updates: the not-flirting coworker and more

It’s a special “where are you now?” season at Ask a Manager, when I’m running updates from people who had their letters here answered in the past. Here are three updates from past letter-writers.

1. My coworkers think I’m flirting with them

I wrote to you just about a year ago to ask for advice on how to deal with an awkward situation at work where some coworkers thought that I was flirting/“had a connection” with them, and others were trying to set me up. I wasn’t interested, both for professional reasons and also because I am a lesbian and did not want to disclose that due to company culture at the time. I really appreciated all of the advice I got from yourself and the commenters, both in some reassurance that it might not be totally my fault, and also some practical tips on how to handle some of the problem coworkers. My biggest takeaways were to be more aware of how often I talk about personal matters with some coworkers, being more aware of personal space, and being more explicit about boundaries.

I do think that those measures helped somewhat, but the biggest change was actually out of my control. We had a new high-level manager come in who was openly gay, and our fairly conservative culture surrounding LGBTQ+ issues in the workplace seemed to shift almost overnight. He has been a huge positive force in our office for the community, and I came out to my coworkers (in a lowkey way) a few months ago, and awkwardness around trying to set me up and interest in my dating life have gone way down since then. There have been some weird conversations, but in general my work life is so much happier now. I think the big takeaway for me is how important it is to have diverse groups of people in visible positions of influence.

Many thanks to yourself and all the members of the AAM community who weighed in on my question!

2. What’s our responsibility for fixing a coworker’s poor work?

I am pleased to say that John no longer works for our organization! I don’t think I can take credit for it, but I did change my attitude towards him and my messaging towards Rupert as a result of the feedback I got from you. While I never had to give John any feedback, as he never completed another significant work item in the few months he kept working here, I was more upfront with Rupert at pointing out any time John’s failure to produce work or poor workmanship made things more difficult for me.

It turns out that shortly after the letter was published, Rupert gave John notice that he would be laid off in two months. It didn’t go smoothly, John was in denial for over a month and insisted that it was not actually going to happen even after the rest of the staff had been notified and continued trying to plan vacation time and work events for after his layoff date. The layoff was delayed at one point to deal with John’s difficulty processing this. John did not complete any work assigned in his last few weeks, did some very strange things around clearing out his desk, and refused to speak directly to anyone besides Rupert in his last week. Rupert is still trying to help John find a job somewhere doing work more suited to him, but unfortunately it’s become very clear that John advanced beyond his abilities and all the positions that John might legitimately do well at make far less money and have less prestige so John refuses to apply for them. Rupert has apologized to the rest of the staff for the drawn out process thanked us for our patience.

I did leave one point out of the original letter because I thought it wasn’t relevant but would be distracting. In retrospect, while I don’t think it’s very relevant to John’s behaviour, it is relevant to Rupert’s, and I did a disservice to Rupert by leaving it out. John has autism. I didn’t think it was relevant because John had been given every possible accommodation anyone could think of and “allow him to waste time all day and not actually work” is not a reasonable accommodation. John has autism, and John is a lazy jerk, and I don’t see those things as in any way connected. Rupert was concerned that John would have problems processing and adapting to a normal lay off, so tried to soften it by first allowing John to try and find other work while still technically still working for us, and then by giving him a very long notice period for the layoff. Putting aside whether or not it was handled right, Rupert is a genuinely kind person who was trying to do right by a long-time employee.

3. Getting news of a death right before an interview (#3 at the link)

I was the person who was informed of a friend’s death just before an interview.

I wasn’t able to reach out to the previous hiring manager because I didn’t have their contact info, and because I was in such shock I did not track people’s information well enough to try and find it. I did apply to the new position, and made it through to the final round of 1/2 day interviews, I don’t think they even tracked I was the same person from the year prior. I did really well in those interviews, very much due to your advice, but ultimately did not get the position. I got a lot of positive feedback, and feel that if another position opened up, I could apply if I was ready to make a move. I’ve stayed with my current position because I was accepted into a student loan repayment program, and I am about to be offered a supervisory position here. It will be my first time negotiating my salary, and look forward to using your advice for that as well.

{ 51 comments… read them below }

  1. Zombeyonce*

    #2 I really appreciate LW’s separating John’s autism from his negative traits when writing about him and I agree that his autism wasn’t relevant to his lazy behaviors. There’s often so much tiptoeing around negative behaviors when people aren’t neurotypical and it’s a disservice to them and is, frankly, offensive. We’re regular people, too! We can be assholes just like everyone else and shouldn’t get away with it just because we’re different in some ways.

    (Disclosure, I do not have autism but I am neurodivergent.)

    1. Jen*

      John probably thought he could get away with more because of it, and Rupert probably thought there was less he could do about John. That’s pure speculation on my part, though.

      1. Pomona Sprout*

        That may be speculation, but it certainly seems to fit what we know of this situation.

    2. Where’s the Orchestra?*

      I truly agree with this. All people have strengths, and all people have weaknesses.

      I also love that OP2 left out the autism because what she said was so true – a diagnosis isn’t an excuse to do nothing or to be a jerk, and it sounds like John possibly did use his diagnosis as an excuse to be selfish.

    3. Koala dreams*

      I agree. Thumbs up to the letter writer! I’m sorry that Rupert couldn’t see it that way, though.

    4. Who Plays Backgammon?*

      Thank you for your kindly worded candor. I appreciate it because I’m apparently in a similar situation. My Sansa does sort of do her job, but she functions best with rote tasks that are repetitive all day long. She frequently walks off the stuff she just doesn’t want/doesn’t think she should have to do and leaves it for me. We have a new manager, so I’ve brought it up around the edges. But I wasn’t hired to be Sansa’s assistant or attendant, and if the phones (a major part of her job) are too much for her, the solution isn’t for her to just walk away.

    5. TimeCat*

      My very close friend has ASD and it makes me cringe when people write off jerk behavior as being caused by autism. It does really harm people like my friend (who practices social situations and is extremely kind). There’s a world of difference between awkward and jerk behavior.

      1. Dust Bunny*

        I’m on the spectrum and if anything I feel like it means I need to, what for me feels like overcompensating because I know I struggle with a lot of stuff that seems to come more easily to other people. Getting laid off or fired is seriously among my worst nightmares because I am so bad at networking, etc., and the idea of having to find another job terrifies me. If my boss told me he thought I wasn’t getting enough done I would be scrambling to change. Granted, not everyone on the spectrum responds that way, but it’s more than possible that John was simply coddled into a state of denial by this company and that his autism has little to do with his inability to cope. Where I work, if I weren’t able to handle increasing responsibilities, they wouldn’t have been given to me in the first place, and my persistent mistakes would have been addressed a long time ago.

    6. KoiFeeder*

      I am autistic. One of my autistic behaviors is that I take things at face value. People calling me “slightly temperamental” when they meant “picks physical fights” helped exactly no one. The therapist saying “stop inciting people to punch you, that’s a jerk thing to do” actually caused a change in my behavior.

      1. Alice's Rabbit*

        Most of my autistic friends have said similar things; tell them that something is an issue, explain why, and don’t sugar coat it! They don’t pick up on subtle social cues. You have to be blunt. But if they don’t know that particular behavior is a problem, then they can’t fix it.

    7. squidarms*

      It doesn’t do us any favors, either. Many autistic people, myself included, need social expectations spelled out very clearly. John may have thought that this behavior was fine because people have been passively tolerating it his entire life instead of calling it out and expecting that he do better.

    8. loudwhitenoise*

      I came here to concur with this. You’ve said it far better than I could.

    9. LGC*

      I noticed this when I read the update fully! (I was too overjoyed about the first update to read it all the way the first time.) And I think LW2 was smart to not include it in this case – and to separate his disability from his lack of performance.

      (Source: autistic here, and a bit tired of people seemingly using it as a shield

    10. MassMatt*

      Mentioning it would have completely derailed the discussion. Armchair diagnoses are common enough on the site as it is (despite Alison specifically asking we not do that) and even in this 2nd update there are people downthread suggesting that John was treated unfairly because autism.

    11. Alternative Persn*

      Amazingly said.

      I’m a teacher and at a previous job so many of my co-workers would write off neurodivergent kids. It was so frustrating. The kids needed structure and help, not people giving up on them.

  2. Jen*

    OP 2, I’m glad you realized that detail as being important to Rupert’s behavior. It sounds like he either doesn’t have good HR/Legal support or he didn’t implement their guidance as appropriate.

  3. Dragon_Dreamer*

    OP 2: Good on Rupert for making a sincere attempt to help John, but as an autistic myself, John showed he didn’t deserve the extra help. That’s going to make it harder for Rupert to extend the same considerations to other, similarly challenged, employees in the future. My uncle is like John, autistic, but was given a LOT of leeway and excuses by his mother, and basically grew up into an entitled, spoiled brat. (He’s never had a formal diagnosis, but considering ALL of his brothers have, and I’ve been genetically tested and found to have the suspected genes on BOTH X’s…) John’s probably used to folks making things “easier” on him, and that’s why he refuses to do the work.

    I applaud you for seeing that laziness and autism are not connected, but sadly, enough people like John exist that it’s a popular misconception. >.< Hopefully life slaps John upside the head enough times that he realizes he actually does need to work.

    1. Anon for the Kiddo*

      Coming from someone who has a child who gets some extra help, this is so true. If you constantly make things easier for the person who needs accommodations without ever teaching the strategies and skills to do things on their own eventually. The point of accommodations is to make it possible do to the job not to remove the job completely.

    2. Koala dreams*

      Yes, and that’s very sad. Somehow people expect minorities of any kind to always be on their best behaviour, and one bad person (or even a nice person who has a bad day) is used as an excuse to treat everybody from the same minority badly. I disagree that the cause of the mistreatment is people like John, though. Maybe I’m too cynical, but I suspect that even if every autistic person was hard-working and kind, there would be evil people making up reasons to mistreat them.

      As for the parents, I don’t judge them as hard. As people with autism (or autistic people, for those of you that prefer that term) often need more teaching and more practice to learn the so called unspoken rules, it’s understandable that some parents give up or don’t have the energy. It’s a disservice to their children, but I can understand it.

      I have less understanding for the boss in this case, who choose to drag out the process because he dislikes managing someone with autism / autistic people effectively. It’s more work and yet unkind to the (former) employee. Very sad.

  4. mcfizzle*

    I just love when I read the original post and think “wow Alison nailed it”. Then we get so many good updates where Alison’s advice was clearly spot-on, just like I thought months / years ago. Specifically thinking of Rupert and not blocking his view.

    So many good takeaways all of the time. Thank you!

  5. nep*

    #1 Thanks for the update, LW.
    Such a great demonstration of the importance of mindset and openness in leadership. It IS possible to transform institutions with the right leadership, with people who give a damn and know something about inclusiveness.

    1. nep*

      (I guess ‘diversity’ is a better word for ‘inclusiveness’ there. Anyway, yeah, great update.)

      1. Jedi Squirrel*

        I just googled inclusiveness and the second definition was “the practice or policy of including people who might otherwise be excluded or marginalized, such as those who have physical or mental disabilities and members of minority groups”. It’s a good word, and I knew what you met.

        I actually like it better than diversity, because it feels like we’re a bunch of different people all in the same tent, rather than a bunch of different people each in their own tent.

        1. I Wrote This in the Bathroom*

          I actually like it better than diversity, because it feels like we’re a bunch of different people all in the same tent, rather than a bunch of different people each in their own tent.

          I do, too! I hadn’t realized that, but diversity kind of had the vibe of “let’s take a group of normal default humans, and add a few of each kind of all those different ones to the mix”. Whereas inclusiveness sounds to me more like “We are a group of people, we are all different in many ways, and this is normal. None of us should feel like they’re a guest here. We are all a team.” As someone who has, on occasion, been made to feel like a guest in a room full of generous hosts, I have to say I like it!

          1. Escapee from Corporate Management*

            At an alumni event several years ago, the President of the university I attended discussed working with a minority group in the 1980’s. He noted the university had corrected its prior (unwritten) quota system by admitting more members of the group, so that made it diverse. However, it never truly welcomed this group or accepted them–they were expected to conform to the already existing culture. This president did not accept that. He worked to change the dominant culture at the university to incorporate this group’s cultural values. He wanted them to feel as strong a membership of the university community as a member of any other group. That, to me, is the essence of inclusion.

        2. Eukomos*

          Generally diversity is having people with varied identities in an organization, and inclusiveness is creating a welcoming environment for all of them in the organization. Both are pretty important, and diversity in leadership seems to have been critical in creating inclusiveness here. Before they had diversity (since OP worked there) but insufficient inclusiveness, and that was definitely not enough.

  6. Zombeyonce*

    #1: I’m really happy that it’s gotten so much better for you! I agree that diversity is so important and makes a massive difference in work environments. I do want to make sure that you’re not caught off guard if you change companies in the future and this happens again, because it’s very likely to. Be ready to shut down set-ups with friendly “oh no, I’m good, what time is that budget meeting again?” redirects.

    All that “we have a connection” creepiness you’ll probably continue to get for years but you can also bat those away by being careful to keep your personal life to yourself as much as possible at work and heading comments off at the pass with “I like to keep work and personal separate for my own sanity, so how about that new copier? they should call it Bob Marley because it just keeps jammin’.” From what I’ve noticed (for better or worse), it all drops off once you hit about 35.

    1. Uranus Wars*

      From what I’ve noticed (for better or worse), it all drops off once you hit about 35

      Yes, and now that I am single at 40 I am like “where are all these men you were trying to set me up with when I was 30-38 and in a relationship?!?

    2. Not So NewReader*

      “From what I’ve noticed (for better or worse), it all drops off once you hit about 35.”

      And I could not be happier. ;)

  7. Ray Gillette*

    #1, so glad everything got better for you, even if it was outside your control. Stories like this are why I make a point of being out at the office (despite my posting handle I’m bisexual, not gay, and have a girlfriend so most people read me as straight). But it’s important for everyone at the organization to see someone in a leadership position who is out and proud.

  8. Princess Deviant*

    Just a heads up around the language in #2. Autistic people almost invariably prefer identity-first rather than person-first language, so John is autistic rather than John has autism is probably a better way to describe it.
    Thanks :)

    1. demosthenes*

      This is a tough one to navigate. The last 10 years, professionals have been coached to say “with autism” as opposed to “is autistic” in many fields. It has caused a great deal of distress and anger in people who prefer the first rather than the latter. But I do see a shift towards returning to “is autistic” although it is a specific generation and not all encompassing of all neurodivergent society or even the same within the autism community. This is a tricky one that may require someone making sure the adult refers to themselves in a certain way before making an assumption.

      1. Eukomos*

        Seconded, I’ve seen people argue very strongly for both approaches. Ultimately it’s about finding out and respecting the preferences of the individual person you’re referring to.

  9. staceyizme*

    With John, I’m glad it worked out and he separated from the company. It’s sad that he’s “stuck”. One thing- the “lazy” behaviors- sure, people on the spectrum can be lazy and entitled and everything else that all of us are capable of being. But you’d be depriving yourself of the benefit of the whole picture to omit that kind of information in a situation where quality and/ or quantity of work product is involved. Demand avoidance isn’t laziness. It’s understandable that all of us frame things in terms that are familiar to us. But the felt experience of all of the “John” coworkers that you’ll ever encounter is different and it’s a brain based difference. I’d use stronger language to object, but I think this makes my point and hopefully balances it with the truth that a significant amount of suffering was incurred due to uncertainty around next steps. That said, he’s not weird, his behaviors aren’t weird and he’s probably not lazy. It’s never good to fill in the picture while leaving some key data points out. Even with all the data points, there is an issue of interpretation. So- for what it’s worth- I object!

    1. Princess Deviant*

      +1. Thanks for saying this. I was already commenting on language used, so didn’t want to pile on. Pick one’s battles and all that. But this is absolutely spot on.

    2. Autistic AF*

      Thank you (and thanks to Princess Deviant for posting about identity-first language). There’s a great article on Medium titled “Laziness Does Not Exist” which is relevant here. I also disagree that John’s neurodivergence is irrelevant to the initial letter – I can see many potential or actual gaps in its events (change management, training, boundaries, etc.). This doesn’t mean that the company should keep John on at all costs, as there’s always a balance in what entails “reasonable accommodation” for a specific employer. If John is a lazy jerk, why isn’t Rupert a lazy jerk for letting things get so bad?

        1. J.B.*

          Fascinating, and relevant to some issues I’m having with my kids (some behaviors like autism, although a different diagnosis) and their grandparents thinking they’re “bad”.

      1. squidarms*

        The ASD diagnosis is absolutely relevant to John’s behavior. Did Rupert ever actually explain to John, in those terms, that the quality of his work and his general refusal to do it were unacceptable and that if he didn’t shape up he was going to be laid off? This may not have been as obvious to him from context as it would be to most people, especially if he wasn’t being given the same criticism that a neurotypical employee would have gotten for equivalent behavior in general. It also sounds like he just genuinely didn’t understand the new work and needed either more/different training or a different job.

        To be clear, none of this makes his other behavior–watching YouTube all day when it was obvious others were busy, avoiding the work rather than addressing the issues keeping him from doing it, asking for work from other people’s projects and then doing it in a way that obviously created more work for them–okay. If he truly didn’t understand what he was supposed to do, he should have admitted that instead of avoiding the work as long as possible and then putting as little effort into it as possible. But Rupert, and probably others involved, made the problem much worse than it needed to be by not giving clear, direct feedback earlier. I doubt that anyone whose work he tried to take on ever directly told him “the way you’ve done this is unacceptable, it’s actually created more work for me than if I had done it myself, and I will not give you work from my projects again because of this,” for example.

        1. MassMatt*

          I think you are making a lot of assumptions that the LW, coworkers, and manager were never clear with John about his behavior.

          Also “the way you’ve done this is unacceptable, it’s actually created more work for me than if I had done it myself, and I will not give you work from my projects again because of this,” starts off well, but ends badly. Someone who’s incompetent, careless, and/or lazy gets less work to do? Someone like John would probably look at that as a win.

          Giving good employees more work while bad employees watch Youtube videos all day is a recipe for a very dysfunctional workplace.

    3. Letter Writer #2*

      I wasn’t going to comment but I feel like I should hit a couple points here to acknowledge the neurodivergent people responding:
      – I appreciate being corrected in the language I used to talk about John being autistic. I will make sure to remember that going forward!
      – I was not clear but I should have been: my calling John a jerk is not based solely on the behaviour I outlined in my letter, some of which could be influenced by him being autistic. I’ve worked with John for six years now, and am basing that statement on a variety of behaviours and instances that I am confident are not due to him being autistic. I don’t like airing dirty laundry in public, and still don’t see how his personal character has anything to do with my professional obligations to correct his work, so I’m still not going to go into them.
      – you’re right that “weird” is both a loaded term and incorrect, as well as me doing the same thing I’m critical of Rupert for doing: downplaying John’s behaviour. I should have said “criminal”.

    4. Eirene*

      I know plenty of autistic people who don’t outright refuse to do their jobs in favor of watching YouTube and shopping online all day. I do not object to calling John lazy at all. At some point, the onus is on him to make an effort, not for it to be excused.

  10. TimeCat*

    Although it should be noted not all people take that approach (the article you linked to covers this) because with ASD there are people who do prefer to look at it as a thing that’s treated rather than something they are.

    1. TimeCat*

      Sorry this was meant to reply to Princess Deviant.

      It is always important to respect someone’s own choices on how they wish to view themselves.

      1. MayLou*

        It varies geographically too, the UK “consensus” (there isn’t really one) is the opposite of the USA “consensus” on person-first versus disability-first language.

        I’m neurodivergent, and I had some intensive specialist workplace coaching for about eight months when I started my job. I had identified some issues myself, my manager and supervisor had also identified areas I could improve in, and I worked on them with a specialist. Just because something is harder or doesn’t come naturally doesn’t mean it’s not possible to learn how to work around that. If it isn’t possible, truly isn’t possible for John to get past his brain weasels and do his work, then he isn’t suited for the job. But it sounds like he wasn’t really trying, or couldn’t see the issue as one he could address. Reasonable accommodation isn’t just shrugging and letting someone ditch whatever duties they don’t like, it’s allowing two hours every two weeks for coaching sessions or it’s being very specific in how work tasks are assigned, or whatever is needed to help the employee sort their own stuff out. Like how using crutches isn’t an alternative to the bones on your leg healing, just a way to assist that healing process.

  11. Bob*

    “I think the big takeaway for me is how important it is to have diverse groups of people in visible positions of influence.”
    Interesting. This may be what we need more of.

  12. Something Clever TBD*

    #1 my comment is more suited to the original post, which I didn’t see, but – I have the same issue. I’m a lesbian, with a traditionally “straight” appearance, and men in professional settings frequently think I’m flirting with them. It took me a while to realize it’s bc I am very comfortable and relaxed bc I’m oblivious to any potential sexual tension. Nothing more attractive than not even a whiff of thirsty, I guess.
    Anyway, I finally put it together and then started making a point of mentioning very early on something about my wife, which solved the problem. I hadn’t mentioned my sexuality previously (despite being out for almost 25 years) bc I’m in a business that requires one-on-one relationships with individual clients, and I didn’t want to alienate any clients. But, I’ve realized that it works better to just be myself and not have any missing pieces that lead to misinterpreting communications.

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