Editor's note: Inc.com columnist Alison Green answers questions about workplace and management issues--everything from how to deal with a micromanaging boss to how to talk to someone on your team about body odor.
A reader writes:
Recently, one of my co-workers quit after only a few months of employment. Privately, she told me that a great deal of the reason she left was that she felt ostracized because of her weight. (We're both overweight.) She felt our boss treated her differently from everyone else because of her appearance, including double standards such as allowing slender co-workers to wear sleeveless tops, but reprimanding her for doing so. Other things have happened too, such as this co-worker being present when our boss, an exercise and diet fanatic, said about someone she had met recently, "I'd kill myself if I got that fat!"
I've never taken it personally, because I don't think the boss means anything by it. None of this was a particularly big deal to me until my co-worker left. I was saddened by that, because I felt she was an asset to our company, and I liked her on a personal level. Now that she's gone, I've noticed a ramping up in the office in general of long, loud diet conversations, and a general culture of striving to be thin. It's gotten overt enough that one of my co-workers feels compelled to patronizingly congratulate me if she sees me drinking a beverage with no calories.
It's starting to feel uncomfortable to me here, and I'm wondering if I'm being overly sensitive. Should I just suck it up and not worry about it if our bullpen-style office is filled half the day with loud conversations about how many cucumber slices you can eat to keep you full between meals? Do I need to just grow a thicker skin? Regard it as negative inspiration to lose weight? I like my job, and my being fat doesn't impact my ability to be brilliant at it. I know my boss adores me. Is that enough?
Ugh. It's true that in a national culture that's obsessed with weight, you can't expect to never hear it come up at work. But it sounds like your office has gone well beyond the occasional diet-related remark and moved into a level of focus on this that's distracting--as well as sometimes cruel. You're there to work; you didn't sign up for a constant barrage of messages about weight, any more than you did for comments about religion, politics, or dating.
A small amount of all of that is often unavoidable, because we work with other humans, and humans are often annoying. But this sounds like it's reached the point that it's reasonable to speak up about it.
So, a few options:
- You have a good relationship with your boss. Can you privately point out to her that the office has become increasingly preoccupied with discussions about weight, and it's not the most welcoming environment for people at different weights (as well as people with eating disorders or merely a distaste for this kind of focus on people's bodies)? Say that you'd like to be able to focus on your work when you're at work, and the discussions of weight have become so frequent that it's starting to make you uncomfortable. If she's a reasonable and empathetic person, she'll tone down the comments and find a way to direct your co-workers away from such an obsessive focus on the topic (and back to, you know, their work). Or, if she's not an empathetic person, she won't. And then you'd have to decide how much this bothers you.
- If you have a good relationship with others at work, you could privately say something similar to them. If you can get a couple of people to be more sensitive to this, and more aware of how often the topic is coming up, they can likely play a role in stamping out, or at least redirecting, these conversations.
- And last, that co-worker who congratulated you on drinking a calorie-free beverage? The proper response to that is, "Wow." And then walking away. Because that person has lost sight of any sense of what's appropriate to say to others, and there's no reason you have to play along.
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