Ask the grumpies: Bad work situation

Should I stay or should I go now asks:

Frequent reader, infrequent commenter.  Love the blog!

I was wondering if you could help me with a situation at work, or help me decide if I should quit or what.

I am a PhD in a tech field and I’m working in a specialized industry in a lower-level management/upper-level development position.  I love the current project that I’m working on, my immediate team is great, and my immediate boss’s heart is in the right place.  My current problem is instead with the Powers that Be.

We recently moved floors in the building.  Cubicles were assigned without managerial or employee input, possibly at random.  My cube is placed in such a way that it is actually impeding my ability to work.  Think terrible smell from the restroom that keeps me nauseated or a draft so cold my fingers can’t work the keyboard.  That kind of thing.  I spend most of the day in the library or cafeteria or a conference room with my laptop, which isn’t great for productivity because I don’t have the dual-screen set-up etc.

I put in a request for my desk to be moved.  It was denied without comment.  They did send maintenance by to try to fix the problem, but it’s still a major problem.  My boss tried to argue my case, but that just made the Powers that Be more upset.  In fact, they have reneged on some special work they wanted me to do prior to this fiasco.  I suspect that this situation has caused them to think poorly of me.

And the thought is returned… senior management doesn’t seem to care about the productivity or happiness of their workers.  This example is just the one that is affecting me directly and making me less productive and more unhappy.

I know you guys are really into personal finance, so I think I should say that we have a lot of money saved and my partner makes enough of an income that we could get by if I were unemployed or self-employed without clients for a while.  I could just up and quit.  I’ve looked at the job listings and talked to a few people and it doesn’t look like there’s anybody hiring in my current field in my city right now and moving cities would be near impossible because of our family situation.  I have been thinking about striking out on my own or getting trained in a different field, but that was more a 5-year plan thing.

Should I move that plan up?  Should I quit now?  Should I try harder to fix the problem at work?  How?

What should I do?  I’d especially like advice from your awesome readers to see what they think.

The readers should definitely weigh in!  Our advice may be academic… of course, if there’s a management organization characterized by liking one’s coworkers and one’s work and not seeing eye-to-eye with upper management… academia may be it.

It seems like there are several things going on here.

I want to highlight that you like your work and your coworkers and your immediate boss.  That suggests it may be worthwhile trying to keep this job, at least in the short- to medium-term.

However, your current day-to-day working environment is untenable and you suspect that management has labeled you a trouble-maker.  They may have done that.  Also you have some ideas for future paths and you have the resources that you could spend some time exploring them even if they come to nothing.  That suggests that leaving this job won’t be the end of the world.

Those two facts give you an incredible amount of bargaining power.  You can draw a line in the sand exactly where you want it drawn and whatever management responds with will be fine with you.  Either they will fix the problem and you can go back to being a productive cog, or they won’t and you just left a job that was making you miserable with no sign of relenting.

I want to encourage you, however, to take emotions out of your decision-making.  Stop worrying about if upper-management makes bad decisions or if they think poorly of you in ways that are not deserved.  Don’t stop *thinking* those things — don’t stop putting them into your decision functions, but do stop being emotionally bothered by them.  I know that’s easier to say than to do, but you can leave this job and you can leave it professionally.  You are not trapped.  You also don’t have any time pressure on this decision– you can make it at any time.

Focus instead on the immediate problems and your long-term goals.

First:  the immediate immediate problem.  Having a work environment that keeps you from being productive.  Given that you’ve already been denied a desk change because (presumably) they think the problem can be fixed, go through the procedure to see if the problem can be fixed.  Yes, a new desk would be nice, but what you really need is for the smell to go away or whatever.  First step:  Call maintenance yourself, and politely ask for an update.  That should give you information on whether or not this problem is actually fixable.  If it isn’t, or if fixing it is going to cause the company cost-problems, that’s more information you can bring forward when you ask for a desk-change again.  If it is fixable, then ask them about their time-line for fixing it or if there’s a formal procedure you should be going through to request a fix.  A good way to start the conversation is, “I need your help” or “I was hoping you could help me.”  Second step:  If maintenance can’t fix it, think about creative solutions…for example, headphones or ear plugs can be a temporary solution for a noisy office.  If your cube is untenable, then maybe you can request a cart and an additional monitor for working elsewhere, even if that’s ridiculous.  Come up with several potential solutions, discuss them with your boss, and bring the formal request up again, this time with more information.  Bonus points if you do a cost-benefit analysis of each potential solution, making it easy for them to pick a solution that is little effort on their parts that you’re happy with (turns out adults like choice almost as much as toddlers).  You tried their solution and it didn’t work, here are some additional suggestions.

Next:  Do not ignore this worry that upper-level management has labeled you a trouble-maker.  Instead, address it head on.  Read the book Crucial Conversations (or Crucial Confrontations— but we haven’t read the latter).  It will give you a script for how to deal with this kind of problem, but you need to deal with it face-to-face so that they can see that you’re a real person and you’re professional and you want to solve problems and make the company productive.  Pretend to yourself (or suspend your disbelief) that their goals are to help you be productive and to help the company do the best that it can.  I have found that often when I approach people who I know are all about their own power-trips with the earnest and outspoken belief that they are doing their jobs with the best interests of the department/school in mind that they become more of their better selves and they align themselves with trying to fix the problem I’m having, even if it doesn’t end up being the original solution I proposed.  So that thing they reneged on– talk to them about it, ask if there’s any way that can be re-upped, or make yourself available for similar opportunities in the future.  In person.  Or talk to them about another issue.  But talk to them professionally and politely with an open but guarded heart.  (After reading Crucial Conversations– truly an excellent book.)

Finally:  your long-term goals.  None of the short-term potential fixes preclude you from exploring your 5 year plan options or shortening that plan.  You don’t have to make any firm decisions and you can play it by ear, but definitely think about your next steps and work on those.  If management is truly incompetent, you’ll be leaving this company some day (because the company goes under or you finally have had enough) or the management will be replaced.

So what would I do in that situation?  I would call maintenance, talk to my boss a little bit more, and come up with some potential solutions.  I would also escalate up that reneged thing if it’s important or still has a chance of being salvaged, and hopefully meet with some of these power players so they can see that I’m a model employee and not a trouble-maker.  And I would start tapping those networks and doing some introspection (which for me means looking at my bank accounts).  If my cubicle still had that problem that made it impossible for me to work after my best efforts to fix it or get switched, I would politely and professionally draw that line in the sand.  There’s no point in working at a company if you can’t be productive.

#2 says:
I think you should try to hang on a little longer.  There’s no guarantee you won’t have crazy situations elsewhere.  Everything is great except senior management, but they might change.  You might outlast them!  Especially if they want to move up the ladder at your company (where they hopefully won’t have contact with you anymore) or at a shinier company (even better).

Try to enlist your sympathetic boss to aid you, but approach the conversation carefully.  Remember, you both have the same goal: productive workers who stick around.

In the meanwhile, use technological solutions (acquire some fingerless gloves or a surgical face mask etc.) to wear in your cubicle.  Who cares how you look?  If it helps you be more productive, do it.  (Even try to have your boss pay for it.)  If other people think you look weird they may eventually address the underlying problems and if not, at least you can be comfortable.

#1 is a bit concerned about the face-mask.  People might think you’re a weird germophobe.  But you can probably push pretty close to the line on technological solutions without going too far, especially if you can manage to do it cheerfully with company-make-do-can-do-spirit rather than in a passive-aggressive manner.  Use company branded products if such are available!

Grumpy Nation, what would you advise?  What would you do in this situation?  What should you do?

15 Responses to “Ask the grumpies: Bad work situation”

  1. L Says:

    Grumpy #1 pretty much said it all. I would also attempt a workaround, as in 1) if there is an unused cubicle, just move into it (forgiveness is easier than permission) or 2) find a co-worker who is not bothered by your issues and switch. Immediate boss should support; PthatB don’t need to know.

  2. Cloud Says:

    I think your reader needs to determine if the immediate issue is a problem that is representative of deeper issues at the company (such as poor management), and if so, if she or he can look past those deeper issues and stay happy, or if there will always be some issue that is crazy-making.

    If there are deeper issues and they will always result in something crazy-making- perhaps it is better to leave sooner rather than later, so that he or she can depart as professionally as possible and not end up doing what I call “rage quitting” (from the gamer practice of getting so frustrated with something that you quit without saving), particularly if his/her field is anything like mine- which is very small world, so that a dramatic event at one company will tend to live on in community gossip.

    But, as you say, if the situation can be made bearable, and the deeper issues (if they exist) can be ignored- then exploring other options from a good job that you don’t mind leaving at any moment can be a really great thing!

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      No, nobody should ever rage quit! If you have a lot of savings, a job is just a job and one should disengage emotionally and always stay professional at work even if the other party is not being professional. I always like to channel Miss Manners and respond to inappropriate behavior with excessive politeness and professionalism. (Also a bit of St. Teresa (the French one)– be excessively kind to the worst offenders.) Since I gave up trying to change people, this behavior has been working pretty well for me in professional settings.

  3. plantingourpennies Says:

    Regarding the cold temperatures, I had this once where no one realized my office was on the same AC as the server room so if I had to close the door for a call I would freeze. I just started wearing scarves and fingerless gloves inside (in Florida in the summer) and without making a big deal out of it i got some help closing my vents as much as possible and the next time the AC was serviced they rerouted the venting so I was on a different thermostat. But if I hadn’t worn scarves and gloves I’m not sure it would have been remembered as something to take care of.

    That doesn’t help you with the frustrations of feeling unappreciated, though… For that I’d say it can’t hurt to start looking around quietly without letting your employer know.

    I recently went through the motions of applying and interviewing for another job, and in the process o f reaching out to my network actually ended up with a consulting offer, a FT job offer, and the promise of an offer in the spring (as a follow-on to consulting now). (Only one offer was local – the rest would have been telecommuting, but for tech work does it really matter anymore?). I didn’t end up taking any of them, but I can say just going through the motions was incredibly powerful emotionally.

    Working at my job feels like much more of an active choice than it did just a few
    months ago and that changed my attitude for the better.

  4. Comradde PhysioProffe Says:

    Agreed that it’s important to determine whether this is a symptom of generalized managerial sickness, or just an isolated blind spot. Also, my experience is that higher level management actually has many fewer particularized thoughts about lower level workers than we think they do. It is possible that the LW’s high level management barely knows who she is, let alone has formulated the idea that she is a troublemaker. Another point is that if the immediate supervisor’s efforts with senior management have, indeed, led them to think that the LW is a troublemaker, then the immediate supervisor sucks at her jobbe.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      or more likely his job… if we’re going with bosses who suck…

      • Debbie M Says:

        No, I’d guess it’s probably just the management who sucks. They want to do fun things that look good on their resumes, not deal with plumbing and A/C issues. Anyone who implies they need to do the latter would be seen as a trouble maker regardless of how the message is presented.

  5. First Gen American Says:

    I just bought a rubber mat that is heated that you can put your feet on because my home office is so freezing cold that the space heater isn’t enough.

    Is the cubicle location tied to your work function? I once told the facilities dude I didn’t care where I sat because I travelled a lot and he out me in a cube that had a giant pylon the middle of the office that my chair used to always bang up against. And there were 2 normal empty offices right next to mine. Lesson learned. I have had lots of bad offices, one which flooded every time it rained because it was next to the lowbay door at work. It also got Mosquitos in the summer.

    I second the notion that upper management probably has better things to worry about than where you sit. It’s probably not even on their radar. Perhaps the facilities guy or maintenance guy just is a lazy jerk or someone with power issues. Those are the people that make those types of decisions at my company. What about bribery? Can you bring in some treats to the department that “tried” fixing your problem and say, ” thanks so much for helping, here is something I made for you because I appreciate all you do for our team.” Then ask for one more favor.

    I work for a big company so safety is a big focus of our place. If it were me, I’d ask for someone to do an ergonomics audit citing difficulty typing. It’s a big no -no here to ignore safety concerns without doing a corrective action on them. I’ve made requests before when my hands were hurting and received help.

    • Original Letter Writer Says:

      Original letter writer here… the decision to reject my request to move was made by the Executive Committee, which includes the CEO. This is not a huge company. I am known by all of the senior managers.

      I have a great relationship with the facilities guy, who would have moved me in an instant if it had been up to him.

      Thanks for all the advice/opinions, everyone. It is very helpful.

      • First Gen American Says:

        Bummer. I worked at a small company too and it was always easier to get stuff done there. In fact at the two I worked at, if I wanted to move, all it would take is me taking the initiative to find my own new spot and packing up my crap. Perhaps the answer lies in networking and doing things to get to know the senior leaders better. There are some good networking posts on this site.

  6. Debbie M Says:

    These responses are much better than what I would do which is a) fantasize about the CEO having to work from my cube and b) bringing in fingerless gloves/sweater/space heater and face mask.

    By they way, I don’t think anyone seeing you in a face mask would wonder why you are wearing one once they get to your desk and smell that smell themselves.


    Actually I did think of another option. If other people are also bothered by some of these issues, they could each individually also make similar requests. Even if they are only bothered by the problems when they are trying to work with you in your work space. (Then either there are lots of bad guys or maybe there really are some problems.)

  7. chacha1 Says:

    I agreed with pretty much everything Grumpy #1 said. And per the initiating letter, it seems this is a NEW event, right? I mean, the move was quite recently accomplished, and up till then things were okay? So I would bet that someone in management who was responsible for doing the space plan/space assignments is A) afraid of looking stupid if this gets discussed too much, because they did a bad job; and B) afraid of having to do it over again, because they did a bad job; and therefore C) refusing to discuss it at all because it’s All Your Fault.

    Document, document, document. Whatever else you do. Poor ergonomics are generally not actionable, but hostile work environment is.

    But also: I have co-workers who routinely wear arm-warmers and shawls because of the placement of their workstations with regard to AC vents; and I myself brought in a HEPA filter to sit on my desktop once when stationed adjacent to a suite build-out with accompanying drifts of drywall dust. Aromatherapy, whatever appliances will mitigate the circumstances, and a small degree of DIY should sustain you long enough to determine whether this is a fixable situation.

    Having an exit strategy is great but being able to act on your own timeline is better.

  8. hush Says:

    Toilet smells? Someone at the very top is actively thwarting you over a friggin’ cubicle placement, and even your boss can’t protect you? Oy. I feel your pain. You’ve gotten much solid advice here. I’ll be blunt: in your shoes, I’d probably start looking for a new job, because this is a basic respect issue here, and I’m way too proud. YMMV though.

    It would be hard for me to feel like I had a real future in a place where the top bosses choose to personally involve themselves by committee in such a bizarre, petty power play over something as small picture (to them) as my cubicle assignment. I think you can do better than this proverbial boyfriend.

    OTOH, you like your team and aren’t ready to leave yet? Ok. Do some detective work. Find out which decision-maker you’ve pissed off, and meet with them to negotiate a truce. Maybe this person wants something from you, something you can legally provide, hopefully nothing icky. Might be worth an awkward conversation. I had an old boss who was fond of the question “Do you hate me?” when he was faced with power-grabby oddball crap reminiscent of your situation. We were shocked how often it worked. There’s sometimes value to bringing a passive conflict out into the open and in acting somewhat vulnerable. Hang in there, OP.

  9. Ask the grumpies: How to decide to leave/stay in a tenured position? | Grumpy Rumblings (of the formerly untenured) Says:

    […] some related posts: What would make you quit mid-semester? What to do after tenure denial? Bad Work Situation Here’s one from Inside Higher Ed about Stepping off the tenure track. It also references a […]

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