Three ways to handle rude people at work

How to deal with phone etiquette in meetings, being left out of a colleague’s wedding, and pesky freeloading brain-pickers

As the space between work and not-work becomes ever more blurred, questions about how to do this thing we plug away at for 30 or 40 or 70 hours a week become all the more expansive. In Work Flow, we delve into the novel dilemmas created by the new ways we work, as well as timeless questions about ethics, gender assumptions, and toxic work situations (and how to escape them). How we work is an important component of how we live—and we’re here to help you do better at both.

Something messing with your flow? Unload your work problems here, and you’ll not only feel heard but you’ll also get unbiased, real-world advice. (That’s something your work sibling/spouse just can’t offer.) Tell us everything:

At my office, we have regular meetings during which we take turns reporting on the status of our work to the group. One of my coworkers is noticeably on their phone the entire time, except when they talk. It’s clear they couldn’t care less about the rest of us or the overall work environment. I feel like it’s really rude to be Instagramming and texting or whatever while other people are talking. We all listen to this person. Plus, we all need to know what’s happening with each other! Is there anything I can do about it without coming off as a total tattletale to my boss?

I agree with you, it is rude to be Instagramming in a work meeting. Unless you’re all a group of influencers or happen to work at Instagram, and then maybe it IS the job. It’s rude to be looking at your phone, in general, while engaged in a conversation with other people—it signals boredom and deprioritizes human interactions for proxy interactions via a device. I just read this dystopian article from The Atlantic about the increasing acceptability of “phubbing,” or phone snubbing, in friend groups. “When the whole gang is having an iPhone break, the path of least resistance is just to get my phone out, too, and thumb through Instagram,” explains the writer. Who among us has not done the same? Your meeting could easily devolve into a phone-free-for-all, with more and more people joining the trend and no one listening to anything. Sometimes we really do need to check our phones, and other times it’s our phone addiction talking.

But a meeting in the office is generally not a time in which people need to be on their phones at all (if taking notes, a laptop or old-school notepad suffices just fine). This is a situation in which those in supervisory roles need to take the lead and mandate a phone-free meeting. You can help them get there: Why not go to your boss and present the idea without throwing any blame at the phone misuser? Just say, “Hey, I’ve noticed in meetings that people are prone to look at their phones instead of each other, and this has led to some communication problems down the road. I’ve heard of offices instituting phone-free meetings to keep distractions minimal and help everyone focus … Do you think that would work for us here?” You come off as a brilliant, forward-thinking, solutions-oriented sort of person, and the decision comes down not from you, but from the powers that be. And you don’t even have to (directly) throw the rude phone person under the bus! Even if you want to, phone and all.

I work with a woman with whom I also have a nice friendship, and she is getting married. One day during work, she asked me to go with her to look at a wedding venue (which she ended up choosing). I was happy to do it, and we had a nice time—I was (and am!) genuinely excited for her, and seeing her so happy was a lovely thing. So imagine my surprise when the wedding invitations went out and she invited virtually our whole team.. but not me. I understand, of course, that hard decisions need to be made when it comes to wedding invitations, but I was hurt and also taken aback that she would ask me to take time away from work to look at a venue with her when she had no intention of inviting me to the wedding. And now I’ve been asked to contribute money for a group wedding gift! I’m outraged on so many levels, and I feel like the only thing to do is keep quiet and pitch in money but I don’t want to!

The rule of wedding planning is that you don’t talk about your wedding plans with someone who isn’t going to be invited to your wedding, and you certainly don’t loop them into being your adviser/de facto venue coordinator by asking them to check out venues with you. She was rude, and you are right to be upset. This hurt is understandable, especially as you considered her a friend.

Now, she may, at the time, have had intentions of inviting you. You can’t know that, and it’s true that limiting wedding guest lists involves lots of compromise. But the fact is, since she elicited your time and help, she should have kept you on the list. She didn’t, which is the only thing you can know, and it’s really the only thing that matters, right along with the fact that it’s rude piling on more rude that she invited everyone on the team except for you. Brides and grooms, do not do this. If you have a close-knit team, you invite all of them, or no one.  

Because you really don’t want to give money for a gift, don’t. Sure, you could take the high road, but why? Some bridges are meant to burn. I would tell your team that you simply won’t be able to contribute to the gift. Leave it as, “Sorry, I’m not able to do that now.” It’s your money, your business, and this woman does not deserve even part of a new KitchenAid from you.

I’m constantly being asked by younger coworkers and even people I don’t work with (I have some renown in my industry) if they can take me out to coffee and “pick my brain.” But I don’t have time for all this brain-picking! I want to help—I guess? I’m supposed to want to help?—but where do I draw the line when my biggest priority is continuing to do well at my own job? Is it wise to give all of these other people advice that they might then use against me by doing better than I am? And if they do pick my brain, are they at the very least required to pay for my coffee? (Several have not even offered.)

Oh my God, the picked brain. No one wants this! Can we, first of all, come up with a better term, something less zombie-adjacent? I’d far rather be asked if someone can take me out to lunch (or for a glass of wine or two) and ask me for some helpful career advice because they admire what I’ve achieved than I am to have my “brain picked,” which is inherently kind of leech-like and probably creates the sense you have that someone might use your advice against you and/or to best you in the end.

A note to seekers of advice from people who “have some renown” in their industries: Make any request a compliment, and respect that whomever you’re asking advice from probably has five million other things to do (that they might even be getting paid for); they are of “some renown,” after all, and they didn’t get that way by clearing their plate for everyone else to eat off of. Make it worth their while to spend some time with you. Be thankful and appreciative, and do your research first: If someone is willing to take time out of their busy life to talk to you about your career, and theirs, don’t pepper them with questions that they answer on their website bio. Read their books, if they have them. Choose a meeting place that’s easy for them. Don’t be late. Don’t you dare look at your phone while you––or they––talk. And at least buy them a damn coffee. PS: Send a thank-you note when it’s over.

To the letter writer: Are you a woman? We often feel like it’s our duty to mentor or nurture others, but you are absolutely under no obligation to do more than you both can and want to do. You do not have to do this for everyone, or for anyone. Trust your gut. You might be a little paranoid in thinking that someone will use your advice to get where you are and then surpass you, but you also might just know how it all goes, circle of life, etc. So don’t give up proprietary information (obviously) and don’t help others so much that you hurt yourself, whether it’s draining your own energy or time to work or time to relax.

Do what any freelance writer does: Tell whoever’s asking you’re “on deadline” and to check back again in some period of time (two months, six weeks, whatever). If they follow up, maybe you meet with them then, but you can also still always say no. Don’t schedule more than one of these kinds of meetings in any given time period (i.e., six weeks). And afterward, ask yourself if there was anything to enjoy about it—or if it was truly just a drain. If the latter, but you still want to help, think about doing occasional phone calls or Gchats with aspiring young yous. Or just say, “I’m sorry, I’m swamped, but when my schedule opens up, I’ll let you know.” (You won’t.)

That said, the younger people of today are the bosses of tomorrow—choose whom you advise and mentor appropriately, and you might just do something good for them, and for yourself.

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