Help! My Cubemate Sings Show Tunes

PS: A little subterfuge is the key to harmony.

Q: The guy in the next cubicle wears headphones and sings to his music — today it’s the Chicago soundtrack. I’ve asked him to stop, but he always starts up again.

A: The number of things a cubicle neighbor can do to ruin your life runs to infinity. Most of those things you need to ignore. For example, clipping fingernails in public is disgusting, but you don’t need to complain — when you walk by the clipper’s cube, just step over that mountain of keratin.

But long-term exposure to small, annoying things makes them large, intolerable things. Singing with headphones, on a regular basis, is one of them. Since tapping your co-worker on the shoulder didn’t do the trick, perhaps he doesn’t know when he’s singing. So next time he belts out “When You’re Good to Mama,” you may have to take advantage of the fact that people wearing headphones cannot hear themselves. Tell him that clients who come through the office have been saying he sounds like he has Tourette’s syndrome. That should do the trick. If it doesn’t, start clipping your toenails.

Q: My boss told me that he won’t hire someone we just interviewed because she’s gay. Should I confront him about this? Should I report him to human resources?

A: Your boss is a bigot, an unfit leader, and a direct cause of the moral demise of corporate America. But you probably suspected that. What you really want to know is whether to take up this cause.

It’s important to let your boss know that he’s wrong to discriminate against gays, but you do risk ticking him off badly enough that your days will be numbered. So if you decide to go talk to him about it, keep the conversation short and calm. On the other hand, I’ve always thought the best way to improve a situation is to get power within the system and then use that power to change things. Do a great job working for your boss, get his job, and then run an affirmative action program for lesbians.

Some people will say, “I can’t compromise my values by keeping my outrage to myself.” Just remember that you get only a few times in your career to be so outraged that you make a scene and quit. Use those scenes wisely. The U.S. Merit Systems Protection Board surveyed workers in the 1980s and found that 69 percent of them had seen someone do something illegal and let it slide. I’d like to think that’s because people don’t want to lose their jobs over something relatively small.

It also seems that the legal route may bring little satisfaction to those hoping to reform corporate America. Kimberly Miller, a Chicago labor lawyer, points out that “in some states, discriminating against someone based on their sexual orientation isn’t illegal per se. And often, instead of instigating change, you merely open yourself up to libel and criminal charges.” Nonetheless, Miller recommends that employees bring all aspects of discrimination based on sexual orientation to the attention of the HR department. “Most employee handbooks I have worked on specifically ban this behavior,” she says. You should immediately make a record of what happened and note the names of other witnesses.

I asked Miller if she thought people might lose their jobs from assiduous reporting of discrimination practices. “Yes,” she said, “but some people will hold morality higher than employment.”

True, you need to be able to live with yourself. But just as true, if living with yourself means you can’t hold down a job, you’ll starve.

By Penelope Trunk.

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