The truth is that part of what I love about freelancing is that it removes me from the day-to-day office politics inherent in most cube-farm situations. I’ve played that game, and I’m not terrible at it, but I do hate it. My inclination to be straightforward did not serve me particularly well when I was a young corporate drone; for whatever reason, there are situations where certain “important” people are allowed to get away with acting like Veruca Salt even in the most professional of settings, and those around the offender are expected to “play nice” at any cost.
I hate games like that. I’m much better suited to freelancing; I get to pick and choose my projects, and most of the time it’s just me and a client, without the need to collaborate with others. When I do find myself on a group project, most of the time I get to pick (or at the very least, review) the roster of the people with whom I’ll be working, and if for any reason it’s a difficult situation, chances are it’s a time-limited deal. If it isn’t, I can always choose to extricate myself without being jobless, because I’ve always got multiple jobs going at once.
Now. While it’s true that I’ve dealt with difficult clients before, and so far my most troublesome clients have all been male (not passing judgment on why that is, by the way, just stating my experience), recently I found myself in a collaborative situation where another woman in the group brought me right back to the 6th grade locker room.
People, I’m going to be 40 this year. I found myself sitting at my computer going, “Really??” I was simply gobsmacked.
Two small groups of women had been brought together by our client for a specific project—let’s call us Group A and Group B. Let’s say I’m in Group A. So another member of Group A sent out an email to all of us with some suggestions on how to get started, and I responded with something about how excited I was to meet everyone and get started, and that I liked the suggestions put forth, and then I added a joke about how the original emailer’s ideas were great and I thought she should be in charge.
A couple of minutes later, one of the women in Group B sent back an extremely hostile response about how inappropriate my email was.
I went back and read my email. I could find nothing even marginally offensive, save for the suggestion that the original emailer be put in charge, and I’d meant that as a joke. Well, email sometimes loses tone in translation, right? I quickly gathered myself and sent another email, apologizing for having unintentionally offended, clarifying that the original mailer and I are friendly and I was making a joke, and suggesting that if there was some other problem we handle it straightaway so as not to impinge matters, moving forward.
A few minutes after that, the same angry woman responded that actually, no, it wasn’t my crack about putting someone in charge that was the problem, but everything else I’d said, and it didn’t bear discussing, so we should just move on.
At this point, no one else was responding to the email thread; in my mind’s eye, I could see all of the other members of both groups frozen at their computers, afraid to move and draw attention. To me, this was the weirdest “business” interaction I’ve had in years. I honestly couldn’t figure out what I’d said that was offensive, plus I felt completely attacked. In fact, I think the worst part was that I felt even more attacked after my attempt to fix whatever the problem was by apologizing and asking to clarify the problem. So I sent one more “We’re all on the same team, I truly apologize if I miscommunicated or was misunderstood” type email, and I stewed.
To my mind, this isn’t how professional people act. Basically, someone I was now going to have to work with had “put me on notice.” She’d made it clear that she didn’t like me, didn’t like what I had to say, and was done dealing with me. She may as well have pinned me against the locker and told me that my mother dresses me funny.
I shot off a private email to the fellow member of Group A who’d sent the original communication. “I’m not sure what happened here,” I told her. “Can you please tell me if I stuck my foot in my mouth without realizing it?” Her response was that she was equally confused by this other woman’s response.
Shortly thereafter, our client sent out a general “I am so excited to have brought all of you together and am looking forward to the respectful exchange of ideas!” email, clearly an attempt to smooth over whatever it was that had just taken place, there. The rest of the group remained quiet.
I continued to stew. Finally, I emailed the client. “I am open to suggestions on how you’d like me to handle this, moving forward, because I’m somewhat afraid to open my mouth at this point,” I said. I hated to do it, but I felt like the client gets to hold the reins, and I wanted to make it clear that my goal was to “make nice” but that I was unsure as to how to proceed.
“Just pretend it never happened,” the client told me.
Oooooo… kay. Huh.
So I did. And eventually the conversation continued. I felt extremely uncomfortable but tried to continue on as if nothing had happened, per the client’s request.
A few days later, the woman who’d found me so offensive dropped off the project (for reasons unrelated to what had happened, apparently). We found out from one of the other Group B folks, and I heaved a private sigh of relief. The remaining members of the team have been nothing but lovely, by the way.
Now. I get that people have bad days. I even get that sometimes people behave unprofessionally by accident or under duress and that’s not indicative of who they normally are. I myself am the undisputed queen of accidental-foot-in-mouth, so I truly understand these things happen sometimes. To me, the professionalism doesn’t lie in every single action being perfect, but in how people choose to handle problems. A simple, “Oh, I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to sound that way, my concern was only that…” or a “You’re right, I misunderstood, I apologize…” would’ve righted the situation immediately and we could’ve all continued on like adults. But I apologized—twice!—not because I believed I’d been in the wrong, but because I was genuinely troubled by the notion that I’d upset a team member, even though I strongly suspected she’d misunderstood my words and intentions. Her stubborn refusal to grant an inch of goodwill was, to my mind, extremely unprofessional. The entire team was set on edge, and had she continued on with us I think it would’ve been really uncomfortable for everyone involved. That’s not how professional adults are supposed to act. That’s how girls who hide your clothes while you’re playing kickball in the gym act.
I honestly can’t tell you what I would’ve done if forced to take that project to completion with someone who clearly had a chip on her shoulder on the team. I would’ve done my best to work around her, I guess, but it would’ve been awful.
Have you ever had to deal with a situation like this as a freelancer?