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 give my team advance warning about layoffs?

I manage a team that has been in dire need of restructuring, but we have not been able to implement the new plan until now. I know that in an ideal scenario, a firing shouldn't catch an employee off-guard. But what about layoffs or restructuring? While we've talked about the needs on the team and what we are lacking, I think this is going to totally blindside one of my employees. Unfortunately he does not have a skillset to fit the new structure. We've had talks about fit, and I've expressed the needs of the department, but either he didn't want to hear what I was saying or I wasn't being clear enough.

Have I dropped the ball by not better preparing my team for the layoffs? Reasonably, I also couldn't be very open about a potential restructure and sometimes companies can't be for good reason. So it is understandable that layoffs take employees by surprise? I feel terrible. I may not be able to "fix" this situation, but I want to make sure I am ready if the situation ever arises again in my future.

Green responds:

It really depends. It's pretty common not to give employees an advance heads-up about layoffs, substituting severance pay for notice. Is that the right way to do it? It's easy to argue no, but it's more nuanced than that -- having laid-off employees still at work can make it harder for the remaining team to move forward, and sometimes those who are being laid off are too angry or upset about the layoffs to effectively do their jobs, and in some cases can be pretty toxic to an environment that's already quite shaken up.

And if you just give general notice that layoffs are coming (rather than getting specific about which people/which roles), you can end up with a really tense and anxious environment because everyone is worried about who will be cut. Sometimes that means you'll end up losing your best people, since they'll assume they should be job searching and -- being your best people -- may find jobs quickly. (You can often head that off, though, by talking to your strongest people one-on-one and assuring them that their jobs are secure, if indeed that's the case.)

In your situation, it sounds like you have had opportunities to prepare this particular person for the fact that the needs of his team have changed, and if he hasn't gotten that message, then yes, it's possible that you should have been clearer, both with him and with others. It's hard to say without knowing more. In general, though, err on the side of transparency unless there are very specific reasons not to (reasons you've reality-tested with someone whose judgment you trust). But when you haven't, it's additional reason to do what you can to cushion the blow with however much severance as you can manage.

2. Employee barges straight into my office

I recently hired a new employee who is performing well but can be a bit pushy. Every time she has a question for me, she walks at a brisk pace through the hallway, straight into my office and to the corner of my desk (where my screen can clearly be seen), without pausing.

I feel like this is a bit of an invasion of my personal space as well as privacy, especially since my desk is situated so the side of it faces the door and someone approaching can quickly see my monitor. Moreover, I tend to get very focused so it is a bit jarring. Everyone else here is in the habit of pausing each other's doorway and speaking from there before entering, or knocking on the open door before entering.

Is the best thing to do to just politely request that she pause at the door before entering my office due to privacy concerns on my screen, on the spot, next time it happens? Or am I just being too sensitive?

Green responds:

Nope, you're not being too sensitive. It's a completely reasonable expectation to share with her. (You're only being too sensitive if you're frustrated that she's doing it when you haven't yet asked her not to.)

I'd say this: "Even when I have my door open, would you mind knocking before coming all the way in? I'm sometimes working on sensitive documents or otherwise focusing on something where it would be better not to break my focus at that exact moment. Thank you."

3. I think my mentee is a bad person

I recently left a manager job where my duties included hiring recent college graduates and training them in my field. One guy really took to the job, and I think could have a bright future in our industry. He eventually got a much better job somewhere else, and I wished him well and offered to continue being a mentor to him.

When he worked for me, I got the sense that he was arrogant and tended to be negative and critical in his judgments of other people. The quality of his work was good, though, so other than mentioning it as an area to work on, I didn't have to take any other action.

Now that neither of us works for the company anymore, I've hung out with him several times with other former coworkers. I think he feels he can let the "mask" slip now that we don't work together, and frankly, I'm starting to think he's a horrible person. He seems to openly despise anyone he feels isn't as smart as he is and is vehemently anti-religion, so will spend time spewing invective about many of our former coworkers (most of whom are perfectly nice, normal people). This is a really ugly side of him and not something I want to be around.

If this happened with someone I just knew socially, I would just stop hanging out with him. I know that he sees me as a mentor and looks up to me, though. If someone called me for a reference, I think it would be appropriate for me to keep my comments to what I knew about what he's like to work with, not how he is as a person. Knowing what I know now, though, I wouldn't hire him to work for me again - and I'd be hesitant to do much to introduce him to my pretty substantial network of industry contacts. Do I owe it to him to talk to him about this?

Green responds:

I don't think you owe it to him, and if you'd prefer to just distance yourself, I think that's fine. But I also think you'd be doing him a service if you did choose to say something. (Ideally, it could have been in the moment when he made those comments, but there's no reason you can't do it now.)

Frankly, it also would be reasonable to factor this into future references. The knowledge you gained of him after you stopped working together is fair game for references; you're not obligated to endorse someone who you now think is an awful person. But even leaving that aside, while you worked together you observed that he was "arrogant and tended to be negative and critical in his judgments of other people." That's relevant information that most reference-checkers would want to hear (along with the fact that the quality of his work was good -- and then let them decide how much to weigh each factor). So if you think he's likely to provide your name as a reference, I'd definitely err on the side of talking with him and sharing your concerns.

4. Employer announced it will fire anyone who interviews for another job

I work for a private college with multiple sites. Recently, the campus presidents at these sites have told employees that if they find out that a person is interviewed for another job, the person will be automatically terminated from employment. In some cases, emails have been sent to program chairs/deans requesting that they report employees that they know who are interviewing and move to terminate them. This has never been the policy or attitude of this organization. Now employees are threatening to leave, and given time, many will leave.

Is this appropriate? Although I am not planning to leave, I get inquiries from recruiters all the time and have conversations with them. Because I interview, that does not mean that I am resigning.

Green responds:

Nope, it's ridiculous, out of touch, and fairly horrid. The college expects employees to ... stay there forever? No one should ever leave? They're absolutely going to drive away good people and will have trouble attracting new good people if word gets out.

I urge you to push back loudly and encourage others to do the same.

5. My manager thinks I accepted a job -- but I didn't and I don't want it

I've been contracted with a company for about five months now. A couple of weeks back, my manager brought up a possible position and I said that I would be interested in hearing more about it when more information became available. Today, though, I spoke with my manager and I didn't fully comprehend until the meeting was over that she spoke about the job as though I had already accepted it. She said something along the lines of being happy that I was going to give the position a try. She was already walking away before I really had time to comprehend what had just happened. The whole situation is a misunderstanding; I either was not clear about me wanting to know before I made a decision or she misunderstood me. It is not a position that I am interested in.

How should I go about telling my manager that I am not interested in the position? Or would telling her that make me look flaky?

Green responds:

Well, it's going to look a little weird that you didn't correct her on the spot, but you definitely need to speak up -- you can't take a position you don't want just because you were caught off-guard.

I'd say this: "I realized that the other day when we touched base about the X position, you framed it as if I was definitely going to move into it. When we talked a few weeks ago, we'd left it that you'd give me more information about it once that info was available. I had assumed that's what our conversation was the other day -- but I think at the end of if, you may have thought I was accepting the role. I actually don't think it's the right position for me because of XYZ, and I wanted to make sure I hadn't left you with the wrong impression."

And say it ASAP -- today.

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Published on: Mar 17, 2020
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