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 three questions from readers.

1. My employee keeps joking about getting fired

One of my top executives has been regularly joking about being replaced in her position within the company. As the owner, I asked her why she was doing this, questioning if it stemmed from a place of insecurity or from unhappiness in her position. She said insecurity -- that she was not performing well in her role. This team member has been shown appreciation, respect, and admiration for her stellar performance thus far. I reassured her she was ideal for the position. But the uncomfortable jokes have still continued regularly, even after further discussions and boundaries have been addressed. I'm not sure how to handle this situation. Advice, please!

Green responds:

Try this: "Can I ask you to stop joking about that? It keeps me regularly concerned that there's something we need to address. If you have real concerns, let's talk about them -- but the jokes are alarming and difficult to respond to."

2. How to set boundaries with clients on my days off

I work in a nontraditional service industry job that involves going to my clients' homes. Forming close relationships with clients is very much the norm in my field, and generally this is something I appreciate about my job. Because of this closeness, however, it can be difficult to set boundaries about the hours I am and am not available to work.

Because my job is nontraditional, my schedule is too, but I do still take two days off in a row each week because I have to do laundry and go to the store and generally have a life. I frequently get requests to work on these days and I always reply that I'm not available, but often clients will press for details or pressure me to work anyway. It's difficult for me to say no, especially in situations where they are very reliant on me, but when I don't take my normal "weekend," my mental health really suffers. How can I be clear -- but polite -- about the time that I need to myself, and how much of an obligation do I have to explain how I'm planning to use that time?

Green responds:

You don't need to explain anything about how you're planning to use that time. You should just be able to say, "I'm sorry, I'm not available on Sunday, but I can see you on Monday if you'd like." And if someone pushes, you can say, "I'm fully booked then" or "I don't have any time open then." You don't need to specify "that's my day off" if that seems to invite people to push you to make an exception for them; sticking with some version of "that time is booked up" is likely to be harder to argue with. (And it's not a lie -- that time is booked up; it's just booked with your weekend, rather than another client. And you don't need to explain that.)

3. Getting gender right when we've never met in person

I remotely connect with people all over the world for online events. Sometimes I don't know the gender of the person, even after speaking and emailing back and forth. This causes problems with pronouns and properly addressing someone. Think taking notes on conference calls that are sent out to all attendees: "Lee asked Cory when the proposal would be sent. Cory stated tomorrow. Lee thanked Cory, then asked him/her when he/she would need a response." Also, think in terms of conference call introductions: "Lee has been with Company X for 15 years. They have been Cory's counterpart for five years."

What is the best way to clarify this? Is there a polite way to ask if Lee is a Mr. or a Ms.? Since we aren't perfect and won't always get it right, how do we handle it when we are wrong and use the wrong pronoun when directly addressing or referring to someone?

Green responds:

Do you have people register for these events in any way? If so, can you include a field for pronoun preference? Particularly in a context like yours, it makes such good sense that it would be silly not to do it.

But if you do get it wrong, a quick "Sorry about that; thanks for the correction" is all you need, although you could add "one of the drawbacks of doing everything online!" if it makes things feel more comfortable.

Also, those notes you described are really, really detailed! Consider moving just to the upshot -- so in your example, you'd just note, "Cory said the proposal would be sent tomorrow and needs a response by Wednesday" and get rid of all the back and forth. Notes aren't meant to be minute-by-minute accounts; they just need the upshot, and that will cut way down on your need for pronouns too.
 

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