open thread – January 9, 2015

It’s the Friday open thread!

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

* If you submitted a question to me recently, please don’t repost it here, as it may be in the to-be-answered queue :)

my former employer won’t let me pick up my belongings, I did too much interview research, and more

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

1. Can I offer to fix my company’s lame social media presence?

I’ve been an avid reader of your site for a while now, and your advice has helped me score my first career-type-job out of college! I love this job and the people I work with.

We’re a small, local paper in the south. There has been talk around the office of updating our social media presence, which I think is desperately behind the times. We’ve got a Facebook page that is haphazardly updated, no Twitter presence, and a website that is more like an online e-book version of the newspaper. The site doesn’t allow for news updates, galleries or even comments on stories. I’m the youngest person in the office by at least 15 years, and I think the age gap might give me a better perspective on how social media is supposed to work. I took a few classes on social media strategies at university and I’d love to put those skills to use in
addition to my role as a reporter.

However, I haven’t even been here a year. My boss is great, but she hasn’t given me much direct feedback. I’ve never been told I’m doing poorly, and I think my work is good, but I don’t know for sure. So, how do I go about bringing up my desire to make some changes? I’ve started to work on a proposal of sorts to give to my boss and her boss, but it’s basically a list of things we’re doing wrong and how to fix them. I don’t think that’s the right tone to strike here, but I’m having trouble coming up with a better one. I’d love to have the chance to tackle this and fix our social media presence, but I’m worried my relative inexperience and my lack of evidence I’m doing a good job won’t convince her. I’d hate to see us bring in an outside company to run this when a willing person is sitting across the hall. (If it makes a difference, our interaction with readers on Facebook has gone up noticeably in the ten months I’ve been on-and-off-again working on it.)

Since there’s been conversation in the office about updating the paper’s social media presence, it’s reasonable to speak up and say that you’d love to take it on. However, instead of presenting a list of what’s currently being done wrong and how to fix it, frame it as “here are my ideas for what we could be doing differently, here’s why I think it will get us better results, and here’s a mock-up of what it could look like.” (The mock-up is optional, but often being able to show something concrete helps people better envision what the changes you’re proposing would look like. If a mock-up isn’t practical, then other types of examples of can work too.)

She may not ultimately agree — she might want you to stay focused on your other work or might want to bring in someone who’s done professional work in this area — but you won’t be out of line for proposing it, as long as your tone is “here’s what I think would work well” and not “what we’ve done so far sucks” (even if it does).

2. My former employer won’t let me back to pick up my belongings

I was recently told to leave my office and to not come back. I still have personal items and food there, but the boss won’t let me in to retrieve them. What should I do?

Call or email your former manager (or HR, if you have them) and say this: “I have personal items remaining in the office that I need to pick up. What’s the best time in the next few days for me to do that?” If they tell you not to come by at all, then say, “What arrangements would you prefer to make to return my belongings? Would you prefer to ship them to me?” Be pleasant and calm; that will make it much harder to respond to you with anything ridiculous, like a refusal. (That said, if the items are pretty minor, it might be worth it to your own peace of mind to just let them go.)

3. I may have done too much research before an interview

I have an interview for a great job coming up in a few days. Because it would be such a great fit, I’ve been doing a ton of research on the position, including Facebook, Twitter, Youtube, and a few other unorthodox search methods.

As a result, I’ve come up with a ton of information. I know why the existing person is leaving, why they were hired (they actually created the project I’d be in charge of), how long they had been there, a ton about the project, a ton about the company, and quite a bit about how everything works. I’ve found Youtube videos about the project, reviews from other people about the project, and a lot of background about everything else.

So my question is this – knowledge is power, so how much should I reveal that I know about the position in the interview? I don’t want the committee to feel uncomfortable when they’re telling me things that I already know. On the other hand, I don’t want them to think that I haven’t done my homework. How much would you recommend I reveal?

If it would be relevant to bring it up, it’s fine to say, “I saw online that X is happening and…” But I wouldn’t bring it up just for the sake of bringing it up; mention if only if it directly relates to something you’re talking about and will strengthen the conversation. And it’s fine to let them tell you things that you may have already read about on your own, without jumping in and saying, “Oh yes, I read all about that.” There’s usually a lot to be gained from hearing how people describe that sort of thing anyway, even if you already know the basics.

4. My new coworker is undermining me in front of students

I have a colleague who has recently joined the school in which I teach. He teaches a higher level of a subject which I teach. I have been at the school since 2010 and know the ropes. I have given him leeway, in that I try consciously to help him feel at home.

Recently, he has taken over as his a room in which I have worked for nearly five years, but in which i still occasionally teach. He comes in to my classes to get things from his desk then asks me in front of pupils to “make sure I lock the door afterwards.”

I have been feeling cross, as I find it quite thoughtless, especially as this is something I did for years without anyone needing to ask me. I feel he is being high-handed and don’t want to exacerbate things, but need to ask him to stop, especially in front outdents as it is undermining me. How would you handle this without worsening things? I have to do something as I feel increasingly resentful.

I think you might be taking it too personally, and your best bet is to simply stop caring. It doesn’t strike me as especially egregious. But if you feel you have to say something, I’d say something in the moment, not later (later will make it into a much bigger deal than would make sense). You could make a joke about the classroom’s theft-worthy contents, or your inability to handle such matters without reminders, or … well, I don’t know. These all risk sounding bitter if you’re feeling bitter, so you might be better off reverting to deciding not to care.

Update: My advice here sucked. There’s much better advice in the comments, which is to talk to the teacher privately and ask him to stop interrupting you while you’re teaching a class.

5. Are we required to have employees use timesheets?

All the employees in our small company (9 to be exact) are salaried, exempt employees. Am I required to get some sort of official timesheet from them each month? Or is it enough that I have them send me the sick and vacation hours they have taken at the end of each month, as that is really all I need to keep track of? And I save these emails in a separate folder that I can review at any time.

With exempt employees, you’re not required to track their time at all. You certainly can if you want to; some employers choose to do time-tracking for exempt employees to track vacation time usage, time allocation to various projects, client billing, etc., but you don’t have to.

(With non-exempt employees, you don’t have to have timesheets either, but you do need to ensure that you’re paying them for all hours worked, which usually points employers toward timesheets or some other form of time-tracking.

how to respond when your boss asks “are you busy?”

A reader writes:

How should I respond when my boss asks me if I’m busy? I’m fairly new to my job in HR/health and safety administration. My company doesn’t have very clearly defined goals for me to meet, but I get the impression that I’m meeting or exceeding all of the standards that have been informally set so far, and I have a review scheduled for next month. But I get anxious when faced with questions like “are you busy?” because I don’t want to say no and look like a slacker, nor do I want to say yes and appear to be unwilling to take on new things. What’s the best response to this?

Similarly, I don’t know how to respond when the same boss occasionally comes into my office and tells me that she’s bored and is having a crappy day. I don’t want to agree (“gee, this job sure is terrible and boring!”) but I don’t want to be rude if she’s just venting (“you’re bored? oh, well, *I* am doing lots of fulfilling and challenging work!”).

Am I overthinking these conversations? I’m probably overthinking again.

From one over-thinker to another, yes.

In the context that I think you’re asking about — a boss popping into your office and asking, “Are you busy?” as opposed to a more serious discussion of workload — really just means “can I interrupt you or is this a terrible time?” It doesn’t mean “are you sitting here with nothing to do?” or “do you have enough on your plate to keep you busy?”

(And of course, from some people it just means “I’m interrupting you and softening it by asking this question first, but let’s discuss what I’m here to discuss regardless.”)

Good responses are:

“What’s up?”

“I’ve got some time — what’s up?”

“I’m keeping busy, but I can make time! What’s up?”

(Yes, I lean heavily on “what’s up?” in this context. It’s a useful phrase.)

Your boss telling you that she’s bored or having a crappy day is a different thing entirely. I’d go with neutral, helpful-ish responses, like “Anything I can do?” in response to boredom and “Sorry to hear that!” in response to the crappy day.

With all of these scenarios, I think you’re feeling more put on the spot than you need to be. The basic posture that you want is pleasant, helpful, and sort of neutral.

4 new year’s resolutions for managers

We’re a week into 2015 and plenty of us are Not Doing Well on our new year’s resolutions.

But it’s not too late! Here are four resolutions for managers that can be the workplace equivalent of vowing to hit the gym.

1. Give more feedback. If you’re like most managers, you don’t give nearly enough feedback to your staff members. Or you give plenty of positive feedback but don’t speak up quickly or clearly enough when you’d like people to do something differently (or just better). Or you might be the opposite of that, if you’re a manager who’s comfortable giving critical feedback but doesn’t give much praise for work well done.

But feedback is one of the most powerful tools managers have for getting results from their teams. In fact, just articulating the areas in which you’d like to see an employee improve or develop can go a surprisingly long way toward making that change happen. And of course, employees who don’t get alerted quickly when there are problems with their performance don’t get the opportunity to develop professionally – and bad habits are more likely to become ingrained. Or, when it’s positive feedback that’s lacking, people will often become demoralized and feel unappreciated, and that can show up in lower productivity and lower retention rates.

Resolve to make 2015 the year that you get serious about upping the feedback you give – on individual projects as well as overall. Make sure each staff members hears it when they’ve done well and knows when you wish they’d do something differently.

2. As a team, get ruthless about figuring out how you could perform better. In resolution #1, we covered you giving people more feedback to help them do better. This resolution is a different side of that; it’s about brainstorming as a group to figure that out at a team level.

As a manager, you probably have plenty of ideas about how your team can be doing better. But your roadmap will be far stronger if it contains input from everyone on your staff. So spend a few hours with your staff reflecting on what you want to achieve this year, what you might do differently to hit your goals out of the park, and what might get in the way of success. Give people the freedom to put everything on the table – are there strategies that aren’t working, policies or processes that are getting in the way of results, or whole new avenues you should be looking at?

People may have ideas or perspectives that never occurred to you – and plus, doing this will make staff members feel more invested in your team because they’ll feel that their input is meaningful and their voices have been heard.

3. Measure your own performance by their lowest performer. As a manager, you might be tempted to judge yourself by what your top performers achieve. But the real measure of a manager is how you handle your lowest performers. After all, they’re the ones who show what you’re willing to accept on her team, and whether you’re willing to take on problems head-on and hold people accountable, even when it means difficult conversations.

Make 2015 the year you get serious about tackling any performance challenges on your staff.

4. Get really serious about hiring well. The biggest thing you can do to influence what kind of work your team produces is to hire the right people in the first place. But if you’re like most managers, you’ve probably been guilty of rushing to fill a position so you don’t have a vacancy – and so you can stop spending time on hiring and get back to your real work. Of course, any time savings from that approach gets canceled out if you make the wrong hire … and even if the person you hire is okay, there’s a big opportunity cost attached to “okay” versus “extraordinary.”

In 2015, resolve to put a ton of energy into recruiting and screening candidates – especially including finding effective ways to test candidates’ skills and see them in action before making any hiring decision.

fielding a job offer when you might be facing a serious health diagnosis

A reader writes:

I’ve been interviewing for a job and it appears likely they will make an offer this week or early next week. At the same time, I’ve been dealing with a health issue that is most likely nothing, but I’ve just learned that there is a small chance it could be cancer, and I need to go for further tests. The soonest I can have the test is five days from now, then have to wait for the results. It’s also possible that that test won’t work and I have to go for another procedure in order to get an answer.

I don’t know what to do about accepting the offer! How long can I put them off? I don’t think I can start a new job if this small possibility turns out to be real and I need treatment. I am comfortable and have a great support system at my current job–am just wanting to leave for career advancement and more money. If I am sick, it would be best to just stay at my current job and take all the leave and benefits I’m entitled to here, with lots of good support from colleagues. But chances are, I’m not sick, and don’t want to give up a great job opportunity.

They just asked for my references and I’m trying to stall a bit, hoping that it takes a few more days to get the offer, and then perhaps I can ask for a couple days to think it over, and maybe by then it will be more clear what my situation is. But if I have to go for further tests, I don’t think I can drag it out that long.

Ugh, this is a tough situation.

If they’re like many employers, this stage of their process will take longer than you’d think, so you might end up having your test results back before they come to you with an offer. But of course, you can’t count on that and so it’s smart to be prepared.

I think you can ask for a week to think it over — saying something like, “I’m extremely interested and eager to accept, but I need to work out some logistics on this end before I can give you a definite yes.” Or even be more pointed about it: “I’m almost certainly going to say yes, but I need to work out some logistics on my end before I can make that official.”

If it looks like you’ll need more time than that, though, then your best option might be to be somewhat candid without actually sharing the details. For instance, you could say, “I’m eager to accept this position, but I want to be fair to you. I’m waiting to get some medical news. It’s likely that everything is fine, but there’s a small chance that I might need treatment that would divide my focus in a way that I wouldn’t want at a new job, I’m hoping you can give me a little bit of time to find out for sure. If the news is good, I’d love to accept your offer. If it’s not, I wouldn’t want to put either of us in that position.”

This isn’t ideal, but I think it’s the best of not-great options. Otherwise you risk turning down a job when you don’t need to, or accepting it and finding out later that it would have been better to stay at your old job.

Good luck — and I hope you get good news.

Read updates to this letter here and here.

getting a friend fired, employer is controlling workers’ LinkedIn accounts, and more

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

1. Employer set up LinkedIn accounts for everyone and won’t release control of them

A few years ago, my husband’s employer set every one of their employees up on LinkedIn. To my knowledge, the company never gave the employees their passwords.

My husband is unsatisfied at his job for too many reasons to name here and I’ve been encouraging him to give LinkedIn a try to reconnect with former colleagues and assist him in his job search. He asked the current office manager how to get access to his account, and she said she had no idea what happened to the information (she was not the person who set this up back in the day) for everyone’s logins and couldn’t help him. A former employee told my husband that he recently tried to get access back now that he has left and the company is refusing to assist him.

My suggestion was to try to sign in and get Linked In to reset the password and see where the email goes. His concern is that if it doesn’t come to his email account (or even if it does), it might be a red flag that he is job searching. If the employee set up the account, is it technically their property? Any thoughts on how to get around this roadblock?

I think he should try your suggestion of resetting the password and seeing where the email goes. If it goes to someone else and they ask him about it, he can say that he wants to flesh out the account because he’s been getting lots of connection requests from professional contacts and/or because he wants to join some of the professional groups at LinkedIn to build his industry knowledge.

But beyond that, he could also simply contact LinkedIn and explain the situation. I’d bet it violates their terms of service to set up accounts using other people’s identities and refuse to release control of them. (In fact, yes, I just checked. It violates their terms of service to “create a member profile for anyone other than yourself (a real person)” and to “use or attempt to use another’s account.”)

2. Can I report my friend for helping me lie on my resume?

I have been unemployed (or on extended maternity leave) for four years. I was restructured forcefully from my former position at 34 weeks pregnant. It was a difficult situation, but I am doing my best to put it behind me.

This is now my situation. I know it sounds insane. Approximately seven months ago, I had a best friend who changed my resume for me. She wrote it and put on it that I “worked” for her company. At the time, I was uncomfortable, but I was desperate for a job so I went with it. I didn’t have much luck with this resume, so after a conflict with her, I have elected to stop using it. She told me at the time if anyone found out that she would be fired. Is this true? I no longer use the resume, but due to some extremely poor decisions she has made, I feel like her boss should know what she’s up to.

Yes, she absolutely could (and should) be fired for doing that. She mis-used her position with her company and showed an astonishing lack of integrity.

But … hold on here. The two of you were co-conspirators in this fraud, and it was for your benefit. You’re at least equally to blame here — and probably more to blame because you’re the one who was trying to get a job by lying about your background.

It sounds like you’ve had a falling-out with her and want to get back at her for your own reasons. Doing that would make you a crappy person, and you don’t want to be the person who does something like this. You must resist the urge, no matter what she’s done to you.

3. How can I ask an old manager who I’m out of touch with to be a reference?

I left my previous job four years ago. Although I am friendly with one of my ex-colleagues, I have not kept in touch with the management team. How would I ask my ex-manager/ex-department head about being references on future job applications? I don’t know how to word this request.

(I can get references from my current employer, but the culture in my profession is to have references from your current and previous job.)

“Hi Jane, I hope you’re doing well! I’ve been (brief update on your life). I’m now starting to think about moving on from my role with (employer), and I was hoping I’d be able to use you as a reference for the work I did for you. I’m looking for jobs doing ____, and thought you’d be able to speak about my work in that area. Would it be okay to list you as a reference?”

You don’t need to fill in tons of social details first — just a brief, polite “here’s what’s going on with me, hope you’re well, and now down to the reason I’m writing.” There’s nothing rude about the fact that you’ve been out of touch or that you’re writing with a specific request. Requests to be a reference are totally normal, and they don’t require tons of social cushioning. Be friendly and straightforward about what you’re looking for.

4. Sales jobs when you have a bad product

I just started a new job a few months ago in advertising sales. I like the company and my bosses well enough and they have a huge network of advertising options for customers. There is one problem though; I hear on a daily basis from past customers of my company (who are now customers in my territory) that they were not happy with the results of their past advertising campaigns with us, that they didn’t get anything near their return on investment, and that there are many other advertising options out there that are cheaper and yield better results. So basically, I’m selling a bad product that is priced too high.

I want to do well in my new job but at the same time I feel bad when I close a sale because I know the customer probably isn’t going to get out of it what they are expecting. I also deal with some independent artists, musicians, and writers who just want to give visibility to their work and who have extremely small budgets. I know closing deals with them is also not going to yield the results that they want.

So I feel I am trapped between trying to bring in sales for the company who signs my paycheck, and a sort of moral obligation to those who want to purchase advertising with us that aren’t going to get what they paid for out of the advertising. What is your advice to someone who is a sales person, selling a bad/overpriced product?

Look for a job selling a different product. I know that’s more easily said than done, but not only can you not stand by what you’re selling, but you know that you’re selling it to people who really can’t afford a bad investment. You sound like you’re too ethical for this, and rightly so.

5. Can my company deduct sick time by the hour rather than the day?

I’m a salaried, exempt worker at a company based in Oregon. My company has a policy of requiring us to dock our sick/vacation time on an hourly basis. So if I take an hour or two for a doctor’s appointment, they deduct those hours from my sick time. This is company policy.

I thought if you are exempt, an employer can deduct sick/vacation time by the day only. I mentioned it casually to HR, asking them to clarify. They said if there is a company policy in place, they can deduct by the hour. Can this be right?

No law prevents employers from deducting sick or vacation time by the hour or requires them to only deduct it by the day. They can make it a one-to-one trade, or require to always be used in half-day increments, or hell, require it to be used in five-minute increments. So what your company is doing is indeed perfectly legal.

my boss is pushing me to delay my start date at my new job so I can keep working at my old job

A reader writes:

Thanks to your advice, I was recently in a position to choose between two excellent job offers and have landed a new role that is a great fit for my long-term career goals. I’m leaving behind my first post-grad-school job, where I was feeling stagnant and frustrated with institutional/program issues that were clearly not going to be resolved. The program I’m leaving is very small – me (analyst), the boss (lead investigator), a research manager, and a part-time assistant – and we’ve had a lot of turnover (we’re on the 3rd research manager in one year). I’ve been here for a year and a half now, as such, I have a fair amount of “institutional knowledge” that will be tough to lose. But, I’m certainly not irreplaceable.

I told my boss about the new position after receiving a conditional offer due to the complicating factor of an upcoming interview for a promotion (i.e. the day after I received the conditional offer). My boss is now really pushing me to ask for an extended transition period (4-6 weeks) with a part-time component so I can continue to be available and work for her part-time while they hire someone to replace me. I get why she’s doing it…..but the old research manager did this and it was kind of a disaster. My boss had a hard time letting go and trusting the replacement manager even though they were eminently qualified and it definitely created some tension. So I’m hesitant about this request at a personal level, but I also don’t think I have the seniority to ask my new employers for this kind of transition.

This is my first resignation experience, and I want to do right by my current boss who has been very supportive, without compromising my focus and attention at my new job. Should I just tell my boss that new job has said no to a 4-6 week transition period? How do I decline requests to work part-time from home on my evenings and weekends for as long as I’m needed? Is it reasonable for me to offer to be available for a finite period of time (say 3 weeks?) after I leave? And how do I make a firm break after that time period? I’m actually concerned that they will put off hiring a new person for as long as I keep myself available to them. On the other hand, this isn’t a bridge I want to burn.

It’s totally understandable that your boss would like this, but you should make your decision based on what makes the most sense for you. You gave appropriate notice, and you even went out on a bit of a limb to do that before your current employer spent time seriously considering you for a promotion. You’re presumably going to work hard during your remaining weeks there to wrap up and transition your work. Those are really the limits of your obligations.

Sure, there are some situations where the kind of gradual, extended transition your boss wants can make sense. But in your case, you (a) don’t especially want to do it, (b) feel uncomfortable asking the new employer for it, and (c) have seen others there do it and it went badly.

Moreover, it’s generally not a great idea to do this, because it will prevent you from putting all of your energy into your new job. New jobs are exhausting and demand a lot of attention, and the impression that you make early on can last a long time. You’ll be doing yourself and your new employer a disservice if you split your focus like that. It doesn’t make sense to compromise your success in your early weeks at your new job just because your old manager is panicking a little. (For more on this, read this post from 2012.)

I would just tell your boss that your new job wants you to start in X weeks (fill in X with however much notice you’re willing to give). No need to get into details about whether you’re pushed them for more, although if she specifically asks you to try asking them again or otherwise pushing you, simply say, “I’m not comfortable pushing for that, but I’ll certainly spend my remaining time here making sure that I’ve documented as much of what I do as possible and leaving things in good shape.”

If you’re asked to work from home on evenings or weekends after you leave, it’s totally fine to say no. It’s gracious to answer a couple of quick questions (quick things, like “where is the Warbucks file?”) but not to do actual work once you’re gone.

You can use wording like: “I don’t think I’ll have the time to take on additional work” … “I really want to be able to focus fully on my new role and I don’t feel right taking on anything additional” …. and “I’m not going to have the time for anything additional.”

If your boss continues to push, you can say, “I’ve thought about it, and it’s just not possible. But I’m going to work hard to leave things in good shape before I go.”

And remember, you aren’t responsible for whatever problems have led to your manager’s panic. You’ve done everything right (you gave appropriate notice, you’re helping as much as you can while you’re still there, etc.). People leave jobs — it’s a normal part of doing business, and employers are responsible for keeping themselves running when that happens.

Make a clean break and move on to your new job with a clear conscience.

Read an update to this letter here.

my employer is pressuring me to donate my retirement savings

A reader writes:

I work in a development office at a college. This development office does the fundraising for the college from alumni, friends, companies, staff, etc.

Representatives in my office have been trying to cultivate me into donating the savings in my retirement account (part of the college benefit package) to the college as a donation.

I am going to be 61 in February. I am single with no children, and they think that because of this I have a lot of money. My retirement account is not big, and it is all I have to live on when I retire.

I earned a 30-credit masters degree from a discounted program from this school. It is supposed to be part of the benefit package, and nowhere in the employee handbook does it state that I am under any obligation. I have been a donor to the college for the last 11 consecutive years. What they want is a planned gift, bequest or significant gift.

I went to HR recently about this and some of the pursuing has stopped, although I did not mention that it is my retirement account they are after. I only said that they want money from me because I wanted to keep it as soft as possible. They did stop asking me personal questions. However, they have all mostly ignored me for the last 11 years that I worked there and now they are being overly nice to me, patronizing me. 

I am starting to think I may have to leave even though it will be better if I can stretch out my work time. I also think that when I leave the college, they may come to where I live uninvited. Do you have suggestions for me to get this to stop?

Wow, asking someone to donate their retirement savings — let alone repeatedly — takes a special sort of audacity. And by “audacity,” I mean “total disregard for common sense and the barest minimum of courtesy.”

There’s a basic fact here that I’m not sure if you realize: Your coworkers are batshit crazy. What they’re asking — nay, pressuring — you for is so beyond the realm of what any normal person would ever consider that they don’t deserve to even be taken seriously.

And that’s really where the answer lies. Stop treating the requests as a serious thing that requires a serious response. The next time they approach you about this, call them out on it: “You don’t seriously think I’m going to give up my retirement savings and have nothing to live on when I retire, do you? It’s not going to happen.”

And then if it continues: “I’ve already told you no. Stop asking.” And: “I’ve told you repeatedly your requests are unwelcome. If you ask again, I’m talk to (person above their head) to figure out where we’re miscommunicating.”

But you’re getting stressed out by this to the point of considering leaving, when the far better approach is to just see this as crazy — and remember that they have no power to make you do anything you don’t want to do. You can just keep saying no, and you can escalate it above their heads to get them to stop hassling you if you want to.

Also, if it continues, make sure that you tell whoever you’re complaining to (HR or the perpetrators’ boss) that it’s your retirement money they’re after. You said you didn’t mention that part when you talked to HR, but that part is highly relevant — it’s what takes it from “annoying persistent fundraisers hassling a coworker” into totally crazy, outrageous territory. If you don’t explain that part, you’re not explaining a core element on the story.

And as for your worry that they’ll come to your house after you retire: If they do, you can tell them to go away. You’re not beholden to these people. Somehow they’ve made you feel that they are (or your desire to be polite is making you feel that way), but you’re not in any way obligated to entertain crazy requests or accommodate crazy behavior, especially from people who won’t even be colleagues at that point.

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when snow keeps employees from leaving, sending people home early for holidays, and more

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

1. Employees don’t want to leave work to drive home in the snow

What do you do during a snow storm when some employees feel highways are not safe to travel on and do not want to leave work and yet some do? Is it an employer’s responsibility to provide a place of refuge in case an employee feels it is unsafe to travel the highways home?

If someone doesn’t feel safe leaving work because of road conditions, I can’t imagine why you wouldn’t allow them to remain on your premises, unless there’s a security issue in doing that. What’s the alternative — turning them out into the streets and forcing them to drive in possibly unsafe conditions when they don’t want to? That’s not a good solution.

Let people stay if they want to, unless there’s a specific reason why that’s unworkable. (And if there really is a legitimate reason you can’t let them stay but they don’t want to drive, a really great employer will help them make other arrangements — whether it’s having someone with four-wheel drive help transport people, local hotels, or whatever.)

2. Can I ask to work from home for a few days if I can’t stop crying?

Is there any way to professionally ask to work from home for a few days in a row, without going too much into the reason why with my boss? My fiancée and I are in a bad place, talking about splitting up, and I can’t stop crying. It’s going to be very hard to sit at my desk at work (tried it yesterday and had to go out to my car for long periods, ended up leaving early to see a therapist).

My typical schedule is working from home one day a week, so it’s not unheard of on our team to be remote. But, I don’t want to disclose all of my personal details to my boss. I want to keep working as much as I can this week, and I have limited sick leave (which I’ll take if I can’t gracefully find a way to ask about working remotely this week). Any ideas?

If you’re comfortable with it, I think it’s reasonable to say, “I’m dealing with something difficult in my personal life right now and having some trouble acting like everything is fine. Would it be okay if I worked from home for the next few days?” (Ideally your boss will just say that she hopes everything is okay and won’t pry, but if she does ask what’s going on, it’s fine to say something vague like, “Just a difficult personal situation, but I’m trying to work it out.”)

If you can’t imagine saying that to your boss, I tend to think that the phrase “under the weather” covers situations like this one (you’re emotionally under the weather, after all). For instance, it would be reasonable to say something like, “I’m under the weather but want to keep being productive — would it be okay for me to work from home today and tomorrow?”

I hope things get better soon.

3. My office is having us compete for “perks” by working extra time

I work for an online state university that acts more like a private for-profit university in terms of “selling” registration. We have our busiest registration period coming up and as advisors/call center reps, our bosses want us to get hyped to work the busy, stressful month. To do this, our bosses have split us up into teams and are giving us tokens to redeem for work perks. These perks are normally denied to us advisors, but are university approved for everyone to use like teleworking and alternative working schedules. To earn these tokens, we have to go above and beyond our normal working requirements including being asked to work outside our normal hours without wage compensation, and giving up our lunch/breaks to better assist our students. As often asked, is the competition for perks legal for our management to ask of us?

We are are salaried, contracted, and exempt.

The idea of a competition to earn perks is legal in and of itself, even if it’s designed to get you to work extra shifts.

If you were non-exempt, some of what they’re asking you to do to compete would be illegal: Regardless of any perks that you might receive, your employer is required by law to pay non-exempt employees for all the time they’ve worked, including overtime. In that case, I’d recommend saying something like, “I don’t want us to get into trouble with the state department of labor, so I wanted to point out that state law does require us to pay people for all time worked, regardless of the competition.”

However, you say that you’re exempt, so this wouldn’t apply; as a exempt worker, you’re not required to be paid additional wages for additional work. That said, I wonder if you’re classified correctly; call center reps are normally non-exempt positions. It might be worth looking into the classification standards and seeing if you’re misclassified.

Speaking of perks…

4. Do I need to distribute perks evenly among my team?

My team of six was all in the office on New Year’s Eve, and my first instinct was to let everyone take off a few hours early in the spirit of the holiday. But I ended up not doing this, because I felt like only half of the team actually deserved it. I’ve been trying to deal with some performance issues on my team, mostly related to people not meeting deadlines. I am grateful to have some superstars on my team, who are rewarded privately with bigger merit increases, and excellent reviews, and I am working with the underperformers at to raise their level of work. We’re a very friendly/collegial team, but due to the nature of our work, it’s pretty much invisible (except to me) how each person’s performance stacks up against everyone else.

My options were to either give everyone a few hours off, give no one a few hours off, or single out a few people with a few hours off. They’re all non-exempt, so a few hours off really does mean getting paid to do nothing. All of these options felt wrong, but I ended up giving no one time off. Is there a fourth option that I’m missing? Or should perks like a few freebie hours be distributed regardless of performance?

I tend to think that sending people home early for a holiday should be a do-it-for-everyone thing, not something that you’re using to reward performance. That said, if you feel strongly that your lower performers needed to stay, I don’t think it’s crazy to discreetly say to the people you want to reward, “Hey, you’ve had a great year. Why don’t you head out early?” If someone else asks you why they didn’t get released early too, you can simply say, “We needed some coverage but not full coverage, and Jane and Fergus had finished everything I needed from them.”

More generally, no, perks don’t need to be distributed evenly regardless of performance. It often makes sense to treat people differently depending on how they perform. There are SOME perks, though, that are more of a group thing — for example, you wouldn’t want to invite only some people to a team dinner or other outing.

5. Is this company mishandling smoke breaks?

After 3 years, the company my husband works for here in Maine changed their smoking policy. Which was fine until they today. In Maine, they are required to give paid breaks, but the people were asked to now punch out to have their smoke off property. Again, this was tolerable. But after the first run, the company decided they did not want that many people punching out for a break. Remember, it was their rule. Now they are told that they cannot punch out to have a cigarettes until lunch. They have to wait 6 to 7 hours or were told they can quit their jobs if they didn’t agree. No e-cigs….no vapor products…nothing. They were told that “we gave you 17 months warning to quit smoking”

How is this legal by Maine standards? The folks are willing to bend but not to be told what to do like children.

In Maine, employers must give employees the opportunity to take an unpaid rest break of 30 consecutive minutes after six hours worked, if three or more people are on duty. No coffee, bathroom, or smoking breaks are required. So it sounds like the company is complying with the law, as long as they’re getting that break after six hours. If they’re pushing it back to seven, that would be a legal issue.