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. When an employee's spouse emails you to complain

Our corporate office manages several apartment complexes in other cities. One manager transferred from one complex to another when the manager position came open. Shortly thereafter, her husband emailed our boss, complaining about how his wife is treated by the company. He also said that he had not told his wife about emailing the company. I believe the boss emailed the husband back, although I have no clue what was written. Knowing our boss, it was probably a defense or dismissal written in a tone of absolute authority without appeal. Nothing further was mentioned to me about it. 

Should it (oddly) happen again, what would you do? What would you have done in the previous case?

Green responds:

Employers shouldn't be discussing employment issues with employees' spouses, period. So if the boss sent the husband a defense in respond to the husband's complaints, that was inappropriate. He doesn't owe the husband an explanation, defense, or dialogue, and it's entirely possible that the wife wouldn't appreciate her boss discussing her work matters with her husband, a non-employee.

What the boss should do is either ignore the email or respond back that the company doesn't discuss employment issues with people's spouses.

But he also should have alerted the wife -- the employee -- to the email, because she's entitled to know her husband is sending emails to her employer on her behalf. He could frame that as, "I wasn't sure if you were aware Bob sent us this email, and I wanted to make sure you are. I let him know we don't discuss personnel issues with non-employees, but of course if there's anything you want to talk with me about, I'd be happy to."

2. My boss asked my employee how often I'm in the office

I am a program manager for government entities in four states. Within the past year, the boss I had for more than two years left the company and I was assigned a new one.

My job requires me to meet with clients and suppliers offsite, which involves substantial travel time to do because I live in a large city. I schedule my appointments either on my way in to the office or my way home so as to avoid wasting long periods of my workday in traffic and best utilize my time. Recently, my supervisor, who is located out of state, sent a message to my assistant here at the office asking her how often I have been in the office.

I have worked for this company for almost three years, and have never had attendance issues or even used sick or vacation time and have grown my program, as well as the relationships within them, so not only do I take offense to his distrust, but also that he would resort to asking someone who reports directly to me. I feel that it was disrespectful and discredits me as her supervisor. Am I correct in feeling this way and what would the best recourse be?



Green responds:

It depends on the context and what was behind your manager's question, since it's possible that there was some innocuous reason for asking.

But it would be perfectly reasonable to say something to your manager like this: "Lavinia told me that you asked her about how often I'm in the office, which I know can be hard to track since I have to meet with clients and suppliers so often. Was there a concern about my schedule or how I'm allocating my time that I can shed any light on?"

3. Interviewing to replace someone being fired for lacking a can-do attitude

I am being recruited for a job at an organization where I've always wanted to work. During my first meeting with the person recruiting me -- my would-be manager -- I inferred that he is preparing to dismiss the person who currently holds the role. Her not having a "can-do attitude" was the closest he got to explaining why he is searching for a replacement. It's not like I have a "can't-do" attitude, but I find this concerning. Is it appropriate for me to press for details on what's happening here? Dwelling on the protocol for firing people seems like a bad look during an interview, but I don't want to take a job where I risk getting axed for something so nebulous.

Green responds:

I've managed those people, and believe me, it's not nebulous. (Or at least it's not always nebulous.) It's about people who always have reasons why they can't do something (usually things that their colleagues or eventual replacements manage to do just fine), who look for reasons to say no rather than reasons to say yes, who need cajoling and convincing to do even small things, who always have a reason why they weren't able to do something -- and ultimately it adds up to a pattern of things not happening in their realm. I wouldn't take it as a red flag unless you see additional signs that the manager is unreasonable or unrealistic.

You can, however, certainly say in the interview, "Can you tell me about what kind of people do well in this role and what kinds of people struggle or don't excel?" The person being fired is going to be on the hiring manager's mind, and you'll probably get some good insight into what he's looking to avoid with the next hire.

4. My new employer just asked for my references -- but we've already set a start date

I'm in the process of changing jobs. The new company made me a firm offer and I accepted. My start date at the new company is soon, and it has confirmed plane tickets and hotel reservations for me to fly up to its office for training (it's opening a new office in my city, but until then I'll be telecommuting). The gist is, the new job is a "done deal." My last day at my old job is tomorrow.

I just got an email from the internal recruiter/HR person asking me to submit references, which -- as far as I can tell -- makes no sense, and makes me worried that either the job isn't as much of a "done deal" as I thought or that something's weird about this company.

I replied to the email saying "Sure, here are some references" and attempted to call to get clarification about the issue, but I got the HR person's voicemail so I just left a message saying that I had questions and asking her to call me back. What are your thoughts on the issue?



Green responds:

Some companies have a horrible policy of doing background checks -- including references -- after a job offer is accepted. This is ridiculous for many reasons, including that it totally defeats the point of reference checking (which isn't just to get a yay or nay but to get nuanced information about people to help make a hiring decision), as well as that it's incredibly unfair to candidates, who in many cases have already resigned their jobs because they assumed the offer was a done deal.

I'd say this: "Is your offer not final and/or are there remaining contingencies attached to it? My understanding was that it was a formal offer, and I gave notice after we finalized our agreement, so I'm of course concerned to receive this email. Can you shed any light?"

It's too late now, but in the future be sure to carefully read any offer paperwork for mentions of contingencies like this. You can also ask directly, "Are there any outstanding contingencies before the offer is final?"

5. Employees who deliberately work slowly in order to get paid more

I'm currently in a shift-managing position for a restaurant and am having a problem with my closing employees working slowly on purpose or having no motivation to leave on time so they get paid longer. I am unsure how to handle this. I've attempted sending these employees home, but it only gets the others upset because they have to stay longer to finish the work. This problem is magnified when these employees work together, because I can't send them all home and have the work done in time. My boss is pressuring me to get them out on time, even though I've brought up this issue to him. What can I do?



Green responds:

Say this: "I need you to work more quickly. Normally, I'd expect you to finish all closing duties in (X amount of time). I need to see you meeting that standard in order to keep you on. Do you need any support from me in doing that, or can you strive for that going forward?"

And then stick to it, just like any other performance expectation -- meaning that you need to be prepared to let people go who aren't meeting reasonable standards if they don't improve after you warn them.

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

Published on: Apr 29, 2019
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.