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My Employee Keeps Working Unauthorized Overtime

Inc.com columnist Alison Green answers questions about workplace and management issues–everything from how to deal with a micromanaging boss to how to talk to someone on your team about body odor.

Here’s a roundup of answers to five questions from readers.

1. Employee keeps working unauthorized overtime

I have an hourly employee who is scheduled to work from 8:30-5:30 p.m. We have found out that she doesn’t always leave at 5:30. She says she stays until about 6 because she wants traffic to die down before heading home. We have told her several times that she has to leave at 5:30, but we have evidence that she is here sometimes as late at 9 p.m. She doesn’t have much of a personal life and I know that is part of the reason why she stays here.

I’ve told her that if I know she is staying after 5:30, I’m obligated to pay her since she is an hourly employee and she can claim overtime. Do you have any advice as to how to get this person to go home on time?

How clear and direct have you been with her? If you’re saying “You are required to leave here at 5:30 and it’s a violation of our rules for you to stay longer than that” and she’s continuing to stay late anyway, that’s a serious problem. That’s insubordination, really.

But if what you’ve said has been softer — like “we really shouldn’t have you staying late” and “can you make an effort to leave by 5:30” — then the answer here is that you need to get much more direct.

Either way, at this point you need to say something like, “We’ve talked about this several times and it’s continuing to happen. At this point I consider it a serious disciplinary issue and a violation of my trust, and I need you to commit to following our policy on this. Can you commit to me that going forward you won’t continue to stay late?”

You also need to be prepared to enforce consequences if the problem continues, just like you presumably would if she were repeatedly breaking any other cut-and-dried policy, and you should let her know what those consequences will be.

2. My pregnant coworker is throwing up at her desk every day

I have severe emetophobia. That means I am terrified of vomiting, being around other people who are vomiting, and even being around people who say they are feeling sick.

I work in a large, open plan office. A woman on the team next to mine is pregnant. I’m sure you can see where this is going. She vomits, loudly, several times a day, either in the restroom or into a garbage can at her desk. On the one hand, I feel horrible for her. I know she can’t help it, and must be miserable. On the other hand, my anxiety levels are through the roof. It’s really affecting my ability to work.

We are both able to work from home, but our company culture frowns on that. Is there anything I can do? Is it okay for someone who is vomiting that much to be at work, even if they aren’t “sick”? I’m sure that even people who don’t have my particular problem are finding it unpleasant as well.

I don’t doubt that’s it’s unpleasant! Companies can’t and shouldn’t tell people in the early months of pregnancy that they shouldn’t come to work; that would have a disproportionate and unfair impact on women! But it’s also not unreasonable to expect your coworker to at least attempt to use the bathroom when she needs to throw up rather than the trash can at her desk.

Assuming that headphones don’t solve the issue, can you explain to your manager that you have a strong reaction to other people vomiting and that hearing it so regularly is keeping you in a constant state of queasiness, and ask if for the next month or two you can work from an office out of hearing distance of your coworker?

3. Coworker is using our guest office as her personal phone booth

I work in an office with cubicles for most employees. We also have two conference rooms and a guest office. The guest office is used for visiting directors and execs, and it is generally understood that if no one is visiting, employees can use it for client calls or webinars or things like that. My position has me working on some things that are confidential like salary negotiations, hiring for confidential positions, layoffs, and performance evals, so I use the guest office for privacy when having calls about any of the confidential matters. I prefer the office to the conference room, because the conference room has only a speaker phone, which isn’t as private.

The issue is that a new hire has taken to using the guest office as her own personal phone booth — for non-confidential client calls,  personal calls, or just to get out of her cube and not even use the phone. In the three weeks since she’s started, I’ve had room conflicts with her over seven times. That is six times more than the next closest employee! I’ve brought it up to her and she says she understands, but then a few days later I’ll need to use the room and she’ll be in there talking on her cell phone. She’s very lovely but I just don’t know how to handle this issue.

Be more direct: “Jane, I’m sorry if this wasn’t clear before. I’m finding it hard to get the guest office when I need it for things that I need private space for. Can you please use it only when you have a work call that requires privacy?”

If it continues after that, get even more direct: “I’m not able to use the guest office when I need it for private work because you’re using it for personal calls and other more optional stuff. I’ve mentioned this a couple of times but it’s continuing to happen. How can we resolve this?”

And then if it continues after that, you ask her boss to intervene and tell her to cut it out, since she’s interfering with what you need to do your job.

4. Maximum number of applicants?

I was interested in an internship position at a company whose website says they’re accepting applications until the end of the month (several weeks from today). However, right below that it states that the maximum applicant pool has been reached for their fall program.

Being confident in my experience and skill set, I applied anyway. My thinking is that if just the right person came along, they’d still consider them for the opportunity. The reply I received several hours later read: “We have indeed reached the max of 50 applicants for this role. Would you like to apply for the spring term instead?”

I’ve never heard of a position which had a “maximum number of applicants,” especially one that pretty much makes an “apply by” date completely arbitrary. Is this actually a thing? What happens if the most qualified applicant happens to be #51? And is there anything I can write back that would convince them to rethink this policy?

It’s a thing, yes. I’m not a fan of it personally, for exactly the reason you state — you want to hire the best candidate, not just the earliest candidate. But internships can be a little different, and who knows, maybe they know their applicant pool well enough to know that they’ll have strong candidates in the first 50.

In any case, you will not make a good impression by sounding like you think you know their business better than they do (and ignoring that they may actually have good reasons for doing things this way, which you can’t know from the outside). Don’t try to convince them to suspend the policy for you.

5. When job postings are looking for “energetic” candidates

I have seen several job listings that use the word “energetic” to describe the person they’re looking for. Many of the jobs are basically desk jobs so I’m wary — do they mean “young” (I’m not young) or do they mean “prepared to be overworked” or something else?

Most commonly they mean that they’re looking for someone who will take initiative and act with a reasonable sense of urgency. If you’ve ever had a coworker who was sluggish and had to be given explicit directions before doing more than the bare minimum, they’re talking about the opposite of that person.

It’s pretty rare for job ads to use code to signal things like “prepare to be overworked.” If that’s what they meant, they might write something like “able to juggle a high volume of work,” but they wouldn’t typically be as subtle as using “energetic” to signal that. (And really, even “able to juggle a high volume of work” doesn’t necessarily indicate that there’s a problem without overwork. It could, but it’s not conclusive.)

Job seekers have a tendency to think that employers are communicating in code, but employers hardly ever are.

Want to submit a question of your own? Send it to alison@askamanager.org.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.

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