my coworker is a talker and whines when I ask him to stop

A reader writes:

I’m a mid-20’s woman and I share a tiny office with two coworkers who each have multiple grandchildren. My male coworker, Bob, is a talker. I have tried everything — the staring at my screen, typing furiously as he starts a conversation, the distracted “mhmm, ok”’s as he rambles, and straight up asking him to stop talking by saying “I can’t talk right now, I need to focus.”

He does several things that I find absolutely infuriating.

1) If I am giving off body language that shows I’m trying to focus but he has something he really wants to share, he overrides all my subtle cues. He has in the past shoved his mobile phone right in front of my face to show me a photo of his grandkid, the latest funny/inspiring video clip he needs to share, etc. He has poked me in the arm to get my attention when I have headphones on.

2) When I explicitly say that I can’t talk right now, he does a suuuper strange, whiny, childish voice mocking my request (e.g. “ooh nooo, Sansa has to focus, she’s put her boundaries up”). He usually does this for 5-15 seconds, which I ignore, then leaves me alone.

I feel like I need to put up with his ridiculous whiny whinging about not being able to talk for 5-15 seconds as a down payment for an hour’s silence. Maybe this is just what I need to do, but it is so incredibly draining and frustrating and I honestly tense up every time he opens his mouth.

He is otherwise a really friendly, extroverted person and I don’t mind chatting over lunch, but he often starts chats just as I really need to focus. His desk is literally right next to mine (our chairs are probably about half a meter apart), so this is starting to really grate on me. He also regularly talks to himself and chuckles out loud at things on his screen, but that is honestly a smaller problem compared to everything else. Help!

What the hell?

It would be one thing if Bob were just bad at picking up on social cues — in which case you’d just need to be more direct — but he knows you’re trying to focus because you’ve told him and he  chooses to whine and mock you for that? As if you’re there to meet his social needs whenever he feels like it, as opposed to .. working.

And I know how exhausting it is to always have to talk about sexism, but it is no coincidence that you’re a woman. The Bobs of the world rarely use these specific behaviors with men. On some level, he resents that you’re not serving his needs in the way he wants — or he at least feels entitled to insist on it in a way that he probably doesn’t do with men. (Can you imagine him poking and whining at, say, a 50-year-old dude?)

Bob might be friendly in other contexts, but he’s acting like a self-absorbed child and a jerk.

You’ve tried all my usual advice — say explicitly that you can’t talk at the moment, use body language that reinforces that, ignore the person and keep typing — and it’s not working. If anything, it sounds like Bob takes all of that as encouragement to be more obnoxious.

So at this point you have two choices:

1. You can continue you’re doing now: tell him you can’t talk and accept that he’s gong to whine for 15 seconds but then will leave you alone.

2. You can push back much more aggressively — and I do mean aggressively, because he has created a situation where handling him politely isn’t working. For example:
* When he shoves your phone in front of your face, say in an openly pissed off tone, “Take that out of my face. You can see that I am am working.”
* If he pokes you (!), say in an even more pissed off tone, “STOP TOUCHING ME.” Follow it up with, “I am working right now. If you need me, please email me and I’ll see it when I’m free.”
* Most importantly, every time he interrupts you while you’re working, say, “I cannot talk right now, I’m busy.” If he starts whining, look him straight in the eye and say, “Why are you talking like a child?” Or, “You must not realize how off-putting that sounds from a grown man.” Or, “You are being rude. Stop.” Or, “That makes me never want to talk to you, and it’s really getting old.”

He’s not going to like that. At all. And that’s fine. He is the one who has created a situation where you’re forced to be this blunt. If these exchanges feel bad to him, that’s on him.

You probably won’t like it either, because that’s a much more aggressive way of speaking to colleagues than people normally have to use and it won’t feel polite. But all of these responses are warranted. You won’t be the one crossing lines; you’ll be the one responding to someone else’s line-crossing. It’s okay if he feels stung or embarrassed; he should feel embarrassed, and it may be what it takes to get him to stop. Or he might just stop liking you, which is also okay — unless that could cause political problems for you at work, in which case move to the next step.

If this doesn’t work — or if you can’t bring yourself to be as direct as I’m recommending — two other options are to have a big-picture conversation with him or with your boss.

If it’s with him, you could say something like, “I want to talk to you about how you respond when I’m busy and can’t speak to you. You insist on getting my attention anyway and complain if I won’t give it to you. It’s getting in the way of my ability to focus, so if I say I can’t talk, I need you to let me work.” Who knows, maybe he’ll back off. Or maybe he’ll find that hilarious and it’ll egg him on further.

If that’s the case, then at that point you’ll have plenty of standing to go to your boss because this is something that’s interfering in your ability to work. You’ll have tried to address it on your own, Bob will have openly refused to leave you alone, and you’ll have exhausted your options for handling it yourself.

(If that doesn’t work, consider digging a large pit right under Bob’s chair for him to fall into one day. You can send down food and water.)

job candidate was fired twice previously, I have to pay to volunteer, and more

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

1. How much of a red flag is it if a job candidate was fired twice previously?

I am hiring for a position that is fairly entry-level office work. A candidate, who is fairly young, lists two positions in the past decade from which they were fired, but they were post-college full-time positions, not high school summer jobs where turnover would be expected to be high and where the job may not be a huge priority for the employee. This seems like a lot. I would follow up with a reference check to get more details if I move this candidate forward, but I’m not sure if I should just disqualify them — I’m a couple decades into my career and I’ve never been fired, so I am not sure if my frame of reference is skewed here. If it matters, there are other candidates I’m leaning toward, but this candidate is currently in my top tier in terms of skills and experience.

If they’re in your top tier of candidates aside from this, why not talk to them and ask about it? What you hear might turn out to be concerning/disqualifying, but it also might not be. Examples of things that might not be worrisome: they took a job that wasn’t right for their skills, and those aren’t skills they’d be using in this job … the job changed after they were hired, and their skills were no longer right for it … they were fired after reporting harassment or discrimination … they messed up but have learned from it, as demonstrated by their strong work since … and on and on.

You’ve got to talk to them and get more info before you can know. You should also verify whatever they tell you with references, particularly since this is two incidents rather than one, but since they’re a strong candidate it doesn’t make sense to reject them without learning more.

2. I have to pay a membership fee to volunteer

I have been volunteering for a small, young nonprofit that as of today consists of myself and board members on the staff. Although I am not on the board, I am expected to attend all board meetings to provide input on strategies and tactics and give an update on my one-person department, which is fine by me. The nonprofit does not pay anyone and primarily makes money through donations and memberships. All board members have purchased memberships, and as far as I can understand it is an unofficial prerequisite for being a board member.

Today, the founder reached out to me and said he cannot send me an invite to the next board meeting on Teams unless I pay a membership fee. Although the cost of a membership fee is not prohibitive for me, I am saving up for a home and am saving wherever I can so I don’t want to pay for this. I told the founder I am fine with not being involved in board meetings since I am not a board member, and they clarified that in order to be on the staff at all you have to pay to have a membership.

Am I crazy in thinking this feels off? I would like to think my time, services, and the products I create for them are payment enough, and now this just feels like they are after my cash. Do other nonprofits who have volunteers typically require for their volunteers to pay some fee to have the opportunity to volunteer?

No, that’s ridiculous. You’re donating your time and expertise to them. A requirement that you also be a paid member is gatekeeping and counterproductive — and a sure way to alienate volunteers. It’s particularly bizarre since you are their only volunteer and they have no staff! If they had a huge volume of potential volunteers, prioritizing members wouldn’t be unreasonable — but they’re not exactly in a position to turn away help.

They probably see membership as a sign that you’re invested in the organization — but donating your time is also a sign that you’re invested in the organization (a bigger one, in fact).

If you’re willing to walk away over this, you could say, “I’m happy to donate my time and skills, but I’m not in a position to donate financially. Does that mean you’d rather I stop volunteering?”

3. My boss has already reserved all the holiday time off for himself

We have a shared calendar we are asked to use to schedule our time off. Either my boss or I have to be working for coverage. He has scheduled for time off for Thanksgiving and Christmas a couple months in advance in previous years, but it is April and I see he has scheduled PTO on the calendar around every holiday this year. In the past he has said, “I just put that up there to get it on the calendar, we can work around it if you need time off then as well,” which I suppose is some level of consideration … but since it is my boss, I am reluctant to do so and I certainly am less likely to feel like I can schedule anything major with my family, such as prolonged travel to see my family out of state.

Am I wrong for feeling pre-empted and not considered here? If so, should I talk with him and express that this is unfair to me and why I’m less likely to take that time off? His family tends to plan their whole year out (or they make it seem so!) whereas mine is much less likely to do so (and due to other schedules, are much less likely to be able to do so).

Talk to him. You could say, “I’d like to be able to take time off at the holidays but I typically don’t know specific dates this early in the year. What’s the best way for me to ensure I’ll be able to get the time I need if I won’t know the exact dates until (month)?” You could also say, “I’m concerned that with what’s on the calendar right now, I won’t be able to take any time off around the holidays” and suggest that you trade off holidays — if he gets Christmas, you get Thanksgiving or vice versa.

But also, how close to the holidays would you ideally want to wait before scheduling your own time? If your preference is to wait until very late in the year, that might not be realistic in this situation; you might need to nail down some dates earlier than you’d otherwise want so that he can make concrete plans as well (or you risk forfeiting your ability to do it later). You might benefit from using your boss’s approach of “just getting it on the calendar.”

4. Responding to job overtures from other teams when I’m not interested

I’m currently in an analyst role, which I’ve been in for the last three years. My performance reviews have all been in the top performer range, which is unusual in my company.

I have started receiving emails from managers of other departments advising me they have job openings in various teams and if I applied they’d be willing to throw their weight behind my application because “I’d be a good fit for their team” or “I have a lot to offer them.” This is completely unfamiliar (but quite flattering) territory for me as it isn’t something I’ve come across in other businesses I’ve worked for in the past.

My current role works with data across the entire company, so I still need to be able to work closely with these people in future, but the roles they are offering really don’t appeal to me. They aren’t promotions, they are at the same level and in the same pay band, but involve far more admin and customer service than I would like to do (which I deliberately moved away from when I took this job).

My manager also has a reputation for being difficult to work with, even though we have a great relationship (after an initial rocky start), so I don’t know if they think they are offering me a way out of her team while gaining someone with skills and knowledge they can use — and it feels far too rude to ask! I’ve been responding with a polite, general note that I’m not looking to move roles at the moment, and I’m in the middle of some projects that I’d really like to see to completion, but I’m worried that I’ve just set myself up for more emails when those projects close. I don’t mind getting offers, but I’d rather not be seen as someone who just always says no in the event that there is a role I’d be interested in. How do you politely decline something unsolicited like this without damaging relationships that need to be maintained? Am I overthinking this?

First, you definitely shouldn’t need to worry that turning down an offer will make it harder to work with people in the future; it shouldn’t. If anything, you’re seeing that they value working with you!

Continue sending the polite notes you’ve been sending, but I’d remove the mention of wanting to see some projects to completion since that does imply that you might be up for moving as soon as they’re over. Instead, it’s fine to just say, “Thank you for letting me know! Right now I’m happy where I am, but I appreciate being thought of.” When there are things about the role that are clearly not right for you, you can also mention that since it’ll help them target things better for you in the future — “Thanks for thinking of me! This role looks like it has a heavier admin and customer service component than what I’d be looking for in my next move, but I appreciate you letting me know about it.”

If it’s a team where you think you might want to work some day, you can also mention what you would like — “I’m happy where I am right now, but at some point I think I’d be interested in moving into X. If that kind of role ever opens up and you think I could be the right match, I’d love to talk with you about it.”

5. Interviewing when I’ll need time off to care for elderly parents

I lost a job a couple of years ago. The new position I found was not in my field, and I currently have my fingers crossed for a new position that does relate to my decades of experience. However, I have elderly parents, and one just got a dementia diagnosis that will require growing amounts of care for possibly years to come. On and off for a few years, I’ve already needed time off to care for both of them, usually occasional ER visits and not consistent appointments.

Next week I have an interview with an organization that is notoriously difficult to get into and very well respected. Just getting advanced to this stage feels like a win. Even if this position turns out not to be the one for me, I will still be searching for opportunities to return to this field. When I do find something, I will need to let the new employer know about potential impacts due to caregiving needs. I realize the interview is not the right time, but at what point would I want to inform a new employer about the potential need for flexibility due to FMLA?

The first thing to know is that you’re not eligible for FMLA until you’ve been at the new job for a year (although some state laws kick in earlier). That doesn’t mean, though, that you won’t be able to take the time off that you need; many employers would be happy to work with you around this.

The right time to raise it is once you have an offer. At that point, as part of your negotiations, explain what you’ll need and ask if it’s something they can accommodate. Be as specific as you can about the likely frequency, since if they’re going to object it’s better to find out before taking the job than after you’re already working there. Good luck!

speed round — submit your questions

It’s the Ask a Manager speed round! On Wednesday from 2-4 pm ET, I’ll be answering as many questions as I can live on the website during that time.

To submit a question in advance, use the form below. (You’ll also be able to submit questions during the speed round itself tomorrow.)

These will be short answers, obviously, so this is better suited for questions that don’t require lengthy, nuanced replies.

Update: The response to this has been overwhelming so I’m closing the question submission form for now. You’ll still be able to submit questions during the live speed round itself.

how should I address my interviewer in application emails?

A reader writes:

I have a question about how to address someone at a company you’re applying to during the process. Recently, a colleague of mine passed along my resume to someone they knew was hiring informally and great news! My colleague got back to me and said something to the effect of, “Bob Smith was really interested in you. He asked me to pass along his email and direct phone number. Reach out to him to set up an interview for this week.”

Here’s the question: My spouse thinks that I should have addressed this email “Dear Mr. Smith.” In my mind, I should address the email “Dear Bob.”

My spouse stressed that I need to show respect/reverence for the person who might become my future boss, but I don’t see it that way. I’m thinking of this as a business transaction and I certainly wouldn’t call my boss Mr. Smith day-to-day if I do end up working for him later. For what it’s worth, my spouse would also address the email Dear Mr./Ms. [Last Name] if it was a recruiter reaching out for a phone screen as well.

What’s the correct business etiquette here?

Either one is fine!

“Dear Ms. LastName” has long been standard business etiquette. Lots of candidates still use it, and no sensible hiring manager will hold it against you.

But in the vast, vast majority of industries, first names are totally fine and there has been a rapid increasing move in that direction. Plus, it is especially fine when you’ve been referred by a mutual contact.

That’s the short answer. Here’s the longer one:

Generally, when you’re talking with prospective employers about jobs, it makes sense to interact with them in a way that’s similar to how you would interact if they were current colleagues. Not the colleague who you go to drinks with every week and gossip about your boss with, obviously — but a colleague who you feel warmly toward and have a friendly relationship with even though you haven’t worked together much.

Some people approach interviewers more like your husband does — but those people tend to come across as more stiff and formal and less personable. In some fields and with some hiring managers, that might not matter. But more often than not, you’ll come across better if you relax a little and treat the person like a colleague.

What you definitely don’t need to do is show reverence for a hiring manager! Any hiring manager who wants that is someone who you don’t want to work for, and good interviewers will be a little put off if they pick up on it. I’m not talking here about just opening a letter with “Dear Ms. LastName” — that’s just old-fashioned business writing and it’s not a big deal. But actual reverence won’t come across well in a healthy workplace. I suspect your husband doesn’t really mean reverence though; hopefully he just means respect. And respect is good — but most people these days consider first names in hiring correspondence perfectly respectful.

how bad is job-hopping, really?

A reader writes:

How bad is it really to “bounce around” jobs frequently?

I’ve been practicing in my field for about five years and have had three jobs in that time – the first for about five months, the next for about two and a half years, and my current one for about a year and a half. Recently, I’ve been starting to feel unfulfilled at my current job, partly because of the pandemic (my workload has been really inconsistent), but also because the workplace in general is a lot more anti-social and older-skewing than I was originally expecting. I came from another job where there were a lot of people around my age, frequent group lunches/happy hours, etc. Here, while everyone I work with is super nice and lovely, most of them could be my parents and everyone simply sits in their office alone, not really interacting (the only plus was that this made the transition to working from home very easy for everyone).

I’ve also been thinking about my long-term goals and have concluded that staying where I currently am may not lend itself those goals. I’m an associate at a law firm doing a kind of niche work that isn’t typically valued outside of the specific field, and I know that I want to eventually go in-house with a company rather than become a law firm partner.

All of this seems to point to searching for a new job. However, I have heard time and time again that it looks bad on a resume to have bounced around a lot and was advised by someone I used to work with that I really need to stay at my current job for at least two years before moving again. I myself have judged someone’s frequent moves when evaluating potential candidates. But is this true? Will I really be hamstrung in a potential job search by not hitting an arbitrary mark of time at a job I don’t like? Should I just wait it out?

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

how do I get out of my office’s toxic positivity meetings?

A reader writes:

So I work at a small nonprofit in a non-U.S. country, during this pandemic. Due to a number of pandemic-related factors, the work I do has been complicated multiple times during the last year or so, and I am doing my best to manage this stress and all of the deadlines my job involves, but the management team at my job are not helping and are filling my calendar with frivolous meetings.

They insist on doing what they refer to as TEAM CONNECTS! which are Zoom calls where they ask questions about Covid and how we are feeling. There is an intense, albeit unstated, pressure to be chipper and cheerful at these meetings, even if you are not feeling that way.

For example, one of the first times we did one of these calls, they had not only just reduced my pay and hours the day before due to the pandemic (something that was not universal but done to select staff), but laid off half of my working team 10 minutes prior to the meeting! Although I was upset and shaken, in the meeting I was called out on the spot by name to contribute something positive about Covid! I was so shocked, the best I could muster was that it definitely was reminding me about what was important and what my priorities should be.

Since that event, these situations keep arising. I have lost family members due to COVID. and still, every two weeks, whether I want to or not (I don’t!), I have to gather to discuss what inspires me or what I consider team work to be during this era of Covid.

The one time I was honest and talked about how upsetting the losses have been and how taxing talking about/dealing with Covid is for me (I am the only person in staff of 20+ with a school-aged child), I was met with uncomfortable silence and nobody even addressed or acknowledged what I’d said before they quickly moved on to another topic.

I am trying to be “a team player” but I am tired and honestly? I already have a therapist for this kind of stuff! They say we don’t need to speak in these meetings, but if I don’t contribute to the discourse, I am called out by name and forced to speak. If I make suggestions that don’t involve being put on the spot and only contributing to discussions when time/mental health allow, I am met with complaints that “optional interaction isn’t as valuable!” They are now gearing up to relaunch the social committee and push us into even more social situations where we do things like eat lunch and watch Netflix together! My lunch hour is the one break I get all day — I don’t want to do this!

I understand that other people may get something out of these exercises (a number of the senior management team are single people who are quarantining alone), but for me, they have become forced socialization appointments on my calendar that I completely dread. I felt like crying at the one I had today.

What do I do here? Is there a polite way to bow out of these meetings? I actually like my job and the work I do (in spite of the stress right now), but these events are awful!

What the F.

They’re demanding that you name something positive about Covid?

Over and over?

When people are losing loved ones?

And they demanded that you name something positive about Covid 10 minutes after half your team was let go and a day after they cut your pay?

I hear a lot of ridiculous things writing this column, but this should win some sort of prize for how out of touch it is.

And the one time you tried to speak openly about how upsetting the pandemic is, everyone acted like you’d pooped on the floor and you were the problem?

What is going on in the culture there? I mean, there’s plenty of toxic positivity floating around in lots of companies — and lots of “share but only share in the exact way we want, and make yourself vulnerable but only in ways we approve of” — and lots of “your mental health is our business even though we’re in no way qualified to address it and might in fact worsen it” — but this is still a remarkable commitment to bad practices on multiple levels. So I’m curious about what else goes on there, because I’m skeptical that there aren’t other problems.

As for what to do …

At a healthier organization, you’d be able to simply say that you don’t find the meetings helpful and would like to opt out so you can focus on pressing deadlines. But when you just asked not to be forced to speak in the meetings, you were told “optional interaction isn’t as valuable!” (??!) so I’m not optimistic that you’d get a different response if you proposed not attending at all. (But who knows, maybe you would. Sometimes people get hung up on “if you’re here, you participate” and so it goes better if you can just … not be there.)

At this point, I would go straight to telling your boss that these meetings are bad for your mental health and so you need to stop attending. You could use language like, “I have lost family members to Covid and I am not in a place where I can participate in a discussion of what’s good in the pandemic. I’ve made a good faith attempt for a while, but it’s become clear to me that these meetings do me more harm than good. To protect my mental health, my plan is to stop attending and I’ll use that time to work on projects like XYZ.”

Your boss may still push back, but you’ll have put it in terms that will make it much more awkward for her to do that so let’s see what happens.

But if you’re outright required to continue attending, even after that conversation, one option is to stick to really vague responses that don’t require any real emotion from you: “I’m hanging in! Such a weird time, blah blah.” … “Team work in the age of Covid? I guess I’d say it’s been important for us all to be flexible and work together to support our goals.” … “Something positive about the pandemic? Well, it’s made me appreciate family and friends more than ever.” … just totally vague and bland pablum.

The other option, of course, is to refuse to play along: “Well, to be honest, I’m shaken by the layoffs! I’m worried about the colleagues we lost and about how to absorb that work on fewer hours. Can we talk about the plan for that?” … “Nothing from me today — I know you’ve said we don’t need to speak in these meetings, so I’m going to pass today.” … “Like a lot of people, I’m not feeling positive about Covid right now. So I’ll pass today.” … “While we’re talking about team work, could we talk about how the team should approach Work Complication X?” … You’d need to judge how much this might or might not hurt you politically there, and how much you care, but it’s an option. (And if you do a few “can we talk about the plan for handling X?” they might be happy to have you opt out of future meetings.)

Also, any chance you’ve got other coworkers who feel similarly to you? Even if there are just a few of you, pushing back as a group can often carry more weight and make it harder for you to be singled out as the problem person.

Your office is exhausting.

coworkers keep interrupting my closed-door meetings, is it weird to throw a party for coworkers at your house, and more

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

1. Coworkers keep interrupting my closed-door meetings

I am wondering how to address what seems to be an organization-wide lack of office etiquette. I was recently in a meeting with my boss, the CFO, in my office. We were discussing a serious matter and the door was shut. Yet two staff members felt it was appropriate to knock anyway, for access to non-urgent things like petty cash and use of the corporate gas card. My boss was standing near the door and opened it, visibly annoyed. He made a comment to the the two interrupters about the situation, but this is almost a daily occurrence and those two coworkers are not even the worst offenders. Today, I was interrupted (closed office door) by a staff member from another department asking if I knew where there was a vacuum cleaner they could use! That kind of pushed me over the edge, and the tone of my response was not the kindest. I indicated that I was unaware that cleaning equipment was part of the staff accountant job description and the person left in a huff. This goes on daily, even with a do not disturb sign on the door … even during an audit!

They are usually staff members from other departments. While I consider them peers in that I’m not a supervisor of any staff, in our company chart I am above them. My boss thinks I worry to much about being liked and I haven’t set appropriate boundaries because of this. He’s not wrong! I tend to let things that annoy me build up, until I eventually blow my stack. I know I need to be more direct, but my first go to about this situation was to put a sign on my office door which seems too passive aggressive. Please help before I really lose my cool!

A sign isn’t passive-aggressive; it’s practical and direct. Since you’re apparently working in an office where people think it’s fine to knock on a closed door even for minor things (and in some offices, it genuinely is) and you don’t want them to, put a sign on your door that says “in meeting — please do not interrupt.”

If someone knocks anyway (or if you forget the sign one day), it’s fine to say to the interruptor, “I’m in a meeting right now — please come back when I’m out” or “I’m in a meeting, but I’ll find you later” or so forth. If someone is a repeat offender, address that with them privately later: “When you see my door closed, please assume I’m busy and can’t be interrupted — send an email about what you need and I’ll see it when I’m done.” But none of this needs to involve blowing your stack! When you realize you can assert reasonable boundaries in a matter-of-fact way, you’re far less likely to end up frustrated to the point of losing your cool.

2. Is it weird to throw a party for coworkers at your house?

I work for a company that generally encourages team members to socialize and become friendly outside of work. I didn’t mind this when we were in-office (we have been working from home since March 2020) as this usually meant lunches, early dinners at restaurants, or happy hours near work. However, I have been on three calls this week where someone said, “When we are all vaccinated I’m going to have a BBQ, party, etc. at my house so we can all get together and see each other.” One person was my direct leader, one was my director, the third was a comparable level coworker. I know this sounds strange, but I would feel uncomfortable going to a coworker or leader’s home for a private party or BBQ. I understand COVID has changed lots of things, but I still feel like this is strange. I am polite and friendly at work, but I try to keep my work and personal social life separate. Am I wrong in thinking it would be weird to go to a coworker’s house for a private party? Or is this normal and I just haven’t been invited to any previously?

Another issue I foresee is that I imagine these events will take place on weekends or evening hours and I do not want to cut into my private, relaxation time to go to a colleagues home to socialize. I am inclined to being an introvert and need my free time to recharge. Besides crossing my fingers and hoping these events never get planned, how can I politely turn down any offers for outside of work hours events at coworkers’ homes if they do get extended, especially ones coming from someone above me?

There are offices where this is a thing that happens. It’s often — but not always — offices with lots of young people where the social boundaries are blurred, or a senior exec hosting a relatively fancy event at their home. There are also lots of offices where this never happens and would be odd.

It’s quite possible that the plans your coworkers are announcing will never come to fruition; we’re at a stage where it feels good (to some people) to talk about all the things we’re going to do once we can do them, but that doesn’t mean they’ll really follow through. If they do, though, it’s perfectly fine for you to decline the invitation because you have other plans for that time. That said, if the party is being thrown by your manager or director, it might be politically useful to show up for an hour, be seen, and then cheerfully take your leave … but you don’t have to do that if you’d rather not. People have plans outside of work! It’s okay for you to have a conflict.

3. Is eight interviews ridiculous?

My fiancé just got out of his eighth interview for a position. Yes, eighth. The job is a manager position, but nothing like a director or a VP. These interviews were with everyone from an external recruiter to a VP and have ranged from 25 minutes to an hour. One was more of a test where they presented him with some reports that they used and asked him to find various data. The recruiter has assured him that this was the final interview, but still — it seems like a ridiculous number of interviews. Our city’s offices are almost entirely remote right now, so all of these were video calls, but what if everyone was still in offices? Would they expect him to take time off of his current job eight separate times? We wondered if normally, they’d walk him around the office and introduce him to various people after a regular interview and everyone on the team could get an impression, rather than setting up eight separate meeetings.

Other things have made me wary, though. The company is under 40 people. They have no real HR. Multiple people he talked to have hinted or outright said that they’re dedicated to “the grind” — that people work hard and, sometimes, long hours. They have no time off policy, meaning that, in theory, people can take as little or as much time off as they need. In reality, though, I’ve heard (including from your blog!) that these policies often mean that taking time off at all is frowned upon — and without a bank of PTO that’s baked into a compensation package.

If only one of these things were the case, I probably wouldn’t think twice, but all of it together — plus the number of interviews — has me worried that this company overworks their employees and doesn’t respect their time. Some of our friends who he’s described the process to think I’m overthinking things. Of course, in the end, what I think doesn’t matter as much as what he thinks, and if he wants the job he’ll take it. I guess I just want confirmation that I’m not overthinking this, or that I’m wrong to be super wary. Is eight interviews not as over-the-top as I think it is? Are more interviews becoming more normal now that everyone’s at home?

Yeah, some companies are doing more individual interviews like this since so many people have gone remote. Maybe in the Before Times you would have met with, say, four people in one morning at the company’s office but now those four conversations are being scheduled in separate calls; since you’re not going anywhere to do it, they assume it’s not the same hassle for you that four in-person meetings would be. But eight is a lot. I’d pay attention to how organized they seem overall: Was this number of calls always the plan or did they keep adding on meetings and not seem to know what process they’d use or what to expect next at any given stage? What other signs has your fiancé seen about their level of organization, planning, and decisiveness versus chaos and indecision?

The other stuff could be bad or it might not be a big deal — it depends on details I don’t have. The best advice you can give your fiancé is to do a ton of due diligence — talk to people who work there or have worked there or who otherwise have the inside scoop, and don’t just rely on what he learned in formal interviews.

4. People won’t say my last name

Nobody at work will say my last name. My last name is not pronounced how most people think, and the way it looks like you should pronounce it, is a fairly innocuous word but could be considered an insult. For the sake of argument, let’s pretend my name is Katniss Pygg, and Pygg is pronounced like pie with a g.

So I’ll be in a meeting and the organizer will be doing roll call or reading the team names off a slide, and literally every other name is read “Firstname Lastname” but when they get to me, I’m just Katniss. Sometimes if they’re brave they say a very quiet, muffled Pffg. Because nobody wants to call me a Pig, right?

I’ve tried jumping in and saying “it’s Pie-g”, I’ve told people individually, I’ve even added the pronunciation as my Skype status. I never get upset when people say Pig or ask me how to say it, I usually graciously respond “that’s okay, nobody says it right! It’s Pie-g!” But still every day.. “We have Harry Potter, Mary Poppins, John Wick, uh, Katniss, uh, Jiminy Cricket…” even with people I’ve told before, and people who were in meetings where I’ve told people.

It seems like it’s gotten worse with all remote work, because I can’t smile and catch the person’s eye to let them know it’s okay to pause and ask how to say my name. Do you have any suggestions for how to get people to say my name, or do I need to just suck it up and call myself one of those one name celebrities?

I think (a) it’s probably never going to go away completely and the more you can resign yourself to that and decide not to care, the happier you will be (as with name misspellings), but also (b) it’s totally fine to jump in when you hear someone hesitating over your name and call out “Pygg!” If you notice someone struggling with it repeatedly, it could be worth a quick, private, matter-of-fact, “I’ve noticed you hesitating over my last name! So you’re sure for next time, it’s pronounced Pygg.”

5. Do I tell my internship supervisor that another employee is badmouthing him?

I’m a (remote) intern with a law firm, and I report to an attorney, Peter. I also work with several other attorneys, paralegals, and legal assistants. This has been great, except for the way that one of the legal assistants, Susan, keeps talking about my supervisor when in direct conversation with me.

Several times when working on a project for Susan, I have not known how to do something or been unable to access part of the client file, and remarked that I should ask Peter about it. Every time, Susan immediately and strongly responds by saying that Peter “hates being asked that sort of thing” or in general hates being asked questions. She has heavily implied or outright stated several times that Peter would be angered or upset by me asking him basic questions.

This could not be farther from my direct experience with Peter, who has been nothing but accommodating, friendly, and professional in all of our interactions. He has never discouraged question asking, nor responded in a way that indicated he didn’t appreciate being asked. Sometimes he will tell me to look for an answer myself, but even then it feels as if he is teaching me something, not that he’s annoyed or angered.

Should I let Peter know that Susan is saying these things about him to an intern who reports directly to him? I am confident enough in my relationship with him to disregard what she says about him for the most part — I know I can ask him questions and he’s not going to be upset, and I don’t know what Susan’s problem is — but the next intern might not be, and this could seriously damage their relationship with him and cause problems in the work product as well. (If it matters, there are other indications I’ve seen that things are not totally well with Susan and the rest of the team. For example, I received an email the other day saying, “Hey, Susan was assigned these reports and never completed them. We don’t know what’s up with that. They’re due today, can you get on that for us?”)

I could argue this either way. If I were Peter, I’d definitely want to know — but that doesn’t oblige you, as an intern, to take the initiative to be a go-between on office weirdnesses. And it’s possible there’s more to the situation that you aren’t aware of (like maybe Peter is very different with Susan than he is with you, who knows). So if you’d rather just leave this alone, that’s fine. But it also would be completely okay if you want to mention it to Peter! Don’t do it in a “Susan sucks” way, but more “it might be useful to give other interns clearer guidance on this since I can imagine it causing problems if someone thought they shouldn’t ask you anything.”

One easy time to raise it could be toward the end of your internship as part of a conversation about how things went … but you could also raise it now if you want to, and if I were Peter, I’d rather know sooner than later.

do I have to wear a bra when I go back to the office?

A reader writes:

I (25, she/her) have been lucky enough to work from home this past year. I am halfway through the vaccination process, which has made me think about going back to the office sometime soon (it’s open, and for the time being management has left it up to us whether we’d like to return or not).

The thing is: I have not worn a bra (except for exercise) for more than 10 months, and I don’t ever want to again if I don’t have to. My boobs are free! It is amazing! Their underwire prisons have been relegated to the back of my closet and I do! not! want! to retrieve them.

The office is business casual, leaning towards the more casual side, and overall very liberal—many people wear jeans, and t-shirts in good repair are not unheard of. The dress code allows sandals but not flip-flops, and women wear dresses (some with spaghetti straps). We rarely interact with the public, and we have a very active staff, so more than occasionally people come in from their bike commute or back from their lunch break in workout clothes, and not everyone changes right away.

During the pandemic, we have been a video-on Zoom meeting crew. I don’t wear a bra, and I don’t think it’s very noticeable — I choose shirts that are loose or wear camis under ones that would maybe be more showy. But if I were to be walking around an office with my average-sized boobs in work attire, there may be some jiggle. When the AC is on blast, there will likely be occasional nipple. To a close observer, it could be apparent that I’m not wearing a bra. I know this seems trivial … but this year has shown me that life is too short to be uncomfortable for 40 hours a week, and I am most comfortable without a bra.

I’ve seen some of your previous columns about bras in the workplace (and on Zoom meetings), but I’m curious if your views have changed in light of recent events. All this is a long preamble to ask: Do I have to wear a bra when I go back to the office?

Aggggh, I really want to tell you that you don’t have to return to wearing a bra … but it’s probably still going to be a thing in most offices.

Of course, that’s only the case if people can tell when you’re not wearing a bra. Your underwear is very much no one’s business otherwise, so if your body or your clothing means no one can tell, then go to town. And this doesn’t mean you’ve got to bind yourself into something rigidly structured and underwired; sports bras, bralettes, and tanks with shelf bras are all options. But yeah, full bralessness is probably going to continue being seen as unprofessional in most offices.

That doesn’t mean that’s right. It’s not right that our ideas of  “professionalism” still require women to strap down and disguise their boobs, but that’s the world we live in. You always have the right to decide that’s a battle you’re going to fight, of course, but if you’re just asking about general norms … yeah, the dark days of bras’ return are likely soon to be upon us.

people are freaked out about going back to their offices

Many workplaces that went fully remote last year are starting to set timelines for bringing people back to the office, and their employees are not happy.

As reopening initiatives gather steam, I’ve been flooded with letters from people viewing these plans with deep suspicion — largely, I suspect, because in the past year, we’ve had experienced a massive loss of trust in our institutions and in each one another. At Slate today, I wrote about how that’s affecting reopening plans. You can read it here.

is this office culture cutting-edge or a cult?

A reader writes:

I recently saw an entry level job opening at a fairly new company that would be a great fit for me as long as the company isn’t a weird cult. The style of the job listing gave me pause. It was less explanatory about the role and more intensely vouching for the company culture.

For background, I’m looking to leave my first job out of college where I’ve been working for a year. I just don’t know much about the variation in office cultures out there. In my current industry (print journalism) starting pay is generally very low, ceiling for pay is also pretty low, turnover is high, and I’m basically perpetually on call during days I work. I’ve found the lack of distinction between work and personal life grueling.

An entry-level job at this other company pays about 20% higher than entry-level journalism positions would. I just can’t tell if the culture is cutting edge and passionate or if it’s actually a potentially very toxic environment.

In the job application, there are links to videos about who should and should not work at the company (which is referred to as “the tribe”). Several employees say it’s “not a job” but a lifestyle. One employee says you need to be able to hit deadlines and not make extra work for other “tribe members.” Another says you need to be able to accept if your ideas are dismissed as “outright wrong” and that the company changes quickly and “there’s no apology for it.” That same employee talks about setting your own boundaries because she was approaching burnout in the first couple months on the job. Others talk about bringing “your whole self” to the job, being ready to have your “mask” torn off, and being willing to ask others to “call you out for your weaknesses.” The CEO said in one of the videos that the culture is completely opposite of anywhere “you” have worked before, basically because it encourages personal connections and growth. Also, the company website’s first page is all about why it’s a great place to work and its second page is about the services it offers.

I enjoy working hard, improving and being vulnerable to a point, but why is this company working so hard to convince me the culture is outstanding and totally unique?

On the other hand, according to its website, this company has won awards from several magazines for being one of the top 20 or whatever best places to work in the state and in the country. It also offers six weeks of paid time off per year, which is more than triple what my current company offers, so that bodes well for work/life balance.

Is this awesome or should I run for the hills? And if it is awesome, why does it freak me out?

I’d lean toward running for the hills.

The stuff they’ve chosen to highlight in their videos are very … specific choices. Here’s how I’d interpret them:

* “It’s not a job, but a lifestyle” — You will be expected to work long hours, be on call 24/7, and have no boundaries between work and your personal life.

* “You need to be able to hit deadlines” — This is such a basic, unremarkable requirement that choosing to feature it in a recruitment video says something odd. Either their deadlines are unrealistic and unrelenting, or they like to think of themselves as special in ways they are not.

* “You need to be to accept it if your ideas are dismissed as outright wrong” — The fact that this is in their videos says they’re doing this regularly, which is weird, and that they don’t tolerate pushback. This is not a pleasant place to work.

* “The company changes quickly and there’s no apology for it” — They make things up as they go and what you were told yesterday will probably change tomorrow. (I’m interpreting this one in the context of the rest of it. There are companies you could describe this way where it would be less problematic — but grouped with all the rest of this? It’s going to be bad.)

* “I was approaching burnout in my first couple of months on the job” — Burnout will be your way of life.

* “Be ready to have your mask torn off” — Hi, this is a cult.

* “Be willing to ask others to call you out on your weaknesses” — Again, taken in the context of the rest of it, bad news. In a healthy culture, this can work fine. In this culture, it’ll be used against you. I would bet a large amount of money on it.

* “The culture is the opposite of anywhere you have worked before, because it encourages personal connections and growth” — This is not a unique thing. It is weird that they think this is a unique thing.

It’s also worth noting that in their staff photo of about 45 people, there is only one who isn’t white.  (Perhaps that’s why no one has realized that their usage of “tribe” is increasingly understood to be problematic, and companies are dropping it.)

Nearly everyone looks very young too — which is the sign of a company that deliberately hires inexperienced people because they’re more likely to put up with things that more experienced people won’t.

As for the company having won awards for being a good place to work, it’s important to know that those lists aren’t terribly reliable. The screening criteria they use tend to be limited (for example, the benefits package) and don’t include many of the factors that control whether somewhere actually is good or bad to work at (like quality of management or culture). Companies nominate themselves for consideration and submit info in a process that’s often managed by their marketing departments. So I wouldn’t put a ton of weight on that.

That said … I don’t know anything about this company other than the links you showed me. (Although a peek at their Glassdoor reviews makes me think I’m not off-base.) If you’re interested in the work, there’s no harm in applying, interviewing, and learning more. Just go in with a healthy amount of skepticism and do a ton of vetting of your own before making any decisions.