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office only has folding chairs, how does bereavement leave work, and more — Ask a Manager

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

1. Our office only has folding chairs

I work for a midsize nonprofit that, like many organizations, has become fully hybrid since the pandemic. Our office is considered flex space, used for both regular work days and events, and the only infrastructure we have is a combination of rolling 6-foot tables, three-leg stools, and plastic folding chairs.

There is more expectation that we are in the office more frequently now, and I’m finding myself there on average 2-3 days per week. On those weeks, my body hurts from being there, to the point that I am sore for one or more days after being in, to the point that I am limping, managing tension headaches, or unable to do planned physical activities. HR has offered to provide me an adjustable chair as an accommodation but I have been told explicitly they cannot provide for the whole office due to budget.

I am uncomfortable taking their accommodation offer because it doesn’t seem fair to my coworkers (and for what it’s worth, I am on the primary leadership team too, so it feels especially icky), and I anticipate running into the situation of calling it “my chair” or having to ask someone to give it up who is using it before I arrive (which, of course, is fine with me!). But super awkward!

How would you suggest I manage this? Advice for managing the dynamic if I take their accommodation offer, or advice for how to force them to provide for the whole office (which would be my preference)?

You can’t force them to provide different chairs for the whole office, but you can strongly recommend it, pointing out that the current chairs are insufficient for adults to sit in all day and that you’re unlikely to be the only one suffering in them. Since you’re on the leadership team, you presumably have some influence, so you could decide how much capital you want to put into this — but it’s very reasonable to argue that if the org expects people to come in more frequently, providing actual office chairs that match most adults’ sitting needs should be as much an expectation as providing the physical space itself is. You might be able to recruit other senior leaders to push the issue as well.

But either way, you should accept the accommodation, both because you need it and because not accepting it would be modeling the wrong thing to your more junior staff; you definitely don’t want them to watch you and conclude that they shouldn’t advocate for their own needs or that if they’re ever physically suffering they should just suck it up. You can also make a point of being clear with people about what the org’s accommodation process is and how they could go about making their own requests if they ever need to.

2. How does bereavement leave work?

I found out yesterday from a mutual friend that an out-of-state friend died by suicide. I’m having a lot of feelings about it. (It wasn’t entirely unexpected, they were in treatment, I’m wondering if I should/could have done more to support them, etc. LOTS of feelings.)

A few hours after I found out, well outside working hours (I found out around 7 pm, messaged work around 9), I messaged my acting (while my manager is on vacation) manager and left a message that I wouldn’t be in today due to a friend passing. (I didn’t go into more detail, I always try to keep things private with work.) I also messaged several coworkers to ask them to cover tasks that had to be done today, also telling them I just found out a friend passed.

But now on top of processing what’s happened, I’m stressing about work. What level of making sure my tasks are covered is my responsibility when taking bereavement leave? I obviously didn’t get confirmation of task coverage from the coworkers I asked given what time it was.

Is it reasonable to use bereavement leave for a non-relative? I have regular PTO I can use instead, but not a lot. I have no idea if her kids are going to have an obituary published, and I don’t know her kids anyway, and I wouldn’t ask them even if I did! My grief is not their problem. So what do I do if work asks for proof? Is it even reasonable for them to ask for proof? I’ve never taken bereavement leave before, so I feel like it’d be unreasonable of them to ask for proof. I’m probably winding myself up unnecessarily, but I can’t stop thinking about “what if work gets onto me about this” … possibly my brain trying to distract me from what happened. I have no idea what’s my responsibility for work in this kind of situation.

Companies that offer bereavement leave in the sense of “you get X additional days on top of your normal PTO when someone close to you dies” usually have policies that define what relationships are eligible for it — often confining it to specific family members and excluding friends, unfortunately. That doesn’t mean you can’t take leave when a friend dies; of course you can! It just means that in that situation the leave would come out of your regular bucket of PTO rather than a different one. So you should check any written policies or check with your manager about what your company offers.

Some companies do ask for obituaries, a funeral program, or other documentation to guard against abuse, although if you weren’t able to get something like that, they’ll often work around that. But again, that would be if you were specifically using bereavement leave rather than regular leave.

Beyond that, you can treat your work during the days you’re out the same as you would treat it with sick leave,  meaning that you can assume others — your manager if no one else — will step in to ensure anything crucial gets covered or rescheduled. (Of course, in some jobs you might still need to say “someone needs to handle X/please tell Y that Z is on hold/etc.” It depends not the job and your level of seniority, but the way you’d handle it during a sudden severe illness is a good guide.)

One thing that often comes up when bereavement leave gets discussed: Bereavement leave is not intended to provide enough time for you to grieve; it would need to be months or years longer if so. Rather, it’s mostly intended to give you time for logistics, such as organizing/attending a funeral, etc. (as well as, of course, an acknowledgement that you might not be in an emotional state to be working right away either).

I’m sorry about your friend.

3. Something in my performance review was factually incorrect

A few years ago, I went back to school and pursued an advanced degree in order to change career fields. I graduated and got a job in my new field and just had my first annual performance review.

I received an overall score of “meets expectations,” which was slightly disappointing as I felt some of my work and progress since my six-month review wasn’t recognized, but I felt it was overall constructive and I got some good ideas for growth out of it. However, one piece of feedback I got was totally inaccurate and was used as a reason to give me “meets expectations” instead of “exceeds expectations” in an area I know is a strength.

Let’s say we are a llama grooming supply company, and writing product manuals is an area where I typically excel. My feedback for this area was akin to “we had to educate you on the difference between scissors and shears, which is something we expect employees with a degree in advanced llama grooming to already know.” This never happened! I have always know the difference between scissors and shears and contrast both frequently in my writing, and I have never received any feedback about doing so inaccurately.

I feel that my managers must have gotten me confused with someone else, as they hired several new employees for the same job at the same time as me. I know the time for addressing this is probably past, but what is your advice for a situation like this where feedback is completely inaccurate?

Ideally you’d do it in the moment by saying something like, “I think there may be an error in the written review. It says I didn’t know the difference between scissors and shears, but that’s never come up as an issue and I contrast both of them frequently in my writing. I wondered if that was a different new hire rather than me, and whether we can get that corrected in my review?” If you don’t speak up in the moment, you can still go back later and say the same thing, just starting off with, “I realize I should have mentioned this on the spot, but I was confused by it.”

I don’t know how much time has passed since the review meeting, but unless it’s been months it’s still probably worth correcting (even if they don’t change the rating you received) so that you’re not letting objectively inaccurate information be included on a written assessment of your work.

4. What to wear for an informal networking meeting

I’m pretty new to the job market. I’ve been in the workforce for three years now, and it’s been in entry-level work in a field that’s not really close to what I want to do. I’m working to get certified as a paralegal. I’ve recently gotten a chance to connect with a lawyer in my field of choice in my area; she wouldn’t be a lawyer I would work directly with, but she is well known for taking new lawyers and paralegals under her wing and getting them connections to other law firms. She suggested we meet up for coffee, lunch, or a happy hour, so I’m assuming this meeting would be pretty informal (even though I turned down the happy hour). However, I’m stuck on what to wear.

My current and past jobs have all had the same dress code (jeans, t-shirt, and sneakers) but working in a legal office obviously has a different standard of dress. Further, while this is the second time I’m getting this sort of informal career meeting with someone, the first time was with a family friend, so I knew a t-shirt and jeans were okay. This time I don’t know this person at all, so I have no idea what she would think of what I wear. It may not be an actual job interview, but she is definitely a very valuable networking connection and potential mentor, so I don’t think showing up in jeans and a t-shirt would be good. I have some nice casual dresses and some more formal wear (think dress pants and blouses, the type that you would wear in a law office). It may be an informal meeting — too informal for office attire — but I also don’t know if spaghetti straps are appropriate either. I don’t have any makeup, but should I start getting used to wearing it now? Are hair accessories (like head bands or hair clips) too childish? The only thing I am sure I’m going to wear are a nice pair of sandals — not flip-flops!

No spaghetti straps. It might be fine, but law is a conservative field, and spaghetti straps read very casual. Aim for one step down from a suit; dress pants and a blouse are safer than a casual dress. Even if the person you’re meeting with dresses down because she figures it’s informal, you’re not going to go wrong by showing that you’re taking it seriously.

You don’t need to wear makeup. Hair accessories: depends on the specific accessories, but the classic end of the spectrum is safer (think tortoiseshell, not neon pink).

I also wouldn’t assume this is an informal meeting just because she suggested doing it over coffee, lunch, or drinks; those are all pretty standard business meeting settings, so come prepared for the possibility that it might not be as informal as you’re envisioning!

5. Accepted a new job and found out I’m pregnant all in 48 hours

After almost a year of being unemployed and job searching, I finally landed a job that I am super excited about! It is exactly the opportunity I had hoped for and I don’t want anything to jeopardize that. Within 48 hours of accepting the position, I also found some other very happy news: after months of trying, I am pregnant. It’s been a wild week, to say the least.

How should I navigate this with my new company? I would prefer not to tell them until I know the pregnancy is viable (I’m currently at five weeks) but I also don’t want it to seem or feel as though I took the job under misleading circumstances, or to give them a reason to question my ability to do the job. I also know another team member will be going on maternity leave soon and they would probably appreciate as much advance notice as possible for planning purposes. I understand I will likely be ineligible for the full maternity benefits outside of what is protected by my state, since I will have only been there for about seven months when the baby is due.

To add further context, part of the reason I was unemployed for so long is because I witnessed pregnant women being mistreated by my prior employer, which propelled me to leave since the behavior was illegal (they did get sued, FYI). Obviously, this has traumatized me in a way that I didn’t realize until now, finding myself in this situation. When should I tell my employer? Is there a best way to handle this?

You don’t need to tell them about your pregnancy now. It’s perfectly reasonable to wait until you’re in your second trimester or whenever you’d normally be comfortable announcing. That still leaves them months to plan; you’re not doing anything shady or inconsiderate by waiting to share the news until then, and that’s a very normal timeline to announce on.

When you do announce it, they might realize that you likely found out around the time of the offer, but they’re not going to know if you knew you were pregnant before accepting or not — and even if they figure you probably did, the law would have prohibited them from factoring it into their hiring decision anyway, and no reasonable employer would fault you for waiting to share until you were further along (nor would they have any legal ground to stand on if they did).


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