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.

My team keeps contacting me when I'm off work.

I manage a staff of 18 who work varying shift times. When I'm out of the office, whether that's due to vacation, illness, or just regular days off, my staff constantly contacts me. It's mostly questions about things that could easily be handled by someone else in the building, management or not. Sometimes it's something urgent, but rarely ever. And sometimes it's at all hours of the day and night, like 3 a.m., to say they can't make it to work in the morning, when there are clear guidelines on when they should contact me in that situation, which is, at the earliest, 6 a.m. Or they'll contact me about schedule changes or switches, which is something I cannot do when I'm at home.

Our work can be very stressful, and it's important for everyone (including me) to have time to decompress. I don't feel it's unreasonable to ask that I'm not contacted when I'm off, especially when other management is there to address the situation. Am I being unreasonable here? Do I have to answer their texts and calls?

Green responds:

No, you're not being unreasonable in expecting to have your off hours respected.

However, you are being unreasonable if you're expecting them to read your mind. As their manager, you need to clearly lay out your expectations about this stuff--as in, "When I am out of the office, you should contact Jane with questions about X and Fergus with questions about Y. The only time you should call me when I'm off work is if Z happens. Do you foresee any issues doing that? If so, let's talk through them now."

And then if they contact you when they shouldn't, you say, "I'm off right now. Have you tried talking to a manager on duty?" And then you address it when you're back at work--as in, "We've talked about what to do when you need a manager and I'm not at work. What went wrong yesterday that led to you calling me?"

That kind of follow-up is how you reinforce your expectations and get people to take them seriously. If you just keep letting people ignore the expectations you've laid out without having that "what happened?" accountability conversation later, you're training them to think that it's fine for them to interrupt you when you're off.

How can I shut down weight talk on my team?

I manage a small team. One employee, "Mike," is a vegan and loves to tell people about his lifestyle. It's to the point that you cannot mention anything related to food around him, lest he go on a 20-minute tirade. Recently two other employees were in the break room and asked him an innocent question about his lunch. He proceeded to tell them the virtues of an all-plant diet. About 15 minutes into his spiel, he looked at both of them and said something to the effect of, "you should both consider this lifestyle since you're overweight."

When my employee told me about this, I was enraged. She confirmed that he actually used the words, "you're overweight" but pleaded with me not to say anything to him because she did not want to see him get in trouble. I don't want to make her uncomfortable or strain their work relationship, but I don't think I can stand for someone body shaming my employees! What is your take?

Green responds:

Talk to him and tell him that he cannot comment on other employees' bodies or diets, period. And get him to commit that he won't do it again. While you're at it, tell him to rein in the diet talk in general because he's dominating conversations with it and people are going to start avoiding him.

You should explain to your other employee that you have a responsibility to ensure that Mike doesn't keep making comments like that to people. And that even if she's willing to let it go, other people may not feel as forgiving. You should also tell her that she doesn't need to let Mike or other people hijack her time like that. Make sure she knows that if anyone is ever droning on to her about food, knitting, porcupines, their kids, or any other non-work topic, it's fine for her to cut them off and say she's on deadline and has to get back to her work.

Who should communicate a lay-off?

I'm a leader at an organization that recently had to lay off a group of staff for budgetary reasons. We set up meetings with directly affected employees, their managers, and our president. We asked managers to open the meeting and lead with the bad news, with our president there to provide additional context. None of the managers themselves were being laid off.

One of the managers insisted that our president should open the meeting and deliver the bad news. These staffing decisions happened rather quickly and we were all under stress, so she acquiesced to this request. But I'm still thinking about whether we should have pushed back.

As an employee, I would want to hear the news directly from my manager. And if I didn't, it would be a red flag. I think that extending a job offer and ending an employment relationship are two sides of the same coin, and the employee's direct supervisor is the best person to communicate the facts in either scenario. But one could argue that my reasoning is somewhat arbitrary.

So my question is when, if ever, is it appropriate for someone other than a direct supervisor to deliver this sort of news? If never, am I overlooking some fundamental reasoning that I could have conveyed to this manager in the moment? Or is it ultimately a gray area?

Green responds:

There isn't a hard-and-fast rule on this. Some people would prefer to hear the news from the president (because they assume that it's ultimately her decision). Some people would prefer to hear it from their own manager. I think either way is fine, and could just come down to who's better at delivering that kind of message.

What I do think is potentially a problem here is that the manager refused to do it when she was asked to. That's usually the sign of a manager who's angry and not on board with the decision, and is looking for a way to signal that to her staff members. There are other possible explanations, of course--like that she's a new manager and terrified of this kind of conversation. But it would have been reasonable to say to her, "We really want employees to hear this from their direct manager. Can you tell me more about why you don't want to do it that way?"

It's too late to do that now, but it could still be worth talking to her to see how she's doing and to see if you can get a better sense of what's going on with her.

People who ask questions that were answered in the same email they're replying to.

How would you reply/respond when a direct report replies to an email to ask a question that has been answered in the email they are responding to?

It's not a big deal, and I know I can be guilty of this too. I'm looking for a constructive, graceful response, short of just copying and pasting the section from the email just sent.

Green responds:

"It's actually below! I'll copy and paste it here."

But two additional things: First, if this is happening more than just occasionally, take it as a flag to see if your emails might be overly long/wordy/complicated (which could explain why people are missing things).

Second, if the person reports to you and it's happening more than very rarely, it's something you should give feedback on--as in, "Hey, you've asked me a few times for information that was actually in the email you were replying to, which makes me think you're not reading messages thoroughly. I'm sending these because I do need you to read and absorb everything in them. So can you watch out for that?"

When is a reference too old to use?

I recently gave a reference for a former employee. This was the third or fourth time I have done so. 

My question is, when is a reference too old? Or does it matter? I left that job 12 years ago, and she is still using me as a reference instead of her previous supervisor who is still there and is not a good reference for many reasons. I don't mind giving my time and filling out the form. She was an excellent employee and I am glad she has been able to advance her career and make more money and increase her skills. But 12 years is a long time.

Green responds:

Yeah, that's getting pretty old. I actually just told someone that I didn't feel like I could provide him with a compelling reference anymore because it's been so long since the relatively short period of time that we worked together. And the info I could provide was so stale.

Frankly, if I were the hiring manager, I'd ask her to put me in touch with more recent managers. But if they're not doing that, and you still feel comfortable serving as a reference for her, I think it's fine for you to continue. But you might also think about saying something to her like, "I wanted to mention that at some point, too much time will have gone by since we worked together for me to be an effective reference. I'm always glad to help you out if I can, but also wanted to get that on your radar--especially since I was surprised to realize how long it's really been, when I stopped to calculate it!"

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