Q: I recently started a new job at a medium-size nonprofit. Overall, it has been rewarding work, with amiable colleagues, good pay and benefits. But I’m increasingly aware of a “martyr culture,” in which people regularly work well beyond their 40 hours, don’t take comp time they’re entitled to, work on holidays and other days off, and even work (remotely, at least) while sick. The work we do isn’t life-or-death. This behavior seems to be the status quo. While I’ve never been told I’m expected to regularly work extra hours, work while sick, etc., that seems to be an unspoken expectation and is modeled by top managers.

I’m a hard worker who’s happy to go the extra mile when it’s required, but I also value a healthy work-life balance. I’ve taken comp time and was not told I couldn’t, but it was still uncomfortable, since most people here don’t do that, and it was made clear to me how my absence would affect others. I’ve also held the line about not working on days off, with the same sort of message sent.

I’m not sure how to address this; when I’ve raised the general topic of healthy balance with my colleagues and superiors, the response has tended to be along the lines of: Gee, wouldn’t that be nice! Beyond maintaining my own boundaries, is there anything I can do? — Anonymous

A: The best thing you can do is maintain your reasonable and very healthy boundaries. Many companies have these unspoken cultures of overwork, but overwork is rarely good work. It leaves people disillusioned and burned out. It does not make you a better employee.

It’s a shame that your colleagues have bought into this idea that they have to sacrifice themselves to their jobs. You are setting a good example. I can imagine it must feel precarious, doing something as normal as taking your own comp time.

To leave after leave or not to leave

Q: I am halfway through my pregnancy and have begun discussing maternity leave with my human resources rep. Thanks to paid leave, short-term disability and vacation, I plan to be out for 4 1/2 months. However, there is a small possibility that a new job would work out for my husband, which would give me the opportunity to not return from leave and instead pursue a part-time opportunity.


I have scoured our employee handbook and paid leave guidelines but cannot find anything about needing to pay the company back for medical costs or wages if I decide to not return. I want to ask my HR rep if there is any penalty for not returning, but my husband thinks this is a terrible idea. I disagree, but am I maybe not seeing something obvious? — Anonymous

A: Do not ask your HR rep if there is any penalty for not returning. That will only alert your employer, who is not your friend, that you are considering quitting, which could jeopardize your employment and leave. If your contract doesn’t explicitly state that you cannot quit for a given amount of time after maternity leave, you have every right to quit your job whenever you choose. Is it ethical to quit? There are lots of opinions on that. But unless contractually stipulated, it is legal. If this question is really plaguing you, consult an employment lawyer.

Even though your handbook doesn’t say, I would caution you that there could be consequences for leaving your job, including having to repay health insurance premiums or other benefits your employer provided during your leave.

Generous parental leave should be the norm, and it should not have to be a “frankenleave” of cobbled-together options. A number of countries offer at least a year; in the United States, there is far less willingness to support parents once a baby is born. That often forces us to contend with ethical dilemmas.

Greasing the wheels of meritocracy

Q: I left a company 15 years ago under challenging circumstances. Recently, I have seen several openings there that mesh well with my experience and skill set. I know someone in HR at the company and reached out a couple weeks ago to inquire about the opening(s) and also to see if it is worth my time and effort to apply to positions at the company, as I could possibly be on a NER (not eligible to rehire) list or have some “ding” associated with my name.

I have not heard back from my friend. This is not a close friend, but we have socialized numerous times. I am struggling not to call them out for not even providing a perfunctory reply. Everyone knows jobs are earned on merit, but having a person at the company sometimes provides that little “push” or insight. I’m disappointed in their lack of common courtesy. Am I off-base to actually say something? — Mike, Los Angeles


A: Yes, you are off-base to say something. As you yourself note, this person is not a close friend. Socializing together a few times does not mean they owe you anything. I am not clear on what you would call your friend out for. Not answering an email is not a social crime. And why would you go to that extreme instead of simply sending a follow-up email? Most people are drowning in email and are performing inbox triage every day. There could be any number of reasons they haven’t yet responded.

If this is indeed a friend, give them the benefit of the doubt. Maybe they feel awkward or uncomfortable about your inquiry. Maybe they’re meaning to get to it. Regardless, this person is not the obstacle standing between you and a job at your previous employer. I understand your frustration, but there’s a lot here you should reflect on and reconsider. I’m also curious why you think jobs are earned on merit. Since when?

Too many false promises

Q: I work for a midsize sales company in the Midwest. My boss has told me on several occasions that I’m being promoted, but when the time comes, he says he tried, but management wasn’t on board. Now he tells me it’s 60 days away, then 16 weeks, then within a year. He does in front of others, too. I’ve asked him to stop telling me that, but he doesn’t. He seems to think it will lift my spirits and make me feel important, but it’s doing the opposite. He makes me feel stupid, and it feels cruel. Outside of reporting him to HR, do you have any advice for what I can say to him? — Anonymous

A: If you’ve told your boss to stop and he hasn’t, I doubt there’s some other combination of words that will get through to him. In situations like this, repetition is key. Every time he dangles this promotion in front of you, remind him to stop. Remind him of how long he has been doing this. Tell him what you told me: that this behavior is not motivating; it’s deflating. Sometimes, it is only hearing the truth over and over that gets people to truly listen.

Also, start looking for a new job. You deserve better.

Bad negotiator

Q: I was recently offered a position I very much wanted. I had been laid off in March 2020, when an airline company had to drastically cut jobs. When a new offer came from my former company, where I had been a contractor for eight years, I did a poor job of negotiating a good starting salary because I was so anxious to return to work. I calculated the generous benefits I would receive as a full-time employee versus the very limited benefits when I was a contractor.

I relayed what I wanted as my annual salary. It is approximately $40k less than what I was earning in 2020. I also know my work colleagues are receiving much higher wages. I am a very poor negotiator and rely on a sense of fairness. Do you have any thoughts about requesting a higher salary after being on the job for four months? — Anonymous


A: Many people can relate to being a bad negotiator. It’s hard to ask for what we deserve or dare to think we deserve. And we work in a professional culture where all too often it is taboo and frowned upon to talk about money, so it can be hard to know what we should be asking for. It will probably be challenging to request a raise after only four months, but you won’t know until you try. To do so, you need to write a rationale for a raise — but you can’t say you want a raise because you negotiated poorly or because it would be fair.

Instead, look at what you’ve accomplished over the past four months and what you contributed to the company before you were laid off. Do some research online about what you should be making and determine the raise you want. You need to be prepared to hear “no,” which will be disappointing but survivable. But also be willing to hear a “yes” or “maybe.”

My other advice for you is to do your best not to put yourself in this position again. You can improve how you advocate for yourself. Poor negotiator is not a fixed identity, so don’t let it be.