Q: I recently moved for a job that sounded like an incredible opportunity. It was a good fit for my skill set, a startup with a brand-new and shiny workspace. We were supposed to move into the new space three months ago. There have been various delays, and we have been working out of my boss’s home. As more and more people come onto the team, the limitations of this arrangement have become more apparent. I have found alternative workplaces for the folks whom I manage, to keep them from the discomforts of working out of someone’s home when your boss is in her bathrobe. My other colleagues have found their own arrangements for themselves. My boss gets upset that no one is in her home working. She is very particular about many things and that can be beautiful, but when she doesn’t understand something, she gets upset and will raise her voice and lament that “no one is doing anything.” I have a lot of grace for my boss; she made a significant investment in this business, and everyone thought we’d be in the new office by now. We are getting paid. But I can’t be complicit in her bad behavior. Am I naive in thinking she will change once we move into the actual space? — Anonymous
A: I know we’re not supposed to casually recommend therapy, but your boss needs therapy and to learn boundaries. She is expecting emotional support from employees whose paychecks she signs. It’s wildly inappropriate. This is what happens when you start blurring boundaries by, for example, having your staff work out of your home while you traipse around in your bathrobe.
Workspace delays happen all the time. A good employer would do as you did for your team and find an alternative work site. Coworking spaces abound. Remote work is normal in the new normal. There’s no excuse for this. Your boss’s behavior will not magically improve in the new workspace, though, hopefully, some of the spatial awkwardness will. She is showing you who she is, both good and bad. It’s up to you to act accordingly.
Beware Toxic Mary
Q: I’ve been at a perfectly OK job for the past nine months, but the environment is a little toxic. There are a few people who are rude and unkind, and there’s a culture of gossiping and complaining. I’ve become a target for one particularly grouchy and rude co-worker. Emails from “Mary” are rude and passive-aggressive. She points out everything she thinks I’ve done wrong and constantly tells me to stay in my lane. She also routinely copies my boss on emails. I’ve ignored her unnecessary comments, and responded pleasantly and politely when I can. Recently, she sent me a particularly unkind string of emails to the point that my boss finally came to talk to me about it. My boss says she’s very aware that Mary has been doing this. She says that it’s not just in my head, that Mary is targeting me, and that it’s not because of anything I did. My boss is clearly pleased with my work and on my side, but she also downplayed my issue with Mary as no big deal. I’m grateful the people in charge are all pleasant, but I’m also frustrated by their refusal to do anything to improve the culture of the organization. Is it unreasonable to expect a respectful work environment? I don’t want Mary to get fired, but is there a way to ask her to start treating me with more respect or kindness without making everything worse? — Anonymous, Nebraska
A: Mary is the one who needs to stay in her lane. I am not sure why her behavior is tolerated. You are not being unreasonable for expecting a respectful work environment. Unfortunately, you can’t make Mary treat you better. If you could, she wouldn’t be treating you this way. And you’re not being overly sensitive.
This idea that we should be totally fine with toxicity and continuing bullying is taking tolerance way too far. It’s great that your boss supports you, but she needs to amplify that support by dealing with Mary. Clearly, this workplace is one where those in charge would rather look the other way than do the more unpleasant parts of their job, but I would sit down with your boss, outline the extent of Mary’s behavior and ask for something to be done.
Can’t Release the Shame
Q: I made a mistake at work and compounded the damage by behaving defensively and childishly. This was almost five years ago. No real harm was done. The outcome was chiefly my embarrassment at having behaved like an idiot. I apologized and have since left that job. But the shame remains. My impulse is to contact the two co-workers involved and somehow do a better job of explaining/apologizing. I won’t, since that would be even nuttier as well as narcissistic. Why would my deep mortification over a trivial workplace incident persist for so long? What can I say to myself to put it into perspective?
A: I hate making mistakes and always want to explain and overexplain myself when things go awry. I also hope there is some combination of words that will allow me to clarify what I did or didn’t do and alleviate whatever uncomfortable feelings I am dealing with.
But generally, the overexplaining is more for me than whomever I am trying to reach because I want to undo what was done. And that’s just not possible. Shame is difficult. As you say, no real harm was done. You made a mistake and are clear on that with yourself. You’ve apologized and moved on to a new workplace.
I don’t want to make assumptions, but sometimes we hold on to stories that reinforce how we feel about ourselves. You are the only one who can answer the questions you are asking. Why are you holding on to this incident for so long? What are you getting out of holding on to this narrative?
It’s time to let this go. It’s well past time. You have learned your lesson and paid your penance. You don’t need to carry this shame anymore. Truthfully, you never did.