our interns have to buy food for everyone, HR wants to us to give ourselves “the gift of health,” and more

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

1. Our office tradition is to make interns buy food for the rest of us

At my office, there is a longstanding tradition that the interns bring in donuts/tacos/etc. on Friday mornings. There is sometimes a money collection that goes around (I have my own feelings about soliciting people for money at the office) but more often than not the intern that gets that week has to foot the lion’s share of the bill. There is an expectation that breakfast gets brought in on Fridays, but I don’t think it’s fair that the people with the lowest pay end up buying food for partners, etc. It’s not like they are buying a ton of food, probably $30-$40 worth, I would think. The amount of money doesn’t matter to me since it’s more the idea itself, but my coworkers scoff at me saying this “immaterial” amount isn’t worth causing a stir about.

I am a supervisor/senior in the department. How do I eliminate this expectation without causing problems?

This is horrible! Your department makes interns buy everyone else food? $30-40 is a significant amount of money to most interns and your coworkers’ scoffing at that is extraordinarily out of touch, but even if it weren’t, this would be an awful practice. I can guarantee you that your interns hate it, and they should. And if your coworkers think the cost is so “immaterial,” suggest they start providing meals to the interns rather than the other way around.

You absolutely need to eliminate this practice. Say this: “Starting this week, interns will no longer be providing food on Fridays. If anyone else would like to volunteer to bring in food, you’re welcome to do that — but that’s 100% optional, and we’re going to keep the interns off the rotation.”

If you get pushback, you say, “We’re not going to ask people making significantly less than the rest of us to pay for our meals.”

People may be upset at the ending of the tradition, but if they stay upset once you point that out, they’re being wildly unreasonable and you don’t need to manage those feelings for them. But you may find it effective to respond, “If you’d like to keep the tradition going, do you want to sign up for this Friday?”

2. HR wants us to “give ourselves the gift of health”

I’m a young woman a few months in to my first office job. Around the holidays, our HR department sent out an email with the subject line “Give Yourself the Gift of Health.” The email advised us to “put your health at the top of your gift list” by “Avoid[ing] mindlessly consuming sweet snacks and party food as well as alcohol,” remembering to include “a core workout or brisk walk” in our routine, and telling us to “break with holiday habits that no longer inspire you or choose simpler ones that strengthen the meaning of this special time for you.”

This feels inappropriate to me. I don’t feel like it’s my company’s business what I’m doing on my holidays (within reason — I’d understand them reacting if I was arrested, for example). I felt a little judged on a personal level. If I want to drink too much or eat myself into a food coma, that has nothing to do with my job. And the part about breaking with traditions could potentially bring up painful memories.

Am I way off on my interpretation? I know this is pretty bland and common advice, the kind I could read or hear anywhere, but I took issue with it coming from an employer. Am I overreacting?

If you’re planning to storm into the HR office with a print-out of the email in hand and bellow about personal autonomy, then yes, you’re overreacting. But if you’re just annoyed and think this is paternalistic and patronizing, you are not overreacting. It’s paternalistic and patronizing. But it’s also super common, as corporate HR communications go.

It’s true that it’s good for employers to have a healthy workforce (for productivity reasons and also for health insurance costs), but they should focus on the things they can do to contribute to that, like ensuring people get enough vacation and sick leave and providing excellent insurance. If they’re not doing those things, this type of email is even more irritating. If they are doing those things and want to do more, they can provide healthy snacks, subsidize gym memberships, make it easy for people to switch to standing desks if they want to, and so forth, rather than circulating trite reminders about “party food.”

3. Interviewing intern candidates who were lottery picks

I’m interviewing applicants for my organization’s summer internship. Ordinarily I interview only students who have a chance at being hired. However, this year I am participating in a career fair that lets employers choose some of the applicants to interview, but also gives some interview spots to students who are chosen via lottery. As a result, I have interviews scheduled with students who I would never hire because of deal-breakers already evident in their application materials.

What is the best way to handle this? When I was in the students’ shoes, I hated feeling like my time was being wasted by interviewers who obviously already knew they weren’t going to hire me. But I also felt like I couldn’t just excuse myself, because I didn’t want to look unprofessional or burn bridges. Now that I’m on the other side of the table, I still don’t want to waste anyone’s time, but as a representative of my organization, I also don’t want to come across as unprofessional or cruel. Nor do I want to work around the system in a way that makes the fair organizers hesitant to invite me back next year.

How should I conduct these interviews? Should I pretend these applicants still have a shot? Should I be honest and ask if they’d like to know my reasoning, so they can have a better shot with other companies, or, alternatively, decide not to waste their time talking to me?

If the point of the lottery system is to be helpful to students, I’d think about the most helpful way to use that time. There’s certainly some value to students in getting interview practice, but there’s way more value in getting feedback on why they’re not competitive candidates right now and what would make them more so (assuming they know they’re lottery slots). You could frame it kindly — something like, “I want to be up-front with you that we’re looking for candidates with more X. But I know you’re at the start of your career and I’d be happy to walk you through what we look for from candidates for this type of role and how you might be able to strengthen your approach with other employers.”

Also, do you have an opportunity to push back with the career fair organizers and point out that this isn’t a great use of anyone’s resources, and suggest they reconsider it for next year? (I could see something like this if the goal of the lottery was to give a boost up to candidates who might be disadvantaged for some reason — like if in exchange for participating in the job fair they asked you to interview formerly incarcerated candidates, on the theory that they might shine if they could just get an interview. But if it’s a random lottery, not so much.)

4. Should I let a new employee work holidays in exchange for other time off?

I have a new employee, Jane, who started about a week and a half ago. She’s bright, new to the workforce, and a quick learner. For context, I am a manager of a team of seven at a marketing agency that just went through a ton of turnover in December (we lost 12 of 18 employees in one go) and while we have six dedicated team members left, there are four new people in the office this month. Everyone is watching me manage for the first time at this job, and I want to handle things in a way that sets a precedent.

Today, Jane asked me whether or not she can work on statutory holidays and get other time off in lieu. Now, my first instinct was annoyance because she has been with us for about two weeks, not even, and this was brought up over Slack. I also realize she’s likely never worked in a workplace like this, as she’s new to this career.

But my second instinct is to try to weigh the pros and cons of this and decide whether or not this is something to give her. And if so, when. I plan on bringing it up with her during her 1:1 next week (and my greatest challenge is being direct, which I know you are a huge advocate of and your columns have helped me immensely), and here are my thoughts: I want to ask why it’s important to her and find out the motivation behind it while explaining that as we are client facing, it can be a challenge to schedule all that extra vacation time. I promised to look into it when she brought it up today, and I do intend to do that. Internally, I’m weighing the issue of having other people ask the same question (and suddenly everyone has 10 extra vacation days I have to balance), the needs of clients, and the options I have. Do I give her some of the holidays as an option? Let her know that we will discuss it after her probation? Tell her no, although I can’t really see why no would be the right answer as long as she understands these days don’t roll over and are like other vacation days where I can say no to a request for time off?

The things I would take into account are:
– Do you have any worries about her working alone with no one else there (either in terms of productivity or being able to get what she needs to move work along)? That answer might be different while she’s new vs. a year from now.
– If a bunch of other people made the same request, would it cause problems?
– Is it easier if you just let her do it once or twice rather than regularly (so you’re not tracking so much time off)?

But also, it’s okay to say no if you don’t feel yes would be in the best interests of the team.

5. Will this job be impossible to succeed at?

I just came back from my first interview as a college graduate (thanks to your helpful resume and cover letter advice!) and I wanted to know your thoughts on this interview. I am looking to work in nonprofits and interviewed for an 18-month contract with full benefits and a nice salary for my experience and the region I live in. The project would be to update their website and adapt it for accessibility. This is exactly what I’ve done in my internship, but when I asked if this project has been attempted before, the people interviewing me informed me that there had been the four people who have tried to do this project, including themselves, over the last 20 years.

While I’m up to most challenges, I can’t help but wonder if this project/their organization’s expectations may be too hairy to take on when my career has even begun. I’ve done this project before in a 6-month project on a smaller scale, but I don’t want to be the third failure in this position and end up with bad work experience so early in my career that I wouldn’t be able to list on my resume. I sent them a thank-you email and am waiting to hear back if I made it to the next step, but I want to know if this is more of a landmine than a calculated risk.

It’s hard to say without more information, but on the face of it, updating a website and making it more accessible shouldn’t be out-of-reach goals. So the question is why the last four people didn’t succeed it it (over 20 years!). There are explanations that would be reassuring (like that the other people were all tackling it on top of a full workload of higher priorities, whereas you’ll be fully dedicated to it). And there are also explanations that wouldn’t be (like that none of the stakeholders can agree on what they want). I wouldn’t take the job without learning more about what happened with the previous attempts, and it’s okay to ask.

You may also like:my office does “Fat Friday” – and I have an eating disorderwe give our interns free housing — and there are problemstell us your worst intern horror stories

our interns have to buy food for everyone, HR wants to us to give ourselves “the gift of health,” and more was originally published by Alison Green on Ask a Manager.

Read more: askamanager.org

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