Office politics can make you feel like you're back in high school. Here's how to handle workplace drama without involving management.
A reader writes:
I have a friend who's a government worker. She's overweight, knows it and is working on it. It has absolutely nothing to do with her competence at her job, and nothing to do with her worth as a person.
She walked in on a conversation she was never meant to hear, where one of her co-workers who she thought was a friend was talking about how "she thinks she's so bad with all the martial arts stuff, but she'll never find a man to love her because she's fat." (My friend takes two forms of Martial Arts.)
My friend handled the situation far, far better than I would have, letting this person know that she was out of line and that in the future she'd appreciate her not talking about her, and if there's an issue to bring it to her face.
Does she have grounds for a complaint to management? Is it even worth it?
The first question I always ask in these scenarios is what exactly does she expect management to do? Management can't force a person to have different ideas about body weight. Why is that we accept that people will be different heights and have different shoe sizes, but blow a gasket at people who are at a different BMI?
It's not illegal to discriminate against someone on the basis of weight, and even if it were, from your note it doesn't seem that this person holds hire/fire/promotion authority over your friend.
In other words, the woman being talked about in this situation handled it 100 percent correctly: She brought up the problem directly to the offender. So many people skip this step and run straight to management or HR rather than dealing with it directly.
Personally, I think the woman being talked about deserves a gold star—or one of those cool Ninja stars since she does martial arts. What she did was take 9th grade behavior—hey you're fat and no one wants to marry fat chicks—and turn it into adult behavior by saying to the offender, "that was inappropriate and if you have concerns, please bring them to me directly."
This is how we should all act. Imagine how much better or workplaces and world could be if we brought concerns directly to the person we had a concern with instead of stewing or expecting management to step in and fix it for us.
9th-grade syndrome happens a lot in the workplace and the victims often want to run to the teacher, like they did in 9th grade. That can backfire, as often managers are just as prone to this behavior.
Here's how to handle several forms of 9th-grade behavior in the workplace:
Cliques That Eats Lunch Together
In some offices, it's the norm for everyone to go to lunch together. In others, people eat at their desks. However, in lots of places the lunch time dynamics are somewhat fluid.
Three people might go to lunch together every day, but it's not always the same three people. In an office where there's a group that always goes out and excludes people, it can be problematic. I.e. the group saying, "No, you can't come," instead of merely not inviting everyone.
If you just weren't invited, try inviting some of those people to lunch or to a mid-morning coffee break. Get to know them as human beings.
Putdowns and Mean Jokes
The situation above falls into this category. Just call the person out on it.
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This type of bullying thrives in darkness and bringing it to light often ends it.
Sometimes your resident 9th-grade office mate wants to climb to the top of the ladder by pushing everyone else down.
The person that doesn't give you the proper information and then tries to publicly humiliate you about not having it. Don't tolerate it.
Document every interaction with this person. If you agree to something verbally, send a follow-up email that states, "I want to confirm that per our discussion we agreed on X and Y. If this isn't true, email me back with the changes."
Then if she tries to embarrass you in a meeting, speak up. "Actually, Jane, on June 23, we agreed, that we'd do X and Y. I have the documentation right here. You must be confused."
Do this every single time. She'll get tired of being publicly humiliated for her attempts to humiliate you.
Stand Up for Other Victims
Sometimes we all just breath a sigh of relief when we aren't the target of the office bully. This type of behavior—ignoring it—makes the problem worse because it gives the bully more power. If you overhear Jane saying another coworker won't get married because she's too fat, say, "Jane! Why on earth would you say that? That's very rude."
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If Jane tries to say to you, "John didn't finish that project on time because he's been drinking at lunch," respond, "John is a friend of mine. Why would you spread rumors about that? If you're concerned about his alcohol intake, then talk to him directly or let his manager know. Please don't try to discredit him or anyone with me." Jane will learn pretty rapidly that you won't be taken in by her gossip.
Don't stoop to that level. It's hard being an honest-to-goodness adult every day. You have to take responsibility for yourself all the time. It's painful, but it's necessary to a successful career. Don't let immature officemates slow you down.