coworker said his boss kneed him in the groin, I feel unappreciated, and more — Ask a Manager

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

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

1. My coworker said his boss kneed him in the groin

This is a bit of a doozy, and now I’m worried that I might have screwed things up.

My partner works in security, and has a coworker we’ll call Fergus. He also has a boss, “Jane,” and grandboss, “Marshall.”

Fergus had purportedly been on vacation for three weeks prior to today. But he told my partner that he had actually been on mental health leave. Fergus said that after an incident where he accidentally let someone in when they shouldn’t have been (though he said it was quickly resolved and no one got hurt), Jane pulled him aside and and assaulted him with a knee to the groin (!) while Marshall watched and did nothing (!!) A very serious matter, certainly, and according to Fergus, he is working with both their union and HR about it.

Here’s the thing: I don’t think it happened. Why? Because Fergus is a known problem employee, according to my partner, and has a pretty bad reputation among most staff. He is, by reputation, pretty lazy and has been previously reported for showing pictures of graphic violence around the workplace (I know this because it happened to my partner; he reported it to Jane, who mentioned that she has been putting together a file on Fergus’ bad behavior.)

Given all of that, I advised that my partner report what Fergus had told him to HR and let them know what he claimed. My rationale is this: If it isn’t a lie, then HR can assure him that they’re handling it. If it is a lie, though, HR should know that Fergus is spreading a malicious rumor, and work to protect Jane and Marshall (and my partner, who didn’t ask and didn’t want to know!) from any damaging fallout.

Having advised that, though, I’m now second-guessing myself. Is that the right action to take?

Yes. Either scenario — a manager responds to employee mistakes by kneeing them in the groin while their own boss stands by and watches, or someone is falsely accusing them of that — is HR-worthy.

If Fergus is telling the truth, then he’s already working with HR on it and your partner won’t be divulging any confidences by relaying it to them. If he’s not telling the truth, then this is a highly damaging thing for him to say about Jane and Marshall, and HR should be aware of that too.

2. I was asked to give extra feedback to a colleague’s son when we rejected him

This is something that happened to me several years ago but I’ve always wondered about its appropriateness. I work as a professor for a privately-owned, religion-sponsored institution of higher education that focuses on teaching rather than research. The organizational structure mimics that of our religious organization, which is very hierarchical (basically, if someone above you tells you to do something, you do it). If you’re a member of our religion, it’s a good place to work (not sure if you’d like it if you weren’t, but we don’t hire “non-members” as a rule).

I was our department chair at this time (a revolving appointment) and we were hiring a new faculty member. Three candidates were invited for the final stages of the process, which involves interviews with the the department chair, the department as a whole, the dean, the provost, an academic administrator, a representative from HR, a member of our religion’s leadership, and the president of the university. So it’s a fairly grueling process. Our department meets to make our recommendations and then I take that to an administrative committee.

The three candidates were as follows: Tom was already working for us on a temporary contract but was applying for a full-time position. Jane was a bit older, working in private practice but had a varied academic background. Harry was much younger, had just finished up his Ph.D., and I believe it was his first time applying for a position. Significantly, Harry’s father already worked for us but in another department with very little interaction with ours. Each candidate had strengths and weaknesses and it wasn’t an easy call, but in the end the department recommended Tom. I took that to the executive hiring committee and, after a little discussion, everyone agreed that Tom would be a good addition.

Our president, perhaps trying to be sensitive to Harry’s father (who had no part in this hiring process), said to me, “It’s a shame we can’t hire Harry. After the candidates have been notified, I’d like you to meet with him privately and discuss how he could improve his application if he applies again.” I was taken aback as this was not something that we had ever done before. I tried to catch the eye of the HR director but he remained silent. So I agreed and contacted Harry to set up a meeting where I tried to do as I was asked. It was a bit awkward, but Harry was quite courteous, though obviously a bit disappointed. And that was that. I think Harry did try to apply one more time, but the position wasn’t a good fit and he didn’t get an interview. But I’ve always wondered … isn’t this a little strange? Harry hadn’t requested it and there was no talk of having a similar discussion with Jane who, I assume, was also disappointed with the outcome.

It’s not terribly unusual to offer extra feedback to someone who has a personal connection to the employer. Often that’s for political reasons — to keep the employee who works there feeling like the candidate connected to them was treated well and that the connection was recognized and treated sensitively. People can feel like the personal connection should give the candidate an extra boost (it shouldn’t in the case of kids, but people often feel it should) and so it can smooth things over politically if it feels like extra care was given.

That said, it can be a problematic practice! It gives an extra advantage to a group of people who may not need it (by definition, those with better networks), while denying those extra advantages to people without strong networks, and it can reinforce and add to disparities by race (because there are racial disparities in who has access to those sorts of connections in the first place).

3. Talking to my boss about feeling unappreciated

I wonder if you have any advice or scripts to use with my manager to broach the subject of feeling unappreciated. I report directly to our small company’s CEO, who freely admits to not being a “touchy-feely” people manager, attributing that to her background as an engineer. I don’t expect constant praise, but I want to feel valued, especially as she can be a demanding boss. She often doesn’t include me in key meetings, makes decisions that impact me and my team without looping us in, focuses tightly on tactical execution even when I bring up softer issues like culture or burnout, etc. Maybe this is something to suck up and not bother mentioning at all? I am job-searching diligently but no luck yet and I expect it to take some time.

Can you come up with two specific things that you’d like to ask for and focus on those? I think you’ll have better luck if you go to her with something specific you want — like being included in a particular type of meeting — rather than a more general complaint of feeling unappreciated. (It’s not that “I feel unappreciated” isn’t good info for a manager to have — it is — but based on what you wrote about this specific manager, I think you’re likely to get better results if you translate that into more narrow and concrete requests.)

4. Old job keeps contacting me with questions

I left my old job about seven months ago. I very much enjoyed that job but my boss and my boss’s boss left, leaving me the only person in the department. The organization was unable to give me a raise or hire anyone else due to financial issues. I didn’t feel I had enough experience (or desire) to do the work of three people so I left.

Right after I left, I got one or two follow-up questions, but in the last month or two I’ve gotten two different texts, an email, and a request for a phone call. They aren’t contacting my old boss (I’ve spoken with them), I guess because he left before me. I want them to consider my time valuable so I want to tell them any further communication will require a fee, but I feel weird charging for a text exchange or quick call. Any ideas how to handle this?

“I was happy to answer one or two quick questions after I left, but it seems like the questions are increasing. Would you want to set up a short-term consulting agreement where I’d continue helping out for up to X hours per month?” (X should be a very low number like three so they understand you’re not offering to come back part-time.)

Reasonable people will understand that means “pay me or stop contacting me.” But if they don’t take you up on that offer and keep contacting you anyway, at that point you can say, “I really can’t keep answering questions on top of my regular job for free but wish you all the best with it.” And then feel free to stop responding.

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