How to Deal
Peeved over an unwelcomed pet name
Thursday, December 10, 2009; 12:00 AM
I work in a large consulting firm where work is often accomplished through ad-hoc teams. On one of these teams I managed a junior employee who called me "sweetie." I am about 10 years older and more senior than her professionally. I know I need to react, but I am new at the job (and so is she), so I need to decide what to do. I have a feeling she can be difficult and mean-spirited. I also know my job values diversity, so not getting along with an African-American employee can be seen as a problem. Still, I think that calling me "sweetie" is unprofessional. In addition to this she is very bossy: She bosses me around and makes me wait while she gets coffee for herself or uses IM. How should I approach this situation? Thanks for your suggestions.
Regardless of your relative age or seniority, it is inappropriate for this employee to call you "sweetie." It is not as if you are close friends, after all. And, even then, I would question the wisdom of referring to another employee by a pet name in an office environment. Many employees who use such terminology as "sweetie" and "honey" mean well. They intend not to offend, but to endear themselves to others and clear the way for a warm and familiar interaction. The overall culture of your office will dictate whether there is ever an appropriate time and place for these words. Speaking in general, however, the risk of degrading the professionalism of your work environment counsels against the use of pet names.
In your case, the concern is that you have been dubbed "sweetie" not as a term of endearment, but as a means of undermining your authority. Telling you what to do or making you wait while she gets coffee and sends instant messages may be a further expression of this employee's contempt for your position. You need to talk to her about the impact that her behavior is having on your working relationship.
I am interested in your comment that you "have a feeling" that this employee "can be difficult and mean-spirited." Is this feeling based on your observations, or is it a fear that you harbor about what will happen if you approach her with your concerns? If you are to have any chance at establishing a more comfortable pattern of interaction, then you need to give this employee the benefit of the doubt. Rather than assuming that she will respond poorly to you, you should allow for the possibility that she will be receptive to your point of view.
Start by letting her know that you would prefer to be called by your name rather than "sweetie." Tell her that you assume she means nothing by it, but that being referred to in such terms is simply not comfortable for you. If you would like to elaborate, you can explain that the term is diminutive and therefore not a good choice for developing a respectful professional relationship.
When this employee makes you wait while she gets coffee or sends instant messages, she may be expressing nonverbally that she will not be rushed to respond to you. Rather than focusing on her motives, however, you should think about the best way to get your job done. Do you have a scheduled meeting or have you casually asked her for a moment of her time? If she is making you wait when you have an appointment, then you should talk to her about the importance of punctuality. If she is delaying more informal encounters, you should then evaluate on a case-by-case basis how urgently you and she need to meet. If it is a non-urgent matter, then I would suggest ignoring her behavior entirely. If you do need to speak with her at once, tell her so. If she starts to get coffee or send instant messages anyway, ask her firmly and politely to wait until you are done. In other words, frame your feedback about her delay tactics in terms of the legitimate needs of the business rather than the effect of her behavior on your feelings.
Finally, when this employee is "bossy," think about whether her command is legitimate, even if it is not framed appropriately. If she is trying to assign you work that belongs in her inbox, tell her that you think that she should take the lead instead. If, however, she is telling you to do something that, in all fairness, you should be doing, then you should acknowledge your responsibility for the work. At some point, you may wish to talk to this employee about her communication style, which is what I think you find so off-putting. However, as conversations regarding communication styles are notoriously difficult, this is a subject best reserved for a future date when you feel like you and she have built some amount of trust and mutual respect.
Your fear of being castigated for not "getting along" with an African-American employee assumes a great deal. You worry that, in its zeal to preserve racial diversity, your employer will excuse or condone antisocial or disrespectful behavior on the part of an African-American employee. You presuppose that your employer values racial diversity over professionalism or, for that matter, diversity of perspectives and work styles. Your fears may not be unfounded, but you should recognize that they are based in a somewhat simplistic and patronizing view of workplace diversity which employers thankfully have largely abandoned.
You can certainly "get along" by silently tolerating mistreatment, but you will do better in the end by showing this employee the respect of addressing your concerns with her in a direct and constructive manner.
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.