I don’t want to participate in my office’s steps challenge, returning to a job I criticized, 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. I don’t want to participate in my office’s steps challenge

My office is getting ready to start a months-long steps challenge, and there’s a big emphasis on participating because we’ve got a mix of in-person, hybrid, and remote employees and this is supposed to be something to help us all engage. They’re launching it in a week, and I am dreading it.

I don’t count my steps or focus on challenge-based exercise because I find that it’s not beneficial for me. I don’t care if other people do, but I’d rather be left alone. Now I’m likely to be pressured to participate in a steps challenge that ostensibly is voluntary (except that senior leaders heavily participated in the past), and I don’t know how to respond if I am pressured to sign up like I was during our last steps challenge. Do you have any advice about how to respond if I’m questioned why I’m not participating? And why do offices keep doing challenges as a team engagement activity like this that may exclude people? What if I had a physical disability or was recovering from an eating disorder where tracking exercise was detrimental?

Start with a cheery “Oh, no thank you!” as if you assume that of course that will be respected.

If you’re pushed after that: “Oh, I don’t plan to participate since I haven’t found that kind of thing useful for my health.”

If the pushing continues after that: “We need to be careful about pressuring people on this because some people’s doctors actively advise them not to do this kind of activity, and no one should need to disclose that at work.” Consider saying that to HR or the organizers too.

2. Coworkers pressure me to respond after hours

I work for a large corporation and have a role that requires lots of interaction with our salespeople. My duties are often the last steps before a salesperson earns their commission. There is a documented process that they are supposed to follow, as am I. There are also documented standards that must be met and sometimes additional approvals required to finalize their sale.

I was frequently being contacted after hours or hounded during the work day even though I always met the required turnaround times. After a few conversations with my boss, I was encouraged to start ignoring after hours messages. So I did. The first time I let something sit after hours, one of the salespeople wrote a message in a group chat which included me and many high level leaders, stating that I had ignored them and let the work “sit” on purpose. This was after hours but I saw it and was shaken and extremely embarrassed. My boss, Maura, also saw it and said it was out of line. The worst part was that while I had not responded to the after hours inquiries, I had finished the work and it was sitting in this person’s inbox, which they failed to check. I messaged right away to say that it was finished and also that I saw the message and was upset about it. They responded that they were glad I saw and hoped I was embarrassed and that they would be letting finance know about the delay I had caused. I reported it to HR, Maura, and this person’s boss and, while everyone agreed it was out of line, nothing happened. No one ever even spoke to them about it.

Now I’m experiencing similar pressure from a different person and tried to set boundaries several times when I was contacted after hours. Finally after five or six straight days of pressure, after-hours contact, and general unpleasantness, I got fed up and made a flippant comment along the lines of, “Thanks for respecting my requests to not be contacted after hours.” Now I am in trouble with Maura, who brought in HR to scold me about how my behavior was unprofessional. They said that I can ignore these after-hours or inappropriate requests, but no one was going to reinforce that boundary with the salespeople. Now I feel crazy — if I ignore I’m going to be publicly shamed, but if I don’t ignore I’m in trouble with my boss. What do I do now?

The professional answer is to reply to pressure or complaints from the salespeople with, “I’m not available outside of business hours, which Maura knows. I’ll get to this as soon as I’m back at work.” And the next time: “As I’ve explained, I’m not available outside of business hours. Maura has approved that, but you can certainly speak to her if it’s a concern.” If they call you out publicly, you reply to that same audience and drying say, “Maura and I have explained several times that after-hours messages will be answered on the next business day.”

But what’s up with Maura bringing in HR to scold you rather than just having a conversation with you herself as, you know, your boss? And for the record, your “unprofessional” response was barely that; it was incredibly minor. (There’s also obviously an issue with the way the salespeople are allowed to treat you, but if yours is a company where salespeople get away with bad behavior, Maura might not be in a position where she can change that.)

That said, it sounds like you’re continuing to get rattled by the salespeople when you don’t need to. What Maura is saying is that you do not need to have the availability the sales team is demanding but you need to be more unflappable about that. The best thing to do here is to stop checking messages after hours, commit to enforcing the boundaries your boss has told you to have, and just calmly restate those boundaries when someone tests them.

3. Colleague reeks of weed

I live in a state that legalized recreational marijuana use a couple of years ago, recently enough that the social niceties/culture still haven’t worked themselves out yet. I support legalization and feel the same way about it that I do alcohol use: not for me, but definitely support responsible use that doesn’t impact others (i.e., not driving impaired, etc.).

I belong to a choir. It’s an auditioned group (so a couple levels up from a church choir) but also a very welcoming group, and there are all kinds, from retired elementary school music teachers to college students and everything in between. One of the singers in my section, Jessica, has come in a few times absolutely stinking of fresh weed smoke. As in, she smoked just before rehearsal and came in with a cloud of green smoke like a Cheech and Chong movie. It’s very noticeable, inescapable, and it’s making it difficult to participate, singing requiring a lot of deep breathing and all. The last time it happened, I got a headache from the smell.

From conversation with Jessica, I’ve read between the lines that she might be smoking to deal with/treat medical issues. That makes it tough. I could just tell her, “Hey, I don’t think you realize this, but you smell strongly of smoke, and can you avoid that?” Or I could ask our conductor or manager to discuss it with her, since it’s sensitive. But we are a nonprofit, and I don’t know the ins and outs of that, and how that works out with what amounts to volunteers. Any advice?

Talk to the conductor or manager of the group. First, because it’s a sensitive issue that’s better handled by someone with some authority. Second, because they need to be aware that it’s happening and causing a problem for others. If Jessica’s use is medical, she can raise that — but if it’s interfering with other people’s ability to participate, it’s a legitimate issue to discuss. In other words, good news — you don’t need to solve this yourself.

4. I feel awkward returning to a job I criticized

I worked at a company for four years. I loved my job and my coworkers, but the company went through a six-month phase of rapid growth, which lead to me becoming severely burnt out. Due to the mental and physical effects of that burn-out, I quit to focus on my health because I had become very sick (in hindsight, I should have kept my job and taken medical leave, but the very nature of burn-out doesn’t allow for rational thinking).

In my exit interview, I was very open about my criticism of how the company was mishandling the period of growth in regards to staffing.

To my surprise, after a year-long hiatus, the company asked me to come back to my previous role, even offering me a pay bump. I accepted.

I’m under the same manager as before, who has apologized for the role she played in my burn-out, and the team has grown and is now at a more appropriate number of staff to handle the increased workload. It seems the issues that lead to my burn-out are no longer there, but since I was critical of my manager upon my exit, I’m feeling a bit awkward. I’ve been back for three months and she has been extremely welcoming and supportive, but I can’t shake this feeling like I’m waiting for the other shoe to drop.

I would ideally like to have a check in with her just to make sure everything is going well from her perspective, but she notoriously hates one-on-ones and has asked her team not to schedule them with her. I want to respect that boundary, but I also feel like I need to know how I’m doing now that I’ve been back for a while so I can prevent the problems that lead to my previous exit. Since this is a unique situation, should I ask her to have periodic check-ins even though she prefers to be hands-off?

Someone who hates meeting with people one-on-one to the point that she’s asked her staff not to propose it shouldn’t be a manager. That’s part of the job.

That said, this particular issue sounds more like your anxiety than anything actually happening at work. It’s not that odd that they wanted you to come back even though you raised criticisms previously; it sounds like they came to recognize the truth and value in your feedback and if you were a good worker, there’s no reason that your honesty should preclude them wanting to work together again. In fact, they may value you more for speaking up about it, who knows. And your manager may be grateful for your honesty (for all we know, it helped her get more staffing) and grateful that you were willing to give it another chance.

It would be reasonable to say to her, “I’d like to talk about how I’m doing now that I’m back — can we schedule some time to have that conversation?” But that’s one conversation. If you wouldn’t otherwise be checking in regularly, and you’re only asking because of you feel awkward about what happened previously … well, I generally think everyone should be talking regularly to their manager, but if that’s not how your team works, and you know your manager resists it, this in itself isn’t reason to push for it. (There are other reasons it would be good to do it — basic workflow/feedback/alignment/development reasons! But your manager sounds like an obstacle there.)

5. Should I stay out of this?

I have a new colleague (she started last month) at my level, Sue. Sue’s been doing great so far, even with some of the expected growing pains of adding a new role onto a small, existing team. Through some volunteer involvement outside work, Sue recently received the chance to take a week-long service trip next month. This service trip, although outside our organization, is aligned with our values and work as a nonprofit and especially with the work she is doing.

Her manager, who I don’t report to, told me candidly that although she approved the request, she’s not happy Sue is considering taking this time off, and that her manager had advised her to deny the request. The week-long trip conflicts with an event we had already planned for Sue to lead, as well as a major process review that cannot be shifted in which Sue would be an integral part.

Would it be a kindness to advise Sue that although it’s a great opportunity, it may be better for her professional relationships to sit this one out, or should I stay out of it?

It would be more of a kindness to go back to your boss since she confided in you and say, “I thought more about our conversation about Sue’s trip. If I were in her shoes, I would take you at your word that it was fine to go, and I would really appreciate knowing you had concerns about it. Especially because she’s new, she may have no idea that it will cause problems for her to be out that week and probably assumes you’ll let her know if it would.”

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