Special rules for 70-somethings?

Q: I work for a Navy contractor and during the pandemic have enjoyed working from home, along with my colleagues. We are getting a new manager who is telling everyone to return to work twice a week, except for two workers who are older and want to continue working from home “for health reasons.” They are in their 70s but until the pandemic, worked in person every day just like the rest of us. Their health is no different now than it was before.

None of us want to return to the office and we worked from home without any productivity issues. Do we have a case of age discrimination? — Anonymous

A: We have learned a lot over the past two or three years, and one thing we know for certain is that older people are more vulnerable to COVID-19. Your older colleagues’ health is absolutely different now. It makes sense, for many reasons, to allow them to work from home full time, particularly if they are immunocompromised.

I believe anyone who can, should be allowed to work from home. But many employers feel that there is merit to face-to-face, in-office interactions, at least some of the time. If you want a fully remote position, you may have to go back on the job market. Your older colleagues have a different health situation than you do and they are receiving reasonable accommodation for that. I understand your resentment, but you aren’t being discriminated against because your older colleagues have something you want.

Desperately seeking closure

Q: For the past four years, I’ve been a seasonal employee at an event company. My usual contract is nine months. There is no long-term agreement, but generally I’ll hear from people at the company about a month before they want to hire me again, with a new contract. This past year’s event did not go well. It sold more tickets than ever and looked impressively star-studded to the public, but internally the team was a mess. Even more significantly, this season, all of us who identify as BIPOC or queer reported issues to HR that indicated we were working in a toxic environment.

At the end of the season, I told my teammates I couldn’t put myself through this again. However, I didn’t share that information directly with my boss and have not given my notice. Now it’s the time of year I usually hear from them. I’m not interested in working for them again, but I’m also keen not to be labeled the problem woman of color in the workplace. I want them to know why I don’t feel comfortable there any longer. Should I ask for a meeting with my former manager, or send an email explaining my position, or just wash my hands of it all? — Anonymous

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A: You are looking for and you deserve closure, but you will never get it from your former employers. They do not care about your safety as evidenced by all the issues you and your colleagues experienced. Don’t worry about what’s going on at that workplace. You are no longer there. As a contract employee, you have no notice to give. You can, if it comes up, share your experiences with potential future employees of that company so they are well-informed about who they might be working for.

Unfortunately, there is nothing you can do to control whatever narrative they construct about you. When someone wants to label you as the problem, you cannot behave your way out of that rut, through no fault of your own. Sometimes, we have lousy work experiences and yearn for someone to know what we’ve been through. I definitely urge you to talk to your friends and loved ones but to also consider therapy. Toxic work environments can really affect our mental health, and you will most likely find the closure you are seeking within yourself.

A game of telephone

Q: I started a new job and a former client, an executive, recommended me for the position. I’ve learned about the organization and what I’m expected to do. The challenge has been with one co-worker in particular. To say she openly hates me would be an understatement. The breaking point happened when I was asked to participate in a meeting for a business she supports. I was on a call with three of my colleagues when I let this problem co-worker know I’d be part of the session so she wouldn’t be blindsided. She had a complete meltdown on the call.

She let me know she felt I didn’t respect her and that I had no business working on her client’s business. She dropped off the call. I immediately wrote to her to let her know I intended no disrespect. She didn’t respond and has been openly hostile since that meeting. I asked my manager if we needed to have an intervention to clear the air so we could find a workable professional footing. My manager responded that this co-worker had apologized to her (my boss) and that if I had any work-related questions, to send them through my boss and she would ask this co-worker to provide me with an answer.

I don’t need to be friends with this person but having to take extra precautions to make sure her feathers aren’t ruffled has created a lot of stress. Have things changed that much since my last full-time position? Is it normal for a manager to address this type of situation in this way? — Anonymous, Chicago

A: This situation is absolutely bonkers. I am bewildered by the number of letters I get from people working with really hostile individuals who seem to be given free rein to behave so badly. Now, there is some information missing from this letter. When did this animosity start? Did you two have an argument? Do you know each other outside of work? Do you have any sense of what is fueling this person’s attitude toward you?

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Regardless, what she is doing is not OK! It is beyond ridiculous that a grown woman requires a third party to mediate basic professional communication. I do not understand why this behavior is being enabled. She had a tantrum on a business call and apologized only to your manager? This is not business as usual.

I suggest speaking with your manager, clearly outlining your concerns, and asking for a more workable solution than this game of playground telephone you’re being asked to undertake. Ideally, your manager should hold a meeting with the three of you to clear the air, identify how the working relationship will function moving forward and establish consequences if the co-worker (or you, if you’ve done something to antagonize her) cannot behave professionally. I hope you can find some resolution here.

Performance issues

Q: I have been at my job for three months, and we are at the point in the year where we set individual professional goals for the next year. My supervisor is also urging me to think of five- and 10-year plans.

I am struggling! In previous jobs, goal-setting has been a box-checking exercise implemented by human resources. Supervisors and HR would urge us to be creative with setting goals and identifying professional development opportunities, reminding us that raises and promotions were linked with meeting our goals. I would put energy and thought into developing goals. When it came time to check in on my progress, I was met with a “keep up the good work; we don’t have money in the budget for a raise.”

This bait and switch has left me with little motivation to identify and set goals in my new job. Honestly, I just want to do my job, and do it well. All of this feels like extra work. I’ve told my new supervisor about this past experience and they are supportive, but also insistent since this is a HR policy. How do you feel about goal-setting at work? How do you find motivation and creativity in your professional development when both are missing? — Anonymous, Washington, D.C.

A: Busy work is tedious and frustrating and yes, professional goal setting is, sometimes, busy work. Clearly, you’ve had a frustrating time with these activities in the past. Sometimes, this kind of work is a bridge to nowhere. But you are at a new job, so maybe it’s time for a new outlook. You seem to have a supervisor who is invested in your future, which is a good start. Maybe this, too, will be a bridge to nowhere but perhaps it is useful to reframe your thinking.

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How can you come up with goals and plans that will serve you and your ambitions regardless of any professional incentives tied to the task? It’s always good to have a professional road map identifying where you are, where you would like to be, and what can potentially bridge the distance between those two points. You come by your baggage honestly, but it’s time to let it go.

I only recently came around to goal setting because my wife, Debbie Millman, is a big proponent of the practice. In fact, she developed a tool, “The Remarkable Life Deck: A Ten-Year Plan for Achieving Your Dreams,” that offers a useful framework for thinking about goal setting that has nothing to do with the banalities of the workplace.

I’m only sharing this because it could be useful. Clearly, I am biased, but I would share this tool regardless. As someone who was previously (and still is a bit) cynical about such things I’ve found a lot of use in mapping out what I want for myself both professionally and personally. These activities aren’t set in stone but can be a good place to start.