Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Real Talk With Rachel: Storytelling Boss; Ironing Out Ethics

by Rachel Kurzius

Dear Rachel,

I have a job where multiple meetings are required every day. The office environment is generally friendly, so the mood at the meetings is normally friendly, too. Often people will tell a story related to the topic at hand. My boss, who runs these meetings, will often interrupt these people, even if the subject is relevant. She tells stories during these meetings that are not relevant at all. It really bothers me, because it seems so hypocritical. Should I try to do something about it?

Irritated Underling

Dear Irritated Underling,

This must be your first job, Irritated Underling. Either that, or you’ve never had a boss before. So before I give you advice, I’d like to introduce you to the idea of a boss.

Bosses are in charge of you at your job. Sometimes they’re considerate, and other times they don’t care that you have an existence outside of the office. I’m not trying to excuse anyone’s behavior, but just to remind of you of the reality: bosses have power over you.

So, why in the hell would you walk into her office to tell her about something she does that you find irritating? Especially when it’s not even that big of a deal, compared to people whose bosses force them to work on holidays without compensation, or verbally abuse them.

All things considered, your work situation seems pretty good. You describe it as a friendly environment. Already, you’re in a better camp than most. I can imagine it’s difficult to play bad cop to all these wannabe storytellers, but your boss constantly has to pee on the parade. Of course, it would be better if she would then clog her own story pipe, but that’s not the case. Give her a break.

Instead of silently stewing, transform that emotion into gratefulness for having a job, when 8.3 percent of the people looking for work can’t find it.

All the best,


Dear Rachel,

I have an ethical conundrum. I am a man in my late twenties. I generally ascribe to a communitarian lifestyle -- I enjoy having guests stay with me, I like to share what I have (food, drinks, smokes, whatever) with others and I like performing small tasks like washing the dishes or otherwise making things easier for others. These are the guidelines that dictate my life.

But what are my obligations to follow through on these guidelines with people I don’t like? A friend recommended that his friend stay with me when he swings by DC. I don’t really like this guy so I want to say no, even though he’s a nice person. At the same time, I feel bad about saying no to something that wouldn’t cost or inconvenience me at all. Am I ignoring my own guidelines?

Trying to Do Right

Dear Trying to Do Right,

As far as I’m concerned, there are two distinct categories here. The first is finite things. Because you have a limited amount of say, lasagna or a bottle of red wine, you can’t possibly share them with everyone. As such, you’ve got to perform a kind of triage -- who would you like to eat lasagna with the most? There’s simply not enough noodle dish to invite all of DC to your table without going broke yourself.

Then, there’s the infinite category. You could keep giving small extensions of kindness -- smiles, thank yous, dishwashing (to an extent -- I know that time is finite, but washing an extra plate takes moments) etc. -- without bankrupting yourself. You could follow through on your guidelines more effectively here, both in terms of your wallet and because people often find these intangible gestures more meaningful.

I would put your couch (presumably that’s where your friend’s friend would be staying) in the finite category. If this dude you don’t like is sleeping on your couch, there’s no room for a last-minute visitor that you DO like. Or, for you to sit on your couch and enjoy your living room in silence. You have every reason to deny this unpleasant friend of a friend a spot on your sofa.

Guidelines are not steadfast rules; you act in the spirit of the guideline, which leaves you some room for personal interpretation. Plus, they’re YOUR guidelines. But keep in mind that every time you make exceptions, you water them down.



Rachel Kurzius revels in giving advice, and has provided counsel both as a columnist and a friend. She lives in Washington DC, where she works as a news producer. Real Talk with Rachel is published on All Life is Local and the Cleveland Park Listserv,, on Wednesdays. Need advice? You can write to Rachel at advice @ fastmail dot net.


  1. Wow, Rachel! I'm in shock! You really bit off the head of "Irritated Underling," didn't you? I mostly used to like your advice column, but after your scathing, bad advice to "Irritated Underling," I have to say that you're way off-base.

    I'm thinking that you must have some major workplace issues still unresolved yourself, because of how you hit the writer with such a venomous reply. Like, where do YOU get off in telling the him/her that it's no big deal and that he/she should be grateful for even having a job in the first place - much less going on to say that what they have is better than what other people have for working conditions?

    How do you know this? Have you personally been in their office? Again, I wonder if perhaps you've had a really bad job yourself in the past, so now you're taking it out on this poor writer, and casting judgments that aren't based in fact. And I say that, Rachel, because you're making a whole lot of assumptions and insinuations that by all appearances seem to be based on your opinion, not fact - and that kind of approach has no place in an advice column.

    Since I've been in the workplace a whole lot longer than you've probably been alive, I have to say that I think that the writer's boss sounds to be very unprofessional, and that the writer was dead-on right in finding the behavior of that boss to be most irritating. Heck, I do, too. I further believe that the writer has the right idea about what is and isn't okay in the workplace, and that you don't.

    So, Rachel, I think that you owe "Irritated Underling" an apology for lighting into him/her the way you did. That's my experienced two-cents' worth of advice to you!

  2. I appreciate your feedback, Anonymous.

    For the most part, I agree with what you're saying. The boss' behavior IS unprofessional and seems quite irritating. I wasn't excusing the boss, or any boss, for acting in such a way.

    But the question remains - what should Irritated Underling do about that behavior? The boss is still the boss. In all of your years of work experience, did you feel comfortable sauntering into your boss' office to tell him/her that you found their behavior irritating? If so, how did that pan out for you?

    My advice was based on reminding the underling that s/he still is an underling, whose advancement, salary and work load are controlled by the boss. I stand by what I wrote.

  3. Rachel,

    Yes, in all my years of work experience, I DID tell some bosses that their behavior wasn't just irritating, but unprofessional. But, let me point out that one doesn't have to become insubordinate or unprofessional in doing so, either.

    Did all my bosses appreciate me approaching them? No, but I wasn't foolish enough to think elsewise. I expected a negative response, because that's part and parcel of human nature.

    The bottom line for me was that I needed to do what was right, and to remain silent was wrong. In most cases, I asked if I could discuss something uncomfortable with them. In one case, though, I'll admit that I finally got so exasperated with my boss that I finally told her that I thought we'd never get anywhere toward the point of reason because she suffered from "power monger syndrome."

    OK, it's a made-up illness, but it's true that she did suffer from it! I told her as nicely and calmly as I could, and had a witness there, too, but my boss was so shocked that she closed the meeting right then and there. No, I didn't get written up, nor did I get fired, but I did get a transfer, which was just fine with me, because I really wanted to get out of that workplace...badly!

    The bottom line, though, is that if one cannot reason with nor appeal to their superior, then perhaps that's not a good place to work. When I couldn't tolerate my work environment, I did in a few cases over the years choose to leave of my own accord. I never was without another job for more than 2 days, and that's because I was a highly skilled employee with a good background of experience.

    Maybe "Irritate Underling" wouldn't have as many other opportunities as I was fortunate enough to have, but if she gets scared off by your advice from ever standing up to say that something is wrong, she may end up being a miserable employee for years to come. Sometimes, Rachel, a person's simply got stand up against wrong. There's a right way to do it and a wrong way to do it, and sometimes that line may be kind of fuzzy, but not standing up at all isn't a good choice at all.

  4. Let me stand up for Rachel here and point out that she never said, "Don't stand up for what's right." She just said, you may have to put up with some irritating habits. In other words, you can't react to your boss's little tics the way you would to a friend or relative. But if your boss does or says something that you can't in conscience let pass (sexual improprieties, for example), that's a different matter. And if your boss does demote or fire you in retaliation, you have the law on your side. But that wasn't the question.