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an abusive volunteer is holding our website hostage, boss says it’s unprofessional not to start an email with a greeting, and more — Ask a Manager

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

1. An abusive volunteer is holding our website hostage

I am the first vice president of a nonprofit. We’re all volunteers, including our webmaster, Fergus. Fergus built our website some number of years back, in a computer language he invented and hasn’t finished developing. Because of this, he’s the only person that understands fully how the website functions, which includes the database for our treasurer. The security and continuity of this database is, obviously, critical, and there are many other parts to our website that would make our members very unhappy to not have access to.

Fergus is also an abusive bully. Straight up. From the way he’s treated the various people who have volunteered to help with the website over the years, to the way he interacts with people needing the website updated, the only thing we can figure is that he views the website as his personal fiefdom and anyone who wants to understand how it works is treated as a personal threat to his cherished status as webmaster. We have lost members due to his behavior. We have had conversations with him that, admittedly, might have been too gentle, but honestly, I don’t think he’s genuinely listening, nor does he care to listen. It’s like he’s already made up his mind – from his viewpoint, everyone else is lying about his behavior and he’s not the one that’s the problem. He’s basically untouchable and he knows it.

Fergus is a known problem, but we feel stuck between a rock and a hard place. No one will work with him and he keeps running off any volunteers. We can’t get anyone to volunteer to help us create a new website on a sustainable platform. (Even if Fergus was the most sainted saint to ever saint, he’s a single point of failure due to the language the website is in and his gatekeeping knowledge of certain parts of the website.) We could “fire” him from the position with no website or web team to replace him, but then our ability to function will revert back to pre-Internet days, which means our treasurer won’t be able to do her job. How do you manage a volunteer who is crucial but unmanageable?

You need to transition the website to a more accessible, out-of-the box platform ASAP (out-of-the-box so that anyone can learn to use it, rather than being dependent on the knowledge and whims of a single person).

If you’re thinking “but we can’t”: What would you do if Fergus was hit by a car/dropped off the grid/disappeared in a fit of pique tomorrow? You’ve convinced yourself the org is held hostage to him, but if he was suddenly no longer working with you for whatever reason, you’d presumably rally and find a solution. Whatever you’d do then, do it now. It might be an enormous pain, but you’re going to have to do it one day anyway … and since you’ll have to put up with unhappy members during that transition at that point, just get it done now and put an end to your Fergus nightmare.

You’ll be better off moving to a simpler platform that you can actually use, even one with fewer features, than being subject to his tyrannical whims; have someone replicate your content on WordPress or another simple platform any of you can learn and be done with him (truly, WordPress and similar platforms require almost no technical skills whatsoever if you just need basic features). If it means you lose some features you really need, you can almost certainly hire someone to replicate those if they’re essential; the price of doing that is a necessary cost of doing business in a situation like this. The price of letting all this live with Fergus as the sole gatekeeper is way too high.

And if Fergus stands in the way of this transition, you simply inform him you’re doing it and do it without him (just as you’d have to do if he disappeared tomorrow). If he’s willing to offer some assistance in the transition, great — but if he doesn’t, then you do it without him (again, just as you’d have to do if he disappeared tomorrow). And make sure whoever creates the new site knows the situation so they don’t inadvertently end up repeating it with the new one (like by letting Fergus “help” in a way that permits him to again hoard knowledge).

2. My boss said it’s unprofessional not to start an email with a greeting

I work from home. I opened my work email a few weeks ago to a note from my boss, who told me that the tone of “some” of my emails is not professional. She gave me an example of an email I had recently sent to a colleague and cc’d my boss for visibility. The body of the email started with “One more thing!” and then went into the details of what I needed. I had been conversing with the colleague on our internal messenger system and had taken the tone to my email with them. My boss said all emails need a proper intro greeting.

I was taken aback. While my communication style is friendly and open, in my 25 years of work, I have never been accused of being unprofessional in my emails, especially over the lack of a “proper” intro. In general, I always start my emails with “hello” or “good morning” and that person’s name.

While I will ensure I always include a greeting from now on, I am now paranoid about every email I send, for fear of becoming “unprofessional” in my boss’s eyes. If not saying “hi” in an email once is unprofessional, what else is not acceptable? A single emoji? An exclamation point? (You know women are often judged in emails to be “cold” or “terse” in emails, more so than men, which is a whole other problem in itself.) I could use your advice, and please tell me if I’m in the wrong here.

You’re not in the wrong. Your boss is being ridiculous. There are many, many cases where professional emails don’t need to open with a specific greeting. Sometimes that’s based on the relationship you have with the person, and sometimes it’s based on context (and in this case, it was based on both).

You’re right that now that your boss has decreed this, you should adhere to her preferences … but she’s not right about it, and it would be interesting to find out if she’s given similar feedback to your coworkers (especially the male ones).

3. How can I get out of rides from my boss?

I’d like your advice on how to get out being carpooled by my manager. We live in the same city and the office is almost an hour and a half away, in another city. The work contract is 100% remote with monthly team meetings. I have been carpooling with her since 2022 but now I am changing departments, and she is still offering me carpooling with her for these monthly meetings. I have always gotten the feeling that in a way she doesn’t like me and I have never felt totally comfortable with her, awkward feeling there, always. So I would really like to stop doing these rides. What should I do? What should I say when she offers me a ride?

“I’m going to drive myself from now on since I sometimes have stops to make on the way back. I’ll see you there!”

Alternately: “I’ve found I really enjoy using long drives to catch up on audiobooks so I’m going to drive myself from now on, but thank you for driving me in the past and I’ll look forward to seeing you there!”

Or: “I’ve found I can really use car time for thinking and planning, so I’ll drive myself going forward — but I really appreciate all the times you drove me.”

4. Could I be fired for giving my boss a nickname?

If I were to give my boss a nickname, nothing derogatory or hurtful, like calling someone named Bill “Billy the kid” or just “Billy,” can that get me fired?

Sure, if your manager tells you to stop and you don’t, they could fire you over that. Whether they actually would or not is a different question — but calling someone by a nickname they’ve asked you not to use is disrespectful and rude and you shouldn’t do it whether they have any power over you or not … and when it’s your boss, it’s insubordinate as well.

5. Am I legally entitled to severance pay?

I work for a small business that was purchased by a much larger company. We were just informed that the larger corporation will be dissolving our small company by the end of the month; they are encouraging us to apply for other jobs within the larger company, but if we’re not eligible or interested, we will be unemployed within three weeks. All of these job openings would require relocation, which is not feasible for many of us. We are required to work on-site through the end of the month, and they are considering this our severance period; that is, we will not receive additional payment beyond our required working period.

Is this legal? I’ve been laid off previously, and I at least received two weeks of severance pay after my last day at work. It just feels like we’re being screwed over, and I’m wondering if you have any advice on handling this situation.

If you’re in the U.S., your employer has 100 or more employees, and the layoff affects 50 employees or more, the WARN Act requires that you be given 60 days of notice or, in lieu of that, 60 days of pay. If the layoff affects fewer people than that, then no law requires them to offer severance — although companies usually do it during layoffs, partly because if they don’t, they’re far more likely to see additional employees jump ship while they can still do it on their own timeline and partly because it’s typical to have laid-off employees sign a general release of legal claims in order to receive the severance.

severance pay: who gets it and how it works


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