Miss Zoom Manners

Q: I recently moderated a Zoom meeting where one person was vaping while on camera at several points throughout the meeting. I found this jarring and distracting. As the host, I felt awkward but ignored these less-than-professional moments. The vaper seemed to be working from home, so of course she was in her space. She also made plenty of productive contributions to the discussion. I am left wondering, in the ever-evolving norms around work and life, if there is any etiquette or standard around such behavior? — Anonymous

A: Most of what I consider good etiquette for virtual meetings is common sense. There is something about the distance of the computer screen that makes people treat virtual meetings like extensions of their personal space, but most workplaces would prefer that people treat virtual meetings the same way they treat in-person meetings. Show up on time. Wear clothing. Make sure the camera is on and look at the camera. Mute your microphone when you’re not speaking. Beyond that, etiquette can vary. Some people don’t want to see others eating on a Zoom call, for example, while others don’t mind.

As for vaping, that is, perhaps, not very professional. I can certainly see why it could be distracting. At the same time, I wonder why we spend so much time policing the behaviors of others? If your colleague made valuable contributions to the meeting and otherwise comported herself well, why does it matter if she was vaping?

It’s important to have standards, but sometimes professionalism is more of a demand for control than it is a set of expectations about conduct. I suppose, as I get older, I get more permissive. Or, really, I just care so much less about what other people are doing that isn’t my business and doesn’t negatively affect me. I don’t get a judgmental vibe from your letter but it might be freeing to care just a little less about such things.

A no-retreat retreat

Q: I am a member of a unit of about 10 people at a nonprofit. The head of our group recently announced we would gather for a one-day retreat to strategize for the next fiscal year.

Our office is undergoing major renovations, but rather than find an alternative venue, my boss still set the retreat location in the office. This plan was, no surprise, foiled by ongoing construction. Now, the plan is to hold the work retreat in common meeting spaces at the condo residence of a subordinate. I think this crosses a professional boundary. What is more troubling is that other units routinely hold all-day or multiday retreats at (nonresidential) venues outside of the office. How do I address this? Am I overthinking this as being unethical? — Anonymous

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A: Why do you care about this? Why do you think this is something you need to address? Does the subordinate have a problem with holding the retreat in their common meeting spaces? Common meeting spaces are for … meetings. They are being used as intended. There is no ethical quandary here. The retreat isn’t being held in anyone’s private home. This is certainly kind of strange and maybe even a little tacky, but it sounds like a temporary, low-cost (no cost?) solution to a temporary problem.

If no one is being forced to host the retreat, I would let this go. Free yourself from overthinking something so inconsequential. That said, try talking to your boss about holding these retreats at a more appropriate venue, framing it as something that would be more professionally beneficial to all involved.

Calendaring out of control

Q: My work schedule varies from week to week. My challenge is around scheduling. Some of the other administrators will schedule meetings at very short notice and with no notice of what the meeting is about. I’ve gotten to my desk on a Monday morning, only to find that I suddenly have a new meeting in a couple hours. These meetings are not urgent and end up being something that could be conveyed in a phone call or by planning a meeting at a later date. It’s a very just-in-time administrative culture, which contrasts with my previous experience at other universities and with research colleagues, where we would schedule individual meetings via email or phone invitations and group meetings by poll.

My public calendar is always up-to-date, and I’ve scheduled a few regular blocks of time for my research, teaching prep and meetings with collaborators while keeping other times open. Our calendar software will notify someone scheduling a meeting if the other party has a scheduled conflict, and yet individual and committee meetings still “appear” on my calendar, sometimes at short notice, for times I have blocked off. When I respond, I’m told it’s just hard to schedule meetings because people are busy, and these were the best times that could be determined by looking at everyone’s availability. I cannot be constantly available or always rescheduling my other tasks. How can I respond to this situation? — Anonymous

A: There has been a lot of talk about calendar practices on social media lately. A common thread is that academics can be incredibly resistant to fostering healthy, considerate calendaring practices. It is, admittedly, difficult to schedule large groups of busy people, but your colleagues’ practice of scheduling meetings during known, unchangeable conflicts is inconsiderate, at best.

It’s time for a crystal clear message to your colleagues about how you are managing your calendar. You cannot attend meetings they schedule when you have other professional obligations, which means they are obstructing your ability to do an important part of your job. Suggest using scheduling polls to find meeting times that will work for the most people. If they are so cavalier as to do this kind of roughshod scheduling, I don’t know that there’s anything you can communicate that will alter their behavior. But it’s worth a try.

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Time for a final warning

Q: I own a small business and employ two people, including a young man who has been working with me for the past six years. He was mostly reliable until about a year ago, when he said he wanted to work in an entirely different field. He has been taking classes and trying to qualify for the new field. The problem: He’s often late for work because he stays up late at night to study. He’s inattentive at work and makes many mistakes.

My other employee and I have to fix his errors and cover his duties when he’s not there. We actually hope he will find a new job soon (so we can hire someone else), but it doesn’t seem to be easy. I have talked to him several times, and he apologized, but things didn’t change. I’m proud of treating my employees well — paying well, providing health insurance and benefits, supporting their needs and ambitions. This young man is from a disadvantaged background; I would like (and feel responsible) to help him achieve his goals in life. I hate to fire him. Please let me know what would be the right thing to do. — Anna, Bay Area, California.

A: It’s admirable that your employee has professional goals and is working to achieve them, but you need a reliable employee. You are not helping him by letting him think there are no consequences for poor performance and chronic tardiness. Though you have given him quite a lot of leeway, sit down with him, discuss his performance issues (again) and give him an action plan with clear expectations and consequences if he doesn’t meet those expectations.

You hope he will quit so you don’t have to fire him, but there’s little chance that will happen. He gets to develop a skill set for his preferred profession, come to work late, slack off at his job and still receive a full paycheck. Why would he leave? You have already done the right thing by treating your employee well, as all employers should.

Firing an employee who isn’t doing his job, after repeated warnings, isn’t the wrong thing. It is unfortunate, but you can’t be more invested in his success than he is. And if you put him on some kind of probation, you are giving him a final opportunity to improve. If he doesn’t, and you have to let him go, you can offer some kind of severance to soften the blow. It’s important to remember that sometimes, you have to do the right thing for yourself, too.