how to tell a pushy networker to back off, applying for a job with someone who asked me to leave a college job, and more

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

1. How to tell a pushy networker to back off

I’m a relatively new professional in my field and I’m increasingly finding myself in a place where even newer professionals are asking to talk about getting started after school, or asking for advice. As someone who was recently in that same boat, I always jump at the chance to help however I can and I’m universally flattered when anyone asks to meet with me.

I’m struggling, however, with one person who does not seem to know where the line is between helpful networking, and pestering. I met with him briefly months ago after he asked one of my employees (who he knew from school) to ask if I’d be willing to chat with him. I was happy to do so, and although he was clearly a little awkward, and maybe not the most socially adept, it went fine. In the following months, he sent me a few emails updating me on what he was doing and that he was looking for more permanent work. Then he started to pop up at a couple of programming events I’d put together as part of my work, and recently sent another unsolicited email asking if we could met again. I told him I’d be willing but that I would have to get back to him because it was too busy in the office to set up a time. A week or so after that, he was at another event at which I was presenting. He cornered me, asking again to meet, saying he wanted to tell me what he was working on and hear from me as well. Again, I told him I would have to be in touch because I couldn’t schedule anything on the spot. That was last Friday. I got another email today, asking again to meet.

I don’t want to discourage someone who is new to a small field that is hard to break in to, but I also really no longer want to meet with him. Not even just that, I also have no idea what we would even talk about. I get the feeling that he thinks this kind of persistence is just how you find work, but now I would never consider hiring him even if I did have an open position purely because he has been so intrusive. What is the best way to make it clear to him that he needs to back off, without being too harsh about it? My field is also very small and everyone knows everyone else — I would hate to totally burn a bridge with someone who I’ll still likely have to share professional spaces with.

Email him this: “My schedule is too busy to schedule anything right now and is likely to stay that way for the foreseeable future. I hope I was helpful to you a few months ago, and I wish you all the best.”

If he shows up at events you organize and corners you again, you can repeat that: “My schedule doesn’t allow me to take on anything new. I’ve got to run now because I’ve got a list of people here I need to talk with. I hope you enjoy the event.”

If he continues to email you after this, you can ignore those emails. You don’t need to be endlessly polite to someone who’s being this aggressive and not respecting your boundaries.

Also, it sounds like you don’t want to be more direct out of fear of burning a bridge, but frankly it would be fine to say, “I think you might not realize that continuing to push for a meeting after I’ve told you that I’d need to get back to you comes across very aggressively and will make people less interested in helping you. I realize you’re trying to network, but this is too much and will hurt your reputation.”

2. How to apply for the national version of a college publication I was asked to leave

In college, I wrote for a collegiate chapter of a national website. The national version of a website has an open position which matches my skillset pretty well. My one hesitation is that I was asked to leave the college chapter after a year. My editors sent me an email asking me to leave, citing a mutual feeling of disrespect and disinterest. I completely understood where they were coming from as I was unable to attend chapter meetings and keep up on my articles because of several group projects for my major, a volunteer position, a part-time job, and other obligations. Basically, I had too much going on and one thing was bound to fall through the cracks. Unfortunately, it was the website.

I fully accept that my overbooking is to blame for what happened and regret it deeply. I loved my time with the publication and still admire their work even after my spectacular screw-up. I really want to apply for this job because it’s one I could potentially really thrive in. One of the editors from my collegiate chapter works for the national website. After she asked me to leave, I did apologize and we have gotten along well when we’ve seen each other. While there is no lasting anger on my end, I’m not sure how she feels. Part of me wants to reach out and apologize again as well as give her a heads-up that I’m applying.

Should I even apply to this job? If I do apply, should I address this issue in my cover letter? How would I best go about explaining the situation? And what’s your opinion on reaching out to my former editor? I don’t want to seem like a selfish jerk but I also can’t stand the idea of someone hating me (even if I do kind of deserve it).

Yeah, that might be a deal-breaker, unfortunately. Having the person who had to ask you to leave now working at the place you’re applying … is not great for your chances. (Although it could also depend on how long ago that was and what you’re done since then.)

I wouldn’t address this in your cover letter; that’s way too much focus on your downsides for a cover letter. But I do think that if you’re considering applying, you’d need to reach out to the editor who asked you to leave and let her know. Acknowledge that you were overextended in college and took on too much, and say that you’ve learned a lot since then and are hoping to be able to demonstrate that if you get an interview. If you just apply without contacting her first and acknowledging what happened, it’s going to look tone-deaf or like you’re oblivious to why it matters.

Honestly, there’s still a good chance it’ll remain a deal-breaker, but that’s likely your best shot at it.

3. My boss won’t listen when I talk about the staff’s concerns

I work at a small (30 people), relatively flat organization. We have an executive director, about eight people at the next level of management, and junior staff. I have a sort of in-between position in that I’m not a manager but I work closely with the ED and participate in all management meetings. Because of this, many of the junior staff talk to me about things they don’t want to raise with their manager. If it’s important (not just venting), I bring it to the ED’s attention.

Recently though, I’ve been feeling very caught in the middle of some sticky organizational culture issues. I’m hearing things from junior staffers about unfair treatment from their managers and different access to information managers should be providing equally (like requirements for promotion), or even people experiencing microaggressions and wanting to quit over it. We don’t have an HR person.

If I mention it to the ED, she listens and takes it seriously but wants to find out what the managers are hearing. The managers say, “I haven’t heard that! Who has this issue? How many people? Which department are they in?” I don’t want to name names, but my reluctance to provide specific examples inevitably leads to the group deciding it’s not really an issue.

I’m starting to wonder why my telling the ED about a staff issue is not enough to verify that it’s real. In the absence of an HR person who can do an actual confidential inquiry, what else can I do to make concerns known? And if my raising an issue is not credible enough to act on — which it seems it isn’t until a manager has verified it — what can I say to the other junior staff to make it clear that I am not really a resource for solutions?

You’ve already made your concerns known and the ED and other managers don’t care enough to do anything about it. That’s what it means when they insist on names and decide not to pursue it just because they don’t have any. It’s not about your credibility — it’s about them not caring enough to investigate.

You can try saying to your ED, “Is there a way for me to get these issues taken seriously without revealing the names of people who spoke to me in confidence? I don’t have their permission to do that, and it seems like the organization isn’t willing to act without names — which means we end up ignoring real issues.” You can add, “To be clear, this isn’t one or two people — I’m hearing a lot of it. In general, are you not up for digging into this stuff if people aren’t willing to attach their names to it?”

Who knows, maybe spelling it out will make her realize she should be approaching it differently. But if not, then yeah, you don’t want to let junior staff think you’re someone who can help solve these issues. What to say to them depends on what resources they do have — do you trust any managers there to handle it well if someone talked with them directly? If so you can refer them to that person. If not, you may need to be candid about the fact that you haven’t spotted any good avenues for raising concerns — and you may also need to flag for your management team that that appears to be the case to staff.

4. Should I apologize for not knowing a past CEO’s name in an interview?

I had an interview yesterday. I thought I was reasonably qualified for the position, and my preparation included researching the company’s current corporate structure, goals, and initiatives, as well as a Google news search to see if anything major had put them in the news recently.

However, during the interview, I was asked if I knew a particular fact about the company history, and I just froze (it wasn’t a particularly obscure fact; think interviewing at Starbucks and getting the question “do you know who was our previous CEO?”). I was just really thrown off by being asked “do you know who previously held X office?” and instinctively replied, “No, I don’t.” (I felt like the worst case scenario would be to look overly arrogant, say I did know, and be incorrect.) The interviewer gave me kind of a shocked look, she told me the name, I wanted to die (because OF COURSE I knew that), and the interview continued.

I got a rejection email six hours later, even before I got home and started preparing a thank-you email. I know I’ve lost any chance at this job, but is it worth thanking them for taking the time to interview me, apologizing for my moment of total idiocy, and/or letting them know I am mortified?

That … doesn’t seem like a mortifying mistake to me. Unless this was Apple and they assumed you’d be able to name Steve Jobs (or someone similarly well-known), this is the sort of thing a lot of candidates wouldn’t know. And was there some context for her question, or was she just quizzing you? If she was just quizzing you on company history, that’s obnoxious interviewing.

If you want to let them know you’re mortified, that’s fine to do — but I don’t think there’s any real cause for it.

5. We have too many work lunches at our own expense

Today I have another workplace lunch. We have them every time a colleague leaves. I hate them because we have to pay out of our own pockets to go out to lunch with the team, at a restaurant that is in theory chosen by the team, but in practice chosen by my supervisor, who has terrible taste in restaurants in my opinion.

It also doesn’t count as work time, so even though I usually take a half hour lunch and get out of there at 4:30 or 5 pm, on these days I have to either use up some of my flex time to go home on time or else work late. I don’t get any pleasure from them but I feel it is compulsory because I’ve never seen anyone not go, and it would be mean to the colleague who is leaving not to go to their farewell.

I asked HR about the work time thing and they said that there is no general policy, it is just what she says goes. This time I tried taking charge by nominating two restaurants myself and organizing a vote, but no one out of nine people voted for my suggestions — they all voted for my supervisor’s.

I just don’t know what to do to manage these occasions. There are a fair few of us looking for other jobs at the moment so there will be more happening soon. Do I have any choice other than just accept the status quo?

It depends on how willing you are to take a stand. If you’re willing to rock the boat a little (a very little), you can try saying, “I’d love to join you but I’m on a strict budget right now” or “I’d love to join you but I’ve got to leave right on time today so can’t be gone more than half an hour.” And you might talk to the person who’s leaving and explain it’s nothing personal but you’re finding these lunches are tough to afford but you wish them all the best, etc.

Alternately, if you want to address it more broadly, you can try saying (maybe at a team meeting), “I’m finding it’s tough for me to pay for so many team lunches out of my own pocket, and not to have the time count as work time. Is there any way to consider them work time since they’re for a work purpose? Or should we start sitting them out if we can’t swing the expense and the flex time?”

how much should I tell a team whose boss is on a performance plan?

A reader writes:

Six months ago, I was promoted to lead a group of three assistant managers who each lead around 20 people. “Howard,” one of the assistant managers, had been hired two months before by my predecessor, but it was immediately obvious to me that his work was not up to par. I did my best to give Howard clear feedback about what he needed to improve, provided retraining, and was explicit verbally and in writing that if he did not improve X by Y date, it would lead to first a performance improvement plan and ultimately termination. Unfortunately Howard did not improve so I fired him a month ago.

During this process, several of Howard’s direct reports came to me about their problems with his poor performance. I tried to acknowledge their concerns and assure them I was addressing the issues with Howard, but I didn’t think it was fair to tell anyone on his team that I had him on a PIP already.

After firing Howard, I had 1:1s with each of his direct reports, and three of them told me they had felt frustrated that I wasn’t taking any action to address Howard’s performance. I feel bad that I gave them this impression, but I don’t want to be the kind of boss who undermines my managers by telling their direct reports when they’re getting written up, put on a PIP, or fired. How do I reassure a team that I am addressing their boss’ poor performance while not spelling out the gory details?

Yeah, this is tough.

Employees are understandably frustrated and demoralized by being stuck working for a bad boss, and they’re even more so if they think nothing’s being done about it. But at the same time, as you note, you don’t want to undermine the manager or violate his privacy or dignity.

The key is that you need to say something, but without talking specifics. The way I’ve handled this is to say things like this:

* “I appreciate you sharing this feedback with me, and I agree with you that what you’re describing is a problem. Give me some time to work on this.”

* “I can promise you that I’m addressing this behind the scenes, and while you might not see that immediately, I agree with you that this is a problem and I’m committed to ensuring this changes.”

* “I’m limited in what I can share, but Howard and I are working on approaching this differently. Can you give me a few months to see how we can resolve this?”

Now, no one in Howard’s shoes is going to feel great about you telling his reports that you agree something he’s doing is a problem or something you’re working to fix. But the nature of being a manager is that if you have performance problems, they’re going to affect your team, sometimes significantly — and your employer has an interest in keeping those team members from being demoralized and maybe leaving over it. So as Howard’s manager, you’re in a position where you do need to acknowledge there are problems and work is being done to address them. But you don’t need to go into details about exactly what’s being done or the precise timeline (like “I’ve told him he has three weeks to turn this around”).

The key to this working, though, is that you have to move fairly quickly. If five months go by and there hasn’t been a significant change in the situation, you’ll have destroyed your credibility with the people who talked with you. So you need to be committed to resolving the situation forthrightly and quickly. (You also need to pay enough attention to know that it’s really resolved, which might mean going back to the people who complained to you and asking if they’ve seen changes.)

updates: the racist memes, the flowers, and the tai chi

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

1. My boss is sending everyone at my office racist memes (first update here)

You all will be pleased to hear that the branch manager in this story “retired early” less than a year after this incident. I do not think that the retirement was entirely voluntary. The CEO has since replaced him with a younger, African-American man who is FANTASTIC at his job. He’s doing a ton to update our organizational communications across the board, and I’d especially pleased to see that he’s making a concerted (and well-received) effort to promote minority voices within our organization.

Years later, I’m still thankful for the encouragement I received to speak up about this.

Oh, and one more thing – those two supervisors of mine who told me not to speak up? Yeah, they are gone too. I don’t think that this incident alone has anything to do with their departure, but it was one small episode that was indicative of their entire approach to management. The CEO has really cleaned house, removing ineffective leaders like these, and it’s great.

I am no longer employed by this organization, but a few years after I left (for unrelated, family reasons) my spouse was hired as the branch’s director of operations. So I still have a handle on what’s going on, and I’m delighted with how it all worked out.

2. Sending flowers on someone’s first day of work

I have an update!

Arya (the junior staffer who organized Sansa’s gift bouquet) can be a bit prickly, so I opted against voicing my concerns. I joined in the group gift without objection. The next day, Arya updated us that she had purchased a bouquet of flowers, plus a congratulations balloon (!!!!!!) to be delivered to Sansa’s new workplace on her first day. I nearly melted from secondhand embarrassment just thinking about receiving balloons from old coworkers on my first day of a new job (a C-suite job, no less!), but at this point, it was too late to say anything, and everyone else seemed to be very excited about this gift idea.

Sansa started her new job today and just sent us all an email thanking us for the beautiful bouquet. She didn’t mention the balloon, but I really hope it didn’t make a weird scene on her first day!

Thanks so much for your thoughtful response to my question! I hope it at least helps future offices from sending balloons to co-workers’ future offices when they’re thinking about parting gifts ;)

3. My employer requires us all to do tai chi in the office

The CEO just circulated the Tai Chi instructor’s online survey, ostensibly assessing our “employee wellness program” (which is tai chi and more tai chi) and it is just awful. “Do you suffer from any of the following ailments?” followed by a list of 22 (!!) conditions. “Rate your health on a scale of 0 to 10.” “How healthy is your diet?” and “How often do you eat fast food?”

These were followed by eight strange work-related questions, including satisfaction with “the culture of the workplace,” rating the trust levels between leadership and employees and our coworkers willingness to accept change.

Oh, the temptation…

share your salary negotiation success stories

In response to last week’s salary negotiation success story, people asked for more salary success stories. So: In the comments, share your stories of successfully asking for and getting more money, either as part of a job offer or when asking for a raise. Be as specific as possible — what did you say, how did the conversation go, and what did you end up with?

employee’s boyfriend keeps making her late for work, seriously ill employee who’s making mistakes, and more

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

1. Employee’s boyfriend keeps making her late for work

I manage an employee, who does good work. She is dating a colleague in another division. This is fine in principle as our company has no policy on dating coworkers and they work in different departments. Over the past two months or so, my employee has been late for work nearly every day, by up to 20 minutes. I asked her about this in a one-on-one meeting and she got a bit flustered. It turned out she’d recently moved in with her boyfriend, she drives him into work as there is no public transport where they moved to, and “he’s bad at getting up in the morning.”

We work in a department where certain tasks have to be completed by certain times, so it’s important employees are on time. A few minutes late occasionally isn’t an issue but she’s consistently 10-15 minutes late, which means she’s rushing to get her work done, and it also seems unfair to her colleagues who arrive on time. She offers to make up the time after work, but by that point all her tasks are done, so it seems petty to force her to stay behind with nothing to do.

I really don’t know what to do here. Should I speak to her boyfriend? He’s a team leader (I think around the same seniority as me) so receives less scrutiny over his timekeeping. But it seems really weird to ask a colleague to get out of bed on time in the morning! I thought about asking her if she wanted to change her start time (and reshuffle the tasks within the department slightly) so she starts at 9:15, but then her boyfriend might also change his start time and they wouldn’t get in until 9:30. I really don’t want to seem like I’m interfering in their relationship. Do you have any advice?

Definitely do not talk to the boyfriend! That would be really inappropriate — like talking to him about keeping her up too late if she was coming into work tired. You need to deal with your employee directly, not her significant other! That doesn’t change just because he works at your company too.

The good news here is that when you talk to your employee, you don’t need to (and shouldn’t) get into the relationship stuff at all. You just need to tell her that she does need to be at work on time and that she can’t continue to be late. You can offer to change her start time if that won’t harm your team’s workflow. But from there, it’s up to her to figure out how to make that happen. Maybe it means she stops driving her boyfriend, maybe it means he gets up earlier, maybe it means they take a third person into their relationship who comes with a car — who knows. It’s none of your business! You just need to tell her the expectation and hold her to it.

2. Managing a seriously ill employee who’s making mistakes

My team’s strongest performer is in the midst of a serious, life-changing health crisis, and this is causing issues with her usually-stellar performance. Typically, she requires little to no oversight or follow-up and exercises astute judgement. However, due to her stress during this time, I am finding that she is failing to follow standard operating procedures, sending redundant/repetitive emails about known issues, and finding issues that don’t exist or missing ones that do. (To be clear, this is being caused by stress, not by the medical condition itself — and she will admit as such and knows that she is somewhat distracted.) I am not concerned about this from a disciplinary standpoint like I would be if these kinds of mistakes were coming from a typical employee, but she does work with both internal and external clients and I am having to correct information that is sent to them, including broadly-sent communications that we have standard templates for, which she is not consistently using. I am also having to respond to the redundant emails and remind her that we have already discussed and resolved these issues, and let her know when I make corrections.

This feels like the type of micromanaging that I know she has bristled at from others in the past, and I normally relate with her more as an advisor for her higher-level problems, which is a relationship that has worked well for both of us. She responds well enough to the constructive feedback I’ve given in the past, but her high performance means that this has only needed to be sporadic. I do not want to add to her stress or make her feel beat down, but I am also concerned that these issues will get worse as her illness progresses, and I do think it is useful for her to see what she is missing so that she is aware of what to look out for and that she would want me to do so. How can I best navigate these concerns while still being considerate and compassionate during this difficult time?

Rather than just flagging each individual instance as it happens, sit down with her and talk about the broader pattern. Tell her this isn’t a disciplinary conversation but you’re seeing a pattern of mistakes and you want to figure out how you both need to manage her work differently during this period, and ask her to brainstorm with you about what might help. You should say explicitly, “I know in the past you’ve bristled at what feels like micromanagement, and normally you haven’t need a lot of oversight — but I want to be realistic that while you’re under this much stress, we need a different system. I don’t think we’ll need permanent changes, just something to get us through this period.”

It might be that you both realize from this conversation that the solution is mostly about (a) her being aware of the pattern and needing to be more vigilant than she normally would (including committing to using those templates, even if she didn’t need them in the past) and (b) the two of you feeling comfortable with changing the amount of oversight you give her during this period. But I’d also consider whether there are ways to lower her workload right now — which is something she might not realize she can ask for.

3. How do I determine my rate for freelance work for my current employer after I leave?

I gave close to four weeks notice at my nonprofit full-time job to coincide with the end of our fiscal year (also the date our employment contracts are up each year). One of the duties of my position is to generate end-of-fiscal-year fundraising reports and statistics, which can’t be done until the fiscal year is over. I didn’t want to leave my organization in a tough spot, so I offered to take on the statistics project and help with training during the month following my end date, with the caveat that I will need to work around my new schedule (not a new job, but my husband will switch to full-time work, and I’ll be at home taking care of some personal projects that are overdue in addition to shuttling our teen around to various part-time summer camps).

My boss would like me to take care of the project and maybe help with training. However, when the head of the organization contacted me about the arrangement, he offered to pay a prorated salary rate for this work (the same amount I receive per hour now without accounting for the value of the benefits I’ll be losing). He indicated that this is a typical arrangement and is how compensation for part-time work is calculated. However, I am viewing this additional project work as a short-term freelance arrangement and feel that I should be given a contract rate, since I will be paying for my own health insurance and will be responsible for self-employment taxes, etc.

I want to leave on good terms and don’t want to be seen as asking for something unreasonable but also don’t want to be treated unfairly. Is there a standard procedure for calculating a project work rate beyond the employment end date? I suggested looking at the amount listed on my contract as the “total compensation value” of my position (which includes the health insurance cost) and prorating that but was told that nobody does that.

Yes, because you won’t be getting benefits and will be responsible for your own payroll taxes, you should charge more than you were getting as an employee per hour. A common rule of thumb is to figure out what your salary as an employee broke down to hourly and then double it.

It sounds like your boss doesn’t realize this, so you could say something like, “I did some research online and spoke to other freelancers, and what I’ve found is that people generally charge at least twice what their hourly rate was as an employee, because freelancers are responsible for their own payroll taxes, which are significant, and don’t earn benefits. A lot of people suggest more than that, but I want to be thoughtful about your budget. So how about $X/hour?”

I’d suggest making X double your employee rate. But since you’re not trying to launch a freelance business and this is a one-time project and not ongoing work, there’s room in there to be more flexible with them if you want to — but I would not go as low as your employee rate, since that would be an effective pay cut (since covering your own payroll taxes will take out a chunk that’s not coming out currently). If he pushes back, you can point that out: “Sticking with my employee rate would mean doing the work for less money than I am now, given that I’ll be covering my own payroll taxes. I want to help but I can’t do it for less take-home pay than I earn now. I think $X is a fair rate, but I also understand if that means it won’t work out.”

4. Explaining why I’m resigning without a new job

I have been at my current place of employment for almost 10 years. Over the last three years, there has been a shift in culture and structure, which is still ongoing. I’m realizing that I will not be successful or happy with the organization, so I am actively looking elsewhere. I have been saving enough money since the beginning of the year, and I currently have about five months saved. If I don’t find anywhere else to work, I am perfectly fine leaving my current position in the fall, taking a month off to detox, and go work for a temp agency that specializes in my field for a time in order to gain more experience. (I’ve been looking at jobs and there are enough in the area that I live in that finding work won’t be a concern)

How do I explain why I’m leaving the organization without a new job lined up? My current boss and grandboss don’t understand why I would leave during this “exciting time” due to the restructure and the new software systems being implemented and think I should “wait it out” and see. Well, I do think the department will be fine after the restructuring, I just will be pigeonholed into the work I’m currently doing without being able to move elsewhere in the department. I am fine transitioning them to the new systems, then leaving afterwards. I have spoken to my boss and grandboss about this and have been told my concerns don’t have merit and I should stay put. If I do go with my plan of leaving after cleaning up my current projects, what should I tell my boss and grand boss without badmouthing them or leaving them with a bad impression?

Ha, well, they’re welcome to think you should stay put, but it’s not really their call. I would seriously consider, though, whether they’re trying to tell you that you’re wrong about being pigeonholed, and ask them to talk to you in concretes about exactly what your mobility will be after the reorg. If you’re leaving because you think you won’t have any and they know that you will, that’s worth a conversation.

But if that doesn’t change your mind, then when you’re ready to leave you can simply say, “I’ve given it a lot of thought and I’ve decided to move on. My last day will be (date).” If they press you about why you’d leave with nothing lined up, you can say, “I’ve been here 10 years and it’s time for me to move on, and I’m excited about taking on something new.” If they continue to push, you can say, “I appreciate that you want me to stay, but this is the right decision for me and it’s not something I’m open to changing” and then immediately change the subject to talking about how best to use your notice period.

Also, some unsolicited advice: A lot of jobs in your area doesn’t necessarily translate into you finding one before your five months of savings runs out — many people find their job searches take longer than that. So if you haven’t already, I’d start your job search now, or at least start talking to people in the field you want to move into about whether the temp work will provide you with the experience you need, and how easy it will be to get work once you do that (so that you avoid a situation where you’re qualified but still not getting hired in the time you’ve allowed yourself).

5. Handling the challenges of early pregnancy without telling my coworkers

My husband and I were recently thrilled to find out that I’m pregnant. While I’m still very happy and excited, I’ve since been experiencing all the worst symptoms at an increasing rate over the past few weeks. We have an open office plan at my company, and I spend the day frantically snacking, running to the bathroom, excusing myself for hiccups and burps, and practically gagging at the smells of coffee and food that folks bring into the office. I’ve also had to excuse myself for vague doctor’s appointments so much that one of our client contacts asked if I was okay.

It’s early enough that we haven’t told our extended family yet, so I certainly don’t feel comfortable telling my coworkers; I also have combined sick days and vacation time, so I’m loathe to spend PTO on morning sickness – that would add up way too fast. I’ve worked from home as much as possible, but I’m starting to sense some concern about how little I’m in the office. Alluding to a vague medical issue might cause unwarranted concern. Do you have any advice?

Given all that’s going on, your choices are really between disclosing the pregnancy or citing a vague medical issue. Since you’re not ready to announce it, go with the vague option. In order to fend off worry, you can say something like, “I’m dealing with a minor medical issue right now — nothing to worry about, but it means I have a series of doctor’s appointments and may work from home when my symptoms are acting up. I’ll be fine though — just need to get through this short-term.”

Even if you’re vaguer than that, some people will probably suspect you’re pregnant. That’s fine, as long as they’re polite and keep it to themselves. You’re just giving everyone plausible deniability — acknowledging that yes, you seem ill sometimes and you’re out of the office more often, and here is an explanation that we can be comfortable with for now.


my boss got weirdly aggressive about winning a game and now keeps claiming I’m angry about it

A reader writes:

I work for a large company. Previously I was in a small team which supported a small department, but at the start of the year it was decided we would merge with another team and become the support group for the whole sector. The new team is headed by Ethel. It was agreed by management that we could have a “team building” afternoon out of the office for the newly mixed team to get to know each other better. Ethel decided we’d do a games tournament.

We split into small teams. I was on one and Ethel on the other. It was pretty fun, playing team games and solving puzzles. And it was nice to chat to my new colleagues in an informal setting. There was inevitable friendly competition but all very light-hearted and harmless. Bizarrely though, Ethel took it incredibly seriously. She got really aggressive, shouting that my team were losers and couldn’t keep up. Every time our teams crossed paths, she’d berate us and laugh. It made the whole thing awkward and added a weird tension to the day, but as we didn’t all know each other and she was the boss, nobody really challenged it.

We actually did end up narrowly losing in the end (maybe Ethel successfully psyched us out) as the other team beat us to first place by just a few points. I wasn’t particularly bothered, competition isn’t really my thing – which is perhaps what spurred Ethel on, but she latched onto me. She made a whole show of her team winning, and the organizer (who looked very uncomfortable by it all) had brought jokey little plastic medals for the winners, which made it worse. We cheered for them and said well done, but Ethel started waving her medal in my face, calling me a loser and laughing. I just stood there not reacting as I was so confused by it all. At one point I laughed back and jokingly said I’d never seen a sore winner before, but it only made her worse – she kept going on about how obviously mad I was (?) and how it must be hard being such a loser. My team and I were just baffled by it all, and hers all looked hideously embarrassed. I was really mortified that this was my first interaction with the new half of my team.

It’s been months since, and the team has melded together well. But even now, Ethel will occasionally pull her medal out of her desk drawer and wave it in the air, loudly asking (so others could hear) if I remembered the time she beat us. This happens every few weeks. She even tells new hires about it, and goes into how angry I was and how much I’d been rattled. I think she thinks it’s a funny in-joke we share, but I don’t find it funny at all.

I’ve tried saying “It’s been months, why are we still talking about this?” but that adds fuel to her theory that I’m raging inside and spurs her on. I’ve tried laughing it off and that has the same effect — she claims I’m covering up my feelings. Once I just flat out ignored her and she started pointing out to other colleagues that I’m too angry to talk. The whole time she’s laughing like it’s some big joke. I even mentioned it privately in our one-on-one, but she started laughing and joking about my “obsession with losing.”

I feel like this makes me look bad in front of the team, especially new hires. I have a reputation for being very calm and unflappable at work and I’m wondering if this is a weird attempt to undermine that. I also wonder if this is her way of trying to win over new hires and have something “fun” to talk about with them, as she is a bit socially awkward. Other team members have mentioned to me how weird it is and I don’t think she realizes that it just makes everyone uncomfortable.

Am I insane to let this get to me? How do I approach her and get her to stop without her insisting I’m a sore loser who can’t take a joke? Ironically I had zero feelings about this when it happened, but now when I see her pull the medal out I do admit I start raging inside, like she says! I also feel like as she’s my boss I have to be careful in how I talk to her.

I just don’t know where to go from here, and I’m annoyed I’m even having to write about it!

I can promise you this isn’t making you look bad. It’s making Ethel look unhinged.

In theory, you could try saying something like, “You know, I wasn’t angry at all at the time and I was baffled as to why you kept saying that I was. But I am getting frustrated that you keep bringing this up and attributing emotions to me that I don’t have. It’s weird to hear about this every few weeks. Can we agree to put it to rest?”

But based on what you’ve said about Ethel, I’m skeptical that it would make any difference. You can give it a shot since I don’t think you can make her any worse at this point and, who knows, it might help … but I wouldn’t count on it.

Another option is to just say in a tone of extreme boredom, every time she brings it up, “It’s so weird that you think that.” Maybe quickly follow it up with something work-related, like “Hey, can I ask you about this email from the client?” which might short-circuit whatever rant about your anger she’s about to go on.

Really, though, I think the most effective option at this point is to let it go. I think you’ve been searching for some way to shut it down because (a) it’s annoying and (b) you’re concerned that it makes you look bad to other people. But it really, really doesn’t. New hires (and anyone else) who have seen you to be a generally calm, reasonable person aren’t going to believe that you’re actually a ragingly sore loser with an anger management problem. They’re just going to think Ethel is being really weird. Or, at most, they’ll think there’s a funny story there and aren’t likely to give it a lot of thought. The least likely scenario is that they’ll come away thinking less of you. So simply detaching and deciding not to care is a good path here.

As for what’s going on with Ethel … I don’t think her social awkwardness is irrelevant here, and I suspect you’re right that she’s seized on this as something “fun” to talk about, without picking up on how weirdly it’s coming across to other people (or how rudely to you). She’s like that person who stumbles on a goofy joke about your hair or your height or your desk one day and then just keeps repeating it every time they see you, thinking it gets more hilarious each time.

But really, people around you are going to see this just as clearly as you do and will know pretty quickly that it’s about Ethel, not you.

why won’t employers tell you why they rejected you?

A reader writes:

I recently had a great phone interview for a position I was very excited about. Because the hiring manager was going to be out of the office for awhile, he was planning to interview some candidates that week and other candidates when he got back.

But I received an email this morning explaining that in the course of conducting in-person interviews, he had identified a candidate whose professional experience and technical skills were an exceptional match, and whose academic background in international studies and languages was very well suited for the position. The email went on to say that they had decided to offer the candidate the position and she accepted.

I am of course disappointed but of all the interviews I’ve had over the past few years, this is the only non-canned rejection I’ve gotten. I guess I wonder why hiring managers don’t tend to write more thoughtful rejections to candidates who have put in the time and energy interviewing. Does it really add that much extra time to the process since the pool has already been whittled down to the top few candidates anyway?

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.

I’m terrified of making mistakes at my first job

A reader writes:

I am a big fan and long-time reader of your blog. I am thrilled to say that after following your tips I have been able to land my first real job! I am very excited as I am just about to graduate from college (tomorrow!) and I couldn’t imagine a better position for starting my career. I find the work I will be doing both exciting and meaningful and I love my company’s culture (I was picky about making sure I found the right fit). What’s more, after accepting their offer I was pleasantly surprised to receive several emails from my boss and several of my new coworkers congratulating me and welcoming me to the team.

Despite all of this, I do have one huge fear: making a mistake. I understand that this fear is irrational as even senior employees make mistakes, but I suffer from imposter syndrome and the thought of making any type of mistake absolutely terrifies me. I have previously worked as a research assistant at my university and as an intern in the industry and have made very few mistakes because I am so afraid of messing up. The thing is, I want to be able to grow in this role and hopefully with the company and I know that making mistakes is crucial to the process. I think what scares me the most is the thought of disappointing my new boss who has so kindly and graciously taken a chance by giving me (a new grad) the opportunity to join the team.

In order to make sure I can get a head start, I have already reached out to her by email to ask if there are any resources or literature I can read up on before starting so that I can hit the ground running.

My two questions are:

1) Is there anything else I should be doing to ensure I start off on the right foot and make a good first impression with the team?

2) When I do make a mistake, how should I handle feedback? I know I won’t act visibly upset or shut down, but I know I’ll be mortified if I receive negative feedback. I’m sure that the fact that I have a tendency to over-apologize won’t help (I’m guilty of the chronic “so sorry to bother you but I have a question”). I want to come off as mature and receptive while effectively being able to communicate what I will do to improve. Unfortunately, I have never really had the opportunity to practice these skills as I never received negative feedback in either of my past roles so I’m having some difficulty figuring out the appropriate verbiage.

I have terrible news for you: You are going to make mistakes! Lots of them. We all do. It’s normal and fine.

This isn’t even really news, because your letter makes it clear you already know that, and know that you can’t learn and grow without mistakes, which is good. That makes this easier to tackle than if at some level you thought people worthy of their jobs never mess up.

But I wonder if you’ve really internalized that. Knowing intellectually that mistakes are part of the job is one thing, and really believing that at a visceral level is another. So I’m curious what you’ll find if you really probe into your fear of mistakes — what’s that fear really of? Looking incompetent? Letting down your boss (as you mention)? Being unmasked (to others and maybe to yourself) as actually incompetent? I’d explore what underlying beliefs are there, because if you really know mistakes are normal and necessary, I’m not sure you’d be so terrified of them. You might find that deep down, you don’t believe they’re normal after all.

But since you identified disappointing your boss as one part of the fear, let’s talk a little about that. When I’m hiring and managing a new grad, here’s what doesn’t disappoint me: routine mistakes as they learn the job and organization. I expect those. I’m surprised if I don’t see those. I might even be a little alarmed (what might I not be seeing?). Here’s what does disappoint me: A person who works excessively slowly or cautiously because they’re paralyzed by fear of getting something wrong. For real — that’s a big problem and can hold people back from (a) being as productive as they need to and (b) growing into more responsibility. That’s what I’d work on internalizing.

So … when the inevitable mistake happens, how should you respond to feedback about it? You’re right that you shouldn’t over-apologize! What your manager will want to see is that you’re processing the feedback and will be able to incorporate it into your work going forward. Some good responses are:

* “I see what you’re saying. I’ll correct this and make sure to do it that way in the future.”
* Or, if you don’t understand: “Thanks for letting me know! I’m not sure I completely understand and I want to make sure I do. Can you say more about what you mean by X?”
* “Thank you. I’m going to read over these changes and make notes about what to remember for next time.”
* “I appreciate you telling me! I’ll make sure to do it that way next time.”
* “I’ll make the change! Can I ask — I had approached it this way because I was thinking X. Is that not the right way to look at it?”

That’s it! You don’t need a long defense — just a sincere interest in getting it right going forward.

Only when something is very serious do you need more than this. For example, if you make an error that costs the company significant money or upsets an important client, you’d want your response to indicate that you understand the seriousness of the mistake. In that case, you might say something like, “This shouldn’t have happened, and I take responsibility for it. I should have checked with you before telling the client that. I got focused on wanting to get them a quick answer, but that was the wrong thing to prioritize. Going forward, I’ll be vigilant about touching base with you on anything sensitive before I get back to a client, and I think that will prevent anything similar from happening again.”

Practice saying phrases like these out loud! An awful lot of people don’t handle mistakes gracefully, especially when they’re new to the work world, and mastering this now will be hugely helpful to you in your career.

As for starting off on the right foot: Listen, take notes, know you won’t remember everything, and don’t freak out when you feel overwhelmed because that’s normal. More here and here.

my coworkers are joking I’m pregnant when I’m not, sharing a gym with coworkers, and more

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

1. My coworkers are joking that I’m pregnant when I’m not

The company I work for is really small and we tune into the same local radio station every day. The station has a tiny listener base and our song requests have become so frequent that my coworkers have got a good rapport with one of the show hosts. I’ve never emailed in or interacted with the host in question.

I come in today after a week off and hear myself being congratulated on the radio on my pregnancy … which was made up by my coworkers. Alison, what the hell. Everyone laughed and I wasn’t sure what to do but laugh along too. The host has apparently been doing this for a full week while I’ve been away (!?), saying both my name and the company’s. Beyond that, he sounded really earnest and genuinely happy, which is making me feel even worse.

There is the occasional prank in the office, but they’ve always been harmless. This feels like a line has been crossed and I don’t know what to do. We have monthly one-on-ones coming up and I’ll be speaking to our manager, but I’m not sure what do to in the meantime.

After I heard it on the radio, everyone made comments about my pretend pregnancy. I don’t want to hear how caffeine is bad for the baby or planning the due date. I’m a woman in my mid-20’s in 2019 and can’t even believe I’m having to write this at all. My general response to not-funny jokes is just to not laugh or look confused, but I can’t take the thought of being publicly congratulated by a stranger. Tomorrow I’ll be asking the next person who makes a joke to be the one to write in and reveal the truth, but I know this won’t go down well.

I’m the quietest person in the office and probably the most private, but it feels like such a bizarre thing to joke about that I don’t even know what the funny part is meant to be? I don’t want anyone to get formally disciplined for a one-off misjudgment, but I’m also not sure how to articulate why it’s a misjudgment without ruining my relationships with anyone.

What the hell? I don’t know what the joke is either, and this would be tremendously hurtful if you’d been struggling with miscarriage or infertility or had just terminated a pregnancy. And that’s before we even get into people you know hearing the show, recognizing you as “Jane at Stewpot Enterprises,” and thinking you’re pregnant.

I think you’re going to have to lay this out for them very bluntly: “I know you intended this as a joke, but it’s not funny. Please think about how hurtful this would be to someone struggling with miscarriage or infertility. You’ve also put me in a position where people I know might think I’m pregnant. You need to fix this today and ensure the announcement doesn’t keep getting made.”

You’re worried about harming your relationships, but (a) they’re the one who should be worried about that and (b) unless they’re truly horrible people, explaining this matter-of-factly and asking them to fix it shouldn’t ruin your relationships. It should make them feel mortified, which is a useful emotion in this context, and they should apologize. Please speak up, before their next joke is announcing someone’s fake death while they’re on vacation.

2. What should I wear to work out at the same gym as my coworkers?

Do the rules for appropriate workout attire change when you attend the same gym as your coworkers? I’ve recently switched to a new gym that is a much better fit for my exercise needs. Turns out, it’s also where 90% of the guys from work go. I’m the only woman from work that goes there. To make matters worse, I’m a very young project manager in a male-dominated industry. I have to work hard at maintaining professional boundaries, because I’m in a leadership role over many guys my age (although I’m not their supervisor).

I find myself feeling extremely self conscious — I wear long yoga pants and a tank top but still feel “weird” about the yoga pants. I’d ideally wear shorts and a sports bra during the summer, but so far I’ve resisted. Any suggestions? This really is the best gym for my workout needs, but I don’t know if I can take the stress of them watching me work out much longer.

In theory, you should be able to wear whatever you want to the gym and not worry about running into coworkers there. In reality, it’s understandable to feel uncomfortable in your situation. To be clear, it’s your coworkers’ responsibility not to ogle you or treat you with any less respect or authority because of what they’ve seen you wear at the gym. But it’s also okay for you to decide you just feel weird about it, regardless.

If your discomfort is mainly about what might be in their heads, you could try to ignore that for a few weeks and see if you can get yourself in a headspace where you don’t care. But if your discomfort is that you feel exposed in a way you’d rather not around coworkers, you might decide in this case psychological comfort will trump physical comfort, to a degree.

If you’re not sure where you’re landing on this, I’d say wear a shirt rather than just a sports bra (on the theory that not being around colleagues with your shirt off is a good rule regardless of gender).

3. Messaging someone sitting right next to you

I have an intern who recently started who sits right next to me (I am his manager). By default, I often an email communicator especially for quick FYIs or logistical items. I think this lets the other person see and respond on their own timeline without potentially interrupting their train of thought.

My intern will usually pop his head around the divider for any and all issues, including to say “thank you” in response to emails I sent him, to let me know he has just sent me an email, and so forth. We have more substantive conversations several times a day about his work that seem like a good fit for in-person conversations, and I already told him that for in-depth content issues I’d rather he not pop over but instead that we grab a conference room for 15 minutes so as not to bother those around us and so that I can focus on the depth of the questions.

I’m considering letting him know my email communication preferences for FYIs and so forth, but know that I probably tend on the email-heavy side of things and don’t want to teach him the wrong workplace norms that are actually just idiosyncrasies on my part. What’s normal/the right amount of email or in-person communication when you sit next to someone?

I always think it’s weird when people make fun of others for sending an email or chat message to someone who’s sitting right across from them. What you laid out is exactly right: just because someone sits near you doesn’t mean they’re available for interruptions whenever you feel like it. People need to focus on work, and email is useful for letting the person respond when it’s a convenient time, rather than demanding their attention RIGHT NOW.

It would be a problem if you were telling your intern to never talk to you in person, but it’s perfectly reasonable to ask that he not interrupt you for things that can wait, particularly when you are having substantive conversations each day.

So yes, do be clear with him about how you want him to operate! It doesn’t need to be a big deal. You can just matter-of-factly say, “I tend to need to focus when I’m working, and it can be hard to get the focus I need when you pop up in person for small things. Can you put things like X and Y in emails, rather than popping your head around? I know that might seem unnatural at first when we’re working so near each other, but it’s an office thing — people are generally focusing so you want to work around that.” You could add, “Along those same lines, you’ll sometimes pop around to let me know you’ve seen an email — there’s no need to do that, and it can break a train of thought.”

4. My boss is trying to steamroll me into a new job I don’t want

I recently applied for a job as the executive director of a local nonprofit. My boss is an unconventional guy. His wife is on the board of this nonprofit and he pushed me to apply for the newly-open ED job, and then announced to everyone in our professional network that I had applied.

I believe he thinks he’s acting like a good mentor to get me a better paying, more prominent job in the community. He has asked other leaders in his network to help “get me the job.” The nonprofit called me for a phone interview and it went okay but I am feeling less enthusiastic about the role. After the interview, I started to see what I’d be giving up by taking this job — I talked to friends and colleagues in nonprofit ED roles and they have a lot on their shoulders. I know I could do the work, but I have a tendency toward depression and anxiety so I try to keep that in mind when pursuing new jobs. I probably wouldn’t have even applied if it was 100% my choice, but my boss basically told me to apply for it.

I thought that I had dodged a bullet (given their lengthy response time after my phone interview) but I just heard that I was selected for the final in-person interviews. In a normal world, I could just call them back and say “hey, thanks but no thanks [insert bogus reason here]” but now that my boss has done all of this work on my behalf, his wife is on the hiring committee (so she’d tell him exactly what I said) I feel totally stuck. What should I do?

You didn’t ask him to do all that outreach, and the fact that he did certainly doesn’t obligate you to pursue a job you don’t want! Ideally you would have spoken up earlier and told him you weren’t sold on the job and didn’t want him activating his network for you, but that doesn’t mean you have to continue in their process now.

Email the organization and explain that after some consideration you’ve decided this wouldn’t be the right move for you right now, and then let your boss know the same thing and that you’ve withdrawn. You can say, “I learned more about the role in the interview and realized it wasn’t what I want right now, but I appreciate your willingness to help.” (And really, that’s the point of interviewing — you should never be sold on a job before you interview, and it’s entirely reasonable that as you’ve considered it and learned more, you’ve concluded it’s not right for you.) But it does sound like your boss will press you on your reasons and/or try to change your mind — so be prepared with a line or two in response to that, and stay firm.

5. My company is recalling all remote workers back to the office

Six years ago I went to management and asked permission to work from home. It was a program offered to employees. I wanted to move out of state and get closer to aging parents/family. I was granted permission and moved 60 miles from the corporate office. Now they are calling all work-from-home employees back into the office five days a week. Do I have any grounds to stand on? My commute will be two hours each way, 620 miles a week.

They’re legally allowed to do this, and sometimes companies do decide to nix remote work. (Yahoo famously did this a few years ago.) You can certainly try to argue your case, pointing out that you moved with their okay and that you’re now living somewhere where it would be impossible for you to travel to the office every day. Going into that conversation, it’ll help to have already decided if you’d leave your job over this. If you will, you can take a harder-line stance in trying to negotiate an exception (but realize that they may not budge and then you’d have to decide what to do).

my employer is asking invasive questions as part of a “wellness benefit”

A reader writes:

My company recently announced that they would be offering wellness benefits. They didn’t expand on any details in the announcement, and I assumed it would be something like discounted gym memberships or healthy snacks at the office.

Instead, I got a message from a consultant about scheduling a 1-on-1 meeting to discuss my well-being, in which we would discuss the following areas of my life:

• Physical – your health and energy
• Emotional – your mental and spiritual side
• Social – your relationships
• Career – loving what you do every day
• Financial – managing your money
• Community – engaging with the larger world
• Creative – expressing your true self

This seemed bizarrely invasive and a huge overstep of workplace boundaries. There’s no reason my employer needs to know anything about my emotional or spiritual well-being. I already have a doctor, therapist, and financial advisor, so I replied and politely declined the benefit.

My question is about whether I should do anything else. This is my first white-collar/non-service-industry job, so I don’t have a lot of context to compare professional norms. Plus, none of the coworkers I talked to seemed as taken aback as I was.

Am I overreacting to questions that are normal for the type of small company that offers fancy wellness benefits? Or should I tactfully let management know that the new “benefit” has not been universally well-received?

Ick. Yeah, that’s intrusive and over-stepping.

You’re right that if your employer wants to offer wellness benefits, they should offer things like healthy food at work and discounted gym memberships and — most important — great health insurance and ample paid time off. And if they’re not offering those last two, this kind of program is particularly insulting.

For what its worth, they’re probably not going to receive the information you share with the wellness consultant about your emotional, social, spiritual (!), and financial (!) well-being. But it’s not your employer’s place to set up counseling for you on these things, or even to nudge you to work on them yourself.

You are trading your labor for money. You are not their child, or their parishioner, or their patient.

(Also, it’s very unlikely that a single “consultant” is equipped to give useful substantive counsel on all of those topics, even if you wanted them to, and I’d question the skills of anyone who pitches themselves that way.)

Employers have gotten into “wellness” out of a belief that it will save them in health insurance costs. And when they focus on things like disease management, they do. But at least one major study has found that “lifestyle management” programs like this result in no net savings at all. Of course, even if they did save money, they’d still be overstepping and inappropriate — but they don’t even do that.

Anyway, as for whether or not to say anything: How much standing do you have? If you’re new or fairly junior (it sounds like it might be the latter), you’ve got pretty limited capital at this point and you might not want to spend it on this, especially if none of your coworkers seem to care. On the other hand, if you did have more capital built up, it would definitely be appropriate to let someone with some authority over this area know that you found this off-putting and that you hope they’ll consider less intrusive, more effective initiatives like healthy snacks/fruit delivery/flex time/better health insurance benefits/etc. instead.