Q: Two colleagues recently lost their pets, and another colleague took up a collection to send flowers. In one case, the collection extended to purchasing a sympathy toy for the colleague’s remaining, living pet.
In our pet-obsessed society, I am aware that many people consider their pets family members, but it strikes me as absurd to send condolence flowers upon a pet’s death. Is it a common practice in today’s workplace culture, or is it, as I think, utterly bananas? — Anonymous, New York City
A: Yes, we live in a pet-obsessed society, and if pets aren’t your thing, you simply don’t get a pet. But my goodness. Are you OK? I ask because I worry there is something going on in your life that leads you to feel such callousness. It is totally fine if it strikes you as absurd to send flowers to someone upon a pet’s death, but it clearly brings comfort to some of your colleagues.
I am not a pet person, and before I married an animal lover, I didn’t understand that whole vibe. Now we have a puppy and two cats, and while I may not be a fan of animals, I am a fan of these three creatures. I digress. Let your co-workers live, and simply decline to participate if it really bothers you this much. Vent about it in the group chat.
I don’t know if it is a common practice in workplace culture or beyond, but I do know the loss of a pet can be devastating. It speaks quite well to your workplace that your colleagues care about one another like this. That’s the only thing you need to know about workplace culture.
The case of the extremely online colleagues
Q: I work for a social media agency where everyone is extremely online and curious. I’ve worked at the agency for roughly a half-year, and it’s been great. But there’s now a pressure as people are getting to know me better: There are requests to follow and follow back co-workers on social media, specifically on Twitter. While everyone is lovely, we all have our own philosophies of who we follow and why. I follow few people and pride myself on keeping my follow count low.
Is it rude to not follow people you work with? How can you thoughtfully and gracefully demur? — Anonymous, California
A: This is a very modern problem, but the solution is relatively simple. I love boundaries, especially when it comes to maintaining a healthy work-life balance. It is not rude to not follow people you work with. You can simply say you don’t want to blur the lines, so you don’t follow colleagues from your personal social media accounts.
If the pressure is intense, create a finsta (fake Instagram account) where you can be yourself and allow your colleagues to follow a “professional” personal account. You don’t owe anyone more information about your life than you are willing to share. Hold the line.
Ready to climb
Q: I joined my organization at a supervisory level a couple of years ago. My boss, the executive director, will retire in the next two to three years. For the first time, I am ambitious, and I want his job. I’m ready, and I’d be good at it. I get excellent reviews, I have good ideas and energy, and I have good relationships.
But I feel inadequate in ways that feel significant. Our workplace is relatively formal, and the executives have been older, wealthy, white men who wear suits and ties and are poised and strong public speakers. In comparison, I feel kind of goofy. I’m an anxious public speaker, and because this is the first well-paying job of my career, my wardrobe has a long way to catch up.
How do I address or overcome these insecurities? And do I tell my boss I want his job? I still have lots to learn from him, and I don’t want to seem like I’m pushing him out the door. But I want his support, if he’ll give it to me, to move up when he leaves. — Anonymous, California
A: Slow down there, friend. I love your ambition and your confidence. And the things you’re insecure about can be addressed. Build your wardrobe, as your budget allows, by selecting timeless, well-made pieces. It’s better to spend more on one or two good suits than less on several cheap suits or ensembles.
Public speaking is terrifying. I still struggle with it, too. But there are classes you can take. The internet has all kinds of advice on overcoming this anxiety. If you’re particularly motivated, put yourself in professional situations where you have to speak, because in addition to whatever training you might try, practice really will help you improve those skills.
As for advancement, telling your boss you want his job would probably be seen as aggression, at best. It could create unnecessary friction in what seems like a good professional situation. I suggest telling your boss that you’re interested in advancing in the organization, when there’s an organic opportunity, and ask him to mentor you so you can be prepared to thrive when the time comes. It’s a more subtle way of letting him know you want to move up without meeting him at high noon for a duel.
Who’s the boss?
Q: I am a white, middle-aged man working at a small firm. A brand-new hire — a 20-something white woman assigned to the department I manage — informed HR that she would prefer to be supervised by a woman. (She claims she took the job under the impression that her supervisor would be a woman.)
Am I right to assume the new employee’s stated preference is out of bounds? If, for example, a male employee said he preferred not to be supervised by a woman, it certainly would be. I am concerned that if she is primed to view our roles as irretrievably gendered, my role as supervisor is already compromised.
I understand the grim history of gender in the workplace. I don’t feel the solution is indulging employees who seek to segregate employees by gender. How should our company act, and how should I respond, now that she has presented her preference as a personnel issue? — Anonymous, New Jersey
A: I can certainly understand why a woman wouldn’t want a male supervisor if she previously had negative experiences with one. But yes, it is an unacceptable request. We don’t get to pick and choose whom we work for unless we work for ourselves. I don’t know enough about this woman’s motivations, but we all have preferences to which we are entitled. We are not promised anything.
I would first approach this with empathy while also making it clear that her preference cannot be accommodated. This request comes from somewhere. Maybe HR (or you, or both) can ask her why she would prefer a woman supervisor and, depending on her response, address her concerns. She will have to decide if she can stay with the company or not, but you will have done your part.