How to Deal
Office discourse saturated with politics, love and too much information
Wednesday, December 16, 2009; 2:13 PM
I've been reading your columns for a long time now and very much appreciate them. I have a question for you that relates to politics in the office. I work in an extremely small office, two to three people maximum. The director has drastically different political views from me. However, these views are only tangentially related to our work. Typically, I ignore them and move on, but at what point do I stop doing that when I find them offensive and start voicing my own opinions? It's becoming frustrating to feel like I am just listening to her say offensive political things to me while remaining silent as I do not want to rock the boat in such a close environment. Lately, the director has begun mentioning to me issues in her love life, specifically relating to her being hit on at business meetings that she takes on her own. She also says extremely arrogant things like "You'd think married men would hit on me all the time, but they don't." I enjoy the job, but the close quarters can be difficult as I do not want to share similar things about myself and nor do I want to participate in these types of discussions. Do you have any advice about how to deal?
My advice is to adopt one of two polar opposite strategies: Address the inappropriateness of your director's comments directly or ignore the offensive remarks, and do your best to keep attention focused on legitimate business issues.
Your boss' proclivity for raising controversial subjects is a plea for attention. If you pay her no mind, she might eventually realize that you are not going to give her what she wants and the political and sexual commentary will taper off. Given how much these remarks seem to affect you, however, I am not sure that you can afford to engage this passive strategy. You may ultimately be better served by taking a more direct approach.
Set aside a time to speak with your director about the effect that her comments are having on you. Regarding her expression of political views, acknowledge that you have a difference of philosophies (which she, of course, knows well), but that you are not as comfortable as she is engaging in a discussion of those differences. Explain that, although some people might enjoy and welcome political debate at work, you are ill at ease with that type of interaction.
In the case of your director's sex-related comments, your initial approach should be slightly more oblique. The next time she brings up the subject of her irresistible sex appeal, "sympathize" with how hard it must be for her to be objectified by men when she is trying to be taken seriously as a professional. Your response will clearly signal your opinion of the encounters she is describing and your unwillingness to participate in a conversation that glamorizes her experiences. At the same time, you will allow your director an opportunity to save face. She will hopefully take your cue and respond by asserting her own feelings of discomfort with the sexual overtures of men she meets on business trips. If she persists in bragging, you should tell her that you wish that you could be available as a sounding board for her, but that you are simply not comfortable having conversations at work about sexual topics.
But suppose that your director flatly disregards your stated preference for keeping politics and sex out of the workplace or responds in a dismissive, belittling or vindictive manner. What then? If your office is a small outpost of a larger organization, then you may be able to escalate the issue of your director's inappropriate speech to a higher authority, such as a vice president or human resources. As a result of an investigation into your concerns, your director may be counseled regarding her conduct or you may be able to secure a different job within the organization.
If, however, your office comprises your entire organization, then you may not have the benefit of a chain of command to further address your concerns. Your director, in fact, may be the very person designated to handle personnel issues. If the buck stops with her and you find that her behavior is making your workplace intolerable, then you should look for another job and consider assessing your options with the help of an employment lawyer.
Lily Garcia has offered employment law and human resources advice to companies of all sizes for more than 10 years. To submit a question, e-mail HRadvice@washingtonpost.com. We reserve the right to edit submitted questions for length and clarity and cannot guarantee that all questions will be answered.