open thread – January 18-19, 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 don’t repost it here, as it may be in the to-be-answered queue.

my coworker is a blood drive bully, non-monetary perks, and more

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

1. My coworker is a blood drive bully

I’m the newest and youngest employee at a small office that’s the perfect place to start a career in my industry. I love the work, and I like my coworkers. The problem is “Alice.” She’s the long-time office admin, a very sweet and upbeat woman in her mid-50s. She’s involved in all kinds of charities and volunteer work, all for causes I support. She never solicits donations (it’s against company policy); she doesn’t badger people to join her groups though she’s always delighted when someone expresses an interest.

One of her causes is the Red Cross. Last week they launched a blood drive in our neighborhood—actually there’s a “bloodmobile” parked on our block. Alice enthusiastically announced the drive, urging everyone to donate. You get a sticker when you do, and she wears hers prominently every day. She also keeps tabs on who’s gotten a sticker and who hasn’t; over the last few days she has affectionately chided any un-stickered employees, usually in the morning when we’re all getting coffee, and once at a staff meeting. (Also the office has an open floor plan.)

I fully support the Red Cross and their work. But I am a bisexual man, and not exactly celibate. The FDA still has a ban on donations from any man who’s had sex with another guy in the past year. I’m out to most people in my life, and not keeping it a secret from anyone else. But it hasn’t been an easy process and to be honest I’m still coming to terms with my identity, including how or when to come out (I’m not in a relationship and most people assume I’m straight). The one thing I’m sure of is that I’m done lying.

So whenever I see Alice coming at me with her big smile and her sticker I break into a cold sweat. I’ve dodged the question so far, sort of walking a thin line between the truth and the whole truth. It just feels like if I laid it out for her I might as well be making an announcement to the entire office: “Attention everyone! I have sex with men!” I’m not ready for that.

What’s worse is that our HR department is basically one guy: a gay man who casually strolled in with his “I donated” sticker the second day of the drive. I don’t know if he really did or what, and I’m truly not judging him. But it makes me feel even more self-conscious about coming out in this way, much less talking to him about it.

How should I handle this? The blood drive’s almost over; can I just wait it out? Or am I being a coward and a hypocrite by not explaining my situation to Alice? I feel so embarrassed and awkward about the whole thing, I’ve kind of lost perspective. But I can’t bring myself to wear that damned sticker if I didn’t earn it, and as much as I wish I could, I can’t donate without being dishonest. (I should add that I’m fully confident about my negative HIV status, so this really is just about being bisexual.)

You are 100% entitled not to explain the situation to Alice. You are being neither a coward or a hypocrite. People aren’t entitled to information you didn’t intend to share with them just because they’re pushy.

And Alice is being pushy. Yes, blood donation is a good cause, but people have all kinds of personal reasons for not wanting or being able to donate blood, and she should be more thoughtful about that.

If you just want to wait it out, that is completely fine! There is no shame in taking the path of least resistance here.

But if you wanted to say something to Alice, you could say, “You know, some people have medical or other reasons they can’t donate blood, and might not want to announce those reasons at work.” Ideally you’d add, “This kind of pressure isn’t cool when you consider that,” but you can leave that off if you want. (But do know that’s true, and it’s not just men who’ve had recent sex with men — you can’t donate blood if you’re on certain medications, including antibiotics, or have certain types of cancer, or ever tested positive for Hepatitis C, or a bunch of other reasons.)

And if you want to, you can also point out the same thing to your HR guy — as in, “I’m concerned about how much pressure Alice is generating around the blood drive. I’m all for giving blood, but given the whole range of medical and other reasons some people aren’t allowed to, I worry she’s inadvertently pressuring people to reveal personal medical info to her because she’s not taking no for an answer.” This framing is “I’m concerned for the office as a whole” and “this is a landmine for the company,” not “Alice is making me uncomfortable. (Although the latter would be fine to say too! It just sounds like you’d prefer not to.)

But you don’t have to do any of that if you don’t want to. It is perfectly fine to just wait this out. Hell, it’s fine to lie to/mislead Alice (“yep, I’m good”) if she continues being so pushy. You have zero obligation to share anything you don’t want to share.

2. Should I tell my employee to stop addressing people by their first names?

I am in a position where I have my own direct employee for the first time. My employee is wonderful and very capable.

My personal philosophy when dealing with other coworkers has always been to treat them with the most respect I can, even going overboard. Recently, my employee sent an email out to a different department attempting to correct their mistake (might not have been a mistake), and addressed it to them by using only their first name.

I wanted to get your opinion on this. Am I just super sensitive, or should I address this since she’s representing my team when she emails other departments?

It’s really, really, really normal to address coworkers by their first names, even ones you haven’t met yet! There are some organizations in the U.S. where that’s not the case, but they’re the exception rather than the norm.

The question here is, what’s the culture around names in your office? If most people use first names, you shouldn’t direct your employee to do otherwise, or it risks making her come across as young, naive, and/or out of step with your office culture. If the culture is that people don’t use first names, then yes, cueing her into that would be both a kindness to her and something you have standing to do as her manager.

But going overboard on respect isn’t always a good thing. Depending on exactly what you mean by that, it can actually create barriers between you and others. (Calling someone Ms. Warbleworth when everyone else calls her Valentina is a good example of that.)

3. What kind of non-monetary perks can I ask for?

My yearly review is coming up, but my boss gave a “sneak peek” in one of our weekly check-ins, and I knocked it out of the park. Also, the end of January will be my 15-year anniversary with the organization.

Unfortunately, we’re a nonprofit and we had significant funding cuts this year, so raises are off the table until next year at the earliest. Boss has been a really strong advocate for me and my work since I moved to this position in 2011. In our check-in, she expressed that I’m a valuable, essential employee here, and wanted me to think before my review about whether there were any non-monetary rewards they could give me (not completely in lieu of a raise–that’s still in the works for next year–but in lieu of being able to give one right now). The problem is … I’ve never worked anywhere else (besides retail jobs in high school), so I have no clue what to ask for!

I might ask about more vacation, but I currently get four weeks and rarely use all of it (especially because we also get a lot of paid holidays). A friend also suggested asking for the flexibility to work from home sometimes, which might be nice occasionally, but I wouldn’t do it often because a lot of my work requires two monitors (which I don’t have at home). Is there anything else I should consider? Boss said she would also think about it before we meet to see if she had any suggestions.

(Just in case it’s relevant: I love my job, and I wouldn’t be looking to leave even if they weren’t offering this, but I’m certainly not going to refuse!)

More time off is the big one, and I want to strongly urge you to start using more of the time off you already get. Take a week off and stay at home and lounge and read! Take a bunch of Fridays off. You won’t regret it.

Beyond that … Is there a class you want to take? A better title? A certain type of project you want to take on?

Also, is there anything at work that frustrates you and makes your job harder or lowers your quality of life? This may be the time you can say, “Could I move into an office that’s not right next to the bathroom?” or “I would love not to be in charge of the interns this summer so that I have more time to focus on XYZ.”

4. What to do when I’m told someone will contact me to schedule an interview, but they don’t

A couple times this past year when applying for a job, I’ve been told “my assistant / associate / whoever will reach out tomorrow to set up the time for the interview,” only to have them not reach out. It happened twice with two different companies, and both times after a couple days went by I emailed the original person and said something like, “I’m eager to set up an interview, and I wanted to make sure I didn’t miss so-and-so’s email.”

In a situation like that where they’ve been clear they want to set up an interview but it is someone else’s job to do the actual scheduling, should I refrain from reaching out when the timeline they give doesn’t happen? I know it takes longer for the interviewer to set things up but it seems strange that it takes a couple of days to even get the initial (clearly form) email about setting up a time.

Give it a few days past the day they told you to expect to hear before following up. So if they tell you on Monday that the assistant will contact you on Tuesday, I’d wait until Thursday at the earliest to check back. The assistant (or whoever) could be out on Tuesday, or just juggling higher priorities. But it’s fine to check back in a few days after the timeline you were given has passed.

I’m caught in the middle of an investigation at work

A reader writes:

This is not the first time that this has happened to me and I can’t help but feel icky about it and I don’t know if I’m doing the right thing. I have been in a new job that I love for about two months. Recently two coworkers (not people on my team or that I work with regularly, let’s call them Frank and Joe) got into a verbal altercation in the office. Frank was upset with Joe for “touching his work.” Joe was trying to explain why he did what he did, and Frank just kept cutting him off, getting pretty animated in the process. At one point Joe looks him dead in the eye and says, “Are you high right now?” Frank totally loses it then, says a few things along the lines of “I can’t f***ing believe you said that to me” and so forth. I sit one set of cubicles away from them, so I heard a large portion of what happened.

Twice in past jobs I have been pulled in as a “witness” to things that have happened both in and out of the workplace, and in both cases at least one person in question lost their job. One was a friend and one was someone who the entire team loved and I desperately tried to keep it hidden that I had given testimony that contributed to the firing because they were so upset. I want to stay out of it, but the way I handled it in those cases was to try to dispassionately give the facts of what I saw and leave it at that. I’m not going to lie to my employer and/or been seen as uncooperative when it comes to something they are obviously taking very seriously.

This week I got called into a meeting to give my “testimony” of what happened because they knew I witnessed all this. I did the same thing and tried to just give the facts, but also tried to add in that I thought both people in the incident were good people and hard workers, and while I recognized that their behavior was unprofessional, it was just an unfortunate incident around the holidays when people be crazy. Then they started asking questions about bullying behavior, whether comments were made about age and appearance, things like that. No! “Bullying” in particular is a serious buzzword and despite being new I have never seen anything indicating that this type of behavior is normal for them or that either would be considered a bully. I don’t think ageism or anything like that was a part of it. They even asked if I felt unsafe or felt that it might turn violent! No. Seriously, I described it as a “nerd fight” to my boyfriend.

I am scared that one or both will be disciplined or lose their job and I will be a contributing factor, once again, and my new coworkers will know it. I know it’s not my fault that they acted like children, and I can’t think of any “better” way to handle it when my employer asks me to take part in an investigation, but I also just feel scummy about the whole idea of potentially impacting someone’s livelihood.

I guess my question is whether or not there is actually a better way to handle this type of thing. At one point in the altercation, someone else stepped in and told them to cut it out, and then another coworker tried to facilitate a civil conversation, which did seem to take place (and I included that in my testimony). I hate being in the middle and I don’t want my new coworkers to think I’m a tattletale or blame me if one of these well liked people gets disciplined. Could I have refused to participate in the investigation without looking bad to my bosses? If I had known them better or had been here longer, I perhaps I would have stepped in during the incident. Perhaps I should have despite my status here to try and head this whole thing off?

The thing is, if someone gets disciplined or even fired over something you witnessed, you’re not the one who caused that to happen — they are. And any reasonable coworkers will know that.

And really, if Frank or Joe gets fired for what you saw, it’s probably because they’ve done this before and it’s part of a pattern of behavior. Otherwise that type of altercation isn’t likely to rise to the level of firing anyone. A serious talk, yes. Firing, no. (Again, unless it’s part of.an ongoing pattern.)

That doesn’t mean it’s not awkward, though. It is.

The best way to handle it is exactly what you’ve been doing — be as objective as possible, just recount the facts, and cultivate a tone (with HR and with your coworkers) of “I have no stake in this.” But refusing to participate isn’t really an option; doing that would indeed be a huge red flag to your employer and will come across as “I’m not willing to make myself even slightly uncomfortable for a larger good” or as if you see management as the enemy (and that you see it so much that way that you think you can be flagrant about it).

Keep in mind that employers rely on people being willing to share what they witnessed in order to deal effectively with serious problems. It’s rare for someone to be called in as a witness over something truly minor. Often if you’re being asked to share what you saw, it’s because the issues touch on bullying, harassment, discrimination, or other serious issues that we want employers to address. (Sometimes they investigate and find those things weren’t happening, of course! But it’s important that they ask the questions when they see something troubling. When companies don’t do that, you end up with really terrible problems that no one is addressing.)

If we want employers to take problems seriously, people need to be willing to participate in investigations of those problems. Otherwise employers would only be able to address things they see or hear personally, and that’s not good for anyone.

Of course, the calculation changes if you’re working somewhere known to be dysfunctional in this regard — somewhere with a track record of twisting people’s words, or shooting the messenger, or violating confidentiality, or protecting people who shouldn’t be protected, or targeting people who don’t deserve it. But otherwise — give them the help they need to make your workplace a decent place to be.

As for whether you should have stepped in during the altercation between Frank and Joe: No. You’re new, and you don’t know either of them well. You don’t know if either of them has a history of anger or irrational grudges. You aren’t obligated to insert yourself into the middle of two adults acting like children.

I don’t have any work to do at my new job

A reader writes:

I am a recent graduate who has just started my first job. When I started on my first day, the company gave me a bunch of self-study materials and a self-training schedule for a month that I must adhere to (which I happily obliged).

But now a month has passed, I have finished all of the self-study materials, and I still have not been given any task to do. I have asked my supervisor about this three times (through internal messaging software, email and verbally), but the answer is vague (“I need to find simple tasks for you first” or “study this first for now”). What should I do? Any advice on this? I don’t want to be too pushy, but I don’t want to be seen as “that lazy new employee” either.

I answer this question — and four others — over at Inc. today, where I’m revisiting letters that have been buried in the archives here from years ago. You can read it here.

Other questions I’m answering there today include:

  • My manager shares people’s personal medical info
  • When job applicants don’t respond to interview invitations
  • When I list off my work, my manager always asks, “Anything else?”
  • Interviewing when covered in skateboarding scrapes

how do I stop my desk from looking like a tornado hit it?

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

I have never been someone who is good at keeping tidy. I have what many refer to as “an organized mess.” I know exactly where everything I need is, but my desk is by no means orderly.

I’ve noticed that my coworkers are all able to keep their spaces clean, whereas mine usually looks like a small tornado came through. Every few weeks, I spend 30 minutes cleaning up and organizing things, and it feels great to me when everything is clear! I just have no idea how to maintain it. I’ve tried working clean up days into my schedule more often, but they never seem to stick. Any suggestions or advice? 

Readers, what’s your advice?

I can’t trust the snacks from my coworker, large employee won’t use heavy duty chair, and more

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

1. My boss wants me to fire a heavier employee if she won’t use a heavy duty chair

One of my employees is a rather heavy person and has broken four chairs in the past year. My office is pretty flexible about office equipment, so after the first chair, I gave her the catalogue to pick what she needed. After chair #2 and two conference room chairs broke, I suggested getting a heavy duty chair. She burst into tears and said she didn’t want a “fat lady chair” because it was stigmatizing. I get it. Our culture is unforgiving to fat people, especially fat women. Chair #3 met the fate of chair #2, so for chair #4 I ordered her a heavy duty chair. She swapped it with a coworker. That chair broke too. My boss, looking at our supply budget, said that she takes and uses a heavy-duty chair or she is gone.

So, my question to you is what did I do wrong to get to this point? And how should I approach the “use this chair or be fired” conversation? She’s an otherwise okay employee, not the best, not the worst. I just can’t have her absorbing the equipment budget for six people.

It’s reasonable to require her to sit in a chair rated for her weight, but it doesn’t sound like you’ve told her yet that this isn’t optional — and if that’s the case, it’s premature to threaten to fire her.

I don’t think you did anything wrong to get to this point — you were trying to be understanding — but you do need to be more direct now and say something like, “We don’t have the equipment budget to replace chairs this frequently, so I need you to use the new chair I’m purchasing. You cannot swap it for someone else’s.” If she pushes back, say, “I’m sorry this is upsetting, but I don’t have any flexibility with the budget anymore, and I do need you to stick with the chair I’m purchasing.”

If your boss is really serious about firing her if she doesn’t comply, you’d be doing her a favor by letting her know that too. But ideally you’d explain to your boss that you haven’t yet been clear and direct with your employee that the chair isn’t optional (assuming I’m understanding that correctly), but that you’re going to make that clear now and announcing her job is at stake before you’ve done that will be counterproductive and alienating. If your employee refuses after you get clearer with her, that’s a different issue — one that wouldn’t about the chairs, but rather about her refusing to do something that you’ve explicitly told her she needs to do.

2. I can’t trust the snacks from my sort-of-vegan coworker

For about a month every year I go vegan. I’m newer to my current job so this hasn’t yet happened but will very soon. The problem is that my coworker Bessy is vegan. But she’s not. We’re a very snacky office and food gets brought in a lot. One time I brought in a snack and read out the ingredients to make sure Bessy would know if it was vegan. The snack had skim milk and I expressed that I was sorry she wouldn’t be able to eat it. But she ate it. We’ve also been out to lunch and she’s eaten pizza with non-vegan cheese and Mexican food that says on the menu it’s traditionally cooked in lard.

I am so not the food police and could care less about what Bessy labels herself. She’s fantastic and I have a very good working relationship with her. The thing is that when I go vegan I try very hard to stay completely plant based. Bessy brings in homemade “vegan” snacks and desserts routinely. I’ve tried them every time she brings them. However, when I’m vegan, I don’t want to take a chance that there are animal or dairy based ingredients in what I eat. How do I opt out of her food without implying I think she’s not a real vegan? Just for clarification I’m connected to Bessy and other staff on social media where the vegan challenge is discussed openly so I can’t pretend I’m not doing it.

The easiest option is to just not take the food she brings in and not say anything about it. But if she asks, can you say, “I’m being really strict about seeing the ingredients on everything I eat this month”?

Of course, that won’t work as well if she sees that you’re eating treats other people bring in. Ideally it would be nice if you were able to just say, “Oh, I’m being super strict and I know you’re sometimes more flexible about ingredients” — but that’s the kind of thing some people get weird and defensive about, so I wouldn’t say it unless you know she won’t react that way.

3. Taking another job with a boundary-challenged ex-manager

Last year, I relocated to a different state, leaving a job that paid extremely well and gave me tons of opportunity for growth. While I enjoyed the paycheck, my employer had some serious boundary issues, and I struggled to maintain work/life balance. The issues stemmed primarily from the fact that he thought of me as a friend, first and foremost, rather than his employee, and would do things like text me all the time about work (and non-work) related things all hours of the day. It’s hard to get into specifics, because our whole relationship was a boundary issue in itself. I was a highly valued employee, and the company really tried to get me to stay.

I enjoy my new job, but opportunities for growth (especially in terms of pay) are somewhat limited, and the culture here isn’t all that healthy. Overall, though, I don’t have any major complaints.

My previous employer and I have kept in touch, and I now have an offer in front of me to work for the company remotely. The pay is significantly better than my current employer, and I’ll have more flexibility in terms of time off and scheduling.

Part of me thinks that working remotely will alleviate some of the boundary issues I experienced previously, but another part thinks I’m crazy for even considering it. I wish income wasn’t such a big factor, but I’m the breadwinner, and it is a significant factor in weighing the decision. Do you think it’s possible to establish boundaries with a boss when you previously didn’t do a good job of that?

I’d be very, very skeptical that it can be pulled off, especially about a relationship that you call “a boundary issue in itself” and especially with a manager who thinks of you as a friend more than an employee.

In theory, you could try having a very candid talk about what the issues were last time and what you’d need to be different this time … but even then I’d be skeptical. If you’ve seen this person be extraordinarily self-aware and able to make major changes in response to feedback, then maybe. But I’d go into it assuming that there’s a good chance the issues will recur, and figure out how willing you are to deal with that if they do.

4. My coworker keeps commenting that I work all the time

I’m a manager at a Fortune 500 health care company. I work a flexible schedule of 9 hour days (with a required 30 minute lunch break) so I can have a half day off every other Friday. I’m the only employee in my smaller satellite office that has a flexible schedule, as far as I’m aware.

I get into the office by 7:45am and leave by 4:45pm most days. A new employee recently started at my office, and she sits near me even though we work in different departments. She works an 8 hour day, getting into the office after I’m already here and leaving before I do.

She has recently started making comments to me about how I must live in the office because I’m always here, I guess as a way to make some small talk? I told her I leave before 5 so I’m not at the office late, but she has continued to make these comments on a daily basis. I’m the only one in my area she makes these comments to, even though others are here before her. This morning, she made a comment to the tune of, “Hey, at least you had a change of clothes for today!” I gave her a half hearted smile and shrug and went back to my work because I didn’t really know how else to respond. She seemed miffed that I didn’t reciprocate more.

Should I have reacted differently? I don’t complain or discuss my workload with her, so these comments seem really weird to begin with. Or am I just annoyed by some innocuous comments and I should just laugh and move on?

My bet is that she’s latched on to this as your mutual “thing” — in her mind, this is the small talk you make together and she thinks it’s enjoyable banter for you both, rather than realizing how annoying it is.

If you want to put a stop to it, you can say, “It sounds like you’re really concerned about my schedule. Like I’ve mentioned, I work nine-hour days so I can take a half day every other Friday. There isn’t anything weird about that, so I’m wondering if there’s something you’ve misunderstood.”

If it keeps happening after that, then she’s not someone who picks up on subtleties (although the above isn’t really subtle) and you’ll need to be more direct: “All this talk about my schedule is unnerving. Could we find a different topic?”

Or, sure, you could ignore it. But it sounds annoying, and it’s also not great if one of your employees happens to overhear her and starts thinking you’re working crazy hours and then feels like their own hours aren’t sufficient.

5. Can I ask if there have been changes to a job I turned down that would make me reconsider?

Last August, I applied for a job at a very small nonprofit. I was interviewed three times, including a full day on site to meet the employees and the board. I really fell in love with this organization and I think the job would be a great fit for me personally and professionally. However, they made it clear early on that the salary range was lower than my expectations and current salary – also significantly under market value. Each time it was brought up, I was honest that I was only willing to consider a lower salary in exchange for more flexibility and generous PTO. They made an offer and, unfortunately, indicated that they were firm on only offering two weeks vacation and no option to occasionally work from home – so really no flexibility or extra PTO at all! I turned down the offer and explained that I would need significantly more time off to make up for the reduction in salary and wished them well on their search.

Flash forward to now. The position has just been reposted for the third time. Is it ever appropriate to reach back out to see if they have reconsidered their stance on time off and flexibility? To be clear, if they haven’t I would not be interested in the job, but I’m wondering if seeing the candidate pool and their difficulty in filling the position would have made them soften the hardline stance. To add context, the board and the executive director have all been with the organization a very long time, and the previous person in this role worked there for 15 years, so I think some of the rigidity around time off and working from home was due to being unfamiliar with how the standards for flexible work arrangements have evolved in recent years. I imagine that other candidates are similarly turned off by the combination of low salary with high demands and no flexibility because otherwise this job would be quite desirable in my field and region.

Should I just assume that if they changed their minds, they would have contacted me and leave it alone? Or would it look strange or unprofessional to reach back out to see if they have reconsidered some of their positions?

It won’t look strange or unprofessional to reach back out. That said, it’s not likely to be terribly fruitful — they have the same info you do about what the sticking points were last time, and if they were ready to reconsider, they’d likely let you know.

But there’s nothing wrong with saying something like, “I noticed the X position is still open. I know we couldn’t agree on the terms of your offer back in August, but I wanted to reiterate how excited I’d be to do this work if you end up having any flexibility on the salary range or the PTO and remote work. I realize that likely hasn’t changed — but if it ever does, please know I’d love to talk.”

at what point in a very long cold should I stay home?

A reader writes:

Despite getting the flu shot and frequently washing my hands, I catch two or three bad colds a year that last at least two weeks. They start out with three days of feeling terrible (headaches, nausea, aches) but looking fine. The next two days I feel better, but my eyes turn red and start to water. I trade in my contacts for my (very) thick glasses, and with my red, dripping face and distorted, blood shot eyes, I look like a melting Halloween decoration. The next five days, my eyes dry up but my nose starts to intensely run. After that the coughing starts.

My work gives one sick day every six months with no carryover past the year. I don’t mind taking a couple of days without pay, but there is precedence for workers being disciplined or fired over taking too much unpaid sick leave. No one else is trained with what I do, so any work not done on a sick day I will need to fit in the rest of the week. That makes taking a day off more burdensome on my cold then restful. Still I can tell my coworkers are irritated by my presence at work and that I should use up my sick leave if I have it, even if it is more symbolic that I am trying to keep the cold from spreading then actually useful.

My question is which day in my cold should I take? Should I take off when I feel most terrible (my preference)? Should I take off a day where I look terrible and people don’t want to be near me (their preference)? Or should I take a day where I am sneezing or coughing in order to reduce the chance of cold transference by a small percentage (probably some doctor’s preference)? I recognize that part of my problem is my work’s lame benefits, but I don’t know of any work place that would be fine with people taking two weeks off for a cold, so working while sick and contagious is just a fact of life.

First, your employer gives you two sick days a year?

Two sick days a year?

That is incredibly low, even by the meager standards of crappy employers, and they deserve to have your germs and phlegm lingering throughout the office.

But your coworkers don’t, of course, which makes this harder.

And you’re right that this question comes up even for people with a reasonable amount of sick time. If you get a cold that lasts a week or two, as many do, it’s not realistic to stay home that whole length of time.

There’s no perfect answer here. As you point out, you may have to choose between the days when you feel the worst, the days when you look/sound the worst, the days when you’re most likely contagious, and the days when you’re not so bad anymore but really need rest … It sucks.

If you’re able to work from home, that can be the best solution, but I’m betting that a company that gives you two whole sick days a year isn’t terribly work-from-home friendly either — and regardless, that’s not practical in many jobs.

I’d say to prioritize the days that you feel the worst, and stay home on those to the extent that you can afford to. That means that your coworkers will have to deal with your red, watery eyes, your runny nose, and your cough. That’s not great for them, but there’s no way around it. Staying home when you feel the worst is the best of a bunch of not-great options. (And if your coworkers are irritated by your coughing, sniffly presence, consider suggesting that you all push as a group for more sick leave.)

Do the commonsense things to limit your coworkers’ exposure, of course — wash your hands frequently, use plentiful hand sanitizer, don’t embrace anyone, etc. etc.

But this is the reality of colds and work, unfortunately.

we are all awkward creatures


On today’s episode of the Ask a Manager podcast, I talk with awkwardness expert Melissa Dahl, who’s the author of the amazing book Cringeworthy: A Theory of Awkwardness.

We talked about what causes situations to feel awkward, why we’re all especially prone to awkwardness at work, the amazing letter here from someone whose coworkers overheard her roommates having sex during a conference call, and much more.

my boss cares more about “confidence” and “strength” than truth and accuracy

A reader writes:

I need advice navigating communication style differences. I manage an office of about 12 employees and four interns, all working under “Fergus,” the company’s owner. I report directly to Fergus, and the others report directly to me.

The issue is that our communication styles differ vastly. Fergus demands what he calls “decisive communication,” meaning that people are expected to speak confidently and with finality, without phrases like “I think” or “I’ll check” or “probably.” He claims that shows weakness. He also tolerates no excuses, expecting employees to simply apologize for mistakes and accept that they did something wrong.

While I respect that, I prefer a different communication style. If an employee makes an error, I want to know why because that can lead me to greater understanding of that person and how to best communicate with them. More importantly, “decisive communication” trips me up because I have trouble distinguishing between what is true and what is the speaker’s opinion stated as truth. For example, in a client meeting, my boss asked one of my direct reports whether Project X would be completed by the deadline. Following the lines of “decisive communication,” my report replied that it would. Unfortunately, the situation was actually far more complicated. Due to factors beyond our control (outside contractors, mail), there was a good chance that the project might take several days longer than the deadline – and it did. The client was upset not because of the missed the deadline, but because of the unfulfilled promise. This sort of thing happens internally, too. When I’ve brought this up with Fergus, he says that we should always expect every statement to possibly be false, the important thing is that it is said with confidence and strength. I’m the opposite. If I ask Intern A if Client X has called, I’d rather hear, “I don’t know” than a flat “no” meaning that the client didn’t call her but might have spoken to someone else.

So how do we manage the communication and expectations of our reports? I recognize that it’s difficult for them to pivot and change their communication styles depending upon who they’re speaking to, but I also want them to speak honestly and explain things fully. I’ve been reprimanded for listening to an employee’s “excuses,” but those so-called excuses turned out to contain valuable information about a flaw in a system. Mostly, though, I want to understand what is actually true and not second guess everything. Can you help us navigate this issue? How do I address this with those I supervise?

You’re presenting this a question of differing communication styles, each of which is legitimate … but that’s wrong.

Fergus says that you should always expect every statement to possibly be false, but that’s okay as long as it’s said with confidence and strength??

WTF?

Here’s something I’ll say with confidence and strength: Unfortunately you are working for an idiot.

Of course you would rather hear “I don’t know but I’ll find out” instead of a statement that might be false! Of course a client would rather hear the truth than a lie puffed up with “confidence and strength.” These are normal things — so normal that they are generally the default for communication.

Fergus is setting up a work environment where you’ll never be able to rely on the information that you’re given, where “weakness” (which appears to mean not being 100% certain of 100% of everything 100% of the time) is somehow worse than “flat-out wrong” or “lying,” and where you completely mess up your employees’ sense of how to communicate in an office (something that will no doubt follow some of them to future jobs, where it will cause them serious problems and destroy their credibility with their new colleagues, and maybe even get some of them fired unless they immediately recover and pivot back to normal communication).

You say you respect Fergus’s preferences. You should not. His preferences are ridiculous, harmful, and diametrically opposed to a well-functioning, effective organization.

It’s very hard to believe that this is Fergus’s only serious failure of critical thinking. But even if it is, do you really want to lead a team that has this kind of dysfunction at the top? It’s going to severely hamstring your ability to manage people and work, and his ridiculousness will splatter on you in myriad ways that could end up hurting you professionally in time. After all, you’re the person who has to interpret Fergus to others, who has to manage your staff to communicate in the bizarre way he requires, and who presumably needs to act as if those expectations are reasonable when they are ludicrous (and who apparently gets reprimanded when you don’t).

You asked how to manage your employees under these conditions. I don’t believe that you can. You can’t instruct people to lie to Fergus and to clients but to privately tell you the truth. You can’t find a reasonable defense of Fergus’s requirements that doesn’t compromise your own integrity as a person with common sense.

I suppose if there are circumstances that ameliorate some of this — for example, if Fergus only shows up a few times a year and otherwise is basically out of contact, or if your sense is that a few strongly worded conversations will change his stance — then it’s possible you could make this work. But it doesn’t sound like that’s the case, and I’m deeply skeptical that working in this environment is good for anyone’s career, and particularly not for the person charged with overseeing the many highly problematic ways this will play out.

my boss is obsessed with not being invited to my wedding, I earn more comp time than I can use, and more

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

1. My boss keeps talking about not being invited to my wedding

I got married late in 2018. It wasn’t a small wedding, but I only invited a handful of my current coworkers, and I work for a mid-sized company. Leading up to the wedding, my boss made a few comments about the wedding and getting an invitation, and I tried to explain that we wouldn’t be able to invite everyone, but now, two months after the wedding, he’s still talking about the fact that he didn’t get an invitation, and making up a story about a coworker, who also was not invited, FaceTiming him from the reception.

And to make matters worse, he’s discussing the fact that I didn’t change my last name and making it seem like I didn’t so it would be easier to end the marriage. Not that it’s his business, but I told him my husband is okay with me not changing my name so I felt like no other opinions mattered. I’m not really sure what to do. I didn’t invite him to the wedding because it’s just not possible to invite everyone, and now I’m getting grief for it and having the fact that I’m not changing my name used as a reason I’m going to get divorced. Please help!

Your manager is being really weird and inappropriate here. The next time he brings up the fact that he wasn’t at the wedding, try saying this, “You’ve brought that up a lot, and I don’t know how to respond. It makes me feel like as my boss you’re holding it against me that we didn’t have you at the wedding — and obviously that would be really wrong! Could we agree to drop this and not keep discussing it?”

And if he bring up you not changing your name again, please say this: “I’m really not interested in discussing my choice to keep my name. Could we drop that as well?” And if he continues to push: “We’re getting awfully close to a situation where I have a boss pressuring me to do something because I’m a woman, and that’s awfully problematic in a workplace. Can we agree to drop it?” Or depending on the relationship you have with him: “Bob! This is getting so boring and you are making yourself look terrible.”

Ideally someone who’s not you would point out to him that he’s embarrassing himself with this.

2. My manager wants me to donate to his kid’s private school

I live in a state that has an education tax credit program whereby you can make a charitable donation to a public or private school and then get a dollar-for-dollar credit on your state income tax return, not just the standard charitable donation credit.

My manager, who likely makes around twice my salary, has a child in a private school and recently approached me to make a tax credit donation to his child’s school, which would help offset the tuition bill. I was taken aback and unsure of how to respond. I am a single parent and I have 2 children in public school myself and, if I were able to afford to make such a donation at this time, which I am not, I’d prefer to make it to their school. He’s awaiting an answer from me and I’m not sure what to tell him. I almost feel like this is a quid pro quo situation that may affect my employment. What should I do?

What on earth?! It’s outrageous enough that he’s asking you to make a donation to his kid’s private school, but am I reading this correctly that your donation would lower his tuition bill? If so, it’s an abuse of power for him to even ask you that. Either way, this is gross and offensive. It’s bad enough when managers pressure employees for charitable donations, but to his kid’s private school? Ick, no.

As for what to do, say this to him: “I don’t have it in my budget — sorry!” Just be cheerfully brisk and matter-of-fact. And if you get any pushback at all: “I can’t even afford the donation that I’d like to make to my own kids’ school, Fergus! I should be asking you to help me with that!” That will probably take care of it, but if for any reason it doesn’t, this is worth taking to HR (who will probably be appalled).

For what it’s worth, it’s easier to respond to this kind of thing in the moment with “no, can’t do that” rather than saying you’ll think about it (which then means having to go back and have a second conversation about it, and making the person think it’s a reasonable request that you’re taking seriously). But it’s completely normal to be so taken aback in the moment that you default to that.

3. I earn far more comp time than I can use

I work in a field that can be at times, fairly 24x7x365. I was fully aware of this fact going in to my field, so that isn’t really a problem. What is a problem is, I’m an exempt employee and it is our policy that if you work overtime as an exempt employee, you are allowed to use those extra hours to take time off without utilizing PTO.

However, I cannot possibly use the amount of overtime I generate, I usually generate between 40 to 80 hours worth of overtime during a project. There are usually four to seven projects a year, often back to back. I’ve had over a month of usable overtime hours worth of vacation time at various points in the year. This doesn’t even include my actual accrued PTO, which is a little over two weeks a year. I basically used none of my PTO in 2018 (it rolls over luckily, but it does stop accruing at a certain threshold I’m not far off from, from other years of no PTO). I still have almost two weeks of non-PTO time despite using about 40-ish hours of it. I want to be fairly compensated for my time but it’s nearly impossible to use the amount of time off I generate and then also use my PTO. I would be taking at least solid month a year, at least, to utilize it all, which is not possible.

Is there any other way I don’t know about that a salaried, exempt employee could be compensated for their overtime that I could discuss with my boss or do I just have to let it go to waste? If it was just a few hours here and there I wouldn’t mind, but it leaves a bad taste in my mouth to toss 60 hours of extra hours out the window. We used to have cashable PTO several years ago but that has since been taken away and we only have non-cashable PTO now so that is likely not an option.

You might need to look at it differently. As an exempt employee, it’s not typical to be compensated for every hour you work (that’s a pretty core piece of being exempt). Your company is trying to recognize that you’re working really long hours by offering you a way to accrue more time off (a form of comp time). But realistically, you can’t take off all the comp time that you earn on an hour-for-hour basis because (a) you’re earning a huge amount of it; it sounds like you’re earning 160-560 hours of comp time a year (which is four to 14 weeks on top of your PTO!) and (b) you’re in a busy job with long hours. If you look at it as “I earn an hour of comp time for every hour of overtime I work,” you’re going to be frustrated that you can’t use it all. It would be better to look at it as “I work long hours and get additional time off in exchange” — i.e., not focusing on the hour for hour aspect, which doesn’t sound like it’s a realistic set-up in your context.

The most important thing is to make sure you’re getting a reasonable amount of vacation during the year. I think you are, based on the math here — but if you’re not, talk to your boss about that and ask for help in planning some real time off later this year (it’s sometimes easier to get if you plan way in advance for it). Beyond that, though, realize that this massive amount of comp time is an illusion — you can’t take as much as you accrue, period. There might be value in pointing that out to your boss and asking that the long hours you work instead be reflected in your next raise. (But they also may feel like it was never intended to be taken hour for hour; it’s just intended to ensure you’re not being nickel and dimed on your PTO when you work such long hours.)

4. Can I ask my boss for more breaks in our meetings?

I recently switched jobs, and my new position is a great fit with one exception: long meetings. My manager has scheduled a weekly 90-minute meeting for my team of five, which sometimes pushes to two hours. My attention span caps out around 50 minutes, and I find myself doodling, on my phone, or just completely zoning out halfway through.

Would it be appropriate to ask my manager if we can plan for a “stretch and coffee break” in these meetings? I know a short break will help me focus, but so far my distraction hasn’t been remarked on, and I’m worried that if I bring it up I’ll just be drawing attention to the problem.

How new are you? If you’re brand new, I’d wait until you’ve been there a little longer (like a few months) before suggesting changing up the way they do meetings — but at that point, you can absolutely say something like, “When we go to two hours, I’m finding I focus better if I can take a short break for coffee or the bathroom at the one-hour mark — any chance we can make that part of the routine going forward?”

But until then — and for the meetings that stick to 90 minutes — it’s fine for you to take a bathroom break without making it part of the formal routine! There’s nothing wrong with excusing yourself for the bathroom and using that time to stretch or refresh a beverage. (I mean, don’t stay away 15 minutes or return with an elaborate, lovingly garnished drink, but five-minute bathroom breaks taken as the need arrises are pretty normal.)

5. Taking long calls in a cubicle farm

What’s the etiquette for taking non-sensitive, hour-long, work-related phone calls at your desk in a cubical farm? It’s common in my office for people to stop and chat in the halls, but everyone can hear each others’ conversations. We have conference rooms, but larger meetings obviously take precedence over phone calls there. My concern is disturbing my nearby coworkers who will indubitably hear every word I say.

It’s the nature of working in a cubicle farm; you’re going to hear each other’s phone conversations. If the space is generally pretty quiet, it’s considerate to use a conference room if one is available and you know the call is going to be long. But if that’s not practical (because the rooms are booked or need to stay open for meetings, or because long calls are a daily part of your job and it’s easier to take them from your desk), it’s fine to stay at your desk. That level of noise is pretty expected in that work set-up — which is often frustrating, but the burden isn’t on you to solve that. (My answer would be different, though, if you were taking lengthy personal calls. In that case, I’d urge you to find another space or reduce the calls. But these are work calls, and it’s not unreasonable to have work calls at your desk.)