Professional Woman of Color Problems, issue #2,859
January 15, 2018 8:07 PM   Subscribe

I very awkwardly admitted to my boss that I don't like one of my co-workers (I didn't say it was because he is a walking jumble of microaggressions). Nothing's come out of it since, but how impolitic was I?

I'm definitely still learning the ropes of how to be a white collar professional, and I feel like I'm reminded of this everyday. This is the first solidly white collar company I've worked for, for an extended period of time, and I've only just graduated from college a few years ago. I'm trying to have better judgment in this area, so I have no idea what to make of this incident.

I'm currently a part-time employee at a company while being a full-time graduate student. I've been at this company for a bit more than six months, and I'm angling to be hired full-time when I graduate this summer. It looks good - I started as an intern, they liked me enough to promote me to part-time, and they're dropping not very subtle hints of mentioning other projects I can work on once I join full-time.

I really like it here, as one of the reasons why I was interested in this company was that it has great company culture. It's in a progressive industry in a progressive area. Up until a few months ago the entire executive team was all women, half of them women of color, and our CEO and COO are women. It’s also a small company, with most of the perks of a small company – almost everyone has been unfailingly nice, and because of my project I’ve been able to work directly with the CEO. She’s by far the best boss I’ve ever had, and I respect her immensely.

The one sticking point is this co-worker – let’s call him Adam. He’s in the same department as me, but we have very different projects so we barely meet, and I’m glad because almost every time we’ve talked he’s been so boorish. Either it becomes a discussion over libertarianism or he says something weirdly ignorant (“Oh, in [developing country I grew up in], they don’t have table cloths, right?”)

I try to avoid him as much as possible, but one issue is commuting. I live far from the office, and I don’t drive. He lives in the same neighborhood, and he drives, so he’s offered to drive me a couple of times. He did give me a ride once, and it became an (uncomfortable, to me) hour long discussion on libertarianism. He doesn’t scare me – he doesn’t give off those vibes – instead, he infuriates and exhausts me. Either he says something racist that isn’t racist enough for me to call out, or he tries to get me to agree with his libertarian views. Especially as a young Asian woman, I don’t want to give him any ammo to think of me as weak/inferior, so I feel like I have to engage with and push back on his politics, in a measured, respectful way. I’ve done well in my pretense – he thinks I make some smart anti-libertarian points, and that I enjoy spirited debates about the usefulness of government after nine hours of work – but it’s so draining. I don’t know how much he’s picked up on my do-not-talk-to-me vibes, but I hope he hasn’t picked up on it.

So – cut to the office holiday party last month. At dinner we end up sitting next to each other, and for two hours there’s the one-two punch of a weird racist remark (in response to me saying that I’m allergic to alcohol, he asked, “Is it an allergy? Do you have that particular Chinese blood strain where you’re allergic?” And in my head, I’m thinking, dude, why are you casually throwing around the words ***Chinese blood strain*** but of course pinning it on my race is the first thing you think of) and another long, long “friendly-combative” political discussion.

I was not in a wise, strategic, pre-emptive mood. I was already anxious due to this being my first office holiday party, and then stacked up with this stuff, I was tired and on-edge. So when he asked, at the end of the night, if I needed a ride home, my first instinct was to lie and say that a friend was picking me up. When we got up to leave, my boss said that if I needed an Uber she could order one, but because Adam was still milling around, I repeated that my friend was going to pick me up. Due to her being a considerate person, she said, “Ok, I can wait around for your friend to pick you up.” And then I was trapped in my lie!!!

I hemmed and hawed until Adam was out of listening range, and so she kept looking at me confusedly. Even in the best of times I’m a terrible liar, and my mind was not working fast enough to come up with the politic thing to say, so I decided to come clean. “My friend isn’t picking me up. I only said that because I didn’t want Adam to drive me.” My boss then said, “Oh, ok,” and proceeded to order an Uber in a perfunctory manner. This awkwardness continued as she did stay with me until the ride came, and it took a while. We were mostly silent, except she once asked, “So do you carpool with Adam?” I had told her before that once a week I do carpool, so this time I added on that it was with a friend in a different company. I assumed this was her trying to figure out why I don’t like Adam, and thinking it might be a sexual harassment thing, so I tried to subtly convey that nothing serious had happened. And then the Uber came and I left.

Since then, none of us have brought it up, and it’s as if nothing had happened at all. But I’m still anxious about it. The workplace culture is very familial, so I feel like knowing that I don’t like a currently active and productive full-time employee would be a knock against bringing me on. I also feel like what I did was so, so impolitic – I didn’t do anything wrong, per se, but it was just the worst way to go about it, and that reflects poorly on my judgment, and paints me as crude and naïve.

So, hive mind, how impolitic was I, and what other lessons should I be taking from this?
posted by facehugger to Work & Money (19 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
You did fine. It was awkward. You kind of got caught out but I think your boss totally understood but also didn’t quite know what to say. Just forget about it. And don’t take rides with him anymore. I guarantee you that his boorishness (and probable immaturity) has not gone unnoticed. It doesn’t mean that they are for or against him. Just don’t go assuming things in any direction.

If you see this boss tomorrow, be prepared. A friendly and warm, “thank you for staying with me last night as I got my ride. I was very awkwardly trying to get out of something and I just appreciate the help. I otherwise really enjoyed the evening...” and then just be cool about switching gears or exiting. “Now, need to get started on my day/coffee/checking in with [coworker]!”

I hope you can find a better way to get to work!
posted by amanda at 8:18 PM on January 15, 2018 [5 favorites]

I think you are overthinking this. From what I'm understanding you just said you didn't want to ride with Adam that night. There's nothing particularly impolitic about that. Certainly nothing "crude and naive." Not everyone likes each other in a workplace or wants to spend time together - that's ok. (Speaking as a 47-year-old lady person who's worked with a whole bunch of wonderful and a few not-wonderful people.) It's not as if you insulted him or spoke out of turn to your co-workers.

If I were your boss, I would be way more worried about Adam being a potential problem than you.

And if he's anything like how you describe, the women you work with have probably already picked up on it.

Just let it go and concentrate on your job and your school. Yay, you!
posted by pantarei70 at 8:18 PM on January 15, 2018 [17 favorites]

no no no your judgment was perfect. You got out of a ride with Adam without having to confront him or reject him; you told the truth to your boss but only when pressed, so it wasn't like you were spreading rumors or complaining; you told only what you were directly asked and didn't volunteer an explanation as to why you didn't want to ride with him. You didn't even say straight out that you didn't like him -- she might have been trying to feel out whether there was some kind of HR issue she should be proactive about addressing on your behalf, but you might have been so discreet she didn't even quite get that dislike was the issue.

this guy is trying to make himself your problem and you are doing a really excellent job of not letting him. It is always best to drop an "I don't want to." on the floor and let other people scramble around for the "why not?" you don't owe anybody the why unless you feel like it.

the only reason I can think of for why your boss might remember this or ever mention it again is if she's trying to collect complaints about Adam so that she can legitimately say that several people have complained about him. but don't worry about that; if that's it you'll find out eventually. I think you handled this the best way, not the worst way.
posted by queenofbithynia at 8:21 PM on January 15, 2018 [40 favorites]

And on second thought, maybe skip the middle part where you give an explanation. I’m worried you’ll get stuck again! Just stick to the “thanks” and “it was a really nice evening” parts.

And if you don’t see this boss in the first part of the day or in a casual spot where you can say this, just stick to friendly and warm and don’t bring it up unless the boss does for some reason. And if so, listen carefully before answering and don’t jump to conclusions. Your boss, I think, just wanted you to get home safely.
posted by amanda at 8:22 PM on January 15, 2018

You stood up for yourself (not letting yourself get thrown in a car with someone you find obnoxious) in a reasonably polite way, without badmouthing anyone. Your politeness ended in a white lie, which maybe is not the absolute best way to go about things, but it's certainly common and certainly not "the worst" way, or crude, or naive. I'm fairly impressed with how you handled it, really.

My guess is that no one's mentioned it because it wasn't a particularly big deal to anyone else. And if it was a big deal, then you don't actually want to be working there. You shouldn't have to be best friends with all your co-workers to be considered a valuable worker. You want to be able to get along with them and work productively with them, but that's not the same as wanting to share long car rides with them.
posted by lazuli at 8:22 PM on January 15, 2018 [5 favorites]

I kind of gather (having worked in similar environments) that the close-knit nature of your workplace is what’s making this especially vexing for you, and that’s understandable. To address that point specifically: in all of those places that I worked at, being there for even just a few months made it clear that a lot of people in those “almost family”-type groups fucking hated some other longstanding employees that I was put off by but would have guessed based on their job description and productivity were well-regarded. Sometimes it was because they were universally intolerable in the manner of Adam and sometimes it was just internecine grudges between sub-cliques. All that is to say: as close as they seem, there’s probably a good amount of historical drama that you’ve yet to be exposed to, and everybody’s used to that, and no one’s going to regard you as not a team player just because you happened to not like someone. And that’s if they even noticed, per above responses! And if they did, again, considering Adam’s disposition against the wider company culture, they were probably secretly relieved that you were willing to be like “nah, fuck that” with regards to this doofus. I think you’re good.
posted by invitapriore at 8:35 PM on January 15, 2018 [2 favorites]

You're fine. You were in an awkward situation and dealt with it by being honest but not going on a rant about Adam.

It sounds like he's rather annoying and not terribly perceptive - you can't possibly be the first person to have experienced this, and it's highly unlikely that your boss doesn't know about his ... quirks.

If she's a halfway reasonable person, and it sounds like she is, she understands that you were in an awkward position and that you have your reasons for wanting to avoid him. She's respecting your decision by leaving it alone. I wouldn't worry about it anymore.
posted by bunderful at 8:53 PM on January 15, 2018 [3 favorites]

The workplace culture is very familial, so I feel like knowing that I don’t like a currently active and productive full-time employee would be a knock against bringing me on. I also feel like what I did was so, so impolitic – I didn’t do anything wrong, per se, but it was just the worst way to go about it, and that reflects poorly on my judgment, and paints me as crude and naïve.

To echo others here, you handled this just fine! Agree with the commenter who said that if they were your boss they would be worried about Adam making you uncomfortable, not judging you for preferring not to spend time outside of work with him.

To address your broader anxiety, I think your natural instincts are going to serve you just fine in any white collar workplace. It's totally fine to set some personal boundaries as long as you're polite about it -- anyplace that's not true is not a place you want to work in.

Ask A Manager has a mixed reputation here on Metafilter, but I think it would be reassuring to you to have a look through the archives, maybe even search some issues you're not sure about. The person who writes it has a background in HR, so her answers are always going to err on the side of being proper and conservative -- something a corporate representative would not find fault with. What I think you'll find is that 1. many young women new to the white collar world are worried they're not doing it right, and 2. the vast majority of the time "right" totally aligns with what you think is normal and reasonable, there's no set of arcane rules that everyone knows but you.

Edited to add one more thought -- try to find a couple of women your age in your industry to be friendly with, either at your workplace, through a networking group, or even your cohort at school. Nothing will save your sanity in the white collar world more than talking to other people experiencing the same things you are. Sometimes they'll have good ideas about how to handle things, sometimes they'll just be there to sympathize and reassure you that you're not crazy.
posted by mrmurbles at 9:18 PM on January 15, 2018 [4 favorites]

If this comes up with the boss again, I think it's perfectly fine to say that you are avoiding him because he enjoys engaging in political debate during the ride home and you find it exhausting at the end of the day and you are trying to set boundaries. Anyone sensible would not be weirded out by such a common problem. Stating it like this says you are not scared or cowed by him and that it's just a difference between adults that you are totally handling.
posted by Foam Pants at 9:52 PM on January 15, 2018 [31 favorites]

No one likes being stuck in a car with a libertarian. They are annoying. If your boss approaches you again that is enough of an explanation for any normal human.

he says something racist that isn’t racist enough for me to call out,

Dude, there are no rules about this. Call out implies that you are measuring him to some societal standard and making a public thing of it or holding him to a law or rule. There are only two of you in the conversation, you can say what you want. He does. If you think he's being racist you can 100% say "I think that's racist Adam". If he freaks out that's his problem and maybe he should be less of a fucking racist and he won't have these problems.
posted by fshgrl at 10:23 PM on January 15, 2018 [12 favorites]

I don't know why people are suggesting you highlight the libertarianism and downplay the actionable stuff. If she asks, and in my opinion, she should, I think it might be appropriate and worthwhile to say "he likes to ask me questions about China" with kind of an eyebrow raise. Libertarianism = personality conflict. China = harassment on the basis of ethnicity or national origin. Well, libertarianism could equate to harassment on the basis of political affiliation, which some companies also care about, so I might include that as well.

But maybe she won't. In any case, I don't think you should worry about it. It sounds like you handled it by saying the least that needed said, which to me is one hallmark of good judgment. I find it can be easy to feel like you "made it" awkward when really the situation and / or the other person themselves are awkward. At the end of a long night, maybe both of you were just too worn out to make conversation like you otherwise would've. That's not on you.

But back to my original point. If Adam keeps making you uncomfortable with this shit, I think you could either ask him to knock out off or tell someone else there. Companies have policies about this kind of thing.
posted by salvia at 11:58 PM on January 15, 2018 [8 favorites]

I would respond to weird ?s about your being Asian/health: "I think that's a rude ?" and if he doesn't back off after that to go to your boss.
posted by brujita at 2:09 AM on January 16, 2018

It sounds like your boss was concerned for your personal safety in getting home after the party. Did she overhear your coworker's offer of a ride home? That whole situation is giving me weird vibes. I think you held up well in a difficult situation that was not of your creating.

In general, some scripts (a la Captain Awkward) may help you get out of debates with Adam without being rude or impolitic. "Sorry, I don't have the energy for a debate today." (every time, every day.) "I've decided to ramp down on discussing politics at work." followed subsequent times ('cause, unfortunately, we know that won't stop him) by "We're toning down the political debates at work, remember?" (Best if you can manage an amused laugh along with it.) Another one (that is also best if you can make it sound like you are humorously indulging him) is "I can tell from our past discussions that neither of us will change the other's mind on politics. Let's pick a different subject." Repeat "Let's pick a different subject." or "Let's pick a more work-friendly subject." ad infinitum until he stops and leaves you alone. It takes two people to have a drawn out debate on some Libertarian issue, so you can opt out of engaging in them. He's been disregarding your clear but polite and nonverbal signals of discomfort, so is likely to continue to talk at you and say infuriating Libertarian bs that will be very, very hard to keep yourself from responding to more directly, because we know that what he is saying has harmful consequences when actually applied in politics, and that not refuting that stuff (the "don't feed the trolls" approach) only enables it to grow and get worse. I know. I've been there, and it's really hard, and equally infuriating in the moment to feel like you're just letting that stuff slide. But keep in mind that these scripts (or similar) do in fact make it clear that his opinions/actions are not work-appropriate, which does refute them even though it's not refuting any specific points directly. A side benefit is that any coworker overhearing any of these phrases will form a positive opinion of your professionalism in a work environment.

Adam's response to you refusing to engage in his debates may be to follow you around and Libertarianate at you despite your expressed lack of interest. In other completely one-sided actions that are not within your control, his casual racism is a more difficult, but also more legally actionable issue. Keep a written log of his racist comments (and the times where he continues to talk at you about the non-work stuff despite your clearly asking him not to). The problem with microagressions is part of how they work systematically - each individual one feels so small that it seems petty to do anything about it, but the accumulation is harmful. Keep this big picture in mind to remind yourself that keeping this log is important and not at all petty. Then if/when it gets bad enough, you'll have the evidence that you will need to explain that. In the mean time, some scripts might help diminish that problem as well? Given your story about the office party, I'm not super hopeful, but it is okay to set boundaries and stick up for yourself at work! I don't have as good the script suggestions here, but maybe something like, "You seem a bit confused/misinformed about [China, Chinese culture, Chinese-American culture, American culture that I grew up in, biology, etc. broad topic]." followed by a question that is work related. Or, one of my faves, a pause just long enough to create a little awkwardness and tension, then "Huh." followed by a change of topic to a clearly work-related topic. Do keep in mind that he is the coworker who is being inappropriate and awkward, not you. It's okay in this sort of situation to only be surface polite - say all this with a smile and friendly tone of voice - but to stonewall and avoid engagement on any non-work topics.
posted by eviemath at 4:34 AM on January 16, 2018 [6 favorites]

Also it isn't your responsibility to educate him about your background.
posted by brujita at 5:23 AM on January 16, 2018 [3 favorites]

Or, one of my faves, a pause just long enough to create a little awkwardness and tension, then "Huh." followed by a change of topic to a clearly work-related topic.

posted by bunderful at 6:05 AM on January 16, 2018 [1 favorite]

It sounds like you were very diplomatic. If one of my female employees said that to me, I'd actually feel very worried at my own expectation that you accept a ride from him. I would do as she did, and check that you had carpooled with him in the past (Perhaps I was mistaken? Is there an ongoing issue I need to know about?), and then I would assume that he did or said something recently that made you uncomfortable, or that you considered him too tipsy to ride with. I'd also understand that your white lie about having a friend coming was just you trying not to make anyone uncomfortable or inconvenience anyone. I would not remotely be thinking badly of you. I do hope that's the outcome, because you handled it just fine.
posted by Knowyournuts at 10:34 AM on January 16, 2018 [2 favorites]

No no, you were fine. If your boss is the type of boss to make sure you have a safe ride home then she's the type of boss who would be more concerned that Adam is a problem. (As she should be.)

Time will totally dissipate the awkwardness.
posted by kapers at 11:19 AM on January 16, 2018 [2 favorites]

I think you've gotten good advice that your boss will not be upset with you and that you don't need to add any explanation. Also, I'm not good at subtle social stuff, and if someone I'd supervised said, as suggested above, "he likes to ask me questions about China" I'd have thought it was great that you and Adam were enjoying each others' company. So, you might need to be more specific than that to get your boss to understand, if you do decide that you need to explain in the future.
posted by SandiBeech at 12:06 PM on January 16, 2018

Sounds like you were very diplomatic and handled the situation with a lot of professionalism.

While you may have felt awkward explaining the ride situation to your boss, if one of my employees & I had this conversation, I'd be thinking that (a) you were quick on your feet (b) you were being honest yet tactful by explaining that he made you uncomfortable without saying so outright and (c) Adam might be making employees uncomfortable or worse, which could be a liability that needed investigating/addressing. I also wouldn't want to make you more uncomfortable by bringing it up in the following days - I'd be having a private conversation with Adam instead.

Impolitic would be an employee ranting in front of a client about Adam, ranting in front of other employees about Adam, sending out company-wide emails ranting about hot-button political issues and/or setting your desk on fire.

Your behavior was calm, tactful, and honest. Pretty much everything a good employer longs for in an employee.

If Adam continues to make you uncomfortable, or if this incident comes up in future conversation with your boss, I'd be inclined to let her know that he's made you uncomfortable on multiple occasions by bringing up politics and other sensitive subjects in the workplace, and that you're concerned. A boss who wants to make sure her employees get home safe & happy is the kind of boss who wants a safe & happy workplace.
posted by muirne81 at 9:09 AM on January 17, 2018 [1 favorite]

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