Karla Miller is one of the 10 finalists in The Washington Post Magazine’s @Work Advice Contest.
About me: Karla L. Miller has spent most of her career in publishing, with brief forays into overseas teaching, veterinary assistance, retail and professional bellydancing. In 16 years of writing and editing for tax publications, she has learned enough about tax policy to hire a good accountant. She once dreamed of making her living as a cartoonist or writer, but veered off course when she succumbed to the siren call of regular meals and steady paychecks.
Karla was raised on a farm in southwest Virginia, the child of a language teacher-farmer and a librarian-homemaker, where her primary claim to fame was as a National Spelling Bee contestant. For college she migrated north, where she was astonished to meet people who had never seen live cows. She declared herself a cultural ambassador for “”the real Virginia”” and determined to stay true to her roots, until the day she realized she’d become exactly the kind of latte-sipping, sushi-eating, condo-owning, European-car-driving, suburb-dwelling yuppie she’d always been warned about. She currently lives with her mad scientist husband and their delightfully wicked toddler in a three-cat home in Pleasantville.
Why I should win: In every workplace, there are leaders whose initiative and achievements inspire us all. And then there are those on the sidelines, stifling giggles at sly comments murmured by wags like me.
It’s not that I don’t take my work seriously (Hi, boss!). I’m just fascinated by the workplace ecology. What makes coworkers tick or tic or explode or excel? Once you know what motivates a person — fear of embarrassment, a craving for encouragement, a secure niche — you can sympathize. Once you sympathize, you can often find a way through conflict — or, at least, around it.
I have no professional experience as an advice columnist. But I have gone from flip-flop-wearing senior editor to pump-clad corporate cog; have mopped dog barf and pored over government reports; have covered for parent coworkers as a singleton and been covered for when comforting a sick baby; have telecommuted from amid piles of laundry and dirty dishes and endured 90-minute commutes in creeping traffic, standing-room-only buses and nose-to-armpit Metro cars. In short, I can sympathize with a lot.
What I can offer is my wry perspective, maybe a chuckle, to salve the indignities of frozen paychecks, soul-crushing commutes and powdered coffee creamer.
Work mantra:“ What do people want? Respect, a laugh, kindness? Find out and offer it, job description be damned.”
My workplace anecdote: The most terrifying moment of my career was when the new CEO of my then-employer summoned me before him, pinned me to my chair with an unblinking glare, and grilled me like a church inquisitor. Apparently, an email I’d sent his secretary asking about a low-level personnel change had somehow been read as evidence of a conspiracy to unseat him. That was the day I realized anger is inverted fear. Now when I see someone lashing out at work, I just think, “Interesting. What are you afraid of?”
On the contest entry form, we offered five sample questions (submitted by real readers) and asked applicants to answer the two of their choice.
Q: Correcting my boss: In conversations with customers, he regularly misuses a relatively common word. It hangs in the air of the conference rooms we visit and I squirm when I see the audience make the “Huh? What did he say?” face, then the “Oh THAT’s what he meant” look of embarrassment. Is there an appropriate way to correct him?
Miller: I’m going to take your word for it that your boss is misusing the word. If you want to go double-check that he’s not using it in some legitimate, obscure context, I’ll wait. Google “Anthony Williams and niggardly” while you’re at it.
Anyway, whether your boss is wrong or too book-smart for his own good, the result is the same: Clients are confused.
Your job is to make your boss look good. Correcting him in front of clients is therefore out. A subtler tack is to ask for clarification, substituting the right word. Witness these exchanges with my toddler:
1. Kid: (arms raised) Out! Out!
Me: What, honey? You want up?
Kid: Up! Up!
2. Kid: Aw ****!
Me: (avoiding eyes of scandalized grandparents) Oh, haha, you want your TRUCK? Here you go!
You might start using the word more yourself, and hope he’ll absorb the correct usage. Then again, I’ve been carrying the “between you and me” banner for ages, and that windmill’s kicking my butt.
So why not tackle this in a private conversation with the boss. Right or wrong, cast it as a problem with the customers, not him. “I saw that when you were telling them about how our software ‘eliminates cummerbund paperwork,’ they looked confused. How can we reframe the spiel so it’s clearer to them?”
Q: Colleagues or friends?: I’m at my first job out of college and many of the other young people in the office are friends, hang out after work and even party together at each others’ apartments. I like them, but I always thought you should keep some professional distance from fellow coworkers. I’d enjoy going out to lunch with these people but probably wouldn’t want to take shots with them. What do you think -- and what do you think senior management thinks?
Miller: You’re wise to be concerned. But socializing--a.k.a. networking--is a professional activity, if done right.
And a word to the wise: After-hours scuttlebutt is an excellent career tool. I’m not talking gratuitous rumors and backstabbing; I mean tidbits that, if used for good, can help you forge connections, oil the treadmill, maybe get a leg up. E.g.:
-That crabby chick in accounting? Single mom. (Turn in your TPS report well before 4:55 so she’s not late to daycare.)
-Did you hear Mr. Thunderchops dressed Bob down for chewing gum in a meeting? (When he calls you in, ditch the Juicy Fruit.)
-Yeah, that guy in sales seems sweet, until he starts eavesdropping on your phone calls and asking for rides. (Set boundaries at max.)
There’s no need to keep Tokyo salaryman hours. Nurse a beer or a Coke for an hour or two. When you hear the words “Jaeger” and “karaoke,” make your excuses and skedaddle.
Seems shallow, I know. And for lifelong introverts (hi!), it can be torture at first. But the beer pitcher you share today may refresh the mouth giving you a reference tomorrow.
Also: Good senior management welcomes off-the-clock team-building. Just keep the hands to yourself, the lampshades on the lamps, and the pictures off Facebook.
Carolyn Hax: Made the second question into a primer for applying social skills in an office setting for the greater individual and corporate good. Bravo. A little de-folksifying might be in order, but not at the expense of a pleasant voice.
Eric Peterson: Her humor and verve was well-matched with solid, original advice, but both responses were on the long side.
Douglas LaBier: Try to cover less territory in your answers -- keep them more focused and condensed.
Sydney Trent: I like her subtlety in tackling the boss question. In my view, that sort of approach should be tried first. I loved the examples in her office socializing response, and the humor and lively writing throughout. This one really has potential.
Lynn Medford: A sly wisdom is apparent in Karla’s very clever and creative answers. She is intelligent and rational, in proportion, and keeps the focus on what the employee can do, rather than what the boss does, which is out of the employee’s control. Most of all, her answer on the second question asked the questioner to think past surface tensions and try to understand the humanity. Very wise.
Meet the @Work Advice Contest’s 10 finalists