when a colleague talks about your appearance, when you have more education than experience, and more

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

1. Was I right to call out this colleague for commenting on my appearance?

Our IT support is based in India (I’m in the UK) so most support is done via instant message and everyone has a photo loaded into the system, which displays next to their name. I had raised a case and it was being dealt with by instant messenger. The guy made a comment about how I had a nice picture. This was the end of our exchange and the message came in while I was away from my desk (having told him I was going into a meeting), so I decided just to ignore it. He came back a bit later on to clarify some further information, and when I thanked him for his help, he commented, “Your pleasure beautiful.” I replied that those sort of comments weren’t really work-appropriate, and when he said he didn’t know what I meant, I repeated the sentiment in slightly different terms. He asked if I minded, so I replied, “No harm done, just thought it might be useful for you in the future.”

I didn’t think the comments were appropriate, but I’m not about to inform HR about them either and he apologized. Should I have just chalked it up to cultural difference and kept quiet?

No, it’s good that you said something, both because (a) you shouldn’t have to act like you’re fine with those comments when you’re not, and (b) he needs to hear that it’s not appropriate so that he stops doing it.

(Also, I am hoping/assuming he meant “my pleasure” rather than “your pleasure,” although telling people “it’s your pleasure” would be pretty fun.)

2. How can I ask an interviewer not to alert my current employer that I’m job searching?

I had a first interview this morning with a company that is a client of the company where I currently work. I had filled out the application online on the company website. Although the form asked for phone numbers for my jobs, it did not ask for references; for my current employer, I wrote, “Please contact me first” for the phone number, because I do NOT want my current employer to be called. (It is a long story, but my boss has already tried to fire me once in the last month, for requesting an ADA accommodation, so I do not want to give him a convenient pretext.)

At the interview, though, the interviewer asked who my supervisor is, and I provided the name of my direct supervisor (not the person who tried to fire me). She did not ask for permission to contact my supervisor, and I was not asked to provide a list of references at this point. She told me that they will let me know by the end of next week if they will call me back for a second interview.

At first I thought she just wanted to see if she knew my supervisor, but now I am terrified that she will call my supervisor for a reference and my current employer will find out that I am job-searching. Should I have asked if she would be contacting my current/previous employers yet? Or told her bluntly that I would rather she not contact my current employer? This isn’t something I can call back to confirm, right? Or am I getting upset over nothing?

You can absolutely contact them to reiterate that you’d like your search kept confidential from your current employer, if you didn’t already say that explicitly. Send an email and say, “Because my employer does not yet know that I’m considering changing jobs, I hope you will keep our conversations confidential for now. At whatever time you need to speak with references, I’d be glad to provide you with many from previous jobs.”

3. Getting a chance when you have more education than work experience

How do you gain new skills if you are never given the opportunity because you are more education-heavy than experience-heavy? I stayed at home while going to school and was out of the workforce for 6-7 years. I worked for almost 3 years as an admin assistant and was laid off for over 2 years. I’m currently working as a data entry associate for over a year with a master’s degree and am being grossly underpaid. With lack of time career-wise and holding 5 degrees, how do I get a better opportunity?

Whoa. Five degrees? Honestly, that’s going to be a red flag to a lot of employers because they’re going to wonder if you’re scattered and unfocused about what you want to do, not motivated to stay working, etc. So for starters, I’d seriously considering only listing a couple of them on your resume, because five is more likely to work against you than it is to help you. Aside from that, it’s hard to say what would help without knowing a lot more context, but there’s loads of advice on this site about job searching in general.

4. Telling an employer you can’t work as many days as they need

I work in a profession where working part-time is the norm. I interviewed recently at a company, and I cannot work all the days they expect me to work. I like the place — I didn’t know available days untill I was interviewed. However, I may be only able to give them 2 days vs 3. How do I handle this on the call back interview? I just thought about it — the practicality of working that third day is impossible.

Just be straightforward: “In our last call, you mentioned that you’re looking for someone to work Monday, Tuesday, and Thursday. After we spoke, I thought about it and realized that Mondays aren’t possible for me, although I can absolutely work the other two. Is that prohibitive or does it make sense to continue to talk?”

5. Changing your stated salary preference after you’ve already given a lower number

This week I have spoken with an HR manager and the potential direct manager about my annual salary preference for a job. The job title is not directly related to my college major that I graduated with, but it does contain tasks that will help me learn concepts that are important for my future job roles that I plan for my career. From the job description and from my phone interview with the manager, the job is not very difficult–the only challenges are understanding the business model and communicating with clients to resolve discrepancies.

When the HR manager and the direct manager called me, they both asked me my salary preference. To each of them, I stated $XX. I did not do enough research to learn about the salary ranges for the role, and I felt mortified that I did not do this. I did some research today about the job’s salary ranges in my city, and it seems that I could have stated a salary preference that is $4,000 more than what I have stated before. I am going to have an in-person interview with the company soon, and I am wondering if there is still a chance that I can restate my salary preference and asked for $4,000 more than what I have stated previously.

You could try, but it’s probably not going to work. You’ve already told them that you’re willing to do the work for $XX, and so you’ve sort of collapsed your negotiating power (which you didn’t have a lot of to begin with if you’re right out of college.) Even if you now have reason to think they’d pay more, you’ve already told them you’d do the work for less — so it’s not a strong position.

6. How to refuse a non-required drug test without seeming sketchy

I have had my job for almost 7 years. I work closely with one client company, and we have a great relationship. I visit them often, along with another few members of my team. The client office has some security–we have to sign in, get a guest badge, and be escorted by the person we’re visiting at all times. There’s an opportunity to get permanent badges for a few of us, which would allow us to arrive, not have to sign in, and not have to be escorted around the building.

The catch is that we basically have to go through a process as if we were being hired, including background checks and drug tests. I’d rather not get a drug test for privacy reasons, and this is more of a “nice to have” type of thing rather than something that’s necessary for me to do my job well, so theoretically I shouldn’t have to. Still, I’m not sure how I can discuss it with my manager without rousing some kind of suspicion. I’ve smoked pot in the past and don’t see a problem with it, but there’s no chance I’d test positive, so that’s not a concern. My own company doesn’t test upon hire but has a clause in our contracts that we can be required to undergo a test if substance abuse is suspected.

I know based on a search of your site that you have similar feelings about privacy. Any thoughts about how I can frame this? Or should I just let it slide and hope they never get around to processing the badge request (a real possibility)?

I’m a big, big proponent of non-drug-users speaking up against unnecessary and invasive drug testing, because it’s important to get people to realize that there are lots of reasons to oppose drug testing other than “I use drugs” and that plenty of non-drug-users are concerned about civil liberties and privacy. So ideally, you’d simply explain that to your boss — something like, “I feel strongly about privacy rights and generally oppose drug testing, so I’m planning on skipping this since it’s not a requirement.” If your boss says anything implying that you’re casting suspicion on yourself or even just makes a joke about it, say, “The issue isn’t that I couldn’t pass the test. The issue is about privacy. I hope you understand.”

Of course, this won’t go over well with every employer, and if you know that it’s not going to go over well with yours, and if you’d rather not deal with it, then I’d look into whether you can opt out in some less pointed way.

7. Listing a reference who you can’t reach

I’m a recent graduate and I’m pretty anxious to start putting in applications. Unfortunately, the coordinator for my undergraduate research program hasn’t been getting back to me (for about two weeks now) and is either on vacation or simply ignoring my emails. She also didn’t answer her phone and her voicemail is full. She is my only really relevant reference and would definitely speak highly of me. Perhaps I should have asked if it was okay to put her down as a reference while I was still working with her, but I didn’t think of it at the time.

Most of the places I’m applying to are using automatic application systems which ask for references, so unless I want to wait for an unknown amount of time, I can either put my research coordinator down without telling her ahead of time, which I’m sure is a no-no (although the employer might not be able to contact her anyway) or submit these applications without any references.

Am I killing my chances by submitting these applications without references, or should I wait for my professor to respond and risk the positions being filled?

If they’re asking for references, then list her. Send her an email telling her that you wanted to check with her first but couldn’t reach her and that you hope it’s okay.

Don’t submit without references, if they’re required; you’ll just look like you can’t or don’t follow directions. That said, it’s obnoxious and unnecessary that they’re asking for them at this early stage, since they’re only going to end up contacting them for a tiny fraction of their applicants.

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