Mallory Ortberg, aka Dear Prudence, is online weekly to chat live with readers. An edited transcript of the chat is below. (Sign up below to get Dear Prudence delivered to your inbox each week. Read Prudie’s Slate columns here. Send questions to Prudence at email@example.com.)
Q. Should I warn a future job applicant of a hostile work environment?: I am currently in a situation with my employer where I am battling a hostile work environment. I have finally decided to look for another job; however, my boss (who is the source of said hostile environment) told me today that she is looking to hire a peer of mine in our industry. Do I warn this person? I don’t know if I would have heeded warnings before I came on board, but I feel irresponsible in not saying anything to someone with a family who is potentially leaving a stable, reputable position to work in a truly abusive environment in a company that doesn’t have the desire to change or manage the situation. This job has almost cost me my marriage because of the work hours, hostility, and the frustration I’ve had to bear; I can’t think of letting somebody else blindly walking into a situation like I did. What do I do?
A: Your primary focus should be on getting another job. Until you’ve got a signed offer in your hands, there is always the possibility that your boss could make life even more difficult for you, and your energies are best directed at getting out of a workplace so damaging that it’s almost ruined your marriage. Rather than approach this peer blindly—after all, you don’t yet know for certain that he or she is joining the team, you only have your boss’s word that she’s trying to hire this person, and you don’t seem to consider your boss an especially trustworthy person—wait until you know for certain that he or she is actually in the process of being interviewed. If and when that happens, you can privately tell him or her you’re available to talk about your experience at this company and with this particular boss, but don’t volunteer anything before it’s actually necessary.
Q. Google versus stalking?: I’ve never had a head for social norms, and I don’t know where the OK area of Googling someone ends and the bad area of stalking them begins. I look up my exes every couple years on Facebook or online, just to see what they’re up to in a profile pic or listed career kind of way. I don’t contact them, I don’t want to date them again, and we left on amicable terms. But figuring out where one of them was (different country, different language) took a little more time and effort than I’m used to (15 minutes instead of 15 seconds), and after I figured out this person moved countries but kept careers, I was worried that this would unsettle someone if he or she knew I’d done it. Where is the line so I can not be creepy?
A: It’s a wonderful feeling to get to reassure a letter writer that what you’re doing is completely appropriate and you shouldn’t worry about it. Spending a maximum of 15 minutes every couple of years looking up old exes on Facebook definitely falls within the realm of standard, socially normative human behavior. It may even fall on the more restrained side of things, and you should not feel anxious about your occasional curiosity, especially since you’re not tracking anyone’s movements or trying to get in touch with someone who doesn’t want to hear from you.
Q. She’s a catch—with a catch!: I recently met a wonderful young woman who I have a lot in common and mutual chemistry with. We have begun seeing each other, and momentum is building toward a relationship. Recently, on our fourth date, we were talking, and I mentioned that I had received some STD test results back from a yearly physical I recently took, and they were negative. She said that she is positive for genital herpes and takes medication for it every day and hasn’t had a breakout in more than two years. My first (internal) reaction was in the vein of “of course this is what happens when I finally find a woman who I’m attracted to and is attracted to me!” I expressed my gratitude for her honesty in the matter, and we had a wonderful rest of the evening. What advice would you give to a friend who was facing a similar situation? What resources can I consult (besides my physician) to learn more about the disease and being in a relationship with someone who has it?
A: Herpes is incredibly common; in the United States, 1 out of every 6 people between the ages of 14 and 49 has it, so it’s likely that this woman is not the first person you’ve known who has herpes, just the first who has disclosed it to you. While there’s no cure for herpes, it is quite treatable, and most people with it have no or very mild symptoms; if your new partner takes her medication regularly, and you two use protection and don’t have sex during a visible outbreak, the odds of your contracting the virus are quite low. You can get more information at your local Planned Parenthood, the STD prevention division of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, or the American Sexual Health Association. And congratulations on meeting a woman you are attracted to, who is attracted to you, who gets regularly tested, knows when to disclose appropriately, takes medication consistently, and wants to start a relationship! She sounds fantastic.
Q. Violating spirit of the law?: I live in an apartment building that seems to have more residents than parking spots. Out front of my building are two handicapped spaces. I was wounded in Iraq and am rated 90 percent disabled by the Department of Veterans Affairs, allowing me to get handicapped license plates, though I have not done so. The issue is that my injuries are basically chest up—burns and shrapnel on arm, TBI and its related issues, things of that nature. My legs work just fine. I still run several days a week, I attempt to play golf, and I swim. To me these spaces seem to be for people who have mobility issues, and I have none. Would I be wrong to get a handicapped license plate just for a convenient parking spot? Technically I can, but is that OK? If it makes a difference my apartment building is two blocks away from a large company’s headquarters and about 3 miles from a university. The other tenants seem to be college or grad students and young (late 20s and 30s) adults working at the company. The handicapped spots are always empty. Thoughts?
A: We both know that you legally qualify for the license plates, so the question only you can answer is whether you would feel good about getting them. Traumatic brain injuries can often produce symptoms such as dizziness or disorientation, and if you have any sort of chronic pain resulting from your shrapnel wounds that can sometimes make walking difficult—even if you are also sometimes able to run or swim—then there could be significant material benefits from getting the plates. If nothing else, you might appreciate the relief on your upper arms by not having to steer 15 times around the parking lot looking for a space. If, however, you experience no mobility issues whatsoever, would not experience a meaningful degree of physical relief in being able to regularly park close to your apartment, and would feel guilty about getting the plates, then you might reconsider whether you find the increased convenience worth it. Either way, however, you are not committing any sort of fraud or lying about your condition—it’s a question of what you feel comfortable doing.
Q. Re: Should I warn a future job applicant of a hostile work environment?: If you’re looking for a new job, it may not be unreasonable for you to contact this peer and ask if he or she has any leads, as you are considering leaving Firm X. If that person ask, “Why are you leaving?” you have an entre to say simply, “This company may not be right for everyone.” Without disparaging your current employer, you may raise a red flag the encourages your peer to do a deeper investigation on his or her own.
Q. Re: Should I warn a future job applicant of a hostile work environment?: Please warn the future applicant if you can without compromising yourself. I’m in a similar situation and cursing myself for not recognizing the warning signs that appeared early on.
Q. Accused of racism: I recently started working at a new job. I get along well with all of my co-workers. I am polite, professional, and friendly to everyone. The office is diverse, and we have a great working environment. I am Hispanic and have friends from all backgrounds and walks of life. One of my coworkers, “Liz,” is black. She seemed very nice, but she is super boring. She tells the worst stories in the break room during lunch and coffee breaks. She can literally put you to sleep. It is hard to listen to her and keep your attention focused on what she is saying and she tends to drone on for a while about the most random, mundane topics. The other day, she would not shut up about the amazing new coffee pod flavors she found at the supermarket. She told everyone she saw about them and blabbed on about the prices, flavors, aromas, etc. She doesn’t seem to pick up on social cues. I have started letting her speak for a few moments and then politely change the subject when she manages to take a breath or simply tell her I am heading back to work and duck out of the kitchen. The other day, she gave me an angry look when I walked into the break room to get some coffee and stomped out without saying a word, and another co-worker informed me that Liz has begun telling people that I am a racist because I refuse to engage her in conversation. Prudie, I was floored! I am not at all racist. I just can’t stand her boring stories and topics of conversation, and I am not the only one. Do I confront her? Report her to HR? Go to her boss and report her? Please help!
A: I don’t think you have to do anything, at least for now, beyond continuing to be polite to Liz and getting your work done. Listening to her talk about coffee pods for a few minutes, then excusing yourself to get back to work is neither rude nor racist—you’re not cutting her off, you’re not ignoring her, you’re not treating her differently than other dull co-workers—and you’ve done nothing that you ought to apologize for. That does not mean, however, that you should report Liz to her own boss or to HR, especially when all that’s happened thus far is she once left the break room seemingly upset, and someone else has told you secondhand that she thinks you’re racist. There is no inciting incident to describe, no version of the series of events that requires clarification—she’s simply misinterpreted the fact that you don’t spend endless amounts of time listening to her non-work-related stories in the break room. I cannot fathom a version of events where the situation is improved by your going to HR and saying, “I’ve heard Liz thinks I might be racist, but I’m not.” Keep doing your job, stay friendly and polite, and don’t gossip in retaliation.
Q. Stop crying wolf: A friend—“Louise”—has attempted to take her own life several times over the last year. She has been very open about this on social media, leading some people to accuse her of “just doing it for the attention.” I was appalled that anybody could say this until a recent incident where she used suicide threats to try to guilt my roommate into spending the night with her. When we rushed over with an ambulance, she was absolutely fine and hadn’t attempted anything (thank God). The next day she made a long, dramatic post that was, quite frankly, over the top considering what had happened. Afterward, her ex told me that she’d done the same thing to him multiple times. I want to support her, but the guilt-tripping is getting out of hand, and the social media posts feel deceptive. What should I do?
A: Mute her on social media—that’s becoming a theme in this column lately, and I think we should all feel more freedom to hit that mute button—and if she threatens suicide in an attempt to demand certain behaviors from you or your friends, do exactly what you did this time: Call emergency services and don’t give in to any unreasonable demands that place the burden of her safety on someone else’s compliance. It’s not your responsibility to parse out the degree to which she is truly suicidal or simply wielding the threat of self-harm in order to manipulate other people; all you can do is report it. In the future, you do not have to go with the ambulance to check on her; you are not a medical or a mental health professional and do not need to be present at that point. You can’t support her by taking excessive responsibility for her well-being, and you can’t support her by endlessly parsing her posts online for sincerity. Whether she’s acting unlike herself because she’s profoundly depressed or whether there are other factors at play is unclear. All you can do is draw a boundary between what you can do (put her in touch with mental health services, encourage her to seek medical care) and what you can’t (engage with her on social media, take responsibility for whether she lives or dies, give in to sexual or emotional demands in order to keep her from hurting herself).
Q. Should I apologize?: I need your help settling a disagreement between me and my husband. In my job, I work on several large projects a year. I told one client (let’s call her Judy) I would have her project revisions done in January, which would have been two months before the deadline. However, two projects before hers in the pipeline ended up taking unexpected extra time, so I wasn’t able to start on Judy’s until later in January. I forgot to email Judy to update her on the new timeline. Mid-January, she checked in to see when to expect the revisions, and I told her the changed timeline then. She proceeded to get in touch with my supervisor and demanded to know why her project wasn’t a priority and why I hadn’t gotten to it yet, questioning my professionalism and ability to do my job. (To be clear, her issue was not with my failure to communicate the change, but with my not getting to the project earlier.) My supervisor defended me, reminding her that we are working on multiple projects and that our timelines therefore have to be flexible. Here’s the thing: I’m going to see her next month, and I want both to apologize for failing to communicate the changed timeline and to address the inappropriate way she responded. We have more projects together in the future, and I want to head off the kind of outsize response she had to the date changing, because date changes happen all the time in this field. My husband thinks I did nothing wrong and should simply confront her on her inappropriate reaction. He says that apologizing will cement a perception of me in her mind as someone who misses deadlines. What should I do?
A: I think Judy already has a perception of you in her mind as someone who has missed a deadline, and your husband’s plan of “pretend nothing ever happened” might be a good one if Judy had never noticed the delay but isn’t well-suited to your current situation. As soon as you told Judy you’d have her project ready by January, January became the deadline, even if you were mentally giving yourself those extra two months. The idea that she could somehow not mind your failure to communicate and yet take issue with your not getting to the project earlier seems like an unnecessary splitting of hairs. She was promised her project by a certain date, then only found out it wasn’t ready when she checked in with you and found it had dropped below others on the list. If you want to apologize to her about not keeping her up-to-date on the timeline of her project, that’s fine; it’s also appropriate to let her know that while you’ll try to keep her better informed in future, such delays are sometimes common in your industry. It’s probably not in your best interests to “confront” a client if you’re interested in working with again. Apologize for your mistake, and clarify what you will and won’t be able to do for her in future, but don’t try to scold her for escalating things to your supervisor after you overpromised and underdelivered. Your supervisor already defended your situation and explained this was not customary behavior for you—don’t defend yourself twice.
Mallory Ortberg: That’s it for today. See you all next week!