should you mention an employee’s smell during a reference check, and more

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

1. Should you mention an employee’s smell during a reference check?

A few years back, I managed an employee who was on a performance plan and was on the verge of being let go. A new position opened in a different department and much to my chagrin that department manager hired her. Her performance was no longer my concern, but I know she continued to cause problems in the new department for a few years. She left on her own about a year ago. She had three different jobs in the course of the year. I had never been listed as a reference and neither was the other manager here.

Recently, she applied for a job with a company that both I and her former manager at my same company work with quite frequently. We were obviously on her resume as she had been here a total of six years. A third manager for a department she never worked in here was a reference and they provided a glowing recommendation. The hiring manager, who I know, called me and asked about this employee. I was honest and straightforward in my assessment, as I had good and bad things to say about her. She also contacted the other manager, who said much of what I did — the good and bad.

Fast forward and this company has hired her and she’s been there a week. I received a call today from the hiring manager, who was livid that my coworker and I didn’t mention this employee’s smell. She was the smelly person at our company, for sure. (While she was in my department, I addressed it with her several times. After leaving my department, the new manager had HR address it with her a few times.) At the time I was giving the reference, I had not seen her in over a year and would not have commented on her hygiene after that amount of time. Was that wrong? It never even crossed my mind to mention this, but should it have? Is it different since the hiring manager is someone I know personally and they expected more candid information? Now that this person is mad at me, do I need to do something to repair that relationship?

Hygiene is something lots of people wouldn’t feel comfortable mentioning in a reference, especially for someone they hadn’t worked with in years. Hygiene can also be linked to medical issues (including things like depression), which isn’t an appropriate area to comment on in references.

It’s also reasonable for you to assume that if it were still an issue, the hiring manager would have been able to pick up on it herself in the interview (assuming it was a consistent issue and not a sporadic one).

And honestly, it’s pretty crappy for a manager to call her new employee’s former boss from years ago to complain they weren’t warned about the person’s smell.

I don’t know. I can see why she’s frustrated — no one wants to have to have that most awkward of all awkward conversations with an employee — but I think her anger is misplaced. Whether you should try to smooth it over depends on how close the relationship is, how often you talk, and how much you depend on her good will, but it would be awfully petty for her to hold this against you long-term.

2. I almost knock people down every time I’m walking around the office

I work in a large office that was converted from a warehouse — we have many areas of cubicles. My department has probably 60 configured all which way. It can be kind of a maze. It seems like I cannot walk anywhere without almost slamming into people. It just happened again, I was walking to and from the restroom and almost barreled into two people coming out their doors, two different times. I’m not a big person, like 5’3, 130 pounds. Is that the problem? Too short to see what’s coming? And I am admittedly a fast walker. Any advice on how to avoid collisions?

The maze configuration probably isn’t helping, but if you don’t see it happening to other people, I’d bet money it’s the fast walking — it’s not leaving enough time to sense and make way for people coming out of a door or around a corner. You could test that theory by decreasing your speed one day and seeing if it makes any difference.

But I doubt it’s your height unless the people you’re bumping into are disembodied heads, in which case that’s just a hazard of working in a maze filled with disembodied heads.

3. Am I being a scrooge about my employee’s lunch break?

I am a first-time manager with one direct report. I am exempt but she is not. Her role is a mix of solitary work that she does at her computer and user-facing, but she needs to be available to our users if someone needs something. We work standard 8-5 days, and the expectation is that we are generally available during working hours. Our state requires non-exempt employees to have at least a 20-minute break after five hours of working, but our company policy provides everyone a one-hour lunch break that is pretty well respected at our office. Some people will read and eat at their desks, some people go to the lunchroom and socialize, some people eat out, etc.

My employee likes to eat her lunch at her desk while she works and then use her “lunch break” much later (around 2:30) to run errands, talk on the phone outside, watch YouTube videos, etc.. In the past this has been fine since she has plenty of work she can do at her computer while she eats, and I want to do my best to allow her to use her breaks however she wants.

Recently though, I’ve overheard her saying to people who approach her for assistance while she’s eating, “Can I help you with that after I eat?” Because lunch hours are nearly sacred around here, people immediately apologize and say they’ll come back later. The issue is that later she’ll actually be on her lunch break. Because the eating and the lunch break are not one and the same, I’m becoming irritated that she’s doubly unavailable. I’m worried that I’m being too much of a stickler here because I know that she is actually doing work while she is eating. My sense is that she doesn’t want to get up from her desk or talk to someone in the middle of it. I’m hesitant to bring it up because a) I’m not sure that it’s really a problem, and b) she has a hard time taking feedback in general without taking it extremely personally (which is something we are working on).

Should I let it be, or is this something that is worth a course correction conversation even if it will mean a week of frosty demeanor from her?

You need to address it. If she’s not taking her lunch break until later in the day, then she needs to be available when people come up to her while she’s eating, since the role does require that kind of responsiveness while she’s on the clock.

To be clear, there are lots of jobs where it’s fine to manage your own time and to tell people who come by while you’re working on something else, “Can I finish what I’m doing and come by your desk afterwards?” But since you said she needs to be available if someone needs something, that’s not really in line with the expectations you laid out for her role.

But the frosty responses to feedback are a much bigger issue, especially if it’s making you hesitant to address issues like this. Don’t put off tackling that — it’s got to be addressed right away and it’s got to stop.

(Separately, your state law requires a 20-minute break after five hours of work, which is 1 pm if she starts at 8 am. Legally you need her to take that, which means you might want to ask her to take lunch no later than 1 pm.)

4. How do employers feel about unpaid vacation?

How do employers feel about people taking unpaid time off for vacation (rather than illness, family emergency, etc.)? I love to travel and for the moment have no personal obligations like kids to prevent me from doing so. I work at a government agency where we each manage our own caseloads, meaning that me taking time off doesn’t create more work for others. I’m extremely efficient, get all of my work done ahead of time and done well, and volunteer to take on additional projects. I also burn through my vacation time every year.

Because I work for the government, there’s no real possibility of negotiating for extra paid vacation time based on my performance, but I’m fortunate enough to be in a financial position to absorb a week of unpaid time off here or there. I would like to ask for this occasionally (once or twice a year), but I’m concerned that it may send the wrong message to my employer. I plan to work here for a long time and I do want to advance within the agency. Do managers see people taking unpaid extra vacation as a sign of lack of commitment to the work?

The bigger issue is that employers usually hire for jobs assuming they need you at work a certain number of days per year. If you get, say, four paid weeks off a year, they assume you’ll be there the other 48 weeks, and they plan their staffing levels accordingly. If people are taking unpaid leave on top of their PTO, then the employer ends up with fewer person-hours per year than they planned on and can end up understaffed.

This is also one of those things that isn’t necessarily a problem when one person does it but can become a big problem if lots of people do it, which is why a lot of employers don’t allow unpaid leave except in unusual circumstances, like sickness or getting married or a once-in-a-lifetime trip.

That said, you can ask and see what answer you get! If you’re a good worker who’s known to be conscientious, asking isn’t going to make you look uncommitted. I suspect working for the government makes a yes significantly less likely, but that’s just a guess.

5. Can I remove older, less relevant work experience from my resume?

I graduated in 2010 and had an internship for six months. However, I couldn’t find a permanent position for about two years. I did some freelance work, but it’s not relevant to what I do now. Now that I have seven years of permanent experience, I want to remove that period after graduation from my resume. I will list my education without the graduation date and then provide my work experience from 2013. If a potential employer asks me about the graduation date, I will tell them and explain that I did freelance work. Is that a good idea or will it look like a red flag? I just don’t want to have irrelevant short-term experience on my resume.

That’s totally fine. Your resume doesn’t need to be an exhaustive account of everything you’ve ever done; you’re allowed to choose to include only the most relevant jobs. It often makes a lot of sense to let older, less relevant work drop off.

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