can I suggest a junior coworker tone down her sarcastic sense of humor?

A reader writes:

I am senior to but do not manage “Patricia.” She has been with our company for less than a year. She started as an intern but was hired as a regular full-time employee at the end of her internship. Patricia is very nice and eager to learn. She’s still in school but this is not her first job (although this is her first office job, I think).

The problem is she has a very dry, extremely sarcastic sense of humor that borders on inappropriate. She regularly says things that are outright lies as a joke. During a recent team meeting, the C-level for our department invited the team to her house for a holiday party. Patricia asked if she can bring her kids. The C-level asked if she actually has kids (as Patricia is in her early 20s and lives with her parents) and Patricia insisted that she has two kids. Finally, she admitted the “kids” are her cats. The entire exchange took up 5+ minutes of our meeting.

Other times, she’s made awkward/inappropriate jokes. Recently, someone was talking with her about a document they needed her to edit and she commented that the person who originally put the document together “must have been breastfed too long as a child.” When she says something off to me, I tend to say something to the effect of, “I never know if you’re joking or not.” She’s mostly stopped making jokes with me, but others in the office still fall victim to her jokes.

Patricia is very sensitive and I know she struggles with depression/anxiety (she told me). I have seen her burst into tears over a mild correction in the past. She is also the daughter of a long-time employee of the company, so that complicates matters.

I’ve heard complaints from people on and off our team about her sense of humor. It slows down normal communication (she’s joking when we need to get work done) and causes people to not know how to talk to her. People have started coming to me to avoid working with her.

I’m happy to talk to her (as someone senior to her) but I don’t know what to say to avoid her feeling like she’s being attacked. Do you have any advice on what to say? I’m also not sure if I need to just bring this to our manager’s attention. He is incredibly hands-off, but I imagine he would have to do something about it if there were complaints outside our department.

Yeah, ideally this would come from her manager, a mentor, or someone senior to Patricia who she works closely with or has good rapport with.

Any chance you’re in that third category? That would give you some standing to say something.

If so, one way to do it would be to ask her to go to coffee with you, so that you’re getting her in a more relaxed setting away from the office. You could ask her how things are going for her and say that you know it can be tricky to transition from intern to employee. And then you could say something like, “Can I give you some feedback on something I’ve noticed? … You have a very dry, sometimes sarcastic sense of humor, and I’m not sure it always lands the way you intend. I know I’ve mentioned to you before that I don’t always know when you’re joking, and my sense is that might be true of others too. That can slow down communication and can make people unsure about how to talk with you. I think you’re really good at ____ (insert some things you genuinely think she’s good at) and I want people to see that. My sense is your humor might be getting in the way of that, and I wanted to mention it because I really want to see you do well here.”

If she doesn’t seem to get what you’re saying, one way to elaborate would be to say, “You’ll sometimes say things that aren’t true as a joke — but in a work context, people can get confused by that and end up unsure if they can take you at your word. At work, you want the opposite of that; you want people to feel they can really rely on what you say.”

You could also say, “It’s not that you can never be funny at work, but there’s a time and a place for it, and you don’t want to derail or slow down a meeting for a joke, especially one that might be misunderstood or require explanation.”

All that said… You noted that she’s sensitive and has burst into tears over a mild correction, so I’d only take this on if you feel equipped to handle that if it happens. It would be a kindness to explain all this to her even if it hurts her feelings a bit in the moment, but you’ll have to decide if you’re up for dealing with tears or defensiveness. If she does get upset, you could say, “I don’t mean to upset you. I think you’re great, and this stuff can be hard to figure out at the beginning of your career. I got great advice from mentors when I was starting out, and some of it was hard to hear too. But it’s really normal to have to sort through this kind of thing when you’re starting out because no really really teaches it to you ahead of time.”

But if it just feels too iffy to you, especially with the potential politics around her being the daughter of a long-time employee, then it’s absolutely appropriate to talk with her manager about it instead. In theory, at least. In practice, you called him incredibly hands-off, and this is the kind of squishy interpersonal issue that hands-off managers often avoid, so who knows if anything will come of raising it with him. But because it’s at the point where you’re hearing complaints and people are avoiding working with Patricia, it’s definitely a reasonable thing to flag for him.

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