DEAR HARRIETTE: I work for a company whose leader is extremely difficult to work with. This woman flies off the handle at the simplest thing. Her mood swings are legendary in the office. I work part time, so I don’t have to see her that much, and I really do love the work itself. Whenever I talk to her, though, I tend to catch some of her wrath. I have chalked it up to the cost of doing business these days.
Recently, I was at an industry event, and when I mentioned where I worked, several people instantly gave me a weird look and then began to tell me stories about my boss. They were not favorable at all! I brushed them off and tried to change the subject, but it was hard. I couldn’t honestly defend this woman. Her behavior is atrocious, but I know better than to talk about my boss -- especially to strangers.
How should I handle myself in a situation like that? I also have to be mindful of my own reputation. I would like to move to another gig as soon as I find something, but I’ve been told never to badmouth my current job in order to get to a new one. -- Difficult Boss, Chicago
DEAR DIFFICULT BOSS: Your instinct is right to avoid talking about your boss. It is far too likely that your comments will get back to her or that the people you are talking to could form an opinion about you because you are talking about her. Continue to change the subject when your boss’s name comes up. Talk about the work instead. Whatever you like about this job should be top of mind. Literally go to your default points about what you value about the job when people go in on her. If they push back, say that you don’t work in the office every day, so you get to enjoy doing the job without interacting much with the staff.
At the same time, listen for leads. When applying for jobs, talk about what you like about your work. Stay vague about challenges with the boss. While it may see like employers want to hear the "dirt” on a company, it won’t help you to secure your future.
DEAR HARRIETTE: I ran into a former associate, and she’s always asking questions. I think it’s just what she does to people, but I find it to be annoying. She will ask about family she’s never met and my current job she’s never been to. How do I tell her to back off? I don’t want her in my circle of friends. -- Closed Circle, Portland, Oregon
DEAR CLOSED CIRCLE: When you see this former colleague, greet her and quickly shift the conversation to her. Ask about her job, her life, her family, her pet -- whatever you know to engage her in small talk. Gloss over your own life, and just say that all’s well.
Rather than allowing her to annoy you, accept that she is either trying to be friendly or fishing for information. Either way, you don’t have to give up much. Just be cordial. Speak in generalities and get her to talk about herself as quickly as you can. You do not have to invite her into your friend group. It is wise to stay friendly, though.
(Harriette Cole is a lifestylist and founder of DREAMLEAPERS, an initiative to help people access and activate their dreams. You can send questions to firstname.lastname@example.org or c/o Andrews McMeel Syndication, 1130 Walnut St., Kansas City, MO 64106.)