A query from pre-coronavirus times, to remind us of what office life used to be like:

Q: Four months ago, we hired a new secretary. I am her supervisor and she sits outside my office. I have a glass wall so I see her all day. She is young and capable and likes to work, but she is moody. Little things make her pout at her desk. She becomes sullen. She walks around with a face of unhappiness. Early in her probationary period, I brought it up with her, and she said she was just hard on herself.

I don’t want to work in an environment where I don’t know what mood I’m walking into each day. It is making me tense and anxious. I don’t know what to say because often I have no idea why she is unhappy. She is past her probationary period and is in a union, so I can’t let her go. How do you tell an employee to grow up?

A: You say yourself that you “have no idea why she’s unhappy.” To that I would add: “Or if.”

Just for fun, use your smartphone or your laptop webcam to snap a selfie right now, without changing your expression. Set alarms to remind you to keep doing this throughout your workday. Chances are, you look like you’re angry or annoyed when you’re really just sleepy, on a conference call or focusing on work. And unless “presenting a cheery and pleasing facade” is in your job description, you probably wouldn’t want your bosses judging your performance on that basis.

You also say she’s “capable and likes to work.” If that’s true, then her scowl could be due to performance anxiety. I have known enough sensitive, self-critical people who have been told they look “mean” that I think we all could use a reminder about books and covers.


Finally, make sure you’re not indulging some unconscious bias about what young female colleagues are supposed to look like. Do slack-faced men in your office undergo the same scrutiny?

All that said, on some level, personality is part of performance. And it’s on you, as her boss, to help her improve that performance.

If she’s rude to colleagues, verbally or through huffing/eye rolls/passive-aggressive foot-dragging, that merits a conversation.

If her job involves creating a welcoming and hospitable space, but she’s falling short, you could say: “You’re the first impression our clients receive when they come to our office. We need you to make an extra effort to make them feel welcome.”

And if she confirms that her dour demeanor is due to critiques and corrections: “Everyone needs to make improvements, and no one enjoys hearing it. But if you take it this hard and beat yourself up whenever someone says something, people will avoid talking to you about things that need improving. That could hold you back, and you’ll never know why.” Of course, that kind of frank feedback goes down better when it’s periodically supplemented with praise for the things she gets right.

But suppose she is a perpetual pouty-puss, radiating bad vibes like a malfunctioning microwave oven. People like that exist, and they are exhausting to be around.

If all else fails, a layer of consistent neutrality — or even cheer — is a powerful pout repellent. Expressing concern — “Is everything all right? You seem out of sorts” — can gently alert someone that their face has gone rogue.

Bonus: If something really is bothering her, and she trusts you, you may learn something important. Or if not, and if you’re anything like me, the subversive glee of knowing you’re irritating the heck out of her can be its own reward.

Karla L. Miller offers advice on surviving the ups and downs of the modern workplace. (Courtesy of The Washington Post)
Karla L. Miller offers advice on surviving the ups and downs of the modern workplace. (Courtesy of The Washington Post)