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 colleague's kids are disrupting our meetings

I am working with a group of parents who are organizing a charter school. As the board president, I never bring my son to board meetings, as I need to focus on the agenda. One other board member, who is also a friend, frequently brings her children to board meetings. They are 6 and 7 years old and are frequently loud and disruptive during these meetings.

This parent is on the orientation committee for the school principal, who starts working next week. Today, she told me that she will be bringing her kids to the orientation meeting. This will be a long and intensive meeting. Because our site is undergoing refurbishment, we have no choice but to meet in a coffee shop at a private table. How do I tell the parent that it is inappropriate to bring her children to this meeting?

Green responds:

"Unfortunately, we can't accommodate kids at this meeting; it's going to be long and intensive and we're really going to need everyone focused, and having to do it in a coffee shop is already going to make that challenging."

That's a completely reasonable thing to say in a professional context--and starting a school is a professional context, even when you're working with volunteers.

But beyond this one meeting, you might think about whether there are ways to make it easier for her to attend your meetings (especially if she's a single parent or otherwise in a child care bind). Can you ask if there's an easier time for her to meet, in terms of scheduling child care? If lots of others on the board have kids, can you suggest pooling child care to make this easier on everyone? While she shouldn't be letting her kids distract people at meetings, it's also true that our culture doesn't do a lot to support working parents, so if there are ways to be flexible with her while still getting what your organization needs, it's worth exploring.

2. Telling my boss that I'm leaving after I promised that I wouldn't

I work for a small startup company (less than five employees total). The people I work with are great people and my boss is very accommodating to my needs and requests. However, a month ago, my boss broke the news to me that our financing was being pulled and that I was being laid off. He didn't want to lose me as an asset and so he offered to keep paying me out of pocket until he was able to acquire funds for the company. I am starting out and have little experience and I knew that it would take me some time to secure employment elsewhere and so I foolishly agreed to continue working off the books. At the same time, though, I have started the job search to get out of this situation.

He has asked me several times if I am planning on seeing the company through this, and in an effort to remain diplomatic, I have said yes. He has been very accommodating to me during this time and so I am getting nervous about having to tell him that I am taking another position. How do I go about breaking the news to him without causing any hard feelings and maintaining him as a part of my network?

Green responds:

"I really appreciate how much you've worked to keep me here, but ultimately I felt like I needed a more stable situation and this came together quickly. I hope you understand, and I've really enjoyed working with you."

Alternately, you can always go with the old "This happened to fall in my lap, and I couldn't turn it down."

Really, someone paying you under the table because of the company's finances can't reasonably be too surprised when you decide to leave.

3. Employee's new schedule is hard to work with

I have an employee who started a second job, making his availability slim to none since I am no longer his priority. He is available only on Sundays, but can no longer be scheduled for on-calls or be able to attend monthly store meetings during any other day of the week. His work ethic is still superb, but it has been difficult working around his new schedule. I am willing to interview other candidates for his position, but I don't want to lose him since he is such a valuable employee. How do I handle a situation like this in a way that is best for my business and leaves both of us happy?

Green responds:

What's the minimum you'd accept from him? Figure that out and then have a candid conversation with him where you tell him what you need and see if he can commit to it. For example: "Joe, you're a great employee and I'd very much like to keep you. I'd need a commitment of working X Sundays a month. Can you do that?"

If his schedule just doesn't work with what you need, be direct about that too: "It sounds like your schedule just doesn't line up with what we need anymore. But I've loved working with you, and if you ever want to come back, we'd be delighted."

4. My manager's boss wants us to complain about my manager to his face

Next week, my co-workers, my supervisor, and my supervisor's boss are going to have a meeting to discuss any complaints we have about my supervisor. I feel that this is inappropriate. I feel that, if anything, his boss should ask us privately if we have any concerns about his performance, and then she could give him feedback in private. It feels odd that he is going to be put on the spot in front of the group, and if I were in his shoes, I would be embarrassed.

That said, he has not been a very good supervisor, and he is the reason I put in my resignation for the end of May. He has a habit of lying and blaming others for his mistakes, and just not showing up for his work hours.

I am wondering if I am overreacting, and if this is a normal business practice. I am an advocate of feedback, but not in front of an audience. Should I even speak up in this meeting about issues I have, or just say nothing? I am at a loss on how to handle this situation.

Green responds:

No, this isn't reasonable. It's good that your manager's boss wants to gather feedback about how your manager is doing, but it's absurd to think that people will give candid feedback in front of said manager. It's unreasonable for her to put the burden of that kind of tough confrontation onto people with less power in this situation. Rather, she should talk with each of you privately, synthesize the feedback, and relay it to your boss one-on-one...along with making it clear that he's not to penalize anyone who spoke with her (followed by checking back with each of you to make sure that hasn't happened).

If you'd rather not participate in this, you can say to your manager's boss: "I'm not comfortable talking candidly about my concerns about Bob in front of Bob. I'm concerned about the tension it will cause in our relationship, and I'm relying on him for a good reference in the future. I'd be glad to talk with you one-on-one, but I don't think you'll get truly candid feedback if he's part of the conversation."

5. Can I ask my references how strong of a reference they'll give me?

You have written about making sure your references are strong, but I was wondering if there's a way to find out how good a reference someone will be. I usually ask my references if they would feel comfortable being a good reference for me, but is there something else I should be doing? I don't want to be blindsided and get a bad reference.

Green responds:

The big thing is to be honest with yourself about how strong the work you did for them was and how they likely regard you. Ideally, you know them well enough that you should have an idea of what they thought of your work. But it's always reasonable to say, "I'd like to offer up references who will feel comfortable really speaking glowingly of my work. I'm hoping that's you, but it's of course OK if it's not. Are you able to give me a sense of how strong a reference you'd be comfortable giving me?"

The key here is to make it really safe for them to say "not that strong"--which means that you have to sound genuine and sincere in asking this, and you can't react badly if someone gives you a disappointing answer.

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

Published on: Mar 25, 2019