Oh Captain my Captain,
I am the manager of a retail establishment and recently had an eye-opening experience with one of my employees. He is normally a smart, funny, articulate, motivated, an amazing artist and very thoughtful guy. Twice now I have had bizarre experiences with him where, over the course of his shift, he acts extremely rude, uncaring, and generally like an asshole. On both occasions I’ve told him he’s acting inappropriately and it needs to stop. This is twice in the last year and a half that I’ve worked with him.
This last time, I figured there must be something going on in his personal life to make him act this way. After I got off work I went home and checked his Facebook to see if something was up. (I probably should have just asked him but the night ended with us not speaking to each other). What I found was his Myspace page and a blog post from two years ago about how he intensely loathed himself, couldn’t look at himself in the mirror and didn’t understand why anybody would want to really get to know him because he found himself so bland, uninteresting and disgusting. He said he acts like an ass sometimes and doesn’t mean to but he can’t stop himself.
We aren’t exactly friends (I’m the manager and he is my employee), but everybody who works there is on friendly terms and we will all occasionally hang out outside of work. This post that I read disturbed me deeply and even though I would be completely uncomfortable saying anything about it directly (which I’m sure would be inappropriate besides), I want to help him if I can. What can I do that would help him see the (numerous) positive qualities about himself? I try to be positive at work and tell people when they are doing something right, and give constructive criticism when something goes wrong, but I don’t know what to do with someone who (I now know) feels so deeply flawed. Is there even anything I can do? If he starts acting like a jerk again, what can I say that won’t feed into his already poor self-image?
Loathing But Not In Las Vegas
“Is there anything I can do?”
Yes. Keep calling him out on his asshole behavior when it crosses the line for what is appropriate at work. “That’s not appropriate, please stop.” (Document). If the behavior continues, proceed to writing him up and/or firing him. Do not let on ever that you read his blog posts. Focus only on what happens at work. The farthest you could step into his personal life is to ask “You’ve been completely out of line lately in a way that is not like you. If something is bothering you, why don’t you take a few days off and pull things together.” If your workplace has an employee assistance program (EAP) give him the number and document that you did. Your watchwords are “Manners” and “Boundaries!”
“If he starts acting like a jerk again, what can I say that won’t feed into his already poor self-esteem?”
Nothing. It’s not your problem to take care of his psyche. It’s your problem to make sure that the work gets done at work.
Your letter reminds me of a line from my favorite Marilyn Hacker poem, “She Bitches About Boys” – “Women love a sick child or a healthy animal; a man who’s both itches them like an incubus” – and I’m getting a vibe from your letter that your interest in this “smart, funny, amazing artist” is a little more than managerial. Fair enough! We all want to find out more about people we like, and he put his messy thoughts on the internet for everyone to see. Now you know too much and you can’t unknow it. That’s where manners and boundaries come in.
On Manners: A safe assumption is that our employers are Googling us (and we’re Googling them). Everyone is Googling everyone and the boundaries of what is private vs. public are fuzzy right now. I think the trend is going to be toward normalizing the sharing of personal stuff online and understanding that people are complicated, vulnerable, and human – we contain multitudes and we don’t all live our lives like we’re planning to run for office someday. While we will all make judgments about what we read, developing good manners about how we view and react to what we see about other people is important. For example, The Roommate Code says that you pretend not to hear your roommates having sex. You don’t mention it, you don’t let it affect how you interact with them – you make an essential mental shift to a parallel universe where it never happened. If as a teacher I stumble across a student’s personal blog where they’re writing about sensitive stuff, I’m going to close it and forget about it. I’m not going to mention to them that I read it or bring it into how we interact in the classroom, because even though it’s out there in the world I know that I am not the audience for it. Bringing it up would be bad manners the way asking a roommate “SO DID YOU HAVE A GOOD TIME LAST NIGHT? SOUNDS LIKE IT!” is bad manners.
On Boundaries: A theme that comes up over and over again on this site is that developing and enforcing boundaries with people depends on you looking at the facts (the behaviors that are actually happening) and your feelings (how the behaviors affect you, or in this case, your business) before you go looking for reasons or excuses that the other person might be behaving that way. “He only acts that way because he hates himself” stops becoming an excuse for shitty behavior. How is he acting? Shitty. Why is he acting that way? Not your problem. You can’t “love” or “compassion” people into dealing with their own dark sides, and knowing why something is happening is overrated, especially in a work relationship. I’m not making an argument against compassion or empathy here, or even against asking why in a personal relationship where intimacy involves sharing stuff and knowing may give you some insight into how to handle what’s going on. But if you excuse shitty behavior that affects you badly because of (sad reasons) you set yourself up for a lot of hurt and abuse and then you kind of paint yourself into a corner of never being able to be mad about it or put an end to it because of (sad reasons). With good boundaries, you say “I’m sorry that (sad reasons) are happening to you. If I can help with any of that, let me know. In the meantime, I need you to treat me well and obey the social contract.”
So make this a victory for manners and boundaries, ok? Keep calling your employee out on his behaviors that affect work and leave the rest alone.