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 horrible old boss may become my new boss

I have just found a new, wonderful job after having been at my old one for almost 10 years. One of the main reasons I left was because my boss was a terrible manager.

At my new job, after only two months, my wonderful boss left for an amazing project and my old boss is going for that position. Not good. Also, I am basically running the department until we find a new person.

I have been made a part of the search committee and specifically said to pass my old boss's application over for 10 years of reasons. The manager above this position has asked me twice exactly why I am so adamantly against this person coming into the organization (since they look nearly perfect on paper), and I get so emotional that I am not eloquent in my explanation (also, I was asked at times when I didn't have much time to gather my thoughts: running to catch my bus, on my way to another meeting). And, to add a further complication, I was given the green light to go ahead and apply for the position if I wanted to. Should I email my boss with more articulate information about this old boss, or should I forget about that and just go for the position? My worry is that if I'm not successful, my old boss could be successful.

Green responds:

You can't take a strong position on not hiring someone without explaining why that is; it really demands an accompanying explanation. So organize your thoughts, figure out how to talk calmly and professionally about why your old boss is wrong for the job, and go talk to the hiring manager. Keep it unemotional and concise -- for example, "I worked with Jenson for 10 years, and while he's good at X and Y, he really struggled with A, B, and C. Most of what our team accomplished was because others stepped in to work around him. He was also very difficult to work with on a personal level, and I'd have real concerns about his ability to work cooperatively here." 

And do it quickly, before the danger increases that management will move your old boss further along in the hiring process.

2. Can I ask employees to stay home if they're sick?

I'm the head of a team of 15 to 20 part-time employees who are paid hourly and do not get benefits or paid leave. It's flu season, and some of them have been coming to work clearly sick -- some to the point that they look like they can barely stay awake. Is there any reason I would not be able to instate a "if you're sick, you can't come in" rule to keep the germs from spreading around? I understand these guys want their pay, but when someone brings a disease into the office it spreads like wildfire, and the overall effect is detrimental to both productivity and morale.

Green responds:

You can indeed implement such a rule, and in general it's good guidance to give people, both so that people aren't spreading germs to others and so that they're staying at home resting and taking care of themselves. However, it's pretty hard to do this in a situation where people don't have paid sick leave. If people have to choose between coming to work sick or paying rent, most people will choose coming to work sick. In that context, you risk just driving it underground (i.e., people will still come to work sick but will try to hide it from you) or creating resentment about the lack of paid sick leave. 

I know these are part-time jobs without benefits, but if you offered paid sick days even to your part-timers, it would be a lot easier to get this under control.

3. "In 150 characters or fewer, tell us what makes you unique"

I am in the process of filling out a general application to a company I am interested in. It's a tech startup, and I feel like I have crafted a great cover letter. However, this is the last question on the application: "In 150 characters or fewer, tell us what makes you unique. Try to be creative and say something that will catch our eye!"

Cringe. I feel like this may be a case of style winning over substance. What are your thoughts on this? Some quick research showed that this is not unique to this company. I guess I had better get started writing a haiku about why I'm awesome.

Green responds:

Yes, it's gimmicky and a bad way to hire, unless the job involves writing very short, catchy snippets of text. And even then, the company should come up with something other than "what makes you unique" -- ugh. What matters in hiring isn't what makes you unique; it's what indicates you'd excel at the job, which may or may not be unique to you. And asking you to answer in 150 characters or less is an attempt to reference microblogging platforms like Twitter and look hip, so yes, style over substance is a good way to put it.

4. I picked my own goals for the year and didn't meet them

My boss was on medical leave at the beginning of last year and then did not return. I was never given specific goals. At my midyear review, my new boss ask me to set goals. I chose some that I felt were reasonable. However, as it turned out, my client volume tripled and I severely underestimated the impact of a new software upgrade. I did my best to salvage the objectives, but they are going to appear last-minute and weak. I have the sinking feeling that my boss is going to point out the obvious, that it was I who picked these goals. What's done is done. But looking forward, what would you advise people when asked to set their own goals? I want to avoid tying my own noose next year.

Green responds:

Well, the problem here isn't that you picked your own goals. It's that when it became clear that you weren't going to meet them -- for reasons that might be quite legitimate -- you didn't speak up to your manager at that point. If goals are going to be real -- something that really shapes your work and defines success in your job -- you can't wait until the end of the year to think about them; they need to be a core part of what you're doing throughout the year. If circumstances change to the point that the goals no longer make sense, then you need to bring that up proactively to figure out how to adjust them. Or even if they end up not being adjusted, you want to make sure that your boss is in the loop about the fact that you're proceeding differently. Because you didn't do that, your boss might reasonably be assuming that the last plan you two discussed -- those goals you created -- is still in effect.

So the lesson for the future is: Keep your boss in the loop when there are major changes to what you'll be accomplishing in a given period.

5. Can my employer decide not to pay me for this month because of financial hardship?

As an exempt employee (director level) in a California nonprofit, is it legal for the CEO to tell me two weeks before payday that we are not getting any salary for the month of January? Our organization gets paid once a month on the last day of the month, and today I was told that because of financial hardship no director will receive a salary for January. Furthermore, this is not a salary deferral; it is a forfeiture of salary.

Green responds:

Nope, it's not legal. The organization is required to pay you your agreed-upon salary for any work you've done. Moreover, it's required to pay it within a certain amount of time or penalties accrue. In California, wages earned between the 1st and 15th days of the month must be paid no later than the 26th day of that same month, and wages earned between the 16th and last day of the month must be paid by the 10th day of the following month. There's no option to just not pay earned wages.

I'd say this to your employer: "I realize finances are very tight right now, but not paying people would violate federal and state law, and will trigger financial penalties at the state level. We could get in a lot of trouble with the state department of labor if we don't pay people."
 

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

Published on: Nov 20, 2018
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.