boss says we can’t share our lunches, employee fell for a scam, and more — Ask a Manager

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

1. Our boss told us we can’t share lunches with each other

I have been having lunch with some of my coworkers for over four years. Sometimes we bring food and share it among us. Last month, my boss told me and everyone else that we had lunch with that we can no longer share our food with each other. Apparently, someone who does not eat with us complained about us having lunch together and sharing our meals with each other. My boss said that it was favoritism because we were not inviting everyone else in the department to eat with us and share our food with them. So basically, we can’t bring our own food and share it with my closest friends at work because we are showing favoritism by not inviting the whole department to eat with and not sharing our food with them.

That is ridiculous. You are adults, not children, and you should be able to share your food with whoever you damn well want.

Obviously, if you were ostentatiously making a point of excluding one particular person, that would be jerkish and your boss should tell you to stop being an ass. But a small group of coworkers sharing lunch is not a big deal, and your boss appears to believe he’s running a kindergarten.

I don’t know if it’s a battle you feel like fighting or not, but you’d be on solid ground in saying, “This is our lunch break, when we’re on our own time. We’re not trying to be exclusionary, but we’re all adults here and we think it’s up to us who we share our own food with.”

Otherwise, you might consider leaving the office for your lunches.

2. My employee fell for a scam

I run a small retail business and while I was out this afternoon, someone came in and scammed one of my employees into giving him $300 in cash from the register. He told my employee that I was buying some furniture from him and we had spoken about, so she handed him the cash, then realized what she’d done and called me.

How do I proceed from here? I know that confidence tricksters are professionals, but handing over $300 without checking with the boss — I’m good at telling my team when changes are happening and would never ask anyone other than me to pay someone — seems like a big lapse in judgment. That is not an insignificant sum to the business — it’s an average day’s takings.

Any advice on how to handle this with this employee would be appreciated.

The business should cover the expense, just like you would if she made a totally different type of error in her work that cost you money. Absorbing the cost of errors is part of the cost of doing business. You shouldn’t ask an employee to pay for something that happened while they were performing their job in good faith.

But take this as impetus to train all your staff on spotting scams and handling similar situations that could come up in the future.

3. How can we be fair without being rigid?

I’m involved in a formal business coaching agreement with a husband and wife team that own a business near mine. They also happen to be close personal friends, so I know quite a bit about the business, and THEIR business. The business they own is a national franchise of a home services trade.

The question in front of us right now is: how do we accommodate the technicians (employees, not independent contractors) who need flexibility in start times due to circumstances beyond their control, while still maintaining standards and a sense of fairness among all the employees (particularly the other technicians)? Some are single parents, some of them have children whose schools have different start times, sometimes all of them are dealing with the variable of which schools are open in-person and which ones have closed due to exposure or quarantine-style restrictions? (Meaning, the need for flexibility exists for each individual tech, not just from tech to tech.) Explicitly, 7:45 am is considered “on time,” but one or two cannot arrive before 8:30 am without serious disruption to their family obligations. How can they enforce rules around tardiness, provide the needed flexibility, and still maintain a sense of fairness?

Four general principles:

* Strive to give people the maximum amount of flexibility you can without harm to the business’s operations. Stay away from rules that exist for rules’ sake.

* Spend some time figuring out where you can and can’t be flexible. Maybe start times aren’t a big deal. Maybe they are. Maybe you can accommodate a couple of people coming in late, but not everyone doing that. Figure out where the lines are, and communicate them openly and directly with your team. If there are some things you definitely can’t accommodate or can’t accommodate more than rarely, be up-front about those.

* If someone’s flexibility means that other employees get stuck with more work or less desirable work, make sure you recognize that in tangible ways (like money, extra time off, accommodating other things that are important to that person, or whatever makes sense for the context).

* Make sure that your flexibility isn’t limited to parents; non-parents generally have obligations in their lives that also matter. Make sure you don’t set up a parent/non-parent divide on your team. At the same time, though, the reality is that parents are operating under a uniquely crappy set of circumstances right now, and it’s okay to recognize that as long as you’re not ignoring non-parents’ realities too.

4. Should I mention I’m trans when interviewing?

After many years with my employer, I’ve decided to look for another situation. I am a management professional in a progressive city in a progressive region—which is great because I am transgender, and job hunting as a trans person is beyond stressful in any area. I’m very fortunate that I am far enough along in my transition that I’m clocked reliably as male 100% of the time. It would never come up in conversation with coworkers if I didn’t make a point to be open about it. Which I am. I have gotten reasonably deft at finding appropriate ways to disclose this information at what I consider to be the right time depending on the person.

Should I tell prospective employers that I am transgender during the application phase? My partner thinks I should because it could be an advantage to my prospects due to interest in hiring diversity. I don’t think it is appropriate—it’s not relevant to my profession, and as a hiring manager, I find it problematic when someone discloses a protected status before they’ve been hired (after all, one may never know why they didn’t get the job). Also, I already feel uncomfortable with the obvious male privilege I am afforded on a daily basis. I don’t feel right trying to game the system further.

I could find a way to work this information into an interview as a “gauging the culture” question. Should I?

Legally, employers can’t consider it (even in your favor) when deciding whether or not to hire you. In reality, though, employers consider illegal factors all the time, consciously or not. And given that trans people face discrimination more often than they face positive bias in hiring, it’s at least as likely to hurt you as to help you.

But there’s potentially value in that, if it helps you screen out bigoted employers. If you have the luxury of being at least somewhat choosy in your search, it can make a lot of sense to mention things that will help you screen out places you wouldn’t want to work. Doing it via a question about culture is a good approach so it doesn’t seem randomly shoehorned into the conversation.

5. Applying after withdrawing past applications

How many times can you continue to apply at a company after withdrawing previous applications? I’ve applied to the same company twice in the past couple of years, then I withdrew my application each time after they offered me an interview. The first time I had already accepted another job offer and I was honest about this via email; the second time I decided to stay at my then-current job, so over the phone I gave an excuse about my circumstances changing.

Now I have left my most recent job, that same company is advertising again, and I’m interested. But I’m also applying elsewhere, and if I keep withdrawing my application, I’m worried I’ll become like Ben Wyatt in Parks and Recreation, repeatedly letting down the accounting firm.

So, what’s the etiquette? Am I fine to keep applying to this company? Or should I start to approach this situation with more caution, in case they form a view of me as an unreliable candidate?

You’re fine applying again. The first withdrawal barely counts — there’s nothing flaky about having already accepted another job by the time they contacted you. The second time wouldn’t be remarkable on its own either; it’s only the fact that it’s the second time that could make it more of a thing of interest.

Go ahead and apply again if you want, as long as you’re sure you’d go to an interview if it’s offered (assuming, of course, that you haven’t already accepted a different job in the meantime; there’s no controlling for that).

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