How to Handle a ‘Friendly’ Co-Worker Who’s Really a Total Jerk

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I work with a man who is considered “nice” and “friendly.” He always asks how I’m doing and shows interest. He also once mansplained to me “when a female is or is not being intentionally sexually provocative.” He often shares memes on social media making fun of women that are very attractive, which to him means that they’re dumb. Once he said, “Well, all that feminism stuff is B.S. anyways.” He is also an anti-masker.

He offends me to my core, but I cannot afford to lose my job. I have only worked here for three months, and have already seen our (white American male) boss fire four competent women for minor offenses, and so I don’t say anything when this co-worker ticks me off. I don’t know whether this working environment is toxic, or if I’m just too sensitive. Help! What would you do?

— Anonymous, Hong Kong

A great many women work with a “nice,” “friendly” man who abuses his position and their well-mannered tolerance of his nonsense. You have my sympathies. It is exhausting, pretending to find boorish misogynists charming or clever when, in fact, they are banal and unoriginal.

You are not too sensitive. His behavior is inappropriate at best. And any time a man says feminism is B.S., he is plainly communicating exactly who he is — a total jerk. When you cannot afford to lose your job, your options for dealing with a guy like this are limited, especially given the company’s pattern of firing women for minor issues. You are dealing with a toxic work environment, but only you know how much toxicity you can tolerate. Listen: Life is short. Stop talking to this man. Stop giving him your time and energy. Playing along with him is not part of your job. He is a sexist pig looking for attention from women because he suffers from profound self-loathing. Or whatever — I don’t really care what his problem is, and neither should you. Document any instance when he engages in unacceptable workplace behavior. If he crosses a line you cannot abide, you can and should report him to Human Resources or your management team. You need your job, but you have rights. Your dignity matters, and so does your peace of mind.


I’ve been out of work for almost a year and a half, but my spouse is still employed. While financially we are OK, the mental anguish is real. After applying for and being rejected from more than 100 jobs, humiliation, anger and raging self-doubt plague me. I find it hard to talk to friends because my news ultimately ends with failure. I worry about getting sick with my minimal, high-deductible insurance. (I am 56 — and, yes, ageism is real and a widely accepted business practice.) I feel awful for depriving my family, especially my wife, who was looking forward to an early and financially solid retirement. And yet I know I am lucky.

Given the wide-ranging personal and societal consequences of unemployment, should employers give added weight to an unemployed person’s application?

— Anonymous

Millions are in a similar position, living in economic peril, one health crisis away from bankruptcy, because for some inexplicable reason, Americans are resistant to single-payer health care and prefer having their right to good health tied to the precarity of employment. We know about the economic consequences of unemployment, but far less attention is paid to the emotional toll it takes — anxiety, depression, substance abuse, suicidal ideation. I hope you have a robust support system, and I hope you allow them to be there for you. It’s clear you also understand that you are relatively fortunate, by way of your wife’s employment, but that is a small consolation when you can’t find your way back into the job market.

You aren’t depriving your family. You can provide for them in other ways — taking over more of the domestic responsibilities, engaging in active parenting. These things are work, too.

I’m supposed to say that employers should hire the best people for any given job, but right now, it feels like there are more “best people” seeking work than there are jobs. And there are all kinds of systemic biases that privilege certain kinds of “best people” over others. What additional criteria should employers use now? Should the unemployed be prioritized? What about people with families to support? What about people who are taking care of sick parents, or with significant student debt? Do employers address systemic bias and hire the best people who will also create more equitable representation in the workplace? There are no easy answers — because as we know, fairness and capitalism are largely incompatible.

I hear the anguish in every word of your letter and I am sorry for what you’re going through. Prolonged unemployment is incredibly demoralizing. And you’re right — age discrimination is pervasive, so you’re carrying a heavy burden. It might be useful to have a professional résumé doctor take a look at your application package and LinkedIn profile to see how you might reposition yourself. If you haven’t already, let your professional and personal networks know you’re looking for work. Expand your search into adjacent fields where your skill set would be useful.

You have a right to your despair and anger, but I hope you don’t let these feelings consume you. I hope you find an amazing job where you can thrive professionally, and in the meantime, I wish you the very best.


I work on a small team within a large city’s government. We are doing work around equity, and one of the first things is to hold speaker events to educate ourselves.

Because it’s government, we don’t have a budget for this. Our budget is allocated well in advance and there’s nothing we can shuffle around. One of the members of the organizing sub-team said we should ask employees who attend these events to contribute personally to pay speakers. I’m deeply uncomfortable with asking people to pay for things associated with work. Am I wrong to object?

— Anonymous

Kudos to your team for their willingness to do the work of expanding and improving their thinking and efforts around diversity, equity and inclusion. Public speaking is labor that deserves to be compensated, but it is absolutely unacceptable that your team members should be spending their own money on this. You are not at all wrong to object. It is ridiculous that the most feasible solution here is for your staff members to assume their employer’s financial obligations. I suppose that’s a reflection of how governments all over this country, including the federal government, are shirking their responsibilities and hoping — if they care at all — that right-minded individuals will take up the slack.

I do not believe there is nothing in the budget that can be shuffled; I believe there is nothing your organization is willing to shuffle. When an organization truly wants to find money for something they prioritize, they find the money. If they aren’t going to treat work around equity as a priority, you and your fellow employees don’t need to pay the bill. There are other things you can do — reading groups, discussions and the like. But mostly, you need to hold your management accountable. This is their responsibility, not yours.

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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