my employee keeps joking about getting fired

A reader writes:

One of my top executives has been regularly joking about being replaced in her position within the company. As the owner, I asked her why she was doing this, questioning if it stemmed from a place of insecurity or from unhappiness in her position. She said insecurity — that she was not performing well in her role. This team member has been shown appreciation, respect, and admiration for her stellar performance thus far. I reassured her she was ideal for the position. But the uncomfortable jokes have still continued regularly, even after further discussions and boundaries have been addressed. I’m not sure how to handle this situation. Advice please!

I answer this question — and two others — over at Inc. today, where I’m revisiting letters that have been buried in the archives here from years ago (and sometimes updating/expanding my answers to them). You can read it here.

Other questions I’m answering there today include:

  • How to set boundaries with clients on my days off
  • Getting gender right when we’ve never met in person

{ 156 comments… read them below }

    1. to varying degrees*

      Definitely. I’m really bad about the imposter syndrome, especially at a new job or workplace. I was at my last job for over a decade and it took me about a year before I finally really settled in. I’ve been here 2 months now (new place) and every time I make even a mild error I go home and freak out a little.

    2. Ok Corral*

      I have had managers tell me nothing is wrong and I would never be fired only to fire me, so I no longer believe any manager that tells me otherwise. I don’t joke about it often, but I can see why this person would feel like setting up a defense before there is a reason to be worried.

      1. Quickbeam*

        I’m retired now but I have to say….as a woman I was constantly criticized for things that a man would have been lauded for. Fired for being assertive and standing up for myself. It’s a razor’s edge out there for women and the playing field is still so unequal. I get it.

        1. Grace Poole*

          I just saw a meme that said something like, “it’s not imposter syndrome when you’re trying to succeed in a system that wasn’t set up for you.” Yep.

      2. Luna*

        I have been let go from jobs after three months, without ever being told that my job was even remotely on thin ice! So I get where you come from. It has led to me being extra odd when any job (or new situation) I get into reaches the third month. I am currently in my third month and I am a bit extra nervous about making mistakes, but I do currently have a good boss and colleagues, who will tell me when things are going badly, and I am being told if I do well.

        It’s just, when you’ve had bad experience, you sometimes turn to the gallows humor to start building up a wall, so that if the firing occurs, it won’t hit you too hard.

  1. My Useless 2 Cents*

    I work with a woman who is incredibly smart and good at her job but
    1. Is also incredibly sensitive. Ex. Will cry at her desk if the owner just questions her about why something isn’t done, even if owner also indicates task isn’t priority
    2. Will not stand up for herself. In example above, the task being questioned is 90% done but she is waiting for an answer from another department to finish it but she doesn’t *tell* the owner that, instead she internalizes it and swears she is going to be fired because the task isn’t done yet.
    3. Zeroes in and obsesses over the smallest mistakes (she makes, not others’ mistakes) to the point that she will actually reference “that email that she typo’d *each* six months ago” and literally believes you’ll know what email she is talking about
    It drives me up the wall but the thing is she is *my* manager! If she (or I) ever do actually get fired you’ll be able to knock me down with a feather because whenever the term “fired” gets mentioned I just internally roll my eyes and ignore whatever comment is made.

    1. Meep*

      My former manager used to give orders by either lamenting if I didn’t do it for her, she would be let go as she was on the cusp of being fired (and I would have to do it anyway), or that I, myself, would be fired. Even after she was no longer my manager, she would make requests like that. “If this doesn’t get done one of us is going to be fired.”

      The tasks were never something I had any issue doing. It was just a bizarre quirk of hers after being “wrongfully terminated” from every single job she ever had in her sixty years of life. So I totally get it. If I or anyone I know gets fired, I will probably give the person a blank stare and walk away, because that ended being the end of the world two years ago due to the histrionics from this lady. Not healthy on my end, but when you are threatened with termination if you don’t help a verbally abusive lady out of a hole she dug herself and isn’t even on her boss’s radar, it is meh.

      1. Meep*

        For the record, she was terminated on Monday to boot. I am sure I will hear something about how it is my fault and I was out to get her like all her other coworkers she ever had…

        1. Pool Noodle Barnacle Pen0s*

          Fired from every job she ever had, wow. That’s almost impressive, in a way.

        2. Ann Ominous*

          Wow. Even reading your comment made me kind of cringe and pull back. She sounds exhausting and completely boundary-pushing.

          Also, you can’t hear about her feelings about her latest firing if you block her in your phone, email, and social media. Bye Felicia!

      2. Sara without an H*

        Fired from every single job in her adult life? That’s…a memorable accomplishment.

        1. No Longer Looking*

          I’ve been fired from quite a few, but they were pretty much all “my fault for tardiness” – I have the hardest time in the world sticking to a morning-based schedule. Left to my own devices I swiftly shift to being awake until 2am or later. It took me many years to find a job where they didn’t care as long as the work got done and I notified my boss if I was running egregiously late. Once I found that job (that boss, really) I rose rapidly, quadrupling my income over the next 12 years, because I really AM good at getting things done and done well if people get off my case about me doing it later in the day.

      3. EdgarAllanCat*

        I read that as “laminating” rather than lamenting and got really confused for a mo. :)

    2. Hen in a Windstorm*

      It might help you to deal with it if you know what it is, so I’ll tell you this is anxiety, which is also tied up with perfectionism. #1 is catastrophizing. #2 isn’t a failure to stand up for herself – her perception is that if it’s not 100% done, it doesn’t count, and it wouldn’t be “fair” to take credit for something that’s not totally done. #3 is that anxiety makes the person incredibly self-centered; they think every thing they do has momentous consequences and will result in total disaster if it’s the tiniest bit wrong – and it’s so important that *of course* you would remember their abject failure from 6 months ago like they do.

      Source: my husband has anxiety and these are the perceptions he has to talk back to. My mother also has anxiety and does not deal with it at all. I share your frustration!

  2. TechDemon*

    Regarding number 3, I’m constantly blindsided by questions regarding unknown pronouns. I was taught early on in elementary school (North East US, 90’s) that they/them is the default unless gender is known. This wasn’t modern take trying to be inclusive to trans and non-binary people, it was just a basic rule of English grammar. The use of “he/she” or “(s)he” was not accepted for obvious readability reasons. Was my education an outlier? I feel like I’m in the minority when I constantly see people stressing over this or awkwardly using “he/she” in their writing.

    1. Sasha*

      Nope, not an outlier at all. I was also taught that (UK school, 1980s/90s), and my grandmother, born in 1913, used “they” all her life (my whole family does).

      We also use it for situations where gender isn’t relevant (“I went into the bank and the person behind the counter said they couldn’t see if my cheque had cleared”).

      1. fantomina*

        A lot of schools/teachers/incorrect grammar pedants explicitly taught that “they/them” for third person singular is incorrect. Fortunately, I think the tide is changing on that front (at least in higher ed), but there’s a long history of those uses of they/them being marked up with a red pen in schools.

        1. tessa*

          …and marked with red pen with valid reason, until the NCTE changed its standards to accept the singular “they.”

      2. londonedit*

        Also 1980s/90s UK education and I was never taught that ‘they’ was wrong. ‘He/she’ sounds and looks clunky and we were never taught to use it – ‘I spoke to someone at the bank and they said they’d sort it’ and ‘Each person needs to decide whether or not they want to go to the picnic’ are both absolutely fine and always have been as far as I’ve been taught. Now, working as an editor, if we’re ever updating older books that use ‘he/she’ we’ll change it to ‘they’ as a matter of house style.

      3. RebelwithMouseyHair*

        And a lot of people who say they don’t like “they” for the singular will use it like this almost without thinking. I love having the gotcha moment when they do it and I point it out to them, proving that yes, moaning about using “they” for trans or NB people does simply boil down to bigotry rather than a love of the pristine English language with its binary pronouns.

    2. KatEnigma*

      They/them as a singular pronoun might have been common, but it was not a form of proper English grammar, despite it being proper grammar in several other languages.

          1. tessa*

            I’d say “Someone left his phone behind,” or choose the pronoun “her.”

            Because I’m old school proper grammar. But I am happy to see the singular they in use. Progress!

            1. Ariaflame*

              Except it isn’t ‘proper grammar’ it’s just the grammar you were taught.
              Singular they has been in use for centuries, is useful, clean, easy to use and not clunky.

            2. RebelwithMouseyHair*

              Except that if you don’t know who it was, “their” is the correct pronoun. See Mid’s link above.

    3. Sssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssss*

      No. It’s just a very fluid landscape right now as we all sort out how to do it, be accepting and still make conversation not awkward. It took me a year to feel comfortable putting my pronouns in my email signature at work but I had no issue giving them when asked. And it was this blog where I learned that some ppl feel misgendered when addressed as “they.” That surprised me – I still have a lot to learn and that’s okay!

      It’s worse when typing in French.

      For my company’s website, for French text, we use the masculine for general nouns for readability. But I still have French co-workers who hate it and want the inclusivity of both genders. It gets fun when it’s plural too where you get things like “employé-e-s” and “animateurs et animatrices” and when your grammar checker wants you to accord “lesbienne” with a masculine noun.

      1. GlitterIsEverything*

        I’ve wondered for the last few years how languages that gender all nouns function with some of the new language around gender. I’ve always been frustrated with the gendering of nouns in the romance languages, as I think it makes them harder to learn to begin with. But add in the need to be more inclusive / fluid when dealing with gender, and I can see how people who speak these languages might struggle more than English speakers.

        1. just another queer reader*

          Conversations on how gender is tied up with language are happening among speakers of many languages!

          In Spanish specifically, there are 3 approaches: -@, -e, and -x. The -e ending is by far the easiest to pronounce; the -x and -@ endings are mostly used for written communication.

      2. PollyQ*

        @Sssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssss, speaking of French and gender, I’ve heard that Madamoiselle has pretty much fallen out of use for adult women in France, regardless of marital status. Vrai ou faux? (as my French teachers used to ask back in the day.)

        1. allathian*

          It may be regional, but when I went to France as an exchange student in my early 20s in the mid-90s, I got the occasional Madame in stores, etc. I can’t remember anyone calling me Mademoiselle even then. A few years later, when I went to Spain for an internship, it was Señora all the way, never Señorita, unless it was a guy who tried to hit on me in the street or in a bar. The same thing applies in Germany as well, adult women are called Frau rather than Fräulein regardless of marital status, at least in my experience. But then, I’ve never been farther south than Berlin, so things might be different in Bavaria for all I know.

        2. Don't Call Me Shirley*

          As a teenage Quebecois in the 90s, I was Madame on official correspondence as soon as I hit the age the used a title. (15?) My school records, a prize for my history exam…

          And for adults, use of given name was more common than using a title. My kindergarten teacher was Lise, I had no idea of her marital status.

        3. RebelwithMouseyHair*

          Mademoiselle is no longer used officially. In government forms, you have to choose between Monsieur or Madame.
          Men were using Mademoiselle for seduction, because it implies that the woman is under 25 (over-25s were always called Madame whether or not they were married – this is the type of thing that means that French really does deserve to be the “language of diplomacy”). It can also be used as a belittling term, someone who’s too immature to deserve to be called Madame. So the feminists wanted it out!
          As the one instance of the French language being simplified (because insisting on including women with the “employé-e-s” and “animateurs et animatrices” as mentioned by Sssssssssssssssssssss does make things a helluva lot more complicated, in a language which is already notoriously complicated) it met with a surprising amount of resistance. Like, people wanted to continue to misogynise and ageise young women so badly!
          (oh but it’s a COMPLIMENT they kept telling us, but you guessed that already I expect)

      3. Ariaflame*

        Well you don’t address people as they. You address people by name or using ‘you’. You talk about people using they. It isn’t used when talking to the person at all.

    4. Melanie Cavill*

      I have seen, on more than one occasion, people remark that “they” is misgendering (which a fun sentence to structure without the word in question!). This is not something that would have occurred to me either, as I’ve always taken “they/them” as the polite neutral and often use it when ignorant of gender. I still do, for the most part, but it’s something to keep in mind. The current fluidity of how we express gender and identity linguistically is fascinating to me, but I imagine some of that is my own cis privilege.

      1. Buttercup*

        As a nonbinary person who uses they/them and she/her pronouns, “they” is usually only misgendering if you already know the person’s correct pronouns and are refusing to use them.

        1. Mid*

          Exactly. Using incorrect pronouns intentionally is misgendering. Being wrong once is not. And normalizing asking instead of assuming solves this issue of guessing wrong altogether.

        2. ecnaseener*

          As a subset of “if you already know,” I have seen people make sweeping statements like “no one in [our liberal bubble] would mind being called ‘they'” because they just couldn’t be bothered to look up what pronouns a person had written down. That type of thing may be what Melanie’s heard pushback about.

      2. Curmudgeon in California*

        Seriously. They/them is a perfectly neutral thing when you don’t know someone’s gender. Anything else has a greater than 50% chance of being wrong.

        1. PollyQ*

          Anything else has a greater than 50% chance of being wrong.

          No, that’s just bad math. There are plenty of good reasons not to start by guessing someone’s gender, but let’s be real–most people’s actual gender will line up with their perceived/apparent gender.

          1. Curmudgeon in California*

            Nope. If it was just binary M/F, it would be a roughly 50% chance of getting it wrong. But if you add in non-binary at even 2% of the population, you have a greater than 50% chance of getting it wrong if you pick M or F.

    5. Buttercup*

      My mom was taught in the 60s and 70s to use “he” for a singular person of unknown gender, and is still dragging her feet about learning differently. Other changing grammar rules, she picks up in an instant, but that? She just can’t get her brain around it, for reasons I will never understand. Meanwhile, my dad was taught to use “they” under the same circumstances and during the same time period, and I was also taught “they” in the 2000s and 2010s. So, while “they” isn’t an outlier, it’s also not the only rule people are taught.

      1. No Longer Looking*

        People complaining about “they” are usually just grandstanding because they don’t like the concepts being addressed, and they usually are quite aware of that even if they won’t admit it.

        I put a bit more stock in people who invent “new pronouns” out of whole cloth (Xim/Xer, Xi/Jin/Ping, and so forth), but that says more about me than about any language issues, as I’ve spent 40 years complaining about every created word or misused old word. Or rather, I should say I’ve spent “literally 40 years complaining” I suppose, as that would be more on fleek I hear.

      2. Parakeet*

        I hate to be so blunt, but if she has adapted to other linguistic shifts but not the one that happens to relate to nonbinary people, that suggests that she has a problem with the fact that some people are nonbinary.

        Same with all the other people who pretend – or fool themselves into believing, since they don’t want to admit to prejudice – that their issue is what they were taught about grammar in elementary school.

    6. OyHiOh*

      Not an outlier at all! I was taught the same thing in my K-12 years (80’s-90’s) and was taught with a series of quite conservative/Christian fundamentalist curriculums. “They/them” was consistently taught as what you use when you don’t know.

    7. Falling Diphthong*

      In the 80s (western US) I was taught that he/him was the default when gender was unknown, and women would just understand that they were included.

      I don’t agree with this standard and was happy to sub they/them for a generic customer, doctor, etc.

      1. PollyQ*

        CA, 80’s, and that was about the period when “he or she” and “his or her” started becoming official-ese.

    8. Myrin*

      I remember very clearly when I first heard of this rule as a non-native speaker!
      I was in 11th grade, 2007, and we had an English test which featured a short story about a train robbery. The narrator was a child hiding in a compartment who consequently couldn’t clearly see the robbers and referred to the one person who remained unidentified as “they”.
      I didn’t take note of it at all even though it was a grammatical construction I had never encountered before but in a class discussion afterwards several classmates said they were so confused about it that the meaning of that one entire paragraph eluded them. My teacher rightly said that this one expression really wasn’t the salient point of this paragraph and he hadn’t thought people would find it quite that forbidding, but also expressed surprise that this was the first time any of us had ever hard of this usage of “they” since it was “the normal thing to say when gender is unknown”.

    9. What's in a name?*

      On this site it is pretty common for LW (and any other person mentioned) to be assumed female if there are no details specifying otherwise.

      1. Weaponized Pumpkin*

        We have a brand new company exec, and he used a generic she in a company speech this week — that may be the first time I’ve ever heard that from a male exec in a corporate environment. It’s the kind of thing that shouldn’t stand out as exceptional, but it is.

    10. Kay Zee*

      In the 70’s in Maine and way, way upstate New York, I was taught that he/him was default for gender unknown or sometimes “he or she”/”his or hers”. My own mother would correct me if I used “they” referring to one person. On the one hand, I’m happy to respect people’s pronouns. On the other, I still wince internally using they/them about one person thanks to stupid “Language Arts”.

      1. Hlao-roo*

        I also used to internally wince at singular they/them. What helped me (and may help you) was:

        – learning about the history of singular they/them in English. It’s older than singular “you” (at least for referring to people of unknown gender)
        – learning more about non-binary identities
        – knowing people who use they/them pronouns and practicing (on my own) using those pronouns to refer to those specific people. That practice has made me a lot more comfortable using singular they/them generally

    11. iiii*

      I learned that singular they is forbidden in Formal Written English, along with splitting infinitives and ending sentences with prepositions. Also that Formal Written English is just one dialect of English and most (maybe all) conversational dialects use singular they, split infinitives, and end sentences with prepositions as a matter of course. Not sure how much of that was explicit in the curriculum.

    12. Incessant Owlbears*

      It was rigorously drilled into my head over decades of education that using “they” for a single person was absolutely incorrect and would mark you as an ignorant, uncultured buffoon. Catholic schools, Midwest US, 80s and 90s.

    13. BlondeSpiders*

      I schedule interviews and handle onboarding for contractors at my firm, and easily 70% of our contractors have non-Anglo names wherein I cannot discern gender. I’ve updated all my email templates to say they/them regardless of the name. It is so much easier than trying to determine gender when writing emails.

    14. Becca*

      Maybe? In elementary school (mountain West US, 1999 or 2000) I got a note not to use “they” as the pronoun for an unknown gender, and it likewise probably wasn’t a backlash to inclusivity. It was a short story too, so it wasn’t even about being more formal in academic writing or anything. I decided to ignore it because I was sure I had read “they” used similarly in books and I’m still a little salty over it. But I think that a pushback on “they” as a singular pronoun was in effect before trans issues became a big thing and it just sort of depended what teacher you got and what their language philosophy was/which Deciders of Proper Grammar they decided to listen to.

    15. metadata minion*

      Until fairly recently, it was somewhat unusual to see “they” used for a known person. Speaking generically, it’s totally normal unless you’re being a stickler for a particular type of descriptivist grammar — i.e. “An employee should speak with their supervisor about schedule changes”. But “Dr Smith will be presenting their research” can feel odder unless you know Dr Smith actually uses they/them pronouns. I think there’s an assumption that you’re “supposed” to be able to tell someone’s gender/pronouns, even though that’s obviously incorrect in a wide variety of situations.

      1. metadata minion*

        Ack, prescriptivist grammar, not descriptivist! That’s the opposite of what I meant!

    16. Rain's Small Hands*

      I don’t remember what I was taught – probably both default to a male pronoun AND they AND his or her (my education was scattered all over the U.S.), but I was also taught not to use the word breast (chicken has white meat) and never swear. I now swear like a longshoreman and can say breast to refer to not only the white meat of a chicken but those things that stick out from my own chest. Turns out, we grow up and the rules we learned as kids adapt to the reality of life.

      So I’m only crediting those that can’t switch over to they people who as adults never swear and still live by the words they were taught it was OK to use in fifth grade.

    17. WillowSunstar*

      It may be depending on age group. I was in elementary school in the 80’s and we were taught the “he or she” rule. Of course, that was in the 80’s.

    18. Squidhead*

      Late to the party but I completed a degree a few years (2019) ago that required using APA format and style for all written assignments. At the time we were using the 6th edition of the APA handbook and IIRC it required “he or she” when referring to a singular person of unknown gender. (Maybe “he/she” was acceptable but I doubt it?) Anyway, I just Googled it and I’m glad to report that the 7th edition of the handbook now allows the use of “they!” But it’s a pretty recent change… Obviously this is only relevant for certain types of academic writing, but it’s one answer about why the singular “they” may be uncommon in some writing.

    19. No Thanks in Advance*

      In high school around 2000 in the southeast, my English teacher taught that “he” was to be used when gender was unknown. When I got to college, a professor made a kind of snide comment on my writing when I did that, and was shocked when I told her that my teacher had taught that as correct.

      There’s a ton of variability in people’s educational experiences. I had another teacher who taught Western Civilization when the class was supposed to be World History. There were state standards for what was supposed to be taught in World History (spoiler: they included the whole world), but he just ignored that. He said that Western Civilization was what we’d take in college, so that’s what he taught.* I took World Civilizations in college both because it interested me more, and with his words in mind.

      *No surprise, it was really because the West is what he valued. He was also a football coach and told a classmate that she would go to Hell because she wasn’t Christian.

    1. MissBliss*

      Please, please, please don’t complain about the individual putting out a ton of free posts each week getting a little coin for her labor. Especially because they’re specifically letters *in the archive*. You can do a little search and see if you can find them.

    2. KatEnigma*

      I can read them, even through a pretty strict firewall that blocks all kinds of things. This seems to be a problem with your set up, not a universal problem with Inc

      1. Everything Bagel*

        Sometimes I can access the articles at Inc and sometimes I can’t. I think we get a limited number of free views per month, or something like that.

    3. Falling Diphthong*

      1) Alison has every right to be paid for her work. There is nothing unusual about a paid subscription model.
      2) Technical devices just retract their buttons when I get near them, and yet even I know at least two easy workarounds to the limited articles per month sites. I imagine my kids know half a dozen.

      If you stalwartly refuse to subscribe to Inc OR to figure out a simple workaround, why are you commenting to that effect rather than saying (quietly, to yourself) “Ah, an Inc column, I’ll just check back in a few hours when a new letter is up here.”

    4. The OG Sleepless*

      You can if you haven’t reached your free article limit, or if you subscribe. Complaining about author paywalls is considered rude on AAM, so, don’t be rude.

    5. Fluffy Fish*

      Yeah she does. Every week someone comes to complain.

      1. Alison isn’t running a charity, this is her job for which she deserves to get paid.
      2. Clearly plenty of us can in fact read it.
      3. Enjoy the totally free posts she makes multiple times a day every M-F.

      Complaining because you can’t read one article is asinine. Youre not entitled to someone else labor.

      1. Bean Sure*

        Thank you. I’ve been feeling grumpy lately being on the receiving end of extreme entitlement from a couple of people who, coincidentally, I suspect are the same demographic as Dave. I appreciate your comment.

  3. Mid*

    Sorry for being off-topic, I just wanted to say that I hope your family thing went well yesterday, Alison!

  4. WonkyStitch*

    Some of us have post traumatic stress from previous workplaces. I was fired for poor performance by a company, even though my metrics were spot on, because the owner was a jerk. The next company had a poor performance review system and didn’t give me a raise for 4 years, until I finally asked and was told “oh oops our bad, you should have gotten one, welp let’s move on.”

    It’s taken me a long time to get past that and accept the good management that I currently have.

    1. Mill Miker*

      Oh, yeah. Definitely had the boss who uses praise mostly as a way to manipulate people into overworking. It makes it hard to trust the next boss.

      “Hey, why are you so worried, you’re doing an amazing job, one of the best on the team” “Oh no, that’s exactly what my last boss said right before firing me for being ‘the most useless piece of garbage he’s ever tried to wring a days worth of useful work out of’, so I’m not the chopping block for sure.”

    2. Meep*

      I was diagnosed with c-PSTD due to my workplace so I get it. However, a large portion of it was my boss either a) threatening to fire me anytime she gave an order or b) needlessly fretting over how she was close to being let go and it would be my fault if she was. Yes, she has been fired from every job she worked her entire adult life. I am sure some of them were silly, unjust reasons, but all the stories she told held no accountability and spoke of how her coworkers were out to get her. (Surprisingly, she was let go Monday and it is MY fault.)

      Being visibly frazzled harms her subordinate and she needs to knock it off. She doesn’t get to throw her trauma on others.

      1. Irish Teacher*

        Sorry to hear you went through that. And yeah, while people do get fired for unjust reasons…every single job kinda implies the problem is with her.

        1. Johanna Cabal*

          Whenever I hear about individuals who keep getting fired from their jobs, I wonder how they’re able to keep getting jobs. Do they lie on their applications/resumes or something else? I’ve only been fired once and had a hard time overcoming it to get the next job.

          1. Curmudgeon in California*

            I’ve been fired a few times, in over 40 years working (well over 20 workplaces – I did temping for a while.) The reasons were part me, lots them. I’ve been laid off lots more. “Fired from every job they’ve ever had.” would ring alarms bells in my head. Lots of people get one, two or even three jobs in their life that just doesn’t work out. But every job? That’s a red flag in people with more than one or two jobs.

        1. RebelwithMouseyHair*

          In a spirit of oneupmanship, my boss told me all about her affair with a guy, that she started once she’d had her boob job (I had full details of that too), with her husband working in the next office along and coming in to file stuff away (that usually he left in a messy heap for the intern to sort out).

    3. Lanlan*

      This right here. My manager is constantly amazed at what comes out of my mouth because he can’t fathom that someone’s been that badly mistreated at a place of work. Then again, transitioning from a call center into a human services job has been a major culture shift. So nice not to be worked like a mule.

  5. SometimesIComment*

    I never heard of they/them as a singular pronoun till recent inclusivity changes to language. Also educated in NE US, mid-1990s. In writing, it used to be s/he or his/her (and I’d often use a footnote to indicate the use of a single pronoun rather than lots of slashes). Verbally, it’s super difficult! Depending on context, at least in the past, it used to be acceptable to guess and then be corrected (and feel horribly embarrassed for a few minutes but then you know for the future).

    1. Elizabeth*

      But remember, they/them isn’t just a catch-all. Many trans or non-binary individuals use they/them as their pronouns. Honestly the 90s ways no longer apply, so the best idea is to go to GLAAD and familiarize oneself with the current climate. I learn new things every day!

    2. Mid*

      It’s still acceptable to guess and be corrected, it’s just that a lot of people use the excuse of “guess and correction” when they’re really just repeatedly misgendering someone. And while it’s acceptable to guess and be corrected, it’s a far better practice to just *not assume things about people* and use their correct pronouns from the start. Because really, what you’re doing is stereotyping someone based on superficial characteristics (like their voice, clothing, hair, etc.) And while it might be right often, that doesn’t mean it’s a good idea to define people based on your stereotypes for what you think they are. (You is being used in a more general sense, rather than just addressing you individually, SometimesIComment.)

      And just like any new habit or skill, it might take time for you to use gender-neutral pronouns instead of assuming someone’s pronouns, but that doesn’t mean it’s any more or less difficult than your old verbal patterns and habits. I had to learn how to use less swear words when I started working with children, but after a little bit of effort, a new habit was formed.

      1. allathian*

        Yes. I admit it’s a lot easier for me, because my main working language is Finnish, which has no gendered pronouns at all. I admit that at work I tend to assume that my coworkers identify with the gender that matches their appearance and name, but it’s really hard to misgender people either intentionally or unintentionally when you use the same pronoun to refer to everyone.

        All that said, I think it would be weird to be referred to with they/them pronouns, because I identify very strongly as a cishet woman, and I have a feminine first name that’s understood as such in the West and probably anywhere else with a history of Western colonization.

        1. English Rose*

          Oh I do envy you using a language with no gendered pronouns, I would like every language to be this way.

  6. Teekanne aus Schokolade*

    Oh, the first rings of a need for some counseling by a professional. When imposter syndrome hits this level it needs intervention, or perhaps there’s something to it? We once had a VP say something similar for years whenever there were any, even run-of-the-mill disagreements with our boss (also CEO) but in a very self-pitying way, “Oh, you’ll probably just fire me..” or “I know the board secretly hates me”, and a hundred variations and it went on for years. And I’m talking when he got any kind of feedback, even, “Hey Fergus, could you please make sure you don’t scream at our vulnerable clients?” He would say she wanted him gone if the cleaning crew asked him not to *throw his used tissues all over the office floor* Our boss started out by reassuring him, then went on to “Well, Fergus, keeping your job is up to you”. Turns out Fergus’s self-filfilling prophecies of “You’re just going to fire me” had been right all along.

    When the authorities showed up one afternoon (two days after the Christmas party) and cornered him he immediately started yelling that it was all CEO’s fault because if she appreciated him enough, she would have made sure the board tripled his salary like he deserved. He had been embezzling high six figures a year for fifteen years and had been in the process of trying to pin it on CEO.
    So, who can say?

    1. Wisteria*

      “Oh, the first rings of a need for some counseling by a professional. ”

      Agreed–for the LW. Counseling on how to prevent someone else’s insecurity from affecting you would help this individual a great deal.

    2. Irish Teacher*

      I was going to say that comes across as sort of manipulative, like imply “oh, I expect you to overreact” and immediately the other person is inclined to say, “oh, don’t worry. You didn’t do anything THAT bad.” And…then I got to your final paragraph. Yeah, preemptive “if I get fired it will be because people hate me and not because of my embezzling”!

      1. Teekanne aus Schokolade*

        Exactly this, you explained it so well! He had been taking money out of accounts she had never had access to, and couldn’t figure out how to blame someone, and rationalized so much to himself.

        I had the chance to talk to him because it never did go to trial and he (I think) is on some kind of repayment plan with the firm but lost all of his own private wealth and retirement. He maintains that he doesn’t know why he did it and admits he had enough money all along but that pals from other companies he had worked with had gotten him into it (What?! Peer pressure?) He said too that he felt so underappreciated by subordinates (again what?!) who wouldn’t “greet him with animation” every day (that wasn’t a thing for anyone).

        I forgot to mention that he walked out on the company about six or seven times in my memory when he received criticism, didn’t show up for DAYS and then would return with gifts from the gas station for everyone. (His antics could be a book in and of themselves). He also was extra religious and would be super pious and really great about working with anyone he deemed appropriately “blue collar” because “that’s what Jesus would do” but treated everyone else like crap and would frequently tell women to smile and SEND home workers who dressed “too provocatively ” (cleavage/shoulders/tight skirts).

        According to the audit, LOTS of his business trips were spent nOt.wItH.hIs.WiFe of many decades, who promptly left him.

        I’m still pretty close with my old CEO and from time to time she asks if she could have done something differently to have been a better manager to him in the years prior to his embezzling but apparently he was always so self – pitying and didn’t feel it right to turn the board against him. Fortunately, after the scandal she just retired and opened a completely unrelated charity that has helped so many people.

    3. RebelwithMouseyHair*

      If Fergus was chucking his used tissues all over the floor and screaming at vulnerable clients, what else could he expect?

  7. Sssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssss*

    It’s a slow cultural shift this pronoun stuff but we’ll get there.

    In our online workshops, we use Zoom and we encourage everyone to rename themselves (not “Petey’s iPad”) and add their pronouns. Displayed will be stuff like “Susie she/her” and “Tommy he/him” and then we get the bilingual peeps as well, “Katie she/her/elle.” This could reduce the confusion.

    And, you could ask ppl to do “Names and pronouns” at a beginning of a meeting as part of the check-in. If they don’t want to share their pronouns, don’t force it.

    1. Grace Poole*

      Zoom has a dedicated field in Profile settings for users to add their pronouns, which can be toggle on/off.

  8. Cookie Monster*

    Letter #1 is one of the reasons I kind of hate self-deprecating humor. It puts the audience in a really awkward place – do they take it seriously and offer comfort? (Which the joker usually rejects.) Do they go along with and joke along with them? (Which could be harsh and make the joker feel worse.)

    I understand it’s a defense mechanism and I’ve used it myself, but I really try not to now.

    1. Wisteria*

      You chuckle sympathetically and move on.

      It’s only awkward if you let it be awkward. You can choose not to feel awkward about other people’s self-deprecation.

      1. Cookie Monster*

        Sure, which is exactly what I do. But sometimes not acknowledging it at all can also be a problem for the joker.

    2. Pool Noodle Barnacle Pen0s*

      As with any type of humor, a light hand is best. Even the funniest joke in the world is no longer funny the 5th time you hear it. If she’s defaulting to this every time, it’s no longer humor, it’s a poor/ineffective cope for some other issue.

      1. What's in a name?*

        Even the funniest joke in the world is no longer funny the 5th time you hear it.

        You must not be British.

      2. allathian*

        Some jokes are only funny once, some are always funny no matter how often you hear them, and some are never funny. I find that most of the jokes that don’t fall completely flat with me are only funny once.

  9. Hog Wild*

    I dated someone who needed constant validation. He’d say “I’m terrible” to solicit from me “No, no. You’re amazing.” It was exhausting. Ultimately, I started agreeing with his self-criticism because he was driving me nuts. This is not by any means constructive advice. We ended up breaking up. I’m just here to say I recognize the behavior.

    1. Mid*

      Not that this is appropriate in a workplace, but a way that slightly more constructive to deal with someone needing constant validation is to respond with questions/support, though some people sometimes just need a little validation. This shouldn’t be the response to the occasional ask for validation, more for when it’s constant and annoying. My therapist taught me to not engage too deeply in their cycle of self-loathing, but to still let them know I supported them, and also set boundaries so I didn’t get emotionally drained constantly trying to make them feel better. Asking questions to make them realize that it’s just mean self-talk again, showing support and then changing the subject, and giving examples that show their self-talk is incorrect were really helpful to me.

      Some examples from an ex that needed a lot of validation too:
      A: “I’m terrible.”
      B: “Why do you say that?”
      A: “I just am.”
      B: “Well that’s a strange thing to say. [Pause, if they don’t respond change subject.] What would you like for dinner?”

      A: “I’m so stupid.”
      B: “Don’t talk about my friend like that!”

      A: “I’m the worst.”
      B: “Oh?” (In a concerned tone)
      A: “Yes, and no one should ever love me, because I’m the worst!”
      B: “That doesn’t seem to be accurate, since you have a lot of people who love you.”

      A: “You secretly hate me.”
      B: “I value my free time far too much to spend time with someone I hate. Do you still want to watch a movie tonight?”

      A: “I’m worthless.”
      B: “You’ve been really down on yourself lately, and keep saying really unkind things about yourself. You know that I love and care about you, as do all of your friends and family. Maybe you need to see a therapist to talk about it.”

      1. Hog Wild*

        You’re right, of course. When you care about someone, you want to help them. Kindness, redirection, whatever to get them out of their unhealthy mental state. But in the end, my ex needed help that I was not equipped to provide. His need for validation had a tendency to turn into criticism of my affections for him. To the point that it was getting emotionally abusive:

        Nobody loves me.
        How can you love me if nobody loves me?
        You don’t love me.
        Why don’t you love me?
        If you don’t love me, how could anybody love me?
        Nobody loves me because you don’t love me.

        I was walking around on tiptoes, wondering if he was going to have a good or bad day. I wish him the best. But I had to get out.

        1. Mid*

          Oh yeah, that’s very toxic and unhealthy, and I wasn’t trying to suggest you or anyone should stay in a relationship like that! These are just strategies that can be used *if* you want to maintain a relationship with someone who is working on their need for validation.

      2. Not Tom, Just Petty*

        I agree with you, but these people can end up being emotional vampires. ANY response is attention enough for them to continue seeking validation.
        In one’s personal life, there are obligations, but in the workplace, getting the person to seek therapy before needing it one’s self from the drain is a gamble.

  10. OhNoYouDidn't*

    Writer #2, regarding hours. I work in social work and have unusual hours as well. I find it to be imperative to set my hours and stick to it. I don’t think there’s any real reason to say, you’re “booked,” because that trains the client that you might be available on that day in the future. I find it much better to give them my hours and/or days, and then explain that I’m not available available during my off days and/or hours. They can leave a message, or send a text or email, and I’ll get back to them when I’m working again. Our agency has an on-call person. Clients are welcome to call that number for URGENT matters only after hours. I also provide my clients with other resources, such as hotlines, they can call if they need to process something when I’m off. I’ve found that 99% of my clients understand and are completely respectful of those boundaries. Also, if you have to use your own cell phone, you can get a Google number and use that for work. That way, during your off hours, you can turn that number off and you won’t be disturbed. I hope you can set the types of boundaries you’re looking for, because it really is needed for a good work-life balance.

    1. Laney Boggs*

      I think the problem is LW2 doesn’t always take the same days off. Sometimes it’s Mon/Tue, sometimes Thur/Fri, Tue/Wed, etc.
      Having a more formalized schedule would probably work best if possible, but otherwise I think Alison’s “booked” comment works best for LW’s floating weekend.

      1. Not Tom, Just Petty*

        Absolutely. OP, reset your brain (to accept you need and deserve time off!) but until you get there, tell yourself this is not “time off,” this is administrative work.

  11. Canadian Librarian #72*

    Singular they is great when you don’t know someone’s pronouns and they have a name in a language where you don’t know the gender (lots of English speakers may assume the Hebrew name “Yishaya” is feminine name, but it’s a male name, for instance).

    I also like that it’s increasingly normalised to have one’s pronouns shared in an email signature and after your name in Zoom. Just takes a lot of guesswork out of the equation. Adding a field in registration forms is a good idea. Some people will really bridle at being asked to disclose their pronouns affirmatively (whether because they’re regressive and “don’t believe in pronouns”, or because they assume they’re tacitly having their gender or presentation questioned), so I wouldn’t make it a required field. But as in most things, if you make something easy for people to do, most people just will. You can give examples of pronouns right before the text field (“she/her”, “he/him”, “they/them” etc.) so people who may not have had to do this before know what to do. If you work in a bilingual environment, it’s nice to promote options like “she/her/elle” as well.

    (I think proper singular gender netural pronouns are slow going in French, but I’ve heard of iel, ille, ul, and others. Can’t say I’ve ever seen those used in the workplace, but I work in a majority-English environment.)

    1. Ask An Event Manager*

      It would also be great to label such a field “pronouns” and leave out the word preference.

    2. OyHiOh*

      I just had to correct someone on pronouns. Two people speaking, one male, one female. The male has a gender neutral name. The host, in confirming who was speaking when, asked if “the ladies” needed anything else before the speaking date.

      Under personal, non work circumstances and knowing all parties, it might have been interesting anthropologist moment to watch that situation sort itself out, but not in a work setting. Sent one more email to the host clarifying pronouns, for which the host thanked me and apologized for not doing their own research.

    3. ecnaseener*

      Some people will really bridle at being asked to disclose their pronouns affirmatively (whether because they’re regressive and “don’t believe in pronouns”, or because they assume they’re tacitly having their gender or presentation questioned)

      It’s worth noting that there’s at least one more reason: because they aren’t out at work and would rather not actively misgender themselves. There was a good post about this last year — search “my office wants my pronouns — but I’m still figuring it out” Required pronoun disclosures hurt trans people too!

      1. Don't Call Me Shirley*

        I am comfortable if someone addresses me as she or they (and honestly haven’t flinched much on he when it’s happened), but in a highly male work environment, specifying either in my signature feels like bringing attention to my difference in an explicit way.

  12. Fluffy Fish*

    OP 3 – while this wasn’t the question, just want to reiterate what Alison said about the notes. If that’s how people are taking notes, ya’ll are killing yourselves for nothing.

    Look into how to take effective meeting minutes. In general you need – decisions made (motions made, votes, etc.) , next steps planned, and identification/tracking of action items (including who is doing what).

    It’ll be an improvement both for those tasked with taking notes and the people reading them.

    1. sagewhiz*

      Also, depending on the circumstance, too-detailed notes can come back and bite you in the a**. Several yrs ago I was secretary for a lg internat’l prof org, and the excellent handbook on legal guides for board members we used stressed that minutes (bd, committee, etc.) are to be topic/decision/action, absolutely nothing more and not who said what in case a legal issue ever arose.

      1. Joielle*

        Agreed on the potential legal risk here – even if a lawsuit seems vanishingly unlikely, you just don’t always know what’s going on behind the scenes. Then suddenly the notes are being read in a deposition, maybe months or years later, devoid of tone or context. Nobody wants that.

        Plus, I think it can stifle brainstorming and the like if every intermediate thought is being committed to paper. I’d be a lot less likely to throw ideas at the wall and see what sticks if I knew every suggestion was going to be recorded for posterity, even ones that are immediately discarded.

      2. Fluffy Fish*

        100%. I’m in government and EVERYTHING (well there’s a few exceptions) can be requested to be viewed by the public and the media.

        It’s not about being deceitful, it’s about capturing the things that actually matter. Not details that can be skewed or confusing out of context.

  13. Bexy Bexerson*

    Alison, I would like to gently and respectfully correct you on one thing in your response to #3. You used the phrase “pronoun preference”. Pronouns are a fact, not a preference.

    Instead of saying “pronoun preference” or “preferred pronouns”, it should always be simply “pronouns”.

    1. Agnes*

      No, someone might prefer neutral pronouns or prefer gendered pronouns, regardless of their gender identity.

    2. Theon, Theon, it rhymes with neon*

      I agree that “pronouns” works, but I believe “preference” is also accurate. People’s pronouns don’t always reflect a fact, but they do reflect what the person prefers, i.e. wants. “Preferred” to me just means “the pronouns I want you to use.” If someone’s not out in a certain context, they may prefer pronouns that reflect their presentation over ones that reflect their identity. There may be multiple pronouns that equally reflect someone’s identity, and that person may prefer that you use one or another. There may be *no* pronouns that feel factually true for someone, but they still have a preference as to which one(s) you use. Someone may still be figuring out their identity and not be sure what’s factually true, and the pronouns they prefer you use today they may later decide don’t fit after all, because those pronouns were an experiment, not a fact.

      Let’s be flexible around different people’s needs when it comes to communicating gender within the complexities of gender and society.

      Signed, someone who is uncomfortable being told by well-meaning people that I must have a gender identity, I must have pronouns that reflect that identity, and I must communicate those pronouns. I will communicate my pronoun preferences.

      1. Ask An Event Manager*

        “Pronouns:” Covers both your worries and others balking at the idea of preference, so that’s the way I’d lean.

      2. Bexy Bexerson*

        I appreciate your perspective; it’s different than what I’ve heard from every single person I’ve ever discussed the subject with before, so I thought I was solid in my reasoning.

        The last thing I want to do is dictate how anyone should identify. That was not my intent at all, and I apologize if I came off that way. I genuinely didn’t know their were folks who feel the way you do about this.

        I do still think it’s best to leave “preferred” or “preference” out of situations like Alison described, because some people really don’t like it. But simply saying “pronouns” works for those folks and you too, I think. Or at least I hope.

        Thanks again for giving me something to think about!

        1. Theon, Theon, it rhymes with neon*

          No worries! I think the use of “fact” accidentally triggered my history with people arguing with me that I *must* have an identity that goes with pronouns, when I’ve clearly and repeatedly stated that I don’t. I super appreciate that you’re willing to take my experience at face value and revisit your conclusions based on new data.

          There’s a good write-up on experimenting with pronouns at, which covers at least some of what I was talking about above. And for people who do have a strong sense of factual identity, I don’t have a link to examples, but I’ve seen discussion in AAM comment sections about how insisting that pronouns = identity can unintentionally make people feel pressured to either out themselves, or commit to pronouns that feel misgendering. You can prefer people use words that make you feel safe instead of words that feel real; that is a valid preference.

          I agree that “pronouns” is probably generic enough to cover all use cases, certainly mine. (But I am open to hearing from anyone who might have a perspective I haven’t encountered.)

          And finally, I appreciate the respectful discussions in AAM comments!

    3. I went to school with only 1 Jennifer*

      Languages do need pronouns. That is a fact.

      But pronouns are always stand-ins for nouns, to keep our spoken or signed language from getting unwieldy. And those nouns (including proper nouns, which are names of people or things) are assigned arbitrarily. Names of things aren’t facts, and you know this because different languages have different words for the same object, and sometimes a single language will have multiple names for the same object.

      1. DataSci*

        For the pronoun letter, please ask about pronouns, not the “Mr. or Ms” phrasing from the letter! I’m happy for people at work to use my first name, which everyone does, but if they’re going to use titles then it’s Dr., thank you very much. That’s even without you leaving out Mx, or people whose pronouns may not “match” their answer to your question. Just ask the question you want answered.

    4. Snarky McSnarkerson*

      Came to make the same suggestion. The way it was explained to me was use of the word preferred implies the person has a choice. I’m not saying they were right, just that’s how I heard it.

  14. Anonymity*

    Ask her if she’d LIKE to be fired and remind her you’ve already advised her she’s doing fine in her role. People who want constant reassurance are EXHAUSTING. It’s not up to you to constantly manage her mood.

  15. Work From Homer Simpson*

    For the misgendering of someone you haven’t met/don’t know their pronouns: Please please please for the love of all that is holy, just don’t make it A THING if you accidentally use the wrong pronouns because you didn’t know any better. Just briefly apologize and then move on, making sure to use the right pronouns going forward. I’m a cis female (she/her) but I’m in a male-dominated industry and have a name that can go either way (think Sandy). People who I exchange emails with but haven’t met assume I’m a man all the time. If they use the wrong pronouns, it is not a big deal at all. I just correct them (usually a line at the end of email after I’ve addressed the actual content of the email), and the best responses just take it in stride with a, “Sorry about that!” and then get it right in the future. The worst responses were the ones going over the top explaining why they assumed that and profusely apologizing and blah blah blah. Just don’t do that. Now story time of two examples of what not to do.

    First guy was a vendor who I’d only exchanged emails with. He visited the site and came strolling into my office. He literally stopped mid-stride so abruptly he had to grab the door jamb to avoid falling and blurted out (very loudly, practically a yell), “You’re not a man!” He then stuttered around for awhile before I finally said, “I’m Sandy and I assume you’re Joe?” in order to let him off the hook and move the conversation along. But even then he kept coming back to the topic to apologize and say how he just wasn’t expecting that and on and on, making it more and more awkward. My coworkers and I did get a lot of mileage out of imitating his shocked response for years to come, though.

    Next guy was the president of a company and in his 80s. They had some proprietary technology that I suspected was largely hype, so I had been trading emails with a rep to get more technical details. The rep had met me once and knew I was a woman. When I asked a pointed question, the rep had forwarded my email to the president to see how much he should tell me. The president accidentally replied to me rather than the rep, and both assumed I was a man and said that they shouldn’t give me a straight answer (admitting their whole premise was weak if not exactly outright bogus). The rep quickly jumped in to say that he didn’t think that message was meant for me and that I was a woman. Well, cue my phone ringing with Mr. President on the line to apologize for the mix up. Of course he wanted to focus on the woman thing, rather than his admission about their tech, but wow, did he dig a painful hole with a long story about how he didn’t have any women in his engineering classes when he was in school and the whole story of his career and the few women engineers he did know and blah blah blah. But the real gem was, “I think it’s just great they let women be engineers these days!” *facepalm*

    Anywho, just don’t react like those guys and you’ll be fine! Seriously, keep the apology low key and then just move on.

  16. Weird_Name*

    As a guy with a name which has since switched to be a female name, I very selfishly love the trend of putting pronouns in email signatures.

  17. Nanani*

    For the pronoun letter – I actually would encourage you to make your notes clearer by using fewer referents.

    “Lee asked for a response deadline”
    Cory doesn’t matter here, the thing being asked for does.

    It’s great that want to avoid misgendering people! But you also don’t need to use so many pronouns in your notes.

  18. KatEnigma*

    OP1: Early on in my marriage (20 years) my husband and I were having an argument about something to do with his work. He pointed out how disrespectful it was for me to think he wasn’t competent enough to handle his own workplace situations when I wasn’t even the one in the midst of it. Since then, I might give my opinion as another perspective, when asked, but otherwise I assume he knows what he is doing at his own job.

    My husband was hired the first week of March 2020 as 100% remote. He was told at the time that would mean travelling to the office “maybe once a year.” That was two Directors ago. Once a year became once a quarter became once a month. Because they discovered that no, not everything can be accomplished effectively over Zoom. Assume this won’t be the last time he has to travel in to the office for reasons you don’t understand or agree with. And allow him the agency to handle his own work-life.

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