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we start meetings by sharing positive things from our personal lives, is it fair to make employees pay for parking, and more — Ask a Manager

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

1. We’re required to start meetings by sharing positive things from our personal lives

My company has just been bought by another company and we’re about to start the process of integrating the two. I do think this is a really good thing, apart from one thing.

Their meetings require everyone to start by stating one positive thing that’s happened in their work life, and one in their personal life.

Apart from detesting the forced positivity of this, I’m a very private person and don’t want to talk about my life outside of work, especially not for the express purpose of facilitating meetings. I don’t particularly want to list positive things from work either, but I think I probably have less of a leg to stand on there.

How do I handle this? I don’t have the standing to get them to stop doing it (although I will be raising it with our senior management that it’s likely to be a real blocker to getting the two teams to integrate well), so I really need a way to handle this when I start having meetings with them. Help!

I’m a big believer in just cheerfully and matter-of-factly turning this kind of exercise into something different that you are comfortable with. So for example, when it’s your turn you could cheerfully say, “Oh, I’m too private for that kind of personal sharing, but a positive thing that’s happened at work this week is…” (It’ll especially help if you make sure your work example is good — not just one bitter sentence that exudes “I am saying this part under duress too,” but rather something you seem to enthusiastically offer.)

Also, since you’re a little uncomfortable with the work part too, try mentioning something someone else did that impressed you. If you see it as an opportunity to amplify someone else’s work, you might feel more comfortable with that.

I’m required to share with my boss a weekly best and worst from my personal life

2. Is it fair to make employees pay for parking?

I work for a large company that is pretty much considered “the only game in town” in its home city — and frankly, the state. Everyone who lives here, for the most part, regards it for its solid pay, great benefits, etc. By and large, it is a good place to work, and I’m generally happy. But I’m starting to wonder if the company is maybe taking advantage of its workforce somewhat.

One thing that has never sat well with me is its policy on parking. If you drive to and from work, workers are forced to pay for parking that the company contracts out from the city’s parking lots. Monthly parking fees are dependent on your job classification, but it generally amounts to around $75-85/employee. It’s not a huge amount, but it’s not insignificant, either.

To be fair, our employer does offer shuttle services to those who live somewhat nearby, and walking, biking, carpooling, and metered parking are always options, but is it right for such a large company — or any company, really — to oblige their employees to pay for parking at work?

I wouldn’t say it’s unfair, really; it’s pretty common.

If the company owned the lot and was turning a profit by charging employees to park in it (at least beyond what it costs to maintain the lot), that would be wrong. But in your case, they’re acting as a sort of a middle man by leasing the space from the city and then passing on those costs to employees who want convenient parking. That’s a pretty typical way to do it. And of course, if charging for parking reduces the number of cars on the roads by encouraging more people to take public transportation or get to and from work by other methods, that’s ultimately a good thing.

One caveat: I’m assuming that “parking fees are dependent on your job classification” means that lower-paid employees pay less; if it’s the opposite and execs get subsidized parking, that’s worth objecting to.

3. Can I opt out of work travel while I’m breast-feeding?

I live across the country from my employer, one of a handful of remote workers. There’s a work trip coming up that I’m expected to attend, which will require me to be away from home for four days. I’m a new mom to a four-month old, and this would be the first time I’ve been away overnight since she was born. I’m also exclusively breast-feeding.

There are a lot of reasons why I don’t want to make this trip while breast-feeding! Including: the ick factor of having to pump in an airport, the fact that I’m likely to deal with some uncomfortable engorgement since the pump isn’t 100% effective, the awkwardness of excusing myself six times per day to go pump, and the challenge of milk storage while traveling and at my destination — to name a few. I won’t be able to pump enough in advance to feed my daughter, so I’ll also need to get my baby used to formula before the trip, which isn’t something I’d planned to do at this stage, though I’m open to it. And this doesn’t even get into the fact that we’ll be staying at a camp with shared rooms and bunk beds — in other words, little if any privacy! Presumably this means I’d be spending several hours a day pumping in a bathroom, and then storing bottles of milk in a shared fridge? All of this sounds awful.

My boss is kind and thoughtful, but while they might be open to my request not to go, I don’t expect them to really get why this would be so hard. (And I’m not keen on explaining the challenges of pumping to them.) I know that people make this work, but honestly, it just sounds so uncomfortable in so many ways. Is it reasonable to ask to be excused from work travel while breast-feeding? How might this request come across?

This is an all-staff event, but it’s not one that I’m involved in planning, nor do I have any particular responsibilities. So my absence wouldn’t create more work for anyone else.

It’s really, really normal to say you can’t travel while you’re breast-feeding. Some people are comfortable doing it; some people aren’t. It’s fine to say travel would be difficult for you while you’re breast-feeding (especially at a camping site, good lord) and you don’t need to get into all the reasons why. People opt out of travel while they’re nursing all the time and you should expect it not to be a big deal.

4. Can I give a gift to one of my employees but not the others?

I am on the leadership team at a remote company. The department I manage has a large number of people, with a few direct reports. One report is one step below me, Roberta, and a few others are technically a few steps below me by title, but I’m their direct manager.

Roberta has a big personal milestone coming up (buying her first home) and I’d like to send a gift. Since we’re remote, this would be mailed and not given in person, so no one else would see this happen. However, I haven’t done this for anyone else before (no one else has bought a home, but have had other milestones, such as having their first kid) and while I don’t have anything against doing this for others, I don’t have any specific plans for always doing this.

Is this an okay thing to do? As one step below me, Roberta is literally a lifesaver for my day to day and I’ve worked with her the longest, which is why it even came to mind to do it.

If you’re going to do it, you should do something equivalent for other employees’ big life events or it will look like favoritism and you risk stirring up resentment. You’re thinking others won’t know since everyone is remote, but all it would take is Roberta mentioning to a coworker how thoughtful it was of you, and then you’ll have other people who report to you will be wondering what it means that you didn’t send a gift for their wedding or the birth of their kid or their own home purchase. When it comes to this kind of life-event recognition, it’s too messy not to treat everyone who reports to you the same way.

5. Improving our company’s work/life balance

I have recently been tasked with being part of a committee addressing work/life balance issues in a very intense field for the company I work for. This company really has a hustle culture, and the top leadership are recognizing that we need to do really support work life/balance for employees. It’s made more complicated by a couple of factors, however. First, we work in mental health in 24-hour crisis treatment, so it’s a very emotionally draining field that absolutely requires we have staff available at the drop of a hat any moment of the day. It’s not an exaggeration to say that people’s lives depend upon this responsibility. In addition, like most social service things, the rates we are paid don’t support high pay or tons of benefits for our employees. I think we do a pretty good job given the resources we have to work with, but it’s not going to be as easy as just giving people more PTO or flexing their hours or allowing them to work from home. Those kinds of things aren’t an option in this kind of work.

Any tips for supporting work/life balance in this kind of field, when the obvious things are made much more difficult by the nature of the work we do?

I’m happy to throw this out to readers for suggestions, but the stuff that really makes a difference comes down to money — because it’s about more staffing, better pay, and more time off. Those are things that have to come from the top and aren’t within your control as a committee (although you can make recommendations about them). You can do other things around the edges — have the company bring in food, relax the dress code (although in that field it’s likely already pretty relaxed), look for policies that make people’s lives harder and suggest ways to change them … but ultimately making a truly significant difference will be about money (and I know that’s tough in health care; this letter was enlightening).


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