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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

When your office decides the pandemic is over

To work with people who are either actively or passively defiant about wearing masks while managing pandemic fatigue is incredibly trying.

By Roxane Gay

Seething with pandemic resentment

Q: I have worked for three years as a legal adviser to the president and founder of a growing company of about 100 people. I am the liberal book nerd in what feels like a sea of Fox News fans, but in the past we have shied away from politics and gotten along well. Even though none of my colleagues was going to end up being my BFF, I admired them for their skills and lack of pretension.

Enter COVID, and I am now seething with resentment toward most people in the office. Mask mandates are gone and were never really enforced. People show up every day with “colds” without questioning whether that cough might be the virus. I have had my boss’s ear, but he is sick of talking about COVID (unlike the rest of us, who love it!), dismisses concerns because the pandemic has “been politicized,” and calls me into meetings with him when he can barely talk through his stuffy nose.

None of our conversations about COVID have gone well. I thought I would retire from this company in five years. Should I stick it out and see how COVID plays out? Right now, my negative feelings toward my colleagues are really leading to some very long days.

— Anonymous

A: Your resentment is understandable. As we enter the third year of living with COVID-19, it’s hard to not be absolutely furious with the significant number of Americans who have chosen to not vaccinate or wear masks, and otherwise refuse to do the bare minimum to support public health. To work with people who are either actively or passively defiant while managing pandemic fatigue is incredibly trying.

Their actions put you and everyone you come into contact with at risk, no matter how careful you are. But quitting your job isn’t necessarily the solution. There’s no guarantee you will find a workplace where everyone shares your values. And that you’ve been pushed to this point leads me to believe you’re more frustrated with the general state of affairs in the world than your colleagues, however willfully ignorant they seem to be.

If you quit your job for this reason, something else will replace your colleagues as the target of your understandable frustration. If you can afford to quit and it will give you some peace of mind, by all means, treat yourself. But if you can’t, it’s time to develop some coping mechanisms. Can you work from home some or all of the time? Can you enforce boundaries around how you interact with your co-workers? There are no easy answers here. This is part of why the pandemic has been so stressful. Americans are living in two different countries right now, and the border between those countries is impermeable.

Permission to double dip

Q: I’m the entire human resources department for a global tech startup. Frankly, the place is a mess, but I love a challenge and I have learned a lot while feeling effective in my position and seeing gratifying results. However, I have no formal HR background and have decided to start fixing this with a graduate certificate program in the field. My company has generously offered to compensate me for tuition and other related expenses. Would it be ethical to bill my standard hourly rate — I’m a contractor — for hours spent in class? I feel greedy even considering this, but I have billed in the same way for independent research required for my position.

— Anonymous

If you have chosen to develop a formal HR background that was not mandated by your employer and your company has offered to cover the costs of that professional development, then my instinct is that no, you cannot bill your standard hourly rate. I would love to hear what others think.

I would also note that because this is voluntary, tuition reimbursement over $5,250 is generally taxed as income.

Bad optics

Q: I work for a small company (less than 50 employees). We recently lost a major account and had to lay off three of our staff members, all of whom were people of color.

I know the remaining employees can’t be given details on the decision — and I hope there were many considerations — but it’s still bothering me that these three people were chosen. Because we are such a small organization, this really impacts our representation. Our company preaches inclusion and equity, but this seems like a major setback.

I do not think this was done intentionally or with any malice. But there should have been questions along the way to confront any potential unconscious biases. Maybe there were and I am not aware of them. Am I wrong to feel uncomfortable with this?

— Anonymous

A: It’s important to be aware of unconscious biases and how they can manifest in the workplace. You’re not wrong to feel uncomfortable with this. If nothing else, the optics are absolutely terrible. But there is far more to such situations than just optics. Were these three people the newest employees? Were there performance issues? Were they seen as disposable by managers? Did people use that old canard of “culture fit” to let them go?

You need more information, and it is unfortunate that your employer chose not to provide an explanation for why these three people were laid off, given the context. If the occasion presents itself, I would raise your concerns with your manager, not because it will change what has already been done, but so that in the future, the people in charge will be more mindful of how they make such decisions.

Sick of being silenced

Q: I have worked for three years at a professional services organization. The work is fulfilling and the pay and benefits are great. However, I am a woman in my 40s; my boss, teammate and a contractor we work with are all men in their 60s who have worked together for years. On many occasions I feel dismissed. I am talked over or cut off; my emails go unread; my ideas are often ignored unless someone else repeats them. Others outside of the team have noticed and mentioned this to me. My boss is a nice man but seems somewhat oblivious when other people are having challenges unless they are explicitly mentioned to him. I have started documenting the behavior and have a time set up to discuss it with him.

Another colleague with similar issues told me she went to HR and was given strategies for how to deal with these unpleasant interactions. I am thinking of doing the same. Should I tell my boss? I don’t want him to find out and think I am sneaking around, but I fear telling him would seem like a threat. I was recently promoted, so despite these unpleasantries, it doesn’t seem to be keeping me from advancing. But it also feels disrespectful and is making me less happy overall at work.

— Anonymous

A: You are not sneaking around to seek counsel from human resources. You are advocating for yourself. That this dynamic is so persistent and visible that your colleagues have raised concerns is ample cause for trying to address the problem. I’m glad to hear you’re able to advance within this organization, but it can be incredibly defeating to always feel silenced and spoken over. This is, unfortunately, a fairly common experience in some workplace cultures.

You want to develop some strategies for dealing with this. Explicitly point out this dynamic to your boss, for one. Keep documenting it. When your colleagues talk over you or cut you off, keep talking. Keep talking until they stop talking and start listening. Maintain eye contact. Don’t give the impression that you’ve been defeated. When you can, simply point out what’s happening. “Excuse me, Cliff, but I was speaking.” Or, “Excuse me, Biff, I haven’t finished my thought. Please hold your comments until I finish.” And look for colleagues who can be allies in these situations, who can call out this dynamic for or with you, and create space for you to speak and be heard.

All this said, please know that you are not the problem here. You shouldn’t have to employ any of these strategies. Your older male colleagues should adjust their behavior and learn how to be better communicators who respect the people with whom they are in conversation.

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