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. Do I apologize to my employees too often?

I'm a new manager at a company where I've worked for years. In trying to adjust to the role, I'm realizing that I'm the sort of person who says "sorry" a lot. I'm not always doing it to take the blame on myself; I'm often doing it because to show empathy and sometimes make a situation less confrontational. Do you think this will hurt my effectiveness if I don't change? I think I can apologize in ways that are still appropriately firm (e.g. "I'm sorry, I know this is piling onto an already-busy week, but I need you to add X to your plate and get it done by Friday"), but am I actually undermining myself by doing this?

If it matters, I'm a man. (I hear this is a more common or more problematic issue for women.) And I'm in my mid 30's, roughly the same age as the majority of coworkers.

Green responds:

It depends on how often you're saying it.

In the example you gave, where you're adding something onto an already full plate, it makes sense to acknowledge that. It would be a bad thing if you didn't. On the other hand, if you're apologizing every time you delegate work to someone, that will quickly become weird, because it'll sound like you feel sheepish about delegating, which will make your employees feel awkward and wonder why you're not more matter of fact about it.

So it's balance. Sometimes managers should apologize or acknowledge inconvenience, but if you feel like you're constantly saying "I'm sorry," then yeah, I'd rein it in.

And if you're finding that you're using it to show empathy, keep in mind you have a bunch of other tools at your disposal to do that. Genuinely thanking people for taking on extra is one way. Making real efforts to help people manage a high workload is one more. Urging people to take a day or afternoon off when their workload allows it is still another. These things have a much bigger impact than just acknowledging "yeah, this sucks, and I wish it didn't," so make sure you're doing them too.

2. Employee's personal life is derailing work conversations

I have an employee, Jane, who I'm in the middle of a formal performance process with. Jane has had difficult events in her personal life a year ago (a messy divorce and all the difficult logistics that go with that) and has said that this combined with the performance process is causing her stress and further impacting her performance.

Jane has asked for regular meetings to talk through priorities, get feedback, etc. All well and good. However, these meetings inevitably become about Jane's difficult personal life, and this derails the discussion and she becomes very emotional. She does not accept feedback well, and while her issues are no doubt genuine and difficult, it feels like they've become a shield to use up time and deflect from the real problem: her unwillingness to take accountability, and a poor productivity rate.

I have offered the in-work support line and made other reasonable adjustments. Can you suggest some phrases to stop the discussion of her personal problems and turn the conversation back to her performance and discussion of her priorities?

Green responds:

• "I know you're having a tough time, but right now I want to keep our focus on your work/the X project/how to improve your Y numbers."

• "I know you've been going through a stressful time, but I do need you to focus on X."

• "I'm sorry you're going through that. For this meeting, I'd like to keep our focus on X."

If that doesn't work, you'll need to name the problem: "I'm finding that we're continuing to end up on what's going on in your personal life, and while I'm sympathetic to that, it's getting in the way of our being able to address X. For you to improve your performance and succeed in this role, we need to focus on work when we're in these meetings."





3. Job candidate called coworker "annoying"

I did a phone interview with a candidate who kept referring to a coworker as annoying. For example, he said, "She was known to be annoying" when I'd asked him to describe a time when he had worked with a group to collaborate on creative approaches. He mentioned her as annoying twice. Everything else in the interview went great. I feel like "annoying" isn't really a professional way to describe someone, and he should have framed this differently. Is that a red flag?

Green responds:

I'd say it's a yellow flag. Not an absolute deal-breaker, but a flag to slow down and get more data (by probing more in your conversations him and by talking to references later in the process). At a minimum, it says he lacks some amount of professional etiquette/decorum and understanding of professional conventions (in that you don't describe your coworkers as "annoying" to a job interviewer).

Ideally you would have followed up more in the moment: "You said she was annoying. Tell me more about that." ... "When you have to work with people who are challenging to get along with, how do you approach that?" ... and so forth. But you can do that in the next stage of your process too, and see how he handles those questions. You might end up concluding he was just overly candid but that it wasn't indicative of anything beyond that, or you might end up concluding it was indeed a sign of deeper poor judgment or difficulty getting along with people. Right now, it could be either -- so your job is to probe more deeply.

4. How to support employees when they have abusive customers

This is my first management position. I work in retail and I manage a great group of high school girls. For most of them, it's their first job. I want to know how to stick up for my team when they have to deal with outrageously rude customers.

This weekend, we had an incredibly obnoxious and rude customer. There was a language barrier, and my employee was handling the situation well; she was patient, polite, and spending a lot of time with the customer. Toward the end of the interaction, the customer threw shoe stuffing at my employee, than said something in another language and left.

I wish I had told the customer to leave immediately and never return. I'd rather lose a terrible customer than a great employee. I told my employee that she did a great job and didn't do anything wrong to cause the customer to be a world class jerk. I feel like that's not enough. But since I'm a new manager, I don't know what to do. How should've handled the situation?



Green responds:

You did the right thing -- you clearly told your employee you had her back, she didn't do anything wrong, and the customer was in the wrong. You handled it well!

In the future, you can also intervene earlier if you think a customer is mistreating an employee. In this situation, though, I'm not sure that it had reached that point until the throwing of shoe stuffing, but it sounds like she left right after that so you didn't have the chance to intervene before she was already headed out the door. But in general, if a customer is being abusive, you can step in and say that you'll handle that customer yourself (and ask the employee to go do task X, so it's clear she doesn't need to stay), or you can say, "I can't allow you to talk to employees that way." But the specifics will depend on the situation ... and if you don't think of the perfect response in the moment, doing what you did here -- talking to the employee afterwards -- is a great way to handle it.



5. Starting a new job when pregnant

I was recently hired for a great new position. I was almost four months pregnant during my interview but was able to hide it successfully since I didn't want my pregnancy to influence the hiring committee's decision, even subconsciously.

My start dating is coming up next week, and I am now obviously pregnant. The last thing I want to do is walk in on the first day and surprise my new boss and team with the news that I will be going out on leave in less than five months. However, I don't know when or how to tell my new boss. I want to reassure her that I'm committed to the position, but since it's a new position for the organization, I have no way of laying out a specific plan to address my projects, my leave, and my return. How should I approach this? Multiple people during the interview process told me how family-friendly the organization is, but I'm still nervous about how to approach this.

Green responds:

Send your new boss an email now and let her know. You can say you know the timing isn't ideal (that doesn't mean you're apologizing for being pregnant, just acknowledging that the timing isn't super easy) but that you're excited to begin tackling the position and you're committed to doing all you can to work out a smooth plan for your leave, and that you'd be glad to sit down and talk details with her when you start next week.

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

Published on: Jan 21, 2020
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.