weekend open thread – July 11-12, 2020

This comment section is open for any non-work-related discussion you’d like to have with other readers, by popular demand.

Here are the rules for the weekend posts.

Book recommendation of the week: Friends and Strangers, by J. Courtney Sullivan, the story of the relationship between a woman struggling in a new town and the college student she hires to babysit. It takes on money and class and parenthood, and both women are painted so vividly that you’ll miss them when you’re finished with it.

* I make a commission if you use that Amazon link.

it’s your Friday good news

It’s your Friday good news, with more accounts of success even in this weird time.

1. I recently received a really good result using your advice and wanted to share it with you and other readers. I’ve been looking for a new position for quite some time and recently had a panel interview with another office. The lead interviewer on the panel was “Abby,” someone I am acquainted with professionally but don’t know very well.

After I received a form email that I was not selected for the position, I followed your advice to ask for feedback. I emailed Abby that I appreciated the opportunity to interview and while disappointed I was not selected, I hoped it worked out well with their new hire. I then asked if she would be willing to offer any feedback on skills or experience that stood out as lacking to make me more competitive for future opportunities or if there was something in my interviewing style that could be improved. (Several readers have offered their draft emails for these situations, and I used a mix of their language.) Abby quickly agreed to set up a phone call with me.

This call was one of the greatest calls I’ve had in a long time! She gave some solid pointers on one aspect of interviewing I could improve for the future and otherwise assured me that they went with an internal candidate who had more specific experience in the exact department hiring. She gave me a heads up that some other positions I may be well qualified will be open soon and offered to speak with me in more detail about those positions when they open (she will not be on the interviewing panels for those). She also gave me quite a self-confidence boost telling me that I would be great as a manager and that my professional reputation is excellent. While my current supervisor gives positive feedback, it was really affirming to hear that people think well of me outside the bubble of my office. I encourage all job seekers to respectfully ask for feedback when it makes sense. The worst someone can do is never respond and this really turned out best case for me.

Thanks for the great advice!

2. I haven’t been looking hard for a new opportunity, but I have been keeping an eye out for a position that will be a better fit in culture and experience–I’m doing work I love at my current job but am in way over my head on tasks. I’m happy to face the challenge, but there isn’t anyone above me that has any more experience with the work than I do. I’m early in my career, just two years out of college, and am concerned I’m going to teach myself something incorrectly or have other issues in a few years when I want to move into a more senior position. Also the culture at my work is pretty toxic in a lot of different ways (including working under a first time manager), but is overall bearable. So I wasn’t in any hurry to leave, and was hoping for a pretty generous salary increase at the and as close to a perfect fit in a new position as possible.

A couple weeks ago I put in an application with an organization that I was really excited about–the role was basically the same as what I am doing now, only supervised by someone who had been at the company for over a decade, and another decade of experience elsewhere doing the kind of work I am trying to make a career out of. However, the role wanted 5 years of experience ( I have almost three years of relevant experience).

Regardless, I followed your advice — had an accomplishment-focused resume, a conversational cover letter, and sent personalized follow-up emails to each of the people who interviewed me. I was asked some pretty technical questions in the interview that I did not do well on. I was sure I wouldn’t get the offer and that they wouldn’t be willing to train someone without the base level of knowledge they were looking for.

I am happy to report that just two hours after getting my follow up emails, I got an offer. They offered me my asking salary (that I thought for sure was a reach-for-the-stars stretch) of $80K, which is over a 25% increase from my current pay. I was also able to negotiate for over a week more in PTO–I’ve never negotiated before and was shocked at how simple it was when following your advice–“Any way you can do x?”

I start in a couple weeks and am VERY excited about how this all turned out for me and I absolutely credit it to your blog.

3. I’m sharing some good news in the midst of all of the awful things going on. My sister works in an industry that involves a lot of physical labor. She has been dealing with a long term injury and although she’s getting better, her doctor determined she needs some long term accommodations. When she first told HR, they didn’t mention ADA rights and pretty much brushed it off.

I am in HR, so my sister asked me for some help. We worked on getting her ADA paperwork and thanks to some of the scripts from your site, I helped her word an email to her HR that politely but firmly pointed out their legal obligation to respond in a timely manner to her request for a reasonable accommodation.

Great news-they approved it quickly without further push back! And even better, she’s now been helping her coworkers advocate for their own legal rights thanks to her experience with ADA.

open thread – July 10-11, 2020

It’s the Friday open thread! The comment section on this post is open for discussion with other readers on anything work-related that you want to talk about. If you want an answer from me, emailing me is still your best bet*, but this is a chance to talk to other readers.

* If you submitted a question to me recently, please do not repost it here, as it may be in my queue to answer.

boss is forcing me to work while I’m laid off, office says “I appreciate you” instead of “thank you,” and more

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

1. My boss is forcing me to work full-time while I’m laid off

Covid has hit the tiny company I work for hard. The owner, my boss, has made terrible decisions at every turn, but somehow we were able to keep going. When I arrived at work yesterday, the other four employees, who report to me, had been sent home. The owner sat across from me and told me to go to our state’s unemployment website, and he would “guide me” through filing a claim.

Here is where it gets particularly noxious. He told me that the company cannot survive without me, and if I have any hope of returning to work normally (both me and my coworkers), I have to continue to work as normal while collecting unemployment. He will not be paying me, needless to say, but I am still expected to work full-time. If I did not agree, he will tell unemployment I quit, so I have no way to collect unemployment benefits.

I feel physically sick. Our states’s unemployment system is very backed up, and I keep hearing horror stories of people who filed in March still not being paid. As of last Friday (the date I was told to claim benefits for), I don’t know when I will be paid again. At least until unemployment is straightened out, I feel like I have to go along with this so he can’t screw with my benefits. After that, I am fairly sure I will just stop showing up, but that could be months from now.

Don’t misunderstand me, I know the owner is an absolute shitgoblin and I need to be preparing myself to look for a new job. But in the interim, if we get caught, who is legally responsible? I am not getting wages from my work, so I am not double-dipping, but it still feels super illegal on my end.

You’re not breaking the law; he is.

It’s illegal for him not to pay you. Track your hours and keep whatever documentation you can that proves you’ve been working during this time, and whenever you’re ready you can file a wage claim with your state department of labor. Of course, if the business has shuttered, there might not be money to pay you — but the company will be legally liable for those unpaid wages. You will not be legally responsible for the situation; the law rightly sees you as the victim, not the perpetrator.

Also, in regard to unemployment — if he reports that you quit, he’s not the final word! You’ll have an opportunity to contest that, and you can appeal if you need to. If you explain that he stopped paying you and you declined to work for free, unemployment isn’t going to consider that a resignation. No longer being paid is a qualifying reason to receive unemployment benefits in every state I know of. So he’s making an empty threat (and is a jerk). That said, you’re right that it could be months before this gets straightened out because of the current backlog, and those are months where you might not be receiving benefits (you should receive the money eventually, but that doesn’t help during those months with no money coming in). So you have to balance all those factors in deciding what to do.

(Also, be aware that if you receive unemployment benefits and then later win a wage claim against him and he’s forced to pay you for that period, you’d need to repay the unemployment you received for that same time so that you weren’t double dipping — but you’d presumably repay it out of the back wages you received.)

2. My office says “I appreciate you” instead of “thank you”

A few years ago, a director in my department started saying “I appreciate you” instead of “thank you.” This spread among all of leadership in the department, and later to most of the rank and file.

I found this irritating to begin with and did my best to ignore it, but after being rejected for a promotion, it now feels very uncomfortable. The position was on another team in my department, and the feedback that I got was that I was an ideal candidate but there were others who had more direct experience. I understand their decision and acknowledge that I would have made the same choices in their place. I have talked to managers in the department about developmental opportunities, and the response I get is that they cannot picture me doing anything other than what I currently do. The problem is that in my daily work, I have to work side by with the managers who are rejecting me, and their subordinates which include the people picked over me, and have to regularly hear them say: “I appreciate you.”

I think they mean well. In fact, I think they genuinely mean it. However, it hurts to hear “I appreciate you” over and over again when actions kind of feel otherwise. It then puts me in the awkward position of having to thank them and act gracious for the complement when it kind of feels like a gut punch.

I have mentioned my feelings on the situation to my own manager, but I don’t think she has done anything. My manager is the type of person who is very concerned with how “the brass” thinks of her, and I suspect she would not give them any negative feedback towards their own behavior. I have been thinking about mentioning in the moment to the person saying “I appreciate you” that it makes me feel uncomfortable. However, that comes with the challenge of possibly having to explain to people that I was rejected for the job, which the people who aren’t managers or above probably don’t know and I am laying some guilt that they don’t deserve. Additionally, I need to maintain a good working relationship with the managers who rejected me since I need them to accomplish my own work.

Am I taking this too personally? Is there maybe another approach I should consider? I don’t know if this makes a difference, but the reason I have not gone to HR is because I am in the HR Department, and the other team is the Employee Relations team.

Yeah, you’re probably taking it too personally. It grates because you’re thinking, “If you appreciate me so much, why did I get passed over for a promotion?” But they’re using it as a stand-in for “thank-you,” so you’re sort of having two different conversations. (Plus, they can genuinely appreciate you and still think someone else was the stronger candidate for the role you didn’t get. The two aren’t connected, even though it feels that way.)

To be clear, constantly using “I appreciate you” in place of “thank you” would annoy the hell out of me. But if that’s what it’s shorthand for in your office, you’re better off hearing it for what it means in your culture rather than taking the words literally. Telling people it makes you uncomfortable would be making too big a deal out of it; it’s just an annoying piece of office lingo. As for responding to it, if it’s really a stand-in for thank-you, feel free to respond with “you’re welcome!” (Responding to a thank-you with another thank-you would be unnecessary anyway.)

The real problem, I think, is that you’re being told your management can’t imagine you doing anything other than your current job. That’s a pretty clear message that you won’t get promoted there, and if you want to move up, you’ll need to look outside your company to do it. You can certainly explore that a little more — sit down with your manager and push about why that is and whether there’s a way for you to demonstrate your fit for higher-level roles — but this is an important message to listen to, and a much bigger deal than the “I appreciate you” language.

3. Asking back an employee but not his spouse

Earlier this year, I managed a small team of creative workers. Two of my team members were a married couple, we’ll call them Jim and Pam. I have always been pleased with the quality of work I received from each of them, but Pam has consistently shown a poor attitude by complaining about and ignoring deadlines, not communicating, and openly prioritizing work from her other part-time job over what she did for our company (“I didn’t finish that because I was doing stuff for my other job” is apparently a good reason to have not finished one’s work.)

My team had been working on temporary contracts and, when they were up, we extended the opportunity to return in the future to any interested team members on an as-needed basis. All, including Pam, have indicated that they want to return ASAP. That time is upon us, and I’m starting to decide who I want to come back and when.

Here’s my issue: I’d love to have Jim back. I don’t want Pam on the project anymore, at least not under me. We are a startup and I think she really prefers the more easygoing, low-pressure environment of her other job. On a personal level, I find that her attitude made her difficult to manage effectively, as she rarely seemed to take the work seriously. However, I feel horribly awkward asking Jim to come back and not asking Pam. Can you recommend a course of action? I really don’t want to cause drama or hurt any feelings, but I won’t compromise the project.

If you’ve explained you’ll be bringing people back as-needed but they understand there’s no promise that everyone will return, it’s possible you can just … bring Jim back and not contact Pam about returning. In some contexts that would be fine, and in others it would feel distinctly crappy. If it would be the latter, then the best thing to do is to reach out to Pam and say something like, “We’ve been revisiting our staffing and planning for the rest of the year. Unfortunately, I’m not going to be able to offer you a spot back. I wanted to let you know as soon as I could so you’re not planning around us.”

That might be all that’s needed. But if Pam pushes about why, it’s okay to explain that with limited spots, one factor you looked at was past performance, including things like missed deadlines.

There’s no guarantee this won’t cause some sort of drama, but all you can do is be straightforward and matter-of-fact.

4. Job application asked about my sick days in the last two years

I am, like lots of people, job searching in the wake of COVID. I came across a role that sounded really interesting lately and started working on the application materials when I saw this question on the form: “Please state the number of days and reasons for absence due to sickness during the last two years.”

That gave me pause. I’m not a very sickly person, but in the past two years I’ve taken a handful of days here and there for colds and the like. Isn’t that normal? Should I be alarmed that a potential employer wants to know this about me? This also seems like it could be discriminating against candidates with long-term or chronic health issues – isn’t this in the same vein as asking a candidate if they’re pregnant? I’m in the UK.

Should I take this as a red flag? I’m getting so burned out by job searching I feel like I’m starting to lose sense of what’s normal or not.

I can’t speak to UK law, but in the U.S. it’s not a question employers should be asking. Both the Family and Medical Leave Act and the ADA prohibit discrimination against applicants who have exercised their rights under those acts. An employer can ask how many days off you took last year in general, but not how many sick days and definitely not the reasons for them. (I imagine the UK has similar protections, but you’d need a UK expert to answer that for you.)

And yeah, it’s a red flag. At a minimum, they’re signaling they cross boundaries when it comes to employees’ private medical info and possibly the law more broadly, as well as calling into question how accommodating they are of health needs.

5. How to list partial grad school on my resume

I’ve been enrolled in a professional master’s degree program for about a year, but the overall weight of life right now is causing me to take a pause, with the potential of dropping it entirely. I just can’t handle the added stress right now on top of COVID and everything else, and I figured that was something in my control I could drop to lighten my cognitive load. And let’s be real, I don’t see signs of it letting up soon.

Assuming I don’t finish, should I bother listing it on any job applications/resumes (where it’s relevant)? Would I list it as “graduate coursework”? I didn’t do poorly at all (two A-minuses over 15 completed credits), I’m just (possibly/probably) not finishing the degree, and I was hopeful I could get something out of it. (And yes, I know graduate certificates exist, but the only one nearest would require an additional nine credits, at which point I could almost finish the degree.)

Yep, you’d list it this way:

* Graduate coursework in turtle folk songs, Tortoise College, 2019-2020

Be prepared to be asked about it interviews — both why you went and why you stopped — but it shouldn’t be a big deal.

am I being unprofessional on video calls?

A reader writes:

A little over a year ago, I started to work for a government agency in a very niche field. I started this job straight out of grad school, and there was certainly an adjustment period going from academia to an office job. Since starting, I feel like I have more than adjusted and have been receiving great feedback.

Unfortunately, in late February I was diagnosed with a chronic and progressive condition that often leaves me in debilitating pain. Getting medical attention during the pandemic was challenging, and March to early June were easily the worst months of my life. The first medication I was put on made me violently ill every day, and extremely depressed. My very busy field season also happens to be in April and May, while I was on this medication. I would be working 12-hour days from our field office in horrific pain, while periodically running to the bathroom to throw up. It was HORRIBLE. However, I managed to stay on top of my work, and overall am happy with how our season turned out. I am finally off the first medication, and while I am still in pain, I am no longer feeling as depressed or nauseous.

Now that my field season is over, I am working remotely for the duration of this pandemic. Several times a week I need to be on video calls, and I am wondering if I am coming off as unprofessional in these meetings.

First, it’s currently extremely uncomfortable for me to be sitting at a desk all day, so I am often working from my couch and propping myself up with several pillows. When on video calls, I put my laptop on a pillow on my lap, and in the background you can clearly see the pillows propping me up. Most others on the call seem to be sitting at a desk or table, while I am clearly not.

Second, when the pain gets really horrible, I can’t help but cry. There are some days that I am crying so much that my eyes start swelling, and my overall appearance is disheveled. I haven’t even bothered with makeup in months, because I would likely cry it right off. On these days I do not turn on my camera. Almost everyone else has their camera on unless they are calling in via phone.

My manager is aware of my situation and has been supportive. I’ve even texted him before meetings explaining that I would be unable to turn on my camera. However, I can’t help but feel like I am coming off as unprofessional or lazy. Some of these meetings have upwards of 20-30 people and frequently involve other agencies. I want to keep good working relationships with contacts from these other agencies for future job opportunities. I am concerned that I am ruining my good reputation by looking disheveled and clearly not sitting at a desk during these meetings, or by neglecting to turn on my camera at all. Should I suck it up and sit at a desk for a few hours a day? Or am I overthinking it?

I’m sorry, this sounds like an awful time!

In any halfway reasonable environment, not having your camera on won’t ruin your reputation. Lots of people have reasons for not turning their cameras on, like that they’re not in a private location or their bandwidth doesn’t support it.

Is it possible for you to leave your camera off altogether, not just on the days when you’ve been crying? If you can, that might be the best solution.

While I’d love to say it’s fine to be seen leaning against pillows on a work video call, the reality is it might not be. If you were on a small team where everyone knew the situation and your work quality, I wouldn’t worry about it as much. But since these are large calls with people from other agencies who you don’t know well and who won’t have the context, I worry it will read as too chilled out and not professional (as opposed to what it really is, which is someone powering through work while in a lot of discomfort).

If it’s possible to do the calls in a position where you don’t appear to be lying down — without you having to tolerate discomfort — I would try to do that. You said the discomfort comes from sitting at a desk all day, so maybe shorter stints sitting up are an option. But if they’re not, they’re not; the answer is not “you just need to be in physical pain.”

Alternately, you could explore whether there are other set-ups that won’t read quite so “lounging in bed” to people who don’t know the context. Could you swap the bed pillows for couch pillows? Or might a more comfortable chair help?

But if none of this works, I’d just keep the camera off. Explain to your boss that while he knows the situation and that you’re working, other people on the call don’t and you’re wary of coming across unprofessionally. Say that as long as you need to be reclining, you’re going to keep your camera off.

Do what you have to do to take care of yourself! And it’s okay not to stream it all on video.

updates: dealing with firing someone, the lost bonus, and more

Here are three updates from people who had their letters answered here in the past.

1. How do you deal with having to fire someone?

Nearly a decade ago, you answered my letter about feeling guilty when I had to fire someone for the first time. When I wrote, I’d only been a manager for three years and had only recently moved into a more direct management role.

Your answer to my letter focused on creating and maintaining a healthy team environment, that by holding the poor performer accountable it would boost the overall morale of the team. That’s exactly what happened. After the firing, I could tell the remaining student employees were relieved. I hadn’t realized how much one person’s behavior could impact a team. While we never divulged that the employee was fired (we only said she was no longer working for us if asked), the remaining student employees sussed out what happened. In the remaining weeks of the semester, the rest of the cohort dug deep and gave us their best.

You also mentioned the employee probably should’ve been fired for her first no-call and no-show. At the time I worked in a community college library. Our student employees were young, between 17-21 years old. For nearly all the students this was their first professional job. My fellow managers and I felt strongly about teaching student employees professional norms and skills. Almost like a paid internship except the student employees didn’t receive course credit. (Including performance evaluations every semester. Which is practically unheard of for student employee positions.) Mistakes that might have gotten employees fired in other jobs were given more leniency. When mistakes were made, we counseled the student employee on the correct behavior and expected them to incorporate the feedback going forward. Over the years I worked in that job, we had several student employees start heading down the same path as the fired employee. Through mentoring and a couple of firm talks, they pulled a 180 turnaround and became our best performers, including one student employee who works with me at my current job! She’s told me privately that without the coaching and mentoring she received as a student employee, she never would’ve gotten her second job which helped her build the skills to be hired into her current role.

I don’t regret the amount of time and effort spent mentoring the fired student employee. She chose not to take the opportunity offered to her. Sometimes I wonder how she’s doing, and mostly I hope that her firing was the wake-up call she needed to change her behavior.

2. I’m losing my bonus, which accounts for a big chunk of my pay (#2 at the link)

I wrote to you in 2015 when the company I worked for suspended our bonus structure, which accounted for a big part of my pay. A pretty uncomplicated question that was really the tip of the dysfunction iceberg. I’d planned to take your advice and ask for a pay increase, but that plan became irrelevant really quickly. At this point, I don’t remember the order of all the events, but among them:

– My team started working from home more. We eventually learned the lease for our team’s office space was not being renewed and later someone saw our office furniture/equipment for sale on Facebook.

– I was offered a “hypothetical” job and raise to replace my team lead if they and other team members left over the no bonus thing. When asked who I would be leading if most of the team quit, I was offered a couple people from other teams with no background/qualifications for our work. I gave a pretty non-committal response (for many reasons, I had no interest in that job at that point) and was asked not to tell anyone about the offer.

– We heard from a member of a different team that management had mentioned eliminating X number of positions, the same number on our team. Eventually, we did all get laid off, in a management-tear-filled meeting. Other weird, hilarious-in-retrospect stuff happened before and after that but for the sake of workplaces everywhere, I really hope that’s too specific to share. Suffice to say, by the time of the layoff, it had been enough of a roller coaster that I was not sad or surprised about it.

Even though I didn’t get a chance to use it, I still appreciated your advice and script. Artemesia’s comment that this was a big red flag was right,and while not aimed at me specifically, I do think it was intended to be a first step in shutting our team down or getting certain people out. Not because we weren’t profitable, but because the company was unable to or uninterested in appropriately managing our variable revenue and expenses (both were more fixed for other business lines).

Since then, me and a couple colleagues started our own company in a similar line of work and have been pretty successful. Happy to say I’m still getting to do work I care about but in a generally drama-free atmosphere and with more control (and pay!).

3. I was planning to leave my job for grad school, but… (#3 at the link)

Around the time the original letter was published, I was offered a small raise, but not nearly enough after taxes to cover the ~20k difference between my savings and the full cost of tuition, so staying the extra year wasn’t a sound choice when looking at my career path balanced with finances. I took a few days to consider but told them I’ll be leaving when my program starts. COVID then threw things into confusion for a few months (online school for summer? fall? the whole year?), but I just got the news that my program will be able to start on time.

what are my obligations to my team when I’m also caring for a toddler full-time?

It’s the Thursday “ask the readers” question. A reader writes:

I work from home full time (including pre-coronavirus) and am typically very busy and focused all day while I’m working. I have a one-year-old son who is normally in daycare full time, but of course, he is now home with me. My husband is also working from home, but he is a psychiatrist so is seeing patients virtually most of the week from 9-5 and just really can’t have a toddler in the room or be distracted at all while doing that.

So childcare during the day primarily falls to me. And Lord help me, I cannot work while taking care of my toddler. I mean I try, but nothing really gets done. My boss and coworkers are aware of my situation and are generally understanding. They do still attempt to put the same amount of things on my plate that they used to, but when I push back or gently let them know that no, I cannot meet that deadline, they have been understanding although they might be frustrated. I am actually the only one at my company (about 20-30 people) with little kids (some have no kids, and some have teenagers or adult children), so even though the ones with teenagers will say “yeah I know, it’s crazy, I get it,” I feel like they don’t really get it.

One of my coworkers, when I first let her know about my situation, said “Well, you can work at night.” (She is a very nice person and was not trying to be rude in any way). And the truth is, my son goes to bed at 6pm and is a very good sleeper. And on weekends my husband has no patients so technically I could work all evenings and weekends to get in my 40+ hours/week that I usually work. But…I would be so miserable. I am already so stressed out about everything going on in the world and am losing my mind. I really cherish the few moments I have to just relax with my husband in the evening or take a long walk with my family on a Saturday. But when I assure my manager and my coworkers that I am doing the best that I can, is that honest if I am still retaining a bit of free time? I do still work some evenings and weekends, but not all, and I am still trying to get 8 hours of sleep every night.

I am still getting my full salary, and given that so many people are not right now, I worry that my willingness to accept full pay for part time work (in addition to the money I’m saving from not paying for daycare) is ethically problematic. But the alternative I fear would wreak such havoc on my mental health.

Readers — thoughts?

(One quick one from me: Can your husband block out a couple of hours a day to not have patients so you have some uninterrupted time every workday? He could even potentially shift some those appointments to the evening after your son is asleep. I’m sure that’s not ideal for his schedule, but this isn’t ideal for yours either — and right now he’s taking none of the burden of the situation while you’re taking all of it, and that’s not right.)

was this networking or a date request, coworker is secretly traveling, and more

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

1. Was this networking or a date request?

It’s too late to act on anything now, but I’m hoping that you can provide some clarity regarding a professional incident that I encountered about a year ago.

I am a young twenty-something female engineer and was working at a small company that was expanding and looking to hire a consultant part-time. As part of the engineering team, I was invited to sit in on the interviews of the candidates. One of my team members was close friends with one of the candidates who ended up not being hired. The consultant who didn’t receive a job offer connected with me on LinkedIn about a month or so later. I have the goal of being in the same industry as him and was flattered that he remembered me because we had limited interaction during his interview.

After my internship ended (although he had no affiliation since he wasn’t hired), he messaged me on LinkedIn later in the evening on a Friday night (we live and work in the same time zone) saying that he wanted to catch up sometime. I thought this wording was strange since we had nothing to “catch up” on, being that we were essentially strangers. Despite this, I recognize that wording is tricky, and I expressed that I hoped he was well and asked what he had in mind. I had a gut feeling that this wasn’t a super professional request. He responded that he was away on business but would be back in time for Saturday night and suggested drinks.

After consulting other peers, both male and female engineers, I responded that I was looking to keep things professional so I would have to decline. He said that Saturday was the first day he was available that week and that he had the intention of keeping things professional. I declined to respond.

Based on his reaction, I sometimes question my response, my gut feeling, and the advice I received from my peers. Was this a normal request/suggestion that he made? Do other people network in this way? How can I gracefully navigate situations like this in the future?

Nah, this guy was coming on to you. Your response was good. His claim afterward that he was just proposing a professional meeting is the classic way sleazy dudes handle this — they are very, very fond of pretending they were never hitting on you and you misunderstood. And they’ll often make the initial overture in a way that gives them just enough plausible deniability if you turn them down.

But he was asking you out. If his only interest was professional networking, he would have done it all differently. He would have been clear about his intentions by sharing his proposed reasons for meeting up (like to learn more about your work on project X because he’s working on something where it could be helpful, or so forth), he wouldn’t have proposed “catching up” with someone he barely knows, he probably wouldn’t have messaged you on a Friday night (although that part is mostly damning in the context of the rest of it), and he definitely wouldn’t have proposed Saturday night drinks. Men are not stupid about this stuff — they’re aware that Saturday night drinks have a very different connotation than Tuesday afternoon coffee or Thursday morning breakfast. He suggested drinks because he wanted it to be a date — and then because he’s shady, he tried to pretend that’s not what he meant.

You’re fine, he sucks.

2. My coworker is secretly traveling

My coworker has been traveling and trying to keep it secret because they would have to work from home for 14 days upon return, and they would prefer to be working in the office. My partner is high-risk, and the coworker knows that.

I can just sacrifice productivity and sanity and work from home, which was my supervisor’s suggestion, and is of course what I will be doing as my partner’s safety is paramount. But shouldn’t this employee be reprimanded at least for breaking the Covid office contract and potentially exposing their office mates? Shouldn’t the rest of the office be warned that the 14-day work-at-home period is not going to be enforced? It seems so wrong to put people at risk without them being aware by keeping leisure travel secret, and then returning to the office simply because you prefer not to work from home.

I’m getting the feeling that I ruffled feathers by notifying my supervisor about this, and I just want to know if I should have just kept quiet.

No, you should not have kept quiet! Of course you wanted to alert your manager to a violation of office policy that COULD KILL PEOPLE. It’s entirely reasonable to assume your company would want to know and would enforce their own damn policy.

This is very much an HR type thing, so I would stop dealing with your manager on it and go to HR instead. You should feel free to talk openly with your coworkers about it too, so they can take steps to protect themselves and their families if they want to.

3. I’ve started collecting my coworkers’ salaries in anonymous survey — am I good?

I (late 20s white woman) work as a software engineer at a large-ish U.S.-based tech company. Recently, there’s been a lot of discussion about minorities in tech and how we and our company can better support our BIPOC, female, and LGBTQ coworkers. As a result of some of this conversation, I (with the support of other like-minded coworkers doing similar things, but I’m the one who actually made the Google form) have started a survey asking people about their compensation. (Our company has repeatedly shot down requests for more transparency around salary/salary bands.) We’d like to use this information to better advocate for ourselves in terms of raises/promotions and to pressure our leadership into being more equitable and open. (Already, with about 20 people having responded, there are some, um, questionable trends emerging).

I know we’re allowed to discuss salary with our coworkers, but is it okay to be collecting it like this? Along with salary, we’re also collecting things like level, role, years of experience, and demographic information. The responses are anonymous and people can go back in and edit/remove any and all information if they want (no questions are required). Obviously this might piss off leadership and put a target on my back, but I’m willing to take that heat — my question is more about whether I’m in the clear legally here.

Legally, you’re fine. No law prevents you from organizing employees to share this kind of salary info. In fact, the law specifically protects your right to do it as long as you’re not in a management role and as long as you’re only sharing it with coworkers and not outside the company. (The federal law that protects you — the National Labor Relations Act — only protects non-supervisory employees.)

In reality, whether this could put a target on your back anyway is a different question — retaliation can be subtle (or it can be flagrant, for that matter, even if illegal). But there’s increasing support for this kind of collective work toward salary transparency, and that will probably give you some additional protection on top of the law. That said, it wouldn’t be a bad idea to include a statement at the top of your spreadsheet like, “The National Labor Relations Act protects the right of non-management employees to discuss wages and working conditions with each other, and it is illegal for employers to retaliate against workers for exercising this protected right” … so if your company’s management ever happens to see it, the law is right there in their faces.

4. Who does HR serve?

I am hoping you can give me a definitive answer as to who or what Human Resources protects. I feel like the internet is awash with many different “takes” on the role of HR. I usually read one of these three descriptions of HR:

1. HR exists to protect the company
2. HR exists to protect management
3. HR exists to protect employees

But the other day I read a tweet saying “HR exists to protect the company from its employees.” I felt like this was a bit overly negative and not entirely true. So who does HR protect?

It’s less about protecting and more about serving. Protecting is part of it, but not the whole thing.

HR is there to serve the company; their loyalty and responsibilities are to the employer. Part of that work includes protecting the company from legal liability (ideally by advising managers on how to avoid breaking the law). But they do lots of other things too — from benefits administration to employee counseling.

Much of what HR does serves the interests of employees too, because it’s in employees’ interests to work in a well-managed company that isn’t breaking the law. They also do things that serve the interest of employees more directly, like working on retention or morale or advocating for employees with a bad manager — but they’re doing that work because it’s in the employer’s interests to retain good employees, promote morale, hear about and address bad managers, stop legal problems before they explode, and so forth.

But in cases where what’s best for the employer conflicts with what’s best for the employee, the best interests of the employer will usually win out — because that’s who HR works for. (But note that in companies with bad HR or toxic cultures, this can break down and HR can end up serving the interests of a single bad manager rather than the employer as a whole.)

5. Listing management experience on a resume when you only managed one person

How do you list management experience on your resume when you only manage one other person? We’re a small company so the two of us are the entire department. “Managed a team of one” sounds kind of silly, but I’m not sure how else to put it.

Well, technically you were a team of two, no? (You and the other person.)

But list it with the person’s title — i.e., “managed llama groomer.”

You could also include details about that, like “hired and managed llama groomer responsible for bathing and fur styling.” You can also include results your team achieved with you at the helm, since you get some credit for that — so, like, “oversaw work that led to Congress passing landmark new federal llama grooming regulations” or so forth.

my employee announced her acceptance to grad school on Twitter without telling anyone in advance

A reader writes:

I am a manager of an entry-level employee who share with another manager. Our shared employee, let’s call her “Jane,” is terrific — a hard worker, very smart, quick, and organized. Jane has been with us over two years and we would like to promote her, something she’s clearly earned, but our progress has been stalled by the pandemic. And though we’re working to push the promotion forward as quickly as possible, with budget cuts to contend with, this has been slower and more difficult than expected.

Meanwhile, Jane has shared with our team (including my boss, her grandboss) that she’s interested in returning to school for graduate study but was not sure when she’d want to attend. However, later Jane confidentially asked me to write her a recommendation letter to include in an application for study beginning this fall. I happily agreed and we discussed that she didn’t want this shared more widely, so I wrote the letter and kept it to myself. A few weeks ago, Jane texted me that she’d been accepted to grad school. I was thrilled for her but concerned about her departure. She stated that it was her intention to defer until 2021 due to the pandemic. We love Jane and I’m happy to have her as long as she’d like to stay, and again kept it to myself per her wishes.

Today, to my surprise, my boss called my attention to a tweet that Jane had shared, publicly on her personal account, announcing that she’d been accepted to grad school. My boss was blindsided since she didn’t think of this as an immediate plan and was particularly upset because HER boss (my grandboss and Jane’s great-grandboss, our president) was the one who saw it and alerted her of it. What’s worse is that my boss’s boss has been the one doing the hard work in negotiating Jane’s promotion with HR. Worse worse, after sharing this development, my co-manager (who shares management of Jane with me) revealed that she too had learned of Jane’s acceptance on Twitter. For the record, this tweet is about 10 days old at this point — time for Jane to have made a plan to speak directly and openly about it at work if she chose to.

I’m all for private use of social media and the right to have an online presence that is separate from your work. However, this puts me in an embarrassing position. I was honest with my boss when confronted, confessing that I did know about her acceptance and had provided a reference, but I can’t help but feel a little taken advantage of after Jane had asked me to keep it confidential. Additionally, her other boss heard of this news on social media and so did people above her who are gunning for her promotion — valued coworkers of mine and superiors of Jane who now feel disrespected for being out of the loop. I do not believe that Jane’s attendance at or deferment from grad school should affect her eligibility for a promotion, but it will surely be another hurdle to overcome among many other pandemic-related ones now that the news is out in this manner.

Extra notes: 1) Jane has previously announced 10-day vacations on Instagram (plane tickets booked) before asking for the time off. 2) Jane runs our company social media channels, so people look at her personal ones with scrutiny.

I feel compelled to speak with Jane in a friendly but direct way to explain that it’s her choice how or with whom she’d like to share her news, but that social media is not the place for bosses, grandbosses, or great-grandbosses should discover employment-altering news. Ever, really, but particularly when we’re working hard for her promotion. How can I do this without overstepping? Am I overstepping?

This strikes me as a classic entry-level employee mistake. It stems from not understanding professional conventions (you let your employer know you’re leaving before you announce it to the world, at least if you don’t intend it as an F-you), and also from not understanding the additional amount of finesse needed when people above you have been using their energy and capital to get you a promotion.

It’s annoying and eye-rolly, but given that you say she’s great, I’d assume it’s really just a mark of inexperience, not anything else. She hasn’t had the professional seasoning yet that would allow her to know how this stuff is and isn’t done.

I think you’re right to want to speak to her about it, since that’s how she’ll learn for next time. It shouldn’t be to chastise her, just to explain, “Hey, generally the protocol is that you’d give people here a heads-up first so they’re not hearing it on social media” with a side of, “When a bunch of people have been using their time and capital on a promotion for you, letting them hear it this way seems especially dismissive.” Explain that it’s not that there’s anything wrong with her deciding to leave; it’s just about handling it in a way that’s respectful of the planning people have been doing around her. (Make sure to emphasize that point because otherwise this can easily land as “people are upset that you’re leaving.”)

This is not at all what you’re asking about but for what it’s worth, I would not put an entry-level employee in charge of your social media again! It takes professional maturity and judgment that most people don’t have without more experience. Employers sometimes think of social media as a young person’s game, but it’s a major communication and branding outlet for your company and it should be a higher-level responsibility.

is it OK to be Facebook friends with people I manage?

A reader writes:

I’m the manager of a team where everyone gets along well and works effectively with one another. I’ve known most of the people on the team since before they worked for me, as professional contacts in other contexts. One of the people had friended me on Facebook before we worked together. Now I’m this person’s manager. I don’t post any work-related items on Facebook, but I can see how this could be problematic. I want to avoid an appearance of favoritism, so should I unfriend him and find a way to gracefully deflect the question of why? Or do I just continue as-is seeing as it hasn’t caused any problems yet?

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:

  • Can I give more feedback to someone I recently fired?
  • Employee returned from vacation a day early
  • My manager told my coworker and me to decide who gets to go on a business trip
  • Asking people to knock on my door before entering