weekend free-for-all – September 21-22, 2019

This comment section is open for any non-work-related discussion you’d like to have with other readers, by popular demand. (This one is truly no work and no school.)

Book recommendation of the week: The Secrets We Kept, by Lara Prescott. It’s a novel but it’s based on real events surrounding the publication of Doctor Zhivago, including the women who helped the CIA smuggle it out of the Soviet Union, publish it, and sneak it back in. It’s a sort of literary spy story.

Ask a Manager in the media

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

I’m in the New York Times talking about what to do when you’ve said the wrong thing at work.

I’m also in the New York Times talking about the use of personality tests, including the Myers-Briggs, at work.

I’m in the Chicago Tribune talking about what to do if your coworker’s perfume is too strong.

I’m in CNN’s story about how managers can recover after they make mistakes.

I’m in Medium talking about what to say when you find out you’re earning less than a coworker for the same work.

I’m in Vox talking about dealing with burn-out.

I’m in Business Insider talking about what not to say to a pregnant coworker.

I’m in Well + Good talking about mental health at work.

open thread – September 20-21, 2019

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

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

my coworkers are in a cult, all-day work road trips, and more

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

1. My coworkers are in a self-help cult

A few months back, my coworker Jason, then new to the team, was hawking a program which from Googling appears to be a for-profit self-help cult. Jason has done the full program and volunteers with them in his free time. Bernadette decided to try it and signed up for the the $800 intro course a couple of months ago. Over a recent weekend, she took the “advanced” course as well. In a team meeting this week, Bernadette spent about five minutes rambling an apology about how she has been dissatisfied at work because she wasn’t giving it her all and how she thinks she’s a bad team member and wants to do better, while Jason encouraged her with smiles and nods.

Bernadette has been a stellar team member for the past year other than this self-denunciation. I have no idea where her perception that she’s no good comes from, but my guess would be a combination of Impostor Syndrome and the cult. The unaccountable apology was uncomfortable and awkward for the rest of the team, and none of us knew what to say in that moment, so we all just sort of stared at our laptops. I don’t want anyone else here to be harmed by this expensive systematic bullying, nor do I want our team meetings to be disrupted by this kind of bizarre and unprofessional outburst in the future. What in the world do I do?

For now, I don’t think there’s much you can do about the meeting disruption. If you start seeing more of this at meetings, you should flag it for your manager — but if it stays a one-time weird moment, I’d just leave it for now. You could, however, counter to Bernadette the critical things she said about herself.

You could also make sure that other people on your team know the facts about the organization, so that they might be more likely to decline if Jason or Bernadette try to recruit them (especially because trying to recruit acquaintances is part of the model). You could try giving Bernadette and Jason that same information too, of course — but people caught up in things like this typically will already have been trained to resist outside assessments of the group, and it may cause some tension in your work relationships with them. (Which you might be fine with! Just factor that in.)

2. I don’t want to be in a car with coworkers for eight hours a day

My company keeps scheduling trips to one of our newly acquired sites in a very rural area. It’s a four-hour drive each way, eight hours roundtrip. We are expected to drive to the site, work a full day, and drive back to the office (~16 hrs on a good day). We typically carpool in a company car, but the days are exhausting.

Am I wrong to ask for the company to cover a hotel? I’ve already talked to my boss. She is against staying overnight and would rather push through it in one day than be away from her family overnight. I’m afraid of looking like a complainer, but I can’t see myself going on another one of these trips. It’s becoming a safety concern for me as it’s a long, somewhat dangerous drive. I’m also pregnant and feel awful asking the driver to stop for multiple bathroom stops along the way. Should I drive by myself and pay for my own hotel? Or bring this issue up the chain?

What the hell?! Eight hours in a car in one day on top of a full work day is ridiculous.

Yes, you should push back. You can cite the pregnancy specifically, or you can cite health issues that mean you shouldn’t sit in a car that much in one day, or you can say it’s unsafe or grueling and exhausting. Use the words “it’s not possible for me to continue doing this all in one day.”

Do all your other coworkers want to get back the same day, or are there others who would join you in pushing for an overnight stay? If there are others, push back as a group and suggest that those of you who don’t want the 16-hour days could drive up in a separate group and stay overnight. (I’m assuming the train isn’t an option, but if it is, that’s something else you could suggest.)

Don’t offer to pay for your own hotel. This is business travel and your company should cover it.

3. Does my boss’s boss think my work is bad?

I’ve been in my current job as an administrative assistant for about six months now, and overall things are going really well. My supervisor is helpful, if somewhat stressed and disorganized, and I get along well with all of my coworkers.

My question is regarding my grandboss. I only seem to interact with her when something’s gone wrong. These are never really big things: they range from minor, easily corrected mistakes (I didn’t realize that the new Llama Safety Packets include our Llama Info Sheet, so there’s no need to include it as a separate copy) to things that I don’t actually have any control over (lunch arrived later than scheduled) to things that weren’t actually mistakes (I was trained to file our Llama Grooming Instructions under Grooming, not Llamas, and she didn’t realize that) to things I was in no way involved with (her mortgage company sent her a fax with her SSN on it, and she didn’t realize it was on the fax machine for a couple days). My response to all of these is to fix the issue as quickly as possible, and to try and make sure they don’t happen again.

I don’t mean to sound defensive, but in my actual daily activities, I tend to be quick, accurate, and efficient. My direct supervisor regularly tells me that I’m doing well, and I frequently fill in for absent coworkers without any dip in work quality. I’m afraid, though, that my grandboss has a bad impression of my work based on a few rare exceptions, that don’t fall into the my main duties. Aside from trying to minimize mistakes going forward, and correcting the ones that do occur, is there any way to improve my relationship with her?

There’s a good possibility that she doesn’t have a terrible impression of your work, but rather — because she’s not your manager — only has cause to talk to you about your work when she wants something handled differently. It would better if she praised you for things that go well that she’s involved in, but this kind of model with a grandboss isn’t unusual.

But to be sure, you could always check your manager. You could say, “The only times I generally end up interacting with Jane are when something’s gone wrong, like X or Y, and I worry it could affect her impression of my work. I know you’ve said I’m doing well, but do you think I have any cause for concern about what her impressions may be?” You’ll probably hear “no, Jane knows I’m thrilled with how you’re doing” or “nothing to worry about — she knows you’re great but just doesn’t have reason to interact with you most of the time” or something else reassuring. Or who knows, maybe you’ll hear Jane does have concerns! (In which case, that’s good to know so you can figure out what to do about them.) But I’m betting she doesn’t, and you’ll get some peace of mind by asking.

4. Company wants to call me for an “informal chat”

A few days after submitting an application for an open position at a major company in my city, I received an email from their HR saying that they would call me within one or two weeks for an “informal chat.” They couldn’t say when exactly they would call, but I didn’t need to worry about it because it was not an interview and if I was not available at the time they called, I could return it.

I’m confused by what this means. They say it’s not an interview, but if they get the impression from this call that I’m not a good fit, I will be disqualified as a candidate. How should I prepare for this? Do you have any tips for these “informal chats”?

Prepare for it as if it’s a formal interview. It might be one! Some employers are weird about this and like to make early stages of their hiring process sound more informal than they really are. “We’ll just have a conversation!” “Come in and get to know us!” But from the candidate’s side, those things are usually interviews, and you should prepare the same way you would if they were calling it that.

Occasionally it really is something less formal. It’s possible that they just want to tell you about the job and see if you’re still interested and/or learn a little about you. Even then, the best thing is to prepare the same way you would for an interview. Be familiar with the company and the job posting, and be ready to talk about yourself, your experience, and your interests. You might end up being over-prepared, but that’s better than being under-prepared.

(Also, companies: Stop doing this. No matter how informal these conversations are, they’re interviews. They’re part of your assessment process, after all. Call them interviews. You are confusing candidates. And schedule them for an actual time, not “we’ll call sometime in the next two weeks.”)

5. Company wants to contact my references but we haven’t talked about salary or start date

I recently interviewed for a quite senior level job, for which I had been referred by a former manager. I had several interviews and they then asked for contact details for my references, which I gave and asked that they please let me know at the stage that they planned to call. They replied, “today.” We had thus far not discussed any details of the job like salary, start date, or even location. I am applying for multiple jobs and do not want my references to take valuable time and energy on something that might not be a possibility/fit. Additionally, I found it kind of rude and presumptuous of this company to approach it in this way. I sent a polite note and said I’d love to sync on details before the reference stage if they had a moment at all and since then — crickets. I do need a job, so now I am concerned I approached this wrongly and put them off. What do you think?

This is pretty normal. Loads of companies don’t discuss pay or state date until the offer stage. They interview you, they check references, then they make an offer where those details get discussed. [Start date in particular is usually assumed throughout the process to be “sometime within a month or so after an offer is accepted” (or sometimes for senior roles, “within a few months”) and many companies don’t see a reason to discuss it earlier unless there’s special reason to, like that they must have you start sooner.]

That said, you’re not wrong to want to make sure you’re in the same ballpark before your references are contacted, especially if you have reason to worry you might not be. It’s not unreasonable to say something like, “Since I want to protect my references’ time, would it be possible to quickly make sure we’re in the same ballpark on salary and location before you contact them?” (Just be prepared to be asked to name your own salary expectations first since you’re the one raising the question.)

my coworker keeps getting in my personal space

A reader writes:

I have a new coworker who I mostly like. She is a little complainy and stubborn but she’s the newest person on my team and I think she is just still adjusting to our company. We are both young women and in our first jobs out of college.

We sit next to each other in the office, no more than two to three feet apart. Normally when I need to talk to her, I just stay where I am and get her attention. When she needs to talk to me or ask me a question, she scoots her chair over so that she is only about 10 inches away from me, sometimes less. And then she leans in to be about six inches from my face to ask her question.

This drives me absolutely crazy. I have a stronger need for personal space than most, but this just activates my alarm bells every time. And since she has a lot of (completely reasonable) questions, this happens dozens of times per day. I also think the optics of leaning in are weird because it makes it look like we’re whispering when we really aren’t. I just can’t take it anymore, and she only started two weeks ago!

I really don’t want to offend her, but I can’t think of a way to get her to stop practically kissing my cheek without making things weird between us. Can you give me a script for how to kindly get her to back off (that doesn’t involve always pretending I have a cold or something)?

Personal space is such an interesting thing — wherever your personal space bubble is calibrated, that distance will feel so obviously and inherently right to you that it always feels strange if someone is closer or further away than that. And that’s before we even get into how ideas about personal space change from culture to culture.

It sounds like your coworker’s idea of personal space is calibrated much differently than most Americans’ is (six inches from your face! oh my!), whereas yours sounds pretty typical. But even if you had unusually high needs for personal space, you could still speak up.

The next time your coworker scooches over to you, just say this: “I have a pretty big personal space bubble! Can I move you back a foot?” Say this cheerfully. You want to sound a little like you’re laughing at yourself over your idiosyncrasy, while still asserting your right to have it.

That might be all it takes for her to remember. But if it happens again, say, “We’re in my bubble again! Can I move you back a bit?” Again, cheerfully and a little like you’re poking fun at yourself.

It’s okay if she decides you have a weird hang-up about this (as opposed to realizing that she might be getting too close for a lot of people). It’s fine for her to think that! We all have weird hang-ups about something or other. You just want to clearly explain what your own needs are, and if she’s a courteous person, she’ll respect that.

update: my coworker feels entitled to my time, expertise, car, and house

Remember last week’s letter from the PhD student whose colleague invited herself to move in, tried to take credit for her work, and was complaining to their department head that the letter-writer wasn’t collaborating enough with her? Here’s the update.

Here’s the update. Since the semester has just started and the students are back, things moved fast!

I chickened out and refused to get involved in reporting any of this stuff to the department head, because you never know how he’s going to react to what he might see as a petty squabble.

Instead, I simply went and enrolled in a very interesting course — in another department, to promote the whole interdisciplinary collaboration thing — that’s on at the same time as her proposed class. I actually do need the credits, and it’s in a different department, to give opportunities for that all-important cross-discipline collaboration they need. I was never actually directly asked by the department head to teach this class — it was more of a passive-aggressive set of department-wide emails with people going “it would be nice if one of the grad students with the right qualifications would step up to help teach this!” — “sure would, how about [me]” — “great idea!” and so on. So I finally sent an email back saying “thanks for thinking of me, but I have a conflict. I’d actually already told Jane that I couldn’t co-teach this time when she first approached me. I’m sorry you weren’t aware that wasn’t an option.”

Meanwhile, I still go out for coffee with her once in a while and let her vent. She’s not as all-bad as the comments were making her out to be, just utterly self-centred sometimes. When people complain to me, I tend to give them attempts at solutions, not a “yeah, that sucks” — so I must have inadvertently trained her to go to me for solutions. (I don’t see the value in just venting myself, and would prefer concrete suggestions on how to solve the problem, but it seems to work for some people!)

However, the advice from your commenters made me realize a few things about the wider dynamics at play here. Our department is a mess, and my advisor is absent. So I have very little guidance on my long-term goal of actually writing a dissertation. Additionally, I’m fairly sure I have ADHD (based on a number of self tests, etc.) and while a formal diagnosis isn’t a possibility right now, I’ve been reading up on how that might impact my work. I’m good at public speaking and enjoy it, and I thrive on high-adrenaline, short-deadline emergencies, so of *course* I’ve been saying yes to a lot of things across the department because they give me more or less instant gratification. And that has lead to a lot of people assuming I’m up for anything and putting me on the schedule for events without asking, because I do well with them and tend to find a way to make it happen. I had already talked to the department head about simply cutting my PhD work to 80% and hiring me at 20% for outreach and dissemination, but they said that wasn’t on the cards right now and “everybody has to do their share.”

I totted up the number of hours I’ve been spending on things that aren’t my own research to show I’m already doing a lot more than my fair share, then sat down and had a serious conversation with the main offenders — the department head, his assistant, our PR person, and a few others — about how this was impacting my potential to actually graduate on time, and how it also means that my co-PhDs aren’t getting an equal share of opportunities to be in the limelight and build their own networks. They hadn’t realized how all the little favors were adding up and have promised to only ask me to jump in for true VIPs, and to acknowledge how the things I’m doing in my own established network, including publishing papers, organizing conferences, and joining the steering committee of a professional organization in my specific field, are probably doing more to promote the department than writing blog posts about our open lab day.

I can’t say it’s a success yet, but it’s definitely looking more positive and I dodged the co-teaching bullet!

Thanks to you and your readers for the advice!

I’m so anxious about working that I keep ghosting employers before I start

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

I am having a really hard time transitioning into the professional world and it’s at the point where I am worried I don’t have the ability to be a professional working person.

I graduated from college a little over a year ago and I got a full-time administrative position immediately. Right off the bat, it had the same problems as other entry-level jobs but I wasn’t fazed as I always knew that this job wasn’t going to be my dream-job/ entire career. I’m also aware that a job on its own is not usually a source of fulfillment for people so I never expected that, but the job seemed decent enough and I kind of enjoyed it a bit at first. A few weeks into the post-grad world, things started slipping through the cracks at work and I made mistakes I really should not have. I became constantly exhausted and unable to really engage with the world around me. I was lethargic, despite sleeping 10 hours a night, and unable to find time to do anything other than work/sleep. I figured that was a sign the company wasn’t a good fit for my mental health and left after six months.

Since then, I have accepted offers for a number of other positions but I ghosted most of the employers before my orientation. All of the possibility and excitement I felt during job hunting turned to dread the second an orientation date hit my calendar. My experience of the working world has been spending eight hours chained to a desk wearing horribly uncomfortable business clothes and the most exciting thing that might happen is someone accidentally orders flavored coffee for the break room. The thought of giving up any sense of my happiness in order to spend my time in an office where I am routinely underpaid and overworked (as is often the case with entry-level positions) fills me with so much anxiety I cannot make myself get out of bed once the orientation date rolls around.

I recently managed to make it to orientation for a part-time job (25 hours/week) and now I am back to feeling the same sense of exhaustion and hopelessness after only a few days of working. I come home in tears because I am so frustrated with myself for being unable to handle even a six-hour workday when everyone else in my office works full-time and does just fine.

When I don’t have a job, I have energy and interest. But once I get back in the groove of being employed, I feel too tired to do anything I know I would enjoy.

Obviously, not working is not an option since I need to make money in order to pay bills and all that fun stuff. How do I learn to accept my situation and learn to just adjust to the “real world”?

(About the jobs I’ve been accepting: I’ve been taking administrative/clerical type jobs at various small companies. The one I accepted most recently is a receptionist/ scheduler position for a local doctors office. They are mostly jobs so I can pay bills. I would rather get a job at the university, the local hospital, or a nonprofit, but so far I haven’t had a successful application at any of those places.)

I think therapy should probably be step one here. It sounds like you’re having a lot of trouble moving past that first work experience, and a therapist can help you with that and also help figure out what else might be going on. You don’t have to just white-knuckle your way through this alone.

But readers, beyond therapy, what advice do you have?

employee keeps leaving early, coworker’s son’s bathroom etiquette, and more

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

1. Employee keeps leaving early

I’ve been a manager for two months, coming from an individual contributor role and building a new team in my organization. I’ve hired a few people, they are all settling in well, and the team is gelling. I’ve tried to set the expectation that my team can have a flexible schedule as long as work gets done. However, as people are ramping up, they have less on their plate. One employee is taking advantage of the philosophy and leaving very early, to the point where my manager has commented “where is your team?” I’d expect my team to spend some downtime trying to familiarize themselves with systems and I’ve also set that expectation — just not explicitly at the end of the day. I’ve said “when you have downtime…” not “make sure you don’t leave before X:00.” How do I rectify my problem of them leaving so early without talking out of both sides of my mouth when I’ve told them “flex your schedule as long as your work gets done”?

This is a tricky thing about management: It’s important to be very explicit about your expectations and not assume your staff have the same frame of reference that you do — but it can be hard to spot when those assumptions are in play until after you see the results of not spelling something out.

But you’ve spotted it now, and you can address it. Say something like: “I know I told you that you can flex your schedule as long as work gets done. I apologize for being unclear — I didn’t mean you could regularly leave as early as you have been while you’re still learning the job. When you have downtime at the end of the day, I’d like you to work on familiarizing yourself with our systems by doing things like X and Y. Leaving early occasionally is fine, but but most of the time you should be here until the end of our core work hours.”

You should also be more explicit about what is okay. If they can flex their hours but not like this, what kinds of things can they do and how often? Spell it out so you’re all picturing the same thing.

Also, make sure they really do have enough to do and, if they’ve done all they can to familiarize themselves with your system, exactly what you want them doing to fill their time. Some people work faster than others, and maybe this person is really at the limits of what can be done. If it really comes down to “even if you don’t have anything else to do, it looks bad for us if you’re not here at 4:30” or “I need you to stay because sometimes things come in late in the day,” be clear about that. Otherwise you risk seeming like you’re out of touch with how much work there really is.

2. Coworker’s son comes to work and has bad bathroom etiquette

I have a question that I hope will be funny for you and your readers despite the abject horror it has caused me and my colleagues. A C-suite person in our (small, 15-person) office occasionally brings her 12-year-old son to work with her due to childcare issues. My coworkers and I have no problem with this and are all very sympathetic to the plight of working parents. However, there is a major issue: the son regularly pees with the bathroom door wide open (not just one or two inches ajar). We have a single occupancy bathroom on this floor, which is shared by eight colleagues. The other workers are on another floor. Not only does he pee loudly and with the door open, but he frequently misses the toilet, leaves pee on the seat/floor, and doesn’t wash his hands. I know this because, sadly, my desk is right near the bathroom. We put a sign in the bathroom imploring all to wipe the seat if needed, but that doesn’t stop the son. The mother is known to be petty and vindictive, and HR is very hands-off. What to do?

The next time you see him going in the bathroom, say, “Cyril, please shut the door when you use the bathroom here.” Handle it just like you’d handle “Cyril, don’t run in the halls here” or “don’t throw those papers all over the place.” You might need to say it repeatedly until it sticks. Until then, if he’s in there with the door wide open, someone should walk over and close the door.

You can do the same with the mess: “Hey, you left a mess in here. Please come back and clean it up.” Every time. This will require you and your coworkers paying attention when he’s just left the bathroom but it sounds like it’s warranted.

In normal circumstances, you’d ask his mother to handle all of this, but since you describe her as petty and vindictive, you’re probably better off just dealing with it directly. Alternately, it’s reasonable to tell HR they need to intervene (the fact that they’re hands-off doesn’t necessarily mean they won’t, especially if you push hard enough) — but the fastest path here is just to tell Cyril directly what he needs to change. (And if you have any worries the mom will complain, let your manager and/or HR know ahead of time you’re planning to handle it yourselves so they’ve got that context before they hear from her.)

3. Is being asked to accept a job offer quickly a red flag?

I applied to be an assistant director of a nonprofit about a month ago. After my interview, they came back and asked if I wanted to be director as the current director is leaving. This is an agency I always wanted to work for and I was really excited. I had an interview two weeks later and a little over two weeks later they are presenting me with an offer that’s not great and there is a very short time frame to accept.

I had already known (and been excited for the plan) that I’d be hired now as assistant director and then spend the next few months in training with the director. What I didn’t know was that the salary for that position is $7k less than what I make now. The plan would be for me to transition to the director position in January and then make the director salary. When I mentioned to the HR rep that this was a drop in salary, her response was, “So are you saying no?” They also are unwilling to give me anything in writing that I will actually be promoted to director. What’s also giving me pause is that I was told I only had four days to decide or the offer would be rescinded. It’s been a long time since I job hunted and nonprofits by me sometimes have really weird hiring practices. But should I be worried?

Yes, be worried. They’re not putting those things in writing because they don’t want to firmly commit to them. That means there’s no real promise there.

That doesn’t mean they’re deliberately trying to bait and switch you. The thinking with this stuff is often, “Well, we plan to do it, but who knows what might change between now and then and we don’t want to be locked in.” That might feel perfectly reasonable on their end — but on your end, where you’re deciding whether to take a job based on those specific promises, it’s important to know that they’re intentionally not locking themselves in. So the question for you becomes: Are you willing to take a job where that promotion in January isn’t a lock?

Giving you four days to decide isn’t a huge red flag. That’s not uncommon when they have other candidates they need to get back to (and who they otherwise risk losing). One day would worry me unless they gave a clear explanation for it “(we’re so sorry but our second choice candidate has a deadline of their own tomorrow”), but not four days. I’m more concerned about the HR rep’s “so are you saying no?” response to your mention of the salary. That’s either aggressive or weirdly cavalier; without more context, I’m not sure which. That might not matter terribly much (it’s HR, not the person who would be your manager), but I’d pay a ton of attention to everything else you’ve observed about the organization and do a lot of due diligence on them before you accept.

4. What should I do with a work anniversary gift with my deadname on it?

At my current workplace, the five year anniversary gift is a choice between items, but always comes engraved with your full name on it. At the time it was ordered, I knew I was transgender but was closeted, and didn’t get any choice of what to have engraved on it. Eventually I did come out to my office, and am now happily living full-time as a man.

Unfortunately, I still have this five-year gift lying around with my previous name etched into it. I’m not really sure what to do with it. Should I give it back? Should I throw it out? Should I have it re-engraved — is that even possible? If so, who would pay for it?

Ask about having it re-issued with your correct name! Many offices would be happy to do that at their expense.

If not and you’d rather toss it than keep it, that’s fine too. You definitely don’t need to keep it around with the previous name on it.

5. Asking for a reference when my temporary job could become permanent

I am currently doing a graduate internship with a short-term contract which will end in November, and I will graduate shortly after. I am starting to look toward my next steps and I know my current supervisor thinks I’ve been doing great work, but here’s where I am conflicted. She wants to make my current position into a full-time, permanent job. I love what I’m doing and the organization aligns with my values and future career plans, but on the other hand, I am not in love with the city the organization is in — I really have no one here, and I don’t have much of a life outside of work/school. Additionally, there is no guarantee that the creation of the position will be approved by upper management, and she has encouraged me to network and make sure I’m making the best choices for my career, but I still feel awkward asking if she’d be a reference. I don’t want her to think I have one foot out the door just over halfway into my time at the organization, but I am in a competitive field with long interviewing/hiring periods and don’t want to only start looking at the end because I could be unemployed for months. Can I ask her now, and if so, how can I get over my awkwardness?

Yes! It’s very normal to be job searching when you haven’t been officially offered a job yet, and it shouldn’t be shocking or upsetting to her when your manager hears you are. (She might actually be relieved and think it’s smart, since if she’s looking out for your best interests she knows you shouldn’t count on something that isn’t a sure thing yet.) This isn’t about having a foot out the door halfway through your employment; this is about needing work in two months, which is not far away.

Try saying it this way: “I know you’re seeing if there’s a way to offer me a full-time job when my contract ends in November, but meanwhile I’m also applying with other organizations. Would it be okay for me to list you as a reference?”

my boss spends too much personal money on us

A reader writes:

I work at a nonprofit institution, and my coworkers and I are paid far below market value for our skills. My manager Sam knows this and has advocated for us, but our industry and salary bands being what they are, this is unlikely to change anytime soon.

In light of these facts and to build up morale, Sam has started buying us lots of things out of pocket, including fancier office supplies than we could get approved, lunches out, snacks, etc. The lunches out used to happen once every 2-3 months, which I thought was reasonable, but have recently increased to a few times a month. (And I know he’s paying himself, not submitting for reimbursement.)

I’m starting to feel uncomfortable with my manager’s generosity, but I don’t know how to walk back what I’ve agreed to in the past. I’ve tried asking how much I can contribute, offering cash to cover my portion if we’re ordering food in, basically everything I can think of other than saying, “I’m okay with you doing this occasionally, but this level is too much.” (It is difficult to back out when other team members happily latch on to “My treat!”)

There are items I’ve not requested because I feel like they’re borderline (like an ergonomic mouse versus the one that came with my computer) and Sam might just buy them out of pocket because it’s easier.

Sam is also very effusive with praise and quick to dismiss any self-critical comment I make, no matter how earned it is. I know that he values us and the work we do, but it makes me unsure how well I’m doing sometimes or where I could improve since he always negates what I would view as an honest owning of my mistakes and suggestions to improve my own processes. He talks about acting as a shield for me and other staff members, sometimes working until all hours of the night in order to “protect” us from unreasonable requests.

I appreciate the lengths Sam is going to in order to make up for the lack of salary, but his escalating actions are beginning to feel desperate and make me uncomfortable. Is there any way to get him to dial things back to where they were before? We’ve worked together for a couple of years now, and we have a good relationship. But there is a natural amount of awkwardness around telling your manager you feel like something isn’t the way you’d run things.

Sam might indeed be doing all this as a way to build morale and combat low salaries.

But being excessively generous with his own money can’t possibly make up for salaries that are far below market value. Lunches and fancy office supplies are nice gestures, but they’re not going to fool anyone into thinking there’s more money in their paychecks.

I think you’re right to tie this in with his instinct not to give you any constructive feedback and to dismiss any critical self-reflection you try to do on your own. He sounds like someone who prioritizes being “nice” above all — when that’s not what his job is about.

That makes me suspect he probably has serious deficiencies in other areas of the job, too. If he values being nice above all else, he can’t effectively hold people to ambitious goals, develop people’s skills, or address performance problems. And if that’s the case, dealing with the excessive generosity will only tackle a tiny part of the problem.

And it might not be something you can change in him anyway. This isn’t one misguided habit — it’s his whole orientation to managing.

That said … if you want to give it a shot, you could try saying, “Have you been paying personally for all these lunches? If so, that’s really not right and they’re not necessary. Why don’t we scale back to a few times a year like we used to do, and we can all pay for our own?”

It might be smart to say this in front of others, in the hopes they’ll agree once the “paying for it himself” part is highlighted for them. That does introduce the risk that they’ll argue against you, but that just gives you the chance to say, “Are you really arguing that Sam, who’s probably underpaid like the rest of us, should use his own money to buy us lunch several times a month? That’s not right.” You may still be overruled, but it’s a worthwhile thing to say.

You could also talk with your coworkers ahead of time and see if you can win them over to your side — because if several of you are pushing back, it’s more likely to have an impact.

You can say something similar about office supplies too: “It’s not right for you to pay for these yourself. If the organization won’t buy them, let’s stick with the regular version. It’ll be fine.”

Another option is to talk with him privately, if your relationship allows for it: “You’ve started buying us all lunch with your own money several times a month and paying for fancy office supplies. It feels like you might be doing this as a way to make up for the low salaries here. I want to be frank with you that it doesn’t — our salaries aren’t great, but they’re a separate thing. I appreciate what you’re trying to do, but it’s not right for you to spend your own money on this kind of thing and while I can’t speak for others, I’m not comfortable accepting it.”

The bigger issue, though, is his unwillingness to give you any feedback or tolerate you critiquing your own work — and that’s a lot harder to tackle. You could try saying, “It’s really important to me to get better and better at what I do, and I can’t do that without looking rigorously at my mistakes and areas where I could improve. I’d like to get your feedback as a part of that. I can critique my own work, but you have a perspective as my manager that would be valuable for me to hear.”

But this sounds like someone who really doesn’t want to manage, and I don’t think you’re going to be able to turn him into a manager on your own.

how to research the company you’re interviewing with

A reader asks:

When I first started job searching, I tried to research the companies a lot. That was a waste of time. No hiring manager I ever talked to quizzed me about my company knowledge. They wanted to talk about the specifics of the job.

Yet I always hear you should research the company before an interview. What am I missing?

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.