Coworker Thinks She’s Funny–At My Expense

Question to Ask the Workplace Doctors about long-time secretary nosy remarks:

In the office there’s an administrative secretary with 20+ yrs seniority who has a weird sense of humor. For example, if someone is leaving early, as they pass by her desk (located right across the manager’s office) the secretary would say out loud “leaving already Ms Xyz!? why so early?” and stuff like that.

I’ve worked in the same office for 11 yrs b/c of location, but none of the people in the office is related to me by chain of command… let’s say that is a production office related to the business’ core activities, and my line of work is more like support, financial services, IT, etc. What happened was I was in a private conference room having an online web conference with coworkers from other state, and we took a break. I stepped out of the room, and turned off the light b/c there was nobody there but my laptop.

When I returned from the restroom, the sec. saw me go into the dark room–just before I had time to turn the light back on. She knocked on the door and asked me what I was doing in the dark closed room. I pointed her that her the light was already on and I was busy. She insisted that I keep the door open (weird, b/c I’ve never seen the conference rooms open when they’re being used, or any rule about that). So I just ignored her stupidity trying to play police or spy, and continued working.

Anyways… after a week of the incident, I was in the lunchroom having lunch, and she was there, sitting facing back to me, as well as other coworkers. All of the sudden she turns around and asks me “so Mr. Smith, why were you inside the conference room with the lights off and the door closed?” out of the blue in front of everybody …She thinks that’s funny or something.

I don’t pay her a lot of attention, just dismiss her stupid question and continue what I was doing … but I’m sure she will come back again in front of everybody b/c I’ve seen her playing tricks on other people like that. What kind of behavior is that? Why she does that? What can I do about it?

Signed, Not Laughing

Dear Not Laughing:

First, the things you describe don’t sound like attempts at humor on her part. They sound like an attempt to show you her importance and to intimidate you, show others that she watches them, and show everyone that she can do and say what she wants. She may say she is looking out for the good of the business since she has been there so long, but I doubt that is her sincere motivation. Second, in answer to your question about why she does it, she does it because people let her. If someone had stopped her twenty years ago, or whenever she first started this kind of behavior, she wouldn’t still be doing it. And, if people didn’t laugh at her remarks and encourage her, she probably wouldn’t do it as much now. Third, there are several things you can do about it, but your own attitude and approach will probably need to change a bit. I can understand that you are frustrated and irritated, but you’ll want to make sure that your actions and responses don’t get down to her level or just get petulant and angry.I say that because I notice in your letter that you take the approach that she’s being stupid or that she has “retarded” humor, so you try to ignore her. That obviously doesn’t help because she continues to take you on in front of people. You don’t have to do much talking to someone like that, if you don’t want to. But you do need to be willing to say stop in one way or another. Remember: When a dog barks at you, the more you act submissive or move away and try to ignore it, the more the dog thinks it has scared you and the more likely it is to do it again. (To use an analogy!)Any time there is behavior like this I suggest that people consider a couple of things: 1.) Is it like her to be this way in a negative sense? For example, if she is well known for being nice and considerate and if her tone was friendly razzing, you might be able to handle it more gently.I can imagine someone who is a friend or wanting to include you in the conversation saying, “OK, Dan, I just HAVE to know what you were doing in the dark. I’ve been losing sleep over it.” Then, you could say something absurd, everyone would laugh and it would be over. Or, if you didn’t like it, you could say to her, in private, “Jean, give me a break about the dark room, OK? I know you think it’s funny, but I didn’t do anything wrong and it’s frustrating to hear remarks.”But, if she is known by others, not just you, to be mean-spirited or to make fun of people or try to get them in trouble with her comments, that is something else–and it sounds as if that is the situation. She’s been there for a long time and that can create a feeling on her part that she has the license to do or say anything. Others have probably come to acknowledge her in that way, “That’s the way she is.”2. Are you known for your own courtesy and appropriateness? I ask that of everyone, to remind them that if they take shots at people, they will probably have shots taken back. At the least, they will not be supported by other employees when you try to stop the behavior. That kind of damage can be repaired fairly quickly by changing your own approach and making sure people have good to say of you rather than otherwise.3. Have you talked about this to your supervisor or manager? If you have someone you report to, you should let them know what she is saying, and let them know the effect it has on your ability to be comfortable about doing work around her. Don’t take the approach that you just don’t like it, take the approach that it makes you feel as though you can’t work well with her critiquing everything. Mention her request for you to leave the door open, which would have reduced your privacy and isn’t her decision to make anyway.

Tell him or her that you have decided to courteously stand your ground in the future and not just try to ignore her discourteous and inappropriate comments. Reassure your supervisor that you won’t say or do anything hostile, but you also won’t just duck and take cover. Of course, it’s been eleven years, so your supervisor may wonder why you’re just now taking action.The important thing is to not leave your supervisor or manager out of the loop on this, because he or she might later say that you should have talked to them about it.Once you feel confident that you’re on the right track and have talked to your supervisor, you can plan your future responses to the remarks she makes. You should always be courteous and civil to her if she’s acting right, of course. These tactics are just for when she isn’t.I’ll focus on this question about the dark room first, then on general things.

The next time she asks you about the dark room, look at her, right in the face, so there is no question that you are not avoiding her. Don’t be mean about it, just make eye contact. Keep the Ronald Reagan tone of “There you go again”, so you won’t sound threatening (very important in this era!) and say, “This makes the third or fourth time you’ve asked me about that. Why?”

Then just stand there and wait. She’ll probably say she was curious or wondered or whatever. You can then respond with something a bit more aggressive or merely dismissive, according to the situation. Some possibilities, both mild and severe, are:*”Oh. Well, it’s weird to keep being asked about it, so I’m not going to talk about it anymore.” *”Jean, that stopped being funny the first time, so please don’t ask me again.” *”If it’s something Mr. Miller wants to know (her boss), I can go talk to him about it, otherwise, I’m done talking about it. Does he want to know?” *I don’t think it’s appropriate for you to keep asking me with the tone of voice you’re using, so stop, please.” *”Jean, I’ve tried to be nice about it, but it’s too much now, so stop.” *”I’ve mentioned this to Bob (your own boss) and he said I should tell you to stop asking, so that’s what I’m telling you.” Or, if you want to sound much nicer, *”I’m sure you mean it to be funny, but I don’t take it that way and neither does anyone else, so stop now, OK?”We should all learn to say “Stop” more often.

If she continues asking about that you should go back to your supervisor and ask for assistance about it. Or, go to HR or go to her boss or to someone else you can identify who could help you. Someone will want her to stop and she needs to be told she’s wrong.As far as other things go, keep in mind that whether or not she has 20+ years, she is not your supervisor. I’ll bet her manager knows exactly what she’s like and, no matter how well she does her job, in many ways he will be glad when she leaves. That’s the reputation people like that get after awhile. The next time she asks you a question that fits the description of being unfunny and confrontational, treat it seriously, don’t laugh at it or ignore it. I have found that asking someone about a question like that in a very serious tone, completely flusters them. So, she says, “Oh, Dan, I see you’re leaving at 4:50 when you get off at 5:00.” You can say,”Is there a reason you were commenting on it?” Stand your ground. She’ll say no, she just noticed, or she’ll laugh it off. Then you can say, as you will with the other question, “Oh. Well, I’m leaving now, goodnight.”That blank “Oh”, is very quelling without being rude.I almost never suggest being insincere or manipulative in handling people, but in this case I don’t think you probably have the clout to confront her much more than these examples. I would bet she’s not going to change for most people and no one is going to be forceful about making her stop. But, you can reduce the chances that she’ll confront you again.

The key though is to ensure that you are not rude about it and that your supervisor knows what you’ve been dealing with. Don’t discuss her with others, unless it is solve some problems they mention. Just stay focused on doing your own work very well, being your own person and communicating well with everyone.Best wishes with this situation. If you have the time and wish to do so, let us know what happens.

Tina Lewis Rowe