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March 15, 2023
Work Appropriate
Your Workplace Is Not Your Family with Gloria Chan Packer

In This Episode

Live from SXSW EDU, it’s Work Appropriate! Your coworkers are not your family, your bosses are not your parents—but workplaces are filled with the sort of big emotions we usually associate with family dynamics. In front of an excellent crowd, Anne Helen Petersen and guest host Gloria Chan Packer answer all manner of questions from listeners who are grappling with tough relationships at work.

Got a workplace quandary you need help figuring out? Head to www.workappropriate.com and let us know!

Follow @CrookedMedia on Instagram and Twitter for more original content, host takeovers and other community events.

 

 

 

TRANSCRIPT

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Hi, everyone. I’m Anne Helen Petersen, and this is Work Appropriate. [applause] So this is our first live show. We recorded it last week in Austin at South by Southwest EDU in front of an excellent audience, addressing all manner of quandaries around workplaces that keep insisting we’re like a family and we all know how that turns out. [laughs] So the show went really well. Save one small part where I was convinced that there was a question that didn’t actually exist. So we thought about cutting that flub. But you know what? This is my way of actually building intimacy and authenticity with all of you as listeners. So I hope you enjoy, flub and all, and maybe we’ll bring a live show to a city near you sometime soon. [music plays] First of all, can you introduce yourself? 

 

Gloria Chan Packer: I’m Gloria Chan Packer. I am a workplace mental wellness educator. I am a TED speaker and I’m also a experienced corporate leader with a lot of different industry experience and a lot of different role experience in the workplace. I am the owner and founder of Recalibrate, we’re a workplace mental wellness provider that serves employees all over the world as it pertains to all things workplace and all things mental illness. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: So what is your experience with having a workplace operate as a family? 

 

Gloria Chan Packer: I feel like probably as I was starting my career in the early 2010s, that coincided with when I think startups were really becoming very trendy and very cool and it was like the the era of beanbag chairs and beer on tap. And—

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah I worked at BuzzFeed then. [laughter] Yeah. 

 

Gloria Chan Packer: There you go. There you go. [laughter] Case in point. And it was this time where that in itself was a really positive shift because it meant that we weren’t just like in cube farm workplace where it was like boring and no one really liked their jobs and no one talked to each other. So it was like this really positive, cool, energetic movement of like, oh yeah, we’re going to be friends and have fun at work. And so it had a lot of positive benefits. But I think it wasn’t until like we actually got a little bit further down the road of like calling work our family, that we realized that there can be quite a few downsides as it pertains to toxicity or burnout or having no boundaries. And so I think I just kind of got all different kinds of flavors of it. I started my career in consulting and management consulting, and I worked with all different kinds of clients from like Fortune 50 big, big clients to smaller nonprofits. And I feel like I saw aspects of that at every place that I probably went to just because it was the thing to do. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah, well, and I also think especially for people around our age, but other ages too, there’s something really appealing about coming straight from college where you have close friends and you’re like, oh, this workplace is like family. It’s like reproducing the friends that I don’t have time for anymore because I’m working all the time. Right? Like that. There is something that you crave—

 

Gloria Chan Packer: Yeah. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: —that when the workplace says, we are like your family, we will be there for you, like family. It is appealing. And it’s only with time that you see some of the negative attributes of—

 

Gloria Chan Packer: Yeah. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: —of that idea.

 

Gloria Chan Packer: And we all want to belong, right? We all want to belong. We all want to—

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah. 

 

Gloria Chan Packer: —get along and so— 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: You’re like at work Mom you want their approval, you know, but also—

 

Gloria Chan Packer: It sounds wonderful. [laughter] And again, I think for the most part had positive intent. It’s just— 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah. 

 

Gloria Chan Packer: Everything has positive intent—

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah. 

 

Gloria Chan Packer: —and it’s not until we have some lessons learned to look at that, we start to pick those apart. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: So we’re going to get to a lot of these ideas about problems with boundaries. Picking apart just this general idea how it can be well-intentioned and go pretty poorly in all of our questions as we read them. So our first one is from a listener named Emily. 

 

Emily: My boss means well, but has no clue that referring to our company as a family is toxic. Managers are expected to be married to their work because it’s so rewarding and they feel genuinely betrayed when staff requests to step back and work remotely, which has happened a lot. We’re in a small resort community where housing is a real challenge, and I think they’re lucky to have staff want to stay on after moving away. My role is going to be shifting towards management in the near future, and I’d like more flexibility too, and the option to work from home. How do I help guide company culture for the better from within while claiming more space for myself? 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: All right. So like many of the quandaries that we get, there’s a lot of parts to this question. So I think let’s start with the big one, which is she says, I’m going to be part of management moving forward. I want to be part of a different way forward. How can she do that? 

 

Gloria Chan Packer: There are probably three different options, I see. And she could choose all of them, too. One is that she just kind of owns and starts modeling the change and just start doing it. Knowing that that is often not as rosy or easy as it is because she has other managers to report to. The other option is, along with that, having a tough conversation maybe. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah. 

 

Gloria Chan Packer: And that tough conversation could either be like going to her leadership and saying, hey, I have a suggestion to make and kind of framing it more as an improvement or framing it more as I see a challenge and a problem and I think I have a solution to it, I think it can be a mix of those ways, but probably needs to be one of those flavors. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: You know, I’ve worked as a camp counselor, I’ve worked at a dude ranch, I’ve worked at a boarding school, all places where there is some like ethos of this we’re like family because we actually are living as if we are a family all together in one space. And even though they probably are not living in like old dorms the way that I was at boarding school in Vermont, they are living in close proximity. So like how if she is becoming a manager, like how do you model that sort of boundary without making people think like you’re cold, that you don’t like your job? And I think especially for women, there’s just a lot of there’s a lot of capacity for someone who models a different sort of boundary to come off that way. 

 

Gloria Chan Packer: Yeah. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: So do you have any experience with that, with trying to model that? 

 

Gloria Chan Packer: I do. I think in general, because I think a lot of us didn’t grow up with really healthy examples of boundaries at all—

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah. 

 

Gloria Chan Packer: —we’re afraid of them because I think for most of us we actually viewed the antithesis like complete lack of boundaries. And at least I’m speaking from my own experience. I feel like the generation before me, especially a generation of women like. You give, and you give, and you give and you give and then you’re resentful at the end of it—

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Yup. 

 

Gloria Chan Packer: —because none of your needs have been met. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Yup. 

 

Gloria Chan Packer: And then that becomes just like kind of explosive and you’re not emotionally regulated. And that I think for many of us, we watch that and we’re like, oh, that didn’t seem to go well, but we didn’t see a model of how it does go well. And I think so for many of us, when we hear boundaries, we immediately associate that to like conflict or something restrictive or something negative. When truly boundaries are there to allow us to live more fully and to thrive better and to not be depleted and to not need to be resentful and not need to have emotional explosions. And so I think modeling boundaries is really about really tapping into what you need and being able to communicate that in an emotionally regulated, productive way. So like, for example, if it’s that you don’t have the capacity to go out to dinner or eat with coworkers after work, it’s being like, hey, I love you all so much, but I need a little bit of time to recharge and it’s nothing against y’all I just need some time or if that feels like it’s too much like, all right, I’m going to take at least one day a week to myself. And it’s saying like, hey, this is my protected night of the week where I’m going to stay in and do my own thing and you guys can go off and do your own thing as a team. There is a a tweet maybe by a Netflix co-founder that was circulating maybe a month or two ago, but he was talking about how, looking back, one of the biggest things that he did was always protect Tuesday nights. Those were always nights for his wife and his family. And after all, like the different companies he built and building Netflix, that’s like the one thing that he hangs his hat on for making his success sustainable because he looks back and it’s not like he made it in the work life, but has no family to make it meaningful with. He like, made sure that that was there along the way. And he also attributes that to like this built in way of making sure that you just stay sane, that you bring yourself away from work to get some clarity when you need it. And I think that’s such a beautiful example of a nourishing boundary. And I think for a lot of us, we think that boundaries have to be really restrictive and one size fits all of like, I only work 9 to 5 and that just couldn’t be further from the truth. You design your boundaries to fit your life and fit what you need, and the more you can do that in an authentic way, the more you, I think, model ways to do that for other people. The more you free yourself, the more other people feel free to free themselves too. I think. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah. One thing I think about in my own work is even changing the language away from boundaries, because the responsibility for keeping boundaries it’s so, that it’s laid on the individual. 

 

Gloria Chan Packer: Yeah. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Right. And oftentimes, especially in high pressure work environments, you are rewarded for breaking your own boundaries. 

 

Gloria Chan Packer: Yep. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Implicitly or explicitly. 

 

Gloria Chan Packer: Yep. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: So if you are in an organization and you want to change the company culture, how do we make a shift that makes it so that we can do something more like guardrails? Right, so I live in the West, in the Western Mountain Pass you have these guardrails that are maintained by the state and they are there to keep the runaway train or the runaway semi from going off onto the other lane or off the mountain and demolishing everyone else. They’re not the responsibility of every trucker going up that mountain to maintain the guardrails. And so how can an organization put these things in place? I even think of something like if you are having a work retreat or a offsite for a day, how do you put space in there that allows people to maintain some of their boundaries? Right? What if it’s even something as like lunch on your own. 

 

Gloria Chan Packer: Yeah. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Right. And because not everyone wants to be with everyone all the time. 

 

Gloria Chan Packer: Yeah. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: And younger people. I just remember this when I was a young teacher, I wanted to be with my students all the time. I wanted all the open office hours. I wanted like I just wanted to be so available. And I remember feeling resentful towards older educators who were like, wait wait wait wait, like slow down. And also just kind of like poking fun at me, like, oh, yeah, she’s on the burnout train right there, like, just watching. And I wish that there was a way. Abs— like, without this sort of like condescension to be like, it’s good to build these spaces and not just because I’m an older educator and you’re an older teacher, an older person in the organization telling you that it’s built into the schedule. 

 

Gloria Chan Packer: Yeah. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Like there are parts of our work that we are we have already put in there to try to prevent future burnout. 

 

Gloria Chan Packer: Yeah. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Instead of we’re going to hire these people, we’re going to let them flame out and then we’re going to see who sticks around. 

 

Gloria Chan Packer: Yeah. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Which is oftentimes the way that organizations like this work. 

 

Gloria Chan Packer: Yeah. I mean, I think it has to be a really collaborative conversation because all of our workplaces and industries are all really different. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah. 

 

Gloria Chan Packer: And I think having a a focus group or a series of focus groups or even an employee engagement survey that asked like, okay, where do we feel like we need some better boundaries and, and not within this workplace? And you kind of take that information and go from there. Building in flexibility is key. And I think also just getting really clear on your organizational priorities and driving what’s mandatory based off that is really important too, I think for. What was it, Emily, our listener. One thing I would offer that’s a little bit more tangible and I’m hopeful that helps is maybe a little bit more of a framework to have that tough conversation because I think trying to institute cultural change is just a scary thing. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Yes, yes. [laughs]

 

Gloria Chan Packer: It’s something that I think a lot of us wish for, but it’s pretty scary. But at the same time, if it feels like it’s something that like you can’t go another day without trying to do something about, then let’s try to give you some tools around it. So tough conversations, especially with leaders. I like to offer a few tips. One is just like check capacity for a conversation, going to say, hey, as I’m like stepping into this managerial role. I have some thoughts I wanted to share with you. Do you have some capacity for that right now or would you later? Check for capacity first always, right. A lot of times we like build up these big conversations and we just like go in, guns blazing and maybe someone’s like having a really shitty day and it wasn’t the right time for it. We don’t want to just keep barreling down we want to like time out and wait for a better time. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: It’s like with my partner where he’s like about to fall asleep [laughter] and I’m like, do you think that we could talk about what to do about—

 

Gloria Chan Packer: Can you talk honey? [laughs]

 

Anne Helen Petersen: —like the broken toilet? Like, let’s come up with a big plan, right now.  

 

Gloria Chan Packer: It’s funny, I do that with my husband. I’m like, is now a good time? And when it’s not like find myself internally, being like. Damn it. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: [laughter] Okay, so yes— 

 

Gloria Chan Packer: So first, check for capacity. Second, I always like to encourage people to just validate the relationship. I think most of us kind of I don’t know when you like go into a conversation and someone’s like, hey, can we talk? We immediately like kind of clam up and you’re like, oh God, what is going to happen? And that’s just a natural human instinct. That’s our instinct to potential conflict. And we really want to lower that nervous system defense. And I think one thing we can do is just help validate the relationship when we’re going in. So for Emily, right, you can say something like, I really look up to you as a boss. I don’t know what she does, but I really look up to you or I really value you. I really value what you do and how you’ve provided leadership to this company. And so I just want to want you to know that, like, our relationship really matters. And sometimes speaking to the feeling too and speaking to the awkwardness can help because we want to lower those defenses. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah, yeah. 

 

Gloria Chan Packer: And like a lot of times we come in tense and have tense body language, and I think it’s helpful to be able to speak to that, be like I’m not used to providing suggestions or feedback because I never want to seem like a know it all or I don’t want to be like the new manager who is trying to like, disrupt everything. So I feel like this is important, but I also don’t want to make it weird and I know I’m being weird and I’m being awkward and I just want to bring that into the room. And even though that doesn’t feel polished or anything, like, I think that’s just really understandable and will help somebody be like, oh, this is why she has the most awkward body language on the planet. It’s not because she, like, feels like she’s fighting with me. It’s just that this is uncomfortable and that like, lowers defenses. So that’s another helpful thing to do. Then I think as we’re tackling the problem, I always try to encourage people, as you are specifying and bringing kind of the problem to the table, try to seek to understand the other person’s perspective, lay out what you see, but then kind of validate and be curious about the other person’s perspective. So in Emily’s case, maybe it’s, hey, I’ve noticed that we use this work as a family thing sometimes, and I know that it has positive intent, but I’ve been I’ve been hearing and reading about how sometimes it has some toxic downsides that can cause people to burn out and that makes retention suffer. Have you heard about that? And kind of see if her boss has heard about it or maybe even say, I’ve noticed X, Y, Z kind of being something that people struggle with? What’s your perspective on that and hear the other person out and kind of just be curious about the other perspective. It’s really hard to do, but it’s really important, I think, in these types of conversations because we always have an opportunity to learn about a different perspective that maybe we aren’t considering and it’s something that we would want the other person to do for us too. Another thing is, I think coming in maybe with either a specific solution in mind or coming in with an ask for help can be important.

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah. 

 

Gloria Chan Packer: Most of us don’t love just being served a problem. And even though, like, I get that, that happens. Most of us don’t love it actually. So coming in with an idea for a solution can be helpful or coming in with just an ask, being like I’m not sure what the answer is, but I figured you could probably help with your experience. Can you help us collaborate on this or how can how can we work through this? Most people respond much more amicably to like a collaborative request for help than like a this is a problem. What are you going to do about it? And so that can be helpful, too. And then I think just ending by validating the relationship again can be helpful. And so that’s kind of a framework I would offer for tackling the tough conversation. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah. No that’s so useful. Usually I’m just like, you need to talk to your manager [laughter] and it’s not like the detailed way that you could actually accomplish that conversation. And this acknowledges too like this is really fraught. Like if you’re going to your leader in any capacity, it’s a power dynamic—

 

Gloria Chan Packer: Yeah. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: —and you have to manage that. And if you’re if you have a plan for it, I think it makes it somewhat less fraught. 

 

Gloria Chan Packer: It does, and I would. I would be remiss, too, to like, not acknowledge that some of these conversations totally go sideways. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah. Yeah. [laughs]

 

Gloria Chan Packer: And that setting boundaries sometimes can totally go sideways and that sucks. And so I think it’s always important to try our best to mentally prepare ourselves for like, what life looks like if the conversation goes really well and what life looks like, if it doesn’t go that well and we don’t have to figure it out all ahead of time, you can figure it out later. But I think it’s always helpful to prep yourself and to know, right, that boundaries aren’t there to guarantee that we’ll get our way. Boundaries are there to make sure that we’re kind of taking the autonomy back to express what we need. And if we can’t get that right, then we at least have the information that we tried and we’re here and we’re saying, okay, what do we do next? Where do we go from here? And for Emily, it sounds like she mentioned a small resort community. And so it sounds like she might be in an industry where, like remote working might not be as feasible. And that sucks. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Like, this might be the job—

 

Gloria Chan Packer: Yeah. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: —that she needs to keep so how do you do that?

 

Gloria Chan Packer: And that, that sucks and and I think for boundaries and workplaces, a lot of times I encourage people to think of it as, do you want to solve your micro problem or do you want to solve the macro problem? Whether we like it or not, some of our industries are just a little bit more prone to burnout. If you’re working in that kind of industry that feels a little bit more prone to burnout or not practicing boundaries, I think you you kind of have to have a tough choice of either choosing, okay, am I going to take on the work of the macro to, like, change the culture and champion for it and do that hard work, which is amazing? And no one, if you feel like you have that energy, go do it. But if you’re like, there’s like, no, I have priorities elsewhere. I can’t take that on, then maybe it’s changing your micro situation to either switch industries or switch jobs or find something different. And that’s that’s all really tough and not rosy. But I promise that, like the tough work is, is where the good stuff comes. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Okay, so at this point in the show, I totally misread my notecards. Teed up the wrong question. It was all disaster. What I meant to say was. Our next question is about the kinds of relationships that are expected of us at work. This question comes from Camilla and our friend Fiona, who produces Hysteria and Dare We Say, which you should all listen to, read it for us. 

 

Camilla: Must I have a best friend at work to be happy at my job? Every year my company does an employee engagement survey to see on a 1 to 5 scale how happy and engaged we are in our roles. One of the statements is I have a best friend at work. Every year this one ranks around a 3 to 4 for my team. Not bad, but it certainly brings down our overall rating. I do not have a best friend at work and I’m okay with that. I work remotely joined in 2020, so the opportunity to bond in person is very limited. I know my boss cares about me. I have colleagues who support me when we have the rare opportunity to socialize in person. I happily participate. That’s enough for me. But the desperation for all of us to give vibes for the best friend question really irks me. So are there any actual benefits to having a work BFF? Or is this just corporate nonsense to try to keep me loyal to the company? 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: [laughs] So how many of you, if you had to answer, do I have a work best friend, would you say Yes. Yeah, but if you didn’t have one, would that make you worse at your job or your like, right. Okay, so we were talking about this question before and you were saying I understand—

 

Gloria Chan Packer: Yeah. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: —why they came up with this metric. Like scientifically, I understand. But also, this is weird. 

 

Gloria Chan Packer: Yeah. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: So what’s your first response to this?

 

Gloria Chan Packer: So like my short answer to the question is that I don’t think it’s nonsense, but I do think like I do think that there are benefits to having close connections at work, but I don’t think forcing best friends at work is necessarily going to reap those benefits. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah. 

 

Gloria Chan Packer: Um, the longer answer, there’s a lot of research that shows like at its core, the simple piece here is that just having positive human connection at work is going to result in things that make the organization work better. You’re going to have more trust, more communication, more loyalty, like good stuff— 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah, like you don’t, not hating your coworker. 

 

Gloria Chan Packer: Yeah, yeah. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: —is a good way to be better at your job. 

 

Gloria Chan Packer: Yeah, yeah absolutely. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Totally. 

 

Gloria Chan Packer: [laughs] Perfect. We’ll just send those back. The most recent study that I imagine that maybe this workplace is basing this off of and late last year or middle to late last year Gallup released data that showed that people who reported having a best friend at work that was tied to some pretty key business outcomes around profitability like safety at work, job satisfaction, retention. So there are I mean, on that level of analysis, right? I get where this is coming from. That makes sense. But if we are forcing it and especially using the best friend terminology [laughter] I don’t know, there’s just something kind of cringy about that—

 

Anne Helen Petersen: It makes me feel like I’m in elementary school and like all the best friends are taken, you know, like [laughter] it’s not like [laughter] there is something about best friend that is really weird.  

 

Gloria Chan Packer: It just puts a weird pressure on it, in my opinion. Like maybe more gauging and just how many people have trust and close relationships at work would be better and not ranking people’s performance on that too. Unless like your job specifically is people in management or culture that feels a little bit more effective and just like forcing friendships. We as humans, our natural tendency toward connection is going to be organic and natural, right? It’s really important to us and because it’s so important to us, we want to have the autonomy of choosing and developing our own connections when we feel like someone’s forcing it. That’s just not going to feel right and that’s not going to result in the same organic, human based benefits that we’re tying. I would love to for someone to maybe like statistically pick this apart more— 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Right cause it seems like a— 

 

Gloria Chan Packer: Which I’m not like—

 

Anne Helen Petersen: —downstream, downstream element, right? If you have a healthy work environment, then it follows—

 

Gloria Chan Packer: Yeah. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: —that maybe you will have, let’s just say a friend—

 

Gloria Chan Packer: Yeah. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: —a friend at work. [laughs]

 

Gloria Chan Packer: Right. And I don’t I don’t want like Gallup to come for me. So I’m not claiming any—

 

Anne Helen Petersen: I mean. 

 

Gloria Chan Packer: —statistical expertise here. But when you look at the data, I found myself curious and I don’t have the statistical expertise to truly dive into this, but I’m interested as to like, if the, is this data is more correlated or if it’s more causative, right? Because I can believe that it’s correlative, but I don’t know if having a best friend truly like is causative. And so, yeah, I think maybe focusing more on on, on just positive human connection at work and supporting that type of culture at work seems important. And yeah, I guess my answer ends up being in the middle, like it’s not nonsense, but it’s also not like so extreme that it needs to be forced at the best friend BFF level—

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah. 

 

Gloria Chan Packer: —either. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: I really recoil from this sort of question because I have worked for places that are working hard to make it so that you are close with your like they have all of the accouterments like froyo and group lunches and all of those things—

 

Gloria Chan Packer: Yeah. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: That make it so that, you know, the reason that you have a best friend at work is because you have no friends outside of work. [laughter] Seriously, though, like you, they are trying to become your entire life. And this can be true for toxic startups and it can be true for all enveloping educational institutions [laughs] and nonprofits. And also it can be true for people who are being exploited. Like, part of the reason you have solidarity is because your boss freakin sucks. 

 

Gloria Chan Packer: Yeah. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Right. So I don’t think that it’s in any way like having a good friend at work to me could be indicative too of like we are banned together in talking crap about our workplace all the time. You know?

 

Gloria Chan Packer: Yeah. Touché.

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Like, like, Office Space is a movie about best friends who hate their workplace. [laughter] The Office, same thing. So to me, like, I think it’s one of those office metrics where like—

 

Gloria Chan Packer: Yeah. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: —makes sense. But also. 

 

Gloria Chan Packer: Yeah, there could be downsides, right? And I think that’s an important part of, of interpreting data too. And there’s no perfect way to interpret data. It’s hard—

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah. 

 

Gloria Chan Packer: —because like anything, you can kind of massage it different ways, but I’d be interested to see what downsides might correlate too, to the best friendships that work. And to what you’re saying with everything back to boundaries, like we need healthy boundaries to make any relationship or organization functional, and that’s relationships that work as well as any other kind of relationship, a marriage or partnership, a friendship. And so I think I deeply do think that like having meaningful relationships at work is important. But like with any other relationship, we have to have healthy boundaries around that too. I’m one of these people who in my consulting life, I did develop several best friends at work who are still my dear friends today. But we would really have to test kind of those boundaries. Where like, okay, if one person’s managing the other, we’re co working on something. And like, I have a vivid memory of my dear friend and mentor. I was managing this just really hairy, unruly project and I was burnt out as hell and I just kind of snapped and did not make a very nice comment to someone I worked with in front of our clients. And she like sat me down. She was like, hey, I care about you a lot. Like, you cannot talk like that. You cannot talk to anyone like that at work. And it’s like, that’s something she absolutely needed to say. And if she was maybe practicing less of a boundary where she was like, oh, Gloria is my friend. I don’t want to hurt her feelings. I know she’s going through a lot. That would not have helped us at all. That would have like made us all downfall. And so I think boundaries are important for friendships that work for any relationship, and that’s kind of what it circles back to a lot of the time. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah, for this particular question asker, we oftentimes get questions from people who just want us to read it aloud and be like, that’s kind of messed up. [laughter] Like they don’t actually need the really strong advice. What I would say to this person is that’s kind of messed up. And also because I’m a little bit of a troll, I would like [laughter] decide that either my best friend was my manager, right? Like, like pretend that like if someone was going to ask or like a trash can and just, like, answer yes. And like, I have a best friend at work and it is like, you know, some fake bot that I made up on Slack that I talked to all the time. [laughter] What would you do you have any, like, specific advice? Just ignore it? Just to roll with it?

 

Gloria Chan Packer: I, yeah. I’m like curious how how irky is it? Like it’s for her a little bit irky. The thing I probably have the most irkiness about is not that it exists, but that it sounds like maybe performance is being tied to it. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah. 

 

Gloria Chan Packer: And that’s where I might maybe have to have one of those hard conversations again and refer to above framework. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: [laughter] Yes. 

 

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Anne Helen Petersen: All right, is our next question about what to do when you actually start at a workplace that’s nice, that’s good? We don’t have a question about that. I made it up and put it on a note card. [laughter] Is this the question that’s more of an anecdote about like, what the F are we going to do? Yes. Okay. So this is like an anecdote and it’s less of like specific question. But we’re going to take this anecdote and run with what the F do I do with this? 

 

Gloria Chan Packer: Yep. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: All right. 

 

Unidentified Speaker: I work for a three person nonprofit and recently had a baby. I came back to work after two months and have been working part time since then because we haven’t locked down childcare yet. Two of us are hourly and my director is salaried. We recently had staff reviews and my coworker told my boss that she was planning on leaving the job for various reasons. My boss said she was blindsided and thought that I was actually going to be the one leaving. She hasn’t handled the news of my coworker leaving very gracefully with comments like, well, you’ve ruined my day. My boss is now acting double disappointed that I didn’t leave and my coworker is in fact leaving. [laughter] She’s cut me out of the hiring process for the replacement, even though I hired and trained both of my coworkers and has generally created a very weird work environment. I’m doing the best that I can with full time mom-ing and working. In my review she gave me an ultimatum to come back to work and is withholding certain benefits as an incentive to come back. It feels like maternity leave gone wrong and I feel like she’s acting out because things didn’t play out the way she anticipated. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Okay. What the F is going on here? When you first read this question, what was your reaction? 

 

Gloria Chan Packer: Yeah, that sounds right. [laughter] Sounds rough, girl. Um, I have a few thoughts. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah. 

 

Gloria Chan Packer: One, I mean, my first thought was like, I’m so sorry that this is happening. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Yes. 

 

Gloria Chan Packer: On a true human level. Like, that really, really sucks. And so for this listener, I feel like I just really want to validate how hard that is. Being a brand new parent in and of itself is hard enough already. Maybe I’m biased of this too, because I have a six month old my first child and so post mat leave work life is very fresh in my mind and so I think for any mom or dad coming back from parental leave, like life is already hard enough. Coming back to work is already hard enough too. But like with this situation, this makes it even even tougher. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: You’re like, I have a baby. 

 

Gloria Chan Packer: Yeah. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: You’re being a baby. [laughter] Like. 

 

Gloria Chan Packer: Don’t get me started down that road, we’ll have a whole another podcast episode. [laughter] And so I want to encourage this listener to really take time to validate that emotion and to, like, find a way to express it, too. When we have big emotions, I always like to talk about like expressing and venting our emotions that like, gets it out but doesn’t do harm to ourselves or others. So like, cry out with a friend or like, write a really horrible letter, but burn it out and don’t send it to anyone.

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Write into a podcast about your question. [laughter] I do think that it can be therapeutic—

 

Gloria Chan Packer: Yeah. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: —to have like—

 

Gloria Chan Packer: It totally can.

 

Anne Helen Petersen: —to, to have that opportunity to write into this box, like, look at this situation that I’m in—

 

Gloria Chan Packer: Yeah, yeah. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: —and it’s very clear, you know, like, I’m sure that like, her manager would never articulate that this is what’s happening. 

 

Gloria Chan Packer: Yeah. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: But when you put it down in paragraph form— 

 

Gloria Chan Packer: Yeah. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: I think a lot of people also talk themselves into like quitting—

 

Gloria Chan Packer: Yeah. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: —or talking themselves into seeing like, no, this is messed up. 

 

Gloria Chan Packer: Yeah. Yeah. And that brings me to my next point I’d offer for her consideration. It sucks that she has to think about this at all. It’s like, what do all right, what do we need? What do we need to do after we process the emotion? And it sucks again that she’s in this place where she’s already in such a big transition in her life that she needs to evaluate whether this workplace is working for her or not. But I would really offer to her to kind of boil it down to like, what does she need and what does she want and what does she prioritize and what do we need to do with that. And I also somewhat projecting my own experience. I want to offer that she doesn’t have to solve for it all now. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah. Yeah. 

 

Gloria Chan Packer: Too that like if she’s like, I don’t know what to do and I don’t feel capable of deciding something so big right now. Like, she doesn’t like you don’t have to eat the whole apple in one bite that she can take time to figure it out, too. And I would really try to boil down to like, what do you feel like you need and try to kind of follow that path towards what to do next. Then the last thing that I would offer is maybe consider talking to an external expert that is in H.R. or parental leave. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah does this seem like an H.R. situation? 

 

Gloria Chan Packer: Oh, for sure. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah. 

 

Gloria Chan Packer: I mean it doesn’t sound, like, she can go to her own H.R., but I’m not a H.R. legal expert by any means, but this seems like something that maybe it might be worthwhile getting the counsel of a professional on. Because I feel like all all industries and states and cities have different regulation around this. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Yep. 

 

Gloria Chan Packer: And it sucks. And like highlights again, just how little regulation we do have around parental leave and parental rights. And that’s a whole another ballgame. And kind of goes back to that macro micro problem that I started out right. Like for some of our industries, parental leave has really progressed and is really great, for other industries that really doesn’t exist. And workplaces feel like if they offer it, they can’t compete and remain profitable. So it’s like a hairy, messed up rough situation if she works for a nonprofit that’s probably like the the side that that’s airing on. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Right. 

 

Gloria Chan Packer: And that doesn’t make it right necessarily, but it is what it is. And that’s not me trying to justify it by any means. But I think for me, I’ve found that for myself, for my clients, for many of us as humans, when we can try to look at a problem as objectively as possible, just for like, alright, this is the situation, it’s shitty from a lot of different perspectives. Doesn’t make it right, but it is what it is. What do we do from here? It can help pull some of the fire out of it so you can think a little bit more clearly. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: It’s clear that her boss wants to fire her, but probably is not or can’t—

 

Gloria Chan Packer: I’m sure. Bleh.

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Because the guy would not want to work with someone who was hoping that I would quit. 

 

Gloria Chan Packer: Yeah. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Right. Like that just makes you feel like, uh, yeah. So. But I think you’re right. Sometimes you don’t want to go into job searching when you’re coming back from mat leave. Live like that seems like an utter nightmare. So how long can you ride that modicum of stability? 

 

Gloria Chan Packer: Right. Yeah. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Until you can figure out—

 

Gloria Chan Packer: Maybe she needs to have that tough conversation too, again, I don’t want to use the [indistinct]  to answer over and over again, but I mean, maybe it is a tough conversation of like, hey, I know that things are really rough right now, and I know that me going on leave didn’t help for our team being so small, but that was really important to me. I’m coming back and I know a coworker quitting and you said made these comments and I’m not sure that you’re aware and I’m not sure that this is your intention, but this is how it landed. Is this what you are intending? I wanna see what answers she gets back. Right. But maybe. Maybe the boss is just totally at their wit’s end—

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah. 

 

Gloria Chan Packer: —and has no clue what they’re saying. And I mean clearly not very emotionally aware in this moment, but it could be worth the conversation too. I mean, sometimes people surprise us, sometimes they don’t. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: And maybe the boss just needs someone. Sorry to go back to like the baby analogy, but like, needs someone to hold her a little bit and acknowledge that things are rough, right? 

 

Gloria Chan Packer: Yeah. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Sometimes you have to like, be a boss to your boss which makes it hard. 

 

Gloria Chan Packer: Which isn’t, isn’t this listener’s job. But yeah, with so many of these. Problems around tough workplaces and tough situations. And I think this is the toughest work of drawing your own boundaries is like making the call for what you need to do. And a lot of times that’s a difficult thing because there’s so much risk in making that choice and there’s so much risk in change, especially when you’re caretaking for others. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah. 

 

Gloria Chan Packer: So it’s just it’s a hard thing and I don’t want to overshadow that with with our advisedness. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: I know that’s the thing with it. I think I come back to this a lot. Whenever we’re giving advice is everyone’s situation we don’t have. Does this person have health insurance? Does someone in her family have a health condition that would make any disruption in health insurance be difficult? Is there another support in the family like those are those the pieces of information that we don’t necessarily have? 

 

Gloria Chan Packer: Yeah. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: So all of this advice is coming from that. 

 

Gloria Chan Packer: Yeah. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: But our next one is a doozy. And it’s from Grace. And our friend Ines from Crooked is going to read it for us. 

 

Grace: I work at a small firm where everyone reports directly to the founder or CEO. Due to our size, the CEO also serves as H.R. Nearly every suggestion I see when I research involves going to human resources about your boss, which I can’t really do. I believe our founder or CEO is a severe hypochondriac every week, sometimes multiple times. She either has a major health crisis that involves calling the paramedics to her home, making an emergency trip to the doctor, etc. or a family member of hers has some kind of medical scare. She live texts, constant status updates to our team whenever it happens, including after hours and everyone responds with thoughts and prayers, advice, heart emojis, etc. Nearly every time nothing comes of the emergency and either her or her family end up fine with no medical issues. Typically, when this happens, our leadership team must step in and take her client meetings or do her work with no advance notice or prep. I’m good at my job and it offers a lot of flexibility as a working mum, so I don’t want to leave. But it’s starting to be hard for me to practice compassion and not feel like she’s constantly playing the victim. It also makes it hard for me to get my work done when I’m always having to pinch hit for her. How can I set a boundary when she’s the owner of the company? 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: [laughter] The emotions we’re getting from the audience are like, you got to get out of there. [laughter] I mean, this is really like the definite, you know. I actually think Melody, the producer of the show, and I, when we got this question, we were like, this is perfect for this question of workplace is not your family. Right? Because she this person is acting like an unaccountable family member. Right. And this is a person that if it was a part of your family, you would try to have real sympathy for them and understand why they are the way that they are. But they are your CEO and your H.R. department and all built into one. And I also appreciate that the question asker acknowledged that, like so often in shows like this, we’re like, go to H.R., like, this is my H.R. department. Or at some startups—

 

Gloria Chan Packer: Yeah. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: —you have, you don’t have an H.R. department at all. 

 

Gloria Chan Packer: Yep. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Or in a lot of places, H.R. is not your friend, right? H.R. is very much on the side of the business. So with all that said—

 

Gloria Chan Packer: What a toughie.

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Yes. 

 

Gloria Chan Packer: I want to start and this isn’t this really isn’t pointed at the, well one. This sucks. So question asker, this sucks. I’m sorry. You’re in this situation that’s so rough. In so many ways, but one thing I wanted to start that isn’t really pointed at the question, but I think it’s maybe like an opportunity for a collective mental health learning moment is how important it is, even though I get it and I’m guilty of it too. But I think it’s important for us to all be careful with labeling mental health diagnoses—

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah. 

 

Gloria Chan Packer: —for other people. Again, I get why, and I’ve been guilty of it before too. But I think for us to be able to make mental health less stigmatized, we’ve really got to try our best to humanize the experiences of others and understand more of like the root of what happened to someone and how that caused a behavior more than just like kind of labeling or diagnosing on behalf of them. Because I think we all have things that happen to us that cause defense mechanisms and behaviors to pop up in things such as hypochondria. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah. 

 

Gloria Chan Packer: And that’s not to excuse the behavior. Right. I always say for for behaviors that are problematic like this, it’s not that person’s fault, but it is their responsibility. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah. 

 

Gloria Chan Packer: Everything that we have, all our stuff, it’s not our fault, but it is our responsibility to fix it and take accountability for it if it’s causing problems in our lives or for others. That’s just a little collective moment that I think is important even for me to remind myself of working in that space. All that being said, trying to be mindful that based on these anecdotes that this person is sharing, it seems like their CEO is not very equipped to be emotionally aware or regulated. And because of that, that’s going to make it really difficult to have a boundaries conversation because a lot of times when you set boundaries with someone who doesn’t have that emotional maturity or regulation, things can get messy quicker. And so I think this is a situation where this listener just probably has to think about what they really want from the conversation and to be able to be really clear around that, to again, kind of follow the steps in having the conversation of making sure this person has the capacity to have the conversation, validating the relationship because it sounds like they like their workplace in general—

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah, yeah. 

 

Gloria Chan Packer: —and that they want to stay there. And I think that’s a great thing. To voice that too, to be like, I really love working here and I don’t I don’t want that to change. But I do feel like there’s something I’ve noticed and felt there’s an issue. Are you open to hearing that? Here’s some language that I would probably use, like in speaking to this person again, trying to seek to understand the CEO perspective, state the problem state what you observe, but try to seek that perspective to so be able to say like, hey, it seems like there’s been a lot going on in your personal life that seems really difficult, but I’ve noticed that it’s also started to impact our team needing to constantly take on more workload without notice, and that can cause our work to suffer. I know that’s probably not your intention. I can imagine that is not your intention, but is that is that something you’ve noticed or felt at all? It might be like, yes, I have noticed that. What do we do about it? 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah. 

 

Gloria Chan Packer: Or it’s like, oh no, I haven’t really. Is that really happening right now behind the scenes? Cause a lot of times, like with CEO types too, right? Everyone’s tiptoeing and like no one ever wants to bring you anything. I think offering a solution too, again, could be helpful. So asking like, is there a way that we can carve out someone else’s bandwidth to like offload some of their work and make half their role kind of being your shadow or your proxy so that when you’re unavailable for family emergencies that they have bandwidth dedicated and we don’t have like a whole fire drill every time. Or can we hire someone that’s like a chief of staff or your assistant temporarily, or if, if we can’t do either of those things, is there work that we can deprioritize as we’re getting you through the hurdle of whatever personal difficulties you’re having? 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah. 

 

Gloria Chan Packer: But to come with those and really, again, I think it’s important for us to all remember that, like these boundary conversations aren’t like a me versus you fight. It’s a conversation we need to collectively have to figure out how we need to resource each other and ourselves so that our organizations and relationships and workplaces can can sustain and can keep moving forward. And that’s something that I think really rings true here without discounting how how difficult of a situation it it is. Because if things were hunky dory, right, a good leader an, an effective leader would want to hear this problem and would want to solve it and would want to help her people. But that’s not always how the world plays out. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: I think too, and not to trivialize this in any way, but it reminds me of like, I don’t know, when I was a teenager and I lied about which house I was having a sleepover with, and I would like try to narrate it really closely to my mom, you know, like have all these details prepared because somehow if you’re like if you’re have a lot of details about it, then it’s not a lie. [laughter] And I don’t think that the CEO is lying about these crises. But I think she probably is ashamed— 

 

Gloria Chan Packer: Yeah. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: —that she is using them and dropping work right, or dropping responsibilities. 

 

Gloria Chan Packer: Yep. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: And the narration is a way for her— 

 

Gloria Chan Packer: Justify it.

 

Anne Helen Petersen: —to justify it. 

 

Gloria Chan Packer: Yeah. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: And I think any way that you can say it’s okay for you to drop the ball sometimes. 

 

Gloria Chan Packer: Yeah. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Right. 

 

Gloria Chan Packer: Yeah. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Like we have the infrastructure in place—

 

Gloria Chan Packer: Right. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: For you to be able to do that—

 

Gloria Chan Packer: Yeah. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: —will take away some of those, those actions—

 

Gloria Chan Packer: Yeah. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: —that are really creating a lot of turmoil for the rest of the team. 

 

Gloria Chan Packer: Yeah. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: Does that make sense? 

 

Gloria Chan Packer: Yep. It does. I, I think that’s a really important point and helps humanize it too, because at the end of the day, we all have problems and we all have problems pop up when it comes to the workplace. Like we have to figure out where that line is, where our problems become other people’s problems and become our workplaces problems and become the businesses problems. And that’s the point where we have to often come together to figure it out. Like it can’t be one person. Often it can’t be one person making that solution, especially if you’re the CEO. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: So I think what I’ve learned from this conversation is that I need to have more hard conversations [laughter] just generally like prepare yourself for those conversations. 

 

Gloria Chan Packer: Yeah. 

 

Anne Helen Petersen: But also again, that the workplace is not your family and that if you have that message coming to you from your workplace, there are things that you can do apart from quitting that can kind of combat that ideology. [music plays] We had so much fun at South by Southwest EDU. Thanks so much for everyone who helped us pull it off and thanks especially to Gloria Chan Packer for joining us. We definitely want to have her back. If you’ve got a workplace quandary, you need help figuring it out. Get in touch. Some episodes we’re working on include issues around parental leave and how to just generally care less about your job. You can find submission guidelines at WorkAppropriate.com or send a voice memo with your question to Work Appropriate at Crooked.com. Don’t forget to follow us at Crooked Media on Instagram and Twitter. For more original content host takeovers and other community events. You can follow me on Twitter @AnneHelen or on Instagram @AnneHelenPetersen. And you can sign up for my newsletter Culture Study AnneHelen.substack.com. And if you’re as opinionated as we are, consider dropping us a review. Work Appropriate is a Crooked Media production. I’m Anne Helen Petersen, your host. Our executive producers are Kendra James and Sandy Girard. Melody Rowell is our producer and editor. Alison Falzetta is our development producer. Music is composed by Chanell Crichlow. Additional production support from Ari Schwartz and a special thanks to Katie Long and Sarah Geismer.

 

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