Reader: I have been reported to HR at every job I’ve had. Once, I got into an argument at the gym. The incident occurred on my own time, but since my gym membership was free through my employer, HR investigated. I eventually left that job for another, but I was fired after a few months when I got into a dispute with my supervisor. I have since moved on to another job, and all went swimmingly for four years until last week, when I had a dust-up with a co-worker. She reported me to HR, who told me the investigation is “ongoing.”
At none of these times did I use profanity, raise my voice, threaten harm, etc. I feel as if I simply can never stand up for myself or even be critical without getting into trouble. I generally think of myself as an agreeable guy, but I can’t help wondering if something is wrong with me. Is there? If it matters, I’m male, and all of these incidents have been with women.
Karla: First, thank you for not concluding with, “Females, man. What’s their deal?”
I don’t know that anything is “wrong” with you, or them. For me, it boils down to this: There’s a disconnect between the signals you think you’re sending and the ones your audience is receiving. And this disconnect is hurting your reputation and career prospects.
For example, there’s more to being “agreeable” than avoiding profanity, yelling and threats. You can be perfectly calm but still come across as condescending, dismissive or gratuitously contrarian. If you’re standing too close, interrupting or challenging someone in front of a group, it can intimidate someone socialized in a lower-key communication style. This is true whether it’s a man and a woman or a Yankee and a Southerner.
Fortunately, you have the humility and wisdom to ask, “Is it me?” That attitude will carry you far through the following conversations:
With a bristling co-worker: “I’m sorry, can we take a step back and try discussing this later?”
With HR or a manager: “Clarabelle and I are having trouble seeing eye-to-eye. Can we get your neutral input on this situation?”
With trusted friends and relatives: “I’m worried about how I come across with people who don’t know me. Can I get your honest feedback?”
With a professional therapist (yes, I’m serious): “I’m concerned about interpersonal conflicts I’ve had in recent years that have affected my professional life. I need help analyzing these scenarios to understand what happened and better manage future conflicts.”
In all of these, the goal is not to change or “fix” who you are — it’s to learn how you can interact most effectively and respectfully with people regardless of their gender, background or perspective. Something we could stand to see more of nowadays.
Miller offers advice on surviving the ups and downs of the modern workplace.