A Problem Co-Worker Is Also A Relative


I’ve read all through the archives, and my question is most like the one addressed under “Should I Leave Because of a Fellow Employee?”. However, I have a bit of a twist because my fellow employee is my sister-in-law.

She’s been working for our small company for twelve years, and I have been here for seven years – she’s been in our family for over 20 years. Before I came to work with her, she always gave the rest of the family the impression that her job was this huge, complicated, mystery (we’re manufacturers’ reps in the utility business, so it IS sort of hard to explain), and she would work on a daily basis until ten or eleven at night, when business hours were eight to five. Over the years that we’ve worked together, I’ve found that the only mystery that exists is why it takes her so long to complete one task, and she has become more and more resentful of me. She’s very passive-agressive by refusing to take part in any new procedures, and she refuses to learn new things. She never says she doesn’t want to, or doesn’t believe in it; she just doesn’t do it. Her excuse is that she is too busy, which implies that the rest of us aren’t busy enough. I must note here that her workload brought in 9% of the company income last quarter, while the other three of us carried the remaing 91%. She continually gossips about eveyone and anything; no one is safe. She is very spiteful and emotionally immature and refuses to admit mistakes, and all of her conversation is negative. She yells and grunts and complains all day, and puts in her verbal resignation 3 or 4 times a week. I could give example after example of the lies she has told about my work and my personal life. Fortunately, everyone recognizes her behavior now and no one believes it anymore, but I really had to earn this over the years. Knowing that eveyone knows but that nothing is done about it is almost worst than the act, though. I’ve been to management and they just appease me by saying they know, and that they will plan a course of action through EAP, etc., but the truth is that she was here and a valuable employee when they started the company, and they feel indebted to her. They also have tried several times to confront her, but nothing has been effective, so I feel that they’ve given up and it is easier for them to do nothing. I’m a forthright person, and I have tried to confront her both in calm and not-so-calm manners, but unbelievably she just cries and completely denies everything. I’ve even called witnesses in to attest to something she did or said and she completely denies it. It’s like she lives in an alternate reality. If it were just a co-worker, I would really force the issue, but since she is a family member I am really afraid that if I am more assertive (which is more my character) then it will cause irreparable damage. There is no logical conversation with this woman. I really enjoy this job, and I make a great salary with good benefits, and I’ve become really good at it. I’ve been offered the supervisor’s job several times, but I will not take it because I would have to manage her. Promotion doesn’t matter so much to me, because I’m lucky that the company allows me to expand in other ways (special projects like the company website, the advertising, letting me take HR and business skills classes for free). However, I feel that I can only move laterally for so long.

I think I’ve answered my own question. I need to leave, don’t I? Or is there something I can do? Please help. I’ve tried not to let it affect my relationship with my brother (her husband) and their kids, but I really think she hates me and shows it by not ever wanting to be around me or my family.

Thank you.


Torn between family and work


Dear Torn between family and work:

Your follow-up information to us clarified that you have tried to be open with your co-worker/sister-in-law, but without success.

If you like this job and it works well for you, you should not quit because of a problem co-worker, no matter what the relationship. The thing is that it won’t help anyway, because there are already hard feelings. And, if you quit, you’ll resent her and she’ll feel obligated to excuse herself. Your best course of action is to keep your eye on the goal: Doing well at work. That will involve taking this issue where it belongs–to management–but at the same time, dealing with the more personal aspects of it directly.

First, think about how to stablize your family situation involving this person. Rarely is it possible to completely separate family and work in situations like these. You may find that the same approach required for work will have to be used to deal with family tensions: *Focus on actions that seriously affect you; accept some personal style differences. *Start with one-on-one discussion, before involving others; and if you do involve others don’t expect them to take sides. Instead, emphasize their roles as helping to guard the overall task and team. *Be direct and insistent about your concerns and the changes that are required; remembering that it is from your perspective and may not be theirs. *If possible, let people protect their egos. *Be the calm in the storm. Try to avoid discussing work conflicts with family members, except to those with whom you are closest. Keep the two areas separate in your mind and develop a philosophy about it that you can express to others and stick with. Make it sound positive for both of you, no matter how she has acted thus far. Try this: “Work is work and family is family. We both know the differences and will keep the two separate.”

Perhaps your parents can be the voice that brings everyone together for inexpensive but fun times as an extended family. Then, you can support it without being the one offering it.

2. Your plan for work will depend upon the stage at which you think the issue is right now. Are you still at the stage where you can talk to her one-on-one or is it past that and now you need to insist on support from mangers?

If you think you still can talk to her, focus on her stopping the behavior that is hurting you, whether she thinks you are being overly-sensitive or are mistaken or whatever. You can let her save some face and keep the tone more helpful by saying something like, “Whatever has happened in the past is in the past. I just want to know that stories aren’t being told about me and that I’m not being talked about behind my back. If you haven’t done that, I’m trusting you to stop whoever does it. If you have done that, just stop it now and we can move on from here.”

If you’ve already talked to her and it wasn’t successful, you probably need to take your three columned list to HR or the manager with whom it would be appropriate. Keep your focus on working toward a better workplace.

When you contact management, do it in writing, even if they’re in the next office, with a first paragraph that states your case: You like working there, you want to do a good job, you have tried to improve things, to no avail, and now you are formally asking them to intervene to help the work environment be positive and productive. (Note: Make the work focus part of that, which will be more compelling than if it’s just to resolve a conflict between two people.)

Use the three column approach about that has happened, what impact it has had and what you want instead. Then, list what you have tried to do. Mention the fact that your co-worker’s response to having these issues raised, is to cry and deny it. That will remind them of how difficult she is to deal with, if they have not noticed lately! If others have complained to you, suggest that the manager talk to those people as well, stating the specific areas about which they complained.

Close with a statement that you want to be open to any thoughts your managers have about things you could improve to make things better. Add that you will be happy to discuss this with them, but that you hope something definite and permanent will be done this time, rather than having the issue be set aside.

Leave it up to them what they should do .They will probably talk to you about it right away, at which time you can say you think at the least they should instruct your co-worker to stop doing and saying things that create a negative workplace, including gossiping and complaining. And, if she continues they should do whatever it takes to make a good work environment. There should also be a process for follow-up with you to ensure that things are better. If they don’t suggest it, do that yourself by asking if you can talk to them at the two week mark or the one month mark, to let them know how things are going. Also ask if, the next time something occurs, you can talk to them immediately. Be adamant about your expectation that managers will help you and others in this issue. If they seem to be more interested in saving her feelings than in solving the problem, courteously remind them that there are other employees besides this one employee and that everyone else’s feelings matter as well as hers.

Don’t threaten to quit unless that is really something you intend to do if they don’t take action, but it wouldn’t hurt to mention that you have been tempted because things have become so bad; and that now you’re depending on managers to make things better.

You mentioned that the HR person adds to this situation with her own gossip, but she likely doesn’t see herself that way; few people do. So, you will have to proceed as though that person CAN be helpful and WILL be.

3. What to do if she cries? Harden your heart to that! Of course she is embarrassed at being confronted. That doesn’t necessarily indicate sorrow, only emotion over what is likely to happen next. Children cry when they are caught misbehaving and even violent criminals cry when they confess! If your co-worker/SIL really felt badly last time she would have done what it took to protect herself from that kind of painful discussion again. She will likely always cry and never change, until the results are so unpleasant for her that it is worth it to her to change.

Here is my standard guideline for the crying issue: If someone feels truly sorrowful over what they have done, they don’t wait to be confronted, they stop doing it. If a truly sorrowful person cries, it is in the setting of voluntarily coming forward to ask forgiveness. But, if someone cries while denying it and there is clear evidence that it happened, what you have is someone who wants to save her reputation without admitting wrongdoing. If someone cries only after she is caught, what you have is someone who wasn’t sorry before she was confronted, only sorry afterward.

Hopefully you won’t have to deal with the confrontation on your own again, but if you do and she cries, you might consider responding by saying, “I’m sure this is embarrassing, but this time we have to get it settled.” Don’t apologize for making her cry or for her unhappiness over it, just stick to your plan.

4. I think you’ll probably have even more of a challenging time before this gets better, but I think if you never give up and never give in, you’ll be able to make a difference. If you get offered the supervisory position again, you should take it if you want it AND if you are assured of support about both positive things and negative things that might be needed in the office. That might make a huge difference in the entire situation because your SIL might quit on her own! Or, she might try to be more placating. Or, you might have to be the one to fix things. But at least you’d have the authority then.

5. I often mention five steps for gaining influence: 1. Have value (to individuals and the team) 2. Be dependable 3. Communicate effectively (clearly, purposefully, appropriately and in a style that fits the situation and the people) 4. Share positive results 5. Make it worthwhile to link to you Be the kind of person who influences people positively and help others be leaders as well. When people do something good, let them know you were positively influenced by it. With a new employee in your office you have the perfect opportunity to be a positive role-model by sharing with her and learning from her.

You shouldn’t have to be handling this all alone. If others are bothered they should support you. If they aren’t bothered, that might indicate something for you to consider. If they simply don’t want to get involved, at least ask them to help you by encouraging an office environment that is focused on the most positive things possible rather than on tearing other’s down.

Consider purposely looking for topics of conversation that don’t revolve around people and personalities. Talk about movies, books, plays, sports, city issues and so forth. Bring a camera and take a few photos now and then and post them. Ask people about their travel or vacations. Ask about family and friends. Share tips and techniques for improving work. Cross-train if you can. Find ways to make work more fulfilling for you and others. Even if you haven’t done those things before, you can start now without fanfare. If you’ve been doing them, include others so you aren’t the hostess. If there are men in your office, include them in positive ways, since often they feel left out groups of women, just as the reverse is true. They might not mind…but they might. In other words, try not to think obsessively about one person, no matter how obsessively she thinks about you or others.

I hope these thoughts have triggered some of your own so you can develop a plan of action that works for you and your sister-in-law, within the framework of your organization and your family. Best wishes as you deal with this challenge.

Tina Lewis Rowe

Tina Lewis Rowe

Tina had a thirty-three year career in law enforcement, serving with the Denver Police Department from 1969-1994 and was the Presidential United States Marshal for Colorado from 1994-2002. She provides training to law enforcement organizations and private sector groups and does conference presentations related to leadership, workplace communications and customized topics. Her style is inspirational with humor.