intrusive medical questions at work, do I seem too busy, and more — Ask a Manager

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

1. Answering intrusive medical questions at work

Last fall, a recurring medical issue led to me having a bowel resection and being fitted with a temporary colostomy. I am not ashamed of this — the six-year-old up the street has asked questions and I am happy to educate him! — and have been open with my coworkers, friends, and family about both the challenges and the good parts of it, when they have asked.

My ostomy bag is partially visible under most clothing. There are ways to hide it, but for me they are physically uncomfortable and like I said: I am not ashamed. It saved my life. But that doesn’t mean everyone has a right to know what it is.

My problem: I work for the federal government in a public-facing, social-work-esque position. This means I work face-to-face with a whole lot of people who don’t have the capacity to understand why they shouldn’t ask “What’s on your stomach?” or “What’s under your shirt?” or “Are you pregnant?” And while I am happy to talk about it, I don’t want to talk about it with strangers, all day every day, at my job. It isn’t coworkers so it isn’t something my bosses can fix. But it is certainly something I can get in trouble for if I snap rudely at the wrong person.

I told the curious six-year-old it was something my doctors gave me to help me get better, because he knew I was sick. (He wanted to see it after I told him that. He’s awesome.) Is that the most polite way to tell people who don’t understand social norms that it’s none of their business?

The return to working in the office has been physically exhausting. All of the three major surgeries and a total month in the hospital over both Thanksgiving and Christmas was emotionally exhausting. I am barely holding it together even with my physical recovery improving, and I am in the middle of a physical set back anyway. I know that the wrong answer is to yank up my shirt and say, “I shit out of my abdomen, fuck off.” But what is the right answer that is both fair to my mental health and the understanding of the fact that the people who ask almost always don’t understand why they shouldn’t ask?

Aggggh, intrusive questions. I realize in this case you’re dealing with a population who aren’t necessarily at fault for asking, but I’m sure that doesn’t make it any less exhausting.

The simplest response is probably just, “It’s a medical device” in the hopes that you could leave it at that. If someone asks for more details, you could say, “It’s a private medical issue that I don’t discuss at work.” (If you were dealing with someone who you felt pretty sure should understand social norms, that response could still be fine — but in that situation it would also be fine to simply repeat “it’s a medical device” in a colder tone.)

2. Can I ethically help my company-assigned mentee in his job search?

My company started a formal mentoring program which matches employees who are looking for mentorship with those willing to provide it. I signed up and was matched with an employee in a completely different department in a different part of the country who was looking for assistance in getting promoted. We worked together for several months to get our ducks in a row (looking at his responsibilities / accomplishments vs the job description, looking at the “above and beyond” things he does, salary comparisons, mock conversations with their boss, discussing ask vs guess culture, etc.). One of the pieces of advice I gave him was that he should decide, before having the meeting with his boss, what he was going to ask for and what the “minimum” he was willing to accept — I consider this to be good practice for any negotiation (knowing your BATNA, aka “best alternative to a negotiated agreement”) so that he wouldn’t be caught off-guard by pushback from his boss.

Unfortunately, things went south in ways that I couldn’t imagine. From what I can gather, the conversation was like a highlight reel of all the things bad bosses do, including arguing with the list of accomplishments, gaslighting about the level of work, and rejecting the salary comparison, which was pulled from our own internal job posting site. Short version: no promotion, no raise, and nothing ever likely to happen anytime in the future. As he described it, his relationship with his boss is now damaged beyond repair.

My mentee is now looking to leave, and I can’t blame him. Everything I’ve done so far is easily “in service of the company” because I think it’s clear that we want to keep this individual (who has been with us for decades), but now he is asking to pivot our meetings to job searching and negotiating a new offer — which has a lot of skills overlap with what we’ve already done. I’m now torn between my responsibility to my mentee (to help him better his situation) and to my company (to avoid helping good people leave). If this wasn’t a formal, company-sponsored mentoring program, this wouldn’t be an issue for me — I have no problems helping people do what is right for them as a “private citizen,” but how “private” is a mentoring relationship supposed to be? This isn’t doctor / patient or lawyer / client, but maybe somewhere in between?

Yeah, your company almost definitely didn’t intend for you to use work time to help your mentee leave the company. I don’t think it’s a big deal to answer a few questions about interviewing, but if he wants to pivot the bulk of your time together to talk about his job search, ethically I don’t think you can use the mentorship for that. However, you could certainly point him toward other resources — “I think getting too focused on your job search would be outside the scope of what Company wants us working on in our meetings, but X and Y are really good resources so you might try there.”

Also, are you in a position to share what happened with someone who might be in a position to do something about it? Either right now with your mentee’s explicit permission, or after he leaves in a “this manager needs coaching/oversight” kind of way (again, with his explicit permission before you share anything he told you)? That’s outside the scope of mentoring, but it might not be outside the scope of what your company would appreciate from you, depending on your role and your standing.

3. Should I examine my “busy” vibe?

I have a low stakes question for you. Over the past six-ish months, three or four people have been hesitant about asking me to do things that are squarely part of my job, saying that they know I’m so busy. In one or two cases, there was even an apology. I’m a senior level individual contributor, and these comments have come from people at a variety of levels and different departments.

Sometimes I do get quite busy but I am always willing to make time for requests that are part of my job and I feel a lot of ownership and responsibility for my role. Sometimes I even tell people specifically that they can always ask me questions. I hope that there aren’t others out there who are avoiding asking me for things because I’m giving off such a busy vibe that they feel like they can’t interrupt me.

I don’t remember this happening in the past, in earlier stages of my career. But am I overthinking this? Is this just their way of being polite when making a request? Or should I look more closely at my own behavior to see if I need to change anything?

There’s a good chance it’s just people being polite, especially if the people who you noticed it from are sort of apologetic/deferential/excessively polite in general or if you’re known to be particularly busy right now or if the things they needed were obviously low priorities relative to other things you’re known to be working on. But there’s no harm in reflecting on whether you’ve seemed particularly harried or stressed lately — sometimes it’s easy to come across that way (because you are harried or stressed) without realizing that it’s discouraging people from approaching you.

If you do that reflection and you’re still not sure, you could try asking one or two people whose judgment you trust and who work closely enough with you to know how you’re coming across.

4. Asking an interviewer about the company’s bad Glassdoor reviews

I know that about a decade ago, you advised that it was worth it to ask about a company’s bad online reputation in an interview. Is that still the case? I know we’re seeing a shift favoring job-seekers, so I was wondering if you had any new guidelines for doing this. I’m getting ready to interview for a position, and the company’s reviews are bad — REAL bad.

It’s still the case! You don’t want to be accusatory or put your interviewer on the defensive, of course, but it’s perfectly reasonable to say something like, “I noticed some reviews of the company online talk about X and Y, and I wondered what your take was on that.” Your tone should convey that you’re not assuming what you read is the whole story but you’re curious and would like to learn more.

However, I’d be very wary of taking a job at a company with really bad reviews, especially if you see the same themes coming up over and over again, unless (a) they’re able to point to steps they’re taking toward real change (like different leadership, increased staffing levels, or something else concrete) or (b) you have no other options, in which case it’ll at least help to go in with your eyes open.

5. What to say when I’ve run out of questions for my interviewer

I always come prepared to every interview with questions about the job, the company, etc. But in every interview, there is a moment when they have answered all my immediate questions, and they ask, “Is there anything else you’d like to ask us?” and I have … nothing to say. And I feel a little foolish saying, “Nope, you’ve answered everything I have for now, we’re good.” It sounds smug and disinterested. Do you have any wording I can use that sounds a little better and doesn’t leave an impression of being disinterested?

To be clear, I usually do have further questions — things like salary, benefits, etc. But I don’t want to get into those at the first interview. And even if I did ask those questions, there would still eventually come a time when I just run out of questions. Any suggestions?

“I’m sure I’ll have more questions if we move forward, but you’ve answered all of my immediate ones. Thank you!”

(Of course, that assumes you did ask some questions first, which you should always do. But it sounds like you’re asking questions, they’re answering them, and then they’re asking if you have more.)

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