The One Thing You Can Control at Work Is You – The New York Times

work Friend
Express yourself and your identity in a way that is comfortable to you — and do your best to ignore everything else.
Credit…Margeaux Walter for The New York Times
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Send questions about the office, money, careers and work-life balance to workfriend@nytimes.com. Include your name and location, or a request to remain anonymous. Letters may be edited.
I want my co-workers to know I’m gay, but I don’t want to actually come out to them. Any tips?
— Eden, Illinois
There are all kinds of subtle things you can do. If you’re in a relationship, make your partner’s pronouns clear in conversation. Put pictures of you and your partner or you and your super gay friends on your desk. Maybe put a rainbow flag somewhere visible in your workplace or a rainbow bumper sticker on your car. Talk about your favorite gay celebrities. I jest on that last one, but still, when in doubt, talk about Sarah Paulson or Lena Waithe or women’s sports for long enough and your co-workers will pick up what you’re putting down.
We telegraph who we are in many ways without explicitly explaining every aspect of our identities. Live your truth and the people in your life will figure it out.
I started a job at a streaming company and almost immediately felt friction and tension with my manager and co-workers, many of whom have worked together at various companies for around 20 years. Their way of working and doing things felt outdated and nonsensical to me. I questioned processes and policies and tried to make suggestions for ways we could improve. All my suggestions were immediately shut down, particularly with one co-worker. That co-worker has been at the company the longest and was immediately defensive. I also found out that she has criticized me to other co-workers. I feel like she has helped people form premature opinions about me that aren’t true of my character or represent my work. (I should also note this co-worker is a white woman, I am a Black woman, and her assistant, who is also a Black woman, has relayed to me the awful things she has said behind my back.)
Several other people have joined the company since I started, and also see the issues with this particular co-worker’s behavior. I have tried to discuss my concerns with her, and she either gaslights me or does not own up to the behaviors. I have also talked at length with our manager about this. Our manager sees my side and has apologized at length for this woman’s actions, but has not reprimanded her or removed her from the role.
How can I get this problematic co-worker to understand her behaviors are toxic? I know I can’t change people, so how can I also create boundaries between myself and this woman? How can I influence my boss to take serious action in this matter and cultivate a work environment where all people’s voices are heard and respected?
— Anonymous
You are asking a lot of questions here for which there aren’t satisfying answers. You want a toxic person to see the error of her ways, but if she were capable of doing so, she wouldn’t be so toxic. You want your new employee as an ally, so you have at least one person on your side. You want your boss to hear your concerns and act accordingly. You are clearly feeling isolated, which is understandable.
But what you’re asking is, “How do I control people, so they behave the way I want?” I’m afraid that isn’t possible even in situations where all you want is to be seen, heard and treated with respect. It is challenging to join a company where the employees have a longstanding bond. It doesn’t seem as if this group is particularly interested in welcoming new employees, which inherently creates tension.
It also seems as if you came into this organization and immediately began critiquing their processes without understanding the culture. That doesn’t justify this woman’s behavior by any means, but you may want to think through more effective ways to integrate with this new company. The only actions you can control are your own, so boundaries are, indeed, going to be your best defense. Limit your interactions with her. If she speaks to you disrespectfully, call her out on it and document it.
Develop a collegial relationship with your new employee. You don’t need to get her to understand your co-worker’s toxicity. I am quite certain that is self-evident. Play chess, not checkers. Your co-worker is an obstacle you need to work around until you find a way to get past her. I hope you and your new colleagues can develop a more frictionless working relationship. Toxic workplace cultures are untenable. You deserve better.
When I started my job, my team was still working remotely; this changed about three months ago, when we returned to the office on a hybrid schedule. While I have enjoyed getting to connect with my colleagues, I’ve been uncomfortable with one co-worker who got very personal very fast. This person has been quick to unload several details about a complicated personal life, including details on marriage, a turbulent childhood, and a mix of professional and financial woes.
I try to listen sympathetically and offer encouragement or support when appropriate. But there have been many days where I’m not in a head space to receive someone else’s trauma — and yet, this co-worker seems to have no issue with sharing so much negative information. I tense when this co-worker walks into my office or stops to join a conversation. I don’t want to be rude or dismissive, but I don’t want to constantly hear about these personal problems. Is there a way to bring this up in a manner that does not negatively affect our working relationship? We’re on a small team and we will have to collaborate on projects in the future.
— Anonymous
I receive so many letters about oversharing. Clearly a lot of our colleagues do not have enough confidants in their lives because they share all their emotional burdens with their co-workers. It’s certainly troubling that so many people are in pain, living complicated lives without the support they need. You can empathize while enforcing your boundaries. If you don’t want to hear about your co-worker’s litany of personal problems, you will have to do the uncomfortable thing and tell them, gently if you can.
It isn’t rude or dismissive to opt out of carrying someone else’s trauma in addition to your own. Tell them you enjoy working with them, but you’ve got a lot going on in your own life and don’t have the emotional bandwidth to offer them the support they need. If there is employee assistance, perhaps mention that or resources like the many tele-therapy options available. In an ideal world, you should be able to establish this reasonable boundary without negatively affecting your working relationship, but there is no guarantee and that’s OK.
When quitting a job, it is customary to give two weeks’ notice. What about retirement? What is the customary amount of time to give for that milestone considering that the circumstances are much different. I see on my company’s website that it recommends two months minimum. Are there other considerations?
— Brendan, New York
You are required only to give two weeks’ notice, but most companies prefer more time to prepare for an employee’s retirement. Two months seems to be the ideal time frame for many organizations. It will allow your company to find someone to fill your role upon your departure and make other necessary preparations. The most important thing you can do, beyond giving the proper notice, is to participate in the transitioning of your duties to whomever will be assuming your responsibilities.
How you leave an organization is how you will be remembered. If you have a fraught relationship with your job, you may be tempted to burn it all down on the way out and who am I to object? But if you have a strong, positive relationship with your employer, plan a productive transition that reminds the organization what they’re losing while making a good impression. If you want to leave the door open for consulting or part-time work upon retirement, make that known so you will be actively considered when the time comes. If you have any vacation or sick leave coming to you, ensure that it is paid out properly. Figure out how to transition your benefits, whether it is rolling a retirement fund over, or enrolling in COBRA health insurance coverage if you are younger than 65. Prepare for any exit interviews or retirement contracts you might be expected to sign.
On a more personal level, during the last week or two, say your goodbyes to those colleagues with whom you had strong professional or personal relationships and exchange contact information with those you want to stay in touch with. If you have external clients, let them know you’re leaving and offer any information they will need about whom they will be working with in the future. When all is said and done, enjoy your retirement. Embrace the new reality of your time being your own because you’ve certainly earned it. Congratulations.
Roxane Gay is the author, most recently, of “Hunger” and a contributing opinion writer. Write to her at workfriend@nytimes.com.
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