Every week, Dear Prudence answers additional questions from readers, just for Slate Plus members.
Q. My work friend: I work with a small team of nine in a much larger organization. The person I share 50-50 of my teaching with is “Belinda.” Belinda can be very nice and caring, but sometimes she snaps at people. Last year she had multiple student complaints, a colleague complained about her, and she was put on probation. One more official complaint and she will lose her job. This week, in front of a class of 20, she lost it at me over basically nothing. I was humiliated and on the verge of tears for the rest of the day. She texted me an apology about 15 minutes later: “Sorry for being a cow. I don’t like it when things don’t go my way.” She also brought it up in a staff meeting later in the afternoon, in an “oopsie,” lighthearted kind of way. Because our manager was also at the meeting, she asked me about the incident. We spent a couple of days to-ing and fro-ing and settled on me sending Belinda an email before I left for the weekend, stating that I’m glad she apologized but I need her assurance it will never happen again. In my organization, this is not considered official and won’t go on her record.
I’ve since found out she also lost it at a student while the student was performing a service for a member of the public. The member of the public has unofficially complained, but it couldn’t be made formal. I’ve been sick with guilt over the weekend. I’m so anxious and worried my colleague will lose her job. I just want her to stop yelling at people! It happens every six months or so. But her moods with the students can be terrible, and I have had countless “Belinda is in a bad mood today” conversations with students. It seems that life would be easier without her there, but she knows all of the behind-the-scenes bureaucratic necessities like the back of her hand—more than anyone in our department. We would be lost without her. And I actually do like her. But most of the other staff really dislike her, and she confided in me she has been offered a very lucrative job in another city—so it could be a great move for her. How do I stop the guilt and persuade myself none of this is my problem? And how do I face her at work? She will be panicking after the email I sent … and again, I in turn get panicked and feel guilty and wish I had just swept it under the rug.
A: I wonder if Belinda actually will be panicking after your unofficial email. I’m not convinced she’s anywhere near as worried about this as you are. She seems fairly unruffled by the fact that she’s the subject of multiple complaints from students and colleagues alike, and her off-the-cuff text apology and Oh, gosh, can you believe I screamed over nothing again in front of the kids? remark in the staff meeting indicate a remarkably casual attitude about her outbursts. Keep things in perspective: You haven’t filed an official complaint, so it doesn’t sound like your email is going to be the final nail in the coffin of Belinda’s continued employment (Whether or not it should be is another matter entirely.) Belinda has other job opportunities besides this one. She’s been told that her outbursts are a serious, ongoing problem more than once, and she is perfectly capable of restraining her temper if she chooses. It seems relevant that her colleague-facing outbursts only happen once or twice a year, but she melts down at her students so regularly that you’ve had “countless” conversations with them about it. My guess is that she knows well enough not to burst out screaming in front of her boss but chooses to vent her spleen with her relatively powerless students precisely because she knows she can get away with it.
If Belinda leaves, either because she’s fired after another official complaint or because she decides to accept that lucrative offer, your organization will not fall apart. You may collectively struggle to pick up her slack, and it might take a while to write down all of that informal institutional knowledge she kept in her head (someone should definitely write it down so that all future employees can access it rather than depend upon a single volatile colleague who has it all memorized), but this organization existed before Belinda and it can carry on without her. Cut yourself some slack. That said, I wouldn’t go so far as to say that “none of this” is your problem, because you have an out-of-control co-worker who takes up an enormous amount of your time and emotional energy and routinely terrorizes the children in her care. That’s a pretty serious problem, one that affects you directly. Don’t apologize for your email, and don’t undercut yourself by saying: “Actually, you don’t have to promise anything—I’m sure you feel so bad about yelling at me that you’ve already punished yourself enough. I really like you!” What you asked of her is eminently reasonable, and she’s perfectly capable of doing it. If she loses her job because she can’t stop screaming at her students, she should probably lose her job working with students. It would be better for her—and, more importantly, for them—to move on.