By Jolie Kerr
The New York Times
From Our NYT Files: Work Is Weird. Alison Green of Ask a Manager Can Help.
Humans are odd in so many different ways, and no place brings that out more than the office. Here’s how to deal with the routine strangeness of desk jobs. When Alison Green started handing out workplace advice in 2007, she expected to focus on what she thought of as typical problems, like dealing with a micromanaging boss or landing more job interviews. Eleven years later, having spun her blog Ask a Manager into regular columns (for New York magazine, Inc. and Slate), a podcast and now a book (“Ask a Manager: Clueless Colleagues, Lunch-Stealing Bosses, and the Rest of Your Life at Work”), Ms. Green’s view of her job is fairly different. “What people really want advice on,” Ms. Green said, “is the interpersonal weirdness that comes with having a job.” Weirdness like “our receptionist won’t stop hugging people” and “my boss is dating my dad” and that old classic: “I punched a co-worker at the company Christmas party.” “Work throws us together with people we might not normally choose to hang out with,” she said. “Add in the pressure that people often feel to preserve harmony because of the power dynamics from office hierarchies, and things can get very, very weird.” Ms. Green shared some lessons she’s learned from over a decade of giving advice and offered tips for navigating the good, the bad and the gross at work.
There are things you can change — and some you can’t.
“Get really clear in your own head about what the impact of the weirdness is on you, your team or the organization,” Ms. Green advised. “It might be something that ultimately doesn’t really matter that much. People have quirks, and that’s okay. But if it’s something that’s affecting you or the organization’s work and you want to try to address it, you’re going to have to talk to someone.” When the office culture is part of the problem, start by having a conversation with your manager. Discomfort in the workplace is harder to fix and “sometimes ends with you needing to decide if you want to stay in the job, knowing that whatever is bugging you is unlikely to change. But not always! Sometimes conversations about big issues lead to real change.”
Identify and speak up about the issues that are important to you.
“Be brutally honest with yourself about what matters to you and how much, and about what you can and can’t change,” Ms. Green said. “You can’t make good decisions for yourself without first coming to terms with those things.” This is true, she noted, not just in the workplace but also in so many other aspects of life, and keeping your feelings private can hold you back socially and professionally. “A theme I’ve seen over and over again is that people end up significantly less happy at work because they’re hesitant to speak up about what’s important to them,” she said. “They worry that they’ll cause drama — and so they stay quiet about everything from minor but still-annoying stuff like ‘my co-worker takes all his calls on speakerphone’ to really serious issues like ‘I’m not getting paid the salary we agreed to.’”
And when doing that, have a direct, neutral tone.
“A huge number of the questions I receive boil down to some version of ‘someone I work with is doing something that annoys or upsets me, but I’m afraid it will go badly if I address it with them,’” Ms. Green said. “Sometimes that fear is well-founded, like with a manager who has a track record of responding defensively, but other times that fear is more about the person’s own discomfort with the conversation.” She recommended approaching the person you have an issue with directly and using a neutral tone. “If you’re matter-of-fact about it, it’s less likely to become a big awkward ordeal.”
Even if the problem isn’t solved, it’s still a learning experience.
Sometimes “someone says ‘I had the awkward conversation, but things didn’t really change.’ But even then, you’re better off than you were before, because now you have additional data about your situation,” Ms. Green said. “Knowing that things aren’t likely to change means you can make better decisions for yourself.”
There’s not much you can do about a bad boss (but you can try).
Things become dicier when the person you need to be direct and assertive with is your manager. If the issue is an interpersonal conflict or discomfort with their management style, Ms. Green suggested that you can open a dialogue with your boss, “but beyond that, there often isn’t much you can do — and you might need to decide if you want the job knowing that this is part of the package.” If the issue is more serious, i.e. something illegal or unethical, “you have more recourse and can go over their head, either to their boss or to H.R., depending on how your company is set up and the nature of the problem.”
Office fridges are universally disgusting.
Ms. Green likens the phenomenon of the office fridge to Garrett Hardin’s 1968 essay “The Tragedy of the Commons,” which postulates that individuals will act in their own self-interest when it comes to shared resources, rather than in the interest of maintaining the shared resource. Her solution to this problem is to “make it part of someone’s job to clean it out every week. If you don’t have a policy of tossing everything every Friday it will quickly get taken over by months-old Tupperware containers of moldy leftovers.” While that may be dispiriting, Green exhorts you to “be ruthless! People are gross.”
Also: Offices are really, really smelly places in general.
The one thing Ms. Green gets a surprising number of letters about? Gassy co-workers. “I have no good solution for that one,” she said, “or maybe I’m just too squeamish to take it on.”