my boss doesn’t want my toddler in the background on work calls, coronavirus cancellations, and more

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

1. My manager doesn’t want my son in the background on work calls

I work remotely for an insurance company as a nurse care manager, and my hours are from 9-5:30 pm. My son is a preschooler and is gone for most of my shift from 8:30 am until 2:30 pm. He has special needs but he’s a rather manageable four-year-old. I have regular coverage for him after school, but on one recorded line (all the calls are recorded) he came to me and the recording captured me telling him to remain quiet because I was on the phone. I got a call from my manager saying that the next time she hears my son in the background, she will get HR involved.

I’ve worked in many different areas and locations, and there has never been a time when I’ve had a completely background-free phone call. Even in the office where I used to work, you could always hear chatter, laughter, music, screaming/yelling, and a ton of interruptions. I’ve designated a secluded place in my home as my work area, but I can’t completely soundproof the place. I also can’t put a mute button on my son even when he’s talking in the background or push him away when he hasn’t seen me all day. What can I say to my manager to shed some light on this issue while still being professional and forthright?

Well … the thing is, office chatter reads differently as phone background noise than a four-year-old does. Our brains tend to filter out the first as “normal, expected office noise” (unless it’s really over-the-top) but hear little kid voices as more jarring and unexpected for the context. To a lot of people, it will read as less professional or like your attention isn’t fully on them.

So I don’t think your manager is wrong in wanting you to find a solution. That said, her approach is bizarre — she should have a real conversation with you about it, not just issue a threat. (And I don’t know why she’s talking about bringing in HR when she’s the one who should have authority here.) So she’s handling this badly, but the underlying point isn’t an unreasonable one.

Is it possible to take a scheduled break right when your son comes home so you can greet him, and then have his caregiver keep him away from your work space until the end of your shift? I know that’s easier said than done, but you could explore things like having his caregiver take him somewhere out of the house for most of that time, erecting an additional barrier before the door to your office, and so forth.

2. Company wants employee who canceled trip because of coronavirus to pay for his ticket

An employee with my company has backed out of a business trip to a major city in SE Asia set to take place in 2 weeks because he thinks it is too high-risk with the Wuhan Coronavirus outbreak happening. Another employee has voluntarily taken his place. Administration is upset with his decision to stay behind, and is discussing making him reimburse the company for his ticket. This employee is otherwise stellar and regularly goes above-and-beyond in his role. I think it is a huge mistake to punish him over this. How can I relay that to management?

Try this: “Requiring Bob to pay the cost of his ticket would cost us more in employee morale and trust —with Bob, but also with other employees who hear about it — than it would save us in airfare. We shouldn’t penalize employees for making risk assessments about their own health and backing out of non-essential travel during a worldwide health crisis.”

3. Candidates research me and bring up their findings awkwardly

I’ve noticed a trend in recent candidates I’ve interviewed: they’ve started researching me. I find it odd considering I am not particularly noteworthy in my field and they are using the information in a weak way. For example, “I saw you wrote a paper titled X, but I didn’t read it” or “I saw you were a part of organization Y” – “Yes, I am” – (awkward silence). Then I’m left unsure how to respond or how to bring the conversation back on track.

Is this a thing? Do you have any ideas for a better redirecting response I could give?

Yeah, this sounds like candidates who have read advice that they should research their interviewer and try to connect about something in their background … but they’re executing it badly! The idea isn’t to announce a random fact about the interviewer, but to genuinely build rapport. If you can’t do it genuinely (“I went to school in Chicago too — I love the art museum there”), its better to skip it. It’s not a requirement, and it just creates awkwardness if you do it like your candidates have been doing it.

As for how to respond, you can probe a little — “I did work there! Do you have a connection to the organization?” — but it’s also okay to just move on like this:

Candidate: “I saw you wrote a paper titled Great Frogs in Literature, but I didn’t read it.”
You: “I did write that! I’ve always had an interest in frogs.”
(awkward silence)
You: “Well, let’s dive in! Tell me what led you to apply for this position.”

It’s not the smoothest transition, but you can only work with what they give you.

4. Self-assessment form asks if I’m planning to leave the organization

I’m in the middle of filling out my annual performance review. One of the questions asks if I’m interested in “other career opportunities internally or externally,” how soon do I see this happening, etc.

What’s the point of this question? It seems to me that people have the right to disclose their plans when they feel ready to do so, whether or not the topic comes up on a form in January.

I’m strongly considering a move abroad in the fall (as in, wheels are in motion), but I really don’t want to tell people this now, and I especially don’t want my manager to use this as an excuse to see me as disengaged and give me a lower merit increase. (I am disengaged, but she doesn’t need to know that.) So on a personal level, I feel like I have no choice but to lie by omission.

They ask that question because sometimes the answer will be helpful or relevant for your employer to know, and not always against your interests to provide. But it’s not a court order to provide information! You should assume there’s an implied “if you’re willing to share” attached to it. If there’s nothing you’re up for sharing right now, it’s fine to answer with “not at the moment.”

5. We have to repay our tuition reimbursement if we leave while enrolled in classes

I have worked for various colleges/universities my entire career. One of the major benefits of working in higher ed is the tuition remission that is traditionally part of the staff benefits package.

I just discovered that the tuition benefits rules at my new university require staff to repay their tuition if they leave the university or are fired while enrolled in classes. I am floored. I have never heard of an employer requiring employees to repay a benefit. Is this legal? Retiring employees are not required to repay tuition — only employees who leave the university for another position or are terminated for cause. The tuition payback is prorated, based on when the semester ends and when the employee’s last day was.

I can’t speak to universities specifically, but at least outside of academia it’s super common — far more common than not — for employers to require employees to stay for a certain amount of time (often one or two years) after they cover tuition or to have to repay it (usually prorated) otherwise. The idea is that they don’t want to fund education that won’t benefit them; if you’re going to let them pay for classes that you immediately use to get a job somewhere else, the investment doesn’t make sense for them. The part about having to repay it if you’re fired isn’t as common — typically it’s if you choose to leave — but otherwise this is a pretty standard (and legal) policy.

{ 816 comments… read them below }

  1. Clementine*

    I’m sure at least some airlines are allowing people to defer travel, at the least, because of the coronavirus, without losing the value of their ticket, just as they do during hurricanes or winter storms. What does the airline say about this?

      1. Clementine*

        This circumstance might not be covered by flight insurance, and I suspect it would not be. However, many companies have arrangements with airlines that allow more flexibility than an average individual can get, although of course I don’t know if that is the case here. Nonetheless, canceling one flight should not be such an extreme expense that it warrants this punitive action.
        As a matter of logistics, many or most US-departing passengers that travel to Southeast Asia will have a connection somewhere in Asia. When I went to Vietnam, I connected through Shanghai, for example. I assume the flight in question doesn’t involve China at all, as there should be no issue at all in that case, but I would like to know for sure.

        1. Avasarala*

          I am also assuming that the flight does not need to transit in China because of the fact that the other employee who took their place is going on the trip. I can’t imagine the company would let anyone go at all if the flight transited in China–that would be a different letter!

          1. General von Klinkerhoffen*

            This is also my assumption: that it’s actually in Thailand or Korea or something.

            I’m reminded of the Zika panic, where some people had additional reasons not to wish to visit affected regions. If the first coworker is or lives with someone susceptible to chest infections or otherwise immune compromised then they might be more cautious than average.

            They might just be cautious of going to an area which might be closed while they’re there, and getting trapped.

            If someone else is taking the trip then the actual losses to the employer must be only a small proportion of the cost of the trip (administration fees etc) and the relative cost of goodwill is even more important.

            1. Amethystmoon*

              Right, I believe some pregnant workers didn’t want to travel because of Zika, but didn’t want to tell their employers they were pregnant.

            2. animaniactoo*

              Yes, I was coming here to say this. My mom is now chronically ill and immunocompromised and I’m the regularly involved/backup for her primary caregiver people and see her fairly often. My risk assessments for what I can do have changed significantly in light of that. Things that might make *me* sick for a couple of weeks? No longer on the table as acceptable possibilities.

              I literally just got over being sick with a cough that lingered for ~3 weeks and couldn’t see her and was unavailable to them for all of that time. While I was getting over that, she picked up a virus somewhere else and hasn’t been able to shake it and is now back in the hospital (we expect that she’ll be fine, but it’s gonna take awhile to get there).

              1. Tidewater 4-1009*

                This has been a horrible winter for viruses. I was sick in December and again in January with the flu even though I had the shot. Everyone I know has described colds similar to yours. Some lasted even longer.

          2. Mongrel*

            “I am also assuming that the flight does not need to transit in China because of the fact that the other employee who took their place is going on the trip.”

            I read it as the employees having assessed the risks to themselves differently.

            1. DisasterMonk*

              I think at this point most flights to China in the immediate future have been canceled, so I assumed that, since the trip is still on an another employee can go, the trip is not in China/flight does not need to transit China.

              1. Just J.*

                This whole discussion on whether or not the employee should have traveled is demeaning. Like every other health decision and health issue, it is NONE OF YOUR BUSINESS. The employee assessed the risks and said they are not going. End of story.

                1. Secret Identity*

                  I don’t think anyone is arguing that either employee should have traveled. Just some speculation on the reasons behind another employee deciding to take the journey. Which is perfectly legit. No need to be rude and use all caps to shout at people. And certainly, in no way is anyone being demeaned by this discussion. That’s just ridiculous. Chill.

                2. Saberise*

                  Literally not a single person in this thread questioned whether they should have gone. And yes actually where he would be flying to would matter since the theme of this thread was whether the airline would be accommodating. They may be more so if it was to Korea vs mainland China.

                3. Working Mom*

                  I agree – and, this EE may also have a weakened immune system or underlying condition which could make him/her more susceptible to a virus. Or – he/she is just more cautious in nature.

                4. Lissa*

                  You seem to be arguing a point nobody here is making. Nobody is saying it’s anyone’s business, so not sure why the need for all caps. It’s up for discussion on this message board, like anything else – which country it is in is relevant when discussing the other coworker who’s going. I am really not seeing how us having this conversation is demeaning.

          3. Seeking Second Childhood*

            How far afield do planes get routed in case of bad weather, equipment emergency? Or with recent volcanic activity in the new, a volcanic plume disrupting air travel?
            With the Wuhan coronavirus’s contagious incubation period, I sympathize–the exponential possibilities are pretty scary.

    1. Jdc*

      I’d say contact the airline. While they are notorious for their fees they often will help. I had a minor car accident on the way to the airport once and couldn’t make my flight that day. They kindly changed my ticket at no charge. It never hurts to ask and I remain a loyal customer of the airline.

      1. TootsNYC*

        one thing that makes this even more likely is if you buy directly from the airline instead of through a reseller.

      2. animaniactoo*

        Yes, my husband actually had to entirely cancel a flight because there were major weather issues and the road was too unsafe for him to get to the airport, there was no point in rescheduling as not getting on a flight that day would mean he’d miss the entire purpose of the trip. The airline said no problem and issued us a refund for his ticket. Major loyalty points earned.

    2. Veronica Mars*

      Seeing this letter made me pretty grateful for my current job, which literally banned people from entering the building if they or anyone they live with has been to China in the last month – and banned all business travel to China as well.

      I get that where this person is going is probably not China, but I’d take an overzealously safety-oriented company over one that questioned my right to make risk assessments for myself.

  2. JamieS*

    #1 I’m wondering if your manager took issue because she thought you were caring for your son during work hours as opposed to having a dedicated caretaker.

    1. Diahann Carroll*

      That’s how I read it. The manager threatened to bring HR into the matter because she probably doesn’t think OP actually works while home – she heard OP’s child and most likely assumed she’s his primary caregiver in the afternoon. OP, if you haven’t already told your manager about your childcare arrangement, you may want to do so now so she doesn’t think you’re taking care of him during work hours.

      1. valentine*

        The HR mention seems a massive escalation, and makes more sense if the work-from-home policy specifies the need for childcare, especially if OP1 had to provide proof of same. I also think what she heard matters, that she might’ve reacted differently to “Please go back to Nanny. I can’t believe I forgot to lock the door.”

        I also can’t put a mute button on my son even when he’s talking in the background or push him away when he hasn’t seen me all day.
        Your not fully delegating care (barring emergency) when he’s in your space is why your boss expects him not to be there. It’s reasonable to have to keep him out of the workspace and save your lunchtime for when he arrives home or only spend short breaks with him (just as you might take a few minutes to start a laundry load), but not if you then have to spend a chunk of time convincing him not to be upset that you have to get back to work.

        1. Diahann Carroll*

          makes more sense if the work-from-home policy specifies the need for childcare

          These policies usually do.

          1. Clisby*

            I would imagine so – especially in jobs like the OP’s, with set hours. I worked remotely for years where having childcare wasn’t specified, but I had REALLY flexible flex-time. Like I could start working at 3 a.m. and get 3 hours out of the way before anybody else in the house was up. I’d often be working about 7-9 p.m. while my husband took over the childcare. But I was lucky.

        2. Avasarala*

          Reminds me of that famous viral video where the news correspondent’s kids barged in while he was on TV and the mom had to pull them out.

          As hilarious as that was, I can see why sometimes the door needs to be locked, and you’d need to find a workaround to this: “I also can’t put a mute button on my son even when he’s talking in the background or push him away when he hasn’t seen me all day.”

          It’s one thing to hear standard office background noise when you call an insurance company nurse care manager. But if I heard a child’s voice (or highway noise, or toilet flushes) I’d wonder where the hell she was calling from.

          1. There's probably a cat meme to describe it*

            My mind went straight to that video too!
            I have no idea what the job of an insurance company nurse care manager is. But I can picture many jobs where a child in the background of a call would seriously undermine the credibility and legitimacy of the company.
            (I had a call with my insurer once which was handled by a lovely woman who was working from home, and I did have pause for a moment there wondering if I was on the line with a scammer.)

            1. SweetestCin*

              If you have a nurse care manager, your health care situation is probably pretty stressful because of either a chronic condition or sudden extreme illness.

              We were assigned a nurse care manager when our child was deathly ill (sudden extreme illness), in order to assist us in navigating the health care/insurance, by the insurance company. She assisted in verifying benefits, was able to push for quicker approvals on necessary things (i.e. “you’re expecting paperwork on prescription XYZ that will allow child to go home, which is the preferred course of action from everyone on her care team because there is absolutely zero reason to retain her inpatient at this point, get it approved ASAP folks” from her end to the suits in charge of approving the $3,000 a dose medicine over the $75 a day medicine that requires hospitalization, for example.), to seamlessly transition us from hospital in-patient to at-home care, helped get appointments with the correct departments, helped transition back to school with our school district on our behalf, and generally was an additional advocate for the patient and family.

              Given that my kids are usually pretty healthy, having a child inpatient for an extended stay was beyond stressful. Our nurse care manager was a godsend because she was a knowledgeable professional who gave a hoot about my family and was instrumental in getting everything back to right. Its also not a position where you can really be dealing with “child issues” while on the phone for various reasons: You’re dealing with HIPAA, insurance details, potentially financial details, AND parents/family members/patients who are like stressed AF.

              I’m not sure I like the threat/escalation, but management’s request is not at all out of line. Even if its a one-of, you’re in a customer facing position in healthcare.

              Granted, my opinion here is heavily colored both by my (very positive) experience with a nurse case manager, and the double and triple safeguards I have in place as far as childcare when it makes more sense for me to work at home.

              1. Caliente*

                Wow – thanks for the explanation and I hope your daughter is doing well now. What you went through sounds very stressful.

                1. SweetestCin*

                  Thank you, Caliente!

                  Small ones are resilient beyond belief. It is almost as if she was never sick now!

              2. Richard Hershberger*

                Part of my work is in workers’ compensation. Insurers sometimes assign nurse case managers. Our role in this, as the patient’s legal representative, is to give the NCM permission to speak with the patient, i.e. to do her job. We grant this permission enthusiastically. NCMs are great!

              3. There's probably a cat meme to describe it*

                Thanks for sharing your experience! I’m glad to hear your daughter is doing well now :)

                Your explanation sheds light on the manager’s strong reaction for me, as I’ve worked several years in a healthcare supporting role (although in a different country with a public system, hence, clueless on insurer NCM role!). Nevertheless, I understand the high standards healthcare providers are held to, the emphasis on the ‘patient experience’ and living up to the trust people in a vulnerable position implicitly place in those providing them care or guidance. What seems like a minor issue to one person could actually be a Very Serious Issue to someone more experienced, who’s seen the potential health, legal or financial outcomes of that issue going unchecked. Small distractions sound trivial, but in a healthcare setting they can and do literally endanger lives.

                OP, if you’re still reading comments: your letter reads like you’re focussed on the noise issue here, but I’m thinking your manager is more concerned about distraction and the risks it poses. Especially on complex cases or when time is factor. Parent-distraction is very different to office-distraction! If if I were her I’d be wanting reassurance that you completely appreciate the seriousness of that, be satisfied it was a one-off, and know how you’re making sure it won’t be an issue going forward. Commenters below also point out privacy concerns over patient information. If your son is able to get into the room, presumably his caregiver can too, so address information security with your manager as well. Depending on what she’s like and how confident she is in your response, she may pull more recordings and give you closer oversight. So I’d just keep that in the back of my mind and be prepared to happily cooperate, watching myself that I don’t give off defensive vibes. Humble pie doesn’t taste good, but it’s often the fastest way to regain someone’s trust. Good luck!

          2. Oxford Comma*

            If this is a one off, I think the employer’s reaction seems harsh.

            The OP has childcare. It doesn’t sound like this is a regular occurrence. You can lock your door every day, but there is bound to be that one day when you forget. Even when you’re being diligent, you turn your back once or you’re distracted, and it takes very little for a toddler to zip off.

            Now if this is a regular thing, that’s a different story.

            I would also like to point out that weird and unexpected things can happen while you’re on a conference call in an office environment too.

            1. Seeking Second Childhood*

              Ask my manufacturing department about the birds that occasionally come in through the loading bay.. and ask their management team about the ones that made it past the factory area into the offices. Having the great bird chase in the background of their call was awkward for the guy discussing terms with a vendor!

              1. Gazebo Slayer*

                Ha! When I worked in retail we actually had sparrows take up residence inside our store. I think they nested in the overhead shelves. It was rather charming.

                1. Wired Wolf*

                  Our mall building has a resident bird population, and every so often a few will make it into our warehouse. I became the “official birdcatcher” once everyone figured out the poor things were just looking for food and water (was able to trap some by setting a bowl of water out, kicking everyone else out of the warehouse and waiting quietly). I did have the idiot supervisor barge in looking for me while I was in the process of bird-stalking once…he chased me out to “get back to work”, minutes later the health inspector liaison came through and went ballistic about the live bird in food storage.

                2. Ace in the Hole*

                  It’s only charming until they start reproducing. Then before you know it you have so much bird poo on the fire suppression system that the inspector says you’ll have to replace it to be up to code and the birds are making so much noise you have to wear hearing protection to comply with OSHA rules.

                  Needless to say we got rid of the birds. But it was an enormous endeavor. Now any bird seen in the building with nesting materials gets chased out pronto.

              2. Faith*

                We have a manufacturing facility in Malaysia and last year they had to chase the monkey out of the building. They ultimately had to tranq it before it let itself be captured.

                1. OrangeHat*

                  I worked in a shoe store once, and while I was on the phone to another branch about a stock request and cow escaped from a farmer’s market down the road and crashed through the front window. That was not a calm or professional conversation.

                2. Veronica Mars*

                  I was the supervisor in charge one particular midnight shift when a freaking rattlesnake slithered out from under a pallet of material. I am very afraid of snakes. i did not handle it like a consummate professional.

                  Thank goodness big strong men with big shovels were working and took pity on me.
                  But then I had to google the correct way to decontaminate snake bodily fluids in a food producing environment…

                  That was a few months after one of my employees wandered back in from a storage outbuilding and said “Oh, the black widow infestation is back in shed J” all casual like…

                3. That Girl from Quinn's House*

                  Veronica Mars, I worked somewhere where I had to clean out a seasonal storage area so we could start using it again for summer. After a full day of digging around underneath and behind shelving units and reaching into storage bins and finding all sorts of bugs, I found a golf-ball sized black widow’s egg sac.

                  I’m so glad I didn’t run into any of them with my hands.

                4. Warm Weighty Wrists*

                  LOL @ Orange Hat. I’m just imagining the cow busting through the window yelling, “I hear you requested some stock?”

                  I’ll see myself out.

                5. KoiFeeder*

                  @Veronica Mars

                  I used to pick up the copperheads with my bare hands when I cleaned pools, because keeping them calm in the net was impossible and two-three feet of furious, venomous snake is not a good time.

                6. TardyTardis*

                  I knew one of our plants had issues with feral cats, but once they got rid of them, guess what, they had mice!

              3. Quill*

                Oh my god I’d love to be in on that vid call, but I would be SUPER distracted.

                I once had to catch a neighboring office’s dog in the middle of an experiment because she wanted to say hi… inside our lab.

                There’s also the internal calls when someone is needed to clarify something after they’ve gone home for the day… and abruptly baby SME decides nap time is over while I’m trying to get emergency instructions from the SME.

              4. Third or Nothing!*

                OMG I am loving all the stories in this thread! I wish I had one to share, but I so rarely have to take calls that nothing weird has ever happened while on a call.

                1. Keener*

                  I’ve once had a manager (civil engineer) run out of the office in panic because his cows had escaped their paddock and were on their way to the highway. His wife was home with their 2 toddlers and she had managed to park her car across the driveway to temporarily block the cows from getting to the highway, but she couldn’t get the cows back to the paddock while also looking after the children.

              5. CommanderBanana*

                I once worked at an association that was in a converted house – it was really quite charming, in the woods with foxes and other wildlife. We cleaned out a little-used storage room and found a GIANT shed snake skin. Probably from a blacksnake. They’re harmless but…large. It had likely snuggled up there for the winter.

            2. Colette*

              Does the OP’s manager know she has childcare?

              The OP may know that this is a one-off, but her manager may think this is a regular occurrence.

              And this line makes me a little concerned that it’s not an isolated incident: “I also can’t put a mute button on my son even when he’s talking in the background or push him away when he hasn’t seen me all day.”

              1. Autumnheart*

                Yeah. You can most certainly push him away when he hasn’t seen you all day. Go in a room and lock the door if need be.

                1. Arts Akimbo*

                  As the parent of a special needs child, I think it cruel to push a four-year-old away who hasn’t seen you all day and who might not understand why you’re rejecting him.

                  Special needs kids are a whole different world. People don’t understand, by and large. Maybe I’m just being oversensitive, but comments of the just-push-him-away variety have rubbed me completely the wrong way. I’m already enraged at the LW’s boss for the threat of HR escalation.

                2. Half-Caf Latte*

                  @ ARts Akimbo,

                  I get why you feel that way, and agree that wording isn’t great, but I think the point is more that if she can’t be at home without interruption (whether or not he’s a special needs kid), then WFH may not be feasible for her family. She may need to move her work space or her childcare space.

                  And yes, maybe a four year old can’t understand that (mine couldn’t at that age), but the solution isn’t – it’s mean to push him away so I won’t, it’s – how do I navigate this in a way that meets kiddos needs and employers? People have made good suggestions around that.

                3. Colette*

                  @Arts Akimbo – then maybe the OP needs to not be available/visible when the child gets home, or have the child cared for somewhere else instead of in the home.

            3. LQ*

              I would guess that the boss is extrapolating. They pulled a sample call to do a review and this call had a child on it so you’d extrapolate out that more calls did. I’d say that the boss telling the op to not let it happen anymore is the right thing to do (the HR bit is weird though I wonder if that is essentially a warning that they may pull the OPs ability to wfh in a weird way). It may have been a one-off but the boss wouldn’t listen to every single hour of the OPs calls for all time in order to know that it was a one-off. That’s part of not working in the office is if you do something like a phone call job (which it sounds like OP has) then your boss will end up reviewing your work on the sample of calls that get pulled, like they would in person, but you don’t get the “benefit” of them walking around the physical space and occasionally overhearing other things and having an idea that you don’t have your child there (the other side to this would be if in person they saw you on your phone texting all the time but they can’t see or hear that if you wfh).

              1. SweetestCin*

                As she’s client facing, I wonder if the client/patient complained about it, or heck, just noted the noise on a survey. I received a customer service feedback report after every single interaction with our nurse case manager. There were questions about sound quality and such in every survey.

              2. Fergus, Stealer of Pens and Microwaver of Fish*

                I’d extrapolate the same thing. What are the odds that the one and only time in the history of ever that her child barged into the room, it just happened to be the randomly sampled call? Not impossible, but if I were the manager, I would find it unlikely.

                1. Ego Chamber*

                  Understandable, and then if you’re a competent manager you’ll pull more calls to listen to at around the same time and see whether it is an ongoing issue. That’s what I did if an agent did something on a call that they shouldn’t have.

                  The calls are “chosen randomly” for QA but we can always pull more and we can see a lot of info about the call before we start listening to it.

            4. Miss Salty Grits*

              The employer’s reaction is harsh, but it’s just as unreasonable as the OP saying “I can’t push him away when he hasn’t seen me all day” while she’s working. Even the title of the post “My manager doesn’t want my son in the background on work calls” is framed as though OP thinks it’s fine that her son gets to interrupt her in general.

              Weird and unexpected things happen in the office, but no one hears bizarre office noises and assumes that your attention has been and will continue to be focused elsewhere. That sort of “life happens, sorry for the inconvenience” stuff isn’t the same as, “My attention is divided between work and my child because I’m trying to attend to both.”

              1. Working Mom*

                As a fellow telecommuter, I’d encourage you to have a conversation with your direct manager and apologize for the outburst (whether you feel you need to apologize or not is besides the point – your manager clearly wants to hear it), and explain that you do have dedicated childcare, this was an anomaly. Then, work with your caregiver to come up with additional strategies to keep your son busy while you finish up your workday. I also really like the idea of scheduling a break when your son gets home from school to have some time with him – see his artwork from the day, etc. Then you can get re-focused on work your son can move on to another activity with his caregiver. (I might also express to the caregiver how important it is that you remain uninterrupted during X hours – maybe the caregiver doesn’t realize how big of a deal it is to your manager.)

                1. TootsNYC*

                  LW#1: child noises in the background

                  you may need also to move your workspace into a room with a door. It’s a lot of trouble, but it may be necessary if the stakes are this high.

                  I also like the idea of scheduling a break so you can spend some intense time. Maybe work with your caregiver to text you when they’re close to home at the end of his school day, and she can drive around for the 10 minutes you need.

                  ALSO: You can too “install” a mute button on your child by explaining what’s going on, making the case that it’s so important, and providing guidance for your child in how to connect with you noiselessly. Put some thought and creativity into–and some discipline as well. (Remember that “discipline” means “teaching,” not “punishment.”) Have a signal for “I want to talk to mommy” and one for “I see you and I’ll be free soon.”

              2. BasicWitch*

                Why as a culture is it *not* fine for parents to still be parents while they’re working? I think the harsh reaction points to what I feel is a problem – we are only allowed to be fully human when we’re not on the clock. I’m sure a bunch of people will have justifications for this, but I really feel we’ve normalized an unhealthy level of fragmentation.

                1. Yorick*

                  Because your child has no business being on a phone call with patients. It is not at all a big culture problem that it’s unacceptable for OP to be talking to her kid while on a call with a patient.

                2. Miss Salty Grits*

                  There are a lot of laws and regulations that deal with the privacy of data. Data about a person, data about a business. Proprietary information, confidential information, health information, you name it. One problem of not enforcing separation is that your child and/or the child’s caregiver could have access to it.

                  Another problem is that you simply cannot fully parent and fully work at the exact same time. Your attention will always be split in some way-be it 50/50 or otherwise. And one employer may be okay with this, but another may not be, and one may be okay with you doing certain things with your child while working, and another may not be. In either case that doesn’t mean you’re not “allowed to be fully human.”

                  You’re drawing a paycheck based on the idea that you’re doing a job. If your attention is divided, you’re a distraction, you’re undermining the confidence of the people you have to work with that you’re focused, or you’re not being effective at your job, those are all perfectly good reasons for your employer to wonder why you’re drawing the same paycheck.

                3. DarnTheMan*

                  I say this with the enormous caveat that I am the person who leaves right at my end time (unless there’s something that needs me to stay late) and absolutely think work should have flexible leave so people can deal with sudden emergencies (sick child, dead car battery) with minimal stress. My issue with parents “being parents” while working is I start wondering how much of a priority the work I’m doing with them will be. If I’m on a call with a co-worker who’s WFH and there’s constant interruption from their children, I will start questioning if they’re really focused on the work being discussed or paying more attention to their child(ren). Same with a co-worker who takes 10+ calls from their kids throughout the day – are you really doing work or are you spending more time parenting, meaning I’m going to have to pick up the slack when the work doesn’t get done?

                4. Colette*

                  You can be a parent, you just need to have your attention on your job and not your child because that is literally what you are being paid to do.

                5. Autumnheart*

                  Especially in a customer-facing, medically adjacent position. Going by another commenter’s description of the role of a nurse care manager, that means the OP is helping a person manage a medical crisis in real time by assisting them with navigating the bureaucracy. That sounds like a really stressful situation for the customer, and to have their care manager be like “Hang on, my kid wants to chat about their day” while they’re on the phone trying to make sure their hypothetical family member’s health insurance is going to cover their hypothetical $50,000 treatment? Are you kidding me?

                  I don’t think the manager is wrong to express how serious this is, in terms of the kind of impact it has on client confidence. A customer in crisis shouldn’t have to compete for your attention.

                6. Is Butter a Carb?*

                  I think it’s very different if I was just on a call with my boss from home, or even one of my brokers. I’d apologize and we’d probably laugh. But when you are the nurse line it’s really different I think. If you knew your doc was oncall and there was a kid in the background I also think it would be fine, but for a regular hour type thing it’s just….different.

                7. valentine*

                  Why as a culture is it *not* fine for parents to still be parents while they’re working?
                  Most work isn’t busy work you do when your kid is in another room. With work from home, the idea is it’s a perk to get household stuff done, but it shouldn’t be more disruptive or time-consuming than a break on-site, with the added massive difference that chatting to coworkers on the clock is work that may benefit the company, whereas interacting with your family or others isn’t. Unless it’s the only way to prevent the child being part of their calls, OP1 doesn’t have to isolate themselves the entire time their child is home during work hours. But there’s a massive difference between a hug or lunch and the child having the run of the space, even during calls.

                  Another extreme is the person who having multiple lengthy phone calls with her teens about things that didn’t need to be discussed on the clock. She insisted she had to be available to them and refused to turn off her phone.

                8. Librarian of SHIELD*

                  The thing is, by accepting a job, you have basically sold a chunk of your time to a third party. Once you sell those hours, they no longer belong to you, and you’re supposed to spend them on work that is beneficial to your company. Being an Active Duty Parent while you’re working takes your time and focus away from what your company is paying you to focus on.

                  Wasn’t there a letter a while back where an employee was painting at their desk at work? Like, you can be an artist and have a job, but you can’t be doing your art while you’re at that job, because art is not the job. So, same vein, you can be a parent and have a job, but you shouldn’t be actively parenting while you’re working (barring emergency situations), because parenting is not the job.

                9. Avasarala*

                  Um, yes, that is how work works in the 21st century. It’s one thing to have a baby on your back when you’re with a tribe on the hunt or doing domestic work in the home. But do you want your surgeon to also be watching a baby? How about the person processing your paperwork at the DMV? Should cashiers at the store be allowed to be “fully human” or should their focus be on what they’re being paid to do? (While a caretaker’s focus is on their baby, as they are paid to do as well)

            5. MCMonkeyBean*

              Yeah, that’s where I’m at. I think they are both a bit wrong, but the employer is being more unreasonable.

              OP needs to adjust their sense of what is okay, the way they are trying to justify it by saying that background noise in general is expected and that they can’t be expected to keep their son away is off base. This is different than other background noises, and it is reasonable for the office to expect you to keep your children away while you work.

              But things happen, and if this is the first time this has come up then the boss is way overreacting. Bringing in HR at all seems super weird at this point, and if there have never been other issues it seems like really all that is warranted after one instance is to make sure that OP is clear on the work from home policy regarding kids and to ask them to make sure it doesn’t happen again.

              1. Miss Salty Grits*

                I suspect that this isn’t the first time it’s happened, and the manager is concerned about HIPAA violations. After all, if the child is running up to OP, the caregiver will be close behind and could possibly hear what OP is saying on calls or see paperwork.

                1. LQ*

                  I missed the HIPAA concerns the first time through, that really paints this in a very different light for me and I’m glad for all the commenters who pointed out the problems about that specifically.

            6. GrooveBat*

              Well, I wonder whether it is a one off. OP says, “I also can’t put a mute button on my son even when he’s talking in the background or push him away when he hasn’t seen me all day,” which sounds more like it’s an ongoing situation.

          3. blackcat*

            IDK, one time I used my insurance’s tele-medicine service, and I definitely heard in the background something like
            “MOM! MOM!” from a child, followed by “Mom’s working! Leave her alone!” from an adult sounding voice.
            It didn’t really phase me. But maybe it didn’t phase me because I was using the phone a doctor service because I was home sick with my baby and my primary care doctor wouldn’t allow me to come in for an appointment with the baby in tow (they have a policy stating no children who are not the patient).
            I wasn’t really bothered because the doctor didn’t miss a beat, and there was clearly someone taking care of the kid. I still got my needs met. And she laughed and said she completely understood why I was calling for my sinus infection rather than having to find a sitter to get myself to the doctor (my partner was out of town).

            1. Feline*

              Your doctor’s office policy is exceptional, and wonderful. I’m one of those people who has caught something yucky from a waiting room full of coughing little children. Asking people not to bring their little germ factories to places where they expose others whose immune systems might not be up to fending them off is very kind of your doctor.

              1. blackcat*

                Well, when they told me, person with a raging infection and fever, to “just find a sitter” for my 4 week old baby (who wouldn’t run around, obviously!), I was more than a little pissed. I knew about the no child policy (which makes sense for the reason you mention) and didn’t realize they’d apply it to newborns (which… doesn’t make sense).
                I left the practice and switched to the primary care at the same place where my kid’s pediatrician is.
                Telemedicine doctor was kind, compassionate, and as thorough as one can be on the phone. I was grateful for her care, and I did not mind one bit that I could hear a child yelling in the background.

              2. Aquawoman*

                Presumably, the children who are coughing are the patients and wouldn’t be barred by the policy.

                1. Quill*

                  Yeah, kids who aren’t patients are picking UP the germs from the doctor’s office, not putting them there.

              3. NotAnotherManager!*

                The baby wasn’t sick, blackcat was. Nothing like being sick and not being able to go see the doctor because your well, non-“germ factory”, non-mobile baby can’t be there. Not everyone has drop-of-the-hat babysitting, and it seems more effective to have a sick waiting area and a well-visit waiting like a lot of our doctors do.

              4. Dragoning*

                I think it’s a very strange and unhelpful policy for doctors to bar…sick people, actually.

              5. Susie Q*

                You’re just a big germ factory. I bet there have been plenty of people who have caught something yucky from you.

              6. SpaceySteph*

                Sick adults can transmit things in waiting rooms too. They’re the ones who touch the sign in pen, the door knob, etc. And sick kids who ARE the patient can, also.

                This policy seems bizarre to me. Stay at home moms basically never have child care to go see a Dr, so how would they ever get in for a check-up or sick visit?

                1. blackcat*

                  I do understand that they think children are disruptive/distracting/germ spreaders. My kid is a toddler now, and I literally chase him with sanitizing wipes when he’s sick. Adults don’t spread diseases as easily as little kids because they don’t do things like lick door nobs (real thing my child will do–a serious problem with a tall toddler). And, yeah, I can see bringing him to an appointment now would be a disaster. But bringing a little baby, or an 8 or 9 year old who will sit glued to a tablet in a pinch is different than a toddler.

                  I think, for the practice, it’s about what type of patient they want. It was fine before I had a kid. They want young professionals or retired people as patients.

            2. Falling Diphthong*

              I think the other adult weighing in, rather than the person on the phone, is key there. You can reasonably conclude that mom’s attention is on you, and some other competent person is pursuing a half-dressed four-year-old covered in chocolate.

                1. Yorick*

                  It’s specific to the letter – OP was recorded talking to her son while on the phone with a patient (telling him to be quiet, but still)

              1. DarnTheMan*

                Sounds like the time I was on a call with my thesis advisor and suddenly in the background heard his youngest daughter scream “I’m naked and you can’t do anything about it.”

            3. Bluephone*

              I have never heard of a PCP having that policy, that is insane. (Like I believe you that it happened, I just can’t believe a doctor’s practice actually Went There).

          4. Allypopx*

            Yeah that line stood out to me too. Because you CAN push him away if he hasn’t seen you all day – maybe that wording is harsh but you can say a quick hello and make it clear in your routine that this is work time and mommy isn’t available. Especially if there’s another caregiver. The boss is being harsh enough that I wonder if this is an ongoing issue and the WFH setup is just not feasible as it stands.

          5. DarnTheMan*

            If I remember correctly, the door in the viral video /was/ locked – they just happened to have an incredibly clever toddler who knew how to unlock it! Also one of those instances where mom thought she could leave the kids for just a minute while she dashed to the bathroom… and then viral chaos ensued.

          6. Mama Bear*

            I also thought of that video! I’m sure he ALWAYS locks the door now.

            I worked from home for several years. What may work best is that the parent and caregiver work out a schedule so that the child greets OP but not in a way that is interruptive.

          7. valentine*

            that famous viral video where the news correspondent’s kids barged in while he was on TV and the mom had to pull them out.
            I loathe that video. The guy’s way harsh, Tai, to one of the kids and just unreasonably pissed.

            1. Ego Chamber*

              I hate it too but I hate it because I didn’t get the gene that makes people think disruptive children are just so funny. That’s not cool the guy’s a dick to his kids though, it’s roughly half his fault that they’re there, so he can suck it up and accept that he did it to himself.

          8. Anna*

            This is exactly the video I was coming to post about! Still has me laughing to this day. I would never want to be in his shoes!

        3. MK*

          Yeah, I don’t agree with the OP’s attitude here. Kids don’t see their parents when they one home from school, they see them when the parents get off work.

          1. General von Klinkerhoffen*

            And if it’s not possible to physically separate her work space from the child’s space in the home (I couldn’t have done it when my eldest was a toddler) then it’s not a suitable remote environment.

            I agree with others: you take a short and defined break when child gets in to share a snack or whatever, then you Go Back To Work behind a closed/locked door and caregiver repeats ad nauseam “mommy’s at work now; let’s read/play with your dinosaurs/ watch tv/ go to the park”. And if in-home care doesn’t work, LW needs to explore other options.

          2. Someone On-Line*

            To be fair, a four year old won’t understand why mommy is home but can’t play. And as her son has developmental delays, it may be even harder for him to understand.

            I agree that there may need to be some changes to the physical space to make it easier for him to understand work time vs. non-work time.

            1. Allypopx*

              Absolutely! But then they need to work on that. Routines, visual cues, more hands on interference from the other caregiver (not like physical restraint but perhaps keeping him in another space in the house entirely), or so forth. OP is acting like the boss’s request is unreasonable which furthers my concern that this is an ongoing issue and OP is just not finding a solution.

              1. Ice and Indigo*

                Hoo boy. It’s so easy to armchair general managing the special needs of other people’s kids. You don’t know what they are or how effective things like routines and visuals aids would be, so can we not, please? That wasn’t the question and SEN parents get enough condescension and side-eye already.

                1. Joielle*

                  Ultimately, it doesn’t matter though, does it? Maybe routines and visual aids would help, maybe they wouldn’t, but one way or another, the kid has to stay away from mom when she’s working. Nobody’s saying it’ll be easy, but it is necessary.

                  If that’s not possible, then the OP might not be a great candidate for at-home phone work. Which is fine! Lots of things don’t work for lots of people for lots of reasons. But she needs to be realistic about what is and isn’t appropriate.

                2. Ice and Indigo*

                  Joielle – I actually agree, although I think calling in HR over one incident is ridiculous, and not making at least a little allowance for the odd blip might fall under the heading of not making reasonable allowance, at least in some countries. (I’ve been advised in my time that discriminating against someone for being the parent of a disabled kid can come under some legislation.)

                  All I’m saying is that the OP is the expert on his needs and how to manage them, and shouldn’t be given unasked advice or blithe assumptions on that score. They wrote in to ask about what work outcome they should be aiming for, not how to manage their kid’s needs. If they want advice on that, sure, I’ll weigh in, I work from home and have an SEN kid and I’m happy to help. But advising on how to manage SEN without an invitation is bad form, especially when it’s to tell the parent off.

                3. Yorick*

                  This comment is against site rules (the sandwich rule).

                  The bottom line is that the son can’t interrupt her work. She can either find a way to get him to not interrupt, or she can find a work location outside the home.

                4. Ice and Indigo*

                  I don’t think it’s a violation of that rule to say ‘It’s a bad idea to make specific parenting suggestions when you don’t know the parenting circumstances and nobody asked a parenting question; let’s keep it professional and relevant here.’

                  It would, however, be a derail to carry on arguing about it, so that’s all I’ve got to say.

            2. TootsNYC*

              A four-year-old absolutely WILL understand why mommy is home but can’t play!

              Ye gods, how stupid do you think kids are?
              Four-year-olds are potty-trained, for heaven’s sake!

              Sure, a two-year-old and maybe a young three-year-old won’t have great impulse control. But by four?

              Sure, it takes some coaching and some insistence and firmness (discipline as much for the child as for the parent; see potty-training).
              But it absolutely can be done, and it should be.

              1. TootsNYC*

                Maybe it’s harder with THIS kid, but in general? Four-year-olds are capable of a lot. Especially if they have proactive grownups (hello, caregiver…) and plenty of pre-emptive coaching.

                1. ce77*

                  Agreed. My brother works from home, and his kids learned from age 2 up that they wouldn’t interrupt. His office doors have windows, and when the office doors are shut, they don’t interrupt. They can go by and wave, but that’s it. They established when he was available to talk/play and when he wasn’t. Took a great nanny to help establish those boundaries, but it works – because he established the boundary and routinely enforces it. When he isn’t working, he’s super hands on and ready to play, but when the doors are shut, you don’t bug you. That includes transition times, when they get home from school now, etc.

              2. TootsNYC*

                also, from the OP:
                He has special needs but he’s a rather manageable four-year-old.

                So, it’s time to do some serious manageable-ing. Hopefully she’s done a lot of this, and if so, then it’s time to get a door and schedule a break.

                1. Mama Bear*

                  Agreed. I think if the solution is that the OP and caregiver work out a better “coming home/afternoon” routine, then they need to sit down and do that. If he’s a pretty manageable kid, he should be able to learn that OP is working/cooking/otherwise occupied.

                2. Ice and Indigo*

                  Never assume an SEN kid is potty-trained at four.

                  As to how ‘stupid’ they are – intellectual disability is a form of special needs.

                  Seriously, I think there’s stuff you don’t know that you don’t know.

              3. President Porpoise*

                Hmm, my 3 an a half year old has been good about this for at least a year, now, and before that it was still manageable to avoid my frequent work calls being disrupted by toddler conversation and/or angry screaming when I can’t play. Helps that my spouse is a stay at home dad, and I have a office with a locked door, but kids can and do learn what is and is not appropriate, even at a young age.

              4. Alice's Rabbit*

                Absolutely! My husband has been working from home for nearly 2 years. Our eldest was 3.5 when this arrangement started, and it took less than 2 weeks for him to learn the new rules of Daddy’s office.
                Now, to be fair, OP says her kid has special needs, which can make this a bit more difficult. But most special needs kids can learn patience and boundaries. They have to be strictly enforced, but strict doesn’t equal mean. Just the same, each day, so the kid has a routine to rely on.

            3. Librarian1*

              The developmental delays are the wildcard here. It’s very possible that OP’s child wouldn’t understand that. But other 4-year-olds can definitely understand that they can’t play with their parents when the parents are working from home. I used to babysit a family where both parents worked from home and the kids had a nanny and they knew they weren’t supposed to bother their parents. They just hung out with the nanny until mom and dad were off work.

            4. Ginger*

              Hard disagree. My 3 yr old understands when myself or my husband are on a work call. Kids can learn these boundaries.

          3. Anna*

            This is a great way to turn this around. I was struggling a bit with the idea that the kid couldn’t see mom, but this is absolutely true. Most kids don’t see one or both of their parents until the parents are home from work.

        4. Blisskrieg*

          Although I’m sure distraction is part of the issue, the situation is a HIPAA concern, and that is why the manager went to the extreme of threatening HR. As a nurse case manager fielding calls about patient care, there are very real thresholds of patient privacy that need to be met. Some of the commenters down the line noted the possibility of lawsuits if the nurse appears distracted and makes a bad decision. However there is also the potential for all sorts of penalties for mishandling patient data. HIPAA is not as black and white in all aspects as many people think–however, there is a very real obligation to minimize risks within your environment. Having a child and/or nanny in the background sends a message to whomever is listening to the call that their data is not secure. Unfortunately in this particular instance, I think the threat of escalation to HR is very warranted–as a manager, that is not something I would typically recommend, but I think you’d have to here.

          1. NotAnotherManager!*

            I don’t disagree with this, but I also think that if the company is that concerned about patient privacy, they would either provide secured office space or have very clear, written parameters about what a home workspace must be. My spouse teleworks 80% of the time in a position that handles PII, and we received written guidelines that we had to sign off on and abide by for them to telework. We are also subject to random inspections, should the organization choose to verify that the setup is what we committed to.

            1. SomebodyElse*

              We don’t know that the company hasn’t done that. Which could reasonably be concluded that this is the reason for the strong reaction from the manager.

              To the OP at large:
              I would not want to be speaking to a nurse only to hear children in the background. This is going to signal to me that the person is in a setting that isn’t conducive to privacy. I do find normal office noises different, because presumably those office noises are being made by other professionals from the insurance (or doctors) office.

              I don’t think the manager was being over the top, and I don’t think the OP has been treated unfair. It’s up to the OP to be a professional in this situation and not a romper room minder.

              1. NotAnotherManager!*

                I am in total agreement with you, but the OP didn’t mention it at all, and I didn’t want to project facts that I thought made the most sense onto her letter. :)

            2. Ann*

              “or have very clear, written parameters about what a home workspace must be

              They probably do. That’s probably why the manager is threatening to involve HR…

          2. emmelemm*

            Yeah, I had a friend who did medical transcription, I believe, and she was required to have a workspace with a lock on it, just so that any random friend who came to her house couldn’t accidentally go into the room where her work materials were and see *anything*.

    2. Cattiebee*

      I’m also wondering if OP’s coworkers hear the 4 y/o in the background more often than she realizes. Interior doors and walls often aren’t the best at blocking out sounds, and pre-schooler’s voices can carry. Just as Alison said you often block out office noises in an office call, I think it’s pretty common for us to block out home noises when we’re at home. My dogs, for example, make all kinds of loud funny noises when they play together and as long as it’s registering to me as happy noises, I don’t even notice it, whereas someone who isn’t used to it would definitely take note. So it might be that OP doesn’t notice regular little kid sound noises drifting in, while her coworkers are acutely aware – it might be a bigger issue than OP thinks it is. I’m just speculating here of course.

      1. Spatula*

        I thought the same thing. I can block out a lot of noise that my own kid makes, but I’m sure that it’s much more noticeable to other people.

        Not to mention that while some companies might be ok with this, others might find it majorly unprofessional.

      2. Ginger*

        This was my thought as well. Especially when OP said she can’t ignore him when she hasn’t seen him all day…makes me think this is a much more common occurrence that her boss has indeed brought up to her but it wasn’t *as* serious as when she had it on recording during a call with a patient.

      3. Tiny Soprano*

        My cat is deaf and as a result has no volume control. You can literally hear him from halfway down the street. There’s no way I’d be able to work from home in a context where I had to take calls and not sound like I had a screaming cat in the background.
        Unless OP’s working in a recording studio, I completely agree with you that the sound might carry through the house in unexpected ways even if the child isn’t in the same room. Kids’ voices are designed to carry. We’re meant to be able to hear them. That just happens to be a disadvantage in OP’s context.

    3. Mommy.MD*

      My son in law must have a quiet environment when working from home. Employees with kids must have child care in place to work at home. Everyone is told significant background noise will jeopardize your job and all calls are recorded.

        1. Alice's Rabbit*

          That’s a great idea. Really. If OP’s kid is making enough noise to be heard on the phone despite being in another room, some music or white noise could definitely help drown it out. Environmental noise happens even in traditional office buildings, and neutral sounds are a great way to combat this.

    4. Lilo*

      Agreed. I don’t think it’s hearing the kid that 3the problem, it’s the concern the kid is disrupting work and LW isn’t focusing on her job when the kid is home.

      1. Green great dragon*

        Yes. I think there’s a big difference between hearing the child in the background and hearing the parent talking to the child when they’re on a call – even though parent was telling the child they couldn’t talk. And ‘I can’t push him away’ is another level again – that implies they’re interacting with their child while on a call.

        Was it a one-off issue where the primary caregiver took their eye off kid for a second? In which case I think you can apologise, and have a conversation about whether faint noises through two shut doors is really an issue. But if you need to greet your child when they come home, then that’s understandable, but I think you need to ensure you’re not on a call/on the clock when that happens.

    5. JSPA*

      Or an ineffectual caretaker, or bad setup or norms. Which is borderline true. “How can I not interact with my son the moment he gets home?” gives me considerable pause. You (literally) close a door (or two) / install a door (or two) / caretaker takes kid to room with a door and you visit there on break / weather permitting, caretaker and kid go back out for fresh air & exercise until there’s a planned break between calls. There will be new rules and new patterns for any kid, regardless of special needs, as they age. Four may or may not be too young to have a “silent” button (e.g. “no talking if the red light is on”). But the caretaker and OP are not four. They can plan. Noise is natural to kids, and they can be a force of nature, but kid noise isn’t some unforeseeable act of god.

      However, my guess is that part of the problem lies with OP responding in a way that implied that the kid’s presence was borderline normal and acceptable. “Just stay quiet” is very different from, “how did you get in here?” as far as professionalism and client privacy. “excuse me, someone’s child is in the office; Terry, Liam has ducked into my cubicle, please retrieve him, I’m on a call” is less conceptually disruptive (though longer) than “hush, sweetie, you can stay if you are quiet.”

      1. Washi*

        Yeah, I wondered if the manager’s reaction had something to do with 1) how OP responded to her son or 2) how OP responded when the manager brought up the concern. Because if the manager told OP about hearing a child on the call and OP responded “I can’t put a mute button on my son or push him away when he hasn’t seen me all day” then I can see how things got escalated. Did OP tell the manager it was a one-time child escaping from nanny issue and apologize, or did she try to argue?

        1. Annony*

          Yeah, that seems like the biggest issue. It sounds like they frequently interact with their child while working and feel that that is reasonable, which probably does violate the work from home agreement. Doing partial child care for 3 hours a day is a concern to the employer.

      2. hamsterpants*

        I agree completely — “How can I not interact with my son the moment he gets home?” makes me think that, at the very least, a discussion of professional expectations is in order. As other point out, there are plenty of alternatives to interacting with the child while on a call.

        1. Allypopx*

          “I can’t push him away when he hasn’t seen me all day” implies that the OP’s understanding of the boundaries that need to be in place for a WFH setting need to be revisited.

      3. Goldfinch*

        Agree with all of this. The LW’s phrasing implies that (s)he is a passive victim to whatever a four-year-old demands. Uh, no, the adult makes the rules. Assert responsibility and lock yourself away.

    6. MissDisplaced*

      I suspect that is the case as this is a full time WFH role. Probably, they’ve had issues in the past with people not having child care in place.

      But in spite if that, how do they expect an employee to handle an interruption while on a call? Is there a specific protocol? Because it can and does happen no matter where you are! I’ve had people just barge right in to conference rooms or private phone rooms while at the office, had loud trucks/sirens/alarms and the like happen.

      1. AnotherAlison*

        The difference is the standard noise that could happen at an office is understood by clients on the other end of the phone, while an employee taking care of a child when they’re supposed to be attending to a client is not. Fire trucks are distracting, but I know my consultant is not working out of a firehouse and managing firefighters while we are on a business call. A preschooler talking to her shows she’s taking care of him, not my business.

        I think this is particularly challenging since her job is a nurse case manager. Different types of customer service calls might get away with less professionalism.

        Also, fwiw, I have a few weekly group calls where one person (a client’s other vendor) always has his dog barking or is opening a squeaky door for the dog. It’s annoying. I wish he would not have that distraction. People politely act like background noise is okay, but it does bother people and distract others on calls.

      2. Antilles*

        I think there’s differences between your examples and the kid barging in. If an adult walks into a conference call and sees you’re on the phone, they will usually immediately mouth “sorry” and then back right out of the room quietly…whereas a four-year old is going to be a much bigger disruption. As for the sirens/alarms, those are items which are clearly out of your control; whereas it’s perfectly reasonable to give OP some sideeye about not figuring out a way to keep the kid out of the room. Not all interruptions are equal and a four-year old running in the room talking loudly is likely more disruptive than a typical office sound.
        Also, while we don’t know exactly what was said when the manager brought it up to OP, if OP had the same “background noise is normal” and “I can’t push away my son when he first gets home” attitude, that probably made it into a much bigger issue than other interruptions where people generally jump to “really sorry about that, I don’t know what’s going on but three fire trucks just drove by, hope everyone’s okay”.

        1. LJay*

          Also, the siren or alarm is presumably not in the same room as you and so is probably quieter than a child right there. And if sirens or car alarms are loud enough to be heard on the call and happen regularly, your office/work from home environment might need to be improved.

    7. Dust Bunny*

      I was just getting on here to say this. We’ve had a few letters on here about kid-related background noise on phone calls or video calls and I would assume the underlying issue is that it has the appearance, at least, of trying to mind children while working from home. I know that in this case it’s only towards the end of her shift, but . . . it’s still happening.

      1. JamieS*

        He’s there for 3 hours out of an 8-8.5 workday (depending on if OP takes lunch) so if him breaking loose is a semi-normal occurrence that’s definite cause for concern. “My kids there for nearly half the day” gives more pause than “My kid comes home 15 minutes before my workday ends”.

    8. Employee*

      I have a reliable caretaker for my son, it just so happened on that one call that he came rushing into my work office and you can hear him in the background. As for breaks, we can’t take breaks whenever we like. They are scheduled for us and the managers monitor our every move like hawks. I understand they have a role to abide by and duties to fulfill, however there is no flexibility when it comes to taking a break when your child comes from school for a quick greeting or even for a quick bathroom break. This is where my frustration lies, the micromanaging.

      1. Miss Salty Grits*

        From your employer’s perspective, you may be unhappy with the micromanaging but the way to deal with it isn’t to leave your work office door unlocked, or to try and to “sneak” that flexibility by allowing your child to get in while you’re working. I would also add that you’re making a lot of statements that are centered around the timing of your child’s life-school, bathroom breaks, not having seen your child all day (in the OP), but these aren’t going to be persuasive to your employer.

        1. valentine*

          there is no flexibility when it comes to taking a break when your child comes from school for a quick greeting
          As I don’t understand the need for an immediate greeting, this strikes me as rigid. Even if the break times change daily, you can greet him at the first opportunity or whichever one is most consistently timed from day to day. If you consider the ability to see your child at all during your workday as a perk, does that change your perspective?

          Would you rather find freelance work you can do around parenting?

      2. Diahann Carroll*

        I hate to be that person, but it doesn’t sound like this company’s the right one for you then. You should try to find another equivalent position at a company that allows for more flexibility – your company’s policy was likely set for compliance reasons and is unlikely to change.

        1. TootsNYC*

          this is so often easier said than done!
          In many areas, there aren’t that many employers to choose from. And remote-worker supervision might be just as bad.

          1. a1*

            Just because it’s not easy doesn’t mean to try! Start the process. Even if it takes a year, it’s better than not doing it.

            1. Diahann Carroll*

              Exactly. It’s either that or continue to deal with the micromanaging that OP claims to hate – and if the manager has issues with OP’s childcare arrangement going forward, this situation may be decided for her anyway, so it’s best that she look into other options. Telework in healthcare is becoming more common so even if her particular area doesn’t have a ton of WFH opportunities, she could probably find a position with a company headquartered in another state that has a looser policy than the one at her current employer.

              1. TootsNYC*

                and she might be able to negotiate things like “let me time my own breaks” at the start of employment

                (I think she should also talk with her manager about the timing of a break; they might actually be willing to slide it around. Maybe not, but that is also worth a try. In the meantime)

                1. Diahann Carroll*

                  I agree – OP and her manager should have an honest discussion about everything from the fact that there is childcare in place for her son and how she can schedule her time to best ensure there will be no interruptions. Maybe there’s a coverage issue and that’s why the breaks are so closely scrutinized? I don’t know, but that would bother me as well.

        2. Joielle*

          This! Some peoples’ lives just aren’t compatible with jobs where you have to deal with customers or clients on the phone – I know mine wouldn’t be. The company’s policy doesn’t sound unreasonable for this type of job. It may be time to look for something that works better.

          1. SpaceySteph*

            Yes, exactly. I have a very barky dog. My job is not customer facing, and has a flexible telework policy for things like sickness or meeting the handy-man, but I have definitely interrupted a work call with a poorly timed bark-fest before (thanks for driving down the street, mailman), and know I would not be able to work from home full time and especially not on customer facing calls.
            Seems like maybe as OP’s son gets older and louder, WFH may not be the right set-up for her.

          2. tangerineRose*

            Maybe it depends on the type of job, but not being allowed to use the bathroom except at specific times seems much too restrictive to me.

      3. hamsterpants*

        Thanks for clarifying some details of your question!

        Can you say more about what you meant by “I also can’…push him away when he hasn’t seen me all day.” ? That phrase gave me pause. Your son “hasn’t seen you all day” when he comes home, every day. How often do you interact with him (by surprise or on purpose) during calls?

    9. Mama Bear*

      I was thinking the same. I would clarify with the manager. “My son arrives home from school at x time but there is a hired caregiver here. What you heard was just him saying hello after school. I’ve arranged with his caregiver to… (insert protocol here) so that I can greet him and get back to the end of my day. I wanted to be sure you knew I have care for him.”

      I still think the HR threat for one call was over the top.

      1. Tiny Soprano*

        I like this approach. This manager sounds like the sort who would prefer more clarification over less.

    10. Malarkey01*

      I both routinely telework from a virtual location and oversee people who telework. Our policy is that from an outside perspective there should be zero difference between you being at home or in the office. If you are in an office, you would not be interacting with your child until 5:3o so the same should apply at home. We’ve had similar conversations about TVs or spouses in the background. It comes across extremely unprofessional in our industry to have spouses/kids/and even pets in the background of calls. If it becomes an issue we do unfortunately have to revoke telework privileges (which for me would be a nightmare).

      Unless your child would be okay dropping by the office after school to say hi, I think you need to meet the office expectations that you do not interact during work hours. I understand that can be difficult so maybe telework or this company aren’t great fits.

      1. tangerineRose*

        It can be tough to keep pets quiet. I’ve got a kitty that has sometimes decided to meow loudly and plaintively when I’m on the phone. I’ve also worked with people who have dogs barking in the background. Maybe it’s because I’m in tech, but both of these things haven’t been a big deal.

    11. theelephantintheroom*

      I was wondering the same thing. It’s not unusual to hear pets in the background when someone is working from home (there was a manager at our company whose dogs were barking loudly every time she unmuted herself to talk–it was incredibly annoying. That happens with a lot of people, but most have the sense to go on mute and put the dogs somewhere else when they start barking). One of my cats has the occasional urge to jump in front of me and scream while I’m on a call (easier to ignore, since it’s just a one-and-done screech). Everyone ignores those, but the general consensus is that it’s not cool to hear someone’s kids in the background because people will assume you’re using working from home as a way to avoid getting childcare.

  3. Sami*

    OP 1- Kids as background noise is really distracting. I would’ve talked about this with you too. Though the HR threat is a bit over the top.
    This is why employers require WFH employees have childcare. And it’s also why, if they don’t, the perk of working from home is revoked.
    Try Alison’s suggestions.

    1. Mina, the Company Prom Queen*

      Agreed. Nobody should be able to hear a child in the background on business calls. Nothing against children- it’s just not professional and definitely gives the impression that the focus isn’t on work. But I also agree that your manager’s reaction and threat were harsh. Definitely find a solution, though. You don’t want to get written up for something like this that can be resolved.

      1. AcademiaNut*

        I do a lot of telecons from home at odd hours, due to very international work. If someone’s phoning in from home at 9 at night or 6 in the morning, or on a weekend, the occasional kid noise in the background or cat on the keyboard is an acceptable interruption. I agree that if you’re on calls during your regular office hours, and particularly with clients, the call should be kid and pet noise and interruption free.

        1. Ann Onny Muss*

          My program manager is a single parent and sometimes has to take calls from home. We occasionally hear their kid in the background. Since it’s not a regular, daily occurrence, everyone just shrugs it off. From OP1, this sounded more like a one-off thing rather than a recurring issue. If that is the case, I found her manager’s response over-the-top and kind of bizarre (escalating to HR? Really?).

          1. Seeking Second Childhood*

            “All calls recorded” indicates a customer-facing role. Standard will be higher than for internal calls I’m sure.

            1. DANGER: Gumption Ahead*

              And I am guessing as a nurse with an insurance company, she is probably fielding patient, family, or provider calls about patient care or reimbursement, so there is an extra sensitivity to the focus being pulled away from the matter at hand.

              LW, explain to the manager your childcare arrangements so they are assured you have them (why HR is probably being invoked) and work with the caregiver and your son to set up a routine to greet him when you are on breaks and then get him in an activity in a room a couple of, preferably locking, doors away. As a failsafe, get a lock on your workplace door (if you don’t already) and a signal for your son not to come in that he already knows or is learning (e.g. a street light with red or green stickers you put on, a stop sign, a walk/don’t walk sign)

            2. AnotherAlison*

              Agreed. If I’m on my TEAM call, fine. If I’m talking to a customer, this is a no go.

              That person on the other end of the line has no idea if the OP has her kid interrupt her 8 times a day or if this is the one time in 6 months that it has happened.

          2. Doc in a Box*

            Is anyone else reminded of the international brouhaha that happened when the BBC was interviewing an economist in South Korea and his kids crashed the video interview? And mom flew in behind them like Superwoman and dragged them out of the room? Dad had forgotten to lock the home office door or something.

            It was pretty distracting (and hilarious, especially mom) and most of the reactions were sympathetic to the poor guy’s embarrassment. I’m wondering why the OP’s boss is so angry about a very similar one-off moment in the life of a working parent?

            1. Doc in a Box*

              To clarify, I don’t see where OP said they were dealing with patients and health information on these calls. Assumed this was internal calls with co-workers, but I see that other people below assumed differently.

              If these are patient-facing calls with protected health information discussed, then yes, there is no excuse for your kid being heard on the call. If it’s a call with your visiting nurse co-workers (e.g.) and this was a one-off thing, then it’s a “Hey, make sure you have childcare arranged for Kiddo” kind of conversation, not getting HR involved.

        2. Clarey*

          “Cat on the keyboard” seems to be a feature of a lot of my office’s remote work! My cats don’t bother me all day, until I’m on a call when they start prowling around and making weird noises, obviously on purpose :)

          1. Crazy Chicken Lady*

            Dh and I both work from home (on opposite days, rarely on the same day). He tends to take more coworker conference calls than I do- mine are usually calls to consultants who need an immediate answer from me.

            I have a dozen chickens in a hen house about 15 feet from my office windows. One of them is always laying an egg it seems. Both of us just pretend we have a farm, lol.

            When I talk on the phone, one of my cats loves to chat with me, because clearly the conversation is always with her, not the person on the phone. I’ve had to scoop her up and put her outside.

            Our 70-lb puppy always seems to bring me a squeaky tennis ball when I’m on the phone. For important calls, he goes in his kennel ahead of time.

            Most of my calls are outgoing not incoming so I can make the necessary adjustments ahead of time if needed. There’s one consultant that always seems to want a call on my telecommute day. He actually does live on a farm. We are a relatively casual industry- it’s very unusual for the men to wear ties let alone suits, women don’t wear skirts or heels and most folks tend toward comfy casual wear. There are no recorded calls at my job and I simply explain that I’m working remotely at the start of most calls.

            I’m really glad I don’t have to work with small children in the background – animals are enough of a challenge!

            1. AnotherAlison*

              My dog also thinks I’m talking to her when I’m on the phone. She only does this when I’m working home alone. It’s like if other family members are home, she assumes I’m talking to them, but if not, I must be talking to her.

              However, I don’t work from home. When I do call in from home, it’s generally because someone has scheduled a call on an off-schedule time for me, or I’m kindly calling in on a PTO day.

          2. blackcat*

            The other day when I was in a web meeting, my cat came up from behind my laptop and LICKED THE CAMERA.
            1) Ew
            2) I had to wipe it off to clear up the picture.

          3. DarnTheMan*

            I got the biggest laughs on a (thankfully internal-only) call once when I was WFH because apparently all my co-workers heard was “Go sit down… ow hey biting! No biting! Sorry everyone I’ll be right back *door close*” My kitten is normally not at all interested in me when I’m WFH but now I know, the second I hop on a call is a secret signal to him to come cuddle and then start chewing on me.

        3. TechWorker*

          +1 – I have a lot of meetings with folk in a time zone where it’s 9/10pm for them and it’s fairly common to hear a kid in the background, they just mute themselves until they need to talk, it’s not that distracting tbh.

        4. Falling Diphthong*

          I think a key aspect here is whether the call is with Joe, the coding guy in Nova Scotia, where you have an ongoing relationship and know the names of his spouse, kids, and dog. Versus a stranger who doesn’t have any of that context and just knows that the person who answered the number they were told to call appears to have half their attention on a small child.

          This is resonating hard for me right now as I’m recovering from major surgery, and feeling that the health care person I have to deal with isn’t really focused on me has a real level of scariness to it. I think there are some good examples upthread of scripts that assure the person on the other end that this is a rare moment of escape, and the person’s attention really is on them while someone else wrangles the child. But OP’s examples don’t hit near that mark.

        5. Quill*

          When your job is primarily calling clients it certainly looks worse to have the interruption than if you say, log back on after your kid is in bed to process reports, and have the kid come in while you’re on the phone because they had a bad dream.

          Overall I think we’re going to have to get used to more of these sorts of situations given the environmental and human benefits of allowing Work From Home…

    2. Vicky Austin*

      I agree. The shrill, high-pitched sounds of children’s voices, especially when they are toddlers and haven’t yet learned the difference between “inside” and “outside” voices, are very distracting. God/Nature/Evolution/The Force/whatever you believe in designed the voices of baby and toddler humans to be loud, noticeable, and impossible for adult humans to ignore; in order to ensure that babies got the feeding and care they need to survive.
      That’s why many people have little tolerance for hearing child sounds at work or other places where they aren’t expecting to hear them.

      1. k*

        So are workplace arguments, and yet nobody blinks about employees being in open-plan offices where they are surrounded by people arguing, whispering, and otherwise communicating in distracting and stressful ways — where, unlike children, they have control over it.

        1. Vicky Austin*

          IMO people shouldn’t be having loud arguments in a space where other people are supposed to be working, either.

    3. Senor Montoya*

      OP 1, think of it this way: If you were in the office, you would not be able to greet your son when he got home, only when YOU got home.

      Alison’s suggestion to take a break when he comes home, then go back to work, is a good one. Make it your lunch break, perhaps, so that you can have more time.

    4. Saberise*

      I tend to think this isn’t the first time it’s happened. “One recorded call” doesn’t necessarily means it’s the only time it’s happened. Could just mean that was the call that got her in trouble. Which would explain the mention of HR.

  4. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

    For #2, I think this depends on part on the SEAsian country. Right now the CDC has only advised that travelers avoid China, but there are verified novel coronavirus cases in Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia and Malaysia.

    I don’t blame the employee for wanting to cancel non-essential travel, and I don’t think he should pay for the costs of avoiding exposure to a health threat that has put the world on alert. But I do think it will be an easier argument if he can also point to the presence or proximity of coronavirus in the destination country.

    1. Diahann Carroll*

      This. The company may be balking at his reluctance to attend this trip because the country he was supposed to visit isn’t on the list that the CDC has stated should be avoided. Though the employee may be concerned that people from China would also be in attendance at this conference, and that’s why he doesn’t want to take the risk. If the latter is his concern, I’m not sure how he’d delicately broach that topic, but either way – if another coworker has stepped up and said they’d go in his place, can’t they figure out a way to have the airline transfer his ticket to the coworker? Genuinely asking because I know that I’ve taken over former colleague’s conference registrations for example, so wasn’t sure if airline tickets had the same flexibility or not (never had to cancel or postpone a flight in my life).

      1. Ann Onny Muss*

        IME, airline tickets are generally not transferable. The ticket would be cancelled, charged a cancellation fee of a few hundred dollars, and the employee willingly to travel would then book their own ticket (possibly at a higher fare). Now, I work for a huge Fortune 100 company where employees travel all the time. So–even with the regular admonishments of booking/unbooking travel “responsibly”*–people change travel plans all the time and the costs are absorbed. That’s a relatively easy thing to do for my large company. Not sure if OP2’s company is able to do the same, and that’s why they’re pushing back on “Bob.” Or maybe it’s just penny-pinching from an aspiring Guacamole Bob. Regardless, I can understand Bob’s concerns and if this isn’t a regular issue, the company should probably let this one go.

        *As an aside, for awhile we had our own aspiring Guacamole Bobs running around when it came to booking travel. They eventually backed off when they were told too many times (usually by an irate engineer) “If you want this damned install done, then YES. I have to $&*@!#& travel!”

        1. hamsterpants*

          In my experience, some int*ra*national flights can be rebooked for a few hundred dollars, but no int*er*national flights can be.

      2. Quill*

        Employee may be more susceptible to novel viruses or more susceptible to transferring them to at risk populations (the elderly, immunocompromised, young children) than the average adult, and the company does not necessarily have the standing to demand his explanation that he’d be increasing the risk to a family member should he go.

        Overall businesses should chill about this because loosing out on a plan due to unforseen acts of viral evolution is a cost of doing business.

      3. That Girl from Quinn's House*

        I suspect part of the reason China is to be avoided even though there have been cases elsewhere, is that China’s government is totalitarian, likely to do things like locking down entire states, stopping shipments of food, and making it difficult for people to access transportation out to the airport and there are shortages of medical care.

        The State Department only has so many resources.

    2. Avasarala*

      I wanted to point this out as well. Southeast Asia is very very large and traveling here is just as safe as traveling anywhere else. Cases have also been confirmed in the US, Canada, UK, and Australia. I think the employee would have a stronger case if they said they wanted to avoid all non-essential travel right now.

      I’ve seen a lot of gross garbage out there about the coronavirus that basically boil down to the idea that the threat is greater if you are Chinese/Asian/foreignish, or near someone who is. That’s not how disease works, and it’s racist. So I’m a little sensitive to paranoia about this. This thing is scary but you’re about as safe where you’re posting from as I am here in Asia.

      1. General von Klinkerhoffen*

        Yes, there’s a definite racist “it’s because They prepare Their food weirdly” undertone to a lot of reporting I’ve seen here in the UK. Like, maybe cover your mouth when you cough before you talk to me about Their hygiene practices.

        1. Ann Onny Muss*

          I’ve heard (second-hand, so take with a grain of salt) people are asking if it’s safe to visit the China pavilion at Epcot in Disneyworld. If that is indeed true…picardfacepalm.jpg

      2. blackcat*

        There’s been little to no evidence of person to person transmission occurring in the US, Canada, and UK. But I think there has been person to person transmission in Thailand.
        But agreed that most cities in SE Asia present little to no risk. If there’s one benefit to China being an authoritarian police state, it’s that they’re able to shut down travel and isolate people during something like this. Overall, the Chinese government is doing a very good job keeping things contained to China.

            1. fposte*

              Both of them were to spouses who shared a home with somebody who’d come back from Wuhan, so it’s not like it spread to the general populace, but yup, there’s been person-to-person here too.

              1. ThatGirl*

                Yeah, and the husband in Illinois wasn’t even hospitalized – he’s just in isolation. I mean, I understand that this is new and therefore unpredictable but if you’re that worried about illness, get your flu shot and make sure your kids are vaccinated, no need to be racist.

                1. Megan*

                  Did the post mention that the employee in question didn’t get her flu shots or vaccinate her kids? I guess I missed that part.

                2. J*

                  @Megan, the point is that those are the reasonable measures to take. Refusing to fly to an entire continent is not.

                3. ...*

                  The current flu shot doesn’t address this strain, but yes I do get what you’re saying. Truly washing your hands and cleaning surfaces is the best thing you can do!

                4. Ego Chamber*

                  @… | The instruction to get a flu shot is so you’ll be less likely to get the strains of flu that the flu shot covers because getting sick makes you more likely to get sicker, especially if you’re in a higher-risk category.

                  People might also want to avoid being the person in the ER with a plague-level regular flu that the docs are worried might be caronavirus. I can’t imagine it being a good time.

                5. Jen2*

                  @J my company has asked all employees to cancel any non-essential travel to Asia for now, so apparently they think it is a reasonable measure.

          1. Chinookwind*

            And one in Canada, reported this morning, from someone who has family visiting from Wuhan (and the visiting family members are now being tested).

            I know that, in Canada, we are a little more cautious after what happened with SARS in Toronto (which also means our health system has implemented a lot of lessons learned, so there is overall less risk here). I don’t blame anyone being reluctant to visit S.E. Asia because there is no way to know how secure the borders are. Hong Kong just started talking about tightening theirs, and this is a major hub city.

            There is also the possibility that the conference could end up being cancelled depending on where it is being held if an outbreak happens there. Things are changing quickly as cases are popping up elsewhere.

        1. ...*

          Well, they also concealed the outbreak for weeks and tried to silence doctors who spoke up about it…So there may not even be a huge number of cases if they hadn’t concealed it and threatened doctors with legal action. I get what you’re saying but just food for thought.

      3. Stormy Weather*

        I think ‘non-essential travel’ much better way of stating the case.

        Meanwhile, the racist crap needs to stop. The CDC even has this on their list of things the public shouldn’t do:

        Do not show prejudice to people of Asian descent, because of fear of this new virus. Do not assume that someone of Asian descent is more likely to have 2019-nCoV.

    3. I said I wanted a Corona, not Coronavirus*

      With the amount of changing information, I’m not surprised people are cautious.
      I was looking forward to a conference in Bangkok run by a large US based company, that has now been cancelled due to Coronavirus.
      Whilst I am disappointed not to be going, I am assuming this was done because those who know more than I read in the media have been advised that this was the best action for the company to take under the ever-changing circumstances, and therefore am glad this decision is no longer in my hands.
      If we are lucky, Coronavirus remains relatively contained, and we will be glad that the actions taken to contain it were taken….and hopefully people will not be claiming that it was unnecessary.
      All that said, I think the company is wrong. Particularly if someone else is taking his place. Where is the problem?

      1. blackcat*

        Bangkok has had person to person transmission, making it higher risk than basically any other city in SE Asia outside of China.

        I do think the company is wrong, but I think there’s a lot of misplaced, xenophobic fears regarding this disease. Overall, you’re like a million times more likely to get (and die from) the flu while traveling.

        1. pleaset AKA cheap rolls*

          All this.

          There is a lot of racism/xenophobia happening. I’d be nervous about travel to China because of worries about being trapped as travel restrictions come in place. But actual fear of the disease – ppffffft (as a generally healthy person). There are many many disease situations we face – including seasonal flu in my country.

          1. blackcat*

            Yeah, the 4000 people quarantined on cruise ships are basically living my nightmare. I wouldn’t get on a cruise ship anywhere in the eastern hemisphere right now out of fear of being quarantined like that.

            1. Lora*

              Imagine cruise ships when they get norovirus outbreaks from all the buffets…that happens WAY more often than Carnival, Disney, Norwegian etc care to admit.

              Honestly, I get where the employee is coming from. Yes, SE Asia is a big place, but there are plenty of China-adjacent countries that have reported person-to-person transmission. While there can be all kinds of facts about coronavirus and the coronaviridae in general (SARS, MERS) it doesn’t matter when people are being weird about it – you can’t predict which countries will decide to panic and close their borders and leave you stranded in an airport or, heaven forfend, in a quarantine area, for god only knows how long. Without talking too much politics, plenty of Western governments have also done unreasonable things in the recent not-all-that-past in response to infectious diseases + racism, and they’re likely to do so again.

            2. ...*

              I was just reading about that! TBH all those cases of norovirus that happen now and again too I just dont think I can ever go on a cruise

          2. Dragoning*

            My mother is currently in a state because she has a flight to Hawaii for vacation later this month. Just wash your hands, Mom, it will be fine.

            “But I’ll be on the plane by all those people breathing! And you’re contagious before you show symptoms.”

            Wash your hands, Mom, it will be fine. Get a mask for the flight if you really must.

            1. boop the first*

              That’s pretty funny considering the risk was always there to begin with. She doesn’t know if another passenger has a cold or a really really bad flu, or gastroenteritis, or measles, or chicken pox, or…

              1. DeeEm*

                While more people do die of the flu each year than of the coronavirus, the coronavirus is more lethal (percentage wise) than the flu. While it’s still a low fatality rate, it’s a little over 3 times as fatal as the influenza virus. So, if the CV were to become as prevalent as the flu, it would kill more people.

            2. Amy Sly*

              I’d definitely recommend the mask. Not because most of them could filter out viruses, but because having the mask in place means that you keep the germs on your hands away from your mouth and nose, which is the far more likely route of transmission.

    4. DaisyGrrl*

      I think there’s more to it than just which country the employee is going to or transiting through. The employee will have to travel on an airplane with other passengers with unknown risk factors for the coronavirus (have they been exposed? Traveled to a hot zone?). Many people are quite concerned about air travel in general right now as a result.

      Infections are still increasing daily, so no one can say what the situation will look like in two weeks. New countries may be added to the CDC advisory, and the employee may find themselves subject to a 14 day quarantine upon return. There are enough unknowns that I don’t fault him for wanting to back out now and provide the company an opportunity to find a replacement. I might not make the same decision, but the decision is not unreasonable given the current state of affairs.

      1. Diahann Carroll*

        The employee will have to travel on an airplane with other passengers with unknown risk factors for the coronavirus (have they been exposed? Traveled to a hot zone?). Many people are quite concerned about air travel in general right now as a result.

        This is also true.

      2. Anon for this*

        Thank you for saying this.

        I am very frustrated by people second guessing why the employee is not travelling. That is none of your business. Please respect that they have issues that you don’t know about that is informing their decision.

        I would like to ask that people step back for a moment and stop questioning this employee. How many times have travel plans been rearranged to work with an extended forecast of snow? Ice? A Hurricane? Would we be questioning this if it was a weather issue and not a health issue?

        1. pleaset AKA cheap rolls*

          This is very true:
          “Please respect that they have issues that you don’t know about that is informing their decision.”

          That said, if someone doesn’t have specific issues and is just afraid of getting this specific disease in a general sense, they should be called out. There is too much BS being directed toward Asia right now.

          1. Goldfinch*

            I’m not sure I follow. So people generally wanting to avoid infectious disease without a “specific issue” are unreasonable and should be called out? Isn’t that…almost everyone?

            1. pleaset AKA cheap rolls*

              Sorry to not be clear. My point is that there are just as scary disease risks here in the US, but if they’re only scared of this coronavirus from Asia but not similar risks in the US/Europe, they should be called out, because they’re buying in a narrative built in part on racism.

              1. Jen2*

                Are there similar risks in the US/Europe? I think a lot of the fear comes from the fact that this is a new virus that has a lot of unknowns, and a fear of the unknown is perfectly reasonable.

        2. Smithy*

          I think this is also a case where actually the seriousness the company gives toward such an issue can actually really matter.

          The organization I work for has people traveling around the the world to respond to humanitarian crises – so for lots of positions additional security risks – both medical and otherwise – are present. And I would say that the level of seriousness afforded to travel around those risks is actually really helpful in setting a tone that you can ask questions, elevate concerns, and be connected with staff who’s entire job is to think about this. For coronavirus specifically, we’ve been getting all staff blasts on the situation, epidemiological updates, but more importantly an assortment of “who to talk to” if you have travel and have questions.

          Now we’re a large organization that accounts for lots of travel with medical or physical security questions – so this is a far broader need. But I would say that the level of seriousness does help both around when there are questions and that there are people making institutional decisions thoughtfully. It can also make our security team sometimes seem like worrywarts, but certainly better that than to think the company doesn’t care or is being cavalier.

        3. Avasarala*

          “Please respect that they have issues that you don’t know about that is informing their decision.”

          As long as those issues aren’t “I’m afraid of getting sick from Asians”…

      3. ET*

        My employer has stated that employees who are subject to a 14-day quarantine and cannot work from home “can” use their paid sick time to cover the time off. Which, like, two weeks of forced sick time is a lot! Even with our very generous (for the US) allotment of PTO, that’s 2/3 of our yearly sick time allotment. I definitely understand wanting to avoid possible travel restrictions or quarantine.

        1. Jen2*

          Wow, that’s really harsh, and it’s going to make people want to lie about their travel plans, which completely defeats the point of the quarantine. My company also has the 14-day quarantine after travel to China, but we’re expected to work remotely during that time.

        1. Happily self employed*

          But if you’re quarantined just because you were on the same plane as someone sick, or because all flights from Asia require quarantine, that’s not the usual consequence of traveling. (Yes, I know the current quarantine is more specific. But by the time of the conference, it could be broader.) I particularly wouldn’t want to get stuck in an overseas quarantine.

          In terms of actually getting sick, there’s definitely a lot of nasty colds going around and not the best coverage with the flu vaccine so more flu.

      4. Avasarala*

        Very true! This is why I would recommend saying they are avoiding “all non-essential travel” right now. Because it is true that you never know who has been exposed previously. I’m not traveling anywhere either.

        Not to mention that the flu is also going around and is even more deadly…

  5. Viette*

    “Many companies are canceling travel to China entirely right now” — does it change the language* that the location is specified as “SE Asia” and not China, and that this is done “because he thinks it is too high-risk”, implying that this is not a site with canceled flights and CDC warnings? The implications from the way this letter is written are that this is not, in fact, a major site of coronavirus outbreak, and that the employee has decided on his own information that it’s too dangerous for him. The CDC has not as far as I know placed a ‘do not travel’ advisory on all of SE Asia.

    I bring this up because a lot has been going around, especially in social media, acting like all of Asia (or all Asians wherever they are) is/are a terrifying hub of infection, and I personally wouldn’t like to step up to my bosses and say something that makes it seem like I agree/believe that unreservedly.

    *Not the message, just the language. He shouldn’t be made to reimburse the ticket either way.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      Ah, I didn’t catch that it wasn’t China! Agreed, that does make a difference. They should still work with him on it though, given the circumstances. I’ll tweak the answer.

    2. Avasarala*

      Thank you for also catching this. Usually China doesn’t count as SE Asia and most of Asia is perfectly safe to travel to.

      1. Fieldpoppy*

        Yes, and it’s changing on a daily basis — see the escalating situation in Hong Kong, the reaction of countries like Cambodia to NOT act because of their Chinese economic ties, and the cruise ships currently docked outside HK with people unable to leave. It’s a very volatile situation because of the need to contain spread of the virus. I was just in SE Asia and HK a month ago, and I have been to SE Asia many times, and I would think twice right now.

        1. Chinookwind*

          Thank you for voicing it that way. Not wanting to travel to S.E. Asia right now is not racist, just cautious based on how diseases spread in general and where this one is popping up now. I wouldn’t be worried about going to Edmonton’s Chinatown area as there are no reports of the disease here, but I would be more cautious about going to even Vancouver as they just reported a person to person infection to a Canadian from visiting Wuhan relatives who, if they are like most visiting relatives, probably saw the sights around the city, potentially, and unwittingly, infecting others.

          And, as the Chinese government hasn’t the best record of reporting accurately things that reflect on themselves poorly, I won’t be confident about things like type of transmission and incubation period until it has been confirmed by outside sources. This thing could easily spread like the Spanish Flu Epidemic or be contained quickly like SARS. We won’t know until new infection numbers start dropping.

          1. Viette*

            Yeah, and people are often especially freaked out about infectious diseases and risk. I don’t think the employee not going is necessarily racist — and even if it is, what are you going to say, “you gotta go to Singapore anyway”?

            Alison’s original answer was talking about it 100% as if the employee was going to China; she referenced China multiple times and used the CDC’s travel advisory for China as part of the language, which is what my comment was questioning. Were I the LW, I wouldn’t want to go to my bosses and say something that makes it sound like I can’t tell the difference between China and SE Asia, or like I think that the CDC has a travel advisory for all of Asia. She then completely adjusted the language to reflect that.

            So now the comments are a lot about whether the employee has a right to not go, etc.

          2. pleaset AKA cheap rolls*

            “I won’t be confident about things like type of transmission and incubation period until it has been confirmed by outside sources” Fair enough, but considering the lack of agita about diseases we know are deadly (eg seasonal flu) but don’t come from Asia/Africa, there is certainly an element of racism in the discussions around this. People and news media in the US clearly treat diseases from Asia/Africa differently. That’s racist.

            I’m not saying fear of the disease is all down to racism – you raise good points (I lived and worked in China and do not trust that government) but I don’t think it’s accurate or helpful to dismiss racism as part of the story.

    3. AcademiaNut*

      Fundamentally, I don’t think they should force him to go, or repay the ticket, but yeah, China isn’t in SE Asia. For that matter, even in East Asia, the travel warnings vary wildly – China is a Level 4 (do not travel), while Taiwan has no advisory at all (and the same number of confirmed cases as the US).

      1. Seeking Second Childhood*

        FWIW Taiwan is frustrated that WHO classifies it as part of People’s Republic of China. Right now that means there is no separate data showing their status.(As of when I read that ,I think at end of last week, no cases.)

        1. AcademiaNut*

          That’s a very big can of worms even without epidemics.

          It’s well reported in local media, though. There are currently 11 confirmed cases; all are direct infections from Wuhan, or family members of infected by them.

        2. The Green Lawintern*

          I think NPR’s coronavirus heat map showed Taiwan as separate from China, but that’s all I’ve seen.

        3. Quill*

          Taiwan and Hong Kong are generally never happy about being lumped in with China, but yeah, keeping up with this news as someone who 1) has scientific education to back up basic knowledge of viral diseases 2) has no business reason to travel, has been deeply confusing and contradictory, I’m sympathetic to an employee who gets scared to travel because they don’t have background knowledge to temper whatever they’ve heard on the news.

      2. LunaLena*

        “China isn’t in SE Asia”

        Part of it is, though. China is huge, and borders 14 countries: India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Mongolia, Russia, North Korea, Vietnam, Laos, Myanmar, Bhutan and Nepal.

        1. China is not in East Asia*

          Southeast Asia is a region of 11 states; just because China may border some of the states does not mean it is also included. Vietnam, Laos, and Myanmar are the only states you listed that are part of SE Asia. China is in East Asia.

        2. Avasarala*

          By that definition, the US is part of Central America, as well as the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans…

      1. Gazebo Slayer*

        Yeah, “foreigners and/or nonwhite people = disease” is something we see a lot, even when it’s really nonsensical. During the West African Ebola outbreak, there were US politicians and “news” sources shrieking about how we shouldn’t let in any *Mexicans* – despite the fact that no case of Ebola has ever existed in Mexico (and several were confirmed in the US!)

        1. The Man, Becky Lynch*

          Right. And yet white people brought their deadly diseases over and basically wiped out North America a few centuries ago. How soon we forget white people also were patient zero for the 1917 pandemic of H1N1.

          Bless the hearts of those ignorant folks. You don’t need to be a historian to know those things. They teach them in school even.

          1. Diahann Carroll*

            Not all schools – I had a history teacher in high school who said her sister taught at a school in Kentucky where they were telling students the south won the Civil War. Basically, the education system in the U.S. is highly effing suspect.

          2. LunaLena*

            Yeah, definitely not all schools. I just finished reading the second edition of Lies My Teacher Told Me by James Loewen, which is about American history and how the way it’s taught in the US is highly problematic (an entire chapter, for example, is devoted to the heroification of Columbus and how Native American history has been basically erased from history textbooks).

            1. Diahann Carroll*

              Black history as well. Apparently, we were only slaves and Martin Luther King and Harriet Tubman were the only civil rights activists for us.

    4. JSPA*

      If coworkers is flying direct New York to Mumbai, it’s frankly overkill (wear a facemask, bring some spare). If there is a stopover in a place that’s likely to be on the no fly list in 2 weeks time, it’s far more understandable. That said, anxieties are only partially open to rational discussion (or there may be other reasons coworker is taking extra care).

      1. Admin of Sys*

        The facemask thing is mostly psychological if you’re not sick. It can make you less likely to touch your face, but other than that,it does very little to prevent other people from getting you sick. It’s really good and absolutely important to wear if /you/ are sick, to keep from coughing your germs on other people. But if you’re not ill, wearing a standard paper mask doesn’t do anything significant. (And I really wish healthy people would stop hoarding the damned things so people who have the flu and cold can wear them. All of our pharmacies are out right now)

        1. JSPA*

          N95 disposable respirator mask (or N100 Canister Respirator) are what Hazmat teams use. We’ve been through this issue before, RE unvaccinated people vs immunocompromised people. The sneeze guards reduce splashes of germ – laden bodily fluids from the sick person, and reduce hand -to nose contact. Protectively speaking they at minimum boost the humidity level around your nose (which actually isn’t nothing… snot is somewhat antimicrobial and antiviral) and reduce hand to nose/ mouth contact. Coronavirus is smaller than N95 pore size, but for other viruses (even small ones) it seems that reducing the load of what gets through is already significantly helpful. A couple of one -way- vented N95 masks will run you about $6. Canister respirator is in the $38-$50 range. Spare canisters, $20-30.

        2. Relentlessly Socratic*

          Because face masks aren’t terribly comfortable, it’s MORE likely you’ll touch your face, and most people remove the masks by grabbing them from the front, increasing likelihood of exposure.

          1. DarnTheMan*

            I had to wear one at the doctor’s office recently and I’m not normally one for touching my face but I swear in the span of five minutes, I’d touched my face several times – either to adjust the mask or adjust my glasses!

    5. blink14*

      I actually don’t think this should change things significantly. There’s a lot of uncertainty right now. What if the virus spreads heavily into another country – wherever it may be, whether it’s Europe or Asia – and airlines start cancelling flights there? What if the border of that country shuts down? What if two weeks from now the virus has exploded and not been contained?

      I have multiple chronic health issues, one if which is an immune deficiency disorder, and the threat of this virus is very real to me. I would much prefer to not travel out of state right now at all, much less to a different country, no matter where it is. I think every person has the right to choose whether or not to travel in this situation, unless their trip is of absolute, real necessity. I have a relative that recently moved to China for work, and he declined to leave. That’s his choice. Either way, the company needs to take into consideration what the circumstances are and realize that many people are watching this closely and are very concerned about traveling.

      1. pleaset AKA cheap rolls*

        For a healthy person with a strong immune system, I think fear of traveling anywhere other than China in terms of getting the disease is BS. Heck, I lived in China and spent a few days in Wuhan (decades ago), and I wouldn’t be fearful if I was far from that area in the same country. China is a big place.

        Fear of getting trapped due to travel problems – yeah, that’s legit. But fear of the disease among people who don’t seem equally fearful of other stuff, like seasonal flu here in the US: that’s BS driven in part by sensationalism and in part by racism.

        People have the right to not travel. But if their reasons are not rational – and they treat disease threats from a brown place different than disease threats from within the US or Europe, then they also should be called out on that. I don’t know the situation of the OP’s colleague, but fear is not an excuse for racism.

        PS – there are clear analogies to homophobia driven by fear of HIV here. Let’s all think about that.

        1. blink14*

          I agree with you, to a certain extent. Nothing in the OP’s letter points to racism. And its unfair to assume that this person doesn’t want to go because of that. It’s not clear what the person’s health status is, resident status is, etc. There is real fear among people that the virus will spread, and frankly, with non-stop media coverage as part of our everyday culture now, it’s hard to keep hysteria from rising.

          My city, which does have one virus case, is totally sold out of face masks. People are scared. I wouldn’t travel right now, regardless of whether I was super healthy or not, because my biggest fear would be getting trapped in a foreign country with no way to get home. And I don’t care if that country is France or China. It’s an uncertain time to travel.

          1. JustaTech*

            Just to offer a counter-point, I was in Mexico during the swine flu a couple of years back (but not in the part of Mexico that actually had any cases) and other than being laser-thermometer-ed at the airport on our way out, it wasn’t an issue.
            The bigger issues were 1) our total inability to get any reliable information while we were in Mexico (you would think a big tourist town would have *some* English-language newspaper somewhere, but nope) so there were a lot of wild rumors, and 2) people saying some incredibly stupid things to us when we got home (like “you should stay home for two weeks” even though we weren’t exposed and weren’t sick). Heck, the biggest exposure we had to swine flu was that one of my travel companion’s housemate got the flu at a convention.

            So basically, unless this suddenly gets much, much, much worse, the only reason you wouldn’t be allowed to fly home is because you are running a fever at the airport.

            Side note for Americans who are traveling abroad in the near future (like me): a “normal” body temperature is 37C (since everywhere except the US is going to report in degrees C rather than degrees F).

            1. blink14*

              Good points – though, one of the main problems would be actually getting a flight if airlines start cancelling flights to other countries. That’s a huge unknown. I believe Delta at this point has suspended most or all of it’s China flights from the US through April. That is a long time and could happen elsewhere.

        2. JSPA*

          Indeed! the death figures are a numerator without a denominator (plus a time – lag problem). A fair proportion of the guesstimates fall into the lethality and the transmissibility range which includes the (nasty but known) coronavirus that led off this year’s flu season for the entire northern hemisphere, and a variety of past and current seasonal flus. If for whatever reason, you already take a range of precautions against those viruses, then absolutely, this is a bad one of those. If quarantine elsewhere in the world would cause disastrous consequences for you or your family, that’s obviously valid as well. But the fact that China under – reported, under – reacted and tried to silence doctors on the ground who contradicted the official line doesn’t mean that individual over – reaction is in order.

          I commonly travel with an N95 respirator. Keeps my passages moist, my sinuses happy, makes me more mellow about small children who don’t cover their sneezes (and parents who give no sign of noticing or caring). Against a background of low incidental exposure, I does seem to make me less likely to get and drag around a cold. But if I had kids, went to large social functions, lived in a dorm, or was otherwise exposed at some level to everything that’s circulating, the benefit of “moist air, fewer allergens, hands blocked from thoughtless contact with nose and mouth” would still be worth it, to me.

          1. JSPA*

            It’s generally a mocking way to call out people who think some variant of:

            darker skinned population = less sanitation, inadequate medical care, bad organizational skills, inadequate resources

            the phrase, as used, does not espouse that attitude; it mocks it.

            There was an era when it was used, “straight,” in public; google “little brown brothers” (US towards the Philippines) and others. Might drop in a link, separately.

      2. Quill*

        Yeah, if you’re going out there the risk might not be direct exposure, it could be changes in the official response by airlines or governments. Or people panicking.

        1. Turtle Candle*

          Yes, I’d be hesitant to travel right now not because I think I’m going to catch something, but because I’d be concerned about being stuck there. For whatever reason: being quarantined, borders closing, airlines refusing to fly to or from there. And that has less to do with the actual danger and more to do with the public perception of the danger, because a lot of these things are handled by governments less because it’s actually a rational response and more for a kind of… whatever the health equivalent of security theater is. If your population is freaking out and you can get them to stop freaking out by closing a border or grounding planes, then you might choose to do it even if everyone knows it’s not necessary.

          And right now there’s a lot of freaking out.

    6. ApplePie*

      Just to add my two cents here as someone whose entire immediate and extended family is in SE Asia. People are extremely cautious right now and are spending as little time as possible in crowded, public spaces. It’s one thing if the staff member is just going into a global office for their time there. It’s a whole other thing if the staff member is going to conventions (presumably with other people from all over the globe) and spending extensive time doing field work. I would be fine with the former, but not entirely sure about the latter. Either way, they should not be punished for making their health a priority.

  6. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

    OP#5, I can’t speak to all of higher education, but the institutions I’ve attended or worked within have a policy similar to what you’ve described. It sounds like it might be common enough not to be out of the norm?

    1. Lena Clare*

      Yes, same.
      My current employers have paid part of my university tuition; I have to repay back a pro-rate depending on when I leave, if I do, in the next 2 years. This is normal.

      I do recall though that my brother got an NHS bursary to study at uni and wasn’t required to pay it back when he graduated and went to work in a private sector, so maybe academia is indeed different?

      1. Ange*

        NHS bursaries are different, because you are not employed by the NHS, just training there, and they don’t guarantee you a job once you graduate. (I assume your brother was studying to be a nurse or AHP, like I did.) Given that, they can’t really insist you repay it if you go into the private sector.

    2. Mommy.MD*

      Of course terminated employees or those who quit should pay their own tuition. It’s a job benefit. No job no benefit. And why would it be illegal? It’s a smart policy.

      1. General von Klinkerhoffen*

        There has to be a time limit though surely?

        Sally starts working at Llama U and takes a class in Mammal Coat Care which informs her work for the next decade. When she leaves, Llama U tries to bill her for that class – NOPE. They’ve had the benefit of it in that time.

        Certainly if your employer funds your Masters and you resign while the ink is still wet on the certificate it would be reasonable for them to want to recover at least some of the out-of-pocket, but that should be clearly defined in the policy as Alison says, perhaps prorated eg 50% if at least a year has passed and 0% after two years.

        Nobody would ever take any job-related classes if they’d always automatically be rinsed for the full fee when they resign. You want me to be able to assess documents in Spanish? You pay for my Spanish class, and I take that knowledge when I go. (real example from my working life)

        1. Ethyl*

          You are misunderstanding how these policies work. There is, indeed, a time limit, which Alison points out in her answer. Usually you’re required to stay one to two years (this is for jobs I’ve seen in the private sector, academia may be different) or else you have to pay it back.

        2. Crazy Chicken Lady*

          I think my husband’s company had a 5- year clawback for his masters. It seemed scary at the time (they paid for him to go to an Ivy League on the opposite coast and gave him a year off to do it). Some of those years we were newlyweds, so I think I was a bit panicky with “what-ifs”.

          He’s worked there nearly 35 years so I think they got their money’s worth.

        3. Marny*

          The OP’s letter says the employees have to reimburse if they leave WHILE enrolled in the class. It doesn’t sound like they have to reimburse for completed classes— she specifically says they prorate based on how much of the class is left.

          1. fposte*

            Yes, I think this is different from the common corporate practice of requiring repayment, but the OP’s use of “repay” suggests she might be blurring the two a little.

            1. J.*

              Tuition is typically paid at the start of a semester. If you leave the job during the semester, you have to cover your own tuition for the courses, which has already been pre-paid. “Repay” sounds like the right word to me.

              1. fposte*

                Yes, that’s fair. It’s just a different repayment than the private-sector thing where you have to give the company money for completed work.

      2. Occasional*

        I think the point is that because the tuition discount is a job benefit, they shouldn’t have to repay it if they leave. I have other ‘job benefits’ like free coffee and fruit, an allowance to pay for conference tickets, and so on. Should I have to repay those costs if I leave my employer?

        That’s not to say they shouldn’t have to have ‘ongoing’ costs – if they’re in the middle of the course, they might have to pay the remainder of the fees (as you say, no job no benefit) but not for the course completed while employed.

        The other thing I think some replies are missing (and Alison’s advice seems to miss) is that this benefit is often not explicitly intended to impact job performance i.e. it’s not like sending a teapot-maker on a course in the latest developments in teapot-making in the hope that they will come back and use what they’ve learned to improve your teapot offerings.

        It’s more analogous to an employee discount – because you work for the university, you get cheaper university “products”. I know science faculty administrators who get discounts for part time MAs in Literature, library assistants getting discounted tuition for their PhD fees, and so on. Nobody is expecting that they’re doing these courses to become better administrators or librarians – it’s a perk of the job.

        1. Bagpuss*

          YEs – I agree that it is common to have to repay training costs if your employer has paid for training or study which progresses your career, as they are investing in you as an employee.

          But if you work for a university and reduced tuition is available as part of your remuneration package it seems to me that the situation is a little different, and you shouldn’t necessarily be expected to repay it . I am a lawyer – one of the benefits we give staff is that certain types of legal work are free or discounted for staff and their family members. We wouldn’t expect them to go back and pay full whack for those jobs if they left, and it seem to me that free or discounted tuition fees for employees of academic institutions fall into a similar category. It’s an employee benefit.

          I don’t think it would be unreasonable to expect you to pay on a pro-rata basis, so if you enrolled and left half way through the acedemic year, you had to pay for the proportion of the course after you left your employment,

          1. Occasional*

            Absolutely – I wouldn’t expect to continue to have the same benefits once I left the organisation, but neither would I expect to have to repay the cost of the benefits I’d enjoyed during my employment.

            Another (slightly lower stakes) example. Years ago I worked in a bookshop where I received 50% staff discount. When I left that job I could no longer get half-price books (booo!) but nobody expected me to repay the discounts I’d received during my time there – and quite right too!

          2. Natalie*

            It sounds like that’s exactly what the LW’s university does:

            “I just discovered that the tuition benefits rules at my new university require staff to repay their tuition if they leave the university or are fired while enrolled in classes[…] The tuition payback is prorated, based on when the semester ends and when the employee’s last day was.”

            It really doesn’t seem that different than your health insurance ending when your employment ends or similar, except that classes require prepayment so you have to pay them something back.

        2. Trudy Tryhard*

          This is the case with *most* of the universities I’ve worked for–the tuition benefit is an employee discount and you aren’t expected to repay it, whether it’s full or partial tuition. However, I did work at one private university where the tuition was free, but if it was a department-approved, job-related program or course you didn’t have to pay taxes on it as income. Otherwise, you did (and the taxes on a full year for a dependent’s “free” tuition were as much as a year’s tuition at a state school). Most universities also cap the number of courses you can take in a semester with the tuition break, and you usually have to be vested before you can use the benefit. In some institutions that’s a semester; in one I can think of it’s SEVEN YEARS.

          Contrary to popular belief, most universities also don’t pay very well unless you’re in administration, so it does take a lot of commitment to finish a degree with one or two classes a semester. Tuition is so high these days that it’s hard to pay even half if you’re working close to minimum wage as a data entry clerk, and jobs that used to be university jobs (like food service and janitorial services) are increasingly outsourced, so those folks don’t get the tuition break. It’s not the kind of incentive it used to be.

          1. fposte*

            “However, I did work at one private university where the tuition was free, but if it was a department-approved, job-related program or course you didn’t have to pay taxes on it as income. Otherwise, you did (and the taxes on a full year for a dependent’s “free” tuition were as much as a year’s tuition at a state school).”

            That’s the IRS, though, not the school; the school has no power to set tax policies. Undergrad is tax-free; grad is more complicated.

            1. becca*

              I work at a private university that has this policy (classes have to be “job-related” or the tuition counts as income for tax purposes), and my understanding was that the university was complying with a state law, not a federal one. I could be very wrong though.

              1. saf*

                It changes, and my experience is that it was fed taxes. I got an MA on tuition benes. Half of it was taxable, half wasn’t, because it changed every few years. My husband took classes, but not towards a degree. I made him take undergrad classes when grad tuition was taxable. He could take whatever he wanted when neither were taxable.

        3. WellRed*

          Agreed. My philosophy classes didn’t benefit my job at the U in any way. They were for me and reduced tuition was a benefit.

        4. NotAnotherManager!*

          I think the difference is in the payment structure for classes. One typically has to pay for a course up front, even if it lasts for four months. It sounds like OP#5 is saying that, if one quits the job halfway through the class, they are on the hook for half the class tuition because they are no longer an employee. If your office provides food for a month, and you quit two weeks in, you’re not still swinging by the kitchen to pick up a snack, and conference tickets may be transferable to a different employee whereas half a statistics class is not.

          1. MCMonkeyBean*

            Yes, asking them to pay for classes that they are *still taking* sounds so extremely reasonable to me. I cannot understand how anyone would think that is an unreasonable ask, let alone an illegal one.

          2. General von Klinkerhoffen*

            Thanks – this explanation makes sense to me.

            I think it’s not unreasonable to have to pay at least the equivalent of the course you take after you leave. That feels equivalent to having to make adjustments for PTO pro rata if you leave partway through a leave year.

      3. Mookie*

        I don’t know common an exception it is, but the fact that this rule doesn’t apply to retiring employees puts a bit of dent in that rationale. Even if that exception was rationalized as a tribute to the retiring employee’s contributions, retirement doesn’t equal long tenure with one employer and says nothing about how long they worked there.

        And I somewhat take issue with the idea that tuition for courses in any subject matter of the employee’s choice represents a tangible investment for the university; these aren’t always professional development courses and a departing employee who has taken advantage of this benefit should not be treated as though they are running off to go use those skills for someone else.

        1. fposte*

          Retirement quite likely means retirement in specific university terms, like starting to take a pension, so it’s quite possible it does require a duration of employment. That being said, this also seems like it might not be the clawback policy the OP is thinking, just a cessation of remission immediately upon separation (put that to music).

      4. Seeking Second Childhood*

        Both companies that paid for college courses for me reimbursed after class was completed, when a certain grade was earned.
        The one that laid me off didn’t pay for the class I was currently taking, but neither did they require me to pay back classes they’d already funded. Fair.
        When it’s the employee’s choice to leave, a reimbursement expectation is also fair where defined.

        1. AnotherAlison*

          I’m sure they were within their policy to not pay for the class you were taking. (It would be pretty weird to submit a form for reimbursement a few months after you were no longer with the company.) But, it is pretty crappy that they approved you, then laid you off within that semester. No one knew they were considering layoffs, or they didn’t want to tip their hand? To be out of a job, then on the hook for several thousand in tuition at the same time would be a financial disaster for many people.

          I never really thought about it, but I was getting a company funded master’s for two years (night school) while my company was laying off most of my department. Perhaps that was protective for me. . .

      5. saf*

        At universities, it is generally that semester. That is, if you are still in class when you quit, you get billed. If it was last semester, no.

    3. AndersonDarling*

      Yep, these kinds of Tuition Reimbursement requirements are very normal. The payback clause seems to be tied to how much the company will give. My company provided only $3K per year, but I only needed to work one year after the class was completed. I’ve seen other companies that will provide $10K per year, but you need to work 2-3 years before your dept is paid.
      I was in the middle of getting my degree when I realized that I didn’t want to commit an extra year to my employer, so I paid for my final term out of pocket.
      Tuition Reimbursement isn’t just a flat out gift, its more of a contract between the employee and the employer. I had to sign paperwork agreeing to the terms.

    4. Minocho*

      My brother had such a benefit at his company, and took advantage of it. The benefit required the recipient remain at the company for two years after they received their degree – the company felt it deserved some benefit in return, after all.

      My brother decided that he wanted to leave before that time, and he convinced himself that the company would never hold him to the contract – or if they did, he could talk them out of it. I encouraged him to assume he couldn’t get out of it when factoring the pros and cons of leaving vs. staying, but…well…he didn’t. He was outraged when they decided to charge him half of the cost of his education when he gave his notice and pushed back on them, so they charged him the full amount.

      It took him about 3 years to pay off the bill, and he complains about it to this day. I have…no real sympathy.

      1. AndersonDarling*

        As soon as an employee puts in their notice, finance immediately does a check to see if the employee owes anything through tuition reimbursement or if the company owes them for travel reimbursement or unused PTO.
        It’s funny your brother didn’t think it was for real…but I get that a newbe may think that they can slip under the radar when they leave. But companies will always get their money.

        1. Minocho*

          Nah, he’s no newbie, he’s 30. And he didn’t think he could slip under the radar, he pretty much assumed he could convince them not to charge him for his master’s degree.

          I have no idea where those assumptions came from. I did my best to warn him. But what do big sisters know, anyway. ^_-

    5. Sun Tzu*

      Same here. When my ex-employer paid for my professional certification class, they had me sign a contract which said I had to refund them prorata in case I left the company (or was fired for gross misconduct) before X months after the class.

      I think it’s reasonable.

    6. Coyote Tango*

      I work at a university, and every university in our system requires that you remain for 6 months after the completion of classes or you reimburse the cost. The private university down the road requires you remain with them for two years.

    7. Mama Bear*

      One reason I did not ask my former employer to pay for a class I wanted was because I did not see myself staying the required timeframe and didn’t want to be on the hook to pay them back. The other part of this benefit was that the courses/degree had to be relevant to your job to qualify.

    8. Megabeth*

      Just chiming in to agree here; policies usually differ on the details but repayment or refusal of reimbursement is pretty common as far as I’ve seen. The university I work at reimburses for classes once they are completed. If you are no longer employed at the university when you have finished the class, then you cannot apply for reimbursement.
      OP#5, you say that you have been in higher education for a while now and this is your first encounter with this policy; perhaps this is a new or localized trend?

    9. Pay No Attention To The Man Behind The Curtain*

      Same.

      Our reimbursement policy also depends on what the course or study or degree is in and if it pertains to your job at the university, if you take the classes at our university or another institution, and how long you’ve worked for the university prior to enrolling in the degree/program. If an employee has been with the university for less than 3 years, there is no tuition assistance, and after that there are tiers of what % they will cover.

    10. University admin*

      My employer, a university, has a work benefit that they will cover the cost of up to two courses/semester for full time faculty/staff, and one course for part-timers. If someone leaves before the add/drop date, I believe they can be on the hook for tuition if they leave the university, but after that, they’re not. Anecdata and all that….

    11. OP#5*

      OP#5 here! Thank you and thanks to everyone else in higher ed commenting about university policies they’ve seen. Apparently my experience is out of the norm and I just had a blind spot on this issue.

      I’ve worked for 4 universities over 11 years (1 state school, 3 private) and this is the first time I’ve encountered any kind of payback clause in a tuition remission policy. Generally there’s been a waiting period before you could start taking free classes (anywhere from 4 months to 1 year), but “free classes” was always touted as a benefit of working for a university and often cited as a reason that our salaries tend to be significantly lower than market rate.

      Everywhere I’ve worked previously: If you resigned before the add/drop period was over, then the university would just drop you from the class. If you resigned after the add/drop period you could still finish out the class for free, presumably because the assumption was that you enrolled in good faith and didn’t expect another job opportunity to come up.

      1. fposte*

        When I looked around I saw a mix–a few policies like the current one, a few policies like your old one. My guess is that they don’t actually chase anybody down for a return of the prorated tuition following separation but just bounce you from the course if you don’t pony it up.

    12. Tupac Coachella*

      Same, IME it’s a pretty common policy. At my last job, the policy required that you pay back tuition if you left voluntarily within *5 YEARS* of receiving it (I don’t recall whether this applied to retirees). I actually got approved for it and ended up not taking it (which turned out to be a smart move, I did end up leaving well before the 5 year timeframe was up). They enforced it, too-a colleague was on the hook for the entire reimbursement amount when he quit for another job, and I believe they required him to pay it immediately. It sounds like there are plenty of universities who do this in a less restrictive manner (my current university offers a tuition benefit, but only for our institution, and frankly it’s not great), but it’s definitely important to read the fine print before taking advantage of any employee benefit.

  7. RG*

    OP #3 made me giggle – I can’t imagine bringing up a paper that my interviewer wrote and then following that with “but I didn’t read it.”

    1. Heidi*

      Yeah. Especially since it’s not that difficult to turn this knowledge into a real conversation starter. “How did you become interested in frogs?” “How do you think the field has changed since you wrote it?” “Do you have any frogs yourself?” “Why do you think authors choose frogs as characters rather than other animals?” “Do you find that literary representations of frogs to be accurate overall, or are they unfairly maligned, like sharks?”

      1. Leela*

        It’s true that you can turn this into a pretty seamless conversation starter but at the same time, all that wasted interview time! That’s all time you’re supposed to be selling the interviewer on you being right for the job (while also finding out if you think the job is right for you), that conversation could easily take 15 minutes out of a 1 hour interview and they’re far more likely to hire someone who spent those 15 minutes asking real questions about the job to determine fit or giving good detail about themselves that helps the hiring manager make the call, Frog guy is likely to just get the hiring manager feeling less bored about the interview for a few minutes but a lot of them find it really awkward when candidates do try to do this, it’s like a form of gumption, like having them show up with a resume and wait until you’ll agree to meet with them so they can show how “interested” they are. When I used to work in hiring the managers asked me to not disclose their names because they were so sick of people memorizing a random googled fact about them and trying to shove it into the conversation wherever they could to try and demonstrate preparedness (it doesn’t)

        1. Well Then*

          Seconded. I would be annoyed by this. If I’m the interviewer, let me interview you! And save your questions for inquiring about the job you’re interviewing for, not something I did however many years ago.

        2. Heidi*

          I had assumed that the paper was actually related to the field of work, but I guess it might not have been. If it’s totally unrelated, the applicant should be prepared to steer the conversation back. For example, they could talk about how the subject of frogs relates to their work experiences with salamanders.

          1. OP#3*

            OP here. Yes, the paper was related to the field of work. In that particular instance the candidate did have a follow on question: they asked me to tell them about the paper (that they didn’t bother to read!!). Similar to other comments here, I felt it was a waste of my time and of the short interview slot.

            1. Heidi*

              Well then, this candidate sounds clueless. The best thing to do would have been to read the paper and ask a thoughtful question about it, preferably about how it relates to the work the candidate would be doing. It would have been to not mention the paper at all than to call attention to the fact that they didn’t bother to prepare beyond an extremely superficial level.

            2. tangerineRose*

              “‘they asked me to tell them about the paper (that they didn’t bother to read!!).” Sounds like they saved you some time by making it clear they weren’t the right person to hire.

        3. Richard Hershberger*

          There is a theory that clicking conversationally with the interviewer helps your chances of getting the job. Yours is the counter-theory. Which is correct? My guess is both are. It depends on the interviewer, and the candidate has no way of knowing which way it will go.

          The last time I was job hunting, I included on my resume a partial publication list of my early baseball articles. Were I doing it today, I would also include a mention of my book on the development of the rules. Ostensibly this is to provide evidence of writing skills. If the content piqued the interviewer’s interest, so much the better. I didn’t raise the subject in interviews, but some interviewers did.

          1. Leela*

            My argument isn’t counter to that theory, I just think that awkwardly bringing up something to show that you’ve googled it doesn’t help you click conversationally with the interviewer. I do think that clicking conversationally helps your chances of getting a job but that’s more about personality overall than “did I hamfistedly shove a reference to their past in the interview to show that I’d leraned it”?

            I think that a book could provide evidence of writing skills, but bringing up a paper you haven’t read doesn’t really provide evidence of anything other than shallow googling which is unlikely to be a job requirement anywhere (at least enough googling to get some salient information!)

            1. Richard Hershberger*

              I’m not disagreeing that awkwardly bringing up a paper you haven’t read is terrible execution. I am defending the idea that spending 15 minutes of the hour-long interview on conversation not directly related to the job can be time well spent for the candidate.

        4. Stock Character*

          Networking person: “I saw your story [insert title] but I didn’t read it.”
          Me: [Thinking that’s a weird thing to say], then “I’m surprised, that’s a very niche magazine. So, I’m wondering, do you often read [insert genre]?

      2. Stormy Weather*

        I usually look at the LinkedIn profiles of people interviewing me. It helps with the questions at the end. For example, “You worked in the financial sector and now you’re in healthcare. What experience in finance has been valuable here?

    2. JSPA*

      I’d go with, “Yes. Is there a reason you’re bringing it up?”

      If there is a good one, you get them past interview nerves.

      If they follow suggestions blindly, you find that out.

      If they more broadly think it’s cool to Google stalk people and drop factoids on them (which can be borderline creepy or actually creepy) you learn that.

      “Can you analyse and present your own motivation and reasoning in real time” is actually a pretty good interview task.

      1. OP#3*

        These are great suggestions! It both keeps the conversation going and continues the original goal of determining whether the candidate is a good fit.

    3. Jdc*

      At most I could understand, I read a bunch of your paper although haven’t yet got to Llama Mating in the Spring but am very interested in reading it.

    4. Quill*

      Got hired by someone who read my college thesis and then watched me deflate like a balloon after a county fair when she mentioned it.

      Also, these people need some pointers – read the abstract! Think of a question like “does your work in frogs help you connect to the wider animal industry from your role at llamacorp?”

  8. Person from the Resume*

    For letter#5, I’ve experienced the far more arduous “you must stay for 1-2 years or repay us the tuition reimbursement” outside of academia so personally I would not be bothered by this restriction. It is something to be aware of and take into consideration of job hunting, but it is not unusual to me.

    1. Diahann Carroll*

      I’ve even seen places say you had to stay three years (my current company is only one, thank god).

      1. Grits McGee*

        My federal agency used to have a tuition payment program with mandatory retention periods based on the amount of money spent by the agency. I think the longest period was 7-8 years (and you had to pay back the entirety of the tuition if you left before then). I had a coworker that got her MA from the most expensive school in our area thinking she was getting a steal. But in the past 5 years our management has changed and she’s absolutely miserable, even more so because she’s trapped in her position by the payback clause.

        1. DANGER: Gumption Ahead*

          My friend has a 10 year one if she wants them to reimburse for med school and paying off undergrad loans. I think, it is something like staying 2 years if she only wanted undergrad covered and 5 years for med school only. Seems fair because it is something like $750,000 all told

        2. Diahann Carroll*

          That is horrible – 7-8 years?! I think I’d just bite the bullet if I was her, find a new job, and then try to negotiate a signing bonus with the new place that would cover part of the prorated clawback fee.

          1. EPLawyer*

            It’s not prorated either. You leave during your clawback period, they get the whole thing back. Even though they benefitted over the years from the knowledge. Student loans would have been a better option. And that’s saying something about how bad that policy is.

            For OP5, it is only if they leave while taking classes. At most you are paying back part of 1 semester. That’s doable. Pretty generous policy too.

          2. Grits McGee*

            We work in an academia-adjacent field (think libraries… but not quite) where our agency pays probably 2-3 times more than we would get at any other employer (which would be either higher education or local gov). A signing bonus big enough to cover the cost of her degree would probably be as much as her salary.

    2. Bagpuss*

      I think that if the qualification is one relating to your career that’s reasonable – it’s an investment that the employer is making in you as an employee, in order to wind up with a more skilled and better employee. If you leave so they don’t get those benefits then it’s not unreasonable that hey not pay for them.

      Where I am, it’s pretty normal for there to be a sliding scale – e.g. if you leave within 12 months, you pay back 100%,, between 1 and 2 years, pay back 60% and between 2 and 3 years, 30% , or something along those lines.

      1. Red Reader the Adulting Fairy*

        Yep – at my employer, the tuition reimbursement is only available if you’re taking a degree program off an approved list of degrees, from an accredited school, and if you leave, you have to pay back a prorated amount of any tuition you’ve been reimbursed for in the last 12 months. And you know that up front – it’s part of the paperwork you agree to in the application process.

        1. Hi there*

          I’ve been thinking about another degree for my personal interest, and it looks like my employer does not have the stipulation it has to be job-related. If I decide to go for it I’ll run it by my supervisor anyway.

    3. Millennial Lizard Person*

      Current!company requires 2 years after you finish, or you pay it back prorated. But I’ve had coworkers come from other companies and they said our company paid off the new hire (as a signing bonus I guess?) so I wonder if it’s something you can negotiate.

      1. Lady Heather*

        In high school, my economics teacher said that tuition reimbursement by a company usually comes with a ‘stay 1-2 years or pay back [part of] the amount’ clause but that if you found another job, you could ask your new company to buy you out as a condition of taking their offer.

        I don’t understand why people would think it’s not legal, or consider it unethical – it’s an offer. “If you agree to stay another three years, we’ll pay your tuition. If you don’t agree, we won’t.” If you don’t want to stay another x years, then don’t have the company pay your tuition. It’s as simple as that.

        1. Jenny*

          It’s tricky when it’s a job requirement, though. Almost all English hospital pharmacists do a postgraduate qualification at work, and it is very unusual for anyone to opt out as you usually need it for promotions and it’s in your contract that you’ll work towards it – so you need a very good reason. Having a reimbursement policy for a qualification that’s essentially mandatory is unfair as it means employees don’t have a choice about being tied to that employer for the next X years – they have to accept it, or consider quitting.

      2. HollyWeird*

        My SIL received tuition reimbursement from a firm she was at for her masters and right after completing she received an offer for another position. She was in the same boat, I believe it was that she needed to stay 2 years in order for her not to owe them any money so she explained to the new company she would be on the hook for however much money and the new company paid off the first as part of the signing bonus. Could be an option for OP too, if they receive an offer that would make the jump worth it.

        For my current company they offer tuition reimbursement for approved programs and you do not have to pay it back if you leave but it’s my observation that this is not the norm.

        1. fposte*

          There’s a significant difference between the private sector tuition reimbursement and the university employee tuition waiver, though, so the protocols for the private sector aren’t likely to apply here.

    4. Goldfinch*

      I just assumed I’d have to pay it back no matter what, and did my best to set aside some savings just in case. With many teachers in my family/friends groups, I’ve seen multiple people get burned by the “whoops, never mind” hardship loan forgiveness nonsense.

  9. On that Academic Job Market Grind*

    Wow. Background noise from a kid one time and everyone is ok with this being an employee problem?

    1. Blue*

      I’m with you. One time – and it was the Op literally directing the kid to be quiet and go back to the caretaker! In what sounds like a fully remote role rather than the OP taking advantage of a perk. Boss’s reaction is beyond over the top. Truly bizarre.

        1. Diahann Carroll*

          It is very weird and makes me wonder if we’re missing some further context here. Like, maybe this manager doesn’t actually like remote work to begin with, but OP was given special leeway to be fully remote or was hired by someone else to be fully remote – one of my former coworkers was in the latter situation, and our manager hated that she worked from home (though to be fair, my coworker blatantly did things like bake cakes with her daughter while on conference calls with us – that certainly didn’t help).

          1. valentine*

            I’d be concerned with confidentiality, especially if the child can read. You don’t want them asking who Mabel is and what shingles means, even if Mabel is on the line, but certainly if it’s another patient, or if OP1 is explaining they can’t share the info.

          2. Ann Onny Muss*

            I was also wondering if there was more going on then a one-time “kid in background” incident. The manager threatening to escalate to HR seemed over-the-top.

            1. AndersonDarling*

              I was thinking that too. I can see the manager may ask HR for advice on what can and can’t be required for working at home. Or a request to review HR’s policies for work-from-home employees.
              I wouldn’t interpret any of those actions as a “threat,” they are just normal processes available to a manager.

          3. DANGER: Gumption Ahead*

            I figured she was talking to patients, families, or providers about patient care and reimbursement since the call was recorded and reviewed. That makes a difference, to me, because of the topic matter and the audience. It is a situation where any shift from the focus of the call would come off badly.

            For a normal conference call or one with a coworker, it would be no big deal.

            1. Falling Diphthong*

              These two points about the context are very important.

              Do I know you and your kid, or are you a stranger? Am I asking for information about something extremely low stress, or am I describing worrisome symptoms of surgical recovery?

              Because if you’re a stranger, and we’re discussing my medical care, half your attention being somewhere else is a stomach-clenching problem. Just like, say, Good Omens playing in the background just on this one call where you forgot to hit mute.

    2. Not All*

      Yup. Because she got *caught* one time. From a manager’s perspective it’s highly unlikely it’s the only time there actually has been kid noise.

    3. Ask a Manager* Post author

      Hmmm, I read it as it probably happening more than once, since the OP said, “I also can’t put a mute button on my son even when he’s talking in the background or push him away when he hasn’t seen me all day” and talked about background noise being normal — which reads to me like it wasn’t a one-time thing. But if it really was just once, then yes, it’s a big overreaction.

      1. Allypopx*

        Yeah I also have a hard time believing this level of reaction was a one-time problem.

        Someone else also pointed out that given the sensitivity of working with patient records the appearance of unprofessional conduct (or an unsecure setting, re: HIPPA) could be worrisome.

      2. Mockingjay*

        There’s a big conflict with the physical space. Kid is “at home,” OP is “at work.”

        Work from home functions best when you treat your home office as an actual business facility. All the same rules apply:
        – maintain separate space with controlled entrance and exit (lock the door, visitors must knock before entering and need permission to come in),
        – confidentiality of work conversations
        – control of work materials (electronic and printed)

        I sympathize that the OP has a challenging situation with her child, but she still needs to meet her company’s obligations while on the clock.

      3. KayDeeAye*

        If the kid-noise was heard as part of a quality control review (not sure that’s the right word – what I mean is, when someone fulfills the promise of those recordings that say “This call will be recorded for quality control purposes”), it could very well be that the supervisor thinks it’s likely that it’s happened more than once. That is, if as part of this review, the supervisor pulled three recordings and it so happens that the little boy was clearly heard on one of them, it wouldn’t be too outlandish for the supervisor to assume this problem is a lot more common with this particular employee than it actually is.

        The supervisor’s approach still seems a little harsh and over-the-top here (at least with the context that we’ve been given), but the general concern is a legitimate one, I think.

      4. Alice*

        The way OP1 minimizes the interaction makes me think that this has happened more than once, and in deed, that she’s just upset that she got caught. Would be worth seeing her elaborate in a follow up.

      5. Ermmm*

        Absolutely agree. And in a few days a letter AAM receives asks “Hi Alison, I manage a remote employee who does not appear to have childcare set up for her 4-year old son although she claims she has full childcare covered daily. I have mentioned to this employee that I can hear her son in the background talking and trying to interact with her while she’s on work-related calls (we are legally obligated to record patient-facing phone calls and the employee is aware of this), yet I continue to hear it on her calls. Finally the other day, after what felt like the 100th time, I got angry and threatened to get HR involved. She seemed taken aback by this and……etc etc etc.”

        I have a feeling the manager thinks she has been clear about the fact that hearing the son in the background (and probably him being around in general) is a problem. Yet from OP 1’s standpoint, it hasn’t been stated directly and clearly that it 100% needs to stop, and OP 1 simply didn’t realize how much it bothered the manager (or maybe how often it actually happened) until the manager couldn’t stand it any more and exploded.

    4. BRR*

      I’m wondering if it was a client/customer call given the profession and since the letter mentioned it being recorded. I’d be a little more strict in that scenario (am I wrong on this?) Than a one-off, internal meeting. But the manager flunked their handling of this regardless.

      1. Willis*

        Yes, definitely. Especially if it’s something related to a customer’s healthcare. They should feel like you’re fully paying attention to them and, if you’re discussing health matters, that there’s not random people (kids, nanny, etc.) in the background overhearing. I think the manager handled this weirdly but I don’t think it’s off base to say something to the OP. Plus if she doesn’t listen to all of OP’s recorded calls, she really doesn’t know how often this is or isn’t happening, and may be assuming it’s not uncommon.

        1. MsSolo*

          Yes, I’m almost more concerned that the childcarer might be in the romo than the child, while LW is discussing medically sensitive information with a client. I wonder if the client escalated it to the manager, which is why the recording was listened to (and why the manager jumped straight to HR).

      2. Diahann Carroll*

        since the letter mentioned it being recorded. I’d be a little more strict in that scenario (am I wrong on this?)

        You’re not. I was a claims adjuster once upon a time, and while I was fortunate enough to never be in a position that required recorded calls, many of my coworkers were (especially the ones who dealt with bodily injury claims), and those recordings often ended up in litigation/discovery. The last thing an insurance company wants is for a claimant to believe that their claim wasn’t properly handled because the adjuster or nurse manager was distracted (and then you have a recording that seems to confirm just that). They’d end up paying out the ass depending on the severity of the injury and would probably get slapped with a bad faith claim to boot with the state department of insurance fining them for it.

        1. valentine*

          in a position that required recorded calls, many of my coworkers were
          Did the work-from-home policy specify no one else should access the workspace?

          1. DANGER: Gumption Ahead*

            My friend is a utilization review nurse for an insurance company (i.e. decides if care will be covered) and her WFH policy requires that her workspace be completely private and only accessible during an emergency. Background noise was a key reason they moved them out of the cube farm to WFH. No one wants to hear laughter in the background while finding out that their insurance won’t cover a new cancer treatment for them/their loved one.

            1. Diahann Carroll*

              Your last sentence is true, but reminds me of a time when I was a commercial property claims adjuster and one of our AVPs was speaking to an insured on an almost million dollar loss and had to explain there was no coverage for it – and one of my coworkers who was notorious for doing everything at an extreme volume was laughing at an unrelated joke in the background so loudly that our AVP had to get up and shut his office door (which was around the corner and down the hall from her desk) and profusely apologize to the insured. AVP was good natured about it when he told us what happened, and the offending coworker had herself another good laugh, but yeah – it wasn’t a good look to have somebody cackling away in the background in our office when we were telling someone their investment property was a total loss with no coverage.

            2. Allonge*

              Sorry about the tangent but that is some high level corporate BS going on there. As a company we are too cheap to provide you with offices where you can do your confidential work for us. We will require you to WFH and build the appropriate office in your home, at your own cost (at least I expect). Otherwise you cannot work. What the ever loving eff.

              1. Annony*

                I think it depends on if they are only offering WFH or if it is an option. If they do provide an appropriate office space but will allow you to work from home if you prove you have an acceptable alternative, then I think it is ok. If they don’t offer acceptable office space, then it is BS.

                1. Diahann Carroll*

                  Yeah, my company had the space for our adjusters and nurse case managers to work on-site – a few got special permission to work from home full time. Totally different scenario when it’s the employee’s choice to WFH and then they don’t safeguard their space and time from outside distractions.

        2. Half-Caf Latte*

          Yup. One of my areas of responsibility is the hospital side of receiving these determinations from insurers, and if I heard someone’s kid in the background I’d absolutely instruct my physician appealers to make the case to their insurance peers that this person clearly wasn’t even paying close attention.

          1. DANGER: Gumption Ahead*

            Yeah, I think it is the nature of these calls, both content and audience, that makes this different than other work calls.

      3. Chili*

        That’s what I was thinking. The reaction seems harsh either way, but I would understand being stricter on any type of noise if the employee is making client or patient-facing calls. I would be very surprised if I called my insurance company for something and heard a child on the line.

        That being said, I think really strict policies specifically about children being seen or heard probably do end up having outsized impact on parents’ careers, so maybe this is something that societally should be lightened up on? I’m not sure? I find pet noise equally distracting, but most workplaces I’ve encountered seem fine with (or at least more tolerant of) dogs barking or cats meowing on calls, so rigid anti-child noise policies seem like they may be rooted in something other than just concerns about distraction.

        1. FriendlyCanadian*

          I guess the difference is there is HIPPA concerns with a kid and/or the nanny, if you can hear them then they can OP talking . Dogs and cats while potentially annoying can’t understand what the call is about

          1. Quill*

            My dog was pretty darn good at giving the impression that he understood phone calls and wanted to be in on them…

            Of course, he was a talker in general and probably recognized several people who called by their voices, given that most of them had met him.

        2. Chili*

          I want to update this after reading other comments that it does seem like it would be necessary for some jobs to be 100% strict on this for HIPAA or other legal reasons. If that’s the case, unfortunately I don’t think the LW has any wiggle room and has to find a way to have a 100% solitary and child-free space for calls if they want to keep the job.

        3. Avasarala*

          That being said, I think really strict policies specifically about children being seen or heard probably do end up having outsized impact on parents’ careers, so maybe this is something that societally should be lightened up on?

          Do these places have different expectations of WFH/remote vs. in-office workers?
          If someone were WFH and there was background noise (kids/pets) on an internal conference call, I don’t know of many managers that would bring down the hammer. But I don’t know of any companies that allow WFH noises on a call with clients. “If it’s not OK for in-office workers, it’s not OK for remote workers” kind of thinking.

          I don’t mind hearing my coworker’s dogs on an internal conference call. But when I call the cable company, or the bank, or the hospital, I don’t want to hear WFH noises. I don’t think that’s an unreasonable expectation.

          1. Old and Don’t Care*

            One of my co-worker’s wife had a job like the OP’s and worked from home. There were quite a few requirements regarding dedicated space, security, and privacy for her home office that, in contrast we never would have asked of our remote sales people or trainers. Just the nature of the work.

            1. Gyratory Circus*

              I work at one of the major health insurance companies and our WFH rules for people who speak to members (so Customer Service reps, nurse case managers, etc) is very very detailed and they actually send someone to your house to verify that your workspace meets standards before you get the ok. The rules include – you have to be in a room that has a door, it can’t have a television in it, and printing anything from our work desktops is disabled.

              1. BookishMiss*

                Ditto. And WFH privileges can be rescinded at any time, ESPECIALLY if there are HIPAA/other compliance concerns.

        4. Fikly*

          Being a parent is a choice.

          As a working parent, you are either working at a company space, or from home. In a company space, children should not be present, seen or heard. Why should this be different when working from home? Why should a parent get that priviledge because they chose to have children?

          When you choose to have children, you choose the costs that come with children, and that includes childcare.

            1. Falling Diphthong*

              But not childcare that is effectively keeping her child’s voice off work calls. Which is implied as a condition of work from home in the sort of client-facing, high-stress-topic calls suggested by this sort of job.

              1. MayLou*

                I’m the childcare one day a week for a woman who works from home (although she is a writer, not in the same field as OP) and last week the toddler managed to get into his mum’s office while she was on a call. I scooped him straight up and we moved away sharpish, but these things happen. The only sure-fire way is to be in a different building from the child. And in fact I usually spend most of the day out with the baby so that we’re not disrupting his mum’s work, but we were on our way to the bedroom to get some nappies and he is newly mobile. I can completely see how this might happen.

            2. Coyote Tango*

              She does have childcare. But if she were in an office, she wouldn’t be able to have her son hanging out in her space even if a nanny was there to care for him because it is distracting and there is background noise. If she’s making medical related calls which call under HIPAA, this is not an unreasonable request.

          1. Mami21*

            It’s privilege, not ‘priviledge’, and not every parent did in fact choose to become a parent. For some it is not a choice at all, feel free to keep that in mind before passing lofty judgement.

            1. TheFacelessOldWomanWhoSecretlyLivesinYour House*

              It is a choice to parent. It may not be a choice to become pregnant but keeping the child and parenting is a choice.

              1. skunklet*

                Can we get off the ‘choice’ to be a parent thing? If there’s no next generation, social security doesn’t get paid, among a myriad of other things, that’s how the US works, so folks HAVE to have kids…

                1. Vicky Austin*

                  Not every single human being has to have kids. I really don’t think that the human species is going to become extinct just need I chose not to have kids. You know why? Because most people want to have kids.

                2. Fikly*

                  No. Because we have free will. And obviously, there are people who are not parents because they choose not to be, not because they are incapable of becoming parents. So clearly it is a choice. You may feel not becoming a parent is the wrong choice, but that doesn’t mean it’s not a choice.

                  Not liking the consequences of a decision doesn’t make it less of a decision.

            2. Fikly*

              Becoming pregnant is not a choice. Keeping the child and choosing to raise it, is. There are options, including giving a child up for adoption.

              Parents are not special class citizens because they choose to have children.

              1. pope suburban*

                Many places, even in the United States, choices are limited. People may well not be able to access reproductive health care due to financial or legal barriers, and then not everyone is in a relationship and/or family situation that allows them autonomy and safety. I understand that it’s appealing to think that we’re all here in the safe modern world but it’s just not so. Assuming that everyone is well-resourced and flush with options is privileged thinking that can quickly turn ugly.

                1. TheFacelessOldWomanWhoSecretlyLivesinYour House*

                  You can always adopt out the child or turn over the child to social service. Many hospitals even have baby drop offs for those who can’t keep an infant, etc. Again, parenting and keeping the child is a choice.

                2. Fikly*

                  That’s not the choice I am referencing. Obviously not everyone has a choice about giving birth if they become pregnant. But they have a choice as to whether or not to raise the child. That’s becoming a parent.

                  Being pregnant and giving birth does not equal being a parent.

          2. Observer*

            Being a parent is a choice that our society needs a LOT of people to make. So let’s not get on our high horses about how no one has any responsibility to parents etc.

            That being said, the accommodations that should be made do not include allowing parents to compromise the quality of service or privacy of the medical care they provide.

            1. Fikly*

              Yeah, no, we don’t.

              Just like I am not obliged to pay for your health needs if you choose to become a smoker, drink alcohol, or in some other way destroy your health of your own choice.

              We have a responsibilty to the children. Not the parents.

              Our society doesn’t actually need to continue. Many people would like it to, but nothing requires it to do so.

              1. Lady Heather*

                Well put! ‘We have a responsibility to the children, not to the parents.’ I don’t mean so much in this situation but more because I hate the ‘a parent has the right to raise their child how they want to raise their child’ argument as I’m more of a ‘a child has the right to be raised in a way that works for them’. (For clarity, I don’t mean mean doing everything your child says – I mean that if your parenting method (bad parenting or parenting-that-works-for-some-kids-and-not-others) makes your kid feel worthless, you need to find another way to parent. In other words: a parenting style shouldn’t just match the parent, it should primarily match the kid.)

                Which is not at all this context, but your beautiful phrasing means that I’m going to translate it to my language and borrow it.

                1. Fikly*

                  Thank you.

                  Even if my parents had not been abusive, their parenting style (they did not believe in routine) was a massive mismatch for my needs (I am massively in need of being on a routine, both now and as a child) and that alone have caused a lot of problems for me as a child.

        5. Falling Diphthong*

          Dogs are pretty common on my conference calls, recording the movements of UPS trucks past the homes of various work-from-homers like myself. Key differences:
          • These calls are within a working group on a project, not client-facing. (I think the biggest issue.)
          • The thought generated is “there’s a squirrel outside someone’s house” with no following “so they need to take their attention off the call to talk with the dog about the squirrel.”
          • There’s also no confidentiality/gravity issue with a barking dog–no one is concerned that the dog might be reading about the patient’s history of drug use and planning to use it as conversational fodder at the dog park.

    5. Mommy.MD*

      One time they let it go. But if it’s more than once, people get fired. My SIL works at home for a major company. They are strict and tell you in advance.

    6. Half-Caf Latte*

      The OP seems pretty cavalier about it, I got a vibe that the question is how do I say “he’s a kid, whatddya want me to do about it” professionally (as opposed to – how do I explain that this was a one off mistake and clarify that I do have regular childcare without making it worse).

      To me, that’s the issue. OP seems to think that the requirement for childcare for WFH (assuming there is one) is “another adult is primarily responsible” and boss is of the mindset that “another adult is 100% in charge”.

      I think the suggestions to have a defined meet-and-greet break are good, and I’d encourage the OP to shift the focus from “he’s four what do you expect” to “this was a mistake but I’m on it.”

      1. Detective Amy Santiago*

        Agreed. The LW doesn’t seem to understand the gravity of the situation which I imagine is why the boss came down hard.

        And LW, yes, you can push your son away when you’re on the clock. If you were working in an office, he wouldn’t be seeing you and you need to treat working from home the same way.

        1. Allypopx*

          Yes. Thank you. You’re still working, you have at home care. Work on setting better boundaries at home or give up your WFH arrangement.

          I said this elsewhere but given the OP’s attitude and the strength of the response I really, really don’t think this is a one-off issue, I think it’s ongoing.

        2. Half-Caf Latte*

          I do think the commentary on this letter is leaning a little towards your child must have NO ACCESS WHATSOEVER IF YOU WERE IN AN OFFICE YOU WOULD BE UNREACHABLE (which I’m guessing is folks reacting to the same unfazed vibe I was picking up on).

          I think this is a little unfair to the OP, because parents who work in offices frequently can and are reached – phone calls from the school nurse, texts to check in, security camera alerts, and the like.

          The differences are that these are not in-person interruptions, and most offices would expect you to first excuse yourself from whatever you were doing. I’m thinking this might help frame “when/how to interrupt” for nanny and OP: can Nanny text OP first if issue A, B or C comes up? If it’s really just that the sound of legos cascading onto a wooden staircase is louder than a jet engine*, and not that OP is actually needed for interaction, the current setup might just not be workable, unfortunately.

          *This is verified fact. Wakes siblings.

          1. Quill*

            lol my brother did that once when we were kids.

            At 5 AM.

            You can imagine how enthusiastic our parents were, especially given that he did it as some sort of revenge after they removed the batteries from all of his toys that made noises, following similar incidents.

          2. Middle School Teacher*

            There’s a difference between employee in an office reachable by phone, which I as a client wouldn’t know (because I wouldn’t hear it) and client hearing child in the background. I think I agree with the boss here.

          3. DarnTheMan*

            I remember a letter where someone took calls from their kids while at work and their manager didn’t approve. Most commenters were understanding of taking the occasional call but did come down pretty hard on the LW for a particular incident where they interrupted their manager while in a one on one meeting, and then walked away from them to take a call. So all to say, even when you are at work, there’s still a time and a place for those sort of interruptions.

      2. WellRed*

        I got that vibe too and that was before realizing she works for an insurance company (patient care! hIPAA!) The manager handled this poorly however.

    7. Jdc*

      But she says one time. I wouldn’t doubt its more often and manager was frustrated. Most people aren’t going to say it’s constant. People tend to be less aware of these things or consider it a non issue.

      1. DANGER: Gumption Ahead*

        I wonder if the patient or provider she was speaking to called and complained that she was distracted or not listening, which led to the manager reviewing that call (and possibly others?). That might explain the strong reaction

        1. Jdc*

          Very likely. If I was speaking to a nurse about, a miscarriage, which I have had to do before, and heard a child in the background, I’d be so upset. It’s not like I don’t know kids exist but I assume I’m speaking to someone at a medical facility, private office, not Jane in her kitchen. It shakes some amount of trust. I get that logically some of these people work from home but frankly, during my medical emergency, I don’t care and don’t want to know about it.

    8. Senor Montoya*

      I think the boss is going overboard by threatening to take it to HR, but I can’t fault the boss for getting ahead of this. Why let it keep happening and *then* chastise the employee? Let the employee know the first time, “this can’t happen again.”

      1. Scarlet*

        For all we know that was part of the conversation. Based on OP’s language here I would guess that the boss brought it up, OP was cavalier here “oh I can’t just push him off” and then the boss got agitated and said “yes you can, and if it happens again I’m going to HR”

        We only know one snippet of the conversation here, I have to imagine that it wasn’t just a quick threat then done.

    9. NotAnotherManager!*

      If it was a one-time problem, I would have less of an issue with it, but, OP#1’s framing/phrasing makes it sound like it’s NOT a one-time thing, just that it hit the recording this time, and she should not have to adjust what she’s doing. All she really had to say to her manager was, “Yes, he shouldn’t have interrupted my call. I’ve spoken to our babysitter about this incident and put a lock on my office door, and it won’t happen again.” If it is, then the manager overreacted, but my sense is that it’s not and that OP#1’s somewhat cavalier attitude about it has already got her manager’s hackles up.

      (And we are a household with both a remote worker and a child with developmental delays, so I have a great deal of sensitivity on both fronts; however, the remote work is what lets us manage what we need to do with our kids, including the additional medical needs of our special-needs kid, so we toe the line on the requirements because it makes our lives doable.)

    10. Fiona*

      Yeah, if this was a pattern, maybe – but one or even two times? People are human, people have lives, people have families. This felt uncharacteristic of Alison’s typical advice.

      1. tangerineRose*

        I think Alison is assuming that this has happened several times based on something the LW said.

    11. TJ Byrde*

      It seems like a VERY over the top reaction for a first time offense. I would be a bit incensed if I heard children in the background of an employee’s call too, not only because I would wonder about how their kid affected their productivity but also because it just sounds really unprofessional, especially in this specific field because things are supposed to be appropriately locked up/inaccessible for privacy reasons…but I would simply advise the employee that it was a concern for whatever reason and make sure they were operating within my expectations and taking proper measures to make sure it doesn’t happen again. But since LW seems to not understand that office noise and a child in the room read differently to others on the call, I wonder if this is not truly a one-time thing or if there are other concerns LW didn’t include.

  10. Bilateralrope*

    For #2, I note that another employee took the place of the one who pulled out. That should make it harder to demand reimbursement from the employee, regardless of why he doesn’t want to go.

    I’m trying to think of a reason where the company should take more than the cost of changing the ticket, even if the employee was offering to pay.

    1. Diahann Carroll*

      Okay, so you can change a ticket to someone else. Yeah, the company just needs to pay whatever the change fee is and call it a day.

    2. Willis*

      Just because someone is going in his place doesn’t necessarily mean they’re traveling using his ticket (or money recouped from canceling his ticket). I think this would depend a lot on how the ticket was purchased. It could be the case that canceling Coworker #1’s ticket just means a credit in his name for the balance after the cancel fee. The company could probably still work with him to use that money for other business travel and minimize the loss, but it’s likely not as easy as just swapping out the two tickets. The company should still cover it as a cost of doing business though.

      1. LJay*

        Honestly companies should all either book fully-refundable tickets for work trips and consider it the cost of doing business or understand that they’re going to eat some cancellation fees on tickets and consider that part of the costs of doing business.

    3. Drag0nfly*

      I’m also wondering what the company will pay if the one who does go ends up quarantined for two weeks. Or if he’s unable to get a flight back here. Thailand, Indonesia and other nearby countries are shutting down travel from China. Hyundai is suspending operations in Korea because of corona virus exposure, and Koreans have demanded that all travel from China halt. Japan has set up quarantines. All of this makes me wonder why the company believes their employees are going to be a special exception?

      The cynical part of me is also wondering if the company would make the employee take PTO if he did end up quarantined. I’m just picturing the letter Alison will get in a couple of weeks. “My company insisted I travel to a pandemic hot zone, and then made me use vacation time when the CDC put in me quarantine. Is any of this legal?”

        1. Wannabikkit*

          The NZ government chartered an Air New Zealand flight to get NZ nationals and residents (along with some Aussie, British, and Pacific nationals) out of China. The flight landed in NZ a few hours ago and everyone on it is now in quarantine for 2 weeks.

          1. EPLawyer*

            They evacuated the US embassy of non-essential personnel a couple weeks ago. They landed at an air force base instead of LAX. They were put in quarantine on base.

            I cannot wait for the letter and Alison’s response.

            1. JustaTech*

              The flight was supposed to land at Ontario, not LAX. Ontario is outside of LA and has very little traffic these days, so would have been lower risk, but then the decision was made to send the flight to the air force base. I think quarantine was 72 hours and then if one was symptom-free they were allowed to go home.

              My SO’s company is asking any employees who have recent;y been to Wuhan to please WFH for 14 days after arriving back in the US, and for staff who can’t usually WFH (kitchen, security, etc) the company won’t charge their PTO.

          2. Chinookwind*

            Canada is doing the same thing. The news this morning was all about the accommodations at the military base where they will be staying. The reporter was shocked that the conditions will be so nice, but the reason they are being quarantined at that particular base is because it is set up to deal with all sorts of people travelling and waiting for deployment, so it is set up like a hotel. It won’t be fun but it isn’t like they are in old style barracks with no privacy.

            As for paying employees who are quarantined, I would counter with “do YOU want to work next to an employee who just returned from Wuhan and risk getting sick?” What would happen if the office got infected? I think it is worth the pay from a health & safety standard alone.

          3. General von Klinkerhoffen*

            Yes, everyone on the British evacuation flight went straight to a facility especially prepared for a fortnight’s quarantine.

            Shame people couldn’t get to the airport to catch it. A second flight is planned, I think.

      1. Half-Caf Latte*

        I was just involved in making a policy on this. My involvement was on the clinical recommendation side; thankfully I’m not the HR person who needed to make that call or communicate it to staff.

      2. Gazebo Slayer*

        Yeah, the cynical part of me wonders the same. It also wonders if the company would just cut him permanently loose if the quarantine proved inconveniently long, and if so whether they’d still pay for his airfare back. (Hasn’t Alison gotten letters from people whose employers stranded them on business trips?)

        1. Quill*

          I know of one where someone got fired as they were running late for a train trip and could have been stranded if they’d been on board when they found out…

        2. LJay*

          Ugh I can’t believe that there are companies that do this.

          My company has a lot of employees that are 100% travel, and plenty more that are more than 50% travel (I’m one of the latter group). Our employee handbook explicitly states that we are required to provide and pay for return transportation upon the end of employment. It’s under our human trafficking policy and compliance plan. (The plan also mentions we are not allowed to use misleading or dishonest practices during recruitment and hiring and that we must provide housing that meets host country housing and safety standards.)

      3. ET*

        My employer is making people use sick time, which is separate from our vacation time but it’s still a hefty chunk of days. :/ Of course, they are also suggesting officially that people NOT go to pandemic hot zones, which is slightly less egregious?

      4. Pay No Attention To The Man Behind The Curtain*

        I imagine there are quite a few international employees or international students that were already in the hot zone before the whole thing started and are now being evacuated to quarantine areas — in SoCal there is a group evac’ed from China sitting in quarantine at an Air Force base right now.

  11. NPOQueen*

    OP5, I worked at two universities and that was basically true of them as well. Many people were taking classes, but they all left once done. I knew a few folks who were gone within a month after graduating with whatever certification/degree they were after. My school pushed graduate degrees because they knew they’d have the employee for that whole time period, no one wanted to quit mid-degree and have to fund it themselves.

  12. Willis*

    I’m sorry but if you come across a paper titled GREAT FROGS IN LITERATURE and don’t at least skim it…just leave. I want to read it and I’m not even applying for the position!

    1. Rebecca1*

      It’s controversial because of the section on The Wind in the Willows, which is in fact about a toad rather than a frog. Some scholars say that the argument defending this inclusion is not fully developed, and there was nearly a fistfight over it at an Aristophanes conference in Athens (Georgia). Eventually, Professor Polly Wogg convinced Professor Sal Mander that the grad student in question, Thad Polo, had shouted “Go Bulldogs”, not “Toads are bullfrogs,” and everyone was able to get closure.

      1. Vicky Austin*

        The Green Gatsby
        A Tale of Two Frog Ponds
        A Ribbit In Time
        Frog Quixote
        The Adventures of Toad Sawyer
        The Adventures of Huckleberry Frog
        Green Expectations
        The Frog Catcher In The Rye
        Lord of the Frogs
        Much Ado About Frogs

        1. irene adler*

          The Verdant Pimpernel
          Antoady and Cleopatra
          Frog Day’s Journey into Night
          Three for the Toad

      2. school of hard knowcs*

        Kinda surprised you left out Jeremiah was a bullfrog.. was a good friend of mine. Such joy

        1. KoiFeeder*

          The koi pond bullfrog (or more likely, the long lineage of bullfrogs that have taken up residence there, since I don’t think bullfrogs live 20 years) is named Jeremiah.

    2. An Americanish Werewolf in London*

      A frog goes into a bank, asking for a loan. The loan officer, Miss Paddywack, explains to the frog that he needs collateral. The frog pulls out of his pocket a little ivory elephant. ‘Will this do?’

      She explains that it’s unusual, and will need to speak to her manager. She goes to her manager’s office and explains, ‘there’s a frog out there who wants a loan – he wants to use this tschoke as collateral.’

      The manager replies, ‘it’s a knicknack, Paddywack, give the frog a loan.’

      Boom boom tish.

      1. Pinko*

        The version I heard includes the frog’s name, Kermit Jagger….

        “It’s a knick-knack, Paddywack. Give the frog a loan. His old man’s a Rolling Stone.”

    3. Tangerina Warbleworth*

      FOR REAL. In high school, I used to draw frogs. I did a poster for my music faculty father of “Gershwin Frogs” that included Rhapsody in Green, Froggy and Bess, and Amphibian in Paris. I also wrote and illustrated “The Frog of Shallot” for my English teacher (from the Tennyson poem). I didn’t understand why she didn’t want to put it up on bulletin board…….

  13. AntiSocialite*

    OP #1 made my head spin.
    “I also can’t put a mute button on my son even when he’s talking in the background or push him away when he hasn’t seen me all day.”

    Yes, you can, and yes, you should. You are working, remotely, and your description is of some kind of support or contact center environment. Your son should not be in your office space while you are on recorded line calls with patients. Your employer has an expectation of a private, distraction and noise free work environment. And, there are a lot of state and federal regulations in regard to healthcare and patient privacy.

    Reading the entire complaint, this person is not suited to her role, and needs to find something else if she wants that flexibility to interrupt her workflow to spend time with her son or attend to his needs whenever.

    Also, I am not surprised the manager mentioned going to HR next time, either.
    Many companies have this as a requirement, and breaking the rules is just that; something that will result in consequences.

    I worked for a huge corporation where it was specified in the job description. People were routinely written up for this kind of infraction, and it would result in job termination if it continued. It’s not just being nit-picky, either. Customers would escalate to management over the unprofessional nature of it, there were privacy concerns, and lots of issues to consider.

    I now work for a tiny company, with the same requirements.
    It’s really not that unusual in a remote workplace, especially if it’s a support center or customer-facing.

    Time to look for another job that will better suit your needs.

    1. ceiswyn*

      Yes. You can absolutely push your son away even ‘when he hasn’t seen you all day’. It won’t cause him irreparable emotional harm, he’ll just learn that he can’t interrupt you when you’re working.

      When I was a small child, my father would leave home before I left for school, come home after I’d had my dinner, and then usually be on phone calls until 8pm or sometimes 10pm setting up the next day’s work. I got a hug when he came in, and for anything else I had to wait until he was done – *if* he was done before my bedtime. But I wouldn’t have dreamed of interrupting him when he was on a work call, because that was a rule that was absolutely and consistently enforced by both my parents.

      I didn’t *like* it, but I still adored my father and never doubted that he doted on me. It’s just that all that adoring and doting was demonstrated outside work hours.

    2. JSPA*

      I’ve been on tech support and credit card recorded lines; they’re not all HIPAA protected. Still agree with the general point, though.

        1. JSPA*

          Forgot that. Yes. In terms of practical vs formal violation, though, a toddler might be more likely to remember an unusual name and disease than a credit card number. “Vicky V. Vitman Vaginitis” or “Hubert Humphrey Hiatal Hernia” would make great playground chants. Toddler asking, “Who is Vicky and what is Vaginitis” is not what anyone wants to risk in the background of a call.

    3. No band*

      I had this happen just this morning. I was on a conference call that included a consultant who is paid by the hr. Near the end of the call, we heard his kid chattering on and he had to tell the kid he couldn’t do whatever because right now he was working. Yes, it was perceived as unprofessional. Yes, it will affect him in the future.

    4. DANGER: Gumption Ahead*

      I feel like this is especially true if the LW is talking to patients, families, and providers about care or reimbursement. Even more so if she is in a role that approves or denies coverage for care. Feeling like the person you are talking to about getting X treatment for Y condition covered for you/a loved one is distracted and not focused on your problem would make many people furious.

        1. Anna*

          Hearing a kiddo in the background during a call dealing with a miscarriage or D&C. I would not be okay with that, and hope OP1 hears us out on this one.

    5. LizB*

      At a minimum, OP1’s current WFH setup is not suited to her role.

      Problem one is an apparent lack of appropriate soundproofing, if her kiddo can be heard in the background — which I’m reading as “when he’s not in the room with me,” i.e. through the walls or door. For this kind of work, you need a space where you won’t hear the boisterous four-year-old in the next room.

      Problem two is that kiddo has access to her workspace, or has gotten access at least once. If it’s more than once, it’s a very very big problem.

      Problem three is that once kiddo gets home, she wants to spend time with him. This is understandable – parents want to see their kids, kids want to see their parents, afternoons are rough times for focusing anyway, a myriad of reasons. But I think it’s making the OP unwilling to set the boundaries she needs to set to resolve problems 1 and 2, and preventing her from seeing this as the problem it truly is.

      There are a few steps to fix things here: the OP should make sure she has a lock on her workspace door and some draft blockers to help minimize sound. She can set really, really good boundaries with kiddo, and enforce them consistently, that he needs to be with nanny on the other side of the house, and mommy isn’t actually here until she’s done with work. (This will be painful in the short term, but possible, and probably good for him in the long run!) Or, she can arrange for kiddo and nanny to go elsewhere for a few hours after preschool – a park? a library? nanny-share with another household and go to their house? She can try to find a remote work space that’s not her home that will meet her role’s requirements. She can try shifting her work hours so she’s done when kiddo gets home, or kiddo’s school hours so they match better with her work. But it all starts with her recognizing that yes, this is actually a Very Big Problem for her role, and she does very much need to address it with something other than “well this is how it is, manager, why are you so unreasonable?”

    6. Vicky Austin*

      Or else strictly enforce the rule “don’t bother Mommy when she’s working.”
      My father is a lawyer, and while he worked in an office outside the house, he often had to make work calls from home or take office work home. My sister and I were given strict instructions, “Don’t bother Daddy when he is working,” and he and my mom made sure to enforce it 100%.

      1. we're basically gods*

        Yep, same for me! I think I was close in age to OP’s son when my dad started working from home full-time. He wasn’t normally on calls, he just needed to focus, but it was still very clear that if his door was closed, my brother and I weren’t to bother him with anything that wasn’t really important– and even then, we did the thing where you knock lightly and then quietly poke your head around the door to see the reaction.

    7. Countess Boochie Flagrante*

      Yep. My father used to take me with him on jobs occasionally when childcare fell through — he’s a piano tuner, which meant he was in people’s homes and needed silence from me in order to work. He absolutely did shush me or push me away when I tried to distract him while working, and I had to learn to self-entertain quietly and without making a mess. It’s not going to scar the kid, and might even teach him some good life skills.

      1. Megan*

        I agree it’s not going to scar the kid, but it’s also not going to produce silence in the moment from a toddler. Nanny needs to do better at keeping kid away, for sure, which I’m not sure OP quite gets, but literally pushing the kid away is likely to just increase the volume in the short term.

        Also the guy whose kid came in during the tv interview got called abusive by many people for pushing the kid away. I don’t agree with that assessment, but apparently lots of people do think it’s scarring.

        1. Vicky Austin*

          Except he DIDN’T push the child away. The nanny came in and took the child out of the room.

          1. DarnTheMan*

            TBF when the daughter came up and leaned on the desk, dad did reach down for her but it was definitely less of a “push” and more of a “daddy’s busy. go someplace not here” nudge/tap.

    8. Bubbles*

      I work for my local school district. My son attends an elementary school within the district. In the last few months, a position opened at the school that was my next goal – a level higher than me but something I could totally do. Even though it would have been AMAZING getting a higher wage, having better hours, and seeing my kid more often, I passed on applying and told the principal why: my son could not handle me being that close without being with me constantly. He wouldn’t be able to handle me helping other kids or having priorities that aren’t listening to him complain about the cafeteria changing the brand of chicken nuggets they buy (a real conversation we had this weekend!). I love him, but I cannot have him in my work space. He doesn’t respect it and takes it personally when I shut him down.

      OP#1 needs to recognize that you cannot support your son and your family by jeopardizing your job. Allowing your child to be present on calls is jeopardizing your job. It isn’t cruel or unreasonable to tell your child you are off-limits in that area. It is teaching them boundaries and respect for others.

    9. Tilly*

      My mom would WFH for overtime my entire childhood doing medical coding. We knew not to go near her computer or stop behind her screen etc. because of HIPPA.

  14. Avasarala*

    I’m always surprised by people feeling guilty about lying or “lying by omission” when their employer asks them about their future/career plans. By that definition, you’re always lying by omission when you talk to your employer! “Sure, I can finish this today (I’ll just have to get McDonalds for dinner and get home late).” “Yes I’m interested in internal career opportunities (mostly for the money).” “No I’m not looking elsewhere (well I am but I’m not ready to tell you yet).” “I can’t come in today, I’m sick (of your BS and need a mental health day).”

    1. LW4*

      Avasarala, I needed this comment! You’re right, we do lie all the time at work… I shouldn’t feel singularly dishonest for avoiding this question.

  15. Observer*

    #1 – You are talking to outside people who are under a lot of stress about highly sensitive and persona things. You absolutely CANNOT have you child in the background, much less be talking to him. If I hear normal office people noises in the background of such a call I’m not going to be thrilled, but I’m going to assume that the people I can hear in the background are hopefully people who could be handling my call or others like it, so not so terrible. But if I hear a CHILD in the background, then I know that a CHILD IS HEARING THE CONVERSATION. That’s a major no. If I then hear YOU talking to the child, I know that you are NOT paying full attention to my problem.

    Also, your employer may very well be worried about HIPAA – if you are talking to your child while you are on a call and you say you have coverage at that time, that means that there are two people who are hearing calls that may very well be covered by that law – your child (who may not understand but could easily blab) and an adult who may very well understand what they are hearing.

    1. valentine*

      If I hear normal office people noises in the background of such a call […] If I then hear YOU talking to the child, I know that you are NOT paying full attention to my problem.
      If I hear other reps and ringing, I feel bad that my rep has to listen to the hubbub all day and they can put me on hold for any length of time, solve my issue, and I’m thrilled. But if they were interacting with someone in their home, I wouldn’t know how much of our conversation they checked out for.

    2. Three Flowers*

      That’s what I thought when I read #1 too…the manager isn’t managing well because she apparently hasn’t explained it’s a potential legal liability (not just HIPAA, but distraction), but repeatedly doing something that could be taken by a lawyer to imply HIPAA violations are happening is exactly the sort of thing that would go to HR very fast.

    3. AntiSocialite*

      Great point. I totally forgot about the babysitter being there, and her saying it’s not a private area, just “secluded”. As someone who has worked lots of support center roles, many of which deal with confidentiality, this was painful to read.

      1. Scarlet2*

        This. My first thought when I read the letter was “I don’t see any mention of a nanny in the letter, it actually looks like LW is taking care of the kid themselves and the manager is concerned they’re distracted and do not have the childcare arrangements often required in a WFH situation”. But you’re right that if there IS a nanny, that makes it even worse in terms of potential HIPAA violations.

        1. Vicky Austin*

          I hadn’t even thought about the possibility that there might not be a nanny- I just assumed there was!
          If there’s no nanny, then Mom needs to either hire one or put her son in daycare for her entire work day.

    4. Lilo*

      HIPAA is interesting. My dad is a physician and while he worked in his office he sometimes had to take calls at strange hours. We didn’t have a private office for him at home so you’d sometimes wake up at 4AM and Dad was at the kitchen table reassuring some patient’s mom that their kid was fine. Or we were put somewhere on the weekend and he would have to take emergency calls.

      For that I do wonder, clearly outside of office hours and doctors are often “on call”. He was already putting long days in at the hospital. But they can’t go into the office for every phone call.

      1. WS*

        When you were a kid, HIPAA wasn’t as strict! These days, he still wouldn’t need to go into the office for every call, but any planned call would be expected to have nobody else able to listen in, including his kids. There is some leeway for medical staff on call but not onsite (basically, get to a private area ASAP), but that doesn’t apply in this circumstance.

        1. Lilo*

          Yeah, it’s hard, we already expect so.much of doctors. Patient privacy is important but so is the understanding that someone who is already taking an unscheduled call when she’s out with her kids can’t further disrupt her day off.

          That isn’t the circumstance with the LW, though.

        2. JSPA*

          I’ve had a doctor disclose that they can’t offer full privacy, and offer to call back in an hour, and ask me not to say anything requiring privacy / say that they could answer yes-no questions. I happily verbally released them (not actually legal, I think… has to be in writing) and formulated the issue in a way that allowed yes-no answers.

        3. Gyratory Circus*

          FTR, HIPAA wasn’t passed until 1996, and it took a few years after that to have all parts of it roll out. I was working at a hospital at the time and there was major revamping of how we did things because of it.

        4. DarnTheMan*

          My BiL is a doctor – though not in the States – but when he’s on call, this is exactly it; if someone calls, he always, always excuses himself take the call and on more than one occasion has shut himself in a (single use) washroom to guarantee privacy.

      2. TheFacelessOldWomanWhoSecretlyLivesinYour House*

        Huh. I find this amazing as no physician I know would call anyone after hours. And it was the nursing staff who called with results, etc.

        1. Lilo*

          My dad works with a lot of very ill pediatric patients (one of his jobs oversees pediatric hospice patients) so it is not uncommon for parents to be calling him late at night. Even if they have to take the kid to the hospital my Dad often gets called.

        2. Senor Montoya*

          When my son was on chemo, I had pager numbers for the oncologist, the hematology fellow on call, and the head nurse at the day hospital. Absolutely I paged the fellow on call first after hours, then followed up with a page to the oncologist, when we had a possibly serious situation. Sometimes the nurse if it was appropriate. The fellow was at the hospital, the oncologist was not – and he ALWAYS called back promptly, I know he was calling from home.

          Occasionally I would also call my son’s pediatrician (nurse line), and often the nurse would kick it to the doc after we spoke; again, the doc was calling me from home because the office was literally closed and locked up.

          So, it’s not as unusual as one might think. For basically healthy people doing the usual tests and check ups, sure, it’s from the office. For sick people or people with chronic or emergent conditions, often not from the office.

        3. 050217*

          My husband is a resident (so yes, a doctor), and he has called patients after surgery when he was on call and they had concerns. He normally just goes into the hospital to see them, but occasionally the patient was at home and just wanted to make sure they didn’t need to go to the ER. It’s not frequent, but it happens. (I’m sure it happens a lot to OBGYN when they’re on call too…. my husband is not).

      3. Viette*

        I don’t have kids, so when I do this (which is more frequent than you’d think, because it includes being on home call for patients but also when another doctor calls you and you need to talk about a patient), I immediately hop up and leave the room, or flag my my husband down and he leaves the room. He’s very used to it. All my friends are used to me being like, “Oop, work,” and getting up and going into the spare bedroom. Once I had another doctor call me when my husband and I couldn’t easily get away from each other, and he grabbed his headphones and put them in with music on.

        My office also has a sort of paging/answering system, so patients calling in gives us a message to call them back. That gives me a few minutes to get myself someplace else. And when I’m on call I don’t go places where I couldn’t take a phone call in private if I had to (like an open-air concert or something).

        A 4-year-old is harder, but that’s why you have childcare: to tell the child, “no, you can’t go in there, Mommy’s working right now,” and then take that seriously and make sure it’s enforced.

        1. Adultiest Adult*

          I’ve done this in my position in mental health–rather memorably, I once had to hop up from a chair in the middle of twenty-five family members at a pre-wedding gathering and speed away to the other side of a hotel entrance, when a staff member called me urgently about hospitalizing one of my patients. That was also the incident where it finally clicked for some of my older relatives. “Oh, you have a real job now!” HIPPA is not to be trifled with!

    5. earl grey aficionado*

      Yeah, I’ve had to make calls to nurses in this role during several of my own very painful, stressful medical emergencies, and hearing a child’s voice on the call would have been extremely upsetting to me. Every time I’ve called it was while I was actively in agony and needed to get guidance on whether or not to head to the ER or wait for an appointment with my specialist. Even if OP isn’t handling those types of urgent calls, we’re still talking about medical situations, which most people find nerve-wracking to talk about even if they’re not emergencies. I would feel differently if this had happened during a company’s internal meeting or even during a non-medical client meeting, but under the circumstances I don’t feel the manager’s reaction was that out of line.

      I say that with a great deal of sympathy for the OP and the full belief that we need to loosen up our cultural expectations around kids and work… But there are exceptions to that attitude and I think this is one of them. It’s not just about professionalism. It’s about these callers genuinely requiring your full attention, which they won’t have if you’re interrupted by your son.

  16. Three Flowers*

    #5, it doesn’t sound from this like you’d actually be required to pay anything back…you’d just be asked to pay the tuition for the part of the semester during which you are no longer employed. That sounds eminently reasonable to me.

  17. Sleve McDichael*

    For #4 I think the question about external opportunities might be referring to ones your company can still provide such as conference travel or training seminars. They can’t possibly be expecting people to write down ‘Yes, actually I’ve been applying to jobs for two months and I have an interview on Wednesday’!

    1. RecoveringSWO*

      That’s exactly what I thought, especially because they said internal of external. This reminded me of the letter earlier this week where the 23 year employee complained that management didn’t reach out and ask her about promotion. This company is asking which employees want to promote or what kind of skills they want to train/gain experience on.

    2. LW4*

      There’s another question in the form about “what professional development, training, coaching, etc. you would require to do your job well or better” (paraphrasing), so I don’t think that’s what the “opportunities” question is getting at. But yeah, I don’t know who, in their right mind, would admit to external job-searching when being assessed on their performance, unless they were some irreplaceable superstar using the threat of leaving as leverage for a raise.

      An awkward thing with this is that I actually offered to take voluntary redundancy last year, but it was turned down (one of the people who was being laid off at the time would have had to take my job, and no one wanted it — quelle surprise). So it’s actually pretty obvious that I want out, but yeah, no. Not going to bring it up voluntarily when a merit increase is on the line.

  18. FriendlyCanadian*

    I have a chronic illness and am often calling my nurse care manager at my insurance company/drug company/hospital (I have a lot of nurses lol) and I would be frustrated if there was background noise or a kid in the background. These are often embarrassing or scary calls so if you hear home noise or kids you assume either other people can hear you or your not getting your nurses full attention. I get why the manager might be concerned

    1. AntiSocialite*

      Thank you for sharing that, it’s a really good point about someone in this specific role.

    2. earl grey aficionado*

      +1. I’m chronically ill as well and have made these calls and I think the same thing. This isn’t a normal situation where a kid was audible on a work call. It’s an especially sensitive circumstance and I do think it makes sense for the manager to take it extremely seriously right off the bat.

    3. Blarg*

      I’m a nurse case manager (not home based) and not only is it stressful for clients, you don’t want to be perceived as not fully focused.

      All calls are recorded — but I doubt all are listened to. I wonder if the client complained and the manager listened to the specific call to confirm.

  19. Martijn*

    The difference between #5 at a university and a regular company is that the tuition has almost zero direct costs to the university, whereas a company would have paid the full tuition to the university. This also follows from the terminology: they are not paying your tuition, it’s a tuition _remission_. Requesting back _actual_ costs might be reasonable, but the entire tuition fee certainly doesn’t seem reasonable to me.

    1. fposte*

      Tuition absolutely costs a university, and it’s expensive to boot. It also sounds like they’re not even requesting a payback; it’s just that remission stops immediately upon termination of employment so that the ex-employee would have to cover the costs for the rest of the semester.

    2. S*

      But the letter writer says that the amount of money they owe is prorated so they’d only be paying for the cost of the classes they took while no longer employed. They’re not having to pay back money for everything.

      1. Kyrielle*

        I wonder whether they’re allowed to immediately drop the class and avoid paying, though. If not, the fact that they also owe it if fired / let go – if the departure is involuntary – is not good. “Hi, we are going to take away your income AND then you will owe some of it to us” – yikes. (But if they can drop the course(s) and avoid it in that case, then it bites, but it gives them control and a choice.)

        1. fposte*

          That’s my guess–that this is really a way to say “If you finish, you have to do it on your own dime” and that if the employee doesn’t cough up they’re purged from the roll, rather than something they ever seek reimbursement for already-processed waivers.

    3. Alton*

      There may not be a direct cost, but there is the potential for lost tuition money if seats are taken by employees instead of paying students.

    4. Yorick*

      Tuition doesn’t cover the full cost of a student attending. Colleges and universities get a lot of money from the state and other institutions they’re affiliated with (like a religious organization if it’s affiliated with a particular church org)

      1. Tess*

        Sometimes. Some state universities have shockingly low funding from the state. Colorado, for instance, passed some legislation decades ago that make it nearly impossible to fund higher ed properly. So some state schools are trapped in a limited budget/cash-strapped/high tuition situation with few viable solutions.

  20. NewHerePleaseBeNice*

    My company has banned all staff from travelling to China until at least the end of February. If there are flight or hotel cancellations costs they’re being dealt with. No drama.

    1. JSPA*

      There are internal and external bans on China travel. But SE Asia? That’s like refusing to go to Mexico because of an outbreak in Canada. Which is to say, if you’re coming from Europe and booked through Toronto, you’d have an argument, but if you’re flying direct Madrid to Mexico? Not really (unless frightened Canadians are pouring into Mexico).

      1. Allypopx*

        If this is an American based company – and I’m not trying to be insulting or condescending, I’m American and it’s just a fact of the culture – there’s a decent chance this employee doesn’t have an appreciation for how far apart SE Asia and China are, particularly in terms of the spread of communicable disease. Now that’s not great, but this is a hugely media hyped world health crisis and people are scared. I don’t think the real anxiety the employee is probably feeling should be undermined, and I do think this is a cost of doing business.

        And in all fairness, travel in general is a little scary. Hell my college campus had a recent (well handled and controlled) confirmed case of coronavirus, and I’m on the eastern seaboard. People are all worked up right now.

      2. Chinookwind*

        Since a lot of Canadians do vacation in Mexico, especially at this time of year, I would be at least watching for a reported illness in Mexico. Once one was reported, even though it isn’t an outbreak, I would be be concerned about those that haven’t been caught yet. I think that is what is happening with concerns about SE Asia – this is a major travel period for China due to the New Year, so one reported infection could either be “only case” or “first case” and I don’t know if I would be willing to take that risk for a conference.

  21. Clementine*

    I know it’s definitely not comfortable to have the conversation about the 4-year-old’s noise, but I suggest the poster look at ways to completely isolate herself from anything family-related during the work day. This might be as extreme as renting a room from a neighbor, for example. Although your manager was not exactly tactful, she actually gave you an extra chance to resolve this issue without consequences to your job. So figure out how you can be sure you have 100% isolation from family noises, and keep in mind the business reasons, well-described by other posters, why this is so important.
    I would worry that a scheduled break with the child is going to spill over into the workplace. Unless you take this break outside the home, it’s almost inevitable.

  22. FE*

    #1 IDK if LW’s job changes this, but I work in IT in the UK and it’s not unheard of to hear a dog barking or a child crying in the background of the odd call when someone’s WFH. Generally speaking if someone has to address someone in their home they’d make a brief apology and mute their mic, which is also what they’d usually do if they needed to deal with a coworker in the office while on a call. I’ve begged a moment’s grace to go answer the door and take a delivery, and ignored whatever weird household sounds come from my coworkers’ mics.

    Maybe the specific legalities are different for this situation, but for me I would think it a touch embarrassing but nothing serious.

    1. Red Reader the Adulting Fairy*

      Totally different. LW1 is talking to customers, not internal coworkers, on a legally recorded line, and discussing legally protected private and identifying health information.

    2. Bagpuss*

      I think it depends massively on the type of work.
      I’m also in the UK – and that kind of background noise would be a real issue if the worker was in a job where confidentiality was expected – e.g. medicine, law, finance etc. I think with IT it’s different as there isn’t automatically quite the same requirement for such strict privacy/confidentiality.

      I think asking for a moment to answer the door is also slightly different as in that case you are basically pausing the call, there’s not the same issue of someone else hearing it, or you giving it less than your full attention.

    3. londonedit*

      Yes, I think there’s a big difference between ‘Oops, my child barged in when I was on a conference call with the office’ and ‘External clients/customers can hear me speaking to my child when I’m on calls with them’. With the first one, your boss might still be annoyed, but it’d be easier to say ‘I’m so sorry, that should not have happened, our nanny is going to take Child to the park now so there won’t be any further interruptions’. If it was an important call with a major client, or as in the OP’s case you’re dealing with customers or patients, then I think it does look incredibly unprofessional. People don’t expect to be hearing pets or children or anything other than low-level call centre hubbub when they’re on the phone to something like an insurance company.

    4. Scout Finch*

      Many IT people work from home, either consistently or on call overnight. I almost expect to hear their lives butt in once in a while.

      I think being a nurse dealing with specific, personal health issues requires the nurse’s full attention. It’s way different than talking someone thru an IT issue.

    5. Yorick*

      This wasn’t a child crying in the background, it was a conversation between OP and the child while she was supposed to be talking to a customer/client.

    6. CommanderBanana*

      My dog has figured out that if she starts whining when I’m a conference call, she’ll get a ball or toy (because she immediately runs upstairs to destroy it) so I warn people in advance that they may hear a mournful little “woooooooooo!” in the background.

  23. Moop*

    #2: How will the company even enforce reimbursement? Most places have laws about making a deduction from an employee’s wages. Debt collection practicalities aside, asking an employee to pay back costs in this circumstance would be a quick way to plummet their productivity and any motivation they previously had to contribute to the organisation. What a terrible idea.

    1. Baja*

      At my company, the tuition reimbursement per year is $5,000, and if you leave the company without having stayed an additional year then the amount is due very shortly if not immediately upon resigning. And my company quickly/almost immediately files lawsuits to get that money back in those scenarios where the employee breaks the agreement/contract. But this is a company, not a higher ed institution.

    2. Smithy*

      I think this is where the point of employee morale dropping becomes significant. Presuming that the OP’s business is not one where a degree of risky travel is involved or perhaps expected, the physical act of asking for funds back and trying to enforce that sounds awful. Would the company not approve PTO until a payment plan had started? Freeze all other non-essential work travel? Take them off projects? It just sounds wild and like terrible internal PR.

    3. Senor Montoya*

      The employer in this case is a college/university. They would send a bill for tuition just as they would for any student. If the bill was not paid, it could go to collections.

      In this case also, you’re *not* asking an employee to pay — employees get the tuition remission. If you leave employment before completing the class, then you no longer get the benefit (tuition remission) because you are just the same as any old Joe taking a class at the university, and any old Joe pays tuition.

      1. fposte*

        They could, but I wouldn’t be surprised if they just bounced the student from the class and ate the loss; the university is reserving the right to come after them but I think it’s more to make the point that you gotta pay if you still want to get the credit.

        1. fposte*

          Yes, but moop’s comment was about the tuition, so that’s why responses are addressing that question.

          1. Jen2*

            I assumed so too, but the comment doesn’t actually mention tuition, and both #2 and #5 were about reimbursement.

  24. Scout Finch*

    #5 I have worked in higher ed for 15 years. The policy at both institutions: the employee must be employed at the institution on the final day of the semester (in which employee is enrolled) in order to receive the benefit. Also applies in the case of dependents, who get 50% discount on tuition.

    There is no clawback on older terms. Just must be an employee for the entire semester.

  25. NYWeasel*

    #4: Our survey asks a similar question. My experience has been that in a big team, it’s only looked at if there’s a significant percentage saying they are exploring outside positions. In a smaller team, I’ve seen it get really uncomfortable. Imagine a team of 6 with 2 people saying they are looking and suddenly 3 of the people feel compelled to assure the boss that they weren’t looking. I was that 4th person, and the newest member of the team, so I felt pressured to join in, but I also felt like a jerk bc it was then painfully obvious who was looking. The worst part? I was already looking too but didn’t feel comfortable admitting it yet.

    1. Half-Caf Latte*

      Yeah, our new performance eval tool asks a similar question. I feel like there must have been a keynote advocating this at some big OD conference. Ours is phrased something to the effect of do you feel well positioned in your role or are you looking for new opportunities in the next year?

      I desperately want to suggest to my employer that they look at departments where no one ever says yes I’d like to move up/on, and probe into the culture/managerial style in those areas.

  26. Legend In My Own Mind*

    I’m curious how (or if) the response to LW1 would differ if the background noise had been, say, a dog loudly barking in the background. I would think that might come across as just as unprofessional, maybe even more so.

    1. Bagpuss*

      But it wouldn’t have any of the same concerns about confidentiality, and while a dog barking might be distracting, I think it’s less likely that people will have the impression that you will focus your attention on that rather than on the call, than if the distraction is your own small child.

      1. Diahann Carroll*

        + 1

        There really is a difference when you’re talking about a nurse making recorded calls for an insurance company where those calls could end up in a lawsuit as evidence of a mishandled claim versus an animal in the background of a remote IT worker’s call. If I were the manager and heard the former one time, I probably would just remind the employee that their kid needs to be somewhere away from her workspace during working hours per company policy – the HR threat makes sense if this isn’t the first time the manager has heard it or, as was posited upthread, OP didn’t seem sufficiently concerned about what the issue is here.

    2. Delta Delta*

      I once got a call from a company I do some business with. I answered because I knew it was a known business contact. Just as I answered, the rep said, “Alexa, next song,” and I heard people in the background. I didn’t know if it was a joke or a phishing call masked with a known number, or what was going on. The rep seemed surprised I was on the line (why? Why be surprised if a known business contact answers when you call?) and seemed flustered when he talked to me. This was all bad timing and also so unprofessional.

      I say all this to point out that sometimes there are background sounds, but if you’re working and can control the sounds, do it. You have no idea how it comes across on the other end. Also, none of this was healthcare, but if it was I would have contacted his management immediately.

      1. JSPA*

        Butt dialling (or Alexa dialling) clients from a party is obviously flustering, confusing and unintentional.

        1. Delta Delta*

          this was not during a party. It was a business call that he intentionally placed. When we started talking he indicated the reason for his call (at 1:00 p.m. on a Tuesday). I suspect he didn’t expect me to answer and was unprepared when I did.

          1. JSPA*

            Or…Alexa said, “calling Delta Delta” which is not what he’d told Alexa to do, and in a flustered moment, instead of saying, “sorry, I didn’t mean to call,” he tried to BS?

            Surely everyone has done this with one or another device (tapped redial while trying to look at a contact, or not realized what Alexa was doing, before it was too late to cancel). Probably the best way to handle talking when you were not prepared to talk is, “I was looking up your information to send you an update by email, but the phone put the call through. Seeing I have you on the line, is there anything you’d like to touch base on? …… OK, then have a great day, and look for an email tomorrow.” But too many people will do the cat-falling-off-the-table, “I meant to do that” save. Which is awkward as heck, and thus more unprofessional than admitting to a glitch.

      2. Quill*

        I would, incidentally, not be surprised if the number of humans born in the next few years named Alexa plummets…

        Also I’d be wary about discussing any confidential information with someone who had an alexa in the room, human or machine. Humans blab, machines can be hacked.

    3. Yorick*

      If you interrupted the call to tell your dog to be quiet, it would still be bad. Not quite as bad since it isn’t an indication that another human is in the room (or maybe more than one) listening to the call.

    4. Goofy*

      To me, if you WFH in a job that is primarily phone-based and you have a dog that routinely barks and can be heard in the background of calls, I would say that you have an obligation to put the dog in doggy daycare or make some other arrangement so there isn’t a loud, distracting, obviously “home” oriented noise coming through on the line.

    5. Well, there's this*

      I’m less bothered by a dog than a person. There need to be some allowances when someone works from home. You can’t ask the UPS driver to only show up when you aren’t on the phone. I once had to cut a call short because my apartment was testing the fire alarm and pick it up from the diner down the street.

    6. we're basically gods*

      If it was a dog barking, I wouldn’t mind. If it was the LW responding to the dog or audibly interacting with the dog while they were supposed to be talking to me, I would be pretty annoyed. I’d also be annoyed if I was on a call with someone working in an office and I heard them engage in a conversation with a coworker that was unrelated to our conversation, especially if I was calling about insurance! I think the issue is more about focus than about the specific sound.

  27. Fake Old Converse Shoes (not in the US)*

    OP2, check if your company’s HR doesn’t have guidelines for this situation. As soon as the WHO got serious, HR sent a formal statement cancelling all business trips to China and urging those with trips to Asia to check with their managers ASAP. If this employee has a legit reason to cancel (eg: immunocompromised, dealing with people in high risk groups) it should be taken into account.

  28. Batty*

    #5 – I work at a major university in my state and get to to take 10 credit hours each semester tuition-free. The agreement states that if I leave while enrolled, I need to pay for any credits I’m currently taking. I think its pretty common.

  29. BrotherFlounder*

    OP1’s manager seems waaaaaaay over the top here – even if the policy is that strict (and given that HIPAA could easily be in play here, that’s reasonable), this seems like a very poor way to manage someone. I wonder if they’re overly draconian in other areas as well or if OP1’s kid is definitely in the background more than it seems and manager hasn’t brought it up with OP1 before.

    1. Long Time Fed*

      I don’t see anything outrageous about the employer’s reaction. If you are working, your children should not be heard in the background. If they are, it’s unprofessional and reflects poorly on the employee and company. Get child care that actually, I don’t know, cares for the child away from you or go into the office.

    2. Yorick*

      I think the manager is right to be very concerned, but I don’t know what they mean by “go to HR.” Is this how people talk about write-ups or whatever?

      1. JSPA*

        In many companies, HR oversees (or administers or signs off on or is present in any conversation concerning) a PIP. (Or a firing without PIP, having verified the seriousness of the offense.) I’m thinking OP should take this seriously, for that alone.

    3. Observer*

      Noting draconian at all. Not well handled, as it should have been a conversation with a reference to the issue at hand. But, DEFINITELY something that needs to be CLEARLY stopped.

    4. Annony*

      I think it may in part be due to the OP’s response though. “I also can’t put a mute button on my son even when he’s talking in the background or push him away when he hasn’t seen me all day.” That suggests that she doesn’t see a problem with having him in the room. It is possible the manager went draconian in order to try to get across that it really really isn’t ok.

      1. Impy*

        Yep. In my brief managerial career I once went a bit ballistic when an employee was late. Tbf it wasn’t because he was late in itself – public transport was terrible. It was because he’d made himself twenty minutes later by grabbing a coffee and breakfast, because “what’s the big deal”. The perceived lack of sense and respect was infuriating.