lunch meetings when I can’t eat, I’ve fired my new employee before, and more — Ask a Manager

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

1. Lunch meetings when I can’t eat

I’m about to enter an industry that encourages people to communicate with each other, especially through the grand event of “let’s have lunch.” My biggest secret is that I have a rare lifelong eating disorder that makes it very hard to eat with people. When I usually have lunch with people, I’d rather sip on some coffee and still be engaged in the conversation. Knowing that buying someone lunch is a way to show kindness, especially between professionals, I am not ready for this. The worst case scenario is for the other party to think they are doing a very kind service of ordering something for me. Insisting that I eat when I am not in the right space can be insanely triggering and can lead to me having an emotional breakdown. These “rules” do have exceptions, however. For example, I am more likely able to eat breakfast than lunch and dinner.

Having a lunch meeting is inevitable. How can I still participate in lunch conversations without having to eat nor explain my condition?

If these meals are with groups, this will be easier to navigate; people won’t be as focused on what you’re eating or not eating and you can likely get away with just coffee and something small that you push around on the plate (if you’re comfortable with that). But in a one-on-one meeting, it can feel pretty awkward to be the only person eating and it’s more likely to become A Thing. So for any meetings that will just be you and one other person, suggest breakfast or coffee. People are often glad for the opportunity to change things up (and both of those can be shorter than lunch, which people often appreciate). But if someone is really pushing lunch, try saying, “I’ve got some food restrictions that make it hard to order off most menus, but I’m happy to just have coffee if you want to do lunch.” (Then it’s up to them if they want to be the sole eater.)

It’s unlikely that someone will order something for you (that’s not something people normally do in business situations, especially if you’ve already said you have food restrictions) but if someone does, jump in with, “Thanks for offering but I hate to waste food, so I’ll stick with coffee.” Typically when someone pushes food in a context like this, they’re worried about you not having what you need or that you’re unhappy/being deprived, so the more you can be breezy and cheerful about it, the better: “Oh, I’m used to it, I don’t mind at all!” — “Any time I have coffee is a win for me!” — “Nah, I’m used to it and it doesn’t bother me at all. So tell me about Work Topic X!”

2. I’ve fired my new employee before

I recently took a job in my same industry and city. In my new role, I’ll have a team of eight reporting to me in various capacities and functions. During the interview process, I got a brief read-out of the team and a high level talent assessment. Nothing stood out as an issue. On my first day, I met the team reporting to me. One of the people on the team is someone that worked for me before and who I terminated for cause due to performance at my previous job.

What do I communicate to my new manager and/or HR about this situation? It feels weird to say nothing because ultimately, this could be a management issue — I’m sure this employee doesn’t feel great about the situation. On the other hand, I don’t want to risk harming this person’s reputation at this company if they are doing a good job so far. This person is pretty new here, too, and my impression is they are either doing a better job in this role or management has not yet identified an issue with their performance.

Have you talked to the employee yet? That’s important because they are undoubtedly really uncomfortable, if not outright panicking. Ideally you’d tell them that you’re happy to be working with them again, you’ve heard good things about the work they’ve been doing (if that’s true), and while you know your last time working together didn’t go the way either of you wanted, this is a different situation and, as far you’re concerned, both of you are starting fresh.

I do think you’re right that you need to mention it to your own manager or HR. It sucks because this person is entitled to a fresh start without the firing following them to a different job, but I’d be pretty concerned if I found out someone I managed didn’t share something so potentially relevant with me. It’s relevant not as a predictor of the person’s work now but because it could affect the dynamic between the two of you, and either of you could struggle not to interpret things through that old lens. I’d keep it very brief — “I managed Jane at an old job and unfortunately the fit wasn’t right and we ended up parting ways. I’m very willing to start fresh with her and I’m hopeful the role she’s in could be a great a match, but I figured you’d want to be aware of the prior work relationship.” Also, if it’s been a while since you worked together, stress that too.

3. Visible nipple piercings at work

I work in healthcare, and one of our front desk staff has nipple piercings that are easily visible through her shirt (to the degree that it is obvious what type of jewelry she is wearing).

Although I am generally firmly in the camp of “your underwear (/piercings) are your own business,” is it appropriate to ask her to conceal her piercings more effectively? If so, how does one have that conversation?

Maybe it’s because my brain is completely burned out after Wednesday’s speed round (in which I answered 76 QUESTIONS IN TWO HOURS and may never recover) but I’m honestly not sure where I stand on this. I can come up with a bunch of justifications for saying you can’t have distracting piercings at work (no matter where they are) and I can come up with a bunch of reasons why you should leave it alone. In general, my bias is to err on the side of giving people maximum freedom unless you have a good reason not to, but that doesn’t always work when you’re dealing with front desk staff who are the face of your business. If you had a “no visible non-ear piercings” policy, that would cover this — but I don’t want you to implement that policy just to deal with this since it would ban other piercings that you might otherwise have been fine with.

Ultimately, I think the right answer is that you can/should address it, but I can’t seem to get myself all the way there … and I’m sure it’s because I’m so tired of people having opinions about how women’s breasts show up at work … even though I know this is different from those situations. Thoughts from others?

(It’s also an interesting thought exercise to think about how you’d handle this if it were a highly visible Prince Albert piercing on a man.)

4. Can I use a second job offer to get more money after I’ve already accepted a different offer?

Last year, I (unsuccessfully) attempted to negotiate my existing contract with my employer of five years as it was no longer working for me and my family. My boss listened to my concerns, but I was told that our industry was hurting from COVID and the changes I was seeking were not possible then. A week later, I was furloughed for several months. At the end of my furlough, my employer let me know my job was still available to me, but my contract would remain unchanged. I had a job offer in a new role in the same industry, which I accepted, and told my employer I would not be coming back. We parted on good terms.

After six months at my new job, I realized this new role was not for me. After a chance encounter with my former employer’s biggest competitor, I was offered my old role at this new company, with all the terms I was previously seeking. I accepted the position and have a start date in the coming weeks.

My industry is small, and this morning my former manager reached out to me saying that he heard I’m going to this new company and was upset I didn’t reach out to him about moving back into my old role. He mentioned that they are expanding their workforce, and asked if I would be open to talking about changes that have been implemented there and what it would take to have me return! I accepted the meeting but have no intention of returning there regardless of how good the offer is. My intention was to see what they offer and then go to my new job, tell them my old employer made an unsolicited offer, and see if they can offer me a signing bonus. In my industry, signing bonuses are very common. I was not offered one with my initial offer, but I know they have offered them in the past to try and entice people to join their company.

Is this acceptable practice, or does this have the potential of blowing up in my face? I’ve never been in this position before, and I figure it doesn’t hurt to ask, right?

No, it could hurt to ask. You’ve accepted their offer, and you’d basically be going back to them and saying, “I might not take this job after all, unless we can renegotiate compensation” — which will make it look like you haven’t been operating in good faith. (What if they came back to you after you’d accepted the job and wanted to pay you less?) You can walk away from the new job if you want (it will likely burn the bridge, but you can do it if you want to take the old job), but you can’t say, “Wait, I changed my mind and now I want more.”

Frankly, I wouldn’t take that meeting with your old boss at all if you’re positive you have no intention of returning. That would be operating in bad faith with both employers and it’s not a good way to navigate your career. (There’s usually no harm in hearing people out, but in this case you’d be wasting their time solely in the hopes of using it to get more money from someone else, and you risk that someone else telling you that you should go ahead and take the other offer, which you don’t even want.)

5. My colleague keeps canceling on me, and it’s jeopardizing a deadline

I am supposed to be trained on a particular platform for evaluating students. The person responsible for this training has said they would meet with me on three different occasions, but they have never shown up; always something came up. I have done what I can in the system by reaching out to fellow colleagues, but the next steps must involve the training person. If the data is not submitted by end of April there will be tough consequences, district and state-wide. How do I approach them with a firm understanding that we must meet? Do I go to my supervisor? Help!

Do two things: let the person know that you absolutely must have the data submitted by the end of the month, which means you need the training no later than X (to give you time to actually do the work after you’re trained), and ask how to nail down a time that they can absolutely commit to. Then give your boss a heads-up about what’s going on and how you’re handling it, so that she’s aware of the situation and so she can intervene if she wants to.

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