update: my office is fighting about overhead lighting

Remember the letter-writer whose office was warring about overhead lighting, and half the office wanted to work in darkness? Here’s the update.

We got a new manager and we moved to a different floor, two unforeseen variables that changed the whole atmosphere.

A couple posters brought up a few things I wanted to address: AAM, you were on target when you said this was some kind of referendum on other things that bothered people. Reading that line alone was worth the effort of writing. The cubes all have under-cabinet lighting and people could certainly have brought in lamps for more illumination, but the issue was overhead lighting. Some nooks and crannies were nearly pitch black, as dark as a movie theater. One needed a miner’s helmet to navigate. And my favorite post was the person who said “handwritten faxed forms–really?” That made me chuckle because that is your U.S. federal government, my fellow Americans. Make people use technology from the 90s.

After our move, the new manager reiterated that if people wanted some of the overhead lights directly above their new cubes turned off, we would accommodate them, but the policy was that overhead lights were turned on. There would be no light-free zones declared. Actually, that went over pretty well as I think many people – even those who preferred the dark – wanted to know what the rules were.

All was going pretty well until an overtime project started, with quite a few people coming to work a few hours on the weekends. The same woman who exploded at the senior manager (the same woman!) got mad at her coworker “Susie” for – yes – turning on the overhead lights on a Saturday. A few people had been working for a few hours already with the lights off. Susie got there mid-morning and turned on the lights, prompting “Old Yeller” to loudly challenge her for doing that on a weekend. Susie, a reserved and introverted woman, was caught completely flatfooted. She was angry and mortified at being made a semi-public target. (By the way, no manager was there at the time.)

Then, in a truly self-destructive move, Old Yeller fired off an email to the new manager in the mistaken belief that he would back her up by agreeing that the policy did not apply to the weekend OT project, and cited Susie’s actions. Wrong move. Instead, the next Monday, he sent out a strongly worded blast email to everyone reiterating what the lighting policy was – weekday or weekend, it made no difference — and he expected no more drama over this. If it happened again, then he would get personally involved in any ensuing actions. He made sure all his direct reports spread the word to their staff, and he revisited it in an All-Hands meeting.

So we’re rubbing along for the time being, but I just don’t get this woman and the battles she chooses. Honestly, she is an AAM submission all on her own.

{ 87 comments… read them below }

    1. INTP*

      I’m waiting for update #2 when the OP finds out a secret vampire coven was operating out of her office.

          1. Liane*

            Have we *ever* had and update on that one? I go looking for it once in a while when I need reminders that my problem coworkers (bless their hearts) could be worse. I think I will now alternate with this post. :)

            And, OP I do hope Old Yeller calms down or leaves ASAP

      1. Alma*

        Exactly what I was going to comment – VAMPIRES!! Perhaps the OP should hang a (fake) head of garlic in her cubicle. Too funny!

        Hooray for the new manager. I bet s/he reads AAM.

  1. ThursdaysGeek*

    Sounds like a decent manager with a decent solution.

    I’m curious if those who prefer the darkness (the under 35ish crowd, according the original letter) are going to prefer more light as they age. I’ve always liked lots of light, but aging has made it more necessary too. If it’s dim, I sometimes can’t read even with the cheaters on. That might be related to the developing cataract, another benefit of aging. :)

    1. Lily in NYC*

      I am 45, have crappy eyesight and I hate overhead lighting. But I work mainly on the computer – I would probably need it brighter if I did a lot of paperwork. It’s the glaring flourescents that bother me – ever since I had shingles in my eye (I don’t wish that on my worst enemy!) I just can’t handle it. But I would never make a scene over it!

      1. Lily in NYC*

        I forgot to mention that I was at a happy hour last night and needed to use the flashlight on my phone to be able to read the cocktail menu! All of the whippersnappers I was with could read it fine. I turned into my parents last night.

        1. Kate*

          If it makes you feel any better, I am 25 and generally keep the lights off in my office but am perpetually annoyed by how dark (and loud) bars are.

          1. Melissa*

            I’m 28 and I feel the same way about dark, loud bars. Especially the ones with no dancing. People go to bars in groups to chat with friends and drink good beer. Why the heck does the music need to be too loud to allow me to accomplish the first goal?

        2. Mallory Janis Ian*

          Ha! I’m sitting in my office right now, reading this on my phone, and I have to peer over the top of my glasses to read the small print. I turn 45 next month, and this peering-over-the-glasses thing is new within the past three weeks or so.

          1. John B Public*

            See your ophthalmologist. Sudden vision change (even slight) can be an indicator of other health changes. Could be nothing, but you might want to check it out.

          2. Melissa*

            All of my aunts are over 45, and when they started doing that, they invariably needed bifocals. I especially remember it in my mother. She’s near-sighted and wore glasses to correct for that. She’d see distant things fine with her glasses, but would slide her glasses down her nose or lift them up and squint to read things at close range, because her eyes couldn’t properly focus on the near stuff with her glasses on. She needed bifocals. She got the no-line kind so a person looking at her can’t even tell that she’s wearing them. I remember that she started wearing them in her mid-40s, and apparently that is the prime time for presbyopia.

            1. Connie-Lynne*

              Yep, this. I got bifocals two years ago when I started to notice that playing cards and reading menus (even in well-lit venues) was difficult. I keep them in my purse, and, for the first two years, I rarely needed them.

              Recently I pulled them out again to play a boardgame and was AMAZED at how much clearer everything was — even clearer than just taking off my distance lenses. It reminded me of the first time I got glasses, that wonderful, stunning clarity of vision.

              I’ve started using my bifocals more frequently as a result, and it’s so nice to be able to see everything, everywhere! I’m just two weeks shy of 45.

      2. MissDisplaced*

        I agree the fluorescents have a weird “pulsing” glow and hum that is annoying, especially if you’re prone to migraines like me. However, you can mitigate this by having a regular desk lamp or floor pole-type lamp in your cube.

        1. Alma*

          At this time of year Ott lights (and other brands) are 50% off at craft stores, and in some consolidators like Big Lots there are better deals. The pure light helps me be able to see more clearly. I have a relatively inexpensive desktop model that cost about $25. The price range I saw this week was $10 (a weird, hand-held type thing) to over $200 for a floor model.

          I also found that my progressive lenses need to have a large “mid-range” for computers, lecturing from a podium, and many other arm’s length vision needs I have in my line of work for which my arms are not long enough. That means my optician had to help me select frames that were large enough to accommodate lenses with that progression. This conversation is worth having the next time you have your eyes examined. There may be other suggestions about changing the color of your computer screen.

          1. Melissa*

            It’s funny, I have an Ott light and I eventually replaced it with a conventional table lamp because the Ott light’s light was hurting my eyes more than the conventional table lamp. Something about the piercing whiteness of the Ott light just hurt my head.

      3. the gold digger*

        I don’t mind overhead lights as long as they are not florescent – those give me a headache because of the flickering.

        I have had to argue with my “but it’s environmentally irresponsible!” husband about the lightbulb in the lamp on my nightstand. He wants low wattage. I want to be able to see. I was not happy to learn that your eyes need more and more light to see the same way as you age. I found this stat:

        Reduced pupil size. As we age, muscles that control our pupil size and reaction to light lose some strength. This causes the pupil to become smaller and less responsive to changes in ambient lighting.

        Because of these changes, people in their 60s need three times more ambient light for comfortable reading than those in their 20s.

    2. jhhj*

      I find that fluorescent lighting gives me horrible headaches, while other lighting is fine. I would bet that this is the issue for people who want the lights off. When I moved from places with fluorescents to places with I think LEDs, I could turn the lights on again at work.

      1. Dr. Johnny Fever*

        This is my problem with overhead lights. If right above me, it triggers a migraine (on an almost daily basis). I much prefer a darker space where I can control the level of lighting and glare.

    3. Melissa*

      I’m sure that the OP’s original observation does make sense within his or her context, but I’m kind of baffled by it quite frankly. I’m under 35 and I certainly prefer to work with overhead lights on, unless the sunlight is so bright as to render them unnecessary. Yes, sometimes fluorescent lights can give me a headache, but that’s only under a perfect storm of other outside influences and honestly, staring at a brightly lit computer screen in a completely dark room causes more eye strain and migraine risk for me (and I think in general). It may also help that my eyesight is not great even with glasses, and I see no point in squinting in the darkness when we’ve had wonderful electricity for the last hundred or so years.

  2. LBK*

    Holy cow. I can’t believe all of this is over lights. Lights! I know it can make a big difference for some people (I love our new brighter office more than the cave we used to be in) but really. She sounds like she’s teetering on the edge of getting fired over lights.

    1. Adam V*

      > She sounds like she’s teetering on the edge of getting fired over lights.

      I’m shocked she wasn’t immediately fired after yelling at the senior manager in the original post.

      1. Karen (another fed)*

        This is a government office, right? It’s nearly impossible to fire people unless you’ve built yourself some hefty backup, and I’m betting a manager who wasn’t doing anything about petty fighting over lights wasn’t keeping the kind of records you need to make that happen.

      2. jag*

        Firing someone for yelling once?

        Not appropriate unless it was hateful/personal/bigoted. Yelling about actual work procedures as a one-time thing or very rare thing shouldn’t be that big a deal.

        Second time – yeah, maybe or even probably. Lack of control is apparent.

        1. LBK*

          When it’s a procedure as menial as whether the lights should be on or off on the weekends, I think a disproportionate response like that is grounds for a final warning at the very least and termination if this isn’t the first incident. It’s not like they were arguing over the correct way to perform heart surgery – this is far from something that merits a blow up.

        2. Adam V*

          > Firing someone for yelling once?

          Depending on who they’re yelling at, yes, once may be all it takes. I’ve seen it happen at one of the companies I worked at. A stressed coworker yelled at a VP and was out the door 15 minutes later.

          And I’d bet there’s something in my current company’s handbook that says something along the lines of “unprofessional behavior can result in punishment up to and including termination” (usually because they say “up to and including termination” for just about everything, so that they don’t get stuck in a situation later where they have to say “well, normally we’d fire someone for this, but the handbook says we can only go so far as a written warning”).

  3. Mickey*

    I literally spit iced tea when I read “Old Yeller”. Abso-freaking-lutely priceless.
    Thanks for a much needed gut laugh on a Friday afternoon.

  4. James M*

    Loving the “old yeller” comment. I wouldn’t be surprised if that turned into a meme. Blowing up over lights being turned on sounds like something else is going on that that coworker; perhaps that coworker has some cockroach in her lineage?

  5. Hlyssande*

    I hate hate hate overhead fluorescent lights because I’m one of the unlucky people for which they can trigger migraines…but great googly moogly this lady is whackadoo.

    1. Labratnomore*

      We had someone like that at my work. Facilities just took the bulbs out of the light right above her desk, and the problem was solved. If the person in the next desk over complained about the lack of light they would have just moved them to a different cube.

      1. Hlyssande*

        Unfortunately, the upper management doesn’t like the look of the office when someone doesn’t have lights on above their cube. It’s just not allowed. I wear a visor when I need to.

        Lucky for me, I got mostly used to the particular frequency of the lights we used within a few months of moving into this office. But woe to me going anywhere else with lights on a different frequency, or if there are multiple kinds in the same place (I’m looking at you, Doubletree that hosts my nerd conventions).

  6. AnonAnalyst*

    This is where I come down too. I get lighting-triggered migraines as well, but when I need to work in an environment where I can tell it’s going to be a problem, I nicely and calmly explain the situation and usually people are happy to accommodate me.

    Like someone else posted above, how was she not fired after screaming at the senior manager? I can’t imagine that flying in any company I’ve worked for!

    1. AnonAnalyst*

      Whoops, this was supposed to be a reply to Hlyssande’s post above! I have failed at commenting today :(

    2. Adam*

      -Like someone else posted above, how was she not fired after screaming at the senior manager? I can’t imagine that flying in any company I’ve worked for!

      Who knows? I know there is a perception that getting fired from a government job is so difficult you’re a unicorn if you are, but surely it happens regardless. But then again part of their job is reading handwritten faxes, and now I have this image of the one insane coworker reading through coke bottle glasses by candlelight in an echoing dusty hall…

      1. Observer*

        Oh, it happens. But managers need to dot their i’s and cross their t’s very carefully. And, as someone else noted, it doesn’t sound like the old manager was much good at dealing with drama queens. The new guy might just surprise her, though.

    3. Hlyssande*

      I totally understand! Sadly we don’t get a lot of accommodation here with the bigwigs on the same floor (division Prez, global sales Prez, division CFO/VP). I envy the managers with their offices where they can turn off the lights.

  7. INTP*

    To be fair, it is kind of rude to turn onlights in a dark room without warning people first. Everything else about this situation is crazy, though. I nearly LOLed at my desk.

    1. Labratnomore*

      She may not have known anyone else was there. The light switch in my entire area is right next to the door, but you can’t see if anyone’s else is in their cubes or not. My desk is 150 feet in and I typically don’t scout the place out in the dark before I turn the lights on.

      1. Anonsie*

        Yeah, I’ve done this by accident where I work because the light switch is outside the door. Normally the lights are always on, so if I see them off before I go in I flip them on. But once or twice someone was actually here and working in the dark and I surprised the heck out of em.

      2. INTP*

        That is true. I was picturing my (small) office where people affected by a lightswitch are visible and in hearing distance of it. If it’s a large room or one with a lot of nooks and crannies, I don’t expect anyone to scout out every row with a headlamp before turning on a light.

    2. fposte*

      Even if she did warn them, it sounds like it would have just been a slightly different fight, given that Old Yeller clearly believed she’d die if exposed to light.

      I’ve been imagining the blast email I might have composed if I were the manager–it’s not fun if you really have to do it, but if you’re only imagining, it’s rather amusing.

      1. A Non*

        Dear all:

        People’s need to avoid stubbing toes on office furniture preempts other people’s desire for mood lighting. Turn the frickin lights on. This policy applies during office hours, outside of office hours, on holidays, in all weather, and on days ending in Y. Thank you.

        1. fposte*

          Dear all:

          In checking the personnel files, I have noted that none of our staff are bats. Therefore lights will be left on in our offices whenever staff are present. If you are a bat and I have missed this fact, please notify me immediately. If you object for any other reason, hang upside down from the rafters until the urge to complain passes.

          1. Shell*

            Good lord, I think I injured myself holding back laughter to this comment and the one before it.

            I love this site.

          2. A Non*

            Dear all:

            Pursuant to employee complaint, I am confirming that being batty does not qualify as being a bat for the purposes of this policy. Being an earthworm, grub, or cockroach also does not qualify for a light-related accommodation.

      2. INTP*

        Oh, ITA. I don’t think Old Yeller’s issue was light-turning-on etiquette, she clearly has control issues and this is one bizarre area in which she’s chosen to stand her ground and feel victimized by the universe’s unreasonable refusal to defer to her every preference. It would just be a nice thing to do, it wouldn’t solve the problem.

    3. Student*

      It might be rude in some social settings to do this. It is not rude in a business setting. It is perfectly reasonable to turn on the lights whenever you feel a need to at your job. The only legitimate business exception to that rule is during presentations when it hasn’t been requested by the presenter, or in jobs where there is an actual light-sensitive task going on (old-time photo development, scientific studies, etc.).

      1. Gene*

        Yeah, had a classmate come into the darkroom and turn on the overheads when in high school (and I had the outside warning light on.) Ruined my project.

      2. jag*

        No, there are places where everyone is working on computers, and has desk lamps, and many or all people want it dark, it would be rude to turn on the overheads without some general office policy.

        I worked in a web development team, and in the main cube area, the lights were kept very low. Before 9am and after 5pm they were off as most people were coding/writing on deadline and that’s the way they wanted it. If anyone wanted to, they could use a desk lamp or go to another area to work.

        It’s rude to decide your own preference overrides office norms or policy.

        1. Lynn Whitehat*

          We had a vote at my office, and the Dark Side prevailed. I would prefer lights on, but the people have spoken, plus I am sane enough to know this is not a hill to die on.

      3. INTP*

        It’s reasonable to turn on the lights, but it’s also reasonable for people to expect a warning, assuming that they are visible and close enough to hear you at a reasonable indoor volume. In that case, it costs you nothing to say “Head’s up, I’m turning on the lights” (if the room is too large to warn people without running up and down the cubicle rows, or even see them, that’s a different case). Especially if you’re a manager battling perceptions that you don’t care about people’s ocular comfort – it’s an opportunity to set a good example by showing that you are considerate when it’s reasonable.

      4. RubyJackson*

        I just about choked at your description, “old-time photo development.” If indeed, you are a student, and young, you may want to rethink how you phrase things as you head into having job interviews with potentially ‘older’ people. A alternate suggestion would be to say, “chemical photo development.” Much like you would say, “rotary phone” or “incandescent light bulb.” Please use the proper, innocuous term and you’ll be doing yourself a favor.

        1. Dan*


          Old-timey folks who until recently were using old-time equipment/technology don’t like to be reminded that they’re old-timey. It just rubs them the wrong way I guess. I wouldn’t know…

        2. Melissa*

          Well, this is an Internet forum, so s/he probably doesn’t speak the same way in interviews. But seriously…it IS old-time photo development. Old just means “coming from an earlier time” or “originating in a past era.” We used to use chemicals to develop photos in a dark room and now we largely don’t do that anymore, therefore, the technology is old – just like floppy disks and VHS tapes. I’m young but still old enough to remember all of these technologies and it’s not quite offensive to refer to them as old.

  8. Seal*

    I had an employee who refused to turn the lights on first thing in the morning; for whatever reason, he preferred to sit around in the dark. He was generally the first person in every day, so the next person that came in almost always turned the lights on and went about their business. There were generally some dirty looks, but fortunately no tantrums. Had that happened, I would have done exactly what the OP’s new manager did and enforced a light policy. Honestly, people get worked up over the dumbest things!

    1. Alter_ego*

      I love being the first one in in the morning because I love it when the lights are off. It’s always disappointing when the next person comes in for the day. I’m not like, starting fights over it or anything, but I’m never going to be the one to turn the lights on

      1. Chinook*

        I am jealous because I am currently in the part of the year where no lights on at work/home = pitch black darkness. In the other half of the year, it is wonderful to go days without halving to turn lights on to do anything, but right now it would result in mismatched socks (of the brown/red mismatch, not navy blue/black mismatch) and the desire to sleep.

        Heck, even my dog is disgusted with me when I turn the lights off on him when I leave for work.

        1. Alter_ego*

          Well, I mean, I turn on the lights at home to get dressed and everything. But all my work is done on a computer, so the backlight from that is all I meed.

      2. fposte*

        Yeah, I actually think that’s a kosher workaround–if you’re in on your own, you’re fine keeping the lights off.

      3. Darcy Pennell*

        I also love it when I get to work early and the lights aren’t on yet, but I don’t complain or anything when anyone else turns them on. I also have a favorite spot in the cafeteria: the table under a light that’s out, so it’s a bit dimmer there. I like to read books on my phone at lunch and it’s easier to see the screen. I will be sad when they fix that light!

    1. Nanc*

      Yes indeed! Although this Old Yeller sounds like she’d need a stake through the heart or a house dropped on her to stay dead.

  9. Alter_ego*

    So I’m team lights off, all the time. I love getting in early or working late, or on the weekends, so that I can have the lights set to my preference. During the week, my face normally hurts by the end of the day from the squinting. But I’ve never, in a million years, thought to suggest that we should just stop turning the lights on. I understand that I’m the one incredibly sensitive to light, both fluorescent and natural, so I just deal with it. I do dream of one day having a private office though, where I can shut the blinds and turn off the lights, and work in my own personal cave, lit only by my computer monitors.

  10. Kimberly*

    I have a coworker whose daughter has a vision problem that is aggravated by florescent lights. She can see the flickers that most people don’t notice. She says some times it is like being in a room with competing strobe lights. Combine this with dyslexia and she can’t read under florescent lights – she gets raging headaches.

    Unlike this woman, she can explain this and has documentation. She has also been taught how to reasonably stand up for herself in a polite manner. Her parents coached her through what to do all through upper elementary, JH, and HS. She attended ARD meetings, and had a voice in her accommodations. She is attending university and is getting reasonable accommodations. Her parents have her back, but she has been able to handle everything on her own so far.

    1. Jeanne*

      I don’t think this worker has a disability. If she did, she would already have her accommodation. She’s yelling to try to get what she wants by intimidation.

  11. hayling*

    This reminds me of an episode of the podcast 99 Percent Invisible: http://99percentinvisible.org/episode/episode-50-deafspace/

    The episode is all about designing for people who are deaf or hard of hearing, with the idea that designing for people with disabilities benefits everyone. People who rely on their eyes to “hear” (sign language or lipreading) are prone to eye strain, so designers have to plan lighting that minimizes visual fatigue. Too bad more buildings aren’t like this!

  12. xxj*

    I can’t fathom such a situation where people actually work in offices that are in complete darkness, though. I’ve never heard of it. Wouldn’t the glare from the screen be incredibly straining to your eyes and very damaging to your eyesight, too? Just wondering.

    1. xxj*

      To clarify, I personally LOVE dimly lit places — but not when it involves heavy computer usage. I hate bright lights, but when it comes to work I’ll suck it up for the sake of not getting throbbing eyes after a few hours of working in pitch black darkness with a glaring screen. I really do wonder how do these people handle it/prefer it this way?

    2. KAZ2Y5*

      I don’t think I could work in complete darkness, but when I would work the night shift we would turn off 1/2 of the fluorescent lights (the way the light switches were wired, we could turn off every other one). That was very helpful and we always hated when the day shift started coming in and turned on all the lights.

    3. cv*

      I was the first one in to my small office for years and never turned on the lights. My desk was right by a big window and it just felt silly to have 20 flourescent bulbs on for the hour until everyone else got in (the whole office was on one switch) when I could see totally fine without them. My current office is kind of like that, too, where we don’t notice that we don’t have the lights on for most of the day since the window is huge and the office is small, and then around 4 p.m. (sigh – I don’t love Boston winters) someone notices that it’s getting kind of dark and flips on the overhead lights. In some offices lights off is still bright enough to be quite comfortable for computer work, and lights on can be kind of glaring.

    4. Melissa*

      That was my thought. I sometimes like working with the lights out, if it’s a sunny day – or even a gray day with enough reflected sunlight. But if it’s pitch black in the office? No way. I stare at a computer screen all day, and a couple of hours in a pitch black room with a glaring screen will give me a migraine and terrible eye strain.

      Oddly I think a lot of people don’t realize this; they may even think that the darkness will be less straining. Admittedly I did used to think this and then wondered why I always had migraines.

  13. Craigrs1*

    I find this hilarious. At my last job, the boss had very very specific ideas about office decor, paint, the feng shui of furniture placement, and so on. One of her fixations was that we should never turn on the fluorescent lights in our office, and instead make due with lovely and tasteful but inadequate floor lamps and other little lighting implements. It drove me bonkers, and everyone I brought to my office commented that it was “awfully dark.”

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