company won’t do anything about a horrible coworker, eating tiny lunches in a group, and more

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

1. My company won’t do anything about our horrible coworker

I have a very problematic coworker, Alex, but everyone, including HR, seem to be unable to fire them. And when I say problematic, I mean it. Earlier this year Alex outed me at work as gay (that’s a whole other letter), lied about another coworker sexually harassing me and minors (which I promise never happened), tried to get our managers fired, has been actively scuttling interviews with possible new hires when we are understaffed, gets into heated debates in public discussing confidential information (we’re customer-facing most of the time) while withholding that same info from those that need it, and lots of other smaller things. And that’s what I am aware of.

Recently Alex has begun an attempt to try and oust our department head because they claim the department head “doesn’t listen to them.” Besides the obvious reasons above that our department head has for taking everything Alex says with a grain of salt, our department head has talked to HR about it and they are trying to work with Alex to make them feel heard.

I fully accept Alex might be on a PIP and I wouldn’t know, but I doubt it. They continue to terrorize most of the staff with no known consequences. I’ve been told our workplace rarely, if ever, fires people (which is yet another letter), but I feel like we’re at that “rarely” point. But every time I talk to my boss, HR, or department head, they are all very reluctant to act. And it’s not that they don’t know the issue or share my feelings. One of them nearly cried to me due to how frustrated they were.

I just want Alex to stop terrorizing all of us. I work closely with Alex and know they have struggles and issues and I am sympathetic, but I feel like they’re using it as an excuse to make everyone else’s life also miserable. Ideally Alex could reform, but they have burned so much I think they would have to become someone entirely different for everyone to keep effectively working with them. It might be best for everyone if they were let go.

I know it is wishful thinking, but I was wondering if you had any ideas I could try to get something to change or be less stuck in this spot of frustration? Like can I bring up that Alex outed me again? (It was never handled because it was tied up with the accusations of the other coworker but that all got dropped when that person left as they had another job all set and was out the door before Alex started that circus). Should I as a subordinate bring up my concern about Alex’s attack on our department head? Or maybe something else you can see from what I wrote that I can’t.

What I see is that the problem isn’t Alex. Or rather, they aren’t the biggest problem. The biggest problem is that your management is aware of all the problems with Alex and is choosing not to act. Whether that’s from wimpiness or incompetence, I can’t say (although they’re really the same thing here). But they’re not doing their jobs and they’re letting the rest of you continue to suffer under Alex’s reign of terror. Alex has done so many fireable things at this point that not acting is a deliberate choice your management is making. They’re the problem.

I’m deeply skeptical that there’s any magical argument you can make that will get them to act when they’ve declined to so far. If the rest of you make such a stink that it becomes more painful to keep ignoring you than it is to deal with Alex, maybe that might move things along. But I’d rather you go somewhere that functions with a bare minimum level of managerial competence instead.

2. Eating tiny lunches in a group

I usually eat a very small breakfast and lunch, with a large dinner. This is just how my body has always worked. Often this might look like one buttered slice of bread for breakfast, a protein bar for lunch, then something like a large lasagne for dinner.

My office often has impromptu “team lunches” where we all kind of gravitate together at 1 pm. I get comments about my meagre portions and I honestly feel a bit out of place eating a single bar while my teammate is having beautiful homemade chicken risotto.

This extends to official company-paid work lunches, where I order $5 appetizers while others are ordering $50 steaks, which really feels quite awkward. I’m often encouraged to order the more expensive or larger items on the menu, even after explaining my eating preferences, and receive significant side eye as I slowly nibble on my salad.

Is it bad optics to eat cheap or small lunches in a group? Or are others being weird about my food habits? I’m worried I might be coming across as a cheapskate or appearing to be hiding an eating disorder.

In theory, what you eat at a group lunch is no one else’s business, and no one should have feelings about it in any way. In reality, in some contexts it’s something people will notice and which might feel out of place. That doesn’t mean you should change what you’re doing, though.

The impromptu team lunches where you’re all gathering with your own food are fine. Bring your protein bar, explain that’s what you like for lunch, and give it no further thought. But when it’s a more official, company-paid lunch where other people are ordering $50 steaks and you’re having a small side salad … it’s still no one’s business, but it’s likely to come up. Mostly that’s because people will worry you’re eating a side salad because there’s nothing else suitable for you and they’ll want to ensure you’re getting taken care of. It can also look a little … well, not like you’re rejecting the company’s hospitality because it’s not that, but something in that neighborhood? That’s wrong-headed, but so many social customs and rituals are connected to food that it’s something to be aware of.

That does not mean that you need to eat food you don’t want. You don’t! And people will get used to it over time. But realistically, yes, it may stand out as noticeably different from the norm. You may or may not care about that; you’re not required to. But if you do, one option is to order a reasonably palatable entree and take most of it home with you to eat later (or just use the time-honored practice of pushing it around on your plate while not eating much of it).

3. Boss wants us to share our availability but doesn’t share his own

A year or so ago, my manager said our team could work from home one day a week. He also wanted us to communicate that day on our team’s shared calendar. My manager, however, does not follow these same rules. He works from home whenever he wants to, without consistently communicating this to my coworker and me on the shared calendar. My coworker and I also post doctor’s appointments on the calendar but my manager does not.

Our manager is sometimes needed to help with issues in-person and we never know if he will be available or not. This is especially frustrating if we are short-staffed. Consequently, my coworker and I have both experienced growing resentment and frustration. Do you think we should bring this issue up to our manager in-person and how should we discuss this?

Yes, as long as you can tie it to clear work impacts, rather than just the double standard. (The double standard is a legitimate thing to resent. It’s just not likely to go over well with your boss.)

You could frame it as, “Would it be possible for you to note on the shared calendar when you’ll be out for appointments or working from home? We’re finding that we don’t always know if you’re available when we need you — for example, yesterday with X and last week with Y.”

4. I’m worried my old abuser will harass me at work

I work in a government office for an appointed official. A lot of my work deals with external partners, many of whom have to reach out to us first, so my contact information has to remain publicly available. I love my job more than anything I’ve done previously. It’s fulfilling, meaningful, and interesting.

I’m also a survivor of child abuse. I cut off my abuser from all contact for many years, did a lot of therapy, and am in a much better place now. In those years, my abuser tried to contact me through multiple routes, including inappropriate ones, but I was able to either block those routes (particularly when I was self-employed) or keep my contact information from being publicly available.

Recently, a meddling family member gave my abuser my phone number. Predictably, this resulted in him trying to reach me every few days or so for months. I finally called him back in the hopes that that would stop the calls but they’re still coming, only with slightly less frequency. I’m concerned that if I don’t call him again, my abuser will now find my publicly available contact information and use it inappropriately.

How do you suggest I prepare my office for this possibility while still maintaining the availability I need to have? I don’t want to have to share my painful past with anyone who might screen calls (the responsibility rotates depending on who’s in meetings or not) or with an HR department that is at a different location and who I don’t totally trust based on experience. At least I have no concern that my abuser will show up at my office since he lives hundreds of miles away and is currently disabled, but getting calls, emails, and website forms from him repeatedly would be hard on me and my understaffed office.

You can share that someone is harassing you without sharing details beyond that. You can simply say that a “difficult family member”/“unhinged family member”/“past stalker” (whatever feels most comfortable to you; they all sound accurate) has recently been making unwelcome and aggressive contact, you’re concerned he might use your work contact info at some point, and if that happens you’d like them to ___. Fill in the blank with whatever keeps you safest and most comfortable. That might be always saying you’re unavailable, sending all his calls to a specific voice mailbox (that you don’t need to check), deleting his messages without forwarding them on to you, or whatever you decide on.

I’m sorry you’re having to deal with this.

5. Work won’t pay for our travel to a weekend location

I work at a small nonprofit and everyone on staff is being asked to work a couple of weekends each during the next few months at an off-site location that can only be accessed by ferry. They will not be covering the cost of travel, which makes it especially difficult for some of us who will have to drive or take public transportation over extremely long distances to reach even the ferry departure point.

In return for working these offsite weekend days, we will have the chance to take a day off on one of our work-from-home days (we are a hybrid office), but only if our workloads permit (invariably, they will not).

I think it is legal in my state for a company as small as ours not to cover travel costs. But it feels incredibly unfair to require us to work these weekends at a location so inaccessible. Is there anything the staff can do to make this a better situation?

You can all push back as a group! A group of you complaining is more effective than just one person’s voice. As a group, tell your management that the organization needs to cover the costs of doing the offsite work, rather than pushing those costs onto its employees. Frame it just like that — that these are their expenses, not yours. If they decline, say none of you are able to afford the cost of travel so you’ll need another option for getting to the location. Again, there’s power in numbers. One person saying that would be sticking their neck out; a group of you saying it has more protection.

While you’re at it, push for actual comp time, not “you can take an extra day only if your workload allows it.” (Although if any of you are non-exempt, they’re legally required to pay you overtime — meaning time and a half — for those additional hours if it takes you over 40 hours that week.)

And I’m just gonna leave this here.

{ 424 comments… read them below }

  1. Typing All The Time*

    OP4: I’m assuming you’re in the US; maybe speak with an attorney about filing a cease and desist order?

    1. Zip2*

      Came to say exactly this. Restraining orders generally include not contacting the victim at ANY place (work, home, kid’s school, wherever) or through ANY format, including through a relative or friend. They’re usually very wide-reaching. Please consider this if it’s feasible. So very sorry you have to deal with this at all. Sounds like you found a job that’s a perfect fit for you so way to go on that!

    2. DeskApple*

      Also even if you framed it as “an old stalker”, these individuals tend to come up with elaborate stories to convince others to put you on the phone, pretending they are police, loved ones, customers, etc. If at all possible provide his phone number for screening (assuming he doesn’t spoof other numbers as a habit) and/or consider a code word to give to anyone who might have to legitimately call you (though that’s likely less feasible).

      1. OP4*

        Exactly. In the months before I called back, he had others call for him when I didn’t answer his calls (I screen all of my calls but couldn’t figure out how to avoid the voicemail messages). He convinced the family member to give him my phone number by saying he was dying (he’s not). Even outside of that, he often frames me as just an unreasonable, stubborn child with a normal childhood.

        This makes me think, though, about how to tell my coworkers to handle it. They’re already supposed to ask the purpose of the call so maybe I should emphasize how important this is. He doesn’t know what I do and it’s not obvious even from the publicly available information so it would be very hard for him to come up with a reasonable purpose.

        1. Tio*

          This is a little off topic, but on the subject of calling him back, read up on the Captain Awkward site about contacting abusers. One thing she has stressed before is “If they call you 100 times and you pick up on the 101st time, they learn it takes 101 calls to reach you next time.”

          This isn’t meant to be a criticism in any way, by the way! I’m hoping to help as I found that advice very helpful to me and I love Captain Awkward. I truly hope you get peace away from him and your workplace shows up for you to help if he does try anything.

          1. MassMatt*

            Came to say this. Calling him to get him to stop calling will always backfire. Get the restraining order if possible. Also, document his attempts to contact (harass) you, including his lying about his health and other deceptions, such as using sock puppets.

            1. OP4*

              Yes, I am acutely aware of that. I didn’t call him back to get him to stop calling me because I knew that would not work. I called him back because I needed to do it for my own peace of mind and sense of self. The claim was that he was dying and there was some evidence besides his word to support that he was actually sick.

              It ended up being a good thing for me. I confirmed he was not as bad off as he claimed and also got some closure, replacing the fear and shame I felt as a child with the realization that he is just a small and pathetic human being who treated me like he did because a child is an easy target. It’s not necessarily something I would recommend for anyone else in a similar position but personally, I’m glad I did it.

              1. Ellie*

                Good for you, OP, and I’m terribly sorry you’re going through this. One of my friends has had some bloke stalking her for 30 years, never dated him, never really knew him at all. It’s such a pathetic and horrible thing to do.

                I don’t suppose there is something legally you could do that would scare off the family member who outed you? A letter from a lawyer, perhaps? It depends on how reasonable they are though, I guess.

        2. singularity*

          If your company is still understaffed, you could frame this to your co-workers as not wanting them to waste time on someone who is not in genuine need of whatever it is y’all provide. You don’t have to go into specifics, just give them his contact information and maybe the contact information of anyone that might try to talk to you on his behalf, and say that he’s harassing you and to ignore/screen his calls. You might want to talk to your IT person and see if there’s a way to filter out anything he submits in a web form, or have emails sent from him get automatically marked as spam.

        3. Rex Libris*

          You can be straightforward without disclosing too many details. “A relative I’ve ceased contact with is attempting to reach me, and may track down my work number. If you receive an unusual contact looking for me, please just take their information, but don’t forward the call or give them my personal info.” Thanks!

          … and personally, I wouldn’t worry too much about justifying it beyond that. You’re no longer a child, and one of the perks of being an adult is the ability to tell toxic people to f*** all the way off, without having to get anyone’s approval.

          1. NotBatman*

            Yes! I got an all-company email yesterday that said “John Doe [photo attached] is not allowed on campus, and any contact from or 123-456-7890 should be reported to security immediately.” I have no idea why he’s banned, but all I need to know is that he’s banned.

            If you feel comfortable speaking with one person (head of security, CHRO, etc.) about this issue, then you could probably get a similar company-wide ban without your name ever having to come into it.

            1. daffodil*

              This might be tougher to do with a government agency who doesn’t have the same right to refuse service as a private company.

              1. Legal worker*

                Maybe. Not necessarily. I work for an agency that can’t just capriciously refuse service to the public, but out of necessity we absolutely have ways to manage or refuse contact from people who are known harassers, including maintaining a list and having images available. Working for a public-serving agency does not mean anyone has to be subjected to harassment or abuse just because you are serving the public.

              2. Jaydee*

                I work for the government and have seen it done. You might not be able to outright ban contact from a constituent, but you can certainly have a special policy that contact from John Doe is documented in a particular way, routed to a specific manager, routed to agency legal counsel, security is notified, or whatever is appropriate based on the situation.

            2. Tupac Coachella*

              I came to say the same thing-if I were in the position of OP’s coworkers who answer calls, the only information I’d need is “do not put Relative through for any reason. If he calls, do this.” I’d assume that there was a backstory that was none of my business and not give it another thought beyond making a point to remember the name so I could comply.

              An idea, OP: if you have a boss or other person in authority you’re comfortable telling about this who is both willing to take it on and able to be stern, they might be a good person to have the call directed to. The receiver of the call can ask what they want again to keep up the illusion that this type of screening is normal (knowing they’re receiving “special” treatment could mean they just call back and use a different name to get routed to you). Relative likely won’t be able to produce a legitimate reason for the call, at which point your receiver can firmly tell them that personal calls are a misuse of this line (whether that’s technically true or not) and they are not to call again, hopefully convincing your relative that trying to reach you at work is a dead end, and hopefully mildly unpleasant to boot-bonus points if your receiver leaves them on hold for a while before scolding them and refusing to put them through.

            3. djx*

              Yes. I suggest the OP start with HR and/or security. If the company/organization is good, they will take action such as what was done in NotBatman’s company.

          2. djx*

            I’m on the comms/IT side of things at my org, and when an employee was being harrassed by someone they went to HR first, who then asked me to make some changes to our online presence so she would be less findable.

            This is normal and a good organization will help.

        4. dePizan*

          I found out (after getting an abusive library patron at work sending texts/calling all hours during the pandemic once he figured out I was on a work cell phone), that even when you block a number it still allows them to leave voicemails. It will block texts and you won’t hear the call before it goes to voicemail; but there is no way to actually block the voicemails. Makes zero sense.

          1. notaphoneexpert*

            If you have an Android phone, you can choose to either have all numbers for a contact “Blocked”, or “Divert to Voicemail”. Possibly the second setting has been selected by accident?

          2. Orv*

            This is going to depend on how it’s blocked. If you block it at the phone, it will go to voicemail; however, your cell carrier may be able to block numbers in a way that won’t go through.

    3. AJ*

      And in the meantime, an IP block might be a decent tactic for keeping him from swamping the office in emails and form submissions.

    4. WellRed*

      They also should consider whether they needed to go no contact with a wider circle of family, like that meddling family member.

      1. Pastor Petty Labelle*

        This right here. No contact with anyone who doesn’t get why you are no contact with your abuser.

        Cease and desist is useless unless you plan to follow through on taking legal action. An abuser will just ignore a letter. A restraining order may work but not pre-emptively. Also being hundreds of miles away makes it less likely a court will act since the person is not in immediate danger. And the abuser will just ignore it, because again hundreds of miles away, who is gonna arrest him and charge him? Abusers know how far they can go before getting into actual trouble. Most push right up to the line.

          1. Artemis*

            Is it possible that the contact info that needs to be publicly available NOT be connected to your name (and/or not use your direct number)?

            1. ResearcHER*

              We often set up an email account for the ‘office’ so that any external facing contact information can be represented as rather than an employee account. Likewise, the phone number would not have a name associated with it. Both can forward to your personal inbox/desk, but this limits the use of personal identifiers.

              There’s so many reasons to limit personal identifiers on public-facing websites now, that this request should be understood and honored by your organization.

              1. wilma flintstone*

                Many years ago when I had a stalker, my requests to coworkers about not connecting his calls to me were met with “It’s not my job to lie for you.” Hopefully, awareness on this issue has improved and your coworkers will have your back, but please do not discount people’s inclination to pass the buck/kick the can/fail to help.

                1. Waltzing Matilda*

                  whoo boy, I’m sorry that happened to you. The majority of my job is receptionist work. None of my coworkers have stalkers (that I’m aware of, at least), but if they don’t have the mental energy to deal with a difficult customer you better believe I’m happy to say “they’re unavailable at the moment”. It’s not difficult. Your coworkers were jerks.

                2. Anony*

                  What on earth? I’m with Waltzing Matilda, and I’m sorry that happened to you.

                  I used to work for a company that fielded in a lot of calls from the general public. I would give our receptionists names of folks who were challenging or problematic, and they didn’t hesitate to pretend we were out of the office, send them to voicemail, whatever. And this was just people who were difficult and would waste my time over silly stuff, say really inappropriate things to me, etc. — not actual stalkers. They had my back, no questions asked! (And in return I always picked up muffins from the cafe.)

                3. MarsJenkar*

                  Good grief. I actually do have an issue with not being able to tell an untruth, but I could still say “They can’t speak to you today; can I take a message?”

                  Not mentioning the reason OP can’t speak to the caller is because it’s not safe for them.

                4. OP4*

                  Oh my gosh, that’s terrible! I have a good relationship with my coworkers, so I can’t imagine any of them saying this. What an awful person!

            2. Venus*

              Or if OP’s first name is relatively common then at the least remove the last name. “For our marketing department, please call Carol at XYZ”.

              Still, for consistency within a workplace it is reasonable to only post the position and not someone’s name, so that if someone leaves then they don’t have to update everything. Hopefully they can remove the full name. “For our marketing department, please call XYZ”.

        1. Check cash*

          I had restraining order twice on my ex, and they actually were never able to serve him.
          He worked from home. I’m guessing every time the sheriff showed up, he just didn’t answer the door. Which is insane. But, yeah. He tried to violate the order by attempting to pick up our kid from school – but he claims he knew there was no order…so these things are really hard.

          Later, some woman he was involved with contacted me telling me he was stalking her (and basically I was like…wth you want from me) but the judge would not grant it and just had him on a tresspassing charge because he wouldn’t leave her property. Which he never showed up for court for. There were other arrests and violations that he had that he just skipped court. He had two bench warrants for his arrest out for over a year…he did eventually die, but…all this to say, its really hard to get the courts to act and the person making the complaint basically has to keep spending money to push the issue.

    5. OP4*

      I appreciate the thought but I don’t know how feasible that is, given that he’s so far away and not likely to travel for numerous reasons. Plus, he used to work in the criminal justice system and has already manipulated it to his advantage in the past.

      1. Jennifer Strange*

        I am so sorry you’re dealing with this. Knowing he’s able to manipulate things like that is heartbreaking. Wishing you nothing but the best.

      2. NotRealAnonForThis*

        Oh how frustrating!

        Years ago, we had a member of our extended family get into some trouble with a few illicit substances. He went off the rails, friends, in contacting every single possible member of the family over whatever bananapants thing was in his head that day.

        A restraining order really wouldn’t have been granted (distance, and the fact that this was in the 00s so virtual stalking was really not considered a thing). In discussion with my (small business) employer at the time, we:
        1. eliminated identifiable contact information from the website,
        2. Everyone in the office knew that if he called, he was to be put through to Bill Smith’s voicemail, and
        3. Everyone also knew that NOBODY was to confirm or deny whether or not I was in the building just based on someone asking.

        I am truly sorry that you’re having to deal with this, OP4.

    6. LongTimeReader*

      I’ve had success with this on a former-client turned email-harasser. I was just moving the emails unread into a folder u til the little preview line mentioned my location from the previous day. My boss got the company lawyer to send a cease & desist letter by certified mail, which actually worked.
      I’m so sorry for all you e gone through and the new anxiety this adds.

    7. Too old for this nonsense*

      LW4, sorry you’re dealing with this.

      A few years ago I had an intern disclose to me that a former stalker had been trying to contact them again. With the intern’s consent, I reached out to the head of security at my department and the three of us met to talk about how to mitigate the risks should the stalker find out where our intern worked.

      Is there anyone in charge of workplace security at your office? They might have some strategies on how to deal with your situation as well.

      1. quercus*

        Especially since OP4 works for a government official, the security team may be helpful. And remember that messing with a government office is much more likely to be considered a crime than messing with an individual. (For instance, if OP is at a federal office, and the stalker lies to a coworker in order to get a call forwarded to the OP, the stalker has technically committed a federal crime by lying to a federal employee who is doing their official duties).

        1. Properlike*

          Plus, law enforcement is much more on top of threats against government officials – as in, more likely to take them seriously, vs. ignoring it.

    8. Panne*

      In my country businesses and local governments are also allowed to block someone’s number (almost always only for a certain amount of time after which they have to reapply for permission from the court).
      Maybe that’s something to look into if the abuser finds the public phone number and starts harassing everyone

  2. Sean*

    LW2 im the same way, if i dont skip lunch or breakfast outright i usually keep it small. Maybe you can have an employer sponsored lunch somewhere that serves caviar? $50 of black osetra is 60 calories!

    1. ADHDFox*

      I’ve been this person for most of my life! The one who was shamed at the Francophone office for having toast for lunch, the one eating fruit for lunch in an academic setting… etc. I’ve become a big fan of “volume over mass”; the big leafy salad seems a lot more than it actually is. I’m just glad that I’m not alone. :)

      1. Smithy*

        Yes – I actually think that these are likely the best two options when it comes to appearances and accepting hospitality. (If the OP wants to have that as a tool in their arsenal for certain business moments)

        The first is to go small but pricier – so appetizers that are only a few bites but features fancier/pricier ingredients. The size discrepancy will still be obvious but then can allow for a quick “I’m not super hungry at lunch, but I can’t pass up truffles/tartar/hand made etc.” The other would be to go for a serving size that appears large but may not be that much food. So the entre sized green salad will be on a similarly sized plate to the steaks and can draw less attention that way.

        A middle ground option at some places might be those appetizer boards (cheese/charcutier boards), that can be served in a manner that appears larger than the amount of food actually there and also can be on the pricier side. I recently got a smoked salmon board somewhere that ultimately was only 4 slices of (very nice) smoked salmon – but comes out on a much larger board and with accompaniments looks like a lot more than other appetizers that likely are of similar size.

        I think find the option that works best for you, and save it for meetings where you’re not looking for that to be as noticeable. A while ago, I had to go to some super fancy, important dinner for work with mostly Europeans (I’m from the US). And in addition to being nervous about the work conversation that needed to happen, I was also really self conscious about not using a knife the American way. Ultimately decided that a seafood risotto was a way to entirely avoid needing a knife and the dish was also rich enough that if I only ate a little – I’d be full enough, not get too drunk off a glass or two of wine plus nerves, and feel less fish out of water. It’s not a dish I particularly love, but also one I don’t dislike and feel better knowing it’s out there for those moments.

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

          This made me think of something that I recently had that may be an option. Artichoke dip was an app on the menu and it came on a huge board but the portion was actually quite small. There was more bread and crackers than dip.

        2. NotBatman*

          That’s a good call, to get something small but pricier when at a work lunch. I have a medical condition (gastroparesis) that means I need 6 small meals rather than 3 big ones, so I’ll probably steal this one for my next work lunch.

        3. MigraineMonth*

          Anyone who judges you for using a knife the American way is a jerk. Same with anyone who judges you for using a knife the European way. As long as you’re not stabbing someone with it, it’s no one else’s business.

        4. Jack Russell Terrier*

          Oh good lord. I was 12 at boarding school in late Seventies. I had an American on the lunch table with me. The bloody awful House Mistress told her ‘stop parking your fork’. Those were her exact words. She replied ‘Ma’am?’, sounding confused. The Awful HM barked it again. At that point I stepped in, being familiar with both styles of eating.

          It’s a bad do when the 12 yo is so much more polite that the House Mistress. But she was just a nasty person.

          I moved boarding schools.

      2. Spero*

        I was also thinking along this line, but thinking *multiple* separately plated small items. Ex order the asparagus side, the seared tuna appetizer, a fancy lemonade AND a water, and a bread plate to share. Now you have three plates and two cups in front of you taking up a lot of table real estate, even though the actual volume of food you are consuming is smaller than what would be on a typical entrée plate. And moving between plates etc gives you an activity so it’s not as obvious that it took you less time to eat your portion than the full lasagna entrée next to you.

    2. DeskApple*

      Yeah, after my mom got her stomach stapled she can only eat absolutely tiny portions and everyone was forever getting offended that she didn’t eat more than a few bites.

    3. tg33*

      FWIW, remember this works both ways. When I’m hungry I can’t think and need to eat NOW! I’ve worked with a few people who can work all day without eating, and it does make me feel self conscious.

      All this to say, eat what feels right to you!

      1. UKDancer*

        Yes. I went away for a weekend with a friend and we discovered that she didn’t eat lunch and I need something (even something light) at lunchtime or I get really bad tempered. We wound up agreeing that we’d stop and I’d have lunch and she’d have a coffee and a cigarette. Our travels improved significantly after that.

      2. Tea*

        “I’ve worked with a few people who can work all day without eating…”

        I know life is a rich tapestry, different strokes, don’t food shame, blah blah blah…. But god I haaaaate people like this. I don’t say that out loud obviously. But damn, they kind of suck sometimes.

        1. Spicy Tuna*

          I only eat dinner. Digesting food puts me right to sleep. I’d need a long nap if I ate lunch or breakfast

        2. Admin Lackey*

          Sorry, I don’t understand why you hate people who don’t eat much or how their eating habits mean they suck? It doesn’t affect you

          1. Marzipan Shepherdess*

            I was wondering the same thing! If someone else’s eating choices don’t hurt anyone else, why on earth would they bother YOU?? If there’s ever a time to MYOB, this is it!

          2. bamcheeks*

            There was loads of discussion about this on the “how to to ask if meetings provide food” letter a week ago. Basically if you have an influential senior person who doesn’t stop for lunchm, or a critical mass of people, it can be hard to be the person who says, “Um, I need a break to eat” or “does the venue have catering?” I read it in that context: any individual person not having lunch is *shrug*, but if that starts to become the culture of a workplace it’s horrible.

            1. amoeba*

              Yup, this. I couldn’t care less about what people do or don’t do for lunch, but a culture of “we don’t need a lunch break, let’s work straight through” – definitely hateworthy.

              1. Artemis*

                I guess I’m officially old enough to not care if someone is going to judge me for needing to eat. I don’t care if others want to skip a meal! But I’m not going to.

                On the other side of this, I can’t eat a lot at once, so I have lots of small things throughout the day. And I do tend to get questions about why I’m ordering an appetizer as my meal. Oh well.

                1. doreen*

                  It’s not always about judging, exactly. I had a job once that involved hearings. As an analogy, I’m going to use a court where there is a standard lunch break from 1-2, judges and lawyers can leave the building as soon as their cases are finished and court officers have to stay till the end of the day. At my job , the “judges” and “lawyers” would often want to work through lunch so they could leave early , and they would often pressure the court officers to work between 1-2. But those “officers” didn’t get to leave early if they skipped lunch and plenty of them didn’t feel comfortable insisting on a lunch break ( and neither did some of the “lawyers” if the “judge” wanted to work through)

            2. Jackalope*

              This is it for me. I honestly don’t care about other people’s eating habits unless they either live with me or we hang out on the regular at times that overlap meals, and that’s just because I need to know so we can figure out food together. But I had one job where several of the other staff either didn’t care about lunch or felt it was a virtue to work through lunch and I had a really hard time with that aspect of my job. Most of the time I could figure it out, but on a reasonably regular basis we’d have something like a big meeting that went over lunchtime and it was really hard sometimes. Also this was in another culture where it’s very rude to eat in front of someone else and not share your food with them, which I’m general I respect but in practice it made it tough to feed myself.

              I still have a little bit of smugness about once when we were going out to the field for a whole day. The year before when this happened I had been starving by the end of the day because I brought no lunch and the field location didn’t have any place to grab something. This year I brought a bunch of bread (think loaves like baguettes), cheese, fruit, and maybe lunch meat, enough for everyone to have a sandwich. My boss was a bit nonplussed when I insisted that we needed to stop for lunch between sites, but towards the end of the day he said, “Ah, it feels so nice to have had some lunch. I never would have thought of that, but I feel better than usual!”

            3. Admin Lackey*

              That makes sense in terms of taking a lunch break and in that context I agree with you, but I understood Tea’s comment to be about the amount people are/aren’t eating during the day.

              I agree not taking a lunch break is bad, but how much people are eating on their break is MYOB territory, in my opinion

            4. Observer*

              Basically if you have an influential senior person who doesn’t stop for lunchm, or a critical mass of people, it can be hard to be the person who says, “Um, I need a break to eat” or “does the venue have catering?

              But that’s about a person in a position of power and / or a group of people with a “bubble” mentality acting ridiculously, not “people like that” and *generally* are a problem.

              In the context of “I know . . . Don’t food shame, blah blah blah” that’s a really wide brush and rubs the wrong way. And I say this as someone who does NOT think that it’s virtuous to skip lunch and does not do well when that happens.

          3. MassMatt*

            It does when their eating habits become an expectation. I worked in an office with a few people like this and they liked to schedule last minute meetings during lunchtime with no food. I got much side-eye for eating a simple sandwich or Tupperware of pasta. Three meals a day seemed very alien to them.

            At an off-site all day meeting (that I had to drive two hours to get to), lunch was scheduled at a normal time but the coordinator decided to “just work through it” to finish a module and the person responsible for ordering lunch forgot until almost 3pm. That person then insisted on a team dinner before we went home, so dinner was about an hour after finishing “lunch”.

            Everyone has their own preferences, but the norm is three meals a day and I disliked being made to feel like a spoiled outlier for expecting or even wanting that very normal schedule.

            1. MassMatt*

              Oh, forgot the best part—one person, on expressing bewildered surprise that I eat three meals a day, said there must be something wrong with my blood sugar. Uh, thanks?

              1. whimbrel*


                ‘Yeah, if I don’t regularly eat like humans need to my blood sugar does tend to get out of whack.’

            2. Orv*

              I hear you. I get seriously hangry if I don’t eat, and it eventually progresses to shakes and a cold sweat. It’s a real issue for me if I can’t eat on something approaching a normal schedule.

          4. katydid*

            I think they were being facetious– “I hate them, they suck” because they’re envious that these people don’t have to interrupt everything to eat immediately or else lose focus/get dizzy/etc. It’s enviable!

        3. lunchtime caller*

          Unless this person is a travel companion, I can’t say I’ve ever noticed or cared. Truly what does it matter to me if my coworker never takes a lunch? Hard for me to notice when I’m half asleep in the sun eating what I packed for my full hour.

        4. Eldritch Office Worker*

          I can’t imagine how someone else’s eating habits impact your life enough to warrant that level of hostility

          1. Alienor*

            Guessing it’s because some people who don’t eat lunch at work do it performatively: “I’m just tooooo busy to eat!” Or they’ll shame people who do eat lunch, like they’re lazy for wanting to stop working or weak for needing food.

            (Not all, of course – some people are like OP and just want to be left alone to not eat in peace. But the people who are loud about their non-lunch-eating are usually pretty obnoxious.)

          2. AngryOctopus*

            People with that level of hostility have often encountered the “I don’t eat lunch, so I don’t see why you need to do so” mentality, which results in them being shamed for eating food, which results in a negative feedback loop like this. I’ve certainly met people who worked in this context when young and then felt guilty for stopping to eat lunch. It’s just another thing that happens in workplaces of bees where you stop noticing the buzzing until you get out, and didn’t realize how much it was affecting you.

            1. Observer*

              People with that level of hostility have often encountered the “I don’t eat lunch, so I don’t see why you need to do so” mentality, which results in them being shamed for eating food, which results in a negative feedback loop like this.

              Yeah, but adults should be able to know the difference between this kind of poor behavior and “people who eat very small meals”.

              Just as they should know the difference between people who give people a hard time for eating a small amount and the people who just eat a typical meal.

          3. Llama Llama*

            Because those people are the same people who think it’s okay to schedule a meeting over your lunch hour, therefore they don’t to eat either. I encounter this on the daily even though I have my lunch blocked.

            Now if it’s OP who just going to eat a small salad while I enjoy my steak, whatever.

            1. Observer*

              Because those people are the same people who think it’s okay to schedule a meeting over your lunch hour, therefore they don’t to eat either.

              Not in my experience. In my experience the people who schedule meetings over lunch are just as likely to be performative about their “sacrifice” (ie “Of course I’m hungry but I’s SUCH a *team player* that I’m skipping my lunch for the good of the team” or some such nonsense), or even more likely to either eat through the meeting or eat before or after the meeting. In my experience a lot of people who don’t eat lunch do not like lunch meetings because they use that time for other things.

              Off course this is not universal and I know that there are plenty of people who just assume that because they don’t eat, no one else needs to and act accordingly. Just that in my experience both assuming that everyone needs the same things are you do, and ignoring other people’s needs and schedules is not, at least in my experience, more common in people who skip meals than those who don’t.

        5. Angela Zeigler*

          I understand everyone has their own preferences for meals, body needs etc, which is fine.

          What isn’t fine is when someone else asks to eat lunch, around lunch time, like the vast majority of the population, and is treated like some kind of weird picky princess. It’s perfectly normal to eat lunch! Eating, in general, is important!

        6. Zephy*

          I’m married to a people like this and it’s not that he’s some kind of superman of willpower, he straight up *forgets* to eat when he’s deeply engrossed in something. And then when his hunger signal finally gets loud enough for him to notice, he’s DYING and sulky about it, because he’s been trying to run his meat suit for 16 hours on 150 calories’ worth of coffee creamer.

          All that to say, folks like this aren’t doing it AT you and it’s not always a good or admirable trait to have.

          1. Loredena*

            This would be me! I realize it’s related to my ADHD but at this point it’s also a (bad) habit. I tried setting a lunch reminder but that only works for a few days before becoming background noise.

        7. MaineCat*

          I only eat one meal per day (dinner). I still take a “lunch break” to go for a walk and I provide catering for any meetings unavoidably happening at lunchtime (mainly big events). My personal choice to eat one meal per day therefore has no impact on anyone else and is exclusively my business. No idea why ppl decide to care about choices that do not affect them in any way.

      3. MigraineMonth*

        I try to visit my niblings one weekend a month, and every Saturday afternoon was just miserable: I was exhausted, cranky, headachy, etc. It took way too long to figure out that my sister’s family’s meal pattern (brunch-snack-dinner) was not compatible with mine (breakfast-lunch-dinner).

        Things got much better when I started asking for food/caffeine when I needed it (and carrying around a meal’s worth of snacks at all times, much to the little ones’ delight).

      1. londonedit*

        I’m not even sure it’s that, necessarily – I think Alison has it right with the idea that people will simply be concerned that the OP isn’t able to find something to eat, or isn’t enjoying the lunch. Especially if it’s a company lunch – most people would see that as a nice thing, and if the OP isn’t eating then people will probably jump to ‘Don’t you like the food? Is there nothing you can eat?’ Not eating often correlates in people’s minds with not feeling well, so there’s probably some concern around that, too – they probably think OP must be feeling ill if they don’t want to eat the free food. Also, fundamentally people want others to share in nice experiences, and so much socialising is based around food, so it can definitely be hard for people to understand that someone might simply not want to eat at lunchtime. It reminds me of the bit in the UK comedy The Royle Family, where the elderly ‘Nanna’ character is confused that young Anthony’s girlfriend isn’t eating anything, and after it’s explained to her that she’s a vegetarian, Nanna carries on with ‘…but what about a bit of wafer-thin ham? Could she have a bit of wafer-thin ham, Barbara??’ Because in our culture if you provide food for people you want them to eat it, and if they’re not, you worry there’s something wrong with the food.

      2. Crencestre*

        Which are STILL none of their business – we’re talking about adults here, after all! And seriously, haven’t we all seen inexcusably nosey people try to excuse their prying by labeling it “concern”? Sorry (not sorry!), folks, that just isn’t fooling anyone!

      3. Observer*

        My mind immediately went to coworkers worrying about eating disorders.

        And the BEST way to react to that concern is to call attention to what’s “wrong” with the coworker’s food. NOT!

        You would think that by now there would be enough awareness that people should know to not make these comments. Also, I sometimes wonder if these people were raised in a barn. It’s SO rude and nosy to push someone on what they are eating. Especially since there are SO many reasons why someone might be ordering something small (or nothing at all).

      4. MaineCat*

        Unless a minor child is involved, it is exactly no one’s business at work if a co-worker has an eating disorder. As someone who does intermittent fasting to alleviate GI issues, I’m sure some people think I have an eating disorder. As I am not a child and they are not my parents, my reasons for fasting are not their business.

        1. Llama Llama*

          Every single business meal I have been to in the past year a decent portion of employees got to go boxes. This is just silliness.

          1. uncivil servant*

            Yeah, especially if you order a meal that’s already on the small side of normal. You don’t have to order less than an entree if you have a small appetite. It’s only when you order more than a standard meal and then eat less than one that it looks bad.

            1. doreen*

              I think that’s why some of the “take most of it home” or “eat a few bites” advice looks bad – it doesn’t specify the size of the meal. There’s nothing wrong most of the time with not finishing your entree – but it’s probably not going to look good if you ordered an appetizer and ate two bites of the main course, or ate a quarter of the 20 ounce steak rather than ordering the 6 ounce one that was on the menu.

          2. sparkle emoji*

            Yeah, if everyone else is ordering steak and LW orders a small portion of pasta or a salad and takes home half, that should be less of an issue than someone over-ordering expensive foods.

        2. Lisa*

          The “rules” are different for a team meal vs a meal with clients or an interview over a meal.

        3. Judge Judy and Executioner*

          Says who? I’ve literally never heard this. My colleagues and I have never been afraid to take a to-go box for a team meal.

          1. Ann O'Nemity*

            Do an internet search. It’s a pretty well establish business etiquette rule, not something I made up.

            Depending on the situation, it may be fine to get a get a to-go box for leftovers. Like a friendly lunch with coworkers. But I want to point out the etiquette rule because some people are going to consider it rude to take the leftovers. I wouldn’t advise ordering more than you can eat with the plan of taking leftovers.

          1. Filosofickle*

            It’s definitely a thing, but like many old-school etiquette things it’s not something “everyone” knows or follows. And times have changed a bit as well, I think it’s more normalized today than 30 years ago.

            For me it really depends on the type of meal/meeting. The more people are in suits or formal attire, the less I’m likely to get a box (and that’s true for me even if it’s a social meal). If it’s a fancy restaurant and it’s a high-stakes meeting where I need to impress a client, I don’t get a box. An interview…probably not either. If it’s a run of the mill client or a team meeting, I’m getting the box.

    4. AngryOctopus*

      My old boss used to eat 6-7 times a day, really small meals. It’s just how she was. If we ever went out, she’d generally just order something she wanted, eat a little, and then take the rest home (where her teenage son would instantly devour it, so she didn’t worry about practicality of leftovers for sure). LW2, you could just order something you like, eat a little, and take it home to have later!

    5. Rex Libris*

      I’d just say “I like to have a big dinner, so I usually keep my lunches small.” You’re allowed to have preferences without explaining them, and it’s not like eating a steak is a mission critical business need.

    6. Mynona*

      I have always eaten small lunches, or coffee for lunch, and received similar comments. For office lunches, I eat whatever I want. For business lunches or dinners, I order an entree (although normally not also a first course), and eat what I want. In both scenarios, I respond to comments with “I have a small appetite” because I do. It’s not a big deal, so that’s how I act, and people tend to respond accordingly. I sometimes have to reassure hosts that the food is delicious. Also, it helps that I’m a really slow eater and tend to finish at the same time as everyone else (or even after). But I think leaving food on the plate is better optics than a side salad.

    7. NobodyHasTimeForThis*

      I do echo the take home. If that is not completely against company norms order what you want for dinner and take it home. I used to have business lunches and quite often I was the only woman in a group of rather large men and they would just “order for the table” Quite often my leftovers were dinner for both me and my spouse.

    8. Anonymouse617*

      I have dietary restrictions and I’m on medication that can sometimes affect my appetite. Things I’ve said in the past that help explain this without going into the nitty gritty details:

      -My body does better with several small meals throughout the day, rather than three main meals. What are you eating?
      -I have a dietary restriction, and this option seemed the tastiest for me! I hope you enjoy your steak, I hear it’s great here!

      Also if it is social accessible to get a to-go box from lunch, take advantage of the company lunch and save the rest for dinner or lunch the next day.

  3. Merus*

    At the point where a manager is implying employees should form a union, are they still a manager? Are we still asking a manager?

      1. used to be a tester*

        “Dear Ask a Grump, now that the weather is getting warmer, my co-worker wants to have all the windows and doors open, and is perpetually delighted by all the happy little chirping birdies. How do I let them know it’s difficult to focus on my work when they do this? NB. my co-worker is a cat”.

      2. LunaLena*

        There’s a tiny town in Iowa whose welcome sign says “Readlyn: Home to 857 friendly people and one old Grump.” The official Grump is an elected position and performs ceremonial duties throughout the year such as giving out awards. Perhaps they should add hosting an advice column to their list of duties.

        1. NobodyHasTimeForThis*

          There is a town in Ohio that does this as well, except I believe it is “Sorehead” instead of grump. Although it seemed to be the same person several years in a row, but maybe she took pride in being the sorehead.

        2. RetiredAcademicLibrarian*

          There’s also a small town in Washington with the same sign. They elect the grump (my understanding is peopke self select to be on the ballot).

        1. La Triviata*

          There’s also a pillow that reads, “Sometimes I wake up grumpy. Sometimes I let him sleep”

    1. JSPA*

      Sure. The presumption that unions are anti-management (as opposed to separate from management) and vice-versa, and that they make businesses work worse (rather than better) is a primarily (US) American take on the topic.

      Many companies in other countries find it useful that Unions are in effect doing the work of collecting and organizing and clarifying and presenting worker ideas, needs, suggestions and complaints.

      If you don’t presume an intrinsically adversarial relationship (which is to say, if you think that workers should be invested in the business running well, and that the business should be invested in the good of the workers, and that unions exist to block some of the more perverse incentives of investor-focused capitalism), this makes perfect sense.

      1. Dina*

        I wish it was like that in Australia, tbh. While unions aren’t quite as denigrated here as in the US, the adversarial relationship is still a big thing.

        1. WS*

          +1, I am also Australian and the most functional large workplace I was ever in was one that worked closely with the various healthcare unions. But this was unfortunately a rare thing.

        2. bamcheeks*

          Yeah, I think the UK is halfway between the two as well. There are some sectors and roles where unions are well represented and established, and most public sector organisations will recognise unions for salary negotiation and individual disputes. But there’s still a lot of anti-union rhetoric in the media and from government, and almost unheard of for private organisations to include workforce representation on their boards or leadership structures.

      2. Czhorat*

        Also, just because you’re asking a manager doesn’t mean she’ll always side with management; there are tons of times (see LW1 here) in which Alison will -rightly- say that management is the problem.

        1. Belle Astre*

          Wasn’t there a letter where in the update the letter writer (a manager) flat-out said they expected a site called “Ask A Manager” to automatically side with the manager?

          I mean, kudos for saying the quiet part out loud I guess

          1. Belle Astre*

            Found it! It was beer run letter writer in the first update (August 2, 2017) to “is the work environment I’ve created on my team too exclusive”.

            I’d forgotten Alison how long that update got – Alison basically did a mini interview with them.

          2. Niabel*

            Definitely at least one! IIRC something like, “Our workplace organises fun weekend outings that all us male employees enjoy; how do I get the female employees to STFU and stop causing drama over the fact that they aren’t invited?”
            OP’s response was in the comments: deeply affronted that Alison (and several hundred other people) dared to suggest that the women weren’t the problem in this scenario, flouncing off with an air of “You’re stupid and wrong, so I’m going to ignore everything that was said here.”

          3. VivaVaruna*

            Yes, it was the “Is the work environment I’ve created on my team too exclusive?” letter, where the letter writer admitted she had pushed out an employee for basically not being a “culture fit” with the rest of her team, and ended up being let go because of serious mismanagement and insubordination.

            1. Hlao-roo*

              Just to add a few more details for anyone curious, the letter was posted July 25, 2017.

              The first update (from August 2, 2017) is the where the letter-writer says “I thought that as Ask a Manager you would side with a manager.”

              There’s a second update (from October 12, 2017) where the letter-writer realizes and accepts she’s in the wrong. I highly recommend reading all three posts.

            2. The Original K.*

              That’s one of my favorite series of letters. OP had done absolutely everything wrong, to the point where Alison point blank asked if she was trolling.

          4. DJ Abbott*

            Saying the quiet part out loud is the reason I kept coming back here. I had been observing things about life and work, and didn’t think others were aware of them. I was thrilled to discover a site where people like me were discussing these things. I had never had people to discuss this with before. <3. :)
            More than just kudos, I think this is absolutely necessary and love Allison for providing it. I’m sure it’s making a huge difference all over the world.

          5. May I Go Home Now*

            It’s a little unwieldy but maybe the title should be Ask a Good Manager. Or Smart Manager. Or Manager with Empathy and Common Sense. Or on some days even Ask a Decent Manager or Thinking Human would cover the issue with the person with a management title in the OPs letter.

          6. The Gollux, Not a Mere Device*

            Captain Awkward has described that sort of letter as “Who’s right here, and why is it me?”

            There are people who ask “What should I do here?” and others who ask “how can I persuade the other person that I’m right and they’re wrong?”

      3. Aussie AAM fan*

        Well said. I am a senior manager in higher ed in Australia and also a member of my union. The issues they advocate for are relevant to me as well as my team. And when I was in the UK I worked on cross organisation projects that involved unions amd employers where they worked very effectively together to try to improve conditions for all parties.

        1. IndigoHippo*

          Yeah I’m in higher ed in the UK and my line manager is also my department’s union rep. I don’t see that as any conflict, as academics we all have shared interests regardless of seniority or managerial status. She’s a great manager and advocates for me and my interests while also advocating for the interests of the department as a whole, which is where managerial and union roles really align.

          1. Dr Liseuse*

            I’m also in Higher Ed in the UK (but professional services not academic), and I’m on my union’s branch committee as treasurer, and am also a steward. I’m also a middlingly senior member of my directorate. Both of these roles combine well; my insight into what is happening at senior level means I can give info to union colleagues as we prepare to talk to management, and my union involvement means I can push back on decisions I think are unwise in two ways. My union branch makes a lot of effort to work well with management because being adversarial at all times makes everyone’s life harder and diminishes the impact when we do have to push back strongly.

          2. UKDancer*

            Yes, I am middle management in my UK company and I’m in a union as are some of the people who work for me. My boss is in a union also (but a different union from mine). It’s never been a problem in any company I’ve worked in.

            1. londonedit*

              Yeah, I get the impression that being in a union is much less of a big deal here in the UK than it is in the US. Your workplace doesn’t have to collectively ‘unionise’, you can just join an appropriate union if that’s something you want to do, and then you can seek help and support from the union if something happens like you’re made redundant or you’re under a disciplinary process or whatever (in those situations you have the right to bring a union rep to any meetings with your employer, for example). Some people in my industry are in unions (there isn’t a specific publishing union but many join the NUJ which is the journalists’ union) and some aren’t – it doesn’t really make a difference either way.

              1. bamcheeks*

                I think it’s the difference between being able to join a union and having that union recognised by the employer as a negotiating body, though. We seem to have more big, established unions that people can join independently, and we’ve also got a lot more professional workplaces where one of the big unions will be formally recognised as a negotiating body. But people unionising in non-union environments and getting those unions recognised is still a huge deal, like the recent court case with GMB trying to get recognised as a negotiating body for Deliveroo.

              2. doreen*

                I’m not so sure it’s a bigger deal in the US so much as it’s completely different. Because in other countries , workers have more rights by law than they do in the US. For example, when I was a union member (private sector and government) , I always had the right to bring a union rep to a disciplinary meeting – but that right came from the union contract. When I was in non-union jobs, I didn’t have a right to bring anyone. I didn’t even have a right to a disciplinary process – I could have been fired on the spot for any reason that wasn’t actually illegal. Nearly all the rights I had came from the contract that the union negotiated – as a union member , I was entitled to additional pay for any time I spent on call , when I was promoted into a non-union position I was not. The union had a collectively bargained contract – so after 2008, the union members still got the raises that were in their negotiated contract for the next 3 years while non-union employees had future raises cancelled. At an employer which has some union and some non-union jobs the non-union employees tend to benefit from the existence of a union – people won’t take a non-union position if the union position gets 4 weeks vacation and the non-union position gets two. But that won’t apply at an employer that does not have a collective bargaining agreement which by definition means a majority of employees at some point voted for a union.

                In the US, there is such a thing as a “members-only” union, where the union does not represent the entire workforce and while I won’t say they are worthless, I will say I’m not sure what the point of them is. Because the employer doesn’t have to bargain with them , they usually don’t.

                1. londonedit*

                  Ah, I didn’t know that – here, there’s no difference between being a union member and not in terms of what you’re actually entitled to at work when it comes to holiday etc.

                2. bamcheeks*

                  Typically in the UK, if you have a collective bargaining agreement, the union will negotiate on behalf of everyone, but only individually represent members. So if you’re university professional services non-union member and the union negotiates a pay increase, you get more pay (hooray!), but if you raise an individual grievance the union can’t support you unless you’re a member.

                3. CheeseState*

                  My state has been trying to destroy our public unions (except Fire and–you guessed it!–Police Unions). The “Employee Relations Group” has to negotiate a contract for everyone, but being a dues-paying member is completely optional, and if membership drops below 50% then the ERG dissolves. I assume they expected a tragedy of the commons to occur (where everyone decides to freeload and the ERG dies), but they seriously underestimated the stubbornness of the former union members.

                4. Governmint Condition*

                  In my state, you don’t have to be a member of the union as a government employee, but if you choose not to, you must pay a “shop fee” to cover the state providing you things like the same dental insurance that the union provides, and also reimburses the union for the expenses of collectively bargaining the salary amount that you get.

                  The shop fee is exactly the same amount as the union dues, so you can’t save any money this way. In fact, you would lose out on union discounts for things like theme park tickets, etc. So even people who hate the union are members, to at least get something for their money.

                5. Cyborg Llama Horde*

                  I will also point out that in the US, unions do not legally protect managers. I’m sure there are workplaces where managers are part of the union, but managers don’t have the same organizing rights as other employees, and I’ve been aware of cases where the employer voluntarily recognizes the union, but one of their stipulations is something like “team leads and above can’t be part of the union,” even if team leads maybe don’t quite meet the official definition of manager (which has to do with hiring and firing power, iirc).

      4. Emmy Noether*

        Exactly. Manager is not synomymous with “greedy capitalist overlord”. Plenty of managers are nice people that want good working conditions for employees. Many middle managers in large companies are also way closer to the individual contributor level than they are to the CEO, and thus that’s where their sympathies lie.

        On a more machiavellian note, even if a manager does not want their own employees forming a union, maybe they do want the competition’s employees forming a union.

        And lastly, unions themselves have a power structure, and thus, managers of their own.

      5. rebelwithmouseyhair*

        Yes, in France, it used to be that in order to fire someone, managers had first to consult the union or staff representative. Then a populist government cut through that “red tape”.
        Result: managers fire people willy-nilly, then get into trouble for not following the strict protocol set out in the French labour code. Employee takes them to the labour court, employee wins hands down. Managers no longer dare fire anyone, employees have great job security. Managers old enough to remember now look back nostalgically at the good old days when they just needed to drop a word to the union, argue a bit and then work with the union to get rid of the employee in the kindest way possible.

        1. JSPA*

          Yes! And it cuts both ways.

          To be clear, Unions are of course needed when workers are treated like crap.

          But there’s a certain particularly psychologically-healthy equilibrium that’s reached when unions have unquestioned roles in the process, and due respect.

          “The union knows the workers and their union are valued, and is therefore reasonable about individual past-the-edge cases” is emotionally healthier than, “we know you will do every worker dirty, and we will fight you like a sworn enemy on that assumption.”

          Bad faith really isn’t required, to run a good company that produces a good, safe product and serves its customers well.

      6. Lionheart26*

        Thank you for explaining that so clearly! I have always worked in Asia and Europe, and so my understanding of what I would call “works council” is exactly as you describe. I have served on the works council before, and now that I’m a manager I appreciate them so much! To be frank, they handle all the open door complaints and then bring me a thoughtful summary and recommendations. Amazing!

        My current workplace doesn’t have a works council and I find it really challenging. I have one (American) employee who is rather fond of complaining to me about senior management and I have suggested to him more than once that if he feels strongly, he should organise and form a group of representatives. He has always chuckled and raised his eyebrows at me and said something like “is that the manager calling for a union?” and I GET IT NOW!

      7. Phryne*

        This. Unions are there to protect workers rights, but happy workers are good workers and it is to the benefit of business to keep workers happy and productive. Workers getting burned out by too much work or constant worry over income is bad for business. Workers not being able to access healthcare is bad for business. Workers constantly hopping jobs because it is the only way to renegotiate income is bad for business. Businesses that refuse to see that are cutting of their noses to spite their face.

        1. JSPA*

          I’m also tempted to throw in a current news example that demonstrates how combining low-balling; stock buy-backs; inflated board and c-suite remuneration; layers of subcontracting or outsourcing to duck union contracts; regulation avoidance; and the undercutting your trained workforce, combine to create lethal levels of toxicity and dysfunction. And how, long-term, this is not in even the narrowest self-interest of the company–let alone of the consumers or society at large.

          But I probably don’t have to name names to do that.

      8. amoeba*

        In Germany, you can absolutely also join a union as a manager! There’s even a union specifically for managers and highly qualified/paid subject matter experts in my field. It doesn’t have as much power or as many members as the ones for workers, but it exists.

        (Also, one of the biggest unions is the one for public employees which is obviously for all of those, regardless if they’re managers or not!)

        1. bamcheeks*

          Same in the UK. I’m always surprised that US unions seem to structurally exclude managers.

          1. UKDancer*

            Me too. I mean there’s sometimes a different union that the managers belong to but there’s mostly a union that’s relevant. So in schools teachers are usually NUT or NASUWT and headteachers are in the NAHT.

            1. SarahKay*

              My dad used to teach and was a NUT which as a child I found hilarious. Sadly the union was renamed in 2017 and is now the much less evocative NEU: National Education Union.

              1. UKDancer*

                Thanks, I’m out of the loop as my aunt the teacher has now retired so I don’t get her union news.

          2. Orv*

            This also tends to cause them to exclude a lot of white-collar workers, especially in tech, because of the perception that those people are really “management” even if they don’t manage anyone.

            I’ve remarked before that, since I’m a sysadmin, union members think I’m a manager and managers think I’m a janitor.

      9. Rex Libris*

        Managers that are pro-not exploiting the employees are also sometimes pro-union. Quietly, when nobody’s looking :-)

      10. Zombeyonce*

        My own manager wishes she could be part of my union and fully supports it however she can. After seeing how my employer treats unclassified staff versus union employees, I don’t blame her one bit for wishing she had the protections that I do as a union member.

    2. Ellis Bell*

      My headteacher is still a manager when they go to their headteacher’s union. My own boss is in my exact same teaching union. I think it’s an odd perspective that unions are only supposed to be for non managers; in a lot of cases it’s just people who just care a lot about their profession and who know if people are treated well, they’ve got a better chance of retaining good people.

        1. AL*

          What laws prevent it?
          In my heavily-unionized industry, managers and non-managers alike are in unions. The “big bosses” even have their own collective bargaining group that works both with and against the main employee unions.

      1. Relentlessly Socratic*

        When I was in academia (US) we were all union on faculty (including dept chairs), but I think that administration had its own bargaining unit.

        Now, I’m in federal contracting, and I sincerely believe we need to unionize, somehow (and, yes, I’m management)

        1. RetiredAcademicLibrarian*

          The classified staff (not faculty or students) were always unionized. The graduate students unionized at a later date. Faculty voted in a union right after I retired. If the faculty union had existed earlier, I might have delayed my retirement for a few years (I was having issues with my manager about some accommodations I was trying to negotiate and the available HR channels weren’t helping – another option might’ve helped).

    3. Irish Teacher.*

      I would expect a principal to recommend that new teachers join their union. In practice, the invitation generally comes from the union rep, but I wouldn’t be at all surprised if a principal were to do it.

      And many managers, including principals, are also employees and therefore I would expect them to be in a union too. Unions aren’t just for the lowest level employees. I know our principal was part of our union when he was deputy principal; not sure if he still is or not. He probably is.

      1. Irish Teacher.*

        Our union’s primary activity is negotiating with government over things like teachers’ wages (which of course benefits the principals as much as anybody) negotiating things like “Croke Park hours” which are 33 extra hours we have to do a year on top of our teaching and which the unions are currently trying to get removed, giving teachers the power to pushback against curricular developments that are not in our students’ interests/are cost cutting measures, negotiating for smaller class sizes and increased teacher numbers, increases in supports for students with special educational needs, increased investment in schools, etc.

        Yeah, they can also go to the principal on behalf of a staff with a grievance and they will of course support somebody if they are unfairly dismissed, but in a reasonably healthy environment, these things would be very rare (like I think our union went to our principal with grievances maybe twice in my 6 years in the school). The main role of the teaching unions is to negotiate with government, not with principals.

        Of course, private companies aren’t under government, but there is still a far higher authority than most individual managers, who would likely benefit from being able to push back against the owners as a group, just as much as their reports would.

        To be honest, I would see it as a red flag if a manger were anti-union. It would indicate that they see their interests lie in keeping employees isolated and with as little power as possible.

    4. bamcheeks*

      I once suggested that one of my direct reports get support from the union if she was able to, because I wanted her to have unbiased and independent advice. Why wouldn’t I?

    5. Governmint Condition*

      My understanding is that in the U.S., the NLRA prohibits managers from unionizing, except government employees (and maybe a few other exceptions). The problem is that low-level managers often do not have the amount of power that the law believes that they do.

      Is my understanding of the law correct?

      1. doreen*

        Not exactly – supervisors, managers and “confidential employees” ( people who work in labor relations or who are confidential assistants to those who formulate policy) are not protected by the NLRA and don’t have the right to unionize under that law but it’s not actually prohibited.

    6. Eldritch Office Worker*

      Most countries aren’t this adversarial with unions. The fact that you feel this is the relationship between management in unions is extremely disheartening.

    7. Good Enough For Government Work*

      Managers have unions too. I am both a manager, and in a union; so are both my boss and grandboss.

      1. Eldritch Office Worker*

        Do you work in the government? (guessing by display name) In the US management can’t be part of a union except in certain narrow circumstances, government employees often being exceptions. Managers can theoretically unionize but they wouldn’t have any NLRA protections.

        1. Good Enough For Government Work*

          I am also one of the literally dozens of people not from the US :)

    8. Awlbiste*

      I have repeatedly strongly urged my coworkers to form a union. I am a manager and would not be eligible to join that union or enjoy its protections, but I still want them to enjoy the protections that a union would provide.

    9. Festively Dressed Earl*

      We’re asking a good manager who’s pushing back against awful management.

    10. Hot Flash Gordon*

      Pushing back as a group isn’t always a gateway to unionizing. Sometimes managers need to know that more than a couple of people are bothered by something in order to get upper management to do anything.

  4. snowfall123*

    Do the extra travel hours to get to the site typically get included in compensation/ hours reported if you are hourly?

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      Federal law is actually really weird on this. If you’re non-exempt, federal law requires you to be paid for any travel time that takes place during your regular work hours, even if it’s on a day you don’t normally work. So if you normally work 9-5 M-F and you’re traveling 9-11 on a Saturday, you have to be paid for those 2 hours. But if you’re traveling 7-9 pm that same day, you don’t. (Unless you perform work during the travel time — like if you work from the train — and then you do.)

      There’s also an exception for travel to a one-day assignment in another location; in that situation, your travel time does need to be paid, minus any time you would have spent commuting to your regular work site. That’s probably what would be in play here since these sound like one-day assignments.

        1. Sneaky Squirrel*

          I believe the law has a look back period that determines what your “regular hours” would be based on the hours you’ve previously worked.

          1. Gumby*

            Good luck with that. In the last couple of weeks my start times have varied between 8:45 and 11 a.m. and my end times between 5 and 9 p.m. I suspect my most frequent timing might be 10:30ish – 7:30ish but honestly am not sure. I also do a lot of 9 – 6.

      1. JM60*

        I’ve never understood the reasoning for the law only requiring travel time to be compensated if it occurs during normal work hours. To me, it’s like saying that your jobs duties should only be compensated if they happen during your typical 9-5 hours, but any work you do outside those hours don’t get paid.

        IMO, employers should be legally required to pay for time spent traveling regardless of of what time that traveling is taking place.

        1. Zelda*

          I know, right? And I’ve heard tales of all kinds of resulting abuses– companies that deliberately schedule their people to travel at the most inconvenient times so they don’t have to pay for the time. Spend Sunday overnight on a plane, don’t get paid, be expected to turn up at work Monday morning! Worst of both worlds.

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

          I agree. And I could totally see a sketchy boss making someone take the late flight so they wouldn’t have to pay for that time.

        3. Coverage Associate*

          If they make you travel during your normal work hours and don’t pay, they have deprived you of your usual work time and pay for that time. But if it’s not during your normal work hours, they are just depriving you of your usual leisure time, which wasn’t going to make you money anyway. (To play devil’s advocate)

          I know that there are a lot of hourly people who scramble for more hours, including sometimes commuting for longer than they will be working. From that perspective, the federal law keeps a kind of status quo.

          Again, not saying it’s right, but those hourly workers aren’t major donors to political campaigns, unless they’re a union.

          1. JM60*

            I get that you’re playing devil’s advocate, but a big difference is that traveling (to somewhere not your normal working location) and a long commute is who is choosing to do that. The employee (or would-be employee) chooses the long commute. In the situation of traveling to a location (other than the employee’s normal working location) is chosen by the employer.

        4. Orv*

          The idea is to exclude commuting time, which by long convention is not counted as part of your job.

          It’s conceptually similar to mileage reimbursement rules. I used to have a job where I had to travel to a bunch of field sites. I was not compensated for my travel to the first site of the day, because that was considered my commute, nor was I compensated for driving home from the last one of the day; but travel between sites was covered.

    2. Freya*

      In Australia, if it’s not your regular place(s) of work, then even if you don’t get compensated by your employer, you can usually claim some or all of the costs on your personal tax return as a work-related expense (home to a regular place of work is Not Deductible)

      1. Nicosloanica*

        This used to be a thing in the US – deducting business expenses related to W2 employment – but I believe some things changed recently that mean people don’t generally deduct these expenses now. I’m not sure if it’s just that the standard deduction increased so it doesn’t make sense, or what (I’m 1099 so I’m operating under different rules).

        1. Phony Genius*

          Apparently, they changed the law so you can’t claim this for 2018-2025. The law expires in 2026 (but Congress can change that either way if they want to).

    3. Coverage Associate*

      See above re some tax issues. I believe that there are also rules about pay or at least tax benefits re travel between work locations in a single day. Might just be a California thing. So if these employees pick up anything from the usual work location before heading to the ferry, that could change things.

      I think carpooling from the regular work location would also change the compensation calculation, but maybe not without the employer’s suggestion/consent.

  5. Miri*

    LW2 – I work in an office with someone who usually only has a smoothie for lunch, likewise in a team culture where we often gather for lunch around the same time. Honestly it’s really not a big deal! Someone might mention the smoothie to ask what flavour it is, or if they’re home mixed or from a packet, the same way someone might say “ooh looks good, is that homemade?” of a chicken noodle bowl or whatever. He’ll just go “oh yeah, banana today” or “yeah I’m trying a new berry one” and that’s all. I think one day maybe a year(? or more) ago he mentioned that he feels a little tired in the afternoon if he has a ‘big’/solid lunch, so prefers having smoothies. Everyone went “oh yeah I feel that way sometimes too, that’s a good idea, ha ha I wish we had a nap room!” and moved on in about ten seconds. Obviously workplaces differ but it’s not inherently weird or a big deal IMO.

    1. Rel*

      Hmm, on that note I wonder if having an opaque reusable tumbler (I’m imagining one of those ones with a straw) to get out at lunch alongside the protein bar might make the letter writer feel less conspicuous in the lunchroom? It could just contain water or they could try a juice or smoothie if they felt like it. I imagine there’s quite a lot of time difference between how long it takes to eat a protein bar vs a cooked meal, so having something to sip that looks a little more “lunchlike” than a glass of water could be nice.
      At restaurants, offering to get something shareable “for the table” as part of the order could help make the expense difference less vast between colleagues, which might make them less weird about it? At that point they’re getting offered bonus food, so the impression will at least be “generous” rather than “possible cheapskate”.

      1. LW2*

        I actually really like the share platter idea for restaurants, thank you! I love sharing food with people as well so it would make it a positive experience for me that we can chat and share an experience :) and I can share the blame if it’s not all eaten by the end

        1. Clisby*

          My husband’s company had a dinner back in January for his small office in SC. We got there, they had these nice printed menus at each place showing something like 3 entrees, 5 vegetable sides, a soup and salad, 2-3 desserts. I can’t eat much at any meal, so I was kind of dismayed, but it turned out the food was served family style, so the wait staff passed around platters and people could eat (or not) whatever they wanted. Nobody was really paying attention to other people’s plates, because we weren’t all served at the same time anyway. Nobody cared if you ate a huge plate of salad and skipped the entrees, or skipped the salad and sampled all 3 entrees, etc. – so at any given moment, anybody might have a lot (or almost nothing) on their plates. Really a nice way to do it.

        2. londonedit*

          I agree, this is a great idea. A lot of the comments/concern probably comes either from a) people seeing the OP eating nothing at all, or something non-lunchy like a cereal bar, and b) seeing the OP leaving food on their plate, which can often signify that a person hasn’t enjoyed their meal (I know that where I live, if you leave a significant amount on your plate in a restaurant the waiting staff will often say ‘Oh! Was everything OK with your meal?’ because portions here are traditionally reasonable enough for most people to eat, and traditionally ‘clearing your plate’ is the polite thing to do). Sharing plates are great because everyone can take as much or as little as they like, there isn’t any of the ‘OP has left most of their chips and half the burger, didn’t they enjoy it?’ stuff, and generally people are far less likely to notice what is and isn’t being eaten (unless someone takes that last falafel that they were hoping to nab).

          1. UKDancer*

            Just to add to this Chinese food in the UK (possibly also elsewhere) is often served family style so if you go to a Chinese you can order a few dishes between you and share them and that way people don’t tend to notice as much what any individual has eaten and if you don’t eat masses it doesn’t matter.

    2. Janne*

      I work in an office with someone who doesn’t eat lunch at all, but she does sit with us when we have lunch and sometimes she has a cup of tea or coffee. Then at 3 in the afternoon she’ll eat her lunch. It’s no problem at all – the only thing is that I sometimes feel bad about how I can’t have a conversation while I’m chewing away at my lunch – I just hope she isn’t bored.

    3. Never the Twain*

      The a little tired’ was the first thing that jumped to my mind, except it’s more that if I have even a reasonably sized lunch between 12 and 1pm, by 2:30 things start to fall out of focus and I will absolutely no question drop off for at least 5-10 minutes, with as much say in the matter as I have with a sneeze. Hence I always go for tiny lunches.
      The gold-standard killer used to be a new job back in the pre-paperless office days when you were sort of expected to spend the first couple of days reading through manuals and documentation that meant less and less the longer you were kept from a real product that you could relate the info to. Combine that with someone helpfully taking you to lunch to show you here the canteen was, ordering whatever you could see because you didn’t know what else was available (something with fries? baked potato?), and the only thing that kept me vaguely upright in the afternoon was the adrenalin panic at the thought of becoming the New Hire Who Was Found Asleep At Their Desk on the First Day.

    4. Emily Byrd Starr*

      I wish I could manage to have just a protein bar or just a smoothie for lunch, without feeling so hungry later that I can’t concentrate on work.

  6. Captain dddd-cccc-ddWdd*

    OP2 (tiny portions) – I think people feel judged as “greedy” by OP, especially at the company paid lunches but also with their own lunches that they bring. Of course this is baseless from OPs perspective. The best thing to do is decide you don’t care, or turn it back on them with “you seem oddly concerned about how much I’m eating or not eating; why is that?” and get them to name it.

    1. Be Gneiss*

      This is such a weird take. If I were the LW’s coworker, how exactly am I being “greedy” by bringing my own lunch from home?

      1. SarahKay*

        If someone has previously been judged on how much they eat then sitting eating their own normal-sized packed lunch, only to see a co-worker eating a tiny lunch, could easily make them feel like tiny-lunch-eating co-worker is going to judge them as greedy for not eating less.
        As Captain dddd-cccc-ddWdd says, this is a baseless fear – but there’s enough food-policing around that it’s quite likely true for at least one of OP#2’s co-workers.

        1. lilsheba*

          Yeah and on this note: “Is it bad optics to eat cheap or small lunches in a group? ” WHO CARES! It does not matter. Don’t worry about how it looks, just worry what is right for you.

      2. GoosieLou*

        Our culture is weird about food stuff. Given the prevalence of body shaming, diet culture, etc., I think it could be easy for someone to think that if someone else is eating less then they’re looking gluttonous for eating more (and subsequently worry about being judged by the person eating less, by the optics of third parties comparing their meals, and so on).

        It isn’t healthy and isn’t OP’s problem, but I don’t think it’s a huge leap!

        1. Billy Preston*

          Yes, I could definitely see myself thinking this way as a fat person. We’re judged for all of our food choices and internalize it. But it’s our mental thing to deal with, not the people eating small meals. But don’t judge us for knowing it’s a thing people do.

      3. mlem*

        You’re not. But people react *really weirdly* to *any* dietary choice that isn’t “dive in!”. Vegetarians and vegans get this a lot — “Oh, you don’t eat meat? That means you MUST be judging ME for eating meat! How dare you!” — when all the vegetarian/vegan did was … exist?

        People who talk about dieting can get this kind of reaction — “That means you MUST be judging ME for my portion sizes!” — and I can easily see this extending to the LW just sitting there with a small portion.

        It’s really common for people to assume that other people are making dietary choices AT them.

        1. Kivrin*

          Same with not drinking. People can get uncomfortable if they want to order an alcoholic drink and their dining companion isn’t drinking.

        2. Relentlessly Socratic*

          “It’s really common for people to assume that other people are making dietary choices AT them.”

          So much this.

        3. 1-800-BrownCow*

          It’s a common assumption because some of us have experienced people who do make make dietary choices AT others. An ex-family member of mine is vegan and would constantly make passive-aggressive comments about us non-vegan’s and our food choices during meals. I once got a nasty email from said ex-family member berating me because I didn’t choose a fully vegan menu for the food served for MY son’s 1st birthday party and informed me I was rude and inconsiderate and of course, had to throw in, how eating meat and meat by-products is animal cruelty and how disgusting all us non-vegans are. I did have vegan options at the party for her (the only vegan out of 25+ guests) that were more than a veggie tray and potato chips. I sent her a list of menu items ahead of time, marking the ones that were vegan, so she was aware of what was offered that she could eat. But she informed, if an invited guest has any dietary restrictions, then the whole menu should cater to their diet. Which if that was what I was going to do, then I needed to create a menu of all foods everyone could eat which would have been for 1 vegan, 2 with Celiac, 3 diabetics, 1 with some medical condition that had some various food restrictions, and 1 that was lactose intolerant. And those are the dietary restrictions/medical conditions that I knew about, I’m sure there were others I wasn’t aware of. So, the entire menu would need to be vegan, gluten free, low carb/low sugar, non-dairy and whatever restriction for the other medical condition. Oh, and make it all foods that a 1 year old would love for their birthday, because we can’t forget who we’re celebrating and it should be about the 1 year old, right? “Here everyone, enjoy your avocado and water.” Ever since I dealt with that ex family member (so happy they’re ex family), I internally cringe when I meet a vegan/vegetarian. I did work with one who could be a bit judge-y, but only verbalized their opinion occasionally. But yeah, as someone who now has a dietary restriction for health reasons and who also eats very small portions during the day, I dislike eating around my coworkers due to some people’s comments.

          1. Bast*

            I had a family member who was vegetarian and very passive-aggressive about it. She wasn’t directly confrontational like in your case, it was the off the cuff remarks and gestures she’d make. One of the biggest issues would come at holidays like Thanksgiving, which were fairly traditional with the turkey, sides, desserts, etc where she’d show up with an “I am NOT a chicken nugget” shirt or similar, and then make a big deal out of not eating/liking almost anything there. There would be several vegetarian choices available, but she’d turn her nose up at them and choose ONE item (like mashed potatoes) and just eat the vast majority of it, leaving next to nothing for anyone else. If you asked her what she might want in the future, or if you could make anything for her, she’d act like a martyr and would be “absolutely fine, I can manage.” (and it would all be in the WAY she said it, not so much what she said). If you suggested something else to her, “Oh, I won’t be eating any of THAT” while crinkling up her nose. Her husband felt guilty enough to stop eating meat around her because she’d get up and leave the room while he ate a burger and make a comment such as, “I’m not even sure how you can LOOK at something like that and eat it” etc. There was definitely judgment beneath the “poor me” act she’d pull, but the act often earned her a lot of sympathy so that she frequently appeared to be more of a victim than an aggressor.

      4. Tio*

        I read this as the other coworkers who are eating out, feel greedy or excessive by eating large portions when faced with OP’s smaller portions. Either greedy because they’re eating so much, or because they’re spending so much company money, or both; people have a lot of weird, intense, illogical feelings around food in many different ways. I find it very similar to how if people are drinking and someone is abstaining without a good “reason” (like pregnancy or something) they will try to pressure that person into drinking. There are lots of cases where people feel that someone making the same choice as them somehow validates their choice, and so want people to do the same thing/eat the same thing/watch the same TV/ whatever.

  7. Nope™*

    I don’t have much to add to LW 1 besides commiseration about the situation, but I’m hoping others keep the gender neutral language when discussing Alex and their severely ineffectual management. this was an issue I saw on a previous letter and just wanted to poke in and remind that correct pronouns are not only something to be afforded to people you like.
    Even if said pronouns (and multi-gendered name replacement) the letter writer used are not the same as those in real life, it’s just generally good practice (and also shows those of us trans readers of AAM that it’s a safe and welcoming community!)

    1. Stardust*

      That’s very true but i also want to point out that increasingly—i’m talking basically every letter recently—people in the comments use “they” even when a letter specifies “he” or “she” which, as an androgynous cis woman who this happens to irl by well-meaning folks, grinds my gears a lot. It’s still misgendering even when you use “they”! (Not to detract from your point at all, Nope, but i’ve been sitting on this for months now and felt that it fit here.)

      1. MEH Squared*

        That’s funny because I’m agender and I think most people still default to ‘she’ for the majority of letter writers and she or he depending on the name for the other person, even when it’s unisex and/or the letter writer uses they.

        1. MEH Squared*

          I should clarify for the last part of the sentence, he or she for other people in the letter depending on the name even if it’s unisex and/or the letter designates someone ‘they’.

        2. Tio*

          I think that comes from Allison’s old rule of when she wasn’t given a gender for managers, she would always default to “she” because too many people defaulted to he, and Allison wanted people to get used to referring to women as management. Now that we’re using more gender-neutral terms, it’s gotten muddier.

      2. Emmy Noether*

        I may sometimes do this, when I don’t remember the specified gender and don’t want to scroll back up (because I’ll have truble finding the comment I wanted to reply to again). It’s the traditional person-of-unknown-gender use of “they” (as in “someone forgot their umbrella”). The other solution is to avoid pronouns altogether.

        Of course that opens up the question of how much effort one needs to go to to check gender before speaking. I understand that if you feel like people in real life make zero effort to get your gender right, that is really irksome.

        1. rebelwithmouseyhair*

          I will also use “they” like that, because going back to check is complicated, but, only in cases where I really don’t think it matters whether it’s a man or woman. If there are no gender issues at play in the post, we are allowed to default to they for people and it for animals. Alison defaults to she when no pronoun has been used, but it’s not a rule that applies for everyone.
          It’s much better to default to they than to default to he as people so often do, especially when referring to managers and doctors and lawyers.
          When I’m talking with a person, I do always try very hard to use the right pronouns and I fully understand that it’s frustrating when people get it wrong – they have for me on occasion, because my first name is female in some languages and male in others – and I’m lucky it’s only happened a couple of times, so I’ve just laughed it off (well, apart from that time when a client thought I was a man, and stopped giving me work when they found out I’m a woman)

        2. AngryOctopus*

          I do the same. For a comment on a workplace blog, I think it’s fine. Obviously you should make a real effort with people you interact with in your actual life.

      3. JSPA*

        When people use “they” in commenting on someone where someone has a specified M or F gender, I read it as them generalizing past the individual case.

        1. A tip of the hat to the fact that, as internet voices, we are weighing in not about a person we know, but “my visualization of people who are like that” or “my necessarily hypothetical construct of how people are”


        2. When LWs lightly anonymize situations, one way that they do that is to shift or obscure or simplify gender (in cases where the gender strikes them as irrelevant to the problem or in any case not an addressable factor). So providing gender-specific advice in a situation that is not gender focused can be distracting or derailing.

        “They” has, and has always had, multiple grammatical functions.

        1. AcademiaNut*

          Adding they as a specific gender has definitely complicated things. Now it’s a plural for any combination of genders, an indefinite pronoun for general cases, or when you don’t know the gender, and a gender specific pronoun for non-binary people. And as we just saw here, someone can write the second one, and have people interpret it as the third and get offended.

          Grammatically, it would be nice to have separate plural, non-binary, and general/unknown cases.

          1. Orv*

            I’m agender. For a white I tried using “it” as a personal pronoun but it made people super uncomfortable, so I compromised on “they.”

            I don’t think it’s a big grammatical problem though. It isn’t an issue for “you” as a second-person pronoun — no one seems to be campaigning to bring back “thou.”

        2. Myrin*

          I’m pretty sure I know what Stardust is talking about because I’ve observed the same thing and even remember commenting something similar at least a year ago.

          For me, it’s when a letter writer says “my husband mentioned he thinks XY” and then there’ll be dozens of comments saying “OP says their spouse mentioned they think XY” which is honestly incomprehensible to me – if the male husband is clearly identified, you are allowed to refer to him as such!
          (Obviously it’s possible for people to just vaguely remember a spouse by the time they’ve scrolled down to the comments but I doubt that’s it for the majority of people and it definitely didn’t use to happen that frequently.)

          1. Billy Preston*

            haha it happens to me all the time. My working memory isn’t great, and I also use they/them for myself. So it’s not being obtuse, just forgetful and not wanting to lose my place in the comments.

          2. bamcheeks*

            I mean, it could be “OP says their spouse says he thinks…”, but neither the first “their” nor “spouse” is inaccurate or misgendering! Spouse means any married partner, and the fact that LW has a husband doesn’t tell you LW’s gender.

            It didn’t used to happen so frequently just because people heard “husband” and assumed that the speaker was female and straight-married. I don’t think that was an improvement!

            1. Myrin*

              You misunderstood – I actually meant the second “they” as the weird one, not the first one; I deliberately used the first one because of the point in your second paragraph, that we don’t actually know that the speaker is female and straight-married.
              It’s specifically the OP-“sanctioned” “he” being turned into a “they” by commenters which is weird to me, but reading the other replies in this thread, I just seem to be much more willing to scroll back up to make sure I got everyone’s pronouns right – possibly because I usually comment from a computer so it’s not much of a hassle, whereas I can see it becoming quite annoying on mobile.

          3. doreen*

            It didn’t used to happen that frequently – but I think it does have to do with vaguely remembering a spouse most of the time. I think people used to assume “spouse of woman” = “male” and “husband” =”male” a lot more often than they do now. Which means the mistakes were in the opposite direction – but that also means there were fewer mistakes and that would make it less noticeable.

        1. Boof*

          I don’t think this is a universal opinion (i rather strongly feel they is a universal pronoun, not an… agender only? (Dunno what word to use here) and trying to make it into a specific gender identity only pronoun is counter productive. Yes i will always try to use someone’s preferred pronouns but I and i daresay society need a polite universal neutral

          1. amoeba*

            Yup, this. I use “they” when I don’t know somebody’s gender or am talking about a generic hypothetical person. Like, “if I had this issue with a coworker, I’d tell them…” That’s where the use of “they” originates, it’s not reserved to non-binary people!

            This is honestly what happens sometimes with letters, at least for me, because I just can’t remember the person’s gender. As others have said before.

            1. Rel*

              There are absolutely people for whom “they” is misgendering and can cause discomfort. But that’s a case-by-case “listen to real people in real life and accomodate their reasonable requests” I would say, not something to assume universally – unless a letter writer specified it (either by specifically requesting “not they/them” or using an unusual pronoun combination such as “he/she” – I know people with both of these preferences). Using “they” because we don’t quite remember the genders specified in the letter and don’t want to scroll back up isn’t nearly so personal a circumstance.

              1. amoeba*

                Yeah, sure, and I’d least be confused it somebody who knows me and my pronouns was referring to me as “they” myself! But that’d be a different story than the general/unknown case I meant…

              2. Flipper*

                To be completely honest, this is a confusing and stressful point for me. If, IRL, I can’t tell someone’s gender identity by the way they present, it feels rude to refer to them as “they” because, as you indicated, it can be perceived still as misgendering if that’s not actually what they prefer. It also feels rude to ask for pronouns (especially in a casual interaction but even at work) because I feel like people can take offense to that as well (and I get that because it seems to be isolating someone for not conforming to gender norms). I want to be respectful of everyone, but sometimes it really does feel like a minefield.

                1. MigraineMonth*

                  I say my name and pronouns when I introduce myself. The other person generally responds with either name or name & pronouns.

                  If the person responded with name & pronouns, I use the pronouns given. If the person responded with just the name, I try to only use the name. It’s awkward, but pronouns aren’t actually necessary.

                  If it isn’t a situation where I need to introduce myself/know the person’s name, why would I need to know the person’s pronouns?

              3. JSPA*

                There are situations where “they” can only be used if it’s being used as the singular and person-specific “they.”

                example: “Remember to set aside a tuna fish sandwich for Jane, they’re pescatarian, and it’s their favorite.”

                In that case, don’t use “they” if you know Jane uses “she” (or “he”). Especially don’t do it if you mean it as a signal that you think Jane looks too [whatever] to be “properly” female (or male). That’s gross.

                But there are at least as many situations where singular “they” is used–gramatically correctly–as an indefinite person “they,” or a larger-group-inclusive “they.”

                “Spouse,” for example, is a gender-neutral term. So is “letter writer.” That’s the case even if we happen to have additional tangential information regarding the specific individual.

                Using “they” with “letter writer” (or with “spouse”) doesn’t necessarily or automatically invalidate the gender of a specific letter writer, nor a specific spouse. It means you’re focusin on the term as a genderless term, and you’re according the pronoun with that term, rather than according with the individual.

                Basically, if the formulation would have been fine, conversationally and in informal writing, in the decades before singular they became a common (a- or bi- or all- or other-) gender signifier…it still retains that acceptable function.

                1. Kara*

                  Fwiw, it fell out of fashion (though not entirely out of use), but singular “they” (1300s) actually predates plural “they”, and the first written example we have of it very much resembles current modern usage.

        2. Noks*

          It is not. They is simply the normal usage of language in a case where you either don’t know the gender of the subject, or where the gender is irrelevant to the discussion at hand, and the commenting on the letters on this site is almost always one of these two.
          This neutral usage goes back to at least Shakespearian times, so people who have a problem with its usage are just looking to be outraged.

          1. 2eyessquared*


            I hate just commenting to say +1 but I can’t add anything to what you said and I agree so…

          2. Jennifer Strange*

            I think ChurchofDietCoke’s point is that “they” is misgendering when the correct gender has been established (like when the subject of a letter is clearly referred to as “she” or “he”). In those cases, using “they” is misgendering.

            1. Arthenonyma*

              It’s not, though. There are two ways to use “they” as a singular pronoun: inclusive and exclusive.

              Inclusive is the standard use case and has been for a long time. It means “this refers to a person without regard for whether they are a he or a she or a they or something else”. Exclusive is more recent (at least in common parlance) and means “this refers to a person who is NOT a he or a she”.

              There’s a conflict there, obviously! And there are plenty of times when you can tell someone IS misgendering with it, particularly IRL where even well meaning people will often just assume pronouns for anyone who looks “he” or “she” enough but then suddenly start using “they” when they encounter someone who doesn’t fit their stereotypes. But it’s not really fair or useful to insist that there is now only one way to use “they” and anything else is deliberate misgendering.

        3. Bitte Meddler*

          I have posted questions in the open forums where I identify myself as a woman and a response will refer to me as “they” and I barely even notice.

          I am honestly having trouble seeing how this would be offensive.

          Me: “I’m a woman and I need new running shoes. I was looking at a couple of my favorite brands and I see way more light-colored shoes than in years past. Is fashion trending back toward light shoes again?”

          Commenter 1: “Who cares what other people think! Buy whatever color shoes you want!”

          Commenter 2: “They weren’t asking for permission to buy shoes, they were asking about current fashion trends.”

          Commenter 2’s use of “they” feels natural and normal to me, and not even remotely misgendering. What am I missing?

          1. Melody Powers*

            It can be offensive for people who use “he” or “she” but keep getting called “they” by people who don’t think they fit their gender enough.

          2. Orv*

            It’s pretty rare for it to be offensive, but where it comes up is when someone uses (for example) “she”, but is not especially feminine looking (either because they’re transgender or just butch), and someone uses “they” as a way of pointedly asserting that this person isn’t really a “she.” A similar move I’ve seen people do is to pointedly use the person’s name instead of a pronoun. It’s basically a “you can’t make me acknowledge your gender” power move.

            There was a really blatant example not long ago where someone wrote an article about a transgender writer and didn’t use a single pronoun in the entire thing, just the person’s name.

      4. nodramalama*

        Personally i will use they if i cant remember the details in LWs letter and dont want to risk a nesting debacle that scrolling up might mean

      5. ArtsNerd*

        I’ve done this, and it’s definitely because my working memory is pretty bad, so by the time I get to the comments I’ve forgotten whether/which genders were specified.

        I’ve also been on the other side, though I only consider it misgendering if the speaker KNOWS I use she/her pronouns. Which definitely happens on occasion.

    2. JSPA*

      It was originally wrong in the response (one use only), but quickly fixed. Commenters who saw the original are likely riffing on that, rather than making their own separate misassumptions?

      (I know I often assume that Alison has some background information from a letter that was shortened in publication, Though in this case it was just a brief oops.)

    3. Hedgehog in a ball*

      I seem to recall a letter from relatively recently in which the OP wanted to require everyone in the office to refer to everyone else as “they” unless/until a pronoun preference was established. The answer was “No, don’t do that, it’s just as much a misgendering as using “he” or “she” wrongly would be.” Some people want to use “they” for themselves and hold tightly to that, and for others the “he” or “she” is just as important, whether as the word used from birth or newly and dearly fought for.

  8. Captain dddd-cccc-ddWdd*

    OP1 (Alex is a nightmare but management won’t take any action about them) – I think Alex is one of those people who seem to need a high level of conflict and drama in their life, so they seek it out and if it doesn’t already exist, they create it. Outing OP as gay points to this already, but particularly the accusations about the other co-worker, and now this latest political intrigue with undermining the management structure. Alex seems to have a case of “I know best” syndrome in the most charitable interpretation. I wonder if OP has a sense of whether Alex really does think they know best, or are they creating drama. Often the “creating drama” manifests when someone feels like things are too stable, not enough change and flux (some people need a higher level than others). Perhaps Alex has a more turbulent history and now a more smooth running (until Alex got there!) workplace feels like a trick. I would love to have a conversation with Alex as I think I could get to the bottom of their motivation quite quickly!

    1. Rosemary*

      Does the “why” really matter? Whether Alex’s behavior is caused by psychological issues or simply because they are an arsehole, the end result is the same – their coworkers are miserable and it needs to stop.

      1. Eldritch Office Worker*

        Empathy is pretty much the best way to deal with almost any interpersonal situation. That doesn’t mean you have to tolerate it, but understanding why can actually make a huge difference in how you process and handle the behavior of others, and how effective your are when correcting them. So yes, why matters.

        1. Typing All The Time*

          I can be empathetic but making others hurt because you’re hurt is not okay. I worked with a colleague who had a rough childhood and didn’t like co-workers who came from opposite backgrounds. She would badmouth others and try to make them look like they did nothing or were incompetent.

          1. Eldritch Office Worker*

            Which is why I said “can make you more effective at correcting” and “doesn’t mean you tolerate it”. I don’t think anyone is arguing that hurting others is okay.

        2. Statler von Waldorf*

          I disagree with that thought completely. There are people in this world who will use your empathy as a weapon against you. How I’ve usually seen it play out is that they would rather not get called out on their bad behavior, so they will lie and try to convince you that they are actually the victim. Once they’ve done that, they will make you out as a bad person for trying to hold them responsible, often using therapy speak to make their arguments sound more authoritative. I’ve seen it play out more than once.

          I don’t need to know why a hypothetical colleague is a back-stabbing liar to handle their behavior. Does it really matter whether it’s due to a traumatic childhood or if they are just a sadist who enjoys watching other people suffer? I don’t think it does.

          That said, I’m not saying empathy is bad. I would almost always recommend starting with empathy. I just strongly disagree that it’s “pretty much the best way to deal with almost any interpersonal situation.” I wish I lived in a world where it was.

          1. Hamster Manager*

            Yep, worked with a narcissist who did exactly this. The nicer you were to them, the worse their behavior to you. I had to adopt very cold professionalism with them to make them realize I wasn’t going to put up with their bullying/victim act.

            It was a terrible situation, but I did get to play an ironic game with myself of watching all the contortions they would go through to try and get out of doing their job, while I just calmly stated they needed to do their tasks over and over.

          2. Don Joe*

            You appear to be conflating empathy (as in understanding someone’s motivations) with being nice. Empathy is just a thinking tool. EOW is talking about using that tool to better inform the techniques they use to get someone to stop with a problematic behaviour.

            For example, are they lying because they lack confidence in their abilities so they’re trying to throw someone else under the bus, or because they’re bored and trying to stir up drama? Either way they need to be stopped, but you’ll find that different approaches work better in the different cases.

            Using different techniques to stop different types of people doing the same harmful thing doesn’t mean they’ll weasel out of the consequences, it means they’ll each experience different forms of smackdown.

    2. Hothouse flower*

      of course, I an not advocating this,

      but ..
      My mind does drift to asking my scariest, most dangerous- looking friend to go up to Alex in the parking lot and tell him he needs to quit and disappear.

      Failing that, a shark of a lawyer. Anyone who falsely accuses someone of harrrassment should be sued.

      (hoping the settlement is that Alex must quit and be no contact for life)

      1. OP1*

        My friend scariest looking friend has already beat you to that suggestion. And while I love them for being a good friend for offering, they know I would never let them hear the end of it if they did.

    3. Abogado Avocado*

      OP1, please put your complaints about Alex to HR in writing (and keep a copy). Even idiot HR departments understand that something in writing is a record, it has to be kept, and it will make them look bad in the future if they don’t act on what’s in the record.

      I know: no one wants to make waves or look like a tattle-tale. However, Alex’s misbehavior needs to be documented for that inevitable day when someone above HR asks, “How did we manage to keep employing this —hole?” You want HR’s answer to be, “We screwed up,” and not deniability that they didn’t know (because people only told them orally of Alex’s actions and, of course, there’s no record of that).

      1. OP1*

        Thank you for the suggestion! I will deeply consider it, especially as HR has a tendency to not want things down in writing (so I’ve been hesitant, but you make a very good point).

    4. OP1*

      OP1 here! Thank you for your insight and laugh. I think it’s a case of both actually, a need for drama and being right. I did not mention their background, but yes, this is their most stable position maybe ever (good guess) and they hate to be wrong (example: a whole discussion of how I did not micromanage the office pen supply correctly). I doubt you’d get the clear answer you want of motivation, although I certainly wouldn’t stop you from trying.

    5. kiki*

      I think part of the issue with employees like Alex is that they make people deeply curious to the “why” and create a series of issues that “just need to be resolved and then we’ll have peace.” But the string of issues will always persist and nailing down the why won’t make the issues stop. There will always be a new drama waiting. There will always be some issue keeping Alex from meeting his full potential as an employee that’s somebody else’s fault.

      Alexes can be tricky! In the end, I’ve found that they need to be given a firm, “take this environment or leave it, you need to find a way to work here peacefully or you cannot work here.” And if they cross another line (and it sounds like Alex has already crossed a lot!), they need to be let go.

  9. Santiago*

    Has Alex done anything illegal? If you have a reporting hotline, you could go around your manager if you have non-identifying info about how Alex is creating a hostile work environment and HR won’t address it.

    1. Web of Pies*

      Unfortunately, this may not matter. I had an ‘Alex’ who was creating the legal definition of a hostile work environment, and management protected him because they really liked him, somehow. My Alex was also doing illegal things outside of work, and only lost his job after several months of being in jail. I’m convinced they’ll rehire him when he’s out.

    2. OP1*

      OP 1 here! I’m no lawyer so unless if I consult with one, I would not know the answer to if anything was illegal for sure. But from what I know, the answer is probably not. Do they come maddeningly close to the line? Probably yes.

  10. Nope™*

    To clarify, I mean to say that it’s good practice to use the pronouns someone is introduced to you with unless specified otherwise. Similar to how if a new coworker was introduced with an, “Everybody, meet John. She’s going to be your new teammate and I hope you’ll treat her kindly! We hope she helps our company do great things!”, I would hope that, unless corrected otherwise, you would use She/Her pronouns when talking to or about John.
    On the plus side, the comments section on a blog post is a pretty low-stakes place to practice this skill! Versus in a business setting where you might misgender and hurt a coworker or client, even if you don’t mean to do so.

    1. Nope™*

      *nesting issue, I *swear* I had hit the reply button to my previous comment. My deepest apologies!

  11. Free Meerkats*

    Could outing LW 1 count as either gender discrimination or a hostile work environment? Of course, that could depend on state/local laws as well as federal.

    1. Statler von Waldorf*

      Given what I know about US laws, probably not. It’s almost certainly not a hostile work environment, which requires the behavior be severe or pervasive. If the LW was beaten as a direct result of the outing, there might be a case that this one incident was severe enough to qualify. Otherwise, it’s probably not.

      In Canada, the LW could make a human rights case over it, as the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms does not grant rights against the private sector so it would depend on provincial human rights laws. I wish I could say that it would be a strong case, but based on the facts available and my layman’s understanding of the law, it’s a weak case. If the LW suffered additional negative consequences that he didn’t share in his letter, that would change the analysis.

  12. Bob*

    #2 – I’m arriving at that diet too. My suggestion is 1) look very pleased with your lunch, 2) happily say it suits your dietary requirements. If needed, sip your drink with a pleasant smile.

    1. Ellis Bell*

      I think setting the tone is really important because if people think you’re not eating, sometimes they just want to check you’re okay and happy. If you feel awkward and out of place, it’s possible that vibe is getting picked up and people will then try to encourage you to either eat, or to share what might make you more comfortable. I sometimes let people know I’m gluten intolerant, and I do share the intolerance sometimes just to explain that I’ve already eaten, or that I have something packed if I’m not partaking in something. I think the OP’s own language in their letter is perfect for putting the matter to rest; very non specific but certain and there’s little room for concern if you say that “I eat a very small lunch” and “this is how my body has always worked”. People do get weird about food, though, and if OP has any sense that this is the case just pour on positivity: “I’m really enjoying this, actually” or they could even talk about their dinner plans: “I don’t really get an appetite until later, but I’m looking forward to enchiladas for tonight”.

  13. Support Project Nettie*

    OP1. I think the last part of Alison’s response is what you need to focus on – leave this rotten organisation. That they haven’t fired Alex for his/her actions so far speaks volumes. Do you really want to give your time and effort to an organisation that disrespects you and your colleagues so much by allowing all this to happen without consequence? Even if they did fire Alex, what happens when the next nightmare employee arrives? If this employer/employee relationship were a marriage, you would be well withing your rights to file for divorce on various grounds. Look for work with an employer that deserves to have employees – your current one certainly does not. Best of luck.

  14. LibraryHill*


    I read your question perhaps a bit different. To simplify, let’s say that the person is your uncle (you don’t specify in the letter other than a male relative). What I understand (I could be wrong) is that you’re in the situation where this person might call you and say “This is LWs uncle, can I speak to her?”, and to prevent that you would have to tell people at your work that you want to be shielded from contact with your uncle, which I understand feels a lot more vulnerable than saying “I have stalker named Bill Anderson, don’t let calls through”. It reveals that there is a difficult family dynamic, which you don’t want to share. And the problem is that you can’t just give their name because they might be presenting themselves as “uncle”, or even if you do, the name might reveal the family ties. There’s also the fact that if someone presents themselves as a family member, that can lead whoever is taking the call to assume that it has high priority and of course you would want to take the call.

    So I understand your question not as “I’m uncomfortable to say that there might be stalking problem” but rather “I’m uncomfortable to say that the stalking problem comes from within my own family”.

    So, here’s an idea that’s maybe a bit crazy, but you can take it or leave it: What if you would say something like “there is a person who tries to get in touch with me and will say that they are my uncle. If and when that happens, I would like you to [do A, B, and C].” You can also add the name with a similar language, i. e. “say their name is Bill Anderson”.

    This is not lying and it gives a way to shield you from contact with at least somewhat less potential of unpacking a difficult family situation.

      1. ferrina*


        This is great language! And it takes care of any bystanders who buy into the “but faaaaaaaamily” beliefs.

    1. Jellybean*

      This is a great solution.

      (Using the word “unhinged” in a professional setting, less so; I hope that was a joke on Alison’s part.)

    2. Varthema*

      This makes total sense, but I think it might raise eyebrows if we swap out “uncle” for “father” or “mother” – “There is someone who will reach out and say that they are my father” is a framing that is a lot more startling (and ergo attention-grabbing, which I think the opposite of what LW wants) than simply “my father will reach out”.

      But like you say, I think that unfortunately if the LW wants calls and communications diverted properly, it will be more helpful to name the relative, otherwise there could be misunderstandings like the ones you mention.

      LW could also go for “my abusive father/mother/whatever” – this signals that this is really important, whereas “difficult” might invite some unwanted advice from busybodies about dealing with difficult family members, which are common and objectively a very different scenario than abuse (even though busybodies should MYOB regardless). And it pins the adjective on the family member. This may feel like mincing hairs, but the LW isn’t really divulging their own suffered abuse; they’re just saying that the family member is abusive, and I think that’s actually more powerful a shift than seems on the face of it.

      Sending all the good vibes/thoughts in LW’s direction; it’s just wretched and unfair that they have to deal with this on top of the original abuse. Hope good things are coming your way.

      1. Irish Teacher.*

        If it were somebody like a father and the LW were concerned that “they’ll claim to be my father” might sound a bit dramatic, I wonder if the LW could just adapt LibraryHill’s suggestion, “they may claim to be a relative in order to get access to me.”

      2. ecnaseener*

        Is it really that startling to say a stalker might claim to be his victim’s father in order to get his calls through? The point of framing it this way is to imply that the stalker is just saying whatever he thinks will work, not that he really is the father.

        1. londonedit*

          I definitely think saying ‘Someone may call who will claim to be my father’ gets the point across much more effectively than saying ‘My father may call’. There are still people who don’t fully grasp how dangerous this sort of situation is, and who may think ‘Well, what’s the harm if her dad wants to speak to her?’ or ‘But he’s her dad, though, surely he can speak to his own daughter’. Saying ‘Someone may call who will claim to be my father; he is not and I need to ask you to never put any calls from him through to me’ hammers home the seriousness of the situation. It may sound dramatic, but I think it’s a situation where you might need to be a bit dramatic in order to make sure people really do take it seriously.

          1. Irish Teacher.*

            That’s a good point. I could well imagine somebody reacting to “please, do not pass on calls from my father. He will be calling to harrass me” as “oh, that’s so sad. LW is estranged from her father and he’s calling so often to try and make peace. I should intervene by ensuring she talks to him, so that they can make up. After all, you only get one father!” whereas “somebody might call claiming to be my father. Do not put pass on his call” is something most people would follow, I think.

          2. OP4*

            This is a really good idea and I am so thankful to you all for sharing it. My workplace is very family oriented and in my experience, family-oriented people don’t understand the dynamics of this kind of abuse so I rarely bring it up at all at work. It’s also a very vulnerable thing to tell someone about your abusive childhood because everyone has their own theories about why it happened or what a survivor “should” look like, so I avoid bringing it up at work. Using this framing leaves it ambiguous enough that I hopefully wouldn’t be subject to a lot of that.

      3. Insert Clever Name Here*

        I don’t think it’s that startling. If someone tells me they have a stalker who may say ___ to try to get through, I’m not going to be surprised at anything that’s in that blank — we have all heard reports of stalkers going through extraordinary lengths to get near their victim.

    3. Miette*

      I wonder, also, if OP’s job could provide them with a mobile device to use as their public-facing phone rather than an office phone, and then they can at least potentially block this person’s calls if they happen?

      It doesn’t stop you from having to explain the situation, but it might put some of the ability to react into your own hands. I’ve a friend who must deal with this, but they’re actually the business owner of a chain of stores and has had to let all employees know not to ever tell anyone claiming to be related to them where they are or any of that. This person has tried the “family emergency–I MUST speak with them IMMEDIATELY” ruse and it’s worked, because the person answering the phone is a college student, so not experienced with pushing back on such things.

  15. ChurchOfDietCoke*

    I think if I was the LW with the small appetite, I’d still order a normal sized lunch when it was on the company dime, and take the rest home for dinner! A perk’s a perk! :)

    1. Eldritch Office Worker*

      Same. I’m definitely a grazer during the day and I rarely eat a full lunch – with the notable exception of when the company is providing free food lol

  16. nodramalama*

    I think for LW1 if management isn’t taking Alex’s horrendous, and I would argue discriminatory and illegal behaviour seriously now, unfortunately its unlikely they ever will and I would be planning my exit strategy

    1. Generic Name*

      Yup. The “some other option” that OP isn’t thinking about is finding another job. If OP doesn’t want another job for Reasons, then that might help reframe the situation in OP’s mind in they they are choosing to stay in the job, despite Alex’s suckitude because the benefits outweigh the drawbacks. I encourage the OP to do some hard thinking of the positives of this job really are better than what they could find elsewhere.

      1. OP1*

        You made me laugh with “If OP doesn’t want another job for reasons.” If I ever write an update and I am still there I will include “I am still there for REASONS.”

    2. Pastor Petty Labelle*

      If HR’s solution to the current issue is to make sure Alex is heard — instead of telling him to shut up and do his job if he wants to continue to be employed — they are not interested in having a decent functional workplace. So yes, the only solution is going elsewhere.

      OP1 – your office sucks and isn’t going to change.

    3. AnonInCanada*

      …and calling a lawyer who specializes in employment law. HR’s supposed to protect the company, right? They’re not doing much of a job if their inactions (not firing Alex) is causing a hostile work environment. It may be too late now, and I’m sorry for OP1 having to deal with this drama, but maybe this company will think twice about keeping Alex around if they get hit with a lawsuit!

      1. Ms. Elaneous*

        and there’s always the press ..
        admittedly, only on a slow news day, but slow news days do happen.

        Does the company have a board? A few huge customers?

        Someone with Leverage may be sympathetic.

    4. ferrina*


      Apply the Sheelzebub Principle- if nothing were to change, how long would you be willing to stick around?

      Now take that number and subtract 3-6 months. The result is when you should start job searching. You always want to start job searching before it gets to worst case scenario. Because you can always stop a job search or slow it down, but you can’t force a job market to go faster. Start applying now, and if Alex is let go, then stop the job search. If Alex isn’t let go before you find a new opportunity you like, then you are finally free from Alex. And honestly it might take a lot of people leaving before someone in management realizes how big the problem is.

      1. OP1*

        As LW1, I assure you I am absolutely thinking about it this was ferrina. I’m looking because I want to be before the worst case (and while I know there will be people who say you’re there, trust me, it’s not yet). If things work out, great! If not, I’ve covered my bases.

        Honestly, advice everyone should follow in life.

  17. Manglement Survivor*

    LW2: order the $50 steak. Cut off a small bit and enjoy it along with the salad. Have the rest of the steak wrapped up and eat it for dinner at home!

    1. Hastily Blessed Fritos*

      And then a coworker will write in here with “My coworker orders an expensive company -paid lunch and takes it home for dinner”. I think the “order something pricey but small” is a better approach. Seafood is often a good choice for that.

      1. amoeba*

        Eh, I think there’s a middle ground! Like, don’t order the giant steak/most expensive thing on the menu. Just order something reasonable within the same range as what your colleagues are taking (that you actually like). If that happens to be small enough (fancy starter, etc.) that you can finish it at lunch, great – if it’s too much, take leftovers. Done.

    2. K*

      And I think the key thing is mentioning how delicious it is so people don’t think OP isn’t eating it because they don’t like it. Maybe also say something about it being very filling.

    3. Lab Boss*

      As long as it’s roughly in line with what everyone else is ordering this shouldn’t be a thing. We definitely have someone on my team who eats tiny lunches and nobody bats an eyes when she gets a standard-sized meal, she’s not even subtle about saying “nice, there’s my dinner!” and we all just think she’s being reasonable and smart.

  18. Ladida*

    LW2 In company paid lunches (especially if you are a manager or senior person) there is a chance that people who are new to the team or junior will start worrying whether their choices are too expensive and there is some budget limit they do not know about. I would be very hesitant to order a $50 steak if my manager had just ordered a $5 side salad.

    1. The Prettiest Curse*

      Yes – especially if you’re young and/or new to a workplace, you are likely to take your cue from your manager or more senior staff when ordering at a more upmarket restaurant.

    2. londonedit*

      In that situation I don’t think it would raise eyebrows to say to the new/junior person ‘If you like steak, please do order one – I don’t eat much at lunchtime so I’m just going to have a salad, but if you fancy a steak then go ahead!’

    3. pally*

      The president of my company does a gentle encouragement for folks that sound hesitant: “Please, order anything you want. Order the larger steak/dessert as your meal/a full meal/a side or two. Whatever you prefer.”

      That makes folks feel comfortable with ordering what they want.

      1. Irish Teacher.*

        As somebody with sensory issues around food, I love your manager. A side or two or dessert as my meal is often what works best for me as those things tend not to have sauces/mixed flavours, etc, but I am often reluctant to do that as it can seem a bit weird.

    4. AngryOctopus*

      Honestly my first thought was that people were concerned because they thought LW2 didn’t want to order something expensive, and they wanted to make sure LW2/everyone knows that they can order whatever they like (exception being any alcohol polices in place), and don’t worry about the price.

    5. ElastiGirl*

      Yes to this. If I’m eating with someone senior, I always base my order on their order. If they order a salad, I order a salad. If they order from the seafood section of the menu, I order from the same section. And always something at the same price point or less.

      That being said, I want to know where you’re finding $5 side salads!

      1. Anonymous cat*

        This! I was taught from an early age to order something equal or lesser when someone else was paying, and it’s hard to change that.

        For a while I worked for a really gracious lady who ordered more than she might have wanted so that I would feel okay with ordering my meal. (Took a while for me to realize she was doing that!)

        Nowadays if I’m doing something with younger people (and presumably lower on funds), I make choices that would fit with lower funds or avoid putting them on the spot.

  19. Mr. Mousebender*

    I know that OP1 wrote about having “discussed” Alex’s behaviour with HR, but I wonder if they have actually gone on to officially file a PG?

    Nowadays outing a work colleague as gay seems to be (in general; results may vary by company and location) treated much more seriously than it was in 1997 when it was done to me; a PG, backed up by indications that you’d be willing to lawyer up, might get results. Zero support back then, at least in my workplace. The irony is that I’m not gay; I’m asexual, but this person was just THAT outraged at being told ‘No’.

    I hope that the OP may yet have some unexplored options for dealing with Alex, who seems utterly insufferable.

    1. FashionablyEvil*

      PG? (My googling is turning up movie ratings, Proctor and Gamble, and financial stuff, but nothing that seems to apply here.)

      1. Hlao-roo*

        Personal Grievance? (Or Personnel Grievance?) This is just a shot-in-the-dark guess, so hopefully Mr. Mousebender can come back and clarify.

        1. Mr. Mousebender*

          Hello! Yes, I did indeed mean “Personal Grievance”. That’ll teach me for using an acronym

      2. Broadway Duchess*

        Fashionably Evil, I was wondering the same thing. I am assuming Professional Grievance?

    2. OP1*

      OP1 here! I have not officially done that. And it was one of the things I was wondering. Based off what you and another poster said, that is definitely an option I will consider. Thank you for suggesting it! I’m so sorry you had to put up with that though! It was super uncomfortable in 2023, I can’t imagine what it was like in 1997. That you for being awesome and going after that back then.

  20. Zaphod Beeblebrox*

    Maybe it’s me, but I’d be more worried about how it would look if I ordered a $50 steak. Thats nearly £40 in the UK – that would be a lot.

    1. Ami abroad*

      I agree.
      I also would have suggested AAM’s advice: Order a moderately priced dish (maybe the nice chicken risotto you mentioned?), eat a small amount, have the rest packed to go for dinner.
      That way others won’t worry about ordering a full meal, and the splurgers might notice.

      I did something similar because a big lunch always made me sleepy.

    2. bamcheeks*

      If you’re talking corporate hospitality, that’s about what I’d expect it to be! If it’s the kind of meal where it’s OK to order steak, that’s how much a steak is going to cost in a city centre restaurant or a decent gastropub. If you want under £30 per head it’s Pizza Express or one of the other mid-priced chains. Things have got WILD in the last few years!

      1. Clisby*

        Seriously. Especially if it were any kind of seafood, I’d think appetizer = $15 or more.

      2. londonedit*

        Yeah, here in London starters in most decent pubs are around £8-£10. Steaks at my local (which is what you’d probably call an upmarket pub but not super posh) are around £30, but they usually only come with chips so if you’re ordering side dishes of veg as well then you could easily get up to £40.

        1. MsSolo (UK)*

          Also, the majority of UK restaurants, especially the sort that do steak, wouldn’t have the option to take home leftovers – unless they also do takeaway*, they’re simply not going to have anything to box food up in.

          *and I’m aware as I’m typing this that what I mean by takeaway is delivery, because physically going to collect food but not eat it on site is limited to specific cuisines (fish and chips, kebabs, pizza so greasy it turns the box see-through etc) and/or places that don’t have seating. Most restaurants that serve things like steak get sniffy about the idea of people eating the food in a less than optimum state.

      1. Ontariariario*

        Maybe in Banff? I’m still eating well at local restaurants for $20 (plus tax and tip, so $25-30).

            1. Climber*

              I’m with Ontriariario. My current usual downtown (south of Bloor) has their regular size pho at $12.50.$30 gets me 2 mains and an appetizer at most casual viet places I frequent, but I’m sure there more elegant places that are a bit more expensive

        1. Polaris*


          Its that location I swear. First time I’ve ever heard my Dad nearly lose his fecal matter over the ridiculous pricing….back in February 1988. The entire trip, not a word or a glance at prices…but that exact McDonalds? Lord.

  21. Zelda*

    LW#4: I’ve seen a lot of organizations go to publicizing contact info for the role or department rather than for individuals, so for instance the email address that appears on the public website is, not It protects workers’ privacy as well as making it easier to maintain the website, and the forwarding or aliasing that has to happen in IT is (as I understand it) no big deal. Particular clients who have reached out and been connected with you learn your name, but there’s a layer of screening before that happens.

    1. LMKKII*

      I also know of this being done with voicemail messages. Instead of “You have reached the office of [name]” the message is instead “You have reached the office of Coffee Cup Licensing, leave a message, etc.” You can also ask someone who doesn’t sound like you record the message (male if you are female for example).

    2. Yes And*

      I came here to say this. In addition to protecting employees in LW4’s situation, it also makes the organization’s contact points evergreen, and smooths transitions during turnover.

  22. Ami abroad*

    #4 : Use the work gatekeepers!
    I was harassed by unhinged family at almost every job I ever had. And/or by telemarketers.
    The solution was to instruct reception to take a message from these people and then inform me by mail.
    If an emergency was stated (oh so many times), reception had to put the unhinged family member on hold call me first. Usually the person hung up when put on hold, the other times I said: “Have them leave a message, I’ll call back”. I didn’t.

    Since working from home, I screen my calls.

      1. Ami abroad*

        Usually by another unhinged family member doing skillful Internet research, posing as me at the tax office/bank/city offices, intercepting my mail, social engineering friends and employers. All highly illegal of course, but charges were impossible to enforce in Europe. Using the company gatekeepers/lawyers, informing all friends/offices/banks, and maintaining the no contact policy helped greatly after getting an answering machine and ignoring the pounding on my current door.
        Most of them are gone now, and the last one is out of my hair. Having a good life is the best revenge.

  23. But not the Hippopotamus*

    LW 4.

    Just in case this is possible, I will suggest that maybe your position contact information can be public without your name. Like: Chief Teapot Liason, 123-456-7890 vs. Jane Doe, 123-456-7890

    That is both a reasonable request and it increases continuity when people move around (or are out and somebody else is covering a duty during that time, etc.).

    1. Silver Robin*

      I like this! Not as public, but I updated a bunch of manuals and swapped out people’s names with their position for that exact reason.

      Hopefully this situation allows for that kind of solution. Simple and effective without requiring the LW to tell anyone except their manager and maybe the person who does the website.

    2. Foxgloves*

      I was also going to suggest if perhaps just first name and job title might work? “Jane, Chief Teapot Liaison”, without a photo, is still making your contact details available for whoever needs them- but makes it harder for people who don’t know for certain where you, Jane Smith, work. It also could have the additional screening factor of raising concerns automatically if anyone specifically asks for Jane Smith.

  24. C4TL4DY*


    There wasn’t mention of what Alex’s actual work performance was like and also stated they are understaffed. This makes it sound like they just need them to be a warm body to do work and that might be why they are letting it slide.

    1. Not on board*

      And also why Alex sabotages their search for new hires. If they are always under-staffed then Alex is less likely to get fired.

        1. OP1*

          LW1 here, I can assure all in this thread I have certainly though of this too. Where that is the case or not though, the jury is still out.

    2. OP1*

      I would say Alex’s work falls around the needs improvement area, which the caveat that my rating is based on what I see. It could be worse or better. They do, do it, but it’s rarely on time usually with an excuse that undermines someone else and they often focus on tasks that are not needed. I left it out to try and not have identifying details, but that should give you the gyst.

  25. VP of Monitoring Employees' LinkedIn and Indeed Profiles*


    Any organization that abandons its core mission in favor of Keep This Employee At All Costs deserves to fail.

    Start the job search 9if you haven’t already) and encourage everyone else to do the same. It will serve them right if they lose everyone all at once and are left with only Alex.

  26. Falling Diphthong*

    #1 Work with Alex to make them feel heard.
    I think this is the next generation’s “We need to raise the self-esteem of the people behaving badly, and then they will behave well.” (Finally someone did a study, and the badly behaving people turned out to have really great self esteem. They knew they were right, and justified, and some third party telling them that just re-enforced their world view.)

    “When I feel heard, it makes me more likely to cooperate and to consider other points of view” does not actually map to “If Alex feels heard, then they will stop behaving terribly and start to consider other points of view and thus realize they are wrong, and reform their behavior accordingly.” When Alex feels heard, it just validates everything Alex is doing as obviously right. Which Alex already knew.

    1. Falling Diphthong*

      Also, I suspect this is one of those offices wherein if Alex suddenly vanished, it would turn out there were other problems. Alex was just sucking up all the problem-noticing energy with their elaborate tap dance routines.

    2. Tea*

      “We need to raise the self-esteem of the people behaving badly, and then they will behave well.” (Finally someone did a study, and the badly behaving people turned out to have really great self esteem. They knew they were right, and justified, and some third party telling them that just re-enforced their world view.”

      You know, I remember hearing that first part when I was like 8 (early 1990s] and thinking then that it was a bunch of BS. But my school was really into that hippie pop-psychology, touchy-feely, yoga crap stuff at the time* and also, who’s going to listen to the 8 year old being picked on (with actual self esteem issues) when we can just keep coddling the bullies who already have inflated egos???

      Good to know that 8 year old me was actually right about her instincts, maybe.

      *thank you Dean Winchester

      1. Helen Waite*

        My school coddled bullies to the point that faculty would watch while bullies beat up the kids everyone picked on and did nothing. That just pointed out that there were acceptable targets.

        My question for HR is this: How about making sure the letter writer and other coworkers feel heard?

    3. Pastor Petty Labelle*

      When Alex feels heard, it will just mak them cause more trouble because that gets heard. Instead of shutting them down, it will encourage more of theirbehavior.

      You can’t reason with unreasonable with unreasonable people. This goes for Alex but also the company.

  27. Zarniwoop*

    Your management sucks and isn’t going to change. You need to find a new job. Sorry.

  28. The Kulprit*

    LW1 —

    Take Allison’s advice and get out. I get that there is a, “why should I leave? They’re the one who sucks!” feeling here but any place that has allowed all this to go on is deeply sick. Your job and Alex deserve each other.

  29. Bill and Heather's Excellent Adventure*

    LW2, if anyone does comment on your smaller meals, you can just smile and say “My appetite’s not that big so I prefer a light lunch”. Most people will leave it at that.

  30. Foodless in Feattle*

    I have a diet plan like yours (skip lunch; heavy dinners). On the days that I have a social obligation (may be office lunches but could also be visits with friends or relatives) I flex that to normal lunch and skip dinner. It pays to be flexible.

    1. SarahKay*

      But ‘it pays to be flexible’ is only useful if that’s how one’s body works, and OP#2 specifically says that their body doesn’t work that way.
      I’m not good at breakfast; my mouth *really* doesn’t want to eat until my body has been awake for at least an hour – even if my stomach is rumbling grumpily. No amount of people telling me to be flexible will persuade my mouth otherwise. Luckily not eating breakfast is rarely noticeable at work so my mouth and I can quietly do our own thing.

      1. Eldritch Office Worker*

        Yes, I know many people who get very sick if they deviate from the eating patterns their body pushes them into. I don’t personally get sick, but I do get very tired/unproductive/foggy if I eat in the middle of the day. These tradeoffs can cost more than the value of flexibility.

      2. AngryOctopus*

        Yep. My body will reject anything I put in it unless I’ve been awake for an hour or so. That means I don’t eat breakfast or drink coffee before I leave for work (I’m a Get Up and Go kinda person). I might eat something when I get to work, I might not, and I generally eat lunch around 11:15. It works for me and my body’s needs, and I can’t flex that for outside forces.

      3. I Have RBF*

        Yeah, if I get up at, say, 8:30, my body won’t be ready for anything but coffee/liquids until around 10 or so. So I tend to eat “breakfast” at 10:30. I work remotely, so it doesn’t affect anyone but me. We have a “camera off” culture, which is nice.

        1. Azure Jane Lunatic*

          Yeah, outside of very specific circumstances I can’t eat much before 10-11 or so, not because I am working from a meal plan that does not believe in breakfast, but because my body reacts badly if I do.

    2. Irish Teacher.*

      It doesn’t sound like it’s a diet plan in the LW’s case. It sounds like she just isn’t hungry/can’t eat much early in the day. It’s different from making a conscious choice to do it.

  31. Joe*

    umm no,,, I will be paid over time, and you will pay travel costs, or provide transportation. I work at XYZ location.. You will pay me from the time I get here to the time I leave here. If you want me to go somewhere else. You will get me there and pay me for my time.
    This oh maybe take a day off some time when you are basically off anyways?
    Serious dont be a door mat. But FYI most people are door mats.. they will bitch and moan,, but when it comes time to speak up they will all go silent on you.

  32. CzechMate*

    LW 4 – I have unfortunately seen this many times at different places of work. It’s possible that your office has a protocol for this and you haven’t had to use it up until now, but even if they don’t, this is not something that you need to feel weird about.

    I would recommend talking to your supervisor or a trusted higher-up at your office location privately about this. I’ve been on the receiving end of these conversations, and individuals often just say things like, “I unfortunately have had instances with a stalker that I wanted you to know about. I don’t imminently think they’re going to show up (or, there is a cease and desist or restraining order pending) and I wanted to discuss some protocols for that.” Then consider what some of your requested accommodations might be. In the past, we’ve kept photos and identifying information about certain creeps at the front desk, been extra careful screening calls/emails, walked people to their cars at night to ensure they don’t feel unsafe, not given out information about the person at the workplace, allowed people to call out on relatively short notice in order to deal with personal stuff, and established escape routes from the building to help people leave undetected.

    Sorry you’re going through this, but you may be surprised by how supportive your work environment might actually be!

  33. Michelle Smith*

    LW1: The person who left before/during being falsely accused had exactly the right strategy. Follow their example. You work in a toxic, dysfunctional cesspool. Get out.

    1. Falling Diphthong*

      I quite liked that little side anecdote, because that employee had the right take on whether staying and fighting would fix the Alex situation, vs going to a new office where Alex wasn’t would fix the Alex situation.

      1. OP1*

        I assure both Michelle Smith and Falling Dipthong that very much agree with both of you, and I assure you that has already been going on. But the field I’m in is niche and it will take a hot minute for me to find the next thing. So I asked (a) for myself, a to make sure I wasn’t loosing it by coming to that conclusion, (b) for my coworkers who cannot for those same reasons.

        1. Falling Diphthong*

          I view the departed coworker as akin to the woman injured by bird phobia guy: She had a case and she could have filed a lawsuit; in the company’s view she needed to stop focusing on the surgical recovery stuff and instead focus on completing the Murchison Report with the guy who shoved her… and there she was, the dust cloud over there, ignoring every variation on the drama at her now-former office.

          When you say it was never handled because it was somehow tied to everything Alex did to the person who left… as someone outside the situation, I’m pretty certain that’s not the reason this was never handled. Management was never going to handle it, beyond trying to ensure Alex felt heard.

          I clicked on the link to the letter about the coworkers not fighting back as a group. Someone told Grandboss that the reason everyone was leaving was Boss. Grandboss couldn’t believe everyone kept bailing when it was clearly just a personality difference. But he also figured that since the people who hated Boss had already quit, there was no need to do anything about Boss. The status quo would continue to ante.

  34. Casual Librarian*

    OP4, I work in Government and have worked with multiple coworkers on getting their information shielded. In general, here is what has worked at different offices:

    1. If the goal is to have public contact available to the public, you do not need to have your name associated with it. Contact our External Affairs Specialist at [phone number] or works really well.

    2. I’m a strong proponent of generic email addresses for external contact. This is helpful for turnover in external-facing positions. From the customer side of things, they don’t have to learn a new email every other year, on the employee side of things, you are still accessible, but your personal work email and your incoming external contacts email are separate. For my current office, we field external contacts through a generic inbox and then switch to our personal when following up, although some office I have worked at use the generic for all external communications to allow for team access, transparency, and privacy of individuals.

    3. I think if your abuser does find out where you work, a generic email/phone number won’t help people they’ll likely use any public-facing contact info to try and get to you (also government emails are notoriously easy to figure out because they’re usually a play on firstnamelastname), so Alison’s suggestion of telling people someone if your life that you do not want to speak to, and people can just delete those contacts might be the best course of action.

    This is a really crappy situation, and I’m sorry you have to deal with it. Don’t let people convince you that it’s necessary to have your work number and email online. There are ways around it that keep you (and others in your role in the future) safe.

  35. yumyum*

    #2 when eating out, just order what you might eat if it was dinner, eat however little you like, and ask for a to go box for the rest. It wouldn’t be weird where I work for colleagues to go out and some of them not eat everything and stick their leftovers in the breakroom fridge to take home. That gives you a plate full of food that you can slowly pick at during lunch (which fills up space and time so you stand out less–assuming that’s your goal) plus you have dinner that evening.

  36. Ms. Elaneous*

    LW 1 with Alex the monster co-worker:
    Did you say your company never fires people?
    so there’s little risk a calling out Alex to his face, every.single.time.
    With STERN language, in your best mean teacher voice.
    I would have no trouble including
    “Alex quit being a jerk”.

      1. Ms. Elaneous*

        God Speed to you, OP.

        many things I could not do without rehearsals (plural), I could do after rehearsing.

        As I said, God Speed.

  37. a raging ball of distinction*

    OP2 — what about ordering an appetizer or two “for the table”? Or order an appetizer that’s easy to share and encourage others to have some. Your actual lunch being a small side salad might feel less conspicuous if you’re being extra participatory in the social aspects of a lunch out with coworkers.

  38. HannahS*

    OP 2, if what I wanted was just fly under the radar and have people not notice or comment on my choices, I’d order a meal, eat the side salad and a bite of the main, and bring home the rest. If someone else mentioned it, I’d say something boring and pleasant like, “You know, I had a filling breakfast and I’m just not hungry! This is amazing though. Can’t wait to finish it for dinner. How’s the pasta?”

    I wouldn’t worry about the smaller team lunches, because over time your own team will get used to your habits. I’m a fan of keeping it brief and changing the subject, like saying, “Yeah, I pretty much skip lunch and just have a big dinner. Yours looks great though. How do you make the risotto?” No need to mention breakfast. It might also help to have a cup of coffee or a big cup of water. Some of what might be making you feel awkward is that the rhythm of conversation is different when people are eating because they’re pausing to take bites; if you’re taking sips of water it’ll help you be more in sync with others.

  39. learnedthehardway*

    OP#1 – I think you should start a job search and get out of that environment. Regardless of how much you like the work, the company, and most of your colleagues – well, the company has a real management issue and that has produced a serious culture issue because management and HR won’t deal with the problem child, Alex.

  40. Guest*

    LW2: This is directed at the office Food Police rather than you – please stop. Your behavior is noticed far more than LW’s small meals and not in a good way.

    1. Dinwar*

      I would expand this beyond food. If something you’re wearing, doing, or putting on your desk is not affecting your job, or my ability to do my job, I have zero right to comment on it beyond “Oh, that’s a lovely picture of your kids!” or “I’ve been meaning to try that dish; how is it?” The idea of professional norms is one thing; policing behavior to the point where someone is afraid to eat in a perfectly normal fashion is something else entirely.

    2. Katherine*

      Yep. I once had a coworker judge me for having sandwiches every day for lunch. Once I brought in leftovers from the night before and that coworker said ‘Good to see you’re eating REAL food for once!’ I told them I wasn’t going to dignify that with a response and went back to whatever I had been reading on my phone. They later apologised and stopped commenting on my food, which surprised me.

      I hate being a woman in environments with diet culture.

  41. JadziaSnax*

    OP2 – as a fellow tiny lunch eater, my sympathies!! Mine is a combination of preferences and just plain food intolerance – eating a large meal in the middle of the day almost always seems to trigger nausea, so I just have my little turkey half-sandwich in my cubicle away from everyone else. It’s always frustrating to have to explain (and repeatedly fend off offers of food) and I recently had the awkward experience of sitting eating nothing at a company luncheon but…it is preferable to feeling queasy for the rest of the afternoon. To all the nosy food inquirers out there…as my mother used to say, kindly MYOB!!

  42. CubeFarmer*

    RE: LW#4, most modern office phone systems have a way to block a number. This will not solve the problem if the abuser switches phone numbers, but perhaps if this abuser is older, he won’t realize that the number has been blocked. For example, our blocked message just shifts a blocked number into a voicemail box but doesn’t actually record the VM message.

  43. Just a name*

    LW4 – a government office may have a security department. I had an employee tell me they were being harassed by a family member who was doing things like calling child protection services and schools and saying terrible things about them. I wanted to ensure that if that family member contacted attempted to file some false report at the office that their security clearance would not be impacted. I asked for a note in her file that this was happening. Security took it very seriously and stated that if something did happen, they’d be happy to send an NCIS investigator to have a chat with the family member.

  44. Breaking up is hard to due*

    #1 – My current organization is going through something similar. My former manager has done and continues to do so some truly heinous things (including having s&$ual relationships with direct reports and threatening staff with violence). If it wasn’t so horrible, it would almost be comical – it’s some real cartoon villian-level stuff we’ve got going on.

    I wondered for a long time why management has kept him around before realizing, to Alison’s point, that upper management is the real problem here.

    If an organization is willing to overlook very bad behavior, they have a terrible culture and it is not going to change. I decided i didn’t want to work for a place like that, so I started job hunting. I am thiiis close to getting a new role and will hopefully be out of here soon.

    1. OP1*

      I’m truly sorry, and hope that’s not the case, but if so. I do hope you feel alittle less alone reading my letter.

  45. Gustav P*

    In my limited experience I think it’s pretty easy to spend $50 and still get very little food at a steakhouse. I bet LW could manage a 3 oz. filet or something like that (if they are feeling pressured to fit in as it seems they are).

  46. Elizabeth*

    The Alex saga rings a bell for me, because I fired an Alex (who was three levels under me in the reporting structure). My Alex did excellent work, exceptional really, but had clearly trauma-influenced interactions that were inappropriate and disruptive. I felt horrendous about making the call to fire him (and no one else, including hr, would make the call); I finally asked his two direct supervisors if there was any assignment they could put him on that wouldn’t result in more unacceptable interactions, and they said no. I then made the call to terminate that, I cannot emphasize enough, no one else was willing to make. I attended the termination meeting in person and then went home and cried about it, because his work was amazing and I wasn’t sure he could keep a job anywhere (we were also a “never fire anyone” org). So my advice is to make it clear how your Alex makes it hard to do your job on a regular basis.

    1. OP1*

      A very appreciative LW1 here! That you so much for this Elizabeth! This is really insightful to me as someone on the non management side. It’s made me rethink how I talk about this with my superiors, and I will certainly make things clear. That way if they are dealing with the same you did, maybe it can help them make a difficult decision.

  47. aunt beast*

    LW 1, I joined a department a few years ago that has a nearly decade-long Alex problem, and I’ve only just realized how the persistent failure to handle the Alex actually maps on to many, many other larger structural issues (which are also very much not being addressed). Unfortunately, I’m in a niche academic field, so getting out will probably mean getting out of the field entirely, but I think that if you can look for work elsewhere, you should definitely do it.

    1. OP1*

      LW 1 here, yah this is more or less the case with my position. I’m sorry you have had to put up with that. I assure you I am looking but that will take a hot minute. But yes, the issues with Alex maps to many structural issues that I am well aware of. They’re just the flashing lights on the strings that link everything together.

  48. Tammy 2*

    OP4–can you check with your HR and IT departments to see if they may already have some measures in place for employees who have experienced domestic violence?

    In WA, there are some newer laws (RCW 40.24) about withholding identifying information of government employees who have experienced domestic violence or stalking from public disclosure and I think they include some direction about anonymizing contact information, like email addresses. Other states may have similar measures.

    I don’t know how something like that would intersect with the nature of your job involving some public visibility, but it’s worth asking.

  49. CharlieO*

    OP#4 – IT for a government office here. If this person calls from the same numbers it would be super easy for my office to block the calls from ever hitting out system. It usually takes a quick approval from a security officer to say we aren’t blocking a legit caller with needs we should be addressing to sign off on and then we just stop the calls from ever hitting our receptionist in the first place. And the whole thing happens so much more quietly and in the background then trying to train people how to handle the calls when they arrive. Good luck!

    1. Not A Raccoon Keeper*

      Replying just to boost visibility – this is a great idea that I didn’t know would be possible!

  50. Dry Erase Aficionado*

    This is maybe a dumb question, but could you have a alias at work? So if you are Jane Smith instead of “Contact Jane Smith with questions about goldfish training!” the website could say, “Contact Maria Jackson with questions about goldfish training.” The public gets the right person and the abuser never associates Jane Smith with Maria Jackson or Municipal Goldfish Training.

  51. Zee*

    LW4 – if you know his phone number and email address, ask IT to just block them completely. I work for local government (library) and we had someone who kept calling in and masturbating. It took a little while to sort it out, but IT was eventually able to block calls from that phone number. Email addresses are really easy to block.

    Also… if the harassment has gone on for this long and is affecting your life this much, you might want to consider changing your name. You could also ask to go by your middle name at work and not have your first name listed publicly anywhere, which would make you slightly less google-able.

  52. Lyri*

    I have what others consider strange eating habits, and am often encouraged to eat other things/larger portions.

    The response that has worked the best for me is “Thank you, but I got exactly what I wanted for lunch.” while looking (because I am) happy about my food. It also helps to say something nice about the tiny dish you ordered – “I love that this salad has artichoke hearts!” or something to that effect. If people see you’re happy with what you got, they’re less likely to bug you about it.

    Most folks project onto others, so when they see your dish with a tiny looking portion, they think how unhappy they’d be with it, so they assume you are too. Enthusiasm goes a long way toward making people back off of food choices.

  53. Shandra*

    LW1: If it’s an option, get out of there asap. I wonder if Alex has something on a higher-up in the organization, and that’s why no one will take action.

    1. OP1*

      As LW1, I can assure you I have wondered about this many times. I don’t have a answer, but yes, I have also wondered.

  54. blood orange*

    OP #2 – Would you be comfortable telling your coworkers that you typically have a small lunch and large dinner? It doesn’t need to be a Thing, just a quick comment to explain, and I think most people wouldn’t give it another thought. Even if you just make the comment to one or two of your more trusted coworkers, or even your manager, I think that would have an impact (either because they’ll be super normal about your eating habits and others take their lead, OR because they’ll discretely relay the message).

    I have a colleague who is very private, and he also typically has very small meals when we eat as a team. Over time I’ve learned that he is vegan and gluten free, he has some minor medical issues related to his diet, and he just generally has never enjoyed food very much. All of that information came from separate conversations with him over years. As a team, we just make sure he has options to eat when he wants to, and don’t make a big deal if he doesn’t want to eat, or brings his own small portions.

  55. Seen Too Much*

    LW 4 – Does the public information need to be you specifically – or just your job title? I worked, many years ago, with a company that used a pseudonym for everyone who worked the front desk. So the placard said something like “Shawn Smith” and whoever sat at the desk was Shawn. Is this something that can be done for you? Is your photo also published – it would be easier if it’s not. Recently, I have seen companies list just the titles, no names, on their websites. It would look like “Chief Bottle Washer for Head Honcho” – no pic and no name.

    It doesn’t stop family members from giving your information, but it makes it harder for your abuser to find you on their own.

    Personally, I would stop talking to the family member who gave your phone number.

  56. federal law might help here*

    To letter write 5 – the Fair Labor Standards Act is federal, and if it applies to you, it has some rules about when you need to be paid for your travel time. At least it used to. I think states can be more restrictive, but not less, in terms of altering this.

  57. Candace*

    OP 1 – Honestly, at this point, I’d not only look for another job, but contact an employment lawyer, to see if there’s any way to sue the company’s HR and managers for failing to protect you from Alex’s wild, possibly illegal actions, and for allowing creation of a very hostile work environment.

  58. Mmm.*

    I wonder if LW1’s company is smaller and doesn’t have lawyers. My gut says Alex either a) has dirt on someone or b) has/claims to have a disability that “allows” this behavior, and they’re afraid of an EEOC issue.

    To be clear, no disability “allows” this kind of behavior (especially repeatedly!), but many are falsely believed to be valid excuses.

    The management needs to actually do something, and LW needs to look elsewhere.

Comments are closed.