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

1. Employee constantly uses astrology to analyze coworkers

This will seem like a small issue, but it’s like sand in our collective bathing suits and may actually be a problem. I supervise a small team in a very large nonprofit, and we collaborate a lot internally and externally, and frequently bring on shorter-term interns and other placements. One of our full-time team members is mid-twenties. Their responsibilities are to support an after-school program for teens, so their skills and experiences match that – some admin, some curriculum, development, some youth engagement.

This person is VERY into astrology. Most of the time it’s harmless, but they have a habit of, every time we get into conversations about team dynamics or responsibilities, analyzing it through that framework. As in, “Oh you should totally be the person who does that task, it’s such a Leo thing” or “Oh, of course that bothered you — SO very Libra to find that annoying.” Recently, in a welcome meeting for a new team member, they spent a LOT of time asking about astrological information, and they responded with an analysis of the person’s characteristics — someone they had met 10 minutes earlier! It doesn’t impact the work, exactly, but it does distract from actual conversations about role/tasks/feedback and I think it can be off-putting to people we are trying to build relationships with (especially because they use it a lot when first getting to know someone, and rely on it for forming opinions). We have tried to redirect when this happens and play along without encouraging, but 1) is this something to put the kabosh on and 2) how do I do that without sounding petty? (of course, I may just be being “super Virgo-ish” here!)

This is different from someone who just talks about a hobby an annoying amount, because they’re explicitly labeling people and making judgments about them. I think that’s the framework you can use to shut it down. For example: “I appreciate that this is a real area of interest for you, but labeling people and their personalities based on their astrological sign can alienate people who don’t share your interest and can interfere with the relationships you’re building at work. It can also be distracting when you bring it up while we’re talking about assignments or feedback. It’s fine for you to discuss your personal interests with other people if they’ve shown an interest as well, but I’m going to ask you to stop labeling people by their signs, analyzing colleague’s personalities unless they’ve explicitly requested it, and bringing astrology into conversations where we’re focused on work.”

2. Should I tell my boss a former employee published a hit piece on our company?

I have a question about whether I should share something with my boss. There was a new employee at my company who only lasted a few weeks. Our work is extremely technology-based and quite stressful, which means people aren’t always the right fit. I believe she quit. She only observed me once, but she was snippy and rude when I corrected a mistake she made, so I wasn’t really surprised she didn’t last.

Well, I learned she also observed a friend of mine and was rude to her too, which got me curious enough to Google her. I clicked to a profile on a university website and saw she had published in the past. Her most recent publication, which came out a few months before she started with us, was a long paper decrying our company and its many failures serving the public. It had a very generic title that had nothing to do with the subject, so I think it would be very easy to miss in a quick search. I only found it by chance.

Now, I work in a segment of my field that is somewhat controversial. Government money is involved, but we’re a private business. Needless to say, there’s research on whether or not we’re doing good work with public funding. Totally fine and even good in my opinion. But it seems … weird that she went looking for a job with us. I feel off knowing this and not mentioning it. Is this something I should share with my boss?

Share it with your boss. It’s probably nothing, but it’s interesting enough that it won’t be weird to share it with her, and it’s possible that it’ll provide a missing piece of information that helps a larger puzzle make sense. It’s also possible that it’ll spur your employer to realize they should be doing more thorough checks on candidates before hiring them.

3. Is it normal to get a lower hourly wage if you switch to part-time?

I was discussing a hypothetical situation with my boss. I was telling him that ideally, if I had children, I would like to work 30-35 hours a week. My boss responded that if this happened, my hourly wage might decrease, as staff would view me differently as a supervisor since I would be working less. I was shocked to hear this! I understand a job can decline an employee’s proposal to go part-time, but how common is it for them to approve the hours but decrease your hourly rate?

This came up again because one of our old workers left permanently after the birth of her child. However, she has offered to occasionally “be on call.” She was needed last week and worked a few hours. Later, my boss told me her hourly rate now was supposed to be $2.50/hour lower than what she was making before! This didn’t sit right with me because she did us a huge favor and hiring outside help would be much more expensive.

It depends on what you negotiate, but it’s not typical for your hourly wage to decrease simply because you’re working fewer hours. Also, your boss’s comment that “staff would view you differently” is bizarre. Plenty of managers work part-time hours, and they’re no less managers because of it. It’s possible there’s more to what he’s saying — like that yours is the kind of management role where you need to be constantly available for questions and problem-solving, and if you weren’t there some of the time, they’d need to put someone else in that role … but 35 hours/week is hardly a drastic enough change that it’s likely to result in major changes to the way you’re perceived. Overall it sounds like your boss has weird ideas about part-time work.

But I want to emphasize the “it depends on what you negotiate” piece of this. Your letter sounds a little like you’re assuming you’ll just be assigned a rate, and you just have to take what they assign you. If you switch to part-time, you can and should try to negotiate your rate. (That may or may not work, but if they strongly value you, you’ve got a good chance at a good outcome.)

4. Can my employer change our vacation policy and take away much of my leave?

I work for a regional financial services business in Georgia. The company is family owned. A few years ago, the family fired all of it’s management team and the daughter, who has no prior work experience, having lived a lavishly her entire life, took over the operations of the business. Since that time, benefits and staffing have been drastically cut to the point that there isn’t anyone to cover should someone take leave. To address this, HR sent an email stating no one could take more than one week of leave at a time. Within weeks, another email was sent out, this time informing us that we were no longer entitled to more than five days of leave per year. These five days include sick and vacation leave. We also get two holidays off a year, which are unpaid.

Some of the employees have been with the company for over a decade and had earned up to three weeks of leave a year and are now told they only get five days. I understand that in the state of Georgia, employers aren’t required to provide vacation or sick leave. But can they hire someone under one leave policy and then change it at any time to take away leave benefits?

Yes. They can’t change it retroactively, but they can change it going forward. However, depending on the wording of the old policy, they might be required to let you and your coworkers use vacation time that you had already accrued under the old policy (although they can also implement a use-it-or-lose-it-policy, where if you haven’t used it up by a certain date, you lose it).

I strongly encourage you to either (a) band together with your coworkers to collectively bargain (you can do that by formally unionizing, but you’ll have a lot of the same protections if you do it without a union as well) or (b) leave for a company that’s willing to provide you with at least minimally acceptable time off, which this is not.

5. Contacting a conference speaker months before an event

I’m going to be attending a professional conference in June, and, like a nerd, have already been looking over the schedule to see what I want to attend. To my utter delight, there’s a scheduled presentation on an incredibly, incredibly niche topic that I’ve spent a lot of time working on. I previously worked in academia, and would have had no qualms about emailing someone then – but I’m pretty new to the non-academic professional world, and I’m not sure if it’s okay to email another industry professional basically saying ‘I’m equally interested in the topic you’re interested in and wanted to let you know!’ Is that kosher? Or should I just sit on my enthusiasm until the conference proper?

You can do that, and they’ll probably appreciate it! But I would change it from “and wanted to let you know” to something a little bit more concrete — like “I’d love to connect with you at the conference” or even just “I wanted to tell you how glad I am to see this session on the agenda and am so looking forward to attending it.”

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