pushing back when an employee calls in sick, renegotiating an offer you’ve already accepted, and more

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

1. Should I ever push back when an employee calls in sick?

As someone’s supervisor, are there ever limits on someone using their sick leave if they have it to use? We’ve had employees tell us “my allergies are acting up today” or “I have to stay home to make sure my pipes don’t freeze.” I don’t want to be in the business of questioning when people are sick, but are there ever times to push back when employees want to use their sick time at the last minute? They do get a generous amount of sick time. We are an organization that requires coverage on customer service points, if that makes a difference.

In general, you want to err on the side of treating employees like responsible adults and giving them as much leeway as possible to manage their own sick leave. If someone says they’re not well enough to come in to work, your default should be to believe them. (And really, allergies can be quite bad. I think you’re hearing that as “I’m a little sniffly” but it can be eyes that won’t stop watering, an awful fog in your head, and extreme exhaustion. And that difference in itself is an illustration of why you shouldn’t assume and should trust people to decide for themselves.)

That said, unless there were extenuating circumstances (and there might have been), staying home to make sure your pipes don’t freeze isn’t generally what sick leave is intended for — but that’s really about the fact that they should probably be using another form of PTO, not that they shouldn’t stay home at all. Again — adults. Trust them to know more about their situations and what’s necessary than you do.

If someone isn’t acting like a responsible adult (like repeatedly calling in sick for things like a stubbed toe, or always seeming to be sick on the one day a month they’d have to do inventory, or so forth), then you should address that pattern. But otherwise, if you offer sick leave and people are using it for sickness, that’s what it’s there for. That covers the last-minute element of your question too — most sick leave, by definition, is going to be taken at the last minute, since sickness usually isn’t scheduled.

2. I don’t want to eat all my meals with my coworker when we travel together

I’m planning on traveling with a coworker (Jane) next week to an out-of-state function. We know each other pretty well and usually talk in person several times a week about both work and home life.

Jane struggles with downtime. She has to be doing something every waking minute and usually wants company while she is doing it. I am an introvert who needs my downtime after spending all day out of my element, meeting with the out of state people.

The concern is about meal times and free time in the evening. I enjoy going to a nice restaurant and eating a quiet meal but last time we traveled together I found that impossible! Every day, Jane asks what I’m doing for every meal and if it’s anything other than room service, she assumes she is going with me. It doesn’t matter if I make it at an awkward time or food that she doesn’t like, she’ll make it work. Once out, it’s an endless litany of complaints on everything from the meeting, to our mutual boss, to her kids and the weather.

How do I manage a meal in peace without resorting to room service every day? I don’t mind a few meals with venting, or several meals with some friendly chatter, but I think I’m going to wind up saying something I really shouldn’t if every meal for a week is liberally seasoned with complaints. I have tried to ask her for more positive conversation before, but that leads to a lot of tears and that’s no better. A gentle redirect never works because she can find something in anything to complain about.

She sounds exhausting.

Ideally, you’d be up-front with her at the start of the trip about your need for downtime. As you’re ending the first workday, say something like, “I’m going to head back for the hotel for a bit and then will probably grab dinner on my own. I’ve realized I need some quiet alone time at the end of workdays when I travel or I can’t unwind. But want to meet in the lobby tomorrow morning at 8:30 and head to the work site together?”

Alternately, you could say a version of that to her earlier — like, “Hey, I know last time we traveled together we had meals together every day, and I wanted to give you a heads-up I’ll probably fend for myself for meals most of the time on this trip. I’ve realized I need…” (Insert the language from above.)

But if you’re willing to have one meal with her, that’s a nice thing to offer.

3. Can you try to renegotiate an offer you’ve already accepted if you get a better one?

This is a situation that an acquaintance of mine ran into. He is graduating, and accepted a job at somewhat below market rate because he had been searching for a while and was worried about not being able to find anything. He then continued interviewing elsewhere. A few weeks later, he’s gotten an offer elsewhere for 30{986d44274747a5c76dc1672921bbe0dd933450491f05a8d42739aa242512160b} more, which it sounds like he’s already accepted (they’re talking start dates, at least).

He thinks he should go back to the first company and ask them to match salary on the new offer.

I think that he should email the first company apologizing profusely, letting them know that an opportunity “fell into his lap” and he couldn’t say no, but make it very clear that he understands what an inconvenience this is and he’s very sorry, and make no suggestion of matching salary (especially when he’s already accepted the other offer! especially when it’s a 30{986d44274747a5c76dc1672921bbe0dd933450491f05a8d42739aa242512160b} difference!)

Am I off-base in thinking this would be really unprofessional? We’re in a smaller city, and the industry has a lot of job-hopping, so the chances of running into someone associated with the first company later in your career seem pretty high.

Nooooooo. You are right and he is wrong. Assuming he has indeed already accepted the first offer, it would look incredibly bad to go back and say, “No, wait, actually I want 30{986d44274747a5c76dc1672921bbe0dd933450491f05a8d42739aa242512160b} more.” He’s already made a commitment to them based on the first salary, and he will look like he’s operating in really bad faith if he tries to reopen negotiations. It is very, very likely that they’ll tell him to take the other offer and will consider him an ass and the bridge burnt. (That’s especially true because it’s 30{986d44274747a5c76dc1672921bbe0dd933450491f05a8d42739aa242512160b} more, but it would be true regardless.)

Maybe ask him what he’d think if they came back to him and said, “Sorry, but we found someone else we like who will do the job for less, so we want to lower the salary we’re offering you.”

I’d actually tweak your suggested approach a little — I do think it’s okay for him to explain that the other salary is so much higher that he can’t turn down the opportunity, because that will give context for his reneging that will make it make more sense. But he shouldn’t do that with the intent of hoping they’ll match it — it’s helpful context only. Other than that, I think your advice is perfect.

4. Responding when a coworker apologizes for a mistake

What is the best way to respond when a colleague dropped the ball and apologized, without being a pushover? I received a brief apology email this morning, and I don’t want to completely absolve the person for a mistake that shouldn’t be occurring for someone at her level. I tend to be a pushover in these situations and say things like, “Oh no problem!” or “Hey it happens!” when it really isn’t. But I also don’t want to over-correct and turn my response into a disproportionate reprimand.

You’re not this person’s manager, right, just a colleague? The first time it happens, I’d go with one of those responses you don’t like — like “I understand, stuff happens!” or “No worries!” — because it’s not about you absolving them (and since you’re not their manager, that’s not really your place anyway), just about you being kind to a fellow human. But if it’s a pattern, those responses can signal it’s not a big deal when it in fact is. So in that case, I’d go with “Thanks, I appreciate it” or something else that acknowledges their message without characterizing the situation in any way. And in some cases, it would be appropriate to say, “Thanks, I appreciate it! I know this has happened a few times — could we talk about how we might be able to set things up differently so it doesn’t keep happening?”

5. How much insider knowledge can I use in an interview?

I have a job interview coming up at a local non-profit that I’m very excited about – I’ve wanted to work for this organization for a long time! The thing is, my mom has worked for this company for many years. Her department has nothing to do with the role I’m applying for – I wouldn’t even be in the same building as her – and I’ve been up-front about the fact that I have family working for the company already. My concern is that I have much more of an intimate understanding of the organization than I’ve ever had when applying for a position before. I know a number of the employees socially; I’ve been privy to quite a bit of gossip, venting, and the kind of day-to-day discussion of company goings-on that would not ordinarily be public information; and I’ve even lent a hand on occasion as sort of an informal volunteer.

On the one hand, this is great. I have a solid grasp of what it’s like to work there, good and bad. But how familiar would it be okay to come across as in the interview? It’d be disingenuous at best to pretend to know only as much as any other interviewee, and there’s some things I know that definitely skirt the edge of confidentiality, which I should obviously steer clear of bringing up! But in between those extremes, I’m a little lost. Can I ask questions about concerns I probably wouldn’t have without the background knowledge I have? Can I bring up sort of internal but not confidential things I’m aware of — ongoing development of new programs, for instance?

It’s an organization that has some unique challenges for employees to overcome, and I want to highlight that I really do know what I’m in for, and that I’m thinking seriously about how my skills connect with the needs of the company, but I’m worried about coming off as presumptuous or overly familiar.

I’d err on the side of leaving all that stuff out. At most, you could ask a couple of questions about new programs that you know about through your connections, but I wouldn’t get into other insider information. Largely that’s because you don’t know what biases and agendas your contacts might have, and there’s a real danger of coming across as (a) thinking you have more of an insider vantage point than you really do and (b) having a biased perspective because of the biases of your contacts. If I’m hiring an external person, I really don’t want them coming in already having allegiances and pre-formed opinions about internal politics and goings-on. I want them to come in without biases and form their own opinions. That stuff could end up being a negative for your candidacy rather than a positive, especially if you appear to be putting a lot of stock in it.

However, you can let the info you have inform your thinking and the kinds of questions you ask. For example, if you’ve heard a lot of complaining about work-life balance, you can ask about typical hours and workload and so forth. Or if you know there’s been high turnover in the position you’re interviewing for, you can ask about that and how that’s affected things. And if there’s something you’ve heard that really concerns you, and where you wouldn’t take the job without first asking about it, you can always raise that at the offer stage, once they’ve already decided they want to hire you.

But in general, err on the side of not assuming familiarity and coming in determined to form your opinions.

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