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employee wants cash because she missed a group lunch, teenage worker’s mom keeps contacting us, and more — Ask a Manager

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

1. My employee wants cash because she missed a group lunch

I am in the CEO-like position for a small local government (I oversee everything in the organization and report to a board of five who have no day-to-day authority). We have 18 full-time employees and a total of about 50, including permanent part-time and seasonal workers.

In April, as a thank-you for Stress Awareness Month, I organized a lunch from a local restaurant for employees who RSVP’d to the event. Being a local government, the entity can’t pay for this, so the money came out of my own pocket. I did not tell any of my employees this.

One part-time employee, Jill, was not scheduled to be at work this day. Historically employees who are not scheduled do not come in for these types of events, although sometimes do attend and are welcome to do so. Jill had a conflict and was not able to make it into the office for the lunch.

She later asked me to purchase her lunch another day, and I was taken aback! I know I should have said something then, but I didn’t. Three months later, she asked me to buy her lunch again, and when I said I wouldn’t be there on that day, asked for cash instead. I was left speechless.

I’m getting conflicting advice, including telling her “no” after I thought about it to not allow precedence, to getting her a gift certificate to the restaurant, to just buying her a meal. I’d appreciate any thoughts you have!

Whoa, no, don’t get her a gift certificate or buy her a meal. You paid with your own money for an appreciation lunch for staff who could attend. That does not obligate you to buy separate meals for people who couldn’t be there. That would be true even if the organization was paying, but it’s doubly true since it was your own money.

In this case, it might help to tell Jill you paid out of your own pocket. I’d say it this way: “I think you misunderstood the event. I paid for this out of my own pocket as a treat for employees who could be there, but I’m not in a position to buy separate meals for everyone who didn’t attend.” You might add, “You’re always welcome at this kind of thing even if you’re not scheduled to work that day, but we don’t provide make-up meals to people who miss the event.”

2. My teenage employee’s mom keeps contacting us

I am the owner of a small retail shop with one part-time manager. Most of our employees are teenagers. Our standard employment policy is no-call/no-show results in termination. We recently hired a new employee, Katie, who has had much difficulty picking up the job and performing the job to standards. We intended to have a 30-day review with her to highlight areas of improvement needed. Katie’s mother recently called the store and said Katie broke her phone and could not access the app to get her upcoming schedule. We provided the schedule in writing to the mother (through text) and let her know the schedule could also be accessed on the computer. Katie no-showed for that next shift and the manager messaged her, resulting in no response. Her mother called the store a few days later and said Katie would not be able to work her next scheduled shift due to a family vacation. The manager informed the mother that Katie had already missed a shift and we would take her off the next shift. We haven’t scheduled her since since due to the no-call/no-show, and we removed her from our scheduling app.

After two weeks pass, her mother again calls to get the upcoming schedule. The manager informs her Katie has no scheduled shifts. Katie texts me later that day letting me know she has a new phone and can’t access her schedule. Shortly after, her mother texts me and says Katie will be unavailable to work this weekend due to another family vacation, but Katie can’t access to the schedule and she hopes she is not terminated and that we can work something out.

Since Katie was already a poor performer who probably wasn’t going to make it, I don’t want to bring her back. Do I simply respond to Katie that no-call/no-show has resulted in termination? Do I owe any response to her mother? Or do I need to give a second chance since she’s just a kid with a broken phone and an overbearing mother who schedules a lot of last-minute vacations?

You’re certainly justified in deciding not to bring her back, based both on her not showing up without calling and her struggles with the job itself. If you go that route, you can just respond to Katie to let her know that because she no-called/no-showed for a shift, you’re not going to keep her on. If you wanted to give her another chance, I’d recommend telling her that you’ll give her another shot, but that you need to go over the store policies and your expectations around scheduling first (including that she needs to be the one communicating with you, not her mom).

Either way, you don’t need to communicate with her mom. If her mom contacts you again, you can say, “Katie will need to call me directly; while we made an exception when her phone broke, generally we need to talk with employees directly rather than through their parents.”

3. How to respond to “I’ve never had Covid”

I have a question about something that seems like it should be increasingly rare but is continuing to come up. Often in both my personal and professional life, I’m still encountering people who, when Covid comes up, will say “I’ve never gotten covid, I’ve been really careful” in a tone like you’d say you’ve never returned a library book late.

I do understand that people have extremely serious reasons for needing to avoid Covid to, you know, stay alive (though I’m not sure that’s the demographic always making these comments) and that you do need to have been quite careful to have avoided it thus far. But I’m frustrated with the implication that I got Covid because I wasn’t being careful. I’m a healthcare worker and got Covid seeing a patient in a nursing home experiencing an outbreak. I was also 34 weeks pregnant and obviously had my own reason to want to not get it. I ended up delivering early (capstone to a very difficult pregnancy doing an intense job with non-stop nausea all three trimesters). Everyone is fine! But obviously the “careful” thing touches a nerve. It’s almost never patients saying it, it’s mostly my own acquaintances and external people I work with who are only tangentially connected to the healthcare system.

Is there a way to respond that acknowledges both their reality and mine? Am I a little too sensitive to a well intentioned comment?

Well, maybe a bit, but very understandably so! For a response, how about, “It’s tough in healthcare”? Or, “Yes, I’m extremely careful as well.” Or, “That’s great, you’ve been very lucky.”

4. My team used to be awful; we’re treated like we still are

I am the director of operations at an educational technology company. I took this role from another role in the company due to a significant gap and performance issues in the department. Unfortunately, the department has a multi-year history of poor performance, mistakes, lack of reliability, and so on. My team and I have spent the last year working incredibly hard to create scalable, repeatable processes and execute reliably, and it has worked! We have gone from a 60+% error rate to a 2-8% error rate in most areas that we can measure.

However, when inevitable errors do occur, other departments react as if we were still in the old days. I have coached my team that it will take some time for us to flip the narrative; however, they find it exhausting and demoralizing to have fingers constantly pointed at them anytime something doesn’t go perfectly. Sometimes feedback is expressed very unprofessionally (yelling, name calling, etc.). Is there anything further that I can do to help dampen this response and shield my team so we can continue pushing hard for process improvement?

Well … that historical 60% error rate is astoundingly high (as you clearly know) so it’s no surprise that other teams are fed up, especially if they’ve raised the issues previously and nothing was done until recently. But yelling and name-calling is unacceptable, regardless.

Can you talk to the managers of the teams that are responding that way? You’re going to need to convince them that (a) you fully understand the frustrations from earlier and (b) you are on it now, but their employees are yelling at your staff and calling them names and that can’t happen. Ask to collaborate to figure out how to ensure they’re getting what they need without abusing your team. For example, is it feasible to have other teams’ feedback go exclusively through you for a while? Can you set up an easy way for people to escalate things to you if they’re not getting what they need, so that you can quickly step in and solve it? People tend to yell when they’re frustrated and don’t see other options; if you can be that other option — because they know they can come to you and you will ensure the problem is solved — that could help significantly. It means you’ll need to be really hands-on for a while, but that’s likely to be crucial in resetting people’s assessment of your team. Those other managers need to be part of your solution though, because they need to use their authority to make it clear to their people that yelling/name-calling isn’t acceptable.

I will say though … an 8% error rate is still really high in most types of work! I know you’re working on it, but it’ll probably help to communicate that more improvement is still coming, assuming that it is.

5. Ghosted after second interview

I reached out to marketing agencies in my city to offer my services on a freelance basis and expressed interest in part-time or full-time opportunities should they arise. One firm that got back to me was a small creative firm that I did some work with previously. Their project manager, Abby, said they were looking to hire a creative position full-time and asked if I was interested. I said yes, and waited a few days for the job description to be ready. It was pretty vague and filled with marketing lingo but the job seemed like it could be a good fit and I set up an interview.

My first interview was with Abby and the owner (Cal). We talked for three hours! They loved me! After the interview I was more excited about the opportunity and expressed my interest in a follow-up email, at which point Cal asked for my salary requirements. I told them I was interested in hearing their ballpark number first (especially as we had discussed full-time versus part-time, or a more flexible schedule), but he pushed and I gave him a breakdown. I told him that I would be open to negotiating that number for the right job and was open to exploring how else we could still work together if the numbers couldn’t work. Cal responded, “You’ve alluded to this potentially not working out a couple of times. For clarity, are you saying you wish it wouldn’t work out?” I was kind of shocked. I explained that I found salary conversations super awkward and also wanted to be flexible. He responded, “I was kinda messing with you 😉 I totally understand how awkward that can be — been there. Abby will be in contact soon to arrange a second interview.”

The second interview was with the entire team and went well. We had a great discussion and some of the team members alluded to me having the job already. I left, followed up, then heard nothing for 2-3 weeks. I followed up again and was told they were still looking at resumes and would be in touch. After a little longer, I reached out again, and Cal said, “I’m sorry we have been radio silent. Things have been an ebb and flow of craziness and we are still in the process of conducting some interviews. At this time we are not in a position to make a decision, and we completely understand your needs. I would not want our chaotic schedule to hinder you from considering other options. We will be in touch as soon as we can, with the mindset of chips falling where they may. Thank you for being so patient with us!” I never got a response after that. It doesn’t appear that they hired anyone new from their website, but I don’t know for sure.

I’ve moved on, but I am still so angry and frustrated about this. What happened? I feel disrespected and somehow (though I’m not sure exactly how) taken advantage of. I don’t have many options to work with firms to do the kind of work I am good at and am resentful that they made this so awkward for me. I know at this point, there’s no point in reaching out again, but I have wanted to tell them how shitty this is (I won’t, but I want to). Am I justified feeling this way? Is this a normal hiring practice? Do you have any sense of what in the world went wrong?

This is pretty common. It’s rude to ghost you after two interviews, but really, really common. It sounds like you were thinking the job was closer to a done deal than it was, and it can help to remember that no matter how well interviews seem to go, anything can change and you never have the job until you have a formal offer. They can like you and think you’re great and still end up hiring someone else or no one at all. That can happen because they decide they’re looking for something slightly different, or someone else is more strongly matched with what they want, or they reshuffle things internally, or someone else brings a skill that they didn’t even know they were seeking but realize would be helpful, or tons of other reasons.

I don’t think they disrespected you, really! They should have gotten back in touch whenever they made a decision (whether that decision was to hire someone else, or just not to hire you, or to put the whole thing on hold, or whatever happened). But it’s so common for employers to view hiring as “we’ll tell you if we want to move forward, but otherwise assume we’re not” that there’s not a ton here to be angry about. If they had strung you along through even more interviews and work samples and blah blah blah, then yes. But two interviews isn’t such a huge time investment that this is an outrage.

I would try to see it as disappointing more than disrespectful.


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