Richard Wong is one of the 10 finalists in The Washington Post Magazine’s @Work Advice Contest.
About me: My family includes two teenagers, a recent college graduate, two dogs and five cats. My life is insane. The most normal person in the house is my wife, whose coffee mug says “Crazy Cat Lady.”
I was born and raised in another culture, but in many ways, I’m more “American” than most Americans. I lived in Florida, New York, Ohio and California before I settled in the Washington area 24 years ago. I’ve been a teacher, a journalist and an association manager, but mainly, I’m just a dad.
Through my diverse personal and professional experiences, I understand people. I understand how important it is for us to live and work as a society, and the key is to understand and learn about each other. In my pursuit of knowledge, I earned a master’s degree in counseling and a doctorate degree in education.
I love learning. I love creativity. I love food. I’m open-minded, fun and don’t take myself too seriously. I’m in my 50s, look like I’m in my 40s, feel like I’m in my 30s and my wife says I act like a teenager. What else is there to know?
Why I should win: Everything in my life has been leading up to the @Work Advice Contest.
Maybe not, but I’ve had enough experiences that there’s probably very little I haven’t seen. I’ve worked for private companies, public entities and nonprofits. I’ve been in entry level positions, middle management and now upper management as the executive director of the American School Counselor Association since 2000.
More importantly, I believe in people, and I believe in work. I believe humans need to work, to be productive, to feel like we’re accomplishing something. This is the root of most workplace problems. We often feel like we’re not accomplishing anything because of office politics, work that seems meaningless, or a job that simply doesn’t fit. We wonder whether we’re wasting our life and soon, every quirk in the workplace becomes a catastrophe.
It doesn’t need to be that way. Frustration and disillusion don’t come with the territory. Workplace problems are not a necessary evil; they are surmountable. Jobs can be meaningful and fulfilling. People can be happy at work, and if we’re happier at work, we’re happier in life. If I can offer a perspective to help people be happier, I’ll feel like I’ve accomplished something.
Work mantra: “It’s just a job; it’s not your life.”
My workplace anecdote: My boss and I were talking yet again about our staff problems and how they affected the organization. “Our meeting planner won’t travel. Our public policy director won’t go to Capitol Hill. Our finance director isn’t a numbers person. No wonder we’re sinking,” I said. He had always ignored the problems. This time, he asked what I wanted him to do. “I want you to show some damned leadership,” I spat out. I knew he wouldn’t fire me, but until that moment, I didn’t know I had the courage to quit.
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: Blood donation crusader: Due to a medical condition, I’m not eligible to donate in our company’s blood drive. Now my officemate is badgering me about participating. I’d have no problem telling him why I can’t, except he has an Impossible Personality, and I generally try to limit personal information I share with him. This is just one of the many times he’s crossed the line. How do I shut him up without giving specifics?
Wong: I don’t know how to turn an Impossible Personality into a Possible Personality, but luckily that wasn’t your question. Getting someone to stop badgering you is more doable.
Try a tactic I told my kids to use: blame the parents. Because donating blood is so complex, the Red Cross regularly rejects prospective donors for many reasons, such as recent illness or foreign travel. Blame it on the Red Cross. It has prohibited you from donating. You don’t need to explain beyond that. You shouldn’t feel pressured into sharing personal information.
The bigger question is, “Why do you allow this coworker to badger you?” You can’t be the only one who isn’t giving blood. Why has he chosen you? If he’s crossed the line many times, he clearly doesn’t know where the line is drawn or doesn’t care. Those are your lines; you need to make sure they’re clearly marked and are fortified when breeched. A firm, “The Red Cross won’t take my blood. Please stop asking,” should get the point across. If he asks why, tell him it doesn’t matter; the Red Cross won’t take your blood. Period. Statements like that every time he crosses the line should lead to fewer crossings. If you continue to be the office cream puff, your coworker will keep trying to take bites.
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?
Wong: If senior management is observant, it would wonder whether the new kid is a team player or a loner who can’t play nice with the other kids. Sometimes, people who get along out of the office work better together in the office.
You’re smart to keep some professional distance, but don’t allow that distance to become isolation. Your workplace is as much a social environment as a professional one. If your co-workers sense that you exclude yourself, it won’t be long before they exclude you, and if you’re constantly left out of the loop, it won’t be long before senior management excludes you.
Like it or not, you entered into a relationship with your coworkers when you took the job, and like all relationships, it requires effort to maintain. If the norm in your office is to blur the lines between professional and social relationships, then that’s the norm you should follow. You don’t have to be best friends with your coworkers, but you can go out to lunch with them, maybe a happy hour once in a while. Only you know when and how to make the line more distinct.
Of course, mixing business with pleasure has its downsides. Camaraderie can quickly breed cattiness. You don’t want to be a part of the cattiness; don’t be the target either.
Carolyn Hax: “The Red Cross won’t take my blood”— yes! The best take on this one, because it tells the colleague everything and nothing. “Please stop asking” ... a tad too blunt, alas. The whole thing is solid but the writing needs to loosen its tie and do a Jaeger shot.
Eric Peterson: His advice to the blood donation was arguably the most insightful, but he will need to let a lot more personality shine through to make it to the end.
Douglas LaBier: Good perspectives offered; more succinctness in answers would strengthen replies, as well as being careful not to let your own assumptions color your answers.
Sydney Trent: He gives the perfect “out” for the blood drive target. There’s no comeback to that one! The office socializing advice is also insightful. The writing, however, is the dullest among the finalists. His answers are dry and repetitive. He’s really going to have to juice it up to stand a chance here.
Lynn Medford: Sound advice....could we see some personality now?
Meet the @Work Advice Contest’s 10 finalists