The Washington Post

@Work Advice: How much must you take for the team?

Karla Miller (Deb Lindsey/For The Washington Post)

Reader: I’ve always gone out of my way to be helpful at work (with computer issues, office parties). Last year, a co-worker on a project asked me to focus less on my portion and to help her get hers done. She assured me a third co-worker would be able to cover me on my portion, but it turned out that that co-worker had not been asked and would have been too busy. I was offended, balked at the arrangement and insisted we stick to our assigned work. She told our boss that I had refused to work with her, and now I’ve been branded “difficult.” My boss recently made a remark about it, even though I’ve done group projects since with no conflicts.

Karla: Next time someone approaches you with an unreasonable request, remember this bit of parenting judo: Say “no” when you should, but add a “yes” when you can.

No: “I’m sorry, I don’t have capacity for that on top of my workload. …”

Yes: “… but let’s ask around and see how we can shift things to help you out.”

That’s not your responsibility, of course, but it lets you be helpful without martyring yourself.

And make no mistake: The request was unreasonable (a common hazard for those with a reputation for being competent and helpful); the promise was deceitful; and throwing you under the boss was vindictive. But her acts could have been born of desperation and fear. Not an excuse — just another angle.

For damage control, ask to meet privately with the boss. Remind him or her about times you’ve gone the extra mile for others. Then, explain what happened in this case, leaving out “offended” and “balked” and “insisted.” Say you regret not involving the team to try to find a solution. Stay neutral, and you may come out ahead.


Reader: I am on a project that has me stuck with the worst officemate: a very intense woman with no regard for anyone else. I’ve basically been told I’m “taking one for the team” by sitting with her. I’m willing to put up with her intense personality. However, I am at my wits’ end with one thing: She chews ice. All. The. Time. I can hear it through my noise-canceling headphones. The constant chomping and slurping is making me a nervous nut job. Is it out of line to ask her to stop?

Karla: Of course, you can kindly ask her to stop. It helps if you’ve been a gracious officemate yourself. Just don’t be surprised if, true to form, she ignores the request. In which case, I absolutely cannot advocate sabotaging the office icemaker.

@Work Query: Are your youthful looks holding you back? Maybe I can help in an upcoming column. Send a photo and 150 words to:, subject line “Babyface.”

Karla Miller lives with her family in South Riding, Va. For 16 years, she has written for and edited tax publications. Send your questions to

Karla L. Miller offers advice on surviving the ups and downs of the modern workplace. Miller, of South Riding, Va., was the winner of the 2011 @Work Advice Contest. E-mail your questions to Karla at
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