open thread – August 7-8, 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.

spending hours on thank-you notes, employer froze our vacation time, and more

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

1. Is it worth spending hours on post-interview thank-you notes?

Both you and your commenters often say about thank-you notes, “Why not spend five minutes on something that could impact your chances?” or “There’s just no reason not to do this very small, very quick thing that could impact your chances” or “It’s ten minutes, so send the damn thing.”

What if they *don’t* take five (or ten) minutes? What if they take literally three hours? What if they are *not* “a quick thing”? Where is the line beyond which it is no longer worth a job-seeker’s time to be struggling to create a thank-you note?

(Written in a fit of frustration upon learning my Aspie husband has been spending three or more hours each just to end up with generic-sounding thank-you notes — interfering with family time, grocery shopping at the right time to avoid covid shortages, and even storm prep time. Also I’m now trying to help him with them, and though I’m not on the spectrum, I *am* an introvert with social anxiety, so trying to help him improve them also takes *me* way more than five minutes. It takes me more like 30 minutes each…after he’s spent the three hours.)

Oh my goodness, let’s release him (and you) from this torture! Thank-you notes are useful to do, but not if they mean agonizing for three hours. He should write one basic, generic note and just use it repeatedly for all interviews from this point forward. In fact, use one he’s already done as his model so there’s little left to do from here.

Yes, it’s better if these aren’t perfunctory and if they’re customized to the job. But it’s not the end of the world if he can’t do that. Are there advantages to writing customized thank-you’s that build on the interview conversation? Yes! There are also advantages to degrees from prestigious schools and to knowing the CEO’s kids. That doesn’t mean everyone must have those advantages; we each use what we’ve got, which won’t be everything.

If it were just taking him a little longer (like 20 or 30 minutes), I’d say it was still worth him doing. But three hours, no. That much agony, no.

And while sending a generic note isn’t ideal, it’s better than nothing — and it should satisfy the occasional manager who’s a thank-you note tyrant and penalizes people who don’t send them at all.

2. Employer has frozen our vacation time

I work for a higher education institution. As a cost-saving measure, my employer announced that we would not be accruing vacation for June and July. They just announced that this would be extended for the full 2020-2021 academic year. We can still accrue sick leave and use any previously accrued vacation, but we will not earn any additional vacation hours at this time. Am I crazy for thinking this is absolutely absurd? Is this legal?

Legal* but absurd. People need breaks from work. Even if your employer wants to be totally machiavellian about it, it’s in their best interests to give people time off because otherwise they’ll burn out — it will impact people’s productivity, work quality, initiative, and overall morale.

* In states that consider vacation time to be wages earned, they couldn’t do this retroactively, but they could do it going forward.

3. How can I “spread the wealth” of informational interviews?

I’m a mid-career woman in a somewhat specialized field. My boss is well-known and connected within our field, so she frequently gets asked to do informational interviews with young people aspiring to our field and she usually passes them on to me.

Here’s the thing: most of the young people who request informational interviews look … the same. Privileged backgrounds, fancy degrees, leaning heavily on parental professional networks to make connections (lots of emails that say “so-and-so from the XYZ Institute, a family friend, suggested that I contact you…”). Not always a white person, but definitely mostly white.

I want to make myself available for informational interviews to recent grads who don’t have the same resources. I feel like by doing these informational interviews just based on who knocks on our door I’m exacerbating a gap between the people who feel entitled to ask for one (or who have advisors or parents telling them to ask), and those who don’t. Any suggestions on how to make informational interviews more fair? Or make it known to more diverse candidates that I’d be happy to talk to them?

What about reaching out to historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) and offering to talk to any students they have who are interested in your field? Also, a lot of schools now have offices of diversity and inclusion, and you could contact them as well. You also could also see if your boss would be up for including something on your website making it clear these conversations are available (so people aren’t just getting access to them if they know someone who knows someone). That could result in a much higher volume of interest than you can handle, but if that’s the case you could even do something like a monthly conference call that anyone who’s interested can sign up for.

Readers, what other suggestions do you have?

4. Can I change my mind about a job I said I wasn’t interested in?

I was laid off due to COVID from an accounting-adjacent job that I didn’t LOVE at a company that doesn’t really live up to its reputation in my field (hospitality). I had been planning on leaving to go back to working in restaurants to get closer to working more directly in the wine industry, my real passion. Last month, I found an accounting/finance job that is not totally what I had envisioned for my career, but with a corporate wine company I really admire. I was poking around on LinkedIn and after I viewed the profile of the director of product, she sent me a message asking me to email her with my resume and what I am interested in doing next. Great!

I went through my resume one last time, sent it out with a brief description of what I am looking for next — something like a junior product manager — and she asked for me to confirm that I wasn’t interested in the accounting job I had seen posted. I said no, but honestly, with the hospitality industry the way it is, I am interested now. I have some experience with accounting (internships, bookkeeping work at other jobs) and would now be happy to pivot to that kind of work.

Yesterday, I sent an email asking if there were any updates on other roles opening up, and it turns out the accounting job is still available. Is it at all possible for me to tell them that I would be interested in being considered for this job? My gut is telling me that this would be a total no-go in normal, not pandemic times. Would I be shooting myself in the foot if I told them that I changed my mind?

Do it. There’s some risk that they’ll think you’re not really interested in the accounting job or you would have said so originally, but that wouldn’t leave you worse off than not applying for it at all. You could explain you have accounting experience, are interested in their company, and would like to throw your hat in the ring for the role if they think it might be a good fit.

That said, there’s a chance that if they put you on that track, they won’t consider you as strongly for the product manager roles you’re more interested in, even if you make it clear you’re open to both. So you’ve got to factor that into your thinking, and there’s no perfect answer here, but given the state of the job market I’d still go for it.

5. Using my personal laptop while working from home

When work-from-home started in March, I volunteered to use my personal laptop for work. I didn’t want to have to go into the office to pick up firm-issued equipment. My manager was fine with this. Now that we’re still working from home with no end in sight, I’ve started to feel uncomfortable using my personal equipment for this long. I’m concerned about the wear and tear of it being used eight hours a day, five days a week.

I am nervous to bring this up to my manager for a few reasons: First, I volunteered to use my own equipment. Second, there have been massive budget cuts and I am concerned about layoffs. I don’t want to appear to not look like a team player and I don’t want to cost the firm money if they have to buy equipment for me. Frankly, I was surprised they allowed for me to use my own equipment since we’re a global law firm with very tight security on everything. Am I being stupid for not bringing it up?

You should bring it up. Just be straightforward and say, “Now that we’ve been working from home for a while, is it possible to get a work laptop to use? I’ve been using my personal laptop but prefer not to do that long-term because of the wear and tear of so much heavy use.”

After all, what would your office do if your personal laptop started to fail? They’d presumably need to get you a work computer at that point, not order you to personally buy yourself a new computer. (Some jobs do require you to use your own computer but it’s generally announced from the start.) In fact, if you’re concerned your manager won’t be reasonable about this, you might be better off just explaining that your personal laptop is showing signs of age and ask about a work-provided replacement “before this one fails.”

I don’t know how to get past my toxic job

A reader writes:

Like many people, I’ve recently lost my job. My question is how to deal with the aftermath and get myself in better mental place for a job search.

Let me give some background. My manager was a huge bully and a toxic person who belittled and emotionally manipulated the members of his team every day. This often involved giving his project managers (PM’s) half the necessary information, excluding PM’s from their own projects, and then berating them when projects were not completed as he deemed they should be, along with personal criticisms and insults and passive aggressive silent-treatments, dominating and speaking over his PM’s on conference calls. I realized this toxicity quite early on, but vowed to tolerate it for a couple of years, get the experience on my resume, and then get the hell out. Being an overly empathic person, I often just felt sorry for him. I thought, “He must be in such personal pain to treat people like this” and “he probably has no friends” to justify his behavior and, I guess, to make easier to endure day in day out. I just tried to keep my head down and get on with my work.

Then Covid happened, so it was “oh crap, I need to hang on a bit longer here!” We were busy and business was ticking along, so I thought we were safe for the meantime. Then out of the blue in June – just two hours before a huge client meeting, for which I had spent three months preparing – my manager and the HR manager told me that I was losing my job due to Corona-related financial losses.

I knew that they had just hired a former colleague of my manager to the team (nobody on the team was aware they were hiring, we were just told someone new was starting in two weeks), so I questioned this hire in light of my layoff. The pair of them were extremely confrontational (they are BFFs in real life), and launched into me like an attack, and made some personal comments (as is normal for my manager). It almost felt like my fault that I was being laid off. Needless to say, I left the meeting in tears and couldn’t go through with the client meeting that afternoon, much to my regret. I was just totally in shock.

To add insult to injury, I received an email that evening from HR informing me that I was expected to carry out the rest of my notice period in a fully professional manner with clients and colleagues. I finished up my projects, completed my handovers in a professional manner, and left on excellent terms with all my clients.

What really kills me is how HR and my manager treated me in my last month. It was so cold. There was zero acknowledgement of my two years on the team or my work or successes. Nada. No card, farewell lunch. No good luck. I’ve never been laid off before so I’m not sure of protocol, but aren’t those things kinda normal? I mean, c’mon.

The whole episode on top of the bullying and undermining for the duration of my employment there has left me absolutely broken. I am only now realizing the deeply damaging effects of my boss’ treatment. Along with the horribly carried-out layoff, my confidence is shattered. I know that I need to embark – and quickly – on a job search. But I just feel broken. I feel unemployable. I tolerated, to my detriment, so much crap from this man, and still wound up unemployed. It has knocked my confidence more than I ever thought possible. How do I get past this experience?

There’s another way to look at this, which is that the behavior your boss displayed during your layoff was entirely consistent with his character.

This is a man who you know to be a toxic bully who doesn’t adhere to any normal standards of professional behavior or human decency. Of course that was also on display during your layoff. It would have been surprising if it hadn’t been! This is just who he is: a jerk.

A layoff can be traumatic, and it’s understandable that you had some assumptions about things they would do to protect your dignity and generally make it less hard on you. But when you look at who this man is and what you already knew about him, he wasn’t capable of rising to the occasion. He kept on being who you already knew him to be.

So the way the layoff was handled doesn’t say anything new about your tenure there or your value. It only reinforces how deeply toxic your former boss is.

It’s not at all unusual to come out of a toxic job with your confidence shaken. Working in an abusive environment messes with your head. The best way forward is to get really, really clear on what was going on there, and what you know to be true about the forces that have left you feeling this way. For example, those PM’s who your boss bullied and insulted — would you say his treatment reflected their value or their employability? Or did it just reflect his own toxicity and dysfunction? Assuming it’s the latter, why would it be any different when it’s you?

If you find you can’t get your former boss and former job out of your head, even just a few sessions with a therapist can probably help. (And if this ties into struggles you already had — like if you grew up with a bullying parent, and this is tapping into that wiring — I’d definitely push you toward a therapist to help untangle it.) But sometimes just backing up and looking clearly at what really happened at a toxic workplace and who was responsible for what can be enough to get you moving forward again.

updates: the secret Santa underwear gift, the discriminating boss, and more

Here are three updates from people who had their letters answered here in the past.

1. My coworker is giving a colleague underwear in our Secret Santa

I wrote to you in November about my colleague (let’s call him Andy) who thought it was a good idea to give underwear as a present for Secret Santa. I am pleased to tell you that he did not do it finally!

A few days after I wrote to you, I was on a coffee break with him, the woman to whom he wanted to make the gift (Angela), and the person organizing the Secret Santa (Jim). It was the perfect occasion to address it, so I asked Jim to confirm the guidelines. The first thing he said is that the presents should all be safe for work and good spirited. Immediately Angela said that no one would be weird enough to give things like sex toys to colleagues, and that if it would happen to her she would throw the present in her desk bin immediately and be very offended to be sexualized in such a way in front of the whole office. I said I was feeling the same way, and added immediately, “You see Andy, red underwear is not the way to go !” in a joking tone and without giving away that he actually was Angela’s secret Santa, but directly enough so he could not doubt what I meant. Jim said that he would have a talk with anyone not understanding the implicit rules of an office Secret Santa. Andy was very quiet for the whole conversation, which was then mostly about the secret Santa gifts that we got in the past and which ones we liked the most.

On the way back from the break room, Andy and I walked together as we share an office, and I told him that I could help him find a new idea if he wanted. He told me to not worry and that he would buy something else on his own.

I did not discuss it further with Andy. I was convinced enough that he understood the message but I was still very relieved when, on the day of the holiday party, Angela got a very cute wool hat. She had lost hers in the bus, so she was quite happy.

I wonder still if Angela knew or suspected that Andy was thinking about gifting her underwear… her reaction to the topic during the coffee break tends to make me think that she suspected it. She did not know that Andy was her secret Santa, he told her after the gift opening. But he was not very discreet about it. He had told me, and other colleagues as well. Maybe he also told them about the underwear, and one of them went directly to Angela to tell her. I am not sure, because otherwise I guess she would have addressed it on her own. Or maybe he implied it to Angela, that would be totally his style. It could also be that it was totally random and that she did not know or suspect a thing.

Since this conversation, Andy took a step back in his friendliness with us all. I guess he reevaluated what is appropriate at work and what is not, and decided to not become the creep of the office. Now we all work from home, and once on a call he asked me if I had news about Angela, and told me that he does not want to contact her too often, because it could seem inappropriate. The four of us (with other colleagues sometimes) still take coffee together once every two weeks, over Zoom, and it is the only time Angela and Andy are in contact. I know this because I have her on the phone roughly every week, and she told me that they don’t speak that much, just text sometimes. I really think Andy realized that he was a little too much and decided to dial it down.

Thank you again for your advice, and for all the commenters who confirmed my impressions about Andy’s behaviour.

2. Video interviews when you’re trapped at home and looking shaggy

I wrote in back in April about video interview etiquette in the age of COVID, and I wanted to give my good news update! I did get an interview for a job that is exactly what I’m looking for a few weeks after I wrote in. I did the interview from my bedroom, making sure not to show too much bed and to angle my computer towards my bookshelf and houseplants as much as possible. I also pulled my hair back and did my best to hide my shagginess. I felt really good about how the interview went, and in fact, one of the interviewers was actually sitting at the end of her bed, so I felt better about my background.

Unfortunately, I didn’t get the job initially, but I got a lovely email telling me that they had gone with an internal candidate and asking me to check back in August if I was still looking for work. I was bummed, but kept up my applications to new places.

Then, almost a month later, my phone rang as I was writing yet another cover letter. It was that same job, and they were calling with an offer! Within the week I had accepted the new role and am scheduled to start in July.

As a recent grad who was planning to start her first “real” job this year, COVID had really thrown a wrench in my plans. I’m so delighted to have gotten a job mid-pandemic, and I’m looking forward to this new start!

3. My boss is discriminating against my pregnant employee

I just wanted to say thank you for your advice. I found it very eye-opening to see how Ron’s attitude was rubbing off on me and affecting the way I manage Jane! I hope that in the future, I will be better able to recognize it and push back.

Just an update that Jane has now left on her maternity leave. We sent her flowers from the company and had a zoom going away party. We also had a meeting with myself, Ron, and Jane. Ron acknowledged that he hadn’t spent much time with Jane but that everyone had only good things to say, and he thanked her for all her hard work. I hope in a year or two, I will be able to send you an update that Jane has moved to the B2B sales team – I certainly will push for it to happen!

I’m struggling with working at home during COVID-19

It’s the Thursday “ask the readers” question. This week, it’s two questions on the same theme.

A reader writes:

What suggestions and recommendations do you have on staying productive and proactive while working from home with COVID stress? To give context, I’m incredibly fortunate to work for a company that has remained profitable and revenue generating during the past few months. I started a few weeks before lockdown and so I’m still technically onboarding.

The issue is that I’m having problems with focusing. It’s embarrassing because I’m not measuring up to my expectations. I try to organize my day every morning by writing down what I want to accomplish. But even doing that isn’t helping my concentration. I’m being more reactive than proactive and feel scattered and burnt out.

I know most people are likely struggling to work while this is going on, as this isn’t a typically working from home situation.

And a second reader writes:

I have been working from home as a data analyst since everything shut down due to COVID. This has had a serious effect on my mental health, since I live alone and have no partner. Due to this and other related factors, I have basically been crap at my job. I’m just not sure I can work effectively in this isolation. My main issues are motivating myself and paying enough attention. I was, for whatever it’s worth, regularly ahead on my work before all this. My boss is very patient and trying to make things work, but I know things will remain like this for the foreseeable future, so I need to shape up. I would really appreciate your input on this.

Readers, what advice do you have for people struggling with this?

new job while going through a break-up, thanking husband’s boss for a bonus, and more

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

1. I’m grieving a break-up and just started a new job

I ended a long-term relationship last week, and I’m feeling all the things you would expect: grief, stress, distraction, and more.

I work remotely, so I thought I would be able to keep my regular schedule, but I overestimated how much I’d be able to focus on work. I guess I wanted the distraction, but I’m spacey and finding it hard to focus. I haven’t had any egregious issues, but today I missed an email invitation to join a standing meeting and didn’t check with my boss if I should join in time. In fairness, he didn’t say anything about it to me either.

I would like to reach out to him to explain the situation and ask for a little understanding, maybe even time off, but I’ve only been in this role for two weeks and discovered my boss is very impatient and can be short, borderline rude. He has already complained that I spent my first two weeks “planning things” and that there haven’t been enough results — I’m still getting on-boarded! Not to mention that the goals he sets for me are not achievable, and he is displeased when I push back to adjust them to be more reachable.

Now with this missed meeting invitation, I feel like any explanation or request for time off will look like I’m making excuses, or make him more upset. I really don’t want to lose this job because the break-up of course has affected my financial situation. And I really don’t want to face any mean or cold comments from him while I’m so sensitive.

Based on what you’ve said about your boss, I think you’re right to be wary, especially since you’re so new. Given that he’s already pressing to see more from you, asking for a few days off after only two weeks is … risky. That’s unfair, since people can get sick / have family emergencies / etc. in the first two weeks of a new job just like they can at any other time, and reasonable bosses know that … but it sounds like this guy might not be in that category. I’m not sure asking him for understanding this early on is likely to go well either.

So I wouldn’t do it, unfortunately. But if you decide to anyway, frame it as “had some bad personal news this week” or something else similarly vague, since it sounds like he might not have any patience for break-ups either. (In fact, if you mention anything, I might just say you’ve been under the weather and are trying to work through it, rather than specifying it’s heartbreak.)

I’m sorry about your break-up.

2. Can I thank my husband’s boss for his bonus?

I have a slightly different take on the “can I contact my spouse’s boss…” question. My husband has always worked hard, and does his difficult job well. For the past six months, and partly because of the pandemic, he has been working extraordinarily hard, and his workload has at least doubled. He oversees two large client projects and the teams working on them, and regularly works 12 hour days. This is not sustainable for the long-term, and he has been putting in yet more time to work on the structure of his organization to more reasonably handle workloads with their available resources. He likes his job and his company, and has a great relationship with his boss.

His compensation includes a 20% bonus, paid in two installments per year. This July, his boss surprised him with an additional 20% in his bonus payment. This meant a lot to my husband, not just because of the money, but to know that his work is recognized and appreciated. It meant a lot to me as well, because I see how hard my husband has been working, and how much he cares about the success of his teams and his company.

I was wondering if it is ever appropriate to contact a spouse’s boss about something like this, just a short note to say thank you? I’m not sure if it makes a difference, but I have met his boss on several social occasions, and at one point was considering joining their company on the other side of the organization.

Nope, don’t do it. Your husband’s compensation is between him and his company; it’s not appropriate for you to get involved, even to say something positive, and is highly likely to feel a little weird / awkward / boundary-stepping.

It’s also worth noting that the additional bonus is compensation for work done well, not a gift! Your husband can certainly express appreciation for the recognition, but a spouse reaching out to thank the boss sends weird “thanks for this kind gift to our family” vibes about something that truly isn’t a gift. That doesn’t mean you can’t be privately appreciative, of course, but don’t contact his boss.

3. Was it a faux pas to message a recruiter on LinkedIn?

I am job searching in the education field, and I recently received a connection request on LinkedIn from a recruiter at a school I would really like to work for. I had recently applied for two separate jobs with them, so I sent a message thanking him for connecting, sharing that I had applied for X and Y positions with his organization, and stating that, if he was open to it, I’d welcome the chance to talk about those roles or any other opportunities he felt I might be a good candidate for.

I haven’t heard back (either from the recruiter or from the school about the jobs). Admittedly, it’s only been a few days, but I’m wondering if I made a major faux pas in messaging the recruiter. I definitely tried not to sound pushy in my message. I’m also not accustomed to receiving connection requests from recruiters on LinkedIn, so I’m not sure of the etiquette. Did I torpedo my chances with this recruiter and/or this school?

Nah, you’re fine. He may not respond to you because recruiters are busy and get a ton of messages like that, and plus you already applied so he figures they’ll decide if it makes sense to talk as they move through their normal hiring process, but you didn’t commit a major faux pas.

Plus he connected with you beforehand! Sometimes candidates send this kind of message when the recruiter or hiring manager wasn’t the one to initiate the connection and that’s annoying (at least on the hiring manager side; it comes with the territory more on the recruiter side) but still not a massive faux pas. And in this case he initiated the connection; you just responded.

Don’t follow up with him since the ball is in his court now, but you’re fine.

4. I found out though the grapevine that I didn’t get a promotion

I’m reaching out about a “hiccup” within my upline and I’m unsure of how to react as I have not had my follow-up meeting yet within the organization regarding a job posting.

I’m confident that multiple people applied for the same job within our company but a peer (rightfully so) was chosen as the candidate for the promotion. I found this out through the grapevine and have not had the follow-up meeting as of yet (so it has not been officially shared that I was not chosen). It saddens me that I found out through the grapevine first and not from the hiring manager. What would you do when you have your follow-up meeting with the hiring managers? Would you say anything?

You could say, “Could I give you some feedback about the process? I ended up hearing about the decision though the grapevine before I heard it from you, and ideally I would have much preferred to hear it from you first!” That’s all you really need to say — you don’t need to spell out why that was upsetting; they’ll get it.

5. Indicating a change in company ownership on a resume

A few years ago, I worked for a small start-up company that was eventually acquired by a much larger company. When we moved, my position and title stayed the same. How should I list this on my resume?

Like this:

Stew Stirrer
Stews Inc. (formerly Soups of Idaho), Aug. 2015 – Jan. 2019

should I ask my employee to find her own coverage for sick calls?

A reader writes:

I have an employee who tends to call out more frequently than all the others in the organization. We work in a small 24/7 clinical-based office where technicians can all manage one another’s duties, which sometimes include on-call responsibilities. When a technician calls out sick, coverage is needed in order for us to continue functioning smoothly. Most of my other employees call out very infrequently, and when they do they’ve always had a back-up plan in place. Since taking on this position, I have always asked if technicians had coverage lined up when they call out and it has never posed an issue. If they have trouble finding it or in a dire emergency, I step in to help. But generally they have been self-sufficient with this, to the point where I rarely have to ask.

Which brings me to my employee in question. She calls out frequently with little notice. Each time it happens, she apologizes profusely — “I’m so sorry, I hate having to do this to you, I never call out but I’m just so sick.” Sometimes she gives me way more details than necessary. I try to be a caring and compassionate manager, but I also prefer not probe for too many details when it comes to employees’ personal lives. You need time off? No problem. Get coverage if you can, let me know, and we’ll be fine. This person, however, always gives me a detailed story, but no attempt to cover her shift even though she “hates doing this to me.” I always ask her if she was able to find coverage, and to that she’ll either respond “no” or “let me see.”

I ask that employees find their own coverage for two reasons:
1. We are short-staffed and I am covering my own position (director) and a vacant position (technical supervisor) who would normally be designated to handle these scenarios more directly.
2. I feel it discourages excessive sick calls to put the responsibility on the technician to find coverage when they really need it.

Is it appropriate for me to ask this person to find her own coverage? It has been discussed before with her one-on-one and she has no issue with it, she just never does it unprompted. I do have concerns about the legitimacy of her sick calls, but again, I don’t want to pry or doubt my employees. I just want them to be accountable.

I don’t think you should ask employees to find coverage when they’re sick, period — it’s a management responsibility, and it makes people think they can’t take a sick day if no one will cover for them (exactly what you don’t want right now in particular, but at other times as well), and when you’re feeling ill the last thing you want to do is call a bunch of people to try to find coverage rather than going back to bed.

You noted you feel asking employees to find their own coverage discourages excessive sick calls, but it also discourages legitimate ones. And you don’t want to design policies assuming your employees are untrustworthy and will take advantage of you; you want to design policies assuming they’re responsible professionals. If it turns out someone isn’t, you manage that situation directly.

That said, if you’re currently asking everyone else to follow this policy, it doesn’t make sense to exempt one person (and the person who seems like she might be abusing sick leave, especially). That’s not fair to other people and it’s going to cause resentment.

If you do have an “at least try to find your own coverage” policy, it’s reasonable to tell her that you need her to attempt to find her own coverage before she calls you — and that if she continues calling you without trying that, you’re going to ask her to hang up and do that first unless there are extenuating circumstances (i.e., obviously you shouldn’t require that of someone who’s seriously ill or injured).

But again, I’d re-think the policy itself. Even if you can’t right now because you’re covering a vacant job, re-think it once that position is filled.

Also, while I appreciate that you don’t want to pry into employees’ personal lives, that doesn’t obligate you to accept someone frequently calling out with no notice, if indeed it’s happening excessively. Last-minute absences are disruptive, especially in an environment that needs coverage, and it’s reasonable to put limits on them. Those limits are typically the number of paid sick days you offer (assuming you offer a sane and not-stingy number of them), plus any accommodations someone might need for an unusual situation. You didn’t say how often “frequently” is in this case, but if it’s something like every few weeks, you need to address the fact that she’s not reliably at work and it’s putting a strain on the business and other people (assuming that’s true). There’s advice here about how to do that.

I overheard a client badmouthing my team

A reader writes:

I recently had a voicemail from a dissatisfied client with whom we frequently collaborate. She had called to notify me of a mistake made by my department, but at the end neglected to hang up her phone properly before commenting on my team’s lack of intelligence and other similarly unflattering remarks.

Of course I plan to follow up with her on a course of action to address her initial complaint, but should I make any mention of the end of her message? What do I say?

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:

  • I asked my employee to have his emails forward to me while he’s on vacation
  • I’m worried we won’t have a temp for my maternity leave
  • Do people think thank-you’s for gifts are optional?
  • We can’t get a word in during conference calls

my older male coworker is obsessed with my weight and baby plans

A reader writes:

I am a 30something newlywed woman and have been at my current job for just over a year and a half. Prior to accepting my job, my health took a devastating blow and I learned that I had a very rare genetic disorder and had two baseball size tumors in my digestive tract. I underwent two massive surgeries to remove those tumors (both having pre-cancerous cells present) and ended up losing a foot of my colon and my entire stomach. As a result of the gastrectomy, I lost a significant amount of weight over the course of my first few months at the new job.

Despite my being very transparent and open about my genetic disorder and chronic illnesses and their effects on my body, one of my much older male coworkers, “Gary,” began to obsess over my weight loss in terms of my upcoming wedding and encouraged me to try harder to lose even more weight. I thought maybe once our big day passed, this coworker would stop trying to be “helpful” or “motivational.”

My wedding day came and went, and upon my return from my honeymoon, Gary immediately began demanding to know when my husband and I would start trying for a family since I’m “older and don’t have time to waste.” Thinking I could cut off this behavior, I was very transparent that we were unsure if having a biological child is an option for us and that I would appreciate it if he did not inquire about that after the conversation.

Fast forward to the holidays and now quarantine, and I’ve slowly been able to gain a bit of weight and get back into a zone that my doctors are pleased with. Gary has been coming in a few days here and there to help with some special one-off projects. When he bumps into me (at least twice a month), he repeatedly comments on my weight gain and asks if I’m sure I’m not pregnant. Trying once more to head off the conversation, I tried to remind him of our previous conversations about our uncertainty surrounding the safety of pregnancy on my body. He said he was only asking because he was “certain” that my husband and I “had a quarantine whoopsie.” I said I did not feel comfortable continuing the conversation.

He has also recently commented on my lunches more than one time saying that my portion sizes are slipping and that I should “watch it.”

I am planning to talk to my manager about the situation, especially as my husband and I have elected for me to have a hysterectomy to help alleviate other chronic symptoms I’ve been having. We really wanted to have biological children of our own and are still struggling with the fact that they aren’t in the cards for us (we are looking to adopt/foster and are excited about those options). How do I frame the conversation as something like “I know he thinks he’s helping, but the comments are already unnecessary and unhelpful plus honestly, hurtful. And with this impending surgery I’m getting to the point where I want to hide from him when he’s in the office altogether because I don’t want to hear his thoughts/nagging on this big, extremely private decision.” I also want to make sure my manager understands that this coworker and I have never in a year and half of semi-regular contact had a conversation in which he did not mention my weight, body, or pregnancy.

I am frankly concerned that my manager will write off my complaint (as he has with previous feedback from my peers about this employee) and chalk it up to a “cultural difference” because he’s so many times my senior and he simply doesn’t know what’s appropriate for the modern workplace. Additionally, my manager has countered previous complaints against my coworker with the fact he’s is a good Christian Southern man, and that’s where he’s coming from and we should be more forgiving/lenient.

What the actual F, Gary? In what world is repeatedly commenting on a woman’s body, weight, and reproductive plans reasonable or acceptable?

Oh right, this one. But though people do often feel women’s bodies are up for public comment, Gary has gone way, way beyond even in the normal intrusions. He’s practically obsessing about your body and your uterus, and it’s gross and boundary-violating and not in any way okay.

Given what you said about your manager, I’m not sure he’s going to put a stop to this. If his response to other complaints about Gary has been that he’s a “good Christian Southern man” (?!) and you should be more forgiving (?!), I think you’d need to word this in exactly the right, supplicating way for your manager to take any action — and even then I’m not sure he would. It sounds likely that he’ll tell you Gary is just expressing concern about you and you should be more lenient (which is disgusting).

I think you’re more likely to get the result you want — which is for Gary to shut the hell up — by addressing it directly with him yourself, and then bringing in HR if that doesn’t work.

Up until now, it sounds like you’ve taken a pretty soft approach with Gary. While you’re in no way to blame for his rudeness, you’ve given him a lot more information than he’s entitled to — and it’s possible that’s been reinforcing for him that these are topics he gets to talk about with you. Starting today, give Gary absolutely no information about your health, your family planning, your concerns about pregnancy’s safety for you, or anything else you don’t want him thinking about or talking about. I think you’ve been sharing some details in an attempt to explain why you don’t want to have these conversations — but it’s giving him more openings to continue opining. So effective immediately, he gets zero information or context. (The same should go for anyone at work, really. No one is entitled to those explanations.)

The next time Gary makes a comment about your body, your reproductive plans, or your sex life (!), say this: “Maybe I haven’t been clear enough in the past, so I want to be very clear now: I do not want to discuss my body or my family planning with you, nor do I want to hear your opinions on those things. They are private and they are off-limits to any discussion at work. Please do not bring them up again.”

If he does it again after that, say this: “It’s really weird that you keep talking about my body after I’ve told you to stop. If this happens again, I won’t have any choice but to make a complaint with HR. I hope you won’t make that necessary.” (Make a point of using the words “talking about my body” — that language highlights how creepy he’s being, and he probably won’t like being portrayed that way.)

And then do take this to HR. What Gary is doing is getting into harassment territory, and you should frame it for HR that way. Tell them you’ve clearly told him to stop multiple times, and he’s continuing to harass you about your body and your sex life.

Also, you wrote that you wanted to frame the conversation as “I know he thinks he’s helping, but…” Please don’t try to do that. It doesn’t matter if he thinks he’s helping — what he’s doing is creepy and disgusting, and you shouldn’t soften that or downplay it or offer excuses for him. You’ve told him to stop, he’s not stopping, and you don’t need to parse out whether or not he means well. You just need him to stop, and that’s what your message should be.

how to explain a late professional start, demotions, and more

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

1. How to explain my late professional start

I’m what I think of as a professional late bloomer. I was “home-schooled” in a chaotic, dysfunctional home from first through twelfth grades by my mother, a woman who had never gone to college and who frequently struggled with her mental health. We were usually below the poverty line and didn’t have the resources to supplement a spotty education. Even so, I went to a top college on a National Merit scholarship. I didn’t know how to study, was dealing with home life drama, and was struggling with my own mental health issues (much later diagnosed as Bipolar II). In any case, I flunked out after three years. I spent most of my 20’s waiting tables and working similar low paying jobs until I worked up the nerve to go back to school. I graduated with a bachelors in chemistry in my late 30’s and a masters in epidemiology a couple of years ago. I’m now in my early 40’s and working a job in my field that, while by no means perfect, has been a good place to get my feet wet. Up until six years ago I was waiting tables, cleaning, and doing whatever else paid the bills.

I work in academia and my team frequently collaborates with folks from all over the world. From time to time when I meet someone new they ask me about my professional background, just in a friendly, getting-to-know-you way. This question gives me so much anxiety! I’m proud of how far I’ve come in my life, considering the challenges I’ve faced. But I work with highly educated people who have had more typical career arcs. It embarrasses me to try to scramble for something to say about my background and I’m sure I come across as vague and odd. Is there an easy way to answer this question?

I think most people will be more impressed, not less, by your background because of what it says about what you overcame! But you don’t need to share more than you’re comfortable sharing. It’s fine to just say, “I just got my masters in epidemiology a couple of years ago, so I’m a late starter in this field!” If they ask what you were doing before that, you could say, “Pretty much whatever paid the bills — I was dealing with some health issues that have since been resolved, but it meant I came to this later than I otherwise might have. What about you?”

2. Should I demote an employee who can’t do her job?

At my new job, I have a staff member who was promoted beyond her capability. I have tried coaching her, and she simply does not have the skill or aptitude required for the job. I do think she could work in her original role — but to have the budget to replace her, she would need to take a significant pay cut. Is this ever advisable?

My instinct tells me it should be avoided because it runs the risk of causing bitterness, bad attitude, etc. But with the economy what it is, it feels unkind to fire someone because of how I guess she might respond.

Demotions are tricky. Sometimes the person being demoted is relieved — they recognized the new job wasn’t working out and they’re happy to return to something they know they’re good at. Other times, it leads to resentment and demoralization, and it can end up becoming toxic for the rest of your team. So it really, really depends on what you know of the person, their take on what’s happening, and to some extent their professional maturity.

A middle ground option is to float the possibility and see how they respond, and then to keep a close eye on things if they want to try it — but if you move them back to their old position and there’s toxicity, at that point you’d need to act decisively.

But also, don’t use a demotion unless you truly think the person would be good in the position you’re moving them to. If you’re not likely to be truly happy with their work in that role either, it’s better to just make a clean break now.

On the pay cut — would it be a decrease down to what she was previously earning in the role? If so, that’s not necessarily unreasonable, as long as you also give her the choice of declining and leaving altogether (you want her to feel like she had some agency in saying, “Yes, I will do this”). But if it would be less than that in order to make all the budgetary pieces work, don’t offer that — it would be rubbing salt in the wound.

3. Do I have to give two weeks notice when I’m leaving because of safety violations?

I’m a department manager in a large chain grocery store. I was about to start a job search to a different type of environment when COVID-19 hit. I put that off as I am considered an essential worker, got extra pay and total job security. Now the extra pay is gone and we have gone from heroes to zeros. People are supposed to wear a mask and practice social distancing, but that’s a joke. Customers don’t wear masks, practice social distancing, or even use common sense. They walk up on top of me to ask questions, hang over my waist-high counter with their face 2-1/2 feet from mine, take their mask off to talk to me, etc. If I ask them to step back, I get pushback about being rude or a long-winded explanation about how I’m not at risk from them.

Colleagues also wear masks with their noses exposed or take them off when they are not in direct customer contact on the sales floor but are still around other colleagues. Store management says they can’t ask customers to wear masks or keep six feet apart because it’s not a law and they don’t want to offend them. There are half-hearted attempts to keep employees in mask compliance, but we are already short-staffed and they don’t want lose any more people.

I’d like to start up my job search. Do I still owe my employer the courtesy of a two-week notice when I am literally putting my life on the line every day I work? Before COVID, of course ,I wouldn’t have considered doing anything else, but now I wonder if I owe myself the gift of less risk more than I owe my employer the courtesy of another two weeks on the job.

Your employer sucks. It’s not true that they can’t ask customers to wear masks or stay six feet apart “because it’s not the law.” (It’s also not the law that people must wear shirts in public, and yet stores can still refuse service to people without shirts.) They suck for not being willing to enforce public health recommendations in order to protect their employees and their customers.

Anyway, no, you don’t need to give two weeks notice in these circumstances. When you resign, you can explain you’re leaving because your health is at risk, and because of that you can’t work out a notice period. If you want, you could offer to work another two weeks if they can assign you work where you can be assured of masks and social distancing — but that possibility sounds unlikely.

Now, the caveat: A reasonable employer would understand you couldn’t give notice if coming to work is putting your health at risk. Your employer has already shown they’re not reasonable. So it’s possible this will burn a bridge and/or that future reference-checkers will be told you left without notice. You can probably ameliorate that last part by explaining to future reference-checkers that you had to leave suddenly for health reasons, but be aware it could go down that way.

4. Is it weird to talk to multiple acquaintances about the same job at my old employer?

Is there protocol/etiquette around what to do when you know multiple people applying for the same position? I’m in grad school and recently left a great job with a fairly prominent organization in a field related to my grad program. I left because I’d been there for a while, and I’m pretty early on in my career and wanted to branch out into slightly different work. Recently, a few graduating classmates have applied to the same job opening at my old org and reached out to me for insight and informational interview-type conversations. I’m super happy to help as much as I can — I loved my time there and these people are great candidates who I would love to see get hired there. But should I ever let someone know that I also talked to others?

My grad program is small, so these candidates almost all know each other and it’s very likely that in general conversation two applicants might realize they both applied to the same position and both talked to me. Is this weird? If it matters, these people are of varying levels of closeness to me, from friends to more distant acquaintances who I’ve just met briefly.

This hasn’t come up in any way yet, but it’s been on my mind about how to navigate in case it does and for the future. So far I haven’t said anything and have just approached each conversation as if I knew no one else also applying.

It’s not weird to talk to multiple people who want to learn more about the organization, and you’re not obligated to disclose that you’ve also talked to others. You’re not doing anything they could reasonably expect to be exclusive to them; you’re just offering insight about the org and the job, not promising to campaign for them to be hired or to promote them as The One True Data Analyst.

That said, if you get the sense that someone thinks you’re going to help them get the job, it’s kind to say something like, “In the interest of transparency, I want to tell you that I’ve had a handful of other people contact me with similar questions and I’m offering everyone the same information.”

5. Possible job offer left dangling due to Covid

Over the winter, I had several conversations with a senior executive at a consulting firm I work with in my current job that started out as “hey, I hear you might be looking for a new opportunity” (which I was) and then moved into “let’s talk about whether there’s a fit here” and finally got serious in March with me meeting with other senior executives. The last meeting ended with them telling me to expect the next step would be HR reaching out to me. Unfortunately, that meeting was on March 13 — right before everything in our area shut down with a stay-at-home order. I haven’t heard anything from them at all since March.

I don’t particularly want to change jobs in the middle of a recession or worse. My current job is really stable and I don’t necessarily want the pressure of a new job and the pressure to perform in a consulting role when outside forces might make that even more difficult than usual. But at the same time, there’s a reason I was looking for a new opportunity in the first place, and this has been the best role to come along since October.

I’ve struggled with whether I should reach out or not, and if so, what to say. I certainly understand that the role might have evaporated, and expect that at the very least it’s probably on hold. Should I just wait this out? Or is there a graceful way to say, “Hey, I’m still interested, but I’m cool with waiting to reconnect at some point in the future”? I’m not trying to force them to make me an offer now because there are definitely circumstances where I’d decline (my current job is really stable!). And it’s really important to me to keep the relationship cordial, no matter what happens.

It’s fine to reach out, as long as it’s in a low-pressure way that makes it clear you’re well aware circumstances have changed. You could say, “I wanted to touch base about the role we’d had been talking about earlier this year. I realize everything may be on hold right now, given the pandemic, but if it makes sense to reconnect about it at some point in the future, I’m happy to talk any time!”