my employees keep contacting me when I’m off work

A reader writes:

I manage a staff of 18 who work varying shift times. When I’m out of the office, whether that’s due to vacation, illness, or just regular days off, my staff constantly contacts me. It’s mostly questions about things that could easily be handled by someone else in the building, management or not. Sometimes it’s something urgent, but rarely ever. And sometimes it’s at all hours of the day and night, like 3 a.m. to say they can’t make it to work in the morning, when there are clear guidelines on when they should contact me in that situation, which is at the earliest 6 a.m. Or they’ll contact me about schedule changes or switches, which is something I cannot do when I’m at home.

Our work can be very stressful, and it’s important for everyone (including me) to have time to decompress. I don’t feel it’s unreasonable to ask that I’m not contacted when I’m off, especially when other management is there to address the situation. Am I being unreasonable here? Do I have to answer their texts and calls?

I answer this question — and four others — over at Inc. today, where I’m revisiting letters that have been buried in the archives here from years ago (and sometimes updating/expanding my answers to them). You can read it here.

Other questions I’m answering there today include:

  • How can I shut down weight talk on my team?
  • Who should communicate a lay-off?
  • People who ask questions that were answered in the same email they’re replying to
  • When is a reference too old to use?

{ 186 comments… read them below }

  1. Junior Assistant Peon*

    You manage 18 people. This kind of thing is part of the job when you reach such a high level of responsibility.

    1. TheMonkey*

      No, no it’s not. People are allowed to have time where they are not responsive to work. Managing 18 people is not such a high level of responsibility at many companies to require 24/7 access, particularly when (as they say) other management is onsite to handle things in their absence.

      1. Cat Tree*

        I agree. If I’m making a 7-figure salary I can be on call 24/7 to earn that. Middle managers are allowed to have a life outside work.

        I do think 18 direct reports is quite a lot though. At my company in an adjacent department, the group is so large that there are 2 co-managers. Officially half the people report to each one, but they are interchangeable for day-to-day questions based on who is available.

        1. Amaranth*

          Also, regardless of the salary, there are multiple managers or layers of management for a reason. If the shift manager isn’t available or responsive then that is a problem in itself, but OP might also need to look at the processes in place for shift changes, etc. Are they the only person who can sign off on *everything*?

          1. doreen*

            The letter doesn’t mention shift managers – I’ve had a couple of jobs where people made their own schedules based on their caseload so that they might work from 2pm -10 pm on Monday if they were visiting clients that were only available in the evenings or from 5 am to 1 pm on Thursday if they were visiting clients who were only available early in the morning. If it’s a real emergency, a manager will respond no matter what time it is and will not be annoyed – but calling me at 5am to tell me you were in a car accident while working is very different from calling/texting me at 5 am to say you are taking a sick day. Especially since they know I have to have my phone turned on just in case that emergency call comes in and they have work phones that they can use to email me if they will be out sick.

    2. DC*

      This could easily be my manager at my part-time restaurant job. I firmly believe people text him at 3, or when he’s not in- I’ve done it accidentally, telling him I’m running a few minutes late just to find out he’s actually off that day.

      The context from the staff side is we never know who is the on-site FOH manager we do need to tell until we are on site. Are you clearly communicating with your staff who they need to talk to when it’s not you? I would bet you’re not, or not as well as you think.

      1. Aspiring Chicken Lady*

        Here’s a good case for a shared communication resource (whether it’s a shared email account, or a physically passed cellphone) for the manager on duty. One point of contact for someone who may not know which person is in charge at this particular moment.

        And if it’s not a matter of “who’s in charge because I’m about to create a coverage issue” but is a “I don’t know how to make this decision at work” issue — then I agree w/Allison, be really clear about how “emergency” situations are to be handled, including what the definition is.

        Also, don’t solve ANY non-emergency problems when you’re off duty. Even if it takes longer to text back “sorry, not on duty right now” than “look in the X file”. Train them out of it.

        1. Joielle*

          Yeah, a joint Google Voice number or email address or something where only the person on duty gets notifications would solve a lot of these problems.

        2. Hex Libris*

          Yep, my first thought was “this justifies a company cell phone,” whether each manager gets one (that they can turn off when they’re on vacation!) or it gets passed around on a duty schedule.

    3. Ashley*

      I would agree if it is a high level urgent issue (and a smaller organization without redundancy of roles) , but for routine matters and calls off this should not be the norm.

    4. Kevin Sours*

      It’s really not. Urgent matters are but routine issues can and should be handled during normal hours. There is “ther management there to address the situation” for a reason.

    5. SpecialSpecialist*

      Yeah, plus if I’m sick at midnight and know it’s not going to resolve itself in time for me to be at work at 8am, then I’m emailing/texting my boss in the middle of the night with the expectation/understanding that they’re not going to see it or do anything with it until they get to the office. I’m not setting an alarm to contact them at 6am. And, I’m fully ok with my reports doing the same thing.

      1. JSPA*

        Thus, “delayed send,” if you want them to have their devices set to put your calls and texts through as “urgent.” Otherwise, you’re asking to be on their “do not disturb” list, no matter how urgent.

        1. Archaeopteryx*

          I would say the onus is on the manager (and on everyone except maybe emergency responders) to just silence their phones at night. You should be able to send an email or text at 3am without assuming it will make a noise on the recipient’s end, and if it does, well, that’s their choice.

          1. mmppgh*

            Fair point if it is a work phone. However, if they are using their personal phone, that’s an unrealistic expectation.

            1. Ana Gram*

              I do this on my personal phone (I have a work phone as well). Maybe it’s just because it’s an easy feature on an iPhone but I silence everyone except like 7 people, silence all texts, and allow calls that happen twice in quick succession. I need sleep and I’m not willing to be woken up by random calls.

              Lest anyone think I’m being cavalier, my husband is a police officer and works night shifts so it’s a real possibility he may be injured at work and they’ll need to contact me. He’s aware I silence my phone and we both know they’ll come bang on the door if they need me.

              1. Windchime*

                Mine is set up in a similar way (I have a son who is a police officer). Calls on my “Favorites” list will come through no matter what. Texts and all other notifications are silenced during the night. So if something work-related came through, I wouldn’t hear it because my coworkers aren’t on my Favorites list and they would have to be on my list AND have called me for me to know about it.

          2. Office Lobster DJ*

            I’d personally split the difference here. E-mails for things that can wait until morning, texts for “The building’s flooding and you’re the only one with a key to the llama lifejacket closet. Hurry!”

          3. TechWorker*

            +1 – if anyone is CALLING at 3am to say they can’t be in tomorrow, we’ll that’s insanity. But if someone is texting at 3am – why the hell do you have your phone set up to alert you loudly enough to wake you! Texts are meant to be asynchronous communication – I don’t even know how to send a message on a delay (so I don’t think that’s super common?) and I wouldn’t expect someone who is sick to set a specific alarm for 6am so they can text then.

            (Otoh I totally disagree with the ‘you have 18 reports so you should be on all hours’ – fuck that. Senior people, even if well paid, are people (!) who need downtime like everyone else, especially for things that can be handled by people who are actually meant to be working).

          4. Kevin Sours*

            Strong nope. It’s a perfectly reasonable ask for employees to follow documented contact procedures. It’s perfectly reasonable to say, don’t call or text after hours unless it’s urgent, otherwise email. It’s actually perfectly reasonable to say don’t call or text during work hours unless it’s urgent.

            I’m not sure it *is* reasonable to assume a text won’t alert and there may be reasons that it does. Like they need to get texts after hours for urgent issues.

    6. Meep*

      As someone who manages 10 people including a CEO and VP on a barely higher than entry-level salary, no. The number of questions I get from people who could figure out the answer on their own if they spent two seconds rubbing their two good brain cells together is insane. I will help the newer/greener employees with “stupid” questions because a panic brain is a glorious thing. I will help people with less experience with our Software. I will even help my boss-boss. The obnoxious manager who asks me questions as some stupid power move because she hates anyone but herself taking a vacation? Nope. She can figure it out on her own when I am on vacation.

    7. Ben Marcus Consulting*

      No it’s not and managing 18 people isn’t really that high a level of responsibility.

      It’s extremely easy to see management as a component of a machine, but they are people and they do need off-time.

    8. anonymous73*

      Wrong. It’s clear from the letter that there are options when OP is out. But if she keeps answering the calls and texts, they will keep calling and texting. She needs to retrain them to follow proper channels and only reach out for an urgent matter. And DEFINE urgent.

    9. turquoisecow*

      I think the issue is less the number of employees and more the different shifts. OP can’t be at work ALL the time but if her employees are often there when she’s not, they definitely need to have some sort of backup to contact. If there isn’t a second in command or a backup person who does the job when OP isn’t there, then they should seriously think about putting them in that role.

      It could be that OP’s employees aren’t comfortable going to other managers or they don’t have a relationship with them where they want to “bother” them, or they just don’t know. If that’s the case OP and the others need to make sure it’s crystal clear.

      1. James*

        This could even be an opportunity for the LW. They can delegate some of the responsibility to 1-2 of their employees–have them handle calls before 7 am/after 5 pm, after giving them good instructions on what decisions they can make and what need to be held for the LW to decide. It would give the team member a chance to grow, and would give the LW a chance to practice delegation.

      2. Elsajeni*

        Yes, I think a lot of this could be solved by:
        – making sure people know who to contact when you’re out — maybe a posted schedule of who is the Manager On Duty on any given shift, or a list of backups for specific needs or types of question?
        – making sure people know THAT you are out — if you work a consistent schedule, it’s reasonable to expect people to remember it, but if you also work shifts and your schedule might change from week to week, I don’t think you can expect everyone to keep track of that. The posted schedule of who is the MOD might also be useful here.
        – dealing with stuff that does need to come to you, but isn’t urgent — I think this is the category that calling in sick, asking for schedule changes, etc. fall into, and I think it’s reasonable that your employees want to send you this stuff when it comes up even if that’s on your day off or late at night. Instead of trying to make them wait to send it, can you redirect it to email, or a voicemail box that doesn’t ring directly to your phone? That way they can send it when it’s convenient for them, and you can check it when it’s convenient for you.

        1. Momma Bear*

          Agreed. I think OP needs to have a better SOP and delegate when necessary/not feel obligated to answer everything at all hours. My spouse was a senior manager and while they would occasionally get a late call, 95% of the time it could be handled by a delegate in their absence or wait. If someone calls at 3AM, there better be a fire or equivalent.

        2. TardyTardis*

          True. Laying out procedures is far better than “Call Me Maybe”. I have a friend in a different time zone, and she doesn’t silence her phone, so if I send a text where it will impact her sleep, it better be really, really important.

    10. Chloe*

      Nope. Unless in a context where on-call or anytime communication is understood to be part of the job, anyone in a leadership role should be setting a good work-life balance.

    11. Unaccountably*

      No, it’s not. What’s more, it sets up the expectation that everyone who works at that organization should be available 24/7, because if the boss is, will it look bad if I’m not?

      The idea that someone who manages 18 (whole entire) people deserves to not get any sleep is toxic… work-nonsense? Workulinity? Calvinism? Gumption? I don’t know, but it’s not healthy. It sounds like what you’d do if you wanted to punish people for having successful careers.

    12. BabyElephantWalk*

      I’m also curious how the OP is referring to “contact”, especially for example with the call out sick. If an employee knows at 3am that they are ill and won’t be able to make it, it doesn’t seem out of line to me for them to send a quick email and go back to bed. Saying they can’t email until 6am or whatever means that they have go to back to bed, set an alarm, get up and email their boss … if I’m up and sick enough that I know at 3am I won’t be in, that’s when I’m sending my email.

      I feel like maybe there needs to be a readjustment of expectations on both sides.

      On the other hand, phone calls in off hours for something like this are not reasonable.

  2. PolarVortex*

    No lie, I’m mostly laughing right now because the “featured video” for this article that popped up for me was about celebrities who have decided to go vegan and do intermittent fasting in order to lose weight and be healthy.

    1. Junior Dev*

      I remember Captain Awkward talking about how every time she would write an article about how toxic fat-shaming or diet culture could be, the page would inevitably be covered in weight-loss ads. (I don’t remember if this is still the case but for a while she had a Patreon goal of turning off ads after she made enough money to not need them.)

      Weight-loss talk is everywhere. It’s pretty hard to avoid. As someone who’s currently working on losing weight I try to keep in mind that it’s not interesting to other people, and may upset them; it’s such an odd and personal thing to treat as workplace small-talk material. I try to put it in the same category as things like therapy and mental health meds — it’s not shameful or bad, but it is a personal thing that brings up a lot of feelings people may not want to express in polite company, so it isn’t a good topic for casual conversation with those you aren’t close to.

      1. Captain Raymond Holt*

        I really like it he approach in the last paragraph! I’m going to keep that phrase/idea in my back pocket for the next time I need it.

      2. PolarVortex*

        I agree it’s impossible to avoid, even if it’s just the conversation around how the conversation shouldn’t be happening. I hope your journey is going well, and I appreciate the thought and care you have about other people’s journeys as well.

  3. Dust Bunny*

    LW: There is a difference between “is capable of making a decision about [given problem]” and “has the authority to make that decision”. Do your reports know that they are permitted to make these decision when you’re not there, and does your response to their having made decisions in the past support that? Or have they made decisions in the past and been criticized/not supported when they did so? Is it clear when they can make these decisions and when they really cannot? It’s fine to want them to make decision without you but you need to make it clear when they can.

    We had a minor incident recently when my supervisor was out of town and a repairman needed payment for something. He asked if he should use the credit card he had on file. Only I didn’t know if the card on file was a workplace card or one that my supervisor had had to put on file to set up an account or something. So . . . yes, I could make a decision in the yes or no sense, but in general I do not have the authority to make payments on things. I ended up calling the accounting department to make sure the card wasn’t a personal credit card and to let them know about the transaction.

    1. Office Lobster DJ*

      Very important distinction. I can understand where it would be frustrating to be asked about things your reports already know the answer to, but there’s got to be a reason for it. I can’t imagine they’re contacting LW in the middle of the night for fun.

      If it were one or two people doing this, it’s an individual problem and “how do I make them stop?” is the appropriate question. If it’s all 18, you’ve got yourself a system problem and the appropriate question is “how did I create this situation?”

    2. allathian*

      Yeah, exactly. My employer is pretty good about this. When my manager is OOO, there’s always another manager of the same level who is responsible for covering the sort of management admin tasks that legally can’t be delegated to non-managers, such as signing off on sick leave, and then she delegates more responsibility to her reports. But the thing is, if we make a mistake or a suboptimal decision while using the authority she’s temporarily given us, she always has our backs, so it feels safe to stretch like that. It would be very different to work for a bad manager who’d give the authority, and then tell us off if we messed up.

    3. Mockingjay*

      The difference is that you tried to solve the problem first- contacting someone who likely had the pertinent information. If that didn’t work, then yes, you could/should contact your off-duty supervisor.

      Often employees are afraid of consequences if they make the “wrong” decision. In addition to Alison’s advice to set parameters for calls, I hope OP makes it clear that 1) she has confidence in her employees’ abilities to problem solve (Encouragement!), and 2), if they run into something that is beyond the parameters (because Life Happens), it really is okay to call her.

  4. L.H. Puttgrass*

    Oh, Mike. Don’t be that Vegan.

    (I’m vegetarian, not vegan, but I’m hyper-conscious of not being the Lecturing Vegetarian. Mike sounds insufferable.)

    1. Threeve*

      It doesn’t matter what your Passion is, whether it’s veganism or anything else–dominating a conversation and casually insulting people about it is not cool.

      I’m thinking specifically about an old coworker who volunteered for an animal rescue. Great, I admire that work! And she cared deeply about the “adopt, don’t shop” philosophy. Great! I’m all for adopting, my own pet is a rescue.

      But, much like Mike, she would talk about it endlessly if you let her, and she made no secret of her utter disdain for people who bought purebred animals.

      Almost any interest can be boring and negative in the right hands.

      1. L.H. Puttgrass*

        Now I’m thinking of ways that interesting topics could be turned boring by people talking about them all. the. time.

        “Yeah, that’s Mike—the boring astronaut. Won’t stop talking about what it was like in space, how he got into space, and how 1G is just soooo heavy compared to microgravity. Do yourself a favor and don’t even say the word ‘rocket’ around him.”

        1. Foxy Hedgehog*

          Oh it’s even worse than that. At least I would want to hear about space…but imagine when you ask Mike what it’s like in space he somehow steers the conversation around to talking about his fantasy football team.

    2. Julie Hansen*

      Mike also needs to understand that he’s 100% wrong about being vegan = being slim. Many vegans binge on carbs and gain plenty of weight. The employee is virtue signaling that he’s a better person than others simply by being vegan. He’s not. He’s a narcissist who thinks his way is the ONLY way and the rest of the world is wrong.

        1. SometimesALurker*

          *And* virtue signaling that he’s a better person than others by not being overweight.

          1. They Called Me....Skeletor*

            Oh how I love running into Mike-types! They never quite know what to do with me.

            I have a severe metabolic disorder that makes it very, very, very difficult for me to gain weight. Went to the doctor today and we did a mini-Conga line cuz I had gained two pounds since my list visit 5 months ago. It’s that bad.

            And it’s not that I don’t eat. I eat….like a horse! I eat to the extent that my last boss told me I had to stop eating so much at work. So I stopped eating at work and the weight just started flowing off of me (to the tune of about 4 pounds a week). My doctor was NOT pleased and wrote a note.

            It seems that I am always eating. I’m sitting here right now with a couple of handfuls of Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups, and just finished a massive Pumpkin Streusel Muffin as dessert following my two burritos about an hour ago. My net gain will be nothing. And I eat like this all day, every day. Mike would NOT know what to do with me.

            Mike: “Oh you must be so so healthy, look how skinny you are!”
            Me (as I toss a handful of mini Nutter Butters in my mouth with something like Jelly Bellies in the on-deck circle): “Let me tell you a 20+ year long story, you chump.”

            Of course, at my last job I also had a whole group (~10) who called me Skeletor behind my back and pretended to be utterly shocked (shocked I tell you!) when I found out about it and confronted them about it. Boss/owner refused to even speak to them about it.

            (And please don’t think I’m lucky. I’m not. Due to a very stressful event, in July I dropped to a very dangerous weight and started having arrhythmias and blacking out and had to go into the hospital. My insurance company sent me meals so they could be sure I was eating when I was discharged. My metabolic disorder is as dangerous as being overweight. I really dislike people who think being skinny=being healthy.)

            1. allathian*

              Thank you for posting that.

              I wish you luck in managing your metabolic disorder, and more understanding coworkers.

              A former coworker went on a 3-month leave, and when she returned, she had lost a lot of weight. She wasn’t overweight before her absence, either. During coffee breaks, people kept telling her how great she looked and how fabulous her new hair was. She kept smiling awkwardly, until one day, when somebody asked her what her weight loss secret was, she pulled her wig off and in a completely deadpan voice said “cancer”… Thankfully most of those who were so enthusiastic had the grace to look ashamed of themselves, I just wanted to sink through the floor in vicarious embarrassment. I never said anything about her weight, I was just glad to see her back at work.

              Another former coworker may have had some sort of metabolic disorder. When we went to team lunches in our “eat as much as you like for a flat fee” buffet cafeteria, she always went for second and sometimes third helpings, and she was petite. Some of my teammates always joked with her about it, saying things like “where do you hide all that food” and “are you really going to eat all that” and “do you have to get all your daily calories in one meal a day” (!) and “I wish I had the metabolism of a growing, athletic, teenage boy”… It was awful. One day I had enough and said something like “I wish you’d stop commenting on what other people put on their plates.” They looked at me like I’d grown a second head, and one of them even said something like “what’s it to you, I’ve never commented on what you eat” with the sort of smirk that let me know they didn’t say anything but thought plenty. FWIW I’m fat, and firmly believe that adults are entitled to make their own food choices without comment, and I said something about how commenting on other people’s food choices isn’t a kind thing to do, even if you only wish you could eat as much as a slim person without getting fat. My petite coworker thanked me later for speaking up, and the comments stopped, at least in my hearing.

              1. londonedit*

                Yes. I’m currently dealing with a new medical issue that’s causing me to lose weight, and I’m already getting frustrated with the ‘Woooooo, looking good! You must have been doing loads of exercise! Looking very trim!’ comments. I’ve lost about 10lbs in the last two months, which isn’t huge and could pass for steady intentional weight loss, but I don’t want it to continue so I’m currently eating loads of healthy high-calorie foods (I’m going to miss them when I eventually get this thing sorted, but that’s by the by!) So I’m now bracing myself for the ‘Blimey, how can you eat all of that and lose weight?!’ stuff. Luckily I’m working from home for the foreseeable!

                1. They Called Me....Skeletor*

                  I’ve been dealing with this for twenty years. The comments get real old REALLY fast. I’ve had people say “You’ve lost too much weight, you have to stop dieting!” and I open my snack drawer and say “Does it LOOK like I’m dieting???”

                  I am allergic to coffee and people don’t think that’s possible. People don’t think it’s possible that losing weight can be a bad thing. People just don’t think.

            2. Lenora Rose*

              I knew someone whose metabolic issues meant he basically didn’t have much appetite, though he loved stuff like fries, and did do things like climb and bike. He often ended up so thin he gave himself joint problems and made his metabolic issues worse. It’s also suspected that the one and only time he had a seizure might have been related to his rather random eating habits.

              1. They Called Me....Skeletor*

                Yes, it can definitely happen. I make sure I have at least one meal a day that covers the essentials. Yesterday, it was a one pound NY steak, a MASSIVE bowl of broccoli (doing the breaststroke in butter) and a HUGE baked potato (breaststroking in butter and sour cream). After the incident in July, I eat whether I’m hungry or not (and more often I’m not hungry…me and food just don’t have that kind of a relationship).

          1. Dream Jobbed*

            Twinkies have eggs and tallow. So neither vegan nor vegetarian. Maybe just don’t tell her? :P

      1. SometimesALurker*

        *And* virtue signaling that he’s a better person than others by not being overweight.

      2. Some dude*

        I swear 87% of vegan recipes and/or vegan foodsellers are for sweets.

        I also think that any time you think that you are more righteous than everyone around you and need to tell them how to live their lives, you need to check yourselves. I’m pretty sure even people helping people recover from life-threatening addictions don’t approach their work this way because it is off-putting and horrible.

  5. Kevin Sours*

    It really sounds like some routine communication should be aggressively directed to email. It’s really well suited to “asynchronous” communication. They can send you the message saying they are sick at 3am and go back to bed. Then you can deal with it 6am when you are available. Why does that need to be a phone call?

    1. Sola Lingua Bona Lingua Mortua Est*

      It’s really well suited to “asynchronous” communication.

      Texts (SMS and MMS) are every bit as asynchronous as email.

      1. Kevin Sours*

        Technically yes. Culturally not as much. People are a lot more likely to have notifications on for texts and are going to be less inclined to disconnect completely from at least looking at incoming messages. Conversely people are a lot more likely to expect that you received an urgent text promptly than an email.

        1. Caramel & Cheddar*

          Right, but that’s where the manager needs to set up her own tech boundaries with the tools available to her on her devices (e.g. the do not disturb function to exclude notifications of texts from staff at 3am, etc.). “Culturally, I simply cannot avoid looking at incoming messages” is a problem for the manager to figure out, not the staff person.

          There is obviously a related issue of whether or not the staff person needs to send a text at 3am, and that’s an issue the manager can address in daylight hours, but if that text is coming through anyway because the employee forgot/didn’t listen/something else, then there’s only one person who can control what’s happening on the manager’s phone.

          1. Kevin Sours*

            Huh? Employee’s that “forgot/didn’t listen/something else” are the entire problem to be solved here. I’m assuming that the manager doesn’t want to turn off their phone/texts because they need to be able to be contacted that way for emergencies. Email is a less immediate communication channel that is easier to disconnect from. It’s entirely appropriate to tell reports “do not text me for these issues” and take action if they don’t listen.

          2. SnappinTerrapin*

            One of the boundaries I set with my staff at a couple of previous jobs was to not text me when it was likely I would be driving. If it’s important enough to require my immediate attention, use the telephone, not the telegraph.

            Another was to use email for things that weren’t time sensitive, so they could stay in my inbox as a reminder until I resolved them. Text messages, at least on the phones I’ve owned, aren’t as amenable to task/time management.

            One of those jobs, I supervised about a dozen people, covering three sites, with 24/7 coverage at two of them. I was the front-line supervisor, and my manager was in another State.

            At the other, I supervised about 20, also with 24/7 coverage. At that one, some issues could be handled by the client’s shift supervisor, but finding coverage was my responsibility. My manager had several hundred employees calling him or texting him at all hours. It took a little pressure off him if I handled what I could, and the small amount of overtime I incurred was cost-effective. Now, when I was out for a couple of weeks with covid, I consistently referred employees to the acting supervisor, until she quit, and then to my manager, until I returned.

        2. CBB*

          That’s not a universally held cultural norm. I wake up almost every morning to find text messages from friends, family, and sometimes coworkers.

      2. Random Internet Stranger*

        Technically you’re right, but texts are so intrusive and easy to forget. I feel like I have to respond to texts immediately because 1. I definitely saw it. Can’t avoid checking like I can with email and 2. if I don’t respond, I’ll totally forget.

        1. Clisby*

          How does anyone know you definitely saw it? I mute my phone when I’m not in the mood to take calls or texts, and it could easily be the next day before I know someone called/texted.

          1. PollyQ*

            Many SMS programs show a status for a sent message that’s either “Received” or “Read,” depending on whether the recipient has read the text or just been notified about it.

            1. Clisby*

              Hmm … I just sent a text to my son, and all I see is Delivered. He obviously read it, because he replied, but there was no notification of that.

    2. ecnaseener*

      Some workplaces do require phone calls when calling out for whatever reason, but yeah if this wasn’t an old letter I’d suggest OP consider changing that rule if it was the rule.

    3. Green great dragon*

      Yeh, that jumped out a bit because if I’m ill and awake at 3am, I really don’t want to be setting an alarm for 6am to call in. I’m not clear whether there was someone else who should have had been getting the call, but definitely do a bit of due diligence to make sure the staff has good alternatives to phoning you and know what they are.

      1. SnappinTerrapin*

        Also, if the supervisor needs to arrange substitute coverage, it’s better to call sooner rather than later. My company requires at least four hours notice to avoid disciplinary action.

        I understand that we don’t usually get to choose whether or when we get sick, so I used some discretion about enforcing the four hours policy. Sometimes, that meant coming in myself, while working the phone to find a substitute.

    4. Me*

      This doesn’t work in all workplaces. I’m thinking this might be one of them given the shift work and propensity for calling.

      Think factory type jobs. They’re not office workers – no computers. Sending an email is not something everyone has the ability to do. No everyone has computers at home and not everyone, even in our tech heavy world, is comfortable using email.

      A possible alternative for call outs is a sick line. One of our gov agencies that is more on the blue-collar side, has a dedicated voicemail line for sick calls. You simply call and leave a message by the time required before your shift. The person responsible for scheduling that shift checks the messages.

    5. M*

      Personally, I’m a library manager and I’m happy for people to text me as soon as they know they’re going to be out sick. My phone’s on silent at night so I won’t see it until I wake up, and I don’t check email until I get to work, which doesn’t give me as much time to find someone else to cover a shift. Calling my cell is okay too, but text is just so quick for me to see for a short message like that.

      Different managers will have different preferences, and it’s on them to let staff know what works for them.

  6. DC*

    This could easily be my manager at my part-time restaurant job. I firmly believe people text him at 3, or when he’s not in- I’ve done it accidentally, telling him I’m running a few minutes late just to find out he’s actually off that day.

    The context from the staff side is we never know who is the on-site FOH manager we do need to tell until we are on site. Are you clearly communicating with your staff who they need to talk to when it’s not you? I would bet you’re not, or not as well as you think.

    1. Software Engineer*

      Even easier is just to have a shared phone… there’s a number of apps and services that provide a number you can durch to different cell phones at different times or at the same time Etc. Then employees don’t have to keep track and you don’t have to update folks when they’re off the clock! And if there is a real emergency that needs you specifically, the duty manager can call you directly

      And if people are contacting you when nobody works, like 3 am, make sure it’s established to send a less disruptive communication (email, text) and somebody will check it eventually. Don’t make sick people wait to call you, they want to go to sleep! If I’m up at 3 am puking I want to tell my boss now instead of worrying about whether I’ll be up in the morning before I’m expected at work to tell them then.

  7. Rana*

    The question about old references threw me a bit. What do you do if you have had only one or two jobs in that time? I could see myself staying at my current job for 8-10 years. At that point, the only reference I would have other than my current boss would be that old, and most applications require multiple references. I can see getting to 12 years ago very easily. Is there another way I should be thinking about references?

    1. A Person*

      I was a bit surprised about this too. If you were at the job for a number of years I would think that was still a reasonable reference. Obviously it wouldn’t be your only reference but I could easily see it as the oldest reference in a set of 3.

    2. T J Juckson*

      I clicked on that link with dread. The reference thing is one of many reasons I’m fearing I have really ruined myself professionally.
      I have been at my current job for 10 years, I work for an individual, who is elderly and increasingly unreliable (as in, confuses me with someone else so who knows what he would actually say, etc.) and no co-workers. There is one person I work closely with (in another institution) who I have asked to be a reference, but otherwise I have to go back to jobs from 11 years ago at this point. Asking people at other places I do business with seems odd (they know some of my work but only parts, and as outsiders).

      1. TiffIf*

        Asking people at other places I do business with seems odd (they know some of my work but only parts, and as outsiders)

        I had a friend who started looking for a new job last year after finally getting fed up at her bosses in a small family business where she had worked for THIRTY years. Bosses were progressively more banana crackers and their handling of COVID was the final straw (they told her she was not allowed to get microchipped…).

        She obviously couldn’t use them as references and so I suggested she get references and testimonials from other businesses she worked with. This was actually quite successful for her! Now it can certainly depend on your industry and role, both where you are and where you want to go, but in her case the skills she showed with those other businesses are the ones she needed to highlight for the new role she was applying for–it is a COMPLETELY different industry so a lot of the other skills and experience that the business references didn’t see were not the ones she needed the new job to consider (she went from managing headstone/memorial creation to financial industry customer service).

        So just a note, it can work to have outside references, just be judicious.

        1. Elizabeth West*

          Yep, one of mine is a former vendor for OldExjob. We didn’t *work* together but we had many business-related interactions.

          I also kept my supervisor at OldExjob as a reference as well as offering to always be a reference for her. She and I survived a toxic situation and we’ll always have each other’s back. We’re FB friends so we’re still in touch.

      2. Richard Hershberger*

        I’ve worked for the same solo practitioner for twelve years now. My boss before that was disbarred after I left (and no: not for anything I did or did not do), so he would hardly be a good reference, even apart from all the other reasons he would be a terrible reference. Fortunately I expect to remain working for the same guy until he retires. We are about the same age. If I want to continue working, he will be a fantastic reference.

      3. Ama*

        I hired someone over the summer who had spent years working for a small consulting firm that was closing down as the owner was retiring. I did speak to the owner as one of the references but her other two references were clients who had worked with her extensively — it was particularly useful to us to speak to them because they essentially were in the for-profit side of the sector where my nonprofit employer operates so they could confirm that she had really quite a bit of experience in our sector consulting on projects that were very similar to what we envisioned the role doing.

        I think many hiring managers are willing to be flexible on references if you can explain the context for why you can’t just provide last three supervisors.

      4. CBB*

        When I was applying for my current job this year, my most recent reference was from 2013, and my reference from the job before that was from 1999. I guess I must have made both a good and a lasting impression in both places because there didn’t seem to be any issues.

    3. lisette*

      Also, if someone can provide a glowing reference from 12 years ago, what are the chances that you’ve become a poor employee since then?

      I’m currently self-employed. In my last job, which I had for 9 years, my only direct supervisor was the CEO who would never respond to a reference request for anyone in a billion years, and before that I was in academia (and before that I was in restaurants, most of which have closed since I worked in them). I have no way to ever provide a current or past supervisor reference. Every time I see the answer to reference question on AAM, I find it depressing.

    4. I Wrote This in the Bathroom*

      Same here. Good thing my current job has been shedding employees at a faster rate that my dearly beloved, late, great Sheltie dog used to shed hair. There is always an ex-coworker I could use. Even so, this limits me to my current and previous jobs only, and, if I stay here a few more years, my previous job will be past the 12-year expiration date. I don’t think it’s a good idea to only give references from your current job, wouldn’t it look like you’re trying to hide something about where you worked before?

      1. Mr. Shark*

        I’ve been at my current job for 20 years, and I’ve went through more than a handful of managers. Some of them still work in the same company at different positions. But I don’t see how I would be able to put any references from previous job, which was about 8 years, but a completely different position in a completely unrelated industry.

    5. Kuddel Daddeldu*

      I’m 11 years at my current job. While I had three managers during that time (the last one for about six years now, I think) I’d easily find enough references – former grandboss who left a year ago, plenty of clients I worked with on projects lasting longer than many jobs do, current and former co-workers,… not only your direct manager can be a good reference!
      Now I’m in my career long enough to have (a) a large network (although being not good at networking, I think), (b) a fairly generalist skillset and (c) a retirement fund large enough that I don’t have to work necessarily. A fairly frugal lifestyle has its benefits. So should I ever be in need of a job I’m quite sure to find a spot – more than one client has told me they’d happily create such a spot.

    6. Lenora Rose*

      The last time I needed references, I had 3 from my prior workplace from a year before (Covid-based break), and 1 from all the way back in 2010, thanks to a stay-at-home-mom employment gap. I would have had 2 from 2011, but both had left that company and nobody was left to speak for me. It seemed to go okay, but I don’t know how much references were a part of their internal decision making process. While they followed up to request extra references, they were honest that they were short staffed enough to be in need of extra people and being less strict than usual.

    7. TM*

      It wasn’t just the amount of time that had elapsed, it had happened at least 4 different occasions, according to the OP, so the former employee had other people to call on.
      Also, I think it depends on the industry – I work in IT, and what someone’s skills were 10 years ago aren’t necessarily relevant to the role they’re applying for now. Especially if the role is in a different area to what the employee did when they worked for you.
      I had this happen with an employee that we had to let go. His work was sub-standard, after 15 years in the job with very little skills progression and while making elementary mistakes with tasks that were simple for anyone with the relevant background and 6 months of experience.
      I gave him a fairly kind reference for his first two subsequent jobs, while outlining the (barely adequate) skills I could vouch for and stating that he worked best with good supervision (someone to catch the mistakes). (I didn’t mention the extra caveats.) The third reference was non-committal, since it was for a role he would not have been capable of when he worked for me. Finally, after 10 years, he gave me as a reference for a supervisory role in an area of tech he had been outright incompetent at back in the day. He had also shown no leadership/organisational skills in what had been a very friendly and collegial team. He would have been in his late 50s by this time. I stated I couldn’t vouch for his skills at Tech X and he had not mentored/supervised other staff during his time with us. All I could speak to was his employment record and general character at the time, and I had no knowledge of his roles in the intervening decade. The message was apparently received and there has been nothing more since, thank goodness.
      (Sorry for the lengthy story, apparently I’m still irked by it/him.)
      Naturally, in an industry where people expect to remain in situ for many years, and where I acquiring new skills happens at a reasonable pace, being contacted after last working with someone a decade ago may well be fine. But I feel that these days in most occupations, you would give such an ancient reference a bit of a side-eye, and would definitely want to know the reason for including it.

  8. kiki*

    Off work:
    One thing I’d add to Alison’s advice is to create an inbox/voicemail for employees to use when they’re calling out sick. Have it be separate from your normal phone number/ email address so it doesn’t disrupt you outside hours you’d like to be notified. That way employees can call in as soon as they know that they’re sick/ having an emergency ( that way if they’re sick they can rest in the morning or if they’re having an emergency they don’t need to remember to call you after 6am ). You could also set it up to be accessible by multiple people, so if you’re not working a certain day, whoever’s filling in for you can easily access the info and employees don’t have to remember who to call.

    1. it's just the frame of mind*

      Yes, if they have to call in, they need to be able to do it anytime, rather than have to wake up early to do it .

    2. CBB*

      I must confess I’ve often texted bosses in the wee hours to call in sick. It never occurred to me that this would bother them.

    3. Ama*

      At our workplace the system is you email both your manager and the person who tracks our sick time (and managers will usually include any reports on the email as well so everyone is aware). I personally do not look at my work email after I log off for the day, so yes, this does mean I sometimes don’t learn an employee is out sick until I actually start work, but since our work isn’t the kind where I have to arrange for coverage this isn’t a problem.

      I did have a bit of an issue at a previous job where if a particular person was out, I was the one responsible for arranging for a temp for the day — I did have to set some ground rules with that person and ask her to text me before 8:30 if she was going to call out so I could contact our temp agency before I started my commute (it was also a lot easier for them to find a temp if I notified them before 9). I think now I would probably just set up a special alert for emails from her on my phone, but this was pre smart phones so texts were the best option. (I do wonder a bit how old this question is and if it predates “do not disturb” settings and easy access to work email from your phone — there are certainly more options now than there used to be to maintain work-life boundaries.)

    1. Sleet Feet*


      I did keto for a 2 weeks. <30 grams of carbs a day and lost 2 lbs the first week and none the second despite having 500 fewer calories everyday and keeping my activity the same. However my cholesterol and blood pressure skyrocketed so I quit the diet. Peoples bodies react differently.

    2. L.H. Puttgrass*

      Right? There’s a vegan bakery and a vegan soul food restaurant among my many vegan options nearby. You can absolutely eat unhealthily as a vegan (ask how I know). In particular, it’s really easy to overdose on carbs, even if you aren’t into keto or one of the other low-carb diets.

      1. Forty Years in the Hole*

        All I saw at first re: lunchroom prattling on about subjects was…”knitting porcupines.” And then what needles you’d use… Coffee time.

    3. LizM*

      Oreos are vegan. Just sayin’.

      Also, veganism does not spare you from diet talk. I can’t tell you how many times my mom or mother in law has been “concerned” about how many carbs are in my hummus and flat bread lunch. People just need to learn to keep their mouths shut when it comes to what other people eat, especially in the work place.

      1. Ritz*

        When I was shedding weight like a, well, something that sheds a lot, and my dietician was working with me on ways to essentially *not die* while the doctors figured out what was wrong with me – I’d mention that in conversation, after they expressed concern. Take out a snack, and have people say “You’ll want to be careful with that, that’s all empty calories!”
        (It was PEANUT BRITTLE It’s not even empty calories. And my dietician was actively prescribing me empty calories at the time. Am glad to be better and be allowed to drink unsweetened tea again.)

        My mother, bless her soul, went shopping for “things to put through other stuff to add calories” like fruit preserves and syrups and for some reason she brought a lot of light products?

        Diet culture is WEIRD.

  9. Smithy*

    For the “very” old reference, I do think that it might also be worth opening up a larger conversation with the employee around other possible ways to approach references. I know that some people have a very rigid concept that their references can only be supervisors, and if they have a supervisor here or there that won’t be a good reference for understandable reasons – it may make them feel they have to hold onto those old ones.

    For many jobs, having two supervisors and a colleague, particularly a more senior one will very often work. And for those where they really want another supervisor, then an older one can be provided at that time.

    I’ve been in my field for over ten years, but due to working at some problematic places – while I do have a good reputation in my field, I don’t necessarily have the supervisor roster to sing my praises. By talking to colleagues and my network over the year, they’ve helped me figure out a good reference roster that works well for my field and helps me avoid my most problematic supervisors. It may just be that this person has a more rigid view of what’s needed and with a little more brainstorming can think more broadly about this.

    1. TiffIf*

      For many jobs, having two supervisors and a colleague, particularly a more senior one will very often work.

      Until very recently, I would have struggles with a two supervisors requirement–I have worked at my current company for 8 years. I have one supervisor reference. Going back to my job prior to my current company is a completely different field and I have no memory of who my supervisor was and I only held the job for 6 months (part-time student job on my university campus while I was finishing my degree). Prior to that was a three year job in a different industry and I was fired from the job (working full time while trying to do school part time did not work for me).

      Six weeks ago I moved to a different department internally. I now have a new supervisor and so finally would have a second supervisor reference but prior to 6 weeks ago I would not have been able to provide that second supervisor reference.

    2. Cold Fish*

      I’m out of luck if they need a supervisor reference. I’ve been at my current small business workplace nearly 20 years. As I’ve job hopped positions within the company I’ve had two supervisors. I don’t doubt they’d give me a good reference if push came to shove but… Both are high on the list of people who I would not want to know I’m job searching and both still work at current workplace.

      Other than that, I’ve had two side part time “jobs” in that 20 years. One was light clerical work (supervisor/owner was my dad who passed away). The other was a cashier/closing person at a second hand store (supervisor/owner is my sister-in-law). Both jobs done more to help out family than for the money they brought in.

      I’ve lined up a couple of co-workers who have left the company to be references. But they are definitely peers. There is one manager here who I might ask, as I know she would keep my looking quiet. However, she has never been my supervisor.

      1. Cold Fish*

        Forgot to mention, I actually am still in contact with my supervisor from job before current workplace and I’m sure she would give me a glowing reference. But again, were are talking 20 years ago now since I worked for her.

  10. Person from the Resume*

    LW#1, Don’t give them your cell phone number. Don’t use your cell phone as your contact number when you are work so that the “office” number is stored in their phones and when they call it, it won’t ring on your cell.

    Use your phone’s Do Not Disturb feature so that during DND hours only number you have favorited ring through or beep for a text. Also numbers that call you twice will through. Everything is silent and allows you to sleep through them and deal with in the morning.

    1. Person from the Resume*

      If you have a work cell phone, leave it off when you’re not on call or when you’re on vacation. (I’m on vacation, contact Jane for anything you need until I get back.)

    2. The New Normal*

      I live by the DND. If I am having insomnia (and my boss is too) we often text about random things regarding work. But I am asleep and she asks a question, I know it isn’t urgent and I can deal with it at the office. Mine goes on early – 8pm!

    3. Bee Eye Ill*

      Right. They will keep calling as long as the OP keeps answering. Let them wait for an answer long enough to either figure it out themselves or get someone else.

  11. TS*

    We had to make a rule that shift swaps had to be approved at least 12 hours in advance because people kept texting/calling/facebook messaging me at like 3am expecting me to approve a swap for 8am. Of course we made the occasional exception for emergencies, but once I explained how many requests I was fielding in the middle of the night being the why behind that change, people were really understanding and accommodating. I think sometimes they forget that their manager has a life and human needs outside of work, just like them lol.

    I did keep a 100% open door at all times for the leadership team under me, though- I never wanted them to feel like they couldn’t reach out to me. 9 times out of 10 I would walk them through the problem, ask them their thoughts on how to proceed, give them the thumbs up, and reiterate that they are empowered to make those choices without me and I’ll never hold a decision, even a bad one, against them if they can clearly explain their intentions. After a few months of that, they very seldom reached out to me when I wasn’t working, and when they did, it was usually something that I genuinely needed to be made aware of.

    1. Amaranth*

      I haven’t worked shifts since I was a teen so have to ask – as long as someone else who works that same job shows up for the shift, does the swap have to be approved ahead of time for a practical reason or just because its ‘proper’?

      1. TS*

        It’s a fair question- it needed to be approved in advance for lots of reasons that the team would never think about. Avoiding overtime, avoiding part timers going over their designated hours (as much as I would have loved to offer benefits to everyone, that’s not how our company operated), making sure we had the proper coverage for all of our specially trained positions (Folks could be trained in every position in the building, but it was a gradual thing and usually tied to performance if we would train them in other positions, so if the only person trained to run the cash register scheduled that shift tried to trade their shift away, we’d have to say no for coverage purposes). Sometimes specific people would need to be in the building for their shift for training, signing off on something, maybe a call with HR- behind the scenes things that they wouldn’t necessarily know about just by looking at their schedule

        We weren’t heartless, we did occasionally approve super last minute requests as an exception, but once we made a clear policy about when they needed to let us know by, 95% of the requests were able to comply with the timeline.

      2. DeweyDecibal*

        I know oftentimes it is to ensure that no one is going into overtime if its not in the budget.

      3. General von Klinkerhoffen*

        Sometimes a swap might happen into a different working week, which could cause problems in jurisdictions which mandate overtime payments. A manager’s oversight might be needed to make sure that kind of admin is sorted.

        Or employees may not know that they aren’t a straight swap. Maybe the manager discreetly doesn’t put Tangerina and Fergus on the same shift, or perhaps you didn’t realise that you’re swapping out the only person on that shift who’s a qualified first aider.

    2. SnappinTerrapin*

      In my field, even nonsupervisory employees have to exercise discretion that affects other people.

      One of the first things I covered in orientation is that a bad result is not the same thing as a bad decision. I told them I would ask them what they considered when they made the decision, and why they made the choice they made. Even if they made a decision different from what I think I would have made, if it was reasonable, based on what they knew at the time, I would back them up.

      I also told them that we would both use their decisions as learning opportunities, especially if something went wrong, so we could consider what additional questions we should ask ourselves in the future when facing similar choices.

  12. Thursdaysgeek*

    For #5: If I had Alison as a reference, I’m pretty sure I’d keep dropping her name for a long time. Although, I guess if she had given me a good reference, perhaps I wouldn’t be that person after all.

  13. Cthulhu's Librarian*

    as a caveat to Alison’s advice on letter 1 – actually pay attention to what people say when you ask “what happened that made you feel you needed to call me?”

    It may be that there was a legitimate reason they needed to call (floor manager called out sick), or there are underlying problems with other folks at the company saying “call Letter Writer about this” because they don’t think they have authority to make decisions – and often, the only way you’ll find out about some issues is if you pay attention to those answers.

    1. tamarack and fireweed*

      Yes! And even if – which I think may be more likely – the reasons given were not legitimate (in the sense that calling the LW was the correct action to take) they will point to how to fix the situation. Do processes have to be formalized/changed? Would new technology tools to route messages help? Is what’s missing a clearly communicated decision tree for who to tell what when?

  14. Oodles of Noodles*

    I had a similar situation with employees calling at all hours for inane things. Took a while to train them up on what is and isn’t important enough to reach out versus what can be written into an email and handled the next time I’m in the office.

    Eventually I started telling the worst offender that her call should be an email and hanging up on her. She came around eventually, but was a product of her environment. We are her first white collar job, and she came from restaurants where any issue needed to be fixed *immediately*, I suppose.

    1. Squirrel Nutkin*

      That’s a great insight in your last paragraph — sometimes our workplace norms have really been shaped by previous workplaces and their norms and we don’t always see at first how things are different in a new place!

  15. Cle*

    Even if LW #1 was at work, why do 18 people need to reach out constantly for so many small and non-urgent things? It sounds like maybe some of the procedures/guidelines aren’t all that clear, aren’t known by everyone, or something.

    1. Alton Brown's Evil Twin*

      Surely somebody who’s on the clock is the shift leader. You have to be able to delegate the bulk of these little things to them – if not, you’re setting the entire operation up to fail.

  16. Sea Anemone*

    which makes me think you’re not reading messages thoroughly. I’m sending these because I do need you to read and absorb everything in them. So can you watch out for that?

    There have been any number of people over the years who I have wanted to say that to, but I did not. Bc it’s a d!ck thing to say, especially when you are the boss. If somebody said that to me, including my boss, I’d be having a conversation with their boss and their HR partner about how they need coaching on using a less condescending and domineering communication style.

    1. lunchtime caller*

      Really? If your boss sent this exact message when you have (in the case of this scenario) not been reading the messages clearly enough, you would go so far as to report it to HR and their boss? And to say they need coaching? Just being honest with you, that’s a completely out of proportion response and if you genuinely do respond to light criticism that way (as opposed to just having fantasies of “oh I’d show them!” which we all do at times), you sound like you’re the one in need of coaching.

      1. Meep*

        The post Sea Anemone wrote wreaks of someone who doesn’t want to be responsible for their own behavior, tbh.

        1. Sea Anemone*

          Quite to the contrary, I am used to being held to a very high standard of accountability in how I communicate. If I had used that wording with somebody, I would definitely have been told to take some training classes on emotional intelligence and appropriate communication on my own time.

      2. Sea Anemone*

        I’m not responding the criticism. I’m responding to the tone. Even when you criticize someone, you need to be respectful.

    2. Zona the Great*

      I completely disagree that there was even a hint of condescension in the line you quoted. If someone came to me to tell me that their boss needed coaching because they said that to them, I’d almost immediately put the complainer in coaching to learn how to take serious corrections, well, seriously.

        1. Analytical Tree Hugger*

          Could you share how you re using “straw argument”?

          Because Zona isn’t making any argument beyond “I completely disagree.” The rest of their comment is “this is what I would do instead”, which isn’t an argument, but a course of action.

    3. Aquawoman*

      I don’t get what the problem is. Should people just be allowed to ignore their boss and not read their email? I have asked staff to work on attention to detail, I don’t feel like it’s out of line for me to want our legal documents to be internally consistent, eg.

      1. Sea Anemone*

        That’s a straw argument. I never said I would ignore my boss or not read the email. It doesn’t even follow logically that expecting my boss to communicate without condescension means I will ignore them or not read their emails.

        It’s not at all out line to want a certain level of attention to detail. It is out of line to communicate that desire in a disrespectful manner, even when you are the boss.

    4. LizM*

      So what should your boss say instead?

      A boss needs to set clear expectations. If she has the expectation that you’re reading your emails, and you’re clearly demonstrating that you’re not, she needs to address that. I have had staff members who miss important things in emails, and it makes me wonder how much they’re missing that’s not coming to my attention? It seems much kinder to address it head on than the let it fester in the back of your mind and make you question their ability to do the job.

      If a team member came to me with a complaint like this about their first line supervisor, I would 100% back the supervisor (absent something else going on).

      1. Sea Anemone*

        Everybody, not just bosses, needs to set expectations in a way that is not condescending and not domineering. Even when you are setting expectations, you need to be respectful to the people you are talking to.

        If a team member came to me and showed me a manager using that language, I would 100% tell the manager to choose different words, even if something else was going on. Even when the other person needs correction, you still have to be respectful.

        1. BuildMeUp*

          I would like to second LizM’s request for you to give an example of language that is not condescending. I am not reading the wording Alison used as condescending in any way and am very confused about what you’re seeing that no one else here is.

          1. NotAnotherManager!*

            Thirded – how should this be phrased as not to be condescending? (I find condescension tends to be more in tone than word choice, personally, and I guess I’m just not reading the provided phrasing in the same tone.)

            I explicitly tell entry-level new hires that they have to read emails sent to them thoroughly and, if needed, more than once to make sure they understand what’s being asked of them and have all the necessary details. If one of them responded with some sort of TL;DR a principal or responded asking for info that was in the message, that’s going to cause more problems than setting the expectation that they read and understand their business emails.

            1. Analytical Tree Hugger*

              Fourth vote for an example. The language Alison proposed sounds courteous and professional to me.

              1. Grizabella the Glamour Cat*

                Fifth vote for an example here.

                An explanation of what the heck us condescending about Alison’s script would help, because I don’t see anything about it that’s one bi condescending. But I’ll settle for an example that Sea Anemone would find to not be condescending.

                Furthermore, if I thought Sea Anemone was interested in my opinion, I’d suggest that when a whole bunch of other random people have a totally different reaction to something than I do, I would give some serious thought to the possibility that I might be misinterpreting. ;‐)

                1. AuroraPickle*

                  Sixthed! Part of emotional intelligence is giving the other person a benefit of the doubt. If I wrote that or was accused of being condescending and needing “coaching” I’d laugh, to myself of course. That’s another part of emotional intelligence, understanding when a you problem isn’t a me problem.

          2. Beth*

            Seventhed here. (We ran out of nesting levels after it was sixthed.) I found Alison’s language perfectly acceptable within the stated parameters and would be interested in seeing a version that meets the needs of the scenario and also meets Sea Anemone’s definition of not “condescending” or “domineering”.

        2. short'n'stout*

          It’s so interesting how tone comes across so differently in text compared to spoken conversations. In the script, I see a matter-of-fact statement of a problem, a likely reason for the problem, and a *request* (not even a command) to carry out a solution. What I don’t see is any kind of condescension or disrespect.

          Can you suggest a way to phrase this request that you would regard as respectful?

    5. Meep*

      My former manager (thank goodness on former!) refuses to listen. She doesn’t know anything technical that we do. She doesn’t want to know anything technical that we do. She will sit there in meetings eyes glazed over before asking the same question about what we had just discussed for 15-30 minutes previously to make her seem like she is “engaging”. There have been so many times, where I have had to bite my tongue from saying “Well as I said two seconds ago…”. There has been many times where I have broken down and said “As I just stated…” because she has derailed multiple meetings like this.

      Once I got so fed up because I had to send her three emails in a row answering the same exact question that on the fourth email I just snarkily sent her a screenshot of the original email with the answer to her question highlighted. This was all within 15 minutes. She didn’t know how to do something and rather than ask for help she kept asking me “who needs this?” Which I had told her a dozen times before in various formats up to this point.

      The person who is being ignored does not need to be talked to. This person who is rude enough to ignore what their coworker or superior is saying needs to be talked to for wasting time being an inconsiderate jerk.

      1. Sea Anemone*

        where I have had to bite my tongue from saying “Well as I said two seconds ago…”

        You did the right thing by biting your tongue. Even when the other person is in the wrong, you still have to be respectful. If you had started being snarky, you would have needed to be talked to.

    6. New Jack Karyn*

      You have not yet given an example of how to word this interaction, that would not be condescending but still get across the message.

    7. Lenora Rose*

      SO give your much improved version of the directive that gets the point across without being condescending.

      Because I get the impression any attempt to correct their attention to detail would be read by you as demeaning or condescending, which leaves the manager with no recourse to actually fix the problem. And fixing the problem is not optional.

  17. Disabled trans lesbian*

    Mike is the exact reason I do not interact with the mainstream Vegan community here in the Netherlands, because Mikes are just toxic. Sadly a lot of white Vegans like Mike perpetuate sexism, racism and ableism, and I just Do Not Have the patience for them because I already have to deal with the non-vegan Mikes.
    OP2: Please shut Mike down, and make sure he keeps his bodyshaming to himself in the future.

  18. DEJ*

    The layoff letter hit a nerve for me. Our president (who has a giant ego) told us all over zoom call early in the pandemic in this big fluffy speech that our organization was not looking at layoffs or furloughs. Sure enough, when layoffs happened, it fell to the managers to deliver the axe and the guy who had previously given the ‘you are all so important to us’ speech was nowhere to be found.

  19. Magenta Sky*

    I know that the idea of someone droning on about porcupines is intended to be amusing, but I once got a 15 minute speech from an assistant store manager about how garbage disposals were invented to dispose of varnished bagels. I’m only about half sure he was joking.

    1. Serin*

      One of my kid’s middle school friends once talked to me for an entire car trip about eels. But that was lovely because I never knew what to say to 13-year-olds that didn’t already live in my house with me.

      I guess that’s an advantage of having an uncommon interest: nearly everyone has heard all they want to hear about [whatever specific diet plan] [whatever political opinion] [whatever company gossip], whereas it would take quite a long time for me to get to the point where I said, “I have had enough of porcupine discourse.”

  20. Velawciraptor*

    My one thing for LW1 would be to look to the example they’re setting. If they’re calling employees on their time off, the LW is setting an expectation with their actions that time off is fine for calling.

    Saying everything Alison suggests will be meaningless if you are calling your employees when they’re out–actions speak louder than words.

  21. English Rose*

    On the email topic, I used to be that person who sent essays instead of emails, so recipients missed my point.
    Then I read “Unsubscribe” by Jocelyn K. Glei which among many other great tips describes how to “Craft messages that get people to pay attention and take action”.
    Now when I email, people read, understand and respond appropriately. Job done!

    1. kiki*

      Yes, I would say that I’m a strong writer but one thing I struggled with was balancing comprehensiveness and brevity in work writing. Once I learned that work emails don’t have to be full-on prose the way I was used to writing in school, I got a lot better. Take advantage of bullets, checklists, subject lines, TLDR sections, and explicitly calling out action items. Even if people need all the information you’re giving them, something about having to read long paragraphs of text in an email turns people off – break it up.

      1. Sea Anemone*

        Take advantage of bullets, checklists, subject lines, TLDR sections, and explicitly calling out action items

        Yes, please. If your text is not suited to lists and bullet points, use short paragraphs of 3-4 sentences.

        1. Squirrel Nutkin*

          YES — short paragraphs are golden! And bold type for the really important points for those who just skim (source: guilty of being a skimmer).

  22. Elizabeth West*

    I know I’ve said this before, but the layoff letter makes me think of LongAgo NonProfitJob when the CEO announced in the all-team meeting that we would be cutting positions and laying off some staff. He then looked at my coworker Sue and said, “Sue, your position is the one that’s been cut. Your last day will be Friday. We’ve enjoyed working with you.”

    No one told Sue this before the meeting. Her face turned red as fire. I felt terrible for her (and was also furious), but of course I could say nothing. It was 100% intended to intimidate the rest of the staff.

    If layoffs are imminent company-wide, I think leadership should explain the situation. Regardless of who it is, do the actual deed in private, for corn’s sake. It’s a dick move to target people in front of everyone. Despite OldExjob’s shenanigans, they at least had to grace to lay us off in the accounting office with the door shut.

    1. Tuesday*

      WHAT?! That’s horrible! I can’t imagine anyone who could think it was okay to do that to someone. Poor Sue – it’s bad enough getting laid off without a lifelong miserable memory to go with it.

    2. Rich H*

      Many years ago the two schools in our village were closing, and a new school was being created by merging them.

      I was assured, as head governor of one of the schools, that other than the head teachers that there would be no layoffs and all staff would keep their jobs.

      A few weeks later a document was released to the schools detailing the new staffing arrangements. Two of the positions in my school weren’t in it. When questioned, the council said that it was correct, that those two staff members would indeed be laid off.

      The staff were upset, especially finding out this way and I was livid.

      At least I got to rip the head of education a new arsehole at the next council meeting, but I’d rather not have had to.

  23. anonymous73*

    “I keep helping them and they won’t stop coming to me for help” Well, duh. You’re enabling to bother you when you’re out because you answer all the calls and texts. If there are points of contact, and rules to follow when someone is out, then you need to force them to follow those rules. It’s not that hard. You ask them questions that forces them to go to the right people or find the documentation ON THEIR OWN, and eventually it will stop.

  24. WestOfTheRiver*

    This is unrelated to the content of the article (which is wonderful as always), but I think I finally need to tell the embarrassing work story that I’m reminded of every time one of Alison’s articles pops up:

    I work for a business that’s always cultivated (both naturally and–eventually–intentionally) a bit of an “alternative” image–think a professional environment with tattoos and piercings and wild hair colors, even back at the turn of the millennium before that was more common. A few years ago our business structure underwent a pretty significant and forward-thinking shift and I was in charge of writing the press release. My boss gave me a list of outlets they wanted me to contact during a verbal one-on-one meeting, and I wrote down the list and got down to work.

    Eventually I hit the I’s and went “ I mean, a tattoo magazine definitely fits our vibe, but I can’t imagine they’re interested in running a piece on our business.” Of course, I assumed my boss had their reasons and did the work as I was told.

    …literally YEARS later I’m reading one of Alison’s columns and it hit me smack in the head–“oh my god, my boss meant INC.COM for that assignment, not HOW DID I MISS THAT?” Of course, I had to tell my boss (who has a great sense of humor) at our next meeting and they started doubling over laughing. Inc never did get the press release, but we were fortunate that several other outlets did pick up the story, in spite of my best efforts.

  25. something*

    Oh, Mike, ruining it for the rest of us! I’m pescetarian, mostly vegetarian, but I don’t usually disclose that if not necessary. More than once, I’ve had a conversation that went like this:

    “Hey, something, why did you order the veggie patty burger?”
    “Oh, I’m a vegetarian.”
    “Listen to this: How do you know whether someone’s vegetarian? They’ll tell you! Haw haw haw haw!”
    Me, in my head: “I only said it because you asked…”

    It’s not a huge deal, I suppose, but it was already old the first time I heard it.

    1. Lizard*

      Agreed. I too am a pescatarian/ mostly vegetarian and absolutely hate ever bringing it up for exactly the same reasons.

      Mike needs to cool it & find a new topic of conversation.

    2. Tiffany Aching's imaginary friend*

      I avoid it all by not labelling it and not having “rules”. I just like some stuff and don’t like other stuff. (I have legit confused people who saw me eating tofu once and then chicken another time. Because they thought I had “rules”, and I must have “broken the rules”. Nope! I just have likes and dislikes. And tofu is not a punishment.)

    3. allathian*


      I often pick the vegetarian/vegan option if it looks the most appetizing. I’m a flexi-eater. I also have a very low tolerance of even an implied criticism of my food choices. So my answer to “Why did you order…” would probably be “Because I want to eat it.”

    4. londonedit*

      People who police other people’s food choices are so annoying. I don’t eat meat and only occasionally eat fish, so I tend not to use labels and just eat the things I enjoy. Usually if I’m out I’ll have something veggie, but if the fish option sounds tasty then I might go for that. I’ve totally had experiences where just because I’ve ordered a veggie burger or a salad on one occasion, if I then mention fish and chips someone will say ‘What??? I thought you were a vegetarian!!!’ as if they’ve somehow ‘caught me out’. I always just say ‘No, I just don’t eat meat’ but a lot of people can’t separate that from ‘vegetarian’.

    5. Rich H*

      I’m not vegetarian but sometimes I order a veggie burger. Why? Because I like them, and it’s nobody else’s business!

      See also people that question you when you order a non-alcoholic drink in a pub. Grrr.

      1. Lenora Rose*

        There was a place in the city whose best dish, bar none, was called a “sunburger” and was a very thick, very tasty vegetarian patty. Darn right I’d order it nearly every time. The tuna melt, by contrast, was merely really good.

        (I miss that place)

  26. oranges*

    I sent a terse “As highlighted below” to a coworker who kicked up a flurry of Reply Alls with a large group email chain we were both on. She started asking questions about logistics after I was very clear in the beginning of the answer. I only sent the “As highlighted below” email it to her, but it was petty AF and I’m still mad about it. The Reply Alls had been flying all day and people were spun up for a problem that didn’t even exist because she DIDN’T READ THE FIRST EMAIL.

  27. Worker bee*

    LW1, I completely agree with comments about setting up a chain of command for when you’re not available, as well as the contact information of others in the organization that could answer questions.

    Not long ago, I was doing one of my jobs and a coworker said a customer said they had an account, but she couldn’t find it and didn’t know what to do. I looked, found something similar, but not exact, and told my coworker to call Lulu in Account Management, as she could do some extra digging. My coworker had no idea who Lulu was, nor that there was someone who handled those things. I asked others and no one knew there was a point of contact they could speak to for those things.

    On the flip side of that, people have been told that I’m the point of contact for X, even though I only do a specific part of X. I do my best to figure out the issue, then will redirect them to the proper person, if needed.

    To be honest, my company is very bad about that kind of thing and it’s frustrating for everyone, management and employees alike. Before I gained the experience I have now, it was extremely frustrating to have an issue and not know who to speak to about it, other than my direct boss. I’m in the process of taking on an additional role, which I intend to use to better educate the staff about the resources and people within our company. Because even though a problem might not be an emergency, it might be urgent to that person, simply because they don’t know how to proceed or if it’s actually IS something that is pressing and time sensitive.

    Finally, and forgive me is this isn’t the case, but are you explicitly empowering your employees to make these minor decisions on their own? I’ve worked in places where I’ve known what to do in situations, but wouldn’t do anything without permission because I knew that if I didn’t, the fist of management would come crashing down on my head.

  28. raida7*

    Make a clear notice to staff on the process when you are out of the office:
    Issues A-G contact Person1
    Issues H-L contact Person2
    Issues M-W contact Person3
    ONLY issues XYZ, also urgent, do you contact me.

    And when someone calls you, you do not help them. You tell them you aren’t at work, they have instructions on what to do, you expect them to do it.
    And then… you hold them to it. Include this in performance reviews! If seven people do it the most, that’s narrowing down most of the effort into specific meetings.

  29. serious question*

    Regarding LW5, what are you meant to do when the only reference you can actually use is an “older” reference?

    Examples: you’ve worked with the same company for ten years, and you don’t want them knowing that you’re job hunting; your other managers are unavailable (eg: death; illness; off the grid); your other managers are inappropriate references (eg: completely different industry/skills; they assaulted you; they are in jail; they bullied you; they stole your wages for years; they illegally fired you).

    I worked in recruitment for more than a decade. I have seen every single one of these examples play out, plus more.

    I’m only mid-career myself and have three previous managers who are now dead, and four unreachable ones due to serious illness and having retired off the grid. I have had the same direct manager for eight years, and can’t use the other manager I indirectly reported to in that time because she is now my direct manager’s manager. The other three or four references I can use are from eight, ten, twelve and fourteen years ago. What am I meant to do?

    Working in recruitment for as long as I did, it really did show one thing: reference checks are uterly pointless the vast majority of the time. They are occasionally of use to point out the blindingly obvious to an upper manager who has interfered, uninvited, to a recruitment process they don’t understand. But an external reference has nothing to lose or gain for telling you the absolute truth, although they do sometimes have something to gain by not being entirely truthful (which can work either for or against the candidate themselves).

    1. allathian*

      That’s a very good question. I’ve worked at my current job for 14 years, and I’ve developed a lot as a professional during that time. References from former employers would have a hard time remembering me by now, especially as before I got my current job, I was a contractor/freelancer with one client for a government agency. They sent me work, I completed it, and invoiced them. I never met my client in person, I only spoke with them once on the phone, all our other contacts were by email. The jobs before that were in retail and call centers, and they definitely can’t say anything about me as a professional, even assuming they’d remember me after all this time.

      The first manager I had at my current job was a bad manager. She’s still working for my employer, but in a senior IC role, during an organizational reform, about half of the middle managers in my organization had their jobs eliminated; I suspect hers was eliminated at least partly because staff turnover under her management was so high. Most found specialist roles elsewhere in the organization, some left. I’ve grown a lot as a professional since working for her, so there’s really nothing she could say about me as an employee that’d work in my favor. The manager I had after her wanted to be friends with her reports, and with her I learned that I can’t respect a person as my manager if they’re my friend. I suspect that our difficult relationship cemented her decision to get out of management. She’s retired now, and here you don’t bother people in retirement unless they’ve given explicit permission to do so, and we just don’t have the sort of relationship where I could expect to get a favorable reference. The interim manager I had next was really great, the best manager I’ve ever had, although she was in her first management position. I can count on a reference from her, and actually got it even when I applied for a job with her as my manager, she’s that decent. I didn’t get the job, but I did get the chance to practice my interviewing skills. My current manager has been my manager for only a few months, and I don’t think she has much to say about me as a professional yet.

  30. Anonymous Hippo*

    I had to be very specific with my team, especially when we were 100% remote. Hours were allowed to be as flexible as you needed, as long as you got your work done. But I have a youngish team, and they definitely needed coached on what was and wasn’t an emergency and planning ahead to get what you need from people during their regular work hours (ie you can’t plan to work from 2-4am and expect to be able to ask people for input).

  31. Guin*

    All-hours boss: If you do not work in a healthcare setting or a field where a person could be injured or die at any moment, turn off your phone when you’re not at work. If you’re using one phone for business and personal – get a separate phone for just business, and make it clear your personal number is off-limits for calls and texting. It sounds like you’re enabling a lot of the questions by actually answering them at three in the morning. Don’t.

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