how can I avoid talking shop outside of work?

A reader writes:

I have a colleague who I am sharing a few really challenging, long-term projects with. They’re great to work with and we’re getting a lot done. The only problem is that we live in the same part of town and frequently bump into each other on the way in — which in itself is fine but they often immediately start talking about work, including ideas they’ve just had and are expecting my opinion on.

I care about my work and I am often thinking about it out of hours, but I don’t really trust my own analytical skills while I’m still digesting my breakfast and finishing my coffee and don’t have all the relevant info in front of me. It’s making me feel bad that I’m not ready to dive in immediately when they apparently are.

I know I could just say, “Oh, I don’t feel up to talking shop right now,” but I’m worried I’ll be shutting down their enthusiasm and i really don’t want to come across as saying “we should work less hard.” Any way I can navigate this?

I answer this question — and three 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:

  • Should resigning managers share info about team members with incoming managers?
  • My coworkers come up with bizarre solutions to simple problems
  • I sent a bad follow-up email after an interview

{ 68 comments… read them below }

  1. PaulFrame85*

    “Sorry, can’t talk right now I’m just too busy laughing at Surrey being bowled out for 84 this morning.”

    1. Richard Hershberger*

      +100. Or, if the conversation is taking place in England, Australia, or India, substitute the Mets’ record contrasted with their payroll.

  2. Peanut Hamper*

    I am not paying a vendor $1,000 in advance. That just throws everybody’s books off. (And there could be tax liabilities for the vendor, depending on how they do their accounting.)

    And that’s one thing I would bring up when trying to shut these things down–that just isn’t how business is done. We have a standard method; let’s just stick to it.

    1. Random Dice*

      Funny how communicating directly to the people who screwed up is so much more effective than vague-complaining (without details) to a group and then wondering why that specific person didn’t stop their crap.

      1. Peanut Hamper*

        People are not mind-readers, and often believe that information/directives delivered to a group does not apply to them. So yeah, it’s best to just be direct with people most of the time.

        1. Zombeyonce*

          It’s not even that they think things don’t apply to them, they may not even remember or realize it’s about them in the first place. Direct communication will always make fixing things like this so much more effective.

    2. Snow Globe*

      I think I’d just say that there is already a policy that addresses this issue; we just need people to follow the established policy.

      1. Hannah Lee*

        Yeah, that would be a good approach.

        I’d also rethink LW’s habit of “staying late” or juggling priorities to hit the deadlines that everyone else ignored. Because right now LW is jumping through hoops to prevent a bad thing from happening.

        As far as the rest of the company is concerned, Joe being slow to forward invoices and Production failing to communicate XYZ until the 11th hour isn’t actually a problem. The only one experiencing negative impact of them dropping the ball is the LW. (and maybe occasionally an external vendor, but what are the internal impacts of that, if any?)

        LW should do their job*, do it well, in a timely manner but not try to be the hero and fix things when other people drop the ball. A few plates dropping or angry customers could draw attention and get action on those ignoring the processes, deadlines a lot more effectively than mentioning it in meetings or even direct conversations from LW.

        * part of that *may* be sending a reminder email to whoever about whatever, with due dates, deadlines, etc, and CC’ing those up a level if the initial due dates pass. (That way the those who are casual about their impacts on downstream processes can’t claim ignorance of the deadlines. But I’d do just ONE reminder, not a countdown clock, because otherwise people will start perceiving LW as owning meeting the due date … makes no sense but I’ve seen it happen, in a “it’s MOM’s fault I was late for school because she was the one keeping track of when I was supposed to leave” kind of way. )

    3. MCMonkeyBean*

      That was a ridiculous suggestion when the obvious solution is just to deal with invoices better, but paying in advance does not throw off the books and is a very normal thing to do in many situations.

  3. Dover*

    My worst manager of all-time left a dossier on every team-member for their replacement. New manager, who was awesome and understood they were coming info a toxic leadership culture, let it slip to a small group that this document existed and they weren’t going to look at it. I would love to have seen what it had about me and others who didn’t put up with the BS, though I think I have a pretty good idea…

    Obviously that’s a different situation from LW, who wants to make sure the team succeeds and the work they’ve done to build/adapt the team continues. The intent, approach, and thoughtfulness matters.

    1. Peanut Hamper*

      I used to use that approach when I was teaching. I made a point of telling kids at the beginning of the year that I knew nothing about their past successes or failures in school, and this was a fresh start for them. (I also made each a fresh start of each day, as well.)

      It’s amazing how that breath of fresh air can make a difference for some people.

      1. Ann Nonymous*

        But this is apples to oranges: kids vs adults; school vs workplace; immaturity vs ?. It’s best to have a heads-up on people and their quirks, strenghts, backgrounds and values (e.g. being closely managed vs being left alone). Also, during the year you definitely learn things about your students and how you approach them individually and what is the best tact to take with them.

        1. Eldritch Office Worker*

          I don’t think it’s apples and oranges. A lot of teachers DO have this information about students, and sometimes it’s good. Sometimes you’d rather start with a clean slate. The same can be said about managing teams – especially, like in Dover’s example, if you know you’re coming into an environment that may have brought out the worse in people. If you know your predecessor sucked and their assessments can’t be trusted, telling people their old reviews or relationships or whatever won’t be held against them can be huge to starting off on a better foot.

        2. Peanut Hamper*

          The day before I started my student teaching, another teacher came into our classroom and started looking through our class lists. (He and my supervising teacher were long-time coworkers.)

          He started saying “This kid’s good, this one’s a piece of shit, this one’s a trouble-maker,” etc. I vowed never to be that person or to let someone else’s opinion of a student color how I viewed them.

          So in the workplace, there is very much this question of “Is Dave hard to work with?” vs. “Is Dave hard to work with you?”

          It’s amazing how many kids I had that other teachers would complain about but I never had an issue with because I gave each kid a clean start. This really does apply to the work environment as well.

          1. Samwise*

            Yep, I tell my students, after discussing with them whatever F-up they engaged in: OK, all clear on what happened? Great, clean slate!

      2. ferrina*

        It’s definitely the right message to kids and adults, but that doesn’t mean you should refuse all information. For example, surely you want to know which kid is on an IEP or which kid is going through hardship at home. Similarly, which coworker you need to follow up with six times and which person to work around and which person is a great information resource.

        It comes down to a) how reliable the information giver is and b) giving a realistic chance for new interactions. The LW sounds like they were a pretty reasonable resource who wanted to give useful context; Dover’s ex-manager sounds like a bananapants with a burn book.

        1. Peanut Hamper*

          Very true, but information about IEP or other educational plans were always (and should always be) conveyed through standard, official means and were very matter-of-fact and non-judgmental.

          1. Seven hobbits are highly effective, people*

            I think in a workplace situation a lot of this is less formally documented than it would be in education, though. For example, if an employee always works a shifted early schedule of 6:00-3:00 so they can pick up their kids after school, or doesn’t have their phone ring through from reception even though the other direct reports get stuck picking those overflow reception calls up (because that particular employee has trouble with phones for some reason, or has a job that requires more focus than the other people, or whatever), or those kind of “deals” that often get made between a manager and the workers, it makes sense to document those for the next manager. (Obviously, anything involving formal disability accommodations that went all the way to HR would be documented by HR, but often people who need minor adjustments and have reasonable working environments work those things out informally, and not every arranged flexibility is for legally-required reasons rather than just “makes sense and we can work with that” reasons.)

      3. Chirpy*

        A friend grew up in a small town where all the teachers knew his family, and judged him accordingly. He said the year he went to a different high school with a clean slate, he suddenly got much higher grades because the teachers actually judged him by his work instead of who his family was.

    2. JP*

      My toxic boss who didn’t think they were toxic left notes for our interim manager when she went on a month-long vacation. They consisted basically of “JP and Good Coworker write horrible notes, do not document properly, and are awful. Bad Coworker is the best person to have ever held this role.” Interim Manager told me two weeks in that he was surprised because what he found was the absolute opposite of what Toxic Boss wrote.

      1. rebelwithmouseyhair*

        When selling the company off, my toxicboss1 told toxicboss2 just how awful and incompetent I was. A few months later, toxicboss2’s wife came to see me, all smiles, to have a cup of tea, because she’d realised that actually, I was the most productive translator working in-house, and clients were all delighted with my translations, with a lot of clients from company1 insisting on having me translate their documents.
        Somehow, it didn’t lead to me getting a pay rise or even a bonus, but the change in attitude towards me was much appreciated.

    3. Original OP2*

      Wow, it was a blast from the past to revisit this letter that I wrote 4+ years ago! A bit of additional context: this position was my first time managing people, and I was…pretty damn bad at it. One of the major initiatives I was hired to push through was a complete process overhaul, which I was unable to successfully complete in my time there due to significant resistance from the employee I wrote about. (This was also one of those orgs where we were “a family” and therefore, I wasn’t allowed to make a unilateral decision to move forward without this employee’s blessing, which I would never get.) Ultimately that situation, plus lots of other yuck, led me to resign my position, and I knew that my successor was going to face the same resistance from Employee that I had–which was what led me to write the letter. But in the end, I decided not to tell my successor any of that, because I was worried my take on it as an inexperienced manager wouldn’t be helpful (and by that point I had reached total burnout and did not trust any of my own opinions). I don’t keep in touch with anyone from that workplace anymore (families don’t take kindly to people who leave), but I do know that my successor has already left. Thanks to all who wrote in, both then and now!

    4. Zombeyonce*

      The possibility of this happening as well as people just not getting along because of different work styles can make it a bit of a difficult issue, even for nontoxic managers. There’s also the problem where the manager leaves and another doesn’t start for a long period of time (frequent problem in my large company that has very slow hiring processes), and the worker could have changed significantly over time, and that can’t be accounted for in these kinds of notes.

      I had a manager that probably would not have described me in glowing terms because I was so burnt out on my job and unhappy. They left and didn’t get replaced for over 6 months. In the time they were gone, I did a lot of the interim manager work and my whole job changed based on that, making me a much happier and better employee. If my new manager and old one ever met and discussed me, they probably would have thought they were talking about 2 different people. I’m glad the new manager didn’t get notes from the old one or he may have had a starting impression of me that might have been tough to overcome.

    5. Venus*

      I often talk about people at work, both coworkers and managers. Yet it’s clear that I want to be constructive and I focus on information that will help them or help others. Jane is much happier if she meets weekly with her manager to share her frustrations, and Phil works a lot harder if he has a project that he likes so we give him first choice. Sean is known for being subtly inappropriate so if he does something on the edge of wrong then shut it down immediately because it’s not an accident.

  4. Paulina*

    For situations like the primary one here (getting a shoptalk conversation or feedback request randomly out of work), I’ve gotten some good use from “that sounds like it’s worth more consideration than just whatever I could come up with off the cuff like this. Let’s talk about this at work on Monday (or whatever day I think is reasonable).”

    The idea is to make the point that they’ve just been thinking about this very in-depth and I have not, which will compromise whatever answer I can give, as well as being an inappropriate expectation to put on me when I’m not in work mode. But I’m also mentioning a specific work time to come back to it, and trying to make the brush-off more palatable by the implication that their ideas are valuable, too valuable for my current context.

    1. MCMonkeyBean*

      The case in the letter is in a bit of a grey area though as it sounds like they are saying they are encountering each other on the way into work–though I’m unclear if they mean like on public transportation or if they are driving in and bumping into each other like while actually walking into the building.

      If it’s on public transportation I think there is a lot more room to say something like “let’s save the shop talk until we get to the office” but if they are literally already at the office and just not mentally ready to dive right in yet then I think I’d play it more jokingly like “oh haha I don’t think I’m quite ready to process that yet until I grab a cup of coffee, why don’t we circle back in half an hour?” or something.

  5. Chairman of the Bored*

    “Let me check my records and get back to you, I don’t want to go from memory and give you bad info.”

  6. KatieP*

    As a career-long AP specialist, I felt #2 in my bones. Yes, just send the invoice to Accounting! It’s not that hard! And who’s going to keep track of all those advance payments? The accounting department that you’re apparently already not communicating effectively with? The team admin who has no idea what other payments have been sent to the vendor?

    1. shrimpmobile*

      Fellow AP worker here. People love to think their ideas random ideas are easier than standard AP procedures but they’re wrong! Generally Accepted Accounting Principles exist for a reason and it’s not to make your life harder! Everytime i see some crazy thing i want to shout it’s AP not ESP!

  7. It's a tax prep office*

    I don’t think there’s anything wrong with declining to talk about work when you’re off the clock. Even if there is no clock. My line for these situations is, “I don’t talk about work unless I’m getting paid for it and we’re not in the office yet. Let’s get into that after we’ve settled in for the workday. How is your [subject change] doing? OR I’m going to continue drinking my coffee and daydreaming about [conversation closer] but I’ll see you in there!]

  8. Catwhisperer*

    RE: 1, my go to line for this is “You know, the pandemic really made me rethink my priorities and I’m trying to be better about leaving work at work. Happy to chat further when we get in, but for know I’d rather hear about kids/hobby/upcoming vacation/thoughts X movie/TV show/book.”

    1. Peanut Hamper*

      I like this. And for many of us, this is absolutely true. I know for a fact that the pandemic changed my attitude toward work.

  9. Coverage Associate*

    On resigning managers, unless the feedback can only be construed 100% positively, please be careful the reports can’t access it after you are gone. I now have access to my former boss’s email, and though I am definitely not snooping, there are emails that should have been deleted and have hurt my feelings to read. I promise I am not a terrible employee, but my former boss was closer to other reports than with me, and left some things in writing that he shouldn’t have.

    1. ferrina*

      Great point! You should always write like your writings will be read (very factual, no gotchas), but take active steps to ensure they shouldn’t be read by the wrong person.

  10. Melissa*

    I could be the coworker in #1! I am just a sort of enthusiastic and energetic person, and I’m often thinking about projects. So if I see a coworker at a cafe, I’m pretty likely to say, “OMG, you know what occurred to me? That patient that we had so much trouble with, maybe next time, we should—”

    I think it’s totally reasonable for you to just say (in a friendly tone): “Oh gosh, I am just thinking about my coffee right now, can we talk more about that Monday?” or even “Write that down and tell me Monday, because my brain isn’t working yet and I won’t remember!” The key is to be friendly about it, and they won’t take it as: “Please never talk to me about work after 5pm.”

  11. BellyButton*

    #3, I like to ask people to keep explaining their ridiculous solution.
    “How do we go about setting that up with the vendor?”
    “What will be the process to make sure that the $1000 gets paid on time every X months?”
    “Is this a policy that will have to get approved by Y department?”
    “Who will take on writing the new policy, getting approval, and managing it?”
    “Hmmm, it seems like this might be a lot more work ….” *raised eyebrows*

    1. Random Dice*

      Or just, ya know, tell Bob that he’s screwing up, rather than hinting to the entire Supply Chain team that sometimes there are unspecified issues with invoices.

    2. New Jack Karyn*

      This sounds like it would be painful to anyone else in the meeting. Just be direct.

      1. Boolie*

        Actually I think it’s a good way to either stamp it out in the future or figure out if there’s actually some logic in the suggestion that the boss/facilitator isn’t seeing (I wouldn’t count the $1000 advance in the latter category but there are other suggestions that might).

        By giving people the chance to really flesh out their suggestion, they get to (hopefully) gracefully bow out and realize there’s more behind the scenes that they don’t know about. Even if it seems like a simple solution to them, they might not know the extra legwork other people in other jobs have to go through to make it work.

  12. Thin Mints didn't make me thin*

    “Oh, gosh, I love your enthusiasm and this sounds like a great idea, but could you write it up as an email so I can think about when I have access to my resources? Thanks! Now tell me what’s good for dessert here!”

  13. Pay No Attention To The Man Behind The Curtain*

    My coworkers come up with bizarre solutions to simple problems:

    I complete agree with Alison about taking this discussion out of meetings and instead address it one-on-one with the other employee. Ask them why they aren’t following the current procedure/policy instead of just assuming that they are too lazy or whatever.

    It could be that the procedure is out-of-date or really isn’t possible anymore. The problem might even further upstream than you are aware of — like the material wasn’t marked as “received” in the system by the receiving department and the bottleneck is there.

    I deal with vendors and they sometimes throw up their own blockades to getting paid: the vendor keeps using old contact info and sends the invoice to the wrong person/address; or sent an incorrect invoice that wasn’t what was negotiated or delivered so I am waiting for a revised or discounted invoice; the invoice was lump sum and my org requires line items so I kicked it back.

    1. Zombeyonce*

      I’d also want to look at the full process to find out why it wasn’t being done. Sure, plenty of these problems could stem from people being lazy and not keeping up with their jobs, but maybe there’s a gap in the process somewhere along the way or a step along the way that’s convoluted or difficult to perform without additional steps that aren’t included. So often, I get frustrated that people aren’t following a process but when I stop and look at it, there are ways to improve and/or simplify steps that could make compliance happen much more often.

    2. kiki*

      Yeah, I think one-on-one talks are more likely to yield an honest and informative answer. A lot of times in meetings, people are sitting on their hands knowing the true root of an issue but don’t feel like it’s polite to share in a meeting setting. Or they think everybody already knows the root cause so why bother sharing.

  14. Cora*

    At the company I just joined my predecessor left a few notes on my direct reports. Literally just a few sentences per person, some areas for improvement but nothing truly negative. I found it help to get confirmation for my first impressions and a little context. So if everyone is sane it can be good.

    1. NotAnotherManager!*

      I would always appreciate this sort of info – concise and factual. If I never got a chance to meet my predecessor and assess their judgment, I’d also avoid taking it as the complete, unbiased truth. I always appreciate any work arrangements that have been agreed to as well – if Jane is working a different schedule, let me know that so I know what to expect.

      Last year, we subsumed a large team, and the retiring managers’ insight on each person was incredibly helpful, but I’d also worked with him for a while and knew where he had some blind spots. We also met with the team members individually to find out how things were going from their perspective and I’d they had any concerns that needed to be addressed.

  15. Samwise*

    Bad follow up email:

    This has sunk at least one front-runner at our office. The search committee had a ranked list, then the top choice sent us a….strange, rambling…email. Every position in our office requires clear and appropriate communication. We unanimously agreed that we could not endorse anyone who sent such an odd email. That person got noped on every subsequent application, too, never again even got an interview.

    1. Boolie*

      Wow. I totally understand, but that really sucks for that guy! Did he present himself well in other correspondence/interviews? Or was this email prior to all that?

  16. HonorBox*

    For the letter asking about direct reports: I think it can be helpful to have some context about the team you’re joining. I don’t think it needs to be super specific and certainly shouldn’t be negative. But having a little working knowledge of how people operate within the workplace lets the new manager get started down the right path and can make the transition easier for the team, too. Their experiences might be different overall, but knowing some background is going to likely help them and their team. Keep it higher-level and avoid any type of judgment.

  17. Coin_Operated*

    2#, seconding Allison’s advice. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve immediately been pissed off at my co-workers because they’ve decided to take a one-off mistake I’ve made (or something they see as a problem in my work process) and decide to make that a group discussion in a staff meeting to “problem solve” without ever bringing it to me first.

      1. Ha ha*

        I think we need to pull together a meeting to discuss your thinking behind saying #2 the first time and then switching it. :)

        1. Coin_Operated*

          brings a very special brew of coffee to said meeting while laughing diabolically lol

  18. Thank God (or something) I no longer work there*

    I took over as operations manager in a work setting where three work sites were coming together. One of the two other managers gave me a heads up about a few employees. The other told me he thought I should develop my own opinions. There were some serious bad apples in his group. I would have appreciated a heads up about several of them. I think theres a middle ground where you are warning about significant problems but not nickel and diming minor quirks.

  19. Redaktorin*

    I really feel for the last LW.

    I have always been prone to the sort of BIG FEELINGS that made my adult ADHD diagnosis unsurprising, to say the least. Sometimes a feelings surge has led me to send poorly thought-through communications that gave other people a super bad impression of me.

    You pretty much have to chalk things like this up to learning experience and never touch your computer when you’re experiencing an extreme mood. (And some people have to first learn to actually notice when they’re experiencing an extreme mood.)

    1. Boolie*

      A big true dat to everything. Especially high-stakes stuff like this. Sometimes ya just blow it in the job search and all you can do is take a deep breath and keep casting the net.

  20. bamcheeks*

    I actually had the opposite situation when I left a management role recently: my reports were fantastic but half of them were deeply, deeply unhappy with the management above us for what I considered to be very good reasons (including some of the reasons I was leaving.) There were a few places where I’d said to them, “I hear your concerns and I’ve raised them more than once: I obviously can’t predict the future but my impression is that it would be sensible to assume X isn’t going to change and make your plans accordingly.” So I had to figure out how much of that to share: “John is pretty unhappy — Jade is REALLY unhappy — Jamal is putting a brave face on things but isn’t completely happy. Meanwhile Judith is actually kinda fine in herself but frequently gets nominated group spokesperson, and uh, personally I think their concerns are extremely reasonable.”

    I discussed a lot of this with the team members themselves and asked how much they’d LIKE me to brief their new manager, and we had handover meetings where I gave them opportunities to let the new manager know their concerns *if they wanted to*, but where they could be circumspect if they wanted to get to know the new manager first. It helped that I knew the new manager and we trusted each other and we had also had conversations about management, so I knew she was a similar page to me if not quite as fed up. But I also didn’t want to scare off the new manager with, “so, here’s a super pissed off and miserable team! Have fun, byeee!”

  21. Someone Else's Boss*

    #5 – It depends on the content and tone, as Allison suggests. In particular, if someone were to “beg” for a job, and I was trying to decide between them and another person, it would give me pause. Whereas if they simply showed enthusiasm (i.e. “I wanted to be sure you know that I’m very passionate about this opportunity and would be so excited to join the team.”), that would be a positive, for me. Every manage is different, and so is every candidate.

  22. Raida*

    “I’ve realised I spend too much time outside of work dedicating my energy to thinking about work tasks. I want to enjoy my time away from work, and focus (doing a better job of it) while at at work.
    So I want to let you know – you can talk to me about work stuff, but I’m not going to give you anything back. Sorry.”

  23. TeaCoziesRUs*

    #1 – I am in the US military, and we CAN’T talk about work at coffee shops or whatever. (It’s only paranoid if it isn’t true… and listening ears are EVERYWHERE). I don’t know if you work with anything like HIPPA or FERPA, but that might be an easy way to forestall an off-work conversation. Otherwise, I like what people have said about redirecting, “My brain isn’t awake enough for work yet. Are you still planning that vacation to the island this summer? / did you finish that book? How was it?/ What do you think of the latest steps of this political idea (we’ve already been chatting about)?” (proceed to talk about whatever sidebar interest y’all have talked about in the course of your work.)

  24. Free spirit*

    #1: “Sorry I haven’t finished my coffee yet.” / “Sorry, I didn’t have coffee yet.”

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