I can’t keep helping friends with their writing, office butter bonanza, and more

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

1. How do I tell friends and family I can’t keep helping with their writing?

I’m an English teacher and over the years many of my friends and family have asked me for feedback on their writing. Now that I have a family, the demands on my time are greater and frankly, I am less interested in helping like this. How do I transition my friends out of this? I would feel weird charging them but I guess I should? I really don’t know how to broach this with people without sounding awkward and weird; I think I am too emotionally invested.

Would you want to do if they were paying? If not, don’t offer that as an option just to decrease the requests because some people may take you up on it! If you just don’t want to do it regardless of pay, it’s totally okay to just explain your schedule doesn’t allow it anymore. Anything like this works, depending on the tone you want with the particular asker:

* “My schedule is so swamped these days that I wouldn’t be able to do it justice.”
* “Ah, I’m sorry. I don’t have enough free time these days to be able to say yes.”
* “I wish I could help! My schedule is crazed right now though. Sorry I can’t look at it!”
* “If I say yes, it will sit for weeks while I feel guilty for not having enough time to look at it, so I’m going to preempt that by doing the right thing and telling you now I can’t.”
* “I’m trying not to say yes to that anymore, since my schedule has gotten so packed.”

If you make it a big thing where you feel terrible and like you’re letting them down, it’s likely to be weird on their side too. If you’re matter-of-fact about it and then change the subject to something else, it’ll go fine with reasonable people. (And if they’re unreasonable, there’s nothing to feel bad about anyway.)

But if you’d do a few of these requests for the right price, you can say: “I’ve gotten so many of these requests from family and friends, and my schedule is so busy now, that I’ve actually started charging a fee for it. I totally understand if that’s not what you’re interested in, but if you are, the fee people are paying is $X.” (I like “the fee people are paying” rather than “the fee I’m charging,” because it emphasizes that other people find this worth money, which makes it harder for them to complain they shouldn’t have to pay.)

2. Drug testing for nicotine

My husband has been trying to quit smoking, and he is in the process of applying for jobs. As part of the application process, they’re asking for drug screening, not only for illegal drugs but also for nicotine. In some cases (bank teller positions), it was made clear ahead of time that they were testing for nicotine and that its presence would take him out of the running; in other cases, it was a total surprise, after he had done the test, that they were even testing for that.

I understand wanting to have a nonsmoking work environment, but even using the patches, he was disqualified. These are not jobs in the healthcare field — we’re talking bank teller, security guard, guest attendant. It seems so invasive and so illogical that I have to ask, where is this coming from? What even is the logic, that smokers are not to be trusted to hold down a job? Is anyone else experiencing this? And he’s working hard on quitting, but in the meantime, what recourse do we have, to stop burning through our savings?

Yep, some employers are doing this. You mostly see it in the health care field, but where it’s popping up in other places, it’s driven by insurance costs. It’s cheaper for employers to insure non-smokers. (There are sometimes secondary concerns too, like client complaints about employees who smell like smoke … but mostly this is about health care costs.)

Some states do have laws that prohibit employers from discriminating against smokers. To see if you’re in one of those states, check the list here. But if you’re not, there’s not much recourse on this. He could certainly try explaining that he’s not smoking but instead is using nicotine patches — but my hunch is employers are likely to be pretty rigid about the policy (both because people using patches often go back to cigarettes, and because often insurance discounts are based on them having an across-the-board rule).

3. Tubs of butter are taking up all the room in our tiny fridge

I had no idea this would be the hill I wanted to die on, but here we are. In our office, on our floor we have a kitchen area with a small dorm-sized fridge. There are 13 of us in our little area although with part-time and working from home, six to 10 is more normal most days.

The bottom of the fridge is taken up by the office milk leaving two rather small shelves. Often people pop out at lunch and get some shopping and fill the fridge after lunch but at that point everyone has taken out their lunch and its mostly ok, although sometimes very difficult to shut.

The problem is the six full sizes tubs of margarine/butter. Seriously. Of 13 people, there are six of these. Sometimes five, but usually six. I first brought this up jokingly that this was ridiculous and a couple people defensively said they were sharing. This is a tiny fridge. With their six tubs and if I am not first in, I cannot put my lunch in the fridge. I have started bringing a cold bag or something that doesn’t need refrigeration. I mentioned that each tub is bigger than 1/13th of their share of the fridge and I just get “but I have toast in the morning.”

Sigh. I just think it’s so selfish and I’ve been as up front about it as I can think and people just do not see that a full sized tub is too big for a teeny shared fridge. I’m annoyed but not insane, this isn’t a management thing, but I would like to understand why their big tubs of margarine trump my lunch. You may just advise I take up meditation or up the martial arts training to channel my aggression but maybe you or the readers have a brilliant suggestion here to transform coworkers into sensitive space sharers? I really really like a cold diet coke.

Convince your office to buy a full-sized fridge (a dorm fridge for 13 people is way too small). Failing that, you could propose a butter club, where all the butter eaters chip in for a single tub of butter to share. (Or perhaps a butter club and a margarine club.)

But perhaps the best solution of all — butter keepers! They don’t go in in the refrigerator at all.

4. My boyfriend and I are interviewing for the same job

My boyfriend and I recently applied for the same marketing position. We come from a similar professional background, so it makes sense that every once in a while we may be interested in the same company. To our surprise, we both passed the first round of interviews and have been selected for the next round. We never imagined we would both get this far! Is it unethical for both of us to be in consideration? Should one of us drop out?

We are both extremely happy for each other and find the situation to be amusing. We love each other and both have many great career opportunities, so at this point either one of us getting this job would be an exciting moment as a couple.

The concern is less the impact on our relationship if one of us gets it over the other, and rather if it would look unprofessional or unethical for the hired party if the company found out that the other candidate was a romantic partner? Are we already in too deep here? Should couples avoid competing professionally (even if we are okay with it in our own relationship)?

It’s not unethical, but the company might feel a little odd if they find out later and realize you never said anything. It’s hard to articulate exactly why. A little of it is the worry that it could give one of you an unfair advantage or create an information imbalance they weren’t expecting. (Frankly, I don’t think that gives you a huge advantage; interviews aren’t like tests where knowing the questions would mean you could look up the answers ahead of time. But I could see someone feeling uneasy if they found out later that they hadn’t known.) More of it, though, is that some employers will feel it’s an odd thing not to mention.

And they might be more cognizant of what they to each of you if they know it may get back to the other. For example, I might tell a candidate they’re our front runner, but I wouldn’t say that if I knew their partner was still in the process with us.

I don’t think you have an obligation to disclose it, but I do think it’s smart to disclose it to avoid that potential weirdness. One of you could simply say, “By the way, I want to mention that my partner, Tangerina Stewpot, is also applying for this position. It’s not a problem for either of us, but I wanted to mention it.” That’ll also make it less awkward if one of you gets hired and the other one shows up a few months later as their date to the office Memorial Day barbecue or whatever.

5. Am I sabotaging my future career by volunteering too much?

I recently moved to a new (very small) city for my partner’s work. It’s a great place to live and we have friends here, so it has actually been a good transition. My problem is that I didn’t have a job lined up when we moved, and now that we’re here, I’m struggling to find one in my field. I have a long gap in employment – last year I was finishing my grad degree and not working at all. It’s been a while since I was actively job seeking, and I’m a bit intimidated, but trying my best.

Before we moved, I made a list of organizations in my new city that I’d love to work for. When I arrived, I leaned on my local network and met someone from each of those organizations for coffee. They were all friendly and open, but none of them are hiring (they’re local nonprofits with small budgets, and all of them led me to believe that they wouldn’t be hiring anytime soon).

I decided to volunteer for three of them — one weekly, and two on an as-needed basis. My reasoning was: get to know the people I want to work with, learn more about my field here, and just give back to my new community in a way I care about. It’s been rewarding, but I sometimes worry that I’m giving away free labor and there will never be a reason for any of these places to hire me.

At what point is volunteering no longer a good idea? The volunteer work I do is mostly below my skills/education level, but some of it involves more extensive knowledge/experience and I worry that I shouldn’t be doing this for free. On the other hand, volunteering is a good thing to do, and maybe this is my only way to be involved in my field here for the foreseeable future. Maybe I should be content just volunteering at these organizations, and start looking for paid work outside of my (fairly niche) field. I’ve been job searching continually, but the pickings are slim around here.

If it helps, I’m not in financial difficulty – no kids, low rent, and my partner makes good money, so I’m not desperate for a salary yet. But – I really want to work! I’ve been here three months and I’m ready for gainful employment. What do you think I should do? Keep volunteering or let them know I can’t continue for free?

Well, on one hand you’re saying that your reasons for volunteering are to “get to know the people I want to work with, learn more about my field here, and just give back to my new community in a way I care about.” But it also sounds like you’re hoping one of these organizations will hire you. That can be a really risky approach, because there’s no guarantee it will happen — and especially not with small organizations with limited budgets and limited staff. If they don’t currently have a paid employee who doing the type of work you’re doing, chances are relatively low that they’’ll create a full-time paid role for it. Not impossible, but low — unless they’ve specifically told you it’s a top item on their priority list once their budget allows it. That doesn’t mean they don’t value the work, just that there are usually going to be a bunch of higher priorities.

Because of that, if you tell them you can’t continue for free, the most likely outcome is that they’ll  thank you for the work you’ve done and wish you well. So you’ve got to decide if you want to do the work for other reasons or not. If you’re going to feel resentful or like you wasted your time if they never hire you, definitely stop volunteering since there’s a good chance that will never happen. But if you like the work you’re doing and won’t be upset if it doesn’t lead to anything more, keep doing it … just look at it as a way to expand your network and do good, rather than as a direct line to paying work.

how do I not lose hope in a highly competitive field?

A reader writes:

I’m in a very competitive, very niche academic field. I’m writing because I wonder if you and your readers can tell me how to keep going when I’m losing hope as this roller coaster of a search keeps on rolling.

I have been applying for jobs since last year, and I have had one — ONE — interview. A recent rejection informed me that I was one of 322 applicants for a position. This is the norm. It’s true that I was under no illusions going into this field — I made the decision to follow my passion, and I still deeply love what I do, and I can’t wait to teach full-time someday. But … reality is hitting hard. While I do have freelance work in my field, it is a “feast or famine” situation, and adjunct teaching is not consistent, i.e. some semesters I’m teaching and some semesters I’m not. I live off my gig checks and when I’m in a “famine” month I do part-time jobs so I can pay rent and eat, but it’s a vicious cycle because I have less time to apply for full-time jobs and pursue opportunities in my field that might improve my odds of employment.

Because jobs are few and far between, I apply to positions all over the world, in places I don’t even want to live and for jobs I’m not even sure are perfectly suited to me. I don’t know where I’ll be living from one year to the next. I’m going to be 35, single, without kids. I have accomplished more than most women my age, and am well known in my field. But I have no money, my life seems stagnant, and the rejections are making me feel like I’m failing. Every time I write a cover letter I feel this terrible feeling of intense hope combined with the inevitability of rejection. It’s exhausting.

This summer I finally took a vacation from applying for jobs and went off-grid for three weeks. It was good for my health and I returned refreshed. But as a “feast” semester ends and a “famine” one begins, and no prospect of full-time work waits for me, I feel myself sinking back to that place of despair. I have heard horror stories of people like me applying for positions for years and never finding work. I know this is a real possibility, but I don’t want that to be me. I’m scared, but I love what I do so much. I don’t want to give up hope.

My question is: how do you deal with this process? How do you maintain your mental health? How do you deal with rejection? How do you navigate the application process for extremely competitive jobs?

This isn’t the answer you’re asking for, but it’s the one I think is important.

Are you okay with this being your life long-term? If you knew that the unsteady adjunct jobs and feast and famine cycle was going to continue for the next 10 years, would you do anything differently now?

When you’re in a very competitive field where there are far more people who want a stable path in that field than there are stable paths available — and when the number of non-adjuncting jobs is shrinking and more competition is pouring into the market every year — the reality is that, no matter how good you are, you might not win that lottery. When something is your dream, it can make sense to give it a shot for a while … but there’s also a point where it’s far better for you to make alternate plans.

Only you can decide when you’re at that point. But do you love what you do enough to do it under these conditions for years to come? Are you comfortable sacrificing other huge things in your life (a location you like, money, security, peace of mind, maybe family) in exchange for what may be a long shot?

Or are there other paths you could be happy with? Could you, for example, be happy doing something professionally adjacent and teaching a course or two on the side?

Again, only you can make that call. But you’ve got to be really clear-eyed about the likely outcomes. If you stay on this path, your situation now may be your situation in 10 years, 15 years, and beyond. At a minimum, I’d at least look at what other paths are available to you.

You still have more than one future out there.

But if you decide that yes, it’s okay if life stays like this for the long-term, then I think the way you deal with the stress and rejections is by keeping that choice in the forefront of your mind — by remembering that you knowingly chose a tough path because you find the trade-offs enough, and by focusing on what you are getting out of it. And if you reach a point where that doesn’t feel like enough, there’s no shame in that — just make sure you recognize when that’s happening and don’t ignore it.

(The whole time I was writing this, I kept thinking that this is the same thing I’d tell someone heading to Hollywood to try to find success as an actor, or any other field where the number of people who find success is dwarfed by the number of people seeking it, which says a lot about the current state of academic jobs.)

my coworker is unbearably negative

A reader writes:

I have to sit with a coworker twice a month shut in an office by ourselves for several hours — and all she does is complain and groan about life and process all of her problems. I’d especially love your advice on ways to say “Hey, you’re so negative that I actually dread your visits and I never wanted to be your therapist” in a way that won’t hurt her feelings/is socially acceptable.

Background: I work as admin/secretary position where I work in an office alone 90% of the time. I communicate with my boss by phone and take calls from clients with work happening on the field. Twice a month, we have a bookkeeper (Jane) who comes in for 3-4 hours and does her work while I take calls and do other tasks.

This bookkeeper is, well, definitely one of the most negative people I’ve ever met in my life. She’s very nice, and we would probably be friends if it weren’t for this. Think like an energetic Eeyore who’s a middle aged woman. I’ll say, “Hi Jane, how are you?” She’ll say, “I’m doing ok, except [goes on rant about husband/other work/politics/natural disaster/her health/etc.]” and she goes on. and on. and on. Until I want to take a shower from the negativity in the room. When she leaves, I open windows and vacuum and play happy music. I’m not exaggerating.

My boss is aware of this and he sometimes sends me on errands when he knows she’ll be in, but he can only do so much.

I’ve tried changing the subject to something positive every few minutes/being Pollyanna. She turns whatever I say into something sad. “Yes, the sun looks pretty, but we could really use some rain. It’s TERRIBLE some of the issues happening with the drought. Did you hear about the fires happening in [area]? Terrible.”

Other things I’ve tried:
– Finding safe subjects, though I’ve only really succeeded in finding marginally less negative subjects.
– Being busy with other work and phone calls and saving things up for when she gets there, but I can only do that so much and she goes on monologues in between my calls.
– Taking my lunch while she’s here, but I can’t escape the whole time.
– Disagreeing with her. “My husband says I should just tell them to leave” … “Yeah, I agree with your husband.”
– Asking her what she plans to do about [thing she’s complaining about] which just makes her go, “I don’t know” and then go on a rant about how terrible it is that she doesn’t know what to do and replay everything she just said.
– Finding a reason to say, “I can’t talk now, I need to do X” and she’ll start talking out loud to herself and complaining, then asks me work related questions laced with negativity.

I feel like this is a nonconsensual therapy relationship, and she just expects me to be her therapist. I don’t mind her sharing stuff going on in her life but I don’t want to listen to this level of negativity. Can you help me? How do I set boundaries with her? Is there anything else I can I do?


new manager keeps telling us we’re frustrated and defensive

A reader writes:

A few months ago, we gained a new departmental manager (Kelly). Some background: Kelly is about 10 years younger than the two most senior people in our department, of which I am one, and comes from another industry so there’s a steep learning curve.

My colleague (Alex) and I are finding conversations and meetings with Kelly increasingly difficult, as Kelly calls us out for acting/feeling/looking frustrated, hostile, or defensive. It’s not an exaggeration to say this occurs every other meeting.

A typical scenario: Kelly asks a question, I start answering, Kelly interrupts me to ask another question, and when I try to finish answering, she asks why I’m “frustrated.” If I try to explain, truthfully, that I’m not frustrated, I’m just trying to explain the answer or the context, Kelly responds with “There’s no need to be defensive.”

Last week this happened in a meeting with Alex, where Kelly asked me “Why are you so defensive?” when I was having to explain something for the third time that meeting. Alex came to talk to me afterward and volunteered that I had done nothing wrong, and any frustration was from Kelly asking the same questions and not listening.

Kelly is constantly taking notes but never seems to remember what we say, so we end up answering the same questions over and over: We don’t need to do anything with the TPS reports because they were submitted two weeks ago; we can’t exactly replicate the number of chocolate teapots reported finished last year because some departments are late reporting their numbers to us and we have to manually update the official PDF to incorporate those; this dataset lives in the Teaset Database not the Chocolate Database; I’ve already requested access but you need to give your approval.

It’s now at the point where I will choose to walk the long way round to get to the bathrooms or the break room rather than walk past Kelly’s office, in case I get called in for an impromptu meeting/Q&A. I know Kelly means well and is trying to build rapport, but being repeatedly asked if I’m frustrated or if it’s something personal with Kelly (previous conversations included variants of “let’s work it out”) is causing me frustration and annoyance.

I even recorded my last meeting with Kelly to let someone else listen later and give me impartial feedback as to whether my words or tone were implying something I did not intend, whether the feedback was reasonable, and if any other nuggets could be gleaned. (For the record, I live in a one-party consent state, and do not intend to share the existence of the recording with anyone else.)

I’m taking on board the advice I received from the third party, which included feedback that I did sound a little frustrated but that it didn’t seem unreasonable, and confirmed that we seem to have very different communication styles. In short, Kelly is constantly using a lot of management speak like “Let’s get on the same page,” “Believe me, I’m on your side,” and “We can work this out.” I plan to listen again, and try to pull out some specific examples that I hear again and again, and try to figure out why they annoy me and how I can ignore them. However, we still have an ongoing problem which needs to be addressed before it causes real issues.

Alex and I both have a great working relationship with the CEO, and there have never been communication problems like this in our department before. The CEO is very empathic and approachable, values Alex and me as long-time employees, and knows that bringing in someone from another industry was a bit risky, but Kelly does have some technical skills we will find useful in the longer term.

Although I would prefer to talk directly to Kelly, I don’t feel that either of us can talk to Kelly about these problems without it causing more difficulties. I think we should broach it with the CEO, who has asked me about tension in the department. I said that we were just a little stressed with our busy period and were working through some things, hoping that Kelly would be able to read our body language better as we all got to know each other more, but instead the situation is worsening. How should we approach this?

Good lord. What Kelly’s doing doesn’t sound like “management speak.” It sounds like someone who’s inappropriately focused on imaginary personal dynamics while everyone else is trying to have a business conversation.

Would you be comfortable sitting down with her and saying something like this: “When we’re talking about work matters, you frequently put the focus on personal emotions that you’re concerned we might be having. For example, when I’m trying to explain a work situation or give context for an answer, you’ll frequently tell me I seem frustrated or defensive. To be honest, the only thing I find frustrating in our conversations is being told that I seem frustrated! I’m trying to keep the focus on the work topic we’re there to discuss, and it’s strange to be told I’m feeling an emotion that I’m not feeling. I’m hoping we can agree to keep those assessments out of our conversations, and just focus on the work we’re discussing.” You could add, “It’s the same thing with being told a lot that you’re on our side or that we can work something out — I take both of those things as a given, and saying them so often makes our conversations feel more personally-focused than they’d normally need to be. I think things would go more smoothly if we didn’t focus so much on emotions and instead kept our focus to the work topic.”

But whether or not you have this conversation with Kelly, I agree that you should be talking with the CEO, who has already asked you about the tension in the department. That’s opening enough; don’t wait for an engraved invitation. Go back to her and now and say, “You asked about this earlier, and I mistakenly downplayed what was going on, hoping that it was just transition pains. But the situation is getting worse, and it hasn’t been something we’ve been able to solve on our own.” Then tell her what’s happening, including the part about Kelly not retaining anything you say. Don’t pull your punches here; tell the truth about what’s going on. Kelly may be the wrong hire, and if that’s the case, the sooner your CEO figures that out, the better for everyone.

Meanwhile though: Try to catch yourself before that frustration shows up in your voice. Your frustration makes a ton of sense here, but you don’t want a situation where your CEO can legitimately think that you’re part of the problem — and that could happen if she starts hearing that you regularly sound annoyed when you talk to Kelly.

So if you feel yourself starting to get frustrated with Kelly for asking the same questions over and over again, you’re better off saying something like, “I’ve noticed you’ve asked that a few different times in this meeting. Is there something about the way I’m explaining it that isn’t making sense?” And with the interrupting — well, to some extent it’s her prerogative as the boss to interrupt, especially if someone is (for example) going on a long tangent or otherwise getting off course (which is what it may genuinely seem like to her), but if it’s happening constantly, it’s reasonable for you to politely say, “Actually, could I go back to what I was saying when you jumped in? I think it’ll answer your question.”

But talk to your CEO. She asked what’s happening, and you should tell her.

someone is stinking up the bathroom by my office, I’m forced to use a nickname, and more

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

1. Someone is stinking up the bathroom next to my office

I am writing this partially to check myself. Please feel free to tell me to grow up and that this shouldn’t bother me!

I have a senior level position at a non-profit organization. Our offices are in a renovated home and my office is the former master bedroom which is on a wing of the house that is slightly separate from the rest of the building. The master bathroom is also in this separate wing with a door right next to mine sharing a wall. There are no other offices in this wing.

I have a lot of meetings with donors and members of our executive board, which is part of the reason for my admittedly plum office situation. In the past few months, a woman who works on another floor of the house in another department has started coming to the master bathroom at least once (and often twice) a day to do her business. This business is often loud and always smelly. In addition to my annoyance, this has also been awkward when I am having meetings or bringing guests to my office. She has many other bathroom options (the house has four bathrooms for nine employees) and she literally passes two bathrooms between her office and mine, so this isn’t a situation where she doesn’t have a choice.

The idea of talking to her about this feels extremely uncomfortable, but all my other possible solutions (locking the door when I’m having meetings or loading it up with air fresheners) feel very passive aggressive. Do I need to just suck it up and have this conversation or is passive aggressive the way to go?

I actually do think you could lock it an hour or so before meetings, and in an office this small, you could let people know what you’re doing and why. Not naming the perpetrator, of course — but saying something like, “The bathroom next to my office has become a popular choice for more pungent activities, likely because it’s located away from the others, and this has caused problems when VIPs are here for meetings. To avoid that, I’m going to lock it ahead of those meetings. It’ll be unlocked the rest of the time.”

The rest of the time, though … well, it’s a bathroom! I can see why it’s annoying that she’s leaving her own floor to come use what probably feels like “your” bathroom, but it isn’t really your bathroom and she may prefer to expose one person to the sounds and smells rather than many (and if she doesn’t work closely with you, she may like the illusion of anonymity that she can’t get with people she talks to all day).

And there’s nothing wrong with putting a white noise machine and some Poopourri in there.

2. My office wants to make me use a nickname

My name is, let’s say, Jane Smith. I just received this communication on messenger from my office manager:

Quick question: do you have a fav nickname you like to go by?
How do you feel about “JS”‘? lol
On a scale of 1-10, how excited are you about Smithy?

I believe this is part of an overall strategy to improve office culture. How do I politely say I like to go by my first name/last name combination. Or just the former. Apparently everyone in the office got the same request and it’s mandatory. I have to submit a nickname by Monday! I honestly don’t have a nickname. My boyfriend suggested that I request to be referred to as “Your Majesty” but I’m a little worried that my coworkers might actually start calling me that.

“I feel strongly that names are very personal and I really don’t go by a nickname or want to go by one. So just Jane for me.”

If you’re pressed, “Really, I’m just Jane. In my family, names are a really meaningful and personal thing and I would feel really uncomfortable having a nickname.”

And if you’re up for it: “I appreciate that this is an attempt to make the culture here friendlier.  But being forced to go by a nickname I don’t like and don’t use would be the opposite of morale-boasting for me. If we want to improve the culture, maybe we can talk about (insert actually useful thing your office needs here).”

3. Being booked in “basic economy” on flights for job interviews

Is there a good way to push back on a company booking your travel for an interview as “basic economy”? I’ve seen plenty of times that basic economy travelers are the first to get bumped and forced to check their bags (in addition to being stuck in middle seats), and I always spend the extra money to avoid it myself. Now a company has booked me on a basic economy fare for my cross country flight to interview. I feel like there might not be anything to do now except suck it up for this interview, but is there a way to prevent this from happening in the future?

(I do want to point out that I’m totally fine with coach. That’s what I book for myself! The issue is the “basic economy” that makes you board last/not choose a seat/etc. On the last few flights I’ve been on, I’ve watched at least two passengers with this type of fare get booted to later flights, too, so part of my concern is not arriving on time. I’m also going to have to pay for my carry-on.)

You can absolutely say, “Would it be possible to put me in Economy rather than Basic Economy? That way my carry-on will be covered and I won’t be at as high a risk for being bumped off the flight.”

It’s possible that it’s their policy to book everyone in Basic Economy, but it’s just as likely that someone junior handling travel arrangement saw a very low fare and grabbed it, but will change it if you ask.

4. Can I ask to work from home whenever there’s dangerous weather?

Two weeks ago, I was in a bad car crash during a snowstorm on my way to work. I was not at fault, but my car was totaled, I was trapped in the vehicle for awhile, and I sustained minor injuries to my neck and shoulders. I live in the far north where driving conditions are frequently deadly in the winter. The crash was traumatic, and has remained traumatic because driving conditions have been consistently bad since my accident. I feel extremely anxious while driving because the roads have been so unsafe lately.

My boss suggested I work from home that entire week as I sorted out my injuries (which were thankfully minor) and found a new vehicle. I was so grateful she offered this option. The following week, driving conditions were still brutal, and I requested that I work from home two days, which was granted. My job has a formal policy that allows staff to telework with their supervisor’s approval.

We’re now on week 3, and we’re expecting 6-8 inches of snow tomorrow and the same the next day. I want to ask for the option to work from home on days when conditions are bad, but I worry that maybe I’m pushing it. I don’t want my boss to think I am milking this or taking advantage of her thoughtfulness in initially suggesting I work from home that first week. I have a good relationship with my boss that allows me to be candid, so I brought this up to her last week when I asked for additional work-at-home days, telling her I in no way intended to take advantage of her flexibility to date but that I was genuinely concerned about safely arriving at work due to the conditions. She agreed and said it’s better to be safe than sorry.

Am I pushing it if I ask to work from home any time driving conditions are significantly dangerous? My boss herself works from home four days a week, so I don’t know why I feel oddly guilty asking for this accommodation, at least for now. I’ve been at this job less than one year and am still eager to reinforce that I am a good employee with a strong work ethic.

In theory, the answer should be that if driving conditions are dangerous, everyone should stay home and you shouldn’t worry about asking. In reality, if you live somewhere that routinely has bad weather conditions, you’ll generally be expected to find a way to get to work except in really extreme situations.

But you’re in an office where working from home isn’t uncommon and you just had a serious accident. You shouldn’t be pushing it if you say something like, “For the rest of the winter, would it be okay for me to plan to work from home when driving conditions are dangerous? I’m still shaken up by my crash and I’d feel a lot better being able to plan on doing that, but I don’t want to assume it would be okay without talking to you, and I don’t want you to feel I’m taking advantage of your flexibility.”

5. When should I start applying for jobs?

I graduate early May, and I’m not sure if I have begun applying too early. I won’t be able to start any jobs until after graduation, but I also don’t know how long the process usually takes or how quickly employers are looking to fill positions.

Go ahead and start now. Some employers will be looking to have someone start more quickly than that, but lots of hiring processes take months. You can’t always tell from the outside, but this is a reasonable time to begin applying. Most employers will figure out from the fact that you’re in school that you’re not available until May, but if for some reason one doesn’t, you can make sure it’s clear when they first contact you. (There are also some fields that hire a bunch of soon-to-be-grads even earlier than now, like parts of finance and law, but you probably know if you’re in one of those fields.)

Make sure that your resume lists your education this way:

University of Porridge, B.A. in Oatmeal expected May 2019

our firm asks job candidates, “what salary do you need to turn up happy every day?”

A reader writes:

I have a question about the way my employer works out salaries for new employees.

Some background – I work for a law firm. About 20 lawyers and 30 support staff. I started as a very junior lawyer and have advanced to the point where I have significant input in hiring (including interviewing candidates) but not the final say. As such, I’ve seen the below policy applied as a new employee, and sat alongside other senior staff as they apply the policy to interviewees.

None of the job ads we publish specify a range. They say something like “We have no fixed salary for the position, but intend on making an appropriate offer to the right candidate.” This is true, although management does generally have a very rough idea of what is on the table. Each lawyer we hire has a vague position in the hierarchy of fee-earners, meaning we will sort of know the work that will be allocated and the fee-earning potential for the new hire.

Whenever we have an interview with a person, at the end of the interview the person is asked, in short, “What salary to do you need to earn to turn up every day happy, motivated, and not grumbling about money?” Lots of people balk at giving an answer, particularly because a specific figure is required, not a range or a “rough idea.” Sometimes people who have really been caught by surprise are given overnight to think about their answer.

After the interviews, the salary the person nominated is part of the consideration as to who gets the job (although certainly not the main consideration), and once a person is chosen they are offered the job at the salary they nominated.

The reason I’m writing to you is that I can’t decide what I think about the policy. I’ve seen good candidates blow themselves out of the water with numbers far too high — but maybe that’s a good thing, because they would have been unhappy at a lower number. On the other hand, we have hired candidates at numbers higher than we planned because they were a standout candidate and were worth paying out of the range we planned. What do you think?

This is a terrible practice.

In order for this to work, it assumes that every candidate will feel comfortable being a completely honest dealer — that people will genuinely answer the question of what salary they need to turn up happy every day.

They won’t. People will dissect the question, try to second-guess what you’re looking for and what’s reasonable, worry about leaving money on the table, and worry about shooting too high. They’ll try to factor in what they think you pay, and they’ll try to thread the needle of neither over-shooting nor undercutting themselves, all of which leads to you getting an answer that’s born of anxiety and worry, not honesty.

It’s also a really crappy thing to put your candidates through. You have a rough idea of what you’d be willing to pay, both in general and for each person. You have the information advantage here; they do not.

Those candidates who you’ve seen get taken out of the running because they named a number that was too high? Sure, maybe they would have been unhappy with anything lower — but in a lot of cases they would have been fine with a lower number but were attempting not to under-cut themselves in this crappy game your firm plays.

What’s more, this is leaving the door wide open to pay inequality. When you’re letting candidates essentially choose their own salary (within your secret range), it’s very likely that you’re going to end up paying people of different sexes and different races different salaries. That’s illegal, and it’s not going to go over well when someone eventually notices it.

Your firm is using a very old-fashioned, outdated approach to salaries and not doing anyone — itself or your candidates — any favors in the process.

The way to talk about salary with candidates is this: “Our range is generally $X-Y, with people with X type of experience coming in at the lower end and people with Y type of experience coming in at the higher end. Other factors we consider are ___. Is that in line with what you’re looking for?”

No game playing, no secret tests, no information imbalances. Fair, open dealing. Isn’t that how you want to conduct business?

how do you hide your job hunt when you’re working full-time?

A reader writes:

Can you tell me how to interview for new jobs while I’m still employed? I’ve been in my first professional job for three years since graduating from college and am beginning to think about looking for another job and moving on … except that I can’t figure out how to interview without tipping off my boss that’s I’m planning to leave.

How do people interview when they’re still employed, without it being obvious to their current company that they’re working on leaving? I don’t think my employer would fire me if they found out I was interviewing, but it would definitely be an awkward conversation and I would worry about not getting the same opportunities for whatever time I will remain here. I’m also worried that my manager would push me to give her a date that I’ll be leaving so that she can line up my replacement, when obviously I don’t want her doing that until I’ve actually accepted a new job!

So how do you discreetly go on interviews when you have a full-time job? We do have some flexibility in our hours. Is it okay for me to flex my hours in order to fit in an interview or is that breaking some sort of etiquette rule or my commitment to my current employer? If I can’t do that, I do have a decent amount of vacation time saved up but I would hate to use it all up on interviewing. Or would the jobs I’m applying to be willing to interview me outside of business hours? Is that a thing I can ask for?

I’m also concerned about my clothes giving me away. My office is business casual, and if I come in dressed in a suit and leave early or take a long lunch, isn’t it going to be obvious what I’m doing, especially if I do that a bunch of times (as I don’t imagine I’ll get a job after a single interview)? Is it okay to just wear my business casual clothes to the interview and explain the situation to the interviewer?

Is there some secret to doing this that everyone knows but me?

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

how should employers respond to employees being doxxed?

A reader writes:

How should employers respond to employees being doxxed?

Background: I was in a popular online fitness forum last night when several posters complained about being doxxed by a popular Instagram fitness/weight-loss account. The influencer (or someone on her behalf) was looking up accounts that she felt had trolled her, trying to find their employers, calling the employer, and asking to speak to the manager of the person. She complained to the managers about their employees online comments on her account and used language indicating that they should be ashamed to have this person working for them.

To my limited knowledge, no one was fired but several posters admitted having embarrasing talks with their managers. Most posters said that they had not posted anything overtly hateful, threatening, or obscene, but the influencer is well known to delete comments and block anyone who asks legitimate questions or doubts about some of the advice that she gives out. From personal experience, I was blocked from that account just for “liking” a legitimate question that someone had about her fitness regiment.

I work in a blue collar industry, and I’m pretty sure that my boss would laugh his head off about receiving a call like this, but I can imagine that in some industries, calling into question an employee’s online activities/reputation would be pretty serious. What is the best course of action for managers who receive a call like this?

As a manager, you want to get really clear on what kind of outside-of-work behavior is and isn’t appropriate for you to weigh in on.

It’s really, really not an employer’s business if an employee is having an out-of-work Instagram dispute with someone about a fitness regime, even if it escalates to salty language.

But on the other end of the spectrum, if an employee is posting inflammatory bigoted statements and hate speech online, employers can have a legitimate business interest in not wanting to be associated with that person, both in terms of public perception and in terms of not wanting to subject their other employees to bigotry.

Whenever this topic comes up, people ask why employers should have the right to police employees’ speech outside of work at all — and ask why it’s okay to say that you can police one kind of speech but not another. But as a society we’ve chosen to treat bigotry and hate speech as different from other types of speech (and different from normal political discourse). And if you’re publicly espousing hateful, racist, or otherwise bigoted views, your employer is entitled not to want to be associated with that or to expose their other employees and their customers to that.

But let’s go back to the Instagram fitness dispute, where I said it’s none of the employer’s business. If that dispute escalated to being outright abusive — like if the employee were making violent threats, etc., which is a thing that can happen online even in low-stakes disputes — I wouldn’t fault an employer for talking to them about that. It’s reasonable to say, “You need to be aware that this stuff isn’t private, and if you post violent threats in a public space, that’s going to make some of your coworkers and clients very uncomfortable working with you. It makes me uncomfortable, as your boss. You’ve got to cut that out.” And in some cases I’d add, “This seems out of character. Are you doing okay?”

But if an employer receives a report of the sort of thing you’re talking about — daring to question a fitness influencer about their advice — that’s not something they should act on. It still may make sense for them to inform the employee, so that the employee knows someone is targeting them in this way, but that would just be something like, “Hey, I got this weird call and it doesn’t seem like my business, but I wanted you to be aware of it.” (Of course, I imagine the doxxing Instagramer here alleged that the person was harassing her online or something like that, in which case the employer does need to ask more questions. But they should ask before drawing any conclusions, and they should go into the situation realizing that they don’t have all the facts.)

As a general principle, though, I’d err on the side of “not an employer’s business” unless it’s hate speech, violent threats, or harassment.

What do others think?

employee says he has a problem with authority, coworker is praying for me to have a baby, and more

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

1. My employee warned me he has a problem with authority

Six years ago, I took a job in a new department. At the time, I only had two years of managing experience and I was eager to not step on the toes of my new four-person team, who had a combined total of 85 years of experience. On my first day and in my first meeting with my employee Fergus, he smirked and opened with, “You should know I have a problem with authority.” To his credit, he was not lying. It’s a nightmare to deal with him but he does just enough to not be let go (we work for the government, it’s harder to get fired).

At the time he told me this, I was so concerned with being liked and learning the ropes in the new department that I tried to approach all interactions with Fergus with that in mind instead of just asking for what I needed. But now I wonder, what would have been a good response? Am I wrong in thinking that the response should have been something that let Fergus know that it indeed was *his* problem and not mine? Or is that just my dislike for my current situation bubbling up?

Ideally, when he told you he had a problem with authority, you would have asked, “Can you be more specific about what you mean?” Let’s pin him down on exactly what he’s talking about here, and then respond to that. If he replied with something like “I don’t like being told what to do” or “I prefer to work independently without a manager,” then you could say, “Well, I certainly appreciate knowing about people’s preferences and I respect the expertise you have, but part of my role here is to oversee that work. You can see how that goes and decide whether it’s for you or not. If you decide it’s not, I’ll certainly understand.”

It sounds like you know this now, but you can’t let an employee dictate how you’ll do your own job (which includes managing them) or value being liked over being effective.

2. My coworker is obsessed with me having another child

I share an office with a woman who I like very much. She is about twice my age and very kind. We have gotten along very well professionally and we click great. The only problem we have is a personal one.

She has two kids and they are both out of high school. I have one toddler and am very happy with my family situation. “Mary” asks me constantly when I’m having another child, to the point where she stated today that she is going to start petitioning God for me to get pregnant. She mentions it every day.

I can’t get pregnant. In fact, I am in the process now of getting my tubes tied. I have an appointment for next month. My first child was an accident and I nearly died giving birth to her. I was advised to not have anymore children, something my husband and I agreed with. I chose the best birth control available and my husband scheduled a vasectomy, but I ended up getting pregnant again (my doctor called it one in a billion odds). It turned out to ectopic and we had to terminate. It was a traumatic experience for me and my family.

I don’t want to bring any of this up to Mary, as it’s not her or anyone else’s business. But how do I get her to drop it?

Mary may be lovely in many other ways, but she’s astoundingly insensitive in this regard. Even if you did plan to have another baby, her relentless comments and questions would be incredibly rude. What if you were struggling with infertility? Or simply didn’t want to discuss your reproductive plans on work? She’s being shockingly pushy and thoughtless.

That said, it sounds like throughout these daily comments, you haven’t actually told her you don’t share her hopes or shut down the questioning, and either of those will likely help.

To be clear, you shouldn’t need to tell her you’re not planning another baby (it’s none of her business), but because she’s made so many hopeful comments about it without you telling her “actually, that’s not our plan,” it might be more effective to say, “Mary, I appreciate your kindness, but I’m happy with my family size the way it is and it’s not something I want to discuss at work. Thanks so much for understanding.” (You said you otherwise consider her kind and really like her, so I’m softening the language here.)

You can also modify that language so it doesn’t share anything about your plans: “Mary, I appreciate your kindness, but I actually don’t want to discuss my family planning at work. Thanks so much for understanding.”

If she pushes, then you say: “I should have been clearer about this earlier. I’m not comfortable discussing my reproductive choices at work, and I need to ask you to stop.”

If she brings it up after that: “Wow, I’m sure you didn’t mean to bring that up again! So let me ask you about (work-related topic).”

3. HR director is violating boundaries with Facebook

I’ve got a situation with my HR director and the way it’s affecting my direct reports (I am a department head at a municipal organization, so theoretically I am on the same level as HR, although of course HR is its own thing).

I was in a meeting recently with my department and HR, when my HR director referred directly to something one of my employees had posted on her personal Facebook page. My employee seemed uncomfortable, so I checked in with her later. She told me that the HR director had sent her a Facebook friend request, and she’d been reluctant to reject it because she wanted to stay on the HR director’s “good side.” She had been dealing with it by heavily filtering HR, but was feeling really unhappy to have something she’d posted mentioned in a meeting with her coworkers.

I advised her that no one she works with is entitled to be friends with her on social media, and that if she wasn’t comfortable she should unfriend the HR director, or even block her. She says that she would like to, but she’s heard the HR director make negative comments about other employees who take this route.

I know that my employee isn’t the only one who’s been made uncomfortable by the HR director’s friend requests. I think I need to raise this matter with our mutual boss. How would you approach it? Am I right in thinking that this situation is super unprofessional?

There are offices where coworkers friend each other on Facebook — but frankly it’s a bad idea for managers and HR. Especially HR.

I’d start by talking with the HR person about it. Explain what you’ve heard (without mentioning names) and say something like, “I know you put a high priority on ensuring that employees feel you’re fair and impartial (this may be a lie but it’s going to be useful to say) and would never want them to feel pressured for outside-of-work connections, so I wanted to flag this for you. Personally, I don’t friend employees while they’re working for me, and I thought you’d want to consider that as a policy for HR as well, considering the nature of the work.”

If you get pushback, you can absolutely mention this to whoever’s above her. Put the emphasis not on the friending, but on people feeling intimidated by HR and as if their privacy and boundaries are being violated.

4. How important are the first 100 days?

In December, I was excited to start a new job in a different but similar third sector organization. After doing direct client work for many years, I am now managing people doing the client work, and have a lot more responsibility for running the service. It obviously isn’t all rosy — I am trying to set up a service within a new organization, which is finding it difficult to get us the resources they agreed to. I know if I go in there demanding and heavy handed, it will backfire on the client work, so I’m being clear, but not pushy.

However, in a recent conversation with my dad about the ups and downs of the new role, he started telling me how the first 100 days are the most important and how that really sets your tone for role going forward. While I’ve always worked for charities or public service organizations, my dad worked for the private sector for most of his life, before moving into a top level role in a country wide charity. 

So how important is the first 100 days? Am I being too soft, which will cause me trouble later? Or is he off due to our different job backgrounds?

It’s certainly true that the impressions you make and tone you set in the first months of a new job matter. People will be taking your temperature and drawing conclusions about you, and first impressions can sometimes (not always) be hard to shake. But it doesn’t follow that that means you must always take a particular tone/approach, which I think is what your dad is recommending. Different situations call for different approaches; what’s important is that you’re thoughtful and strategic about the one you’re taking (and that you test that with people who know the situation well, such as your own manager).

Sometimes it makes sense to spend your first few months listening and learning. Other times you’ve been brought in to make changes, and you’ll need to make them fairly quickly. Sometimes you know enough about the context to know that approach A will backfire, but approach B, while slower, will be better in the long run. It’s definitely true that sometimes people err on the side of moving too slowly, and it ends up hampering them with stakeholders and the people they manage. But each situation is different, and it sounds like your dad might be just throwing general principles at you without understanding the nuance of your situation. (That said, I’m working from very limited info here, and it’s possible that your dad is right that your current approach is too soft. I can’t tell from here!)

5. Two-hour daily meetings

I’m looking for your opinion on something that a friend’s company does that strikes me as unusual and a waste of time. Her company has about 65 employees who all work in the office every day. The CEO recently implemented mandatory daily meetings that last from 10 am – 12 pm. The idea is that each person will go around during these two hours and discuss the latest projects they’re working on and let people know how available they are to take on new work. Everyone also uses this time as a touch base with different departments. Then from noon to 5 pm, the idea will be that everyone is hard at work at their desks, with no additional meetings planned.

I would find this to be a colossal waste of time, but I also work in a large nonprofit with 500+ employees located across multiple states, so clearly nothing like this would ever work for us. My company typically has quarterly all-staff meetings to update on large ticket items like budget, strategic plan, etc., and then we all work to schedule individual meetings and touchbases on an as-need basis with our team leads, immediate team members and coworkers in other departments.

I’ve never heard of something like this before, so I’m wondering — is this a typical practice for smaller companies to have?

No. This would indeed be a colossal waste of time in the vast majority of organizations. Some companies do this weekly, not daily (and usually for closer to one hour than two). There’s rarely a context where you need daily updates on everything each of your coworkers is doing. (And I love that part of this is to discuss how available they are for new work, since they’re all now 25% less available than they were before these meetings started using up 10 hours a week.)

I got scolded for coming to an interview with a cold

A reader writes:

I have a question about an interview experience that I was hoping you could share your thoughts on. I recently was given the chance to interview at an organization. The interview was scheduled about two weeks in advance. A few days beforehand, I started feeling a bit under the weather and ended up having a cold.

By the day of the interview I was feeling much better but still had some mild congestion. I went into the interview with my own water, tissues, and cough drops. When I arrived, I declined handshakes and told them I was recovering from a cold and even apologized if my voice was a bit off and if I coughed. I thought the interview went well. I had to cough and drink water a few times, but I didn’t think it was distracting. Nothing felt off about the interview.

When I arrived home, I was surprised to see a rejection email already sent to me, which was time-stamped for about 10 minutes after I had left the interview. It was a generic form letter, but at the very end was this note:

“A note to you for your future job searching. If you are sick, do not show up for an interview. You are demonstrating that you don’t care about the well-being of your potential coworkers. Did you consider if someone was recovering from cancer or had a compromised immune system? You demonstrated to us that you would not show careful thought or consideration for your coworkers and that is a quality you should consider addressing.”

I didn’t respond, since I wasn’t sure if an apology would be warranted here. Should I have rescheduled? I feel like if I looked horrible, could barely talk, or had something very contagious, rescheduling seemed like the best bet. I thought if I could go to work with this cold (which I did the day before and after), then I was okay to attend the interview. Is there a general protocol for this type of thing?

Well, I wouldn’t be thrilled if a candidate showed up with an active cold, even though I understand that people of course go to work with colds all the time.

But I wouldn’t send an obnoxious note about it either.

I do wonder if you inadvertently made the cold seem more full-blown than it actually was. You said you were just mildly congested at that point, but the tissues and the cough drops may have made it seem like more.

In general, you shouldn’t interview with something contagious — both for altruistic reasons (you shouldn’t knowingly expose people to the illness) and for self-interested ones (a lot of interviewers are going to be irked that you exposed them, and won’t think well of you for it — and plus you’re not likely to perform at your best if you’re sick).

It’s not clear to me if you felt you were still contagious or not, but if you were only a few days into the cold, you probably were. Ideally you would have contacted them ahead of time, explained you were sick, and asked to reschedule. I get that can feel risky — what if they say can’t reschedule, or if they say they’ll get back to you and never do? But there are enough interviewers who will strongly prefer that, and be put off if you don’t, that’s the right thing to do.

In any case, though, their note was over-the-top. I’m quite sure that they have employees come into work with colds, because colds can last weeks and people aren’t taking weeks off for colds. Their snooty lecture was misplaced.