coworker is posting about being “the other woman,” I cried when my coworkers gave me a birthday cake, and more — Ask a Manager

I’m on vacation. Here are some past letters that I’m making new again, rather than leaving them to wilt in the archives.

1. I dated a coworker, and another coworker is posting about being “the other woman”

I starting dating someone I work with over a year ago. There’s a woman who also works with us from time to time who has shown obvious interest in him. I should point out that she used to work at my location full-time, but has since moved to an on-call position. She texts him frequently and brings him coffee. Despite vocalizing my frustrations to him numerous times, it still seems that they have some sort of relationship. I recently broke it off with him, and her social media behavior before and after my breaking up with him has been questionable. She keeps posting about “being the other woman” and things like that. I don’t want this to affect my work because, relationships aside, I really love what I do. How do I handle the passive aggressive behavior and the fact that I still work with my ex?

Impeccable professionalism. She’s doing the opposite of that with her “other woman” posts. You can stay above any fray by treating her and your ex with perfect professionalism. Be utterly civil and polite. There’s no need to call either of them out on what’s going on and you no longer have reason to be invested in anything either of them might be doing, so just aim to be pleasantly detached. Anyone watching this play out will see you behaving perfectly, and that can be deeply satisfying when there’s drama around an ex.


2. I cried when my coworkers gave me a birthday cake

I had a crying meltdown at work and it was so bad that I had to go home, and I still felt like crying the next day and even now when I think about what happened. I didn’t cry because anything bad happened. I cried because my coworkers and boss got me a birthday cake and a card. You see, I was in the foster care system as a ward from my birth til I turned 18. I lived in 27 different homes and I don’t have a family or anyone who adopted me.

I never had a birthday cake or celebration. No one said happy birthday or sang to me or did anything for it ever. So when it happened, I was just so happy and surprised that I couldn’t help it.

I don’t know what I should say to my coworkers and boss. I am really thankful for them surprising me and doing something for my birthday. Someone told me they do a birthday celebration once a month and that month mine was the only birthday. I don’t want them to think I am upset or unbalanced. I want to have a good relationship with everyone here. They were nice enough to give me a chance when I never worked before and am still working on my GED. How can I explain to them why I had such an emotional reaction without looking stupid? None of them know that I was the first time anyone celebrated my birthday.

Oh my goodness, of course you had an emotional reaction! Anyone who knew what you explained here would understand in a second why you reacted the way you did. (I’m having an emotional reaction.)

Are you willing to share that with them? You certainly don’t have to — you have every right to keep your history private if you prefer to — but if it is something that you were comfortable sharing, I think it would really move people and make them feel really great about having been able to do that for you (and it would make your response make perfect sense).

If you’d rather not, that’s fine too! In that case, you could say something like, “Hey, excuse my emotional reaction to the cake the other day — I was having an oddly emotional day!” Say it breezily, and I doubt anyone will dwell on it.

And happy birthday!


3. Does “I don’t understand why we’re doing X” really mean “I don’t like that we’re doing X?”

Is it commonly known that saying “I don’t understand why we’re doing X” actually means “I don’t *like* that we’re doing X,” or is that just someone being passive aggressive?

Some context: I manage a lot of process improvement, and when we’re rolling out a New Thing to employees, I often hear “I don’t understand why we need New Thing.” I usually assume they are asking for clarification, because they *want* to understand. So I’ll try to be helpful and explain the problem we’re trying to solve, or why we decided to do X instead of Y, and they just repeat “yeah but I don’t *understand* why we’re doing that.” Sometimes I even try to explain again, being careful to be more clear or use better examples or whatever. But then I realize that they don’t really want to *understand*. They just don’t want New Thing to happen at all, but they don’t want to say “I don’t like the way that we’re doing this New Thing.”

It’s happened enough that I have to wonder if the problem is me; I’m a pretty direct person and also not great with subtext, so this might legitimately be one of those subtle social cues that most people understand but that I’ve never been great at picking up on.

Yeah, “I don’t understand why we’re doing X” often does mean “I don’t like that we’re doing X and don’t understand why someone thinks it’s a good idea.”

Not always. Sometimes it genuinely means ““I don’t understand why we’re doing X and would like to — can you explain it to me?” Often you can tell the difference by the tone the person is using, or by the rest of the conversation. (If you explain exactly why you’re doing X and the person is still saying they “yeah, but I don’t understand why,” there’s a decent chance that they mean “that reason doesn’t make up for my dislike of this change.”)

In some cases, you can say, “It sounds like you’re saying you have concerns about the change. Do you want to tell me what your concerns are, and I can make sure we’re trying to account for them in our planning?”

But this is a big thing when you’re working on process improvement; it’s not uncommon to get a lot of push-back. Sometimes that’s based on general dislike of change, but sometimes it’s based on legitimate and important concerns. So in most cases, it’s worth drawing people out about what their concerns are; you may not be able to change things to please them, but sometimes you’ll get crucial perspectives you wouldn’t have otherwise had. Plus, change usually goes down better when people feel they’ve had an opportunity to give feedback and truly been heard.


4. Paging a coworker with his first, middle, and last names

We have a paging system at work that we constantly use to page coworkers to locate them on the floor. I recently paged a coworker by his full name — first, middle and last. I then got in trouble with my manager and was told it was unprofessional. The reason we know his middle name is because he has told us. I was really confused when I was told not to do it and got reprimanded. Can you shed some light on this for me?

I’m guessing your manager assumed you were joking around (since that’s what it sounds like to me), and doesn’t want the paging system used for mirth.


5. People are stealing my pens!

I’m fairly new to my job, and if I’m being honest with myself regarding my situation, one of the lowest on the totem pole at my workplace. It’s not an ideal position for me, but I’m trying to make the best of it.

One of the things that I’ve found makes my work far more enjoyable is using pens that I like, i.e. nice gel pens (not fountain pens or Mont Blancs or anything crazy). I buy these personally, and have never asked a workplace to supply them for me, it’s just something I invest in for myself. I’m a fairly conscientious person and take good care of my belongings, so it’s worth the expense to have a decent writing instrument handy.

The problem is that I’m not the only person around here who enjoys good pens. I just had two walk off — one my direct supervisor borrowed and never returned, but for diplomatic reasons I was willing to let that one go. But today I saw one around the work ID lanyard of a coworker that definitely was just taken off my desk. (Yes, the pens are distinctive enough that the chance is very remote that he would suddenly have the same one right when mine disappeared). How would you recommend addressing this for the future? Should I invest in the pen equivalent of a locked lunchbox? 🙂

People are so used to thinking of non-Mont-Blanc-quality pens as communal office property that you’re going to have an uphill battle with this one, but I’d at least try keeping them in your desk rather than on your desk. It’s rarer for people to open someone’s desk and take things out of it.

And if you happen to spot one with someone else, exclaim with the same pleasure you’d use upon spotting your lost dog, “My pen!” And then reclaim it.


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