manager’s toxic positivity, why you can’t badmouth your boss in an interview, and more — Ask a Manager


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

1. Manager’s toxic positivity is getting us down

I’ve been a high school teacher for about 15 years. Obviously, everything about education has had to be drastically adapted in the past year and many of us are still struggling to keep up with the constant changes in expectations, combined with our own family crises. My new principal sends daily emails dripping with toxic positivity, such as pointing out the beautiful weather that we should be thankful for, or encouraging us to take time to practice self-care. These instructions are starting to feel more like extra responsibilities, especially when coupled with “here are three articles I thought you’d all enjoy reading before tomorrow’s staff meeting.” I sort of understand that she’s trying to keep our spirits up, but honestly, most of us would rather just not get an email like that at all. It’s just one more thing to see in the inbox and have to read, you know?

In staff meetings, we’re put in breakout rooms on Zoom to share our self-care ideas with each other, when we’d rather discuss professional things like concerns about specific students’ progress (face-to-face discussions with colleagues, even remote ones, are so much more valuable than emails for this sort of thing), so we feel like it’s wasting and disrespecting our time. Our union representative for the school has the responsibility of bringing teacher concerns to the principal, and she forwarded an article about toxic positivity which clearly outlined several examples of behavior she was guilty of, with the tip that several teachers felt bombarded in this way by her emails. Since then, nothing has changed. Can you suggest some ways to deal with this?

Yeah, I’m thinking someone who thinks this is a good idea isn’t necessarily going to stop just because she hears secondhand (even from a union rep) that some people don’t like it; it’s too easy to dismiss as, “Oh, maybe a couple of people don’t like it.”

How receptive is your principal to feedback? Ideally you and other teachers would tell her directly that you’d rather use meetings to discuss work-specific concerns and you’re not finding the self-care break-outs helpful. I’d focus your capital there rather than on the daily emails (annoying as those sound) because in theory you can skip the emails or quickly skim them, whereas the staff meetings use significant time and sound excruciating.

As for how to deliver that feedback, it depends on how communication usually works there, but one option is for a group of you to raise it at the next staff meeting — maybe at the end of a meeting and framed as a request for the next one. One person will have to be the first to speak up, but if you decide ahead of time that others will chime in with agreement, it’ll probably have more of an impact than hearing it secondhand.

2. Why is it taboo to tell an interviewer you’re job-searching because of your manager?

I was reading an article this morning talking about how managers are the reason people leave jobs. Not the first time I’ve heard this or experienced it. If people are always leaving jobs because of their managers, why is it such a taboo to use it in interviewing as a reason why you’re leaving your job?

The big thing is that the interviewer doesn’t know you well enough to know if your assessment of your boss is reasonable or if you were part of the problem. For example, if you say your boss was a micromanager, maybe she managed you closely because your work wasn’t great and required a lot of oversight. Maybe you have unrealistic expectations of a boss or you’re a prima donna or impossible to get along with. (Think about some bad employees you’ve known and what complaints they probably had about their managers.) It’s not that interviewers don’t know there are legitimately bad bosses out there; it’s that they have no way of knowing what the other side of this particular story is. And while good interviewers will of course know your account could be entirely correct and objective, it raises enough of a question mark that they’ll have to wonder, and it’s not in your interests to have those sorts of questions hanging over you.

Also, rightly or wrongly, the convention most of us have been taught is that it’s considered indiscreet and a little tacky to badmouth a previous employer. So if you do, your judgment will feel somewhat questionable.

More here.

3. Did I cheat on this hiring test?

I am writing about an interview experience I had a few years ago that I think about often. I work (more loosely now, but strictly back then) with data, and I interviewed at a company that, after the initial phone screen, asked me to do an at-home Excel exercise and then come on-site the next day to continue the testing, all of which was based in Excel, and the finished product was a worksheet I submitted. The exam asked about some obscure macros and formulas, and I used the Help tool within Excel (you might remember him as the little paper clip!) during the exam to clarify some of the details of the formulas they were asking about. It was the kind of thing where you would need baseline familiarity with the concept to even set up the formula, which I had, but sometimes the correct order and definition of the variables needed a little bit of refreshing.

Was this a huge error? Could they “tell” somehow that I used the paper clip to help me? Would that have been construed as cheating? I had a hard time thinking so at the time because there is no planet on which someone would have to use Excel at work but wouldn’t have the help tool or even the broader Internet at their disposal. I think about it a lot because they completely ghosted me after this interview — which between the at-home and on-site portions took about four hours of my time (that is what it was anticipated to take), so it stung and felt like I completely wasted my time. And in fact, when I called the hiring manager to follow up about the position after many emails being ignored, he straight up hung up on me as soon as I said who it was on the phone.

Nah, that’s not cheating. You used the tools that were available to you through the program itself! That’s fine. And if for some reason they didn’t want you do that, they could have said so. I doubt they could even tell you did, but if they did see it and objected to it, they would have just concluded you didn’t have the expertise they wanted and that would that — it wouldn’t be cheating or something that would get you hung up on in outrage!

The hanging up, by the way, was incredibly rude (obviously), but it was almost certainly about him being caught off-guard/panicking/not knowing what to say to someone he’d been avoiding because he’s incapable of delivering a professional rejection (but very capable of being a jerk).

4. Will it look bad that I’m earning an upper-level nonprofit salary and married to a millionaire?

I am mid-level management at a nonprofit that has a religious slant. The organization pays well for the nonprofit world and the culture of the organization is not without its flaws, but the pros far outweigh the cons (and their handling of Covid has been amazing).

The issue at hand is that I am now engaged. My fiancé is a musical artist with a loyal fanbase and has earned a net worth in the lower level millions. He also lives a very modest lifestyle so what he’s been able to save and invest has garnered quite a bit in returns.

I am good at my job and have worked and will continue to work my way up in this company. I am worried about the optics from the public should anyone make the connection between me and my husband once we are married. I know I am well worth what I am paid, but all of us are worried about any possible backlash from me being married to a millionaire and making a higher level salary in a nonprofit organization.

Am I overthinking this? Is there a way to potentially spin this if someone investigates our financials and decides this seems wrong? I would hate for my presence to bring any negative press to an amazing organization.

Yes, I think you’re overthinking it. There are plenty of people working in nonprofits who are married to high-earning spouses or have family money; it’s not scandalous! In fact, it’s no one’s business. (Interestingly, it’s especially common among fundraisers, at least in some parts of the sector.)

Your salary is set based on your employer’s salary structure and the market rate for the work within your field. There’s no norm that organizations shouldn’t hire people who don’t “need” the money, and there’s no expectation that you should turn down a job or a salary for that reason either. Your salary isn’t a charitable gift from your employer; it’s appropriate compensation for the work you perform. Anyone who took issue with you being paid the same as others at your level simply because of your personal finances would be a real outlier.

5. How do I thank my manager without seeming like a suck-up?

Two members of my family died of COVID within a month of each other. Needless to say, it was devastating and I’m only now coming around to feeling somewhat “normal.”

My manager was TERRIFIC through the whole thing. Our official policy is three days of bereavement leave but she basically reduced my workload to no more than 1-2 hours a day for two whole months telling me “only do these tasks when your personal stuff is taken care of.” They were very easy and low priority tasks—much simpler than the complex tasks I normally do. I made my full salary during this time.

Long story short, I reached the point I was READY and excited to return to my regular work, which requires a high degree of concentration and thought and have pretty much gone back to being the good worker I was before.

During our 1:1’s, I’ve thanked my manager for being so helpful and understanding. Is that enough? I feel like I should do something more for her for being so exceptionally understanding during a really bad time for me but also don’t want to make her feel weird or seem like I’m being a suck up (reviews are coming up).

Just thanking her is enough! That said, was it like a one-sentence “thanks for being so understanding” or was it something a little more substantial? If the former, you could go back now and say something more substantial — or, even better, you could put it in a written note. Managing can sometimes be a relatively thankless job, and notes like that are often cherished for years. (I have a file of them that I look at from time to time, and it really does mean a lot.)

You’re not going to seem like a suck-up if you do that! It’s a gracious thing to do.



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