Dean Buckley is one of the 10 finalists in The Washington Post Magazine’s @Work Advice Contest.
About me: Dean Reed Buckley was born 100 years ago in what is now called a “cubicle.” Though happy at home, his heart belongs to work -- finding joy in the glare of fluorescent lights, the hum of copy machines.
Why I should win: Like you, Dean wishes fortune cookies would be more specific. Until that day, his mission is to help others navigate the business world and put an end to anonymous Your-Mom-Doesn’t-Work-Here notes.
Work mantra: “Smile. Be flexible. And dance on conference tables when you can.”
My workplace anecdote: I think my happiness directly correlates with the distance between my office and the kitchen, because I eat often and am perpetually thirsty. As a result, I run the dishwasher and clean the counters to the point where housekeeping now stays away. Despite being a manager, occasionally I wonder if people believe it’s my job to wash the dishes; and I got my confirmation when a coworker reported upon my return from a trip that a temp had huffily demanded, “Where is Dean? This place is a mess!”
On the contest entry form, we offered five sample questions (submitted by real readers) and asked applicants to answer the two of their choice.
Q: Colleagues or friends?: I’m at my first job out of college and many of the other young people in the office are friends, hang out after work and even party together at each others’ apartments. I like them, but I always thought you should keep some professional distance from fellow coworkers. I’d enjoy going out to lunch with these people but probably wouldn’t want to take shots with them. What do you think -- and what do you think senior management thinks?
Buckley: There’s a whole lot of thinking going on in your question when perhaps this is the time to be doing.
Professional distance doesn’t look the same as personal distance, which can make you seem socially stunted or aloof. Senior management might believe your partying coworkers are a bunch of muck-ups, but more likely they see team players, colleagues who get along well with others. Since they may very well be the link to your next promotion or future job, consider breaking out of your cerebral shell and joining in. And maybe even downing some shots, as long as they’re not slurped out of anyone’s bellybutton.
Your instinctive caution will serve you well when it comes to the real practice of professional distance, but here it is in broad strokes: Don’t get drunk or sloppy. Don’t mistake these peers for shoulders to cry on. If a colleague talks trash, remain above it. And as a personal favor to advice columnists everywhere, don’t sleep with anyone.
I’m not suggesting you start with schnapps. Lunch is a fine place to begin building relationships if that’s more your speed. When you invite someone to lunch, be flexible and have suggestions at hand – preferably somewhere with a variety of foods that’s cheap and accessible.
Q: Correcting my boss: In conversations with customers, he regularly misuses a relatively common word. It hangs in the air of the conference rooms we visit and I squirm when I see the audience make the “Huh? What did he say?” face, then the “Oh THAT’s what he meant” look of embarrassment. Is there an appropriate way to correct him?
Buckley: Oh that is awkward, isn’t it? If you’re concerned with phrasing, try some variation of: “I had to look up ‘conflagration’ after that last meeting and I’m still confused – did you mean that we’re going to set the office on fire?”
But if you can’t easily bring the subject up with your boss, this isn’t the time to start. So let me ask you a question: Why is it important to you?
And then let me answer it: You’re trying to mitigate your own discomfort in meetings. Because clearly your boss isn’t embarrassed. He doesn’t care. Where you get all rules-y, he plays fast and loose with language. Or maybe he’s simply a bonehead. Or difficult to approach.
These possible pain points all require adjustments on your part, not his. If he’s hard to talk to, make an effort to interact more often. If he’s a buffoon, you’re going to have to single out some good qualities in him – I hear his spreadsheets are immaculate – and love them like there’s no tomorrow. If you’re the librarian, you have to acknowledge you’re not in charge of the reference desk here and, in the name of all things holy, _let go_ of the offending word.
But not before divulging what it is and how he uses it. Please?
What the judges had to say:
Carolyn Hax: Walking a thin line, but interesting. I’m not sure it works to turn the correcting-the-boss issue on the writer, though it’s discussion fodder. And advising someone to do shots! That’s one I’ve never tried.
Eric Peterson: Despite the fact that he assumes a lot, particularly with regard to his second answer, his genuine humor and willingness to call things as he sees them stood out.
Douglas LaBier: His direct statements are a strength, but need more tempering with empathy for the questioner and a broader perspective.
Sydney Trent: I love the humorous, smart and snappy advice! One of my favorites in terms of voice. He assumes too much about the writer’s motives in answering the question about correcting the boss, though.
Lynn Medford: Dean delivers elbows-on-the-table advice that makes sense. I love that he turned the table back to the employee: “Why is it important to you?” One of the wisest principals in the workplace is to know who owns the football.
Meet the @Work Advice Contest’s 10 finalists