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

1. How much snooping can you do on coworkers?

This question was prompted by your recent letter about a nosy coworker. What is an acceptable amount of internet research/snooping around on new coworkers?

Should it be limited to anything on or linked to their LinkedIn profile? Or anything that comes up in a google search under their name? Or is even that an overstep of boundaries?

In the post you cited, the employee had run a paid background check on his new manager. Paid background checks on your coworkers are way past the line. (Although if you’re doing one for some reason, you definitely need to keep that to yourself — the other thing that made that situation bizarre and inappropriate was that he felt free to ask her about what he found.)

People google other people. While you can certainly find people who feel even a basic google search an invasion of privacy, google is right at our fingertips and I don’t think it’s a massive overstep to do a quick search because you’re curious about someone’s professional background. But your motivation matters. If you’re curious about their professional background, fine and even potentially relevant. If you’re searching for info on their personal life, that’s an overstep (and probably in no way relevant to your work with them).

How deeply you search also matters — if you’re reading someone’s wedding website from three years ago, their high school live journal, and/or all the Yelp reviews they’ve ever written, you’re in too deep.

2. My old manager told a reference checker what my salary was

I am in the midst of a job search after our company went through mass layoffs several months ago. I recently had an interview at a -. Having been slightly underpaid at my previous company, I have been taking courses on salary negotiation tactics. In addition, since I would have been close to a promotion at my former company had they continued in business, I am targeting jobs at the level I would have been at had I received that promotion.

In my initial interactions with the start-up, I was able to avoid answering their initial questions about desired compensation and former salary, and the interview went ahead and went well. They expressed strong interest and contacted my references. Then they sent me a job offer, and it was shockingly low, close to 25% below what I was making at my previous job, even though this position was advertised at the higher level that I was targeting. They had warned me that due to their being a start-up they might not be able to offer competitive compensation, so I should not have been too surprised.

After that news, I talked to my former supervisor, who was also laid off, about my disappointment. She expressed surprise that this had happened and said that when, during the reference check conversation, the hiring manager had asked her for my former salary so that they could make me a fair offer, she told them, but advocated for a salary about 5% more than that for me. Unfortunately, I hadn’t told her that the job was at a higher level than when I was employed with her. We do not live in a state where asking “the former salary question” is illegal, but how should I handle this? It is clearly not to my advantage for her to be giving out my former salary. If I want to ask her to provide other recommendations for me, I need to remain in her good graces, and on the other hand, if I don’t provide her name as a reference, there are sure to be questions about why.

She should not have done that without your permission, nor should she have tried to tell them what to pay you! She probably thought she was helping, but she really overstepped.

It sounds like in this case, you likely wouldn’t have ended up with a fair offer anyway, given that this company offered you 25% less than you were making at a lower-level job where you were already underpaid! But you’re right to want to make sure your boss doesn’t do this again.

You can just say to her, “I was thinking about our conversation about that reference and your mention of salary. Can I ask that you not share my salary with reference-checkers in the future? I don’t want future offers tied to my previous salary, and I make a point of not sharing that info with employers. If someone asks again, could you tell them I haven’t authorized you to share it?”

3. I’m being sent to management training I don’t need

I am in a role supervising a team of multimedia instructional designers. The person who assembled the team and hired me to manage them left, and dumped the team and me on a manager who is a director. She has no idea what we do and ignored us for the first three years, despite my repeated attempts to schedule meetings with her. After a second yearly evaluation wherein it was clear she had nothing constructive, relevant, or informed to say about anything I had done for yet another year, I asked for help from HR. Learning later that the HR rep and my director were “tight,” I feared the worst. My management was moved to a manager who the director seemed to actually manage, and now I have two levels of people above me who have no idea what I do. Worse, they keep sending me to various trainings for managers (I’ve been a manager for 20 years) that are so juvenile I cannot figure out why they hired me to be a manager — they obviously don’t think I’ve ever done it before.

How do I say to my managers, who think very highly of themselves and their managerial skills, that these trainings are not effective use of my time? Like, they think I just crawled out from under a rock. I do not know how to explain this to them without sounding like I am full of myself. I have been managing this team for three years with zero help, as a brand new person to this company. I networked and rustled up clients, we successfully developed over 60 different training solutions each of those years, our clients rave about us — but my great manager(s) just have no clue, no matter what proof I put in front of them. I want to say to them, “This training you are sending me to is stupid. I know what I am doing — why don’t you?” How do you say that to managers in a very proudly hierarchical, old fashioned-type company?

Well, you can say, “I’ve found the last few management courses fairly remedial and not a great use of time, but I’d be interested in courses on X or Y if that’s ever an option.” (That way you still sound open to training and not like you think you have northing to learn.)

But I’d stop assuming that they think you’re an inexperienced manager just because they’re sending you to training. It’s possible that they just think management trainings are a good idea (they are, when they’re corrected targeted to skill level), or that there’s something in particular they’re trying to address. After all, there are plenty of very experienced managers who are bad managers. That doesn’t mean you are, but you shouldn’t write that off solely because you’re been managing for 20 years. So it could also be worth asking, “Is there anything in particular that you’re hoping this training will help me with? My sense form the last few was that they were fairly remedial and targeting inexperienced managers, and so I wondered if there was a particular skill gap you hoped I’d focus on.”

But it also sounds like the training courses are the least of the issues here! You’ve been there three years, it sounds like it’s been a pretty bad experience, and maybe it’s time to think about what’s next.

4. Can I keep vendors’ freebies?

Vendors frequently come into my work to do lunch and learns and various other informational/sales type presentations. They often involve lunch or refreshments and various other freebies (pens, notepads, letter openers, etc.). With those freebies, am I allowed to keep them for my personal use? Or are those giveaways company property, since the presentation was given to me on company time, in a company location? Obviously, I’m not giving them the turkey sandwich I ate, but should the notepads and pens stay at my desk for use at work, or is it okay if that pen makes it way into my purse at the end of the presentation?

Nah, these are presentations being given on your lunch time, so it’s fine for you to take that stuff home if you want to.

Frankly, even if it weren’t at lunch time, it wouldn’t be a huge deal to take home a branded pen or notebook. Presumably your company is relying on those things as part of the supplies they provide (and may even prefer you not use other companies’ branded supplies in any client-facing work, who knows).

It could be different if they were giving you something that they clearly hoped your company would use (and possibly buy more of), like software or equipment.

5. How can I be fair to remote team members when I bring in pizza for my on-site staff?

I work in higher ed, and have a staff of 25-30 part-time employees. Most are students, with three or four temp/hourlies in the mix also. And while the majority work here on campus, a few are remote (people on study abroad, graduates who have continued to work for me, etc.). But since I don’t have one large office to put everyone in, even my on-campus staff are spread out in several locations. Because of this, on a day-to-day level we function as a distributed team – we rely primarily on a business text chat/collaboration platform, video calls, and a policy of keeping all our work in the magical “cloud.” I’m intentional about keeping my off-site workers included in both regular work-related and social/sidebar conversations.

However, one mainstay of most campus jobs here is the occasional departmental pizza party. What’s something related I can do for my remote workers if I’m going to feed the crew on-site? It feels a little trite to send Starbucks gift cards or whatever, but I don’t want to leave them out if I’m announcing in chat that there’s pizza and snacks in the central conference room. Do you have advice on something thoughtful I can do in these situations? Input from the loyal commenter brigade is also appreciated.

I don’t think you have to do something for everyone else every single time you provide food on-site; most people get that it’s not practical to do that every time (and for people who are working remotely by choice, they often consider that a much bigger benefit). But people will really appreciate you occasionally doing something for them as well. That could be anything from a Grubhub gift card and a note to get lunch on you, to (for the people elsewhere on campus) stopping by with coffee (maybe do your next one-on-one on their turf and bring it with you), to sending them all some special treat, timed to arrive on the same day as the department pizza party.

What other ideas do people have?

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