Ask a Manager in the media

Here’s some coverage of Ask a Manager in the media recently:

I talked to Eater about lunch etiquette at work.

I talked to CBS News about the downsides of unlimited vacation time.

I talked to The Kit about how to talk about your divorce at work.

I talked to American Banker about a horrifically invasive program run by the Truist Leadership Institute for executives that makes them talk with each other about their childhoods, their parents, and any trauma they’ve experienced, in the name of dispelling subconscious negative energy that might affect their leadership style. (It’s paywalled, so I’ll tell you that I said that kind of deeply intimate emotional work is wildly inappropriate for a work context.)

{ 61 comments… read them below }

  1. zuzu*

    I have zero compunction about making up an entire childhood out of whole cloth for anyone who wants to make me bare my soul at work like that.

    Two can play that game.

    1. Roy G. Biv*

      Definitely. I would have an overwhelming urge to recite Dr. Evil’s childhood memories, “My childhood was typical; summers in Rangoon, luge lessons.”

    2. Radioactive Cyborg Llama*

      Yup, all normal with a little bit of “my dog died” and “I was bullied for half of third grade” thrown in for verisimilitude.

      1. what about Truist*

        I’m sorry to read this, as Truist recently took over my longtime local bank. What seemed scammy?

    3. LifeBeforeCorona*

      As a joke I once recited the bare bones plot of Oliver Twist to a nosy person. Orphan, running away, falling in with bad company, rescued by an angel, long lost relatives and happiness in the end.

      1. Sara without an H*

        This could be fun. “My father died, then his brother married my mom and cut me out of the family business.”

        1. KittyGhost*

          I’m still deciding if I’m going to sue him or not. Sometimes I feel like my father wants me to sue him, but I’m not sure if its worth the emotional toll. What, no I don’t need therapy.

        2. Marzipan Shepherdess*

          “…And then my stepfather Claud got my late girlfriend’s brother to try to poison me but Mom accidentally drank it instead.”

      2. MassMatt*

        I would be hard pressed to decide whether to start the exercise with “Call me Ishmael” or “Chapter One: I am born.”

    4. 123*

      “It was never easy for me. I was born a poor black child. I remember the days, sittin’ on the porch with my family, singin’ and dancin’ down in Mississippi…”

    5. LBam*

      Make a game out of it. How long and how ridiculous can you make these stories before people start to question it.
      “After my dad died in ‘Nam, my mom sold me to the circus. I was 8.”
      “Didn’t you say last week that you dad fell off the Grand Canyon when you were 6?”
      “He, uh, survived that.”

  2. Bookworm*

    Just want to add to the unlimited vacation convo: I found that the manager took advantage of that to contact people whenever she felt like it. Workday evenings (meaning, well after what are considered “business hours”), even when people specifically requested time off so as not to be disturbed (once got emailed while I was physically still at a doctor’s office). It felt like I couldn’t take vacation and I noticed people who did officially have time off would still do certain tasks (that couldn’t be automated or pre-scheduled).

    I love the idea and do think it can work well under the right circumstances but it’s not hard to see how it can be abused.

    1. Dasein9 (he/him)*

      Yep. A lack of clear vacation time becomes a lack of clear work time, which becomes work expecting to access employees at all times.

    2. MassMatt*

      The theoretical ability to take however much PTO you want, and the flexibility to do it whenever you want, is the selling point.

      But much like Marx’s classless society, it never seems to move from the theoretical to the actual world.

      IME it has always meant 60+ hour weeks, minimum.

      Places with unlimited PTO tend to glorify working long hours and asking for time off is considered not being a team player.

      It would be more honest for these places to simply say at the initial interview “We expect you to work 60 hours per week, 52 weeks a year. PTO is for wimps. Brief exceptions can be made for life threatening illness or a death of an immediate family member. That’s why we will pay you triple what the wimpy competitor does”. But they never do.

  3. Tammy 2*

    I know this wasn’t really the focus of the Eater piece, but I would love to see “don’t comment on your coworker’s lunch choices” join “don’t microwave fish” as a well-known office lunchroom etiquette rule.

    A huge benefit of working at home more has been getting away from the absolutely relentless diet talk that takes place in office kitchens.

    1. Tommy Girl*

      I so agree with this! I have lots of digestive and food sensitivity issues. And sometimes I’m trying to eat less sugar or eat healthier. Or battling my eating disorder. Plus I’m an ethical vegetarian. And do to certain other things, I’m often the target of other women bullying me/trying to put me down. So it’s like I have a bullseye on my back when it comes to food. Come on, Tommy Girl, why aren’t you eating this free Mexican food? (because I’d be in the toilet all afternoon). Just have one donut Tommy Girl, it’s for someone’s birthday! (this is the second donut party of the week, you very meanly PUT THE DONUTS IN MY OFFICE, and this is the week I decided to give up sugar, and one donut will start a two-week binge for me). Aren’t you worried you’re missing protein/nutrients/etc etc etc by not eating meat, Tommy Girl? Well actually – my diet is worlds better than the SAD diet – YOUR diet is the one we should be worried about health wise. EWW Tommy Girl, a kale smoothie? That’s so gross. Sigh. So I LOVE LOVE LOVE working from home now, no food pushers and commenters!

      1. Tommy Girl*

        I should note for my comment – I don’t actually SAY any of these replies. It’s all internal. I just ignore them, or say something like, “not for me today!” or something innocuous. The comments really bother me though.

      2. Irish Teacher*

        I agree too. I have…some sort of sensory issue with food, I think and honestly, until my early 30s, I just assumed that my experience was what everybody meant when they said they disliked a food and that most people just…disliked less foods than me.

        So yeah, I’ve endured a lot of food related comments too. In my case, most of it is well-meant, like “ah, go on, have some” or “just ask them for something different,” in a restaurant where I’ve ordered the option I can at least eat part of.

        My current colleagues I generally don’t mind asking because they aren’t pushy about it. Though one colleague did say she wished she was like me, so she could lose weight. Um…not the way it works. It’s harder to eat healthily with a restricted diet, not easier and means I am overweight, not excessively so, but perhaps a size larger than that colleague.

        1. Tommy Girl*

          I’m sorry, this sounds tough. Don’t you love it when people smaller than you say they need/want to lose weight :-)

          1. The Dude Abides*

            The mockery in that second sentence is uncalled for. You don’t know why someone might want to lose weight, and judging them just because they’re smaller is still ridiculous.

            During a work potluck today, I got ribbed by a new-ish co-worker from a different unit within my building for eating a plate of homemade Caesar salad (which said co-worker called “rabbit food”) instead of the plethora of pizza or dessert options.

            I’m 5’7, male, 160, and trying to drop another 10 while also building muscle. I suspect that co-worker would have sang a different tune had I been eating my normal Thursday lunch – an entire rotisserie chicken from the grocery store.

    2. zuzu*

      Corollary: FFS, don’t comment on people’s drink choices, either.

      Not everyone likes coffee! Not everyone drinks! No need to speculate about pregnancy if a young woman turns down a drink with alcohol!

      1. Tammy 2*

        Right, and no need to speculate about sobriety just because someone doesn’t want to drink with their coworkers. There are so many reasons not to drink (I don’t feel sober enough to drive even after half a beer) and it is so super weird that it’s ever an issue when someone orders a soft drink.

  4. Scarlet Ribbons in her Hair*

    At one of my former jobs, Jane, the office manager, announced that we would all have unlimited time off. I thought that that was a bad idea, but she hadn’t discussed her idea with me ahead of time, so I just kept my mouth shut.

    I thought it was a bad idea, because I knew that the majority of employees were slackers who always tried to game the system, and people started taking much too much time off. Eventually, Jane caught on, and when Mary, the receptionist, took the day off, Jane made Linda stay late to answer the telephone. Jane said that it was because Linda had taken the day off the previous day, so she owed it to the company. This was not Linda’s idea of unlimited time off (she thought that she could take off however much time she wanted without having to worry about making it up), but she didn’t say anything.

    One day, Jane asked me to stay late to answer the telephone because Mary was out. I refused, saying that I hadn’t taken off even one minute from work every since Jane had announced that we had unlimited time off. Jane found someone else to stay late.

    Then came the day that Jane announced that the policy of unlimited time off was no more. (I still hadn’t taken off even one minute from work.) She said that people kept abusing the policy. (I could have told her ahead of time that that was going to happen, but again, she hadn’t discussed the matter with me.) She said that to prevent abuse, from now one, if we took even one day off from work, we would have to bring in a doctor’s note. I was annoyed that if I had to stay home with a cold, I would have to go to the doctor, especially since I hadn’t taken off even one minute from work under the unlimited time off policy. I left the company soon afterwards.

    1. pally*

      See, this is exactly what I would expect to happen under an unlimited PTO policy.

      Folks start shirking their work tasks and the responsible folks get stuck with having to take care of everything.

      1. Dasein9 (he/him)*

        And then the opposite: taking even reasonable time starts being seen as shirking so people are too intimidated to do it.

  5. Lacey*

    My boss was super worried that our unlimited vacation time policy was going to be abused by people – even though it’s subject to manager approval and he could just decline to approve time for a 10 week vacation to Europe.

    I pointed out that actually it’s well known that people tend to take LESS vacation time when it’s unlimited & he was shocked, but mollified.

    The good news is – he really is a decent boss & approves all the vacation our team requests. And it’s a good team, so people aren’t being wild about their requests either.

  6. Jenna*

    My company designates Unlimited PTO by management level; so tends to break down that individual contributers accrue time and management has unlimited. For my org at least, it really works. The majority of managers are responsible about it, and in my team we align as leaders to ensure when we take our time our counterparts are available/know and can lean in as needed (and then we return the favor when they take time).

    This year between 2 vacations, some long weekends, and occasional mental health days I’ll come in around 35 days of “PTO”. I’d be hard pressed to find this flexibility anywhere else.

    1. Ginger Cat Lady*

      But do your employees have that same “flexibility”?
      I would HATE any PTO system that created two classes like that. Leadership can take as much time as we want, but you peons need to be regulated!”

      1. Reluctant Mezzo*

        We used to have that system where I worked–managers could be sick as long as they needed to be Because Exempt (to be fair, they lived at the place during year end) while the peasants got three sick days a year. That system was fixed, yay!

  7. KHB*

    From where I sit, there is no such thing as unlimited PTO. There are only 365 days in a year (and 250 or so regular workdays, assuming a 5-day work week and the usual US holidays), so you obviously can’t take more PTO than that. And since a company would not be very happy with someone taking PTO every single day of the year, there’s probably a much smaller “limit” somewhere. They just don’t tell you what it is. And that gives them the leeway to impose (or pressure employees into self-imposing) different limits on everyone.

    (…which is more or less what Alison said in the article.)

    I’ve also been thinking a lot lately about how unlimited PTO (or even just regular PTO, like we have at my employer) intersects with burnout. After a long track record of high performance, I’m going through a period where it feels like I’m pushing myself closer and closer to my limit, but I’m getting less and less done. Burned-out employees are the ones most in need of a break, but if they’re “not getting all their work done,” they’re deemed least deserving of PTO. Trying to figure out how to get around this, even if only in my own head.

    1. Armchair Analyst*

      well in my experience
      burnout can lead to physical and mental stress that causes illness that causes short-term disability or health or medical leave.

      which is a lot of time off. but sitting around doing anti-anxiety homework and checking in with a therapist, even if paid for by health insurance, isn’t exactly a vacation

  8. BellyButton*

    Here is how my company handles PTO. We call it discretionary, not unlimited. If we let someone go, I check to see how much PTO they have used and if they have been with us a year and have taken less than 2 weeks, we add an additional week’s pay to their separation agreement. In my 10 months here we have never not given someone at least 2 weeks severance if they were here longer than 6 months.
    Because people notoriously take less time off when they have “unlimited” PTO, I run a report every quarter and I speak to anyone who hasn’t taken a day or two off. I check to make sure they aren’t feeling like they can’t, and I encourage them to take a day.
    If someone is having performance issues, one of the first things I look at is their PTO usage. If they aren’t using their PTO I ask them to consider that they might be feeling burnt out and maybe they should take some days off to see if that helps them get back “in the groove”. If they are using a lot of PTO I gently inquire if they are ok, trying not to prod too much into their personal life.
    Added to all that- we have a company of fairly early career employees who are mostly client facing and very high performers. So finding a balance between client expectations and their drive can be tough.

    Hope this helps some people think about ways to balance unlimited PTO.

  9. Kagan*

    The one place I worked that had “unlimited” PTO was a small tech startup, back in 2009 and 2010. Once I’d been there for about 9 months (on a schedule of “check work email first thing in the morning and last thing before going to bed” aside from the 8-9 hours in the office 5 days a week), I took three days of vacation.

    They looked at me like I’d sprouted horns from my head, and when I got back, they pressured me to work extra-hard “to make up for being away for so long”.

    Soured me on “unlimited” PTO. (And that company. I left a couple of months later.)

    The usual line is that you can take as much time as you want “as long as your work’s all getting done”, but most employers have way more work than the available employees could ever possibly complete, so that equates to “never”.

    1. Nobby Nobbs*

      You may go to the ball, Cinderella, IF all your work is done and IF you have something suitable to wear.

  10. MechE31*

    I work at a very large company with discretionary PTO for exempt employees. We manage this in large part with approval levels. Any single request over 3 weeks or cumulative vacation over 160 hours a year requires extra approvals. Sick time is separate and discretionary as well.

    I encourage all my direct reports to use close to 160 hours of vacation and sick as needed with the only caveat that we need at least 2 people out of our group of 7 here.

    I’ve used or have approval to use 180 hours this year and slightly more last year do to some unplanned shutdowns. I will take off additional time over the holidays if the work needs allow.

    The only time I got bugged on any of my vacations was to approve an offer before we extended it.

  11. stradbaldwingirl*

    Unlimited PTO is a scam, for the reasons aptly laid out in the CBS News article. It’s simply a way for companies to avoid having to pay out vacation time when people leave. In practice, people use the same amount of PTO — or less.

    1. A Poster Has No Name*

      Agreed. I hit my 20 year anniversary at my company last year which comes with an extra week of vacation.

      …and then my company went to “unlimited” this year and I feel like I got an effective pay cut.

  12. INeedANap*

    I’m convinced they do that so they can use your own vulnerabilities against you, or as leverage. It’s gross and exploitative.

  13. Dances with Flax*

    Sigh…why do companies insist on trying to force their employees to “open up” to supervisors and colleagues about matters that have nothing. to. do. with. their. actual. jobs.?! Managers and executives, please – you are NOT in a therapeutic role vis-a-vis your employees and doing this can lead to emotional reactions that you are. not. able. to. handle!

  14. Donkey Hotey*

    talk with each other about their childhoods, their parents, and any trauma they’ve experienced, in the name of dispelling subconscious negative energy that might affect their leadership style

    At the risk of opening a can of worms, this is essentially auditing from Scientology.

    Auditing is a sequence of actions whereby the “auditor” takes an individual through times in their current (or past) lives with the purpose of ridding the individual of negative influences from past events or behaviors.

    1. MassMatt*

      I was going to say this. If I worked there I would definitely look into whether there was a Scientology connection in upper leadership. Scientology is also well known for using front groups as a Trojan horse for their agenda; if there is a consulting company behind this I would be interested to know who owns them and whether there is a connection.

    2. Ink*

      I noticed that too! I wouldn’t be surprised if going back deep enough into the organization and creators of that program turned up a link, even if it’s just “did a couple meetings” instead of being a full-blown member. Wouldn’t be the first time someone decided Scientology wasn’t for them, but all those juicy tactics could serve their own purposes wonderfully

  15. Don't open that can of worms.*

    I would straight up tell them about my incredibly traumatic childhood in great detail & make them all really, really uncomfortable if they tried that shenanigans with me. I am not ashamed of what happened to me because what happened to me was not my fault, but disclosure often makes people wildly uncomfortable & brings conversation to a grinding halt.

    I suspect it would be the last time they did that.

    1. Esprit de l'escalier*

      “last time they did that” — depends on how voyeuristic the person who approved this is, and on what they hope to get out of it. (Also see above re Scientology)

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