Washington Post columnist Amy Joyce writes Life at Work on Sundays in the Business section and appears online every Tuesday to offer advice about managing interpersonal issues on the job.
The transcript follows below.
Editor's Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.
What is the best thing to say to a co-worker when their spouse commits suicide? Sometimes I think it is best to say very little, because it is too sensitive. Yet, perhaps one then comes across as cold by not saying anything. What is best is such circumstances?
Robbie Kaplan: Good morning! We have lots of questions this morning about communications at work but I thought we would start off with this question since all of us encounter folks at work who are experiencing difficult times. Sometimes we avoid these folks because we don't know what to say or are afraid we will say the wrong thing. But loss is very isolating and if we avoid them, we isolate them even further. You need to acknowledge your co-worker's loss - and simplicity is best. You can say "I wanted to let you know how sorry I was to hear of your husband's (wife's) death." In the days and weeks ahead, seek her (or him) out just to say hello and inquire how they are doing. You'll make them feel better and you'll feel better too.
Workplace Harassment: I believe that I am the victim of workplace harassment. Not that I am being stalked or bothered by a man, but by a woman that explodes at me several times a day. This woman also explodes at other people. Its gotten to the point that I walk the long way to avoid passing her office, wait until she is not in to drop off paperwork, etc. Yesterday I was attacked because a co-worker was on the phone and later because I didn't know how to do something. I've given thought to going to a lawyer, not to sue my employer but to keep me out of the legal department and protect my job. I don't think much more would be required that a letter or phone call, both would be well worth the money if this woman were fired. Your advise is appreciated.
There's no reason to go to a lawyer, yet. Especially if this is happening to other people. You need to talk to this person's supervisor and let them know what's going on, that is it affecting your work, and that you would hope they do something about it.
Unfortunately, this is common, as we work with all sorts of different personalities. That doesn't make it excuseable, but I think it's something you need to think about before you consider yourself a victim of harassment or in need of a lawyer.
Robbie Kaplan: Good advice Amy!
I just moved into my first home, and of course my coworkers know about this. A few have asked about my decorating so I've talked a bit about colors, fabric, etc.
Now they've informed me that they are coming to the housewarming party.
The problem is that I wasn't planning to invite them! I get along with my coworkers just fine, but we don't ever see each other socially. I have been careful not to talk about the housewarming at all at work, but I still feel pressured into inviting people. What should I do??
Do they know where and when this housewarming is? If not, I'd say ignore their statements that they are coming, and move on.
Robbie? What do you think?
Robbie Kaplan: Do you co-workers know for a fact that you are having a housewarming party? If they don't know for sure, you can just ignore their comments. But, if they do know you are having a party, why not include them? Someone needs to break the ice and I don't think some outside socializing with co-workers is a bad thing. It may make relationships more cohesive in the workplace.
I know it is Robbie's week but PLEASE help. Had a phone interview--was not going well. They asked for a salary range and I stupidly provided a real number ( five thousand dollars) range. The lowest number in the range is less than a 10% increase over where I am at now. I have "decided" that I will only take the job if offered to me after my in-person interview if they go into the upper part of the range I offered to them. Is that stupid? Will they think I am a clown for saying I will take blank and then I come back and counter-offer. And, no, I am not that excited about the opportunity BUT it would get me out of my current uninspiring and boring job.
Actually, this is probably a perfect question for Robbie, who always knows just what to say.
In this case, I think it would be completely fair of you to go back, and negotiate the salary... once you've been given a job offer.
But really, do you want this job? If you're not thrilled about it, why put yourself into another similar predicament you already are: uninspired and bored?
Keep looking, I say.
Robbie Kaplan: My first thought is this - why would you want to go through all the effort to find a new job and you know up front that this is not the right job (or company) for you? You'll just wind up back in the job market within the next 12 months. Take the time to find a job that is the right fit for you - that said, if you really were interested in the job and you mentioned a salary during the phone screen that you are no longer comfortable with, I would discuss it during the interview. You could say you spoke too quickly and you have had time to research and think through your salary requirements. And then let them know what salary you are willing to take.
Here's the link to this weekend's column...
I have an employee who is going through a rough personal time. Her mother-in-law, an Alzheimer's patient, had a stroke and is minimally aware of her surroundings (she lives in a nursing home.) My employee has made statements such as "For my husband's sake, I wish she would die" and "If I could put her out of her misery, I would do it". How do I respond to these statements? I am shocked when she says such things and just don't know how to respond.
Yikes, tough one. Before Robbie answers, I'd like to ask if your company offers an Employee Assistance Program? If so, you might want to send her in that direction... She may need someone beyond your expertise to talk to.
But you still need to respond to her. How, I don't know. Robbie?
Robbie Kaplan: She must be so stressed and overwhelmed. Amy is right on in directing her to an EPA or you could find out other benefits your employer offers and let her know what is available for her and her family. I don't think you should comment on her statements - she may be venting and a big way we can all help someone facing a tough time is to listen without judging. I would keep the lines of communication open. Ask how she is doing and if you are comfortable in doing so, also ask if there is anything you can do to help her. She may just need to express her feelings and you are helping her by listening.
Re: Spouse's suicide:
I was in a simlilar situation at work a couple of years ago. I was friendly with a coworker whose son killed himself. It was terrible. So many people avoided him because they didn't know what to say. My coworker really needed to vent. He would sit in my office and rehash it over and over. It was difficult to hear, but I was happy to be there for him. He later told me that he was extremely thankful that I didn't avoid the subject because he needed to get things out of his system. Obviously, everyone is different and this person's coworker may want privacy. But if you get the feeling that they want to talk, don't change the subject or act visibly uncomfortable.
Thanks so much for sharing that. I'm sure it was difficult for you, but it sounds like you did just what was needed: You listened.
Robbie Kaplan: Bless you. You were a crucial link to the healing process. When someone is grieving, they must articulate their feelings if they are to heal. Loss is so very painful and suicide is a terrible loss to bear. It is so important to be supportive - even just to say hello or to invite someone out to lunch - this way you let them know they are not alone.
Robbie, going back to the first question: What *should* we do when one of our co-workers who suffered a loss comes back to work? How much is too much, and how can we determine what they need from us?
Robbie Kaplan: When someone returns to work, seek them out. Let them know you are glad to see them back. If you haven't already expressed your sympathy, do that: "I was so sorry to hear about your mom's death. This is a tough thing to deal with. How are you doing?" At another time, ask if they would like to go to lunch and then follow up. Or, bring them a cup of coffee and just chat. If you are willing, let them know you are available to listen. If you don't approach them and avoid them, it creates a barrier between you and them and makes for a really awkward workplace.
My department has experienced a remarkable amount of turnover lately (six out of eleven staff members) for reasons that appear largely coincidental. Yesterday, I gave four weeks notice that I, too, am leaving to go to graduate school. Unfortunately, due to the present circumstances my boss and other staff members have taken the news rather coldly. I understand that it's a stressful time, but wish they could at least summon up the goodwill to say "good luck." Aside from working hard up until my departure date, is there anything I can do to warm the frost? I've had a good relationship with everyone until now.
Part of me wants to tell you to get over it. In fact, a large part of me. Your department is going through major upheaval, and frankly, you just added to it. They are human and of course are not going to react like they just won the lottery. Remember that, and keep working hard. I'm sure, by the time you leave, things will have warmed up a bit. If not, just keep a good face, leave the place in the best possible shape, offer your contact info in case your replacement has questions, and move on to your new, exciting life.
Robbie Kaplan: I agree with Amy. Your department is already overwhelmed and they are now losing another staff member. You could tell some staff members you are sorry your timing is off. You would like to help out as much as you can before you leave so what will help them the most? Do as much as you can to support the group and they may give you the good luck wishes you are hoping for.
So what do you do when you find your passion, your calling, and it only pays minimum wage?
I am working in a very well-paying job that I hate. I volunteer to fulfill my need to be involved with my true passion, but the long hours at work rob me of most of my available time.
Given the high cost of living and my specialized job training, leaving my current job doesn't feel like much of an option. And I really can't stand it here. I leave most days crying (if I can make it that long), the hours are awful which leaves me no time with my family or friends or volunteer work.
I just feel I would be happier elsewhere, but how do I balance my need for financial stability with my ever-growing depression?
Oh my goodness. It's very obvious you need to leave. Finding your dream job doesn't mean you have to take minimum wage. Get going right NOW on that job search. Stop making excuses and go find something that won't leave you depressed every day. There are a lot of opportunities out there. Volunteer, talk to family, friends, former colleagues. Find out what sort of work you might be suited for, and go after it. You can carve out time... in fact, you HAVE to carve out time...to figure out what you want to do, and what is best. Never forget you only have one life.
Robbie Kaplan: I agree with Amy. It is important that you research career options that will give you pleasure but will also support you. Career planning is just that - planning. Position yourself for a career transition and then do it. Good luck.
Falls Church, Va.:
How does one decline a job offer while at the same time expressing a desire to be kept in mind for future opportunities. I just received an offer from a great company, but the position has a considerably lower salary than my current base, and involves more travel than I would be comfortable with. I would very much like to work for this company, but this just isn't the right position for me. The company is very large, so by turning down this job will I be automatically ruled out for future opportunities? Also, I interviewed with 5 people during the interview process and sent all 5 thank you e-mails after my interviews. Should I send all 5 a brief e-mail thanking them for the opportunity and requesting to be kept in mind for the future?
Hi, Falls Church. This sounds like a perfect question for Robbie, but being a Chatty Cathy, I'll add my own take too.
I think exactly what you said is a good way to go about it: "I'm sorry, I don't think this is the right job for me here, but I love your organizations because X, X and X. I'd really appreciate being kept in mind for future opportunities."
People do this sort of thing all the time. Explain why you think this particular job is not right for you.
As for the thank yous, (and everything else), I'll pass on to Robbie...
Robbie Kaplan: I agree with Amy but I would take it an extra step. Instead of sending an e-mail thank you, send a written thank you by snail mail. Tell them how much you have enjoyed meeting them and how impressed you are with the organization. Let them know you would love to work for them but feel this job is not the right fit. Ask them to please consider you for future openings. Let them know you will keep in touch and then do so. It is so rare to get a real letter - and a well-written one at that - that you will make a more memorable impression. And do follow up. They should understand that you want to find a job that is the best fit for you.
re: Family Deaths:
How does one handle a situation when the boss is the one who has come back after a loss? The assistant director of my office is currently on leave with his mother who he just put in hospice. I don't think he'll be back until after her funeral. Given that this person is in a position of authority and I am younger, would it change your advice at all?
Robbie Kaplan: Dealing with a boss is often different than dealing with a co-worker and how you interact with someone who has experienced loss is also dependent on your prior relationship. You might want to purchase a thinking of you card and get other co-workers to sign it so you can let you boss know that you are all thinking of him and his mom. After she dies, you can make a donation in her name. You can do this individually or as a group. You should also send him a note but you should do this individually. When he returns, stop in his office and say hello. Let him know again how sorry you are for his loss.
I just wanted to comment that as someone who recently lost someone close to me to suicide, I appreciated the co-worker who wasn't afraid to ask (non-invasive) questions and show support. I wasn't angry at the other co-worker who said nothing and laid low, but the gestures of support and kindness did mean a lot to me, even if she and I weren't so close at the time. I was glad she knew what I was going through and glad to know she cared.
Thanks so much, and sorry for your loss...
Robbie Kaplan: Thank you so much for sharing this. I am glad you are getting support during this difficult time. The other co-workers were probably afraid to say the wrong thing. I too am so sorry for your loss.
Workplace Harassment Again:
The supervisor knows and has witnessed these outburts. For some reason, nothing has been done. That's why I thought the lawyer was a good way to go. If I go to HR or the legal department here, will my name get back to the boss?
Sure, the supervisor knows about these outbursts, but does the supervisor know how it affects you and your co-workers? I would suggest you explain that you don't want to cause any problems, but the outbursts are getting in the way of your good work.
Robbie Kaplan: I agree with Amy. Sit down with the supervisor and let them know that these outbursts are affecting your work and you want some support in resolving this problem.
I took a summer internship but we did not establish an end date when I started in the position. It's almost August -- how do I approach the "So my last day will be ..." conversation?
Robbie Kaplan: Why not calculate when you need to leave and let them know the date? Try "I wanted to let you know my intended last day. I will need to finish by August 15."
I am 7 weeks pregnant, and am unsure how to tell my boss (which I plan to do in another month or two). Obviously, he needs to know, but he also tends to be the type to want to share too much information, and I really don't want to discuss my pregnancy with him beyond what needs to be said. Any suggestions?
Don't discuss it. Sounds simple. But you really need to tell him only what you want to tell him... Robbie?
Robbie Kaplan: When it is time you can say, "I wanted to let you know I am expecting a baby in December." You need to let him know the details of how long you plan to work but - if you don't want to discuss other details of your pregnancy, just avoid the conversation or change the subject.
I've got a boss who had stayed at home with her son for the past 4 years. As a result, she talks to and treats everyone like they are 4 years old (the age of her son). She is rude, childish and comes into my office without knocking. I've talked to her about the knocking, talked to HR about that and her behavior and nothing works. What do I do?
Have you really talked to her about her behavior, or, like many who write in here, hinted that she not walk right into your office.
I would suggest you call her on things as they happen: I'm in the middle of something. Please knock before you come in here.
Perhaps Robbie's wise words could help you here...
Robbie Kaplan: This is a tough issue. I agree with Amy that you should let her know how you are feeling as things happen. "You interrupted an important conversation with the project manager. Please knock in the future." Or, "You probably weren't aware but when you spoke to me before, you made me feel like you were scolding a child." If that doesn't open a conversation, you can say "Can we talk about this? I realy enjoy working here but this is affecting my work."
I quit my job at the end of April. I realized that I was in the wrong career, and was making up feeling sick to my stomach, unmotivated an unproductive.
When I am applying for jobs should I address the reasons in my cover letter: i.e. my passion is to work in research and lobbying and I feel that your position would be a great match for my skills. I left my previous employer to pursue these goals?
Or should I just stress my skills in the cover letter and wait for an interview to address the reasons for quitting my job.
Robbie Kaplan: Cover letters should work as a partner with your resume - enticing an employer to learn more about you and read your resume. Don't waste the space telling them why you left a job - use the space to tell them why you are an excellent candidate for the job! Talk about why you left in the job interview - only if they ask.
I am unsure how to deal with a co-worker who curses a lot. His office is four doors down, and I can hear him using bad language fairly often. I find it very jarring and it makes me very uncomfortable. Nobody else here speaks like that, and I know it bothers others on our hallway. I'm wondering if I should say anything or ask him to stop? He is my contemporary, and we are on friendly terms. Or is this just something I should stay away from?
Robbie Kaplan: Since this is an issue that is impacting you and co-workers, I think you should take this up with your supervisor or the co-worker's supervisor. The co-worker's supervisor would be the most appropriate person to speak to them.
I would also document every incident that you have with this person so that you have clear proof of this person's unprofessional behavior.
Robbie Kaplan: I agree.
Whenever someone in the office suffers loss of a loved one or other tragedy, I am the one who collects for and sends flowers, cards, etc. However, when my granddaughter became critically ill, nearly died and had a kidney transplant which has seriously compromised her quality of life, these same people did nothing for me. No calls, no cards. I certainly learned who my friends are.
Robbie Kaplan: I am so sorry about your granddaughter and sorry your co-workers were not supportive.
Hopefully I'm not submitting too late... how much should one disclose to one's employer when dealing with personal crises?
I've been diagnosed with bipolar disorder and am having a difficult time finding the right medication combination, plus I'm going to A LOT of psych. appointments. I've been missing work a lot due to appointments and "mental health" days. I told my boss I'm having personal health issues, and he expressed that he understands but this needs to stop. I'm trying to keep as "normal" a schedule as possible, but on top of everything, I never know "who" I'm going to be when I'm at work (energetic, hyper vs. depressed). Should I go into further detail? He's a good boss but I don't feel that close to him personally.
Robbie Kaplan: You might want to check with your HR department and find out the organizational policy. I wouldn't make any decisions until you have more information.
Boss gets fired:
So what do you say when your boss is fired? And she has made your life absolutely miserable as well as everyone else's life (though not as miserable as yours).
Should you take the high road and take her to lunch or just let it go?
Robbie Kaplan: I would wish her well and then let it go.
Thanks, all, for joining us. And especially thanks to Robbie for her great insights.
I won't be here next week, but the column will. You can e-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Talk to you in two weeks. Take care of yourselves...