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. Should I warn someone he might be fired?

I have a new employee who has performance issues -- bad communication, loads of errors, very slow pace, among other things. I am working on improvements, both on his and my side. But if no improvement happens, this employee will be let go.

I am wondering if I should tell him that. I prefer to be absolutely clear, to not surprise him by letting him go if it comes to that. Another manager I work closely with is of the opinion that telling him that he could be let go is counterproductive, as it would be a big demotivator and he would start looking for another job straight away.

Green responds:

You absolutely should let him know. That's not a conversation that anyone enjoys, but it's a huge disservice to not be clear with him. You might be thinking that he'll figure it out on his own, but an awful lot of people don't and then are blindsided when they're fired. If you do end up having to fire him, you don't want that to be a  surprise to him -- you want it to be the next part of a discussion that's already been ongoing.

It doesn't sound like you're using a formal performance improvement plan, but if you were, it should spell out a specific timeline and the specific changes that must be made for him to keep his job at the end of that timeline. In a situation where you're not using a formal plan, you can say something like this: "I'm hopeful that you'll be able to make the improvements we've discussed. But I also I want to be transparent with you that these issues are serious enough that they could jeopardize your job, and if we're not able to make strong progress on this path over the next month, we'd need to discuss a transition out of the role. That said, I'm committed to working with you to help get your work to where we need it, and I hope that we can make it work."

And, yes, he may indeed start looking for another job, and that's part of the point. You want him to have advance notice that that's something that would be smart for him to do, so he's not starting from scratch the day you let him go. If you're worried he'll leave before you would have fired him -- or that he'll leave even if he's improving enough for you to keep him -- that's just part of how this works. Typically, it's not going to be an enormous loss to you because he wasn't working at a high level, but even aside from that, it's just basic decency to give someone enough info to make good decisions for himself.

2. Hiring a candidate who dressed too casually for the interview

I'm hiring for a pretty junior role as a part-time assistant. We've been getting lots of candidates who come from the retail/hospitality industry, which is great for this role. The problem is, a lot of the candidates who have come in have been dressed inappropriately for our office. We are technically business casual, but we're more business than casual. If a candidate is good in all other aspects than dress, how do you address it with them if you want to hire them for the role?

Green responds:

Explain the dress code when you're making the job offer, so it's not getting sprung on them after they've already accepted. (Most people won't be deterred by it, but you want to allow for the possibility that someone could be.) You can just be very direct -- "I want to let you know that we're more on the business end of business casual, which for us means (fill in details here)." And that last part is important -- be sure to give specifics so that they're clear on what is and isn't OK; don't assume that they'll have your same definition of business casual.

3. Happy hours and religious restrictions

Our team has been debating a question about religious dietary restrictions. If someone can't drink for religious reasons and doesn't want to participate in (voluntary) happy hours after work, is it that person's responsibility to suggest another place to go or another group activity to do, or is the responsibility of the person organizing the happy hour? Our VP is the sole organizer of these group events, and she pretty much always does happy hour at a nearby bar.

I can see both sides of the issue. On the one hand, if the religious person is unhappy about something, they should make the effort to change it. You shouldn't complain about something without at least proposing a solution. But, on the other hand, the person might feel awkward about having to go against the team and suggest something the team might not enjoy (or show up to) as much as happy hour, or they might feel that it's the VP's responsibility to make decisions that include them. What do you think?

Green responds:

It depends on whether it's an informal happy hour with some co-workers casually getting together or more like a team event. If it's the former and a manager isn't regularly participating, it's really up to those people to decide how they want to handle that, although the collegial and thoughtful thing would be to suggest more inclusive activities on occasion. But if it's more like a work event or if a manager is regularly involved, then yes, the manager has a responsibility to ensure that people aren't being left out, whether because of religious or dietary reasons, or even just personal preference (like hating bars). That's because if it's a work event or if a manager is regularly present, there's a higher obligation to think about the morale and inclusion of the entire group.

Ideally, it would be great for the person with the restriction to speak up and make a different suggestion, but realistically many people in that position are hesitant to do so because they feel awkward about it. And ideally everyone else would recognize that reality and speak up so that they don't have to.

4. My co-worker asks where I'm going every single time I leave my desk

I share an office with two colleagues. One is part time and works unusual hours, so we are rarely here at the same time. My other office mate just started a few months ago, and we are both here 9 to 5, five days a week. She and I don't work on any of the same projects, so we don't talk much beyond the usual polite small talk a couple of times a day.

But she does one very irritating thing: She asks me where I'm going every single time I get up from my desk. I don't think it's an attempt to make conversation, since she never asks any follow-up questions. I truly do not know why she wants to be updated every time I go to the bathroom, to a meeting, for a walk, out to lunch. The constant questioning makes feel like she is monitoring every move I make. I need her to stop, but I do not want to be rude or make her feel like I never want her to talk to me. I am pretty introverted and tend to get lost in my work, but I wouldn't mind having more conversations with her, just not about the frequency of my bathroom breaks. Should I say something?

Green responds:

Yes. I know it can feel awkward to ask someone to stop doing something, but remember that (a) the awkwardness is likely to be brief, especially if you make a point of helping things be normal afterward (more on that in a minute), and (b) most people would much rather know that they're doing something highly annoying than just be stuck annoying you forever. 

Some options for what to say:

  • "Did you know you ask me where I'm going every time I get up? I will never have an interesting answer to that."
  • "I love sharing an office with you, but I like to be able to leave without announcing where I'm going! But I'll let you know if I'm leaving for the day or something like that."
  • "It feels a little weird having to tell you whenever I'm going to the bathroom, so can we just say that I'll make a point of letting you know if I'm leaving for the day so that you aren't asking where I'm going each time I get up?"

And, yes, she might feel a little chastised, but if you make a point of being warm with her after that (find a reason to make conversation about something else, ask if you can get her a coffee when you go to get yourself one, etc.), any awkwardness shouldn't last long.

5. How much time should managing people take?

Do you have thoughts around the "right" amount of time a people leader should spend each week doing the things that are actually people management -- things like development, coaching, feedback, talking about priorities and satisfaction? I've seen one article that says the right number is six hours for each employee per week, but I'm trying to get a sense of the actual amount of time, total, with and without the direct report, that I should ask my employees to spend on management tasks.

Green responds:

It really depends on the type of jobs they're managing -- managing some types of jobs requires no more than an hour or two of management work a week, and others require much more (check-ins, reviewing work, giving feedback, helping problem-solve, etc.). There's just no way to have one number that covers every type of job you might be managing -- although one constant is that it's nearly always a lot more time than managers think it will be. But six hours per person every week is more than any average number I would have offered up.

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