Q: I live in a city where people continue to be very cautious about COVID-19. As business travel restarts, I will soon have to visit a part of the country that never really took the pandemic seriously. My firm has asked that I not wear a mask while in the presence of our customer. We worry it could jeopardize the business relationship. This bothers me a little bit, but it bothers my mother-in-law — who lives with us and is immunocompromised — a lot.

She thinks my employer should pay for a hotel for me to quarantine after I return home. Is this something that would be reasonable to request? Is my firm being unreasonable in asking me to not wear a mask in the presence of our customer? It feels like I’m between a rock and a hard place. Is it reasonable to request work reimbursement for N95 masks for use during flights on these business trips, or for post-trip antigen/PCR tests?

— Anonymous

A: You are, indeed, between a rock and a hard place. It is not reasonable for your employer to ask you to endanger your health to please a customer. I understand not wanting to jeopardize a professional relationship, but you can explain that you have an immunocompromised family member and need to wear a mask.

If you decide to take the chance, and have to quarantine upon returning home, you can certainly ask your employer for reimbursement, knowing your request may be denied. But there is no harm in asking. It is also absolutely reasonable to request reimbursement for any testing and good N95 masks. You wouldn’t be taking the trip were it not for business, so the expense is not yours to bear.

Matters of time

Q: I recently started a new job where workers are divided into three shifts. I arrive at 7 a.m. to relieve the person who works the graveyard shift. During training, I was warned that the woman I relieve feels entitled to leave 10 to 15 minutes early and has even called the staffing line to report the morning person absent at 6:50, 10 minutes before the scheduled start.

Today was my third day, and I arrived about 12 minutes early and went into the staff room to make myself a cup of tea and have a few bites of breakfast. At 6:50 I heard her telling someone to “send out my replacement, I want to go home!” A couple of minutes later she came to the door of the staff room asking if I was coming. I said yes, at 7 a.m., and she said she needed to leave to take her husband to work. At 6:57 a.m. she was walking out the door, saying her husband would be late. I called out that the shift starts at 7 a.m., so I did not plan to start before that, but she waved me off.


I don’t want to be pressured to start work early because someone else wants to leave before their shift is done. At the same time, I recognize that starting early isn’t a huge ask and maybe I should just acquiesce to not rock the boat, or to be nice and help her out. Working an overnight shift is never fun, and I, of course, appreciate if someone lets me go early. The difference is I would never feel entitled or demand it. What do you think I should do?

— Anonymous

A: Continue to start your shift at 7 a.m. Now I am all for collegiality and helping co-workers out. If your co-worker had bothered to ask you to accommodate her need to leave early, you would be free to decide whether to do so or not. That she assumes you will do this simply because she wants you to is beyond entitled. It would drive me to distraction. You are not responsible for her scheduling issues, so it’s up to her to ask for accommodation from your employer or make other transportation arrangements for her husband.

I will also say this: I imagine that if other arrangements were possible, she would have already made them. Perhaps her attitude is not so much entitlement as desperation. Another way to look at this is to ask yourself what you would hope for if the situation were reversed. How would you want your co-worker to help you? If you’re feeling generous, I’d suggest talking to this co-worker and finding out why she needs to leave early so you are dealing with a choice instead of an obligation that isn’t really yours at all.

The importance of being on vacation

Q: I notice that out-of-office messages now generally have a subject line of “out of office” or “away from email.” I think it is important to normalize taking vacation — and actually not working during vacation — so I have been using that as my subject line when I do take a vacation (e.g., “on vacation; back on DATE.”). Using the “non-vacation” language has some advantages since it doesn’t make it clear when people are likely out for medical or family leave reasons, and I want people to be able to keep that private and not to ask me about why I am out of the office if I don’t tell them. I’m wondering if I should rethink my one-person campaign to make vacations visible.

— Deborah, Berkeley, California

A: No need to rethink your campaign. If people want to be vague about being out of the office, for whatever reason, they can and will. For those of us who want to normalize vacations, something absolutely everyone deserves, this is a way to take a small but important stand. There is more to life than work. It’s also an incredibly healthy boundary to say you’re not at work and will not be doing work during your time off. More people should take vacations that are truly vacations, and more people should have the means to do so. May your next vacation be as restful and restorative as you need it to be.

Mandatory gifting

Q: I work for a small company that’s entirely made up of women in our 20s and 30s, aside from our founder and CEO, who is a man in his late 40s. Every year, the directors of our team solicit contributions to buy a birthday gift and a Christmas gift for our CEO. The contributions they suggest for each gift are small ($10 per person), they’re technically optional, and the directors make up the rest from their own pockets.


But something about this still rubs me the wrong way. The messaging around these gifts is always that we’re thanking him for everything he does for us, but honestly he’s a somewhat removed leader. We don’t buy collective gifts for anyone else. He likely makes quite a bit more money than the rest of us. Am I overthinking this? If not, should I speak up about it to my boss, or should I just let it go since the contributions are supposedly optional and it’s just $20 a year? I’m not sure if my peers at the company feel the same way, and I’ve been too afraid to bring it up lest I’m perceived as ungenerous.

— Anonymous

A: I love gift giving. As cheesy as it sounds, gift giving is my love language. But I never want to feel obligated to give gifts, particularly to people I don’t have some kind of personal relationship with. To that end, is not ungenerous to not want to give the CEO of your company a gift. The power imbalance between you and your CEO is significant. The income differential is also significant. He is not your friend. He will not love you because you and your co-workers give him gifts twice a year.

I understand why your team is doing this, but the implied obligation would rankle me. You could, casually, ask your peers how they feel about this gift giving to help you decide how, if at all, to proceed. These sorts of things are so tricky because if you resist such mandatory “voluntary” gift giving, you’re not a team player and you don’t fit with the culture and so on. Those are pretty hard labels to shake, so I understand your reluctance to say anything.

This may well be one of those things you just have to tolerate, but it sure is ridiculous that people have to play these kinds of games in the workplace.