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

1. Coworkers keep complimenting me on my “growth”

Over the last few years I’ve gotten a chance to take on some new projects that have given me a lot more exposure than my previous role. This is obviously great and has contributed significantly to my happiness at work.

Now I’m getting lots of comments from people about how much I’ve grown. The problem is that this is the type of work I’ve done a lot in the past and just haven’t had the opportunity to do yet at this job because of my role. So it’s not really growth, but more about actually getting the chance to show what I’m capable of.

I’m worried that the constant comments about growth are affecting people’s perception of me as an experienced professional. Whenever I get compliments about my work, it always comes with a comment about how much I’m growing or, worse, “coming into my own.” These comments seem more appropriate for someone who is fairly junior (which I am not). I don’t want to be painted with this “growth” narrative when it’s not actually true, and I don’t want all my achievements to be viewed through this lens. While I appreciate the praise, I wish it didn’t also come with comments on how far I’ve come versus some imaginary previous level.

Is there a way to nicely redirect these comments away from growth? Or do I just wait it out and see if they naturally die out on their own over time?

The comments should die out on their own over time (it would be weird if they didn’t!) but I can see why it rankles now.

It should be fine to respond with something like, “Oh thanks! I actually did a bunch of llama midwifing in previous jobs but I’m really glad to be getting to do it again.” The key is to say this cheerfully and with genuine enthusiasm so that it doesn’t sound defensive.

2. I have to check the work of someone who’s bad at her job

I started a new job about a year ago. One of my duties is to check the work of a much older but lower-ranked employee whom I do not directly supervise. We are the only people in our department who do a certain type of data encoding, and neither of our managers have the technical skills to evaluate our work. (We’re expected to identify our own skills gaps and seek out training, which the company reimburses us for if needed.)

This other employee is, quite simply, bad at her job. She struggles with the most basic aspects of data encoding and is unfamiliar with the latest technical standards. When I correct her work, she responds that she’s always done it that way, even when I explain that the standards changed several years ago. Since she doesn’t write down what I tell her, she makes the same mistakes over and over again. Her workspace is a cluttered nightmare and she can’t keep track of what we’ve already gone over, so a significant portion of our biweekly hour-long meeting is spent rifling through folders to find the latest list of problems she wanted me to review. Even though she works almost entirely on the computer, she lacks fundamental computer literacy and gets flustered when I ask her to open up a new browser window or bookmark an important training website. She can use the specific interface we use for encoding work, but not much else.

I don’t know the best way to help her. She would likely benefit from watching some basic online tutorials, but I don’t want to insult her by suggesting this—she’s been in the field for over 20 years compared to my five—and since I’m not her supervisor I couldn’t demand that she watch them. I’m also not sure how, or if I even should, bring this up to her actual supervisor. I don’t want her to be reprimanded or fired, but she needs a more regimented training program than what I’m able to offer. What should I do?

You can try giving her feedback and suggestions, but based on what you’ve written here, I don’t have a lot of confidence that she’ll act on them. Still, though, if you want to try, you could say something like, “Can I give you some feedback that I think will help? I’ve noticed you’re making the same types of mistakes over and over, like X and Y. I think it would help to take notes when we go over them, so that you can consult those later to avoid repeating them. I think you’d also find some online tutorials like X and Y really useful in getting more efficient with the computer. I can recommend some specific ones if you’d like.”

But whether or not you do that, you definitely do need to talk to her manager. You said her manager doesn’t have the technical skills to evaluate her work, and since part of your job is to check this person’s work, you do need to loop in her manager on the situation. This isn’t about getting her in trouble; it’s about letting her manager know that there’s a serious issue that needs her attention. I might say to do that even if you weren’t in charge of checking her work — but as the person who is, it’s pretty obligatory. If I were her (or your!) manager, I’d be taken aback if I found out the person in charge of checking someone’s work hadn’t told me about long-running, serious patterns. You’ve got to say something.

3. When should you use an out-of-office message?

This is a fairly low stakes question that I am just curious about — in the past, I have worked for managers who fell on both sides of this extreme. One previous manager strongly believed that out-of-office replies were an indication of every minute you spent away from the office and thus painted you in a bad light, and did nothing but clutter up people’s inboxes unnecessarily. He did not like his team to use them — ever, even when we would be gone for several days and truly not have access to our email. Then I later worked for a manager who puts up an out-of-office even just for meeting-heavy days, as she strongly believes that being responsive is something she prides herself on, and she wanted people to know when they might need to expect a longer than normal delay in hearing back from her.

Curious where you fall on this debate? And if it’s “somewhere in the middle,” where exactly is the middle? What if you’ll be out for a few days but still plan on checking your email? Ultimately, does any of this really matter unless you’re in an industry where rapid responses are truly mandatory?

I always think think it’s a bit much when someone uses an out-of-office reply to say they’ll be in meetings much of the day and won’t be checking messages until 4 pm (or whatever), unless they’re in a job where fairly instant responses are expected. It’s email. The whole point is that you can respond when it’s convenient. Being tied up with other things for a few hours is not announcement-worthy.

Generally I’d say that you really only need an out-of-office message if you’re not going to be replying to people in what would be considered a reasonable time for your field (which for most people is somewhere between one and three business days). Absent any other info, I’d say to use one when you’re out for at least a couple of day but not if it’s less time than that (and definitely not for “I’m here today but really busy”). And in lots of offices, the culture is to only use them if you’re out for a full week or close to it.

If you’re out but checking your email, it can still help to use one so that you don’t feel obligated to respond to things that can wait until you’re back.

Like many things, though, it’s really office-dependent and you’ve got to know your culture.

4. My boss told me to keep a spare pair of shoes at work

I work an office job and like to wear very tall high heels. I’m usually sitting at a desk all day, but occasionally when we have a big project, I am asked to run a particular machine, requiring me to be on my feet much more. Today was just such a day, and I had worn my tall heels. I had not complained about or even mentioned my shoes, and I did not feel like they were interfering with what I needed to do. My boss walked past and asked if I had any other shoes with me. When I said no, she said “I would like you to have a spare pair of shoes from now on.” citing that I could move faster in “practical” shoes.

I am well practiced at walking in high heels, so I feel like my footwear doesn’t impact my ability to do my job and while I may be more comfortable in flat shoes when I’m on my feet all day, I don’t need my boss to mandate my comfort. My plan is to get the most obnoxiously loud, neon sneakers I can find and keep them in the office for when my boss deems my shoes “impractical.” Is this too petty? Is my boss justified in making me have a change of shoes?

It’s hard to say without knowing more, but around some types of machinery there can be safety reasons for mandating certain types of shoes. If that’s the case here, and that seems like the most likely explanation (even if it’s just based on your boss’s own judgment and not an official rule), she does indeed have standing to tell you to switch shoes. Trying to score protest points with the shoes you bring in would be a disproportionate response, and yes, would seem petty (and like you are really missing the point, if this is a safety thing).

5. My boss now sits directly behind me

Our office just changed configuration, and suddenly the window to my boss’s office, the window her desk is against, is two feet behind my work station. Any time she looks up, she can read the text on my screen. She’s a decent boss, but I’m already getting paranoid. Other than gift her with office curtains, what should I do?

Is there any way to change your own desk configuration? You could say, “I’ve always had a weird thing about people behind me while I work, and I don’t want it to interrupt my focus.” If she knows you to be a generally good worker who doesn’t do a lot of slacking off, this should go over fine. (On the other hand, if she does suspect you of a lot of slacking off, this will raise further suspicions.)

Alternately, there are anti-glare filters you can get for your monitor which also prevent anyone from reading your screen unless they’re sitting in your chair.

(The point here, obviously, isn’t that you’re doing lots of untoward things on your computer, but that having your boss able to read your screen all day long — and not knowing when it might be happening — can be a recipe for self-consciousness and distraction.)

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