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. What do I do when someone declines to be a reference?

How do I respond to a rejection email from a potential reference? I am a graduate student and requested a reference from a professor I know well. I was shocked when she responded, "You can use me as a reference, but I would have to be honest ... if they ask me about your timeliness or reliability, for example, I cannot say that it is excellent. That would be quite bad for you, so I'm not sure if I'm the right person to be your best reference. I hope you understand."

I disagree with her appraisal that I am not reliable, and am wondering why she feels this way. I was late with an assignment, and to her class in the beginning of the semester, but was consistently early after we spoke about it. How do I respond?

Green responds:

Thank her for her candor, and then let it go. Don't push for her to change her assessment, because you don't want to use a reference who's anything other than glowing about you.

For what it's worth, her response doesn't seem unreasonable to me. Yes, you changed your behavior once she spoke to you about it, but the fact remains that she needed to tell you that your lateness was a problem before you fixed it. In a lot of contexts, that'll put you in the "not super impressive" category.

2. Can I shorten my notice period when resigning?

Several weeks back, I learned that my position is being relocated to the company's corporate headquarters in a different state. I was offered the opportunity to relocate, and declined. It's just not something that works with my life right now. The company understood my decision and gave me time to transition out of the role. We mutually decided on a last day, which is about a month from now.

I've had a couple of promising interviews now for a position I'm very interested in. I know that offers are never guaranteed, but if I do receive an official offer, I would be interested in starting as soon as possible. I'm not enjoying being in "job limbo," and I'm having a hard time remaining focused on my current role. What I'm wondering is, how much notice do I have to give my current company if they already know I'm leaving? Am I expected to stay until the last day we chose, or would less time be appropriate? I was thinking of giving them a week, but is that not enough time?

Green responds:

In general, if you told your employer you'd be leaving in a month, they'd be unlikely to be pleased if you suddenly announce it'll be a week instead. They've made plans on the basis of what you told them, and it's possible that they would have done things differently if they'd been told they had less time -- moved up certain meetings, or had you train someone faster, or asked you to complete a piece of work that you now wouldn't have time for.

However, in this case, where you're being laid off, the rules are a little different; it's reasonable to ask for some flexibility if you get an offer earlier than you expected when the whole reason you're looking is because the company is eliminating your job.

3. Should we rehire employees who quit and want to return?

What's your opinion on rehiring past employees who quit and want to return? Let's say they're typical average employees, no standouts or outliers, who leave for money, but you are aware they had issues with management. Three of us in management have differing opinions. One is willing to rehire them since they will be ahead of the learning curve, one is on the fence and willing to give cursory interviews to see if mindsets have changed, and one does not believe in rehiring.

Green responds:

You should jump to rehire people who were outstanding employees, assuming that you can fix the things that drove them to leave in the first place. These are people whom you know do great work, who thought the grass might be greener somewhere else, and discovered that it wasn't. Those are great people to have on your staff.

But average employees who had issues with management? I'd want to know why you'd want to. First and foremost, you should be striving to hire better-than-average employees (you should never be actively looking to bring on someone middling). Second, if they had issues with management, have the things that frustrated them changed? If not, you're likely inviting problems onto your staff.

4. How can I help a staff member get better at thinking on her feet?

I work at a startup in a customer service-related role and am often on the phone with customers who need assistance. There is a significant amount of on-the-fly adaptation and problem-solving necessary when talking with these customers, something that has always come naturally to me.

We've recently hired another employee to fill a role similar to mine. She's been here a month, is sharp as a tack, and is a joy to have in the office. But she sometimes freezes when on the phone with customers when they ask questions she doesn't know how to answer. She has all the knowledge tools at her disposal to answer these questions, and typically when I help her with the answer, she already knew what it was, but it didn't come naturally to her. I'm pretty sure that this will improve as she gets more experience and confidence. That being said, I want to help her develop the ability to think on her feet. Are there any exercises you're familiar with that we could do to help? I keep going back to how I learned how to do it, but all I can credit it with is that I played a lot of video games as a kid without reading the instruction manual.

Green responds:

Two things: role-play and shadowing.

You can role-play customer calls with her, and give her feedback along the way. You can also let her shadow you or another experienced person who handles these calls well, so she gets some exposure to how other people field these questions.

In doing this, be explicit with her about the skill you want her to improve ("I want you to work on answering unanticipated questions from customers") and the fact that you want to work with her to build that skill and help her get more comfortable doing it, so that she's clear about the goal.

5. Can I put work on my résumé that I can't verify?

What should you do if you have valuable work experience that can't be proved? For two years, I worked in a local copy/print store where I picked up a lot of skills relevant to the line of work I'm hoping to enter -- graphic design, copywriting, editing, desktop publishing, etc. It's also the only real office experience I have (a bad job market and family emergencies have left me working freelance since college).

Until recently, I've been keeping it off my résumé because, at this point, there's no way to verify it. Not long after I left, the place went out of business and the manager I worked under has disappeared. However, as my job hunt drags on, I'm realizing I need all the help I can get, and I'm considering putting it back on. Without anybody to back me up and prove I'm not simply making it up, should I add it back on, or would it be more trouble that it's worth?

Green responds:

There's no requirement that every detail on your résumé be verifiable -- and it would be odd for employers to try to verify every single detail. They'll verify the stuff they care about most, but the fact that you can't prove that you did design work at this job is no reason not to talk about the fact that you did. It's true, and it's relevant. If someone wants to talk to the shop, you can explain they're out of business (which is not unheard of with employers), and you can offer to demonstrate your design skills in other ways. In fact, if you're applying for design jobs, you should have a portfolio displaying your work anyway -- and employers are far more likely to focus there.

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

Published on: Mar 26, 2019
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.