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the coffee revolt, the blue spoon abduction, and other wild overreactions at work — Ask a Manager

Last week we talked about wild overreactions at work. Here are 10 of my favorite stories you shared.

1. The cups

At my company, we used to use paper cups at our cafe (where we get lattes for 50 cents). When we switched to reusable cups, it was OUTRAGE.

The announcement post on our internal social media page about the change got 153 comments, about half of which were along the lines of: “But then the mugs will get mixed with water mugs, and our water will always taste like coffee! Is your plan for employees to dehydrate on company premises?” “But paper is important for carbon sequestriation!” “The real issue is the plastic salt grinders! What are you doing to get rid of those?” “What we really want is sparkling water!” “You removed our Mentos last month, and these were critical for cleaning my teeth. What are you doing to fix this?” “Every time we have a birthday in the office it breaks my heart to see people blowing up balloons.”

It was … a lot.

2. The field color change

I worked at a hospital where they decided to make a very small change in the electronic medical record. It literally was changing the color of mandatory fields from pink to blue. That’s it. No workflow change, no extra work. But you would think they implemented a whole new EMR. People were throwing tantrums and there was even a picket in the hospital lobby to change the color back to pink. And for months afterwards in the quarterly town hall, there would be a passionate person always asking if the color could go back to pink.

3. The subpar coffee

The year is 2003. My office is responsible for coordinating an annual meeting for all staff that has traditionally taken place off site. This year, for various reasons, we try a new site that none of us has been to before, but has a decent reputation and comes well recommended.
The day of the meeting arrives. All is in readiness. But! The coffee is … subpar.

Disaster! EVERYONE is talking about the crappy coffee. The company director MENTIONS THE CRAPPY COFFEE IN HIS WELCOME SPEECH. People are coming up to me all day, griping about the coffee. Post-meeting evaluation forms start rolling in: “Site was okay, presentations were great, coffee sucked.” And I mean, not just one or two. I mean, like, most of them. “Please, let’s never go back there. The coffee was so, so bad.” Fifteen years later, I was STILL getting complaints about That Year When The Coffee Was Bad from my fellow old-timers. We no longer go off-site for our meetings, but I guarantee that there are people here who, if you asked, would remember 2003 as the Year of the Bad Coffee.

Thing is, I had the coffee! It was … not great, but drinkable. Like, I’ve had much better, but it wasn’t the complete bilgewater my esteemed colleagues made it out to be. I guess I’m just surrounded by people who take their coffee very, very seriously.

4. The angry resignation

My then-boss, who was director-level at our organization. He went into the weekly directors meeting (held on Tuesdays), announced he was quitting (with nothing else lined up), and that his last day was the following Thursday (because our office is closed on Fridays in the summer).

He then took two vacation days (Wednesday, Thursday), we were closed Fridays, and he was off-site Monday and Tuesday for a pre-contracted thing. He came in on Wednesday to begin packing up his office and decided to peel all the tiny barcode labels off ALL his equipment (laptop, monitors, keyboard, docking station, etc.) and throw them away, then put his computer equipment in different drawers and cabinets in his office, all separate. I have no idea why he did this, because his beef was with the executive-level people and the people he screwed over with those actions were our help desk people, most of whom were summer (paid) interns.

He also factory-reset his work-issued phone, then set it back up with a passcode just to screw with people.

Then, having done all of that on Wednesday, he sent an email to our executive director that was time-delayed to be delivered AFTER he’d returned his access badge in which he told her, “I’ve turned in my badge, cleaned out my office, and I’m leaving at 1:30 forever. Don’t try to contact me, don’t try to reach out to me, forget you know me.”

Which … overdramatic, yes. But also, we work in an industry (education) with mandatory reference checks from previous places of employment because most of our staff has state-issues professional licenses that are tied to employment. After he left, it came out he and the director of HR, whom he oversaw, were sleeping together and later got married. She quit the week after him and when he was hired at another institution she misrepresented that she was still working here, provided the reference checks, he got hired, and then it came out that he had lied and she had lied, and he got fired.

It was WILD.

5. The blue spoon abduction

The blue spoon abduction of 2005.

I worked with a woman who was known for being rather peculiar. Our company did not stock the kitchen, so we all pitched in or brought things from home. One employee had brought in these blue plastic spoons left over from a party they had hosted on a weekend. Just cheap plastic disposable spoons, nothing fancy. In due course they were used up, but this woman, “Jane,” kept her dark blue spoon and would reuse it. Fine, nobody cared.

Well, one fateful morning we arrived to find her in a full-blown rage demanding to know “who did it?” She finally clarified that “her” blue spoon was missing, nay, TAKEN by some dastardly villian. She interrogated us one by one, challenging us to account for our whereabouts the previous afternoon. Desks were searched. Drawers emptied. She even insisted we would show her our bags (no). A few of us pointed out that perhaps the cleaning crew, rightly considering a used disposable spoon garbage, threw it away. She got very still and hissed, “THEY. WOULDN’T. DARE.” Her inquisition lasted a solid three days before management, determining just how many company resources were being devoted to a blue disposable spoon, shut it down and replaced the missing plastic spoon with a package of assorted white disposable cutlery. This sent her over the edge. Nobody, and she means NOBODY, will make her use a white spoon. Also, plastic knives? Who would deign to bring that in … nobody wants that!! She would rather quit than work in “this lawless hellhole, where people think stealing is okay.”

She didn’t follow through on this promise (oops, I mean “threat”) and just sort of gave us all the silent treatment for the next couple of weeks.

We were in the process of digitizing decades worth of files, which were stored in the basement. During one shift down there, a coworker and I were moving new stacks of boxes towards the staging area. Lo and behold, what should fall off one of the stacks but the wayward spoon. My coworker and I knew no good would come from being caught with the contraband spoon, so we stashed it out of sight in the ceiling tiles (by this point Jane was daily checking everyone’s garbage in case Spoon’s corpse was being disposed of … or possibly for trace evidence, I don’t know). It became a running joke, a Tell-Tale Heart of the sound of spoons coming from the basement.

I left the company about six months later. Jane left about a year later. My old coworker reached out to tell me: as a parting gift, he came in early and slipped the spoon back into her desk drawer all the way at the back. He said watching her empty out her desk just to discover it was priceless. He said she looked around surreptitiously, slid the spoon in her packed box of belongings, and never said a word.

I hope Spoon is happy, reunited with its devoted mistress.

6. The travel itinerary

My boss hosted a mandatory seven-hour meeting (SEVEN WHOLE HOURS) with the entire staff to discuss a flight time change to her upcoming trip. She was headed to a conference, and the airline changed her flight so she was traveling through a different connecting airport and arriving two hours later than originally planned.

But I was young, naive, and flattered that the boss convened a seven-hour meeting with all of us to discuss the “ethics” of her going. Yes, she used that word because she wanted to make sure she was always available to us no matter what (this was in the days before cell phones) and she wanted to “do right by [her] staff.” She wanted to hear from me!!!

What if the flight was late? What if she missed it? What if she missed her connection? What if she got stuck somewhere? What if there was an emergency landing? What if the conference started a day earlier? What if traffic made her late to the hotel? This flight change “disrupted” all of her mental plans, so she needed staff to “band together” and brainstorm as many ideas as possible so she would be prepared no matter what happened. She needed our help because she didn’t know which choice to make! Every time we came up with a plan, she’d start up with, “Maybe I shouldn’t go at all. Can we talk about that? What would happen if I didn’t go?” Then when we exhausted that topic, she’d start up again with “Maybe I should go then. You all make a great argument. Can we have a reset on that conversation?”

The punchline? Her assistant missed that seven-hour meeting because she was sick. When I told the assistant about it, she laughed and said, “Seven-hour meeting? Rebooked flight? Brainstorming? What? Boss had me cancel her travel plans two weeks ago. Her stepdaughter is in town so she wanted to spend time with her instead. She was never going to go to that conference!”

That’s how I learned that Boss looooooooooooooooooved to be babied and fussed over. That was the real purpose of staff meetings.

7. The supplies

I had a coworker (and I say “worker” lightly, as she had a severe truancy problem that HR and my terrible manager didn’t want to deal with) freak out because the after-hours cleaning staff threw out some of the office supplies that she was hoarding. She kept the office supplies not in a drawer, but in an additional TRASH BIN UNDERNEATH HER DESK. With a little sign that said “Don’t throw away” taped to it. She would scavenge empty desks and keep excess supplies in there. It should be noted that we both worked for a large company that was never in a shortage of anything, with well-stocked supply rooms.

Anyway, the morning that her second trash bin/supply hoard (that she never touched, by the way) had been emptied, she had a full-scale meltdown. Screaming, crying, and got the head of facilities to come to her desk and calmly explain to her that mistakes happen, and maybe she shouldn’t store random pens in a trash bin. All of this went over her head, as she had a sign to not throw away. I wish I could say that was the craziest that she had ever behaved, but it was one of her biggest overreactions.

8. The plan

Worked for a small association (think Llama Growers of Medium Size State). My boss would often blow up at people for small things she had misunderstood. She was also notoriously late to meetings, so she would miss context and become enraged about something she didn’t hear right.

So we’re in a meeting, she is late, comes in when I’m mid-explanation, and is clearly peeved. But we’re at a large meeting, where we will be for several days. It quickly becomes apparent that she is mad at me, but will not explain why. She ends up screaming at me in public that I have been lying to her for months and she’s tired of it. I have no idea what she’s talking about and she won’t explain further. The meeting ends and we go our separate ways. And then she refuses to speak to me for six weeks. Like, won’t return phone calls (we were 100% remote), answers emails in one or two word replies. After six weeks, we agree to meet with a mediator so she can tell me all the ways I’m a terrible employee. At one of the meetings, I get the opportunity to ask again, “Why were you so mad at me?” And she finally tells me: She walked in to the meeting late and heard part of the conversation, which she completely misinterpreted as me talking about her behind her back (I was not). Plus, she doesn’t like it when I use the phrase “my plan.” As in “my plan for the day is to brush the llamas.” She thought it was exclusionary and I wasn’t including her. The mediator had clearly already heard all of this and just sat there looking embarrassed.

I finally left that job a year later. On my last week, she desperately tried to get me to teach her all the things about my job that she’d refused to learn earlier. I told her it wasn’t my plan to do that.

9. The bad customer list

(I don’t know if this is an overreaction exactly, but it’s hilarious so I’m including it.)

I had a coworker who kept a list of “bad customers” and posted it on their wall. While this was clearly less than professional, what drove it over the line was that our customers were all internal customers and could have seen it if they visited our department (which happened from time to time).

10. The HVAC system

I used to work for a public library. It was a pretty old building with a run-down HVAC system that faltered pretty frequently. One day it broke down entirely; it was a relatively mild day, so it wasn’t too bad, but it got pretty stuffy and warm in there, and customers and staff both started to complain. So Mac, one of the librarians, opened the windows — they were about 10 feet off the ground and needed a pole to open, and that helped a lot. Like I said, it was mild, not cold, maybe in the upper 60s.

Five minutes after he opened them, though, the other librarian, Jon, got up, got the pole, and closed the windows. Mac opened them again and told Jon that the customers and most of the staff wanted them open; Jon said he didn’t care, he was freezing. Mac offered to let Jon off the desk and go work elsewhere in the building that didn’t have windows; Jon refused. Mac patiently said that the windows were gonna stay open, so Jon stormed away and came back a few minutes later wearing a heavy winter coat, scarf, hat, and gloves. He refused to take them off and was very surly for the rest of the day, occasionally saying things like “Well, I guess I’LL help you find this BOOK you want because MOVING AROUND is the only way to STAY WARM.”

Once the HVAC got fixed a couple of days later he asked very loudly if he could close the windows; once he had done so, he took off his winterwear while very smugly looking at anyone who’d make eye contact with him.

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