coworker asks about my personal finances, gender differences in dress codes, and more — Ask a Manager

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

1. My coworker asks about my personal finances

I work in an education-related industry that’s not known for having particularly high salaries. I’m on the younger end of my workplace, and it’s the kind of place where I might be in the same role as someone decades older than me. That said, my spouse works in a better-paying industry, so with two incomes and no kids, we’re comfortable financially in a way some of my coworkers — even those who’ve been working longer than me — might not be.

I have one coworker who is socially difficult in a variety of ways. One of those ways is that she really likes to talk and complain about money. I’m fine with this if we’re talking about it as it relates to our specific jobs and salaries; I think it’s important to know how other people in the company are compensated. I’m not comfortable with this when it relates to our personal situations. I don’t really want to know all the specifics of her personal debts and financial woes, which she shares in our social team meetings (with 8-10 people in them). I also don’t want to answer the questions she asks in these same meetings, which include “how much did you pay for your house,” “how much did you put down on your house,” and, in response to so many casual comments, from getting my dog spayed to plumbing repairs, “how much did that cost?” I mostly sidestep, don’t give amounts, or — in situations where I feasibly can — ignore these comments.

She’s also above me in the hierarchy and kind of bad at reading social cues, so saying things like, “Oh, I don’t really like to talk about that kind of thing at work” doesn’t do anything more than stop a specific question. She’s right back at it the next meeting.

Because she’s above you in the hierarchy, you probably can’t make her stop sharing her own financial information— especially when she’s sharing with a group, not just you — but you can and should enforce boundaries on what you’re willing (and not willing) to share. If she asks you what you paid for something, it’s fine to say, “I’m private about money” or “that seems really personal to me” or “I’d rather not talk about my personal finances at work” or so forth.

2. Gender differences in dress codes

Many years ago I was in a business networking group focusing on people under 30. One of my fellow members was asked to develop a dress code to add formality in his business. I don’t remember the details, but it was a small, customer-facing financial firm of some sort.

His proposed men’s dress code amounted to, “Business professional: jackets and ties. Consult your manager if you have questions.” But for women he had about five pages of detail. Almost everything had both a minimum and a maximum — heels at least this high but no higher than that, skirts at least this long but no longer than that, etc. There was no option for zero jewelry or zero makeup.

Those of us in the club argued with him, of course, but his response was, “There’s a standard for ‘business professional’ for men, and men have a shared understanding of what it is. There are a lot more options for women, and when I talk to women, they give me different definitions of what ‘business professional’ means, so I’m just trying to provide guidance.”

So: if you were in that conversation, what would you be telling him to do, and how would you be supporting your argument?

With the law! For example: “It’s only legal to have different dress codes for men and women as long as they don’t create more of a burden on one sex than the other. Your proposed dress code is significantly more of a burden on women and thus is discriminatory. It’s both ethically wrong and would open you up to legal liability.”

Also, women can be fully professional without makeup or jewelry and while wearing flat shoes, so something’s going on with him that has nothing to do with business standards.

3. Husband’s relationship with a female coworker

My husband seems to find a female coworker very ambitious and great friend material.
When she asked if he would bring his wife to the Christmas party where all partners are invited, he just responded “I’ll let you know if she comes along” when all this while we had decided that I would come to the party and I still am going to the party. He seems to like the mind game of keeping her unanswered. Is this a red flag or is there a possibility of this developing into something else?

Yes, it is a red flag that your husband is downplaying your attendance and possibly your role/your relationship when talking with this coworker. For some reason, he’s choosing not to signal that your relationship is a solid one where you show up as his partner to social events.

To be clear, this does not mean that people who don’t attend their partners’ holiday parties don’t have solid relationships. But when he knows you are indeed attending, his desire to diminish that demonstration of couplehood is suspect.

4. Telling a candidate we went with someone we liked better

I recently conducted interviews for a role on my team. All five candidates were fantastic. Their qualifications were comparable and I could see them all doing well in the role.

I extended the offer to one candidate who I and the rest of the hiring panel clicked with really well. He was kind, friendly, and polite. It’s not that the other candidates didn’t exhibit these qualities — they did! — but this particular individual gave off … I don’t know, the best vibe? Of all five candidates, I liked this one’s personality the most. I feel like a bastard saying that since I know you can’t gauge someone’s true personality from an interviewer alone, but with equal time spent with each candidate, this is all I have to go off of.

One candidate asked for feedback after we informed them that the offer was extended to someone else. I explained that although they would be great in the role, the offer was extended to someone with slightly more experience. It’s not that this wasn’t true, because it was, but it’s not the reason this person wasn’t selected. I just didn’t know what else to say!

How do you explain to a rejected candidate that someone else got the job because basically you just liked them better, without actually saying that?

You don’t need to say you liked the other person better; instead, explain that you had multiple highly qualified finalists and only one slot. For example: “We had several exceptionally qualified finalists, including you, and the decision was a tough one. We could only hire one person for this role, but I have no doubt that you would have been an asset on our team and would welcome applications from you in the future.”

5. Jobs that want reference letters before you’ve even been interviewed

I just applied for a job in higher ed (STEM support role), which warned me my references would be contacted immediately after I submitted the application. Apparently my references got an automated email requesting a whole letter of reference. This is obnoxious, right? Please tell me this is just a higher ed quirk and other sectors aren’t doing this!

Yep, it’s obnoxious. It’s also terribly inconsiderate to the references, who are being asked to spend time writing letters (a much bigger time commitment than a phone call) for people who haven’t even been through an initial screening yet and who might not even get an interview. It’s rude.

It’s also mostly an academia thing. Not entirely — you occasionally encounter it somewhere else — but mostly. (Most fields don’t do reference letters at all. Academia and law tend to be the main places that do, while most other fields generally use phone calls and only at the finalist stage. Some places use electronic survey forms, which are problematic on multiple fronts, but even then they’re at least not generally sent out until you’re further along in the process.)


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