Q: I work in a university environment and share the reception area with a woman who constantly complains, loudly, behind the walls of her cubicle about every issue under the sun. A few graduate students sit across from me and are also bothered by her incessant complaining. When she gets distracting, I make faces at my computer screen, roll my eyes and laugh to myself. What is the best way to handle her never-ending rants against delivery companies, incompetent people and life in general?
A: I don't usually endorse passive-aggressiveness. But ignoring her hasn't worked, and HR probably frowns on sound-activated rubber-band cannons.
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So, next time she opens her waaambulance bay, respond: "That must suck." "Well, it is what it is." "Mm-hmm, I hear that." The drier the delivery and the dustier the clichés, the better.
The meaningless feedback might feed her need for attention, but it might also jolt her into a moment of self-awareness. If she snaps that she wasn't talking to you, there's your opening: "Well, to be honest, it's hard to tell sometimes if you're talking to us or yourself. I don't know if you realize it, but your voice really carries in here. It's pretty distracting."
Q: I am likely to be rehiring an employee soon. Years ago, she was my assistant. Her personality is sharp-edged: She is bright and hilarious, but also dramatizes and dwells on the negative. In the job, she slid into bitter complaining and general negativity. I found it wearisome but didn't address it at the time, although I should have. After she was shifted to another supervisor, her position was eliminated in general cutbacks. We remained friendly, and I genuinely like her.
I now have an opening on my team. She is a great fit, and I think she'll do well. While I certainly want her to let me know if she encounters problems, I don't want to invite the general kvetching I tacitly endorsed in the past. How can I head off this pattern, in a way that is clear but positive?
A: If you can honestly say your colleague's acerbic attitude isn't likely to damage the work environment -- are you sure it wasn't a factor in her layoff? -- give her a chance and see how it goes. Time and experience may have blunted her edges.
If she starts venting, shift into problem-solving mode: "That must be frustrating. How can I help resolve it?" If she says she just wants to complain, let her know that in your current position, you're required to take employee complaints seriously.
You can certainly kick back and kvetch with her off the clock -- but, even then, you should probably steer clear of shoptalk. Surely, you can find safer subjects for her biting wit. Try religion and politics.
• Karla L. Miller has written for and edited tax publications for 16 years, most recently for the accounting firm KPMG's Washington National Tax office.