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 do I tell our HR director she's breaking the law?

Our HR director sent a message to everyone today saying that due to many people failing to take their required lunch breaks every day, they are instituting a policy by which your time will be deducted automatically if you do not take a lunch. This is illegal in our state, but I am struggling finding a way to relay this to the HR manager without it sounding like I'm telling her how to do her job--I mean, this should be pretty elementary for an HR manager, right? Can you please help me with this?

Green responds:

Try saying this: "We're actually required by federal law to pay people for all the time they worked, even if they fail to take a required break. We could get in a lot of trouble for docking people's wages even if they didn't take lunch. We can of course require lunch breaks and discipline people if they don't take them, but federal law is really clear that we do have to pay people for all time worked."

Note the use of "we"--that's intentional! It helps you sound like you're on the company's side rather than being adversarial right off the bat. Approaching it that way makes it more likely you'll get the outcome you want (the company follows the law) without causing tension in your relationships there.

2. Our performance evaluations assess our workplace friendships  

I worked for a manufacturing company that quickly promoted me to team lead of the quality department. I'd always thought that when you are in a leadership position, you should be pleasant and polite to your employees, but maintain a level of distance as well. So when I got my review, I was surprised to find that "Makes friends with co-workers" was "Unsatisfactory," much less a part of the review at all.

This was a very busy department; it's not like people were standing around chatting. I am an introvert by nature, and one of the managers was always asking me questions like, "Are you always so quiet?" I spoke up when necessary, but always kept it work-related with the occasional "Nice day out" or "How was your weekend?" We also worked 10-12-hour shifts, so everyone was always kind of dragging. Is making friends at work a valid thing to put on a performance review?

Green responds:

No. An evaluation might reasonably assess whether you have cooperative, collegial relationships with your co-workers, but whether or not you're friends with them? That's ridiculous. Your job isn't to make friends with co-workers; it's to get work done. It's lovely (sometimes) if you do end up being friends with some of them, but it shouldn't be something you're evaluated on.

3. Telling a recruiter about a rude interviewer

I've been in the late stages of interviewing for two roles at a large international company. Today, I had my final three interviews of six. All went fine until the last interview. This very senior interviewer, who was supposed to be testing my leadership skills, instead decided to test how well I do arithmetic under pressure (quite well--I'm an experienced analyst!). He had a very strong accent, so sometimes I couldn't understand what he said, and he seemed angry when I asked him to repeat. At one stage he said, "What if x goes up?" then later insisted that he'd said "What if x goes down?" He didn't give me enough time to write everything down as he was saying it but would be upset and condescending if five minutes later I couldn't remember a certain figure. I got a bit flustered at his hostility so was probably less competent than usual, but kept it together. I felt like ending the video conference but continued on.

All the while, he was looking at his phone or away from the screen, and I had the distinct feeling he didn't want to be there. It was the worst interview I've ever had.

Since this is someone I'd be working closely with in either role, I'm withdrawing from the application process. The location/salary weren't ideal anyway but working with people who make me cry is where I draw the line. My question is whether or not I should tell the recruiter what happened--she's very curious but I don't have any investment in the outcome, as I'm sure they're not going to censure one of their directors over a bad interview. And did I do the wrong thing by withdrawing? They're supposed to have a fantastic culture but one bad apple would be enough to make it hard to go to work every day.

Green responds:

You didn't do anything wrong by withdrawing; part of the point of interviewing is for you to assess whether this is a job and group of co-workers you'd want. If this is someone you'd be working closely with, it's reasonable to decide you'd rather not.

I don't think you have anything to lose by telling the recruiter, as long as you do it politely and professionally, and it'll probably be satisfying. On the other hand, you don't have an obligation to help them improve their hiring process, and if you'd rather not, you're perfectly entitled to say something like, "I didn't think I'd click well with one of the people I'd be working closely with" or even nothing at all. (If it's a recruiter you plan to work with in the future, though, giving some feedback is a good idea so that you don't come across as uncommunicative.)

4. Is it rude to start an email without "Dear"?

I recently sent an email to a client with my boss and his boss cc'd. I used the salutation "Good afternoon," and the client's response opened with "Hi [my name]." I sent an email back that started with "Hello [his name]."

Almost immediately afterwards, my boss's boss sent an email to the director of my department requesting that she take the time to "educate me on business email etiquette" before allowing me to send emails. She stated that it was highly inappropriate to email someone you don't personally know using the word "Hello" instead of "Dear." Is this common knowledge/a legitimate business-etiquette issue? The word "Dear" seems a little forward to me.

Green responds:

What?! No, people open emails with "Hi" and "Good morning" all the time.

You're also being a tiny bit silly in thinking that "Dear Jane" is forward; "Dear" in this context is a standard business opening and doesn't mean "you are dear to me" but rather "I am following basic conventions of formality here." But your boss's boss is being far sillier.

"Dear" is indeed still the salutation of choice when opening a letter to a business contact sent through the postal mail (although how frequently do you even do that anymore?), but email is an inherently more informal medium and has its own conventions. It's perfectly fine to open emails with "Hi," or "Hello." And in fact, it's polite to notice the other person's level of formality or informality--and in the case of clients, it makes sense to mirror it, as you did.

This may just your boss's boss's weird idiosyncrasy that everyone in your office has to comply with. Sometimes bosses have those, whether it's insisting that everything be printed in Courier 12 or this kind of oddly rigid idea about how to open an email. But know that it's just her own eccentricity, not a rule that you need to follow outside of this job.

5. Expressing a location preference before being offered a job

My old boss, who is now a C-level exec reporting directly to the CEO of a 200-ish person company, would like me to join his company and be one of the first six or so employees opening its European branch. I would be growing and managing a team. He has mentioned that location is not yet decided and they are choosing between Cities X and Y. They lean towards X, because my old boss and the CEO have a stronger network in that location, but no decision has been made.

I'm very interested in the role, the company has an exciting product, and I loved working for my old boss. I would like to formally start the interviewing process. However, I am not interested in living in City X and would strongly prefer Y. Additionally, Y would also allow me to live very close to my family and childhood friends. I have checked and working remotely would not be an option.

Is there any way for me to bring this up as part of the interviewing process? If so, how? And when? I'm aware this is jumping the gun slightly, but I am at a loss as to whether this is something I can discuss, and it's an important factor.

Green responds:

Yes, and in fact you should, if you know for sure you'd only take the job if it's in City Y. I'd say this: "I'm really interested in talking with you further about the job, but I want to be up-front about the fact that I'd only be interested if the job is based in Y, which I know is still undecided."

Or, if City X isn't a total deal-breaker for you, just not your preference, say this instead: "I'm really interested in talking with you further about the job, but I want to be up-front about the fact that it would be a hard sell for me to move to X. I'd be excited about City Y, but I'm not sure X would be the right move for me."

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

Published on: Sep 16, 2019
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.