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

1. My coworkers are in a self-help cult

A few months back, my coworker Jason, then new to the team, was hawking a program which from Googling appears to be a for-profit self-help cult. Jason has done the full program and volunteers with them in his free time. Bernadette decided to try it and signed up for the the $800 intro course a couple of months ago. Over a recent weekend, she took the “advanced” course as well. In a team meeting this week, Bernadette spent about five minutes rambling an apology about how she has been dissatisfied at work because she wasn’t giving it her all and how she thinks she’s a bad team member and wants to do better, while Jason encouraged her with smiles and nods.

Bernadette has been a stellar team member for the past year other than this self-denunciation. I have no idea where her perception that she’s no good comes from, but my guess would be a combination of Impostor Syndrome and the cult. The unaccountable apology was uncomfortable and awkward for the rest of the team, and none of us knew what to say in that moment, so we all just sort of stared at our laptops. I don’t want anyone else here to be harmed by this expensive systematic bullying, nor do I want our team meetings to be disrupted by this kind of bizarre and unprofessional outburst in the future. What in the world do I do?

For now, I don’t think there’s much you can do about the meeting disruption. If you start seeing more of this at meetings, you should flag it for your manager — but if it stays a one-time weird moment, I’d just leave it for now. You could, however, counter to Bernadette the critical things she said about herself.

You could also make sure that other people on your team know the facts about the organization, so that they might be more likely to decline if Jason or Bernadette try to recruit them (especially because trying to recruit acquaintances is part of the model). You could try giving Bernadette and Jason that same information too, of course — but people caught up in things like this typically will already have been trained to resist outside assessments of the group, and it may cause some tension in your work relationships with them. (Which you might be fine with! Just factor that in.)

2. I don’t want to be in a car with coworkers for eight hours a day

My company keeps scheduling trips to one of our newly acquired sites in a very rural area. It’s a four-hour drive each way, eight hours roundtrip. We are expected to drive to the site, work a full day, and drive back to the office (~16 hrs on a good day). We typically carpool in a company car, but the days are exhausting.

Am I wrong to ask for the company to cover a hotel? I’ve already talked to my boss. She is against staying overnight and would rather push through it in one day than be away from her family overnight. I’m afraid of looking like a complainer, but I can’t see myself going on another one of these trips. It’s becoming a safety concern for me as it’s a long, somewhat dangerous drive. I’m also pregnant and feel awful asking the driver to stop for multiple bathroom stops along the way. Should I drive by myself and pay for my own hotel? Or bring this issue up the chain?

What the hell?! Eight hours in a car in one day on top of a full work day is ridiculous.

Yes, you should push back. You can cite the pregnancy specifically, or you can cite health issues that mean you shouldn’t sit in a car that much in one day, or you can say it’s unsafe or grueling and exhausting. Use the words “it’s not possible for me to continue doing this all in one day.”

Do all your other coworkers want to get back the same day, or are there others who would join you in pushing for an overnight stay? If there are others, push back as a group and suggest that those of you who don’t want the 16-hour days could drive up in a separate group and stay overnight. (I’m assuming the train isn’t an option, but if it is, that’s something else you could suggest.)

Don’t offer to pay for your own hotel. This is business travel and your company should cover it.

3. Does my boss’s boss think my work is bad?

I’ve been in my current job as an administrative assistant for about six months now, and overall things are going really well. My supervisor is helpful, if somewhat stressed and disorganized, and I get along well with all of my coworkers.

My question is regarding my grandboss. I only seem to interact with her when something’s gone wrong. These are never really big things: they range from minor, easily corrected mistakes (I didn’t realize that the new Llama Safety Packets include our Llama Info Sheet, so there’s no need to include it as a separate copy) to things that I don’t actually have any control over (lunch arrived later than scheduled) to things that weren’t actually mistakes (I was trained to file our Llama Grooming Instructions under Grooming, not Llamas, and she didn’t realize that) to things I was in no way involved with (her mortgage company sent her a fax with her SSN on it, and she didn’t realize it was on the fax machine for a couple days). My response to all of these is to fix the issue as quickly as possible, and to try and make sure they don’t happen again.

I don’t mean to sound defensive, but in my actual daily activities, I tend to be quick, accurate, and efficient. My direct supervisor regularly tells me that I’m doing well, and I frequently fill in for absent coworkers without any dip in work quality. I’m afraid, though, that my grandboss has a bad impression of my work based on a few rare exceptions, that don’t fall into the my main duties. Aside from trying to minimize mistakes going forward, and correcting the ones that do occur, is there any way to improve my relationship with her?

There’s a good possibility that she doesn’t have a terrible impression of your work, but rather — because she’s not your manager — only has cause to talk to you about your work when she wants something handled differently. It would better if she praised you for things that go well that she’s involved in, but this kind of model with a grandboss isn’t unusual.

But to be sure, you could always check your manager. You could say, “The only times I generally end up interacting with Jane are when something’s gone wrong, like X or Y, and I worry it could affect her impression of my work. I know you’ve said I’m doing well, but do you think I have any cause for concern about what her impressions may be?” You’ll probably hear “no, Jane knows I’m thrilled with how you’re doing” or “nothing to worry about — she knows you’re great but just doesn’t have reason to interact with you most of the time” or something else reassuring. Or who knows, maybe you’ll hear Jane does have concerns! (In which case, that’s good to know so you can figure out what to do about them.) But I’m betting she doesn’t, and you’ll get some peace of mind by asking.

4. Company wants to call me for an “informal chat”

A few days after submitting an application for an open position at a major company in my city, I received an email from their HR saying that they would call me within one or two weeks for an “informal chat.” They couldn’t say when exactly they would call, but I didn’t need to worry about it because it was not an interview and if I was not available at the time they called, I could return it.

I’m confused by what this means. They say it’s not an interview, but if they get the impression from this call that I’m not a good fit, I will be disqualified as a candidate. How should I prepare for this? Do you have any tips for these “informal chats”?

Prepare for it as if it’s a formal interview. It might be one! Some employers are weird about this and like to make early stages of their hiring process sound more informal than they really are. “We’ll just have a conversation!” “Come in and get to know us!” But from the candidate’s side, those things are usually interviews, and you should prepare the same way you would if they were calling it that.

Occasionally it really is something less formal. It’s possible that they just want to tell you about the job and see if you’re still interested and/or learn a little about you. Even then, the best thing is to prepare the same way you would for an interview. Be familiar with the company and the job posting, and be ready to talk about yourself, your experience, and your interests. You might end up being over-prepared, but that’s better than being under-prepared.

(Also, companies: Stop doing this. No matter how informal these conversations are, they’re interviews. They’re part of your assessment process, after all. Call them interviews. You are confusing candidates. And schedule them for an actual time, not “we’ll call sometime in the next two weeks.”)

5. Company wants to contact my references but we haven’t talked about salary or start date

I recently interviewed for a quite senior level job, for which I had been referred by a former manager. I had several interviews and they then asked for contact details for my references, which I gave and asked that they please let me know at the stage that they planned to call. They replied, “today.” We had thus far not discussed any details of the job like salary, start date, or even location. I am applying for multiple jobs and do not want my references to take valuable time and energy on something that might not be a possibility/fit. Additionally, I found it kind of rude and presumptuous of this company to approach it in this way. I sent a polite note and said I’d love to sync on details before the reference stage if they had a moment at all and since then — crickets. I do need a job, so now I am concerned I approached this wrongly and put them off. What do you think?

This is pretty normal. Loads of companies don’t discuss pay or state date until the offer stage. They interview you, they check references, then they make an offer where those details get discussed. [Start date in particular is usually assumed throughout the process to be “sometime within a month or so after an offer is accepted” (or sometimes for senior roles, “within a few months”) and many companies don’t see a reason to discuss it earlier unless there’s special reason to, like that they must have you start sooner.]

That said, you’re not wrong to want to make sure you’re in the same ballpark before your references are contacted, especially if you have reason to worry you might not be. It’s not unreasonable to say something like, “Since I want to protect my references’ time, would it be possible to quickly make sure we’re in the same ballpark on salary and location before you contact them?” (Just be prepared to be asked to name your own salary expectations first since you’re the one raising the question.)

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my coworkers are in a cult, all-day work road trips, and more was originally published by Alison Green on Ask a Manager.

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