Goodbye, Work Friends


We spend a lot of our lives working, especially in the United States — 40, 50, 60 or more hours a week. We hold multiple jobs to make ends meet. The candle is perpetually burning at both ends. Hard work, we’re told, is a virtue. It allows us to contribute to society and support our families, serve our employers well. It makes sense, then, that for Work Friend — the column I have written for the past four years — the questions you asked reflected both practical and existential concerns.

For those four years, across 95 installments, writing the Work Friend column has afforded me a unique opportunity to reflect on the professional life. It has been a journey, indeed. At almost 50 years old, I have been working for a very long time. I’ve been paid hourly, on commission, as an independent contractor and on a salary. I’ve had good jobs, great jobs and terrible jobs. I’ve had good benefits and mediocre benefits, and there were many lean years when I had no health insurance and prayed I wouldn’t need medical care.

I’ve seen a lot in all kinds of workplaces. I’ve worked with quirky people and talkative people and folks who were practically invisible, just quietly coming to work, doing their job and minding their own business. At many jobs, I was that person, not antisocial but happy to maintain a separation of church and state.

My first job was working in the dish room of my high school dining hall. My dad suggested this so I could better understand the value of a dollar and the importance of hard work. I was, in retrospect, too immature to really understand the lessons he was trying to impart, but I certainly appreciate them now. Then, I was 13, a freshman. I worked only six hours a week or so, for something like $6 an hour, which is pretty remarkable given that this was nearly 40 years ago and today’s federal minimum wage is not much more than that.

The dish room is hot and wet and steamy. It’s loud, and the air is thick with disinfectant and institutional food. The pace is brisk. Trays laden with dirty dishes, leftovers, encrusted silverware and much worse slowly inched their way toward me on a conveyor belt. Washing teenagers’ dishes is thankless. Every shift, I saw all kinds of small horrors — mountains made of salad bar ingredients, peanut butter smeared along the edges of trays, piles of mashed potatoes dotted with pieces of fruit and, of course, the detritus of eaten meals. I didn’t mind the work, necessarily, but I chafed at how difficult my classmates made the task at hand.

My fellow dishwashers and I sorted dishes, glasses and the silverware. We sprayed them down with hot water and put them in the industrial dishwashing machine, where they were cleaned and sanitized. We pulled the clean, hot dishes out of the machine and stacked them to be used again. By the end of each shift, I was sticky and sweaty and tired. The best part of my day was stepping into the much cooler evening air to walk back to my dorm. While washing dishes, I learned a lot about how much we take for granted the invisible labor that makes our lives much easier. And I was beyond lucky. I was doing that job, less than part time, for only a brief period, while for the adults working in the dining hall, it was a more permanent and far less edifying condition.

I aspired to be a doctor when I grew up. The medical profession was one of the Haitian trifecta of acceptable career choices, the other two being lawyer and engineer. I played the dutiful eldest daughter, but in my heart of hearts, medicine was my backup plan. What I really wanted to be was a writer, but that seemed as unfathomable as becoming an astronaut or the president; I never considered it a real possibility. I was mostly enamored with the idea of being a doctor.

As I grew older, I refined the delusion. I would be an emergency room physician, specializing in trauma care. I would walk around with authority, wearing my crisp white lab coat. I would be able to quickly read patients’ charts and diagnose whatever ailed them. I would be calm and effective during moments of crisis. I would make lots of money; it would be great. And then I took intro biology in college and quickly discovered, through a rapid series of humbling failures, that a life of medicine was not for me.

As I readjusted my ambitions, I began a circuitous professional journey to where I am today. In college, I worked in a computer lab, offering tech support to my peers. The lab was in an underground library, which felt like the coolest thing, and the job was always a delight because students wanted help logging into their email or getting access to the internet or, most often, printing things out. It was satisfying, doing work that resulted, most of the time, in helping people solve small but irksome problems. I felt capable.

When I wasn’t at work or in school, I wrote, very badly, then badly and eventually less badly. I started submitting work to magazines and receiving more lessons in humility by way of relentless rejection. I worked in a series of call centers, of which there were many in Nebraska, where I lived after college. There was a familiar rhythm to those jobs — a week or two in training, where I learned the basics, then on the floor, answering calls about missing deliveries of party decorations and vacuum warranties and late-night infomercials.

I took orders for all kinds of ridiculous products. I spent a lot of time in cubicles staring at a dim computer monitor, a headset wrapped around my ears. There were always goals to meet and small incentives for exceeding expectations. The work was easy, and I could do crossword puzzles and write. My co-workers and I took smoke breaks and lunch breaks, clocked in and out. Every two weeks, I got a paycheck and marveled at how much I worked to earn so little.

I did a stint in retail and worked the graveyard shift at an adult bookstore while getting my master’s degree, selling lonely men racy magazines and movies and other such things at night. By day, I was in class, learning about Victorian literature and modernity and postcolonialism and writing. I worked as a research assistant for a professor, organizing her research materials and whatever else she needed. I made a lot of photocopies that year.

I worked for Gallup, calling people and practically begging them, politely, to take a poll on this or that subject. People had landlines and answered them and often yelled that I was interrupting their dinner. It was a different time.

When my employer learned that I spoke French, I got to do some basic translation work. Later, I worked for a large student loan company processing consolidation applications. Sometimes, I took calls from borrowers who were hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt, working minimum-wage jobs, desperate for any kind of relief.

And then, in my early 30s, I got my first job where I had an actual office. I could close the door and have the space to myself — immaculate vibes, as the kids might say. I worked as a communication specialist at an engineering college. I was writing for a living even though the subject matter was not really of my choosing. I had a wonderful boss who was a generous mentor and taught me a great deal about writing efficiently. I wrote copy, and designed and edited in-house publications. I advised the staff of the engineering student magazine. It wasn’t the glamorous writing life I imagined the famous New York writers living, but it was good enough.

Eventually, I would get a Ph.D., so the doctor thing happened without any of the social utility. I became a professor and learned, intimately, about the joys of teaching and the miseries of university bureaucracy and faculty meetings. And finally, I was a published writer, one who wrote books my parents could find in actual bookstores.

I have done my best to take the accumulated knowledge from so many jobs over so many years and bring that to bear on your work-related questions. When I started writing this column, I didn’t really know what to expect. I assumed I would receive questions about lousy bosses and deceitful co-workers and how to ask for raises and how to be more assertive in the workplace, which, certainly, I did. But the range of questions was much broader, and I was consistently surprised.

And, I quickly learned, most professional questions are also personal questions. We do not leave who we are at the door when we walk into the office or log on to the company Slack or clock in at the warehouse. Wherever we go, there we are with our triumphs and failures, our families and friends, our identities and political affiliations, our faiths — everything that makes us who we are.

A surprising number of you work with people with poor hygiene and bad body odor, people who make annoying or gross sounds (or both) in shared spaces, people who have no understanding of personal space, people who bring unruly dogs into the office. You work in crumbling buildings and tiny cubicles and offices where no one is allowed to close the door. You work with people who talk too much and don’t communicate enough. You work with so many incompetent bosses who traffic in favoritism and make clear when they don’t want you on their team. You work for family businesses and don’t know how to find your place in that kind of intimate structure. You work for major corporations and worry about how to make your mark and climb the professional ladder. Sometimes your boss is also responsible for H.R. because it’s a small company, so you have no recourse when things go wrong. You work at nonprofits whose realities contradict their stated missions and want to know how to live with the disappointment and disillusion.

The older among you grappled with the painful realities of ageism. The younger among you wanted to make your mark and be taken seriously. A lot of women sought guidance on pregnancy while looking for a job, how to handle maternity leave, how to balance parenthood and professional advancement. Men asked how to best take advantage of paternity leave. In male-dominated workplaces, women struggle to be heard and navigate all kinds of inappropriate behavior. In female-dominated workplaces, men wonder if their contributions will be valued.

During the pandemic, you asked questions about how to best perform in remote working situations. Many of you were troubled by your colleagues’ lack of Zoom etiquette. You saw all kinds of things in those tiny boxes on your computer screens — people wearing inadequate or inappropriate clothing on camera, attending meetings while driving or gardening, walking on a treadmill, or refusing to turn the camera on at all.

The pandemic also inspired you to reconsider your professional lives and contemplate career changes. As we learned to live in a new normal, you wondered if workplace norms were going to continue evolving. When your employers mandated returning to the office, you asked if you had to comply or if you could insist on continuing to work remotely. There was a great deal of anxiety about whether businesses could survive the economic turmoil of the pandemic. Several of you lost your jobs and relentlessly pursued new opportunities to no avail.

As we experienced significant cultural changes, their repercussions shaped your questions — another reminder of how our professional and personal lives are always intertwined. You asked for advice on how to discuss fraught topics; how to develop better, more inclusive hiring practices; and how to move your workplace beyond making shallow D.E.I. efforts to creating real, sustainable change. You wanted guidance on how to work alongside people with beliefs you found odious or alongside people who spent more time talking about social justice than fulfilling their professional responsibilities. After Oct. 7, dozens of you wanted to know how to talk about the Israeli hostages and loss of Israeli lives, the war in Gaza, the loss of Palestinian lives. You wanted advice on how to hold space for complexity in environments that preferred simplicity.

To work, for so many of us, is to want, want, want. To want to be happy at work. To feel useful and respected. To grow professionally and fulfill your ambitions. To be recognized as leaders. To be able to share what you believe with the people you’re around for eight or more hours a day. To be loyal and hope your employers will reciprocate. To be compensated fairly. To take time off to recharge and enjoy the fruits of your labor. To conquer the world. To do a good enough job and coast through middle age to retirement.

You worry it’s too late to pursue your passions or make a drastic career change. You have found your dream job and hope you can stay in your position for the rest of your working life if only you could get rid of one terrible colleague. You want a job that is easy and mindless so you can leave it in the office at the end of the day, or you want work that is meaningful and all-encompassing.

I am not an idealist or much of an optimist, but being your Work Friend pushed me in that direction. I want, too. I want a world where we can all live our best professional lives. I want everyone to make a living wage and have excellent health care and the means to retire at a reasonable age. I want all of us to want this very simple thing for one another.

And, frankly, a fulfilling and equitable professional life should not be the stuff of utopia. This should be our reality. It is astonishing to see how many people are so deeply unhappy at work, so trapped by circumstances beyond their control, so vulnerable to toxic workplaces and toxic cultural expectations around work. As I read your letters I mostly thought: “It shouldn’t be this way. It shouldn’t be this hard.”

We shouldn’t have to suffer or work several jobs or tolerate intolerable conditions just to eke out a living, but a great many of us do just that. We feel trapped and helpless and sometimes desperate. We tolerate the intolerable because there is no choice. We ask questions for which we already know the answers because change is terrifying and we can’t really afford to risk the loss of income when rent is due and health insurance is tied to employment and someday we will have to stop working and will still have financial obligations.

I was mindful of these realities as I answered your Work Friend questions. Still, in my heart of hearts, I always wanted to tell you to quit your job. Negotiate for the salary you deserve. Stand up for yourself. Challenge authority. Tell your rude co-worker to shut up. Report your boss to everyone and anyone who will listen. Consult a lawyer. Did I mention quit your job? Go back to graduate school. Leave some deodorant and mouthwash on your smelly co-worker’s desk. Send that angry email to your undermining colleague. Call out your boss when he makes a wildly inappropriate comment. No, your boss should not force you to work out of her kitchen. Mind your own business about your colleague’s weird hobby. Mind your own business, in general. Blow the damn whistle on your employer’s cutting corners and putting people’s lives in danger. Tell the irresponsible dog owner to learn how to properly care for the dog. No, you don’t owe your employer anything beyond doing your job well in exchange for compensation. No, your company is not your family. No, the job will never, ever love you.

This is all to say that I wish we lived in a world where I could offer you frank, unfiltered professional advice, but I know we do not live in such a world.

In “The Writing Life,” Annie Dillard says: “How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives. What we do with this hour and that one is what we are doing.” Every moment, of every day, we are spending our finite lives. As a new, fiercely intelligent and wise Work Friend takes over this space, my hope for all of you is to be given the grace of spending your finite life, both professionally and personally, without compromise. It would seem you have made me an optimist after all.

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