Liar Liar Pants on Fire
Q: I work in a small office and share a desk with a man whose wife just had a baby. He has the desk two days a week, and I have the desk another two. When I come to work, I am confronted with an array of giant pictures of a baby-acne-mottled monstrosity sitting on my desk. I remove the pictures so I don’t have to look at them. I don’t place the pictures back on the desk at the end of the day because I don’t think it’s my responsibility.
At the Christmas party this year, the father of the infant jokingly said, “So it seems you aren’t a fan of my baby?” I replied, “Well, I just feel weird staring at a random baby while I’m trying to work.” He launched into an unprompted description of his family’s “IVF journey.” He seemed intent on shaming me for putting baby in a drawer — never mind that it’s not my baby and, frankly, overpopulation stresses me out.
A part of me can’t let things lie. I confessed that the real reason I can’t stand to look at his baby is that I recently learned I am infertile. By the time I had finished telling my lie, a bit of an audience had formed — so I essentially told my entire office a sob story that isn’t true, like a sociopath would. Now, everyone is being way too nice to me, and an older co-worker who genuinely does have fertility issues has been trying to bond over our supposed shared struggle. I feel embarrassed, ashamed and horrified every time I am at work. I feel like I need to switch jobs at this point.
What should I do? — Anonymous
A: I hardly know where to begin. Not wanting to look at pictures of your colleague’s baby is not a crime. But you certainly took your aversion to a ridiculous extreme. A better choice might have been to simply put the pictures back up when you leave work. Your desk is a shared space; you have to tolerate evidence of the existence of others. This is all kind of petty and mean but also a little relatable. No judgment!
I don’t know how you get yourself out of the hole you’ve dug for yourself. This is mighty awkward. Switching jobs might be the easiest option, but that’s pretty drastic. I would simply tell your colleagues you don’t want to discuss your fertility if and when they bring it up. I generally recommend erring on the side of honesty, but you will be quite unpopular with some or many of your colleagues if you admit you lied about being infertile because you didn’t want to look at pictures of someone else’s baby. Good luck lying in this very strange bed you’ve made.
Too Much Empathy?
Q: I’m in leadership at a small company. We foster a good work-life balance and are known to treat our employees well. A new team member has been doing a good job, and I can see them flourishing here. We recently promoted them and they seem really pleased.
I was recently scrolling TikTok and a post of theirs appeared in my feed (I don’t follow them, thanks algorithm!). They referenced a recent diagnosis of autism, how they were struggling to function on a Sunday, that they feel like they’re letting people down at work and at home and how they don’t know how long they can continue to function within capitalism.
I didn’t know about their diagnosis or these struggles. This person didn’t intentionally share this with me, and I respect that boundary. But I can’t unknow it, and it feels disingenuous to pretend I don’t. I’ve done a good job acknowledging their contributions at work, but should I make more of an effort to bolster their confidence, or leave it alone? Additionally, how do I know if this is indicative of a culture issue at work versus a mental health issue that is not my problem to solve? — Anonymous, Wisconsin
A: I appreciate your sensitivity here. You clearly care about this employee’s well-being and want to be supportive. Even though you can’t unknow what you saw on TikTok, this is not your problem to solve. I don’t get the sense that their challenges are indicative of a culture issue at your company, specifically. They are challenges of having to function, as they said in their TikTok, within capitalism. You should continue to be empathetic and supportive of your team member while respecting their privacy.
Social media has blurred certain lines. How can something public also be private? Clearly, given that you stumbled on their video, it can’t, but you can continue respecting their privacy, nonetheless. Most of us have struggles we don’t share with our employers that are not a reflection on our employers. Trust that this is in that category. And do stay open to being supportive and accommodating of their neurodivergence if and when they call on you. Keep fostering a positive, empathetic professional environment. You’re doing great.
Ambitious But Tired
Q: I’ve been at my current job for five years. It’s been an incredible experience, and I’m sincerely grateful to be here. I’ve been central in building a startup and my career has grown substantially. I like my boss and I have a great relationship with my team. On paper, I’m in the best position at the best job I could ask for.
The issue is I feel like I’ve been running a marathon and only just found the start line. I’m tired. We’re entering a high growth stage and need to be firing on all cylinders. I can’t find the energy I used to have. I don’t want to leave my job, but I also know I need to get my focus and excitement back if I’m going to succeed. I’m stuck and wondering what my next steps should be. — Anonymous
A: The bittersweet truth about success is that it demands a lot of energy to maintain and achieve ever more. You have been running a marathon, and I’m not sure the marathon ever ends. With each accomplishment, you’ll find new ambitions to pursue. More will be asked of you. The thing about marathons is that you need the strength and energy to go to the distance, which is to say you have to pace yourself. You have to sustain yourself physically and emotionally. As you forge ahead to the next mile marker, so to speak, what about your work will bring you the focus and excitement you seek? How can you prioritize that?
In my experience, the best way to avoid or mitigate burnout is balance. What that looks like is very individual. But your career cannot be the whole of your life. You shouldn’t compromise your emotional or physical well-being for your work. Establish clear, realistic boundaries, primarily for yourself. Value personal time as much as you value your professional endeavors. Have interests completely unrelated to work. You can have a life and a thriving career. At least, that’s what I hope as I navigate similar territory.
Way Too Many Olive Branches
Q: I am co-owner of a small company. My partner works closely with one individual on his special projects. Over the past couple years, there have been complaints that this employee was drinking at work and made inappropriate comments. Our published policy is zero tolerance for substance abuse, but because of my partner’s relationship with this individual, he was given three chances to seek help and resolve his issue. He was recorded as drinking at work and was inebriated two additional times, so he was fired.
My partner does not want to work with anyone else or have to train existing employees, so I agreed the employee could come back to work with a signed contract that he would adhere to certain conditions. The employee signed the document but has not complied with any of the requirements. After five months, I discontinued his health insurance and considered the issue closed.
My partner has come back to me insisting the employee be brought back to work on his projects. Suggestions to hire the employee outside of work as a subcontractor were rejected by my partner, as were several other alternatives that both myself and the staff have offered. Current employees have expressed interest in taking on these projects and are anxious to step in and help. My partner will have none of it, saying he does not have the time or interest in scheduling his projects with others.
The employee cannot return. It is dangerous to have one standard for everyone at work and another for one employee. We have great people working for us. If my partner really wanted the employee’s assistance over others’, he could make the effort to find a solution. I am the only one making concessions. — Anonymous
A: You have a partnership problem, not a work problem. You’ve already done everything you should do professionally, and you have been more than fair. Your partner needs to grow up and be as responsible an employer as you are. Losing a preferred colleague is unfortunate, but the fired employee made repeated mistakes, chose not to remedy the situation despite the ample support you offered and faced consequences for their choices.
At this point, the onus is on your partner to find a reasonable solution. If they still refuse, you should need to have some difficult conversations with your partner about why they are being so obstinate and, more important, why they are making your life so difficult. It makes me wonder if something else is going on here.