HR jokes about firing people, I want to stop giving reasons for my time-off requests, and more — Ask a Manager

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

1. HR jokes about firing people

This is less a question and more a grievance. HR at our podunk local government has a framed 12×12 meme that reads, “I came here to watch cartoons and fire people. And I’m just about out of cartoons.”

I find it really offensive that they are so flippant about something like that. Am I off-base that this is inappropriate?

Wow, no, that’s breathtakingly horrible.

It’s true that people often develop a sort of gallows humor about the harder parts of their jobs (which can result in jokes that seem really callous to people outside those fields), but displaying something like this on their wall (!) shows a remarkable lack of concern about other people. When you have power over people’s ability to buy food and pay rent, you can’t say things that imply you take that lightly … let alone indicate that you think there’s something funny in what could be the worst day of someone’s life.

Someone with authority over this person should have intervened as soon as it was noticed, and should be taking a closer look at their approach to their work in general.

2. How can I break the habit of giving reasons for my time-off requests?

How can I break the habit of giving reasons for my time-off requests? I seem to be unable to stop giving reasons. I am firmly in the work/personal boundaries camp in theory, but was trained in a give-all kind of mindset. It’s been three years since I left that environment, but I seem to be unable to break bad habits.

As an example of boundaries I am enforcing, so far I have been successful at resisting my urge to give my phone number or be available for questions during time off. To be clear, my managers are not asking me, and my boss mentioned I don’t need to explain myself. But my emails just don’t sound right without it! When I split my bereavement leave up, I wanted to explain why. Or if I need to take off during the busiest part of the month. Or if I want flex time for an appointment, etc. I just can’t do it! How can I break this habit?

I bet it would help if you saw other people’s time-off requests and could see how very normal it is not to include reasons. Without those, your only frame of reference is your previous training. So here are some examples of very, very typical time-off requests (and these could be, and often are, the entirety of the emails):

• “I wanted to let you know I’ll be out this Friday and not online at all.”
• “I’d like to take off May 10-12 if that works for you.”
• “Is it okay for me to plan to use vacation time on May 10-12?”
“I’ll be out next Monday. I’ll have X finished before I go, and Jane is going to handle Y that day.”
•  “I’m under the weather today and am going to take a sick day. I’m hoping I’ll be well enough to be back in tomorrow.”

You need to adjust for your office, of course. Some offices are very “just let your manager know the dates you’ll be out and assume they’ll speak up if there’s an issue” and others are more “ask for permission first, don’t just announce it” (generally with the exception of sick days). But in none of those cases, as you can see above, do you need to include details about why you’ll be out.

Since you’re struggling with this, try copying whatever language above feels the most comfortable to you and use that as a template. Your boss has already assured you that you don’t need to explain further, so presumably you’ll get a positive reply back, which you can take as confirmation that this works.

Keep in mind that your measure of success right off the bat shouldn’t be “I do this and feel perfectly comfortable about it” … but should just be “I do it.” Feeling comfortable with it will come in time, after you’ve done it a bunch and seen it be fine.

3. Should I trade free time for more money?

I have been at my current company for eight years, and hold a pretty high role as an internal consultant. My salary is decent (low six figures), and benefits are pretty good, along with an okay bonus structure. The work itself is … meh. No excitement, no real challenges. The CEO is the owner, and can be very demanding. The upside? I realistically only work 20 hours a week, and am fully remote (even pre-Covid). There is just not that much work for me to do. On occasion (2-3 times a year) I have extensive travel and work around the clock, but it is manageable.

I get great performance reviews and have asked for additional work. My manager is convinced that I am overworked already and doesn’t believe me when I tell him I can easily take on more. Even outlining my hours makes no difference. I have taken up keeping the house clean and doing most of the laundry on company time due to my open time frames.

There are chances for advancement at my job, but it will take 2-3 years before I can be considered, and there are factors outside my control that will influence it, like new clients and their timelines.

I have a former coworker who works at a large, well-known company who is recruiting me for a position that is right up my alley. It is a step up from where I am now, and would be a 30%-ish pay bump with more vacation, etc. The rub? I would be working 40-45 hours a week.

My wife is saying that I should stay, due to the open time I have, and that the pay may not be worth it. I understand that, and get that some people would kill for a job with these benefits/pay and limited hours. Would you recommend moving on, or staying? I am afraid that staying will limit my career down the road, but moving on may end up with me working a lot more than I am used to and that the pay may not balance.

It depends on what you value most! A lot of people would be thrilled for the work set-up you describe, and would value that enough to stay even if it meant earning less and sacrificing some professional growth. Others wouldn’t; they’d start to feel stagnant and would itch to take on more. Neither of these is right or wrong; it’s just about what you personally want from work and from life.

But you do need to think about how well this job is positioning you for the job market in the future. Are you keeping your skills fresh enough and having enough work accomplishments that you’ll be a competitive candidate the next time you need to find a job? Or is the nature of the work you’re doing (and the quantities you’re doing it in) going to hold you back at that point? In the situation you described, it’s entirely possible it won’t be an issue at all (and it’s not something I have enough info to assess from here) — but make sure you’re including that in your long-term thinking. If you do have concerns along those lines, it’s worth thinking about whether there’s more you can do to alleviate that now. (For example, could you propose a specific project to your manager, even though he’s convinced your plate is full?)

4. Should we do first-round interviews in-person or remotely?

Before the pandemic, we almost exclusively did interviews face-to-face unless the candidate was not currently in the same city as us. Then during the pandemic, we interviewed and even hired people completely remotely.

Now that we’re hybrid or more remote, we tend to do a mix but I’ve been wondering if it’s better to do the initial interview on video and then move to face-to-face in a second-round interview because obviously, a candidate would want to see where they’ll be working and meet potential colleagues face to face. My thinking is that it’s a much smaller ask on their time before things get more serious because they don’t need to leave work early or whatever. Thoughts?

Yes, absolutely don’t do first round interviews in-person — that’s a huge demand on a candidate’s time (they may have to take a half-day off work, buy an interview outfit, travel to you, etc.) before you’ve done any substantive screening yet … and before they’ve had a chance to ask their own questions to determine how interested they are.

Personally, I’m a huge fan of phone interviews as the first conversation (and was pre-pandemic as well). Phone interviews are usually a much lower burden on candidates than video interviews are; it can be a lot easier to find somewhere to take a phone call (whereas video presents a higher burden) and they don’t need to worry about what they’re wearing or what they look like. You can talk face-to-face in the next round.

5. CEO said I’d be good at her job — and now she’s retiring

The answer to this one might be obvious to most, but I grew up far from the world of office jobs and I’m pretty unpolished when it comes to business etiquette. (I’ve become pretty senior in my field via subject matter expertise.)

A few years ago, I interviewed to be deputy CEO of a mid-sized nonprofit. In rejecting me, the CEO raved (in writing) about how overqualified I am for any role other than CEO, and how I should be doing her job, and how she’s going to retire fairly soon and I should have her job when she retires. We’ve corresponded a bit since, and she remains encouraging of me applying for CEO jobs.

Now she’s retiring. How do I proceed? Can I apply and talk in my cover letter about what she said? Should I ask her blessing before doing that? It’s a field with sufficiently formalized hiring processes that I can’t just ask her to pull some strings and get the board to hire me. I dropped her a quick note to congratulate her on her retirement and she wrote back a quick thanks without mentioning, “Hey, you should be my successor!” Should I read anything into that other than her maybe being inundated on the day she announced her retirement?

Yeah, I would definitely not assume that her comment a few years ago would translate into her believing you should be her replacement now. Even at the time, I doubt she meant “if I left tomorrow, I would anoint you as my successor”; it’s more likely she meant “you could be a plausible candidate who we would be open to considering alongside other candidates.” (And really, she might not have even meant that; sometimes people puff up their praise, although obviously I have no idea if that was the case here.)

Since now it’s been a few years, she might not even remember the specifics of her assessment of you back then, and I think mentioning “the CEO said I should have her job” in your cover letter might come off strangely — like you’re putting more weight on it than you should, especially to people who don’t know the context. The best thing to do would be to just apply and then send her a note letting her know you did. Include a line like, “When I originally applied with you a few years ago, I recall you said I could be the right match for a role like yours. If you continue to think it could be a strong fit, I’d be grateful if you’re able to highlight my application to the board.”

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