Q: My co-worker seems to work more for their (I don’t want to specify gender) personal brand than for the company. This team member posts their whereabouts on Slack: They’re at a conference, at class (coursework tangential to their job), working from home! They keep us up to date on the minutiae of their travel (leaving at 11 a.m.! on a train without Wi-Fi until 7 p.m.!). They meet their goals, but I’m not privy to what their results look like — are they treading water or exceeding their goals?
I could be glad this younger co-worker is out and about so much, but the department doesn’t benefit in any way. (We’re in marketing.) When this co-worker reports on conferences, they don’t say how what they learned will help us.
Another co-worker and I try to sort out if we’re jealous. (We have family obligations and perhaps we’re a bit stodgy?) But I think if someone is getting smarter on the company dollar, they should share with their team. Instead, we’re on the outside, watching our co-worker flit from thing to thing, polishing their own brand.
Am I not thinking the new think? Or is this person a workplace narcissist? Why does it bother us so much? What language can I use with co-worker’s supervisor and the department head that doesn’t make it seem like a personality issue, but about adding value to the organization? Or is it just that co-worker’s personality and mine are far apart and I should look for my own classes and conferences and polish my own brand?
What’s the balance between what’s good for the individual versus good for the team? — K.C.
A: I’ve previously outed myself as a millennial in this column, and I suppose I should further disclose that I recently (and quite publicly) quit my job and got a new one thanks in part to my largely positive reputation in an industry known for absurd levels of upheaval. So! I am impressed by your colleague’s savvy brand-building, which I strongly suspect has less to do with narcissism than with their experiences making a career in a post-financial-crisis world.
I have never had a job that didn’t feel tenuous, which means I have never had the freedom to not obsess over my personal brand and whether I’m doing enough to burnish it through work, social media, skill-building and networking.
Of course we would rather quit Twitter and stop going to conferences and professional mixers and take all our vacation days and develop real hobbies and deeper human connections, but the entire economic system has shown us over and over that we cannot, because we will end up broke disappointments to everyone we know. (Malcolm Harris’ excellent book “Kids These Days,” which details how millennials were shaped by economic trauma, is a worthwhile read on this subject.)
If you are interested in taking classes and attending conferences, why not take your company up on its ability to pay for them? If you’re not in a position to attend because of your family commitments, that’s OK too, but it doesn’t mean your colleague needs to stop attending. If opportunities aren’t being doled out unequally and you aren’t being forced to take on extra work to cover for their absence, whether they are an average performer or a superstar really doesn’t concern you. The fact that you are not responsible for this person’s work outcomes and that you are considering complaining to their supervisor — who is responsible for said work outcomes, and surely knows where their employee is on a given day — suggests it is not in fact about “adding value” but pure resentment.
This is the economic system’s fault, too. You’ve been set up to resent millennials just as much as we’ve been set up to resent you. The good news is that you can still break the cycle.
If you are genuinely curious about learning more from your co-worker’s experiences, try asking! Deliberately hoarding information would be a weird strategy; it seems far more likely that they don’t realize anyone would be interested. Might a friendly message asking if they’d be willing to have lunch and talk about some of the most interesting parts of the most recent conference benefit you both more than lingering resentment?
Q: I have a great new job and great co-workers. But I’m in a shared office with one other person sitting across from me who sometimes clips his nails at his desk, is often eating something noisy, and whispers to himself. There is also a woman down the hall who clips both her fingernails and HER TOENAILS, listens to music without headphones, and leaves the volume on her phone turned up so we can hear each time she receives a text or email.
The noises don’t happen constantly, but they happen enough to be distracting. I mostly keep earplugs in, which gets painful. My job requires me to write code and do detailed work, and I know that I’m noise sensitive. What kind of accommodations are reasonable for me to ask for? What is appropriate office etiquette and how could I convey this to my co-workers, especially regarding personal hygiene tasks? As a non-manager, is it my place to convey etiquette? Is my need for a quiet, nail-clipping-free workplace unreasonable? — Texas
A: There are no fewer than eight emails in the Work Friend inbox about office nail-clippers! How is it possible that there exist more than eight people in 20-freaking-19 who have not yet been shamed out of this behavior? Tell the co-worker — or human resources if you don’t feel comfortable going directly to someone who outranks you — that society has agreed that this is unacceptable, and that you’d appreciate some help enacting some basic standards of decency.
But the tricky thing about your nail-clipping question, Texas, is that you are being a little unreasonable, too. You can, and should, stop people from conducting personal hygiene activities meant for the privacy of their homes in the workplace, but asking everyone in your office to cease “eating something noisy” and to mute their cellphones all day isn’t feasible. I don’t think it’s your fault — hyperacusis and misophonia are real conditions that make people unbearably sensitive to noise — but it’s your problem regardless. Good noise-canceling headphones are expensive, but they make a much more sustainable solution than earplugs.
If that doesn’t work, ask your doctor for a note confirming this is a real condition for which you need accommodation in the form of your own office or permission to work from home.
Life in the modern workplace is too fraught to sacrifice the small luxury of potato chips, but their pleasure doesn’t have to come at the expense of your suffering.
Work Friend is a cheeky New York Times advice column to help with careers, money and the sometimes grim, sometimes hilarious maze that is the contemporary office, from a rotating cast of advice-givers. Email questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.