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conference gives the exact same speaker gift every year, someone replaced my note with a ruder note, and more — Ask a Manager

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

1. Annual conference gives the exact same speaker gift every year — how do I decline?

Every year I speak at a national conference in my industry. This is one of my favorite annual speaking events because I find the audience and their questions so insightful, and I consider this opportunity critical to combatting my imposter syndrome.

This conference does not offer an honorarium to speakers but instead gives each speaker a gift bag at the end of their presentation. Every single year the bag has contained the exact same items: a water bottle and notebook each emblazoned with the conference’s logo. This is my sixth year speaking and I always give two presentations, which means that I am given two gift bags, resulting in a veritable hoard of water bottles and notebooks that I do not need and are resigned forevermore to my junk drawer.

Most charities in my area don’t accept branded items to avoid being overrun with people’s old summer camp or 5K t-shirts so I can’t donate the gifts, and I would feel insincere re-gifting them. Additionally, the layout of the venue makes it near impossible for me to “accidentally forget” the gift since event staff are always around and would notice and flag me down. I suppose I could decline the gift via email when I accept the speaking invite, but part of the run-of-show is for a participant to stand up, thank me, recap the highlights of my presentation, and offer me the gift, so there’s no way for me to tactfully decline in front of the entire audience.

While I’m happy to graciously accept the repetitive gifts because I so enjoy this speaking engagement, a peer commented that it’s rude and unprofessional for the conference organizers to order the same exact speaker gifts every single year while knowingly inviting me and several other repeat speakers year after year. My peer says that if they aren’t going to pay us an honorarium, they should at least offer a sincere gift or take the time to flip through the merch catalogue to order something different but comparable in price, like a mug or tote bag.

At the end of the day, I don’t feel like this issue is worth raising with the conference organizers, but is my peer correct? If I were to decline the gift in-person or via email, how would I do so without seeming ungrateful or rude? Additionally, I sometimes help organize similar events for my employer and wouldn’t want to make the same mistake that repeat speakers would consider rude or thoughtless. Are speaker gifts really that deep or am I totally overthinking this entire thing?

Eh, branded merchandise is so common in situations like that … although it does come across as pretty thoughtless for them to keep giving you the same thing year after year (and twice per conference, at that). It’s not a big deal, but it would be better for them to mix it up. The fact that they haven’t bothered to does make it seem like they aren’t putting any thought into speaker recognition. Again, not a huge deal, but if you were the organizer I’d recommend changing it up.

I was going to suggest you just say “oh, no thank you, I’ve already got lots of these” the next time they hand you a gift bag, but since it’s part of a public presentation, that could look ungracious. But you could email them ahead of the next conference and say, “I’ve presented so often for you that I have a ton of your branded water bottles and notebooks, so you can skip me for gifts this year” … but chances are good that someone’s going to hand you a gift bag anyway because it’s part of their not-terribly-personal process. So you could just discreetly leave it on a conference table when no one is watching (a lot of conference gift bags end up abandoned that way).

2. Someone replaced my note with a ruder note

This is a minor issue but strange, and I’m curious what you think. We’ve had issues with properly handling equipment at work, so I left a note on the shelf that read: “Please wash the brushes before you put them away– It is much harder to clean once the dirt is dried on. Thanks.”

I didnt sign the note, but several people saw me do it and I mentioned it out loud. The next day, my manager asked me if I’d left the note by the brushes. I said yes, and he said it came across kind of rude. Then I saw the note he was pointing at, which now read: “STOP putting your dirty brushes back on the shelf it is DISGUSTING for everyone else WE KNOW WHO IS DOING IT”

He did believe me when I said that wasn’t my note, but now I’m just confused. Obviously this isn’t the biggest issue in the world, but is there anything i could have done about it? Asked around to find the mysterious note-fixer? Left a third note, explaining that I am not responsible for the second note?

Nah — you cleared it up, your boss knows it isn’t yours, and it’s not your job to track down whoever wrote it. If your boss cares enough, he can try to do that, but I suspect it’s not a huge deal to him (he can just take the note down, after all).

3. Coworker is threatening to quit if she doesn’t absorb my salary

I just put in my notice (yay!). Within an hour, my coworker had already spoken to our boss and threatened to leave if she didn’t absorb my salary entirely, almost doubling her pay. An important note is that my boss specifically asked me to not transition any of my workload to her. Now, she’s asking me to be her friend and transfer my tasks to her so that her salary negotiation will be better, especially since it looks like the CEO is going to call her bluff. I’m leaving, so there’s no impact to me, but I don’t know if it’s a very friendly thing to use my resignation as a bargaining chip. Should I help her in negotiations by boosting her task list?

No! Your boss explicitly instructed you not to. It would reflect really badly on you to do it anyway after you’d clearly been told you shouldn’t.

Also, it’s not really the point, but it’s highly unlikely that your employer going to add your salary to your coworker’s. At most she might get some kind of bump, but employers don’t generally add two salaries together for one position, even if she took over all your work. So she’s being really unrealistic! In any case, though, none of this is your problem. Just tell her, “Sorry, Jane told me not to.”

4. Should I return to talk with HR after I’ve already left my job?

I made the decision to leave my company. This all started around five months ago with a situation involving sexism and scapegoating that led to me having to open an HR complaint. Since then, my situation at work has been getting steadily worse. They took away part of the responsibilities of my job — ones I really liked. I wound up in the middle of a fight over something I did which was clearly part of my job description, but which upper management decided to attack me over to the level that I couldn’t effectively do my job anymore. Most recently, I was told not to talk about something extremely relevant to my job to anyone other than my boss, even though working out details of it with other people is clearly part of my job.

That last was enough. I gave notice. I sent a mail to the HR person who ran my investigation, and he forwarded me on to the person who handles departures. She wants to speak with me. However, she’s out of town until my last day. She wonders if I’d be available to meet the week after my employment ends.

People around me are saying not to do it, that it’s risky, or that if I do, I should bring a lawyer. Should I be worried? I’m second guessing my decision to talk to her at all now.

Well, first, you absolutely don’t need to talk to her at all if you don’t want to. You don’t work there anymore, and you have no obligation to participate in exit interviews or investigations after you leave. If you prefer to wash your hands of it, you can decline.

However, it sounds like it would be worth talking to a lawyer before you decide anything. What you described sounds very much like it could be illegal retaliation (it’s illegal to retaliate against someone for making a good faith complaint of discrimination, even if the original complaint turned out to be unfounded) and a lawyer could look at all the facts in your situation and lay out your options. That might include advising you not to talk to HR at this point, or it could include talking to them with the lawyer present or guiding you from behind the scenes, or all sorts of other things. But everything you described screams that a conversation with a lawyer would be a good next step. (To be clear, the lawyer would be because your workplace did something wrong, not because you did — which I note because your question “should I be worried?” implies that the opposite. Getting a lawyer involved would most be because it sounds like they mishandled this, not you.)

5. My employer won’t allow married couples to take the same weekend off together

Is it illegal to not allow a married couple who work in the same place a weekend off together?

It is not illegal. That’s one reason (of many) why it can be tricky for married couples to work for the same employer, particularly if it’s a small, coverage-based team.


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