Q: I work for a nonprofit that helps to alleviate conditions of poverty. My boss and another more senior colleague are fortunate to have been born into wealth and do not need to work. As remote work has grown over the last year, so too has their frequent sharing of stories and photos from luxurious vacations, renovations on multiple homes, and extravagant parties, which I feel expected to respond to. Like many of my colleagues, I struggle to provide for my family and the pandemic has deepened those challenges. I don’t begrudge anyone their blessings, but find my colleagues’ push to flaunt personal wealth lacking empathy and disconcerting in the context of our work. I’m not sure if there is an appropriate way to broach this subject with my teammates, or if I should just let it go. What do you advise? — Anonymous, New York City

A: It is in poor taste for your senior colleagues to flaunt their wealth while running a nonprofit that helps alleviate conditions of poverty. Talk about cognitive dissonance. And the implied obligation of your positive reactions to their lifestyle is an added frustration. As for how you should proceed, it depends on the temperament of your senior colleagues and the professional consequences of voicing your concerns. Would they be open to constructive feedback? If so, tactfully mention your concerns about the optics of their personal sharing given the organization’s mission. You might remind them that for far too many people, perception is reality and as such, it is better to not undermine the work you do by making it seem like the people who run this nonprofit are wildly out of touch with the realities of poverty. I also don’t think you have to respond to their privileged oversharing. That’s not part of your job description. You can be collegial without fawning over their new boat the way they want you to.

The honeymoon is over

Q: I started a new professional finance position one month ago, and I guess the honeymoon is officially over. My manager, the person who hired me, was hostile and rude to me three times in one day. To be fair, she is going through a challenging period of extreme attrition among the staff and illness causing half of her department to be out. Plus, she is dealing with an arm injury herself.

I really respect and like her — when she is in a good mood. However, she is very reactive, impulsive and blunt. She calls everyone on her staff insulting “nicknames,” both to their face in front of other team members, and often whispers to their (cringing) colleagues, behind their backs. The insults are often in response to legitimate business questions or people just trying to do their job. This harsh new work environment has me very discouraged. The staff morale is very subdued, and no one talks to anyone about anything.

We all met for our monthly corporate regional meeting recently and no one introduced three new employees to the various members of other departments. It was as if social skills have been outlawed. I love the company and appreciate the salary, benefits, career opportunities here. I am off to a good start, as far as the job goes. What should I do to defend myself from this manager’s bad moods and unprofessional practices? — Anonymous

A: We’re all going through it right now in one way or another. Ideally, we should be more patient and considerate of others. And sometimes, stress will get the better of us. But your boss is chronically taking out her personal problems in a professional setting. It’s not just unkind. It’s unproductive and unacceptable. How do you defend yourself from a manager’s volatility when you can’t predict it? And when you’re trying to develop defensive strategies to protect yourself from a colleague, you’re positioning yourself as the problem when you are not. The only real way to shield yourself is to stay out of this manager’s orbit, which doesn’t seem possible. The frustrating reality is that there is little recourse when a manager behaves badly. There is Human Resources, but that department serves the organization rather than employees. They are not always allies. It seems like your manager has a lot going on and isn’t irredeemably evil. Is there a way to give her direct feedback about her behavior when she’s in a bad mood? She may not be aware of the effect she is having on team morale or individual team members. When your manager says something unacceptable, can you point it out and push back? Can you encourage others to do so too? Confrontation is uncomfortable, but so is an abusive boss. I would choose the former.


Back seat bossing

Q: I recently returned to an organization I worked at for many years after a brief absence. Before leaving, I was middle-level management in charge of a small department. When I left, someone succeeded me in the position. About a year after I returned, that person elected to step down and back into a team member role, and I returned to my previous position. There has been no conflict or rancor; I did not resent the person who took my place, and that person specifically asked if I would resume the position before stepping down. We work well together and are friendly outside of work, and I have no wish to endanger either aspect of this relationship.

I am now noticing a pattern I noticed before I left, and I am unsure how to handle it: This person, who elected to step down, often takes steps or makes comments as if to suggest how I should best fulfill my responsibilities. For instance, I asked them to email certain resources to a new team member, and they returned an email suggesting I use a new tech tool we learned about only the day before. Or they messaged me during a training to say they had privately communicated with the same new team member about learning some of the systems we used.

I find these comments and actions infuriating, as they seem to be casting subtle (or not so subtle) aspersions on my decisions, such as gradually building the work with the new team member rather than overloading them with information and meetings. This is even more maddening from someone who stepped down because they felt they were not successful in the role!

Am I being too sensitive to what might be well-intentioned suggestions delivered in what this person considers a tactful way? I fully acknowledge this as a possibility. If not, how might I gracefully handle this situation without offending someone who can be very sensitive and who, I believe, has the potential to become toxic to our team if offended? — Anonymous, Central America

A: You say there has been no conflict or rancor, but this is mildly rancorous. You aren’t being too sensitive. Your colleague is trying to usurp your authority or question your judgment in passive aggressive ways. I’m not sure if there is a graceful way forward but the next time your colleague engages in this behavior, point it out and explain, firmly but gently, why it’s a problem. Someone who wants to be offended will be offended no matter what you do so focus on being professional, honest, kind and resolute. All you can control is your own behavior.