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

1. Employee lied for months about work he wasn’t really doing

I have a small team of developers working under me. We were working on building a new product for our start-up. The main full stack engineer who was building the web interface had been working on it for two months and regularly giving us fake status updates. During this time, we even sponsored him to come to our country from Peru. Now after two months of living here, he just came up yesterday and says that he is leaving for a much better company. And he says that he didn’t complete anything on that web portal in the last two months.

I realize that I have dropped the ball here by not checking out the demo and I shouldn’t have just believed him. But we are working in a very small start-up so there is a huge load divided among us. I am not sure what my options are now. I know I can’t stop him from joining that company. Can we as the company take legal action here?

No. Not doing work that you tell your boss you’re doing isn’t illegal. It’s crappy and it makes him a bad employee, but there’s no legal action to take.

But yes, the lesson for the future is that you need to look at people’s work product often enough that you’ll spot it early on if this is happening — or if something less nefarious is happening, like that your employee is just envisioning something completely different than what you thought you assigned (which is another thing you really, really don’t want to only realize two months into the work).

2. Employee has “bugger off” sign on his door

We have an employee who has a sign that says “bugger off.” One of my coworkers says that it means “F off.” Is that correct? Should he be allowed to have this on his door?

The literal meaning is the same, but the connotations are less … intense than with “F off” (at least here in the U.S.; I can’t speak for other places). But it’s still much too hostile and aggressive a sign for someone to have on their door at work, and it’s beyond reasonable to (a) tell him to remove it and (b) talk to him about what on earth is going on that caused him to put it there.

3. Coworker wants me to turn down my radio

We returned to work in July. First it was one day a week, now it’s two. I have coworkers who try to control the office. One asked me to turn down my radio. I did. She constantly bugs me about it. And takes it upon herself to come into my space to turn down my radio. No one else has mentioned it. She also closed our manager’s door without asking him. She said he was too loud. I think this lady needs to take a chill pill. How can l respond nicely without getting nasty?

“I’m sorry about that, and I’ll use headphones from now on.”

It’s pretty inconsiderate to play a radio at work, unless it’s a group decision that everyone has bought into and everyone agrees on what’s playing (or agrees on a system for choosing what’s playing, like taking turns). Otherwise it’s a type of noise pollution in other people’s work environments — and if your coworker is constantly bugging you about it and turning it down, that’s a clear sign that it’s disrupting her and so you need to use headphones. Her ability to focus on her work trumps your desire to listen to the radio.

4. How do I respond when my manager is disappointed in her own work?

What’s the best way to handle it when your supervisor has messed up or faced some disappointing outcome at work, and is clearly upset about it?

For context, I’m an attorney in a litigation role. The cases we handle are not terribly emotionally sensitive or political, but it’s not uncommon that my supervisors will be visibly upset (still in a work-appropriate way) after a particularly tough oral argument, especially if they feel like they made a mistake.

I’m not sure what to say/do when a supervisor comes to me and says something like, “I really messed up my response to X,” or “I shouldn’t have conceded Y,” especially when sometimes I think they’re right. I don’t think they’d appreciate a white lie like, “No, I thought your response to X was great!”

The approach I’ve been taking so far is just to say something in the moment like, “I’m so sorry, but X was a really tough question — we prepped a lot, but didn’t have any way of anticipating that they’d focus on X so much. It happens to everyone. For what it’s worth, I thought you did really well on A and B.”

Is there anything more that I can/should do other than that? If it was a colleague my same level, I’d feel more comfortable reaching out with supportive emails containing gifs of baby animals or something, but it doesn’t feel like I have the standing to do that for my supervisors.

The language you’ve been using is good! I might drop the “I’m so sorry” just because it hits me as a little too pitying. And maybe the “It happens to everyone” too, depending the context. But the general structure of “X was really tough / didn’t see that coming” and sometimes adding “A and B went really well” is a good one (as long as you can do the latter without it seeming patronizing).

5. How long should I hold onto equipment from a former job?

I had a side hustle that was initially halted in the initial pandemic lockdowns. When “normal” life “resumed,” I decided to quit the gig. I used equipment that belonged to the company I worked for, and when I resigned, they said that they wanted it back. However, their headquarters are in a different state, so they asked me to hold onto the equipment until they hired a new person in my local area. Then they would have me pass on the equipment to the new hire.

This was about 14 months ago. I still have the equipment and have not heard from them about it at all. I did reach out by email around Easter about it, but I did not hear back. It’s not a big problem for me to store, though it would have been were I still living in a small apartment. I’m just wondering what’s a reasonable amount of time to hold on to it, and whether I should be more assertively trying to return it, or if it’s really theirs to chase down at this point. Also what if they never follow up? What do I do with it then?

Contact them and say, “I was happy to store this while you were hiring a new person in the area, but it’s been 14 months and I’m concerned about continuing to be responsible for it. Can you make arrangements for me to get it back to you in the next two weeks?”

If it’s something you can ship, ideally the company would set up a shipment where they’re covering the charges. If it’s not shippable, it would be reasonable to give them a little more time to figure something out (like a month, not another 14 months). In that case, just be clear about what you need — for example, “I do need the space back, so can you make plans to pick it up by the end of October or let me know if you’d prefer I donate or dispose of it?”

If they never respond or if they say they’ll handle it and then don’t, at that point you send one more communication: “I haven’t heard back from you so this is notice that I plan to dispose of the equipment unless you arrange otherwise by October 30.” If you really want to be safe, you can send that by certified mail.

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