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Email us questions at advice@the-toast.net, subject line “businesslady.” Previous installments can be found here.

Dear Businesslady,

I’ve recently divorced my husband and moved back to my hometown to accept a job at an office where my mother used to work. She got hired when I was about six and left to start grad school when I was in high school.

In high school, I had my first part-time job at this office, working for the boss that I currently have now. We’ve always gotten along very well. He and my mother had more of a contentious relationship from what I understand, although once she got a promotion, he was a lot more respectful of her. But they haven’t worked together for about ten years.

Anyway, after high school, I left my hometown for a college as far away as possible. I got married, then I decided to get a divorce, and I started looking for a job as far away from my ex-husband as possible, which brought me back to my hometown. Which brought me back to my mother’s office. Which is now my office.

I’ve been working for about nine months as a receptionist. A few of my mother’s friends still work here, and still remember me as a little girl who used to play under her desk on my sick days. While I was being introduced on my first day, this was mentioned a lot. It was embarrassing, but I let it go. It’s an interesting story, so I get why it was brought up. I figured I’d just work past it.

Over the last nine months I’ve been focusing on doing a great job. I’ve taken on projects, streamlined an essential customer service process, and tried to help everyone as much as possible. I feel well respected and liked, and I know how much of a big deal that is to find.

Cut to last week, when my mother, on an evening she knew my boss was working late, called the office and had a chat with him. She said that she and I talk a lot, and that I’ve said some things about him to her–WHO LEADS INTO IT LIKE THAT AGH–and that she felt really lucky that someone was looking out for me because I’m all alone in the big city or something. Then, even though I never had to know about that, she told me about the conversation. Then, because I have anxiety about secrets, I found myself apologizing to my boss about my mother the next day. It was an awkward conversation where he offered in a fatherly way that if I ever needed any help with anything, he was available to me and I said that I really did appreciate feeling respected and then we both said, “Anyway,” and I left his office.

So how on earth do I recover from this? I’m almost thirty and I feel like a child at my job.

Sincerely,

Baby Receptionist

Dear Receptionist,

(I resisted the temptation to address you as “Baby”—I feel like you’ve been infantilized enough as it is.)

Your question is a workplace-related on its surface, but really, I think this is more of an “ugh, parents” issue, with a little bit of “ugh, life” thrown in for good measure.

My time on this earth has taught me that people love to seize upon opportunities for social connection without giving sufficient thought to how appropriate they are to a given relationship or setting. As in, “Oh, you’re pregnant? My niece had a horrible nightmare pregnancy with every complication known to man; let me tell you all the gory details!” Or, in your case, “Oh, you’re our new coworker? I remember how you were this adorable little thing and I have no self-awareness about how sharing this might undermine your current identity as a competent, professional adult!” Overlooking these comments, and focusing instead on defining yourself by doing stellar work, seems like the exactly right approach.

Until your mom came in and ruined everything, right? I feel your pain here, I really do. How is it possible to be a competent, professional adult, and yet still experience that same flush of YOU’RE EMBARRASSING ME shame when your parents make contact with your grown-up world? All of a sudden, you’re storming up the stairs, slamming the door, and throwing yourself on your bed all over again. I’d like to say I meant that figuratively—but I’ve also regressed into an outbursty adolescent in real life on more occasions than I’d care to admit.

Because when you think about it, those early parent/child conflicts aren’t just the result of hormonal mood swings: they happen when fledgling adults start trying to differentiate themselves from the well-established adults who raised them. Even though maturity can help cut down on future arguments, the détente is also facilitated by the usual processes of fleeing the nest—distance, time, the desire to focus on pleasant things whenever you’re together in the same place again. But as soon as either side lobs some bombshell into the DMZ, you’re back to being the same warring factions who’ve been learning how to push each other’s buttons for a lifetime.

All of which is to say…I don’t actually think what your mom did was that big of a deal. Embarrassing, inappropriate, eyeroll-inducing, worthy of your best teenagery “MO-OOOM!!!”—absolutely. But it’s such a stereotypical Embarrassing Mom Thing to do that I can’t see how it even reflects on you at all; if anything, it’s a commentary on your mom and her imperfect understanding of professionalism and boundaries. I’m almost certain your boss has completely forgotten about it by now (which would be true even if I hadn’t taken a while to answer this question). I do think mentioning the conversation to your boss was smart, though, because that signaled “I did not put her up to this”; better to purge that all at once in a burst of awkwardness than have it be this unspoken thing that forever colored the dynamic between you.

But I do get why it bothered you, especially since you’re already dealing with the difficulties of rebuilding and redefining your life. It’s always infuriating to return to that My Parents’ Child place as an adult, and I imagine that feeling is amplified when you’re reestablishing yourself in your hometown in a place that’s got Mom Memories (Momeries?) all over it, in addition to reminders of your own adolescence.

If going into work continues to feel like an unpleasant time-machine journey, you might start looking for a new position that allows you to leave the past more firmly behind you. But sticking around, and letting your adult identity overwrite all those memories, might be beneficial too, even therapeutic. And if your mother ever mentions you to your boss again (which she shouldn’t—Receptionist’s Mom, are you’re reading this? Please don’t), try to just laugh it off as a silly quirk of hers. As the great philosopher Willard C. Smith Jr. once observed, parents suffer from a universal inability to comprehend the lives of their progeny, and attempting to engage them in debate is futile.

—Businesslady


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Dear Businesslady,

I am trying to decide whether to quit my job or not. I have been with the same employer for two years, I am very successful and one of the company’s top salespeople. However, I find my job incredibly stressful and boring. I deal with very difficult, whiny, demanding customers all day. I am not interested in any of the management or training positions, so there’s nowhere for me to go in the business. The stress has adversely affected my health, I was very ill during the first quarter of the year. I now frequently feel unwell, my doctor can never find anything wrong with me, but I constantly feel tired and nauseous. Life outside of work feels like too much effort. I leave tomorrow on an overseas work trip and instead of celebrating, I feel like crying.

When I started this job, I usually felt happy and energetic, now I’m like a slug. To complicate things, a few of my coworkers are very combative. We used to be friends, but now, they take any opportunity to point out a mistake I’ve made, not in a constructive way, but in an attacking, belittling, abusive way, usually over instant messenger. I’ve complained to a supervisor and the head manager about one person who is especially over the top. They sympathized and said they would talk to this person, but I suspect they never did. I’m generally a friendly person and try to avoid conflict, so I have no idea what is causing these people to want to be so unkind to me. I can only guess they are jealous I get attention for being one of the top salespeople but sometimes make mistakes. To be fair, some of it is my own doing, I am burned out and just coasting, so mistakes sometimes do occur. But no matter how little I care, my sales are always great, I just seem to have that type of personality. I’ve worked other jobs and at most of them, I left on great terms and most everyone loved me, and vice versa, but this place has been the exact opposite. I live in a very competitive city but have some savings and fairly cheap bills. I’m wondering if I should just cut my losses at this point and move on?

Worn Down In The Northwest

Dear Worn Down,

It’s advise-people-to-maybe-quit-their-jobs-and-also-talk-about-parents day here at Dear Businesslady, LLC! The situation you describe above sounds awful, particularly considering the tangible negative effect it’s having on your well-being. It’s pretty clear to me that you need to escape as quickly as possible.

But! When I found myself in a similarly unpleasant professional scenario a while back, my father advised me to “remember the rule of the wing walker” (a reference so obscure it apparently only exists in one place on the entire internet). The rule of the wing walker is: don’t abandon the secure thing until you’ve found something else to replace it. Sure, you can quit your job without another one lined up, but presumably those old biplane stuntpeople had parachutes on too; that doesn’t mean it would be pleasant for them to go into free-fall.

I can’t tell if your reluctance to move on is based on fear of the unknown, inertia, or the desire to be on better terms with your coworkers when you depart—or maybe a combination of all three. Whatever it is about this workplace that has you at odds with your colleagues is most likely here to stay, though; if it’s been going on a while, there’s probably little you can do to dramatically turn things around. And beyond that, “stressful and boring” is the worst possible combination for any job—it’s like the “chaotic evil” of the professional world (in case you’re curious, “good”=engaging and “lawful”=easy…maybe I should make my own chart). Even if you were best buddies with everyone in your office, it wouldn’t change the basic reality of your work.

However. It can take a long, long time to find a new job. Even if you’re successful with your first application, you still have to factor in the time it takes to go through an interview process, receive an offer, accept it, and schedule your first day. And the odds are overwhelmingly against that kind of quick turnaround.

If you quit without something else lined up, my (and my dad’s) advice be damned, then the clock starts ticking on how long you can live off of your savings. Pretty soon, even those cheap bills might start looking mighty expensive. There’s also things like healthcare to consider; even with the advent of the Affordable Care Act (yay!), it’s still easiest to get insurance through your employer. If you end up in a situation where you need a job, any job, you risk taking the first offer you get, and might end up in an environment that’s just as toxic—or worse!—than where you are now.

So. Update your resume and draft up a template cover letter you can tailor as necessary. Look for other positions that seem like a good fit for your skills and apply for as many as you possibly can. When you get to the interview stage, ask questions about the organization’s culture—hopefully you can weed out places that have the same bummer vibe you’re experiencing now. By keeping your current job while you conduct your search, you’ll have the luxury of waiting around for a workplace that’s actually a good fit for your personality. (It’ll also make you more likely to get hired somewhere else, since “people like to hire the already employed” is an unfortunate reality of the professional world.) When the time comes, you can use those savings to take a couple weeks off in between gigs if possible—there’s nothing better than being utterly free of work stress without having to worry about when you’ll start getting a paycheck again.

In the meantime: keep your head down, do your work, and take good care of yourself. Try to ignore the shitty coworker IMs as much as possible—they’re probably just the lashings-out of people who are just as miserable as you. If you’re meeting the goals your supervisors set for you, that’s far more important to your reputation than whatever minor mistakes people want to call out. (Also, mistakes happen; “employee who made a mistake” ≠ “employee who is The Worst and should be immediately fired or ostracized.”)

Once you finally do find a great new job, your colleagues may be more like “smell ya later” on your last day than giving tearful farewell toasts. But so what? You’ll be moving on to a better place and they’ll probably be jealous they’re not leaving too. Flip ’em off (metaphorically) as you soar away on the wing of your shiny new biplane (again, metaphorically). And keep that (metaphorical) parachute closed until you really, truly, need to use it.

—Businesslady

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Businesslady is in her early 30s and somehow managed to find a rewarding career despite her allegedly useless degree in the humanities. Her job history includes everything from food service to retail to corporate nonsense, but she currently does writing and editing for a nonprofit, and devotes the rest of her life to playing video games, patronizing bars, and spending way too much time on the internet.

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