Thursday, April 22

I Overheard a Client Badmouthing My Team columnist Alison Green answers questions about workplace and management issues–everything from how to deal with a micromanaging boss to how to talk to someone on your team about body odor.

Here’s a roundup of answers to five questions from readers.

1. I overheard a client badmouthing my team 

I recently had a voicemail from a dissatisfied client with whom we frequently collaborate. She had called to notify me of a mistake made by my department, but at the end neglected to hang up her phone properly before commenting on my team’s lack of intelligence and other similarly unflattering remarks.

Of course I plan to follow up with her on a course of action to address her initial complaint, but should I make any mention of the end of her message? What do I say?

Green responds:

Assuming I’m reading your letter correctly and her remarks at the end weren’t intended for you to hear, I’d just take it as useful background information — now you know that you have a client with real concerns about your team. That’s useful to know and can guide your response in ways other than just directly telling her that you heard her comments.

That said, depending on the relationship with the client, it’s possible that it could be useful to address it head-on by saying something like, “At the end of your message, before you hung up, the voicemail recorded you saying X and Y. I don’t think that was meant for me to hear, but obviously I want to make sure we address what’s causing you to feel that way. Here’s my take on the situation / how I’m handling the situation / etc.”

But let your knowledge of the client and the relationship be your guide about whether or not that would help more than harm.

2. I asked my employee to have his emails forward to me while he’s on vacation

I manage a small team (me and three employees). One of my employees is getting married and leaving for two-week honeymoon in Fiji, which is awesome. Since we have a lot of ongoing projects-many of which need our attention at a moment’s notice-I asked him to auto-forward me copies of his emails so if something comes up, we can respond right away. I kind of think this is a reasonable request, and my employee agreed to do this, but I still feel just a bit scuzzy-like I’m intruding on his privacy or something. Our company does not otherwise monitor emails. Am I wrong to feel scuzzy about this? Is this a normal request? Did I overstep my bounds asking for this?

Green responds:

In some fields that would be unusual, while in others it wouldn’t be uncommon. It depends on the type of work your employee does and the types of emails he gets. Of course, if it is unusual for his role and he feels uncomfortable about it, he’d probably feel obligated to agree since you’re his boss. And I do think a lot of people would feel awkward about this — since who knows if he occasionally gets personal emails there or other stuff that isn’t obviously wrong to do but still not things he’d be thrilled about going straight to his boss.

A typical alternative is for the vacationing person to set up an auto-reply explaining that he’s away and asking people to contact Person X at (email address) instead of him. If that would work in your situation, that would be the way I’d go instead.

3. I’m worried we won’t have a temp for my maternity leave

I disclosed I was pregnant five months ago and noted my due date of September 12 at that time. It is now August and my boss still has not posted the position for a temp fill-in. We are an office of three people, and so having a temp is crucial. My boss expects me to train this person, yet refuses to take any steps to hire anyone that isnt referred to him personally. What can I do to protect myself from being expected to come in during maternity leave and/or train someone while I’m supposed to be on leave?

Green responds:

You can let your boss know right now that you won’t be able to do that. Say this to him: “I want to make sure you know that I could go out on leave as early as (date) and that I’m going to be 100% unavailable once I do — I won’t be able to come in to train someone or help out once that happens. So if you want me to train the temp, that person should start no later than (date).”

He’s now warned, and then you just stick to that. Remind him again right before your leave that you’re not going to be available, and if you do get contacted, either ignore it or take a week to respond and then say “nope, that won’t be possible.” (And know that if you’re taking FMLA, there’s something called “FMLA interference” that makes it illegal for your employer to keep contacting you or to try to get you to come in.)

Beyond that, this isn’t your problem — don’t make it yours.

4. Do people think thank-you’s for gifts are optional?

For two years, I supervised a graduate student employee. In May, I bought her a graduation gift for her last day. When I handed her the wrapped gift and card, she said a hollow-sounding “Aw, thanks!” and dashed out of my office without opening it. It’s been over a month at this point and I’ve received no thank-you whatsoever. I’m so annoyed about her seeming lack of appreciation and poor etiquette. Amplifying my irritation is the fact that I used my personal money to purchase the items since our office budget does not allow for gifts, and the recipient knows this since she was part of an office-wide meeting where the restrictions were mentioned. I commented about the lack of thank-you note to a younger coworker and she was nonchalant about it, saying she often forgets to send thank-yous for gifts.

Am I expecting too much? I feel like a grumpy elder complaining about “disrespectful whippersnappers”- I’m mid-30s, while she is mid-20s — but have we really gotten to a point where a thank-you note for a gift is optional?

Green responds:

Well, technically, etiquette has never required thank-you notes for gifts that are received in person and where the giver is thanked on the spot. The requirement is for a thank-you, not for one in writing. So your employee fulfilled the letter of the law, although not the spirit of it. Although, of course, since she didn’t actually open in front of you, she should have followed up with you and expressed more specific appreciation once she found out what the gift was.

In any case, how are this person’s social skills in general? I’d be more inclined to write it off to interpersonal awkwardness or lack of social graces from her in particular than as a sweeping sentiment about the state of thank-you’s in general. There have always been people with poor manners; etiquette columns have been answering upset letters about lack of thank-you’s for decades.

5. We can’t get a word in during conference calls

My company recently merged with another company in another state. Some departments, including mine, ended up split between the two locations. There is a concerted effort to use tech to keep everyone on the same page, with lots of scheduled conference calls.

The problem: conference calls can be awkward, with all the normal problems of meetings minus the ability to read facial expressions and body language. The folks in the other location often start late. And more than a few of them really, REALLY like to hear themselves talk. It’s not uncommon for them to go off on tangents and then run out of time to cover everything or hear from everyone. Sometimes when one of them is opining at length and one of us in my location wants to add a comment/question/correction, we open our mouth and take a breath, ready to jump in at the next opening, only to be left gaping like a fish over the conference phone as the speaker plows right through any millisecond of dead air. When this happens repeatedly in the same meeting, we’re left feeling shut down/shut out, sharing frustrated looks with each other as the person on the other end blathers on.

We don’t want to be rude and raise our voices or interrupt someone, but it’s difficult to get a word in edgewise sometimes. Any tips on how to make sure we can contribute in a timely way and be heard in conference calls with our colleagues?

Green responds:

Whoever is running these calls is failing at facilitating them. That person should be cutting people off if they’re going on and on, and should be specifically asking if anyone on your end of call has anything to say.

So say something that person ahead of the next one. You should be able to be pretty direct and say something like, “On our end of the calls, we’re finding it really hard to get time to speak — people tend not to leave any room for us to jump in. Is there a way to specifically carve out time for us to talk — like checking in to see if anyone here has anything to contribute before the call moves on to the next topic?”

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