Career Coach takes your questions on bad behavior in the workplace

Mar 26, 2014

Whether you work in a cubicle or a corner office, an assembly line or a sales floor, everyone could use a little career advice now and then. Our career coach, Joyce Russell, is here to help you solve your workplace conundrums, from how to ask for a promotion to how to deal with a difficult boss. Ask her your question now!

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Welcome readers to our March online chat. I look forward to your questions and comments. We are especially focusing today's chat on "bad office behaviors" and what to do about them. However, feel free to send in any career-related questions as well.



Is it considered acceptable or the new normal to have routine phone calls on speaker phone? including personal phone calls on speaker phone for the office to hear?

This seems to be a pet peeve for many folks and for good reason. Having calls on speaker phone is distracting for the others working around you. This is not the "new normal" and people should really make sure others are okay with this before doing it. It can really be disruptive to others' working.

How do you handle a co-worker who has a cynical, negative outlook yet also has a personality that appeals to the boss? She often is seen talking to the director one-on-one in the director's office. Many of her concerns relate to other's work, not her own. She is capable in her role as the admin of a library, but wants to critique the other librarians. The director seems swayed by her comments. The director avoids confrontation most of the time. Thanks.

I recently wrote a Career Coach article on bullying in the workplace as well as an article previously on dealing with manipulators at work. Those might be good to look at since I address your point. Some folks are really clever at manipulating the boss since they "play up to the boss" while antagonizing everyone else around them. It can be very frustrating since it seems the boss just does not get it or does not understand that he or she is being played by the employee. And, if you tell the boss that they are being manipulated, they don't want to think this is true. They have to really come to see if for themselves. 

For you to handle this person and your boss, you need to stick to making sure you have good performance so that the boss sees this (and does not rely on what the manipulator is telling them about you or others). This is key. Also, keep the focus on your job performance and try not to get into the whole "who said what" stuff. I know it is easier said than done.

So, speaking of bad behavior in the workplace - Did you see the article about the Secret Service agents drunk on the job, when their job is to be the last line of defense protecting the president? Clearly this is unacceptable. On a smaller scale, I know of friends and colleagues who come to work hungover, or still a bit spaced-out from smoking pot, and the like. The Secret Service agents will probably get severely reprimanded or fired. What is the right thing to do about paper-pushers and others who come to work in other than a clear state of mind?

Totally agree that something needs to be done since this puts more pressure on others to get the work done. In my article on a "drinking culture," I talk about strategies an organization should take to make sure it is not promoting such a culture. Much of this comes from the top - what does the top leader do and condone? What do managers condone? Are there any policies and procedures? Do leaders care about these behaviors and care about setting a more professional tone in the workplace? You have to start with the top or nothing will ever change.

I like many types of food, so office mates' lunch smells sometimes helps me make my dinner decision easier. Ummm, pizza it is!!! However, no employee should EVER bring seafood/fish in the office and heat it up in the office microwave!!!

Interesting, there are often many complaints that people raise about office food (i.e., what people heat up in the microwave, how long they leave food in the refrigerators, etc.). Perhaps a good suggestion is to bring this up at a group work meeting - just to talk about how to best respect everyone's views. This is difficult though since you don't want to ban all types of food and people have different types of allergies and foods that upset them. But, if you have a close-knit group of workers, you could at least talk about the issue to see what people think. Maybe there will be some type of agreement on foods to heat up, how quickly people should remove their food from the refrigerators, and so on. It is worth a try to calmly chat with coworkers about this as a first attempt.

Hi In addition to those around you at work, using a speaker phone is unpleasant for customers. Our broker has a private office but I always ask him to get off the speaker phone as I find it difficult to hear and distracting.

Great point about customers. Thanks for sharing!

Two days a week I share a small, quiet room with up to 4 or 5 other people. The number of people isn't the problem, it's that I can hear every sound that every person makes. (the bathroom is steps away in the hall, so those too...yeah) The sounds of chewing when people eat drives me crazy. Especially when somebody's chewing up a bag of chips, or the worst: slurp-chomping a piece of juicy fruit. I'm getting annoyed just thinking about it... So people, please go somewhere else to eat, even if it's a snack. And yes, there are PLENTY of places in my building.

I understand. Coworkers - if this is you - think about moving elsewhere when eating or just be aware that it can be annoying to others working near you.

Another thought - while you could ask coworkers to try to keep it quiet in the room, is it also possible that you could use headphones so you won't be able to hear everything that goes on? While this might be inconvenient, if you can hear everything near you, it might be tough to get everyone to move to another location and you already said that the restroom is near you too (so you can't move that room). I have known folks who use headphones either to listen to music while working or to just block out the noise near them. Just a thought for your own piece of mind.

A few months back I wrote in asking the best way to get out of a toxic workplace. You told me stick it out until finding a new job because it's always easier to get a job when you already have one. Well, I got a new job and started about 3 weeks ago. Thanks for that extra jolt of "reality" when I was just really frustrated and drained from the toxicity!

Thank you for taking the time to write in. Really appreciate it. Glad you got a new job and were able to stick it out until you did. Good luck in your new job!

I just found out I'm pregnant, and I have an interview next week. I'm now in the position of being "exhibit A" in why employers don't like to hire women. If I do continue working after deliver, it will be with sharply reduced hours because I doubt I'll come close to making enough to cover childcare in my field. On the other hand, it's still very early, there are no guarantees, and this is an opportunity I've been looking for since I graduated. I guess the question is how is a potential employer likely to feel after finding out that they hired me if I knew I had 9 months or less of unhindered work time left?

This is a tough issue - when to reveal that you are expecting. Since you just found out, I personally don't think you need to bring this up at this time in the interview process. First, you need to do everything you can to get the job. You are just going for a first interview you said, so this is still very early in the process. Plus, you really will not be "exhibit A" at this point since you also just found out you are pregnant. If you get a job offer from them, you can try to learn everything you can about their parental leave policies. Firms are more accommodating with regard to leave now than they used to be (although in some firms there is still much more they can do for parents).

I also assume that you will be interviewing at multiple places at this point so that will give you more leverage as to various jobs you can consider. It is important to try to get multiple offers so that you can compare them and make the best fit for yourself.

In any event, I would first get the job offers, then try to get additional offers, and then think about tackling the pregnancy issue by seeing what their policies are and other precedents in their firms. It is much too early now to address these issues. Good luck getting the job!

I share work on a project with someone who had great ambition but no skill. Our boss has designated her the project manager, but not the people manager. Her idea of managing the project is attempting to manage all involved. She can't separate the two. She is also ultrasensative to criticism. How do I navigate working with her without having to run to the boss all of the time?

Has your boss specifically designated you or someone else the "people manager"? If so, then that person could talk to this project manager about roles and getting clarification.  Or, can you proactively write up the various roles and responsibilites, and get clarity from your boss and then sit down with the project manager to talk about all this? This is not that unusual and often colleagues have to do this during the scope of a project since roles get confused or were never clarified and it causes problems. I would be as proactive as possible.

This is also a great example of why having team members on a project complete assessments such as Strengths Finder or MBTI or some other tool - to see which specific talents each person has and to make sure that they utilize their talents in the best possible fashion.  That is, the person who is great at people management is assigned this role, while the person who is great at task management is assigned this role. People are not necessarily great at every possible role.

Hi, Our org structures at work don't make any sense to the masses. A brand new VP who is not in my org chain has hired someone for a mulitude of tasks but, one of them will be "helping" me in my role. If this new VP (who has been with the company in another capacity for 25 years) had sat down with my boss or me, I could have explained our processes and why they are in place. How do I be a team player with this new hire? This new VP routinely makes decisions without having facts in place.

This can be frustrating. Can you still sit down with the new VP to talk about your processes and explain them to the person? It seems the new VP might be appreciative of this since it would clarify some things for them. Unless of course, they believe they already know everything. What does your boss say about this? If you can ask them for a meeting with the three of you that would also help. Would your boss support such a meeting? If your boss does not want to be involved (and is trying to stay out of it), then I would be proactive about setting up a meeting with the new VP to review the processes. Would this work?

Thanks for taking my question. I'm looking at a very small practice, so I imagine that while they'll be flexible, there probably won't be too much in the way of precedent, and it would be hard to get those policies before taking the offer without pretty well telling what's going on. And I'm looking pretty passively, so I probably won't have other interviews - there aren't other firms in the area that have this specialty. I just worry about leaving a bad taste in their mouth when I have to leave just as I get up to speed. Thanks again. I'll focus on the interview now and worry about tomorrow's problems tomorrow.

Thanks for the clarification. I would still focus on getting the job offer now, and then think about when to bring up the pregnancy. I would wait on that topic.

The problem is that my boss and I communicate often enough from across the room that if I wore headphones it would be a hassle. Though I suppose he can't say anything if he's busy chewing on a fresh pear. Lol

True enough! Do you have a break room?

My cubemate is constantly on the phone making personal calls. Constantly. Once I clocked her on the phone for 6 hours out of the day. Naturally, she doesn't keep her voice down, and she talks about appallingly personal things - I know every detail of her life, from her marital problems with her husband, to her personal banking passwords, to the date of the beginning of her current pregnancy (ugh, with way too much information on that too). I recently added many new responsibilities at work that involve lots of focus and reading, and her constant jabbering in my ear is driving me up the wall. (She sings along to the radio or talks to co-workers when she's not on the phone as well.) I finally broke down and approached our supervisor about these issues, and while he did talk to her, the situation improved for all of 2 days before she was back on the phone arguing with her husband all day. My friends in HR for other companies say this is regrettable and normal, and that if I've talked to our supervisor there's not much more I can do. Any advice so I don't go nuts?

It is great you talked to your boss about this, and it seems that did have an impact. Did you ever talk to your cubemate about this? Just let her know that people around her can hear all her conversations and know a lot of personal information about her life? Maybe she will not care if they know, or maybe she will be surpised and distressed by this, and this will impact what she does in the future. Did you let her know this is making it tough for you to get your own work done?

The other larger question is: How is she getting her own work done if she spends so much time on the phone? And does anyone care about this? If this is a common practice in the firm, then maybe something should be done? Can this be brought up to HR? Not necessarily in a punitive way, but just as a way to remind folks about making personal calls at work? Sometimes employees just ignore these types of infractions since they don't want to deal with conflict, yet maybe lots of employees are also struggling with the same issues and would be happy if it was brought up. Maybe as a topic for a future work unit meeting?

Of course, there is always my suggestion to another reader of wearing your own headset so you don't have to hear everything around you. But, I would first talk to your cubemate and then HR to see what can be done. Good luck!

the new VP doesn't want to speak to anyone who is not director level or above. How does this work then?

Really? Then, try to get your boss to set up a meeting with the three of you.

In case you're answering questions not related to today's topic: Do you have any advice or resources regarding how to navigate the "mid-career" stage/job search? I have 10 years work experience and an MBA (from Smith!). I want to relocate to a new city, but I'm learning that I fall in between the entry-level openings and the director-level openings. Any thoughts on how to approach this situation?

Great question and one that pertains to many folks. Glad you have an MBA, and one from Smith! To relocate to another city, you really have to work on building a network in that city, either by visiting, looking people up on social media, using alumni contacts in that new city, etc. In the stage you are in you really need to rely on building networks and relationships in the new city to help you land a job in that area. Can you find director-level people who can "offer career guidance and advice" as a way to get to meet them and learn more about the new city? Have you looked at which specific firms in the new city you might be interested in working at? This would be important. Try to target your search to specific industries or companies in the new city to start. Best of luck and go Terps!

How would you deal with a boss that is quick to filet someone in a meeting with a lot of other people at that same meeting? This boss needs to feel like number one at all times.

Sad to say that this happens more than it should. I would try to talk to the boss offline about these comments or I would see if someone close to the boss can approach him/her about these statements? Sometimes having a person close to the boss point things out (in a coaching way) can help.

I work at a small business, in a low-paying but high-value field. It is seasonal, and during our high season (4-6 months), we work very long days. I have been doing this for a few years now and find it to be rewarding, although not challenging, and the long work days leave little time to pursue a side job, hobbies, or even family/friends. I still love it, for the most part, and am happy to be doing what I do. The biggest issue is that my boss is a complete narcissist. He cannot ever acknowledge anyone's positive contribution, and only sees the negative. He changes his mind or forgets he had made a decision, then blames others for not doing their job properly. He sometimes doesn't pay us on time, or puts off paying us when he leaves town. He is impossible to talk to about any issue because he refuses to listen and/or refuses to acknowledge there's a problem. When an issue is brought up in a staff meeting, he cannot hear anything negative without completely exploding. Worst of all, his management "style" is rubbing off on our middle managers, and causing an overall negative and unhappy atmosphere. I am getting increasingly bitter. Other than quitting, what advice do you have for handling impossible/narcissistic bosses and toxic work environments? Thanks so much.

Well it seems that you like the work and job, just not the boss's style (which is understandable). Is there anyone close to the boss that can try to coach him? If so, you can have those folks try to talk with him. I would not have them talk to him about everything on your list (not right away) since it is a lot. Maybe pick the one most important thing that he could change and focus on that aspect.

Is your boss overwhelmed, and is this why he is not paying you on time? Can someone else offer to help with some of those responsibilities? Would the b0ss allow this help? Is there another manager who is good at appreciating others or running more positive meetings who could serve as a role model to the boss?


Thanks for your input today. Lots of great questions and shared thoughts on office behaviors. Looks like we have much more work to do to improve our workplaces to make them more enjoyable, professional, and better places for people to work. We will continue our online chat on Wednesday April 16th from 12-1pm. In the meantime, maybe when we finally get some spring weather peoples'  behaviors will improve at work!



In This Chat
Joyce E.A. Russell
Joyce E.A. Russell is the director of the Executive Coaching and Leadership Development Program at the University of Maryland's Robert H. Smith School of Business. She is a licensed industrial and organizational psychologist.
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