pranking a coworker who’s afraid of clowns, my mother might call my coworkers, and more

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

1. My office keeps pranking my coworker who’s afraid of clowns

I have a coworker who is terrified of clowns. He is popular in the office, and once in a while one of my other coworkers thinks it’s funny to change his wallpaper on his laptop to a scary clown picture or something of that nature. He will react in what the others think is a funny manner by screaming or running out of the building. Well, this month due to Halloween, they have been pranking him daily and have even taken up a collection to buy a clown costume to wear later this month. I want to tell him about it because I think it is juvenile and pathetic, but I worry about repercussions from my boss because she is in on it and a driving force behind it. What should I do? I need help in a hurry.

Assuming he seems to be genuinely terrified and not in on the fun, you should tell him because it’s profoundly crappy to set out to terrify someone. If your boss confronts you about it, you can say, “I assumed it was all a joke, since I didn’t think you would really set out to intentionally terrify him while he’s trying to work.”

You could also tell your coworker that you’ll support him if he wants to lay down the law with your coworkers about never doing this again or if he wants to speak to your boss or HR about it.

2. My estranged mother is likely to start calling my coworkers

I’ve been estranged from my family for a couple of years, at my choice, and have made it very clear to them that I don’t wish to have any contact. (Short version: I’m queer, they are actively hostile towards that.) All but one of them are respectful of this boundary. Yesterday, my mother called me at work and, not finding me in the office, left a voicemail. If she gets no response, her next step will probably be to call my boss and/or colleagues as a way to embarass or shame me into responding to her. I say this with confidence because she has done exactly that before, and although I told her never to do it again, I’m skeptical she has learned that lesson. Please assume I have done everything I can on the family end to stop this from happening, short of a restraining order, which is a step I’d rather not take.

How should I handle this at work? I obviously can’t predict with certainty whether my mother will call others in my workplace, but I think it’s likely. In order to call me yesterday, she would have had to look up my work phone number online; when this happened before and she didn’t hear back from me, she went through my department’s phone directory calling people until someone picked up. Last time, she told the person she was having trouble getting in touch with me, that it had been a long time since she had heard from me and was worried, and asked the person to help her get in touch or pass a message along on her behalf. All very innocuous sounding except it was VERY awkward for the person on the receiving end of her call and raised a bunch of questions about why I wasn’t in touch with my family.

In this case, my immediate department is small, less than 10 people, but my organization has several hundred employees overall. Should I bring it up ahead of time with my immediate department (and HR?), let them know the situation in broad strokes like I’ve done here, and ask them to simply direct her to my email/voicemail in a matter-of-fact way? Or should I wait to say something until she’s actually called? I don’t want to unnecessarily bring family drama into the workplace, but I also don’t want people to be caught off-guard.

I think either of those options would be fine, so you should do whichever you’re most comfortable with, but I’d lean toward just waiting to deal with it until she actually calls someone. If she does, at that point you can just say something to the person like, “Thank you, my mother tends to be very dramatic and that’s not quite the situation. I’m sorry she called you and if happens again, feel free to just send her to my voicemail.” If all she’s saying is that she hasn’t heard from you in a while and is worried, I don’t think it should be terribly awkward for people — although I definitely get that you feel awkward about it. If you’re matter-of-fact about it, though, people will mostly take their cues from you.

If she escalates beyond that — like starts saying something more alarming — then in that case I’d say to get out ahead of it, but as long as it stays at this level, you’re fine just responding as it comes up. I’m sorry you’re dealing with this.

3. Employer isn’t sending me a formal, written job offer

I am starting a new job soon that I am excited about. It is a state agency and the benefits and salary are pretty great. The only thing is, I was told I was not getting an official offer letter. I accepted the position over the phone, and when I asked if I would get anything with my salary listed that was official, they told me no, but they emailed me the original job posting with the salary listed and also verbally confirmed with me what I would be receiving monthly.

Is this normal now? Do some companies not give you official offer letters and instead only offer you the position officially over the phone? I might think that would be normal with a smaller company, but this is a state agency.

Some places don’t do formal written offers! You’re right that it’s surprising for a large agency to be among them, though. And you’re right to want some kind of written summary so that both sides are clear about what was agreed to. That’s not because employers are out to screw you over, but because otherwise you’re at higher risk of mistakes, misunderstandings, or unpleasant surprises once you start. (More about that here.)

Typically you can say something like, “Would it be possible to get all the details of the offer — salary, benefits, title, and (any other details you want to confirm) — in an email, so that I can look it over and be sure that I’m getting all the details correct?” In this case, they’re doing this weird thing of emailing you the job description, which is not especially helpful, so I’d just write up the details of the offer yourself and email it to them for confirmation. You can send an email that says something like, “I just want to summarize the details we’ve discussed. The position is (title), at a salary of ($X), and (benefits details), with a start date of (date). Would you confirm this looks right to you?”

4. I used a phrase my manager uses and she got mad

My manager is often extremely informal during meetings, with one of her favorite phrases being “I don’t care.” This is extremely off-putting to me and to other colleagues, but we’ve just come to accept it as part of her personality. I’ve chosen to define this expression from her as meaning “This is not important, let’s just move on.”

During a recent meeting, she asked me a question and I replied, “I don’t care.” She grew extremely tense, asked me to take a time-out from the meeting, and later said that my body language and tone were “passive aggressive.” That wasn’t my intention at all — I was just trying to say what I had interpreted her own statements as meaning. She continues to use that phrase in meetings, while I obviously avoid now. Is it worth having a conversation about this?

Is there any chance that you sounded annoyed or frustrated when you said it, in a way that she doesn’t when she uses that phrase? That’s a phrase where tone and body language are going to really matter, and that might account for the difference in how she perceived it.

Or, of course, she could just be hypocritical and un-self-aware.

Is she generally a reasonable person and do you generally have a good relationship with her? If so, it could be worth saying something like, “I wanted to clarify what I meant in the meeting the other day. I’ve noticed you say ‘I don’t care’ in meetings to mean ‘let’s not get hung up on this’ and I’d hoped to convey the same thing. Clearly I didn’t, but I wanted to explain why I was coming from. I’ll be more careful in the future not to inadvertently come across as passive-aggressive. It definitely wasn’t my intent.”

Or, if she’s a generally reasonable person and you’re baffled about why she reacted the way she did, you could say, “Can I ask you about something? I’ve noticed you say ‘I don’t care’ in meetings a lot — I think to signal that you want to move on. I’m trying to figure out why it came across so differently when I said it the other day.”

But if you don’t have a great relationship with her or she’s not a generally reasonable person or you know her to be a hypocrite who wouldn’t react well to this, it probably makes more sense to file away that knowledge about her and let this go.

5. Donating PTO for coworkers with serious illnesses

I have heard of individuals donating unused PTO to colleagues in need (usually due to illness) and it seems like such a kind practice. We, sadly, have an employee who might benefit from this type of support and I asked our HR rep if our company would allow this type of donation. Unfortunately, we do not.

I’m tempted to push further to ask if we could start this practice, but I understand that this likely not an easy thing to do. I’d love your thoughts on whether donating PTO is a common enough practice that a company should consider it — or — whether its better to assume that the practice has already been investigated by HR (and not pursued for specific reasons).

Do you work somewhere where people tend to accrue large amounts of PTO that roll over from year to year and often go unused? That’s the kind of environment where PTO donation programs (for people with serious illness or other emergencies) work best. Where that’s not the case, it can end up feeling like the company is inappropriately leaning on the wrong people to support their employees. (Plus, it’s actually in a company’s interests for people to take time off so they don’t get burned out. If you’re somewhere where people only earn a few weeks of PTO a year, I’d be hesitant to encourage them to give up that time, even for a good cause.) But if you’ve got generous time off and the donation program is administered fairly, then people can end up really liking it.

I wouldn’t assume that your company has already considered the practice just because they don’t have it. It’s fine to go ahead and propose it! (And if they have considered it and rejected it for specific reasons, it’s still fine to inquire, and they’ll presumably let you know that.)

{ 526 comments… read them below }

  1. Aphrodite*

    Alison, why didn’t you tell OP #1 to first tell the co-worker and second to go immediately to HR and file a formal complaint. The fact that the supervisor is leading this torture is nothing less than outrageous, and I am beyond angry that other co-workers think this is funny. IT IS NOT!

    1. LittleRedRidingHuh..?*

      I absolutely agree! It is not ok to use someone’s fears and taunt and belittle them over it.

    2. Turquoisecow*

      I think because it should be the coworker’s choice if he wants to make that formal complaint. From OP’s and our perspective, it seems like others are being cruel to him – and that may be true – but we don’t know for sure, and the decision to report behavior like that needs to be his. HR may even reply with something to that effect.

      1. Lance*

        I wouldn’t say that it matters about their intents, whether they’re trying to be ‘funny’ or they’re trying to be cruel; in the end, there’s no way this can’t be stressing the coworker out (and I’m frankly amazed they’re still there). This is very easily reportable behavior, and frankly should be reported if it doesn’t stop (and the fact that the boss is leading this makes it that much worse).

        1. Alton*

          I think it depends a little. First of all, I trust the OP’s judgement and reading of the situation, but if there’s a possibility that he’s playing along by pretending to be terrified, he might be uncomfortable and feel like he’s in trouble if someone goes to HR behind his back. And even if he is uncomfortable with the pranks, he might not appreciate someone intervening on his behalf without his consent.

          I think when it comes to reporting stuff, it’s often easier if it’s something that’s affecting the climate at the workplace as a whole. For example, even if a particular woman didn’t mind having her boss direct sexual comments at her, sexual harassment is illegal and visible sexual harassment can make others in the workplace feel uncomfortable, so it should be stopped. I think the OP here could make a case that the optics of this are bad. Even if the co-worker is only pretending to be terrified, his reactions are apparently convincing, and even if he’s in on the joke, the OP isn’t. So it’s entirely possible that HR would want to tell the OP’s boss to cut out the pranks due to the risks. But I think in terms of advocating for this one individual, he should have some say in how to handle it.

          1. Liet-Kinda*

            I agree. Ultimately, he’s the victim, not OP or (at the risk of pointing out the obvious…) any of us, so he needs to go to HR or not, and all OP can do is let him know she’s in his corner. He does need to be the one who decides how to handle it, or not handle it, as he pleases and for his own reasons.

      2. Technical_Kitty*

        It would be the co-workers choice to make a complaint about the harassment, but it is absolutely OP1’s choice to make a complaint about office culture. If it is negatively impacting OP1’s work environment and their boss is leading the harassment, OP1 can talk to HR about that. Can’t make a complaint on behalf of the co-worker, but can make a complaint for themselves.

        1. Tara2*

          I agree. People are saying that OP1 isn’t the victim here, and to an extent that’s true. But they’re still being subjected to seeing their coworkers and boss torment another coworker. If I were in OP1’s place, I’d feel very distressed about this as I also have a phobia and would be fearing how everyone in the office would react if they found out (and its bugs, so come summer time it’d be more and more likely it would happen).

          Even if OP1 doesn’t have a phobia, most people have something that would bother them. What if OP1 doesn’t like being tickled, doesn’t like being hugged, etc. And the coworkers decide their reaction to that thing is also funny. I’d honestly always be kind of on edge that I could become the workers’ next target.

          1. Khlovia*

            This, precisely. This is bullying. No guarantee the gang of bullies will stick to one target.

            Also, if I come to work and find a giant tarantula on my desk and hear snickering in the background, somebody’s going to the ER and it won’t be me.

          2. Not So NewReader*

            So agree. Don’t let on that you are afraid of heights, your next task will be to sweep the fire escape. Right, the fire escape that never needs sweeping, that one.

            OP, you can talk about the elementary school-like environment that you have to work in. I wouldn’t want to sit around all day and watch someone else be bullied.

        2. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

          Yes, this. I think it’s worth OP reporting this because of the third-party effect. It’s awful that they’re doing this to their coworker, but the boss being in on it is especially egregious. In California, there’s anti-bullying provisions that would make this kind of behavior extremely inappropriate and possibly unlawful.

        3. Cathy Gale*

          Thank you for saying this. The toxic place I recently left, the last straw involved bullying and discrimination directed at my boss. Not at me. Not at other people. But it made the atmosphere horrible. Once it starts to make your work uncomfortable, even if you’re not the target, you have a right to speak.

      3. TootsNYC*

        The only thought I have about “let the coworker decide” is that the message to everyone else is, “we will mock your vulnerabilities.”

        I wouldn’t feel safe at ALL in that department. God forbid I shudder at a cockroach; I’ll find them in my desk. Let me curl my lip at tomatoes in grilled cheese, and suddenly people will be sneaking tomato slices into my lunch when I’m not looking.

        And what if they all decide someone’s dramatic reaction to an allergy is funny? You’d think they wouldn’t go that far, but they’re going VERY far right now!

        If I were to take it to HR, that’s how I’d be framing it. “this creates a very unfriendly and unsafe environment.”

        And I would tell him, absolutely.

        1. Amelia Pond*

          I agree. I think it’s just a matter of time until they pick a new target, frankly, and I would not be able to function well with that over my head.

    3. Les G*

      Alison recommends first going to the coworker and then telling the coworker she’ll support whatever he wants to do. Your takes on this issue don’t differ as much as you seem to think.

      1. Yojo*

        I think the difference is that Aphrodite is telling the LW to go to HR herself and I don’t think that’s the answer. Whatever his reasons, the coworker hasn’t reported this. And maybe knowing one person has his back would change that decision, but if it doesn’t it isn’t up to LW to lead the charge.

    4. valentine*

      #1 is straight-up torture. I would totally ruin this for the perpetrators every chance I got, tell HR the hubbub has negatively affected my productivity, and job-search.

      1. Mookie*

        Yes. I might give the boss one chance to knock this off — approach her away from the group and not when they’re actively planning this “prank” — and then to HR I’d go. The intended victim here is the LW’s colleague, but everybody who has to witness this and bite their tongues are also being inconvenienced and discomfited. There are definite exceptions to this personal rule, where the victim gets to make the call, but I’m not hesitant to report when someone else is being bullied under these circumstances and at work. His reactions, which are both extreme and totally understandable, merit involving people with the power and the will to shut this down.

        1. Laurelma__01!*

          They might bring on an anxiety attack or another serious illness. I would be job hunting after the first time this was played on me, if I was the coworker. I know the term “hostile work place” is a phrase used to cover a great deal of work place misconduct, when it’s actually a narrow scope. Would this even fall into that category. If it’s hostile towards one person, versus others?

          I have notified HR on the behalf of someone else years ago, the individual behaving badly quit said behavior. Something must have been said. Many times silence means acceptance of behavior, or compliance.

          1. boo bot*

            I mean, they’re setting out to frighten someone who gets scared enough to run out of the building, which sounds to me like more than “clowns, ick!”

            If the coworker’s fear is a diagnosed phobia, then they’re harassing him based on a disability. I realize the bar for disability under the ADA, which is something that interferes with a significant life activity, might not seem like it would apply to a phobia of clowns… but if your job involves your coworkers are scaring you for fun with clowns, then the phobia is interfering with work!

              1. boo bot*

                I mean maybe, but that’s why she should talk to the coworker about it.

                I was responding to the “hostile work environment” part of the comment above (which wasn’t clear, I now see). I’m not suggesting everyone should sue everyone else, but I think people often don’t report because they think no one will take them seriously. In case either of them feels uncomfortable going to HR about this, it’s worth noting that if his reactions are real, his coworkers are harassing him based on a real mental illness.

                1. Liet-Kinda*

                  Fair! I just think a lot of the “this is psychological torture and OP should be reporting this to HR, the c-suite, and job-hunting stat because this is FULL of BEES” responses are a little over the top and fail to take into account the wide range of possibility when it comes to how much this actually scares him and how much he might want them to stop.

              2. SteamedBuns*

                Yeah I read it as if he’s playing his reaction up to make his coworkers laugh.

                One of my friends is “terrified” of clowns, but she’ll still go to haunted houses and watch scary clown movies and get playfully mad when someone posts a scary clown video on her social media accounts. I don’t mean it in a negative way when I say this, but I think she likes the attention (again, not negative. There’s nothing wrong with enjoying attention) she receives for being the “person scared of clowns.” When she says something to a performer at a haunted house, without fail they get more clown performers to come out and surround her in line, when watching a movie with a clown if something freaky happens she screams and gets laughs, etc.

                However, if the coworker in OP’s example is reacting genuinely and this is causing him any distress, then yeah, it’s not cool. I’d second Alison’s advice to warn and approach the coworker letting him know you support him in taking action to get these pranks to stop immediately.

                However, I also think it’s likely that the coworker will hear about the clown costume and say something like “Oh those jerks. Haha. Thanks for the heads up.” With no desire to stop the prank.

                1. Sarah N*

                  Yep, my husband is this way too! He loves to scream whenever the “It” commercials come on TV and I can easily see him being the “target” of something playful like this at work without there being any ill will on anyone’s side (i.e. all being in on the joke). He will swear up and down that he is terrified of clowns, but he is definitely not actually being traumatized by the various clowns he encounters in haunted houses, etc.

              3. Susana*

                I kinda doubt it – that’s a lot of (pretend, even) self-humiliation to put oneself through on purpose. This is disgraceful – childish and cruel.

                1. Pomona Sprout*

                  I’m with Susana. It actually kind of boggles my mind that anyone would think this co-worker might be enjoying himself being the butt of everyone else’s jokes.

                  Is it possible that at least some of the pranksters THINK their victim is enjoying himself? Yes. People who like to play practical jokes at someone else’s expense can be very dense about what their target is experiencing. (I am reminded of the Big Bang Theory episode where one of Leonard’s old high school tormentos looks him up and is astounded to learn that Leonard didn’t find the horrible things the bully did to him weren’t as hilariously funny to Leonard as they were to the perpetrator.)

                  I realize I’m not able to be completely objective here. When you have been the target of bullying (as I have), a story like this can be very triggering, and I’m feeling triggered as all hell right now!

                  This definitely looks like bullying to me, and **IF** the co-worker is playing along, even a little bit, it’s probably because he doesn’t think he has a choice. I mean, HIS boss is the ringleader, ffs! Who wouldn’t feel helpless in a situation like that*.

    5. Magenta Sky*

      I agree, but only if there’s certainty that the coworker wants it to end enough to deal with the retribution (and it seems very, very like there will be some). There’s not enough in the letter to be sure they are actually that terrified of clowns, or if they just don’t like clowns and are playing along. Seems likely it’s the former, but the only way to be sure is to ask.

      Either way, the boss should probably be answering questions about why her people are spending time doing this instead of their jobs.

      1. Mookie*

        The boss is actively involved in this timesuck and, yes, the co-worker has a genuine phobia. The LW’s made that both clear and explicit.

          1. RandomusernamebecauseIwasboredwiththelastone*

            I missed it at first, but on rereading the OP mentions the boss.

            ” but I worry about repercussions from my boss because she is in on it and a driving force behind it.”

            1. Liet-Kinda*

              I was referring to the “genuine phobia” bit. I think the comments are assuming that part is not just a possibility but 100% true and immediately actionable with HR and every other imaginable authority, and we’re getting it thirdhand from a letter on an advice blog.

                1. Liet-Kinda*

                  Right! And you will notice that OP did not actually say that he had a phobia, or that he’d told he he has a phobia, or that she is aware of a clinical diagnosis of same. So.

                2. Mookie*

                  She characterized his terror as terror. We don’t second-guess LWs here or play silly buggers to evade those guiding priniciples.

    6. LGC*

      …your comment made me feel a lot of emotions. And after re-reading the letter…you’re somewhat right, I think. I’d encourage him to go to HR first, though, just to save his pride.

      I think the key for me is the coworker’s reaction – it’s excessive enough where I’m pretty sure he’s not acting, because I don’t think a person who’s not terrified would react by literally screaming and running out of the building every time he sees something he doesn’t like. Or even repeatedly – I can see him doing that once to be dramatic, but not time after time.

      (Also, advice column fanfic time, but I feel like the fact that this is a male coworker is pretty important, because he might not “feel like this is important.” And just in general, I feel like going to HR on his behalf could have repercussions for the coworker, which is why I’d encourage LW to follow coworker’s lead for the most part.)

      1. RUKiddingMe*

        You point out that he is a male coworker and you say he might not feel it’s important, but in your first paragraph you mention his pride. I’m curious if you think it’s because of the idea that it’s important to preserve his “male ego?”

    7. Holly*

      I think telling the coworker you’re willing to support *him* if he wants to go to HR or otherwise put a stop to it is appropriate. If OP #1 went to HR, maybe it would be resolved, but I feel like the next question would be “okay, does coworker have a problem with it?” It makes sense to touch base with him first.

        1. Holly*

          Of course. I just wouldn’t want OP to go to HR and then when HR talks to the coworker he’s like “no I’m in on the joke, everything’s fine” and then it looks like OP is “overly sensitive” (OP has every right to complain but it’s worth considering reputation management unfortunately)

        2. One of the Sarahs*

          That risks co-worker being blamed though, as it could be argued it’s his reaction that’s disrupting OP, not the bullying. I don’t agree that’s the case, but if OP went with “disruption”, she’d have to be super careful how she worded it.

          1. Holly*

            I hadn’t thought of it, but yes – it could seem like she’s saying her co worker’s *reaction* is what’s disruptive

        3. Jadelyn*

          If the OP has an issue with the disruptiveness, though, that wouldn’t be an HR thing. That would be a boss or grandboss thing.

      1. JS*

        Agreed. Coworker could be playing it up or like the attention, see if it bothers him first cause you are going to look out of touch if you report it and HR puts a stop to it and everyone blames you.

    8. HailRobonia*

      You should definitely let you coworker know you support him and that you are not in on the clown pranking. Even if HR/management takes no action, just knowing he’s got an ally could be a great help.

    9. Liet-Kinda*

      This reads like a comment about how the commenter would feel in the same position as the prank victim, not something that adds context to the answer.

    10. Drop Bear*

      I agree with Aphrodite, but where I am workplace bullying is covered under OH&S legislation So a manager being complicit in the behaviour could lead to a fine being levied against the company if there was an investigation by the regulator, so it something that HR/Senior Management would definitely want/need to be told about.

    11. Phobia Phriend*

      As someone with an unconventional phobia that inspires ridicule by everyone (frogs and toads), this question made me feel infuriated and so anxious. I’ve had to threaten breaking off friendships to numerous people in my life who wouldn’t get that I am not in on the “fun.” I don’t know if I could come to work knowing my coworkers AND MANAGER were going to try to terrify me with my phobia all.month.long and it would ruin my relationship with them for a long time. That said, if the coworker feels the same fears by clowns that I do with my phobia, he might not want to go to HR or bring up his feelings with the manager and coworker because he’s worried about outing himself as truly afraid. Having a legit phobia is scary and you never know how the person you tell will treat you afterward.

      As for OP’s involvement I think telling him their plans and letting him know that you take his fears seriously and that you’re an ally in an otherwise POS office is your best move here. Let him be in charge of what happens next.

      1. Not So NewReader*

        I don’t understand what is so hard about taking people at their word. I am very sorry people treat you this way.

    12. Nanani*


      Pranks have no place at work to begin with, no matter what “harmless” justification people have for them.

      1. Not So NewReader*

        Yeah, I am a no pranks at work person myself because eventually it always seems to blow up in a spectacular manner. It’s fine until it isn’t. Argumentatively, I could be too serious a person, that could be true. But over the years I have worked with all kinds of people who had their own burdens in life. It’s easier just to work with them than it is to prank them or ignore them. In this setting here, why are clowns even a thing in the office???? There is no need.

    13. Seeking Second Childhood*

      I agree completely. I felt bad posting funny cartoons of spiders in MY OWN office knowing a former co-worker had a phobia. I can’t imagine trashing someone’s workplace like that.

    14. Kelly*

      Yep. Immediately go to HR. This is not a prank. There’s something wrong with these people. This could have a serious effect on the colleague’s physical and mental health!

  2. Greg NY*

    #5: I’d be curious to know why any organization would actively choose not to institute a PTO donation program. I do not think it should fall on colleagues to donate any (and the organization should have really generous sick leave), but in the situation Alison describes, where someone has more than they can reasonably use themselves and the donation would essentially be a money transfer (not more or less actual time off for either person), it would be a worthwhile idea. If HR can maintain a PTO program, it really isn’t any more complex to run a donation program with it.

    1. KarenT*

      I think part of it has to do with salary variance. I think donated PTO is a great idea but I do remember our HR director saying one of the challenges in implementing is that not everyone’s PTO is worth the same amount.

      1. Magenta Sky*

        It’s not even a matter of everyone’s PTO not being worth the same amount. If you donate your PTO to a coworker, that coworker is taking paid time off beyond what was agreed to when they were hired, but **you are being paid for that time, too**, unless you’re taking it as *un*paid time off. So far as I know, that’s not how it works. (And if the LW is inclined to do that, they might as well just write the coworker a check. It’s exactly the same thing.)

        In other words, if you get four weeks a year, and donate it to someone else in need, you’re being paid for 52 weeks of work, *plus* four weeks of vacation.

        (Not to mention, as other have already, it can lead to morale problems with people feeling pressured to give up their own vacation.)

        1. Ask a Manager* Post author

          Hmmm, if your salary is, say, $60,000/year, then your company is paying you $60,000/year whether or not you donate your PTO. The issue Karen is talking about above is that when someone donates leave to a coworker with a different rate of pay, the donated time may have a different value. If Jane’s time is worth $30/hour and she donates a day of leave to Bob, who earns $15/hour, should Bob get eight hours of leave even though Jane donated the equivalent of $240 ($30 x 8), which would actually cover 16 hours of Bob’s time? What about the reverse — if Bob donates eight hours of leave to Jane, that’s time that’s worth $120 to the company — but it will cost them $240 in Jane’s time.

          1. I heart Paul Buchman*

            I can’t make the math work that way??

            To make it easy say I earn $52000 a year I accrue 4 weeks a year in leave.
            Person B makes $52000 a year and accrues 4 weeks a year.
            Person B takes 6 weeks (4 paid, 2 unpaid weeks) and is paid $50 000.
            I take 4 weeks and am paid $52000
            Total to cost to company is $102 000
            Person B takes 6 weeks including 2 weeks of donated leave paid $52000
            I take 2 weeks leave, donate 2 weeks, work 50 weeks and am paid $52000
            Total cost to company is $104000

            The only way it is cost neutral is if I take my donated leave as leave without pay.

            1. SignalLost*

              Right, but you’re starting from the assumption that you and Person B make the same salary. Re-run the numbers assuming you make $104,000 a year and Person B makes $52,000 a year and you’ll get Alison’s result. Your time is at a higher compensation rate, so maybe donating downwards works, and the company comes out ahead if you donate to Person B and the company keeps the donation as straight time (Person B gets a week of your time, paid out at their rate, not yours) but they lose money if Person B donates to you and it’s paid out at your rate. And there is probably a law about payout rate on a donation – i.e., they can’t say “you’re going to be compensated a thousand dollars for this week, even though you make two thousand dollars a week.”

              1. Magenta Sky*

                You’re missing the underlying issue, which is that no matter what the relative values of the PTO, when you donate it to someone else, you’re either working (with pay) or not working (without pay).

                How *much* more it costs the company isn’t the point, it’s that it *is* costing them more, because they’re paying someone to work and not work at the same time.

                1. Elsajeni*

                  But typically, as Alison mentioned in her answer, donation pools are set up at organizations that would allow you to roll over those two weeks and take them next year, or the year after, and maybe even pay you out for them in cash when you eventually leave. So donating the leave to someone else who uses it immediately does cost the company more in the short term, but it also removes a long-term liability from their finances.

                2. CmdrShepard4ever*

                  In response to @I heart Paul Buchman the base line cost is not $102k it is actually $104k

                  Person A earns a salary of $52,000 for 52 weeks (one year) with 4 weeks being paid vacation (so net 48 weeks of actual work for $52,000)
                  Person B earns a salary of $52,000 for 52 weeks (one year) with 4 weeks being paid vacation (so net 48 weeks of actual work for $52,000)
                  Total cost and what the company has budgeted is $104,000 this is standard amount if everyone takes their own vacation time.

                  If Person A donates 2 weeks of PTO to Person B the total cost the company pays stays the same. The difference is now Person A is working 50 weeks for the same salary of $52,000.

                  “Person B takes 6 weeks including 2 weeks of donated leave paid $52000
                  I take 2 weeks leave, donate 2 weeks, work 50 weeks and am paid $52000
                  Total cost to company is $104000”

                  The person that donates the time is the one that actually “loses anything” they have to work two extra weeks then they normally do for no extra pay.

                3. LarsTheRealGirl*


                  You’re assuming person B only takes 4 weeks, but they really need to take 6 weeks. So either they take it as donated (paid) time, or they take it with no pay.

                  Without a donation scheme, person B would still have an emergency and still need to take 6 weeks, but they wouldn’t be paid for 2 of them, so their yearly payment ends up being only 50k, not 52. So the company only pays 102k for salary that year.

                  And yes, if the company has a requirement (or policy) to payout unused leave, then it becomes a wash. But if any of the leave is “use it or lose it”, they (most likely) end up paying more under a donation scheme.

            2. doreen*

              But you’re not accounting for the two weeks of leave the company will owe you if you don’t donate it to person B. Most of the time the company is going to be paying for that leave at some point – especially since in my experience 1) leave donation programs are usually at employers who allow more than a years’s worth of vacation to be banked – I earn 4 weeks vacation a year but can accrue up to 8 weeks. 2) no one person is donating two weeks to person B. Five or ten people are each donating a day or two. I might donate a day to someone even if I am nowhere near the cap/would be able to take the day myself.

              1. MassMatt*

                I’m not sure it’s “most of the time”, I have never worked somewhere that allowed infinite rollover of vacation time. Most places allowed a max of 1 week, and some allowed none but would flex the rule for a vacation in the first month or so of the following year.

                Likewise I’ve never worked anywhere that allowed sick leave to accumulate, though I know that’s a big thing for public employees especially. In my experience more companies are getting rid of sick leave altogether; you must use PTO for everything until you file for disability.

                1. doreen*

                  I was talking about those employers that do have donation programs – which in my experience are employers which grant vacation in a way that talking about rollover doesn’t make sense. * Those employers will end up paying for my two weeks of vacation time whether I donate it or take it myself at some later time.

                  * My husband gets all his vacation time credited in January and has to use it all by December 31. If he doesn’t use them, he loses them they don’t roll over. I don’t think he got any vacation credited until the January after he started the job. I earn a certain number of hours per pay period (starting with my very first week of work) with a cap on a specific date each year. Very different systems. It doesn’t make sense to talk about “rollover” with an accrual system – my employer isn’t going to require everyone to take the vacation day earned in mid- December by December 31, not unless they want a staffing problem.

          2. Phoenix Programmer*

            Everywhere I have worked with donated leave an hour is an hour. It doesn’t have to be this complicated.

            And while yes, technically PTO has value, the reality is that in many places those with less PTO tend to also make less (seniority and job class usually increases PTO) so it is hard to sell that the company loses out in anyway.

            Meanwhile it’s employees feel more secure knowing coworkers can have their back in an emergency. Increasing moral, satisfaction, and retention.

            Employers have nothing to lose on this one.

            1. samiratou*

              Eh, I’m not sure I agree. Depending on how a company keeps track of employee-related expenses, it could be that complicated, and that’s without how to manage such a system.

              How do you set up the donation system? Can I donate to a specific coworker or does it have to be a general pool? If I donate to a general pool and change my mind can I take the hours back if unused? Who determines what is enough of an “emergency” to warrant taking donated hours? How many can they get? What if they have one legit emergency and then another later in the year? What if enough hours don’t really become available early in the year, but just at the end? Is that fair to people who happen to have their emergencies earlier in the year? What if I use up all my PTO early on and get sick later and are begging people for their hours?

              I can’t really blame employers for not having a donation bank, as I don’t think it’s necessarily as simple as you make it out to be, and certainly has its own potential set of morale issues.

              1. SignalLost*

                I have to say, I’ve always seen donation done as “Person A needs more PTO than they have; are you interested in donating?” I’ve never seen it done as a general pool of donated time. Aside from the nightmare of managing that (we had 12 weeks in the pool but Suzy used it all for her emergency, so Barbara is SOL) it allows you to decide if you can donate. So it does work best in situations with rollover accrual.

                1. SignalLost*

                  … reading further down the thread, I see that banks are not actually uncommon! I stand corrected! (Or sit corrected, I guess.)

                2. Dust Bunny*

                  My workplace has a general pool of sick time. I’ve donated 400 hours so far and could spare more since I haven’t needed very much myself (we have separate medical and vacation time).

            2. tea today*

              Have you worked on the accounting side of that to verify that it is just hour for hour? Or is it not complicated on the donation side and your not sure on the true up side?

            3. Jadelyn*

              It’s really not zero-impact. I agree that it may not be as burdensome as some are thinking, but moving PTO around can have an impact on the balance sheet and implications for the company’s accounting, and it’s not quite true that employers have “nothing to lose”.

              My employer is based in California. We are required to pay out any accrued, unused PTO when someone leaves the company, either voluntarily or involuntarily. Thus, we have to record our PTO balances as a liability in our accounting, because if half the company suddenly quits the company will be on the hook for all of that PTO payout. And this is where you potentially get into issues with EEs of different salaries donating to each other.

              Employee A makes $20/hr and has 50 hours of banked PTO. Our liability for that EE is $1,000.
              Employee B makes $10/hr and has 5 hours of banked PTO. Our liability for that EE is $50.
              If A donates 20 hours of PTO to B, our liability is now 30 hrs at $20/hr and 25 hrs at $10/hr, for a total of $850 – a net gain to the company of $200 because of the salary difference between the two staff.

              But now reverse it. A only has 5 hours of PTO, and B has 50 hours. Total liability is $600. In this situation, if B donates 20 hours to A, our liability is now 25 hrs at $20/hr and 30 hrs at $10/hr, for total liability of $800 – a net loss to the company of $200, since we’re now “on the hook” for more of the time at the higher rate.

              In practice, that will be a fairly short-lived affair most of the time, as people who are receiving donated time will usually use it very quickly since that’s why it’s being donated. But if it happens around a quarterly reporting boundary or something like that, it could have an impact, and the scale of that impact will depend on the company size, salaries of the affected staff, etc.

              Not to mention, someone’s got to administer this kind of thing and track it. Is there a cap on how much time someone can donate? If so, who’s keeping track and how are they tracking it? Is it a single bucket that staff can apply to draw from if they need to, or is it individual donations to a specific person? There needs to be some record somewhere of the donations and usage, which means finding a way to track it, either in the payroll system or in some kind of other system. And who is responsible for that? Payroll? HR? Accounting? Who has access to it for reporting purposes?

              I do a lot of HRIS process and system work at my company, and I’m running scenarios through my head of how we could implement this if we wanted to, all of which would require a new policy written and approved and distributed to staff, plus some kind of system processes configured to support implementation and reporting, and someone’s time on an ongoing basis for administration, so I can tell you it’s not as simple as “the employer has nothing to lose”.

          3. Gigi HR*

            As a global HR Director some years ago, I put a PTO donation program into place on the request of employees who wanted to donate to a critically ill coworker whose PTO time had run out. I set up a formula (and I’m sorry I can’t remember what it was at the moment) that converted donated time to dollars based on the donor’s base pay and then converted that again into PTO hours at the recipient’s base pay rate. This was important at year end for the Finance department especially, but it also made the system seem less arbitrary to donors. At the same time most didn’t care. The employees at that company didn’t earn a whole lot of PTO in a year (up to 176 hours max) but I will never forget how touching it was to have person after person come to me with offers to donate their precious paid time off to help a beloved Office Manager who had kidney cancer. I will also never forget how the most generous donations came from people at the lower end of the salary spectrum too. One or two executives put a couple of hours in here and there, but I had more $40,000 customer care people putting in entire weeks for that lady than anyone at the top.

          4. TootsNYC*

            I thought it was just hours to hours–that there wasn’t really any monetary edge to it. I give up “the right to be done one day,” and Jane gets “the right to be gone one day.”

      2. ..Kat..*

        My employer takes earnings variances into account. For example, let’s say I earn $20 per hour. I have a colleague who needs more sick time off who makes $10 per hour. Every hour I donate to her will give her 2 hours of sick leave since I make twice as much as she does.

        1. SusieCruisie*

          But now you’re revealing salary information to co-workers, a practice I may not want to participate in.

          My sister’s former employer had a donation program, but rather than donate to a specific person, you donated to a pool that was available to anyone who needed additional time. It took the pressure off to donate, and it made the gift more anonymous. Worked out well for everyone.

          1. PB*

            I’ve worked two places with leave donation. In both cases, the details were handled by HR, so this kind of information wouldn’t be revealed to the recipient.

            1. JM in England*

              Same here for a previous job. At this place, you could donate a maximum of three days leave per calendar year and had to submit the declaration by the end of January. You then received the corresponding amount of money in your March paycheck (this is just before the end of the UK tax year). As others have mentioned, all of the donated leave went into a central pool from which other employees could take a maximum of three days per calendar year; in reverse to above, said employees had the relevant amount of money deducted from their paychecks .

              1. LarsTheRealGirl*

                Wait so…. if you donated your leave you were paid for it, and if someone then used that leave they had the money deducted?

                That doesn’t sound like donating leave in the normal sense but more like selling back your leave to the company and other people “buying” it from the company.

                1. Dragoning*

                  Also, most circumstances under which I can think people normally need donated leave…need far more than three days extra.

                2. Le'veon Bell is Seizing the Means of Production*

                  @ Mary, yeah, I think you’re right about that. In a lot of US states, there are laws about paying out accrued vacation, so those vacation days do have a monetary value for the org that has to be tracked as such in their accounting. I think places that have straight-up hour-to-hour donations are probably just not tracking those vacation hours in the most rigorous way (not to say they’re being illegal about it, I’ve tracked it before that way too, but the difference would depend completely on how the org accounts for vacation in it’s books, which may or may not be related to factors like company size, type, etc, and which wouldn’t be easy to predict even from the inside unless you were working in the accounting office.

              2. Nonsensical*

                Doesn’t sound weird to me. My employer has it set up that you can buy additional PTO up to a week every year during open enrollment.

          2. Smarty Boots*

            My employer (state employee) does this as well. Many years ago they did not do it this way — people could donate to a known person — and it was…not good. At the time I had unexpected medical needs, ran out of leave, my colleagues and supervisor assured me that “I have tons of time! I’ll donate it to you!” and then, did not. (They never got around to doing the paperwork.) It was hard not to take it personally and made a difficult work environment more difficult.

          3. Government worker*

            At my employer, donations are anonymous. If the recipient doesn’t know who donated, there’s no way to deduce their salary from that. I don’t like the pool idea because there are people I would choose to donate to, and people I would not. I’d never donate to a pool unless I was in a “donate it or lose it” situation.

      3. Tired*

        Baloney. We have it in the federal government, and if it can be done here it can be done everywhere.

        1. Jadelyn*

          Baloney, yourself. Can it be done? Most anything that’s legal *can* be done, yes. Does the company have systems in place to support it? Do they need to build something new? How much extra workload does that add, and who becomes responsible for it?

          Just because it’s theoretically possible, doesn’t mean practical implementation always makes sense.

      4. Decima Dewey*

        My workplace has this benefit. The way it works is that I can donate up to 5 vacation days each year, and anyone can use the time if they’ve donated time themselves in the past two years. It doesn’t matter what level the person with the illness is at. Those five vacation days become five sick days that the person can use. The supposed worth of the time isn’t an issue.

    2. No thanks*

      To be blunt, because I don’t want to be pressured into donating my time off, any more than I want to get donation requests for charities, politicians, or Girl Scout cookies. My PTO is mine and is part of my compensation.

      1. Jasnah*

        I can see this angle too. I think it’s wonderful to help people in need, but I can see how it kind of puts the decision on other coworkers instead of the company. If Quentin needs time off for medical complications due to lifelong smoking, I don’t think whether or not he gets paid for that time off should be decided by his coworkers Jimothy who’s been complaining about Quentin’s smoke breaks for years, or Bilhelmina whose work habits clash with Quentin’s. Others might pressure Jimothy and Bilhelmina to donate, and might pressure Quentin to divulge medical details to make a good sob story.

        I wonder if the situation that allows for this program to exist (ie generous PTO system) would actually cancel out or lessen the need for a donation program (because employees can use that generous PTO system). Of course there could be cases where an employee needs even more leave than a generous system allows…

          1. Mookie*

            Yes, and I agree with Jasnah that programs like this are understandable and address a real problem, but are also, functionally, means by which employers skirt their ethical obligations to their employees in implementing an institutional solution to that problem, instead relying on piecemeal charity among colleagues that, in dysfunctional environments, can cross the border in de facto mandatory participation. Until such time as leave is generous and universally so and also both mandated and regulated, we make do with what we’ve got.

            1. Dragoning*

              I agree. So many people here in the comments are talking about how leave donation programs raise morale, but they always make me think “The company wants their employees to be compassionate on their behalf for their own workforce.”

              If you want someone to get extra leave (especially when pressuring people to donate!) they can just…give them the extra leave when they’re in trouble.

              1. Government worker*

                If you want someone to get extra leave (especially when pressuring people to donate!) they can just…give them the extra leave when they’re in trouble.

                Clearly you’ve never worked for the government. It’s not always legal to just give people the leave they need.

                1. kittymommy*

                  Truth. I only work for local government and I cannot imagine the nightmare that would result from this. Nice in theory; not really possible in practicality.

                2. Zweisatz*

                  Disagree. You could set up the whole system in such a way that employees get a far more generous solution. Donating leave is just a band-aid.

                3. Government worker*

                  @Zweisatz Well, yes, in theory, I guess one could change the laws that prevent government entities from simply giving an employee more leave. It’s not a particularly realistic solution – in my experience, taxpayers aren’t very open to that kind of rule change – but if you want to start talking to your elected officials, go for it.

                4. doreen*

                  Sure, you could set up the whole system to be more generous- but sometimes it’s already generous and people still need more. I can accumulate up to 40 weeks of sick leave at my job and plenty of people do get their balance that high – but I’ve known people who needed more.

              2. Kes*

                Yeah, that’s what rubs me the wrong way about them too – it’s great that employees want to support their coworkers, but they shouldn’t need to donate leave for their coworkers to be able to have enough time to cover their medical or other needed time off. It feels like the the employees covering the failure of the company’s benefits to provide for their employees’ needs.

                It almost reminds me a bit of Walmart’s food drive for their employees – trying to shift the responsibility to provide for their employees to someone else.

                1. Not So NewReader*

                  OTH, the immediate problem is the sick employee and their family. They cannot wait for the “Walmarts” of the world to have that ah-ha moment. They need help now, not years from now.
                  This causes the problem to break into two parts, the immediate part concerning the employee and the big picture part where this is a recurring problem and WHY is that?!

            2. Artemesia*

              My Dad who worked for Boeing aircraft for his entire career, had a really bad reaction to penicillin in the late 40s and ended up being hospitalized for 6 weeks and out of work for 3 mos. The company paid him his regular salary because back then some companies at least were loyal to employees. That is what should happen when someone has a severe medical issue rather than expecting other employees to pay for sick leave for serious issues.

              Not every small business can afford to do this, but large ones can if they will. It is appalling to live in a country where serious illness even with insurance bankrupts most people and where you lose your job if you get seriously ill.

              1. Not So NewReader*

                I remember my nana’s nursing home was paid in full even after grandpa had been dead for 5 years. Companies used to take care of people and you spent your life with that company because you knew you would be taken care of and so would your dependents.

                Less than a decade later, my father went to the edge of bankruptcy paying off my mother’s medical bills. Now, forget it. My friend was on a med that cost $170K per year. Insurance would not cover it, of course, the company did not worry about that, either.

        1. Trek*

          Our donation plan doesn’t allow us to pick the recipient. We donate to a bank and then people request to use donated PTO when needed.

          1. Res Admin*

            That’s what we have. If you opt in, you automatically donate a percentage of your leave time each year; otherwise no harm, no foul, no one knows. That part works well.

            Requests to use leave from the the Sick Leave Pool have to be approved by a committee… So getting approval can be…complicated…during an already stressful time. That part needs some help.

          2. calonkat*

            State government here, ours works the same way in that we donate to a bank, but if someone actually NEEDS the time from the bank, emails do go out alerting us that if we can (and would like to) donate time, we can. We get both vacation and sick leave, there’s a cap on vacation leave accumulation, but not on sick leave (and excess vacation leave can roll 40 hours into sick leave per year rather than it being lost). So even with my family needing me to take a lot of sick leave recently, I’ve still got 3 months of sick leave built up. And 2 weeks of vacation by the end of the year that won’t roll over because I’m maxed out. So yes, I’ve donated time to the bank. And I have faith that my co-workers would donate if I needed extra time.

          3. Mallory Janis Ian*

            That’s what we have, too. The leave goes into a bank and is primarily donated by people who are about to lose the amount above that which can be rolled over. Ex. we can only roll over 240 hours of leave from one year to the next, and many people across campus donate their hours in excess of that to the catastrophic leave bank. I’ve only donated one time, as I typically don’t have that much leave to carry over. But the bank is managed by a committee chaired by university HR, with other faculty and staff comprising the remaining membership. There are rules for who can receive leave from the pool (minimum employment time; employee has to use own accrued vacation and sick leave first; etc.), and once you donate, you can’t take it back. If you had a qualifying situation, you could apply to receive leave from the bank like everyone else. But employees are discouraged from donating if it would deplete their own leave to dangerously low levels.

        2. ssssssssssssssssssssssss*

          We have an extremely generous leave system and every one gives one half-day sick day to a sick day bank for those who actually burn thru 18 (yes, 18) sick days per year (done automatically by payroll). My coworker used up all her sick days in 2017 and had none to roll over into 2018 and had to apply to the sick bank three times in 2018 due to having a very bad year of colds. The irony was, since she had no days to roll over into the new year, and therefore no half-day accumulated to donate to the sick bank, she was told she couldn’t apply to the sick bank until she accumulated sick days again. She was finally able to do so in May.

        3. Madeleine Matilda*

          I work for the Fed and we have a donation program. It isn’t anonymous, but there is absolutely no pressure to donate. Once or twice a year an email goes out with the names of those in my agency approved for donated leave. That’s it. I can chose to give or not. The recipient never knows if I donate to them or not. The recipient has to have a serious medical emergency, has to submit medical documentation to our agency medical officer for verification of the medical emergency, and cannot have any sick or annual leave available for them to use. The program is actually government wide so I have donated to co-workers at my agency but also to a friend at another gov agency. The Fed has generous leave but sometimes a medical emergency can wipe out hundreds of hours of leave and then donated leave is an option. We also have a leave bank at my agency. We can choose to donate one pay period’s annual leave and then if needed in a medical emergency we can be granted up to 12 weeks of sick leave from the leave bank. Donated leave and the leave bank work well at my agency because we have generous leave policies so people often have more leave than they will take in a year, because the programs are well managed, and the giving of leave is completely voluntary with no pressure ever to give.

          1. kittymommy*

            This is how ours works as well (local government). Since the email is getting sent out to such a large group of people, +1000, no one really knows who donated (a simple reply email is not allowed, one must fill out a form). Another thing I like is one is not allowed to donate all their leave, they have to keep some of it.

          2. I'm A Little Teapot*

            Yeah, I’ve only seen donated leave programs at government entities (local in my case). Recipients are the people who have catastrophic level stuff going on.

        4. AdminX2*

          Ditto. If the company wants to be generous, then add a better flex time to accommodate people in need. Don’t push your own people to give up more from their pocket so you can get the press release benefit.

      2. Tired*

        Nobody pressures. A solicitation email goes out and you are free to ignore it. Hope you never need donated leave.

        1. Artemesia*

          I find it appalling that anyone thinks the burden for this sort of catastrophe should fall on other workers who should give up their own meagre benefits. A civilized society doesn’t penalize other workers when someone is seriously ill or else let that person go without job or salary.

          1. Czhorat*


            Remember how many times we say that gifts should flow downward? So should largesse. The idea that extra PTO be at no cost to the employer but IS a cost to peers is, at best, problematic.

            1. Mary*

              Yep. These central bank systems make even less sense to me, because they show that the organisation is quite capable of granting extra leave to people who need it without worrying about coverage, but they just want to claw it back from other employees because …?????

              I can just about understand the concept of “donating leave” if it’s done in a team of people who all have to cover a a core function and it’s essentially people saying, “I’m happy to cover your clinics so you can take the day to rest”, but when it’s anonymised and centralised and there’s no job function relationship between the person donating and the person benefitting, what’s the point? It just seems so mean.

            2. Jasnah*

              As Mary said, I can see the value in this if it’s personal and small scale. But as soon as you start running it on a large, company-wide scale, it becomes clear that the company can totally afford to give people more time off, and just doesn’t want to. Donation banks just sound like a workaround for a broken system: “We don’t want to grant more worker protections, so figure it out amongst yourselves.”

          2. Anonymous Celebrity*

            There’s no “should” about it in a properly run PTO-donation program.

            I worked for the state of California for 20 years, and we had a PTO-donation program. If a co-worker needed more PTO than they had to cover an illness, an email went out stating that so-and-so co-worker could benefit from some donated PTO and let you know you could donate to their PTO account. You either donated or you didn’t. That was the end of it. Nobody knew who donated and who didn’t unless donors spoke about what they’d done (or not done).

            What DID make me uncomfortable was the fact that popular employees got more donations than unpopular employees (and some unpopular employees were great people who did their jobs well but just didn’t fit in well with the office culture, which in my agency was quite religious and conservative – yup, in California, but in the Central Valley, which is a far cry from San Francisco).

            How did I know the popular folks got more donated PTO? My co-workers would boast about contributing to individual PTO recipients, by name. It was a pattern. That never sat well with me.

          3. Anonyish*

            This! I don’t think anyone should need donated leave, because it should be a state or employer responsibility (depending on the exact case). As an employee that means it is my responsibility, too, but I pay for it through my tax contribution and through my overall salary and benefits package being calculated to include a decent allocation of paid sick leave. Not through signing up to a contract that brings me X benefits, but actually receiving only X-n.

        2. Decima Dewey*

          No pressure here either. Each year a form goes out advising people they can donate time. If you donate the five days, they’re deducted from your PTO. And you if you’ve donated in the past two years, you can use donated time if you yourself have a catastrophic illness.

          Some of us have been in the system for several years (26 in my case), so we have lots of time on the books (there are limits to how much sick and how much vacation you can carry over each year). So it’s not an imposition to donate.

        3. Elspeth*

          Wow. Many people need to hold on to their PTO precisely because they have chronic medical conditions and use that time themselves. Hope you never have an auto-immune disease which means you get to use up all your PTO every year.

        4. Yikes*

          I hope OP doesn’t need donated leave, too, but if they do, it’s on the employer to be empathetic, not their coworkers. Capitalism and “job over everything” mentality is a broken viewpoint.

          I hope you find employment with an organization that sees you as a human being, not a dollar sign.

        5. bonkerballs*

          Wow. Your comment is exactly the kind of pressure I think lots of people are concerned about.

        6. Zillah*

          But this comment is perfectly illustrative that “nobody pressures” isn’t always true – if people are being judged for not wanting to give up part of their compensation, there is pressure.

      3. INTP*

        I agree, and I think if you aren’t getting so many weeks of PTO that no one is using it all, it’s hard to run something like this in a truly anonymous, voluntary, zero-pressure way. Even if donating is between the employee and HR, it’s easy for other employees, especially your boss who is approving your vacation days, to notice who is taking their full 3 weeks (or whatever) of vacation and who isn’t.

        1. Not So NewReader*

          Boss are privy to a lot of information that they need to keep mum, this would be one more piece of info that is not for discussing.

      4. MassMatt*

        I was going to say this. I will buy Girl Scout cookies (because delicious!), I don’t mind some charitable giving emails (especially if the company matches donations or gives to a particular cause), but I would have to really REALLY like someone and consider their situation quite dire to donate PTO. I would rather give money than time off. In my career I’ve never had the ability to bank unused PTO or sick leave (I would probably use most if not all of the former) so it’s not a situation where I wouldn’t miss it. If I have 15 or 20 days (and this includes sick leave) losing 3 is a significant reduction in my ability to decompress and have my own life.

        I would be fine with having a bank, though I wonder how it would be administered so it goes to the needy, but I really would NOT like getting emails or having people stop by asking me to donate PTO. At some point someone is sure to act indignant at me for having the audacity to take time off.

    3. Emma*

      and the donation would essentially be a money transfer (not more or less actual time off for either person)

      I thought the whole idea was more time off for the person you donated to?

      1. valentine*

        The recipient isn’t getting days to enjoy; they may need nonwork time when they feel well just to return to baseline.

          1. Wintermute*

            The point is they’re taking these days off, either unpaid or paid, either way. So employees are giving up something so they get paid.

            That’s the logic behind government time banks, because the government can’t legally just give money to people the way a private business could. Hence in public service other employees have to give up money, and private companies can just decide to keep them employed and on the books regardless of their medical status.

      2. Ender Wiggin*

        As I understand it people tend to donate only when the person really NEEDS the time off. So they would be taking it off anyway, but they get to take it paid rather than unpaid. So essentially you are donating your money to them.

        It’s not as simple as it being just a money transfer though, because they are using PTO they would still be entitled to other benefits eg pension contributions and legal protections in a way they might not be if they were taking unpaid time off.

    4. Safetykats*

      It’s actually more than a money transfer – it’s a way to keep someone who might get otherwise have to take unpaid leave or even unprotected leave (beyond the max weeks of FMLA) on payroll, so that they continue to receive benefits and accrue leave. Every company of any size that I’ve worked for has had a PTO donation program. It does work especially well when you have a large number of employees who accrue a lot of leave.

      1. Safetykats*

        And yes – it does result in less time off for people who donate. How could it not? Because you’re giving away some of your accrued leave.

        1. PB*

          Right. As you point out, these programs work well when you have lots of employees who accrue a lot of leave. My employer has a generous PTO program, but your vacation hours max out at 240 hours. A lot of my coworkers sit right at 240 hours, so they’re losing vacation time every pay cycle. So, this is leave they’re not using anyway. Instead, they can donate it to someone who does need it for true emergencies. I’ll be at this pint myself in about six months, and would absolutely consider contributing.

          I’ll also add, since some posters are concerned about being pressured to donate time, this hasn’t been an issue at any place I’ve worked with leave donation. When someone is approved for leave donation, an email goes out saying, “Fergus has been approved for leave donation. If you’d like to donate time, please email HR.” And that’s it.

        2. Greg NY*

          I had meant that if someone has so much banked leave that they can’t use it all, they aren’t taking the time off anyway. What the banked leave represents is money, either paid when they leave the company or if they need a long sick leave themselves. I clarified that I do not think that an employee should feel any pressure whatsoever to donate leave and in practice, it should probably only be done in the situation Alison described in the letter, when they have a lot banked up. If someone donates leave they were actually planning to use, it DOES affect the time off they have.

    5. Pam.*

      My university allows unlimited sick leave accrual, and around 300 hours vacation accrual. I’ve used my time on medical leave when needed, but also given it to others- we can donate up to 40 hours per year.

      1. Anonforthis*

        It might just not be practical based on how the company works – we are a contractor and although individual pay is fixed, the client only pays for exact days worked, and pays a vastly varying rate dependent on experience. So if a less experienced person donated a more experienced person PTO, (experience =\= seniority) then that affects the bottom line even before you take into account any difference in work output. (They wouldn’t be keen I’m about 100% sure… ;))

    6. Woodswoman*

      I worked at two nonprofits that had this policy. Both had a system that was anonymous, so there was no pressure to contribute your PTO. The way my organizations worked was that each employee was limited to donating a single day.

      I personally benefited from this policy. I was supposed to be out for three weeks for a routine procedure, but complications instead resulted in seven months of medical leave. My co-workers anonymously donated three weeks of their PTO to me, which made an enormous financial difference. That was many years ago and to this day, I don’t know who those generous people were. But it’s been gratifying to be able to anonymously return the favor a couple times for colleagues who have exhausted their sick and vacation time.

    7. MK*

      It’s more complicated than that, unless the two employees are doing exactly the same work. Coverage would be an issue, for example; if someone from accounting donates PTO to the receptionist, the company still has to find someone to cover the front desk.

      1. Debra Wolf*

        Wondering if this is a medically-defined phobia, and, if so, if the coworkers actions present a potential legal liability for the company. Might be a tactic for the boss to take to get these morons to cut it out.

      2. Debra Wolf*

        MK, generally if someone needs donated PTO they aren’t going to go to work if they have the days. Usually this is for someone with a very serious illness.

        We did have donated PTO at my former job and you could give to a particularly person. One problem this brings up is that people may donate to a more popular coworker and not another, which isn’t fair. I did feel pressure one time to donate sick leave because my boss did. I was very uncomfortable with that.

        1. INTP*

          I feel like personalizing the donations like this also increases the pressure and resentment against people that don’t donate. Like, suddenly by taking all your vacation and donating none, you aren’t just failing to participate in a charitable program, you’re the evil person forcing Sally to take unpaid FMLA for her cancer treatments instead of getting her salary. If the programs do exist they should be anonymous on both sides imo, who is donating and who is receiving (though it’s difficult to have anonymous donation when people have 2-4 weeks vacation – interested coworkers will notice who took all their vacation).

      3. SignalLost*

        They will also have to cover the front desk position if the receptionist takes unpaid leave or drops dead, too; that’s the least complicated part of this. Just because Quentin gives time to Fergus doesn’t mean the company doesn’t have the expense of hiring a temp to cover Fergus’s work. But they don’t have to pay Quentin for the time he gives to Fergus, so they’re still paying two salaries, as they were when Fergus was using his own leave.

      4. Greg NY*

        Yeah, but someone who would need donated PTO is going to take the time off anyway. There seems to be a culture in the US, at least in many organizations, that people try to come in if they can do any work at all, and don’t have a contagious illness more than a cold, so they wouldn’t be using PTO for colds or minor illnesses even if they had it available. The thing is, those people that needed frequent or extended medical leaves would ultimately be taking days without pay, and the donated PTO gives them money.

        If unpaid time was absolutely verboten, no matter what, then a donated PTO program wouldn’t be appropriate, and in fact those organizations most likely have draconian attendance policies.

    8. AcademiaNut*

      I think the threshold for having this sort of possibility is being a large employer that gives out a generous amount of PTO.

      If employees get two weeks of vacation a year, asking them to donate part of back is pretty tone deaf and likely to cause resentment. I’d say that if you’re going to ask people to donate PTO back, you need to be giving enough that people regularly don’t use it up by the end of the year, and carry a large balance.

      You also need a good sized pool of employees for this to work effectively – enough to build up and maintain a PTO pool, to be able to be genuinely anonymous, and to be able to distribute it equitably. If you’ve only got ten employees, you run a higher chance of having one employee gets donated time off while another gets nothing because the pool has been emptied, than if you had 500 employees

      There’s also the administrative cost – the employer has to come up with a well though out and fair policy that doesn’t cause problems for the employees or employer, and have someone administer it. This is easier if you’ve got a proper HR department.

      And honestly, if I were an employer I’d feel embarrassed asking my employees to do this! I’d rather offer less PTO outright, but have part of the benefits be a formal system for unusual sick leave needs.

    9. Bea*

      Actually it can be difficult to track.

      And adding a new procedure costs money in the form of time that many departments do not have an abundance of.

      So please don’t assume it’s just something easy peasy to throw out there into the wind. Especially if a state or city has laws regarding PTO they may need to consider.

    10. INTP*

      I really only think they’re appropriate for situations where people get tons of leave and the company is not allowed to come up with their own policy to accommodate employees requiring extended time off, like the public sector. I’m pretty against them for most private companies for a few reasons.

      For one, it’s very difficult to make something like this 100% voluntary with no pressure in an environment where people are getting a few weeks of leave a year. Even if management isn’t putting pressure on, people will definitely notice if Jane takes 3 weeks of vacation every year while they feel obligated to donate half of theirs, and some people will be resentful about it.

      Also, even healthy people need a few weeks of vacation per year minimum imo for optimal mental health and productivity. More companies should have policies encouraging employees to use their vacation weeks (like a fairly low accrual cap), not trying to take them away.

      Finally, if a corporation or for-profit company wants to make a policy to accommodate employees requiring extensive leave, they are totally free to just make a policy allowing for extensive leave. This should be the company’s burden, not the coworkers’, especially when the coworkers are already getting a pretty paltry amount of vacation like most of us do in the US.

    11. There's Always Money in the Banana Stand*

      At my last job (a small financial institution) some people wanted to donate PTO to a coworker in need, and our CEO told us no, because he had apparently spoken to our company attorney, and the attorney advised that it would cause tax discrepancies. I am not sure if this is accurate, or if the CEO just didn’t want to do it anyway and used tax discrepancies as an excuse, but that was the final word.

    12. BurnOutCandidate*

      Several years ago, one of my colleagues was diagnosed with an aggressive form of cancer, and he died about a month after the diagnosis. By the time of the diagnosis, he had exhausted his sick leave. Several people in my department, myself included, went to HR to see if we could donate our accrued sick time (at the time, I had about six weeks accrued; I currently have nine). To me, it seemed like a trivial issue; ADP could take a week out of my account and deposit into his account, but there wasn’t any way that could be done. Reading these comments, pay disparity may have been an issue, especially in my case, as I was paid rather poorly at the time compared to my colleague.

      1. MassMatt*

        This is why people should have short term and long term disability insurance. I know many small employers cannot afford to provide it but many more should than do. It is also available as something you can buy privately yourself, depending on your occupation it can actually be a fairly reasonable expense—meaning, an average person such as a teacher can afford it. Unlike health insurance.

    13. Helena*

      The IRS rules are pretty tricky, since everyone pays taxes on their PTO as part of their compensation. My workplace has gotten it wrong repeatedly, to the point that I refuse to donate because I don’t need an audit.

      1. OP#5*

        OP#5 here. Thank you all, so much, for weighing in on your experiences and some of the many, many reasons why companies should or should not offer donation banks. I wasn’t even aware of some of these practices (such as a donation pool)–I just imagined it as a one-for-one swap from one coworker to another (no soliciting of others).

    14. all the candycorn*

      I think the idea is that the company should be absorbing the cost of creating leave accommodations for employees who are having extenuating circumstances and will require more time out of work than they have available PTO, not their colleagues. No matter the company, the company in total has more money and resources than any individual employee does.

  3. Not A Manager*

    #2 – I’m not completely comfortable allowing a stalker to call up the company without giving them a heads up. It just seems too possible that a well-meaning colleague might be persuaded to give out personal information about you. Or that people engaging at all will encourage this person to continue her efforts.

    You might consider notifying HR and your manager that a difficult relative has been pestering you, that she has a history of calling your colleagues with various stories, and that you would appreciate it if no one would engage with her and would just forward her to your voicemail.

    Ideally, no one would press you for additional details. If that should happen, I hope that it would be enough to say, “this is a difficult situation for me and I’d rather not talk about.”

    1. Drew*

      The trouble is getting an entire company of hundreds of people all on the same page, and I’m guessing the OP’s mother is very good at playing the “I’m so worried and I just want to make sure OP is all right” card, playing on people’s natural sympathy.

      I do think OP#2 would do well to warn her boss and closest colleagues, something like, “My mother and I aren’t close and she just resurfaced trying to make a connection I don’t want. If she happens to call you, please don’t pass along any information, even things you’d normally feel OK telling a family member.”

      In this situation, I might even go as far as, “There is a deranged woman out there impersonating my mother and periodically she tries to make contact with me. Please don’t give her any information about me or my family, no matter how plausible her story sounds.” That’s the nuclear version of the first script, but it sounds like it might be justified.

      1. Not A Manager*

        It’s funny, that was my first idea as well. Not the “deranged” part, but “someone claiming to be my mother…”

        It’s true that you can’t put the entire company on notice, but the entire company probably doesn’t have a lot of info on the LW and would just forward the call in any case. It’s when the manipulative relative tracks down actual colleagues with a sad, sad story that things can get out of hand.

        1. valentine*

          Lying about this being her mother could result in the colleagues doubling down on Team Mom and OP losing credibility if the company has to charge the mom with harassment.

          1. Magenta Sky*

            Precisely why a restraining order should be seriously considered, if it’s a viable option. (They’re not always easy to get in all states, but it’s certainly worth talking to a lawyer about.)

          2. Mookie*

            I don’t know that you have to even address the mother’s “title.”

            “Person with XYZ name is stalking me and has a history of doing so and the reasons for doing so are personal and otherwise irrelevant.” Family members don’t get a pass, and while there are a lot of Buuut FAAAAAMILYY nosey-parkers out there, we should initially assume people will abide by these requests because many people the world over are estranged from their families for a whole host of rational reasons.

            1. suzy homemaker*

              Or say “Someone claiming to be my mother is trying to contact me at work….”
              Not a lie and shuts down the faaaaamily debate with colleagues.

            2. Rusty Shackelford*

              while there are a lot of Buuut FAAAAAMILYY nosey-parkers out there, we should initially assume people will abide by these requests because many people the world over are estranged from their families for a whole host of rational reasons.

              Sorry, that is not a reasonable assumption. I wish it was.

              1. Tara2*

                Yea, I’ve had people constantly badger me to get back in contact with my family, despite me even saying that the last time I was alone with them, I left with bruises. It’s all “But you don’t live with them, you could just not visit them, you can just talk to them on the phone”

                1. MassMatt*

                  I know several people that have had this awful experience. What is wrong with people that they cannot understand that someone has a different experience than theirs, that they know their experience and what is right for them than you do, and you should mind your own business? Why would you want to talk on the phone with people that left you with bruises? Why are they so invested in whether you talk to someone or not? My mind reeels.

                2. AsItIs*

                  There’s some kind of special “sickness” that makes people think abusers are okay if they “only” abuse part-time. :(

              2. gmg22*

                Very sadly, and with first-hand experience, must agree. I recently had a very disturbing discussion with my own mother after she expressed dismay over an old childhood friend of mine choosing in adulthood to cut off contact with HER mother. Gritting my teeth and deciding to go ahead and reveal that 10-year-old me had personally witnessed an incident of abuse while at their home? Apparently not convincing enough.

        2. BluntBunny*

          I think it could be possible to send a generic company wide email saying-
          “We have been receiving reports of people calling and claiming to be relatives of employees in order to get sensitive information if you receive a call from 123456789 do not pick up and notify HR” Companies do this for scam emails and phishing so I don’t think it’s that out of the question, they maybe able to block the number. There may already be a policy in place you could also speak to HR about having your contact information removed from where ever it was she found it.

          1. Dweali*

            It might be better to leave out the phone number part (too many people like to play PI) and maybe say to forward the caller to HR or Security (if the employer has one) but other than that the generic email could be a good option if the employer would consider it.

            1. Cat Fan*

              Yes, I would not put someone’s phone number in the email. She could call from another number anyway. The email would just be a blanket statement to all employees that this type of scamming is going on. An exact phone number is not necessary.

              1. Cactus*

                At one of my old workplaces, we got a LOT of suspicious phone calls, scams, etc. One of the higher-ups eventually came up with the idea of creating a special voicemail box to direct these calls to. We would tell them they were talking to a person–but it would always go to VM, with the greeting, “Hi, you’ve reached ‘Matilda Smith,’ I can’t come to the phone right now…” Once a week or so our QA person would go through and separate the wheat (if there was any) from the chaff, but it did allow the average employee who wasn’t well-trained in handling manipulators and scammers to have an easy way out of those situations.

          2. Countess Boochie Flagrante*

            This is a very good point.

            My company does a lot of employee notifications and training about social engineering & similar scam operations, and this seems like the kind of thing that would fit neatly into that type of a heads-up.

          3. VioletEMT*

            Or just a general “Please do not share information about employees with callers, even if they claim to be family. Direct all inquiries from such callers to HR.” That way the issue can’t be traced to the OP.

        3. Nita*

          I’m my (quite large) company, everyone has access to a company directory, which very often includes personal cell phone numbers. Also, people who are not close to OP may still have some idea in what town/neighborhood they live. You’d hope most people would have more sense than to give that info to a stranger but hey, it’s not a guarantee. People fall for scams and give up personal info all the time.

          Don’t know what the answer is… I’ve never heard of all-staff emails saying “X is being stalked, please do not give out their personal info” or even a more vague “we’re having a problem with a coworker being stalked, don’t give anyone’s cell or address to people you don’t know”, but I can’t see how it would be enough to have this conversation with just a small circle of coworkers.

          1. Smarty Boots*

            Yes, I’m astonished that colleagues would give out info about each other. Maybe because I work with college students and I’m already cautious about saying anything about students to anyone who is not the student. Any request for personal information about anyone associated with the office should get a bland office-speak response, “Oh, I see! Well, I’ll be glad to take a message. What is your name and number?”

            1. pope suburban*

              I am pretty aggressive about screening calls as a result of things like social engineering, stalkers, and estranged relatives. If it’s really a business thing, then no harm will be done by my taking a message and delivering it to my colleague. If it’s really not, however, then a simple bit of business protocol will have prevented something bad. It costs me nothing and it’s a good habit to be in.

          2. Yvonne*

            A few years back there was a situation in which HR sent a company wide email to look out for a certain car and person and if we saw them we were not under any circumstances to give out any information about any employees, no matter what claims they made, and we were to report it to someone immediately. No information other than the description of the person and the car was given. Doing this might be trickier given it’s a phone call and everyone would need more info but it could be done.

      2. Beatrice*

        I don’t think it’s a good idea to lie, but I think your point about the mother preying on people’s natural sympathy is spot on, and would probably be helpful to call it out. “She has a history of pretending to be concerned for my welfare to manipulate people into giving her information or helping her contact me – please don’t fall for that, just put her into my voicemail.”

        1. JeanLouiseFinch*

          Maybe it’s not good to lie, but I would tell HR that she has serious mental illness problems (true, IMO) and that she is trying to get details about the LW in order to harass and stalk him. Perhaps hint that if people talk to her, she might show up at the office and do all kinds of strange things. Some companies in situations like that will send a company wide email telling people not to speak to the caller. I realize this can sound like overkill, but a couple of stymied calls might make her give up on calling his work. Also, many states won’t grant a restraining order short of a person being placed in physical danger and/or provable threats to physically harm someone.

          1. Cheryl Blossom*

            she has serious mental illness problems (true, IMO)

            What??? No. Do not lie and claim people behaving badly have a mental illness, come on.

          2. Jessie the First (or Second)*

            “she has serious mental illness problems (true, IMO) ”

            Having an illness – mental or physical – isn’t really matter of opinion. Illness exists and should be diagnosed by doctors and mental health providers, and not by commenters on internet boards.

            Also, ditto on Cheryl Blossom – let’s not equate “person behaving badly” with “has a mental illness.” Those are different issues. There is ZERO need to encourage the stigma against mental illness in this way.

        2. Anon For Always*

          This. I have a fractured relationship with my mother, and I only have limited contact with her. One of the better things I’ve done is make it clear to my friends and co-workers that she will come across as sympathetic. The ability to emotionally manipulate people is a trademark of people like this, and so I do think it’s important to be clear about that aspect, because it’s far too easy for someone who is trying to be kind to get manipulated into providing information they shouldn’t.

      3. SusieCruisie*

        I would definitely approach HR and ask that perhaps a reminder email could be sent company-wide reminding employees of a policy (that most companies have) not to confirm anyone’s employment to ANYONE (which would include messages to mothers saying they can’t reach their child) and any questions or inquiries need to be directed to HR, who would know the situation and be prepared to handle it. Then if a co-worker gets a call from this mother, they will understand what to do with the call without bogging everyone down in personal details.

        While this situation is horrible, it’s a good practice for all companies to adopt a similar policy for overly aggressive sales people, debt collectors, etc. Don’t give out anyone’s name, don’t confirm or deny that anyone works at the company, etc. This could be a great opportunity to remind all employees of that.

        1. CupcakeCounter*

          This is a great suggestion both for the OP and for any other employee who could be going through something similar and aren’t sure what can be done.

        2. OlympiasEpiriot*

          +1 This is exactly what I wanted to write.

          A small company and you can tell everyone an anodyne story.

          A large company and you’ve got the advantage of Scale and Company-Wide Systems that can be implemented without personal information or pointing at anyone in particular.

        3. gmg22*

          Yep. This solution protects the OP’s privacy from her colleagues, as well as from her estranged family.

      4. MusicWithRocksInIt*

        If the company has a receptionist I feel like that would be a great place to start. Then you could have the conversation with just one person who is best placed to stop this in it’s tracks. Or maybe with HR and the receptionist so you can get permission for him/her to transfer all of your mothers calls to you, or maybe an unused voicemail.

      5. Lexi Kate*

        I was going to say to tell your coworkers that is is a crazy ex that has other people help them get information, and has in the past had someone call and pretend to be OP’s mother. That you have been getting hang ups lately and that is a sign they are going coo coo. Let them know when they get that call to either have fun with it or tell them you can’t answer any questions.

      6. Someone Else*

        That’s true but my first thought reading the story is…a company that large should already have a policy about this that employees should be aware of (so staff don’t need to preemptively give details to HR to then circulate “don’t believe calls asking about so-and-so”). I mean, they’re humans so it’s possible they wouldn’t follow the policy anyway. But following your third paragraph, that’s really where my mind went. In this case employee knows it actually is her mother, but if staff would actually participate with some random person calling claiming to be someone’s mother when they have no way of knowing whether it is, they’re indicating the company is easily susceptible to phishing attacks from stalkers.

      7. Seeking Second Childhood*

        A large company of hundreds can *EASILY* make a policy that says outside calls to contact individuals at the company should be directed to HR.
        That looks out for this one employee with an unpleasant family member, for any employee with abusive exes or stalkers, and for all of the employees who are trying to avoid persistent vendors.

        1. Not So NewReader*

          We had a company policy of taking a name and a number, the intended person would call back .. or not.

          At another place we were instructed not to say who was at work and who wasn’t. “I can take a message. She can call you back.” That is all we would say. This meant we told each other when we were waiting for personal calls on the company line.

      8. JSPA*

        I was about to suggest nearly this (excusable) lie.

        I’d probably tell HR that you are dealing with someone whose has sporadic issues with reality vs fantasy. That you are dealing with it as best you can, outside of work hours. That they are not violent or threatening. That there is no circumstance where you’ll be getting legitimate calls from relatives via the work phone. That calls from any relatives or purported relatives be answered politely but briefly, with no information about you given out. That these calls not be put through to you (or, be put through to your voice mail for documentation purposes, without ringing your phone). Rationale: You don’t want to put people in fear of a dangerous stalker who doesn’t exist, but it’s fine to explain that there’s a “situation.” And ask that the company go to “neither confirm nor deny” when it comes to giving out personal information (or reiterate that policy if it’s already in place).

        Don’t say that your mom’s not your mom. Don’t get into your family dynamics. That’s like explaining what your medical procedure entails–TMI for the workplace. All they need to know is that the person is not living entirely in reality. (This in fact, true, in the sense that she has a fantasy that she can be party to your life, while not accepting you. And a fantasy that you can be her cis/het/etc kid.)

        That said, if you actually would want to know if someone had died (?) or she or someone in the family has cancer or dementia (?) or if a sibling or cousin had just come out–even if she wanted to blame you for it (?)… Then it might be worth taking the calls direct to voice mail. Ditto if there’s any scenario where you’d want to rebuild a connection if / when she jumps off the homophobia train.

        You can forward the calls to a friend’s voice mail so they can screen them for you and give you tip off in the (short-term unlikely but perhaps longer-term likely) event there’s something other than the same old guilt-shame-angst-anger-self-flagellation-verbal abuse-“but I love you” mom-dump.

    2. Ophelia Bumblesmoop*

      I agree as well. It doesn’t have to come out specifically for you; the company could easily send a generic reminder email that while certain information is available publicly, employees should not give out non-public information. This includes addresses and phone numbers. Security can be mentioned in the email so people understand, but if the OP’s mother starts to escalate, this little reminder will be out there.

      1. Julia*

        This was standard policy at my last workplace, to the point that we weren’t even allowed to give names unless the caller specifically called (the reception) and asked to talk to XY.

        1. Amber T*

          I baffled many a (mean) salesperson with “oh, I don’t know who our HR person is!” when they would call and ask/demand to speak with our HR person to pitch them something. “Not knowing” who your IT person is less baffling apparently, but still satisfying.

          1. OhNo*

            I’ve done similar, and thanks to the way our system is configured, I also have the back-up of saying, “Sorry, I can’t transfer you without the person’s name!” Helps a lot when a pushy salesperson calls pretending to be looking for someone, and then demands to talk to anyone in IT/HR/etc. Sorry, Joe Schmo isn’t in my directory and I can’t transfer you to an entire department, only to specific people, so you’re out of luck!

    3. Turquoisecow*

      It seems kind of unlikely that would be enforceable or manageable over a large company, though. If the mom is calling people at random, she may call someone who doesn’t work directly with OP. HR could send out an email reminding everyone of privacy concerns, but most people will probably skim the email and not take it seriously. I’m not sure there’s anything HR could do proactively, aside from maybe blocking or automatically forwarding the mom’s number – and even then she may use different phones.

      1. Retail worker*

        Ummm giving out anyone’s personal info including their schedule is a serious breach. All employees should be aware of that and if they give out info should be subject to reprimand.

    4. Les G*

      Agreed with your last two paragraphs, coulda done without the first. It’s not the OP’s responsibility to manage her mother, nor will it be het fault if her mother contacts her company against her explicit wishes. Stalkers gonna stalk and all that.

      1. Drop Bear*

        I read that paragraph more as meaning ‘ not comfortable’ about the increased risk to the LW ( LW’s personal information being given out) if the company doesn’t get a heads up, rather than saying the LW has a responsibility to protect the company from her mother.

    5. Not mommy dearest*

      I too think OP should get out in front of this. My mother has a long history of boundary issues. It started out like OP described and escalated into harassing various people in senior management (this because she objected to the fact I was in travel frequently to Places She Doesn’t Like), which I am convinced cost me promotion opportunities.

      1. Not So NewReader*

        I tend to agree that OP should try to figure out how she can head off mom’s power play. I would just call it like it is, but this is not a plan everyone is comfortable with.

        I have no idea if OP could use a good, well done, bluff. I am thinking that maybe OP could let family know that she told everyone at work to just take a message if mom calls. (Whether she told them or not does not matter, this is a bluff.) Word will go back to mom that she is defeated before she starts.

        Think about bluffs that might be effective here, OP. Think about who in your family cannot keep things to themselves and would be likely to tell your mother. Plant the bluff there. I have used this technique a few times and it has worked well. The key part is to think it through as best you can.

    6. VictorianCowgirl*

      This was my reaction as well. The mother is engaging in illegal stalking. I would advise OP to also call the police and file a report at this point. R.O.s are generally not advised in stalking situations anymore. If IT can set up a dummy voicemail, that would also be helpful so OP isn’t barraged by this at work. OP, take good care and be kind to yourself. Stalking is extreme emotional abuse.

      1. Chocolate Teapot*

        Less personal call, more phishing, however our Compliance department at work recently did some training, reminding us that not everyone who phones up is who they say they are. and to exercise caution when giving out information.

        The other point made during the training was people naturally want to help, and therefore, would give details such as Jane’s direct phone number, or her location (“Well she’s actually off for the rest of the week on a business trip to Outer Mongolia”) .

        1. EvilQueenRegina*

          My ex-manager actually used to instruct us to tell callers that “Philomena is off sick” – that instruction came about after my coworker complained about getting repeated phone calls for Philomena, a social worker, from the same irate parent trying to get hold of her on a day she was sick, and our manager had said “Well, if you tell them she’s out sick they’ll know they won’t get her that day and they can make the decision whether they need to speak to someone on duty or whether it can wait until she’s back”. We were told not to say things like “business trip to Outer Mongolia” though.

          1. EPLawyer*

            Oh goodie, so now Mom has information she needs to manipulate the kid. If the employee did not tell Mom, she was out sick, then it is NONE OF MOM’S BUSINESS. The correct answer to ANY inquiry about where someone is “I am sorry that person is not available, I can connect you to their voicemail.” Nothing more.

            1. Guacamole Bob*

              On the one hand, I kind of see where you’re coming from, but on the other, basically everyone I know puts up an out of office message with the dates when they’re out, and in some offices people change their voicemail message, too. As an admin I often told people that the person they were trying to reach was out of the office that day – it gives the person useful information about when to expect a response.

              When a person is out sick you often don’t know exactly when they’ll be back, so sometimes you say you aren’t sure and the other person can guess that it’s because of illness and not pre-planned vacation.

              Again, I get keeping peoples’ info private, but there are real business reasons not to always go with your script.

            1. Cheryl Blossom*

              Thiiiiis. I’ve worked reception, and no one needs to know exactly why someone is unavailable. My go to is “oh, sorry, they’re on the other line right now. Can I take a message?”

              1. JSPA*

                That tells someone they’re there, though…which is already information of a sort.
                “nobody by that name is available” is the most private. “That person is not available / I can give you the departmental voice mail” is pretty good and less robotic. And if mom thinks she’s talking on departmental voice mail (when it’s your “calls from mom” box) her self-censorship will give you (or the friend who’s screening them for you) a read on whether she’s in boundary-breaking mode, or is appropriately self regulating and is trying to pass along some information you might actually need.

                1. EvilQueenRegina*

                  And if the person really is out sick, and they’re told that they’re on the other line, that’s just going to encourage them to keep calling back in the hope of getting them, which was what my coworker was complaining about in the first place. I don’t know why she didn’t just say Philomena was out all day – it still would have solved the situation and the persistent caller then would have had the information to decide whether or not to speak to someone else or leave it for her return.

      2. MK*

        “The mother is engaging in illegal stalking”

        I seriously doubt this, unless there is more than what the letter says.

        1. VictorianCowgirl*

          Simply look up the definition, then. Just because she’s her mother doesn’t make her actions any more legal.

          1. Aveline*

            Not every undesirable stalking behavior is actually illegal stalking.

            In my state, it requires a fear that the perpetrator will cause actual physical harm to the victim. I don’t see that here.

            As someone who has helped clients get EPOs and DVO, the legal definition of stalking is certainly too strict to help many victims. It’s also far, far more strict than what most laypersons think it would be.

            It’s not clear from OPs info if mom has went over the line wrt to illegal harassment. But it’s probably not stalking because the lack of physical following and the lack of intent to cause physical harm.

            We also don’t know where they live or what the law is in that jurisdiction on either stalking or harrassment. Which are, btw, two legally distinct things,

            Where I live, I don’t know a single judge who would grant an order based on the facts presented. Daughter could sue in civil court if there were actual damages. But that’s expensive.

          2. Someone Else*

            I’m not a lawyer, but the “being her mother” isn’t the reason why what was described in the letter doesn’t meet the legal definition of stalking. The behavior itself does not. I would certainly make me concerned this woman would rise to that, but (and this does vary by state) where I live stalking requires not only willful, malicious, repeated harassment, but also “credible threat”. That’s the missing part.
            I’m not trying dismiss OP’s concerns. This sucks and I hope her mother does not succeed in reaching her since the intent was to cut off contact, but MK is correct that based on the info we have here, this does not rise to the level of illegal stalking. (unless their in a state with a more lax definition)

    7. Gen*

      A friend of mines mother does this and staff have given out her shift pattern, told her mother when she’ll be in, and once gotten her to go outside on some pretext knowing her mother was in the car park because ‘oh a lovely family reunion, what a darling surprise’. It was very much not lovely. Some kind of preemptive chat with HR might be helpful, even if it just means OP knowing the company policy on sharing works patterns etc with outside sources. I’ve worked in environments where stalking/harassment were more common and many of those had policies against saying anything other than ‘i’ll pass on your message’

      1. Amylou*

        Yikes! Especially the forced “family reunion”! If you have even remotely good relations with your mom/anyone, you don’t need a (family) reunion in your office parking lot…

      2. MusicWithRocksInIt*

        As someone who has to sometimes covers the front desk, I’m always weirded out when someone calls and says “This is coworker’s MOTHER calling. Can you put me through to them?”. I feel like it would be enough to say “Can I speak to Coworker please?” I’m not going to give you special treatment because you are anyone’s mother, and I find it weird that you need to let me know that. Don’t you have your kids cell number? If you tell me that there is a family emergency I will go out of my way to page them and try to track them down, but if there is not you don’t need to bring your relationship into it. You are basically telling me this is a non-business call so I am not going to prioritize it.

        1. straws*

          This is a really good point. With the prevalence of cell phones, it raises a flag for a mother to be calling and asking for their child in the first place.

    8. sheworkshardforthemoney*

      No. 2 It may be a good idea for HR/management to send out a company wide directive on not disclosing the personal information of employees to anyone who calls looking for it. DV, vengeful exes, boundary crossing relatives can happen to anyone. A standard response can be, “Leave your name and number and it will be passed along.”

      1. Jasnah*

        This is a good way to handle it, I think. I’m sure everyone at the company could use a reminder about how much information can be shared with outsiders (even harmless questions like, can I give a client my coworker’s work cell?). My old job had specific rules saying we couldn’t state that someone was on vacation because it sounded too frivolous, and we should always say they were “unavailable” or “in a meeting/with a client.” As ridiculous as that was, it was good to know before answering the phones.

        1. Just Employed Here*

          I don’t think that sounds frivolous, but I would be furious if a colleague told some stranger on the phone that I was on vacation/travelling/etc.

          Finding out someone’s home address often isn’t that hard, and knowing I’m on a trip would be like an invitation to burgle my house…

          1. bonkerballs*

            Whereas where I work it would be totally bizarre to not be able to mention someone is on vacation. I mean, of course I’m going to tell someone who calls asking for you that they’re not going to be able to speak to you for two weeks.

            1. JSPA*

              It’s normal to except / exempt specific clients who have a “need to know.” And to pass new clients to some other person if someone will not be available “for a period.” Even “out of the office” may be acceptable. But telling the general public that someone is “on vacation” or “out of town”? That can be seriously problematic. Too easy for someone to get burgled (or worse, get a family member or house sitter attacked) after the wrong person finds out (or presumes) that “on vacation” means their house is empty. Worst case scenario (obviously rare in any one specific case, but sadly not rare enough, collectively): if someone is being stalked, you’ve just let the stalker know that it’ll be two weeks before anyone notices if coworker doesn’t show up at work.

          2. Jasnah*

            I meant that even if clients, vendors, other partners, basically anyone who was not directly a company employee would be told they are “unavailable” or “with a client” and would be out all day, or back in two weeks. I think the reason was ridiculous–why is it frivolous to say someone is sick?–but it’s good practice when dealing with clients/randos, and more importantly it was good that I knew that before answering the phone.

        2. Washi*

          Yeah, I think this kind of training can be really helpful, and I wish there was something like that at my workplace. I work somewhere that provides therapy services, and clients call all the time to the wrong direct line so we do have to transfer them to the correct employee. It would be really easy for someone to pretend to be a client and for us to give them their supposed therapist’s work schedule or work cell.

          Broader point being that if the OP works somewhere that the employees are trained first and foremost to be helpful to outside callers, they are especially vulnerable to being tricked into giving out information, and a general reminder from HR could be good for everyone.

      2. Cheryl Blossom*

        This is a good idea. No one should be giving out information about other employees over the phone anyway.

    9. Mookie*

      Yes. This is no different than being stalked or harassed by a non-relative. Large organizations, presumably, have a lot of that covered by training everyone with a phone, publicly available e-mail address, and/or client-facing position under a blanket policy that protects employee privacy. Not allowed to discuss their whereabouts or their schedule and no promises about directly passing along any messages (subject to reasonable discretion). Long-time pesterers are blacklisted where possible and with the employee’s permission.

    10. Lora*

      If it’s a large-ish company, the company security department or IT may be able to set up a system to block her phone number or send it directly to voicemail.

      Granted, your mom may figure out that she needs to use a different phone, but it may at least help. I would imagine that a company that large would at least have had a little experience previously from people fired and not welcome back, applicants with unacceptable levels of gumption, etc. and have some sort of plan for how they deal with that sort of thing.

      Many companies do have some kind of generic security policy that all calls from Persons Unknown asking for anyone are routed to a central number, and the central number can route things directly to your voicemail (as opposed to your desk phone). Then if you do need to take further legal action, you have a recording of the call.

    11. SignalLost*

      If the mother has, in the past, confined herself to OP’s department, I think it’s worth giving a heads up to the department as well. I don’t think there’s a lot that can be done for notification of a company of any size (I mean, I’ve worked places with thirty-five employees that I didn’t know everyone’s name because I never worked with them…) but I knew everyone in my department. But if you work in llama petting, you probably don’t know someone who works in feed management, so an org-wide heads up is silly.

  4. Drew*

    OP#1, your boss and coworkers are awful, awful people. Using people’s phobias against them is the stuff of 1984-level mental torture. I think you owe it to your coworker to warn him that the clowns are only going to escalate this month – and I think that if you have anything approaching a functional HR department, you should encourage your coworker to go to them.

    1. Ophelia Bumblesmoop*

      It boggles my mind that #1 isnt being taken more seriously. I walked out of a job after lunch when my supervisor thought it was funny to put the empty takeaway container of her incredibly fragrant (in a not good way) meat filled lunch on my keyboard at work… knowing that not only am I a vegetarian, but that I am susceptible to certain smells and this dish was one that frequently made me throw up. Yup… my direct supervisor caused my office to be filled with an odor so strong I had to puke. As soon as I walked in and saw it, I walked right back and told them I wouldn’t return until the container and smell were gone. Supervisor apologized profusely for a bad joke in a very genuine manner, but if she hadn’t, I would have gone to HR.

      OP needs to speak up not only to the coworker getting pranked but to either HR or her boss’ supervisor. This is how a hostile environment is created.

      1. Les G*

        I’m…they….what? Folks need to learn the meaning of the word “joke.” Hint: this ain’t it.

        But I feel compelled to mention that “hostile workplace” has a specific definition. I got what you meant by it, but didn’t want folks to pile on about that point before a beleaguered lawyer finally stepped in 20 comments deep.

        1. Zombeyonce*

          “Folks need to learn the meaning of the word “joke.””

          Exactly! A joke is something both people find funny. There are so many terrible pranks done on people that very obviously do not find them funny. If your subject isn’t entertained by an action, it’s not a joke or a prank, it’s just cruel behavior toward another person.

          1. Liet-Kinda*

            So is your point that OP should touch base with coworker and see how he actually feels about this, or…..?

      2. sheworkshardforthemoney*

        Triggering someone’s phobia for laughs is outright bullying. It’s not funny under any circumstances.

          1. EddieSherbert*

            +1!! That’s rude on several levels (disrespecting your personal choice to avoid meat, making your office smell nasty, and triggering your gag reflexes). Thank goodness your supervisor did learn though!

      3. Liet-Kinda*

        Regardless of how seriously you take this, he is not you, he is not a child, and he is not defenseless in this scenario, and I find it intensely bizarre that so many people are advocating that OP should react like this. Go to HR herself? Do you have any idea how inappropriate that is, how many boundaries that crosses?

        1. tinyhipsterboy*

          It has nothing to do with the person being seemingly able to defend themselves. While it may or may not be a good idea–and I’m not advocating either way here–it’s completely possible that the coworker feels like he might not be taken seriously, or that HR is in on it, or that people will retaliate against him. There are a myriad of reasons why someone wouldn’t try to defend themselves, so I have trouble seeing how this is inappropriate or boundary-crossing if someone *else* speaks up on their behalf.

          1. Liet-Kinda*

            Because unless he wants someone to, doing so on the basis of the preemptive and presumptive conclusion that he’s not doing it because of Reasons would be intensely patronizing and weird.

            Talk to him first. Then do what he asks you to do.

            1. tinyhipsterboy*

              It could be patronizing, or he could end up being grateful. I’m with you on that LW should talk to him first, but there are plenty of things we don’t know about this situation that I find it strange that your first reaction is to talk about how bad and inappropriate it is considering the situation in general is making LW uncomfortable.

              1. Liet-Kinda*

                The bizarre, disproportionate, amped-up responses the commentariat are advising are the only thing left to really talk about.. The things we don’t know about this situation are irrelevant; OP has actionable advice, which is to talk to the coworker first and act from there. In this thread, responding to the parent comment above, at issue is whether she should bypass him and go to HR herself, and yes, I am reacting to that suggestion in my response – obviously.

                1. Jennifer Thneed*

                  Again: I wouldn’t be reporting on the co-worker’s behalf, I’d be reporting on MY OWN behalf, because that sort of environment would terrify me. Clowns don’t scare me but this type of environment scares me and I would absolutely wonder when they would all turn on me for my dislike of scary movies. (Which, you know, scare me.)

                2. Liet-Kinda*

                  That makes more sense than preemptively acting on the coworker’s behalf on the basis of your own distaste for the pranks being played on him, but I think that course of action would certainly still merit some internal debate about whether it makes sense from a professional capital standpoint to go to HR and tell them you’re terrified by pranks being played on someone else.

                  And if that were something that you’d do in OP’s place, I’d probably frame it more in terms of “this is distracting and annoying, and it’s been happening a lot because halloween is coming, so could we maybe ask them to keep it after work hours or something.”

                  In any case, I still think the first advice was the best advice: ask the coworker what they need and follow their lead.

            2. GlitsyGus*

              This is my gut instinct. “Hey, Bob, I want to give you a heads up. There are folks planning to show up one day in this costume to freak you out. I don’t totally know how you feel about all this, but the pranking has really seemed like it’s getting a bit over the line and at least from my perspective it seems to be really freaking you out. If I’m misinterpreting, let me know, but if I’m not and you really do want this to stop I’m happy to back you up on this with HR.”

              I would be more than a little irked if someone went to HR about something happening to me without at least talking to me about it first, but definitely give him the heads up about the costume and offer to back him up if he wants you to.

              Now, if all this pranking and joking is stopping you from doing your job, or making you worried that you will be the next target, that’s a different conversation and one you can totally have on your own with your manager or HR if you think it’s necessary.

        2. Jennifer Thneed*

          If I were in this situation, I would certainly go to HR, because I would be reporting a terrible working environment that was affecting ME.

          1. JSPA*

            I suppose you can say that you’re having your own anxieties, having seen other people’s phobias used against them, and not knowing if and when something equivalent will happen to you.

            However, I’d instead say that to the clown-phobe, to explain that he’d be doing many people a favor, by taking this to HR himself, and to make it clear you’re not just willing but eager to write and submit a statement to that effect, along with his complaint (should he choose to make one). That seems way more effective, all in all.

            Be prepared to do it. Be prepared to not do it, if he doesn’t want to because he wants to downplay his phobia. Ditto if he’s not as scared of clowns as he makes out. (There are people who play up minor phobias, sometimes to draw fire away from other, deeper phobias, sometimes to suss out who in the office is emotionally stunted enough to pull stunts like this.)

        3. Wintermute*

          It’s perfectly legal for her to do so, the danger is that if only the direct target “has standing” to complain what about all the OTHER people in the office that are being suppressed by this? that would disclose their own mental health or phobia issues but are scared off seeing how one person is treated and the fact they’re seemingly “okay” with it. That’s getting into LEGALLY hostile workplace territory because of the ADA implications.

    2. nnn*

      Seconded. I could not feel safe with or trust people who use phobias against people and trigger panic as a “joke”.

    3. London Calling*

      I thought my office was bad. At least all I and a couple of colleagues have to deal with is semi-ostracism, favouritism and a crappy commute, not straight up vicious bullying. Doesn’t surprise me that a manager is part of this, sadly.

    4. Woodswoman*

      So much this. If someone is “terrified” of what these co-workers are doing–including a supervisor–then it’s not “pranking.” That’s bullying, plain and simple. I hope OP will step up as an ally to the person being targeted, fill them in about the plan, and offer to support them in a complaint to HR.

      1. irene adler*

        Had a supervisor threaten co-workers not to tell when she played a prank on a male co-worker (Joe). Said she would write them up for insubordination if they did tell Joe. Poor Joe was terrified that he was in trouble with the police.
        It wasn’t until after the shift ended that he was told it was all a joke. One that he did not appreciate.

        I wish I’d stepped up and defied the supervisor.

        (Joe had swiped a pair of salt shakers he admired from a bar they had all patronized the night before. He got a call at start of shift from a ‘police officer’ informing him that he saw Joe take the shakers. Joe spent the entire shift visibly upset over this call. He sat in his car during lunch, too shaken to eat. Then at the end of the shift he got a call from the ‘police officer’ who turned out to be the husband of the supervisor. )

        1. Michelle*

          This kind of stuff is so not funny. Any supervisor/manager who plays a part in something like this clearly has no business supervising/managing a team.

          1. irene adler*

            I looked this supervisor up recently on LinkedIn. She’s now a Director.
            Unfortunately nothing was ever reported to HR. So nothing adverse was entered into the supervisor’s employment record.

      2. Silence Will Fall*

        Some people seem to have a hard time realizing that The Office was not a show about how to have healthy, productive relationships with coworkers and management.

        Pro tip: if you can imagine Michael Scott doing it, it’s not a good idea.

    5. Justme, The OG*

      Yeah, this is definitely not joking. Pranks are changing your supervisor’s background to bunnies because they left their computer unsecured (and supervisor had no phobia of bunnies). Or shrink wrapping their keyboard when they’re on vacation.

      1. fposte*

        I’d love to hear the manager’s answer when she’s asked how this benefits the employee’s work.

      2. Dr. Pepper*

        My husband likes to change backgrounds on unsecured computers to pictures of viking longships and see how long it takes for someone to change it back. The record so far is one month. Slightly juvenile but not hurting (or scaring) anyone and it gives some people a chuckle.

        1. MusicWithRocksInIt*

          In my state there are two big collage football teams, and things get competitive in the office around the time they play each other. A lot of changing computer backgrounds/ screensavers on the computer of people who support the other team to our team logo. It is all in good fun, and whichever team win gets their ornament at the top of the company Christmas tree. But if it ever upset anyone at all we would stop.

              1. Jennifer Thneed*

                Right, but so many people have a “don’t rock the boat” attitude, especially if they’re newcomers in a workplace. They wouldn’t say anything, and they wouldn’t show a reaction to their brand-new coworkers. My point was just that MusicWithRocksInIt doesn’t know how people feel, they only know what people say.

        2. GlitsyGus*

          I work in a regulated industry and we aren’t supposed to walk away from our desks without locking our computers. At my last job if you forgot our manager would go up to your desk and change your desktop to a super close up of him making this crazy face with “LOCK YOUR COMPUTER!!” typed over it, then he’d lock it. It was rather unsettling, but also very funny, to walk over, unlock your computer and just see his creepy face staring at you. Most folks only forgot to lock them once.

    6. Dr. Pepper*

      Personally if I were the recipient of such “jokes” (which are not actually much of a joke), I’d probably quit. Oh yes, it’s SO HILARIOUS to genuinely terrify someone. Repeatedly. Even my ridiculous former boss who did all kinds of odd stuff never stooped to that level. We had one coworker who was easy to startle. The poor guy would jump out of his skin if you surprised him, and baser minds might have taken that as an invitation to sneak up on him a lot to freak him out. Instead we all went out of our way to NOT do exactly that.

      1. BookishMiss*

        Yes, this exactly. My last job was in an office where people LOVE to jump-scare each other. I made it exceptionally clear that I can’t tolerate it, so they did as much as they could short of wearing bells to not startle me.

      2. Delphine*

        Me too, frankly. It takes an incredible lack of empathy to purposefully try to terrify someone. I wouldn’t be able to look at my boss/coworkers the same way.

    7. EddieSherbert*

      Agreed! I had a friend in high school who was horribly afraid of clowns, and even us dumb teenagers realized after a couple ‘pranks’ that it wasn’t funny to trigger his phobia – and he wasn’t at the level of “running out the building (!!) because he saw a clown photo (!!!!)”.

      I can’t imagine how your coworker will react to someone dressed as clown coming after him (!!!!!). Please warn him!

    8. Cheryl Blossom*

      It isn’t really clear in the letter that it’s actually a phobia. Being afraid of something isn’t automatically a phobia.

      For instance, I’m afraid of (live) fish. I do not want to look at them, and I would not be happy if someone decided to change my computer wallpaper to a picture of a fish. But it doesn’t rise to the level of a phobia.

      1. Zombeyonce*

        If this guy is actually running and screaming as a reaction to the “pranks”, I’d say his feeling on clowns are intense enough to count as a phobia.

        1. EddieSherbert*

          This was my thought as well… but that’s a fair point, Cheryl. The OP probably shouldn’t use the word “phobia” unless the coworker has also used it about his fear.

      2. Jan*

        I’m glad I’m not the only one who feels that way about live fish! I can’t so much as paddle in the sea for fear of brushing up against one.

  5. Emma*

    #4 I think seniority is also something to consider here. Your boss can tell you that something isn’t a priority and you need to move on – that isn’t really something you can convey back upwards to her.

    1. Beatrice*

      That’s what I was thinking. I’ve used that phrase before to indicate to my direct reports that something isn’t a priority or isn’t a factor in the conversation. “I don’t care if you fall behind on processing X transactions, but you need to keep answering the phones”, or “I don’t care what Marcia in scheduling thinks, I need you to fast-track that shipment.” There aren’t many situations where it would be acceptable for them to say it to me.

      1. HarvestKaleSlaw*

        Did anyone else read #4 and remember that anti-drug PSA from the 80s? “From you, alright! I learned it from watching you!”

        That’s why it’s important to model good behavior, managers and parents!

        1. Wintermute*

          You’re forgetting that in that case it’s a behavior equally inappropriate (from the PSA’s point of view) for parents and kids. The parent’s didn’t catch the kid taking out an auto loan or spanking his younger brother.

          In situations where different levels of authority and domains of responsibility are in play you can NEVER assume “Do as you see done”. That’s a recipe for, like the letter writer, over-stepping your bounds.

    2. Alianora*

      This is true. I don’t know the context, but I can’t think of many situations where “I don’t care” would be an acceptable response to a question from your boss. Of course, it is a rude way for your boss to phrase things, but having the authority to designate something as unimportant is her prerogative.

      1. On Fire*

        This. It completely depends on what the question was that the boss asked. “What’s the status of the TPS report?” versus “Do you want to report first or last?” For 1, “I don’t care” is blowing off the job. For 2, it’s being flexible.

        1. Czhorat*

          It’s not a professional way to indicate flexibility. I’d say, “Either is OK with me” or even “either is fine for me”. Those are positive. “I don’t care” is a very negative way of putting it which, to my ear, makes you sound unengaged and unprofessional.

          1. Cacwgrl*

            THIS! And I am a person who is constantly working to break this habit of using I don’t care at work. I find myself using it in the “I don’t have a preference, do what you think is best” way, but it comes off as harsh to some audiences. I cringed a little in the OP about it being used in the dismissive, let’s move on context. If someone did that to me, I’d be pissed and I understand how someone would be bothered about the way I say it.

      1. Tired*

        Bosses can be rude when subordinates cannot. I don’t care is rude to say no matter who is saying it.

        1. Greg NY*

          It’s important to clarify that a “boss” can be rude or say things subordinates cannot, if we want to define “boss” as an authority figure or someone that can actually boss their subordinates around. But a manager, who leads a team and considers those that report to them integral parts of a team, works to facilitate the operations of the department or project, and they need to lead by example. Managers, as opposed to “bosses”, really shouldn’t be rude or say anything they wouldn’t want to hear from those that report to them, except that they have ultimate decision making abilities and can deliver the last word on a particular issue.

          1. Psyche*

            I don’t think anyone is trying to say that it is ok for the boss to be rude. It isn’t. But a boss can get away with it while a subordinate cannot. If the boss were the one writing in, I’m sure everyone would be saying that they should rephrase and not just say “I don’t care.” However, the boss does get to determine which things are important and need discussion and which things do not need to be discussed in the meeting and are wasting time. A subordinate does not. They should phrase it more politely though.

            1. Czhorat*

              Exactly. The boss is, IMHO, wrong to say “I don’t care”, but the subordinate has no standing to correct them.

              The subordinate is wrong to say it back to the boss, and the boss IS in a position to discipline them for it. It is not symmetrical.

    3. Ender Wiggin*

      Yeah my boss tells me he doesn’t care about stuff all the time, usually when I’m getting too into the detail and spending too much time on a minor point. I would never say it back to him. He’s the boss.

    4. Hey Karma, Over Here*

      I think, too, that the statement might be a hot button issue for the boss. From her reaction, I’m wondering if someone higher up or peer level has spoken to her about it. So hearing LW say it, she over reacted either because she took it as rubbing salt, she took it as mocking (because she thinks she doesn’t say it THAT much) or as LW siding with person who spoke to her about it, like being disloyal.

    5. Sparky*

      A couple of phrases you might consider instead (that I use regularly):
      “It’s your call.”
      and, when I have more urgent things going on, “That is not my focus right now.”

      1. Anne of Green Gables*

        I use “I’m not concerned about that” or variations…I’m not as concerned about that, I’m not concerned about that right now. I like “That’s not my focus right now” too.

        1. Czhorat*

          Or, alternatively,


          “I don’t care. Do u?” (this one is better in email)

          “Who gives a <four letter synonym for fecal matter?"

          Or, more classic:

          "Frankly, my dear, I don't give a “

      2. straws*

        These are great options. I’ve used a variation of the latter, “I’m working on other priorities right now, but if you feel this is of high importance maybe we should revisit what those are.”

    6. Psyche*

      Exactly this. Even if you substitute “This is not important. Let’s move on” for “I don’t care” it is inappropriate to say that to your boss. In general, your boss gets to decide what is important and worth spending time on in the meetings. If something really is unimportant, you need to justify your position because the boss obviously feels differently.

    7. Bea*

      I think it’s all about timing and context as stated above as well. And as Alison noted, the tone!

      My boss says “I don’t care” frequently enough but it’s always in a “I’m not going to stop you!” kind of way. “Should I keep these random things I found in the cabinet?” “I don’t care what you do with those old widgets.”

      The only time I’ve used it was when I’ve been asked to do something and get a “do you mind?” thrown at me. “I don’t care either way, that’s your call!” Again, tone and context.

      1. Jennifer Thneed*

        But you’re giving examples where “I don’t care” was part of the longer answer. Just as a phrase on its own it is so very dismissive.

        I think this is a case of boss using a phrase that is actually rude, and either she knows and doesn’t care, or she didn’t know how it sounded until she heard it, or she thinks bosses get to be rude.

    8. EddieSherbert*

      I think the employee version of your boss saying “I don’t care” is:
      “I’m okay with either option,”
      “I don’t mind that,”
      or “I don’t have a preference.”

    9. MCMonkeyBean*

      Yeah, I was a little surprised at the answer here. There is a big difference between the boss saying “I don’t care about this, let’s move on” and someone saying that to their boss. If the boss is asking you about it, it’s probably your job to care about it! Or at least to have an explanation for why it isn’t important, rather than just casually brushing it off.

      Also, this seems to be a case of two wrongs don’t make a right. OP stated that they specifically don’t like when the boss says “I don’t care” and finds it off-putting. So it seems pretty silly to me that they would use the same phrase and then be surprised when the boss found it off-putting. And I honestly find it hard to believe that it is possible to say a phrase that bothers you to the person who usually says it without sounding at least a little passive-aggressive. So it definitely seems likely to me that OP’s tone was not as neutral as they might believe.

  6. Les G*

    OP4, I’m trying to figure out the nicest way to ask this, but: if you and your coworkers hate when your boss says “I don’t care,” it’s a bit of a head-scratcher to me why you did it. “I deplore this obnoxious habit and so have chosen to adopt it myself” is not a behavior typically found in a happy workplace (or worker) so, well, I’m wondering if your boss was onto something with the whole passive aggressive thing.

    1. Beatrice*

      There’s something to be said for adopting someone’s style of communication when you’re trying to get through to them. I’m not sure that was the right approach in this particular conversation, but it made sense to me that OP might have been trying to do that.

      1. Dr. Pepper*

        I do this- most of the time not even on purpose. When I hear phrases repeatedly they just kind of get integrated into my vocabulary and I’ll start using them. Sometimes I don’t even notice and someone else has to point it out. I also tend to “mirror” whoever I’m talking to and adopt their style of communication and phrasing. Most of the time it’s actually quite helpful, but if I’m not careful I’ll be rude right back to rude people and alas that does not fly well with supervisors.

        My advice to the OP is that you’re probably dealing with a rude person who doesn’t realize that they’re being abrasive. If the boss was a genuine “straight talker” type she probably would not have been upset by the OP’s use of her own pet phrase. Often these types of people respect what they see as “no BS” language. But the fact that she blithely uses the phrase yet bristles when her report used it (assuming the OP wasn’t saying it in a particularly aggressive or bitter way) says to me that the boss either does not realize how she comes across or she believes that she is in a privileged position and is allowed to be “candid” but that her reports must show a higher level of respect. She’d technically be right, but it’s a patronizing way to treat your employees and as evidenced by the letter, not well appreciated.

    2. Jack V*

      This is a mistake I make sometimes. Someone says something kind of rude, and I feel like I should give them the benefit of the doubt, but I go too far and when I should think “X keeps saying this, it sounds rude to me but I suppose there must be a good reason” instead I think “this must be ok to say because X says it, if I avoided saying it that would be weird” and then I blurt it out :(

      I’ve got a lot better at not doing that :) I think most people wouldn’t usually make that mistake, but people would sometimes — if the situation seems appropriate for what the boss said and it’s been on your mind, it’s easy for it to slip out unless you’ve positively decided not to.

      I agree it would have been much better NOT to try to adopt it.

    3. Mookie*

      Yeah, if the LW hadn’t suggested otherwise, I’d say this feels like she was trying to teach her boss a lesson and that, as you say, the boss was dead-on in characterizing that maneuver as passive-aggressive. It didn’t work, because the boss is still doing it, so I’d personally let it go rather than try to explain the situation as one emanating from ‘confusion.’ The boss got a taste of her own medicine, and that dram did not cure her. Time to move on.

    4. Nita*

      It kind of seems like a verbal tic of the boss’s that eventually just grows on you and makes its way into your speech. It doesn’t even seem like a nasty thing to say, although tone is everything. If someone asks me if they should do A or B, and they’re both equally good options, I’ll say “I don’t care, whichever you prefer is fine!” and no one has ever gotten upset or weirded out.

      I do wonder if the boss did not take it well because when she says “I don’t care” she is not actually trying to convey “this is not important,” but rather something more passive-aggressive like “stop bothering me with this, I don’t want to deal with the details”. If she’s got it in the back of her mind that she’s being rude but it’s OK, she’s the boss… she would not take kindly to hearing the same phrase from someone she manages.

      1. Jennifer Thneed*

        People keep coming up with times they’d use the phrase innocuously, and they *always* involve a longer sentence. I can think of only one time that “I don’t care” is genuinely not dismissive, and that would be if someone asked me directly if I had a preference between A and B, or if I did not care, and then I could say “I don’t care” and not be rude.

      2. boo bot*

        “I do wonder if the boss did not take it well because when she says “I don’t care” she is not actually trying to convey “this is not important,” but rather something more passive-aggressive”

        This is my suspicion.

      3. gmg22*

        Verbal tic was my thought, too. I still say “no worries” in various office contexts, a decade after I worked for the Australian boss I picked it up from.

      4. Grace*

        I think the phrase is careless and the boss should use another. I wouldn’t be looking up to this person as some ideal manager figure to aspire to or adopt their language. Communication is the biggest element of any job and if it’s not clear then it should change.

    5. RandomusernamebecauseIwasboredwiththelastone*

      I’m really trying to figure out the context for both the boss saying “I don’t care” and the OP.

      Is it:
      OP: Boss, I’m putting in a paperclip order, did you want the jumbo size or standard
      Boss: I don’t care
      OP: Boss, I’m really struggling with the TPS reports
      Boss: I don’t care

      On top of this I’m really having a hard time understanding the context of how the OP said this in a meeting:
      Boss in Meeting: Ok, let’s brainstorm on how to solve this problem. OP why don’t you kick us off?
      OP: I don’t care
      Boss in Meeting: Before we get started I’m going to grab some of those bagels to bring in, did you want the regular cream cheese or the honey walnut?
      OP: I don’t care

      To the OP:
      I guess the simple answer to this is to move on. Something was off during that meeting you were asked to leave. If it was a one off incident chalk it up to a combined bad day (yours and hers). It sounds like there was more to the situation than you using the phrase. You mention that your manager also cited tone and body language. Maybe try to remember if there was something more to how you presented in the meeting.

      It’s a pretty big step to ask someone to leave a meeting. I’ve seen it done once and I’ve done it once in my 20 year career. The first time was my boss telling a coworker who was being argumentative, hostile, and openly aggressive to leave. My boss was the most laid back boss you’ve ever encountered. I did it to an employee under similar circumstances, to this day I don’t know what set them off, but they were horrible in the meeting. Personally I’m not one to get overly concerned with someone who is letting off steam or speaking with emphasis, but the employee had definitely crossed the line into hostile. My other staff didn’t need to be exposed to that nonsense.

      1. RandomusernamebecauseIwasboredwiththelastone*

        Sorry… I think this was supposed to be a reply to the above thread. Oh well at least it’s the same topic!

      2. LW#4*

        This is LW for #4. I’m reluctant to provide a lot more specific context, but I’ll say when boss uses the phrase, it’s more like RandomusernamebecauseIwasboredwiththelastone’s example #2 here: an actual response to questions that should in fact have a more specific response (“Here’s the strategy we should go with” vs “I don’t care, whatever you want”). It would be one thing if it was about bagels, but when its about business decisions, it’s extremely offputting. Like others have said here, in that sort of context I would say something like, “Either alternative is fine, let’s move on” or “If nobody has a particular preference, we’ll choose option A and keep going.” That said, I’ve chosen to interpret something like those meaning into my boss’ use of that prhase.

        But also as others have said, I’m the kind of person that over time will semi-consciously pick up speech patterns from other people. When I used the phrase myself in a meeting, I was asked if I had objections to a particular option, and I said, “If you’re ok with it, then I don’t care.” I wasn’t trying to be passive-aggressive, I was actually trying to convey, “I have no objections if you’re recommending this option.”

        That’s why I was so surprised by the reaction. I explained later to my supervisor that I was not intending to send any extra messages. She’s known to be difficult to communicate with, so it’s not like this came completely out of left field, but it was still a surprising response. The long-term effect has been that I just try to say as little as possible in meetings now where she’s present, and I most assuredly don’t use the phrase “I don’t care.” Perhaps this was the intent of my boss?

    6. EddieSherbert*

      I know I personally adopt words/phrases that the people around me say a lot without really intending to. And I have even caught myself using a word or phrase I don’t like!!

      (ex: a friend who works with kids and loves using whatever slang phrases are popular… that I usually think are dumb / sound extra dumb coming from adults. And I have caught myself using them once or twice when talking to that friend. Ugh!).

    7. Someone Else*

      That’s an interesting point but I didn’t get from the letter that OP was intentionally doing it because Boss does it frequently. I took it more as “it just come out that way on this one particular occasion” and was more of a “and I’m surprised she was so pissed since she does it constantly,” not a “but I was just mimicking her manner back at her.”

  7. Lumen*

    OP #1: Even if this were all a joke and the coworker was in on it, the boss should 100% NOT be a ‘driving force’ behind it. For exactly this reason: no one who might be uncomfortable with what’s going on feels like they can speak up or put a stop to it, because the BOSS is pushing it. This is so inappropriate.

    Say to your coworker. “Hey, I’m telling you this because it seems like your reaction to clowns might be phobic, and that you’re not enjoying all this pranking. They are collecting money to buy a clown costume to wear in the office.”

    And if they are horrified and don’t want this to happen, you can add:”If you want to put a stop to this, I’ll back you up with HR or our boss, because this whole thing has made me very uncomfortable. I don’t like working in an environment where fears and phobias might be intentionally triggered for the amusement of others.”

  8. Temperance*

    LW2: you have my sympathy. I have Mom probs as well. I’ve had this specific worry.

    What I did was tell a few people that I have an unstable, mentally ill mother who acts out, and if she tries to contact them, let me know. In your shoes, I might tell my boss and a few close colleagues. I am usually private about it because people don’t get it, but disclose when necessary.

    1. straws*

      This is where I lean as well. My MIL isn’t quite at the same level, but she’s crossed some scary lines and I’ve had to discuss the situation with my boss and my child’s daycare administrators. I told them both that she can sometimes be unstable and we have to limit information given out to her. They were both very understanding. I focused on the people who had information that could cause us problems if she had it. So if the whole company has info you don’t want disclosed to her, something probably needs to go out (I liked the suggestion above of a remind of what to tell people on the phone in general), but you might be able to get away with just speaking to your boss, HR, and/or team.

      1. Lynn Whitehat*

        I’m concerned a generic email about “don’t give out contact information to people who call” won’t get the job done. Co-workers get the email, nod, agree that they shouldn’t be giving out contact information. Then mom calls in a panic, “there’s been an accident! LW’s brother is in the ICU! He may not last the night! I need to reach LW right away!” Most people will panic and give it to her. They very well might not even think of the “don’t give out contact info” rule. If they do, they will assume helping LW say goodbye to her dying brother is an obvious exception. Meanwhile, it was all a lie. Brother is not in the ICU. He may not even exist.

        1. straws*

          I do agree with that. I was thinking that in a company of a few hundred people, a lot of them aren’t even going to know who the OP is. Hopefully those people would transfer a call like that, since they wouldn’t have appropriate knowledge. It’s so hard to come up with reasonable actions to unreasonable people. What will work for one situation, won’t for the other. I feel so much for OP!

    2. MissDisplaced*

      Yeah. I really think a few people at the top need to know, as in HR and OP’s manager. If she calls anyone else, they can be immediately be directed to HR or OP’s voicemail without discussion or feeling a need to know more.
      Likewise, if there is a receptionist, HR can direct them on how to handle calls to you, such as just sending all to VM.

    3. LW2*

      Thank you! It’s always good to hear from someone who has been in this specific situation, so I appreciate your thoughts.

    4. Mephyle*

      It sounds like this is a feasible thing for OP2 to do, but it wouldn’t solve the problem. The mother calls around randomly until she gets someone who doesn’t even know OP2, let alone know the situation, who then takes the mother at her word and gives her OP2’s information. OP2 mentioned that their department has ten-ish people, but the company as a whole has several hundred.
      The crunch is how to get the whole company on board with not giving out information on fellow employees they don’t know, without having to share OP2’s business with everyone. Hence the suggestions above about a general advisory and some updating on training about confidentiality on fellow employees’ information, without mentioning particular cases.

  9. grande*

    The responses for OP#2 are wise and thoughtful, from Alison’s answer to all the commenters. If I may suggest, as someone who has been through a situation with a similar predicament: OP#2 also can communicate very briefly with the estranged mother by calling when they know she won’t be home and leaving a very brief message that any attempt to contact them at work (or anywhere else) will immediately result in a restraining order being filed and the fact published in the local paper of record, all the neighbors seeing the deputy serving the papers at her house, etc.; in other words, total humiliation. If OP#2 prefers to send the message by mail, find and fill out a blank copy of the restraining order on the court clerk’s website (with all but the court date and signatures) and include it. Ask that she acknowledge receipt within 24 hours by leaving a message on whatever temporary number the OP prefers (Google has voicemail: ), saying only that she has received the communication. This worked perfectly for me. If it doesn’t for OP, they have the paperwork in hand to start the actual RO process.

    As for explaining to colleagues, the “impersonation” idea is excellent. I was prepared to tell my supervisor and the office manager that my parent had Alzheimer’s and to ignore whatever she said and forward her to my voicemail, but it turned out to be unnecessary. (She did not have Alzheimer’s, but there was no need to get into the situation with them.)

    OP#2, I am so very sorry that one who should love, accept and respect you unconditionally is behaving this way. You deserve only the best. I hope the family you’ve built is a comfort to you.

    1. Emma*

      This is extremely bad advice.

      1. This isn’t a rational person and leaving a threatening message will likely just inflame things.

      2. It can be harder to take action against a stalker if you’ve actively made contact with them yourself in pre-emptive reaction to something that hasn’t happened yet. Depends where you live and what help you seek, but it’s something to keep in mind.

      1. Akcipitrokulo*

        Agreed. If, for whatever reason, you need to get a message across – do if via a lawyer. Do not make contact in person.

        1. Lila*

          I was adopted at a very, very young age. Basically because bio father was a neglectful jerk who left me alone without food or eater for days,

          A few years ago, he somehow found my name and address. He started stalking me online, sent letters, etc. I had a lawyer wrote him a do not contact letter.

          He stopped contacting me. His new wife (not my bio parent), then started calling me telling me he was dying and it was my last chance. I told her I didn’t care and if she called again, I’d take legal action. She stopped.

          Then a half brother I’ve never seen tried facebooking my half sister through my bio mother.

          I received an unsigned letter from an address in a random state that was unsigned, but clearly from bio father.

          Nothing I did got them to stop.

          Bio father must have died. It stopped suddenly.

          Sometimes, no matter what you do, they don’t stop.

          I can also add that that retraining orders are not as easy to obtain as many people think. In my current state, it’s very rare to get one and they don’t last very long.

          The best thing is to wait and see what mom does, then go to HR if it is a problem.

          However, if LW has anyone on the depart,ent she trusts, she could tell them she has a difficult mother with boundary issuesand ask them to gently let a few people know.

          Sometimes an ally can do for you what you can’t do directly,

          1. fposte*

            In most places there’s a temporary restraining order and then a longer one; usually the temporary one is a lot easier to get. However, I agree that you can’t just get one for the asking, and the OP’s situation as described sounds like a tough sell. (Then there’s the fact that ROs aren’t magic, they don’t automatically stop behavior from happening, and even if you do take the offender to court for violating that doesn’t mean the court is going to do anything.)

          2. Akcipitrokulo*

            *nods* I’m not suggesting she *should* see a lawyer – just if she does want to leave a message – which she does not have to! – then it may be safer not to do so personally.

      2. Ender Wiggin*

        Grande is suggesting something that actually worked for her, so I don’t think it’s fair to dismiss it as “bad advice”. It worked in her situation.

        I don’t think OP will take this advice because she was clear in her letter that she doesn’t want to get a restraining order, but that’s really for OP to decide.

        1. EddieSherbert*

          Agreed. Feel free to explain why you disagree, but this is something Grande actually did that worked for them in a similar situation.

          I’m also going to agree with The Other One below and say don’t threaten a restraining order unless you’re willing to go through with it, OP!

        2. LW2*

          Correct — at this point I will not pursue a restraining order. She’s not deranged or unstable, just very entitled, has not presented a direct threat, and lives several hundred miles away. Under those conditions it would be very unlikely that I would be granted an order so it would just be a lot of hassle for nothing. (I had to get one a couple of years ago in an unrelated situation so know what the process is in my area.)

        3. Tara2*

          I think, though, that just because something worked doesn’t mean it’s not bad advice. The advice Grande gave is, in many situations, extremely dangerous. The rather prevailing advice to abuse victims is to not contact the abuser to tell them to leave you alone. Giving any contact, even negative reactions, usually only encourages the behaviour and causes them to escalate. They then know that their efforts are working and if they keep on trying they will get contact with their victim. Aggressive actions such as threatening legal action can eeasily cause a massive escalation. It’s dangerous advice.

          I’m happy that it worked for Grande, but that is generally rare and she’s lucky to have not made things much worse.

    2. The Other One*

      I don’t think OP should threaten to file a restraining order if they are not actually willing to go through with it. The Mother might know/suspect it’s a bluff and call anyway. Then OP would have an even worse standing with her.

    3. LW2*

      Thanks for your kind words. I do indeed have an excellent and loving chosen family, and any guilt I may have felt about having to cut off my family of origin is long gone.

    4. McWhadden*

      I’m so sorry you were ever in this position.

      But for the OP I would note that in some states ROs can actually be very difficult to get when it doesn’t involve an intimate partner.

    5. e271828*

      No. Any contact from victim to stalker is a reward to the stalker for their efforts, and they will double down and escalate to make it happen again.


    6. MassMatt*

      I gather you are trying to help the OP but don’t think this is good advice. First, the OP said she would prefer not to file an restraining order. Talking about filing one would be bluffing if there was no intent to actually file.

      Also, getting in touch with someone you are trying to cut off contact with is contrary to cutting off contact. If you respond, even with a voice mail, you are training them to continue their behavior to get what they want. Similarly, responding after 100 letters tells them to keep sending more letters. Etc.

  10. mark132*

    #1, Even assuming this is just a running gag and the guy’s just pretending. After this long the novelty of the joke would have ended long ago.

    1. Robot*

      Yes. This is at BEST a boring prank. Even if the coworker were exaggerating his fear response to play along, and I don’t believe he is, lots of reasonable people will find the pranks, the screaming and the running annoying and juvenile.

      1. Ender Wiggin*

        Yeah it sounds really distracting. Imagine concentrating on a report then being interrupted by the screams and the laughing. I’d hate to work there.

        Also I’d hate to work with people that cruel, but the distraction would annoy me too.

    2. MissDisplaced*

      Yup! This kind of thing is only funny once or twice at best, and maybe I can see at Halloween once a year. But it gets old and these people are active juvenile. And the boss getting involved is especially bad.

    3. Lucille2*

      Agreed. It’s one thing to work in an environment where pranks are common. It’s another where one person is regularly being singled out and pranked. Then it crosses over into bullying.

  11. Taryn*

    A couple of jobs ago, I worked with a girl who was terrified of clowns. I also worked for a manager who was like a weird mix of Chris Traeger from Parks and Rec and Michael Scott from the office- good looking guy, very into health/fitness, absurdly positive, considers himself a prankster, incredibly unaware of social cues, and unaware of the fact that he wasn’t terribly competent. One day my coworker (a Team Lead), myself (the Assistant Manager) and my boss went out to lunch. While we were out, Scott/Traeger discovered that my coworker was afraid of clowns, and proceeded to spend literally 45 minutes showing her the worst pictures of clowns he could find online with a huge smile on his face. It was super uncomfortable. My coworker is a nervous laugher, so she spent the whole life laughing hysterically, but I could tell she wasn’t happy and was close to tears. I kept tying to change the subject, but my boss wouldn’t have it. I ended up talking to him privately later that day and basically told him how awful he was being, and how he should never bring up clowns to coworker ever again. He was really upset when I told him how miserable he had made her, and I thought he learned his lesson…until 3 days later, when he confided in me that he was thinking about getting a clown costume and ambushing her in the parking lot. I was furious, and had a really not appropriately-toned conversation considering he was my boss where I basically told him I would go to HR and get him in huge trouble if he did anything of the sort. He never mentioned clowns again. That man was an exhausting supervisor for so many reasons haha

    1. A.N. O'Nyme*

      Appropriately toned or not, it’s good you stood up for your coworker, because it sounds like she was too afraid to.

    2. Dr. Pepper*

      What a dickhead. I hate people like that. They’re often of the ilk that enjoys being terrified and don’t understand why someone else might not want to be the recipient of such things. “But *I* would think it’s hilarious if you did that to me!!” is their constant refrain. No thought about the fact that not everyone is like them. Thank you for standing up for your coworker.

    3. BadWolf*

      No one should be ambushed in the parking lot, clown costume or not!!

      Also good on you for telling him to stop both times.

      1. MassMatt*

        I saw a video online months ago (when the whole weird “evil clown” thing was some sort of bizarre trend) where someone wearing a clown costume jumped out brandishing an axe at someone and got knocked down and stomped, badly. Served him right!

    4. Observer*

      Good grief! What an idiot!

      Good for you for standing up to him! And it sounds like your HR was at least competent enough that he was worried about their response to a report. So that’s good too. But, I can imagine how exhausting this guy must have been.

    5. LGC*

      Oh, it sounds like you had a VERY appropriately toned conversation with him.

      I’m glad you stood up for your coworker and that you got through to him. (I’m glad he didn’t go through with his harebrained plan, but I can’t give him credit for minimal adult behavior.)

  12. Anon for this*

    OP 3 – I’ve worked for a couple of state agencies for over a decade, and I’ve never received a written offer. The only time anything was in writing was when one administration was replaced by another, and the incoming administration notified us in writing of whether we were being retained or released. (This was a constitutional office, so a lot of changes post-election.) It’s really not unusual for offers to be made by phone only, but you can certainly send an email as Alison suggested, confirming the details.

    1. doreen*

      I’ve worked for both a state agency and a city agency for 30 years combined and neither one uses “offer letters” either for initial hiring or promotions/transfers. I would sometimes get a letter instructing me to call and set up an interview. I usually receive a letter after accepting the job providing details such as who/where/when to report to on my first day which includes other details like title and job grade and bargaining unit. It does not include details like benefits – those details are publicly available on various websites , non-negotiable and involve a lot of variables ( for example,there are at least 20 potential health insurance plans and five or six different bargaining units )

    2. Bacon Pancakes*

      I came here to say the same. State employee in my permanent position for over six years and a state temp employee for six years (off and on) before that: never received a formal letter.
      Your salary will be the base listed in the job posting unless you can make a serious case for it being higher (i.e. advanced degree completed, already performed that role for many years in a similar state agency or federal agency, etc). Your boss may not know the inner workings of your exact benefits: in my very small (7 permanent employees, including my boss) office we have four unions that bargin for employee benefits. Ask your boss what union will cover your MOU (memorandum of understanding) so that you can find out your benefit package. Things like vacation accrual will be time-based and non-negotiable.

    3. LQ*

      State agency here as well. No written offers. There is a union contract that is on the union website so you can get all those details there (and the job posting has which union in it).

    4. CheeryO*

      +1. I think I did receive a generic “You have been offered this position and agreed to start on X date,” but definitely no formal offer letter. OP could ask for a copy of the union contract, which should have salary schedules and PTO information in it.

    5. Justme, The OG*

      State agency here. Two positions had no offer letter, two have. It entirely depended on the department.

    6. kittymommy*

      Same. Honestly, until I started reading this blog I didn’t even know people outside of C-suite received written offers.

    7. Angelinha*

      I work for a state agency and I got an offer letter emailed to me and then also mailed to my house. I also had to officially “Accept offer” by logging back into the career site I’d used to apply for the job before I was considered to have officially accepted. It felt very outdated but I’m surprised other states aren’t the same!

    8. Manic Pixie HR Girl*

      Can confirm. We do appointment letters, and we typically get them out before the person starts, though it depends on a number of factors. In this, the benefits aren’t outlined, rather we state that a separate entity will be reaching out with all of that information.

      We DO list salary (not all agencies do, by the way, they just put the range), but only after we get an estimate as calculated per the salary calculation rules, and we always say that’s subject to confirmation by the state auditor (which doesn’t officially happen until after the person starts and the appointment is processed). There have been instances where a salary was quoted to someone incorrectly by a hiring manager, and it is 100% non-binding as salaries are subject to statute. Whenever giving a potential employee a tentative salary I ALWAYS do so with the caveat that it’s subject to final audit.

  13. K. A.*

    The coworker in #1 could have a heart attack, trip and fall while running away, or something else could happen. Perhaps legal liability will convince your boss or HR that this is not a good idea.

    1. Jasnah*

      This sounds like a precursor to that bird phobia letter, where someone was running away from a bird due to said phobia and pushed a coworker out of the way, causing the coworker to get injured.

      1. Technical_Kitty*

        Really? I’m in Canada and all I would have to do to stop this BS in my office would be “hm, that seems like an unnecessary safety issue to have in a work place” and they would be told to knock it off. Their boss would get PIP’d too.

        1. Liet-Kinda*

          That strikes me as a bizarrely punitive and overwrought reaction to the mere possibility of a safety issue, honestly, and I think using fear of litigation to shut down something you find more annoying and personally distasteful than a genuine and actionable safety risk is some bullshit.

          I really don’t see why people are catastrophizing about this when it’s really as simple as the advice given: “hey, you cool with all this clown stuff? If you’re not, I got your back.” And then act accordingly and proportionally.

          1. Technical_Kitty*

            Anything with an outcome of someone running out of the building in a controlled or uncontrolled manner due to stressful circumstances created by their co-workers for shits and giggles is an unnecessary thing in a work place. This isn’t an 80’s movie where assault and bullying and hilarious. This is a work place and it’s not okay to be an asshole anymore.

            And I know the example I gave was for my office, but if someone did this repeatedly on a mine site, how fast do you think they would be fired? We fire people or ban contractor for improper phone use while operating vehicles, this shit would get a ban there.

            So maybe it’s different perspectives – is someone did this in my work place they are contravening years and years and years of attempts to keep the work force safe. It may not matter is the employer has no experience with liability and operations laws.

            1. OhNo*

              At least in my experience, offices tend to be more lax about safety issues than mines, construction, factories, etc. Unless the OP has an unusually safety-conscious office or HR department, pointing out safety concerns on their own isn’t likely to get a strong reaction. Pointing out safety concerns and implying the company might get sued would be more likely to produce the desired result, but might also make the OP and/or the affected coworker look overly litigious.

              YMMV based on office and company culture, of course, but this doesn’t seem like the sort of thing that would guarantee a good result to me.

              1. Jasnah*

                +1 My office takes safety seriously because we are a manufacturer with factories. Everyone participated in the fire drill with helmets and everything. At old job, also in an office in the same city, they ignored it and just kept working. I don’t think “but liability” is going to be effective in most offices.

    2. Observer*

      Talk about catastrophising! Unless there is something else going on that we don’t know about, such as a documented and well know heart condition, this is going to come off as seriously over the top.

      1. Michaela Westen*

        It’s possible to have an undiagnosed heart condition, or for a colleague to have one they haven’t told their coworkers about.

        1. Observer*

          Yeah, a LOT of things are POSSIBLE. But it really makes no sense to create a major fuss about a POSSIBLE, far fetched safety concern.

    3. Tired*

      I have a pretty severe fear of clowns, and if someone came up behind me wearing a clown costume and startled me, my first reaction would be a punch in the face or a knee to the groin.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      it depends on the details. Not all disabilities do, just “physical or mental impairments that substantially limit one or more major life activities,​ such as seeing, hearing, speaking, walking or breathing.”

      1. Kyrielle*

        Concentrating, thinking, and working are the areas I’d target here, if I was OP #1’s coworker and wanted to pull it under the ADA. Normally I would not expect this phobia to need accommodation for most employees because clowns are not a normal part of the daily job but not playing clown-based pranks on this person would seem to be an easy accommodation for most businesses.

        (And, I mean, if you worked at a traveling set of rides for state carnivals and stuff, maybe the accommodation would be “don’t assign this person to the clown-based fun house, or things in line-of-sight of it.” But in most offices, what accommodation?)

        If it’s a genuine phobia and is causing them to panic and run out of the building (!) when triggered, you could probably make a case for ADA accommodation.

        …you really shouldn’t have to, however.

  14. nnn*

    For #3, since it’s a state agency, is it unionized? If yes, the specifics of pay and benefits might be set out in the collective agreement. Even if it’s not unionized, the specifics of benefits might be set out in some state-wide policy, depending on how your state works.

    1. Anon for this*

      This. Our state employees aren’t unionized, but there are state policies setting benefits – no negotiation there! – and the salary range/raise schedule is set in the state budget.

    2. LQ*

      This is how it works for us. There’s not a lot of need for a written offer with details because there are so many details, more than you’d ever get in an offer letter, in the contract.

  15. CastIrony*

    I donated time off once.

    At my job, they let workers donate time off. Then again, there’s two “accounts” for time off- one for sick time, one for annual (PTO) time, the latter being where workers donate their hours from*. However, workers can’t donate all their time off- they have to have more than 40 hours in their account before they can donate, and when they have 40 hours left, they can’t donate any more. Oh, and the donated hours come from the annual (PTO) account.

    I think that businesses should have a limit like this to prevent the burnout and such.

    *I’m not sure if workers can also donate from their sick time, too.

  16. kay*

    OP4, there are many things my bosses have said to me that I can’t parrot back to them, and I would be very shocked if one of my coworkers told my boss “i don’t care”, even if my Boss has used this language.

  17. Foreign Octopus*

    OP1 reminds me of something I saw in a Korean TV show once – I can’t remember the name of it.

    One of the women said something along the lines of – a joke is intended for the recipient, and if they don’t find it funny then it’s not a joke, it’s harassment (I’m liberally paraphrasing because I can’t remember it exactly).

    If they use the phrase “but it’s just a joke” remind them that for it to be a joke, everyone has to find it funny otherwise it’s just bullying.

    1. Rusty Shackelford*

      Or, as (I believe) Ellen Degeneres said, if that was really a joke, we’d both be laughing.

    2. pen_riley*

      The tv show was “I Hear Your Voice” (2013). I really liked that bit (the whole show was pretty great).

  18. Elf*

    The reactions described by LW1 sound like a legitimate phobia, which puts this directly in the medical condition category and opens up the workplace to all the legal liability for discrimination. I think it might be a really good thing for the LW to go to HR themselves, put it in those terms, and then own up to it so any negative consequences for ending the harrassment (and this certainly is harrassment based on a medical condition) fall on her rather than on the victim (obviously document if that happens).

  19. Aoife*

    I had a funny issue with I don’t care once. Was telling a friend a story about not caring about something or other and she had starting talking about her take on it and I said “yeah, I just don’t care” in an agreeing way and she froze up and went “oh fine” because she understood it as me telling her “I don’t care about what you have to say”. It took me a minute to even understand what she got annoyed about! I’m sure your situation is a miscommunication (hate that word but perfect in this context!).

  20. Calmeye*

    LW2. Do you have a trusted no nonsense coworker who can help you? Could they can get the phone when your mother calls to really tell her off (“This is a workplace, if you contact this number and harass any of our employees we will report you to the police” – bonus points if they can pretend to be the director or something)?

    1. LW2*

      I do have one coworker I trust, but we all have different phone numbers so he would not be able to pick up a shared line, and honestly I think telling her off would only serve to escalate the situation. I could ask him to record the phone number if he gets a call from her, though, so I can approach IT about blocking it (as others have suggested) so thank you for that suggestion!

    2. ChachkisGalore*

      Along these lines – do calls go through a receptionist or is it just an automated directory? If there is a receptionist and you feel you can trust them, I would definitely explain the situation.

      I’m a former receptionist – I had a ton of techniques to politely, but firmly blow off unwanted calls. I never dealt with a family situation like this, but I did deal with a ton of “this caller is NEVER to get through to C-level exec ever again, not even to their voicemail” requests. All I can say is that I would have been more than willing to assist (discretely) any employee who came to me with an issue like this.

      1. LW2*

        No receptionist, unfortunately! And no automated directory — our direct numbers are published in a contact database. I work in a service role so it’s pretty important for my job that other folks be able to access that information.

  21. BRR*

    #2 I wonder if you can mildly disclose some of this and would your company be able to block your mom’s number?

    1. LW2*

      I thought about this after I had already deleted the voicemail she left me without recording the number she called from. (She moved recently and while I know her cell phone number I am pretty sure she also has a landline and I don’t know what that number is.) Fortunately I don’t get many calls, and can see what number is calling before I pick up, so can easily let calls from her area code go to voicemail.

      1. straws*

        You might be able to grab the number she called from via phone records or possibly contact your carrier? That could give you something to block.

      2. Seeking Second Childhood*

        I wrote a comment above with more detail, but since I see you here I’ll mention it to flag it. Many companies have policies against giving out information about an individual to anyone who doesn’t have that person’s phone number already. Those companies redirect all “unsolicited calls” to HR or another designated administrator whose job it is to take the caller’s contact info and pass it to the employee to find out *IF* that call is wanted.

        It’s worth asking if your company has such a policy — I first saw it to reduce calls from pushy vendors, I’ve seen it as part of an anti-phishing campaign, and I’ve heard of it as a first line of defense against stalkers. Someone who you intentionally no longer contact may come under that third category. Good luck!

        Good luck!

  22. Rebecca*

    #1 – I’m afraid of clowns. I’m 55 years old, and yes, I am terrified of clowns. They bring on my “fight or flight” response. In my office, people like to dress up for Halloween, and someone dressed up as a clown with full costume and face paint. I avoided her as best I could, and finally had to say, I’m afraid of clowns, I know it’s you under all that paint and costume, but it still makes me really anxious. She thought this was funny. Until, I gently reminded her that SHE was afraid of spiders. As in, scream like a banshee, run down the hall afraid of spiders, and I was the one who she called to rid her office area of the problem. I asked her how she would like it if I just walked over and dumped some spiders on her desk. The look on her face, even under the makeup – she understood immediately.

    Sorry for the long story. OP, your office mates are unkind, cruel, and insensitive. Go to HR and report this. I can’t imagine how miserable it must be for your coworker to come to work every day wondering how his phobia will be used against him next.

    1. London Calling*

      Slightly OT but years ago I had a very bad back – as in unable to straighten up and walk properly. One of my colleagues thought this was hilarious until come the day when I walked up to his desk and he’s sitting there ashen faced because of back pain so bad he hadn’t been able to sleep. I’m afraid I bent over him and said for just him to hear, ‘Not so funny now, is it?’

      1. Hills to Die on*

        What. An. Ass. I hope that your comment got through to him. I have second-hand anger just reading this.

        1. London Calling*

          He was a colleague I’d known for years and got on with really well bar that one time, and he did have the grace to admit that he’d had no idea how excruciating lower back pain could be.

    2. Liet-Kinda*

      Or maybe he just has a big outsized reaction for laughs and clowns make him uncomfortable but not to the point of a panic attack. Or maybe he reacts just like you and this is actual psychological torture or whatever. Either way, we don’t know, and advising OP to go to HR on his behalf is really reaching past the bounds of sensible professional boundaries.

      This is not you. This is someone we only know thirdhand.

      1. Technical_Kitty*

        I think it is completely reasonable for OP#1 to go to HR on their own behalf though. This is not a great office environment, and if their boss is heavily involved it is completely acceptable to go to HR about how it is affecting OP1’s work environment.

        1. Liet-Kinda*

          I mean, yeah, if the relationship with the boss is beyond repair and OP doesn’t feel like they can go to her without retaliation because she’s unreasonable and vindictive, I guess so. If there’s even a possibility that the boss would listen, I think that’s the first place to go.

          1. Technical_Kitty*

            Eh, it’s possible their boss is a reasonable person, with good professional standards who manages their people well. Oh wait…

      2. D*

        Seriously dude – have you already bought your clown costume? The fact that you think that the LW going to HR to complain about a workplace that in some jurisdictions would meet the definition of a ‘hostile working environment’ would be ‘reaching past the bounds of sensible professional boundaries’, but that the pranking isn’t, is a little disturbing. The fact that you keep responding to different comments with the same little rant about it, is even more so.

        1. Liet-Kinda*

          Nope. I personally passionately dislike pranks and would hate to be the subject of this kind of treatment. I sympathize with OP. But COME ON. This is not a hostile working environment! That is a legal term with a specific meaning, and if you think this qualifies, yeah, you merit a little rant. As do many of the other posters performatively cranking up outrage and advice column fanfic this morning, speaking of ranting.

          1. D*

            You will note I said ‘in some jurisdictions’ because while the behaviour the LW described might not create a hostile’ environment in the legal sense everywhere in the world, there are some countries where it *would*. So perhaps if some countries would potentially consider the behaviour egregious enough to impose sanctions on the organisation because of it, then it is not outside the bounds of professional standards for a person who witnessed the behaviour to report it, no matter what jurisdiction they worked in.

  23. gecko*

    OP 2 — It’s also possible (depending on your phone system) that IT will be able to block her number, or funnel her number to a capable person in reception or HR. It may be something to look into if your mother escalates or you decide to go to HR before she escalates.

    1. LW2*

      Thank you — this is a good idea for me to consider. We don’t have a central reception desk but it would probably be trivial for IT to block her number from company phones, which would avoid the issue altogether.

  24. Rebecca*

    #2 – depending on what type of phone system you have, could you ask your IT department to just send any phone call from your Mom’s number(s) directly to voicemail? I know our IT department is able to do this at my job. The phone doesn’t ring, and an email pops up saying there’s a voice mail message from xxx-xxx-xxxx so many seconds long. Hope this helps.

  25. LGC*

    Whoo! These letters this morning!

    So, LW4 – I’ll start with this because your letter is the least stressful. But there’s a lot of context missing from the interaction – what context did you say it in? Was it in a tone that seemed like you were mocking her?

    Her reaction was pretty heightened, but depending on the context it could be entirely reasonable. I’ll admit I’m getting into advice column fanfic (ACF) territory, but if you sounded like you were mocking something she said, that would be why she came down hard on you.

    Moreover, I’m not going to lie…without any context, it reads as if you’re blowing off her question. So THAT in itself could be another factor in her response.

    Finally, like…to be real for a second, she probably shouldn’t be responding with “I don’t care” either. First, because it sets a bad example (as she found out!). Second…it’s not insubordinate if she says it, but it’s dismissive of her team.

  26. hbc*

    OP4: I think there are two problems here. The first is that, even with your interpretation of “I don’t care” as “This isn’t important, let’s just move on,” you don’t get to say that to your boss. She asked the question, so she thinks it’s important. You need to either answer her question or *explain* why it isn’t important. “What color llama brushes should we order?” “We don’t standardize on color and the current ones are a mix, so I don’t think we need to worry about that.” Even in the flattest, most egalitarian companies, things that concern you don’t always warrant attention from your boss, but everything the boss thinks is important warrants your attention.

    The second problem is that you know “I don’t care” comes off as rude and dismissive, because you and your colleagues all took it that way for a long time. Because you had to come up with an interpretation that didn’t sound as awful as “I don’t care” does. The fact that she took it the same way you did isn’t very surprising, even if she deploys it all the time—she knows what she means when she says it, but she only gets your words when you say it.

  27. not a PTO donor*

    A couple of reasons I don’t donate to the PTO program where I work: (1.) If I were to suffer a serious illness and needed three months of PTO, I’d want to be secure about counting on it, without relying on donations myself. (2.) Where I work, the donated, pooled PTO is given to those employees who need it by an HR department committee that, for valid reasons based on experience, I do not trust to handle the responsibility fairly. They play favorites, make unprofessional decisions based on what kinds of issues merit PTO donations, etc.

    1. $!$!*

      I always read the comments before posting bc someone always brings up my point before I can! At two of my old jobs the PTO/PPL donation blank was Always “shared” with the favorite employees of the management team, not with employees in an actual crisis

    2. Armchair Analyst*

      At at least 1 job I had, you were strongly encouraged to donate 1 day to the bank, but if it turned out you needed donations of PTO (I guess for a serious illness without going to FMLA? I’m… not sure.) then you would be assured of getting your day back plus donations from others. So, it was a hypothetically a small give for a potentially big ROI. Ah, but if you don’t trust your HR committee than I can see why you’d want to stay away from that. I guess I trusted that the donations would go to people who needed it due to illness or extenuating circumstances.

    3. Perse's Mom*

      Agreed. My company has a scholarship fund of sorts for the college-bound children of employees. So weird how every scholarship goes to the child of someone in the upper bracket or one of their buddies. I have no doubt a PTO pool would be similarly used.

  28. SigneL*

    #1 – your boss is cruel. In addition to warning your coworker and going to HR (if possible), I’d make sure your coworker knows you support him, that you think they are doing something terrible, and I’d ask him if there’s any way you can help him? Knowing that you support him may help him.

    How do people get any work done? I used to work in a medical research lab where we always had a TON of work, so jokes were not tolerated.

    (I’d also wonder what’s next – if HR tells them “no more clowns!” are they going to start tormenting the secretary who has a spider phobia?)

  29. Sara without an H*

    Re OP#2: Personally, of I were your manager, I’d prefer a heads-up. Nothing elaborate — just outline the situation the way you did to Alison, and something to the effect that, while you don’t know if it’s going to be an issue, it’s happened before, and that you didn’t want your manager to be blind-sided.

    Then leave it alone. The more casual you are, the less importance people will attach to any communication from your daffy mother.

  30. The Doctor*

    Since the Boss is the ringleader, talking to her will accomplish nothing. Both you and your coworker should (1) go directly to HR and/or the C-suite about this, and (2) start job-hunting.

  31. BluntBunny*

    LW#1 it doesn’t need to be a “genuine” fear to be taxing, the people could just be surprising him and making him jump. But if this was happening daily or had happened many times by multiple people they would be on edge all day. Now the fact that he is screaming and running means that he is in flight mode and because of the adrenaline would take a long time to calm down (It can take me an hour to stop shuddering after a spider has been killed!) and if he doesn’t feel safe in the office he is never going to be comfortable and won’t be able to concentrate on his work. Also I can’t imagine them having a good relationship with everyone else either. It’s not funny it’s childish and cruel.

  32. Wild Bluebell*

    OP4: Well, she’s your boss, so she can say things you can’t.
    She can tell you: “I need you to finish this report by Monday”. You can’t tell her: “I need you to approve my vacation by Monday”.
    It’s the hierarchy.

  33. Izzy*

    OP1: I think everyone has covered what a horrible prank this is pretty thoroughly, but what kind of repercussions are you worried about from your boss? That bit is quite concerning to me. I ask because my first instinct would be to just not go along with this (“You’re doing a collection for what? Why? That’s horrible! No, I’m not donating to that, you’re scaring the poor guy to death. It’s not funny.”) but if you’re afraid your boss will retaliate against you somehow for not going along with a prank, that’s really worrying in itself.

  34. Bekx*

    OP1, I am extremely apiphobic. A coworker who I often went on walks with on lunch time would see my “see a bee, run away” behaviors pretty frequently. One day she sent me an email with a bunch of bee photos in it, under the disguise of a legit email. I screamed, ran to her desk shaking and stuttered out through tears asking her not to do that.

    She felt terrible. She said she knew I was afraid of bees but didn’t realize a photo would have the same effect. She was genuinely sorry, apologized, and never made fun of my fear ever again. Was it a crappy prank? Yes, but she apologized and STOPPED. And more importantly, became an advocate for me the next time a wasp was in the office and told me to go hide.

    What your coworkers are doing is cruel. If someone came into my office with a jar full of bees and set it on my desk I’d quit on the spot. Please go to HR. This would honestly really truck me up for a long time if I was in his situation. Therapy, trust issues. Phobias aren’t fun.

    1. fposte*

      I think incongruity between the feared object and the response can make people disbelieve the response, or they think it’s more like a Halloween haunted house jump-scare (setting aside the fact that who would think it was a good idea to have a workplace set up like a Halloween haunted house every day?). But sheesh, these people have seen the reaction and still think it’s a good idea to double down. That’s a really creepy way to have fun.

      1. Dr. Pepper*

        Sometimes they do it simply because they find it funny. They don’t mean to be creepy or awful, it’s lighthearted on their end and they have not thought beyond that. Which is wrong but is more a simple lack of consideration rather than malicious intent.

        Think about how much of our comedic entertainment is based on this exact concept. “Wouldn’t it be hilarious if…..” and what follows is variations on getting a reaction out of someone. Which is fine when it’s all a bunch of actors playing a scene for the amusement of the audience. It’s a lot less fine in real life where the recipient isn’t going to be laughing. But seriously just think how often situations like this happen in TV shows or movies, and then think about the fact that many people just don’t have the forethought to see how that does not translate to the real world and how much they themselves would dislike such a prank played upon them. Or perhaps maybe they *would* like it, and they think everyone else must be the same.

        1. fposte*

          Though most people being creepy don’t mean to be creepy, same as most people being bullies don’t think of themselves as bullying. An adult’s job is to be mindful not just of their intention but of their impact.

          As I said, I can understand how this happens as a one-off; it really is hard to grasp that something so innocuous could cause anybody genuine distress. But they know it does and are doing it anyway. At this point it’s turned into a pack mentality, and that’s substituting for intelligent consideration. It’s bad enough judgment that I’d be disciplining the manager over it.

        2. Spider*

          That *is* malicious intent, though. People who feel glee at someone else’s suffering are exhibiting malice. That’s why cartoon villains are always cackling over their evil plans — it’s fun for them!

      2. Bulbasaur*

        Yes, that’s a common reaction (I’ve experienced it myself). Very often people with this kind of fear are embarrassed about it and try to downplay it when it happens to them, which can add to the humorous effect. It can be hard for people to move from comedic onlooker mode to the empathic frame of reference unless they see something that forces it for them, like the bee reaction described by Bekx. I have had a similar experience where I unconsciously downplayed somebody’s fear (since they did) and thought of it like a joke, until I saw them caught off guard and frightened badly enough to circumvent their defenses. It really brought home to me that their earlier behavior wasn’t an affectation, but a defensive reaction because they were embarrassed and didn’t want anyone to know how badly it really affected them.

        Part of the problem with strong fears of things that are commonly regarded as cute, harmless etc. is that they are inclined to pop up unexpectedly. Nobody is going to send you a birthday card adorned with tarantulas, dead babies or something like that, but if you are morbidly afraid of teddy bears (for example) then daily life can be filled with unpleasant surprises.

  35. Nep*

    #2 – I’m a big fan of the heads up, even if it’s awkward, just so they know and won’t be startled into revealing more. Don’t worry, it’s obvious that she’s the problem, not you.

    #5 – Whether or not you get it instituted, thank you. I’ve benefited from donated leave, it was a lifesaver while undergoing treatment for my chronic illness, and thank you for thinking about it and trying to make it happen.

  36. Thundersnow*

    LW 2, I’ve dealt with something similar, but in my case, my mother came to my place of business and tried to get my work schedule and other information (like my address) from the receptionist. I don’t know how far your mother would go, but if you think she would escalate the harassment (and what you’re describing sounds like harassment/stalking), I would highly recommend looping in HR so they can have something in place to prevent her from getting that kind of information.

    Even if the furthest she escalates is calling everyone in your department and never shows up physically, alerting your co-workers and having a policy in place (or script to use) can help wonders to help your security. I know it can feel awkward telling your work about the situation, but any reasonable employer would understand that this is not your fault at all and want to keep you safe.

    1. LW2*

      Thank you! I think it’s very unlikely she would show up in person at work, since she already has my home address and cell phone number. (I have not moved since I cut her off for good, and will not provide her with an updated address the next time I move.) I think it is also very unlikely that she will show up at my home, since we live hundred of miles apart, but if she does I have several friends who could easily put me up for a few days, and at that point I would probably pursue a restraining order.

      1. Thundersnow*

        Good to know! I would still suggest at least telling your boss a bare bones version of the story so s/he has context if your mom suddenly starts making her way through the employee directory – I could see people being worried that something serious was going on, otherwise.

        I’ve had to alert my boss/HR/building security about my mother recently, too. She was a missing person until about a month ago, and her re-surfacing has been… an experience.

        Good luck and stay safe!

      2. AsItIs*

        Never assume that something is unlikely. That’s how grandmothers cadge their way into daycare. That’s how mothers get offspring fired. That’s how grandmothers get someone to break down a door and (try to) kidnap a grandchild. That’s why adult children move continents and countries, and change names. Never, ever assume.

  37. voyager1*

    #4: I have a manager now who uses that phrase a lot, and to be frank it is very irritating. When she is calm and says it, I take it to mean “I am too lazy to make decision about that” when she is being emotionally impulsive “don’t waste my time and/or your comment/question is stupid”. I find it incredibly unprofessional either way.

  38. Jaybeetee*

    Publishing another prank letter. Bold move, AAM ;). But seriously, these people sound awful, and I do think LW ought to speak up, at least to the colleague being harassed. Harassed colleague may not be thinking of this as a “HR thing”, but it definitely is.

    I’ve learned from this blog to just… not go there with pranks. I think really innocuous things like “cover their workstation with post-it notes while they’re away” is probably alright, but nothing “personal”. When you get into territory of tailoring pranks to personalities, that seems to be bad news bears.

  39. AdminX2*

    #4 I sympathize. I had a insecure boss who likes people around him so long as they make him feel powerful. He would constantly tell me to do X, then a minute later reverse it. I learned to NOT do things quickly because it would be reversed and wasted energy. He happened to be a libra and I joked about being a “power libra” because he would be completely confident in his decisions, and then completely confident in the opposite decision. He threatened to fire me over that.
    He also insisted he never needed me to do personal stuff for him, but would ask me to get his lunch once a week and house sit a few times. I was fine with that, but hated he could never just own his words or show some self awareness.

  40. mcr-red*

    #1 – I am scared of clowns too. I’ve gotten to the point where I won’t run or freak out if I see them, but I hate them, and I have a startled/panic moment when I see them at first. People who know me know this, and while they might tease me a bit, they don’t take it to extremes.

    In #1’s case, the first time they changed the background, I would have jumped/screamed/been upset. The second time, I would have been visibly angry and probably would have walked out of work. The third time, I would have been furious and meeting with HR/boss/boss’ boss. It’s not funny at all to bully people about their fears, irrational as they may be, and to deliberately torment someone is beyond inappropriate for work.

    Also, as I have told my DH about these people who like to dress up as clowns and scare people, one of these days they are going to get hurt and it will serve them right. Some people’s “fight or flight” response goes straight to fight. Your coworker, in the presence of an actual clown, may go to fight, and attack.

    You need to tell clown-frightened coworker what they are doing, and someone needs to put a stop this, either by talking to boss, or talking to HR, or talking to boss’ boss.

    1. BookishMiss*

      This is how I am with adult raccoons. I’m alright with them now, as in, I won’t run or have a panic attack, but that took a lot of time and work. I hate that there are people out there who think legit phobias are something funny that they can use for their amusement, because that REALLY makes it harder for people with said phobias to do the work needed to even somewhat tolerate the trigger.

      Also: clowns are weird, and there’s science to back that up.

      1. mcr-red*

        Oh yeah, I believe it was the Smithsonian that did a whole long article about WHY clowns are scary.

        I wanted to watch American Horror Story that season where they were at a circus. A friend told me she’d watch it with me (a little bit ahead of me) and try to tell me when the clown was so I could prepare myself. That…didn’t work. Watched one episode, couldn’t sleep at all that night. Didn’t try that again!

        You are right, phobias can be worked on and even managed, but you can still have issues dealing with it and people using it for their amusement is not cool at all. I take it as an attack if they continue to do it after being told about it.

        1. Liet-Kinda*

          You’re assuming this is actually a phobia. The first time that word appears on this page is in the comments, not the letter nor the response.

          1. mcr-red*

            He ran out the building. The only time I ran out of a building was when a (surprise!) clown came into a building. Wasn’t expecting it, and my NO just kicked in. Someone I know that is very scared of spiders once had to be restrained from jumping out of a moving motor boat when she saw one. I think you can assume people are genuinely frightened and not just “enjoying” a scare when they attempt to leave the space they are in. To put this in perspective, I love horror movies. I like the tension and jump scares. I have jumped before at a horror movie. I have screamed before. I have never attempted to run out of a horror movie theater.

            1. Liet-Kinda*

              This is a whole lot about you, and not much about the coworker. Let’s stick to the situation at hand.

              1. Jasnah*

                Dude, I agree with your point that some people are overreacting and projecting and OP should focus on talking to the coworker. But just because the magic word “phobia” was not used doesn’t change the fact that this is clearly an extreme reaction. Even if it’s not a Real Phobia™ reasonable readers can infer from the letter that the coworker probably doesn’t enjoy this. This doesn’t change the advice that OP should check with him before marching to HR, but it looks like you’re going on a one-man crusade to course-correct here.

              2. mcr-red*

                Alright then, I also think that unless you’re working at a scare house, people being “scared” daily, whether or not it is a real scare depending on whomever’s standards, is NOT something that needs to be happening at a workplace. And OP can certainly talk to someone in the chain of command about that, since it bothered them enough to write a letter to an advice blog.

        2. LadyPhoenix*

          Meh. You didn’t miss much. The show kinda collapsed in on itself after–funny enough (HAH!)–the clown actually died.

          1. mcr-red*

            Heh, I’d be happy at that part! No more clown!

            I’m back to watching this season, with the end of the world and the witches and stuff. I completely skipped last season because of the clown thing again. Wasn’t even going to try to attempt it.

    2. Liet-Kinda*

      “someone needs to put a stop this, either by talking to boss, or talking to HR, or talking to boss’ boss.”

      In the event that this is genuinely unpleasantly frightening to the coworker, I agree, but to the coworker is the important bit – not to OP and not to this commentariat, which tends to extreme reactions to just about everything.

  41. Holly*

    OP #4 … judging only from your letter, it seems like your manager overreacted. That said, it is reaaaally not okay to say something like “I don’t care” even though your manager does – they have the power to be dismissive, you don’t. My supervisor used to say all the time “I don’t know what that means,” stone faced, as a way of asking me to rephrase and clarify what I was saying. It was definitely his “phrase.” Could I ever interrupt him and say “I don’t know what that means,” in response to something he said? NO. LORD NO. There *is* a power imbalance in the workplace and I can’t imagine that repeating her language, when it is dismissive, is a good idea.

    1. LGC*

      Eh, I sort of disagree with part of this. It seems to me like you’re saying it’s okay for a manager to be dismissive of their employees, which I think is wrong.

      I can be dismissive at times myself. I’m not perfect. But I wouldn’t say my behavior is okay or justifiable – even though I have high priority items and I have power over my team, that just makes it MORE important that I don’t just blow them off (or make it look like I’m blowing them off)! Because even though I outrank my team, a little appreciation goes a very long way.

      1. Holly*

        No, I’m not. I’m saying a manager is allowed to use dismissive language, or has more leeway than an employee does. OP says “eh I see what she means by I don’t care” – but OP doesn’t get that same benefit of the doubt.

        1. LGC*

          I mean…you’re right that generally, the higher up you are the more room you have to act in seemingly jerkish ways. I deal with it myself at times, and I don’t take it as a personal affront. But also, I don’t think LW4’s manager should have been shocked and appalled that her report picked up one of her bad habits!

          (And we might be talking about two separate things – what should be expected of managers IRL vs. what managers should do in an ideal interaction.)

          If nothing else, like…LW4 shouldn’t have followed her boss’s example, partly because of her relationship to her boss. Her boss, I think, should reconsider replying with “I don’t care” to things if she felt some sort of way about getting it back (even if it was from a direct report).

  42. CatCat*

    OP5, I really liked the leave donation set up when I worked for the federal government and I wish more places had this option. You could donate leave to a specific employee in need due to medical issued, and you could participate in a leave bank program. Everyone participating in the leave bank had to donate X amount of hours to the leave bank (can’t quite remember the formula, buy it was something like how long you’d been there). I “bought” into the leave bank every year. I liked the bank because then I was also included in the event of an emergency, and it felt like less of random chance of whether your coworkers liked you, whether people in the agency even knew who were, and people had leave they could spare at that exact time.

  43. Phony Genius*

    Re #1, one of my in-laws has a mild form coulrophobia (the medical term for fear of clowns). They make her uncomfortable. Also, the same goes for costumed theme park characters. Because she has a young child, who loves both of these, she has to force herself to tolerate them. Of course, between being forced to deal with this in family life does not mean the same should happen at work.

    I saw a short TV documentary about coulrophobia a few years ago. The woman they profiled had such a severe case, not only did most pictures of clowns terrify her, simple holding a red nose in your hand made her uncomfortable. To her, all clowns looked like the kind in horror movies.

    By the way, I’m glad to be the first person to ever use the word “coulrophobia” on this website.

    1. Audrey Puffins*

      Sorry buddy, someone already used it in the comments of a September 2013 post about racist Hallowe’en costumes. ;)

  44. Guy Incognito*

    “hey, I put post it notes all over this coworker’s cube because we’re friends and he’d get a good laugh out of it on his birthday.” – Prank
    “hey, I know this co-worker supports [LOCAL SPORTS FRANCHISE] so I replaced their stuff with [RIVAL OF LOCAL SPORTS FRANCHISE] because we joke around about this stuff but her stuff is safe in my desk/cube/office/hovel” – Prank
    “hey, this co worker is deathly afraid of X so we keep showing him X” – actionable offense that should get you FIRED.

    1. K. A.*

      Yes! Thank you, Guy, for those examples. And, yes, this should get the manager fired and the other employees some serious retraining.

    2. Brogrammer*

      Yes! Other good pranks from my office:

      Printing out a picture of a really difficult client (from their email signature), putting it in a cheap heart-shaped frame, and putting it on the account manager’s desk

      Covering a co-worker’s workstation in boxes of his favorite drink (after confirming with his supervisor that he would have enough downtime to clean up at the beginning of his day).

  45. HannahS*

    OP1, let him know, and let him decide what to do next. You can ask him to say that he “overheard” a conversation discussing it, in order to leave your name out of it. Or, he might opt to call in sick on Halloween (which is what I did the day my animal course in university covered arachnids) and then the next day, say he “heard” that so-and-so brought in a clown costume. So, if you’re worried about being treated badly by your boss, there are ways you can be left out of it, if you don’t think you can speak up. But do tell him.

  46. A suggestion*

    OP #2 – If you have evidence of this happening before (documentation, or testimonial from your old coworkers), you can bring it to HR and IT and ask them to block the numbers of your family members. It’s extreme but they might be willing to do it if you have evidence that they will not only harass you, but other coworkers.

  47. LadyPhoenix*

    OP #2: I don’t like Allison’s answer. You want no contact from your mom–it doesn’t matter if her calls are…”innocent” or not. If she truly feels sorry, she can find less hair raising way to call you and apologize. Talk to your boss and HR about adding her to a “Do Not Call” list or whatever.

  48. RandomusernamebecauseIwasboredwiththelastone*

    On the PTO donation question. I probably don’t have a great reason for this, but I’m not a fan. It seems like one of those programs that can be hard to administer, opens the door for abuse, and is likely to have unintended consequences.

  49. LadyPhoenix*

    Op #1: Give your coworker a heads up about the pranks — including the clown suit. Also, let them know you will help them with reporting to HR and knocking out the pranks.

  50. Kristine*

    I would hate having a PTO donation at my workplace, and I say this as someone who is about to take an unpaid maternity leave. I would never want to receive donated PTO from coworkers because I’d feel immensely guilty that they’d given up their time off for me to get a paycheck– that’s something the company should cover! If the company doesn’t want to take care of its employees then they shouldn’t put that responsibility on the shoulders of other employees. And we get so little PTO around here that if we had a donation I know I (and probably many others) would feel pressured to donate leave, even if that left me with less than 2 weeks PTO for the whole year.

  51. McWhadden*

    Like others I’ve worked at a couple of state agencies and never received a written offer.

    Something to keep in mind is that job postings in government agencies are a lot more crucial than pretty much everywhere else. Everything has to be transparent. So they can’t just abruptly change the salary or the job requirements (although they’ll have that “other duties as related” or whatever but that usually really does have to be related) without reposting the position. At least in most places. So you can rely on the job posting a lot more than you could otherwise.

    Also, my position isn’t union but many positions in the agency are union. Which means we tend to have very clear and set-out standards for salary and promotion as well. It has become a matter of practice.

  52. Hooray College Football*

    OP #2 – I supervised an employee who had major issues with her MIL. In fact, her husband was getting a restraining order against his own mother. She had a history of calling the kids schools and reporting them for abuse (lies). When she needed time off to deal with it, I asked her if she thought it might be an issue with her calling the office. She didn’t think so, but I went ahead and notified security about the calls and false claims – I didn’t want false allegations to potentially impact her clearance. Security was all over it. Said if she called the office, they would call NCIS. It never happened, they got the TRO, and things eventually calmed down. I’d let at least my supervisor know.

  53. McQuaid*

    I lost a lot of weight. I had weight loss surgery. I am a healthy weight for my height. I lost 104#. Someone who does not know me in my office came up to me and said I looked like I came out of a concentration camp. I kid you not. Plus, the fact she didn’t know I am Jewish. I told my supervisor and then she advised me to go to HR, which I did. The employee was spoken to, and a few months later I heard she left the agency. Needless to say, I was hurt, but didn’t want her to lose her job, but to be educated on how to approach others.

      1. Quiet Pls*

        They are spending work time bullying a coworker. They are immature and I wouldn’t want them near any client or doing anything that matters. And they utterly disrepect everyone they are around by their actions.

        Yes. I do.

        1. Liet-Kinda*

          I am no personal fan of pranks and would be annoyed and irritated in OP’s position, so I’m not on the side of the pranksters. But every single thing you posted is an intepretation, the most extreme and amped-up imaginable interpretation that can be drawn from that letter, and so your conclusion matches the assumptions.

          You may be right, but Jesus, it must be exhausting to go through the world reacting to it like this.

      2. Not All*

        Yup. Because that degree of pack-mentality bullying rarely ever can be stopped any other way. Especially since the LW specifically says that they are worried about repercussions from the boss if they say anything. In a healthy office, LW wouldn’t be worried at all about saying “hey, this has gone way too far already and I don’t think you realize how bad it is”.

        1. LadyPhoenix*

          We have seen how group bullying can cause boat loads of toxicity, plus the destruction of a whole corporation. See the letters where the Op was a manager who allowed her team to essentially bully out a slightly older coworker because she didn’t “fit” with the master degree owning, booze drinking, and more “hip” coworkers.

          The whole company suffered big time from the bullying because they lost some big-time customers, which resulted in the OP and her entire team getting fired.

          Sometimes amputation is the only way. It is a very drastic, last minute move… but a move I can only think of when the whole team is toxic.

          1. Liet-Kinda*

            Implicit in this whole rant is the assumption that this is actually bullying. OP has not talked with her coworker yet to determine whether that is the case, so holy shit can we maybe slow the roll here.

            1. K. A.*

              OP has seen what is happening. It is bullying whether the bullied colleague uses that language to describe it or not.

              Lite-Kinda, as someone who claims not to be fond of pranks you’re taking an awfully strong stance toward leniency in this matter in every one of the many comments you’ve made regarding Letter #1.

  54. LabTech*

    LW2: For me, the calls stopped when they informed her I no longer worked there. Though in my case, I actually didn’t work there. But also realize that getting a call from a random coworker’s relative is extremely unusual, and will raise red flags for some – at least enough to not disclose more information, or check with you first. Though occasionally someone may appoint themselves family counselor and won’t leave it until you disclose some of the more jarring details.

    Sorry I don’t have any good advice. It’s a terrible situation to put you in, and your estranged mother knows it. Solidarity.

  55. Czhorat*

    For OP#4, “I don’t care” is, in most contexts, not a professional or appropriate way of speaking. It’s casual, dismissive, and sends a poor message about your level of engagement. I’d not say that myself, whether or not my boss or anyone else said it. It’s not a good idea to copy bad habits.

    I’ll add that you and your boss are not equals within the hierarchy; them saying “I don’t care” to you is inappropriate, but your saying it back to them can border on insubordinate.

    Your boss is wrong to use this language, but I don’t think you’re making a wise choice in mimicking it.

  56. Indie*

    OP2, she may be your mother, but she’s not a person in your life. I might go with: “I expect to receive calls in the near future from a female stalker. She will claim to have a close relationship with me and is very good at getting sympathy and help as to ‘checking if I am ok’. Can we send out a reminder not to reveal personal details to callers and just refer people to voicemail?

  57. Vindow Viper*

    I cannot find a way to view this concept of donating PTO as anything other than pure exploitation by employers and I am sort of astounded that so many people see it as reasonable policy, let alone desirable (WHA????). I have a coworker who just received a very dire medical diagnosis, and our nonprofit employer has suggested that we “donate” our PTO so that this coworker can seek treatment. I’ve given them all I can, happily, because I don’t want them to kill themselves trying to save their own life and work at the same time, but to my mind, PTO is not, I don’t know, water or food some kind of limited resource that we need to conserve or pool in order to make sure one of us stays alive. The company is perfectly capable of awarding my coworker more PTO or making other accommodations that don’t essentially pit coworkers against each other on this weird resource/morality scale about “giving” our time off away to someone who needs it more.

    This just seems so wildly inappropriate and exploitative. The problem is that my coworker *is dying* and has to remain employed in order to fund their health care and/or make some attempt to continue to “work” while they’re trying to save their own life — not that they don’t have enough PTO (a made-up concept entirely dictated by the employer!) and just need to borrow it from the rest of us.

    BRB gonna go set capitalism on fire and when I’m done with that, I’ll start on the nonprofit industrial complex.

    1. nnn*

      That’s what I was thinking. Especially since it’s highly likely that the remaining co-workers are already collectively covering the sick co-worker’s workload.

      If the revenue-generating portion of the sick co-worker’s workload is covered, the employer is getting the same revenue for the same outlay even if they extend the sick co-worker as much PTO as they need. If the remaining co-workers also donate PTO to the sick co-worker, they’re basically handing a portion of their compensation to the employer.

      If employees want a way to collectively help employees who need to take an extended amount of time off, maybe a better starting point would be to look into group disability insurance. Even if the employer doesn’t want to pay into the premiums, the employees would all pay into the premiums collectively and then people who need it can draw on it.

    2. Michaela Westen*

      I work at a hospital where it is common for people – usually physicians and managers – to have a buildup of PTO such that they could never use all of it. People who have been here more than 20 years so they earn a lot of PTO, and they are very dedicated so they don’t take much time off.
      Finance likes people to use PTO to get the liability off the books, and PTO donations help with this.
      PTO donations make sense in a situation like this. As I understand it, we have a pool for emergencies and one individual can donate to another, subject to strict rules about when it is appropriate.
      However, you make an excellent point that this is all an artificial construct and it would be better to just give people the time they need.
      The only thing is, there are always people who will claim an emergency when they don’t have one, gaming the system – but that could be handled by requiring documentation and management approval for extra time off.

  58. Dee-Nice*

    Hi LW2. I have had very similar experiences with my mother. Is there any chance you’d be comfortable just letting her play herself out? I’m envisioning a scenario in which she can’t reach you, so she calls your coworker, who lets you know she’s on the line, and you say, “Ah, I’m not available. Would you please just send her to my voicemail if she calls again?” Repeat forever. If a coworker says, “She says it’s an emergency,” you can say, “Thanks, I’ll handle it. Would you please send her to my voicemail?” Or even have them send her to your direct line and just… don’t answer. Ever. Do you think she’d get bored or even mildly embarrassed at any point? If coworkers get nosy, you can shrug and say, “Yeah, I’ve asked her not to call me at work. I’m not available at this number, ever. Please feel free to send her to voicemail. Thanks for your help.” If they get REALLY nosy, and you’re comfortable with a small time-saving lie, you can tell them she has your cell if she needs to reach you during the day. Continue to shrug as if you just couldn’t imagine what her problem could possibly be. No need to enter into a discussion about how you don’t talk to her. My experience is that some people will be nosy, but mostly people just want a script to follow in unfamiliar situations. “I am unavailable. Send her to voicemail please,” is a pretty straightforward set of instructions that doesn’t require anyone to get too involved.

    Of course I’m well aware that some people just live to thwart boundaries, so I’ll understand if this advice does not apply to you. Best of luck.

    1. WS*

      This is really good advice for dealing with narcissistic people – if they don’t get a reaction/attention they will eventually move on. Unfortunately other types of abusers may just escalate their attempts to make contact (I had to deal with an adult man spreading vile rumours about a 19-year-old co-worker once he knew where she worked), so I think it’s probably best for LW2 to give HR (and via them, reception) a heads up on this so that it doesn’t even get to voicemail levels of contact.

      1. Dee-Nice*

        The LW mentioned in one of their later comments that the mother was not “deranged or unstable” and that she lived far away, so I’m guessing it’s not spreading-vile-rumors level, just your basic homophobic dipsh*ttery with a dash of entitlement. I do think it could be productive to alert HR if, as other commenters have suggested, there might be a way to create a company-wide protocol for routing unwanted calls and protecting information about employees. I really wish every company had a policy like this.

    2. LW2*

      Yep, that’s my plan for dealing with her in a nutshell, and I’m hopeful that continuing to get no response will make her realize I was serious about wanting no contact. She’s been pretty consistently although not very frequently trying to get in touch via my cell phone for the last year or so, and I have no problem keeping her blocked there. She doesn’t know who my friends are here, so the only other venue for her to contact me (without showing up at my house) is the workplace. I am hopeful she will give up rather than further escalate, but only time will tell. In the meantime, my main concern is not having her intrude in my professional life, to the extent I can control that.

      Thanks for your thoughts!

  59. Khlovia*

    OP4, repeat after me: “Oh, I’m amenable either way.” So much more positive a spin than “I don’t care.”

    Or, if you need to / are being given an opportunity to go into more detail, “For me it’s about three pair of the one and half a dozen of the other, because on the one hand blah blah, but on the other hand yadda yadda.”

  60. WinethetimeKat*

    #1 this is harassment pure and simple maybe not the fireable kind but the press charges kind. LW needs to get to HR RIGHT NOW. I worked around a thing like this and it was Dogs so the manager brought in her Husky. The supervisor was arrested the next day when the man called the cops for harassment. This is terrible to do to a person

  61. Parfait*

    I saw sick leave donations done well at a former workplace. I think it’s key that this was a place where sick and vacation time were in separate buckets, that we got quite a bit of sick time, and this wasn’t paid out when upon leaving, unlike vacation. Lots of employees were just piling up sick time in vast quantities.

    In order to be eligible to use donated leave, you had to have donated at least one day of sick time to the pool. If you had, you could use as much as you needed.

    I donated one day every year, then donated the balance of my time right before I left. Lots of people did the same thing. I never heard anyone complaining about this system. Far from it.

  62. Vicki*

    OP#1 – This is bullying, and bullying is never okay. Where I live, the law gets involved with bullying. Bullies often up their game if they aren’t stopped. I’d go as high as necessary, even the top, to get this stopped. People who are relentlessly bullied commit suicide. Don’t stand by and watch this escalate.

  63. anon for this*

    LW2, I dealt with a similar situation though it wasn’t my mom. I decided to tell my boss the whole story and give her specifics of what I needed from her (in my case, I wanted her to tell the people who answer the main line to not give out information about my hours or anything else, and I specifically mentioned that this person could very well lie about who they were in order to get information). I probably told my boss more information that I really needed to, but it ended up being a huge relief to know that someone at work would run some interference, both with this other person and internally. If you trust your boss to have your back and you have a good relationship with them, I’d highly recommend this. It really eased my mind during a stressful time.

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