Someone I Mentor Is Trying to Take Over My Work.

A question to Ask the Workplace Doctors: How do I deal with someone I mentor
but who now seems to be taking over my position?
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Question:   
I worked with a person at another facility and thought she was intelligent and hardworking. As a result, when I was promoted to the Department Coordinator position I asked my manager to consider her for my old position. Ever since this person came to our department I have mentored her and spent considerable time training her. She now seems to think she can insert herself in my new position and interfere in my job responsibilities. Unfortunately our manager does not correct this behavior.

Even though my co-worker has enough of her own responsibilities, she tries to “be me”, often causing miscommunication. She does not tell me information I need to assist my managers. She takes it upon herself to do things I have already done. I have tried gentle reminders that we both have certain job functions, but the situation has not gotten better.

The previous Department Coordinator and I got along well and I did not step on her toes.  Now, after paying my dues for many years there are certain invitations and privileges that I have earned. Our manager wants the new person included in everything I do, business and socially, with our facility. When our manager finds out I am invited to a special outing she will call and ask that my co-worker be invited. I believe this is unfair even though I understand our manager is trying to make her feel welcome. This was not extended to me when I first started.

There are other events contributing to my frustration and it is affecting my morale. I do not know how to approach my manager without ruining my relationship with her and my co-worker. How should I handle this?

Response:
Hello and thank you for sharing your workplace concern with us.  If you like classic movies, watch “All About Eve” sometime and see if you notice some similarities to your situation!

Congratulations on being given the Coordinator title and role. As frustrated as you might feel, you have the title to prove you have gained increasing responsibility. However, as you are finding, Coordinator roles are challenging in many workplaces. The fact that you worked well with a Coordinator in the past is a credit to both of you—probably to you. In almost all workplaces, Coordinators retain many of their former duties, but are given additional duties such as scheduling, purchasing, liaison and communications. Unfortunately, if the former job (I’ll use the title, “Assistant” to match your Coordinator title) is filled, some of the work overlaps and there is a temptation for the Assistant to see herself or himself as a peer of the Coordinator, especially if they both report to the same manager. However, the Coordinator feels, justifiably, that the person who has their former role is a tad bit lower in the hierarchy.

Your situation is made even more frustrating by the fact that the new Department Assistant is someone you recommended and trained. Instead of feeling loyal and being a good colleague, it seems she is wanting to have the networking privileges that you only attained when you earned them with the new title and she is trying to show you up or at least make it seem that she needs to do your work, for some reason.

Her motive might be that she wants to show she could do your job if you are promoted or reassigned to something else in the company. Or, she may feel it isn’t fair for her to work hard but stay in the office, like Cinderella, while you get to interact with people from other departments or companies, in a more personal way. Or, she may want to be helpful and thinks showing initiative is a good thing, not realizing she doesn’t know enough to show initiative wisely.

In a similar situation of which I’m aware, a Unit Coordinator came back from a couple of days off to find the Unit Assistant had called the people in one of the Coordinator’s groups, to tell them some long-awaited items had arrived. She wasn’t trying to take away the Coordinator’s work, she just enjoyed chatting with people and it was fun to introduce herself and get to know them over the phone. The Assistant couldn’t figure out why the Coordinator was upset. The Coordinator was even more upset when people in her group told her how lucky she was to be working for the Department Assistant, because she was so nice! When she explained that she did NOT work for the Assistant, she felt that she sounded arrogant, so it was a bad situation all the way around.

The Coordinator came to realize she had to separate her ego from her work. She told the Assistant not to make those contacts again, but she was pleasant about it—and even joked with a select few about the implication that she was subordinate to the Assistant. That was ten years ago and so much has changed that she says the year she spent in the situation is a minor memory.

In another case, a Marketing Assistant took phone calls from people who were going to an event and gave implied approval for them to arrive and depart at various times. Those calls should have been referred to the Coordinator, because she knew the overall schedule and would have explained the requirements, before the participants solidified their plans. It was a big mess, all because the Assistant thought she was helping, but didn’t know enough about it to realize she wasn’t helping at all. She was embarrassed and seemed resentful at the time, but got over it and did a good job later.

Your manager could have reduced the problem in your workplace by clarifying duties to begin with and by being sensitive to the conflict that might arise from her own actions of essentially leveling the hierarchy. However, I think there are some things you can do to improve the situation. My suggestions may not fit your workplace and work culture exactly, but perhaps they can be adapted.

1.) If you still are in contact with the former Coordinator, she may have ideas for how she was able to help you stay positive and happy in your tasks while she took care of hers. Even though it sounds as though you simply were a good person for the role, perhaps she guided that at the beginning and you can learn from her experiences with you. She might also have some insights about your manager’s actions. You’ll want to avoid sounding like you’re gossiping or that you’re angry with the manager (you never know when something will get back), but you do have concerns and it’s appropriate to discuss those with someone who might be able to help. Keep the conversation upbeat and positive, assuming the best motivations from others, including the Manager and the Assistant.

2.) Get copies of your job descriptions and compare them, even if you have done so at some point in the past. What are the task differences between your title and the Assistant’s title? Doing that will give you something solid to discuss if the Assistant does something clearly outside her job description. However, it might be useful for you as well.

*Are there some jobs you did formerly that you should no longer be doing, even if you know them and can easily do them? Make sure you’re focused on your current job description not the former one, except for required tasks.

*Are there some tasks you can ask your manager to assign to the Assistant, to free you up for the larger work you’re doing as a Coordinator? Perhaps she needs a few more required tasks to keep her busy. She may think it’s a good thing to get additional responsibilities and it might help you in the long run.

3.) Keep your group of internal and external contacts active in a way that is genuine, not fake “networking.” An occasional phone call, email or text message to check on things is a way to show that you are their liaison with the Department, not anyone else.

4.) One other thing you could do is to talk more directly to those you interact with in your role, who are involved in something ongoing on upcoming. Let them know you and you alone are the person who can help them. Look for positive opportunities, being reasonable about how many times you contact people. For example:

“Kevin, I’m tracking progress on that conference you’re attending and I’ll have the materials to you the week prior. Do me a favor though and contact me about any questions you have. Jessica is in the office, but this isn’t her project and she won’t be able to help you, even though I’m sure she’ll try. Just call me or email me and I’ll get back to you right away.”

“OK Barbara, I’ll get going on those things and will call you back about them. If you have any further thoughts, email them to me. If you call and get Jessica, make sure you let her know you and I have already been working on this. Let her know you and I are talking about it,  so she won’t think she has to do something specific. It will save us all a lot of confusion if you contact me instead and I can get to work on it for you.”

“Jenna, thanks for the update on your trade show booth purchases. Jessica let me know that you had contacted her about it. (Conversation about it.) Do us a favor and use me as your liaison on those purchases, since I’m keeping the spreadsheet about it. That way you’ll always have it tracked correctly. Jessica is happy to help in an emergency and will let me know what you need, but I’m focused on your projects and she has others.”

You’d adjust those for what sounds right in your workplace and your role, but it will be helpful to make sure the problem isn’t caused by people contacting the Department Assistant instead of you, because they think it’s OK to do it—or even think it’s preferable to do it.

5.) In supervisory classes, I teach about Intervention related to employee problems and I say, “The earlier, the easier.” It’s easier to talk to an employee after the first time you see an error, than after they’ve done the same error a dozen times. It’s also easier to talk to a co-worker right away, when you sense a conflict. However, since I know we often delay, hoping things will get better, I also teach the concept: “Make the next time the first time.”

What I mean by that is, if something has gone on for a while, and you haven’t said anything definite about it, pretend the next time is the first time and correct the situation as if it’s new and you want to clear it up. That allows your tone to be friendly and breezy about it, no matter how frustrated you are. “Hey, Jessica, I see you sent the list out to everyone in my contact group. I want them to know I’m the one coordinating that program,  so do me a favor and let me handle all of the communications about that project, OK?” You can explain any problems that were created or you can simply leave it at that—it’s your job and you’ll do it.

By making the next time the first time, you can establish a start line for dealing with the situation, if you think it has become more than just an irritation. For example, you tell her in a pleasant way that her actions in doing such and such a thing created confusion, so don’t do that again. Instead let you do it because it’s your work. If she does it again, you can be more firm about it. “Jessica, this is like the thing last week I asked you not to do because it was my job. What’s going on, that this is happening again?” A co-worker can ask that just as well as a supervisor might, so you’re not overstepping your position, you’re trying to get the work of the department done, the right way.

Don’t say much more than that. Put the pressure on her to explain herself and for you to get a better idea of whether she is purposely trying to cause problems or is she is genuinely confused about work assignments.

If she does it again, you have something much more solid to take to your manager and it won’t sound as though you didn’t try to work it out. Write an email to your manager and give the three examples, factually. You can also mention previous situations to show it has been recurring.

Ask your manager for assistance in working through the situation. Put your focus on how it causes problems for your internal clients, delays work, creates errors or some other work related issue.  Don’t emphasize that it undermines your role or creates a morale problem for you. Managers usually care more about the effect on work than they do about the effect on feelings—that’s just a harsh reality.

Talking to your manager should be a last resort after you’ve tried everything else, because it sounds to me as though your manager might not agree with you and might feel you are being overly sensitive or not wanting to help your co-worker. It would be unfair for her to feel that way, after all you have done to help your co-worker, but that may be another reality! She may genuinely not see that it is an issue–and may think you are so much more advanced in your work skills that there isn’t comparison or competition.

6.) Use your job description to arrange your work area and clarify your title and roles. In a similar situation, an Assistant was given a Coordinator title and wanted to feel and show that she had transitioned from her former work, even though she was still doing many of the same tasks. She cleared her desk and made it look different. She created the space in a way that fit her new duties. She put holders on her cubicle walls, each labelled for various projects, people and groups. She used those for hard copies and print-outs of various things. Most things were on her computer, but she wanted a visual look that showed she had work she didn’t have before.

7.) I can also understand your frustration—and perhaps some hurt feelings—when your manager makes a point of telling you to include the Department Assistant in the activities and events you had to wait until you were the Coordinator to attend. Your manager may think it seems inequitable for the Assistant to stay behind while you attend functions the Assistant would enjoy. (It could even be the Assistant has talked to your manager about attending and hinted that she would like to go but doesn’t think you will ask her.)

You said you recommended the coworker for your former job because you were impressed with her work. Maybe your manager sees those same qualities in her and wants to help her get to know people, so she’ll have contacts down the line. A really nice thought would be if your manager thinks you might move up again one day and the Assistant can move to your role then—and maybe that IS part of your manager’s thought process.

Whatever the motivation, your manager has apparently decided you should include the Department Assistant in some events. I think you should just figure the situation has changed from when you were in the Assistant role and, for now at least, you and the Department Assistant will attend events together. One way to handle that is to look at your schedule and unless something is clearly not appropriate, invite the Assistant on your own rather than waiting to be directed. If it’s a group she hasn’t been to before, be the gracious person who introduces her around. Enjoy having a title and role that will allow you to invite someone to  meetings and events. You couldn’t have done that before you got your promotion, but now you can.

Others attending will either know the titles and roles or they won’t. If they do, they’ll know you are inviting someone lower than your level in the organization and think you were nice to do it. If they don’t know the titles and roles, let your demeanor give them an idea of who is the most mature and competent.

If there is some aspect to the meetings that makes it inappropriate for the Assistant to be there, let your manager know–but honestly, I don’t think you’ll find a reason your manager will agree with.

8.) You indicated there are other things going on that have lowered your morale and contributed to your feelings of frustration. Whatever those are, you can always feel confident that you are on the right track if you put your focus on fulfilling the goals of your manager and providing excellent service to your internal clients, in a way that complies with the directions and guidance of your manager. None of us work in isolation—we all have someone who is responsible for their own work and for ours. The more our work is trouble-free for our managers and executives, the more valuable we are to them. The more we want to do it our way, not their way, the less valuable we are.

Your manager is probably aware of some of your feelings and doesn’t want you to feel that way—or doesn’t see a reason for you to feel that way. He or she has concerns and pressures too and just wants things to go smoothly. The more you can let the current situation become a minor irritation instead of a major conflict, the more positive your manager will feel about you. As I mentioned in another section, if you feel you must talk to your manager emphasize the perspective of how the current situation hurts the department.

That may not be advice you need, because that might not have anything to do with your situation. However, I have noticed that a title increase or a promotion often is accompanied by some frustration and disappointment when the reality is different than anticipated. Further, it’s sad to have thought you’d have a warm relationship with the new Department Assistant, just as you and the last Coordinator had, only to find it hasn’t happened that way and there is tension and some resentment instead.

Putting your focus on helping your Department and your manager be successful will ultimately help you be more successful. Ironically, that is what will help the Assistant be successful too. Dr. Gorden refers to this concept as WEGO—working together to achieve workplace goals.

Things change and you will not always be in that Department or with that manager or coworker. Be the person who transcends everyone and everything by learning new skills, improving old skills and becoming more credible and valuable all the time.

Best wishes to you. If you have the time and want to do so, let us know what develops.

Tina Rowe
Ask the Workplace Doctors