my office thinks I insulted a coworker, colleague refuses to take my input, and more

It’s five answers to five questions. Here we go…

1. My office thinks I insulted a coworker but I didn’t mean it like that

I work for a small nonprofit. I have one boss and about 14 coworkers with whom I’m “office friendly,” meaning I don’t socialize outside of work/discuss personal matters. Though I’ve been employed the longest, I know very little about people’s personal lives.

The other day my coworker “Susan” came into the office carrying a rock she’d found on a hike. She showed it to me saying that she thought it was a fossil and wanted to ask “Nancy,” our volunteer coordinator, what it was. Without thinking, I laughed and said, “Whatever would Nancy know about fossils? That’s not her background.” Susan gave me a strange look and walked away.

Later that day, our boss called me into her office, shut the door, and told me that “accusing a coworker of falsifying information on her resume is a serious issue.” She then asked me for proof that Nancy had lied. Apparently, Nancy has advanced degrees in paleontology and had taught at our local junior college before switching fields and joining our team. I confessed that I had no idea; what I said to Susan was based my not knowing Nancy’s background. The idea seemed ridiculous: Nancy coordinates volunteers at a nonprofit that has nothing to do with science. How was I to know her background? My response didn’t go over well. I received a verbal warning as well as “advice” about being more aware of how my words came across.

I was also asked to apologize to Nancy – which I reluctantly did. She accepted my apology, but seemed strangely hurt. I still feel that I did nothing wrong. I was merely responding to something that sounded silly to me; the others blew it all out of proportion. My boss said that my words had come across as “dismissive and sexist” because I’m a man and it sounded like I’d assumed Nancy wasn’t really a scientist. I did assume that, but not because she was a woman, because she’s working in a field that has absolutely nothing to do with her scientific background. What say you? Was I out of line? I want to return to friendly terms with my boss and coworkers, but I don’t want admit unwarranted guilt.

Yeah, your original comment was a little rude. If you didn’t know anything about Nancy’s background, it doesn’t really make sense that you scoffed at the idea that she could know about fossils (as opposed to saying something like, “Oh, I didn’t realize she knew about fossils”). And that does play right into some sexist tropes, even if you didn’t intend it to.

That said, your boss characterizing it as “accusing a coworker of falsifying information on her resume” is weird. That makes me wonder if this might be part of a pattern where you’ve been perceived to be dismissive or sexist before. If you’ve had that kind of feedback before, or gotten the sense people were taking you that way, I’d take this as a flag that it’s a serious problem with the way you’re perceived and your relationships with coworkers.

If not, and this is genuinely the first time this has come up, I’d still apologize. The comment was insulting, even if you didn’t intend it to be, and that alone warrants an apology. You could add that you realize now that it played right into a particular type of sexism that women in science have to deal with and that you’re resolving to be more thoughtful about that in the future.

2. Coworker refused to take the input I was hired to give

I started a six-month contract two weeks ago as an “expert” in a fairly technical field. Expert is in quotes because I’m really just someone with a great deal of experience (35+ years generally, 20 years with this specific technology). Part of the my job is to review other folk’s work, and “Ned” posted a change for comment that broke one of the basic rules in the field. I politely suggested a better way, and he replied by saying that he’s sticking with his solution.

Ned’s been with the organization about 10 years and is very bright, so my inclination is to leave it — except that I was hired (in my mind) to prevent exactly this kind of poor craftsmanship.

I think I may have to talk with the director who hired me to figure out how to deal with this. It’s a small group, and I don’t want to get off on the wrong foot — Ned’s been very helpful in orienting me. Consulting is hard.

The best way to approach it with the director is to frame it as asking for clarification about your role and about how she wants you to handle situations like this. For example: “Can I check with you about something? I ran into a situation this week where (describe situation). In a case like that, do you want me to do anything further after I flag the issue? If the person wants to move forward with their initial approach anyway, should I figure that’s their call at that point?”

3. I think I offended a client

I give private music lessons, often in people’s homes. About a month ago, I arrived and the youngest child didn’t know where her materials were, and said she hadn’t prepared. Normally I swallow this with a smile, but this time I chastised the child and brought the situation to the attention of her older siblings. This was obviously inappropriate and wrong! I should have brought it up with the parent, and only with the child in a polite, positive, or funny way. A few days later I emailed an apology to the mother (a real apology). I apologized directly to the child the following week (she said “thanks”) and a few weeks later apologized directly to the oldest child. However, the apology email was never acknowledged.

The mother is now giving me what seems to be the silent treatment — she does not show herself during lessons, she does not say hello or goodbye. The father now sits in the youngest child’s lesson (which is actually a win — I need parents in the lessons of young children). Since he never did before and now suddenly does every week, I imagine it was directed by her or decided by him, or both. He is pleasant and does not refer to the incident. The kids seem as happy and willing to play as ever, nothing seems wrong there.

What do I do? I would apologize to her directly if I could. I thought about finding her in the house, but I don’t want to create a scene. Background: I’ve been working with this family for six years, all without problems, in fact, they have been very vocally happy with me in the past. They do have a habit of leaving their children to work out their own practice, which is fine philosophically, but often frustrating practically. I think that’s probably why I snapped that day.

I’d let it go. You’ve apologized to everyone involved, and they might not think it’s as big of a deal as you do. It’s possible the mother has other stuff going on and you’re assuming it’s about you when it’s not. Or who knows, maybe it is about you! But you’ve apologized to her, and if she wants to be chilly for a while, hunting her down for another apology probably isn’t going to change that (and risks seeming very weird if she’s moved on).

It’s true that the father might be sitting in on the lessons to monitor you, but he also might be sitting in because the youngest child not being prepared made them realize she needed more parental involvement.

4. People try to make me work when I’m in my workplace on my days off

I work at a nursing home as a nurse, and my mother is a resident there. When I come in to visit her on my day off, is it fair that they ask me to attend work-related meetings and ask me work-related questions when I just want to see my mom and have a nice visit? I should be treated like a family member, not as an employee at those moments!

Yep, you’re absolutely right. When you’re there visiting your mom, you’re there in your capacity as a relative, not as an employee. It’s ridiculous that they’re asking you to attend work meetings during that time! (Work-related questions are a little less outrageous as long as they’re just occasional and truly time-sensitive, but ideally they wouldn’t be doing that either.)

The next time you’re there visiting and they attempt to pull you into a meeting, try saying, “Oh, I’m not working today. I’m just here visiting my mom and then I’ll need to leave.” If it keeps happening, you’ll need a bigger picture conversation with your manager, but simply being very firm about your boundaries (“no, I can’t do that, this is my time to visit my mom”) might solve most of it. And with the work questions, try, “I’m visiting my mom right now and need to focus on her rather than answering work questions, but I’ll be back on the clock on Tuesday morning.”

5. When is a reference too old?

I have someone who worked for me 10 years ago at a summer camp who frequently contacts me and asks me to be a reference for him as he applies for new jobs. I like him and he was a good employee, but we’re now both in careers unrelated to what we did when he worked for me, and the frequency that he asks seems … excessive … which may be why he’s still asking someone he worked for 10 years ago to be a reference. The companies do call me, and if I don’t answer (often due to doing my job or because of a time zone difference) I usually get a text or email from him freaking out. At what point is a reference too aged for an employee to use?

There’s no one point where a reference is too old — it depends on how long you worked together, how closely, and in what capacity. But 10 years is getting pretty stale (especially if it was 10 years for a summer job, which it sounds like it might be), both because the work you’re familiar with is so old and because it gets harder to speak about someone’s work with nuance when this much time has gone by.

It wouldn’t be unreasonable for you to explain to him that with so much time having passed since you last worked together, you don’t feel equipped to provide a nuanced reference at this point and that it would be better to use other, more recent references. If he seems alarmed, you could offer to do it if he’s really in a bind, but ask that you not be one of his primary ones.

Alternately, if your main objection is the frequency and urgency, you could say, “I’m happy to keep doing it, but I need you to be okay with there being a potential delay in my response, both because of work priorities and the time difference. If you need someone who’s always available right away, I’m not the right person to use.”

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