Rachel Homer is one of the 10 finalists in The Washington Post Magazine’s @Work Advice Contest.
About me: I’m a California native who moved to Washington DC for school, at which point I discovered I was enamored with computer programming (and also the DC area). Right out of college, I went to work at a huge consulting firm, where I alternated between making photocopies and making decisions that I was completely unqualified to make.
Disillusioned with my job as a consultant, I left to spend a year as an AmeriCorps VISTA in Northwest Wisconsin. My “office” on the Indian Reservation where I worked was a single-wide trailer that the Information Technology department shared with the water and sewer department. I loved it, but my term ended and I decided to head back to DC.
Now I work as a software developer for a tiny software company. It’s so small that in addition to being a programming geek, I also get to be resident grammarian and provide tech support for our customers.
When I’m not at work, you can find me playing ultimate Frisbee or enjoying an intense game of Boggle.
Why I should win: I’d like to win this competition not because I’m smarter or more diplomatic than the next person. I’d like to win for precisely the opposite reason: that I’ve made a lot of mistakes, have learned the lessons, and want to spare people some of my embarrassment. I’ve had an inappropriate crush on a coworker, sent a private email to the wrong person, and fallen asleep during an important meeting. I’ve made terrible hiring decisions, I singlehandedly brought down the company website once and I’ve cried at work at least a few times.
With all the waking hours we spend at work, we’re bound to blunder our way through from time to time. I’d love to be able to provide some common sense to deal with workplace problems, from the perspective of someone who has probably been there, or at least won’t have a hard time imagining it.
Work mantra: “It’s critical to know when to run and hide.”
My workplace anecdote: During my first post-college job, I fell victim to eating lunch out daily, and had gained a few pounds. One afternoon, I took advantage of the hand mirror in the company bathroom to check out how I looked from behind. I had to see how much weight had gone to my derriere. I decided that I still looked pretty good. And to celebrate that, I slapped my own butt. Unfortunately, I had already left the bathroom, so I did this in the hall and in the presence of coworkers. We were all surprised.
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: 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?
Homer: Regularly misusing a common word is like having spinach in your teeth. You need someone to tell you as quickly as possible, because once you find out, you’ll quietly resent all the people who didn’t bother to let you in on the news.
First rule of engagement is that no one else should be present when you tell him. You don’t want to embarrass him in front of anyone.
Second rule: don’t make a big deal about it. This is something you need to do in passing, not during a meeting you scheduled just for this purpose. This will also minimize his embarrassment.
The rest depends on your boss’s personality. Is he a blowhard who is never wrong? Or is he eminently approachable?
If he’s the former, well, you’re going to have to proceed with caution. I’d suggest using the compliment sandwich. Something like, “You really nailed that presentation today. Just a heads up, I think you might be using the word ______ a little off. You’re such a great speaker I thought you’d want to know.
If the guy is approachable, being more direct is perfectly fine. In fact, the more straightforward you are, the more he’ll respect you. Just say, “Hey, I think you’re using the word _________ wrong” and then let the conversation go from there.
God bless … er, nevermind: I work in a small office where no one says “bless you” when you sneeze, nor do they say “thank you” if you say it to them. I am always careful to not add the “God” in fear of offending someone, but the complete lack of acknowledgement is odd -- or did I miss a new political correctness memo?
Homer: The issue here is rudeness, not political correctness. Seems your coworkers missed the memo on acknowledging your acknowledgement of their sneeze. That was fun to type.
Just keep doing what you’re doing and maybe your niceties will be contagious. And try not to spend any more mental energy on this. Whatever their reasons for not saying anything, it’s not personal.
Carolyn Hax: Clear “voice,” and moves through the answers at a nice clip, not dwelling too long on the light stuff of “bless you.” I do wonder whether she’ll be up to heavier topics.
Eric Peterson: I appreciated her succinct responses (the sneeze question in particular doesn't merit much ink), but wonder how she will fare on tougher questions that require more nuance.
Douglas LaBier: You have a good tone to your responses, and get to the heart of the matter.
Sydney Trent: Big points for brevity and I like how she varied her advice depending on the boss’ personality. Answer 2 deserved more attention, though.
Lynn Medford: Rachel’s answers were direct, spot on, in proportion to the problem, blessedly succinct, witty and delivered with personality. Was her anecdote fiction? The judges wondered. No room for fiction in a newspaper.
Meet the @Work Advice Contest’s 10 finalists