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 an office ban smelly foods?

My staff are busy so I do not discourage them from eating at their desks. My problem is the type of food because some produce strong odors. For example, kebabs are smelly and the smell lingers throughout the afternoon, and if dropped on desks they can stain! We don't have enough room for a designated eating area, so eating at their desks is the only option. Do you think that banning certain foods is unreasonable?

Green responds:

It's not inherently unreasonable to tell people not to eat foods with especially strong smells in areas where others will be impacted, especially if it's an area where smells will drift to clients too. However, be aware that often the foods that people consider unpleasantly smelly are ones from other cultures (which "smell" to them because they're less familiar) -- which can lead to you in effect telling people of ethnicity X that they can't eat what they want, while everyone else can. That outcome wouldn't be OK, so be sure that you watch out for that in the way you implement this.

2. Roasting departing colleagues

An acquaintance recently told me that he had a great tradition at work, which was that at the farewell parties for departing colleagues, they "roast" the person who is leaving. I was unable to convince him that such an event really doesn't belong in the workplace. Apparently his workplace has organized several such events before and he "never saw any tears," so he felt it was all in good fun.

While I'm sure that some people enjoy being roasted by their friends, it seems wildly inappropriate for a work function. I thought the entire point of a roast was to poke fun at people's flaws or simply to (jokingly) insult them, and that seems counter to the whole concept of being professional and collegial. Am I off-base here? 

Green responds:

Ooooh, yeah, you're not off-base. Of course, maybe what they do is more lighthearted and good-natured than what "roast" typically means -- who knows? -- although I'd imagine that even then, there are remarks that sting or people who don't navigate the line correctly.

If you wanted to revisit it with him, you could point out that while there are certainly people who would enjoy the experience and see it as being in good fun, it's far from universally appreciated so it's problematic to do it for every single resigning employee; that most offices have people with a bunch of different sense of humor and what's funny to one person can be offensive or upsetting to another; that "never seeing any tears" isn't a reliable barometer of whether people are bothered, and there's probably pressure to appear to be OK with it even if they're not; that when you're not dealing with an office of professional comedians, there are certain to be people who cross lines or just end up sounding mean (actually, that's true with professional comics too); that because this is work, there are lots of priorities that trump "some people will find this fun," like thinking about the morale and comfort of the entire group; and that there are lots of ways to send people off in warm, affectionate ways that don't carry these risks.

3. Problem employee lashed out at me

I've got a low-performing employee who last year was told he was going to get a less than standard rating. He worked harder as the end of the year approached, and I fought for him to get the standard rating (in hindsight, maybe I shouldn't have). Immediately after that, he lapsed on the hard work and went back to old habits and light hours. He had a report due that he'd been working on for a month but he was getting stuck. I could have done the work for him, but I didn't (as in the past, it hadn't really helped to have him have no idea of what he was submitting). A couple of days before the report was due, I sent him an email saying that if he couldn't finish it on time, this particular project would get a lower than standard rating. (He'd made some noises before about wanting to know how he was doing more regularly.)

He blew up at me in an angry email, complaining that if I knew how to do the report, I should have helped him since there was a deadline, and said he'd have to discuss it with HR and my manager. He has never volunteered an apology for the blow-up.

I'm a little frustrated. Is that justified? What do you see as the way forward?

Green responds:

In a vacuum, it's justified -- in that everything you describe him doing is wildly out of line. But you've sort of forfeited your standing to be frustrated because you haven't been managing him.

He's not doing his job, his blow-up was inappropriate, and he scammed you with improving for the review and then going back to his previous ways afterwards. That's all on him. But on your side, you gave him a good rating even though he hadn't earned it, you didn't address it when he started slacking off again afterward, you haven't dealt with his performance issues, and you've done his work for him in the past. You need to start managing him! That's probably going to mean that you'll end up needing to firing him, but right now you haven't done the basics and you need to do those.

He's out of line on numerous fronts. Start addressing them and stop letting him have all this slack, and that should take care of your frustration.

4. Giving references for multiple people for the same job

If I know several people who are applying for the same job, are there ethical issues around whom I should recommend? A position just opened up with a manager I used to work for, and one of my former grad school classmates asked me for a recommendation. I agreed, because I know her work and can give her an enthusiastic recommendation. The next day, a second former classmate asked me for a recommendation. This person is also excellent, and his skill set might be a slightly better match.

I guess it's a nice problem to have--they're both very good candidates, so I can say that to the hiring manager with a clear conscience. But it seems a bit unfair, somehow, to the person who asked me first to talk about someone else in slightly more glowing terms. What do you think?

Green responds:

You shouldn't give references based on who contacted you first -- there's no calling dibs with references. And I promise you that your former boss definitely does not want that impacting what you say to her.

Be candid with her about each person -- strengths and weaknesses -- and it's fine to be honest about who you think would be better for the job if that's something you have an assessment of. (Wouldn't you be dismayed to learn that a trusted contact was pulling punches in talking to you about candidates she knew, just because one of them contacted her one day earlier than the other?)

5. After I couldn't interview on short notice, employer picked a different candidate

An employer found me on LinkedIn and asked me to interview for a position at a small foundation that really suited my skills and career aspirations. I completed a phone interview and an in-person interview, and everything seemed to be going well.

The employer contacted me a few weeks later for an interview with her and a board member. However, the only interview time she could offer was less than 24 hours away, would have required me to miss nearly four hours of work (with drive time included) because it was in the middle of the workday, and conflicted with unmissable meetings at my current job (we had a big event in three days). I politely responded, letting her know that I had limited availability until after the event and that I was still very excited to speak with her and the board member, and I gave her times that I was available. I also informed her that times at the beginning or end of the day worked best for my schedule, but that I was happy to make any time of day work.

I followed up twice over the next two and a half weeks with no response. The next email I received was "We have chosen another candidate." Did I commit a major faux pas? Or should I take it as a sign that this wasn't somewhere I would have wanted to work?

Green responds:

Nope, you didn't do anything wrong. That was a perfectly reasonable email. I wouldn't say that it's a sign you wouldn't have wanted to work there, though -- it's possible that they just got caught up with other candidates and would have gotten back to reschedule with you except that they found someone they knew was stronger. They shouldn't have left you hanging for two and a half weeks, but that that's really common in hiring. I'd just write this one off to not being meant to be.

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