job search portfolios for students, unsafe holiday party, and more — Ask a Manager

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

1. Do job applicants need digital portfolios?

I am in education (K-12 public school) and am in need of input on the workings of business and other industries. When hiring are you looking for your applicants to have an ePortfolio that they bring with them during the interview?

Some folks on our strategic planning team are stating that our students need to come out of high school with a digital portfolio in order to get a job. If it’s a need, what sort of platform or format would employers like to see? What items should be included?

Please shut this down! Almost no recent graduate of high school needs a portfolio in a job search. There is a small number of industries where a portfolio of examples of past work is helpful — graphic design, some types of marketing and PR, some types of writing, and not many others. With very few exceptions, high school students won’t have done that type of work and won’t be qualified to apply for jobs where it would be relevant. And no one who hires wants a candidate to break out a portfolio of irrelevant work during their interview and start flipping through it.

Colleges have been pushing the portfolio idea too, and it’s similarly misguided for most of their students as well. When employers want to see samples of past work, (a) it will be a specific industry norm and (b) they will ask for them. It’s not something that should be a default for everyone — and your school is doing students a disservice by making them think it is.

2. My company is having an unsafe holiday party

My law firm loves to go all out for the holidays. We usually have a gift exchange, a catered meal, and an out-of-office party to somewhere fun. This year I assumed (and hoped) that those plans would be canceled because of the pandemic.

They didn’t cancel. They sent out an email saying that because of the pandemic, we would be having a catered meal and board game night at the firm instead of going out. I guess this is technically safer than going to a movie theater or bowling alley, but there’s no way for us to social distance at our office! And no one there ever wears masks!

If you don’t go to these firm events, you’re seen as “not a team player” or are labeled as uptight and unfriendly. I have severe asthma, so I’ve been avoiding group activities since March. How can I tell my employers that I don’t want to attend the party without negative consequences?

I can’t guarantee you’ll have no negative consequences because that depends on your firm acting reasonably, and they’ve already shown themselves to be unreasonable. But even companies that frown on skipping workplace social events usually make exceptions for people with reasons that they deem solid enough – and for all but the most unreasonable managers, health issues will be solid enough.

So be straightforward: “I’m high-risk and can’t safely attend so I have to send my regrets.” Or if you think it’ll help to cite a higher authority: “My doctor has ordered me not to attend since I’m high-risk, so I have to send my regrets.”

If you don’t trust your firm to handle that well, there’s always the option of RSVPing yes, but then coming down with a minor illness that day and bowing out so as not to put others at risk. (You shouldn’t have to do that but if they force your hand, it might be your best alternative.)

3. I vented about one client to another

I’m a client manager at a company that does IT work and I have two clients. One of them, company A, is incredibly self sufficient and fun and a joy to work with. The other, company B, is not only stressful and combative but downright abusive at times. In fact, company B’s reputation is universally known not only throughout the company but the industry. So my coworkers and I blow off steam by venting. And normally it ends there. But while on the phone with someone from company A, I started explaining why it took me a whole week to respond to an email. And I began to talk about how busy company B made me. No names were mentioned and nothing outright negative was said. And once I realized what I was doing, I asked the rep for company to keep it between us. Did I cross a line? Where does venting over a legit problem become badmouthing?

Yeah, it sounds like you crossed the line. It’s not a career-ending moment or anything like that, but you shouldn’t vent about clients to anyone outside your company and definitely not to another client. If you vent about one client to another, they’ll understandably wonder if you’re indiscreet about them too.

You asked when venting over a legit problem becomes badmouthing, and I’d say it’s not even really relevant to what happened here — because you shouldn’t be venting to a client, period. They’re paying you to handle problems for them, not to unload about your own problems to them.

4. I’ve been on probation for three years

I’ve been working at a quasi-government agency for over three years now as an assistant to the CEO, “Ben.” I’m the longest running assistant he’s been able to keep, but I never know how long that’s going to last. Why? Because I’ve been on probation all these years! I get a review once a year, he states how I haven’t improved to his standards, my probation gets extended for another six months or until he feels like doing my review. I’m not perfect but I’m obviously not so horrible or he would have fired me already.

Over the past six months, I have improved at work (and in life) mostly because I finally got diagnosed with depression and the medicine is working! It’s about time for another uncomfortable review and honestly I’m just over the entire thing but wondering if I should tell Ben that one of my “problems” was because of the depression? Is he going to see it as just an excuse? After three years, does it even matter anymore? We’re a small agency with less than 50 people with no HR department either. Ben considers himself to be the HR so I can’t ask HR for help!

Nah, Ben is ridiculous. If you’re not meeting his standards after three years, the answer is to replace you (sorry), not keep you in this weird probation limbo. But I’m guessing Ben’s “standards” are as ridiculous as he is, since he doesn’t seem to be able to keep assistants.

Probation is a fairly silly concept in at-will states anyway. All it does is exempt him from having to follow the organization’s internal policies around firing people. If company policy says he’d normally need to warn you, put you on a PIP, etc., it’s a way to short-circuit all that, generally for a new employee who clearly isn’t working out. It’s not meant to keep people in limbo for three years.

I don’t see any reason to make yourself additionally vulnerable to Ben by sharing your depression diagnosis, particularly since even otherwise decent managers often mishandle mental health issues. At most you could share that you’ve been dealing with a health issue that is now being effectively treated, but I don’t know that there’s much benefit in sharing even that. You’re probably better off just assuming you’re going to stay on probation for as long as you work for Ben, even if you’re there a decade from now.

5. Which state’s laws govern?

We live in South Carolina and my husband’s employer is based out of New York. They moved part of the company down here years ago to save on wages.

He is a manager of a few departments, but I don’t know if he is exempt or not. His pay stubs show his hourly rate, which I assume is so he knows how much he makes per hour. The pay stub also shows that he is paid from the main office in New York. Do the labor laws differ from state to state? Or do the labor laws where the main office is located take presidence?

What I am trying to figure out is if he is exempt, why does the employer make him use his accrued time if he is out sick? He has been with the company almost 13 years and has been a department manager the entire time he’s been there.

The labor laws of the state where the work is being performed are what usually govern, so your husband’s employer needs to follow South Carolina’s labor laws where he’s concerned. (This is one reason why it can really matter to employers where an employee is located — California, for example, has very different labor laws governing people working in their state than Tennessee does.)

However, whether or not your husband is exempt would only govern whether the company is required to pay him overtime (if he’s non-exempt, they’d have to). It wouldn’t have anything to do with whether he’s required to use sick time when he’s out sick. In fact, it’s pretty common to require exempt employees to pull from their bank of sick and vacation time when they’re out, especially for full day absences (although many companies are more flexible if the person is only out for a few hours). Being exempt means they can’t dock his pay (with a few exceptions), but they can indeed dock his accrued leave balance.

This content was originally published here.