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. My manager is never at work
A reader writes:
My manager has become increasingly absent. She rarely works a full day in the office, typically coming in late or leaving early, or is out for a full day. While there is some flexibility in our schedules and time off, working from home is not an option in our company, so I don't think she's working remotely. I truly cannot remember a recent week when she has worked eight hours per day for five days.
Not only is this problematic for our department, in that we can't find time to meet with her about issues that arise, but it is also incredibly draining on our morale. We've been under increasing pressure to meet revenue goals, etc., with some emails from our boss even mentioning that staff should be here for their scheduled hours and not be leaving 10 minutes early! I realize her absences could be the result of a serious personal matter she is attending to and doesn't want to (or need to) share, but it seems like it would be wise for her to at least generally address her absenteeism with us, rather than letting the gossip and resentment fly. Her absence goes unnoticed by her supervisor (the director), because of the lack of his physical presence in our department. Is there any way to constructively address this without overstepping boundaries?
I'd start asking her for her time for specific things. For instance:
• "Could I get an hour on your calendar this week to talk about ___?"
• "We'd love to debrief how ___ went. Could you meet with the three of us who worked on it on Tuesday afternoon to discuss it?"
• "I'm hoping for your feedback on ___ before I have to submit final numbers on Thursday morning."
While her time in the office isn't your business, her getting you what you need to do your job is your business. If you ask her directly for what you need in that regard and aren't getting it, at that point it's reasonable to talk to the department director about it (and you'll be able to provide more concrete specifics than just "she's not here").
Alternately, if you want, you could go straight to the director now and say something like, "Is something going on with Jane? She's been increasingly not around, and I'm not sure if something is going on we should know about, or if we can expect her back more regularly soon."
2. My co-worker led a colleague to think I'm upset at work
A reader writes:
I am in a constituent relations role in a large nonprofit. A significant part of my job involves working with volunteers and donors. Recently, I was approached at an event by someone on one of our leadership boards; he "wanted to help me" because he heard I wasn't receiving support from my colleagues. I was perplexed, as I have good relationships with my colleagues. He kept pushing for me to confide in him and to let him help me navigate all my issues. I was put on the spot and had no idea what he was talking about.
It turns out that this volunteer had met up with a good friend of mine earlier in a group setting. Over a boozy dinner, the friend (who's also a co-worker) shared that I do such a great job, but that I am frustrated and that she wishes my colleagues and boss were more supportive of my work. Apparently, she based this on an isolated anecdote I shared with her months ago, along with the occasional text message from me ("Is it Friday happy hour yet? What a long week!") that I had considered pretty innocuous. The fact that she shared this with a volunteer was absurd and unprofessional but not malicious.
Obviously, the big lesson for me is to be more mindful of how I choose to express myself, especially with this friend and colleague. However, my larger concern is with the volunteer, who now believes that I'm unsupported, frustrated, and in need of assistance. Part of me thinks that if I bring this subject up with him again -- to clarify things -- it would just lend credence to nonexistent issues. The other part of me thinks that I need to nip this in the bud immediately so that these unfounded assertions do not spread. What do you think?
Yeah, I'd say something since he asked you about it directly. I'd say something like this: "I thought more about what you mentioned to me at the X event, and I wanted to clear it up: It sounds like Jane misunderstood the situation and got some of the facts wrong -- not surprising when it's being related secondhand! I want to assure you that I'm actually very happy with (fill in whatever the issues are) and not at all feeling unsupported! I really appreciate your checking in, and it's great to know that I can approach you if there ever are problems like that. And I'm looking forward to seeing you next month at ___."
And then talk to your co-worker and tell her not to put you in that position again.
3. I can't afford to travel for interviews
A reader writes:
I've been searching for jobs in my current location but haven't had a lot of luck, so I've recently started looking in my hometown as well. Relocating (or, well, returning) to my hometown would be no problem. I'm familiar with the area, I know of some good apartment complexes, and if I can't find a place right away, I can stay with family temporarily until I get that sorted out. That being said, I don't have set plans to relocate; I only intend to return to my hometown if I find a job there.
The problem is, I don't know what to do if I get asked to interview in-person and the company won't pay for it. I know that you've advised people to be willing to pay their own way for this, which I completely understand. It's not that I am unwilling, but I simply cannot afford the $400-plus airfare (possibly more than once if I have multiple interviews) right now. Am I doomed to being thrown out of the running if I'm only available for phone or Skype interviews? What should I say (or not say) in a cover letter or long-distance interview about this?
This is tricky. You can ask to interview by phone or Skype; some companies will be OK with it and others won't. Some companies will be OK with it at an early stage but will want you to fly out before they make a final decision. Of the companies that do allow you to do it all by phone or Skype, you risk being at a disadvantage to other candidates. The bar is going to be a little higher for you, someone they can't meet in person, and lots of people don't build the same rapport over Skype that they do in person. Then throw in the fact that long-distance job searching is already much harder than local job-searching, and it's not a great scenario. Honestly, if it's at all an option to move now and then start looking, your search might be easier.
Of course, there are also plenty of companies that do pay to fly candidates in -- it depends on what field you're in and how in-demand your skills are. It could end up being a non-issue for you.
In any case, I wouldn't get into any of this in your cover letter; that's the place to convince them to interview you, not to throw up obstacles. Wait until you're invited to interview, and then see if there's anything they can do.
4. Should I tell my employee that I can't promote her because of her poor interpersonal skills?
A reader writes:
I have an employee who is absolutely great at what she does, skillwise. The problem is, she has incredibly poor "soft skills" and we're in a company culture and in a department that demands those types of skills. She constantly puts people on the defensive, frequently focuses on overly technical details with people who don't want them, and just generally doesn't know how to read a room. She's been at the company just over a year, and I've given her immediate feedback following each episode. I've seen no change or growth in this area, and now she's pressuring me for a promotion.
I think she's great at what she does and would be happy having her on my team doing what she does. By constantly asking for a promotion, though, she just shows me even more clearly that she's both not ready for it and can't read a situation properly. Should I be upfront with her and tell her she's not in line for a promotion this year? Or should I continue to coach her along hoping she picks up the skills?
You should do both. First, you should absolutely be direct with her! Explain to her how these issues are holding her back, that she needs to tackle them before you can think about promoting her, and specifically what you need to see change. But you should also continue to coach her on the issues as well.
5. Can I ask an interviewer if I would have my own office?
A reader writes:
I am in the process of interviewing for a new job and am wondering if there is an appropriate way to ask if I will have my own office to work in. I have found having an office with a door is worth quite a bit as it greatly improves the quality of my work life. Will this sound crazy to say directly to a hiring manager? Is there an appropriate or tactful way to bring this up?
If there's a natural opening for it at the end of the interview, you could ask to see the space you'd be working in. Otherwise, once you have an offer, it's fine to say, "Can you tell me about where I'd be working? Would I be in a private office or a shared space?" If it's a shared space, you might be able to try to negotiate something different, but that's going to be subject to factors like whether space is even available and whether they can do it for people at your level without causing issues with others at your level who could then also want it (or people higher up than you who don't have their own space).
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