coworker talks about religion all the time, HR director won’t stop asking me to go kayaking, and more

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

1. Coworker talks about his religion all the time

I have a coworker who talks about his religion frequently and loudly in our open-concept space. Currently I’m far enough away that, while I can tell that these (one-sided) conversations are happening, I blessedly cannot hear every word and can easily tune them out. However, that will be changing in the next couple of months, as I will be moving to the workspace directly adjacent to his. Worse, the religion he is so keen to discuss is the same one I myself was raised in and left (due to the fact that I personally find this particular church to be dishonest and immoral). The thought of having to sit and listen to him casually proselytize this religion at work is giving me anxiety! Would it be okay for me to gently push back against discussing this subject when it comes up? If so, can you give me a script or a tactic to do this in a professional way? Or is religion such an untouchable subject that I will just have to deal with it?

The opposite, actually — you are protected by federal law from unwelcome religious proselytism at work. If you ask him to stop and he refuses, you can escalate to your company’s HR because that would be religious harassment, and they’re legally required to put a stop to it.

You should first tell him clearly that you don’t want to discuss religion at work. Any of these would do it:

* “I don’t want to discuss religion at work.”
* “I consider religion very private and don’t want to talk about it at work.”
* “I’m not comfortable discussing religion at work.”

If he continues after that, bring it to HR — and definitely use the word “proselytize” if that’s what he’s doing, as well as “religious harassment” either way.

Alternately, a different option would be to raise it now, framed as “I’m concerned about moving my desk next to Cedric because I don’t want to hear religious proselytism while I’m working. Can you ensure he stops or move me somewhere else?”

2. We get in trouble if we take all our allotted sick days

My husband has a very generous PTO package that includes sick time, personal time, and vacation time, all banked separately, and two weeks off paid during the holidays that does not come out of their PTO bank (plus regular holidays).

They technically have 12 sick days, but in practice, it’s only 10. Why? They write you up if you take sick time after already using 10 days. Someone was recently fired after using all of their sick days (I don’t know the full story though and there were other issues, but it was generally known that using those last two sick days, and possibly going beyond, was part of it). I’m not sure what the consequences are if you used up all 12 and try to take an unpaid sick day.

I imagine that if you’re otherwise a good employee, it won’t go further than a write-up, and a valued coworker did push back on the write-up after an obvious medical incident (broken limb) and was successful. What do you think about this? When asked why they don’t just have 10 sick days, the response is usually “because then they’d (the higher-ups) start writing you up after eight.” I know that the big boss gets a bonus if not all of the sick days are used (this guy allegedly has taken kickbacks in other situations that have screwed over employees as well, so he’s kind of scummy and I’m sure this is the reason for the policy).

If someone were to get fired for using their sick time (not beyond the 12 given days), would they have a case for wrongful termination, if, hypothetically, they didn’t have any other performance issues? Is there something wrong with this aside from just being an icky practice?

This is incredibly messed up! Don’t tell people they have X sick days and then fire them for taking X sick days. If you do, then they do not in fact have X sick days. This is such a weird way to make sure people are off-balance and don’t trust anything you tell them.

However, in the U.S., wrongful termination doesn’t mean “fired for something unfair.” That’s actually not illegal on its own. Wrongful termination is firing someone for a reason that is specifically forbidden by law, like firing someone because of their race or religion or as retaliation for engaging in legally protected behavior (like reporting discrimination or harassment). However, this would be illegal if they fired someone who should have been protected by FMLA or the ADA. If neither of those laws was in play, it could still be illegal if they enforce the policy in ways that have a disparate impact along race or gender lines (or any of the other protected characteristics) or if they were in a state that required offering 12 sick days (although among the small number of states that require sick leave, I don’t think any of them mandate that many days).

3. My HR director won’t stop asking me to go kayaking

I am employed by a large company with a fully operational HR department. I am a senior manager within the operations team. I frequently interact with the HR department and maintain positive relationships with all team members. A few years back, the HR director discovered that I have a penchant for kayaking during the summer, which happens to be an interest we share. Over the course of three years, as each summer approaches, the HR director insists on us going kayaking together. While I generally enjoy kayaking with others, my professional relationship with the HR director has made me somewhat apprehensive and cautious. I have made a concerted effort to maintain a professional and cordial dynamic with her and we do have a good working relationship. However, I do not completely trust her. I have seen how she treats people that upset her and get on her bad side. She wouldn’t just treat me differently but she may also treat the managers that work with badly if I piss her off in some way.

In the past, I have managed to defer the invitation with responses like “Yes, we should do that sometime,” and then I move on without us ever making any solid plans. I was hoping that she would eventually drop the idea. However, with summer here she has brought up kayaking yet again. At this point, I feel compelled to accompany her at least once, even though I am not inclined to do so. I wish I could convey to her that I generally avoid socializing with colleagues, but she is aware that I am friends with a member of her team (a friendship that predates my employment), and we often spend time together. How can I politely decline her invitation without negatively affecting our working relationship?

Can you plausibly say you don’t think you’re going to be able to make time for any kayaking (even on your own) this summer because you’re swamped with family commitments? This would require that you not regularly post photos of yourself kayaking on Slack or so forth, but it could be the easiest way to shut it down.

Otherwise, I think you will need to point her to this story.

4. When to tell my company about an upcoming medical leave when I don’t know the dates yet

I’m trans masculine (they/them pronouns), and am on the waiting list to get top surgery. My projected wait-time puts my surgery dates sometime between September and November this year. I’ll be out for at least a couple days for the actual treatment, and probably at least a week following that for recovery. (All of which is highly variable depending on how the surgery goes, natch.)

I’m having a bit of a dilemma on when to tell my company that I’ll be needing that time. From talking with friends who’ve had the same treatment, some of them got a month or two’s notice, some of them got a call that a place had opened up in a week, and would they like to take it. Given the state of the NHS at the moment, I will 100% be taking whatever I am offered. But there’s also a possibility that there will be further delays and I won’t get a date until early 2024.

Complicating the unknown dates is that Sep-Nov is our busy period. Normally folks are only allowed a day or two in a row of holiday time at that time of year. (Obviously I will be taking the time I need to recover and that’s non-negotiable, but just to illustrate the situation.) I’m one of only two perm staff who do my specific job, so losing me for a week will put strain on the team, and schedules will need to be changed.

Do I let my manager know that I might need to take medical time off sometime in that busy window, just so he’s got some warning in case it does happen, or do I wait until I have more concrete information from my surgeon on the dates? On the one hand, giving some warning feels like it would be kind, especially if the date does fall in our busy period, just so no one’s blindsided (and also to quell the intrusive medical questions); on the other hand, it’s early enough that since I don’t have concrete dates it feels like it might just get forgotten anyways or not be practical/useful information for him?

I’ve talked about it with a few friends and some are on the “more info is always useful” side, and some are on the “you don’t owe your employer anything” side. I was mostly convinced by the “more info” side, and started trying to draft an email to my manager about it, but I just couldn’t find words that made it feel … useful to say. I do have a 1:1 scheduled in a couple weeks which could be a decent time to bring it up verbally rather than in writing, but … again, I’m just not sure. Would you as a manager want a heads-up about a maybe thing, or would you prefer to not think about it until there was a set date? Is giving them the heads up a kindness or does it set expectations in a way that isn’t helpful since I don’t have a date yet?

To some extent it probably depends on the nature of the work and what your manager is like. All else being equal, I’d always prefer more info than less, but I’m not sure there’s much they can do with it here. But there is something to be said for mental preparation, so that when you do know your dates, it’s “here’s that thing I mentioned would be coming” rather than “surprise, I will be gone gone for 10 days or more during our busy period, goodbye.” It’s not that the latter is unworkable — sometimes emergencies come up with no advance notice and people make do — but when you have the option for the former, it can be helpful to offer it. So I’m in favor of that, assuming your manager is a generally reasonable person and won’t spend the whole time between now and then hassling you about whether you’ve confirmed a date yet.

can I ask interviewers to get back to me either way?

A reader writes:

I have recently re-entered the job search market at the ripe old age of 60. It’s been years, if not decades, since I last interviewed for a job. I’ve had five interviews so far that have gone nowhere. One thing I’ve noticed is that even after having an in-person interview, I am not hearing back from these companies, not even a “thanks but no thanks” reply. I always send a thank-you email to the person who interviewed me within a day of the interview.

So my question is, when the interviewer asks if I have any other questions, can I ask if they will let me know, either via email or phone call, whether or not they will be moving forward with my application? Or is that being too pushy and needy?

It’s not that it’s too pushy or needy … although it does subtly change the power dynamics a bit since in the strongest interviews, you’re both making a decision about whether it would be a good fit. But the bigger reason not to ask is that it won’t make a difference either way.

This is just the nature of job-searching — it’s incredibly common for interviewers not to bother getting back to candidates, even if you devoted a significant amount of time to their process (and even if you took time off work or flew across the country). It’s horribly rude, but it’s so common that you’re better off just expecting it to happen.

If you specifically ask them to get back to you, nearly every interviewer will say that of course they will … but a very large percentage of them still won’t. They’ll say they will because it feels like the obvious answer in the moment (after all, it should be the obvious answer!) and often they truly believe it … and then lots of them won’t get back to you anyway. They also ignore direct requests for an answer via post-interview emails and phone calls, so a request during the interview itself will be just as ineffective.

In every interview you do, you’re dealing with an employer that either does or doesn’t bother with sending rejections. If they don’t, you’re unlikely to change that by anything you say in the interview. It’s much better for your peace of mind to just assume you might be ghosted, and then it can be a pleasant surprise if they do get back in touch with you. I know that sounds discouraging — you’re supposed to put in all that effort, only to assume you’ll never hear from them again? — but it can be really liberating to choose not to anxiously wait around on a response that may never come.

updates: the daily social calls, the trainer who wanted us to “get emotional,” and more

Here are four updates from past letter-writers — plus an announcement that mid-year updates season starts next week!

1. My daily work calls with my boss feel too social

It’s hard to believe how much has changed since I wrote to you. After gaining some space from the issue, I realized there were a few things influencing my and my team’s response to this new supervisor. Namely, my bitterness over not getting the job she was holding and the realization that our manager at the time was not a good leader.

From June to December of 2019, I was working as the temporary supervisor of my team while our permanent supervisor was on a special project. I was repeatedly told that I was doing a fantastic job by my manager, and was diligent about asking for feedback (there was almost none, just “Keep doing what you’re doing! You’re doing great!”). When our permanent supervisor decided to move to a new position related to the special project, I mistakenly thought I was a shoo-in.

I was not.

The pool of candidates was small– just me and Jane. When I was turned down for the position by my manager and his manager, I was told it was due to my mishandling of several personnel issues and projects. I was honestly shocked– see the previous paragraph about how fantastic a job I was doing!– and turned to my manager to express my disappointment over being blindsided when I had been asking for feedback the entire time. He sputtered over his response and it hit me how little of a backbone he had and what a poor manager he was. I believe the decision to give the job to Jane was due to his manager at the time as well; she had never liked me and was known for pigeonholing people into what position she believed was best for them. Honestly, it broke me- but I thought I had processed the hurt and betrayal and moved on by the time our new supervisor started and we went to work-from-home.

My team also didn’t take the news that I was no longer going to be leading them well, and that definitely influenced how they felt about Jane.

We were called back into the office in September of 2020, and three of my teammates left over the inflexibility with this expectation. I was actually happy to be back, and once I got to know Jane in person I truly started enjoying working with her. Fast forward a year to the fall of 2021, and Jane was asked to head-up a special project. During her absence, our backbone-less manager decided to move on to greener pastures that involved no oversight of people. Jane applied for and was chosen to be our manager. Our team then got a new supervisor who thought that the best way to manage was to give the team a say in every decision, which was another nightmare for another letter.

Then, in the summer of 2022, our supervisor left, and I applied and became the permanent supervisor (in large part because of all the advice about cover letters and resumes on AAM)! Jane and I make a great team. She’s really grown and come into her own, and has made so many improvements and gone to bat for the team in a way our previous manager never would.

In a final funny twist of fate, Jane just got put on a special project and I was chosen to be the temporary manager!

Thanks for all your advice then and the advice you continue to offer now. I read AAM every day and have turned on many people to it.

2. Our trainer wants us to “get emotional” with each other

Shortly after you answered my question, the principal was placed on leave so that the school could investigate allegations of his misconduct with students. It involved grooming, and thankfully he’s gone. I never heard another word about the trainer or the implementation of circles.

As a teacher at this school, I’ve endured through a year fully on Zoom, a year when students were allowed to sexually harass teachers and each other without consequence, being asked to come into the school to teach over zoom while the students were virtual due to shooting threats, mass staff turnover, an old building with heat breaking in the winter and no AC, terrible admin communication, toxic coworkers, and more. I have taught here for three years and had a different principal every year. I’m happy to say that these are my final weeks here and that I have a date marked on my calendar as “Resignation Day!” I’m going to take some time off to try to shake the ways this workplace has twisted my worldview, work habits, and expectations.

3. Keeping unvaccinated kids out of our office (#2 at the link)

I wrote in about a coworker who occasionally brought her unvaccinated school age kids to work, when work had a policy allowing new parents to bring their non-mobile babies to work with them. The update is pretty anticlimactic. My state had a covid vaccine requirement for state employees, which applied to my workplace. The antivax woman chose not to get vaccinated, and no longer works where I work. It also doesn’t seem like parents are taking advantage of the bring your baby to work policy anymore, if it’s still in place.

4. Books with competent, polished professional characters (#4 at the link)

I wrote to you at the beginning of the year when I was at a very low point, mentally, following a never-ending series of heartbreaking events. I asked for books that I could read that would let me adopt the mindset of the main character, so I could “borrow” their way of thinking until my own could come back online.

Most of the advice from commenters was unhelpful because books about Badass Babes who toss out zingers left and right while kicking everyone’s ass was … not what I needed. I needed to function like a competent professional in Corporate America.

Thankfully, though, commenter Mill Miker suggested “The Five Dysfunctions of a Team: A Leadership Fable” and it was just what I needed. I bootstrapped the main character’s (Kathryn Petersen’s) thinking process, attitude, and behavior choices (which were informed by her inner dialogue as well as professional norms) onto my own brain and borrowed from her liberally. It carried me through the mental / emotional slump, all the way through my (glowing) performance review in March.

I need to go back and reread it, though. I fell and broke some bones last week. I was already in near-constant pain from cancer treatment but crutches and having only one good leg have taken my misery to a whole new level. The thing that wears me down the most is that I can’t, say, just go grab a glass of water from the kitchen. It’s an entire production that takes 3 times longer than normal. I’m falling behind at work again and am back to fighting back tears multiple times a day.

So I’ll borrow Kathryn Petersen again and let her carry me through this next difficult period.

Thank you for publishing my original question, Alison. I got the specific thing I needed plus a bunch of really good “fun reading” recommendations (all those Badass Babes and Mystery Solver novels).

how do I start off on the right foot in a fully remote job?

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

I recently starting working remotely at a medium-large size company after working at a smaller company for several years. I am glad for the change and everything is going well, but I am finding it harder than I thought it would to get to know people and establish solid working relationships on this larger team. At my last company, not only was my team quite small, but I started in the office before transitioning to WFH, so this aspect of working was a lot easier and just happened naturally.

I’d love some advice about good ways to get to know people and make a good impression when starting at a remote company with large departments. To be clear, I am not looking to be best friends with anyone here, but I think having a good rapport with my coworkers helps with the work I do, especially when reaching out to departments outside of my own, and I of course want the leadership teams to know me and think well of me. I generally want my work to speak for itself, but that seemed easier to do at my previous company where I often spoke and presented to company leadership.

Readers, take it away in the comments.

work travel to anti-choice states, how to screen out bad companies, and more

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

1. How can I avoid work travel to anti-choice states?

Do you have any advice for people who are pregnant and aren’t comfortable traveling to anti-choice states?

I’m eight weeks along, and I found out today that I may be asked to travel to Texas for work. The trip would take place about a week and a half from now. I work remotely and am based on the west coast. Some of my colleagues are on the west coast and others are on the east coast, so HR has arranged a meeting for leadership alignment in Texas. I don’t travel a lot for work, but I’m in a new role as a supervisor (my first!), so this would ordinarily be a good opportunity for me. Additionally, I’m pretty new to the company (less than four months).

To be honest, I’m not comfortable traveling at all right now. I’m not feeling well, and I don’t think I handle the restaurant food and catering that would be involved in a 3-4 day work trip. Beyond that, I’m not willing going to a place where I might be denied emergency medical care if I needed it.

If I am asked to go, I’m not sure how to address this. I could speak to my direct manager or the HR leader (who I have a pretty good relationship with). I think they would be understanding if I explained why I can’t and don’t want to travel. However, I really, really, *really* don’t want to disclose my pregnancy now. I’m a really private person, and it’s been a horrible, stressful experience, so I’d prefer not to talk about it with anyone at work.

Any suggestions on what I can say or do? I feel like I may be backed into a corner here: either I have to disclose private medical information far earlier than I’m comfortable doing so, or I have to travel to a place where pregnant women’s lives aren’t valued.

Frankly, anyone who has the ability to become pregnant, even if they don’t think they are currently, should be concerned about traveling to anti-choice states right now, given the implications for their medical care should an emergency arise. But that’s a hard stance for most people take when they’re new to a job.

Given that, I think it’s going to be tough to explain without disclosing your pregnancy or at least hinting at it. But hinting at it is an option — you could, in theory, say something like, “Due to some health things right now, I’m not able to travel to a state where I might be denied emergency medical care if I needed it.” Or even leave the first part off and just say, “I’m not able to travel to a state where I might be denied emergency medical care if I needed it.” Any reasonably savvy person is likely to read between the lines and understand what you’re probably saying, but it might let you avoid a more explicit disclosure that could open up a conversation about your pregnancy, upcoming leave, etc. Or, on the other hand, you might find it simpler to just disclose, as the least bad of a bunch of bad options.

I’m sorry you have to deal with this at an already stressful time.

2. How do I screen out bad companies when I’m interviewing?

I’m currently unemployed, and have been applying for jobs and interviewing with no luck for almost a year, and so I have seen a total range of interviewer styles. Your “ask the readers” post about good companies got me thinking about a question I’ve been struggling with as I do my interviews.

What sorts of questions can a candidate ask to try to gauge whether a company is one of the “good ones?” Obviously some things, like a company’s benefits and leave policy, can be pretty cut and dry, but I always wonder how candid current employees are when I ask questions like “can you tell me about the company’s culture/values?” Are there better/more specific questions I should be asking to determine if a workplace would be a good one to work at?

I actually don’t think there are questions that reliably get at this if the company is bad. It’s not so much that interviewers deliberately lie (although some do), but they often have huge blind spots, spout corporate BS without really thinking it through, or soften the truth enough that you don’t get an accurate picture. I’ve yet to come across a question you can ask that will reliably cut through those tendencies; no matter the question, bad employers will regularly give decent-sounding or even great-sounding responses to it.

So rather than relying on interview questions, I recommend digging into the company in other ways. One of the best ways is to talk to people outside of the formal interview process — either by using your network to find people who have worked for the company before or by asking if you can talk with some of their current employees (once you’re at the finalist stage or the offer stage). There’s advice on how to do that here.

3. My new coworker has untreated pink eye

I work for a team that is undergoing a structural shift. It’s a fast-paced project and they recently brought on new management and they are doubling our team in size. I’m trying to train up my new coworkers to take over some of my duties. One of them, Stella, just joined us on Monday.

Stella seems nice enough, and I’m holding out hope that she’s a fast learner. The issue is that she quite obviously has pink eye. Not to be too graphic, but her right eye has noticeable discharge. It’s not pleasant to look at, but the larger issue is that SHE TOUCHES HER EYE. I watched her wipe away the discharge and then SHAKE SOMEONE’S HAND in the same 20 minutes while I was giving her a training session.

I don’t know if she realizes what’s going on with her eye, but now I’m painfully worried that she’s going to spread it around the office. I disinfected my desk after she worked next to me for a bit yesterday. But I realized all the other things she must be touching — bathroom stalls and handles, kitchen appliances, doorknobs, conference room table and chairs…

Should I approach her? Should I sneakily slide a pink eye printout onto her desk? Please help, it’s driving me crazy with anxiety. I really really don’t want pink eye.

I’m normally not a proponent of unsolicited health advice because (a) it’s generally none of your business and (b) you could be entirely wrong about what’s going on with someone.

But in this case, given how highly contagious pink eye is, I think there’s room to say, “I’m sorry to be intrusive, but it looks like you might have pink eye, which can be very contagious. If I’m wrong or overstepping, I apologize but I wanted to mention it since there are some important precautions to avoid spreading it.”

I don’t love that! If Stella has some chronic eye condition that’s not pink eye, she’s probably awfully tired of people assuming it is. But I do think that in this very specific case, you’ve got some standing to mention it — once — because of the contagion factor.

Of course, it’s also true that there’s a wide range of communicable diseases that any of your coworkers could be spreading around your office at any time, but without the visibility of conjunctivitis. That’s not going to help your anxiety, I realize — and it’s not a reason not to be concerned about the specific situation right in front of you. But as a general rule, it’s smart to assume that’s the case and take whatever precautions that makes you want to take.

4. I accidentally implied to my new manager I might only be staying a year

I started a new job on Monday, my second job out of college. I realized while lying awake tonight that I might have accidentally implied to my new manager on Monday that I might only stay for a year or two. I told her I was interested in doing a master’s program in a year or two, and I forgot to tell her that it would be part-time (the company has tuition reimbursement). It was just so clear in my head that it would be part-time that I just didn’t say it out loud. Do you think this made a bad impression on her that I might have a foot out the door, leading to her not putting me on projects? I’m going to tell her I’m planning on a part-time program when I see her in the office on Thursday — is that a good idea?

Yep, clear it up just in case she did misunderstand and is wondering whether you announced on your first day that you plan to leave in a year. Of course, she might not have thought that — but there’s no harm in addressing it if she didn’t.

I’d say it this way: “Earlier this week, I mentioned I might want to do a master’s program in a year or two. I realized I should have mentioned that if I did, it would be a part-time program, not something I would leave my job for. I wanted to make sure I didn’t inadvertently give you the wrong impression about that!”

5. What name should I apply to jobs under?

I am a college student wrapping up my junior year, and I have a (hopefully low-stakes) question about applying for summer internships: what name do I apply under? Specifically, I only ever go by my middle name. No particularly deep reason for this, I just think my middle name suits me and strongly dislike my first name. In my experience, it hasn’t been a huge problem for me to use my middle name, but I don’t want to unintentionally apply for internships under a false name or otherwise make myself look weird! So far, I have been titling my resume and signing my cover letters with the name I actually go by (“Middle Last”), but including a note in the section of the resume that has my contact information (“Legal name: First Middle Last”). But that feels instinctively like an awkward way to handle this. What would you suggest? Is there even a reason to include my legal first name in my application at all?

Definitely use the name you go by on your resume (Middle Last). You don’t even really need to include that note with your full legal name. The only time you’d need to include your first name is if you’re signing something that requires you to attest that all the info is full and accurate (and even in some of those cases you could use First Initial, Middle Name, Last Name if you wanted to). But this is really common — employers are very used to applicants whose resumes say Valencia Smith and then turn out to be Penelope Valencia Smith when it comes time for legal forms, payroll, etc.

the thieving CEO, the broken lock, and other people losing their minds over free food at work

Last week I asked about times you’ve seen ridiculously bad behavior over free food at work — and you certainly delivered. There were so many hilarious stories left on that post that I couldn’t fit them all my favorites into one column. Part 1 was here, and here’s part 2.

1. The CEO

At my old job, the CEO/owner was a very out-of-touch older man who was incredibly wealthy but was also a massive tightwad. At least twice a week, he’d come to the cafeteria during lunchtime, wander among the tables, and take food from his employees. And not just a couple of chips off of someone’s plate – I witnessed him taking two full slices of pizza from a pie that 3 people were sharing. I saw him take half of someone’s sandwich. I saw him take some pasta out of someone’s takeout container.

With the power dynamic, nobody felt comfortable telling him to stop. Meanwhile, we were all horribly underpaid and resentful that this millionaire was literally taking food from our mouths.

Finally, the colleagues I ate with and I decided to speak out and stop letting him take our food. A few days later, we’d all ordered Chinese and he came by our table with a fork and an empty plate, and tried to take the last dumpling from my plate. I said, “Actually, I was about to eat that” and he looked SHOCKED. He then tried to take some leftovers from my friend, who said, “Sorry, I’m bringing the rest of this home to eat for dinner.” He didn’t even say anything, just walked away silently and went to another table. He tried a few more times with us but we kept telling him that the food was spoken for and he finally left us alone, but still terrorized the rest of the cafeteria.

Eventually, his daughter (who was a VP at the company) found out what he was doing and apparently ripped him a new one, and he stopped. Then she bought lunch for the entire company.

2. The goats

I work for a large manufacturing company in the Great Plains. We have about a thousand engineers that work here in large cubicle farms, and a significant portion of them live out in the surrounding area on acreages. Several years ago, we had an engineering coworker who would take entire buffet trays of leftover conference room food to his vehicle, before anyone else was able to serve themselves. We assumed they were getting the trays of food for their large family, but we found out later that this engineer was taking the trays of food back to his hobby farm, to feed his goats.

Ever since that this engineer retired, we all finally get a chance at conference room leftovers.

3. The band of bandits

My department had a long tradition of over-the-top department potlucks, with a strict rule that if you wanted to eat, you had to bring something. We had a lot of good cooks and we were all really into our pot lucks.

We would leave crock pots heating in our department breakroom in the morning. We found that a group of four men from another department would always sneak into our breakroom and help themselves to food before our lunchtime rolled around. We tried to solve it with a sign that said, “CONTAINS RAW CHICKEN! DO NOT EAT UNTIL 12:30!” We also hid all the utensils and plates and things until lunch time in an effort to thwart them. They ignored the sign and walked to another break room and got their own utensils and returned to steal food.

They thought it was a hilarious battle of wills and we were enraged that they were stealing our lovingly prepared food (especially because we had always invited the rest of the departments to partake of leftovers after our lunch). We finally ended up with all the crockpots on a rolling cart, plugged in to heat up in a closet behind my desk (I’m sure the fire marshal would not have approved). The four “eaters,” as we called them, would walk around sniffing the air trying to locate the source of the delicious smells.

4. The candy dish

The current (and ongoing) free food fracas at my workplace involves candy. Like, fun size candy bars that you’d get/give at Halloween. This past Halloween, our office manager put out a cute Halloween display with a bowl of candy. This then morphed into a holiday display in November/December. Then, because people kept requesting it, candy stuck around into the new year.

All of that sounds fine, right? A nice little treat for everyone, y’know?

Except people have seemingly lost any sense of decorum over this because, of course, some varieties of candy are more preferred than others. Which has led to people hoarding candy in their desks, taking said hoarded candy from people’s desks, breaking into locked drawers and filing cabinets to steal candy, etc. One of the partners even directed an intern to monitor the candy bowl and call him when it was refilled with the type of candy he likes!

I’ve told our office manager to just stop buying more candy, but thus far the candy bowl keeps getting refilled and grown adults continue to act like fools.

5. The new hire

I worked in an office who bought lunch for us on a regular basis. We’d eat leftovers throughout the week for more free lunches. If there were still leftovers on Friday, anyone who wanted could take them home (this usually meant person A took a tray of something, person B took a bag of chips, etc.).

We had a new hire, and in his first week he snuck into the kitchen on a Thursday afternoon and took ALL of the leftovers – we’re talking at least four catering pans of food. It took us until the following week to figure out where they’d all gone. When confronted, he just said, “I’ve got family in town.” I don’t think he lasted a month at our company.

6. The camera feed

There would be a management-only catered lunch once a month – there was a kitchen off the big conference room. Aside from this kitchen having to be locked at all times because of china, flatware and coffee cups going missing (the owner insisted that all the food be removed from the catering trays and put onto the fancy platters and such), the management staff didn’t behave any better than anyone else – the amount of food on the counters and all over the conference table where they ate was unbelievable. They would go into the garbage and find the catering trays so they could try to hide food for themselves for later, and of course the very second the meeting started the rest of the staff would try to sneak in and steal food. The owner would keep the camera feed from the kitchen on the giant screen in the conference room to catch people so he could scream at them, yet no one ever learned. (Emphasis is Alison’s. What?!)

7. The angry donut

I used to work at a nonprofit that worked with a lot of community partners that would frequently use our space and leave leftovers after meetings. The executive director had a huge anger problem (like frequent, full-volume yelling). One day she walked past my desk in an unusually good mood and mentioned that there were donuts in the kitchen and she would bring one back for me. She was gone for a long time, and then finally returned and deposited a handful of crumbs in a wadded up napkin on my desk and said, “Sorry it’s a little crumbled. I got in a disagreement with someone on my way back here.”

Which 100% meant she had full-on screamed at someone in the back office and accidentally crushed the donut in her balled fist. I still ate it. It was delicious.

8. The potluck

My office used to hold annual potluck lunches during the holiday season. Everyone signed up to either make a dish or donate money towards buying a tray of catered food (like one of those 6-foot subs, trays of chicken wings, etc.). But we had a guy who was a free food vulture and massive cheapskate despite not having any spouse or kids and having quite the hefty retirement fund. Back when we used to have parties celebrating a marriage or a new baby, my coworkers and I would take wagers on how many slices of cake this guy would eat.

Anyway, he retired but *just happened* to show up to visit on the day of the annual luncheon. As everyone who had cooked/paid lined up to grab food, this dude LOUDLY exclaims how he didn’t bring any food or pay any money, but jumps in line with everyone else and helps himself to multiple overflowing plates of food. And then the next day, when the leftovers were put out, this jerk (reminder, he’s retired and doesn’t work here anymore!) comes back with bags. He packed up 3-4 grocery paper bags full of even more food! I made sure I was within earshot and loudly exclaimed to my coworkers just how obnoxious this move was by someone who contributed nothing. I never saw him again on potluck day after that year (I always made something for that event so I attended every year) or he got really good at avoiding me … pretty sure it was the former, not the latter lol.

9. The lock

Old Office would order huge lunches with the intent that the leftovers could come out the next day for a second lunch. It was usually Mexican food, salads, sandwiches, or pasta: all items that were equally good the next day.

But then people began going into the fridge and taking all the leftovers. I’m talking trays of food disappearing. Notices went out to stop taking trays of food out of the fridge.

Then trays of food for future meetings were being stolen. Cakes, fruit trays, desert platters that were intended for meetings the next day were vanishing.

They put a lock on the fridge. Lock was shattered the first night it was on the fridge.

The office had cameras that looked into the area with the catering fridge, but HR didn’t want the awkwardness of confronting food thieves. So they accepted that food goblins would take anything left overnight.

10. The folder

I used to work in an office where most of the staff were in one room and the senior staff were down the hall in individual offices. When people brought in snacks or baked goods they were often left on a free desk and people were free to take what they liked. One of the senior guys would always show up shortly after the goods were put out. He’d come in with a document in his hand looking for a member of the team to discuss it with, he was always looking for the person who wasn’t in that day. He would then notice the items and take something. One time he left the document behind and we realized it was a folder just full of blank pieces of paper. No idea why he created this little charade, there was no problem with him taking something and many other staff did just drop by take something and leave. Always found it slightly funny.

11. The Wanted poster

I saw a team of engineers create a Wanted poster with the picture of an engineer from another department to ban him from their Friday donut potluck due to excessive pilfering of their hoard.

employee keeps pushing for a promotion we’ve already said we can’t give him

A reader writes:

I have a direct report who is regularly (every three to six months over the past 18 months) asking to be promoted to a position he has created for himself. While there is merit in his idea, the company simply does not want to move forward with this position at this time as there is not enough work to justify it. He wasn’t interested in accepting a compromise (a position that is opening soon that could be blended with some of what he is proposing).

A different department recently created a position for one of their staff members, and now he is questioning me on why the same cannot be done for him. I understand the frustration, but if that area has different needs that took priority, there is not much I can do about that.

How can I advise him to stop asking, as this has all been explained multiple times and now he is just coming off as pushy? We’ve told him that when advancement opportunities open up in our area, he would be a primary candidate, but that did not appease him. His initiative is appreciated, but business decisions cannot be made just because someone wants something.

I answer this question — and two 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.

  • My office is incredibly quiet
  • Two resigning employees asked me to fudge their sick leave

interview with a household manager for rich people

I recently talked with a reader who used to work as a household manager for a rich family — a job I have always wanted to hear the logistics of. Here’s our conversation.

How did you end up in this job?

I was working as a nanny, but I was already in a place where I knew I was ready to move forward. I couldn’t really afford the next step. There was a training program for parent coaching I wanted to do, but it was linked to a graduate program at a university and priced accordingly, so seriously far out of my budget without taking on loans and that felt too risky.

The family I was working with wasn’t a great personality match and I was already casually looking for another job. I had a profile up on some nanny search website and a woman reached out and asked if I’d sit down and hear her out about a nanny-adjacent job she thought I’d be a good match for, which turned out to be a household manager job. On paper, the details of the job were great — big pay increase, health insurance, company car, retirement savings. I knew immediately that this person was going to be an absolute nightmare to work for, but I also knew if I could tough it out for a year, I could save up enough to pay for my coaching course outright and I was willing to make that trade.

What did the job entail?

My official title was household manager, but the role was really more of a hybrid house manager (manage staff, inventory, event planning) and personal assistant (personal errands, email inbox management), with lots of personal errands that they didn’t want to ask the housekeepers to do.

I managed a full-time staff of three and part-time staff of between 3-6, depending on the season, across three properties (one main home, one seasonal home where the entire household moved for part of the year, and one vacation home). This included housekeeping, cooking, and child care staff. I was only responsible for interior duties/staff. I had a counterpart who managed the exterior duties/staff (and the pets, hunting gear and the wine collection).

I was a salaried employee with health insurance, 401k match and a “company” car.

My daily duties were a walk-through when I got there in the morning, and before I left, basically making sure the house always looked perfect, like people didn’t live there. I opened and sorted the mail, kept an eye on one boss’s email, and made sure the housekeepers had what they needed to keep the house running. I was in charge of the staff and family credit cards, checking for fraud, I guess? So once a month, sorting through eight people’s worth of receipts, making sure everything lined up. The housekeepers did the grocery shopping, but it was my job to oversee the lists, and I did most of the rest of the household shopping — clothes, gifts, etc. I did all the hiring and scheduling for an ever rotating list of babysitters, lots of travel planning and booking things, and sometimes I would travel with the family so if they needed anything while there, they could delegate. I did pretty regular event planning — holidays, and big dinners with visiting scholars, politicians, etc. They were the kind of uber wealthy where they sat on the boards of several major nonprofits and were pretty heavily involved in the behind-the-scenes stuff that happens in politics at that financial level.

In practice my job was like 90% errands, internet shopping and what I can only describe as ADHD side quests — someone would say, “Oh, I heard this bakery across the state sells the best croissants” so I’d drive four hours to buy some, or “oh, camping sounds fun” so I’d be responsible for finding the best campground in the area, researching and buying all the best gear for X number people for X nights in the current weather, packing it all and leaving a map and their reservations printed out on the seat of their car (my “exterior” counterpart would be concurrently making sure the cars were ready — washing, gassing, loading the cars for me and also pulling wine for the trip), or “we want to try a gluten-free diet now, please replace everything in the pantry with similar gluten-free options by the end of the week.”

The most absurd food request was I had to transport three yogurts to another country. The family was on vacation in a foreign country known for its high-quality dairy products. I got a call from my boss asking me to bring three yogurts from the fridge, and I actually laughed, I thought it was a joke. It was not. I had to figure out how to pack and keep cool individual yogurts over three connecting flights and through customs in two different countries.

How did you transport the yogurts?

Okay, I was actually super proud of this. The yogurts were 4 oz and weren’t going to fit in a quart Ziplock anyway, so I had to keep them cold and un-crushed in my checked bag. The other limiting factor was that I have that kind of vague ethnic look that people tend to project their assumptions/prejudices onto and in an airport that looks like being “randomly” pulled out of line for an extra search, and then finding one of those little love notes from TSA inside my checked bags about how they also “randomly” selected my bags for an extra search. So random! This meant I needed to pack this in a way that wouldn’t get pulled apart and ruined by some overzealous agents. I was afraid an actual cooler would look too weird on an X-ray, so I bought a bunch of soft pearl ice packs, like the kind you use if you hurt yourself, and a big, clear Tupperware container. I put the yogurts in a large Ziplock and sealed it shut with tape, in case the pressure change exploded them. I put that in the Tupperware (to add structure to keep them from smashing) with Ziplocks of ice (so it would mold around the yogurts more completely). My hope was that if the TSA agents could easily open the package and see that it was really just yogurt, they’d leave it alone. I wrapped the Tupperware in a beach towel layered with the pearl ice packs and put it in the center of my suitcase, so that it would be as insulated as possible, both for temperature control and so they wouldn’t get smashed. I hand-wrote a note for TSA explaining that my boss was completely unreasonable and I would likely be fired if I showed up without this yogurt so please don’t throw them away, and please re-wrap them after you’ve decided they are, in fact, yogurt.

TSA did an extremely half assed job re-wrapping them, but it was enough to keep them cool and only partially smooshed (but not broken!). When I triumphantly handed over the yogurts, he was like, “Oh, I forgot I asked you to bring these,” and then didn’t eat them.

That’s amazing. Can you share any other ridiculous/over-the-top things you found yourself doing?

Gosh, so many. I think the yogurt was the most absurd, but the camping, pantry and long-distance bread pickup are all real scenarios. My boss once decided at the last minute she didn’t want to sit on the planning committee for a major fundraising gala, and sent me instead. That one was actually really fun. Lots of weird little stuff, like having a toy thrown on my desk that they picked up on vacation and being instructed to track it down in every color, every permutation it comes in because the kid liked it and now they need ALL OF THEM. Or I’d find a stack of catalogues on my desk and have to leaf through page by page to find all the circled items to order.

What did you like most about it? Dislike most?

In the beginning, the novelty of how chaotic it was made it interesting. I love problem solving and having lots of variety in my day. Turns out I also like hiring and am really good at it for household staffing, after being on the opposite end of it for so long. It’s something I still do for my clients now, helping them hire nannies and housekeepers. I have a good eye for if personalities will mesh well in close quarters, something people do not put enough weight on when hiring inside their house. I really liked most of my staff, I definitely stayed longer than I should have, for them.

The worst part was hands down my bosses. Once you get to the top few percent of income, you likely haven’t heard the word “no” in years and it shows. There’s a level of wealth that I think warps the realities of even once-kind people. It was easily the most erratic, toxic work environment I’ve ever been a part of. You talk all the time about how a toxic enough work environment can really warp your sense of what’s “normal” and seep into your regular life and that’s so true. I think I have a clearer understanding of how people get stuck in abusive relationships now. After a long day of screaming at me, my boss would be like, “Oh, today was rough, get yourself the nicest flowers you can find, on me, tonight” and then have left jewelry on my desk in the morning, but if it took me more than a half hour to send a thank-you email, she was back in my office berating me for being an ingrate.

By the end, it was really starting to affect my health and I realized I was only staying to shield the rest of the staff from the worst of our bosses’ behavior. I knew I needed to get out before things got worse.

What were your hours typically like?

In theory, I worked 9-5 — I was salaried and “some weeks you’ll work 50 hours, some weeks you’ll work 30” lol. In reality, my bosses were boundary tramplers so my actual schedule was all over the place, I never worked only 40 hours. My boss called my work phone and sent texts and emails that they expected responses to at all hours. If I was lucky, I was able to shove a quick snack in my face at my desk, but if the family was home I never got a real lunch break because my boss could not handle seeing anyone sitting down and not looking busy. If a babysitter called in sick, that was now my job to stay through until the parents returned. If there was an event, I was there 12 hours in the days leading up to it and 18 hours the day of. My vacation days were purely theoretical. The housekeepers could take time off, because I could hire a temporary replacement to do extra cleanings while they were gone, but not me. It wasn’t even strongly discouraged, but explicitly “no one else can do your job and you can’t leave her (my boss) unsupported like that.”

What surprised you most about the job?

I don’t think I realized that this was less a structured job and more they were essentially paying me to be on call. I definitely did not have 40+ hours of real work to do, I was just expected to be there in case anyone wanted anything. This was especially true for travel, I’m still shocked someone was willing to fly me all over the world just to guarantee I would drive out and grab their paper every morning on vacation, and be on call to, like, run up to the pharmacy if someone ran out of sunscreen.

I’ve always thought that if I ever became fabulously rich, I wouldn’t want household staff because I value privacy and solitude too much! Can you talk about that a little — how did that work, with people living their private lives alongside paid staff? Did they just give up a certain amount of privacy? Pretend staff weren’t there? Something else? And how did you get comfortable with that on your end?

I’ve spent my entire career inside other people’s homes. I started babysitting when I was 11 and have done work in this realm ever since. It would probably be a really weird transition to this work as an adult, but I’ve been doing it for three-quarters of my life, and I can’t really imagine anything else. It helps that I am also an intensely private person, so the urge to pretend I never saw something to preserve someone else’s privacy is very strong. You know everything about people’s lives — you know what kind of marriage they have, how they treat their children, you know if they’re getting a divorce or having a baby before they tell their friends or family.

How this looks is so, so different just based on the kind of people you’re working for. For this family, there was such a clear delineation — we were staff. They would often pretend we weren’t there, and the expectation was definitely that we would make ourselves as invisible as possible. We were not allowed to call them by their first names, we were only allowed to use the staff bathroom, I was allowed to use the front stairs but the housekeepers were not. It was definitely my least comfortable job.

That being said, if I miraculously become that rich, I would definitely hire someone to help my family. If you’re paying someone a good living wage and treating them with respect, it is such a luxury to have someone around whose job it is to help you. But I had so many other good experiences as a nanny, so that colors my opinion. Two of the girls I used to care for were bridesmaids in my wedding and I’m still in touch with most of the families I worked for.

How long did you stay in that job?

About two years and I was the longest lasting person in that role. I think the previous record was 14 months and I’ve heard no one has lasted even a year since I left. Still unsure if that’s something I should be proud of!

Did you ever do this kind of work for another family afterwards, or was this a one-time thing?

It was a one-time thing. It gave me the funding I needed to do my coaching training and get my business off the ground without working another job to stay afloat. And because of how unpleasant the family was, the work itself was really … hollow. I like doing work that feels like I am helping people, like it matters. There was just no amount of volunteer work I could do on the side that felt like it came close to balancing out the fact that I was just facilitating rich babies behaving badly. I suspect a lot of what was the worst about this job was specific to these particular bosses, but I didn’t want to find out.

Tell us a bit about the work you’re doing now, with this behind you!

I work as a postpartum doula and parent coach now, and I have a really narrow specialty. I only work with disabled/high-risk and otherwise Covid-cautious families. As so much of the world “moves on,” a lot of families are really struggling to find connection and support from someone who will affirm their choices instead of minimizing their concerns. That means I do a lot of virtual work, and have a really comprehensive in-person safety policy requiring masking and testing.

I love my work. I genuinely enjoy supporting families and this work combines all my expertise of years of nannying, coaching, and being a mom and some skills I picked up as a household manager, like hiring. The household manager job helped me get here in a really obvious way, in that it literally paid for my coaching training, but also in a surprising way. While I was working for the family, I was running an errand to the head office of my boss’s company and I ran into an old friend in the lobby. They were someone I’d known since high school and always enjoyed spending time with (we’d actually even lived in a house together with friends in college) but had lost touch over the years. We made plans to get together and catch up. We’re married now and have three kids.

Without that job, I never would have reconnected with my partner and become a mom. I thought after all my years of childcare, having a baby would be easy but my postpartum phase was the most humbling experience of my life. It made me realize I wanted to refocus my work on families who had just had babies, and my amazing, supportive partner was the one who encouraged me to train and certify as a doula and shift my care model (in the middle of a pandemic!) and refocus on families like ours who need care and support from someone who is still serious about avoiding Covid. As awful as the job was, it put me on a path to something (and several someones!) I love very much, so I don’t regret my time there.

is employee lying about being sick, my boss slept with my boyfriend, and more

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

1. Employee called in sick on a day I knew she didn’t want to work

I manage a department which operates 24/7. To be honest, the job is low pay and the work is challenging and stressful and under strenuous conditions. This leads to high turnover, plenty of call-ins, etc. In short, it is not my company, so there is little I can do to change the pay, but I do my best to improve the working conditions and make it more friendly and inviting to work there.

I have an employee on one shift, Amanda, who rarely ever works weekends, since she took care of her mother-in-law with cancer on those days. Of course I was accommodating to this.

Her mother-in-law passed away 1-2 weeks ago. When I was informed of this, I started to schedule her again on the weekends and she was surprised and not happy and requested a change via email, though I explained I needed to be fair to others on the team who do not get weekends off as often as she did in the past. Amanda has a lot of personal issues and calls in sick more frequently than the average individual.

Today is Saturday and she has called in sick due to vomiting. I have a hard time believing that she is being honest based on the fact that she does not want to work Saturdays. I saw her last night and she looked fine, but obviously things can change quickly. The interesting thing is that she mentioned she would be okay to come in on Sunday (tomorrow) and she knew this, as though she can 100% work that day, but not Saturday due to feeling unwell. Not sure how someone can be positive they’ll be fine the next day, but not today.

Should I drop this and accept it and see if a pattern arises on the days which are less preferred for her or ask for a doctor’s note (even though she has said she cannot get one)? I know little good can come from arguing about how reliable and trustworthy she is being, but I worry that letting it go sends a message that people can call in sick and give literally any reason why without it being discussed.

There are two separate issues here: First, Amanda’s mother-in-law, who she’s been caring for, only died one to two weeks ago! That’s much too recent to have just put her back on the schedule for weekends without even discussing it with her first. Why not give her some time for bereavement, and then have a real conversation about her schedule before changing it? If I were Amanda, I’d be feeling pretty put off by that — like you weren’t treating me as a fellow human who had just experienced something awful.

The sick day is a separate issue. As a general rule, you should default to believing your employees unless there’s a clear and compelling reason not to. If someone develops a pattern of unreliability, then you address the pattern — but in general, pushing back on a single sick day is a bad move. If Amanda’s overall reliability is an issue, talk to her about it (although ideally you’d give her some grace right now because she just had a death in the family), but wait to see if there’s a pattern before you act. Don’t ask for a doctor’s note for a single day of sickness, for all the reasons here.

2. My boss slept with my boyfriend

I recently had a horrible break-up with my man of four years, and we just had a baby boy back in October. When I came back to work because we really needed the money, shortly after I found out that my boss was the reason for all this. She was sleeping with him, and when he left he moved right in with her. I’m devastated and heartbroken. I had to quit because I could not bear to think of working and having to listen to her tell me what to do. What do you think I should do? I lost everything because of her?

I’m sorry that happened. It would be awful under any circumstances, but to find out that your boss — someone with whom there’s a certain vulnerability built into the relationship and who you generally assume isn’t actively working to destroy your personal life — was the person your partner was cheating with would add a whole additional level of betrayal to an already horrible situation.

When you ask what you should do, I think you’re wondering if there’s something official you can do professionally — like filing a complaint? In theory you could try that (most companies do not want their managers sleeping with employees’ partners and it’s possible they’d be interested to know that’s why you quit) but there’s not really anything for you to gain by doing that (and the potential for a lot of drama on top of what’s already happened). I’d rather see you leave her in your past and focus on moving forward.

3. Was I wrong to be bothered by my coworkers’ coffee clique?

Years ago, I worked on a small team (six people) that would have several meetings a week at the beginning of the day. Often just the six of us, sometimes with an extra few people from other teams. We were very tight-knit and worked really well together.

Three of the people on our team were a little more social outside of work — they attended the same church. I was also closer to one of those three; we had attended grad school together recently. The thing I’m wondering about is that every Friday those three would all show up to the meeting with coffee for each other, and not anyone else. It always had one of their names on it so it was obvious it was like a rotating, reciprocal scenario. I am not saying I expect other people to buy me coffee, but it 100% made me feel left out and sad about not being included. I was young and it was my first real job so I never spoke up, but I’m wondering if I was too sensitive and should have just let it go, if it really was as rude as I perceived it, and if there was anything I could have said or done.

I’d say it was mildly rude.

Not if it only happened a few times, but because it was a regular thing it feels a bit cliquey — it sends the signal (presumably inadvertently) “we’re our own closer group of three that the rest of you aren’t in.” Of course, it’s absolutely fine for people to have closer relationships with some coworkers than with others; that’s natural and there’s nothing wrong with it. But when you have a recurring meeting of only six people and three of them are constantly bringing coffee for each other, there’s a point where politeness requires asking if the others would like to be included.

Ideally it’s something that you would shrug off — some people are closer with others at work, and the coffee thing is more thoughtless than anything else. But in theory you also could have said, “Hey, can I get in on this coffee rotation?” (And ideally they would have asked.)

4. Putting projects that went badly on your resume

I am applying for jobs at the moment. One thing a lot of roles I am interested in ask for is experience planning projects. While I was part of a team that created and implemented projects in my most recent job, there is one project I took charge of. However, this project went very poorly. It was intended to get feedback from our user base about how we could support them during the early stages of the Covid-19 pandemic and not one person responded. My job at the time was intended for young people just out of college and I can very clearly see now why it went so badly. However, I estimated staff time needed, I figured out how to get the technical side working, and I gave the awkward presentation where I talked about a dozen things we should have done differently.

Does this experience need to stay relegated only to answering “tell me about a time you failed” or can I mention it as an example of leading a project? Is it okay to talk about some of these things in a cover letter and gloss over the outcome?

Unfortunately you shouldn’t use it as an example of leading a project — it’s very likely that interviewers will want to delve into the details, and “the one project I led failed badly” won’t make you a strong candidate for an employer who’s looking for someone with a track record of leading projects successfully. That doesn’t mean the experience is useless — it sounds like you learned a lot and, as you said, it’ll be a good answer if you’re asked to talk about a time you didn’t succeed. (It also sounds like your employer didn’t set you up to succeed, and that’s not on you.)

5. Can my employer make me use PTO if I’d rather take the time unpaid?

I took time off for my wedding this year before I had accrued any PTO. I told my employer I would be more than happy to take it unpaid, but they said that it’s not allowed as “the expectation is that I am here 40 hours a week.” As such, I know have a negative PTO balance that I would have to pay back if I left, which I am trying to do. However, when we close unexpectedly early, we are not expected to us PTO on those days so I’m confused what “expected to be there 40 hours” means. I guess I’m wondering: (1) can employers force you to use PTO you don’t have? and (2) is it legal to make you pay back a negative balance even though you didn’t want to use that time in the first place?

They didn’t word it well, but I think what they meant by “we expect you be here 40 hours a week” is: “We’ve planned our staffing with the assumption that you’ll be here every day minus your annual allotment of PTO — so we don’t want you to take additional time off unpaid, because then you’ll be working (for example) only 45 weeks a year rather than the 47 we were counting on. Therefore, we’re going to deduct this time from your annual PTO allotment rather than add to it with unpaid time off.”

To answer your questions: They can indeed require that your time off come out of your annual allotment for the year, even if that gives you a negative PTO balance. In most states, you can be required to pay that back when you leave (although check to see if your state is an exception to this).

my new coworker is the guy who naked-manned me on a Zoom date

A reader writes:

Life has given me a cruel and hilarious plot twist and I’m at a loss of what to do or how to address it. Back in 2020, peak pandemic times, I was doing what many singles did and went on virtual dates with people through apps. One particularly memorable Zoom date was a guy who just randomly started taking his clothes off. Didn’t ask, no indication of why, just … started disrobing. He legit was naked-manning me (How I Met Your Mother clip to explain). At no point was the conversation flirty or sexual in nature — in fact, it wasn’t going well at all.

We had made dinner in our respective kitchens on Zoom, and after eating I was drinking wine and he was making himself cocktails while we talked about our interests, family life, the typical early dating topics. Then suddenly, he just took off his shirt out of nowhere while I was talking about my family or friends. I stopped and said, “Uh, what’s going on here?” and he just shrugged and ignored the question, and said he was going to relocate. So I kept talking thinking it was weird, but whatever, people can be quirky or maybe his AC went out. He started walking back to his bedroom and next thing I know he literally dropped his basketball shorts on the camera and plopped down on his bed in his boxer briefs. I made a comment about it not being that kind of date and suggested clothing stay on, he didn’t acknowledge it and started talking about his family, so I pretty immediately after that noped out of there with a “it’s late, gotta go” for fear of my eyeballs being subjected to the full monty without any kind of warning, and never talked to him again.

That is, until the first day of my new job. Two minutes before joining my first team introduction call, I looked at the org chart and saw that not only is he in my organization, he’s on my immediate team. I swiftly played dumb during the team call, and just pretended to have no idea who he is. He seemed to take the same approach for now.

Sadly, I’ll have to work with him somewhat and he’s the most tenured on the team for questions and internal processes.

My question to you is, how on earth would you handle this going forward? Do I tell anyone? Do I address it with him?


I once had a date do this in-person. We were at his apartment for a drink after dinner and I was standing looking at his books and when I turned back around … yeah.


I very much hope he remembers you and is humiliated … but sadly, I suspect he’s oblivious. In fact, it wouldn’t surprise me if he’s done this so much that he doesn’t even have a clear memory of doing it to you.

In a world where I controlled all things, he would be mortified and apologize to you and every other woman he’s attempted to push a non-consensual strip tease on and perhaps would voluntarily retire himself from society for his remaining years. In this world, though, most likely he’s either going to pretend it never happened or he’s going to hit on you again at some point. The former is preferable, so let’s hope for that.

As for what you should do … I wish you had better options, but treating him like you don’t recognize him at all is probably your best one. If you pick up on any weirdness or creepiness — if he’s doing anything that makes you uncomfortable or your experience at work less pleasant — at that point it’s reasonable to seek assistance from either your boss or HR, explaining the history. But as long as he’s treating you the way you’d expect from any other new colleague, both of you acting as if the Zoom debacle didn’t happen is likely your easiest path.