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Here is the second post in this week’s collaboration between Jennifer P. from CaptainAwkward.com and Alison Green from Ask A Manager.

Previously On: “Is it disloyal to leave a company who cut my pay and postponed my promotion?” (Nope! Cutting everyone’s pay is like the part in the horror movie where the house says “get ouuuuuut” and none of the cabinet doors will stay closed and suddenly there is a ghost boy with no irises (only pupils) staring at you while you shower, maybe the time to leave is right now?) and “Can I talk about my boyfriend’s other girlfriend at work?” (Sure, but maybe check with her first?)

Additionally, there was a question about ADHD and applying for jobs that we didn’t get to and that needed more space than this short format, I’ve answered it over on Patreon: (Part 1)(Part 2)

Now for today’s question batch:

1. Everyone in the office is hanging out without me and it feels like high school.

I work in a very clique-y office where I am just not in the main clique. I have a coworker who is sort of in the same boat and we have bonded over it, but she’s still more in than I. These people tend to organize outings outside of work to which I am not invited, but where as far as I can tell they include everyone I work with. I’ve sort of just been ignoring it, but now they keep talking about their plans, how much fun they have, etc while I’m in the room. Look, I understand if you don’t want to invite everyone (though it’s still quite hurtful frankly) but can’t they at least keep it a secret if they don’t want me involved instead of rubbing it in my face? I feel like I’m in high school again. (For the record I am in my mid-thirties). And I feel like crap. Look, I’m on the spectrum, and I know that means I will often have to deal with being the outsider, but this just seems unnecessarily cruel. Am I overreacting?

Jennifer (Captain Awkward): When social interactions among adults ping the old “OH NO, NOT HIGH SCHOOL, NOT AGAIN” radar, a good question is: Are people being mean or are they being lazy? Mean happens, certainly, but when in doubt, start with lazy. As in, maybe people are purposely excluding you (not everyone has to become free-time friends with coworkers) but it’s also incredibly likely that people assume that someone else already invited you and that if you don’t come to a particular thing it’s because you didn’t want to. 

And I’m talking about the merest blip of a thought, a second or two of wondering “Should I invite Fergusella?” “Eh, but they never come to stuff” and then moving on with their day. The longer this goes on, the easier it is to mirror these bad assumptions, and perversely this applies to people feeling comfortable talking about events in front of you. “Everyone’s invited, the more the merrier, I don’t have to make it explicit” or “Well, Fergusella would say something if they really wanted to come, right?” feel easier than changing anything. Your coworkers aren’t thinking about ableism, your history of being left out, or the very real worry that speaking up could expose and codify a probable afterthought (lazy) into an explicit (mean) choice probably because they aren’t thinking about you all that much in the first place. “They just forgot me” probably doesn’t feel less awkward than “They just don’t like me,” but it leaves more to work with in changing the situation.

Speaking of implicit vs. explicit: If literally every single person in your office is going across the street for after-work drinks and talking about it in front of you on the regular, there’s a 99.99% chance that you are and have always been invited and people assume you already know that. If you’d feel better knowing for sure, you won’t make it weird by asking, “Hey, is this invite only or can I join you?” If people are mean in response, it’s because they are mean people, not because you did anything wrong by trying to clarify it. (Now, if it’s a weekend and people are gathering at somebody’s house, that’s different: Like vampires, coworkers need to be invited in.) 

Before you do anything, an important question for yourself is: Do you want to get to know these specific people better and become friends with them? Do you want to not only be invited but to actually go to more of these things? If so, one strategy might be to choose one or two the kindest, friendliest people in the group and invite them to a very occasional solo lunch or coffee. Not from a “Why does nobody ever invite me?” angle but from a “I’m trying to be more social in 2020 and you always seem so nice and fun” angle. “I’m trying to be more social in 2020” is a useful script because it communicates that you want to hang out with them in a way that doesn’t blame them for leaving you out in the past. Once you know people better and have a one-on-one relationship, it’s less risky to have conversations like “Do you do bowling karaoke every weekend? It always sounds so fun, is it ok if I tag along once in a while?” Or even, “Hey I’m autistic, and have kind of a terror of poking myself in where I’m not wanted, so it really helps me when people turn ‘Anyone up for lunch?’ into ‘Would you like to get lunch?’ That way I know for sure I’m invited.” 

Is it less about these specific people and more about generally feeling left out and lonely? Then that’s probably a sign to work on your friendships and social life in general, inside and outside work. You’ll be able to let the chit-chat about what the office is up to go by much more easily if you’re having great weekends doing exactly what you like.

One thing I always want to tell fellow adults who may have a history of being bullied and left out: Hosting and event planning is a lot of work, and it’s not generally something the Popular Kids(™) we remember from school do as adults specifically to torment each other. Those dynamics certainly exist, I definitely believe any horror stories any of you might tell me about people in your office who think recreating school cafeteria seating hierarchies is the social pinnacle of achievement, but I think it’s good to remind ourselves that most extroverts/outgoing/social folks are doing what they do because they *want* to include and enjoy people.

Additionally, extroverts get social anxiety too.(Will people actually show up? Will they have fun? Will there be enough chairs? If I didn’t invite people, would anybody think to invite me?) They also get burnt out and feel unappreciated. If you’re trying to break into a social hub at work or outside it, it might help everybody leave high school behind to stop looking at the organizers as powerful gatekeepers who have it all figured out, and stop assuming that you have nothing to offer them. When you are invited to things, assume people want you there, enjoy yourself, offer to help if you can, and most of all, notice and appreciate people’s work in planning and hosting. It’s easy to dunk on Mandatory Office Fun, but going out of your way to say “Thank you for putting this together, that was the best sheet cake yet, need a hand cleaning up?” can win you allies on the Party Planning Committee for life.

Alison (Ask A Manager): And thus a perfect answer was written, and will be one I link people to for years to come.

I’m not trying to be lazy, I promise, but this is so comprehensive and wise and I feel I can do no better than joining in presenting it to the world.

Jennifer: Well, thank you. I obviously have a lot of feelings about this. 🙂 

2. People tell me how my name is pronounced (wrong).

I have a name that’s pretty common, but has multiple pronunciations. I pronounce my name the less common way, and usually when I meet new people they pronounce it the more common way. When I try to kindly correct them (“Oh, I actually pronounce it like Cahr-a, not Cair-a”), more often than not people push back. Everything from “Well, all the Caras I know pronounce it the other way” to “That’s weird” and “I wouldn’t spell it that way if I pronounced it like that.”

I try to be patient, but this annoys me to no end. Partly because I am 100% sure I am spelling and pronouncing my own name correctly, partly because I have had this conversation no less than once a month for 20+ years. I know people don’t love being corrected, but I do my best to clarify kindly with a smile, and struggle to keep that smile when the umpteenth person in my life tells me that my name is weird.

I don’t want coworkers’ first impression of me to be “Woman who has no sense of humor about her name,” so more often than not these days I just don’t correct it and skip the discussion. But then if a coworker I’ve worked with for a while does notice that I introduce myself differently than how they’re saying my name, they’re annoyed I didn’t correct them sooner. I feel like I can’t win!

Any advice for language I can use to correct mispronunciations and shut down pushback without getting defensive? It’s especially challenging when it’s someone like my grandboss or senior executives telling me how I should pronounce my name.

Jennifer: I’m a Jennifer who everybody wants to call Jen or Jenny the second they meet me, so, solidarity! I know that tension between “I do not want to ruin this friendly moment” and “But that’s not my naaaaaaaaaaaaaame arglebargle.” 

There has to be a path between the pompous guy I went on an extremely doomed date with who introduced himself by pre-correcting everyone (“Hi, I’m David, DaVID) and the time I was 22 and my 55-year-old boss kept calling me “Jenny” because his last assistant was Jenny and I asked him not to about 100 times and then I finally snapped in a meeting and called him “Tommy” instead of Tom in front of our grandboss and a client (“Oh Jenny will get that right over to you” “Sure thing, Tommy!”*), right? 

You are already doing the right thing by smiling and gently correcting people when they mess up and your best bet when they make it weird in a professional setting is to keep smiling but also keep insisting. “Oh, I get that all the time, but really, it’s Cah-ra, thank you so much” and then skip as quickly as possible to the work topic at hand. The vibe to aim for is “No worries, it’s an easy mistake to make, and I am going to do you the magnanimous kindness of forgetting all about it and pre-thanking you for doing the right thing.” Most good people will want to get it right from now on and people who don’t take the face-saving out you gave them are showing you something about who they are, ergo you won’t be the one making it weird if they keep doubling down on awkwardness and you get real humorless for a minute. The social contract insists that we call people what they want to be called no matter what our assumptions are, and if it means getting corrected sometimes, then it means accepting correction with kindness and grace. 

*You know what? I can’t recommend this strategy as the most professionally diplomatic one, but it only took being called “Tommy” once for a middle-aged cisgender guy to be reminded that names are important and it matters how we use them especially in professional settings. He could feel how disrespected I’d felt for himself, and he did take it to heart. After a very awkward moment in the meeting and a wee lecture on professionalism, he sincerely apologized, and my new work/Jellicle Cat name JennyohcrapI’msorry-iFER! became a running joke between us. 

Alison: Yep, matter-of-fact and breezy and moving on is what you want here. As if now that you have clarified that you do indeed know the correct pronunciation of your own name and it is not the one they want it to be, of course they will accept that and not make it into a whole big thing, because of course  they would not be so odd or boorish as to do that.

That’ll work with most people. Anyone who continues dwelling on it after that point is being rude and weird and you are allowed to say react accordingly, with a reaction that conveys half “how strange” and half “how embarrassing for you that are responding this way.” Like a puzzled look and/or a very dry “okay then” followed by an immediate pivot to a work-related topic. 

I think some of the frustration here is probably just having to go through this so many times with so many different people, even if most people aren’t all that rude about it. It’s just exhausting to have go through “wait, is it X?” / “no, it’s Y” every time you introduce yourself. 

3. Coworker won’t stop talking about her diet.

My small-ish office has monthly meetings that start with a personal check-in. It’s a time for people to share news about vacations, babies, etc. For the last few months, one of my coworkers has shared news about her diet. What she’s eating, whether she’s lost weight and, just today, how many pounds she’s lost! She talks about all this in other settings around the office as well.

Like many people, I struggle with disordered eating, and hearing her talk about losing weight constantly is unpleasant. Even if that wasn’t true, I think this is still really unprofessional. She hasn’t responded to me pointedly ignoring her or even (jokingly) saying that I didn’t want to hear about whatever she was eating. Can I address this with our supervisor? How should I phrase this? I’ve tried to let it roll off my back but it has been really difficult to cope with.

Jennifer: I wish more workplaces agreed that diet talk and obsession with weight is unprofessional, unfortunately the trend toward making employees wear fitness trackers and participate in humiliating (and discriminatory!) weight loss competitions makes me despair of getting a consensus around that any time soon. 

You’ve tried ignoring your coworker and jokingly saying you didn’t want to hear about her eating, which are good strategies to start with. Since it hasn’t stopped, before you make it a supervisor issue, what if you stopped joking? Could you pull her aside for a private direct conversation before the next scheduled meeting? A script could be “I can tell you are so excited about this diet and you had no way of knowing this, but hearing about weight and diets can be triggering and very distracting for people recovering from eating disorders. Can you update us about something else fun that’s going on with you at the next meeting? I would appreciate it so much.” 

If you focus on that specific meeting (vs. trying to monitor all her conversations in the office) and keep it personal (vs. “this is generally unprofessional”) it will help you figure out a few things before you take it to a supervisor level. Is she willing to listen to you? Does she try to curb herself at all? Or does she double down in the meetings and escalate in the office? National Eating Disorders Awareness Week is coming up February 24-March 1, and maybe your human resources team needs a timely reminder to spread the word about the importance of showing sensitivity by not talking about diets and weight loss in professional situations because we never know who is struggling. 

Alison: I love this advice. I co-sign it heartily.

So often people try delivering a message via joke, it doesn’t work, and then they feel stuck. There’s nothing wrong with starting that way — sometimes the other person does successfully receive the message that way, and framing it as a joke lets them save a little face and lets you both avoid a potentially awkward (or at least more serious) conversation. But if the joke doesn’t work, that’s a sign that you’ve got to move on to a more direct conversation if you want to solve the problem.

I can see why you’re unsure of how to do that here though! It feels weird to ask someone at work not to talk about a topic of personal interest to them, especially in a culture that seemingly loves talking about that topic. And you might worry she’ll feel you’re shooting down something that is a source of real pride/joy/satisfaction to her. That’s why I love Jennifer’s wording — it acknowledges that the topic is legitimately exciting and positive for the coworker, explains why it’s landing in a different and harmful way for you, and asks to enlist her help. It doesn’t tell her she’s doing anything wrong, which is really key. It’s just “this is affecting me differently than you realized.”

And yes, if that doesn’t solve it, at that point it’s reasonable to raise it with your manager (or, if your manager isn’t especially skilled at this kind of thing, then with HR). 

Jennifer/The Captain again:Thank you again, Alison, for letting me into your mailbox and your Secrets Of Being A Creative Sole Proprietor advice, let’s please do this again sometime. ❤

P.S. Bonus cat photo content.

 

 

My combined Christmas/birthday present this year was a trip to Washington, D.C. to catch up with some very old friends who were managing to be both in the same country and the same city all at the same time for the first time in almost 20 years. We’ve seen each other piecemeal over the years but the last time we were all in the same room was my going away party in late July 2000, so I could not miss this rare convergence and chance to relive my early 20s with people who truly remember them (from a safe distance). IT WAS THE BEST TRIP. I laughed so hard. I ate so well. IT WAS THE BEST.

While I was in the region, I was lucky enough to meet some longtime internet friends in person. There was a relaxing and fun birthday party in Northern Virginia with people whose wise words I’d been RT’ing and pets I’d been ogling on Twitter for years, there was taking the train up to Philadelphia for a delightful dinner with our beloved Lenée aka @dopegirlfresh aka “the Mayor of West Philly” and Ali of @OK2BFat, and there was the chance to sit down for an afternoon coffee with Alison of Ask A Manager and talk her ear off about how we do this weird, wonderful job. It is that last bit that spawned this post, since Alison and I decided it would be fun to collaborate on answering a few questions using her “Five Answers To Five Questions” format and crosspost them to both sites.

Here are two answers to two questions, with three more to follow this week.

1. Can I talk about my boyfriend’s other girlfriend at work?

“Adam” is dating both me and “Jane,” and we all live together.  We aren’t really into any sort of “polyamory scene” sort of thing; this is simply an arrangement that happened because it’s what works for us and our happy little family.

Moving in with them coincided with a new job, and I really don’t know how to talk about it at work, or if it’s even appropriate.  I’m so used to talking freely about Thanksgiving plans; but it feels overly personal to say that we’re flying out to spend Thanksgiving with Jane’s family (because that would lead to: Jane?  Who is Jane?). 

Jane has some work-appropriate, performance-related hobbies, so weekend plans often involve going to shows that are in that sphere; it feels oddly dismissive of Jane and her place in my life to say, “oh, I’m watching my friend’s performance,” but at the same time, overly TMI to say, “oh, this weekend I’m watching my boyfriend’s other girlfriend’s performance.”

Thus far I’ve just… kind of avoided the details, but have mentioned “Jane” or my “friend” or “housemate” a bit.  I’m comfortable and confident with my household arrangement in other spheres of my life, but work is a place where I like to abide by the rules, and I really don’t know what the rules are here!  It feels so weird to have this person who is so integrated into my life, and then not really know how or if to talk about her.

I know my workplace is at least a little bit open (I’ve got a trans coworker, and that’s No Big Deal), but it isn’t particularly progressive. Very much a Normal Office.

P.S. I think a coworker thinks Jane is my daughter.  If this ever comes up, should I correct them?

Jennifer: To me, there are three things in tension here: 

  1. The more non-traditional romantic and family structures become boring and routine, probably the more safety and comfort people in non-traditional relationships will have. You’re harming nobody, secrecy increases stigma, so why not share it without making a big deal the way anybody would talk about a spouse or partner at work?
  2. Unfortunately, depending on where you live and work, there is stigma and legal discrimination against people in any relationship that isn’t one man and one woman that can have real professional and legal consequences, and privacy isn’t a thing anybody can get back once it’s out there. 
  3. Who specifically is in your workplace, what is the culture there, and how many questions about non-traditional relationships do you want to answer from your coworkers if you bring this up? Do you want to take on an educator/ambassador role, do you want to risk releasing the kraken known as That One Guy Who Is Just Very, Very Curious About Your Exact Sleeping Arrangements? And do you want to do this at work? 

Really there’s no one right thing to do and no wrong one either. Asking Jane and your boyfriend how they’d like to be referred to and specifically how much of their private business they are comfortable with your coworkers knowing is probably a good idea before you make any detailed corrections, as in, you’re worried about being “dismissive of Jane” but Jane doesn’t have to work where you work nor does she necessarily want to be a topic of discussion there. 

When in doubt, “Oh, she’s not my daughter, Jane’s my close friend and also our housemate, we think of her as family” works just fine.“Partner,” “Part of the family,” “My boyfriend’s other partner,” etc. might work if you want to disclose more in a way that people familiar with polyamory will pick up. 

Most likely this will be fascinating for a week or so and then probably nobody will care because they aren’t that interested, and That One Person can always be told it’s none of their beeswax.

Alison:  I’m so glad Jennifer answered this first because I’m really conflicted on this kind of question. On one hand, I am all for reducing stigma about personal choices that harm no one — especially when it can be done by people who are in a relative position of safety. And I’m acutely aware of how “you must hide this core thing about who you are when you’re at work” often plays out in ways that are harmful and oppressive, especially when your coworkers don’t have to hide parallel things from their own lives. On the other hand, the reality is that there is still a stigma against polyamorous relationships, and it very well may affect your career if this becomes a gossipy thing that gets mentioned ahead of your work when your name comes up.

So I think you’ve to figure out (a) how your specific office is likely to respond to this, and maybe your broader field or network, since at some point you’ll change jobs and people talk, and (b) how much you care, which is a combination of how uncomfortable/unhappy you’ll be if you hide the nature of the relationship and how concerned you are about potentially dealing with weirdness or bias from people in your professional realm.

I’ll also note that whenever this comes up, some people like to argue that coming out as polyamorous is TMI — that it’s “sharing things about your sex life that they don’t want to hear.” So I want to state for the record that this is no more that than sharing the existence of any other partner is. It’s about sharing who you love and who you are in an important relationship with. The culture as a whole hasn’t totally figured that out yet — which is why this is still a question — but it’s worth flagging in any discussion here.

2. I like my job but my company is postponing a promised promotion and cutting everyone’s pay. Should I stay or go?

I’m an entry-level employee at a small company of about 40 people in a major city with high cost of living. Despite my previous three years of experience in the industry, I was hired at the lowest level in the company and told I would be eligible for a promotion within a year if my performance went well. Fast forward a year and a half and my performance has been stellar and I was on the track for a promotion. However, the company is undergoing dramatic financial issues and last week management cut everyone’s salary by 10% to preserve our financial stability. A lot of the entry-level employees were baffled and asked that we be exempt from the cut since we make the least and have the least amount of decision-making power that led to this situation. To accommodate us, management cut entry-level pay by 5% and everyone else received the 10% cut. They’re planning to maintain the cut throughout all of 2020. In addition to the salary cut, they’ve frozen all new hires and promotions for this year.

I feel defeated because my promotion (and accompanying raise) will not happen in 2020. I also feel angry because management is planning on creating more products to boost our sales and revenue, which means everyone will be working harder for less pay in the hope that our sales improve next year. Management is adamant that this difficult time is for staff to “give back” to the company and make sacrifices for the whole.

All my friends and family say I should run, quit, and find a new job ASAP. I feel hesitant because I did really like my job before this happened and felt like I had a career trajectory at this company. I’m also struggling to determine if I owe it to the company to stay, put in the work, and weather the storm of 2020 for $3,000 less a year than what I was making. I think my manager is sensing my hesitation because he offered me a title-only promotion without an increase in pay. It feels like a consolation prize and the more reality sets in, the more I’m concerned about my financial and professional future if I stay. Am I selling myself short if I stay? Am I a traitor if I leave?

Jennifer (Captain Awkward): Imagine for a moment that you are an investor considering putting money into your company. Does a firm “undergoing dramatic financial issues” that forced even its most junior staff take a pay cut, froze all hiring and promotions for a year, and then still thought it could develop and launch new product lines sound like the safest bet? The company is gambling that that this move will pay off and maybe it will, but a smart investor wouldn’t put 100% of their money and hopes into this place and probably neither should you. What’s the harm in looking around to see what’s out there and applying to interesting opportunities? You’re not obligated to take any offers that aren’t a better fit than you have now, but if things “dramatically” deteriorate you’ll be glad you have options.

If you decide to accept the title boost (it’s good for your resume whether you stay or go), ask for something in return and put it in writing. Could be a retention bonus (“I’ll stay in this role for one year in return for $X now and $Y at the end of that year”), could be a retroactive raise in 2021 (“On Jan 1, 2021 the company agrees to raise my salary to $X and pay me retroactively for the months I worked as [title]”), could be more paid vacation, could be more flexibility to work from home, could be offloading your most hated tasks to someone else and taking on more of what you want to do with your time. Negotiate something in consideration for taking on more work and I’ll repeat it again – get it in writing. It doesn’t have to be a contentious thing, you can tell your boss how much you appreciate him for going to bat for you to have the new role and just add in that it would be foolish not to ask for something in writing about compensation given how much the industry and company finances fluctuate. If he gets mad at you, calls you “disloyal” or “entitled,” or tries to manipulate your emotions to get you to forgo money, it is a sign that you should quietly accept the promotion and start sending out your resume IMMEDIATELY. 

Finally, I want you to excise the word “traitor” from your vocabulary when you think about this problem. The company broke a promise to promote you and also cut your pay because they’ve decided that it saves them money. If they need to lay you off to make their numbers they will, so consider that when this employer talks about “giving back” and “loyalty” they mean a thing you owe them so you’ll work more for less. How can looking out for your own money – i.e. the whole reason you work there – possibly be “a betrayal”? If you stole their proprietary information and sold it to competitors, that would be betrayal. If you find a new job with more money and a better title, you’re making a business decision the same as them.

Alison (Ask A Manager):  Yes! Excellent, excellent. 

And also, re-think your ideas of what you “owe” an employer. This isn’t a marriage, where you’ve taken vows. Here’s what you owe your employer: good, focused work while you’re there; clear communication when there are problems if your employer has a track record of handling that sort of input well, and a reasonable amount of notice when you decide to leave (for most people, that’s two weeks). You do not owe them a commitment to stay for longer than would be in your own interests. I promise you, they will act in their own interests — and that’s as it should be! That’s not, like a sneering commentary on them; it’s just a recognition that this is a business relationship. Each side should treat the other with respect and integrity, but you don’t sacrifice your own interests for theirs, just as they wouldn’t for you. That’s the nature of it! You get to walk away when you want to walk away and when it makes sense for you to walk away. (And it sounds like it’s time to start thinking about doing that.)

Tune in later this week for Part 2 of this conversation and the answers to three more questions.