coworker sent me his racy photography page, do I need to give my coworkers gifts, and more — Ask a Manager

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

1. Coworker sent me his photography page — and it’s mostly racy portraits of women

I’m a woman in my late twenties and I work at an entirely remote company of about 250 people, although we get together for events once or twice a year and see each other at trade shows. Because of this, although I’ve worked here for seven months, I have met most of my coworkers on other teams only once, at a multi-department, multi-day event a few months ago.

I joined another (all-male) team’s weekly meeting to present a project I had worked on for them. During my presentation, one of the members I had met during the big event sent me a “good to see you again!” message, and I responded to it after the meeting with “great to see you too!” He then followed up with “did you know I do photography in my spare time?” with an Instagram link. Although I was a little dubious, I clicked on it hoping it would be nature shots … it was not. The vast majority of the (to my untrained eye, pretty good? I guess?) photos are of women, and while some are just regular headshots, some are tasteful nudes, in lingerie, or just … pretty sexual? I feel deeply uncomfortable and am not sure how to proceed. There is also possibly a cultural or language disconnect — I am American and he is Northern European and not a native English speaker.

As I see it, I could message him back directly, talk to my boss (who is amazing and I would feel comfortable talking about this with), or progress directly to some sort of HR report, which I feel like would be a big escalation without discussing with him directly, but I also … do not want to respond at all. We’ve never even talked about photography before! Why did he send me this? I feel so uncomfortable! How would you proceed?

Ugh. He sent it to you because he doesn’t care about boundaries and he’s getting something out of sending you a page with nude photos. It’s not about his photography hobby; you don’t even know him and he brought it up out of absolutely nowhere, with no context where it would be relevant. I’m sure he thinks he has plausible deniability because it’s his “hobby,” but he doesn’t.

I completely get not wanting to deal with it, and you’re not obligated to if you’d rather just ignore it. It’s exhausting having to take on the labor of responding to this stuff. But if you do want to say something, personally I’d respond with, “WTF dude? You just sent me a page with nude photos. Totally inappropriate for work.” (Adapt language as needed to fit your own style.) And then I’d forward it to my boss in case it’s part of a pattern. If you’d rather just do the last part, that’s fine too — it’s perfectly reasonable to transfer this burden to your boss to deal with rather than you having to be the person who stresses over what to do about it.

2. How to avoid constant questions from job candidates who haven’t yet been invited to interview

I am involved in recruitment for my team and we often have many applicants. Invariably, I receive numerous emails asking questions about the role, or even that I call them to discuss these questions.

I am happy to respond to a simple factual question not adequately answered in the job ad (say, is hybrid work an option, expected travel time, etc.) and for a highly specialized role with few relevant candidates I’d also be open for more pre-interview discussion. However, mostly we hire generalist entry- to mid-level staff from a relatively large pool of possible candidates, and the questions posed are either sort of pointless/already described in the job ad or in-depth questions I would only want to discuss while interviewing candidates. As has been mentioned on your site before, it is rarely well-qualified candidates that do this, and I honestly don’t want to spend time on unqualified candidates other than the screening.

What I am lacking is a polite response to those reaching out with overly detailed questions. I want to protect our organization’s image, and a poor candidate for this job may be a good candidate for another job, perhaps later in their career, so I don’t want to come off as rude or too rigid. Do you have any suggestions for such a response?

Yeah, in my experience, the vast majority of people who do this aren’t contacting you because there’s something crucial they need to know before they decide whether to apply, but because they want to try to pitch themselves and make a connection that they think will give their application a boost. (Of course, make sure your ad really does have enough info in it, but you can have the most informative ad in the world and you’ll still get these calls.) I agree it’s different when you’re hiring for a hard-to-fill, specialized role — but the rest of the time it’s typically a better use of your time to steer people to the actual hiring process that you’ve established for each side to learn more about the other.

I often use language like this when a candidate sends over questions that would be impractical to answer over email (whether because there are so many or because it doesn’t make sense to delve into them in depth at this stage): “It would be tough to do justice to these questions in an email, but we’ll make plenty of time to discuss them in detail if we move forward to an interview. So if you’re interested, I’d encourage you to apply and we can go from there.”

Or if they’re just asking for a phone call for vague reasons: “Were you thinking of throwing your hat into the ring for one of our open positions? If so, I’d encourage you to do that as a first step. We get a tremendous volume of interest for our openings and we’ve found that the best way to get to know people and explore the possibilities is to steer them to the process we’ve created.” Or even, “Because we get a high volume of interest in our open positions, we’re not generally able to set up calls outside of our hiring process. But I encourage you to throw your hat in the ring and we can take it from there!”

Caveat: make sure that your application process isn’t time-intensive. If you’re requesting more up-front investment than just a resume and cover letter, it’s going to alienate people if you also decline to answer any questions first.

3. Do I need to buy my coworkers gifts if they bought me gifts?

I work for a large company and this year relocated to one of our satellite offices in a different city. The small office has about 20 employees, none of whom work in my department (all my coworkers who I work with are based at headquarters). Even though we don’t work together, I often chat with my “cubicle neighbors” to pass the time, and while we aren’t super close, we’ve gotten to know each other. Many people here have worked together many years and so some have close-knit friendships outside of work. I prefer to keep work and my personal life separate, so I’m not trying to become close beyond an amicable work relationship.

We had an office holiday party for the 20 of us, and there was a “white elephant” gift exchange, which I participated in. (Everyone brings a gift, you pick from the pile or can “steal” etc.)

In the days after that, the five people who sit closest to me, who I know best, gave me separate gifts. Nothing extravagant – things that probably cost $10-$15. I thought this was very sweet, but I was surprised. I’ve worked in corporate jobs for about a decade and have never received a holiday gift from a coworker, outside of the occasional gift exchanges for the whole office – and this year, I’ve received five! No one on my actual team (based at headquarters) got me a gift, either this year or in past years when we worked in the same office. I’ve wondered if it’s just a cultural difference – while we’re a large company, this office has a more of a “small company” feel due to the office size.

Do I have any obligation to buy gifts in return? I don’t really want to; it seems like a hassle to think of something for everyone, and I don’t want to set the expectation that I’ll buy gifts for several people every year (especially when I already participate in the gift exchange), and it seems odd to buy my “office neighbors” gifts but not my actual coworkers. I think this is reasonable but am I committing a social faux pas buy not getting them gifts in return?

Nah. It very likely is a cultural difference due to the small office size, but you’re not obligated to give gifts back. You could do new year’s cards if you’d feel better doing something (or could do that next year if you want), but as long as you thank them warmly for what they gave you, you don’t need to reciprocate if it’s not your thing.

4. An observation about updates

I’ve noticed over time that a good number of updates involve someone ultimately leaving the job they were writing about. Do you think that’s because writing the letter to you is the catalyst for people to realise it’s time to move on regardless of your answer?

I’ve had something similar happen with a relationship (where telling a friend out loud that I wasn’t happy made me realize the answer was to break up rather than continue to be unhappy) so it seems plausible that it would be the same for job relationships.

It’s a good question! I do think that often by the time someone is moved to write in, the situation is bad enough that they’d likely start thinking about leaving anyway. But it’s also true that the act of writing out your question can clarify the situation for you — and sometimes that can mean that you realize how bad it is, or that the only real solution is to leave. (And I’ve heard from a number of people who say, “The act of writing my letter made me realize what you would say, so I didn’t even need to send it to you.”)

Other times, though, it’s just normal professional churn — sometimes people leave for reasons that aren’t connected to the situation they wrote about. Or it’s connected in a less obvious way — like that what they wrote about was really the tip of the iceberg, and there were a bunch of other problems there that ended up making them flee, beyond what we heard about in the letter.

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