coworkers have a mean group chat, company won’t tell us who’s been laid off, and more — Ask a Manager

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

1. Coworkers have a mean group chat about another colleague

I work adjacent to a group of mid-level managers in a customer service department. We share a similar job title, and my team supports their group (think management, training, quality, etc.).

This group of other managers can be cliquish. A group of five or six have gone on weekend trips together. Almost half in the group of 12 know someone else in the group from a previous job. I prefer to keep work and personal separate, so aside from an occasional happy hour—usually with people at my boss’s level or higher also in attendance—I keep things friendly but separate at work. There are managers who aren’t included in the cliques who feel left out sometimes, but then there is one manager, Pete.

Pete is my least favorite manager to work with and I find him off-putting (filling the screen with his face in meetings, speaking to adult interview candidates like they’re children, not being able to work without constant direction), but I honestly believe he’s completely unaware of how he’s perceived. He genuinely thinks he’s amazing and a fantastic employee.

Pete is not in the cliques, but the other managers pretend like he is. As a joke, Pete gets kudos after he presents at meetings (so poorly that the presentation had to be re-done). He’s told how cool his shirt or hair looks (when it’s 20 years out of date). He gets hyped up when he volunteers for things because he’ll be “so great at that!” (aka, they know they’ll get to watch him bumble around).

Recently I was voicing frustrations to my boss about Pete’s work on a project, and the behavior of the other managers came up in the conversation. I said something along the lines of, “I find myself at extremes with him. I’m either infuriated or I’m feeling upset on his behalf because of how he gets treated.”

My boss asked for details, and I shared what I’ve shared with you, as well as that some of the other managers have a separate chat to talk about Pete. They post pictures taken of him looking silly on Zoom meetings, laugh at what he says in chats, etc. I’m not sure if that’s the sole purpose, but it’s definitely going on. I was told about the chat a while ago, and I truly don’t remember who told me about it or whether it was on our company Slack or via group text.

My boss has taken the information to HR because, unbeknownst to Pete, it’s creating a hostile work environment. Is it a hostile work environment? Should I have gone to HR myself? I’m in agreement with going to HR, and my boss and I talked about it beforehand, but I’m curious what your take on this is.

“Hostile work environment” is a legal term that doesn’t just mean people are being hostile — it means the hostile conduct is based on race, religion, sex, national origin, age (40 or older), disability, or genetic information. Could one of those factors be in play here? If not, it’s not a hostile work environment in the legal sense — but it’s still very much one in the colloquial sense! Your coworkers are being truly horrible, and your manager is absolutely right to want to put a stop to it. Pete may be difficult to work with, but creating a whole separate chat to mock him? Complimenting him when they really mean the opposite? This is the behavior of 11-year-old bullies, and if I learned about this as their boss I’d be seriously contemplating whether I could keep any of the perpetrators on. (And these are people in management roles?! It’s prohibitive for any employee, but particularly so for managers. I’m also wondering what’s going on with their manager, who somehow doesn’t realize or doesn’t care what’s happening below her?)

Anyway, this certainly isn’t your fault but yeah, ideally you would have spoken up earlier, to your own boss or to HR, because this is so beyond the pale. It sounds like you’ve been trying to stay out of it, but when there’s targeted, systemic cruelty going on, you should speak up.

2. My boss seems annoyed by the travel schedule he agreed I could have

I took a new job (fully remote) about six months ago, and told them before I accepted that I travel six weeks a year (one to two weeks at a time). My boss agreed, saying I could do a combo of PTO and work “flexibly on my own time” (I only receive three weeks of vacation). I said multiple times by Zoom and email that I travel to other time zones and continents, and while I’ll be available by email I won’t be able to Zoom or respond immediately. He agreed completely.

Turns out, now I get a real sense that he actually doesn’t love my travel. He doesn’t say outright that I can’t travel, but he keeps bringing it up as if he is confused and seems to forget dates I’ll be gone (I have to remind him repeatedly as I see him scheduling live Zoom meetings).

Travel is a priority for me, and I took a lower pay with this job because of the promise of flexibility. If push came to shove, I’d quit this job if I can’t travel (though I like it and do good work, so don’t want to quit). Any advice on how to approach this with my boss? I don’t want to feel guilty taking time off or working flexibly/different time zones, as this is something I brought up before accepting the offer and thought we were on the same pack on.

In situations like this, I’m a big fan of naming what you’re seeing and asking about it. For example: “Before I came on board, we talked a few times about the fact that I travel six weeks a year and would sometimes be in other time zones or unavailable to respond immediately. Since I’ve been here, though, I’ve been getting the sense that the arrangement isn’t working for you. Is there something you want me doing differently?”

The danger in just bluntly asking something like this is that it could prompt your boss to say, “Yeah, this isn’t working.” And if you needed to keep the job at all costs, this might not be the approach to take. But otherwise — and particularly when you’re willing to walk away from the job over it — it’s generally useful to bring this kind of simmering issue right up to the surface so you can hash it out and figure out if the set-up can work for both of you or not. Maybe it can’t! But maybe there are tweaks you could make that would solve most of the problem (or maybe simply talking it through will remind him of what he agreed to, or so forth).

my boss is annoyed by the flexible schedule she already agreed to

3. My company announces employees’ babies … but skipped mine

My company handles employees’ new babies the same way for everyone: after a baby is born, and whenever the parents have time to send pictures (usually 1-2 weeks after the baby is born), an announcement is placed on the intranet and included in a weekly company announcement email. The announcements are all pretty brief and uniform — “Valentina and her family welcomed baby Winifred on March 2nd. Mom and baby are doing well!” plus a few pictures.

I had my second baby in July. He was born with a birth defect that required surgery when he was two days old. He then spent 18 days in the NICU recovering. Fortunately, he is now doing great!

A few days after I gave birth, an HR person reached out to ask if everything had gone okay with filing for short-term disability. She also asked if I had any pictures they could include in the announcement. I emailed back that we were in the NICU, and I would appreciate them holding the announcement until we were home. I never heard back, which I chalked up to her wanting to give me space during a difficult time.

When my son came home, I emailed the HR person to let her know that we were home. I shared that I’d love to have an announcement made about my son’s birth. I sent a few pictures and even drafted the exact wording of the announcement, since I figured she wouldn’t know whether or not I wanted the NICU information included. (The announcement was super brief, didn’t include mention of the NICU, and followed the announcement formula I shared above. I just didn’t address the fact that there were a few weeks in between when I had the baby and when the announcement was being made.) I never heard back, but I was on maternity leave and not thinking much about work, so I let it go.

When I got back to work, I realized that the announcement never got made. I work remotely, so there wasn’t a big “she’s back from maternity leave! How’s the baby?” type moment. As I continued seeing people on Zoom meetings post-leave, it was clear that some of them noted the lack of announcement and were not sure if/how to ask about my baby. This has contributed to a weird lack of acknowledgment at work around my baby — it’s extremely different from the way people asked about my older son when I came back from my first maternity leave, and from how other people’s babies get asked about and discussed at work.

It’s been many months now, and the lack of announcement was presumably just an oversight, possibly coupled with some HR confusion or discomfort around the NICU situation. I keep thinking I should just let this go, but every time another new birth announcement comes up, it makes me really sad. My son is super cute, and I want to show people pictures! And while his first few weeks were tumultuous, his birth was a joyous occasion, and deserves to be acknowledged and celebrated like any other birth.

Given that my son is now seven months old and I’ve been back at work for four months … is it too late to address this with the HR person who coordinates these announcements? I’m almost certainly making this a bigger deal than it needs to be because it taps into a lot of feelings I have about my son’s birth and things going so differently than expected in so many ways … so I would appreciate an impartial person weighing in here.

It’s not too late! Contact the person and be direct: “I’m sure it was an oversight, but Henry’s birth never got announced on the intranet or in the weekly announcements email. I’ve been getting the sense that, because it hasn’t been announced, people aren’t sure if they can ask me about him or if he’s okay. I know it’s late, but could we send out the announcement now? I’d like to clear up the confusion, and it would mean a lot to me to announce him now.”

4. My company won’t tell us who’s been laid off

I’m in a large tech company that has gone through several rounds of layoffs. After every round, it’s always been a difficult scramble to figure out who has been impacted and who hasn’t, with most updates happening through word of mouth, crowdsourced documents by those who are left, or just pinging someone directly and getting an error message. It’s frustrating, severely hinders our productivity, and it’s honestly upsetting!

Leadership at many levels has been asked if we could get a list of those impacted (even just within our department), but the response is typically that it’s a personal matter and it’s not the company’s news to share out of respect for those individuals. My teammates and I are having trouble taking this at face value. Many of us have been impacted in previous rounds and will be officially laid off in a few months, the only way we found out who else was in the same boat is through a voluntary crowdsourced document.

Is there a legal or practical reason the company can’t share an internal list of who has been laid off? I think this is standard practice, but I’m having trouble understanding the logic behind it.

No, they’re being ridiculous. There’s no legal or practical reason they can’t share a list of who’s been laid off, and there are all sorts of practical reasons why they should — like so that you know if a contact you’re relying on is no longer there, if work needs to be reassigned, if that request you sent to Bob last week is never going to be answered, and on and on.

The idea that it’s not their news to share out of “respect” for the people laid off is silly. It’s their news to share because it has direct and significant impact on your workflows, projects, and productivity. And it’s not disrespectful to share staffing changes; if anything, it’s disrespectful to those of you remaining to leave you to piece it together on your own.

our office won’t tell us in advance when people leave – and sometimes won’t confirm or deny if someone still works here

5. What to say when you quit your job to start freelancing

This seems silly to ask, but I’ve never done it before, and I think getting in my own head is tripping me up. I have a lot of freelance work at the moment and am considering leaving my job to take on more. But I keep getting stuck on how to quit. My boss is lovely and knows I’ve not been happy in the role lately, so I don’t think she’ll be 100% shocked, but I’ve also assured her things are fine now (they’re not, but I’m managing).

I’ve never quit a job without a very specific reason to leave before, so that’s part of the problem. How do I give two weeks notice when I don’t have a job I’m about to leave for? It feels wrong that I told my boss things were better when I am frantically looking for a way out the door.

It’s not wrong that you told your boss things were better but now have decided to leave. You’re allowed to change your mind, and it’s not uncommon for people’s thinking to evolve and to feel for a while that a situation is manageable and then decide at some point that it’s not. (Or if you’re feeling guilty because you never felt the situation was manageable and you’ve been working on getting out this whole time … well, that’s how employment goes sometimes. It’s often smarter not to tell the person who controls your paycheck that you’re working on leaving until you’re actually ready to do it. If your boss is as lovely as you say, at some level she’ll realize that the power dynamics inherent in your relationship mean that total transparency isn’t a reasonable thing for a manager to expect.)

When you leave, you could say it this way: “I really appreciate the ways you’ve tried to make this work. I’ve realized I’m ready to move on to something new and my last day will be (date).” She’ll probably ask where you’re going and it’s fine to say you’re going to move to full-time freelancing. Because that means you have more control over your ending date than if you were going to a new company, she might ask if you’ll give longer notice, but — assuming you don’t want to do that — it’s fine to say, “Unfortunately, I can’t without losing projects that I’ll need to start right after that.”

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