updates: the unavailable lactation room, the “unapproachable” manager, and more

Here are three updates from past letter-writers.

1. Random people use our lactation room for breaks and lunch (#3 at the link)

I really appreciated seeing your response and those of the commenters. It helped me feel validated and affirmed for me that I was not being overly entitled or too demanding in my attempts to resolve the issue. I did eventually take the matter to HR. Starting this week, the room is to be closed and locked by default. The other lactating mother and I were given keys (as was suggested by several commenters). And as for the concern for walking in on each other, the room has a highly sensitive motion sensor light and a window over the door, so it’s pretty easy to tell that if the light is on it’s occupied.

2. My boss says I’m an “unapproachable” manager

Thank you for answering my letter, and thank you to everyone who commented. Your answer and peoples’ descriptions of their own unapproachable managers helped me realize that I was actually pretty approachable! If I was in an office, the door would be open unless I was on the phone. When staff came to me, I would welcome them with a smile and give them my full attention. Sometimes I might say “let me just finish this sentence so I don’t lose my train of thought” and finish typing, but I always smiled and made eye contact while saying that. I’m an active listener, valued my staff’s feedback, and was responsive when others needed action from me.

I sat on your answer and what I read in the comments for a few weeks, trying to objectively assess my behaviour with everything I’d read in mind, then returned to my boss and asked her to elaborate on what she meant by unapproachable. I also asked whether the feedback had come from a direct report or one of my peers. She seemed confused and played it off like she couldn’t remember. By then, it had been several months, but I’m still bewildered by this response, because we had turned it into a bit of an inside joke. At the time of our initial conversation, I had suggested that maybe my struggle with small talk had contributed to that feedback, and joked that my natural reaction to seeing acquaintances in the grocery store is to duck behind a display. We laughed about it and started joking about my social awkwardness regularly. She’d say something like “drive safe, it’s icy out there,” and I’d reply, robotically, “I am uncomfortable with this excessive display of concern for my well-being” and we’d laugh. I wonder if maybe I interpreted an offhand comment as criticism, and built it up in my mind as a much bigger deal than it was.

I’m no longer at that job. The nature of the work meant that my days were very long and the hours were often unpredictable. Now that I have two young children, I just could not reconcile my work obligations with school and daycare drop-offs and pick-ups. I’m in a different line of work and no longer in a management position, and I am very happy. The letter I wrote to you was a catalyst for me realizing that I do not like being a manager. Hiring, firing, performance reviews, PIPs, and tough conversations — I hated all of that, but people management was the only option for upward mobility and increased salary in my woefully low-paying previous field.

Your blog was invaluable to me during my job search. Thank you for running this site, and thank you to your commenters for taking the time to provide feedback of their own. I read every one.

3. My coworker berates me all day long (first update here)

Not long after my first update, I accepted a temporary records management position at a university I’d long been interested in working for. I really enjoyed my coworkers and my time there helped me regain some of my confidence after leaving my prior firm and subsequent layoff. I’d hoped after the temp position ended, I’d be able to move into something full-time either in that same department or elsewhere within the university. Although I did good work and was well-regarded by my managers and the team, in the end there wasn’t an opportunity to move into a full-time position.

After we parted ways, I applied for a handful of positions within the university and had a few interviews, but also kept my eyes peeled elsewhere just in case. Almost on a whim, I applied for a records management position at a local bank, went through a few rounds of interviews, and accepted my current position. While I was sad the university didn’t work out, this new role had generous pay, great benefits, and good work/life balance, and they seemed very happy to bring me in. I have been there a little over a year and am so glad I took it. There are no Helens, I can take PTO and not walk into piles of work that no one who was supposed to cover for me bothered to do, I don’t get snapped at when I need something or ask a question, and when I’m asked to correct something, I’m not berated endlessly over and over. I like my colleagues, the workload keeps me busy but it’s not overwhelming and I can get help when I need it. And I’m pleased to say I haven’t needed a PITA folder in my inbox in quite some time. It’s taken a while but my mental health has improved immensely since I left my old job. I didn’t realize how much Helen and the broader culture there were harming my self-worth and how depressed and anxious I’d become over my time there. I know I was good at my job — otherwise I wouldn’t have lasted as long as I did — but towards the end I really started to think there was something wrong with me for not being able to keep up with endless demands and nonstop workload. It took getting away to realize how bad it was, but I’m happy to report I’m doing much better now. Thanks again to everyone who commented and offered suggestions and encouragement!

{ 32 comments… read them below }

    1. sheworkshardforthemoney*

      I’m waiting for someone to bang on the closed locked door with lunch in hand demanding to use the room. Doors that were never locked before are like bees to flowers.

  1. A Simple Narwhal*

    I’m so glad #1 worked out! I freely banged on the door to oust people who were misusing the pumping room when I needed it, but I still hated having to do it and it stressed me out to be greeted with a locked door when I needed to pump. I’m glad OP’s company removed the need for that!

    1. Medusa*

      I think my company handles it well, but I’m not a mother. All meeting rooms must be reserved. One of the meeting rooms is a lactation room that you can’t see into (unlike the other meeting rooms). Anyone who needs a meeting room needs to book it, so nursing mothers can book the room every single day for their pumping time (but none of the currently nursing moms come every day. They mostly come twice a week). I’ve never checked to see if that door locks, though.

      1. A Simple Narwhal*

        Yes that’s how ours worked too! It was booked like a conference room, and every room has a screen on it showing if it’s booked or not, all upcoming bookings, etc. Which was extra frustrating when someone just ignored all of that to make a phone call when I had booked the room.

      2. Cheesesteak in Paradise*

        That wouldn’t work for me but I’m in health care with direct patient care. I can’t control when I get a break to pump. Usually I set a window like “I need two twenty minute breaks sometime between 9 and 10:30 and between 1:30 and 2:30”.

      3. fhqwhgads*

        To be a legal lactation room it needs a locking door. Altho it’s possible it can only be locked from inside.

  2. Miss Chanandler Bong*

    This is why offices need personal rooms for whatever use you need so that people aren’t trying to use the lactation room for purposes other than its intended purpose. Especially in the age of open offices where occasionally you just need some privacy.

    I have asthma which occasionally requires me to use my nebulizer. The portable one I have now is quiet (and I also work remotely now), but the older one I had was loud. I also prefer to use it in private if possible so I don’t have to have people asking me if I’m okay a million times. In an office where we had private rooms to go to, it was a godsend. I’d just let my boss know that I needed 30 minutes for a treatment and I’d be in that room working while I did it.

    I never would have considered using a lactation room and don’t understand why random people thought it was okay.

    1. Hastily Blessed Fritos*

      The open-plan offices I’ve worked in have had non-bookable “phone booths” people can use for up to 30 minutes at a time, for things like a personal call that needs privacy, medical needs like your nebulizer that shouldn’t be done in the bathroom and can draw unwanted attention at your desk, etc. They’re tiny, to discourage people camping out longer than necessary, and can be really useful.

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

        That was one of the nice things about my old job. they had 1 “mothers room” and 1 “other needs” room for phone calls, migrains, etc. There was a small sink in each room so they both could actually be used as lactation rooms if needed.

        The only problem was that 2 times a week the company would have a massage therapist come and that room would be booked for part of the day.

      2. Evan Þ*

        Oh yes, back when I was working in an open office (pre-Covid), there were a few of those rooms down the hall. They were a sanity-saver when I had phone calls.

        They were large enough for two people, so they were also usually where my boss did performance reviews.

  3. Pizza Rat*

    Great news, LW3! So happy you got to the right place.

    I have literally have a job give me nightmares. One of the worst things about it was I was told not to ask questions of anyone but my boss, who would then tell me I should know the answer already. That is an especially nasty gaslighting tactic.

  4. EA*

    Great to hear the update on the lactation room! I’m so glad that awareness about this need is growing and that the OP advocated for the company to guarantee the right to that space. OP, you’ve helped future lactating moms as well!

  5. Mango Freak*

    Wow, don’t know how I missed #3 the first time around–but I’m glad I did, cuz in 2020 it would’ve hit too close to home.

    LW handled it perfectly. As an admin with some years on me, my first reaction to unreasonable workplace jerks is to ask myself, “what actual power does this person have over me?” If the answer is “little to none,” then they go on the Remedial Training Program.

    Unreasonable requests, rude requests, requests made outside the system specifically for that (that they should absolutely know by now)? They go to the back of the line, the bottom of the pile. Obviously anything that’s my job to do will get done when it needs to, but you’re last priority until you teach yourself how to act like an adult. No, I’m not teaching you how to be an adult, that would make you a priority; you have to decide whether YOU want things to change. I’m perfectly fine with you being an unreasonable mess the remainder of your days, but that will firmly remain a You Problem.

    Meanwhile, I’m being a valuable asset to the people who actually hired and supervise me.

  6. Have you had enough water today?*

    Yay for #1. Sad that it had to be locked up due to people being inconsiderate butt holes, but happy there was a solution.

  7. Annie*

    LW2, glad things worked out, and I love this:
    “drive safe, it’s icy out there,” and I’d reply, robotically, “I am uncomfortable with this excessive display of concern for my well-being” haha

  8. Ziggydm*

    I feel like I am in a potential Helen situation, except my Helen is completely lateral to me (in fact, I have been in the organization a little longer, but just by a few weeks), so logically I should have the authority/agency to not respond to every criticism or issue or to shut some of it down. She cuts me out of things we’re supposed to be working on together, and I feel like coordinates with other people on my team to berate me (I’ve asked some trusted friends to look at the email exchanges and they agree it comes off as a coordinated effort). She also does a very weird thing where either because she’s not great at processing information, or she’s intentionally trying to gaslight me or make my suggestions or points seem worse than they are, she will insist I say things that I am not or did not say. This came up in a meeting recently, but luckily another coworker backed me up and said “I don’t think that’s what Ziggydm is saying…” and proceeded to summarize my point accurately. Last week, I hit my limit and called for a meeting with my boss and my supervisor. Our boss is great and receptive to concerns, but my immediate supervisor is frustratingly conflict avoidant. I tried to frame more as a “I have concerns about the team’s cohesion” vs “Helen is frustrating.” The resolution so far has been that my boss is looking into getting us teambuilding training, although I really have my doubts this will do much, it’s something and as a first step, it’s not the worst thing. I tried to ask my supervisor for some guidelines about how to respond to some of these communications and situations, and she just kept saying “you can be assertive, as long as you’re polite.” I asked “can I say ‘this has gotten off topic?'” (because Helen tends to start getting conversations about a basic question or issue off topic into some wider discussion about things that aren’t really up for debate anymore) and my supervisor said that no, pointing out that something is off topic can be perceived as offensive. Her suggestion was to say things like “thank you so much for advice, I’ll consider it” or “that’s a great point, we can discuss it later,” basically the textbook of dishonest communication (I’m a woman so this just adds to my distaste of “women should be polite” expectations). It kind of confirms for me that as long my coworkers make sure to use please and thank you somewhere in their emails, they can do whatever they want to me.

    I really like this job, but I feel like Helen makes every day a social gauntlet, and I have to be so careful all the time about how I respond and act to not come off as “unreasonable” or “aggressive” one.

    1. commonsensesometimesmakessense*

      Ugghhh, your immediate supervisor is ridiculous. There is nothing offensive about “this has gotten off topic,” and her overly sugar coated responses cannot and will not ever be effective. I think it is safe to say you should not ask her for advice or permission on what to say going forward. I honestly think it might be worthwhile to have a slightly more straightforward conversation with your boss (ideally without your supervisor present) about Helen’s behavior, and not make it about team cohesion as much as about ways Helen’s behavior negatively is impacting your ability to do your job. Team building will definitely not help this.

      I think you really should avoid using your supervisor’s suggestions, and just find a slightly tempered version of saying “this has gotten off topic.” Maybe, “That is an interesting point, but that issue has already been resolved. The issue at hand right now is …, so does anyone have any suggestions?” And if she goes off again, just repeat it similarly. And, though it will be tough, avoid frustration in your tone when you say it.

      And if your supervisor gives you trouble about it, then you may need to change approaches, but if she is as conflict avoidant as she seems to be, she won’t put up much of a fight. But definitely never ask for her advice on anything like this ever again! LOL

      1. Ziggydm*

        Thanks that’s good advice. It’s funny you bring up talking to my boss without the supervisor, because when we initially had this conversation over video/web meeting, my supervisor was randomly dropped halfway through and couldn’t reconnect, at which point my boss asked “while supervisor is away from the call… is her passiveness part of the problem?” and I immediately said yes. So yeah, it’s super obvious, the level of conflict aversion she has is quite ridiculous lol.

  9. Project Maniac-ger*

    “I didn’t realize how much Helen and the broader culture there were harming my self-worth and how depressed and anxious I’d become over my time there.”

    This is why toxic cultures (and one person can make a culture toxic because of the missing stair phenomenon) are rarely a “just tough it out” situation. They mentally injure you, and then you take that injury into your home life and into your next job.

    LW, I’m so glad you got out. I hope Paula steps on lots of lego.

    1. Project Maniac-ger*

      Paula? I’m reading too many help blogs these days. I meant Helen. I hope Helen steps on lots of Lego.

      I apologize to the Paulas.

    2. Ziggydm*

      I’m going through a Helen situation of my own and this is so true. I was talking about it with a friend the other day and she said “it’s a toxic workplace,” and I was like “no it’s just one person (and the additional person she got her claws into), but everyone else is great, or at least neutral,” but my friend said “yeah, it only takes one person being allowed to get away with it.”

    3. Merrie*

      I spent five years in a job where my direct supervisor and my second-in-command were both toxic in different ways, and man did it mess me up. I left close to two years ago and I feel like I’ve finally regained most of the energy that place sapped from me. I do deal with some obnoxious people in my current job, but thankfully I can ignore them a lot of the time. I’m still always a bit more relaxed when either they aren’t there or we are in spots in workflow where we don’t interact. They’re all in their mid-sixties so maybe they’ll retire soon… I can dream!

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