open thread – January 27-28, 2023

It’s the Friday open thread!

The comment section on this post is open for discussion with other readers on any work-related questions that you want to talk about (that includes school). If you want an answer from me, emailing me is still your best bet*, but this is a chance to take your questions 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.

I’m fully remote but my boss wants me to come in once a week, how much personal printing is OK at work, and more

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

1. My company made me fully remote — and my boss still wants me to come in once a week

Recently, my company made me fully remote. I signed a contract stating that I am 100% remote. After signing the contract, I had a meeting with my manager and she said that she would still want me to come in at least once a week because everyone has to come into the office. She stated that it is unfair that I am remote while the team has to come. They only made me remote to be “competitive.”

Could they do this? How do I talk to my manager and say I don’t want to come that much? I can consider coming in once in a while but not every week. How to professionally say it’s not right that I am expected to come in when remote only to make other employees feel better?

So she’s openly admitting that they only offered you a benefit to get you to stay but they had no intention of honoring it? Wow — that does happen, but companies don’t usually admit it immediately afterwards.

Whether or not they can do this depends on the contract. Was this an actual document signed by both of you with wording that doesn’t give them any wiggle room? The thing that can be tricky about work agreements in the U.S. (where worker contracts are rare) is that even when they’re written down, they’re often written to preserve the at-will nature of employment … meaning “we agree to X for now, but we can change this at any time.” So you’d need to look at exactly what the wording is. You should also talk to whoever coordinated this contract — probably HR. They might explain to your boss that what she’s asking is the opposite of what the company just committed to.

If neither the contract wording nor HR resolves it, then the framing you want for your boss is: “We just negotiated this and signed a contract stating that I would be 100% remote. I accepted that in good faith and assumed the company was operating in good faith as well. I can of course come in for major events when necessary, but coming in once a week is the opposite of what we just both signed in our agreement.”

2. How much personal printing is acceptable at work?

Is there a general cutoff for when personal printing/copying on the office machine goes from acceptable to unacceptable?

In the past I’ve used my office printer for personal items (printing out a copy of my tax return, for example). These were never more than a couple pages long.

I’m moving soon and am required to print flyers and leave them under the windshield of cars on my block letting them know the space outside my apartment will be reserved for a moving van. I estimate this will require maybe 50 flyers or so. I’m planning on just going to a copy shop, as this feels different than my previous personal printings. Is it, though? In the grand scheme of things, it really wouldn’t occupy the copier for more than a couple minutes, and wouldn’t use that much ink/toner. I realize there’s no hard and fast rule, but what is the dividing line?

I don’t think there’s an exact dividing line! I agree that a few pages is fine in most offices and 50 pages is too many. I’d say the line is maybe around 15-20 pages, but it’s not like the addition of one more page to make it 21 would make it instantly unacceptable. And to further complicate things, it can depend on what you’re printing. In a lot of offices, printing out a 20-page dull government form would read differently (better) than printing out 20 flyers for your band. And in other offices, an even higher number of band flyers would be a non-issue. (In reality, though, most people printing out band flyers would do it early in the morning or late in the day when fewer people were likely to around and probably no one would ever know.) So it’s a judgment call, depending on the norms of your office and what you’re printing … so not a very satisfying answer.

Probably the best litmus test is, “How would I feel if my boss were standing right by the printer when these came out?” That accounts for variations among bosses, offices, and content.

3. How do I choose who to lay off?

I am in an unfortunate position that I think a lot of managers might also find themselves in in the coming months — our company is likely to have layoffs this year, and I have been asked to choose who on my team would be let go. I appreciate that I am being allowed to make the decision because I think I have more insight into the strengths and weaknesses of my team members than the higher-level managers do. But the other managers and I were given no guidance about how to make the choice — we were just told the number of people who would have to go, and to submit the names by the end of the month. Do you have any guidance on how I should be approaching this, and what sorts of things I should be thinking about?

This sucks, I’m sorry.

From a strictly business point of view, you want to think about the makeup of the team that you’ll have remaining after the layoffs are over — what skills and experience will be needed, whether any projects are being added or cut (for example, you might have a really talented llama groomer, but if you’re scaling way back on the llama grooming program, you’ve got to factor that in), and how the people who remain will work together to achieve what needs to be done. Who will be the most crucial people to have on that team?

That might be obvious, but sometimes managers approach these decisions strictly by seniority (which doesn’t always correlate well with these factors) or strictly by performance (which should matter a lot, but can also be more nuanced — like with that llama groomer example).

4. When should I disclose my imminent maternity leave in a job search?

Like many, I was laid off in the fall, and have been job-searching ever since. In December, I had a final interview with a company, who has enthusiastically pursued me throughout their interview process. They told me they’d be in touch again after the new year.

When the new year rolled around, I heard from the hiring manager – and it was mixed news. They do want to offer me the position I interviewed for (hooray!), but unfortunately, their company is under a hiring freeze at least until February.

Here’s where it gets complicated – I am pregnant, and am due at the end of February. So far, I have not disclosed my pregnancy in the interview process, so as not to introduce potential bias into the company’s decision making. And when it was possible that I could have been offered the job in January, I could have worked for 6-8 weeks before having to go on parental leave. Now, however, that window is looking smaller and smaller because of this hiring freeze, and I am getting nervous about *when* to disclose my pregnancy. I don’t officially have a job offer yet, and don’t want to jeopardize the offer either way.

Here are what I see as my options: (1) Wait to disclose until I get an official offer, knowing this may mean that either the employer decides not to make the offer (which would suck), or best-case, I work for a week (or less?) before the baby arrives. (2) Knowing that the company is experiencing a hiring freeze, use a flexible start date as incentive to still hire me, and disclose now … before I have an official offer. My message to the hiring manager would be something like, “I know Company is under a hiring freeze for a while; I need parental leave ‘til at least April – does this help at all?” Worst case, again, the employer decides not to make an offer; best case, I have the job starting at a date that works for me.

Is there a third way of moving forward here that I’m not thinking of, or is one of these two options best? I don’t want the employer to feel deceived, but nor do I want my pregnancy to cause me to lose an amazing opportunity.

The thing about hiring freezes is that there’s no knowing when they’ll be lifted — and they probably can’t hire you right now for a start date in April (or later) because of the freeze. So most likely, option 2 wouldn’t help you.

Given that, go with option 1 and if they do come back to you with an offer, you’d disclose at that point. They can’t legally pull the offer because of your pregnancy, unless it’s truly that the timing of your leave means it won’t work — but that would be the case whenever you disclose. There’s also a good chance their next contact won’t be right at the start of February — it could be later in the month, or March, or even later, depending on when they lift the freeze and how much they’re prioritizing this job against other vacancies at that point. So at whatever point they make an offer, you’d just say, “I had a baby in (month) and am on maternity leave until (month) — would (date) work as a start date?”

how do I give notice to my boss if they’re on vacation?

A reader writes:

I am planning to go back to school a month from now, to up-skill and ultimately career switch. Originally, I intended to provide my boss 2.5 weeks of notice before starting my program. However, I just found out this morning that my boss will be on a month-long vacation starting mid next week, which happens to coincide with my entire notice period. Now my original plans to resign are at significant risk as I do not want to burn bridges with my current team and employer. Here are the issues:

1. How do I give notice to my boss if they are on vacation?
2. Even if my boss finds out that I will be leaving while they’re on vacation, they cannot do anything to plan for the transition during their time off.
3. Unlike finding a new job, I cannot simply negotiate a later start date with the educational institution I plan to go back to school for. Start dates for classes are far less flexible than new jobs.
4. I may be blindsiding my boss if I announce my resignation. As we do not have a close relationship (we get along but on a very transactional level), I am not comfortable with informing them about my educational plans until I plan to provide my notice. The reason is that I’m afraid I will be pushed out or added to the dreaded layoff list once they learn that I’m no longer interested in my current position. I still need a paycheck until I resign.

What I plan to do is to talk to my program advisor for the school I plan to enroll into to see if I can be transferred to a later cohort, which is two months after the original one I enrolled in. This way, I can give notice after my boss returns. Although this isn’t the optimal choice for me, I am prepared to change my plans if the risks of my current situation are too big. Please advise on how I can navigate this sticky situation.

Don’t change your plans! You can still resign at the time you planned to.

If your boss is on vacation, you can give your resignation to their boss, or to HR if you have it. It’s true that your boss won’t be able to do anything to plan for the transition while they’re out, but that’s just how it goes sometimes. It’s inconvenient, but it’s definitely not something you should change your school enrollment over.

Side note: Some managers would prefer to hear the news while they’re out. (I used to be one of those, and I now realize how very unhealthy that was.) You don’t need to decide if this is the case for your boss. The person who you give your resignation to in their absence can make that call if they want to.

When you resign, you can say, “I realize this timing is really bad with Alex out. I’ll make sure to leave thorough documentation on where all my projects stand, and given the circumstances I can be available for a call or two once Alex is back if there are things they need to wrap up with me directly.” You don’t have offer that last bit, but if you generally have good will toward them, it can be a good thing to offer.

In a different set of circumstances — where you didn’t worry you’d be pushed out earlier than you want to leave — it might make sense to give your notice now, before your boss leaves for vacation. But you’re not required to risk losing several weeks of income just to make things easier for your employer (and if they want people to do that, they need to build a culture where people know it’s safe to).

updates: the lying director, the apology muffins, and more

Here are three updates from past letter-writers.

1. Dealing with a horrible, lying director and management that won’t act

Several years later, wanted to thank you, acknowledge how right you were, and give an update.

I stayed for 3 more years after the post. Funny enough, Lying Director quit, Terrible Executive Director tried to claim credit for it by claiming they fired the Lying Director, and I decided to stick around for a little bit longer because suddenly the organization was on track to do something really exciting that I and the other Good Directors had been trying to make happen for a while. We made history (international front page news and mentioned in books in multiple languages!), and my department was widely acknowledged to be at the center of much of the wins. My resume is fantastic because of staying the extra few years.

And all throughout, you were totally right that the real problem was the Lord of the Flies style executive director. Terrible ED actually got worse (which I did not think was possible), and got even more toxic when the pandemic started. Commenters were right that working at a place where the person at the top is the biggest obstacle to success just won’t work. A mass exodus did happen around the time I left, it didn’t wake up the Board and nobody asked why the ED couldn’t keep a good team together.

After we made history, I found another job, took a huge 30% paycut, which was totally worth it because now I do NOT have weekly nightmares about work AND I’m working only about 40 hours per week instead of the 60 – 70 I used to work so it’s probably actually not even a paycut if I think about it hourly AND my dentist has said that I’m not grinding my teeth as much!

2. My coworkers had to work late when I messed up — should I bring in muffins?

I’m glad that I listened to you and the commenters and did not bring in any baked goods. Honestly, the implications that you and the commenters suggested — i.e. seeming a little overly apologetic, unintentionally leaning into gender roles, etc. — had not occurred to me, so I’m glad I asked you first. For what it’s worth, I have brought in donuts before as a way of making up for an accident (years ago, I used something that belonged to a fellow intern, thinking it was common property), which worked then, but you’re right that doing the same would have been excessive in this situation.

It ended up that that project I wrote to you about wasn’t, as one commenter suggested, an overestimation of my abilities — rather, it was an ordeal that would’ve been made much easier with more time and more support from my boss. In fact, he liked the work I did on that first one and let me do two more — on topics of my own choosing! — later in the year, with more support (and more time, when possible.) It made a huge difference!

Thanks to everyone for their help!

3. Can I ask my coworkers to keep masking around me and not come to work sick?

I am the writer who asked about how to ask for accommodations at my work in March while going through chemotherapy, and whether I could really ask my coworkers to mask more for me.

I am very happy to report that I not only kicked cancer’s butt and went into full remission, but my coworkers could not have been more conscientious or accommodating. I wore an N95 mask religiously, took my breaks/meals in either my car or an empty office, and I was able to remove myself from any situations where I would have had more than passing contact with sick individuals. My manager absolutely went to bat for me, and while we couldn’t really REQUIRE people to stay home while sick, people were amazing about wearing masks and hand washing and sanitizing surfaces. I was lucky that my immune system only really tanked once or twice, and I managed to not get sick a single time. I also handled chemo symptoms way better than expected, and my coworkers and manager went above and beyond to be flexible for me. It’s really situations like this that let you know how much your coworkers care about you, if you’re lucky enough to have them! Thank you to you and all of your readers for the kind responses and helpful advice!

what workplace norms surprised you when you were starting out?

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

In my job I manage a lot of people who are new to the workforce and are just starting to learn the typical, usually-unspoken norms of working in an office environment. This could be anything from “can I call my boss by her first name?” to “are these shoes business-casual?” to “is taking a sick day something I should apologize for?” While some of these things vary from company to company, there definitely are some near-universal norms (in U.S. work culture, at least) that most of us learn by trial and error, and no one ever tells us directly.

When I was newer to office jobs, it was easier to keep track of these, but now I’m 10 years into my career and unfortunately I can see myself slipping into assumptions about what new hires do and don’t know. In the spirit of making more of these expectations explicit, could we do an Ask The Readers on things that surprised us when we started out in the workforce?

We can indeed. Readers?

sharing a hotel room with a coworker when I snore, should I lie about how many cats I have, and more

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

1. I’m sharing a hotel room with a coworker but I snore

I started a new job a week ago, working remotely. A week from now, everyone in my organization is attending the big annual conference in our state for our industry.

I live about an hour away from the conference site (compared to 4-5 hours for everyone else), but I’ve just learned that my organization has booked hotel rooms for all of us, and that we’ll be sharing rooms.

I don’t love sharing a hotel room with a virtual stranger on any level, but I feel especially anxious because I’ve been snoring like a MONSTER lately. I’m going to see a doctor soon—a large part of why I switched jobs was to have better health insurance—but I definitely won’t have this taken care of by next week.

I’m not sure what to do! We’re a nonprofit with thin margins, so I don’t want to insist on my own room. Can I make my excuses and just stay at my house? (And if so, what’s a good excuse?!) And even if I didn’t have this snoring issue, which I worry will make my teammate hate me, I wouldn’t feel comfortable sleeping, showering, and changing with someone I’ve never met in person. Any recommendations for how to move forward?

Room-sharing has always had the potential to be deeply problematic under the best of circumstances (even though it’s not uncommon in a few cash-strapped fields, like nonprofits and academia) but it’s especially indefensible during Covid.

But you have a very easy way to get out of it: you can just say to whoever’s arranging the rooms, “I live nearby so I’m going to drive back and forth each day, so you don’t need to get me a room.” It’s pretty unlikely that you’ll get pushback on that, but if you do, you can say, “I’ve got stuff I need to be at home for at night so this is much easier.” Feel free to reference kids, pets, or anything else that might help to cite.

If you didn’t have this easy out, you could follow the advice here.

2. Should I lie about how many cats I have?

I have just begun a new job and am not sure if I should be honest about how many pets I have. I know that, inevitably, office small talk will lead to the topic of pets. I love talking about my pets! The problem is that I have an unusually high number of cats due to a wild series of events.

When my partner and I moved into our new home, there was a very pregnant stray cat living in our backyard. I knew nothing about cats so a friend coached me through the steps to catch her. Once we did, though, nothing went to plan. None of the local rescues would take her. “That’s fine,” we thought, “once she has the kittens we can adopt them out. People love kittens!” According to our research, four seemed like the likely number of kittens she would have.

Boy, were we wrong about everything! She had SEVEN kittens. And we were only able to find suitable homes for three. So the mother and four litter mates are with us permanently. It’s been a fun and challenging foray into the world of cat ownership! We have plenty of space for all of them. They’re happy and taken care of. I wouldn’t change anything.

While it’s worked out for us, people often find it weird that we have so many cats. I don’t want to gain the reputation of “cat hoarder” at my new job. So I should probably just lie and say I have a more socially acceptable amount of cats, like two, right? But I worry I’ll slip up sometime and be discovered as the woman who lied about how many cats she has. That seems even worse. What should I do?

Well, you’re writing to someone who has six cats and you only have five. You still have room for one more.

Like you, we didn’t set out to have this many cats! Four of them were foster fails who we didn’t mean to keep. (It turns out we are very bad at fostering cats and end up keeping them; we are no longer fostering cats.) And yes, people are surprised when they hear how many we have. I always just laugh and say “we’re terrible at fostering” and that is that. As far as I know, no one thinks we’re hoarders. (When she heard we were keeping the last two, my mom did tell me she was sure the air would be thick with cat fur and no one would be able to breathe, but since then I have overheard her telling people that you would never know there were six cats living here.)

I think you should approach this similarly — meaning own it, but also feel free to add a bit of “yeah, wasn’t the intent.” Plus you have a better story than I do. I would be delighted to hear, “We rescued a pregnant cat and didn’t expect her to have seven kittens but here we are” from a coworker.

(Update: the letter-writer has provided photos of her cats here and here.)

3. Is my new employee really working?

I am a new manager and hired two new employees at about the same time a few months ago. One is clearly out-performing the other — she is proactive, works at a quick pace, is detailed and organized, on and on. The other is not performing at the same level, which is fine, he is still new! I do want to make sure I am setting him up for success. For example, there are a couple of administrative things I had to ask him multiple times to complete, such as saving files or recording work in the proper system. He did eventually do these things, but it took a few follow-ups and very direct reminders. He also hasn’t been recording action items during meetings very well and then misses completing those tasks. I’ve started sending my own notes, hoping to show by example.

His actual work has been okay — I see potential, presentations need editing, but like I said, he is new. He doesn’t have a ton on his plate right now, usually working on one project at a time, but hopefully filling in with some training our company provides around the edges. What is really bothering me is that he will send me work to review, I respond to him quickly with edits and next steps, and sometimes these edits/next steps should really only take an hour, being generous 2-3, but he often doesn’t respond with the edits until the end of the day or next morning. I don’t always follow up asking for an update because sometimes the timing doesn’t really matter, it is more that I know what is on his plate and this shouldn’t take that long if he is actively working. We do work from home often and I’ve noticed his Skype activity dot is “inactive” a lot, like more often than cooking lunch or taking a break. When we are in the office, I notice that he is on his phone a lot.

I do not want to micromanage this. I believe people should be able to check personal emails, take breaks, take walks, etc. However. my perception is that he just isn’t working. Am I being overly critical? I don’t want to be a manager that tracks what people are doing all day, but I also want to make sure he does his job in a timely manner. Should I say something? If so, what? I do worry he is a little bored with one project at a time. Maybe giving him more to do would help him become more engaged? This time of year tends to be a little slow, but if this seems like a good approach I can give it a try.

Have you clearly laid out how much time you expect tasks to take and how quickly you want him to get back to you? If not, that’s where to start: “I’ve noticed I’ll often send you edits that should take an hour or two at most to complete, but it’s coming back to me much later. I want to make sure you know to keep this stuff moving — with something like X from yesterday, I’d normally expect that back that same morning because it’s so quick and we don’t want the process to slow down. Can you aim for that, or is there anything you’re finding that’s slowing it down?” It’s possible he doesn’t realize he should be moving at a faster pace and spelling it out may change what he’s doing. If it doesn’t, then you’d dig deeper — maybe at that point seeing if he can walk you through his process so that you can see where he’s running into snags. But keep the focus on what you want to see (in terms of turnaround, follow-through, and tracking his own work) and don’t get sidetracked by whether he’s just slacking off — at least at this point.

Ultimately, if he’s not working at the pace you need and he’s losing track of assignments, and doesn’t respond to coaching, that’s a problem whether it’s because he’s on his phone too much or not. It’s a lot simpler for you if you keep your focus on the former and not the latter. That’s not to say there’s never a place to say, “I see you on your phone a lot when I’m waiting on work from you” but the other stuff deserves your focus more.

(Also, giving him more to do could help. You can ask if he’d prefer that in case you’re right that he’s bored … and regardless of that, if he should be juggling more than he is, at some point you’re going to have to see if he can handle that workload or whether it exacerbates the problems you’re already seeing.)

4. My boss sends me gift cards … am I expected to reciprocate?

My boss sends me what I consider to be generous gifts on a fairly regular basis (holidays, my birthday, work anniversaries, etc.) and I always feel some pressure to reciprocate. Am I expected to send them gifts in return? If so, should they match in cost?

This is my direct supervisor, not someone on the executive team. I’m sure they make more money than I do, but I’m not sure how much more. The gifts are often $50-$100 gift cards to local businesses that are clients of our organization, but my supervisor lives outside the area we serve, so it is hard to give them gifts that also support our clients. It also feels like doing the same thing for my boss that they do for me would be somewhat awkward.

I always appreciate the gesture and I know my boss means well, I just feel uncomfortable not knowing whether to reciprocate! What should I do?

Don’t reciprocate. The power dynamics at work mean that it’s fine for gifts to flow downward (from your boss to you) but they shouldn’t flow upward (from you to your boss). It would actually be a bit unseemly for your boss to accept gifts from you in most situations, especially gift cards. Think of this as similar to the way your boss would pay if she took you out to lunch — it’s a reflection of the power dynamics, and it’s fine to simply accept graciously without feeling pressure to reciprocate.

5. Virtual meetings: is it rude to call someone out by name when their mic is on?

I’ve noticed in virtual meetings in a variety of contexts that most people seem to agree that it’s rude or inappropriate to call someone out by name when their mic is on and causing a disruption. Instead of saying “Jack, we’re getting some background noise, could you please mute?” or announcing “Diane, I’m putting you on mute since you seem to be on another phone call,” they’ll say, “Someone seems to have an open mic, could everyone who’s not speaking please check that they’re on mute?”

I find this pretty annoying — every platform shows who’s “talking” and who’s muted, so the problem person isn’t a mystery, and often this results in Jack and Diane carrying on disrupting the meeting, either assuming they aren’t the problem or not paying enough attention to the meeting to hear the pleas for “everyone” to check their mute button. I’d much prefer to be direct and either let the disruptive person know or use host-powers to mute others by fiat and end the disruption quickly, but in the past I’ve gotten negative reactions for naming the disruptor (I’m usually not the meeting host). What am I missing here?

In my experience, it’s pretty common to name the offender — for exactly the reasons you say — so we must be in very different meeting environments! I’m wondering if you’re in settings that are more on the “soften the message”/touchy-feely end of the culture spectrum.

Anyway, the reason you’re getting negative reactions when you step in and name the person might be because you’re not the host and people feel you’re usurping the host’s authority (and doing that in a culture where the hosts generally choose not to do it). But yes, the hosts should be doing it.

my last company was horrible — how do I save other people from it?

A reader writes:

I recently started a new job and escaped my previous job. The previous job was for a CEO who fancies himself a LinkedIn influencer and life coach. His actual business is a for-profit tech company. He brags about putting his employees first and people over profits.

The actuality of working there was a terror. They send employees to a mandatory, multiday 13-hour workshop that is essentially therapy with the people you work with. The CEO is hot and cold. One day, you’re the best person he’s ever hired. The next day, he’s cornering you in the break room interrogating you on your weight and offering you weight loss advice that you never asked for.

None of this is apparent in the interview process. You don’t know what you’re signing up for, until you’re at an off-site meeting getting yelled at by the CEO on a basketball court at 11 p.m. to change your life.

Beyond leaving a bad Glassdoor review, I don’t know what to do. I don’t have any tangible proof, since most of these interactions happened in person. I worry about the potential harm that will be inflicted on people who think they’ve found a dream tech job, only to be put through intensive therapy by unlicensed counselors.

I would love to tell you there’s action you can take. There should be action you can take. But there’s not a ton you can do.

Glassdoor — definitely. That’s hands-down the best way to reach people who are considering working for the company in the future and especially those who are outside your own network. Encourage other current or former employees from there to do the same. One bad review is easier to dismiss; multiple bad reviews with similar themes send a message that’s hard to ignore.

You also can just talk. Be open and honest with people you know about what your experience was there. I’m sure you’re already doing that with close friends, but be willing to talk to your professional network as well if it ever comes up. (If this is a small company, it might not come up much, if at all … but if it’s larger, there’s a good chance you’ll find openings to share your experience.)

Beyond that, there isn’t really a mechanism for the kind of warning you want to give. Frustrating as it is, I think you’ve got to accept this isn’t a problem you can fix for other people. The most you can hope is that people will do their due diligence before accepting a job there (including looking at Glassdoor) and that they’ll get out quickly once they start seeing what it’s like.

It’s also worth noting that not everyone will respond the way you did. Don’t get me wrong, this guy sounds horrible and shouldn’t be running a business or have power over others, but people are bothered to different degrees by that stuff. You probably had coworkers who were more on the rolling-their-eyes end of the spectrum than the truly-shook end of the spectrum. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do what you can to warn people away, but don’t let the limits of your ability to protect future hires eat away at you either. It’s okay to move on and disconnect from the experience completely.

do managers really want honest feedback?

A reader writes:

I have a question for you about feedback — specifically, feedback that you’ve been asked to give. I’ve repeatedly been asked for feedback from managers, both at work and at the organization where I volunteer, and then it seems like the same thing always happens: the feedback vanishes into a black hole, or the person asking for it gets defensive or upset and starts throwing up reasons why the feedback I’m providing can’t be correct.

Here are some recent examples:

  • The organization where I volunteer is having a hard time retaining volunteers. The director sent an email out asking for feedback. I sent a carefully drafted email with several suggestions … and never got a response, not even a “thank you for sending this.”
  • My current manager, who is new to her role and our industry, has repeatedly asked us to give her feedback, but when we try, she gets noticeably upset (raised voice, angry expression, snarky comments, etc.).
  • My manager at my previous organization asked for suggestions about improving our work-life balance after losing several employees to burnout. Our department put together three or four actionable suggestions and I presented them. She shot each one down without even appearing to consider them seriously. She also asked us to think about new programs to offer and, after spending a significant amount of time putting together proposals, dismissed every idea we presented.

What really confuses me about this is that when I’ve been asked for feedback and said I had none, the person asking gets angry! I’m getting seriously mixed messages here. I hear routinely from managers that they don’t want “yes men” and want to hear ideas or be challenged, but I feel like in practice, they don’t want to hear it. I find myself holding back from sharing ideas because it doesn’t seem worth the risk.
So what’s the deal? Do managers really want feedback, or is this something they’ve been told to say but they don’t really mean it?

I answer this question 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 boss collected money for flowers for me … and then kept it for herself

A reader writes:

Unfortunately, seven weeks ago my dear grandmother passed away at 91. A coworker of mine told me our supervisor collected money from our team for flowers as condolences for her death. No flowers were delivered from my supervisor and team to the funeral home.

Two weeks after the funeral, I found out a florist in town didn’t deliver all their orders for my grandmother’s funeral. I sent my supervisor a text explaining the flower mix-up we had experienced. In the text, I told her I was worried about not sending my gratitude to her and the team, as I never got the flowers. Also, I wanted to make sure she and the team were not out the money because of the inept florist. I included my appreciation for her and the team thinking of me. My supervisor replied she didn’t order any flowers for the funeral, telling me not to worry and thankfully they were not lost. Instead, she was planning to send something else to my new husband and I as a condolence. Then she added a flippant, “Sorry I haven’t gotten there yet.”

Now it has been seven weeks since my grandmother’s passing and four weeks since I sent the text about the flowers to my supervisor. My supervisor didn’t follow through with sending my team’s condolences for the death of my grandmother. My husband and I have not received anything from my supervisor or the team, but my boss still has their money, which is technically theft.

Also, I’m feeling hurt by her lack of regard to my emotions about losing a very close loved one. My grandmother passed away 15 days after my wedding, which she couldn’t attend due to the injury which led to her death. She was going to be the flower girl in our non-traditional ceremony. All of which I shared with my boss. It was a roller coaster of emotions in a short time frame!

I’m uncertain of my course of action here. Should I go to HR? What should I say? My boss didn’t take my money, but she did take my coworkers money and didn’t send their condolences. Do I tell HR I’m being treated unfairly, as my boss didn’t send me condolences like she has to others? She’s made sure to send prompt bereavement gestures (within two weeks) for my coworkers with the family losses they’ve experienced in the past. It’s not like it’s required or expected for her or my coworkers to send condolences, though it is a considerate thing to do.

I feel going to HR will make our already challenging relationship even worse and she will be supported by them. HR will see it as a personal matter and she was just forgetful. She may get a small slap on the wrist, but I will pay big as the employee that tattled on her (our team is only seven people so she’ll definitely know it was me).

Do I ask her again about sending the flowers/gift? It already felt awkward when I contacted her before about the flowers, especially after her dismissive response. Also, I’m not certain how to approach it because it’s a gesture of caring and other people’s money that I’m asking her about. It just feels icky!

Many people are telling me to just let it go, but others are saying she committed theft and to report her to HR. What do you think is the best way to handle the situation?

I’m so sorry about your grandmother, and that you’re dealing with this in the middle of grieving.

Your manager is 100% in the wrong here. She collected other people’s money and let them believe it was going toward flowers for you, but instead she has apparently just … pocketed their money. Presumably that wasn’t her intent from the beginning — and who knows what life events might have intervened for her in the interim; it’s possible she’s so genuinely frazzled for legitimate reasons that it slipped her mind — but when you collect other people’s money, you have a responsibility to make sure you use it as they intended and not personally profit from it. Being frazzled can excuse lateness (sometimes) but it can’t excuse not doing it at all. If the responsibility did just slip her mind, your text should have nudged her to immediately remedy that, even if that meant giving the money to someone else on the team and asking them to handle it.

However, I wouldn’t take it to HR. You’re right that they’ll almost certainly just assume she was just forgetful and just tell her to fix it … while apparently causing problems for you. (I’m basing that last part on your own assessment; it sounds like you have reason to believe you’d see repercussions.)

What I would do, though, is let your teammates know that the money they contributed for a condolence gift wasn’t used that way. Since they’re the ones whose money was taken under false pretenses, they have the most standing to take it up with your boss. The most diplomatic way for you to alert them would be to say to a couple of people privately, “I was waiting to thank you for the condolences until Jane sent the flowers you all contributed to, but she never did send me anything and I don’t think is going to. I know you all did a collection, though, so thank you for thinking of me.” But you can also be blunter if you want to — “I feel awkward about this, but I feel like I should tell you that Jane still has the money you contributed for flowers to me. Since it’s your money and she never sent anything, I thought I should let you know.”

VP says people working from home haven’t developed as much, is “it’s so good to see you” suggestive, and more

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

1. VP says people working from home haven’t developed as much

My company has announced a return to office plan for January. After the announcement last month, my VP held a meeting with our group, during which he said, “People who have been working in the office have developed more than those working from home.” Now, we all know this may be true — but neither our company nor he has ever required anyone to come in, until our now.

If there was never a requirement to come in, is he just stating facts or does what he said toe the line of being an HR issue?

It’s not an HR issue. He’s not saying, “You’re in trouble for not doing something that was never required.” He’s saying “This is a relevant difference I’ve observed.”

Of course, he may or may not be right about that. He definitely could be! There are jobs where it’s easier to grow when you’re in the office around other people — especially junior-level jobs, where a ton of learning happens from being around more experienced people and observing them doing their own jobs. And if that’s so, it makes sense that he’s flagging it as part of the reason he thinks the change is a good one. Or of course, it’s also possible that he has no basis for the statement and just sees everything through an “in office is better” lens, because those people exist too.

But there’s no HR issue here (at least not unless it starts playing out in clearly unfair ways, like if people are getting better performance ratings solely for having been in the office, while objectively higher performers are rated lower because they worked from home … but even that stuff can get fuzzy, because he might weigh aspects of people’s work differently than you do).

Related:
does working remotely harm your chances of advancement?
did the pandemic really show we can be just as effective working from home?

2. Is it suggestive to say “it’s so good to see you”?

I am a woman in my upper 20s. A 50something-year-old man who works on my floor but in another department (so our paths rarely cross) went around to some of the offices near his own to let us know, mostly one-by-one, that he will be starting a cancer treatment soon, presumably so we would not wonder at his absences and would hear it from him directly instead of through the rumor mill. I expressed what I believe to be a standard, empathetic response about thoughts and prayers (we are both Christian).

A few weeks later, we bumped into each other when no one else happened to be around. After he shared a little about his treatment, in wrapping up the conversation I stated with more emotion than I would typically use in professional conversation, “It’s so good to see you.” There was a palpable change in his expression and body language, and he quickly said, “I’ll let my wife know you say hi'” and turned and left. I was confused by the direction the conversation had taken (I had met his wife once or twice and spoken with her briefly, but the comment felt out of place in this context). It dawned on me that perhaps my comment had felt too familiar and made him uncomfortable, as if it was meant in a suggestive way. I felt a little embarrassed but tried to brush it off, knowing my intentions were pure and he has bigger things to deal with.

Months later, he was experiencing remarkable recovery and I began seeing him around the office again. The first time I did, in spite of myself, I somehow said again, “It’s so good to see you.” I immediately internally cringed and, sure enough, the statement garnered the same response as the first time.

I am a little socially awkward, especially about such serious topics, so I am seeking some advice about whether I need to ban this phrase from all further workplace interactions with people. If it ever were to slip out while talking with other coworkers, I would like to know if the meaning can be misconstrued and, if so, if I need to make a point of never saying it. Or am I maybe misinterpreting why he responded that way? In terms of my future interactions with this person specifically, I plan to keep things polite, professional, and perhaps a little more distant for his own comfort level moving forward.

“It’s so good to see you” is a pretty normal thing to say, especially when someone has been away or sick. It’s not suggestive. Of course, like anything, it could be said in a suggestive way — like if you looked him up and down while saying it, or gave him a lascivious look — but assuming you’re not doing that, it’s really not suggestive. It’s just kind. I suspect the issue is on his side; he might be one of those men who assumes every friendly overture by a woman is a come-on.

Now that you know he reacts weirdly to it, it makes sense to be more distant with him, but you definitely don’t need to ban the phrase from your conversation with others.

3. My employee seems annoyed when he’s assigned certain tasks

I’m noticing a trend in an employee who joined my team after working on another team at our company, Fergus. Fergus has been with the company a long time, although he only switched roles earlier this year, and is one of the most capable people I’ve ever worked with. I’m so thankful he chose our team. However, I’m starting to see a pattern when I assign work or projects that he views as too remedial for his skill set. I will ask Fergus to pitch in on such an item and I can tell immediately that he does not like that he’s being asked to do the task. He was very unhappy in his old role, which is why he switched, and it seems that these tasks in some way remind him of his old job that he wants nothing to do with or he feels they are beneath him. Our team is used to dealing with these types of odd requests, as we can be a bit of a catch-all for the organization.

Now that this has come up a few times, I’m thinking I need to address this. Honestly, I would be willing to do these things myself if I had the bandwidth and my manager would allow it (but they expect that these items will be delegated by me to others on the team). How do I let him know how much I value his experience and the work he does on bigger items while addressing that sometimes we all get asked to do tasks at work that we don’t want to do, especially on a team like ours where the expectation is you help where you are needed?

Name what you’re seeing, and what the reality of the job is. For example: “I might be reading you wrong, but I’ve gotten the sense that you really don’t like being asked to do tasks like X or Y. I want to be up-front that tasks like X and Y are part of the job and that’s unlikely to change.” He might not realize his irritation has been so noticeable (and this would hopefully be a nudge to rein it in) or he might have avoided looking at the reality of the job head-on and this might nudge him to think about whether he can live with it reasonably happily, or who knows what. But step one is to lay out that this is the job and see what kind of response you get.

But before you do that, I want to ask this: if he’s more capable than others on your team — and I’m not sure that he is, but it sounds possible — would it make sense to structure his role so that he’s mostly working on higher-level stuff that he’s better than others at? On many teams you don’t need everyone’s job structured the same way and it can make sense to have higher-skilled people in more senior roles. You wouldn’t want to do this if he’s not that much better than other team members, but if he’s really good it’s worth considering whether his skills warrant it. If not, have the conversation above.

4. My boss is sending me job postings

I need a reality check here. My boss is sending me job postings for positions outside our company, some even out of state!

I can’t help but feel like I’m being managed out because these job postings come on top of being denied promotions, being left out of important conversations, and her showing favoritism to other employees. I am actively looking to move on, but she doesn’t know that. Is this weird?

It’s definitely possible she’s prodding you to move on, especially combined with the other things you’re noticing. But some managers do this with good intentions — it’s genuinely “I want to see you grow and this seems like a great next move for you.”

Why not ask? There’s nothing wrong with saying, “What made you send me those job postings?” In some relationships, you could add, “I want to make sure there’s not a message I’m missing.” If you weren’t actively looking to leave, it could also be an opening to say something like, “Ideally I’d like to stay here and advance, and I’m wondering if your sense is that I’m better off looking for that somewhere else.”

5. Putting speed reading on a resume

I’m a speed reader. Really. I taught myself to read when I was two, and have been zooming through 200-300 books a year ever since. I retain content, I’m not just skimming.

This is something my parents constantly tell me I should put on my resume. I can see their argument, as it’s a hugely useful asset in many ways (quickly becoming domain-ready, digging into complex research problems, getting through those 500 emails a day, etc.).

However, I struggle with how to put it on a resume in a way that sounds … well, real, and piques the hiring manager’s interest without sounding a little juvenile or braggy. Do you have any advice on how to navigate this, and whether it is appropriate resume material?

There’s not a really obvious place for it to go, but if you have a section for hobbies or skills, you could put it there. (A skills section would be the most obvious fit, as long as the rest of what’s there is worth using the real estate for; a lot of skills sections are unnecessary.)

It’s not going to sound braggy or juvenile. It won’t get you a job on its own but it’s more interesting and potentially more professionally relevant than “running marathons” and “jazz aficionado” and “strong communicator” and other stuff people sometimes list, and it could end being something a hiring manager asks you about.