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

1. My boss’s wife wants me to organize their house

A few months ago, I started a job as a paid intern at a small marketing start-up. When my boss (the CEO) hired me on, he did say that the job sometimes involved not-so-glamorous tasks that everyone, including me, would complete, like cleaning and sorting the company’s storage unit, maintaining office space, taking out trash and recycling, packing and shipping, etc.

But recently, with his blessing, his wife has asked me to help her clean out all of her two children’s toys and sort them, organize a massive closet space including replacing shelves, clean out and organize her children’s art cabinet, clean out their “drop off” bench where they throw together jackets and purses and dirty socks, hang a bunch of hooks, and clean and organize her office. This is all at my boss’s home. The wife said this work would take three days to complete, and that I wouldn’t be able to do her work and the office work at the same time.

I feel like this work clearly crosses the line of what my job entails me to do. This isn’t for the company, this is my boss’s family’s personal, home life. On the other hand, I would (presumably) be getting PAID to do all of this work. Am I right in thinking this is wrong? Am I being taken advantage of? Or do I need to check myself? If it’s a problem, how would you mention it to my boss?

Yep, this is ridiculously inappropriate. You didn’t sign on to be a personal organizer in someone’s home. It’s true that jobs can sometimes shift, and sometimes you’ll be pulled into something you didn’t explicitly sign up for — but being asked to help someone with their personal tasks in their home is way out of side of that.

It would be entirely reasonable for you to say to your boss, “I’m going to tell Jane that I can’t help with the personal tasks at your house. I really want to focus on the work I took the internship to do. I of course understand that tasks may shift and that I’ll need to do some cleaning and organizing here, but I’m not comfortable doing that for someone’s personal home rather than for the company.”

If your boss is at all reasonable, he should accept this. But if he’s not reasonable, there’s a chance that he’ll be unhappy, so you’ll want to go in knowing that’s a possible outcome. If it does happen, you can say, “I’ll certainly do whatever you need me to do here as part of my work, but I’m not comfortable helping anyone manage their home.” (Frankly, I also kind of want you to say “I would charge significantly more for that kind of work than what I’m being paid as an intern” — because I bet you’re getting a much lower hourly wage than what personal organizing normally costs.)

2. Will I be tarred with the same brush as my unprofessional counterpart?

I just recently started my first post-grad job and I’m loving it. I have been working since I was 14, so while this is my first full-time job, I consider myself fairly well versed in professional behavior. I’m aware that I am very young, but I’m willing to learn and take cues from my colleagues, and I think I’m balancing the fact that I’m inexperienced and need advice, with my ability to read the room and abide by office norms.

I started alongside another brand-new employee doing my same role, also fresh out of college. She does not seem professionally aware and she’s very chatty, often talking over people to share her personal stories and not letting others talk, quick to loudly chat about personal stuff when we should be getting our heads down, and generally she seems young and focused on things that seriously don’t matter. I see older employees roll their eyes when she interrupts them to talk at length about sorority dramas and college deadline disasters. She’s incredibly nice, and competent too, but I’m worried we’ll both be seen as the same. I really don’t want to be tagged alongside her as “annoyingly young and unprofessional” by the rest of the office, which might mean I don’t get invited to sit in on and observe higher stakes meetings/decisions, etc. which would be really useful to learn from.

I wondered if you had any advice, other than just being as professional as possible, to make sure I’m not seen in this same light? I can’t really give her advice because we’re the same age. (And also, I’m not 100% sure what’s acceptable, so what would I even say!) We work closely together so we are always in the same conversations, and her behavior is never truly separate from me – conversations about her sorority pals always happen with me right there and I’m worried I’ll inadvertently get labelled as having the same attitude. Any advice?

You’re underestimating your coworkers! I promise you that they can separate the two of you and can tell that you’re not the one talking over people, interrupting them, talking about sorority drama, etc. The fact that you’re the same age isn’t going to make them think you must be like that too, since they can see that you aren’t. In fact, it’s likely to do the opposite and make you look better by comparison.

One thing I would watch out for, though, is to make sure that you don’t exclusively pair up with her for the social parts of work — like having lunch with her all the time, always grabbing coffee with her, or so forth. It’s fine to do that occasionally if you want to, but if you do, make sure that you’re forming relationships with other people too. If people see you socializing primarily or only with her, there’s a danger that they’ll associate you with her a bit more — not that they’ll think you’re overly chatty, etc. if you’re not, but just that they may see you as having less mature judgment just by association. That’s not really fair, but it’s also not always a conscious process — people just often assume when they see two people hanging out together that they have the same values and worldview. That’s not to say you can’t socialize with her — you definitely can! — just make sure that you’re spreading your time around to others as well.

3. My employee wants a demotion

My direct report is a truly exceptional worker. Let’s say he’s a teakettle builder, and about a year ago, he completed a master’s program in teakettle prototyping, which was great — we didn’t have a prototyper in the company, and it was a career path for him that offered some great possibilities. I went to bat for him, and got his job changed to kettle builder/prototyper.

A couple days ago, he came to me and confessed that he hates prototyping and wants to go back to just building. Prototyping makes him miserable, and he feels that moving into prototyping was a big career misstep. There are a few problems with this: (1) We don’t have anyone on staff who prototypes. I can do it, sort of, but I’m stretched pretty thin as it is, and I don’t have any formal training or certification in this. (Although it looks like I could pursue an online certification that would take me about a month to complete, and wouldn’t be a bad thing to add to my own resume.) (2) Without a prototyper on staff, those responsibilities will fall to the kettle designers, who are prone to doing things like designing kettles without handles because they look cleaner that way. (3) I went to bat for him, and (uggghhh) am afraid this is going to reflect poorly on me. What do I do?

It’s not ideal, but sometimes this stuff happens. You should assume that if you don’t let him go back to just building, you’re going to lose him entirely — because if he hates his job and you tell him he’s got to stay in it, it’s pretty likely he’ll look for a new one. So the choice isn’t between keeping him where he is or letting him move back. It’s letting him move back or not having him at all. So either way you’re going to end up with problems #1 and #2 on your list.

That means that you’re really just left with #3, that it might reflect poorly on you. And sure, someone might second-guess the decision a bit, but reasonable people are going to understand that you couldn’t have predicted this and you’re just dealing the hand you’ve been dealt. It will help to frame this to your own boss as logically as possible: “Cecil was initially really excited about prototyping and is very grateful we broadened his role up to include it. Unfortunately, he’s come to me to say that he’s realized, despite his master’s in it, that he hates the work — I think because of XYZ. He’s desperate to move back to his old role. Obviously this means ABC, which I’m not thrilled about, but he’s one of my strongest people and I think it’s very likely that we’ll lose him entirely if we keep him in prototyping. I would rather keep him as a builder than lose him entirely, so my proposal for filling the hole this will leave is ___.”

4. Is constant knuckle-cracking acceptable at work?

I am about to act on the #1 lesson from your blog — speak up! — but before I do, I want to make sure my request is reasonable. Is knuckle-cracking an acceptable office behavior?

One of my team members sits in the next cubicle over, about six feet away. At least once an hour, she loudly cracks her knuckles. It is often 5-10 loud pops over 2-3 seconds as she cracks each knuckle. If she is talking to someone, she will reflexively start or end the conversation with cracking her knuckles, using her hands to crack her neck, or contorting her torso to crack her back.

This behavior makes my skin crawl. I am generally more sensitive than others to noise, and I have tried to mitigate my sensitivity to office chatter and other distractions with ear plugs and headphones. But there are times when I cannot use these tools to avoid the knuckle-cracking, like when someone stops by my desk to ask a question, when I’m on the phone, walking to or from my cubicle, or when I’m between songs on my playlist! Inevitably the knuckle-cracking will happen right at those times, and I am utterly repulsed and angered by it. On several occasions, she has done it in front of me and I’ve winced, then told her clearly that I am bothered by the sound. Now when she does it in front of me, she quickly says, “Oh sorry, Jane!” and then continues with our discussion. I’ve noticed that she does not crack her knuckles in large meetings with executive staff, but she does it at her desk or in small peer-to-peer meetings, so I get the sense she knows it is not appropriate behavior in some contexts.

I fully understand that I must tolerate some level of noise in the office, but knuckle-cracking seems akin to burping or farting — most of us know that we should refrain from doing it in front of others (unless a medical condition makes it unavoidable). I know that some joint cracking happens involuntarily, like when you move your foot or shoulder, and that doesn’t bother me. It’s the purposeful, repetitive, loud POP-POP-POP-POP-POP in a quiet office that makes me what to stab my ears with a #2 pencil. At times it is so irritating that I get short with her, or try to escape a conversation because I want to get away from the popping and cracking, so it has now crossed the line into impacting my working relationship with her. Am I being unreasonable? Is knuckle-cracking a normal, necessary bodily function within the scope of acceptable office/cubicle behavior? If so, I will continue to cope with my mild misophonia and find ways to block the noise. If not, should I say something?

I don’t think you’re being unreasonable. The sound of repetitive, intentional knuckle-cracking would bother a lot of people — it’s a pretty common irritant. It’s reasonable to say something like, “Hey, I’m not sure if you realize this, but you crack your knuckles really frequently. I’m sorry to ask, but is there any way you could stop doing it so often? The sound gets under my skin in the same way nails on a blackboard would, and it takes me out of what I’m doing every time.”

That said, you might not be able to get her to completely stop it because it sounds like a pretty deep-rooted habit and you can’t really press it beyond the initial request.

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