My office mate was a stinky slob -- so I complained

Too much drama in the drama department -- should I have kept my mouth shut?

Published September 16, 2008 10:00AM (EDT)

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Dear Cary,

A few weeks ago I put into motion an event that I'm now feeling guilty about.

I work at a well-known public university in a drama department that's undergoing lots of change. I came in a year ago thanks to a director who'd recently been hired. One of her goals was to bring young people like me into the posse of white-haired, eccentric, bifocaled professors. I was assigned to share an office with a member of that posse, a woman I'll call Trudy.

Trudy presents herself as a sweet, kind person, and she always treated me graciously. However, she drove me nuts. Whenever she was in the office, I wanted to get out as soon as I could. And even when she was not around, her lingering aura gave me the creeps. Her worst quirk was a desk so messy that most people would wonder about the mental capacity of the person sitting at it. Honestly, it looked as though she dumped the entire contents of a stuffed briefcase on its surface over and over again and never organized anything. Papers and plastic bags were everywhere, on the floor and chairs, some of them were stuck to the wall. This disarray was only one of the things that bothered me. She was also extremely talkative: Getting anything done when she was in the room was nearly impossible. She also didn't smell very good.

One day, without really even thinking about it, I mentioned to the director that I wouldn't mind moving into a different office. That's all I said, really. But I knew that it was enough to bring results, and it was. My boss took immediate action by kicking Trudy out of our office, moving her into a much smaller office with another member of the white-haired group. I didn't think it would cause a stir, but Trudy became very pissed off. This week I had to sit by meekly as she moved out. She slammed her things around, cursed a few times, and shot several evil glances my way. I know she knows that I'm the one who started the whole thing. I felt even worse when my new office mate came in. He has no idea why he was moved and seems confused and concerned. Also, he has huge respect for Trudy and talks about her as though she's one of the most brilliant women who has ever lived. It made me feel shallow for disliking her so much.

I guess my concern here is that I did something wrong. How much should we take from our office mates? Should I have respected the fact that she was there before me?

Devious Office Mate

Dear Devious Office Mate,

When things like this happen, it is helpful to think about the larger goals of the organization. What plays are you putting on? What promising students are you training? How does your work contribute to that? And how did this person's presence impede that work?

It may be hard to answer this question at first, and it may seem selfish of you to try to answer it. You may feel that you should rise above such petty concerns as the disorganization and uncleanliness of your office mate. But if your work is worthwhile, and you need a distraction-free environment in order to get your work done, then you should have it. Each worker must decide for herself what she requires in order to get her work done. If the organization is to succeed, workers will have what they need.

Change is often painful. It makes winners and losers. So the reasons for the change have to be good. That is why it is helpful to reexamine the larger goals of the organization.

For instance, why are older members being pushed out by younger members? If the young have exciting theatrical ideas that deserve support, then great. Make way for them. But what is the project? Be sure that the changes you are making are in the furtherance of your goals.

As the old makes way for the new, certain people will have hurt feelings. That cannot be helped. One way to deal with these hurt feelings, and your feeling of responsibility for them, is to ask, if indeed this is a brilliant woman, how you can best work with her? What does she have to offer and how can you bring that out? Which of her talents are most suited to what you are trying to accomplish? Approach her and try to highlight those talents.

It may be that her hurt feelings will prevent that. She may withhold her help. There may be nothing you can do about that. But at least you can try to have something good come out of this for her, too.

The Best of Cary Tennis

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