update: can I ask for a raise after covering for remote coworkers for over a year?

Remember the letter-writer wondering if they could ask for a raise after covering for remote coworkers for over a year (#3 at the link)? Here’s the update.

There have been a lot of recent developments at my work in the months since I’ve written to you and I finally have an update to share!

I took your advice and had multiple conversations with my boss about the tasks I had taken on and how the workload could be more equally distributed and what could be done to have my compensation reflect the increasing responsibility I had taken on. My boss did what she could to redistribute tasks and even took on some herself so that I could get a breather, so for awhile I was staying sort of afloat.

And then another coworker left.

Things escalated quickly, I ended up taking on his responsibilities while keeping up my own workload along with the extraneous tasks I had been doing while management searched for a permanent replacement. I was working ridiculous hours and doing what I could to keep everything going and secretly getting my resume together to start looking for another job. I genuinely enjoyed my job and even learning other elements of other roles, I just couldn’t keep up with the workload anymore.

Then last week my boss and her boss asked to meet with me. I didn’t know what the meeting was for, so was pretty floored when they told me that they recognized how hard I’d been working, how much I had done for the department, and that they were going to promote me. I wasn’t expecting this at all and was in shock because this type of praise isn’t often given at my organization. They went even further, and told me they were making me a manager and gave me an over $15,000 raise! They permanently reassigned some of the tasks I had been doing around the office, adjusted some of the workflows and also let me customize the new role to my skills by letting go of some old tasks and picking up new ones I enjoyed.

With the new workflows and people slowly coming back in the office, plus we have a new person on the team and the changes my bosses made to my workload, it has been much more manageable. I am enjoying my job so much more and am finding a lot of ways to grow in my new role.

I never expected this outcome or this level of support from my supervisors. I’ve worked at such toxic places in the past that it honestly didn’t occur to me that the situation would ever improve. I can’t thank you enough for your response to my original letter, and to the commenters who left such kind words when they were needed.

my coworker tried to film her pregnancy announcement and now there is chaos

It’s the Thursday “ask the readers” question. A reader writes:

So this is an enragingly dumb breach of basic manners and I need to know I’m not crazy. I’m technically in an executive role but I don’t have authority over people, just finances, but I was told I should have “acted like a better manager” during this whole fracas. I kind of can’t believe someone would do something like this, especially since our office finally got 100% vaxxed (group decision, everyone pulled together, very cool) and we’ve had to be so careful about even breathing near one another for the last two years.

My coworker, “Jessie,” is pregnant and decided she wanted to film a reaction video announcement telling everyone in our office. This is a marketing firm, but we’re a small satellite office so corporate encourages us to do a lot of “meet the staff” and “it’s Tiffany’s Birthday” type sharing posts to attract clients. We’ve had problems before with the higher-ups encouraging some oversharing, and just a LOT of bad personal boundaries in the office. I feel like this inspired Jessie and another coworker, “Daniela,” to do this pregnancy announcement by tossing people a positive pregnancy test so they could film the reactions.

Two quick things:

A positive pregnancy test is a used pregnancy test, which means it was urinated on. I used to be a lab tech before I made a career switch so yes, even if it was wiped down with the cap on, it still has urine on it, and if it was a test from home that she brought with her it, bacteria and other unpleasantness could be incubating inside the plastic.

We just spent two years disinfecting our mail.

Jessie started by tossing the used pregnancy test to “Abby,” who flung it when she realized what it was and yelled “oh gross,” which got a lot of people’s attention and “ruined” Jessie’s announcement. It’s kind of office knowledge that Abby is a germophobe so while part of me gets that Jessie was excited and maybe didn’t think things through, the rest of me feels like this was a really unfair position to put Abby in, along with all the other staff she was planning to throw a used peed-on pregnancy test at.

Jessie and Daniela got super upset and offended and everyone in the cubicle block started arguing. Because there were no managers or HR on site that day, and I would be the next “ranking” executive, I stepped in and defused the situation as best I could.

I pulled Jessie and Daniela aside and congratulated Jessie. But here’s the part everyone’s mad at. I told them it’s never okay to hand someone something they urinated on, regardless of if they wiped it down and put the cap back on it. I said we’re excited for Jessie but that wasn’t okay and to throw the test out or take it home.

By the time the managers and HR got back in office, they were told multiple versions of the whole thing. For the record, they’re also all men. I got called in to explain what I saw. HR told me they’re considering disciplinary actions for Abby and anybody else who “reacted poorly” unless they publicly apologize to Jessie. I told them that was a terrible idea and, not knowing what else to do, I called corporate HR and relayed the situation to our female head of HR, outlining what I saw, who said what, and the low-level bullying that Abby’s been subjected to now. (If someone asks Jessie about her pregnancy and she knows Abby’s in earshot, she’ll say loudly, “Oh, well I guess my baby is GROSS according to SOME PEOPLE.”) Corporate HR (which is separate from our on-site HR) was horrified and put out a company-wide memo about keeping bodily fluids to yourself.

Nobody’s really doing anything about how badly Abby’s getting bullied, and several of us (me included) are still being encouraged to write Jessie an apology letter, which I won’t do. I get that a lot of people feel like they need to perform for social media, but I’m still stuck on the science and the double standard of it all. If I threw anything with my urine or bodily fluids on it other than a pregnancy test at coworker, people would be livid. So I guess my question is: WTF do I do?


my longtime job doesn’t know I have 9 kids, long walks to the bathroom, and more

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

1. How do I tell my longtime job I have more kids than they know of?

I want to start off by saying that my current situation has nothing to do with shame, just learning from past work situations. So, long story short, 15 years ago I met a wonderful woman at a previous job and she had six children of her own (at the time I had none). Since then, I have had three more children with her (we’re done lol).

I have also had a couple of jobs before landing my current job. The previous jobs went both ways when I explained my home life: one played a favoritism towards me for trivial things like a car breaking down or being late once or twice, which caused animosity with some fellow employees. The other, which I know is caused by HR issues, would tell me I needed the job and would take advantage of me because they thought I had to be at their beck and call for fear of losing it. So the third time around, I chose not to divulge the complete details of my personal life. I just wanted my employer to judge me based off of me and my work ethic and what I bring to the company and not my personal life.

Now nine years into my career here, and one of my stepsons wants to get an entry-level position at my workplace. The problem is, I’ve gone nine years keeping my personal life pretty hush. Some of my work buddies know my situation but nobody of “importance” at my job knows. I feel like I’ve made a good enough impression at my company that I feel comfortable breaking the news. But I don’t know how to “break the ice” on the situation, other than busting through the door and shouting GUESS WHAT I HAVE NINE KIDS! and watching the looks of confusion and jaws dropping.

I do like the the busting-through-the-door idea! But I don’t think you really need a special announcement at all. You could just … stop keeping it secret. Mention your kids when it happens to be relevant, and let people pick up on the info that way. That doesn’t mean you need to say “my nine kids” right off the bat — you can say “my stepson Jim is applying here” and “I took my daughters to the beach” and “my kids love that game” and just generally drop the same references to them that you would have been dropping all along if you hadn’t been trying to keep it quiet. At some point someone will ask how many kids you have and then you can say “nine” as if it’s been info you’ve been up for sharing all along and not a secret. It’ll be an interesting new detail about you, but it probably won’t be as defining as it was at those earlier two jobs since your colleagues already know you as you.

2. How reasonable is a five-minute walk to the bathroom?

I work in a large and very old building that was converted into offices from some other use (I’m not sure what, but I suspect a factory of some kind). The building is narrow and long, with bathrooms on one end next to the staircases and elevators. I work right at the other end of the building and it’s about a five-minute walk along the floor to the bathroom. I know it doesn’t sound like a lot but it means I lose about an hour of my working day just going to the bathroom (five minutes walking each way, five minutes in the bathroom, about four times a day). If, as often happens, the bathrooms are being cleaned or out of order, I have to go to the floor above, which adds more time waiting for the elevator to take me up and down. I don’t know if there’s anything anyone can actually do about this, but do you think this is reasonable?

Losing an hour of your working day for journeys to and from the bathroom is a lot! ’d be even more concerned about anyone with any kind of bathroom urgency (think Crohn’s, some parts of pregnancy, etc.) and how uncomfortable or even impossible this arrangement could be for them. In theory your office could solve that by giving people with those needs offices much closer to the bathrooms … but not everyone is able to predict when they’ll need that or wants to declare it.

In short: it’s going to be problematic for at least some people, and more bathrooms would be better. Whether or not that’s possible in a very old building is another question.

3. What to do when higher-level managers give me instructions that contradict my boss’s directions

I work in a very large international corporation, and my role touches pretty much all departments. My job title is one near the bottom of the corporate food chain, even though I have freedom to make important decisions and support from my manager to do so. (Discussions about pay increase and title changes to match my functions are in the works.)

My issue is this: I get time-sensitive requests from department managers, directors, and/or VPs from across the company, and they sometimes contradict what my manager has previously directed me to do. And often my manager is unavailable to intervene (scheduling, etc.).

Am I required to just blindly take direction from practically everyone in the company just because they are higher up the ladder than myself? Or is it acceptable to decline and wait for direction from my manager? I don’t want to risk pissing off important people who may impact my ability to climb said ladder.

This is heavily context-dependent and will vary from situation to situation. Sometimes a higher-level manager will have newer info than your manager does, and your manager would agree with the new direction if she were available. Other times the higher-level manager might be missing info that your boss has, and your boss might intervene and have you do things differently. It really depends on the situation.

The thing to do is to talk to your boss about this question. Explain that this happens regularly, give some examples, and talk through how you should plan to proceed when it occurs. She might tell you, for example, that anything from Person A should always trump whatever previous instructions she gave you but with Person B you should wait until you can check with her, or that situations like C or D should be handled in E way, or so forth. But the first step is to flag the problem for her and see how she wants you to handle it.

4. Can I give my employees gifts from my side businesses?

I am an area manager at my job. I also dabble in some direct sales businesses in my spare time, mostly for the fun and friendships. I don’t do my side gigs aggressively; most of my employees don’t even know about them, but a few do.

Is it inappropriate or tacky to give my employees gifts of the products from my direct sales gigs? They are really great products and I have a lot of inventory, but I dont want it to come across like I’m trying to get them to buy stuff from me in the future. I’m even actually thinking about quitting the side gigs because I just don’t have the time to keep up with everything.

I wouldn’t do it! You genuinely might not intend it as a way to lure them into buying products in the future, but MLMs have such a bad rap in this regard that it’s likely to raise that worry for at least some of them, especially if they know you sell the products (and even if your gigs are true direct sales and not MLMs). If you do end up quitting the side gigs, you could give the gifts at that point with a clear statement that it’s leftover inventory and not anything you’re currently selling — but I wouldn’t do it before that.

5. Can I claim an HRA reimbursement for a gift from my company?

To celebrate the successful completion of a big, stressful project, my company’s management team gave everyone on my team a gift card to a local spa, and I booked a massage. My company also offers a company-funded HRA, and massages are considered a reimbursable healthcare expense.

Is it unethical to submit for reimbursement for a massage that my company gifted to me? I feel like it most likely is, since it’s like they’re paying for it twice: once for the gift card and then again for the reimbursement.

Yeah, don’t do it! An HRA (Health Reimbursement Arrangement) is to reimburse you for medical expenses, but there was no expense to you here since the spa service was a gift your company had already paid for.

how long should you wait if someone is late to a virtual meeting?

A reader writes:

How long do you need to wait if someone is late to a virtual meeting? I’m not really talking about big group meetings because it’s not too likely that *everyone* will be late, but if you’re booked with one or two others, and in a situation with no or minimal power differential to factor in, when can you reasonably log out and send an email? Five minutes? Ten? Does it change inside or outside your organization? I wouldn’t just ghost someone who’s late for a meeting, but there’s only so long I’m willing to sit on Teams/Zoom/whatever waiting for someone else to show up.

I’d give it 10 minutes and then disconnect and send a message saying something like, “I’m guessing you had a conflict come up with our 2 pm call. Let me know when we can reschedule for.” Or sometimes it makes sense to say, “I’ll be available until 2:20 if you get this but otherwise let’s reschedule.”

That assumes relatively equal power on both sides. If it’s your boss or a client, I’d give it a little longer (but not more than 15 minutes, unless there’s a specific reason to handle it differently — like if they mentioned they might be late and asked you to wait). If it’s a big VIP, I might hang around even longer, especially if it’s someone outside your organization and you need to talk to them a lot more than they need to talk to you.

On the flip side of that, if you’re doing someone a favor by carving out time for them at all (like an informational interview or a vendor who wants you to buy something you’re not yet sold on), I wouldn’t wait more than five minutes before dropping off.

In all these situations, ideally you’d have something you can work on while you wait so that you’re not just wasting that time … although sometimes it’s hard to do that, if you need to keep your focus on staying prepped for the meeting that you’re still hoping is about to start.

my employee is too cavalier about mistakes

A reader writes:

I manage a junior employee who sometimes does sloppy work or makes mistakes on work that I have given her. Lately when I point out these mistakes to her, her response to me is “Yeah, yeah, I know, sorry,” or “Is it really that big of a deal?” Generally pretty flippant reactions.

Overall I think she is a good employee who does good work, but her response seems awfully cavalier about things that can truly matter, and that worries me. What is the best way to handle this situation?

I answer this question — and three others — 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.

Other questions I’m answering there today include:

  • I get apathetic about my job unless I have frequent meetings
  • Expecting a fired employee to work another six weeks
  • What to say to a stranger who mentions a serious health issue when turning down work

my new coworker keeps staring at my breasts

A reader writes:

I am an attractive, large, 50+ woman working in academia. I have large-ish breasts and wear a bra that makes them look appropriate — no hanging, jostling, or nipples. Even though I do hate these restrictive, thick bras. But I found that I had to sacrifice my comfort for peace of mind in this case. I also don’t ever wear clothes that show any cleavage.

For many years, I was fortunate to have male coworkers who did not stare at my breasts. They might briefly stare inadvertently once in a blue moon (like, no more than once a season or so), especially when my shirt happened to be thinner than usual or something like that, but they would always take the gaze right off and not stare again. I am totally fine with that level of staring – we are all human, and it’s not like I have never found myself occasionally briefly staring at attractive parts of other people’s anatomies either.

We have recently hired a middle-aged guy who stares at my breasts for much too long, much too often. Almost every day, when I am talking with him (and I have to do that a lot), he will lock his gaze on my breasts for a full second or so. He does look away after that, but then will do the same thing again in a few minutes.

Now, I am not at all shy, so I am perfectly capable of hitting him with any of the response gems in the gamut of “I’m sure you haven’t noticed but..,” “excuse me? [WTF face],” “please try to control your gaze when you talk to women,” or even the old “my eyes are up here.” I am also perfectly capable of escalating the issue to my boss and the HR, who I am quite sure will act on it immediately.

However, I am pretty sure the guy does not realize that what he is doing is bad. He is from a developing country, although he has worked in the U.S. for at least a decade now. Still, it is possible he never learned this aspect of being polite in the U.S. He is also extremely, almost ridiculously straight-laced, not even a hint of any creepiness other than the gaze issue. On top of that, he is very knowledgeable, smart, and well-adjusted other than this one issue, and a really valuable acquisition for our team.

I really have to do something about this as soon as possible, because I find the staring not harmless at all — it makes my hair stand totally on end every time. My male partner, who is wonderfully understanding and not at all sexist usually, says that I should just grin and bear it. Because this is just how men are, and the poor guy doesn’t know any better, so putting him on the spot would cause eternal animosity between us that would make my life a worse kind of hell.

My partner is, sadly, wrong in asking me to protect the guy’s feelings while mine are being trampled. I am planning to try a response that sort of saves face for him a bit while still possibly putting him on notice: saying “Is there something wrong with my badge? I noticed you keep looking at it…” next time he stares. But I am not sure if that’s the best way. What do you think?

I am pretty sure that it’s impolite to stare at a woman’s breasts in developing countries too … and I am highly skeptical that your coworker wouldn’t have picked up on the fact that it’s not okay here after 10 years. It’s more likely that he thinks you don’t notice or he doesn’t realize how often he’s doing it or … who knows what, it’s too exhausting to second-guess what might be going on in these guys’ minds and ultimately it doesn’t matter. He’s doing it, he needs to stop, the end.

(That said, there’s an interesting conversation to be had with your partner about his beliefs that “this is just how men are” and “the poor guy doesn’t know any better,” although I wouldn’t blame you at all if you are too exhausted to bother having it.)

Anyway, since you want to let the coworker save face while also making it clear the behavior is (a) noticed and (b) not okay, your “is something wrong with my badge, you keep looking at it” idea is worth trying. Similar options are “is something on my shirt?” or “what do you keep looking at?” (The latter is a little more confrontational but prevents you both from the awkwardness of a direct boob-related statement.) I have sometimes pointedly crossed my arms across my chest, which kind of calls out the issue without explicitly calling it out, and usually they get the point. If they’re embarrassed afterward, so be it — sometimes embarrassment is how people learn.

I think a lot of people will tell you that you shouldn’t go that route, and instead should call it out more directly (with the classic “my eyes are up here” or similar). And if you want to do that, you have every right to! But often people feel the way you do — you don’t want to be that confrontational if you can get the outcome you want in a different way, and letting him save a little bit of face can be better for you since you have to keep working with him and you otherwise like him and would prefer a comfortable relationship with him.

But it’s frustrating as hell that women have to do that dance all the time, looking for softer, more socially acceptable ways to push back on unacceptable behavior … generally from men who definitely aren’t stressing about whether they are offending you.

my boss wants me to deep-clean the office, company is going to ruin my credit, and more

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

1. My boss wants me to deep-clean the office

I recently started working as an administrative assistant. The job description and interview process made it clear that some cleaning duties would be necessary, and I was okay with that. However, a month into the job, my boss asked me to make a schedule for when I intend to “deep clean” the office, and told me they used to have cleaners come thrice weekly, but stopped to save money. This means I am responsible for cleaning the bathrooms, kitchen, and high traffic meeting rooms. Additionally, colleagues come up to my desk and rudely tell me to go do things like pick up trash in the parking lot.

I don’t look down on cleaning as a profession but this is a busy office (dozens upon dozens of people come in and out weekly!), the business is healthcare-adjacent, and we’re in a pandemic. I don’t feel qualified to clean and sanitize to the standard we should, plus I have regular admin duties to deal with. I have been an admin before and I happen to know exactly how much office cleaning costs in our area, and I know that the company has the money to pay for professional services. Is what they are asking me to do unreasonable?

Yes. Try saying this: “When I accepted the job, I understood there would be light cleaning, such as X and Y. But deep cleaning the bathrooms and kitchens or picking up trash from the parking lot isn’t work that’s normally part of an assistant job, and that’s not work I’m comfortable taking on. We need a professional service to handle those jobs, like most offices do.”

If your boss won’t back down, at that point you’d need to decide how much you’re willing to push back and whether you still want the job if he insists that this is now part of it. But it’s reasonable to try this and see what happens.

2. Can I ask about salary before an interview?

I have a job but am looking for a new opportunity due to work culture and company growth. I recently had an interesting conversation with an internal recruiter for a company I really like, but the recruiter talked almost the whole time. I had to interrupt them to even tell them about myself! Needless to say, we had no time for questions and I was unable to ask about salary expectations.

Well, they must have really liked my three-minute spiel about myself because I was asked for a second round interview. However, I don’t want to proceed without knowing an expected salary range and waste anyone’s time. Is it impolite to email them before scheduling the interview?

Nope! This used to be a thing that you had to dance around (which was always absurd and never made sense) but the norms on it have really changed in recent years. When you’re setting up the interview, it’s fine to say, “We didn’t have a chance to touch base on salary in our initial conversation. To make sure we’re on the same page before we move forward, can you tell me the salary range for the role?”

Be prepared, though, that they might turn the question back on you and ask what you’re looking for, which is annoying but really common (although also less common than it used to be) unless you’re in one of the small number of states that now require them to tell you.

3. My company may ruin my credit report

A couple of months ago, I took a business trip for my company and was given a corporate credit card, issued under my name. As instructed, I filed the expenses (hotel, rental car, etc.), which were approved. But the company is more than 30 days late paying the credit card bill of $1,500, and the credit card company informed me that it’ll be reported on MY credit report after 60 days.

When I informed the finance department, they said the payment was sent but there was an issue with payment details and their account rep is “clearing it up/working on it.” That was a week ago, and the account still shows a late payment and the credit card has sent a collection notice and called me three times.

I’m extremely concerned because I don’t want my credit score to take a dip. I’m in the middle of applying for a mortgage and I’ve worked hard for the last couple of years to improve my credit score and pay down debt.

I’ve had a corporate card at two former companies and I’ve never had this happen. It’s deeply concerning because I feel like I can’t trust my company and it puts me in a weird position of trying to hold them accountable as an employee without jeopardizing my job. Is there any action I can take? What’s the best way for me to address this?

If you haven’t already, loop in your boss immediately and explain that your credit is about to be harmed, which is going to jeopardize the mortgage you’re applying for, that the finance department hasn’t been responding with any urgency, and you need her help to get this fixed ASAP. Often a manager’s intervention will light a fire under another team that you can’t do on your own. If your boss isn’t the type to do that, you shouldn’t feel weird about being extremely assertive with the finance people yourself — as in calling (or going by, if you’re in person) every morning and at the end of every day to keep leaning on them until it’s resolved. Use the words, “This is jeopardizing my mortgage and must be fixed ASAP. How can I make sure it’s paid today?”

It’s utter BS that you need to plead and cajole them into fixing this, and if it’s possible for you to do your job without a corporate card in your name, I’d seriously consider it canceled once this is done.

4. Do “tell me about a time when…” questions really help?

I recently had a phone screening for a new role and the recruiter asked basically all “give me an example of a time…” questions. I understand one or two for specific needs but this was around four or five. Do these questions really prove much? I feel like often times candidates end up stretching the truth or racking their brains frantically trying to think of examples. I can understand for specific instances and needs to ask these but this was for a general more entry-level role. Do these questions really help determine if a candidate is a good fit?

Yeah, those questions can be highly differentiating among candidates. As an interviewer, it’s a lot more useful to hear how someone really has operated in the past — in real situations with real complexities and challenges — than to just talk about how they’d approach a more hypothetical interview question (which people can often just bluff their way through without it lining up with how they’d really handle the situation if it happened in real life).

That’s especially true if you then have a genuine conversation about their answers, including asking probing follow-up questions — “X must have been a tough element of that; how did you handle that?” … “how did you approach Y?” … “what made you choose Z?” … and so forth. That makes it much more likely that you’ll get beyond surface answers and into the nitty-gritty of how the person truly operates.

You’re right, though, that people don’t always have these examples at their tips of their tongues. So it can be really helpful to ask candidates to think through some specific examples ahead of time and come prepared to discuss them, so they don’t have to think up examples on the spot.

5. Am I accidentally mixing up my project deadlines?

I was wondering if you could please weigh in on something that has come up with a few of my freelance clients recently.

If the deadline of a project is, say, the 1st of February, would you take that to mean that the project is due by close of business on that date, or that it should be submitted so it can be reviewed on that date? Recently a client asked me to finish a project by a particular date, and emailed me at 6 am that morning asking where it was. I told her I would have it over by close of business that day, and she sounded a little surprised but didn’t comment any further on it.

In the future I’ll be clearer when setting expectations with clients, and I’ll clarify at what point on a day they’d like work submitted, but what’s your take here?

Typically if someone says a project is due on February 1, that means by close of business on February 1 unless something else is specified. Emailing you at 6 am (!) to find out where it was is bizarre.

Getting into the habit of specifying “close of business on (date)” isn’t a bad idea when you’re dealing with deadlines, at least until you’ve established norms with any given person. That will also help avoid that thing where some people think that February 1 means any time up until business opens on February 2, which can cause problems if you assumed you were getting it by 5 pm and planned to look at it that evening.

In any case, the weirdness here was with her, not you. (And you might just ask her about it directly: “My understanding was that I’d send this to you by the close of business on February 1, but when you emailed me looking for it before the start of business that day, I wondered if we had miscommunicated about the deadline you needed.”)

is it OK to look very different from your online photos?

A reader writes:

I’ve started a new job (thanks to lots of great advice on negotiating job offers from your site!) which involves a lot of networking with partners within and outside of my organization, and because I’m new I’m meeting people for the first time. In preparation for a scheduled meeting, I try to do some research on the company and the work my contact does, so that I can make the most of our meeting time. Because of Covid, all my meetings are now virtual, usually via video conference, but hopefully some day I’ll be meeting people in person.

A couple weeks ago, I had a situation that really threw me for a loop and I can’t stop stewing about it. I’d done a lot of research and reading about the individual I was meeting with, and there happened to be a few photos of the person on their organization’s website (I am talking about the company website, not social media or broader web-stalking).

When the meeting started (we were both working from home), the person looked nothing like their photos, to the point where I started to have a mini-panic and thought I’d prepared for the wrong meeting or somehow was meeting with the wrong person. I slowly realized that I was talking with the same person, but that their physical appearance and attire choice had changed quite a bit. It was distracting — thinking I’d made a mistake and trying to dig through my memory to make sure I was in the right meeting — and the situation made it hard to focus on the conversation at hand.

So that started me thinking about whether there’s any etiquette or general guidance for how often you should be updating your “official” online presence photos, if they exist. On one hand, I feel like if you’re going to put something out there, it should be reasonably true to what you look like and not overly edited or really out of date … but on the other hand, some things are ephemeral (like hair color/style, facial hair on men, even some weight gain/loss) and you don’t always want to be updating every time you get a haircut or grow a mustache. Also, in some circumstances, I could see a situation where a physical change is happening (like a gender transition) where someone isn’t ready to make it “website official.”

What’s that the right thing to do here from an individual level, but also from a managerial level if you oversee staff who who have official photos on company websites? I’m certainly not going to bring up to a fellow networking contact that I think they should update their online presence, but now I want to make sure I’m not putting someone else in a position where they don’t recognize me!

Well, there’s what people should do and then there’s how the people around them should respond to it, and those can be two different things.

As a general rule, you should indeed want your online photos to look reasonably enough like yourself that people won’t panic and think they’re meeting with the wrong person.

And that’s a guideline with a lot of room in it! It doesn’t mean people need to update their photo every year or when their hair changes or every time they go up or down 10 pounds. It really just means “be generally recognizable” (since otherwise, what’s the point of having the photo up at all?).

But as a manager, I’d tread pretty lightly around telling people when they need an updated photo. I could see saying something like, “I just realized our photo of you on the website is from when you first started 15 years ago — can we get a more recent one at some point?” But if it’s a photo from within, say, five or even ten years and the person looks different because they’ve gained/lost weight or gone bald or similar … I’d leave it alone. I just don’t think it matters enough to be worth putting such a focus on the person’s appearance, particularly when those changes can be sensitive areas. Unless there’s evidence that it’s regularly confusing people in ways that matter (something like students not recognizing an assigned teacher), I’d put more weight on giving people the comfort of managing their own online photos.

my boss is unreachable when I need him

A reader writes:

I’m on a team that is still working remotely due to Covid. I mention the remote aspect because this problem didn’t come up in person. Often, probably 1-3 times in a typical week, I’ll find myself in the following situation: I finish a stage in a project and need my boss’s feedback before I can progress. I’ll send him a message asking to check in, and I’ll get the notification that he’s seen the message, but he doesn’t answer. We have a weekly scheduled one-on-one meeting that has been in place for over a year, but sometimes he’ll even miss that, with no notification and no response if I send a message about it.

It’s even worse when it happens near a deadline: we agree we’ll check in before the end of the day to get the project sent out that evening, I finish up and ask to check in, and either (a) get no response and so the project goes out late or I have to decide to send it out unchecked, or (b) get a response saying “now works” later in the evening after I’ve already left my desk for the day (but working from home means I almost always respond when this happens).

On one hand, it seems like it’s his responsibility to make sure I have work to do, and if he doesn’t want to make use of my time, then okay. On the other hand, I get kind of annoyed! It’s stressful sitting around wondering what I should be doing or deciding to send the project out late or unreviewed. I get antsy twiddling my thumbs and not having any work to log for that time.

I’m not sure if this is a problem with me or him or both. Does he need to communicate better and manage more, or do I need to be managed less? If the latter, how do I improve my independence? If the former, how do I go about asking him for more reliable communication? How can I fill up hours in a way that’s not soul-sucking busywork? Do I owe him after-hours responsiveness when he doesn’t respond to messages during the day?

For additional context, I’m pretty young and inexperienced, and really want to do good work and make a career in this industry. Overall, I love my job and working for and with my boss. He’s never mentioned anything, good or bad, about any of this – whether or not I choose to send out projects, how I communicate with him about scheduling, the amount of his time I take up, etc. I’ve been proceeding on the assumption that if he wants me to do something different, he needs to tell me. But I’ve also been binge-reading your work lately, so thought I’d ask.

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

how do I balance my labor shortage sympathy with annoyance at the inconvenience it causes?

A reader writes:

I want to start off this letter by saying I support workers 100% in organizing for better conditions and wages, whether by leaving their jobs or organizing for better treatment either via a formal union or collective bargaining. I applaud the people doing this right now and making the job market more employee-focused than employer-focused.

But … it kinda sucks in a practical way. Vendors and clients are late with everything because they don’t have the staff to meet deadlines anymore, which can make me and my company seem unreliable. When I had to go on an emergency road trip due to my mom’s failing health, I had to pee in the woods off the interstate because every gas station, restaurant, hotel, church, and store had their lobby or bathroom closed within a 50-mile radius at 12 p.m. on a Wednesday. (My mom is fine now, but it was good I could go.)

My friends and family are very split on this issue, and many are in the “suck it up and get back to work” camp, even though I strongly disagree and have always defended the side of worker’s rights when in these conversations. But it’s kind of tough to do that when I’m peeing in the sparse greens off the interstate and a trucker is honking at me because the sixth McDonald’s/gas station combo in a row won’t let me come in to use their bathroom, even though they’re all inside doing take-away food, and frankly it was dangerous for me as a woman traveling across the country alone. And I know, I know it’s against policy and could get them in trouble and I don’t want to do that, so I didn’t insist or anything but I did start asking around mile 30 (explaining my situation) and even felt crappy for trying to circumvent their stated hours…

I guess I’m just looking for advice on how to help advocate for workers better and not get overly frustrated in times of labor shortage like this.

Be frustrated! Just don’t be frustrated with workers. Be frustrated with the companies and social and political structures that are responsible.

No one has an obligation to work at any given job. If someone decides that a job isn’t safe enough, doesn’t pay enough, doesn’t treat them well enough, or otherwise doesn’t suit their needs, they have zero obligation to pay their dues to the capitalist machine by working there anyway. If they’re able to support themselves in a way more aligned with their own well-being, why wouldn’t they? (Hell, even if a job pays generously and treats workers well, people still have no obligation to work there. This is sort of the whole point of a free society.)

And really, if people feel they have options other than working at low-wage jobs in unsafe conditions … that’s a good thing for society as a whole, even when it causes personal inconveniences.

If employers with shortages really wanted to staff up, there are some well-proven ways of doing that: raise wages, improve working conditions, treat people well, be a workplace where people are willing to show up even when they have other options. But companies have gotten used to not having to do those things, and some of them are strongly resisting doing them now. That’s on them. They can’t say “the market supports this” when underpaying and mistreating people is to their advantage and then cry about that same free market when conditions turn against them.

(And for all the stories you see out there about labor shortages at companies that are offering good pay and decent working conditions, I say: read those stories with some skepticism. Last week’s post about companies trying to hire obviously wasn’t a scientific study, but it was full of accounts from people whose companies say they’re desperate to hire but are still paying way below market and haven’t taken obvious steps to make themselves more attractive to workers. That doesn’t mean there aren’t exceptions to that … but there’s a larger picture to the stories some companies are telling about themselves right now.)

So by all means be frustrated! But look at what’s happening with clear eyes and be frustrated with the employers and the system that got us here.