The Daily Item, Sunbury, PA

November 22, 2013

Watercooler: It's not easy, not being mean

By Karla L. Miller
Special to The Washington Post

— Q: One colleague at our organization is a superstar: charismatic, influential, loved by clients, terrific attitude. The director of our division recently started a running joke about the superstar, who has been laughing along and taking it with a grain of salt. However, at a retreat, the director asked everyone in a group session to add to the joke. I was shocked, but I added my comment. Now I feel sick. I feel I was forced to make fun of someone I admire. The director continues to elaborate on the joke in meetings and gatherings. It's making me increasingly uncomfortable, especially since the colleague recently told me it actually bothers her, too. I have lost sleep over this. What should I do?

A: Start by making your superstar colleague a needlepoint that says, "The only way some people can get a taste of success is to take a bite out of you."

Then apologize. Tell her you respect her, you regret taking part in the "joke," and you refuse to do so anymore.

(As you don't indicate the "joke" targets the colleague's sex, age or race, I'm presuming this is a garden-variety case of the green-eyed meanies.)

It's up to the superstar to decide whether to reveal that her grain of salt is starting to chafe. But you can make your opinion known to co-workers with a weary, "Ehh, don't you think that joke has run its course?" If further attempts at poking "fun" run into awkward, stony silences, maybe the director will realize the purported butt of the joke is not the one who comes off looking like a butt.

Q: I am job-hunting and connecting with former colleagues. I recently saw "Maria"; we get along, but she can be unprofessional, slagging people for no reason. When I told her I planned to see another former co-worker, "Tom," Maria said negative things about him. I didn't tell Tom what Maria said, but felt bad when he told me she was good to work with, and he missed her.

I want to speak up for people I like, but I don't want to burn bridges. Should I have told Tom? How should I act in the future?

Karla: "Really? Tom's always had good things to say about you."

You can't shame the shameless, but you can pleasantly decline to join them. You may end up a target, but then you probably were, anyway.

Tom doesn't need to know about Maria's sniping unless it could harm him. If he's hoping for a referral from her, you'd be justified in saying, "I dunno if she'd be my first choice for a glowing reference. You can probably do better with someone else."

Karla L. Miller writes an advice column on navigating the modern workplace. Each week she will answer one or two questions from readers. Miller has written for and edited tax publications for 16 years, most recently for the accounting firm KPMG's Washington National Tax office. You can find her on Twitter, @KarlaAtWork.