employee doesn’t want to leave her baby, I keep getting assigned work that’s not my job, and more — Ask a Manager

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

1. Employee doesn’t want to leave her baby

I work in higher education and manage a small staff. Recently, we have been able to get vaccinated, which is causing upper management to set dates for when we return to the office. One of the staff members I am managing had a baby during the pandemic and has been able to be home with her child since the baby was born. In a recent one-on-one meeting with her, I mentioned that we are expected to return to the office full-time in a few months. She expressed concern about this because her baby does not like to be watched by anyone other than her. She does have a toddler who attends daycare during the day but when she sends her baby, she has to go pick her up after a hour or so because she is crying the whole time.

I am not sure how to deal with this situation because I also have kids and if they don’t return to school, I will be home with them even though my staff will have to return to the office. She has spoken about this because she does not think it is fair that I would remain home when she would be expected to return to the office. I am not sure how to address this with her because I want to be understanding of her situation, but her baby will have to adjust and also will be one by the time we return full-time. I get that she doesn’t want to have her baby cry all day, but I feel like she needs to figure something out if her current kid care situation is not working. She is upset that we are not able to be flexible and allow staff to work from home all the time, but this decision is not mine to make and she is not the best at managing her time when she works from home. Can I force her to put her baby in daycare all day knowing that our relationship and her relationship with upper management will be tarnished? Also, as a side note, I would love to be back in the office instead of watching my kids, homeschooling, and working full-time every day of the week.

It’s not unreasonable to expect people to return to work when it’s safe to come back (really safe, not magical-thinking safe), assuming their jobs can’t be done just as effectively from home. And when that happens, presumably employers will expect people to arrange child care for their kids just like was expected in the Before Times (assuming child care opens back up and is accessible again, but it doesn’t sound like accessibility is the issue here).

That’s not you “forcing” your employee to put her baby in daycare; it’s that outside of a pandemic, having a full-time job usually does mean arranging for someone else to care for your kids.

However … the fact that you might continue to work from home to watch your own kids while everyone else goes back to the office is likely to cause some resentment unless you deliver very clear messaging about why that is. For example, if your job can be done fully from home while your team’s cannot, you’d want to be sure to explain that really clearly. (And even then it’s still likely to cause some resentment, but it’s not an inherently unreasonable policy.) If there isn’t a reason like that, I think you’ve got to rethink why it’s okay for you but not for them … or at least accept that it’s going to demoralize people.

2. I keep getting pulled into work that’s not my job

I work as a technical writer in an engineering industry. I love my career. It’s great fun to research and document new technology and software. But in the last 10 years, in every job I’ve had, I slowly get pulled off working with documents to do project management tasks. Currently I work on Project Coffeepot, the problem child of the department — always behind yet still brings in big bucks.

I’ve kind of figured out how this keeps happening, but I don’t know how to stop it. I’m very organized, I write well, and I understand how my industry works big picture. I get that these traits are also useful in managing projects. But I don’t want to do project management. It’s boring. (No offense to PMs.)

It starts as an urgent request from the project lead to quickly pull together some info — no one else is available, please help! I do a good job and the next day there’s another request — hey, let’s expand your doc tracking to cover all tasks … and it snowballs. I do cost projections, yearly schedules, and detailed status briefs. I develop and track work assignments for senior engineers and their teams. I brief the customer directly. And more. Did I mention that we have a PM team who can and should do much of this stuff? I’m so busy I’ve had to assign my docs to other tech writers to get them done.

I’ve tried using your suggestions with both the project lead and my supervisor: “I took this position because I thought I would be doing lots of teapot documents. Lately it’s all about coffeepot stats. How can I switch back to teapots?” They reply, “We really need you to do these tasks. You understand complex Project Coffeepot. You always do a great job.” “What about Wakeen? He’s the Coffeepot analyst.” “Well, Wakeen doesn’t quite have your depth.”

Any advice on how to grin and bear it while I’m stuck on this project? I’m not looking for a new company; overall I like it and want to stay.

It’s time for another conversation with your manager, this one more serious: “I was happy to help out in a pinch, but this is not the work I came on board to do. I like it here and don’t want to leave, but I need to be doing technical writing. I can’t overstate how important it is to me to have a plan to get me back to that in the near future. Is that something CompanyName is willing to do?”

Any decent manager is going to understand that the subtext there is “I will move on if this doesn’t change.” If that doesn’t change anything, I think you’d need to assume it’ll be like this for the foreseeable future and decide if you still want to stay under those conditions.

Depending on internal politics there, you could also try just saying no to the work outside your role. If someone begs for your help on something PM-ish, in some cases you could just say, “Sorry, can’t do that — I’m swamped with XYZ.” (That may or may not be doable on your team though.)

There’s another option too, although it has some risk: If you’re getting pulled into this work because you’re good at it … you could stop being good at it. Or at least stop being as good at it. (And since this keeps happening, make a point of keeping those particular strengths under wraps in future jobs.)

3. Screening out bigots in interviews

A member of our team was recently fired. There had been numerous problems with this teammate, including various remarks made to women and gay men that were not acceptable. So now the search is on to find a replacement, and HR has decided this time the rest of us on the team (instead of just the manager) will get to do our own group interview with candidates, so we can judge whether they are a good fit for the team.

Sounds like a great idea, but we haven’t been given any direction on what is and is not okay to ask. My concern personally is that we don’t hire another homophobe. But how do I make that judgement? I can’t flat out ask, “Are you comfortable working with gay men?” Can I? One thought I’ve had is to say, “I’m [name], and I live in the [part of town] of [city] with my husband and dog. [more basic personal info].” If they make a face or seem taken aback, red flag. Is this a reasonable approach or is there a better way?

HR is falling down on the job here! Asking your team to interview candidates without giving you any guidance about how to do it effectively and legally is … not the way to solve the legal problems they were trying to solve when they fired that guy.

In any case, sharing information about yourself is fine to do. But you’ll likely get a better sense if you ask about these issues more directly. For example, you could ask, “To what extent have you worked on teams with diversity of race, gender, and sexual orientation, and what have you learned from those experiences?” If this person will be managing anyone, you could ask, “Can you tell me about a time that you had particular success in building an equitable and inclusive team or when you faced an obstacle in doing that? What happened and how did you approach it?” That might be taking a broader approach than you want if you’re really just trying to find out if he’s going to make sexist or homophobic remarks, but I’ve asked questions like this in interviews quite a bit and you learn a lot about people from their answers. (The questions also signal something about your culture to your candidates, which is useful.)

4. How to ask vendors to leave me alone until after the pandemic ends

I have a wide variety of responsibilities in my role and am regularly asked to consult on things outside my primary functions. I love this variety in my work, but it often means that I can’t dedicate a lot of time to something or that things end up on the back burner. I’m struggling to find a way to communicate to people that some of the things they’re asking me for aren’t high enough on my priority list to get done any time soon.

I think I’m pretty good at setting expectations among coworkers because they’re familiar with the other work I’m doing, and I’m getting better at letting go of the guilt I feel when I say “no” or “not now.” But I’m struggling with how to communicate this with people outside the company like vendors and consultants who we’ve worked with in the past (and hope to work with again in the future). Most recently, I’ve been contacted several times by our representative at a training organization that, in non-COVID times, we use pretty regularly. But over the last year, it just hasn’t been anywhere near a priority for us as a company and certainly not for me as the point of contact.

In my head, I want to say, “Please leave me alone until this pandemic ends because I cannot fathom taking on one more responsibility right now and we are just trying to survive this madness,” but obviously that’s not the professional answer! My boss agrees on my priorities, but I can’t seem to shake the guilt when I know this rep is also trying to make sure their business survives. The times I’ve attempted to push back, the sales tactics kick in and make me feel worse. Any advice on how to phrase a professional “leave me alone, temporarily” or how to let go of my guilt?

It’s actually kinder to be straightforward with them! It saves them time and helps them plan if they know they’re not getting business from you any time soon. So be up-front and say something like, “We’ve really cut back because of Covid and won’t be able to do any work with you for at least the next two quarters. I hope we can in the future, but for now, I’d say check back with me in August” (or whatever timeline you think makes sense … and don’t make it shorter just to soften it). Or you could say, “I’d love to give you a timeline for when to check back, but realistically we won’t be able to do anything until the pandemic is over. I’ll contact you at whatever point we’re able to work on something again.”

5. What should I say in a cover letter for a job I’m already doing part-time?

I am currently employed on a part-time contract for a job that has just posted the role as a full-time position. I am trying to write a cover letter and I am unsure of how to approach this. I know I cannot just say “I am perfect for the job because I already do it really well.”

This is a “show, don’t tell” situation. Don’t just announce that you’re perfect for the job or that you do it well; show that by sharing specifics about what you’ve achieved in your time doing the work. For example, “By doing XYZ, I was able to clear out a backlog of three months of overdue invoices and we’re now consistently on time for all payments” or “My work spotting and fixing errors in the membership database caused our March mailing to have our lowest-ever return rate” or so forth.

Basically, imagine you’re writing to an employer who you don’t already work for and need to explain how you’ve excelled at your current job. Don’t assume they know the details; spell them out. (Often people in your shoes figure, “Well, they already know about the work I’m doing.” But they may not know with the same level of detail that you do, and some of the people involved in hiring may not know at all. Help them see!)

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