short answer Sunday — 7 short answers to 7 short questions

It’s short answer Sunday — seven short answers to seven short questions. Here we go.

1. Company is banning vacation time for five months

My friend has been working for a beauty supply chain for 10 years. The store had a black-out period where nobody could request time off for November and December of last year (for the busy holiday season), but on top of that, they have been told they cannot get time off from January-April because her manager will be on maternity leave. So, this means she is not allowed to ask for any time off for 5 consecutive months. Is this legal?

She has a lot of vacation time and wants to use a day here and there, but my understanding is it IS legal for employers to tell you when you can and can’t use it since vacation pay is a privilege, not a “right.” What I’m wondering is whether you can tell employees they can’t take any time off, paid or unpaid, for a period that long. She has also tried contacting her HR department several times but gets a machine, leaves messages, then never gets a call back.

Yes, it’s legal. No law requires that employers offer vacation time at all, so employers who choose to offer it can put any restrictions they want on it. That doesn’t mean that what this company is doing is sensible — it’s not — but it’s legal.

2. Why do recruiters ask where you are in the job search process?

What does the question “Where are you in the job search process” mean? What are recruiters trying to gauge with this? If I have an offer from another company, does it affect the process with another company I’m applying to? Do I have a professional responsibility to keep a recruiter informed of my process (if I’ve been extended a formal offer, etc.)?

They’re asking because they want to get a sense of whether you’re likely to receive an offer in the near future. If you are, they might do things differently with you — for instance, moving you through their own hiring process more quickly if they think you’re a strong candidate so that they don’t risk losing you to another employer’s offer.

3. Job closed before I could apply for it

I found my absolute dream job last night on a local hospital’s website. I woke up early this morning (before my kids) to type up a wonderful cover letter…the job is no longer posted! It must have closed at midnight last night! Ahhh! Any advice? Can I just bring it to the person in charge of the program or HR?

Go ahead and try to send in an application anyway. If it’s electronic application system that won’t let you apply now, try to figure out the email address of the person doing the hiring and email your materials to them. Include a note saying that you saw the job while it was still open and were excited by it, but it had closed the next day, and say that you hope they’ll still accept your materials because you’re so interested in the job. Some places will, some won’t — but you have nothing to lose by trying, and potentially something to gain. But do it quick — today!

4. Salary verification during background checks

I recently bought your book and wanted to say thank you. It’s helped me a lot since I’ve been job hunting. One thing struck me as really strange when I was interviewing. A hiring manager asked me for my salary history and said that in the past she was not able to hire candidates because they overstated their salary history. This was discovered by their company during the background check. I was really surprised by this because I was under the impression that this is not available without my consent. Is that legal or typical? I thought background checks meant checking on employers and references.

Yes, it’s legal, and not that uncommon. Some employers do include salary verification as part of reference-checking, and offers do get pulled if it turns out that a candidate lied about their salary. Frankly, I don’t think it’s anyone’s business what you get paid, but if you’re going to talk about it, you shouldn’t lie.

5. Can employer ban employees and volunteers from socializing outside of the office?

I work for a nonprofit that also relies heavily on volunteers. Can the director legally ban employees and volunteers from socializing outside of the agency? Does this change if there is alcohol (read a glass of wine, not drunken debauchery) involved?

An employer can’t ban employees from discussing wages and working conditions with each other, so attempting to ban them from talking and socializing outside work would be risky territory — I suspect that the National Labor Relations Board would be unlikely to look on it kindly. Alcohol shouldn’t be a factor either way.

This may help.

6. Tone in a cover letter when you know the hiring manager

What is the best way to go about writing a cover letter to someone you’ve worked under in the past? It seems to me that it might feel particularly awkward to talk about the work you’ve done under that person, especially if it was in the recent past and his/her impressions of you are still fresh. This isn’t to imply that I didn’t do good work; it’s more about the self-conscious awareness that everything I say will be measured against my former supervisor’s already-formed judgement of me.

Also, is it acceptable/expected to be more personable in such a letter? Can I address the manager by her first name, if I’ve never called her anything else?

I can’t make you feel less awkward, but if you want the job and think you’d be good at it, you’re going to explain why — in the interview too, not just the cover letter. However, you shouldn’t feel that you need to do this in a stiff and formal way — even if you’re writing to a stranger, and especially when you’re writing to someone you know. Similarly, you should absolutely address her by her first name since that’s what you call her.

People tend to think that cover letters are supposed to be some odd formal document, when in fact you should write them in the same voice that you’d write to any colleague in — your normal one.

7. Sending job applications on your company letterhead

I never would have considered using letterhead of my current affiliation on cover letters, but I’ve been recently told by a number of people (including people from hiring committees and mentors) that when applying for academic positions, I should be using my current university/department letter head and I’m doing my self a disservice if I don’t. I would have thought that my applying for jobs externally is not really part of my “work” and thus I shouldn’t be using their letterhead. Is this a weird quirk of academia (or is it still wrong?), or should I also be using my department’s letter head for general job applications (policy, research centres, NGOs, think tanks, private sector)? It feels wrong, but I’m not sure what the standard is out in the “real world.”

I have no idea how academia does it, but in the rest of the professional world, you shouldn’t be using your employer’s letterhead when you apply for jobs — you’re not representing them when you’re applying for work elsewhere, and there’s something particularly crass and wrong about using your employer’s resources — and making it obvious that you’re using their resources — when actively attempting to leave their employ.

But I wouldn’t be at all surprised to learn that academia does this differently, as they do lots differently.

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