contacting friends’ kids with career help, is it weird to seem “normal” at work after a tragedy, and more

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

1. Contacting kids of family friends about career opportunities

This morning, I got an email about a terrific and free leadership program for recent college grads hosted by a highly respected entrepreneur and author. I reached out to a longtime family friend whose son fit the criteria, described the program and the author’s bona fides, and asked for the son’s email to tell him about it directly. (The friend had recently consulted me because the son was deciding whether to move to my area, so I had a reason for thinking he was open to leads from me.)

The family friend gratefully sent the son’s info, including his phone number, so I thought, “It’ll be easier to do a quick chat and then forward him the information,” even though I’ve never spoken to him before.

When he picked up, I didn’t have a practiced pitch or anything. I just mentioned that I had talked to his parent and gotten his phone number from them. I also gave him my full name and my parents’ full names, explaining that we were longtime family friends. I asked if those names rang a bell. He laughed and said no. I forged ahead anyway, and told him there was a free career program that seemed tailored to him based on what he wrote on his LinkedIn profile. Midway through my second sentence, he says, “Bye,” and hangs up on me.

It was a bit of a shock. I could chalk it up to youth or entitlement, but in retrospect, it seems likely he thought I was sales spam, even though I explained who I was. Next time, I’ll ask friends to give their kids a heads-up before I call, so there’s a legit context and my name won’t be completely meaningless. (I could just forward to the family friend instead, but I’d like to err on the side of treating young adults like adults, and talking to them myself. Maybe that’s a bad plan!)

Other than that, is there something else I should say or do in the future when I see possible career leads for friends’ young adult children to whom I’ve never spoken to take what I’m saying out of the realm of robocall? I’m not inclined to tell his parent what happened unless they ask me, because while it could have been a misunderstanding, he was not exactly polite, and I don’t feel terribly motivated to follow up with him. If it matters, he is definitely a person of privilege, so he won’t be hurting for assistance.

Yeah, he almost definitely thought it was a sales call. It sounds like a sales call!

In the future, I’d email, not call. A lot of people, especially younger people, don’t do unscheduled phone calls much anymore, at least outside of work. Plus, with email, you can include the link to more info so they can immediately see if they’re interested. And really, a phone call might feel like overkill for this kind of thing, where you’re a stranger passing on a quick tip that they may or may not be interested in. Email is a much better option.

2. Is it strange to seem “normal” at work after a personal tragedy?

I recently lost a close family member to suicide. I am as okay as a person can be after such a traumatic loss. My boss kindly asks how I’m doing during our one-on-one meetings and I usually tell him that I’m fine or I’m doing good (which I usually am, in the moment!), and we talk a little bit about non-work things. I deeply appreciate that he asks, but I’m wondering if telling him that I’m doing “good” might reflect poorly on me. I went back to work after a week of leave, I’m good at compartmentalizing, and I don’t think my productivity has suffered. I’m acting “normally,” but of course, who can really be “normal,” after something like this? I don’t want to come across as cold or strange for seeming unaffected by a major loss.

How should you behave at work after a tragedy? What level of honesty is professional?

I don’t think you need to worry about it reflecting poorly on you if you say you’re good — if anything, most people are likely to assume it’s a reflexive polite response or that you don’t want to get into it at work. But if you want a slightly more subdued option, “hanging in” and “doing okay, how about you?” are both very useful; they don’t convey “life’s great!” but are still polite ways to complete the exchange.

Talking more broadly about your vibe at work after a tragedy, if you’re acting “normally,” most people will just think you’re holding it together well at work, or work is a useful distraction, or you don’t want to get into it with colleagues. Most people won’t think, “Wow, she’s inappropriately upbeat for someone who’s undergone something terrible — what a cold response.” They’ll understand there’s likely more going on than what they’re seeing.

3. My coworker tries to store her things in my office

My coworker wants to store items in my office and doesn’t ask. Her office is messy and mine is clean, so my office has a lot more space. It helps me work better if my office is not cluttered. Her space does have a lot of office supplies, but it also has a lot of personal items, her own Christmas tree, etc. that aren’t not work-related. Our offices are exactly the same size.

She has put paraphernalia, volunteer gifts, and a gift basket given to us all into my office. I spoke out about the gift basket as I was frustrated, but then I didn’t get any of the items from the basket as a consequence.

She’s now told me that she’ll be storing boxes of files that will eventually be picked up in my office. I emailed her that I would prefer it if she stores them in the boardroom.

Am I being unreasonable? I’d never think to put things in someone else’s workspace just because it’s cleaner. Is it okay for her to just assign my space as storage as her office is full? What’s the etiquette on this?

It’s not uncommon to be expected to give up space in your office if someone else runs out of storage in their own — but not in a situation where the reason the person has run out is because they’re storing a large amount of personal items. In that case, normally it would be reasonable to tell them your office isn’t available.

Sometimes, though, this will depend on political capital; if your coworker has a ton of influence and you don’t and/or she’s very senior to you, logic may not rule this. But if you’re more or less peers on equal footing, it should be fine to say, “I prefer not to have you store items in my office. Going forward, can you keep them in your own space or find another location?”

Of course, this is someone petty enough to punish you by not letting you have items from a gift basket (that she otherwise would have given you, it sounds like), so I’d imagine there will be consequences to this. You might want to say to your boss, “I wanted to mention that I’m asking Jane to stop storing her items in my office just because it’s cleaner. She’s been prickly about it in the past, so I figured I should give you a heads-up.”

4. How can employers let job candidates know they’ll accommodate religious needs?

Reading an article about illegal interview questions got me to thinking about religion and how interviewers cannot ask about that. What if a firm -WANTS- to accommodate the employee’s religious needs? What if the firm wants to, for example, give Muslim employees the five breaks they need for prayer, or not schedule Jewish employees on Saturday, because they’re trying to be inclusive? When is it okay to ask?

There’s actually only one illegal interview question, and that’s asking about disabilities. Contrary to popular belief, it’s not actually illegal to ask about kids, marital status, ethnicity, religion, etc. What is illegal is making a decision based on the answers, and so as a result, smart interviewers don’t ask those things — since there’s no point in asking a question that (a) you can’t take into consideration and (b) might make the candidate think you’re going to illegally base your decision on it. So not strictly illegal, but definitely questions interviewers shouldn’t ask.

Anyway. If an employer wants to offer that they’re happy to make religious accommodations, they can do that without inquiring into a candidate’s religious practices. The way to do it is to have your standard materials for communicating with candidates say something like, “If you need accommodations (for a disability, religious beliefs, or other reasons), we are happy to work with you, both during our interview process and after you are hired. Please contact X to request accommodations.” It’s also good to highlight during the process that you work create an inclusive and flexible environment for your staff and cite concrete examples of what that looks like.

Employers also shouldn’t single our certain candidates for those explanations, like only mentioning it to people who “look Jewish” or “are probably Muslim,” since they’ll get it wrong in some cases and miss people who would have appreciated the info in others (and also, that’s gross). It should be something they present to candidates across the board.

5. What should I say in an away message when I don’t know my return date?

I have an upcoming medical procedure and it’s estimated I will be out four weeks, but it could be longer. How do I create an away message that lets people know I don’t when I will be back? Is it okay to say I am on a medical leave and don’t know when I will return?

That wording might be unnecessarily alarming. I’d go with, “I’m currently out on leave and will likely return in late July (although that’s subject to change).” You could also ask your boss or another colleague to update the timeline in the message if it does change.

View Source