using a heating pad for cramps at work, secretly recording a bad boss, and more — Ask a Manager

It’s five answers to five questions. Here we go…

1. Can I use a heating pad for cramps at work?

I am the only woman working full-time at a small company (we have one other woman on staff who, after a successful internship, was hired part-time). For what it’s worth, my boss is very conservative and not always very respectful of women. My coworkers are much more understanding, although since I’m the first full-time female employee, I think there’s been some “getting used to.”

When it comes to my “time of the month,” I typically take Advil for cramps. It helps, but today I’m working from home and have found that a heating pad has made me so, so much more comfortable on a day I’d otherwise feel bloated, cramped, bogged down — and therefore less productive.

Is it appropriate to bring a heating pad to work? Space can be cramped so I worry about people tripping on a cord, and I’m also not sure if it’s “professional.”

Bring the heating pad. Use it freely. If anyone comments or asks about it, reply matter-of-factly, “I’m having some pain it’s helpful with.” The more matter-of-fact you, the better. Ideally people will take their cues from you. (Jerks won’t, but you shouldn’t deny yourself reasonable pain relief because of the potential for a jerk.)

I don’t want to discount your very understandable concerns about being The First in this office. When you’re the only woman, doing things that emphasize gender can feel weird and even ill-advised. But they employ women now, and the best way for them to start getting used to the occasional heating pad or bottle of Midol is for you to present it as an utterly normal, unremarkable fact of life.

2. Secretly tape-recording a bad boss

What do you think of the idea of recording a boss’s inappropriate behavior, if you’re in a one-party consent state for recording? This is in reference to a horrible boss who talks down to you, uses a ridiculing tone, mocks you, etc. I have heard of companies agreeing with the inappropriateness of a boss and then firing you for recording them.

In most cases it’s not a good idea. In a vacuum, outside of the workplace norms that we’re actually dealing with, sure — it might seem like a straightforward way to demonstrate a problem to people who otherwise might doubt how bad things really are. But within the workplace norms we actually have, secretly recording at work is nearly always going to be considered a huge deal. It opens up all sorts of concerns about confidentiality and legal liability — are you going to leak info to the press? Are you recording trade secrets or other proprietary information? Etc. It’s absolutely something that could get you fired.

The other thing is, much of the time the reason your employer isn’t dealing with your bad boss isn’t because they don’t know there’s a problem. Often they do know, and they’re not dealing with it for other reasons — they suck at addressing problems, they don’t want to deal with firing and re-hiring, they value something the bad manager is bringing more than they value the people working for said boss, or so forth. In those cases, a recording won’t help and can turn your own actions into the focus.

3. Shouldn’t a recruiter be … recruiting me?

I have a job I quite like right now but I’m technically a temp through a third party instead of working outright for the company. Recently I got an email from a recruiter at a big tech company in a city it is my long-term goal to move to. They asked if I was interested in a role that I seem well qualified for, so I said yes. They followed up with, “Okay, here’s the link to apply.” I thought that was a little bit of an odd request but maybe just a formality, but why talk to a recruiter directly if you also have to fill out 15 minutes worth of online application? Today I got another email that that role has been internally filled, but a manager for another similar role wants to have a phone call with me. I say, sure, happy to talk to them, and I get back a whole new list of questions they want answered before I talk to the hiring manager. It includes questions like, “Why are you interested in working at Company X?” and I have no idea how to answer that appropriately because the answer is, “I dunno, man, you’re the one who expressed an interest and I’m skeptical but willing to hear you out so, you tell me.”

My general rule is to always do interviews when people reach out to me but I’ve never had someone directly solicit me for a job and then turn around and ask me these sorts of questions. How do I best navigate this situation?

Yeah, this is a recruiter who doesn’t know what they’re doing. If they reach out to you, they should have at least a phone conversation with you before asking you to jump through any hoops, so that you can figure out if you’re even interested in investing your time in pursuing the job. And even then, a good recruiter will minimize the hoops, knowing that they’re going after you rather than the other way around. This sounds like a recruiter who (a) isn’t very good at their job and (b) may not be wooing you so much as just drumming up applicants.

It’s perfectly reasonable for you to say to them, “This looks like a questionnaire for someone who sought out the job on their own. In my case, you approached me and I don’t know enough to know if I’m interested yet, although I’m happy to talk with you or the hiring manager to learn more.” If the recruiter seems surprised, you can spell it out: ““I’m not actively looking to leave my current job. I’m happy here. I’m open to talking since you approached me, but I’d want more information before spending time filling out applications.”

4. Attending conflict resolution training with a horrible coworker

My company’s HR wants us to attend an all employee conflict management training so we “learn how to navigate difficult situations.” We’re broken up into groups, but I’m in a session with the one person who causes the majority of my department’s problems (and who we frequently butt heads with). He is AWFUL and our team’s conflicts with him are well known (but his management won’t do anything about it – a whole other letter).

We are required to fill out a form stating what our biggest issue at work is, what the impact on my work is, and what I want to happen or change. The format and examples were less like the letters answered here on AAM and more like the “personally victimized by Regina George” scene in Mean Girls.

For context, our HR department is a very new department, at a company with 500+ employees. HR also once thought it was a good idea to have us write feedback to management on a poster in the lobby during an all employee meeting.

How can I successfully navigate this session and make the most out of it without it becoming the dumpster fire it likely will be?

I’d ask exactly how your feedback is going to be used before you fill out that form. Will it be shared with your group? Will it be anonymous? What exactly is the process here? If you don’t get answers you’re comfortable with, I’d write that you’re not comfortable with the process and are declining to participate, and perhaps that you’ve shared concerns with management in the past that haven’t been acted upon.

If you think you’ll be penalized for that approach, then you could instead answer the question honestly but vaguely. For example, your biggest issue at work might be “lack of management action on personnel issues.”

But you’re not required to play these games just because they want you to. And your goal doesn’t need to prevent it from becoming a dumpster fire; if that happens, that’s HR’s to deal with, and sometimes natural consequences are the best message.

5. Meetings that keep running over our scheduled time

A few months ago, I started working closely with a team within my company (I’m in a different department), and I’ve discovered that most of the team members of this group have the habit of completely blowing past the scheduled end times for meetings. This isn’t a case of “meetings tend to run over by 10 minutes.” Very recent examples are a couple of 30-minute meetings that each ran over an additional 45 minutes, and staff meetings that regularly run over by an hour or more. If I have another meeting to go to, then it’s fairly easy to get up/hang up and leave. But if I don’t have a hard stop, then staying until the bitter end really cuts into my time to get to other priorities.

I’m not under any illusion that I can change the culture of this team single-handedly, but in the absence of that how can I set effective boundaries and possibly influence their behavior? I could say I have another obligation (even if that obligation is just getting back to work), but I might miss something important or my input might still be needed. I’m upper-middle management and do have some general authority but none of these people work for me. I try to lead by example and end on time if it’s my meeting. When I do that I’ve gotten positive feedback thanking me and telling me that I’m one of the few that ends meetings on time, but it doesn’t change anyone else’s behavior.

The overall culture in the rest of the company is to end as close to on time as possible, so it really is just them. Please help!

Two things: First, at the start of each meeting, announce how much time you have. For example: “I have a hard stop at 2:45, so can we make sure we get through anything I’m needed for by then?” (And it’s absolutely fine to base that on needing to get back to your desk to do other work; you’re not required to have another meeting in order to do this.)

Second, consider whether it would make sense to talk about the pattern with someone on that team (either the manager or the biggest offenders) and say something like, “I’m noticing your meetings tend to run over, often by 45 minutes or an hour, and it sometimes blows up other things I need to get to that day. For meetings where I’m needed, is there a way to stick to the scheduled time so I’m not having to duck out mid-meeting?”

But really, just announcing your hard stop at the start of the meeting might enough to nudge people to move through the agenda at a less leisurely pace.

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