I lied on my resume — now what?

A reader writes:

I recently applied for a prestigious company looking to fill a role that’s rarely open — and I lied on my resume. Specifically, I lied about where I went to school. The company hires people from top-caliber schools and I thought swapping the name of my college would help me get my foot in the door.

The company had already called me in for a series of in-person interviews with key players in the department. My interaction with the team has reinforced my confidence in wanting the job and guilt about lying where I attended college (at least two people have remarked what a wonderful place it is, so it hasn’t gone unnoticed).

My HR contact just reached out to me and asked me to complete an electronic application and-again-it prompts me to fill in my education credentials. Now that I’m in the final stages of consideration, I’m terrified of the background check revealing the lie and losing this job over it. What should I do?

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 (and sometimes updating/expanding my answers to them). You can read it here.

Other questions I’m answering there today include:

  • My former intern ghosted her new job
  • Telling freelance clients I’ve increased my rates
  • Are sandals now considered business attire?
  • Using up vacation time right before resigning

my coworker yells and is disruptive — and we’re afraid to confront her

A reader writes:

I work in a very small office with an open floor plan.

Most of us are friendly enough and get along well, with the exception of Jane. Jane is one of the unhappiest, most negative people I have ever met. She complains almost constantly about anything and everything — and the complaining itself is very loud, often to the point of yelling. She gets extremely worked up over things that most people would feel are a minor annoyance. She also has very strong opinions and often goes on a one-sided rant about things, but goodness forbid anyone have a different opinion and they express it.

My coworkers and I are getting sick of it, but no one wants to go to HR and no one wants to confront Jane about her behavior out fears of how she might react. Jane has said she hates being told to “calm down” and more than one coworker has expressed concerns about her “going postal.” I myself dread working with Jane and often lose sleep on nights before we are in the office together.

To make things worse, we are still on a rotating schedule because of Covid, so our manager, Fran, is rarely in the office at the same time as Jane and has no idea just how bad things are. And even if Fran did know, she is very non-confrontational and refuses to ever do anything to address employee problems (I think she might actually be afraid of Jane).

What advice do you have on how to handle this situation? Working with Jane is causing me so much unnecessary stress but I feel like there’s nothing I can do.

Well … you feel like there’s nothing you can do because you’ve preemptively ruled out all the possible solutions!

When a coworker is being this disruptive, you have two options: You can address it with them directly or you can address it with someone over their head. But you said you and your coworkers don’t want to do either of those things. That means someone has to change their mind about that, or you’re all going to be stuck living with it.

I can understand why you’re writing off Fran as an option. If she has a history of refusing to ever address problems, you have good reason to think she won’t address this one either. That said, sometimes with a very non-confrontational manager, you can push them to act by making not acting an even less attractive option. That might mean that you all meet with Fran as a group and insist she do something about Jane’s behavior … and then meet with her again when she doesn’t do it … and continue to push her on it as a group until it becomes easier for her to speak to Jane than to have to keep talking to the rest of you about why she won’t. Of course, if she does finally speak to Jane, it might be so wimpy and watered down that it won’t do much good … but it could be worth a try.

Normally this would be a manager job and not an HR job (it’s Fran’s team and she’s the one charged with managing it), but if Fran isn’t an option then HR is a decent runner-up. As we discussed yesterday, HR won’t necessarily get involved in the way you want, but they might — even if it’s just relaying to Fran that she needs to actually do her job and manage. When you talk to HR, it will help to explain why you’re coming to them for help and not Fran — but it will also help to say that you tried Fran first, if possible.

Also: Are people genuinely afraid of Jane? I wasn’t sure from your letter if the “going postal” comment was hyperbole or not, but if people genuinely fear violence from her, you absolutely must go talk to HR right now, today. It’s not an option to choose the comfort of not making waves over protecting people’s physical safety. I’m going to assume for the rest of this answer that this is not the case, but if it is, stop reading right now and go talk to HR about what’s going on. But assuming that’s not the situation…

The other option, of course, is to speak to Jane directly. I get that people are afraid of how she might react, but unless you’re afraid of actual violence, getting this to stop might mean risking her wrath. If the worst thing that will happen is that she yells or sulks or is angry — well, that’s not really worse than what’s happening now, is it? And even if she reacts badly in the moment, the message might still sink in. It’s worth a shot. Things you and your coworkers can say:

* “Jane, please stop yelling. This is really disruptive.”
* “Can you please keep it down?”
* “Whoa, this is so negative. Can we not do this today?”
* “I don’t want to hear this while I’m trying to work. Can you please take it somewhere else?”

If all of you are committed to pushing back when Jane is disrupting your shared workspace, it might have an impact. That’s not guaranteed, but it’s the logical thing to try. You’re allowed — even expected — to assert reasonable boundaries to defend your workspace and what you need to focus on work.

But there are no other options. You and your coworkers need to be willing to talk to someone or this isn’t going to change.

my company wants me to Photoshop our customers, managers uses our meetings to vent, and more

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

1. My company wants me to Photoshop our customers

I am in my early 30’s and have floated from job to job my whole life. I finally have a career that I love, pays well, and offers room to grow. Part of my job consists of editing photos in Photoshop, and my boss has even paid for online classes for me. My company pays for an ad in an online magazine and each month we take photos of my boss’s boss with different customers of ours. My boss’s boss has given his full permission to make him “look great” by editing the photos however we see fit.

But my boss also makes me edit the customers in these photos, who have not given permission for this. The edits are mainly removing wrinkles from their face, making their teeth whiter, thinning out their face and neck, fixing their hair, etc. I am good at what I do and make the edits with the subjects still looking natural but I have some moral discomfort with them not knowing they are going to be edited. I have brought this up to my boss before and she is of the mindset that since we pay for the photographer and the ad, we can do whatever we want. I have suggested taking a release form with us for the subjects to sign giving us permission but she brushed it off, saying that’s not necessary and that if anything ever comes up, she will take full responsibility and blame. But still … I am the one editing the photos. I like my boss and job very much and don’t want to cause problems. Is this wrong?

Yeah, it’s not great. It’s one thing to fix a flyaway hair, correct lighting imbalances, or fix red-eye, but removing people’s wrinkles or changing the size of their face or neck is problematic. Some people might appreciate it, but others will not — and to the latter group, it’s going to come across strangely (and insultingly) that your company decided they’d be more pleasing if they were slimmed down or younger.

Can you just … not do those things? If your boss questions it, can you plausibly say there’s no way to do what she’s asking without it looking unnatural to the person? If you can’t, you can’t, but I’d try just pulling way back on the editing you do of customers and see what happens.

2. My manager spends our meetings venting about her job

I started a new job about a year ago, transitioning from a contractor into a full-time employee. My manager was my champion throughout this process and we have a great working relationship. I came aboard during a massive transition in the department and the team was dealing with high work volumes and stress from all sides. I learned to lay low and listen as my coworkers vented about the situation.

Unfortunately, these stress rants have bled into my 1-1s with my manager, with her spending a considerable amount of time de-stressing about her job or explaining in detail situations that don’t relate to my current tasks. These meetings are an hour long every two weeks and they aren’t really productive. I don’t receive any feedback except “you’re doing great” or “I’d let you know if you’re doing something wrong” but since she also expresses frustration with my coworkers in some of our meetings, I’ve considered she might be doing the same in their 1-1s.

At this point in my career, I would really like some critical feedback on how I am doing, especially since I’m new to corporate life (I previously worked at small businesses). How do I stop my manager from using our 1-1 meetings from being her personal stress valve and move towards receiving useful and critical feedback?

You’re right that it’s the wrong place for her to be doing that. I’d try being more assertive about how the time in those meetings gets used. For example, you can send her an agenda ahead of time with the topics you want to update her on or get input on (or if that would be weird in your culture, do it out loud at the start of the meeting — “I’m hoping we can talk about X, Y, and Z today”). A lot of people sit back and let their boss drive their 1:1s, but it can be really helpful to take more control of them yourself — think ahead of time about how it would be most useful to spend the time and then be clear at the start of the meeting about what you’re hoping to cover. (That assumes your boss is cool with that approach, of course, but lots of managers will be glad to have you be the one thinking through how to best use the time — and they of course can redirect things if they need to.)

Also, don’t be afraid to ask for feedback that’s more specific than “you’re doing great.” Sometimes you can get more useful input by asking, “If I wanted to focus on improving in one area, where would you recommend I focus?” or by asking to debrief specific projects — like “do you have thoughts on what we could have done differently on X to have gotten better results?” or “I’m not sure that meeting went as well as it could have — what was your take?” You can also talk about what your career goals are and ask for her advice on what you can do to position yourself to move in that direction in the future. (More here and here.)

3. Will I look like a job hopper?

In 2018, I left the company I had worked at for 12 years (during which I was promoted twice) to relocate out of state with my husband. Unfortunately, less than a year later, we returned to our home state due to family health issues back home. I took a similar job in the same field with a different company (there were no openings at my previous employer). A year later, my “dream job” opened at my previous employer and I happily took the offer. (So two jobs — one lasting nine months and one lasting one year). While I did know there was new leadership in place, I didn’t recognize that the culture at my old company had significantly changed. The new leadership is fostering a toxic work environment and restructuring of teams (since I was hired) has made my job duties significantly different than I had expected.

I really want to look for something else but I’m worried about a third change in three years (I’ve been in my current position about one year now). Do I need to stick it out? If so, how much longer? If I can start my search now, do you have any suggestions for how I address this on my resume and/or during an interview?

Well … it depends on how unhappy you are. It would be helpful to stay another year, but if you’re miserable, it wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world to start looking now. Your most recent job history is 12 years, nine months (because you moved), one year, and one year. The last three aren’t great, but one is explained by a move and you can cite leadership changes to explain the current switch (which won’t sound like BS, since you’d previously worked at the same place — apparently happily — for 12 years). That said, you’re going to want to stay at the next job for a solid length of time (ideally not less than three years) as a counter-weight to that pattern, so make sure you really do due diligence on the next job before accepting it.

4. Company said they’d hire me … then nothing

I have been dealing with a recruitment company for the last four weeks They told me the company loved my resume and I did not need to do a formal interview. It has been four weeks — no contract. I called the firm and asked about my contract and get crazy answers — the company is redlining the contract, oh the contract is signed, oh they are restructuring the groups, and it ends with oh you should get something the end of the week, but the end of the week comes and than nothing. I am still interviewing elsewhere. I have been scammed, have I not?

Probably not scammed (unless you gave them money for some reason), but certainly strung along. Sometimes when that happens it’s because things are just taking far longer than anticipated on their side (hold-ups from decision-makers, bureaucracy, higher priorities, or other moving pieces). Sometimes it’s because they aren’t as sure about you as they originally indicated (maybe another strong candidate emerged). Sometimes there’s something going on they don’t want to share outside the company (like potential cuts). In your case, the fact that they said they wanted to hire you without a real interview isn’t great — it says the decision might have been hasty and now that it’s time to make it real, there’s hesitation somewhere. (Which would make sense! They should interview you, and you should have a chance to interview them too.)

The best thing you can do is to put it out of your mind and assume it’s not happening unless  an actual contract or start date appears.

5. Planning for parental leave with the uncertainty of foster parenting

My spouse (he/him) and I (she/her) are beginning the process of becoming foster parents. We haven’t had a home study yet or anything — but we could be within six months of being eligible for placements if everything works out. I have done a bit of diving into my work’s (academia!) parental leave policies and they require 90 days’ notice – something that doesn’t seem like it exactly aligns with foster placements. I mean, we could get a placement right after we’re licensed, but we may need to wait months. I’m not worried about my team – we’re a pretty understanding bunch — but my organization as a whole is big and I don’t want to mess anything up. My spouse is in a bit more of a precarious employment position than I am, which can also complicate things (he doesn’t get PTO).

I’m always not sure how much time we’ll want to take. It looks like some foster parents take a week of vacation and delay parental leave for a few months. This is all new to me and not as clear cut as the normal path to parenthood seems to be.

When would we tell our employers? How does one request parental leave when we don’t exactly know when it will happen or for how long? Are there other insights you and the readers might have of balancing work and foster parenting?

Ideally you’d figure out what you’ll want to ask for, since otherwise it’s not really actionable for your manager — they won’t know if they need to plan for you being out for a week (not a big deal) or a few months (a bigger deal that will take a lot more planning). So I’d try to figure that out first — possibly by talking to other foster parents about what they’ve done. If it’s impossible to know until closer to the time (like if it will depend on the specific needs of the child), I’d explain that to your boss and ask about the best way to proceed.

But we’ll get better input from readers who have navigated this themselves. Readers who have fostered kids, how did you handle advance planning for leave?

how do I change my attitude toward my needy, frustrating employee?

A reader writes:

I have a staff member who I’m just over, and I really need to change my attitude.

In general she’s good at her job, but she’s just so needy. I’ve worked to address some of that, like not walking around the office talking with everyone and keeping them from work, how to be better at reading body language when people are trying to stop her talking with them, things like that. But I just find her exhausting and it’s really showing in my ability to manage her. I mostly believe this is a ME thing and I’d love some ideas on how to adjust my attitude.

Other things that annoy me, that really shouldn’t be as annoying as I find them:
1. If I give her instructions via email, she has to write back a minimum of three times asking the same thing. I’ve addressed this by asking her what she needs in the original instructions to make things more clear and she basically says,”Oh, I just want to make sure I’m fully understanding” so not answering the question.
2. In our team meetings, we each provide three nuggets of something that you did last week, something you’re working on this week, and if you need assistance on something. She will drone on and on to make sure EVERYONE KNOWS how busy she is. I’ve addressed this individually several times (give three, no more) and as a team, I’m asking for three, no more and finally stopping her — “that was three, let’s move on.” But then she’s extremely hurt that I interrupt her and I don’t do that to others (because they’re giving three things).

These are little things, but I’m over her and that’s not a place that a manager should be. Do you have advice for me to get over myself and adjust my attitude? I know my exasperation is showing, and that’s not who I want to be and it’s not helping her any, either.

I don’t think this is a you thing. What she’s doing is legitimately irritating and distracting.

I mean, yes, it’s true that you don’t want to sound exasperated with someone all the time. As a manager, you should stay relatively even-keeled when you’re talking to your team. But you’re allowed to feel frustrated when someone’s behavior is frustrating and they’ve ignored direct feedback about it.

That said, I’d argue that when you’re so frustrated with someone that it’s coming out in your voice or body language, that’s a sign that there’s more management work you need to be doing — usually having a more serious conversation, giving clearer feedback, or even making a decision about whether they’re right for the role. (Obviously that’s not true if you just hate the person’s screechy voice or that hideous shirt they keep wearing. Stuff like that is a you problem. But disrupting team meetings, repetitively asking the same questions, keeping other people from working — those are work problems, and you need to address them as work problems.)

In some ways, letting frustration show is similar to what I’ve written in the past about managers who yell: It’s usually a sign that the manager hasn’t realized they have more effective tools available to them.

In your case, I suspect you need to be more direct than you have been. For example, with the repetitive emails, you’ve asked what she needs from you originally to make things more clear, but have you said, “You are writing back multiple times to ask me the same thing. I need to cut down on the amount of back and forth we’re having; please do not ask the same question repeatedly. After the first time you ask, if my answer isn’t clear enough, pick up the phone and call so we can figure out where the disconnect is. But if you’re repeating what you’ve already asked, I need you to stop doing that.” And then if she does it again, address it right in the moment (not through email though — call her or talk in person) by saying, “This is what we talked about. What’s going on?”

With her lengthy updates in team meetings, you’ve directly told her to limit herself to three — but have you called out that she’s not doing that and asked why? When someone is disregarding clear instructions, you don’t want to just get annoyed; you want to create accountability by naming it and asking what’s going on. For example: “I’ve asked you a few times to limit yourself to three updates in team meetings. You’ve continued to give more, even after reminders, and you’ve looked upset when I’ve cut you off. Is there a reason you’re not following that rule?” (You’re asking because it’s helpful to understand her perspective — who knows, maybe she’s genuinely bad at figuring out what people need to hear and could use some guidance on that). And then from there, you use the tools that are available to you as a manager, like cutting her off when she’s derailing your meeting.

You’ve been doing that, but you sound bothered that she looks hurt every time. As long as you’ve been clear about the rules and what she needs to change, I think you’ve got to decide to be okay with her looking hurt. You’re not doing anything hurtful — although if that response continues more than a few weeks, that’s a sign that something is really wrong. At a minimum, it would indicate that you’ve got someone who’s really out of sync with your team norms and not adjusting to new information about what you expect of her, and that’s a problem in itself.

But what you’re responding to here is about this person’s work habits and her impact on you and your team. Those things are squarely in the realm of things it’s okay for you to care about — in fact, they’re things you have to care about and things you have to manage. So I think you’ll be best served if you take your focus off of your irritation and instead focus on managing her to operate in the way you need. (In fact, see my advice to another manager who thought she simply didn’t like her employee, when there were real work issues to address.)

If you are very, very direct about these issues — giving clear directions, not suggestions or requests, etc. and calling it out when those directions aren’t followed — and the problems continue, then at that point you’d need to decide what to do about it. Is the rest of her work good enough, and the impact on you/your team minimal enough, that it makes sense to keep her on regardless? Sometimes the answer to that might be yes. If so, are there other consequences it makes sense to impose, not punitively but as a natural result (like changing the types of projects you give her)?

Even if that’s where you end up, having actively managed the situation will probably make it less irritating. If you’ve been as clear as you can be, she knows where you stand, and you’ve chosen to keep her on for Reasons that you’ve thoroughly considered, simply knowing that can stop it from getting under your skin so much. But when it’s still actively agitating you, it’s often because there’s more you still need to do.

is it worth going to HR about a bad manager?

A reader writes:

I’ve always been told by colleagues at various employers that if you have difficulties with your supervisor, you shouldn’t bother going to HR. People have told me that it’s HR’s job to protect the organization and your manager, even if he or she is a bully or violating policies and laws. I’ve been told that if you go to HR with a problem with your manager, it will be your word against your manager’s word and HR will take the side of your manager every time. Is this true?

I have a manager who has been abusive for a long time. I sought help, including help from HR, to no avail. The HR rep I spoke with told me to work it out with my boss and that I had to change my approach with my boss. Even though I have plenty of evidence of bullying in the form of hostile emails from my manager, the HR rep would not comment on my boss’ behavior at all or, from what I can tell, address the problems with him directly.) As a result of having this conversation, now I’m pretty much persona non grata with my boss.

In the end, is it all on the employee to get problems like this fixed via a lawsuit if things are really that bad? Is HR pretty much expected by top-level management to take the company’s side and act as a sort of attorney defending them?

You can read my answer to this letter at New York Magazine today. Head over there to read it.

what should I expect from my staff at this point in the pandemic?

A reader writes:

I am a middle manager at a library. I and all my staff members are required to report to work in person and have been doing so since the beginning of the summer. The public can’t come into our building but we deliver via curbside pickup. When we first got back, I basically told everyone that I understood that this was a really stressful time, and that as long as they were performing curbside deliveries, being safe, and generally treating each other and the public well, that was all I would ask of them. For example, my employees are hourly, but I have told them that I don’t mind if they run late in the morning or leave early once the work for the day is done. Also, I would normally expect people not engaged directly in customer service to occupy themselves with other projects, but right now I am pretty much letting those things get done on a voluntary basis unless it’s something that really needs to be taken care of, and trying not to bat an eye if I see somebody browsing the Internet or calling home to check on their kids instead of picking up a project in their “off desk” time.

All summer was like this and it looks like the next few months are going to be more of the same because we are in a virus hotspot. I am beginning to wonder at what point, if ever, I should start “working back up” to expecting people to perform at their pre-pandemic levels again. On the one hand, I really hate how a lot of employers seem to have sort of just gotten bored with the pandemic and stopped having empathy for their staff, and I know the stress level people are living with probably hasn’t really changed. On the other hand, I worry that I am I setting my team up for problems down the road by letting them develop habits that would be considered performance issues in normal times.

If your main concern is that you might be setting people up for problems by letting them develop habits that are okay for now but won’t be later … I wouldn’t change anything.

It’s reasonable to assume that when it’s safe to resume normal activity, your staff will be able to make that adjustment, just as they made this one. But if they don’t adjust, you’ll address that directly — pointing out that habit X was okay under conditions Y, but going forward you will need Z.

That’s not to say that everyone moves seamlessly from one set of circumstances to the next. There’s transition time and there are sometimes bumps, but mostly people adjust and as the manager you have all sorts of tools to address it if they don’t — starting with clear communication of expectations (and specifically what needs to change, and what the new model will look like), but also including serious conversations if someone isn’t meeting those expectations (all the way to replacing them if that becomes necessary … but most of the time with something like this a serious conversation will do it.)

And of course, you can’t expect people to double their productivity overnight. Make changes gradually, give people time to get used to the changes, and plan to give some extra support along the way.

All that said … it’s true that back in March, we thought/hoped we were hunkering down for a shorter time than it turned out to be. And some of the plans made then (“we can put X on hold for now,” “just focus on Y and don’t worry about the rest,” etc.) didn’t account for these conditions stretching on for a year or more. So realistically, you might need to take another look at what you do and don’t need people to accomplish. A project that could be put on hold for three months might not be able to stay on hold indefinitely. But that doesn’t mean every job can expect people to return to pre-pandemic levels of productivity. Some can! Some can’t. You’ve got to be realistic about the stresses people are under, the distractions they face, and the toll that changes necessitated by the pandemic are taking (whether that’s extra cleaning of their workspace, processes that became more onerous, or the cumulative exhaustion of having to worry about their safety every time they face a coworker or a customer).

If there are things you do need to add back in to people’s workloads, talk to them about it. Ask for their input. Proceed slowly, with the understanding that things are not normal. Check in regularly so you spot it if it’s not working the way you’d hoped.

But if your main concern is people adjusting when this is all over, don’t increase pressure on them now just to ward off something you’ll almost certainly be able to manage just fine if it does happen in the future.

an aggressively atheist coworker, racy music on a work computer, and more

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

1. My atheist coworker hassles me about my religion

I’m a recent hire in a new job. I’m also a practicing Catholic. I consider my faith private, but not really some deep dark secret or anything. I did tell my supervisor because I may request leave for holidays and the like. My coworkers are a very small, very tight group, especially since COVID started. I can tell they’ve all really relied on each other for emotional support during the pandemic. Everyone talks very freely about their personal lives, their children, their out-of-work activities, etc. They often get together outside of work for movies and what not.

One coworker is … well, aggressively atheist. Which is fine, I have a lot of atheist friends, and we all just respect each other’s preferences. During conversations, whenever someone asks me what I’m doing on a weekend or what my evening plans, if I respond honestly with just “oh the usual, mass and brunch,” she launches into long diatribes on the evils of religion. She’s teased me about taking time off for the Christmas holiday.

A lot of this, I’ve just ignored because I don’t consider people’s personal faiths or lack thereof any of my business. My religion does dominate a lot of my personal time, so it does become awkward when my coworkers in our daily virtual meetings ask what my out-of-work plans are. She’s also become more and more aggressive to me about it lately. It has started happening unprompted with her trying to argue scripture with me, even though I’ve told her flat out that I have no interest in converting her and I assume, being a grown woman, she’s thought through all these things as much as I have; we’ve just taken different paths and her path isn’t my business. I try to disengage and she just keeps bringing it up. I don’t want to discuss these things, and it’s to a point that I don’t feel welcome in my new job. No one else is religious. I’d like for her to just leave me alone and let me live my life.

It’s true that other people’s faith or lack thereof isn’t your business, but that’s not the issue here — your coworker is harassing you and that’s very much your business. She’s being rude and obnoxious, and she’s also opening your company to legal liability because it’s illegal for them to allow an employee to be harassed on the basis of religion. (This might be more intuitive if you imagine someone harassing her for not being religious. Clearly illegal, right? Same thing here.)

The next time she launches in, say this: “I’m not sure if I haven’t been clear enough in the past, but I’m not interested in discussing religion at work, ever. Please don’t keep bringing it up with me.” If it continues after that, which sounds likely, at that point you’ll need to loop in either your boss or HR. Explain you don’t want to discuss religion at work (i.e., you’re not the one bringing it up), you’ve asked her to stop and she’s continued, and you need their help because “I know the company doesn’t want people harassed about their religious beliefs.” You’ll be doing them a favor by raising it — they really do have a legal obligation to act, and it’s possible she’s making other people uncomfortable too.

If you’re worried that you’re the one bringing it up by mentioning your plan to go to mass, etc. — that’s no more you inviting a religious debate than someone mentioning their same-sex spouse is inviting a debate on gay marriage. You’re just living your life, which means referring to it sometimes at work. She’s the one causing the problem, not you.

2. NSFW music on work computer

I almost constantly listen to music over my earphones. I have my own office, and the music is also soft enough that other people won’t hear it. I’ll usually open YouTube, click on one of the recommended playlists (they know my music taste scarily well), and the music will autoplay in the background while I’m working.

Occasionally though, I will realize that the music playing isn’t 100% safe for work (e.g., I’m currently listening to “Sweet” by Cigarettes after Sex, and before that was “Stoned” by Post Malone).

Since it is a work laptop, they can monitor what I am doing. As far as I am aware they haven’t done it yet, but it is possible. The YouTube screen is also usually minimized, so people usually can’t see what I am listening to. Is it a risk that I should rather avoid?

Nah, you’re fine. You’re not watching porn, you’re listening to music on headphones. It sounds like you’re worried that if anyone looked at what you’re doing, they’d see song or band names with sex or drug references in them but … it’s music. No one is likely to care. And if they did care enough to take a closer look for some reason, they’d quickly see there’s nothing alarming going on. Carry on!

3. Will my employee be blindsided by this improvement plan?

I supervise a team of two, X and Y. Over the past year I have been coaching X on various performance issues and it has gotten to the point that we need a formal performance improvement plan. I don’t think this should be a surprise to X but I’m getting the impression that he does not really understand how serious it is.

We have very different communication styles. I prefer to be direct and detailed. X tends to use generalizations and can take an entire minute to think and gather his thoughts before answering a question. I’ve been working with my manager on softening my approach and being sure to ask clarifying questions to make sure we are on the same page but things still get lost in translation sometimes.

I have a great manager who is working with me on the PIP and helping to coach X. She is incredibly encouraging and took the lead on the conversation with X to let him know we were going to make a plan. The thing is, I’m worried that he only heard that we want to work with him to get him whatever tools he needs to be more organized and additional training. I have not noticed any improvement or efforts to find solutions from X, and I don’t want him to feel blindsided and shut down when we deliver the actual plan and deadlines.

Are these conversations usually positive? I was expecting to go back over where his performance is falling short and ask what would help him so we can set up an achievable plan. Should I check in with him or my manager or just wait?

It’s good to be positive and supportive when you’re coaching an employee, but there’s also a point where you need to be clear that the issues are serious ones and could jeopardize the person’s job. At a minimum, the PIP itself should do that; both the written plan and the conversation surrounding it should include language like “if we don’t see these changes by (date), we would need to let you go.” But you also don’t want that to be the first time the person realizes things are serious, so ideally your recent conversations with him would have been increasingly serious in tone as well. You can be supportive and kind while still using language like, “I want to be clear that these issues are serious ones and to succeed in this role, I’d need you to show significant improvement in the next few weeks.”

If you and your boss have been emphasizing the “let’s find you whatever tools you need” side of things without also being explicit about the “these are serious issues” side, I think you’re right to worry about blindsiding X. Since your boss is coaching you through this, share that concern with her and suggest it might help to have one more conversation pre-PIP where you’re explicit about the seriousness of the issues. (That said, it’s also true that some people really don’t read the writing on the wall about this stuff and will feel blindsided no matter how explicit you are. I’ve said things like “if I don’t see XYZ by April 20, at that point I would need to let you go” and still had the person shocked when they got fired on April 20.)

4. Contacting an acquaintance who works at the company you just applied to

I know that cold-contacting people at a company you just applied to work at is a big no-no. But what about if you’re already acquainted with someone who works there? I got coffee with someone who currently works at the company I just applied for a job with. We went to the same school, and we have a few mutual friends, so there are a couple little connections. I do not know her beyond the little “informational interview”-type coffee we recently got.

I applied for an internship at her company, but I don’t know if she is involved with the hiring process at all. It isn’t a huge company though. Would it be okay to shoot her an email letting her know that I applied? How should I phrase it to make sure it comes across that I am merely letting her know (in case she has any influence) without expecting her to pull any strings?

It’s different when you know someone at the company. You should definitely let her know you applied — in fact, given that you just recently had coffee with her to talk about the field, it would be odd if you didn’t! Say something like this: “Thank you again for getting coffee with me last month — it was so helpful to talk to you and hear your perspective on X and Y. (Or something to refer back to the conversation — the more specific, the better.) I just applied for an internship with (company) that sounds right in my line with my interest in X and wanted to let you know!” Some people will add something like, “If you think it could be right match, I’d be grateful if you could put in a good word” too (which doesn’t sound like you’re expecting her to get you the job).

5. How to resign when I’m working remotely

I’ve been working remotely, 500 miles away from my office, for the past two years. I normally visit the office twice a year but haven’t been able to do so this year due to the pandemic. I recently received a job offer and I’m ready to give in my two weeks notice but was wondering if I should resign in person or by phone. There’s already a possibility that I may need to drive the 500 miles to turn in my company-owned equipment. What’s the best way to handle this?

Do it over the phone. It’s very normal for people who work remotely to resign by phone; you don’t need to travel to do it in-person (ever, but especially during a pandemic). Normally you’d ship back the equipment at their expense too.

here’s an example of an excellent cover letter

I often get asked for examples of good cover letters, and a reader recently sent me a good one that I want to share.

I’m always telling people “don’t just use your cover letter to summarize your resume — add something new.” This is a really nice example of how you can talk about your work but in a more conversational way that fleshes out what you’re all about professionally.

The caveats I’ve learned to give when sharing these:

  • The writer has allowed me to share this here as a favor to me and to readers. Please remember she’s a real person when you’re commenting.
  • This writer’s voice is her voice. It will not be your voice, and that’s part of the point.
  • There is no single cover letter in the world that all hiring managers will love or that would be the right fit for every employer and every industry. But I receive letters every week from people telling me that moving in this sort of direction worked for them.
  • Do not steal this letter or even parts of it. It works because it’s so customized to the writer. It’s intended for inspiration only — to show what the advice here can look like in practice. Stealing it will doom you to terrible job search luck.

Here’s what this person’s original note to me said:

My company announced that my division was going to be sold about three weeks before we all started working remotely. I’d been tossing around the idea of looking for a new job, but once unemployment rates started skyrocketing I didn’t think it was a good time, especially since we were all guaranteed jobs after the sale. I had to redo my resume anyway for the transition, so I used your advice to rework it slightly since I hadn’t touched it in years.

Well, every time I got super stressed about the work transition, I dealt with it by reading other people’s tales of woe on your site, and by spending some time on job search activities. I only applied to three jobs (in different industries from the one I was in, but good, stretch matches for my skill set).  I used your cover letter advice to write a slightly better cover letter for each job, and I thought I really knocked it out of the park with the last one.  Apparently I did, because I got a call very quickly for an interview, and after using all of your interviewing (and negotiating) advice, I accepted a great offer that’s the perfect next career step.   I’m a month in now and even with the weirdness of starting a new job fully remote, it’s been great.  Your continued good news stories gave me the confidence to keep looking and to stretch to something completely new.

And here’s the letter, with identifying details replaced.

•   •   •   •   •

Dear Hiring Manager,

I am excited to apply for your posted Data Analyst position. While my recent experience is in a different heavily regulated industry, my background includes extensive data analysis and reporting to all levels of management, as well as a variety of internal and external stakeholders. I love to dive in and really understand not just the data – but the story that the data tells and how it fits into the broader picture.

One of my favorite elements of my previous jobs has been pulling together just the right data elements to create a snapshot that’s easy for the intended audience to understand. I’ve developed everything from high level monthly dashboards of department performance to an in-depth look at a particular focus area. While many times data and reporting needs are clear, I have also met with stakeholders to help define the process and clarify the data needed to answer the questions that will support goal achievement.

I also love the opportunity to flex my analytic muscles and create the opportunity to play “what if?” with the data. In my current role, that manifests as development of a $35M/year budget for a three year plan for stewpot production activities. I review previous expenditures and contract details to build a flexible model that ties spending (and stewpot production) to various levels of forecasted performance. As planned activities are rolled out, I track performance and dig into variances – not just the “what,” but also the “why”.

In my previous role, I dug deep into a health plan’s claims data set to look for patterns of claim activity for targeted provider and facility audits. To facilitate that review, I worked closely with the clinical external audit staff to discuss what they were seeing in the field, and eventually became a certified professional coder.

While the current pandemic has required many difficult adjustments, it has also dramatically accelerated changes to how healthcare operates. Data needs to drive these changes to connect them to current business models. This will require new data, and changes to how existing data is thought about and used. I’m excited to be a part of that.

I look forward to speaking with you to learn more about your organization, and the career opportunities it offers me, as well as how my skills can help Stewpot Enterprises succeed. Thank you for your consideration.

Thank you,
(name, contact info)

banning political talk at work isn’t the answer … but read the room

Every election year, my mail at Ask a Manager fills up with letters from people who are fed up with political talk at work. Often it’s not even about agreeing or disagreeing—people just want a space where they can focus on work without having to hearing political rants, even when they’re on the same side of the aisle as the ranter.

I’ve long given the same advice on the topic: People should avoid discussing politics at work, period. But if you’re going to do it, watch carefully for cues that your coworkers aren’t interested and be willing to move on. Don’t assume the person you’re talking with shares your beliefs. Be aware that something that seems theoretical to you might have real-life ramifications for them. And realize that people at work are a captive audience, and they may worry about sharing what they truly think because they need to preserve good professional relationships, especially if there’s a power dynamic in play.

But at Slate today, I wrote about why that advice has felt harder to give this year, and why it might not be workable at all. You can read it here.

my new team is taunting me because I have a nut allergy

A reader writes:

I have a nut allergy and carry an epipen. It’s never been an issue in the 12 years I’ve worked for my company.

I have recently been promoted to a new department. As usual, I explained to the manager I have a nut allergy but it doesn’t effect anything (i.e., it’s not an airborne allergy), first aiders are aware (and always available), and my epipen is located in my drawer if needed. I said I was only letting him know as sometimes I don’t join in team buffets/bake-offs and don’t want to appear rude.

The manager sent out an email to the entire department banning nuts of any kind in the office because (my full name) is allergic. I was mortified and hastily explained there was no need for that and it’s not that kind of allergy — I’m only ill if I eat them, not if other people do. The manager refused to withdraw or clarify the email and declared the whole department is now nut-free.

When I asked why, he said it’s company policy that if anyone has an allergy, the allergen is banned from the department and he can’t change it. I explained that in 12 years this has never been the case. I asked him to withdraw the email and explained again the reasons it was not necessary. He refused, saying his decision was final and it will not be changed — he’s “not getting sued for something like this” — and literally walked away from his desk.

Since his email went out, there have been a lot of snide comments like “ooh, I would love a peanut butter sandwich but thanks to you-know-who I can’t” … “All these people with made-up allergies looking for attention” … and “Here comes the fun police” when I walk past.

It’s been a month and it’s escalating. Every day this week, I’ve came in to mini Snickers bars lined up along my keyboard. Everyone denies responsibility. I’ve tried to just laugh it off, but it’s starting to really affect me.

The change of department is a promotion and I was so excited to learn and develop new skills, but I want nothing more than to go slinking back to my old position where the staff were lovely. I’m worried if I do ask to transfer back to my original department and pay grade, I will be passed over for future promotions for being flaky and unreliable. Is it even possible to apply for a demotion? What can I do?

What on earth.

There are so many problems here that I don’t even know where to begin. Everyone in this situation except you is a ridiculous ass.

Your coworkers are jerks. Lining up Snickers bars on your desk? This is the action of second graders who don’t yet understand that you don’t taunt people or endanger their welfare (!) because they have a medical condition that stands in the way of you eating a peanut butter sandwich. (Actually, that’s insulting to second graders, most of whom do understand that.) Are these adults with fully-formed brains? Their behavior is breathtaking in its immaturity and general nastiness.

And your manager … dear lord. It’s one thing if he simply misunderstood the company policy — that happens — but he’s being a jerk about it.

Is he aware of the harassment you’re experiencing from the rest of the team? If he is and he’s not acting swiftly to stop it, then he’s not only a jerk but he’s doing the exact thing he claimed he wanted to avoid: putting the company at risk of getting sued.

That’s because it’s illegal under federal law for an employer to allow an employee to be harassed over a disability or the perception of a disability. Legally, your manager can’t stand by while people taunt you or otherwise create a hostile work environment over your nut allergy.

At this point, I wouldn’t try to deal with your manager about this at all. Instead, it’s squarely in HR territory — both his misinterpretation of the policy and the harassment you’re experiencing. Talk to HR and explain what’s been happening. Tell them you’re experiencing harassment that you believe is illegal under the Americans with Disabilities Act and that you’re asking for their help in putting a stop to it. Make sure you mention both the snarky comments and the candy bars so they know the full extent of the problem.

Tell them, too, that you’re concerned you might experience retaliation from your boss and your coworkers once it gets out that you talked to HR, and ask for their help in ensuring that doesn’t happen. (Retaliation for reporting harassment is also illegal, so your company HR department has a strong interest in preventing it — but it can help to specifically call it out as something you want their assistance with.)

But even if HR handles this beautifully, even if your boss issues a mea culpa and a correction, even if your coworkers are shamed into acting like normal human beings … you’re still stuck working with awful people who have been terrible to you.

You can point that out to HR too and ask for their help in figuring out how to make this right. It’s understandable that you might not want to work in this department anymore! But it’s also not right that you should have to take a demotion to get away from them. Talk to HR about that explicitly and ask what your options are. Are there other teams where you could keep your current pay grade and still have the professional opportunites this promotion was supposed to provide? If not, you may have to decide if you’d rather stay where you are or go back to the old role — but as a general rule, your company’s solution shouldn’t end with you getting a pay cut or worse assignments. So that needs to be part of this conversation as well — and maybe with a lawyer too if HR doesn’t handle this with appropriate swiftness.