Office Politics

Signing petitions, issuing apologies -- what's a modern worker to do?

Dear Social Grace,

I work in an office. Like most offices, mine has a bulletin board in a public area of the office where people put newspaper clippings, postcards from vacationing co-workers, etc. Recently, someone tacked up a petition on the board. The petition was for a political cause. This seemed to me to be in poor taste. Putting the petition up on the board forced each person in the office to take a public position on the issue by choosing to sign or not to sign. What do you think? Was this a breach of office etiquette?

Thank you,

Dear EV,

Not long ago (and still, in conservative offices), the answer to your question would have been clearer: no political petitions at the office -- period. However, this answer will seem unrealistic to many readers. Gone are the days when people went to work strictly to conduct company business, and few lament those days' passing; most people, I think, prefer the social environment promoted by many modern workplaces. But today's environment does often lead to confusion about where the boundary between one's personal life and one's professional life lies.

Your letter offers a good example: Your office fosters this social-workplace spirit of "fun" with a bulletin board on which employees may display personal items. Who am I to say (as much as I want to) that using the board for petitions and fund-raising requests is inappropriate, for the reasons you describe, if your management hasn't done so?

I would've suggested that the signature gatherer post a small sign alerting people to the petition and inviting them to visit his desk (perhaps after work hours) if they wished to sign it. But in the absence of an official bulletin-board policy, I think your co-worker's confusion is understandable. Perhaps you could ask your personnel department to post some rules: for example, New Yorkercartoons and this SF Weeklycolumn are acceptable, while petitions and anonymous mash notes are not. Barring that, I suggest simply ignoring posted items that do not pertain to you.

Dear Social Grace,

I work in a hotel with a very small staff. A co-worker of mine often has job-performance problems, but our boss is nonconfrontational and does not reprimand anyone in any way. Since I have been here the longest, and I am always the person my boss calls upon to clean up this woman's messes, I have taken it upon myself to let her know about her errors, usually politely, and teach her how to fix them.

In the past, she has been appreciative of my help. I'm not her boss in any way, but recently I guess I have gotten to be a bit of a pain. I didn't realize it until a few days ago when she confronted me about it. I reacted badly, an argument occurred, and later I bad-mouthed her to not only two co-workers but also one of our frequent guests. She found out about it, and now I feel like a total jerk.

So here's my question: When you know you're in the wrong, how do you make it right? A card and a small gift seems very fake, while a memo slid into her box doesn't seem like enough, and going to her personally and admitting I was wrong seems unbearable. It would be cruel and unusual social punishment. But I have been wrong for many months to her, and it took her telling me so for me to realize it.

Pseudo-Boss Dear Pseudo-Madam or -Sir,

As unbearable as it may seem, you owe your colleague a verbal apology. Adding a written one may be in order, too. A gift is probably a step too far for a co-worker (though "I'm sorry" presents have a robust and long-standing tradition in many social relationships -- as a tour through many a jewelry box will prove). But as a further step to making amends, please consider telling those two co-workers that you were out of line when you spoke ill of this woman. And when you apologize, ask her whether she'd like you to retract statements made to the guest, too.

Apologizing when you have wronged someone should not be viewed solely as a punishment: In fact, doing so puts you in a position of dignity, because it's the right thing to do. (A better example of "cruel and unusual social punishment" is when a co-worker publicly bad-mouths you.)

You wrote to me looking for an easy way to make amends for a wrong, and we advice columnists get many, many letters from people asking for painless ways out of sticky situations. Well, I'm sorry to have to tell you that doing the right thing is often difficult -- which is why so many people don't do it.

Luckily, your character seems strong enough to bear what should be your next step.

Dear Social Grace,

I was on a date with a gentleman and we decided to get Korean takeout. We placed our order and sat down to wait. While we were waiting, a waitress brought us hot tea, ice water, and an appetizer, and then brought us our order.

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