Is Working Out With Your Boss Butt-Kissing, or Harmless Bonding?

An HR expert discusses exercising at work; the ill-treatment of seniors in the office; and dealing with the various office personalities.

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Most of us work more than we live, which is to say we spend considerably more time at the office and with our coworkers than we do with the human beings we actually want in our lives. It also means that the stressors and anxieties of work become a significant part of who we are — and can be a real drag even when we’re not at the office. We here at MEL, however, don’t want all that stress to get to you — or worse, kill you. That’s why we’ve enlisted Terry Petracca, the hippest HR expert we know, to help solve all your work-related woes.

A lot of our execs work out during lunch at the gym in our building. I’ve noticed a number of my coworkers starting to do the same thing, and those same people are the ones who seem to keep getting promoted. Is this just another way of kissing ass, or is it a legitimate means of getting to know the people you work for better and an organic byproduct of that? — Hector L., San Diego

Seems like you’re working with a herd mentality of ass-kissers who’ve discovered their stairway (or should I say, Stairmaster) to heaven. Dwight Schrute would be proud!

The fine art of ass-kissing has been written about extensively, from how effective it is to how to excel at doing it. These execs probably love being flattered (does anyone tell them they have a beer belly at the gym? I think not), mimicked (“Your Adidas Ultra Boost Uncaged Shoes looked so comfortable; I had to get a pair just like yours”) and exalted (“You bench-press WHAT? You really are Superman!”). Good ass-kissers can feign interest in the podcasts their boss listens to on the treadmill so they have something in common to talk about, even if they could care less about the topic. And those with exceptional skills will ingratiate themselves by joining the exec’s 10K road race to raise money for his/her favorite cause.

Does this sound cynical? It better; it’s meant to. Getting to know the people you work with means walking to the local coffee shop for a break, going to Taco Tuesday dinners with the team and/or suggesting a group outing to a baseball game. It’s certainly not popping up at the gym where the execs go; regular people run on the pavement and lift weights in their basements. So don’t become a sycophant like the rest of your co-workers who are hanging out at the gym. Get to work early, put in long hours, volunteer for assignments and do a great job. And if that doesn’t trump ass-kissing, find a place to work where it will.

I work with a “senior citizen” who’s been with the company for more than 30 years. He’s slower than the rest of us, needs a lot of help and seems to have health problems. I’m not his biggest fan, but it’s clear to me that the company is out to get him — writing him up frequently and purposely assigning him stuff he can’t do. Do I turn a blind eye? I keep thinking of my dad being treated this way. — Olivia K., Kansas City

Your ambivalence toward your older colleague isn’t atypical in a multigenerational workforce. That said, it seems as though you and your management are viewing your co-worker through an unfair and stereotypical lens. Is his performance really that different from the rest of the team’s? Or are you assuming he’s not comfortable with technology; he can’t learn because he hates online training; and he can’t keep up with the work and doesn’t want to work hard because he’s too old and tired? Companies with robust multigenerational programs embrace the strengths that seniors bring to the table in terms of experience, mentoring, strong work ethic and maturity.

It doesn’t sound like that’s your company. But that doesn’t mean you should turn a blind eye to him or management’s treatment of him. If you think management is unfairly singling him out, talk to him about partnering on training or a specific project. Don’t assume you know if he can do it or not. And don’t patronize him. Let him tell you what the problem is. As for his health issues, if they’re real — and not you projecting your ideas of what getting older means — he may not be aware of his rights for medical leave or time off. HR should be able to help him sort all of that out.

Bottom line: It’s wrong to stand by and watch someone be discriminated at work, so make your dad proud and intervene to inspire a positive change in your company culture.

I feel like I’m constantly under siege by whiners, hostage-takers and passive-aggressive bombardiers. How do I handle them when all I want to do is throttle them? — Patrick M., Roanoke

Welcome to the world of management! If you thought that moving up the corporate ladder was just about power and glory, you’re coming face-to-face with one of the best-kept secrets in management: It’s really hard work!

The workplace is a melting pot of personality types and personality disorders. You didn’t mention narcissists, gossips or others who provide significant challenges, so let’s talk about your employee troika and how best to manage them.

  • The Whiner. This is your chronic complainer. Nothing is ever right, and nothing will ever be right. Not only is this irritating, but it also comes with real cognitive debilitations, including disruptions to learning, memory, attention and judgment. You need to determine if there are any legitimate beefs buried within that negativity and fix those if they’re genuine. Then capture the complaints, and in a 1:1, request that your Whiner provide realistic solutions to the problems. Let the employee have an active role if any of the solutions are feasible. If they continue to be negative, counsel them on how the negativity is adversely affecting team productivity and collaboration. Be prepared to take the next steps in disciplining the employee.
  • The Hostage-Taker. This is the employee who threatens to quit whenever they perceive they’ve been wronged. Usually, s/he assumes this role when they believe they have a hard-to-replace role or skill set in your company. Make sure you’ve got documented knowledge-transfer templates for projects, contacts, files, etc., as well as individuals who are cross-trained to help out in a pinch, and an active recruiting pipeline. Don’t be afraid to call their bluff, or you’ll really be held hostage.
  • The Passive-Aggressive Bombardier. This is the employee who appears on the surface to be passive, but instead, purposefully manipulates events and actions to ensure negative outcomes. For example, s/he doesn’t refuse to do the work that’s assigned, but doesn’t complete it on time, accurately or completely. Their hope is that you’ll start assigning work to others so they only get easy and unimportant assignments. Don’t pander to this behavior. Continue to assign the type of work appropriate for their level and experience, working with them to develop a project plan and discrete milestones for which they will be accountable. They’ll be agonizing to manage and try to make your life miserable. Document the behaviors and outcomes and be prepared to take disciplinary action.

What’s the common thread with each of these problem employees? You need the managerial courage to set a course of action and stick with it. Most importantly, don’t be intimidated by your employees. There are so many talented individuals in the workforce; there should be little room for prima donnas.

Don’t just complain to your coworkers about everyone else you work with — let Terry help. Email her all your office-related anxieties at terry@melindustries.com. Or, if total anonymity isn’t required, leave a question in the comments below.