You’re Not the Mean Lady at Work

Go ahead and assert boundaries with unvaccinated colleagues, impertinent clients and, yes, even Mom.

Credit…Margeaux Walter for The New York Times

work Friend

You’re Not the Mean Lady at Work

Go ahead and assert boundaries with unvaccinated colleagues, impertinent clients and, yes, even Mom.

Credit…Margeaux Walter for The New York Times

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Send questions about the office, money, careers and work-life balance to workfriend@nytimes.com. Include your name and location, or a request to remain anonymous. Letters may be edited.

Help! I Work With Covid Mary!

I work in a small office where everybody is vaccinated. I have diabetes, so I am cautious about getting Covid-19. A new part-time employee was hired, and during her training, the office manager asked if she was vaccinated; she said she was not. The management team was flummoxed. They are trying to figure out if they are going to force her to wear a mask all the time. She cannot work from home until she is well trained.

I’m trying to decide how to behave. Do I keep my office door closed? If she needs to speak to me, she needs to have a mask on, and I will wear one, too. I won’t go eat in the break room if she is there. I’ll either eat at my desk or eat after she has left. The three female employees share one bathroom. Can I ask her to clean the sink, or should I just mask up to go in there? And should I clean the bathroom before I even use it?

I want to walk the line between protecting myself and not being the mean lady at work.

— Keren, Florida

Taking steps to protect yourself from a virus is not being mean. I hear your concern, which is entirely valid. It is a bit extreme to ask her to clean the bathroom after she uses it or for you to clean the bathroom before you use it. The risk of surface transmission is, according to the Centers for Disease Control, quite low. The coronavirus is transmitted primarily via respiratory droplets, so the best thing you can do is wear a mask whenever she is within your vicinity and insist she wear a mask when she needs to speak or otherwise interact with you. I would also have hand sanitizer and disinfecting wipes in your office to keep your immediate work environment as clean as possible. You didn’t mention this in your letter, but has anyone asked this new employee if she is willing to get vaccinated? It seems unlikely, but you never know. Sometimes, the easiest way forward is the most obvious path.

It’s Me or Her

I recently worked with a client who told me I looked “too young” to present my work during our first meeting and asked for another teammate to give the final presentation. After I did some work, the client changed her mind and said I should copresent because even if my title didn’t convince her I was capable, my work had. She apologized for her previous comment and said, “No offense, but you look like you’re 16.” I laughed and said, “I’m about double that.” She shared what specific features made me look young. I held firm, reminding her I had a decade of work experience.

As we got to the end of the project, the client was happy with most of the work but didn’t like the results that were not flattering to her company. I stand by my results. She called my white, male co-worker, whom she thinks is my superior (he’s not, and I actually have more experience than he does) and my supervisor to change these results and asked that I not attend the final presentation. She was afraid I would bring a “bad vibe.” Because I was the only one who had worked on the project, I still had to attend the internal meetings.

My supervisor took this opportunity to give me tips on how to be less abrasive. While he acknowledged that this was a difficult client, he said I would have to learn to deal with these situations better. I told him that while I agreed with many of his observations, this was not the time to give that feedback because the client’s comments were explicitly ageist, implicitly sexist and subtly racist. This conversation felt like I was being punished for asking a client to respect me.

A few weeks after we wrapped this project, the client came back for more work. My supervisor accepted it. We agreed I wouldn’t be involved, but I’m still hurt that my company is choosing to engage with this client.

The day after I was told we’d be doing more work for her, I gave my notice. My friends and family are split on if this was an overreaction. As I search for jobs, I’m realizing I really do love my company and the work I do, but I can’t stand the thought of working for someone who chooses clients over their own employees.

How do you think this could have been handled differently? Was quitting a job I love after five years because of this an overreaction?

— Mei-Lin, New York

Your former client was both difficult and wildly inappropriate. She clearly has some kind of chip on her shoulder. I have no idea why she was so persistent in remarking so rudely about your appearance and, in turn, diminishing your work and professional accomplishments. Her behavior was wrong. Ideally, your company should have done more to support you and enforce boundaries around client behavior. Your supervisor’s saying you need to learn how to more effectively handle bad client behavior is a cop-out, at best. It was a less-than-subtle way of telling you that clients can pretty much get away with anything if they bring their business to your company.

You didn’t have a lot of options when your company decided to work with the client again. Sure, you could have gritted your teeth and been a “team player.” But for what? The company will never love you, no matter how much you love the work you did. It’s important to remember that, always.

Giving notice is somewhat extreme. At the same time, is it, really? You cannot put a price on your dignity and self-respect. I understand why you quit — your sense of betrayal was, clearly, intolerable. And you’re right. The company should support you. It should have a zero-tolerance policy for clients who are hostile, and not only in a perfect world. It is disappointing that your company prioritized profit over your well-being and your contributions to the organization. Hopefully, you will find a new position at a company with values that are better aligned with yours.

Meddling Mother

My mother cares for my daughter two days a week while I work from home. However, every time I go downstairs to grab a cup of coffee, put together a quick lunch or use my lunch break to buy groceries or do a load of laundry, I am greeted with “Shouldn’t you be working?” This drives me crazy on a personal, don’t-tell-me-what-to-do-Mom level, but part of me is wondering if she is right. Am I allowed to do anything other than work while my mom watches my four-year-old for free?

— Anonymous

No, your mother is not right. She is, indeed, generous for caring for your daughter twice a week. Her expectation that you should chain yourself to your desk during the workday is strange and unreasonable. Is she teasing you when she asks if you should be working? Is she concerned about your work performance and expressing that concern through micromanagement? Is she just being annoying? You’re a grown woman. If you are fulfilling your responsibilities, there is nothing wrong with taking breaks during the day, just like you would in the office. And when working from home, it is fairly normal to attend to personal matters occasionally. The next time your mother asks if you should be working, thank her for her invaluable support, and gently remind her that you are working and entitled to breaks. This could be a good opportunity to have a conversation about each of your expectations when she is providing child care. She is doing you a favor, but you are allowed to have boundaries.

Roxane Gay is the author, most recently, of “Hunger” and a contributing opinion writer. Write to her at workfriend@nytimes.com.

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