assistant became abusive when she wasn’t invited to a meeting, my coworkers don’t check on people who are out sick, and more — Ask a Manager

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

1. Our assistant turned abusive when she wasn’t invited to a meeting

I work in a small office (five owners/managers, including me, and three assistants). Three of the managers are siblings, and one assistant, Kate, is the cousin of one of the managers. For years, we have allowed all eight people to attend office meetings. Unfortunately, this has morphed into the three assistants feeling entitled to ownership-type opinions regarding investments and office policies. It is nearly impossible to make a decision with eight people. For the last year or so, one manager, Bob, has requested that the meetings be managers only. It has been significantly more efficient.

For the most recent meeting, Bob again requested managers only. Someone mentioned that Kate wanted to be included, but the message was that Bob said no. The meeting wasn’t a big deal — we basically rehashed the same tired old questions that we discuss almost every time (should we eventually sell the company or pass it off to our children, what if one person wants out but the rest don’t — same-o, same-o). I typed up the minutes outlining the various opinions expressed and summarizing the meeting. No decision were made. I sent the summary only to the managers, but Kate got ahold of a copy.

The meeting was 10 days ago. Since then, Kate has gone ballistic. Every single day, I get 2-3 emails and/or texts about how mean we are, how we make the assistants feel like outsiders, how she has valuable opinions, she deserves a seat at the table, she refuses to be part of “taxation without representation,” she will no longer invest any money with the company (for the record, she never has), I have a bad attitude, she doesn’t know how I got so nasty. Quite the river of vitriol. So far I have not replied. The reality is that it wasn’t my decision; I am just the messenger. Bob made the request. I have always solicited input from everyone, and I am a big fan in theory of a completely level playing field, rather than a rigid hierarchy. But it has been much more efficient meeting only with the managers, and some of the decisions frankly need to be manager only (like selling the company someday).

I hate to pull rank on her, but this nastiness is debilitating. Any suggestions, other than “I’m sick of your drama”? I don’t really want to dump it all on Bob because his manager-only approach has been a good one, but I also don’t want to be the punching bag for her insecurity or controlling behavior, or whatever it is.

What on earth! How was Kate’s behavior allowed to get to this point without any of the managers stepping in to shut it down? I’m guessing it’s because Kate is someone’s cousin, plus some of that aversion to hierarchy, but you can’t effectively run an office this way. The reality is, there is hierarchy — some of you own the company and have decision-making authority and some of you don’t — and as this incident with Kate shows, you’re not doing anyone any favors by hiding that fact.

Right now you’re thinking of this as a sort of interpersonal dilemma (“I’m sick of your drama”), but you need to address it as a work issue between a manager and an employee, because that’s what it is.

One of the owners needs to talk to Kate and tell her what she’s doing is unacceptable (all else being equal, it should probably you since you’re the one she’s directing her hostility toward). Explain that the owners play a different role and have different responsibilities than she does, she needs to accept that if she wants to stay on, and she cannot send vitriolic messages to anyone on staff, including you. If it continues after that, you really, really need to let her go. You can’t conduct business with this happening in the background and it’s not okay for her to abuse people … plus, think about what working around her must be like for the other assistants, who don’t have the authority to shut her down. This will be complicated by the fact that she’s someone’s cousin, but you can’t let it continue (and if you do, you’re just asking for ever more outrageous behavior from her in the future because she’ll know there are no consequences).

2. My coworkers don’t check in on people who are out sick

My coworker, Jane, and I are close and we work on a very small team of six. A month ago, Jane went on leave to have a pretty major surgery. She was supposed to be on bed rest for a couple weeks following surgery, then back online for the month following, and then back to the normal hybrid office/work from home schedule by March. Well, she had some surgery complications and she’s been on bed rest for way longer than originally expected.

I know the details because I’ve been in regular contact with her. I texted her the day after her surgery and wished her a speedy recovery and we chat pretty regularly. She mentioned to me that I’m the only one on the team who has said a word to her since her leave. She told our lead when her recovery plans changed and what was happening with that and it sounded like our lead didn’t even ask how she was holding up or if she was okay or anything. The rest of the team, this is pretty expected, but I feel like our lead should have shown some form of human empathy.

But then it also happened to me on a much smaller scale. I got Covid and was out for a week and a half recently. I wasn’t hospitalized but I was pretty miserable. One of my teammates did reach out and ask how I’m holding up, which I appreciated. Other than that, only Jane has been asking me how I’m doing. My lead has been radio silent the whole time other than telling me to come back to work when I’m ready in response to me telling her that I’d probably be out for the week. I wasn’t expecting an outpouring of empathy or anything, but even just a mid week “how are you holding up?” text would be nice. The relationship I have with my team otherwise is fine. I guess I’ve just never been on a team that couldn’t care less about the others.

Is this normal? Should I just temper my expectations and know that aside from Jane and the other coworker who reached out, the rest of my coworkers are just kinda chilly? Or is there something I can/should do about it? It feels weird to have a conversation with my lead about empathy, but it also feels weird that she in particular showed no signs of any for two people on her team, one of which had major surgery.

I think you’re reading chilliness when it’s not there!

Not contacting people who are on sick leave isn’t unusual, and it doesn’t signal that people on your team don’t care about each other. If anything, it’s more common for teams not to message people who are out sick. It’s definitely true that your team lead should have expressed some basic human concern when Jane told her about how her recovery plans needed to change. But beyond that, it’s very normal for people not to check in with coworkers when they’re on sick leave. They want to leave you alone so you can rest and not think about work.

(Also, some people would take leads/managers checking in as pressure to return more quickly, and a lot of managers have it drilled into them that they shouldn’t bother people who are out sick.)

3. The company owners tell us how much money they are making, but none of us make a living wage

I work for a small, relatively new company in a new booming industry in the state. Most people working here make $15-18/hour, with abysmal benefits. At weekly company-wide meetings, the business owners regularly talk about how they have become millionaires due to the company. At the last meeting, the owners stated that they are forecasted to make millions of dollars in revenue by the end of this year, and discussed how rich they are for the next 20 minutes. As I am sure you can imagine, this is extremely grating when no one who works for them makes a living wage!

How would you suggest we handle this? It seems that most people are annoyed, but these are the owners so most people feel their options are limited. Unfortunately, we live in the rust belt so for most people, this is the best job they can get.

That’s incredibly oblivious and obnoxious. That’s the kind of thing they should discuss privately. It’s hard to imagine what kind of reaction they think they’re going to get from their far-lower-earning staff.

The next time it happens, are any of you willing to say, “It’s great to hear the company is doing so well. Is there a plan to put some of the profits into raising staff salaries to more livable levels?”

If that feels too confrontational to do on the spot, it still might be a good time to ask for a raise separately. If they balk or cite the budget, feel free to mention the numbers they’ve been sharing with the staff.

we got quizzed on our new boss’s horses, family, and vineyard

4. Jet lag as a pre-planned sick day

I have a U.S.-based employee who has been working internationally many time zones away for a few months. In the upcoming weeks, they are traveling back on a work day (let’s say Monday) using personal leave and then asking for all of the next day (Tuesday) to be “tentative” sick leave based on jet lag. How should I handle the request to use sick time for jet lag?

Potentially unnecessary context: they are a solid performer who asked to work internationally more than the allotted month allowed due to family needs. Those needs are fulfilled, and the employee is able to return to the U.S. earlier than originally scheduled, but still beyond the typical stint of working fully remotely. They have been accepting work and meetings at all hours of the day and night (local time – though that’s just daytime in the U.S.), so it hasn’t had much impact on their day-to-day. This is a company where there is a lot of employee trust around sick days, though HR has defined it as an “illness or injury.”

Seems reasonable to me. They’re saying they won’t be in any shape to work due to exhaustion and their body readjusting; that’s close enough to sick leave for me, and as a general rule it’s good to look for ways to say yes when you can.

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