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. How can I get my co-worker to stop gossiping to me?

I work in a small office of five people. One of my co-workers holds a manager position, and is sort of a supervisor for everyone. She was here before me and is above me technically. She is constantly badmouthing and gossiping to me about the other employees, from personal (sometimes very personal) information to performance issues or problems.

I really hate gossiping, especially in the workplace. I understand venting a little once in a while, but this is excessive. Besides, I do not trust this person at all; she's had issues with everyone at some point, but especially me, and I can't imagine what she says to others about me. I feel as though she is trying to get me to respond and say something negative about people. I try to shrug it off and change the subject, or defend the person while trying not to get on her bad side. It's getting to the point where I need some different tactics to escape the conversation, without flat-out saying that I don't wish to gossip. For at least the time being, I need to be civil with her and try to stay on her good side. Any advice?

Green responds:

Two options if you don't want to tell her directly that you don't want to hear this stuff (although I think it's worth reconsidering that stance -- it's a reasonable thing to say to someone like this):

a. Make it about you, not her: "I've resolved to stay more positive at work. I'm trying to keep a no-negativity zone."

b. Be entirely unsatisfying as a trash-talk partner. For instance, when confronted with a complaint about Jane: "Huh, I think Jane is really nice/good at her job/easy to work with." If you're relentlessly positive, in time she'll likely find a more satisfying gossip recipient.

2. My assistant gives me too many gifts

My amazing, overqualified secretary sends small gifts to my home, for not only the holidays but for my kids' birthdays as well. It makes me really uncomfortable, but I don't know how to tell her.

Her work is terrific, and she's a lovely person, but I'm really concerned that if I don't couch it in the right way, she'll be (1) mortified, (2) more anxious than is her norm, and/or (3) really hurt if I tell her that she really need not send me gifts. It's very sweet, but it's just too much. I'd love to find a gentle way of making it stop.

Green responds:

I don't know that you can, not without hurting her feelings! She's going so far beyond what can normally be the result of obligation (like basic holiday gifts) to something so different (gifts for your kids' birthdays, etc.) that it sounds like this might just be her personality. And if that's the case, and she takes pleasure in it, I think you risk doing more harm than good by making her feel that she's been in the wrong all this time. It sounds like you're really happy with her work and she's just an incredibly thoughtful person, so I wouldn't risk causing awkwardness. This is a case where I think you can make an exception to the usual advice on this stuff (which normally would be that gifts at work should flow downward, not upward).

You could certainly say something like, "I hope you never feel any obligation to do this -- your fantastic work is all the gift I'll ever need," but I wouldn't push it beyond that.

3. I was hired to replace someone who doesn't want to leave

I took a job four months ago as a bookkeeper for a small retail store owned by a family friend. He reached out to me because his bookkeeper of 25 years needed to retire. He promised me a fair hourly wage after a 30-day training period. I had never worked in this kind of position, but he was primarily interested in hiring someone he could trust and he assured me that the bookkeeper would train me.

The problem is that the bookkeeper really doesn't want to leave, even though she says her health does not allow her to work anymore. It turns out that she has had control over most of the financial decisions all these years and the owner defers to her on everything. I have not been taught or shown anything but the basics of bookkeeping, which I accomplished after 30 days. I am still making the "training" level of pay and was told I will not get the higher agreed-to pay until the bookkeeper no longer has to come in. I now realize that will never happen, and I can not afford to live on this level of pay. At this point, I am not sure what to do. Can you give me some advice?

Green responds:

Talk to the owner and say this: "I've repeatedly tried to get Jane to train me on X, Y, and Z, but she hasn't been willing to. She's shown me the basics of the bookkeeping but nothing else, and I'm getting the sense that she doesn't plan to leave any time soon. I can't continue on the training pay long-term, and I'm concerned that she isn't leaving in the near future. How should we proceed?"

If he's at a loss, suggest that the three of you meet and devise a training plan that lays out what you'll be taught by when -- and make sure that the owner is willing to hold her to that. It's also not unreasonable to ask her point-blank what her plans are ("Can you give me a sense of your timeline for retiring, since it will affect my role here?").

I'd also be prepared to leave -- pretty quickly -- if the owner doesn't take more decisive action here, or you'll continue being underpaid.

4. I'm embarrassed by my co-worker's name

One of my co-workers (a recent graduate from Thailand) has a first name that looks like two offensive English words but isn't pronounced that way. Almost everyone calls her by her nickname, which is a lot easier to pronounce.

A recent directive from corporate means that everyone now has a nameplate on their desks, and we were asked to fill in what name we would like displayed. Her desk is right next to mine, and much to my dismay she chose her real first name rather than her nickname. Since we have visitors frequently passing by where both of us sit, it creates an embarrassing situation for me when they glance at the nameplate. Is there any way I can ask her to have the nameplate changed to her nickname, since that is what she goes by even at home, without appearing to be culturally insensitive? The name has a beautiful meaning in Thai, but unfortunately that does not get portrayed when written in English.

Green responds:

No. That's her name. There is no polite way to ask her to take it off her nameplate or to not use it. Doing that would actually be quite disrespectful. And you're projecting way too much into what strangers think.

5. How can I ask an old manager whom I'm out of touch with to be a reference?

I left my previous job four years ago. Although I am friendly with one of my ex-colleagues, I have not kept in touch with the management team. How would I ask my ex-manager about being a reference on future job applications? I don't know how to word this request. (I can get references from my current employer, but the culture in my profession is to have references from your current and previous job.)

Green responds:

Send an email saying something like this: "Hi, Jane: I hope you're doing well! I've been (brief update on your life). I'm now starting to think about moving on from my role with (employer), and I was hoping I'd be able to use you as a reference for the work I did for you. I'm looking for jobs doing ____, and thought you'd be able to speak about my work in that area. Would it be OK to list you as a reference?"

You don't need to fill in tons of social details first -- just a brief, polite "here's what's going on with me, hope you're well, and now down to the reason I'm writing." There's nothing rude about the fact that you've been out of touch or that you're writing with a specific request. Requests to be a reference are totally normal, and they don't require tons of social cushioning. Be friendly and straightforward about what you're looking for.

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

Published on: Oct 30, 2018