Colleagues Think You’re Contagious. You’re Sure You’re Not.
Q: As a manager raised in the 1970s, I am sensitive to differences between myself and my younger staff members, most of whom were raised in the 1990s. That said, I was surprised to stumble upon an apparent point of differentiation during the course of a conversation about childhood. I mentioned drinking out of a garden hose as a child, and younger staffers reacted with disgust and revulsion: “You drank all of those germs? Ugh!”Posted — Updated
Q: As a manager raised in the 1970s, I am sensitive to differences between myself and my younger staff members, most of whom were raised in the 1990s. That said, I was surprised to stumble upon an apparent point of differentiation during the course of a conversation about childhood. I mentioned drinking out of a garden hose as a child, and younger staffers reacted with disgust and revulsion: “You drank all of those germs? Ugh!”
I thought of this recently after I was out sick for two days with a cold. Fully recovered, I returned to work — and one member of my staff, who was a good 5 yards away, backed into a wall. This usually warm employee muttered, “I don’t want to get sick,” and darted into her office. Another staff member, in my office for a meeting, wouldn’t touch anything and closed the door with his elbow, presumably avoiding contagion. Throughout the day, he and his colleagues followed me silently with wet wipes, erasing my path of “germs.”
I’m not an untidy or unclean person. In fact, I am rather fastidious. And I was perfectly healthy during this episode. I find this behavior rude and unprofessional, and can’t imagine the reaction if they had treated a visitor to our office in the same way. How do I discuss this issue with workers who — given these dubious “prevention” tactics — evidently believe their own health comes before social propriety and respect to others?
— C.P., NEW YORK
Before we go any further, let’s acknowledge that people who are sick and potentially contagious should not go to the office. And yet anyone who has ever worked in an office has experienced the sniffling, sneezing, hacking co-worker who insists on coming in. People do this for all sorts of reasons — from economic necessity to the misguided sense that the enterprise can’t get by without them. The possibly contagious colleague is among the most familiar villains of office life.
We’ve all encountered this menace, and especially in a rough flu season, it is understandable that your co-workers are worried. Address the situation directly, but keep it light: Treat the episode as a simple (and, like your note, amusing) misunderstanding, rather than a generational showdown. Assure your colleagues that you are well and no threat to their health. Then pivot into your management role and make precisely the points you are making here. Affirm that you value your colleagues too much to put their health at risk — and that they need to show you the same respect.
Leave them room to push back and feel heard. Maybe you’re actually coughing more than you realize. If so, get that in the open and work it out. You can emerge from this episode with a healthier office culture.
Q: I was laid off from a company where I had worked in several capacities for about two decades. My ouster was rough; I wasn’t allowed to clear my desk or bid my co-workers goodbye.
Still, my immediate boss said he’d write me a good review. Several ex-colleagues said they enjoyed working with me, assured me my work was exemplary and offered to be references. I’ve felt really blessed.
I have the urge to write my former division head a thank-you note. Yes, ultimately the decision to lay me off was his. But I am grateful to have worked at the company. The duties, people and mission made me happy to head to the office every day.
Of course I am working like crazy to find a new job elsewhere. But I’m sentimental enough to want to leave the door open in case I could ever go back. Would a thank-you note be totally dignity erasing (or phony seeming)?
— LAS VEGAS
A: This sounds weird to me — analogous to sending warm thanks to an ex who just dumped you. It doesn’t strike me as a great use of time or energy, and feels symptomatic of lingering denial.
As you (quite rightly) concentrate on landing that next gig, you’re probably better off cultivating that former direct boss who offered to endorse you, as well as your admiring former colleagues. You might signal to them that you would happily return, while you focus on leads and contacts elsewhere.
That said, I suppose there’s no concrete downside to writing that note if you feel some sense of gratitude and you’d get something out of saying so. For the sake of dignity, go easy on the explicit “thank you” message and get into the mindset of your future self, enjoying your terrific new position with an employer who won’t hustle you out of the building. In some sense, you’re simply taking a higher road, and there’s nothing wrong with that.
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