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. I overheard my boss complaining about me

The higher-ups in our company regularly have private meetings, which are usually very hush-hush behind closed doors. During a recent meeting of theirs, the door was left open and we (the rest of the team) could hear bits and pieces of their conversation--not purposely, of course, and not that it was worth listening to, but we would have had to leave our cubicles to avoid it. I wasn't paying much attention until I overheard my name and my boss questioning my productivity due to a few deadlines that had been pushed back by my supervisor who, unfortunately, did not relay the information. So the deadlines seemed missed as a result of my seeming lack of productivity, and, despite my supervisor's explanation, I couldn't help but notice my boss's irritation and disappointment, which is where my real concern lies.

I never thought of myself as someone with productivity issues (we're a tech startup, so there really is no room or time for slacking off) and have only received positive feedback for my work ethic. Since that meeting, though, my boss has increasingly taken interest in managing my schedule and work, which he's never done before. I'm absolutely open to constructive criticism and would like to improve in every way I can, but nothing has been brought up to me directly and this is starting to affect my morale. I'd like to approach my supervisor and/or boss, but given that I "eavesdropped" on a private meeting (which I know I shouldn't have, but what's done is done, regrettably), I'm not exactly sure how to address the issue. Any advice? Is this an issue even worth bringing up?

Eavesdropping is going out of your way to listen in on something you're not supposed to hear; it's not just doing your work at your desk and happening to overhear something. So first, you weren't eavesdropping. Second, since your boss is apparently misjudging your performance based on inaccurate information, yes, correct the record. Say something like this: "I couldn't help but overhear part of your conversation with Jane the other day when I was at my desk. I want to make sure you know that I turned in X several days later than planned because Bob had pushed back the deadline--I don't want you to think that I missed deadlines when they'd actually been moved. I take deadlines really seriously and am always vigilant about meeting them."

2. My boss left the company but still emails me daily

My boss left our company almost three weeks ago. Since then, he has been emailing me almost every day. We were on friendly terms, though towards the end I found his presence extremely irritating. Because of his work, our company experienced some serious problems that jeopardized everyone's jobs, got some people laid off, and majorly set our branch of the company back. Though we all liked him as a person, his failings as a leader were glaring.

While I was happy to bid him adieu, I am now haunted by near-daily communication with him--friendly letters, general questions, inquiries about how this or that played out here, pictures of his plants, hey look he got a dog, etc. etc. I'm not the only one he emails, either. For example, he asked me today if another co-worker went on this other interview, and sent a separate email to that co-worker asking him directly.

I know that he valued me very much, so I'm anticipating having him as one of my top references in the future. Am I obligated to respond to all these emails to keep the relationship friendly? I wrote back a nice response to one of his first "what's up" emails, and since then have been giving short but friendly responses to only some. If I start ignoring all of them, am I damaging our relationship? If I keep answering, will they never end? I would like to ignore all of them starting now, but I also don't want to spoil a reference or be flat-out rude.

I think the only person you're obligated to respond to daily social emails from is your significant other. So no, you do not need to enter into an intense pen pal relationship with this guy. I'd ignore the work-related questions (not his prerogative anymore--and not in his best interest to stay emotionally involved like that anyway) and reply to the rest at a rate of one response per every three he sends (or once a week, whichever you prefer), as long as his rate is this frequent. And your responses don't have to be long, either; "cute dog!" and "glad you're doing well--too swamped to write much!" will suffice.

It sounds like he's having a hard time accepting things have changed, but I think these will trail off pretty soon.

3. How can I avoid candidates shopping our offer around?

My company recently made an offer to a candidate. The candidate took our offer to our major competitor and got them to match it. Fortunately for us, she decided we were a better fit for her, and a bidding war was averted. It got me thinking, though: Is there any way to avoid this situation in the first place without being heavy-handed? What could we have done better up front to keep her from even thinking about shopping her offer around? 

Be the better place to work, and do a good job of illustrating that--which gets into culture, benefits, and who else you have working for you. (High performers want to work with other high performers, and you can involve your great staff members in helping to woo candidates you're really interested in.)

Money matters too, of course--but assuming that your offers aren't wildly different, you want someone who really wants the job with you.

4. Did HR mishandle my sick co-worker's resignation?

A co-worker recently quit because of health issues. She was unable to give notice because she no longer had any vacation days or sick days left and was too unwell to continue to work. HR said that because she quit without notice, she was not allowed to say goodbye to anyone. She was shocked and very sad about this. She was allowed to clear her desk, but then had to leave the office immediately.

This sort of procedure is usually what happens when someone is fired. Her leaving came a surprise to many people when it was announced a day later by email which didn't explain the circumstances. There is a feeling that HR behaved in a very mean way. What would be a normal procedure if someone quits without notice?

That's ridiculous. While quitting without notice is usually a Bad Thing, there are certain types of situations where it's totally understandable--like health issues that make it impossible to continue. The appropriate response to that is sympathy for the person with the health issues, understanding of the circumstances, and wishing them well. It's not to treat them like someone you've just fired, which is what your HR department did. Someone on that team has a misunderstanding of some very basic concepts.

5. How to decline a job offer after seeing the contract

I applied and got hired at a small company I had never heard of before. The job seemed ideal for my circumstances and the owner of the company seemed very pleasant and competent. I accepted the role and she said she would send a contract. I then heard nothing for two weeks. I started getting red flags and looked into the company more. There seems to be very little about it on the internet apart from a few old adverts and no social network presence, which I found quite strange for the industry. When I got my contract, I started getting more red flags. There is a lot of preparation, meetings, and training that I would not get paid for and I was responsible for sourcing clients. I also had to give over a month of notice to leave, whereas I would only get a week if they decided to let me go. I would not be entitled to any holidays.

I've decided not to take the job, as I am getting a bad feeling that I have decided to trust. I was quite enthusiastic about the role during the interview as I understood it to be something different. How do I politely decline the offer after my conditional acceptance? I am a bit worried about burning a bridge as it is a small industry.

Well, you've just gotten information about the offer that you didn't have previously (unpaid work, responsibilities, notice requirements, and no holidays), so it's very reasonable to explain that now that you have additional details, it's not in line with what you're looking for. You could say something like, "Thanks so much for sending the specifics of the offer. I hadn't realized some of what was included in the contract (such as the lack of paid holidays, the unpaid training and prep time, and the client sourcing responsibilities). Reading this over, I see that it's a bit different from what I was envisioning, and I think I need to decline the offer. But I appreciate the time you spent talking with me and wish you the best of luck in filling the role."

Alternately, you could try to negotiate away the parts you don't like; that's often doable--although it sounds like you're not really interested in the job at this point.

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

Published on: Mar 26, 2018