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. My co-workers keep venting to me
A reader writes:
I work at a large university. Professors here wield a lot of influence in academic and administrative decisions. Although I don't always agree, I accept this is the way things get approved and done. I have two co-workers who must get permission for much of their work from professors. I hear about this frustration because they will come to my office to tell me what their latest roadblock or holdup is. I am sympathetic and truly wish that processes were easier for all of us.
However, I am seeing a pattern in which their venting to me is becoming more frequent, and despite my response that I have no authority to help them out (I am a middle manager), they are asking if I can somehow streamline the approvals process for their work. There is no way my modest position can overrule tenured academics. I am also uncomfortable that these venting sessions are getting kind of emotional (on their end), and I worry about their mental health and well-being. How can I support them but at the same time look after my own priorities and my own work?
First, tell them clearly and explicitly that you don't have the authority to change the approval process for their work, and that this is the way things work there, and that while it's not ideal, you don't believe it's something that will change.
From there, you can say, "I'm concerned by how frustrated this is making you. Knowing that it's not likely to change, what makes sense for you in the situation?" You can even add, "Can you stay and be reasonably happy, knowing that this is part of the package?" You asked about supporting their mental health and well-being, and that's the most direct way to do it -- by helping them cut to the chase: This is the situation, it's not going to change, and are they OK living with it or not?
If it continues after that, you can also say, "I'm so sorry, but I've got to finish up X. I'm sympathetic, but I'm on deadline." Or you might point out that over time, venting has a way of making problems feel even worse, and you might suggest taking a break from it and seeing how that goes. (And if they resist, you could be direct and say, "I think it's starting to make me grumpier, and I'm generally pretty content here.")
2. I'm in training with a much slower co-worker
A reader writes:
I am training for a position as a quality assurance agent for a surveying company, and it is me and another woman training with a trainer. Today, I've been sitting here for more than half the day while the other woman is painstakingly going through her case slowly. I got through four cases in two hours, and she's gone through one and a half. Is it absurd that I am just sitting here while I have obviously gotten the grasp of the work?
Probably. Check with the trainer and say something like, "I feel like I've got a good grasp of this. Is there something else I can move on to?" If she tells you there's nothing more left to learn, then you could ask, "In that case, would it be possible for me to get started on work?" But if she tells you that there's more training to be done but she can't move you on until your co-worker is caught up, then ask if she minds if you read the news or something else while you wait.
Also, if the training is weeks, this is worth addressing more assertively than if it's just a day. If it's just a day, it might just be something to suck up. (But either way, if you have the opportunity to give feedback on the training later, this is a reasonable thing to mention.)
3. Should I ask for a lower salary?
A reader writes:
I've spent my career at small companies, knowing I make less money there than in "corporate America." I have enjoyed the intimacy and the variety in the work I do. Even with a smaller salary, I've always been comfortable in my life and am not greedy. When I was hired, my boss agreed to my salary expectations. But from then on, she frequently let me know that I made more money than other people in my department. As such, I did not ever ask for a raise and made sure to never complain about my salary, even though I heard gripes from my colleagues regarding discontent with theirs.
Fast-forward six years, and I was laid off. I feel the salary issue may have been a reason that I was one of the first to go.
I was recently offered a job and I asked them to match my last salary. To my dismay, they made a higher offer -- so much higher that I am uncomfortable. Should there be a layoff, I don't want to be in the situation that I was before. Also, that prior atmosphere was so demeaning, and I am terrified of experiencing that again. Lastly, I have many years of work left and would like to stay with a company. I don't want to max out (even with annual adjustments). Are you allowed to negotiate down?
Accept the salary they offered you. If it had been higher than they were comfortable paying or outside their typical salary structure, they wouldn't have proactively offered it to you; they would have simply matched your last salary, as you asked them to do. They offered you a higher one because they want you fit appropriately within their existing salary structure and don't want to pay you less than others at your level (which is smart, both in order to retain you long-term and because otherwise they risk opening themselves to later perceptions of paying less because of your race, sex, religion, or other protected class).
Don't be haunted by one bad experience. This company is making you an offer in good faith; there's no reason to ask for less (and doing so would seem pretty strange).
4. I'm a bookkeeper for a company that doesn't pay its bills on time
A reader writes:
I have been working for a small company for a few months now as its bookkeeper. It's a small retail store and money is tight. It never pays its bills on time, and its vendors call and even send rude emails requesting payments. My boss has been directing their calls and emails to me, but my hands are tied. There is no money to pay them, and payments have to be approved by her.
I am currently studying for my CPA and working toward being an independent bookkeeper for local companies in my area. Some of these vendors are local, and I may want to solicit my services to them in the future. I feel that my current employment is reflecting badly on me, as the vendors may think that I am not doing my job in keeping up with payments. What can I say to them when they are requesting payment so that it doesn't reflect badly on me? I do not think that my boss would be happy if I tell these vendors that we simply do not have the money to pay them. However, I feel that I need to give an explanation so that it is not jeopardizing my reputation in the future as a bookkeeper.
Well, to some extent, I'm not sure that you can get out of it reflecting on you if you stay there long-term. While you're not responsible for your boss's decisions or lack of payment, being associated with that kind of thing over the long-term can color the way people see you. I realize that you might not have the ability to instantly change jobs or might have other reasons for staying there, but I'd give real thought to moving on. What your boss is doing isn't OK and might be directly harming other small local businesses. If her cash flow doesn't allow her to pay on time, she should be up front with vendors about that from the start rather than agreeing to their terms and then breaking those terms.
As for what to say to vendors meanwhile, I'd say: "I'm so sorry. I've spoken to the owner about getting you paid, and as soon as she approves payment, I'll get it out to you immediately." I don't think it's your place to say "there's no money to pay you" unless your boss OKs that, but it's entirely reasonable to make it clear that the holdup is coming from your boss, not from you.
5. When's the right time to start bringing in personal belongings to a new job?
A reader writes:
When's an appropriate time to start bringing your personal belongings to a new job? First day? End of second week? I'm talking about belongings like a personal mouse pad, calendar, pencil cup, desk fan, or an umbrella I'm planning to keep at work.
Any time from the second day onward is reasonable. I wouldn't do it the first day, because you want to get a look at your space and figure out what will be appropriate. You also don't want to do it on your first day because you might not be taken straight to your desk in the morning; sometimes there are orientations and other meetings that happen first, and you don't want to be lugging around a pencil cup and fan all morning. But by your second day, it's fine to go for it.
That assumes that you're really just talking about the types of items you listed here. If you were one of those people who go all out with throw rugs, numerous framed pictures, and an entire fleet of Battlestar Galactica figurines, I'd give it a week or two. It can seem a little weird to have already moved in your whole life when you still don't know where the bathroom is.
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