Dear Prudence

Help! A Nasty Co-Worker Is Trying to Get Me Fired.

Read what Prudie had to say in Part 1 of this week’s live chat.

Help! My co-worker is trying to undermine me.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Thinkstock.

Mallory Ortberg is online weekly to chat live with readers. Here’s an edited transcript of this week’s chat. 

Mallory Ortberg: Good morning, everyone! Let’s chat.

Q. Unpleasant co-worker wants my job: My co-worker “Janet” has disliked me since the moment I started working at my current office. She goes out of her way to criticize every aspect of my work and makes other rude comments to me daily. Usually, I just ignore her aggression, but lately she has begun doing something that I can’t ignore. Janet often stays very late at the office, and recently she’s begun taking that time to complete my assignments for me. Janet and I work in the same department, but we don’t share a job description and are assigned completely different projects!

I approached Janet about the issue and she admitted that she was “trying to impress our boss” by doing the work of two employees. This seems wildly inappropriate to me, and I’m worried I could get fired if I look extraneous. Since I found out about this, I’ve been staying late at work, just to make sure Janet can’t beat me to my own assignments for the next day. But I also don’t feel like I should have to compete with Janet for work that isn’t even part of her job description. What should I do?

A: Talk to your boss! I imagine part of what you’re anxious about is the prospect of upsetting Janet further, but this is something your boss ought to know about and should be able to help you with. Don’t worry about coming across like a tattletale. Keep your tone open and bewildered, and ask for clarification: “Lately, Janet has taken to finishing projects you’ve assigned to me, and I’m having a hard time keeping things straight when she does this without telling me. It’s my understanding that we’ve been assigned completely different projects, and I don’t think you’ve had a problem with my work. Is there something I’m missing? Is there anything we can do to make sure there’s a clear division of assignments? I don’t want to confuse our clients or disrupt the work schedule I set for myself, and this is making it difficult for me to get my work done.”

Q. Food: I grew up the oldest of four, where nothing was actually mine. I just had things long enough for my siblings to steal them (with help from my parents)—particularly food. If we got cookies, my younger siblings would Hoover theirs and then whine for mine. My mother would demand I share. Halloween candy, birthday cake, the food off my plate, they got it all. This has left me with a particular paranoid tick about my food. I don’t like people eating off my plate, stealing my leftovers, or using the groceries I buy. I have gotten into serious fights with roommates over this.

I am dating “CeCe.” She is a great girl and we have a blast together, but she is a food thief. She will never order any real food, only an appetizer, and then demand to “share” mine. I have talked to CeCe about this. I have told her it annoys and frustrates me when she does this. She continues to do it. We actually had a fight in a restaurant over a slice of cheesecake. I asked if she wanted a dessert and she said no, so I ordered mine. I got up to go to the bathroom and when I came back, CeCe had eaten half of it. She smiled and told me she couldn’t help herself. I got angry and we ended up arguing loudly about it. I know this is picky and petty, but I don’t know why CeCe can’t stop. What do I do here?

A: “I think you think this is a fun game between us, but it brings up a lot of anxiety and distress for me when you take my food when we eat out at restaurants. All I want is for you to order whatever you’d like to eat and to respect my request that we not share. I’d love to be able to do that, because I love your company. But if you keep doing it after my repeated requests to stop, I don’t want to go out to eat together. Let me know if you think you can do this; I hope so.”

Q. Did Canada make my sister a snob?: My sister and I are best friends; however, she’s recently begun to criticize me whenever we speak via phone. She’s a teacher and when she disapproves she often uses her “think about what you’re doing, child,” voice to ask small, leading questions. For example, my husband lost his job and is starting his own business. She doesn’t agree with this and questions everything. “Do you have a backup plan?” “How does that make you feel?” And, “Are you both sending resumes?” She’s gluten-intolerant, so every headache I get is due to me not giving up gluten. She lives on the other side of the continent, in Canada, and often tells me I should just up and move my family there because it’s so much better, but we own our home and moving that far isn’t feasible.

I miss just talking without worrying about how she’s going to construe what I say. How can I fix this? For the record, I cannot fly to her as I have small kids and lack the funds.

A: On matters of business: “I know you’re worried about Hankstrom’s decision to start a business, and I get that. But we’ve thought carefully about the risks and possibilities, and we’re ready to move ahead. I’d appreciate it if we could talk about something else.” (I assume you have thought carefully! It may be that your sister’s questions, while irritatingly framed, may be worth considering further!)

On matters of gluten: “I’m really glad that’s worked for you. I don’t want to have a long dietary discussion whenever I have a headache; sometimes I just want to tell you that I’m having a hard day and my head hurts without trying to fix the problem. Can we do that?”

On matters Canadian: “I’m not moving to Canada. I love you, and I miss getting to see you as often as I’d like, but I don’t always want to treat our conversations like a troubleshooting session. I just want to catch up.”

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Q. Appropriation?: My best friend is getting married late this year to an Indian American guy, and she has asked me to be in her wedding. She and I are both white. Her fiancé has made it clear that he wants many elements of a traditional Indian wedding to be in this ceremony, including the clothes that my friend and her bridal party will be wearing. It’s important to him and to his family that she and her bridesmaids participate in a henna-painting ceremony as well. My friend and I are worried—are we culturally appropriating? These requests are coming from him and his family, not from us—they have cultural significance that is not being erased or ignored. But there is still a very heavy and unpleasant implication in being a white woman wearing Indian clothes. It seems disrespectful and thoughtless. Help! Are we doing the right thing here?

A: You’re part of the wedding of a close friend and participating in a significant part of her husband-to-be’s cultural tradition, not dressing up for your own amusement on Halloween. You’ve been invited to share in something that’s important to him and his family, and it would be appropriate to accept.

Q. Violating gift policy: I recently worked with an outside company to produce some creative work for my company. The production went very well. A short time later I received a thank-you gift card from the leader of the production company for a service from a spa in my city. Unfortunately, the gift card amount is about $50 above the amount allowed by my company’s gift policy.

Since it’s for a spa, this isn’t the kind of gift I can just share with my co-workers, like a box of chocolates. Should I keep it? Is this insignificant or is it a big deal? It would be difficult and potentially rude to return, since the production company is in a different city and has no use for the card themselves.

A: It’s not rude to return a gift you can’t use, especially if you’re likely to work with this company again and they would, presumably, prefer to send gifts that you’re able to accept. Send it back with a note of thanks, saying that you look forward to working together again, and that you appreciate the gesture but can’t accept because it’s over your company’s gift policy.

Q. Re: Food: Break up with her. You’ve set a boundary, you’ve discussed it multiple times, you’ve had fights displaying how much it bothers you, and she is making absolutely no effort to change or respect your needs. She’s being deliberately unkind at this point.

A: That’s worth considering! It’s not a great sign that she smiled at you the last time she pulled this stunt, even after you’d made it clear how much this bothers you. Sometimes, especially when you’ve just started seeing someone and they otherwise seem great, it can be tempting to want to overlook things like this, but I think it’s a harbinger of things to come. Reasonable people do not enjoy going against the clearly stated requests of the people they care about, especially if said requests are as easy to honor as “Hey, please get your own plate of food when we go out for dinner.”

Q. Don’t want to be your support!: I recently made friends with a young man that comes into my work often. He had a longtime girlfriend, but she recently broke up with him. He’s taking it really hard and has chosen me to be his support person. He would call me on social media (since he didn’t have my number) and leave voice clips crying and asking for advice. Recently, he got my number from my manager, a mutual friend. My manager is no help as he thinks this is harmless. The worst is when this guy comes into my work. Since it’s a small business, I’m often by myself and am unable to escape his repeated cries of “Why didn’t she want me?!” It’s emotionally draining, but at the same time I can’t be overly cruel since I see this person at work. How can I get this to stop?

A: It’s not overly cruel—not even a little bit cruel!—to say to someone, “I can’t discuss this with you at work. It seems like you’re having a really hard time with this breakup, and I hope you’re able to find a therapist you can work with to process your feelings. I can’t answer these questions for you about why your relationship ended. You need to stop talking to me about this.”

This young man is not your friend, I don’t think. You didn’t want him to have your number, and it doesn’t sound like you get anything out of your connection with him aside from repeated pestering and a sense of guilt that you can’t fix his sadness. Mute or ignore his messages on social media if they persist, and block his number if he doesn’t knock it off after you’ve made yourself clear. And tell your manager that regardless of whether he thinks people are “harmless,” that you don’t want him to give out your number to anyone.

Q. Re: Violating gift policy: You can always ask your company what to do about the gift. At worst they will tell you to follow Prudie’s advice and return the gift. At best, they might make a one-time exception for this gift, and you’d get to have a lovely day at the spa.

A: That’s a reasonable first step! Double-check with your company before making a trip to the post office.

Q. Introducing my son on Facebook: I’m the proud mom of a 14-year-old transgender boy. He came out to my husband and me about a year ago, and has recently started living as a boy out in the world. He relies on his dad and me to inform most of the adults in our lives about his identity.

My question is about social media. We’ve moved around a lot and keep in touch with extended family and old friends primarily through Facebook. My profile is private, and I post occasional pictures and updates about my kids, but for some reason I’m not sure how to start referring to my former daughter as my son. My main concern is protecting my kid, and I have no interest in maintaining a relationship with anyone who’s not supportive—I guess I’m just not sure what’s the best way to go about this. I’d appreciate any suggestions you have.

A: My inclination is to say that your instinct of wanting to protect your son and to keep things relatively private is a good one! I’m a bit wary of posting many photos of children to social media—even if a 12- or 14-year-old says they’re fine with it, because the day may come when they wish they’d had more control over the even semi-publicly available images posted while they were growing up. You can have these conversations with friends and family in person or over the phone without making a coming-out Facebook post on your son’s behalf. If at some point your son is comfortable with it, you can simply switch over to using male pronouns/calling him your son when he appears in your posts.

Q. Re: Don’t want to be your support!: Be careful. I was in this situation with a former boyfriend of a woman I worked with and liked. It turned out he was really disturbed and had been physically violent and abusive with her. He started stalking me and called me all the time. It only stopped after he showed up at my place and I said I couldn’t come down to meet him because my (nonexistent) boyfriend was there and wouldn’t like it.

It’s not hard to see why anyone would break up with this guy—he has no boundaries. She should ask her manager or someone else to not let him into her workplace. That way some of this is on someone else to help stop.

A: I agree that this guy has demonstrated a lot of red flags that suggest he’s likely to escalate the situation rather than suddenly develop a lot of boundaries and restraint. He’s blown past all normal “getting-to-know-you” levels of new friendship and gone straight to leaving you sobbing voicemails, getting your phone number from your boss, and showing up at your job in order to monologue about his last breakup.

It’s a shame that the letter writer’s manager isn’t taking this seriously. If nothing else, it’s counterproductive for business to let this guy hang around; maybe the manager would be more inclined to help set limits if the problem were framed as an issue of productivity. In the meantime, letter writer, you can tell your friends about your concerns, and make sure they know you don’t want anyone giving him your private information or sharing your schedule or whereabouts with him.

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