Work Place (In)Appropriate

A close friend of mine recently shared a story about a rude coworker of hers. I want to share it today because I think it’s important for us as young professionals to consider how we come across in the workplace, and think about not only our words, but our body language and actions, too.

To give you a back story, the coworker and my friend are collaborating on a project together that pretty much… doesn’t have an end date. They are the only two people in their office trained to do a specific set of tasks, so, in short, they’re stuck with each other.

My friend (I’ll call her Lucy) explained that she was confronted by this coworker (I’ll call her Janet) in front of the entire office in a condescending and inappropriate way.

I won’t get into all the details, but basically Janet walked over to Lucy’s desk uninvited, and proceeded to chide her on her work ethic. “I am always responsible and take initiative,” Janet said, “and you and I are just, well… very different.”

Ouch. Talk about taking a stab at someone’s character. (The conversation goes on, but, you probably get the picture.)

You can probably guess that my friend was pretty hurt by this exchange. Mind you, my friend is not the type to be called irresponsible or lacking initiative. She is quite the opposite of these things. She’s headstrong, and stubborn. Always on time and if she’s running 3 minutes behind, she’ll let you know. She is a go-getter, a plan maker.

What her coworker was insinuating? It just wasn’t true of Lucy.

I’m not here to berate Janet, or make her sorry for the way she handled the above situation. Of course I want to stick up for my friend, but even that is not the point. The point is, what is appropriate in the workplace? How would you handle a problem you have with a coworker you’re stuck working with?

Here’s what I personally found inappropriate about Janet and Lucy’s conversation, along with my take on what I think is a better way to handle it. (Mind you, I wasn’t there, so I’m basing this purely off of what my friend told me and I understand that I come with the “friend bias.”)

1) Janet doesn’t request a private meeting with Lucy, she just approaches her. If Janet has a problem with Lucy and the way that they work together, she should schedule a meeting with Lucy where the two of them can talk in private and professionally hash out their differences and come up with an amicable solution. Berating a coworker in front of the entire office is inappropriate and in bad taste. On top of that? I think it exhibits poor judgment.

2) Janet’s body language immediately comes across as aggressive and domineering (per my friend’s account.) Lucy was sitting at her desk. Janet was standing. Janet was in Lucy’s personal space. Everyone in the office was within earshot. The standing vs sitting body language is a classic portrayal of a power differential. If both parties are sitting, it puts the conversation on a much more even playing field.

3) What kills me about this story? The whole office was in earshot. People are trying to work and they’re listening to office drama? Especially in an open, collaborating environment, respecting your coworkers can take work and practice: (i.e. learning what is an appropriate volume level for music and/or speaking, and perhaps your telephone voice is louder than your coworker to coworker voice, etc.) Furthermore, the concept of space is super important, especially in an open space without walls or cubicles. People may need to be given space as though they are in an office (i.e. asking if it's a good time to talk, or finding an alternative to knocking on a door when you're interrupting.) You never know if someone is writing an important memo, or having an important train of thought. Be mindful of the space and comfort of others.

What about you, do you have any tips on how to deal with office conflict? Again, I'm not here to berate Janet (not her real name) so please keep comments positively framed. After all, we are all here to learn from one another and build each other up, not tear each other down.

That's another thing that bummed me out about this story. Strong women strengthen other women. Since Janet is older than Lucy, if Janet really thought she (Janet) was in the right, why not look at her qualms with Lucy as a teaching moment? Why not approach the situation with grace and kindness, in an effort to help better a coworker and a shared workplace?

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