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Work It Out 

Wednesday, Aug 13 2003
Dear Social Grace,

Almost two months ago I was promoted to supervisor of [my company's] accounting department. While I was being trained for my new position, I had to train the person who would be taking over my old position. This woman is a good worker, but she's a little bit ... slow. I was very patient with her training, gave her notes to refer to, was super-nice to her, and let her know that she could come to me for help. Only now, it seems to have backfired. She keeps calling me every 10 minutes -- most of it has nothing to do with work. And even when it is about work, I get frustrated with her. She stretches her lips with her fingers and sticks out her tongue; she follows me around everywhere; and I can't go to the restroom, to other offices, or have lunch without her following me. Every time I turn around she's there. It's really annoying.

When she works an evening that I don't, she'll call me at home and tell me I need to come in to help her, or talk to me about some song the work radio is playing. I don't know how to handle this. I can't be angry with her because you just can't do that to someone who is like her. I can't complain about her because everyone will think I'm being insensitive.

I've tried telling her not to do some of those things -- that she has to give me a chance to do my work, and to not stick her tongue out because it's not professional, but I must not be saying it right, and I don't want to hurt her feelings. And I don't want to start any problems at work because I have a great working relationship with [other] co-workers, and even good friendships outside of work with some (which is probably what gave her the idea that we could be friends, but I'm friendly with them in a way I'm not with her, and they're all twentysomething like me and don't make me feel weird). So how do you tell someone like her to lay off and stick to work-related problems and questions in a polite and civil way that she'll understand? Should I just wait it out and hope that she quits, or just find another job?

New to Being the Boss

Dear Recently Promoted Madam or Sir,

Your letter highlights a potential trap of the informal office: Because some companies encourage their staff members to think of one another as friends, some workers are having a hard time distinguishing between professional relationships and social ones. Following my advice might make your workday a little less fun (although no less satisfying, I hope) -- but you should consider making a firmer distinction (with all your co-workers) between your friends and your colleagues. A good boss should be polite, understanding, and thoughtful, yes, but also stern and no-nonsense when the occasion calls for it.

You may have to repeat yourself several times. When this woman phones you to discuss something social, give her a lecture about getting her job done. When she calls you at home to discuss pop music, remind her that personal calls are inappropriate during her shift. If she isn't doing her job as expected, tell her so in straightforward terms and take appropriate action. Your company likely has an official warning system in place for employees who don't meet expectations. Take advantage of it. Never "complain" about people you supervise, but do discipline them if they are not doing their jobs as required.

If you continually make it clear that your relationship is professional, not social, this woman should eventually learn to see you that way -- even if you have to tell her in a straightforward way that you must keep your workplace interactions centered on workplace matters. And if you keep your friendships with particular co-workers more firmly outside the office, she won't see you behaving in an unprofessional way with others (it might seem unfair to this woman that her supervisor is friendly with some employees but not with her). All that said, if you're having trouble managing this employee, ask your manager, or maybe someone in your company's personnel department, for advice.

Dear Social Grace,

I am 38 years old and have worked in the construction and bartending fields for most of my life. The construction company I work for knows I'm gay and it has never been a problem. The difficulty is a new worker. He is a born-again Christian. Although I respect his religious beliefs, he speaks ill of me behind my back for being gay. The bosses on the construction site want me to take him as a part of my crew. I don't want the man to lose his job; however, is it correct for me to curtail my behavior for one employee? If he can (and does) cruise women on the job site (saying how "hot" they are), is it wrong for me to do the same? Looking at men? (Because of course I look, especially in the summertime.)

I have been out since I was 17, and I have been lucky enough to be well accepted. I don't know how to handle this one!

Regards and blessings,


Dear Stear,

Regardless of sexual orientation, making suggestive comments about a stranger's looks (or actively "cruising" while working) is impolite -- and unprofessional -- behavior. It's really none of our business what you're thinking as we, the general public, walk by your construction site in our San Francisco summer woolens, but I'd suggest that you make sure your actions are above reproach. I hope you're keeping your comments to yourself.

That's because if you are, it's easier for you to speak to your bosses about your co-worker's inappropriate behavior vis-à-vis innocent female passers-by. What if a lady out for a stroll should hear such comments? And what if she just happened to be looking for a construction firm to handle a big-money project? Anyway, legally speaking, that kind of talk makes for a hostile work environment for women employees, so your company should definitely put a stop to it.

You certainly shouldn't have to go out of your way to hide your sexuality, nor should you have to change normal workplace behavior to suit one co-worker's religious beliefs (for example, if the topic of significant others or of weekend plans arises in a casual conversation). However, I don't think work is the place for a lot of sex talk. In many situations, it's just too risky.

You're wise to continue handling yourself in the most professional manner possible. The hypocrisy of a self-described Christian who makes lewd comments about passing gals and speaks ill of an industrious co-worker will, I trust, become apparent to your managers in short order.

Dear Social Grace,

A classmate of mine recently brought his dog over to my place for a visit. "Chewy" promptly sniffed out my laundry, picked up a pair of unwashed briefs in his mouth, and began running around the house with them, panting, snorting, and drooling. Whose job is it to retrieve my undies -- my friend's because Chewy is his dog, or mine because they're my undies?


Dear Commando,

So is the dog still running around your home with your briefs in his mouth? I'm flattered that you turned to me with your dilemma, but really -- sometimes there just isn't time to contact the etiquette authorities. I'd expect two people to respond to something like this with an immediate, cooperative effort: Your classmate should control his dog while you retrieve your dirty laundry; then you should both apologize for any embarrassment the circumstances may have caused.

About The Author

Social Grace


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