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we’re getting no direction while our manager is sick, companies that escort fired employees out, and more — Ask a Manager

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

1. We’re getting no direction while our manager is sick

For the past year, my boss has been dealing with a very serious health issue that has prevented them from coming into the office. That wasn’t too bad, since they were available online and by phone and generally things were handled in a timely manner. However, their treatment became less effective and, as that has happened, they’ve become more unwell. They’re now part of a clinical study that may cure them, which is great! But along with that has come less contact, fewer timely answers, and a lot less direction.

You would think that as this happened, their boss and they would have put together a plan for me and my coworkers to get answers when we need them and let us know what kind of timeline we’re looking at for things, but that hasn’t happened. Nobody has checked in to see how we’re getting on, and we are feeling more and more unsupported.

We all have enormous compassion for our boss, and there’s a lot of fear about them feeling betrayed if we bring it up with anyone, but we are at a loss. The fear is causing paralysis and none of us know who we would talk to anyway. Our grandboss knows about the illness, but it feels like as long as our boss is getting their work in to him, he doesn’t see a problem. None of us trust him to really care that much about how we’re doing anyway. Add in the fact that work seems to be what our boss is clinging to right now in a world where they are facing a deadly illness and if the clinical trial doesn’t work, there are no other options. We are worried, frustrated, and unclear on what we should be doing.

Should we: (1) talk directly to our boss, even though that feels like putting even more on their plate, (2) talk to the grandboss, even if we don’t trust it will help much, or (3) talk to HR to see if we can get some internal direction? Every one of those things feels like a betrayal in a way and there’s no consensus (there are four of us) on what to do.

It’s not a betrayal to raise work issues that need a solution. But if your boss is still in some amount of contact with your team and not on medical leave, it makes sense to start with them. Frame it as, “We know you have a lot going on right now. We need a way to get answers and approvals to keep work moving forward without being a burden on you. Is that a conversation we should have with you, or would you rather we talk to Jane or someone else to figure out solutions so that it’s not one more thing on your plate right now?” If they say they’d like to handle it, then you should take them at their word — and lay out what problems you’re seeing that need to be solved. In doing that, it’s important that you be honest; don’t sugarcoat your concerns, or they may miss what the extent of the problem. That’s not a betrayal — the only thing here that a good boss could possibly see as a betrayal is if you just let things fall apart rather than speaking up.

On the other hand, if your boss is on leave or is absent to the point that there’s no practical way to have this conversation — or if you try it and it doesn’t work — then ask HR for guidance. They may tell you that your grandboss is the right next step, or they might have other suggestions. But at that point, you do need to loop in someone who’s not your boss. (Normally I’d say choose the grandboss before HR, but given your skepticism that she’ll help, this may make more sense.)

2. Companies that walk fired employees out

Today at my place of employment, a member of HR and a staff member who was being let go walked into our workspace with a box. The HR person had the staff member box up her personal effects while they stood there. The employee was upset and crying, while the rest of the staff in the area were dumbfounded and shocked!

I have worked for this agency for 20+ years and have never seen this before. There would usually be a time scheduled for the staff member to come to the office to collect her personal effects, receive their last check, and do any other HR paperwork that needed to be completed. But, not in front of the rest of the staff! I personally don’t feel that this is okay. Isn’t this unprofessional?

It’s not an uncommon way to see it done; it’s even recommended as a best practice in some fields and in some circumstances. Employers aren’t always able to wait for the end of the day or a time when no one else will be around, and some people prefer to gather up their things themselves immediately. Ideally you wouldn’t have an HR person hovering like the person can’t be trusted to leave without causing a scene (and really, the presence of the HR person causes its own sort of scene), but some companies, and some security experts, believe it’s safer for liability reasons (and sometimes it actually is, although I’d argue it’s a bad practice to apply it as a general rule; there’s no reason to embarrass people if you can avoid it, and to the contrary you should try to protect their dignity).

If this isn’t your company’s normal way of handling firings, it’s possible there were specific security concerns you didn’t know about, or that the employee asked to get her things on the spot rather than returning later.

3. My interviewer didn’t ask me any questions at all

I recently had a job interview over Zoom that was scheduled for 30 minutes. The interviewer didn’t even look at my resume, like not even a glance, until the interview and so I had to explain what was on there. That didn’t take that long since I’m only four years into my career. She then asked me if I had any questions for her, and I had a few prepared, but I unfortunately told her I could ask them at the end because she wanted to go over the job descriptions. She then spent the rest of the time and then some going over EVERY. SINGLE. BULLET of the two job descriptions that I was interviewing for (one is senior and one is junior).

After she had gone over the junior role in detail, I cut in and told her that I was very familiar with the senior role job description since that was the one I was interested in, and I even told her I had it in front of me so we didn’t have to go into too much detail. She forged ahead and still read every single bullet point of that one. By that time, the 30 minutes was up but she still continued on to describe in detail where the office was and what was on each floor of the 12-story office.

At that point, it had been 45 minutes and I really didn’t have any more time on my end, and she asked what my questions were. I told her I wanted to be respectful of her time and so I would save them for the next interview since we were over on time. She stated that it was fine and I could ask the questions, but since I had only scheduled for 30 minutes, I really didn’t have time to continue to ask my questions and chose to end the interview.

She probably doesn’t have any kind of impression of me because I really wasn’t able to talk about myself at all besides going over my job history. I recognize that this wasn’t totally my fault, but is there anything I could have done differently? I kind of doubt I’ll be getting a call back since she still doesn’t really know anything about me. I guess I should have just asked my questions in the middle when she asked but I was used to either asking them at the end once they’re done with their questions, or sometimes asking just in the middle of the interview when relevant (more like a conversation).

Eh, you didn’t have much opportunity to do anything differently. Sure, in retrospect, ideally you would asked your own questions when she first offered, but it’s not weird to say you’ll hold them for the end since some might be answered as you talk. And you couldn’t have known that she was then going to spend the bulk of your time together reading the job descriptions out loud and describing each floor of their 12-story building (?!).

It’s not terribly unusual for interviewers not to have spent time with your resume before your interview, or not to remember it in detail even if they had. So if there’s anything to improve here, it’s to not be thrown by that if it happens again. But this sounds like an interviewer who had nothing planned for the time and didn’t know how to actually conduct an interview. Sometimes in a case like that, you can redirect the conversation to what they’re looking for and what you can offer … but in this case she made it hard, and maybe impossible, to do that.

4. Assuring coworkers I’m not contagious

I have endometriosis and raging PMS symptoms, one of which is basically a 2-3-day hay fever attack (think constant sneezing, runny nose, cough). Every month. Along with everything else. It’s about as fun as it sounds. Apparently antihistamines can help, but they’re not medically an option for me.

My current role is WFH with optional in-office days so it’s not really an issue at the moment, but I’m hoping to transition into a full-time office role soon. I can’t feasibly call out every time I have the PMS sneezes as that would destroy my sick leave allowance within six months.

How do I approach this in a post-Covid world where everyone is super-conscious of transmitting infections? I know coming in sick can cause a lot of resentment and I don’t want to get a reputation of being the office Typhoid Mary, especially if I’m not actually contagious!

Would it be completely unprofessional to let people know I’m not infectious, it’s just PMS? I don’t want to announce my medical conditions to a new office. At the same time, I feel like being cagey would just make it more suspicious and it’ll become apparent pretty quick that it’s not just seasonal allergies.

“It’s just PMS” is likely to confuse people since we don’t generally associate sneezing with PMS — and you’re likely to get coworkers worrying you’re flat-out wrong about what you have, speculating, or asking questions that you really shouldn’t need to get into at work. Would you be comfortable saying it’s allergies, just as a catch-all category for “I’m not going to infect you”? You could say, “It’s so reliably clockwork that I’m confident it’s allergies.” It’s not exactly correct, but it conveys the info that’s necessary for them — which is the sneezing is a predictable symptom of something that’s not contagious. If it’s too weird to cite allergies when you don’t actually have them, you could say, “I have a chronic condition that makes me sneeze like clockwork every month.”

5. My coworker and I talk a lot about our career goals — and now I’m about to become their manager

About six months ago, I joined a new team and hit it off with a colleague. We’re both very interested in our career growth and started meeting every other week to share progress on our goals. Let’s say we are watch makers—I might report on how I’ve been reading about the history of clocks, and they may share how they’ve been tracking new trends in watch bands.

I have recently learned that I’m going to be managing a small team that will include this colleague. I have never managed before, and I’m wondering if it would be appropriate to continue this meeting. Would it seem like favoritism unless I extended the meeting to all my direct reports? Maybe not all of them are interested in this sort of thing, and I don’t want to make it seem like a requirement. And if I don’t exhibit good progress in my goals, would I be setting a bad example for my team? Would my team feel similarly pressured to perform? There might be other potential pitfalls I’m not thinking of.

Ideally, I want to encourage a spirit of constantly learning and lead by example without making my team feel burdened by tasks they don’t want to do. Nor do I want them to feel like they have to be perfect. I also don’t want to make my colleague feel like once I became a manager, I became too important for us to mutually share how we’ve been doing. What do you think would be the right way to balance all of these?

You should end the meetings with your colleague. Otherwise you’ll be having what will seem like special mentorship/career growth meetings with one member of your team and not the others, and that will definitely seem like favoritism and unfair access.

It might be a practice that you could continue with everyone, either individually or with the group as a whole — but wait and get a better feel for the dynamics of the team first, as well as your strengths and challenges as a manager (the first year of managing tends to be hard and you might have other places you need to put your focus/energy).

Your colleague isn’t going to think that you feel you’re too important to continue meeting if you explicitly say, “Now that our roles are changing, I don’t want others on the team to feel left out of this, although maybe it’s something the whole group can do down the road.” You might also encourage them to continue the practice with someone else if they want to.


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