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director secretly hired her daughter’s boyfriend, dealing with a needy customer, and more — Ask a Manager

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

1. Director secretly hired her daughter’s boyfriend

I recently found out a former director hired her daughter’s boyfriend but went to great lengths to hide it from me (the CEO) and their team for over two years. The boyfriend was originally hired on a short-term contract through a wage subsidy program and there was no formal recruitment process. The boyfriend reported to the director before being assigned to another manager, and the director became the grandboss of the boyfriend. They were in the same team throughout the boyfriend’s employment. From all accounts, not just the director’s, the boyfriend performed well. But still.

I signed off on the director’s recommendations for the boyfriend’s contract extensions, promotions, salary increases, and bonuses but had no idea of the relationship. We only found out when the boyfriend resigned and the director revealed it to a colleague.

Unfortunately, we don’t have any kind of policy around hiring family members or friends. But is a boyfriend relationship perhaps different than a son-in-law relationship? I don’t think it meets the usual strict definition of family. Still, I would have thought that someone in a senior leadership role would have wanted to ensure there was no conflict of interest or perceived conflict and would have revealed the relationship prior to hiring.

And what about the boyfriend himself? Did he have a duty to disclose? It seems that he and the director decided they would not share this information. The team was blindsided when they found out who his girlfriend was.

Going forward, I know we need a nepotism policy that outlines what kinds of relationships need to be disclosed and who can report to whom. However, would a girlfriend/boyfriend of an adult child of an employee fit into the kinds of relationships that would be covered by such a policy? Or is this something that a conflict of interest policy might cover? We don’t have that either.

I also feel like the standard for the duty of care for the organization that a senior staff member (who also had HR in her portfolio) holds should be higher. I expect more from a senior leader but should we also spell that out?

Yep, you need a nepotism policy and a conflict of interest policy. You’ll never be able to spell out absolutely every situation that might arise under either of them, but after naming specific categories (parents, siblings, etc.), you can include language like “and other close, personal relationships that could raise concerns about bias or favoritism.” You can also include, “If you’re unsure whether a situation could fall under this policy, we expect you to proactively raise it for consideration.”

And yes, a senior staff member (particularly one overseeing HR!) should be expected to have raised this on her own without a written policy … and if she went out of her way to conceal it, that’s a big enough red flag about what else might have happened on her watch that it’s worth digging in to see what else might be there. (In fact, even if she didn’t go out of her way to conceal it and instead it just never occurred to her as a potential issue, that’s a different kind of problem, and also might indicate a need to dig around further.)

The boyfriend himself is far less culpable. He’s likely to have assumed the director knew what she was doing and disclosed whatever she needed to disclose. The director is the one who bears the fault here.

2. How to deal with a needy customer when I answer the phones

I work for a company that ships goods out to other companies to use in their machines. That is the type of thing that takes months if not years, with the supply chain the way that it is right now. Orders come in, they are processed, and then it can be six months to a year before materials are found, items are forged, and six months to a year beyond that for items to actually come to us to be sent to customers.

We have a customer who works with us on a yearly basis. At any time he may have four or five orders in the pipeline, but they aren’t overdue and they aren’t due anytime soon … and he will call us a minimum of every single day trying to get an update. There are no updates. He will disappear for a week or a month, but then invariably appear to annoy the same few people, long before he should be asking anything at all.

I am the front desk person in this situation and I only know about this customer because when he can’t reach his sales representative directly at their extension, after already emailing three separate times and often leaving voicemails, he will call me and demand to be transferred. It’s as if he doesn’t realize I’m transferring him to the same location that just chose not to pick up for him. Other times he will call and demand that I use a paging system that we don’t have, to get him a manager who he’s already tried calling. I can’t force my coworkers to answer their phone calls and deal with this guy, because they’re all much higher ranking than I am. But it’s really starting to grate on me that I have nothing to tell this person to get him to just … patiently wait.

We have thousands of other clients who have no problem waiting for their “your items have gone through production and will ship (when)” emails. I know we live in a world of instant gratification and overnight shipping on a lot of things, but the products we ship are not among those. There is no situation where this can be sped up for this customer.

What do I do about him? Do I tell him that people are avoiding him because of the frequency of his calls? Is there a script for this?

Some of this just goes with the territory when you’re on the front lines of the phones. There will always be annoying callers, and there will always be this particular brand of annoying caller, where a person struggles to accept the policies or timelines of the organization they’re doing business with.

I think you’re getting too invested in solving the problem of … him. He probably can’t be solved by you. It’s possible that his sales rep could try to solve it with a direct conversation — but it’s also possible his sales rep has tried that repeatedly, it doesn’t work, and this is what they’ve settled on instead. Do you know if they have? If not, you could certainly urge them to lay that out to him … but there are customers who are repeatedly told what timelines to expect and behave like this anyway.

Your company probably wants you to just continue handling him like any other caller — transferring him when he requests it, etc. If you think that might not be the case, you could check in with your manager to see if they have different guidance where he’s concerned. And if he’s abusive to you or takes up large amounts of time, that’s something you should raise with either his sales rep or your manager. But if it’s more just that it’s annoying, it doesn’t sound like it’s part of your job’s scope to try to fix that, and you’re better off detaching emotionally. Pretend it’s your first time hearing from him that month, if it helps, or that you don’t recognize him. But he’s not your problem to solve (again, unless he’s abusive or getting in the way of you doing your job, or unless your manager asks you to handle him differently in some way).

3. How to write an improvement plan for critical thinking skills

I manage a team of nine. Because the role is so specialized, we tend to hire people who don’t have much direct experience. We aim to find folks who have potential to learn the role and have the right temperament. My interview process includes problem-solving tasks, which has really helped to find those who have the right skills to be able to learn the position. There is intensive training, documentation, and shadowing available for new employees. By six months, team members should be handling their own clients, with assistance. It takes at least a year to learn the role.

Last year, for several reasons, we decided to prioritize experience over problem-solving skills when hiring. This hasn’t worked out. “Jane” has been in the role for about 10 months and it is becoming clear that she can’t handle this role. I need to craft an improvement plan for her, with the likely outcome either reassignment to a lower role in the organization or termination. Jane’s attitude and demeanor are friendly and, for the most part, professional.

I am having trouble writing the improvement plan. We need to set measurable, achievable goals, but when the problem is critical thinking, I’m not sure how to frame the goals. If she was coming in late or being rude to clients, I would know what to do. But I’ve already tried talking to her about “thinking things through” before deciding on an action plan, and I’ve walked her through my thought process in problem solving many times. She works with two other senior members of the team as well. She hasn’t been able to investigate situations, solve problems, or identify issues. She doesn’t seem to know how to think about a problem, and she has a difficult time determining what is a serious, urgent matter and what is not an issue. How do I write an improvement plan for critical thinking skills and problem solving?

Look at this language from your letter: “She hasn’t been able to investigate situations, solve problems, or identify issues. She doesn’t seem to know how to think about a problem, and she has a difficult time determining what is a serious, urgent matter and what is not an issue.” That gets to the heart of it, and that’s what you build the plan around.

For example, you could write that you need to see her:
* identifying issues like XYZ
* proposing and implementing solutions that quickly and effectively solve those problems
* correctly identifying and prioritizing serious, urgent issues

Another way to think about it: when you see someone who is displaying the necessary critical thinking for the job, what specific actions are they taking — and what specific outcomes are they achieving — that Jane currently is not? Write it around that. In particular, try to focus on outcomes — when someone is doing this job at the level needed, how are their outcomes different from Jane’s? Sometimes with certain types of work, that’s going to be the most effective way to capture it.

4. Should I tell a potential employer this is my last time applying?

There is a long-standing two-year program (not an internship, but I’m being purposefully vague) with a local company, and applications typically open up late summer. I have applied twice in the past; in 2021, when interviews were paused and no one was hired due to the pandemic, and in 2022, when I made it to the final round of interviews but ultimately didn’t get the job.

I want to apply for a third and final time this year. I’m comfortable with my reasons for calling it after three attempts — they’re not something I feel I need to get into here, but your typical life circumstances where the program would not make sense for me after a certain point in my career.

If I get an interview, should I tell the employer that this is my final attempt? It’s a little more complicated because I work with this company a lot in my roll now, and I want to keep my good reputation. At the same time, I feel they should know that this is my last time applying for this job, and if they want to hire me, they should do it now. I obviously wouldn’t be aggressive or phrase it as an ultimatum, I’m just thinking more of a “heads-up” kind of way. Do you think this is worth mentioning, or should I keep it to myself?

Don’t mention it. There’s too much risk of it coming across strangely, and they don’t really need to know this is their final shot at hiring you — employers will always assume that if they pass on you this time around, you might not be available in the future. It’s pretty rare for employers to think, “Eh, not this time, but we’ll definitely grab her up in the fall.” They know the risk they’re taking by not hiring you now is that they might not be able to hire you later.

5. Payroll messed up my taxes — who pays to fix it?

The company I work for employs an external agency to complete payroll for myself and the other members of my team. Both the company and the external agency that performs our payroll are located in the same state, but our team works remotely and none of us live in the same state as either the company or external agency.

We recently discovered that the agency has been making errors in our state taxes for all but one member of our team. The agency has been taking taxes for the state in which it and the company are located; an accountant one of the team members hired for her personal taxes advised her the agency should have withheld taxes from the state in which each of us resides. This team member had to pay thousands of dollars in back taxes to her home state and now has to wait months before receiving thousands of dollars she mistakenly paid to the company and agency’s “home state” — all thanks to the external agency’s error. The agency has not been apologetic at all about the error.

Other team members are wondering if our one team member’s accountant is correct and we all need to hire our own accountants to review our taxes. For some of us, this would mean an error going back several years; for others “just” one year. The agency advised each of us to simply call each state’s treasury department, but I am wary of accepting tax advice from whatever random person answers the phone. Isn’t fixing this the agency’s responsibility? Or, if they can’t file the necessary paperwork on our behalf, do they have a responsibility to reimburse us for extra funds expended to hire professional help to resolve this complex mess? I am no good at numbers, the company we work for will not pay for the external agency’s error, and I am very concerned about all the money involved in this mess.

That is a major, major thing for a payroll company to mess up; it’s so fundamental to their line of work. The fact that people owe taxes to the state they live in is so basic that it’s pretty shocking that they messed it up, and messed it up for so many people. And then for them to not even be apologetic about it is just ridiculous.

Unfortunately, though, it’s pretty standard for companies not to cover the costs of fixing this kind of error. The assumption is that you should be reviewing your own paystubs and making sure they’re correct — and that if you don’t do that and an error is discovered later, they’re not accountable for not catching it earlier. It’s pretty normal that you’re getting stuck with the burden of that (although that really sucks, obviously). It would be a good will gesture for your company to pay for you all to get help with it … but not one I’d expect.

For what it’s worth: You don’t need an accountant to look at it to tell you that you do definitely owe taxes for the state in which you were living while performing the work. That’s the way the tax laws work in all 50 states (excluding the small number without state income tax). You’ll be able to file for a refund from the state to which you mistakenly paid taxes for that time, but — as happened to your colleague — it’ll take a while before that money is returned to you. You might choose to hire an accountant to do the refiling for you, but you can also do it yourself if you’re comfortable filling out the two states’ forms yourself.


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