Asked To Monitor And Tattle

Question:

I have a multi-layered problem with an older employee (62) in our office. There are only two of us in this area (her and me) and occasionally a part time student worker or intern. This makes for a very “intimate” work environment without much privacy. This worker was moved down here to my area because the rest of the office upstairs (12-15 people) were fed up with her behaviors. Now, she has been assigned to do her work and also help me at least 10 hours per week with my area of work. I have been asked to delegate and to monitor her work, yet I am not her supervisor and never will be (and don’t want to be!). Here are some of her troublesome behaviors: – frequent and repeated errors – inconsistency and not following procedures – inefficient and very slow work – poor personal boundaries (continually discussing bodily functions when repeatedly asked not to; continually complaining about her family when asked not to; coming into my office and just sitting down and talking about personal issues without being invited; playing on ebay, facebook and the internet in general when she is not on break; taking and making personal calls when not on break and I am then forced to listen to all the details, etc etc) – she often “plays dumb” to me, student workers, students, and campus departments so that she does not have to spend time replying to their question or looking up information She has had trouble for several years and has been “talked to” multiple times. Unfortunately, it is nearly impossible to fire someone from our unionized campus. I am trying really hard not to let her behaviors annoy me and usually it works pretty well, but some days it just really gets to me. She is supposed to be working, and doesn’t. She messes up the work that I give to her so I have to check up on everything and waste more of my time. She pretends she doesn’t know the answers so she doesn’t have to work, which causes more work for me. She is unhelpful to my student workers, causing more work for me, and her continued pushing of boundaries feels disrespectful and inconsiderate. On top of all of this, my boss (who is her boss too) has asked me to send him emails to keep him updated on the work-related issues with her. He is in the upstairs office so it’s extremely difficult for him to keep an eye on her. He’s made it very clear that I am not her supervisor, which is just fine with me. However, I am in an awkward position of being asked to be a tattletale. And, of course, if I report every little problem then there are multiple consequences to that action: 1. I am the bad guy and tattletale. 2. She knows I’m the one who told. 3. The boss comes down on her and often is quite harsh and can also be rash. 4. There will be further increased tension between her and I in this small workspace with just the two of us. 5. She then complains to me about how mean the boss is. 6. If I don’t monitor and report back, then the problems continue because it’s a situation of “out of site, out of mind”. What have I tried so far? – talking to her directly in a professional and cooperative and supportive manner, with and without the boss here – being her friend, but that only made her share more of her personal life, which I didn’t want to hear in the first place – telling her I don’t have time to talk – using body language to make it clear that I am busy and not interested in listening to her complaints and/or drama – given her constructive and creative ideas on how to respond to the boss – suggested counseling and workshops which she has attended, with some (but not enough) improvement – sought advice of others, but worry about being perceived as a complainer or tattle – written to YOU!!!!!!!!!!!! Today is one of those rough days, obviously, but I really don’t know what else to do. She will not be moved upstairs and neither will I, so I am afraid we are stuck with the situation. Relationships in the workplace are of critical importance to me and my own mental health. I am afraid that this situation will continue to affect my daily enjoyment of my own job. I know that I am not perfect and definitely have areas to work on, too. I just wish that my work environment could be more pleasant and that I could have a more productive and healthy relationship with this person. Unfortunately, it seems as though I just have to learn to work through this on my own because I do not have any hope that she will truly change. Ugh… not a fun thing to come to every day. I apologize for the very long post and appreciate you making it this far in the rant. Please, if you have any suggestions that I have not already done, I would love to hear them. (And, yes, I’ve talked to the boss about all this, and, yes, maybe it’s time to talk to him again but I don’t like the cascade of consequences that will bring again.) Thanks again for your help.

Signed,

Tired and Wishing For Better


Answer:

Dear Tired and Wishing For Better:

You’re right. There might be no good solution. However, rather than fail to empathize or admit that we don’t have at least a bit of advice for almost every workplace matter, here comes my first reaction. Not incidentally, my co-workplace doctor, Tina Lewis Rowe would be good to answer this question because she is the wisest person I know about difficult interpersonal workplace issues. She has answered so many questions already this month that if I hadn’t flagged yours, I would feel guilty. You might find her site that can be accessed with a simple click on her name on our home page. She has many posts that speak to coping with various kinds of workplace problems.)

With that said, I proceed. You apparently are a thoughtful and very competent individual. Your patience has worn thin after trying so hard to put up with, let’s call her Ms. Sally You feel put upon for being placed in an uncomfortable position of being saddled with a pain in the backside or every other part of you. You have exhausted the solutions of reporting upward, overlooking her lack of commitment and incompetence, sending her out for training, nonverbal signals not to bother me, trying to befriend this old soul, and confronting her professionally. You may think you have approached this situation from every possible angle, but here are a couple of overlapping approaches you have not dared to try: 1. Don’t mince words. Show her this email; both your lengthy detailed question and my advice, and enlist her in a collaborative problem solving experiment. You probably would prefer to reject this tough love tactic for fear of tears, anger and feelings so hurt that matters will be worse. All these reactions could happen and even more. She might retreat to her harsh boss saying you are the worse possible person on this planet. Yet reflect of the excitement of what a head-to-head confrontation might entail. Policy often emerges from conflict. The fact is that you and your troublesome Ms. Sally have not hammered out what is and is not acceptable within your workspace. You have not set up real boundaries. You have not presented her with a list of communication rules that you want her to follow nor have to sat down with her to hammer out the dos and don’ts of what is and isn’t appropriate for an effective and modestly pleasant day of work side by side. I say this tough love approach is worth the risk. So weigh it. 2. Try modified a version of tough love: enlist your and her superior in a three-way problem solving series. Make it clear to your boss that she/he should not have put in a tattling role. I say “series” because a one-time fix has little chance of success. But a series of four to six sessions in that many weeks might. That would give your boss, Ms. Sally and you time to both hammer out ground rules and to review how well you all could live by them: rules about what is and is not talked about, rules about what personal non-work use of time is OK and not OK, rules about how you monitor and speak to one another about mistakes, etc. 3. Try a team skull session. I floated your question with Allyson Kolbl, a former student in a course Communication in Teams. She agreed with you that yours is a multi-layered situation and she said: “A team is only as strong as its weakest link. Therefore this annoying woman is preventing her surrounding co-workers from being productive and she is continuously bringing down other people.” And Allyson recommended that since the many efforts to stop this individual from annoying others have failed, the questioner would get support from other coworkers even if she needs to be a whistle blower to get someone to take action.” Seeing the problem of Ms. Sally as more than your problem–as a team-wide issue should relieve you of feeling you must solve it alone.

4. If 1, 2 and/or 3 don’t enable you to find ways to better your working relationship with Ms. Sally, one option still open is to raise hell about her being dumped on you. Asking why me? should get some action.

You are wise to see suggestions from out and about, but not to belabor the matter with in-house gossip. Don’t allow yourself to become obsessed with Ms. Sally. It would be a shame if she sours you in addition to distracting you from doing cheerful high quality work. Sooo will you take my dare, or at least will you use these thoughts to spur you to do more than say, “I’ve tried everything and I’m tired and wishing for something better?” Wishing won’t make it better. My signature sentence is only applicable if you dare to engage Ms. Sally and possibly her superior face-to-face persistent problem solving: Working together with hands, head, and heart takes and makes big WEGOS. And really isn’t that what you want–a face-saving, really saving face solution for both her and you?

Follow Up: Thank you SOOO much for responding so quickly and for your sound advice, and for seeking the advice of others. Just spelling out the specific problems in writing helped quite a bit and helped me to realize that I definitely do need to take action. I didn’t realize how bad it really was until I spelled it out for you and for myself. Sometimes things go downhill slowly so that we don’t realize how far down we’ve fallen.

I would really love to feel good about coming into work again instead of trudging through each day and being thrilled when my coworker does not make it in to the office. That’s pretty bad, and I have now realized how much this environment is truly affecting me and my work performance. It’s far too easy to let others bring you down, and I cannot let that continue. I also realized that by not bringing these problems to my supervisor’s attention, I am ENABLING this coworker. That is the last thing I ever want to do! So, I will definitely approach this situation head on. I like all of your suggestions so now I just need to figure out which one, or which combination, will be most effective in my specific situation.

I am very grateful for your website and for your sound advice. I had no idea that the help was out there until I looked for it. Follow Up 2 Well, I have an update, for better or worse. I did speak to my boss and I did write up a detailed and professional list of concerns about my coworker’s poor performance and how it affects our customers and our team. As this was going on, my coworker asked me if I was “okay”. This opened the door and I calmly told her how frustrated I was and that I didn’t know what else to do to help. Her stress with her personal life has caused her to not be able to focus on work and to make mistakes, etc etc.

We talked for a little bit and she told me that she is turning in her resignation tomorrow morning. She told me a couple of days ago that she wrote the letter but did not know when or if she would submit it. She hopes to be able to work until October when she turns 62 (I thought she was already 62, but I guess not) but I am hoping that our boss will not let her continue. Even though the resignation (retirement) is great news in a way, it does not solve the current performance problems. I don’t really think my boss will let her keep working and he actually may be able to offer her a continued salary until October. That would be ideal, but I don’t know if it’s possible.

Anyway, I am immensely relieved that there is a light at the end of the tunnel but I am very sad about the whole situation. My coworker does not really have financial means to retire and it’s sad to me that she has made the choice to quit instead of improve. She will be going home to an emotionally abusive husband and a troubled daughter with three young children. What I now wonder is if her readiness to retire is actually more about the changes and growth she has recently been experiencing.

She has recently been going to counseling and has become aware of the unhealthiness of her family life and of her own responsibilities in her situation. I am thinking that this new insight and growth has scared her so much and is so uncomfortable, that she is choosing to return to the known, yet unhealthy, situation rather than go through the growing pains that could be ahead of her. If this is the case, which I really think it is, then that just makes the situation even more sad.

Anyway, I am interested to see what happens with the boss tomorrow morning. She has a meeting with him at 8:15 so I should know something quickly. I have a meeting with him at 3:30 regarding a financial account and I’m guessing we’ll talk again at that time.

I am relieved, yet saddened; encouraged, yet disappointed; uplifted, yet downtrodden. Such a sad journey this has been.

Thank you again for your guidance and help. I will give you more updates as they occur, if you are interested. Hanging in there and squinting to see the light at the end of this tunnel,

William Gorden