We need to talk
Step into my office, baby
I’m going to give you the job
I’m pushing for a raise
I’ve been pushing now for days
– Belle and Sebastian, “Step Into My Office, Baby”
Over at The Cut, Maureen O’Connor introduces us to a new term — the “Colleague Zone” — to describe the type of relationship one has with a co-worker who might like to be something other than simply workmates.
“The colleague zone is the careerist version of the ‘friend zone,'” she explains, “the distancing technique for turning down suitors you are unable or unwilling to cut social ties with.” The piece is a great dive into the complexities and challenges that pop up when navigating between one’s professional and personal life, but it skips over some of the murky, “in-between” relationships. Because there are some people with whom you definitely have to be clear about the parameters or your working relationship — and should ask the same of that person — and, sometimes, there are people with whom that line can feel murky, or the solution seems tough. So here’s some advice on how to handle these:
This person, who is almost exclusively a man, is a relic from another time, unable or unwilling to change with the convention of the time in terms of inter-office relationships. This person will routinely ask women in the office, from interns to upper management, to perform secretarial work for him, from faxing documents to carving memos on stone tablets. He has a penchant for using terms of endearment with people to whom he is not endeared. He can seem very sweet or uncle-like in some moments, but you know that, deep down, this person does not respect you, and that can lead to problems.
How to Know: He will call you “sweetie” and may laugh raucously with The Boys about Mamie Van Doren’s tits. He routinely offers you advice when no advice is sought.
How to Kill It With Fire: Steel yourself. When asked to do work for him, point him to someone whose job it is to perform tasks like trying to remember how to fax a document. In the absence of such a person, point him towards the machine itself. If he often says uncomfortable things around the office, avoid him. If he asks you if you’re married yet, ask him the same. If he offers good advice, take it. If his advice is patronizing, feel free to offer him some tips as well, or let him know it isn’t necessary. If his comments creep into the category of “wildly inappropriate,” let him know, or give HR a heads up.
The Smile and Nod
You see this person, and his or her aesthetically pleasing face situation, on a regular basis. The most you’ve said to one another is something along the lines of “hey” or “sup,” maybe with an added clever quip about the weather, such as noting that it exists.
How to Know: You like this person, maybe even LIKE like, but have little to no knowledge of his or her life, interests, or personality.
How to Kill It With Fire: There’s no need to change anything about this, unless you’re in a relationship and find yourself worried about what might happen at a holiday office party, in which case, exert some self control and avoid potentially tempting situations. But some awkward flirting, when mutual, never hurt anyone. “Sup” away.
The Straight-Up Pervert
This person is gross. He or she will blatantly flirt with you, talk about his or her sex life, and will routinely drop crass jokes around the office / at events.
How to Know: By the feeling that you need to shower with bleach.
How to Kill it With Fire: Avoid this person at all costs. Never hang out with this person outside of a mandatory work engagement. Keep all talk professional, because this person will be unable to comprehend the divide between common civility and a green light for something more.
The Work Spouse
You guys know this one, right? It’s basically someone who provides the support and companionship of a spouse, with none of the physical benefit.
How to Know: You have various inside jokes with this person. You have lunch together nearly every day. They know your quirks, your pet peeves, your allergies, your least favorite sitcom character, your favorite snack food, your issues with your mom, your issues with your father, your issues with everyone else.
Kill it With Fire: Know yourself. Be honest about what you are receiving from this relationship. If it’s something that you find lacking in an actual romantic relationship — be it attention, emotional support, whatever — address that with your partner before you end up merely repeating unhealthy patterns or doing something you will regret. If all you’re getting from this relationship is a friend, make sure the boundaries of that friendship are clear to everyone involved, and don’t let it impact your work. What’s that saying? Right: “Friends come and go, but quarterly reports are forever.”
This relationship is similar to The Work Spouse, only with more throwing things at one another and less emotional support.
How to Know: Does your relationship involve tossing both office supplies and the word “dude” around?
Kill it With Fire: Ask if there’s any reason that you’re infantilizing a relationship between two adults other than, hey, sometimes you need to have fun. If the role of “Cool Girl” or “Cool Guy” feels inauthentic to you (and, you know, maybe it really doesn’t), think about the point of this relationship, and whether you have an end game you’re not admitting to yourself, stud.
A colleague with whom you should not have had sex.
How to Know: You will never admit to having had sex with this person.
Kill it With Fire: Never have sex with this person again. Inform this person that you will never have sex with him or her again. Deny ever having had sex with this person.
The Actual Partner
A colleague with whom you have a public relationship, be it a committed, exclusive, casual, open, or any combination thereof.
How to Know: I mean.
Kill it With Fire: Do you love, or at least strongly like, this person and the way he or she has sex at you? Is this relationship advancing your career? Are you open with everyone in your professional life about this relationship? Will your current job or long-term career suffer irreparable harm if you were to break up? Could you work alongside this person and remain professional? Only you can answer those and know whether this is a problem or something beeyooteeful involving the copy machine.