What's your problem?

A newly-politicised colleague is causing problems around the office.

by Jeremy Bullmore
Last Updated: 05 Nov 2010

A good friend from work recently had six weeks off as a sabbatical to go travelling around India. She's come back a very different person, criticising everyone for being so 'capitalist'. It's making things awkward in the office and also a bit difficult with clients. Everyone is making allowances for her, but I overheard my boss saying if she carries on in this way, then they're going to have to get rid of her. Should I let her know?

A: As a good friend, you do need to talk to her. That's the easy bit. What's more difficult is to work out exactly what to say and how to say it.

It seems pretty clear that she's come back from India deeply affected by her experience. On returning, she probably finds our thoughtless assumptions about 'necessities' and our careless ways with money and waste jarringly offensive.

The contrast between what she was seeing just a few weeks ago and what she's seeing now must be a stark one and she can't simply consign those memories to the back of a drawer like a pack of holiday snapshots.

And, on top of all that, she's probably a little uneasy in herself; pricked by a certain guilt that she, too, is living a life unimaginable to those millions of others she's so recently encountered.

So when you do talk to her, the one approach you mustn't adopt is to imply that if she wants to keep her job she'd better bury her principles. I know you wouldn't put it as brutally, but if that's your underlying message, that's inevitably how she'll decode it.

A better approach would be to start by listening. It usually is.

Find out exactly what's on her mind. Encourage her to be precise in her criticism of colleagues, including you, and in what she means by 'capitalist'. Don't interrupt or try to put any alternative view until she's finished.

By then, I hope, you'll have some sympathy with her state of mind and will be able to show it: because your objective is not to convince her that her opinions are wrong, just that the way she's voicing them is doing her case no favours.

Remind her that she, alone among you, has had first-hand experience of a very different world and that the rest of you are still in the state of ignorance she herself was in before she took her six-week sabbatical.

Gently let her understand how uncomfortable people feel when being accused of behaviour that to everyone else seems entirely reasonable.

Everything then depends on how she reacts to this tiptoe approach. With luck, it will be enough, but you might have to turn up the volume a little. Only if she seems totally closed to reason and determined to continue her unproductive rants should you let her understand that she's risking her job.

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