Followup to “I’m New Here”

Question:

Well, I have been at this job for about six weeks now, and I am getting along much better with my coworker, Sherry. I have pretty much figured out most of what I need to be doing, so I don’t have to have her standing over my desk all the time telling me how to do stuff. She is actually a really nice lady, but she is so uptight sometimes that she’s like Jekyll and Hyde. I often don’t know how to react to her because she is blatantly rude and condescending every day starting at about 11 am. She gets to work every morning 30-60 mins before anyone else, even though there is no reason to. The SECOND I walk in each morning, she starts barking orders at me in a very annoyed tone of voice, before I have even sat down or gotten coffee or anything. I don’t respond well to this, so I usually just go “Uh huh,” and go about my business.

After this, she will usually be conversational with me for awhile, but I’ve noticed that every day, by about 11 am, she is completely on edge and will stop talking pleasantries and only opens her mouth to point out my mistakes or complain that everyone treats her like she’s stupid. I don’t coddle insecure people, so I ignore this.

She almost never laughs at anything, and if anyone ever talks about anything that is not directly related to the work we are doing, she gets very annoyed and can be really mean. There is a loan agent who was hired a few months before me and he is about 30, and she treats us both like we are her kids. (She is about 50 and has kids in our age group). He and I joke around a lot with our boss and with people from other departments, and she never joins in the conversations but instead says disdainful things like, “How on earth can you find that interesting?” or “Why do you care so much about that?” or “That’s just stupid.” I find this intolerably rude and am afraid that one day I will just snap and call her a bitch.

She still does the thing where she comes over to my desk and goes through everything on it, and she does it to the 30-year-old loan agent also. She pickes up everything and goes, “What is this?!” “Why is this here?!” “Did you fax this to so-and-so?!” “You’d better not forget to (insert routine, non-time-imperative, unimportant task here) or you’ll get yelled at!” If there is something on the desk that our boss asked me to do–especially if I need to correct a mistake–she will shove it in my face and say, “Scott didn’t like the way you did this! You need to fix xyz or he’s gonna yell at you!” So far, I have never seen him “yell” at anyone. I have noticed, however, that Sherry seems terrified of anyone she thinks has authority over her, and that she loathes them at the same time.

She also takes it upon herself to remind me daily of routine tasks that are done at the same time every day. If it’s 3:25 and I’m be finishing up something for our boss, she’ll get nearly hysterical and say, “Remember to do the abc daily report at 3:30!!!!” If it’s a minute past 3:30 and I haven’t started on the abc daily report, she’ll say, “You’d better call corporate and tell them that the abc daily report will be late!!!!” Even though I have until 4:30 to finish said report, which only takes 5 minutes to type and email. She will be really nice one second and then really bossy and rude the next second. It gets old. I know that it’s common for older coworkers to treat younger ones like their children. I can also tell that she is just a very uptight person who can’t relax, but that is not my problem. I am still having a hard time dealing with her, and my normal response to this sort of treatment is usually to snap at someone. Any suggestions would be appreciated.

Signed,

Still frustrated


Answer:

Dear Still frustrated:

I think there are some underlying issues with the things that are happening in your office. First of course, is that your supervisor is not fulfilling his job very effectively. He may not be present a lot, but when he is, he should be aware of the undercurrents and intervene.

Second, there is not enough structure about who is responsible for what, and who is not. It’s popular to talk about keeping things unstructured and more open, to allow people to be empowered and so forth. Nevertheless, in an office where there is so little structure that one employee feels it’s OK to supervise a co-worker, conflict and confusion inevitably results.

The third thing that is going on–and you’ll have to accept that I mean this in a good-hearted way: You don’t sound as though you are being honest with her or with yourself. You write in a very well organized, thoughtful way, I think you care about people and you want things to go better. Thus, I am convinced you are so irritated over things that you’re overlooking some of the issues that might be contributing to this–some of which you may be adding to, inadvertently or subconsciously–or purposely!

Let me share my thoughts and you can see if any of it fits for you.

Sherry is 50 and you are 30. She could be your parent, although the age difference isn’t so extreme as to make that inevitable. Many co-workers have age differences without there being a parent-child relationship. Nevertheless, in this case it appears that not only does Sherry treat you like a child with whom she is frustrated, you treat her like a parent against whom you are silently rebelling.

The very first thing that will help your relationship with Sherry is to put yourself in a problem-solving mode, rather than a reactionary mode.

In the days of teaching Transactional Analysis–I’m OK, You’re OK–we focused on moving to the Adult style when Parent or Child became inappropriate or excessive. Parent being the part of us that criticizes, praises, rescues, nurtures, controls and all the other things the responsible role does. Child is the part of us that laughs, teases, ridicules, sulks, rebels, delights and loses control and all the other things the uncontrolled, free spirit does. Adult is the part of us that can look past emotion and see a problem that must be solved, then move to solve it. I viewed, in my own use of Parent, Adult, Child, that there is something in us, if we are sound mentally and emotionally, that is more than any of those three–our soul and spirit, our higher thinking and that part of us that allows us to step back and see our Parent, Adult and Child in operation. That’s the part that makes the choice, I think. (Although some would say that IS the Adult…but we’re not debating Transactional Analysis, are we?)

Look at what you wrote and see how the Parent and Child in each of you are the ones yanking both you and Sherry around. You can use some other terminology for it if those sound too psychobabble–I often do! The point is that both of you are stuck a rut that maybe neither of you likes, but both of you continue.

If she were 18, would you let her boss you around about things that aren’t her business? If she were a man your own age, would you let him go through the papers on your desk and grill you about them? If she was a woman your own age and status who immediately started nagging you about work when you walked in the door in the morning, would you tolerate it. I don’t think you would.

With Sherry, according to your description, you handle it this way: She is grouchy (maybe because she’s been at work for an hour when you come in and she figures she’s the only one who understands how much work there is to be done and she’s got questions she’s been storing up for the last 45 minutes.) You ignore her but resent it. She complains about others. You ignore her, but resent it. She wants sympathy and says people treat her badly. You ignore her so she doesn’t feel coddled. She picks up things off your desk and questions you about your work. You ignore her but resent it. You joke with co-workers, she chides you about it, but you ignore her. She asks about regularly scheduled work, as though you won’t get it done if she didn’t remind you. You don’t respond, but you resent it. You say that one day you’re afraid you’ll snap and call this “really nice lady” a bitch. Doesn’t that sound very much like an unhappy mother-daughter relationship?

She, on the other hand, probably goes home and says, “I swear, Jennifer is lucky she still has a job the way she’s been doing things. If I didn’t remind her she would sit there all day goofing around and putting off her work until the last minute. The frustrating thing is, she just goes her merry way without a care in the world. I’ve tried to warn her that she’s going to get in trouble one of these days, but she’s so stubborn, she won’t listen!”

That may not be her thought process, and it may not reflect exactly what’s happening in your office. However, you have to admit, the two of you are in recurring roles that will never result in good feelings.

Try this, please: For your sake and hers, stop all of this the next time you’re at work. I believe it can be done in a way that reflects understanding and good nature on your part. After all, you’ll still be working together, so there’s no point in starting out angry. You don’t have to be mean or aggressive about it, but you do have to be adamant.

When you come to work and she hits you right away with work questions, walk over to her area, look her in the eye and say,”Sherry, please! Stop that.”

I think, for the sake of the working relationship, you should try for a lighter touch, rather than a tough one. I would say it with a tone that expresses, “I like you, but what the heck is going on here?”

She’ll probably say, “Stop what?” Or, she’ll say something to give a reason for what she just told you–she needs the information right away, or she’s trying to help or whatever. Don’t let that deter you. Take a breath and say, “Sherry, you always have something to ask me about EVERY day when I walk in the door, and it’s really wearing after awhile. I’m going to stop you every time you say something like you just did, where you seem to feel as though you have to get me started working or check on my work. I don’t want to start the day with you grilling me about work the minute I walk in the door. I’ll get started when I’m ready to get started. And that extends to everything we do, Sherry. You may mean well, but I want you to stop acting responsible for my work. If I have a problem, Mike will let me know. I just want us to be co-workers who respect each other enough to let each other do our own work. OK, I’ve said what I’ve wanted to say. Was I able to be honest with you without ruining our friendship?”

Ending that way requires her to answer that question rather than only respond to your statement. Be like a broken record if she argues about it or offers reasons. For example, she may point out times when you have forgotten work, etc. Say, “As I told you, I’ll answer to Mike. I want you to stop acting responsible for my work.” There will be some awkwardness after that, but that alone may clear up most things. You could, of course, mention specific things you don’t want her to do. But unless she is truly oblivious, she will get the message.

If not, tackle them one at a time. When she picks something up off your desk, grab it and say, “No, no, no, Sherry. This is exactly what I told you earlier I don’t want you to do again. This is my work. Don’t pick up things from my desk and question me about them again.” No matter what she says in defense, stick to that. That’s the difficult thing, because you’ll catch yourself wanting to argue with her. Don’t argue, just keep saying, “This is my work. Don’t take things off my desk and question me about them again.”

When she reminds you that it’s 3:25 and a report is due, ask her to come to your desk. That’s a good tactic for really making a point. When she does, repeat your message to her. If she has been ignoring your messages before, add something else, “Sherry, I’ve asked you several times now to not treat my work as though I report to you. The next time this happens you and I will be meeting with Mike and I’ll be making a formal complaint. I thought we could work it out together, but apparently we can’t. So, this is my last nice request. If you haven’t been put in charge of my work, don’t ask me about it again.”

By that time you will know that being nice isn’t going to cut it–and you’ll also know that she really isn’t a nice lady. She may have problems, she may have concerns, or she may have mental issues. But those have been going on long enough that you have no control over them. Don’t let them hold you back from standing your ground.

As far as the other issues go, deal with them firmly at the time. But, see if you can get your friends to support you in that, so you’re not the only one being confrontational! If she’s rude, say so without being nasty right back at her. I have always found it helpful to be pitying of curmudgeons, unless they get too personal. So, she says, “How can you find that interesting?” You say, “I truly do. I think it’s a shame you don’t like things like that because it’s really fun (enjoyable, interesting, or whatever fits.)

Or, you could put her on the spot. She says, “That’s just stupid.” You say, “Sherry! It’s one thing to not like something, it’s another thing to be mean and hurtful about it!” Don’t say any more, just stop there. Let her stutter out an explanation. Unless she apologizes, stick with your message, “You were mean and hurtful about it.” Or you could take on those issues, just like the others, and be blatantly honest. However, the reality of work is that almost everyone finds it necessary to put-up with something from co-workers, even the best of them.

I hope these lengthy thoughts will assist you. Please keep us informed about your results, if you have the time and wish to do so.

Tina Lewis Rowe