Karla L. Miller writes a Washington Post advice column on navigating the modern workplace. Each week she will answer one or two questions from readers.
Q: I suspect that one of my co-workers, with whom I work closely, has a drinking problem. We no longer include her in after-hours socialising because she gets drunk and picks fights. She recently started exhibiting this behaviour on the job. There's also been the tell-tale sign of alcohol on her breath, even at 8 a.m. I don't feel comfortable confronting her or talking to her supervisor. I've thought about leaving, but I'm only a few years from retirement.
A: The good news is, diagnosing her is not your job. Your job is to let your supervisor know when something in your work environment is preventing you from doing your job effectively - say, a belligerent co-worker who derails productive work discussions with arguments. You don't need to mention the boozy breath; odds are, management is already clued in to the suspected cause.
In a healthy workplace, management would tell the worker her behaviour is out of line, steer her to an employee assistance program (EAP) or other resource, and give her space to straighten up and save her job - or not. Of course, this assumes you're not working in a dynamic that ignores or enables disruptive individuals. If your employer won't help you set and defend your boundaries, removing yourself is the next step.
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Q: I have a co-worker whom I consider a close friend. Over the past few months, she has become increasingly negative about her abilities, our jobs and office dynamics. She recently received criticism on her performance and on the amount of sick leave she takes. Now, after two months of more and more "bad" days, she often stops by my desk unannounced to rant or cry. I am truly worried about her, but it's clear that my compassionate approach is not helping her long term. Meanwhile, I am losing my patience, and the negativity is rubbing off on me. How should I handle this?
A: Again, it's not your job to diagnose her, but as a close friend, you have standing to discuss her behaviour directly with her - compassionately, and off the clock.
"Hey. I'm truly worried about you. It's not healthy to be in tears at work so often. Something is eating at you, and I'm afraid that if you don't talk to someone besides me about it, you could end up losing your job. I found the phone number of our EAP. If you want, I'll sit with you while you call one of the counsellors, or your doctor, but you need to call someone. You may not see it, but trust me: This is urgent."
And sometimes, compassion means removing the crutch. When she stops by: "I'm sorry, I can't talk right now. How about we go grab coffee at [convenient later time]?"