Inc.com columnist Alison Green answers questions about workplace and management issues--everything from how to deal with a micromanaging boss to how to talk to someone on your team about body odor.

Here's a roundup of answers to five questions from readers.

1. Am I asking too much of job applicants?

Is it unreasonable to expect applicants to submit a résumé, cover letter, and application for a part-time job, even if all three are asked for in the job posting? I recently posted a part-time position, and at the end of the post, I state, "To apply, please send a cover letter, résumé, and completed XYZ business application found at ... " So far, none of the applicants have sent me all three pieces of information. Some have sent just applications, many have sent just résumés, and a few have sent me a résumé and a cover letter with no application.

A co-worker has told me that since it's just a part-time job, I can't expect applicants to take too much care with their applications. But it's a well-paying, skilled part-time job, for a position where communication is very important. Further, after training, this new hire will be on many shifts without direct supervision. So I feel that if these applicants can't follow a simple one-sentence instruction, I really don't want to hire them. Is it unreasonable for me to be holding the applicants to this standard?

Green responds:

If you clearly ask for those three things -- none of which are terribly unusual -- it's reasonable to disqualify applicants who don't provide them. However, I'd urge you to reconsider the application. It's likely that you're just asking people to repeat information that's found on their résumé, and frankly, the best candidates are going to resist doing that, particularly at this early stage when they haven't had a chance to talk to you yet. If you're finding that your applicant pool isn't great, it's possible that that's because good candidates are turned off by that and aren't bothering to apply.

I've never used a formal application with any job I've hired for -- just résumé and cover letter. There's no reason you can't hire that way. If you want someone to sign a form attesting that the information they've submitted is accurate (one of the big arguments for applications), you can still do that -- you just don't need to make them spend time repeating everything.

2. Is my employee taking too much sick leave?

I'm a relatively new manager and I'm struggling with how to handle one of my employees' use of sick leave. We have a public-facing desk that needs to be covered when we are open. If somebody calls out sick, I have to pay an additional person to cover that desk. My budget for that is quite limited.

One of my employees, I'll call her Jane, is exemplary. However, she calls out at the last minute at least once every other month. At least once in the past nine months, she's blown completely through her accrued sick leave. I don't want to be that boss who encourages sick people to come to work, and I certainly feel for her (I have a chronic illness, and before it was under control, I blew through sick leave too), but at the same time, her absences put a strain on my budget. Is this bad enough to address, or am I blowing this out of proportion?

Green responds:

If she has the sick leave to take, it's not really fair to tell her that she can't take it. I get that it's putting a strain on your budget, but you have an exemplary employee who's doing nothing more than using the benefits that are part of her compensation, and doing it because she's sick. (Paying salaries might put a strain on your budget too, but you pay them because that's how you attract and keep good employees. Or you change your salary structure -- but you can't resent people for cashing their paychecks.)

At most, you could talk to her and find out if there's any way to plan more in advance (for example, if she's using the time for doctor's appointments, it's possible she has more flexibility on when and how far in advance she schedules them), but depending on what the time is for, that may not be possible.

For what it's worth, I do think you'd have more standing to talk to her if her absences were much more frequent than they are. There's a point where someone might be calling out so much that it's getting in the way of their being able to do their job reliably. But that doesn't sound like the case here.

3. My company said they'd help me find another job after my layoff -- what should I expect?

I was very suddenly laid off last week. My bosses were very compassionate and apologetic and offered to assist me in finding a job going forward.

While that's great, I have no idea what to expect. Will they be casually asking their friends in the industry? Making calls to businesses they partnered with in the past? While I know I shouldn't lean on them fully anyway, my standards are pretty low. After all, they laid me off because the business was going under. They have bigger fish to fry.

I'm drafting a "thank you for everything/good luck" email to my bosses. How do I include something a little more tactful than "so, about that job hunt help ... "?

Green responds:

It might mean as little as "we'll be a reference for you when you need one" or as much as "we'll reach out to our networks and talk you up and see if we can find leads for you." More commonly, it means something closer to the former -- but the latter does happen.

I'd say this to them: "You mentioned that you might be able to help in my job search. I'd love to take you up on that. I'd really appreciate it if you were able to reach out to your network about me if you know of anyone who might need someone with my skills, or if you're able to give me a heads-up about any job leads." That might put some specifics in their heads if they didn't already have some in there, and it should nudge them to say something that will give you a better idea of where they're coming from.

That said, on your side I'd function as if nothing will come of their help, since you don't want to count on it panning out (and even if they actively help, it might not lead anywhere). If it does, great -- but meanwhile, move forward with everything you'd be doing anyway.

4. I keep being told "we need you to be flexible"

I'd like to make more sense of a phrase I have been hearing on and off in the work world over the years: "We need you to be flexible." This is usually said in response to requests for training, or in interviews where I list my strengths as liking to be systematic and respecting policy and procedure.

I had an interview the other day at a health insurance company. My interviewer asked me to list my strengths. I said that I liked to work systematically, and respect and even like policies and procedures. I thought these were strengths, in contrast to workers who overlook or flout procedure. My interviewer laughed and said the job "may not be a good fit if you like to be systematic," because "things change every day, and the way we did things yesterday may not be the way we do things tomorrow or today." She said she had been in the insurance industry for many years and did not think that state of affairs would change.

What qualities or behaviors are being asked for when they say they value "flexibility," and since when did a desire to follow rules and be policy driven and systematic become a weakness?

Green responds:

Flexibility means rolling with changes and not getting too rattled by them. Sometimes an environment has so many unnecessary changes that "we need you to be flexible" is a symptom of dysfunction, but there are lots of fields and roles where it's just a normal and necessary part of the work. I can't speak to your field in particular, but if you're hearing it over and over, I'd believe it -- and would do some soul-searching about whether that's something you can live with reasonably happily.

It's also worth noting that if you've been hearing "we need you to be flexible" for years, it might mean that you're unusually rigid, in a way that's a problem for a lot of workplaces. There are some fields where rigidity and strict adherence to systems is a plus, but there are others where it would make you ill-suited. It might be worth figuring out which fields and jobs reward that approach, so that you're somewhere that's well-matched with how you like to work.

5. When a good employee resigns

One of my strongest employees has decided to resign. It wasn't an easy decision for her to make, so I've tried to be respectful and supportive while she makes her exit. Having never gone through this process before, it made me wonder if there's something I can be doing to help give closure. Besides having her walk me through her job list and files, is it weird to have a one-on-one exit interview with her? I know that's something HR will be doing, but is it normal practice for managers to give one as well? I meet with all my employees regularly, so I have a good sense of how she feels about this position and job, but I wonder if she would like the opportunity to give feedback, which could help determine how I train/direct the new employee filling her old position.

Green responds:

It would be weird to ask her to do a second formal exit interview with you, but not weird at all to talk informally with her and ask if there's anything you could have done differently to keep her, what feedback she might want to share that would help you manage better or the department run better; and what advice she has on acclimating her replacement.
 

Want to submit a question of your own? Send it to alison@askamanager.org.