weekend free-for-all – April 20-21, 2019

This comment section is open for any non-work-related discussion you’d like to have with other readers, by popular demand. (This one is truly no work and no school.)

Book recommendation of the week: Normal People, by Sally Rooney. I’ve been dying for this to come out because I loved her first book so much,  and I devoured it as soon as it was released this week. It’s the story of an on-again, off-again relationship that starts in high school and continues into college, taking different forms as the two people themselves do. I actually think Conversations with Friends was better, but I will read anything Sally Rooney writes from this day until the end of days.

open thread – April 19-20, 2019

It’s the Friday open thread! The comment section on this post is open for discussion with other readers on anything work-related that you want to talk about. If you want an answer from me, emailing me is still your best bet*, but this is a chance to talk to other readers.

* If you submitted a question to me recently, please don’t repost it here, as it may be in the to-be-answered queue.

I bombed in an interview I asked for, employee wants to skip lunch and leave early every day, and more

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

1. I bombed in an interview I asked for

I’m in a customer-facing role at a large company, and I’m interested in advancing into a management role. I’ve held management positions in the past, but happily took a “step back” in this job because it’s a great company, good job in itself, and it supported a family-related interstate move.

I recently asked my grand-boss for a 1-1 meeting to discuss advancement opportunities, and he was very supportive of the conversation. Knowing this was effectively a job interview, I came prepared to discuss staffing, training, expectations, client engagement, priorities and goal setting, etc. Unfortunately, what my grand-boss wanted to discuss was systems, metrics, repeatability — more of the systems-thinking side of the job than the human-thinking side of the job. And it’s a job that I tend to approach in a very human-thinking sort of way. That was reasonable of him, but I wasn’t remotely ready for that conversation, as I’d been very focused on the people side of it.

It wasn’t the worst professional conversation I’d ever had, but it was easily in the top three. He even left me with the advice “If you ask for a meeting like this, you really should prepare for it, which is impossibly embarrassing to hear. That he thought I needed that advice feels like I may as well have needed to hear “don’t drop your pants in front of the CEO. Of course I know that, but I’ve clearly made a terrible impression.

My gut reaction was that I’d blown any opportunity at advancement (and my current job is great, but it’s not a career). But I didn’t, exactly. Grand-boss left the door open, offering another shot at a “career development” call with him, suggesting we talk in a few weeks. He’s been gracious about the whole thing, even while reinforcing the message that the conversation itself we did have was completely unsuccessful in promoting my candidacy. (If I hear “you really should prepare…” again, I’ll probably die of shame.)

How do I recover from this? I doubt my aspirations will survive another disaster-meeting. I feel like I shouldn’t wait too long to reengage, but this has become the only interview I’ve ever been hesitant about. I normally delight in job interviews, but this was my worst interview failure ever, and I’m feeling bruised and full of self doubt. How do I approach the next round? Do I address my past failure as incorrect rather than absent preparations, or just let it go? Is it reasonable to stall for a month or two while I collect my thoughts and my confidence, or should I get back on the horse quickly? There’s no open position currently on the table, so it’s all about putting myself in position for when a seat opens up — which could be soon or could be well into the future.

I’m a big fan of just putting it out there, on the theory that if they don’t like your thought process on something like this, that might be a sign that they won’t like it on other things too, and better to just be transparent and figure out if that works for them or not. So I’d just be candid about what happened. And it doesn’t need to be a big deal (shouldn’t be, in fact). It can just be something like, “I want to be up-front with you that I’d prepared for a different conversation last time. I’d come prepared to talk about staffing, training, expectations, client engagement, priorities, and goal setting. I’m ready this time to talk about systems and metrics.” And then move on quickly — you don’t want it to sound like excuse-making, just quick context, and then move right into what you’re there to talk about. In fact, you could even could address it when you reach out to schedule the next meeting instead — as in, “When we talked, I’d prepared to talk about X — and I appreciate you refocusing me. This time I’m going to be prepared to talk about Y. Would the first week of May work for you?”

On the timing of the meeting, don’t stall — the sooner you have the second meeting, the sooner you can recover from the first. And you’ll show that you’re able to take criticism, incorporate it, and move right along without being rattled by it. (I mean, don’t reschedule so quickly that you don’t have time to thoroughly prepare — but don’t stall just because it feels awkward.)

2. Replying to the wrong optional emails on vacation

My colleague, “Sophie,” is on holiday. In our office, there is no expectation that staff should check their emails when on vacation but many people do. Sophie has been replying to emails, but only non-urgent or even trivial ones that could easily wait until she gets back. I also know that there are some more urgent requests she has received and not responded to (not necessarily labour intensive, some just need a confirmation from her).

Our manager is frustrated but doesn’t know what to do. She doesn’t want to encourage anyone to work while out of the office, but since Sophie is already taking the time to get work done, our manager would prefer she redirects her efforts.

Do you think it is worth even bringing it up? If so, how would you approach this?

I’d leave it alone. Any attempt to address it is going to undermine the idea that people aren’t expected to check email on vacation. At most, I suppose someone could reply to one of her non-urgent replies and say something like, “If you’re checking email, I’d love your thoughts on the message about X — but no pressure if you’d rather wait until you get back.” But even that is signaling that you want her to do work on vacation. And who knows, maybe she’s answering trivial emails because they’re an easy break for her brain, but she doesn’t want to deal with things that require more stress or more thought.

3. Two people giving notice at nearly the same time

I am hoping to get your perspective on how my colleague and I should handle giving our notices, when it looks like we are both going to be a leaving our professional services firm at nearly the same time.

We both work for a small company (<30 people) and have both been here for about five years, which is relatively long. We are both senior managers with some but not all overlapping responsibilities, and we both report directly to the CEO. It is likely that if only one of us was leaving, the other would assume most if not all of the other’s responsibilities, including taking on direct reports and client accounts.

We independently decided to search for new positions for various reasons, both personal and because of some concerns about the direction of our current employer. Not coincidentally, we are both good friends outside of work who are at similar stages of our careers and with similar family situations, work styles, and personalities. We are both nervous to tell our current boss we are leaving because he has taken resignations personally in the past and because we recognize the short-term disruption we will cause with our timing. We have already discussed with each other where all our work could be reassigned without overloading the team, as it has been a slow time for the past few months.

So, how do we handle giving our notice? Do we go one at a time and the first person pretends not to know about the second? Do we speak to our boss together even though our decisions were independent? What is the least hurtful way to break the news?

Don’t talk to your boss together; that’ll be weird and it will look like you coordinated more than you actually have. Hopefully you won’t get job offers on the exact same day or need to give notice on the exact same day, so whoever accepts an offer first will give notice first, making no mention of the other person. Then when the second person accepts an offer, they give their notice at that point and can say something like, “I know the timing isn’t ideal with Lorraine leaving as well, but I have some ideas for how to reassign work that might make the transition go more smoothly.”

If for some reason you both do end up having to give notice on the same day, you should still do it separately. In that case, whoever gets to go first (and thus sticks the other one with a more awkward conversation) should probably buy the other one several drinks.

4. Employee wants to skip lunch and leave early every day

I have an employee who often doesn’t eat lunch. He sometimes stays at his desk and plays on his phone, or sometimes visits with friends on their lunch hour, but seems to rarely eat lunch himself.

It is common knowledge on my team that if you need to leave early for the day, you’re allowed to skip your lunch break and leave early. This team member asked me if he could skip lunch every day and leave early. I am hesitant to agree to this as an every day option because in the past I’ve read multiple articles saying that skipping lunch breaks or working through lunch is bad for productivity, and often leads to burn-out (and I have some personal experience with this as well). Additionally, we work in a collaborative environment and while I don’t dictate set working hours, I do like people to generally be available to their teammates for questions, help, etc. I allowed this policy because I really try to be as flexible as possible for my team, but I just don’t feel right about making it every day. Am I overthinking this?

If it will inconvenience your team to have him unavailable for the last hour of the day every day, it’s perfectly reasonable to say no to this, and to explain that it’s fine to do occasionally but not every day.

But I wouldn’t base it on worries about burn-out. Some people do fine with working through lunch; others don’t. You don’t want your reason for banning this to be that it can be bad for some people, when others do just fine with it and even prefer it. Keep the focus on how it impacts what you and your team need from him.

5. I’ve been asked to give a reference for two people for the same job

I work in a fairly competitive, but still small, field, where getting a job is all about who you know. There is an opening at the company I work at that two people who I have worked with in the past are going to apply to, and both want to put me as a reference. I think both would do a great job, and I had agreed to be a reference in the past, not knowing that both would be applying for the same job at the place I am working.

Is that weird? Do I need to talk to my HR manager and explain? Should I tell them not to use me?

It’s not weird. When you give a reference, you’re not saying, “Definitely hire this person over all your other candidates.” You’re ideally saying “Here is a detailed assessment of this person’s strengths, work habits, and challenges, and it’s up to you to decide how this person fits in with your needs.” So you can definitely give a reference for two people for the same job.

The exception to this might be if you think one is significantly stronger than the other — especially since this is for a role at your company, meaning that you’ll want to be very candid. In that case, it might be fairer to say to the weaker person, “I want to be up-front with you that I’ve been asked to be a reference for someone else applying for this same job, and I think they’re a really strong match with the role. I’d still be glad to be your reference as well, but I wanted to be transparent about that in case you’d prefer to use someone else.”

why don’t we teach new grads about workplace norms?

If you’ve worked with recent graduates who are just getting started in the work world, you’ve probably seen them make their share of professional faux pas. I recorded a piece for the BBC arguing that we need to do a better job teaching students and new workers about how to navigate an office (and I talk a little about those interns who petitioned to change the dress code).

updates: the manager’s peeing dog, dressing like your boss, and more

Here are four updates from people who had their letters here answered in the past.

1. My boss brings her dog to work and he pees by my desk

I promised to update after quarter end, which comes up in July, but I just wanted to shoot over a quick update before then, because there has been at least some progress. To warn you: it’s kind of a mixed bag.

Christie has now begun to put Ricky in her office with the door closed and work in an empty space on the other end of the office so that he won’t distract her. This is, obviously, worse than the previous situation. I have on two occasions (so far) snuck him out for a walk while she’s gone and put him back in her office before she notices. I also bought him a few relatively cheap toys (a treat puzzle and a squeaky bone), which I keep in my desk and pull out when she’s otherwise occupied. Quarter end will be overtime hours, and I’m not sure it’ll be a sustainable system then, but I just wanted to let you know that Ricky is at least getting walks now.

Your commenters have also been very helpful in making me reflect on Christy as a person rather than her management style, and though it’s not a fun feeling, I have come to accept that it’s okay to not like her because of this. I try to give everyone the benefit of the doubt as much as possible, but this isn’t the mark of a good person. So thank you AAM community! :)

To the person who advised stealing the dog: my friends and I have been debating the difference between “stealing” and “rescuing” and we’ve come to the conclusion that it’s not a feasible solution at this time. But it’s a good dream.

2. My boss and I keep accidentally wearing the same thing (#3 at the link)

I wrote to you earlier about being worried about dressing too much like my boss, and I’m so glad I did! Everyone was so supportive in the comments, and it really eased my mind. It’s my first office job in years (I was in healthcare before, so everyone wore scrubs) and I wanted to be sure I wasn’t being weird. But my manager thought it was hilarious that I wrote to you (I told her about it), and now we laugh about our “twinning” outfits. We’re both wearing pretty pink shirts and jeans today and my boss made a joke about our “spring time look connection.”

Thank you for all the support!

3. My coworker reacts badly when I won’t come in on my days off (#4 at the link)

I finally took the advice of everyone and laid down the law with the problematic coworker. As a result, she no longer asks me personally to fill in for her but simply has resorted to exaggerating injuries and claiming that she needs physical therapy so that she can take weeks off with no notice and continue doing whatever she’s doing during work hours.

On the other hand, I learned through this experience as well as the comments on my original ask that these things are way beyond my control and that I was not in any way shape or form obligated to fill in for her when she demands just to make her happy. Her supervisor was away on personal leave but when he returns, I will be reporting to him regarding her transgressions.

4. Is sex a bad example in a work presentation? (#2 at the link)

Thank you for answering my question. Your last point about possibly encouraging inappropriate comments from others was something I hadn’t thought of at all but I do take very seriously. So I will use other examples where I can and do without where I can’t (and thanks to commentators for suggestions). For clarification we’re not in a related field, though we work in an area where we do have to consider the occasional messiness of real lives so I’d expect colleagues to be reasonably grown up about things.

As it happens my second best examples on a number of points are around drug-taking, but this does seem to be a case where drugs are better than sex.

what’s the most embarrassing thing that’s happened to you at work?

The comments on last week’s letter from the person who had wet her pants at work were full of  hundreds of stories from people who’d had similar things happen to them. I had no idea that stories of people crapping their pants could be so heart-warming, but they were.

So, I pose you this question: What’s the most embarrassing thing that’s happened to you at work? Please share in the comments.

my coworkers keep praising my work bully, emergency bathroom use during interviews, and more

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

1. Can I ask my coworkers to stop praising the person who bullied me?

How reasonable is it to ask my teammates to stop praising another employee from a different department who was a bully? I am okay with speaking about this person in a working manner (“Petra suggested this on the budget issue, so let’s go with it.”), but there are two people on my own team (one is my manager) who will lavish praise on them (“Petra is a genius! She is so great at her job! This company is so much better with her around!”).

I spent a better portion of a year working with Petra, an internal client who behaved terribly to me and others assigned to her project. It was firmly bullying behavior that affected project outcomes, relationships within the project team, and my health. I’ve heard many stories of her doing interpersonal damage around the company, though I can’t deny she is strong in her realm of work.

My teammates and especially my manager know about my experiences, though it doesn’t seem like they have caught on to the extent. I feel somewhat disrespected when they speak so lavishly about Petra. They’ll add a quick acknowledgement after they’ve started because they suddenly remember whom they’re talking to: “I know you wouldn’t say this about her, but she is so amazing!” or “I know you had a bad experience, but I just love how smart she is.” That tells me they remember my experience, but choose to continue saying these things to me. It’s disheartening that her bad behavior is minimized and my experience is dismissed, especially by my manager. They can say it to others, I just don’t want to hear it myself.

Is it reasonable to say “Hey, given my history with Petra, and you may not realize the extent of the damage she did, but can I ask that we keep our talk about her to strictly business?” Or is it asking too much and I should just ignore it? I don’t expect this special consideration for any other of our clients, many of whom are difficult to work with but not bullying. Plus, I’m in the camp we shouldn’t keep jerks around just because they are good at their job.

Yeah, it’s probably asking too much. You can’t really tell people not to say positive things around you about a colleague who still works there; you’ll come across as overly precious or prima donna-ish.

At most, the next time she’s lavishly praised, you could say something like, “My experience with her was truly very different. I’d be glad to share it privately with you sometime if you think it would be useful to hear another perspective.”

But I think you’ve got to mark this down to them having legitimately positive experiences with Petra and not realizing the extent of how harmful your interactions with her were or writing it off to a personality conflict rather than something more serious. That might sound dismissive, but it’s so much more common for two people to just not get along than it is for someone to be truly monstrous that it’s understandable that people might assume that. And they might assume that even if they did hear more details, because people tend to assume there are two sides to every story, or that each person is bringing their own baggage to the situation — especially when they know and like both people involved. You don’t have to like that, but I think looking at it that way might make it feel less personal. (And to be clear, I don’t think it’s great that they’re lavishly praising her around you, but you can only control your side of it.)

2. Emergency bathroom use during interviews

About a year ago, I had a medical procedure done involving my intestines. As a result, I sometimes very suddenly have to use the restroom; waiting even a few minutes could spell disaster. I have been able to accommodate this fine in my current job, as my office is close to a restroom, but I am in the process of applying for new jobs and have had a few interviews, some lasting close to an hour.

So far it has not been an issue during the interviews — I’ve done my best to prevent it by making sure I arrive early enough that I can use the restroom either at the interview location or at a nearby gas station/coffee shop/whatever right before the interview. That said, I’m (reasonably, I think) worried that despite my best efforts, one of these days I’m going to be in the middle of an interview and experience that all-too-familiar rumbling that indicates impending doom.

On one hand, I feel like interviewers might be understanding of a bathroom emergency (we’re all human, after all), but I also feel like it could look bad for me to have to put an interview on hold for 5-10 minutes while I run to the toilet.

Anyone can have a sudden, unanticipated need for a bathroom, even without a medical condition! It might not be as urgent as your need is, but it can be urgent enough to require excusing oneself from a meeting. Because of that, you don’t need to worry too much about giving any context for it or warning your interviewer in advance. If the need strikes, you can simply say, “I’m so sorry — I need to very briefly excuse myself to use your restroom.”

That said, if you’ll feel more comfortable, you could say at the start, “I had a recent medical procedure that means I might need to pop out to the bathroom at some point while we’re talking — I’ll speak up if that happens.”

3. Our company won’t let managers suggest sick employees work from home

We have several employees who report to work ill. When I suggest letting ill people work from home, I am told our division head says no. Her exact words were “I’d like to work from home,” which makes no sense. Also, a manager states they spoke to an HR rep and the statement was along the lines of “You are not a doctor and cannot state factually that their illness is causing another worker to become ill and therefore cannot send an employee home.”

What results is other employees become ill, go to the doctor, use their PTO, their workload piles up, and when they return the germ carriers are still repeatedly deep coughing, sneezing, etc., causing relapses. Focusing on one’s work is proving difficult. Would working in our remote site be a legal alternative if one presents as a risk to another’s health and well-being?

Your division head is a bit of a jerk; just because she’d like to work from home but for some reason can’t doesn’t mean that it’s not a viable option for anyone, and she’s really behind the curve on this.

But more importantly, your HR rep is ridiculous. Letting sick people work from home isn’t about factually proving they’re definitely getting others sick; it’s about taking sensible precautions that any sixth grader could understand. Your HR rep sounds overly rigid and lacking in critical thinking skills — which is a really bad combination. Is your whole HR team like this, or is it just this one person? If the latter, try going over her head. (Although, frankly, managers shouldn’t need HR’s permission on this, and ideally could just leave HR out of it.)

To answer your question: Working from a remote site for whatever reason is perfectly legal. The law cares not one bit. The issue is an internal one with your company.

4. My partner’s last-minute work changes are wreaking havoc on my schedule

I work from a home office. My schedule has made it so that my SO can be as flexible as possible for his employer, given sufficient notice; his job involves travel and working from home at irregular intervals. I have a schedule that allows me the space and time to run my business and do elder care for his family and mine.

My SO’s employer (a large firm) has a reputation for being at least somewhat family-friendly, despite the nature of this job he does. My SO’s previous supervisor took family friendly policies seriously. My SO and I never once experienced a conflict under his leadership due to his behavior, and few things cropped up last moment.

The problem is his new supervisor, who has a management style best described as chaotic; everything is conflict-filled, urgent, and last moment and it’s causing interpersonal and scheduling difficulties between my SO and me. I did the best I could to work with this new management style and maintain my policy of never saying “no” to his professional obligations, no matter how they might impact my schedule. However, when I had to reschedule my own professional and personal obligations 10 times in the space of a month in order to support his career, I had a change of heart.

I’ve had as much as I will take of the near constant schedule changes, and my SO’s newly developed short temper, and I’m at a loss as to how to address this with him and his supervisor. How do I discuss this and bring matters about to a peaceful resolution?

You talk to him, and he talks to his manager. You shouldn’t be talking to the manager yourself, since it’s between him and your SO.

The subject line of your email to me was, “How much flexibility is too much to expect from an employee’s family?” But they’re not expecting anything from you; they deal with him, and they assume he will work out family issues himself (including speaking up if he’s being asked to do things he can’t do).

It sounds like you and he need to sit down and figure out how many last minute changes you’re willing and able to accommodate, and what kind of new boundaries you each need to draw (you with him, and him with his boss). Then he’ll need to have a conversation with his boss where he explains that because of elder care obligations, he can’t accommodate this much schedule chaos. Ideally he’d talk about how he and his former manager made it work, and see if the new manager is open to a similar set-up. But before that can happen, hash out how this will work between the two of you.

5. Client wants to make my freelance contract permanent — and I don’t want it

Recently, my long-term freelance contract came to an end. In order to make ends meet, I took up another freelance contract at a much lower rate, thinking I’ll look for something else in the interim. But it actually worked out well. The studio deals with a lot of confidential work that I’m not privy to, so I mostly help out on the overflow. My schedule is light, leaving me with time and energy to work on other contracts, as well as my long-running creative project.

They apparently liked my work, because now they’re offering a permanent position. I considered it initially, as I enjoy the work and the culture, but then I actually saw the offer. This role pays less than my freelance contract (though with benefits and leave), and I will be barred from working on outside projects. I know they don’t have much room in their budget for negotiation. As I’ll be involved in the confidential dealings, my workload will also increase significantly.

I’m definitely not going to accept this position, as it sounds like more stress at less pay. I just don’t know if there’s a way to let them down and go back to the way things were before. They presented it as a huge honor for a freelancer to be offered a permanent role, and I was also excited initially. They specifically asked me if I am dead-set on freelancing at the beginning and I said no, meaning I can’t use that excuse.

I realize I’ve been enjoying a very cushy position, but I do repeatedly hear how much my overflow work helps everyone stay on schedule with the important stuff. And of course, having this kind of steady income as a freelancer is a godsend. Can I still freelance with them without it being awkward? I feel like my friend-with-benefits suddenly wants to get married!

Absolutely, it’s really normal to consider an offer like this, decide it’s not for you, but stay on good terms and continue freelancing for the client. You can say something like, “I really appreciate you making this offer! I’ve run the numbers and it makes more financial sense for me to remain a freelancer, especially because of the bar on outside projects. But I really like working with you, and I’d love to just continue on with my freelance work for you if that still makes sense on your side.”

One thing to make sure you’re factoring in: It’s really normal for the position to pay less than you were earning as a freelancer, because as a freelancer you’re not getting benefits and you’re responsible for all your own payroll taxes. It sounds like there are other reasons this position wouldn’t be right for you, but I did want to flag that this piece of it is normal and expected.

my coworkers think I’m flirting with them

A reader writes:

I’m a young woman in the first few years of my career. I have a fairly bubbly personality, and pretty much all throughout my life, regular interactions with men seem to get misconstrued as being flirtatious. I’ve recently found out that two of my coworkers were planning to set me up with a colleague because they “could tell I was into him.” I’ve also had one male coworker ask me out after he “sensed we had a connection.”

In fact, I am a lesbian and nothing could be further from the truth! I’m incredibly embarrassed that my behavior has given my colleagues that impression. So my question is, how do I come across as being warm towards my colleagues without giving the impression of being flirtatious or romantically interested? I’d prefer not to disclose my sexuality to my workplace, but outside of that I’m having trouble figuring out how to alter my behavior in a way that doesn’t give anyone the wrong impression but also doesn’t come off as cold or inauthentic.

Ugh.

This may not be about anything you’re doing at all.

Some men are primed to assume that any friendly young woman is showing romantic interest in them, because they have their own incentives to see it in that light (sometimes it’s ego, sometimes it’s wishful thinking, sometimes it’s an inability to see woman as people rather than potential romantic/sexual partners). And some bystanders are primed to see romantic interest when you’re just being friendly, because they’ve mentally categorized you as “to be paired off.”

So it’s possible that it’s something you’re doing, but it’s really, really possible that this is just you being warm and friendly.

There are some behaviors that will feed into this, like physical contact (like a touch on the arm while you’re talking, hugging, etc.) or giving lots of personal compliments (“you’re so funny,” “your hair looks great,” etc.).

But usually when people have this problem, they’re not doing anything that’s causing it. You’re existing while being young and female.

One option, of course, is to pull back and be less warm and friendly at work. I don’t think you should have to do that. Warmth and friendliness are great qualities.

But that leaves you with having to get used to the “no thank you, I’m not interested in you like that” conversations that you’ll end up having a lot of, which also sucks — especially at work, where you then having to worry about whether the person is going to be weird around you after that (or worse). Because of that, some people will use “I don’t date coworkers,” which can work (but sometimes leaves you open to pushback, which is ridiculous).

There aren’t great options here, and I hate that. What do others think?

my employee gets drunk on business trips

A reader writes:

I need to know the proper way to handle the fact that one of our employees drinks at night while on the road with the crew. Our company pays for the hotel rooms and the guys bunk two to a room. We are getting complaints that one of the guys drinks every night and becomes loud and belligerent and it is difficult for the other employees to share a room with him.

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

Other questions I’m answering there today include:

  • My job offer was rescinded — after I quit my current job
  • An employee clique is causing problems
  • Are employee referrals effective?
  • I don’t want to share a spreadsheet that I created on my own initiative

my boss says I’m too much of an “open book” emotionally

A reader writes:

I work at a medium-sized pharmaceutical company. I have direct reports and also work with associates who don’t report to me, but carry out work I create.

I have had problems with Lola, a talented associate who can be (by many accounts) thin-skinned. She has a way of speaking as though she is telling me how to do my job and we just … clash. Recently, she emailed her manager, my manager (Lisa), and our HR partner (Kate) about an incident where she said I was disrespectful to her and she is now so anxious in any interaction with me that she no longer wants to work on my projects. She says I roll my eyes at her in meetings and treat her differently than I treat the other associates. Lisa told me about this. I feel terrible — I don’t want anyone to be afraid of talking to me. Lola was right, I didn’t handle that incident well.

Which brings me to a meeting with Lisa and Kate. Lisa said I am an open book emotions-wise and Lola says “people” are afraid to approach me. Lisa then said that I make a face when disagreeing with someone and that I do roll my eyes at Lola in meetings. I started to shake my head because I couldn’t remember having done that, and Lisa said I was making the face right then, shaking my head and not listening. Kate said maybe what Lisa was seeing wasn’t a conscious thing on my part, but emotions playing across my face. Lisa, in a very serious tone, told me to modulate my facial expressions going forward.

It’s true that I am an open book feelings-wise. When I’m mad, happy, sad, whatever, it shows. I’ve been this way my whole life. People have said they are afraid to approach me because I look intense. I’ve fought against this, tried to rein it in, develop more of a poker face, and it killed my self-esteem because nothing I did seemed to help. A few years ago, I stopped fighting against it since it wasn’t doing any good and decided to accept it. I even decided being an open book could have its good points — I can’t play games, so everyone knows exactly where I stand.

I want to work things out with Lola because it is true that I have been short with her. But I now feel like the problem is really more with Lisa. I’m scared that what she wants — for me to develop a poker face — is something I am not capable of doing. And if I can’t do it to her satisfaction, she won’t let me move up or, worse, she’ll get rid of me. Kate says HR can coach me on modulating my expressions, so I’ll try that, but I’ve been working on it so long anyway, how far am I likely to get in a time frame Lisa is happy with? I’ll ask what happens if I don’t modulate my expressions enough at my next meeting with Lisa.

Am I not cut out for this kind of management? My direct reports seem pretty happy and I have always gotten great reviews on my work output. Lisa is planning to ask Lola for names as to who else has complained and then she will see what they have to say about me. I agreed to that, but it feels like a witch hunt. I’m really worried (and it shows).

Well, if you’re rolling your eyes or looking pissed off, that is genuinely a problem. Those things are overtly hostile, and you can’t be overtly hostile to people at work.

Rolling your eyes at someone is dismissive and contemptuous. It’s not that different from saying out loud “I think you’re an idiot” or “what an asinine remark” or “I don’t respect you.” And you probably agree you can’t say those sorts of things to colleagues and still be thought of as professional or pleasant to work with, right? It’s not that different when you convey those things with your face.

(To be clear, I am not talking about Resting Bitch Face here — the expression your face has when it’s naturally at rest. I’m talking about eye rolls, grimaces, etc.)

Lisa wasn’t out of line to tell you that you need to modulate your facial expressions going forward. You’re communicating when you do things with your face. Obviously there’s some room for grey here — a slight frown might not be a big deal, but eye rolls in particular are always going to be over the line.

I don’t know specifically what you’ve tried in the past to have more of a poker face, but there are some good suggestions from commenters in this post.

One thing I’d recommend that you try with Lola in particular, since she clearly pushes your buttons, is to pretend she’s either (a) an obscenely wealthy patron who pays you enormous sums of money and who you have a vested incentive to be kind to or (b) your elderly grandmother who’s in difficult circumstances and who you have compassion for. Or if you have a loved one who you know can be difficult but who you’d want people to be kind to, (c) Lola is now that person in your head.

Similarly, are there any circumstances where you do manage to control the emotions on your face? Meeting a VIP? In a house of worship, if you’re religious? At a funeral? With a child? If there are times when you do manage to do it, you have the ability to do it. And I get that you might feel like it’s one thing to control your face for an hour, and an entirely different thing to have to do it 40 hours a week … but again, you can’t be sending off hostile signals at work. You just can’t. And frankly, that’s part of what you’re being paid for — to get along reasonably well with people even if you don’t like them, to be reasonably pleasant to work with, and to regulate what emotions you display.

You also asked if you’re not cut out for this kind of management, and the answer is that I don’t know! But I can tell you that if you really can’t control how your face reads, that’s almost certainly going to cause problems for the people you manage at some point. If you’re managing someone who isn’t the brightest, is your face going to show that you think that? In other situations, will your face show impatience, anger, disdain, annoyance? If so, yeah, those are going to be problems for people you have power over.

I don’t want to ignore the issue of you feeling like this is simply impossible for you, and how demoralizing it was when you tried and couldn’t do it in the past. I wonder if it’s something that cognitive behavioral therapy might help with — and if you haven’t tried that, it’s worth considering because I do think you’ll find there are massive advantages (both professional and personal) to not having your face broadcast what you’re thinking every minute.