I work with a guy I don’t understand

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He’s a gay person of color, but he’s against the minimum wage!

Cary’s classic column from  Sunday, THURSDAY, JUL 21, 2005

Dear Cary,

I have been at my current position as an attorney at a law firm for less than a year. Although I work at a rather typical big law firm, I am a committed progressive with a strong background in grass-roots activism. After paying off a portion of my educational debt, I intend to return to the public interest world. Many of the views and values that I hold are diametrically opposed to those of my colleagues at the firm. I try not to talk about politics too much and keep to myself generally. However, despite the fact that I didn’t really try to develop a strong friendship with anyone at work, I have become quite close to a colleague at my law firm. He is a nice guy who seems to struggle with the same type of issues that I struggle with at work in balancing life and work, dealing with the stresses of being a litigator, etc.

But the more I get to know him, the more I realize that he and I disagree about pretty much everything when it comes to politics and social issues. For example, he believes that racism is not a problem and that people should just ignore any racial differences because human beings are ultimately the same. When I try to have a discussion with him about institutional racism or about the civil rights movement, he and I end up getting into an argument. We end these arguments by saying that we agree to disagree. He has also told me that he believes what the “Minutemen” are doing at the U.S. border is good. He believes that people should just move on from the Holocaust. Oh, and my colleague friend also does not go anywhere outside of the mainly white neighborhoods in the metropolitan area that we live in. I should also add that he recently moved from the Midwest and really believes in small-town living and values.

But what makes me not understand him at all is that he is a gay man of color. When it comes to gay rights issues, he becomes quite militant, but when it comes to issues about gender or race or class, he does not see what the big deal is. I have tried to have discussions with him about critical race theory or about issues of gender and class, but he just doesn’t seem to care. The other day, he told me that there should be no such thing as minimum wages or affordable housing.

And the more I get to know him, the more I’m troubled by some of the things that he does. For example, I have noticed that sometimes he can be very superficial. His conversations and interests really seem to lack depth. He likes to play tennis and work out, play video games and watch a lot of TV, and go shopping for clothes and electronics. He is also rather stingy about money and doesn’t seem like a generous person. He has told me that he befriends people oftentimes because they are good-looking. He pretty much always eats on the firm’s dime and does not seem to like to pay for lunch. What also really surprised me about him is that after a good friend of his at the firm left to go to another state, he didn’t really keep in touch with her or follow up with her or go out for a farewell meal (which we were planning), even though he often used to tell me how it made him sad that she was leaving. All of these things make me not want to be friends with him.

At the same time, though, he has told me that he cries a lot and sometimes wakes up at night crying. He has cried at the firm gym and in his office. I wonder why he cries so much, though I’ve only seen him cry once. And he kind of made it a point to show people that he was crying. I feel bad for him, since he is generally a nice guy, though not the most compassionate or open-minded person.

Also, he seems to cling to me, telling me that I am his best friend at work or telling other people how close we are. It makes me a tad uncomfortable when he does this because I am not sure how I feel about our friendship, though, at work, he is my closest friend.

Having these thoughts about him makes me feel awful, especially because he seems to think we are close friends. I am also confused about my friendship with him. Because I have never been close friends with someone who had such different views and values from mine, I am not sure how I’m supposed to continue in this friendship. I may be leaving the firm, in which case I will no longer have gripes about work — which is the glue that holds us together, I think. What’s more, I don’t like becoming friends with someone just out of convenience. If I’m going to be friends with him, I should be open-minded and listen to what he has to say and accept the fact that he is the way he is. Who says that only people with the same political views and values can be friends? Ideally, I’d like to be able to be friends with someone who has views that are diametrically opposed to my own. But is this friendship possible when I feel like he doesn’t share the fundamental values that I hold dear?

I appreciate that he is there to gripe with about work, but is that a sufficient basis for a friendship? If I am a true friend, shouldn’t I try to broaden his perspective? I fear this latter prospect might be patronizing to him.

I would really appreciate hearing your thoughts on this.

Trying to Be Open-Minded

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Dear Trying to Be Open-Minded,

You are describing what many of us would call a regular human being. With this human being you have a congenial but contingent relationship. Such relationships arise when people of contrasting ideologies are thrown together at the same workplace. As you have observed, they provide a rich opportunity for learning about other people. But it’s also just about getting through the day.

Here are some things about other people that I think you should know: People sometimes do things for no reason except they just want to. People sometimes think something and then just say it right out loud just like that. Occasionally a person will do what he feels like doing without considering whether it is consistent with his past actions and stated beliefs. For instance, a person will want an ice-cream cone, and next thing you know he’s walking down the street toward the place where they have the big cardboard barrels of many different flavors and the people behind the counter in aprons. If you ask him if he believes in ice cream, he might claim to have no particular passion or belief in ice cream itself. Nonetheless, he wants an ice-cream cone and so off he goes, jingling the change in his pocket. One day in the future, when sufficient computing power exists, we may be able to say with some certainty why a particular person arose from a desk at a particular time of day to go get ice cream. But until then, we just say, “Oh, Hank? He went to get an ice-cream cone.”

Hear me now: People do stuff. People say stuff. They have feelings and thoughts about things, and not all those feelings and thoughts make sense even to them, much less to anyone else.

While you describe the interaction between you and this other person in considerable detail, you still are standing apart from it, as though it weren’t you at all who was having this relationship, but some laboratory representation of yourself. I would suggest that what you are doing is just what it is: You’re hanging out with a person from work.

While his motives and ideas remain a mystery to you, consider how he might feel about one particular thing. It’s possible, this guy being a gay person of color, that he may be a little bit annoyed that people expect him to prominently display the latest up-to-date set of approved gay-person-of-color ideas and values. He may not even subscribe to the approved set of values — or he may have been a subscriber but let the subscription lapse.

People do sometimes hold political views that are contrary to their own interests. But can you imagine what it must be like to have all the “normal” people around you assuming who you are based on your skin color and your sexual preference and then getting all out of joint when you don’t live up to their assumptions? Wouldn’t that be a little annoying? Might you not even find yourself adopting certain beliefs just to confound people? Not that I’m saying he does — but it would be tempting, would it not?

Anyway, here is one helpful suggestion for trying to fit this relationship into your life. Consider what it is about him that you really like. Do you like his smile, for instance, or his cologne? Do you like the tone of his voice or the way his eyes look, or the way he walks, or the way he dresses? Sometimes we just like people. They make us feel good. We like being around them. It’s not always their ideas we like. Sometimes it’s their money or their nose or their books. Sometimes we just like people. Sometimes that’s enough.

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My boyfriend is my boss

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Cary’s classic column from MONDAY, NOV 23, 2009

I’m getting sick of being “the editor’s girlfriend”


Dear Cary,

I’m a college student and a reporter for my university’s paper. I’m a good writer — my work has shown up in publications beyond the university, and since arriving here I’ve established myself as “one to watch” in the English department. I really don’t intend to sound cocky, but I’m not affected with false modesty. I have a lot to learn, but I know I have a knack for this.

I’m in a fairly new relationship of about three months, with a boyfriend who so far has been entirely wonderful. We’re both ambitious types with busy schedules and social lives, but we make the time. I think it has been a revelation to both of us just how extraordinary it is to have another person who is truly in your corner.

Here’s the problem — he’s my boss. He’s two years older and is the editor of the school newspaper, while I’m a staff writer. We met outside of the newspaper, and other people are in charge of how much I get paid and where my articles run. We’ve had several serious discussions about ethics, during which we emphasized that I’d never, ever ask him to do me any professional favors, and he would never give me any sort of special treatment. The relationship is more public than I’d like at such an early stage — we’ve both gotten long personal lectures on ethics from the head of the journalism department, and how he heard about us is anyone’s guess.

The thing that bothers me is not the ethical question — I feel like we’re managing that. It’s that I’m entirely fed up with being “the editor’s girlfriend” and not defined as a reporter in my own right. I have never, ever been the kind of woman who would be defined by a relationship — it is extremely important to me that I be defined by my own actions and my own work.

I’ve been doing good work at the paper, and I’m likely to be getting a promotion in the next couple of semesters. But I’m so, so sick of having to hear jokes about my sex life every time one of my stories runs in a prominent place in the paper or I pick up a particularly coveted assignment.

These aren’t serious allegations — the newspaper staff knows that it is not my boyfriend who makes these decisions, and people from outside the staff are only kidding. My friends say to laugh it off, but the fact is that those small successes are things that I earned through a lot of hard work, and the suggestion that I’m somehow trading sexual favors for good assignments truly offends me. I worry that the staff will take me less seriously and that this could endanger my future at the paper.

I know that having a happy relationship and a successful career are not mutually exclusive, but I feel like I’m too young to be dealing with such a minefield. I don’t even know whom to talk to about this — my boyfriend and I are handling it as best we can, but I don’t know how to tell him that although I’m pretty attached to being his girlfriend, I’m getting damn tired of being “the editor’s girlfriend.” I’m not giving up on my work, or on my relationship, I just need to figure out how to reconcile the two.

Her Own Girl Friday

Dear Girl Friday,

I suggest you try to be a little lighthearted about this. Imagine strutting around campus wearing a T-shirt that says, “I’m sleeping with my boss and enjoying it. You got a problem with that?”
Picture yourself walking amid these yahoos with your head held high. Imagine striking them down with wit and glamour and sophistication. Imagine shutting them up and putting them in their place.

Do you feel better?

Keep going with this. Conjure up an image that makes you feel powerful and proud. Make it vivid and real. Draw some cartoons or make a collage. Create the image of the superhero you are. Inhabit her skin. Name this woman. Give her special powers. Keep her image close to you. Appeal to her for strength and guidance.

And know this: Sexism pervades our culture. The assumption that a woman’s achievements stem from her value as a domestic, sexual and romantic companion rather than as a skilled worker is evidence of that sexism.

You know what else exists in our society? Morons. The world beyond your college gates is a nightmare of hulking, mouth-breathing morons. Morons even run newspapers. So be ready. You’re going to be encountering a lot of sexist morons.

So that’s the sociological part of this.

The other part is psychological: By mixing creativity, sexuality and power, you run the risk of incurring deep psychological wounds if things go wrong. By hooking up with your boss, however much you trust him, you have placed your fate in the hands of someone who may damage you, even if he doesn’t mean to.

That is my opinion, but I assume that it is also a fear of yours. If you sense that you are in dangerous territory emotionally, I would agree that you are.

Stuff can happen in such a relationship to shape the rest of your life. Sometimes people make decisions in such circumstances that last for decades. “Oh, he told me I’d be happier if I wasn’t writing, so I quit.” You know, crazy stuff.

How power, sexuality and creativity combine to damage the psyche is complicated. Let’s assume that our emotional responses are rooted in invisible structures formed very early. As a baby, you must be loved unconditionally. You are helpless. You have no vocational skills. You are just a cute, wiggling bundle that eats and shits and throws up and makes noise. You are not a cowboy or a princess. You must be loved and cared for unconditionally. We get older and develop skills, but underneath, our need to be loved unconditionally persists even after we develop great skills and charm and form adult relationships. One area where this need for unconditional acceptance seems to persist most deeply is in the area of creativity. Why is this so?

Could it be because creativity is our one way back to that primal state?

That would be my guess. Betrayal of this creative self reaches beyond personality self into some realm of existential pain and fear that is difficult to find access to. So if you are exposing this fragile, unprotected, raw creative pre-verbal self — the one that cannot protect itself but must be cared for unconditionally — to the upheavals of romantic and sexual relationship, you are in frightening territory. If for instance you were to break up you might feel unconsciously it was because you were not a good reporter. That may sound stupid. But these decisions, we do not make consciously. They are made by this pre-verbal, emotional self that reacts to rejection as if it were an existential threat. So I assume you feel concerned and confused for good reason. You are exposing your psyche to risks that you might not consciously understand.

What can you do? For one thing, you can begin getting assignments outside the school. You can strike out on your own so that there is no question in anyone’s mind how you did it. And  I would suggest, if possible, that you find some ally, a therapist or counselor or older friend, and go through this with that person, checking in frequently, discussing this, asking for protection, watching for ways that you have placed your fragile creativity in danger. If you are in self-doubt, ask yourself why. If you feel like quitting, interrogate your feelings. Honor them but interrogate them. It might be this frightened child who wants to quit. Beware. It’s complex. Keep moving forward.

p.s. You know that Yeats poems that ends, “I have spread my dreams under your feet; Tread softly because you tread on my dreams”? What a lovely and moving poem that is.

My husband thinks I should make more money

I’m doing the kind of work I love, but he’s earning so much more!

Cary’s classic column from THURSDAY, FEB 16, 2006

Dear Cary,

How do I get my husband to stop telling me that I make too little money? I am a full-time copy editor at a magazine, making what copy editors make when they first start out in their careers. I love my job and feel that I am well suited for it; unfortunately, the pay is crap (you’re well aware of this, I believe).

My husband is a first-year attorney at a prestigious firm, earning more than triple my salary. He has worked hard to get where he is, putting himself through law school at night while working a full-time job at a firm during the day for four years. He grew up without much money, and the result is that he’s not only deeply concerned about financial security, he now always wants (I’d even say needs) the best that money can buy.

He associates with a lot of attorneys whose wives are also attorneys or hold high-paying positions, and these people live it up in a way that we can’t. This frustrates my husband and sometimes when we’re confronted with this, he’ll ask me why I can’t get a better-paying job, perhaps go to law school and become an attorney myself. I’ve told him that comments like these are demoralizing, not to mention unfair, since this is the path that I’ve chosen for myself and I’ve worked hard at it — he just works harder. He’ll acknowledge that his comments are not supportive, but add that that’s just the way he feels — that I’m not working as hard as I could while reaping all the benefits of his hard work.

I know it’s true that I benefit from our situation while he puts in long hours at a job that’s not his passion, but it’s not that I’ve ever asked him for any of this. In fact, I’d rather he switch careers and do something that makes him happier, since it’s quite clear that he doesn’t love any aspect of his job except for the salary. But he completely rejects that idea.

Sometimes I wonder if maybe he’s right. He does half the housework and is a caring and loving husband in every other respect. In fact, I’d say that his disapproval of my career choice is out of character for him — he’s really quite easygoing about most other things and I can’t say that we seriously fight over anything else. Do I need to suck it up, start bringing home half the bacon? Am I being a slacker? My heart tells me no, but maybe that’s just because my mind is screaming, “I don’t want to work any harder than I have to!”

A Grim Reaper

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Dear Grim Reaper,

There are three interlocking issues here. The first is political — how two working partners of different sexes apportion the labor fairly. The second is personal — why he at this particular time seems to have a need for you to make more money, and how you personally respond to that. And the third is historical — what family history and long-standing needs are being expressed here.

To answer the first question, what is a fair distribution of labor in a marriage partnership between equals, I think the obvious answer is that it should be 50-50. But of course you have different abilities and different needs, so you make adjustments. And don’t forget, you also have a question about how to share in the rewards. So ask yourselves, What is a fair way for both partners to share in the labor and the proceeds from the labor, if each partner’s labor is disproportionately rewarded?

If you and he can agree in principle, you will have a common goal of fairness that you are both working toward. You probably cannot answer these questions with certainty and exactitude — people have been trying to do so for decades! — but discussing them and struggling to find a balanced answer will reveal much, particularly any previously unexpressed beliefs and expectations that may be influencing you.

The second question involves a bit of a mystery: Why does he at this particular time need for you to make more money? You say this behavior is out of character. That suggests that he has recently encountered some new kind of stress that is too great for him to handle in his accustomed ways. Most likely that new stress comes from his job. Since he is a first-year lawyer, he is working long hours under intense pressure to perform at a high level. That alone can change somebody. But second, he is in a new social realm, and while the work pressure is intense, I am going to guess that it is the social pressure that he is finding most painful.

You say he grew up without much money. Many of the lawyers he now socializes with probably grew up quite comfortably. He may find himself a little intimidated though he might not come right out and say so. Instead, it would express itself as an aspiration: If I only had what they’ve got, I’d be on top of the world (i.e., the unexpressed thought: I would not be as intensely uncomfortable as I am right now).

He has advanced socioeconomically, but that does not mean he automatically belongs to the club; climbing the ladder in America is not a painless experience; it takes guts; it cannot be done without some sacrifice of confidence and dignity and self-worth. He is going to feel small and unentitled at times. He is going to be a small fish. So perhaps in addition to a typically murderous workload for a new associate, he is feeling socially inferior, his manhood and status are being challenged, and he has begun fantasizing how nice it would be to have a high-powered wife, a diplomat or movie star, to bring to the party, to bring to the table, to display to his boss. It would be natural to envy the men who squire rich, beautiful wives to the office functions, to long for the kind of ease and power represented by their addresses and their automobiles.

As to the third issue, it would be a mistake to underestimate the power of family history in shaping our attitudes toward work. Having come from a family with little money, but being quite ambitious by nature, he may have grown impatient with his father and mother, wishing they had made smarter choices and worked harder. It’s possible he’s responding to you with the same impatience with which he responded to his family.

If he thought that once he became a lawyer life would be cleansed of doubt and fear, he may now be dismayed and frustrated at how difficult such transformation is. When we are under stress we sometimes combine several issues in one symbol. So although he knows better, he may see your job as the one thing that now stands between him and the realization of his grand vision. (Perhaps that’s overstating it, but it’s the kind of thought-knot we can get into when frustrated.)

His family history is not the only one that is relevant here. It is likely that you got your values and attitudes about work partly from your family as well.

You have different attitudes toward work. You like work for its intrinsic value, how it opens up and magnifies your abilities and your interests; he sees work as a vehicle to survival, status and acquisition. Neither approach is wrong. Most kinds of work have elements of both. But for him to suggest you take his approach to work instead of your own — I can see why it is demoralizing. You probably feel it as an attack on yourself — because your choice of work is an expression of who you are, not where you are trying to get to.

You need to sort these things out together.

You’ve got a lot to talk about. Good luck!

Cary Tennis Newsletter Sign Up

A bohemian in the Cheesecake Factory

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I’m an INFJ working undercover at JCrew/Abercrombie/Banana Republic/Sephora/Barneys/Apple/Eddie Bauer Town

Cary’s classic column from Tuesday, Dec 7, 2010

Dear Cary,

I’m a worldly, well-traveled, experienced and vibrant woman, still young (age 55), I have a wide network of interesting friends, a talented, caring and loving husband and a young adult daughter (who I raised alone) who is holding her own and doing well. I was blessed (I guess) with physical beauty and I have a strong and elegant personal style. I was fortunate to retire with a full pension almost two years ago and set upon a life of leisure while pursuing my art as an avocation, have held two successful gallery exhibits and produced a book as well, which has been very well received in my Rust Belt American city. I am an INFJ, if that tells you anything. The most marked characteristic to me is that we are only 3 percent of the population.

I consider myself to be very strong and am a survivor. I won’t go into my past except to say it included a measure of poverty, violence, loneliness and estrangement from family.

All of that has been long worked out. I truly believe that I am firmly on the path of being the woman I would have wanted to be when I was younger and full of doubt, avoidance, fear and uncertainty.
I believe those are traits that I still have — they are human traits, after all — and even when I feel overwhelmed by such emotions I am able to put them into context and move on.

I recently began working again, part-time, at a small retail establishment that is a corporate entity of her sister stores. It’s located in an affluent suburb in a pretty little shopping district that was built for just this purpose: retail. A pretty, little fake town with nice shops selling expensive goods: This is how the shopping district is set up. It’s pleasant and pretty and in my view it’s all pretend. Or it’s not. It’s all about marketing and spending money and capitalism. It is fascinating and when I go to work I feel as though I’m a cultural anthropologist visiting JCrew/Abercrombie/Banana Republic/Cheesecake Factory/Sephora/Barneys/Apple/Eddie Bauer/Brooks Brothers Town.

I see this as an opportunity for personal growth in getting along with people, especially women. In my real world the people I know are bohemian, earthy, acerbic, witty, creative, artsy and outrageous. My new work world is not like that. I feel that my challenge will be in honing my skill at interpersonal relationships. I have always been a square peg in a round hole, even among the boho crowd. I’m good with that. However, I am concerned about workplace relationships. The woman who hired me is lovely. I’m not worried about my boss, I’m worried about getting along with co-workers, all women.

I want to fit in, without fitting in, if you know what I mean. Already I am trying to squelch my internal critical dialogue of what I observe around me. I am also blessed (I guess) with the ability to see scenarios as they really are and to see people as they really are, i.e., I’m perceptive. Sometimes this makes me judgmental and I internalize that dialogue. I am now in an environment where my wry observations, sardonic wit and sarcastic barbs would most definitely not be well received.

I can control myself, no problem. My challenge is to learn to internalize acceptance of what I find to be icky: namely, entitled, outer-ring suburban McMansion, probably racist, certainly Republican (that is the demographic of the area), greedy, hypocritical and clueless. See, already I’m sounding harsh. How do I stop?

I really appreciate this job, even though the hours and wages are meager, because I believe it is giving me a valuable opportunity in navigating interpersonal relationships, including honing the art of diplomacy. These would be skills that I could apply in many different places for the rest of my life. How do I not fuck it up?

The Outsider

Dear Outsider,

They’ll assume you’re one of them until you bring in a painting.

So don’t bring in a painting. Keep the paintings in the trunk of your normal automobile, which they’ve seen you drive up in.

Don’t pose as normal, though. Pose as eccentric in a normal automobile. If you pose as normal they’ll know right off you’re weird. If you pose as eccentric but they see the normal automobile, they will believe the normal automobile.

You can’t fake normal.

It may be idiocy but it’s a finely calibrated idiocy you cannot fake. Look at Sarah Palin.

They’ve got too much experience. They’re like native French speakers.

It would be better if you rode bulls and drove stock cars. But your eccentricities can work. You can pose as the rebel insider.

You can do this easily. Just pretend. Keep in mind that you don’t have to hide everything; some of your activities will seem interesting to them until they learn enough to be confused.

Because you don’t belong, you’re going to work hard to appear to belong. Because you are skilled at appearing to belong, and because you are analytical and thoughtful, and because you know you are an outsider, you may appear to belong more than those who actually do belong.

This is the drama of the outsider.

Your difference makes a difference. But the difference to them is not as great as the difference to you.

You think they notice but they don’t. You think they know because to you it’s so friggin’ obvious. But they have not been issued a clue. They were not issued a clue and are not aware that a clue is available free on the Internet or at any public library.

So they will be astonished to find you’re not staying for life. “Oh, but you fit in so well here!” your boss will say, giving unconscious voice to the doubts that were there all along.

You will be mystified by their inability to see through your ruse.

One danger in giving this performance of fitting in is that you may appear weak. Someone may try to manipulate or bully you. That’s where the bull-riding story comes in. Or the story where you slit someone’s throat. Or a cop in the family. Some drama of throat-slitting or bull-riding will be a prophylaxis. It will sound eccentric, but since it’s violent, it’s permitted. That’s also where protection comes in.

Did I mention this is prison?

In prison you find a buddy. Figure out who has the power and make that person your buddy. Then, even if they do figure out that you don’t belong there, you’ll be protected.

Help! I’m committing professional suicide!

Write for Advice

I know what to do and how to do it but I’m paralyzed! Soon my whole work life is going to come crashing down!


(Cary’s classic column from Friday, March 7, 2008)

Dear Cary,

It may be too late for me. I’m committing professional suicide. I see exactly what I’m doing, and I can’t stop myself. The problem is procrastination. In fact, I thought about writing to you about six months ago. If I had done it then, maybe I could have salvaged something in my present job. Now, I’m not so sure.

Through no fault of my own, I’ve risen to a managerial position in charge of marketing for a small manufacturing business. Deadlines are very important, and I keep missing them. I just spent the past week stalling on meetings with my graphic designer to prepare ads for the new line of products we just introduced. The products have been created, parts sourced, manufactured and shipped. Meanwhile, our introductory ad campaign hasn’t started yet. I know what has to be done, I know what I have to do to get it started. It’s not up to me to create the campaign — I just have to make sure it gets done. But every time I have the opportunity to move forward with the project, I … don’t.

I have already driven the last few projects I’ve been involved with into crisis mode because of my delays. The further behind I get, the harder it is to get started. I’m sure that’s a cliché, now that I look at it in writing. I know I’ll have to deal with questions about the delay, and I just can’t answer them. When I’m confronted, my brain just goes mushy.

I think I’ve probably used up eight of my nine lives with this company, and yet I still sit here in my office studiously not working on the projects at hand while the clock ticks away. Tick. Tock.

I’m miserable. I know what I have to do to make the misery go away (just deal with the projects, for God’s sake!), but I’m frozen. Or maybe I’m like a car and the driver is stomping down on the accelerator with one foot and stomping down equally hard on the brakes with the other. Whatever, it’s eating me up, causing problems for my employer, and threatening my family (I’m in my 50s and not looking forward to having to find another job).

Any advice?

Stuck and panicking

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Dear Stuck,

Call in sick for three days. Check into a hotel. Bring your documents and your computer with you.

Arrange to meet with a confidant on the morning of the first day. This confidant may be a coach, a friend, a spiritual guide, a psychological professional, a mentor. You must have somebody. If you don’t have a confidant, deputize someone. Deputize a trusted friend or relative. Insist that they meet with you in your hotel room for a minimum of two hours on the first morning of your three-day sick leave. If they have to take off work, tell them to take off work. This is an emergency!

Explain that you need somebody to be accountable to. You need someone to act as a supportive witness as you make a plan, someone to check in with as you complete your tasks, and someone who, if you don’t check in with them, is going to call you and say, What’s going on? Make sure you have their agreement: If you don’t call them up and tell them your progress, they are going to check on you.

Meet with this confidant on the morning of the first day. Make your list of tasks. Go over the list with your confidant. Highlight any difficult phone calls you have to make. Highlight areas that make you wince when you think about them. Then sit back and visualize the whole thing being finished. Visualize yourself conquering the whole thing. Write down on paper, in front of your confidant, how you want it to turn out. Read that aloud to your confidant. Make it in the first person, positive, something like, “I can handle this project and make it turn out well. I’ve done this before and I can do it again. When it is over I will feel accomplished and satisfied. And now I am going to take a swim.” If the hotel has a pool and you like swimming, take a swim. If you work out, work out. Sit in the sauna. Relax. Eat well. Visualize how you will feel when you are done with this project. In the afternoon, if you feel like working, do some work. If ideas come to you, jot them down. But mainly relax. Rest. Get a good night’s sleep.

The next day, get busy. Call your confidant first thing in the morning and say that you are getting up and getting to work. Arise, take a shower, get dressed, eat breakfast, get to work. Do the first task on your list. Just start doing things without thinking about them. If it involves dialing the phone, just dial the phone. If it involves writing, just write. If it involves making an appointment, then make the appointment. Don’t think about the things. Just do the things on your list. Work briskly. Piece of cake. Do six items and then take a swim and have lunch.

After lunch, if there are certain things on your list that you fear doing, do those right away. If you have to make difficult phone calls, make them. In dealing with the people you need to work with, take this approach: Ask for their help. Don’t order them. Ask for their help. Apologize for any delays you have caused. If you admire the work the people have done in the past, tell them you admire their work. If there is the possibility of bigger projects or promotions, mention that. Whatever you have at your disposal to motivate people, use it. If you have authority to promise bonuses or rush payments, do so. If you have personal discretionary funds, use them. If you have people working for you who have time to spare, enlist their help. Mobilize people. Make careful note of what you promise, so that you can follow through on it later.

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If at all possible, do not communicate with your bosses until after your three-day sick leave. Confine your work to setting in motion with your subordinates the things that will make the project succeed. If there are meetings to schedule with bosses, schedule them for after your three-day sick leave.

Check in with your confidant on the afternoon of the first day and on the morning of the second day. Make a new list on the second day. Check in with your confidant on the afternoon of the second day. Make a new list on the third day. Check in with your confidant on the morning of the third day. Check in again on the afternoon of the third day.

After your three-day sick leave, return to work and communicate with your bosses. Tell them that although you were out on sick leave, you were able to finally get things rolling, and that while the project got off to a slow start, it now looks like it will be a success.

Ha ha.

Now, maybe the details are different for you. I put you in a hotel because you’re in management and make the bucks. And it makes a good story. And stories of victory over crisis travel; they enter the culture and help others; they get passed down to family and to younger co-workers; so they make the world better. But maybe the details are different. Maybe the hotel is a metaphor. The essential thing is the process: You change your environment, clear your life of routine commitments, confide in someone about your crisis, make a list of tasks, attend to your physical and spiritual needs, commit to checking in with your confidant before and after doing your tasks, and do them briskly without overmuch thought. That’s it in a nutshell.

And then, after this episode is over, see about working with a coach or mentor, so you do not backslide. If you cannot find a professional coach or mentor to work with you, ask your deputized confidant if he or she would be willing to continue to meet with you. Buy the Julie Morgenstern book, “Time Management From the Inside Out,” and do what it suggests.

And every month, go back to that hotel for a swim in the pool.

Cary Tennis Newsletter Sign Up

Stolen words

Write for Advice

 

Cary’s classic column from

My boss uses what I write in e-mails as his own. What should I do about it?


Dear Cary,

I’m an in-house copywriter/creative director with a small technical company, working for a boss whose communications skills, to put it delicately, are not his greatest asset. Lately I learned he’s been passing off my writing (not ad or brochure copy, just conversational e-mails on internal issues) as his own. I’ll write him a note on a topic, and later on that same note will land in my in box as part of a forwarded e-mail conversation chain — only now the note has his name on it. It’s happened several times that I know of.

I’ve always thought of him as a fundamentally decent fellow, and I sense he does this more for expediency’s sake (“Why bother rewriting this opinion that I share, when I’ve got this version sitting here?”) than to lay claim to my thoughts and words. Still, they are my thoughts and words, and I worry that by keeping my name out of these conversations he’s limiting my ability to benefit from people’s reactions to my ideas. Besides, I’m a writer: Even within the quasi-professional forum of interoffice e-mails, it feels like plagiarism.

Am I overreacting? And if not, should I confront him?

Accidental Ghostwriter

Cary Tennis Writing Retreat in France

Dear Ghostwriter,

Here are some suggestions: Stop giving your boss great lines that he can use and call his own. Do your job on the brochures and the official stuff, but stop giving him stuff for free. If there are people you want to impress with your ideas, send your ideas directly to those people. Or if there’s a discussion you’re having with your boss and you can predict that it’s going to widen to include others, if you suspect he’s going to steal your material, suggest that that you include those people to whom he’s likely to send your material. Ask, what other interested stakeholders are there? You know, act like you care.

Either suggest they be included, or just cc them as though you thought that was the normal thing to do, since you know they’re interested parties.

Don’t be telling your boss not to cop your copy. He won’t get it. He’ll just think you’re being a pain.

You might also review just what you were hired for. Did you get a job description? Did anybody ever tell you what your job was? There is probably some expectation that you provide “other written materials.” These e-mails could be considered other written materials. You just want credit for it, right? So I’d find some way to let others know where it’s coming from — like, by cc’ing them before your boss steals your stuff.

And I would beware of your own personal motives that are tripping you up, too. Hey, I know about this: You want to do a great job of writing e-mails because that’s what you are. After all, you’re a writer. So you could be tricking yourself into giving your stuff away because you’re so damned good and you can’t help it, and you can’t help trying to impress your boss. I know what it’s like to be a writer. It doesn’t matter who the audience is. You’re still going to sweat over a few sentences until they’re perfect.

Bosses in non-media companies are so weird. They have no idea what it’s like to be a writer. They are just so weird. How do they even get through the day without being able to communicate?

Who knows. But they do. I guess they do it by hiring people like you.

Don’t pick a fight with him, but don’t be a sap!

WhatHappenedNextCall

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Doctor in love

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Cary’s classic column Tuesday,  NOV 4, 2003 10:29 AM PST

I had a crush on a colleague, and now she wants to be friends, but I don’t. How do I get rid of her?


Dear Cary,

I’m a Salon reader from Mexico and I enjoy reading your column very much. Now I need your advice.

I am a medical doctor and there is a colleague of mine I had a big crush on, but circumstances have not been appropriate for me to try to “advance” the relationship (she had a boyfriend at first, then she was out of the country for some time).

When I finally started — rather softly — to make a move, she started working with another doctor, 10 years her senior. Obviously he snatched her. Now, I am not really hurt nor do I have any remorse or hatred. It was just a crush. I was not in love or anything. It was not meant to be, and I am over it already. But she wants to keep being my friend. She seems to be completely clueless about my feelings. I don’t want to keep being her friend. I don’t loathe her; I just don’t want to be around her anymore. But I don’t want to hurt her. I don’t want to face her because I know I would end up saying more things than I would rationally think convenient.

I have tried to be evasive, tried to drive her away in a “passive way.” But she is still there. What should I do? How do I get rid of her (in a smooth way)?

Tired of Being Nice

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Dear Tired,

When beings are denied privileges solely because of attributes over which they have no control, such as whether they are women or men, or white or black, or human or animal, it is sometimes called “objectification.” What that means, I think, is that the one who has the power is free to act as though no bona fide relationship exists with the other, as though there is no bond of reciprocity, as though the other were a piece of furniture or a magazine, to be used without regard for its feelings or mental processes.

That sort of objectification is what your letter hints at, and it is that habit of being that you need to address. The tragedy of such a habit is that it walls off a rich and rewarding realm of human bonds, in which we trade some of our power and autonomy for a sense of community and trust.

“Obviously he snatched her,” you say. That makes it sound as though women are routinely handed around from doctor to doctor like so many copies of Playboy, to be privately enjoyed and then passed on. If so, there is a certain ethical inequality in your workplace, a kind of gender discrimination. I’m not saying it’s the kind of thing you can fix, but it’s the kind of thing you, as a doctor, should recognize as poison and avoid in your personal dealings.

I think you really did have feelings for her. You say you were not hurt, that it was just a crush. Regardless, you do not have the right to smooth this over and make it go away just because it is inconvenient for you.

You have probably spent most of your youth studying the medical sciences, looking for ways to control disease and analyze chemical and biological processes. So you may not have had much time to study how human communities function. But I think you will be much happier in life once you understand this: You have entered into a relationship with this woman already. In a moral sense, you do not have the right to simply, “in a smooth way,” get rid of her. You owe her the truth: That you were interested in her not as a friend but as an amorous companion, and now that the possibility of such a relationship seems remote, you are disappointed and it is painful to be around her.

What she then does with this truth is her concern, not yours. The reason we tell each other the truth is that we want to maximize personal freedom: The more truth someone knows, the better she can make the best decisions for herself. It’s true in medicine, and it’s true in relationships.

If it helps in preparing your speech, conceptualize it this way: You have some bad news to deliver to her. Deliver it like a doctor. Tell her the facts. Tell her what her likelihood of recovery is and explain her treatment options. Tell her the condition is curable and not fatal.

But please do not tell her that simply because it sounds good. Tell her the truth. And if you should say more things than you would “rationally think convenient,” there’s no shame in that. There’s no shame in having strong feelings for someone, or in feeling disappointed or spurned. It’s part of being a man.

Connecticut_SlightlySmaller

I stood on principle and was harshly reprimanded

Cary’s classic column from MONDAY, JUN 16, 2008


I refuse to apologize for taking a stand that is in the best interests of the company.


Dear Cary,

I am having a little difficulty knowing where the line dividing personal assistant and administrative staff lies. I’ve been harshly reprimanded for questioning or challenging a principal on a matter that I felt was an abuse of company resources and the administrative staff.

After I utilized the open-door policy by questioning said principal regarding a particular task, I was promptly told that I was out of line and then reprimanded by the operations manager, who explicitly said never to question a principal.

That comment makes me very uncomfortable.

As a fellow employee of this company, I assume the best interest of the company should be my first priority. If I believe that a particular task is an abuse of the company or I have a few concerns about it, I should feel free to confront the person ordering that task and ask questions, I think. Am I wrong? They make it seem as if we’re a family in this office and the doors are always open, but that is clearly not the case.

Shouldn’t an administrative assistant, as well as every employee, have the right to question a superior without fear of wounding an ego, inevitably resulting in an H.R. violation — usually “insubordination,” the vague corporate offense that encompasses anything not pleasing to a superior.

Caste, caste, caste … it is everywhere we look. At the grocery store, on the playground and most obviously at work, where you can be reprimanded and even fired for not bending over and taking it with a smile.

I am not apologizing! Maybe it would save me from an H.R. report to do so but I refuse to compromise my integrity. Am I being just as irrational as this jerk with a title? Refuse to

Apologize

Connecticut_PatCary1

Dear Refuse to Apologize,

My answer to you is a simple thing but hard to grasp. It is abundant, ancient and commonplace but sighted at a distance more often than caught. It is the truth and it is like a fish. There are big fish and small fish, and there are big truths and small truths but there are more small ones than big ones. The biggest ones are mostly mirages sprung from the exhausted minds of seekers who have grown weary, hungry and full of wishes. They see things that aren’t there. If wishes were fishes, as they say … (or is that “if wishes were horses”?).

This is all by way of delaying a small, blunt truth: Companies are made of people trying to get what they want. Everyone you are working for is a person trying to get what he or she wants. You can either stand in their way, in which case they will treat you as an obstacle, or you can aid them in getting what they want, in which case they might treat you as an ally.

So put aside for a moment your thoughts about how the company should be and what the company should want, and ask yourself what each individual with whom you are in conflict wants. There is nothing in the company but that. There is no company God who is going to decide who is right and wrong. There is no company parent who is going to step in and, after hearing both sides, punish the wrongdoer. The people in H.R. are just more people trying to get what they want. If getting what they want means nodding in agreement about abstract principles and then sabotaging you behind your back, then they will do that.

This description of reality may be offensive to you. But I didn’t make this up. I observed it. Maybe you can benefit from my experience by seeing, now, what it took me years to learn.

So what do your co-workers and superiors want? One way to learn what people want is to look at what they have. If your boss has a shiny red sports car, she wants shiny red sports cars. If she has three children, she wants children. If she has a position of power she wants power.

If she wants power and you are challenging her, then you are threatening to deprive her of what she wants, and naturally she will do things to thwart you so she can continue to get what she wants.

In trying to determine what your co-workers want, you must also ask what they want from you. Have they asked you to keep a close eye on them so as to prevent them from going to excess? Have they asked you to police their actions lest they exceed the bounds of their authority? Have they asked you to notify them if you feel they are failing to live up to the company’s values? Ask yourself what they have actually asked you to do. Literally: What have they asked you to do? Then try just doing that. Try doing just what they have asked you to do.

Do they want you to be on time? Do they want you to lecture them on the company’s policies and ideals? What have they asked you to do? What they have asked you to do is what they are paying you to do.

No matter what you understood when you were hired, you are now being paid to do what certain individuals want you to do. If you do these things they will pay you. If you don’t, they will try to make you go away. So try just doing these things and see if you can live with that. It may be that you can’t live with that.

It may be that you want to run things. If you want to run things, then find a job running things. Not everyone is good at running things. Not everyone wants to run things. People are needed who want to run things and are good at it. You can surely find a job doing that if that is what you want. But that does not appear to be the job you have.

If you find a job running things then you will confront a host of subordinates, each of whom wants something. Some of them may want to also run things. If you let them run certain things they will work hard for you. If you hoard all the running of things for yourself, then they will work against you.

You have to figure out what people want. It isn’t complicated. Just look at what they have. Look at what they try to get. The things people have and the things people try to get are the things people want. If you help them get these things, they will be your allies. If you try to thwart them, they will be your enemies. This is a simple and commonplace truth, yet like a fish it can be slippery to grasp.

WhatHappenedNextCall

Newsletter_NEW_Dec13

I’m the Peggy Olson of my office

Write for Advice

 

Dear Cary,

I work for a small office in a large organization. I like my job and I believe in the work we are doing. The problem is, I don’t like my co-workers. Or rather, they don’t like me.

I work in a male-dominated field, so I’m used to being the odd woman out. That wasn’t a problem early in my career when I was a junior employee working with people my own age. But my work has been good and promotions have brought me into areas dominated by older workers. As a result, the cultural differences have become much more noticeable.

The men I typically work with now don’t really DO anything that I can point out—they just give me a perpetual cold shoulder. Their days are filled with private jokes, communicated via email or social messaging, that I’m not part of. When I make jokes, they fall flat. In some cases, I think these men don’t “get” all of my cultural references (never a problem with people my own age). But sometimes, it feels passive-aggressive. I mean, I don’t “get” their obsession with sports, but at least I’m polite enough to make small talk or laugh at jokes. I don’t stop and stare them into an uncomfortable silence.

After trying far too long to be accepted, I came to believe that these older male colleagues are probably—though maybe unconsciously—uncomfortable with a somewhat younger female (15 to 20 years’ difference) succeeding mid-career at the level they’ve worked their whole careers to achieve.

In other words, I’m the Peggy Olson of my office.

It’s 2014. I’m neither interested nor equipped to spend my life waging office warfare.

Should I stay in this job I like, with these people I increasingly don’t, grit my teeth and wait 10 years until these “old guys” start retiring? How do I resolve this without getting promoted past them—or at least avoid this problem in my next job?

PS: The answer can’t be “talk to the boss.” The boss—whom I otherwise like working for—has made it clear that employee socializing is not his department. He simply expects us to work as a team. If I’m complaining, then I’m the one who’s not fitting in and that makes me the problem. Or maybe he’s right—I’m not sure I know anymore.

Not a Kid, Not a Baby Boomer

Connecticut_PatCary1

Dear Not a Kid, Not a Baby Boomer,

I think you should look for another job.

If your boss wanted to address your grievances it might be different. But look at the situation. Consider the possible ways it might improve and think about their likelihood:

1) Your boss changes and decides to take an active interest in team-building. An outside consultant takes you on a team-building retreat to the Idaho wilderness and your co-workers’ attitudes suddenly shift. They see that they’ve been unfair and realize what a marvelous and talented person you are.

2) All on their own, without any outside consultant or team-building exercises or pressure from management, your co-workers change and make an effort to include you.

3) A catastrophic event pulls you together as a team.

4) You magically and unexpectedly gel as a team for no apparent reason.

5) Your boss promotes you over their heads quickly and you don’t have to deal with them anymore.

Are any of these events likely enough that you would stake the next 10 years of your life on them? The last one is at least something you could work toward. But in none of these cases is there a clear path to an achievable goal. It’s all out of your hands.

Here are two things you can do in the here and now. 1) work to get promoted out of this boomer network and 2) at the same time, conduct a vigorous job search.

Then, when you find something that looks promising, if you still haven’t been promoted, have a frank conversation with your boss. Ask for what you want. If you don’t get it, then take the other job.

Now, on a personal note, intuitively speaking, being expected to work as a team with people who obviously don’t like you, and having no support from your boss will take its toll on you emotionally. You don’t need that. What you need is to feel secure and respected and liked. Furthermore, the higher you go in this company, the more dependent your success will be on the subjective assessments of your superiors. The more important it will be to belong the network. So it just feels like you should get out and seek employment at a place where you fit and are happy.

After all, what did Peggy Olson do?

Newsletter_NEW_Dec13

My boss throws herself on the floor when unhappy

 

Cary’s classic column from Thursday, Jan 26, 2012

 

She berates! She glares! She makes backhanded comments about your lunch selection! Shouldn’t I, uh, say something?

 

Dear Cary,

My boss is insane.

I know people say that a lot but I’m pretty sure I win. I recently started working for someone who I thought was an extravagant and eccentric designer, but instead I find out that she is an unprofessional, spoiled, dramatic, self-absorbed, abusive, venomous … the list goes on … nut job.

I am realizing that there is probably no changing this woman but maybe I can learn to work around her moods … OR at least keep the peace in the office. Every time she enters the room, gushing with feigned merriment, the atmosphere sours.

She is self-aggrandizing. “I have such great taste, I am so amazing, I do everything around here, I’m the only one who works, I’m so smart …” Literally, those phrases spew from her mouth daily — to an office of intelligent and hardworking people. She throws herself on the floor when she is unhappy about something — actually on the floor — and whines dramatically. She lashes out at the staff, then cries (tears) and apologizes. She berates people in the office or over the phone while prancing around the workplace like it is performance art. (Oh. I forgot to mention she is a failed dancer/actress.) She glares at the staff and makes backhanded comments about their outfits or their style, even their lunch selections.

Recently a woman quit, claiming a hostile work environment. The rate of turnover in this small company is unbelievable. No one stays for more than six months, and the most senior employee on the current staff is nearing five months. She seems perpetually displeased with everything and complains incessantly to everyone about anyone not in the room. It is really exhausting. Sometimes she talks to her cat about us in a silly playful voice, but with an evil, maniacal face. It’s really creepy.

And her friends just placate her. They come into the office regularly to baby her and coddle her in soothing voices, as if her behavior is even remotely appropriate. Yesterday she called in a Zoloft prescription on speaker phone and told us she only takes it when she has a bad day! WHAT?!? She should be on anti-psychotics!

I don’t even pretend that her behavior is acceptable and I think because of my disapproving tone I am now a target. I don’t want to encourage her unprofessional and abusive behavior so I am OVERLY professional when around her and I try to keep our interactions solely business related. But now everything I do is criticized (although, after her long, strange, silent pauses punctuated by yelling, it is usually agreed that my ideas/methods are best.)

I would love to cut and run but in this economy I’d like to be smart about my next move. I also really LOVE the rest of the staff!! I want to see THEM every day.

How can I deal with this? What is wrong with this woman?!?!?!

Help… I don’t know what to do with this crazy lady!

The Only Sane One Left

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Dear Only Sane One,

Yep. Sounds like your boss is insane all right.

This is probably not be the last crazy person you will have to work for. So use this as a chance to practice and learn. Observe. Think like a psychiatrist. Is she crazy like this every day, or does she go through periods of relatively normal behavior? Do you notice extreme ups and downs? Will she go several days seeming very up, and then disappear from work, calling in sick or taking vacation?

Think like an anthropologist. Why is she the boss? What hidden social system is operating? Does her family own the company? If her family owned the company that might say something about kinship practices in the modern economy. Or if she herself owns it, it would say something about the magical powers we grant people who have money, that for some reason, probably having to do with our irrational belief systems, money buys people exemption from the consequences of acting crazy.

I’m just saying, use this rare chance to observe something strange and wondrous firsthand.

This is also an opportunity to learn something about yourself. How does your reaction to her differ from the reactions of your co-workers? If you had to work with her for the next five years, do you think you could do it? How? What would make it possible?

Also, to venture even farther afield, I suggest that you treat this rather fiction-like situation as though it were indeed a work of fiction. That is, look for the thematic patterns in it, the hidden subplots, the orderly magnetism of narrative justice, and the way in which her behavior mirrors behavior you have encountered before, which would raise the possibility that this is some kind of coded signal to you. I’m not saying it is; I’m just saying, to make it more interesting, imagine that it might be.

By the way, it’s interesting that she has been a dancer and actress. Maybe she would respond if you were to play against her, like a character. What if you were to do something really outrageous? What if you were to scold her like a little girl? I wonder what would happen. Would she slap you? Would she get violent? Might she pout? Would she fire you on the spot? That might be the best thing that could happen to you. Yes, I know the economy is not good. But it might not be good for a long time.

What do you want to do with your life? Do you want to spend it tiptoeing around vicious, crazy, immature egomaniacs? Why not call her on it?

As you can see, I’m not really giving you much practical help. All the employment gurus will say I’m harming your career prospects. But you’re an adult. You don’t have to do what I suggest. But think about it. What’s going on is a form of group madness.

There is something compelling about her, isn’t there? Be honest with yourself: Is she completely repugnant, or are there aspects of her that you find interesting? Does she have artistic talent? Is she sort of a crazy artist type, a diva? Or has she gotten where she is more by political talent, undermining those who would threaten her and befriending those who can help her? Or, as I say, did she come into the situation with resources of her own — family money or money of her own? What has she got? Is she beautiful, charming, smart, talented? What? Take notes. Film her. Study her. Years from now you may find it utterly amazing.

It’s really weird how there’ll be this one crazy person and no one person is powerful enough to stop the crazy person from being crazy. You’d think that “sanity” would prevail. But the crazy person has been granted magical powers. No one can touch her. Everyone is afraid of losing their jobs. Everyone is “being pragmatic,” when really, they are being damaged. And a pattern is being set. The group is failing to to take effective democratic action. What if you were in a lifeboat? What if she were a terrorist? What if she were abusing children? Where is the dividing line? What is this terrible passivity that settles over people in the presence of the deranged?

Don’t you wish, in situations like that, someone would be the hero? It might mean sacrificing a career. But is a career sacred? Is there nothing more important than one’s career prospects? Is self-esteem and dignity not more important than getting a bad reputation in an office that appears to have gone collectively mad?

I’m not suggesting you film her and put it on YouTube, though that would be amusing. I personally was very happy to be able to write the headline, “My boss throws herself on the floor when unhappy.” So there is that, too: How we turn mental illness into an occasion of glee. I know, it’s maybe not funny.

My main point is that this is not just about career. It is about moral choice. You have a chance to do something or do nothing. Years from now, if you play it safe, you may wonder why you didn’t act.

WhatHappenedNextCall