my office is fighting about overhead lighting, how to address an employee’s bad attitude, and more

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

1. We’re having lighting wars … and half my coworkers want to work in darkness

Our cubicle farm office of about 90 people is undergoing “lighting wars.” One person asked to have the lights above his cube removed because the glare gave him headaches. That prompted another person to ask if the lights above her cube could be taken out, and then another, and another. When they found out that our facilities guy didn’t object to going up and down a stepladder 10 times a day, many people went along with it. Whole swathes of the open plan floor were suddenly plunged into total or semi-darkness, with no light source but glowing monitors. It seems to break along age lines, with people under 35 preferring the darkness. However, many of our jobs require people to look at faxed handwritten papers that are sometimes hard to decipher. I question how well that can be done by the light of a computer screen.

All of this might have stayed just an acceptable office fad if contiguous groups of employees hadn’t gotten together and declared their sections “light free.” New employees were given the option to have the lights above their cubes turned on, but not many did, knowing they were going against the will of the larger group. No manager wanted to step into this because they didn’t think it was worth the ill will. The capper came when a senior manager walked into a room on a dark, rainy morning and flipped on the overhead lights. She walked out a few minutes later, but had to return a second time and was surprised to see the entire room dark again, so she flipped on the lights again. This led one of the analysts to come completely unhinged and start raging at the senior manager at the top of her lungs, hollering and shouting. She had to be led out of the room and was sent home for the day – but she’s a whole ‘nother story. In any case, the lines have hardened: 1) lights off and the senior manager had no business flipping them on, to 2) who runs the show around here anyway? Has anyone had an issue like this? We have no policy about this because who would ever think that office lights would become such an issue?

The biggest issue here is your unhinged analyst who exploded in rage at the senior manager. Either this person is a problem in myriad other ways, or this lighting situation has been allowed to take up way too much emotional space in people’s minds. Or both. I think I’m guessing both.

Anyway, if people like it to be darker, let them have it be darker — as long as it’s not impacting the ability of other people to get the light they need to do their work. The concern is whether people, especially newer employees, are being pressured into accepting no lights because they don’t want to make waves with people who apparently feel quite strongly about this. Ultimately people’s right to work in space that’s sufficiently lit for their eyes and their work trumps other people’s preference to have it dimmer, so you’ve got to make sure that people who want light do truly get it. One way to do that would be to just turn the lights on everywhere (and you might point out to the people going overboard here that they’re going to ruin it entirely if they push your company into solving it that way), or to turn on just half the lights, or even to just buy lamps for anyone who wants them.

2. How can I address my employee’s bad attitude?

Reading yesterday’s post about the person sending the email to their boss and giving her the silent treatment made me wonder if you could share some tips about managing folks with attitude/professionalism problems like this.

I have to meet with a staff member this week who is generally good at her job but has become increasingly disrespectful and resistant to any direction. It came to head over an inappropriate email as well, though differently inappropriate, more disrespectful/borderline insubordinate. Her attitude makes it difficult for me to work with her, but every time I talk to her about anything she is so unpleasant about it and afterwards it is almost the silent treatment. Do you have suggestions for the manager to address the attitude without making the whole situation even more unpleasant? She wants quite desperately to be transferred to work anywhere but here, but doesn’t realize that her attitude is going to make that impossible. So I plan to make that clear in the meeting–but she is still griping about the time I told her they’d come up with a new procedure they wanted us to follow that was different from what she did.

I know I can’t make her respect me, but is there a way that discussing disrespectful attitude will result in better attitude and not just make the problem worse?

Managers sometimes worry that they can’t address attitude issues as straightforwardly as they would performance issues, but you can and you should. In fact, you should frame it exactly the the same way you would a performance issue — “what you’re doing is ___, and what I need is ___.” Just make sure that you’re specific about what she’s doing that needs to change (as opposed to just lumping it all under “bad attitude”). For instance: “Part of what we need in this role is someone with a cheerful, can-do attitude and a willingness to hear feedback. That means I need you to be pleasant to coworkers, participate in meetings, not roll your eyes or otherwise be dismissive when people talk, and be open to discussing areas where I ask you to do something differently.”

And if the problem is severe enough that it could conceivably lead you to replace the person without significant improvement, you should be transparent about that: “I want to be clear that this is important enough that without significant improvement in the next few weeks, we would need to move you out of this role.”

Also, read this.

3. Shouldn’t this CEO have asked me about salary?

During a second and final interview with a CEO, he didn’t ask me how much I would ask for a salary, although during the first interview with executive managers I did indicate a salary range after they had asked me to. I found it strange that a CEO wouldn’t ask me for a salary indication. What’s your advice?

He didn’t ask because he’s focusing on other things in his interview with you — and besides, someone else already asked you, anyway. The assumption is that you’re not going to give different answers about salary to different people, so there’s no need for him to raise it with you a second time. (But even if someone else hadn’t already covered it, I wouldn’t assume he would have — his role is to evaluate you in a more high-level way.)

4. How can I ask how likely I am to be laid off?

I work at a unionized nonprofit. Recently we were told that layoffs were possible if we didn’t receive renewal of a certain grant. It is possible that the grant will be fully funded, partially funded, or not funded at all. We won’t have a decision on this for a couple of months.

We were given a list of worst-case scenario positions that would be eliminated, and mine was on it. They were listed in no particular order. I think a partially-funded grant is more realistic than no funding, which likely still means some layoffs. My question is: How can I approach my boss and ask him how high my position is on the layoff list?

You could say something like, “Do you have any sense of where my position would fall on the list if we were to be partially funded but not fully funded?” However, it might not even be worth asking, since either way, your next move here should be the same, which is to start job searching. Your employer has given you this heads-up so that you can steps to be prepared if it does happen, and even if your boss told you that your job is last on the layoff list, you should still be actively searching. You’re not obligated to take a job if it’s offered to you, but if you’re laid off, you’ll be glad you had a head start.

5. Being forced to pay a penalty for leaving without three months notice.

When my friend started her new job, she signed a contract. That contract included a clause that stated that if she left within six months of employment there, she would be required to give one month notice; if she left between seven and 12 months of employment there, she would be required to give two months notice; and if she left after 13 or more months of employment there, she would be required to give three months notice. Failure to do so would mean she would have to pay her employer the difference in the notice she gives and the required notice, based on her current base salary.

Is that lawful? Does she have any recourse?

She’d need to consult with a lawyer to be sure, but since this would bring her pay for that period below minimum wage, I’d think it would run afoul of minimum wage laws if nothing else. If I were her, I’d give whatever damn notice I pleased, decline to pay this ridiculous penalty, and go instantly to the state labor board if they were late in paying my final paycheck — for all time worked — in full.

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