coworker wants us to read her Christian novel, managing a colleague’s feelings, and more — Ask a Manager

It’s four answers to four questions. Here we go…

1. Coworker is pushing us to read her self-published Christian novel

I work for a nonprofit that is provides a government-mandated service, is entirely funded by the government, and has very close ties to the government. Most, though not all, of my coworkers are fairly liberal due to the nature of the service we provide.

I have one coworker who is very religious and talks about religion a lot, which I guess is fine. (I’m also religious but hardly ever mention it in the office.) However, she self-published a Christian fiction novel and brought copies for me and some of my coworkers, personally signed to us. She now keeps talking about her book and heavily hinting that we should be reading it. At one point I flipped through it and the literal first thing I saw was a priest explaining why all life begins at conception.

What do you think of this? Is it okay because she’s not forcing us to read it and not in a position of authority over us? I find it pretty inappropriate to promote a religious book in any secular office, but especially one with government ties. But I’m also queer and not cis so I could just be overly sensitive to this kind of thing.

Not okay in any work setting, not just government-affiliated ones — just like it wouldn’t be okay to pressure your coworkers to read erotica you’d published. (Not that they’re the same thing, but they’re both inappropriate things to push on coworkers.)

It’s fine for someone to mention they published a book! But they shouldn’t be pushing it on coworkers. For that matter, that’s true even if there aren’t religious or sexual themes; a lot of people just really don’t want to read their colleagues’ novels).

If your coworker raises it again, it’s fine to say, “Christian fiction isn’t my cup of tea.” Or “my to-read list is so long I can’t add another thing to do it” or “I only read apocalyptic sci-fi” or however you’re most comfortable declining.

2. Is it my job to manage a coworker’s feelings?

I occasionally work with a relatively new (two years) hire from another department, “Claudine.” I don’t report through their management but I have a lot of technical skill and experience that their department needs, so I consult with them regularly. In the year or so since Claudine has joined them, I have noticed that she does not appear to have absorbed any office norms and regularly gets offended when it is pointed out that the reason she is not getting the info she’s asking for is because she is working outside expected channels (for example: scheduling meetings with technical experts directly on top of their technical meetings, then being surprised when her meetings are declined, scheduling daily tag-ups for work that takes weeks to complete per standard flow times). I wondered if this was just a personality conflict and asked around to other technical experts she works with, which confirmed that the behavior is not limited to her interactions with me, and that people are frustrated with her behavior in general.

I went discreetly to her manager, “Kyle” (who is a new manager with less than a year of experience in the role), with my concern that Claudine is alienating the technical experts she relies on. Kyle informed me that he is a supportive manager and sees nothing wrong with Claudine’s behavior, and that my feedback should go directly to Claudine.

Now, whenever I work with Claudine and explain why the things she is asking for cannot be done in the way she’s asking (for example, a standard three-week review process with multiple sign-offs cannot be expedited to three days) or explain why people decline her workshops (because she schedules them over industry events that take precedence), she complains that I am “hurting her feelings” by explaining why she is not getting the results she wants.

I am not a part of her team, and this sort of basic coaching seems like it should be coming from Kyle, who has made it clear that he believes a supportive manager supports their employees unquestioningly. I also feel uneasy about having to manage Claudine’s feelings when my role was meant to be as a technical consultant.

Am I out of line in thinking that it’s not my job to manage Claudine’s feelings? How do I best communicate that the reason she is not getting the results she wants is, well, her behavior? Or am I just showing my age and not recognizing that the new generation of office workers don’t put much stock in things like “office norms” and “the way things are done” and are more concerned about feeling validated? Have I become the office curmudgeon without realizing it?

No, it sounds like Claudine is objectively a problem (as is Kyle, her unconditionally supportive manager). You are going wrong by making this a generational thing; this is about Claudine, not her generation. Plenty of younger people understand how work works!

In your shoes, I’d stop trying to coach Claudine or soothe her feelings. Provide the technical assistance that you’re supposed to provide to her department, but don’t put more energy into trying to teach her why she’s not getting the results she wants. You don’t need to keep trying to explain why people are declining her meetings, for example! She’s made it clear she doesn’t want that sort of feedback, so don’t keep investing time in trying to get her to understand. If she’s making it impossible for you to do your own job, take that to Kyle — but keep it focused on the “what” (for example, Claudine refuses to allow three weeks for the X review), not the “why” (“she’s offended by having to stick to normal workflow processes”). And loop your own manager in too, so she knows what’s going on in case Claudine or Kyle complains to her.

3. How to explain an angry ex-employee is review-bombing us on Glassdoor

I’ve recently taken a job in management at a mid-size employer that until recently was a small employer. Part of my task is building up my historically neglected department so we can start obeying all our industry regulations and making fewer errors. So far, I really enjoy my job. I operate independently with freedom and trust in a supportive environment.

The last person in this position had a negative experience — so negative that when I spoke to him (our field is small and he was easy to find), he tried to persuade me not to apply. He also wrote a one-star review of my employer on Glassdoor. In the review, he claims to have been suddenly fired for no reason, but since I was hired here, I’ve heard that he was on a PIP for horrible work quality (he told people, HR didn’t break confidentiality), disappeared frequently in the middle of the day with urgent tasks pending, and randomly insulted several coworkers. (I actually found documentation of him insulting someone in a file that people forgot to delete. It was bad.)

This would not be a huge deal, but I think he’s also making new Glassdoor accounts and writing up new negative reviews for the company on a regular basis. Pretty much whenever my coworkers and I write positive reviews about our experience, a highly negative one pops up within a couple days specifically addressing our reviews and claiming that leadership at our company is making us write them. These negative reviews all use about the same tone of voice and complain about similar issues, and none are from before this guy got fired.

As I go about building this department, how can I address the review bombing with job applicants? A couple have asked, and I’m sure even more are just not applying or dropping out of the process early because of the increasing number of one-star ratings. “Ignore all that, our former employee is a weirdo” sounds like the sort of excuse people would make at a toxic workplace. But it’s true, and I don’t really know what else to say.

The most important thing is to ensure your hiring process includes opportunities for candidates to talk with other members of your team without you there, so they can see what your team says about the work environment when they’re not in your presence (and so candidates can see you’re comfortable with that).

If anyone asks about the Glassdoor reviews, you should say matter-of-factly, “As far as I can tell, there’s an issue with one unhappy former employee. In part because of that, I’m going to be very deliberate about making sure you have opportunities to talk with team members one-on-one to ask anything you want about culture and what it’s like working here.” In other words, be transparent and then emphasize that you’re being transparent. That’s really all you can do, but it’ll count for a lot with most people.

It doesn’t address the possibility of people not applying at all because of what they see on Glassdoor, but that’s not within your control (and that’s probably fewer people than you think).

4. Stopping a client’s endless apologies

I’m a creative freelancer and right now my main client is a small company that I’ve been working with for a few years now. I really enjoy the work I do for them, and the employees are personable and great to work with.

The person I work most closely with often takes a very long time to respond to me or give me his notes. I know this is because he’s perpetually swamped, and I don’t take it personally. The problem is that when he does make contact, he’ll often make a big apology, lamenting how terrible he’s being for taking so long. I know the apology is genuine, but it’s starting to get grating. I usually respond with “it’s okay,” or “I know how hectic things can be,” but is there something else I should be saying? I feel like I’m running out of synonyms for “no worries.”

For what it’s worth, this bottleneck usually creates more of a strain for my client than it does for me, and I can roll with it and trust that I’ll get a response eventually (even if “eventually” means anywhere from 1-5 weeks.) Short of saying “stop apologizing!” I’d love to know if there’s a better way to cut off the apology song-and-dance short and skip to the part where we actually talk about the work.

Try to always have another topic ready to go, so that you can quickly redirect the conversation. For example:

Coworker: “I’m so sorry this took so long, I know I promised it to you ages ago—“
You: “No worries, actually I’m glad you called because I was just thinking about X and wanted to ask you Y.”

You could certainly try just saying outright, “I never need you to apologize, I know you’ll get back to me when you can, please don’t spend any time on apologizing” … but I’m skeptical it will change his strong need to apologize. You’re better off just cheerfully and briskly redirecting to another topic that he’ll have to respond to, which will hopefully short-circuit the sorry soliloquy in his brain.

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