giving a reference when you have a moral objection to the employer, what a closed door means, and more

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

1. Giving a reference when you have a moral objection to the employer

I have a former employee who is fantastic, and I’m always happy to act as a reference for her. She just applied for a position with a company that has a pretty controversial history, and while I’m still obviously going to give her the glowing reference she deserves, I feel kind of gross about it. The company isn’t one that’s 100% morally reprehensible; it doesn’t promote infringement of human rights or anything, but its whole mission and especially its tactics are things I absolutely disagree with.

Is there ever a situation where if someone applied to a job that seriously conflicted with your morals, you’d consider having a conversation with them about why they’re applying there before giving a reference? If it was something like Stormfront (obviously taking it to an extreme position), would the expectation still be that you should unequivocally give a positive reference?

This is more of a hypothetical question at this point since I’m of course going to give her a very positive reference.

I agree there are organizations that are so bad that it would be worth talking with the person — and some where I wouldn’t give a reference at all. I wouldn’t give a reference for someone wanting to work with Stormfront, for example! (And would explain to the person that I couldn’t in good conscience do something that assisted someone in doing that work.) But when it’s just a matter of different opinions, I think it’s different — for example, I strongly support ending drug prohibition but would still give a reference for someone applying at the DEA. Or to work on the campaign of a politician I disagreed with. So I guess my line would be groups that engage in open bigotry.

Re: whether you should try to talk with the person before giving the reference — if it’s just a group that you have political differences with, I’d say you shouldn’t. They undoubtedly already know some people disagree and it’s not your place as a reference to have that conversation. (I wouldn’t want my references trying to dissuade me from working for, say, reproductive freedom, and it would seem really out of line.)

2. Does a closed office door mean “do not disturb” or am I being too rigid?

I’m in a senior-level position at my organization and have been in the workforce for 10+ years, but because I am usually remote or in the field this is my first time having a private office. The culture of our office is collegial and doors largely stay open; when they are closed, it is because someone is on a conference call or needs privacy. A small minority of people work with their doors mostly closed, but it is a consistent few.

As someone whose door is closed very, very rarely (once every two weeks or so), I’ve been baffled at the number of colleagues who consistently knock to come in and just chat, or to show me something online, or ask about incredibly non-urgent issues. I think I’ll be okay delivering a cheerful “when my door is closed, I prefer privacy” script, but truthfully, this makes me infuriated (it does not show). My question is, am I out of line for feeling annoyed at these multiple silly interruptions, or do closed doors generally convey “privacy please” and my colleagues are being a bit clueless?

It depends on the office culture! There are offices where a closed door just means “knock before you enter” rather than “please don’t interrupt.” And since you’e having multiple coworkers interpret it as the former, I’m guessing that’s the culture of your office.

I’d change your script just a bit. Instead of saying that when your door is closed, “I’d prefer privacy,” I’d change it to “I’d rather not be interrupted unless it’s urgent.” I don’t think it’s really about “privacy” (which sounds like you might be changing clothes or talking to a significant other or so forth); it’s about whether you’re interruptible.

3. My employee thinks we’re all family

I’ve seen your writing on why “we’re all family here” is a red flag when companies use it, and I’m wondering what to do when employees act that way. I have a direct, Lysa, who has made comments like “I’m everyone’s mother” and “I was always the peacekeeper growing up and that’s what I do here.”

For lack of a better way to put it, she wants everyone to be okay. When decisions get made, she wants everyone to feel good about all of them — which is different than committing to them — and will try to extend discussions to get to that point. And that’s not always a relevant question, and those discussions can drag on forever if there isn’t a meeting organizer there to step in. I’m concerned that she’s far more personally invested in all of us than we are in her (and we like her!) and she’s setting herself up for constant disappointment because I think she expects us to be invested in her like family and we’re just … not.

Lysa and I have regular one-on-ones. I need to raise this issue and most of that discussion will be around specific behaviors, but I don’t have the words to explain the problem with the family mindset. Can you help?

I don’t know that you need to or that you should! It’s really the specific behaviors that you should focus on (as you’re already planning to do), and you probably don’t need to get into the “we’re like family” stuff in order to address that. In fact, it could come across as overly heavy-handed.

However, if she’s saying that stuff around junior staff (and thus is potentially messing with their professional norms) or if she’s a manager herself (and thus could be doing that weird, highly problematic guilt-tripping of employees that often accompanies the phrase), then yes, I do think you’ve got to say something. In that case, you could say, “You’ve made some comments about work being a family or you being people’s mom, but I think that’s the wrong mindset to have. We can and do have warm, supportive relationships with each other, and can genuinely care about each other, but we don’t have the dynamics of a family here and that’s intentional. People here have different levels of power and decision-making ability, and we don’t — and can’t — operate by consensus. We’re going to sometimes make decisions that not everyone agrees with. We may at times have to let people go. We’re a team — a team that hopefully likes woking together — but not a family.” If she manages people, I’d add, “It’s important not to use that ‘family’ paradigm with your staff in particular, so you maintain good boundaries with them and they feel comfortable advocating for themselves in a way they might not with ‘family.’”

4. My boss keeps emailing my personal email account

In the grand scheme of things, I know this is a minor issue but it’s driving me nuts! In the last few months, my boss has started sending emails to my personal email address instead of my business account. I can only guess that at some point I accidentally emailed him from it on my phone and now it’s become his default. I’ve mentioned it now on two or three occasions and asked that he use my organizational account, but he keeps sending emails to the wrong place. It’s particularly frustrating because on several occasions he has copied me on responses to people outside of our office to direct them to me in as point-of-contact, which just confuses things that much more. How should I address this? Or should I even bother?

Yes, ask him again! This time explain that you’re missing important work emails from him and ask him to remove your personal address from his email program (which has no doubt hung on to it and now is auto-populating when he types your name). If he doesn’t know who to do that, offer to show him.

If that doesn’t solve it, try setting up a rule in your personal email that will automatically forward anything from him to your work address.

5. How do I give awkward feedback to a client?

As a sideline to our main business, our company rents out some space to clients, and I handle the rental bookings. I’m new to the company, and the previous person who handled the bookings has left.

We recently had a less-than-stellar rental client, who left a mess in the space and stayed long past their agreed-upon departure time. Per my boss’s direction, I left them pleasant but understated client feedback comments and a middling rating.

They’ve now requested to return, and the person I’m liaising with (who is in a support position at her organization) has asked if there’s anything they can do to be better guests. My boss suggested that I hint at the issue by saying that we’ve equipped the space with bigger garbage cans. That strikes me as very passive-aggressive, and I’m inclined to say something more straightforward and direct. My boss has given her blessing for me to handle this however I want, but I don’t want to overstep and lose this client’s business. What’s the appropriate level of direct to be with a client? Can you help?

Your boss’s suggestion is awfully indirect! It’s just clear enough to (probably) get the meaning across, but it approaches the topic so delicately that it’s likely to come across strangely.

It should be fine to simply say, “Thanks for asking! We do have two requests. On your last visit, food and trash was left behind and we’d ask that on future visits you clean up before you leave (we have a couple of big garbage cans we’ll put in the space for you). We’d also need you to vacate the space no later than 3 p.m.; last time our contract went until 3 but people were still in the space until 6.”

This is especially true since your contact there specifically asked what they can do to be better guests! But it would be true even if she hadn’t.

giving a reference when you have a moral objection to the employer, what a closed door means, and more was originally published by Alison Green on Ask a Manager.

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