While carpooling to my job last Monday, I signaled a lane change and the guy in the left lane, who had been at least ten car-lengths behind me, immediately speeded up to cut me off. As I retreated and he rushed past me I got a brief but clear look at his face, and one of my passengers remarked on his vanity plate. I could also see the guy flipping me the bird over his shoulder, right after he passed my car—whereupon he slowed back down. I have no idea why he made an obscene gesture since I am sure I was driving safely and courteously and wasn’t even slowing him down at all. He was the one acting rude and driving dangerously.
I was surprised to see his car in the company parking lot, and even more surprised to see the man himself sitting in our reception area. It turned out that he was there, at my invitation, to interview for a job in our department! It was clear that the young man had no idea I was the one he’d cut off. I saw no reason to enlighten him.
The interview with him went reasonably well. As you can imagine, I was not predisposed to like him, and I didn’t, but I have to admit that he met or exceeded all the requirements in the job description and had done his homework about the company. He also has very good paper credentials and excellent recommendations.
Of the two people who sat in with me on the interview, one thought he was terrific and the other one said that she thought he was okay, but would be at least as happy with two of the other people on our short list. The choice is on me, for various reasons. Do you think it would be ethical of me to pass this guy over when I think the car incident may be what tipped the scale for me?
—Worried in Washington
Let’s give this guy a name. “Van” leaps to mind. Although I imagine that he was driving something cooler than a van, we can think of the name as short for “Vanity Plate.”
I do think it would be ethical, and probably also good business, to pass on this Van. You should consider yourself lucky to have been given the chance to see a side of him it could have taken months or years to discover on the job—during which time he might have made himself indispensable, or at least hard to fire.
Unlike, say, a trial or a standardized exam, there is nothing in the hiring process that requires you to base your decision solely on what is formally presented to you. As long as you do not discriminate against members of a protected group—either directly and personally, or as part of an invidious pattern like only hiring people who belong to some restricted club, or who get the nod from some exclusionary network—you are within your legal rights to base your hiring decision on pretty much any information from any source, including chance encounters outside the office, embarrassing posts on social media, web searches, or the pricking of your thumbs.
Of course, it would be ethically problematic, and highly questionable as a business practice, to make hiring decisions for arbitrary reasons totally unrelated to job performance. But your doubts do have a basis. Van’s behavior on the road gives a strong hint that he may not be the most pleasant guy to work with, project the greatest image of the company, or perform the most coolly under stress. It is possible, of course, that he was acting out of character when he cut you off and flipped you the bird—at the risk of having this sound like a treatment for a mediocre TV rom-com, perhaps the normally careful and courteous Van was so anxious not to show up late for his dream-job interview that, just this once, he drove too aggressively and then, for the only time in his life, was moved to make an obscene gesture. But I don’t believe it. And, even if I did, once is enough in a case like this, when you are choosing among candidates who don’t otherwise differ significantly.
By the way, I also find it perfectly acceptable to include in your equation that Van was not only a rude, dangerous driver, but that he also endangered and dissed you in particular. I do not know how closely you will be working with Van, but I assume that your paths will cross at least occasionally. I see no reason why you should choose to work with someone who was rude to you and gave you reason to dislike him.
La Wally’s response:
Don’t hire him. You have other good choices. Why have him represent your company?
Over the past year I lost a great deal of weight and am much healthier and happier. I also look good, if I do say so myself. I worked hard and I am proud of my accomplishment.
But I am not so happy when this coworker of mine, whom I will call “Jefferson” although she is actually named after another president, keeps telling me that she is proud of me. It is bad enough when she says this to me in private. But it is worse when she says it to me, or even about me, in front of other people. The worst is when she says it as if speaking for some unspecified “we.” At an office lunch the other day (we are accountants, by the way) she cut into the general conversation to tell the whole table that “we are all so proud of Sally [not my real name]. Doesn’t she look great?” Luckily I had the good sense to smile graciously at the positive, if awkward, murmurs that followed; and my favorite colleague cheered me up considerably by switching the topic to a project he and I were working on and where, as it happens, I have been doing totally clever and badass work.
Am I being oversensitive, or is Jefferson being inappropriate? And, if so, what should I do about it.
—Not Sally in Nottingham
She is being inappropriate. If all she had done was say “I’m proud of you” once or even twice, in private and with no hint of condescension in her tone—and if you had no independent reason to mistrust her motives—I would probably have advised you to take Jefferson’s praise as her gauche but well-intentioned way of saying “Way to go!” or “Impressive!” and try not to read anything more into it.
But she harped on her pride in your weight loss. She did so in front of others. She talked about you in the third person while you were present. Probably least appropriately, she included other people, and (I suppose) coworkers at that, in her unspecified “we,” as if they had been sharing—perhaps even discussing—their concern over your weight and your efforts to control it.
I see several issues in this escalation of rudeness.
The most obvious issue is Jefferson’s assuming the right to be “proud.” It is fine to take pride in the accomplishments of your children, or students you teach, or the Cub Scout den you lead, or any other person or group where you may have contributed to the success in question or have some other stake in it. Unless you are using group allegiance to denigrate or oppress somebody else, it is also usually fine to express pride in your school, city, team, or any other larger group you belong to or (as in sports fandom) identify with. It can be better than fine to say how proud you are of people with whom you are very close, like lovers and best friends, and people who have struggled with you to achieve a goal or overcome an obstacle, like members of your weight-loss support group or software-development team. And, although I used to hate it when my mother’s friends did this to me, it is fairly standard social practice to say you are proud of the accomplishments of people who are much younger than you. Expressions of pride are also generally acceptable from people who hold some role as superior or guide—such as your minister, doctor, mayor, counselor, or work supervisor—so long as their expressions stay relevant to their role.
Without some such connection, saying “I’m proud of you” is a bad idea. It can come off as encroaching (“I claim the sort of intimacy that allows me to say this”) or patronizing (“I have the right to judge you”).
Your colleague Jefferson may not mean any harm. For all I know, she may admire you from afar and think that her overbearing expressions of enthusiasm and false intimacy will create real closeness. Or she may mean plenty of harm: consciously or semi-consciously, she may be asserting her power and superiority, bless her heart. It is hard to tell what she is up to, which is itself unsettling.
Another issue here—if we were in criminal court, I would call it an aggravating circumstance—is the subject matter. Jefferson is not just proud; she is proud of your weight loss.
When are people going to learn that people’s weight is their own business? Even if I could write off Jefferson’s frequent, public, “we”-including kvelling about, say, your having run a marathon or published a poem as nothing more than overzealous support, we should all know by now that even positive comments about someone’s weight should be judicious and rare. I can understand why Jefferson’s having appropriated your weight in particular as her source of pride would be especially upsetting.
Another aggravating circumstance is that Jefferson is a coworker and that some or all of her antics are taking place at the office. It sounds as if she is making you uncomfortable on the on the job by focusing on matters—your size, fitness, and appearance—you rightly consider personal and irrelevant to your work. And although nothing you have said indicates any sort of direct job harassment, Jefferson may be putting some of your colleagues in a difficult position by implying that they have been joining with her in commenting on your looks or discussing your weight-loss efforts, thereby creating a stressful (if not “hostile” in the legal sense) work environment.
I don’t mean to advocate for a dreary, closemouthed, humorless, midcentury-Soviet-style workplace where people who work together every day as equals get in trouble for saying “Hey! Looking good! Great haircut!” And I certainly don’t mean to discourage work colleagues from supporting one another in their efforts at self-improvement, work-related or not. But the support must be welcome, if not actually solicited. Jefferson blew it three ways: she assumed the right to take pride in your accomplishment, she commented repeatedly on your size, and she did so publicly, at work.
Okay, so we’ve established that Jefferson’s behavior is inappropriate. But you also asked me whether you are being oversensitive, which is a slightly different question. My answer depends on why you asked me. If what you want is a value judgment, my answer is that there is nothing ethically or otherwise wrong with you for being annoyed and upset by Jefferson’s remarks. But if we are talking about the practicalities of office and community life, you might do well to steel yourself a bit more against people’s awkward personal comments, especially about your weight. Weight loss, like pregnancy, seems to bring out the unbridled busybody in adults who should know better. I suspect that, although Jefferson may be the only one to glom onto unmerited pride, other people have made unwelcome or unsettling remarks about the recent change in your appearance. For your own wellbeing, I suggest trying to grow a thicker skin for your thinner self. The way you handled Jefferson’s antics at lunch shows that you know exactly how to behave: smile, be gracious, move on. Now all you have to do is internalize this wise response. Say to yourself: “Yeah, I did great. Damn straight I’m proud,” and turn your attention to some other subject—debits and credits, the Oscars, cannelloni, anything at all—you prefer to consider.
As for what to do about Jefferson in particular, it is obviously time to tell her to stop. From your letter, it sounds as if she either wishes you well in her overbearing way or at least wants to keep up the pretense that she does. The next time the two of you have a private-ish moment, I would bring up the issue of your weight yourself. (Slide naturally into the subject if possible. “It’s amazing how much more quickly I take these stairs nowadays.” “I just got back from having my wedding ring resized.” “This old thing? Thanks. I got it at the consignment store on Maple Street. So much more fun to shop now that I’ve lost some weight.”) Then tell her that, speaking of weight, you’ve decided to ask people not to discuss your weight loss from now on. You want to move beyond it and not draw attention to that part of yourself. You are sure she understands.
Unless Jefferson makes a habit of publicly taking pride in your other accomplishments, I would probably stick to the matter of weight and dodge the whole “How dare you think you have the right to say you’re proud of me?” question, which seems inherently confrontational to me. It would be hard to call her out on this without seeming to imply (since it’s true!) either that she does not know how to behave, or that she is not as good a friend or colleague as she pretends to be. Besides, talking about the “I’m proud” aspect of her comments may simply confuse the issue for her and, as I understand it, the point is to get her to shut up entirely.
Talking to her should work. If it doesn’t, remind her, and be more firm this time. If she misbehaves yet again, and if you believe that this is affecting your work performance or environment, I suppose you could speak to H.R., or to your supervisor, but I would be in no hurry to do so. Rightly or wrongly, you might be perceived as a whiner. And you should ask yourself whether, aside from vexing you—which you can, to some extent, control—she is doing any real harm. It sounds as if the people at that lunch were put off by her conduct, and that it in no way diminished you in their eyes. As for your work life in general, I suspect that, despite Jefferson’s best efforts, your coworkers and friends give your weight loss scarcely a thought, and that the few thoughts they do give it are vague and benign and have nothing to do with your job performance. As time goes by, the recent change in your fitness and appearance will be older and older news, and Jefferson will look sillier and sillier if she is foolish enough to bring it up.
(Important note: I assumed from your letter that Jefferson holds no power or authority over you at work. If she does, I would be somewhat more disposed to consult H.R. in the event that politeness does not work. )
Congratulations on your weight loss, by the way. I know how hard it is to do what you have done and, were my manners less than impeccable, I would tell you how proud it makes me.
P.S. Next time you might want to work on your pseudonyms. Readers will have a pretty easy time guessing Jefferson’s likely real name, although I suppose “Carter” or “Hayes” might work, and of course Lear went with a variant of “Reagan.”
La Wally’s response:
Jefferson is being weird, but even so, I would just let it go. I would smile and laugh it off, maybe make a joke about it. Like I would look down at myself and say: “Omigod, you’re right! I’ve lost all this weight!” Or I’d say: “If you’re so proud, where’s my prize?
Cleaver’s in-house advice columnist opines on matters punctuational, interpersonal, and philosophical, spinning wit and literary wisdom in response to your ethical quandaries. Write to her at [email protected]. Find more columns by June in her attic.
La Wally is the nom de June of June Cleaver‘s adult daughter. In real life, she’s an artist and entrepreneur. What’s up with her name? In choosing a pseudonym, the two of them considered the names of the original Cleaver family offspring, both boys, but rejected “Beaver” for obvious reasons. “Wally” alone seemed too masculine and generally hideous. But “La Wally” brings to mind Catalani’s wonderful opera. Speaking of which, have you seen the movie Diva? You should.