@Work Advice column: Karla Miller answers readers’ questions about the world of work


Karla Miller, the winner of the @Work Advice Contest.
December 15, 2011

Do we have to be social with the bigot and her bigot husband at the Christmas dinner?

We are a small satellite office, and we have a very nice dinner with spouses and significant others. We are a fun, diverse group, except for the bigot with substandard work, talk of collecting Nazi memorabilia and pictures of the husband’s swastika tattoo. I have been able to shut down her chatting with me (I don’t work directly with her), but the rest of the guys work with her and do not feel comfortable being rude to her.

Karla: Oh, come now. Every holiday gathering needs at least one Perfectly Dreadful Person in attendance. You need something to talk about on the way home. And what’s a holiday fruitcake without a few nuts?

You don’t have to be warm, but you must be polite. And because this is a work-sponsored event, you must also be professional. That means no throw-downs or coordinated group snubs. (Stocking stuffer for the lawyers: If everyone shuns one co-worker for holding repugnant beliefs, is that a hostile work environment? Discuss.)

You may notice I’ve ignored the “substandard work.” Although it may contribute to your low opinion of your co-worker, it’s irrelevant to your proper treatment of her at the holiday party. And it’s management’s concern.

But just because you can’t organize a mass shunning doesn’t mean you can’t each draw individual boundary lines with her. It’s not rude to let people know when they’ve caused you discomfort: “I’m sure you meant no offense, but as a devout Zoroastrian, I find that comment upsetting.” Or a more pointed: “Er, you know my spouse is Jewish, right?” Or the perennial classic: a long, blank stare followed by, “Oh, look, my glass is empty. Again. Excuse me.”

Because you know in advance about this woman’s tendencies, you can prepare yourself. Stock up now on conversational chestnuts — the weather, the food, her lovely outfit — as well as polite escape lines, should the conversational sleigh threaten to veer off Mount Crumpit.

And Ahura Mazda bless us, every one.

* * *

I have a co-worker who has a nasty habit of sticking her hands in other people’s food. We’ve tried telling her straight out not to stick her hands in our food. We’ve even offered to hand her a french fry, but she just reaches in and grabs what she wants. What else can we do?

Karla: Umm. Sneeze on your food? (’Tis the season for colds and flu, after all.)

Karla Miller won the Magazine’s @Work Advice Contest. Miller, 39, lives with her family in South Riding, Va. For 16 years, she has written for and edited tax publications, most recently for the Washington National Tax office of accounting firm KPMG LLP. Miller’s down-to-earth smarts won over the judges. Her prize? Four weeks to win you over. E-mail us at wpmagazine@washpost.com with opinions of her column and any questions on work angst.

Deck the halls — not your co-worker

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