Your Boss’s Bathrobe Is Not Office Attire

I’ve been at a perfectly OK job for the past nine months, but the environment is a little toxic. There are a few people who are rude and unkind, and there’s a culture of gossiping and complaining. I’ve become a target for one particularly grouchy and rude co-worker. Emails from “Mary” are rude and passive-aggressive. She points out everything she thinks I’ve done wrong and constantly tells me to stay in my lane. She also routinely copies my boss on emails. I’ve ignored her unnecessary comments, and I’ve responded pleasantly and politely when I can.

Recently, she sent me a particularly unkind string of emails to the point that my boss finally came to talk to me about it. My boss says she’s very aware that Mary has been doing this. She says that it’s not just in my head, that Mary is targeting me, and that it’s not because of anything I did. My boss is clearly pleased with my work and on my side, but she also downplayed my issue with Mary as no big deal. She joked that there were a few people in the office who should take a class on how to appropriately interact with others. I’m grateful the people in charge are all pleasant, but I’m also frustrated by their refusal to do anything to improve the culture of the organization.

Is it unreasonable to expect a respectful work environment? I don’t want Mary to get fired, but is there a way to ask her to start treating me with more respect or kindness without making everything worse?

— Anonymous, Nebraska

Mary is the one who needs to stay in her lane. I am not sure why her behavior is tolerated. You are not being unreasonable for expecting a respectful work environment. Unfortunately, you can’t make Mary treat you better. If you could, she wouldn’t be treating you this way in the first place. And you’re not being overly sensitive.

This idea that we should be totally fine with toxicity and continuing bullying is taking tolerance way too far. It’s great that your boss supports you, but she need to amplify that support by dealing with Mary. Clearly, this workplace is one where those in charge would rather look the other way than doing the more unpleasant parts of their job, but I would sit down with your boss, outline the extent of Mary’s behavior and ask for something to be done.

But also, you say your job is “perfectly OK,” which leads me to believe it isn’t your dream job. Maybe it’s time to look for work somewhere with a better culture?

About a year and a half ago, a colleague was hired to do the same job as I do. We formed a light bond, mostly because I could see she felt lonely and she had some personality issues I once struggled with. I was careful to not give advice, but I was happy to listen. She was just fired for cause, and I’m struggling with what to do. Having been fired myself, I know how devastating this is, but I really don’t want to continue the acquaintance. At the same time, I feel that I’m abandoning her when she’s already at her lowest. It feels cold not to reach out but again, I don’t want to really keep the acquaintance. What do you suggest?

— Anonymous

The only way to guarantee ending the acquaintance is to do nothing and sit with your feelings until they dissipate. You can also just reach out to her, express your condolences on the firing and wish her the best as she moves forward professionally and personally. That allows you to let her know you were thinking about her without making overtures for a continued friendship.

I made a mistake at work and compounded the damage by behaving defensively and childishly. This was almost five years ago. No real harm was done. The outcome was chiefly my embarrassment at having behaved like an idiot.

I apologized, and I have since left that job. But the shame remains. My impulse is to contact the two co-workers involved and somehow do a better job of explaining/apologizing. I won’t, since that would be even nuttier as well as narcissistic. Why would my deep mortification over a trivial workplace incident persist for so long? What can I say to myself to put it into perspective?

— Anonymous

I hate making mistakes and always want to explain and over-explain myself when things go awry. I also hope there is some combination of words that will allow me to clarify what I did or didn’t do and alleviate whatever uncomfortable feelings I am dealing with. But generally, the over-explaining is more for me than whomever I am trying to reach because I want to undo what was done. And that’s just not possible. Shame is difficult. As you say, no real harm was done. You made a mistake, and you are clear on that with yourself. You’ve apologized and moved on to a new workplace.