Editor's note: 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 stop gossip on my staff?
I am a new manager with a team of six administrative staff. There is a pervasive culture of gossiping among the team that I am at a loss about how to address. The gossiping is all about (perceived) work performance -- two of them will stand in a corner and whisper about how a third did the mail run late today or wasn't at the reception desk when an important guest arrived. And it's not just two bad eggs; they all gossip about each other.
I've encouraged all of them to come to me with any issues about team performance or tasks being completed (especially since the gossiping is often unfair -- the gossipers don't realize I have given their colleague a specific task with instructions that it is to be done in advance of their other duties). This doesn't seem to be working.
Should I sit them all down at a team meeting and tell them that gossiping is not OK and I won't tolerate it? And call them out when I see them doing it? I worry that would make me seem like a teacher, not a manager.
You've asked them to come to you with concerns, but have you told them directly to stop gossiping? It doesn't sound like it, and that needs to be your first step: explicit feedback about what you want to see change. Raise it at your next team meeting, explain that it's creating a toxic atmosphere that will harm productivity and morale, and that effective immediately, anyone who wants to discuss something negative should be discussing it with someone who can help solve the problem, not gossiping with people who can't. In other words, you're implementing a no-gossip policy, and, yes, that's a thing.
If it continues after that, talk with the perpetrators one-on-one and explain the consequences if the behavior continues (in other words, treat it just like any other performance problem that has consequences attached -- and it is indeed reasonable to replace people over this if they're poisoning your culture). Make sure you're also modeling the behavior you want to see; you need to walk the walk on this.
This isn't schoolmarmish of you; managers absolutely should talk explicitly about the culture they want to see and address behaviors that are out of sync with that culture.
2. I can't do my new job's required travel.
I accepted a new position with a wonderful agency about two months ago. When the position was posted, there was no mention of extensive travel. If that was placed in the job announcement, I would have never applied, due to the fact that I have small children. During the interview, travel was not brought up and I didn't ask (I didn't know I needed to, since there was no mention in the job announcement).
Now that I've been here for two months, I have found that this job requires extensive travel and overnight stays. I haven't really voiced my concerns, but have just let my supervisor know that if I have to travel, I would need to be back at 5 p.m. the same day. So far it's been only day trips, but the overnight travel is a huge issue for me. My manager has asked if I can go on an overnight stay next week, and I told her no and that it was not enough notice. She agreed but told me that I'm "required" to in the future. How do I address this?
All you can really do here is be straightforward. Meet with your manager and say something like, "I'm concerned about the work trips you've mentioned. It didn't come up during the hiring process that this job requires overnight travel, and I wouldn't have been able to accept the job if I'd known that. I have young kids and am not able to do overnight travel. I really love the work here and hope there's a way to work this out."
Is there anything you can offer to do instead of the overnight trips? Covering for others who are gone? Some undesirable work that no one else wants? Be aware, though, that if travel is truly an extensive part of the job, they might not be able to waive that requirement, which could mean that the role isn't the right fit for you right now. (And, yes, it's insane that they didn't mention this during the hiring process -- and particularly unfair if you left another job to take this one.)
3. Should we tell our new boss about our terrible department assistant?
There are currently three people in my department -- me, an excellent co-worker, and our departmental assistant. Our assistant is for the most part terrible: She refuses to answer phone calls, finds excuses not to complete tasks we give her, and often disappears for hours. Our long-time boss was let go a month ago, so my excellent co-worker and I are basically carrying the weight of the whole department, working longer hours than usual to keep up with the work. When our assistant claims she doesn't have time to complete the projects we give her, I end up having to do them myself.
When our new boss begins, should my co-worker or I warn her about our terrible departmental assistant? Our last boss had wanted to get rid of her, but never made any progress before she herself was let go. I can't tell if it's our assistant's general bad attitude, or she's not interested in the line of work, but honestly we would rather fire her and have someone else step in. Is it OK to warn the new boss, or should we let her discover this nightmare herself?
You should absolutely tell her. You don't need to get into what your last boss was planning on doing but never did, but you should lay out the facts as they have affected you: The assistant refuses to answer calls, won't complete work you assign her, and disappears for hours at a time. You wanted to lean on her for help while the department was short-staffed, but she refused to help.
It's absolutely appropriate to give this kind of feedback and alert your boss to a serious problem in the department that is affecting your work and needs to be dealt with quickly, to minimize its ongoing impact.
Also, does the assistant report to anyone currently -- an interim manager or anyone like that? If so, that person should be addressing this with her now, not waiting for the new manager to start.
4. Anxiety leads me to back out of workplace social events.
I have been working in my job since July. The office personnel are a very tight-knit group of people and they like to do things together outside of work hours. I have been diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder and social anxiety since I was 9 years old (I am 25 now). When I am invited out with the people from work, I usually say no, make up an excuse, or say yes and then flake out (again with another excuse). I feel as though I should be attending these events, but the day of the event I just cannot bring myself to go.
How do I let my office mates know that I am interested in getting to know them and that I am not a "grump" (as they like to call me)? I also do not know if it would be a good idea to let my manager know in confidence, so that he at least knows why I am not attending these events. I can manage my anxiety at work and it does not interfere with my work; it is just going out outside of work hours.
I don't think you have to attend these events at all; plenty of people don't attend after-work social events because they go home to a family, or dogs, or school, or a second job, or simply don't want to. But it is a problem if you keep committing and backing out, so you might want to stop committing to them -- and perhaps just say that you can't generally go because of ____ (fill in the blank).
The bigger issue is that they find you a grump, but that's something you can tackle at work, without needing to hang out outside of work. Make a deliberate point of being warm and friendly with people -- ask about their weekend or their interests, talk about movies or TV with them, share something about your own interests or personal life, and so forth. Be kind and friendly and take a genuine interest in people, and you shouldn't come across as a grump at all.
5. Who should attend an exit interview?
I handle internal HR for a small organization (fewer than 20 employees). I have two exit interviews coming up for exiting employees in two different departments. For one, my manager, the COO, wants to be present, and for the other (a finance employee), he wants my CFO to "observe." The CFO is relatively new to leading the vertical and has not worked directly with that exiting employee.
Who is it appropriate to include in an exit interview? I have concerns about my COO being at the first one because I'd expect feedback from that employee to specifically touch on aggressive communications from the COO. For the other, I have no problem with the CFO participating as I don't expect any of the feedback to be personal, but is it weird to have him "observe" versus participate (or not be present)?
What are your general recommendations for including extra individuals in exit interviews?
The goal of an exit interview is to get candid information from the exiting employee. The more people you have present, the less likely the person is to be candid. I can't think of any compelling reason to let someone "observe" exit interviews or otherwise include additional people; the atmosphere you want is one that's a safe place to talk, not one with "observers" -- let alone intimidating observers.
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