How Much for That Doggie in the Cubicle?

Everyone needs a little boundary training.

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Dog Days

I work in a small office in a hip urban West Coast city. I have a small team of four women who work under me, and my boss (older, white male) largely stays out of issues that are not strictly work related. Recently, one of my team members broke up with her partner, and she began bringing her dog to the office. At first, she’d go home at lunch and come back with the dog in the afternoon a few days per week. Now, the dog is there every single day, all day. The dog is relatively well behaved, if a little rambunctious. I let it go for several weeks because she likely doesn’t have money to pay a dog sitter/walker. On Friday, another one of our team brought her dog, too: a large, poorly behaved pit bull.

I should have said something months ago, before the reception area turned into a mini doggie day care with three pet beds, water bowls on the floor, and two large dogs roaming in and out of everyone’s office.

What should I do? I don’t have the authority to unilaterally say, “No dogs in the office.” My boss has stayed silent on the issue when I’ve asked him. I really strive to lead an inclusive team where everyone’s opinions are heard, and there is ample flextime for personal business. Am I a jerk for wanting to say “no more” to the dogs?

— Anonymous

I am afraid of dogs. When I was 5, a German Shepard bit me and that was that for me and dogs. Over the years, I never cared for them, though I certainly never begrudged anyone who loved them. Last year, I got my wife a puppy, which is to say I got us a puppy, and now I love our dog. He is perfect. I love hanging out with him — he is sweet and smart and funny. But I would never bring him into a professional situation unless it was necessary and I had explicit endorsement from anyone who would be affected.

Dog lovers are, I’ve learned over the years, an intense and passionate breed. And some dog lovers want to believe it is appropriate to bring dogs everywhere. I am not here to debate that. In a workplace that isn’t explicitly dog-friendly, there are some boundary issues that need to be worked out.

It sounds like you have been really tolerant and fair up until now. These things can be such a slippery slope. What starts out as a generous accommodation for one person can quickly become an out of control situation. Even though your colleagues won’t like it, you should either compel your boss to establish a dog policy or you should do it yourself because it sounds like he has implicitly granted you the authority to do so.

Think about what a workable solution could look like — only allowing dogs in cases of emergency, for example, or two dog-friendly days a week. This is a sticky situation but I firmly believe you can find a way forward that will be better than what you’re presently dealing with.

Virus Bias

This summer, I became very ill with Covid. I was two months into a new dream job at a global company that constantly emphasizes its progressive company culture and everything was going well. When I was diagnosed, I continued to work from home until I became unable to carry out my duties. I was hospitalized for three weeks, including a week in a medically induced coma.

Less than two weeks out of the hospital, I received the doctor’s approval to return to work. I hoped my concerned colleagues would welcome me back with open arms. Instead, on my first day back in the office, my manager explained my absence was “very bad timing,” said my leadership role within the team “has come to an end” and finally, told me that my room for advancement within the company was “off the table.”

I have more than 15 years of leadership experience, an M.B.A., and there had not been one hint that I wasn’t excelling in my new role before my illness. In hopes that I could somehow win the trust of my manager, I’ve continued to keep my head down and execute my work with precision. It’s now been three months and my manager constantly insults me and criticizes me at every turn.

At this point, I love my job but loathe going to work. Is there any advice on how to deal with the situation or is it time to meet with H.R. and move on? I hesitate to simply quit and lose my insurance.

— Jeffrey, Los Angeles

It is well past time to meet with human resources. Illness is not indicative of weakness or professional incompetence. I’m pretty sure ending up in a coma was far worse timing for you than your manager, who is shockingly callous. I feel na?ve saying that. But my goodness, what happened to empathy?

The animosity seems intensely personal and wildly inappropriate. Unfortunately, the federal government enacted few workplace protections for people who contracted Covid. Common sense and decency dictate you shouldn’t be punished for getting so sick. And it’s disgraceful that you have little recourse.

In California, though, it is against the law for an employer to retaliate for someone using sick leave. If you haven’t already, document every instance of your manager using your illness against you. Talk to human resources to see how they plan to address this and if they don’t rise to the occasion, it may be time to seek the counsel of an employment lawyer.

I’m sorry you’ve had such a rough go of it and hope your situation improves, and quickly. We are in a pandemic. Nothing is normal, and employers have to recognize that their employees are human beings in human bodies.

Keeping Up Appearances

The proliferation of Zoom since the start of the pandemic seems to have also ushered in unwelcome comments about my appearance. I was told by one male colleague that I should try to bring more “energy” when I’m on video calls — despite feeling completely exhausted, in the middle of a global pandemic, and trying my best to remain sane while I attempt to help my school-age kids tackle the challenges of remote learning. A year later, I’m on another call, at a different company, and the first thing another male colleague says is that I look too “serious” when I’m on video calls.

In both of these cases, I did not know either man very well, nor had I worked with either of them for very long. In both instances, I felt too caught off guard to respond in the moment. However, I did write a follow-up email to the first man to explain that I felt like his comments were unwarranted and unfair given the state of the world at the time.

In the unfortunate event that this happens again, what should I say to indicate that these types of comments are not OK?

— Anonymous, Washington

The polite response:

I invite you to stop commenting on my appearance immediately. It’s none of your concern and has nothing to do with our work together.”

The less polite response is to repeat what they said right back to them but turned up a notch. For example, if they remark that you look tired, tell them they look haggard. They’ll get the message, eventually.

Hazardous Road Conditions

I recently attended a conference that took place a 90-minute drive away. My co-worker and I agreed to split the driving. She drove first, and told me how sensitive she was about her driving skills and how she’d gotten formally reprimanded by our boss years ago. As we got onto the interstate, I understood why. She drove like an absolute maniac. We were in the 90s, weaving in and out of lanes, and at one point she pulled out her phone, at which point I said she needed to focus on the road.

That remark made her very, very unhappy (though she did put the phone down). She is originally from another country where the driving habits may be different, but I felt genuinely fearful for my life. But I also felt worried about poisoning our work relationship and possibly jeopardizing her job.

Aside from taking over all driving duties in the future — which would tire me out and make me very resentful — how can I tell her without hurting her feelings that she drives like someone who seems to want to die?

I drive with a heavy foot but driving at more than 90 m.p.h.? That’s a bit much. Sometimes you have to tell a colleague a difficult truth. You can’t control how your co-worker receives your feedback. I would tactfully tell her that her driving makes you feel unsafe. Note that you would prefer her to drive closer to the speed limit and device-free. She can be sensitive about her driving but she doesn’t have the right to jeopardize your life or the lives of those with whom she shares roadways.

Roxane Gay is the author, most recently, of “Hunger” and a contributing opinion writer. Write to her at workfriend@nytimes.com.

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