employee writes overly casual emails, employer told me to remove TikTok from my phone, and more — Ask a Manager

here are the 10 best questions to ask your job interviewer — Ask a Manager

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

1. New employee writes overly casual emails

I’m a millennial and work for state government, where I supervise a new Gen Z employee. Their approach to email communication with members of the public is much less formal than I was taught/how I write and, in my opinion, is unprofessional in our line of work. They often respond to emails to external parties without an introduction, punctuation, capitalization, or a signature. This concerns me because all of our email communications are public records and always have the potential to be included in legal cases.

When I was a new employee, I was instructed to alter my communication style to include my full name on formal requests on behalf of the organization when it came up in a legal case a few months after I started. This isn’t always necessary for every single email, but having a basic level of professionalism when you’re interacting with the public on behalf of a governmental organization is something that was emphasized to me. Additionally, it helps maintain a certain level of respect that might otherwise be lessened based on age- or gender-discrimination.

How would you approach providing feedback to this employee on email etiquette as an employee of a public-facing organization?

Be straightforward about it! You’re approaching it as if it’s more fraught because it involves communication style — and maybe because you’re reading it as a generational difference that requires more delicate handling — but it’s no different than teaching a new employee to follow the organization’s style guide or any other standard operating procedure. The sooner you address it and the more matter-of-fact and direct you are about it, the better it will go.

It should be as simple as: “When you’re writing emails to anyone outside our team, you need to use standard punctuation and capitalization and include an opening and a sign-off with your signature. I’ll forward you a few of mine to show you what I mean. Can you make sure you’re doing that on all of them going forward?”

2. Stably employed but internally screaming

I’d like advice on how to manage a job where I like everything except the actual day-to-day tasks. I’ve been at my position for less than a year and the reality is sinking in that my work is very, very routine. I mostly compile PDFs, update templates and do mail merges, schedule internal and external meetings, prepare internal memos, and process invoices. There’s a lot of following up with people who’ve missed deadlines, wrangling a database that always acts up, and preparing for board meetings. We have busy periods where I know I’m going to be stressed getting everything done, and slow periods where I pretend to look busy. The problem is that the calendar of activities stays almost exactly the same year over year and so do the memos and documents I prepare — I literally copy the file that was used the previous year and update the dates and relevant details. Sometimes I find myself completing tasks the slow way just to make it take longer.

It’s a small company and there isn’t really room to grow (my counterpart who manages a similar portfolio has had the same job title and responsibilities for 30 years), but they offer 3-5% cost-of-living raises every year along with an extremely generous benefits package that I don’t want to give up (including a retirement contribution that would help me meet my long-term goal of retiring a little early.) Many people have been there for decades, and I know that it’s a solid, stable place to work. I just don’t know how I can keep doing such routine tasks while preserving my sanity. I’m not someone who needs a super dynamic job where every day is different — I actually prefer a predictable schedule — but I also want to take pride in my work and it’s hard to do that when it’s so rote. As a result, I find myself making basic, careless mistakes that then make me feel stupid and more disengaged when they’re pointed out to me. I don’t want to leave and I know they don’t want me to either, but I also don’t know if I’m cut out to do the same set of mundane tasks for the foreseeable future.

I don’t think you like this job.

Some people are fine with the type of work you describe, and even derive satisfaction from the roteness of it. But you don’t like it. It’s not working for you. It’s okay for that to be the answer.

Start looking around at other options. Don’t leap at the first thing you find — you want to make sure the overall package is better than your current one — but don’t assume you can’t find good benefits with more engaging work somewhere else.

3. Can my employer tell me to remove TikTok from my personal cell phone?

I got an email from my employer saying that employees who perform work under federal contracts (as subcontractors) must remove TikTok from their personal devices including cell phones, and that those of us who don’t do that type of work (I am in this second group) are still strongly urged to do so. The company did not purchase my device and does not pay for my data plan. Can they do this?

Yes. The federal government recently issued an interim rule prohibiting the use of TikTok on devices used by federal agencies and contractors, including personal devices that are used in any way in their work — including things like accessing work email, sending work texts, or taking work calls. Many employers don’t want to muck about with grey area on this (i.e., you say you never use your phone for work but then that one time while you’re out of the office you access work email from it) and so they’re directing employees to remove TikTok from their phones across the board.

4. How do I understand why I made this mistake?

I didn’t put a rental on a shared calendar for my organization, which caused lots of hassle when the renters showed up and the facilities manager wasn’t there. My supervisor asked me to consider why I made the mistake and come up with a solution. The problem is that I’m not sure why I made the mistake! A flattering answer I could give is that it’s been very, very slow here for a few months, and things haven’t required much attention. A less flattering answer would be something like just laziness on my part. This particular mistake, and one of this level at this job, is new. But I’m generally not detail-oriented. I love this job and the people I work with, and mortified that I caused such hassle.

How can I look at a big “brain fart” at work and understand why I did that so I don’t do it again?

Since you describe yourself as “not detail-oriented” and you’re not sure why you made the mistake, it’s a flag to reexamine the systems you’re using to track and organize your work. Everyone makes mistakes now and then, but the combination of those two things together says there’s room for improvement there — maybe a lot of room.

In particular, think about checklists! Checklists are a huge help with recurring tasks that have more than one step (as long as you force yourself to actually consult them each time). So for something like a space rental, you might have a checklist with steps like: confirm day/time with renter, send space usage policies, put date on shared calendar, and so forth.

In addition to being genuinely useful, it’ll help smooth over the current situation if you can explain to your boss that you’re implementing checklists going forward.

5. Can I find out if I’ve been blacklisted?

I’m slowly starting to think the primary hiring company in my industry has blacklisted me, but I can’t figure out why and want to know if there’s a professional, polite way to find out for sure.

My industry is fairly small, with a handful of companies taking up the bulk of the hiring, with one in particular as the primary employer for most people. I’ve applied there multiple times, usually without success, which is disappointing but also not too surprising since each listing is going to be flooded with qualified applicants.

However. I am much further in my career now, with multiple high-placed contacts within that company, and the lack of responses is starting to get weird. I’ve applied so many times over the last decade, always with an internal referral, and always for positions in line with my experience, not scattershot. Of the two (!) times I have been invited to interview, both were for a position directly under someone I knew personally. In the latter case, I made it to the final round and the role was given to an internal candidate, but the hiring manager (someone I trust to be honest) said he made a very pointed case to HR that I was someone who should be flagged as eligible for similar roles in the future and, in fact, there was another position that the HR rep would reach out to me about soon.

The rep never did reach out. I was disappointed but also understood that maybe something changed with the role after they initially spoke to my contact. Except it just happened again! I applied for a role within the same area of the company, one I was more than qualified for, and reached out to that same rep directly to let them know “Hi, I applied, remember how I made it to the final round already so you’re already familiar with me and my work?” Radio silence, not even an acknowledgement, and then a form rejection.

I’ve been assured my materials are good, so I can’t for the life of me understand why I’m not even making it to the HR screening process, especially when I have direct human-to-human contacts. Is there any way to even ask without coming off as pushy or naive? If the #1 employer in my industry has some sort of internal note on me (and believe me, I’ve wracked my brain, they shouldn’t!), I want to know so I can either set the record straight or stop wasting my time.

If they do have you flagged in some way, it’s very unlikely that they’d tell you. But it’s also perfectly plausible that that’s not what’s happening and they just get a ton of applicants each time so the competition is fierce.

Since you have personal contacts there, reach out to the one you have the closest relationship with — and maybe that hiring manager who pushed for you last time — and ask if they can tell you whether there’s anything about your materials or approach that’s holding you back. But my money would be on lots of applicants/stiff competition.

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