employee said awful things about a coworker who was on the phone, company’s leaders are all white men, 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. Employee said awful things about a coworker … while on the phone with them

I’m writing about an incident that happened to my coworker, “Jane.” Jane was out of town over the weekend and her corporate lodging card wouldn’t work. She called an admin, “Elvira,” for assistance. Elvira does not like Jane. When Jane explained her situation and asked for help, Elvira turned to her boyfriend (another coworker) and said some awful things about Jane. Elvira either failed to mute her phone or didn’t think she could be overheard; unfortunately, Jane heard everything. It started with “Oh my God, it’s Jane f***ing Smith. I can’t f***ing stand her,” and it went downhill from there. Apparently Elvira got very worked up, to the point that her boyfriend could be heard telling her to calm down.

(Side note: Jane indicated that, based on Elvira’s slurred speech, she might have been drunk during the call. That could explain why she became so worked up. In Elvira’s defense, it was the weekend and she was not on call, so whatever she does on her own time is her business.)

In the end, Elvira did end up assisting Jane, but Jane’s feelings were obviously hurt. Jane is not confrontational and is not likely to tell anyone in management about the incident, especially because Elvira and the HR manager are close friends outside of work.

I am a manager, but not to any of the parties involved. Do I have an obligation to speak up about Elvira’s behavior? I am privy to the fact that Elvira is currently being coached (by her friend, the HR manager) to be less abrasive in the workplace. But the information from Jane is just secondhand. And I worry that my own distaste for Elvira is clouding my judgment. What is the right thing to do?

As a manager, even though you’re not Jane’s manager, you have some obligation to speak up if you’re aware of an employee being abusive to/about a colleague while on the phone with them. This is also an employee who’s already known to be problematic in the way she talks to people. It’s hard to argue that you should keep that to yourself; being a manager gives you a higher degree of obligation to escalate things that are obvious problems for your team/the organization. If Jane strongly doesn’t want you to, that complicates things — but you could point out that the issue being reported is Elvira; Jane just happened to be a bystander, and if Elvira is willing to treat Jane that way, who else might she be targeting abuse toward, including people with less power/influence than Jane and who might not tell anyone about it?

(Also someone, presumably not you, needs to talk to the HR manager about how her close out-of-work friendship with Elvira is a conflict of interest. At a minimum, it’s going to give people pause about reporting concerns with Elvira.)

2. Interviewing at a company where the executive team is only white men

I (a woman) am currently interviewing for a new position. I do have a fairly stable position that I am currently in, so it’s not super urgent, but I’m pretty miserable and would prefer to move on sooner rather than later. Last week I received an invite to interview for a company that at first sounded like a dream. They use a new up-and-coming technology that I’m passionate about, and they use it in a way that both makes the world a better place and makes them a lot of money.

While researching the company in preparation for my interview, I found that every single member of their executive team and board is a white man. The position I am interviewing for is a senior position and a step down from where I am now, so seeing a valid path for growth is important to me if I’m going to take the position. My gut feel is that I would very quickly hit the glass ceiling at a company that has no diversity on their executive team, and isn’t even ashamed to show that on their website for the world to see. Is there any possible explanation for this that is not what it looks like? Is there any way to have the conversation with them without them feeling like I’m accusing them of something? Is it even worth attempting to have a conversation? I’m sure their response is not going to be, “You know what, we never looked at it that way, you’re right, we’re going to fix that!”

No, it’s what it looks like. It’s not an accident.

That doesn’t mean that they’re flagrant racist and sexists who twirl their mustaches while plotting to maintain their grip on power. It does mean that something’s up in their decision-making, culture, and worldview that has somehow led to only white men having a voice at the top of their organization. Will that change at some point? Maybe. Will it be a frustrating path for the first woman or non-white person who makes inroads into their top leadership? Probably. Some people are up for doing that, and others are not.

But you can definitely go to the interview and find out more. It’s very reasonable to say, “I noticed your executive team is all white men. Can you tell me about what the company is doing to bring other voices into leadership and to create paths for advancement for women and people of color?” If they bristle at that or just give you empty corporate pablum, that will tell you a lot.

3. Is this too many interviews?

I’m currently hiring for an entry-level role at a nonprofit. We’ve had issues before where entry-level candidates think they will be doing substantive policy research with a touch of project and stakeholder management, when actually it is the other way around. My team has spoken to HR about how we are advertising the position (but that is a whole other issue).

My team has organized the following interview process:
1. Screener call with HR from a list of 10 candidates
2. 45-minute call with hiring manager (me) — short list of six candidates
3. 30-minute written assessment. We make it clear that they should spend no longer than 30 minutes on this. Expected to send to 4 candidates
4. 30-minute call with another member of the team — narrowing to 2-3 candidates
5. 30-minute call with executive director (1-2 candidates)
6. Offer

HR wants to skip steps 3 and 4 entirely, saying it’s too much for an entry-level position. However, our executive director does not have the time to speak to more than 1-2 people as anything more than a final confirmation before we make the offer. We’ve struggled with retention in part because I think the interview process has been rushed and not allowed sufficient time for the candidate to get to know the team and the role, particularly before meeting our (wonderful) but at times intense executive director.

Am I off-base? This is my first time leading a recruitment process and I want to be respectful of people’s time and attention.

If these are all separate steps, this is too much for an entry-level position. That’s not to say you shouldn’t be rigorous in entry-level hiring; you should be. But this is too many steps.

Don’t get rid of the written exercise though! At least, not if it gives you a direct look into how candidates actually perform. That’s often more valuable than an interview is. I’d get rid of steps 4 and 5, or at least combine them into one step (so you schedule a one-hour meeting and they spend the first half with a team member and the second half with your ED). I’m curious how much value you and candidates get from those last meetings though, and if you’re looking to pare it down, that’s the obvious place to cut.

If you’re struggling with retention, I’d look at how you’re assessing candidates and how you’re communicating the job and culture to them. That’s not likely a “need to add interviews to the process” problem; it’s a problem with how you’re using the time you have with people in the early steps on this list. (Or it’s a problem with the position itself, the salary, or the wider organization.)

4. Company asks about my financial goals for the upcoming year

I work for a small professional services company (~25 people), and overall I love my job. I’m a higher-level individual contributor, and have been a fantastic performer in my 10-year tenure with the company. Our annual review process is quite detailed and time-consuming, but is taken very seriously by managers, which I appreciate – but there is one question on our self-reflection form that always stumps me. The form asks, “What are your financial goals for the upcoming year?”

I think it is generally understood that this question is meant to give associates a space to ask for a raise, or otherwise negotiate compensation, if they choose to. (After all, my personal financial goals such as “pay off a credit card” or “save for a down payment on a house” are not really any of my boss’s business.)

While I appreciate the sentiment behind this question, I never know what to say in years where I am not asking for a merit-based raise or promotion. In the past I’ve written something along the lines of, “I am happy with my current level of responsibility and financial compensation.” But in truth, I do expect the standard 2-3% cost-of-living raise (and it’s always been given, even though I haven’t asked for it explicitly). Is this a common question to ask in end-of-year reviews? If so, what is a professional way to answer?

It’s a badly worded question because it does sound like they’re asking about your financial goals outside of work, even though you know they’re not.

But since they’re raising the question, why not ask for more money every year? You say you do expect it each year (and it’s not unreasonable to expect your salary to go up each year — at a minimum to keep up with inflation), so let’s be explicit about it. And don’t limit yourself by citing a “2-3% cost-of-living raise.” Say you’d like to see your salary increase “commensurate with my increased contributions, as well as the cost of living.” They’re asking! See what happens.

5. Do employment laws not apply to indigenous tribal employers?

A friend works for an indigenous nonprofit in our state, and made a complaint to HR about harassment they were receiving from coworkers. HR is now retaliating, which I understand to be illegal. But when they contacted an employment lawyer, they were told that none of the usual HR rules apply to indigenous organizations. Complicating matters is that this nonprofit receives federal funding. They have spoken to several lawyers and have heard the same thing each time, but I find it impossible to believe that HR just ceases to exist when an organization serves indigenous populations, particularly when they’re federally funded. Is this true, or have they just spoken to lousy lawyers?

I’m guessing this is a tribal employer. Most federal employment laws, including Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act (the federal anti-discrimination statute), don’t apply to tribal employers, even if they receive federal funds. (This is because the tribes are considered sovereign nations.) Someone working for a tribal organization won’t have recourse in state or federal courts; they’d need to seek redress from the tribal council (and likely would need a tribal law attorney).

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