coworker wants to withhold PTO as punishment, religious gifts for colleagues, 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. Coworker wants to withhold PTO as punishment

We have a series of educational seminars by coworkers every month. I am expected to attend 80% of these seminars, online or in person (preferred). Attendance is monitored through completion of an anonymous survey with a follow-up page where you submit a daily code to get credit. The code is not always provided during the session, so sometimes we have to bother the presenter to provide it. Sometimes my role works off-site or has other expectations around the time of day that these sessions are held. When we are off-site, there is no expectation to attend and we are excused from the attendance requirement.

My coworker, who is involved in a committee that acts as a liaison with management, has been advocating for withholding PTO as punishment for failing to attend a sufficient amount of educational seminars. Our PTO is listed as a benefit in our contract so I don’t think it is legal to withhold PTO. My coworker disagrees and points to a time when we were severely understaffed due to Covid and PTO was denied automatically for all employees due to low staffing. Would withholding PTO like this be allowed?

Do you have actual contracts? If you’re in the U.S., that would be unusual — but if you do, then the answer depends on the specific wording in your contract. If you don’t, the legality depends on the wording of other company documents.

But it doesn’t really matter, because this would be a horribly ill-advised thing to do anyway. First, it’s ridiculously punitive and a far larger punishment than the offense warrants.

Second, PTO isn’t something an employer gives out of the goodness of their heart and which can/should be yanked back to teach a lesson; it’s part of employees’ compensation package, and it’s in your employer’s interest to have people use their PTO so they have rested, recharged employees. Revoking it to punish people is very likely to cost you good employees, who will leave over this.

Third, you don’t manage people via punishment. If someone isn’t attending enough seminars, then their manager should talk with them, figure out what’s going on, make the expectation clear, and then hold them to it like they would any other requirement of their job. If it’s happening with lots of people, then you look at root causes: are the seminars not helpful? Do people not have enough time for them? Are there legitimate reasons people aren’t prioritizing them? You don’t just bludgeon them by yanking their PTO.

Your coworker is being ridiculous, and I hope she doesn’t manage anyone with her instincts this off. And if you work at an even slightly well-managed company, your management should shut this idea down hard if she proposes it.

2. Are religious gifts ever appropriate for colleagues?

Is it ever appropriate to get a coworker a religious-themed gift (her religion, not mine)?

Our team’s administrative assistant is going through a really rough time with cancer treatment, and I’d like to get her something to let her know I’m thinking of her. Our team has some weird dynamics, and we work in academia, so there won’t be something central organized for her. I am not sure her schedule for being home or in hospital, or what she’s able to eat, etc. so don’t want to do any of the standard perishable gifts of food or flowers.

She has been quite open about her commitment to Islam (e.g., she was really excited to share when she recently made her first pilgrimage to Mecca). I have a strong sense she might appreciate something like a framed calligraphed section of the Qur’an that talks about healing, or a small bracelet with a prayer on it.

I myself am not Muslim, and don’t personally believe in the power of prayer (other than the healing effect of feeling happy and calm that prayer can bring about for people who believe in it), and normally am a big proponent of not mixing of work and religion, so I am surprised to be finding myself asking this. Is it totally whacky to get my coworker a religious gift? If it matters, I am higher than her in the hierarchy but she does not report to me.

I wouldn’t. There are indeed people who would be moved by a gift like this, and it’s possible your coworker is one of them. But it’s also possible it would feel like overstepping, or that you’ll miss the mark in some way because you don’t know the nuances of the religion or of her relationship with it.

What you’re proposing is a very personal and intimate gift, in the context of a work relationship, and there’s too much risk of it being a misfire (especially as someone outside of her religion and who lacks insight into the ways she connects with it). There are so many other thoughtful gifts you could choose that aren’t religious. Go for one of those.

3. I have to do math for a project and I’m terrible at math

I’m an office administrator at a mid-sized company and have been in the role for about five years. Based on my promotions and excellent performance reviews, I think it’s safe to say I’m good at my job. However, I have managed to go this entire time without doing more than the most basic math.

Our office is hosting a large conference this year that involves setting up several of our meeting rooms in a classroom style. I’ve been tasked with calculating how many tables and chairs can fit in each room while still allowing each attendee ample space to move around. Relatively basic surface area stuff, right?

I am terrible at math. I have pretty serious ADHD (and my boss is aware) but frankly, I seem to have been born without the math gene. The amount of mental math and spatial reasoning involved in this project, however simple in theory, has me spiraling.

This is going to sound ridiculous but I have a lot of low-key traumatic associations with math (parents yelling, teachers upset, lots of crying, elementary school homework taking countless hours to complete.) Being “academically gifted” in every other area only seemed to make adults angrier at me when I struggled with something. I don’t come from a family background where dyscalculia would have been taken seriously and I’m honestly not sure whether or not it applies to me. But yes. Terrible at math, zero spatial reasoning, can’t follow a map, etc…

I don’t want to admit defeat because it would be embarrassing to tell my boss that I’m essentially too dumb to do this. The project needs to get done. How do I get through it without authority figures getting upset, me crying, and a straightforward task taking countless hours to complete?

This isn’t about defeat or being dumb; it’s about being assigned a task that happens to play to a historical weakness of yours (and maybe a disability too). You’re known to be good at your job; no halfway decent boss will be outraged that you’re not good at math too. You clearly don’t normally need to rely on it in your job, so it’s not like you’re revealing something that makes you fundamentally unsuited for your work; you’re just explaining something that makes you unsuited to one minor task.

Your boss almost certainly doesn’t want you to spend hours on this or suffer major angst from it! Right now, though, she doesn’t know that’s happening, so she just needs you to let her know this isn’t a good plan.

So, own it! Meaning: “I’m terrible at math and spatial reasoning, and the amount of both of these needed to figure this out, however simple in theory, has me spiraling. I’m worried it will take hours and could still be wrong, and I don’t want that outcome. Is there someone who could help me with this?”

4. Taking an external offer when my manager has been fighting to promote me

I’m in what I consider to be a tough situation. My company has been going through a rough patch lately with a large portion of the company being impacted by a layoff and rumors of more layoffs coming in the near future. As a result, I felt it responsible to explore other opportunities, just in case. I’ve been approached for an exciting role and am now faced with having to make a decision of staying or leaving. Meanwhile, my manager is terrified of me leaving my current company (he should be!) and has put me up for a promotion that’s in the final stages now. I’ve been pushing for this promotion for quite some time and working my tail off to prove that I’m worthy, so the recognition is appreciated.

Normally, I would say that this isn’t a tough decision. However, our promotions this year had a VERY low quota and were heavily scrutinized. My manager had to fight very hard to get me into one of the few slots available and others in my organization were cut from the list even though many of them deserve a promotion as well. If I accept an external offer, I’ve basically taken one of the very few promotion spots and made no use of it all. It’s too late in the promo cycle for them to substitute my spot as the decisions have been made and the cycle is now closed.

Would I be in the wrong to accept an external offer that I’m excited about after taking one of the promotion spots? On the one hand, it’s not my fault that my company has locked down promotion quotas so much this year. But, I also feel a bit guilty about going through with the promotion process knowing there was a good chance I’d be leaving.

If you want the other job, take it. Yes, the timing is too bad, but you don’t owe it to your manager to turn down a better offer. And keep in mind that your employer isn’t promoting you as a favor or a gift; if they promote you, it’s because it makes business sense for them. That doesn’t mean that your manager might not feel disappointed that he used capital (and a limited promotion slot) only for it not to pay off, but that’s how this stuff goes sometimes. It’s absolutely not something you should sacrifice your own career progression for! Act in your own interests, and just let your boss know that you appreciated he fought for you.

5. Can my boss make me use AI?

Can our management team force us to use AI transcription services? Our staff (all nine of us) share one multi-user Zoom account, and our executive director has turned on the “AI transcription” option for all our accounts, and locked it so we can’t turn it off on our individual accounts. I find the AI transcription piece unnerving and unnecessary (someone always takes meeting notes), especially given our line of work (similar to 12-step/recovery sharing, a lot of what we discuss in meetings we and our patrons do not want published, ever!). So far the only “discussion” has been an FYI that it was happening.

If it matters, we work in Illinois, which has new legislation around AI use during video interview review, but most of my colleagues are remote and work across the U.S.

Yes, they can do that. Your employer can choose what tools it does and doesn’t want to use in the course of its business. (The Illinois law you mentioned only applies to job interviews.) You can certainly raise it for discussion and explain your concerns, and you can attempt to rally coworkers to push back with you, but ultimately it’s your employer’s call.

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