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

1. Questioning an employee about how sick they really are

My coworker, Sansa, is a rockstar employee. Tenured, dependable, top performer — the kind of employee you wish you could clone! She has no attendance issues, no performance issues, no history of abusing flex-time. Her work is project-based with no in-person client contact and all of her meetings are virtual. Sansa discovered that she’s pregnant but didn’t want to tell anyone yet. But when she needed to leave mid-day for a doctor’s visit (emerging issue with the pregnancy), her boss, Cersei, continued to push back until she finally told her the reason she needed to leave.

Fast forward a week. Our company has a very generous work-from-home policy. As long as the work gets done, we can work from home as needed. Sansa was feeling ill but came in anyway, because she knows that while Cersei takes advantage of the work-from-home flexibility, she isn’t a fan of her staff doing the same. Sansa tells Cersei that she’s not feeling well and wants to work from home the rest of the day. The questions begin — are you throwing up? How often are you throwing up? Are you really throwing up, or just dry heaves? Cersei finally says that if Sansa is “really” throwing up and it’s happened more than once, Sansa can work from home after lunch (which is still two to three hours away).

Am I wrong to think that Cersei is WAY overstepping here? As a manager, I can’t imagine asking any of these questions. I’ve got no standing to intervene — I’m just thinking about how I’d want to handle it if something like this came up on my team. (In terms of hierarchy, I’m senior to Sansa but junior to Cersei.)

Yes, she’s way overstepping. She’s either willing to approve the work-from-home time or she’s not, but the details of Sansa’s medical symptoms are none of her business.

There are some cases where a manager’s stance might be, essentially, “It would be really tough to have you working from home right now, so I only want to approve it if it’s really, truly necessary.” But the way to say that isn’t to play doctor and inquire about the details of symptoms. The way to do that is to treat employees like adults and say, “It would be tough to have you work from home today because of X, but if you’re feeling sick enough that you really need to get out of here, we can make it work.” And if you find that someone is abusing your good will, then you address that — but you assume people are trustworthy and responsible until they give you reason not to.

2. Sugar-stealing coworker

I work in a small department (seven people) which is connected by a hallway to our big sister department (20+ people). Our small team has a microwave and coffee/snack station which we have provided for ourselves. Our team will occasionally bring in treats to share with the rest of the department, including a small stash of sugar, plastic utensils, etc. My desk is in the hallway right next to the microwave and snack station.

So here’s the thing: one woman in particular, from the big sister department, has been coming over to our station and taking sugar from our stash. As the friendly face at my desk in the hallway, I have smiled at her and not begrudged the sugar, but lately she’s come by and taken chocolate that another colleague had brought to share within our department. It kind of irks me because there’s an unspoken company culture rule that snacks/supplies are shared within the department, but if you’re from another department you should ask first. And this woman never asks, just assumes she can have some.

How do I set the record straight now, and how do I do it without messing up the interdepartmental goodwill? Should I just get over it?

One option is this, if you’d be open to this as a solution: “Hey, Jane, our team actually buys those items for ourselves. If you want to use them, we’d want to put you on the rotation to pay for them or restock them.”

But otherwise: “Hey, Jane, our team actually buys those items for ourselves and they’re really only meant for the small group of us since they’re self-funded.”

3. Asking to work from home during a new foster/adoption placement

My husband and I are in the process of becoming licensed as a foster/adoption parents for a child who will be from newborn to five years old. I work in a small office of five and I am the second in command. The person who I replaced worked from a remote office.

I need your advice on how to approach my boss about working from home the first two to three weeks after a child is placed in our home, to encourage a smooth transition and bonding (only if they are under four, as they will be in preschool or kindergarten over four years old). Do you think it is fair to ask about this? I am prepared to use one day a week to come into the office, if needed, as my husband is home one day a week (not working). I am willing to work from the office, but I would like to have the child with me and I am not sure how feasible it would be to have the child at work — which is probably fine, if I asked, but I don’t want to push that, but rather would be at home in a more comfortable environment for the child to bond with them.

Ask to take the time off, not to work from home during it. Most employers expect that if you’re working from home with a child that young, you’ll have separate child care (sometimes with the exception of a day or two for an emergency with a sick kid). The idea is that you can’t work at anything approaching your normal productivity when you’re caring for a young kid.

But it’s totally reasonable to ask for time off for this, and that’s the way to go. And if you’re eligible for FMLA, that law protects your job for up to three months of time off to care for and bond with a newly placed child (for both fostering and adoption) within a year of when the child comes to you.

4. Can I ask my manager what kind of reference she’ll give me?

I currently work in education, and my manager is aware I’ll be leaving at the end of the school year. Since she knows I’m leaving and job searching, can I ask her what her reference would be like?

The reason why I’d want to ask is to determine if I’d want her to be a reference at all. Several months ago, she raised some performance issues, which if not addressed, would have led to me getting fired. The issues were corrected and I’m leaving voluntarily, but I still have concerns about her as reference.

Yes, in general you can ask a potential reference what kind of reference they’d give you. But it also makes sense to assume that what you know of your manager’s assessment of you and your work will be reflected in the reference she gives … which in this case means you might not want to use her as reference if you can avoid it. If you had performance issues that could have led to firing just a few months ago, that’s serious enough and recent enough that it would have to affect the type of reference she gives you. How much of an impact that has will depend on what the issues were and how relevant they’d be to the new job — and it’s possible that “she struggled with X and Y earlier this year but was able to correct it” won’t be prohibitive — but she wouldn’t be my first choice for a reference if you have other options.

questioning an employee about how sick they really are, a sugar-stealing coworker, and more was originally published by Alison Green on Ask a Manager.

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Lucy! On the mend.

This 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 no work and no school.)

Book recommendation of the week: My Ex-Life, by Stephen McCauley. Two former spouses, one gay and one straight, reconnect decades later when both of their new lives are falling apart a bit. It’s lovely.

weekend free-for-all – May 26-27, 2018 was originally published by Alison Green on Ask a Manager.

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Ask a Manager by Ask A Manager - 3d ago

Here’s a round-up of Ask a Manager in the media recently…

* An interview on the BBC’s Business Matters

* An interview with Gretchen Rubin about happiness

* Some answers for Girls Night In about self-care at work

* An interview with the New York Post about embracing fear at work

* Five questions with Dear Wendy, in which we discover that we both answered the same letter

* A recommendation from Hello Giggles to buy the new Ask a Manager book for new grads

* Me in Bustle about how to talk to your boss about mental health at work

* Me answering some listener questions for Basecamp’s Rework podcast

* An interview with Vice about discussing salary expectations in a job interview

* An interview with transcription service Simon Says about the Ask a Manager podcast

* An appearance on the My Instruction Manual podcast (starts at 3:50)

* An interview with Monster

Ask a Manager in the media was originally published by Alison Green on Ask a Manager.

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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.

open thread – May 25-26, 2018 was originally published by Alison Green on Ask a Manager.

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

1. Can I ask my company to pay for a cat sitter when I travel?

I have a job which requires me to travel for work a few times a year. When I started it was more like once a year, and now it’s, say, two to four times. In my particular part of our industry, traveling is not often an essential part of the role and this wasn’t ever something that was specified one way or the other as part of the role. Having said that, it makes sense for me to go on these trips, it’s useful for my job as it’s evolved, and I am very happy to do them. The company is pretty small and open and, although obviously concerned with finances, is not overly obstructive or stingy with employee travel or expenses.

All so far so good, but my question is this: I have two cats and live alone, so when I go away there is nobody to feed them. Because of where I live, getting a friend or neighbor to come in isn’t an option, so I pay a cat sitter service to drop in once a day to check up on them. The amount isn’t exorbitant per day, but if you’re on a trip for five days it soon racks up and eats into my monthly budget.

Obviously it is completely my lifestyle choice to have and support the cats, and if I had shared care for them it wouldn’t even be an issue. But then again, business travel is meant to be cost-neutral for the employee and this is making a hole in my personal finances every time I have to travel. I just wondered what your take on this was and if it’s reasonable to ask my company to cover these as a business expense? Is it a ridiculous ask? I don’t want to stretch their goodwill!

Sadly, you can’t really ask for that, just like you wouldn’t be able to ask your company to cover child care expenses while you traveled. It’s just one of those things that sucks about business travel.

The exception to this is if you were doing your company a big favor by going on one of these trips — let’s say it was last-minute and unexpected and highly inconvenient and you had the option of saying no but they were really hoping to convince you to do it. In that type of situation, you could sometimes say something like, “Going at the last-minute means I’ll need to pay $X for someone to come in and feed my cats. Is that something the company would be willing to cover?” But that only works if it’s a rare and unexpected thing. You can’t really do that when it’s more routine travel.

2. My coworker calls me “honey bunny”

I have a colleague who I’ve worked with now for about two and a half years, in two separate workplaces, and while we work for different divisions, we end up working together on a regular basis. When we first started working together, she was only a little above me on the classification scale, but in our current work, she’s a manager level, and I’m just a base admin. There’s a few things about her I’m not the most keen on, but I think most of it has to do with a habit of hers — she’s a big fan of cutesy nicknames for other women. And while for pretty much everyone else, she sticks to things like “sugar” and “sweetie,” with me, she’s moved on to things like “pumpkin” and “honey bunny.” Yes, in nearly every interaction with this woman, I’m called “honey bunny.” I’m sure I should have asked her to call me by my actual name a while ago, and now, it feels like I can’t, because it’s been so long, and because she’s a manager.

Do I just suck it up and deal? Should I say something? What do I say?

You can say something, even though it’s been a while and even though she’s a manager. It might be a little awkward for a minute or two, but it will almost certainly solve it, so it’s worth it. You could say it this way: “You’re so sweet, but I have a thing about nicknames — I actually dislike being called anything other than my name. Would you stick with Jane?” (You can drop the “you’re so sweet” if that’s not your style, but that kind of language can soften the delivery in a way that can help her save face and make the interaction feel nicer overall. Or you can change it to “you’re so funny” or whatever else works for you.)

If she seems offended, try to find a reason to interact with her soon afterwards so that you can be warm and normal, which can sometimes help “reset” the vibe if a tricky conversation left things feeling a little off. (This is something I talk about more in my new book!)

3. Am I out of line for eating in the pumping room?

I returned to work from maternity leave last week. I’m salaried exempt, so I am not entitled to any pumping accommodations by law, but my workplace does have a “quiet room” available for nursing mothers to pump in, as well as other private personal uses (for example, a private space to do physical therapy exercises, or to pray, or to lie down for a short while if one is feeling poorly in the middle of the day rather than going home and taking sick time).

I take three pumping breaks per day, and have been eating my lunch during my middle pumping session, since I can’t really work effectively — it’s just impossible to use a laptop with my short arms and the pumping stuff attached to my front. My manager would be fine with me taking a separate lunch break (see also, exempt, and very autonomous about daily schedule), but I choose to combine a pumping break with lunch so that I can finish my work earlier and get home to my baby earlier than I otherwise would. I’m very careful not to leave the room a mess: I take all my food trash out to the kitchen when I’m done and don’t leave even a granola bar wrapper in the wastebin in the room. I don’t bring in anything that might smell (nothing hot at all, nothing with a strong odor like tuna salad, I stick to cold deli meat sandwiches, carrot sticks with hummous, that sort of thing).

I’ve gotten some hostile looks from both people I know also use the room, and people who don’t, when I go into the pumping room with my lunch bag. One person even commented that it “must be nice to have your own private lunch room.” Am I doing anything wrong here? If not, how should I handle it when people make comments about my use of the quiet room?

No, you’re not doing anything wrong! What is with people resenting the accommodations that allow other people to do their jobs?

You could try replying with, “You understand this room is for pumping, right? And that women can eat while they do that?” Or you could respond to the “must be nice” comments with, “I don’t know that I’d call lactating while hooked up to a machine the greatest lunch experience I’ve ever had.”

4. My interviewer is dating someone I declined a position with and asked me about it

I recently had a second phone interview for a position I’m very excited about, this one with the hiring manager. My first interview went very well, but I wasn’t prepared for something that happened in this one.

The hiring manager mentioned to me that “Jane Smith” is her romantic partner, and that when she mentioned to Jane that I was being interviewed, Jane told her that I declined a government position with her earlier this year after accepting. Here’s the issue. I was offered a position with Jane after I accepted a job with an entirely separate agency three months prior. After a lot of email back and forth and weeks without any updates, I was offered a completely different job in Jane’s agency. I wound up declining because I decided that I could not in good faith accept a job I in which I had no interest nor expertise that also was not the job I was offered and accepted.

I was surprised by this, but did not say that. I responded very calmly and I told her, “I would love to provide some additional context for that decision,” and explained the situation in very top line terms without speaking ill of anyone. I then said that I felt bad that Jane and her agency had been caught in the crossfire of the back and forth, and that it was important to me that I’m enthusiastic and fully committed to any position I take, and that given the circumstances, I was not confident in my ability to do that with Jane’s agency and did not want to do a disservice to their work. I then pivoted to talking about why the position I was interviewing for is my top choice, why it’s in line with exactly what I’m looking to do long term, and why I’m so interested and enthusiastic about the company and the position.

The hiring manager was not accusatory or adversarial, and she did say that I came highly recommended and that Jane had said that she had heard great things about me. Otherwise I felt the interview went very well, and I sent a follow-up email as I usually would speaking to why I’m excited about the position and some addition information about my expertise. But I’m worried about how this will impact my chances. I understand why she wants to ensure that I can commit to the job, so my question is, did I handle this appropriately?

Yep, it sounds like you handled it perfectly. She may have had the impression that you accepted a job and then later rescinded your acceptance — and that’s not at all what happened! You accepted a job and then the employer rescinded it and offered you something totally different. So it’s really good that you had an opportunity to clear that up, and your explanation sounds like it should have done that.

I can imagine some people reading your letter and bristling at the hiring manager asking about something that she only heard about because of who she’s in a relationship with. But she did hear about it, and so it’s to your advantage that you were able to explain the situation and give her context that might make her see it differently than she otherwise would.

can I ask my company to pay for a cat sitter when I travel, my coworker calls me “honey bunny,” and more was originally published by Alison Green on Ask a Manager.

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Remember the letter-writer a few years ago whose mother was contacting companies on social media to tell them to hire her daughter, despite our letter-writer asking her to stop? The first update is here, about how the mom was financially controlling the letter-writer on top of everything else, and here’s a new update.

I was thinking about the post a few days ago and it occured to me that I didn’t write in with an update, so I figured now’s the time!

I’m now 24, and in a different job to the one I was at when I last wrote in.

I unfortunately only lasted a couple of months at the social media job I mentioned in the previous update. I made a huge mistake one day at work and I was publicly fired in January 2017. That really knocked my confidence, so much so that I actually attempted to take my own life shortly afterwards, as I couldn’t cope with disappointing my family and myself again.

A few months later, I found a new job, and was there until January this year. I now work in finance (I started 2 weeks ago) and I’m very happy. The salary is much better than my previous jobs, I like the work and my coworkers, and it’s 9-5 Monday – Friday, which is much better for me. The job is also in a city 30 minutes away from where I live, so I can escape my own neighbourhood for a while, and I no longer feel ‘claustrophobic’. My life has completely turned around in the space of a year.

The main topic in my previous post was about how my mother controlled my finances. Well, I’m happy to say that thanks to the support of your readers, I finally bit the bullet and opened a new bank account. It took me a long time, but I read all the positive comments, and they helped me find the confidence to stand up to my mother and tell her that enough was enough. I went to my bank and explained the situation – They helped me set up the new account and lock down the old one so my mother has no access to it whatsoever. She also has no access to my new savings account, which I’m using to fund moving out. I’m almost at my goal, and if I keep going, I’ll be out by June. I still deal with my mother and her negative comments, but thanks to the supportive comments, they don’t affect me as much as they used to.

I found the courage to not let her walk all over me plus control me and she’s backed down – I now finally have a sense of freedom that I always wanted. Since standing up to her and gaining my independence, I’ve ticked items off my bucket list, such as travelling on my own (I went from Scotland – London, which is a pretty big distance, considering that I’d never been outside of Scotland by myself), and actually making preparations to move out into my own place.

I still am dealing with severe depression, which is painful and difficult, but whenever I feel really low, I read the comments on my posts, and the wonderful words left by so many people help lift me back up.

I honestly wouldn’t have been able to do this without your readers. I want to apologise for not replying to a lot of the comments, but I can promise you that I read every single one, and took them to heart. Some touched me so much that they made me cry – People saying they were rooting for me and wanting me to succeed is something I’d never felt before, so it was incredibly special. Even people defending me and supporting me when my post attractive some negative and harsh comments. I’m not used to support, so I cannot explain how much it meant to me.

I hope that they know what a huge impact they’ve had on my life, and just how much they’ve helped me achieve. Random people on the internet that I’ve never met actually changed my life, and I will forever be grateful for every single one of them. Please let them know how much I appreciate all of them. Thank you to every single one of them from the bottom of my heart! If any of them comment on this post, I promise I WILL reply this time!

Thank you so much Alison!

update: my mother is a destructive force in my professional life was originally published by Alison Green on Ask a Manager.

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

1. My boss has delusions of grandeur about our website — do I have to burst his bubble?

I sat down with my boss today and taking into consideration many of your reader’s comments I suggested moving primarily to Twitter while writing original content about his life experiences for the website. He loved the idea and we’re pivoting in this new direction right away. It turns out he had written down thoughts about his life and career already so we have a lot of original content ready to go. I’m working with him on a workflow for the articles he likes to post where he will write a sentence or two of commentary/analysis and I then post them to Twitter. Thank you for your advice and to all your readers for their comments.

2. My company is making us do mandatory sessions with a pushy, rude gym trainer

I’m the letter-writer from February of last year whose director had mandatory group “wellness trainings” (I was inconsistent in my wording in the letter, but these were the words he used).

I didn’t end up saying anything to my director about my reservations as regards the wellness activities at the beginning of last year, because I was too uncertain how it would be received– the director seemed pleased with how things were going, which made me question his judgment enough that I didn’t want to chance it. This ended up being a good call. Over a year later, I can barely remember what happened in those training sessions– I do remember that at one point, after being subjected to some scientifically-dubious touching technique, I was thanked for being “a good sport” because my boss could tell I was not enthusiastic– but I can recount many, many further examples of bad judgment and boundary crossing on the part of the director. I absolutely would have been penalized for speaking up, and nothing would have changed overall. Director definitely knew employees were not receiving the trainer well; he just didn’t care.

After a long string of bewildering events and emotional abuse, capped off with an incident in which the director made a “joke” about slitting one of my coworker’s throats (the worst thing about this is how normal it seemed after working here a year), I started looking for new work, and am happy to report I found a better job immediately. Today was my last day, and in two weeks I start my new job.

Director took my resignation better than I anticipated (office lore has it he’s been known to swing wildly between the silent treatment and screaming matches with those who quit), but word got back to me that he told several of my coworkers he will not miss me, and when he was told there was a cookie party in the breakroom for me during my last week, he told the messenger he didn’t want to come. Never seeing him again is the #1 and only reason I am leaving this job, and I’m thrilled to do it.

Many thanks to the commenters, who provided an early dose of “you are not crazy and this is not normal” in a place where it was easy to acclimate to bad management, and to you, for running a blog that helped me nurture a private understanding of what a functional workplace would be like, and contrast it with this one. Here’s hoping my relationship with my next boss is profoundly boring, based on a mutual respect and desire to do good work.

3. I’m doing business travel with a coworker who doesn’t want to expense anything (#2 at the link)

I did speak to Luke while submitting the cost estimates with the phrasing you suggested, adding that Rey seemed very concerned with keeping the costs low. Thankfully, Luke had been in the same city we were travelling to just a few months before and thought my cost estimates were very reasonable. I also believe he spoke privately to Rey as she made no further comments during the weeks leading up to the trip.

During the trip, she sheepishly went along with my recommendations and was on the same flights/booked the same hotel (separate rooms). The only odd thing was that she brought a larger checked bag than I thought would be needed for a week-long trip, but I shrugged it off as a preference, since I might be in the minority and preferred just traveling with a carryon whenever possible. I was later very surprised to find out that her bag was so large because she packed canned food and instant noodles to eat for lunch/dinner! The only time she went with me to a restaurant was during a networking event. During the first two days we shared a cab to and from the conference area but afterwards we went separately as she wanted to use public transportation. She would also take bread rolls/yogurt cups from the hotel breakfast buffet with her to eat later in the day, which made me a little uncomfortable, so I would usually have breakfast later and take a cab.

I met with a lot of my coworkers from other countries during the conference, and I feel we work a lot better now since we’ve developed more personal relationships. Aside from the ‘formal’ networking event, we also occasionally went out for lunch and dinner as a group, especially since a few of us shared the same hotel. Rey opted not to go to these— I think a few of our colleagues thought this was a little odd and stand-offish, but we did also have people in the group who needed to catch up on work after the conference hours or needed to go home early to call their families.

Throughout all of this, I’m happy to say that Rey didn’t try to pressure me into taking the same money-saving steps, but I was very relieved when the trip ended! I later found out that she didn’t submit an expense report for meals and transportation and returned nearly all of her travel allowance. (All of my expenses were approved with no issues.) Rey eventually moved out of our team and into a new role earlier this month.

4. Recruiter was annoyed when I applied to a job directly (#4 at the link)

I ended up getting the job! The recruiter was involved through the rest of the process and was super helpful. At the end of my next interview, I said, “Oh, by the way, I applied through the website but I actually was first contacted about the job by [recruiter name]. I wouldn’t have heard about the job if not for her, so just wanted to let you know.” He just said “Yup, we’re aware,” or something like that. Everything else went smoothly, so it seemed like we caught it early enough to not impact my candidacy or the recruiter’s fee. So everything worked out, and now I know how to properly work with recruiters going forward!

updates: the website delusions of grandeur, the pushy gym trainer, and more was originally published by Alison Green on Ask a Manager.

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A reader writes:

Your blog has been invaluable to me in my career, especially in the last year since I became a manager. I’ve caught up to the learning curve of my actual job, but there’s one area I feel could use some improvement and I don’t know how to address it on my own.

As I move further up the career ladder, I see how other leaders interact with each other at my institution. They can joke around with each other, tease each other, and just generally interact with each other in that kind of male back-slapping way (including the women). I’ve never been good at casually joking with people, but it’s gotten worse as I’ve gotten older. I feel impatient when other people are joking around in meeting settings and uncertain how to respond when someone tries to jokingly/teasingly engage with me. I could be incorrect that being perceived to have a sense of humor is important to my success, but it feels important, although I wish it didn’t, and I don’t know how to begin to address it. Do you have any ideas?

I wrote back and asked: What’s your sense of humor like outside of work? Do you think you’re comfortable with that kind of thing in other, non-work contexts?

Outside of work my humor tends to the dry/absurd/abstract with a sprinkle of silly. I would say that only by two best girlfriends and my partner really get the full scope of my sense of humor, but I feel comfortable showing some of it in social settings with acquaintances or friends of friends.

I generally hate teasing and often am not very successful at riffing or coming up with responses to jokes from people I don’t know very well, so while it’s not limited to work, I mostly only wish I could participate in that type of banter when I’m at work. I feel it would help me succeed, but I mostly want to improve because I feel like my social facility is dwindling and I would like to be someone who can be at ease in any professional situation. Sometimes I can feel the impatient look on my face as I wait for people to stop joking around so we can get on with things and I am sure if I can feel it, other people can see it!

I don’t know that you have to actively join in on the joking around at work if it’s not your thing. If you force it and it feels unnatural to you, there’s a pretty good chance that it’ll come across as … well, forced and unnatural.

But there are other things you can do to change the dynamic! The most important one is to change your impatience when other people are joking around. I very much know that feeling of “let’s just get to the topic that we’re here to discuss,” but I think you’d be better served by trying to reframe it in your head and seeing what they’re doing as a form of relationship-building that can make work go more smoothly (for some people). If that kind of joking around and bonding isn’t your thing, it’s easy to see it as a waste of time … but for a lot of people, tending to relationships is a sort of prerequisite to the work getting done. If you’re a more task-focused person, you might scoff at that, but there are lots of very effective people who operate that way. (In fact, you should read this great explanation from a commenter about how relationship-focused people see all this. And then if you want more, here’s a more in-depth interview with her.)

Ideally, if you can reframe this in your head and see that there’s actual value in what they’re doing — at least to them, if not to you — your impatience will hopefully stop showing on your face, because you should feel less of it. And that’s pretty important. It’s probably not a big deal that you’re not participating in the joking around, but it could be a big deal if you regularly look like you’re annoyed by it. That risks signaling “I don’t get it here” and/or “I don’t like it here” and/or “I don’t like you.”

That’s step one. Step two, if you’re up for it: Look amused when others are joking around. Smile. Look like you’re enjoying what you’re witnessing. That’s an easier way to signal comfort with the group dynamic than forcing yourself to joke around when it doesn’t feel natural. If you look amused and pleased to be there, that’s going to go a long way. In fact, that might be all you need to do! It’s more important that people feel like you’re not judging them than that you actively participate.

And you can use that same approach if someone tries to joke around with you: Smile. Laugh. You could even just say “ha!” as long as it’s a warm and cheerful “ha!” and not a sarcastic or annoyed one. You want your response, whatever it is, to signal “joke received and appreciated!” even if you’re not responding with a joke of your own.

Doing all of this might even move you to a mindset where you do eventually find yourself joking back. But if not, just by switching from “this is an annoying waste of time” to “this group has a warm and funny vibe with each other and that’s a nice thing,” you’ll probably feel more relaxed and happy in these meetings overall, and that’s going to be good for your relationships with these colleagues. And I strongly bet that will matter more to your success there than whether or not you’re delivering your own comedy routine.

do I need to have a better sense of humor at work? was originally published by Alison Green on Ask a Manager.

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

1. I’ve been crying in front of my boss

I need some assistance with getting over some crying spells at work. Crying at work is not something I do. At least it wasn’t until I got pregnant. I think the biological changes brought on by pregnancy have made me more sensitive to criticism. Also, this a huge life change that can feel overwhelming at times. This has lead to four crying spells in front of my boss over the past six months. I did speak to HR about it and am working with my doctor. I have a history of anxiety, but my doctor doesn’t think I’m depressed. Outside of these incidents I don’t feel depressed (I feel stressed), but I seem unable to control my crying at times. In between these episodes, I also function completely normally at work and in the rest of my life, and have not had any complaints. I know this is excessive though, I just don’t know what to do about it, to stop it from happening, or to recover from it. For the record, the times I have cried, the circumstance would have been frustrating or even stressful to most people I think, but the crying is too much.

In the moment when it’s happening, try saying something like, “Please ignore this — it’s just a physiological reaction that’s frankly embarrassing, but I do hear what you’re saying and want to process it.”

And if you haven’t already talked to your boss about it, you could say something like, “I’m aware that I’ve gotten teary a few times when we’ve been talking lately. It’s happened since I’ve been pregnant, and I think it’s just physiological. I’m embarrassed by it and working to get it under control, and I definitely don’t want you to think you need to pull any punches when talking to me about anything that could be stressful.”

The idea here is to (a) acknowledge that you know this isn’t ideal (since she may be worried it’s a pattern that will continue, and may be be wondering what your take on it is), and (b) hopefully shore up her resolve to continue having conversations with you that could provoke tears, since you don’t want her to start shying away from conversations she needs to have with you.

As for ideas on how to actually stop it, I’ll throw that out to others to weigh in on.

2. Is rejecting people by phone more respectful?

I am the executive director of a nonprofit organization and am just finishing up a highly competitive hiring process. We flew in the top two finalists for in-person interviews this week and have since made up our mind about to whom we’ll extend an offer. My question is around best practices for notifying the other finalist that she didn’t get the job. In the past, I’ve always called finalists who did in-person interviews to let them know they didn’t get the job, as that seemed like the most respectful thing to do, but every conversation I’ve had like that has been awkward, if not rough, as the finalist has clearly been devastated and ended the call quite abruptly.

Simply sending a rejection email doesn’t feel right for someone who’s made the substantial investment (in terms of time and energy; we cover all expenses) of flying in for an in-person interview, but I’ve wondered if the phone call can be unhelpful in its own right because it doesn’t give them person privacy while processing what’s usually extremely disappointing news (and their emotion is often quite evident in our brief conversation). Is there a better way to handle these situations? Maybe emailing them to ask when would be a good time to give them a quick call to update them on the hiring process in a way that sounds formal but not enthusiastic, so they can better anticipate what’s coming? Or does that just needlessly draw out a process for which there is no great approach in terms of minimizing the blow?

It’s so nice of you to want to do this in the way that’s best for them, and not to seem to be giving them a perfunctory brush-off after they’ve invested time in talking with you. But go with the emailed rejection. Some people do appreciate a phone call, but significantly more people really don’t want to learn about a rejection that way. The problem, as you’ve seen, is that it requires them to respond gracefully on the spot to what might be severely disappointing news, and many people want to process their disappointment privately. Also, emailed rejections are so very much the norm that you’re not going to be perceived as doing something rude by sending them.

I also wouldn’t email them to set up the call. That’s likely to get some people’s hopes up and make it all the more disappointing when they hear the news, and people are likely to be so eager to hear whatever you have to say that they may cancel plans or rearrange their schedule, and then be annoyed that they did that just to hear a rejection that could have been emailed.

So stick with email! But if you want to do it in a way that acknowledges the investment they’ve made, you can do that by personalizing the rejection letter. Instead of just sending a form letter, add a bit that’s personalized to them — about what impressed you about their candidacy, or why you decided to go in a different direction, or a reference to something they mentioned, or so forth. Most people will appreciate that.

3. Company wants me to pay “my share” of business trip expenses

I have recently left a company where I worked as a contractor selling raffle tickets. After my first week, they asked me if I was interested in going on a business trip for a week. I did not sign anything for this trip and never received any kind of confirmation from them on how it would be paid. They did, however, tell me that accommodation was booked and they would be driving me there. From this I assumed it was a company-paid trip.

Just two days ago, I got a message saying that they have tallied the costs from the trip and I owe them $200 for my share of the accommodation, travel, and food costs. Is it my responsibility to make them tell me if I will be paying prior to the trip or their responsibility to inform me that I will be required to pay and provide a written agreement? I had no prior understanding that I would have to pay a share for the trip and had no say over accommodation, travel, or food. Can I ask them for proof of my share of the costs and proof that I was aware I would be paying?

You don’t need to do that because you can and should simply say, “I think there must be an error here. This was a business trip and these were all business expenses incurred as part of my work.” If they push back, then you can say, “It’s so normal for business expenses on work travel to be paid by the company that it didn’t occur to me you’d want me to pay part of these costs. It’s certainly not something we discussed in advance. I won’t be able to chip in for this and hope you’ll treat it like any other business expense.”

You’re no longer working there so they really have no leverage to make you pay, and they certainly don’t have any ethical standing to do so.

4. Can I ask my company to replace my personal laptop that I use for work?

I work at a very small UK tech company where I started as an intern. The day before I started, my new boss emailed me to tell me I would need to use my personal laptop for work because they would not be providing me with a company device. I hadn’t realized it was a BYOD company, but luckily I did have a laptop of my own.

Fast forward to two years later: the team has grown and newer employees are using company laptops. Meanwhile, I’m still using my personal laptop (I have a separate login for work). In the last couple of days, my computer has started complaining that the battery needs a service. Pretty soon, I reckon the whole thing is going to pack up entirely (using it for work purposes has really run it into the ground). I can just about afford to service the battery but I certainly won’t be able to afford a new laptop if my current one dies. My question is: do I have any standing to ask for the company to pay for part or all of a new personal laptop/battery? My boss and I have a good relationship, so I’m looking for a diplomatic way to frame a request if you think it’s reasonable.

They probably aren’t going to buy you a whole new computer that you’d own personally (as opposed to one the company would own), but if you’re going to continue using this one for work, you do have standing to ask them pay for the battery. You also have standing to just say, “My computer is dying and I don’t plan to replace it. Can we order me a company laptop like the newer hires have?” (Frankly, even if your battery weren’t dying, you’d have standing to say, “I’ve noticed we’re getting company laptops for new hires, but I’m still using my personal laptop like when I was first hired. Can we order a company laptop for me so I’m not putting so much wear and tear on my personal machine?”)

5. Did I get rejected because I asked for a few days to put my references together?

I recently submitted my resume for a management position with a large nonprofit I worked for 20 years ago in a different city. I had a phone interview with HR, an in-person interview with two people present and two over Skype, and a third interview over Skype. I felt they went very well, and in the final interview they asked me how soon I could start.

On a Monday afternoon, I received an email that they would like to check my references via an online reference checking program. They were requesting five references (with two of them being current or former managers) within the next 24 hours. I have been in my current position for seven years and have not kept in touch with my most recent former managers (although they have given me glowing references in the past) and I was not comfortable letting my current manager know that I was job hunting. I wrote them back the next morning to let them know that due to these factors, it might take a few days to hunt all the references down. By Thursday morning, all my references had been submitted. First thing on Friday, I received an email that they were not moving forward with my application. Do you think this is because I took three days to give them my references? Is asking for five references excessive or is this the norm these days?

Five isn’t wildly out of the norm, although three is more common. Five is a lot though.

It’s possible that they rejected you for reasons that have nothing to do with your references — like that their first choice candidate came through, or they had other reservations that you didn’t know about, or who knows what. It could also be that during the time it took for you to gather your references, they checked someone else’s references and were won over by the person. And it’s possible, although less likely, that they were put off that you didn’t have your references ready to go. (It’s true that normally you should have already put those together, on the assumption that if you’re interviewing, they’re likely to be requested at some point. But it’s not something to reject you over.)

I’ve been crying in front of my boss, are phone rejections more respectful, and more was originally published by Alison Green on Ask a Manager.

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I’m traveling to do some book promotion this week, so I’m running some reprints this week. This was originally published in 2012.

A reader writes:

Is it ever advisable to reach out to a hiring manager before applying to a position? For example, if you’re hoping for clarification of what they’re looking for in a candidate or something along those lines.  Is that okay or is it a bit obnoxious when you’re trying to get through piles of applications?

It varies, but in most cases, you’re better off just applying.

First, they’ve really told you what they intend to tell you about the job in the job posting. Yes, job postings aren’t always clear (sometimes far from it), but that’s what they’ve put out there to communicate with applicants. If other people are able to get the basics from it, you risk looking like you need hand-holding if you can’t. (And in my experience, when I’ve had candidates reach out to me with questions before applying, it’s nearly always just a rehash of what was in the posting, which leaves me wondering why they felt the need for special contact.)

Second, employers are fielding hundreds of applicants. It’s not realistic to talk with all these people, or even with half of them … and the vast, vast majority of them are going to be screened out in the initial resume review. So most hiring managers would rather get a look at your resume first before deciding if it makes sense to talk further. (And in my experience, the candidates who reach out before applying are rarely the strongest ones. That might just be the odds — since most candidates aren’t the strongest ones — or it might say something about the resourcefulness/confidence/self-sufficiency of the candidates who are the strongest. I’m not sure which it is.)

That said, there are some hiring managers who who talk briefly with people who reach out, particularly for certain jobs. I’m often happy to talk briefly with prospective candidates for senior or hard-to-fill jobs before they apply, because an especially important part of the hiring process with those  jobs is locating the right people and getting them in the candidate pool. But I want them to send me their resume first, so I have a sense of whether they’re likely to be competitive or not before I agree to do it. (And even in these cases, I’ve found that my observation above still holds true: The strongest candidates rarely bother with this; they just cut to the chase and apply. And so years of observing that means that I’ve always got some skepticism when someone reaches out with pre-application questions.)

Anyway … you might be thinking that it’s unreasonable to expect you to put time into writing a cover letter and perhaps filling out a time-consuming application if you can’t even get some basic questions answered first to determine your initial interest in the job. And maybe it is — but most hiring managers are busy people, they know that they’re going to reject 80% of applicants as soon as they skim their materials and so the odds are high that you’re in that group, and they know that if even a small fraction of applicants reached out for personal attention before applying, they’d be swamped.

Fair or unfair, that’s the reality.

So what’s the upshot? I’d say that it’s this: Reach out only if you really have to, and use a high bar for how you’re defining “have to.” If you’re just interested in learning more but figure you’re going to apply regardless, skip the call or email and just apply. If you’re not sure you’re qualified, well, that’s why we have the application process, so just apply. In most cases, just apply.

By the way, one exception to this is if you have a connection to the hiring manager. In that case, you’re not a stranger cold-calling or cold-emailing; you’re one contact reaching out to another, and that gives you an in that isn’t subject to everything above.

can you contact a hiring manager with questions before applying for a job? was originally published by Alison Green on Ask a Manager.

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