sharing a hotel room with a coworker when I snore, should I lie about how many cats I have, and more — Ask a Manager

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

1. I’m sharing a hotel room with a coworker but I snore

I started a new job a week ago, working remotely. A week from now, everyone in my organization is attending the big annual conference in our state for our industry.

I live about an hour away from the conference site (compared to 4-5 hours for everyone else), but I’ve just learned that my organization has booked hotel rooms for all of us, and that we’ll be sharing rooms.

I don’t love sharing a hotel room with a virtual stranger on any level, but I feel especially anxious because I’ve been snoring like a MONSTER lately. I’m going to see a doctor soon—a large part of why I switched jobs was to have better health insurance—but I definitely won’t have this taken care of by next week.

I’m not sure what to do! We’re a nonprofit with thin margins, so I don’t want to insist on my own room. Can I make my excuses and just stay at my house? (And if so, what’s a good excuse?!) And even if I didn’t have this snoring issue, which I worry will make my teammate hate me, I wouldn’t feel comfortable sleeping, showering, and changing with someone I’ve never met in person. Any recommendations for how to move forward?

Room-sharing has always had the potential to be deeply problematic under the best of circumstances (even though it’s not uncommon in a few cash-strapped fields, like nonprofits and academia) but it’s especially indefensible during Covid.

But you have a very easy way to get out of it: you can just say to whoever’s arranging the rooms, “I live nearby so I’m going to drive back and forth each day, so you don’t need to get me a room.” It’s pretty unlikely that you’ll get pushback on that, but if you do, you can say, “I’ve got stuff I need to be at home for at night so this is much easier.” Feel free to reference kids, pets, or anything else that might help to cite.

If you didn’t have this easy out, you could follow the advice here.

2. Should I lie about how many cats I have?

I have just begun a new job and am not sure if I should be honest about how many pets I have. I know that, inevitably, office small talk will lead to the topic of pets. I love talking about my pets! The problem is that I have an unusually high number of cats due to a wild series of events.

When my partner and I moved into our new home, there was a very pregnant stray cat living in our backyard. I knew nothing about cats so a friend coached me through the steps to catch her. Once we did, though, nothing went to plan. None of the local rescues would take her. “That’s fine,” we thought, “once she has the kittens we can adopt them out. People love kittens!” According to our research, four seemed like the likely number of kittens she would have.

Boy, were we wrong about everything! She had SEVEN kittens. And we were only able to find suitable homes for three. So the mother and four litter mates are with us permanently. It’s been a fun and challenging foray into the world of cat ownership! We have plenty of space for all of them. They’re happy and taken care of. I wouldn’t change anything.

While it’s worked out for us, people often find it weird that we have so many cats. I don’t want to gain the reputation of “cat hoarder” at my new job. So I should probably just lie and say I have a more socially acceptable amount of cats, like two, right? But I worry I’ll slip up sometime and be discovered as the woman who lied about how many cats she has. That seems even worse. What should I do?

Well, you’re writing to someone who has six cats and you only have five. You still have room for one more.

Like you, we didn’t set out to have this many cats! Four of them were foster fails who we didn’t mean to keep. (It turns out we are very bad at fostering cats and end up keeping them; we are no longer fostering cats.) And yes, people are surprised when they hear how many we have. I always just laugh and say “we’re terrible at fostering” and that is that. As far as I know, no one thinks we’re hoarders. (When she heard we were keeping the last two, my mom did tell me she was sure the air would be thick with cat fur and no one would be able to breathe, but since then I have overheard her telling people that you would never know there were six cats living here.)

I think you should approach this similarly — meaning own it, but also feel free to add a bit of “yeah, wasn’t the intent.” Plus you have a better story than I do. I would be delighted to hear, “We rescued a pregnant cat and didn’t expect her to have seven kittens but here we are” from a coworker.

3. Is my new employee really working?

I am a new manager and hired two new employees at about the same time a few months ago. One is clearly out-performing the other — she is proactive, works at a quick pace, is detailed and organized, on and on. The other is not performing at the same level, which is fine, he is still new! I do want to make sure I am setting him up for success. For example, there are a couple of administrative things I had to ask him multiple times to complete, such as saving files or recording work in the proper system. He did eventually do these things, but it took a few follow-ups and very direct reminders. He also hasn’t been recording action items during meetings very well and then misses completing those tasks. I’ve started sending my own notes, hoping to show by example.

His actual work has been okay — I see potential, presentations need editing, but like I said, he is new. He doesn’t have a ton on his plate right now, usually working on one project at a time, but hopefully filling in with some training our company provides around the edges. What is really bothering me is that he will send me work to review, I respond to him quickly with edits and next steps, and sometimes these edits/next steps should really only take an hour, being generous 2-3, but he often doesn’t respond with the edits until the end of the day or next morning. I don’t always follow up asking for an update because sometimes the timing doesn’t really matter, it is more that I know what is on his plate and this shouldn’t take that long if he is actively working. We do work from home often and I’ve noticed his Skype activity dot is “inactive” a lot, like more often than cooking lunch or taking a break. When we are in the office, I notice that he is on his phone a lot.

I do not want to micromanage this. I believe people should be able to check personal emails, take breaks, take walks, etc. However. my perception is that he just isn’t working. Am I being overly critical? I don’t want to be a manager that tracks what people are doing all day, but I also want to make sure he does his job in a timely manner. Should I say something? If so, what? I do worry he is a little bored with one project at a time. Maybe giving him more to do would help him become more engaged? This time of year tends to be a little slow, but if this seems like a good approach I can give it a try.

Have you clearly laid out how much time you expect tasks to take and how quickly you want him to get back to you? If not, that’s where to start: “I’ve noticed I’ll often send you edits that should take an hour or two at most to complete, but it’s coming back to me much later. I want to make sure you know to keep this stuff moving — with something like X from yesterday, I’d normally expect that back that same morning because it’s so quick and we don’t want the process to slow down. Can you aim for that, or is there anything you’re finding that’s slowing it down?” It’s possible he doesn’t realize he should be moving at a faster pace and spelling it out may change what he’s doing. If it doesn’t, then you’d dig deeper — maybe at that point seeing if he can walk you through his process so that you can see where he’s running into snags. But keep the focus on what you want to see (in terms of turnaround, follow-through, and tracking his own work) and don’t get sidetracked by whether he’s just slacking off — at least at this point.

Ultimately, if he’s not working at the pace you need and he’s losing track of assignments, and doesn’t respond to coaching, that’s a problem whether it’s because he’s on his phone too much or not. It’s a lot simpler for you if you keep your focus on the former and not the latter. That’s not to say there’s never a place to say, “I see you on your phone a lot when I’m waiting on work from you” but the other stuff deserves your focus more.

(Also, giving him more to do could help. You can ask if he’d prefer that in case you’re right that he’s bored … and regardless of that, if he should be juggling more than he is, at some point you’re going to have to see if he can handle that workload or whether it exacerbates the problems you’re already seeing.)

4. My boss sends me gift cards … am I expected to reciprocate?

My boss sends me what I consider to be generous gifts on a fairly regular basis (holidays, my birthday, work anniversaries, etc.) and I always feel some pressure to reciprocate. Am I expected to send them gifts in return? If so, should they match in cost?

This is my direct supervisor, not someone on the executive team. I’m sure they make more money than I do, but I’m not sure how much more. The gifts are often $50-$100 gift cards to local businesses that are clients of our organization, but my supervisor lives outside the area we serve, so it is hard to give them gifts that also support our clients. It also feels like doing the same thing for my boss that they do for me would be somewhat awkward.

I always appreciate the gesture and I know my boss means well, I just feel uncomfortable not knowing whether to reciprocate! What should I do?

Don’t reciprocate. The power dynamics at work mean that it’s fine for gifts to flow downward (from your boss to you) but they shouldn’t flow upward (from you to your boss). It would actually be a bit unseemly for your boss to accept gifts from you in most situations, especially gift cards. Think of this as similar to the way your boss would pay if she took you out to lunch — it’s a reflection of the power dynamics, and it’s fine to simply accept graciously without feeling pressure to reciprocate.

5. Virtual meetings: is it rude to call someone out by name when their mic is on?

I’ve noticed in virtual meetings in a variety of contexts that most people seem to agree that it’s rude or inappropriate to call someone out by name when their mic is on and causing a disruption. Instead of saying “Jack, we’re getting some background noise, could you please mute?” or announcing “Diane, I’m putting you on mute since you seem to be on another phone call,” they’ll say, “Someone seems to have an open mic, could everyone who’s not speaking please check that they’re on mute?”

I find this pretty annoying — every platform shows who’s “talking” and who’s muted, so the problem person isn’t a mystery, and often this results in Jack and Diane carrying on disrupting the meeting, either assuming they aren’t the problem or not paying enough attention to the meeting to hear the pleas for “everyone” to check their mute button. I’d much prefer to be direct and either let the disruptive person know or use host-powers to mute others by fiat and end the disruption quickly, but in the past I’ve gotten negative reactions for naming the disruptor (I’m usually not the meeting host). What am I missing here?

In my experience, it’s pretty common to name the offender — for exactly the reasons you say — so we must be in very different meeting environments! I’m wondering if you’re in settings that are more on the “soften the message”/touchy-feely end of the culture spectrum.

Anyway, the reason you’re getting negative reactions when you step in and name the person might be because you’re not the host and people feel you’re usurping the host’s authority (and doing that in a culture where the hosts generally choose not to do it). But yes, the hosts should be doing it.

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