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Article updated: 11/18/2012 7:31 AM

Work Advice: Is there a grown-up in the office?


Q: I'm two years into my first job since college. In the past I've had trouble managing stress, but I thought I got along well with everyone. Recently, while picking up papers from the printer, I found an instant message conversation between two co-workers that one of them had accidentally printed. In it, they complained about how obnoxious I was and speculated about whether I'd been abused by my parents. I was hurt, because I had considered these co-workers my friends. I tried to professionally discuss the incident with them. They apologized for "being stupid," but I suspect they just regretted my finding the printout. I'm still crushed. Is there anything I can do now, or did I miss my chance?

A: Given your co-workers' vague apology, I'm not sure your exposure to this scathing exchange was entirely accidental.

Cynical speculation aside, you've learned one or two valuable things here: (1) These people are not friends you need, and/or (2) Your past behavior -- my money's on that "trouble managing stress" -- has made a bad impression. If there's any truth to the latter, you've been handed a clear (if painful) hint that you need to examine your behavior -- with a professional, if necessary -- and resolve to do better.

Things probably won't ever be right again with Heckle and Jeckle, but I'm confident you'll have chances in your career to start fresh with new -- and more mature -- co-workers.

Q: Co-workers at the small company where I work use the word "retarded" in a way that offends me. I have volunteered for years at a summer camp for teens with Down syndrome, and my family is involved with the special needs community. Friends have started an organization to "end the offensive use of the r-word." Can you think of a way to bring up this issue that won't make my co-workers uncomfortable around me?

A: People tend to develop more sensitivity toward groups they have a personal connection to.

Be that connection.

Keep camp mementos on your desk as conversation starters. If your company allows fundraisers, hold a drive for the camp or your friends' organization. Those are low-key ways to let your co-workers know this issue is close to your heart.

If the offensive slang version of the word is being tossed about, and you're moved to speak up, you can say -- sadly, not huffily -- "Aw. I know some awesome kids who have Down syndrome, so it's painful hearing that word used like that."

If some shame-resistant jerk then starts slinging the slur just to provoke you, best ignore the bait ... but I'd understand if you let slip a resigned, "Whatever makes you feel better about yourself."

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.

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