denying a new mom’s request for remote work, punny edits to work docs, and more — Ask a Manager

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

1. Denying a new mom’s request for remote work while approving a different one

An issue has cropped up at my partner’s job, and I’m curious about your take on it. Pre-pandemic, the job was 100% in-person. During the pandemic, the company went remote. Post-pandemic, they returned to 100% in-person per the CEO, despite everyone proving they could work remotely, no drop in productivity, etc.

In the last year, two women (same position, same duties) got pregnant. They gave birth a few months apart. Woman A had one child. As she was getting ready to come back to the office, she asked to work from home two or three days a week because of a problem with childcare. This accommodation would last for one month to resolve the childcare situation then she could return to work full-time and in-person. She was denied.

Woman B had triplets. Just before her return to the office, she announced that she was relocating to a different state where she has family to help out. She also said that she would keep working for the company full-time, but in an office located in that state. The thing is, she’s going to remain a full-time employee of my partner’s office. So, basically, she’s working in a corporate office, but because she’s in another state, she’s working remotely.

No one is happy about this for so, so, so many reasons. While I know manager’s discretion is a thing, is this legal? It seems like they accommodated one person and not another despite the fact that their situations are the same (both just gave birth, both had childcare issues, etc. I know giving birth to one is different than three, but I don’t know if that makes a difference here).

It’s legal. It’s legal to treat different employees differently, even within the same job, as long as it’s not based on a protected characteristic like race, religion, sex, etc. (and intentions aside, as long as it doesn’t have a disparate impact on people in a particular protected class). That doesn’t mean it’s always smart or good management — although sometimes it is — but it’s legal.

In this case, it’s possible that Woman B is considered more valuable, so the company is more willing to accommodate her to avoid losing her. Or maybe since Woman A was only asking for a month-long accommodation, they’d rather have her extend her leave by a month until the situation is resolved. Or, who knows, it could just be the personal whim of the manager, or a manager who doesn’t accommodate anyone until it’s obvious that they’re quitting otherwise, or all sorts of other things.

But it’s worth noting that Woman A was asking to work from home and Woman B was asking to work from a different office and those are very different things. A company can dislike people working from home while being fine with them working from a different office. Woman A was also asking to work while simultaneously caring for a baby, and it’s not unreasonable for an employer to decide that’s not practical.

Regardless of the cause, though, it sounds like they’ve mishandled the communication around the decision. They might have avoided the reaction they’re getting now if they’d done a better job of explaining their reasons for each decision.

2. Job applicant didn’t tell me she’d been fired after applying

I was pulling together an offer for the top candidate for an open position. Let’s call her Mary. I work in higher education and Mary works in a different part of the same university.

Well, not exactly.

My HR officer reported back that Mary had been let go from her current job during her six-month probationary period. Mary applied on 10/15. Her termination letter was dated 10/28. My first interview with Mary was on 11/6.

During the interview, Mary did not share that she had been let go. However, I did not directly ask if she had been. Instead, I asked about her interest in our position and why she wanted to make the switch so soon.

Should Mary have volunteered this information? Most of the advice I see online tells people not to talk about being fired. I can’t help feeling like Mary lied to me and I am hesitant to hire her if I don’t trust her.

If she just didn’t volunteer the information, she didn’t lie. When she applied with a resume listing the job as current, it was true. As long as she didn’t then talk in the interview about the job as if she were still there (“I’m currently working on a project doing X, which we’ll launch in February…”), she didn’t lie to you.

It’s very, very common for people to be unsure about how to handle the situation was Mary was in and — as you saw — a lot of the advice out there tells people not to proactively raise it with an interviewer (but still be honest if asked), including mine.

If you have questions about what led to the firing, you can certainly ask Mary about that, but I wouldn’t penalize her for not proactively alerting you that it happened.

3. Punny edits to work documents

I’ve just started a new job at quite a prestigious marketing firm. One of my new colleagues, let’s call him John, was on leave during my first few weeks. Everybody was hyping him up as the life of the office, a real character, can’t wait for you to meet him, etc. etc. Alas, turns out his brand of humor is pretending to mishear instructions, e.g. he’ll respond to “could you fetch the printouts” with “why would you want me to fetch primordial ooze?” and then he’ll try to maintain the joke for another minute or three. (Note: he’s definitely not hard of hearing or buying time to process.) It’s an unfunny annoyance, but whatever.

However, his other party trick is editing puns into work documents. I work on the text side, while John designs. So, if I send him 10 banners to design, one is bound to contain a naughty pun when it comes back to me for feedback. He’ll also sneak “puns” into file names — so a PDF named Marketing_batch_3 might come back as snarky_batman_3 (that’s not even funny!). At my previous gig, this was a DEADLY SIN. You would get raked over the coals! The risk of a punny document being circulated? And reaching our clients, who take their subject matter very seriously? I’m astounded that nobody seems openly bothered. As a newcomer, and with him being obviously popular, I’m not sure what to say.

Since you’re new and everyone else seems to find John hilarious, you probably don’t have much standing to say or do anything, other than privately roll your eyes. The exception to this would be if you’re in a position of authority that gives you standing to address it — like if you’re John’s boss or the person with the most ownership of the documents he’s working on. Otherwise, though, chalk this up to different offices tolerating different things, even when they shouldn’t (and make a point of checking the name of every single file John sends you).

4. Are visibly mended clothes still professional?

I’m a huge proponent of sustainable fashion, which includes mending my own clothes as needed. Recently I had to mend one of my work shirts that had a rip in a place where my best option was to apply a patch. It’s about as visible as most stylized elbow patches, and in a complementary color to the pattern of the original fabric, but given the placement it’s pretty obvious this wasn’t an original design feature. Can I still wear the shirt in a business casual office? Would the answer change if the mend was as noticible but more decorative, like embroidering a flower to cover a hole?

For context, the dress code at my office is more like “creative business casual.” Jeans and t-shirts aren’t allowed, but one of my boss’s favorite button-downs has an unsubtle pattern of skulls, another person tends to wear tops and pants in very loud contrasting prints, etc., and in most ways I’m one of the more conservative dressers in the office. I’ve had a few positive conversations with my boss about sustainable fashion, as its tangentially related to our field, and I’m sure I could just ask, but I’m curious as to whether you think “no visible mends” is a universal/reasonable rule in the same way that “no visible holes” would be.

A visible mend via a patch should be fine in all but the most conservative dress codes (and even in a lot of those it would still be fine). In an office where the boss is wearing a skull shirt, have zero worries.

5. Including a background check with your application

I’ve been listening to a podcast that has a lot of ads for a background check service that says including a background check with your resume will give you a leg up. This is ridiculous, right? If a company wants a background check, they won’t trust one you do on yourself!

Yeah, this is weird and not helpful. I assume the intent isn’t to imply this would replace the background check the company would run on you, but rather is supposed to demonstrate that you’ll be able to pass it … but “can pass a background check!” is not a terribly exciting qualification on its own (especially since more people pass checks than not) and it’s likely to make you seem naive and/or out-of-touch with professional norms. This company is just trying to make money off you and you should ignore them.

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