your office is filthy … and Jolie Kerr can help

I get a lot of questions that relate to cleaning at work: Why is the microwave in the office kitchen so disgusting, and how can we keep it clean? The person who shares my workspace leaves it in a terrible mess. How do I lead a meeting when I just spilled soup all over my shirt?

On the Ask a Manager podcast today, I talk with Jolie Kerr, of the amazing Ask a Clean Person and author of the best-selling book My Boyfriend Barfed in My Handbag…and Other Things You Can’t Ask Martha. She knows everything there is to know about how to clean everything!

Jolie and I answered a bunch of reader-submitted questions about cleanliness at work, including:

  • “If I spill, HYPOTHETICALLY, mustard or tomato soup on myself at lunch, what takes it out aside from those portable Tide pens or Shout wipes?”
  • “How gross are our keyboards?”
  • “How much personal stuff should live in your work space?”
  • “We don’t have a real sink/dish area so a lot of us rinse our coffee cups in the bathroom sink and sometimes even use hand soap. Is this an adequate substitute for dish soap?”
  • and lots more

Someone even sent us an all-staff email that was sent out in their office about a gross cleaning issue, so we discuss that too!   

 

my employer fined me $90 for being late

A reader writes

My company has a ridiculous late fine policy: you will be fined $2 for every minute, starting from 9:01 a.m. So if you come in at 9:05 a.m., that’s $10 you gotta pay up in cash. (This is not somewhere where down-to-the-minute coverage would be essential. It’s just typical deskbound, back-end work. I can see why the receptionist who gets the calls will need to be there smack on the dot, but the rest of us — not really.)

I’ve been here for over a year, and have been fined maybe three times. They were for 9:01 a.m., 9:02 a.m. and 9:08 a.m. I was intensely annoyed and embarrassed, but okay, I can still absorb the $2-$16 financial pinch.

I hate this policy because it nickel and dimes employees down to the first minute, and at a very high rate. I hate this policy because coming in at 9:01 a.m. does not makes you any less productive than the dude who came in at 9:00 a.m., whose bloody computer is still starting up.

A few days ago, I overslept for the first time. I somehow slept through my usual TWO alarms and woke up with a start at 8:30 a.m. — an hour late. I immediately texted my manager that I had overslept and asked if it was possible to get an emergency, UNPAID, half-day leave. I had calculated that coming in an hour late would result in a $120 fine, which is painfully difficult for me to absorb. I’m a junior employee.

My manager said no. She wanted me to come in anyway because “it’s the right thing to do.” I cried some tears of frustration, but told her okay and rushed like hell down, but not before racking up 45 minutes worth of late fine — $90.

Alison, I understand that she wants me to be punished accordingly. I accept that sleeping through two alarms was all on me.

At the same time — and I don’t know if this matters — I’m a relatively high performer at work. I truly enjoy what I do and do a decent job at it. I just received a glowing annual appraisal and got publicly commended by the director, in spite of my young age (this is my first job out of college) and junior position. Furthermore, I work overtime every day because my workload is high, even though we don’t get any overtime pay. And I’m not chronically late — this was my first time oversleeping.

And yet, my manager rejected my request for an UNPAID, half-day leave. Technically, she is right and I deserved it. But I don’t think being rigidly strict here was warranted. Am I just entitled for feeling this way? If you divide my monthly salary by 30 days, $90 is what I earn in one day. I will have to cough up an entire day’s salary (worth three weeks of lunch expenses!) for this, and my manager was cool with that? I’m fuming, yet I don’t know if I have the right to be.

Part of me wants to talk about this with my manager to see if it could’ve been handled differently — if I could’ve been given the unpaid, half-day leave. Is this worth revisiting with her about, and if so, how should I approach it?

This is utter bullshit.

I am IRATE over this.

If you’re not in a job where coverage matters (like one where you need to answer phones or meet with clients starting at a precise time), then it really, really doesn’t matter if you’re two minutes late. I would think it was ridiculous for a manager even just to have a stern talk with someone for being two minutes late in a job where it doesn’t have any practical impact — but fining you?

No.

You are a professional adult holding down a professional job. The entire concept of fining you is offensive and ridiculous.

If your manager has a problem with your time of arrival, she can do what a decent manager would do and talk to you about it. If it continues after that, she can decide what the consequences are. But they need to be normal work consequences (up to and including firing you if it’s that big of a deal, although I’m skeptical that it should be) — it can’t be digging through your wallet and taking whatever cash she finds there, or insisting you cut off two inches of your hair, or that you change your name to Xavier Sebastian Pumpernickel. And it can’t be making you turn over your own money for the privilege of working there.

Or at least it shouldn’t be.

Legally, though, in a lot of cases it would be allowed. I talked with employment lawyer Donna Ballman, author of the excellent book Stand Up For Yourself Without Getting Fired, who agreed that federal law does allow this, as long the fine doesn’t take your pay for that period below minimum wage. But she noted that you might live in a state that prohibits it, and it’s worth checking into that. Also, if you’re non-exempt, they can dock your pay for the actual time you were late … although if you’re exempt, that docking could negate your exempt status, make you effectively non-exempt, and mean that you’d be entitled to overtime pay when you work over 40 hours in a week. (There’s an explanation about exempt and non-exempt here, but the gist is that “exempt” is a government classification meaning that the nature of the work you do makes you exempt from receiving overtime pay. If you’re exempt, they can’t dock your pay when you work fewer hours. If they do that anyway, they can end up owing you overtime pay, including retroactively.)

Donna also pointed out: “The other thing I’d say you’d have to look at is the reason the employee was late. If it was to care for a sick child, spouse or parent, then punishing them might violate FMLA. If it related to a disability, then they might be violating the Americans With Disabilities Act. If it’s applied unevenly, then other discrimination laws could kick in. I’d say an employer doing this is, number one, a terrible employer, and, number two, taking a huge risk that they are violating some law.”

As for what you can do here …

First, it’s worth looking into the potential legal issues Donna raises. If there’s a legal violation here, your employers deserves to have someone pursue it.

Second, look into whether you’re correctly classified as exempt. You said you don’t get overtime pay even when you work overtime, which means they’re treating you as exempt. I would bet good money that they’ve misclassified you (which many employers do), especially considering that this is your first job out of school and first jobs often don’t meet the bar to be exempt. And if that’s the case, they owe you a ton of overtime back pay. Even if you ultimately choose not to pursue that, it would be really handy leverage to have in any discussions about the fining.

Third, recalibrate your expectations. Because this is your first job after college, you might be thinking this is more acceptable than it actually is. But it’s not normal to treated salaried professionals this way. It’s not something you should expect to find at future jobs. It’s not something you should be okay with now.

And you have every right to be fuming about that $90 fine. You are not being entitled. You are being absolutely, entirely reasonable.

So fourth, go back and talk to your manager. Say something like this: “I’m asking you to waive this $90 fine. $90 is what I earn in a day. I can’t afford to pay back an entire day’s salary. I work overtime every day, and it makes no sense for me to work long hours when I’m not given even a minute of leeway on the other end. I’m not chronically late, and I do excellent work. I don’t think I should be subject to a financial hardship for a one-time occurrence.”

Fifth, consider pushing back on this entire abhorrent policy with a group of your coworkers. People have unionized over less.

my clothes are too dressy for my new job, will anyone deal with my awful boss, and more

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

1. My clothes are too dressy for my new job

In the last year, I have started a different job where the general attire around the office is much more business casual than my previous position. I don’t have a lot of money, but I had built up a small professional wardrobe that I feel is too fancy for the culture of my new workplace.

My wardrobe has a combination of pencil skirts, suit pants, blazers, and silk tops. People in my office wear more dark denim and button downs, or black pants with put together tops, but less dressy than what I wear. Other clothing I own is much too casual (i.e., shorts, sweats, and tank tops) or has holes or wear in it. I can’t really afford to replace things at this point, but I am worried about being overdressed. I I feel like I am standing out in a way that makes me not fit in with the workplace culture, but since I can’t afford to replace it, I don’t know what to do.

I am assuming it is better to err on the side of too fancy than too casual, but I mostly just wish I had the ability to finance a wardrobe that was in between. Since I don’t at this time, what is your suggestion? Should I say anything about it? Or just keep being overdressed and hope it’s okay until I figure something out?

Well … if you were showing up every day in a three-piece suit while everyone else was in jeans and button-downs, that would be one thing. But a pencil skirt and a silk top isn’t as much of a disparity with what it sounds like others are wearing. It’s definitely a notch or two more formal, yes, but not weirdly so.

That said, can you buy a couple of inexpensive items to dress down the rest of your wardrobe? A couple of cotton tops and one or two pairs of non-suit pants could make it a lot easier to bring your outfits down in formality, and could be paired with the stuff you already have. Sometimes “can’t afford to replace it” means “I can’t afford to buy really nice stuff” but doesn’t preclude a trip to Old Navy or getting a few $7 shirts from thredUP, and if that’s the case I think that’s your best bet. But other times, it means “I literally cannot afford that $7 shirt,” in which case these suggestions won’t work for you and I’d just dress down your current stuff to whatever extent you can and don’t worry too much about it. It’s very likely that you just look like someone who likes dressing a bit more nicely.

And if anyone ever comments on you always being dressed up, it’s fine to say, “Yeah, my old job was much dressier so I’m used to it, but I’m looking forward to buying some new stuff at some point.”

2. Is my organization likely to deal with my awful director?

My supervisor has been reported to HR three different sets of times by several people on our team, including myself. Each time HR has been very helpful and his boss, our executive director, has spoken to him about his behavior. He has not improved. His behavior gets better for a time but he always backslides. There have been changes in his behavior, but it’s still pretty bad. He no longer yells at us or uses a mean tone, but he also no longer does any work at all and gives us the silent treatment. He shows off our work to other managers and makes it sound as if he’s helping even though he’s actually making everything worse and harder to do.

My question is — is my faith in the system misplaced? I’ve spoken up and reported him even though he’s proven to be vindictive in the hopes that things would improve. But it’s been nine months since the first instance and I’m wondering if documenting someone in preparation to fire them takes this much time or if it’s a sign that management is valuing keeping him and working with him over the people in the department.

Background/other info — I work for an organization with about 50 employees. We have an executive director, six directors who supervise the various departments. One department is big and has three managers under their director, and the rest of us are staff. My supervisor is a director with six staff that report directly to him.

It’s good that they talked to him about his behavior and apparently were stern enough about it that he got better for a time and has stopped yelling and changed his tone. It’s not good that he no longer does any work at all and is giving you the silent treatment. Does HR and your ED know about those things? Have you gone back and said, “Here’s what’s happening now”? If you haven’t, you should. They’ve shown you that they’ll take feedback seriously, and you may just need to provide more of it.

But if they do know what’s going on now and they’ve known for a while, then that’s not promising. It’s possible that they are indeed working on a longer-term plan, but there’s no reason it should take this long. It’s also possible that they’ve done as much as they’re willing to do to address it, and that they’re satisfied with “no longer yells.” It’s hard to say without knowing more. But if your sense is that you’re highly valued and have some standing there, one option is to say something like, “Things are still quite bad on our team. Can you give me a sense of whether it’s being addressed behind the scenes, or whether things are likely remain more or less where they are now?” They won’t necessarily give you a direct answer to that, but you’re likely to get some sense of whether this is still something they’re actively concerned about and willing to intervene on.

3. Executive wants me to repay him now for expenses that haven’t come through yet

About a month ago, two colleagues and I planned a team building event that involved a pub crawl (very much in line with my company’s “work hard, play hard” culture). My manager, a C-level executive, gave us all cash to pay for drinks. In total, I paid about $150 for cocktails for eight staff members.

After the event was over, my manager asked that we expense those drinks to him and then reimburse him the cash he had given us. The logic, which does makes sense to me, is that he would otherwise need to submit receipts to his boss (the CEO) for scrutinizing. Our CEO agreed to the budget for the team building event, but he’s been known to change his mind on reimbursements last minute if he thinks the spending is too lavish, so my boss wants to avoid the risk that nothing would get expensed in the end.

The problem I’m facing is this: our accounting team is notorious for taking weeks to process expenses, and because of my 60-hour-a-week schedule I just managed to submit my expenses last week (four weeks after the event). My manager, however, wants his $150 now. Rather than wait for me to receive the expenses back in my account before transferring them to him, he has asked me to reimburse him now and absorb the deficit on my end until such a time as the accounting department processes my expenses. This is what the other two people who organized the event with me have apparently already done with their expenses.

Here’s the thing: Aside from the fact that the money was never actually mine to begin with (he gave it to me to pay for drinks for the team and then asked me to expense them), I simply don’t have the money to absorb these costs so close to the holidays. I have talked to him before about a raise and he said we could first discuss it next March, so he knows money is tight for me. I also know he takes home six times what I earn (I’m responsible for the payroll). I just feel a little uncomfortable with the request, and I’m wondering what I can say to him to make it clear that it’s not an option for me, a junior employee, to spot a CXO for money he gave the entire team that I offered to reimburse on his behalf. Any ideas on what I could say?

So he fronted the money, then decided he wants it back immediately and so you’ll have to front the money instead, even though you never agreed to do that? At best, that’s an incredibly thoughtless move. Why does his desire to get his money back faster trump your desire not to float your own money to make that happen? This isn’t that different from if he’d gone on a business trip, paid for his hotel, and then come back and told you, “Hey, give me $200 to cover what I paid for my hotel until Accounting comes through with my reimbursement.”

Anyway, say this: “I can’t float the money; my budget is too tight right now. But I’ve submitted for your reimbursement and hopefully it’ll come through soon.”

And if he keeps pushing: “Sorry for the confusion here. I can’t afford to front $150 right now, even though it’ll get reimbursed eventually. I’m not in a financial position to be able to do that.”

Also, your manager is being a bit of an ass here.

4. What to say when someone mistakes me for my predecessor

I’d appreciate your advice on a small networking problem. I’m a young woman working in a very male-dominated field (as in I’m the only woman in my job in the nearest five counties). I “inherited” my position from another young woman, Lucinda, who moved out of state. Lucinda shared a few physical characteristics with me like race and hair length but otherwise looked and sounded very different. Every so often, I’ll run into someone from Lucinda’s network who mistakes me for her. I’m not assuming anything … they’ll actually greet me by her name and ask questions about things from her life. This doesn’t happen to my male coworkers.

Lucinda is highly skilled and had/has a great reputation in our region, so it’s definitely not insulting to be compared to her! The problem is I’d like to network with these people, and I don’t know how to correct them without making things awkward. How do I tell them they’ve got the wrong gal?

“Oh, it’s actually Cordelia! Lucinda is the person who used to have my job.”

Since they’re people you want to network with, say it warmly and cheerfully. Some of them will probably be embarrassed, so if you’re matter-of-fact about it, it’ll smooth it over faster.

Also, if you and Lucinda are a different race from most of the people who are doing this, I don’t want to ignore that there’s likely a racial element here, which adds another dimension to it. I don’t think it changes the advice, but it didn’t feel right answering it without acknowledging that.

5. I’m training my replacement and he won’t stop hovering

I am starting a new job next month, and part of what I have been asked to do before I leave is help train my replacement. I like teaching, so I don’t mind training, even though it takes a significant amount of time. Tasks I can do in an hour take three. The problem is that my new coworker is constantly following me and asking questions, and I do not have time for that. I tell him the tasks we are going to work on that day and tell him what time that will be. Then I try to do other tasks so I can get my work done and leave on time (I am exempt and expected to stay until the work is done). He will find me and keep asking questions. I have told him that I do not have time to train him right then and am on a tight schedule and he doesn’t seem to understand. I am more than happy to answer questions while I am training him, but it is extremely disruptive when he expects me to be on call for training all day long.

After I repeatedly tell him that I do not have time to answer his questions, he will simply lurk watching me over my shoulder and sometimes getting too close for my comfort. It is getting to the point where I feel creeped out every time I see him and I am afraid that is going to affect how well I train him because all I want to do is stay as far away as possible. Is this normal? How can I politely tell him to back off? I have tried reiterating the time we are going to meet for training and say that I will come and find him, but he doesn’t leave.

Nope, it’s not normal. The problem here isn’t so much that he’s around too much and asking questions (although that’s not ideal); it’s that you have directly told him that you don’t have time to talk to him then and he’s not leaving. That’s bizarre.

Have you been really, really direct? Sometimes people say “I told him X” and then it turns out they they sort of hinted as X without saying it outright. And there’s a difference between “I don’t have time to talk right now because I’m on a tight schedule” and “I cannot speak with you right now and I need you to leave my office.” Most people will respect the first one, but other people will need to hear the second one before they get it.

So if you haven’t yet been really direct, say this the next time it happens: “I cannot talk with you right now. I need to focus without interruption. We can talk at our next training meeting, which is at 4:00 today. You should assume I’m not free to speak until then.”

If he doesn’t leave when you say that, then you say: “Please go back to your desk now since I need to return to this work.” That might feel weirdly heavy-handed to say to a peer, but you’re training him; you actually have some authority to give him direction. (And frankly, even if you didn’t, it’s okay to tell someone they need to leave when they’re bothering you.)

If that doesn’t work, then he’s being outrageously inappropriate, and you can respond accordingly: “I asked you to leave so I can work and you’re still here. I really need you to leave my office now.” That might feel rude, but it’s not. It’s a reasonable response to incredibly rude behavior by him.

If that doesn’t do the trick, then you’re dealing with someone whose behavior is alarming enough that you’d need to tell your boss what’s going on. (You may even want to do that one step earlier.)

update: a client sent me a thank-you check as a way to avoid paying my boss

Remember the letter-writer last month whose client sent her a large thank-you check as a way of avoiding paying her boss, with whom he was embroiled in much drama? Here’s the update.

Thank you to you and your readers for taking the time to answer my question. I thought you all would like an update. I originally gave one in the comments, but a few things have happened since then.

First, I’d like to clarify something about my pay. A lot of readers suggested that I was being highly underpaid by my uncle (who is my boss, Adam), which is why I was having to skip meals. That was NOT the case. My spouse had recently had some administrative changes at work, and unfortunately they dropped his pay to minimum wage ( a whole other letter) and that was the main reason we were struggling. Also, prior to this whole incident, I had actually asked for a raise since my role had expanded and I didn’t have one in the two years I’ve been here (thanks for the guidance, Alison).

On to the update. I had decided to give the check to Adam before your response, due to the family dynamic in play. Sadly, a coworker saw the check before I had a chance to say something, so it sped up the timeline significantly. The next day I met with Adam first thing in the morning and gave him the check. He. Was. Pissed. Rightfully so. He held on to the check (womp womp) and a war ensued in my emails between Gilbert and Adam. The hostile emails lasted about a week. Gilbert, after all this, decided to pull a project from us due to this mess, which would’ve been a multi-million dollar profit for us.

Before I left for vacation, I emailed both men and said that the situation had been escalated way too far, and that when I returned to work I wanted to meet with both men and find a solution everyone was happy with. We scheduled a meeting for first thing the day I got back. The meeting took two hours, with the first half hour being an utter waste of time (thanks, toxic masculinity). Eventually, Adam asked why Gilbert couldn’t just hire a full-time maintenance person to oversee the houses we’ve built for him (which we had suggested numerous times before). Gilbert then confessed that he didn’t trust hiring a random person to do that because of recent reports in the area that homes were being burglarized. These burglaries were also inside jobs. I almost felt silly when he said this; he had one of his homes broken into about a year and a half ago and I hadn’t even considered he could’ve had some trust issues because of that. He also said no one he could hire would know the house like me and I was the most qualified since I played a huge part in building the home.

At this point, with that revelation, everything was solved. Adam and I worked out a deal with Gilbert that during normal business hours I was to only handle work related to our current projects with him. However, after normal work hours, I would be allowed to visit the houses and do any normal maintenance tasks (light bulbs, touching up paint, AC filters etc), and anything that required bringing in a sub-contractor (broken AC, plumbing issues, roofing, etc.) I would handle that through my uncle (so he would still be rightfully paid). I am now on Gilbert’s payroll as well, with a property manager title (which is HUGE in my area and even bigger since I work for Gilbert, as he is very well known here). I thought I was going to be getting a small wage for this since the work wasn’t difficult and took me about an hour and a half each day, but he ended up matching what I make at my company per hour! Needless to say, I am ecstatic.

Finally, after the conversation me and my uncle sat down and he told me how proud he was with the solution I came up with and granted me the raise I had requested. The best thing? He gave me the check back! I nearly cried, lol. He actually apologized, saying he didn’t intend to keep it, and only realized he did when he cleaned his desk and noticed it slipped under his keyboard. The check was so large that I was able to pay off my rent through the rest of this year and even gave a big chunk to the laborer that came with me to do these tasks. Oh, and we are still doing the project he pulled from us! So it really was a win-win-win-win.

Thank you again to you and your readers for the support and guidance!

you need to write a better cover letter

For employers, picking the best candidate for the job isn’t just about skills and experience. If it were, they wouldn’t ask for cover letters at all — hell, we might not even need interviews. We could just hire based on resumes alone. But of course, other things matter, too — things like personal traits, work habits, communication skills, people skills, intelligence, drive, and enthusiasm for the job. That’s where your cover letter comes in. It’s supposed to give a window into those things. Unfortunately, though, most cover letters are Not Great.

At New York Magazine today, I talk about how to write a great cover letter. (And if you’re feeling like this is deja vu, it’s because I did a shorter version for them earlier this year and they asked me to expand it.)  You can read it here.

can I read erotica on work breaks?

A reader writes:

I came across the discussions of porn at work earlier this year, which got me questioning something I do. I tend to read romance novels and explicit stories from online repositories on my personal phone when I have spare moments, such as on a scheduled break. Other than AAM, this is my main source of entertainment in situations where I don’t have access to my video game console at home, can’t work out, and can’t watch YouTube due to bandwidth, volume, or other concerns.

These stories are all text-based and never illustrated (so no one would glance over and notice anything offensive), but most are more graphic than 50 Shades of Grey (though some are tamer, i.e. regular stories that happen to just have a sex scene). I usually predownload the stories, but if I don’t I bring them up on a phone data connection since there’s not convenient wifi where I work, and these sites aren’t likely vectors of malware like most porn sites (curated content with basic HTML, no external links, and no ads). I had previously thought of reading these as a harmless way to decompress, but the recent-ish discussions about porn on AAM talking about everything from IT risks to hostile work environments has gotten me rattled. Am I doing evil where I thought I was simply taking my mind off work during a break? Would it change things if I was opening them on workplace wifi/reading in a semi-public break room vs a semi-private bathroom stall/a given gender/whatever?

Are you doing something evil? No.

Are you doing something inappropriate at work? Maybe, but it depends on the details.

If it’s hardcore and graphic (as a general theme throughout the story, not just in a scene or two), I’d say that’s inappropriate for work. It’s true that people are far less likely to accidentally see it on your screen than if you were looking at visual images, but it’s not impossible. But more to the point, you really just shouldn’t be steeping yourself in hardcore, graphic imagery at work, even if that imagery is created by words rather than pictures or video.

One good litmus test is: Would you be embarrassed if your boss caught you reading it at work? If yes, then even though you’re on your own non-work device and you’re not using your company wifi, that’s a sign that it’s probably too much for work, even on a break.

But there’s erotic writing that does pass that litmus test. For example, it shouldn’t be a big deal if your boss spotted you reading Lady Chatterley’s Lover (widely considered good literature) on your lunch break. In some offices (not all), you might even get away with 50 Shades of Grey, just because it became popular enough to be seen more as a mainstream book and less as erotica, although it’s iffy. (This is probably where I should confess that in high school, I once openly read Xaviera Hollander’s The Happy Hooker in an English class where I was bored. A paper copy, with the cover clearly visible. I was a brash child.)

The most important litmus test, though, is this: Is the point of the book to sexually arouse you?  If so, that automatically moves it into the “nope, not for work” category — because it’s not okay to intentionally sexually arouse yourself at work, even on a break.

I think those litmus tests trump the other factors you asked about, like being in a semi-public area vs a bathroom stall, or being a particular gender. And of course, work wifi gives you a different level of exposure, but the same principles apply.

my team doesn’t do any personal development, my coworker keeps telling me to reply-all, and more

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

1. My team doesn’t do any personal or group development

I am very into personal development on my own time. I read a lot of books that would be considered self help and love to advance my life by learning new skills. However, at work, none of that is present.

Our manager does not ever talk to us about our development plans, we have done zero Strengths-Finder-like activities and it’s really frustrating as a new employee on the team because I’d like to be able to develop my career but I truly don’t know how to because no one ever talks about it. We’re allowed to move around positions every two years, but everyone on this team has been here for five or more years. I’d like to move, but there seems no easy way out.

Is there a way I can bring personal development to my team? I’m fairly young (24), and everyone on my team is 35+ up to 63. My manager also oversees 20 people on various teams, so I’m not sure if he has time to do all this or even cares about it. I feel as though our team would benefit greatly from all this, but it seems like we are just one dysfunctional group of coworkers who don’t work well with each other because we have never taken the time to sit down and discuss our strengths and weaknesses.

Maybe learning these things about coworkers is just intuitive, but I’ve already been told there’s a lot of tip toeing around people to not ask them to do certain things or to not listen to them. That doesn’t sit right with me, so I’m wondering if there is a better way to go about developing our dysfunctional team.

The majority of work teams don’t actually do Strengths-Finder-like activities. Some do, of course! But many don’t, and that’s not in any way negligent. Many people find those types of activities helpful, but many find them irritating and not a great use of time. So it’s not weird that your team isn’t doing them. That doesn’t mean there’s no chance they’d be beneficial; maybe they would be. It just means that the lack of them isn’t the problem.

But certainly having a dysfunctional team that doesn’t work well together is a problem. I wouldn’t assume that’s happening because you’ve never discussed your strengths and weaknesses together; I’d assume it’s instead because of a lack of more hands-on leadership and management from your boss. And that’s something that’s very hard to fix from below.

That said, you can certainly talk to your boss about your interest in professional development. Yes, it would be ideal if she raised it herself, but not all managers will, and it’s definitely something you can raise on your own. Are there skills you want to develop, training you want to take, areas you want to focus on? Those are all appropriate things to bring up with your boss. The same goes for your interest in eventually moving up — that’s something you can name explicitly to her, and ask about what a path to doing that might look like.

2. My coworker keeps asking me to reply-all to emails

My coworker, Fergus, has been asking me to “reply all” in my email responses. Some background: About six months ago, Fergus sent me an email and copied a couple of coworkers in our department about a question he needed answered right away. I was running at a fast pace and didn’t notice that he had copied others. When I answered him, I hit “reply” instead of “reply all.” Fergus immediately came over to my desk (we work in an open environment) and asked why I just replied to him and didn’t include Jane and Sally. I explained that it wasn’t done intentionally; I hadn’t noticed that he had included them in the email, and I was just trying to get him an answer quickly (it was a very mundane question that Jane and Sally already knew the answer to anyway). Other times when Fergus has sent out group emails with incorrect assumptions or information, I’ve responded just to him so he’s not called out in front of our peers.

Lately, when he sends emails to me and copies others, he’s been putting in the email, “Please reply all in your response.” I’m trying to ignore it, but it’s really starting to get under my skin. I find it nitpicky and patronizing — especially since most of the time, I do reply to everyone, and if I don’t, there’s usually a reason. He’s very sensitive and considers himself a great communicator; however, others find his emails way too lengthy (think War and Peace), and usually give up reading after the first paragraph. How do I ask diplomatically for him to stop treating me like a five-year-old by adding his “reply all” request in his emails to me? Even though we’re peers, I am senior to him in both experience and age. Am I being nitpicky?

No, he’s being weird. And I’d be tempted to follow his “reply all” orders on those emails correcting his mistakes, in particular. (But don’t actually do that, because at least some of those times, it’ll make you look bad to others.)

I suppose if you really want to address this, you could say something like, “I noticed you’ve been asking me to reply-all when I respond. I will do that when I think it makes sense for the situation, but I don’t default to replying-all every time, because when it’s unneeded, others find it annoying. I’d prefer it if you didn’t remind me in each email.”

But really, this dude is one of the many amusing features of work life, and you may be better off just letting him go with it and finding it amusing.

3. I’m being asked to rearrange my work hours to work weekends

I work for a small family-owned business in a very niche field. Our workload has doubled in the past few weeks as our company has taken on new contracts, but our management team isn’t going to consider hiring additional staff at this time. To meet the demand, a senior manager (not my direct manager) has thrown out the idea that my department should rearrange our work hours in order to work on the weekends to meet the new demands. I am an exempt employee and already put in over 40 hours a week consistently (working at night and the occasional weekend). I wouldn’t mind doing so if it was going to be on the rare occasion but the manager made it sound like this expectation would be indefinite. This isn’t something I am willing to commit to since I already put in so much already during the week and it wouldn’t be the best for my home life. I also feel like since I am the youngest employee in my department and I don’t have children, it is expected I put in more time/pull more weight. How do I politely push back if this becomes asked of me ?

“I regularly work about 50 hours a week (or fill in with whatever’s accurate), but I have commitments on the weekend that would prevent me from working weekend hours on a regular basis. I can do it on very rare occasions if it’s an emergency, but I can’t make it my regular schedule.”

If you’re asked what those commitments are, you’re allowed to be creative — you take care of a family member (since they seem to value that, and you don’t need to say that family member is you), or so forth. It’s not reasonable for them to expect that you come up with a “good enough” reason not to regularly work on weekends when that wasn’t the schedule you agreed to, and you don’t owe them a full accounting of how you spend that time. That goes double since this is all happening just because they’re not willing to hire enough staff.

Also, are they really just asking you to rearrange your work hours (meaning same number of hours but on different days) or are they asking you to increase them? You should push back either way, but you should feel extra justified in doing that if they’re asking to you add in weekends on top of your existing schedule.

4. Should I let my boss know how nervous I am about my performance review?

My annual performance review is coming up and it’s time to start scheduling feedback meetings with colleagues and my boss. This will be my third review with this company (a review at three months, and then annual reviews). But it’s my first review with my current boss. He’s been in his role for about six months now, so he knows me and I find him approachable and supportive.

I just can’t decide if I should let him know that the whole performance review process really stresses me out! Rationally, I know I’m a high performer in a challenging role, and I have consistently received positive feedback. But the prospect of sitting down and opening myself up to judgment spikes my anxiety just thinking about it. (Yes, I have generalized anxiety and I’m in therapy and have some great coping tools. This is just one of those situations I’m still learning to manage.)

Part of me just wants to clench my teeth and do my preparation and hold my breath until it’s over. But part of me thinks it might be useful for my boss to know that I’m nervous about this process and what criticism I might be facing. The last thing I want is to be unprofessional or difficult or “an overly emotional woman” (ugh). What do you think? Struggle through it in silence (with help from my non-work support system)? Or let my boss know how performance reviews make me feel? (If the latter, any scripts would be greatly appreciated!)

I’m normally a fan of giving your manager context when something is especially stressing you out, but in this case I wouldn’t — because I don’t think there’s really anything actionable for him here. You don’t want him to sugarcoat anything or otherwise pull any punches (because it’s not good for you if he dances around things), and you don’t want him to wonder if that’s what you’re asking him to do and then feel uncomfortable about it.

At most, you could say something at the start of the conversation like, “I should tell you, reviews tend to make me nervous” … but reviews tend to make a lot of people nervous and it probably won’t be news to him. Plus, it still won’t be clear if you’re asking him to do anything differently.

I think you’re better off figuring out with your therapist how to manage your anxiety around the process rather than sharing it with your boss. The exception to that is if there’s something very concrete you want to ask him to do — like if you want to ask for the chance to read the review on your own first before meeting to discuss it (so that you can process it in private first and come better prepared to discuss it).

5. How to say “I’m not interested in this job, but maybe this other one”

I was recently laid off (along with a large number of my coworkers) due to restructuring at my company. This is obviously a bummer, but I’m actually excited about the chance to recalibrate. I’m taking some time before I start a new job search in earnest, but a friend recently recommended me for a position at a company where he himself just started a new position. This is great, I’m so grateful to him, and flattered that he would think of me! There’s a problem though: the position for which he recommended me requires significantly more technical experience than I currently have, and would take my career down a path I’m hoping to move away from. I would be ecstatic to work for this company in a different position better suited to my skills and goals. How do I communicate this to both him and to the company’s recruiter without seeming ungrateful or like I’m throwing away a good opportunity?

No one will think you’re ungrateful for declining a job that you’re not well suited for or that isn’t aligned with the career path you want. So don’t feel you have to tiptoe around this; you don’t! It’s fine just to say, “Thank you so much for thinking of me for this! I’m actually hoping to move away from X work in my next role and am hoping to focus more on jobs like Y. If that ever seems like it could be the right match, I’d be thrilled to talk with you about it. I’m really interested in the work Company does and would love to be part of it.”

my coworker gets away with everything

A reader writes:

My coworker has a family member who was a pretty big deal in the company. Said relative has since retired, but her legacy sort of lives on.

My coworker gets away with EVERYTHING. She treats her superiors with no respect, does whatever she wants, never has consequences. I have literally heard her say to our manager, “No, I am not going to do that” and just walk away. She is constantly complaining about how busy she is (I think in hopes no one will assign her more work) but she never even does the work that is assigned to her. I get stuck with it.

I am constantly seeing her on her computer; looking at real estate, shopping, just browsing the internet. If she’s not doing that, she is socializing with other people, talking about work. She just never does any work, and it all falls onto me. I am getting sick of it. Whenever I try to go to my manager, I get a “I can’t do anything about it, my hands are tied.” If I try going above my manager, I get scolded, saying that she is “not your problem, stay in your lane, and do your own work.” I’m looking for what I can do to not have to pick up her slack. I’m getting a little fed up with it.

  • My coworker might be leaving and I’m interested in her job
  • HR manager comments on everything I eat
  • I’m thinking about leaving a field I love because I can’t find a new job

 

why don’t employers send job rejections anymore?

You take time off work for a job interview, spend a few hours preparing for it, maybe buy a new suit, maybe even travel from out of state, and then … crickets. You hear nothing. Maybe you contact the hiring manager or the HR rep who scheduled the interview to inquire about an update on the job, and still … nothing. If you’ve had this experience, you’re not alone. Fewer and fewer employers are bothering to send rejection letters to job candidates, even when candidates have progressed through multiple rounds of interviews, tests, and reference checks.  It’s incredibly rude.

At Slate today, I wrote about this post-interview silence … but also why employers are sometimes damned if they do and damned if they don’t when it comes to rejection. You can read it here.

open toe shoes at work, my friend let her teenager do her work, and more

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

1. Can I wear open toe shoes to work?

So what is the rule about open toe shoes at work? I know you should not wear them in a job interview. I wore a suit and closed toe shoes.

Now that I got the job, I have been having fun trying different things with my work outfits. Since I go to church, I have a lot of dresses, pencil skirts, dressy pants, dressy shirts, and (my favorite) many heels. For work I do dress much more simply (solid color shirts, pants, skirts, and dresses), no flowers, nothing too busy — but I do love my heels. My heels are also solid colors (not patterns) and all are neutral colors, but I do mostly own open toe heels and I take pride in keeping my toes nice.

Today a coworker mentioned my shoes and how they were “pretty slutty” with a lot of “showing toes” or “toe cleavage.” I had never thought of showing my toes as inappropriate. I would consider myself pretty young, and I don’t see anything wrong or “too sexy” in wearing heels. At my last personal review with work, I asked my bosses if I have been dressing appropriately for work and they said I was doing well and following the rules. But my coworker’s comments still keep me thinking. So what is the rule about open toe shoes at work?

If your office is business casual, they’re usually fine. If your office is more formal business wear (meaning suits), generally not — but even then, I’d say to look around and see if others are wearing them before writing them off.

What they aren’t is “slutty” (a gross and offensive term, as well as concept) and your coworker is working from a weird and offensive set of standards. Not only is her assessment wrong, but her willingness to say something like to a coworker indicates that she has really terrible judgment, so don’t give her any credibility here.

2. My friend let her teenager fill in on a volunteer job and it didn’t go well

I am the volunteer parent coordinator for a large youth community organization. Every year, we do a large fundraiser that directly benefits the kids. This fundraiser is not directly my job; it involves vendor coordination, paperwork, and financial stuff. My best friend coordinates this fundraiser. Her child has aged out of the program but she has run it for the last few years — it’s a complicated fundraiser. We’re grateful for that.

This year I received the parent-bound paperwork from my friend only hours before it had to be distributed. I asked for it days before that. I didn’t have time to check it, much less revise it in any way, and it’s always been fine in the past. When I did open it (one went to my own child), it was very slap-dash, grammatically incorrect, and uninformative for new parents as to what exactly this fundraiser is. My friend has various health problems, and this is a busy time of year for her small business. She has a lot on her plate, and I always try to remember/help her with that. However, I had to write a more comprehensive explanation of the fundraiser for parents and not only does that make us look a bit disorganized, it has taken time and energy from two people (me and the director) to write/print/distribute it.

My friend told me that she let her 15-year-old daughter write/coordinate this paperwork (said child is not in the organization). Child is slightly disabled, and Friend is always looking for something productive for her to do. Friend was too busy to oversee it, and her daughter stuffed the envelopes. They weren’t technically awful or incorrect, just unprofessional and different from our usual OK-ish standards.

How do I address this so it doesn’t happen next time? I hate to be critical of my wonderful, overburdened friend, and her kid is awesome — we just can’t have teens coordinating this info. For the record, parents usually turn over their volunteer duties once their kids age out, but my friend feels indebted because her older child received scholarship money (there is no reason for her to feel indebted, but she’s a nice person). How can I tell her tell her that if she’s going to do it, SHE must do it? Maybe she should pass on her responsibilities so other parents can learn it? Should I suggest she go back to the previous templates, and include my info letter? I can’t bear to hurt her feelings.

“Friend, it was so nice of Daughter to want to help with this. Unfortunately I think in the future it’s got to be an adult task — it didn’t have all the info we needed and Director and I ended up needing to write up and send a new flyer with more explanation. That’s not Daughter’s fault; it’s just a complicated job for a teen! But we need you to be the one to do if it it continues to live with you. That said, I know you’re swamped, so if you don’t have time to do this next time, we can definitely enlist another parent to take this on.” You could add, “And if Daughter wants to help, I know we can find some ways a teenager could volunteer. She’d be wonderful to have.”

3. Mixing formal employee awards with more fun ones

I work in a large government ministry and we have a new(ish) director for our unit of about 100 employees. I should also note that our director is very well-liked and respected, our managers are terrific too, and we are as flat an organization as is possible under the circumstances.

I’m writing because, as a fairly new branch of our department, our new director has asked for volunteers to help her form a social committee. I jumped in right away, because that’s just the way I roll. In our first planning meeting, we agreed that the period between Christmas and Easter is long and kind of gloomy (we have serious winter around here), and there are no “official” reasons to have a celebration, so we decided to hold an employee recognition event.

I was put in charge of it, and I want to make sure everyone who attends feels valued and part of the team. It would include a potluck lunch.

Some employees will no doubt be recognized for specific achievements or perhaps for a body of achievement over a period of time. But with the number of employees we have, not everyone will be recognized this way. What would you think about having some “fun” awards, such as cleanest cubicle (or messiest), or best attitude, or even largest collection of shoes? I don’t want to insult people who don’t get an award for a work-related accomplishment, but I do want to make it fun and inclusive, and not just a bunch of people applauding a small number of “real” award recipients.

Some people will be fine with this and find it fun, but it’s pretty likely that at least a few people are going to feel slighted if they get the “largest collection of shoes” award while lots of other colleagues are being recognized for their work. You’re better off finding something work-related to praise everyone for — even if it’s just like “Jane did an amazing job of putting together this year’s annual report, and it’s no easy task to corral the 52 different people she needed to chase down to do it.” There should be something each person on your staff has done well.

Alternately, you could make all the awards the “fun” kind. But I wouldn’t want someone to walk away feeling their good work had gone unnoticed while others got recognized for it. The exception to that is if you’re only doing a small number of awards — but it sounds like you want to do an award for everyone.

4. I just found out I’m interviewing for a job with my coworker’s wife

I’m a corporate communications professional working for a start-up in the tech industry. The company I currently work for is not the best fit for me, and I’m currently interviewing for a new job.

A very exciting opportunity has come up at one of the major tech companies and I’ve been asked to come on site to interview with one of their communications teams. It turns out that the head of the department is the wife of a vice president at my current company. The last thing I would want is for anyone at our company to find out, especially this vice president (he’s a good person and we work well together). Should I remove my candidacy from consideration before the interview? Will she keep the interview confidential? What’s the best way to handle this situation?

Ooooh, that’s tricky. If she weren’t his wife but just someone he knew, I’d say that you could try explaining that you need to keep your job search confidential for now and ask for her discretion. But if she’s married to him, I just wouldn’t be comfortable trusting that she wouldn’t say anything. Maybe she wouldn’t — but a lot of people share things with a spouse that they wouldn’t otherwise share. And even if it she doesn’t share it at this stage, it’s really likely that she’d ask him about you at some point before hiring you; it’s hard to imagine someone hiring a spouse’s colleague without ever asking the spouse about the person.

I think you’ll have to decide if you’re willing to take the risk of him finding out or not. If you’re absolutely opposed to risking it, then you may need to withdraw — which really sucks.

(To be clear, she shouldn’t tell him. Interviewers should always keep people’s job searches confidential, and it’s tremendously unfair that you even have to worry about this. But people do sometimes violate that confidentiality, especially when they have a much closer relationship with the person they tell than with the candidate. It’s not okay, but it happens.)

5. How to make sure less assertive coworkers are happy with our division of work

I am in a role that will never have a neat division of responsibilities with my coworker. Let’s say we both make teapots for our company, and we use the Management Center’s MOCHA method to make sure there’s only one Owner for each teapot. We try to divide the work in a way that is equal but also makes sense (e.g., if I own both blue and red teapots, it makes sense that I also own the purple teapots). The split is always going to be messy whichever way you cut it (if I own blue and he owns yellow, then who should own green?).

I really get along with my coworker and manager, but neither are great at speaking up for themselves (peacekeepers to the point where it can be a problem), whereas I can be so enthusiastic about teapots that I have to actively stop myself sometimes in meetings to give them the space to contribute.

I am very, very happy with the colors I currently own (to the point that I would be disappointed if I lost any of them), but I also don’t want to be the person who hogs all the best colors for themselves. How can I trust that he and my manager are happy with the current division of responsibilities when I know they struggle to speak up?

In catch-ups with them, I regularly check in to make sure they still feel the workload is fairly distributed, as the demand for different colors has fluctuated in the past. I make a point in big-picture planning meetings to say that the split is not set in stone and can always be revisited if circumstances change, and that I’m open to that. Am I doing enough? Because my strong preference is to keep the colors that I have (and they know I love those colors), I’m a little paranoid I’m steamrolling them so that I get what I want.

I think you’re doing enough. You’re regularly checking in to make sure they still feel the split is fair, and you’ve made a point of offering to revisit it. From there, you’ve got to trust that they’re responsible for speaking up if it’s important to them. I know that you’re saying that your concern here is that they won’t, even if they should — but you can only do so much hand-holding and at some point people need to speak up if they want to do something differently.

Think of it this way: What else could you do at this point, short of proposing a re-distribution of the work that you don’t actually want? It wouldn’t make sense to do that, especially since there aren’t any signs that they’d want that either.