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I recently moved for a job that sounded like an incredible opportunity. It was a good fit for my skill set, a start-up with a brand-new and shiny work space. We were supposed to move into the new space three months ago. There have been various delays, and we have been working out of my boss’s home. As more and more people come onto the team, the limitations of this arrangement have become more apparent. I have found alternative workplaces for the folks I am managing to keep them from the discomforts of working out of someone’s home when your boss is in her bathrobe. My other colleagues have found their own arrangements for themselves. My boss gets upset that no one is in her home working.
She is very particular about many things and that can be beautiful, but when she doesn’t understand something, she gets upset and will raise her voice and lament that “no one is doing anything.” She micromanages.
Two weeks ago, there was an incident in which my boss reacted to not understanding some tech in such a way that led to raised voices, tears and several conversations with her about her bad behavior. Her actions have not changed. There have been more group conversations, one on ones and, finally, a full group morning sit down in a retreat space (that my boss asked for) to pass a talking stick around. In this retreat, everyone spoke about the incident and their feelings, and my boss talked about her feelings of abandonment and hurt because no one wanted to be in her home anymore.
I have a lot of grace for my boss; she made a significant investment in this business, and everyone thought we’d be in the new office by now. We are getting paid. But I can’t be complicit in her bad behavior. Am I naïve in thinking she will change once we move into the actual space?
I know we’re not supposed to casually recommend therapy, but your boss needs therapy and to learn boundaries. She is expecting emotional support from employees whose paychecks she signs. It’s wildly inappropriate. This is what happens when you start blurring boundaries by, for example, having your staff work out of your home while you traipse around in your bathrobe.
Work space delays happen all the time. A good employer would do as you did for your team and find an alternative work site. Co-working spaces abound. Remote work is normal in the new normal. There’s no excuse for this. Your boss’s behavior will not magically improve in the new work space though, hopefully, some of the spatial awkwardness will. She is showing you who she is, both good and bad. It’s up to you to act accordingly.
Beware Toxic Mary
I’ve been at a perfectly OK job for the past nine months, but the environment is a little toxic. There are a few people who are rude and unkind, and there’s a culture of gossiping and complaining. I’ve become a target for one particularly grouchy and rude co-worker. Emails from “Mary" are rude and passive-aggressive. She points out everything she thinks I've done wrong and constantly tells me to stay in my lane. She also routinely copies my boss on emails. I’ve ignored her unnecessary comments, and I’ve responded pleasantly and politely when I can.
Recently, she sent me a particularly unkind string of emails to the point that my boss finally came to talk to me about it. My boss says she’s very aware that Mary has been doing this. She says that it’s not just in my head, that Mary is targeting me, and that it’s not because of anything I did. My boss is clearly pleased with my work and on my side, but she also downplayed my issue with Mary as no big deal. She joked that there were a few people in the office who should take a class on how to appropriately interact with others. I’m grateful the people in charge are all pleasant, but I’m also frustrated by their refusal to do anything to improve the culture of the organization.
Is it unreasonable to expect a respectful work environment? I don’t want Mary to get fired, but is there a way to ask her to start treating me with more respect or kindness without making everything worse?
— Anonymous, Nebraska
Mary is the one who needs to stay in her lane. I am not sure why her behavior is tolerated. You are not being unreasonable for expecting a respectful work environment. Unfortunately, you can’t make Mary treat you better. If you could, she wouldn’t be treating you this way in the first place. And you’re not being overly sensitive.
This idea that we should be totally fine with toxicity and continuing bullying is taking tolerance way too far. It’s great that your boss supports you, but she need to amplify that support by dealing with Mary. Clearly, this workplace is one where those in charge would rather look the other way than doing the more unpleasant parts of their job, but I would sit down with your boss, outline the extent of Mary’s behavior and ask for something to be done.
But also, you say your job is “perfectly OK,” which leads me to believe it isn’t your dream job. Maybe it’s time to look for work somewhere with a better culture?
Don’t Stay in Touch
About a year and a half ago, a colleague was hired to do the same job as I do. We formed a light bond, mostly because I could see she felt lonely and she had some personality issues I once struggled with. I was careful to not give advice, but I was happy to listen. She was just fired for cause, and I’m struggling with what to do. Having been fired myself, I know how devastating this is, but I really don’t want to continue the acquaintance. At the same time, I feel that I’m abandoning her when she’s already at her lowest. It feels cold not to reach out but again, I don’t want to really keep the acquaintance. What do you suggest?
The only way to guarantee ending the acquaintance is to do nothing and sit with your feelings until they dissipate. You can also just reach out to her, express your condolences on the firing and wish her the best as she moves forward professionally and personally. That allows you to let her know you were thinking about her without making overtures for a continued friendship.
Can’t Release the Shame
I made a mistake at work and compounded the damage by behaving defensively and childishly. This was almost five years ago. No real harm was done. The outcome was chiefly my embarrassment at having behaved like an idiot.
I apologized, and I have since left that job. But the shame remains. My impulse is to contact the two co-workers involved and somehow do a better job of explaining/apologizing. I won’t, since that would be even nuttier as well as narcissistic. Why would my deep mortification over a trivial workplace incident persist for so long? What can I say to myself to put it into perspective?
I hate making mistakes and always want to explain and over-explain myself when things go awry. I also hope there is some combination of words that will allow me to clarify what I did or didn’t do and alleviate whatever uncomfortable feelings I am dealing with. But generally, the over-explaining is more for me than whomever I am trying to reach because I want to undo what was done. And that’s just not possible. Shame is difficult. As you say, no real harm was done. You made a mistake, and you are clear on that with yourself. You’ve apologized and moved on to a new workplace.
I don’t want to make assumptions, but sometimes, we hold on to stories that reinforce how we feel about ourselves. You are the only one who can answer the questions you are asking: Why are you holding on to this incident for so long? What are you getting out of holding onto this narrative? It’s time to let this go. It’s well past time. You have learned your lesson and paid your penance. You don’t need to carry this shame anymore. Truthfully, you never did.
Write to Roxane Gay at [email protected].
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