I was told I’m socializing too much with another team, two employees arrested for embezzling, and more — Ask a Manager

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

1. I’ve been told I’m socializing too much with other teams

I have been at my current job for a year and have been struggling with fitting in. I think there’s a big culture difference than what I’m used to, and I’ve also dealt with a lot of bullying from my team. I’ve been job searching, but no luck so far.

I’m finally starting to make friends with people at work outside of my team, which is great! I’ll occasionally (no more than once per day, if that) go down to their unit to spend 5-15 minutes chatting, and maybe once every two weeks I’ll eat lunch with them in their unit (we don’t really have a convenient break room, so everyone usually eats at their desks). Our jobs don’t overlap at all, so I’ve asked general questions about their job process out of curiosity, learning more about my organization, etc.

The third person in their unit reported to their supervisor that I’m there way too often and that I’ve been trying to get them to show me sensitive information (this is not true at all). Luckily, their supervisor didn’t really believe his full side of things, talked to my friends, and cleared that up quickly. It’s worth mentioning that I currently do not have a supervisor as he was moved to a different unit.

However, in the past, people have mentioned to my old supervisor that I tend to “linger” when I go to collaborate with other units, which is a big part of my job. I was not formally reprimanded, just nicely told that it was something to keep in mind.

I truly don’t believe that I’m this big of a distraction, but I’m having a hard time since this has now been brought up twice in some capacity. This seems like a place where you’re fine if your friends are already in your unit, because you don’t have to move anywhere to chat, but if you aren’t friends with your unit, you’re out of luck.

I don’t think I’ve changed my behavior at all, and in my previous job I was known for being personable and received excellent reviews my entire five years there. Is this just a culture fit problem, or am I the problem?

It’s hard to say, but I’m concerned that it’s been brought up twice now.

I’m curious about what the vibe was when the other unit’s supervisor spoke to you about it, especially in the conversation after they investigated a little more — because there’s a whole spectrum of possibilities there, from that manager thinking it was ridiculous that the complaint was made at all to something more like “the person who complained was off-base about the details but it would still be better to avoid this coming up again.”

Absent any other info, I’d say that yeah, you need to spend less time in that other unit — because even if the person who complained was totally off-base, from a work-priorities perspective it’s more important that the manager not have to keep refereeing this (and that you don’t look oblivious to the feedback) than that you get to eat lunch over there.

(The lunch thing in particular sticks out to me, because if “eating at their desks” means “working while they eat” — for any of them, even if not for all — it would definitely be annoying to have someone from another department show up with their sandwich to turn the time into a purely social one.)

I would also say, now that you’ve been talked to about it a couple of times, five minutes of chit-chat is okay but 15 minutes at a time is pretty long and you should stick to five … and even then you should be alert to the other person’s cues — are they actively engaged in and enthusiastic about the conversation / are their eyes getting pulled back toward their screen / etc.

But also, all of this is just about calibrating yourself to the norms of the organization you’re in. It doesn’t mean you’re an annoying person or you were overstaying your welcome with colleagues in past jobs. It’s just about paying attention to how things work in this environment and adjusting accordingly. Which especially sucks since your own team has been awful to you, but is probably the reality of it.

2. Explaining to new hires that we just had two employees arrested for embezzling

I’ve worked for a small company which handles a lot of money, including cash payments, for about eight years. Five years ago, a staff member, Sarah, was caught and arrested for embezzling a huge sum of money. Afterwards, we instituted new security procedures and we were all caught up in a heartbreaking criminal investigation and trial. Sarah spent four months in prison and now will have to repay about 6% of what she stole.

As the criminal proceedings were winding down, we hired Lily. Lily knew about our changes in security and I think, crucially, realized that Sarah’s actions were not met with equitable repercussions. Lily instituted a criminal scheme and has been caught and charged with embezzlement of a lower, but still significant, sum of money.

The crisis with Lily just came to light this past week and I have two new direct reports starting Monday. Presumably, we will also be filling Lily’s role. I feel like being too transparent about what happened with Sarah may have contributed to the Lily situation, but I also know that hearing about Lily from colleagues is unavoidable, and I know that I will at least have to come up with a reasonable way of explaining our security overhaul and why our boss is meeting with police and prosecutors.

What’s the proper way of handling this situation? Am I just way overthinking things? How much transparency is helpful vs. harmful?

Most people don’t see a light sentence and think, “Great, I can handle four months in prison — I’ll embezzle too.” It’s far more likely that your security procedures are still far too lax and don’t have enough checks and balances. It shouldn’t be possible for someone to embezzle without those checks and balances flagging it very early on. That’s where I’d focus — on figuring out tighter systems, including bringing in outside security experts if you haven’t already.

As for the new hires, be matter-of-fact about it and don’t beat around the bush — “this happened, there’s an ongoing investigation, and we’re in the middle of a security overhaul.” They’re going to hear about it from coworkers anyway, and it’s far better for you to matter-of-fact address what’s going on than for them to have to piece it together on their own. The issue isn’t that if you’re honest about Sarah and Lily, your new hires might decide to embezzle too; the issue is that your company, for some reason, has still left itself far too open to it being possible.

3. My coworker always asks me for guidance on work I don’t know anything about

My colleague, Petunia, and I both report to the same manager, Iris. We are the same rank on two different teams in the same department. We work on projects together regularly, but we do not assign each other tasks and we have independent tasks that are assigned to us by Iris. I find Iris to be very approachable and collaborative as a manager.

Petunia regularly asks me what her tasks are for projects that I am not involved in, instead of asking the person who assigned the tasks. I usually respond by saying she should check in with the senior person who assigned the task.

Most recently, there was a meeting with Iris, Petunia, and I to discuss a large project with input from the different teams. I completed my portion of the project, then Iris said she and Petunia would work on another portion of the project without me. Petunia agreed to this and did not ask any follow-up questions during the meeting. After the meeting, Petunia immediately asked me, “What do I need to prepare for the task with Iris?” I said I wasn’t sure, and she should ask Iris for guidance.

This has happened on several occasions, and initially I chalked it up to Petunia looking for reassurance from a peer. However, I’m beginning to find the questions grating as I’m not involved with assigning tasks and it seems obvious to me that Petunia would follow up with Iris or whoever assigned the task to understand their expectations. Am I being too harsh? And how do I address this constructively?

No, this is strange! And it’s one thing for Petunia to ask you once or twice, but it sounds like it’s happening a lot and that’s bizarre; if nothing else, she should be realizing from your responses that you’re the wrong person to help.

So, it’s time to name the pattern: “You ask me a lot about your tasks for projects I’m not involved in, so I wanted to make sure you realize: I’m never going to be able to answer those questions for you — you will always need to ask Iris or whoever assigned you the work. It doesn’t make sense to bring those to me.”

And then if she keeps doing it after that: “This is what I meant — this isn’t anything I can answer.”

If that doesn’t take care of it, you could mention it to Iris if you want, framed as, “I think Petunia might need guidance from you on what to do when she has questions about a project. She’s been asking me, but I’m not involved enough with her work to know, and while I’ve suggested she talk to you instead, she’s still coming to me.”

4. My team apologizes for repeated mistakes but it keeps happening

I run a successful print shop, but lately my team seems to not perform accurately. They need to enter the press orders correctly or read the orders correctly and when I mention they did not, which meant we then had to reprint the job, costing the company money, their only response is, “I’m sorry.”

These same mistakes keep happening and again I get “I’m sorry.” What is the best way to respond? Especially since it does not seem to help and they keep doing the same mistakes.

You need to talk about the pattern: “This has been happening repeatedly lately, so we need to figure out to do differently. I don’t need you to apologize — I want you to dig in with me on figuring out where our processes are going wrong. What’s your sense of why it keeps happening and what we can change to prevent it?”

And then listen. They might have insight into the situation that you don’t. But if they don’t, then it’s appropriate for you to try to figure out solutions (which could be anything from retraining to instituting a checklist that needs to be signed off on before any job is run or adjusting your staffing levels if you realize people are rushing at an unreasonable rate to get everything done, or who knows what). At some point you might conclude that the issue is the person, not the systems, but if you’re seeing it with multiple people, it’s more likely that it’s something about the system. Start there.

5. Can I ask if I’m going to be laid off in a merger?

My company recently announced a merger. They’re not handling it well (I could write many more letters about all of the issues). While some people have been quietly let go and we only know from office chatter, the messaging has been that there will be more people let go but they don’t want to talk about it until it’s done.

My dilemma is that my mortgage is up for renewal in the next two months. The interest rates have climbed, so the new payment will be quite a bit higher (I’m in Canada, where mortgage terms are typically three to five years, then renewed at the current rate). If I lose this job, I will likely get a severance payment, but jobs in my industry are scarce right now and all companies are laying people off. If I renew the mortgage and end up having to sell the house, I will be on the hook for tens of thousands of dollars of interest with the bank.

Is it okay to reach out to the new leaders and ask that they let me know if they plan on letting me go sooner rather than later? It would mean having to sell the house quickly and other stresses, but at least I wouldn’t be on the hook for so much money to the bank? Or am I just putting myself at risk of looking like I’ve placed an ultimatum in front of them and invite them to terminate me anyway?

You can ask, but you can’t really depend on their answer if they tell you that your job is safe. If decisions are ongoing, they might not even know for sure yet, and if they do know they might not be willing to tell you. (There’s a lot of business philosophy that goes into the timing of layoff announcements, and it’s probably not going to be trumped by your personal situation.) It’s also possible that the person you ask might not be privy to decisions being made above them.

Because of that, as a general rule I don’t recommend even bothering to ask; you’re unlikely to get an answer you can count on. That said, in your case there’s not really anything to lose by explaining your situation and asking (assuming you don’t present it as an ultimatum, which of course you shouldn’t). You won’t be able to put any real weight on a “no,” but it’s possible you could nudge them into giving you some information (or just making a decision about you) faster. There’s no guarantee of that but it’s also not likely to hurt you, so I lean toward thinking you might as well, just for the small chance that it does produce something useful in a situation where you really, really need it. But simultaneously, be thinking about what you want to do if you don’t get any useful info, which is very likely to be the outcome.

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