updates: we’re supposed to be hugged to check for fragrances, and more

It’s “where are you now?” month at Ask a Manager, and all December I’m running updates from people who had their letters here answered in the past. Here are five updates from past letter-writers.

1. Our group member has a fragrance sensitivity – and we’re supposed to be hugged to check for any scents

As I’m sure you and your readers can imagine, there was an awful lot of pushback amongst the group on the “hug tests” and the telling people how to conduct their body care. After an initial round of unpleasant emails to the leader and a lot of chitchat, the issue kind of died down; we were breaking for the summer, but I also expect the leader retreated on the issue a bit due to the strong reaction she got from the way it was handled.

Since reconvening in the fall, there have been no more major communications or intrusive solutions, just he standard reminders.

I have since learned the secret identity of the scent sensitive person, and of particular interest is that she was not a part of the solution of hugs and shopping for new products, and was mortified by it all. An important learning to communicate and engage people in problem solving! Thanks to you and all your readers for your input and overwhelming support on this weird circumstance!

2. Should I admit my nose job to coworkers? (#2 at the link)

I’m happy to report… that there’s nothing to report! My usually nosy (no pun intended) coworkers, if they notice a difference at all, have chalked up my appearance change to me wearing contacts rather than glasses, which my surgeon has mandated for now to not disfigure my new nose. I had only one coworker push when I said I was out for a surgical procedure but backed off quickly when I said a version of the “I had a medical procedure but I’m fine now!” script. I’m relieved to have flown under the radar and am so happy with the function and aesthetics of my nose.

3. My coworker has terrible imposter syndrome

I wanted to send in a quick update, although I’m afraid it’s not the most interesting one in the world! I’m the letter writer whose colleague, Sonja, constantly apologised and talked herself down when we worked together.

Our joint project ended up being pushed back a few months, so we have only spoken a few times since I wrote to you. I have tried to address the over-apologising in the moment by saying “you have nothing to apologise for” but this just leads to “I know, but…” followed by explanations of her feeling like a burden/feeling stupid/asking too many questions/being generally useless, and we’re back at square one! It honestly makes me feel equal parts exhausted and sympathetic. I wish I knew the right words to say to help her.

One interesting interaction happened when we ran into a software issue that neither of us have the skills to fix, which means we’re unavoidably going to be slightly behind at our next progress meeting. It’s not ideal, but it’s also nothing that we could have foreseen, and nor was it in any way our fault. Sonja’s emails became quite agitated and anxious when this issue arose, and after it was clear that we could go no further I signed off for the day (it was already after hours) with a promise that I would contact our software developers and update her the following day. The next morning I find that Sonja sent half a dozen more emails during the night, some just to me and some that included my boss and the project leader, all expressing her anxiety about the delay and her frustration that we couldn’t fix the problem ourselves. This led to my (slightly confused) boss wanting to know why I “didn’t help” Sonja, and expressing concern about the status of the project. Talk about making a mountain out of a molehill!

4. I’m on a PIP — can I get off it and ask about a promotion? (#3 at the link)

On the same day that my question was published, I came into the office to find our director and HR present. I was ready to graciously be let go but *plot twist* they actually let my manager go. While I have never been given a reason why, I have seen a huge shift in team dynamics like increased trust and support since her departure. Also since that time, I’ve worked hard to close out the PIP with my new manager. During our last check-in (about 8 months after the issuing of the PIP), we started a discussion about promotions where she identified how hard it is to turn around a PIP but that I have successfully re-branded myself. She recommended a 5% increase to acknowledge my efforts which can into effect this week.

Your advice was some helpful truth under my old manager but I think, while my situation is uncommon, it’s a good reminder that not all managers have your best interests in mind.

5. Talking about my future goals when I lack ambition (#3 at the link)

I just wanted to thank you and the commenters for your advice and give you a quick update. Firstly, thank you for replying to my question and for putting my mind at ease about feeling like I am not ambitious enough. You and the commenters really made me see that interviewers aren’t trying to filter people out based on not being ambitious enough but are genuinely trying to get a sense of your overall career goals and where this job fits in with them.

Secondly, my situation has changed a bit and I am no longer going to be leaving my school in the near future. In fact, I now plan on staying for another 2 – 3 years! A lot of the commenters who have had experience in international education pointed out that schools often look for people who are going to stick around and that it might look better on my resume to stay at this job longer at such an early stage in my career. That is not the only thing that made me decide to stay at this school but it was a factor that I hadn’t considered before. Additionally, my responsibilities have grown over the course of the year and I am much more excited about staying where I am long term. I didn’t mention it in my initial letter, but the school is a boarding school and so has a lot of pastoral support in place for students. As well as my teaching duties, I am doing a pastoral role with additional responsibilities and salary. The school is also planning to change the structure of our pastoral leadership which could provide some more opportunities for career advancement and increasing my responsibilities even further. So even though I don’t have the desire to rise through the ranks and enter management any time soon, I have actually found out that I’m more ambitious than I thought and am very excited to develop in the roles I have and take on additional duties.

Thanks again for answering my question and for all the great advice you publish!

{ 94 comments… read them below }

    1. JessB*

      Yeah, I would have to say something bigger about this, because otherwise my frustration with the behaviour would get really high.

    2. Mommy MD*

      I’d tell Sonja that her constant apologizing is unnecessary and exhausting. Round about comments aren’t helping.

      1. Glitsy Gus*

        I agree. You can be blunt about it and still be kind, but she isn’t figuring it out and it’s starting to actively hurt her and you. It isn’t your responsibility to help her fix this, but since you do seem to have a rapport and she is coming to you, you can shut this down a little. I would especially bring up this email chain. Something along the lines of: “Sonia, look, I told you this was fine and we’d talk to the developers in the morning. Why did you send so many emails after that? You didn’t have any new information and the ones you looped my boss in on made her start to question whether or not there was a bigger problem when there wasn’t. Please don’t do this again, it isn’t helpful.”

        This is reaching a point where her agonizing and apologizing is making her look ineffective and making management look for issues where there are none. She needs to know this is happening in no uncertain terms and that it isn’t just making her look bad, it’s rubbing off on you as well now.

    3. Lobsterp0t*

      The manager should be able to see that the solution wasn’t to “help Sonja” but rather for Sonja to take it down a notch and realise that the solution was for the right team to have input – which the OP had already told her.

      1. Falling Diphthong*

        I imagine the scenario was something like manager doesn’t directly oversee Sonia and was new to interacting with her. From a normal person, you might respond to the flurry of emails by wondering why no one had told them it wasn’t a big deal so that they panicked and tried to apologize to everyone in the company. With more exposure to Sonia, you’d assume any new email flurry was only about her insecurities, but on first exposure it seems like the system must have stalled somewhere.

        1. Glitsy Gus*

          This was my reasoning as well. The manager was dropped into the middle of the conversation and so didn’t quite know what was important and what wasn’t.

    4. The Other Dawn*

      Definitely. I think it’s fine to do the soft approach first, but that didn’t work. OP needs to be more blunt about it, and if that doesn’t work, possibly take it to the manager. I’ve worked with people like Sonja and it’s exhausting to always have to try and build them up and talk them off the ledge. Ultimately it’s a place of business and she’s being paid to get her job done. Maybe it’s not the right fit for her, or maybe she just needs to build up her confidence. But that’s not OP to do.

    5. Katerina*

      I worked with a Sonja. It was truly exhausting. She self-disclosed that she was trying to find the right therapist to help her with anxiety, so I really, really tried to be sympathetic but did reach BEC stage with her. I ended up minimizing interactions with her as much as I could, and am now working elsewhere. I hear from former colleagues that she continues to exhaust everyone, though.

      1. Falling Diphthong*

        This letter is a nice encapsulation of how the appropriateness of human behavior completely depends on context. And that usually whatever you’re supposed to do isn’t “always A” or “never A” but “in these circumstances you should A just enough, but not too much.”

  1. Bryce*

    OP1: I’m not surprised she wasn’t part of that “solution”. I think most of us with accommodation-related issues have had folks who really overstep trying to “help”, and that was a nightmare example.

    1. Seeking Second Childhood*

      OP1, i have scen-triggered migraines and i would be MORTIFIED at this solution.
      This smacks of a manager not willing to have hard conversations with individuals, and thinking that a general change will be easier for her.

      And yes these conversations are be really hard.

      (The worst was explaing to my team lead that yes she smelled strongly of scent, that I could smell it 10 feet away, and having her blurt out “oh that’s just my body spray”….awkward for us both. But we found an individual solution that doesn’t penalize others. We just check in by phone until a couple hours after start of day, and that lets it dissipate.)

    2. Detective Amy Santiago*

      If I remember right, quite a few people suggested as much in the comments of the original post. This doesn’t surprise me in the least.

      1. RUKiddingMe*

        Dissipation is highly underrated.

        I don’t have migraines (yet) from scents, but I have issues with breathing. First husband, current husband, and son would all go outdide (back patio) to soray and then wait a few before coming in. Works great!

    3. Sara without an H*

      Doesn’t surprise me, either. People who see themselves as “helpful” are often guilty of not checking in with the object of their solicitude about what would actually be helpful.

      1. Flash Bristow*

        Oh yes, so much this. I’m physically disabled. When my manager left and was replaced with someone with less experience, he called me into his office to happily tell me he’d arranged for me to work from home two days a week.

        Er, whaa….? No thanks! I enjoyed the camaraderie and rapport in the office, and my work actually included a daily physical aspect (walking down to our data centre to rotate some backup tapes) which again, I enjoyed – it gave me a chance to touch base with that section of the team – and it was necessary!

        If only he’d asked, I’d have said that being able to come in and go home later – avoiding rush hour trains – would have been the most helpful thing.

        All you need to do is ask “what would help you with this?” – it’s not hard!

      2. Dr. Pepper*

        And then sometimes if they do, it’s a cursory check in to inform the object of their solicitude that they have everything under control and of course they Know What’s Best. More of an informational lecture than an inquiry into what that person would actually want.

      3. Jadelyn*

        See also: people who grab someone’s wheelchair and start pushing them to be “helpful” (and then get mad if the object of their “help” tells them to stop).

        Like why is “ask what they need help with and then abide by what they tell you” such an apparently incomprehensible instruction???

    4. Hey Karma, Over here.*

      “have since learned the secret identify of the scent sensitive person, and of particular interest is that she was not a part of the solution of hugs and shopping for new products, and was mortified by it all.”
      I’m guessing someone realized that the woman herself wasn’t included on the group email, which must have been a delightful discovery for everyone.

    5. Thanks! Wait what...*

      Hey Boss, a few folks are wearing scents that guve me wicked migraines. Could you help me out?

      Hmm. Yes. *thinks to self: Imma go hug ‘em and sniff them reeeeeal good. No smellies will get past me! *

      No worries Sally, I understand how serious this is and WILL make sure you are comfortable in our office!

      Thanks, Boss!

      Sally later on: Oh… oh no. I have now experienced a new level of discomfort. I have made a mistake. Maybe the a SCUBA suit would have been a better answer.

    6. Phoenix Programmer*

      Unfortunately the comments in that one got pretty nasty toward the scent sensitive person.

      Those of us who are scent sensitive tried to explain that most likely the scent sensitive person did not ask for hugs to little avail.

      1. Fulana del Tal*

        No the majority of the comments were sympathetic to the scent sensitive person and most correctly assumed she wan’t involved with the hugging solution.
        You made a comment that it wasn’t a big deal to change out all scented products for unscented versions when comments pushed back stating that was an unreasonable and expensive accommodation but you just doubled down.
        Don’t mischaracterize the comment section just because it didn’t agree with you.

      2. RUKiddingMe*

        Not really. People, scent sensitive people included just didn’t think needing to replace all scented products (even if it was a zero cost to them) was a reasonable ask. And, it’s not.

    7. Aaron*

      The hugging solution sounds like an interesting idea but hard to implement for sooo many reasons. Perhaps some type of odor sniffer wand passed over a person would have been better?

  2. Close Bracket*

    OP 4:
    As Alisonsaid when you initially wrote in, the PIP clearly indicated that your manager had some concerns with your performance. From your update, it seems like her concerns may have been more because she was a bad manager then because you were a bad employee. It’s probably less uncommon than you think.

    1. it's-a-me*

      Tell me about it, same thing happened to me, pup on a PIP by one incompetent manager, another manager comes into the process a month later and can’t figure out why I’m on the PIP when my KPIs are exactly the same as 90% of the rest of the staff.
      First manager just had a grudge because I wouldn’t stand for any of her gaslighting and attempts to run over the top of me, and I kept demanding everything in writing, so she was trying to get rid of me.

      1. Heaven*


        I also had this experience, which was extra demoralising because it was my first office job ever. Now, while I still work on the same team as my old, incompetent supervisor, i now report to someone else who is actually a good person with robust management experience and have gone from being on medical leave with acute anxiety to being a couple of months away from a promotion.

      2. lailaaaaah*

        I had something similar at my last job- I was put on a PIP despite having the second-best KPIs in my vertical market. Turned out my manager was embezzling funds and wanted to try to discipline me as cover while he scrambled to fix his mistake, except that the finance team caught up with him first. Now I have a great job, and he seems to have completely disappeared, including online, and the office he managed has closed down.

      3. Glitsy Gus*

        I also had this experience. Having a bully for a manager, especially when you are not the type to bow to the bullying, can cause you to end up with all kind of ‘disciplinary issues’ cropping up. When my Bully Manager finally did manage to fire me I looked at the HR manager as she was walking me out and asked, “so, do I need to worry about my unemployment being questioned?” and her answer was “pffft, no way.” Even she knew it was bogus, but at that point it really was probably the best solution for everyone.

    2. totally anon*

      This happens at my worplace. My managers do this thing where they confuse PIPs with coaching and treat them as the same thing. I was written for one out of the blue earlier this year, and had a heart attack until my manager explained to me in a meeting that I was “by no means a low performer”, but could use some coaching in some areas. In other words, I wasn’t about to be fired, but WTF. Now my permanent record at the company is damaged by this write up. This has happened to my colleagues too, so it’s more than one person on my team being put on PIPs despite not being a low performer. An added layer of frustration is that my managers are bad at communicating expectations up front. We don’t get any real training, and get put on projects right away. Then, out of nowhere, we will get reprimanded for doing something wrong that we didn’t know we were doing wrong, and get treated as a problem employee.

      FTR, I am always happy to receive constructive criticism and don’t consider myself to be perfect, but I wish my company weren’t so overly punitive. When I told two of my coworkers about my write up (including one senior employee who is well respected by my managers), they were genuinely shocked. I have never missed a deadline except for some good reasons (another more important project got put on my schedule or I got sick), and clients largely love my work.

      1. Tigger*

        This is super common in my old job only youre supposed to coach yourself! It’s amazing how just sucking up to the big dogs can get horrible managers promoted

    3. Kaboobie*

      I want to point out that the comments on the original letter were very negative toward the OP and didn’t take this possibility into account at all. I’m really glad things worked out to the OP’s benefit.

      1. Washi*

        I’m also glad it worked out for the OP! I will say that I think the comments were fairly appropriate, based on the very limited details we had to go on. This was the only sentence about why there was a PIP in place: “I attribute a lot of it to being at a satellite office and having a manager who prefers to work from home, which made communication on projects and expectations not the best they could be.” The manager getting fired and the OP getting a 5% raise was not a likely outcome based on what we knew from the letter, but again, I am very happy for the OP that that’s what happened!

      2. Observer*

        I will also say that Allison’s advice was still appropriate. To some extent, it doesn’t matter why the PIP went in – unless the boss is being truly nefarious, it still indicates reservations on the part of the person (or people) with the most input into hiring / firing / raises & promotions. Once the old manager was fired (or if they had left for any other reason) that would change things significantly. As it did for the OP. But also, the OP *did* significantly upgrade their game.

        1. Falling Diphthong*

          This. It seems like change came from both directions–OP acting differently and management judging differently.

          Reminds me a bit of the person who was doing all the training (because of their skills) but without the promotion or pay bump (because they had gone toe to toe with management in the past) and Alison advising that with this management in place, they weren’t getting a promotion. The update a year or two later was that he had stopped fighting to be promoted at that job and found a new one, and his new baggage free management was delighted to promote him. There had to be different people evaluating for him to move up.

    4. That girl from Quinn's house*

      Yes this is pretty common. I had a boss start threatening to put me on a PIP on my 5th day on the job, saying I needed “to be held accountable” and starting documentation of all conversations we had. I hadn’t even been in the job long enough to have computer access to do most of my job duties, but she was ready to fire me for it.

      She was fired shortly after, because it turned out she was a nightmare.

    5. Holly*

      It also can be both – at least that’s my situation. I know I’ve been not performing to my best ability, but my office isn’t providing the support I need to improve. At all.

  3. Traffic_Spiral*

    OP #1: Man, I can just imagine the scent-sensitive person being like “WTF, I just wanted Karen to stop bathing in Dior Poison! How did we get to hug-and-sniff for everyone?”

    OP #2: Yeah, most coworkers are pretty clueless. It takes me like a week to notice a new haircut. One time I went to a colleague and was like:

    Me: “you know… there’s something sorta different about you lately… new hairstyle? Or makeup, is it makeup? Are you doing that new contouring thing?”

    Her: “I’ve been on a serious health food and exercise kick for the past 8 months, it’s been getting results, and I’ve lost (approx 25% of her bodyweight) -pounds.”

    Me: “Ooh, yeah, that’s probably it!”

    Seriously, people don’t notice shit.

    #4: While we must always strive for self-improvement and be willing to accept that we can be wrong, it is also important to remember that sometimes the problem really is that someone else is incompetent/evil. Glad it worked out for you.

    1. The Other Dawn*

      “Seriously, people don’t notice shit.”

      Exactly. The change would have to be pretty drastic for me to notice, and even then it’s not a guarantee. And if you’re like me, you sit in a monthly industry-related class with the same people for a year and then are completely puzzled when one of them, who typically sits on the other side of the room, starts a chat during the lunch break. I talked to him, but all the while I was thinking, “Who the hell is this??” We get back to the seminar room and he’s sitting there, a few rows down. Oh. So apparently I’ve been in class with this guy for a year. Yes, I can be pretty oblivious.

      1. Où est la bibliothèque?*

        I passed by a coworker of many years on the street and totally overlooked her. I had to explain “…oh, you were wearing a hat, so I didn’t recognize you.”

        1. Flash Bristow*

          Yep. Recognising people out of context is something I find very difficult. Someone says hi at the supermarket? I start giving generic responses to their greetings while frantically rotating the options in my mind: choir member? Fellow school governor? Residents’ association? Art gallery volunteer? Shopkeeper or restaurant owner? Help!!

          Only once has my bluff obviously been called. Someone had a new haircut. Luckily she said “you don’t recognise me, do you Flash? It’s [friend]!” and she let me laugh it off…

          I’m glad it isn’t just me! I have often wondered if I have prosopagnosia, and maybe it’s more common than we expect.

          1. Not Australian*

            “I have often wondered if I have prosopagnosia, and maybe it’s more common than we expect.”

            I’m sure it is. Now that I’m getting a bit older I tend to blame a failing memory, but I’ve had some embarrassing encounters with people who expected to be recognised and were – truth to tell – a bit hurt when they weren’t. I once even managed not to recognise my own mother, because I’d seen her in a completely alien context where I just wasn’t expecting her to be!

            1. Paquita*

              DH managed to not recognize his own sister one time. He worked at a grocery store and she was shopping. Granted, she is a good 20 years older and they did not really grow up together but still. :(

          2. Clisby Williams*

            Oh, I think this is pretty common. A few years ago I didn’t recognize my nephew’s wife when we encountered each other downtown. I live about 70 miles away from her, so I guess I mentally put her in a different reality space unless I’m expecting to see her.

          3. Traffic_Spiral*

            Yeah, once I nearly punched a guy who walked up in a bar and hugged me. I gave a very icy “don’t touch me, who do you think you are,” and her responded “uh, [cousin]?” So yeah, I’d spoken to the guy most every thanksgiving and christmas for the past couple years, but I never saw him outside of my Aunt’s house, so I just didn’t connect the dots.

          4. Yvette*

            I was just about to add the context example. If you saw say, Julia Roberts in a trendy LA boutique you would be “Oh My GOD there’s Julia Roberts!” But if you saw her at the CVS in Boston it would be “Oh My GOD, that woman looks just like Julia Roberts!”

          5. traincommuter*

            In high school, I once ran in to my mom outside a CVS – we had both gone separately. It took me FAR more beats to recognize her than I care to admit. I just wasn’t used to seeing her out and about unless we went somewhere together

          6. Bryce*

            Even aside from prosopagnosia, there’s some interesting psychology about how we recognize faces. We don’t look at the whole face, instead each person has a set of reference points. That means that even if folks look wildly different, if they match in the right places someone who uses those can have difficulty. Like many developmental things babies start out pretty much taking it all in, and then as we grow the brain learns what’s we need for the people we’re exposed to. How rigid that is, whether adults can learn new ones, depends on the person (and practice).

    2. Lynca*

      Dior Poison was my grandmother’s perfume of choice. Even though all perfumes end up giving me a headache- that’s the one that I don’t mind because it reminds me of her.

    3. Flash Bristow*

      In sixth form, one of our number had a nose job (again for medical reasons, but took the opportunity to remove an obvious bump).

      None of us would have noticed (or cared), but she brought in photos and talked us through the whole thing.

      “Here I am coming round and throwing up blood… This is me as the bruising developed… Look, my nose has slipped again and I have to push it back into place…”

      Just… no. As I said, since it took place during the holidays, nobody would have given a damn if not for her milking it for attention. Quite sad really.

      OP2, I’m glad everything worked out and I hope you’re breathing easily.

      1. GreyjoyGardens*

        Whoa! That’s a little more information than I needed, Vincent! I don’t get people who lovingly share every detail of their surgeries – or their aches, pains, body functions, etc. – with anyone but close friends and family, or medical professionals. I definitely do NOT want to see gross pictures of someone’s surgery. No no no!

      2. Dr. Pepper*

        Ew. A girl in my high school class had a nose job over summer break and basically hoped nobody would notice. In fact, nobdy did, and we were all a bunch of gossipy high schoolers with nothing better to do than notice each other’s appearance. I saw it, but it took me awhile and I ended up asking her about it (quietly, in private) and she admitted it and said that I was the only person who appeared to notice.

        1. That girl from Quinn's house*

          I went to high school with a girl who got a nose job. Her old nose was…noticeably unfortunate, so a) everyone noticed and b) everyone agreed that a nose job was a good idea. She was pretty embarrassed if people noticed or commented on it, as a result.

    4. VictorianCowgirl*

      Anecdotally, I’ve had coworkers notice when I lost 5 pounds, or just had my hair trimmed, or cut my nails very short, etc. I seem to encounter someone like that in every office I’ve worked in for the last 20 years. However I’m working for myself now and my clients are all professional so I hope I never end up working somewhere I’m closely scrutinized again.

      1. Kathlynn*

        I found that shocking, but then I remembered that how much those 5 pounds can effect the way you look depends on how much you currently weigh, height, and other things. (I don’t even notice when I lose weight, since it likes to fluctuate by 5-10 pounds either way)

      2. Michaela Westen*

        Some people are very appearance-focused on themselves and others, and IME they’ll mention such things to start a conversation or to bond. I once worked in an office where more than 90% of the conversation was about dieting. It would have been considered unfriendly not to share… luckily as a staff person I wasn’t included, and I wasn’t dieting.

      3. Lady Kelvin*

        I’m that person, but it has more to do with my training than anything. I’m a biologist and pay close attention to details, so I always notice when someone changes something. However, I don’t usually comment on it because I think its weird and off-putting to have someone pay so much attention to details like that.

    5. RUKiddingMe*

      Sometimes we don’t even notice it ourselves. I knew my clothes were getting a “little big…” then I went to the doctor. I’d lost ++40 pounds without realizing it (another 10 since then).**

      ++Not a humblebrag.

      **Not ill. We checked. Just losing useless fat I guess. Or getting old. Or both. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

  4. Harper the Other One*

    OP#3 – I’m trying to avoid armchair diagnosis, but Sonja’s response to this situation seems to indicate at a bare minimum a more anxious than average person. If you feel like you have the kind of relationship where you could do this, it might be worth saying something like, “You know, I’ve been thinking about how you responded to the software problem – it obviously caused you a lot of stress. But things like this will come up sometimes, and it’s important to be able to handle it when things are delayed through no fault of our own. [If it fits your work environment, you could add something like, “Our company is great about not penalizing people for this sort of unexpected, no-fault situation.”] Once a solution has been arranged – like me saying I will contact IT and update you – you shouldn’t email again until it’s past the update timeline; it’s off-putting to then have you repeatedly email, and inappropriate to include boss/project manager on emails about a situation that’s already being resolved. For you to be successful in [career/company/whatever,] you’ll probably find it helpful to learn the ways that help you deal with that kind of anxiety and stress.” With a script like this, you’re keeping it strictly to her professional behaviour (rather than saying “OMG what is wrong with you??”) but it also allows you to work in the fact that repeated contact like that is inappropriate to the situation.

    1. Où est la bibliothèque?*

      From her description, I’m guessing that receiving more than one critical comment in a single conversation would devastate her.

      1. Sara without an H*

        This would be a good script, but not for someone whose anxiety is as extreme as Sonja’s. I do agree, though, that the OP needs to be more explicit with her.

    2. Mommy MD*

      Sonya seems like a bit of an inadvertent tattle tale. A Big Talk may get reported back to the boss in a negative way.

      1. Jaybeetee*

        Sonja actually reminds me a bit of one of my exes, who told me that in any job situation where there was a “problem” of any kind, his first reaction would be to basically throw the blame off himself. “Well *I* did XYZ, so…” type stuff. He was still kinda a young dude at this point – late 20s ish? And seemed to think that’s what you were supposed to do in a work situation to avoid getting blamed for things/getting in trouble. (He also had an absolutely terrible track record with jobs at that point, which may or may not be related).

        Sonja sounds very anxious, but the email exchange incident read to me like “CYA” as well, that as much as she’s worried about making mistakes, she’s also worried about getting in trouble in general, thus feels compelled to demonstrate (more than is appropriate) that if there’s a problem, she did everything she could! It’s not her fault! Don’t blame her! I’ve worked with a couple of people like that myself who also turned to “throw colleagues under the bus to keep their own noses clean”, and the best way I found to deal with it, outside being in a position of authority, was being diligent in my own documentation so if they tried to blame me for things, they’d get nowhere.

        1. Artemesia*

          AND the outcome was that the LW was thrown under the bus and ‘got in trouble.’ When that is the outcome, assume it was the intended outcome. The LW needs to pre-emptively protect herself by sitting down with this boss and discussing the problem of Sonja and her anxiety and how it is impeding projects. When ‘innocent, naive’ people ‘inadvertently’ shift blame to you at work it is probably not ‘innocent or naive.’

          1. That girl from Quinn's house*

            I wonder if Sonja was an abuse victim at some point, flailing for any reason to lay blame to someone else so she doesn’t get the beating.

            Of course that’s speculating and armchair diagnosis, but that behavior is a red flag.

        2. Hey Karma, Over here.*

          The boy who cried “my bad.” Sonja takes the blame for everything, so people tune that out. They know she’s a hard worker and does a good and conscientious work, so when something is snagged, not only is there a paper trail with her tears on it, but the other team members look less involved and proactive. Hmmm.

  5. Jenn*

    #3 – There are no perfect words you can say to sooth Sonja because you’re not the source of Sonja’s anxiety. She is the source of her own anxiety and needs to learn how to self-sooth those anxious thoughts. The next time she starts in on her song and dance, why don’t you try ignoring it. Sonja: ‘I’m the worst.’ OP: ‘Okay. Let’s get back to this project.’ Sonja is getting something out of this cycle of I’m-the-worst-no-you’re-really-not that you two are doing and it’s best just to nip in the bud by ignoring it.

    1. Dr. Pepper*

      You’re correct, there are no perfect words. All you can control is your response to her, not her behavior or whatever is fueling it. The problem with anxiety is that it isn’t logical, so logical solutions don’t really do much to quell it. It’s also one of those monsters that gets bigger when you feed it, and well meaning sympathy feeds it because on some level, trying to reassure the anxious person validates the anxious thoughts. My anxious thoughts are worth talking about and spending effort to refute, so they must have validity! Again, it’s not logical. I would try ignoring her too, as she’s gotten stuck in this feedback loop that normal reassurances have been powerless to penetrate.

    2. wittyrepartee*

      Yeah, I have some nasty anxiety. In this situation I might actually say something like “hey, so I have a lot of anxiety, personally- and I’ve noticed that this job seems to be setting you off. Sometimes it slows down the work that we’re doing, so in those cases I’m going to just try to push on. Please don’t take that as a sign that I’m angry, I’m just trying to get the work done. If you need to take a minute, feel free to do so.”

      But if I weren’t comfortable with that, I think “okay, enough with the negative self talk, now what do you think about ____?”

  6. Julia*

    OP 3: Why not try out some of Alison’s advice from when she answered your original letter? It sounds like you’ve been sticking with pretty mild responses, which aren’t getting you the results you’d like to see.

    Alison suggested first addressing the problem in the moment with a script like “I think you’re great at what you do, and I’m dismayed to hear you say that. Do you really believe that?” (which seems more emphatic than what you’ve been saying thus far) and escalating to a general discussion about the pattern – “Can I tell you something I’ve been thinking about? I’ve noticed that you’re pretty self-critical!” – followed by a more brusque response if the behavior continues (“Cut that out!”)

    Pretty typical AAM advice, and it sounds to me like your best bet for getting Sonja to chill. Of course, you are not her manager, so it isn’t your responsibility and it’s understandable if you don’t want to make it your problem.

  7. Flash Bristow*

    In sixth form, one of our number had a nose job (again for medical reasons, but took the opportunity to remove an obvious bump).

    None of us would have noticed (or cared), but she brought in photos and talked us through the whole thing.

    “Here I am coming round and throwing up blood… This is me as the bruising developed… Look, my nose has slipped again and I have to push it back into place…”

    Just… no. As I said, since it took place during the holidays, nobody would have given a damn if not for her milking it for attention. Quite sad really.

    OP2, I’m glad everything worked out and I hope you’re breathing easily.

  8. GreyjoyGardens*

    #1: I feel bad for the scent-sensitive member who wasn’t even consulted on what would help for accommodations. It sounds like the group leader is one of those Helpy Helperton types who just swoops in and Helps without regard for the actual person who needs accommodations, assistance or whatever.

    I’m glad that the leader got a lot of (deserved) pushback, and that the controversy has mostly died down. It *is* important to include the help-ee in whatever solution is implemented – “nothing about us without us.”

    Maybe it’s time to replace the leader of that group? It doesn’t sound like she’s any kind of asset. But in volunteer groups, leading is often such a thankless job (you don’t get paid but you do get all the extra responsibility!) so maybe Helpy is the only person willing to do this.

    1. Approval is optional*

      We only know the group leader’s response to one situation, so to say she doesn’t sound like she’s any kind of asset is a big leap.

      1. Où est la bibliothèque?*

        Yeah, it sounds like she meant well and just didn’t think things through. I’d just start with a gentle “in situations like this, check with the relevant person first. And, generally, check with a couple people before making big decisions that might make people uncomfortable.”

        1. GreyjoyGardens*

          That’s the reason I thought she was a terrible leader. Compulsory hugs are *so* weird and *so* boundary crossing that I question Helpy’s judgement in general. If she just said “out of respect for people with sensitivities, please don’t wear fragrances or scented products to our meetings” that would be fine.

    2. Jennifer*

      Helpy Helperton made me crack up. I would have been horrified if I were the person with the issue. this could have been resolved with just a “please go easy on the fragrances” policy.

    3. Phoenix Programmer*

      Some people are crazy about scents and act like asking folks to abstain from parfumes or consider alternatives for those with a debilitating allergy to their preferred products are grade A narcissists.

      I got put through the wringer on the original post about that.

      1. Observer*

        So what are you saying? That mandated hugs are the same as just asking people to go easy on the scent? Or that the solution to people being unreasonable about scents is to roar back with mandated hugs?

  9. Dr. Pepper*

    #3: There are no right words to help Sonja, I’m sorry to say. She’s going to have to help herself. The root of this behavior is buried deep in her psyche somewhere and until she addresses it, the imposter syndrome behavior going to continue. She sounds super exhausting, and all I can say is try not to get emotionally involved in her problems. Not even a little bit. It’s natural to feel for her as she is showing every sign of distress, but it sounds like it’s gotten to the point where if she’s not going to help herself, she’s creating a self fulfilling prophesy of uselessness.

  10. Observer*

    #3 – Sonja has some issues. I don’t know what they are, and it doesn’t really matter. But it’s clear that she’s not just dealing with imposter syndrome, and also that it’s reached a point where it’s affecting you in some fairly concrete ways.

    I think that you need to be straight with her – and not in a reassuring way. Not to be mean, but you CANNOT reassure her, since this is not about reasonable fears and issues. I’d have ONE conversation with her where you tell her clearly that you sympathize with her worries, but you need to be able to actually concentrate on getting work done rather than soothing her or managing the fall out from hyperventilating. I don’t have a good script to hand, but when you have to start taking time out to explain to your boss what happened because she sent a series of overwrought (and apparently less than accurate) emails to your boss, you have standing to say “I know you don’t mean any harm, but you are causing problems and need to find a way to rein it in.”

    If that doesn’t work, you should have a chat with your boss. This is not about throwing her under the bus or anything like that. But at this point it’s something that is having some real effects and your boss needs to know about it. You also need to protect yourself. Which is why you should also start documenting stuff, because whatever her motivations are, her behavior could put you into a fairly bad place.

  11. Jennifer*

    OP 2 I had a cosmetic procedure and it never crossed my mind to tell anyone at work anything about it. I told my boss I was taking a few days off for medical reasons. I’m sure everyone noticed when I came back and it was hilarious seeing all the people who seemed to find a reason to stop by my desk to chit chat in those first few days. Have fun with it, and if anyone asks tell ’em to mind their business.

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