it’s your Friday good news

It’s your Friday good news!

1.  “Several months ago I inherited a part-time employee we thought we would have to fire. She’d been with the company a few months and wasn’t picking up the basics, and working with me was the last chance. She is in a new field, and I realized quickly she was nervous and had also received a lot of negative feedback from several people, which made her even more flustered. She responds well though to constructive feedback and thrives when she gets praise. Giving her deserved praise seemed to really raise her confidence. I took the constructive/praise approach to coach and manage her, and last week we asked her to step in and fill a temporary need that has her in the office more and doing higher-level work. Today, we had a problem I just couldn’t solve, and guess who solved it? The employee I thought we were going to fire three months ago.”

Update from this week: “She is now permanently in the role she was helping us with, and is ROCKING it. I’m just thrilled for her. She’s an asset.”

2.  “I have been reading your blog for a few years now after my sister mentioned how much she loved AAM. I always read the Friday Good News posts and thought ‘yeah right, that will never happen for me’ — but now I have some good news of my own!

I have been a non-profit/legal services attorney for my entire career. As much as I love the work I do with clients, it became more and more apparent to me during the pandemic that the work was not worth the lack of support from leadership, being severely underpaid, and little ways to further develop my skills as an attorney. About 4 months ago, leadership announced that our retiring ED would be replaced with an internal candidate who was unpopular enough that it has set off a wave of people looking for new jobs, or even quitting without a job lined-up. It was the kick in the pants I needed to start applying. I revamped my cover letter and resume with your (wonderful!) guidance and started applying to jobs both in and out of my current industry. Alison – this application process has been a night and day difference from any of my previous job searches! I feel so much more confident and am able to see an interview as a conversation where both parties are looking for a good fit.

During my interviews, I was able to give thoughtful answers (especially to behavioral questions I was not familiar with until reading AAM) and I received great feedback on my cover letter. Eventually, I was offered a position at a private law firm which would allow me to grow as an attorney but have a percentage of my clients from the firm’s pro-bono practice (which is a dream come true for me!) The benefits are astronomically better – and the pay is nearly about a 90% increase over what I currently make. I normally am very shy about asking for flexibility around a start date or other work accommodations, but after I received an offer, I felt confident enough to ask upfront. The company’s response was great and they were more than willing to be flexible, which I saw as a great sign. Best of all – I finally feel like I deserve to be treated well at a job. Especially as a child of immigrants, we are sometimes told by our families that we need to just take whatever we are offered, no matter how toxic. We do not. I finally feel like I am going somewhere where I am valued. I don’t think I would have gotten there if it wasn’t for this blog.”

3.  “I wrote to you a while back to ask about getting ghosted on an internship application where the employer (a national lab) had specifically asked me to apply and helped me apply to positions they helped me find, then dropped all contact with me afterwards. I later wound up getting interviewed (and sadly rejected) for two internships at a different employer I much preferred to the national lab. I was pretty devastated, but I went ahead and continued applying … and I got not one, not two, but three offers for internships within a two week period! I chose the one that meshes best with my career goals, which also happens to be a pathway to a permanent job in a field I love and a company that I used to think I could only dream about working for.

I also want to encourage any other students out there looking for internships to keep on applying. Everyone I talked to said the most important factor in getting an internship is persistence — there’s so many people wanting them and only so many positions open, so you have to apply to many, many positions to get a single offer. I’d also like to give a shoutout to your resume, cover letter, and interview guides. I used all of these to sculpt my application materials, including my ‘about me’ spiel for the beginning of interviews/introductions to people at career fairs, which I think helped me stand out from others and helped me secure three offers in a short period of time.

Again, thank you so much, and good luck to all.”

open thread – January 20-21, 2023

It’s the Friday open thread!

The comment section on this post is open for discussion with other readers on any work-related questions that you want to talk about (that includes school). If you want an answer from me, emailing me is still your best bet*, but this is a chance to take your questions to other readers.

* If you submitted a question to me recently, please do not repost it here, as it may be in my queue to answer.

my boss refuses to speak to me during my notice period, who says when I can work from home, and more

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

1. My boss is refusing to talk to me during my notice period

I’ve been at my company now for over five years. It’s a very small company (less than10 employees), and my role is second-in-command to the company’s founder.

Late last year, I accepted a new position at another firm. I told my boss as soon as possible, and she took the news awfully, telling me she was furious and felt betrayed. The conversation went terribly and caused a lot of stress on my part.

I’m currently in the process of working out my (long) notice period, and my boss hasn’t spoken to me since. My colleague – a direct report – has confirmed that my boss is actively choosing not to speak to me.

Since I’m in a managerial position and usually follow her orders (and then delegate these to my direct reports), I’m at a loss for what to do, and feel very much in limbo. I’m left feeling completely shut out and hurt. I’ve put a lot into this company, and other people have left in the past without issue, so it feels unfair that she has singled me out and projected so much anger onto the situation. Is there any way I can try to resolve things before I leave, or shall I just keep my head down?

I’m in a country where my one-month notice period is contractually obligated, so I can’t leave early.

If you weren’t contractually obligated to stay, I’d tell you to leave early, framing it as, “I’d wanted to give you a lot of notice so we could plan a transition. But it doesn’t seem like this is working well so my last day will be ___” (something no more than a week away).

But since that’s not an option … well, you can try to talk to your boss, but this is a person who is actively choosing to freeze you out just because you took another job — in other words, for doing a very normal thing that everyone there is likely to do at some point. If you want, you could attempt a single “I’d like to meet with you soon that we can talk about transition items since time is running out and I know you want this to go as smoothly as possible.” But if that doesn’t work, and I’m betting it won’t, then this is really her bed and you’ve got to let her lie in it. She’s the one who’s going to be harmed by it; it’s soon not going to be your problem.

If you don’t have much to do, document what you can, meet with the people you manage and find out if there’s anything they want training in or a brain dump about before you go … and that’s about all you can do. That’s on her, not you.

2. An employee just died and our CEO’s solution is to set up a GoFundMe

I work for a mostly remote company with employees scattered across the country. A few weeks before Christmas, we had a mandatory in-person meeting. One employee showed up sick and got 14 people sick with a very nasty case of influenza A.

We just got called into a very quick all-hands meeting where it was announced that a young employee on my team passed away very suddenly last night, most likely from complications from that flu. Obviously our whole team is in shock, and a fellow employee raised their hand to ask what our company would be doing to support their family; we were all expecting the answer to be something along the lines of sending flowers and support for the services.

Well, our CEO’s solution was to ask that employee (who was not close to the employee who passed and had really only met him once) to set up a GoFundMe that we could all donate to. He then asked if we could make LinkedIn posts in memoriam.

Am I wrong for feeling like this is not the proper way to handle this at all? The company itself is profitable and pulls in millions of dollars a year, while the vast majority of the employees make anywhere from $50k-90k. While I am in the position that I can donate, I don’t think everyone’s financial situations may allow them to do so. I think a GoFundMe is a strange answer to begin with as well? What are your thoughts?

How terrible. And you are not wrong. If the company would like to send support to the family, it should do so itself, not ask individual employees to fund something. (And I agree a GoFundMe is a strange answer as well, particularly if there’s not been any indication his family wants that kind of help.)

Would you and a group of coworkers be up for prodding the company to handle this differently? Something like “we’d like to see the company itself send support to the family, rather than asking individual employees to fund that” would be reasonable.

3. Baby gift etiquette

Last year, my wife and I welcomed our second child. On my last workday before my wife’s scheduled induction, a coworker I work closely with asked for the link to our baby registry. I shared it with him and then headed off for my parental leave.

Evidently, he shared it with the rest of my team — and they were incredibly generous. A few days after the baby was born, my mother-in-law went to buy us a gift and told us that everything on the registry had been bought. A diaper fund was also started. We were very grateful and sent individual thank-you notes to everyone as well as a treat and more general thank-you note to the office for the team.

The thing is, we’ve now had a … surprise. Our third child is due and will be just 13 months younger than our second. I feel uncomfortable and can’t shake the irrational worry that my team might think this is some sort of cash grab. Do I need to say anything to let them know we don’t expect or demand any gifts? Is there a way to communicate that without sounding ungrateful for their previous generosity?

It is extremely unlikely that your office will think you are having a baby — a massive 18-year financial commitment, minimum — in order to get more gifts from them. That would be fantastically short-term thinking from you and your partner, and I suspect they think better of you than that.

However, if anyone asks you about a registry this time (or otherwise intimates they’re thinking about gifts), you could say, “Thanks for asking, but we have everything we need! And everyone here was so generous last time that we couldn’t possibly accept anything else other than your good wishes.”

4. Who says when I can work from home?

I’m part of a team of about 30 admins who support 200+ offices across six states. Up until four months ago, the job was remote, although some, including me, chose to work in offices near our homes. Then the company called all remote employees back to offices, assigning us individually to specific locations. Since we’ve returned to the offices, there’ve been many changes in duties, expectations, and culture, including who we report to. This is where it gets tricky.

Philippa manages our entire cohort and (theoretically) sets the rules and expectations — one of which is we’re no longer allowed to work from home. However, each of us works in an office with a manager who sets things like daily duties (beyond what we were doing before), desk stations, etc. I happen to have two: Sylvia and Michael, her own manager. Both manage me daily, while Philippa is in another state. In fact, I’ve only met Philippa in person once. Philippa is entirely opposed to anyone working from home, but Sylvia and Michael encourage it in certain situations. For example, if I’m sick enough that I might spread germs, but still well enough to work, they’re fine with me working remotely. It’s the same for inclement weather. Also, I now have over an hour commute on public transportation that can be unreliable. There are also times when my office closes early, and Sylvia and Michael suggest that I just work from home rather than waste two hours of travel for a short day. Thus far, I’ve worked from home on such days, but even though I have permission from Sylvia and Michael, I’ve not told Philippa for fear of making waves. I’ve seen this go badly for others in my cohort, and there are already issues regarding who has final authority in terms of our responsibilities and scheduling.

How might I best navigate this? The last time I worked from home (a short day before a holiday), Philippa called me on Zoom, but luckily she never asked where I was and my background is a picture of my office. My overall sense is that, eventually, our positions will be more office-oriented with less oversight from Philippa and corporate headquarters. We were placed in offices to provide greater support to managers and employees, but because all of this is new, the chain of command is a little fuzzy. But on some level, Phippa is still in charge. On a personal note, Sylvia and Michael are fantastic. They’ve been super understanding about the public transportation issues, and I have been super willing to take on a few extra duties to help the office run smoothly. Philippa, however, has other ideas about what I should be doing and where. I’ve seen the seeds of a power struggle being planted, and I don’t want to water them … but sometimes it really is best to work from home.

If your direct managers are telling you that you can work from home, it’s reasonable to listen them. If it’s ever challenged, you can plausibly say you assumed it was okay because your managers told you it was okay each time. There are a lot of things where individual managers have the authority to deviate from broader policy.

If Philippa were to ever say to you, “I don’t care what Sylvia and Michael tell you; it’s still not okay to ever work from home,” that would change things. At that point, you’d need to take that to Sylvia and Michael and explain you don’t feel comfortable violating Philippa’s direct instruction, unless it’s something they wanted to take up with her themselves. But it doesn’t sound like that’s happened yet, so go on taking direction from the people managing you.

I had to deal with a sick toddler and a vomiting dog while doing a video interview

A reader writes:

I am a mom to a 2.5 year old and, due to the obstacles of trying to work in a pandemic with a small child, sought a part-time role and started with a new employer in March of last year. I really like this company, and recent opportunities for growth and my interest in transitioning to full-time led me to apply to a new position here. This a very good opportunity, and I am more than qualified for the work. I was not surprised that I got an interview, which was yesterday.

Let me tell you about this not-great interview. It occurred via Zoom on one of my days off when I was at home. The night prior I ended up getting about two hours of sleep due to dealing with a sick toddler. The sick toddler (who of course seemed to be feeling just fine after that) was unable to attend daycare that day, and I was not able to find back-up childcare. I will take accountability for not rescheduling the interview due to this conflict, but honestly I was so tired and am so used to just powering through this type of sick child/no childcare scenario that it simply did not occur to me as an option.

I tried to put the kid to sleep before interview time, but he woke up at the last possible second. I proceed to interview with him sitting next to me on my couch. I did explain up front to the interviewers that my child was sick and at home with me unexpectedly, and that due to this I had barely gotten any sleep. Of course, about three times during the interview my kid interrupted, and while I was able to redirect him, it just seemed *not great*. And to top it off, my terrier, who was sitting in front of me just past my view of my computer screen, repeatedly vomited and ate it while I sat helpless to stop that cycle, all the while my child is asking, “What’s that? What is the dog doing?” I was simultaneously trying my best to answer interview questions and keep the toddler quiet and away from the sick dog, AND to not be completely grossed out by having to witness something very unpleasant making a mess on my living room floor. No, the interviewers did not know about the dog barf, but I’m sure my face wasn’t looking super calm/cool/collected. I was feeling a little helpless and overwhelmed.

I am such a good fit for this role, and feel that I made that pretty clear. I also feel like I answered the questions appropriately and thoroughly despite the disruption, but I am sure I came off as completely frazzled due my lack of sleep and the absolute circus of my house in that 25-minute time frame. I am worried that since this is a work-from-home position they are going to judge me on what may have come across as a bad work environment.

Should I follow up with an email reiterating that these were unusual circumstances for me and that I really feel that this position is a good fit? Should I follow up at all? If so, how do I even explain myself without sounding like I am making excuses, or pleading with them to believe me that things are not really like that all the time in my home? Should I do nothing and hope they discount the craziness of my circumstances at that time and put more weight on my resume and my answers to the interview questions? The team knows me, but not very well. I have had minimal interaction with this department, and we are located physically in different parts of the state. I did very recently win a company-wide contest they held by submitting a humorous story, so they know who I am through that. Part of me wants to just lean on the idea that they will think I’m funny and cool enough to take on to their team. I usually have a good read on how job interviews go in either direction but I am at a loss here. I’m afraid I really blew it even though stripped down to focusing on just the interview, it went fine. I could also be completely off-base on my read of this experience because I was exhausted.

Also: next time my dog throws up during a zoom interview, should I just stop the interview to deal with that?!!?!? Is there etiquette for this kind of scenario?

Oh noooo!

Definitely send a note apologizing for the distractions and emphasizing that it’s not at all your normal working environment but just a perfect storm of problems that struck at the worst moment.

That’s so often all interviewers are looking for in a situation like this one — an acknowledgement that no, this is not how you normally work. If you say nothing, they have to wonder if maybe that kind of chaos is so typical that you don’t even register it as something that might be concerning to them. But if you acknowledge something unusual was happening and explicitly say that it’s not normal, you go a long way to setting those worries at ease. (The same is true of things like being late to an interview or arriving with mustard all over the front of your shirt. Obviously you want to try not to have either to those things happen, but sometimes life hits when you least expect it to, and acknowledging that this isn’t your norm goes a long way toward smoothing that over … since otherwise your interviewer has to wonder if the reason you’re not saying anything is because your lateness/mustard isn’t an aberration for you.)

The fact that they already know you a bit should help, too.

As for the next time your dog throws up during a zoom interview … don’t stop the interview to deal with it! Obviously, if your dog were choking and in need of immediate help or there was another emergency that had to be dealt with Right Now for reasons of safety, of course you’d need to stop to do that. But if it’s just routine pet vomit, let it go and deal with it later. If you think the vomiting noises can be heard on the call, you should briefly address that so your interviewers aren’t sitting there distracted and wondering what that ungodly noise is — but that’s just a quick, “I’m so sorry, my dog has picked this moment to throw up, please excuse that sound” and then you continue on.

I hope you get good news about this job soon!

update: is it unprofessional to wear the same clothing item twice in a work week?

Remember the letter-writer who asked whether it’s unprofessional to wear the same clothing item twice in a work week? Here’s the update.

I wrote that email to you regarding my (thankfully) now former boss. It was not the first time she had made weird comments about my appearance, or money issues, etc. But I was 25 years old, this was my first professional job, and I didn’t know how to advocate for myself. Your advice gave me comfort then that I did know what I was doing. And guess what? My clothing choices never came up again.

But when I reread this post now, it makes me sad. Because it got worse. It got so much worse. This woman had control issues. She had anger issues. She was petty. She was vindictive. She isolated me from the rest of my work environment. She belittled me and degraded me. That interaction I wrote about was the first time that my brain woke from its haze and said “This isn’t normal, is it?” I wrote you for some vindication that my feelings were correct. And when you confirmed it I wanted to cry. It was nice to know someone out there agreed with me, that I wasn’t crazy.

I’m mostly emailing as a word that, hey, if something doesn’t feel normal, that it’s okay to reach out to someone. Even if it’s not the first time something happened and you never said anything. Even if it’s something small. It doesn’t have to be HR, it could be a coworker, a friend from another team, just someone. Because it might turn out that just because it’s the first red flag for you it isn’t the only one flying. It was only after my boss left that I learnt that several people noticed my situation and were advocating for me behind the scenes. I’m ashamed every day for not coming forward myself. It took me a whole year and a half to write you! And I never did again! It’s really easy to bully yourself in this situation.

I’m happy to report that I have a new boss. He’s fantastic, and I see him cycle through the same clothes every two weeks. I’m not judged for being a person anymore.

Thanks for reading this. Your advice really was a small light in a very dark tunnel. I wish I’d written to you more during that dark time.

how can I get used to cube life again?

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

I just started a new job in a new city after realizing during the pandemic I wanted to live in a different part of the country. I worked completely remotely for most of the last two years because my previous organization was very Covid-cautious, but my new job has me in a cubicle in the office five days a week (we get 26 carefully rationed WFH days a year.)

I discovered while working remotely that I feel so much better with natural light at my desk at home, the ability to take a walk in the middle of the day in my nice neighborhood, and other WFH perks like starting a load of laundry in between calls. I’m back to a cube farm where I sit far away from the windows, and my office in my new city is in a downtown that has not recovered from the pandemic yet, so there are super limited options to take a lunchtime walk or find a non-sketchy park to sit in during my lunch hour. I am also a knowledge worker, and the nature of my work is not one where I can genuinely spend eight hours a day intensely working — my brain needs a break and some processing time.

What can I do to get used to cube life again and, frankly, make it bearable? I feel like I am shooting myself in the foot in my new job (that I am excited about!) feeling upset about having to be in the office (my entire team works in other states, so I am a classic coming-in-to-be-on-zoom employee). I want to give this new job a chance and feel like a whiner complaining about these things while so many people are less fortunate than me.

Readers, what advice do you have?

board member’s husband should not attend an event for children, boss calls people names, and more

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

1. Our board member’s husband should not attend an event for children

I work for an advocacy nonprofit and we are in a delicate situation with the spouse of a board member and organization co-founder, Beth.

A few months ago, Beth’s husband, Tom, was arrested on possession of child pornography charges. In the statement released by law enforcement, they stated that there were currently no accusations or evidence to suggest that Tom had physically abused children. At the time, we received an anonymous message about the charges through our contact page, so we removed some incidental photographs of Tom from our website, but no further action was taken because he is otherwise uninvolved with the organization.

Now we are in the process of planning our annual family conference and reached out to board members to see who was planning to attend. All our board members or their children are members of the interest group we serve, so they and their families are highly encouraged to attend the conference. However, we were surprised that Beth’s RSVP included her husband, given his current legal situation. Our conference is explicitly aimed at family participation and includes a large number of children. Most of us feel uncomfortable having him attend but are unsure what our legal and ethical responsibilities are regarding someone who has not yet been convicted of a crime. Our main priority is to protect families and their trust in our organization, but Beth is a valued member of our organization and we don’t want to alienate her and her children during a difficult time any more than necessary. There is no point that Tom would be alone or unsupervised with children other than his own and his attendance would be as a participant, not as a leader or organization representative, but his attendance doesn’t sit well with me. Our team is very small and inexperienced at nonprofit management and we don’t have an HR or legal department. What are our responsibilities in this situation and how do we best guide this conversation with Beth?

Beth is putting the organization she co-founded in a position she shouldn’t be putting it in! You’re right to think this is a huge problem.

However, this shouldn’t be your problem to solve because this is very much a board thing to handle. Talk to whichever member of the board you most trust to handle this well, explain your concerns, and ask them to intervene. This is very much board stuff, they’re the ones who have standing to address it, and the other board members should hopefully realize that their responsibilities as stewards of the organization mean they cannot knowingly allow someone who is currently facing charges for child sexual abuse imagery to attend a conference of families and children. They are the ones best positioned to talk to Beth about it, and the staff should ask them to.

2. Can I ask coworkers not to stare over my shoulder when I’m fixing their computer?

I’m a teacher, as well as the unofficial “tech guy” for my school. The official tech people are in another building, so people tend to ask me for help with computer issues before submitting a work order. I love this role, and I can confidently say I can solve just about any basic computer issue, which really takes the pressure off the official IT guys (my first year here a teacher demanded they stop installing a computer lab in another school so they could look at her desktop, which turned out not to be plugged in).

The problem is that teachers often feel they have to stand right there with me, staring over my shoulder as I work. This makes me nervous, as I feel like I’m performing for an audience. I’ve had no actual technical training so a lot of what I do is trial and error and googling, and I feel like I appear incompetent when I can’t find the solution in five minutes. I’ve tried things like “feel free to work on something else” or “this may take a while, I’ll let you know when I’m done,” but that doesn’t always work. They stand there behind me. Staring. Is there a polite way to tell someone to buzz off while I figure out why their electronic whiteboard won’t connect to their laptop?

Yes! A few options, depending on what works for you:

* “I can never work with someone standing right there — give me some space and I’ll see what I can do!”
* “I can’t work with an audience, but I’ll let you know when I’m done.”
* “I have a pretty big personal space bubble! Can I move you over there?”
* “Having you standing over me makes me nervous! Go get a coffee or something and I’ll let you know when it’s fixed.”
* “This is going to be trial and error and I’ll be self-conscious with you standing there! Give me about X minutes on my own here and then come back and I should have it fixed.”

3. How to get feedback as a manager

I’m a manager with a couple of years of supervisory experience. My team generally seems to like my supervision and were very excited to have me back after a recent maternity leave; and my supervisor has told me I’m exactly the right support for a couple of my team members. One of my employees tells me regularly that he appreciates my feedback and I always am insightful about what he needs to work on.

I regularly ask my team for feedback about my supervision and do my best to integrate that feedback into my interactions, but I also know that due to power dynamics it is uncommon for people to give their bosses really hard feedback. I’m sure there are things about me as a supervisor that my team would like to change because that’s true of just about everyone, even when they really like their boss! How do I get real feedback from my team?

The biggest thing is to create a culture where people will feel safe delivering messages that might be hard to hear, or even unpleasant to hear. You do that by demonstrating repeatedly over a sustained period of time that you genuinely welcome and even encourage dissent, you don’t shoot the messenger, you own your mistakes and you acknowledge when you’re wrong, course-correct when needed, and don’t favor the people who rarely criticize you or your ideas. (Here’s more on that.)

Once you have that culture — and it takes a while to build — you can try explicitly drawing people out with questions that are more targeted than just “how am I doing?” For example: “What’s one change I could make that would improve your quality of life or make your job easier?” … “What’s one thing you’d like me to keep doing and one thing you’d like me to experiment with changing?” … “What are some ways I can make you feel more appreciated/supported/empowered in your job?”

Even so, though, there will be some people who will still never give you truly candid feedback, no matter what you do. As a manager, you’ve got to assume there’s stuff you’re not hearing — and make sure you’re also doing your own reflections on how things are going.

4. My manager yells and calls people names

My manager yells at employees with the door open, using profanity to get his point across. It always seems to happen when things don’t go his way. He also talks with various managers again with his door open or in their adjoining hallway about politics, and call those who don’t view his politics the same, stupid or just idiots. This even trickles into meetings we have as a team. I just need to know if this is harassment?

It’s not harassment in the legal sense of the word. To be illegal, harassment needs to be based on your race, sex (including pregnancy, sexual orientation, or gender identity), religion, national origin, age if you’re 40 and up, disability, or genetic information (including family medical history).

However, it’s certainly harassment in the colloquial, non-legal sense of the word. Your boss sounds abusive. Any chance there’s someone above him who would care if it’s brought to their attention?

my boss yells and is abusive

5. Do recruiters and/or hiring managers have read receipts on their emails?

It recently occurred to me that applicant tracking systems probably collect analytics, and that might include whether someone has opened an email. Are recruiters looking at whether someone has opened their emails? What about hiring managers?

No sane recruiter or hiring manager is paying attention to whether someone has opened an email (because of the amount of time it would take, because those trackers aren’t reliably accurate and some mail programs block that tracking, and because it’s just not a priority with everything else that matters in hiring).

should you use return receipts on emails to hiring managers?

my ex-boss threatened to contact my husband, his coworkers, and my father-in-law if I don’t return $48 of office supplies

A reader writes:

I received an email today from my prior boss (I left in November) requiring that I return equipment. However, there was no loaned equipment or return equipment clause that even existed for me to sign. They never provided me with anything outside of a $48 office supplies order from Amazon that included a pack of pens, a four-pack of binders, a box of sheet protectors, and a file/binder holder. I used my personal computer, monitor, keyboard, mouse – everything.

Here is an excerpt:

“I will have no other option than to reach out to your husband Bob directly as I can only assume that the lack of communication on this matter is you have become too busy with your new position, making this intervention necessary. I am happy to connect with him. I have his direct phone and email address through his work. I’d like to get this resolved and not have to start legal proceedings. Of course I will share my sympathies to him and apologize to him for needing to concern him at this stage but have no other alternative. I will attach email threads so he knows I’m not a random individual reaching out. I want him to feel comfortable in communicating with me should he have any questions of course. It is truly a small world out there and I have come to find that I actually know several folks that work in (county) and work in the (husband’s job) department. And even two others that know your father-in-law as patients.”

Is this crazy, or is this crazy?

She also said if it’s not received by Tuesday next week, she expects payment for the items. This is not even stuff I purchased or used a company card for. The purchase was arranged and made for me by the HR person she CC’d on the email.

HR is a single individual who was made aware of all issues, including me asking about being asked to work on my boss’s personal business while on company time. This HR person was also actively participating in keeping my boss’s private business a secret from the owner/president of the company.

I would love to know if there are any laws that my boss would be in violation of by acting on behalf of the company and (a) contacting my husband at his place of work (a completely separate company with no connection to this one) and (b) utilizing patients that “she knows” to get in contact with my father-in-law at his private medical practice.

Your ex-boss appears to be batshit insane.

And if she actually attempted to complain about this to your husband, his coworkers, or your father-in-law’s patients, she’s going to look batshit insane to them too. I mean, your father-in-law’s patients?! Can you imagine being contacted out of the blue by someone who wanted to complain that your doctor’s daughter-in-law hadn’t returned a box of pens? (Hell, even if she claimed you owe more than that, it’s still going to make her look like a loon. People are not receptive to being contacted about their doctors’ in-laws’ work drama, or their colleagues’ spouses work drama.) No one is going to respond sympathetically or think less of you for it; if anything, they’ll feel sympathy toward you.

You can also safely ignore her threats of legal action. She’d need to sue you through the company, not as an individual, and there’s no chance your company is going to sue you for a $48 pack of office supplies.

As for whether she’d be violating any laws by contacting your husband, people who work with him, or your father-in-law’s patients … Assuming you’re in the U.S.: maybe, but probably not, and especially not in any way that would make real sense for you to act on.

If she contacted your new employer about this, it could maybe be tortious interference (a legal cause of action for intentionally damaging someone’s business relationships) but there’s no law preventing her from contacting your husband, weird as that behavior would be. If she contacts people who work with your husband, it could possibly be tortious interference with his job, depending on what she says. If she lies about either of you to anyone, it could be defamation (although you’d have to show one or both of you suffered economic damage as a result). If she works in health care and she were getting the contact info of your father-in-law’s patients through any sort of internal resources, that would be a HIPAA violation — but if she doesn’t work in health care and just knows them socially, it wouldn’t be (HIPAA only covers health care workers and a few other very narrowly defined categories).

I wouldn’t be looking at legal solutions to this, though. Instead, email HR and your ex-boss’s own manager. If it’s a very small company, like 50 employees or less, include the owner too; if it’s larger than that, include someone else high up with authority (your department VP, a COO, or so forth). Say this:

“I am requesting your help in stopping the threats and harassment I’m receiving from Jane Smith. Below you’ll find an email she sent me on (date) in which she threatens to contact my husband, his colleagues, and patients of my father-in-law if I don’t return company equipment. I was never issued any company equipment. The only equipment or supplies I ever received from the company was a $48 office supplies order from Amazon that included a pack of pens, a four-pack of binders, a box of sheet protectors, and a file/binder holder. I used many of those supplies in my work but if you would like me to return what still remains, I’d be happy to do so; please send me a pre-paid shipping label and I’ll of course send that back immediately. However, I am alarmed to be threatened with harassment of my husband, his coworkers, and my father-in-law’s patients, as well as by threats of legal action when no previous request was made for these items. Can you assure me the company will put a stop to this immediately?”

Now, obviously there are problems with the company HR, which is why you have other people included on this email. Even if the HR person is fully in your boss’s pocket, the rest of the person receiving this message are going to be appalled when they see your boss’s message, and they are highly likely to put an instant stop to all of this. No sane company wants a manager sending messages like this, let alone running wild with the sorts of threats she made in her note. They’re going to shut that down. And I doubt very much that it’ll turn out that they want a few pens and some binders back, but if they do, go ahead and send them back.

That should take care of it — and it’s very likely your boss is going to be on the receiving end of a serious conversation about her judgment.

how to answer when a job candidate asks, “how did I do?”

A reader writes:

Lately at the end of interviews, I’ve had people asking me how they did in the interview. Everyone who has asked me this question hasn’t done very well. I think it’s a really awkward question that puts the interviewer on the spot. What’s your take? What’s the best way to respond to this, especially if the candidate hasn’t done well?

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:

  • Bumper stickers when you drive clients in your car
  • Is constant knuckle-cracking acceptable at work?
  • Is there a point in your career where you should stop requesting expense reimbursement?

getting people to use the right pronouns, finding trans-friendly workplaces, and trans-inclusive hiring

Today Kalani Keahi Adolpho and Stephen G. Krueger join us to answer questions about trans and gender diverse inclusion at work.

Kalani (they/them or he/him) and Stephen (ey/em or he/him) are the authors of the Trans Advice Column. In their day jobs, both are academic librarians who also write and present on trans and gender diverse inclusion in library work. Their most recent project (with Krista McCracken) is the forthcoming book Trans and Gender Diverse Voices in Libraries, an edited volume with chapters by over fifty trans and gender diverse library workers and students.

They’ll take it from here…

Note: We define “trans and gender diverse people” as anyone whose gender does not completely align with the sex that was assigned to them at birth.

1. How do I get my [customers/coworkers/employees] to call [me/my coworker/my employee] by the correct [name/pronouns/salutation] without confusing or upsetting anyone?

We’re summarizing several questions into this one because they’re all basically the same issue, and it’s so incredibly common. Since the answer varies based on who is asking, we’ll break it down into a few categories.

  • For the person who is being mispronouned/misgendered: If you’re asking this question, you’re probably fine sharing your pronouns (or at least you’ve decided it’s necessary even if you’d prefer not to need to), so do that wherever you can—email signature, nametag, Zoom name, verbal introductions, etc. Remind and correct people if you’re comfortable doing that. If you have allies at work, especially if they are in positions of power (for example, a manager), ask if they can correct people in group settings like meetings and when you’re not present, if you’d like them to do that. Almost invariably, however, the people asking this question are already doing all of this or have reasons not to. Often, pronoun sharing goes ignored and reminders are met with everything from confusion to hostility. There is no magical thing that trans and gender diverse people can easily do to resolve this; even if the issue is ignorance rather than bigotry, it’s not our responsibility to educate everyone we come across on the most basic aspects of gender and respect. Reminding people to use your pronouns over and over and over is exhausting and demoralizing even if they aren’t actively ignoring you or responding aggressively. And in a workplace context, you may be forced to prioritize making the other person feel comfortable even though they are the one behaving offensively, so you can’t always speak up for yourself or leave without risking professional harm.
  • For managers and coworkers: First, do the work to educate yourself about pronouns and practice ones that are unfamiliar to you, especially those you’ll need to use—for example, if you have an employee who goes by they/them pronouns, do the work on your own to get comfortable using these naturally. Don’t rely on corrections from the person affected; if someone has shared their pronouns with you in any form, you need to use them consistently. In addition to this being basic respect, demonstrating the correct language may remind people who forget or are confused. Secondly, if the person asks you for help reminding people, give them space to share what they need but also let them know some specific things you can do to support them (it’s often easier to say “yes, that” than to ask someone for something they may not be able or willing to do, especially if there’s a power dynamic in play). Some things you can volunteer to do include correcting people in the moment or in private later; sharing resources with those who continue to misgender, mispronoun, or deadname your coworker; escalating issues to supervisors or HR; and whatever else makes sense in the specific situation. Managers can be particularly effective at this type of work, and can also push for policy changes. If you’re in a position to do so, make it clear that misgendering, mispronouning, deadnaming, etc. are not interpersonal issues for trans and gender diverse employees to work through with their coworkers; referring to people appropriately is a baseline expectation in the workplace (and intentionally refusing to do so should not be tolerated). If there is pushback, focus on what conduct is expected rather than trying to convince people to change their minds about trans and gender diverse people, which is much more difficult and also not necessary for establishing and enforcing workplace behavior requirements.
  • For everyone: The real issue behind this very common question is that ignorance around the existence of trans and gender diverse people (let alone how to talk to and about us) is incredibly pervasive. One aspect of that is that treating trans and gender diverse people, especially nonbinary people, with basic respect isn’t a standard part of workplace etiquette. Ideally, someone would be able to share their pronouns if they wanted to and have those used consistently, at most with some polite reminders and corrections at the beginning. (Actually, an ideal world is one in which nobody’s gender or pronouns are assumed at all, but we’re pretty far from that one.) So really, we’re including this question as a wake-up call to everyone who doesn’t think they’re directly impacted by it. The suggestions above are band-aids at best. There is a real answer, but it isn’t for any of the people asking the question; the solution is for basic trans and gender diverse inclusion to become an expected part of workplace behavior. Very few employers take this issue on at all and even fewer do so effectively, which means all y’all have got to do the work of educating yourselves and each other. You do need to practice using pronouns apart from he or she until it comes naturally, and you do need to break the habit of assuming gender and pronouns based on name or appearance or voice. You may not know that you’re causing harm, because that lack of awareness is part of the widespread ignorance of trans and gender diverse people’s existence. It’s not your fault if a lot of this feels very new—that erasure is overwhelming, intentional, and violent. But it is your responsibility to learn now that you’ve recognized the gaps in your knowledge. This may seem like a huge amount to take on—that’s normal! We wrote about how to learn about trans and gender diverse people to get you started. But this is not optional. I promise that you are interacting with trans and gender diverse people in the world around you, whether or not you realize it, and ignorance on this topic is harmful. The very least you can do is take on the labor of self-education on basic issues like respecting people’s pronouns.

2. Looking for trans-friendly workplaces

I am trans, and because of this I am pretty selective in where I interview, looking for places that are rated highly for diversity. Late last year I was looking for a new job and was interviewing at a place that is particularly highly rated for LGBT+ inclusion. During the interview process, they also impressed me with their consideration towards my name and pronouns. I was given a great offer, which I accepted.

Fast forward to the actual start of work. To make a long story short, this is actually the most transphobic environment I have ever worked in. Myself and other trans people at the company are regularly outed and dead named. I have taken multiple steps within the company to try to address this, but no one seems willing and able to help. Needless to say, I am looking for another job.

My question is about how to prevent this from happening again. This company completely fooled me. They portrayed themselves as extremely trans-friendly and gave every appearance of respecting my gender identity during the interview process. I can’t believe how toxic and transphobic the reality was. I am hoping that you have some ideas on what to ask and/or look for so I can find a safe workplace. Thank you!

This is a very familiar and very frustrating situation to be in, and, unfortunately, there’s no easy answer. There’s no way to completely prevent this from happening because we live in a transphobic (or, at best, ignorant) society, and because most diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts are ornamental. They function as a PR project more than anything else, and so they are more invested in visible signs of inclusion over deeper, structural work. This results in trans and gender diverse people being misled into thinking they’re entering a safe(ish) work environment. But while there is no way to guarantee you’ll never find yourself in this position again, it doesn’t mean there is nothing you can do to minimize the chances of that happening.

When researching and interacting with prospective employers, make sure you keep perspective on what you find. While we do encourage trans and gender diverse people to look up how the workplace they are applying for ranks in terms of LGBT+ inclusion (if that information is available), you can’t take it at face value. Often in these rankings, LGBT+ communities are treated as a monolith; the experiences of cis LGB and trans coworkers are not separated out. Because many companies have no, or very few, openly trans workers, the criteria and results mostly tell us how a particular workplace ranks for cis LGB people in particular areas. If the data is broken down at all, can you tell what sorts of questions are asked? Can you tell how many people were surveyed? Can you tell what their identities are? Additionally, consider that anonymity might be impossible on these types of surveys, and so responding honestly could jeopardize people’s jobs. Basically, while you should probably be concerned if somewhere is rated poorly for LGBT+ inclusion, you shouldn’t necessarily be reassured if they’re rated highly, unless there’s a lot of focus on trans and gender diverse people’s experiences there in particular.

The most effective type of research in gauging how you’ll be treated at a particular workplace is by talking to current or former employees of identities similar to your own. If you don’t know anyone who works there personally, do you have personal or professional networks who can help make connections for you? Groups like the Trans Educators Network(for PK-12 educators) or the Trans and Gender Diverse LIS Network (for library workers) are designed specifically to connect trans and gender diverse people within those fields, so see if you can find anything like that for your profession. It’s very normal to post in these sorts of spaces asking if anyone has knowledge of a particular workplace; since they’re private, you’re likely to get more direct and useful information than you will from the interview. If the employer has an LGBTQ+ affinity group or something similar, ask if you can talk to someone from that, or reach out directly if the group has public contact information. It’s totally reasonable to email an affinity group asking if anyone is willing to talk to you about their experiences at the workplace or asking about specific issues.

While you may get good information this way, keep in mind that experiences of trans and gender diverse people often vary widely within a single institution based off all sorts of factors. Trans men often end up benefiting from male privilege, while nonbinary trans people face even more erasure than trans men and trans women. Someone who goes by their legal name (whether or not they changed it) won’t be outed by having it show up in paperwork, while someone whose name of use is different from their legal name may run into that issue. And of course, the immediate work environment is a defining factor; some supervisors, departments, etc. may be more or less supportive or safe than others. Additionally, trans and gender diverse people may be harmed by ableism, racism, and fatphobia among their coworkers in addition to discrimination and harassment tied to gender (the breakout reports of the U.S. Transgender Survey separate out the results by race and other factors, demonstrating the varied levels of marginalization faced by trans and gender diverse people of different identities). This is another reason why monolithic ratings like “LGBT inclusion” can be pretty meaningless.

When assessing the workplace, look for structural evidence of trans inclusion that goes beyond the hiring process. Workplace culture can be difficult or impossible to assess from the outside, but keep an eye out for systemic examples of trans-inclusive practices. Is the application process trans and gender diverse inclusive by design, or do they add on extra steps to be inclusive once they know you’re trans? Are there all-gender restrooms that are easy to access? Do they have information about their insurance coverage for trans-related healthcare available? Do they have employee affinity groups related to your identity? This isn’t a complete list of questions, but it may help you get some idea of what to look out for.

Lastly, interviews can be good opportunities to find out more. While it’s obviously worse if they don’t respect your name and pronouns during the hiring process, as you’ve found, good practices here aren’t necessarily indicative of how they treat employees. Pay particular attention to the behavior of people you’ll work closely with, since that will impact you much more than anybody else. Look beyond name and pronouns, since those things may be more reflective of how search committees are told to behave than the workplace culture or individual knowledge. From what you’re able to tell, do their policies and procedures include and acknowledge trans and gender diverse people and issues (for example, if it’s a public library, do people have to share their legal gender and use their legal name to get a library card)?

If you want to come out to potential employers (and can do this without risking your livelihood, which many people can’t due to the discrimination against trans and gender diverse people that remains incredibly common), you can ask questions more directly: What has the institution done to support and protect trans and gender diverse employees? How can you expect to be treated as an openly trans person in this workplace? How do they handle issues around coworkers not using someone’s correct name or pronouns? It is important to pay careful attention to how they answer. Are they struggling to come up with examples? Have they done anything tangible, or are they just talking about how open-minded their department is? Is the work all surface-level, or have they done anything more intensive that demonstrates real commitment? Do they acknowledge failures and ongoing difficulties, or do they pretend that everything is great for trans and gender diverse employees (which may be possible but is very unlikely)?

As you’ve unfortunately already learned, there really isn’t a way to know for sure how your experiences as a trans or gender diverse person will be in a new workplace. So in addition to doing the research described above, think about what you need to do in order to protect yourself. Maybe this means coming out in every interview and directly asking about the experiences of trans and gender diverse employees; maybe it means keeping your gender private for a while after starting a job, so that you can make informed decisions once you’ve learned what to expect. The specifics depend on what you’re comfortable with and how selective you can afford to be in your job search. And, of course, no trans or gender diverse person is under any obligation to be out to employers or anybody else, so personal preference is a factor even if professional security isn’t.

To be very clear, this answer is all about self-protection for you because that is what you and a lot of other trans and gender diverse people need to think about for our own safety and comfort. But that in no way should be taken to suggest that any of this is okay or fair. This letter and our answer to it are demonstrative of a deeply broken system which at best forces trans and gender diverse people to worry about all of this when cis people don’t have to, and at worst causes us significant personal and professional harm.

3. Interviewing trans and non-binary applicants

I’m currently on a hiring committee for an open position on my team and we just had an interview with an applicant who seems like a good fit and will be invited for a second interview very soon. However, the name on their application was a different gender than their LinkedIn profile (let’s say Kevin Smith on the profile but Leah Smith on the resume). Between that and the interview, I believe that Leah is trans and has only recently started presenting as their true gender during this job search because they used their resume name and presented as the gender associated with that name.

None of this is a problem of course, and my team is very open and accepting. However, my boss has not had much experience with trans people and is worried about inadvertently offending or causing discomfort to our applicant. I’d recommended to my boss that he verify the applicant’s pronouns (something like, “May I ask what pronouns you use? I use he/him pronouns”) but he either forgot or didn’t feel comfortable doing so in the initial interview. I recommended using they/them when referring to Leah for now until we find out for sure.

So to be clear, the awkwardness I’m feeling from my team isn’t over whether this person is trans (they truly don’t seem to have an issue there), but rather making sure that this applicant is just as comfortable and feels as respected as any cis applicant. When we bring Leah in for their second interview, what’s the best way to broach this question? What are some other “dos and don’ts” for interviewing someone who is trans or nonbinary? I’ve found tons of sites covering interviewing while trans or non-binary, but info from the hiring side seems to be lacking (or I just can’t find it) and I’d love to be able to have some guidelines to bring to my manager for improvements to our overall hiring/interview process.

First things first: Leah’s gender is absolutely none of your business; neither is that of any other candidate or employee. It’s good to regularly assess your workplace and hiring practices for gender inclusion, but do not center that assessment on a specific individual, especially one who has not made the clear and intentional choice to come out in that specific context. Based on your letter, Leah hasn’t done that at all—your assumptions about their gender aren’t based on the materials they supplied to you directly, and names don’t have genders so you can’t assume based on that anyway. While it’s true that there are patterns in some cultures of certain names being associated with particular genders, anyone of any gender can go by any name whether they’re trans or not, so it’s not a hard rule. Additionally, some cultures don’t have the concept of gendered names at all, and in other cultures, the patterns in how names are gendered directly contradict patterns English-speakers might expect, so cultural competency is as much a factor as trans inclusion.

Changing your behavior in hopes of welcoming one person who you think may be trans is likely to be unsuccessful; the changes won’t feel natural to the candidate, because they aren’t, and they won’t be the kind of long-term support that trans and gender diverse employees need. It also misses the point, which is that you should already be operating on the assumption that some of your candidates and employees are trans or gender diverse.

You’re not wrong that there is appallingly little guidance for employers on trans-inclusive hiring, but there are some things you can do generally (not only when you think you have a trans or gender diverse candidate, since that’s not something you can know or should be trying to guess unless they explicitly tell you). But keep in mind that trans-inclusive hiring doesn’t mean changing your behavior when you think a candidate might be trans or gender diverse; it means updating your regular practices so that candidates of all genders are treated well without having to come out. The fact that you’re trying to welcome this particular candidate by behaving differently than usual indicates that you need to make some changes in how your workplace operates generally.

Regarding your main question, you can use language in meetings that invites a candidate to share their pronouns if they’d like to, but don’t put them on the spot by asking directly (and especially don’t do this only when you think they’re trans). In general, the best approach is to share your own pronouns when you meet someone, which demonstrates that you will know what they’re talking about if they choose to do the same. That said, pronoun sharing always needs to be truly optional, so don’t push your boss or anyone else to do it if they seem hesitant to. In a group setting where several people are introducing themselves, the person leading the meeting can say something like “Please share your names, pronouns if you’d like to, and role” (or whatever makes sense in that situation).

If the candidate chooses not to share, then don’t worry about it; it’s not imperative that you learn the pronouns of everyone you interact with. They/them or the person’s name is fine unless a person has told you to use something else (it’s not a bad idea to default to they/them for everyone whose pronouns you don’t know rather than just people you think may be trans, but this takes a lot of practice and is likely to get pushback if you try to enforce it, especially if there hasn’t been widespread staff training to give people context). In future, it’s a good idea to have an optional fill-in-the-blank pronoun field on your job application form, as long as you’re making sure that those on the search committee know to read it and respect anything the candidate puts there.

Here’s a non-exhaustive list of other things you can do to make your hiring process more equitable for trans and gender diverse people:

  • For in-person interviews, let the candidate know where to find all of the restrooms (which ideally should include an all-gender option); don’t assume that they’ll use a particular one based on what you think their gender is, and don’t worry about which one they choose.
  • Share health insurance information with all candidates early in the process. Whether gender affirming care is covered can be a dealbreaker, and it’s difficult to directly ask about it without outing oneself.
  • Post the salary range in your ads (you should be doing this anyway, but it’s a gender inclusion issue because there is a significant wage gap between transgender and cisgender employees).
  • Include gender identity and gender expression in your nondiscrimination statement.
  • Provide information about policies that often exclude trans and gender diverse people (especially nonbinary people), such as parental leave and dress code, so candidates aren’t left wondering about them. Ideally your workplace will have made sure these policies are gender-inclusive first, but share them either way so candidates can make informed decisions.
  • If your workplace has employee affinity groups, reach out to them; they may be interested in providing feedback on your hiring process, and they might be willing to be contacted by candidates outside of the formal interview. Since you can’t know what identities a person holds and you shouldn’t make them out themself by asking who they’d like to talk to, provide information about all such groups to all candidates (after confirming that the groups are comfortable being contacted).

The thing is, all of this is stuff you should be doing generally anyway. If your workplace has a habit of optional pronoun sharing in meetings, it’s likely to happen naturally in interviews. If your employees generally respect people’s pronouns and don’t make assumptions about gender, they’ll do that for candidates. If your building has all-gender restrooms available and you’re in the habit of listing all the options when telling someone where they are, then you’re going to tell the candidate the same thing.

In general, the answer to how to conduct trans-inclusive hiring is simultaneously very simple and extremely complex: it is to have a trans-inclusive workplace, which is a lot more involved than making a few changes in the interview process. There are two reasons for this. First, it is unethical to portray your workplace as something that it is not, even if you mean well; for our own safety, trans and gender diverse candidates need to be able to make informed decisions (see the other letter in this post for a demonstration of the harm that focusing on the appearance of inclusion can cause). Second, if your workplace actually is one where people of all genders can be treated well, this will come through in the hiring process anyway.

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“Getting people to use the right pronouns, finding trans-friendly workplaces, and trans-inclusive hiring” by Ask a Manager is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.