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Miss Conduct

Questions on business etiquette

I’ve seen lunch-time potlucks started at two different jobs. At first, people bring whatever they can in a free spirit of community. Then someone decides to make it monthly, and from there, it disintegrates into a circulated list with your name on it whether or not you agreed to attend. The organizer starts to pick apart who is bringing what. Things degenerate to the point of conflict. Why? What is the problem here?

F.A., Worcester

The problem is that choosing and preparing food to be consumed by other people can evoke intense anxieties about, oh, gee, body image, health, gender, social class, family of origin, self-efficacy, and ethnicity — and that’s just off the top of my head. Layered on top of that simmering casserole of neurosis is a bubbly cheese crust of workplace politics, as the potluck creates a kind of war game situation in which office conflicts can be played out around the lunch table.

The solution is to insert a poison pill in the plan from the get-go. Have potlucks during the summer only, or have one of the “rules” be that if it’s ever necessary to have more than three rules to organize the potluck, the tradition will be discontinued.

My work ethic is constantly being questioned by two co-workers whom I don’t feel are in a place to scrutinize me. At first they talked to me directly, but feeling their claims were baseless, I ignored them. Now they say things to other people loud enough for me to hear. I don’t want to contact human resources about this, but it’s been going on for a month. I want it to stop, and my boss hasn’t proven he’s willing to stop it. How should I handle this?

M.L., Beverly

So your co-workers won’t confront you openly about what they perceive as your subpar performance, you won’t confront them about what you perceive as their unfair criticism, and your boss doesn’t want to get involved. Are there any openings at Passive-Aggressive Industries Inc.? Sounds like they could use a good organizational psychologist!


You say you “feel” both that your performance is adequate, and that it is none of your co-workers’ business in the first place. I’ve got no evidence of whether the former feeling is based on reality or not, but seeing as how the latter one most definitely is not, I’m inclined to think you need to repair some connections here. What, exactly, are your co-workers criticizing and why? Your first order of business is to check your own work. What are your performance metrics, and are you meeting them?

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Then, apologize to your co-workers for not having addressed their concerns previously and drag those criticisms out into the sunlight, with your boss if necessary. (Even if your colleagues are in fact nasty little jealous snipers, apologizing for ignoring them is the right thing to do and puts you on the moral high ground.) The question of whether you are or are not doing your work correctly is an empirical one. Get it settled.

I’ve moved from finance to health care, and explored various other areas along the way. In doing so, I’ve gotten in touch with various senior contacts in several fields to job search in each area. I’m worried that they could see me as inconsistent with my pursuits (which is true) and this may affect my reputation as a reliable employee. How do I mend these bridges?

E.V., Athens

Career-changing is fairly common and doesn’t carry a stigma, so don’t get too nervous. What you need to do is create a narrative that will tie your seemingly disconnected work experiences together — and believe me, hon, if I managed that, anyone can.

Begin your resume with a section that highlights your most valuable skills, such as “delivering customer service” or “managing complex data sets.” This section should paint a picture of who you are, regardless of your job title. Describe your various jobs in ways that highlight this unified skill set. Use your cover letter and in-person conversations to create a clear, concise story of how you got from Point A to Points B, C, and D, professionally speaking. Have a friend read and listen to all this, to make sure it really is as clear and concise to an audience as it feels to you.

And then, in your job search, leverage your diverse experience. Look for positions that cross functional or departmental boundaries. You’re not a specialist — you’re a renaissance visionary. Find that character within yourself, and then play the part with all your might!

Miss Conduct is Robin Abrahams, a writer with a PhD in psychology.