Advice from the Trenches: Under the Bus

Dear C;

paintbrushI am an adjunct teacher at a university and a freelance artist. I know the other teachers at the school pretty well; we often take turns using the same classrooms and, out of need, share supply closets.

One of the teachers, Todd, is also a freelance artist. Unbeknownst to me, he’d done work for, then was dropped by, a local design company. The same company called me a few weeks later and asked if I was available. Knowing nothing about my colleague’s history, I jumped at the chance because I need the money. I mentioned my good fortune at school the next day and that was when I heard Todd’s story. He seemed upset at the time, so I offered to turn it down if it bothered him. But he told me, “No, go ahead, you need it.”  I’ve been freelancing for the company and it’s working out well.

Recently the administration at the University has been up in arms about supply closet items going missing. Some of them are really expensive, so I understand their concern, but suspect a lot of it is just carelessness. Some of my students have accidentally taken supplies home when they packed in a hurry at end of class; the honest ones return them the next day.

Last week, a small fire in the building set the sprinkler system off. Everyone in class had paper and items that could be ruined, so we all frantically threw supplies in our bags before leaving the building.

Five days later, I received an email from Todd, which he had cc’d to four department heads. He first apologized, then said that some (nameless) students reported they’d seen me take some expensive brushes when the sprinklers erupted. When he’d inventoried the supply closet this very morning, they were still missing. He “wanted to give me the benefit of the doubt” but nonetheless was both “suspicious and saddened” by the thought I may have appropriated not just these, but other supplies as well. He mentioned my financial woes.

I was both stunned and furious at his accusations. I pulled all my bags out and emptied them on the floor, mostly to throw things. To my shock, the brushes were in a side pocket I rarely use. I don’t remember putting them there.

He’s already thrown suspicion on me in front of our whole department without even talking to me … now I have to wonder if he planted the brushes there himself. We’d stood together outside after evacuating the studio building. Even if he didn’t plant them, it was obviously an honest mistake on my part. Why did he make a public show out of this? Now what do I do? I haven’t spoken to him yet. The urge to strangle him is still too strong.

Boy Am I Pissed

Dear Pissed;

You are absolutely right; this guy is an asshole, if for no other reason than throwing you under the bus in front of an audience with no warning. The decent, colleague-friendly thing to do would have been to talk with you in private. I can easily guess at a possible motive for his maneuvers. He wants you to feel as humiliated as he did.

I realize there is a lot of unfairness and backstabbing going on here, but your main concern should be that of preserving, and building, your own professional reputation. The first question to ask yourself is, “Do I want to resolve this? Or do I want to win?” If you want to resolve the problem, you will not necessarily “win.” But you will be able to continue working there, with no loss other than that of a temporary thrill of victory. On the other hand, in winning, you might burn bridges that can never be built again.

Winning would mean showing Todd up as an insecure moron, while he’s still smarting from his freelance loss. That could make you look mean, and prompt further revenge tactics on his part. There are other ways to diffuse this potential bomb. Just ignore the accusations (they’re too absurd to answer), thank him for prompting you to check through your hastily packed bags (“I was looking for those today!”), and offer your help in solving the larger problem. Tell him your observations about the students, just as you told me. Copy the email to all department heads. This should make him feel like an asshole without wiping his nose in it. The heads will get it. Word probably got around about what happened.

But, most importantly, buy a Styrofoam head, find a baseball bat and whack the shit out it. Imagine that the head belongs to Todd. It’s surprising how much fun and cathartic this can be. You might want to get two.

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