coworker offered to be my “work mom,” asking an employee to blur her Zoom background, and more

It’s four answers to four questions. Here we go…

1. Coworker offered to be my “work mom”

I know your take on calling someone a work mom, but I’m wondering about your take on Work Parents in general. Through television, I’ve heard jokes about a work wife or work husband and, since it’s drama shows, never put much stock in it.

I’m relatively new to my team, and at a company lunch a woman who’s been with the company for a long time came over to offer the table of less-senior women a “work mom.” It was fairly easy to brush off, but she followed up with an email. Now, I’m all for a mentor. I’m very happy at my company and it’s incredibly rare in my field to have so many women. But this is also my second career, making me nearly 10 years older than the majority of my peers. My only thought at her offer was, “I have a biological mother and a mother-in-law and that’s plenty.” This woman doesn’t directly oversee any of the people she was talking to, but it’d be really easy to fall into that scenario here. Is this a normal relationship to happen in the office, and people have just gotten cute about the names? Does she actually mean a professional mentor role, not a motherly figure? Am I properly weirded out by this?

Maybe it also needs to be said — I’m a queer agender person with a feminine name and body, but I present very masculine/andro. It’s a reasonable assumption I’m also a little weirded out by gender roles.

No, that’s not a normal thing! It’s weird. I assume she was offering herself as a mentor, but calling it a “work mom” is really bizarre and problematic. (I promise you no men are going around offering themselves up as a “work dad” and if they are it’s coming across as creepy.) She could have simply said “mentor” and conveyed what she meant. “Work mom” brings in all sorts of other connotations that don’t apply in a business context, including that you are young and in need of parenting. It sounds like the phrase of someone who has no frame of reference for women in senior positions or with authority, and therefore “mom” — with all of its gendered subtext — is her go-to rather than “mentor,” “advisor,” or “senior colleague.” That in itself makes her suspect as a good choice for the role she’s offering.

(As a side note, it’s also a title that’s particularly odd to bestow on oneself! When it does get used, it’s normally in the context of a third party saying something like “Jane always makes sure everyone has enough food at meetings, she’s like our work mom” — which is also sexist and problematic — rather than someone saying, “hi, I’m available to be your work mom.”)

2. My team lead says it’s a problem that I don’t trust my incompetent coworker

I work in a close-knit team in a company with about 170 employees. I like my job and have grown a lot since I started a few years ago, but a situation with a coworker has me baffled and has made me question if I want to stay here.

“Brenda” has worked for the company for about 15 years, the longest of anyone on my team. She started at entry level and worked her way up to the role she has today, which I thought was really impressive. Until it wasn’t.

We deal with a lot of subjects that require tactfulness, and Brenda is as tactful as a sledgehammer. Her work is sloppy and her suggestions for technical solutions are so out of touch that I have found myself stunned into silence in meetings with her. Some of her mistakes could have been prevented if she brainstormed with anyone on the team first, but she likes to do her own thing. She doesn’t take feedback; either she coldly replies and does nothing, or she says thank you and corrects one mistake out of 10. There have been two instances since I started where she felt slighted and didn’t show up to group meetings to prove a point.

Her behavior is something I, and other coworkers, have addressed with my team leader several times, both separately and in a group. During one recent conversation with the team lead, they told me that I “have no trust in Brenda at all, which is a massive problem.” This shocked me, and I made it clear that I am not the problem here, Brenda is, and they agreed and mentioned that even our manager has seen examples of her sloppy work.

I have mulled on this conversation a lot: is it a bigger problem that I don’t trust my underperforming colleague than that someone underperforms? It can’t be okay that someone produces bad work as long as the team gets along, right? Ever since I started, and realized there was an annoyance with her work from others, I have tried to find something positive about her work and even told other coworkers to stop assuming the worst. But I am at my wit’s end with how to go about this. I feel like my team lead is dealing with Brenda with kid gloves and I fear that my only two options are accepting the situation or leave.

It sounds like those are indeed your only options, since you and others have raised your concerns repeatedly and nothing is changing. It’s possible something is happening behind the scenes that you don’t know about (in most cases you wouldn’t), but if it’s been months and months since you started raising the issues (as opposed to a few weeks), it’s safe to conclude you’re dealing with a passive manager who’s not handling a serious situation with the urgency it needs. (Updated to add: I just realized you didn’t say you’ve raised the problems with your actual manager. If you haven’t, that’s absolutely the next step.)

But no, it’s not a bigger problem that you don’t trust a coworker who has shown you can’t trust her than it is that she’s underperforming in the first place. If Brenda had fixed the problems and was operating differently and you still didn’t show her any trust a year later, that could be a reasonable thing for your team lead to flag — but when Brenda is still actively Brenda-ing, of course you don’t trust her. Why would you? Your team lead sounds like they’re focusing on something they feel they might be able to influence (you) rather than on Brenda because Brenda is a harder problem (and one they might have no power to affect, if their manager refuses to act).

3. Can I ask an employee to blur her Zoom background on external meetings?

Is it appropriate for me to ask my direct report to blur her Zoom background in external meetings? She works from her bedroom, which is totally fine — I couldn’t care less most of the time. However, her room is often untidy and the background is generally an unmade bed with a lazy dog lounging on it. I think that this is fine for internal meetings, I know she’s proud of her animals and likes to show them off. However, I invited her to an external meeting with a prospect for corporate sponsorship and it felt unprofessional. Is it appropriate for me to suggest that in external meetings we should blur our backgrounds? How could I go about this?

It’s 100% appropriate to say she needs a professional background for external meetings, and that one way to do that would be to blur her background. That’s a pretty basic professional expectation; you’re not overstepping by requesting it.

Say this: “I don’t care about anyone’s background during internal meetings, but for external meetings, we need a professional look, which includes no beds or pets visible on the call. I know it can be tough to find a neutral-looking space when you’re working from home, but blurring your background should solve it — can you plan to do that for external meetings?”

4. Can I take off a full week when no one can cover for me?

I work for a completely virtual, family-owned company, about 45 employees. I’ve been here eight years. I am head of a three-person department and answer directly to the owner/CEO. We haven’t had raises in two years, not even cost of living. We keep hearing how we’re losing customers — and we are. (Bad management, but that’s another letter!) I did negotiate a lot of vacation — 20 days a year, which I like because we only get seven paid holidays a year. I generally take vacation a few days here and there, because our sales/customer service staff gets hysterical if I can’t instantly respond to a customer request.

But now I want to take a week off at a time more often and completely disconnect. This is going to make our sales/customer service go nuts. The two people under me are very good and trustworthy, but don’t have the experience I do. I’m not saying I’m a genius and the only one who can possibly do this, but it’s more than technical training: it’s years of experience in areas I have that they don’t. Working to get them here just through video chats, when we don’t work near each other, would be next to impossible. Do I basically just find a polite way to say, “Folks, I’m taking off a week in two months from now. I’m well ahead on my scheduled work, but many of these customer ‘crises’ are just going to have to wait”? Or should I just realize life isn’t perfect and try to connect even when I’m on vacation?

Nope, take your vacation. Give people a heads-up in advance, but that’s your time off that you negotiated as part of your benefits package and you’re entitled to take it. Taking a few days here and there can be great, but it’s also important to be able to disconnect for a large chunk of time like a week or more or you won’t reap any of the real benefits of time away. (I say this as someone who just took five weeks off and didn’t even begin to feel fully decompressed until the end of it!) That kind of real break is necessary to avoid burn-out.

Unless you’re very highly compensated and it was part of the deal going in, do not agree to stay connected during your time off; if you do that, you’ll negate the benefits of trying to disconnect in the first place. (And frankly, even people in highly compensated jobs where it was part of the deal going in still can take full weeks off here and there if they set their minds to it.)

However, if your boss does push back and you think you’re likely to give in, this would be a very good time to say you need to revisit your salary if those are the expectations.

{ 424 comments… read them below }

  1. Ashley Armbruster*

    I’m so curious about #2 and Brenda, I hope there is an update. In my experience I wonder if there is something going on behind the scenes and something is protecting Brenda.

    Also in my experience, tread very, very carefully here. You’ve already brought it up to your lead and they are twisting it around to make it a “you” problem. You could be seen as a “troublemaker” (even though I think you and your coworkers tried to be as professional as possible about this), while Brenda does whatever she wants.

    1. Not Tom, Just Petty*

      I was so impressed with OP’s Uno reverse card. And the blurt response, “well, yes”

      1. OP 2*

        It was a bit scary afterwards! Luckily I have a good rapport with my team lead and I know she is very pleased with my work so I figured I had some social capital to pull from.

        1. Slow Gin Lizz*

          I agree with AAM’s suggestion that you should discuss with your manager directly, since maybe your team lead doesn’t have any authority over Brenda. And frame it more as, “I’m worried that our product/results aren’t as high quality as they should be because I keep finding these errors whenever Brenda is doing x task.” That way it doesn’t seem like you’re out to get Brenda, per se, more that you want to be sure your team is doing good work and can’t so long as Brenda is underperforming.

          1. Office Lobster DJ*

            I agree, and it becomes even more important the more the team lead functions as a liaison between the team and management.

            I really applaud OP’s reaction in the moment, but it’s never great to have senior employees or managers who go with the path of least resistance to the point of just trying to placate whoever is in front of them. (That’s my own take on why the lead switched gears rapidly when OP pushed back.)

            It’s so much easier for the lead to blame a conscientious employee like OP for not being a team player, rather than unraveling the more complicated issues with a difficult employee like Brenda, especially if those issues might make them look bad. Don’t let them be the only voice in management’s ear.

        2. Radioactive Cyborg Llama*

          The one thing I’d think about is how much of Brenda’s incompetence is your problem? Is part of what’s keeping her there that everyone is fixing things for her and so she’s not failing? I know that’s not a black and white line at all, but I know Alison often advises people to make the Brenda problem a manager problem in similar situations. If the team lead wants you to trust Brenda, does that mean just keeping her shoddy work and passing it along?

      2. Silence*

        The only better response I can think of is ‘that’s not true I trust her to fuck up and not incorporate feedback ‘ which is not work appropriate.

        1. I Have RBF*

          My response would have been something like “Oh, no, I trust Brenda implicitly… to do things as she has always done them.” with the subtext of “do thing as she has always done them” meaning “screw up, not take feedback, and march to her own drummer.”

          1. Quill*

            Do I trust Brenda? As far as I can throw her.

            And in a professional context nobody should be throwing anybody so…

      3. Quinalla*

        Yup, I agree that this is actually a great response OP even if you felt very wrongfooted. Your team lead is right, it IS a problem that you (and likely the entire team) don’t trust Brenda and the problem is that her behavior/actions that is making it so that you can’t and shouldn’t trust her. It is a problem that needs to be addressed with Brenda, not with you or the rest of the team. As Alison said, if Brenda does change and the team still has no trust in her after she’s shown change for at least a few weeks, that would be something to address with you and the team. I think your response worked quite well!

        1. Slow Gin Lizz*

          “Of course I don’t trust Brenda. She did task A wrong and didn’t even complete tasks B-K. Would you like me to just trust her when she says she’s done everything correctly and not bother to double-check her work?”

      4. boof*

        Ha, excellent metaphor
        Lead: “It looks like you don’t trust Brenda. That’s a problem” *stares meaningfully at OP*
        OP: “well yes, the problem is that Brenda is untrustworthy” *stares back*
        Lead: “… true…”

        Trust is both I suppose an accurate (within confines of English language) and overly loaded. Somehow there’s this assumption that trust is this all or nothing moral judgement whereas I always liked the phrase “trust is promises kept”. Like, no, trust is about your actual track record, not what you want people to think your track record is.

        1. boof*

          Also, trust is not all or nothing. Sometimes in the past my spouse got huffy that I do not “trust” them to, say, cancel that subscription “later” and not forget about it. /because that is a thing that has happened sometimes before/ But I absolutely trust them to have my back in an emergency, to not cheat on me, etc etc etc – I totally trust them on major things but don’t “trust” them on some minor things and that’ acceptable but I’d rather we just address and compensate for the forgetfulness than make it out like the only options are to pretend it’s either not there or else there’s some major moral failing.

    2. Clare*

      My boring reaction was that she seemed like just another classic missing stair, but it could be way more exciting if there was something going on behind the scenes.

      Perhaps she works for the CIA and this job is just her cover story. Maybe the higher-ups have been told they need to keep her on and pretend her work is useful while she actually devotes most of her time to busting international art smuggling rings. Trusting Brenda could be a matter of vital national importance. Or maybe not, but I’m enjoying the mental image.

      1. John Smith*

        it would be interesting, but probably is just as Alison stated – passive management (I.e, a shit manager) and I speak from plenty of experience. The last time I (a non manager) raised a concern about a non-performing colleague, my manager refused to do anything on the grounds that colleague would know it was me who made the complaint (they would if told directly, but otherwise wouldnt necessarily) and it would ruin future relations. It was also my job, apparently, to manage my colleague – not my manager’s job to do so (and then had the absolute gall to accuse me of abandoning my responsibilities!).

        There could well be something going on in the background, but I bet whatever it is results from toxic and dysfunctional management who make the “something” into what it isn’t.

        1. Piscera*

          It’s definitely easier for management to say LW2 isn’t a team player, than to tell Brenda to get with the program.

        2. Mockingjay*

          Passive managers often ignore problems like Brenda, because the rest of the team is getting the job done. You have to show the impact of Brenda’s actions.

          But as so often with team projects, you can’t simply let a slacker fail without them affecting your own tasks and performance record. So you end up fixing or working around them anyway.

        3. Frango mints*

          I once asked my supervisor if Wakeen was working on a special project for her. She said no, and why was I asking? I told her he wasn’t accepting any client interviews and the rest of us were hustling to keep up. She told me it was my job to apply peer pressure. Ha!

          It was one of the factors in my decision to file for early retirement. Clearly I wasn’t meeting expectations in the Peer Pressure department.

          1. Tangerina Warbleworth*

            WTAF. Who the hell thinks the term “peer pressure” is a positive?

            Also, love your username. I miss Marshall Field’s. I miss the days when department stores were different from city to city and not all Macy’s.

      2. Quantum Possum*

        Trusting Brenda could be a matter of vital national importance.

        Only Brenda understands the 1970s operating system used on the U.S. nuclear arsenal. This is why her technical solutions are archaic.

        Do you remember the nuclear incident in 2010? No, you don’t, because it didn’t happen, because Brenda was there.

        1. OP 2*

          I love this. I’m officially making this my new go to mental phrasing whenever I feel annoyed with her.

          1. Slow Gin Lizz*

            Hahahaha, I’m going to do this with the annoying new c-level person who started at my org a few months ago. Sure, she doesn’t appear to do anything at all whatsoever, but maybe that’s because she’s protecting the nuclear arsenal. And before you ask, no, we do not work with nuclear weapons at all. But if we did, I wouldn’t tell you.

            1. Elizabeth West*

              Heh, me too. I’ll do this with the person who doesn’t like to give hard dates. They’re on a secret mission! That’s why they weren’t online on X day and haven’t answered my email!

            2. Cmdrshprd*

              “And before you ask, no, we do not work with nuclear weapons at all.”

              You just don’t work with them on the surface level. 1) because they are all underground and 2) in places that are good fronts for other things, they operate fully as the other business/front, and most/majority of the employees should not even know, only a few key employees like Brenda/C-level person know the business is a front and the true purpose to hide the nuclear arsenal.
              So I think there is a 0.000001% chance this is the case but you are not in the need to know.

            3. Quantum Possum*

              Haha, yes. “Protecting the nuclear arsenal” is great shorthand for “physically being at work but, you know, not really working.”

          2. Quantum Possum*

            Glad I could help. ;)

            I’ve found that stuff like that helps get me through the day with minimal annoyance. For instance, I once had an employee who (in my headcanon) was an up-and-coming actor going undercover for a role.

        2. H.Regalis*

          I <3 Fantasy Brenda.

          Next time, Brenda takes on an army of kung-fu robots terrorizing Area 51 in The Adventures of Brenda!

          1. AnonORama*

            I assumed something going on behind the scenes was more like “she’s on a PIP” than “she’s an international art cop (or art thief)” or “she’s the only one who can disarm the bomb” but I’m not the most imaginative. I like the movie-type plots better.

      3. Seashell*

        She may have a picture of the CEO in a compromising position. Or, more likely, she threatened to sue the company if they fired her and they don’t want to risk it.

        1. Charlotte Lucas*

          Or she’s just friendly enough with a higher-up that nobody wants to risk it. (I’ve seen this before, too.)

          But I vote for lazy management who won’t deal with a problem employee until it affects them directly. (Maybe not even then.)

          1. SopranoH*

            That’s my vote. I thought the phrasing of the team lead’s statement was more of a poorly phrased conciliatory statement than a shifting of blame to OP.

            1. ampersand*

              Same. I see how it could seem/feel accusatory, especially after mulling it over for a bit. I can totally see myself arriving at the same conclusion.

              But I think it’s most likely it was the team lead’s admission that Brenda isn’t a good employee and, for whatever reason, there’s nothing the team lead can do about it…so it’s LW’s job to fix it on their end. (Ugh, no)

          2. MassMatt*

            I am wondering whether OP and Brenda’s other co-workers are fixing Brenda’s mistakes and doing extra work to get around her, etc. If so, maybe supervisor and manager don’t really see the extent of the problem and figure it’s easier to tell the rest of them to shut up than take any action on Brenda.

            Another commenter made the point that sometimes your own performance depends on Brenda’s work getting done so it’s not so easy to just let Brenda fail. But is it possible to… let Brenda fail more?

      4. Gumby*

        If I’m creating an exciting backstory I’d be tempted to go full Alias on Brenda. Her work is sub-par because she’s secretly working for what she *thinks* is the CIA. But it’s all a fake. So not trusting Brenda is what will do the most good for national security.

      5. Your work sugar daddy*

        Or she works for a competitor and this is industrial sabotage! Look up the CIA Simple Sabotage Field Manual and see if you recognize any of her techniques!

      6. Might Be Spam*

        This reminded me that my son’s roommate keeps claiming that I am a Russian spy. Since I am never even near sensitive information, I could, at most, be a sleeper agent. But I am not.

    3. Also-ADHD*

      I’m a team lead with a group that does a project based work and I’ve got a version of a Brenda (male, and somewhat different issues though), though I’d never say the issue was other colleagues not trusting him.

      But sometimes even with no special protection you can’t easily get rid of team members—I don’t pick when we hire or fire, he’s not always egregious enough to “fire” despite my manager putting him on PIP etc, especially currently as our company has had trouble hiring for awhile (freeze and then even when we were able to get executive and HR approval for new positions, they give us limited windows and we might not get anyone who can do the job—not that this coworker can either but he’s not particularly highly paid and my manager sometimes favors the devil she knows).

      I do work in a niche that can be hard to hire for—most of our applicants lack the skills expected for the job, because jobs with the title can vary so much, and remote job postings get flooded, yet we have very ethical hiring practices and firing someone to hire a person you know to be capable through your network is not allowed (rightly so, but 90+% of applicants when we do post are also not qualified or Brendas in some way I’ve seen—there are some new issues with our job title becoming known but not understood that have led to this, and our HR closes postings at 75 applications no matter what and sometimes that’s not enough to get one good applicant when people just apply for this role—it’s a fight to reopen it every time and has led to us not hiring and having unfilled positions due to a freeze). So, even a Brenda might be better than an empty seat, especially if you’re going to have to fight a freeze in HR to get it filled and struggle to find someone capable-they can do something usually to move a project along and be given lower priority work.

      1. Anon for this*

        Yeah, my team has a Brenda, although our Brenda is… he knows *how* to do the work, but he has no initiative to actually seek out and do work on his own, you need to drop it in his face, he’s harsh and rude in reaching out to people, and he has no concept of “these tasks are daily tasks and must be done first thing in the morning every day”. Another coworker and I once teamed up to cover all the tasks that had piled up in his queue in the interest of getting them done already. It took us an hour. There is no reason he can’t do them daily as they come in!

      2. Cyborg Llama Horde*

        I will say that when my team was very short-staffed and one of the existing people was a problem, while I wasn’t willing to take steps to get rid of her until after we hired someone, when she quit on her own (before we hired someone) it was actually a huge relief, and covering the minimal work she had been doing turned out to be less effort than dealing with her all the time.

        (I’m still not entirely sure that the OPTICS to the rest of the team of firing her when we were that short-staffed would have been worth it, because the issues were mostly visible to me as her manager, but the tradeoff in the amount of work was definitely worth it.)

    4. Mo*

      This letter gave me horrible flashbacks to a programming class I took. Grades were of course based on group projects. Group project 1 had troubles. People just all wanted to have “input” and things were going nowhere. I pointed out why solutions wouldn’t work and pushed to keep things on track. Our project ended up being the most successful in the class. Everyone got an A, except me, who got a C for poor teamwork and arguing with people. So on the second project, I made suggestions which were ignored. Project failed miserably. We all got Cs.

      Some people have just picked up the truism that teamwork is what really matters and value it over a project being successful. “Respect” is headed in the same direction.

      1. Hannah Lee*

        Ugh, that reminds me of a graduate school international experience class I took. It involved a trip to Europe to visit businesses. There was one person Karla who signed up at the last minute who got assigned to share a room with another student Lisa, who knew her and knew she would be a challenging roommate. Literally as we’re collecting out luggage at the airport in Paris our first stop, Lisa was in tears at the prospect. She and several others who I was friends with, done projects with, came to me begging me to switch roommates (which in retrospect I realized was really manipulative… I could either take on Karla or for the entire trip be the person who said no to desperate sobbing Lisa). I’m someone who gets along with most people and can work with even the most difficult colleagues in most cases, and figured I’d take one for the team.

        Karla was an absolute nightmare- though I tried to go in with an open mind, the very first day in Paris she started to her issues: we all stopped on the way to the hotel for bottled water and room snack, she bought 2 packs of cookie dough and then wanted to stay in the room for the day, baking cookies (in the little microwave/oven in the room). Which was odd, but whatever. But then she gotten mad at me that I chose to got out an explore with other classmates… I’d happily asked her to join, but no. Because All of Paris? Including pattisieries? Vs hotel room, slice and bake? She proceeded to be willful and sulky and vindictive the entire trip, with a sidecar of bananapants: turning off my alarm clock after I’d fallen asleep so I’d oversleep (she said i spent too much time getting ready in the morning, I needed to just get up and go) claiming to be a secret princess and being mad any anyone who questioned her or didn’t fawn over her about it, knocking my belongings off the bureau and freaking out when I asked her why. Seeming normal when we went down to breakfast but then tearfully claiming I was mean to her (while saying I did the things she did to me or just making up new stuff). As the trip went on she’d swing from friendly to threatening to throwing away or breaking my belongings to hours long crying jags to manic behavior to refusing to participate, with me and others. By the end I just ignored her, bunked with others when I could.

        Everyone on the trip started to avoid her, I checked in with the instructors on how to handle it, asking if I could just book a separate room, one was sympathetic, seemed to understand but said booking a room wasn’t allowed. The other one kept both-siding things … “different people have to adapt to each other” He decided the final grades, and gave me a C, because though my project work, participation and contributions were stellar, “it is important to adapt to different cultures and ways of working”. I wrote a course review that was essentially said, very professionally of course “batshit crazy, lying, vindictive is not a’ different culture’ students should need to adapt to, and you and the program failed to provide a safe environment for me and my belongings, to address issues that were brought to you during the trip. Do better next time.”

        1. Slow Gin Lizz*

          WHOA. Good for you for writing that review but what the heck was wrong with Karla??? Who STAYS IN THEIR HOTEL ROOM AND BAKES COOKIES IN THE MICROWAVE???? Even if the hotel room were in the most boring of locations and it’s pouring rain, but especially in PARIS of all places!!!! Yikes! One of the professors should have roomed with Karla, she seems like the type who needed an authority in the room with her. “Why don’t you, professor, do the adapting yourself?” is something I would never have thought to say if I were in this situation but gives me comfort to think of now, safe in my office in my apartment that I live in with my two cats and no other humans.

          1. UKDancer*

            Yeah, going to Paris and wanting to stay in the room and make cookies is very strange. I’m not going to lie, I have a conference in a not very pretty town in England this month and I am probably going to stay in the hotel and order room service after work and bring my crochet with me because there’s not much to do in the evenings but if you’re a student going to Paris you’re far more likely to want to actually enjoy Paris.

            Also laughing at the secret princess thing – had she been reading too many romantic novels?

            1. Slow Gin Lizz*

              Oh, hahaha, I totally missed the princess thing. Yeah, that’s beyond wild.

              And as a knitter/crocheter myself, I totally get staying in in the evening and doing that. Esp in a boring place and after a long day at a conference. But that’s still very different from getting a free day in a new place that might have, I don’t know, a museum or park that might be fun to roam around in for a couple of hours.

              1. Hannah Lee*

                I absolutely could see doing that, in fact I’ve done a variation on work trips with hotel food and reading or sketching or binge watching.

                I hadn’t thought about Karla in ages, but just recently I registered for a week long art and nature workshop, and had to pick sleeping quarters: a bunk room, a double or a single. For a minute I was imagining how fun it would be to come back after a long day out wandering and painting and hang out with someone else who likes the same thing, or a whole bunch of people (the program assign roommates if you chose to share rooms). But then the ghost of Karla popped into my brain and I chose “single”. (I’ve roomed with strangers before for work events and other trips, no issues, but I’m in need of serious R & R non stress time, and just didn’t want to risk a Karla)

            2. Quill*

              Honestly the prof should have stopped straddling the fence by the secret princess thing. Sometimes you get liars in your course and that lie is the most bannanapants obvious one I’ve heard in a while.

        2. Panhandlerann*

          Part of this sounds like intense culture shock to me (staying in the hotel to bake cookies in the microwave).

          1. Hannah Lee*

            I tried to cut her a lot of slack, figuring travel stress, but when she tried to control me, got mad when I wouldn’t stay and bake cookies (when there were fresh Croissants and delicious looking pastries at a bakery right across the street from my hotel) and started the lying, I started to lose sympathy.

            She definitely had some odd issues around food (that I think the cookie thing hinted at) For example, at one place I noticed our room had a really musty smell, and I looked around and found a container of rotting strawberries under my bed. I said WTF and threw them away. (I didn’t know where they came from … did the last guests leave them, etc) That night when I came back from dinner, she was angry that I had thrown away her strawberries. I was baffled like a) they were rotten and covered in mold b) why did she put them under my bed? Bananapants was the only explanation

          2. AnonORama*

            Yes, and/or exhaustion and a need to reset. I’ve never baked cookies in the room — and I get why it landed badly when you knew she was likely to be a problem — but I’ve been known to crash in the hotel room after international travel, particularly with a big time change. I’ve only done this on vacation and my friends usually good-naturedly made fun of me on their way out the door, but this doesn’t seem awful without the warnings you got about Karla and the subsequent behavior. (Particularly because it sounds like you were in Paris for months — it wasn’t like a three-day trip and she wasted a night with the cookies.)

            Despite all that, all you need to say is SECRET PRINCESS to really drive home the non-cookie-baking bananapants, though.

            1. AnonORama*

              Ha, never mind. The food and the weird seem inextricably linked with this person. I will now go back to crashing on the first night of every trip with more than a 5-hour flight, and not feeling like a Karla.

        3. Modesty Poncho*

          “turning off my alarm clock after I’d fallen asleep so I’d oversleep (she said i spent too much time getting ready in the morning, I needed to just get up and go) claiming to be a secret princess and being mad any anyone who questioned her or didn’t fawn over her about it, knocking my belongings off the bureau and freaking out when I asked her why.”

          Is…Is Karla a cat???

            1. Broadway Duchess*

              Quantum Possum, you are on fire today! You’re getting me through a very tedious Friday!

      2. Michelle Smith*

        Classic example of why I do not think group projects are very fair. Why should my grade be determined on the work of other people who I do not manage or have any influence over?

        1. Slow Gin Lizz*

          Alison has an excellent post, and maybe several, about why school group projects are absolutely not the same as working at a job with a group of people and this is one of the many reasons she cites as to why. I always haaaaaated them when I was in school because I was a conscientious student (aka nerd) and was not nor am now a good people manager, so I could never rally the group to actually work hard on the project and either ended up doing all the work myself or giving up and all of us getting a bad grade. Blecchhhh, school projects….. [shudder]

          1. Quill*

            Yeah, same, with a side of deep resentment because, as a non-musical person in a high school with a weighted GPA but no honors electives that weren’t music, I was already getting a “worse” grade for perfect scores in my electives than my peers who could hold a tune, before I got paired up with the class slacker in the hopes that they would become, for the space of one project, my problem instead of the teacher’s.

            1. UKDancer*

              They do it with music worryingly much. When I was at school they tried to get those of us who could read music to pair up with those who couldn’t and help them learn it. I mean I’m not a great teacher now and I certainly wasn’t when I was a pre-teen. I learnt to read music from my parents and my piano teacher and had no ability to explain it to others.

              1. Quill*

                Making students be tutors in their own courses is a sign that we’ve got far too many students per teacher, honestly

            2. Elitist Semicolon*

              In a moment of either pure genius or pure malice, I once assigned the teams for a required group project by putting the students with large numbers of absences or missed assignments together, then students who had been trying to coast together, then the folks who had kept up with the assignments together. At the end of the semester, one of my students asked me about it, and thanked me – it was the first team project in her 4 years that she hadn’t had to carry everyone else to get an A.

              (It actually worked well for most of the groups – the folks who had been coasting realized they couldn’t rely on their teammates, so the entire group got it together, and the folks who had been taking it seriously got to work with folks they didn’t have to carry. And the group with the guy who hadn’t come to class in two months and the one who hadn’t turned in any assignments got a rude awakening. But it was also the last time I assigned a required team project.)

              1. Sorrischian*

                I don’t feel motivated to go find the articles in question, but I’m pretty sure there’s been some actual research suggesting that you get the best overall outcomes on group projects for everyone involved when you pair high-achieving students with average students and average students with low-achieving students, but never high with low, which makes sense to me. (Although the idea of forcing the coasting students to face harsh reality by putting them all together is genius)

                1. Elitist Semicolon*

                  You’re absolutely right – I’ve read some of that, but only afterward. I guess I managed to hit on a pedagogically sound practice just by being irritable that day!

        2. group projects are the devil*

          I once had a group project in college where one of the guys would literally scream at us if he disagreed. I asked my professor if I could switch groups because I didn’t appreciate being spoken to in that way.

          His response was “you have to get used to real world situations”

          Says the guy who insists we use floppy disks in 2010.

          1. Radioactive Cyborg Llama*

            Wouldn’t people in the real world ask an authority figure to deal with a yeller?

          2. FricketyFrack*

            Uh, someone DID once scream at me at work in the real world and I told her she needed to calm down immediately because we weren’t doing that. When I worked in call centers and customers got screamy, I warned them and then hung up. There has never once been a real world situation where I was expected to just tolerate that kind of behavior. I have a lot of very strong feelings about just how enormously stupid that professor was.

            1. slashgirl*

              Lucky you. The call centre I was at, we were not allowed to intentionally hang up on rude/yelling/nasty customers. Now, if I accidentally hit the call release button when I went to mute the phone (mute button was above the release button), well no one could prove it wasn’t accidental….:D To be fair, I worked in activations for a cell phone provider that rhymes with “mint”, so it was more surprised folks than angry as the store reps almost never informed them about their “welcome” call. I was more likely to get hit on than yelled at. *sigh* (I’m female and it wasn’t just the guys….)

            2. RussianInTexas*

              Lucky you.
              Back in 2020, when the supply chain collapsed, there were quite a few instances when the customers screamed at us. And by customers, I mean a CEO of a company you would absolutely recognize, and who’s business constitutes about 30% of our revenue. So my boss set and took it. I had to take some screaming and drunken calls too.

            3. Mallory Janis Ian*

              I worked at a place where one person walked in the door first thing in the morning screaming at her collective coworkers. I was so shocked that I gave a nervous laugh, and she rounded on me with a “AND THAT GOES FOR YOU, TOO!”

              While all this was going on, another coworker slipped out the back hallway to the general manager’s office, and he came out and fired the screaming coworker on the spot.

            4. Elitist Semicolon*

              When I heard stories like that from students, I’d ask whether they wanted help raising the issue with the professor and/or higher admin, because I didn’t want 20-year-olds to learn to normalize verbal abuse in the workplace. Funny how faculty would suddenly change their approach when someone above them on the food chain recast their “teachable moment” as “perpetuating a hostile environment.”

          3. ampersand*

            All of that is awful, but I’m stuck on the floppy disk part–I didn’t know those were still an option in 2010!

            1. Elizabeth West*

              Off-topic, but I had to order them from our office supplier at OldExjob because we had machines that used CAD files and they had disk drives. Staples still sells them (online, anyway).

              1. RussianInTexas*

                At my old job, we had a typing machine, because one of the customers was old school, and only accepted invoices typed. In 2013.

            2. WS*

              I had to use them to submit a particular file to the Health Department each month until 2012! And yes, by then we’d had to get a USB disk drive to plug in as computers didn’t have them anymore.

        3. Irish Teacher.*

          I always tell my students “if you want to work as a group, make sure you have clearly designated roles so that the if other people don’t do their part properly, your can still be evaluated on your work alone, for example, one of you do the causes of the war and the other the consequences. That way, if somebody messes up, I can tell who it is.” (I don’t phrase it as “if one of you messes up,” obviously, but I do push very strongly for them to have the work clearly divided.)

          1. iglwif*

            And I promise your students appreciate this approach!

            … well, maybe the ones who mess up don’t, but the others absolutely do.

            (Sources: was once a uni student; currently have a child in uni)

            1. another Hero*

              anecdotal evidence says few people think of themselves as the person who doesn’t hold up their bit of the group project lol so maybe all of them appreciate it and think they’re getting the best deal

          2. AnonORama*

            That’s a really good idea and I’m sure the conscientious students love it. I remember in college aaaaaaallllllways getting stuck with the party-hearty jerks who I knew wouldn’t lift a finger unless it was to pour beer in their mouth, and being resigned to doing all the work because we were graded as a group.

        4. A CAD Monkey*

          Agreed. Group projects in school do not mimic real world. Most of the time, 1-2 people have to carry the group while the rest “contribute” with no accountability. Take a wild guess as to who carried the group typically.

          Story Time:
          Had a group project in college where we were to analyze the statistics of an area of our city. 5 people (4 architecture students, 1 art major iirc), we each took a set of statistics, set a deadline of 2 days before to have everything ready to collate into a presentation. I did my section and was the one who volunteered to make the presentation. The art major came in, dropped a pile of papers (crime stats for the entire city, not just our assigned section) in front of me, said that i had to compile it because they didn’t have time to do it and walked out. Everyone else handed me a disk with their portion of the work ready to go. I started to look through the pile of papers to see what was useful (nothing), decided to just not include their section.

          As we as a group had very little contact with this person, to the point no-one even knew their name, they got left out of the presentation. A MAJOR presentation that counted for a large % of our final grade. Group grade B, F for them as they didn’t contribute to a group. They came into my studio a few days later and yelled at me because this caused them fail the class. (insert Jeremy Clarkson “oh, no. anyway” gif here)

          1. learnedthehardway*

            I had a group project for my MBA go similarly – it was genuinely a group effort, but one person did their part on another topic. Think – introducing a product to the India, but they decided to focus on introducing it to China. That baffled me, and it wasn’t part of the project, so I put it in an as appendix and worked into the body of the paper that the contrast between the results between the two countries as an example of why we considered various factors that weren’t obvious at first glance.

            Everyone was mad at me for not being a team player and for sidelining the one team member’s work. I pointed out that the objective here was to do to the assignment as assigned and to get the best mark we could. One of the team members told me that sometimes it was more important to consider the team. I responded that this was NOT one of those times.

            We got an A on the project. I felt totally vindicated.

          2. Quill*

            My favorite group project was the only one where everyone contributed – we needed four people to babysit a biology experiment at varying times so we worked out our course schedule and scheduled times for everyone to come in and observe. That’s just… not possible with lower level coursework, where there are plenty of people who are committed to doing the bare minimum, or with groups that don’t self-select to work together.

        5. Quantum Possum*

          You know, this is very interesting, and it made me think.

          I was smart in school, but lackadaisical. I never minded carrying the load in group projects or letting classmates cheat off me. (I went to an under-served public school in an impoverished community, so to be fair, I might not have done the same at a bougie private school.)

          Now, as a manager, one of my favorite things is “taking grenades” for my team. It’s hard for me to explain why I find this so meaningful. I never would have related this strange trait to how I behaved as a youngster in group projects. But I can see how it’s consistent.

          There is no right or wrong way to be. We are who we are, and that’s pretty cool, whatever it is. :)

          1. Elitist Semicolon*

            I had kind of similar approach as an instructor. Students would come in with all kinds of issues or obstacles and my thing was, “okay, that sucks; let’s figure out the minimum you have to do in my class to pass.” Because it wasn’t my job to make their lives harder, and teaching students how to ask for help was more important to me than sticking to a set of requirements that I controlled in the first place. If they learned language like, “I’m balancing a lot of competing obligations; can you help me prioritize them?” instead of finishing a project by staying up for three nights and skipping dinner, that was still a successful learning moment in my opinion.

        6. Momma Bear*

          I once argued my way into a C because my roommate and I were the only ones who actually did any work and since they didn’t do any work, the rest of the group was woefully not prepared for the presentation. At all. I hate group work. Awful that the professor only gave Hannah Lee a C because of the terrible roommate.

      3. Katy*

        I had a similar experience in a “project-based” grad school education class where we all had to write a textbook in two weeks and publish it on iBooks. Every other group divided their chapter into six parts, one for each member, and wrote their parts individually. I pointed out that this project was going to need an editor and volunteered for the position, with the understanding that people would need to accept that their work would be edited to be consistent with the voice and approach of the chapter as a whole. They all agreed, and then one of them proceeded to not do his work while telling me I was doing too much (I was writing his whole section for him) and offering to do mine for me (he had no idea how, and anything he turned in was sloppy and nonsensical.) Another pitched a fit at every little edit. Like, she made a widget and it didn’t fit on the page, so I changed it to a smaller widget that linked to the exact same text. She was furious. The other three group members were fine, and our group ended up having the only textbook chapter that wasn’t an incoherent, inaccurate, accidentally offensive mess by the end of the two weeks. But the whole experience was horribly combative and miserable for me.

      4. Quill*

        Group projects in school are always the worst. Because the incentives in school don’t work the same! Everyone is stuck there, the slackers see “passing grade I don’t have to do ANYTHING for” and you end up with a bunch of teenagers ready to throw hands over the one person who is too lazy to put their NAME on the assignment by handwriting out half a page.

        You run into that kind of person less often in a work context. Instead of at least one out of every 20 to 30 people you have the misfortune to share a room with, you get the occasional Brenda.

        1. AnonORama*

          Ha, these stories are making me happy I decided against going for a master’s degree after a career change. I decided against it for other reasons, mostly financial, but the group projects definitely would’ve caused my eyes to roll out of my head.

    5. Hiding from my Boss*

      Thank you for your views. I have a long-time “Brenda” situation that I have wanted so much to post about here and hopefully get some help, but I have been reluctant to out of concern for blowing my anonymity and because I was afraid I’d sound mean and petty.

    6. Rude and Pushy*

      I’ve worked at a place with multiple Brenda’s who’d been there since the 90s. They were totally immune from any rules and standards the rest of us had to work with.

    7. OrangeCup*

      66% of the reason I left my last job was because of a Brenda and an incompetent manager who liked to make Brenda’s issues into everyone else’s faults (Brenda was not only incompetent, she was the office bully with anger management issues, but the manager tried to figure out how her blowups were always the victim’s faults). The other 34% of the reason was an unsustainable workload and low pay. Nothing will ever change while management protects her. My Brenda was literally not doing her job- vendors were getting paid late or not at all, and when I brought that up I was told I was “playing the blame game.”

      Honestly, I was talking to a friend the other day and saying maybe I should send them a fruit basket to thank them for being so stupid and incompetent – if they hadn’t been, I might not have been motivated enough to look for a new job, which I love and got me a big raise. And a lot of people from my old job are also fed up with their antics and job hunting, so I’m helping them out by introducing them to the recruiter I used.

    8. Anastasia Beaverhousen*

      I almost wonder if this is a time for malicious compliance. Trust Brenda, trust her implicitly and follow her lead on everything. Let everyone know that Brenda is in charge. Then watch everything burn.

      1. Charlotte Lucas*

        Unfortunately, the Brendas of the world are often masters of deflection. The blowback could end up hitting the OP full force.

      2. Festively Dressed Earl*

        If a conversation with management doesn’t produce results, then malicious compliance is an option for OP if they get buy in from the rest of their team and if they’re ready to move on if Brenda manages to shift blame to OP. Otherwise the work of covering for Brenda just shifts to the rest of the team and/or OP is punished for not being a team player. At that point, OP should wonder if the rest of the job would be worth keeping if Brenda wasn’t there.

    9. Elle by the sea*

      What is protecting Brenda is her 15 years at the company. You have massive capital if you have spent this long a time with a company. But the question remains how an underperforming employee is kept on for such a long time. I fail to understand keeping on low performers for 2+ years already. I haven’t worked for a company where that was possible, which makes me feel quite lucky.

      1. Jolie*

        I once started a new job and the first thing my manager said (proudly) was that they never fired anyone.

        It was full of Brendas.

        1. kikishua*

          I think Brenda could be the name we sub in for bees in the future… as in “the house is full of bees”

      2. MassMatt*

        “You have massive capital if you have spent this long a time with a company.”

        Until you don’t. If she has worked her way to the top of the pay scale, if/when the company does layoffs there’s a good chance she will be laid off, as the decision would probably be made at levels above the ineffectual supervisor and manager.

        1. Elle by the sea*

          That would make sense, but unlikely if she has been retained for such a long time. Of course , there is a slim chance that she has recently started underperforming due to some personal circumstances.

  2. DJ*

    LW3 re zoom backgrounds.
    Many organisations have corporate/company zoom wallpapers that staff can use during zoom calls. If yours doesn’t approach your comms dept or get an artistic team member to design one!

    1. lyonite*

      Yes! It doesn’t have to be anything elaborate–ours is just a solid color with the company logo in one corner.

      1. Totally Minnie*

        Ours are stock photos of local landmarks with the company logo in the corner. They’re fun, and nobody needs to see the laundry hamper behind my desk while I’m in meetings.

    2. RedinSC*

      Totally agree. Haven’t a branded background is perfect for external meetings.

      We would change them up depending on the season and the activities going on.

    3. allathian*

      Yup. Our comms dept has created several stylish backgrounds for us to use. In internal meetings it doesn’t really matter if you use a background or blur. I don’t attend external meetings very often, but when I do, I’m expected to use one of our backgrounds. It’s a part of our corporate brand, after all. There are enough alternatives available (5 or 6) so that there’s some room for expressing your professional persona within the corporate brand.

    4. tokyo salaryman*

      Yep, our company does this too. We have the usual corporate colors, but we even have “seasonal” ones, like local holidays, International Women’s Day-type events, or the company’s anniversary. Our corporate communication department makes them and honestly it’s nice having 1) variety and 2) something easy to use so you don’t have to stress about your background.

    5. Roland*

      My last org had them too, just a solid color with a little branding. They would automatically load them into everyone’s zoom account. I wouldn’t be surprised if the enterprise version of other meeting software has that capability too.

      1. Anon in Aotearoa*

        Teams certainly does. My organisation provides half a dozen options, with the expectation that we’ll use them in formal or external meetings.

    6. BubbleTea*

      I’ve found these can be very hit and miss without a green screen backdrop – which could be bought, of course, though they’re bulky and not cheap. Blur tends to work better.

      1. Antilles*

        True, but in my experience, even when it’s on the “miss” side of hit-or-miss, it’s still a pretty big improvement over just using your bedroom.

        Will there be issues? Yeah, probably. Your chair might not blend in perfectly with the background and have a weird halo effect. Occasionally the camera can get confused and cut off appendages or see a poster over your head and show it thinking that it’s just part of your haircut. If your setup allows for a significant other/pet to walk behind you, they might pop up for a second. But all these sort of come across to the other people in the meeting as a technical glitch that gets shrugged off.

        1. Elitist Semicolon*

          I’ve had many a Zoom call where half of my cat suddenly floats across my virtual background but not the full cat. Most of the people I’ve been meeting with when that happens are as amused as I am.

      2. Other Alice*

        Both Zoom and Teams have really improved in the past couple of years. I use a virtual background and aside from the occasional glitch it works very well. I’ve found that virtual backgrounds with a pale & neutral background work best, my company has one that is just off white with our logo in a corner.

      3. Eldritch Office Worker*

        One thing I’ve found is that blur vs a static image puts more strain on people’s computers and can cause more meeting tech issues. Not universally an issue, of course, but a factor to consider.

    7. Thomas*

      Number 3, just keep in mind that background removal needs a fairly good computer. If it’s company-issued and your company is miserly, or if it’s the employee’s and that employee is low-paid, this could be a problem.

      1. ArchivesPony*

        this! My current home computer is old enough that Zoom won’t allow those backgrounds and I can’t blur it. so unless the employer is providing the computer, then asking to blur may be beyond her capabilities.

        1. Smithy*

          I do think being mindful of those limitations is helpful to have in mind going into the conversation in case the OP needs to pivot. There are physical backgrounds the OP could recommend that attach to the chair, or just a free-standing screen. Budget wise, these can likely be done for less than $100 and definitely less than $200 which hopefully the OP’s team budget could cover.

          I also think it’s worth it for the OP to consider some light coaching around internal cases where that difference matters. Would it matter for C-Suite staff or Board members? Is there a really fussy member of the finance team who everyone dresses up for just cause she’ll make your life miserable otherwise?

      2. Daisy-dog*

        I guess I feel like the unspoken detail here is that other people in the company blur their backgrounds (by their own choice, using company-provided equipment) and that employee is out of the norm.

        1. Eldritch Office Worker*

          Internet connection can be a factor too though. It might not be at play here but the limitations of technology often comes up with standardizing these things across your company.

          1. LJ*

            I mean part of working from home is having a suitable setup. Treating it as an imposition is just going to cause people to offer less work from home options

            1. Eldritch Office Worker*

              Sure, but in reality reliable internet can be a real problem with working from home and pretending it’s not isn’t a solution either.

              1. GythaOgden*

                Then they need to work out whether it’s feasible to WFH.

                Or they could just make their d*mn bed.

                1. rebelwithmouseyhair*

                  yeah I don’t see why making the bed is not a solution. Or turning the laptop so you can see the impeccably clean whatever instead. I mean, the pet is not the problem here, it’s the mess and the inference that the employee only just woke up.

    8. Caz*

      This! My department has a choice of 3. I was given all 3 on my first day and have on occasion swapped between them when the mood struck me (one is very plain, the others more interesting).

    9. Where’s the Orchestra?*

      My job has five branded backgrounds you can choose from or blurring for external meetings. The backgrounds can at times chew up extra internet bandwidth, so blur is also completely acceptable for us.

    10. an infinite number of monkeys*

      I also have an inexpensive Amazon shoji screen folded up against the wall in the home office I share with my husband. Sometimes I run lengthy virtual conferences and will move into the bedroom so I can shut the door, and I like the physical backdrop because I have foofy hair.

      1. California Dreamin’*

        Oh, this is exactly me! I have a shoji screen that I fold up when not in use. I would like to do a blurred background instead because when I’m behind the screen all day, I feel like I’m in a little cave, but I have curly hair and the blur makes me look like I’m wearing some kind of helmet.

    11. Dust Bunny*

      Ours is a nice picture of the front of our main building, with blooming azaleas.

      It took me far too long into one office-wide meeting to realize that, no, Wakeen is not sitting on the front lawn on Zoom.

    12. Remote in CA*

      My company doesn’t provide virtual backgrounds, but most of the meeting software has them. I work from home in a guest room. I work in corporate training and was attending a sales pitch about training for executive communication/presence when they made a production about professional backgrounds. It gave me a push to look at screens, and I found a gray screen that attaches to the back of my chair. It makes the virtual backgrounds display better–newer colleagues are surprised when they learn that I use a virtual background. When I made the switch and told others why, my wonderful co-workers were adamant that the vendor was wrong and I shouldn’t worry about the bed behind me, but I’ve kept the screen because it creates much better lighting that makes me look better on cameral, and on the rare occasions where I’m meeting a senior executive, it removes any possible negative critique. When the software in use doesn’t include virtual backgrounds, the gray is neutral and inoffensive.

    13. learnedthehardway*

      You have to have a certain level of technology capability to use backgrounds. I couldn’t before I got my latest computer (several years ago now). The most I could do was to blur my background. I needed to upgrade mine, for other reasons, but wouldn’t have done it just to have a nice background.

      This might be a factor if someone is using an older computer.

    14. fhqwhgads*

      Or just use a baked-in fake one instead of blur. Nothing fancy. Most of my coworkers backgrounds looks like offices, but it’s a stock background not their actual home office.

  3. learnedthehardway*

    OP#1 – anyone who offers to be a “work mom” is likely out of touch with professional norms (at best) and at worst figures that their advice entitles them to dictate life / career choices to you. It sounds to me like this person is trying to build their own little cadre of less senior people who are dependent on her or who she can boss around in the context of “advising” them. I could be wrong, and she might just be very friendly and letting you all know that she’s there to help as you get settled into your new roles, but the whole “work mom” phrase really raises a yellow flag, for me.

    This is one of those “nod and smile” and observe situations. Figure out whether she’s well-respected and looked up to at the company or not. Does she have actual power at the company or does she just think she does? Is she a good person or not?

    You can always smile and thank her for her input / advice, and go ahead and do whatever you really should do, anyway.

    1. Not Tom, Just Petty*

      I was thinking of the letter “I don’t like the super popular employee and she’s mad about it.” The receptionist set herself up as work grandma. You were supposed to ooh and ahh over her anecdotes, but not bother her with work.

    2. Airy*

      I was an onlooker to a situation where an older coworker made herself out as “work mum” to a younger one, who trusted her – then the moment she crossed her, “work mum” turned on her and even phoned her AT HOME to yell at her (fortunately younger CW’s partner caught the call and told her to get lost). It turned into a whole awful thing that needed mediation, and “work mum” got the union involved (I’m strongly union and I still think it was an AH move for this situation – she was playing the victim in a situation she’d blown up), and it caused the younger CW no end of stress. She confided in me about all this because, ironically enough, the whole situation started when I said I thought something we were being asked to do by management was unreasonable, and YCW said she didn’t mind doing it, and that’s when WM decided her “work daughter” had to be punished – and YCW, being a nice person who’d just had a different opinion, contacted me in private to ask if we were okay (and I told her of course we were and I’d had no idea WM was going off like this). I offered to ask WM to stop but YCW didn’t want me to (and knowing WM I don’t think she would have listened), so I could only look on. It was bananas. I do not trust the “work mum.”

      1. So this is 40*

        I am a few months into a new job and one of my colleagues (we are the same level, although I do some more senior work) seems to have declared herself my “work mom” without that specific term. There are times when she will occasionally stand over me and fret when she thinks I might not do things correctly (I have been complimented for my attention to detail at work. I’m trying to ignore it as best I can because she seems very easily slighted, holds grudges, and we are part of a shared workflow that she could make unpleasant. So far, thanking her for her help and letting her know I’ll ask if I need anything else and similar have not helped.

    3. Elspeth McGillicuddy*

      Eh, she could be a manipulative and untrustworthy person seeking dupes, but it seems more likely to me that she is a friendly person who likes to be helpful and also has a lousy sense of professional boundaries and norms. Which still makes her a bad choice for a mentor, mind you. But its premature to assume her behavior comes from a desire to control the potential ‘work children’.

      Better to assume the best of people, even if you want to keep the worst in the back of your mind just in case. It makes life more pleasant, and you’ll be right most of the time anyways.

      1. Pastor Petty Labelle*

        Work Mom could be her way of phrasing Person Who Knows How Things Really Get Done. You know, use the bathroom near marketing, its less crowded, the copier nears sales always jams and we don’t know why, if you need an expense report pushed through go to Steve, not Bob, he nickels and dimes everything.

        But it comes across as someone who will monitor your lunch and remind you to wear your coat when it cold.

        1. Observer*

          Work Mom could be her way of phrasing Person Who Knows How Things Really Get Done.

          It could be. But anyone who actually offers to be that person using that title is probably NOT the that person.

          But it comes across as someone who will monitor your lunch and remind you to wear your coat when it cold.


        2. All het up about it*

          But it comes across as someone who will monitor your lunch and remind you to wear your coat when it cold.

          Yep! This is where I went. This person doesn’t mean mentor they literally mean someone who would watch you and “gentle reminder” or “friendly warning” you to death.

          Maybe they DID mean mentor, but my past experience says nope.

          1. fhqwhgads*

            Even if she did meant mentor, enough of what she’s said and how she said it suggests she’d be a bad mentor.

        3. rebelwithmouseyhair*

          The Person Who Knows How Things Really Get Done doesn’t need to advertise their talents by calling themselves anything. If the noob asks any kind of question they’ll be told “Oh I don’t remember if it’s Steve or Bob, but Person Who Knows How Things Really Get Done will remember because she always does” and before you know it the noob will have transferred to asking Person Who Knows How Things Really Get Done by default because it’s quickest and easiest.

      2. OnyxChimney*

        My thoughts was that they probably live in a city with a lot of transplants and this was her way of signaling that she’ll be a friendly Thanksgiving table or help you learn traffic patterns or whatever. Clumsy but probably harmless.

        1. Willow Pillow*

          Well-intentioned as it may be, perpetuating harmful stereotypes against women isn’t harmless.

      3. Observer*

        she could be a manipulative and untrustworthy person seeking dupes, but it seems more likely to me that she is a friendly person who likes to be helpful and also has a lousy sense of professional boundaries and norms.

        That was my first thought, till I got to the part where she followed it up with an email. That’s really pushy. It could still be non-malevolent I agree. But it really is an additional level of Huh?

    4. WoodswomanWrites*

      The whole “work mom,” “work husband,” “work wife” phrasing thing is just so icky to me.

      1. ariel*

        Same! I’m okay with work BFF and occasionally refer to a colleague as my emotional support coworker (but only occasionally and think that’s probably just TikTok infecting my life). I’m not in a work family, I will leave these folks at any time.

        1. Sloanicota*

          I’ve used work wife with another woman (I am also female, we were actually both queer but presented as straight, she was married IRL to a man) where the assumption was that we’re partners who have each others backs on things even though we’re not in the same department and wouldn’t necessarily have reasons to be a pair otherwise. It probably still wasn’t the best choice of words, but I was fine with it. Then later someone else referred to me as my male bosses’ work wife because “I take care of all the little things for him” and I really, really did not like that. So now I avoid those phrases entirely. Work Mom is even worse, taking it to the next level of ick and ew. I’m just sticking with coworker in the future, or ya know friend.

          1. rebelwithmouseyhair*

            Yeah I got work-mummed at one point because there were two new colleagues who couldn’t speak French. I was best at speaking English and also had been in France for a long time so I could explain everything better to them. Also this was around the time I started making cheesecakes, and the recipe made two big ones. I took one into work and they loved it so much I took one in every time from then on.
            But it was all purely informal because we didn’t even interact professionally, we were just lumped into the same office because we all needed a quiet space where we could think. Our office was called “the quiet office” and we even sent IMs rather than just say “hey it’s lunchtime shall we go to the Greek place?” to avoid breaking the others’ train of thought.

      2. Charlotte Lucas*

        Same! As a middle-aged woman who often brings in homemade baked goods because I enjoy baking and is known as a go-to person for institutional knowledge, I am on my guard for the first time someone tries to use that term with me. They will get an earful.

        I think Alison is right to point out how problematic it is when people conflate terminology for work with that for families.

        My sister actually did work with our mom years and years ago. I think she called her by her first name, not “Mom.” So I learned a hard bright line on this early on.

      3. Dinwar*

        I think it’s okay IF it’s someone else applying the term. Like, if you called me someone’s work-dad, it would be totally different than me telling someone “I’m your work-dad.” The former is describing a relationship; the latter is attempting to establish very specific boundaries within one.

        For example, a coworker has been called my work wife. We get along really well, have some shared interests outside of work (tabletop RPGs), and our roles require us to work seamlessly; I get where these people are coming from! But the relationship was well-established before any such comment was made. If I had gone to her and said “You’re my work-wife”, that would be extremely creepy. It would be me telling her how I view the relationship and how I plan to develop it, as well as giving her a sense of what I expect from her–all without her consent!

        Some roles really do need close mentoring, and the number of “What does ‘business casual’ mean?” letters here suggests that at least some people require more hand-holding than you or I would consider normal. I can see someone describing the person who tells new people “DO NOT cook fish in the microwave” a work-mom. But to call one’s self a work-mom is telling people you have no boundaries and expect to control them in ways they have not agreed to.

    5. "Brooke from the office"*

      I once had an indirect senior who was like this. She thought she was more like my fairy godmother than my work mom though; she bizarrely took credit to other coworkers for personal things in my life such as my boyfriend proposing and buying our house. I ran into her after I hadn’t been with the company for at least 2-3 years and mentioned that I was now in a different role (much higher) at a more successful company. She told me that she was happy for me, but that it must have “bummed me out that” she wasn’t there to “hold my hand.”

      1. Irish Teacher.*

        Yikes, that last line is both kind of creepy and also somewhat insulting to you, like she thinks you can’t manage the job without her help.

    6. Porch Gal*

      Perhaps OP can flat out ask her, “I’m confused- What do you mean by ‘work mom’? Are you offering to be our mentor, or to organize social gatherings?” This woman is being cringy, and sometimes the only way to respond is to lean into the cringe instead of tiptoeing around it.

    7. DawnShadow*

      That’s an interesting and illuminating take! I think you may be right. The fact that her volunteering this way is a sign that she’s not, actually, a good person for the job reminds me of a neighbor I once had, who came around to all of her neighbors door to door to let us know that she had recently taken some courses on “counseling” and was available to do marriage counseling for us. You know, because she’s so good at knowing what boundaries are, and all.

      We did not take her up on her offer.

      1. Putting the Dys in Dysfunction*

        The saying “Good fences make good neighbors” seems entirely appropriate for this wannabe marriage counselor.

    8. Constance Lloyd*

      The person who offered to be my “work mom” was 10 years older than me and, to put it graciously, a hot mess. She insisted on calling me “little baby bird,” (which I repeatedly shut down with some of Alison’s phrasing) and I was constantly reminding her I’m in my 30s. She was wildly inappropriate with the vulnerable community we served and before being fired for general incompetence and violating professional norms, she decided I was an enemy rather than an ally and became openly hostile toward me in team meetings. We only worked together for 10 weeks. I don’t trust self proclaimed work moms.

      1. All het up about it*

        She insisted on calling me “little baby bird”

        I literally gagged and nearly threw up my mocha on my keyboard.

    9. NothingIsLittle*

      It’s so odd to see so many takes like this, because “Work Mom” has been used as a joke at several previous workplaces, but never to describe mentorship. I think I’ve found it less weird because it was always obviously being used to highlight when a usual work relationship boundary was intending to be temporarily crossed into more parental territory. It has always been prefaced with a conversation about how I’m the age of their children and they’ll stop immediately if it makes me uncomfortable. I’m also neurodivergent, though, so I might not be the best judge.

      Example: “Work Mom moment, your collar is messed up.” Obvious pause for consent.

      1. Sloanicota*

        I’ve been thinking about this – it seems like people’s understanding of the term is all over the place, which is probably part of the problem and why it’s maybe not a great phrase. Some have said it’s a mentor, others have said someone who bosses you around, I would see it like you – a work mom is someone who takes care of coworkers in sort of material ways (snacks, fussing over people being too hot or cold, has a mini-pharmacy for whoever has a headache/needs a tampon / whatever) – and the coworker may have their own idiosyncratic idea of what it means that is very harmless like, “a friendly face you can always come talk to!” Either way, I probably would not seek to take them up on this without a lot more info, and would never recommend a friend use the term themselves.

    10. barry*

      A senior colleague once gave me some weird, invasive personal advice – about crossing a busy street or something – and under the context of “just standing in for your mom since she’s not here!” I bluntly noted that my actual mother had been dead for quite some time and I didn’t need any assistance. Zero regrets, this is a person who requires clarity, not gentle escapes. Consider the audience and stand up for yourself or, if it’s the easiest way to frame it, your mom as bluntly as you need to, OP1. May workplace moms go extinct!!!!

    11. Mockingjay*

      OP1 can simply say: “thanks, I’m happy to come to you with questions on specific work tasks.” It’s a deliberate ‘misunderstanding’ of what Work Mom is offering (like OP1, I’m not really sure exactly what she’s offering?). Restating allows OP1 to control the narrative without ruffling feathers or getting into specifics.

    12. Filthy Vulgar Mercenary*

      I would be so tempted to respond and say “it was nice to meet you! I’m not familiar with a work mom convention, can you say more about what such an arrangement entails?”

    13. Corelle*

      I had a coworker volunteer to be my “work mom” once. I told her I have a really complicated relationship with my actual mother and the whole mom relationship concept didn’t really work for me, but I enjoyed having her as a coworker. She started asking questions about my mom (!!!) and I shared a combination of alarming and gray rock information (“she thinks I’m going to hell, it’s fine, just some fundamental differences in life outlook”) and shut it down. No thank you, lol.

    14. Ellis Chumsfanleigh*

      I’ve worked at places where the person saying it would have used that phrasing in an attempt to make them seem more approachable.

      Like, a Sr VP or C-suite woman who knows that all the less-senior women at the table would likely find her intimidating and be worried about “bothering” her if they sought her out for advice.

      I agree the wording isn’t great, and that there are other, less gendered / misogynistic ways of saying, “I would genuinely like to be of assistance to you wherever I can,” but I’m not ready to paint this woman with the broad brush of Toxic Person based on this one interaction.

    15. Festively Dressed Earl*

      It’s also possible that this person feels a need to be a caretaker and no outlet for it. If that’s the case, OP is probably one of many younger employees that “work mom” is making uncomfortable. Time for management to step in and point her to a charity where parent figures are needed, instead of filling that spot through work.

      1. Naomi*

        That was my first thought — that the “work mom” is projecting something from her personal life, such as grown children moving out, and is looking for coworkers to fill an emotional need for her. Not malicious, but still unprofessional.

    16. St. Mary’s Institute for Historical Research*

      I was in a similar situation to the LW – sitting in the break room with several colleagues, all of them younger than me, when the office manager came in and started lecturing us about a problem with the copier or something. Which was fine and within her purview, but her patronizing tone was not. She was clearly enjoying the fact that we “needed” her to show us how to do something very basic.
      At one point she called us all “kids” and at the expression on our faces, replied “Well I’m certainly old enough to be your mom! I think of you all like you’re my own children!” (Late 50s, my coworkers were in their 20s)
      I just looked at her and said flatly, “Jane, I’m 45.”
      Took the wind right out of her sails.

  4. Artemesia*

    #4. Surely someone with your talents could find a better job — this one is abusive on so many levels.

    #2. Same. When they decide the competent employees are the problem and they just need to be nicer to the incompetents they refuse to manage, it soooo time to go and leave them to it.

    1. Captain dddd-cccc-ddWdd*

      > this one is abusive

      I’m not sure I agree based on what was in the letter, but one thing stood out: that the sales and service people go “hysterical” when OP doesn’t instantly respond. I know “hysterical” can cover a broad range of things and is often exaggerated, but are they actually freaking out over this? If so why? There’s always a reason for behaviour and if it’s multiple people it seems less like just individu quirks. Why would someone go “hysterical” over not getting a request answered instantly – because they are afraid of the consequences? Is it consequences from the boss? Or (as I wonder) are they concerned at customers leaving that they feel nothing short of an instant response will placate those customers and keep them bringing money in, and ultimately keep the company open… I think that part is the key to solving this actually.

      It isn’t abusive to say “we’re losing customers left right and centre and we’re concerned” and it isn’t necessarily something to be kept from staff, but it does invite the response (as does any information that gets communicated) “what do I need to do with this information”. And it might turn out that this is to look for a new job, not really because of the vacation situation but because you’ve been told the company is a sinking ship.

      1. Pastor Petty Labelle*

        Or Sales is so used to be able to call on OP they think that’s the only solution and they panic when the solution isn’t there. It works too because OP responds. The only way to train them out of it is to not be available.

        I mean what would they do if OP won the lottery and quit the next day. Yeah I know, keep calling her. But she could definitely block and move on at that point, so they would still have to sort it out. this is what you have to get across to them OP. Because, while it may or not be abusive, it is certainly dysfunctional. It’s time to leave this job, if you have options. Start looking around for what’s out there. As I noted below, if the company is losing customers, its circling the drain. You might not have the option of looking and being selective before the place goes under.

      2. Lenora Rose*

        I always wonder about these customers who are so coddled that a week’s delay because someone is out of office is enough to cause them to quit forever. How many of them really exist outside the minds of salespeople?

        Yes, there are situations where a week’s delay is a major issue, but those would be, oh, major medical manufacturer, disaster management, and the like – OR the week’s delay is a delay on top of delays on top of delays and an expensive project is at risk (in which case that’s either on sales already, or on the customer’s side, and still not OP’s problem).

        I would like to think that the people who are just “I want it all and I want it now!” (cue Freddie Mercury/ Adam Lambert et co.) are rarer than the ones who will hear, “Our staff member who can answer that is in next week” and go “okay. I’ll reach out then.”

        IME, even the people who ask for the moon right away because “Why not at least ask” still 99% of the time take “Sorry, we only sell satellites here”, or “You can have the moon, but not until next week” for an answer.

        1. JustaTech*

          And if they were a medical manufacturer or in disaster recovery, then industry standards say that you never have a single point of failure (to the point of “never allow more than X% of the Y department on the same plane), in which case the onus is on the OP’s management, not on the OP.

        2. Ted*

          Original #4 letter writer here. You’re right! It’s not just me here. We have a weekly tech cycle. I am sure a client would’ve been fine with “we have to wait until Monday for tech reasons.” That’s the way it works in our business at every company. I am sure the client would understand. There was no business reason for speed–the product would’ve been just as useful in another week. But our sales manager threw a tantrum, eventually bullying the IT manager to spend hours reprogramming the system to allow the cycle to start mid-week. Just to show how “super” we were.

      3. Judge Judy and Executioner*

        I can confirm that some sales people can freak out or go hysterical when they don’t think you are responding to their important question fast enough. This could include yelling, cursing, copying your boss and grandboss on their second email when you didn’t answer the first one in 10 minutes, and complain about you to anyone who will listen every change they get. It doesn’t matter if they sat on something for weeks, if they ask you to get the numbers for a customer call it’s usually needed urgently and if you don’t do it it’s suddenly your fault if the sale is lost. Multiple people at my job have quit due to abusive salespeople, but their managers and HR don’t hold them accountable for their crappy behavior.

        1. Cyborg Llama Horde*

          While no one was mean to me, I definitely got a few negative comments on my review one time to the effect that I needed more customer service training because I … failed to convince a customer for whom our product wouldn’t meet their basic criteria that they would be happy with it.

          Luckily my boss knew exactly what had been going on, and his commentary was, “Don’t worry about it; the Santa Fe office is just grumpy because you didn’t land them that $60k deal with the client who would have been very unhappy and an ongoing nightmare. You made the right choice.”

          1. GythaOgden*

            My friend made getting pushy salesmen to stop into an art form. After being constantly badgered by conservatory salespeople, he finally said, ‘Actually, yes, I would like one. When can you come round?’

            The salesperson arrived and found out my friend lived on the third floor of a block of flats. He came up and said, ‘I’m sorry, you said you wanted a conservatory…but we can’t fit one to the side of a third floor flat and in any event this is a council house so you’d have to own your property before we can go ahead.’

            My friend smiled and said, ‘Yup. I said I’d like one and asked you to come round to see why I can’t have one and why your company should just leave me alone when I ask you to.’

            I know this sounds like an apocryphal tale, but I’ve seen my friend directly pull similar stunts, albeit on a smaller scale, so I believe it in his case. I had to do it to Sky to stop them badgering me about my parents renewing their subscription — I ended up having to say that they got a new digital TV when they were forced to change from analogue, they found it hard to work out how to plug in the Sky box to it but found that they weren’t that bothered and didn’t want to watch anything exclusive to the Sky package they’d had. So they cancelled. I explained all that to the rep and surprise surprise they stopped ringing us.

            So I believe my friend when he had the guts to demonstrate exactly why he would like a conservatory but couldn’t actually have one. I’ve seen it with solar panel salespeople too — you have to have a south facing roof, so my friends were SOL until they moved. But people will still show salespeople up for not taking them off their lists when asked.

        2. Ted*

          Original #4 letter writer here. Yes, thank you! It ends up that I am blamed if we lose a client as I wouldn’t drop everything to provide a new product at the last minute.

      4. Ted*

        #4 OP Letter Writer Here. They get annoyed when I don’t respond within the hour, let alone within the week. I told them when I started here that we do not have the resources for that level of service, but I just get, “We’re in no position to turn away customers” and continue to promise them anything to sign on the dotted line.

    2. Ted*

      #4 Letter Writer OP Here. Your points are very good. To expand, this company lacks vision. Here’s an analogy: We’re a steakhouse, but to fill tables, our sales staff promises Italian food, Chinese food, Vegan food, Seafood. As a well-trained chef, I can cook a lot of different kinds of food. But there is no way I can find room in our refrigerator for all those fresh ingredients, hire all those specialist assistant chefs and find room for all the necessary cooking implements for all those cuisines. Hence the problems when a salesperson says, “You must cook paella! I promised this couple paella and I don’t want to hear that you don’t have the time or ingredients.”

  5. Not Tom, Just Petty*

    LW4: remember the letter from the admin who hadn’t taken time off in the brewer oart if a decade because her boss ran off anyone filling in for her?
    She found the solution. She made a list of things that had to be done, could be done, didn’t need to be done and set expectations with her boss and replacement.
    Need v want.
    You should be able to tell your internal partners, I’m out on these days. Here is what cannot be done in my absence and here is what can.
    Give them a point person and silence your phone.
    If the company crashes and burns because they can’t find you, well, you have bigger problems.
    If someone is annoyed they couldn’t get exactly what they needed (yep, even needed) exactly when they needed it because they thought, well, OP really will be checking email, that’s is not your problem.

    1. Pastor Petty Labelle*

      If the company crashes and burns because OP took vacation, it was circling the drain anyway. Apparently it is based on losing customers.

    2. oranges*

      LW4 bares some responsibility for the situation here too. They see themselves (right or wrong) as the ONLY person who can handle these situations. They have two direct reports who “can’t” cover for them. They either need to up the training or the trust.

      1. Texan In Exile*

        Not necessarily. Sometimes, there is nobody who will be your backup. I was the one who published the department newsletter. I had prepared everything in two weeks instead of the usual month because I was going on vacation and I couldn’t even get my boss to assign a co-worker to press the darn “send” button. (Although – JungleMail is tricky and will send 4,000 empty emails without warning if you don’t talk to it nicely.)

        My boss just said we would send the newsletter – which was completely ready to go – out late.

        And then he still texted me while I was on vacation with a question I had answered before I left and that did not need to be answered immediately.

        I was not paid enough to think about work while I was on vacation.

      2. Just Thinkin' Here*

        I agree with this – time to do some cross-training and start writing process and procedure documents. Most of the time someone can’t do something, it’s because no one wrote down how. That’s on the OP and their manager.

      3. Ted*

        Oh, they could do it. But they couldn’t do it as fast as I could, and that would be the issue.

    3. Ama*

      For #4 — I have been working a job for the last 10 years where a good 75% of it no one else at my work knows how to do (we started at 100% of my job no one else could do, it’s been a slow go to get that percentage down).

      Any time I leave on vacation for more than a couple days (and I do, I regularly take at least two vacations a year of a week or more as I find those big breaks are key for my stress levels and mental health) I leave behind a detailed list for both my boss and my reports that essentially triages any situations they might encounter. I often start writing this up a week or so before I leave the office so I have a comprehensive list (and I regularly borrow the general tips from previous versions). It includes:

      -Any specific client situations that I couldn’t fully wrap up before I left (for example I’m waiting for someone to submit a deliverable or make a decision) and how to handle.

      -Some tips for the type of new queries that could pop up, i.e. “if someone needs X information, you can find a template of how to format that info here” (I limit this to queries only I handle, if it’s something I know a coworker knows how to do I might say “ask Jane if a query about Y comes in, she’s used to handling those” but won’t otherwise spell stuff out)

      -Most importantly I try to list things people should NOT handle, either things that need to wait until I’m back because they are trickier situations where my coworkers might not have all the context to properly handle or things that clients will sometimes try to ask for that we do not provide because those are the kinds of situations where a big mess can happen if someone handles it incorrectly.

      I do tell my boss that if it’s a real emergency they should email my work email and then text me to look at it (because I won’t look at my work email when I’m on vacation otherwise), but in 10 years that’s actually never happened. We have had some minor client emergencies pop up when I’ve been gone but they’ve always been able to use the info I provided to handle it.

  6. N*

    1/ in some scenarios where I’ve looked out for one of the younger staff, or helped them fix something they’ve said “thanks work mom!” In a joking kind of way. In that scenario it’s endearing because it’s been said as a way of thanks and acknowledgement of something I’ve done. But there is no way any stable person would go up to someone and offer their services as a “work mom”. To me that screams of some kind of need to be needed and you would end up in a very unhealthy dynamic by having that person cross past any kind of work boundary into friend boundary. I’m currently watching a scenario like that unfold at my workplace and it’s creepy and unhealthy for everyone around, (talking senior member of the exec team braiding a junior member’s hair at her desk in full view of public) so maybe I’m just being extra sensitive to this issue.

    4/you negotiated 20 days per year, you’re entitled to take 20 days per year and if you wished you should also be able to take all 20 in a row.
    It’s not your problem to solve by only taking a day or two if the company can’t manage extended leave, it’s a culture problem that will take more time, throw them in the deep end, and take 2 weeks off not 1; they’ll need that additional week to create the urgency to solve these issues on their own. That’s not to say you can just up and leave tomorrow, you should take the time to create flow charts or procedures for common scenarios and give those to your staff, as well as warning them “on x date I will be commencing leave and will be uncontactable in that time. Please let me know what you need from me in advance to make that easier for you”

    1. annonie*

      Eh, that’s not always true. My last few jobs have all had 4-5 weeks off per year but you couldn’t take all those weeks at once. Usually two weeks at a time was the limit unless worked out something special with the boss.

    2. Bagpuss*

      in my experience it. very common to have policies which limit people to a maximum amount of consecutive time off.
      Mostly 2 weeks , with authority required for a longer period .
      of course LW 4 should be able to take a week or two off, but having some restrictions on how leave is used is very normal

      1. allathian*

        It can work the other way, too. I have to take at least two consecutive weeks off between May and September, as per our collective agreement.

        1. New Jack Karyn*

          I’m told that’s true for lots of people in the financial industry, as a built-in fraud check. Maybe other industries, I have no idea.

      2. UKDancer*

        Same. My company is happy for people to take time off (and encourages it) but if you want longer than 2 weeks consecutively you need to discuss well in advance and get manager agreement and ideally make sure it’s not one of our very busy times. It’s not a problem in principle it’s just a practical work planning issue.

        The main time people use it is when they want a honeymoon although I’ve had Australian / NZ colleagues want a month to visit family back home and for that we usually try and arrange it for one of the quieter times of the year.

      3. londonedit*

        Yep that’s been my experience in every company I’ve worked for. Two consecutive weeks (10 working days) is no problem at all and you can just book it through the holiday booking system, but anything longer than that usually needs to be specifically agreed and approved with your line manager in advance. I’ve never seen anyone have a longer holiday refused, it’s more of a planning issue.

    3. Thomas*

      Well, if the employer wants to be unreasonable, I believe in most US states they *could* refuse to allow OP4 more than two days consecutive leave or suchlike, unless a contract says otherwise.

      But OP4 hasn’t even asked.

  7. nnn*

    This is about 40% of an idea for #2. I’m posting it in case anyone can figure out what they other 60% is.

    The first question is: what would trusting Brenda look like, in terms of your actions and behaviours?

    The second question is: what would the consequences of acting in that way be?

    Then you have to frame the conversation (maybe in writing) to make it understood that if they want you act like you trust Brenda, they have to take responsibility for these consequences.

    (Also, crossover fanfiction: Brenda is really ChatGPT)

    1. Captain dddd-cccc-ddWdd*

      If one of the issues is that Brenda makes a lot of mistakes, so OP has to check the work and re-do it before it goes out: Don’t check it, just send it out (this assumes OPs role doesn’t officially involve checking Brenda’s work, of course). When inevitably a mistake causes some issue, the conversation will go like this; “Why did you allow that document to go out with a mistake in it?” – “because after our conversation about not trusting Brenda I saw I need to trust her more” – “You know I didn’t mean like THAT”…

      Acting like you trust her seems close to malicious compliance and puts your conflict with the TL ahead of what’s good for the org as a whole.

      1. Mongrel*

        When inevitably a mistake causes some issue, the conversation will go like this; “Why did you allow that document to go out with a mistake in it?”

        That’s definitely something you’d want to get in writing first though, it’s never the Brenda’s who fall foul of the repurcussions

      2. LCH*

        i think this is the way assuming OP doesn’t work in a field where not catching Brenda’s mistakes will kill someone. you need to make her manager manage her.

    2. WellRed*

      I’d caution OP to make sure it’s not obvious in her own words and actions what she thinks of Brenda. Nothing has changed except that now OP has had their own behavior noted. OP cover your self, don’t cover for Brenda.

      1. Pastor Petty Labelle*

        THIS. The team lead has made it clear that Brenda is not going anywhere. So you need to document, document, document to protect yourself.

        Also Alison’s idea of going to your actual boss with a hey, this is affecting my work because I am spending time correcting Brenda’s work instead of doing my own, how should I handle this is in order. It at least flags it for the boss. If you get a similar response to the team lead well now you know.

      1. Dust Bunny*

        It means “don’t bother me with the expectation that I’ll do anything about it even if it’s my job”.

    1. Not Australian*

      Yup. I’d be all for pets appearing in the background as long as they didn’t disrupt the meeting: a dog or cat asleep on a bed would just be a charming asset IMHO.

      1. I Have RBF*


        Yes, some companies that have a buts in office seats mentality wouldn’t like to be reminded that people really do work when they WFH, but most normal people would just ask what breed the dog was, or something equally non-controversial. Having pets in your background humanizes you for a lot of people.

        If they really are that uptight, narrowing the camera focus and putting up a foldable screen might help.

    2. an infinite number of monkeys*

      I thought that was funny too (which I assume is how the OP meant it). That dog is doing an important dog job and doing it very well! Give that dog a raise!

    3. Just Thinkin' Here*

      Absolutely, don’t blame the dog, blame the dog owner. Also, the OP needs to learn to turn their desk around so it faces the wall.

    4. MCMonkeyBean*

      Honestly, that line actually did really rub me the wrong way. The ultimate question is fine and I agree with Alison’s response–but I thought the tone of the letter was kind of concerning. “Lazy” and “lounging” were really odd words to use that seemed intended to somehow make the background sound worse than it actually is. The only actual example of anything unprofessional was the bed not being made, which doesn’t even sound honestly that unprofessional to me.

      Maybe I’m overthinking it but I would urge OP to reconsider whether or not they genuinely don’t care what the employee’s background looks like, or whether it is unconsciously influencing her feelings.

    5. anonny*

      I do like how the complaint is that the dog is “lazy”. If the bed was made and the dog was industrious, would that solve the problem?

  8. Observer*

    #1 – Don’t want a “work mom”.

    You are most DEFINITELY properly weirded out by this. It’s just bizarre! More importantly, what Allison says that “It sounds like the phrase of someone who has no frame of reference for women in senior positions or with authority, and therefore “mom” — with all of its gendered subtext — is her go-to rather than “mentor,” “advisor,” or “senior colleague.” That in itself makes her suspect as a good choice for the role she’s offering.” is 100% true.

    I would not want her as a mentor for any price.

    1. Awkwardness*

      I have seen it so many times here, but… how do you format text italic?!?
      Tell me, I am begging you!

      1. Quantum Possum*

        Use without the spaces to start the italics, and without the spaces to close them. (Don’t forget to close them out!)

        1. Quantum Possum*

          Omg whyyyyy lol….

          Ok, use the angle brackets (when you click shift+comma and shift+period). I’ll use * in the bracket’s stead.

          *i* opens italics and */i* closes them.

      2. linger*

        There are several HTML formatting codes you can use between angle brackets.
        But (in consequence) the site interprets anything within angle brackets as coding and strips it out from the text, so it’s hard to demonstrate exactly; this is what happened to Quantum Possum’s reply. It can also make it hard to use “less than” and “greater than” characters in text.

        If “[” = open angle bracket, and “]” = close angle bracket,
        then you can use codes
        “[i]enclosed text in italics[/i]” for italicized text;
        “[b]enclosed text in boldface[/b]” for boldface;
        “[blockquote]enclosed phrase-length quote, e.g. from an OP[/blockquote]” for a

        block quote starting on a new line.

        Note that you need to use the slash character when closing any formatting code.

        1. Hlao-roo*

          the site interprets anything within angle brackets as coding and strips it out from the text, so it’s hard to demonstrate exactly

          For anyone who does want to see exactly what it looks like: above the box you type a comment into, there’s a link to the site’s commenting rules. If you scroll down to the bottom of the rules, there’s a “How can I use HTML in my comments?” section.

        2. Phony Genius*

          If it helps, angle brackets are also known as “less than” and “greater than” symbols.

    2. Ama*

      What’s been interesting to me as I’ve scanned through the comments is that I’ve had multiple female coworkers older than myself (mostly back when I was in my 20s and early 30s and appeared outwardly to be a soft-spoken and eager to please young woman) who tried to self-appoint themselves my mentor, but even the most boundary pushing of them never used the phrase “work mom.” “Work mom” to me is definitely a problematic phrase (although I see some people don’t see it as problematic as I do), but I actually think the main problem here is that this person is trying to push her way into a mentorship role and not really taking no for an answer.

      1. Observer*

        I actually think the main problem here is that this person is trying to push her way into a mentorship role and not really taking no for an answer.

        Agreed that this is a huge problem. I just think that it’s less weird, although equally problematic. And you are right for calling it out, regardless.

  9. TechWorker*

    #4 – I do accept that it’s much harder to train people virtually but not sure that’s the same as ‘so you should just give up & accept they’ll never be able to cover your role’. Is it worth doing a trial run where you do a few weeks of you not answering things off the bat & instead your reports do their best effort & either run the answers by you for correction first, or you are available to help deal with the most complex queries? Even if they can only deal with 70-80% of stuff that’s better than them being able to deal with none of it because they have no practice or guidance at how to respond.

    1. bamcheeks*

      Yes, that struck me as a real hole in LW’s letter, both from the point of view of them getting to take their leave AND from their staff’s own development.

      LW, if you can anticipate multiple customer crises in any given week that only you can handle, you really need to be analysing these and working out which of them you could be passing on to your reports, or working through with them jointly until they’re confident about, or which are standard enough to be triaged using a flowchart process or whatever. They may not be able to handle them all the same standard you would, they may not be able to handle every single one of them, they may take longer to handle them, but I think you’re probably doing both your staff and yourself a disservice if you think the fact you’re working remotely means you can’t train them. If these “crises” are happening sever times a week, that seems ample opportunity to bring other people in and get more confidence in their ability to handle some of the more quotidian ones.

      1. londonedit*

        I agree. I expect these customers have come to expect that the OP will always be there to resolve their ‘crisis’ – I wonder what would happen if that expectation was challenged.

        OK, it’s highly possible that not everything will get done and not everything will be sorted immediately if the OP is off for a week. But that’s how it goes. It’s only a week; people will deal with it. If something urgent needs to be done, brief your colleagues and make sure they’re primed to do it. But I think you’ll find most ‘crises’ can wait a few days.

        1. bamcheeks*

          It’s also possible that it IS stuff that genuinely needs to be solved within a few hours, like an outage — but in that case, you cannot have a single point of failure! You need much more reisilience or the company fails.

          1. londonedit*

            Oh, definitely – you absolutely can’t have it all balancing on one person. That’s just madness.

            1. Frankly, Mr. Shankly*

              this is my situation- my job is literally only me. If I’m out, nothing gets done and my boss freaks out. I’ve take a day here and there, but never even two days in a row and when I return, I pay the price. She always has some minor “mistake” she uncovered (scare quotes because multiple times these were not my mistakes, but hers) or I spend the next few days not taking lunch/ staying hours late. I don’t know how companies don’t see the danger to *themselves*, let alone the employees.

      2. Pastor Petty Labelle*

        Yes, how they will ever learn or gain experience if you don’t let them try? I think the idea of delegating stuff while you are there to review is a great idea. Then as they learn more, you can delegate more.

        Because let’s face it, this will eventually not be your problem. Because you need to leave this place.

    2. Amey*

      Yes, this struck me too – I think it’s worth really interrogating the idea that it’s impossible for other people to be fully trained because of the remote environment. That’s not sustainable in a fully remote job! You just might need different approaches for getting people to the same level than you would use in person.

      I work in an advice-giving field, and pre-pandemic all of our work was in person. Appointments were in person and new advisers learned a huge amount about their role by shadowing more experienced advisers and listening to discussion in the office.

      We had to go fully online for the pandemic and still work a hybrid schedule and deliver the majority of our appointments online. That’s meant entirely shifting the way we train new advisers – it’s more work but we can still undertake lots of shadowing of online appointments, and managers supervise much more intensively and we have created other forums for problem solving together. As a manager, I review my new advisers’ write ups of their cases closely before they send them to their clients – not just for accuracy of advice, but for tone, terminology and the way to pitch things for our particular audience.

      Much of this probably isn’t your job to solve – it’s a manager’s – but can you keep a team log of complex problems and how they were solved, for example? Could your other colleagues each spend a day or two shadowing your calls or working on complex case emails together over Teams/Zoom? Can your experience be written down in some way?

      Like you, I’m the most experienced person in my team and some of my expertise comes purely from the length of time I’ve done this job at this organisation. I have developed lots of written documentation, policies and processes over the past few years to significantly reduce the dependency of my team on me.

    3. WellRed*

      That stuck with me, too. If you need in person training so be it, but remote work doesn’t work if you throw your hands up at all other solutions for training. Side note: I dislike when managers refuse to take time off or let their team step up and shine.

      1. Michelle Smith*

        It’s a good point, yes. OP gets the flu or needs surgery or something and is out of commission for a week or two (or more – when I had major surgery, I was out for 6 weeks)? They need to be able to function as a business. Same thing if she moves on to another job. So vacation schedule or not, this is something that needs to be addressed.

      2. Long time lurker, first time poster*

        “Let their team step up and shine”

        I think this is really helpful framing. LW4, as a manager who has been in your shoes (and have coached individual contributors who were the experts working alongside juniors) I’ve found it incredibly beneficial to reframe how you think about this situation. Instead of looking at this as something only you are equipped to handle, think of you stepping back as giving your team the space they need to grow, and build their confidence in handling complex situations.

        In my experience, I’ve found juniors can fall into a pattern of relying on more senior colleagues as a crutch which isn’t great for the senior, or for the juniors’ career progression either. Tell your team that you are making a point to take a step back so they can tackle some of these more complex issues head-on, and after the fact provide them with feedback and coaching on the actions they took. I would bet money that you’ll see their confidence skyrocket and they will be able to handle complex issues much more effectively than you expected.

        As some other commenters have mentioned, if in-person training is necessary then make it happen. That said, you can 100% manage high performing teams remote by thinking through

        1. What documentation can you create? This will help your current team, but also with onboarding new team members.
        2. What systems/processes does your team need to be trained on? Break it down and make it happen.

        Ultimately you’re in a great position to empower your team and get them the resources they need to do a great job, which will strengthen your team and also let you take the vacation time you’ve earned.

    4. Lily Rowan*

      Yeah, they will never have the years of experience if they don’t have the opportunity to get the experience!!

    5. Daisy-dog*

      I’ve worked somewhere like that. Basically, that team will just circumvent anyone else even if they can answer all their questions. They’d just rather here it from the “expert”. And no one else can ever be that expert. And if the expert gets abducted by aliens, they’ll always bemoan how much knowledge they lost – even if 10 years go by and the replacement now has more experience and more knowledge than the expert. Now, I’ve never known any expert to not take a weeklong vacation (a really normal length of time). The team just saves all their questions until the expert is back.

      LW can start dismantling this with training, but it can get so ingrained.

  10. Dawn*

    I think the whole entire point about Brenda is, she’s been here 15 years and has worked her way up in spite of sucking – nobody’s going to do anything about her now, but if a junior employee is sufficiently outspoken and negative about her, she obviously holds some political capital here for whatever reason, and you might end up taking the blowback.

    That’s what makes it a problem; the old saying that “life’s not fair” applies here. You may be very, very correct that she sucks, but if you keep bringing it up, the consequences of that are likely going to fall on you sooner or later.

    1. Captain dddd-cccc-ddWdd*

      It’s possible bit I don’t think the TL would habe responded that way if Brenda were being protected for political reasons. I think it’s more likely that – like I’ve seen many times – someone sort of becomes an ‘institution’ in the company, they’ve been there a long time and everyone knows who they are and so on, so they get promoted. Often these people get cleared out when there’s a change of management, but even without that they can start a process (whatever that looks like) even on someone like this. I think what we have here is an inexperienced TL (perhaps also promoted when they shouldn’t be? is it a pattern in this company?) who’s inherited a performance problem and doesn’t know how to deal with it.

      1. Artemesia*

        We had someone like this who was basically in a receptionist type position which we didn’t need all that much but she refused to learn to use the computer and when asked to take on a task we really did need involving working with student walk ins, she didn’t want to train up to do that either. So she had a job that required about 10% of her effort. And she was protected by the head admin. And then one day we had a new professional hire who was a big shot and needed things done — and he immediately saw that we had a full time person doing nothing. She was gone in a month and a new hire made who could do that things he and others needed one. The non functioning staff person had been there for 20 years.

      2. Dawn*

        I mean, I think the point still holds up; when someone is an institution and someone relatively new is openly disparaging of them, whether or not it’s justified it’s a problem, and there can be consequences for them if they don’t rein it in.

    2. MK*

      It’s not a given that Brenda worked her way up despite sucking; her incompetence might be a more recent phenomenon for whatever reason, or the latest promotion saw her in a job she isn’t good at.

      1. TechWorker*

        It’s also possible that the work LW sees is a relatively small part of Brenda’s role & management is putting much less onus onto it than LW is.

      2. Ellis Bell*

        Interesting – my take based on OP being shocked silent at Brenda’s level of understanding was that she was fundamentally incapable rather than just struggling at a new role, but you’re right, it’s definitely a possibility.

        1. Dawn*

          I mean, from OP’s perspective, sure! But OP has been working with her for a couple out of her 15 years with the company and there’s so much they might not be seeing.

    3. ONFM*

      This has been my experience. Additionally, the peers you might think are your allies here are really going to be complicit in covering for Brenda for the past few years. Exposing her shortcomings exposes their poor management/supervisory skills, and they certainly aren’t going to thank you for that. I assume she has fantastic performance evaluations, probably letters of appreciation, etc., in her file…and no one had a problem until you came along! Tread carefully…You can be right, but being right doesn’t pay the bills. The bosses may believe Brenda’s mistakes are an acceptable cost to pay for…whatever benefits they think she provides.

  11. Captain dddd-cccc-ddWdd*

    OP2 (don’t trust Brenda) – response to “you don’t trust her and that’s a massive problem” could be “yes, absolutely, I don’t trust her, because of reasons like x, you and z. I agree that it’s a massive problem that we can’t trust her – What steps are going to be taken about it and what do you need me to do towards that?”.

    You habe a third option other than accept it or leave which is go to the manager (that the team lead mentioned the manager already knows about some of Brenda’s issues, but I think not all of them). Rudeness when a tactful approach is needed is actionable, out of date technical suggestions may or may not be depending on what the role is, but all add to the background picture. I bet the team lead is telling the manager they’re handling it.

  12. Aggretsuko*

    “Trust Brenda” means “let her do what she wants because that’s what’s going to happen anyway.”

  13. Mainly Lurking (UK)*

    Re: OP1, I wonder if I’m the only UK reader who read this and remembered the story of how the legendary daytime TV couple Richard and Judy first met? Back in the early 1980s at Granada TV studios, it was the practice for new starters to be assigned a ‘mum’ or ‘dad’ to show them the ropes. And so it came to be that Judy Finnegan introduced herself to Richard Madeley with the immortal words: “Hello, I’m your mummy”.

    1. anononon*

      That story is so hilarious, and so gross. And yet here we are – they’ve been happily married for decades!

    2. HexagonRuler*

      When I went to university (in the UK) back in the 90’s I got assigned a ‘Mum’ who was another student studying the same subject but a year ahead of me, to act as an informal mentor. The name of the role might be odd but I found her advice helpful. She also sold me many of her textbooks as she was a year ahead.

      When I moved up the years, and subsequently moved to another university for postgraduate studies, I willing volunteered to be ‘Mum’ to incoming first years, because I think it is valuable to mentor and assist newbies who don’t know a new institution.

      1. BubbleTea*

        Same at my university (and we got “married” to someone doing a different subject, so there were siblings and whole extended families for support). It was a good idea for uni students just leaving home to live independently probably for the first time. Not so much for adults in the workplace.

      2. Irish Teacher.*

        I think it’s a little less weird in that case though, because a lot of the students starting university would be 18-20 and one of the things that bothers me about the term is the way it implies that the people she is speaking to are “new adults” who need a “proper adult” to “look after them”. At 18, that makes a bit more logical sense.

        Plus, if it’s a 19 year old playing “mum” to an 18 year old, that is obviously not meant to be taken too literally. They are unlikely to actually see an 18 year old as a child in need of looking after, whereas if a 40 year old mature student offered the same thing, I’d be more inclined to feel patronised if I were the younger person.

        And presumably, male students who volunteered were assigned as “Dads”.

        And the whole thing was officially organised. It would be a lot weirder if a random student just came up to you in the canteen and offered to be your mom.

      3. EvilQueenRegina*

        At my university (also in the UK) we had the tradition of “academic families” where first years would be “adopted” by third and fourth years – it was a social thing really to help students make friends, there was usually a big party “Raisin Weekend” in mid November (family parties on the Sunday, a foam fight on the Monday). Most people did participate although you could opt out.

      4. Sled Dog Mama*

        At my (US) university we had a formal big brother/sister program where every 1st year was assigned an older student to be a resource.
        We also had informal “family” groups that grew out of a pre-orientation program that the outdoor center ran. The trips I worked on were backpacking and canoeing trips. Each group would have 2 leaders, and they tried to have one male and one female leader for each group. Those were always a little weird because you rarely worked with the same leader twice and there was a policy to try to assign you to work with the person who was your leader (if you had attended and they were still on staff) during your first year. Some one once made a “family tree” of these relationships, it was wild.

    3. UKDancer*

      Very funny. We call it a “buddy” and in my company new staff are assigned a buddy on arrival so they’ve someone to ask questions that they may not want to ask their boss and to just make sure they can quickly troubleshoot any teething problems. Sometimes it results in people becoming friends and sometimes it’s just a couple of chats and being on hand in the first day or so.

    4. Ellis Bell*

      If any story is going to kill forever the trendiness of work family nicknames, that ought to be the one that does it.

  14. firstevercomment*

    The Zoom background blur is a super professional and reasonable request IMO. I would probably be casual about it, like “hey, can we go ahead and do professional/neutral/blurred backgrounds for this meeting today?” but I really love Alison’s wording. I actually knew some people who used to set their background as a photo of their room staged to be clean and well-lit so it could look “natural” no matter what state it actually was in behind them! It’s something people are aware of. I work in a coffeeshop that people take WFH meetings from pretty frequently and I’m always having to pass behind them holding dishes, sweeping, etc. and I feel pretty awkward when the background is unblurred. There’s one regular who always blurs his background and I notice. He’s just in class, it doesn’t seem to be a WFH situation for him, but it feels compassionate and respectful of me and the other customers/employees to not be broadcast to whoever he’s talking to. I know this isn’t necessarily relevant to the letter, it’s just an angle that I didn’t used to think about.

    1. Viette*

      Really good point about the respectfulness of blurring any background that might have others in it. Even coworkers might like to be blurred out — as you say, not relevant when you’re at home with no one else there (presumably the dog doesn’t care if it’s being looked at) but a good reason to normalize blurring or using software backgrounds as an option.

  15. Captain dddd-cccc-ddWdd*

    OP4 (can’t take time off) – as head of a department, part of what you do should be about cross training and contingency planning. There are many situations other than you wanting to take a contiguous week off (which is completely legit) that could result in you being unavailable for more than a couple of days. I know an unplanned event is different from vacation in the way it will be handled but still, at least give them something to work with. I feel terrible saying this since you are clearly dedicated, but it’s actually a disservice to the company in its own way.

    I suspect you will find that a lot of the queries are actually quite routine or could be answerable woth a small bit of training. Whether that is by constructing a flow chart, checklist, one-page documents for “what to do if they ask about…” etc. For example in my role, I’ve developed processes and standard responses that needed a fair amount of technical knowledge to construct in the first place, but they can be followed by someone with a bit of knowledge without knowing the deep nuances of why I determined that (although I am always happy to bore the ears off anyone that does want to talk technical detail!)

    There’s probably a small amount that is actually Escalations (could they go to your boss or a peer in urgent cases? – although of course the team need to be able to determine what is urgent, not just “Soo wants this and I know Soo is very impatient”!)

    1. Feotakahari*

      Yeah, I’m living this right now. Two business days before Christmas, I arranged who would fill in if I was unavailable to process bank deposits. On Christmas, my anti-vaxxer cousin came over and brought her kids who never wash their hands. My subsequent absence could have gone a lot worse for my department.

  16. Quantum Possum*

    OP #2 – I don’t exactly understand your leadership structure from the information in your letter. Does your team lead actually supervise you? Basically, who approves your timecard?

    I ask because, where I work, team leads are all non-supervisory, and personnel issues are taken up with the first-line supervisor instead. If this is the case where you work, then I recommend going to your supervisor and laying out your concerns.

    Focus on the behaviors and their impacts. Don’t mention the personal slights or try to get into Brenda’s head. You’ve identified several specific behaviors that are having a negative impact on your team:

    -lacks tact with coworkers and clients
    -provides incorrect information when asked technical questions
    -does not work well with others
    -does not take feedback well

    Best of luck!

    1. OP 2*

      It’s a bit messy. There are two levels, a “director” and then “department manager”. When I started, we didn’t have a manager, instead the director was our closest boss, which was ineffective to say the least. They were extremely hands off, and instead of having a real manager, the team lead acted like the unofficial manager. When we got a proper manager a few months ago, the team lead was guaranteed that the manager wouldn’t barge in and take over. But my department manager is my real manager, and supervises us.

      Thanks for the advice, I’ll definitely try to only mention the actual impact on the team and the work!

      1. Michelle Smith*

        I think the biggest question is – who has the authority. If the team lead is not the person with hiring/firing authority, they’re not the right one to talk to about Brenda. At least at this point.

      2. Quantum Possum*

        Hmm, that is a little messy.

        I do recommend talking to your department manager. Let your manager know you went to your team lead first, since your lead sounds like they’re worried about “overstep.”

        To be clear, I don’t think it’s an overstep – just that the team lead might interpret it that way. I think these types of personnel issues are best discussed with the person who has authority, like Michelle Smith said.

        If your team lead is actively discouraging team members from taking problems to the manager, then that’s an overstep on their part.

        It sounds like your team lead is in “manager” mode, and they need to get out of that mode now that there’s a proper manager. It’s sort of the manager’s job to “barge in and take over.” Your manager may need to have a talk with your team lead and readjust expectations.

  17. Awkwardness*

    “Your team lead sounds like they’re focusing on something they feel they might be able to influence (you) rather than on Brenda because Brenda is a harder problem”

    This is so spot on. OP, keep in mind that there is a certain risk to become ostracized because you would not “keep the peace”. If your team lead is conflict avoidant, that is about the worst thing you can do.

    What stuck with me is the choice of words. “Trust” is quite a big word that is not necessarily warranted. In my mind this should be about “reliability”.
    That’s why I wonder how conversations with your time lead go. OP, do you have any idea where this, umm, emotional approach is coming from?

    1. OP 2*

      I also think Alison is 100 % spot on, and I think you’re on to something too. My team lead is a very social person, which is good in some ways and less good in others. She cares a lot about her team, but I think she is more about being friends than being co-workers. Hence the wording “trust” (which you would use for friends and family) instead of “reliability” (which would be a better description of a co-worker).

      My team lead claims, and I’ve seen it in action as well, to be a straightforward person. After a mistake has been made, she can go to Brenda and then come back to me and say “I’ve talked to her now”. I think she talks to her, but with no follow-up, so it doesn’t really have an impact.

      1. Awkwardness*

        That is what I was wondering about. Is the team lead reacting like this on their own or is Brenda complaining about lack of trust.
        In order to get a bit out of hot water, I would try to be as factual an unemotional as possible. When taking about liking or trusting people, or even being “effective”, there is no right or wrong. You want to avoid this kind of discussions at work.
        Try to stick to factual problems that cannot be turned back on you.
        Out of her depth when giving advice? Addional cost of xxx to correct the mistake.
        Not following up on time? Angry customer.
        Paperwork incomplete? Delay at customs.

    2. Falling Diphthong*

      “We can’t reason with Brenda: Brenda is unreasonable. So it’s on you, reasonable person, to bend around her unreasonableness.”

      This dynamic seems to be a real theme these last few years. (I suspect the dynamic is old, and questioning it is newer.)

      1. OP 2*

        Several commenters have mentioned the missing stair metaphor, I’ve never heard of it before but it describes her to a T. I was even told not to mind her and “that’s how she is” when I first started and she couldn’t be bothered to come in for a group lunch to get to know me.

        1. Falling Diphthong*

          It’s a testament to the incredible flexibility of humans that we can adapt to so many things. Sometimes that means we figure out how to build a research station at the bottom of the sea, and sometimes it means that we assure the new person “You need to write your expense report on marshmallow peeps because that’s just how Bob is, and he’s been here forever.”

      2. kiki*

        It’s such a theme! It applies to workplaces like we see here but also so many family and friend group dynamics as well. I’m a fan of advice columns across the spectrum and SO many letters from families boil down to “FIL has just always been this unreasonable way, so you, new person, should simply go out of your way to jump over all the hurdles to make sure they stay calm.”

    3. boof*

      “there is a certain risk to become ostracized because you would not “keep the peace”. If your team lead is conflict avoidant, that is about the worst thing you can do.” unless Brenda is untouchable for other reasons, actually there’s probably very little risk to OP pushing back on a conflict avoidant manager. Basically the options in that scenario are 1) leave since management is bad 2) keep being the reasonable one and keep getting thrown under the bus or 3) return unreasonableness to sender/manager and make it equally challenging for the manager to just dump nonmanagement on you. A conflict avoidant manger might actually be goaded into doing something in that scenario, or else just find someone else to dump it on depending on level of passivity.

      1. boof*

        And to be clear, by “the reasonable one” I don’t mean to imply that it’s unreasonable not to put up with the BS, just that usual reasonable standards which would apply if everyone was reasonable only seem to apply to you and not to someone else (again, at which point they actually aren’t reasonable anymore, but some people don’t always realize that)

  18. Quantum Possum*

    OP #1 – No, that’s just weird. I don’t have so much of a problem with someone calling themselves the “office mom” occasionally (e.g., when they have a sewing kit or packet of animal crackers on-hand in an emergency situation). But a woman who specifically wants to be your “work mom” is just…probably not the kind of person you want for a mentor. Be kind, but refuse and back slowly away, like you would from a bear mom.

    OP #4 – Take your vacation. When I was starting out in my career, a director of engineering told me, “If I died tonight, they’d have someone doing my job tomorrow.” Which was her way of saying not to sacrifice my own well-being, because the world will not stop turning if I’m not working. Life is too short – go enjoy yourself! :)

    1. Ginger Baker*

      For the “office mom”, can I suggest we universally replace with “scout leader”? Same idea, gender neutral!

    2. Eldritch Office Worker*

      Agreed on #1. It’s a small thing that can be a joke or make someone feel good for whatever reason, especially if they apply it to themselves – I’m inclined to let it go. You want to be MY work mom? Haaaaaaaaha no I’m gonna go hide.

  19. FanciestCat*

    The Zoom background question makes me wonder, I have a day bed in my office that you can see part of behind me when I’m on Zoom. I have it made up like a couch, but I wonder if anyone would find that unprofessional since it is technically a bed, just not the one I sleep in? No one has said anything so far. I don’t really like using backgrounds if I can help it, I find the border between me and the background distracting.

    1. Quoth the Raven*

      I too find the border between the person and the background and the way it blurs weirdly when people move very distracting, plus in my case my laptop doesn’t really play well with backgrounds. I do think it would reasonable to ask to have a tidier or more neutral background if possible, though.

    2. Allonge*

      It’s not really the bed-ness of it that would make it a problem: OP describes an unmade bed with visible / obvious bedding, which is tricky because of the intimacy associations (plus, messiness, I imagine not helped much by the dog on top).

      Flat surfaces you could technically sleep on are just fine, even a neat(ish)ly made bed should be ok for most cases.

    3. ecnaseener*

      I wouldn’t worry about it at all in couch form. That’s the whole point of a daybed, that it doesn’t scream “bedroom.” Some people have couches in their offices after all.

    4. Falling Diphthong*

      A couch could also be slept on. By you, or by household pets mid-meeting. The pets could also sleep on a chair in the background, or a cat tower.

      I don’t think it’s the existence of a soft vertical surface but first, how messy it is, and second, how much it says “I am a bed, that is my only function, you are in my bedroom.” It’s why suites are popular for business travel where you might want to meet to discuss things in someone’s room–it’s weird when the host sits on their bed for the meeting. Even if reasonable people rise above that vibe when fate conspires to make everyone sitting on Dan’s bed, or the floor near Dan’s bed, the way this meeting will happen–it’s still a vibe, crossing from public (the living room, the foyer, the reception area, the conference room) to private (the place where I sleep).

      1. Insert Clever Name Here*

        “Crossing from public to private” is the idea that has been alluding me about these types of situations — thanks for this!

    5. Alton Brown's Evil Twin*

      A day bed in a home office, which therefore means it can be turned into a guest room in a pinch, is a completely normal thing. Just keep it made up as a couch, as you have mentioned.

      Honestly, I doubt most people would actually be able to tell what it is by the time you factor in crappy laptop cameras, glare & dirty screens, multiple tiled video windows, and just normal human inattentiveness.

    6. Michelle Smith*

      The way to eliminate the border is a green screen. I’ve had one for years now since I’m in a studio apartment (aka everywhere is my bedroom) and it wasn’t expensive. I agree that the flickering or bleeding through of a background can be distracting (though so is movement from animals or people walking by and so is a dirty or cluttered room).

      That being said, I can’t imagine a situation in which I’d consider a daybed folded up and decorated like a couch to be unprofessional. Only if it were obviously in use as a bed or unmade or covered in piles of paper or laundry.

    7. Eldritch Office Worker*

      I don’t personally find backgrounds that show people are in their homes to be distracting. I think this is more an organizational standard thing – OP finds that for their office or their job or whatever specific context this is too casual. I think tidiness and pets are part of that, in this case (I love seeing people’s pets but I get it). You need to think about what message you’re sending with whatever setting you’re in and how buttoned-up professional any particular meeting needs to be, maybe, but I don’t think it’s inherently distracting.

    8. atalanta0jess*

      I think there’s a huge difference between a made bed and an unmade bed!! Unmade is so intimate….

      A made daybed, I wouldn’t give a second thought.

    9. SpaceySteph*

      The “no bed at all” answer kind of surprised me as well. At the start of covid I took up residence in our guest room. My camera angle had the guest bed behind me: a painted accent wall, bed with coordinating bedspread and throw pillows. Honestly was the only pretty room in our house (in 2022 it became my 2nd kid’s room and I moved into my bedroom where I did blur the background because our bedroom was never pretty or or clean). I never thought twice about having the guest bed in the background. I do feel like having a messy bed/bedroom is way different than a nice guest/day bed, but it probably also depends on industry.

    10. kiki*

      I think it’s possible that there is somebody out there who would find this unprofessional, but I think it would literally just be one or two very uptight people. I also think this letter had a lot going on– it was a bed, but it was also unmade and it sounds like the room may generally be less-than-tidy. A made daybed in a neat room sounds leagues different than this letter.

  20. Waiting for the bus in the rain*

    LW4, if your company has a bus factor* of 1, that’s an issue. If that is something you can get changed, it might be possible to push for that change. If you don’t think that is something you can change, I would suggest finding a new job because this one is constantly hanging by a thread.

    *for those who haven’t heard of this term: the bus factor is the amount of people who can be hit by a bus before a company (or on a smaller scale, a department) stops being able to function.

    1. HR Friend*

      And if you’re looking for a more positive version, the lottery factor. The number of people who can win the lottery (and, presumably, quit immediately) before a company or team ceases to function. :-)

      1. Frankly, Mr. Shankly*

        my OldJob called it the Lottery Bus (incidently, we had an employee win the lottery, although not enough to leave, and an employee hit by a bus)

  21. P*

    LW#4 Years ago a coworker went to the ER with abdominal pain and was diagnosed with cancer. We didn’t see him at work for two years.

    Planning for events like this is a normal part of business. We never want to need to implement the plans but they should be in place.

    My coworker’s experience really helped put things in perspective in our workplace (in a number of different ways, not all work related). Nobody is irreplaceable, which means they can figure it out while you take a much needed break. If the business fails as result then it is already on its last legs.

  22. anononon*

    Urgh, I’ve worked in a company that had a ‘Brenda’ before. She was so out of touch with modern business norms (she still sent memos…) and suggested solutions that would take way, way longer than the actual answer because she was incapable of using Excel or Word or Outlook to any acceptable level. She seemed to spend most of her time making tea, supervising others making tea, or typing aggressive missives about how someone had ‘left half an avocado pear in the refrigerator which is now going brown’…

    She was made redundant when we got a new manager, thank goodness.

  23. Work Dad!*

    That’s it, my new career path. A Work Dad.
    1) Answering every “I’m” appropriately –
    ” I’m concerned with these results”
    “Hi, ‘concerned with these results’, I’m Dad!”

    2) Standing guard by the Thermostat with a pile of clean jumpers, saying “it’s not cold, just put a jumper on”

    3) Being first to the ice cream van in summer and bringing everyone back an ice cream

    4) wrapping all the parcels to go out in 10 metres of Duck Tape then giving it a pat and saying “that’s not coming apart”

    1. Quantum Possum*

      I may in fact literally be dying of laughter right now.

      *calls 911*

      Update: No, apparently that’s not a thing that happens.

  24. StellBell*

    OP2 this is happening to me and two others on my team now as their missing stair manager got promoted and does nothing. we are the problem tho for asking him to do his job. yea he is prtected by his boss who is his best friend.

  25. Elsa*

    OP4, it’s actually good for someone in your situation to take a week or two off and completely disconnect.

    Right now, everyone at your company has just gotten used to relying on you for many things, and you have gotten used to just taking care of these things. But if you go away for a couple of weeks, they will have to figure out how to manage without you. In preparation for your vacation, you can also work on training the relevant people to do the tasks you need them to do. Hopefully if the company learns to manage without you for a short while, it will also reduce pressure on you when you get back.

    And if everything falls apart while you are away, then that is a great opportunity to discuss getting a raise, since they clearly can’t afford to lose you.

    1. StellBell*

      Was gonna add to this too that iniverse forbid but what if you need to use fmla OP for you or family member? what would they do?

  26. Irish Teacher.*

    Even apart from the gendered implications, I’d also be bothered by what I would consider rather patronising implications. Even coming over to offer yourself as a mentor to a table of less senior people seems a bit pushy to me, though that might be somewhat cultural, but offering yourself as a mom figure to people really sounds like you think they are struggling and need somebody to take care of them.

    It reminds me a lot of the lecturer we had as student teachers who seemed to think we were all in primary school and spoke to us like we were little kids. She started trying to think of people she knew in each of the schools we were doing our teaching practice in and telling us, “tell him/her I said they were to look after you”. (I was so relieved she didn’t know anybody I was working with.) Then she said, “see how we go looking for somebody to look after us when we’re in a new place.” Um, no, none of us asked for anybody to “look after us.” You wanted it for us.

    I’d often tell our student teachers they can come to me if there is anything I can help them with and if I get an opportunity, I often invite them to sit in on one of my classes if they’d like (and to be honest, I feel a bit uncomfortable sometimes even doing that and make it clear I’m not saying they should teach like I do or that my teaching is an example of “how to do it right”).

    I would definitely think that referring to myself as their “work mom” would be disrespectful to them as young professionals and I think it would even be more disrespectful to somebody who wasn’t a 23 year old fresh out of undergrad.

    Even if she means a mentor, which she probably does, phrasing it as a “mom” makes it sound less like somebody with a bit more experience who you can do to with industry-specific questions and more like somebody who’s a “real adult” who will guide your steps in this strange new world of work.

    1. Texas Teacher*

      Most people I guess get about 10 paid holidays, with Christmas Eve and New Years Eve added to the national holidays.

          1. Michelle Smith*

            I get President’s Day and Indigenous Peoples’ Day off every year at my nonprofit employer that isn’t affiliated with government. Only major holidays we don’t get are Veterans’ Day, which I presume we don’t get since they give us Election Day off and they don’t want to give us two holidays in the same week, and Lincoln’s Birthday which I only got off when I worked for local government in NYC.

            1. Lily Rowan*

              I think nonprofits tend to get more holidays in lieu of higher salaries. (And as you allude to below, in some cases to demonstrate values.)

        1. SpaceySteph*

          There are definitely a second tier of less “observed” holidays. When I was a government contractor, the rest of our company only had 6 holidays, but since we worked on a government facility we had all 10. The ones the rest of the company excluded were MLK, Presidents, Columbus, and Veterans.

      1. Hlao-roo*

        In the US, there are 11 Federal Holidays. In my experience working for non-government companies, I have never gotten all of the US Federal Holidays but I have usually gotten 8-10 fixed holidays and 1-4 floating holidays.

        MLK Jr Day, Presidents’ Day, Junteenth, Columbus/Indigenous Peoples’ Day, and Veterans’ Day are work days (in my personal experience) and the company might have Day After Thanksgiving, Christmas Eve, and New Year’s Eve as company holidays.

        1. Michelle Smith*

          That’s shocking to me. I’d like to see an employer try to make me work on MLK Jr or Juneteenth lol.

          1. Eldritch Office Worker*

            We get an option between MLK and President’s day, people can take both but have to use a vacation day for one.

          2. Clisby*

            That’s why you have PTO. Employers (other than the federal government) have no obligation to offer all federal holidays off.

        2. Quantum Possum*

          Yup – in addition to the 7 standard holidays that almost everyone gets, feds get MLK Jr. Day, Prez Day, Juneteeth, C/IP Day, and Veterans’ Day off. The only way we get holidays on the day after Thanksgiving, Christmas Eve, or New Year’s Eve is through presidential order (Dubya especially loved doing this).

          We also don’t get Good Friday off, which is apparently a thing that some companies do. Sometimes the separation between church and state works against us, alas.

          1. New Jack Karyn*

            The (public) school district I work for ties Spring Break to Easter, and we also get Good Friday off. It drives me absolutely bananapants.

            1. I Have RBF*

              Heck, the only way I know when Easter is is when some organization that I deal with takes Good Friday off, or someone does a lot of Mardi Gras stuff around me. Otherwise, I just pay attention to the Equinox.

              1. Quantum Possum*

                If Easter wants me to remember it, then it needs to pick a day and stay there.

                I’ll never forget the first time at work when I saw people come into the office with ashes on their foreheads on Ash Wednesday. I actually told the first couple of people that they had something on their face. Frequent cringey embarrassment is an unfortunate side effect of being nonreligious in a religious area.

            2. SpaceySteph*

              I used to live somewhere where the public schools had off for Good Friday, although since that was also typically Passover, I was good with it.

              We moved this year and our current school district has April 26th off, which is the Friday in the middle of Passover and that would typically also be Good Friday but this year Easter is out of sync from Passover, and I wonder if its unrelated or if they screwed up and gave kids the wrong day off?

    2. Non-profit drone*

      I’m not a fed, and I get something like 14 holidays off, sometimes more if 4th of July or Christmas falls on a Tuesday or a Thursday when they give us a 4-day weekend. I would never work somewhere that only offered 7 holidays! Are you in healthcare?

  27. Brambles are not the only fruit*

    The main problem certainly isn’t you but neither is it Brenda, it’s actually the team lead. He’s either failing to see a very obvious problem with Brenda or he is unable or unwilling to address it. None of these scenarios reflect well on him. Next time it comes up, embrace your inner German and say the words, ‘actually TeamLead, the main problem is you for failing to address Brenda’s shortcomings’. Said in a perfunctory tone with I’ll will.

  28. ecnaseener*

    For #2, since they agreed with LW right away I wonder if the original comment was meant more as “it’s a massive problem that Brenda’s issues are severe enough that her coworkers can’t trust her,” rather than “it’s a massive problem that you refuse to trust her.” Obviously I didn’t hear the tone and could be wrong. And if it has been months and months with no improvement, it’s probably moot.

    1. Irish Teacher.*

      That was my first thought too, but yeah, the tone or context may well have indicated otherwise.

    2. Filthy Vulgar Mercenary*

      That’s a great angle to take with the manager, especially if that’s not what they actually meant and were just trying to avoid conflict with Brenda.

    3. Heidi*

      I wonder if people have tried to fix the Brenda problem in the past and lost that battle. Since she’s still around after 15 years, other coworkers may have figured out a way to function around her instead. Perhaps the team lead meant something like, “It’s a problem you haven’t identified the narrow context in which Brenda can be trusted and are instead trying to change her because that has historically been futile.”

  29. Marzipan Shepherdess*

    OP2: She doesn’t have to move her computer to another room to avoid having her messy bedroom show up onscreen during Zoom meetings. There are a LOT of free, easily downloadable Zoom backgrounds made for just such a situation! She could simply choose an office-themed backdrop and use that for all Zoom meetings; problem solved!

    1. ecnaseener*

      Sure, but the question didn’t say anything about changing rooms? It’s asking about a blurred background, which works just like the image backgrounds you’re suggesting.

  30. Falling Diphthong*

    #2 brings up a general pattern I’ve noticed in some letters re causing trust to manifest in a relationship. In normal life (including, but not limited to, work), the usual order of operations is:
    1) Various interactions take place, which can serve to build trust.
    2) Trust!
    3) Deeper interactions or actions occur because the trust exists.

    A lot of bad ice breakers start at 3 (“tell us about your most traumatic experience!”) assuming that if you’re at 3, then 2 by definition has happened and so the team now trust each other. This letter is a version where of course you don’t trust the person–all those interactions in (1) that can build trust can also show that someone should not be trusted–but someone above OP feels that after a certain number of months trust should exist, regardless of any actual experiences.

    1. Stuckinacrazyjob*

      The bad ice breaker thing also doesn’t understand that business trust and personal trust are different. I trust my coworkers for job things but not for personal things. Brenda’s lack of ability has ruined business trust, but people might think ” Oh she’s a good person! of course we trust her with TPS reports which is weird because they are different things

      1. Clisby*

        Agreed. That’s what I’ve thought when hearing about outdoor team-building exercises like helping each other scale a wall, or falling backward so people can catch you and build trust.

        OK, this might teach me who to trust on an arduous hike, but what in the world does that have to do with trusting people at work (assuming my work is not in the military, where maybe I would be called upon to scale a wall or catch falling people.)

        1. UKDancer*

          Indeed, trust at work is highly situational. The person I trusted the most in my previous job had 2 crutches so would be terrible at catching me if I fell backward. On the other hand his Excel spreadsheets and Powerpoint slides were fantastic so I’d absolutely trust him to edit my presentations.

          Outside a few professions (military, police, coastguard, fire service) you probably don’t need to pick up or catch your co-workers and it’s a terrible proxy for success in an office setting in my view.

      2. fhqwhgads*

        It’s also in some cases idiotically malicious in that it is factual that shared trauma creates bonding. The lesson to be learned there is NOT “I shall traumatize this group so they will be bonded”. Alas, some folks do that on purpose. (Yes I had a teacher do this and am still extremely bitter.)

    2. Irish Teacher.*

      I think some people look around for “easy fixes.” “In well-functioning teams where people trust each other, people like to spend time together outside work, have deep interactions and feel comfortable bringing their ‘whole selves’ to work. Therefore, if we insist on ‘mandatory fun’, make people tell us personal details about themselves and focus on ‘bringing your whole self to work,’ our dysfunctional team will become functional.”

      When in reality, of course, it is the other way around. People enjoy each other’s company and may choose to spend time with each other outside work and feel comfortable bringing their whole selves to work (whatever that means) because the team is already functional.

      And yeah, this seems similar: “teams who work well together and where everybody is competent at their job trust each other. Therefore, we all need to trust each other to improve this team,” when in reality, it’s the other way around. People trust each other on teams where people are competent and the team is functional, well-run and people work well together.

      1. allathian*

        Yes, and to add to that, building trust is entisellä possible even if you never spend time with your coworkers outside of work. Some informal socializing is beneficial, but you can do that by grabbing lunch or Coffee with them. Weekend get togethers or after work drinks are totally optional.

  31. Tradd*

    No, 3 with the Zoom background. I refused to go forward with a job interview last year when the person who was interviewing me told me I was not allowed to blur my background. That was such a weird thing (and my small place was a mess as I was in the midst of decluttering ) that I didn’t go forward with the interview. I told them why. It just felt very intrusive.

    1. lilsheba*

      That is very strange. But me being me I would be fine with that, I never blur my background or use those fake ones. You get what you get which is a tapestry on my wall.

    2. I'm just here for the cats!*

      That is weird. Like were they trying to catch you doing something? Like there was someone in the background or something? It was probably a way to judge your economic status based on what your home looked like, and would be able to low ball you on sallary.

  32. Nancy*

    LW3: just make it a rule that everyone needs to blue their background during external meetings. Announce it at an internal meeting or an email.

    1. ecnaseener*

      You could, but why make a whole new blanket rule just to avoid giving one person a simple instruction? If any group rule is needed, let it be “have a tidy background *or* blur or use a virtual background.”

      1. Nancy*

        Why call one person out and make them wonder why they are the only one, when you can just make a simple rule for everyone? And I am talking about the blur function, not the weird backgrounds.

        1. Filthy Vulgar Mercenary*

          Blurring using more bandwidth than no background, for one. Or, some people put a lot of thought into their backgrounds.

          This approach is like when management sends an email creating a dress code to avoid telling Bob to stop wearing flip flops. Managers shouldn’t create blanket policies to avoid management responsibilities.

        2. I should really pick a name*

          Because they’re the only one with a problem.

          Asking someone to do something isn’t calling them out.
          And if they wonder why they’re the only one, you can tell them.

        3. atalanta0jess*

          But you don’t make them wonder why they’re the only one. You tell them – an unmade bed in the background is too informal for external meetings. I need you to find a different background or blur your background during external meetings.

          This is a really basic professional standard.

          1. Allonge*

            Yes, this is not a case of ‘singling someone out for bad treatment with no reason’. This person is doing something that would be less than professional in certain circumstances, so they get asked to fix it.

            1. GythaOgden*

              Agreed. It would be a bit much if someone couldn’t either single anyone out or send a general reminder. Sometimes someone has to tell you something isn’t quite right — I’d put this on the level of your buttons or shoelaces being undone and address it in a similar tone of voice, as if she hadn’t noticed how it looked. Only if she refused to address it would it escalate.

        4. ecnaseener*

          Well, you don’t “call them out.” You privately tell them what you need them to do going forward, an extremely normal thing for a manager to do.

          Implementing stricter rules for everyone just to avoid giving one person a direction is…not good. The one person who can tell they’re the intended target of the group announcement is embarrassed. The other people who have tidy backgrounds and don’t like to blur are annoyed.

        5. Observer*

          Why call one person out and make them wonder why they are the only one

          Don’t “call them out”, talk to the privately. And if you speak clearly, they won’t need to “wonder” because you will be TELLING them exactly what the problem is. Surely a competent adult can tell the difference between a messy bedroom topped by a lounging pet and a neat room.

          when you can just make a simple rule for everyone

          Why make rules when you don’t need to?

    2. Insert Clever Name Here*

      Everyone doing it could cause bandwidth issues. I’m on a small team (6, including our manager) and a few weeks ago we all decided to play with Teams backgrounds while waiting for our manager to join a meeting. The video and audio lag was noticeable and would have been infuriating if we were trying to actually work instead of just laughing at Moe being in outer space.

    3. I'm just here for the cats!*

      If you want to go that route just say that everyone either needs to have a tidy background and give clear directions on what that means. OR they have to use blur/digital background.

  33. Michelle Smith*

    LW4: I feel like the fact that you’re losing customers to the point that you’re not getting raises is a major red flag that this company is at risk. I could be off-base, but I’d seriously consider whether it makes sense to continue working here long term if the business is not sustainable under current management.

  34. Aspiring Chicken Lady*

    The weird thing about the Work Mom question is that she offered to an entire table of young women, and there’s no particular indication that these coworkers had all just started together that week or anything … just that they were existing, at least one was new-ish to the team, and all were apparently so deeply in need of Work Parenting that she needed to go and rescue them.

  35. Alton Brown's Evil Twin*

    “Trust is earned through demonstrated competence.”

    That’s my philosophy, and I think it works really well, both practically and morally. But some (all?) of your management apparently doesn’t believe that. Seems like your team lead gave lip service to the idea, but isn’t following through.

    All you can do is keep raising the issue to the appropriate people and documenting the extra work you’ve had to do in order to deal with Brenda’s sloppiness.

  36. Frustrated American*

    As a fellow American, I am guessing LW #4 company is American too? I find it SO frustrating how American companies in general limit holidays and vacation time and want to work their team to the bone.

    I really wish American companies would adopt similar vacation practices to Australian and European companies where it is normal for people to take off three to four weeks at a time. If I got a job in one of these countries (not likely), I’d move in a heartbeat!!

    1. Sneaky Squirrel*

      Yes, I assumed American and cringed a little when LW said that 20 days was “a lot of vacation”. I take LW’s word because I don’t know their other benefits/sick leave policies that they may be omitting from the letter. However, 20 days of vacation doesn’t scream “a lot” to me, especially if there is 0 sick leave. Definitely more than some but I wouldn’t call it generous either.

      1. GythaOgden*

        20 days is statutory minimum in the UK — albeit minus the public holidays (which most people have to take on the allotted days). We have better sick leave, but actually my impression is that with things like short-term disability Americans can end up better off, whereas by statute, ours pays nothing the first few days and then a miserly minimum statutory pay (and I know a lot of small businesses in particular rely on that although my public sector allowance is quite significantly better). We also generally have to use annual leave for things like doctors appointments and other planned situations — I’ve never had to put in for surgery leave from work but I know with things like elective cosmetic surgery that would come out of AL unless something went terribly wrong. Plus it’s generally accepted that many companies shut down between Christmas and New Year and the three working days over that period are generally taken out of AL, particularly in the sectors my friends work in.

        It’s often six of one, half a dozen of another — 20 days is nothing to sniff at. (I do think employers are getting a bit more generous when they can be, but certainly my aunt worked for a prestigious accountancy firm and got the statutory minimum, so it’s not going to be massively different.) I also found out the other day that some countries have restrictions on when you can take leave and other things as trade-offs for generosity on paper.

        1. Mighty K*

          In the UK the minimum is 20 days Plus 8 days bank holidays, so a total of at least 28 days.

    2. Grasshopper*

      Same reaction that they must be American. Having four weeks vacation should be normal by mid-career. It might be considered generous for the US but it definitely isn’t generous in many other places. All staff should be expected and even encouraged to take at least one full week off annually. Companies should have plans in place for this; the rest of the world does it.

  37. Student*

    OP #4: Please also think about the example you set for your department. Actions speak louder than words. If you tell them it’s okay to disconnect, but through your actions show that you never disconnect, they will notice and feel pressure to follow your example.

  38. Filthy Vulgar Mercenary*

    With regards to trusting Brenda. I’d put it back on the manager. “I DO trust Brenda. I trust people to act in the ways they’ve demonstrated they tend to act. Brenda reliably acts in ways that aren’t accurate, dependable, or helpful. I have found that I can trust that to be pretty consistent. When you say it’s a problem I don’t trust Brenda, however, I want to be sensitive to that. Is there something you’d like me to do differently?”

  39. Sneaky Squirrel*

    #4 – Take that vacation! It’s especially important for people who have been with the company for many years to use that PTO. First, because it’s important for your mental health. Second, because one person shouldn’t be the only safeguard. If you quit, would the company cease to function? Likely not. But if so, they need to know this NOW and correct by doing cross-training/documenting of processes. Third, because by taking the safety net away from your colleagues once in awhile, you’re encouraging them to think outside of the box and to resolve the issue on their own which is a growth opportunity for them.

    This doesn’t mean abandon them completely. Whenever I run off on vacation, I work with my manager to determine how to address my work while I’m away. I give my managers/peers who may be covering the work a thorough list of what I’m working on, next steps, urgency, and then what I anticipate could come up in a week/how to address it if it does. I give it to them in writing so that they can refer back to it. The goal isn’t for them to do my whole job while I’m out, but that they can ensure that important functions continue and the proper urgency/response is taken to issues that may arise.

    1. Anon for this*

      Absolutely take your vacation! I had a year where I took <25% of my scheduled vacation (it was covid, I wasn't going anywhere, and I was like "well I might as well keep myself busy with work to keep from spiraling" and did a crapload of o/t). I got a fat bonus at the end of it, but my company decided to use that year as the new "baseline workload" moving forward — which meant that my new productivity target exceeds 52 weeks of work per year. They wouldn't negotiate, so I quit, and you betcha I'll be taking every hour of eligible PTO at my next job.

  40. i like hound dogs*

    Why do you have to call the dog lazy? It’s just a dog!

    I’m sort of kidding, but I do have to wonder if it’s the animals or the general lack of professionalism. My husband is a director at his nonprofit and tells me that external clients often comment positively on seeing our dog(s) sleeping in the background of his office. Now, his office is tidy and not a bedroom, so maybe that’s the difference, but now I’m curious if having sleeping pets in your background is inherently offensive. I work in banking, and I love it when I see someone’s dog wander by on a Teams call. I find it humanizing, like, aw, Kevin from the finance team has one of those tall poodles!

    1. Eldritch Office Worker*

      I think it just depends. I can imagine a suit-and-tie office doesn’t appreciate background pets as well. Or maybe they end up being too distracting if your office is REALLY into animals. There are different factors.

      But I want to see all your pets.

    2. Filthy Vulgar Mercenary*

      I imaging it’s more the messy bed (or even a made up bed) more than the dog. Dogs are the best.

    3. juliebulie*

      I think it depends on what the animals are doing. Sleeping is one thing. Licking their balls is another. And you never know when a sleeping dog will wake up and lick his balls.

        1. Head sheep counter*

          They still lick in the general area… I had a cat who for lack of a better description… laid back and appeared to pleasure himself as his chill time. You do you cat… but perhaps not on zoom.

  41. Ex-prof*

    LW #1: Even without the self-imposed title of “Work Mom,” it’s my experience that people that attempt to glom onto new employees emotionally– “You can always come to me with your troubles!”– are often people that are perceived by their longer term coworkers as gossips and/or negative thinkers.

  42. Writing at Work*

    Re #2, when I first read the letter, I thought that the team lead was saying “it doesn’t sound like you can trust Brenda to do her job, and that that is a problem.” Especially given the follow up from the OP that they weren’t the problem and the team lead’s agreement. I do think there are a number of jobs in which not being able to trust a coworker is a massive problem and that is still an instance where it is Brenda’s job to improve restore that trust. Just wanted to flag that it could be read both ways and depends a lot on the context, how it was said, and what follow ups there were.

  43. Whyamihere*

    We have an extremely experienced manager who is the go to for all things. Guess what happened when she went on vacation for 10 days? We learned to figure out the solution on our own.

  44. Jezebella*

    I’m tickled by LW3’s reference to a “lazy dog” “lounging” on the bed. Like, would it be better if the dog were actively Doing Important Dog Things and not Lounging?

    I doubt the employee is showing off her dog, she’s just…. living her life, with her dog, in her room.

    1. Eldritch Office Worker*

      Well cats like to mirror behavior so if you give a cat a fake laptop they’ll actively sit at it usually. Dogs just aren’t made for the corporate grind, and it can be embarrassing for us as their owners.

    2. H.Regalis*

      Same XD

      I was thinking, “How is the dog being lazy?! It’s a dog.” Maybe a quick brown fox was jumping over it.

  45. Jane*

    With Brenda: I wouldn’t correct or alter her work in any way and would pass it on, as is, to the powers at be. This will QUICKLY make it a manager problem.

  46. Work Daughter*

    I understand why Work Mom is kind of weird, but I have to share that I once had one and she was wonderful. She wasn’t a senior colleague or mentor – we were on the same level professionally and I had actually been with the company longer – but she was just the nurturing type and always took it upon herself to make sure everyone we worked with in a small (think 10 people) branch off of a large corporation had a place to be for holidays and things like that. It wasn’t assigned to her, she just would quietly chat people up about their plans and then offer a “zero pressure but if you find yourself wanting somewhere to be, we’re having dinner around 4 on Thanksgiving.” As someone who was transferred unexpectedly (and with zero desire to transfer) it was incredibly thoughtful of her to invite us. She never called herself a Work Mom, but she absolutely was, in the best way.

    1. Yours sincerely, Raymond Holt*

      Doing The Thing without calling yourself Work Mom is almost the opposite of what the woman in the letter did, though.

  47. Juicebox Hero*

    I’m glad I never had to have work meetings from home, because I have four cats who resent me paying attention to the little people in the magic box instead of them. Also, my house is old so there aren’t many cat-free places to work due to doors that don’t close properly etc. The result is a lot of clambering, meowing, swatting, jumping on the keyboard, and cat butts pointed directly at the camera.

    I had to get one of those plexiglass keyboard shields so I could do workout videos without one of them leaping on the keyboard and attacking the screen. I will say that dodging cats adds a whole nother dimension to a cardio workout!

  48. Sssssssssssssss*

    “It can’t be okay that someone produces bad work as long as the team gets along, right?”

    It’s not okay, but it’s more common than you think. If you’re trying to avoid drama or “as long as the work gets done, even if done incorrectly” or if you’re dealing with someone who has been there so long and “it’s just how they are” or “it’s just how it’s always been done” and no one wants to try to improve it even a little, you’ll find yourself exactly where you are.

    We had an employee who really couldn’t keep up with the technological changes and overall, her attention to detail was poor. We were also aware of a complicated living situation at home. My boss, who loved the person for who she was (she was a sweetheart, most days, but drama prone), decided that since she was so close to retirement, we’d muddle thru until she left because she wanted her last few months to be good ones and not one fraught with “You did this wrong, again!”

  49. Just Thinkin' Here*

    OP 2 : I think you need to look at this situation a little differently. Employees are not required to brainstorm with their coworkers (unless there is a specific meeting for that). Without knowing your field, why are your work topics sensitive? Is this a medical field and she is rude to patients? Women are often discriminated against for not being ‘polly-annas’ when men are not held to that same standard. If she is hostile and creating a hostile work environment, that’s a whole other story and HR needs to be brought in. Is the issue really a collaboration issue or a problem with errors and mistakes?

    My suggestion is to talk to the supervisor with hiring and firing authority. I highly suspect your Team Lead is not in that position. Have a one-on-one with your manager or their manager and frame this as ‘this person is negatively impacting my ability to get work done / causes me to do extra work / doesn’t complete their work causing missed deadlines, etc. Team Lead has failed to intervene despite my alerting them during discussions on dates X, Y and Z about this topic. Here are my suggestions for a solution.’

    If that doesn’t work, and you like the company, transfer to another department with different, better management.

    1. New Jack Karyn*

      I don’t like second-guessing LWs. I can think of lots of topics a team might be working on that require tact when discussing, either within a team or with outside parties. Regarding ‘brainstorming’–if it’s a new process or the first time Brenda’s done a particular task, asking around for advice (or a template or what have you) can avoid a lot of problems. Maybe she’s haring off in the wrong direction, or messing up the data input, something like that. Someone can be abrupt or difficult to work with, and not have it rise to the level of HR–abruptness, for example, can be coached by a manager.

      I think your question of “a collaboration issue or a problem with errors and mistakes?” misses the mark. The answer is both. It’s both.

    2. Kella*

      Commenters are asked to take LW’s at their word. OP 2 said that they deal with subjects that require tactfulness, so there is really no reason to question whether or not they truly require tactfulness.

      Not knowing their standard workflow, we can’t know whether collaborative brainstorming is a truly necessary part of the job BUT that statement from OP illustrates that Brenda is regularly making mistakes *and* no steps are being taken to prevent them. And even if brainstorming isn’t strictly necessary to do the job well, OP says that Brenda doesn’t take feedback *and* makes frequent mistakes, making collaboration pretty impossible. She is also behaving in passive-aggressive ways like skipping meetings in response to a slight which is both unprofessional and again, makes collaboration impossible.

      I agree that focusing on the direct impact of Brenda’s actions will be most effective in talking to someone with authority but I also think it’s not on OP to determine whether this is a collaboration or high error rate issue because it’s not on OP to solve Brenda’s performance problems. It’s also not on OP to suggest solutions for Brenda’s poor performance.

    3. Observer*

      Employees are not required to brainstorm with their coworkers (unless there is a specific meeting for that).

      What makes you say that? If that’s what is done in the OP’s organization, then that’s what Brenda needs to do.

      Without knowing your field, why are your work topics sensitive?

      People need to be polite to clients and coworkers no matter WHAT the topic is. And if the OP says that their area needs tactfulness, I see no reason to challenge that, even without the general site guidelines. Because that is more common than not. It’s not just when you are talking to people about their medical issues. Walk into a place that offers kitchen / home / office redesign services and look at how much tact is needed there. Or places that deal with financing. Or almost any sales position. Or, or, or…. Seriously, I’m having a harder time thinking of a situation where dealing with clients does NOT need tact, that were it does.

  50. YourFriendlyNeighborhoodCatMom*

    1) Without more context, I don’t think that the “work mom” request was meant to be malicious or an opportunity to exert control as some have suggested, to me it sounds like someone who doesn’t realize how this comes across.

    I am with Learnedthehardway in that this is a “nod and smile” situation. If she continues to push or follow up, say that you appreciate her welcome and willingness to help if needed. Don’t call her your work mom.

    I agree with Alison and those who find this phrase problematic and sexist, since I’ve also never heard a man being described as a dad in any workplace I’ve been in. It’s always a kind and usually older woman who likes to bring in treats or always has tissues or a stain pen in their purse – which is totally cool but doesn’t need to be connotated as “motherly”. You can be helpful and warm with coworkers without having to be their mom.

    Personally, I also am icked-out with the phrases “work-wife” and “work-husband”. Describing a close relationship with a coworker (which is obviously not problematic at face value, especially if you have to work with them a lot anyway) with these phrases adds an unnecessary layer of emotional and sexual connotation that I think is weird. If other people disagree that’s their prerogative and as long as everyone (including their actual spouse) is fine with it then that’s their business, I just know I would feel uncomfortable if somebody tried to call me their work-wife, even if I was close with them.

  51. Destra N.*

    For #4, if you’re not already creating a coverage plan and sharing it with everyone you work with directly, do that! Not only to relieve their anxiety and give them a clear “here’s how to handle X, Y and Z while I’m out” plan for when things inevitably come up that would generally require your input, but to relieve your own. I would send it around as an email, a few days before your time off so that people have the opportunity to respond with questions. “Just a reminder that I will be out of the office and off the grid all of next week. I’ve attached a plan that lays out who is covering what while I’m out. Please get back to me with any questions or concerns by Friday.” It also might illuminate some training opportunities for your junior team you hadn’t thought about.

  52. Elle by the sea*

    It might be odd, but somehow I am finding “work mom” a lot more palatable than “work husband/wife”. I would be furious (or extremely uncomfortable at least) if someone referred to me as their work wife and so would my husband. To me, that has sexual/inappropriate connotations. At the same time, work mom, gendered as it may be, just invokes the fuzzy feeling of caring and compassion. We have such a person in our office and she often refers to herself as such.

    1. GythaOgden*

      Yup. On a general level, it may not be smart for women to lean in to the caring side of their nature lest they be taken less seriously and it have a knock-on expectation from men that the women in their office will do the homey stuff. However, on an individual level, there are roles that lend themselves to this kind of behaviour, and people who actually like it (like my mother, who is a bit bad at being a houseguest because she can’t sit still, she has to feel like she’s earning her keep; I was worried about cooking a lovely spaghetti bolognese for my friends once because we were going out shortly after eating and I didn’t want to leave a massive amount of washing up. My mum assumed I’d get them to help out, because she would offer to do it when with /her/ friends. I cooked it and let the dishwasher handle it…).

      My colleague and I were quite solicitous of others who came in and out to the building — if someone was doing some heavy lifting in reception, my colleague would have the kettle boiled almost as soon as they walked in. It took me an awful lot of mental willpower /not/ to offer a cuppa to people I was meeting with over Teams. Quite apart from the absurdity of offering someone sat in the next county a hot beverage (how was it going to get to him while it was still hot?), I’m no longer in a role in which serving visitors is generally part of the job description. Ten years on reception in person is a hard mindset to break in just two months’ admin WFH, but I’m not doing it to be subservient or obsequious, just because I’d do it with anyone who was visiting and in the room with me directly, work friend or not. (I miss being brought a hot cup of coffee by my husband on a Saturday morning while listening to Danny Baker, but sadly neither Danny Baker and my husband made it through 2019, although thankfully Danny Baker is still alive.)

      The general social object IMO is really to get everyone to be more caring and responsible for their wellbeing and that of others rather than to assume that women will always happily accept that role and men don’t have to bother with it. It’s like someone definitely has to clean up the kitchen, but it has to be everyone or people paid to do it (whether a cleaner or a dedicated part of an admin role), not JUST the female staff. If I’m to be expected to do my fair share (some of the offices and volunteer opportunities I’ve been in or on have had that expectation, usually because a brief tidy up would allow the cleaners to really get to the deep crud so it didn’t pile up or, on voluntary retreats, because we were there not only to study/pray/whatever but to pitch in as equals; no-one was above doing the washing up after mealtimes together) I’d expect my male colleagues to help out. The goal is a fairer distribution of the little things that make collective life easier and nicer, not to eradicate them altogether.

  53. I mean really*

    So for #1, I think it really depends on personalities. I am a very jokey person and I love fun work environments, and I would find being called or having a “work mom” hilarious. I’ve had “work husbands” and “work sisters” and all of the above. My partner is still in touch with his “work mom” from his first job.

    However, the minute anyone feels uncomfortable with that dynamic, it needs to stop.

    1. Yours sincerely, Raymond Holt*

      It has to happen organically, right? If you already know each other, and you both call each other things like that, then cool.

      But it is such an overstep to tell someone you don’t know well at all that you’re assuming (or offering to assume) a “parent” role with them. Eek.

      1. GythaOgden*

        Yeah, our DEI training module has a paragraph on how to read the room. It doesn’t forbid joking about things like this, it just cautions people to try not to make jokes about people’s identity as a /general/ rule and if someone asks someone else to stop with the banter for whatever reason (or none at all), the onus is on the person joking about to stop.

        However, there’s a lot in there about how not to make assumptions either way. It emphasises that people are individuals as well as part of their group identity and to make sure that you don’t just treat someone based on group habits but find out what they as an individual might prefer themselves. For instance for me, I’m neurodivergent, but I’m the opposite of a lot of people here inasmuch as I turned a job down because the small shared office I would have worked out of felt claustrophobic compared to the open offices I’m used to, and although I need something to do with my hands in meetings (and thus take loads of handwritten notes, 99% of which I’ll never refer back to), I’m the sort of person who would be fatally distracted by someone knitting in my peripheral vision because my neurology just can’t smooth out something going on in that corner of my sensory experience. The general assumption that a small office is better for me than a large open one is kinda frustrating because while my neurology may be different to the majority of people’s, it manifests slightly differently to the way some people insist it should. The one thing I miss when working from home is the camaraderie of the office. WFH is much better for my other health and wellbeing issues in many, many ways, I do have regular calls and meetings with my team and no-one is more than an IM away, but I live on my own and it’s dark and cold outside (at least that’s only temporary and it’s not long until it’s light at 5 when I get off work) and I can get isolated very quickly without somehow being /forced/ to be in person. But from my introverted, neurodivergent personality you’d never realise that I worked Reception for ten years, loved it and only left when it just wasn’t sustainable physically any more.

        So the liberal thing is to move on to a place not where everything is forbidden and the office becomes a mausoleum where no one dare say anything for fear of giving offence. The object ultimately is to make society more thoughtful, helpful and genuinely kind (because while groups have definite privilege, individuals have circumstances where they struggle and making out that their struggle is lesser because they’re Fergus and not Lucinda is just going to alienate them further; it happened to my husband while going through cancer treatment and what was a vague feeling of academic discomfort became a very personal heartbreak that it took him longer to find a therapist on his young male wavelength and put him at ease about his fate; he couldn’t wait for feminism to work its magic on masculine therapeutic needs, and even four years on I almost walked out of the Barbie movie over its misandrist stereotypes) while honouring individuals’ individuality, issues and personality. Social justice has got a bit mired in this idea of a zero sum game: that in order for someone to be most comfortable, someone else has to lose something. What SJ is to me is allowing both group and individual to be the people they want to be — for no-one to lose out based on immutable things about their personal and social identity (not even white guys like my husband /chose/ to be born into their situation) but at the same time for that ultimately to serve the diversity of individuals among us and not be in thrall to rigid group identities with a One True Way of honouring that identity.

  54. Yours sincerely, Raymond Holt*

    I bristle so hard at colleagues assuming a parent-type role with me. If it was ever this explicit, I’d be cringing so hard for them too.

    Perhaps she meant something softer than mentoring, like a work buddy/person to ask what the office dress culture is/person to tell you how to work the heating/etc?

    Even so, it’s super problematic.

  55. LW #1*

    LW 1 here. So I’ve been there for a year, and two for six months. the funny thing is – this was not a table of only young/non-senoir women. While her comment was addressed to us, also at this table was a team leader, a manager, and a director. And the followup email she sent to the wrong people – so someone who had been there for several years got the offer.

    I wish there were weird culture questions you need to direct to someone other than your manager, but our team is really clear about that. The best part of the whole interaction was myself and another “new” person in an entry level role but also changed careers exchanging a look that said “my own mother is more than enough thanks”

  56. Liz E*

    I am the manager (technically the manager’s mgr) in a Brenda situation. It is tough. My Brenda is in a senior role, managing a lot of high level responsibilities, and we are working through a transition of responsibilities and process improvement which takes time. I cannot afford to lose this person. The employee who is complaining raises some valid issues but instead of working constructively with Brenda to address them, she sends passive aggressive emails and bad mouths Brenda behind her back. My response has basically been, look, we are on a team trying to address these issues together, and we can’t function as a team when you so clearly don’t trust this team member. I can understand why you are frustrated about xyz, here is what we are doing to address that, and if you are not on board with sticking with this and not sending emails saying Brenda is destroying everything you’ve worked to build, then I totally understand if you need to move on from this position. She has not taken me up on the suggestion. TLDR Depends on how bad the incompetence is, how replaceable the person is, what may be happening behind the scenes to address real issues, and if there may really be some toxic behavior of the other team member going on. In the OP’s case, sounds like high incompetence, no effort to address on mgmt part, & genuine effort to address constructively on OP’s part, but maybe it’s not that clear cut.

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