It’s Work, Not Junior High

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Too Much Team Building

For the past three years I’ve worked for a company that places a fair amount of stock in team building: Each of our monthly all-hands meetings features an all-about-me employee presentation, and our office hosts happy hours and potlucks. I’m grateful to work in a place that encourages its employees to get along well.

My dilemma: When an employee has a birthday or work anniversary, our managers announce it on Slack. What happens next feels like a popularity contest — some people get a lot of well wishes, and others do not. As someone who doesn’t know that many of my co-workers, and who has dealt with a lifelong anxiety about rejection, perceived or otherwise, I recognize the well-meaning impulse of the practice but also wish it didn’t exist.

Before my birthday last year, I told my manager she didn’t have to say anything, but she thought I was joking and did anyway. I don’t want to come off as a killjoy or someone too sensitive for this world, but I’ve got another birthday coming up and am tired of feeling like I’m back in junior high school. Is there a good way to bring this up again with my manager, or should I just suck it up and move on?

— Anonymous, New York City

There’s a reason young kids have to bring enough Valentines or other treats for everyone in their class or none at all: so no one feels left out or unappreciated. In the workplace, alas, there is no real way to ensure that everyone is treated the same way.

You aren’t a killjoy for being human. Your workplace is certainly well-meaning, and it’s great that they care about fostering a collegial professional environment. You also have every right to opt out of things that make you uncomfortable. You can approach your manager again and share that the birthday announcement exacerbates your anxiety and that while you appreciate the efforts to recognize your birthday, you would better appreciate her honoring your wishes by saying nothing. After that, you may just have to let this go.

I’ll add one more thing. You aren’t in junior high. You’re a successful adult living a good life. Your worth is not determined by the number of birthday wishes you receive on the company Slack. If it is at all possible, try to reframe your thinking around this, though I realize that is far easier said than done.

I Wanna Be Sedated

I work in the marketing department of a big real estate development company. It gives me great shame to admit that. Since the real estate market hasn’t been doing so hot, my company is asking employees to show that they are “engaged.” Our full work-from-home team is now being asked to have our cameras on in every meeting, to put up matching Teams backgrounds, and to, in general, show that we are more engaged in work. I’ll be honest — I’m not engaged, at least not in the way this company probably wants me to be. Can my bosses fire me if they think I’m not as “engaged” as they want me to be? I do a pretty good job of pretending and I’m in no way expecting an “engagement” evaluation any time soon.

— Grace, San Diego

In California, most employment is at will. You can quit for any reason, and with a few exceptions, your workplace can terminate your employment, well, at will. A lack of engagement is certainly a potential cause for termination if engagement is something they are prioritizing. I would hope they use a more rigorous metric for engagement than being on camera during meetings and the other cosmetic things they would like you to do, but the workplace can be a fickle beast. Keep up the good work pretending and smile for the camera!

Haters Gonna Hate

I recently started working for a well-known organization in a tech role. I was attracted to the job in part because my new employer has a hybrid-work system, which I prefer to a remote-only organization. I work as part of a four-person team within a larger division, and one of my co-workers is vocal about his distaste for our periodic in-office requirements.

He has repeatedly complained that my position did not attract the usual number of candidates because many qualified workers refused to consider a hybrid role. I believe he is making these comments because he would like the organization to change its hybrid-work policy, not because he is trying to disparage me.

Other than when he makes these comments, I have found my colleague to be pleasant and welcoming. Should I challenge him when he makes these statements? Part of me feels I should simply ignore him and let my work output speak for me. But part of me wants to be more assertive in the workplace, especially important for a female, nonwhite, queer person working in a heavily cis, hetero, white male field. Moreover, if it is advisable to challenge his comments, what should I say?

— Anonymous

Your colleague is just making comments to suit his work preferences. Who knows why? Hybrid-work policies are fairly popular because they offer flexibility — the ability to work from home and avoid everything going into the office entails while also being able to benefit from face-to-face interactions and collaboration with colleagues.

Don’t let him undermine you this way. You can ignore him and let your work speak for itself because success is excellent revenge. But it’s also important to stand up for yourself. His comments aren’t going to compel your employer to change its hybrid policies. They are simply a way for him to air his grievances and enjoin you to his dissatisfaction. The next time he suggests that your position didn’t attract the usual number of candidates, remind him of the importance of quality over quantity and walk away.

At a Learning Impasse

I’m a quarter-century into my career, and in Year 6 at my current company. I love my co-workers and bosses, and the work is rewarding. But there’s nothing left to learn in the job, and my professional growth has slowed.

How do I balance job satisfaction (plus great benefits) with becoming bored and feeling like I’m not substantially advancing my knowledge anymore? Is it OK to stand in place for a few years while enjoying the sense of fulfillment I get from helping people for a living?

— Anonymous

Only you can determine if fulfillment is enough. How much do you value learning on the job, and is that more important to you than the fulfillment of helping people? There is nothing wrong with standing in place if you are doing work you find rewarding. That’s the dream for many people.

Are there professional competencies you would like to develop, even if they aren’t relevant to your current position? Are there ways you could satisfy your desire to learn outside of work? This might be a good opportunity to pursue an interesting new hobby or take a course at a local university or community college.

There are all kinds of opportunities to learn that are not directly related to the work we do. This is an ideal time to start exploring what that might look like for you.

Write to Roxane Gay at [email protected].

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