Q: I am very upset about a remark made by my team leader, "Mitch," in a meeting. Our group works together closely, so we have become rather casual in the way we communicate. People use curse words occasionally, and we kid around a lot. As the only woman in the group, I always felt that I was viewed as an equal until now.
Because team members often bring snacks to our meetings, I jokingly told my co-worker, "Jack," that he owed me a pastry. Jack and I innocently joked back and forth about how and when he would give me this treat. Then Mitch said, "I know what Jack's thinking, so he had better deliver the pastry!"
Mitch made this comment in a suggestive tone, so it was clear that "pastry" referred to sex. Although nothing further was said, I now feel marginalized and degraded. I'm finding it difficult to look Jack in the eye. Am I blowing this incident out of proportion?
A: Based on your description, Mitch appears to have foolishly jumped into a discussion that had already taken a racy turn. The sexy innuendo actually began when you and Jack started bantering about "how and when he would give you this treat." If Mitch were a wiser team leader, he would have simply ignored your chitchat and focused on the agenda.
Since you apparently failed to recognize the direction this conversation was taking, you may need to fine-tune your verbal antenna. Given the opportunity, most guys can put a sexual slant on almost anything. When working in all-male groups, therefore, women must differentiate between "being one of the guys" and encouraging offensive behavior.
Of course, this distinction is muddied by the fact that women vary considerably in what they consider offensive. For that reason, men would be well-advised to avoid topics that their female colleagues might find objectionable. And women shouldn't participate in any conversation that makes them uneasy.
Although Mitch's comment was unnecessary and inappropriate, his participation in the ongoing banter hardly seems serious enough to warrant your feeling "marginalized and degraded." But if he habitually makes remarks that you find upsetting, then you should politely ask him to stop.
Q: One of my employees will be receiving a very negative performance review. I feel that I should include some positive remarks in the "Comments" section, but nothing comes to mind. Do you have any suggestions?
A: When dealing with performance issues, managers typically tend to focus only on the person's troublesome behavior. But no one is all good or all bad.
Sometimes, a weakness actually represents the flip side of a strength. For example, people who are guilty of excessive socializing often excel at developing relationships. To create a balanced appraisal, try to consider all aspects of your problem employee's work performance. A careful assessment should help you come up with a few good things to say.
Marie G. McIntyre is a workplace coach and the author of "Secrets to Winning at Office Politics." Send in questions and get free coaching tips at www.yourofficecoach.com, or follow her on Twitter @officecoach.