For the past 11 years, I’ve been running Ask a Manager, a workplace advice column where I answer questions on everything from what to say if you’re allergic to your boss’s perfume to how to recover if you drank too much at the company party. Think old-school agony aunt, but updated for the modern workplace.
When I started the site a decade ago, I figured that I’d mainly be advising folks on things like how to ask for a raise or how to deal with a micromanaging boss. I definitely get my share of those, but the most interesting—and most fun—part of my work has been the window onto human nature it provides. Work throws us together with such a wide range of people, people we might not choose to spend time with otherwise. It’s a recipe for some fascinating interpersonal issues.
One thing that is a constant is an aversion to conflict. A lot of the people who write to me are asking, in essence, “How do I get my colleague or my manager to change what they’re doing, without me having to have an awkward conversation with them about it?” Unfortunately, there’s no magic wand that will let you do that. The good news, though, is that confrontation doesn’t have to be unbearably uncomfortable or awkward. There are ways to be direct without being rude and to be assertive without being disagreeable, and I try to help people figure out how to do that.
Of course, sometimes you’re dealing with a situation that’s just so bizarre that a single conversation isn’t going to fix it. A sampling of letters about these sorts of situations is below.
An employee is putting magic curses on her coworkers
A reader writes:
I’ve recently been contacted by a supervisor in our company who has heard that one of his subordinates has been regularly “cursing” both him and his daughter (who also works for our company). By “cursing,” I don’t mean using foul language. I mean she considers herself something of a witch and has been literally putting curses on these people.
These people don’t generally put much stock in that sort of thing, but they are starting to get scared to work with this woman (especially the daughter). Not exactly sure how to approach the “witch” … suggestions?
I wrote back and asked for more details, because how could you not?
The additional information:
I work in HR for a school division. The problem is happening at one of my schools. There are four cleaning staff working at one school: the head janitor (Jeff), the assistant head janitor (Mandy), and two cleaners (Whitney and Roberta). Roberta is leaving, and I met with her today for an exit interview.
Mandy has, for whatever reasons, decided that she hates Jeff and Whitney. So she is bad-mouthing them to staff, bullying Roberta into “joining her” in her hatred and maligning them to other staff. That, I can deal with. It has happened before and I have learned how to deal with workplace bullies and insecure people who feel the need to undermine the reputations of their peers in order to make themselves look better.
What I’m concerned about, and what was confirmed by Roberta during our interview, is this “curse.” My information is that Mandy said something along these lines: “When people make me angry, or cross me, I don’t worry because I have ways to get rid of them. And I’ve cursed them. I have a place in my house with candles and other items and I know how to do that.”
Jeff is thinking it is just silly, but Whitney is absolutely terrified. She’s looking up ways to ward off curses online and starting to consider going on sick leave because she is afraid to work with this woman. (To make it worse, both Jeff and Whitney got really sick and missed almost a full week of work, approximately two weeks after Roberta said that Mandy “cursed” them, which adds to her fear!)
To me, regardless of whether or not she is Wiccan or a witch or practices voodoo or whatever she does, this is a bona fide threat against another employee. I honestly want to treat this pretty seriously, separate from the bullying issue. Thoughts?
My coworker wants us to call her boyfriend her “master”
I gasped out loud when I received this letter, and so will you.
A reader writes:
A few months after she started, she got a new boyfriend, “Peter.” (I found out about this through normal watercooler-type conversation.)
After she’d been with the company a few more months, at Christmastime of 2015, she invited her boyfriend to our holiday party. (This is totally normal in our workplace; people are welcome to bring any family or friends they like to the party as long as they RSVP.) Everything there seemed fine as well, although at one point Peter asked Sally to get him a drink, to which she replied, “Yes, master!” in a very I Dream of Jeannie kind of way. We all laughed it off as a joke, and it didn’t come up again.
… Until it did. We had a party in late May that Sally and Peter both attended (again, bringing SOs and friends was totally acceptable, so that was not in itself a problem). At this party, there was a good deal more of Peter ordering Sally around and Sally calling him “master”: He sent her to fetch drinks and hot dogs, he told her to find a place for them to sit, etc., to which she replied consistently with “Yes, master.” It made a number of people, myself included, clearly uncomfortable, but there was nothing objectively abusive about it (he never yelled at her or threatened her), and her immediate supervisor and her supervisor’s supervisor weren’t there, and so no one said anything (perhaps incorrectly?).
After the party, at the office, I overheard a conversation in which one of her coworker friends was like, “So uh, what’s up with the master thing?” and she explained that she was in a 24/7 dominant/submissive relationship, and he wasn’t her boyfriend or her SO or her partner, he was her “master,” and needed to be referred to as such. Her coworker was clearly flummoxed and didn’t have much response to that.
Later, I heard her correct someone who referred to her boyfriend as her boyfriend/partner, saying that he wasn’t her partner, he was her master, and should be referred to using his appropriate title. She compared it to gay rights, saying that if she was a man, they wouldn’t erase her relationship by referring to “Peter” as “Patricia,” and so they shouldn’t erase the D/S relationship by calling him a partner instead of a master. It’s pretty clear that her coworkers aren’t comfortable asking her “Will your master be at the end-of-summer barbecue?” or “Did you and your master do anything fun this weekend?” and thus have just stopped referring to Peter at all.
Her direct boss, my colleague, is baffled as to how to sensitively address this issue. My instinct is that there’s a very big difference between insisting that colleagues acknowledge that you’re in a gay relationship and insisting that they refer to your partner as “your master,” and that it borders on involving other non-consenting parties into your relationship … but I can’t really articulate why. For what it’s worth, I am a bisexual woman, and our office has a number of gay/lesbian, trans, and poly individuals, so it’s not an issue of being against nontraditional relationships. It just seems to be very important to Sally that Peter be referred to as “her master,” and it seems equally clear that her coworkers find this intensely uncomfortable.
Help? How can I advise my colleague? What’s reasonable in this situation?
I walked in on employees having sex—and I think there’s a sex club in my office
A reader writes:
I am the manager of a customer service team of about 10 to 12 members. Most of the team members are right out of school and this is their first professional job, and their ages range from 22 to 24. I am about 10 years older than all of my employees. We have a great team and great working relationships. They all do great work and we have established a great team culture.
Well, a couple of months ago, I noticed something odd that my team (and other employees in the building) started doing. They would see each other in the hallways or break room and say “quack quack,” like a duck. I assumed this was an inside joke and thought nothing of it and wrote it off as playful silliness, or thought I perhaps missed a moment in a recent movie or TV show to which the quacks were referring.
Fast-forward a few months. I needed to do some printing and our printer is in a room that can be locked by anyone when it is in use. (Our team often has large volumes of printing they need to do and it helps to be able to sort things in there by yourself, as multiple people can get their pages mixed up and it turns into a mess.) The door had been locked the entire day and this was around noon, and the manager I have the key to the door in case someone forgot to unlock it when they left. I walked in, and there were two of my employees on the couch in the copier room having sex. I immediately closed the door and left.
This was last week, and as you can imagine things are very awkward between the three of us. I haven’t addressed the situation yet because of a few factors: this was during both of their lunch hours. They were not doing this on the clock. (They had both clocked out—I immediately checked.) We have an understanding that you can go or do anything on your lunch that you want, as long as you’re back after an hour. Also, as you mentioned in your answer last week to the person who overheard their coworker involved in “adult activities,” these people are adults and old enough to make their own choices.
But that’s not the end of the story. That same day, after my team had left, I was wrapping up and putting a meeting agenda on each of their desks for our meeting the next day. Out in broad daylight on the guy’s desk (one of the employees I had caught in the printing room) was a piece of paper at the top that said “Duck Club.” Underneath it, it had a list of locations of places in and around the office followed by “points”: 25 points—president’s desk; 10 points—car in the parking lot; 20 points—copier room, etc.
So here is my theory about what is going on (and I think I am right). This “Duck Club” is a club of people at work who get “points” for having sex in these locations around the office. I think that is also where the quacking comes into play. Perhaps this is some weird mating call between members to let them know they want to get some “points” with the other person, and if they quack back, they meet up somewhere to “score.” The two I caught in the copier room I have heard “quacking” before.
I know this is all extremely weird. I wasn’t even sure I wanted to write you because of how weird this seems (plus, I was a little embarrassed). I have no idea what to do. As I mentioned above, they weren’t on the clock when this happened, they’re all adults, and technically I broke a rule by entering the copier room when it was locked, and would have never caught them if I had obeyed that rule. The only company rule I can think of that these two broke is using the copier room for other purposes, preventing someone else from using it.
I would love to know your opinion on this. I tend to want to sweep it under the rug because I’m kind of a shy person and would be extremely embarrassed to bring it up.
A coworker stole my spicy food, got sick, and is blaming me
A reader writes:
We have a fridge at work. Up to this point, nothing I had in it was stolen. (I am quite new, and others have told me that this was a problem.)
My food is always really, really spicy. I just love it that way. Anyway, I was sitting at my desk when my coworker came running out, having a hard time breathing. He then ran into the bathroom and started being sick. Turns out he ate my clearly labeled lunch. (It also was in a cooler lunch box to keep it cold from work to home, as it’s a long drive.) There was nothing different about my lunch that day. In fact, it was just the leftovers from my dinner the night before.
Fast-forward a day and my boss comes in asking if I tried to poison this person. Of course I denied that I had done so. I even took out my current day’s lunch and let my boss taste a bit. (He was blown away by how spicy it was, even though he only took a small bite.) I then proceeded to eat several spoonfuls to prove I could eat it with no problem. He said not to worry, and that it was clear to him that I didn’t mean any harm, my coworker shouldn’t have been eating my food, etc, etc. I thought the issue was over.
A week later, I got called up to HR for an investigation, claiming that I did in fact try to do harm to this person, and this investigation is still ongoing. What confuses me is there was nothing said about this guy trying to steal my lunch. When I brought it up, they said something along the lines of, “We cannot prove he stole anything.” I am confused at this. I thought the proof would be clear.
My boss is on my side, but HR seem to be trying to string me up. Their behavior is quite aggressive. Even if my boss backs me up, they just ignore everything he says. (As in, he would say, “That’s clearly not the case,” and the HR lady wouldn’t even look in his direction and continued talking.)
On top of this, HR claims that it would be well within said coworker’s rights to try and sue me. The way it was said seemed to suggest that they suggested this to him as a course of action.
How can someone be caught stealing my lunch and then turn around and say I was in the wrong? I don’t understand it at all! I don’t know what to do. I am afraid that I will lose my job over this. Is there any advice you can give me?
A candidate sent me a framed photo of himself
Aggggh! A commenter on a recent post about not sending fruit baskets to your interviewer tops that with her own account involving A FRAMED PHOTO. She writes:
I returned to my office one afternoon to find a beautiful gift bag on my desk. I thought that maybe it was from a secret admirer or an early birthday present.
Inside I found a folder, a card, something wrapped in tissue, and a large, round tin.
Inside the folder was a multipage resume on very thick, expensive paper. Inside the tin was a cake. The card included a handwritten note saying that he thought he was the perfect candidate for the job and somehow used the word “cake” in a pun. And inside the tissue paper? A framed color photo of the candidate. Think glamour shot in a suit and tie.
I was so incredibly creeped out by this gesture. I didn’t know whether to laugh or execute a restraining order. I was afraid to eat the cake and couldn’t look at him and didn’t even call him for an interview.
A framed photo! To display on one’s desk?! What is the thinking here?
(Actually, I will tell you what the thinking is here: it’s caused by the charlatans of the job-search advice world, telling people they need to “stand out” and be “memorable.”)
An employee won’t stop hugging people
A reader writes:
What is considered excessive when it comes to friendly displays of affection in the workplace?
We have a gregarious female employee who regularly solicits hugs from people—not from other employees, but from outside frequent visitors and volunteers who come into the office.
One part of this employee’s job is to greet people when they come in through our front entrance to the building. We’re a small nonprofit organization, open to the public. She’s not exactly a receptionist, but she is usually the closest to the front when someone comes in. Most often, this happens when someone first arrives, usually with people she knows but hasn’t seen in several days. But I have also seen her approach a visiting guest speaker who she had never met before with a hug, so I was a bit surprised by that. She also approaches certain volunteers like this, even though they are in on a more frequent basis. I can’t always tell if the volunteers are receptive to this, or if they are just not saying anything.
These are not simple, polite hugs of greeting but rather overly demonstrative productions. She also does it in a way that draws a lot of attention to herself—for example, she’ll sometimes go for a longer-than-necessary, full-body hug. I’m not sure how else to describe it. She has a naturally loud voice, so even if I’m in another room, I can usually overhear the accompanying expressions. She’ll loudly announce how good it feels to be hugged. It just seems overly self-indulgent and unnecessary. I’m not trying to be judgmental, but I know that others have expressed discomfort with it.
Some people have directly told her that they do not hug, but others seem to tolerate or accept it, while others seem completely fine with it and seem to like the attention. At least one volunteer, who is retired from the insurance industry and has worked with personnel training, has complained to me that she finds this very unprofessional.
She uses the excuse that she came from a family that encouraged this behavior, which is fine, but I suspect it has more to do with a highly demanding personal need for attention on her part. While I have nothing at all against people hugging one another in general, the atmosphere that she brings with it is that it’s almost like a form of therapy for her, and I don’t think this is the place for that.
I will have to do a performance review with her in the future and would like to address the topic of professional conduct in the workplace, delineating that what is fine at home is not always fine at work. She is older than I am, so it’s not as though she’s young and naive. Our personnel policy is currently under review. Is there anything that we should have specifically written into the policy to deal with such situations as this? We have an attorney on the committee, so that should cover any legal questions.
But beyond legal concerns, does this sound like something that could potentially veer into sticky social situations that could be prevented with well-written policy? I intend to give this employee a clear recommendation that she scale it back significantly. Many people stop into our office occasionally, and occasionally quick and light hugs of greeting are politely exchanged (not a regular occurrence, but it happens), so it’s not a totally foreign behavior. But where is the line, exactly, in something like this?