our boss is demanding a gift with an accounting of names and how much each person contributed

A reader writes:

Our boss informed us that she’s leaving for a new position at another company. Hooray for the boss, and hooray for us because the boss was truly awful.

Here’s where things get icky: the company is throwing her a farewell party. Everyone has been invited to make a financial contribution to a farewell gift for her. She forces her assistant to organize the gift and share with her the names of those who gave money and the amounts they gave. (Her assistant can’t afford to lose her job.) This has happened before (think major happy life events) and each time everyone has given increasing/outrageous sums of money towards gifts for her, realizing that she received an accounting of who has given what amount.

For many, our generosity is driven by fear because she is an unpredictable, chaotic, and vindictive human being who has inflicted unnecessary suffering upon all below her. She also happens to be in an extremely high ranking position at our teapot company. Her yearly salary is 10 or 15 times higher than most of ours.

The farewell party is six weeks before her planned last day on the job. What happens during those six weeks? She does our performance reviews! This seems like the last in a long string of unfair setups and indignities we’ve been subjected to under her reign. We’ve already given money toward gifts for all the other life events she’s celebrated in the past. Asking us to pay more money for a going away gift seems gauche, especially since a) she is a terrible boss who did nothing but make everyone miserable, and b) compared to her obvious wealth, our monetary “donations” to her come at a substantial cost to our pocketbooks that far outpaces the difference in our pay. The idea of her parting shot being unfair performance reviews deflated or inflated depending on how much we pony up for her gift makes me ill.

We do have HR but it functions purely to protect the company, not the workers. Because this is a high ranking person, we expect HR will shield her and exact retribution on anyone who asks for their assistance with this matter. What should we do?

Well, this is profoundly messed up. There should never be pressure on employees to donate money to anything and especially not upward to a manager. When someone controls your paycheck and whether you continue to have a job, it ranges from tacky to outright abusive for them to expect gifts from you.

But your boss takes this to a new level. Requiring her assistant to collect money from people, and to share with her the names and amounts people contributed?! Your boss is a cartoon villain.

Normally in a situation like this I’d recommend tipping off HR, but it sounds like HR is off the table. I do want to nudge you to make sure that’s really the case, though; HR’s function generally is to protect the company, but that doesn’t mean siding with managers every time. In fact, in a case like this at a decent organization, “protecting the company” would mean putting a stop to what your manager is doing — not because it’s illegal (it’s not) but because it’s a terrible practice that will demoralize people and is a flag that there’s likely a ton of other questionable stuff going on.

But if your experience with HR at your company is that they’re not going to be of help (and nor will your boss’s boss, I’m guessing?), then your basic options are:

1. Everyone bands together and agrees not to donate money to a gift for the boss. Maybe you all sign a card instead, if that. If none of you contribute, it’ll be harder for her to penalize you. Not impossible — she could certainly decide to give you all awful performance reviews because she didn’t get to leave the job with a pricey new handbag or whatever she’s hoping for, but it could work.

2. Everyone bands together and agrees to donate money to a charity in the boss’s name, and then it’s presented to her as “we knew this would be so meaningful to you” because sometimes that approach can work with problem people — when you say, essentially, “I know you care so much about being a good person,” sometimes they feel obligated to try to live up to it in this one narrow situation.

3. Everyone bands together and agrees to donate some low amount, like $5 each. Yes, it’s money you shouldn’t have to spend. But it might be the most expedient solution; you’d basically be paying $5 to make this problem go away. You’d need everyone or nearly everyone on board with this though.

I considered including an option #4 where a group of you pushes back more directly, telling your boss openly that your team doesn’t want to do gifts this way, that people feel pressured to contribute money they can’t afford, and the accounting of names and amounts makes people worry that what they give will be factored into how they’re managed. And that’s an option if enough of you feel comfortable with it. But if she’s truly the cartoon villain that she seems, options #1-3 are likely going to be a lot less drama.

can I ethically hire when the company is a mess, employers that want a reference from your current boss, and more

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

1. Can I ethically hire when the company is a mess?

I love(d) my job! Great executive leader, great team, great work. However, our beloved leader has departed and the replacement that has been hired is a tyrant. All kinds of red flags – executive assistants have all fled, half the leadership team has voluntarily left with no next steps planned (“to explore future opportunities”) and there’s a general feeling of panic. It’s not great. I’m skipping a lot of the details here for brevity!

I had a medically-related departure on my team. While most positions have been frozen, the job is critical enough and I’m allowed to hire. I have a candidate in the final stages — they are great. However, more things are crumbling every day and I’m now making a plan to be out of here in about six months; however, I can’t not hire someone for the current work. I’m feeling bad about this; I’m going to hire someone, bring them on, train them, and then I’ll probably be leaving a few months after that and leaving this new person in a lion’s den. They are leaving a comfortable to them position they’ve had for 10 years in order to advance their career and I’m concerned that with all the chaos over here, it’s going to end up being the wrong choice for them.

Is it ethical to hire this person? Is there a way I can convey this to them?

Yeah, it’s unethical to hire the person if you’ve led them to believe the culture there is different than what it is. Be up-front! You might think that if you do that, you’ll never be able to hire anyone but there are people who aren’t that bothered by cultural stuff (often because they have thick skins and just want to come to work and do their jobs, and things that bother other people roll off them). You shouldn’t say, “This place is a disaster zone, run!” (and if you feel you’d have to, you’d be better off avoiding hiring right now) but you can say, “I want to be up-front with you that we’re going through some challenges. We have new leadership that’s changing the culture, a lot of people are leaving, and there are concerns about XYZ. I can put you in touch with people who would be your peers in this role if you want to talk one-on-one with some of them to hear their perspectives.”

2. Candidates don’t know what the job they’re interviewing for is

Over the past two years, I have been working in a role closely associated with a public university that involves hiring young / student employees (part-time, minimum wage) to provide support to students with disabilities.

More often than not (like 60-70% of the time) in interviews, it is quite apparent to me that the applicants have literally no idea what our nonprofit does or what the services the role they’re interviewing for provides. I stopped explaining my role when I introduced myself because I found that interviewees would just parrot back what I said my job was. (I do not do what the role they applied for does!)

If it only happened with a few people, I would feel comfortable not moving forward with the applicant, or even ending the interview and ask them to come back after researching. But I am so short staffed right now that I am starting to feel worried that the bar of even knowing what job someone is interviewing for is too high for where I am at right now.

Is there anything I could be doing to reduce this happening? Or anything I may be doing wrong with candidates or in the interview process? I unfortunately can’t control the pay rate (the university does), the job posting has a full position description, and we have an easy to find website.

Assuming these are scheduled interviews that your candidates had time to prepare for, my guess is that it’s partly the job market (they may have a ton of other options right now and not be prioritizing this one) and partly that you’re dealing with an inexperienced applicant pool.

One thing you can try: when you’re confirming the interview time, include something like, “As part of this interview, I’ll be asking questions about XYZ, and we ask that you familiarize yourself with our organization (LINK) and the job description (LINK) ahead of time.” Should you have to spell that out? Nope! But given what’s going on with your applicant pool, you might as well try it and see what happens. In fact, you could look at it as an equity practice, in that not every college student has been taught the basics on to how to interview well.

3. Interviewers that want a reference from your current manager

A friend of mine recently applied for a job in a department she used to work at. They asked her to give her current supervisor as a reference. My friend was very hesitant to do so because she wasn’t ready to reveal to her current employer that she was considering leaving. Ultimately she did give the requested reference (and got the job), but she was very uneasy about it.

This past week, I was approached to interview for a job within my large government agency. I’m not currently looking, but I’m always open to new opportunities. I (respectfully) reiterated this multiple times to the hiring manager during the interview.

The interview otherwise went well, so I was not surprised they asked for my references. However, they too asked for my current supervisor! There’s no way I’m going to jeopardize my current job for a new job I’m not sure about, so I’m withdrawing my candidacy.

Has it always been this way? Is this new? I’ll admit I’ve been out of the job market for a few years, but I cannot recall encountering this in the past. I have no idea what I’ll do when I’m actually ready to leave my job.

It’s always been pretty common to do if you’re applying internally; in that case you’ll often be required to notify your manager before you even interview.

But requiring a reference from your current manager when you’re applying outside of your organization is much, much rarer and rightly so, since it can put your current job in jeopardy (with no guarantee that they’ll offer you the new job, or that you’ll want to accept it). Most employers understand that and don’t do it as a result. But a small number of employers always have.

If that happens to you with an external job, you can try pushing back before you withdraw. Sometimes they’ll back off the requirement if you spell out what should be obvious to them but apparently isn’t, and offer an alternative instead: “My employer doesn’t know I’m looking and I’m not comfortable alerting them to that at this stage because it could jeopardize my job. However, I’d be happy to put you in touch with previous managers and colleagues.” If they won’t budge after that, they’re showing a real disregard for your job security (as well as professional norms) and withdrawing is the right move.

4. What does this change in reporting lines mean?

Two colleagues of mine, “John” and “Steven,” have been working together as peers in the same team for years, under the supervision of “Sharon.” John and Steven have several reports each, with some fluctuations during the years. They work in product development, on different aspects of the same product. If we were baking cakes, John would be in charge of making the dough and Steven of the preparation of the glazing of the same cake. Something like that.

At a recent company-wide meeting, it was announced that from now on Steven and his team will report to John, who will continue reporting to Sharon. Steven will keep his direct reports. The content of their roles hasn’t been restructured at all; each of them will still be responsible for his part of the cake. The change was announced as a “change in strategy,” even though we won’t really be changing anything. We won’t be making other types of cakes or changing anything else in what we do. The change wasn’t presented as a promotion for John, either.

Personally, if I was in Steven’s shoes I wouldn’t feel that was right. It is not really a demotion but it goes a bit in that direction, right? From now on he will have an additional layer of management above him and he will report to a former peer.

My husband thinks this is just a change like any other that a company might do. Am I being too delicate? Or better, would I be too delicate if it would happen to me? Is it a sign that management trusts Steven a little bit less? Or am I totally off-base and this is just normal?

It’s likely that there are reasons for it behind the scenes, which you might not know but John and Steven very well might. For example, it could be a matter of Sharon needing fewer direct reports to manage and John being better suited to manage Steven than vice versa — which Steven might not be thrilled about but would still be a reasonable business decision. It could be that Steven needs a lot of support and coaching (either in his management of his team or in something else) and John is well positioned to do that. Or plenty of other explanations that people outside those directly impacted wouldn’t have a need to know. It’s hard to say whether Steven should feel slighted without knowing more of the details.

5. What rights do we have when our company is sold?

I work for a small company – 12 employees total. All of our manufacturing/warehousing is off-site. Our CEO (I am his administrative assistant) has decided to sell the company and we are currently in the due diligence phase with an interested buyer.

What rights do we as employees have? So far we have not been given any information as to whether or not we will still have jobs, given severance packages, nothing, no information whatsoever.

At what point is it reasonable to expect that we would be assured we will still have jobs or that we will be let go and our jobs will be taken over by the buyer’s company?

You almost certainly won’t know until after the deal is complete, and even then you might not know right away. You can ask your CEO if he can negotiate some kind of job protection (or barring that, severance) for your company’s employees into the deal, which he may or may not do — but it’s a thing that can happen. You can also simply ask for information. He might have some insight into what the acquiring company’s plans are.

how do I spot red flags in a job interview if I have no work experience?

A reader writes:

I am a law student who just finished my first year, and I am applying to jobs for the summer. My one and only job was one that I started when I was 17 (I am 23 now) and was self-employed. Before this, I’ve only ever had one interview, and it was through my university so I knew the interviewers beforehand.

I just got out of a second interview with a potential job. I am so torn. I feel very uncomfortable with some of what I am and would be expected to do, but I don’t know if it is a red flag or just what entry-level positions have to do. This position is for a law clerk/legal assistant.

Here are some examples:

• This position is unpaid for approximately two months or so before turning into a paid position (because I will have to be taught everything, so I won’t bring any value to the boss yet). He did not specify what the pay is once I get to that level, but said we could negotiate at that time.

• The hiring manager gave me some small work to do for an ongoing case and asked me to complete it. (I know you say skills tests are good, and this is literally work that he needs to do for a case that he will be litigating later this summer. It is also not paid.)

• He said he is open to remote work, but I won’t be paid for it because I’m not in-office and therefore not of much use to him.

• He constantly talks in circles. Our first interview lasted an hour and a half, he asked me one question, and spent the rest of the time talking about his work, himself, and his children (and all of his past “secretaries”).

• He says that all women under the age of 50 are “girls” so he refers to his past employees as “the girls who have worked for him in the past.”

• He really doesn’t seem to answer questions. I’ve asked him four or five and the only clear answer I got was the one about the position being unpaid at first.

• The firm is only himself and one current legal assistant.

All that being said, I’m not sure how much of this is my own inexperience and anxiety. I can tell that he is very smart, his current legal assistant loves him, and I do think I would get exposed to a lot of different situations at his firm. On the other hand, each time I stepped out of his office after the interview, I felt uncomfortable and anxious. How do you know if something is a red flag in a job interview when you have almost no work experience?

First, do not under any circumstances accept this job. We’ll get to how to spot red flags in a minute, but first let’s tackle this specific job and the reasons you should run far away:

• The manager doesn’t plan to pay you for two months of work. This is illegal; the law requires him to pay you at least minimum wage unless this is structured as an unpaid internship where you are the primary beneficiary, not him. This isn’t that, so it’s illegal.

• He’s not willing to tell you what you’d be paid after those two months. It’s moot because of point one, but it’s an additional red flag. Decent employers do not bring people on without clearly agreeing on pay, and you should never accept a job without a firm understanding of what you will be paid for your work. His statement that you could negotiate it later on — no. You’ll have far less negotiating power once you’re already working there and if you can’t agree on terms, then what? You’ll leave, having worked for free for two months and with nothing to show for it?

• Skills tests are good — when they’re used exclusively to assess your skills. When they’re real work that the employer will use, they’re unethical and unacceptable, unless you’re paid for them.

• He’s “open” to remote work … as long as you do it for free? How generous. Remote work is real work, and you need to be paid for it. Again, illegal. Again, unethical.

• He won’t answer direct questions. This one pales in comparison to the things above but is still highly alarming.

The other stuff — talking in circles, sexism, and tiny firm size — are things that you might consider if none of the above was happening. If everything else was good, you might decide that you could live with those things, depending on what other options you had. (Tiny firm size isn’t inherently a bad thing, but it does mean that if he’s not great, that will have an outsized impact on your day to day quality of life at work and there will be no checks and balances in the mix. It also means you’ll have a very different experience than you would at a larger firm; that’s not necessarily prohibitive, but it’s something to be aware of.) But it’s all moot because the other issues are immediate deal-breakers.

So first and foremost: in this case, run.

As for how to know if something is a red flag when you don’t have much experience: One of the most important things you can do is to cultivate relationships with people with more experience and whose judgment you trust, so that you can turn to them for a reality check on this sort of thing. Ideally you’d have several people you can bounce things off of; everyone has blind spots, even normally spot-on people, so it’s good to have a variety of people you can check with. Once you start working, you’ll find more of them, but for now it might be a family member whose professional accomplishments you respect, a particularly savvy friend, a professor you clicked with, and/or someone you meet in an industry group. (Just make sure their knowledge seems recent. Someone no more than 8-10 years ahead of you professionally can be ideal because they’ll be more likely to be in touch with how things work at your level now, rather than how it worked several decades ago.)

Your gut is another resource too; there’s a reason you were feeling uncomfortable and anxious every time you talked to this guy. Guts can be wrong, of course — and in particular, if you struggle with anxiety they can mislead you in ways that aren’t helpful. But if you don’t normally feel anxious after interviews and one particular person/job is making you feel that way, listen to that; there’s likely something there. In fact, it’s good to start paying attention to your gut so that you can see patterns in how it operates; if your gut sends off a lot of false positives or false negatives, that’s good information to have and then you can see if you can find patterns in what’s making it trigger inaccurately. But if you find it has a reliable track record, that’s more reason to trust it in the future.

my coworkers were fired … am I next?

A reader writes:

For the last three months, I’ve worked at a small company doing a job I love. But there’s been some weirdness lately that makes me worry about my job. Here’s what’s going on: multiple people have been fired in a three-month period. They were all “not good fits” for various reasons that upper management told us about. But I don’t think these people had any clue they were about to be fired, based on their messages leading up to and on the day of the firing. Things like “hey guys, just letting you know I’ll be out on Tuesday” on a Friday afternoon and then hours later the “she no longer works with us” announcement. After the fact, we’re usually told what happened and I can see where upper management is coming from because so far I think they each of the people who were let go did deserve it based on their performance. But it’s still scary, especially since I’m only a few months into the job! I do not believe any of this is malicious, and I think all of it is done in an attempt to be more “transparent,” but it doesn’t feel that way.

For instance, I recently took over a new data entry task from the financial department. A month later, the CFO messaged an open Slack channel to say the task wasn’t being done right and in future it should be done differently. This is the first time I had received negative feedback on that task, and all the examples were ones from my work. Should I consider this is a warning sign I could be let go too? Or a first strike or something?

I’m early in my career and I’m told I’m doing amazing by coworkers, but every once in a while there’s a random message in a shared channel from management addressing everyone to say that my job duties are being done wrong instead of addressing me directly. There’s no HR and no internal review structure that I’m aware of, and I’m not sure how to delicately bring up adding a bit more structure to review our job performance when they’ve been so trigger-happy with firing lately. Any advice?

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

my wife says my relationship with my coworker is inappropriate

A reader writes:

I’ve been working fully remote for a large company since 2020, and work IM’s have become the new normal.

I took a new position in April 2021 and a previous female coworker began directly reporting to me. She accepted a new position on another team in July. Once she accepted the new position, we started to tell each other how much we enjoyed working with each other, and how much we’d miss it. She sent me pictures from her birthday weekend, with her girlfriends, to which my response was “wow” to each photo. Once officially in her new position, she changed her tone to much more casual and using extra vowels in her morning greetings (Heyyyyyyyyyy, Hiiiii, goooooooood morning). We started chatting daily, sometimes over 50 messages in an exchange. I’m married, she’s single.

She told me about her parents, grandparents, and siblings. We talk about work situations and colleagues and about what our vacation plans are. She has sometimes logged in while having time off to say hey and send pictures from the trips she was on. I talk mostly about my childhood, and will tell her a small amount about my family (kids/wife). She’s asked for phone calls when she’s having a rough day in her new role, and I was able to rebuild her confidence. I am always positive and give lots of compliments about her at work. We went hybrid and we did meet in her office once to catch up and another day had lunch together. I felt this was a friendly coworker situation.

My wife got an uneasy feeling after hearing one of our video meetings and looked at our chat history on my computer. She accused me of flirting and being too emotionally intimate and available for this person and said the relationship seems inappropriate. She also said the coworker was sending me pictures which, while not naked or overly sexual, seemed out of line, especially with me responding with “wow” to her in a tight dress.

On another occasion when my coworker mentioned struggling to maintain her weight before her trip due to the amount of cake in her house, I told her that I was being mindful on my end to watch what I say but she would be just fine for her upcoming beach trip. I’m black, and I also said, “This is going to sound like something it’s not, but I’m telling you if you can manage to take it black, you’ll be better off” when she said her coffee didn’t have enough creamer. My wife felt that saying has a sexual meaning and was not appropriate.

I have also told my coworker about some of the gestures I do for my wife, and she told me that she would like her future husband to get marriage pro tips from me. I’ve called her good morning messages the highlight of my day, I’ve referred to her as my lucky charm, and she’s let me know that I’m a phenomenal cheerleader for her. I did these things thinking I was being a great coworker and friend and wasn’t crossing any boundaries, but my wife doesn’t see it that way.

My wife does not work in a corporate office so I’m thinking maybe she just doesn’t understand the new intimate relationships coworkers have, or am I just trying to get convince myself that I was not over the line? Were my actions that of a healthy coworker or did I cross a line?

Noooo, your wife understands just fine! You don’t need to work in a corporate office to recognize that lines are being crossed here — and you have indeed crossed the line.

This is not about new intimate relationships that coworkers have now! (That is … not really a thing?) This is about carrying on a flirtation with a coworker, and it sounds like an emotional affair as well.

You’re using sexual innuendo! By your own admission you knew how that coffee remark would come across. And you’re responding “wow” to photos of her. That’s inappropriate, full stop. (Truly, “wow”? Would you ever respond to photos of a male coworker that way, assuming you weren’t trying to hit on him?) It’s flirtatious banter at a minimum, and most women would take it as signaling an openness to more. Your wife clearly took it that way, and it’s highly likely that your coworker has too.

I don’t think you can be truly oblivious to the way all of this reads. Just the level of detail that you’ve included here says the relationship, and this person, are taking up an enormous amount of space in your brain — you’re remarking on how many vowels she’s using in her greetings!

You’ve painted the situation as “work relationships are just like this now,” but they’re not. Do you have any other work relationships like this? I’m guessing the answer is no; it’s just her. And what you’re describing, with this level of intimacy, is an emotional affair.

To be clear, it’s not that men and women can’t be friends. Of course they can! But that’s not what this is. The sexual innuendo and admiring comments about her physical attractiveness have made it something else.  As an experiment, I tried reading your letter without those details and that would change things — without those details this could indeed be just a close work friendship. Even then, I’d suggest you look at the amount of emotional energy you were investing in the relationship just to make sure (and perhaps have a look at stuff on emotional affairs as a reality check). But once those pieces are there, they really do color the entire relationship in a way that makes it impossible to read it differently.

In fact, here’s a good test: would you have shown your wife all those messages on your own and felt there was nothing there she might object to? Or did you know she would be uncomfortable if she saw them?

I’m not saying that “my spouse would be uncomfortable with this” is always a good measure of whether something is wrong; there are overly controlling spouses out there. But the vast majority of spouses would be uncomfortable with what you’ve described; it doesn’t take an excessively controlling spouse to be bothered by what’s happened here.

You’re flirting and emotionally invested to an inappropriate degree. Your wife is not off-base.

rejected on a video call, meetings on Juneteenth, and more

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

1. Hiring manager set up a video call to reject me

I applied to an internal job at my current company that would be fully remote. I went through the first and second round interviews and felt I did pretty well, but continued to apply to other places. In the meantime, I tried not to get too emotionally attached to this position, but the truth is I really, really wanted this job.

At my organization, the hiring process is extremely slow. About a month after the second interview, I followed up with the recruiter. I was told they would be interviewing one more person within the next week and to hold tight.

Fast forward to that next week and I received a video meeting invite from the hiring manager. The meeting was titled “quick touch-base” with no agenda attached and was scheduled for 15 minutes at the very end of a long day. Since I had no idea what to expect, I dressed in a full suit, made sure my hair and makeup were on point, and reviewed the job description, my resume, and cover letter again.

When we got on camera, the hiring manager said they had some disappointing news. They moved forward with another candidate. They were very impressed with my skill set and a generic email from HR seemed too impersonal, so they wanted to tell me personally and directly.

I sat there semi-dumbfounded in a full suit feeling like an idiot with little to say. It felt extremely awkward. I had no room to emote in that moment and no time to process. I kept a smile plastered on my face and just said, “Thanks for the opportunity, if you ever have a position that matches, please reach out to me.”

It was bizarre and made the rejection that much more painful. I was sort of shocked that someone would schedule a video call to tell me this. I’m not sure if this is a new standard, but instead of feeling kind, it felt very cruel. I went through the trouble of getting myself together for a video chat that ended up being maybe five minutes long. I understand not wanting to come across as impersonal, but it made me feel put on the spot.

Hiring managers, if you plan to reject someone, sometimes an email really is the best way to go about it. I would have even accepted a call over being forced to be on video to receive the not-so-great news. At least I wouldn’t have had to feel the need to prep and get myself ready for something that wasn’t going to happen.

Yes, this is a terrible idea. Calling people with a job rejection is usually the wrong move too, for many of the same reasons: the person gets their hopes up, then has to process and react to disappointing news on the spot. Doing it on video has all the same faults, plus more — now you have to control your face, not just your words, and you’ve dressed up for it too.

If a hiring manager wants to make a rejection feel less impersonal, they can do it by sharing the news in an email initially and then offering a call if the person wants it — not by blindsiding someone with the news in real time, and definitely not on camera.

2. A meeting scheduled on Juneteenth

My company recognizes and observes Juneteenth. I think this is super cool. This year, because Juneteenth falls on a Sunday, the office is closed on Monday, June 20th. We have a paid day off.

I’ve been invited to a meeting on the 20th. The meeting is with an organization that really values DEI in their work (as do I). I sit on their advisory board and this meeting is related to my service on the advisory board. I consider being part of the advisory board to be part of my “work.” The organizer has reached out to collect RSVPs. I drafted an email saying I wouldn’t be able to attend because my office is closed that day, but I have yet to hit “send” because I feel a little weird about it.

Here’s why:
• I have the day off, so I should take the day off, right? I am being paid because I am a salaried, exempt employee and it’s a recognized holiday at my organization. I struggle enough with work-life balance without actively choosing to work on days off. I DO have the option of flexing the time and cutting out early later in the week.
• But attending this meeting where we will no doubt talk about DEI seems like a valuable way to spend my Juneteenth!
• But, if I decline and tell them why, perhaps that will prompt this organization to follow suit and observe Juneteenth in the future and that would be cool, right? I don’t actually know of any other organizations that recognize and observe Juneteenth, so perhaps my org is ahead of the curve on this and this would help with the spread? It’s even early enough that perhaps that can reconsider the date of the meeting and reschedule it for this year.

My organization makes a lot of decisions that don’t support their DEI goals (for example, not posting salaries in job descriptions), but they are actively working on a DEI initiative so I expect to see changes. The culture at my organization is really positive and supportive. I live in a largely white state that has a lot of work to do (starting with first recognizing they have work to do). I will likely attend an event on Juneteenth to recognize the day.

I am white and I’d really like to do the most thoughtful and helpful thing in this situation.

Why not point out that it’s the federal holiday for Juneteenth and ask them to reschedule the meeting? (They may not be thinking about Juneteenth at all, and/or they may not realize it became a federal holiday last year and is being observed on the 20th this year since the day falls on a weekend.)

You don’t have to say you won’t attend if they don’t, but just as you might point out that a meeting was scheduled for Yom Kippur even if you weren’t Jewish, it’s a useful thing to flag and suggest they change.

If they don’t change it, then it’s up to you to decide whether or not you want to attend a meeting that day — but flagging it as early as you can and suggesting they pick another date sounds like the most useful thing you could do.

3. Setting boundaries with student workers as a new manager

I am writing as a recent graduate from a master’s program who just landed a job in the field I got the degree for. It is at a university library, the same library I worked at as a grad student in one of the student assistant positions. Part of my new position is to manage the grad student assistants (five total), all of whom are students in the program I just graduated from.

I am asking for tips to make myself more authoritative and to assert the supervisor/student boundary. I believe part of the issue is that I am very close in age to the students (only a year or so older). I also used to work with a couple of them as a student, although this will change after they graduate this year. They see me as more of a peer than a supervisor.

I was recently pulled into a conversation with one of the student workers that I believe was inappropriate, considering our relationship. What started as me asking about how their degree was going turned into them being highly critical of the university, the master’s program, as well as specific professors that we had shared. Not the type of conversation you should ever be having with your boss. When I saw the conversation taking an unprofessional turn, I tried to head it off, but the student did not take the hint and kept going until I eventually excused myself from the conversation.

Since then, I have tried thinking of possible responses or strategies to more quickly shut down a conversation if it ever heads that way again, as well as ways to bring up the issue with the student directly if it ends up persisting. Advice regarding both would be really appreciated.

Depending on the specifics of the complaints, you could try this: “As your boss, this isn’t a conversation we should have, but if you do want to talk to someone about these issues, you could speak with ____.” Or, “I’m sorry you’re having frustrations — as your manager, I’m not the right audience for this but you could try ___.” Or, “That sounds really frustrating (or alarming/concerning/whatever is appropriate). Can I put you in touch with ____ to see if they can help?”

That said, it’s not inherently inappropriate for a student worker to share criticisms about the school with you, although it depends on the specifics of the complaints and whether they’re just venting or not. Either way, though, the responses above should help since (a) if the complaints are legit, you’ll be steering them toward an appropriate resource, and (b) if it’s really just venting, by taking it seriously and directing them elsewhere you’ll still be communicating the boundaries on your role and the relationship.

Other stuff that might help with establishing authority:

how I can be more authoritative now that I’m a manager?

how to appear more authoritative at work

4. Putting psychometric test results on a resume

What are your thoughts on the Clifton Strengths Finder? Should it be referenced in a resume or cover letter, or mentioned in an interview? Or just used to incorporate better language when discussing skills and accomplishments?

Don’t reference it in your resume or cover letter; that would be putting an unwarranted amount of emphasis on something that a lot of the people reading your resume will be unfamiliar with or just don’t find particularly valuable. It’s also more subjective than is helpful in this context, similar to putting “self-starter” or “good writer” on your resume — hiring managers want to see what you’ve done with your traits (actual accomplishments), not the traits themselves.

Those types of assessments can be useful in helping you understand your own strengths and way of working, but they shouldn’t go on a resume or in a cover letter.

5. Leaving my job while I’m covering for my boss

I am a deputy director of a small team within a larger institution. I have risen steadily through the ranks over the last few years and now find myself second in command. My boss is going to be on extended leave for several months, and every expectation is I will take the reins of the team and lead it through my boss’s absence. It is notable that the absence will include a critical time for the organization, including the potential for major upheaval and job loss if things don’t go our team’s way. I have gotten a little preview of what things will be like as my boss has been out for two weeks and it has been incredibly stressful doing two jobs.

Against this background I have had a potential job opportunity come up in another very prestigious institution. I did not apply for this job, but was contacted for it. There are still a lot of things to work through before I have an offer or accept it, including whether my salary requirements will be met. But I think I will likely be put in the position of making a choice. My job and boss have been good to me, but I have also worked very hard to get where I am. I know in the past I have let feelings of loyalty keep me from taking other opportunities, but I feel very lost about how I should evaluate and decide whether to stay or not. My spouse says my organization needs to be bigger than me, and no doubt they will get on without me somehow. I just worry about disappointing people and knowing what is right for me. I am also a WOC in a white, male-dominated field and I deal with impostor syndrome all the time. Where do I start?

If you end up wanting the other job, you should take the other job. If you’re good at your work, people will always be disappointed when you leave, but that can’t affect your decision or you’d never be able to leave at all. And yes, this will be a particularly inconvenient time for you to leave, but it’s not reasonable for your employer to expect you to put your career on hold for their convenience … and if they do want that, they have the option of negotiating that with you and paying you accordingly, like with a written, contractual retention bonus.

You can frame it as “this fell in my lap and it’s not something I can pass up.”

All that said, if it’s just a matter of pushing back the start date at the new job by a month or so, you could ask if the new employer would be open to that so you can finish out the leave coverage. The more senior you get, the easier it often is to do that, and the more common a request it is.

update: I’m a member of The Satanic Temple and got outed at work

Remember the letter-writer who’s a member of The Satanic Temple and got outed at work and her boss had become hostile to her? Here’s the update.

So my update is better but a bit of a bummer.

My manager got suspended pending an investigation. Not because of me directly, but this was I guess a cherry on the cake of issues she’d been having for a while under the radar.

At the beginning of April, our corporate office sent out a few holiday well wish bulletins for Ramadan, Eid, Passover, and Easter. Boss had been complaining about only certain bulletins (guess which ones) quite loudly to certain people. Other coworkers had been to HR because of Boss’s comments and weird requirements about time off for non-Christian staff. Our staff is really diverse and we have a lot of coverage so it’s not like there was a shortage of people that would impact the schedule.

I went to HR before your response because things with my boss kept getting worse. My yearly reviews are in June, she pulled me in three months early and basically trashed my chances for a promotion I really wanted saying I was a distraction in the office and becoming entitled and my work quality was low.

The rest of the comments with my coworkers I’ve been able to handle with humor and being blunt but I took my performance eval to HR and explained everything.

HR was great. I didn’t expect that level of support and while I don’t think I’m the catalyst for her suspension, I’m relieved the company is upholding the values they say they have.

my employee can’t accept that his work is bad

A reader writes:

I’ve put a staff member on to a formal performance improvement plan, but despite me providing feedback and taking multiple approaches to get through to him, he doesn’t seem to be able to grasp just how poorly he is doing.

I want him to succeed and have supported many conversations, participation in mentoring and coaching, formal and informal training, attempts to build a peer network, ongoing feedback, and participation at conferences and events. I’ve tried as many techniques as I know and have had advice on new ones to try, but they don’t get through. He appears to work best with specific instruction, which isn’t generally possible for the role he is in, because his role is more about managing a team, strategy, being future focused, communicating with many different stakeholders, complex problem-solving, and playing the political game.

The improvement plan, which has a month left on it, is clear that we will let him go at the end of it if he doesn’t improve, and and both myself and HR have talked him through it.

He spends a lot of time telling me and his team and other colleagues how good he is and how much he has to contribute, but he just isn’t delivering. Recently he’s missed two deadlines, but has spent that time telling me how much he is enjoying the opportunity to do this work and being given the chance to show me how good he can be.

Do you have advice on how to get through to an overly-confident staff member (where that confidence is very misplaced)?

I’ve been as blunt as making hand gestures of him needing to be up here (gestures) and showing he has only progressed to about here (gestures much lower). I am trying to be cautious that I’m not forever only giving negative feedback or corrections, but when I give positive feedback he latches on to that and can’t seem to hear anything else.

I answer this question over at Inc. today, where I’m revisiting letters that have been buried in the archives here from years ago (and sometimes updating/expanding my answers to them). You can read it here.

is it unfair to give my best employee more work than everyone else?

A reader writes:

I manage a small team of 6-8. Let’s say our work is auditing the use of office supplies — every single one that comes in the door. Not only are we auditing the upcoming shipment of pencils, but also going back and looking at copy machines, paper reams, desk chairs, and every single Post-it note that came in before our team existed. Needless to say, we have more work than we can ever hope to accomplish, although the main focus is new supplies.

The best worker on my team, Norbert, has previous experience auditing office supplies and good connections in the company, and can easily perform twice as many audits a month as the rest of the team. The work of the others on the team isn’t subpar or bad, it’s just not as fast as Norbert’s. When I delegate work out, I tend to look at how many audits each team member currently has, and assign to the person who is juggling the least. It’s definitely not Norbert every time, but he does get more than his colleagues. I previously did a “round-robin” method of assigning work, but it can quickly bury people who have a lot of other audits on their plate or have been out on PTO.

Each audit is unique in that it could take anywhere from five days to three months to complete, and there’s no way to know ahead of time where it will land. I follow up with each member of the team bi-weekly to discuss their current audits and see if I can help with nudging them further along, so I know that none of them are just sitting on work to prevent being assigned new audits. When I assign work to Norbert, he often complains about being “punished” with extra work since he takes on more audits than the rest of the team.

I’m kind of at a loss as to what to do here. We have a huge backlog of audits to complete, so the work will just keep coming for years and years, literally. Due to the nature of the audits, it seems unfair of me to say, “Everyone needs to complete 10 audits a month!” when the volatility of them may preclude that from happening, or my team may get done much quicker than that and just be twiddling their thumbs for a couple of weeks. I have tried tasking Norbert with assisting his colleagues with their audits — my way of saying, “Teach them how to be as fast as you, then!” but the complaints remain. In my opinion, I am keeping each member of my team busy with work to fill a full-time position. I suppose my question is, are his complaints valid, or is he just being a jerk? Is there a better way for me to assign work to my team, keeping in mind that we have an enormous pile from which to pull?

Norbert’s complaints are valid.

It’s reasonable for him to say he doesn’t want to perform twice as much work as the rest of the team, at least not without some kind of formal recognition of that — at least a higher salary since he’s contributing more than your other staff members, and possibly a higher title too (which should come with a salary increase).

If you’re not offering him those things, there’s no incentive for him to continuing producing at twice the rate as everyone else.

I think you’re looking at it as “I’m paying everyone for 40 hours of work and I expect their full energy for that 40 hours, whatever that produces.” But Norbert isn’t wrong to want you to factor in his contributions relative to other people’s.

Some people like Norbert are happy to be the most productive team member — often because they derive personal fulfillment from that. (Even then, though, you need to recognize their higher level of performance with money. Just because they’re not as disgruntled as Norbert doesn’t mean it’s okay to underpay them relative to what they’re contributing.) But Norbert has made it clear that he’s unhappy having higher workload than others, and his stance is fair.

(If I’m wrong and you have rewarded him with higher pay than his slower colleagues, then you need to have a different kind of conversation, one where you jointly agree on what reasonable goals are for his position, recognizing that in that case it’s a different role, and a differently compensated role, than his coworkers’ jobs.)

explaining why I’m not donating blood, boss flies first class but put me in coach, and more

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

1. How do I explain why I’m not donating blood?

My medium-sized company is hosting a blood drive on site in a few weeks and HR has really been pushing for people to sign up. I would love to donate blood but because I am a sexually active gay man, I am not allowed. Because I live in a small, conservative town, I am in mostly in the closet (totally at work). My employer is basically the only game in town and I need to keep my job. From past conversations and experiences, I have no doubt that things would not go well if I came out (that includes HR and my boss).

While I hate that this is how it is, I have come to terms with it. The issue is, I don’t know what to say to people when they ask why I haven’t signed up. I can’t say the truth so I think a small white lie is the way to go. I was going to say that I donated recently already but as this is a small town, we don’t have many drives so worry about follow-up questions. Any other suggestions?

People need to rein in the nosiness about why someone might not be donating blood. There are a ton of possible explanations, all of them things people are entitled to privacy around: sexuality, certain medications, some types of illnesses, needle phobias, restrictions from having traveled or lived in various places at various times, and a bunch of other reasons.

That does mean that there are lots of white lies available to you, though! You have a vagal response that makes you vomit, you passed out in the past and were told not to donate again, your iron count is too low, etc. But the easiest and vaguest is to just say, “I can’t — medical restrictions.” If anyone pushes for details, you can say, “Oh, I’m private about medical stuff but nothing to worry about.”

2. My boss is flying first class and put me in coach

I want to start by saying that I’m looking for a sounding board and am totally okay with being told I’m wrong or that I sound entitled.

I’m working with a company and it was never part of my job to do sales. However, everyone is busy and so I started calling on our leads. Over the past eight months or so, I’ve been the only person doing it and it’s in addition to the mountain of other work I do (I’m a high level business manager, legal liaison, and development manager for our new business venture.)

Part of our work is that we are expanding into new territory. So I’m working on selling a very big deal several states away. As part of that deal, I have to fly out to meet the client. When I was booking my ticket, the owner of the company asked me to book the travel for everyone. And then added, “put my husband and I in first class and you (and my colleague) can sit in coach.”

I’m drastically underpaid (less than half of what I’d make doing less elsewhere) but have never asked for anything because I’m aware we are in a growth pattern right now due to a new business model. But I’m highly offended by this. I’m the only revenue stream. I have no commission structure (even though there are others in the company that do), and the only reason anyone has this opportunity is because I went out of my way to try to make sure we have income. Am I being completely ridiculous? I actually booked my own ticket outside of the company because I do not enjoy flying, especially in coach, and I also don’t enjoy being made to feel less-than.

It’s not terribly unusual for top execs in a company to fly business or first class while others fly coach … but it’s a bad move for them to do that when you’re the rainmaker. It’s not necessarily a major outrage, but it can be the kind of thing that nudges someone to rethink how much they want to keep sacrificing for a company that doesn’t recognize how much they’re contributing. (That said, ideally you would have spoken up about what you wanted and why — “I avoid flying and generally fly business class when I can’t avoid it. Since I’ve put this deal together and will need to be on the whole next day with the client, I’d like to fly business class for this trip.”)

3. Gender-neutral dress codes

I work in a construction-like industry and noticed that an event invite from the company described the dress code in a kind of male-centric way (it specified wearing a collared shirt, when realistically they just meant business casual, which for women often is not a collared shirt). I want to give feedback to the event coordinator on how to change the wording to be more inclusive. It would be one small way to help improve work for women in this very male-dominated environment, and honestly it confused me so I packed a full week of collared shirts just in case, plus a full week of my normal business casual clothing (I am female and usually wear blouses or sweaters to work). However, I want to make sure we don’t end up with male/female dress codes, because that would not be inclusive to non-binary people.

I’m thinking of suggesting removing the reference to collared shirts, keeping the list of not-allowed items (they list that you cannot wear shorts, etc.), and otherwise not specifying other than to say that the dress code is business casual. Would that work? Do you have recommendations on how to make a clear dress code without it being gendered? It seems to be carefully written due to people not wearing acceptable clothing in the past, so I want to make sure my suggestion is clear and inclusive.

Also, does this make sense to bring up, or am I making too big a deal of this? It doesn’t affect me any more, so I would just be bringing it up because I think it might help other employees in the future. I can’t tell whether my overall experience with sexism in this industry is clouding my perspective on this.

Bring it up! They presented a dress code as for everyone when it was really just for men because they’re not thinking about the presence of other people.

Your suggestions for a revised dress code are good, but it’s worth spelling out that they should avoid gender-specific lists. For example: “To be inclusive we shouldn’t have dress codes by gender either, so perhaps we can simply list examples of what’s acceptable (collared shirts, blouses, business casual in general) and what’s not (shorts) and leave it at that.”

4. Using a non-standard email address when job-hunting

I’m considering choosing a new email provider for privacy reasons, which means that my email address would no longer end with any of the best known domains. Would it hurt me when job searching (or for other business communications) to have a tutanota, posteo, mailbox.org, or other lesser-known email address?

Also, some email providers have support for custom domains. I know that businesses frequently do that to have branded email addresses, but what are your thoughts about regular people using custom domains? What about using one with one of the less common top level domains (the .com/.org/.bank/.ninja part), such as one that happens to also be my surname? Would you avoid those for business communications?

Most hiring managers don’t pay any attention to your email address, including domain, as long as it’s not inappropriate for work (like with references to sex or drugs or hating work).

That said, I’d avoid really unusual replacements for the .com part of the address (like .ninja instead of .com) because a lot of people still don’t know those are a thing and you risk causing confusion if someone doesn’t understand that valentina@warbleworth.ninja is indeed a working address.

5. Should I include medical leave on a resume?

Do you have any recommendations on how or if to include leave or extended absences from work on a resume?

I started my job in May 2021. It was a new role for me, and I ended up needing to take three months of medical leave from January 2022 to March 2022. Now, in May, I’m looking for a new job that’s more compatible with my health. Would it be appropriate to say in my applications that I worked at my current job for one year from May 2021 to May 2022?

I don’t want to over-represent my experience, but I also don’t want to disclose to a potential new employer that I recently took medical leave for my disability, as I think that would make me a less competitive candidate.

If you’re still at that same job, you can indeed list your time there as May 2021 – present (or if you leave this month, May 2021 – May 2022). You’re not expected to call out medical leaves on your resume, just like you’re also not expected to call out parental leave or other forms of leave. You’re fine!