5 Important Work Questions, Answered

Time Inc.’s vice president of staffing solves the most pressing office dilemmas, no matter where you are in your career.

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“Should you give a holiday gift to your boss? And is it OK to actually have fun at the company party?”

Only give a gift to your boss if it’s something small that’s from the heart—say, a mug, an ornament, or homemade cookies that she’ll get a special kick out of. The main thing is sincerity; if you’re racking your brain trying to think of a present because you feel obligated, skip it. About the company party: Have a great time, but as soon as you start getting a buzz on, switch to seltzer. People say they don’t judge, but they do. Everybody talks, and everybody judges.

“How do you go about job searching within your company without stepping on toes?”

If you work for a large company and you respond to an internal posting, there’s generally no need to tell your boss. If things progress, HR will let you know when it’s time to say something and can help in wording your message. The best-case scenario, though, is having the kind of relationship with your boss where you can be transparent about your career goals so you two can discuss if and when you’ve hit a wall. This can happen naturally if you’re in a junior position. But if you’re in a senior role, bosses tend to be more invested in you as part of their team. In that case, be discreet. No matter what, show common sense and respect, just as you would when interviewing anywhere: Schedule meetings for before work, after work, or during lunch, and recognize that if you’re notably dressed up, your boss probably knows what’s happening.

“What’s the best way to get out of a conversation with a colleague who repeatedly comes to you complaining about other people?”

I’ve always felt that a coworker should be able to go to another colleague once to share feelings. But if it becomes a habit, be straight: “I’d rather we didn’t have these kinds of conversations. It’s putting me in a weird position, and I often don’t agree with you.” You can end on a nice note, as long as you’re clear: “I’m always here to strategize and talk about issues, but not talk about other people.”

“Whom can you trust in a corporate environment when you’re starting a new job?”

I don’t trust anyone in the first six months. You really need to see people operate in stressful situations to learn who they are, and that takes some time. There are going to be colleagues who panic and throw other people under the bus. Just observe for a while.

Pay attention to how people communicate. That can tell you a lot. And be alert to your instincts. I find that most employees don’t trust their instincts as much as they should. Also, don’t put too much credence in unsolicited opinions. Those who offer up opinions of other people without being asked usually have their own agenda.

“Should you be honest in an exit interview or sugarcoat so as not to burn any bridges?”

Your priority should be leaving gracefully. So if there’s a chance you’ll start to vent or get angry, it’s best not to tempt yourself. But if you have something to offer that’s truly for the good of the company—your concern for the fate of a project, say, or an observation on team structure—and you can position it in a professional way, go ahead and share. Insights like this can be valuable. The key is removing emotion from the discussion, which is easier said than done.