my boss wants us to go on an all-day rafting trip, coworker’s parents are threatening to call HR about our friendship, and more

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

1. My boss wants us to go on all-day rafting trip

My company hired a new director (Michelle) a few years ago. Since then, there have been several new managers hired by her who really share her same outgoing personality. That’s not a negative in any way. But since then, I’ve noticed a lot more emphasis on team-building events. Some have been lunchtime learning, while some others border on silliness (like performing a short skit based on random objects). And about a year ago, we were all asked to do an online personality survey and then Michelle coordinated an off-site day where we were coached on the 16 personality types with the emphasis on leveraging success by knowing each other better.

Earlier this month, invites went out for a company sales conference in August. I’ve been here for seven years and this was the first time I ever got included. I’ve been very involved on several successful new product launches over the last three years. Part of the event will be more team-building, coordinated by a group they hired. It turns out that I was assigned to Michelle’s group (she is the team leader). There are about eight of us on the team. Michelle had a conference call to kick things off, and we have to pick a name for our team and submit designs for t-shirts. She also mentioned that we will be doing an all-day rafting trip as a break-out event. I emailed her a few days later to see if i could skip the rafting trip as I am a weak swimmer who is not comfortable around deep water. She replied saying that the event is still four months away and that she’d rather see me focus on how to meet a challenge rather than how to get out of it. She compared it to when she was afraid to do a zip line two years ago, but got through it. I was a bit floored.

My wife, who met Michelle at our holiday party and really likes her, is convinced that Michelle is testing me to see how I react and that is is my opportunity to impress her. With all the changes in our company, I can definitely see myself directly reporting to her someday and don’t want some silly decision to harm my standing. Can you offer your opinion on what you would do?

Personally, I would tell Michelle, “For safety reasons, I won’t be able to participate in this. I’ll plan to spend that day working on X and Y unless you prefer I spend that time differently.” Note that language is telling her that you won’t be participating, not asking her for permission to sit it out. You get to simply state that you’re not participating in something like this.

I’d also consider adding, “There may be other people who have health conditions that make participating iffy, and I’d love to see us pick a more inclusive activity.” Because that’s true — an all-day rafting trip is a big deal and there are a whole bunch of conditions people shouldn’t have to disclose to get out of that, including things she’s probably not even thinking about, like IBS.

Take a look at this and this. And hell, for good measure, this too.

2. My coworker’s parents are threatening to call HR about our friendship

I’m close friends with a girl at work. We are both over 18 and talk often, about all kinds of topics. I’m the person she calls when she’s stressed and life isn’t going well. Hour-long calls are not infrequent with us and she’s taken me to antique stores to train me to find things she likes, and I’m quite good at it. (This is all to give you the gist of how close we are.) We also work at completely different locations (so have very little face-to-face contact unless I come visit her). Moreover, we both have a huge thing for each other. We are both in agreement that if we ever both end up single, we are going to try for a relationship.

So, fast forward to now. She still lives with her parents and they pay for her phone. They saw some of our messages to each other and are threatening to call HR at our company for sexual harassment. The thing is, she doesn’t feel harassed, they are just not listening. Should I be worried? How would you handle this in my place?

Sexual harassment is about unwelcome conduct. If this had been one-sided, or if she’d asked you to stop but you hadn’t, or if you were subjecting her to unwelcome advances or sexual talk, that would be a problem! But a mutually welcome friendship is not harassment.

So as long as your friend isn’t going to tell HR that this contact has been unwelcome, you should be fine. And really, a parent calling an adult’s workplace to report sexual harassment based on a mutual friendship is … weird, and it’s very likely that your friend will be able to quickly shut it down with HR if they approach her about it.

One precaution you could take, though, is to explicitly confirm with your friend that she enthusiastically welcomes the relationship you have, and that she doesn’t feel any of your contact with her is unwanted. Make it safe for her to say no — frame it as something like, “I want you to know that if you ever don’t want this level or type of contact with me, I would fully respect that and not make it weird or tense for you” (and of course mean that).

From what you’ve written here, this sounds like a mutual friendship … but there’s also a version of this where a person A tells person B she won’t date him because she’s seeing someone else, and then B takes that as “we’ll date when she breaks up with her boyfriend” when that’s not what A meant … and where some of the other details can look different depending on who’s telling them. So especially when you have someone raising concerns, explicitly confirming that you both enthusiastically welcome the contact is always a good thing.

3. The details in my offer letter aren’t what we discussed

I recently accepted a job offer with a start-up nonprofit. Due to a tight timeline for their desired start date and a long notice period in my current role, I had to resign quickly, without having the offer letter in hand. I know this is not best practice and in retrospect, I should have worried less about inconveniencing either employer and insisted on the formal letter.

In any case, I then received a formal offer letter (over a week later) that has a contractual period of only six months, subject to renewal. We had no discussions of this previously, so it was quite a surprise. I’d expressly asked about how I would be hired – with a contract, regular staff, at-will, etc. – because of the org’s start-up status. They had told me I would be hired as regular staff and that the project would run for three years.

They also agreed to a few things in negotiations – revisions to the title, flex time – that they say cannot be put in the offer letter but is an “informal agreement.” But of course, the offer letter itself expressly says that this represents the only agreement between me and the employer.

Because the organization is still starting up, it’s working off the HR and legal structure of a parent organization it’s only loosely affiliated with right now. I am sympathetic to those potential limitations. But nonetheless, it’s made me uneasy. They seem like really nice people and I like the potential for growth in the organization and role. But I also want to be treated respectfully and fairly in my next role and I feel like I made a good faith commitment to them and they are acting surprised (saying my request is “exceptional”) that I’d ask for the same. Am I making a big deal out of nothing or is this in fact a tremendous warning sign?

It depends on how they respond to you pushing back. Try saying this: “We’d talked about this role being regular staff and titled as Frog Decorator, but the offer letter says it’s a six-month contract for Junior Frog Decorator. I’m excited about coming on board, but I want to make sure the offer letter reflects what we’ve agreed to.” If they say no, then what’s in the letter is what they’re offering you. There’s no reason they shouldn’t be able to put the correct details in the letter, so if they decline to, I’d assume those are the correct details. One way of pushing back if that happens is, “I’d love to accept the role we talked about on the phone — a longer-term Frog Decorator position — but I wouldn’t feel comfortable coming on board with an offer letter that describes a different role.”

It’s possible that their parent org really does have internal rules about not putting other stuff like flex time in an offer letter, but that doesn’t mean they can’t agree in writing outside the offer letter. To do that, send an email that says, “I understand you don’t include details on flex time in offer letters, so I just wanted to memorialize here that we’ve agreed to (details). Would you confirm that’s correct?”

If they balk at any of this, the answer to “is this a tremendous warning sign?” is yes.

4. My new office doesn’t recycle

Less than two weeks ago, I started a new job that I love. There are many great things about this job that I value. The one problem: there is no recycling at this office. None. No recycling bins anywhere. I’m shocked. In my section of the office, we get tiny plastic bottles of water, the kind I can drink in four gulps. Then I have to throw them out. The water fountain is kind of a long walk away. I’m not the biggest environmentalist by a long shot, but I try to recycle whatever I can at home and this feels extreme. I’d rather not collect all my water bottles from throughout the day to bring home to recycle.

Should I or can I do anything? I’ve been here less than two weeks, so I’m very new with almost no power. We’re moving to a new office building very soon, so maybe things will change, but I have no way of knowing if they will or not.

Right now you’re too new to have standing to tackle this, but after you’ve been there a while (like maybe six months or so) you certainly can! (The exception to that if if you’re in a role that puts this in your purview, like if you work in operations.) Meanwhile, though, you could talk to whoever’s coordinating the move and ask if they know if there will be recycling at the new building, which might at least put it on their radar if it hasn’t been. (Even for that, though, I might give it a month or so. You are still very new.)

When you do bring it up, how to tackle it depends on your role. In some contexts (especially smaller offices), it might make sense for you to take the lead on researching recycling options in your area (local regulations, companies that handle it, etc. — some city governments will provide a guide) and even help put something into practice, and in others that would be overstepping for your position and you’ll need to just make the case to someone who does have that authority. Whichever route you go, keep in mind that if they’re not receptive, you might also suggest some interim measures, like a bottleless water cooler instead of all those tiny plastic bottles.

5. Is it time to give my employee a formal improvement plan?

I’m new to a management role and inherited an employee (a former peer) who was never held accountable by his previous manager (for example, he completed a major web software overhaul nine months past the deadline with no consequences). As a result, I’ve been vigilant about giving him feedback every time he doesn’t do something he says he’s going to do when he says he’s going to do it. I’ll often see improvement after these conversations, only to see this habit creep back up again after a few months. It’s usually something small — like saying he’ll send me a preview of the newsletter or update me on a project and then not getting to it or explaining why he didn’t. Overall, I know he’s getting a lot done, but all of these little things add up to me as someone who I can’t count on for major long-term projects.

So, is it time for a PIP? Are you supposed to warn someone before putting them on a PIP? Is there something between routine feedback and a PIP? The reason I’m hesitating is that to me, a PIP signals that I’m about to fire someone — but I’m not sure I’m ready to let this person go. Do I just have new manager cold feet?

A performance improvement plan (PIP) should indeed convey “these issues are serious and if you don’t improve in the following ways by the following timeframe, I will let you go.” So yes, if you use one, you’d want to be prepared to fire him at the end of it if he hasn’t made the improvements you need. That said, given that he improves for a while whenever talk with him, he’s likely to meet the terms of the PIP but then backslide again later on, so you’d want to clearly state that you need to see sustained, permanent improvement and if the pattern recurs again, you wouldn’t do a second PIP.

You don’t need to warn someone before a PIP (unless your company procedures require that), but what I’d do in your case is sit down and have a serious conversation with him where you say, “We’ve talked multiple times about the need for you to meet deadlines and follow through on agreed timelines, and while you often improve temporarily, the pattern keeps recurring. This is serious because it means I can’t count on you for long-term projects. I need you to get this under control permanently, and if you don’t, it could jeopardize your job here. If it keeps happening after this conversation, we’ll need to move to a formal performance improvement plan, so I want to make sure you understand that we’re at the point where I don’t have much leeway left to give you.”

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