can you fire someone in the midst of a pandemic?

A reader writes:

In the weeks before the outbreak hit, I was preparing to put someone on my team on a performance improvement plan. We’ve addressed my concerns about her work in performance reviews and will see some improvement, but it keeps slipping so the improvement plan will be the last step before letting this person go. I had a call with HR two weeks ago about the process and asked if we should wait until after things calm down. HR’s position was that the performance issues still need to be addressed and we should proceed, and “it’s never a good time to be fired.”

I do want to address everything, but also really don’t want to have to fire someone in the middle of a pandemic. I like this employee as a person and would feel absolutely terrible taking away her health care and income right now. Also, my company has started to float around the possibility of potential layoffs, and I’m interviewing somewhere else and might be leaving soon. Should I just … drag out this process so I don’t have to deal with it?

I answer this question — and several others — over at New York Magazine today. You can read it here.

Other questions I’m answering there today include:

  • I don’t have anything to do at work now
  • Is it OK to take time off right now?
  • How should I follow up on a job interview in the middle of all this?

why can’t you contact your spouse’s employer to advocate for them?

A reader writes:

Why are you telling people that spouses as a rule cannot contact their partner’s boss and saying that is unprofessional?

Is that in every situation? What if my spouse is on the autism spectrum or what if an employer is forcing sick workers to come in and illegally break stay-at-home orders given by the government?

I think the advice you are giving on this is off-base. My partner and I are a team, and it is reaching a point where her employer is really pushing her boundaries and mine and she is at her wit’s end with trying to manage it herself. Your advice would be fine if every employer was reasonable and allowed people to stand up for themselves. We both know it doesn’t work like that. Personally, any employer who takes an ego bruising by being respectfully spoken to by someone outside of their employ, to me, is not worth working for at all.

She is trying everything she can to maintain healthy boundaries, but this employer is pushing and pushing and your advice has got people accusing me of not caring about my partner because I’m keeping my nose out of her business when she might be out there passing along COVID or getting it herself. Seriously, I’m being accused of not caring by thinking of her career over her health and safety! All because of your advice with no appreciation context at all.

So can you please rethink your position on this and give out some new advice in the context of life-threatening natural disasters and y’know, employers adhering to laws about discrimination, exploitation, and retaliation.

Also, let’s ask, who does your advice benefit? It benefits employers by shielding them from the realities of their staff’s humanity and seeks to keep them cocooned from that reality. There is no good reason why people should not be allowed to help each other and advocate for each other and I would rather test an employer to see how they react to this to see if they take their duty of care to their employees seriously.

An employer who takes their duty of care to their employees seriously will demonstrate that by how they respond when their employees raise concerns directly. If it takes a third party stepping in, they’ve already failed that test.

More to the point, though, this isn’t about how you believe things should work. It’s about how things do work. And the reality — whether or not you think it should be this way — is that contacting your partner’s employer to advocate on their behalf will undermine them and make them look unprofessional. (It also probably won’t work. If they didn’t listen to their own employee, they’re not likely to listen to someone wholly unconnected with their business.)

There are exceptions to this, but they’re rare: Certainly if your spouse is in the hospital or otherwise too sick to speak and can’t contact their employer on their own, it’s perfectly acceptable for you to do that.

But to advocate on their behalf, because you think you can do it more persuasively than your spouse can? Truly, no.

You asked about a spouse who’s on the autism spectrum. You can help behind the scenes — working out what they’ll say and helping them practice saying it. But it’s theirs to handle — and in most situations, you will undermine them significantly if you step in and handle it for them.

You also asked about an employer who is breaking stay-at-home orders given by the government and — as serious as that is — that’s still not your place. You can again help your spouse behind the scenes, but they’re the one who talks with their employer because those are the parties who have the business relationship. You can brainstorm with your spouse, you can coach them, hell, you can even report the employer to your state if you want to (ideally with your partner’s blessing), but you cannot contact their employer about it on their behalf. If you do, you will enormously weaken your partner’s standing at work and make them look unable to handle their own business affairs. (And really, do you think anyone is going to promote the person whose spouse called to try to fight their battles for them?)

Additionally, because this generally isn’t done, it will come across as controlling and interfering — which will raise some unpleasant thoughts for people about what might be going on in your relationship. Now your spouse has colleagues thinking about and speculating on her relationship, which is not what anyone wants at work.

Again, I’m not saying this is how things should be. I’m saying this is how they are. If you want to argue it would be a better world if spouses could advocate for each other with the other’s employer, feel free to make that argument! But we live in the world we live in, and your spouse has to manage her career in our current reality, not the one you think would be better.

is it weird to vape on a Zoom call, should you go to grad school to avoid a bad job market, and more

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

1. Is it weird to vape on a Zoom call?

I am one of the many students whose classes have all been moved online for the remainder of the semester, but I am in grad school, so many of my colleagues (including me) worked for a time before coming back to school. One of my colleagues regularly vapes on camera during our Zoom classes! I feel like this is really weird and distracting and am hoping for your take.

It’s weird and distracting. This is a class rather than work so things are a little more relaxed, but in most work contexts it would come across as unprofessional — overly casual, like cracking open a beer or painting your nails on a video conference.

You’re expected to maintain at least some illusion of professionalism and adherence to work norms, even when you’re at home.  (And granted, those are relaxing quickly; on a lot of teams, hoodies and pajamas are suddenly fine on video calls. But most teams still have some lines they frown on crossing.)

2. Should college seniors go to grad school to avoid the bad job market?

I’m sure you’ve received variants of this question already, but I am desperate for some advice on how to go about job searching in an economy that seems on the brink of collapse.

My college’s advisors are recommending seniors to postpone our entry into the job market by enrolling in a graduate program. While I was considering going back to school at some point, I don’t know what I would want a higher degree in, and I haven’t started the application process. Additionally, I’m graduating without debt, but would have to take out loans for a master’s program, which I’m not keen to do. Under normal circumstances, I wouldn’t apply or attend right now, but of course, these are not normal circumstances. Any advice?

Aggh, I hate that they’re blanket recommending this to students. I’m sure it seems like an easy escape option to them, but they should really talk to people who tried the same strategy during the 2008 recession and emerged from grad school to discover it had made their job searches harder, not easier … because employers often assumed they didn’t really want the job they were applying for if it wasn’t in the field they went to school for. It also can limit you by requiring you to find a higher-paying job than you might otherwise need since you need to pay back grad school loans, but without actually increasing your earning power (so now you’re in a tight job market with a ton of jobs off-limits to you because they won’t pay enough for your loans).

By all means, if you want to work in a field that requires a graduate degree, go to grad school. But if you can’t explain why you need the degree or you’re going because you don’t know what else to do in this job market, it’s often a very bad (and expensive) idea. At a minimum, they should be talking you through those downsides, not recommending it as a panacea.

3. Will my old manager sabotage me if she knows where my new job is?

After securing a new job, I left my last company because of a bad manager. I don’t want that former manager to know what company I went to, at least not for a few months or so, so I didn’t tell any of my former coworkers the new company name. I told them I’d share it later, as there was someone whom I didn’t want to know, and I didn’t want anyone else to be in the awkward position of keeping a secret.

I am not connected to the former manager on LinkedIn, but she could easily look me up. Some of my new coworkers have already connected with me on LinkedIn. Now I’m wondering, when should I update my employer name on my LinkedIn profile?

Could my former manager even do anything to sabotage me in my new position? My new manager doesn’t know her.

It’s possible but not likely — and really depends on how vindictive and deranged your old manager is. In theory, she could badmouth you to people at your new company, but if she doesn’t know people there, it’s unlikely she’d do that … it takes a relatively rare kind of awfulness to contact total strangers in an attempt to sabotage someone. How much to worry about that depends on what you know of her. If she’s just a garden variety bad manager, I wouldn’t worry about it. If you’ve seen her go out of her way to try to hurt people, then maybe.

But there’s nothing wrong with waiting a few months before you update LinkedIn. If anyone asks about it, you can just say you haven’t gotten to it yet (lots of people aren’t super on top of LinkedIn updates as long as you’re not in a field that depends heavily on it, like recruiting.) You’d also probably get some peace of mind if you block your old manager on the platform.

4. Can my company cut us to four days a week and make us take PTO for the fifth day?

In this crazy time, my company, to somehow save money with all of us working from home, has decided to cut us from five days a week to four. We also have to use our PTO time to make up that fifth day. This was, they said, in order to not have layoffs.

We don’t know what’s going to happen when we run out of time. We get 15 days a year, but some have already used days, and others have days scheduled. Will we just suddenly one check drop to 80% of our salary “until things change”? Is making this change starting immediately even legal? Is it just skeevy? Am I overreacting?

Sure, a four-day work week seems cool, but not at 80% of my current salary. I can’t pay bills on that.

A lot of companies are doing this right now as a way to avoid layoffs. Often their hope is that their revenues will start to recover in a few months and this will buy them time meanwhile. Whether or not that’s realistic depends on what field you’re in and what those projections are based on. In other cases, companies aren’t necessarily expecting revenues will pick up in a few months, but doing this is better than moving straight to layoffs right now. They’re trying to make it work, and they don’t have a lot of options.

In any case, yes, it’s legal. I don’t think it’s skeevy unless they’re rolling in money. Lots of businesses genuinely can’t afford to keep people employed when business is way down, even if they’re hoping for an eventual recovery, and they’re looking for ways to avoid cutting people outright.

But I’d also brace yourself for further cuts — layoffs, furloughs, having people go half-time, etc. It’s happening all over the country right now.

5. Should I offer to pay the insurance on my company car?

I am a senior manager at a large-ish nonprofit. We’re anticipating a 15-20% shortfall in income this year because of COVID-19.

My role requires a lot of in-state travel, and I am one of about five employees who drives a company car as my primary vehicle. I’ve been working from home for the past few weeks and the car has just been sitting in my driveway, except for the few times I’ve made personal trips to the store.

My coworker suggested offering to pay the insurance on “our” vehicles this month since the only use they’re receiving is personal, not business. (If it matters, our positions — and the vehicles we drive — are 100% grant funded and we’ve already received the check to cover expenses through May of 2021.)

On one hand, I don’t really like the idea of the company spending money for me to use something that belongs to them. On the other hand, I really don’t like the idea of making personal payments for the use of a business item. It’s probably a moot point because I’m 99% sure we’d be turned down if we made this offer, but it might be worth making as a gesture of goodwill. What’s the right thing to do?

Don’t offer to personally pay for a business item. Yes, it’s true that you’re getting some benefit from the car right now when your organization isn’t — but it’s not like you’re taking it on week-long road trips. You went to the store a couple of times.

The company needs to keep the car insured whether you’re using it or not, and frankly it’s better for the car to get used occasionally.

is this company’s interview process unreasonable?

A reader writes:

I have spent the past 10 years building up a small client base in my industry. I’m a terrible self promoter, so this is very small and I really need to ramp up or get a full-time job. I applied for a position pre-COVID-19 and did a phone screen. I was successfully added to a list of folks for an in-person interview the following week. But that Friday, shelter-in-place orders were issued for two weeks. I was interviewed through a video conference call. Apparently that went well too, because they wanted to bring me in to tour the facility before making a decision; I was told it is between me and two other candidates. Unfortunately, we’ve been extended out another month for the sheltering.

I got an email saying they want me to do another video conference interview, but need to talk to my references first. I told them I would connect them with a current client after a conditional offer was made, and provided three other business references. One is a former supervisor, one is another business professional whose business dovetails with mine and we have worked closely together, and one is a current client. I know these are solid references. They contacted the references and then told me they planned to have me meet next week with other folks in the organization by video conference and would then like more references from current clients.

At the start of this, their plan was the phone screen, single interview, references, then decision. Now they keep adding components to the process and have changed the layout. I know this is a result of our current new reality and we’re all operating in a strange place. But, I have concern over them dragging this out. I don’t want interviews just for the sake of keeping in touch through the crisis. I am still actively working, as my field is in high demand right now. I worry that I will damage my current client relationships if they know I am looking for a job and I don’t ultimately get the job. I don’t want to give up current client references.

I suppose I also want to make sure I’m right in thinking if next week’s round of interviews goes well, I don’t want to accept a job without ever having seen the workplace. But I can’t realistically see it for at least a month and I don’t know if it’s fair to put that on them. It would have to be a month, see the facility, then give me a few weeks to give closure to my clients. And that doesn’t seem right either. (And woah! I am putting the cart before the horse on this one, but I can’t help thinking about it!)

Do you have thoughts on navigating all of this? How should the recruiting picture look in these times? Is this all reasonable?

Well, they have to change the process because they can no longer bring you in in-person. It sounds like they’ve only added one piece to the process. Their original process was a phone screen and single interview. Now they’re doing a phone screen and two video interviews. That’s not unreasonable even in normal times, and it’s definitely not unreasonable to take the time for you both to be extra sure since you can’t meet in person.

But they’re being unreasonable about the references. Of course you don’t want multiple current clients knowing you’re looking for a job, since that may prompt them to start looking for someone to take over the work you do for them, which will be a problem for you if you don’t get the job (or if you turn down the offer). Insisting on reference from current clients before making a conditional offer to you, when you’ve explained your concerns, isn’t that different than employers that insist on a reference from your current manager; both can jeopardize your livelihood.

You already gave them one current client as a reference. You gave them two other references as well, including the previous manager (the gold standard for references). They’re out of line in insisting on additional clients at this stage. Or at least they are if they understand your concern — so importantly, have you spelled it out for them? If you haven’t, do that, because they may not realize you feel they’re jeopardizing your business with the request. (But also, any chance you have a former client or two who you could use? That might solve it.)

As for accepting the job without ever seeing the workplace, I understand why you want to see it — but it probably isn’t realistic right now. It’s unlikely businesses will have reopened a month from now, and you’ll probably need to make a decision without seeing it. But think about what types of deal-breakers you’d be looking for if you could see the space, and figure out if there are ways to ask questions to get at those things remotely.

In fact, it’s even okay to say, “Normally I know you would have shown me the space before we got to this stage, but of course that’s not possible right now. Can you tell me about the facility and what the workspace for this position is like?” (And employers who really want to be on top of recruiting right now: consider that this is a concern for people and think about creating a video tour.)

I’ve put a bunch of info on work and COVID-19 in one place

There’s now a “Work and COVID-19” link right at the top of the righthand sidebar, and in the top menu too. It’ll take you to a compilation of useful info you might be looking for, including info on the new unemployment law, the new paid sick leave law, where to report employers violating essential-business-only orders, and more. I’ll update it as things change.

can you even job search right now?

Job hunting can be difficult at the best of times. It’s absolutely dismal right now. With layoffs climbing into the millions, workers are being abandoned into an economy where, in many fields, it feels impossible to find a job anytime soon.

There’s never been a more depressing time to be a work advice columnist. Today at Slate I wrote about what I’m seeing in my inbox — and what people can do.

You can read it here.

what’s reasonable for managers to expect of parents working from home?

A reader writes:

What are reasonable expectations for managers whose employees are now working from home? For myself, I can adhere to my normal schedule while homebound, but I have a great employee who, having gone above and beyond in normal times, pleads child care issues now that she is home. She is productive, but putting off some time-sensitive tasks because her toddler demands her time. Her husband is also at home.

Is it reasonable to expect an employee to find a way to work her normal schedule even while she is telecommuting? It is frustrating to hear “I can’t” do such and such when she would have been able to do it easily in the workplace.

No, it’s not reasonable to expect someone caring for a toddler because schools and daycares are closed to work the same schedule she worked in the office without a toddler around! It’s also not reasonable to expect her to achieve the same productivity levels as before.

How would that happen? There’s a toddler there!

Yes, your employee’s husband is also at home, but assuming he’s working as well, they are presumably splitting the child care.

How exactly is she going to stick her office work schedule when she’s supervising a small child half the time?

This isn’t a question of her needing to “find a way.” There is no way.

Your employee didn’t choose this; it’s not like she decided to work with a toddler lurking around in order to save on child care expenses. We’re in a pandemic and a public health crisis. She, like millions of parents across the country, is an impossible situation and is trying to make it work as best as she can.

And of course there will be times when you’ll hear she can’t do X or Y now, even though she would have been able to do it before. There’s a toddler there.

This is a completely different situation than employers have had to deal with before. In the past, it was reasonable to say people couldn’t care for small children at the same time they were working from home. You can’t say that anymore because it’s now unavoidable.

In the past, it was reasonable to expect people to stay more or less productive throughout the workday. It’s not anymore. That’s not because people are lazy or taking advantage or somehow not understanding what work you expect of them. It’s because there is a global pandemic that has changed everyone’s reality. It needs to change yours too.

This is someone who you say is a great employee who has gone above and beyond. You need to treat her as a human, not a work-producing robot, and you need to accept that These Are Not Normal Times and she is almost certainly doing the best she can. You need to give her, and others, as much flexibility as you can find. You need to radically adjust your and her priorities and expectations right now. Everything is different.

If you want to keep your great employee and ever have her go above and beyond again, it’s your turn to go above and beyond for her. That’s the only way managers can rise to the occasion right now.

my boss is having an affair, client pushes religion on me, and more

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

1. My manager is having an affair, and it’s affecting my workload

I work in a small company without HR, in a department of only three people — our manager, my colleague, and me. While my manager and colleague have always been closer, it’s never really caused any problems up until now and I’ve had a good relationship with both of them. However, a couple of months ago, it became clear they’re having an affair.

My approach has been to mind my own business, but it’s gotten to a point where it’s affecting my workload. Our work used to be balanced, but now everything goes to my colleague. I’m going to run out of work soon and she’s going to be overloaded. I know it isn’t a problem with my work quality — I frequently get praised and had to bail out both of them recently when they were overwhelmed by the unbalanced workload. The cause seems twofold: all their time together outside of work means she hears about new projects first, and if she works on the projects then he gets to spend lots of time with her during work.

How can I talk to my manager about having our work go back to being distributed more evenly? It would be better for everyone’s workloads and the client experience, but I can’t say, “Hey, you’re too close to my colleague and it’s affecting your judgment.” I don’t want to comment on the affair, I just want to do the work I was hired for again.

You can try bringing it up without mentioning your suspicions about their relationship at all; just focus on the impact on you. You could say, “Our workload used to be divided fairly evenly, but lately most new projects have been going to Jane and I have very little on my plate right now. Can we revisit how work is being assigned? I’d really like to do more, and I know she’s close to being overloaded.”

It’s possible your manager has deluded himself into not thinking this is a problem. You speaking up should make it harder for him to do that, and this might be the nudge he needs to fix it.

If that doesn’t work, at some point you may need to say, “I know you and Jane are close and spend time together outside of work. I’m concerned that as a result, she is inadvertently getting first dibs on projects. How can we make sure the workload is more evenly distributed between the two of us?” This is getting closer to naming the outside-of-work relationship, which could be a useful nudge.

But also — while I know you don’t have HR, which complicates this, it’s Very Bad if your manager is sleeping with an employee. It’s bad for you, and frankly it’s bad for them too. It’s definitely bad for your company. Is there anyone you can report it to?

2. Client is pushing religion on me

I work for a government agency that (among many, many other tasks) provides assistance to Americans in need. My job normally is normally very different (writing reports, etc.) but due to the number of people out due to COVID, I’m now on the front line helping.

I’m honestly very fulfilled by this change of pace, though I’m glad it’s temporary, but one problem I’m running into: one of the members of the public who I’m assisting asks me in every single conversation if I’ve “accepted Jesus Christ as my Lord and Savior.” She’s getting increasingly pushy about it, and my attempts to change the subject and avoid the question are getting more difficult. Any advice on how to shut down such questions? I can’t pass her off to someone else less annoyed by it nor can I not help her (nor would I want to not help her–she needs our help!)

Ugh, that’s incredibly rude and none of her business, and it’s obnoxious to use a transaction where you’re mostly a captive audience to try to proselytize to you.

I’d give up on trying to change the subject and just tell her directly, “I consider religion very personal and don’t discuss it at work.” If she still pushes: “That’s not something I will discuss at work. Please don’t bring it up again. Now, about this form…”

3. Should I not send job rejections right now?

Our company currently has open positions for which we’ve paused active hiring and recruitment, though we expect to pick back up again in early May. (We are a software solution that supports remote work, so we don’t anticipate layoffs.) We have some candidates who weren’t right for the jobs and who we need to reject. Given the stress people are under, would it be kinder to wait a few weeks to send rejection emails?

Go ahead and send them now. People aren’t likely to be less stressed out a few weeks from now. If anything, they may be more stressed.

Plus, there’s never a universally right timing for rejections. Whenever you send them, someone will wish you sent them earlier/later/on a different day of the week/etc. (I’ve had candidates complain I sent a rejection on Friday, saying it ruined their weekend, and I’ve had candidates complain I sent a rejection on Monday, saying it ruined their week. People just don’t like rejections.)

It’s true that receiving a rejection right now could feel like more of a blow to some people than it normally would. But other people who will appreciate having the information sooner rather than later and wouldn’t want you to try to manage their feelings for them (while you’re possibly making wrong assumptions about what their feelings will be).

Err on the side of being pro-transparency — and inform people once you’ve made a decision.

4. Will my boss’s loan affect my ability to collect unemployment?

I work for a small two person operation — just myself and my boss. I am an hourly employee.

My boss is applying for the new Small Business Administration disaster loan to help with expenses. He has also said that if there is no work, he will not pay me anything.

If he does receive a SBA disaster loan, is he supposed to use that money to pay furloughed/laid-off employees such as myself? Or do I need to just file for unemployment even though he is getting money from the federal government as well? I’m concerned I will be denied unemployment if he gets this loan but then doesn’t pay me.

Some of the new SBA loans are intended to help keep employees on the payroll, but they’re also offering loans for other expenses as well (rent, utilities, other bills, and general loss of revenue). Either way, any loan he applies for won’t affect your unemployment eligibility; if you’re furloughed or laid off, you’ll be eligible regardless of what he’s doing.

5. Listing online classes on my resume

I have been working been working from home and looking for ways to keep me occupied. Since I am unable to do a lot of my duties as a librarian because most of my work is done in-person, I have started some online courses through FutureLearn and other online sites. Some of these courses are are in my field and have helped me gain new skills that I could use in my career in the future. Are these courses legitimate enough to put on a resume?

This can vary by field, but generally one-off online courses (as opposed to an entire online degree) aren’t going to be all that helpful. The skills you gain from the courses can of course be useful — but generally it’ll be more compelling to list your real-world application of those skills. The courses on their own aren’t hugely impressive.

That said, there’s no harm in including them, as long as (a) your Education section isn’t already very long and (b) you’re only listing a few, and only the very relevant. (A lengthy list of courses usually ends up watering down any impact they otherwise might have had.)

But again, some fields can be exceptions to this, so it’s worth talking to people who hire in your field.

weekend free-for-all – April 4-5, 2020

Sophie and Shadow

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 Glass Hotel, by Emily St. John Mandel. This story of two siblings weaves all around, from dance clubs to a remote hotel in Canada to a Madoff-like scandal. There’s vulnerability and magical realism and meditations on money and beautiful writing. It’s very different from her earlier Station Eleven (do not read that right now), but it put me in a sort of trance and I liked it.

* I make a commission if you use those Amazon links.

open thread – April 3-4, 2020

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

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