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 four questions from readers.

1. My employee can't afford team lunches

I have a small team, two staff plus me, and we all make approximately the same (very good) salary. Occasionally we'll do team lunches or social lunches. Because of the nature of our work (government), we don't get reimbursed for these lunches. Depending on the occasion, I sometimes pick up the tab personally. However, one staff member makes a point of saying he cannot afford lunches. He won't attend if someone else is not paying for the lunch.

Should I be picking up his portion of the check? This seems unfair to other staff members and myself. Or should I ask him to budget for the occasional team lunch? I'm not sure how I'd even start that conversation. Or should I just plan as usual and allow him to exclude himself? This is not a regular issue but it's been stopping me from arranging team or group lunches. I would guess it comes up three to four times a year.

I'm probably being judgmental, but he smokes about a pack a day and can clearly afford that. Suggestions on how to deal with this is much appreciated.

Green responds:

You definitely should stay away from judging what he spends his money on, because that's really not your business. He gets to arrange his budget however he wants without being expected to spend money to participate at work.

If you weren't government, I'd say that if you're doing team lunches, the organization should pay for them. But you're government and so that's not likely to happen. You shouldn't have to cover everyone out of your own pocket, though. And other people shouldn't need to shell out their own money in order to attend what's ultimately a work function.

So rather than any of your proposed options, I suggest a different one: Switch to a different structure for these lunches so that this employee can still participate. For instance, what if you held the lunches in your office and told people they could either bring their own food or order out, their choice? I don't think it's a big deal if you do one a year the way you've been doing it, as long as he can opt out, but if these are happening every few months, I'd look for ways to include him.

2. My employee is too rushed at early-morning meetings

I'm the manager of a team of around 20 people. Employees meet anywhere from 1-15 clients a week in our offices during scheduled visits. These appointments last a few hours and are booked between 8 a.m. and 4:30 p.m. Other than scheduled staff meetings and their booked visits, we have a flexible schedule. It's not unusual for people to come in around 9 a.m. or leave at 3 p.m. if they don't have any appointments scheduled, as long as they're still working their full-time hours for the week.

I have one employee, Mary, who rarely shows up before she absolutely has to. The other employees who have 8 a.m. appointments are there in time to organize their case files and set up the meeting rooms before the start of the day. Mary is rushing in the door at 7:58 and throwing her jacket on her desk before power-walking to reception to be able to greet her client on time, and even then she's sometimes a minute or two late. I'm not sure how to address this with her, but I feel it's unprofessional to show up two minutes before you're supposed to start working, especially when she's meeting clients who are waiting for her. She's otherwise a good worker, and it doesn't appear that her meetings are affected by her rushed entrance, but it still bugs me to watch this show twice a week. On the days she doesn't have early bookings, she's in around 9 and in a much better mood, so I think she's maybe just not a morning person. How do I get Mary to come in and prep for her day before she absolutely has to?

Green responds:

It's not really unprofessional to show up two minutes before you're supposed to start working. But it sounds like the problem is that Mary isn't arriving early enough to do the needed prep for her appointments -- that on those days "the time she needs to start working" is different from "the time of the first appointment," and that's the way to frame it.

If it's really true that she needs more prep time, you could say, "Please make sure that you're here at least 15 minutes before you have scheduled appointments so that you have time to organize your case files and set up the interview room, and so you don't seem rushed when you're greeting your first client of the day." In other words, be clear with her about what you expect and what you'd like her to do differently, rather than just being annoyed that she's not doing something you haven't explicitly asked her to do.

But first be sure that she really does need to change what she's doing. You said that she does good work and her meetings aren't affected by her rushing in, so it's not clear that there's really an issue here, beyond the fact that you don't like watching it. If there really isn't an effect on the work, then this is just a matter of different work styles -- and that's not an inherently bad thing.

3. My employee plays with her hair during meetings

I have an employee who is receptive, eager to learn, and generally good at implementing feedback. But she has a habit that I'm puzzled about. In meetings, she will grab sections of hair and examine the ends, as if she were looking for split ends. Since people have mentioned that it makes her seem checked out, I now notice it quite frequently. I haven't seen her do it with clients, but she and I don't share a lot of clients where we meet face-to-face. Is this something worth mentioning?

Green responds:

You should mention it. People have commented on it, and you're noticing it frequently yourself. It would be a kindness to flag it for her, since she may not even realize she's doing it or how it's coming across. That doesn't mean you should make a big deal out of it -- you shouldn't. But it would be fine to say something like, "This is a small thing, but I've noticed that in meetings you often play with your hair. I suspect it's an unconscious habit, but it risks looking like you're not engaged in the meeting, especially with clients or higher-ups."

4. Am I abusing a vendor's free offerings?

I work in a marketing role and know of a software company that publishes a great deal of helpful information and tools on their blog, all of which is available for free. I like this company and, in a perfect world, would absolutely love to purchase their software. Unfortunately, their product is too expensive for my small company, the technology is more robust than we really need, and it just wouldn't fit into our current software environment very well.

I initially entertained a couple of sales calls with the company, because they enthusiastically reached out after seeing how much I read their blog and I felt a bit obligated because of how much I was reading and downloading their stuff. After listening to their pitch, I told them politely -- on multiple occasions -- why my company isn't a good fit for their product, but that I really appreciate their content. Unfortunately, they keep contacting me over and over again, via email, phone, social media, and any other way they can track me down. We're talking a period of about five years here.

Am I committing some breach of etiquette by continuing to use their free resources, even though I know there's no way my company will ever buy from them? I just got a promotional email from them with an offer to download a free e-book that would be really helpful in my work, but I don't want to do it because I know it will spawn another round of emails, calls, etc. But I'm starting to wonder if the problem is actually me, not them. Have I been taking advantage of them?

Green responds:

No! They're making this stuff available for free, and there's no "but you have to buy from us at some point" clause in there. They know that not everyone who uses their resources will become a customer, and they're OK with that. This is a very normal model for them to use; by providing useful things for free, they know that they'll draw in some portion of users who do end up buying, but they don't expect that portion to be 100 percent. And they're not giving away things that they secretly expect money for.

If anything, the problem is on their side, in that they don't seem to have good systems for tracking the fact that they've already talked to you and that you've turned them down multiple times. It would be fine to be very direct the next time they contact you and say, "I love your resources, but can you mark my company as not a prospect? If I ever move to a different company, I may reach out but for now my answer will always be no."
 

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