Q: I am part of a two-person office in a medium-sized nonprofit organization. My senior co-worker, “Richie,” is the executive director, and I am in an administrative position overseeing a gaggle of interns and freelancers.

Richie is an impossible mess: disorganized, distracted and woefully incompetent. He is an “unfiltered thought” person; if he thinks it, he blurts it out. Since the pandemic, we both work from home and see each other maybe once a month, which is perfect for me. I live in the city, he lives in a suburb. Part of his daily routine is to call me from his car to “check in” during work hours while he’s on his way to the store, or late in the afternoon when he’s picking up his kids. We get no work done when he calls from the car, especially when he’s road-raging at random people. In the middle of a work conversation, he will suddenly yell expletives at another car or randomly say things like, “Where does this [person] think she’s going?”

This is particularly upsetting to me as I lost a close family member in a car accident when the other driver had been texting. All my friends know, and Richie does too, that I hate talking on the phone to someone who’s driving for fear of hearing them get into an accident. When I previously mentioned my experience to Richie, he assured me he was a great driver and I needed to “toughen up.”

How do I get Richie to respect my fears and stop the rude, unproductive, emotionally disturbing work calls from the car?

A: While I’m an established fan of workplace flexibility, one of the acknowledged downsides of remote work is the blurring of boundaries between work and personal space. Not only is it detrimental to our mental health when it’s our own boundaries being erased, it’s disrespectful when we let our work encroach on others’ personal space. (To the entrepreneur conducting a speakerphone conference call at Panera: Yes, this means you.) And in the case of your colleague’s expletive-laced Mario Kart meetings, as you note, it’s downright dangerous.

Given Richie’s lack of concern for other people on the road — including, apparently, his own children — appealing to his sense of empathy for your trauma is unlikely to persuade him to change his ways. And unlike your organization’s board of directors, you probably lack the authority to demand the respect of his undivided attention during these work discussions. Your remaining option is to not be on the other end of the phone.


Bear in mind, I don’t know how much influence Richie has over your employment status and how sensitive he is to perceived insubordination. So please review all the following suggestions, presented from least to most diplomatic, before you choose whichever seems least likely to get you fired.

Starting with the brick-wall option: Let all his calls go to voice mail and follow up on them when it’s safe. If you can do that without incurring repercussions for being “unresponsive,” that’s the route I’d recommend.

Or there’s the rinse-and-repeat training method, when you pick up and can hear he’s on the road: “Oh, I’m sorry, you’re driving. Why don’t you call me back after you’re settled. Talk to you then, bye!” leaving him with a digital “boop” and a dead line. Repeat, cheerfully, as many times as it takes.

Brush up on your acting skills so you’re always just a little too busy for an extended chat: “I’m sorry, can I call you back? I’m on the other line.” “I’m in the middle of preparing for a meeting.” “I’m expecting a call from [VIP].”

If poor cell signal is a plausible excuse in your area, there’s always, “Sorry, you’re breaking up, can’t hear you,” or just hanging up your phone in the middle of your own — boop.

If he sees through these dodges, and blusters about what a great driver he is, a good answer is, “Of course, but it’s the other people you have to watch out for.” Which is true for multiple reasons besides his own safety.

You can also try to head off these impromptu check-ins by preemptively scheduling formalized ones, emphasizing your productivity and efficiency rather than your fears. “I retain more from our conversations when I can set aside a specific time to give you my full attention. Can we schedule a regular check-in call at, for example, [time when he’s certain to be home]?”

Of course, Richie, being an impulsive type, may continue calling you whenever an idea strikes, to offload his unfiltered insights onto you for safekeeping. In that case, your goal is to get off the phone as quickly as possible while still being responsive. “What’s on your mind? Right, got it. I’ll write that down and we can discuss it in more detail later. Thanks, drive safe!” Boop.