explaining a shaved head, missing work conversations because I don’t smoke, and more — Ask a Manager

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

1. How do I explain shaving my head to my coworkers?

I’m a late 20s woman who has been dealing with genetic hair loss (female pattern baldness) for over 10 years now. It’s at the point where I’m over getting anxious every time the wind blows or stressing about styling my hair to hide it. I’m going to shave it all off tonight.

However, I’m pretty sure no one at work has really noticed, and I know as a woman it’s always a big deal when you turn up bald. Do you have any advice for how to approach questions and comments without being too rude or specific? I’m dreading being asked if I’m raising money for something.

P.S. I’m so happy baldness is becoming a more and more chill thing for men to talk about, but I’m shitty it is still so so stigmatised for women.

Are you comfortable saying, “It’s just a style choice!” Or even just a cheery, “Yep, shaved it off!” People aren’t entitled to know more than that and if you make it clear you chose to do it, anyone even moderately polite should accept that.

You might get some questions from people who are simply curious about it (a lot of women will find it fascinating and have questions, which will be more about their relationship with their own hair than with yours) but if you don’t want to get into it, it’s fine to say, “Oh, I’d love not to talk about it since half my reason for doing it was not to think about it anymore — thanks for understanding.”

2. Is my manager overreacting to small mistakes?

I started my first corporate job six months ago, but I had 15 years of work experience prior to my current role. My boss told me he was unhappy with three mistakes I made in weekly reports I sent to him. Over six months: I incorrectly totaled one column in Excel, I duplicated a tab in one report, and once I used the wrong colored text for a field. None of these mistakes had any business impact and I promptly corrected them when he pointed out the issues. I think this was a reasonable number of mistakes in my first six months.

My performance review and ranking were very bad. The review stated I have “poor attention to detail” and required me to make a plan to improve my performance. I’m stunned because I haven’t made any errors since November. Is this a normal thing for corporate jobs? The HR specialist said she’s giving me six months to improve my attention detail, citing those three reports. There are no other examples of having poor attention to detail in the review. I have met all internal and external deadlines and my work has received good reviews from the other managers. This one manager is known to be particular but he is high up in the company.

Unless there’s really important context missing (like you were asked to fix the mistakes but then you finalized the report without bothering to change anything), this is not normal. This sounds like a routine, unalarming number of minor mistakes made during your first months on the job — and it’s particularly weird that it’s being brought up months later.

Instead of making a plan to improve your performance, I would make a plan to get away from this manager.

3. I’m missing out on work conversations because I don’t smoke

I work for a government department through a contracted agency. There are 50 of us working varied days and hours. No one is allowed to smoke on grounds, so a designated smoking location is by the parking lot. Several members of my department schedule their smoke breaks at the same time every day, making a rather large group from the department.

One of my directors, “John,” joins staff on these scheduled breaks. During these breaks, department information is shared and discussion of department scheduling and staffing decisions/options take place. John has spoken to one of my coworkers, “Jane,” who I work most directly about possible workload decisions. Jane and I work very well together, and to her credit she does share conversations with me and I am aware that my input is also passed on to John during these breaks.

I am a non-smoker. I do not want to join a group of smokers as the non-smoker so I can be part of the “department.” I do have health issues that would be compromised and I do not feel the need to participate in everything involved in a smoke break (going out to the parking lot, weather concerns, my own scheduling, signing in and out for building clearances, etc.).

John has been there as long as I have. I often feel he was promoted beyond his competence, or possibly unprepared for the management role within the department, and has difficulty managing staff who were his former coworkers and remain his friends.I guess I would not have a problem with a smoke break that happened to be at the same time as some of the staff and it happened infrequently. Is there an issue with any of this or do I let it go and not let it bother me?

You’re right to be bothered by it. It’s fine for John to take his smoke break with other smokers, but he should make a point not to have significant work conversations there. He’s putting you at a disadvantage because you don’t smoke and don’t want to be around smoke.

What’s your relationship with John like and how reasonable is he? Ideally you’d talk to him, say you’re missing out on important work conversations that you’d like to be part of, and ask if hold those conversations back in the office instead. Whether or not he’ll be amenable to that is a question — but he should be, and it’s a reasonable thing for you to raise.

Another option if you need it: any chance Jane would be willing to make the same point whenever the work conversations start up out there?

4. Who pays for a travel mistake that’s partly my fault, partly my employer’s?

I went on a work trip to another state, and HR booked my tickets. I asked in advance to return three days later than other colleagues, as I have a good friend in the state we travelled to. I travel there a few times a year and work has always approved this arrangement as long as I cover costs for the additional nights and the date change doesn’t result in a substantial price change. Being out of the office the following three days doesn’t have an impact because I work remotely on any weekdays and we have a hybrid policy, so I wouldn’t be in the office anyway. The extra days make the trip more manageable for me, because otherwise HR books our flights on the same day as our meetings, resulting in long days (think a full day of meetings on the final day, a work dinner, and flight arriving home at 2 am — we’re generally expected to log on a couple of hours later the next day if we choose, but still work a full day unless taking annual leave).

This time, HR booked my flights with the return on the same day as everyone else. They sent me the tickets, but only a few days beforehand when we were all crazy busy preparing for this trip. I didn’t notice the return date was different than I wanted until my intended return date — when I realized the flight had been booked for three days earlier, along with everyone else’s, and had to get a last-minute ticket to get myself home.

I’m happy to suck up the cost and chalk it up to experience, but would I be totally off-base if I did ask my employer if they’d consider contributing toward the new ticket I needed to buy? I admit I’m responsible for not noticing the different date, but I was clear about the dates I wanted in our back and forth about booking and when they forwarded my ticket they didn’t flag that they’d booked a different date to the one I requested. I can see that from their point of view, the mistake arose from them going out of their way to try to accommodate me, but it’s also not a huge accommodation since there’s no extra cost to them and if anything, this arrangement leaves me more well rested. We used to book our own flights and get reimbursed, and I know if I’d done that, I’d have been checking details more thoroughly.

Hmmm. I think you can ask, but be prepared for them to say no. Frame it as, “The ticket purchased for me was different than the dates we’d agreed to before the trip, which left me needing to buy a last-minute ticket on my own to get home. I’m hoping that’s something the company will help me cover, at least partially, since the mistake was on the booking side.” It’s not a super strong argument, and if they say no, I wouldn’t pursue it any further (since, as you point out, the mistake arose from them trying to accommodate you for something personal and they can argue it was your responsibility to check the dates), but I think you can at least raise it and see what happens.

Caveat: If this results in them not being willing to book late returns for you in the future, will you regret having raised it? If so, skip it and just check the dates religiously in the future.

5. Calling students “clients” when moving out of teaching

I’m a teacher looking to move to a different profession, and I am seeing some advice about the language to use when “translating” experience as a teacher to careers outside of education. Some of it makes sense — for instance, not using abbreviations that are often used in education but instead spelling out these things (ex. Learning Management System). Some of it, though, feels akin to bending the truth or lying — suggestions like replacing “students” with “clients” and “parents” with “stakeholders” on a resume. This feels disingenuous to me and like something a hiring manager would roll their eyes at. Does it matter one way or the other?

Yeah, do not call students “clients” or parents “stakeholders.” Hiring managers will indeed roll their eyes at it, and it will seem like you’re trying to paint the experience as something it’s not (when it’s perfectly valuable stated as exactly what it is).

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