my employee’s cell phone makes constant, annoying noises

A reader writes:

I supervise someone whose phone makes a lot of odd noises for texts, e-mail, etc. — not obnoxious ringtones — but still annoying and distracting, and he seems to feel compelled to look at the phone each time it makes a noise. Is it unusual to ask someone to turn their phone off while at work? Between lunch and two breaks, it seems there’s plenty of time for catching up on these things.

Nope, it’s totally reasonable. People should not allow their personal technology to disrupt coworkers, and they shouldn’t allow it to disrupt themselves. He’s doing both.

It would be reasonable to say something if you were peers, but you’re his manager, so it’s even more your prerogative. If you were peers, you’d really just be able to ask him to turn off the sound so that it wasn’t distracting you, but as his manager, it’s reasonable to ask him to turn the phone off altogether so that it’s not distracting him. I’d say this: “Hey, Bob, would you mind turning off your phone while you’re at work? I’ve noticed you get a lot of messages during the day, and I’d rather you keep it to lunch and breaks.”

4 productivity tips that can backfire on you

If you’re looking for ways to better manage your time and be more productive, you won’t find any shortage of productivity advice out there. But not all advice is created equal. Here are four popular productivity tips that can backfire on you.

1. “Delete any email that isn’t high priority.” Read nearly any advice on managing your in-box and you’ll probably see some version of this advice. The idea is that if you’re someone who never gets around to reading and processing all your email anyway, you might as well just delete it as soon as it arrives and stop it from cluttering up your in-box. But getting trigger-happy with your delete key can backfire on you, if you end up missing an important email from a colleague, or not having any record of the decision on the Jones account when you need to consult it in a few weeks.

By all means, archive emails that you don’t need to act on – so that they’re still there if you end up needing them later – but don’t delete them.

2. “Set up an auto-responder telling people you only reply to email during certain days or hours.” The idea here is that in order to keep email from being a constant distraction, you’ll let people know that you only respond to emails between 4:00 and 6:00 on Tuesdays and Thursdays (or whatever schedule you choose) so they know not to expect a response before then. The problem? It might work if you’re an entrepreneur who controls your own time, but most workers need to be responsive to other people, especially the boss. That doesn’t mean that you can’t set aside blocks of time to process your email and try to ignore it the rest of the time – you absolutely can – but announcing that plan in an auto-responder is a good way to annoy people like your boss’s boss when they email you about something time-sensitive.

3. “Give into your desire to procrastinate.” Tempted to procrastinate? Go ahead, say some experts. Give yourself a break, and then when you’re ready to return to the task you were putting off, you’ll have renewed energy and focus. And sometimes this works. But other times, you come back to it with the exact same desire to procrastinate and much less time to get the work done.

4. “Schedule every minute of your work day.” Creating a basic schedule is smart, because it allows you to see how much time you have and what you can fit in where – and it can help you realize, for instance, that you won’t have time to work on Important Project X next week so you’d better make serious progress on it this week. It can also keep you focused on the most important tasks at hand and prevent you from getting sidetracked on things that don’t matter as much. But if you schedule every minute of your day, you won’t have room for the many last-minute things that will pop up during the day. So it’s important to build in buffer zones too, even if it’s just an hour every day for fielding the unexpected.

why do the extroverts run the show at work — at the expense of introverts?

A reader writes:

I work in the dreaded open-plan/high-density seating arrangement (but thankfully am able to work a couple of days a week from home, which makes it survivable). I have been told I am friendly and pleasant at work, but I limit my socializing, as I regard work as work and my personal life is my own, outside of work. I also work in a very dynamic environment and we are all at max capacity, so we really don’t have much time to socialize if we want to “work smart” and not stay until all hours.

Several of my coworkers, including our senior manager, are very sociable at work, and seem to regard the open plan as one big coffee klatch. They’re always standing around in the “common space” between desks, yakking, and talking across at each other from their desks. They don’t seem to understand the concept of “indoor voices”. They say they stay until 7 p.m.or later dealing with emails and other work stuff, and say they spend a weekend day working.

That’s their choice, but it certainly is not mine. I did that sort of thing in my twenties, but now work-life balance is essential to me. My style is not socializing at work and then having to work late/weekends.

Despite numerous people asking them to be quiet, saying “shhhhhhh”, speaking to them privately, and talking to their managers — they still do it. I wear Bose acoustic noise-cancelling headphones and have a white noise machine, and it’s still very distracting. I’ve tried, but I’m not able to “just tune it out” as some people do.

It’s gotten to the point where several of us schedule conference rooms during the workday just so we can have some peace and quiet and get work done. I have talked to HR and my director about setting aside a “quiet room” for quiet work, but we literally don’t have the space — which is why we book conference rooms or go offsite.

That said, why should extroverts run the show at the expense of introverts? We deserve a quiet workplace where we can get work done. Why management isn’t listening, I don’t know, but I don’t know what else I can do.

I’m as sympathetic to this as they come — I want to work in total silence, all the time, and I don’t want anyone speaking to me while I’m concentrating — but I actually think you might be being unfair here.

You write: “Why should extroverts run the show at the expense of introverts? We deserve a quiet workplace where we can get work done.” But you could also turn that around, and ask why introverts should run the show at the expense of extroverts, who also deserve a workplace that accommodates their preferred style too.

Now, to be clear, I don’t think this argument is perfect. Ultimately, when one person’s style disrupts others, the people being disrupted should generally win out. But I still think it’s worth thinking about, because — just as extroverts tend not to understand the needs of introverts and the fact that introverts’ style isn’t somehow inferior or in needing of fixing — I think you’re probably not understanding the needs of extroverts. The deal with extroverts isn’t that they like to waste a lot of time and socialize instead of being productive — it’s that social relationships actually make them more productive. (Yes, it’s weird. I don’t get it either. But apparently a large portion of humans operate this way.)

But you’ve got headphones, conference rooms where you can work uninterrupted, and the ability to go off-site. That’s not bad. Using those things might be a reasonable compromise that lets everyone, regardless of where they fall on the introvert/extrovert scale, be reasonably comfortable and productive.

The real culprit here is the open-plan office, which is the enemy of sanity and productivity everywhere.

our admin earns more than me, I’m embarrassed by my coworker’s name, and more

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

1. My team’s admin earns more than me

I was recently chatting with my team’s administrative assistant (hired a few months after I was) and they let slip that they make $15,000 more per year than I do. My job is a skilled position, requiring specialized training. I’m not dissing administrative assistants, but this one doesn’t even know how to use Excel and has come to me twice in the last few weeks for help doing a mail merge. Should I talk to my manager about the disparity in our paychecks? If so, how?

Some skilled positions that require specialized training pay less than admin positions. Often that’s because of the market for each type of role; for instance, if you’re a lawyer in a glutted market, there’s probably loads of competition for your job, whereas great admins are hard to come by.

Excel and mail merge might not be the core tasks of her job, so I wouldn’t judge based on that. And the salary for your job really has nothing to do with whether someone else can use Excel or not. You were presumably happy enough with the salary you’re earning to accept it when it was offered to you; focus on that, and on the market rate for your work, not what someone else in a totally different role is earning. Complaining to your manager that you’re earning less than your team’s admin would almost certainly look out-of-touch (and like you don’t quite understand the value of admin work).

2. How can I get my coworker to stop gossiping to me?

I work in a very small office of 5 people. I hold a director position, and another person holds a manager position, and is sort of a supervisor for everyone. She was here before me and is above me technically. She is constantly bad-mouthing and gossiping to me about the other employees, from personal (sometimes very personal) information to performance issues/problems.

I really hate gossiping, especially in the workplace. I feel that absolutely nothing good can come of it, and I just want to do my job. I like everyone else who I work with anyway. I understand venting a little once in a while, but this is excessive. Besides, I do not trust this person at all; she’s had issues with everyone at some point, but especially me, and I can’t imagine what she says to others about me. I feel as though she is trying to get me to respond and say something negative about people. I try to shrug it off and change the subject, or defend the person while trying not to get on her bad side (it’s very easy to get on her bad side, and she makes work life miserable if she doesn’t get her way).

It’s getting to the point where I need some different tactics to escape the conversation, without flat-out saying that I don’t wish to gossip. This is someone who for at least the time being, I need to be civil with and try to stay on her good side. Any advice?

Two options if you don’t want to tell her directly that you don’t want to hear this stuff (although I think it’s worth reconsidering that stance — it’s a reasonable thing to say to someone like this):

a. Make it about you, not her: “One of my new year’s resolutions is to stay more positive at work. I’m trying to keep a no-negativity zone.”

b. Be entirely unsatisfying as a trash-talk partner. For instance, when confronted with a complaint about Jane: “Huh, I think Jane is really nice / good at her job / easy to work with.”

3. I’m embarrassed by my coworker’s name

One of my coworkers (a recent graduate from Thailand) has a first name which looks like two English words that look offensive but isn’t pronounced that way. Almost everyone calls her by her nickname, which is a lot easier to pronounce.

A recent directive from corporate means that everyone now has a nameplate on their desks, and we were asked to fill in what name we would like displayed. Her desk is right next to mine, and much to my dismay she chose her real first name rather than her nickname. Since we have visitors frequently passing by where both of us sit, it creates an embarrassing situation for me when they glance at the nameplate. Is there any way I can ask her to have the nameplate changed to her nickname, since that is what she goes by even at home, without appearing to be culturally insensitive? The name has a beautiful meaning in Thai, but unfortunately that does not get portrayed when written in English.

Nope. That’s her name. There is no polite way to ask her to take it off her nameplate or not to use it. And you’re projecting way too much into what strangers think.

4. Excessive reference requirements

I have recently submitted an application for a director position at a state college. The HR is in the process of reviewing applicants and asked for a list of my references. I have a standard list of references including 2 former supervisors and 2 colleagues, but this school requests for total 10 people (2 supervisors, 2 direct reports, 2 management level colleagues, 2 faculty, 2 community members). I personally think it’s a bit excessive and it shows the sign of insecurity. What do you think?

Excessive? Probably, depending on the role. But insecurity? Nah, that’s pretty typical for academia, which tends to have crazily involved hiring processes.

5. Should I be concerned that I haven’t received new hire paperwork yet?

I received a job offer a month ago with a start date on March 2. They send me a PDF document of the offer letter and the benefit compensation; however, I have not received anything regarding the new hire paperwork yet. Is that a common process or should I email my HR point of contact and ask her when would I be expected to receive new hire paperwork?

Also, is it rude to ask the HR to email me in the upcoming month to contact me for any information required since I will be going back to Taiwan for a month?

Lots of employers don’t do new hire paperwork until your first day at work; I’d assume that that’s the case here. However, if you want to be sure, it’s totally fine to email your contact and say, “Is there anything else you need from me before I start, like new hire paperwork or anything like that? I’m going to be in Taiwan from January 15 to February 15 and a bit harder to reach, so I wanted to check with you before I leave town.”

how to get money an employer owes you

A reader writes:

Can my former employer reduce my pay to minimum wage for hours already worked because I did not give a two-week notice?

They cannot. An employer can lower your pay going forward (if they alert you and give you the chance to decline to work at the new rate), but they can’t lower it retroactively. You performed that work for an agreed-upon price and they can’t unilaterally change it after the fact.

We talk here pretty frequently about pushing back when employers violate wage laws, so I thought it would be helpful to write out exactly what you should do in a situation like this. Here are the steps you should follow to resolve this or any other wage violations of this nature:

1. Send your former employer an email like this:

Hi Jane,

I saw on my final paycheck that you’ve reduced my pay for the last two weeks I worked. The law is clear that an employer cannot retroactively lower an employee’s pay; this constitutes an illegal denial of wages earned. In order to resolve this, I’ll need to receive the $__ still owed to me, no later than (date). (State) law requires that resigning employees receive their full and final paychecks no later than X days after the last day of work, which in this case will be (date). I trust that you’ll take care of this promptly, to avoid the penalties that the (state) department of labor otherwise enforces.

Thank you.


(You can modify this letter for other wage violations too — saying things like “the law is clear that an employer cannot withhold an employee’s final paycheck,” etc.)

2. To find the information to replace the X in the letter above (the legal deadline for your employer to pay you), do this search online:

(state name) final paycheck law

Or just consult this chart.

In addition, you could also do this search:

(state name) reduction in wages

Many, although not all, states have statutes that specifically require a certain amount of written notice before a wage change can go into effect. If your state doesn’t have that law, what your employer did was still illegal. But if your state does have that law, it’s additional ammunition that you can include in your letter. (For instance: “The Maryland Wage Payment Law 3-504 states that an employer must give an employee at least one pay period advance notice of any change in wage.”)

3. Then, if you don’t get the money owed to you by the deadline set out by the law, your next step is to contact your state department of labor and file a wage complaint. Some states are better than others are enforcement, but in general with something this straightforward, you should get the help you need. (Alternately, you could file in small claims court, but that’s more of a hassle.)

You could skip steps 1 and 2 and move straight to contacting the department of labor, but very often a simple email laying out the law — and making it clear both that you know that law and that you intend to see it enforced — is all that it takes to resolve the situation. If it works, it will often get you your money more quickly, and with less fuss.

ignore this common — and awful — career advice

Not all career advice is created equal. In fact, some can actually hurt a job search or your career. Here are seven pieces of terrible career advice that you should ignore.

1. “Going to grad school will make you more marketable.” Grad school will make you more marketable if you’re in a field that requires or rewards graduate degrees, but if you’re in one of the many fields that doesn’t, employers may find the degree irrelevant. What’s worse, grad school can even make it harder for you to get hired in many cases, since if you’re applying to jobs that don’t require the degree, employers may think that the work isn’t what you really want to do.

2. “Treat your job search like a full-time job if you want to be successful.” The amount of time a job search will take will vary dramatically from field to field and from person to person. If you’re junior in your career and applying to a wide range of positions, it’s possible that writing cover letters, tailoring your résumé and networking could take up a significant portion of your time (although it still might not reach 40 hours a week, and that’s fine). But if you’re more senior or simply in a field without a lot of openings, you’re probably not going to need to spend (or be able to spend) 40 hours a week on your search. And besides, for most people, when it comes to applying to jobs, quality matters far more than quantity.

3. “It no longer matters how long your resume is.” It’s true that the old one-page resume rule has relaxed for all but very recent graduates, but resume length still matters. Resumes that are three pages or longer end up diluting the impact of their contents, and will make you come across as someone who can’t edit and doesn’t understand what information matters most. Plus, the strongest candidates limit their resumes to two pages, so when an experienced hiring manager sees a long resume, they’re instantly primed to expect a weaker candidate.

4. “Offer to work for a week for free to prove yourself to an employer.” In most cases, this is illegal because it violates minimum wage laws. With a few limited exceptions (like some nonprofits and government agencies), employers are required to pay people who do work for them. But even if it weren’t illegal, most employers wouldn’t sign on for this anyway, because it takes an enormous amount of time to train new hires. The first week is nearly always a loss for the employer.

5. “If an interviewer asks about your weaknesses, answer with something positive.” If you’ve picked up any guide to job searching in the past decade, you’ve probably seen the advice to claim that your biggest weakness is that you work too hard or you’re a perfectionist. But so have most interviewers, and at this point those answers sound cliché and disingenuous. What’s more, they make you sound like you either don’t have much self-awareness or you’re unwilling to have an honest discussion about your fit for the role you’re applying for. Good interviewers want to talk about weaknesses not in order to play gotcha, but because they want to make sure that they won’t put in a job where you’ll struggle.

6. “Following up with an employer after you apply for a job shows persistence and enthusiasm.” This advice is still a staple of many career centers, but these days, persistent follow-up mostly shows that you don’t respect hiring managers’ time and that you’re not clear on how the hiring process works. After all, the employer knows that you’re interested; your application demonstrated that. Now the ball is in their court to decide whether they’re interested in speaking further with you or not. Most employers aren’t interested in fielding follow-up calls at this stage.

7. “Track down the hiring manager’s name so that you can address your cover letter to the right person.” This is unnecessary, and most hiring managers don’t even notice whether you did or not – and far fewer care. If the hiring manager’s name is easily available, of course it’s fine to go ahead and use it. But you don’t need to call to track it down or do other detective work to find it. Hiring managers care about the content of your application, not whether you spent 20 minutes trying to find out their names.

I originally published this at U.S. News & World Report.

did my office’s holiday lunch cross a line?

A reader writes:

My employer (a state court / government entity) hosts a holiday luncheon each year, where alcohol is served (cash bar) and Christmas carols are sung. The luncheon this year lasted three hours. Employees who attended were paid for the time spent at the party, minus their usual hour-long meal period. Employees who did not attend were told that the additional time other employees spent not working (and drinking!) were a benefit of attending this party and those who did not attend could only take their usual meal period break.

First, I believe it’s a gift of public funds to allow employees to drink off-site while being paid, and secondly, it seems to be a clear example of religious discrimination. Some employees do not attend because celebrating Christmas (especially the FORCED singing of Christmas carols) is not acceptable in their religion. Can employers reward those who attend with longer lunch breaks than those who chose not to attend, regardless of reason for not attending?

Yes, an employer can indeed say that spending the afternoon at the office Christmas party counts as work time and that people who don’t attend need to work the full day as they normally would. And it’s not crazy to do that, since workplace holiday parties aren’t usually just rewards for employees; they’re work events designed to build camaraderie. And that’s why so many managers get huffy when people don’t attend; they see it as skipping out on a work event.

Your office basically said “attend this work event or do your normal work; it’s your choice.” There’s nothing wrong with that. What would be notable is if they had said, “If you choose not to attend this work event, you can just have the afternoon off.” That’s something taxpayers might have more of an issue with — not an office’s decision to engage in a very common end-of-year workplace activity.

As for religious discrimination, holiday parties and even specifically Christmas parties aren’t considered religious discrimination under the law. It could become discrimination if the conduct at the party were particularly religious (for instance, included prayer) and people were penalized for not participating. But that doesn’t sound like the case here.

The forced Christmas carols sound pretty weird — but I’d need a lot more detail to conclude anything truly wrong happened there. Were people seriously forced to participate, as in ordered to sing and punished if they didn’t? And were the carols religious in nature (e.g., “Oh Holy Night” vs. “Frosty the Snowman”?) If people were truly forced to sing religious songs, yes, that’s a problem, possibly a legal one. And frankly, if people were forced to sing anything, that’s stupid and bad management. But without further details, I’m skeptical that we’re really talking about forced carol-singing here; that would be pretty unusual.

As for the public funds aspect of this … telling you exactly where the line gets drawn on that is outside my area of expertise, but I certainly think that as a society we go way overboard in restricting how government employers can operate, like the recent GAO decision that federal agencies can’t supply disposable cups, plates, and cutlery for employee use because they’re “for personal benefit and not a specific government purpose.” Nickeling and diming federal employees over stuff that’s a generally accepted way of creating a pleasant workplace, which in turn is a generally accepted way of attracting and retaining good employees — while simultaneously making it really hard for government managers to fire low performers, something that would actually have major benefits for taxpayers — is ridiculous. And from that perspective, I have zero issue with a government employer hosting a non-extravagant holiday lunch (where employees paid for their own drinks, no less), or with expecting workers who choose not to attend to finish out their work day as normal.

my boss keeps joking about me never leaving, I was hired to replace someone who doesn’t want to leave, and more

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

1. My boss keeps joking about me never leaving

My boss often makes comments–sometimes jokes, sometimes statements–about how I should never leave the company. I’ve reached the point where actually do want to leave…but I’m scared of how she’ll react when I tell her.

Two examples, in which we’ll say my name is Jane:
– After a phone call in which she gave a former colleague a reference for company A, she said to me, “and I told [company A’s boss], don’t you dare poach Jane!”
– When our retirement benefits rep spoke to our organization at our last all-staff meeting (60+ people) he gave an example of someone working for our company for 30 years. My boss pointed at me and said, “that’s what you’re going to do!”

I usually just smile and laugh off the comment. I don’t think it’s appropriate to tell her that I want to leave, but I also don’t want her to get the impression that staying long-term is my plan. Any advice?

I wouldn’t worry about this at all. Your boss is telling you in a lighthearted way that she appreciates you and hopes you stay, yes, but you’re not incurring any obligation whatsoever. If she wants to really lock you in for some specific period of time, that requires her having a real conversation with you. And it would be weird to respond to the jokes with a serious, “Hey, you know that I’m not going to stay forever, right?” It’s assumed that you’ll move on at some point, possibly even soon, unless there’s a specific (and serious) conversation to the contrary.

When you’re ready to leave (meaning that you have an offer that you’ve accepted), let her know that you’ve appreciated your time there and enjoyed working with her, but have decided to move on. That’s it.

2. My company dinner is at a Brazilian steak-house, although a third of us don’t eat meat

There are about 10 people considered “management” in the small, family-owned company I work for. The president of the company invited all of us to a year-end thank you dinner. His father just stepped back as the owner of the company in order for his son to properly take over as president, and this dinner is the first one he is hosting. My concern is the venue. He has chosen a Brazilian steak-house. It’s not just an order-whatever-off-the-menu place. They bring large quantities of various meats to your table, and continue to do so until you flip your little card over. This seemed like an odd choice, considering 2 other managers (the president’s father and sister) are vegan. I am only semi-vegetarian, but where the other 2 went vegan primarily for health reasons, I stopped eating red meat primarily for the animals.

I could easily find something to eat. That isn’t the problem. I really don’t think I can stomach the environment. I know your opinion on holiday parties in general, but what do you think about attendance in this situation?

I think it’s perfectly reasonable to point this out while there’s still time to change the plans (“any chance that we could go somewhere less meat-centric, since nearly a third of us don’t eat meat?”).

If that doesn’t change anything, then you need to decide whether it’s offensive enough to you to decline the invitation. If it were a social invitation, I’d push you toward declining (since you don’t eat meat for ethical reasons, and this type of restaurant is pretty unpleasant when you have a moral issue with the very thing they’re going to be actively pushing in front of your face throughout the meal). Since it’s a business event, the calculation is a little trickier and depends on how strongly the president wants people there (and how much capital you feel you have to spend on opting out).

3. Can I renegotiate after a salary agreement?

I feel like I lost a negotiation, and I’m trying to win back a fair deal. I recently had a conversation with my boss where I was offered a promotion to a new role with a modest raise but I’d have to give up my flexible schedule for a more rigid one. His offer was for 3 stepped increases over the next 3 years. A few days later, I requested to talk with him again. I asked to start at the salary at the top step. He countered with a complicated formula that started at the second step. At the time, it sounded reasonable and I said that sounded alright. We shook hands.

Then I went home and crunched some numbers. His new offer turns out to be about $900 more in total over the 3 years. I feel like I’ve been tricked. I’ll have to give up my flexible work arrangement. This was the last day before the holidays. I haven’t signed any papers yet and have been worrying about this over the break.

I go back to work January 5. Is there a way I can smoothly reopen the negotiations?

Ugh, this isn’t ideal because you already agreed — even shook on it. But it sounds like a terrible deal for you, so I do think you should see what can be done. I’d go back to him ASAP and say something like: “When we talked before the break, I made a big mistake. I shouldn’t have told you the salary sounded right before I’d had a chance to actually run the numbers in the formula you proposed. My mistake was in agreeing to a formula without seeing what the numbers would be, and I apologize for that! I ran the numbers over the holidays, and realized that that formula would come out to only a total of $900 more over three years. My current schedule flexibility is worth a lot more to me than that. To accept the position, I’d want to either retain my current schedule flexibility or talk about a salary in the range of $___. Is that possible?”

4. My boss made a rude and vulgar remark to me

My boss on Christmas day tried to give me a lottery ticket as a gift, and when I refused, he told me to stick it up my ass (no kidding). He was serious and angry. I am male, as is he. Is this a sexual harassment violation?

No, but it’s certainly rude.

To reach the legal standard for sexual harassment, the behavior must be “severe or pervasive.” It’s rare for a single remark to qualify.

But what’s up with this relationship? You’re refusing gifts, he’s making angry and rude remarks — something’s going on here, and I’d focus on how to address that.

5. I was hired to replace someone who doesn’t want to leave

I took a job four months ago as a bookkeeper for a small local retail store owned by a family friend. He reached out to me because his bookkeeper of 25 years needed to retire. He promised me a fair hourly wage after a 30-day training period. I had never worked in this kind of position, but he was primarily interested in hiring someone he could trust and he assured me that the bookkeeper would train me.

The problem is that this woman really doesn’t want to leave, even though she says her health does not allow her to work anymore. It turns out that she has had control over most of the financial decisions all these years and the owner defers to her on everything from certain passwords to profit numbers sent to the accountant. I have not been taught or shown anything but the basics of bookkeeping, which I accomplished after 30 days. I am still making the “training” level of pay and was told I will not get the higher agreed to pay until the bookkeeper not longer has to come in. I now realize that will never happen and can not afford to live on this level of pay. At this point, I am not sure what to do. Can you give me some advice?

Go back to the owner and say this: “I’ve repeatedly tried to get Jane to train me on X, Y, and Z, but she hasn’t been willing to. She’s shown me the basics of the bookkeeping but nothing else, and I’m getting the sense that she doesn’t plan to leave any time soon. I can’t continue on the training pay long-term, and I’m concerned that she isn’t leaving in the near future. How should we proceed?”

If he’s at a loss, suggest that the three of you meet and devise a training plan that lays out what you’ll be taught by when — and make sure that the owner is willing to hold her to that. It’s also not unreasonable to ask her point-blank what her plans are (“Can you give me a sense of your timeline for retiring, since it will affect my role here?”).

weekend free-for-all – January 3-4, 2015

SamThis comment section is open for any non-work-related discussion you’d like to have with other readers, by popular demand. (This one is truly non-work only; if you have a work question, you can email it to me or post it in the work-related open thread on Fridays.)

Have at it.

update: how can I back out of a mentoring relationship?

We have a late-breaking update in our “where are they now” update series: Remember the letter-writer wondering about how to back out of a mentoring relationship that was more like intensive remedial coaching? She provided one update last April, but here’s a new one:

I did take your advice and told the person that I didn’t think there was much more return to be gained by meeting so regularly. At the same time, I caught the person in a couple of lies about things she’d overlooked, forgotten, or, mostly, procrastinated on, and finally had a conversation with her along the lines of, “I’ve tried to help you become more organized, but I can’t teach you to be motivated or honest, and I’m incredibly disappointed that I’m going to have to monitor everything I give you from here out.”

I’ve learned more about some of the things that you and commenters pointed out–specifically, why she wasn’t fired for performance reasons a long time ago. I got so fed up with the situation that I went to my boss and closed the door and was very blunt with him about resenting having to spend so much time both double-checking her work and defending his decision not to fire her to others. I said that I’d already damaged my own credibility by not being able to get any improvement out of her, and that having to tell people, “There’s a good reason that she hasn’t been fired, and we just have to trust the boss” was making it worse. I asked why he hadn’t just cut the cord. As it turns out, he is just as, if not more, frustrated and wanted to fire her almost from the get-go.

The problem is that upper management has instituted a nonessential hiring freeze, and vacancies aren’t being filled except in very critical positions. Upper management doesn’t see that position as critical, no matter how well-reasoned our argument, so if the person were fired for performance, she wouldn’t be replaced. The position is one that others could fill in for during their own slow periods, but consistency is important, as is coverage, and the boss is working from a position of it being better to closely monitor someone who knows how to do the job than have to intensively train interim replacements who won’t be filling in for longer than a couple of weeks. With the nature of the job, I do understand that argument, and there are bigger fish to fry with upper management than arguing for a replacement.

So, at this point, it’s not a happy ending, but there are glimmers. The person still has a good attitude about wanting to improve her performance. I have distanced myself from the situation because I don’t have the bandwidth to carry her. I never did bring up the question of anxiety/learning disabilities with her because as commenters pointed out, it’s none of my business. I’ve also been able to explain to others whose morale has been affected by this that there truly is a reason for her not having been let go, without sharing details in an unprofessional manner. They sense the change in my tone that indicates that I’m being honest, rather than just paying lip service to defending something that makes no sense (not that upper management’s decision makes sense, but tackling it again is on the boss’s list of 2015 to-do’s).

From a personal standpoint, I don’t have regrets–I honestly thought that I could help the person become a better performer, because it became clear almost immediately that she didn’t need mentoring, she just needed help with organizational and time-management skills. I would offer others the same help; I think this is a fairly unique situation. I do wish I could help my boss to build the case for replacing her, and I have some ideas for how to do that. My efforts didn’t go unnoticed or unrewarded; our company (even though it’s not perfect) values an environment of helping and learning. I’d do it again.

Thanks, Alison, for your great advice and level head, and thank you to the commenters who provide such tremendous insight. It’s an excellent community.