sending work emails late at night, coworker read my notebook, and more

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

1. Taking long bereavement leave during a busy time

A few years ago, I had a manager tragically lose her sister in an unexpected accident. In the kind of awful luck that compounds those situations, this was a job with a well-defined busy season when we were all strongly discouraged from taking any time off. That year, we were also debuting a new business model and on-boarding 10-15 new staff we’d fought hard to secure. All eyes were on us to prove we could make it work.

She was out for the funeral for about a week and a half during that training time, and her staff really went through it trying to make everything happen without her, most of them pulling 90-120 hour weeks over their usual hefty 80 during the seasonal rush. It was really tough on everyone, but of course we understood that no one would choose these circumstances.

The next week, she took a week of vacation to go relax at an island with her partner and kids. She said she needed it to come down from all the tragedy and regroup. As a department, we were torn on whether this was completely legitimate or a really bad look. On one hand, she had a terrible shock and needed to take care of herself. On the other, our team really came together for the initial week and a half and made huge sacrifices of our own — with at least one person postponing an elective surgery and another scrambling to find someone to stay with a family member recovering from surgery because the days were just too long. Several folks spent a fortune in emergency childcare. The business model also, despite everyone’s efforts, didn’t really get the launch it deserved because we were constantly in triage mode and our new staff felt the strain. It seemed to many like a discretionary vacation on the heels of a long absence might have been better postponed until things had calmed significantly in a few short months. What would you have advised someone in the same position?

She took a total of two and a half weeks off after her sister died unexpectedly. That’s not excessive.

I suspect it was the details that gave people pause — the week of vacation to “relax” on an island. If she’d just said she was taking two and a half weeks for bereavement leave, I bet people wouldn’t have questioned it. And politically, it probably would have been smarter for her to frame it that way, given that it was your seasonal rush. But truly, two and a half weeks off after the unexpected death of a sibling isn’t unreasonable, regardless of how she framed it (and I doubt she would have been up for working an 80-hour week right afterwards anyway). Ideally your employer would have stepped in and provided extra staffing, either via temps or pulling people in from other teams (not always feasible, depending on the nature of the work, but worth considering).

2. How can I reject former coworkers interested in a job I’m hiring for?

I have had several past coworkers reach out to me on LinkedIn asking about a job posting at my company. The only thing is … they don’t know that I am the hiring manager for the role, and they are under-qualified. I already know I would not hire them for the position.

I have good relationships with them from my prior jobs, and I am sure if I tell them the role is on my team they will feel they have a better chance at the position, even though that is not the case. But it is tough out there right now with the economy and I know at least one of them was recently laid off. I am worried they would take rejection personally.

How do I approach this? I don’t want to discourage them, but I also don’t want to mislead them. I’d ideally like to preserve our relationship in the process.

If there’s something specific you’re searching for in the role that they clearly don’t have, point to that: “I’m actually the one hiring for this role! Unfortunately, we’re looking for someone with a deeper background in X, so it’s not as close of a match as we’d need — but I’d be glad to tell you if something opens up that looks like the right fit.”

If there isn’t something so easy to explain and you don’t feel you have a way to tell them up-front that it’s not the right match (for example, if it’s about something like critical thinking or ease of working with them — something harder to explain in this kind of context), the best thing may be to just manage their expectations by highlighting the competitiveness of the candidate pool: “You can definitely send over your resume and we’ll take a look! In the interest of transparency, I can tell you that we have a very competitive applicant pool and already have some strong candidates we’re talking to, but we’d be glad to include you in the mix and will get back to you either way.” And then, assuming you need to reject them later in the process, you can again reference that the process was highly competitive with lots of strong candidates, you ended up turning down some great people, etc.

3. Is it weird to send work emails late at night?

Last night around 11 pm, my husband suddenly remembered that he had forgotten to email back about a meeting request, and was about to send it when I said it looked weird to be emailing at 11 pm. He asked why, and I had no good reason, except that it seemed weird to let people know that you’re up and thinking about work that late?

I wonder if I’m extra-cautious because I work as a contractor and so I try very hard not to email at off-hours so as not to give the impression that they can expect me to be up all hours. But you’re not going to lose much time if you send it at 9:30 rather than something sitting in their inbox when they arrive, that is stamped at late hours. What do you think?

It depends on your office culture. There are lots of offices where this is totally fine and wouldn’t come across strangely at all (and where it’s not uncommon to get late-night emails, just because some people like to deal with email at strange hours). There are other offices where it would be unusual, but still not a problem. And there are a smaller number where it would look odd. If your husband thinks it’s fine in his office, I’d assume it’s fine in his office.

The only real caution I’d give on it is for managers: If you’re a manager who does this, it can make your staff feel like you expect them to be checking their email late at night, even if you explicitly tell them you don’t. So for managers, I’d suggest setting the email to send in the morning (or saving it as a draft to send later, unless it’s crucial that people see it first thing in the morning).

4. My coworker read my notebook and now I’m in trouble

I work in a hospital. When I was out of the office, my coworker looked through my personal notebook, which had my name on it. She claimed she was looking for a piece of paper, but there are various places one can look for paper without the need to scroll through my things. She found something I had written regarding coworkers talking during a work meeting. I said they were acting “rude.” My coworker took my notebook to my manager to complain. My manager told me she’s reporting me to HR.

What are my privacy rights in the workplace? Can a coworker legally look through my personal things? In what possible scenarios would what I did warrant being reported to HR?

Assuming you’re in the U.S., there’s no legal issue here; there’s no reasonable expectation of privacy connected to the things you keep on your desk at work. Your coworkers can legally go through the items you have there — and might even have a legitimate reason to do that, if they need something they think is there and you’re not around (which is exactly how your coworker is explaining this). It’s possible she should have known it wouldn’t be in your notebook, but no law was broken here.

Whether or not this warranted her reporting it depends on what was in your notebook. If it’s full of screeds about coworkers (versus a single throwaway line) or it appeared you’re logging everything others do at work, I can see why that concerned her. That said, your manager reporting this to HR rather than dealing with it herself is weird (she shouldn’t need to borrow HR’s authority; she should have her own) and that makes me think you’re in a highly regimented workplace, so that’s a factor in how this plays out too.

5. What should I say to a furloughed coworker?

A large chunk of my coworkers were furloughed for the summer at our university, including my office mate who I haven’t seen since March. I was not furloughed because my job is very tech-centric. I also have only been here about five months, while my office mate has been there five years but works in a more traditional, less valued area.

We happen to live near each other and I would like to say something to her, even offer to help out if she needs something, but I don’t know her that well and I can never get a real handle on whether she likes me or not. She’s always friendly in person but hasn’t really responded the few times I emailed her about non-work related things. Before everything started shutting down, I offered to get coffee sometime and she seemed uninterested.

So what can you say to furloughed people that’s supportive? I need to say something before she’s off work email next week or it will be super awkward when we hopefully return in August. Either way it might be super awkward as the non-furloughed newbie. But I’d like to say something supportive to my colleagues who have basically been told they are not essential, which no doubt feels awful.

This is someone who’s been cordial but not responsive to friendlier overtures, so I’d keep it simple. Something like: “I hope this all ends quickly and I’m looking forward to having you back in August. Please let me know if there’s anything I can be helpful with meanwhile.”

Also! I keep wanting to make this point so I’m hijacking your letter to do it: being laid-off for being non-essential isn’t a commentary on people’s value. Your coworkers wouldn’t have been hired if they weren’t needed. Financial realities right now just mean some businesses have to cut down to the bare minimum to stay afloat (which can mean cutting higher paid people, in some cases — or people who add a ton of value but value which isn’t a linchpin for the company being here in three months). I know you’re not arguing otherwise, but the more you can push back on the idea that it’s an awful thing for someone to be categorized as non-essential, the better we all are.

sending work emails late at night, coworker read my notebook, and more was originally published by Alison Green on Ask a Manager.

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