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Oops! I called my boss 'dude.' Career coaches weigh in on tricky workplace dilemmas

Connie Hanzhang Jin/NPR

This story was adapted from Life Kit's newsletter. To get a weekly dose of life hacks, relationship advice, health tips and more, subscribe to our newsletter.

It can be hard to know how to act at work. I want to be my relaxed, authentic self — but sometimes that comes off as way too casual.

For example, I once called my boss "dude." She's not that much older than I am, so I slipped into a more laid-back attitude that should probably be reserved for peers. I instantly felt like I had taken a step over that invisible line that divides the professional from the unprofessional. Since then, I've made a concerted effort to button up a little.

Luckily, Life Kit is here to help with these awkward workplace dilemmas. This summer, we asked you to send in your work-related questions, from dealing with a boss who has different political views to tackling age discrimination. Then we asked career coaches from the leadership training organization Embrace Change to weigh in and give concrete advice.

Here is a selection of questions and answers. They have been edited for length and clarity.

I've hit a wall in my line of work. When is it time to step back from my job to advance my education and therefore my earning potential? —Talia

Advice from career coach Brandon Johnson: Ask yourself, is it really education that's holding me back? Or something else?

Make sure it's not other factors such as burnout, your company's culture or your manager. If you're sure it's schooling, then maybe it is time to go back. However, going back to school is a big undertaking, so you want to make sure it's the right solution. You may be better off searching out a new organization that offers greater growth opportunities and support for your development. Read the full response here.

I recently went on medical leave from my job due to mental health issues, and after a few months, I decided I couldn't continue working there and resigned.

While I'm enjoying the break, I'm having difficulty talking about my situation with friends and family. How can I talk about my in-between career state without inducing shame or criticism? —Kara

Advice from career and personal empowerment coach Payal Shah: Firstly, congratulations on listening to yourself and making a courageous move in line with your values and well-being. I'm glad that the journey since your leave has felt liberating. At the same time, it's normal to experience anxiety and other emotions in the process.

How do you feel when you share your news? Are you coming from a place of apology, uncertainty or lack of confidence? Or enthusiasm and conviction? Know that people may respond differently to different energies, and the energy and emotions behind our words may play a role in how others react to us. Read the full response here.

I have worked for my boss for over 30 years. During the 2016 election, he messaged me on Facebook about who I was supporting. After his rant, I stopped him by saying I am a lifelong Democrat. He has treated me differently ever since.

I am 60 years old, and I can't retire until I'm 65. I don't want to quit my job, because of my age. I would have trouble getting hired elsewhere. —Nancy

Advice from Johnson: I would ask you: What is within your control? Can you limit direct contact with this person? Can you avoid things that trigger his rants?

Depending on your comfort level, you could also request a meeting with him to discuss workplace boundaries. Express that you're interested in co-creating a positive environment by keeping discussions about personal information like political beliefs out of the workplace. Read the full response here.

I'm 56 and trying to reenter the workforce in clinical nutrition. I have had many Zoom interviews that I thought went well. I think my age is the issue. There are so many younger professionals who I am up against. Any suggestions? —Marcy

Advice from Johnson: I'm sorry you've had this experience. Companies are responsible for preventing bias from seeping into their hiring processes, but we all know they don't all live up to that expectation.

In the case of age discrimination, there are tactics you can employ to help you beat the bias. Approach your job interviews and networking from a place of energy instead of experience. At the interview stage, employers already know you bring lots of experience because they've seen your résumé and cover letter. Use your interview to show your motivation to mesh with the culture, work with diverse groups and star in your role. Read the full response here.

We want to hear from you

What would you have done if you called your boss "dude"? Email us at lifekit@npr.org with your thoughts, and we may include your response in next week's Life Kit newsletter.

Need more career advice? Check out these podcast episodes from Life Kit.


The digital story was edited by Malaka Gharib. The visual producer is Kaz Fantone. We'd love to hear from you. Leave us a voicemail at 202-216-9823, or email us at LifeKit@npr.org.

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Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Julia Carney