coworkers have infested the office with gnats, asking for documentation for dietary restrictions, and more — Ask a Manager

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

1. My coworker mistreats employees and no one will do anything about it

I’ve been working at the same company for a while now (over 5 years) and over time, I have seen a trend that does not seem like it will ever get addressed. I have a co-worker, let’s call her Kathleen, who frequently oversteps professional boundaries with colleagues, especially junior staff. She has directed them to run personal errands, calls them late at night to talk about her personal issues for hours, many times while intoxicated, and organizes social events but excludes team members, despite leadership being invited.

She is also known to give harsh feedback (has yelled in the past), undercut her supervisors when they are not in the room, and reassign work that should be assigned to her. I feel like we keep rotating out her direct reports, who are mostly junior staff because she is so hard to work with. If Kathleen were a man, I think she would have been reprimanded by now for the inappropriate phone calls.

Her habits are well known and many of my colleagues come to me to vent and ask why things have not changed. I think it is because our leadership has a soft spot for her. Kathleen has had a tough life. She does not have a lot of friends and this job is her world, which I think blurs the boundaries. But this is impacting the morale of a growing team! How can I bring this up to leadership in a way that could result in changes? The last time this festered, I was told to stop talking about it and that junior staff should just not answer her calls.

If you brought it up and got told to stop talking about it, I’m skeptical that trying again will be any different. Maybe you could get traction if you speak up with a group of colleagues rather than on your own, but I’m not optimistic.

Can you instead focus on making sure the people who work for Kathleen are supported — that they know they can ignore her late-night calls and say no to running personal errands, and are otherwise empowered to enforce appropriate boundaries with her? That’s not really enough, but it might be all that’s in your power to do.

2. Is it legal to ask for documentation for dietary restrictions?

I recently traveled to a work meeting where some meals were provided. Unfortunately, there was a mixup with catering for one of the meals, and this meant that there were no options for attendees with certain dietary restrictions, including me. This was unfortunate and uncomfortable, but things happen. I bought a modest lunch with my company credit card and submitted the receipt for reimbursement, along with the meeting agenda as required.

I received a message asking why I bought lunch when it was provided per the agenda because per the company policy, “If a traveler chooses to substitute an outside meal for a meal otherwise included in a conference registration, the outside meal is considered a non-reimbursable personal expense.”

I acknowledged that yes, lunch was included with the agenda, but unfortunately, none of the lunch options accommodated my dietary restrictions. The lunch that was delivered was meat sandwiches and I cannot eat gluten and do not eat red meat. I noted that there was a mix-up with catering and included the message of apology that I received from the hosting organization.

When I was told that did not constitute an exception and I would need to pay for the meal, I sent a message to the business office indicating that I understood that there was a question about my purchasing of my lunch and noting that my purchase of the lunch was not a choice. I could not eat the lunch provided because none of the options accommodated my dietary restrictions so, in essence, a meal was not provided.

Initially I received this reply: “Thank you for your explanation on why you purchased lunch on [date] when the meeting agenda stated that lunch was already included. [Department] will approve the expense report with the purchase lunch included.” But then, I received this follow-up message: “Could you please provide a copy of your medically documented gluten intolerance?”

A colleague who also attended the meeting ran into the same issue because they are vegetarian. Once they shared that the lunch didn’t offer vegetarian options, their travel expense was processed without request for further documentation.

Never mind the different processes for different employees, is it legal to ask an employee to provide documentation for dietary restrictions in this or other circumstances?

Employers can legally require you to provide documentation to establish that you need a medical accommodation … but it’s ridiculous to bother asking for it in a situation like this. The accommodation wasn’t onerous, and they’re probably spending more in staff time questioning it than what your lunch cost and they’re doing that at the expense of your good will. Plus, as your vegetarian coworker’s experience demonstrates, not all dietary restrictions are medical in nature (which is undoubtedly why she wasn’t asked for documentation).

3. My coworkers’ plants have infested the office with gnats

I need help navigating an annoying topic with coworkers who I truly do get along with but don’t seem to see the problem I do. Several of my coworkers have adorned their offices and the common spaces between in person plants. So. Many. Plants.

And while I am happy they are flexing their green thumb, some of these plants have come along with a gnat infestation. I am swatting away gnats all day and I don’t even have plants in my office. We’ve all commented and complained about the matter but I’m the only one who has brought in fly paper and other remedies in an attempt to kill the little suckers off, no one else seems to care enough to try. And I’m the only one without any plants in the office.

I’m sick of spending my time and money on other peoples’ plants. Please help before I really do go gnats.

You’ve got to talk to whoever has some authority to fix this — whether it’s by putting some money into gnat eradication or telling people to take their plants home or some other solution I haven’t thought of. Right now you’re relying on sort of cajoling people into fixing it on their own, and it’s not working; you need someone with authority to step in (which I suspect is likely to mean a plant ban, but who knows). So: office manager? Facilities person? Whoever has authority over your physical space, go to them and say this: “We have a gnat infestation because of the plants people have brought in. I am swatting away gnats all day, despite bringing in fly paper and XYZ. Help!”

4. My old boss was horrible … right?

Last year, I had a job I hated. I was a personal assistant, and I worked exclusively for my boss. I was 25, and my industry has a culture of demanding bosses and assistants. Not only did I not gel with my boss, I wasn’t great at the work. However, the pay was good, so I committed to getting better. My boss even said that he’d seen improvement a few weeks before this fustercluck.

Then, over the course of a weekend, I learned that my mother had cancer, my grandmother was dying, and I had Covid. (For the record: my mother recovered, my grandmother held on, and my Covid was mild.) I didn’t handle it well, and my performance suffered, but I thought I was holding together. Then my boss called and screamed at me for falling behind, asking why I was failing. I’ll admit that I could’ve handled things better — I was very emotional — but once he had me crying, I blurted out that my mother had cancer. My boss grudgingly agreed to “back off,” but said that I should have told him about my mom’s diagnosis first thing (?). I felt violated, because I’d had personal information bullied out of me, but what could I do? No way I’d be punished for worrying about a parent with cancer, right?

Wrong! A week later, I had another surprise call, where my boss and HR put me on a PIP out of nowhere. The PIP gave me three months, and considering that I already wasn’t the best assistant, I took it as a nudge to find something else. I kept quiet and started job-hunting, because there’s no way I’d be punished for a job hunt I was all but told to start, right?

Wrong again! Two months into my PIP, my boss called and confronted me about “interviewing around.” Apparently, one of his industry connections (I refuse to use the word “friend,” because this man has none) recognized me as an applicant. I was shocked, especially since he was acting like I’d betrayed him — he kept asking if I “seriously thought I could get away with this.” I replied that I was under the impression my PIP was a soft exit, and he seemed flabbergasted and said it was not, and that I was “betraying all the hard work he put into me.” I decided to resign, since it was clear I had no future with this man. I stayed for a month, lied at my exit interview, and got spectacularly drunk to celebrate my last day. (To my ex-boss’ credit, he did give me a good recommendation. Faint praise award?)

Now that I’m in a normal work environment, this is bananapants, right? Even back then, I thought my boss’ actions were unprofessional. Now that I have more distance (and a normal boss), it feels downright abusive. Expecting a subordinate to disclose a family member’s health issues, abruptly putting them on a PIP a week after you literally screamed it out of them, and then accusing them of betraying your trust when they take the a hint and job-hunt — that’s bananapants verging on banana-tuxedo, right? Yes, I kind of already know the answer! But I’m still dealing with PTSD from working under that man, and I’m selfishly seeking vindication from someone other than my (in remission, thank god) mother.

Verdict: bright yellow bananapants with a jaunty banana hat.

You perfectly identified all the problems: (a) screaming at you, (b) saying you should have told him about your mom’s diagnosis first thing (what? no), (c) accusing you of betraying his trust by leaving, and (d) being shocked that you were job-searching when you’d been warned your job was in jeopardy. Bananas all around.

5. Am I getting bad advice from my campus career center?

I am about to graduate and enter the workforce, so I’ve been diving into your cover letter category and using the advice there to help me craft a letter to apply for my first ever “real” job. I found the advice and examples given to be very helpful in writing a personable letter that highlights my experiences.

However, when I took my cover letter draft to my college’s career planning service, I received some very different advice. I was told to use only business-formal language and to follow a template. I was also told to add in 2-3 “skills-based” paragraphs with a topic sentence (an example I was quoted reads, “I possess strong communication and collaboration skills”) and to end each paragraph with directly relating the skill back to the job. The career planning person advised ending the letter with “I would welcome the opportunity to discuss my interests and skills further in an interview” because “Remember to ask for what you want — an interview!”

I am a bit confused, as the end result felt stiffer and much more formulaic, and to me resembled more of the “before” cover letter examples on this site than the “after” letters that resulted in jobs. Is this bad cover letter advice? I know my cover letter isn’t perfect; I just want to follow the right advice to make it better. I am extremely new to the workforce and have never written a cover letter before, so my only experience with them comes from meeting the career planning advisor and from reading the examples on this site.

I’ve attached the template I was told to use, as well as the cover letter that I brought to the meeting and wrote using the advice on this site.

A sentence I have unfortunately typed many times: ignore your campus career center. Some of them are good, but a lot of them give terrible advice and yours appears to be one of those. The cover letter you sent me was really good — better than most! Their advice to you would significantly weaken it.

The strongest cover letters are conversational, not stiffly formal (at least in most industries; lawyers seem to hate contractions).

There’s nothing wrong with using a template, but you don’t have to adhere to a specific template if your letter works just fine without one. There’s also nothing terribly wrong with ending a letter by saying you’d welcome an interview; that’s a pretty standard, generic thing to say and it’s not a problem that they suggest it … but you don’t have to, and it does seem like they’re nitpicking you based on the belief that you must follow their (very generic, bland, and unexciting) template rather than on any ability to evaluate your letter as a whole.

You might find it interesting to ask the person advising you there what their background is; you’re highly, highly likely to discover they don’t have any significant experience hiring people (some career centers are even staffed by current undergrads with almost no work history).

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