A Bad Worker's Mad Mom

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Dear Workologist:

Seven months ago, I hired a 24-year-old part-time worker to replace someone who was going off to college. The job basically involves billing and database entry. Despite months of one-on-one training, this worker is a disaster. He can't make a decision without consulting his notes on the simplest of tasks, and is thoroughly unproductive. But he is all I have until I hire someone new.

When I was away from the office recently, his mother visited and badmouthed me to one of my colleagues. She left a note for me to call her. When I did, she informed me that her son tells his parents "everything," and that I should basically stop picking on him. Then she told me not to tell her son she had called.

I am so irate about this mama's boy that I feel like telling him about the call -- and pointing out that it is entirely inappropriate to rely on her to fight his battles. Or should I just zip it and fire him politely when I have found his replacement? Name Withheld, Connecticut

I certainly understand your irritation, which sounds perfectly justified. But I suggest thinking about how you'll feel about this whole incident in, say, a year.

On the one hand, I'd argue that you have zero obligation to honor Mom's demand that you observe the code of omerta. However much she may love and admire her son, there is no professional, contractual or even relevant relationship between her and you. And I concede that there's a case to be made that in the long run you'd do this fellow a favor by pointing out that a 24-year-old shouldn't tolerate that level of parental interference in his work life.

On the other hand, who cares? Apart from sheer emotional catharsis, what do you have to gain from drawing your employee's humiliation into sharp relief? Even the idea of rationalizing a confrontation as some kind of tough love doesn't make much sense. I'm guessing that you care less about your hapless worker's professional future than you do about finding a replacement.

A year from now, Mom's drop-by will be just an annoying -- and, by then, a possibly amusing -- memory, particularly if you have found an excellent new employee. That's where you should focus your energy.

Dear Workologist,

I am working for a well-known Paris luxury fashion house's Hong Kong office. Recently a human resources officer talked to me about my red bob hairstyle (think Florence Welch) which I dyed a few months ago. I had not heard from my boss or any other superiors that they regarded it as unprofessional; in fact, I have received a lot of compliments from my colleagues on it.

However, the H.R. person said she had heard a lot of discussion about my hair. I replied that my hair color is a personal matter, but she told me that it was not -- it could affect the image of the firm. Then she suggested that I change it before I received any formal warnings, and even implied that I could be fired. She said that either brown or black would be appropriate.

I was surprised to hear that a fashion company could have such low tolerance for personal style decisions. Is my red hair too provocative or are my colleagues too conservative?

Lea, Hong Kong

I can't quite see you from here, so forgive me for dodging whether I find your hair "provocative." In any case, you need an answer to a different question.

From your description, the H.R. person has been crystal-clear: if you want to work there, you need to conform to certain rules. While it's interesting to debate the wisdom of that attitude emanating from a fashion house, I'm fairly confident that your chances of saving your hairstyle by way of sparking a cultural shift across an international business are pretty close to zero.

By and large, dress codes remain one of the dreariest quandaries of business culture: They can make an employer seem cartoonishly oppressive, but they persist as a tool for officially addressing workers whose sartorial decisions violate what seem (to managers) like obvious office norms. Sadly, then, I think the answer you need has been made bluntly apparent: What's more important to you, your hair color or this job?

Now, should you go black or brown and your superiors seem disappointed, you can truthfully explain why you did it -- and maybe that will set off an internal debate at your company that leads to a whole new era in dress-code history. Or if that doesn't happen, it'll still buy you a little time to find a more fashionably enlightened workplace.

Dear Workologist:

I have been in an entry-level administrative job for five months. In most ways, it's good -- fair pay, great benefits, reputable company, decent learning and growth opportunities. But the truth is that I'm not really passionate about, or even interested in, the position or the field. I am already thinking about switching to another field. But I don't want to look as if I am job-hopping, and I want to be able to demonstrate that I have gained significant skills and performed well in my current position before leaving it behind.  How long should I stay before I move on?

Sarah, Houston

Start looking immediately, and aggressively. If you're certain that your current field is merely a way station, there's no reason to delay. Particularly when it's early in your career (where it seems you are now) there's no huge penalty for realizing your calling lies elsewhere.

Do your current job as well as you can while you explore other options. You'll stay in your employer's good graces, and give yourself the time you need to find your proper path as best you can.

But the important point is to work on that goal right away, rather than worrying about the "optics," as politicians say. If you put this off until your current job feels intolerable, you'll end up making a move that's more about getting out, as opposed to moving ahead. And there is certainly no reward for being able to declare, "I knew this field wasn't for me, but I dispassionately fulfilled my duties for years anyway."

Send your workplace conundrums to workologist@nytimes.com, including your name and contact information (even if you want it withheld for publication). The Workologist is a guy with well-intentioned opinions, not a professional career adviser. Letters may be edited.

employment

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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