what does “polished” mean in job postings, I’m not allowed to bring in food to share if I don’t bring enough for everyone, and more

I’m on vacation. Here are some past letters that I’m making new again, rather than leaving them to wilt in the archives.

1. What does “polished” mean in job postings?

I’m office temping and looking for a full-time job. I was at first focusing on nonprofits, but after some great experiences temping in the corporate world, I’m expanding my search. Every now and then I see in a listing that they’re look for a “polished” assistant.

The first time I saw this, it was for work with a luxury brand, and I immediately imagined a conventionally attractive woman with sleek hair and freshly manicured nails. I suspected that luxury brand work was not for me — I dress tidily and professionally, but don’t want to work someplace where the tweezedness of my brows might come under scrutiny.

Now I’ve been temping someplace a month, and one of their temp-to-term postings also used that word. I know this company isn’t like that — they’re corporate, but clearly not judging admins on pore size or whatever. So: what does “polish” mean? How is it different from “professional?”

Sometimes “polished” does mean what you’re envisioning — a particularly high level of attention to grooming, clothing, and physical presentation.

But often it is used to mean a high level of professionalism — for example, that you’re going to handle even difficult callers smoothly, that you’re not going stand in a VP’s office fumbling through papers for five minutes rather saying “let me find that for you and I’ll bring it right back,” that you’re going to greet visitors warmly even when you’re feeling harried, that you’re not going to complain about work while you’re at the front desk, that you can competently juggle multiple things without getting flustered … overall, that you’re going to be highly competent, make the job look easy and be a calming presence in the office rather than a stressful or chaotic one, and not need coaching on professionalism.


2. I’m not allowed to bring in food to share if I don’t bring enough for everyone

For over 10 years, I’ve prepared lunches and set up a table with food to share with my shift. Everyone is happy! I sent a batch of cookies with my husband, telling him to make sure three people got some for sure and that I didn’t care who had the rest. A person or two who didn’t get some of whatever I brought complained to HR that they felt excluded. I was shocked that they would do that. Moreover, I was shocked that management would intervene. They said if I couldn’t make enough to feed everyone, I wasn’t allowed to bring food in.

There are no rules on this in the handbook, but other departments bring in food for their department. The supervisor who told me that was carrying out a dish at the end of the day. I asked had he brought enough for everyone, and he was very angry. That is discrimination, is it not?

Not in the legal sense, no. Illegal discrimination must be based on race, sex, religion, disability, or another protected class; simply treating people differently when those elements aren’t a factor isn’t illegal.

But assuming that you are working with adults and not children, it’s pretty silly of your company to try to manage who you bring in food for. And it’s incredibly silly that some of your coworkers complained to HR (!) about not getting the food. But your company does indeed have the right to do silly things like this if they want to.


3. Having a parent call in sick for you

Recently, I caught a virus and totally lost my voice, to the point where my mom had to come to the doctor’s office with me to help explain some of my other symptoms (I still live at home, so she knew what my other symptoms were). Thankfully, this occurred over the weekend and I was able to return to work on Monday.

However, I have to ask: How bad would it have been if my mom called me in sick? My voice was gone to the point that you couldn’t hear me talking in person, and it would have been impossible to hear me over the phone. Due to the nature of my job, neither I nor my boss have work emails, and I don’t feel comfortable sending a text to let her know I wouldn’t be able to make it (I’d be afraid that she wouldn’t see it).

This is one of the very few situations where it would be okay to have your parent call in sick for you. You literally couldn’t make the call yourself, so someone else would have needed to relay the information on your behalf. She wouldn’t have been doing that as “your mom” but as “a person aware of the situation and able to communicate when you were not.” (You’d want to have ensured that she made it clear she was calling because you literally had no voice, not just because she was your mom and taking care of you.)


4. My office book club always starts really late

About 20 or so employees in various departments at the company I work at belong to a book club. All employees regardless of position can join and they only need to commit to attending a week in advance. We read a book a month and get together on the final Sunday morning of each month at a diner for brunch where we talk about the books. I think it is a good way to build camaraderie in the workplace and partake in an enlightening hobby together.

My problem is that about 40% of the people who agree to come on any given week show up at least 30 minutes late (sometimes over 45). Last time, I was stuck sitting in the parking lot for over an hour, first because one person showed up 40 minutes late, then because we had to wait 20 minutes for the diner to set a large table.

I am upset about this. I posted on the group’s Facebook page that it was not respectful of my time to show up so late after having agreed to come at 10 a.m. The facilitators of the group privately agreed with me but they refuse to go ahead and eat until without waiting for the late coworkers. My best friend, who has less patience than I do, said she would have left after waiting 10 minutes. I am afraid that doing so would create a lot of tension at work, but it would stop my time from being wasted. What do you think?

I think you are in a book club with people who don’t arrive on time, at least not on Sunday mornings, and that if the facilitators aren’t willing to do anything about that, there’s not much you can do yourself. You could try raising it with the group (in person at the next meeting, not over Facebook) and ask if people have ideas to address it — for example, is 10 a.m. too early for people, would it be better to do it over lunch during a workday, etc.?

But if that doesn’t solve it, then … well, this is a group of people who want to to get together but aren’t going to commit to a rigid start time. Some people prefer a more relaxed gathering, and that might be this group. If that’s the case, then you’ve got to decide if you still want to participate, knowing that people take the start time very loosely. If you do, then you might decide to start coming late yourself, or just expect it’ll start late and bring a book to occupy yourself while you wait, or even see if the on-time people want to branch off into a separate wing of the group.


Read an update to this letter here.

{ 67 comments… read them below }

  1. SailorLuna*

    I had my spouse call in sick for me once. I had a really bad reaction to prescription medication while I was slowly coming back to work after surgery. I was supposed to have a meeting with my boss that day and I had to get my husband to text her because I was so dizzy that I couldn’t read my phone and according to him I wasn’t speaking clearly even though I felt like I was. Then I was paranoid that my boss would be upset at me for missing the meeting (she wasn’t and had never shown signs prior of being an unreasonable person). It was an awful day, but my boss was 100% understanding and cool about it as any reasonable person would be. If they aren’t, maybe you don’t want to work there.

    1. CatMintCat*

      I had to get my daughter to call in for me once. Same as OP2 – no voice at all. She made the call and I was there with pen and paper to answer any questions. It was fine – I wouldn’t do it in a situation where I was conscious and could talk, but it was fine.

      1. Dahlia*

        My mom had to call in for me in a similar situation. I actually tried to call in myself but the person on the other end literally could not hear me, because my voice was SO gone.

    2. Other Alice*

      Absolutely, I had my mum call one time I’d completely lost my voice. I had a bout of tonsillitis bad enough I had to go and stay with my parents because I was so out of it I couldn’t get out of bed. Just be matter of fact that they’re not calling because they’re your parent or spouse, they’re calling because you can’t.

    3. Sara without an H*

      I once had an employee’s husband call in for her — she was taken suddenly ill, to the point where they’d made a trip to the emergency room. She was really in no condition to make a phone call. I’d met her husband briefly a couple of times, so I knew whom I was talking to, which helped. I expressed sympathy and asked him to tell her not to worry, just to concentrate on getting well.

      My point is this: I know we get a lot of posts here at AAM about managers who are really, really bad — that’s why people want Alison’s advice, after all. But assuming the manager is a reasonable excuse for a human being, give them a chance to show it. If you find yourself in the position of having to call in for someone, treat it like a business call, explain the situation concisely and unemotionally, and assure them that their employee/your friend/your daughter/your spouse, etc., will check in as soon as medically able.

      Assume they will be reasonable, and they very often will be.

  2. Mrs. Hawiggins*

    My husband called in for me once and actually reached my boss because my laryngitis was so painful and bad, it sounded like whistling noises were coming out when I tried to talk. I got enough back the next day to personally speak to her and she told me how bad I sounded I should have asked Mr. Tudball to call for me, again. Sometimes you have to have someone do it. I was so squeaky it made everyone’s eyes water. Ugh. It still bodes responsibly because you are reporting, or making the appropriate effort.

  3. Teaching teacher*

    As someone who has lost their voice many times, what happens if you must call in but live alone?

      1. Workswitholdthings*

        I had to WhatsApp / text my manager earlier this month, when the rotten cold I have meant my voice went entirely (and I live on my own).
        WhatsApp for real-time communication, plus I could include comedy voice recordings of the current state of my vocal chords….

      2. Falling Diphthong*

        And this is where you sometimes wind up contacting your mom, because she is the answer to “Who is awake, will immediately read and respond to a text from me, and is happy to help me out?”

    1. Betty*

      I once was so sick that I lost my voice, but I thought it would be better the next day. I was so surprised when I woke up and could barely make a sound. I called my manager, and I was sure she wouldn’t be able to hear me, but as soon as I started trying to talk, she interrupted and said she understood that I would be out sick. If that hadn’t worked, I would’ve sent an email, and I think that would have been fine because she knew that she had just received an odd call from my number.

      1. Ellen N.*

        I’ve worked at two firms with a policy that employees had to call and speak to a manager or partner if they were going to be late or not coming in.

        Once I was in the hospital for a week. I had to wake up at 7:30 each morning to call my boss and tell him that I was still in the hospital.

    2. Jamoche*

      If I tried to call my boss at any of the companies I’ve had in the last decade, it would vanish into the black hole of voicemail. Email, text, or chat have taken over.

    3. OrigCassandra*

      I have a neighbor I could text. We look after one another’s cats when one of us goes out of town, and she was a lifeline when I unexpectedly had to spend a week in the hospital.

    4. Annie*

      Get any information required to “properly” call out sick noted down in multiple places, including a slip of paper that can be handed out to literally anyone who might need to call out on your behalf. Even if you do have the option to “call out” without having to do so verbally, it’s useful to keep this information accessible in case you have a medical emergency that completely takes away your ability to communicate.

      Here’s a template that can be edited based on specific company requirements:
      Company: Teapots Inc.
      Call-out Number: 555-OUT-SICK
      Call-out Email: outsick@example.com
      Employee Name: Jane Smith
      Manager Name: Fergus Warbleworth
      Manager Phone Number: 555-THE-BOSS
      Manager Email: fergusw@example.com
      Employee ID: 123456
      Department: Digital Marketing
      Reason for Calling Out: Jane Smith is out sick due to a medical emergency and is physically unable to speak/use a phone/other relevant action.

  4. Jasmi*

    Sigh….the mentality of ‘If I miss out, then everyone has to miss out’. Being excluded would be your company not catering for all dietary requirements at a catered lunch, not someone missing out on some food a colleague brought in. And to complain to HR….really? And your employer to say that you have to bring in enough for everyone….I don’t know if there’s a piece of the picture missing, but otherwise this just seems petty

    1. Charlotte Lucas*

      I bet there was someone in the office who either just didn’t like the OP or was the kind of person who always felt very put-upon no matter what.

  5. Melissa*

    I was briefly in a book club where 90% of the discussion was not related to the book. We were all young mothers, and everyone else seemed to prefer to discuss their husbands and children, whereas I really wanted to discuss the book! I tried a couple of times to steer the conversation, but then I realized it simply wasn’t the right club for me.

  6. 248_Ballerinas*

    Sunday brunch doesn’t sound like a good time for a book club to meet in a restaurant. Noisy and busy with the after/church crowd. A weeknight would be Bo.

    1. Charlotte Lucas*

      I agree! And I was wondering if part of the problem is that many people were coming straight from church. That can take more time than expected.

    2. Seashell*

      I can understand that some people might prefer a weekend, but maybe later in the day would have worked better. I don’t see why the LW had to wait in the parking lot rather than go in, ask for a table, get seated with whoever is there, and have some coffee/tea.

      1. Dahlia*

        They probably had a standing reservation and many restaurants won’t seat you until most or all of your party is there.

    3. Jackalope*

      I was actually thinking in a different direction. In my experience, unless a church has a super early service (8:00), then they won’t have finished church bu 10:00, let alone have been able to arrive at a restaurant. (Most services I know of start between 9:30-11:00.) That totally might be fine if you live in an area/have a company with primarily non-Christian employees, but does mean that anyone attending church won’t be able to make it.

      That being said, my personal two cents here is that the coordinators were in the wrong for having waited for everyone to arrive before allowing everyone to eat. My recommendation would be to make a reservation for a group of [however many people RSVP-ed] at 10:00 and then order as normal. Let the staff know that some of the people will be showing up late, and then go ahead and order. Alternatively, since it sounds like it’s a large enough group for this, see if you can find a place with a small room you can reserve and then go ahead and start the discussion at 10:05, or whenever the people who’ve arrived have ordered. It’s fine to be open to people with a flexible sense of time, but super rude to give them the ability to force everyone else to wait for 30-60 minutes in the parking lot or their cars without starting.

      1. Zombeyonce*

        Many restaurants will not seat anyone unless the entire party is present, especially when it’s a big group and during one of the busiest times (Sunday brunch is crowded in most places). Too often, not all the people show up and they lose out in seats during rush, and even if everyone comes, making the wait staff come back multiple times to take orders causes a lot of inefficiency and difficulty. They might be able to reserve a room, but probably not during a rush time like Sunday at 10am.

    4. Nancy*

      Agree, 10am on a Sunday is not a good time for many people. I don’t go to church and wouldn’t want to get up that early on a weekend. And many restaurants won’t seat you unless everyone is there, especially if it’s going to be a big group during a busy time like brunch.

      People are probably saying yes with good intentions because they want do want to attend. A simple solution is just poll everyone on best days and times, that’s what my book group does.

  7. Queer Earthling*

    A few years ago I worked at a popular American grocery store chain that rhymes with Ogre, and I lost my voice so badly that my partner called in for me…and they still insisted that I had to talk on the phone personally to be excused. So they handed me the phone and I croaked at it for a bit, including attempting to answer any questions. It probably sounded like The Grudge on their end.

  8. Falling Diphthong*

    The non-physical version of polished you could think of as fitting in seamlessly to the role. So when you’re there everything that needs to happen happens and no one has to think about it; they can concentrate on other things.

    1. Charlotte Lucas*

      And you anticipate their needs! My director’s EA isn’t physically polished (it would be weird at my organization), but she is amazing at making sure everything runs smoothly and problems/needs are anticipated.

  9. MsJaytee*

    I would be as annoyed as LW3, and I speak as an ADHDer whose timekeeping isn’t the best. It sounds like the early start wasn’t great for a number of people, maybe those running the group could’ve had a discussion about starting later.

  10. Usually Lurking*

    As for #1 above, I think in many cases it’s also code for “white person,” don’t you think? Hair groomed (the way I groom mine), business dress (the way my dad dressed for work), speaking The King’s English (and not with some accent I don’t recognize) …

    I live in the South and maybe it’s more obvious to me than to some, but this is a dog-whistle for sure.

    1. Observer*

      I think in many cases it’s also code for “white person,” don’t you think?

      Absolutely not.

      Of course, there are such people. But over all? No. I know too many people who don’t fit that mold that I have seen called “polished”.

      For the most part, even when there is a physical appearance component, it’s more about being put together and neat. Sometimes also dressing according to the formality level of the workplace and looking comfortable (ie not wearing jeans in a place where suits are the norm.)

      The two areas where this can get tricky is hair an weight. For some people very curly hair or untreated Black hair comes off as “unpolished”. And beards – either of any sort or untrimmed – are often seen that way as well. Similarly, some people see significantly overweight people as “sloppy” or unpolished. But even these are not universal.

    2. Seashell*

      I’m a white person, and I wouldn’t call myself particularly polished. I’m a woman, so I probably wouldn’t dress the way anyone’s dad dressed for work either.

      1. New Jack Karyn*

        I think Usually Lurking means the opposite of what you’re saying. A POC could be very competent and well turned-out, but still not meet some folks’ standard of ‘polished’. And it’s not something they could put their finger on exactly, they know it when they see it, all kinds of excuses.

    3. DJ Abbott*

      There might be a race factor, but I think there is a little more than that. I’m white and when I was younger, I was scared away by the term polished because I knew I wasn’t. My hair was frizzy, my clothes were thrift store, I didn’t know how to be well groomed and polished. I didn’t know it’s about professionalism, but mine was so-so at best.
      Where I live it’s common for admins to be Black, and they are usually more professional and well groomed than I was then. So race may be a factor, but it’s not the only one.

      1. RVA Cat*

        This. I see it as “wealthy family background” as they want an upper-middle-class person for working class pay.

    4. nnn*

      It CAN be used for that but it is definitely not ALWAYS used for that. In my experience hearing it, most of the time it’s not coded for race.

      1. Falling Diphthong*

        Yeah, a lot of things can be coded including “polished,” but that’s one of many definitions and often way down the list.

        Absent other cues I’d use synonyms like “smooth” “seamless” “unflappable.”

      2. Bibliothecarial*

        I’d agree. Some places it would be code for “white” and some places not. Where I live we all idolize Michelle Obama as the epitome of “polished.” Where I used to live…whiteness wouldn’t be THE factor but it would be A factor.

    5. Sam*

      Here we go. If your first thought on non race related question is RACE! then newsflash, you are the racist.

      1. Dr Sarah*

        I think the problem with that claim is that, in practice in real life, racial issues end up entering into things even if they aren’t explicitly stated to be so.

        So, taking job interviews as an example: We can see that, statistically, white people are more likely to get employed than non-white people. And there seem to be a whole complex lot of reasons behind this which mostly *aren’t* people making a conscious decision to employ white people rather than black people. But quite a bit of it does seem to be people making *subconscious* decisions based on their ideas and assumptions about who looks or seems right for a role… when those ideas and assumptions do involve picturing white people rather than non-white people. Which is the case even for a lot of people who aren’t consciously ‘racist’ in the sense that we tend to think about it. And it’s a complicated self-perpetuating thing, because the more we see white people in the job roles around us, the more we get used to seeing white people there and have this as our default image.

        It’s a difficult complex problem and trying to deal with it *does* involve people doing quite a bit of consciously making the effort to think about where race might be a factor even though it hasn’t overtly come up as a factor. So, no, thinking about that doesn’t indicate that someone’s racist; on the contrary, it usually indicates that they’re trying to do something about dismantling society’s inherent racism.

        Hoping someone can come along and put this better than I have, but hopefully it made some kind of sense.

        1. Cyborg Llama Horde*

          Agreed. If I see race in a question that doesn’t seem to be about race to Sam, then the options are either: a) I’m bringing in race where it’s not relevant or b) I have a better understanding of the complex ways that race factors into this situation than Sam does.

          One of the challenging things about subtle or subconscious discrimination is that it’s often very difficult to say that unconscious bias is a deciding factor in a given instance. But in any situation where there’s a majority group and a minority group, and comparably-qualified people from the minority group have statistically worse outcomes than the majority group, that’s a clear sign that in a substantial portion of those situations, it’s about race/gender/class/homophobia/transphobia/etc. It may be a relatively simple bias like expecting a white person instead of a person of color, or or it might be something more complicated like “the kind of English I speak” or “hair that can by styled the way mine can” or “dress that is considered appropriate by my group,” but at the root it comes down to the idea that the majority group’s form of self-presentation is on some level preferred over the minority group’s form of self-presentation, usually for reasons that don’t have anything to do with the actual matter at hand.

          (That said, while I can certainly imagine “polished” meaning “white,” it wouldn’t be my default assumption in a job posting.)

      2. Seashell*

        I don’t know how you determined that this was the person’s first thought on this topic.

        Acknowledging that racism exists doesn’t make you a racist.

      3. Stopgap*

        Racists usually don’t announce that they’re doing things for racist reasons, so by that logic we can’t ever call out racism.

      4. SnowWhite*

        As an upper-middle-class white woman with an unusual name and West Coast accent, I disagree. While living in the South it wasn’t unusual for those answering phones to assume race based on my name. Much racism isn’t overt, it is in gatekeeping and generally making life more difficult, e.g., not offering information (when that is their job), repeatedly stalling requests, charging the highest listed price instead of the advertised special, etc. Seeing that “Oh crap, I messed up” look on faces when I eventually gave my name was both amusing and disgusting. I must say higher up the educational/economic ladder I didn’t find this behavior, but some utilities, retail, and youth organizations were definitely intentionally problematic. White privilege is real and I didn’t even notice until I was impacted, some people still act like the bad parts of 1950.

  11. Magdalena*


    Something in #2 caught my attention. To paraphrase, the LW2 says they made food for their husband to take to work

    telling him to make sure three people got some for sure

    and that “they did not care who got the rest”.

    It does sound to me like the cookies were explicitly for three of his co-workers. I can imagine a situation where things might have gotten a little awkward if they were being passed around and one person was told they couldn’t take any. Depending on how small the team was and the general vibe the cookie thing could have caused some hurt feelings.

      1. Magdalena*

        Yeah, that part seems very odd, it’s just that the whole “make sure these three people get the cookies” by the spouse who presumably does not work there themself strikes me as a bit unusual.

        1. New Jack Karyn*

          I didn’t find it so. Like, those three particular coworkers had mentioned in the past that they like these cookies, so “Make sure they get a chance!” seems reasonable.

        2. Distracted Procrastinator*

          It’s not odd to me. I’ve sent food with my husband for particular co workers before. It’s people he’s particularly close or ones he’s mentioned a baking item to before and wants to share. I hear him talk about these people all the time so I like sending food for those people.

          It’s just “make sure Sarah, Rory, and Rose get some of these cookies!” because they brought food for him or talked about it. It’s not “make sure you give out all the cookies before Donna or Amy can get some.”

  12. WellRed*

    A book club with that many people seems unwieldy. Doubly so if you then are trying to do a sit down restaurant meal. I like the way OP handled it in the end.

  13. Dr Sarah*

    Regarding #3, I’m also thinking that if part of what’s bothering you is having to have a *parent* in particular call in, I don’t think there’s any need for your mother to identify herself as such up front in this scenario. I think it’s perfectly reasonable for her just to say something like ‘I’m calling on behalf of Jane Merryweather, who is unwell with severe laryngitis and can’t talk on the phone or work today.’

    1. Seashell*

      If I got a call like that and the person didn’t identify themselves, I think I would say something like, “Ok, and who is calling please?”

        1. Critical Rolls*

          So you have some background about the source of the information, not very strange when an unknown person calls with info about an employee. While having someone call in for you if you really can’t is reasonable and understandable, it’s also a bit unusual, and giving a little context as to who’s calling can help smooth that over.

  14. Lurker*

    LW4-It sounds like they just want to have a meal and hang out rather than actually have a book club-which is fine, but if that’s not for you it’s probably best to just bow out. (I know they already handled it in this particular case, I’m just saying generally).

  15. Tradd*

    Number 3 on the food taken into the office:

    I used to work for a company that had an attached warehouse with lots of temps, maybe as many as 50 at busy times. Office staff and warehouse temps did not interact with each other for the most part. We had a new head boss in the office and we were told that ANY food we brought into the office had to be put in the kitchen to be shared with the warehouse staff. Mind you, when the warehouse temps had their own birthday celebrations and the like, they did not include us and never put out any food they brought in to be shared with the office.

    Any food that was out in the kitchen for the warehouse temps was consumed immediately. Having to bring food for 75 people (including office staff) immediately stopped birthday celebrations, etc., in the office. You couldn’t even bring homemade baked goods to share with your immediate coworkers. It was ridiculous. We were so glad when that big boss left after about 6 months.

  16. OMG, Bees!*

    Letter #2 happened to us at a past company. We were 3rd party IT for companies and 1 client sometimes catered food for everyone. My coworker there (a contractor to the client) would eat the catering also, until 1 time food ran out and an employee didn’t get any. So they changed the rules so that only employees could have the catering, rather than try better to have food for everyone (and it happened the same year as the letter, oddly enough).

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