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“helping a bored new coworker, manager got injured at the concert we went to together, and more” plus 3 more Ask a Manager

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“helping a bored new coworker, manager got injured at the concert we went to together, and more” plus 3 more Ask a Manager


helping a bored new coworker, manager got injured at the concert we went to together, and more

Posted: 03 Jan 2017 09:03 PM PST

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

1. Helping to guide a bored new coworker

I have a new coworker who just started his first job fresh out of college. We do mostly the same work and I’m not his boss, but I have been working in this field for about four years. I’m trying to navigate how to guide him as I understand he is new to both the field and working in general. He is very nice and seems to understand what he needs to do, but he needs a lot of handholding and doesn’t take any initiative.

I’ll try to guide him by giving him simple tasks to do but he only seems to do them if someone is sitting with him. I’ve tried giving him step by step instructions and leaving him to work on his own, and I’ve also tried checking in on him periodically but either way he only seems to do tasks if someone is there watching him. Additionally conversation with him often veers very quickly away from work matters to twitter happenings or personal matters (side note: he asked all of us our ages on the first day. He also found out I was looking for a new room and asked if I wanted to get a place with him since he was looking too, so he doesn’t exactly understand boundaries yet).

Another problem is he often shows up late or doesn’t show up at all, often without telling anyone. We don’t have a rigid schedule or anything, but he definitely hasn’t put in a full day for a while, especially so when my boss isn’t around (he is a contractor and his boss is in another facility so there is little interaction between him and his boss).

To me, it seems he is bored and doesn’t see the point in a lot of the work if it doesn’t have a clear goal. It’s a very good job and could lead to great opportunities for him so I’m unsure of what to do. I can’t force him to be excited about the work, but I also don’t want him to get left behind and be dissatisfied. My boss doesn’t know exactly what’s going on yet. At what point do I tell my boss?

I'd tell her now and then wash your hands of it. You're telling her not in a complaining "Fergus sucks" kind of way, but in a "hey, I think Fergus could use some more guidance on XYZ" way. It sounds like your seniority has given you some standing to do things like assign him work and check in on him, so you definitely have standing to pass this kind of feedback along.

After that, though, I'd leave it up to your boss to handle. You're not responsible for teaching your coworker professional norms, addressing his attendance, or getting him more invested in his work. If he's open to it, you can certainly offer advice on that stuff (especially the first and third), but if he's not receptive, then I'd let it go and leave it to your boss — who sounds like she has some managing to do.

2. Our manager got injured at a concert that we all went to

Our manager tagged along to a concert with us, got hurt, and now won’t talk to us. And everyone at the company is spreading rumors about what happened.

I work in a smallish tech company that has a pretty young mix of employees. There’s a group of us who we all found out are in to heavy metal, hardcore, and punk music, and we’ll occasionally go out to concerts after work as a part of a larger group. A few weeks ago, we were sitting at lunch and talking about a show we were going to go to that night and how we had an extra ticket because one of our friends couldn’t make it. Our immediate manager, who’s only a few years older than us, kinda invited herself along. We weren’t really sure about it and tried to ask her if she was up to seeing Napalm Death, Pig Destroyer, and Power Trip. She said she was game, so we figured why not and gave her the ticket.

We get to the show and about halfway through the show, our manager gets elbowed in the face and gets her nose broken. We take her to the hospital and once she’s checked in, we call her boyfriend and she tells us to go home so we leave. The next day, we show up at work and she’s been kind of avoiding us ever since. She won’t tell anyone at work what happened besides “Things got out of hand.” So everyone at work is talking about what we could have done. What do I do to get people to stop wonder what happened and how do we apologize to our manager and get her to start talking to us again?

Stop treating it so delicately — be more matter-of-fact about it! Go talk to your manager right now, ask how she's doing, and say, "That sucks! I'm sorry that happened." Note that that’s not you taking responsibility for her injury — you're not responsible for that. That's just you expressing sympathy.

She probably feels a bit embarrassed — like she’s the Old Person who went to a concert that she couldn’t handle. By treating her normally, you’re likely to help her feel better. (Hell, if you have any good injury stories yourself, now’s the time to share them.)

And with others who ask what happened, it's fine to explain. "It was a rough show and someone in the crowd accidentally elbowed her in the face."

Really, just be straightforward. If you dance around it, it will seem like something scandalous happened and make everyone feel weirder. Be matter-of-fact, be kind to your manager, and assume that all involved will move on, as they should.

3. The friend I referred to my company isn't working out

I had referred my friend for a position at my work, as she had experience working in a call center. Ever since she was hired, she has missed a substantial amount of days due to illness, needing to find a new apartment (twice and possibly a third time today), no money for bus fare when her ride couldn’t pick her up, the list goes on and on. When she is at work, she does her job and does about average or a little better. However, when she misses all these days, the bosses come to me and ask what’s going on and now have taken to making comments on how I am to blame for her absences, even going as far as saying that I may lose my job because of her issues. Is that even legal? I already feel bad enough for encouraging them to hire such a flake, but can they really fire me for her shortcomings since I referred her?

Legally, yes, they could. In practice, that would be a really odd and unusual thing to do. First of all, they should have done their due diligence in hiring her — interviewed her thoroughly, checked references, etc. Second, while it's true that you vouched for her, you're not responsible for the fact that she's not working out. If she's not working out, they need to let her go, not keep haranguing you about it. It would be fair for them to be more skeptical of your recommendations in the future, but that's it.

I'd address this proactively. Go to your boss and say this: "I'm mortified that I recommended someone who isn't working out. I really apologize — I thought she'd be reliable, and I didn't expect this to happen. I understand if you need to let her go, but I want to be really clear that I had no idea this would happen. I certainly hope that you won't let it impact your assessment of my own work and my own work ethic."

4. Coworkers are asking if I'm trying to have kids

In about a month, I’ll be traveling to the Pacific Islands for two weeks for a client. I’m super excited, as I love to travel. Everyone for the most part has been supportive and happy for me, but I’ve seen a strange side effect of this assignment. All the sudden, everyone in the office wants to talk about whether my husband and I are trying to have kids right now. I know everyone means well; they are apparently worried about Zika exposure, but it still feels a little invasive. I also can’t help but wonder if people are trying to suss out whether I’m going to have kids soon to assess whether I am competition for promotions, etc. What are your thoughts about talking with coworkers about family planning? Am I being too sensitive here?

I'm sure they mean well and think they're being helpful, but they're being intrusive. You can politely shut it down by saying, "I'm fine and know about Zika, please don't worry" — and then if anyone continues after that, "I don't want to discuss my and my husband's reproductive plans at work, as I'm sure you can understand." They're likely not thinking of it quite in those terms, so nudging them to realize what they're really asking you will probably help.

5. Are small companies often disorganized?

I have been working for a small marketing company (21 employees) for 1 1/2 years now. Something that has troubled me from day one was that there is no HR department and very little resources available to the employees. The partners are married (which makes thing even more complicated, as their discussion of who is buying what for dinner that night happens in my office) and the office accountant acts as the contact for sick time, vacation time and paycheck questions. Often our paychecks don’t show the correct number of vacation hours we have accrued, holiday schedules are not given far in advance, and conflict resolution is non-existent.

Questions regarding 401Ks or health insurance are supposed to go to the partners of the company. The only problem is that they are both far too distracted to check in with us about HR items and the answer is typically “look at the handbook.” They say they have an open door policy, but the underlying tone is that it is a burden to them to answer our questions when we go to them for guidance. Plus, they are not even certified HR professionals!

I luckily have health insurance from one of my parents, but opening my 401K has been a nightmare and no one has clear instructions for me. We do high level consulting so this isn’t just some throwaway job for myself or my colleges, this is a career and several of my colleagues rely on the benefits to survive (even though they are far from comprehensive).

I suppose my question is if this is common for small/ family companies to operate like this? I find myself getting upset over the lack of employee resources and the professionalism, but I wonder if I am just being entitled.

Yeah, it’s not uncommon for small businesses to function that way, especially ones run by married couples. And family can (but doesn't always) introduce an additional layer of issues into the mix.

Not every small business is a mess — many are great — but there's a definite correlation between size and level of organization/professionalism. (That said, not all of what you describe is inherently dysfunctional; having no formal HR is normal at that size and isn’t in and of itself a problem, but the other stuff is.)

helping a bored new coworker, manager got injured at the concert we went to together, and more was originally published by Alison Green on Ask a Manager.

are my examples in interviews too negative?

Posted: 03 Jan 2017 10:59 AM PST

A reader writes:

Inspired by you and the commenters here at AAM, my top goal for 2017 is to launch a new career in a new industry. I’m putting together answers for potential interview questions (of the classic "tell me about a time when…” format) and I keep running into an issue: the place I’ve spent the last decade working my way up the ladder is incredibly toxic and dysfunctional.

Toxic dysfunction is really common for our industry — one of the reasons I’m getting out — but as I’m putting together some broadly applicable sample responses, I’m beginning to worry that my best examples of dealing with challenging situations, difficult people, and completely irrational goalpost moving are too negative.

For example, last year I had a difficult new employee whose attitude and behavior took a nosedive at the three-month mark. I'm an experienced manager who has been able to correct issues like this in the past, so I started working with her to fix these problems and began documenting everything in case we had to let her go. By the six-month mark, she'd only gotten immeasurably worse, and I started taking steps to fire her. At which point my boss (who had already been one of the worst managers I'd ever worked under) began attacking me publicly, sabotaging my projects, writing me up in my performance appraisal for things that had never happened, and lots of other fun and games. It turned out, of course, that he and my employee were sleeping together, and every time I cracked down on her for doing things that were potentially illegal and definitely harmful to the business, he would retaliate. Firing her was off the table, and she acted like a screaming, name-calling, spoiled child on a daily basis.

So I did the only thing I could do: I helped her rewrite her resume, coached her through the interview process, and pushed her into a new job outside of our company. Then I marched down to HR, gave them my file on her, and made sure that she'd never be able to weasel her way back in.

A lot of my examples from this place are like this. When I've interviewed in my industry in the past, people nod and then tell me their own horror stories. But I'm worried that when I start trotting out these kinds of stories to sane people, it's going to sound like I'm unbalanced and send up a bunch of red flags. I can tone them down, but there's a definite pattern. I've taken classes for and had coffee with people from the industry I'd like to move into, and when we really start trading war stories they look at me like I've got two heads. I think my experience at my current company have given me valuable skills in managing a variety of crises, but how do I toe the line between honesty and scaring off potential employers?

Ooooh, great question. I think you're right to worry that examples like this are too extreme.

When you use drama-filled examples in interviews, the focus becomes the drama more than your skills. Even if you're able to position yourself as the sane person who maintained a level head in the midst of toxicity, the drama tends to overshadow everything else. You want the focus to be on you and your skills — but most people hearing stories like the one here won't be able to help focusing primarily on the outrageousness you're describing.

There's also a point where an interviewer will wonder what kind of experience you really got at a company that's so dysfunctional, and whether it's applicable to their own environment.

I do think a single outrageous story can work when (a) it's just one, not a bunch of them and (b) it's not about your immediate work environment, but rather about dealing with, for example, an especially difficult client.

But otherwise the problems above kick in and your interviewer's takeaway is too likely to be "Wow! What a clusterfudge." And while she won't be thinking that about you exactly, that's not the overall feeling you want an interviewer to be left with.

So. Do you really not have any tamer examples from your most recent job that you could use? Presumably not every occurrence in that job was infused with the kind of extreme dysfunction you've described here, right? The more ridiculous ones are more easily remembered, of course, but I bet that if you dig deeper, you’ll find more mundane examples that you can use in interviews.

are my examples in interviews too negative? was originally published by Alison Green on Ask a Manager.

my boss asks for my input, won’t take it, and then turns out to be wrong

Posted: 03 Jan 2017 09:30 AM PST

A reader writes:

I have a dilemma that I’m not sure what to do about. Background: I work for a small consulting firm in which we all telecommute and work from home. Boss is a late-60s workaholic who keeps saying he might retire one of these days and I (late-30s, female) am one of only two other full-time employees besides him. Technically I am in the marketing department but I am really his assistant and wear many hats. I have been working for him for eight years now.

Here’s the dilemma: Frequently my boss will ask my opinion about something, disagree with me, and then when what I suggested turns out to be the right thing to do, will then change his mind and agree with me. Here are three recent examples:

• He wanted me to make two order forms for an item we were selling. He wanted one order form for when people wanted to order only one copy of our handbook and a second order form with volume discounts that we could send out to people who requested the list of volume discounts. I replied that I couldn’t understand why we would have two separate order forms as I have never seen such a thing for any other items in the world. We got into a GIANT disagreement, I finally caved and created the two order forms, and a month later he decided to just make one order form for any possible orders of the handbook.

• For the same handbook, he wanted to charge people a set amount to ship one book and for me to figure out how much our printer was charging to ship multiple copies and charge purchasers at cost for shipping multiple copies. This time I asked, rather than stated my opinion, whether since the difference between shipping one copy and shipping multiple copies was minimal, wouldn’t it be easier to just charge the same for shipping any number of copies? He hemmed and hawed but finally, after my having to put off charging purchasers for shipping, agreed with me.

• For a previous edition of the handbook, he wanted to send out review copies to about 80 people asking for their suggestions and he wanted to do so as inexpensively as possible. He asked me to research several online printing options and suggest which one would be the best to use. I told him that the cheapest option had an absolutely terrible user interface and that ordering with that system was “fraught with peril” (yes, I used that phrase) and suggested the second-cheapest. He decided to go with the cheapest against my suggestion, and then when we were ordering copies from that website it went TERRIBLY WRONG and we ended up ordering from my suggested website.

TL;DR: It is making me feel like my opinion doesn’t matter. What’s particularly galling is that many times when he asks what I think I don’t really have an opinion, so I feel like the rare times I really feel strongly about something I have very solid reasons for feeling that way. It is very frustrating and I’m trying to figure out what to do so that he will actually listen to me and agree with me the first time around so that I don’t have to sit at home and think, “I told you so” but never actually say it.

I also feel like my being 30 years younger than him makes him think that I am just a kid who doesn’t know anything, but if that’s the case, then why does he ask my opinion about these things in the first place? And of course I’m not a kid, I’m nearly 40 and I do know things, so how can I be more assertive in these cases?

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

my boss asks for my input, won't take it, and then turns out to be wrong was originally published by Alison Green on Ask a Manager.

should I re-hire an employee with a terrible attitude?

Posted: 03 Jan 2017 07:59 AM PST

A reader writes:

I briefly worked at a terrible company, where I was brought in to help fix problems with a department that had been underperforming due mostly to incompetent leadership. Soon after I was hired, it became obvious to me that the company was a mess and that they hadn't been honest with me about important aspects of the job, so I made the decision to move on after less than six months.

I did my best to be a good leader while I was there and for the most part succeeded. However, one person on my team – Joe – was very difficult from the day we met. He was combative, rude, and insubordinate, and our entire time working together was a game of chicken, wherein he was daring me to fire him while making it clear that, for political reasons, he was sure that I did not have the power to do so (he was basically correct). Despite his attitude, he was easily the most qualified person on my team, but nothing I did to try to connect with him worked. In his defense, this company was a nightmare and most people who had been there for a while were extremely frustrated. On the other hand, he had been there for several years, by his own admission had hated it the entire time, and yet seemed content to stay and be a thorn in the side of every manager he had rather than move on or attempt to fix the issue.

This former company (unsurprisingly) became insolvent and is now selling off the line of business that I managed, and my current company is in the process of purchasing it. It will be under my org once the transaction closes. Most other competent people from the old company have already left, and so Joe is one of the few with any institutional knowledge – and this company was so mismanaged that a lot of key information is likely missing from the documentation that we'll receive.

Normally I'd want to hire someone from the former company to help us make sure the takeover is successful, and for various reasons, Joe is the logical option – the other people who are still there are either too junior or incompetent. Joe has made it clear that he would not accept a contractor position – it is regular full-time employment or nothing.

Several peers from my current company have been pressuring me to give Joe a shot because they are concerned that we need someone who "knows where the bodies are buried." But none of them knew him previously, and right now he's on good behavior because he really wants a job with us – he is the deal lead on his side and when he tries, he is capable of making a very good impression. Part of me agrees that we do need him, but I'm very hesitant to bring in someone who I know to be a chronic attitude problem and who has stated clearly in the past that he has no respect for me as a leader.

This feels like a "no win" scenario. If I refuse to hire him and the transition goes poorly (I am the primary person responsible for its success), people will say it was reckless not to have brought Joe on. But if I hire him and he's the complete jerk that I've seen him to be in the past, I will be severely distracted by dealing with a nasty, disrespectful employee who is a master of toeing the line in a way that makes him very hard to fire. What should I do?

Good god, no, don't re-hire someone who you know to be a nightmare and who has directly told you that he doesn’t respect you.

And you need to tell your colleagues at your new company why you won’t hire him so that they have context for your decision. For example: “When I worked with him in the past, Joe’s behavior was chronically toxic and disruptive. He was abrasive and alienated most colleagues, disrupted meetings, quarreled regularly with peers and those above him, and regularly refused to do assignments he didn’t care for (or whatever the specifics are). At any other company I would have fired him, except there he was protected politically. But I would never knowingly invite that disruption on to my team; the value he brought was far outweighed by the disruption he caused.”

The only exception to this is maybe if you are very, very sure that your current company would let you actually manage Joe this time — meaning that you could hold him to reasonable standards of behavior and fire him if he doesn't meet them. If you wanted to pursue that option, though, I'd tell him very clearly beforehand what to expect. For instance: "I value the work that you do on X and Y and the knowledge that you'd bring on Z. However, as you know, I had serious concerns about your behavior when we last worked together. In my experience, you were combative and abrasive with me and other colleagues, to the point that it impacted your effectiveness in your role. I want to be very clear that that's not something I'd allow in this job. If the same problems came up again, we would need to quickly part ways. And I want to make sure that you know that this company is much quicker to take action on those kinds of issues."

But before even considering this, you’d need to double and triple check with your new boss and your new HR department that you’d have complete authority to fire Joe and that they wouldn’t stand in your way if it came to that. And frankly, even if they give you every assurance of support in the world, I'd still advise against it, given what you know about Joe. I’d even worry that he might poison trash-talk you to your new colleagues — after all, this is someone who told you that he doesn’t respect you.

Institutional knowledge is valuable. But people often over-value it to the point that they keep on people who they really, really shouldn't keep on. If Joe weren't interested in the job or if he disappeared tomorrow to live off the grid, you'd find a way to function, right? It's hard to imagine that you shouldn't just do that now, given the very likely price of hiring Joe.

should I re-hire an employee with a terrible attitude? was originally published by Alison Green on Ask a Manager.

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