kitten talk led to an HR lecture, are sleeveless blouses OK for work, and more — Ask a Manager

kitten talk led to an HR lecture, are sleeveless blouses OK for work, and more — Ask a Manager

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

1. A conversation about kittens led to a lecture from HR

Yesterday I was called into a meeting with HR where I was reprimanded for an inappropriate, sexual comment that I made. I did make the comment, it was absolutely inappropriate, and I am mortified! I apologised to Joan, the coworker who raised it with HR, and I will make sure nothing like that ever comes out of my mouth again.

There was some context for the comment that Joan didn’t share with HR, and neither did I because I was too ashamed to say much. Another coworker, Beth, saw the whole interaction and thinks I should provide the context to HR now, and she has offered to verify what happened. I don’t think I should because it doesn’t unmake the comment, I don’t want to come across as blaming Joan, and I got the impression that HR considers the matter closed.

Here’s the context: it is well-known in the office that my partner and I foster kittens until they’re old enough to be spayed/neutered and adopted. Coworkers sometimes ask about the cats as break room small talk. Yesterday, Beth and I were sitting at the table having lunch and chatting, when Joan walked in to make coffee.

Beth: How many kittens do you have at the moment?
Me: Four little bottle-fed ones
Beth: Oh, so tiny! What have you named them?
Joan: I hate cats.
Me: Oh … we can talk about something else?
Joan: Cats are a menace and kittens should be drowned, not bottle fed.
Beth and me: …
Joan: Cats are disgusting, they walk over every surface to make sure everything is covered in their urine and feces germs. If you live with a cat, you’re basically walking around covered in urine and feces.
Beth and me: …
Joan: And they come and rub their face all over you after they’ve spent the whole day licking their own anuses.
Me: I mean, humans lick other people’s anuses, at least cats mostly lick their own.

Joan walked out of the kitchen and the next thing I know, HR is telling me I can’t make jokes about anal sex in the break room. What Joan said wasn’t okay either, but I wish I’d just continued to sit there in stunned silence. I think I should just mentally file her comments away under Joan being rude, as they’re not HR-worthy. But do you think I should give this context to HR so maybe they don’t think I brought it up out of nowhere? Or just let it go, learn from it, and try to move on?

Well … if we had a time machine, I’d want you to explain it in the initial conversation with HR — not as “so therefore my comment was OK,” but to explain that you didn’t just pop out with a analingus comment out of nowhere (in fact, Joan introduced the concept) and that Joan herself had opened with an alarming non sequitur advocating animal abuse, and if we’re reminding people of what is and isn’t okay to say in an office, perhaps there’s one more topic here that should be addressed.

But now, after the fact … well, I don’t think you have to go back and correct the record. They’ve probably moved on and don’t think it’s a huge deal. But it would also be fine if you wanted to go back and say, “I was too mortified in the moment to share this, but I did want to give you further context so you understand that I didn’t just make a sexual reference out of the blue, which I would not do.”

2. How to politely not compliment weight loss

I saw your answer to “Coworkers want to ask about my weight loss” and wondered from the other side — is it impolite of me to not mention a coworker’s weight change?

I am uncomfortable discussing weight and body size with most people (not just a work thing!) and would rather skip the topic if I notice weight change. But if everyone else is complimentary about it, does it look impolite for me to not mention it?

No, it’s not impolite not to mention someone’s weight loss. There are people who are excited about losing weight and hope people will notice it — but there are also a lot of people who don’t want to talk about it, especially at work, and/or who aren’t happy about the weight change (particularly if it’s from illness or other not-pleasant circumstances), and their right not to feel their bodies are being assessed at work trumps the first group’s pleasure in hearing compliments. Sometimes you might know that a particular person falls in the first group (because you’re close enough to them to know, or they’ve clearly indicated it) and that would change the calculation — although even then, if you prefer not to talk about other people’s bodies, it’s not impolite to opt out!

In general, when in doubt, err on the side of not making people feel like their bodies are being scrutinized at work.

3. Are sleeveless blouses “tank tops”?

Our company recently sent an email “reiterating” our dress code (business casual), scare quotes on account of they slipped in some language that definitely was not there before: specifically, a ban on tank tops. In the “allowed” column, for shirts, it only mentions “short and long sleeved shirts/blouses.” I’m wondering if, as communicated, you would consider sleeveless blouses to be in compliance, or if I would be better off steering clear of anything that shows my shoulders.

I’ve attached an example of what I mean by sleeveless blouse. I have enough shirts like this in my rotation that I honestly am wondering if I’m what triggered this email, though in my opinion this cut is perfectly professional!?

Nah, those are sleeveless blouses. Tank tops have straps.

If you want to be sure, you can always ask them to clarify that; send a photo like the one you sent me. But sleeveless blouses are a common businesswear item, and they’re typically considered much more professional than tank tops, which read more casual. (Whether or not this makes sense is a different question, but lots of fashion rules have evolved in ways that don’t make sense. See also: skirts vs. shorts.)

4. Does my employer need to raise my salary if I’m not using their health insurance?

I work for a super small nonprofit that only started offering health insurance as a benefit a few years ago, where my employer covers half my health insurance as a benefit and the other half is taken out of my salary pre-tax. My husband is getting a new job with great benefits that will allow me to also be covered for way less than I’m currently paying, so we plan to switch as soon as he’s eligible.

My husband believes that, once we switch, my employer should automatically increase my salary to include the half of the health insurance they were paying, since that won’t be an expense for them anymore. While I think that would be nice, I don’t believe they have any legal obligation to do so, and am worried I would risk some political capital there if I brought it up. Are they under a legal obligation to increase my salary the amount they were paying for my health insurance?

No, they have no legal obligation to do that. Some employers have a policy of offering it anyway, but a lot don’t. You can ask though!

5. Handling multiple company name changes on a resume

I’ve been working at the same company since getting my degree six years ago, and I’m thinking it’s time to move on. However, the company has undergone two name changes since I was hired, and I’m not sure how to handle that on my resume. For example, when I was hired, the company was called Llama Shearing Systems. Then a few years ago we were bought by a larger company, Big Wool, and became Big Wool Llama Division. Now our parent company is rebranding and changing its name to Wool International, making where I’m working Wool International Llamas.

Do I list each name individually with the dates I worked during those particular name changes? Or do I write something like “Wool International Llamas (formerly Big Wool Llama Division, formerly Llama Shearing Systems)”?

Also, since this was my first job out of college, all of my references will likely be managers from various times during my employment at this company. Do I need to specify what name my company had at the time my reference was managing me?

You don’t need to list each name individually with the dates you worked under that name. Just use one name heading for the company and make it this:

Wool International Llamas (formerly Big Wool Llama Division and Llama Shearing Systems)

You also don’t need to specify which name the company had at the time your references were managing you, although you can. If a manager only managed you under Big Wool Llama Division, then list their affiliation as Big Wool Llama Division. But if they managed you through numerous name changes, just list the most recent name.

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