How to Refuse a Loaded Request from Boss
June 30, 2013 3:47 PM   Subscribe

My boss just majorly promoted me and then snuck in a weirdly punitive request at the end of what was otherwise an absolutely outstanding/stellar review. Why would he ask this of me in the first place given my promotion, and how can I say no?

At the end of my awesome review my boss randomly asked me to "think about" why my two monitors are turned in such a way so that they are the only ones he can't see if he happens to casually glance out of his office. This threw me for a loop for a lot of reasons: firstly, there are 6 other people with screens he can't see at all unless he gets out of his chair and comes to talk to them; secondly, he just promoted me and told me that I am the most trustworthy, efficient, hardworking, and excellent worker he's ever had; and thirdly, no one else is being asked to consider this except me.

I have my monitors turned the way that they are because I have serious eye and wrist problems. It's taken me a year to figure out how to angle them and arrange them on my desk to minimize eye strain and carpal tunnel. To move them into any other position is to invite glare, headaches, and wrist problems -- I know this because I've moved desks twice already and have only just figured out my sweet spot. When I assured my boss that nothing covert was occurring and that my monitor arrangement was for my eye health, he smirked and said, "I don't want to be Big Brother, but I need to you to consider why your monitors are arranged that way."

My questions are therefore these:
1. Why am I being asked this?
2. How can I let him know that I can't move my monitors due to health needs?
3. What can I offer him instead of changing my monitors?
4. Should I make an effort to clear my work computer of anything personal? If so, what's, the best way to secure myself against a privacy invasion? I use my own social media accounts at work for work but now feel like this may be taken advantage of.*

Normally we have a very comfortable, friendly office, and this request plus another made to the entire staff about no longer having ANY personal/off-topic conversations at work ever again strike me as bizarrely punitive and out of left field. My boss's tone of voice and facial expressions during this conversation made me very uncomfortable (they were sort of smug/patronizing, which was super different from the warm and friendly way he was acting up until that point). If I could, I'd seek another job but I can't do so for another year and a half, especially not now that I've been significantly promoted. Overall my boss is a good guy and he sincerely views me as an incredible employee. Why is he being weirdly two-faced right now?

*Obviously my boss has a right to know what I'm doing on a daily basis. What I don't understand is why he would promote me, indicating trust, and then imply I am not trustworthy by asking me why he can't see my monitors?
posted by Hello Darling to Work & Money (31 answers total)
This may force you to curb your use of social media ... what I would reply is to say that I'd have no problem *rotating everything including desks, monitors, keyboard, chair, etc.* so that the monitor are in a position that your boss is happy with, but that they all stay in the same relative position as you have found that this relative positioning was the best to minimize health-related problems and improve your work efficiency.
posted by aroberge at 4:08 PM on June 30, 2013 [3 favorites]

BTW, there may very well be some monitoring going on at work (keylogging, remote destop viewing, etc.) of which you are not aware.
posted by aroberge at 4:10 PM on June 30, 2013 [9 favorites]

You've thought about it. Just ignore it. It's weird, punitive and paranoid. He can directly tell you to do something if he feels that strongly about it.

This attitude may not endear you to him, but well, it's either ignore it -- or face your monitors to him, setting a precedent and encouraging further weirdness.

Why is he saying this now? Who knows. Probably he's trying to mix the good with the bad -- air out something he doesn't like, while at the same time acknowledging all the good.
posted by wrok at 4:10 PM on June 30, 2013 [2 favorites]

Two weird requests that were out of character - worrisome.

1. He's losing it? Is there an HR or higher up you can talk to about this?

2. You already told him why you're unable to move your monitors. He was smug and patronizing.

3. He wants you to move your monitors-I'm not sure there IS anything else you can do to satisfy him. Can you move the whole set so it's in his line of sight?
(Typing that out made me realise just how creepy a request that really is.)

4. I would assume that your computer is already being monitored and remove anything personal and don't use your work computer for anything BUT work.

Logon to your personal stuff on your smartphone (if you have one) or at home only.

I would use that promotion as a springboard for a new job.
posted by Snazzy67 at 4:14 PM on June 30, 2013 [1 favorite]

I think you're way too paranoid about this, especially about the end of the review being a punitive request. I would actually be optimistic about the way your boss worded it: I think he means to say that while he's noticed that you have your monitors in an odd orientation that he can't see, and thus the obvious conclusion has stuck in his mind, given that you've been an excellent employee and that your performance has obviously been high, he trusts you to personally figure out how you're maximizing your efficiency. Especially since he's layered it with so many pieces of praise, I would imagine that he was trying very hard to point out something that's been bothering him without trying to make you feel unappreciated.

I would just send a brief thank you note along the lines of:

"Dear Boss,

Thank you for your performance review the other day; I found your feedback extremely valuable. I was also very appreciative of how the company has noticed my (positive values mentioned). Regarding my monitor orientation, which you brought up as a concern: I understand that the monitors are at an odd angle, but I have found that the current set-up of my hardware is the most ergonomically suited to me and is the orientation in which I am most productive.

Hello Darling"
posted by Conspire at 4:14 PM on June 30, 2013 [5 favorites]

Why don't you request a professional occupational therapist evaluate the entire office for ergonomics and get your current setup either signed off by them or even optimised? (Ergonomics might be done by another group - find out what your most professional sources are locally.
posted by saucysault at 4:18 PM on June 30, 2013 [6 favorites]

Hey..boss, I have my monitors turned the way that they are because I have serious eye and wrist problems. It's taken me a year to figure out how to angle them and arrange them on my desk to minimize eye strain and carpal tunnel. To move them into any other position is to invite glare, headaches, and wrist problems -- I know this because I've moved desks twice already and have only just figured out my sweet spot. We can work on somehow you being able to see my monitors, but I need to be pain free, we certainly don't need a workman's comp issue from this.

Yeah, in such an environment I'd be very very carefuly about using work computers for anything remotely personal.
posted by edgeways at 4:36 PM on June 30, 2013 [7 favorites]

Nthing that he's losing it. This and prohibition of discussions of personal lives at work ever (WTF?) are seriously, seriously weird and paranoid. You very well may be entitled to your current monitor configuration for your wrist and eye problems, as it would seem to constitute a reasonable accommodation under the Americans with Disabilities Act. The link tells you how to go about requesting it. But I'm worried for you. I expect more weirdness will follow, even if you win the monitor battle.
posted by Wordwoman at 4:48 PM on June 30, 2013

Can you buy a cheap mirror and position it such that he can see your monitors more easily? (If a flat mirror won't do that, a fish-eye mirror probably would.) Maybe that would allow you to keep the monitor position that works for you, while demonstrating that you are clearly taking him and this wacky-ass request seriously.

Or go to HR and request a mirror because your boss has make this request, and a mirror is the only way to satisfy it without causing you ergonomic issues. That will put HR on notice without you having to directly criticize your boss.
posted by pie ninja at 5:02 PM on June 30, 2013 [7 favorites]

Response by poster: Good ideas so far. Important points:

No HR department. We are a small company (>15 employees). Boss is our HR department.

Asking a professional OT to come into the office would be seen as overkill and it would seriously damage my relationship with the rest of my coworkers.

My desk is fixed. I can't move anywhere else anymore. Monitors would have to be moved on my desk which can't happen for aforementioned reasons.


Up until now it was not an issue if I checked my personal email on my computer and took brain breaks to look at Yahoo articles and whatever. How can I delete any cached data relating to those things from this point on?
posted by Hello Darling at 5:11 PM on June 30, 2013

Is it possible that another coworker was caught in some scandal, and so your boss created the "no private discussions at work" policy? This could also result in them implementing some monitoring that wasn't in place before, and maybe he was just trying to give you a warning? He might not have been trying to say "You're doing something and I know it", but "If you're doing something, I'll find out soon so maybe just stop."
posted by FirstMateKate at 5:26 PM on June 30, 2013 [5 favorites]

You can empty your cache pretty easily in most browsers (e.g. Firefox) but if the surveillance is through your IT department (or your boss) monitoring your web traffic or using a keylogger, it won't help, plus it would be obvious you had cleaned your cache.

Are you close with any of your coworkers? Has anything related to this come up recently? Without necessarily going into all the details, can you get a feel for whether this is part of some general crackdown about personal time at work? It could be that someone else is slacking super flagrantly and this is leading your boss to make it a big thing, possibly because he wants to look impartial and not like he's playing favorites with you. (On preview, jinx, FirstMateKate.)
posted by en forme de poire at 5:32 PM on June 30, 2013

If it's something like that, that could also explain why his tone came off as weird and/or smirky. He might have been internally rolling his eyes about needing to ask you if he didn't think you were actually the problem. It could be that he also asked those other six people to adjust their monitors because he knows one of them is being a huge slacker or looking at something hugely inappropriate for work. Maybe he doesn't want to reveal that he has been monitoring people's web activity this whole time so he wants to make the bust "in person"?

Anyway, my main point here (like what FMK wrote) is that he might have a motive for doing this that isn't really about you per se. Might want to keep your ear to the ground for a little while to see if any new info pops up before escalating this much. The mirror might be a nice compromise in the meantime.
posted by en forme de poire at 5:45 PM on June 30, 2013

My conclusion from this description is: You don't know half of what is going on in your workplace. I'm pretty sure your boss had reasons to say what he did. I'd wager that other people got into trouble for slacking off and/or wasting time on personal things during work hours; they might have implicated you as well, in a classic move known as "Waaah, why me, Hello Darling reads news online during work hours too!!". This is a likely reason for the recent prohibition of personal talk and the monitor question. He's trying to be on the safe side and prevent any similar problems in the future.
posted by Ender's Friend at 5:51 PM on June 30, 2013 [8 favorites]

I don't understand this. How long have you been in a professional environment? Is it possible you don't already know that EVERYTHING you do at work is likely monitored? I'm not being mean, but cameras are commonplace, as is monitoring the traffic on work computers, networks, and the like. Seriously. They (whoever you work for) already knows everything you do, and what your coworkers do, too. I don't understand your position on this. It seems incredibly naive. Boy, I sure do wish I was living back in 1992 again - but I'm not - and neither are you.

I also thought someone else was in trouble, especially based on your update, and he's giving you some kind of loony warning.

But seriously, he already knows what's on your monitor. Maybe he has your desk top confused with someone else's? Or maybe you leave your social media or yahoo open on your desk top and it looks bad for you on the logs he reviews??

I'd point blank ask him what he wants you to do about your monitors, then proceed from there.
posted by jbenben at 6:00 PM on June 30, 2013

upon preview - Ender's Friend has it.
posted by jbenben at 6:01 PM on June 30, 2013

Yeah, empty your cache, clear anything personal off the computer, plus don't check your fb or private email on it anymore. There may very well be some sort of monitoring: anything from keyloggers to remote access, although that'd be a lot of effort for such a small company. More than likely, the 'monitoring' consists solely of what your boss can eyeball.

But monitoring or not, it is the company's equipment and time we're talking about; pretty much every business going will tell to have zero expectation of privacy on their computers. It's basically standard business practice at this point. Maybe explain that you've turned it that way to keep the physical stresses.
posted by easily confused at 6:05 PM on June 30, 2013

My similar guess is that others have been slacking too much (for his comfort) and he is trying to clamp down in an egalitarian fashion. This is probably not about you, you are just collateral damage.

On the other hand the "smirk" you described is not an excellent reaction if you've explained point blank this is about ergonomics.

So it's probably a mix of too much slacking by others, him not wanting to be seen playing favourites so asking everyone to expose their monitors, and (most importantly) him not having any real training in HR or employee relations.

I think the mirror option is probably the best if the current ergonomics are key to your happiness at the job.
posted by seanmpuckett at 6:07 PM on June 30, 2013 [2 favorites]

I would not bring it up again, not change monitors, not do anything except entirely stop using the computer for non work stuff. If he asks again, and I bet he won't, then suggest the mirror scenario.

If he's completely insane and rejects the mirror, then turn the entire setup around such that your wrist and eye orientation is maintained. That is really the most important thing. Much more important than this job. I know at least one person who's permanently disabled in her hands from a workplace RSI. The job is long gone but the disability remains.
posted by fingersandtoes at 6:15 PM on June 30, 2013 [8 favorites]

What I don't understand is why he would promote me, indicating trust, and then imply I am not trustworthy by asking me why he can't see my monitors?

You're reading this wrong. I'm not saying this is the perfect way to do it, but from your boss's point of view it goes like this:

* HD is one of my best employees. I am going to promote HD and give HD more responsibility.

* HD now being higher on the org chart means that HD has to start setting a better example.

Promotions kind of suck that way. You may not actually be supervising anyone, but you are now getting a benefit you weren't before, and the boss doesn't want any implication that your habits are an example of someone getting ahead -- they're just something you, as a peon-no-more, have to think of as not befitting your new responsibilities.

I once had a situation where my IT support group had our morning meeting in the caf after work hours started. It was great, we had a lot of team camaraderie, we planned our days, and we could partake of the remaining coffee and donuts. But we didn't all have to pay attention to every part of the meeting, so we could do stuff like in my case read the morning paper. We would then make our way back to our different stations separately, sometimes as IT support staff do, getting waylaid for some new issue. One day a supervisor in one of these departments took me into his office and told me that walking back to my office carrying the newspaper set a bad example. He said he really liked my work, my attitude, and so on, but at least the way he ran his department, he wouldn't allow it and he didn't want it to reflect badly on me, the team, or my boss. Think of it in that light.

I don't think this is about him being Big Brother. It's about him saying to you, be a little more cognizant of your position.
posted by dhartung at 6:18 PM on June 30, 2013 [8 favorites]

Up until now it was not an issue if I checked my personal email on my computer and took brain breaks to look at Yahoo articles and whatever.

Can you clarify this -- were you told directly by your boss that it was OK to take these sorts of brain breaks on company equipment, on company time? I'm not judging -- just wondering if it was an assumption on your part that it's OK because he's never mentioned it, but he's in fact *not* OK with it?

The "no personal convos, EVER" sanction is odd, and I agree with others that something is probably up that isn't about you directly.
posted by nacho fries at 6:19 PM on June 30, 2013

Something is up that has nothing to do with you, but if you get stung as part of the ongoing... whatever, he will be unable to shield you, so it's a weird backhanded warning.

The scenario I could see is one that other people have mentioned - there's something going on with other people in the office (maybe nasty facebook wars, given the no personal conversations AND the no personal computer use) and one of the offenders said 'Well, Hello Darling does it, too! What are you going to do about that?' So your boss had to 'address' it in some way to protect everyone when/if they fire the problem employee.
posted by winna at 7:48 PM on June 30, 2013 [1 favorite]

He's being unreasonable and controlling. No personal conversations at work, really? That's demented.

I'd be looking for another job, because this is just the start.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 8:32 PM on June 30, 2013 [5 favorites]

Most places say that phones and computers are only for business use. Most places just don't enforce it all that much. You tend to get waxing and waning periods of enforcement in work places; personal phone calls can be this season's crusade, then dress code might be biggest thing ever for 3 months, and then you don't hear anything about again for 2 years. A lot of this happens due to the whims of someone in upper management, who needs to show they are "doing something".

It's almost certainly not the case that it was okay for you to take a "brain break" before. It was just that your boss didn't care to enforce it. Something has caused him to start enforcing the rule: perhaps he was told he had to, perhaps he just discovered someone has been wasting a lot of time, perhaps he just happened to see you on Facebook that day and it bothered him. Or maybe he was always enforcing it, but just now realized you go to personal sites too.

Sometimes you can ride these squalls out, but your conversation with him bodes poorly. He brought it up in the most dickish, corporate-cowardly way "I need you think about why..." and he ignored your response. This guy is not to be trusted.

Well, Hello Darling does it, too! What are you going to do about that?' So your boss had to 'address' it in some way to protect everyone when/if they fire the problem employee.

Doubt it. The perfunctory "I have to say this to everyone" wouldn't have been done so passively-aggressively, and it wouldn't have been personalized. It would have been tone-neutral at worst.
posted by spaltavian at 8:35 PM on June 30, 2013

There are some very aggressive answers to your question. I don't know how anyone can be so sure what the appropriate answer might be.

Personally I read your situation to be: "Hey, welcome to management. Your former peers (now your underlings) are watching you. If you cook an egg at your desk, they'll all want to make omelets too. But they won't be as tidy about it as you would be. Therefore, you have to set a good standard so we (you and I) can in turn hold them to a good standard."

I don't insist that my answer is right. Maybe it is useful? Good luck with your new promotion!
posted by 99percentfake at 9:05 PM on June 30, 2013

I guess I'd say something along these lines:
"As you requested, I've considered why my monitors are positioned as they are, which is because of [reasons], and I want to solve this in a way that makes both of us comfortable. I need to be able to work without pain, and I understand that you need to be able to feel assured that I'm following office standards for work time vs personal time, so I would be happy to move my desk to a location and configuration that both minimizes the eye strain and carpal tunnel issues I have and also resolves the problem of visibility from your office, or (since experience tells me this will be logistically difficult), alternatively, maybe some kind of monitoring software on my computer might be a simple solution.

Either way, I'll definitely make it a priority to minimize any non-work computer use, and also ask that you let me know if you notice any problems along these lines that I might not be aware of."
And I'd pretty much not do anything at all on the company computer anymore that isn't somehow work-related, and check your personal email, etc. from your own phone/tablet. I would personally probably also be looking for another job because as long as your performance is stellar and you aren't abusing the system in any way by doing anything over the top or possibly damaging or problematic for the company at all, I think this is bizarrely controlling and worrying.

On the other hand, as a total guess: He has something very specific in mind that he feels like he can't address head-on for whatever reason. It seems like the "think about why" and "consider why" stuff is very rehearsed to obliquely address The Thing, so when you say it's because of concrete health concerns, he's not prepared to go off script to respond to that. The smirky stuff could possibly be simple discomfort reading as attitude. If he's more comfortable in friendly-boss mode, he might be coming off as extra weird trying to perform firm/assertive? Maybe there's something you haven't considered.

One read of this is that there's something particular (but embarrassing? or might open him up to other problems?) he's trying to address, and thinks you are pretty much the bee's knees except for this one thing that he's trying to warn you about in seekrit boss sign language. (frustrating!) If you feel assured there's nothing like that (and just go ahead and assume, for this exercise, that he's aware of everything you've ever done on your work computer), then it's kind of even more vexing, because it may be related to an office-wide thing that isn't really related to you, but isn't being conveyed adequately, or maybe there is misinformation or gossip about you personally that you can't respond to if he won't be clear about his specific concerns.

On the positive side, explicit acknowledgement of your value in the form of a promotion and glowing review is pretty great even though weird, cryptic addendum is weird and cryptic. You can express your desire to keep within company policies, ask for direct feedback in any instance that he feels like there is a problem, become a lot more careful about any online work/personal crossing of streams or use of company devices, and leave it at that; his move if there is something else he wants to happen, and he needs to put on his big-boss pants and come out with it.
posted by taz at 4:47 AM on July 1, 2013 [4 favorites]

Is your boss an American, or from another culture? That would explain the oddities very well (if he happens to be from non-US culture.)
posted by Kruger5 at 7:23 AM on July 1, 2013

1. No way to know. Don't make yourself crazy here.
2. You already did verbally—follow up in writing.
3. Doesn't seem like he actually asked you to move them. He asked you to consider why they are how they are, which you have. Don't move anything.
4. Absolutely. Keep logged out of anything personal, including things like your Google account to use Chrome, anything that uses Facebook log in, etc. This was the reason that I bought my first smartphone, so that I could check personal email at work in peace.
posted by thebazilist at 9:58 AM on July 1, 2013 [1 favorite]

I probably would have been like, "I guess because you trust me the most, ha ha!" and let it go, but I'm the last person you should take professional advice from. ;-) I agree with others that you should probably use this promotion to look for a better office environment, because this sounds crazy and unpleasant. Congrats, though!
posted by masquesoporfavor at 6:40 AM on July 2, 2013

"I don't play mind games. I'm straight with you, and I expect the same professional courtesy. What, exactly, is the problem?"
posted by obiwanwasabi at 4:39 AM on July 3, 2013 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: So as it turns out, my boss has asked this of everyone in the office and everyone else has said no because it's ridiculous and passive aggressive. I'm doing the same and will not be caving just because he's been weird about it. Thanks for all the input.
posted by Hello Darling at 12:23 PM on July 28, 2013 [2 favorites]

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