Elder Co-worker Favored

Question to Ask the Workplace Doctors about favored status of older employee.

I have been working in a small law firm that consists of three attorneys and five assistants. I am an assistant who has been working at this firm for over two years now, and another lady, who is also an assistant, started one year before me. She is the longest employee that works there at the office and then me. This lady is 45+ year old. She’s very close to all the attorneys, especially the one who hires all of the assistants and who also owns the practice. I have had conflicts with her before because I believe in fairness and work ethics. One day, she threw away all plates and eating utensils that everyone shares in the office in the trash. I was not in the office, but another co-worker of mine has told me that the 45+-year-old lady said the kitchen was filthy. Those uncleaned plates and eating utensils were mostly from the attorney who hates to wash and no one washes after her. The lady loves that attorney so much; the attorney was like an angel to her. She has massaged the attorney’s feet in front of everyone. She is a big a?? kisser. Anyways, so after I found out all plates and utensils were in the trash, I thought that was a very unethical thing to do. It would not be so disturbing to me if she asked and tell us to clean even though those dirty plates aren’t mine.

My other two co-workers and I decided to write a memorandum to the attorney reporting the incident and to find solution to avoid this situation again. Of course, I was the one who drafted the memo and asked the other two to sign it. The attorney brought up the problem at a meeting. I told everyone at the meeting that it was unethical and I was hoping for everyone to cooperate in making our office a better place rather throwing anger. That lady was a black sheep when we all decided to take turn to clean plates. She said she was not going to do anything because it’s not her job and she doesn’t eat it.

One, I felt like the attorney was protecting her tail because the attorney said “Fine, let’s just get disposable plates.”  The attorney let her off the hook so easily. That was very disturbing to me. Two, the lady probably thinks she’s right and never ever accepts any fault in anything, and I mean anything ever.

Furthermore, that lady now is really upset and does not talk to me. Why? Maybe it is because I spoke my mind and believe in work ethics and fairness. She talks to my two other co-workers though who agreed with me and signed the memorandum. My two co-workers and I had discussed about her attitude, and she might have overheard and got really upset prior to the memorandum.

Anyways, my question is what do you think I should do? Is it wrong for me to speak my mind because I believe in ethics and fairness? I never hurt anyone and I try to be helpful as much as I can at work to everyone. I think I am an easy-going person. This lady is an old Thai lady who is very narrow minded. I am Thai too and I know that old people think   me speaking my mind shows no respect to elder. But we are in America. I was raised here although I know the culture. But if she’s wrong, I am not going to follow it. Although it bothers me that the lady is mad at me, but I don’t think I am wrong. Or what do you think. Please advise.


Dear Not Favored:

Yes, working with a co-worker who is inconsiderate makes work unpleasant. The complaint about your co-worker to your superior has resulted in a paper plate solution but to more conflict in your working relationship. Working together effectively and happily requires tactful and honest confrontation. You do not say what you said to your co-worker about her disposal of plates or other behavior you thought was unethical. Did you speak with her about it or did you write your memo without speaking to her first? If you did not confront her and engage her in solving the problem of a dirty kitchen and failure to clean it, but tattled to your boss, was that the fair thing to do? Would you want a co-worker to complain to your boss about you without first trying to resolve a problem with you?

It seem to me that your question is not just one of if were you right to write a memo of complain so much as it is of how might you and your co-workers create a cooperative, harmonious, and effective working relationship? Should you speak your mind to an older member of your culture? Yes, you are in America, but cultural traditions no doubt are still imprinted on your and your co-worker’s minds. And therefore, whatever you say, would be understood in that light.

Should you speak your mind about important matters in your work environment? Yes, but any speech should be spoken with a respectful tone and attitude. Civility requires that. Now, is there a way to restore or to develop a cooperative, harmonious working relationship within your work setting? Possibly. I recommend that you apologize for writing a memo of complaint if you did not first try to resolve the plate and kitchen problem with your elder co-worker.

Next I recommend that you and your co-workers and attorneys schedule weekly meetings to talk about what things have been going well and what might be done more effectively. Good coaches of sports teams meet after each game to do that. They engage all players in reviewing what plays went well and what failed. They discuss who should have done what and how each might make each others’ play more effective. You can initiate this kind of communication with your elder co-worker, but it will be more effective if all of you can think like a team and communicate candidly about how your firm might be a winning team.

Does this make sense to you?Ethical behavior is an important topic and a matter much larger than what happens in the kitchen. You are to be commended for wanting to do what is right and fair. Working with others entails thinking and speaking in behalf of yourself, about your ego. However, I like to say that working together with hands, head, and heart takes and makes big WEGOS. You will be a much happier person if you can thank, applaud, and cheer each other on rather than to complain to the boss.

William Gorden