my employees don’t want to talk in meetings, old boss is using me as a business lead, and more — Ask a Manager

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

1. My employees don’t want to talk in meetings … but their jobs require it

I manage a team of budget analysts who are the bridge between departments and our central budget office. Two team members have never been comfortable with public speaking, and one has shared that she has extreme anxiety around having to speak in meetings. This seems to have gotten worse since the team went permanently remote in 2020. One team member shared that in a meeting with our DEI consultant she volunteered an answer and the facilitator said the answer was something else, and as a result she no longer feels comfortable sharing insights and opinions.

I am not sure what to do. I want to be sensitive to the trauma they feel around speaking at meetings (all on Teams, and they are not required to turn cameras on), but I also need them to participate so that information is provided at the moment it is needed (it’s not always possible to ask for it in writing in advance) and be willing to make recommendations/suggestions (not just report facts). Any suggestions?

The core question: how essential is it to their jobs? From what you’ve written, it sounds pretty essential. If that’s the case, you should be straightforward about that: “I hear you that you’re not comfortable with this. It’s an essential piece of your role because (insert reasons) and I do need you to answer questions and make recommendations in these meetings. What can I do to help you do that?” (For example, could you role-play the meetings with them? Start debriefing with them afterwards, so they’re getting immediate positive feedback? Suggest Toastmasters, or have the organization pay for a public speaking class?)

You should also look for opportunities to reinforce that they have good insights — make a point to praise their ideas in other settings, maybe ask them to train others when that makes sense — because building up their confidence might help.

On the other hand, if it’s something that only comes up a couple of times a year and it’s more of a nice-to-have rather than a must-have for their jobs, it could make sense to just work around it — finding someone else to fill in for them or even doing it yourself if that’s feasible. So the question is really how central it is to their work.

By the way, I’m wondering what happened in that meeting with the DEI consultant that led one of your employees to no longer feel comfortable sharing her opinions. Was there an issue with how the consultant handled it? Is the employee overreacting because of the subject matter? There’s probably something worth exploring there.

2. Do I have to wear a bra, part 4: what about at a coworking space?

How professionally do I need to dress for a coworking space? No coworkers of mine are there but I do know the staff since I go every day. Most people who are there are generally put together and dress somewhere in between casual and business casual. Some outfits I’ve been iffy on: patterned workout leggings, crop tops with high-waisted pants (revealing about half an inch of midriff), sweaters that are a bit linty, and baseball caps — things that I’d wear to the coffee shop but not to an office. Most of all, I would like to skip wearing a bra sometimes. What do the unspoken laws of the hotdesking space permit?

Skip the bra if you want to!

I’d like to say skip the bra at the office too if you want to, but that’s often a more complicated calculus (it shouldn’t be, but it is). But in a coworking space where no one’s your coworker and people are dressing casually, go right ahead and skip the bra.

As for the other outfits … it depends on the vibe there (which I can’t quite assess from your description) and how much you care if you’re out of sync with that. Some coworking spaces really play up a polished vibe and others don’t at all. I don’t think you need to worry too much about linty sweaters, though.

3. My old boss is using me as a business lead

I am a former federal contractor who is now a federal employee. I have nothing to do with our contracting office; my job uses the same skill set for which I contracted (like graphic design or engineering). My former director at the contracting firm asked me to get coffee with her and catch up, so I said yes!

She said she would bring two other contracting people who are related to my organization: one who tries to get agencies to contract with the firm, and another who specializes in my professional area.

I was immediately grossed out and thankfully begged off due to a conference my team needed to attend. She’s reached out again this week (post-conference) to see if we could pick a new date to get coffee.

We didn’t work closely together (she’s a mover-and-shaker; I’m a happy cog-in-the-wheel) but got along well! I feel grossed out and sad to be used as a lead. I guess I’m realizing that it’s “just business” to her, but any recommendations you have as to redirect this kindly would be appreciated. I have nothing to do with contracts, and there are a lot of “no schmooze” guidelines for federal employees.

Grossed out is a strong reaction — business networking is pretty normal for people to do. But you can definitely make it clear that you’re not up for for the meeting she was envisioning.

One option is to lean on the federal guidelines — “I have nothing to do with contracts and as a federal employee I have to follow really strict guidelines about that kind of meeting, so I would need to keep it just the two of us. If that works for you, how about (date/time)?”

If you didn’t have that excuse, you could say, “I’d rather catch up one-on-one — can we keep it just the two of us? How’s (date/time)?”

(That assumes you want to catch up with her. If you don’t, you can plead a busy schedule and say you’ll let her know when things slow down. But in general, if you’re up for it, it’s helpful to stay in touch with old managers.)

4. Should I tell my new job about my husband’s out-of-state interview?

Do I tell my new job the real reason I need to miss a couple days — that I’m going with my husband on an in-person interview trip out of state?

My husband is in a soul-sucking job he’s been trying to get out of for a while. He’s the primary breadwinner in our family. I stayed at home with our baby for two years, and just started a new job two months ago. My pay is okay, but it’s a third of what my husband makes.

He’s been headhunted for a job that, professionally, is perfect. But it’s located across the country, and in a place that’s culturally vastly different than where we live now. We are both very unsure if it’s the right move, which is why we feel it’s important for me to accompany him to try and get a feel for the place. I am guessing we’re not going to be won over, but we’re willing to give the visit a sincere chance.

The dates he’s been offered are all in the next couple weeks and in the middle of the week, so no one would believe it’s a fun vacation. I could call in sick, but I hate being gone suddenly and unless I wanted to claim to be violently ill, there would be an expectation that I’d do at least some work from home. I may or may not have much time on the visit to do work.

But I’m worried that if I tell my boss the real reason we’re going, it will impact my work’s perception of me and my dedication. (I could not keep my current job if we moved.) And especially since we don’t feel sold on the move, I’d hate to risk my reputation for nothing.

Yeah, definitely don’t tell them that you’re going on a trip to decide whether you’ll be moving or not. That’s going to make them instantly concerned that you’re on the verge of leaving your still-very-new job.

That doesn’t leave you with many good choices, considering the constraints you mentioned (plus being so new makes it harder to take sudden vacation time anyway). Given that, your best bet is probably some version of illness or a family emergency (the latter is sort of accurate, actually). If you go with illness, you don’t need to claim to be violently ill to get out of working from home; you can simply say, “I’m sick enough that I don’t expect to be logging on.”

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