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

1. Another manager complained about my employee

I work for a small company and we have a part-time student employee who reports to me. About a week ago, another manager came to me and politely asked if she could “borrow” my staff member for a small project and I agreed. I was a little disappointed when a week later, she emailed our leadership team (department heads) to complain about my staff member supposedly slacking off on the project. I asked my staff member if he was given a timeline for completing the project. He said he asked the manager and was told that it was not a high priority and he can complete “just whenever.”

I see this action as unprofessional on the part of the other manager because her email seems intended to throw my staff member under the bus when her role is to help the team complete company goals. How should I look at this situation and do I need to address this with her or my staff member?

It’s bad management and bad communication from your colleague. First, she should have given your employee a clearer sense of the expected timeline for finishing the work. Second, if she was concerned about his pace of work, she should have spoken to him and/or you. This isn’t something to email an entire leadership team about.

Speak with her directly now, say that your understanding from your employee was that he was told the project was “as time allowed,” and ask what the actual deadline is. Also, ask her to speak with you directly in the future if she has a concern about someone on your team, so that you’re in the loop and can help handle it. Feel free to say, “I was blindsided by your email about this, since I hadn’t heard anything about it and he tells me he hadn’t either.”

2. Senior execs keep using me as an advisor

I’m a mid-level professional and throughout my career have found that executives or very senior colleagues like to bounce ideas off of me for how to deal with people-related issues. For example, I once worked for an executive recruiter who would talk to me for hours about how to pitch a particular candidate or bring on a new client, and insisted that I was helping her a lot (I was 25 at the time, not sure how I was actually helping, but that was a large part of my role). Recently, I took a call from a grand-director for a group I’m temporarily working with, and he appreciated my input so much that he gave me a teamwork award through our internal kudos system (worth $500!).

So here’s my issue: my director on this project is struggling and has been calling me about how to prep for some tricky meetings, which is fine. But then a team member (Suzie) exploded on a call and announced she wanted off the project, then hung up. It was dramatic. The director called me to discuss it and wanted to just casually sideline Suzie. I pushed her to make a decision about Suzie — either implement a staffing change or keep her on the team but with a discussion around what’s up and changes that need to happen. I also mentioned that the director had made some mistakes with the team and project, and the discussion might go better if she started out by acknowledging those mistakes.

The director said yeah, that’s true, and asked me if I could be on that call with her. Um … I declined in an email a few hours later and she understood. But this is feeling inappropriate. I don’t usually work with this group and am here as a project manager, so not really involved much on the project work itself. Does that make me removed enough that I can function as a trusted advisor to someone three tiers above me? Part of me feels like this is a real skill that I should lean into, and another thinks that these are very senior level decisions way above my paygrade and I shouldn’t really be butting in. But I also know of some roles where more junior people are very trusted advisors to executives. Is that what this is? What do you think?

This happened to me throughout my career and I leaned into it because I liked doing it, found the issues interesting, and started seeing professional benefits from it. If you like it and you’re good at it, I’d keep leaning into it. The essential thing is to make sure that you set boundaries when you need to — like what you did when you said no to being on that call with Suzie (that was the right response! you didn’t belong on that call). You will sometimes find people like that exec who aren’t great at this stuff and are excited to find someone who can give them good advice, and who will then try to lean on you more than is appropriate. Without a clear sense of when to put up boundaries and say no to those requests, you can end up being asked to function with a level of authority you don’t actually have while your coworkers are rightly thinking “why the hell is Jane in this meeting?” and “isn’t Jane my peer?” and that can cause all sorts of problems. But if you stick to being a sounding board behind the scenes and you’re good at it, eventually you will probably see rewards from that, whether it’s more formal authority (and commensurate pay), a higher profile, more trust from people with influence, or so forth.

3. Could I have resigned before I got fired?

I was recently dismissed from my job after not being 100% successful with the conditions established by a PIP. In hindsight, I definitely feel like it should have been obvious to me at a point less than two weeks from the PIP’s end date that I wouldn’t have been able to succeed. If I had realized that then and given a two-week notice, do you think that the company and I would have parted on better terms? Or do you feel like, if that was only done less than two weeks before the PIP end date, they would have still terminated me, even with me opting for a better way out?

I also wonder about returning to that company in the future, in a different role. I am doing well in my new job don’t foresee leaving anytime soon. However, my industry has people frequently moving places, and there are a lot of things I do like about that company. If in the far future I see openings in another department which are closer to what I currently do, at which I’m far more successful, would I have a chance of being hired by that different department, assuming my current trend of success continues? Or would HR or the other department’s leadership not consider me, based on the circumstances of my previous dismissal?

You can nearly always resign during a PIP if you prefer to. It’s usually better for the company if you decide to (then they don’t have to fire you and usually won’t need to pay unemployment, and generally managers just prefer people to leave on their own if possible). The only exceptions would be if they uncovered something they felt they had to fire you for (like embezzlement or punching a coworker, although even then sometimes people are allowed to resign instead of being fired) or if you had a particularly horrid and vindictive manager (although if you quit before they fired you, they don’t get to undo time).

Whether a different department there would consider you in the future depends both on company and on what the performance problems were. Some companies are happy to do that; others consider anyone they fire to be ineligible for rehire. Some managers will be willing to look at what the previous issues were and decide if they think it could be a problem in the new role (for example, attitude issues or attention to detail are probably a no-go, but someone who struggled with coding applying for a job that has nothing to do with coding could be fine). It’s hard to know for sure, but you could always give it a shot down the road and see what happens.

4. Asking to WFH when it’s in my offer letter but I haven’t been doing it

I got recruited for a new opportunity with a promoted title, much higher wage, better medical benefits, more manageable workload, more in line with my professional passions … needless to say, it was an offer I could not refuse.

The one caveat of this job: it’s not primarily remote, which was a major bummer for me as I am much less stressed and more productive working at home/remotely. It’s just not a big part of their culture here, but (especially during COVID) when people do need to work from home occasionally, it’s not a big deal and is not frowned upon. I do recognize the benefits of collaborating in-person in an office. However, I did negotiate in my offer letter to include that I am permitted to work from home 1-2 days a week.

Well … I haven’t been doing that. I have been coming to the office almost every day to work. I’ve only worked from home on a handful of occasions, despite the fact that I’m allowed to do so more often. The reason being … I feel guilty! I’m one of only a few positions here that has the ability to work remotely, so I feel bad doing so when my coworkers can’t as easily.

Recently, I had an “aha” moment, courtesy of my family’s advice: “That’s not your problem. Your position can work remotely. You negotiated it in your offer letter. It’s not your fault that they can’t.” That flipped a switch in me. I DO deserve to work remotely. I’d love to do so 1-2 days a week like my offer letter states, but I don’t even know how to bring that up with my boss because I haven’t been working remotely on that schedule for the entire six months I’ve been here. Do you have any advice for how I can frame my ask? Any language you’d recommend using? I want to take advantage of what I negotiated! I’m tired of thinking I don’t deserve it.

One option is to frame it as a deliberate decision that makes you look extra conscientious — “I wanted to wait to begin the 1-2 days a week from home until I’d settled in and gotten familiar with everything. Now that I’m six months in, I’m planning to begin the remote 1-2 days/week we’d settled on when I was hired and planned to start with next Thursday at home.”

Do it now though! The longer you wait, the more risk there is of your boss feeling like it’s less what you agreed to from the start and more A Change that she wants to sign off on. I think you’re probably close to the borderline of that risk now, so don’t wait any longer!

5. Contact info for references who are retired or dead

I’m retiring from an long career as a mathematics professor and dean in higher education. In my golden years, I’d like to work part-time as an instructional assistant with students in our local public school. I have always felt that this is the place where teachers make the most difference, by setting children off on the right foot, and I want to help with that effort. These are typically part-time jobs that pay minimum wage and require no more than a high school diploma or GED.

While applying for such a job, I’m finding that they require that I list every job I have ever held (six in the past 30 years) and provide complete contact information, including phone numbers and email addresses, for all supervisors I’ve ever had. Some of these people are no longer living, and many of them are retired themselves. At the same time, these fields are required, and the application system won’t let me bypass this section.

I understand and agree that it’s important to check the background and character of anyone who works with minors, and I certainly don’t think that I’m “special” and deserve to bypass the system. However, short of using a Oija board, I have no idea how to manage this part of the process when the people they are asking me to reference aren’t available. Do you have tips?

It’s fine to just list contact information for the employer itself (like the school) rather than individual managers; they’ll be able to verify your employment by contacting the school. If you want, you can include a note like “manager now deceased” or “manager retired” so they have that context. They’ll likely still want you to provide individual references they can speak with at some point, but for this part of the process, just contact info for the school or the department you worked in should be fine.

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