asking an employee to IM instead of calling, bad writing in hiring emails, and more

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

1. Can I ask my employee to use chat instead of calling every time?

I am a middle-manager with a small team. We are mostly working from home, and going into the office one day a week.

One of my team members calls me several times per day. Sometimes they will call me 10 minutes before our scheduled catch up, and often this is for no good reason at all — for example, to say they are moving meeting X or to give me an update that could easily have waited until our weekly meeting.

Their calling me disrupts my work flow and makes me waste time making small chat. 99% of the time they could have simply sent me a message on the instant chat instead of calling. How can I approach this in a sensitive way, given that we are all WFH and perhaps they want to show they’re working hard, or simply that they prefer to call over instant messaging?

Be straightforward! “I’m usually juggling a lot during the day and the phone breaks up my focus in a way that IM doesn’t, so could you default to IM’ing me instead of calling unless it’s one of our scheduled calls or an emergency?”

If you weren’t already doing regularly scheduled calls with them, I’d suggest that you start that (and would point out that small talk has value when you’re building relationships with people you manage) … but it sounds like you do have scheduled catch-ups. As long as you spend some time on softer relationship-building stuff in those conversations, it’s reasonable to more assertively manage interruptions the rest of the time.

2. Bad writing in hiring emails

Today, I received an email from a company I applied to a couple of months ago asking me if I was still interested in a position. Twice, the sender used the possessive “your” when they should have used the contraction, and they used a question mark to punctuate a sentence that clearly was not a question.

I found it really hard to take this person seriously and really wanted to forward the email to their manager (whom I found on the company’s website). Should I say something to the sender? Or should I just let it go? Am I being a snob?

I say this as someone who cares a lot about good writing: You need to let it go, and also reconsider not taking seriously someone who makes mistakes in their writing. Loads of people are smart and talented at all sorts of things but not at writing. That’s no reason to respect them less, just like you (presumably) wouldn’t respect a good writer less if they struggled with, say, physics. Forwarding the correspondence to their manager when you don’t even work there would be so weird that it would reflect more poorly on you than on them!

3. Should I remove a social media post at the request of someone in it?

I’ve been managing social media and marketing for a small business – let’s call it Winterfell – for about one year. I accepted the tasks as a favor for the owner, Ned, who is family. I have no background in either of these categories, and I have no similar experience to help me navigate the request I’ve received: Another contractor, Arya, has asked if I would remove a social post that includes her photo.

Several months ago, Winterfell participated in a fair. Arya had recently won a local award for the type of work she contributes to the business, and would be attending the fair as a promoter of Winterfell. Ned wanted to highlight Arya as a draw for Winterfell’s presence at the fair. Arya had shown an aversion to social media – she does not have profiles on social platforms, and her website is not easily located – so I asked if she was okay with this plan. When creating the social post that announced Winterfell’s participation in the fair, I included Arya’s photo from her website. I showed her the proposed post, and she confirmed she was okay with it. With her approval, I made the post live across our social platforms.

This week, Arya asked if I would remove the post from one of our social profiles. She stated that she didn’t like to keep her photos on social media for very long. I’m frustrated because I specifically asked and confirmed whether she felt okay having her photo included in the post. Additionally, the wording of her request makes me think Arya might believe the post is only on this one specific social platform.

Arya had little to no professional experience when she joined Winterfell. Ned indicated he’d like me to mentor her, but I’ve found it difficult to get a read on her comprehension via email only. I’ve been offering support and guidance when I can and being sensitive to her situation and learning curve, but the whole thing has me aggravated.

My instinct is to not remove the post from any platform, because doing so would 1) remove the announcement of the event / details / Winterfell’s participation, and 2) create a gap on the profiles (we don’t post very often). However, knowing Arya’s preference is having no social media presence, should I remove the post while explaining that this is a one-time allowance of a request that affects the business, and that such a request cannot be fulfilled again?

Remove the posts, because it’s crappy to keep up someone’s photo after they’ve asked you to remove it. Remove it from all your social platforms, not just the one she knows about, since it seems clear she doesn’t want it up at all. Put up new posts without mentioning her if you’d like to, so the details of the event are still available. This shouldn’t be a big deal.

From there, you can explain to Arya that in the future, she should tell you from the outset if her permission is only good for a specific period of time since you don’t typically remove posts. But I would not frame it as a “one-time allowance”; that’s excessively stern when it doesn’t need to be. She’s also a contractor, not an employee, and she did you a favor by letting you use her as a draw. You don’t want to sound like you don’t realize this.

(Speaking of which, any chance Arya is FREESTYLE 2005 Fuel Filler Door 9805965? It’s pretty odd to be asked to mentor a contractor, unless they’re actually an employee who’s being illegally handled as a contractor.)

4. Coworkers and eating disorder recovery

I’ve struggled with an eating disorder for years. At my toughest point, I was severely restricting food, working out to the point of exhaustion, and doing intermittent fasting. While I’m doing better, I don’t always allow myself to eat meals, and if I do eat, my schedule is very different due to the fasting mentality that persists. I’m typically eating breakfast when my coworkers are getting ready for lunch. I have a full team of mental and nutritional professionals helping me sort this out, but it’s a slow process.

For the past several days, my new coworker Sheila has commented that she has noticed that I eat later. Or questions if I’m taking a “working lunch” when really, I’m working through my breakfast because we get 30 minutes for lunch and I prefer to take that time off with my lunch not breakfast (if I eat lunch, that is). I have to eat my meals in the kitchen because we’re in a cold climate and protocols prohibit me from eating meals at my desk.

Having my eating habits seemingly under the microscope is not helping me on my path to recovery. I’m not close enough to Sheila to disclose this info to her (nor do I think I need to). I’m not her supervisor, but I rank above her in the company and frequently project manager her and act in a superior role within our department and I don’t want things to be weird. We’re a small organization with no formal HR.

How do I handle this? My supervisor is Sheila’s supervisor’s supervisor, if that matters. My supervisor is familiar with my mental health journey but doesn’t know anything about my ED. I’m a fat woman, so I don’t present like most people think of when they think ED.

“I really hate having people comment on my meals — I’d appreciate if you wouldn’t.” If it happens after that (which would be Sheila taking things to a truly problematic level of pushy, so hopefully this won’t be necessary): “Wow, you have commented on this a lot, even though I’ve asked you not to. What’s up?”

Things shouldn’t need to be weird but if they get that way, Sheila would be the one making them so, not you.

5. Putting undocumented clients at ease more quickly

I am a partner in a small professional firm. Sometimes we have clients with undocumented employees or what we call “off the books owners,” as undocumented people can’t/won’t be partners in a business. This is where my dilemma lies.

The other day, I was in a meeting with a new client with three partners. We were in there for an hour and I couldn’t figure out why they had come to me. They hemmed and hawed but eventually disclosed that two of the partners received their legal citizenship during Covid. They had been reporting everything under false Social Security numbers for them for years and now needed to change. They wanted my advice about how to do this. I assured them there was no judgment here and we had dealt with this many times. I went over how to fix this and thought that was it but instead it felt like the meeting just started. There were a lot of needs related to their undocumented status and we spent 45 minutes going through them. This is a common occurrence as a lot of undocumented people have an understandable fear of contacting anyone in authority. I often am asked to handle matters like this that can be terrifying for those who have had to hide most of their lives.

The nature of my job is I must bill them for the entire meeting. That seems wrong to me but what I “sell” is my knowledge and my time. Most of the first hour was them feeling out if they could trust me with their issues around being undocumented. I can’t overlook time that would have otherwise been spent on another client, but I feel like I’m billing them for getting to know me. I’m pretty adept at putting clients at ease enough to tell me their issues within 10-15 minutes normally, but with undocumented clients, it usually takes 4-5 times longer to get them to open up.

Do you have any suggestions for language I can use to speed up the process? Obviously, I can’t start every meeting with, “By the way, this is a judgment-free zone. If you are undocumented, please tell me now so I don’t have to bill you for the time it takes for you to be comfortable.” I have done this sort of work for years and I have never found the right words.

Can you give a brief intro to yourself and your firm at the start of these meetings and, as part of that, mention that one of your specialties is helping individuals and businesses navigate issues related to being undocumented? You’d presumably also mention your other specialties, but by stating clearly and right up-front that it’s work you do a lot of, you might be able to help people feel more at ease more quickly.

weekend open thread – February 26-27, 2022

This comment section is open for any non-work-related discussion you’d like to have with other readers, by popular demand.

Here are the rules for the weekend posts.

Book recommendation of the week: Fall or Fly: The Strangely Hopeful Story of Foster Care and Adoption in Appalachia, by Wendy Welch. Fascinating and heart-breaking and frustrating and important.

 I make a commission if you use that Amazon link.

it’s your Friday good news

It’s your Friday good news!

1.  “I am an avid reader (and recommender) and wanted to share a little Friday Good News!
After finally making the decision to launch my job search in earnest, I am thrilled to be starting my new job next month. I was truly torn about leaving my current role, but have found an opportunity with a pay increase, that is majority remote and with just a delightful team. If I ever needed confirmation that I made the right decision, my current employer has been really treating me poorly during my notice period. Thank you for your excellent advice on required notice and how to resign. I was able to negotiate a shorter notice period than I was told would be required and thank goodness I did. Please take it from me – nothing good comes from a long goodbye!

At the end of one particularly snark-filled day this week, I came home to an unusual package. In it was a bottle of champagne and a note from my new boss wecloming me to the team and toasting new beginnings. How classy is that? So if you were wondering how to lay the groundwork for the onboarding of a new fully remote employee, I recommend a nice gift in the week or so before they start, reminding them that they absolutely made the right decision.”

2.  “I’ve been following your site since late last year and have learned so much more about navigating workplace nuances and best practices to land a new job (which I desperately needed). Before I began consulting your excellent advice, I’d been on the job hunt for about 7 months. I thought I had a great resume and cover letter, but learned from you that I could definitely stand to beef those up.

I’m happy to report that I’ve just landed a new job with full benefits and a 30% pay increase in my field (publishing). The best part is I’ll be working with a publisher who puts out works relating to many of the crafts and hobbies I’m involved with in my free time.

I know you get lots of these, but it’s important to me that you know how valuable your site is, and how much you’re legitimately changing lives. It’s such important work. I’ve been so depressed and downtrodden the past few years at my current employer, and now I’m feeling lighter and more like the person I know myself to be deep down. You gave me that, and I can never repay it. Thank you, with everything in me, thank you!”

3.  “I’m one of those millennials who graduated directly into the recession with an impractical degree, and I’ve been underemployed and underpaid ever since. I’ll spare you the details, but they’re both brutal and typical for low-paid essential workers. For the first time, I’m in a ‘good’ job (benefits, prestige, coworkers, everything), and I’m constantly on alert that I’m going to fuck this up and end up working back in an unheated office being yelled at by people who think covid is made-up. Today I got a minor correction from my boss in an email. SO MINOR. And my entire body started to panic, from stomach to sweaty palms, like ‘this is it you’re out of here.’

BUT. I have been a regular reader of your column long enough to realize three things:
a) my emotional reaction was WILDLY overblown to this situation
b) I should take responsibility for my error while also explaining how I arrived there
c) this should be done in a casual, ‘people make mistakes but of course I want to do better’ tone, not ‘OH SHIT DON’T FIRE ME I’M SO SORRY IT WILL NEVER HAPPEN AGAIN.’

So I did do that. And it was fine. My boss even mentioned that he appreciated my quick response, and that there’s a phrasing used in our hiring material that often causes this exact mistake. This was just a very normal, non-event—but before I started reading your column, it wouldn’t have felt that way to me. (Like, don’t worry—I’m also in therapy.) I know you help a lot of people with wild Hawaiian rolls problems, and people who can’t quit fucking their bosses problems, and all manner of Truly Wild Situations—but you also help people with little daily things like stressful emails, and I’m grateful.”

open thread – February 25-26, 2022

It’s the Friday open thread!

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

A new rule I’m trying out this week: Questions only this week (no posts just relaying work stories). I want to see if that makes these threads any easier to navigate, since they often get quite long.

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

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

1. Our boss’s lack of self-esteem is driving us crazy

My supervisor has the self-esteem of a 90’s emo kid, and it is driving our team crazy. To compensate for his issues, he is constantly saying bad things about himself but then follows this up with inappropriate comparisons of himself to other colleagues, designed to put them down so he looks better at their expense. There is then an unspoken expectation/pressure put on us to affirm to him what a great person and supervisor he is. I don’t buy into that game but some of my teammates have done so occasionally because they feel sorry for the guy and want him to just be quiet, go away, and let us get back to work. We have enough to worry about without feeling like we are responsible for managing his self -worth.

The problem is, he’s gotten worse and started trying to drag us further into this sick dynamic by putting down his other teams as a way to “praise” us. We are all very uncomfortable with this, and we made an agreement recently to directly ask him to stop as a team the next time this happened. So the time came this past week, and we made it explicitly clear to him that we don’t want him saying bad things about our colleagues on different teams to us, and we don’t want to hear about our performance as a comparison ever. We told him to directly tell us what he likes and leave other people/teams out of it. In response, he kept trying to talk trash another team, and I had to become very assertive to make him stop. He then said that this is how our director thinks so we needed to get used to it. I told him I didn’t care if the director did that or not, that this was a boundary we were setting and he was to respect it.

He sat there like a whipped puppy for a bit and then walked over to a young female member of our team and told her, “Well, at least you don’t look tired today like you did yesterday.” Another team member and I questioned why he would say this to her and got him to leave – but there it was, yet again him having to put someone down to make himself feel better.

I’d report him, but there’s too much risk. I’m working on a plan to get out, which sucks because I otherwise love my job and my teammates. I can’t leave immediately though. Any advice on how to deal with this guy until I can get out?

It sounds like you’re all doing incredibly well at dealing with him — you’ve clearly and firmly stated your boundaries, and then when he tried a new way of violating them, you called him on it again. A lot of teams wouldn’t feel comfortable doing that (sometimes for good reason, given the power dynamics) but you and your coworkers did it successfully.

It’ll be interesting to see whether the message sticks and how he responds to it over the long-term: does he actually stop the trash-talk and move forward, or fall back into it, or — importantly — does he become a worse manager to you in new and different ways (possibly driven by resentment over being called out)? Right now though, you and your team mates are in a position of power — you’ve come together as a group to draw a clear and reasonable boundary and you’ve shown you will be assertive when your manager crosses lines. Unless something changes significantly (like if he becomes vindictive or hostile in ways that matter), keep doing that! If he starts putting people down again, say, “Fred, you know we don’t want to hear that.” Say it breezily and immediately change the subject. And if you have any mechanism for giving feedback to the management above him and trust them to manage it well, consider doing it — this guy sounds like a drag on your team in the exact opposite way of what he’s meant to do.

2. My employees half-assed the hiring process for promotions

In November I was promoted to supervisor of my department after my previous supervisor retired. Several weeks ago, we learned that he had put in for promotions for a couple of staff working in our lowest titles and that the titles were posted. However, for reasons unknown (government agency) they posted the titles outside of our site as well, meaning I now had seven applicants for the two spots. My two staff are young men in their twenties who have struggled in their positions but whom my previous supervisor was mentoring, hence the promotions.

Here’s where my problem is: these two guys filled out their paperwork as if they expected the job to be handed to them. One did not do an application at all. One did, but barely filled it out, he didn’t even check if he was a U.S. citizen! And the interviews — barely answering questions. The outside people applying are obviously so much better I have to hire them. But then what do I do with my staff? (Government job, remember.)

Use it as an opportunity to coach them on what’s expected when they’re applying for promotions! Talk to them about why they weren’t competitive with other candidates so that they know why they weren’t selected and are better prepared next time.

One caveat: Is there any chance their previous manager told them this process was just to rubber-stamp promotions for them? That wouldn’t excuse barely answering questions in the interviews, but you’d want to account for it in your messaging if so. (And you might point out that even if you’re told you can half-ass a hiring process, it’s a good idea to put some effort into being impressive anyway; you never know who you might end up competing against.)

3. How to set expectations in an interview process where I can be very picky

I left the workforce/my industry in June of 2020 because my husband’s business was growing rapidly and our household gained much more financially with me helping him than staying at my job. When I left, a few clients followed me and I set up a small LLC so I could continue to service them on the side (there was no non-compete clause with my employer, I left amicably and they knew the clients were following me).

Since then, I’ve added a few clients by word of mouth, but I haven’t done anything to market myself or solicit new work. I have, however, received several inquiries and invites from recruiters and HR reps looking to hire. Nothing has really caught my eye until recently. A unique and somewhat niche position has been created at a local company and they have been struggling to fill it. Someone at the company located my profile via LinkedIn and reached out to chat. The call went well, was very introductory, and a follow-up call with another individual is in the works.

As I progress through this process, how do I set clear expectations without sounding demanding or naive? With my current situation, I can commit to no more than 30 hours per week and need schedule flexibility and mostly remote work. I also am making a very good hourly rate with my own client base, even though the work is not high in volume at all, and it wouldn’t make sense for me to accept a position at lower compensation levels. I am fully aware this arrangement will not work for most employers and that I’m essentially wanting the best of all options, but it’s all I can offer at this time. I am blessed that my husband’s business and my own client base has created the opportunity where me working is a choice and not a necessity. However, I don’t want to communicate anything in a way that sounds unreasonable or selfish. I definitely think it’s in everyone’s best interest to not accept a position where I overpromise and under-deliver. It’s either a good fit or it’s not, and I’m completely okay either way. I just worry it’s going to come off like I’m in fairytale land.

Good companies are used to dealing with candidates who have options! If they think the idea of an applicant who has other appealing options is a fairytale, they’re telling you something very valuable about the kind of power they want to be able to exercise over employees.

So you can be pretty matter-of-fact about it. I’d say it this way: “I’m really interested in this role! I want to be up-front that I’m limited to 30 hours a week right now and would need some flexibility with my schedule (fill in with specifics here) and the ability to work remotely. Is that prohibitive for this position or does it make sense to keep talking?” If that seems workable, you could then say, “Could we touch base on salary as well? I’d be looking for around $X to make a move like this — is that in line with your range?”

4. Employer badly messed up tax withholding

My friend Jane just discovered that, despite taking zero allowances, her employer hasn’t actually been deducting federal taxes from her paychecks since 2020. She didn’t notice because, well, 2020, and now she owes thousands of dollars all at once. The company has punted responsibility, saying it’s the payroll company’s fault and they’re “looking into it.” Other than that, the only solution they offered was to give Jane a loan (!) to be repaid within three paychecks(!!!). I don’t know Jane’s financials, but it feels safe to assume loan repayment for two full years of taxes would require most if not all of those three paychecks, and that seems like a bizarre solution anyway. She’s a salaried employee getting W2s so it’s not an accidental independent contractor issue. Is there anything Jane can do?

She can push back! She does legally owe those taxes and it’s unlikely that her employer will just pay them for her, but they can certainly offer her much longer than three weeks to repay it. She should decide what timeframe is doable for her and then ask for that amount of time. If she encounters resistance, she should try to escalate it higher in the company, and if her manager isn’t already involved she should ask them to advocate for her.

If you’re thinking it’s the company’s fault and they should cover what’s now owed … rightly or wrongly, that doesn’t usually happen with paycheck errors (and while they’re responsible for making the error, they’re likely to say that Jane is also responsible for looking at her checks). But they should recognize that this is a huge and horrible thing for her and should work with her to minimize the burden as much as possible.

when recruiters ask, “how did the interview go?”

A reader writes:

I’m currently interviewing for a position with a large tech company. I’ve had a phone screener, an interview with team members, and an interview with the head of the team. This all happened over the course of two weeks. A few days ago, the recruiter emailed me asking to set up a call. It was a pretty nice chat where he let me know that timelines had changed a bit. He said it may be a week or two before he has any updates, and that I shouldn’t interpret silence from him as non-interest in me as a candidate. Really a genuinely lovely chat and a nice setting of expectations.

On to my question: he started the call by asking me “how the interview went/how I liked the team” and “how my expectations from the job descriptions matched up to the role as described by the team in the interviews.” I tried to be honest (the interviews went very well, we had pretty thoughtful/not surface level discussions, and the role aligned to my expectations from the job description). I’m worried that my answers came off as too simple or obvious, but I was being totally honest. I’m curious if you have more insight into why recruiters ask these kinds of questions/what types of responses they’re looking for.

A related aside about why I’m asking as well: when I was offered my current job, the recruiter used the tactic of asking repeatedly if I’m “excited for the role” and “liked the team” to steamroll me into accepting the lowball offer. It was only my second time ever negotiating, so I admit I was a bit naive/green, and I was also desperate to leave my previous job. However, the impact of that offer on my salary growth at my current job has had repercussions to this day. That mistake makes me not want to ever appear too excited for a role or have over-excitement used against me, which is why I’m a bit conflicted about how to answer how an interview went in this context.

Anyway, I’d appreciate your insight or any stock lines that you recommend. I don’t want to make that same mistake again, but I am incredibly excited for the role that I’m currently up for and don’t want to mess it up.

A recruiter asking how the interview went and whether it matched your expectations is a different thing from a recruiter repeatedly pushing you say you’re excited about the job.

Asking how the interview went is just a way to make sure you’re still interested and find out if you have any concerns. The same is true of asking whether your expectations matched up to what you heard in the interview. They want to ferret out any problems so if you do have concerns, they’re not surprised by them later.

Your answer to those questions sounds fine. That kind of straightforward “yes, everything was great and I’m interested in next steps” is what they’re hoping will be the case. Which is not to say that you shouldn’t raise concerns if you have them! If you do, they’d rather get the chance to talk those through now than much later down the road.

That previous recruiter who repeatedly asked if you were “excited for the role” and if you liked the team sounds like he was trying to pump you up so he could sell you on the job. That’s a sales tactic, and you should be wary of it.

There’s nothing wrong with showing excitement about the role, though. Obviously there’s a point where it crosses a line — you don’t want to sound so excited that you’re not seeing things clearly or like you have a level of pep that will be Meena Bazaar - VHS Video Tape Cassette Bollywood Hindi Movie Film — but genuine enthusiasm is a good thing, not a bad one. You ended up feeling it was used against you in salary negotiations, but it sounds like that’s because you were dealing with a crappy recruiter, not because you showed your hand. You can show enthusiasm and still make it clear that you expect to be paid appropriately for your work. In fact, that enthusiasm can be a part of your negotiation — “I’m excited about the work you’re doing and I’d love to come on board. Can you go up to $X?” And if so someone cites your enthusiasm in pushing you to accept a lower salary, you can hold firm — “I do think it’s a great role! If you can go up to $X, I’d love to accept.”

update: the mom quitting her job because of Covid

Earlier this month in an article for Slate, I quoted a working mom who had said this:

“I like my job. I like being a working mom. But I have decided to quit my job in a month. I don’t think it’s fair for my 2.5 year old to be plopped in front of the TV all day while my husband works from home. I’m in healthcare and expected to be in the office. I don’t think it’s fair to expose my child to long COVID or unknown future health problems because I want, but don’t financially need, to work (my husband makes twice what I do, them’s the breaks).”

Last week she wrote to me with this update:

I’m the commenter who had decided to quit my job in a month to stay home with my too-young-to-vax kid that you published in your recent article on Slate. I just wanted to send you an update because things have changed! And it’s all thanks to the commenters on the original post.

To add some additional context to my decision to quit my job (on top of all the COVID ridiculousness and burnout):

1. I work in healthcare with an in-demand degree so I felt confident I could rejoin the workforce again whenever I want.

2. One of my parents has recently been diagnosed with two different, devastating terminal neurological diseases.

3. Dealing with said diseases takes a lot of time and emotional energy (both in short supply these days).

4. I suddenly have a family history of these diseases and the recommended prevention is sleep and exercise (hard to do when my spouse and I are both working full time and raising a toddler without childcare and no family available to help).

So, my decision to step back from work was also with longer term self-care in mind. I had gotten to the point that I was excited to be a stay-at-home-mom for a while, but I was apprehensive about losing all the skills I’ve developed in my current role, as well as not contributing to my retirement accounts and pension. However, reading the other comments on the post about the fellow overwhelmed mom, I saw many were suggesting to ask to go to part time. That felt like a much better option to me but I thought it would be a non-starter with my leadership-adjacent role. Although with the current healthcare staffing situation, I figured I didn’t have anything to lose and now was as good a time as any to just lay my cards out on the table and ask.

So I did, and … it was approved! I get to switch to part time in a few weeks. The past two years have been really hard so I’m excited to have some more balance in my life and time to take better care of myself and spend with my kiddo, without having to abandon my career and that financial cushion. I feel valued by my employer and I’m so grateful for the respectful and supportive commenters on this site because I would not have asked otherwise.

my wife’s complaints about work are overwhelming me

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

My wife and I have a generally happy household, except for after work times: I think of this as the Airing of Grievances hour. And let me be clear in saying that it is my wife who does the complaining. She is pleasant with her coworkers and customers all day, but after work, look out! I have to hear about all the rotten customers she dealt with, all the mistakes her coworkers made, and how she gets no respect from anyone. This is not a time to talk through it — she just wants to complain and wants me to listen.

For years I have just held my tongue and listened and nodded, but I am tired of it. For 2022, I want our dinner times to be complaint-free … or at least, complaint-fewer. My wife needs a work-stress outlet besides me.

I have tried sensitively saying that we should not spend dinner complaining, but this hasn’t gone well. Her response has been that she needs someone to tell about her day. I understand that, but especially in the current climate where Covid has kept social events minimal and we are spending much more time at home, I am the only outlet for the day’s news. And, to be honest, a lot of complaining is really a choice. You don’t have to complain about everything (or anything, really). There’s a difference between talking about the day and complaining. So this is hard. I do not want to deny my wife the opportunity to talk things out but want to get the complaining down. What I am hoping for is suggestions on how to curb complaining, as well as provide more work stress-relief outlets than me at dinnertime.

Do you have any ideas? For the record, I honestly have a pretty stress-free job and don’t have much to complain about, and when I do have things to complain about, I just don’t.

Three quick thoughts from me and then I’ll throw this out to readers:

First, have you clearly told her that the complaining has become too much for you and you need less of it for your own mental health? It sounds like you might have soft-pedaled the message a bit and if that’s the case, try being much more explicit and saying something like, “I care about your stresses but it’s stressing me out to be your outlet for it every night. Can we talk about different solutions?”

Second, some people find success with “we can complain for 10 minutes and then we move on to the rest of our night” agreements.

Third, if things are this bad with her job, it might be time for her to start seriously planning to make a change. (And if things aren’t that bad and she just enjoys venting, it’s not cool to do that when it means dumping a bunch of negativity on you every night.)

Readers, what’s your advice?

I took a promotion without knowing the salary, coworker uses Comic Sans, and more

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

1. I took a promotion and then found out the salary is too low

I was recently part of a reorganization that ultimately led to my promotion as a manager (Hooray!) with a large (for my org) team and leading a very prestigious company-wide initiative. I dove in as soon as my boss told me — both proactively and accomplishing the things she laid out for me. The tricky part is, I wasn’t told a salary or even a range before I started (I KNOW!). My boss told me that HR needed a couple of days — I was fine with that. After two weeks, I asked her about retro pay. A couple of days then turned into six weeks. I just got my salary … and it is low compared to market research and there is no retro pay. My boss tells me all of this (the length of time, and the low salary) are because this happened “off-cycle” despite the fact it was preapproved.

My boss seemed taken aback when I push back on all of this, particularly the retro. I feel taken advantage of — I was putting in huge hours to get my team up and running, and really embracing this role. She is currently checking with HR on all of this, but I don’t have particularly high hopes. I really love my job and my team, but I don’t know how to navigate this situation or even what my future looks like now. Do you have any advice?

So … never accept a promotion without agreeing on salary. This is exactly why. If you’re being pushed to start without a clear salary, it’s fine to say, “I’m very interested but can’t formally accept until we’ve agreed on the salary.” (And then do not get pushed into starting the work anyway, even if you’re excited to get started. You can say, “I’m excited to start, but if I start doing the work and then we can’t agree on salary, we’ll all be in a bind so let’s figure that out first.”)

At this point, you can try making the case for the salary you think you should be getting paid … but the problem is that you have very little leverage now since you’re already doing the job. If you’re willing to play hardball — and genuinely would walk away from the job over this — you can try saying that you can’t accept the job this far below market rate. (Is your old position still available? Would you be willing to go back to it?) But if you’re not willing to do that and/or they they won’t budge, your only option may be to stick around long enough to be able to parlay the promotion into a better-paying job somewhere else.

2. I don’t want my team to be sycophants

I’ve been an executive director at my organization for four years and have lately taken on projects that require me to work across teams and the organization. This has significantly ramped up the number of people and incidents where I am superfluously and publicly thanked for my leadership/advice/insight/whatever. I try to graciously and humbly thank the person for their “compliments.”

In truth, I regard this as sycophantic and I hate it. Can I and how do I address it, particularly when delivered in a large gathering?

It’s a good opportunity to pivot to thanking others — as in, “We couldn’t have done it without Jane’s months of organizing activists and Cecil’s relentless media outreach” or “the real thanks goes to the team who’s been working on this for months — Lucinda and Rupert pulled off some of the best XYZ I’ve ever seen, and Cordelia’s fundraising made the whole thing possible” or so forth.

If you notice senior leaders who you manage seem to default to thanking you rather than recognizing others, you can also make a point of encouraging them to publicly recognize their teams (which is a good thing to do even if you’re not spelling out “instead of me”).

3. Should I say anything about my coworker’s use of Comic Sans in her emails?

Someone on my team recently changed her email font to Comic Sans. She is a public-facing government employee who communicates with outside partners (mostly clinicians) via email. She struggles with Microsoft Office and computers in general.

I would say something, but I’m not her manager. I would say something to her manager, but I don’t know if I’m overstepping my boundaries here. (I am a manager and am on the same level as her manager.) Additionally, her manager isn’t the savviest when it comes to Office or software either. Thoughts? Is this a hill I want to die on or should I let it go?

Since you’re not her manager, you should let it go unless you manage something that’s affected by it (like if you managed public communications, you’d have standing to address it). It does look bad, but it’s not yours to solve.

For what it’s worth, there’s some evidence that Comic Sans is easier for people with dyslexia to read (it’s actually recommended by British Dyslexia Association and the Dyslexia Association of Ireland) and that might be why your coworker using it. Of course, there are lots of more professional looking fonts that are also recommended for dyslexia, but they’re generally not as easy to access for someone who’s not super computer-savvy.

4. Are companies allowed to leave a job unfilled after rejecting qualified applicants?

I’m wondering if you can clarify how the law works (at least in theory) on this. My understanding was that leaving a posted job unfilled after rejecting qualified applicants opens a company up to liability from an EEOC complaint, because applicants could claim that they weren’t hired because of their membership in a protected class. (I’m not talking about roles where personality/culture fit would matter, but more so technical roles with very standardized requirements that a candidate can easily prove they meet with a certification or previous work experience.) I know companies want to hire someone who fits in and who they like, but don’t we also have rules surrounding this that supercede a company’s desires for a culture fit? Isn’t it wrong (on paper) to leave a role posted and unfilled after rejecting qualified applicants?

Why do so many companies do this, holding out for some mythical perfect candidate, with no fear while unemployed people are struggling and hustling trying to get hired? I keep hearing that every company is desperately trying to hire right now, but I also see roles that have been up on job boards for over a year. It doesn’t seem like they are interested in hiring any of the actual available applicants.

Nope, it’s not illegal! Companies have no legal obligation to hire just because they post a job, even if they get qualified applicants. If you could prove that the reason they didn’t was because they didn’t want to hire a candidate because of race, religion, disability, or other protected class, then sure — but the act of not hiring isn’t on its own evidence of that. Sometimes companies end up not hiring because they aren’t convinced any of their candidates are strong enough or don’t complement the skillsets already on the team, or they second-guess what they actually need or whether they need the role at all, or they hold off while they prioritize other things, or they’re considering reconfiguring the department, or waiting to see if person X is leaving because it’s starting to look they will, or all sorts of other reasons.

You’re attributing it to wanting someone who fits in, but there are a ton of other reasons that can be in play instead. And “culture fit” isn’t inherently wrong. When it means “she reminds me of myself” or “I’d like to get a beer with him,” that’s a problem — and is often linked to race, age, and other protected characteristics — but culture fit can also be things like easy-going vs. more driven, or collaborative vs. lone wolf, or entrepreneurial vs. preferring a lot of direction, and all sorts of other things that are legitimate to consider in hiring.

There are companies that hold out for a mythical perfect candidate in unreasonable ways. There are also companies that have a very high bar for good reason, or who don’t need to hire but are open to doing it if someone really strong comes along. You typically can’t know from the outside what’s really going on.

5. I traveled for an interview — and they hadn’t meant to invite me

I recently applied for a job and got an interview. I was pretty pleased because it’s related to a cause I’m passionate about and I felt like I’d be a good fit for the role. My job hunt is due to a move so I spent time and money on travel and a hotel, but when I arrived at the interview — whoops! I wasn’t meant to have been invited to an interview after all, and I was sent out without an interview or apology. Everyone I’ve spoken to about this (the agency, the person who invited me) in an attempt to work out what went wrong has brushed me off. This is bad/non-standard behavior, right? I feel like since it had been scheduled, it might have been worth their while to speak to me, but that may just be my disappointment speaking. Could they or I have done anything differently?

Yes. If they realized when you arrived that they hadn’t meant to schedule you, the courteous thing to do still would have been to speak to you. If they could plausibly interview you, they should have. If that wasn’t plausible (like if you were obviously wildly unqualified for the job), they should have explained what happened and apologized profusely for the mistake — and if they’d known that you had flown in, they should have reimbursed your expenses, even if that’s not something they normally cover.

As for what you could have done, not a lot! In theory you could have explained on the spot that you spent time and money on travel and a hotel at their invitation, and asked if they could reimburse you since it was their mistake … but with an employer that didn’t even bother to apologize for the error, I’m not optimistic that they would have agreed. For the future, it’s smart to confirm interviews ahead of time, especially when you’re traveling (which is not to say you’re to blame for not doing that, just that it’s something to do going forward).

I can’t get my boss to give me feedback or solve problems

A reader writes:

I have been with my current company for about four years, as a software developer. A year ago, a new manager was hired for my team. He seemed pretty good at first, but lately I’ve been disappointed.

We have a bi-weekly one-on-one, and if I bring up an issue, he’ll just nod sympathetically while I’m talking, then do nothing about it. Sometimes he’ll say something like, “Well, in the grand scheme of things, you’re not important, so that’s not worth addressing” … like that’s supposed to make me feel better.

I don’t need to vent! I need him to fix the problem! Or at least try. But he doesn’t seem to care if I’m happy I’m my job, or concerned that I might leave. (Which is weird, because our team lost two of its most senior members recently, so it would be in a bad place if I left. Maybe he doesn’t care about the performance of the team.)

I’ve asked about my performance, in case that’s the issue. He says it’s “fine.” I’ve asked, “What could I do to impress you?” but he brushed that off. One of the issues I’ve brought up is that good performance isn’t recognized or rewarded, he nodded sympathetically and changed nothing.

It sounds like your manager might just … suck? Or the management above him does and he knows that. But if that were the case, he should be explaining to you what constraints he’s operating under, not just giving you non-answers, so either way it seems safe to conclude that he does in fact suck.

You could try more clearly spelling out what you want and see if that works. For example, when you bring up an issue that needs to be addressed, you could propose a specific action you’d like him to take — like, “Would you be able to talk to Jane and ask if her team can do X instead of Y?” Or even, “I’d like to set up a meeting for you, me, and Jane to talk about changing the process for X. Okay with you?” That will at least require him to take some sort of stand, even if it’s just saying no.

You can also try asking for feedback in more specific ways. Instead of asking about your performance generally, ask about particular projects. For example:

* “Can you take a look at pages 3-4 in my draft and tell me your main takeaways? I’m not sure I’m conveying it as well as I need to.”

* “Can we go over my plan for the launch? I’d like your feedback on where we’re in good shape and what needs more attention.”

* “I’d like to debrief that presentation with you. Based on some of the questions from the clients, I’m not sure I got my point across on X — what was your take? … Would you have gone about it a different way?”

* “Could we brainstorm ways to get better results with X? I’d like to talk you through what I’ve tried so far and get your thoughts on what else I could do.”

You still might not get useful feedback. But if it’s possible to get concrete input out of this guy, framing your questions this way is more likely to elicit it.

You can also name the issue itself. As in, “I’d like to get more concrete feedback from you about where things are going well and where I should focus on improving. It would be really helpful to me if I could bring a project to each of our one-on-ones and do a deeper dive into it with you.”

But it’s very possible that he’s just bad at managing, and the reason you’re not seeing any real management from him is because he’s simply uninterested or incapable. If that’s the case, you could consider whether there are avenues for providing that feedback to someone above him (like if your company solicits employees’ input about their managers when doing performance reviews, or if you have good rapport with his boss and feel you could safely talk to her). But it also might be a case of simply needing to accept that your boss sucks and isn’t likely to change.