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Screen Shot 2014-06-09 at 8.54.15 PMEmail us questions at advice@the-toast.net, subject line “businesslady.”

Dear Businesslady,

The other morning I woke up, thought about going in to work, and was just like “nope.” I called in sick, then spent the day catching up on a bunch of chores that had been stressing me out for ages (along with spending some quality time binge-watching TV). I do this periodically, and it always makes me feel much more refreshed when I go back into work the next day.

But when I mentioned this “hooky day” to a friend/coworker, she was appalled, and made me feel like a horrible, dishonest person for taking the day off. Is my moral compass totally out of whack, or is it okay to take a “mental health day” when you’re not really sick?


(Cough, Cough) I Think I Caught That Thing That’s Going Around

Dear Coughy,

Ahh, the politics and ethics of sick days. This is a complicated issue that elicits a lot of strong opinions; my own stance tends to be pretty liberally in favor of “take care of yourself by any means necessary,” but there are still a lot of other contingencies to consider when you’re lying in bed and debating whether or not you can stand to face your job.

The most important issue is how legit sick days are handled in your particular workplace. When someone’s out, does everyone—or even just your boss—roll their eyes and question that person’s work ethic? Are you in the type of job where other people have to pick up your slack if you’re not there? If the answer to these first two questions is “yes,” then an unexpected absence is unlikely to reflect well on you, and you’re probably (alas) better off saving your sick days for real illnesses or other emergencies. (Although the first situation suggests a shitty work culture, particularly if there’s no direct relationship between job duties and flawless attendance.)

Another factor to consider is whether you have paid time off or a flexible policy regarding unpaid time off. If you’re given sick time, then the expectation is that it’s there to be used. Similarly, if you’re in a situation where you’re not paid for sick days, but there’s no real stigma around using them, then you should be at your discretion to decide that a day off is worth the financial hit. If your job uses a shared Paid Time Off pool that includes both vacation and sick days, then that’s implicitly empowering you to allocate that time off as you see fit—but it also might mean that too many “mental-health days” will end up interfering with your vacation plans in the future.

And about that phrase you (and I) used: “mental-health day.” I know this is often used interchangeably with “hooky day,” but it conflates “I am feeling too depressed to deal with my workplace” with “I really want to catch up on Orange Is the New Black.” I’m all for decreasing the stigma around mental illness, and that includes acknowledging that even people who don’t have a Diagnosed Psychiatric Condition occasionally get that “nope” feeling at the start of the workday. (And if your version of self-care involves mainlining OItNB, no judgment here.) But culturally, I’d like to advocate for reserving “mental-health day” for instances where there really is something going on emotionally, and “hooky day” for times when you’re just feeling (for lack of a better word) lazy.

Similarly, if you feel you have to out-and-out lie in order to feel justified in taking the time off, then that suggests that perhaps your job is not the place for less-than-medically-confirmed sick days. My personal policy is to be utterly truthful: “I’m not feeling that great, so I’m going back to sleep to see if that helps”; “I feel like I might be coming down with something, so I’m going to stay home”; and so on. Don’t weave some elaborate tale about the food poisoning you don’t actually have; it’ll just put you in an awkward position when you’re back at work and you have to keep the story going. And also, unless you want to torpedo your career for stupid reasons, don’t call in “sick” and then go to some very public event where your ruse might be discovered (or if you do, promise me you won’t document it on facebook/instagram/tumblr/ your social-media portal of choice. Even google+ isn’t safe).

Bottom line: if you’ve got the time off to use and your job is such that your absence doesn’t ruin your coworkers’ day, I say take it. But if you find yourself regularly dreading the workday, then you may want to take your self-care beyond the occasional day off and look into therapy and/or finding yourself a less soul-sucking job.


*       *       *


Dear Businesslady,

I’m at kind of a decision point in my (early) career and I’m getting conflicting advice. It looks like an internal promotion is about to fall into my lap — my manager specifically asked me to apply, and while the new job is a stretch, I think I can do it. I’m trying to be prepared in case I do get an offer, and based on some research I’m pretty sure the promotion should come with a big raise — like, a BIG raise. Maybe 40% of what I’m making now.

I felt pretty good about all of this until I started talking to my parents. My mom is worried that the new gig will overwhelm me, that I’ll fail, and that I’ll end up having to leave my company. And BOTH of my parents are adamant that I’ll look ridiculous if I ask for a 40% raise over what I’m making now. They think I’ll seem naive and that my boss would pull the offer as a result. So I’m torn. I think this is an important step and a good opportunity for me, so I think I want to take it. But I really don’t want to screw it up, especially at the negotiation stage. And the thought of having a conversation about salary makes me really uncomfortable. But I also don’t want to end up making less money than I could be. Then again if my manager already knows my work and the budget for the position, won’t his offer be fair anyway (my parents’ argument)?

I don’t think my manager would try to cheat me, but it’s a small company and he may not have a good sense of what these types of positions pay out in the rest of the world. What do I do if I don’t get the pay I think I deserve? Is it still worth it just for the experience? And if I start off on a bad foot right at the offer, won’t that make the job even harder (if I can even do it at all)? How should I handle this??

— You Don’t Negotiate at the Entry Level

Dear Negotiate,

Okay, there’s a lot going on here, so let’s start at the bottom, with your signature. Who says you don’t negotiate at the entry level? Sure, you may not have as much bargaining power when you’re just starting out in the workforce—which means you need to be realistic if you want to agitate for more salary—but negotiation is always an option. In fact, I’d argue that everyone should negotiate, always, even if you know you’re getting a fair offer that’s unlikely to be increased: it takes the mystique and worry out of the whole ordeal and will make you more comfortable advocating for yourself in the future when the stakes will almost certainly be higher.

So on to your second point. Should you take this job? I think so. Will you fail horribly at it? Maybe—life is full of surprises! But promotion opportunities don’t come along every day, and even if it turns out to be a poor fit (the worst-case scenario), you’ll surely learn a lot about your abilities that will serve you well down the line. (There’s also that old adage that it’s better to regret things you did than things you didn’t do; I’m not entirely sure I agree with that universally, but I think it definitely applies here.) More importantly—assuming your boss is reasonably competent and sane—it’s not like you’re going to make one mistake and then immediately get fired; your manager probably realizes this is a big step up for you, and accordingly he should be prepared to coach you in what you need to learn. This may mean some negative feedback as you find your footing, and that’s never fun, but if you demonstrate that you can handle constructive criticism it will likely mean good things in terms of your career overall—both with this company and with other employers whenever you decide to move on.

And speaking of moving on…taking a new job is one of the few times when it’s completely acceptable and expected to agitate for higher pay. That’s not to say that you can’t make a case for a raise when you’ve been in the same job for a while—I’m about to do just that in my own job, in fact—but it’s more of an uphill battle and you have to be prepared to make a pretty compelling argument for how your current performance merits it. By contrast, the offer stage is kind of a free-for-all, and unless you make a wholly unreasonable request (“As a part-time Starbucks barista I believe I deserve a minimum of $200k annual compensation”) it’s hard to imagine it backfiring in a non-dysfunctional company.

I can’t say whether the figure you’ve arrived at is reasonable or not, but one important point to consider is that you’re not asking for a raise here—not really. While your manager presumably knows you’re able to live off of whatever you’re making now, the job on the table is different from your current role and thus your current salary should be largely irrelevant to the discussion. (Think of the reverse—if I’m making $30/hour in my corporate job, but decide I want to moonlight as an Anthropologie cashier for the discount, will they take me seriously if I explain that my time is worth $30/hour, full stop? I expect not.) If your new responsibilities will be dramatically different (and expanded), then a corresponding pay increase makes sense. My only concern here would be whether or not your salary estimate is accurate; sites like Glassdoor and Salary.com are a good place to start but can often be misleading, so ideally you’ll have gotten feedback from coworkers or done other research. If you haven’t done that yet, try to do it now—ask people you have a good relationship with (ideally not exactly parallel with your new role so it’s not too awkward, and don’t make it about “how much do you make?” but rather “do you think this amount seems fair?”); also, see if there are any comparable positions in local state/government institutions whose salary info is publicly available online.

Assuming you’ve done your homework and know the appropriate compensation for the job in question, then all you have to do is wait for the offer (it sounds like is pretty airtight, but it’s just as well if you pretend it’s not going to happen just in case). If they ask you to name a number first, don’t be too coy—it’s nice to know what they’re thinking of a the outset, but if you outright refuse that just makes the dynamic unnecessarily weird. Whatever figure you throw out should be slightly higher than what you’d be happy to make, since that leaves some room for you to “compromise.” By contrast, if they name a salary that’s exactly what you were hoping for (or even higher), do yourself a favor and see if you can’t get them to bump it up—the worst thing they could do is say no, and trust me when I tell you that it shouldn’t have any negative repercussions beyond that one moment of disappointment.

Everyone finds salary negotiation a little bit awkward, but it’s part of the process, and that feeling of discomfort dissipates a bit each time you go through it. The earlier you get comfortable negotiating, the better you’ll be at it throughout your career—and, more importantly, the more money you’ll make.

Think of it this way: let’s say you’re making $30k right now. Even if you’re only able to secure a 25% increase for this promotion—and even your next five negotiations each only net you an extra 5%—that still leaves you making nearly $48k.

As my dad’s fond of saying, “if ya don’t ask, ya don’t get”; it’s rare, if not outright unheard-of, for a company to say “you know what? we’re vastly underpaying you!” So seize this opportunity to make a big jump forward in your career—and if the new job isn’t all you hoped it would be, use your newly acquired skills, title, and salary to find something better.


Businesslady is in her early 30s and somehow managed to find a rewarding career despite her allegedly useless degree in the humanities. Her job history includes everything from food service to retail to corporate nonsense, but she currently does writing and editing for a nonprofit, and devotes the rest of her life to playing video games, patronizing bars, and spending way too much time on the internet.

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