repulsed by office culture

A reader writes:

I work in a corporate setting within the Technology department. My direct supervisor who is a Vice President chews tobacco during business hours. The fact that he chews tobacco doesn’t necessarily bother me. It’s the spitting in a cup during departmental meetings that does. The only saving grace from me not puking is that the cup is coated with print and you cannot see the mucous.

Just for a moment’s time can you picture the following: “Now for this data set we are going to *SPIT* replicate this to the backup *SPIT* server then on every last *SPIT* day of the month the data should go *SPIT* off site.”

His repulsive habits are not only disgusting, but it challenges my ability to take him seriously or even respect him as a superior. Furthermore, during said meetings he constantly checks his Blackberry for calls or emails with no regard to the persons actually talking to him. This type of behavior comes across as arrogant and makes you feel irrelevant.

This type of childish behavior is rather common place within my department. On a regular basis I deal with co-workers who don’t wear belts and bend over often, cuss at the top of their lungs, slam objects in their office as if mommy didn’t buy them that special toy, and computer equipment named after genitals (not kidding).

This is a small company with tight-knit relationships. I don’t feel comfortable confronting the issue head on and even contemplated talking to the President. However, he is friends with the offenders and is aware of the situation. I’ve overheard him making comments in a jokingly manner like “That stuff will kill you” or “Does your wife know you do that stuff?”

I take my job very seriously. I am very proud of my work ethic and quality of work. However, I feel as if I work for frat boys that only want to play in a sandbox. Am I just nitpicking or should I head for the hills?

I don’t think you’re nitpicking, but I don’t think you can change this stuff.

This isn’t a matter of one or two things that you’d like to see change; you’re talking about an entire culture. And it’s a culture that most other employees apparently like, including the president. Whether or not they should like it is beside the point; the fact is that they do. You can’t singlehandedly change an office culture. And in this case, it’s not really yours to change.

The thing you probably have the best hope of changing is your boss’ habit of checking his blackberry while talking to you. This won’t necessarily work, but you can try saying to him, “I’ve noticed that when we meet, it’s usually at times when you need to be monitoring your blackberry. Is there a time we could meet when you wouldn’t need to?” Might work, might not.

But it sounds like you simply don’t like the office culture, and there’s nothing wrong with that. No office culture will be right for everyone. My advice is to figure out if you can find ways to live with it and be reasonably happy. If you can’t, you can’t, and you need to proceed accordingly. But I wonder if there aren’t ways for you to live in it peacefully.

{ 10 comments… read them below }

  1. Just another HR lady...*

    I think AAM has given some great advice here. I think that this type of behavior is unprofessional and childish also, but it sounds like that is the culture of the workplace. If the President or others on the management team are not attempting to change it, then they most likely are the ones who created that culture and will continue to support/enjoy it. They will look for others who enjoy that type of environment as well to keep it going.

    Unfortunately, neither of your choices here are ideal: Ignore/accept the culture and learn how to work within it (doesn’t necessary mean that you need to chew tobacco, just be tolerant of it), OR decide to move on to an environment that you feel suits your work style.

  2. Charles*

    AAM – I would like to stress that this is something that I wouldn’t even want to try to change as anything said could be taken as an insult or in the very least put you on the supervisor’s “bad persons” list.

    The tobacco might be a real issue depending on the state – some states require the workplace to be “tobacco free” which would include chewing. But, again, speaking up might cause you harm.

    I agree – try to find a way to learn to live with it or move on.

    AAM – if this person decides to move on; how or even should the situation be mentioned to prospective employers if asked why he/she is leaving?

  3. Anonymous*

    I’d much rather have a tobacco chewer than the guy that has to go out and take a smoke break every time you turn around.

    The thing that strikes me is that all of these things bother/distract you. They are evidently not bothering everybody. The only person you can change is you. You can decide to be amused by their behavior, or you can change your location to an office/company whose view of acceptable behavior more closely matches your own.

    We all have slightly (or greatly) differing opinions on what is or isn’t professional behavior. For instance, I could not tell you whether anyone I’ve been in contact with today was wearing a belt today or whether they were bending over or not. I feel pretty certain they were all wearing pants. I think I would have noticed if they weren’t. However, I do know what their capabilities are, what their weaknesses are and that they will move heaven and earth to do what they say they will do. That last is , by far, the thing I look for in professional behavior.

  4. David*

    Regarding the Blackberry issue, if you’re the one speaking when he checks it, stop talking immediately. When he looks up, continue. If he says something, you can say, “I just wanted to make sure you were getting what I was saying.”

    This may be a little too passive-aggressive for some, but it will definitely draw attention to his actions.

    Of course, he may suggest you continue regardless of his distracting behavior, too…

  5. Ask a Manager*

    Charles, re: how the letter-writer could explain why they’re leaving when talking with prospective employers, I’d try to find a way to talk about the culture (mis)fit without sounding overly negative. Maybe say something like, “I really liked the work, but the atmosphere was casual to the point of being distracting, and I realized that I like being in cultures that are a little more traditionally professional.” Don’t complain, just explain it wasn’t the right fit for *you*. How’s that?

  6. jaded hr rep*

    Asking an employee to ‘be present’ is not nitpicky. Tobacco laws aside, spitting does seem to cross the lines of acceptable social norms. I have a similar situation with a peer who constantly picks his nose, and it’s been remarked on by everyone in the dept and those outside of the dept. Yet this doesn’t affect the quality of his work otherwise. I’ve figured out a way to address most of these touchy issues that come up, but I have to admit this one still perplexes me.

  7. Diana*

    I’m wondering if the OP can address the VP about chewing at meetings. I had a chewer work for me and while I didn’t say anything in the office, I told the person not to bring the cup to meetings. I felt it was disrespectful to spit during the meetings. Since this is the OP’s boss, the OP can’t make it an order, but can still address the distraction it causes. It may not work (i.e. boss won’t stop even for meetings) but I think it’s worth addressing privately.

  8. Eric Brasure*

    Diana: Your comment is pretty much the definition of “culture shock.” I don’t know where you live or work, but that just seems SO WEIRD to me. Like, not only do you have tobacco chewers at your office but the default is to think it’s okay to chew tobacco at work, in a meeting, while spitting into a cup?

    1. Diana*

      It was at least 8 years ago, but I agree that it wasn’t okay in a meeting, although he did chew in the office. It’s the OP who has (or had?) a boss who chewed and spit in meetings including while he was talking, which is beyond me.

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