate that your last sentence is correct, in some companies anyway.

      I recall a nightmare interview where I was asked why I’d stopped doing arboricultural work (not remotely related to the position on offer and a field I’d left ages ago to retrain), and I referenced my body and explained that its present state was the result of an ongoing but short-term course of medications. The interviewer wanted to know the class and purpose of the medications (it was the result of an injury and the side-effects of the medications would have had absolutely no impact on my ability to properly execute the role). Obviously, I didn’t get the job nor would I have wanted an offer, based on how the interviewer handled this, but I’ve never felt more foolish or manipulated when I’d later realized how shit that situation had become and that I was responsible for it against my better judgment because I’d (a) cooperated with the interrogation and (b) went into far too much detail with excessive prompting.

    2. Rusty Shackelford*

      Or, since some people are bothered by apologizing for the turban, you could lead with “I know you’re wondering about the turban.”

      1. fposte*

        Or “In case you’re wondering about the turban,” so that people who didn’t give it a thought aren’t put off by a negative assumption.

        1. V*

          Yeah that’s an excellent way to phrase it. Pointing out the elephant in the room is in my view the way to go in situations like this.

  28. Rebecca*

    #2 – I’ve seen this before! At my first job, I was assigned to a department and the manager never passed out our annual evaluations. I didn’t know why. When he retired (around 1999 or 2000), I was tasked with sorting out the mountain of paperwork left on his desk. I found packets of blank performance evaluations, with memos attached from HR stating almost exactly what the OP is talking about, right down to the bell curve and X employees may exceed expectations, most must be in the middle, and a few must need improvement. The memo said that not everyone could be a high performer. Ugh. I tossed them into the shredding bin, and I think I understand why he didn’t pass them out to us – it was his way of not playing the HR game.

    1. Paul*

      Why would an employee not want a copy of their annual evaluation? Didn’t his direct reports ever wonder that or did they all simply get a standard raise and no feedback as to why? That seems odd, even though I understand it was his way of not playing the HR game.

  29. Balding Lady*

    #5 if it doesn’t personally bother you and you think the place you are interviewing isn’t likely to make assumptions be religiously intolerant switch to a scarf style covering, which can still be cotton, and you are under absolutely no obligation to explain. When your hair grows back later and you know your new coworkers better you you can explain about the lupus.
    I have a hormonal condition that gives me male pattern baldness and while it hasn’t gotten extreme yet I personally will be using a scarf in public if it does, even though I don’t belong to a religion where this is a common practice people might assume I am but I don’t care.

    1. Ian Mac Eochagáin*

      I was going to say this. A headscarf or bandana is normal headwear for many women (if the OP is a woman) in many places.

  30. Ig*

    Op 5 – I’ve had alopecia universalis for nearly twenty years now. I’ve never done the wig, and almost always wear a turban. Mostly, I just mention it in passing during an interview. A quick “in case you’re wondering, the hair loss isn’t chemo or anything, it’s an autoimmune disorder”. I usually tack on “no other symptoms” but with lupus that may not be true. Still, a quick and very casual reassurance seems to work well.

    1. OP #5 writer*

      OP here – thank you!! I’m losing hair in other areas as well so might be looking toward this in the future. That seems like a really straightforward way of dealing with it. I will definitely consider this.

    2. Katie*

      I think this is awesome! I suffered from alopecia areata in my 20’s and lost about 60-70% of my hair at the time. I am grateful it grew back, though I now joke that my hair fell out straight and grew back curly! I think that the OP (and anyone for that matter) should do what they feel most comfortable with. I also suffer from psoriasis, and often get questions about what happened to my elbows? Did I fall? Am I okay? I brush this off with “I’m fine! I have psoriasis and it just gets weird sometimes.” and move on in the conversation.

      I think this might be the best approach in an interview. Of course they’re going to notice you’re wearing a turban, they’re looking at your face, and let’s be real here. Your hairline is right there. The key, in my opinion, is to take any need for it to be A THING and get it out of the way. “Hello! It’s great to meet you! Please don’t mind my turban (or whatever wording you choose to use), I’ve had a bit of hair loss and this is the easiest way for me to feel comfortable. Nothing to worry about!” and move on.

      I would also go with finding something low-key to use to cover your head with. Think simple basic black/navy/brown/neutral to coordinate with your interview attire, and leave any happy sparkles and such for the nightclub. :)

      I, personally, wouldn’t be comfortable “leaning” into someone’s assumption about covering your head/hair for religious reasons as I think it’s not only unnecessary, but also it just sits weird with me.

      Good luck with all the interviewing! You’ll knock ’em dead!

      1. Ig*

        Oooh, yeah, definitely stick to work – appropriate headcoverings. (I break out purple on casual friday’s sometimes, but I work at a university, so it’s pretty darned casual) I tend towards basic black scarves 90% of the time, just because it’s easy. I’d suggest sticking to something that either coordinates in a sober way with the interview outfit, or matches a natural hair color. (I still can’t wear grey scarves because I catch myself thinking I have gray hair.)
        That said, if you want to get fancy or elaborate on your own time, there’s a great video collection at the Wrapunzel blog. She’s specifically showing off her amazing Tichel wraps, but they work well for alopecia too. :)
        Good luck with the lupus! autoimmune issues are annoying.

  31. LJ*

    Agree that stack ranking is dumb in that not every team has people who need improvement, and firing good people means you’ll probably end up hiring to fill the role and have to waste time training someone.

    But I do think there’s pieces of the system that make sense/people can learn from. For example, I don’t think everyone should be getting exceeds expectations, or else maybe your expectations weren’t reasonable, and this is likely a bonus bucket intended for top above average performers. It can be demotivating for the superstars if they feel everyone else is getting the same rating/bonus – of course this should be private but info can get out. Or maybe they’ll notice that when they don’t try as hard they still get exceeds expectations. In which case – why try so hard? Also, making expectations more of a stretch can push innovation and improvement, even on a good team.

    Related – in the past I was a high performer at a company, got meets expectations my first year and exceeds my second – the year I got exceeds, both my raise and bonus were smaller percentages than the previous year. I’m sure this was related to company results but it wasn’t transparent and the message I got was stop working so hard, you won’t be rewarded. So I kept doing my job and doing it well/even above average but was putting 50% effort in and not contributing as much as I could. So try to make sure that bonuses, not just nominal ratings, are differentiated.

    Also, I think sometimes there’s a stigma around giving low ratings, even when you have poor performers that deserve it, because it can be scary/hard to tell someone they need to do better or put them on a path to firing. I’ve never worked somewhere with stack ranking but when my company introduced recommended percentages of teams falling into different buckets it at least helped make it seem acceptable to put anyone below meets expectations. One thing that helped is they said constantly, this will vary from team to team and expected percentages aren’t enforced but are meant to represent what we expect across the whole organization (thousands of people).

    1. Nichole*

      The problem with stack ranking is that it can be demotivating for the superstars if they keep getting meets expectations and so do the people who are actually doing far less. And it can be demotivating by example, because when I see a coworker who’s super smart working crazy hours, going above and beyond, someone the customer trusts and asks to work with, and still gets ‘meets’ and sometimes ‘needs improvement’ it does make me think, well, I can’t get there anyway. (And that coworker ended up quitting and going somewhere else in large part because of his work not being recognized, so it also has an immediate effect.)

      1. Paul*

        Working crazy hours all the time is either a problem with the culture of the company or the employee. One should not need to work crazy hours to be considered a rockstar. If that is the only person who is doing that and obviously the rockstar of the group, it is a manage problem if that person is not getting a high score. If the entire team is like that, again, it’s a problem with the culture. It is is foolish to remain at a company who demands working crazy hours to become a rockstar.

        1. Nichole*

          I guess the thing is here that someone was working crazy hours and still not considered a rockstar. HR & upper management don’t really want rockstars here, as opposed to customer and immediate management desires. I stay for other reasons, and don’t work crazy hours.

    2. Paul*


      If you have an entire team of “rockstars”, your expectations are out of wack. Giving every member “exceeds expectations” as a score dilutes it for those who truly deserve it. There will always be a “soft” stack ranking and most people are fine with it. Everyone has different goals and aspirations and many people simply don’t care about the money enough to work hard to be in the top percent. That’s totally fine as long as they are meeting expectations.

      1. Observer*

        This is not necessarily true. Sometimes you manage to hire and retain a really, really good group of people. And, it’s not always about the money, either.

        1. Paul*

          I agree, it’s not always about the money. But I guarantee a rock star team won’t stick around if you aren’t paying them well and rewarding excellence. Most people don’t want to work only to hang out with a great group of people who do cool things. Being paid (and appropriately) is always part of the equation.

  32. Nichole*

    #2 is what we do and have done for over a decade at my company. Although at this point a lot of managers anticipate the shifting and therefore do their own ranking with the bell curve, which basically means seizing on any available excuse to list someone as ‘meets expectations’ and ‘needs improvement’ even if overall their work is exceeding expectations, and the manager will admit that in other, non-performance review conversations. (I was told that I’ve excelled at everything they’ve given me and the real challenge for the manager is making sure to keep giving me tasks to challenge me and got ‘meets expectations’.)

    It’s pretty much the point where the only way you can get ‘exceeds expectations’ is when your manager is trying to get you a promotion and it’s very disheartening. Personally I try to focus on getting real feedback and acting on it separate from the formal process and trying to tell myself that I know the flaws and accept that I can’t really do anything to change it. There are definitely cycles when it negatively affects my work, because when I’m not going to get any more recognition or reward for doing outstanding work, it can be tempting to not go the extra mile. (On days I struggle with that, I tell myself my workplace reputation is important and that having a good one actually makes my job easier, and I do care about the product we’re making.)

    If you can push back on this, I recommend it!

    1. Paul*

      At my company nobody gets “needs improvement”. The idea is someone would already be on a PIP or fired long before the annual review.

      1. Observer*

        With a system like this, managers have an incentive to NOT manage the low performers. This way they can keep them around for the annual review, and it allows them to rate their good performers more accurately.

        The bottom line is that stack ranking just doesn’t work the way it’s supposed to.

    2. ThursdaysGeek*

      But you CAN do something to change it! You can move to a different company where being excellent is openly recognized and rewarded.

      1. Nichole*

        Sure. But it’s a trade off of a lot of factors, and most companies in my industry don’t do any better at that (or have more costs associated with it — like requiring crazy working hours for everyone). Really, this for me falls into the area of ‘annoying, but I can deal with it pretty easily’.

  33. Sheworkshardforthemoney*

    #1 Is it just me? I read her question differently, as every few weeks she thinks about taking a mental health day and then rejects the thought. She doesn’t actually wants a mental health day every few weeks, she wants to have one occasionally which is a big distinction.

    1. Allypopx*

      Alison said above she read it that way too. I think she was just using “a few weeks” to create a spectrum of acceptability and the wording was confusing next to the same phrase being in the question. I think the answer still makes sense!

  34. PepperVL*

    I suspect the point they’re trying to make with #2 is that if everyone in your area is consistently exceeding expectations, your expectations are too low. Yes, everyone may be a high performer, but if that’s what the job requires, then that is the expectation. Only people who are higher performers are exceeding the expectation. It is possible that an entire team exceeded expectations one year, but then the expectation needs to go up to align with what the job demands and what the employees have shown they’re capable of.

    That said, forcing a bell curve is absolutely the wrong way to make that point, and if high performance is the expectation, it is entirely likely that everyone who lasts a year or more is meeting it. HR should have private conversations with managers rating their whole team as exceeds expectations to reevaluate the expectations or to find out why. (A big project that required overtime that is outside the usual job expectations, for example, might be why everyone exceeded expectations. If that sort of project/overtime becomes a consistent thing, on the other hand, then that is now the expectation and should be treated as such in evaluations.)

    1. Allypopx*

      Exactly. That’s an issue for management – and I don’t even mean issue, it means “you’ve shown your team can perform at a high level, how do we push that farther next year?” and raise the bar and let the managers manage within those new parameters. You don’t put people on a PIP for getting an A- when everyone else gets an A+

    2. aebhel*

      Honestly, this kind of thing leads to burnout too. ‘Oh, you’ve proven that you can do more than we expected of you? Great. That’s now the minimum bar you have to meet. Progressively. Forever. Your reward for doing your work well is more work and higher expectations.’

      Maybe this is just because I don’t work in a for-profit industry, but that kind of thinking strikes me as insane.

      1. Allypopx*

        I work in non-profit, and I think it’s part of growth. People should be evaluated on all kinds of different points, so it’s not just “We asked you to handle 25 things and you handled 30, great, now handle 35.” It’s also you’ve acquired and mastered new skills, you’ve gained experience, and therefore you’re naturally performing on a higher level and we’re going to recognize that and give you duties and expectations more in tune with what your abilities are now vs what they were a year ago. That’s how you keep people from stagnating. There should always be something to learn or work towards or do better.

        1. aebhel*

          I’m in civil service (librarian), and the nature of my job is that there’s an upper limit to what my duties can possibly encompass without actually leaving this job and going to work at a bigger library, which I don’t want to do because I like my current job situation.

          I’m kind of frustrated by a lot of the conversations I see about ‘stagnation’ in the workplace, tbh, because in a lot of jobs the idea of perpetual upward growth simply isn’t realistic. I have a clerk who’s worked here for forty years; she loves her job and she’s absolutely excellent at it, but barring shifts in technology, her actual job duties haven’t changed much in literally decades. It’s a job that someone with considerably less experience could probably also do very well, but I don’t think that means she’s stagnating.

          1. Allypopx*

            I’m sure she’s not! And I’m sure she’s great at her job. But – and this could be an incorrect assumption – she also probably wouldn’t describe her job as high pressure or many of the other descriptors the OP used here. When we talk about employee stagnation we’re typically talking about it as a risk factor for demoralization and losing good people, and we’re typically referring to jobs where that’s a concern. Usually jobs where there’s the potential for mobility but someone isn’t moving.

            Also, that clerk probably has grown a lot. She’s found more efficient ways to do things. She’s acquired massive amounts of knowledge. She does her job better than someone less experienced would. Growth doesn’t have to be upward.

            1. aebhel*

              Okay, that makes sense. :) All my work experience has been in either small family-owned business or civil service, so that probably affects my perspective.

        2. PepperVL*

          Exactly. It’s not necessarily how much work you can do, it’s how well you perform the work, how you represent yourself, how you grow your knowledge. In customer facing jobs, it’s how you interest with the customers. It’s how you relate to your co-workers. It’s what you’re doing to make your process more efficient. It’s how well you handle different duties, things like that.

  35. Emi.*

    Hi, I am a statistician. It is so, so cute that your HR person thinks everything ought to be normally distributed, but if “mediocre performers don’t last until annual review,” that means you have fired (or not even hired) roughly the left half of the bell curve. Trying to massage half of a normal distribution into a whole of a normal distribution is crazy.

  36. eplawyer*

    Ugh, bell curves. Flash backs to Law School. Which did breed internal competition. Fortunately at my school, not nearly the horror stories you heard at other schools. Things like refusing to share notes if someone missed a class or actively sabotaging a paper. Because if someone is going to fail, just because the curve says so and you staying in school depends on not failing, and you have a mountain of debt, you are going to resort to desperate measures. At least the grading was allegedly anonymous and the teacher was responsible for the curve.

    In your case, you do the grading and someone else re-orders without even knowing the actual work of the person to fit them into some artificial construct.

    You might need a better way to evaluate people, but a bell curve is not it.

    1. Ally*

      One of my science classes with a lab component was graded on a bell curve and someone deliberately sabotaged the class solutions. Nothing that actively caused physical harm to anyone, but still a horribly shitty thing to do. Fortunately the professors did not punish or make people redo that particular lab. Any pre-med requisite class (I was not pre-med but had a major that overlapped with some of the required classes) that was graded on a curve was just horrible.

      1. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

        Why didn’t they punish the person who sabotaged the solutions!???

        (I know this was prob infeasible, but it drives me mad that a professor would even think of “punishing” people for a sabotaged lab instead of addressing the fact that some sociopath is so worried about med school that they tried to cheat all their classmates to do it.)

    2. Delta Delta*

      I went to a law school that had a B- curve when I was there. The thought was that it would push people to study hard and shoot for the top of the curve. In actuality, since everyone knew they were going to get a B- and they could explain it away in interviews, people didn’t study all that much. I studied more than some and greatly benefited from the B- curve. Not that I gamed the system or anything – I figured if I was going to spend $100,000 I might as well do as well as I could.

  37. Ashley the Nonprofit Exec*

    The key with “mental health days” is to be discreet. If you call in on a day when it doesn’t really impact others, and you aren’t a person who already takes a lot of sick time, that’s fine. This gets tricky for me when staff ask specifically whether it’s okay. Our policy says sick days are for illness. You’re not sick. So it puts me in a weird position to tell you that you can take sick days when you tell me that you aren’t sick (having actual symptoms of a mental health problem is entirely different). People also take vacations because they are tired and want to recharge, but there’s obviously a line between taking a sick day to fly to a resort in Puerto Rico and staying home mid-week when you’ve hit your max. Because that line is hard to define and puts me in the position of explicitly contradicting our policies, I’d rather not be asked about it. Just do it. Discreetly.

      1. Allypopx*

        I think Ashley is talking about when they explicitly ask her if it’s allowed, and she’s put in a tough spot because technically, by policy, it’s not. When I asked my former manager about mental health days he got really uncomfortable and just said “if you tell me you’re sick I’ll believe you.” Sometimes it’s hard to be in the position of enforcing a crappy policy.

        1. Trout 'Waver*

          But telling someone with an under-control mental health issue that requires self-care that they’re not sick is the same as telling someone who had a broken bone that requires physical therapy that they’re not sick.

          Why not just say, “I trust your professionalism that you’ll only take the days you need when you feel you need them, and if you say you need a day, I’ll believe you.” instead of “You’re not sick. I’d rather not be asked about it.”

            1. Allypopx*

              Sure. I think we’re reading two different meanings of “mental health days”. The quotations and the comment about mental health problems being different make me think we’re talking here about casual decompression days not self care for an ongoing illness or issue.

              1. Ashley the Nonprofit Exec*

                Yeah, if you are taking time for a mental health issue (prevention, treatment, whatever), that’s clearly a sick day. I’m taking about people who plainly state that there’s nothing wrong at all – they just want an extra day off without using their (generous) vacation time.

                I don’t have to be convinced that mental health problems are real health problems. I work in a related field and have plenty of personal/family experience with mental illness.

          1. Elizabeth H.*

            But having an acute illness isn’t the only legitimate use of sick time, anyway. You also use it to go to your doctor’s or dentist or therapy (physical or mental) appointments or colonoscopy or whatever.
            I actually like the response “If you tell me you’re sick I’ll believe you.” It conveys the necessary information, trust in employees’ responsibility, etc.

          2. Gaia*

            That is literally not what she is saying. She is saying people explicitly asking to take it when they admit they *don’t* need it for actual physical or mental health issues. No one is talking about judging whether someone needs to take preventative measures for mental or physical health.

            1. Ashley the Nonprofit Exec*

              Yes – that’s it. If people tell me they are sick, I believe them and I don’t ask questions (provided it’s not some out-of-control thing). But if they specifically tell me they aren’t sick, it puts me in a weird position. Like, if someone says, “it’s supposed to be 70 degrees on Friday so I thought i might go for a long hike. You mind if I take that as a sick day/mental health day”? Either take a vacation day, or just tell me that you need the day off for “health stuff” or something like that.

        2. LaurenB*

          I work for an employer that most people here would find incredibly generous (public sector in Canada), for a very laid-back and flexible manager, and planning sick days in advance or taking them for anything other than acute illness or medical appointments is still absolutely forbidden around here. I don’t think it’s such an outrageous or crappy policy that needs to be apologized for.

          1. JanetM*

            I’m sorry; I’m confused — you say, “planning sick days in advance … is still absolutely forbidden.”

            I’m sure I’m misunderstanding, because that looks as though something like, “I need knee replacement surgery and will be out for six weeks starting on X date,” would be disallowed? Or even, “I have a dentist appointment on thus-and-such a date, and will need three hours of sick leave that morning”?

            I do apologize if I’m missing something stupidly obvious.

            1. LaurenB*

              No, you’re right, sorry for the confusion. Medical appointments should be scheduled in advance, but “I’ll be taking Friday off and claiming a sick day for it because I need a mental health day” wouldn’t fly. It’s just like Ashley was saying above, you can get away with it by being discrete and just calling in sick, provided you have the time available, but I don’t think it’s so unusual to not officially sanction planned R&R days.

              1. Jessie the First (or second)*

                I would hope your employer considers an episode of anxiety or depression an acute illness. Or a flare-up of any other medical, but mental health based, condition.

          2. caryatis*

            Yes…if the employer provides vacation time, USE THE VACATION TIME when you need a vacation. As other people have pointed out, “vacation” doesn’t necessarily mean you’re getting on an airplane, a vacation can be any time you need a break.

          3. Chinook*

            ” I don’t think it’s such an outrageous or crappy policy that needs to be apologized for.”

            I agree with you, especially since the unionized portion of the public sector ahs a very generous vacation and sick leave plan (atleast for those who have been around for a while). If you say something like “I’ll be taking Friday off and claiming a sick day for it because I need a mental health day,” you are essentially taking from the open ended sick day pot (which doesn’t pay out when you leave) and placing it firmly in your vacation pot (which does pay out at the end), which means the person making the request is financially benefitting from the lie.

  38. OtterB*

    Mental health day. This is reminding me why I love the time off policies at my small not-for-profit. We get vacation time, and we get personal-days time. Personal days should not be tacked onto a vacation but per my boss can be used for anything that makes your life easier. Sick days, medical appointments, sick family members, parent-teacher conferences, schools have a snow day, waiting for the plumber (although many of us work from home for that kind of thing), waiting at the motor vehicle administration – or the occasional mental health day.

  39. Joie De Vivre*

    #2 – I agree, it is a bad practice to use a bell curve for evaluations and pay increases. My husband’s former employer put the bell curve for appraisals/wage increases into place. My husband left after he got a really good evaluation, but got the low end of an increase. When he asked what he could of done different, and would need to do different in the future to get a better raise he was told “nothing, it was your turn”.

    It didn’t take him long to find a new job.

  40. IT_Guy*

    OP #2 – No, NO! This is completely off the rails! My company used to do this because Microsoft did this (They’ve quit this practice), until people started pointing out that it doesn’t matter how good or bad you are, all you have to do is sabotage your team so you look better than them. This is totally divisive and there are a lot of articles about this in LinkedIn.

  41. Allypopx*

    #2 has my hackles up because I’m currently doing performance evaluations, and I had to go back and forth with our new HR person about because we had different perspectives on how to do them. I work at a much smaller organization so I think it was probably easier to have a dialogue, and we did reach an agreement, but oh if this was even suggested I would have gladly led a riot.

    Definitely form an organized pushback, but you might be more successful if you can meet them halfway. They’ve said their goal is to recognize high performers, have a conversation about how to do that without punishing also-very-good performers. Come to the table with suggestions. Talk about raising standards and how to do that. But emphasize that the focus should be on setting management goals that inspire good employees, not demoralize them.

  42. Employment Lawyer*

    I expect people to take two mental health days every week. I call them “weekends.”

    I also expect them to take mental health days throughout the year. I call those “vacation” or “holidays,” depending.

    If an employee took a mental health day other than those, and if it wasn’t a real mental health issue (your meds are messed up) that is not acceptable.

    Seriously, if your job is so bad that you can’t manage on weekends and you can’t manage with your vacation and you need to lie to your employer and use a sick day for your mental health, perhaps you should consider switching jobs.

    1. Trout 'Waver*

      That’s grossly unfair and a perfect example of the stigma people with mental health issues face.

      Tell me, who determines what a “real” mental health issue is?

      1. Employment Lawyer*

        A “real” issue means the employee is unable to work. You know when they say “I was unable to come in today.” Maybe they’re having a panic attack, or had insomnia for two days, or whatever. I have had plenty of employees who took mental health days and I’ve literally never objected to one, though frankly if they were super common I would rather reschedule the employee to work fewer days.

        But as for “who decides:” The employee, if I trust them, or me, if I don’t trust them. When in doubt I decide, since I am the one paying the employee to stay home sick.

        Sick days are for when you’re infectious, or if you have one of those special qualifying legal issues, which practically or legally mean you’re “unable to work.”. Sick days are not usable when you’re unhappy or unwilling to work; you get vacation and weekends for that. I mean unable.

        And THIS PARTICULAR OP, in case you missed it, was wondering “if it would be a good way to recharge.” They don’t need it; they’re not unable to work. in fact they don’t take a day because they’re busy, which indicates they’re perfectly able to work. This OP has no business taking a sick day for “mental health” on that basis. That is why I responded as I did.

    2. Jade*

      That’s your opinion and your perogative as an employer, but I think Alison makes a good point that it’s a good practice to allow staff some freedom. A company culture that gives employees leeway and and control over managing their workloads is a company good employees are going to want to stay at.

    3. Allie*

      I think that is far, far too harsh, especially for people who have irregular work schedules or difficult jobs. For instance, my sister works in the criminal law field and is sometimes required to handle terrible cases, including being called to homicide crime scenes in the middle of the night and attending autopsies, some of which are for children. Her job puts unique psychological stress on her and those she works with. She manages other attorneys and will completely let an attorney have a day off to mentally recover from a nasty trial or let them go home early after a particularly nasty meeting or crime scene. My sister’s job is an extreme example, but one that when doing something that hard, self care is important.

      1. Allypopx*

        Your sister is amazing I wouldn’t be able to do that kind of work. To give a less extreme example, my job can be quite stressful and I have split weekends so I don’t get much of a break, and I have a lot of commitments outside of work so rest days are things I typically have to schedule. I also have mental health issues that are pretty well under control but sometimes get bad, and when they do those commitments and my job don’t just go away, so I need to call a time out and use half a sick day or something to chill out and realign my brain. That results in me being a better performer overall than if I burned myself out just pushing through it.

          1. Chinook*

            But not having sufficient vacation time is a completely different issue from using sick time inappropriately (and actually a good argument for a healthy vacation policy). .

            1. Jessie the First (or second)*

              It isn’t an inappropriate use of sick time if it is approved by your boss, which, in this particular comment thread, is what happens. Some employers are honestly okay with sick days as self-care days.

        1. Allie*

          Exactly. She doesn’t want a stressed out or upset prosecutor at work but forcing them to take vacation. Onciously things like hearings, depos, and trials can’t be avoided. I know for a fact that my sister often has to work through illness – she once had a case where she was horribly ill but the judge refused her a continuance so she would go out of the courtroom and throw up between witnesses.

          1. Allie*

            Sorry for the typos, I am not great at typing on my phone.

            Prosecutors get very little vacation, and in my sister’s state, are paid very poorly so unpaid time off isn’t realistic.

        2. Jessie the First (or second)*

          Because you can’t plan ahead for having received an emergency phone call at midnight the night before and having to travel to the crime scene of a murdered child, and you can’t plan ahead for how that unexpected phone call and crime scene affects you the next morning.

    4. Katie the Fed*

      My experience has led me to believe that treating employees as adults and trusting them when they say they need a day creates happy, healthy and productive employees.

      I also work in a VERY high stress environment (especially the last few months). I don’t want my employees finding new jobs. They good at what they do and I want to retain them.

      1. Detective Amy Santiago*

        This this this!

        Last Wednesday, I was feeling kind of out of sorts, so I left work early and ended up sleeping for 3 hours in the middle of the day. I wasn’t really sick, but I was apparently run down. And it was great because getting that rest helped me be far more productive for the rest of the week.

    5. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

      This is an awful, unfeeling, unsympathetic, and short-sighted approach to a common experience for a lot of workers out there.

    6. anonderella*

      This comment has me seeing red. That’s fantastic for you, that you have the luxury to make that judgement on others. Rarely do I read something here that is so bull-headed that it does not even consider others’ needs and motivations AT ALL – seriously, I don’t know why you would even bother writing that down, let alone trying so actively in the first place to “other” others, intentionally misunderstand others’ suffering, and otherwise fail so wondrously-blunderously at being a compassionate human being. Today, you tragically erred by KNOWINGLY failing to display even a minutely acceptable level of empathetic conduct – you’re comparing a standard of TIME-TRACKING (calendar system!) to the results of the entire history of human emotional behavior — let alone culture differences!!
      I am so fabulously disappointed in this perspective that I have to cut myself off here. I just genuinely hope you are not in a position to manage the way others use their personal time off, you robot.
      Try and have an inkling of what a soul is next time you slap these incredibly tone-deaf generalizations on a commentariat advocating responsible use of personal time off work – if that’s too symbolic of advice for you to take seriously, then you may need to actually go find a mentally-unwell person and put on their shoes and walk a freakin mile. Or, you know, ask them what they prefer instead of making assumptions.

      *goes and takes a mental health minute, after all this.* Deal with it.

      1. caryatis*

        You’re really being rude. And assuming that “Employment Lawyer” has no mental illness of their own, which you don’t know. People ought to be able to have different opinions about this without being covered with insults.

        1. anonderella*

          “People ought to be able to have different opinions about this without being covered with insults.”

          I agree with this, but I’m not sure that anything I said was *that* harsh, and certainly none of it was undeserved; I think Employment Lawyer crossed a line and needed to hear MY perspective. Besides, it was far from the first time I’d heard an insulting and egregious comment from that same commenter. I don’t think you can go around throwing out brash comments and not expect for someone to get fed up. I wasn’t reaching for Justice Cookies – I was so put off by that weirdly insulting comment (and others were as well, it seems) that I saw red and had to say something. I don’t think I crossed any line that wasn’t asked to be crossed – what Employment Lawyer wrote was so close to trolling that I almost couldn’t type a response.
          Re: “assuming that “Employment Lawyer” has no mental illness of their own”, I did not make that assumption. Mental health is a serious issue, and I feel I took it more seriously by defending those who are stigmatized and “othered”, than the perspective to which I was responding, which EL’s comment perpetuates by being so thoughtless and compassionless.

          1. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

            I had the same response as you, anonderella (seeing red), but I do have to admit that I almost responded to your post with the same message—i.e., that even if Employment Lawyer’s post is maddening, we have to try to be kind in our communications. I’m not saying this to undermine your frustration—I also thought the comment bordered on trolling, particularly when compared with Engineer Girl’s post upthread, which raised the same point.

          2. anonderella*

            @ Employment Lawyer:
            I apologize that I lost control of my temper.

            @caryatis, Allypopx, & Princess Consuela Banana Hammock:
            You are all right; I appreciate you being super polite and considerate when calling me out on my mistake. One forgets drawing pistols risks shooting off one’s foot. Into one’s mouth.

    7. rPM*

      This response reminds me of the recent letter where an employee was denied time off because the manager didn’t approve of using vacation time for a video game tournament. What makes you more qualified than your employee to decide whether a mental health issue is “real” or whether their mental state makes them unable to work effectively that day? Would you try to distinguish on an employee’s behalf whether physical symptoms were severe enough to qualify as a “real” illness, or would you let the employee decide for themselves that they’re physically too ill to work? IMO, if an employee has a certain amount of sick days included in their benefits package, they should be considered the expert on their own health and should be able to use those benefits at their discretion.

      Additionally, saying “…if your job is so bad that you can’t manage…” seems to ignore that people have stressors outside of work that can still impact their work performance, and fails to distinguish between potential to work at all (“manage”) vs maximizing productivity at work. If an employee had a particularly difficult week, whether at work or outside of it, and feels that a day off to reduce stress levels and recharge would help them feel happier and healthier… who is actually losing here? There’s a big difference between being able to “manage” and being happy, energized, and productive on the job.

    8. say what?*

      lol – not all of us get “weekends”
      Or comp time.
      And as an aside, when you are overly stressed out & in desperate need of a “mental health day”, it’s not all that easy to just switch jobs.

      Your comment is just so offensive & belittling I worry about anyone who would hire you as an “Employment Lawyer”.

        1. say what?*

          mea culpa…no way to edit that off.
          (stressed after working the past 20 days straight including nights & weekends)

      1. Gazebo Slayer (formerly I'm a Little Teapot)*

        Or vacation time. I’ve only had one job in my whole life that offered vacation – and that was ten years ago and the vacation wasn’t a lot – and I’m continually amazed that all you people actually have it. I only even get sick days because I’m lucky enough to live in a state that legally mandates five a year.

        “Check your privilege!” is an Internet cliche for a reason.

  43. Delphine from Belgium*

    > 2. Is our new employee ranking system insane?

    We have something that seems quite close to what is described here… but the “re-ranking” of all is to ensure a consistency along the various teams for we know that at least one manager sees her team with rose-coloured glass and give them grades too high, while at least one other manager is quite harsh with good work being not enough.
    This type of correction is ok. Maybe there is a global bell, but unfortunately we are in Belgium and low performers are not especially put under pressure.
    What is more contentious, is that we have several objectives with for each a performance ranked on a 1 to 5 hyperbolic scale. The scale is 1 = insufficient; 2 = need improvement ; 3 = good ; 4 = significantly exceed expectations ; 5 = above all expectations. Problem is everybody has 3 everywhere unless the objective was not SMART. (we are a technical lab)
    Evaluations impact our bonus, and our raises.
    Problem is if you have 3 everywhere, you have only 85% of your personal factor for the bonus. (there is also a collective part). So part of the anual evaluation is to convince my boss to put some 4…

    In OP case, the problem is the curve for each department. Ranking can only be useful on a sufficient number of elements

  44. Katie*

    OP#2, my workplace implemented something that sounds similar a couple of years ago, except without the extreme level of putting the lowest people on a PIP (as far as I know, at least). But it was a system in which we each received grades, and managers only had X number of the top grades to give out, and had to make their grades fall on a bell curve within their own departments. These grades are directly tied to what raise you receive. The reason given was that it was supposed to motivate the best workers.

    It was HORRIBLE. The hit to morale was huge, as well as the feeling that you were always in competition with your closest coworkers and wanting them to screw up so that your raise didn’t take a hit. It was also really frustrating that whole teams of really high performers would have to fall under the same curve as another entire team, who may not be doing as great a job as a group. So even if Fergus on team Y was actually a better employee than Bozo on team Z, Bozo could get a higher raise because the rest of team Z was even worse, and Fergus was on a team of rock stars.

    They only did it for one year, and then pulled back a bit on it because of all of the anxiety and stress it caused for everyone, and the fact that it was so complicated. We now have a slightly simpler system that eliminated the actual “Grades” (at least on the surface, although I suspect they are still being used behind the scenes). It is still the case that we have to compete against our teammates for raises, which just really sucks. One thing that made everyone calm down a bit was the realization that the difference in raises was so small that the difference of being a high performer and a low performer often just amounted to a couple of dollars a week (which of course motivates no one, but also doesn’t put the fear of God in anyone either).

    If you have any power at all, fight this! It has made my workplace a much much worse place to be, and I’m trying really hard to find another job!

    1. Paul*

      I’m curious, but if you owned the company, how would you institute raises. I’m currently at a company with the grades, and while I don’t like not being able to reward people that deserve a bonus, everyone gets a raise of some sort.

      I wouldn’t want to work at a company where the different is pay scale between top and bottom was small. That wouldn’t motivate anyone to work hard. Unfortunately I think the only way to motivate is through either additional time off or money. If you are a manager and can’t control either, how do you reward people? Do you not give raises to low performers and give it all to high performers? If everyone is a “high performer” do you simply give everyone the same raise?

      It’s a difficult situation and unless you can convince every employee that they shouldn’t work for money (good luck with that), you will always have the issue of people wanting to be rewarded for hard work with money, and therefore always some sort of “soft” stack ranking. On a large team, everyone knows who deserves bonuses, both team members and managers.

  45. Employment Lawyer*

    2. Is our new employee ranking system insane?
    I don’t entirely agree with AAM here.

    You should start by considering what made them do this move. Then you should tailor your response accordingly.

    I agree a strict bell curve is very odd. But it may be that your company thinks it has an issue with what amounts to “grade inflation.” At some companies, everyone thinks that they’re a top performer and everyone thinks their employees are the bestest awesomest people ever, and it isn’t really true about everyone. People’s judgment tends to skew in their own favors and in favor of people who they like, manage, and relate to. Because in fact there’s a bit of a bell curve which SHOULD exist: if the company goal is to have all superstars, then they should simultaneously (a) be promoting superstars and (b) firing employees as soon as you have concluded that they aren’t going to reach superstar status, even if they’re otherwise competent.

    It sounds like you’ve already signed on to this theory, since you mention that “mediocre performers don’t last until annual review in my shop.” It’s still likely, though, that you are suffering from normal human biases: your employees may not be as good as you think and your idea of where they fall in the overall company may be incorrect.

    So I see two issues.

    First, you may have to get around the “average” issue. “Average” at Google is way smarter than “average” at Electron Hut. The expectations are very different, as is the salary. If it’s applied fairly, you need to live with the label.

    Second, you may need to argue for unequal distribution. The issue isn’t that HR thinks some folks are above or below average. The issue is that they may assume that these folks are equally distributed by department, which isn’t true. Just because your department has 1/10 of the total employees does NOT mean it has 1/10 of the lowest performers. After all, you already fired them! And in fact if they think you have a lot of low performers in your department, sucking on the company teat, then they shouldn’t be keeping you as a manger. But there’s some risk here, since your department may not be the stellar performer you expect it to be.

    Certainly if you want to gang together and protest the whole thing, you can. But the smart move for your own personal advancement may be to see what HR is trying to do here (improve the company by eliminating low performers and advancing superstars) and see if you can help HR do it in a way which advances your career (new metrics which will help identify such folks.)

    1. Mike C.*

      I don’t think taking such an individual approach to a systemic issue is really the key to self promotion or growth of the company as a whole.

      1. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

        Absolutely agreed. Whatever HR is trying to achieve, this is the wrong tool, and trying to justify the use of a bad tool isn’t helpful. But I do think it could be useful to probe HR on what they’re trying to achieve and to marshal information accordingly.

    2. Kyrielle*

      I agree that may be what they’re trying to address, but they may be using the wrong tool for it.

      If OP #2’s department is typical – that is, if low performers get managed out quickly across the board – or if the company has no desire to differentiate *how* low a performer a bad perform is – then I’d be tempted to expand the ranking points system with more above the average line than below. (So 1-5, 1 being doesn’t meet expectations, 2 being meets expectations, and 3-5 being various flavors of exceeding expectations, with 5’s being defined to make them pretty rare and hard to get.)

      If they do need to differentiate “how bad is this” then 1-6 with “meets” on 3 might work.

      But the goal is to make “exceeds expectations” a range rather than a single target. Because I’d bet that the OP’s team has people who exceed expectations *to different degrees* – but still all do exceed expectations.

      1. Kyrielle*

        And to be clear, no bell curve. Employees don’t work that way.

        I was told very clearly that it’s hard to get an “exceeds” rating here, possible but hard, because once you consistently exceed they tend to promote you to the next highest technical grade, which has higher expectations. And you know, I’m fine with that. The vast majority of our team is probably meeting expectations – not that I have any visibility into that, nor should I need to.

        1. Employment Lawyer*

          February 22, 2017 at 10:24 am
          And to be clear, no bell curve. Employees don’t work that way.


          If you hire above a certain standard–say, you graph “competence” and only hire folks who are 2 standard deviations above the mean-then relative to your set of employees you’d actually get a one-sided curve, weighted to the lower end.

          If you don’t think you can accurately judge that then you’d probably end up with a bell curve.

          How do you think it would work, if not like that?

          1. Kyrielle*

            I meant, don’t use a bell curve, because in general groups of employees do not fall on a perfectly-distributed bell curve across all rankings. Especially if your hiring is decent.

            1. Teaches HR at a major University*

              Yes the use and misuse of statistics!

              As alluded to above, research in work performance strongly suggests that a power curve (Pareto) distribution is more accurate than a normal (Gaussian) distribution representation of a population’s work performance. So even if you want the outcomes from forced stack ranking the normal curve you are fitting to doesn’t reflect the reality of performance (even if we disregard the insanity of expecting large number distributions to be found in smaller groups which were selectively picked and managed already).

              Take away is that if the group were to follow the power curve distribution the “typical” performer would actually perform below the arithmetic mean, but that there are a higher number of “star” performers than if a normal distribution were present. So if HR forces the normality assumption, it is very likely high performers will get performance ratings that are artificially low. Of course any of this assumes that the group is large and diverse enough to follow a population performance distribution not an example of an economics department of Nobel Prize winning economists.

              In short, forced stack ranking can accomplish some performance related goals especially in jobs where individual performance is paramount (not teamwork) or when systemic poor management has created areas full of weak performers where new hires are likely to perform better than those released. Any use for a lengthy period of time is likely to have severe dysfunctions brought about by the destructive effects of using the tool which will likely have a bad consequence for firm performance.

              It is a bad system in most contexts, and is also a like playing with fire in that it is dangerous and potentially very destructive.

              1. Kyrielle*


                I mean, if your employees actually *do* track on a bell curve when honestly rated, then I think you have some fairly serious problems in your hiring, management, or both….

          2. nonymous*

            To expand, bell curves are great for describing a random observation from a random population. But hopefully your hiring practice isn’t random – the way the job is advertised and the interview process will affect what segment of the curve that employees are pulled from.

            Now lets say OP’s company did exactly what you describe: only hire folks who are 2 standard deviations above the mean-then relative to your set of employees you’d actually get a one-sided curve, weighted to the lower end. How does this subset magically change to a bell shaped curve come review time?

    3. Observer*

      They are totally using the wrong tool and approach.

      And the interesting thing here is that you are providing an EXCELLENT example of ONE of the problems with the approach they are using. Basically, you are advocating that the OP do what is in her self interest vs the interest of the company because even within the context of the company, the two are widely divergent, and there is little or no upside to working to improve the organization as a whole.

  46. gwal*

    #4 “There’s a new leader of world teapots and we anticipate having to do a lot more work defending the tea drinkers we represent.” This could apply to a lot of jobs right now I think!

  47. Katie the Fed*

    #1 I don’t know that you need to call them mental health days. Just take a personal day. I’m doing it Friday :)

    1. always in email jail*

      My personal policy (and vague “ethical” boundaries I guess?) for using sick days instead of personal days is that, if I’m using leave from “sick” leave, I will not do a big project, run errands, meet someone for lunch, etc. I rest my body and mind, veg on feel-good TV, etc. I view that as part of self care.

      Our sick leave is “use or lose” every year, and can be used for medical/dental appointments. I’ll sometimes use a whole day for an appointment that is in the middle of the day, rather than commute 40 minutes to work, 40 minutes to the doctor’s office, 40 minutes back to work, then 40 minutes home. I’m sure it’s not TECHNICALLY how you’re supposed to use it, but I don’t feel too many qualms.

      I also have a chronic condition that can be exacerbated by nerves or stress (Ulcerative Colitis). Obviously I normally have to power through, but some days when there’s nothing too hard on the schedule if it flares up in the morning I’ll take the whole day off, even if the symptoms stop by 10am. I figure my body needs to rest and recharge.

      1. always in email jail*

        I should add that, like Alison said, I would never take a “recharge” or “self-care” day if I had a single meeting (no matter how seemingly insignificant) scheduled, anything due, etc.

      2. Katie the Fed*

        ooooh ok I see the difference. Mental health day = sick leave. Personal day = vacation. That makes sense.

        I’m probably viewing this as a pampered federal employee because I usually have plenty of both types of leave saved up. :/

        I generally tell my employees that I don’t care why they’re out – just take the time they need.

        1. always in email jail*

          I’m a state employee, and our sick leave cannot be used when our children are sick, we have to use personal leave or annual leave. So many personal days go to sick children :(

          1. Katie the Fed*

            Not sure if it’s true for you, but where I am that means women are the ones burning through their leave.

          2. fposte*

            Wow, that sucks; I’m a state university employee and sick leave is explicitly acceptable for caretaking (and doctor’s appointments).

  48. Gaia*

    See now, this is why I prefer our performance reviews. We ask a set of questions around what the successes were for the evaluation period, what the challenges were or what went poorly and then what lessons were learned from that and what changes plan on being implemented in addition to what the next period’s goals will be. It is very open ended and, by nature, customizable. People are not ranked.

    While I do think that not everyone should be “exceeds expectations” when you do use a ranking system (if everyone exceeds, why is that not the new expectation?) the idea of forcing someone into a needs improvement when they *don’t* need improvement is a quick way to lose high performers even if they aren’t the ones being artificially lowered.

  49. MommyMD*

    I take four to five burn out mental health days per year. There is a point where the onslaught of patients and the workload builds up and you need that one additional day to breathe. I consider this a valid sick day. It is never a day about sleeping in, or doing anything away from home. It’s a valid mental recovery day so I can start the process over again.

  50. Observer*

    #2 Do yourself a favor and google “stack ranking” which is what your new HR person wants to do. It’s a common ranking system – and it only works in very, very limited situations. It’s often brought into companies that are having problems as a way to force our low performers, and force managers to actually manage. But, even under the best of circumstances it impedes teamwork, and there are better ways to get managers to manage, and to move poor performers out of the organization.

    1. Allypopx*

      Yes. That’s what’s confusing me so much about it in this instance! They’re specifically saying it’s the best way to honor high performers and it’s really, really not. If anything it’s going to create animosity because if Betty did $3000 in commission and you did $2990 in commission and you end up on a PIP because Betty took the last “good employee” spot on the bell curve you’re probably not going to be too happy with Betty. Which isn’t fair or rational but is a common enough human reaction that it needs to be considered in this case. You’re creating super unnecessary competition and risking losing good people.

      1. Observer*

        Or maybe I won’t get upset with Betty, but I’ll “have” to start not passing on messages from clients and customers. And, I’ll give her GLOWING references when she starts job seeking. I might even tell her that I’m giving her great references and ask her to do the same…

  51. Leah Shoshi*

    #5: There is a huge variety of women who cover their hair (or lack thereof). Hairloss, religious conviction, personal conviction. As for possible discrimination, there are just so many things to face discrimination over (just being a woman one of them) that even explaining your situation will not cover every base with every person. I cover my hair as a Jewish married woman, usually with a wig, but I’m part of an online community based around the headscarf business They have online forums and a facebook group that often sees posts by women navigating job interviews with headcoverings, and various levels of experience in the workplace and with covering their hair. I highly recommend that as a resource to get a sense of others’ experiences. I’ve never purchased anything myself but still feel quite welcome to participate in the facebook group.

    1. Anna Pigeon*

      It never occurred to me that someone who needed to cover their hair for religious reasons could do so with a wig. I will google this, but if you wouldn’t mind, I’d like to hear your individual perspective.

        1. Anna Pigeon*

          My understanding was that the requirement not to show your hair was about modesty, so it didn’t matter if it was natural or artificial hair.

          A little google research tells me that this particular rule is interpreted differently in different Jewish communities, with some accepting a wig as a hair covering and some not, and some taking a middle ground that a wig is acceptable only if it is obviously a wig.

          Generally, I’m interested in how women interpret various religious requirements – one woman will be empowered by a requirement that another finds stifling or demeaning. An individual telling their own story can provide more nuance than I can get from a general article like the one I just summarized.

          1. Observer*

            It’s a pretty good summary. But, she is incorrect about something. Most people who a knowledgeable of these laws will tell you that flesh colored sleeves are not ok – certainly not in the spirit of Tzniut and many would argue against the actual law. Similarly, even most who totally accept the use of wigs would say that a wig that is long and loose presents similar problems.

            I’m actually fine with it, and with time, I’ve come to really, really appreciate it. Sensuousness is intimate, and I’m very happy not to have the pressure to expose that in public. Even more so not to have the pressure of walking the line of not enough vs too much. Especially since this winds up putting women into a bind of either being “uptight” and “hung up” vs “slutty”.

  52. Blue-Green*

    #3 Maybe there’s also the issue that if she’s working a LOT, now she’s set the expectation that that’s as much work as she’s going to do.

    I think it’s hard to talk to a boss in that situation because you’re basically saying, “I’m only going to do half as much work as I used to,” because she might be afraid she’s going to get fired. Especially if she already thinks all the re-orgs are because they think she’s low performing.

    I’m curious what other people have to say about this because I was in the same situation as #3, and it’s hard not to internalize things when your boss tells you “This is the work that has to be done.” I had to be on the verge of quitting before I got help.

    1. Blue-Green*

      Clarification: I wasn’t on the verge of quitting before I asked for help; I was on the verge of quitting before help was GIVEN. Before that, I was just told I had to stay longer and come in every weekend.

    2. Allypopx*

      Mm, I have definitely learned that once you shown you’re willing to work a lot it becomes the expectation.

      I also have had a boss encourage me to work off the clock when I was hourly because of that and get upset when I said no so…yeah, I sympathize.

      The best thing is to say something like “I’ve noticed a lot of last minute requests are coming up that I can’t reasonably finish before I leave for the night. I’ve stayed late once or twice to make sure those get done, but obviously that can’t be the norm. How would you like me to respond to requests like these? What projects should I be prioritizing?”

      Of course that’s very hard to do if you’re scared of being fired, but I feel like the key is to not say “I’m going to do half as much work” (I know you didn’t mean that literally) but to make it a conversation about how work should be balanced and prioritized.

      1. Blue-Green*

        Yeah that’s what I’m saying. Maybe the employee in #3 does have low self-esteem, BUT that doesn’t mean she doesn’t have a reason for working a lot.

        It’s likely she’s anxious BECAUSE she’s not getting everything done and THATS why she’s working late… and if she’s working late then talking to the boss will bring up the conversation, “Well why are you behind in the first place?” It’s a tough hole to dig out of once you’re already in it.

  53. Allison*

    #1 I’ve taken a few mental health days. Sometimes it’s been for depression that’s so bad I could barely get through a work day, once or twice it’s been for a bad breakup. I feel that it “counts” if I’m feeling too crappy to work, and my demeanor would bum people out, or people would consider it unprofessional for me to go in feeling that way. But I’d use the day staying in bed, or lying on the couch, drifting in and out of consciousness with the TV on, or going out to get something like food or medicine. No retail therapy or lunch with a buddy.

    But honestly, it’s none of my damn business how other people use their sick days. If a person’s absences are causing their team to fall behind, or getting in the way of work being done, sure, that’s an issue. If someone ends up coming in with the flu in November because they burned through their sick days on minor ailments (physical or mental) they probably could have sucked up, or worked from home with, that’s also a possible issue. But if someone wants to use a sick day they can afford to spare, on a day the office can survive without them, because they feel run down by depression, anxiety, stress, heartbreak, PMS, a bad hangover, or anything else that old fashioned, pearl clutching busybodies seem to think sick days shouldn’t be used for, I say let them stay home and get better so they can get (hopefully) get back to work in better condition the next day.

    #2 I’ve worked at places where if you’re numbers were the lowest in the group, or below the median or average, you were on thin ice and the managers saw fit to micromanage you, crawl up your butt, and/or urge you to get help from your peers. Even if you were getting your work done, even if your numbers were objectively fine, they didn’t care, it was a case of the squeakiest wheel getting grease (and management considering replacing the wheel altogether). It didn’t motivate me, it didn’t foster “friendly competition” that made everyone work just a little harder with a great big smile, it was stressful and made me think that management was so obsessed with numbers they forgot that the work was being done by actual humans.

  54. Collarbone High*

    Jedi sympathy hugs to #5!

    When I started taking a biologic drug for Crohn’s disease, my hair fell out in softball-sized clumps for the first few months, and apparently that’s not an uncommon problem with biologics. So one approach might be to casually say something like, “I’m taking some meds at the moment that are causing my hair to fall out like crazy, and the turban is to prevent me from shedding all over your office.”

    (Advice if you want it: topical Rogaine and biotin supplements really helped stop my hair loss and regrow it faster.) Good luck with the interview!

  55. No Belle of the Ball*

    #3 There were three things that stood out to me in your letter. 1) It seems like the things Bertha is struggling with may not, at their core, really about work, but that work is bringing some of the things she struggles with to the surface. Having the support of a therapist could be really helpful. Then she might be in a better position to figure out if there are supports she could use at work, or even if this particular job is a good fit for her.
    2) It’s clear that you care for Bertha and want to help. You also seem to feel like you have to guess or figure out how to support your friend by yourself. If you haven’t already, could you ask her what might help? Saying something like, “You seem really unhappy and anxious at work (providing specifics if helpful). As a friend, I really want to help, and I’m not sure how. Is there something specific I could do?” If she doesn’t know, you could ask if she would like to come up with some ideas together, and then see if she thinks Boss could help or if she would be open to seeing a therapist.
    3) This also sounds tiring! You and coworkers have regularly tried to provide reassurance and that hasn’t helped Bertha. Remember that you get to decide what you can and can’t (or a are willing/not willing) to do for Bertha. You might decide that you want to be fairly non-reactive when she says something about being taken off of a project because she’s not liked or wasn’t doing a good job. “I don’t think that’s the case, and I’m sorry you feel that way. Hey, where are things with Project TopTeapot?”. Setting limits doesn’t make you a bad friend or coworker.

    1. Allypopx*

      “Setting limits doesn’t make you a bad friend or coworker.”

      Such sound advice for so many scenarios.

  56. Red Rose*

    #2 – What I don’t get (and I haven’t read every last comment so please excuse me if I missed it) is that their manager is scoring them and then they are ” rescored” by people who may or may not be familiar with their work (certainly not as familiar as their own manager)? And that is what goes into their file? In addition, are they breaking their ranks down by job function or are admins thrown in with mid-level professionals thrown in with subject-matter experts? Add that to all the problems already mentioned in comments and I just don’t see any good from this way of doing things.

  57. a big fish in a small pond*

    OP #1 every few weeks?! omg, Nooooooo. MAYBE 1 – 2 days a year – even at that we expect employees to schedule time off, not call in “sick”. Unexcused absences are such a hardship on businesses / co-workers.

    1. Kyrielle*

      As a side note, OP #1, sometimes these sorts of things aren’t predictable. But sometimes they are. I try to predict mine and schedule the days off in advance – and offer to shift the day around if that particular one doesn’t work well for my team. (I am almost never taken up on that offer, but in one recent case there was a meeting I didn’t know about that was about to be scheduled, and I was asked to shift; no big deal to do so and I did.)

      Sometimes a health issue comes up you didn’t anticipate. Mental or physical. Take the time and take care of it.

      But other times it’s more predictable, and you can plan ahead. IF your workplace is not dysfunctional about doing so in some way, that’s worth doing.

  58. KPNB*

    #1 – I had a friend at an old job who would legitimately take “sick days” at least twice a month (we were very generously given 10 per year, and she used about two to three times that many). She would plan them months in advance use them on days like July 5th (“I’ll probably be hungover”), days where she’d book Thursday night/Friday flights to get out of town for long weekend trips and any other random day where she “hadn’t gotten enough sleep the night before.” All of this in addition to the three weeks vacation she’d max out every year… Very thankful to have gotten out of that dysfunctional workplace.

  59. LadyPhoenix*

    Op #5
    Arda Wigs make some very affordable wigs that can be styled. You can also purchase a wig cap or two to help with the itchiness. I would check the short wig styles since they are more managable.

  60. Greg M.*

    ugh bell curves, sounds like they hired a bad college professor over to this. You know the ones that will arbitrarily adjust grades to fit a bell curve. There I’d raise hell about it.

    In a workplace? I’d consider leaving. Let me guess, raises are affected by performance evaluations?

  61. SarahTheEntwife*

    OP #1 – from your letter it sounds more like you are feeling a need for slightly more time off in general rather than having specific run-down days you wish you could call out for. If that’s accurate, could you make habit of requesting a long weekend or random Wednesday off every couple months as vacation time?

  62. Ex-Military Officer*


    This is exactly how the Army evaluates officers. We have a bell curve and each elevator has a profile where they can only reward %10 with top marks and the rest get average or below average evaluations. Basically the people who get to be in the top %10 and thus guaranteed promotions and preferential assignments, are the ones who suck up the most.

    I left the Army partly because I thought the system was ridiculous and figured I’d never run into that system in the civilian sector. I wonder if the person who implemented this system spent any time in the military. SMH

  63. grasshopper*

    OP #2, I worked in an organization that had this kind of ranking system. It was awful. It ended up that higher level staff got good reviews because they had really broad goals (ensure Project X is completed) while lower level staff got bad reviews because their goals were much more specific and easier to see (do A, B, C for Project X).

    Even worse, there was a finite pool of money for raises. So because all the high scorers got good reviews, they took the lions share of the money pool (a 1% raise on 75k costs more than a 1% raise on 45k). Those at the bottom end of the scoring got minimal to none. I am long gone from the job, but apparently they have done away with that system.

  64. Dhya*

    OP #2 – this system is in place at my partner’s work! He actively campaigns against it but it’s an uphill battle. The whole thing is ridiculous, often demoralising, and leaves staff with no clear indication of what to do better.

  65. Leelia*

    OP #1 I have anxiety and depression that can really get to me sometimes, and I wonder about this too, seeing as I’m a young, hourly employee of little real significance. My company doesn’t pay me much, and me taking a day usually just means I don’t get paid that day, rather than that I’ve seriously screwed someone else or myself over work-wise. And yet I still feel super guilty, even when I honestly feel I’d rather swallow a bottle of pills than go to work that day. Anyone have advice on this front, besides see a therapist? I’ve never attempted suicide, but I’ve contemplated it a lot, and my job makes me feel really miserable and helpless, but it’s all I can get right now.

    1. Birdbrain*

      If you need a day off, don’t feel guilty about taking it (especially since you aren’t getting paid: you’re already “paying” for that time off; you don’t owe a payment in guilt too). Give yourself permission to take care of yourself. In your case you have anxiety and depression, which are legitimate health issues, just like if you had a physical illness that sometimes made you miss work.

      If staying home for a day means that you can return to work with a healthier attitude and more stable mental health, I think that’s time well spent and overall a benefit to you and your employer. This is how I feel about about OP #1’s question too, even if she’s just taking a day to de-stress, since it leads to happier workers and more productivity in the long run. But I agree that every couple of weeks is too often and probably means that there is an underlying cause that is worth addressing (which may be a mental health issue, a genuinely toxic work environment, etc.).

      My advice, which you can take with a grain of salt: If work makes you miserable and it’s not something you can change, do your best to cultivate other areas of your life to balance that out. (Hobbies, friends, exercise, actually cooking… easier said than done, I know…) Sometimes it makes a big difference if you have something to look forward to after work or on the weekend. “I just have to get through today, and then I can spend a few hours playing that new video game/eat a yummy dessert/hang out with my friend/insert reward here.” You are more than your job.

      P.S. I know you asked for suggestions other than therapy, but if traditional therapy isn’t an option I think there are mental health/mindfulness/anxiety apps that might be beneficial. And if you haven’t already, don’t be afraid to call a mental health support/crisis toll-free number. Sending good thoughts your way!

  66. OP #5 writer*

    OP 5 here – thanks to everyone for the comments and encouragements. I will check out Wrapunzel for some ideas. As mentioned above by a few people (and wonderful explanation of some issues by Observer) wigs are not an option for me – FYI for anyone interested, not all insurers cover wigs. Mine only covers it for those undergoing chemo.

  67. smokey*

    My work does that curve thing. And it’s set up so that it is literally impossible for anyone except two people in my department to ever get above “meets expectations” because the higher grades are reserved for people doing jobs we have nothing to do with (like, you have to bring in million-dollar contracts- only two of my dept brings in ANY contracts. Or you have to lead the team that completes a multi-million…not be on the team, or even second.)

  68. Mental Health Delayer*

    OP#1 I’m in the same situation with mental health days where I keep postponing them because the reason I’m stressed is because I’m working too much to be able to fully recharge. But something that hasn’t been mentioned is the probability that the reason why every few weeks you feel you need to take a mental health day, is because you haven’t taken one. It’s not as thou you’ve been taking them every few weeks, that would be different and maybe a sign of something else. But so far you haven’t taken the day, once you finally take the day, you might not feel this need for another six months or so. So try first, see what happens and then if you do get the same feeling while taking the days every few weeks then take the next step to see what’s going on with this job. But first take day and reassess

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