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

1. Can my company require me to have child care while I’m working from home?

I work for a very small, fully remote (as in, remote even not during a pandemic) startup. There are maybe three dozen employees, tops. Today we had a company meeting and the HR director told everyone that our company requires childcare (she cited the company handbook, but these rules seemed to be flexible/non-existent during most of the pandemic). She said, “Just because we’re a remote organization doesn’t mean it’s not a workplace.”

Which, okay, fine. I do not have childcare, nor have I ever used it—it would bankrupt me. For most of my career, I was a full-time freelancer and able to make my own hours work for me around my kids’ schedule. I moved to this company for the pay, benefits, and stability. My productivity level remains the same, and I’ve even been promoted while working here.

I’m just wondering if a company can legally require childcare without subsidizing it? I feel like they can’t tell employees how to spend their money and raise their children, period, but especially not when it doesn’t affect our job performance and they’re not offering a financial contribution to childcare.

Yes, a company can require remote employees to have child care during their work hours. In fact, before the pandemic, that was bog standard — most companies with remote workers had policies requiring that employees have separate child care if they had young kids because they didn’t want people trying to do both (as so many parents saw last year, it’s incredibly hard/impossible to do both). That fell by the wayside last year because it had to — with schools and daycares closed, there was literally no way for most people to have separate child care, so companies had to be flexible on it or they wouldn’t have been able to employ parents at all.

Employers have been slowly moving back toward pre-pandemic policies on this. It’s not yet back to where it used to be because child care availability is still very low in many areas, but we’ll almost certainly return to those policies once conditions allow for it. If you’re not able to find child care right now because of closures and shortages, that’s something you should talk to your employer about. But if you’re saying you wouldn’t have child care regardless (even in pre-pandemic conditions and with no availability issues in your area) and you want to supervise/care for little kids during work hours, most employers will rightly object to that (it’s similar to how they also wouldn’t okay you working a second job during your hours for them). If your job is one where you have a ton of flexibility with your hours, you might be able to make it work. But it’s a really, really normal policy for employers to have … or at least it was before Covid blew everything up.

Caveat: if your kids are old enough that simply having an adult on the premises is all that’s needed, none of the above applies. These policies are generally about young kids who require more supervision.

2. My manager is upset when I don’t answer her calls, even when I’m in the bathroom

I’m a full-time graduate student and took on a fellowship through my school doing administrative data work for a local organization for 20 hours a week. The position is mostly remote, and the understanding is that I work part-time while I’m taking a full-time class load. I work a few hours a day, and I’m having trouble deciding if my supervisor is being unfair or if I need an attitude adjustment.

My supervisor and I get along well and the work is going fine, but she calls me once or twice a day while I’m on the clock. I’ve picked up most times, but have missed her call twice (and called her back; she calls two or three times in a row when I miss her call) over the past two weeks. This annoys her, and she says she expects me to be by my phone or computer at all times when I’m on the clock. Though I privately thought it was unreasonable, I agreed, and now find myself anxious about using the bathroom or answering the door, and resent feeling surveilled. I don’t think this is sustainable and it doesn’t help me complete my work, but also wonder if I’m being unreasonable — I am on the clock for only a few hours a day, after all.

I want to let her know something to the effect of “I’ll do my best to answer your calls when I’m on the clock, but would appreciate your giving me a few minutes to call back in case I’m in the bathroom or answering the door.” I feel silly even having to say that, but wanted your thoughts on whether my grievance is fair, and how you would approach this with a new manager.

You’re not being unreasonable at all! Of course you will occasionally miss a call because you’re in the bathroom or dealing with an emergency or any of the other things that come up in life.

Related story: I once worked with someone who told her remote employees exactly what your boss told you after one of them missed her call due to being in the bathroom — and it was widely considered a hallmark of how warped her expectations were. In her defense, she backed off as soon as it was pointed out to her; her own boss was an incredible tyrant and that pressure tends to trickle down.

Anyway, I’d say this to your manager: “I thought more about our conversation the other day and can’t realistically say I will never miss a call. I focus exclusively on work during my hours for you but occasionally I will need to use the bathroom. If you call and don’t reach me, please assume that’s the case and I’ll call you back within a few minutes.” My hunch is that she’s worried, unreasonably, that you’re not really in fully attentive work mode during the hours they expect you to be working and she isn’t thinking about things like the bathroom; you might just need to spell it out. But if that doesn’t work, asking, “How would you like me to handle bathroom breaks then?” likely will.

3. I don’t want my new hire working extra hours

I manage a fully remote team. It can be difficult to draw a line between work and life when you work from home. So I try to promote and emphasize the importance of work-life balance within my group. For example, I don’t send emails outside of traditional work hours, I’m flexible about appointments, and I encourage my team to use all their vacation time before year-end.

I have a new employee, Jolene. Day 3 of her first week, Jolene said she would work on something “later tonight, after dinner.” I reminded her then that I don’t expect her to work on this project at night – if she ever needs more time on something, she can let me know.

Today is Monday of her second week, and she just told me how much time she spent reviewing her notes over the weekend. How can I make it clear that Jolene is not responsible for working on these (not-high-priority) projects outside of traditional work hours? (And working nights and weekends does not impress me.)

I’m worried that she will start telling other individuals on my team about her late hours, and they’ll think the expectation is changing for them. I also don’t want her to get burned out, right as she’s getting up to speed.

For context, Jolene has freelanced for a while, and this is her first full-time job in about five years. I wonder if she is still suffering from the old “Cult of Busy.”

Saying that you don’t expect her to work those hours isn’t the same as telling her she shouldn’t.

So: “I’m sorry for not being clearer. I feel strongly that I don’t want you or anyone else on our team working evenings or weekends —  in part because once one person is doing that, the rest of the team starts feeling pressure to do it too. If you’re ever finding you need to work extra hours to keep up with your workload, come talk to me and we’ll figure out how to reprioritize things.” (If she might occasionally need to work extra hours, add “except in unusual circumstances which will only come up a few times a year” or otherwise adjust accordingly.)

4. How do I respond to an apology for misgendering me?

I recently had a situation where someone misgendered me in a meeting, and they followed up with an apology email. It made me realize that I don’t really know how to appropriately respond to an apology like this (or even apologies in general). My conditioning tells me to tell the apologizer that it’s okay, but that isn’t true. I appreciate the apology and forgive them for it, but I don’t know how to express that in a way that’s both professional and not cold.

This is definitely not specific either to misgendering or to emailed apologies for me, but both of those factors make navigating this more difficult for me.

“Thank you, I appreciate it.”

That accepts the apology without implying that whatever happened was okay.

5. I don’t think my daughter’s stepmother should officiate at her wedding

My daughter is getting married in March 2022 and the stepmom has barged her way in to being the officiant. I’m the mother of the bride and this offends me, as the stepmom has never been a part of my daughter’s life and in fact has tried to separate us.

I write a work advice column but what the hell, I’ll answer this.

This isn’t your wedding. It’s your daughter’s. She gets to decide who will officiate, and she’s decided her stepmom will. Whatever you think of the decision, it’s hers and her fiancé’s to make, not yours.

If you choose to make this a point of contention and stress for her during an already stressful time, you’re likely to weaken your relationship with your daughter rather than strengthening it. The most loving and smartest thing you can do is to support whatever she decides and stay out of the rest of it. Showing grace will make you much more likely to be someone she’s glad to have nearby on her wedding day, instead of another problem she needs to solve.

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